Monday, April 30, 2018

#CBR10 Review #19: Circe by Madeline Miller

Madeline Miller has such a knack for taking characters and legends that we may already know some about, but then delving much deeper into them, allowing us to see a whole other side to the story and person within. There is a particular beauty here in what she does to the story of Circe, giving a minor passing character from a well-known story of another, and giving her the spotlight to show us there is so much more to her story than that of a cameo to some other hero. And despite there maybe not being a big battle or war that is often associated with the heroes of ancient Greek myths, there is a heroism to Circe, in the battles she fights on a daily basis with her family, with the everyday man, and even with her own identity. As such, I find moments of relation to her struggles and the pain she works through during her long existence.

Circe is the story of the minor Goddess, Circe, daughter of the Titan Helios, who never quite fits in with the other Gods and Goddesses, neither of Titan blood nor Olympian. After her skills in witchcraft are found and scapegoated to be dangerous, Circe is exiled to her own island to live out her days. From here we see how she grows in her skills, and finds a role within her existence as a mother and protector. Her involvement within the Odyssey is also expanded upon, and we see much more of her relationship with Odysseus, as well as her place in the life of certain monsters and other Gods from various myths. But while her role in Odysseus’ story is the main one that is known about her, Circe is shown to be so much more than this, as she searches to establish a life and home of her own.

At its heart, Circe is a story about a woman finding her voice after years of being pushed around and told of her lack of worth and beauty for years. It is about pushing back at those who wanted to do nothing more than take from her what they want only to then shove her to the side. It is about love, family, respect, and protecting both yourself and those you care about; it is about the games people play with others when they don’t fear consequence, and how the tides may turn when victims finally resist or find their own ways to push back. It is a long and winding tale, but ultimately finishes with a satisfying end.

The only thing that I could really complain about in this novel would be the pacing. It felt a little sluggish to me at times, and given the large scope of the novel over centuries with large spaces of solitude for the Goddess, I wasn’t quite sure what the end game was supposed to be: she’s a Goddess so won’t she just live on and on? It wasn’t until nearly the end that it all came together for me and I understood what everything was building to. Though despite these small complaints, the beauty of the writing kept everything together and didn’t really diminish my enjoyment of the novel in any sense.

All in all, Circe is a beautiful novel, both gentle yet powerful in its portrayal of a complicated female character. I just love Madeline Miller’s writing style and how she delves deep into the intricacies of personhood. I can’t wait to see what else she endeavors to gift us with in the future.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

#CBR10 Review #18: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

In anticipation of Madeline Miller’s new novel, Circe, being released (it just arrived in the mail!) I decided to do a reread of The Song of Achilles, which was one of my favorite reads from the past couple of years. And I will say, it was just as good the second time around, if not a little more painful in seeing more of the foreshadowing and understanding the deeper meaning of certain lines earlier in the novel before the course of action takes place. Okay, I know that the overall plot is pretty well established and known already, but this is a little bit of a different telling of the old myths of Achilles at the end of the day.

The Song of Achilles is essentially the story of the Greek hero Achilles/The Iliad as told from the point of view of Achilles’ closest companion, Patroclus; Patroclus is an exiled prince taken in by Achilles’ father as a child, and the two young Princes soon become close companions, growing up together and finding how deep their feelings for one another are. Eventually, however, the two must face their fated roles within the great Trojan War.

This is a story that is known by many, but with a particular point of view and interpretation: unlike a lot of modern interpretations of the myths I have personally seen, The Song of Achilles’ main point is not to focus is not on the grit, violence, and bravado of the Trojan War and Achilles (though this does indeed play a significant part), but on the relationships that bind us together and how they shape us. It is a more gentle retelling that relies on human aspects of love, loyalty, and showing how people grow and change over time and circumstance. And one of the strongest things that this novel sports is Miller’s strong sense of writing: it is poetic and beautiful, and glides along easily.

The Song of Achilles is one that when I first read, made me pause and hold close to my heart for a long while. Although I was more familiar this time through, my love for it didn’t diminish, and I still feel it like a soft lingering kiss on the cheek.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Saturday, April 14, 2018

#CBR10 Review #15-17: Half Bad Trilogy by Sally Green

I first read Sally Green’s Half Bad Trilogy of YA novels (including Half Bad, Half Wild, and Half Lost) two years ago, and at the time I really enjoyed it. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about these YA novels that involve young people standing up to injustices or find themselves fighting for something greater than themselves, what with everything going on in our world today: in this case it’s not per say exclusively the young people who are fighting, but they are the majority, as it is they who are facing a whole life of nothing but more and more injustice to come, and those who are able to bring in a new generation with new ideas.

The Half Bad Trilogy focuses on a society of witches that blends in with the regular world (“fains” as humans are called), but there is a council of “White Witches” that govern activity and search to hunt and kill all the “Black Witches” within the UK. In other regions of Europe, the White and Black witches basically just live apart and ignore each other, but the politics and fear of the governing council in the UK is slowly starting to leak into other nations. The distinction of Black vs White witches comes from ancient lineage, wherein two sister witches followed different paths: one used her magic for evil (black), while the other good (white). Since then, these two lines of witches have not crossed, and the assumption is that Black wiches continue to use their gifts for evil purposes, while the Whites use it for good, but is this really the case when all the White witches want to do is hunt and kill those who are simply from a different set of lineage and DNA from them, and instill fear and propaganda into other witches as to who should be allowed to live freely? (Ooooooooh boy do you see the glaring implications of a race metaphor here?)

This world of witches itself is an interesting one to get into (ie, how they govern, how they integrate into everyday society the breaks between full witches and half-witch-half-fains in society, etc), but the point of view we see it from is that of a teenager named Nathan, who is the son of the one the most dangerous Black witches in the world, as well as a deceased White witch: aka, he is the only half-blood on record. So naturally the White witch council doesn’t like this but also wants to use his skills and identity to hunt Nathan’s father down. Nathan lives his life not really belonging anywhere, fighting to discover the real sense of himself (is he more Black or White witch?), and being pulled in every direction of either what people want him to do for them, or people simply wanting him not to exist. All he wants is freedom and to not be constantly looking over his shoulder all his life.

Now, it has only been two years since my first read through this series, but already I have found certain things that I see differently than I did the first time around: some aspects I appreciate more, while others I question and think lesser of. Usually when I do rereads I find that it is at a much later time in life and so all that accumulated growth and knowledge lends itself to new lenses of viewing things, but in this case it has been just a short amount of time with a lot of crap going on in life that has made me see things differently.

Here’s the thing: this trilogy isn’t perfect. There were a few things that bothered me this time around; first and foremost the writing is a little awkward in the beginning, with Nathan as the narrator almost narrating to himself. For the most part this smooths out later in the series, and it ultimately wasn’t distracting enough to really ruin my enjoyment of the series. I did however find the dialogue a little stilted or strange at times. But to be fair, dialogue is very difficult to write… well, everything is, it’s hard to find something totally perfect after all! I think this may be why Green relies a little too much on skimming past certain parts of dialogue to say things like “and then we talked about this stuff” or “and then we did this stuff” (the word “stuff” really is used too much, I know that might be how teenagers talk but let’s be real, it feels too much like a filler) which I always find a little awkward in things and wish more thought would be put into how to address certain moments occurring not in real time or that need to be summarized. Finally, something I noticed this time around was the concept of love almost veering into obsession, which wasn’t necessarily addressed but perhaps could have been. Yet, even though I had little question marks popping up in my brain during these portions, I still got wrapped up in the emotions and gut punches of it all (I’m a sucker for unrequited love, y’all). Oh, and I didn’t like how so many wonderful and powerful female witches would get introduced only to be pushed aside or killed far too soon when I wanted to know so much more about them: they are so interesting, don’t tease me with that and then rip it all away!

But despite all these little things that could maybe be finessed a bit more, there is so much more that I love about this series. Firstly the real naturalistic feel to both the magic and the whole experience of Nathan struck something in me: there is a power there, a power to the earth and I think it is utilized well here. But beyond this simple personal liking of mine, there are just some great themes and ideas explored throughout the series: the exploration of identity and acting in a way to become the person other people see you as rather than how you want to be yourself, the search for freedom, the limits of the human spirit and what it is able to endure to survive, being complicit in injustice by in stepping aside just so you don’t get hurt yourself, our relationships with people and how we want to see them based on our own experiences, and even how our concept of morality can be changed by circumstance or what we think others want from us. There is a lot going on in terms of politics and human nature, and it all blends together in such a complex but meaningful way in Nathan.

Yet more than anything else, there is such an exploration of anger in this novel that I haven’t really seen elsewhere: most of the time when male anger and retribution is explored I find it in the form of a revenge story after their family/wife has been killed (you know, female suffering to further the plot of a man and give him Man Pain). But here, Nathan has had his angry grow from years of injustice, mistreatment, judgments from people who do not know him, and so much more only because of who his father his and that they want to see him simply as a Black witch rather than for who he is. But do you think he’s ever been able to express this anger? Of course not, for then it would just solidify the idea in people’s minds that he is wild and angry and dangerous, even though he truly has a reason to be angry and have these emotions; this is yet another tie in to the racial implications of the story, and how often the stereotypes of “angry black woman” or “angry black man” get thrown around after they express any slightly negative emotion, no matter how reasonable or deserved it is. We can understand why Nathan does what he does, and I feel for him every step of the way; he is complicated and even though I may not always agree with his choices, it is clear why he is making them, and therefore as a narrator delivers and engaging perspective. Green is not afraid to take her series and protagonist to a dark place, which suits the subject matter perfectly. There is violence and it is unsettling, but I wouldn't say it feels overly egregious. 

Ultimately, I really enjoyed the Half Bad Trilogy a second time through: the story has good action and themes, and at the center a protagonist who really gets into your heart. He is lost and he is resilient, and he faces so much that you don’t know how one person could ever survive it all. This series truly explores the depth of the human spirit, and the idea of what is truly good and what is truly evil in our complicated world and with all the different types of people in it.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]