Trickster Tales: Joanna M. Harris – The Gospel of Loki

As someone who loves mythology, I have wanted to read this retelling ever since it was published. But you know how it is. Sometimes it takes a reading challenge to finally give you that push to pick up certain books. I’m glad I did, because although I wasn’t blown away by this story, it did deliver pretty much what I had hoped for. A hilarious narrator, fun tales of gods doing mischief, and a large dose of Norse myths. What’s not to like?

THE GOSPEL OF LOKI
by Joanne M. Harris

Published by: Gollancz, 2014
Paperback: 302 pages
Series: Loki #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence:

The novel is a brilliant first-person narrative of the rise and fall of the Norse gods – retold from the point of view of the world’s ultimate trickster, Loki. It tells the story of Loki’s recruitment from the underworld of Chaos, his many exploits on behalf of his one-eyed master, Odin, through to his eventual betrayal of the gods and the fall of Asgard itself.

From the first moment I opened this book, I knew I would love the narration. The glossary of gods alone shows you just what kind of guy Loki is and whether you will like the style of his story. As he introduces his fellow gods, there is a certain amount of sass, and it is quite obvious whether he likes them or not so much.

The story begins at the very beginning. I mean the beginning of the worlds, explaining how Odin and the gods came to be, how Asgard was created, the big war between Asgardians and Ice Folk/Rock Folk/what-have-you – and of course, also of how Loki, a demon of Chaos, came to be one of the gods in Asgard. I found the beginning a bit slow because I wanted to read about Loki’s escapades, but of course for those to happen, he has to live in Asgard first. But worry not, it’s not a long book so this introductory phase isn’t long either.

Once Loki is established as a god in Asgard, things really get going. He’s not exactly accepted and he does his very best to antagonise his fellow gods. Sometimes, he’s just unlucky, but mostly, he’s just an idiot. What comes next are hilarious tales of Loki, sometimes accompanied by Thor, doing mischief and cleverly getting out of most of his scrapes. I adored the middle part of this novel and would have gladly read another 200 pages of Loki’s trips around the worlds, trying to bring upon the downfall of the other gods.

A large part of this book’s appeal comes from the narration and the writing style in general. You’d expect Norse gods to speak in a medieval-ish tone of voice, hearing them in your head with a Serious English Accent or something. But Joanne M. Harris went another way. These gods talk like modern people, cursing generously, insulting each other in highly original ways, and in generally really funny dialogue. Loki’s first person narration adds the cherry on top. Not only is it humorous, but his personality shines through on every page. Even though he behaves less than honorable on more than one account, you can’t help but love the guy.

The other characters are kind of flat, but hey, they’re gods and they’re stuck in their own skin. They are supposed to be one-dimensional. Thor with his brute strength, but not a lot of brains, Freyja the gorgeous but vain one, Odin, always mysterious and aloof… I wasn’t expecting them to have layers and their dominant personality trait actually made for some great comedy.

The ending, although generously foreshadowed throughout the whole book, was a bit of a let down. Loki tells you right from the start that the world is going to end, that the gods’ reign will come to a close, and he does his best to wiggle his way out of oblivion. Whether it’s him trying to gain a favor from his daughter Hel, goddess of the Underworld, or recruiting his other children, the Fenris wolf and the world serpent Jormungand, he’s always looking for a loophole out of the prophecy that foretells his (and all the other gods’) downfall.

I really enjoyed reading this book. It didn’t have a lot of depth but it was fun, it made Loki into an even more interesting character than he already was based on the Norse myths, and it was a quick read. I will definitely be checking out the sequel, The Testament of Loki, because boy am I curious  what other shenanigans our favorite trickster can get himself into.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good

Wonderland Without the Wonder: Colleen Oakes – Queen of Hearts

I love Alice in Wonderland but, strangely, I haven’t read a lot of retellings set in Wonderland. I really enjoyed Marissa Meyer’s Heartless but that’s the only one I can think of. So it was about time to take a trip to Wonderland and see what Colleen Oakes came up with for the Queen of Hearts’ origin story. While the author may have had many ideas, the execution was sadly lacking. In fact, this entire book turned out to be rather a mess.

QUEEN OF HEARTS
by Colleen Oakes

Published by: Harper Teen, 2014
Ebook: 319 pages
Series: Queen of Hearts Saga #1
My rating: 4,5/10

First sentence: “Get up, get up, you’re late!”

Only queens with hearts can bleed.
This is not the story of the Wonderland we know. Alice has not fallen down a rabbit hole. There is no all-knowing cat with a taunting smile. This is a Wonderland where beneath each smile lies a secret, each tart comes with a demand, and only prisoners tell the truth.
Dinah is the princess who will one day reign over Wonderland. She has not yet seen the dark depths of her kingdom; she longs only for her father’s approval and a future with the boy she loves. But when a betrayal breaks her heart and threatens her throne, she is launched into Wonderland’s dangerous political game. Dinah must stay one step ahead of her cunning enemies or she’ll lose not just the crown but her head.
Evil is brewing in Wonderland and maybe, most frighteningly, in Dinah herself.
This is not a story of happily ever after.
This is the story of the Queen of Hearts.

Sometimes when I rate a book badly, it’s because it made me angry. This is not the case here. In fact, this book left me completely emotionless and that’s almost worse. What a convoluted, incoherent jumble of ideas and plot strings, written as if for a 5-year-old, with the flattest, most one-dimensional characters ever. And yet… I don’t even care. Nothing about this book made me care, nothing made me feel anything, the most emotion it got out of me was an eye roll. But let’s start at the beginning.

Dinah is the Princess of Hearts, soon old enough to be coronated and rule alongside her father. Her father, the current King of Hearts, is not really a character, he is just an angry ball of shouting and violence. He has no personality, there is no reason for his behaviour, he simply hates Dinah and screams a lot. But at the start of this book, he brings a new member into the family. His illegitimate daughter Vittiore, half-sister to Dinah. This could have gone in such an interesting direction. Dinah is naturally shocked at the revelation of even having a half-sister, of realising her father betrayed her (now dead) mother with another woman, of having to welcome the result of that betrayal into her family. But let me tell you this: Vittiore doesn’t show up again in that book until almost to the end… So much for that.

Dinah is also in love with one of the servants of the palace, Wardley. They are already best friends, and from what can be gleaned from the writing, they are both in love with each other but haven’t admitted it yet. While I absolutely don’t think every YA book needs a romantic sub-plot, it would have been lovely to get one here. But no, the lovers are already established, even though they are only friends for the moment. The only reason I mention this is because this book has so very little plot that a romance would at least have given me something. Oh well.

The actual plot starts pretty late into the book, what with establishing all these potential sub-plots first that go nowhere, with a secret message that tells Dinah to find a certain woman. This woman, it turns out, is a prisoner in the Black Towers, and this was the only halfway interesting thing in this entire story. Dinah and Wardley have to devise a plan to get into the Black Towers, find this Faina Baker and learn what she knows, and get back out alive. That part would actually have been exciting to read, but this is where the over-simplified writing cuts in.

The author never shows us, always tells. And even when she tries to let her characters and their actions speak for themselves, she hurries to clarify afterward, in case us readers didn’t get it. It made me feel incredibly patronised, like Colleen Oakes doesn’t trust her readers to have some degree of intellect. Take this for example (emphasis mine):

“Don’t look down,” he instructed Dinah. She did, her eyes following a crooked crack in the ice. Buried up to tis waist, frozen forever, was a skeleton. Its bony fingers dug into the ice, the claw marks inches deep. The scream on its face was etched there for eternity, the jawbone hanging grotesquely from its hinge.
Dinah gave a shudder. “Was that…?”
Wardley pressed his body against the wall. “Done on purpose? Yes. I told you the Black Towers were a brutal place. Club Cards find many ways of extracting informtation, mostly by torture.

Why, thank you, dear Wardley, for clarifying to us dumb readers that Wonderland prison guards use torture on their prisoners to extract information. The skeleton and the hint of “having many ways to extract information” really weren’t enough for us to get it. I don’t know if other readers are as bothered by this as me, but this was not the only time the author talked down to her readers. It happens over and over and over.

And much in the same vein, all the “secrets” and potential plot twists are painfully obvious. It’s not only apparent who Faina Baker is once Dinah and Wardley talk to her, it’s also clear from the very beginning who’s pulling the strings behind all the other things that happen at the palace. Speaking of which… everything that does happen is so wildly unconnected and makes so little sense that I asked myself more and more why I was reading this. I didn’t care about the characters, or I didn’t get to know the ones properly that could have been interesting (Vittiore, Dinah’s mad hatter brother Charles) and the story goes absolutely nowhere.

When I say nowhere, I mean that quite literally. Because this book also doesn’t have an ending. It is not part one of a trilogy, it is part one of a novel that has simply been split into three physical books. But as there was very little plot in this one, the characters are idiots and the writing is for idiots, I will not be finding out how things continue for Dinah. The few nice ideas simply weren’t enough to convince me, and there was very little Wonderland feeling about this book. It was rather an original fantasy novel with names and places taken from Lewis Carroll. Again, I didn’t hate this book. It had too little substance for that.

MY RATING: 4,5/10 – Not good

2019 Retellings Challenge – Second Quarter Update

Another quarter year has gone by and, like every year, I wonder how it happened so fast. Summer is here, I already went on holiday in lovely Tuscany, and of course I spent many days reading on the beach. The Hugo finalists have taken much of my reading time, so I haven’t read as many retellins as I would have liked, but I am still excited for this challenge (visit Tracy at cornerfolds for more info) and I plan to finish the entire bingo card this year.

What I’ve Read

For “Middle-Eastern Myth” on the bingo card, I finally read S. A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass and I loved it. The setting and characters were wonderful, especially the complex political intricacies that Nahri and the readers have to learn about. I loved that there is so much more going on than first appears. Also, I have a super soft spot for Dara.

Brianna R. Shrum’s Never Never was a group read and while I thought it was well done, I wasn’t exactly blown away. A very slow, character-focused book that retells Hook’s side of Peter Pan’s story, it takes a rapid turn at the end, with characters changing their entire personality in a matter of seconds, just for the sake of a dramatic ending. I liked parts of, but very much disliked others, so all things considered, it was okay, but not great.

I fully expected to love Circe by Madeline Miller and I was not disappointed. While it took me a while to warm to Circe herself, once she grew up a bit and I liked her, I was all aflame for her story. You meet many well-known characters from Greek myths and you especially get to see the women’s stories in a different light. Although quite different from The Song of Achilles, this was another excellent retelling of a Greek myth!

Nikita Gill’s Fierce Fairytales just fell into my hands one day at the book shop. This gorgeous looking little book is filled with poetry, short stories, and illustrations, all based on fairy tales. As with any collections, there were stories I liked better than others. But it bothered me how very obvious and on the nose the author was with her message. I fully support the message that you should love yourself the way you are, that women shouldn’t be princesses waiting to be saved by a strong prince, the message of empowerment and female friendship – it’s all there and it’s all things I totally love and want to see more of in fiction. But the execution felt like someone preaching with a raised finger and I really don’t enjoy being preached to. So this was also only a good read, not a great one.

Reading plans for the next months

  • Helene Wecker – The Golem and the Jinni
    June’s group read on Goodreads and a book I’ve been meaning to read forever! I’m a quarter of the way in and I absolutely love it.
  • Helen Oyeyemi – Gingerbread
    I adore Oyeyemi’s style and my favorite book of hers was another retelling (Boy, Snow, Bird), so I’m very excited for this new one.
  • Joanne Harris – The Gospel of Loki
    I hope this book wins the poll for July group read but if it doesn’t, I’ll probably read it anyway.
  • Ellen Datlow (ed.) – Mad Hatters and March Hares
    For the Wonderland bingo square, I might just go with this anthology. It features some of my favorite authors and short stories are usually quick reads. Even if there are a lot of them.

General Thoughts

By now, it’s become a little harder finding books to fit on the bingo card. For example, I already read my Middle-Eastern myth book (The City of Brass), so I’m lucky the group read, The Golem and the Jinni, also fits into the “award-winning” square.
This quarter, my reading has really been focused more on the Hugo Awards than this challenge. Once Hugo voting is over (by the end of July), I can put my attention back to this challenge and also finally reading some of the new releases from 2019 which I’ve been buying. I swear those books look at me sadly just to make me feel guilty that I haven’t picked them up yet!

But I’m still enjoying this challenge and the more I read, the more I appreciate Tracy’s reading prompts. Some of them are vague enough that you can read many things (like the “Brothers Grimm” prompt) and some are more specific and make you go hunt for books which you may otherwise not have read, especially if you’ve already read the most obvious choice (“a retelling set in space” –> Marissa Meyer’s Cinder). The Goodreads group reads also push books onto me which I either wouldn’t have read or which I’ve been putting off for way too long. So I’m still very happy with the challenge and with my progress. I expect to catch up much more quickly once I’m done with the Hugo Award nominated books and stories.

Women Are More Than Wives and Witches: Madeline Miller – Circe

I was worried that Madeline Miller couldn’t possible write another retelling of a Greek myth that was as wonderful as The Song of Achilles. In this book, Circe gets to tell her own story and paints a rather different picture than the one I had – which, to be honest, was only that she was that witch who turned men into pigs when Odysseus landed on her island after the war of Troy. But boy, is there more to her story!

CIRCE
by Madeline Miller

Published by: Little, Brown and Company, 2018
eBook: 393 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.
Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.
But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

Let me say right away that if you don’t much like the beginning of this book – don’t give up! The story is narrated by Circe herself and begins with her early life as a child of Helios in the Titan’s Hall. Her life isn’t exactly nice at first. She is bullied and ridiculed by her siblings for her strange voice and her plain looks, she can’t for the life of her make her parents proud, and she seems to stay constantly in the shadows. Until she finds out that there is magic in her and that she has the power to change things. After she changes a human sailor whom she has fallen in love with, into a god, she goes further and uses her gift with magical plants to change the Mean Girl into a monster.

And so begins her exile. Helios, in rare agreement with Zeus, decides to banish his witchy daughter to the island of Aiaia. Now I expected a long and boring exile because as I metioned, my prior knowledge of Circe was that Odysseus met her after Troy… I didn’t know if she came up in any other Greek heroes’ stories. But whether it’s part of the actual myths or whether Miller simply decided to give Circe more to do, there was definitely enough adventure to keep me intrigued.

Yes, for a long time, Circe is still only a side character who witnesses great things from afar. But reading about the birth of the Minotaur, meeting Daedalus, and of course later on Odysseus and his men, never felt boring. Instead, I was excited to see these other characters portrayed so differently from what I’d read many years ago in books of mythology. Although they may only be side characters in Circe’s story, they all felt fleshed-out, like real people, and that was enough for me, even if we didn’t follow their adventures in this story.

Odysseus does of course eventually show up on Aiaia’s shores and he convinces Circe to turn his newly pig-shaped men back into humans. As for what happens after that – it was easily the best part of the novel so I’m not giving anything away. You should all have the pleasure of finding it out for yourselves. Only let me say that the ending was a rare kind of perfection that made me close the book with a content smile.

This is sold as a feminist retelling of a Greek myth and while it takes a while to become apparent, it definitely is. The women in this book – Circe, Medea, Penelope, Scylla, Pasiphae – may not all be likable (in fact, some are quite horrible), but they are all so much more than someone’s wife, some monster, some witch who is only there to further the plot of the great adventurers. Here, they have agency, they make choices for their own reasons, whether honorable or not. And I loved, loved, loved the friendship that grows toward the end of the book between two women. It was unexpected but I cherished it all the more for that.

The only thing I disliked was the beginning. I understand why it was the way it was, but reading about Circe’s bleak early life with almost nobody to hold onto, to call a friend, with nothing to do but watch gods and nymphs be gods and nymphs (and let me tell you, that gets tired quickly!) – it just wasn’t fun. Her coming into her own, finding out who she is, takes some time, but the journey is all the more rewarding for her sad beginnings.
All things considered, I loved this book to pieces, and I can’t wait for whatever myth Madeline Miller tackles next.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Hook’s Point of View: Brianna R. Shrum – Never Never

As someone who loves retellings and adores Peter Pan, it was time to try a new-to-me author who tackled the classic story of the boy who would never grow up. I haven’t read a lot of retellings from the point of view of the villain, but because Hook is enigmatic and wonderful and full of layers, I was quite curious to see how Shrum would tell his story.

NEVER NEVER
by Brianna R. Shrum

Published by: Spencer Hill Press, 2015
Paperback: 356 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: All children, except one, wish to stay young.

James Hook is a child who only wants to grow up. When he meets Peter Pan, a boy who loves to pretend and is intent on never becoming a man, James decides he could try being a child – at least briefly. James joins Peter Pan on a holiday to Neverland, a place of adventure created by children’s dreams, but Neverland is not for the faint of heart. Soon James finds himself longing for home, determined that he is destined to be a man. But Peter refuses to take him back, leaving James trapped in a world just beyond the one he loves. A world where children are to never grow up. But grow up he does. And thus begins the epic adventure of a Lost Boy and a Pirate. This story isn’t about Peter Pan; it’s about the boy whose life he stole. It’s about a man in a world that hates men. It’s about the feared Captain James Hook and his passionate quest to kill the Pan, an impossible feat in a magical land where everyone loves Peter Pan. Except one.

We all know Hook, the infamous pirate captain who lost his right hand to Peter Pan, who in turn fed it to the ever-ticking crocodile. We know Tiger Lily and the Lost Boys, the splendors of Neverland and the magic of fairy dust. But when this story begins, James Hook is a regular boy living in London, dreaming of being a famous pirate captain, but quite focused on making his father proud and showing good form. Getting into a good school, excelling at his tasks, putting serious effort into Growing Up. Until he meets Pan in Kensington Gardens one day…

Peter swiftly spirits Hook away to Neverland where he lives as a Lost Boy for a while. Although James is sceptical from the very beginning of Peter’s games and eating nothing but make-believe food, he goes along with it because he senses the darkness in Pan, the danger that lies in wait for him should he break Peter’s cardinal rule: Never Grow Up!

I thought Shrum’s choice to do a few time jumps was a great way to tell the story. James inevitably does grow up a bit because he simply isn’t the type to stay a boy forever, and of course he ends up captaining his very own pirate vessel. He also feels drawn to Tiger Lily, at first a little girl but soon a young woman who may develop more adult feelings as well.

While the writing is engaging throughout the novel, there is little to no plot for at least two thirds of it. Hook mostly struggles with the fact that he doesn’t know how to leave Neverland without Pan – and Pan refuses to help Hook in any way because, well, he’s growing up. The idea of Pan being anything but innocent is not new, so I didn’t find this fact to be very interesting. It’s clear that Peter has a dark side  (Peter is mostly dark side, if you ask me) so that isn’t enough to keep me interested as a reader. And Hook’s pain at realizing he may never see his family again because he is stuck in Neverland was not enough to keep me interested for long.

For quite some time, Hook does pretty much nothing. There are many moments where it is shown that he has responsibilities as a captain, that he should command his people, that they should do something. And they do a little. Some ransacking here, some conquering of other pirate ships there, a quick stop at a nearby port of Neverland… but honestly, it never becomes clear what these pirates do all day. And I wouldn’t have minded so much because that’s just a fact of Neverland – stuff doesn’t happen unless Peter is there – but  the author specifically made Starkey, Hook’s first mate, remind Hook of his duties all the time. When the pirates still didn’t really do much and Hook didn’t interact with them a lot, it began to bother me.

Eventually, the plot does get going and a romance evolves. I thought it was quite nicely done, especially with the tone of the novel shifting from childlike fairy tale to a more grown-up style. Both James and Tiger Lily felt like surprisingly mature people, considering they are still quite young and don’t have any experience other than life in Neverland – which is not exactly the place you look to for advice on how to be a grown-up. But I liked both of them as characters, even though Hook was dreadfully inactive after his first attempts at escaping Neverland were thwarted.

I was surprised at how little this story overlaps with the original Peter Pan. Sure, all the characters are there and even Wendy and her brothers show up at the end, but other than that, there aren’t any recognizable events from Hook’s point of view. It’s a different story that only melds with the original Peter Pan at the very end. The ending in general was completely different from the rest of the book. Not only does the author rush through events at high speed, but certain characters also change personality really quickly. Tiger Lily, that amazing girl with a mind of her own, suddenly does a 180 and turns from a clever young woman into an intolerably stupid girl. Hook’s development into the villain we all know is more gradual and therefore more believable.

All things considered, this was an okay retelling with a lot of focus on character rather than plot. Few elements of the original Peter Pan are there, but I did like the one scene that was taken from the book and twisted to fit this version of events. Not my favorite retelling, not groundbreaking in any way, but not a bad book.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

2019 Retellings Challenge – First Quarter Update

The first quarter of the year is almost over (how did that happen?), so it’s time for a little update on my reading challenges. I think I’ve been doing pretty well, especially with the Retellings Challenge which is the most dear to me because my TBR is overflowing with retellings and I really need to catch up!

What I’ve read

My retellings have been everything from mind-blowingly good (The Scorpio Races and The Language of Thorns) to still very good (Trail of Lightning and A Curse so Dark and Lonely) to meh (In the Vanisher’s Palace and Pride) to complete failure (Girls of Paper and Fire). Although, that’s a very mixed outcome, I am quite pleased all things considered.

The Scorpio Races took a while to get started for me, but boy did it grab my heart at the end. I cried, people! The Language of Thorns satisfied both my need for more Grishaverse as well as my love for fairy tales. Trail of Lightning was a fun post-apocalyptic Urban Fantasy romp in a unique setting and A Curse so Dark and Lonely caught me with its kick-ass active protagonist and its clever use of the Beauty and the Beast tropes.

In case you want to read my less favorable reviews, here’s Pride and here’s the complete trainwreck that was Girls of Paper and Fire.

My retellings reading plan

I don’t have any fixed plans on what to read next because I like to see where my mood takes me, but there are a few books that definitely have to happen soon.

  • Surprise Peter Pan retelling (depends on which book wins the poll for the April group read on Goodreads)
  • Katherine Arden – The Winter of the Witch
  • Madeline Miller – Circe
  • Rosamunde Hodge – Bright Smoke, Cold Fire

I’m really looking forward to the Peter Pan retelling, no matter which book wins. All the nominated books sound amazing, so I’ll be happy with whatever gets the most votes (except for Alias Hook which I’ve already read). Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles was really beautiful, so I’m making her my choice for Greek myth retelling, Rosamunde Hodge is also one of my favorite retellings authors and I’m curious to see what her version of Romeo and Juliet looks like. And Katherine Arden has stolen my reader’s heart with her Winternight Trilogy, so finding out how the story ends is bittersweet. I really want to know what happens but I don’t look forward to not having any of her books left to read.

General Thoughts on the Challenge

I’ve been loving this challenge so far. I did notice that, after reading a lot of retellings I felt a need for something else. So I spent March reading mostly other books, catching up on some series, even reading something that isn’t SFF (Anne of Green Gables – it’s adorable!) but by now, I’m really back in the mood for more retellings. Since I always read more than one book at a time, I may try pairing a retelling with a new release – there are so many new books this year that sound absolutely amazing.

If you’re doing this challenge as well, how is it going for you? Have you discovered a hidden gem like I did with The Scorpio Races? Have you been disappointed in an over-hyped book? Let me know in the comments and if you participate in the challenge, make sure to link up at Cornerfolds.

A modern Pride and Prejudice: Ibi Zoboi – Pride

I am easy to bait when it comes to P&P retellings but I also approach every retelling very carefully. Not only because Pride and Prejudice is one of my all-time favorite books but also because it’s very, very hard to translate into a different era. Different settings, fantasy worlds – that could all work, but setting a story for which societal norms (and restrictions for women) are so vital in a modern period is a really difficult feat. I’m so happy Ibi Zoboi managed to do that really well, even if I didn’t love everything about this book.

PRIDE
by Ibi Zoboi

Published: Balzer + Bray, 2018
eBook: 304 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence:  It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up.

Zuri Benitez has pride. Brooklyn pride, family pride, and pride in her Afro-Latino roots. But pride might not be enough to save her rapidly gentrifying neighborhood from becoming unrecognizable.
When the wealthy Darcy family moves in across the street, Zuri wants nothing to do with their two teenage sons, even as her older sister, Janae, starts to fall for the charming Ainsley. She especially can’t stand the judgmental and arrogant Darius. Yet as Zuri and Darius are forced to find common ground, their initial dislike shifts into an unexpected understanding.
But with four wild sisters pulling her in different directions, cute boy Warren vying for her attention, and college applications hovering on the horizon, Zuri fights to find her place in Bushwick’s changing landscape, or lose it all.

Zuri Benitez lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and her neighbourhood is her entire pride. She wants things to remain just as they are, to hang out with the people from her block, to eat her mother’s traditional food, to enjoy the block parties and to play basketball with her friends. Already, things are changing because her elder sister Janae spent her first year off in college, and Zuri is applying to colleges as well. She really doesn’t want to let go of the world she knows and she has no interest in the wider world. When the Darcys – a wealthy black family – move into the mansion across the street, Zuri sees them as even more of a threat to her home. So she is determined not to like them, even before she knows anything about them.

Setting Pride and Prejudice in modern Brooklyn was the one thing Ibi Zoboi did really – and I mean really – well. All the groundwork is there. Ainsley and Darius are brothers (so you get two Darcys), the big reveal about Warren (Wickham) was really well done, and I enjoyed how Zuri and Darius slowly get to like each other more over the course of the story. All of this could have gone so very wrong. Pride and Prejudice, after all, is based on the fact that women of a certain status don’t work, so sometimes their only option for a safe life is to marry rich. Here, the stakes are obviously not as high – this is about finding a nice boyfriend and if it didn’t work out for the Benitez sisters, their lives and livelihood wouldn’t literally be threatened. Their lives also don’t magically become easier by having a rich boyfriend.

The one thing that I imagine is the hardest to retell is the scandalous reveal of a Wickham/Warren’s character. It was such a horrible thing in the original Pride and Prejudice because society was very different. For an unmarried couple to be together without a chaperone could have dire consequences for the entire family. Obviously, this wouldn’t work today. So Ibi Zoboi had to think of something that would also mean a threat to a young woman’s reputation, and she did it! She found a way. Again, the repercussions are mild compared to 19th century England, but it worked beautifully. It showed Warren for the prick he is and it showed the negative impact of his actions on a young woman’s life. I thought this was rather cleverly done and almost cheered when I read that part (not cheered because of what happened, obviously, but because I wanted to applaud the author).

Now my biggest problem with this book – and sadly one that drags my rating down a lot – is that I really didn’t like Zuri. She has none of the qualities that make Lizzie Bennet so likable. Sure, for the story to work, Zuri has to be prejudiced, but I hated how she was so completely narrow-minded about everything. It was like everything she didn’t know was automatically bad, and everything that didn’t fit her narrow idea of her perfect neighbourhood, wasn’t worth her time. Of course it made the story work but it also made her a character I didn’t want to root for. Zuri doesn’t just worry that people who are different will change her world, but she immediately judges others based on their clothing style or because they use proper grammar. If they’re not black enough in her opinion, then she doesn’t like them and doesn’t even give them a chance to prove that they’re nice people despite not looking or talking the way she wants them to.

The other characters were all rather flat. Each of them gets one characteristic and that’s it. Zuri’s younger sisters Layla and Kayla are boy-crazy, Marisol is all about money (an interesting change to stuck-up Mary in the original), and Janae is nice. Ainsley doesn’t have much personality at all and Warren is simply Zuri’s perfect “boy from the hood” without any depth. I did like Darius who at least shows different sides of his character at different points in the story. But even then, Zuri is suddenly pissed that he’s not exactly how she pinned him down, but actually has layers and doesn’t always behave the same. I mean, who behaves the same when visiting their grandma as opposed to a teen party? I thought it was nice seeing some depth in Darius’ character but Zuri, narrow-minded and closed-off to everything new as she is, didn’t.

Another thing I enjoyed was the added cultural aspect. Zuri’s block is like a big family, comprised of people from different places with different cultures and traditions. Zuri’s relationship to Madrina – a sort of surrogate superstitous grandmother who Zuri goes to for advice – was lovely and added an original layer to this retelling. I actually would have loved to see more of that, to understand why Zuri holds on so desperately to her home and doesn’t want it to change in any way.

The writing wasn’t my case at all. There were so many instances in which we are told why Zuri loves her block so much – the block parties, the way she talks with other residents, how everyone dresses, etc. – but are rarely shown. The prose itself is simple, without flourishes or anything particularly noteworthy. I also had some trouble with the dialogue which switches back and forth between Zuri’s preferred slang, something she uses to gauge in other people to see if they’re “hood” enough, and regular English. While it’s clear that the Darcys don’t use slang to set them apart culturally from Zuri and her hood, I didn’t quite understand why Zuri and her family aren’t consistent in the way they speak.

Zuri is also a poet and the story is interspersed with her poetry about life in Bushwick, the new rich kids moving in next door, dealing with change, and everything else that this book is about. I’m sad to say I wasn’t a big fan of the poetry itself. Poetry is very hit or miss for me anyway and that is no fault of the author! I usually can’t put my finger on why I like a particular poem and not another, it’s just a gut feeling for me. In this case, I didn’t really like any of Zuri’s poems. They had no emotional impact on me but, but because they are all short, they also didn’t bother me all that much.

As for the ending (if you know Pride and Prejudice, you’ll know at least one aspect of it), I found it a little weird and out of the blue. It may be clear from the beginning that, no matter how she fights it, Zuri will have to deal with change sooner or later. She does want to go to college and that means leaving her home behind at least for most of the year. But the way the story actually ends bummed me out a little. It wasn’t a bad ending at all, I just found it surprising and didn’t get enough time to process it until the book was just over.
So, the good and the not-so-good balance each other out. I definitely enjoyed reading this but it wasn’t groundbreaking or something I’d recommend to everyone. For fans of Jane Austen who want to see a beloved story set in modern Brooklyn, this is a fun story. For people looking for a good romance with multi-layered characters… not so much.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

Madeline Miller – The Song of Achilles

Like a lot of people, I’ve never read the Iliad. I know the basic story from school and those Greek Myths CDs I had as a kid, but I’ve always lacked the gumption to actually pick up a copy and read the whole damn thing. But you don’t really need to know anything about the Iliad to enjoy The Song of Achilles – in fact, this made me want to go straight back to those Greek stories and I may just pick up Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe García McCall soon, which retells the Odyssey.

THE SONG OF ACHILLES
by Madeline Miller

Published by: Harper Collins, 2011
Ebook: 416 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: My father was a king and the son of kings. He was a short man, as most of us were, and built like a bull, all shoulders.

The legend begins…

Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia to be raised in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. “The best of all the Greeks”—strong, beautiful, and the child of a goddess—Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not. Yet despite their differences, the boys become steadfast companions. Their bond deepens as they grow into young men and become skilled in the arts of war and medicine—much to the displeasure and the fury of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.
When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece, bound by blood and oath, must lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.

The Song of Achilles is told by Patroclus and follows him from childhood to the battle of Troy. Patroclus is a prince who is exiled after an accident that kills another boy, so he loses his name and princedom, and he also has trouble coming to terms with the other boy’s death. He also meets Achilles, famed to become aristos achaion, the Best of the Greeks, a hero and the son of a goddess. A connection starts blooming between these unlikely friends that soon turns into more.

This is definitely one of those slow burning books, where for long stretches at a time, nothing much seems to happen, especially if you expect epic battles. But the way it focuses on characters and the relationship between Achilles and Patroculs kept me entertained for the full 400 pages without a problem. Madeline Miller writes beautifully, letting her characters’ actions speak for them. I loved it so very much when Patroclus looked at Achilles and described him in his mind – without getting cheesy or overly descriptive of his body parts, he paints the picture of a god and makes it all the easier to understand why he loves him.

I can smell him. The oils that he uses on his feet, pomegranate and sandawood; the salt of clean sweat; the hyacinths we had walked thorugh, their scent crushed against our ankles. Beneath it all his own smell, the one I go to sleep with, the one I wake up to.

Apart from the wonderfully done romance, I was also intrigued by the setting and society in this book. Having next to no experience with stories of Ancient Greece that aren’t specifically about the gods, I was quite surprised at certain aspects. There are a ton of princes, bringing shame to your family is the worst, gods can be appeased with sacrifice… While I expected all of this to some degree, the way Miller incorporated these things into the story felt organic and natural, like it’s just part of these guys’ lives.

Another highlight was definitely Odysseus, the sly man. He may only show up a couple of times before he joins in the war on Troy, but I swear he steals every scene he is in. Despite being a side character in this particular story, he has the air of a protagonist and you can tell – even if you don’t know about the Odyssey – that this guy is going to go down in history as a legend. Whenever he showed up, I started smiling and waiting to see what he would come up with next.
Similarly interesting was Achilles’ relationship to his mother, Thetis, and her as a character in general. She never makes a secret of her dislike for Patroclus, and Achilles stands between them, silently but certain of his choices. See, this is what I meant when I said it’s a slow-moving book. The interesting bits aren’t so much in the action scenes (although there are some of those at the end in the battle of Troy) but in the little moments between characters, in what they don’t say, but what their body language conveys. Making body language come to life in a novel is no small feat but I saw every scene so vividly before me that I caught myself speculating on why somebody’s shoulders slumped at a particular moment, or why Achilles stands so tall and proud.

I did feel that the last part of the book dragged a bit with the Trojan war going on what felt like forever. Since Patroclus is not much of a fighter, he spends the days at camp and develops a beautiful relationship with Briseis, a woman taken as spoils of war (yeah… that was a punch in the face, women being handed around literally as prizes). It’s not that stuff doesn’t happen, it’s just that Patroclus is best when Achilles is around, and Achilles is kept grounded by Patroclus. They are such a beautiful couple, in every way imaginable, that I already felt sad long before Achilles’ prophecied death.

The very end held a few surprises in store, which is all I’m going to say on that matter. But after following these two men through most of their childhood into adulthood, I closed the book with a feeling of deep satisfaction and some warm fuzzies in my stomach. This is a beautiful story and I see why it has won all sorts of acclaim when it came out. I will not soon forget Achilles and Patroclus, and no matter how many retellings of the Iliad I read or see, they will always be a couple in my mind.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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Romance and cakes: Marissa Meyer – Heartless

I like Marissa Meyer’s books. There’s very little reason for me to like them, but I do anyway, because they are comfort reads, they have fluffy romances, they play with fairy tales, and they are simply fun. In her first book not set in the Lunar Chronicles universe, Marissa Meyer shows that she has grown as a writer and is not running out of ideas.

HEARTLESS
by Marissa Meyer

Published by: Feiwel & Friends, 2016
Hardcover: 453 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Three luscious lemon tarts glistened up at Catherine.

Catherine may be one of the most desired girls in Wonderland and a favorite of the unmarried King, but her interests lie elsewhere. A talented baker, she wants to open a shop and create delectable pastries. But for her mother, such a goal is unthinkable for a woman who could be a queen.
At a royal ball where Cath is expected to receive the King’s marriage proposal, she meets handsome and mysterious Jest. For the first time, she feels the pull of true attraction. At the risk of offending the King and infuriating her parents, she and Jest enter into a secret courtship.
Cath is determined to choose her own destiny. But in a land thriving with magic, madness, and monsters, fate has other plans.

This is the story of how a lovely, ambitious young girl turned into the Queen of Hearts we all know from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the very first thing I noticed and loved was that Catherine had hopes, and dreams, and agency! From the beginning, when Cath bakes a set of lemon tarts, we are shown that she loves baking and that she has plans to open her own bakery one day. She also has a best (female) friend! Be still, my heart, remember that there are good YA books out there and this is one of them.

Cath’s best friend is their family’s servant girl Mary Ann. While Cath is more of the creative, baking brain behind their shared plans, Mary Ann is good with numbers and approaches decisions logically – so she’s the business manager, if you like. Not only was it wonderful to see two girls being friends but to see them complement each other so beautifully in reaching their dream. Cath is also, however, the daughter of a Marquis and Marchioness, and thus spends a lot of her time at balls and tea parties thrown by the King of Hearts. Who has his eyes on her and might ruin her dream by asking her to marry him. Add to all that the new court Joker, and romance (and disaster) is bound to happen.

Many people have said that this book moves along more slowly than the Lunar Chronicles and that is true. But the slower pace only bothered me during the middle of the book. The beginning was wonderful because it set up the characters, who each have distinctive voices and mannerisms, and the world in which Cath lives. Sure, it’s Wondreland, but it’s not exactly the Wonderland we know. Marissa Meyer added a lot of little, original details that may remind you of Lewis Carroll’s novels, but give it a flavor of its own. Many well-known characters also make an appearance, and some of them get the chance to become quite three-dimensional. Thus, I suppose, the slower plot.

Hatta, this version’s Mad Hatter, quickly became a favorite of mine, although I also have a soft spot for Cheshire, who in turn has a soft spot for Cath’s baking. All the side characters who get to say a few words, had personality! As much as I loved The Lunar Chronicles, I can’t say that the characters were a strong point. In Heartless, however, they absolutely are. And while a lot of character development happens in the last quarter of the book, it does happen, and it is understandable why it happens.

With a villain’s origin story, it will always hinge on the reason they became evil. And the more I read about Catherine, the more I rooted for her and her dream bakery, the less I could imagine her turning into that dreadful Queen of Hearts who wants to chop everyone’s head off. I can’t tell you any details, but I really liked how things fell into place and turned Cath into an evil monarch. There is quite a lot of backstory to it all, and it involves many people other than Cath. There are some surprising revelations, and a few moments where you go “aaah, that’s why”. Cath’s transition happened maybe a bit too fast and I was devastated about her relationship with Mary Ann. But then, we always knew this wouldn’t be a book with a happy ending.

Because the middle really did drag along terribly, I am not completely in love with the book. But for a great beginning, strong characters, ideas worthy of Wonderland, a Poe-quoting raven, and a great way of turning a girl into a villain, I must give Marissa Meyer credit. She did a wonderful job with this and I hope she plans on revisiting more fairy tales. I know there are a lot of them already, but I’d love to see her origin story of Captain Hook.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

 

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