The Song of Achilles is a novel by Madeline Miller that focuses on the relationship between Achilles and his gay lover Patroclus before and during the siege of Troy. Miller takes from the source material of the Iliad and works in a deeply powerful mortal relationship not often written about in Greek mythology. The relationship been Achilles and Patroclus is written naturally and fluidly to offer a look into their budding understanding of each other. It’s a heartfelt, and at times, moving piece that works in Greek legend, the human condition, and a history that has been long overlooked. It was crafted in a way that let me ease into the work of Ancient Greece without being shocked. I also appreciated the relationship cultured between Patroclus and his father and Achilles and Thetis.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
American Short Fiction Issue 74 is a collection of short stories that deals in the strange and sometimes overlooked parts of the world. The characters in ‘After Hours at the Acacia Pool’ by Kirstin Valdez Quade, ‘Transit’ by Morgan Thomas, and ‘Sissies’ by hurmat kazmi are all seen as weird and different in the worlds around them. I am particularly fascinated with both ‘Transit’ and ‘Sissies’ whose language and moments feel right in the bizarre contexts they are within. I don’t often read a collection of short stories and find quality in each piece.
Final Rating: 4/5
Searching for Sylvie Lee is a novel by Jean Kwok which focuses on the disappearance and death of the character Sylvie Lee in the Netherlands. It is split into three narratives: the mother, Amy who is the sister, and Sylvie Lee before she goes missing. I found the threads of Asian themes worked well to show the alienation and distancing that Asians face in other countries. And I felt that the story was elegant in continuing to hold tension about Sylvie’s death up until the last moments. The reports, phone calls, messages, and emails felt natural in the novel and worked to vary the way the story was told. I enjoyed the drama, suspense, and action that existed, but I felt there were a few things that didn’t work as well.
First, I think that the thread that follows the mother is too static and acts to slow down and work against the narrative. For the majority of the story, up until the last chapter where the mother is the narrator, nothing happens to her or there isn’t a driving force for her. I think Kwok may have also realized this too as the chapters with the mother are barely three pages long each. There isn’t much ground covered in those moments, and so I didn’t feel personally attached to the character. And while I realize that she can’t speak English well, I didn’t think the intentional use of improper grammar worked to enliven the character. If anything, the grammar forced the mother character into an Asian stereotype. I would’ve liked to either have seen more of the mother in moments with Willem or her own struggles, or taken her narrative thread out altogether. The only thing that would require reworking is her reveal about her affair with Willem, but that could just be added in as dialogue.
I had initially enjoyed the sayings that all the characters used that acted as direct metaphors to the situations, but I felt that there were far too many. The metaphors lost all their subtly and felt far too heavy-handed. For example, the lines, “’You guys are bad influences. Those who associate with dogs get fleas,’” are redundant even though one is a metaphor. It would make sense to me if only a single character said these lines, but the grandmother, mother, Amy, and Sylvie all say them at one point, and so it felt like their meanings were deluded.
Overall, I enjoyed the suspense and the drama that unfolded in the novel. Generally, the weaving of the narratives held up, and I found myself reading that last hundred pages in a sprint. Though, the novel doesn’t come without its faults, which I felt worked to slow down the pace and box in certain characters.
Final Rating: 3/5
The Immortals of Tehran by Ali Araghi is a novel that encompasses the breadth of an Iranian family and the conflicts they become involved in. It’s a novel about family, magic, relationships, politics, war, and is written in the same vein and voice that a weaving family history would be told in. The story mainly focuses on Ahmad, a son who can’t speak after he is forced to shoot his father, where he learns what it means to exist within conflict. Araghi is able to create a sweeping narrative that captures magic found within the family’s curse of living forever, the burning ability of Ahmad’s poetry, and the flowers created after a musician plays songs. The magic adds curiosity, suspension, and all felt wonderful within the world that Araghi builds.
I was especially impressed with how Araghi navigates the death of one of the immortal characters, Agha. Reading the portions where Agha observes himself to be dead and a celebration/funeral is thrown in his honor is surreal. And I felt the finality of setting Agha back in his tree, where he will reside in forever, was a fitting and bittersweet moment with both Ahmad and his grandfather, Khan. I also found the tie in with the story about the cats in the beginning added an air of legend to an already mythical story. Finally, in the last few pages of the novel, the narrator, in a way, identifies themselves which, not only adds to its parallelism with the cat story, but becomes a story about a story. This feels like a story that a grandpa tells their grandson, something passed so delicately from one mouth to another about how the family came to be. And for that, I loved it.
Final Rating: 5/5
The Best American Short Stories 2021 is a collection of twenty stories edited by Jesmyn Ward and selected for their literary quality. The stories contemplated queerness, gender, race, and class all in intrinsically unique and bold ways. I was completely enamored with six of the stories, many of them focusing on what it means to be gay or queer. These stories were ‘Good Boy’ by Eloghosa Osunde, ‘Palaver’ by Bryan Washington, and ‘Biology’ by Kevin Wilson. I was also enthralled by the voices and storytelling of ‘Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain’ by Jamil Jan Kochai, ‘The Miracle Girl’ by Rita Chang-Eppig, and ‘The Rest of Us’ by Jenzo Duque. Overall, the collection was strong, poignant, contemplative, and tender.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
48 Blitz by Brett Biebel is a collection of flash fiction and short stories centered around Nebraska. Its stories intermingle and branch off each other, making reference to the local politician, the football legend, and even the inmate on death row. The collection features unique and sometimes humorous characters all while cultivating a Midwestern charm.
What popped out at me from the get-go was the specific and unique voice of the pieces. The style felt like a warm bowl of cheesy grits, which was most appreciated in the piece, ‘The Fat Man’. I was also intrigued by the more technical pieces. These highlights included, ‘A Simple Explanation of Benefits’, ‘The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes’, and ‘Supply and Demand’. The piece however that stood out from the collection was, ‘Luisa’, for its change in voice and style. It was a more conventionally written piece but acted as a strong emotional closer to the collection.
Final Rating: 4/5
Freeman’s: Change is a collection of stories, non-fiction pieces, and poems that are loosely tied to the theme of change. It features writers such as Ocean Vuong, Lauren Groff, Rick Bass, and Yoko Ogawa. I found the particular pieces by Christy NaMee Eriksen (a writer who I knew from a local poetry slam club), Ocean Vuong, Lana Bastašić, and Siarhiej Prylucki to be stunning. Though, there were pieces that lacked the sparkle I was hoping for.
I’d like to especially highlight two pieces that struck a massive chord in me, and one of them was Ocean Vuong’s story called Künstlerroman. His story details the life of a man going backwards in time as he watches on. He is so delicate and powerful with his words, that I couldn’t stop rereading the sentence, “Then the cake on the table, air returning to the boy’s pursed lips as the seven candles, one by one, begin to light, and the wish returns to his head where it’s truer for never being touched by language.” The other piece that blew me away was Bread by Lana Bastašić. It was haunting, and painful, and deeply true in its rendition of what it means to be a girl becoming a woman.
Final Rating: 4/5
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is a novel about a marsh girl, Kya, who was abandoned by her family and left to fend for herself in the marsh of North Carolina. Years later, she is accused of murdering Chase Andrews, one of her past boyfriends, because some clues lead back to her. It is a story about loneliness, love, loss, and nature.
While I enjoyed the descriptions of nature and the initial set-up of the story, I was more or less underwhelmed with the story. The largest thing that stuck out to me was that a lot of the side characters that were black, Jumpin’, Mabel, and Jacob all talked in an overly stereotypical manner. Kya however, who only went to school once in her life and was self-educated with little contact with the outside world, spoke perfectly clear English without a twang. I’m not sure if this was unintentional, but I was put off by that.
To get more granular, I found that chapter 33, where Jodie came back, was stuffed into the narrative. Both the characters were written awkwardly and there was too much exposition/explaining of what Ma did when she left. In addition, the last chapter was directionless, and the two deaths were not impactful.
And my final gripe is that the last third of the story was simply a court drama where Kya was let off Scot-free. The court, while a needed aspect to push the story forward, didn’t add feeling to Kya’s actions. It was more or less dull in its retelling.
Final Rating: 2/5
My Share of the Body by Devon Capizzi is a collection of stories centered around the loss of loved ones and what that means. Each story takes a look into the delicate underpinnings of families and relationships that continue to move forward after death. In a way, Capizzi both writes about and around grief to process what it means to be human.
The final story, “Closing the Distance” was deeply powerful in that it created this stinging tension between the mother and daughter. It continued on until the last moments where they seemed to begin mending back their relationship, even as the loss of their father pervaded.
Final Rating: 4/5
Long Division by Kiese Laymon follows two narratives that are closely tied together. The first begins with a boy in 2013 named City, who becomes famous overnight from a speech at a national sentence contest. The second narrative follows another boy, by the same name, living in 1985, where he finds a time portal to 1965 and 2013. The characters and themes of each part look to tackle race and racism in America.
What I found interesting and fairly fun is the way the novel is self-referential. In the story, there is a book also called Long Division that acts as a side character for both City’s, since they each have one part of the book. And I found that the amount of wit and wordplay in the story felt fluid and was engaging.
However, in the last few chapters, there is one scene where a building is about to be lit on fire with the body of Lerthon Coldson in it. But I found it odd that Baize was able to simply put on a song to cause the Klansmen to stop their plan and join in dancing. The premise just felt somewhat inconsistent with the tone and trajectory with the rest of the scene.
Overall, it was a nice read, and the voices of the characters seem they have been written with their age in mind. And finally, I liked how the story ended with a sprinkle of hope to get Baize back from disappearing.
Final Rating 3.5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.