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

Review-ish: The Liveship Traders Trilogy by Robin Hobb

‘Many will rant and rave against the garment fate has woven for them, but they pick it up and don it all the same, and most wear it to the end of their days. You… you would rather go naked into the storm.’

As my Robin Hobb reviews tend to be overly gushy, I thought I would review them as a trilogy, so any readers out there who aren’t fussed on fantasy can skip over this one! I really enjoyed one reviewers point that it only takes two readings for these books (that are huge by the way) to look battered. Me and the bloke mostly read these on holiday in Portugal so they really suffered from being stuffed in bags, and half buried in sand (and wine). I briefly wondered whether they could have been a quartet instead of a trilogy, but the stories work so well in the current format. So I will accept the size and the wrist-ache that came from reading them one after the other.

There was some googling required after finishing the Farseer series; it seems that some people crack straight on with the Tawny Man Series, which follows on from Farseer. But I was well-convinced that it was worth leaving Fitz behind for a while, to focus on Bingtown and its inhabitants. If anyone else is debating this, it seems a matter of preference. Some people enjoyed taking a break from the intensity of the Farseer storyline, and others were so into it they wanted to jump forward and then come back to Liveships. I’m a purist, so always want to read things in the way that the author intended.

There are wayyyy to many story-lines to begin to even touch on them (think Game of Thrones style, multiple plots that cross-over) but one of the significant plotlines is around the Liveships, a concept that I have never read about in fantasy books before. The Liveships are sentient ships, that are owned by trading families, and infused with the memories of their Captains. Its just fascinating, and develops in fantastic way over the trilogy.

I also loved that this trilogy was fantasy-at-sea. I always loved the sections of the Earthsea Quartet by Ursula Le Guin where Ged, the hero, travels around the islands of the archipelago. So this felt a little like coming home. It makes it quite low-level fantasy, particularly in the first book, but is handled deftly and with respect to an audience that is looking for some magic. 

Other themes include morality, seeking refuge, family, class, race, rule, gender roles and expectations, tradition and obligation. But Hobb doesn’t smash you over the head with any of these, and doesn’t present a black and white view of any of them. 

As with the Farseer series, this trilogy is heavily character driven, introducing us to some of the most wonderfully complex, frustratingly flawed characters. One reviewer points out Hobbs use of perspective, with the action being seen through one characters eyes at at time, you can find yourself constantly switching allegiance.  Its a classic example of there being numerous sides to every story, and is refreshing in this format, allowing the reader to empathise with all of the characters and the decisions that they make. I surprised myself by doing a full 180 degree turn on one character, and I am very stubborn. Althea is a wonderful main character; spirited, flawed, and rallying against a society that would have her playing a role she can’t bear the thought of. 

Hobb manages to retain enough mystery to keep you rapt until the last page, with many of the twists and turns coming out of the blue (for me at least). There was one reveal that I genuinely didn’t notice until another Hobbnobb pointed it out to me. Goddamn my skim-reading.  To me, it is faultless writing. Unlike the Farseer trilogy where I found the pacing a bit patchy between the first and second books, this trilogy I found to be more consistently paced. I’m just grateful that I was mostly reading them on holiday because I really couldn’t put them down. I also had some very epic serpent-related dreams!

The trilogy ends in a particularly satisfying way, which is no mean feat when you consider the intricate story-lines that have been woven. I found the ending less emotionally exhausting than the end of the Farseer trilogy, but this is perhaps to be expected when you are reading the fates so many characters from their own perspectives, rather than the main character narrative of Fitz. 

I really couldn’t recommend these highly enough, even if you’re not a huge fan of the genre. If you’re into escapism and strong narratives, then the Livership Traders trilogy is a great place to start that journey. 

You can read my previous reviews of Hobbs work here:

The Assassins Apprentice

The Royal Assassin

The Assassins Quest

Kelly x

Review-ish: Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

‘We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.’

I picked up this beast with some trepidation, after it had been mentioned so many times on various podcasts that I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I’m a massive fan of modern American fiction, including Truman Capote, so it made sense that a book that explores his downfall would peak my interest, but I was also worried that it might have been over-hyped. In all honesty, I think I got into writers like Capote and Kerouac because I thought they made me look terribly cool when I was in my early 20’s, but I still do really enjoy the style of the time.

I actually devoured this book and then immediately passed it onto a friend, which is very unusual for me as I’m such a book hoarder. The subject matter itself is fascinating; I found myself googling each individual Swan and gawping at the glamour of them, but its wonderfully composed. Greenberg-Jephcott is a magician at conjuring up these waspy scenes, but also at capturing Capotes voice perfectly.

It would be too easy to paint portraits of these women as awful, self-centred and vain (says the socialist in me) OR as innocent victims to Capotes machinations, but instead, the Swans are far more fascinating to me than the writer himself. Although, his re-telling of his own history is so deftly done.  

The chorus of the Swans throughout the narration is so clever, a modernised version of the choruses used in Greek drama (for those of you who had rubbish English teachers like me). I have just read The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, which is part of Canongates ‘Myths’ series, and she utilises the same tool.

I have no criticisms of the book at all, and really don’t want to spoil it for anyone. So please read this and tell me what you think! And tell me your favourite Swan. I”m obsessed with Lee Radziwill.

Review-ish: Kindred by Octavia E Butler

‘Slavery was a long slow process of dulling’.

I was really thrilled to have stumbled across this on one of my many charity shops jaunts around South Wales, as I had heard of it, but knew nothing of the plot. The copy I picked up, as you can see, is a contemporary edition, so I hadn’t really considered when it was written.

I read it whilst on holiday in Portugal, and whilst it wasn’t an easy beach read, it was still good to be able to be fully-absorbed in it. Kindred is a hugely popular book, written in 1979 and therefore there are many, many better musings and academic writings on this than I can ever provide, so rather than delving too deeply into themes etc, I’ll just share my thoughts.

The concept is clever, and allows the reader to consider the similarities between the African American experiences in LA, 1976 to the Maryland of 1815. The linking of fates, the brutal and disgusting treatment of human beings as property, the realities of life for mixed race couples and the exploration of ancestry were brilliantly executed and fascinating.

In recent years, I have discovered that I have an aversion to time-travel stories (I think this began with the trauma of The Time-Travellers Wife). I struggle to watch films about it. I can’t handle the sliding-doors of it all, or the missing-people-by-moments-ness. Very articulate, I know. But I actually found the time-travel nature of this worked really well and wasn’t too painful for me!

So yeah. There’s a reason why its considered a classic. Get to it. It would make a great book club read as there’s so much to talk about. And I can see why its used for educational discussions.

Well 2019 might have been a ominshambles of a year, but holy moly I read some good books. I have never bought so many copies of the same books, but have loved forcing them upon friends and family as gifts (top buys were All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, not reviewed on here due to Doerr being a British male, The Electric Michaelangelo by Sarah Hall and A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman).

What books did everyone get for Xmas? I got a beautiful illustrated Studio Ghibli book of Princess Mononoke and maybe my 5th version of the Wizard of Earthsea as part of a stunning omnibus. I’m very aware that the book hoarding might one day kill me.

On another note, the reason its taking me so long to get my reviews out is because my laptop is. just. so. slow and I really have to talk myself into even turning the bloody thing on. I’m having cold sweats thinking about doing my tax return on it.

Kelly

Review-ish: One Night, Markovitch by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

Translated by Sondra Silverston.

‘What they were about to see was not something you hurry towards’.

This book is another beaut of a find from a charity shop book collecting mission, which has become a regular part of weekends for me and an obsession that I’m sure will one day kill me. I also do buy new, but there is a certain satisfaction that comes from finding a gem second hand. Last weekend, I found a John Irving that I had never heard of, in the same style of book covers that I have been collecting, lurking in the second hand book shop in the arcade in Cardiff. Reader, it is a compulsion. 

I have never really read anything about Israel before, in particular how the second World War effected events, so this was refreshing and informative. The experience of reading this has really confirmed to me how much I enjoy reading fictionalised history. 

I’ve been a fan of magical realism since falling in love with Louis de Bernieres and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but this time it was really interesting to read magical realism where the evocative background is Israel, rather than the South America or Europe. There is historical realism there, certainly, but it isn’t held to ransom by it. It provides some context rather than driving the narrative. And it did make me more aware of how Israel was formed and the effect that the second World War had on it and its people.

It is truly, bloody lovely. Even with my fairly rubbish imagination, I could see the homes in the kibbutz and had really vivid images in my mind of the characters. 

Although the main bulk of the story is about the eponymous Markovich, and that story is beguiling, it is the journey of Zeev Feinberg that really drew me in, and has stuck with me since. How the other characters respond to Zeev and his impulses are fascinating. The various other characters are just fantastic, in particular, the Deputy Commander of the Irgun. Little moments like how many children get named after him, are just wonderful.

The last third of the book, where the narrative focused on the children, felt a little less well-developed,  event though I enjoyed the more exciting parts of that narrative. The build-up was perhaps just a little too long. But the ending was beautiful wrought. I quite often HATE endings if I have loved the book, I never find them satisfying, but this ending felt right and did justice to the rest of the book. 

Reviewers on Goodreads have RAVED about her next two novels, some saying that this one is weaker in comparison so I will definitely be keeping an eye out for them.

Happy reading!

Kelly

Review-ish: The Assassins Quest by Robin Hobb (#3 in the Farseer Trilogy)

‘Sometimes a man doesn’t know how badly he’s hurt until someone else probes the wound.’

I’m basically just going to rhapsodise about this so please bear with me.

I have been recommending this trilogy to ANYone who will listen. It really is just perfectly constructed fantasy. I’m going to throw it out there, and I’m ready to bear the wrath, but I prefer it to the Game of Thrones books. Here’s why (and then I promise, I’ll actually talk about this particular book!):

–          The violence isn’t gratuitous

–          ALL of the characters are nuanced and are capable of growth

–          The magic is hard-won and not taken lightly

A huge amount happens in this final book of the trilogy. Its not so much a culmination of action, as the previous 2 books had plenty of that, but it does take us through what feels like the final part of this particular journey for Fitz. These books are huge. Finger-achingly and crampingly huge. But its all so necessary for the feeling that you get at the end. The big sigh. Questions are answered, some further questions are raised, but overall the narrative is extremely satisfying. 

As a central character, Fitz is more than worthy, offering us fist-bump opportunities as well as moments where we want to give him a good shake. The new characters that are introduced are fantastic (Starling and Kettle in particular) and the more familiar characters just grow and develop in sometimes quite unexpected ways. I won’t go too much further into the characters or plot, as if you haven’t already been sold by my review of #2, then this barely-a-review isn’t going to change your mind. And I’d rather that anyone who is interested, doesn’t have anything spoiled by me. Make sense? 

Its a testament to Hobb’s exceptional writing that upon finishing the Farseer Trilogy, the lad-at-home and I have sought out and started the next trilogy (The Liveship Traders) and have the following trilogy lined up (The Tawny Man Trilogy) so if I can keep up this sham of a review-site, you’re going to get a lot of Robin Hobb content. We also very nearly started a conversation with an unsuspecting woman on a beach in Portugal who was peacefully reading Robin Hobb unaware that we were excitedly whispering about confronting a fellow Hobb-nob and making her our friend.  Reader, we did not ruin that poor persons day, don’t worry.

I have been reading A LOT recently so the ol’ review back-log is significant at the moment. But the nights are drawing in, the leaves are falling and my favourite time of year commences so I WILL be getting my reviews in order.

Whats everyone reading at the moment? Does anyone read seasonally?? Im intruiged.

Kelly

Review-ish: The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Translated by Philip Gabriel.

‘The truth sometimes reminds me of city buried in sand. As time passes, the same piles up even thicker, and occasionally it’s blown away and what’s below is revealed.’

Sometimes, I really wish that I had read Murakami’s work in the order they were written, as I think I’d find it so fascinating. But alas, I read Norweigan Wood as a teenager and came to his others as I found them in libraries, charity shops or second-hand book shops. This is the most similar to Norwegian Wood that I have read so far. It lacks the totally nutty magic of Hard-Boiled Egg and Kafka on the Shore. But it’s still a very charming read.

I was convinced that I had found this book slow, but according to my notes, I was absolutely gripped by it! In this way, I think its an easier read than his more fantastical books, but it didn’t haunt me for weeks afterwards in the way The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle did. 

It felt like a meditation on the internal workings of someone’s mind. How easily it can be misled. A gentle story, really about one man, Tsukuru Tazaki, as he tries to reconcile his past with his present. I liked the slowness of it, which I think is  reflected its singular focus. I enjoyed how every moment was described in great detail, like his time at the lake. Murakami’s work is very evocative, but it was surprisingly enjoyable to feel this in stillness rather than action.

It offers a really interesting reflection on loneliness and isolation, comparing emptiness or unease in our own skin to physical or emotional colourlessness. Of feeling like you are the one that lacks personality when surrounded by bolder, more colourful people. And how reality can be very different to your own perception.

The language is more accessible than some of his other novels, but the lack of drama might put some readers off. I found his lyrical descriptions of music, particularly noticeable in this book, really beautiful and moving.

The characters, similar to in Norwegian Wood, are a little bit bleak, a little bit morose. But realistic, reflecting a different side to humanity. And as always, Murakami can create a fully-formed and 3D character in a few words. But he always allows you a deep-dive into his main characters sub-conscious.

There’s other Murakami books I might recommend first, depending on your interests, but if anyone is reading them in order, I’d love to hear about it!

Kelly