Lord of Scoundrels Book Review

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Review:

I was enjoying this book immensely right up until the point where the heroine shot the hero.

It’s pretty annoying how female violence against men gets brushed aside as inconsequential or even treated as a joke in media. If the hero had shot the heroine, people would rightly be horrified, but because she’s small and female and he’s a big brute of a guy, we’re supposed to be okay with it? Ugh.

So needless to say, after that my feelings were more mixed.

Overall, though, I have to say Lord of Scoundrels was a pretty terrific read and I can see why it’s considered a classic of historical romance.

Most of the first half of the book is taken up by what’s essentially a game of Chicken – he one ups her, she one ups him, things escalate, and then escalate even more (somewhere in there, the gun shows up) until she ends up suing him for a considerable quantity of money and he goes for Ultimate Chicken and proposes marriage, figuring if she’s going to live comfortably for the rest of her life on his wealth, he may as well get something out of it.

Or at least, that’s what he tells himself. The reader certainly isn’t fooled!

Aside from the shooting incident, I liked the heroine, Jessica Trent, a lot. She was smart, sensible, determined, and definitely gave as good as she got in her verbal sparring matches with Dain (and we all know how I adore a bickering couple). I had a few more reservations about Dain himself. Any tender-hearted reader (and I’m about as big a bleeding heart as they come) will feel bad for him due to his appalling childhood and the considerable internalized self-loathing he developed as a result, but his tendency to jump to conclusions and assume that Jessica was thinking the worst of him got more annoying the more evidence accumulated to the contrary.

Nevertheless, their arguments were witty and frequently laugh out loud funny, and the sexual tension delicious, though the language in some of the sex scenes got a little too romance novel-y for my taste. (No “quivering members” though, thank god.) My issues with the shooting and a few other things aside, I did have a LOT of fun reading this book.

By the way, romance novel covers are often terrible, so I’m not going to pick on this one too much, but it is pretty terrible. I guess it’s prettier than some, but, uh, not only does the picture bear almost no physical resemblance to Jessica Trent as described in the novel, but the impression it gives of her personality couldn’t be more incorrect. Jessica shouldn’t look so melancholy and pensive, she should be staring out at the reader with fire in her eyes!

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Carry On Book Review

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Review:

Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl was one of my favorite reads in 2015. The main character, Cath, writes fanfiction for a fictional series of fantasy novels about a boy called Simon Snow and his roommate and arch-enemy Tyrannus Basilton Grimm-Pitch (aka Baz). In Fangirl, Simon and Baz are thinly disguised stand-ins for the characters of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy and fictional Cath writes slash fic about them much as real life Rowell wrote slash fic for the extremely popular Harry/Draco pairing from Harry Potter. (As of July 2015, Harry/Draco remains the most popular Harry Potter pairing and the 9th most popular pairing overall on An Archive of Our Own, with more than 11,000 fics dedicated to the pairing. More fics, in fact, than the next two most popular Harry Potter pairings – Harry/Snape and Remus/Sirius – combined.) However, Rowell apparently couldn’t get the characters of Simon and Baz out of her head, because she ended up writing Carry On.

Attempting to describe Carry On is a meta experience, to put it mildly. It takes place entirely during Simon and Baz’s final year at Watford School of Magicks, but it’s not intended to represent the final novel as written by fictional author Gemma Leslie in Fangirl. Nor (despite the title) is it supposed to be “Carry On, Simon,” Cath’s novel-length fanfiction about Simon’s final year at Watford. Carry On is explicitly Rainbow Rowell‘s take on the characters of Simon and Baz, not a fictional novel (or fanfic) by a fictional author brought to life. For that matter, Rowell didn’t just “file off the serial numbers” (a la Fifty Shades of Grey) of one of her Harry/Draco fanfics, either. Though they share some basic similarities, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the World of Mages of Simon Snow as laid out in Carry On are distinctly different. Yet at the same time, many aspects of the novel are clearly directly inspired by Harry Potter, Harry Potter fanfiction, or both.

I’ll let Aja Romano, herself once a BNF (Big Name Fan) in the Harry/Draco fandom, give you some examples:

Carry On utilizes so, so many of the plot points of Harry Potter. So many of the trappings of Potterdom are here: awkwardly backward wizarding customs; Simon’s mysterious parentage and a prophecy decreeing him the chosen one; the deadly forest and banal animal caretaker both inexplicably on school grounds; class hierarchy between the magicians and other magical creatures; Simon’s outsider status as the only “Normal”-born magician; his enmity with the aristocratic and sinister Baz, whose ancient and powerful family is at war with Simon’s equally powerful protector, the Mage; the presence of a strange figure called the Humdrum, which has apparently tried to kill Simon every year since he’s attended the Watford School of Magicks; and many more.

And Rowell goes even further: She directly engages with tropes that are a huge part of the fabric of Harry/Draco fandom. There’s a momentous handshake the moment they meet (only this time it’s Baz, not Simon, who hesitates); she gives Baz and Simon their own tower with a private suite, in a throwback to fandom’s penchant for inventing an “astronomy tower” in the castle suitable for snogging; she makes Baz a vampire in homage to a virtually endless amount of fanfiction in which Draco is a Veela or a vampire or otherwise possessed of a dangerous ability to exert a thrall over other people; she devotes a huge amount of attention to the moment when they switch to first-name basis, as countless H/D fics before her have done; Baz toys with the famous “Draco in leather pants” trope; Simon obsessively stalks Baz throughout their early years, seeking proof of what he believes is his evil nature, until their relationship subsides into something more mature and subdued—all while he exudes the righteous savior mentality that draws Baz to him long before his moral conflict about his own family and their penchant for war sets in.

All of this is the stuff of H/D fanfiction. It is the stuff I lived and breathed for years, returning to me in a new form.

But Rowell doesn’t just parrot these ideas. Instead she uses them to directly address countless criticisms that HP fans have leveled at the series over the years: Dumbledore’s mistreatment of Harry; the lack of significant characters of color; the lack of any queer characters at all; the lack of ambiguity between the “good” and “evil” Hogwarts houses and the pointlessness of labeling a child for life before they’ve even been through puberty; the misjudgments of Harry himself about the people around him; the lack of narrative agency given to characters ranging from Hagrid to Ginny Weasley. The tropes in Carry On are narrative versions of the criticisms I’ve leveled at Rowling’s texts for years, in everything from fanfics of my own to Tumblr tags (“I’ve got 99 problems and J.K. Rowling’s unintentional meta-narrative is all of them”).

I’m glad Aja brought up Rowling’s “unintentional meta-narrative,” because, for me, it was one of the most interesting points of comparison between Rowling’s series and Rowell’s novel. As Aja says, Rowell did “correct” some of the issues that I as an adult reader of Harry Potter had with the series. In particular, I was thrilled to get MAJOR CARRY ON SPOILER evil!Dumbledore, because I had huge issues with his character and relationship with Harry in the HP books and Rowell made the true creepiness of his aloof yet manipulative behavior very evident.

Making Simon and Baz canonically queer also made my slashy fangirl heart dance. Here’s Aja again:

Unlike actual slashfic, Carry On lacks the anxiety of proving itself. Because fanfiction exists in a direct relationship to its canon, it tends to carry the weight of an argument. Especially when that argument is a hard sell—like the idea that pairing the beloved hero in a gay relationship with his antagonistic rival would be the best thing for both of them—fanfic is always having to prove itself, over and over, not only as it exists in a culture that dismisses it, but as it exists in contradiction and often opposition to the word of the author.

In Fangirl, that anxiety was transferred directly to Cath herself, to the fangirl who worried her hobby wasn’t enough. That she wasn’t enough.

But at the end of that book, she’d come into her own, acknowledging that her fanfiction needed no justification—just as Rowell herself did somewhere along the way. The result is that Carry On doesn’t have that anxiety, that sense of urgency; and because it doesn’t have that anxiety, it has the luxury of unfolding the relationship between Simon and Baz as naturally and organically as the plot itself.

In other words, it has the luxury of being canon, of being taken for granted. Because after all, why shouldn’t our heroes be queer? Why shouldn’t it be a queer redemption narrative that saves us?

As a Harry/Draco fan, as someone who longed and argued for this very thing in fanfiction for years, seeing this narrative play out in the pages of Carry On, so familiar and yet so new, is inexpressibly meaningful and delightful—and even though I know fanfiction doesn’t need validation, it’s so, so deeply validating. It’s the stuff slash fangirl dreams are made of.

(By the way, Aja, if you find this, I’m sorry for quoting you so extensively here, but I agree with so much of what you said that I’d just have ended up paraphrasing you anyway, and you put things better than I would have.)

Although I was never much of a Harry/Draco shipper (my fondness for bickering couples notwithstanding, I’m not a huge Enemies To Lovers fan; I prefer Friends To Lovers), as a frequent slash shipper, I understand all too well “the anxiety of proving itself.” Some recent comments by Anthony and Joe Russo, the director of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, have sparked a lot of conversation in the Marvel fandom, particularly among Steve/Bucky shippers. A Tumblr user lamented:

What I hate about heteronormativity is that you will get the most mind-blowing, realistic, palpable chemistry between two characters of the same gender in a show and the writer/cast will bend over backwards to pretend it’s in the fans heads or make out it’s some amusing and impossible joke, yet you’ll get the dullest, most rubbish, forced, stilted ‘romance’ shoved in your face and be expected to just go with it because hey, it’s a man and a lady who are white and moderately attractive, of course it’s true love. Of bloody course.

In this particular case, the Russos have been more respectful of slash fans than implied by this statement (which was general, not referring specifically to the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Captain America films), even stating that while they personally regard Steve and Bucky’s relationship as “two brothers,” they encourage others to interpret it however they want and do not intend to explicitly define it within the films. At the same time, however, they have stated that “we can only keep Cap romantically uninvolved for so long.” Thanks to the unbalanced gender ratio of Marvel’s films, that leaves a rather limited selection of female characters that Cap even could fall in love with. Assuming they don’t introduce a new character or somehow make Peggy young again, there are precisely four, by my count: Sharon Carter (the most likely candidate, due to their history in the comics, but not without problems due to the ick factor of her blood relationship with Peggy), Natasha Romanoff (unlikely – the Russos themselves have stated Steve and Natasha’s relationship is platonic in the films, plus she’s supposed to be mooning over Bruce for reasons understandable only to Joss Whedon and her romantic history in the comics is much stronger with Bucky), Maria Hill (to be honest, I’d prefer this over either of the first two), or Wanda Maximoff (I’d prefer this, too, but it’s probably unlikely due to her history with Vision in the comics.) Steve and Natasha’s relationship is the only one of the four that comes even remotely close to the deep intimacy that Steve and Bucky share. Even his relationship with Peggy, as much as I love it, was fleeting by comparison – a few years, tops, versus a lifetime of familiarity. And yet I guarantee you, the possibility of making Steve romantically involved with Bucky was never given a moment of serious consideration by Marvel Studios.

From a financial perspective, ignoring Steve and Bucky’s chemistry and making them “brothers” rather than lovers is unquestionably a good decision. Two of the biggest markets – Russia and China – might go so far as to ban the film if it has gay themes. But from a storytelling perspective, is it really?

Comics Alliance made a very salient point:

[I]f Bucky Barnes were a woman, this would be a love story, played out with all the same narrative beats. If Peggy were the brainwashed assassin kept frozen through the decades, this movie would definitely end in a kiss. Everything about the love, pain, and intimacy of the Steve/Bucky relationship on the big screen is typical of a romance, and that’s something fans are right to respond to — something the filmmakers may even be playing into, though surely not with any formal sign-off from Disney.

[…] Imagine this; if we lived in a world that had no hang-ups about same-sex relationships, no hate, no prejudice towards the idea of two men or two women together; do you doubt for a second that this movie would actually be a romance?

If everything else about this movie were the same, but we were different, wouldn’t it make sense for Steve and Bucky to kiss?

This movie looks about as gay as it’s allowed to be. One day we’ll get a movie like it that’s actually gay enough.

Anyway, suffice to say that as a slash fangirl, I’m used to having to “prove” my preferred ships and I’m long past the point where I expect (or even necessarily want) my shipping preferences to be validated by canon. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t really wonderful when they are! So thanks, Rainbow Rowell. Maybe you can do Sirius/Remus next? 😉

Nice as it was to have some of my issues with the Harry Potter series “corrected” in Carry On, it also had a bit of an unintentional meta-narrative. One, incidentally, that is shared by some of the Harry/Draco fics I’ve read, and which was one of the reasons I could never really get into the ship. In order to make Draco anything other than a racist git, many Harry/Draco shippers end up making him sort of right about some things. In Carry On, evil!Dumbledore wanted a revolution, particularly in the treatment of certain other magical species. Powerful Mage families like Baz’s opposed his reforms. While the methods evil!Dumbledore used to accomplish his goals were obviously wrong, the goals themselves seemed fairly admirable to me. Unfortunately, it’s not really made clear that the traditionalist elements won’t just roll back the reforms after evil!Dumbledore is defeated. Baz himself seems to make peace with the fact that he’s alive as a vampire when his very traditional mother literally killed herself rather than become one but there’s not really any indication that the rest of the World of Mages has come to a similar peace with the existence of other magical creatures. So while I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to call the book “problematic” as certain corners of fandom are wont to do, I think the meta narrative could have been better considered in what is otherwise a largely progressive story.

In addition to issues specific to the Harry Potter series, Rowell also took on some common yet stupid Chosen One tropes. One that stood out to me was Agatha Wellbelove’s decision to break up with Simon near the start of the book. The hero is supposed to get the girl, but Agatha doesn’t want to be “the prize at the end” and she tells Simon as much to his face when she dumps him. You go, girl! Many people seem to have found Agatha annoying and I did myself as several points, especially when she was mooning around after Baz mainly in an effort to horrify her parents (which Baz called her out on, go Baz), but overall I thought she was a good character. Not good in the sense of admirable,  necessarily – she is undeniably selfish and cowardly – but realistic. I liked her ending (especially the way she chose to honor Ebb) a lot.

In fact, the ending (meta-narrative issues notwithstanding) was excellent in general. One of the themes through much of the book was how dehumanizing it is to be “the Chosen One” and be seen always for what you’ve done or are supposed to do rather than who you are. I really liked that Rowell dealt with the aftermath of both the dehumanization Simon experienced and the trauma he (and his friends) went through. No jumping 15 years into the future to see the adorable next generation – Simon and his friends are actually shown having to learn to cope with what they’ve been through. There’s even therapy involved!

Finally, I wanted to put in a good word for the magic system, which is all about the power of words – literally. In Simon’s world, spells are phrases, and their power waxes and wanes with their popularity in the Normal world. For example, “up, up, and away” is a levitating spell, “ladybird, ladybird, fly away home” gets used to turn away an unwelcome visitor, and “these aren’t the droids you are looking for” gets used to conceal something in plain sight. I thought it was clever and fun.

So, to sum up, I thought Carry On did a lot of things very well and some other things not so well. It never grabbed me the way that the Harry Potter series did (from the very first sentence even) and it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll end up devoting a couple years of my life to the fandom, as I did for Harry Potter. I missed Rowling’s whimsical touch and she had six more books to develop characters and relationships, so they felt more fully fleshed. However, I still found it a very enjoyable read, with some great lines and much to love in the characters. (Penny was my favorite.)

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

The Deal Book Review

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Review:

The whole time I was reading The Deal, I was thinking that the style of writing seemed familiar, and when I finished, I finally realized that it’s because Elle Kennedy is also the co-author (with Sarina Bowen) of Him, which I read and reviewed last summer. D’oh! Even the same sport.

The Deal uses the same alternating point of view as Him, and follows Hannah Wells, a music major, and Garrett Graham, a star college hockey player.

I enjoyed Him, but I liked The Deal more. As I’ve mentioned, I imprinted on The Cutting Edge at a rather impressionable age, so I adore a good bickering couple, and Garrett and Hannah’s bickering was lots of fun to read and never descended into mushiness after they got together. I also have to say that I ended up really liking Garrett. He comes off initially as a bit of a cocky, arrogant douchebag, but proves himself to be a real sweetheart and much more respectful of women than he seemed at first.

I am not a big fan of rape as a backstory (or abuse either, for that matter), but I thought it was handled okay in The Deal and it didn’t have me rolling my eyes or anything. I just wish it wasn’t such a common trope in New Adult romances.

Overall, a pretty enjoyable read.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

A Seditious Affair Book Review

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Review:

The historical m/m romance novels of KJ Charles have been one of the best literary discoveries of 2015 for me. I especially enjoyed her novel Think of England and also really enjoyed A Fashionable Indulgence, the first in her new Society of Gentlemen series. A Seditious Affair is the second in the Society of Gentlemen series and I have to say I liked it even better than the first.

Each book in the series deals with a different couple from the set of friends who make up the titular “society of gentlemen,” but while they’re technically standalone, I think you’ll enjoy the series more if read in order. The first few chapters of A Seditious Affair deal with some of the same events as A Fashionable Indulgence, but in much more concise fashion, so I think the conflict would seem somewhat easily resolved and unsatisfactory if you hadn’t read the first book.

A Seditious Affair dealt heavily with some of the same politics and social issues that I enjoyed about A Fashionable Indulgence, but I also related more strongly to the main characters – proper, dutiful Dominic Frey and gruff, principled Silas Mason – than I did to the well-meaning but somewhat feckless Harry and the sharp-witted dandy Julius of of A Fashionable Indulgence. Despite (probably because of, actually) the two men’s differences, I felt the emotional connection between them more strongly than Harry and Julius – Dominic and Silas were a true meeting of minds, as well as physical attraction and sexual compatibility, and both of them changed and influenced the other over the course of the story.

The sex scenes were also super hot, despite the use of some rather unsexy (to me) period slang. I’ve mentioned in the past that I enjoy Dom/sub elements in romance, but often feel a little uncomfortable with Dom/sub relationships between men and women simply because of the existing social power imbalance between the sexes. With m/m Dom/sub, that problem ceases to exist, and any potential discomfort due to class inequality issues was also handily avoided in this book by the fact that the lower class man was the Dom and the gentleman the sub.

KJ Charles also has a gift for creating intriguing and memorable secondary characters that make you want to learn more about them. I’m delighted that we’ll finally be getting some insight into the enigmatic David Cyprian in the next book in the series, A Gentleman’s Position, and the revelation that Will Quex was born Susannah makes me hope we’ll learn more about him as well (a strong possibility, luckily, since he and his partner, Jon Shakespeare, are friends of Cyprian).

A great read!

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

 

The Martian Book Review

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Review:

I’ve been reading a lot of romance lately, so I decided it was time for a change of pace. While I was contemplating what to try next, the Sebastian Stan fans on my Tumblr dashboard (of which I have many, thanks to my current obsession with the Captain America films, where he plays Bucky Barnes*) started sharing a new viral trailer for his upcoming film, The Martian, also starring Matt Damon, Jeff Daniels, and Jessica Chastain.

I’ve heard great things about the book, which was written by Andy Weir and originally self-published, and it’s been on my to-read list for awhile, but then one of the aforementioned Sebastian Stan fans bumped it up to the #1 spot it by describing it, essentially, as the “square peg in a round hole” scene from Apollo 13 expanded into an entire book:

To which I was like, “heck yeah, baby!” because that is my favorite scene in one of my favorite movies, and so I bought The Martian and started reading it straightaway.

Bonus: it turned out to be only $5.99 on Kindle! Yay! So many traditionally published books try to charge $9.99 or even more for the Kindle edition, which is just stupid. I’m not going to pay as much as a paperback for an ebook. But $5.99 is within reason.

So, the plot of the book is that humanity has managed to get its act together with NASA funding (hint, hint) enough to do manned missions to Mars. On the third mission, the astronauts are forced to abort the mission six days into their time on Mars due to a powerful dust storm, but during the evacuation, astronaut Mark Watney, the mission’s botanist and mechanical engineer, gets hit by a flying antenna and is presumed killed. The crew attempts to recover his body, but are forced to leave the planet before they can find it.

However, Mark’s not dead, and once he regains consciousness and realizes what happened, he sets about figuring out how to survive alone on Mars for four years until the fourth mission can come along to rescue him.

The description of the book as the “Square peg in a round hole” scene from Apollo 13 was not misleading at all. I was in nerd heaven, especially reading Mark’s log entries. Although I’m not enough of a nerd to know how accurate some things were, the stuff I knew anything about seemed reasonably accurate, and I thought that Weir did a really good job overall of describing extremely technical stuff in an understandable and entertaining way.

In addition to the delightful nerdiness, the story was really tense and gripping from beginning to end, and very hard to put down. The great pacing and consistent tension was especially impressive considering that a lot of what Mark had to do was pretty damn mind-numbing. Crossing 3000+ kilometers of barren wasteland at 25 km/hr? Kill me now.

Where I thought the novel came up a bit short was the characterization. You get a pretty strong sense of Mark’s personality – as you’d expect, since you’re basically reading his thoughts (via the log entries) for most of the book – but the other five astronauts and the various NASA staff were less well defined and the dialogue between them was very basic and functional at best. However, this isn’t exactly an unusual complaint with hard sci-fi novels, and I thought the great pacing and fascinating survival story made up for it.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

I definitely plan to see the movie, which is scheduled to be released October 2, 21015, and am now really looking forward to it. Here is the official trailer:

[Read more…]

A Fashionable Indulgence: A Society of Gentlemen Novel Book Review

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Review:

Think of England, by KJ Charles, was one of my favorite reads in 2015 so far, so I was excited to see that she has a new series coming out, and even pre-ordered the first book, which I rarely do.

A Fashionable Indulgence, the first in her new Society of Gentlemen series, is a Regency-era m/m romance with many of the same things I enjoyed about Think of England. It’s plotty and heavily influenced by the politics and social issues of the period (you may want to scan the Wikipedia article on the Peterloo Massacre to get a refresher course before diving in), has lots of witty dialogue, and an appealing cast of characters, including several excellent female characters.

The story centers on Harry Vane, a young man who was raised by radical, reformist parents but never shared the strength of their convictions. After the deaths of his parents in a cholera outbreak, Harry discovers his father was actually the son of a noble family, and he is set to inherit a fortune… if he drops his radical beliefs and marries an appropriate young lady. Harry is quite happy to do both in exchange for a more safe and comfortable life, and his newly discovered cousin, Lord Richard Vane, takes him under his wing and convinces his friend, the dandy Julius Norreys, to help remake Harry into the image of a proper gentleman. His dreams for his new life almost immediately get complicated: Harry, who is bisexual, thinks Julius is just about the most beautiful person he’s ever seen, and as he gets deeper into the world of gentlemen, he realizes increasingly that neither his attraction for other men nor his political beliefs can be quite so easily cast aside.

As with KJ Charles’s other series, The Magpie Lord, I did not think the UST was as strong between Harry and Julius as it was between Archie and Daniel in Think of England, so I didn’t feel as much emotional connection to their actual relationship, but her characterization is excellent, both for Harry and Julius themselves and for the well-developed supporting cast of characters. (It appears that the Society of Gentlemen series will focus on a different one of Lord Richard’s friends and relations in each novel, and I’m pretty eager to learn more about several of them, including Dominic Frey, who will be the focus of the next novel in the series, A Seditious Affair.) The period atmosphere and details were also excellent, and inspired me to look up more about the reform movements of the period.

A very enjoyable read!

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Him Book Review

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Review:

Him, by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy, is a cute and mostly fluffy m/m romance about two long-time friends, one gay and one straight, who meet again four years after an ill-advised drunken hookup nearly destroyed their friendship.

Him has great reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, which is what attracted my attention in the first place, but I found it enjoyable but not particularly memorable. Probably I should have guessed as much before buying it. It is a Friends To Lovers story, which I enjoy in both m/m and m/f, but it’s also modern (I generally prefer historicals and sff), plus the main characters are both star hockey players, a sport about which I know even less than most. There was nothing wrong with it, it just wasn’t for me. However, clearly lots of other people adored it (including, I was interested to note, a bunch of people who claimed it was their first m/m ever), so if you like modern and/or sports romances, give it a shot.

Bonus points for it not being a gay-for-you scenario (Jamie does realize he’s bisexual and can be turned on by guys other than Wes) and for switching.

My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)

The Song of Achilles Book Review

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Review:

I’ve loved the legends of the Trojan War since I was a young girl reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, but I have to confess, I’ve never been a big fan of Achilles. The qualities that made him Aristos Achaion , the greatest of the Greeks, are not, for the most part, the sort of qualities that endear him so much to modern audiences, let alone a pacifist like myself. Still, as the greatest of the Greek heroes who fought in the war, his story is inescapable, and there are many parts I love.

One of these is his relationship with kind, gentle Patroclus, which brings out the best in Achilles and, in the end, the worst as well. The exact nature of their relationship has been a matter of controversy for hundreds of years, if not thousands. Close friends or lovers? Personally, I lean towards the latter camp, and so, it’s clear, does Madeline Miller, whose debut novel, The Song of Achilles, tells their story as a love story through the eyes of Patroclus.

Reading the novel, I was struck by how many passages from it I already knew. The most famous, of course:

I could recognize him by touch alone, by smell; I would know him blind, by the way his breaths came and his feet struck the earth. I would know him in death, at the end of the world.

But also a bunch of others that I wouldn’t have guessed came from this novel, like:

Perhaps it is the greatest grief, after all, to be left on earth when another is gone.

and

“Name one hero who was happy.”

“You can’t.”

and

Fame is a strange thing. Some men gain glory after they die, while others fade. What is admired in one generation is abhorred in another. We cannot say who will survive the holocaust of memory.

Despite the lyrical style, The Song of Achilles was an easy read. There were a few points where I thought the story or characterizations were a little over-simplified, most notably the council scene from Book 9 of the Iliad, which is one of my favorites, but overall, I thought it did a good job of sticking to the legends while also managing to give enough of a different perspective to be absorbing, despite how well I know the story.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Last Will and Testament Book Review

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Review:

My m/m romance phase isn’t out of my system, but with it temporarily being satisfied by the millions upon millions of words of free Stucky slash fic on AO3, I decided to try poking around the New Adult genre a little to see if anything caught my fancy. I mention the Stucky because my decision to read Last Will and Testament was sort of inspired by a cute Stucky modern AU fic called Breadth Requirements with a really fun, snarky dynamic between a college student and a TA. (You don’t need to be familiar with the Captain America films to understand the fic, by the way.)  So I kind of thought of that when I saw that Last Will and Testament also featured a student/TA romance.

Our heroine, 18 year old college sophomore Lizzie Brandt, was a valedictorian back in high school, but hasn’t adjusted well to college life and has allowed her grades and attendance to slip while she parties and hooks up with the wrong guys. Then her life is turned upside-down when her parents are killed in a car accident and she becomes the sole guardian of her 13 and 7 year old brothers. She has to get her life back on track, fast, and begins to rely increasingly on the help of her Byzantine History TA, Connor Lawson.

Despite the grief and hardship Lizzie undergoes on her way to turning her life back around, this is a pretty light and enjoyable read, with a sweet (and yes, often snarky) romance. Despite some kind of annoying (for Lizzie and the reader) mixed messages early on due to his misgivings about starting a relationship with a student, Connor is a fundamentally good guy and it’s nice to see a nerd get the girl. It took me a little longer to warm up to Lizzie (knowingly hooking up with another girl’s boyfriend – even if the girl is a psychotic bitch – is a major turn-off for me), but she really did try hard to step up for her brothers, despite some bumps along the way.

Bonus points for representation: Lizzie is biracial (half-Filipino) and her friend Frankie seems to identify as pansexual. Speaking of Frankie, I also liked that Lizzie had two really close and supportive female friends, which helped offset the overly stereotypical subplot about Lizzie’s hook-up partner’s psychotic bitch of a girlfriend.

My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)

Unteachable Book Review

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Review:

It’s kind of funny what a 180 degree turn Unteachable was from my last summer read, despite being very similar in genre and setting. I identified pretty strongly, maybe even overidentified, with the characters of Fangirl. I have almost nothing in common with the characters of Unteachable.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book a great deal. The main character and narrator, Maise O’Malley, is pretty severely fucked up – major daddy issues thanks to the father she’s never met, as well as a mother who’s a meth addict and dealer and who turns tricks on the side – but she’s vibrant and alive in a way that makes it pretty clear why men in general (and one man in particular) are drawn to her.

Her personality leaps off the page via vivid, impressionistic prose. In fact, I bought the book kind of on a whim, without checking the sample like I usually do, but I knew I was going to enjoy it as soon as I read the opening line:

When you’re eighteen, there’s fuck-all to do in a southern Illinois summer but eat fried pickles, drink PBR tallboys you stole from your mom, and ride the Tilt-a-Whirl till you hurl.

Maisie is cynical, blunt (“Thanks, Dad, for leaving a huge void in my life that Freud says has to be filled with dick“), and often funny, but desperate to escape her small Illinois town and sad, messed up life. In the way of smart, creative teenagers everywhere, she swings sometimes into melodrama and pretentiousness, but she’s also very raw and honest in a way that makes you feel for her, and root for her even when she’s making mistakes. Her dream is to direct films, and she experiences the world in a very immediate way, like a series of overlapping but often fleeting sensations, so the book is filled with evocative sensory descriptions, from the steamy sex scenes to the sights and sounds and smells of the carnival. I tore through it really feeling like I was experiencing the world through someone else’s eyes.

It was a bit less clear why Maise felt so drawn to Evan Wilke, the stranger she hooks up with at a carnival shortly before the start of her senior year of high school, who’s soon revealed to be her new Film Studies teacher. Neither Maise nor Evan is shy about admitting the lure of forbidden fruit for both of them, but the extent to which their relationship exists outside of mutual lust, mutual fucked-upedness, and the irresistability of the taboo is left a little ambiguous. (Deliberately, I suspect.)

The book ends hopefully, but if you like your endings Happily Ever After, it’s the sort of hopeful ending you don’t want to examine too closely with a realistic eye. As someone 10 or 15 years older than the intended audience of the “New Adult” genre, there were several things that set my alarm bells clanging about Maise and Evan’s real prospects for a happy future together, including, most alarmingly, the revelation that Maise wasn’t the first student Evan had slept with. (In real life, girls, this is the point where you run the fuck away and don’t look back.) By the end, it seemed clear to me that despite the 15 year age gap between them, Maisie was in many ways the more mature of the two of them and the one who really knew what she wanted out of life and was willing to do what it took to get it. Evan finally took action toward the life he wanted for himself at the end, but will it be enough to change it or will he continue to drift? The book leaves the question open, and frankly you could easily make an argument for either outcome.

In short, it’s not a comfortable book with characters or actions that are easily slotted into neat pigeonholes, but if you’re okay with complicated people in complicated and not always healthy relationships making complicated and not always healthy choices, it’s an intense and absorbing read that you may find will stick with you for a long time.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)