Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Circe

CirceCirce by Madeline Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m a big time Greek mythology fan, to the point I seriously considered adding a second major (Classics) in college. I’ve been fascinated by Greek mythology, and all its webs and dramas, since somewhere around second grade. But it’s rare to see something new in a genre defined by how old it is–a major called “Classic” is practically off-limits to modern writers.
But Madeline Miller is braver than most. Her first book, The Song of Achilles, was masterful, re-spinning and recontextualizing The Iliad with so much more depth and nuance. Circe is something totally different, but Miller brings the same depth and love to it.
Circe, for those who have forgotten their dusty mythologies, is the witch who shows up in the Odyssey, romances Odysseus, and turns his men into pigs. And that’s about all there is to it. Witchy, but like a sexy witch (as she is often shown in the movie versions of the tale).
In Madeline Miller’s hands, a different story emerges. Admittedly, sometimes it is slow to bloom, but that’s just it: this story isn’t “woven” (as so many “women’s tales” of Greek mythology are); it is planted, and harvested, sucked dry of the essentials and then added to a pinch of magic to transform into something new, scary, and wonderful.
Circe’s story begins with her baby godhood, which is where the story flounders. After all, how can you talk about the first years of an eternal creature? It takes awhile to get anywhere, but be patient. Soon you’ll start seeing other great characters from myth, and they take on new colors and attitudes. It’s like a watercolor that you are gently watching bloom and become vivid as the paint moves across it. Give it time to develop and unwind.
And if you aren’t as fresh on your Greek mythology references, there is a very handy concise guide in the back!

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Review: The Last Adventure of Constance Verity

The Last Adventure of Constance Verity (Constance Verity #1)The Last Adventure of Constance Verity by A. Lee Martinez
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s obvious now; we need a new genre: lovable snark. The premier books in this genre would be Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a selection of Terry Pratchett books including Going Postal!, and The Last Adventures of Constance Verity.

Connie Verity was blessed/cursed at a young age with a life of adventure. But saving the universe and near-constant adventure has lost its fun, and Connie wants out, even if it means going on yet another adventure.

Connie is endearing, and the endless lists of her past adventures are charming. But the part that makes Last Adventures sing is Connie’s relationship with her best friend/sometime-sidekick Tia, an utterly unremarkable normal person and the most important figure in Connie’s life.

The book is layered and layered in snark and levity (my favorite line? “The walls were lined with objects that cost a small fortune, except for the ones that cost a large fortune.”), but don’t let that distract you from its deeper themes: what is destiny? What is the role of free will? What’s the point of it all?

The purpose of this book, it seems, for me, at least, was a much-needed release valve from real life. Ahh, sweet, ordinary life.

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Review: The Escape Artist

The Escape ArtistThe Escape Artist by Brad Meltzer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m a big fan of Meltzer’s in general, but his presidential-themed novels are unique because of the way they balance neat historical facts with action-packed adventure. So when I heard he was coming out with a new, similar-but-different story, I bought The Escape Artist the first week.
The book is about Zig, a mortician with the tragic but important job of putting the military dead to rest, who–because of fate and Plot Bunnies–stumbles upon a deadly conspiracy that reunites him with Nola, a girl with a similarly tragic and horrible backstory who reminds Zig of his dead daughter. The book, while ostensibly a mystery-thriller, is mostly about grief and death, and how people handle it differently.
And…it’s just ok.
Death shows up in so many forms in this book that you could write a college essay on it without even trying too hard. It’s everywhere. And while that’s a good theme, the poignancy of the (many) tragedies doesn’t balance well against the actiony drama, in my opinion. I just struggled to like it and to get through it.
It retains a dash of that historical information that I like so much about his other books, but it is way less important to the story and therefore feels just like random tidbits that are tossed in because Meltzer thought they were cool (and often, they are!). The mortician’s work is very interesting, but the nature of an adventure is he can’t spend much time doing his regular job. Without spoiling anything, I can say the plot falls into a trope that I find really frustrating in mysteries, where things end just a little too pat and tidy to be believable, and that takes away from the excitement of the story. I also didn’t like the incredible brevity of the chapters, which were often maybe just three pages long. It was hard to get invested in the characters, as we flipped back and forth among them, when we had so little time with each initially.
Don’t let this discourage you; Meltzer is a fine writer and his ideas here were fresh and interesting. They just didn’t add up to much for me–maybe I saw the rabbit up the magician’s sleeve.

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Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express (Hercule Poirot, #10)Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s interesting to read a mystery written in a different era—the “rules” of a mystery are so different now. The differences range from little things (no editor would allow Poirot to ponder that he’d like to speak to someone and then have the person appear in the next sentence without a transition) to big things, like I’m fairly sure no modern mysteries are written as a straightforward conversation with one person after another.

And yet, Christie is the champion of murder mysteries for good reason. While I struggled sometimes with the old-style format, she definitely kept me guessing, and I definitely did not see the ending coming! I had most of the same information as the hero Poirot, and yet he maintains his reputation as a sleuth with an incredible mind.

This was the first Poirot Christie mystery I’ve read, and it was a grand adventure, if a bit stuffy.

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Review: Lost Solace

Lost SolaceLost Solace by Karl Drinkwater
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In space, you are all alone—unless you have a hacked military AI to keep you company as you explore a strange ship.

Lost Solace is dominated by just two characters: Opal, a tough escaped space marine with lots of secrets, and her ship, which Opal has named Clarissa. This is a clever plot that shrinks the vastness of the decisions into something individual.

We don’t know much about the situation as the story opens: there’s a girl, a ship, and a weird, misshapen, alien ship floating near a black hole. And Opal is crazy enough to jump on board. The story chases down dark hallways full of creepy crawlies, dashed away from the space marines in close pursuit, and meanders down to find secrets against a ticking clock.

The aliens were my favorite: juicy and unique, haunting and definitely run-away-worthy. I struggled a bit with some of the sentence structure and grammar, though that may be because of the author’s Britishness against my American ear. By the end, I liked the plot a lot, but in the middle it sagged a little and some things that seemed obvious to me as the reader took too long for the very clever Opal to piece together. The action in the last act is truly top-notch, though, and I’m glad I stuck with it!

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We Need More Goodness (and Less Happytime Murders)

My husband giggled when he turned on the video trailer for the new Melissa McCarthy movie The Happytime Murders. He may have laughed once or twice while it played. Me? I didn’t. I went to bed angry.

(Here’s the trailer if you want to see how you’ll feel about it.)

That trailer filled me with a rage I did not expect, and it took me two days to formulate why I was so viscerally upset.

Here’s what I finally decided: I want there to be some scrap of positivity, of decency, of just sweet-natured happiness left in the world.

For me–and many others–the Muppets in general represent that kind of cheer. Sure, bad things happen sometimes, but even the “bad guy” characters aren’t really always that bad, and the Muppets are kind, compassionate, funny, and just generally nice. They are wholesome. They are good.

But we’re in an era of “grimdark” right now. The Happytime Murders is totally in line with a lot of other cultural moments right now: it’s gritty, it shows the seedy “truth” to our happy Muppet-esque characters, it goes out of its way to dirty and otherwise shit on that wholesome goodness.

Some people are into that, I guess. But I am wholeheartedly NOT.

My real-world feels particularly “grimdark” lately, and all the media I consume seems to lean grimdark even if I don’t want it to, and I can’t turn on the news without hearing yet another terrible thing that shows that there just isn’t much wholesome goodness in the world. I’m already tired and gross and brought low by the cumulative weight of all of this real stuff—why in the hell would I want to throw down like a pig in the sty and get even dirtier?

This might seem inconsistent when you realize I wrote a zombie apocalypse book. Isn’t that also a way of making things darker than they really are?

But no, I wrote a book that’s as funny as it is scary, and gets downright goofy. You can make zombie decisions! How can that ever be taken seriously?

But other movies have taken “tortured” looks at childhood loves and you don’t hate them?

First, how do you know I don’t? Second, okay, I do count Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as one of the pivotal movies from my childhood.

(Let’s just take a minute to appreciate how adorably stupid and straightforward that movie trailer is… )

And yes, murders and scary things do happen in that. But you know what? Every single cartoon character in that movie acts in a way that is completely consistent. Bugs is a lighthearted asshole; Mickey and Minnie are in love. They are still who they are. There’s no need to show any seedier underbellies than what already exists in their toon world. And it’s a great movie and a hilarious comedy!

What I want is more goodness.

My favorite movie so far this year has been The Greatest Showman.

It is admittedly not the best movie ever made. The elephants are a little rough and animated, the story is pretty obvious from the trailer alone, and it can seem a little hokey, sure. It’s watered-down and probably not all that closedly hewn to the real story of P.T. Barnum, and glosses over some aspects of how the “freaks” were treated.

But it is pure. It is so pure and wholesome and sweet. It has incredible music, colors, and light, and it just a wonderful, happy, uplifting movie. I felt good when I left the theater. (I definitely can’t say that after watching Infinity War.) It was so incredibly nice to feel good for a change, to feel like the world wasn’t such a bad place and that it’ll all work out okay in the end.

I want more of that.

The Happytime Murders can go flush down a toilet where they belong.

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Review: Do I Make Myself Clear?

Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well MattersDo I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters by Harold Evans
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Questions for Mr. Evans’ editor:
1) How intimidating was it to edit a book about quality writing? That must have been a great deal of pressure! The horror, had you let slip an errant comma! So I’m sure you paid quite close attention to the book. Which leads me to ask…

2) How hard was it to deal with someone so pugnacious that he collected, for years, sentenced he found abhorrent solely so he could one day combine them into a book to tell people they were so very wrong? I get it, they are good examples to illustrate his points. I am just guessing at the type of person Evans must be to have that kind of intensity.

3) can you explain to me why you would let Evans write a book about writing—presumably targeted to those who don’t write and/or read well—with such high-minded jargon? I mean, I’m a pretty consistent reader, and I’m a writer and editor—what I’m saying is I know words, and yet the “expensive” 10-dollar words Evans used caused even me to pause. If I didn’t read it easily, how could you expect the non writer to breeze through that horrible introduction?

4) How did you ever let the man publish so much political dreck? Honestly, it’s a problem. If he had wanted to write a book about politics and his opinions, he should have done so. But he didn’t. He wrote about writing, and I wanted to read about writing, so why is so much of the book NOT about writing?
Think of it this way: if you pay for a basketweaving class, would you get annoyed if the teacher spent most of the class droning on about how much he hates a particular pizza joint? Of course you would! That’s not why you’re there and he’s wasting your time.
See, editor, I think easily a third of this book is unnecessary political sniping. I want that shorter book, not this one.

That’s why I had to bail on this book. I can’t even tell if there is good advice in it. There very well may be, but it’s not really a book about writing. It’s a book about one man’s snobbishness, vanity, and dislike for the current political situation. It’s bloated and… well, not particularly clear.

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