The Hero by Lee Child (audio)

Not a Jack Reacher novella, but an essay. Lee Child (as himself, for the first time in my reading experience) explores the concept of “the hero,” as archetype and as cultural tradition, in this hour-and-change. It opens with the history of opium, or rather of humans’ relationship to opium, in its various forms, as revealed by the archaeological record. This brings us to the book’s subject via that coined name for an opium derivative: heroin, as relates to hero. Etymology as guiding principle! I love it! Some of the reviews on Goodreads are laughably harsh, but that’s an issue of people not appreciating etymology or failing to grasp the concept of “essay” (and to be fair, some of these poor souls thought they were getting a Reacher novella. Which actually I did as well, but I transition between Reacher and the essayistic form more easily than some).

From opium and heroin we move through archaeology and the history and development of human societies (comparison of homo sapiens to homo neanderthalensis), including the move from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture, always with a focus on the developing importance of storytelling. Storytelling, Child writes, is a survival mechanism, part of evolution. “Encouraging, empowering, emboldening stories… somehow made it more likely the listener would still be alive in the morning.” Stories are instructive, he explains, and developed from the first use of language which was strictly nonfiction. There was no evolutionary advantage to claiming that there was a predator over the next rise, or prey or berries to be had around the next bend of the river, if it wasn’t true. The move to fiction was a big jump, and had to serve other purposes. Encouraging, empowering, emboldening, and instructing. The girl who met a tiger and ran fast and got away; later, the girl who met a tiger but she carried an axe and successfully fought it off.

Which brings me to a feature of this essay that I appreciate: that it centers women. Child tracks his own link to early homo sapiens and homo sapiens sapiens through the female line. As his own mother had no female child, he considers that line to have died out. Women tend to be the storytellers, and the early protagonists, in the histories he tells. It’s refreshing, when history is so often male-centered.

Another central feature is the importance of language, etymologies, and the joys and rigors of linguistics. (Child’s daughter Ruth is a linguist.) Words matter; and they tell stories. Rivals were originally in competition for rivers or for riverfront real estate. Heroin is named for the concept of the hero.

Reacher’s usual confidence in making logical connections and claiming theories is recognizable here as Child’s own. I’m not an academic in the field of human evolution as told through the archaeological record, nor am I a linguist; I have the sense that he sets forth some theories that are perhaps less than orthodox, but he does so with great assurance. It’s a style of writing that works well for me. This is Reacher as an academic. Jeff Harding’s narration feels spot-on.

A contemplation of language, story, and the archetypal (and ever-evolving) hero in human history: if this stuff sounds like your cuppa, and especially if you like Reacher too, do yourself a favor and check out this novella-length essay. It’s engrossing. (Also, there’s a nice, representative sample available here. Or another here.) Or if you just want a laugh, go check out those Goodreads reviews. Not every book for every reader…


Circe by Madeline Miller (audio)

Madeline Miller, winner of the Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles, follows with another retelling from Homer’s great works with Circe. Remember, Circe was the witch-goddess who turned Odysseus’s men to swine on her enchanted island, then slept with him, and successfully tempted him to stay with her there for a year before he was able to tear himself away and continue on his ill-fated journey home (eventually successful in that he gets there, but not in too many other senses). Circe is the daughter of Helios, the sun god, and a nymph named Perse.

I had no idea that Circe had such an extended backstory – I knew her only from the Odyssey. Her story is further enlarged upon in Miller’s lovely telling here: her birth and childhood in the halls of the gods, ignored and unliked by her immortal parents, teased and picked on by the nymphs. Her love of the fisherman Glaucus, and his transformation; his love for the nymph Scylla, and Circe’s spell that transforms her in turn to the monster Scylla we know (again, from the Odyssey and other sources). Her minor role in the punishment of Prometheus, another god with a sympathy for mortals, and her eventual banishment to the island Aeaea (pronounced in this audiobook as ai-aye-uh). Then, her centuries (recall, Circe is immortal) on the island, developing her skills of witchcraft and enjoying a few sexual liaisons: first, with Hermes; later, with Daedalus; and eventually with her most famous guest, Odysseus.

Spoilers follow below (in white text – highlight to read). These are features of Circe’s history that come from myth; but they were stories I’d never encountered before, for all my love of Odysseus’s story, so they may be new for some of you, as well.

We get a lushly detailed version of Circe’s turning men to swine episodes, from her point of view and more justified than in Homeric tellings. We meet Odysseus, well into the length of Circe; and while it’s all been lovely, I have of course been leaning toward this event. Well, Odysseus through Circe’s eyes is rather a different beast (no pun intended), although recognizable. They have a relationship; his men get restless; he prepares to leave, but not before Circe (following a message from Hermes) passes on the prophecy regarding his visit to the underworld. She advises him; he pours the blood and waits for Tiresias, etc. (Pardon my glossing; this is where I know the story well.) And then… After his departure, and without his knowledge, Circe gives birth to Odysseus’s son, Telegonus. His name is a play on that of Telemachus, Odysseus’s older son with Penelope; it also means ‘born afar,’ which for Circe means born far from his father’s land of Ithaca, yes, but also far from her own family – far from the whole world, you might say. Telegonus is a difficult baby but a fine young man.

From his birth, the grey-eyed goddess Athena tries to kill him, but she won’t say why. Because of this threat, Circe worries. She spins massive spells that bear down on her; she works herself weary to protect her child; and she shelters him beyond even the average protective mother. But of course, she can’t keep him away from the world forever. It is Hermes, in fact, who secretly helps him build a boat with which to leave sheltering Aeaea. Telegonus is determined to go find his father. In one of her acts of astonishing strength, Circe wins the poison tail of the older-than-old sea god Trigon, with which she poison-tips a spear for Telegonus – to keep him safe, she thinks. But as is so often the case in Greek myth, this poison spear instead becomes the instrument of fulfilling another prophecy. In an accident, born of the miscommunication of their first meeting, Telegonus’s spear grazes Odysseus, and the yearned-for father dies. I had never known how Odysseus died! Telegonus ends up bringing Penelope and Telemachus back home to Aeaea with him, which Circe does not initially appreciate; but more unforeseen events will arise from here, not all bad. (I have to leave something untold, don’t I.)

Whew.

I was exhilarated by the retelling of Odysseus’s time spent with Circe, and its fallout, following him beyond the end of the Odyssey. All of Circe was compelling and well-told, with style; but I was always waiting for this, the headline act. I was intrigued by a different version of Odysseus than the one I’ve known before. Miller’s is a testier, more temper-prone, less admirable man. And while I don’t like having my heroes messed with, this worked out well for me. Miller’s Odysseus fits within Homer’s; they are not at odds. He was always a little apt to cruelty, and certainly self-serving, the cunning one. And Circe’s perspective necessitated the changes, I think.

A feminist retelling? I suppose, in the spirit of Atwood’s Penelopiad or Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, the women’s version might always read that way. I feel like that’s a simplification, though. It might be better classified as a correction of “history told by victors.” The victors tend to be men, but it’s not just that; it’s their power and ruthlessness and erasure of others. This is at least as much about correcting erasure (generally) as it is about the woman’s POV. Although, those men to swine, man. Well done, Miller.

I do love this Circe, who is (especially when younger) mercurial and passionate, stronger than she realizes (in her witchcraft, yes, but in other ways as well), and eventually a crafty and wise woman. She is loyal and devoted but also clever and practical. She is, in fact, Odysseus’s match. For fans of the mythology, I feel there is much to love here.

And for those less familiar, still: the storytelling is nuanced and full and rich. It might perhaps drag a bit, especially as we wait for Odysseus to appear (or is that just those of us who do know the original stories, and feel he’s the headline?); it’s a longish book. But episodes along the way intrigue and compel, too. I loved the Daedalus/Minotaur subplot.

This audio version, read by Perdita Weeks, is luscious, with a rich accent I’d call vaguely British (I am not good with accents). (Weeks is Welsh.) It feels… sumptuous. This lends a certain effect to the novel that may not suit every reader; it’s a bit grand; but it felt right for the story and for Circe’s larger-than-life (indeed, immortal) story. I’d spend another 12 hours this way, easy. I can’t wait for what’s next from Madeline Miller.

Circe is absolutely recommended for fans of the Greek myths, and for anyone who likes a good, involved, winding yarn about men and women and gods and power struggles and grudges and fantastic magic, and more.


Rating: 8 ground-up leaves.

Tiamat’s Wrath by James S. A. Corey (audio)

Tiamat’s Wrath is a terrific addition to the trilogy of trilogies that comprise The Expanse which, though never less than entertaining, have waxed and waned in their proximity to greatness since the publication of Leviathan’s Wake. (from Tor.com)

I concur: Tiamat’s Wrath is one of the better installments in an uneven but generally scintillating series. (Also, bonus at Tor.com: I learned a new word in the author bio. “Niall Alexander is the manager of an extra-curricular education centre, and also, increasingly occasionally, a reader and a writer. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.” I love learning new words.)

Several decades after the end of Persepolis Rising, James Holden remains a prisoner of High Consul Winston Duarte, emperor of all the known worlds. Chrisjen Avasarala has recently died. Naomi lives in isolation in a shipping container, surrounded by tech, where she plays an important advisory role in the Resistance but rarely sees another human. Bobbie captains the captured ship Storm (also Resistance), with Alex as her pilot. Clarissa is no more (see previous book); Amos went on a high-stakes mission years ago, deep in enemy territory, and has never been heard from again. It’s a very somber opening.

Our beloved central characters are getting gray, but those living are still fighting, in their various ways, dispersed across galaxies. Aside from the core, we see Elvi Ocoye return (from Cibola Burn), performing on Duarte’s scientific team but having already, by the time this book begins, figured out she’s on the wrong team. And a new addition to the perspectives that tell this story is Teresa Duarte, the High Consul’s only child, at fourteen his protégé and, well, a teenager pushed to rebel.

A little hint here: it helps to have read The Churn before this book.

The science seems to matter a little more here than usual, or maybe it’s just that it makes more sense? At any rate, I was able (and motivated) to follow it more than I’ve been in a couple of books, and I found that rewarding. One relevant detail is that Duarte has been made immortal by protomolecule technology and with the help of sociopath Dr. Cortázar. But one thing about poorly understood technologies is that you don’t always know what you’ve signed up for.

My engagement with the science part of the science fiction helped me enjoy this book even a bit more than usual. But even more so, I think the plot and the action were at their best. And still more, separating our characters out into their own mini-stories (something that doesn’t always reengage fans, ahem, The Walking Dead) – with only Alex and Bobbie remaining a team – was a great choice here, in my opinion. We got to see each protagonist take on their own challenges, make their own choices, redefine their own values and belief systems. Naomi, in particular, had to expand her self-conception in the best of ways. I love love loved seeing everybody operate on their own, against a bare background if you will.

Our team – the Rocinante‘s crew, even if she’s in long-term storage – experiences surprising losses and surprising gains in this book. We are heading into the final novel of the series from here. I already feel a sense of loss that it will be over (although there are still several novellas and short stories for me to track down). But I also feel like the massive scale, physical, narrative, and moral, that have been undertaken by this series is being honored here in the penultimate installment, and that feels good. Boy, I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

Fan til the end here, me.


Rating: 8 whining dogs.

Gods of Risk by James S. A. Corey (audio)

Another novella in The Expanse series, this one only glancingly including one of our main characters. David Draper is sixteen years old, a gifted chemistry student working long hours in the lab waiting to find out what career/study path he’ll be placed on next. He’s also gotten himself involved with some less savory types, manufacturing illicit drugs in his spare lab time, for spending money but even more for the connections and sense of belonging. One connection he makes will end up getting him into a boatload of trouble, of course. And when things really get serious, surely you can guess who will be there: his Aunt Bobbie, who’s mostly been present in his life as an annoyance, hanging out in his house watching the news feed and lifting weights. (This novella falls between the timelines of Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate.)

Gods of Risk is not one of Corey’s greatest works, but it’s an absorbing short tale, and it was amusing to see Bobbie through the eyes of someone who doesn’t know how to value her. I listened to the whole thing (read by Erik Davies, but less annoyingly than usual) on the way to and from a bike ride, in a single day, and it held my attention; it’s not much of a contribution to the larger world of The Expanse, but that’s okay. David is a convincing teenager, making poor choices and underestimating certain adults, worshiping the wrong gods, if you will; but his heart is essentially in the right place, as a (slightly over-sappy) final talk with Aunt Bobbie points out. This novella also gives us a bit more background into one of the Martian worlds. Worth the time? Of course! if you’re a completist series fan like me. I’m glad for every bit of this world that I can get, as I head into the eighth novel (for now, the last full-length edition in the series).


Rating: 7 issues with mass transit.

The Churn by James S. A. Corey (audio)

Holy smokes, this is the one I’ve been looking for through all these episodes in the world of The Expanse: Amos’s backstory! I’m super excited.

This audiobook was read not by Jefferson Mays but by that other guy, Erik Davies, whom you recall I did not appreciate in Cibola Burn. He did the same plodding job here, but it’s to the credit of The Churn that I didn’t even care. (Also, he got Amos’s voice right so that it was recognizable, even under – slight spoiler – a different name.)

We are back in Baltimore, and Amos (under a different name) is just “a boy,” although quite a big, strong one – a young man, I’d say, although if his age is ever given, I missed it. He’s got a new job in a criminal organization; he’s just feeling his way, although it’s clear from the start that his calm comfort with violence is already a feature. Also that amiable, puzzling smile. This is the origin story I’ve been wanting all along, although I still have some questions about his sex life.

“The Churn” refers to a cycle of violence where the security forces crack down on the criminal element; things get crazy for a while, but they’ll cycle back to the status quo. This “churn” is only different in that it offers Amos a vital choice that will propel him (pretty literally) into space, and start that other career that eventually leads him to the Rocinante. It also introduces Lydia, whose memory we see again in Nemesis Games. It reveals much, but never quite enough, because I love Amos.

I don’t want to give any more away here. If you are remotely a fan, make The Churn a top priority. Don’t wait.


Rating: 9 bites of ginger beef.

Persepolis Rising by James S. A. Corey (audio)

Book seven in The Expanse!

Jim and Naomi and the crew of the Rocinante – Amos, Alex, Bobbie, and Clarissa – are aging. With the expansion of the known world(s), Earth and Mars are no longer the superpowers that they once were. The Transport Union, composed of those who were once known as Belters, are more or less in control of the 1,300 new worlds in the Ring System. Much has changed. But much has not changed: like human nature, the will to rule. And James Holden hasn’t changed much, in his drive to get involved in sticky situations, his need to do the right thing at all costs, and his tendency to dive blindly in. On the other hand, maybe he’s changed more than we think: early in this novel, Naomi is able to talk him into retirement, which quite catches me off guard. (The Roci‘s crew less so. They’ve been seeing him age all these years, when I just took a short break since book six.) Retirement doesn’t mean that Jim and Naomi will be any less involved in the next major historical event, however.

In this episode, a military superpower invades Medina Station, and the Roci‘s crew ends up working with former OPA factions as part of a small resistance band. Amos is asked to practice diplomacy; we can imagine how well that goes over. Perhaps I’ll leave my plot summary there.

Alex and Bobbie have become fast friends over the years, closer than ever, and the same goes for Amos and Clarissa. Neither of these alliances is romantic, but both are almost mystically deep, and one will rupture before this story is over. Naomi and Jim have a heartwarmingly constant romance, but old problems still plague, and certain practicalities are left up in the air. In other words, like all the others before it, Persepolis Rising is about people above all else. I admire Corey’s gifts: not only mind-expanding (ha) world-building, but the ability to follow this world through over many decades (not to mention the past centuries that brought us here). This volume broadens my sense of what is possible for this series, while also limiting it: if our core characters die, is there any Expanse left?

In this book perhaps more than some others, I zoned out on the technical details. I really don’t care, and am happy to just trust that people can be in places when the story says they can be, etc. Was there more of that stuff than usual, or was it just the effect of a very long drive (West Virginia to Texas) that let me drift off? No matter; I enjoyed the overall effect – that human story – as much as ever, and I’m quite looking forward to finding out what happens in the end. I’m also worried. I think book eight is recognized as the last one. There are just a few more novellas to track down; and then what? (Things don’t look good for Holden, in this light.)

I’m rambling now. These books thrill me, and I am entirely converted to the concept of sci fi, if done this way: people first.


Rating: 7 bombs.

reread: Martin Marten by Brian Doyle (audio)

By coincidence, this book review was next in line when today’s date came up. But it feels perfectly appropriate for this gift-giving holiday, because Brian Doyle is a gift, and I think this novel is my favorite of his.

I have returned to my very first Brian Doyle experience with Martin Marten (originally reviewed here), because I miss him and love his work. Having enjoyed a few other audiobooks of his, I thought I’d try Travis Baldree’s narration.

It’s very good; I enjoyed the different voices for each character, from Maria to Dave to each of Dave’s parents, to Moon and Emma Jackson and Miss Moss and Mr. Douglas the trapper. I thought he preserved the sense of wonder and boundlessness that characterizes Doyle’s work. I found myself not thinking of the narration much, actually, and just living in the world of Martin Marten, and I think the disappearance of an art form’s container is often the highest compliment.

And the book is everything I remembered. As is said early in The Princess Bride, this book has everything it. “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…” Well, there’s no fencing here, but there is death and birth and love and fighting and beginnings and endings and the easy connection of the two, and an un-wedding, and blizzards and springtimes and basketball and running and maps and trees and all the animals and plants and beings… Brian Doyle inspires lists like these; he writes in lists like these. He is all-encompassing, in the best and least pretentious way. For example, here is a paragraph that caught my eye this time around.

And deep mysteries too, things that no one could ever explain and in most cases no one ever knew or apprehended or discovered–a new species of snow flea mutating in a dark crevasse on Joel Palmer’s glacier; a blue bear born to two black ones but alive only for a day; a place where trees and bushes and ferns decided to intertwine and make a small green cottage complete with walls and a roof and a door; a cave with the bones of a creature eight feet tall inside; a pencil lost by Joel Palmer at nine thousand feet of elevation on the south side of the mountain, long ago encased in ice and now some twenty feet beneath the surface, waiting to be found in the year 2109 by a young woman named Yvon, who would be amazed that the pencil never wore out no matter how much she used it, as if it had patiently stored up words for two centuries; and much else, more than we could account even if this book never ended and its pages and pulses went on forever, and it was the longest book in the history of the world. Even then, it couldn’t catch more than scraps and shards of the uncountable stories on the mountain, of bird and beast, tree and thicket, fish and flea, biome and zygote. And this is not even to consider the ancient slow stories of the rocks and their long argument with the lava inside the mountain and the seething and roiling miles beneath the mountain, all the way to the innermost core of the sphere, which might be a story of metallic heat so intense that to perceive it would be your final act in this form; another mystery.

A dear friend of mine, nearing the end of her MFA study, read this book on my recommendation and sent me a message that said simply, “my prose is lifeless.” Well, it’s not, but I know what she meant: Doyle’s just jangles with life. I know he is not for everyone. The above paragraph includes a single sentence fragment that is 198 words long. He gushes. But for those of us it works for, I think it works very well.

I wish I could go to live in one of Brian Doyle’s fictional towns. Although it does snow a lot there.

If you love the natural world and are charmed by the idea of not privileging any one species (ahem, humans) over all the rest; if you are excited by the many possibilities for joy in the world, big and small; if you love life, words, all kinds of critters, and even humans; if knowledge for its own sake thrills you; if you are prone to being pleased by lists and wonder–do give the novels of Brian Doyle a try. He has made this world a far better place.


Rating: there is no reason to amend my original 10 tomatoes.