Monthly Archives: May 2012

Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of AchillesMaybe it was the fact that it was a retelling of the Iliad, but I wasn’t expecting this book to be quite so trashy. I don’t mean in a bad way. It has been described as Homeric fan fiction, which is probably a bit unfair, but the exploration of Achilles and Patroclus’s burgeoning attraction and love has a distinct whiff of YA about it. Historic romance, is probably the best way to describe it, and if you’re on board with that then you’ll not be disappointed by The Song of Achilles.

The premise of the novel, which took Miller 10 years to write, came from her fascination at Achilles’ reaction to Patroclus’s death. While I think the upshot of the scholarship about the Iliad is that you’ll never know whether Achilles and Patroclus were in a homosexual relationship as we would understand it today – given the various homoerotic practices in Greek armies of the day, and also the tradition of married men indulging in boys with no apparent censure – Miller gives their love full rein in her version of events.

Her writing of the infatuation is beautiful and lyrical, if bordering on the teenage poetry: ‘He smelled like almonds and earth. He pressed against me, crushing my lips to wine.’ But against the backdrop of one of the most legendary wars of all time, the romance starts to wear a little thin. I started to find the moments that Patroclus has to himself, learning to tend to the wounded, or his relationship with Briseis (although you can see that coming a mile off – I guess the downside of reworking a classic legend is that its plot twists aren’t exactly unexpected) a relief from the constant tortured adoration of Achilles. Take this example of when Achilles gives Briseis to Agamemnon as part of a defence of his wounded pride:

I watch him leave. My stomach feels burned to cinders; my palms ache where my nails have cut into them. I do not know this man, I think. He is no one I have ever seen before. My rage towards him is as hot as blood. I will never forgive him. I imagine tearing down our tent, smashing the lyre, stabbing myself in the stomach and bleeding to death. I want to see his face broken with grief and regret. I want to shatter the cold mask of stone that has slipped down over the boy I knew.

Patroclus’s fury was a welcome relief from the adoration, but it is also an example of the very teenage passions that course through the novel’s veins – and it’s still all about Achilles.

And this was the major downside for me in this book: Miller has committed to a retelling of the relationship, not the war, through Patroclus’s eyes, and so things that you would expect to be part of a fully fleshed out character’s story –the fighting, his relationship with the other men, his feelings about the politics – all this is sidelined if not downright neglected; everything is refracted through the lens of his love for Achilles. Maybe I’m just not enough of a romantic, but I don’t believe that’s actually how relationships work – even epic ones – and it’s that that gives it its slightly angsty, YA feel. That said, it is an eminently devourable read, and I definitely wasn’t above shedding a tear at the end – it is definitely good angsty YA.

It did make me question whether the book would have won the Orange Prize for a similar telling of a modern-day relationship, and I suspect it wouldn’t. Once you remove the glamour of the ‘untellable story, retold’ angle, it becomes just another tortured romance (see The Forgotten Waltz for another shortlisted romance that was much more interestingly written, but without the benefit of famous characters). But as the ‘original’ tortured romance, it manages to sidestep accusations of unoriginality and instead becomes a ‘modern retelling of a classic’. Nifty.


In a tweet: Beautiful men, feeling beautiful feelings, in beautiful bronze. Also a war happens.


Review: The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

The story of an Irish woman’s lapse into adultery, this could have been the plot of any Marian-Keyes-molded chick lit, but was a refreshingly different take on the story. Gina is a difficult narrator; she changes her mind, she unapologetically misremembers things and uses this account as a simultaneous working out and defence of her actions. She glosses over some things and dwells on others, and frequently we get the sense of another part of the story developing just out of sight.

In fact, reading this novel felt for the life of me like going for dinner with a friend I hadn’t seen for a while, don’t know that well, and haven’t quite worked out if I liked. Two bottles of wine later and she’s pouring out the one-sided story she’s woven out of this drama, knowing you don’t know any of the people involved, knowing it’s a cliche, and trying to defend herself about the accusations she imagines you making.

It’s a hit and miss narrative strategy, because Enright has created a set of characters who you’re not sure whether you’re rooting for or furious at, and as these middle class Terenureans get more involved in their domestic dramas and economic worries, you’re not entirely sure why in that case you’re even reading it. But it’s a very human portrait of some very human characters, and every time I got a bit frustrated – for example, Sean’s epileptic daughter Evie appears at significant moments like their first kiss, and you think that she ought to serve more of a function in the novel, but then she gets kind of sidelined – it’s a result of Gina’s inability to quite make the story she’s telling work. Her mother’s death is dealt with in a kind of rambling aside that nevertheless forms the central part of the novel, in a way that makes you work to flesh out your own conclusions about how it’s affected Gina, and whether it’s connected to her affair with Sean or whether it just forms another event in her confused suburban life. Gina herself admits there’s no real way of knowing:

This is the real way it happens, isn’t it? I mean in the real world there is no one moment when  a relationship changes, no clear cause and effect.

Or, the effect might be clear, the cause is harder to trace.

The effect walks up, many years later, when you are out to dinner with your new partner and she says, ‘My goodness. Would you look who it is.’

Not to everyone’s taste, then, but I was refreshed to find a novel that tried to honestly tell a woman’s experience, and wasn’t afraid to stop at admitting that that woman might be a flawed character, and narrator.

In a tweet: Breaking up is hard to do. So is writing about it.

Kindle surprise! Waterstones <3 amazon.

Waterstones announced today that they’ve teamed up with Amazon to provide Kindle books in store. This seems to have been met with one of two reactions:

  1. A mixture of bemusement and horror.
  2. Utter bemusement.

The reasoning behind reaction 1 is that Waterstones was somehow obliged to stick up for booksellers by either formulating their own device (which by their owm admission they’re about three years late to the party, and this was a s-l-o-w party to get started) or that they’ve taken their 30 pieces of silver from amazon and sacrificed the book industry while they’re still in a position to make a bit of money out of it (although nobody’s sure precisely how Waterstones ever will, aside from a vague suspicion that maybe there’s been some up-front investment from Amazon’s side). The reasoning behind 2, well, that seems to be a mild tendency in publishing to greet everything new with suspicion, naysaying and a quick look at the person next door’s answers.

To be sure, there is something slightly ominous, and slightly baffling, about this announcement. Where’s Waterstones’ revenue going to come from, aside from shifting Kindles at Christmas and to anyone who might have forgotten theirs at the airport? Surely nobody’s that bothered about taking advantage of the Waterstones wifi, when you’re probably right next door to an internet cafe or, I don’t know, have the 3G Kindle? But at the same time, you can’t blame them to want to get on board with the Kindle’s astronomic trajectory, and they certainly won’t do it themselves. If you can’t beat their slightly clunky but reasonably-priced device that nevertheless seems to be doing rather well, why not join it?

No, what gives me that sinking feeling, though, is the idea that Waterstones’ involvement will give the ‘pleasure of a curated bookshop’ in my digital reading. Because Waterstones certainly doesn’t give me the ‘pleasure of a curated bookshop’ in my bookshop. Although Daunt’s got rid of the ubiquitous 3 for 2 tables, the books still go through precisely the same filtering process of booksellers, top 10 deals, prize longlists and purchased positioning in the marketplace. Perhaps it was naive, but I had seen ebooks as an antidote to this, and potentially a way of finding peer recommended novels that haven’t had so much money spent on them. Rather than having books aimed at you, their covers clearly forcing an arbitrary decision as to what kind of book this is or isn’t, the nice thing about a Kindle is that all books are equally lacklustre, forcing the writing to shine through. But I expect those Kindle books that are being pushed by Waterstones will be precisely those that are laid out on the tables, positioned front-on on the shelves, and have displays in the window. What’s worse, if we’re now expected to hang around in Waterstones sipping a £3 Costa coffee while we wait for that book that we’ve seen everywhere to download, I for one would rather get down the charity shop and buy myself a well-thumbed paperback I’ve never heard of. And I’m all for e-readers.

Navigating the amazon store on the Kindle is one of the most depressing experiences I’ve ever had – I only tried it once and thought my Kindle was broken or possibly the internet was – and we definitely need some way of sorting through the reams and reams of terrible ebooks there are out there (trade published and self-published alike). I’m pretty sure Waterstones can’t hurt. But I’m equally sure it’s not going to make the e-book marketplace as exciting, as diverse, and as excellent (surely, surely it can be all 3? Diversity in ebooks doesn’t have to mean poorly edited fan fic, however much it feels like it) as it could be. So maybe this is a wake-up call for those of us who complain about Waterstones’ responsibility to the book trade, those of us who are sick of homogenous ‘genre fiction’ or of being told what we want to read, to find a better way.

I feel a manifesto coming on.

A lighter side to Sontag

Ha! After that review of Sontag’s Death Kit, the Paris Review came up with this little gem.

via Flavorwire

AMAZING. I guess she’s not all doom and gloom, then. Also…strangely fascinated by the calculator.

Review: Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson

A coming-of-age novel that doesn’t pull many punches, Ten Thousand Saints opens with Jude and Teddy getting high under the bleachers of their Vermont high school in 1987, dreaming of escape. When Teddy’s half-step-sister, Eliza, arrives for New Years Eve from distant, thrilling NYC, events are set in motion that will change all of their lives forever, as an unfortunate cocktail of drugs at a party means that Teddy doesn’t live to see ’88 (not a spoiler – this is given away pretty early on). The repercussions of Teddy’s death are far-reaching and in Eliza’s case, perhaps a little bit contrived. Jude moves to New York to find Teddy’s half-brother and gets involved in the straight-edge scene, rejecting the drugs that killed his best friend, the drink he had never been that into, and the sex he wasn’t having anyway. Meanwhile, we see Teddy and Jude’s parents, half-parents and broken families – each with their own baggage left over from their 70s hippy history – make clumsy attempts to steer their children to safety, without any real idea of what that might be.

The title is a reference to Saint Jude, for whom Jude is named, as well as Johnny’s flirtation with Hare Krishna, and suggests the redemptive qualities to be found in the most unlikely of places. The apparent ‘saintliness’ of the straight-edge scene is shown to be just as desperate, addictive and motivated by darker emotions than drug addictions, and its violence is offset by the more timid, hippy sensibilities of their parents. And while there might not be ten thousand of them, the book overflows with characters, following Jude, Eliza, Johnny, their parents, and a host of excellently drawn supporting characters a vibrant, gritty portrait of New York.

Henderson’s obviously done her research, about the protests against the gentrification of Brooklyn at that time and about straight-edge culture, and it was genuinely pleasurable to learn about a period of NYC’s history through her writing. But there is something a bit rag bag in her inclusion of all the Big Hitting Issues of the 80s – we’ve got the policing, the teen pregnancy, the AIDS crisis, the straight-edge scene, the young angry teens – and while the novel’s too well written for them to really feel like they’re competing, the novel can sometimes sound exactly like the clamouring adolescent hormones of its characters, without much sense of respite. I read a really interesting review that compared it to Peter Pan in the total absence of adult authority, the chaos and exuberance, but also the slight sense of unreality. But I think that helps. Like the pregnancy that emerges, each character goes through their own gestation period, a crazy and sometimes desperate incubation that forms and forges them. And I think once you get on for the ride, and accept that some of the freewheeling plot is a bit ridiculous, then the novel becomes a very powerful portrait of adolescence.

In a tweet: Masterful, but not a masterpiece.

Dancing Jax by Robin Jarvis

I tried really hard to like this book. Really hard. Like an underperforming child or the cat that pees on the carpet, I made a LOT of excuses for it. Robin Jarvis was one of my all-time favourite authors as a child. I devoured the Deptford Mice and Deptford Histories and felt genuinely bereft when they were finished and there wasn’t more to come. The man can definitely spin a yarn. I have a sneaking suspicion that his novel, Thomas may have in small way changed my life as a child. And discovering that this was about a fantasy book that possesses people, like some YA-King-Gaiman mashup, I nearly peed all over the carpet along with the cat.

It is a premise full of promise (to enter into the spirit of irritating and nonsensical wordplay). Jarvis writes exceptionally thrilling narratives that do keep you gripped, so when he starts to write about the dangers of an equally addictive book, Dancing Jacks, that is found in a creepy old house filled with eerily sentient mould, it has the potential to be a real spine-tingler. He turns the traditional idea of reading being a virtue, making you into a hero (as in, for example, that classic about escapist kids’ literature, The Neverending Story) by making it the very thing that poses the greatest threat. Book burning becomes a necessity for survival, rather than an easy Hitlerish metaphor for evil. It all gets a bit meta, and a bit dark. Great stuff.

Except it’s like reading this excellent premise through the dual lens of a) a terrible fantasy novel and b) an angry Daily Mail article.

Let’s start with a).

Every paragraph starts with an excerpt from Dancing Jacks. It’s a kind of Grimm Fairytale world based loosely around playing cards, but it’s written like your worst nightmare of a fantasy novel. ‘So mote it be’? Eugh. Even though it’s been written by a satanist who is presumably better at arcane arts than he is at literacy, the idea of an addictive book is kind of undermined by its sheer shonkiness. Martin, the harrowed Maths teacher who I guess is our hero (although the narrative flits between lots of important characters, including his stepson, Paul), actually seems to provide a kind of get-out clause – seemingly immune to the novel’s effects, he muses that he can’t see the appeal – ‘it was stodgy, repetitive and obvious and in places quite impenetrable’. Is this actually a get out clause written into your own novel?

To be fair, the more I think about this, the more I think about whether he’s making a point about escapism — plenty of fantasy and sci fi is ridden with cliche but the appeal of another world is stronger than people’s aversion to bad writing, and maybe he’s exploring how deep your desire to escape your own life will go. But then, plenty of fantasy and sci fi is really good. Including other work by Robin Jarvis. So I’m not convinced.

b) Fine, if you want to make a point about how the world has gone to hell already thanks to our shallow lives following footballers and talent shows. But don’t…don’t actually write your own diatribes into every single character’s speech in the novel! The demonic Ismus towards the end of the novel reveals why the time is now ripe for the dark book to take hold.

There are no children in this world any more. You dress and treat them as mini-adults. You let little girls play with dolls that look like Berlin prostitutes. The morality and hypocrisy I used to find so stomach-churning no longer exists. You foist on to your young people role models whose brains are never as active as their underwear, and whose talents and achievements extend only as far as the bedroom door and the ability to blurt every detail of what happens behind it. You give your precious offspring access to a lightning-fast network of corruption and danger. You immerse them in computer games far more violent than the most savage and dirty war, and target prepubescents with inappropriate music and imagery – giving them a vocabulary that would have revolted sailors back in my day. There are not stigmas, no taboos, no boundaries, no respect and certainly no innocence left. To be pregnant at thirteen is no longer an everlasting shame, merely a career choice.

This is the culmination of other asides about the state of the nation made by one of the other main characters. Supposedly a nerdy but loveable maths teacher, Martin still describes most of his pupils as ‘scum’ and tells Emma, admittedly a pretty irritating and mouthy student, that she’ll never amount to anything. Education at its finest. Even when Jarvis follows Emma, suggesting that in her story at least she might develop some redeeming features, she remains a 2D straw figure ripe for bashing – just as Martin all-too-readily assumes, she’s really only interested in getting wasted on ‘Breezers’ and being famous. Phew. Thank goodness our assumptions aren’t being challenged in any way, then.

This also brings me onto another issue, which is the slang. Writing in dialect, particularly when it’s young people, is fraught with danger but that’s not to say you should never do it – sometimes it makes for a fully immersive novel where you get a real flavour of the times that you wouldn’t with a more standardized lexicon. Not here. I’ve never been to Felixstowe, so maybe everybody does talk like an old man pretending to be ‘down with the kidz’ but I doubt it. So when some wannabe gangster kid (fair enough, we’ve all met enough of those) refuses to pull his trousers up because ‘It’s my identity, innit. I’m doing it to support my brothers. I won’t yank up my saggys…You is well bullying me, Sir,’ this isn’t the voice of a teenager but of a middle-aged man who knows enough to parody kids, but not enough to sound like them. It would work if it was Martin doing the impression, but not in a supposedly real-life scene. Similarly, the references to Facebook, Lady Gaga, I’m a Celebrity and X Factor are so exhaustive as to be, well, exhausting. A year after publication, it’s already starting to feel dated, and you can’t help wonder whether the ‘x’ in the title is similarly borne of a sense that that’s what people do to make things current, when in fact that stopped working about a decade ago.

Also, fans of 90s UK children’s programmes, does this have a familiar ring to it?

The Demon Headmaster

Ultimately, I feel like this novel skirts round the big issues it tries to raise. There are many more insidious dangers to children from modernity than the ones that Jarvis choses to focus on, and although the story gets gripping towards the end, it also never stopped annoying the hell out of me.

In a tweet: Would’ve been better with mice.