Circe by Madeline Miller
In her follow-up to her 2012 novel The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller revisits the world of Greek myths, this time with the witch-goddess Circe. Circe, the daughter of Helios, a Titan, and a water nymph, never feels at home in her father’s halls. She is mocked for her strange voice and lacks the beauty and power of her parents and siblings. Instead, she finds herself drawn to mortals and prefers them to the vain and petty gods around her. When her latent powers are made known, she is considered a threat by Zeus and is exiled to the island Aiaia. On the island, she begins to practice pharmakeia, witchcraft using herbs and other elements to create powerful spells. She is particularly adept at transfiguration.
Circe briefly leaves Aiaia when she is summoned to Crete by her sister, Pasiphae. While at Knossos, she meets her niece, Ariadne, the inventor Daedalus, and has a memorable encounter with the Minotaur. After returning to exile, Circe is more keenly aware of her loneliness than before and throws herself into working her magic. Despite her isolation, Circe does have the odd visitor. Sometime lover Hermes comes to tell tales of the outside world. Circe’s other niece, the witch Medea, seeks her out after fleeing her kingdom with Jason. Ships of men also find their way to her island and, at first, she welcomes their company. After a sailor’s brutal betrayal, Circe transforms him and his crew into pigs. Thereafter, most men who find her island meet the same fate. One day, as foretold by prophecy, Odysseus makes his way to Circe’s shores. If you know your mythology, you already know how the story plays out. However, in Miller’s hands, the story feels fresh and utterly compelling.
Circe is a complex and sympathetic heroine. Her struggles to find her voice and wield her power are both ancient and completely of the moment. Circe may be about a goddess, but it has a lot to say about being not only a woman, but a woman with power. A particularly potent theme throughout Circe’s story is how men fear powerful women and attempt to suppress them. Miller’s vivid, evocative writing brings the Greek gods and monsters to life in a unique and fantastic way. Readers who enjoy stories about women’s lives, and those who read literary, historical, and fantasy fiction will all find something worthwhile here.
The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea
A big, messy novel about a Mexican American family coming together to celebrate and to mourn. Big Angel de la Cruz, ill with cancer, wants one last birthday party, and then his mother America dies at 100. Angel’s younger half brother, Little Angel, a literature professor in Seattle, reluctantly shows up, and the brothers resolve some issues and relive memories of their father Antonio, a motorcycle cop. Set on the southern border of California, the family doesn’t worry too much about legal status, as their history goes back before California was a state. Exuberant, intimate, funny, sad, and occasionally violent, the story of the de la Cruz family makes compelling reading. Big Angel’s wife Perla and her two sisters also tell their stories, and there is cake, a surprise mariachi band, and even a party crasher with a gun. Inspired by events in the Naperville author’s family, this is a moving and memorable story.
Two Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist
Artist Zoe makes a long overdue visit to her friend Camille in France, and impulsively decides to hike the Camino de Santiago from central France to the Spanish border. Her budget is small and she is hiking because of a recent death in her family. Martin, a British engineer working in France, decides to test his design for a one-wheeled cart by hiking with it from Cluny to Santiago. Better equipped and organized, Martin often stays in inns and enjoys gourmet meals while Zoe’s budget barely covers hostel dormitories. However, the trail keeps bringing the unlikely pair together, especially when they are both dealing with upsetting news from home. The scenery is dramatic, the other hikers a quirky bunch, and the dialogue is witty and funny. I enjoyed this charming romantic comedy inspired by a three-month hike of the Camino in 2011 by Rosie Project author Graeme Simsion and his wife, writer Anne Buist. Film rights have been sold.
The Woman in the Water by Charles Finch
The latest book featuring Victorian gentleman sleuth Charles Lenox is a prequel, and a good place to start reading this excellent mystery series. Only 23, Charles is out of college and wants to be a detective, but isn’t taken seriously by his friends or Scotland Yard. Charles and his valet Graham keep a file of crime stories they clip from London papers. Reading an announcement bragging about a perfect crime, the pair get to work. A very clever mystery and some fine detecting set up an exciting chase to find a murderer. On the personal front, Charles is hopelessly in love and his father has a health crisis, which somehow doesn’t prevent horseback rides in the country or a quick trip abroad with Charles. Charles, Graham and their London of 1850 are very agreeable company. Recommended for Anglophiles and readers of historical mysteries. A Beautiful Blue Death is the first book in the series.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Readers will be swept up in this Korean family saga set in Busan, Korea and Osaka, Japan from the 1910s through the 1980s. Four generations struggle with supporting their family and keeping their ethnic identity as Koreans. Sunja grows up in a small boardinghouse catering to fishermen in a Korea occupied by Japan. Her father Hoonie dies when she is 13, so Sunja and her mother YanJin work hard. When Sunja gets pregnant, she learns that businessman Hansu is already married. Isak, a young pastor, ill with tuberculosis, is nursed back to health by YanJin in their boardinghouse, and agrees to marry Sunja. They move to Osaka and live with his brother Yoseb and Yoseb’s wife Kyunghee. Times are hard, Isak is imprisoned for a while, and Sunja and Kyunghee help support the family by selling kimchi and candy. Sunja and her sons Noa and Mozasu are occasionally helped by Hansu, alienating Noa when he learns learns the truth. Later the family does well financially, with Mozasu running several pachinko parlors and sending his son Solomon to university in the United States. Faith and family, love, luck, and loss are the themes running through the decades of this moving, character-driven novel.
Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan
Full of drama and suspense, this novel tells the story of Italian teen Pino Lella and his experiences in northern Italy during World War II. When bombs start to fall on Milan, Pino and his father camp in the hills at night, but soon he is sent to the mountain camp of Father Re, where Pino learns to hike the mountaintop trails, then leads Jewish refugees across the Alps to safety in Switzerland. At 18, he must enlist in the military, and his father thinks he’ll be safer in the German Organisation Todt. Having learned to drive in the mountains with a future racecar driver, Pino becomes the personal driver to Nazi General Leyes. Reporting to his uncle at his store in Milan, Pino is also a spy known only as Observer. Pino soon falls in love with Anna, the maid to Leyes’ mistress Dolly. Leyes confuses Pino, taking food and blankets from the Italians for his troops, but also saving some Jews from being sent to work camps. Beneath the Scarlet Sky is fiction, but is based on the amazing true story of Pino Lella, and is being made into a movie. An epic story full of thrills and heartbreak; suggested for readers of real life adventure stories or World War II fiction.
The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory
Alexa and Drew meet cute in this contemporary romance, in a stalled hotel elevator in San Francisco. Alexa is on her way to celebrate with a friend and has snacks and wine in her purse. Drew is in San Francisco for the wedding of an ex-girlfriend, and impulsively asks Alexa to be his date and pretend girlfriend. The two hit it off even though Alexa is uncomfortable to be the only black woman at the wedding. They have a fling, and are both surprised when Drew invites Alexa to visit him in Los Angeles, where he’s a pediatric surgeon. Alexa, chief of staff to Berkley’s mayor, is a bit of a workaholic, but enjoys their fling. She’s a little insecure that she’s short and curvy but he clearly finds her attractive, and they enjoy eating doughnuts and burgers together. Drew never introduces her as her girlfriend, and she is reluctant to share why a proposed arts program for delinquent teens is so important to her. The pair spend a lot of time in bed together, but basically close the bedroom door on the reader in this sensual but not at all descriptive romance. An enjoyable debut, sure to be popular.