Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

Review: Miller’s “Circe” and Lindsay’s Opinion vs. Mrs. C-T’s Opinion

What a beautiful respite from my reading slump! Of course, after my long trek through the desert of boring books, I was over-thirsty for quality and, thus, finished Madeline Miller’s Circe in a few days, so now I’m back to square one. What will I read now?

Hannah finished Circe before I even received it and texted me a few afterthoughts; it sounded like she was somewhat underwhelmed, but I was adamant that I would go into it as a “blank canvas” and let it paint all over me. I was not disappointed.

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.

Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.

But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

Now, I am rather well-acquainted with Circe as a character from Homer’s The Odyssey, which I teach to freshmen every year. I went into this reading hopeful that it would contain something I could incorporate into this year’s unit (more on that in a bit), but due to my recent bad luck with books, my number one goal was to read and be entertained, to enjoy a book as I haven’t done in a while, regardless of academic application potential.

I loved this novel. The story was narrated from Circe’s 1st-person perspective and felt almost like sitting by the fire listening to story time. She was looking back on her life and telling her story to an anonymous audience (me!) and occasionally interjected her past story with musings about how naive she was or how later she would think differently. Due to these brief snaps back to the “present” story time, the vibe of the book was easy-going and familiar, which made it all the more enjoyable.

Considering the fact that most people only know Circe as a witch and temporary love stop on the Odysseus Express, imagine my surprise when the emotions and relationships weren’t 50 Shades levels of cringe. Mythology is fascinating, so we all roll our eyes and shrug at the unhealthy relationships and mistreatment of women, as though they’re just as unbelievable as gods wielding thunderbolts or six-headed sea monsters, but the truth is that misogyny seems to have weathered the test of time in a way that gods and monsters didn’t. I give 100% credit to Madeline Miller for her interpretation of Circe’s story, as well as her story-telling ability. Instead of relating every detail of each copulation session (be it willing or forced, so yes, be trigger-warned), she implies and leads the reader to understand what’s happening, but dedicates her time to the why.

The Odyssey presents Circe as a witch who transforms men into pigs because it pleases her and only Odysseus could outsmart her, changing her heart of stone to typical female emotional mush. FINALLY, Circe is portrayed as an individual, whose life was difficult and complicated long before Odysseus came along and made it more complicated. She is given a why. Why transform the men? Why be there waiting for him? Why be so enamored by a turd like Odysseus? Like all women, Circe is a complicated being and she existed outside of her connection with literature’s most well-known “hero” for centuries. Homer wrote The Odyssey around 800 B.C.E., so we’ve known one side of the story, the male’s perspective, for almost 3000 years. Let’s hear HER side of the story!

Okay, I can feel that I got on my soapbox there. The point was to say that depending on how deep down the Mythology rabbit hole you’re known to go, anywhere between a little to a lot of this novel will be yesterday’s news to you. Spoilers aren’t really that big of a threat, since we know how it will end, generally. However, the refreshing and necessary thing about this novel is that we are given insight into the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of an ancient woman.

So, from what I’ve seen, people have disliked this when they aren’t fans of historical interpretations. Again, this is a tale as old as time, but Miller’s work came from embellishing stories and creating a new perspective. Some times, her embellishments stray from the original and a lot of hard-core mythology junkies reject any creative license. For instance, in The Odyssey, Odysseus is given moly by Hermes, he eats it, drinks Circe’s potion, and is not transformed, thus beguiling her with his “power.” It doesn’t go that way in Circe and I could be mad about it and be all “look at me; I’m so smart; I know the original; this is wrong; I’m right” but what’s the point in that? It’s no fun to be such a know-it-all that you can’t enjoy anything but the original. Chill.

The other thing about that divergence from the original is that it must exist for a reason! That is one of the most well-known plot points; anyone can point it out (so calm down, know-it-all’s), so why would Miller change it? The new version must serve a purpose in telling the audience more about Circe. This is where my mind swaps from Lindsay, the “for fun” reader, to Mrs. C-T, the critical reader. The wheels were turning nonstop towards the end of the novel, to the point where I had to get out some post-its so I could refer to important excerpts later. Here are some teachery thoughts that are still mulling and taking shape in my pre-planning mind (we won’t get to our Odyssey unit until November, so I have time to hammer out details). However, I must say that these sort of critical reading thoughts and questions do not exist exclusively in a classroom; anyone can read, but it is an entirely different skill to read critically, allowing texts to tap into your mind beyond surface-level enjoyment. Even if you are not a teacher or student, even if you don’t enjoy when this reader blog crosses the line over to a teacher blog, I encourage you to take a look at the questions posed below. You don’t have to be a student to continue to challenge your thinking. Now, to the musings:

  1. Read Book 10 of The Odyssey and then read the excerpt of their meeting from Circe. Consider how the two main characters’ vices and virtues are shifted and challenged with the difference in narrative. How are the narrators biased? Which story do you believe? Why? How are you biased?
  2. Our textbook does not include Book 11 (Odysseus’ trip to the land of the dead) but I think it is interesting/important. Last year I just did story time for missing sections and I’ve asked my department chair for a class set of Gareth Hinds’ graphic novel, but if those options fail or fall short, I can use the excerpt from Circe where she gives him guidance.
  3. This one is exciting: include our article about PTSD to read after Odysseus comes home and he and Telemachus slaughter all the suitors and “unfaithful” servants. Also, include the excerpt where Telemachus talks about what Odysseus was like when he came home. Is it human nature to hope “they all lived happily ever after”? Why do so many stories lack falling action and end after the climax? What do you think life was like for Odysseus/Penelope/Telemachus after his return? Why? How does Telemachus’ account support or challenge that?
  4. Include excerpt of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, specifically including the Chorus from the servant maids Odysseus killed. Then, include excerpt from Circe that gives Penelope’s account of Odysseus’ return. Why is it so unbelievable that Penelope and Circe would meet and interact so positively? How are readers of The Odyssey led to believe these women would treat each other? How does Penelope’s account shift your perception of Odysseus? Recall how Odysseus portrays Penelope in The Odyssey: how does Penelope’s portrayal of Odysseus in Circe and/or The Penelopiad compare/contrast? How do these characters show bias?
  5. After completing the epic, discuss whether Odysseus is a hero. Further discuss whether he fulfills the steps of Joseph Campbell’s Heroic Journey. Can one fulfill the steps but fail to be a hero? Can one be a hero without being “heroic”? Include an excerpt from Circe where Telemachus talks about Odysseus’ life and legacy. Does the inclusion of personal experience and opinion alter your perception of Odysseus’ heroic status? How could it be biased? Can one determine heroic status without the inclusion of personal accounts?

As you can tell, I LOVE to include various perspectives in my classroom. I know that it is human nature to form opinions and, sadly, some people spend more time building their own opinions by ignoring or attacking the opposition and stacking up supporting arguments than by exploring and engaging those adverse opinions in constructive discussion. It is my goal that students learn to explore the opposition as much as their own side, challenging their own biases as well as those of others, and building informed, malleable opinions. Circe will undoubtedly help me work towards this goal.

Hope you enjoyed this and I’d love to hear any and all thoughts!

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L: White’s “And I Darken”

I’ll cut right to the chase: I didn’t like this book. I blame myself as much as I blame the book. I heard about this one when the publisher company was book talking new and upcoming releases at my local book store. Ultimately, I was under the impression that this would be a very different book than it ended up being and, unfortunately, the version in my head was way better than the reality.

How did I get the wrong impression? Well, the book talker may have given a synopsis and, in my desire for a killer book, I misunderstood and came up with my own assumptions. On the other hand, the book talker may not have actually read the book and book talked it according to what she thought the book would be, so my assumptions matched her misleading book talk. Regardless, I was under the impression that the book would have vampiric elements; not like Twilight-style, but similar to the original vampire story, Dracula. I feel as though that assumption is totally validated when the main character is the daughter of literature’s most famous vampire, Vlad Dracul. I was dead wrong.

Let’s review the blurb:

No one expects a princess to be brutal. And Lada Dragwlya likes it that way. Ever since she and her gentle younger brother, Radu, were wrenched from their homeland of Wallachia and abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman courts, Lada has known that being ruthless is the key to survival. She and Radu are doomed to act as pawns in a vicious game, an unseen sword hovering over their every move. For the lineage that makes them special also makes them targets.

Lada despises the Ottomans and bides her time, planning her vengeance for the day when she can return to Wallachia and claim her birthright. Radu longs only for a place where he feels safe. And when they meet Mehmed, the defiant and lonely son of the sultan, Radu feels that he’s made a true friend—and Lada wonders if she’s finally found someone worthy of her passion.

But Mehmed is heir to the very empire that Lada has sworn to fight against—and that Radu now considers home. Together, Lada, Radu, and Mehmed form a toxic triangle that strains the bonds of love and loyalty to the breaking point

Nothing to indicate vampires in there, I agree. But still, don’t sass me about anticipating vampires in a book about Dracula. No, there was 0% vampiric activity; instead it was, honest to God, 90% feelings, which is decidedly not my jam. There was anger and resentment about being unhappy and there was anger and resentment about being happy. There were attempts to navigate the turbulent waters of sexuality, and there was crying. So much crying. Don’t get me wrong; I, too, have emotions and often enjoy seeing them reflected in my readings. But as is the case in real life, overdoing anything can result in a lack of poignancy. A smattering of emotions throughout the book would have been better than the pouring out of hearts on every page. I grew tired of it and it lost its meaning.

The other issue is that the character weren’t very likable to me. There is something to be said about feeling an emotional attachment, or maybe relating to a character. I saw nothing of myself in any of these characters and, on top of that, I did see reflections of personalities I generally find unlikable. Lada was meant to be a strong female protagonist, and sometimes she was, but other times, the character was so determined to be independent that she was often highly destructive to others and herself. Lada is not a female character that I would ever want young female readers to emulate. She had some serious self-damaging issues. The two other main characters were Lada’s brother, Radu, and their mutual friend/captor/whatever else he was, Mehmed. I didn’t like either of them, either. Radu started as a sniveling little whiny baby and grew up into a sniveling little whiny young man. He faced some issues, yes, and I gave him credit for being brave and mature when he earned it, but honestly, 75% of his presence is just self-pity and self-loathing. Now, would a troubled young man learn something from reading Radu’s story? I cannot say; I could never read from that perspective, myself. There may be some value in Radu’s story and some readers may relate to his trials and find solace. If so, AMAZING! Otherwise, I disliked him very much. Essentially, the same goes for Mehmed. He was an entitled brat who treated his friends like garbage and was so very emotional. No thanks.

This book contained constant displays of unhealthy relationships, not stopping with showing realistic depictions, but almost validating the extreme circumstances and making it seem as though the moral of the story was that love makes you miserable. Such may be the case in some instances, but it shouldn’t be lauded as the best way to love, nor the only way. Some love is mutual, respectful, unconditional. There was no such love in this story. Love did some serious damage in this book and I would hate to hand this book to a teen who is only just learning how to give and receive love, since I think it could do more to damage them than to help.

I wish I hadn’t bought this one. Usually, if I dislike a book, I can validate a purchase by making it a classroom library text, but I will need to keep a close watch on who is reading this one.

Has anyone else read it?! I’m honestly dying to know what others think and to talk with someone who liked it! Maybe I’m being too harsh? Talk to me!

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L: Review of Tim Wynne-Jones’s “The Emperor of Any Place”

My strategy of picking books based on interesting covers has led me in the right direction, again. This book called to me from the shelf, with the yellow map lines, the island in a churning sea, the solitary silhouette, the Japanese symbol, and the very peeved, Einstein-haired bird watching over it all. The whole thing was a giant question mark to me so, upon reading the dust jacket synopsis and finding out it was about WWII, I welcomed it into the family that is my TBR collection.

When Evan’s father dies, Evan finds a hand-bound yellow book on his desk—a book his father had been reading when he passed away. It is the diary of a Japanese soldier stranded on a small Pacific island in WWII. Why was his father reading it? Who was the American soldier also stranded there? And what could this possibly mean for Evan?

Aside from the interest piqued by the cover and synopsis, I had no expectations going into this novel. I’ve never read anything by Wynne-Jones, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from him, either. I was pleasantly surprised, though!

This book was a rare treasure: a book about a book. About 1/3 of the book takes place in the present day and 2/3 of the book are the journal entries of a Japanese soldier and an American soldier who find themselves enemies allied in order to survive on a deserted island, self-named Kokoro-Jima. The present day events are tied to the journal entries and, as Evan reads along, we share his surprise as he gains information as to how his own life is tied to the two inhabitants of Kokoro-Jima.

The writing was some of the most fluid and effortless language I’ve ever read. I truly felt as though I was tangled up in the thought process of a teenage boy. The main character, Evan, is a seventeen-year-old who just lost his father and is dealing with the mysterious nature of the book found on his father’s desk, the calls from the author’s son, and the appearance of his hitherto unknown grandfather, as if the overwhelming loss of his father and best friend wasn’t enough. The emotions are raw and real, sometimes surfacing at unwanted times and other times being choked down (as is often the case in real life), while the characters were relatable, pitiable, witty, and sometimes loathsome. All of the main characters were male and the story within the story was about war, an often male-dominated topic, but I didn’t feel overwhelmed by man-stuff, adrift in a sea of testosterone. As a female reader, I was just as interested and impacted as any male reader.

The novel does take unexpected turns towards the paranormal, a fact which other readers have found irritating, according to other reviews. I rarely consider the fantastical to be irritating, an in the context of this book, I actually thought it was brave. War is such a difficult topic, as is the idea of being stranded without hope of rescue. Some may think that the including spirits and monsters makes light of a serious situation, but I disagree. I think the paranormal aspects made the soldiers more relatable, in terms of their reactions to the unfamiliar. And even if it did make light of war, so what? When faced with the unknown, is the known still relevant? When stranded on an island, is the enemy still your enemy? When faced with a REAL monster, is the “monster” inside your enemy still fearsome?

In terms of YA readers, this book would be a great supplemental text when learning about WWII (or any war, really). It challenges the idea of “enemy” in a way that is digestible but still potent for young readers. It would also be a good read for kids dealing with the death of a close friend or family member, or someone who might be estranged from extended family. Despite the YA title, the novel felt mature. Despite the serious issues it addresses, it still felt light and fun. Wynne-Jones is undoubtedly a talented writer, whose work I will continue to seek out in the future.

 

 

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L: Review of Kathy Kacer’s “Stones on a Grave”

Sometimes, I just need some “brain floss.” I adore a book or series in which I can completely lose myself to obsession (see my review of Golden Son for examples of my obsession capabilities), but sometimes all I want is to read something simple, something that doesn’t make me think too hard. I want something with easy characters and plot points, and is it too much to ask for a book to be under 250 pages? Quick & dirty, in and out; I pick it up & BAM, I’m already finished, without a tear in sight.

Stones on a Grave by Kathy Kacer was sort of that book for me. But first:

Sara has never been out of the tiny town of Hope, Ontario, where she has been in an orphanage all her life. After a fire destroys the orphanage, clues about her parentage—a medical certificate and a Star of David—lead her to Germany. Despite her fears—she doesn’t speak the language, she knows no one in Germany, and she’s never been on an airplane—Sara arrives in Germany determined to explore her newly discovered Jewish heritage and solve the mystery of her parentage. What she encounters is a country still dealing with the aftermath of the Holocaust. With the help of a handsome, English-speaking German boy, she discovers the sad facts of her mother’s brief existence and faces the horrible truth about her father. Ultimately, the knowledge she gains opens up her world and leads her to a deeper understanding of herself.

Kathy Kacer’s novel (novella?) is one of seven books in what is called the “Secrets Bundle,” a grouping of short, interconnected YA novels that can be read as a group or individually. I read Stones on a Grave without having read any of the other “Secrets,” and I feel completely whole in spite of that. The novel works beautifully as a stand alone, as I’m sure it would within the group, as well.

Now, as I was saying before, Stones on a Grave was about 90% the brain floss that I needed. The writing was fluid and easy, although a bit shallow and underdeveloped. I sympathized with the main character, Sara, as she endured the tragic loss of her orphanage home and the realization that her life was about to take a huge turn. At times, things felt a bit forced, like the relationship with the good-for-nothing boyfriend; it was infrequent, insincere moments like these that wrenched me out of the easy, breezy mindset. I think, with a bit more effort and backstory, these issues could have been resolved easily to be as effortless as the rest of the book.

That was the other issue I had with the book; it was so short! Remember just a few paragraphs ago when I pleaded for a book under 250 pages? Now I know why I so rarely read books that fit this qualification. They’re unsatisfying. Maybe it truly takes 400-ish pages to include the backstory needed in order for me to feel complete. Stones on a Grave was so short that it felt rushed. I was literally about 40 pages away from the end when all the pieces started falling into place and I was truly worried that I was going to be left with one heck of a cliffhanger. Kacer managed to tie up the loose ends, but it felt forced, as though she hadn’t dedicated the same amount of time to that last 40 pages as she had dedicated to the first 180.

On a positive note, wanting more from this book is a good problem to have, I think. The characters were realistic and relatable, the issues were compelling and interesting, the plot twist was entirely unexpected, and the ending, while rushed, was satisfying. I almost hesitate to call this book “brain floss,” since it deals with the Holocaust, and that subject is rarely considered “light reading.” Kacer managed to deal with a very real and serious matter, however, in a way that would be thought-provoking and enlightening to YA readers, while keeping it light enough not to induce tears. Despite the difficult subject matter, it felt flossy to me!

This book makes me wish there were sub-star rating levels. Technically, I’d like to give it 4 stars, since it was light, easy, and likable, but 4 stars makes it on par with Red Rising, which is was NOT. But then 3 stars seems harsh. How about 4 stars by “books for my classroom” standards and 3 by “Lindsay-rating” standards?

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L: Review of Ian Tregillis’s “The Coldest War”

I recently finished Ian Tregillis’s Bitter Seeds and thought it was full of refreshing new ideas, compelling characters, and great writing. Combine all of these characteristics of a great book with my forgetfulness, and you’ll understand why I wanted to get the next volume of The Milkweed Trilogy in my hands sooner than later. The Coldest War attempted to carry the torch ignited by the first volume, but as often happens with sequels, that flame, and my interest, only flickered and faded.

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We catch up with Raybould Marsh and his hugely depressing life 20 years after the end of WWII and his forced removal from Milkweed. However, when surviving sibling Nazi experimental superhumans, Klaus and Gretel, held & studied for 20 years by the Russian Military, surrender to Milkweed in exchange for asylum, they bring news of Russian advancements and improvements on the superhuman capabilities. Again, Milkweed needs Marsh to use the siblings and the Eidolons, Britain’s own non-human defense system, to remove the Russians’ superhman advantages and once again save the country.

Despite the fact the Bitter Seeds was teeming with Nazis and unnatural human experimentation, somehow The Coldest War manages to be darker than its predecessor. The first book ended with a lot of dangling strings that could or could not potentially turn into something serious, and apparently, things got very serious during the 20 year interim period. Some characters are dead, thankfully and not, some are imprisoned, literally and not, some are on a steady downward spiral, mentally and emotionally, and only one is happily thriving. Readers have to sort through a lot of personal issues and unhappy situations before we get to the action, and even then, things stay dark and dramatic.

Back in college, I used to watch a show called Private Practice until one character started having a major drug problem and things just got too real for me; I have a problem with projection, so that character’s drug-addled life felt personal and I had a hard time reminding myself that my own life was drug free sunshine and daisies. This happens with any show/movie/book that just makes life seem a little too dismal, and The Coldest War tiptoed over my line of comfort a few times. Marsh’s life has gone to crap. Utter crap. He’s the main character, so I took it personally. It was all very depressing; interesting, too! But depressing. I’m two books-worth of invested, so I’ll definitely read Necessary Evil, the final volume, but I’m really hoping things lighten up a bit. However, ***Minor Spoiler*** time travel seems to have made an appearance at the end of the second volume so I might be going back into Nazi-infested waters. Regardless, Tregillis’s story is still unique, intricate, and fascinating, his characters (even some of the Nazis) are compelling and make you question yourself, and I’m excited for the final volume.

I’d give it 3 stars, fewer than book one, and I’d recommend it only if you read & enjoyed the first one, but overall it was an adequate segue volume. I’m reading Leviathan Wakes now by James S. A. Corey and it’s great! Stay tuned!

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L: Review of “The Mechanical” by Ian Tregillis

The Mechanical

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I feel… unresolved, having just completed Ian Tregillis’s The Mechanical. I was promised a story about a race of servant robots, or “Mechanicals,” that cater to humans oblivious of their servants’ seemingly unobtainable but feverish desire for Free Will. A Dutch monarch has invaded France and exiled the French people and their King to what I assume is current day America. Mechanicals are treated by humans as merely helpful but unthinking possessions; however, they have minds and thoughts of rebellion. Any sympathizing or attempts to free Mechanicals from servitude is punishable by death, as freedom of their working class would remove all power from the Dutch empire. That is what I was promised and that is what I received. And yet, having completed the novel, I can’t help but feel so utterly… incomplete.

I’d imagine this is what it’s like to get dumped after what you thought was a perfect date; I do not understand what has just transpired and I’m gonna need some closure, here! I just listened to Tregillis prattle on for over 400 pages only to be left with zero resolution and all of my characters in a state of perilous limbo. And maybe that’s my problem: in terms of a compelling and complete stand-alone novel, The Mechanical is utterly insufficient. I understand that this book was written with the intent of being the first in a series, and more power to Tregillis. I do love a series. But I’m of a mind that any individual work should be able to be separated from the group and still offer the full development, climax, resolution that readers seek. By all means, leave a few plot lines dangling on the brink of mayhem; keep those readers coming back for more. But not every single one! Don’t toss every single main character into seemingly unavoidable peril in the last chapter and then hit me with the acknowledgements.

Honestly, I’m just surprised by the abrupt ending of this novel. I hate to continually compare a series to Harry Potter, LOTR, or SoIaF, but at least each of those volumes were left with an element of closure; Harry lives to see another year at Hogwarts, but Voldy is still alive; Frodo and Sam are plugging along towards Mordor, but that will be dangerous without the rest of the company; Little Finger just went nuts on Lysa Arryn, but that probably bodes well for Sansa. A good mid-series volume ties up a few ends but holds a string of potential trouble and a few dangling story lines which ensure you’ll be back. The Mechanical offered a hailstorm of misery, then “The End.” I’m not sure whether I’ll continue the series in the future; I guess I’ll let myself decide when the time comes.

What does everyone else think? Should a volume in a series be able to stand alone or should they be so heavily connected that one is incomplete without the others? I’d love to know what everyone thinks. I’m not giving up on Tregillis; although the story itself was frustrating, the writing and story-telling was wonderful, and I’ve heard good things about his other novel, Bitter Seeds, so that is my next endeavor. Stay tuned!

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