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

Guest Review by Ceri Gwyther: The Woman in the White Kimono by Ana Johns

(Narrated by Laurence Bouvard)

This is another one of those books that I found randomly on BorrowBox whilst training for a marathon. The problem (benefit??) with Borrowbox is that everything is always on loan so I end up finding novels that I would not normally choose. I nearly switched it off when I first starting listening, The Woman in the White Kimono started out like a bog-standard romance novel. These are not my cup of tea.

But, I had miles to go and nothing else to keep me going, and besides, Laurence Bouvard has really quite a captivating voice. I’m glad I persevered, but this book does contain some seriously upsetting scenes. I guess this would not be surprising if you read the blurb and knew your history. Quite obviously, I didn’t.

This book is the tale of two women. Naturally, their tales are intertwined. We start with Naoko Nakamura in post-war Japan, 1957. She has fallen in love with an American sailor who loves her back and sets out to win the approval of Naoko’s family. As with any love story between the occupied and the occupier, it’s not plain sailing. The second story introduces us to Tori Kovac the daughter of said American who has no idea of her father’s previous life and love, Naoko, until he drops clues on his deathbed. Tori is an investigative journalist and after a few hesitations, sets out to discover the story of her father’s youth. Could she have done anything but?

What starts out as a seemingly innocent story soon turns darker as we are introduced to the stigma and shame that befell the Japanese women who had relationships (both mutual and not) with the American gaijin. What is worse is what befell the children born of such relationships. I will leave it to the reader to discover some of what happened to these children by letting them read this book. Suffice it to say, that this is not an easy book to run too – it’s hard to catch your breath when you’re trying not to cry. That said, I’m glad that this piece of history has been well and truly seared into my memory banks.

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: 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

Insole Book Club Notes – April

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

We have to thank our friends at NDCWales Book Club for this recommendation, it was great to share recommendations with another book club. In turn, we suggested My Sister the Serial Killer for them, which is a quick read that we’d pretty much all enjoyed.

It was great to get together again with the lovely Insole Court Book Clubbers, albeit digitally. It was interesting to talk about how our reading habits had changed over the past month, during lockdown.

Some found The Seven Deaths easier than others. It seemed to quite often hinge on whether you could give it a few hours of solid reading at a time. Reading or listening to it in short bursts made it quite difficult to follow.

We talked about the various different tropes that the author used, body swapping, etc, but how it may have gotten a little overly complicated. In particular, revelations about Anna felt a little tacked on. Especially as the twist had already been revealed at that point.

For some of us, the twist felt a little bit rushed and could have benefited from fleshing out for us to buy into it. But we also chatted about the fact that the reveal didn’t leaving us with too many questions, so the author achieved an entertaining murder mystery.

We all were intrigued by the descriptions of the various personalities and how they were cumulative, pushing in more and more as the book developed. This was cleverly done and unusual. We were interested in which of the physical behaviours ‘stuck’ from each character and how this helped with the plot. This reminded us of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; how much of who you are is made up of your memories?

We made comparisons to The Good Place, and Dante’s Hell – and the premise of a hell of your own making. The vividness of the world was captivating, and probably successful because of how you relive the world through so many different perspectives. The image of the ramshackle stately home is also well-known in mystery novels, so quite easy for us to grasp.

We spent some time discussing the title after discovering that it is published as The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle in America. It doesn’t appear that the number in the title relates to deaths in the novel, but is more about sensationalism.

Generally we would recommend this to our friends/family – reviews are good, and its been well received. We felt that the violence, although dark, wasn’t voyeuristic or gratuitous. And its a solid enough mystery to keep you going through, at least until the reveal.

I thought it might be interesting to share what we’ve been reading, as we normally finish our meetings with recommendations. So to continue the tradition, whilst quarantined, many of us are comfort-reading Bill Bryson, as well as:

  • Hillary Mantel
  • Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami
  • My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts, so please feel free to comment along below!

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