Being brutally honest about books

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Maya's Notebook by Isabel Allende

Maya's Notebook
Date finished: 19 March 2015

Although she's a bestselling author, the only reason I've heard about Isabel Allende is because she was mentioned in Spanish class a couple of times last year and the year before. About a month ago I was looking for Hispanic writers to read, and remembered her name and looked up her books. This one sounded alright, so I picked it up from the school library and gave it a go. I found myself liking it more than I expected.

Maya's Notebook is a beautiful story about grief and healing, but also a dark tale about addiction and crime. The contrast between Maya in Las Vegas and Maya in Chiloé at the end of the novel shows amazing character development as well as healing, and seeing her get better throughout the novel fills you with hope that while life can get bad, with time and effort and the love of others, it will improve.

There are lots of fantastic quotes about life and love, such as

Life is a tapestry we weave day by day with threads of different colours, some heavy and dark, others thin and bright, all the threads having their uses.


It doesn’t matter who we love, nor does it matter whether our love is reciprocated or not or if the relationship lasts. Just the experience of loving is enough, that’s what transforms us.

This novel is very slow-paced and I struggled to get through it at first. I very nearly gave up on it, exhausted by the long paragraphs and lack of variation in sentence length, but I persevered. Once I got through the first 30 or 40 pages, it got easier to read and even became enjoyable. Even though there is little in the way of action, Maya's Notebook is still a good read and I ended up really liking it.

I thought the structure was quite effective. Usually I'm not a fan of flashbacks, but because there are two stories being told linearly, one in the past and one in the present, it worked and I liked slowly uncovering the story of Maya's past, how her life gets worse and worse, while in the present she makes progress towards getting better.

The setting is what initially interested me. I've always wanted to go to Chile, and learning about Chilean/Chilote culture was fascinating. I had no idea what Chilean life was like, so this book opened my eyes to the reality of it. I grew up in a tiny, isolated place too, but it was nothing like Chiloé, so seeing how the community in this novel works together was lovely.

The first person point of view made me sympathise with Maya, which was good because I don't think I would have, otherwise. I cannot relate to Maya in any way, but I cared about her, feeling sorry for her when she was at her lowest in Las Vegas and wanting her to heal and be safe in Chiloé.

While it is slow-paced and long, this book is not at all boring, and the characters and relationships, rather than gripping plot, are what plays an important part in the story. I highly recommend Maya's Notebook to anyone wanting to read about Chile and what it takes to move on from the past. I know I'll be picking up other Isabel Allende books, after reading this one.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Date finished: 11 March 2015

I'd been meaning to read this book for about a year, ever since I did a Classics internal on The Iliad vs Troy (2004) in Year 12, and I'm very glad I finally read it. Doing this study meant that I knew the story - and loved it - so I hoped that I would also love The Song of Achilles. And I did.

I knew the basics of what would happen (I won't give away any spoilers, even though the story is thousands of years old) but this book focuses on Patroclus, a character we don't get to see much in the original story, and gives him a background, which is new and interesting. I adored seeing his relationship with Achilles develop, and there were plenty of moments that made me fangirl. There is a tonne of foreshadowing, which I kept picking up on and almost crying over. *Spoiler alert* Even though I knew what was going to happen, I kept thinking, "Maybe Patroclus won't die this time," but it happens so fast that I was not at all prepared. I don't know how to describe the plot other than epic and tragic, and I loved how the author breathed new life into characters who have been around for a hell of a long time. (That's true immortality, I think - that we still remember the names of and care about Achilles and Patroclus in the 21st Century - even though they die.)

The writing is beautiful. It flows very well and is easy to read. It's the kind of simplistic style that anyone can read and enjoy, and I loved the description and dialogue. As the book is written in the first person, we only get one character's perspective, but it's okay because it's a character we don't know much about compared to some of the more famous characters like Achilles, or Helen of Troy (*cough* Sparta!). To retell an age-old myth, emotive language is needed to give the novel some originality, and Madeline Miller succeeds in doing this.

When I first learnt about The Iliad and the Trojan War, my favourite characters were Achilles and Patroclus. As they are the main characters of this book, that remains the case. Their characterisation in this novel is fantastic and, well, there's no other way to say this, but I ship them so hard! They are complete opposites, hero and antihero, and their relationship really makes you think about friendship and love and fate. They treat each other as equals, even though all the other characters think of Patroclus as a disgrace, an exile, unworthy of Achilles, but they love each other for eighteen years, and in the end they don't get the happy ending we want for them, which breaks the heart.

There are strong themes in this book that also bring out the emotions. Love and sacrifice are important, as is the concept of heroism. At one point, Achilles says, "Name one hero who was happy," and I think that quote is just the saddest thing. In this book, we know that Achilles is fated to be a hero, and he is one, but we don't know if he, or Patroclus, is ever truly happy. Like I said, this story is tragic.

In summary: This book killed me. It broke my heart with every bit of foreshadowing, and the last few chapters just hurt my soul. And I loved every minute of it, masochist as I am. If you are a young Classics nerd like me or just a lover of male/male relationships, you must read The Song of Achilles. It will break you and you'll thank the author for doing so.
I'm Alexandria, a 19-year-old reader/writer/blogger from New Zealand. I love language, history, and sci-fi. Hi! I'm always around if you want to talk, which you can do via comments, the contact form, or Facebook.

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