For those who have never read Greek mythology, or who have hit just the basics but not all the extras, here is the story of the half-goddess Circe in a nutshell: She was the daughter of sun god and top Titan Helios, and Perse, an ocean nymph. She was a sorceress who was exiled by Zeus to an island, to which she lured Odysseus on his way home from the Trojan War, seducing him and turning his sailors into pigs.
In Madeline Miller’s book Circe, we get the back story, the forward story, and pretty much the entire kitchen sink of Greek mythology, with mixed results.
We discover that the reason she was exiled by Zeus was that she was either A. clever enough to realize that certain flowers that had been bled upon by gods still contained powers and make use of them, or B. powerful enough within herself (despite no previous knowledge of this) to catastrophically transform both her love (a fisherman) and his subsequent flirt (a nymph) into, respectively, a god and a monster (in the nymph’s case, the monster Scylla).
This book feels like a saga; but is it an epic saga? Certainly it is a long story with many events, much colorful detail, and some extraordinary insight into the natures of both gods and mortals, but…
The main issue I had with the book was that it was a retelling rather than a reimagining. Although Miller certainly did some impressive research and tied things together beautifully, I could wish that she hadn’t tied in quite so much, and had instead focused more on a personal story for Circe. So many Greek myths and personages are crammed into this book’s pages that I felt like the objective of the book ceased at some point to be about Circe and instead focused on giving a slightly more personal feel to a panoply of stories about everybody from Daedalus to the Minotaur to Odysseus. The stories that were told from a first-hand point of view were most of them compelling; but the stories that were related about and to other characters in the book second- or third-hand were, dare I say, a bit tedious?
The book was also both accurate and depressing about the depth of disdain in which women (in which I include goddesses, nymphs and other supernaturals, and human females) were held by both gods and men in these legends and these times. Not that it should have surprised any of us, but the portrayal of the almost offhandedly vicious disregard for women’s feelings, their priorities, and life itself was constant and disheartening.
The parts of the book I loved unreservedly were Circe’s personal experiences and, paradoxically, the most mundane details of the story. After her exile to Aeaea, she must come to terms with being alone and isolated on this island and turn it into her own place. The passages about her immersion in nature and the delight she took in it, and also the narration of the everyday tasks of feeding the livestock, tending her garden, and gathering herbs, learning to weave, and all the daily routine, were beautifully showcased. They made me think of poetry such as William Butler Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” with its mesmerizing tone of joy.
I also rooted for her as she began to come into her powers, trying them out and honing her knowledge and practice of witchcraft. The paradox at which she finally arrives—that despite her embrace of herself and her powers as good, she is also subject to fate and the whims and brutality of those more powerful than she—finally made the book into something more than just a serial retelling of the deeds of heroes.
I also have to say that the language of the book was beautifully simple but evocative and musical, and while there were a few overwrought passages, there were also many phrases that I enjoyed reading over several times as I passed them in the narrative.
I would by all means recommend assaying Circe to anyone with even a faint interest in the subject matter (and by all means pick up her earlier book, The Song of Achilles); but for a story that deals in a much more original manner with the whims of the gods, you could also try The Just City, by Jo Walton. Walton takes the basic natures and legends of a few of the gods and applies a walloping serving of “what if?” to them with amazing results. On the other hand, if you want other personalized treatments of Greek legends and philosophy that are classic, beautifully written and timeless, read the works of Mary Renault: The King Must Die, The Bull from the Sea, The Mask of Apollo, The Last of the Wine. I have enjoyed all her books several times over.
Having read the most recent five of JoJo Moyes’s books, I decided I would visit her back catalogue as well, and being a soft touch for a horse story (as you can see from my nearly unwavering fandom for Dick Francis), I chose
The Horse Dancer.
There are three intertwined stories in this book—one in the past, the other two present-day. The first involves Natasha and her soon-to-be-ex-husband Mac. Natasha is an up-and-coming attorney in the area of child protective services, and channels all her repressed feelings about the end of her marriage into her work and her tentative new relationship with a shiny partner at her firm. Mac is a freelance photographer, and appears to be fairly happy-go-lucky and irresponsible next to the upright and uptight Natasha, but seems to have major regrets about the end of the relationship. The two are in the process of sorting out their mutual possessions and financial issues on the way to divorce when their paths cross with Sarah.
Sarah is a 14-year-old girl who has two major loves in her life: her beloved grandfather, Henri, with whom she lives, and her horse, “Boo.” Her grandfather was, in his youth, a professional rider for the prestigious Cadre Noir, a French dressage academy, but he gave it all up to come to England to marry Florence, the love of his life, recently lost to cancer. Sarah’s dream is to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps and ride with Le Cadre Noir in Saumur, France. Meanwhile, she and her grandfather train the horse in the shadow of an old railway siding in the seedy part of London, where they stable the horse with Henri’s friend, Cowboy Joe. When something terrible happens to Henri, Sarah discovers the fragility of her situation as a child with too many adult responsibilities, and tries her best to deal alone with all the potentially terrible outcomes.
I found this book tremendously moving in several areas. The relationship between Sarah and her horse brought back memories of being that age and wanting that special partnership so badly. (My grandfather, an impulsive bidder at auctions, actually gave me a horse for my birthday when I was 12—an unbroken two-year-old palomino
stallion—and my parents, dismayed by the thought of dealing with the housing, feeding, and exercising of him from the comfort of our suburban lifestyle, made him take it back. I can hardly remember ever feeling more heartbroken.) The scenes that depict the tie between Sarah and Boo are so viscerally and immediately written as to be impossible to resist.
The interplay between Mac and Natasha was painful and confusing, and there were parts I flat-out had trouble believing, but ultimately the idea of the walls we build to protect ourselves that do us more damage than those we built them against resonated with me. The picture Moyes paints of a teen girl who depends on her grandfather and no one else, and of what happens to her when she is thrown on her own resources and believes she must cope all alone, is poignant, real, and frightening. The back story of the grandfather’s youthful experiences in Le Cadre Noir gave the book additional legs. All in all it was a satisfying and touching, albeit somewhat dark, read.
This is a book that is written for adults, but it explores the adult-child (or adult-teen) relationship from both sides, given that it shows both Natasha’s and Sarah’s views of the proper way to deal with the situation in which they find themselves; and I think that there are teens who would appreciate and even benefit from reading this book. Natasha has to transform her view of Sarah as a frustratingly opaque, surly compulsive liar and see that she is a child adrift in an adult’s world who is convinced she has to be as strong and resourceful as an adult; while Sarah has to get past her view of Natasha as a controlling authority figure and see that she is doing her best to be helpful even though Sarah is keeping the bulk of her life secret from everyone. The thing Moyes gets right is that final push through misunderstanding that is essential to a true and lasting love, whether it be between a couple, a parent and child, friends, or a girl and her horse.
As I have mentioned before on this blog, I am a sucker for any book set in Paris. I keep reading any and every book that boasts that city as its backdrop, and more often than not, I am disappointed; Paris, wonderful as it is, just can’t carry a whole book. But occasionally I am not disappointed; here are two books with the Parisian flavor that also delivered as good stories.
The first book is Unbecoming, a debut novel by Rebecca Scherm. I’m happy that I read it before looking at Goodreads to see what people had to say, because everyone there was comparing it to The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, to The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith, and (inevitably and inanely) to Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. Because I did not see all the comparisons to other authors and styles, I was able to approach it “fresh”; and without all those judgments to hinder me, I was delighted by it.
The book takes place partially in the present day and partially in flashback. A girl named Grace is living in Paris, and although she is from Tennessee, she tells people her name is Julie and that she hails from California, because she is in hiding. She is living a quiet life, working for a small shop that specializes in restorations, and spends her days mending teapots and re-setting gems. But there is a mystery in her past, to do with the boy she married and the boy she loved (two different boys); she has just learned that the two have recently been paroled from prison sentences they served after an art heist gone bad that was planned by Grace but from which she escaped unscathed, and now she’s afraid they’ll be after her.
The evolution of the main character and the degrees of denial and self-knowledge, combined with the plots and plans, the failed heist, and the anticipation of revenge, all kept me intrigued throughout this novel. Ironically, the only thing that disappointed me a tiny bit was that the Paris setting wasn’t all that distinct—she worked in a shop with a girl from Poland via Amsterdam; she lived in a suburb outside the city with a German landlady; and there was almost no Parisian “feel” to it, not even in the street market scenes, which were more grim than they were picturesque. Also, more of it actually took place in Garland, Tennessee than in Paris. But that’s a small caveat—this was a skilled debut from an author I will revisit should she write more.
The second book, A Week in Paris, by Rachel Hore, fulfilled every expectation I had for a book that would evoke the feel and ambiance of Paris—the streets, markets, music, cafés, churches, schools, everything. That by itself sets the bar pretty low for a reason to like a novel, but after having read a slew of books that promised me Paris and didn’t deliver, this one was completely satisfying—not only for that reason, however!
Although the two protagonists, mother and daughter, are both English by birth, both of their stories—one beginning in 1937 and the other in 1961—take place in the City of Light. Fay Knox, the daughter, knows little of Kitty Knox’s story, or in fact her own; her childhood before the age of six is a complete blank to her, and her mother doesn’t talk about it, with the excuse that it’s too painful to revisit the time directly after she lost her beloved husband, Eugene.
Two things happen nearly simultaneously that lead Fay to that past: Kitty has what amounts to a nervous breakdown and is hospitalized in an asylum to recuperate; and Fay is hired by an orchestra (she is an accomplished violinist) to play three dates in Paris over the course of a week’s time. When Kitty’s doctor convinces Fay that in these early stages of her depression her mother won’t even notice that she’s gone, Fay takes the job and, while in Paris, connects with an old friend of her mother’s who reveals a surprising and disturbing version of the past that Fay has never heard before.
Both the story and the style of writing reminded me of Kate Morton, particularly evoking her book The Distant Hours. I’m tempted to describe it as Kate Morton “lite,” although I don’t mean that in a negative way; simply that, as detailed as Hore’s book is, it’s simplicity itself when compared to the microscopic descriptiveness of Morton’s works. But the pattern of a mystery from the past intruding itself on the present, and a daughter attempting to solve the puzzle of her mother’s life, are quite similar, and equally well done. I haven’t read anything else of Hore’s, but will definitely seek something out soon.
Either of these books, in fact, would appeal to someone who appreciates a mystery but doesn’t wish to read about murder, victims, police, or the other trappings of a straight-up mystery novel. I guess you could call them “puzzle” books rather than mysteries, but the solution to a secret from the past is integral to their plot lines.
An extra comment: I am always intrigued by what publishers do to sell their books once they make the move from hardcover to paperback. Unbecoming went from a cover that did express its contents, though weirdly turned on its side, to something that looks like a rather obvious young adult novel about a girl who disappears, while the cover of A Week in Paris morphed from a photo that evoked the somewhat somber mood of the story to one that might more accurately portray its contents, but with a typeface choice that gives it a slightly upbeat chick lit feel. Do book art directors ever actually read the books, one wonders?
Even though, by and large, e-books tend to cost a lot less than picking up a hardcover, those $1.99 to $9.99 charges do eat away at your budget. I try to check out as many as possible from the public library, but often the book either isn’t digitally available from my library, or it’s on hold due to the burgeoning population of Los Angeles folk who have discovered this economical way to read. But there is another way, which was recently shared with me and which I will share with you: Books in the public domain. There are many e-books (notably the classics, but others as well) that you can obtain for free from a variety of sources; E-book Friendly recently shared a list of 25 sources where you can find a free e-book to read. While you are there, be sure to explore the website’s other lists and resources.
Many have by now read the popular book Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes, about the lower-class girl living an ordinary and rather stultifying life, who first works for, then falls for the upper-class guy who happens to be a quadriplegic. Both of their lives are transformed (and also derailed) by their relationship, and hankies are passed at the end. I’m sure some have also seen the movie.
Although the first book was wildly popular (#1 NYT Bestseller), the second book, After You, got fairly short shrift by some readers (and reviewers), who apparently didn’t think that Louisa Clark was a compelling enough character to carry the story on her own. I differed with that opinion, and though my first judgment of the book was “adequate and somewhat endearing sequel that wasn’t quite up to the first book,” upon re-reading it recently I revised my opinion upward. The thing I particularly enjoy about Moyes’s books is her character development: She doesn’t just flesh out her protagonist and other main folks, she makes sure to create a complete and usually quirky personality for everyone who appears for even a moment. The result is lively and specific interaction on every page.
I will say that the first third of the book bored me a little, and I was just about to opt out when a couple of new and unexpected characters popped up and put some pizzazz into the story. I ended up enjoying it quite a bit more than I initially expected.
The third book, Still Me, took Louisa out of her British background and environment and put her up against a new life in New York City, which finally gave her the chance to expand beyond Will Traynor, and beyond the essentially small-town girl she remained in the second book, despite her travels and new relationships. It still, however, highlighted the gaping trench between the classes, with the difference that in New York City, it’s all about the money. The glimpses of city life and how much it differs for the rich vs. the poor were intriguing, the ups and downs of romance were good, but where this author shines, again, is in the creation of her characters. Although they were all compelling, I particularly enjoyed the elderly fashion maven, Margot, and her pug dog, Dean Martin.
If you liked the first but hated the second, you might enjoy the third. If you liked both books #1 and #2, then you definitely should get you some more Louisa Clark. And if you never got around to reading any of them, maybe you will want to give them a try!
The author, JoJo Moyes, has been quite outspoken about the presentation of some of her titles as “chick lit,” saying
“I just try to tell a story which will maybe make people feel something, and perhaps think a little too. Ultimately, fiction is entertainment and no matter how beautifully or thoughtfully done, it succeeds or fails based on whether people are entertained.” We touched on this in my readers’ advisory class in our discussion of mainstream fiction: Joyce Saricks, readers’ advisory guru, in the chapter entitled “Emerging Genres” she penned for the book Genreflecting, argues that this type of book falls into a bigger category called “Women’s Fiction.” She defines women’s fiction as consisting of “books written primarily by women for women, that feature female characters, and that address the issues women face in their professional and domestic lives.” While acknowledging that this is a solid and definite trend, especially if you include the outliers of chick lit and erotica, I find the descriptor “women’s fiction” to be somewhat pejorative—dismissive and ghettoizing. Perhaps I am wrong, and should look at the positive elements of this: that women are writing, that women are writing about other women, that we have a positive trend to claim. But! No one ever called any aspect of fiction (except perhaps the truly macho genres, such as westerns) “men’s fiction.” When men were the primary writers of fiction, it was all just fiction, whether literary, mainstream, or genre-based. So why do we need to distinguish “women’s fiction”? It raises my hackles a bit.
I would like to propose that a more useful way of designating this subset of mainstream fiction might be “relationship fiction.” It still focuses on the most important aspect of so-called women’s fiction, which is the relationships between the characters, but it would include such male writers as Nicholas Sparks, Chris Bohjalian, Matthew Quick, and other men who write about relationships, sometimes from the viewpoint of a female protagonist, and would additionally embrace so-called family stories, while avoiding the condescending terminology that puts female writers in a subtly “less than” category.
Regardless of how you label them, JoJo Moyes’ books are, as she aspires to be, both thoughtful and entertaining.
In my view, books should be brought to the doorstep like electricity, or like milk in England: They should be considered utilities, and their cost should be appropriately minimal. Barring that, poetry could be sold in drugstores (not least because it might reduce the bill from your shrink). At the very least, an anthology of American literature should be found in the drawer of every room in every motel in the land, next to the Bible, which will surely not object to this proximity, since it does not object to the proximity of the phone book.
—Joseph Brodsky, “An Immodest Proposal”
This is the time of year when I look back at all the books I read in the past 365 days, and ponder which were my favorites, which were the best books I read this year, and whether those are one and the same. Goodreads, where I record my reading, conveniently keeps track of statistics for those who set a reading goal, so before I get to the specifics, here are some of mine:
I read 41,346 pages across 113 books.
My shortest book was an e-book-only novella (71 pages) by Sharon Bolton, while my longest was a reread of a Diana Gabaldon book (928 pages) in preparation for the next season of Outlander on TV. The average length of book I read was 365 pages.
The most popular book I read this year was (surprisingly) The Princess Bride, by William Goldman (which I read for high school book club), while the least popular (though one of the most useful to me) was the “textbook” (Reading Still Matters, by Catherine Sheldrick Ross) that I assigned to my readers’ advisory students in the masters program at UCLA. And the highest rated book that I read, according to Goodreads, was The Empty Grave, a young adult horror novel that is the final chapter of the Lockwood & Co. books by Jonathan Stroud, a wonderfully entertaining series for 8th grade and up.
One of my favorite books of the year, but not one I would consider a “best book,” would be Thick as Thieves, by Megan Whalen Turner. It was a favorite for a couple of reasons: It was a long-anticipated fifth in her beloved Queen’s Thief series (beloved by me, though apparently unknown to far too many people); and it had her typical intricate yet understated plotting and humor that made me appreciate it throughout and also at the end. But for most people, it would probably be far too subtle to consider as a “best book,” and it needs to be viewed within its setting as part of a series to give the full effect. If you are, however, looking for a good and also untypical fantasy immersion to start off your year of reading, pick up The Thief (the first book) and savor the story through The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, and finally, Thick as Thieves. It’s one of those series that gets exponentially better as it goes along.
Tess is a slow, compelling, character-driven fantasy, so if you are impatient for breathless action, it may not be for you. But I found the writing, the characters, and the story all to be completely gripping. Tess’s transformation throughout the book was a fabulous coming-of-age story for resentful and impetuous young women everywhere. I identified with her repression by a rigid, religious mother, was dismayed by the ways she tried to disengage from her life, and was delighted by her choices, though some of them seemed idiotic in the moment.
Defy the Stars was entertaining from start to finish. I loved the characters—Noemi is so idealistic, stern, determined, and committed, but with a squishy interior that occasionally surfaces. Abel is, well, a ROBOT—this is my favorite robot book since the Lije Bailey/Daneel Olivaw pair-up in Isaac Asimov’s old mystery series. As with Daneel, Abel turns out to be so much more, mostly because his creator, Burton Mansfield, gave him enough agency to continue developing on his own. But Noemi is really the catalyst who brings him to his ultimate personhood. What I especially liked about this book is that it gave you a glimpse into possible worlds that could have been colonized from Earth, and how they evolved differently depending on the expectations and ideals of their colonizers. This isn’t just space opera; it also goes into religion, environmentalism, and politics, and is thought-provoking in all areas.
One of my faves that I would also consider a “best book” was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. Her quirky character Eleanor is, in many ways, profoundly broken, and Eleanor’s metamorphosis depends on courage that she wouldn’t have found without making some human connections, but it is not a romantic book, for which I was grateful. Her story is told in a tender, sweet, and humorous way that isn’t manipulative and never descends into mawkishness, that pulls both Eleanor and the reader out of melancholy into hopefulness. I was impressed that this was the author’s debut novel: The language, the characters, and the world in which she places them are smart and engaging, and she writes with confidence. I have always believed re-reading potential is the true test of a good book, and as soon as I finished this one, I wanted to go back and read it again to feel the emotions brought forth in me by the story.
In the mystery category, I thoroughly enjoyed the reliable offerings from among my list of favorites: Louise Penny, Elly Griffiths, Robert Crais, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, Sharon Bolton, and Craig Johnson; but the most anticipated and most enjoyed one had to be Lethal White, by Robert Galbraith, aka J. K. Rowling. I was completely enthralled by everything about the book: The initial mystery, of the mentally ill homeless man who has fastened onto the fame of detective Cormoran Strike and touchingly believes that only he can ferret out the truth about something the man witnessed as a child, is just the kind of thing that Cormoran latches onto like a dog with a chew toy and won’t let go until he’s thoroughly decimated it. But then, to have not one but two more cases to solve, both of which go somewhat against the usual principles that Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott consult before taking on a client, boosted up the energy exponentially. I was thrilled that the book picked up right where book #3 (Career of Evil) left off, which was immediately after the wedding ceremony in which Robin married the detestable Matthew Cunliffe. When she returns to work as Cormoran’s partner, he labors to keep their private lives carefully separate, giving the reader a delicious simultaneous sensation of frustration and anticipation as we find out where their personal choices will lead them.
I have already mentioned, in a recent post, my favorite fantasy of this year, Muse of Nightmares, by Laini Taylor; if you have, in your past, been prejudiced against books because they were given a “young adult” categorization, please let go of that long enough to pick up and read Strange the Dreamer and Muse of Nightmares. You won’t be sorry. I will add to the best fantasy category another, completely different offering: Vengeful, the long-awaited sequel to Vicious by V. E. Schwab.
As usual, being the bibliophile that I am, I managed to find a few new novels based on reading and bookstores to add to my list, including The Bookshop of Yesterdays, by Amy Meyerson, Paris by the Book, by Liam Callanan, and The Lost for Words Bookshop, by Stephanie Butland. I think the last would be my favorite of these.
Please feel free to respond with your comments on any of my favorites, and share your own—if I receive enough responses, I will publish an end-of-the-year book bonanza from readers, full of ideas for January catch-up!
“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resides, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that beats only in the chest of another.”
—Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby (2013)