Review-ish: Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I feel like my thoughts on this one will be fairly predictable after my rave review of Circe. Yeah I bloody loved this. I find myself wanting to write that I loved it more than Circe but I think that’s because it is obviously just as poetically beautiful, but also a more familiar story and therefore more easily digestible. That’s not to say that Miller doesn’t turn Achilles story on its head and presents her own fresh perspective.

I find it really hard to describe her writing style. Its captivating and haunting and at the same time, neither of those words do it justice. I would confidently pick up anything she wrote and probably devour it in one sitting.

Song of Achilles is very moving, and I shouldn’t think I’d be spoiling anything by saying that. The story is hundreds of years old so if you don’t know Achilles’ fate by now, then I’m not apologising. Achilles is portrayed as a real (albeit touched by the Gods) and flawed human, as well as the warrior we know from the Illiad. Its his relationships with the other characters that make this telling so powerful; Patroclus, his best friend, Thetis, his mother and Briseis, the captive and trophy, all present a different and softer side to his personality.

Although Achilles is the protagonist, I would say that Patroclus is the hero and I will encourage you to read it to understand why. Whether you have an interest in the classics or not, this is storytelling at its best. Highly recommended!

I know it would be easy to assume from my reviews that I have never met a book that I don’t like, but honestly, if I really hate something I just don’t finish it. Life is far too short and there are too many books I want to read out there. More gushing reviews to come!

Kelly

Review-ish: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I must apologise for the terrible photos. I dropped my phone about a year ago, and smashed the glass in front of the camera. It’s worked surprisingly well.. until now. Now everything is in soft focus (unless heavily filtered). Its on my list of things to get sorted.

This has to be the chunkiest book I own at the moment, and a global pandemic and national lockdown seemed the ideal time to try and tackle it. I’d heard nothing but good things about it and the BBC series had come out so I wanted to read it before giving that a shot. I really would recommend the series whether you have read the book or not. Its exceptionally well cast and actually helped me to understand the narrative a bit better (goddamn skim-reading).

Susanna Clarke has created the most incredible world, blending magic with Georgian England, in an utterly unique way. I don’t think that I have ever read anything quite like it. She manages to bring real peril to the story as well as lighter and very funny moments.

The story itself is far too complicated for me to summarise here, plus I read this back in March and the majority of it has been replaced in my brain by lockdown rules, county by county. But it centres around two magicians, with very opposing viewpoints on the history and application of English magic. Its political and personal, brings up class and status, and the classic conundrum of whoever writes history controls the story.

I’m not going to lie, this is a big ol’ book, clocking in at 800 pages, and I found that it didn’t immediately grip me (although I’m very glad I stuck with it!) I just wouldn’t want anyone to dive into it expecting an easy time of it! And a warning, the book also has footnotes which can be essays in themselves. I debated whether to read them and decided to give them a glance and read them if I felt like it. I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do, but it made it possible for me to finish it. A quick skim of the Goodreads comments section confirms that those who are compelled to finish it, can’t praise it highly enough, but many just find the start too slow.

It would make a lovely autumn/winter lockdown read, but go in prepared to commit some serious reading time to it!

Would love to hear other readers thoughts on it so please do share in the comments section!

Kelly

Review-ish: Non-fiction round-up

Feminists Don”t Wear Pink by Scarlett Curtis, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez and Dare to Lead by Brene Brown

Lockdown certainly gave me a little bit more brain space to finish/get stuck into more non-fiction, so I thought I’d give a little round-up of three female-led/authored non-fiction books that I have finished over the last few months.

Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (and other lies) by Scarlett Curtis

This is the sort of book that I wish had existed when I was a teenager. By pulling on the experiences of a wide variety of contributors, the book manages to present many different and difficult concepts, without taking itself too seriously. And it gives a whole new generation of young people some honest, flawed and remarkable role-models, who certainly weren’t in the mainstream media spotlight when I was young and impressionable.

I got given this as a particularly brilliant secret-santa present (our theme was the letter F) and have dipped in and out of it since then, and being a series of essays, it really lends itself to occasionally forays or just getting stuck in.

It felt quite similar to Deborah Francis-Whites, The Guilty Feminist, but pitched to a slightly younger audience, so I’d definitely consider buying it for the young women in my life.

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

This wonderful book was an excellent accompaniment to Hello World by Hannah Fry which was our August book club pick. Both are written in a really accessible style, despite talking about big data, which is definitely not part of my normal world.

I was gutted to have missed Perez speak about this book at Hay last year, but I think she sold out pretty quickly! I recommend giving her a follow on Twitter (@CCriadoPerez) if you’re interested in how the data we collect (and don’t collect) disproportionately affects women.

Its the sort of book that once you’ve read it, you’ll never look at the world the same way again. When, as a woman, you go to use a tool that isn’t built for your sized hand, and now, when we see reports that young women have borne the brunt of unemployment, childcare and housework during Covid19 because of the way our infrastructures are built.

I highly recommend this to everyone, as its just fascinating and eye-opening.

Dare to Lead by Brene Brown

This was also bought for me as a gift! My friends know me well.

I had heard of Brown, through her TedTalk on vulnerability but had never actually read any of her books. It was interesting reading a book about leadership and culture change at a time when so many work places cultures have had to embrace change.

As I expected, she’s a compelling writer that presents her learning, and others, in a way that feels empowering and achievable at all levels. Communication has become so important, inside and outside of work, that I think I’ll be returning to this book again and again for ideas and methods. I have also heard that the audiobook is very well done, so great for anyone who prefers listening to non-fiction.

Has anyone else found that they have more capacity to pick up non-fiction at the moment? I know that there’s plenty of readers out there who prefer non-fiction, but I’m also aware that we’re generally reviewing fiction here. Always happy to hear your thoughts, and recommendations so please do share below!

Review-ish: Natives by Akala

‘Never mind that Britain has a German royal family, a Norman ruling elite, a Greek patron saint, a Roman/Middle Eastern religion, Indian food as its national cuisine, an Arabic/Indian numeral system, a Latin alphabet and an identity predicated on a multi-ethnic, globe-spanning empire’

A while ago now, this interview of Akala on Channel 4, popped up on my Facebook timeline and I immediately ordered a copy of this book. Akala is a rapper, educator, journalist and activist, and Natives has been held up alongside Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race as one of THE books to read to educate yourself on racism in the UK.

I love David Olusoga’s book cover quote about how Akala ‘picks apart the British myth of meritocracy’. This quote does a much better job than I can of expressing the thoughts I had throughout reading this about how we have all fallen into this meritocracy trap.

I started it as soon as it arrived, and then dipped in and out until lock-down allowed me the space I needed to finally finish it. As expected from a lyricist, Natives is brilliantly written; evocative and emotive. Like Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Akala explores race, heritage, empire and colonialism, but its through the lens of his personal experience that these topics come alive.

In Chapter 8, Why Do White People Love Mandela? Why Do Conservatives Hate Castro? Akala presents a highly researched and fascinating insight into the wide-spread hero-worship of Mandela, and taught me a huge amount about Castro’s Cuba that I, and I imagine many others, never knew.

Natives has an exceptionally high rating on Goodreads, and for good reason. Akala’s humour and style make this a particularly accessible read, one that I will certainly be recommending.

Unfortunately, BBC only put up Akala’s dramatisation of this book called Ruins of Empire briefly, but if you want something to watch I would highly recommend Black and British: A Forgotten History which expands on many of the historical Chapters in Natives.

Please feel free to share comments and recommendations below. I’d love to get a conversation going!

Review-ish: The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

‘His stories were good because he imagined them intensely, so intensely that he came to believe them.’

It feels like decades ago that I finished this, although it was just in March, I think, at the beginning of lock-down. Its one of those books that has kept popping up on my radar and I was really keen to use some of my extra reading time to read something less contemporary.

This is going to be a real snippet of a review, as I have such a back-log and I’m super keen to share everything else that I’ve been reading over the last few months. And to be completely transparent, the only notes I wrote for this were ‘tense’. That’s it.

That’s not to say it wasn’t good; it was well written, brilliantly paced and incredibly tense. But I spent much of the book thinking about the film, which is a real shame. This is one I really wish I had read first.

I have just discovered that this is the first in a series, which surprised me as it felt like a very complete piece. Reading through the Goodreads reviews to prompt my memory, I agree with many that Highsmith certainly takes you on a vivid and compelling journey through 1950’s Italy, and tests your moral compass as you find yourself willing Ripley to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes, but I wouldn’t say that its best thing I’ve read recently.

As I so often say, it can be as much about timing as it is about the actual book, and maybe this just wasn’t quite the escapism I needed. Also, the film is so well-known and has a style all of its own that eclipsed the writing for me a little. But as a psychological thriller it hits the mark.

Has anyone read any vintage classics that they would recommend? Please don’t mention Catcher in the Rye as I also tried that and found it very tedious!

Happy reading!

Kelly

Review-ish: Women & Power by Mary Beard

‘It is not just that it is much more difficult for women to succeed; they get treated much more harshly if they ever mess up’

This pint-sized beauty was brought for me as a very well-considered gift. I’m a little obsessed with Mary Beard. She’s recently been named as a Trustee of the British Museum, to some controversy it seems, and currently has a tv programme on BBC called Mary Beards Shock of the Nude.

This is another slim, little one-sitting read. You can tell my attention span wasn’t great at this time, even pre-Covid19 lockdown.

These quick reads (The Myths series) and published interviews (I also read Optimism Over Despair by Noam Chomsky recently) are enlightening and ideal for quarantine reading. Although maybe not Noam. He was pretty heavy.

In Women & Power, Beard explores the silencing of women through the ages, using her expert knowledge to bring stories and historical moments to life and make them relevant for today. She also addresses the Me Too movement from her own perspective.

Having been through the British schooling system, my historical knowledge includes such highlights as; Henry VIII (divorced, beheaded, died…) WWII (from Britains perspective obvs) and a dappling of Ancient Egyptians, so this really helped remind me of why history is worth further exploration in adult-hood, and that there are many lessons to be learnt.

Others have written much more eloquently than me about the intricacies of the book, so I will link to a great Guardian by Jacqueline Rose here.

I know I don’t offer much in the way of in-depth analysis (hence Review-ish) so I will always try to share interesting observations by others. I have a back-log of posts to do, due to lockdown, and am finding that I’m not always focused enough to get them done, so I’ll keep them short and snappy for now. And hope that this gals opinions are useful to you!

Women & Power wonderfully blends feminism with my current interest of Greek myths so it was always going to be a winner for me. But I would recommend it, especially if you’re looking for some non-fiction distraction, but like me, find anything too bulky a bit daunting. It’s certainly an easier read that Optimism Over Despair.

Kelly

Guest Review by Ceri Gwyther: Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn

I stumbled across this book quite by accident. I was training for my first marathon and I prefer not to think about running when I’m running, as I just stop. Audiobooks are my life saver. I’d already made my way through the Lord of the Rings and I was after another epic to keep me motivated. So, I turned to BorrowBox, a way of borrowing audiobooks from your local library. I basically scrolled through all the books until I found one that was of sufficient length, and quite importantly, available for loan.

The Emperor of the Eight Islands is based on Japanese mythology. It did not disappoint. Well actually, there was one huge disappointment, but I’ll come to later. The story starts off with a young boy losing his father and coming under the protection of his uncle. This does not bode well for our young hero. It soon transpires that the elderly Emperor is going to die and the sorcerer Prince Abbot wishes the Emperor’s second son to secede. Soon, our hero Shikonoko finds himself embroiled in magic and intrigue, as events beyond his control start to take over.

Each chapter is written from the perspective of different characters, and unlike certain other novels where the jumping of the story through time and space drives you crazy, in this book, each chapter succeeds in advancing the story in a logical manner.

What I like about this book is that it does not focus on the battles, the gore and the million and one ways of mutilating/causing pain to your your enemy. Don’t get me wrong, it has its moments, but these are secondary and the author focuses on the characters, their motivations and their stories.

Some people have criticised Lian Hearn’s style of writing as being too simple, but from someone who has listened to the story rather than read it, I found it really soothing yet gripping.

As for my disappointment, this stemmed from me not knowing anything about the book. After some Googling, it transpired that I had in fact listened to books 1&2 of a 4-book series. My big disappointment had been the ending. No wonder I hadn’t enjoyed it, I was only halfway through! Now to find books 3&4 and to keep running.

Guest Review by Ceri Gwyther: Legacy of Ash by Matthew Ward

This book is the first of a trilogy by up and coming author, Matthew Ward. The story encompasses two Kingdoms; the Tressian Republic and the Hadardi Empire, and follows a cast of heroes and heroines as they try and defend their home nations. 


Why do I like this book? Firstly, it is a chunk of a book. I love a good story that I can invest time into. Time to get to know my favourite character (I actually still haven’t figured out who that is), to watch them grow, and sometimes to surprise me. I like to watch the story unfold, through twists and turns, unable to put the book down when really I should be asleep. Shorter stories just don’t do that for me.


Obviously, it’s not the size of the book that matters if it is not a good story. Legacy of Ash has everything you can wish for from a fantasy novel; heroes & heroines, magic, intrigue, destiny, a pantheon of bickering Gods and Goddesses and dare I say it for fear of sounding like a preaching feminist, strong female characters. Hurr-flipping-ray. Not all of the strong female characters are sword-weilding valkyries (though some of them are), some are masters, I mean mistresses, of intrigue, some are homely and some are just dealing with the cards they’re dealt. I’d like to say that Matthew doesn’t make a sing and dance of this, but actually one of the plot arcs is specifically looking at women coming out of the shadow of their men-folk. That’s not my favourite plot-arc, but I am impressed that he did it.


Perhaps what I like most about Matthew’s work is that despite the genre, or perhaps that should be sub-genre, of his different works, there are elements that tie them all together. You can dip into his Coldharbour series, set in modern day London, or into some of his short stories and you can guarantee that there will be names or monsters you recognise that turn up unexpectedly. I am not familiar with any other author crossing worlds and ages like this, tying all the stories together.


I must admit I have a confession. I know the author. However, I genuinely enjoy reading his works and always look forward to reading the next installment.

Review-ish: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

‘Cleverness is a quality a man likes to have in his wife as long as she is some distance away from him. Up close, he’ll take kindness any day of the week, if there’s nothing more alluring to be had’ 

I have to say, this fairly-new predilection for Greek myths has really led me to new authors (Miller) and introduced me to new sides to authors that I had previously read (Atwood and Barker). That’s why I love the Canongate Myth series. The books are small, I read this one easily in an evening, and utilise a core theme to introduce readers to new authors. And isn’t that what Offbeat Book Club is all about?

There seems to be some less-than-clear information online about who is writing for this series, but the books that have been published look very appealing. I have already gotten hold of Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles by Jeannette Winterson. And, as they were published some time ago, they are often available second hand.

The Penelopiad follows the tale of the Odyssey, but from Penelope’s perspective, not only examining her relationship to the mythical hero, but also to the women that made up her court. These are presented in typical Greek fashion as a chorus of maidens and their voices carry throughout the story beautiful in the form of poetry (but in various guises each time). As we would expect from Atwood, Penelope is no longer a bit part or a passive character in the tale, but one who takes her destiny into her own hands and have to live with the consequences of her decisions.

As Mary Beard points out in her novel, Women and Power (review coming soon-ish!) Penelope has never really had a voice. She is silenced by her son, despite having rule the kingdom in her husbands absence. Telemachus, by virtue of being a man, has the authority. In this novella, we can hear, in her own words, the nuances and complexities of her experiences. She is certainly no saint, but neither is she wholly to blame for the fates of the women closest to her. 

I’ll keep it short, much like this novella. Its a weird time, and I’m giving a lot of thought to how Offbeat Book Club might help people who are staying at home more. Any ideas, then please comment below or pop my an email at offbeatbookclub@gmail.com.

Stay safe and kind. Enjoy the extra reading time!

Kelly

Insole Court Book Club Notes – January

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Firstly, a huge croeso to our the new book clubbers who have joined us this month. Really lovely to welcome you to our little group.


Secondly, after repeatedly receiving feedback from the bloke-at-home about the layout of the website and these book club notes sections, I’m going to try out a new format this month. Do let me know if its useful to you, regular book club attendees, those who come intermittently or those who read along from afar. Rather than a random list of comments and thoughts, I will try to provide more of a narrative of the discussion.


It was great to be back in the Reading Room at Insole Court and to see everyone after such a long break. 


**CONTAINS SPOILERS**
So this month, we were reading My Sister, the Serial Killer the debut novel of Oyinkan Braithewaite, a Nigerian born poet. It was recommended by a book club regular, who hadn’t read it before but thought it ticked our boxes and looked entertaining. Everyone had read it, which is no huge surprise as its a small book, and we’d had a big break since our last meeting before Xmas. We kicked off by discussing our general thoughts on the book; many of us were surprised by the depth of it. Some of us expected it to be a little light, or ‘silly’ and although it was very much an easy and quick read, and had comedic elements, it also had layers that keep you thinking well beyond the end of the book.


We moved onto discussing the theme of the authoritarian Father figure had come up in other books by Nigerian writers before. We wondered if this was reflective of the Nigerian society, especially at the class level of Korede and her family. Although not fully resolved in the book, many of us thought that Braithwaite implied that either one, or both of the girls had been responsible for their fathers death. 


‘The rain will drown you’ was pointed our as a particularly poetic phrase employed by the author. 


We discussed gender expectations, in Nigeria and in the UK and the role that your place in the family has on the expectations placed upon you. We felt that Korede, as the older sister, had been earmarked for a caring role from an early age. The fathers abuse had made Korede even more protective of her younger sister. Especially as the mother seemed disconnected from the world, and failed to see what was going on with her daughters in the present day. 


One member compared the marriage of Koredes parents to that of Muhtar and his wife. We found it poignant how loyal Koredes mother had been to her father, with the memorial party etc. But also reflecting on her little ways of rebelling, for example by wearing a colour he hated. 


We considered Korede’s own mental health. Did she have OCD? We wondered whether she actually enjoyed her role in the murders, enjoyed the drama. Enjoyed the challenge of not getting caught. She didn’t seem overly concerned about confessing to Muhtar when there was a chance that he might wake up. 
We discussed the impact on your moral compass of growing up in a society where corruption is rife. Could explain Ayoola’s lack of concern for getting caught, as she doesn’t respect authority. We got the impression that the police failed to really consider the girls as suspects as they were women and clearly wouldn’t be capable of murder! We also briefly considered why there are so few books about female serial killers, relenting that there just aren’t many female serial killers themselves. This then led to a fairly inappropriate discussion about fair representation and the lack of female serial killer role models!


We had a brief chat about social media etiquette in when it comes to mourning. How Femi was truly considered dead once there were no more mentions of him online. We thought this said a lot about our value. And how wrapped up Ayoola was in her own world. Was she a sociopath? She seemed to lack empathy and seemed quite vacuous. But we were aware that we only had Koredes viewpoint of her to go on. 


Neither sister appeared to have friends. Although the side characters were all really interesting. We found that Mohammed served a purpose, to show us that people considered to be of the lower classes could be victims of the upper classes way of life. Korede didn’t seem to have a good relationship with anyone, other than Tade who we felt she put on a pedestal. 


We touched on the horror of discovering that their Dad considered selling Ayoola, and the fact that this might have led her to see relationships with men as transactional, the lack of details about the murders and the poetry within the book as well. We also briefly discussed why Korede became so obsessed with her sisters boyfriends, and wondered whether she was desperate for a close relationship. 


Overall, we all felt that we would recommend it to others and enjoyed the conciseness of the writing. 

Further reading/watching:

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
  • Killing Eve on BBC iPlayer