Raven Black by Ann Cleeves

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As periodically happens, I went on a mystery kick for a bit, re-reading Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (second in her Armand Gamache series) and starting a new (to me) series by Ann Cleeves.  Raven Black, the first book in her Inspector Perez series, traces Inspector Jimmy Perez’s investigation into the murder of a local girl, Sally Henry, when she disappears after a night of revelry with her best friend.  Magnus Tait, a mentally delayed man who was the last person to see Sally and who was supposedly involved in the disappearance of a young girl years before, is the immediate suspect, but neither Perez nor Fran, a recent arrival to the remote community with her daughter who lives close to the murder scene, are convinced.  As Perez’s investigation deepens, social structures, relationships, and deeply held secrets all threaten to come undone.

This is a solid mystery.  It’s set in the Shetland Islands, a new location for me in my reading.  The pace of the mystery as well as revelations was good.  Nothing felt gratuitous or unlikely, and every revelation or break in the case was well-supported without being telegraphed.  The novel reads very quickly, and the flow was such that it was easy for me to not just keep going but to want to keep going.

Cleeves writes the story from multiple perspectives, starting with Magnus Tait.  These sections, in my opinion, are some of the best.  They are certainly the most upsetting.  Cleeves does a fantastic job conveying Magnus’s confusion, fear, jumbled memories, and lack of understanding of what is going on around him.  Her writing of him is both specific and empathetic, and these sections created both the strongest reaction and buy-in from me as I read.  I also liked Perez.  He is a good detective with strong instincts, and the personal conflict he was dealing with throughout the novel supported his character development without detracting from the mystery.  Overall, most of the characters seemed complete, but I did feel like I was watching a lot of them from a distance, even when I was reading from their perspectives “inside” their heads.  As a result, some elements of the novel felt a bit perfunctory.  The stakes didn’t all feel real or seem to matter until the end, and even then, there wasn’t a visceral connection for the reader.  So much of mystery writing is about convey the very real, horrible, and human emotions and experiences around such an event as murder, and for me, the characters just felt a bit detached.

Additionally, and this is a small thing, the jumps in time felt abrupt to me.  For example, people are having a conversation in a car, and one sentence later, they’ve jumped 30 minutes ahead in time and are at a party in the house.  The problem for me wasn’t the jumps in time themselves but the construction of those jumps–no transition words or statements to indicate time and place had moved ahead or changed.  A couple of times, I had to go back and reread to make sure I knew when and where everyone was.  It bothered me because it didn’t feel like a purposeful structural choice, just jarring and disorienting.

That being said, the twist at the end was great.  I totally didn’t see it coming, but it absolutely made sense when it happened.  I didn’t completely buy the events that wrapped up the ending, but the twist was completely earned–the kind M. Night Shyamalan can only dream of.

As far as British-style mysteries go, it wasn’t my favorite, but it wasn’t the worst.  It was very different from the Slow Horses series I’d been checking out, and I think generally I like this better.  However, I wondered as I was reading if it might not work better on television where the visuals of the Shetlands, which are supposed to be a huge part of the atmosphere of the novel, can have a more immediate impact.  I will probably read the second one in the series at some point, but like Slow Horses, the second novel needs to be a significant step up for me to continue the series after that.

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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I’ve been out of the YA game pretty much since I started teaching college-level classes, though I sometimes dip my toe back in.  But I kept hearing about this book, Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give.  It sounded good and something I should probably read.  And the book I thought I should probably read became a book I should read and then became a book I had to read, especially when my friend, Alexis, forcefully handed me her signed copy with a look that said, “You have to read this book, but if you damage or harm or lose this book, I will destroy you with the fire of a 1000 suns.”  You don’t mess around with Alexis gives you that look.  You do what she asks.  And she was right.  This is a phenomenal book, a book that I had to read, and a book that we all have to read.

The Hate U Give tells the story of Starr Carter, a young African-American teenager who moves between the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy neighborhood of her private prep school.  She maintains an itchy, uneasy balance between the two worlds until the night her childhood best friend is murdered by a police officer in front of her.  The resulting trial and its aftermath tear open Starr’s world in a myriad of ways, as she is the only one who really knows what happened that night.  As she fights for her voice and her identity, she has to decide whether or not to fight for peace and justice as well.

When I was reading a lot of YA, dystopian YA was very “in”, and I had several conversations with people who wondered why that was so.  It was, in part, because the stories gave teen readers worlds where they could have control, where the actions of adults had consequences, and they, the teens, were the ones who could actually fix, change, or save things.  It created real-world empowerment in a fictionalized safe space.  The thing I’m seeing now, though, is that it’s not dystopian worlds that are the thing–it’s our real world—the here and now–because our world is such a difficult place it can no longer be ignored.  This is a good thing.

THUG is about empowerment, finding and using your voice, speaking truth to power, and accepting discomfort and growing from it.  It’s about fighting for the right to live in safety, to not be discriminated against, and to not be controlled neither by others’ fear nor our own.  Actions, good and bad, should and do have consequences, good and bad, and we have to continue fighting for what is right and good and true.

Thomas is a masterful writer, creating nuance and emotion and clarity with the simplest phrase, and she foregrounds ideas and topics integral to humanity today through realistic portrayals of lived experience.  This book is immediate, visceral, timely, and timeless.  It deals with police brutality and the lack of accountability and justice; the anxiety and challenges of code switching; the loss of friendship in many forms; school choice; and, at its root, identity.  It explores the challenges of our society from the African-American perspective, but it allows those of use who have had different experiences from the characters in the book to move closer to understanding what life could be like one neighborhood over or across the city.  Because here’s the deal.  As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently said in her keynote address at the 2018 NCTE conference (and I’m paraphrasing), it is important to read about people who are not like you because most of the world is not like you.  Any story, if done well, becomes universal because stories are all about being human, and all writers are identity writers because identity shapes the way the world interacts with us and the way we interact with the world.  And that is what THUG captures so clearly and beautifully.

So yes, you have to read this book.  And if THUG exemplifies what our young adults are reading now, there may be hope for the future yet.

 

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

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Ok, my middle and high school self (and, let’s be real, my adult self) is squealing with excitement.  Katherine Arden VERY quickly pushed out her the second book in her Winternight trilogy, a follow up to her gorgeous The Bear and the Nightingale, and I’m so delighted to share that it is just as good as the first!

The Girl in the Tower starts with Vasya on the road to Moscow, disguised as a boy traveler, trying to get to her brother Sasha, who is now a warrior monk, and her sister Ogla, a princess in the Russian court.  Both she and Sasha independently discover that someone is burning villages and kidnapping young girls, and they are determined to figure out what’s going on and save their people.  However, her very presence complicates things for Sasha and Olga as they navigate their precarious roles in the court of the grand prince Dmitrii, and if Vasya’s disguise were to be discovered, she (and her siblings) could be punished for indecency or even witchcraft.  All the while, her relationship with the frost demon Morozko gets complicated, the mysterious newcomer Kasyan Lutovich keeps everyone on edge, and a supernatural evil is once again afoot.

I loved it!  LOVED it!!  I know I say that about a lot of books, but I really did.  Arden is a master of world building.  This was a book where I wanted to keep reading as fast as I could, but I also didn’t want the book to end.  I wanted to stay in that world a while longer and was sad when I had to leave.  This time there is a shift in the world, and Arden brings us more into the real world of 14th century Russia.  It’s a really interesting shift away from the safety and explicitly magical contexts of the rural village and forest and highlights the widespread impact of forces beyond our control.  The Moscow setting also foregrounds the clash of the old and new that was so central to The Bear and the Nightingale in a more urban context, as well as the real dangers to Vasya in an increasingly religious country as more and more people forget the old ways, causing the chyerti to fade.  And to be clear, it is not anti-religious but more an exploration of what happens when beliefs, traditions, and values change at both a local and national scale.

Even when exploring these larger ideas, Arden stays focused on her characters, and the relationship building was really beautiful this time.  It’s the first time we really have a chance to see Vasya in relationship with her siblings, and the relationships with Sasha and Olga are both beautiful, messy, loving, complicated, and completely distinct.  No matter what magical forces are tugging at them, no matter what sort of societal or royal responsibilities they have, this is a real family with real fears, hopes, and dreams for themselves and for each other.  I also really loved the way that Arden turns the trope of the girl and the magical being on its head a bit.  Morozko was so confident and in control in the first book, and here we see more of his humanity (he might argue weakness) because Vasya makes choices he doesn’t always expect.  She unbalances him, and it’s written in a really lovely way.  And finally, Vasya’s relationship with Solovey, her horse, is always a highlight.  Perhaps it’s a bit Disney-esq, giving Vasya an anthropomorphized animal sidekick, but Solovey is delightful, loyal, and constant.  Besides, who doesn’t love a story about a girl and her horse?

I really love the perfect blend of historical fiction and fairy tale-based fantasy that Arden creates.  Her work is meticulously researched in both areas, and she weaves them together seamlessly.  And it doesn’t hurt that Vasya is a great, complex, and real heroine, especially for high school readers.  If you were only to read one book in the series, read The Bear and the Nightingale.  But honestly, read the whole series.  I cannot wait for the 3rd one!

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

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I mentioned in the previous post that I had to take a break from Eleanor Oliphant and read something cheerier.  I chose Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation.  It explores the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley through Vowell’s road trip pilgrimages, so to speak, to sites relating to the presidents and their assassins, John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, and Leon Czolgosz respectively.  Vowell also spends some time on John Wilkes Booth’s much more sympathetic brother, Edwin Booth, who actually saved the life of Lincoln’s son, Robert, and Robert Todd Lincoln himself, nicknamed (by Vowell) the Presidential Angel of Death for his close relationships with all three assassinated presidents.

As usual, I loved it.  It was much more engaging than The Wordy Shipmates (her exploration of language and writing in Puritan times).  And as a writer, I just really love Vowell’s colloquial style, her humor, her bluntness, and her digressions.  In addition to her wry wit, she is a keen and thoughtful observer and often makes connections that the reader might not have otherwise notices.  I also enjoy her frequent travel companions, her sister and her nephew, Owen.  Owen, in particular, is a hoot.

The first section on Lincoln, the Booths, and Dr. Samuel Mudd was the most comprehensive and wide-ranging.  She even traveled to a fort located on a tiny island off the Florida Keys were Dr. Mudd spent some time.  That being said, much of the content was familiar or at least rang a bell.  My favorite section was the second one on James “I’d Rather Be Reading” Garfield and Charles Guiteau.  I’ve decided that Garfield is my presidential spirit animal because he literally told people he’d rather be reading than president-ing (or anything else) and had a chair custom made to accommodate his preferred reading position.  My favorite part about Guiteau is his time in the Oneida commune (a.k.a. free love group, a.k.a. sex cult).  Apparently he was such a load, he was regularly brought up in their nightly complaint sessions where they shared issues about a particular person so they could fix them.  Additionally, his nickname at Oneida was “Charles Get-out”, and he not once got laid.  That he failed at that in a free love commune speaks to his repugnant personality.

The section on McKinley and Czolgosz was the most perfunctory for me.  We learn much more about Teddy Roosevelt and Czolgosz’s inspiration, Emma Goldman, than McKinley or Czolgosz.  I really wish I’d learned more about those two main people, and on the whole, the section felt less engaged than others.  The final chapter about Robert Todd Lincoln and his connection with all three presidents was not actually about him at all but served as a nice little wrap-up for the book.

I will almost always recommend Sarah Vowell.  She is a sharp, insightful voice who is not afraid to look clearly and bluntly call out our national short-comings and failures while still sharing her intense love for our country and its history.  Assassination Vacation does not disappoint.  As oxymoronic as it sounds, it’s a fun, insightful look as some major American tragedies, and I would highly recommend it.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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Sometimes there are books that have to be read at the right time.  Or rather, the time you are reading a particular book could be the wrong time for you to read it.  It could be a wonderful book, the book everyone says it is, but for you it won’t be because of whatever is going on in your world that makes it hard to connect with that book.  Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine was one of those books for me.

Eleanor, an office accountant in Glasgow, lives a very structured, regimented adult life.  She has no friends and does not interact well socially, yet she identifies as happy, satisfied with her perceived cultural and intellectual superiority.  One day, she goes to a concert and falls hard for the lead singer of an unknown band.  She builds an elaborate teenager-style fantasy around him, which prompts her to start making some style and fashion changes to better appeal to this singer.  Around the same time, she meets Raymond, her company’s new IT guy, and after working with him to save Sammy, an elderly man having a health scare on the street, Raymond becomes her friend.  These two relationships, one real and one fictional, open up her life and cause her to confront a horrific trauma from her past.

I’ll be real honest.  I had to stop reading about 80 pages in.  The book reads very quickly, and I kept turning the pages, but I found Eleanor to be utterly repellent.  I feel bad about this.  I know, I KNOW all of her behaviors are trauma responses: all of her compartmentalization, her shutting out anything that might remind her of the past, her selective memories, her repeatedly professed fine-ness.  I’ve seen several of these trauma responses play out in real life through my work.  But here I couldn’t be a compassionate reader.   I’ve been inadvertently reading a lot of books that are somehow connected with my work (which I love but is emotionally exhausting), and Eleanor and her story hit a little too close to home at the time.  So I put it down and turned to something cheerier and more accessible.  (Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation…say what you will about that.)

When I started again, the book was a little better.  I like Raymond as a character best.  He was kind and patient and seemed more real than many of the other characters.  The writing was strong, and the book continued to read very quickly.  I found myself more able to cheer for Eleanor.  There were a few twists in the novel, one of which I thought was telegraphed pretty early on.  It was not a huge surprise for me.  The other one, however, was completely unexpected to me, and the night after I finished the book, I woke up completely freaked out about that second twist.  It was a doozy.

In the end, I still didn’t love the book or Eleanor.  As I read, I wanted to keep turning pages, but I was never completely sure if it was because I was so into the story (probably not) or just wanted to finish it (more likely).  Eleanor Oliphant is a very well-written, creative story, and some, even a lot of people will like it.  For me and at that time, it just was not my cup of tea.

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson

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Here is the thing with journalism-based long-form non-fiction.  Sometimes it’s really, really good.  And sometimes, the journalistic style doesn’t work for book length non-fiction.  Journalists undeniably have a nose for a good story and a great hook (see The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu), but often, when you are creating a book off of previous short-form reporting, it can be difficult to expand a series of articles into an effective, coherent book.  Some journalists do it successfully.  However, I’ve also found that there tend to be commonalities between less-successful attempts.  First, the pace can be draggy, awkward, and inconsistent.  Second, ideas or points are often repeated unnecessarily, sometimes word-for-word, in close proximity within the text.  Like next page close.  Third, there are often so many players, it’s hard to keep track of who’s who.  And fourth, there is an eye-catching title that sometimes overplays the cool-factor of the actual book.  Fortunately, Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century is not one of those less-successful attempts.

Johnson’s book starts with the story of natural scientist, Alfred Russell Wallace, who traveled the world identifying and collecting primarily bird species and who independently discovered the theory of evolution during his time in Indonesia at the same time Darwin was formulating the same theory in the Galapagos.  (Fun-ish Fact: Wallace eagerly wrote to his hero, sharing his exciting new theory and hoping for feedback.  Darwin, who’d not previously felt much urgency to publish his writings on evolution, said, “Well, better publish first!” and basically scooped Wallace, which is why we are all more familiar with Darwin than Wallace now.  Bad form, Darwin.  Bad form.)  But all of this is set up to Edwin Rist: musical savant, fly-fishing tie genius, and orchestrator of the largest natural history museum heist in history.  Johnson exhaustively details his investigation into the decimation and destruction of the Tring Museum’s priceless collection of endangered and extinct bird specimens, many of whom were collected by Wallace himself, perpetrated by Rist for the sole purpose of selling exotic feathers to fly-tiers to fund his purchase of a gold flute for grad school.  Sound convoluted?  It is.

And I loved it!  Just loved it!  I love niche histories or accounts about weird things (see my review on the history of cod), and this one is particularly exciting to read.  Johnson is equally at home with both the historical pieces and the investigative journalism, and he has a knack for bringing history to life.  Johnson does not fall into the usual traps of journalists trying to write long-form non-fiction.  The book is a bit repetitive in a few places, but he has a strong sense of pacing, varying section and chapter lengths while maintaining the over-arching narrative.  He has a strong sense of story for a narrative that takes place over centuries, and he is smart about which moments need elaboration and which just need to be mentioned for context or clarification.  Additionally, there were a lot of players, but Johnson did a great job introducing them initially, planting key identifiers and descriptions, and then reminding the reader who someone is without re-hashing their entire biography.

Now, to be clear, this is not an unbiased account.  From the beginning, Johnson is clear about how he pursued this for personal reasons more than altruism.  (Johnson was the founder of a non-profit that rescued and provided transition support to Afghans who had served as translators for the US Army but who had not been evacuated by our military and who were now in danger from the Taliban due to their support of US forces.  He began this book as a way to work through burnout from his previous work.)  He does his best to present Rist, his history, and his motivations as fairly as possible.  He also does his research and gives us a thorough understanding of all of these worlds the narrative wanders through, especially fly tying.  (To be clear–fly tying is separate from fly fishing, and this distinction is both extremely important and thoroughly examined.) However, Johnson lands firmly on the side of the museum and science, lets you know that, and never really wavers from that perspective.  And it is his intense emotions and enthusiasm that make this so fun and so shocking to read.  Maybe it’s Johnson’s own inability to understand the destruction of wildlife for a seemingly frivolous and greed-based pursuit (fly-tying not fly-fishing), maybe it was my own inability, but I don’t get it and agree with him wholeheartedly.  But I also appreciate that he reveals and comments on the fly tying industry without every vilifying the individuals in it.  He maintains his compassion for the people involved even while expressing confusion and disbelief at the situations.

I will say, as a musician, this story irritated me, but not because of Johnson’s writing.  No one needs a gold flute, and no one certainly needs to destroy irreplaceable records of our natural history to get one.  Check yourself, Rist.

I love it.  I think you should read it.  It certainly will be one of the most entertaining non-fiction reads of your year.

Autumn: A Novel by Ali Smith

Sometimes you come across a book on the end of year “best book” lists that captures your attention, though you don’t know why.  And when you read that book, you are entranced by it but you still can’t describe it.  It’s ephemeral, staying just out of reach of you fully grasping hold of it.  For me, that book is Autumn by Ali Smith.

It tells of the relationship between 101 year old Daniel Gluck and 30-something Elisabeth Demand, who lived next door as a child and benefited from his kindness and attention.  Now, on the eve of and just following the Brexit referendum, Daniel is not comatose but sleeping heavily in a nursing home.  Elisabeth visits almost daily and reads him classics, myths, all his favorites, all the while managing through the every day demands of her own life.  Interspersed with the linear narrative are Daniel’s surrealist dreams, like movies from the mind of Dali; Elisabeth’s memories of their adventures when she was a child; and scenes featuring Pauline Boty, an artist with whom Daniel fell in love as a young man.

Smith plays with the physical form of her text, adjusting margin width, using right alignment, creating waterfalls of text, and writing lists, lists, lists of lists of lists.  The whole thing is beautiful, quiet, and meditative.  Emotions are vivid yet composed, even when Elisabeth gets fed up with the unnecessary bureaucracy of the post office.  She is all of us in that moment, a necessary and thoughtful grounding of character in the midst of everything flowing through time.

Autumn is the first book in a planned seasonal quartet (and I like the musical feeling the author’s use of the word “quartet” conjures), and I thought it such an interesting place to start.  It feels like we’re starting near the end; for Daniel, it feels like that must certainly be the case.  For the UK as it has been for many years, it is a clear end.  For Elisabeth, though, the season and narrative feel more like a pause.  For her flighty, inconsistent mother, perhaps it’s more of a new beginning.  It’s such a unique place to start a seasonal exploration of life, and I’m intrigued to see how the rest of the series unfolds.

Overall, I found the book to be hopeful, light, and buoyant but not at all fizzy.  And all these months later, I still can’t quite catch it.  I like it.  I can’t describe it.  And I definitely recommend it.

How to Fall in Love with a Man Who Lives in a Bush by Emmy Abrahamson

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This book was terrible.

I feel really bad saying that because it was recommended to me by a student who really loved it and wanted me to borrow her copy.  And to be fair, I maybe thought it was a non-fiction bit of travel writing about Vienna, and I was jonesing for a good bit of travel writing and ended up bitterly disappointed it was a novel…even if it was a novelization of a true story.

Based on the author’s actual experience, Emmy Abrahamson’s How to Fall in Love with a Man who Lives in a Bush tells the story of Julia, a Swedish expat who followed a guy to Vienna, broke up with him and ended up teaching English to professionals, and, feeling dissatisfied with her life, takes up with Ben, a happy-go-lucky homeless 20-something living under a bush in the park across the street from her office.

Sounds ok, I guess.  (I guess?)  But it wasn’t.

So first, Julia is the most basic, shallow, rom-com character.  She’s not unlikable, nor is she particularly likable.  Fortunately she was at least more relatable than the other characters, necessary for a protagonist who must necessarily serve as audience proxy per the genre’s structures.  However, Julia was randomly and oddly graphic in her language and descriptions at times.  It honestly seemed out of character, though it is hard to tell what is in or out of character when there is so little character to go on in the first place.

Ben, on the other hand, is supposed to be an adult but is written and therefore behaves like a child.  He is immature, socially unaware, aggressive, and close-minded; mistakes voicing opinions loudly and confidently for intelligence; and even becomes borderline verbally abusive at times.  He references challenges in his past and what could be very serious problems in his present, but the novel doesn’t explore the consequences of his actions and situations, so it’s hard to take those parts seriously.  Ben is supposed to bring spontaneity and joy to Julia’s life, but he turns all of her real concerns for him into character flaws about her.  She is not a better or measurably happier person when she is with him, even though she thinks she is.

This is the worst kind of romantic comedy.  Glossy, superficial, free of consequences, unrealistic.  It drops just enough references to real life challenges to seem grounded and justifies (even celebrates) inappropriate and toxic behaviors.  And the ending made me furious.

***Spoiler Alert***

As in all rom-coms, our lovers break up for a while over a misunderstanding.  And she almost doesn’t go back to him.  She has extremely good reasons for not going back to him, and I really thought this book was going to flip the script and allow Julia to move forward with her life.  But then in the end, she decides she can’t live without him and goes back to him.  Bullshit.  Pure bullshit.

And here’s the thing–this is based on the author’s actual courtship with her actual husband!!  So first, if I were her husband and this were not an accurate portrayal me (and I sure hope it’s not), I would be really pissed off at how I came off in the book.  And second, if this is an accurate portrayal of them and their relationship, I am very concerned for the author, their children, and those close friends and family in their lives.

Disclaimer:  This is a translation, and so it could be argued that it’s hard to tell if the the book was actually this bad or if a lot of the nuances were lost in translation.  For example, Julia highlights several English lessons throughout the book, and some of the “rules” that she harped on are things that I, as a native English speaker, have never heard of or know to not be true the way she explained them  .  So that makes me wonder if I’m being harsh about the quality of the initial book, and also makes me wonder about both the author and translator’s levels of comfort with English, the accuracy of the translation, and how well the translation serves the author’s story.

Still, don’t waste your time with this.  The only good thing about it is that I was able to check off the “read a book in translation” item on my 2018 reading challenge list.  And honestly, I’m kind of irritated about that because I have several other books in translation on my shelf that I would rather have used.

So to sum up: skip it.

Circe by Madeline Miller

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I have inadvertently read several books inspired by Greek mythology this year, but as I love mythology in general, I certainly don’t mind.  I remember hearing great things about Madeline Miller’s debut, Song of Achilles, but never read it, so when her next novel, Circe, popped up in the Book of the Month Club, earlier this year, I was eager to check it out.

Circe, obviously, is the story of Circe, a daughter of Helios.  We all know her as the witch who turns men into pigs, a mere episode in Odysseus’ epic journey home to Ithaca.  This book takes that episode and expands it into a full exploration of this lesser-known mythological character’s life.  It imagines her childhood and a life-changing meeting with Prometheus; her intense first love, Glaucos, and his betrayal; and her creation of the monster Scylla and resulting exile to Aiaia.  From there it explores her relationship with “great” men and gods, from Hermes and Odysseus to Daedelus and her role in the birth of the Minotaur.  As with most of the literature featuring him, though, Odysseus and his shadow take over in the latter part of the book, as Circe has to manage the long-reaching effects of his time on her island on her, Penelope, and their sons.

I really loved this book.  It beautifully gives voice to a character in mythology who so often is reduced to her label of “witch” and her actions’ impact on the men who encounter her, and it does so in gorgeous, swimming, flowing prose.  Circe may be born of the sun god, but she is a creature of the earth and sea and sky, and the text helps the reader feel that very intently.  The story is delicate and tasteful; nothing is too graphic, though Miller doesn’t necessarily shy away from harsh or negative things.  She just presents events through Circe’s distinct lens of being a woman in ancient times.  It is a distinctly feminist take on a fascinating character so often portrayed through the male gaze, something that we are starting to see more and more of in literature based in myths, and I appreciate very much the flipping of the perspective to tell a more nuanced, complete story.

The story meandered through time like the immortal Circe is, yet she lives very mortal experiences and emotions, which added to the liquid feel of the text.  However, the story does sag in a few places, and it begins to feel long.  Maybe that’s on purpose–we feel the weight of the story’s length the way Circe feels the weight of time?  Eh, more likely it just needed a little tightening in the last quarter.  But honestly, that was my only criticism.

Circe was not a book that knocked my socks off in a big way, but it was a quiet, shimmering book that gets under your skin.  I actively recommended to several people while I was reading it, which is not something I often do.  I was very impressed with the novel and the author, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Miller’s work.

The Book of Dust, Vol 1: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

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When I was growing up, I loved Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series.  Set in a parallel universe Oxford where humans have animal familiars called daemons but magic and fantasy are still foreign, the series traces the adventures of Lyra, a young girl tasked with saving the world from the machinations of the evil Mrs. Coulter.  It was the ultimate girl power story and nudged me in the direction of becoming a full-fledged Anglophile.  I just loved it.  So you can imagine my excitement when I saw the first publicity adds for the first book in Pullman’s new prequel trilogy, The Book of Dust, Vol. 1: La Belle Sauvage, in Oxford last summer.  I finally got to read it this past March, and it was well-worth the wait.

La Belle Sauvage tells the story of Malcolm, his daemon Asta, and his little boat, the titular La Belle Sauvage.  Malcolm’s parents run The Trout, an inn on the banks of the Themes in Oxford (and I’ve eaten at its restaurant!), and all of Oxford comes through the doors.  Malcolm notices and hears a lot but is noticed little himself, an advantage when he comes across a mysterious message about something called Dust.  His adventures start when the kind spy for whom the message was intended finds him and asks him to keep his eyes and ears open.  Suddenly all the world is looking for a little baby girl being hidden in the nunnery nearby.  With a storm coming, threatening to flood the whole county, and the baby’s life in increasing danger, Malcolm embarks on an Odyssean journey in his boat with the baby (who will grow up to be Lyra of the original series) and the nunnery’s maid, Alice, their goal to reunite her with her father, the mysterious Lord Asriel, and survive the evil agents hunting them.

I loved this book.  Loved it, loved it, loved it!  It was exactly what I needed after a disappointing previous book, and it was everything I’d hoped it would be and more.  Pullman is a master of creating whole worlds out of simplicity and structure.  His language is gorgeous and evocative, and reading his stories is like jumping into the world of a painting.  In fact, the way I realized that the novel’s The Trout is a real place that I have been was that his descriptions were so specific and accurate that I kept thinking, “This place sounds so familiar…” until I finally looked up the pub where we’d had dinner in Oxford and realized it was the one and the same.  His masterful exploration of a truly vile character through descriptions of his hyena daemon were visceral and revolting, and the animal and man’s matching hoarse laughter stuck with me for days after finishing.  And I think his world-building skills are close to Tolkien and Lewis, honestly.

Additionally, Pullman is a smart writer.  Everything has a specific purpose; nothing, no description, no structural choice, is superfluous.  Though well-known for his distrust of organized religion, he is well-grounded in the literature and histories of religion and mythology, much of which he uses to underpin his narrative.  It’s a little like the Bible–a great flood comes and wipes out much of Oxford, setting the major events of the story in motion.  It’s a little like The Odyssey–Malcolm, Alice, and Lyra experience a series of islands in the massive river, each one increasingly mystical and dreamlike, and many directly referencing stops along Odysseus’s journey.  A stop at a faerie’s home mimics time on Circe’s island; a great house full of party-goers brings to mind the lotus-eaters; and the river god’s direct help reflects Athena’s support of Odysseus.  All in all, La Belle Sauvage is Malcolm’s hero’s journey, setting him up for even more in the next two books.

All I wanted to do was read this book, and I got to do so on the perfect weekend.  It was cold, rainy, and gross, and I spent the whole weekend wrapped up in both a blanket and the story while drinking tea.  I was only disappointed at how the spy disappeared from the narrative, and I hope she returns in the next book.  Technically this can be considered young adult, but it doesn’t read like a young adult novel.  It just reads like a wonderful story.  I can’t wait for the next one, and I may go back and binge read the original series just to tide me over.  I highly recommend La Belle Sauvage, and I honestly think it is just as good an entry point into the world of Lyra as the original series is.