Contemporary, Fiction, Literature, Madeline Miller, Mythology

Circe by Madeline Miller

Have you ever read a book that left you feeling completely stunned? It happens to me rarely, but when it does, I have this thing where I can’t do anything with my thoughts afterward. I can write about a good book, even a great one. I can write about a bad book, even a terrible one. But sometimes, a book completely knocks me out, and I can sit on it for days, weeks, even years without ever being able to articulate a damn thing about it. That’s what happened to me with Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles. You won’t find a review for it here, because I simply could not do it.

So, it was with excitement and strange terror that I returned to Miller once again for her highly anticipated and well-received follow-up, Circe. This one, like Song of Achilles, explores the life of one mythological character in great detail, imagining her life “behind the scenes” of the sparse details we get from classical storytelling. What Miller did so brilliantly in her first novel, exploring the more interesting elements of a well-known hero, Achilles and his lover, she does again here with Circe, who is treated to centuries’ worth of imagined biography.

I will say that I did not respond to Circe in the way that I responded to Song of Achilles. I’ve been wondering how much of this is simply biased, considering I am and was more interested in and more familiar with Achilles’s story in the first place. His story, and particularly told in the way Miller chose to tell it, through the eyes of his lover, is something I’ve always wanted to read. I wasn’t as familiar with the mythology of Circe, nor did her story draw me in as deeply or passionately. It’s an unfair comparison, perhaps, because I felt intimately connected to Song of Achilles, and not necessarily because the book was “better.” In fact, Miller here writes one of my favorite lines from any book I’ve ever read: “[T]here are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”

Objectively speaking, though, I do think Achilles is a masterpiece, and that Circe is wonderfully well-done. The prose is not quite as interesting, this time, and the story does not move at the same pace. Indeed, because so much seems to happen in such a long period of historical time, but so shortly in narrative time, it sometimes feels oddly wind-swept and slightly disjointed, though never out of control. Miller knows what she is doing, and the story is powerful, interesting, and even joyful in its terrible sadness. The choice of Circe as protagonist is brilliant, too, because she is able to think and feel and interact with mortals in a way that Greek mythology does not allow of its gods, who are always (and to an extent must be) completely unconcerned with human needs, desires, pains, et cetera. (Rick Riordan has been playing with this, too, in his latest series re-imagining the god Apollo as a mortal teenager living in the contemporary era.)

To be fair, I find I’m still left spoiled by–wrecked by–Achilles. This might always be the case and, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that my experience with it must have, on some level, colored my reading of Circe. That said, Circe is a compelling novel whose reception is well-deserved and easy to understand. It’s also a particularly powerful statement in our time, as we confront head-on issues of gender and power. Miller crafts a flawed and sometimes ignorant hero whom I knew little about and for whom I struggled, at first, to champion; in the end, she convinces me.

Notable Quotes

“In a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”

“Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”

“I thought: I cannot bear this world a moment longer. Then, child, make another.”

“I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open.”

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Contemporary, Dean Koontz, Fiction, Horror, Thriller

The Funhouse by Dean Koontz

I can’t help comparing Dean Koontz to Stephen King. This is unfortunate for Koontz, because he simply cannot compete. I suppose that’s harsh and maybe even unfair criticism, but there we have it.

The Funhouse begins with a somewhat interesting premise that is muzzled by completely uninteresting characters. There’s a man, a sexy, charming bad boy who works for a carnival, and a young woman living under the suffocating influence of her mother, a religious zealot (of course this young woman will eventually become her mother, but no matter?) They run off together, he turns out to be not just a jerk but a monster (for real) and they have a baby. This baby… is it human? Is it a demon? Mom and Dad each see that baby a little differently, one is terrified of it and determined to kill it. The other adores it and would do anything to protect or avenge it.

So, I guess that sounds like a wild ride, and it is. It also all unfolds in the first section of the book. The rest of the novel deals with a younger generation who must deal with the repercussions of their parents’ fall-out and that first “abomination” of a baby, which may or may not be alive. Or evil. But then again, it might be a different evil baby that is now a man, even though its pseudo-step-siblings are still children. Who knows? Does it matter?

I suppose this simply was not the book for me. The elements I tend to enjoy about thrillers and horror novels are the epic battles between good and evil. The struggle for internal strength over weakness, to find the light in the darkness and somehow overcome, survive. Even when elements of the supernatural are introduced, I find myself willing to go along for the ride, provided the other elements are treated well and fairly, and without much cliché (to be fair, King also does sometimes fall into the clichéd.) That said, the good versus evil in this particular story doesn’t work for me the way it does in King’s novels, for example, because the evil seems to be too supernatural and too pure (“I need a bad guy. What’s the grossest, most evil, inhuman, irredeemable bad guy imaginable? I’ll use that!”).

Even the good, the flawed characters, are indeed flawed human beings, which is normally a positive trait in my opinion. Heroes who are too pure are just as boring as villains that are completely evil. Each of these lacks internal conflict and any real motivation. So, one might want to root for these kids, especially, but one gets distracted with moral lessons about sexual purity and religion and family. One also gets distracted by the unfortunately histrionic and melodramatic writing.

Ultimately, much like the young woman at the start of the story who suffocates beneath her mother’s Christian mania, I found myself choking on forced themes, mediocre prose, and uninteresting conflict. Where King’s evil tends to be rooted in humanity, even when it is supernatural, Koontz’s is just monstrous. There’s no reason to fear it, because it’s too unreal to care about. It was too fantastic, I suppose, to mean anything. But for some, that might be fun.

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Contemporary, L. Philips, LGBT, Mental Health, Music, Romance, Young Adult

Sometime After Midnight by L. Philips

Sometime After Midnight by L. Philips is a modern-day retelling of the classic Cinderella fairy tale, aptly sub-titled “A CinderFella Story” because the central romance is between two young men named Nate and Cameron. Nate is the orphaned son of a troubled but genius musician and Cameron a teenage millionaire, heir to a world-wide music empire, and a pop culture icon. When the two meet at the same obscure concert, it seems to be love at first sight, a true “Cinderella” story. Unfortunately for both of them, their identities and histories are soon to catch up with them, causing perhaps insurmountable obstacles.  

One of the achievements for Philips’s novel is its characterization. Each of the main characters, secondary characters, and historical figures (like Nate’s dad) have compelling and believable personalities and motivations. Nate’s best friend complements him as a heterosexual and somehow delightfully dangerous sidekick and Cameron’s sister likewise complements him as the supportive meddler, sometimes causing harm when she means to be helpful. As the story unfolds, most of the characters come to interact with one another and with other side characters along the way, such as a mentor musician whom Nate turns to for guidance. Something I truly cherish in any story is a cast of characters who are there to play a role and whose presence propels the plot forward; in Sometime After Midnight, each of the characters is important and is there for a reason, and the backstories—often delayed, creating intrigue and tension—add to this in significant and entertaining ways.

Another strength for the novel, in my opinion, is how unbelievably romantic it is, but in a realistic way. Yes, the story wraps-up in a tidy little bow, but it is no easy task getting Nate and Cameron to that point. There is a lot of drama, a lot of anger, much confusion, and several misunderstandings that must be overcome before the two young heroes can reach their happily ever after. None of these dramatic elements, though, is overwrought (something I tend to complain about in drama-for-drama’s sake young adult romances.) The pacing and plot structure are also balanced incredibly well; there is just enough forward motion (just enough pay off) to make the struggles bearable. At some points, it seems like it will be impossible for Nate and Cameron to reconcile their differences, and for good reason; but the two, surrounded by their supporting cast, work hard at it because they feel it is worth it, and isn’t that what a healthy and respectful relationship usually needs?

Finally, I enjoyed how complicated but realistic these characters are drawn. Neither of the protagonists is perfect, nor are the supporting cast members. Nate’s anger issues seem sometimes frustratingly self-indulgent, and yet one can understand why he feels so much pain and mistrust given what he knows (and discovers) about his father. Cameron’s privilege often manifests in typically obnoxious ways and is highly reminiscent of the way privilege of wealth/fame often manifests in real life. Similarly, Cameron’s sister’s involvement balanced between helpful and harmful. She sometimes seemed downright villainous in her disregard for others, and yet without her help, the two might never have made it.

If I have one complaint, it is simply the alternating narrative perspective. Like many young adult novels published in the last 10-15 years, the author segments the chapters into smaller parts, labeled with the name of the protagonist currently narrating his side of the story. While this does open several opportunities for the story, such as allowing a kind of omnipotent first-person narration that would otherwise be impossible, it also seems to me a kind of cliché at this point. It is well done, though, and I did enjoy witnessing both Nate’s and Cameron’s perspectives, seeing their thoughts, feeling their emotions. It made me root for the relationship rather than rooting for one character or the other, and that might have been the point. I only wish there would have been a reason for the dual narration, something at the end which explained to the reader how and why we are getting both perspectives (a realistic opportunity for both Nate and Cameron to be reflecting on this time, perhaps?) In fact, I think the story was set up for that quite nicely, and it would have taken just a simple epilogue explanation to pull it off.

All-in-all, this book is exactly what I needed at exactly the right time. It was sweet. It was a little bit dark. It was entirely realistic. And it was a darn good gay romance, without too many of the tired old tropes. It’s also steeped in music—the industry, the mood, and the power of it—which is something that speaks to me very intimately. Sometimes, you just want all the sugary goodness! If you’re in the mood for that, this is your book.


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2018 TBR Pile Challenge, American Lit, Classics, Contemporary, Creative Non-Fiction, Essay, Joan Didion, Non-Fiction

“Joansing” for Didion

While Halloween has always held a coveted spot in my heart and imagination, the truth is, I used to get almost as excited for the 4thof July. It was like the summertime version of my favorite autumn day, where the rules were bent and the pure joy of living was the day’s entire purpose. I distinctly remember people from my childhood commenting about my love for this holiday, and about how patriotic I must have been. But that was never the reality.

What I loved were the barbecues and the being outside with friends all day, playing kickball and having water balloon fights, and getting so bloated on hot dogs and ice cream that I thought I’d burst before the big city fireworks show. I loved the morning parade, being in it as a Boy Scout and, when Boy Scout days were over, arising early to save the family seats along the sidewalk, close enough to grab candy and other goodies from the parade participants.

And I can still hear the sound of the ice cream truck, softly in the distance. I can see my friends’ faces as they heard it too; we’d look at each other at just the right moment, realizing it was time to pause the game, rush home to beg for a dollar, and then get back out into the street in time to stop the truck as he came tinkling down the road. But more than anything, it was the fireworks.

Reading Joan Didion is like reading the 4th of July. It is fireworks in my brain and sitting down with an old friend to chat about and think about everything and nothing, and leaving exhausted by the pure and exhilarating experience of being together again. There’s no special magic to fireworks, once you learn they’re little more than powder, a match, and some cleverly timed fuses. In the same way, one can “figure out” the technical and creative style of Didion in order to explain just how she does what she does, and why it is so compelling. But even now, that knowledge, about fireworks and Didion, remains subliminal, and I continue to be, above all, caught up in the spectacle, in the color and rhythm and choreography of it all.

The White Album is a collection of essays written in the “aftermaths of the 1960s.” Her subject matter ranges from personalities like Doris Lessing to events like the Manson murders. What holds it all together is the skeptical and, in hindsight, sobering but accurate perspective of an often-mistaken view about the United States’ “greatest decade.” Didion takes an unflinching look at the optimism of the 1960s, the supposed freedoms, and the many breakdowns and reckonings of that idealism, the unmasking, as it were, of one decade by its disillusioned successor, the 1970s.

In the first essay, from which the collection takes its title, Didion writes, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live . . . we look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” In other words, the writer’s work at this time was to try to make sense of the senseless, and the 1970s more than any other time revealed that, sometimes, the narrative is simply wrong.

In later essays, she writes about architecture, like governors’ mansions and museums, as signifiers of our culture’s shaken and superficial, even misleading, view of our own past. In “The Getty,” for example, she writes, “the Getty tells us that the past was perhaps different from the way we like to perceive it.” If the collection has one unifying theme, it is this critique on what we Americans think we know about our own past, and how quickly truth and reality seem to slip through our fingers. To read this collection now, in 2018, is a particularly painful and humbling experience.

One of the most under-rated essays in the collection is its last, “Quiet Days in Malibu.” In a way, this piece, written between 1976-1978, is the logical concluding piece not just because it comes near the end chronologically, but because Didion writes about the personal experience of living in Malibu in order to reveal that it, too—the reality of her hometown—is different from how it is perceived by those who live outside of it. Malibu, California has an aura about it that relates to nothing real, according to Didion, just as the 1970s exposed the truth of the 1960s, puncturing its aura forever. Aptly, and somewhat ironically, at the center of her experience in this essay is an immigrant who runs a local flower shop for decades. His are some of the most expensive, sought-after plants in the world and, like everything else, their position is precarious. Danger and uncertainty, instability and tragedy, are always lurking. And yet, so is hope—inexplicable, untraceable, blind hope.

I adore Didion’s writing, so beware my bias. That said, this is perhaps her most tightly themed collection. Despite an essay or two with which I had some intellectual or emotional disagreement (there is one titled “The Women’s Movement” that left me feeling more than conflicted), I felt a fierce and powerful sense of grounded awe while reading these essays and after finishing the collection. This is what I’ve come to expect, personally, from my time with Joan Didion.

The rocket’s red glare. The bombs bursting in air.


This was the fifth book read for my TBR Pile Challenge.


All work found on roofbeamreader.com is copyright of the original author and cannot be borrowed, quoted, or reused in any fashion without the express, written permission of the author.


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Book Review, Contemporary, Crime Novel, Fiction, Stephen King

The Outsider by Stephen King

The Outsider by Stephen King was one of my most anticipated releases of 2018, and one of only two books that I actually pre-ordered this year. I’ve always been a King fan, but something about the description and his development over the last couple of decades heightened my intrigue even further.

I’ve been reading quite a bit of him lately and trying to trace his themes across novels and genres. There are some common threads, and really three distinct avenues that I’ve been able to tack down, thus far: first, his interest in the psychological terror of the unknown/supernatural; second, his interest in morality and the battle of good versus evil; and finally, his interest in the ethics of humanity and the truth(s) of human nature. That said, it seems like The Outsider is in many ways a masterwork that brings together King’s three primary themes and genres, at last. While reading it, I sensed a very delicate and compelling balance between the supernatural horrors of Itand The Shining, with the moral questions embedded in pieces like The Stand and The Shawshank Redemption, and the ethical concerns of his realistic, true crime fiction like “The Body” and Joyland. It is all here, working together almost seamlessly to deliver what is certainly one of King’s best works to date.

The story itself centers around a man named Terry Maitland, a popular man in his small town; he works as an English teacher and coaches the Little League baseball team, currently on a winning streak. He is well-liked, trusted, and respected in the community, almost without question. And then the unthinkable happens. A young boy, one of Maitland’s baseball players, is found dead—indeed, far worse than dead—in a park, and all evidence points to Maitland as the perpetrator. Not only does the town turn on him, and with seemingly every good reason to do so, but slowly, more sinister forces begin to enter the picture as well. At first, the evil unleashed in this town seems to be the result of human nature; there is a mob mentality that develops when a crime so evil, so unspeakable is apparently perpetrated by one of the town’s most unimpeachable residents. The residents find a kind of joy, a catharsis, in bringing as much pain to bear as they possibly can against Maitland and his wife. But not all is as it seems.

After more preventable tragedies, and a lot of early assumptions, there is another murder. The modus operandi is exactly the same as the first crime, but how could this be? Maitland had an alibi for the first murder, a nearly rock-solid one. And he was already under arrest when the next happened. What could be going on in this little town? King spins an elaborate web that spans the country and, like a bizarre supernatural crime novel, the reader is introduced to new characters, new locations, and histories that play more and more significant roles in the unfolding drama and that sometimes lead in one direction, and then another, often falsely. The end might surprise some readers, while others might come to it with met expectations. I, for one, was right about something the entire time, but also completely fooled exactly twice. That made for a fun ride!

Personally, while I was disappointed in a major decision Stephen King makes in the end, and dissatisfied overall with the denouement, I still think this is one of King’s best works because it does bring together all of his best practices and the very reasons why we keep returning to King’s works. King’s characterization is also more on point and balanced in this work than in any others I can think of at the moment. He always has much to say about the human psyche and the ways in which we tend to disappoint one another when we need each other most. Even when the thrills and terrors of supernatural horrors are layered on the surface, creeping us out and giving us the thrills of the genre, it is always the very humandecisions beneath that horror which results in the actual intrigue and terror at the heart of his narratives.

In this case, the situation is somewhat reversed. The crimes committed seem disturbingly possible, and they are described in gruesome, horrifying detail. In fact, it is hard to imagine anything more terrifying than the realistic and all-too-human nature at the surface of the crimes. For that reason, I absolutely loved the first two-thirds of the book and think, had King kept going with the direction the book seems to be taking through that part of the book, it would have ended up being my new favorite. That said, what is clear is that The Outsider is undeniably Stephen King, and in fact, it is Stephen King at his very best.

Are you a Stephen King fan who has read this latest novel? If so, what did you think?

My thoughts on other Stephen King works can be found here.

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Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, Family, Favorites, Fiction, Homosexuality, Justin Torres, LGBT

We the Animals by Justin Torres

Justin Torres’ We the Animals is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novella about a young boy and his two brothers, growing up mixed-race (their father is Puerto Rican and their mother is Caucasian) in New York. Though the book is rather short, at just under 130 pages, it is written as a series of episodes, similar to a short-story compilation, and every episode packs a wallop. As “the boy” and his two brothers, Manny and Joel, grow up, we see their hunger: hunger for food, for love, for attention, for something bigger, better, brighter. They are always hungry for more. They and their parents go through life in a torrent – sometimes smashing and breaking things (and each other) just to have something to do, to have some power over their out-of-control lives. They watch their parents’ violent love affair; they witness their father disappear and reappear; they see their mother working night shifts just to bring home enough food to keep the boys from starving, while she goes without most of the time. And the reader watches “the boy,” the narrator, as he slowly develops into a person different from his family, more intelligent, more sensitive. He is their one hope and they are simultaneously encouraging and envious, until the world comes crashing down around them all and the family is changed forever.

Part of what makes this such a brilliant work is that, although none of these characters is particularly redeeming or heroic, it is impossible not to fall in love with each of them, just a little bit. The reason for this is that they are so believable; none of the characters is simply “the bad guy” or “the good guy.” These are human beings, a family. They are wildly, furiously passionate about and defensive of one another, but they also despise each other at times. The kids love and adore their parents for many reasons, but the parents also manage to disappoint in some way. Likewise, it is easy to believe that Ma and Paps would do anything for their kids, even die for them; but this doesn’t stop them from yelling, beating, or ignoring them at times. The most interesting and effective characterization, then, is not just in the development of the characters as individuals (because that is present, particularly in the narrator), but in the development of the family as a whole and how they live and interact with one another as the years and episodes go by. Their interaction says so much about who they are, what they want and need, and where they are likely to end up when years have come and gone.

Justin Torres’ debut work, is stunningly written. The prose pulls you along with seemingly no effort of your own; it is as if the reader is a ship, the story is the sea, and Torres’ prose is the boat-crew. Whether the story-sea be raging and ravaging the ship or if it be sweetly calm, lapping gently at the boat, Torres’ prose, the crew, is there to guide you, navigating you onward, directing you through the storms and allowing you to settle in, relax, and enjoy the voyage when the weather has calmed. Torres also structures the book in an interesting way, through episodes rather than direct progression. Each short chapter is a scene from the narrator’s life which exposes a certain aspect of the narrator or element of his family.  We learn about the narrator by catching glimpses of various moments he finds important, such as dancing with his brothers and father, or playing messy games with his mother who never seems to tire of the boys’ wild antics. As the episodes move along, the boys grow and the glimpses into their lives become more complicated, more dangerous.  Finally, in the last episodes, we see the narrator for who he has become and the family for what it is, and we are left to hope that all the pieces will someday come together again.

We the Animals is the first book I find impossible to compare to any other, because it is like nothing else I have ever read. It excites you and it saddens you. It terrifies you and it makes you laugh. There is an honesty and reality to this book that is almost unbearable; the story cuts you to the quick one moment and, in the next, is suckling at your fingertips, dulling the pain. The raw emotion from the writer/narrator, be it in discussing family or race, sexuality or poverty, is told in one of the most uniquely genuine and effective ways I have ever experienced. The episodic structure allows readers to see what the narrator believes is most important and, while some could use this type of structure toward one or another character’s benefit (in an omniscient narrator kind of way), this narrator is oddly fair, exposing the good and bad in each person, including himself. This book tackles family, neglect, and poverty; it confronts adultery, pedophilia, and loneliness. It is a book of love and hate, dark and light, and, ultimately, a book of life and existence; a masterful retelling of the world as it is. We the is riveting, gut-wrenching, and bittersweet. Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

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Contemporary, Nic Stone, Race, Young Adult

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Dear Martin by Nic Stone is a timely and important fictional account of the kinds of news stories we hear all too often in the United States lately. Justyce McAllister is a brilliant young man who is mistaken for a criminal and who witnesses one of the worst injustices imaginable. The two incidents cause him to question himself, his place in the world, and his long-held beliefs about race, privilege, opportunity, and justice.

To cope with his thoughts and emotions after the fist incident, where Justyce is brutalized by a Latino police officer, he begins to write letters to Dr. Martin Luther King. The letters are both explorations of himself and questions about society. These letters are interwoven into the story of Justyce’s life, including his growing struggles at school, where he had been at the top of his class and quickly headed to the Ivy League, as well as his difficulties in love, confusions about place and race, and stresses between himself and his best friend, another black teenager who responds differently to the racial tensions surrounding them.

At the heart of this novel are the teachings of Dr. King and Malcolm X. The question of when it is necessary to act or to listen, to proceed with nonviolent resistance, or to radicalize for necessary change. To be peaceful or to rage. What do we do when our own mother tells us we cannot love the person we love simply because of the color of her skin? What do we do when our lifelong friends’ racism becomes more and more obvious, and troubling? How do we choose an identity when we are split between two worlds and do not really belong to, or are accepted by, either one? How do you deal with the pain of discovering the world is not what you thought it was and that your place in it is more precarious than you ever realized? 

So much of what is happening in the world, and in our country specifically right now, is both reflected in and articulated by Nic Stone’s honest, biting, dangerous, beautiful coming-of-age story. Justyce McCallister is so many of us, and so many young people we know. And yet his is a story that continues, though we know it shouldn’t, and goes unspoken and unattended, despite the attentions we pretend to give it. Stone’s novel, like Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, is a modern-day must-read.

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0. 

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