Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: Circe by Madeline Miller

This one has been on my list for a while, so I am happy to be able to say I have finally read it.  All those awards lists and reviewers were right, it is a great book. It is not a quick easy read, but it is worth savoring, because the writing is lyrical and thought provoking.  In case you missed it, Circe tells the story of several Greek myths, in particular The Odyssey, from the point of view of Circe, who was more of a bit player in Homer’s version.  There is also a feminist twist, which I found refreshing.

Circe is the daughter of Helios, the Titan who drives the chariot of the sun every day.  Unfortunately, in Harry Potter parlance, she’s a squib. She doesn’t appear to have power, she is not beautiful, which of course was the currency women were able to trade in most easily, and what’s more, she does not appear to draw much interest from Helios, though she is desperate to earn his approval. All her life, Circe has had an affinity for mortals, unlike most of her kind.

Eventually, she falls in love with one and it is then that she discovers her power.  She is a mistress of Pharmaka, herbs and medicines, and she can use plants to cast spells, charms, etc.  In other words, she’s a witch. She changes her mortal crush into a god, and dear reader, I’ll bet you can guess what happens next.  He never really loved her. In her despair, she changes her rival into a sea monster with dire consequences. Zeus and Helios agree that Circe must be punished.  She is banished to an island, alone. The funny part is that she doesn’t mind all that much. She likes the quiet, and she enjoys learning more about her new power.  Through the visitors to her island, including Hermes, we learn the story of Odysseus and more. Ever wondered why Circe changed all the sailors who stop on her island into pigs?  Read the book!

This novel is beautifully written; it echos the poetry of The Odyssey.  One caveat, readers who are familiar with the Greek myths will enjoy it a lot more than those who are not; a certain amount of familiarity is assumed. I was one of those kids who checked out every mythology book in the junior high library, read them all, and then started over–yes, I was that nerd. (!)  So, I loved this book.

If your book club decides to read it, here are some questions for discussion:

  1. What did you know about Circe before reading this book?  What did you think her character would be like? Were you accurate–why or why not?
  2. Why do you think Circe is so different from her brothers and sister?  They all have the power of witchery, but Circe uses hers in very different ways to her siblings.
  3. Which of her lovers do you think was the love of Circe’s life and why?
  4. How do Circe’s actions with regard to her son compare with modern “snowplow parents?”
  5. Which character would you like to invite to a dinner party and why?
  6. One of the themes Circe refers to is “gods and fear,” in fact her son, Telegonus chides her for her fear.  Why do you think “gods and fear” recurs throughout Circe’s life and the novel?
  7. Would you like to be alone on an island?  What would you pack if you were banished and could only take what you could carry?
  8. Was the character of Penelope what you expected, why or why not?  Between Circe and Penelope, which one do you think you would have the easiest time being friends with and why?
  9. In Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses are often portrayed as silly, vain, and mercurial (pun intended). Miller doesn’t really stray from this convention.  Why do you think the Greeks imagined their gods and goddesses this way?
  10. What role does fate play in Circe?  Do you think fate or free will is the guiding force of the plot and why did you choose as you did?
Book Reviews/Discussions

Guilty Pleasure: Mine: a Novel of Obsession by J. L. Butler

I received an ARC of this last year at the Texas Library Association Annual Conference.  Full disclosure–this is definitely a fun beach/vacation read, not serious literature. Having said that, though, there is a lot to recommend it if you are in the right mood.  

Francine Day is a divorce attorney in London and her most recent client is handsome, wealthy, and extremely attracted to Francine, a feeling she returns with abandon.  This is a problem, because he’s a client. You know that little thing they talk about in law school, called ethics? Well, dear reader, as you and I both know, a suspense writer never lets a little thing like ethical behavior get in the way of an exciting plot. So, before we get to chapter six, the attorney client relationship has turned, shall we say, heated, but not in an angry way…More full disclosure, there is some on page sex, so if you, like me, prefer things like that be left to the imagination, be prepared to skip those parts.  It isn’t super sexed up, but there are several scenes which one might rather were off page.

When Martin’s soon to be X-wife turns up missing the day after he has make-up sex with her under the jealous eye of Francine, who then drinks herself into a blackout episode, things begin to get dicey.  Throw in the creepy neighbor in Francine’s apartment house and Martin’s business partners, a married couple with plenty of motive, and you have yourself a somewhat suspenseful way to pass the time in an airport terminal or on a commuter train.  The astute reader will figure it out before the end, but it is always nice to read through and get confirmation.

While Mine is worthy of an entertainment read, there are a couple of problems with it.  First, Francine seems to have WAY too many problems. She’s bipolar, lonely, appears to have commitment issues, and ,weirdly, is willing to throw her career away, one which she has spent over a decade building, for an affair with a rich client who has at least as many issues as she does. Color me skeptical, but it seems out of character for her, unless she is supposed to be an unreliable narrator, in which case, the novel is even weaker, so let’s stick with option 1.  Also, Martin’s attraction to Francine is never adequately explained. He is going through a messy divorce and trying to keep his half of the business out of his wife’s greedy hands, but he is willing to distract the person he needs to make sure that doesn’t happen? And what about Peter, the creepy neighbor? He’s just an extra complication that we don’t really need. He serves a purpose in the plot, which I will not divulge here because spoilers, but I think there was probably a better way to handle it.

Bottom line:  If you like suspense novels or as they are often called now, domestic noir, this is a passable entry into that category.  Not on par with Gillian Flynn, but it works as a quick read for fun. Enjoy!

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think Francine is willing to begin an affair with her client, given her apparent dedication to her career?
  2. Did you expect what happened with Peter?  Why or why not? How do you think the action could have been propelled forward without him in the story?
  3. What purpose do you think Dominic served in the story?  How was he a stand-in for Martin, to allow Francine to see her own irrational behavior?
  4. What did you think of the ending?  Did you know who the killer was? Why or why not?  Why do you think Francine decided to use herself as bait to catch the killer?
  5. What about the “epilogue?” Did you expect what happened between Francine and Martin?  How would you have ended the book?
Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: Dracula, My Love by Syrie James

As fan fiction goes, Syrie James’s is some of the best.  I first read her Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen a few years back, and she also wrote The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen.  I lost track of her after that, so I was delighted to find a paperback copy of Dracula, My Love at Half Price Books. Now, let’s be clear, this is a fun, fairly quick read in which James fills in some of the gaps left by Bram Stoker and writes the whole thing from Mina’s point of view.  It is not attempting to provide literary heft, although James’s writing is solid. Mina was always my favorite character besides Quincy Morris. I mean he was a Texan, and he did represent pretty well. 🙂 He also gets to die a hero, so there’s that.

In James’s version, and I don’t think there are any spoilers here given the title, Mina and Dracula carry on a clandestine romance the whole time Van Helsing and the boys are trying to find and kill Dracula. If that seems like it might be a bridge too far, just  go with it. If you are a fan of Stoker’s book (I am) and if you enjoy decent fan fiction ( I sometimes do) then I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Mina comes off slightly unsympathetic, but maybe that’s just me. It is interesting to see how James’s Dracula explains all the vile deeds attributed to him by Van Helsing et al. Jonathan becomes a fuller character in James’s telling and the reader is rooting for him all the way to the twist at the end, which the astute reader will see coming a mile off.  That doesn’t make it less satisfying. If you are in the market for something fun with classic ties, give this one a try, I think you’ll like it.

Discussion Questions (in case your book club decides to read it):

  1. How does Dracula appeal to Mina at the beginning?  What do you think is missing at first in her relationship with Jonathan?
  2. Do you believe all of Mr. Wagner/Dracula’s explanations for events, why or why not?
  3. Do you think Mina’s backstory with her parents adds to the book, why or why not?
  4. If you had to get rid of one of the characters, which one would it be and why?
  5. Which decisions of Mina’s would you also have made, and which would you not have?  What about at the end, would you have chosen as Mina did? How do you think Dracula’s supernatural magnetism plays into the choices Mina makes?
  6. If you had eternal youth and life, what would you do?
Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: Educated: a memoir by Tara Westover

My book club met this week and we had read Educated.  Although I found the book interesting and Westover an engaging writer, certain aspects of the book were disappointing.  First, it bears more than a passing resemblance to The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. This is not a reason not to read it, of course, but I wonder a couple of things.  

**How many memoirs by abused/neglected children of poverty in dysfunctional families do we need? This is not to minimize anyone’s suffering, nor to object to a light being shown on aspects of the American experience that need more attention. At what point do we become callused to the horrific stories of the children who managed to escape?

** As has been noticed before, America loves an underdog. We love to read/hear/watch the stories of people who made it against the odds, because it means that anything is possible for anyone in America.  It means that if you have the gumption/grit/intelligence, you, too, can succeed. However, we like to ignore the fact that those who manage to succeed are really outliers. There are plenty of smart, determined people who don’t make it.  They don’t have the lucky break, the mentor, the roommate/sibling/friend who helped them defeat the odds. It is true that the story arc would be more challenging and the ending less neat, but what if someone wrote a memoir about being one of the unlucky ones?  Would it even get published and if it did, would anyone read it?

**Then I saw this article in the NY Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/01/opinion/vance-westover-trump.html and I was more than a little insulted.  I live in rural America and I grow weary of East Coast Entitled Intellectual Elites lumping all of us in “flyover country” together as if we were one large basket of dummies.  If we would just be more like Tara and J. D., we would get a clue and our lives would be great. No worries about money, jobs, dying small towns, etc. Newsflash: it isn’t that simple.  Shocker: some of us are actually educated; we aren’t all rubes and survivalists. And some of us are REALLY tired of being condescended to. Life is complicated, and we didn’t all get the brass ring…but I digress. All of rural culture isn’t toxic, and by the way that word is totally overused.

Here are some discussion questions to think about if you or your book club are reading Educated.

  1. How much do you think is left out of the story?  Do you think there was physical abuse of Tara’s mother?  Why or why not?
  2. Why did the family continue to allow Shawn’s obvious abuse and violence? What would have been the price of  speaking up?
  3. When Tara’s father brings home the shearer, one of her brothers refuses to run it before Tara is ordered to do so.  Why did he feel able to refuse their father and Tara did not?
  4. Why do you think Tara was so reluctant to get help once she got to BYU? Why did her professor push her to apply for the program in Cambridge?
  5. Imagine an alternate ending to this story.  What would your alternate ending be?