Circe by Madeline Miller

saintanything

I’m shocked Circe is only 385 pages long. It feels like a vast and sprawling epic, as though it could be five or six books in one. It feels like oceans and mountains and multitudes, which is surprising not only considering its length but also because the majority of it takes place in a single location, the island of Aiaia where Circe is exiled. Somehow, despite this, it spans countries, centuries, viewpoints, and emotions.

Expanding upon the Greek myth, this book casts the Titan goddess in a new light, one that is feminist and humanist. Circe gains a deeper respect for humans than her fellow gods, who fail to see them as more than pawns. Her unique viewpoint among divinity is informed by her own treatment by her family, who revile her as much as any mortal when they’re not being actively worshiped by them.

Circe offers explanations for its protagonist’s habit of turning sailors into pigs and her desperate act of transforming the nymph Scylla into a monster. It adds depth to a common narrative surrounding powerful women — that they must be ill-tempered, ugly, and generally unlikable, luring men into their capricious traps. It allows Circe her flaws and mistakes (she’s still jealous of Scylla) but gives her agency and remorse. Her story here is told by a woman, not by a man as a thinly-veiled allegory that furthers the stories of other men (namely Odysseus and Jason).

Circe reads much like a coming-of-age story. At its core, it’s about a woman who comes into her own, transforming from an idealistic young Titan into a self-determined sorceress who learns how complex humans can be, alternately wanting to save and eschew them, all the while dealing with the familial difficulties that arise from being part of a pantheon of gods in a world that is defined by such things as status and beauty.

Miller’s prose is exquisite. It moved me to tears, particularly during one part which I wouldn’t dare spoil because it should be discovered the way things once were, by witnessing it in its rawest form. I can’t wait to read Song of Achilles, Miller’s other published novel about heroic yet ill-fated Achilles and his lover Patroclus.

Bottom line: Miller’s epic is a sympathetic retelling of Circe, whose sweeping insight had me reeling as I experienced her pain, love, and solitude through the author’s clear-flowing prose.

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Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

saintanythingI’ve been a fan of Sarah Dessen for a long time. I got into her books after watching How to Deal, which I honestly don’t remember much about except that it starred Mandy Moore and introduced me to The Flaming Lips. I liked it when I was 14, though, enough to go out and buy the two Sarah Dessen books it was based on—That Summer and Someone Like You.

Dessen’s books are often cited as essential contemporary YA. They follow teen girls who are usually going through a significant transition in their lives. Romance is involved, but it takes a backseat to the other major events, which lead to personal growth and often familial healing. 

Saint Anything follows this basic Dessen formula, but the details are what make it stand out against her other books—and other YA contemporaries as well. It’s sprinkled with pizza and lollipops, nighttime jaunts through the woods, a band that kept reminding me of Hep Alien from Gilmore Girls, and a group of best friends better than any best friends have ever bested. The plot digs deeper than most of Dessen’s previous books, confronting things like unwanted sexual attention. Its moments of conflict and reprieve are equally balanced, and the dialogue is interesting and believable. Through it all, Dessen weaves details that felt so natural that I kept being reminded of my own high school experience.

Bottom line: Saint Anything is Dessen’s most recent book and her magnum opus, with characters I wanted to hug and scenes I wanted to hide in. It’s going to be a tough one to follow.

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Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

darkplacesI decided to check out Dark Places after loving Gone Girl and ended up loving it even more.

While I really enjoyed Gone Girl, I didn’t connect with its main characters the way I connected with Libby in Dark Places. Flynn’s characters are always deeply flawed, sometimes unlikable, which isn’t a bad thing and in fact is often what makes them interesting, but Gone Girl‘s Nick and Amy feel far removed from anyone I know in real life. Libby is not only easier to relate to, but her growth and development throughout the book are insanely well done.

In the beginning, she’s depressed and stagnant. She has floated through life aimlessly since she was seven, when her mother and two sisters were brutally murdered by an unknown killer who may or may not have been her older brother. For the most part, she’s avoided thinking about it, but as the story progresses and she begins to examine that night more closely, she finally finds purpose in unraveling the mystery behind the killings.

I adored her relationship with Lyle, which serves as the catalyst for piecing the remains of her life back together after being shattered by her family’s deaths. (I recently learned that he’s going to be played by Nicholas Hoult in the upcoming movie adaption, which I think is a spot-on casting choice.) I like that their relationship remains platonic and open to interpretation. What Libby needs above all else is a friend, and Lyle provides that for her at a time when she’s desperate for it.

Bottom line: Dark Places is as dark and morbid as you’d expect from a Gillian Flynn novel but with ten times more heart.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

Please Ignore Vera DietzThere are two things a book can possess that are guaranteed to pull me in:

1. A first-person narrative with a believable voice.

Vera Dietz is the best YA main character I’ve met in a while. She might just be my all-time favorite. She’s independent and sharp and complicated and a genuinely good person. She loses perspective and makes some bad decisions, mostly involving vodka, but underneath it all is a teenage girl who’s dealing with some heavy stuff and trying her best to keep going in spite of it. Her best friend Charlie is dead, and she’s left to cope with her complicated feelings for him, which often seesaw between love and hate, and the secrets she holds about his death.

Plus, she loves animals, she listens to Sam Cooke and Al Green, and she shops for back-to-school clothes at Goodwill. Those little details serve her character so well and make her even more real.

2. Little quirks thrown in that help set the book apart from others I’ve read.

There are several of these:

  • Vera’s vocabulary words
  • Ken Dietz’ flow charts
  • Different character perspectives
  • Chapter titles that will make you LOL
  • Zen quotes
  • Charlie’s napkin writings

All of these details add spice to the story, enhancing an already rich and engaging book.

Other things I loved:

  • Ken Dietz, Vera’s father. He’s dealing with some complex emotions too, trying to raise a grieving teenage daughter on his own, and you get to explore his thoughts and struggles in chapters written from his perspective. The way his relationship with Vera develops throughout the book is realistic and super sweet, putting him right up there with Keith Mars in the pantheon of awesome single dads.
  • Alternating past and present tense. The book switches between present events and flashbacks that serve as clues to Vera and Charlie’s complicated relationship and everything that led to his death. It seems like it could get confusing, but it never does. Everything flows together so well.
  • A satisfying ending, despite some loose ends. Things that need to be dealt with are dealt with appropriately, and some details are left open to interpretation, but it leaves you contemplating them rather than feeling annoyed that they’re not resolved. It’s like we are Vera and Ken and the town. Sometimes we don’t have the answers to everything, so we’re left wondering about them instead, imagining how they could have been or how we wish they were. That’s real life, and that’s Please Ignore Vera Dietz.

Bottom line: A.S. King effortlessly combines quirk and realism into a gut-wrenching story about dealing with loss.

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