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: 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: 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.

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: 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: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

‘I think it possible to put flesh on the bones of our terrors, most of all when we have turned our back on God.’

Cheers to Dai Brows for this recommendation. It’s definitely not something that I would have normally picked up as I shy away from period novels, but the recommendation was strong and Essex is the Mother and Fatherland so thought I’d give it a go. The cover is gorgeous actually, a William Morris design. I love it and it shows the reader that it’s much more than a piece of Victoriana.

It’s just a bit of a delight really. It has enough depth through the deeply complex and fascinating characters to make it truly gripping, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The narrative is so unusual, exploring Victorian thoughts on science, medicine, social housing, wrapped around a legendary serpent and this compelling and sometimes a bit frustrating (in a good way) central character.

Perry only hints at Cora’s past married life, which makes it all the more powerful. She creates a central character that is sometimes irritatingly niaive and at other times very self-aware. Cora herself recognises the contradiction of knowing that the marriage shaped her into the woman she is now.

Cora is a maverick and really challenges those around her’s perceptions of womanhood. I loved and loathed that everyone felt owed something by her; love, politeness, friendship, a typical family-life. This provides another layer of tension throughout the book and allows us to examine Victorian-life for women, through her experiences and the way that it contrasts to the other female characters.

Every character in the book, even the more minor ones, have the same level of detail, quirks and individuality. As I write this, I remember more and more of the characters; Naomi, Cracknell, Maureen Fry, Charles Ambrose and Thomas Taylor. A specific interaction between Cracknell and Cora’s son Francis stands out to me as peaceful, beautiful and faintly comical due to Francis’ matter-of-factness.

Perry uses foreshadowing in an impactful way without slapping you round the face with it. And her little updates or summaries at the start of many of the chapters were really poetically written and a simple and effective device.

This is a really great and pacey read. If you’re looking for something a bit different I highly recommend getting your teeth into it.

Whats everyone planning on reading over the Summer then?

Kelly