Category: literary fiction

Book Thoughts: ‘Sufficient Grace’ by Amy Espeseth

Book Thoughts: ‘Sufficient Grace’ by Amy Espeseth

Overall rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Ruth and her cousin Naomi live in rural Wisconsin, part of an isolated religious community. The girls’ lives are ruled by the rhythms of nature — the harsh winters, the hunting seasons, the harvesting of crops — and by their families’ beliefs. Beneath the surface of this closed, frozen world, hidden dangers lurk.

Then Ruth learns that Naomi harbours a terrible secret. She searches for solace in the mysteries of the natural world: broken fawns, migrating birds, and the strange fish deep beneath the ice. Can the girls’ prayers for deliverance be answered?

Why I bought it:  After missing out on the first Moth Box last year, I made sure that I was quicker off the mark when the January box was released.  This was one of two books included in the beautiful box, wrapped up in tissue paper and tucked up with a branded bookmark in plenty of fun packaging.  The boxes are stunning and both books looked fabulous so if you haven’t yet tried acquiring two randomly selected, independently published books through this service, I’d really recommend you do (once I’ve had an opportunity to make sure I get myself one, obviously…).

Why I picked it up: When I bought the January box, I told myself that I couldn’t then buy the March one unless I’d read at least one of the January books. Out of the two in the box, I went for this one because the cover is stunning and it looked appropriately wintery.  And walking away from a blurb that promises “a story of lost innocence and the unfailing bond between two young women” that is “at once devastating and beautiful, and ultimately transcendent” is no mean feat.

Mid-point musings:  I tend to lean towards plot-driven novels but the writing in Sufficient Grace reminds me of how wonderful it can be to just read about a different type of life or a different environment.  I don’t know how this book manages to feel both so free and so oppressive at the same time.  There’s something about a life without the pressures of modern life that in some way seems quite appealing but the weight of living in such close confines with such a small number of people feels unbearable.  It’s a skillful writer that can convey that balance so effectively.  I hope that I’m wrong about what’s going on.

Mid-point rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Final thoughts:  
It’s hard not to write about Sufficient Grace in a way that isn’t full of clichés.  I could wheel out all sorts of over-used phrases about how raw and visceral the writing is.  About how Espeseth has taken a harsh environment and used it to highlight the trials her characters endure.  The annoying thing is, they’d all be true.  The writing in this book is absolutely stunning.  I can’t remember having read another book that gave me such a clear picture of the world characters were living in.  It’s harsh and unrelenting, describing a community that relies on nature and hunting to survive, that is so dependent on the environment and familiar with death in a way that modern communities avoid being. It doesn’t always make for easy reading (and the opening in particular might be one that’ll turn a few to vegetarianism) but it had a huge impact on me whenever I was reading and it haunts me months later. 

So come for the writing, stay for the heartbreaking story.  The story follows Ruth telling her of life among her family in an isolated rural community.  The author’s acknowledgements include an apology to any of her former isolated religious community that she might have offended in writing this novel.  Ruth’s story is Amy’s story, after a fashion, and it’s the ring of truth that makes this novel so powerful.  The way that Ruth uses religious stories and allegories to rationalise some of the terrible things that happen to her was painful to read about.  Adult readers will understand more about what’s happening to Ruth than Ruth does herself but Espeseth never overplays it.  She writes subtly and gives Ruth a voice that has just the right amount of naivety.  I wasn’t wrong about what was going on and the way that it plays out is just…devastating.  In a quiet, suppressed way.
This is a little known novel it would seem but it’s absolutely worth hunting down.

Favourite quotes:

“Reuben is pretending he wasn’t ever scared, that he hasn’t already been picturing himself slipping through the ice: sinking down, down, down into the freezing deep, his eyes peering up through the frosted water, trying to find the hole out that was his hole in”
“He is finished.  And now I know what I had hoped against: he is all he is, and he is not enough” [Page 251]

Date finished:  15 February 2017
Format: Paperback
Source: Bought via Moth Box Books
Genre: Literary fiction
Pictured Edition Published: in August 2012 by Scribe Publications

Review: ‘The Ballroom’ by Anna Hope

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Where love is your only escape…

1911: Inside an asylum at the edge of the Yorkshire moors, where men and women are kept apart by high walls and barred windows, there is a ballroom vast and beautiful. For one bright evening every week they come together and dance. When John and Ella meet it is a dance that will change two lives forever. Set over the heatwave summer of 1911, the end of the Edwardian era, The Ballroom is a tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which.

Wake by Anna Hope was one of my favourite books of 2014 (review here).  I remember being amazed at how a story that was quiet in so many ways could be so impactive; how Hope could tell a story of the lives of three women over the course of five days and manage to say so much about post-war Britain.  The Ballroom manages to do just the same thing.  Through Ella and John’s story, Hope manages to weave a commentary on the treatment (or lack of treatment) of mental health in the early 20th century without that commentary weighing too heavily on the plot or leaving it feeling laboured.

The novel follows Ella, a young woman incarcerated in Sharston Asylum after breaking a window at the factory where she worked out of frustration and a simple wish to see daylight for a change, and John, locked up after losing his family, his job and becoming homeless and destitute.  There are other ‘residents’ who have what would still be regarded as mental health problems by today’s standards (Ella’s friend, Clem, for example, whose experiences are particularly harrowing) but Ella and John are just two young people who have fallen on hard times and are regarded by society as unstable or inferior.  Every week, the better behaved inmates are treated to a dance.  A bright spot in their routines where they get to socialise with members of the opposite sex and dance.  Ella and John’s meeting is adorable and the progress of their relationship from that moment on made my heart hurt.  Their story isn’t melodramatic.  It’s gentle and achingly realistic and I was entirely taken in by it.

I just love the way that Anna Hope writes characters.  The way that they grow and change subtly until they’re someone different entirely.  Alongside Ella and John’s narrative is one of a young doctor, Charles Farrer.  Dr Farrer starts as a young idealistic doctor, determined to prove to the medical community that sterilisation isn’t the way to prevent the “spread” of mental health problems, that those who fall under the rather flaky 1911 idea of what constitutes mental ‘deficiency’ are quite capable of productivity.  Events then tease out his vulnerabilities and frustrations and twist them (and him), really shining a light on the hypocrisy and imbalance perpetuating asylums of that era.  Gradual and utterly believable.

The combination of the oppression of Sharston Asylum itself and of the soaring temperature creates a frazzled atmosphere.  There’s an ever-increasing sense of urgency and the characters become progressively more fraught and almost desperate.  Towards the end of the novel, I was gripping my book so hard I was actually hurting my hands and just willing both the characters I loved and those I hated to get the endings they deserved.  I closed the novel in tears.  Admittedly, that’s not necessarily something new for me but the ending of The Ballroom was a real sucker punch.  

Overall:  Anna Hope’s writing and characters are beautiful and I just don’t feel as though I can convey in a review quite why they’re so terrific.  If you want to read historical fiction that will sneakily worm its way into your heart and stay there, I can think of few authors to recommend more highly than Anna Hope.

Date finished: 18 December 2015
Format: Paperback (Advanced Reader’s Copy)
Source: Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review – thanks, Doubleday!
Genre: Literary fiction; Historical fiction
Pictured Edition Published: on 11 February 2016 by Doubleday

The Ballroom is out on 11 February 2016 and you can pre-order now at The Book DepositoryAmazon or Waterstones.  You can also currently get Wake for your Kindle for a bargainous £1.99!  

Review: ‘The Collector’ by John Fowles

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Withdrawn, uneducated and unloved, Frederick collects butterflies and takes photographs. He is obsessed with a beautiful stranger, the art student Miranda. When he wins the pools he buys a remote Sussex house and calmly abducts Miranda, believing she will grow to love him in time. Alone and desperate, Miranda must struggle to overcome her own prejudices and contempt if she is understand her captor, and so gain her freedom.

Just those three words, said and meant. I love you.

They were quite hopeless. He said it as he might have said, I have cancer.

His fairy story

The Collector is really something.  I’ve been watching a few YouTube channels recently that tend to feature mostly literary fiction and this book is one that came up more than a few times and it flew onto my wishlist.  When Laura bought it for me for Christmas, I waited only as long as it took me to finish a book I’d already started before cracking it open.

The story is pretty simple.  Frederick is a lonely man with little in his life but his aunt and cousin and his collection of butterflies.  When he wins a fortune, it occurs to him that he longer needs to limit himself to butterflies.  The beautiful woman that he has admired from afar can be his.  He can take her beauty and have it all to himself.  So he does.

The stream of consciousness style of the first part took a bit of getting used to but once I was used to it, the effect was completely unnerving.  Fowles’ writing is manipulative and disorientating.  I knew that I was reading the narration of a deeply disturbed man who had kidnapped a young woman just so that he could have her as part of his collection and yet I found myself completely taken in by him.  His motives are perverted and his love is deeply flawed (if it can even be called love at all) but he truly believes that if he can only keep Miranda long enough and force her to get to know him, she’ll grow to love him. As Miranda wheedles and pleads and lashes out, I felt sorry for Frederick.  His illusion is shattered and his despair is gut-wrenching.  I felt sorry for a deluded sociopath, knowing that he was a deluded sociopath.
I’ve read a lot of reviews that criticise the second half, which shows Miranda’s perspective on the events of the first.  I’ll admit that it doesn’t have quite the same disconcerting quality (there’s something much less unique about feeling sorry for someone who is being held captive) but it does add a lot to the novel in a different way.  It recounts some of the same events told by Frederick earlier but in doing so it throws into sharp relief just how disturbed he is.  It can be repetitive and it can blur off into tangents about art and Miranda’s life before she was incarcerated in Frederick’s cellar but it’s the writings of a woman trapped underground and it fits.  Where Frederick’s narrative is told in the past tense and with the benefit of hindsight, Miranda’s is told in the present tense and shifts with her moods and the events that she is writing about.

And the ending!  Oh, the ending.  I can’t think of any way that I would change it.  Absolute perfection.

When I first finished The Collector, I gave it 4.5 stars for some nagging feeling that the section of Miranda’s writings was just a little too long.  Three weeks later, though, and the book is still haunting me.  I still find myself thinking about just how clever it was and how disturbing the closing paragraphs were.  Any book that has that kind of effect has got to have 5 stars, really.

Overall: A dark and sinister novel that is very powerful in its own quiet way.  If you aren’t put off by different styles of narrative or by pitiable sociopaths, I really can’t recommend The Collector enough.  It had me thoroughly creeped out and pensive while I was reading it and it’s still lingering around in the back of my mind.  Just excellent.

Date finished: 10 January 2016

Buy here

Format:  Paperback
Source:  Gifted for Christmas – thanks, Laura!
Genre: Literary Fiction; Classic
Pictured Edition Published:  in October 1998 by Vintage
Originally Published:  1963

On finishing this, I remembered that I also owned The Magus by John Fowles.  Has anyone read it?  Recommendations for other similarly disorientating books are welcome too!

Review: ‘The Night Rainbow’ by Claire King

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Under the sweltering heat of the summer sun, five-year-old Pea – and her vivid imagination – run wild in the meadows behind her home on the edge of a small village in Southern France.

Pea’s father died in an accident, and now she only has her little sister, Margot, for company. Their mother is too sad to take care of them; she left her happiness in the hospital last year, along with the first baby.

Overwhelmed by grief, isolated from the other villagers, and pregnant again, Maman has withdrawn to a place where Pea cannot reach her, no matter how hard she tries.

When Pea meets Claude, a neighbour who seems to love the meadow as she does, she wonders if he could be their new papa. But the villagers view their friendship with suspicion. What secret is Claude keeping in his strange, empty house?


When I closed The Night Rainbow with a tear in my eye, I instantly gave it four stars.  It was an emotional read and a very sweet story and I was really taken with it.  Now that I sit down to write a review of it, though, I’m finding it very difficult to articulate why.  I don’t have any real criticisms of the book but I also only have a few things that I can tell you that I loved about it.  One of those books.
Let’s start at the beginning.  The story is relatively simple and the book relatively short.  Pea and Margot live in France with their heavily pregnant Maman and they are all living in the shadow of a dead father and a lost child.  In some ways, it’s as relentlessly sad as you might expect but in others, it’s quietly hopeful.  Pea is too young to fully appreciate death and so even while she understands loss and the fact that her beloved Pa is gone, she is as concerned with making sure that her nature collection of feathers and dead insects and such like are safe.  It’s obvious to adult readers that both Pea and Margot don’t have enough structure or support in their lives and my heart hurt as they dedicated their days to making Maman happy.  Small tasks like doing some washing and hanging it out, just to try to get attention and to make their mother’s life a little brighter.  It’s the balance between their natural optimism and their sadness that she can’t be there for them that hurt my heart…

The word seems to come out of me all on its own. I think it’s strange my mouth would do that. The rest of my head knows she’s never there.”

As always with well written books featuring child narrators, what is almost more tragic than Pea and Margot running wild is watching their Maman fighting to keep her family together.  I always think that the sign of a child narrator being really done well is that you get a sense of what the adults are going through without it being clumsy or too obvious.  With The Night Rainbow, it isn’t just Pea and Margot’s Maman that readers get to know but Claude and Claude is really where King has done something that is brilliant on so many different levels.  Claude is clearly in pain (both physical and emotional) and hints at the cause of that pain in the stories that he tells the young narrators.  He is kind-hearted and paternal and Pea adores him and it is still obvious somehow that local residents are sceptical (to put it politely) about his relationship with his young neighbours.
When I participated in a Top Ten Tuesday earlier in the year, I wrote about how I wanted to read more books set in France and this was a perfect way to follow through on that.  The sun, the markets and delicious food and the endless, beautiful fields.  Oppressive for the characters, true, but wonderful to read about.  King’s writing is spot on and the scene where Margot is telling Pea about night rainbows is particularly beautiful.  
There’s more to this book than meets the eye but I don’t really want to even mention vaguely how.  I toyed with the idea of not mentioning the fact at all but in the end I couldn’t resist giving you one more reason to pick this up.  It isn’t an action-packed book but it’s a very evocative one that if nothing else will conjure up the torrid heat of a French summer and leave you feeling a little bit more with every chapter.
Overall:  The Night Rainbow is lovely.  It somehow manages to be about the resilience of children and their vulnerability all at the same time because while Pea and Margot are surviving, they’re fragile and craving affection.  And you’ll get all of that and a craving for some sunshine from a mere 272 pages.  A winner, definitely.
Date finished: 8 February 2014
Format: Paperback
Source: Borrowed from my library
Genre: Literary fiction
Pictured edition published:  by Bloomsbury in August 2013

Review: ‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson

Rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars
What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.

What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?
Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, she finds warmth even in life’s bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here is Kate Atkinson at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves.
When Life After Life was published, it was one of those books that seemed like it was absolutely everywhere. I’ve never read anything by Kate Atkinson but I love novels that play around with time and/or have any kind of non-linear narrative so it was high on my wishlist for the beginning of 2013. As with so many books that are first released in hardback, I eagerly awaited the release of the paperback before proceeding to forget completely how badly I’d wanted to read it. When I saw it on offer on my Kindle while I was playing about at Christmas time, I went straight back to being desperate to read it. It may have taken me a year to get to it but I’m so glad I finally read it.

I’ll give you a clue about where this is going: I really, really liked Life After Life. The writing is just fabulous, the characters feel real and there will almost certainly be at least one that you fall in love with, the idea of multiple lives is well-handled and deftly done and it’s a wonderful work of historical fiction to boot. For a book that has quite a tangled plot (or many tangled plots) and that touches on some genuinely fascinating angles on questions of how much of what we become is what we are and how much of what we become is what we’ve been through.  Nature v. nurture, if you will.
It’s easy to read and never feels stodgy or over-worked but it also manages to be extremely clever and packed full of things to ponder.  Think about it too much and it might actually cripple your decision-making abilities – what if a decision to walk instead of drive is one of those moments that decides whether you will meet the love of your life and live happily ever after or whether you will never meet them and be destined for a life of loneliness? There are a few pivotal moments in Ursula’s life that we see again and again with varying consequences.  Sometimes the choices she makes change the lives of others, sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes she has a sense that a moment is key and that there is something she can cause or avoid, sometimes she doesn’t.  It makes the thread of the book almost impossible to predict (and, at times, follow) but there’s more than enough that’s common to keep you grounded and invested in the story generally.  I adored Pamela and Hugh, Ursula’s sister and father, every time and I never understood (or liked) Maurice, Ursula’s brother.  Her mother and other siblings are more changeable and there are a whole host of friends and lovers that she knows and loves and never  meets depending upon her earlier experiences.  Honestly, I sort of thought that the shifting might be gimicky but I couldn’t get enough of it.  After each of Ursula’s deaths, going back over her earlier years was like a puzzle.  Is it even possible for her to make every decision in just the right way and live perfectly, protecting everybody that she cares about in the process?  Especially tricky when you may not even care about the same people the next time around.  Almost as tricky as explaining how intelligent and fantastic this book is.

One of my favourite things about Life After Life was one that I didn’t even know to expect. It might have occurred to me if I’d taken five minutes to think about it but the story starts in 1910, meaning that you get a range of takes on both World Wars, World War One from the perspective of Ursula as a child and the Second World War from adult Ursula’s perspective.  Going through a range of lives gives readers the chance to see a range of angles of both wars through the eyes of a familiar character.  Whether it’s living behind enemy lines in Berlin or working as an Air Raid Warden, each thread felt as real as the one before it 
I’m not quite sure what stops this being a five star, rave review but I think perhaps it was that there were times that I felt as though I didn’t have a clue what I was reading about. I know I’ve mentioned it before but Atkinson’s writing is genuinely terrific and it easily carried me through the times when I was scrambling to work out what had changed and why but the fact remains that I wanted a little bit more of a lead-in when we were back to World War II, for example.  Ursula contributes to the British war effort in a number of different ways but it was sometimes distracting that I was half-concentrating on reading about the traumas of surviving an air raid in a cellar and half-concentrating on where characters that had been present the first time around had gone.  A small point but one that I did find a bit disorientating, particularly when it took a while for it to become clear what was happening and what had changed.
When I first sat down to write this review, I thought that I wanted to talk about how I wasn’t that sure about the ending. The more I think about it, though, the more I realise that it was sort of perfect. It makes a strange kind of sense, even though my initial reaction was that the story just stopped and left me feeling a bit cheated. Now I’ve had enough time to realise that there was really no other way to finish a story that twisted and turned in on itself about fifty times than with something slightly cryptic. From a quick scout around the internet, the ending means something slightly different to each reader and I wish I’d had the chance to read this book for a book club or something because when I finished, I was dying to talk to somebody about it.  If you could read it so that I can talk to you about it, that would be great. I promise that you won’t regret it.
Overall: One of those books that has plenty to enjoy and that I am sure would give more on a re-read.  The more I think about it, the more I love it.  It’s one of the most unique books that I’ve read in a good few years and one that pulls off being unique without being gimmicky.  If you’re at all a fan of historical fiction or just fancy something a bit different from your literary fiction this year, read Life After Life.  It’s as good as (almost) everybody was saying last year.
Date finished: 19 January 2014
Format: eBook
Source: Bought
Genre: Literary fiction; Historical fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Doubleday in March 2013

Review: ‘Perfect’ by Rachel Joyce

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
In 1972, two seconds were added to time. It was in order to balance clock time with the movement of the earth. Byron Hemming knew this because James Lowe had told him and James was the cleverest boy at school. But how could time change? The steady movement of hands around a clock was as certain as their golden futures.
Then Byron’s mother, late for the school run, makes a devastating mistake. Byron’s perfect world is shattered. Were those two extra seconds to blame? Can what follows ever be set right?
The end of the year is closing in and I’m still super behind on reviews so I’m now frantically scrabbling back through my recently read books list to pick out my favourites and make sure they get proper attention before I go off merrily into 2014 and forget all about them. It’s been a good few months in reading terms so there are plenty of fantastic books to choose from. Perfect easily made the cut.
The story follows Byron in the lead up to and wake of the addition of two seconds. At first, I was convinced that as well as obviously highlighting the pursuit of perfection, this was also about the tragedy of coincidence. Two seconds earlier (or “two seconds less”, I suppose, depending upon how you look at it) and Byron’s mother might not have made the mistake that brought Beverley, local Council estate resident, crashing into their lives, bringing turmoil with her. And it is about those things but it’s also about class, growing up and mental illness.
Byron and his mother are “upper class”. I was worried at first that tackling class issues would make the book clumsy but using Byron as the narrator actually works. Writing a novel from the perspective of a child is a tricky business. A lot of the time you end up either with a child that occasionally speaks with the voice of an adult or a story that is stunted by being limited to the experiences and perceptions of a young person. I can only think of Room by Emma Donoghue (review here) off the top of my head where the device really added something to the story. With Perfect, Joyce manages to strike just the right balance between childish naivety and observation so that it’s painfully obvious to readers that his mother is struggling to maintain the “perfect” veneer that she has worked so hard to establish and that she is being mercilessly manipulated by her new “friend” Beverley. Byron doesn’t pick up on the nuances of behaviour and language that suggest one class rather than another but his accurate observations make understanding the other characters more than he does easy. There were one or two moments where I was a little annoyed by everybody’s blindness but they were few and far between and I wouldn’t say that it spoilt much for me. I was more or less happy to put their ignorance down to wilful head-turning to avoid noticing the dark spot on their otherwise perfect lives, though, and was enjoying the juxtaposition of Byron’s elegant, repressed mother and the brassy, oh-so working class Beverley as seen through the eyes of a sensitive child too much to really care.

As always with a split narrative, I preferred one strand to the other. That isn’t to say that one was stronger than the other; just that, for me, the stand out chapters were Jim’s. They were strengthened by the overall story but I could have read a book just about Jim. Jim has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and sees everything against the backdrop of his routine. The characters in Perfect feel so alive and have such depth that they’re the kind of characters that you half believe might actually be walking around somewhere. If I could track Jim down and help him, I would. What is really powerful is how Joyce subtly weaves in some devastating indictments on mental health care in the 1970s. Jim is fragile and vulnerable after spending years within various facilities, suffering through treatments that it’s hard to believe were ever thought to be helpful, before being reintegrated into society when his hospital was closed. It does a brilliant job of really highlighting how disorientating that must have been for so many people, particularly those that didn’t have anyone else to turn to for support, and how woefully poor care for those genuinely suffering from debilitating conditions was even in relatively recent times.
But even while I really liked the plot and ideas, it was Joyce’s writing that really has me clamouring to write something (anything!) about this book that might persuade you to pick it up. I’m pretty sure that Rachel Joyce could write a shopping list and it would be wonderful, insightful and would have my heart aching for a happy outcome for…the milk? Ok, let’s stop with the analogy there…There aren’t many authors I’ve come across that can turn looking for something on the pavement into a couple of paragraphs that are so adorably romantic that even after sitting here and having them up on my screen for pretty much the entire time I’ve been writing this review (a while…), I still can’t help but “Awwww” every time I read them (even after omitting the name of the lady in question to avoid spoilers!).

He will not share a lift with [her]. They will not go for a drink. He thinks briefly of how she fell still when she talked about losing things, how she watched and said nothing while Paula shouted. It was like meeting [her] in completely different, light summer clothes.

Jim wonders if she had mislaid something on the pavement after all. And then it occurs to him that if she did, he would like to spend forever finding it” [Page 159, eBook edition]

Overall: A brilliant choice for the run up to Christmas or for buying as a Christmas gift – you might not believe me when you start out (or until the final few chapters, if I’m being honest…) but the ending is just one of those where I’m pretty sure it’s impossible not to close the book and feel all warm inside and teary outside. I own The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and will definitely be reading it if it ever gets unpacked.

Date finished: 1 September 2013
Format: eBook
Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley – thank you, Doubleday!
Genre: Literary fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Doubleday in July 2013
Coming up soon in the frantic end of year review scramble: The Humans by Matt Haig; The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence and Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield

Review: ‘The Penelopiad’ by Margaret Atwood

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

“In Homer’s account in The Odyssey, Penelope – wife of Odysseus and cousin of the beautiful Helen of Troy – is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife, her story a salutary lesson through the ages. Left alone for twenty years when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan War after the abduction of Helen, Penelope manages, in the face of scandalous rumors, to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son, and keep over a hundred suitors at bay, simultaneously. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters, and sleeping with goddesses, he kills her suitors and – curiously – twelve of her maids.” 

In a contemporary twist to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood has chosen to give the telling of it to Penelope and to her twelve hanged maids, asking: “What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?” In Atwood’s playful retelling, the story becomes as wise and compassionate as it is haunting, and as wildly entertaining as it is disturbing.


I kind of hate it when I come across a synopsis that so perfectly describes a book because I then try in vain for ages trying to come up with something better.  Or even as good.  Wise, compassionate, haunting, wildly entertaining and disturbing.  The Penelopiad really is all of those things at the same time and it’s a heady mix.

I originally ‘picked up’ (i.e. loaded up on my eReader) The Penelopiad because it combined two of my favourite bookish things of 2013 so far:  Margaret Atwood and twists on Greek mythology.  It turned out to be a riot of literary forms, styles and techniques and has firmly cemented Margaret Atwood onto my list of favourite authors.

Telling the story of Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, this glorious novel moves from verse to prose, Ancient Greece to the modern day and from comedy to pathos without ever feeling scattered or disjointed.  In some ways, it’s more like a collection of short works of fiction on a common theme, tied together by a single voice.  There were styles and sections that I preferred to others (as with any collection of short stories and the like) – generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of poetry so, although I actually did find the verse/song sections more enjoyable than I expected, I still preferred the prose.

Penelope’s perspective of Odysseus’ questing and Helen of Troy’s beauty is witty, self-deprecating and really very entertaining.  After years spent in her cousin’s shadow and playing second fiddle to her husband’s love of a good war, she’s wryly bitter:

“If you were a magician, messing around in the dark arts and risking your soul, would you want to conjur up a plain but smart wife who’d been good at weaving and had never transgressed, instead of a woman who’d driven hundreds of men mad with lust and had cause a great city to go up in flames?

Neither would I”

[Page 21 of 119 of my eBook edition]

Still suffering from unfavourable comparisons in the underworld, Penelope is sarcastic, biting and funny.  I really loved her and was dying to drag her off the pages, listen to her rant about her wayward husband and the nastiness of men in general and then give her a big hug. I know that it’s supposed to be the ‘lowest form of wit’ and all but I will always love characters who are liberal with the sarcasm.  The sarkier the better, to be honest.

There’s really not much more to say really.  A feminist view on a classic myth with a hefty dose of snark.  I’ve read some reviews that dismiss the book as too much of a mish-mash of styles or as somehow unfaithful to the myth on which it is based.  I couldn’t disagree more; The Penelopiad is almost a companion to the original, breathing life into those that were left behind while their husbands were off battling for a golden fleece or trying to outsmart a cyclops or two.  Cracking stuff.
Overall:  I know it’s a cliché but here it’s true – there really is something for everyone.  It’s a quick read (the eBook is 119 pages) but has plenty to keep you interested with a plethora of clever turns of phrase and creative spins on a familiar story that make it prime for re-reading.  Highly, highly recommended and part of a set of twists on myths (Canongate myths) that I can’t wait to explore more.
Date finished:  12 February 2013
Format:  eBook
Source:  Bought
Genre:  Literary fiction; Fantasy fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Canongate books in 2006

Literary Fiction Review: ‘The Song of Achilles’ by Madeline Miller

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Greece in the age of Heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia. Here he is nobody, just another unwanted boy living in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles.

Achilles, ‘best of all the Greeks’, is everything Patroclus is not — strong, beautiful, the child of a goddess — and by all rights their paths should never cross. Yet one day, Achilles takes the shamed prince under his wing and soon their tentative companionship gives way to a steadfast friendship. As they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something far deeper — despite the displeasure of Achilles’s mother Thetis, a cruel and deathly pale sea goddess with a hatred of mortals…

Profoundly moving and breathtakingly original, this rendering of the epic Trojan War is a dazzling feat of the imagination, a devastating love story, and an almighty battle between gods and kings, peace and glory, immortal fame and the human heart.


And so continues my run of gushing reviews.  Actually, reading so many fabulous books in a row is making my review writing life so much harder!  I always find books I loved the hardest to review, although I don’t know what it says about me that I find it easier to rant acerbically than gush lovingly.  

The Song of Achilles is told by Patroclus, a young man that finds himself shunned by his father and exiled to live with King Peleus in Phthia.  Through the first few chapters, I was immensely frustrated by Patroclus.  He’s rather wimpy, quite self-pitying and could generally do with a good shake.  Achilles, demi-god that he is, positively glows in comparison.  As their relationship develops, though, it’s this balance that makes them so beautiful to read about;  Achilles is the greatest warrior of his generation while Patroclus can barely wield a spear but Patroclus is sensitive where Achilles is almost ignorant.  Fiction could do with more couples like them – they don’t always agree and aren’t blinded by the other’s sheer brilliance, they bicker and argue and yet it’s clear that they always love each other.  Really, the characterisation is impeccable and Achilles and Patroclus may well be my favourite literary couple ever.  

I also loved the angle from which I got to read about the mythology surrounding the Trojan War.  I knew roughly why it started (“the face that launched a thousand ships” and all that…) and I’d been beaten over the head with the story of the Trojan horse at school but I’d never thought that the myth would stretch to the actual fighting of the war that spanned years and with which the Gods persisted in interfering.  The fraying tempers of Achilles and Patroclus after days of fighting on the sand and the bitter rivalries between the various Greek kings there to make their name made the story of a war very gripping and very moving indeed.

For a story with a hefty cast of characters, there are still many that stand out (other than Patroclus and Achilles, obviously).  There are gods, demi-gods and mortal kings, warriors and sons, many with names that are not too dissimilar.  After a few chapters, though, the characters are chiselled out enough that they’re easy to keep straight.  A special mention should also go to Odysseus.  His wit and intelligence make him as light a relief as you’re likely to find on a battlefield and I would be one of the first in the queue to buy a book that followed this particular representation of Odysseus through the end of the Trojan War and his voyage home.

In the interests of balance, I’ve sat and tried to come up with some downsides.  I suppose that there are a couple of sex scenes that might offend particularly sensitive readers.  Sorry but that’s the best (worst?) I can come up with.

I read the last few chapters through the blur of tears.  Actually, that makes it sound as though I welled up in a dignified and elegant manner.  I didn’t.  I was pretty much sobbing my way through the final pages, eyes and nose streaming while I tried my best to breathe without snorting too badly.  Unattractive stuff but a sure fire sign that The Song of Achilles had burrowed its way under my skin and wasn’t going to move on without a fight.  I had an idea of what was coming and still Madeline Miller managed to break my heart.  

Overall:  If you want your heart trodden upon by human and god alike, this is the book for you.  If you own a copy of this and haven’t read it yet, go and rescue it from your shelves and start it this weekend.  Truly, epicly wonderful.


Date finished:  19 January 2013
Buy This Book from Book Depository, Free Delivery World WideFormat:  eBook
Source:  Bought
Genre:  Literary fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc in April 2012

Read an excerpt HERE

Literary Fiction Review: ‘The Vanishing Act’ by Mette Jakobsen

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a story about a snow-covered island you won’t find on any map.

It’s the story of a girl, Minou. A year ago, her mother walked out into the rain and never came back.

It’s a story about a magician and a priest and a dog called No Name. 

It’s about a father’s endless hunt for the truth.

It’s about a dead boy who listens, and Minou’s search for her mother’s voice. 

It’s a story you will never forget.


I hadn’t even heard of The Vanishing Act when I walked into Waterstones one lunchtime but there is something about that synopsis that I find strangely beautiful.  It doesn’t hurt that the cover of the paperback edition that I own is adorable – some of the little stars that you can see in the picture are all shiny and silver or blue.  I know that we shouldn’t do such terrible things as judge books by their covers but, in this case, it worked out superbly well.

On the face of it, this is a very simple story about Minou’s life on the tiny island she shares with her father, a priest, a magician and his dog (No Name) and a peacock.  More than that, though, it’s about a 12 year old girl trying to come to terms with the fact that her mother isn’t around, trying to bond with her father as he also struggles with his past and trying to make sense of the confusion of adults around her.  We only ever get to see the other characters through Minou’s eyes, which means that most of what we learn about them is from how they treat her.  Her father, for example, seems intent on raising a philosopher and detaches himself from emotional situations by teaching Minou to look to logic and history. Despite coming across as distant at times, there’s something in the way Minou talks about him that somehow makes it clear that his daughter feels his love all the same.  Thinking about it that way, The Vanishing Act is actually a rather clever bit of writing.

There wasn’t a single character in The Vanishing Act that my heart didn’t hurt for at some point.  No Name included.  It’s partly because of the eerie, windswept setting but mostly because of the whimsical way in which Minou ponders her surroundings and neighbours.  Her refusal to accept that her colourful, creative mother could do anything so mundane as die kind of broke my heart. 

Using a child as a narrator can often seem gimicky but in The Vanishing Act, it does actually add something.  There’s as much in what Minou doesn’t pick up on as there is in what she does.  Both of her parents seem to have experienced their own tragedies during the Second World War but, in an effort to protect Minou from the horror, only allude to them.  There are plenty of moments where the subtext is clear to an adult reader but  which remain a mystery to young Minou.  It means that we really only skim the surface of the stories that make up the inhabitants’ lives but that’s far more realistic than having a young girl suddenly latch on to the truths behind the adults’ behaviour so I will stand by the conclusion that it works.  I didn’t feel as though the story was supposed to be about the residents so much as about one girl’s experiences, hopes and fears.

I suppose you could criticise the story for being a little vague or for there not being much of a plot, as such.  If it were longer, I might be inclined to agree but at only a little over 200 pages, I was happy to sacrifice action for a little while and meander around a remote island getting to know its residents.  Kind of like going for a stroll in some beautiful countryside after spending too long in a city.

Overall:  A wonderful little book that would be perfect with a mug of cocoa over a snowy evening or two.  And I know that there are plenty of those around these parts at the moment so you have no excuse!

buy the book from The Book Depository, free deliveryDate finished:  13 January 2013
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Bought
Genre:  Literary fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Vintage in August 2012

Literary Fiction Review: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood

Synopsis courtesy of GoodReads

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is the story of Offred, one of the unfortunate ‘Handmaids’ under the new social order who have only one purpose: to breed. In Gilead, where women are prohibited from holding jobs, reading, and forming friendships, Offred’s persistent memories of life in the ‘time before’ and her will to survive are acts of rebellion. 

Provocative, startling, prophetic, and with Margaret Atwood’s devastating irony, wit, and acute perceptive powers in full force, The Handmaid’s Tale is at once a mordant satire and a dire warning.


I wish this story were different.  I wish it were more civilized.  I wish it showed me in a better light , if not happier, then at least more active, less hesitant, less distracted by trivia.  I wish it had more shape.  I wish it were about love, or about sudden realizations important to one’s life, or even about sunsets, birds, rainstorms, or snow” [Page 279 of the Vintage Books edition]

Offred, I am afraid that I must respectfully disagree; there is nothing that I would change about this story.  I haven’t a clue where to start with reviewing The Handmaid’s Tale because I loved it so much.  Even if you don’t make it all the way through my ramblings, know this: every time I am asked in the future to name my favourite book, this will be high up on the list I garble as a response.

The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t “just” a compelling story of one woman struggling to reconcile herself with a new life and survive but manages to make some clever socio-political points without beating readers over the head with A Message.  The writing style is disjointed but wholly consistent with the Offred’s experiences.  Her memories, for example, use more colourful language while her day-to-day experiences are gut-wrenchingly bleak as Offred uses a whole host of techniques to avoid dwelling on her new position.  I loved her completely and read her story with a mixture of pity and horror, through moments that left  me feeling queasy, through happier moments and through moments that made me well up with tears.

Having studied at a single sex high school, I’m surprised that we didn’t study this, or at the very least parts of it.  The Republic of Gilead has restricted the roles of women to Wives (of the higher classes) and their Daughters, Handmaids (whose duty is to procreate) and Marthas (women who are no longer able to have children but are useful for fulfilling domestic duties, such as cooking and cleaning).  Worst of all, though, are the Aunts.  The novel is set at a time when the Republic of Gilead is in its infancy and the government (such as it is) is straining to impose its ideals on those that remain within its control.  The Aunts are older women responsible for ‘training’ young women for their new role as baby-makers and enforcing corporal punishment against women that dare to break any of the new rules.  Reading, for example, is a great sin – no good can come from an educated woman, after all.  There’s something horrific about women grooming other women for slavery and their motivations and the relish with which they undertake their new role are…well, horrific.

Even the names of the Handmaids are sinister.  It took me a good two thirds of the book before I twigged but each woman is named after the man to whom she belongs: Of Fred.  I think that in some editions it’s actually written somewhat less subtly as OfFred.  When I did understand it, it’s a perfect example of the type of detail that made me stop for a moment and think, one small way in which the Republic of Gilead removes women’s identities and freedoms and transforms them into property.  And yes, it is terribly, terribly sad.

I think that deep down what made this novel have such an impact on me was that, even reading in the 21st century, stories of women struggling under oppression and against legal systems in which they remain second-class citizens remain regular features in international news.  I’m lucky enough to live a reasonably progressive society where I haven’t been restricted in my career and life opportunities because of my gender but Offred’s story serves as an at times very emotional reminder that many women aren’t as fortunate.  In an interview included in an earlier edition of the book, Ms Atwood said, “This is a book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions“.  In some ways, that’s all you really need to know.

Overall:  Without question, a new favourite.  There are few books that I would genuinely say that I intend to re-read at some point; this is one.  I was so invested in Offred’s story that I no doubt missed countless political references or ideas that are there to be mulled over.  I would love to spend the time one day re-discovering The Handmaid’s Tale – most highly recommended.

Date finished: 10 January 2013
Format: Paperback
Source: Bought
Genre: Literary fiction
Published (pictured edition): by Vintage Books USA in October 2010