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!]

Thursday, March 29, 2018

#CBR10 Review #14: The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

After having read Becky Albertalli's novel Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda earlier this year (which I LOVED also with the super sweet film adaptation Love, Simon which left my heart full of warm fuzzies), I decided to pick up this companion novel, The Upside of Unrequited. And boy, I must say, that just like in my previous Albertalli read, she sure has a knack for personally calling me out through these relatable characters, feelings, and emotions: I swear, a lot of the lines she writes are things that have literally come out of my own mouth, or it wouldn't be a surprise in the least to hear me say.
The Upside of Unrequited is told from the perspective of a teenage girl named Molly, who considers herself the unattractive, fat sister compared to her twin, Cassie, as Cassie has no problem finding herself girls to hook up with. Molly, however, is a master at developing crushes on people and then not doing anything about them. That is until she finds things changing in her once super close relationship with her sister, after Cassie finds herself a serious girlfriend. So maybe it's time for Molly to put herself out there with a cute boy who happens upon her way through mutual friends, but you know, there's also this cute boy at work and... well... what does the heart want, girl?

I must say, this novel does play out in a pretty predictable manner, but that didn't ruin my enjoyment of it, because of all the very relatable emotions and situations presented therein, that I know all too well: feeling your friends and siblings drift away as your lives change or people develop other relationships, not wanting to put yourself out there with anyone for fear of breaking your own heart, and then waiting so long to actually be in a relationship that you wonder if there's something wrong with you that people don't like? I myself guard my heart pretty intensely, and never think anyone I like could possibly return those feelings, so I feel you, Molly, I really do. And the relationship with Molly and Cassie within this novel really does feel natural and real to me, and was one of the most interesting aspects of it for me, as I find myself sometimes at odds with my sister one moment but then thick as thieves the next, all while still being able to acknowledge that things aren't per say the way they always have been or how they always will be.

But the problem with being a companion novel is that a comparison to the novel to which it pairs is inevitable. And I must say, I did enjoy Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda more than this novel. I think this mainly is personal in a way, but The Upside of Unrequited just didn't grab me emotionally in the same way, which may have to do with how much closer I am holding issues of my own sexuality at this time versus issues with unrequited feelings. Because I've definitely felt both, but here I was just lacking that little tug on my heart. It may also be that some major chunks of dialogue and interaction between characters occurred through text message; while I know that everyone has a different way that they write and thereby text, it just never held me or I didn't really feel that locked in when reading any of these parts, at least, not in the same way that I found the more extended expression of the emails in Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda to convey a bit more to me (but you know me, I love to be extra wordy in not just my reviews here, but also my text messages: just ask my poor friends who end up reading novels worth of writing all the time). There is also the factor that while I adore the characters Albertalli creates, there are a lot of cringey little lines and nuances that don't always land when the teenage characters are speaking or narrating. Sign of the times, y'all, I'm getting old I guess, but every now and again I can't help but think, "that's not really how teenagers talk, is it?" 

That said, The Upside of Unrequited was again a very sweet novel, that I definitely found some serious moments of relation to at times. I maybe didn't love it, but I enjoyed it enough to want to later read Albertalli's next novel, Leah on the Offbeat (yet another in this same universe of novels). I really like the easy breezy style and how such real feelings and moments are so easily woven in.

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

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

#CBR10 Review #13: History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

I have previously read Adam Silvera’s two other novels, More Happy Than Not and They Both Die at the End, and found them both to be quite enjoyable and touching to read. So obviously there is some skill there, but I found that with this new novel, I just couldn’t get into it as much as I would have liked.

History is All You Left Me follows a teenager named Griffin as he mourns the death of his ex-boyfriend and best friend, Theo. The two had been friends for a long time along with their other friend in their little squad of 3, Wade, but eventually Theo and Griffin started dating. After Theo left for college, the two grew apart, Theo found someone new in a boy named Jackson, and the three former best friends found themselves crumbling within this new structure. The story now focuses on Griffin and his grieving process, showing both present day where Griffin learns all about who Theo became with his new boyfriend, but also switching back to show the history and past parts of their relationship that Griffin holds on to.

There are some great subjects and explorations in this novel regarding grief, how we can become selfish and angry and not want to accept that other people lost someone just like we did. There is also a major aspect of Griffin’s personality tied up in some serious compulsions that limit his life in some ways, and we see how his grief can cause this to spiral, or to cause him to make decisions that hurt both himself and others.

But here’s the thing: at one point in the novel, some of Jackson’s friends are recounting meeting Theo for the first time, claiming that it was like nothing but inside jokes between the two of them that they couldn’t penetrate into or become a part of. As I read this part, I realized that that was exactly how I was feeling reading the entire novel. There are also a ton of pop-culture references thrown in there, and while I understood all of them, it felt so corny and again, like these things meant more to the characters in a way that I couldn’t fully grasp. It’s all just moments that are close to Griffin but never feel like we are entirely let into, especially since a lot of the narration occurs as conversations between Griffin and the idea of Theo in his mind after Theo’s death. Griffin teases things that happened only to half-explain them, or not explain them until far later at a point where it doesn’t feel as poignant. I also had trouble connecting with Griffin as a character, due to a lot of his decisions and understanding of situations not feeling natural or making sense to me. I do chalk a lot of this up to his grief making him view things differently or being so self-focused in a way that he may not otherwise be, but I found it to be a bit much in the end, and lacking in ways to make everything connect or feel like real resolutions or changes. I don’t know, it just wasn’t working for me.

History is All You Left Me had a lot of potential in its subject matter focused on grief, which is always a tricky thing to handle, to be fair. And as I mentioned previously, I have enjoyed Adam Silvera’s other two novels to date. But this time, because of what felt like impenetrable characters and relationships, the whole thing fell a lot shorter than my expectations.

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

Friday, March 23, 2018

#CBR10 Review #12: V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

I know that I have read V for Vendetta before, and yet I really didn't remember it at all? Was it so long ago and was I just too young to really grasp it at that time? Who knows, but now I feel like it is a pretty striking time for a re-read, given everything happening in the world today (though to be fair this has been happening in so many places for so long). I guess the last number of years have just really done a number on us all.

I'm sure by now most are aware of the general gist of this graphic novel which I've often heard to referred to as a "classic", but in any case: V for Vendetta captures an image of dystopian England in the late 1990s (though at the time of publication, it was deemed to be a "near future" England) wherein a neo-fascist regime now has a hold on the nation, after the chaos of a nuclear war during the 1980s. But the mysterious V who was once a prisoner at a death-camp and experimented on has other ideas for trying to wake the public up and try to regain their freedoms.

These themes of people rallying behind a figure in times of chaos or perceived crisis, only to find that this soon turns on many and restricts freedom is all too telling today, the rise of past ideals of discrimination taking the forefront and governments seizing control in the name of "order". Of course the first to go are the ones who deviate from the norm, and these marginalized groups are also often pit against one another, for if they were to join they may actually rise up. And this is what V is all about: getting people's attention, becoming an idea to follow and letting them know that their leaders are indeed destructible and that the people hold more power than they think. Though are all of V's method's good? I wouldn't say so, in particular with his treatment of Evey, but isn't that the truth about most figures: we want to see them as perfect, when the reality is that everyone is capable of doing terrible things. But we always have a choice, don't we?

"Everybody is special. Everybody. Everybody is a hero, a lover, a fool, a villain. Everybody. Everybody has their story to tell."

This book is full of striking themes, but here's the big problem: I may have forgotten a lot about reading this book previously not just because it was so long ago and I was so young, but also because I found it very confusing at times. This is from a combination of many of the characters working in office and/or their significant others drifting in and out with little more than a name and position, as well as the fact that a lot of them looked so similar I couldn't keep straight who was who or working with which organization. I like to think that I pay attention to things when I read, but this was very difficult for me to keep straight in terms of the sub-plots which all weave together. And I do think that there is a significant mood and presence to be found in the artwork of David Lloyd, and a lot of the images to be found are quite dynamic, but it really isn't my style, and I did find pieces difficult to understand what exactly was happening as the visuals weren't always that clear.

Ultimately, however, V for Vendetta is a dark, often times upsetting, but powerful piece of work, flaws and all (like our heros, indeed). I think about our history and our world today and I know exactly how we got where we are, and I see resistance happening and just hope that it doesn't let up, because as soon as we become complacent or turn our backs to what is happening, it can all slip away so fast. As said by Valerie, one of my favourite lines in this novel goes as such:

"I still don't understand it, why they hate us so much."

Fascist governments hate everyone who is different because they are afraid: they are afraid because they know that they are outnumbered, and if only we realized this, we could band together and bring everything down. And it's time to continue doing exactly that, before we find ourselves somewhere we never expected. Art can be powerful, and this graphic novel makes me believe that. 

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

#CBR10 Review #11: One of Us is Lying by Karen M McManus

Adding myself to the list of fellow Cannonballers who have already reviewed One of Us is Lying recently (a few of said reviews made me want to push it further up my to-read pile!) and I must say, it was quite enjoyable! A little mystery involving a setup of various high school students from different groups all ending up in detention together, when suddenly one of them dies and the rest are now suspects in his apparent murder. Right from the start you get a sense that something is fishy about all this, and that those 4 other students in detention don't actually have anything to do with it, but that perhaps they have other secrets of their own that they don't want to get out. Because of course the one who dies is running a popular but nasty blog of secrets that has info on all of the suspects which was about to be released. So what really happened?

Being a YA novel, you get some similar tropes of characters as are found in others, but I really did come to like all of these characters by the end and found them to have a few different layers than just being completely stock and therefore predictable. And unlike something like The Breakfast Club (the setup alludes to it before going off on it's own path) wherein the kids in detention bond or become friends but really only for a day, this one showed how experiencing a trauma or facing difficult circumstances can really make or break relationships: you find out who your friends are when shit hits the fan, or so some might say. 

I will admit that a lot of these kids' secrets and how the plot was going to unravel, I was able to guess as the clues were pretty glaring, though this didn't diminish the fun I had in trying to figure it all out or see where it went. Because there were still some surprises to be found, in particular with some of the subjects that were brought up that I wasn't really expecting. One of these involved a plotline of excessive control in relationships, which I think is important as sometimes this possessiveness is shown in a positive light ("he just cares so much about you") when really it should be raising red flags. Yet another subject that wasn't per-say delved into too deeply, but was definitely brought up made me pause, as I find it is really topical at this time: that is, the idea of radicalization and/or the rise of "red-piller" and "incel" types via online groups. It's something that I've been seeing more of lately and in particular with some people close to me, though in a slightly different vein of joining up with some pretty sour echo-chambers of thought online in regards to others and I just can't stand it. So obviously I would have liked more exploration in the novel there, but even just having it mentioned was a surprise that I appreciated and think is pretty poignant to include in what could have been nothing more than a kooky high school mystery.

Also this is not the first novel I've read this year that involves a local/high school gossip blog that is out to ruin people or start rumors (that are usually true). Was Gossip Girl ahead of it's time? Because I am fortunate enough to say that I never ran into something like that in my high school days, the most we had was that popular widget to put on your Facebook where people could leave anonymous messages or confessions to you... which people hardly did anyways. 

Ultimately, One of Us is Lying was a fun read that I absolutely cruised through. Like I said, it did leave some pretty big clues lying around as to the ultimate outcome, but I still enjoyed reading it regardless.

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

Friday, March 16, 2018

#CBR10 Review #10: Edgedancer by Brandon Sanderson

Edgedancer is a small novella about the character Lift from Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive series, wherein we get a little more exposition regarding her character and how she falls into her role in Oathbringer, after first being introduced via a small interlude section in Words of Radiance. As far as the book goes, it is a quick and fun little adventure that fits easily within the already established story. It does, however, also serve (as mentioned in the post-notes) to solve a few problems and continuity issues within the main Stormlight Archive series. Normally, I would be annoyed by this, as I hate having to do extra work and research to understand a series and what's happening (sort of how I feel like I have to see every Marvel movie even about characters I don't particularly care about in order to follow the overall character arcs of others), but given the huge scope of Sanderson's works, I will let it go. And I really didn't notice any issues within the series so far so, que sera sera. 

The plot of Edgedancer is really about Lift as she learns a little more about her powers and comes to speak more oaths through her adventures alone in a city, following a figure known as The Darkness who was hunting her down when we first saw her. This all occurs during the coming of the first Everstorm. There isn't much to the story that changes anything beyond a little more knowledge of how Lift came to speak her oaths, although there are hints about how she tried to make a deal with the Nightwatcher in order to stay young forever which had some implications with her mother's life. I would have actually liked to know more about this, but it never was more than the odd line here or there in Lift's mind. 

I mean, there isn't really much to say here beyond that if you are reading the Stormlight Archive series, it is a fun little addition to get a little more of this character who (as of now) has not been all that involved, though I feel she will become more important as the series goes on. It is a little awkward having some of the lines from Lift's POV come through in the narration at times, but otherwise smooth writing with a quick pace to get through this little side-adventure in little more than 200 pages (once you get through the original interlude where we met Lift presented as a prologue again). Lift is a fun character who I was curious to know more about: I still don't have all the info I was searching for, but at least there is a little more that came through in this book. 

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