Country – Michael Hughes

In Country, Michael Hughes transports the story of the Iliad and places it in Ireland in 1996 to tell a story about the Troubles. Simply put, it’s genius.

Despite its different setting to Homer’s tale, it is an incredibly literal re-telling. At one point I was actually concerned that Hughes was going to attempt to do the catalogue of ships, but thankfully he spared us that. Sorry, Homer, but Book 2 of the Iliad will always be a struggle. As well as keeping some of the names close to their originals (Achilles/Achill, Patroclus/Pat, Helen/Nellie, Hector/Henry) there were other delightful nods to the myth. The pub where the IRA congregate is called The Ships, the SAS base is called Illiam. Those little references brought a smile to my face.

The narration of this novel stands out as one of its strongest features. Hughes plays into the oral tradition and as I was reading I felt like our nameless narrator was telling me the tale in person. This aspect meant that it felt similar to how it feels to read the Iliad, albeit with a different tone. From the first page, you can tell that this re-telling is going to work:

Fury. Pure fury. The blood was up. Lost the head completely.
[…]
What was the start of it? The whole wrecking match, that sent so many strong souls roaring down to hell, dogs chewing up the guts ground into the road, birds pecking at the splattered bits of their brains. The way London wanted it to go. The way it always is.
Here’s what. Pig and Achill fell out. The OC and the trigger man. Bad, bad news.

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The Last Animal – Abby Geni

The Last AnimalMy first introduction to Abby Geni was The Lightkeepers, a book that I enjoyed mainly because of the atmosphere that Geni created with her writing. When I was reading it I knew that her voice would lend itself to short stories, so I was delighted that she had already written a collection. The stories in The Last Animal all deal with grief in some form, whether that be losing a loved one, a relationship, one’s health, one’s family. Grief seeps through the pages and the characters often turn to nature to understand or to heal. This theme was also a main feature of The Lightkeepers, but it felt more polished in these stories. The form lends itself to intimacy and small moments, making the impact of the emotions far greater.

Like most collections, there were some stories that stood out and some that appealed less to me. My particular favourites were Terror Birds and Captivity. The former is set on an ostrich farm where a young boy discovers that his father is having an affair. His attempts to save his parents’ marriage and his family have devastating consequences. The latter focuses on Mara, an aquarium worker who has moved back in with her mother after a break-up. Their relationship is fraught with tension, and living in close proximity forces them to confront the disappearance of Mara’s brother seven years ago. Their different approaches to grief collide in a tragic and very real way.

Sadly the title story of this collection was one of my least favourites. A shame considering it was the story that the collection ended on. Whether this is because by the end of the book my brain was tired of the overarching themes of loss and love, or because it simply was not as enticing, I don’t quite know.

Overall though, I enjoyed it immensely. The descriptions and explorations of the natural world were beautiful and Geni’s understanding of the complex ways that loss affects us is insightful. I hope she publishes another collection because it is where her writing shines.

Piranesi – Susanna Clarke

PiranesiIf I was to sum up Piranesi in one word it would be: fine.

This first half of this novel is taken up with building the world in which our narrator exists. He lives in a world that is comprised only of rooms, corridors and statues. The world is immersed in a body of water, with waves crashing through the halls and floods being a regular occurrence. Piranesi knows that there is one other person who lives in the world with him and they meet twice a week to discuss The Other’s scientific research. This universe is beautifully constructed and I didn’t mind that about 50% of this (quite short) book was taken up by exploring the world and beginning to understand it.

This book is not exactly plot-driven, but is instead a slow meander through the creation that Clarke has built. As my main desire when reading this book was for something that did not require much brain power, this was well-suited to my state of mind at that time. It was a gentle exploration of a different universe and a nice break.

One aspect that troubled me was a character whom we meet later in the novel. This character felt like he fitted the stereotype of the “older, predatory gay man” just a little too well. I don’t object to gay characters who are cruel or who do terrible things or who have questionable motives, but there were some scenes that struck me the wrong way. His sexuality was occasionally linked to his actions in a way that left me uncomfortable, even if I could not quite put my finger on why. This was not by any means pervasive though, so did not greatly affect my reading experience.

Was I captivated by this novel? No. Did it have a great impact on me? No. Was it a short read that was quietly enjoyable and intriguing? Yes. And sometimes that’s all I need.

An Arrow’s Flight – Mark Merlis

An Arrow's FlightSometimes a book comes into your life that knocks you sideways and reminds you why you read in the first place. An Arrow’s Flight by Mark Merlis is one of those books. Rachel posted about it on Twitter and I knew I had to read it. A Trojan War re-telling where Pyrrhus is a go-go dancer and Odysseus is a lawyer? Sign me up.

What I could never have predicted is the searing journey that this novel would take me on.

An Arrow’s Flight is ostensibly a re-telling of Sophocle’s Philoctetes. So when we meet Pyrrhus as a go-go dancer and sex worker in the city, we think we know where the tale will go. Whilst the setting is one that is new to the reader, once you have gained your footing in this unusual world, you are prepared for the upcoming plot: Odysseus will arrive, persuade Phyrrus to fight in the Trojan War, and, with the magical bow of Philoctetes, the Greeks will win. That’s the story. A tale as old as time.

Mark Merlis has a different plan for you.

Instead we read about gay identity, fate, and the destructive expectations of families. The tapestry that Merlis weaves highlights the pressures that Greek heroes were forced to confront and draws a parallel with the pressure to be straight and the fear of being queer in a heterosexual world: Continue reading

An Imaginary Life – David Malouf

An Imaginary LifeAn Imaginary Life by David Malouf takes its setting from the exile of the Roman poet Ovid. He is banished to Tomis, a remote town on the outskirts of the empire where no one speaks his language. Ovid has been truly silenced by Augustus. The exile of Ovid is an event which is enshrined mystery. We know the name of the town that he was sent to, but we do not know why; some scholars have gone so far as to suggest that the exile itself was a fiction. This lack of information gives Malouf the space to explore the story that he wants to tell.

We meet Ovid after his exile as he struggles to understand (quite literally) Tomis and the people with whom he now lives. Within this cold and desolate landscape, Malouf invents a character known only as the Child, a feral boy who has been raised in the wilderness by deer. Ovid feels an instant connection to this child and it is this relationship that creates the foundation of the book. Continue reading

The Two Towers – J.R.R. Tolkien

In the films, The Two Towers is my favourite of the trilogy. I’m not sure the same can be said for the books. The first half of The Two Towers is excellent and I pretty much loved every bit of it. In comparison, the second half falls rather flat.

A photo focusing on the book The Two Towers in the centre. On the left side you can see part of both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King.

The first half of this instalment focuses on a couple of action-packed plots that weave their way together. Merry and Pippin are captured by orcs and their characters are given the chance to develop and mature. We learn more about their personalities and how determined and strong they can be. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are in pursuit as they try to rescue their friends, despite feeling certain they will not be able to succeed in this mission. It’s a touching example of how much this group have come to love and respect each other. It’s a gripping plot and we also get to meet the Ents, the tree guardians of the forest, whom I utterly adore.

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Miniature thoughts – Evening Primrose and Much Ado About Nothing

What does Evening Primrose by Kopano Matlwa have to do with Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare? Absolutely nothing, except for the fact that I don’t have enough thoughts on either of them works to justify a full post.

Evening Primrose by Matlwa tells the story of Masechaba who has fulfilled her ambition of becoming a doctor, something she has wanted since experiencing traumatising and debiliating issues with her periods as a child. Whilst working at the hospital she experiences more of the systematic misogyny that pervades the healthcare system and she struggles with the xenophobic tensions that are heightening in the shadow of apartheid. Whilst I appreciated this book and was drawn in by Matlwa’s writing, I felt that perhaps it covered too much in too little space. Misogyny, religion, xenophobia, racism, medical trauma, mental health, suicide, and sexual assault. For a book that was less than 200 pages, I could never quite figure out what it was about. I usually want books to be shorter, but this was a rare occasion where I wish it had been twice as long. It made many important points and the prose was gripping, but I needed more space to live with the themes with which Matlwa grappled.

I am no Shakespeare aficionado, having only read a handful of his works. I thoroughly enjoyed Much Ado About Nothing though. It was delightful, funny and heartwarming. Beatrice and Benedick both hate each other, until their friends decide to trick them into thinking the other loves them. Lo and behold, they discover they have been in love all along. A classic tale that was charming to read. That is only one of the main plots, but it was the plot I enjoyed the most. Much Ado is genuinely funny and the characters were people whom I wanted to read more about. Beatrice in particular is wonderful and invective and I wish we could read more of her rants:

O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place.

The Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R. Tolkien

I had wanted to re-read The Lord of the Rings for several months and had only put it off because I find them so dense to read that they take up a lot of time. And there are other books I want to read as well. However, when I went up to the Lake District with my mum in September I finally succumbed and brought The Fellowship of the Ring up with me. The Lakes always remind me of Middle Earth, so it was the perfect setting.

This was my third time reading The Lord of the Rings and I have enjoyed it more with each re-read. Tolkien’s descriptive writing of the world he has created is a joy to read. The settings of the Shire, Lothlórien and Riverdale are so vivid that I feel that I have travelled to these places with these characters.

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Ransom – David Malouf

Homer’s Iliad is one of my favourite works and I have always been particularly drawn to the scene where Priam sneaks into the Greek camp to beg Achilles for the return of the body of his son, Hector. I have always loved the humanity that is present in Homer; how he focused on the individual lives of those who were fighting the war. It is this episode that sums up what Homer does so well. Here we have two men, caught up in their aching grief and sharing that with each other as equals. It is in this moment that humanity shines through this bloody war of the gods.

In Ransom, David Malouf has taken this scene and transformed it into something new. The book mainly follows Priam, as he makes this unprecedented decision from the depths of his grief. Malouf shows us that whilst mourning is something that we will all have to go through at some point, we experience it differently. Priam cares deeply about all the sons he has lost to this war, but when he talks to his wife, Hecuba, he realises that she mourns for them on a different level. She remembers them as children. She remembers carrying them in her womb, teaching them to walk, the toys with which they played. Priam feels his loss deeply, but these are not the memories that he holds of his sons. He also grieves for his city and the dangers that the deaths of his sons may bring on his people and remaining family.

As for the grief of Achilles. Well, his grief for Patroclus is transformed into rage. If his lover is dead, then the world should die with him.

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The Paths of Survival – Josephine Balmer

The ancient playwright Aeschylus once wrote a tragedy about the star-crossed lovers, Achilles and Patroclus. This play was called Myrmidons and, excepting a couple of fragments, it is now lost to us. We know that it followed Achilles when he was refusing to fight for the Greeks during the Trojan War, a decision that ultimately leads to the death of his beloved. The fragments we do have are filled with lust, love, betrayal, anger, hatred and despair. There are so many works from antiquity that I wish we still had access to, but I particularly feel the loss of this one. Thankfully, in The Paths of Survival, Josephine Balmer brings this work to life in an innovative and evocative way.

A photo of a book on a blue and white striped background. The book has a white background and a photo of a battle helmet. Text: The Paths of Survival. Josephine Balmer.

This collection of poems starts in the present day, at the Sackler Library in Oxford where Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 2256 currently resides. Amongst these scraps of papyrus are some lines that are believed to be when Achilles’ is lamenting over the dead body of Patroclus.

[…For soon I will follow you do]wn
Into darkn[ess]…

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