Thursday, April 29, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is a legendary book about a legendary gay love story. Being gay myself, I had heard about this book from several gay acquaintances and had been warned about the powerful emotional wallop it delivers. I can confirm that it is very easy to become emotionally invested in this story about Patroclus and Achilles, told from the perspective of the lesser known Greek. There’s a reason this book has more than 310,000 ratings averaging well over 4.2 on a 5-point scale on Goodreads. It connects on a visceral level with the vast majority of readers; this is an amazing feat since at its heart The Song of Achilles is a love story between two men (both mortal, but one with a goddess for a mother).

For anyone who has even a passing interest in Greek and Roman mythology, The Song of Achilles is a treat. Many, many famous and familiar names fill its pages. To name just a few: Odysseus, Heracles(Hercules), Apollo, Athena, Agamemnon, Helen, et cetera. And there are many more included whose names you probably should know, but don’t. For me, these were people like Peleus (Achilles’ mortal father), Thetis (Achilles’ mother, a sea nymph), Pyrrhus (Achilles’ son), Briseis (longtime female companion to Patroclus and Achilles), Hector (hero of Troy) and Diomedes (one of key leaders of the siege of Troy).

The Song of Achilles is told from the perspective of Patroclus from beginning to end. We learn that he was also a prince, the son of Menoitius, who himself was the son and grandson of kings. Through a horrible accident at the age of 10 he ended up killing another young boy, the son of another king (there were so many tiny Greek kingdoms at this time that the land was chock full of princes). As a result, Patroclus was exiled and taken in by King Peleus, Achilles’ father. Patroclus was shy and Achilles was literally the golden child, with bright blond hair, green eyes, a perfect physical specimen of male beauty (even at the young age of 10) and the center of attention wherever he went.

Essentially from this point on Achilles and Patroclus grow up together, becoming inseparable companions, beginning as platonic friends and eventually becoming soul mates. As told from the viewpoint of Patroclus, the deepening of their relationship is detailed, heartwarming and incredibly romantic. Miller makes the interesting decision to downplay the presence of homophobia in Greek society as having any impact on how Achilles and Patroclus view themselves or their relationship, while all the whole making it very clear that EVERYONE knew that the two were lovers. (At one point the witty Odysseus says, "One tent's enough, I hope? I've heard you prefer to share. Rooms and bedrolls, both, they say.") This is somewhat explained by the cultural practice at the time that boys often took other boys as lovers “in their youth” but that there was an expectation that on reaching the age of maturity (at 16!) men would find a woman to settle down and make a family with.

Soon after Achilles turns sixteen, the Trojan war begins and it is fascinating to see how many of the major players viewed the conflict at its onset. For example, no one expected that it would take over ten years to "rescue Helen." Since Achilles was known to be the most skilled warrior since Heracles, the Greeks were extremely confident of their eventual victory, but they were unaware the role that the Gods (especially Apollo) would play in the conflict. (Or they thought that the gods on their side were more powerful than the gods on the other side.) Tragically, they were wrong about multiple aspects of the war.

One aspect of the book which enhances it’s salience and emotional impact is the fact that despite the story being so well-known The Song of Achilles still provides surprises. You probably already know the contours of the story (Troy falls, Patroclus dies, Achilles dies, Helen lives) so one can't really say these are spoilers. But there is a fair amount of predestination; Achilles was told his fate (by his immortal mother who heard it from the Fates) that if he doesn’t go to Troy he would not have eternal fame, that if he went to Troy he would die there, and that he would not die before Hector. All of these “spoilers” in the story turn out to be true, and it’s this foreknowledge that is absolutely devastating to the reader, especially since Patroclus is aware of all the predictions as well, and basically unable to do anything about it. It's hard to read the last 10% of the book without being emotionally devastated.

The Song of Achilles is both a tragedy and a love story; it’s a familiar tale with a completely unfamiliar and riveting plot at its core. The motivations and motives of the main characters are so recognizable yet simultaneously frustrating that it is hard to overstate the emotional investment of the reader in the resolutions of their conflicts. It’s a book that stays with you for a really long time. And to me, that’s the best kind! I'm definitely looking forward to picking up Circe, by the same author.

Title: The Song of Achilles.
Madeline Miller.
Format: Kindle.
Format: 389 pages.
Publisher: HarperCollins.
Date Published: March 6, 2012.
Date Read: April 14, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A/A (4.08/4.0).


Saturday, April 24, 2021

2021 OSCARS: My Predictions in the Top 8 Categories

Here is my annual prediction post for the 2021 Oscars, i.e. the 93nd Academy Awards. I really just consider the Top 8 categories on the blog but I often play the Oscar prediction game like lots of other people (on other websites) where I think about all 24 categories.  In 2019 I predicted 4 of 8 categories correctly and in 2020 I predicted 6 of 8 correctly.  This year I have seen all of the Best Picture nominees.

Best Picture:
  • “The Father” 
  • “Judas and the Black Messiah”
  • "Mank"
  • “Minari” 
  • “Nomadland” 
  • “Promising Young Woman” 
  • “Sound of Metal” 
  • “The Trial of the Chicago 7”
WILL WIN: Nomadland.

  • Thomas Vinterberg (“Another Round”)
  • David Fincher (“Mank”)
  • Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”)
  • Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”)
  • Emerald Fennell (“Promising Young Woman”)
SHOULD WIN: David Fincher, Mank.
WILL WIN: Chloe Zhao, Nomadland.

Lead Actor:
  • Riz Ahmed (“Sound of Metal”)
  • Chadwick Boseman (“Ma Rainey's Black Bottom”)
  • Anthony Hopkins (“The Father")
  • Gary Oldman (“Mank”)
  • Steven Yeun  (“Minari”)
SHOULD WIN: Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal.
WILL WIN: Chadwick  Boseman, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

Lead Actress:
  • Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey's Black Bottom”)
  • Andra Day (“The United States v. Billie Holiday”)
  • Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”)
  • Frances McDormand  (“Nomadland”)
  • Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”)
SHOULD WIN: Viola Davis, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
WILL WIN: Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman.

Supporting Actor:
  • Sacha Baron Cohen (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”)
  • Daniel Kaluuya (“Judas and the Black Messiah”)
  • Leslie Odom Jr. (“One Night in Miami”)
  • Paul Raci (“Sound of Metal”)
  • Lakeith Stanfield  (“Judas and the Black Messiah”)
SHOULD WIN: Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah.
WILL WIN: Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah.

Supporting Actress:
  • Maria Bakalova (“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”)
  • Glenn Close (“Hillbilly Elegy”)
  • Olivia Colman (“The Father”)
  • Amanda Seyfried (“Mank”)
  • Yuh-jung Youn (“Minari”)
SHOULD WIN: Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy.
WILL WIN: Yuh-jung Youn, Minari.

Original Screenplay:
  • Will Berson and Shaka King (“Judas and the Black Messiah”)
  • Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”)
  • Emerald Fennell (“Promising Young Woman”)
  • Darius Marder and Abraham Marder (“Sound of Metal”)
  • Aaron Sorkin (“The Trial of the Chicago 7)
WILL WIN: Promising Young Woman.

Adapted Screenplay:
  • Sacha Baron Cohen et alia (“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”)
  • Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller (“The Father”)
  • Chloe Zhao (“Nomadland”)
  • Kemp Powers (“One Night in Miami”)
  • Ramin Bahrani (“The White Tiger”)
SHOULD WIN: The Father.
WILL WIN: Nomadland.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: One Good Turn (Jackson Brodie, #2) by Kate Atkinson

One Good Turn is the second book in Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series. I quite enjoyed the first book, Case Histories, but since there are only five books in the series I am being careful about not reading them too quickly. Atkinson is sort of like the police procedural version of Ian Banks; she is known for her excellent non-genre books as well as being celebrated for her stellar contribution to a particular genre.

The main character in One Good Turn is Jackson Brodie, but like the first book, the story is structured as individual chapters told from the first-person perspective of multiple characters whose connection is not immediately obvious. For example, we spend a lot of time with the internal monologue of Martin Canning, a relatively successful author of World War II era cozy mysteries under the pen name Alex Blake. Martin witnesses a car accident and subsequent act of “road rage” in the very first scene of the book that is eventually completely pivotal to the plot. It turns out that another of the first-person characters we spend time with, Mrs. Gloria Hatter, also witnessed the accident, which happened in front of a long line of people waiting to get into an event during the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh. As it happens Jackson was there as well, because his girlfriend (one of the more unusual characters from  Case Histories) is acting in another play being put on for the festival, one that the now-wealthy Jackson has invested in financially in order to support his girlfriend.

The thing that struck me the most in reading this second book in the Jackson Brodie series was how hilariously funny it was. There are several scenes and moments that are simply unbelievably amusing; they literally made me “laugh out loud.” Well-executed humor is very rare in the crime thriller genre (to be honest, it’s rarely well executed in most written forms, I think). I don’t think many other authors even try and even fewer are successful at doing this. One prominent exception that immediately comes to mind is Stuart MacBride; his DS Logan McRae books are absolutely hysterical, almost farcical portrayals of Scottish policing (set in Aberdeen, mostly).

As with most murder mysteries, the question of “whodunnit” is just one of several puzzles for the reader and this is also true in One Good Turn. The first body to show up is an unknown female who Jackson literally stumbles over while playing tourist when visiting the coast near Edinburgh. He’s no longer a policeman or a private investigator so the authorities are unamused when they show up after reports of a man nearly drowned to discover a soaked Jackson with stories about a body he found that has disappeared in the waves. Of course, it doesn’t help matters that Jackson finds himself curiously attracted to the lead detective on the case, a young DI Louise Monroe. Interestingly, we also get first-person accounts from Louise’s perspective. This allows the reader to get information about how various crimes are (not perceived by the police as being) connected. In addition to the mystery of who is the woman Jackson found, there’s the question of who are the two guys who were involved in the road rage incident? And is it a coincidence that Gloria’s husband Graham Hatter happens to have been responsible for building DI Monroe’s house but is now in hospital in grave shape after spending a few hours naked with someone who is a dead ringer for Jackson’s corpse? Probably not.

Overall, in addition to the humor, the puzzle of figuring out the connections between the characters and the crimes are the best parts of One Good Turn. Another strength of the books is Atkinson’s characterizations so the reader does become quickly invested in “what happens next” to most of them. In particular, Jackson, who again takes some hard knocks, both physical and emotional, in the course of the book. He’s the person we spend the most time with (I think) or at least the one readers are likely to care about the most. I’m really very curious to find out what happens next with him. I’m looking forward to reading the third book in the series, When Will There Be Good News?, and quite sad I have only three more opportunities to spend time with Jackson Brodie. Hopefully, Ms. Atkinson will write more before I get to Jackson Brodie #5!

Title: One Good Turn (Jackson Brodie, #2).
Kate Atkinson.
Format: Kindle.
Format: 418 pages.
Publisher: Back Bay Books.
Date Published: September 10, 2007.
Date Read: April 6, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING:   (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Thursday, April 15, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Look To Windward (Culture, #7) by Iain M. Banks

Look to Windward is the seventh book in The Culture series of space opera novels written by Iain M. Banks. The Culture is the name of the Galaxy-spanning, technologically-advanced, post-scarcity society that Banks returned to time after time to serve as the setting for his lyrical, sometimes-comical science fiction novels. Banks is one of the rare authors who was equally celebrated for his traditional fiction (presented under his name without the middle initial) as well as his genre work. In Look to Windward, he incorporates a lot of the textual intricacy and emotional heft of his non-genre works into a book that features near-omniscient A.I.’s, three-legged, furry aliens as central characters and a solar-system sized artificial habitat with over 50 billion humans with no poverty, crime, sickness or danger.

The book’s main character are Quilan and Ziller, who are both Chelgrians. We spend most of Look to Windward reading Quilan’s first-person perspective. Ziller is a talented and popular classical composer who has renounced his Chelgrian citizenship, denigrated their political caste system and taken refuge at the Culture’s Masaq Orbital for over a decade. Quilan is a survivor of the Chelgrian civil war in which his wife was killed and he has been ostensibly sent to Masaq in order to convince Ziller to return to their home world. In actuality, Quilan is on a secret mission that even he doesn’t know about, because his memory was wiped after he agreed to do it. We do know that whatever Quilan is planning to do it’s probably not good for either Ziller or the Culture. In the era the book is set in, most civilized societies have a device which can store the memories and mental state of the wearer and serve as a backup in case of an untimely demise. Early in the book we discover that it turns out that the Culture has admitted culpability in meddling in Chelgrian politics before the start of the civil war and the Chelgrians now blame the Culture for the 5 billion who died in that conflict. In Quilan’s device he has had installed  the personality of an old military general named Huyler who is (apparently) there to assist/support/monitor him in the suicide mission Quilan has agreed to be sent to the Culture to complete.

The central themes of Look to Windward are memory, loss, revenge and faith (or, more accurately, zealotry). As with any Culture novel, the themes of this particular book or plot are always overlaid with questions about the meaning of life and the limits of seemingly limitless technology. Quilan’s grief for his wife is told poignantly in flashbacks that we get as Quilan (and the reader) start to learn more from the memories that have been deleted and that are slowly resurfacing as the time where his mission will be revealed. We learn about the depths of despair Quilan felt back on Chel as he grieved for his wife, and how eventually he was recruited for and agreed to conduct a suicide mission by the head of the Chelgrian military (who also appears to be a bigwig in the Chelgrian religion as well). Banks writes so well that many times the reader forgets that Quilan is an alien, as one naturally anthropomorphizes the character.

It turns out that Hub, the Mind running Masaq Orbital, (that’s the near-omniscient artificial intelligence that is capable of running an orbital with 50 billion humans who are each able to personally interact with) was actually involved in some of the skirmishes in the Chelgrian civil war. Hub was involved in the evacuation of several billion people and saving most of their lives but that resulted in the deaths of several million.

By the end of Look to Windward the reader realizes that both Quilan and Hub are still reeling from the after-effects of the traumas caused by war. How they react to these traumas animate the plot. Overall, although I’m glad I finally read Look to Windward I’m not sure that I really enjoyed it. It’s definitely slow in some sections, and the basic story of watching someone realize that they have agreed to be a technologically-sophisticated suicide bomber is hard to describe as “entertainment.” But Banks does an incredibly job of building suspense about what the final result will be and his characterization of Quilan is so nuanced that it is very easy to identify and empathize with him. And of course  it’s always fun to spend time in the Culture. I will definitely miss Bank’s well-written cerebral brand of science fiction and wish there were more of it to read.

Title:  Look to Windward (Culture, #7).
Iain M. Banks.
Format: Kindle.
Format: 384 pages.
Publisher: Pocket Books.
Date Published: August 27, 2001.
Date Read: March 30, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★½☆  (3.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A/A- (3.83/4.0).


Thursday, April 08, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson is an original, unique debut novel about love, family, identity, destiny, multiple universes, societal collapse, and climate change. It’s in a genre that I would call “science fantasy” since it involves science fiction ideas like travel between worlds and the devastating effects of climate change as well as fantasy tropes like a goddess named Nyame who lives in the space between the worlds and the devolution of human society into multiple task-centered tribes.

The main character in The Space Between Worlds is Cara (usually short for Caramenta), a lesbian from a downtrodden part of the world called Ashtown. Cara is a “traverser,” someone who can travel between the 380 known copies of our Earth that can be accessed in the multiverse using technology which is basically akin to magic. Of course there are an infinite number of alternate Earths but we can only visit this arbitrary number because that’s how many we can detect that “resonate” with ours. Climate change and societal collapse have devastated our Earth so we use our access to these other Earth to supplement our access to resources. Human beings can only travel from one earth to another if on the earth they travel to their doppelgänger is dead. So, people who grow up in circumstances that make their survival very unlikely (i.e. they are most likely dead on the other Earth) are now incredibly valuable. Cara is dead on all but eight other Earths so there’s a lot of traversing that she can do safely from our world to 372 others. This makes her one of the most desirable traversers. The reason Cara is dead on so many Earths is that she’s the daughter of a drug-addicted mom and eventually became the paramour of Adranik, the violent emperor of Ashtown. However on our earth, referred to as Earth 0, Cara lives in the palatial Wiley City and works for the Eldridge Institute, whose brilliant but probably psychotic founder figured out the “technology” to send people between worlds. All we know is that when Cara is in the space between worlds she senses the presence of a godlike figure that traversers call Nyame and  when she wakes up after having travelled (the process involves loses consciousness) she has painful bruises all over her body.

The worlds that Johnson have created in The Space Between Worlds are all impacted by end-stage capitalism (Cara is only a resident of Wiley City because of her employment with Eldridge. She is eligible for citizenship in four years, but if she loses her job before then, she can be deported all the way back to the slum of Ashtown.); rampant climate change (outside of Wiley City, clean food and water are scarce, the air is metallic and on “bright days” the sun is literally strong enough to blind and burn you); and societal collapse (Cara’s adopted family have their own church, there’s another tribe or guild for sex workers called the House, and another for assassins called the Runners).

Ultimately the effectiveness of the book is sourced in the issues it raises about identity, family and love. Cara is in love with her “handler,” a woman named Dell who is a citizen of Wiley City and who has long-standing family wealth. The sinusoidal nature of the strength and intimacy of their relationship is one of the central plot points. Another main idea, which is likely to be more compelling to some readers, is the question of identity and the nature of destiny. Cara interacts with various people in her life on multiple versions of Earth, so she’s aware that her destiny is/was often death, but she also sees the same people, even those she thinks she knows intimately, having subtly different (and sometimes disturbingly similar) personalities and possibilities on different Earths. This raises the centrality of the question of destiny: are our futures predestined regardless of minor differences between scenarios? Do relationships outlast different realities? Can people change?

In some sense, The Space Between Worlds is a time-travel story. It’s contours and have the same shape of coexisting possibilities branching off from a single reality as a result of the ability to travel between Earths existing in the multiverse. Overall, I was impressed by the complexity and creativity of this debut more then I was enthralled by it. Apart from Cara, I didn’t really care what happened to the other characters, even the ones that Cara cared about. I feel like the setting of the story was more interesting than the plot occurring in it and I would have been interested in another plot imbedded in the same world (or worlds). As a science fiction book it barely works due to the paucity of included scientific elements. However, as a work of speculative fiction it is very effective, as the questions of how our world could have devolved into Cara’s Earth 0 are compelling. It’s clear that Micaiah Johnson is an author to watch and I will be paying attention to what she writes next.

Title: The Space Between Worlds.
Micaiah Johnson.
Format: Kindle.
Format: 322 pages.
Publisher: Del Rey.
Date Published: August 4, 2020.
Date Read: February 20, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B+ (3.33/4.0).


Thursday, April 01, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Heaven, My Home (Highway 59, #2) by Attica Locke

Heaven, My Home is the second in a series of police procedural books about a Black Texas Ranger written by Attica Locke (who is also well-known for her trenchant writing on television shows such as Little Fires Everywhereand Empire). The main character in the books is Darren Matthews, and the central tension of the books come from the conflicts and circumstances that arise when one of the very few Black man in a predominantly white prestigious crime-fighting organization like the Texas Rangers has to interact with rednecks in rural sections of the state.

In Bluebird, Bluebird, Darren was involved in trying to solve a pair of murders with racial overtones (the bodies of a black man and a white woman are found dumped separately in a nearby river a few days apart) in a very small town up Highway 59 from Dallas. In the sequel, Heaven, My Home, Darren is asked to drive up Highway 59 to the Southern gothic tourist destination of Jefferson to find a missing 10-year-old kid, Levi King. Levi just happens to be the son of jailed notorious white supremacist Bill King and was last seen alive by Leroy Page, an elderly Black man who happens to own most of the property near Lake Caddo in an area called Hopetown where Native Americans, African Americans and poor Whites have been squatting for years. The child’s grandmother Rosemary King is the richest person in the nearby town of Jefferson but doesn’t seem that worried about her kin’s well-being, but Rosemary does seem fixated on getting her greedy hands on the Leroy’s deed to Hopetown.

If the story in Heaven, My Home doesn’t seem complicated enough there are still several unresolved issues from the first book. Because of this, Darren is currently being blackmailed by his own ne’er-do-well mother to keep quiet that she has a piece of evidence that if it were revealed Darren knew existed and were given to authorities might not only lead to him losing his job, but potential indictment and prosecution. Additionally, while Darren’s marriage started off in an “it’s complicated” phase in the first book, it morphs into the slow-motion train wreck stage when he starts noticing oddly charged interactions between his best friend and wife and this leads him to reach out to the widow he was powerfully (and chastely) attracted to in the first book.

The writing is delightful in both books and the mysteries are compelling, if somewhat implausibly racially charged, in both cases. One would think these features would make these books resonate with he but, surprisingly, they don’t. Primarily, I just don’t sympathize (or empathize) with Darren. He makes (and made) some bad choices in this book and the previous one. He’s clearly a (barely) functional alcoholic. Of course, there’s a long history of detectives being alcoholic, addicted messes (looking at you, John Rebus!) but here the setting of backwoods Texas repels instead of propelling me.

I hope Ms. Locke writes more books in the Highway 59 series, and I think I will probably get around to reading them, although I won’t feel an urgent need to do so.

Title: Heaven, My Home.
Attica Locke.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 336 pages.
Publisher: Mullholland Books.
Date Published: September 17, 2019.
Date Read: February 20, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★½☆  (3.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A-/B+ (3.5/4.0).



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