Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

cover art of Circe by Madeline Miller
Cover Design: Will Staehle*

I’ve loved Greek Mythology for as long as I can remember. One of my older sisters told me myths as bedtime stories (I still remember first hearing the tale of Baucis and Philemon from her). My family had a copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology tattered from much reading. And mythology has influenced my writing, including the novel I’m working on now. So I was quite intrigued when I saw Madeline Miller’s Circe ** at my local indie bookshop. When I read the first page, though, somehow I wasn’t pulled in to read more. I’m not sure why – it may be that her vision of the Greek gods and Titans wasn’t mine. But when the pandemic hit, I wanted to support my local bookstore, and so I ordered it from them – it was the first book, but not the last, that I got via “curbside delivery.”

This time when I opened that first page, I was hooked. I think this speaks of the power of Miller’s writing, and also the power of commitment – that book was now mine; I was literally, though in a small way, invested in it. Whatever the reason, I was pulled in and didn’t want to stop (it happened again, when I glanced inside to write this review).

Her vision of the Greek divinities is indeed different from mine, which has formed over decades. But her portrayal is vivid, visceral, and immediate – you feel in their presence. The Titans and gods in her story are so very human – sometimes petty and squabbling. But they can also be chilling, even terrifying.

From the time I read of Circe as a kid (in Edith Hamilton), I always felt some sympathy for her. After all, the way she treated Odysseus’ sailors felt like poetic justice. Madeline Miller has made Circe deeply sympathetic – starting as a child hungering for her father’s attention and basking in his literal radiance. (He is Helios, Titan of the sun, and his gaze can warm – or scorch.)

I loved how the writer wove so very many beings from mythology into the story. It was startling to realize Circe’s brother was Medea’s father. And how had I forgotten, or not known, that Pasiphaë, mother of the Minotaur, was Circe’s sister? I’d always thought of bull-besotted Pasiphaë as cursed and somewhat pitiful. The author has transformed her into something – someone – quite different. With Pasiphaë comes the tale of Daedalus, the Labyrinth, and the Minotaur – no longer distant and misty, but close, vivid, and as frightening as a bull-headed monster should be.

Prometheus also appears; it’s one of my very few regrets in the book that we don’t see or hear of him again. And of course, Odysseus plays a major role. But his appearance is not the end of Circe’s story. In some ways, though he comes in late in the book, he marks a new beginning for Circe.

I highly recommend the novel, not only because of its Greek Mythology, but because it is a novel of rich story and characters, centered on a vibrant female narrator.

When I finished Circe, I wasn’t quite ready to leave the world of mythology. I pulled out an old book of mine that seemed promising – The World of Odysseus by M.I. Finley.

Cover art of World of Odysseus
Cover: Kylix by Exekias*

It’s a slim, dense, scholarly book that uses the Iliad and Odyssey as sociological documents to learn about the environment Odysseus lived in (which the author believes was Iron Age Greece). It feels dated, which is no shame to the book – it was first published in the 1950s and revised in the 1970s, so no wonder there. But it is jarring, even repellant, when he refers to some modern-day non-industrial cultures as “primitive” or “savage” – even if only in quoting the titles of works he refers to. He does have some interesting insights into life of very ancient Greece. But I did not enjoy reading it enough to whole-heartedly recommend it.

What I can whole-heartedly recommend is The Trojan War – A New History by Barry Strauss.

Cover of Barry Strauss' The Trojan War
Cover design: Honi Werner*

His work draws not only on much more recent archaeology, but also on other sources including Hittite and Egyptian texts, to make a compelling case that the Trojan War was not only real, but occurred in the Bronze Age (earlier than the Iron Age, and in the general period Homer said it did). Even better, he paints scenes as colorful and dramatic as any novel, then expands on them with what he’s gleaned from other sources, while treating the characters of the Iliad and Odyssey as real people with real, Bronze-age motives. He not only treats Homer with respect, but helps make that world come vividly to life. His book also includes a very helpful timeline (for those of us who need help keeping the Bronze Age separate from the Iron Age and from Homer’s time), and a series of maps with ever-increasing detail, which give the reader a firm footing on where and when the Trojan War took place.

I’m sorry to see that Barry Strauss’ book may not be available in print, though it does appear to be available as an e-book, and I recommend it as a good read.

For more about the archaeology of the Trojan War, PBS has an excellent show: Secrets of the Dead: The Real Trojan Horse; Barry Strauss is one of the experts who speaks. And the magazine Archaeology has online an interactive map of the many layers of Ancient Troy, with context: Uncovering Troy

The book Circe is about so much more than the Trojan War and Odysseus, though. It begins when the world is young and the wounds of the Titans’ war with the Olympians are still raw. Hesiod’s Theogony tells of that war and of the birth of the world and all its divine beings. I read two translations of the Theogony, one by Norman O. Brown and one by Dorothea Wender; they returned me to the world of myth and wonder. And there, near the end, Circe is mentioned, bringing me back full circle.

Covers of Hesiod's Theogony, 2 translations
Right cover: Detail of Parnassus by Andrea Mantegna*

If I were to do it over, I’d skip The World of Odysseus and read Barry Strauss’ The Trojan War instead. And I’m glad I reread the Theogony. But it’s Madeline Miller’s Circe which lingers with me. I look forward to reading it again someday.

*All book cover photos are of my copies. I could find no art credit for the left-hand Theogony.

**The word nerd in me was pleased and surprised to read that Circe’s name means Hawk. The masculine form, Circos (Kirkos in Greek) is a particular kind of hawk named for its circular flight. Circe, Madeline Miller’s novel says, was named for her golden eyes and piercing cry.

 

 

 

Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

A powerful, gripping, timely story.

When I saw Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give in my local bookstore, I admit the title made me wary. But when my husband brought it home to read for himself, I glanced inside, and read. And read. And read. I could hardly put it down, and finished it in record time.

I’m pretty new to reviewing books, but the turmoil of our recent times moves me to try to do my best by this remarkable novel. I’m working from memory of when I read this perhaps a year ago. The details may be fuzzy, but the story has stuck with me.

16-year-old Starr is dragged to a party that she doesn’t want to go to. The one good thing is she reconnects with her childhood best friend, Khalil. When Khalil is driving Starr home, they’re pulled over by a policeman for no visible reason – and Khalil, unarmed, is shot and killed.

Starr is grief-stricken, her life and world turned upside down. Her friendships are stretched to breaking. Over time, everyone she cares most about is in danger. And Starr is faced with the dangerous decision of to speak out, or not.

Starr’s story is told with power, with surprising humor, and with love. The people in it are all so very real, flesh and blood human beings. I felt like I got to know Starr and her family, and that was a privilege. I cared deeply about them, and got swept up in what was happening to them, the harrowing choices they had to make.

My husband reads more nonfiction than fiction, but he, too, could barely put this book down. We saw the movie together. It differs from the book in a few significant ways, but author Angie Thomas was an executive producer, and that gives me some assurance that the changes had her permission. The ending may even be more powerful than the book’s.

Both the book and the movie have my highest recommendation. They are excellent in their own rights, and so very important, especially now. I really haven’t begun to do them justice; to do that, read and see them for yourselves.

Black lives matter. Black voices need to be heard. Black stories need to be told.

Publisher’s Weekly has made lists of antiracist fiction and nonfiction reading for adults. You can find the fiction list here, and the nonfiction list here.

For antiracist nonfiction for younger people, have a look at Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. I have not yet read it, but an interview with the authors – and some high school students who read their book – make a very compelling case for it.

But as black author Shanna Miles said on twitter, “By all means pick up books about how to talk about racism but then you must pick up books about black kids being kids. If you don’t you teach your children that the natural state of being for black folks is suffering.” She links to some books on that twitter comment, and has made a Goodreads list as well.

Her feelings on this matter are echoed by Christine Taylor-Butler, a black kid lit author who said on twitter, “I’m a parent, author, and a former college interviewer. Please hear me – in this time of stress people want to ‘flood’ their kids with books about racism. Please provide 20 joyful books for every one book on racism. They also need to know POC kids are like every other kid.” She has written a blog about why diversity matters in science fiction and fantasy.

These authors opened my eyes to a new perspective. I’ve added their books to my reading list. I welcome more recommendations on these subjects in the comments.

 

Holiday Gift Ideas

My favorite gifts to give are books. If you’re like me (and also haven’t finished your gift buying yet), I have some books to recommend. Many of these I have already given as gifts, or would happily give, and some are current favorites of mine.* Of course, you can always give them to yourself anytime of year!

Covers of several books
A Small and Varied Selection

As a gift to your community, buy books from your local bookstore if you can! If you can’t visit a store in person, you can order online from many independent bookstores as well as Barnes & Noble.

Some of these books are e-books – and yes, you can give e-books as gifts! Here’s how for Barnes and Noble Nook books and for Amazon Kindle books.

For picture book lovers and readers:
Imagine! by Raúl Colón. A story told in the luminous illustrations of Raúl Colón, about a boy who goes to a museum where people from the artwork leap out to interact with him.

Stretchy McHandsome by Judy Schachner. A delightful book for fans of Skippyjon Jones, and cat-lovers of all stripes.

For Middle-graders and above, especially fans of sci-fi:

My Best Friend Runs Venus by Katrina Forest. A fun interplanetary journey undertaken by kids in robot avatars trying to save the solar system.

 

A Time Traveler’s Theory of Relativity by Nicole Valentine. The poignant story of a boy who discovers the mind-boggling fact that his family are time-travelers, while dealing with the loss of family members. It’s about family, friends, adventure, grief, and the love that changes everything; it truly touched me.

For fans of fantasy, young adult and older:


Prince of Shadows by Rachel Caine. A captivating take on Romeo and Juliet’s story, as seen from the characters in the shadows, with magical underpinnings.

Ink and Bone, The Great Library Book One by Rachel Caine. For those who prefer a steampunk flavor over Shakespeare, this is the story of a book smuggler in a world where owning books can get you attacked by automaton lions.

 

For adults:


Accessing the Future  ed. by Kathryn Allan & Djibril al-Ayad. An inclusive anthology of speculative fiction, featuring a favorite of mine, “A Sense All its Own.”

 

The All-You-Can-Read Buffet by Stephen L. Thompson. An eclectic collection of short stories for varied tastes, from horror to humor, the everyday to the fantastical.

 

The Easy Road by Alexandra Scott-Coulter. For fans of rock ‘n’ roll, especially anyone who’s dreamed of being a rock star, this is the story of a man who becomes just that.

 

Running Wild Novella Anthology Volume 3 edited by Lisa Diane Kastner. I’d buy this for the story “Broken Soul to Broken Soul” alone; a story about ‘Two souls, two traumas, one path to healing … love.’ [Full disclosure: I haven’t read all the other stories yet – it just came out this month!]

 

cover art for Season of Hope novella

Season of Hope by Laura Nelson Selinsky. Can two new adults with big responsibilities find holiday happiness at the end of their struggles? Find out in this heartwarming Romance novella.

 

Strife and Harmony  ed. by Dixianne Hallaj and D.J. Stevenson. Strife, doubt, & suspicion — heroic (and not-so-heroic) characters search for harmony in this international anthology. Especially read the exploits of Sippy and Algernon Moynihan, two characters I’ve met and am quite fond of.

Legendary by Amelia Kibbie. I fell in love with the short story that predates this novel – about two boys in England, struggling with bullies and the perils of WWII England; Kirkus Review calls the novel (set years after the short story) “A rousing story of love and sacrifice.”

 

And in honor of the very soul and heart of Christmas,
A Vine-Ripened Life by Stanly D. Gale, a thoughtful and thought-provoking meditation on and exploration of the great fruits of grace.

 

However you observe this season, may you celebrate the light, and share it.

 

 

* where the picture quality is questionable, it’s because it’s of my own treasured copies.

Guest Blog by Laura Selinsky: Holiday Reading Break

picture of Laura Selinsky
Laura Selinsky, Author and Teacher

Today is St. Nicholas’ Day, a traditional time of gift-giving, and in honor of the occasion I offer you this gift: a blog by my friend Laura Nelson Selinsky.  It is particularly fitting for this day – please read on to find out why!

Candles, a cup of tea, and…a Christmas story. Sure, there are television specials by the score, but nothing compares to cocoa or tea and a heartwarming story after a busy day. I’m here to share my favorite way to step back from my too-busy life and prepare for the holidays.

In my family, we often shared reading breaks before Christmas…our quiet little respite in the hallowed chaos of the season. Until my kids left home, we read aloud regularly. For the holidays, we read everything from Luke’s sublime nativity story to the nonsense of Vip’s Christmas Cookie Sprinkle Snitcher. We read our copy of Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever to tatters. I owe the Christmas reading tradition to my high school drama teacher who read Dylan Thomas’s* A Child’s Christmas In Wales to us each year, a practice I continue in my own classroom.

Perhaps you’d enjoy a holiday reading break of your own. The best place to start is Charles Dickens’* A Christmas Carol, with its happiest of happy endings. Be prepared for a little social justice tucked between the candles and figgy puddings of the Dickens. There are many shortened versions of his novella available, and reading a condensation is not an insult to the author. Dickens himself recited a condensed version on his lecture tours. Christmas Carol always awakens a little holiday spirit. If you are one of Gemma’s writer friends, visiting Scrooge is a good way to review Dickens’ mastery of playing his reader’s heartstrings.

If heartstring tugging is your pleasure, then holiday romances make a perfect break between wrapping and baking. My own little romance Season of Hope** was released by Anaiah Press on November 1. Can two new adults with big responsibilities find holiday happiness at the end of their struggles? Of course! That’s why romance is the perfect genre for a relaxed holiday reading break.

cover art for Season of Hope novella

Gemma’s note: And the hero of this story is a pastor named Nick! Happy Namesake Day, Nick.  

Thank you for sharing your lovely way of calming this hectic season, Laura! I invite readers to connect with you on your Twitter and Facebook. They can also find you on Amazon.

*Thomas’ and Dickens’ works are in the public domain and can easily be obtained online, but reading from a screen is less relaxing than from paper, (blue light, social media, yadda, yadda…). Your public library certainly has A Christmas Carol on paper. {And likewise your local bookstore! Gemma.}

**Season of Hope is available from Anaiah Press  {Gemma’s note: see coupon code for 30% off , then scroll down just a little to see their Seasonal Titles on sale!} or from Amazon. My publisher Anaiah Press has a Santa’s pack  full of charming novels and novellas being released for the holidays. They might be just what your reading break requires.

Banner of Season of Hope cover art

 

 

Our Book is Released!

Today is the day – our book is released into the wild!

Cover of Running Wild Anthology of Stories Vol. 3

I have read all the stories (benefits of getting an author’s copy), and I am truly honored that my story is amidst such excellent writing. And such an eclectic mix. There are stories with an eerie or supernatural bent; there is suspense and horror; humor from the whimsical to the macabre; love lost and reclaimed.

You can order our book in trade paperback from your local bookstore, or find it at Barnes and Noble and Amazon (print and e-book)* and Kobo (e-book).*

Kudos to my fellow authors! I look forward to seeing what you write next.

*Update 9/26/19: I was alerted by a reader that the ebook is not yet available on Amazon. Here’s the availability as of today:
Ebook (Nook) available now at Barnes & Noble for $9.49 (cheaper than Amazon!)
Paperback available now at Amazon for $20.97**
Paperback can be pre-ordered now on Barnes & Noble for $21.99**, available 9/29
Ebook can be pre-ordered now on Amazon for $9.99, and on Kobo for $8.69, available 9/29 for both.

I apologize for any confusion!

** paperback prices don’t include shipping, if any

 

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