"The Song of Achilles" is a retelling of the Illiad from the POV of Patroclus, Achille's cup-bearer and lover. I was a bit puzzled by the negative attitudes portrayed in the book toward homosexuality; I believe the ancient Greeks thought homosexuality to be a finer, nobler love, while heterosexuality was mainly for procreation: "Just close your eyes and think of Greece!"
There are some truly moving moments in the book. The sacrifice of Iphigenia was both horrific and surprising, which was surprising in itself because I know the story. In general, the author did a fine job of bringing the story to life, portraying the old heroes as ordinary men with ordinary faults and foibles. The narration was well-suited to the story.
The author does not try to explain away the interference of the gods with some sort of modern reinterpretation. The gods appear and disappear, wreaking havoc as per usual. The description of Thetis, Achilles' mother, is nicely chilling.
At times, the epic approach to the writing became a bit wearisome, but in general, the book was engaging and held my interest to the end. The author uses an obvious plot device at the end to allow Patroclus to continue to narrate the story after his death in battle, but that was forgivable. What do you do when your protagonists kaks it before the end of the story?
Kate Morton's novels are all about secrets, love, and the persistence of the past. Often, there's a complicated relationship between sisters as well. "The Secret Keeper" has these elements and more, involving a young woman's misadventure during WWII and the questions that persist after the woman's teenaged daughter witnesses her mother stabbing a man to death in 1961. Although I did guess the answer to the mystery before all was revealed, I nevertheless found this an engaging and satisfying read. The details of life during the London Blitz seemed convincing and well-researched. The characters were lovingly constructed and very believable. The narrator, whom I believe does all of Kate Morton's novels, does a great job.
"Shantaram" is an engrossing, puzzling, engaging, horrifying, funny, sad, frustrating and compelling story. I'll explain in a sec why I didn't give it five stars across the board. It's a dazzling accomplishment, but has its cons (pun intended) as well as its pros.
The story is told from the first-person POV of an escaped Australian convict, an armed robber and former heroin addict, who winds up in Mumbai (referred to as Bombay throughout). He lives in a huge slum for a while, acting as a poor man's medic, gets thrown in jail where the conditions are beyond ghastly, then goes to work for one of the city's biggest crime lords, an Afghan Muslim named Abdul Khader Bai (spellings guessed at as obviously, I cannot refer to the written word here). Our hero, who is known as Lin in Mumbai, gets beaten up, tortured, stabbed, shot, and generally mauled so many times I lost count. He goes to Afghanistan during the war with the Russians with Khader Bai and barely escapes alive. He falls in love with the enigmatic Carla, who cannot love him in return. Many of his best friends are murdered or die in other horrible ways. Toward the end of the story, he volunteers to go off to another nasty war in Sri Lanka.
And I couldn't put it down. It was five parts, which means I lived with this guy for quite a long time. I had to find out what happened, and why things happened the way they did.
The one thing I kept wondering was: Why did Lin continue to pursue a life of crime? When he acted as stand-in doctor for his neighbors in the slum, he was adored by the community. As a member of the Khader Bai gang, he makes a lot of money, but is constantly in peril, always at risk, and suffers innumerable injuries and attacks. Through it all, he waxes lyrical, expressing his feelings with a sensitivity and deep feeling that the character never expresses to the people around him. And I wondered if the slum people were really as cheerful, honest, kind and generally boy-scoutish as they were portrayed. And how was it possible that Khader Bai, who engineered not only great crimes, but the grisly murders of many people (including a close friend who was loyal to him), could pontificate at length on the ethical meaning of the universe and condemn murder as "wrong"?
In short, I was skeptical about the veracity of the story, probably because it didn't ring true in my world. So I looked up the author, Gregory David Roberts. It turns out he is a former heroine addict who was imprisoned for armed robbery. He escaped from an Australian prison in 1980. As a criminal, he wore three-piece suits and always said "Please" and Thank you," becoming known as the "Gentleman Bandit." He lived in India for 10 years, making his living as a hard-core criminal, and was arrested in 1990 for smuggling heroine. He escaped again from an Australian prison, but decided against it and smuggled himself back in again so that he could try to reconcile with his family. He was tortured by guards in prison, and the book was twice destroyed by the guards. (I thought Australia was a civilized country?) There's a great picture of him on his website. He's a fit man who looks a bit like Crocodile Dundee with very long, blond hair. He teaches and has set up charitable foundations in Mumbai to help the city's poor. One of the more colorful authors, to be sure.
So I had to back away from my creeping doubts about veracity. The man lived the life he wrote about. All I wonder about now is: How much of the story was actually FICTION?
From the point of view of a satisfying story, I would have like Lin to have moved in a character arc from a life of crime to redemption. He learns many things in his adventures, but never seems to seriously consider another way of life. I found his decision to go to a war in Sri Lanka as a final repayment to someone who has saved his life unsatisfying as well. If he lives through the war, there is no indication that he then pursues a more redeeming lifestyle. He doesn't seem to feel remorse about the crimes he commits; it's just a matter of which side of the war you happen to be fighting on.
Another aspect of the storytelling I objected to was Lin's philosophizing at length about life, love, loss, friendship, violence, jail--you name it. A little of this is OK, but I thought there was a great deal too much of it. And the prose wandered into the purple more than once-- saved from risability by Humphrey Bower's perfect narration.
A word about Mr. Bower, as I gave him five stars. His ability to give a distinct "voice" to every character is beyond astonishing. His handling of different accents seems effortless, from American to Marathi. His sure touch enabled the author to tell the story with the depth and feeling and sensitivity that he must have envisioned.
My overall advice: read this book, unless you are squeamish about things like violence, filth, killing people, rats, etc. You will not regret it, and you will learn a great deal about knife fighting and making fake passports.
"Speaks the Nightbird" takes place in 1699 in an isolated settlement near "the Florida country." The depiction of early colonial living is highly evocative and seems well-researched. (I was particularly intrigued by the habit of some settlers of allowing wasps to build nests in their homes to eliminate mosquitoes.) The sights, smells, and inconveniences of life in a frontier settlement are so vividly described that I felt as though I had experienced it for myself. Even the style of the writing, while modern, carried a flavor of the way people talked (or at least wrote) in this period.
The characters are well-rounded and all-too-human. Even the villains of the piece emerge as fully-realized people with understandable (if deplorable) motivations. Most of the characters are neither bad nor good, but a mixture of the two, and even our heroes have their flaws.
Taken on its own without the fleshing-out of the environment and the characters, the story is fairly lurid, and I doubt if any little colonial settlement could have gathered in one place so many strange people and bizarre motivations. But in the context of this well-crafted tale, I was carried along quite willingly to the conclusion. I believed in the characters and I believed in the story. I was moved many times, and cared about the outcome. And while the heart of the story is a mystery, it was so well handled that I never divined the entire solution. (Guessing the solution, or trying to, is one of the reasons I read mysteries.)
The narrator does an excellent job, playing the different character's voices with precision and subtlety so that I was never really conscious of him, if that makes sense. Sometimes narrators irritate with quirks of phrasing or bad accents, but Edoardo Ballerini (new to me as a moderator) was perfect.
I highly recommend "Speaks the Nightbird" to anyone who craves an intelligent, engaging read as well as a mystery. The fact that it is also 30+ hours makes for an entirely satisfying experience.
There is no sparkly fairy dust or unicorns to be found in "Hard Magic." No vampires, either, which is a refreshing change, I suppose. "Hard Magic" is written much like the hard-boiled detective fiction of the 1940s--but there's more blood and gore. It should appeal to the action-thriller fan. I bought it because I thought it would be amusing to read a story that applied the detective-thriller style to a book about people with magical abilities--and it WAS amusing. I am not a fan of blood and guts, but this was sufficiently cartoony that it didn't trouble me much beyond the occasional wince.
Bronson Pinchot does a good job of narration, though he had some phrasing peculiarities that distracted me at times. (I would repeat the phrase in my mind until I found the emphasis I thought worked better. Then I'd have to scramble to catch up with the story. But that's me.)
Take my rating with a grain of salt: I am not a fan of the hard-boiled detective story, and I tend to avoid stories with a lot of violence. If you enjoy these, AND you enjoy fantasy, "Hard Magic" may be just your cup of guts 'n gore.
I realized quickly this was a YA book, but that doesn't stop me when the material is good. Sadly, the material wasn't good in this case. I got past the ridiculous notion that a strange, rich Indian gentleman could mysteriously appear and offer a teenaged girl a job tending a white tiger on his trip back to India and that her guardians would cheerfully and unsuspiciously agree to this arrangement. What finally felled me was the protagonist's constant whining about the handsome, enchanted prince being too good for her, too good-looking and too rich to be interested in little old her, etc. ad nauseum--then spurning him, to his endless (though preternaturally patient) puzzlement.
Young women shouldn't be encouraged to downgrade themselves like this, and they certainly shouldn't be led to believe that young men will put up with any of the ridiculous behavior portrayed in the story--giving him the cold shoulder, pulling away with no explanation, keeping secrets that clearly the other person needs to know. The story just encourages game-playing and self-loathing--not a recipe for a successful interpersonal relationship.
So I guess my feminism is showing. but I just could NOT finish this.
I was hoping for something like P.G. Wodehouse or Stella Gibbons. Sadly, it was just boring. I didn't finish it. I'm not sure I got past the first chapter--that's how stultifying it was.
I was somewhat surprised to realize how much I was enjoying this return to the adventures of the Brakebills grads. Though still young, Quentin and his cohorts have grown. They are no longer so self-absorbed and have shed some of the angst and arty cynicism of their student days. Quentin seems even to have developed empathy, compassion and a certain sense of responsibility.
Filori still resonates of Narnia, which I took as a deliberate homage, down to the Talking Animals--but Narnia was never like this. Quentin, Julia and some Filorians (including a Talking Sloth named Abigail) set off on a voyage reminiscent of "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," thinking they are sailing to a remote Filorian island to enforce taxation. Instead, Quentin finds himself on a quest to save magic itself from destruction at the hands of the old gods.
Some of the scenes are horrific, and in the tradition of this series, quite disturbing if you are more used to the gentle adventures of the Pevensey children. But the Filori stories are not for children; Grossman is unrelenting in his insistence that if magic is real and people can do magic, then magic is also going to be violent and terrifying at times, just as people sometimes are.
I found "The Magicians" an even better read than the first book in the series. The more mature characters were more sympathetic than their teenage selves. Because there was a clear purpose to Quentin's actions (he wasn't just thrashing around in self-destructive teenage misery), the story was more engaging and interesting. I'm looking forward to reading the next Filori book from Mr. Grossman (and hoping there IS one!).
Another satisfying read from Kate Morton. Familiar elements--an ancient castle, devoted sisters, thwarted love, murder, psychosis, and a dark and story night or two--woven into a complex tale that only begins to reveal its truth at the end of the book. The writing gets a bit purple at times--"the treetops ground their teeth"--but is in general vivid and well-done. The narrator is enjoyable, but sometimes the transition from one character's POV to another's is confusing. Nonetheless, an enjoyable read for the fan of escapist literature.
I am an unabashed M.C. Beaton fan, so bear that in mind. She may not be the best writer in the world, but she can spin a yarn, create wonderful characters, and do it with humor. The "Poor Relations" series, set in vaguely Victorian times, is about a group of poor relations who combat the humiliation heaped upon them by wealthy relatives by opening a top-drawer hotel in London, using the townhouse of one of their aristocrat-fallen-on-hard-times members. When they run into financial issues, someone is sent out to filch expensive trinkets from their relatives, which are fenced to obtain the necessary.
There's a bit of romance and some derring-do. Ms. Beaton is unromantic about the classism, prejudice, hypocrisy, and odd practices of Victorian England, which leads to some humorous and acerbic commentary.
Davina Porter is the perfect narrator, but she could read the phone book and I'd probably enjoy it.
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