Monday, September 26, 2011

2,544: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I’ve been eagerly awaiting Madeline Miller’s debut novel, The Song of Achilles, for much of the year and it has received a lot of hype and a number of glowing reviews in the mainstream press.  I’m a sucker for retellings of myth and, with The Iliad having been a favourite since I was a small boy, I was pretty sure I was going to enjoy The Song of Achilles even if it had turned out to be a little bit rubbish.

Fortunately, it’s not a rubbish.  It’s actually very good and I certainly found it a page turner, sitting comfortably in a clever space – a bit more literary than the average swords and sandals story but not so literary as to be uncommercial.  I don’t want to draw a Madeline Miller-Mary Renault comparison but there is a certain similarity in the positioning of their books.

Unfortunately, that last paragraph says it all as far as my impressions go.  It didn’t shake me.  It didn’t make me go “wow”.  Yes, I enjoyed it.  Yes, it’s pretty well written.  Yes, it’s an interesting take on the story and, yes, I would recommend it but, really, I don’t get the fuss and I think some of the other reviews are a little too effusive.

The Song of Achilles isn’t strictly a retelling or reimagining of The Iliad.  The period of time encompassed by Homer’s original is all there but it is bookended by the early lives of Achilles and Patroclus and by the events that follow the killing of Hector and the return of his body to Priam.  It is, as advertised, at heart, the love story of Achilles and Patroclus and Miller weaves in elements of related Greek myth to help tell the story.

Miller is quite clear where she stands on the “Were they, weren’t they?” issue.  She has no time for the idea of Platonic, non-sexual love between male friends.  Achilles and Patroclus have a fully consummated physical relationship.  This, of course, is not a new idea and there is sufficient context in both The Iliad and our knowledge of Greek mores at the time to make it not just plausible but a natural conclusion.  In general, Miller handles the physical side of it well, making it flow logically from the text.  There are occasions, however, when her descriptions are euphemistic and even verge on the arch – she even talks about the warm spurt of his love – I mean, seriously?

I also enjoyed her treatment of the other dramatis personae.  Miller manages to incorporate the gods into the story in a way that feels natural.  Yes, the Gods do exist and they do make their presence felt in the real world but they are not intrusive and do not come across as figures from a Marvel comic.  Thetis, in particular, is portrayed with a sense of menace and her ambition for Achilles is clear, without her ever doing anything very divine.

The other Greek heroes are also dealt with deftly.  Their basic characters are exactly as a reader familiar with Greek mythology would expect.  But Miller is brave enough to extrapolate and riff on the basic material and does so cleverly, managing to create a modern novel from the bones of myth.

She is also a good storyteller, exercising good judgment in which parts of her source material to emphasise and where to freelance.  Some of the central scenes from the Iliad, such as Priam’s supplication to Achilles and Thetis getting new armour for him are given far less prominence than one would expect and some elements (his Achilles' heel!) are omitted altogether.  Her judicious treatment of the source material both makes sense in the context of her story and also avoids it becoming just an Iliad retread.  Despite knowing exactly who would die, what was going to happen and how it would all end, I still felt a sense of tension and a need to turn the page.

The main criticism I have, though, is that I didn’t wholly buy into the characters either of Achilles or Patroclus.  Achilles came across to me as almost schizophrenic.  Up until the point when Agamemnon dishonours him by demanding Briseis, he seems like a self-indulgent, love-struck gilded youth.  Almost instantaneously, however, he turns into the prideful, adamantine, almost super-human figure that The Iliad gives us and that is necessary to explain his refusal to fight and to give Patroclus the reason to ask to borrow his army.  I can see how his character might have changed but it felt a little bit too quick.

By contrast, I enjoyed Patroclus’ character progression from useless child to self-sacrificing hero and Achilles’ conscience but felt that Miller was a little too hard on him as a child.  She gives us a young Patroclus who is the child of a simple-minded mother and a father who despises him.  He is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of a waste of space as a child and, even after his arrival at Troy, he doesn’t take part in the fighting.  The way Miller portrays him makes it seem strange that the young Achilles would have picked him as his companion.  Maybe as a result of the lack of qualities she gives him as a child, the story of his development almost elbows the love story aside as the central theme.

I don’t want to sound overly negative.  I really did enjoy this book.  It’s just that I don’t think it lived up to the hype and, as a result, I’m probably being a bit picky about it.  It is well-written, a great story and there are some interesting themes in it, especially the way in which the various prophesies slowly come together to catch Achilles in their web and show that one can’t avoid one’s fate.  I am sure it will get a reread from me in the future and I will definitely buy her next book, I just don’t think it is as good as the hype would have you believe.

Friday, September 23, 2011

2,545: Snuff by Sir Terry Pratchett

Oh, Terry Pratchett!  How do I love thine Discworld novels?  Let me count the ways.  I love them for their hilarity.  I love them for their gentle mockery of the fantasy genre.  I love them for their sly way of hiding social commentary inside their humour.  I love them for the mirror they hold up to the human condition.  And I love them for the deliciously lunatic paths down which Terry Pratchett’s genius leads us.

Snuff is the 39th in the Discworld series.  It seems a long time ago now that The Colour of Magic came out, when I was in my early teens, and incredible that he has managed to maintain such a level of productivity, both in quantity and quality, throughout my entire adult life to date.  Snuff is no exception and an excellent addition to Pratchett’s oeuvre.

As Snuff is not released until 11 October, I will do my best to avoid spoilers, or at least major spoilers, but if you prefer to read with no prior knowledge of the book then I would suggest you close this page, run off immediately to pre-order the book and then return here on the 12th or 13th October after devouring the book, in order to see to what extent you disagree with me…………

…………………………If you are still with me, Snuff is the latest Discworld volume to feature Commander Sir Samuel Vines, Duke of Ankh, Commander of the City Watch of Ankh-Morporkh, wife of the redoubtable Sybil Ramkin, father of Young Sam and Blackboard Monitor.  The story opens with Sam getting ready to surrender his badge of office to Lord Vetinari, Patrician of Ankh-Morporkh.  Yes, it’s true.  After years of sterling service to the city, Sam’s time has come. Under pressure from Lady Sybil and with the connivance of Vetinari, Sam is being forced………….to take a short vacation.

However, as this is Sam Vimes we are talking about, it is not long after his arrival at Ramkin Hall that he finds himself investigating the mysterious disappearance of the village blacksmith and the murder of a goblin girl.  From there, of course, things escalate and we are treated to the hot pursuit of an oxen-driven river barge, cross-border police cooperation, the foiling of an international criminal gang and the eternal search for bacon sandwiches.  All in a day’s holiday for our Sam, who is assisted in his endeavours by his faithful manservant, Willikens, a kind of ninja Jeeves, and a raw but surprisingly handy country copper.

Snuff is a thoroughly enjoyable, fast-paced read with everything that one would expect from a Discworld novel.  Pratchett takes on issues of (in)human rights, the class system and social policy and manages to make some interesting points under the cover of a frenetic plot and some beautiful wirting.  Ignore any prejudice you may have about the fantasy genre that Pratchett gleefully subverts and hopefully you will see his wonderfully smooth writing style.

As in other books in the City Watch story arc, Vimes’ ongoing struggle between his darker impulses and his better nature is a central part of this story.  Continually tempted to break the rules and to use violence to bring about justice, Sam clings to his badge of office and his duty to uphold the law.  He is the paradox of a man who believes he is, at root, bad but who consequently acts as a good man to protect himself from his own nature and in doing so shows himself to be a truly decent man.  Vimes’ views on justice and the law have much to commend them and make a far more serious point than one would expect from a comic novel.

If you are already a Pratchett fan, you will need no more convincing from me and will enjoy Snuff.  In particular, there are some brilliant and affectionate riffs on Jane Austen, including Sam’s heavy-handed resolution of the marital woes of a country family with a number of unmarried daughters.

If, however, you are not yet a Discworld devotee, I do strongly urge you to lay aside any pre-conceptions you may have and give the man a go.  This is not just humorous fantasy, this is social satire and commentary.  In his books, Pratchett deals with all sorts of issues: corporate greed, war crimes, the difficulties of multi-culturalism, modes of government, justice and morality.  But don’t just take my word for it, take that of  Booker Prize winner, A.S. Byatt:

Pratchett too requires us to think. Whenever I read his stories, I find myself thinking that he is “grown up”. He may write benign comedy but he knows how horribly complicated and exciting the Universe is. I like to read Tolkien, but both he and Philip Pullman appeal to the nostalgic lost child in me, who read stories in which good and evil were clearly distinguishable, and love made things better. Pratchett writes farcically, and knows blackly………………….. the truth seems to be that the sheer force of Pratchett’s world-building and word-building energies can accommodate farce and local jokes as it can accommodate parody of Tolkien, Bulgakov, Shakespeare, Lawrence of Arabia or St Augustine.”

Snuff may feature goblins and other assorted fantasy staples and it might be set in a world that sits on the back of four elephants that, in turn sit on the back of a giant turtle but, deep down, it is thought-provoking satire and I honestly believe that the scoffers are missing out on something.  It’s not the best Pratchett but, equally, it is not one of his few misfires (Moving Pictures is my least favorite).  Once again, a big thank you to Harper Collins for the ARC, which means that I know what a treat you have in store for you next month.  Enjoy……..I certainly did.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Yes, It's True. I've Never Read These Books

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, brought to us all by The Broke and the Bookish is asking what books I haven’t read that I feel that that everyone else has read.  Actually, in my case, that’s not going to be a difficult one to answer.  One of the interesting features of reading a lot of blogs is that there appear to be certain books that act a little like a wildfire in sweeping through the place by word of mouth.  This phenomenon is made even more striking by the fact that, no matter how many book blogs I read, the aggregate is always going to be a tiny percentage of the total number of book blogs out there and an even tinier percentage of overall readers out there.  So, the book that seems ubiquitous amongst bloggers I read may, in reality, not be a book that “everyone” has read, even if it feels that way to me.

A secondary point that arises out of this is that there appear to be books that are huge in the US but don’t become particularly popular over here in the UK (and vice versa, of course).  So, if my blog diet is US-biased (and I have no idea whether it is or not), I may also get a slightly warped perspective from this.  So, taking all this into account, here are nine books I haven’t read and which I suspect everyone else really has read and one embarrassing confession:

1.         Twilight by Stephanie Meyer.  No.  Sorry. It’s never going to happen.  This is proof that 116 million people really can be wrong.  Frankly, Ms Meyer may as well have made Edward Cullen a vegetarian and have done with it. These must be the least scary vampires since Count Duckula.

2.         The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  I’ve read plenty of enthusiastic, even evangelical, posts about this and I guess this is probably an age thing but I really have no interest in reading it.  Nothing against it but it’s just not for me.

3.         The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.  For some reaon, I’m not a fan of Scandinavian crime fiction and Stieg Larsson’s work is unlikely to prove to be the exception that proves the rule.  I just find it all a bit too dark and depressing.  I’d probably enjoy it if I could get past my prejudices but, at the moment, there’s far too much I actually want to read to give me the impetus to pick this one up.

4.         Game of Thrones by G.R.R. Martin.  To be fair, this one is on the Kindle but so far, I’ve been slightly put off it for a variety of reasons and every time I think about making a start on it, I find something else to read in its place.  One day soon though……..

5.         Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.  With or without zombies, I am probably the only book blogger in the English-speaking world never to have read this, Sense or Sensibility or, indeed, anything by Austen or any Brontë sister.  Karen at Book World in my Head recently generously sent me a lovely copy of Jane Eyre from her giveaway and so I have no more excuses.  I have to break my duck on 19th Century women authors.

6.         Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.  See 5 above.

7.         Carch-22 by Joseph Heller.  I’m going to lump this in with To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye as great 20th Century American novels that I’ve never read.  I feel a little like a first time attendee at an AA meeting: “My name is Falaise and I have never read………”

8.         Anything by Stephen King.  Actually, that’s not quite true.  I did read his account (co-authored with Stewart O’Nan) of the Boston Red Sox’ World Series-winning season of 2004, Faithful but I have never read a single word of any of his novels.  Honestly.  By the way, the Yankees suck.  Allegedly.    

9.         Anything by Neil Gaiman.  Although he is a name that I’ve been aware of for years, I’ve been surprised at how incredibly popular he seems to be amongst both bloggers and the UK reading public.  Actually, now I think about it, I have read Good Omens but that’s really a co-authored book with the marvellous Terry Pratchett.

10.       De Rerum Natura by Lucretius.  Bear with me here.  I’ve noticed a confessional tone about a number of these items and I am guessing many of you will also have been ‘fessing up to those books you feel you probably should have taken notice of.  So, in a confessional spirit, despite the fact that I know almost noone has read this book, I would like to confess that, when studying De Rerum Natura as my set verse text for Latin A-level, I was issued with a copy of the Latin text by my school.  A previous pupil had painstakingly interleaved a handwritten translation of each line into the text.  I spent the whole year submitting his translations for marking by my tutors and so, although I managed to get through the exam and pas my A-level, I have never ever actually read my set book.  It feels better, getting that off my chest.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

2,546: Twelve by Jasper Kent

Part of the joy of taking part in things like the Transworld Book Group is that you can take a bit of a punt on the books you choose, without the risk of feeling that you’ve wasted your money if the book doesn’t work for you.  It was with that in mind that I chose Twelve by Jasper Kent.

The novel is set in Russia in late 1812.  Napoleon’s Grande Armée has scattered the Russian armies before it and is approaching Moscow.  Captain Aleksei Danilov is part of a small unit of Russian officers, charged with spying on the French and trying to sabotage their efforts.  It seems to be a losing battle until Aleksei’s friend and colleague, Dmitri engages twelve mercenaries from Eastern Europe to assist them.  The twelve claim that they can drive the French out of Russia.  This seems to be implausible in the extreme but they soon prove to be more than up to the task.  Aleksei becomes increasingly suspicious and gradually learns the truth.  The twelve mercenaries are, in fact, voordalak, the vampires of Russian folklore. And Aleksei must try and defeat the plague he has unwittingly helped unleash on Russia.

I’m not generally a fan of vampire literature, with a couple of exceptions such as Dracula itself and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian but I was intrigued enough by the genre-bending concept of a historical novel blended with a vampire story to give it a go.  And I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised.  It’s not high literature but it is undeniably a page turner and has sufficient about it to lift it above your average pot-boiler.
As I enjoy historical fiction, I had felt that I might find the vampire elements of it either forced or unrealistic – if that word can be properly applied to something inherently unreal.  In the event, Kent manages to combine the two elements well so that it doesn’t feel either like a vampire novel with a bit of historical flavour or like a historical novel with a bit of vampire action shoe-horned in to sex it up.

Part of the reason for this may be the nature of Kent’s vampires.  The Oprichniki are not your Twilight teen-girl fantasy type of vampire.  Nor are they the sexy version of so many urban fantasy novels.  And they are most definitely not the evening dress clad, “I vant to trink your blut” type of vampire.  Kent’s vampires are dirty, carrion-breathed, feral creatures who fit naturally into the corpse and disease ridden streets of defeated Moscow and the ravaged battlefields of Russia.  Noone is in any danger of finding this lot cool or attractive.

Kent is also clever enough to balance plotlines so that, although Aleksei’s battle to get rid of the vampires is clearly the central line, we never lose sight of the historical aspect of the story and the need for the Russians to defeat Napoleon.  In particular, I enjoyed the scenes of the Battle of Berezina and the retreat of the French as a historical story as much as for the confrontation between Aleksei and Iuda, his nemesis amongst the Oprichniki. 

Kent also makes good use of the historical novel convention of focussing on the personal lives of his characters as well as their roles in the bigger picture by making the love affair between Aleksei and Dominikiia, a prostitute, a central part of the book.  Having said that, although I appreciate that this is done to make Aleksei less of an unambiguously heroic figure, I couldn’t help feeling rather defensive on behalf of his wife, Marfa, in Petersburg, and his young son.

There isn’t actually a great deal of gore, with one particularly gruesome exception.  Kent tends to allow his vampires to do their worst off-camera, leaving us with a few sense impressions and allowing our minds to fill in the blanks.  This is very effective as it gives the few explicit scenes of horror much more impact and stops the book descending into a series of cartoon-like schlock horror vignettes, desensitising the reader.

Obviously, the book isn’t perfect.  Some of the characterisation is a little wooden and, once Aleksei has uncovered the nature of the Oprichniki, there is a certain inevitability about the plot.  The vampires, although obviously very powerful in their element, did seem to be a little too easy for Aleksei to dispose of.  This was probably necessary, given the need for him to deal with twelve in a limited number of pages but it took something away from their stature as the bad guys.  I also found myself falling a little out of sympathy with Aleksei, due to his habit of over-introspection and the fact that he seemed a little too quick to deal with the guilt feelings caused by his adultery.

I can probably sum Twelve up best, however, by saying that, on a lonely weekend away from my family on business, I kept wanting to read “just one more page” to find out how Aleksei was going to prevail and the twist at the end is both unexpected and deliciously subtle in its implications. Although I knew that there is a sequel, I had not realised until now that Twelve is the first in a planned series of five books spanning Russian history from 1812 up to the October Revolution of 1917.  If the remaining books are up to the standard of this one, I am going to enjoy the quintet very much. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

2,547: Cain by Jose Saramago

Jose Saramago, Portuguese Nobel laureate, died last year at the ripe old age of 87.  The English translation of his final novel, Cain, has recently been published and I am very grateful to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for letting me read an ARC.

Prior to this, I’d not read anything by Saramago and didn’t know quite what to expect but I know that I will definitely be looking out for more of his books as I thoroughly enjoyed Cain.  Having said that, I could easily see many overly serious Christians taking a very different view of the book to me.

The story of Cain and Abel is one of the best-known Old Testament stories.  Cain, a farmer, became the first murderer when he killed Abel, his brother, in jealousy that God had accepted Abel’s offerings but not his.  God punished Cain by making him an eternal wanderer in the world and by putting a mark – the mark of Cain – on him.

Saramago turns the story on its head, having Cain blame God for making him a killer and generally portraying God as being a pretty unpleasant and unreasonable character, whilst Cain is a decent kind of guy.  The book plays with the concept of the eternal wanderer, continually uprooting Cain in both place and time and using this to reimagine several well-known Old Testament stories, inserting Cain into the action.

Thus, we have the story of Abraham being prepared to sacrifice Isaac but, this time, the angel sent by God gets held up and it is Cain that stays Abraham’s hand before Cain berates God for his petty and vain actions.  As Saramago the narrator intrudes, “Yes, you read correctly, the lord ordered Abraham to sacrifice his own son, and he did so as naturally as if he were asking for a glass of water to slake his thirst, which means it was a deep-seated habit of his.  The logical, natural and simply human response would have been for Abraham to tell the lord to piss off, but that isn’t what happened.”

We see Cain as the lusty lover of Lilith, at the battle of Jericho, the Tower of Babel and as a passenger on Noah’s Ark, where he takes his final revenge on God by killing off all the other human inhabitants, thus depriving God of his new people.

Everywhere Cain turns, he sees more evidence of God’s violence and lack of reason or consideration for his creations.  Saramago is constantly pointing out the darker side of God’s actions in the Old Testament.  His God is not a kindly Father of Man.  “The lord isn’t listening, he’s deaf, everywhere the poor, unfortunate and wretched cry out to him for help, they plead with him for some remedy that the world denies them and the lord turns his back on them.”

Saramago was, of course, an atheist and this is an anti-religious book but it is also very funny.  There is a rich vein of humour running through the wry narration and some genuinely amusing passages.  Despite his idiosyncratic use of punctuation and his trick of eliding conversations together so as to make the reader have to concentrate more, the pages slipped easily by, telling a aplendid story whilst slipping in many barbed comments on the iniquities and wickednesses permitted or caused by God.

I can't comment on where this fits into Saramago's body of work but it was both entertaining and thought-provoking and highly amusing.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

2,548: 1,001 Book Challenge - The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

This is exactly the reason I decided to take up the 1,001 Books challenge.  I would almost certainly never have picked up The English Patient otherwise and even if I had, I would probably have cast it aside after the first few pages, which would have been a grave error.
The English Patient is set in the Villa San Girolamo, a war-damaged villa in Italy.  Here, a Canadian nurse is ministering to a mysterious English pilot, who has been severely burnt in a plane crash in North Africa.  Into their solitary lives come Caravaggio, a Canadian thief and spy, who was a close friend of Hana’s father, and Kip, a Sikh Indian sapper, who is responsible for clearing the area of mines.
Ondaatje lets the story unfold slowly, giving us glimpses into the histories and personalities of his characters in an impressionistic style, allowing our knowledge of them to grow slowly until we understand everything, which only really happens at the very end.  The English patient in particular tells his stories through a mix of dreams and snippets of memories, something that Ondaatje’s prose reflects wonderfully.
Each of the main characters is damaged, either physically or emotionally and, for the majority of the book, they give each other love and care that appears to help them until the outside world intrudes and causes the break-up of their household.
Two love affairs provide the structure around which the book is woven.  The first is the doomed love affair of the English patient and the wife of one of his friends in pre-war Cairo.  This is an impassioned, sensual affair which ends in tragedy.  The second is the love that grows between Hana, emotionally withdrawn from the loss of her father, lover and unborn child, and Kip, who is deeply conflicted by his willingness to fight for Britain and his love for his brother, arrested for anti-Imperial activities.  Their affair is more tender and reserved but still destined for failure.
Another theme is that of identity and deception.  The English patient, although able to describe his history and adventures in the desert in detail, is unable to shed any light on his identity until it is revealed by Caravaggio.  Even then, his recollections shift perspective so one can never be absolutely certain of who he is.  Embedded in the gradual revelation of his story are the various deceptions that surround him – personal deceptions like the one he and his lover practice on her husband and professional deceptions practised by the husband and Caravaggio.
Despite the skilful way in which Ondaatje slowly reveals more and more of his characters’ lives and experiences to bring the overall story together, I did find the climax a little jarring and clumsy.  Kip’s near-hysterical reaction to the news of the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and his blaming of England for it (and, indeed, everything done by all other European and North American countries) is both bizarre and implausible, given Kip's previous views, behaviour and relationships.  Without trying to deny the calumnies perpetuated by Great Britain in the name of Empire, I really don't feel we can be held responsible for everyone's actions.  It’s at this point that the novel becomes unbalanced with Kip becoming both the dominant character and also the hero, with some laboured metaphors for the passing of the torch of civilization from the old, predominantly-white world to the new, Asian world.
Despite my reservations about the ending that, I’m afraid, did affect my enjoyment of the book, The English Patient is, undoubtedly, a fantastic piece of writing. Indeed, if I were to play the game of trying to predict which modern novels will be considered classics in another hundred years, I strongly suspect that this will be a contender for inclusion in a new literary pantheon.  I can’t say that I loved it but I’m definitely glad I read it.