what I’m reading: circe by madeline miller.

Circe is a retelling of the Greek mythological story of the goddess/witch Circe. Born from the sun god Helios and an Oceanid naiad, Circe was always out of place. Her voice is strange as it sounds like a regular mortal’s voice, and her hair is an odd striped color. Circe does not appear to have any special abilities and is often ridiculed by her siblings. But when she turns a mortal into a god and a nymph into a monster, Circe is banished by Zeus and sent to live on a deserted island. There, Circe becomes immersed in the plants and herbs on the island and refines her craft to become one of the most famous witches in mythology.

I found this book to be an intriguing retelling of Circe’s story. The author merges fiction and mythology to create a fantastical story that spans centuries. Circe is a powerful witch and survives in a time where women were often portrayed as less than men. Circe breaks free of this stereotype and emerges a strong heroine that is not afraid to do what she has to do in order to survive.

But here’s the thing – this book took me so long to read because I kept looking up the backstory of each new character that was introduced. I know the basics of Greek mythology but I don’t remember the basis of all the stories. Jason and Medea come to Circe’s island? I had to look up Jason’s story on Wikipedia. Odysseus lands on the island? I had to refresh my memory of how long it took him to get home from Troy and what monsters and myths he encountered along the way. I kept getting distracted by all the other characters and their stories.

There were a couple of times I thought the story dragged and I found myself skimming. This was mainly when nothing much was going on when Circe was by herself on the island.

If you like mythology, you should read this book.

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what I’m reading: the immortalists by chloe benjamin.

It’s 1969 and the Gold siblings are growing up in New York City. The eldest of the siblings, Varya, hears of a traveling fortune teller who can predict the exact day that you are going to die and convinces her brothers and sister to go see her. Over the next 50 years, we watch all four siblings – Simon, Klara, Daniel, and Varya – grow up and live their lives.

Honestly, I didn’t love this book. When I read the synopsis I thought the book might have some magic or mystical elements in it. But this book mainly is about the lives of the four siblings and doesn’t really delve into the supernaturalism of the fortune teller. It’s a story about family and their tribulations. Though there were parts I enjoyed, I was a little unimpressed.

I guess I was just hoping for something more than a family saga.

Each sibling’s story is told in a different section, with that sibling’s narrative taking off from when the previous sibling died (not really a spoiler because a big part of the book is about how the characters live their lives and we know that they are going to die). Whether as a result of the fortune teller’s prediction or just because, each sibling chooses to live their life differently – Simon and Klara leave the family and move to San Francisco, Daniel becomes a military doctor, and Varya spends her time researching how to prolong life.

While I thought this book was a bit unexciting, what I liked was that it made me think. What would you do if you knew when you would die? How would you spend your time? Would you live your life any differently? So many questions…

what I’m reading: red sparrow by jason matthews.

I’m not going to lie. I put this book on hold because I wanted to read it after seeing the movie that came out this year starring Jennifer Lawrence. I was surprised at how popular this book and its sequels are – there was a really long hold time at the library. I put the book on hold when the movie came out in March and the e-book just became available to check out.

The two main characters in Red Sparrow are Dominika Egorova and Nathanial Nash. Dominika was a prima ballerina until her career was sabotaged by a jealous dancer in the company. Desperate to find a way to provide for her mother, Dominika is approached by her uncle, a high-ranking intelligence officer, who offers her a position in Russia’s spy network. But her uncle has his own agenda and forces Dominika into becoming a Sparrow, operatives who are trained to seduce their targets. Underestimated by her colleagues, Dominika learns to use her wits and body to get what she wants.

Nate Nash is a CIA officer who is the handler of a Russian spy, code-named MARBLE. When a planned meet-up goes wrong and MARBLE is almost discovered, Nate is exiled to Helsinki. Russian intelligence knows there is a spy leak and knows Nate is involved somehow but does not know the identity of MARBLE. Dominika is sent to observe and seduce Nate to see if she can figure out who the mole is.

I enjoyed this book. I found it to be an intriguing spy novel with covert operations, clandestine meetings at safe houses, and a lot of sneaking around. It’s a book where you don’t know who you can trust, but that just makes the story all the better.

Did I think Red Sparrow was a great and fantastic book? Not really. There’s a lot of sexism and stereotypes. At times I wondered if I was reading a book written in the 1950s. I also felt some of the sexual content was a little over the top and I found myself rolling my eyes. The author is a former CIA agent which is evident in all of the terminology and surveillance techniques in the book. But while the author is superb at writing these spy depictions, his skill at writing romance and sex scenes leave a lot to be desired in my opinion.

The best and most random part of this book may be the recipes. Each chapter ends with a recipe for a food or dish that was mentioned in the previous chapter. There are a lot of mentions of food and eating food in this book and I found myself trying to guess which meal would show up as the recipe.

The movie Red Sparrow does a fairly good job of following the book. There are some differences in the book and the movie and, as usual, the book goes more in depth. I found that I understood more of what was going on in the film since the book explains some things that are not clear in the movie.

Like I said – for the most part I enjoyed this book and I’ve already put the next 2 books on hold at the library.

what I’m reading: let me lie by clare mackintosh.

Anna Johnson’s parents committed suicide last year. Her dad jumped off a cliff and several months later, her mother jumped off the same cliff. Anna has been struggling to go on when, on the anniversary of her mother’s death, she receives a card in the mail that suggests her mother did not commit suicide but was killed. What is Anna to do?

The first part of this story was a bit slow but then I was pulled in. I don’t know if I’ve been reading too many psychological thrillers lately but I find it’s getting difficult to read them because I’m always looking for the twist, I’m always trying to figure out what really is going on. I read every sentence with skepticism and question every remark and action characters make.

Of course there was a twist in this book and I was on the lookout for it, which perhaps hindered my enjoyment of the book because I kept waiting for that twist and revelation to show up.

But what I really loved in this story was the way the author depicts human emotion. All of the emotions that Anna feels as a new mother, combined with her feelings of anger and sadness at her parents, really put an intriguing touch on an otherwise boring character.

My favorite character may have been Detective Murray Mackenzie. He is technically retired but works as a civilian at the police station and is the one on duty when Anna appears with the card about her mother. I found his personal story to be quite compelling; his wife is mentally ill and struggles with depression and it’s those human emotions (again) that drew me in.

what I’m reading: the wedding date by jasmine guillory.

The last couple of books I’ve read hadn’t really held my interest so I was pretty excited when I saw that this book had become available from my hold list at the library. The Wedding Date did not disappoint and it was the perfect book to push me out of my reading slump. I adored this book and the characters.

Alexa and Drew meet when they are stranded in an elevator during a power outage. Needing a date to a friend’s wedding the next day, Drew impulsively asks Alexa to go with him. After the two have perhaps too much fun at the wedding, Drew flies back to Los Angeles and Alexa heads home to Berkley. When they can’t stop thinking about each other, Alexa and Drew embark on a long-distance relationship.

This is an adorable and romantic story that I could not put down. I loved the flirting between the two characters; they had so many fun and sweet moments. Also, both characters are constantly eating! I wanted to eat all the food they talked about – cheese, crackers, doughnuts, french fries, all of it.

The story just didn’t focus on the two main characters. It delved into both of their careers and their friends. Drew has some great moments as we see him working as a pediatric surgeon. Alexa is smart and focused on her career as the mayor’s chief of staff. Both of them have awesome best friends and co-workers that contributed on their own to the story.

I think this is my favorite book so far I’ve read this year.

what I’m reading: the girl before by rena olsen.

The Girl Before was my bookclub’s latest book read and I have to say I was not a fan. Everyone else seemed to like it, but I thought this book was terribly boring.

Clara’s life is devastated in an instant – the police knock down her door and invade her house, arrest her husband Glen, and take her children. Clara is sent to a women’s institution where she is questioned by the police. Despite the continued interrogations, Clara refuses to tell the police about her former life before the police raided her home, her husband Glen and their family, or her in-laws.

The book goes back and forth between the past and present – Then and Now. ‘Then’ is Clara’s life growing up and meeting and marrying Glen. ‘Now’ covers the present and the time that Clara is in the women’s institution. Clara’s past is slowly untangled as we learn about her life growing up with Mama and Papa G. She doesn’t understand why Glen has been arrested and why the police keep asking her all these questions.

There are 2 main reasons why I didn’t care for this book:

1. The book goes back and forth between Then and Now. What I found annoying was that each Then/Now part is only about 2-3 pages before it switches back. It was a bit jarring, like when you watch a movie and the scene keeps changing to a completely new scene after only 1 or 2 minutes. I found myself reading and thinking I’m in the past, I’m in the past, nope now I’m in the present, in the present, and now I’m back in the past. I recognize that telling a story in the past and present is a good technique that authors use, but here it was annoying and I just wish the author had made the scenes longer as I kept getting pulled out of the book.

2. Nothing happens. A huge part of the Now section in the book involves the police interrogating Clara about Glen and his family. Predictably, Clara stays quiet and doesn’t answer any of their questions. The problem is that this same scenario is repeated for over half the book. I was reading this on my Kindle I got to over 50%, probably more like 65%, before Clara finally did something and started answering the police’s questions. It was just the same, repetitive, boring scenes over and over. The rest of the book is just Clara telling the police what they want to know and getting them information. Seriously, over half the book is the police trying to get Clara to cooperate with them and her saying no.

I didn’t feel there was a lot of suspense in this book because I figured out what was happening within the first few pages; there was no real reveal for me. I thought Clara had the capability to be an interesting character but she was too frustratingly naïve, even when the truth about Glen was right in front of her.

On a side note, I looked this book up in Goodreads to add to my books and there are tons of books that begin with “the girl before”. What’s the deal? What are they all before of?

what I’m reading: the taster by v.s. alexander.

It’s 1943 and Magda Ritter is sent to live with her aunt and uncle in Bavaria. While Magda is German, she is not part of the “party” and has no interest in joining. Nevertheless, she is expected to do her part as a German girl and manages to become employed at the Berghof, Hitler’s mountain retreat. Not knowing what her job will be, Magda shows up on her first day only to learn she will be risking her life every day as one of Hitler’s tasters – young women who taste Hitler’s meals before he eats them to guarantee they haven’t been poisoned.

I had such high hopes for this book but it just didn’t work out.

I felt the story was engaging and I enjoyed this new perspective on World War II. The life that Magda lives during the war is so different than many of the other characters I’ve read about in other WWII books. She is far from the realities of the war, well-fed, has plenty of money, and lives in a mountain retreat where the guards and employees are treated to movies, dances, and tea parties. Magda even becomes friends with Eva Braun.

However, even though I liked the storyline, I felt the characters were a little flat and thought some scenes could have been fleshed out more. The book is written in the first person point of view, and I thought there could have been much more details into what Magda was thinking and how she felt. Some scenes are completely glossed over and I never really connected to the characters. There is a lot of telling in this book, but not much showing.

Magda’s story is loosely based on a real woman named Margot Woelk who was one of Hitler’s tasters. She chose to keep her real-life story a secret until she was 95 years old. In some of the articles I read online, she talks about how her and the other tasters would cry every time they sampled the food because they thought it might be the last thing they ate. Her descriptions of her job and life were intriguing but I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be in her position.