Book Review Round-Up: Circe (Madeline Miller, 2018); The Affinity Bridge (George Mann, 2008); The Osiris Ritual (George Mann, 2009)

Hello, good evening and welcome! It’s been a MINUTE since my last review but I’ve been abroad on a top secret undercover mission for the government, very hush hush. Thankfully I’m back in one piece and will now dose you up with not one, not two, but three reviews. Open wide!

#1: Circe (Madeline Miller, 2018)

First off, dear reader, I have to rave about Circe by Madeline Miller, which I read over the summer. It’s rare that a book comes along that is a true delight to just immerse yourself in and relish the language and the characters. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles and Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books spring to mind as similar novels in this respect, epitomising for me the sheer delicious joy of reading, and this is another of that very special ilk.

Circe is one of a crowd of recent novels, such as Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, that subvert and retell tales from Ancient Greek mythology. As you might imagine from the title, this one takes as its subject Circe, the sorceress from The Odyssey, known primarily for wickedly turning Odysseus’s sailors into pigs. Here Miller tells Circe’s story from her childhood as a neglected and looked-down-on daughter of Helios the sun god, to her long exile on the isle of Aiaia and her eventual meeting with Odysseus, and beyond. Along the way she encounters a plethora of other characters from Greek myth, ranging from the Minotaur to Medea, and endures a bucketload of hardship and adversity.

One of the pleasures of this book for me is the way in which Miller effortlessly weaves all these figures and stories throughout the narrative without it seeming like a checklist. For a fan of mythology such as me it was great fun to recognise characters like Daedalus and Ariadne, though I’ve heard from friends and family who’ve also read it that less prior knowledge of Ancient Greek stuff doesn’t hinder enjoyment of the book at all, so deft is Miller at introducing the various characters and explaining who they are.

Madeline Miller is a true talent when it comes to her descriptive prose and her characterisation. Circe herself is a magnetic protagonist, so complex, sympathetic and tough. Her isolation and mistreatment at the hands of the Olympians leads to the emergence of a fascinatingly feminist character, independent, powerful, and more than able to hold her own against capricious gods and self-centred heroes. Circe is also a compelling portrait of motherhood, and the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her child. Miller’s descriptions of things like the scent of sun-warmed skin, of herb gardens, and the tang of the sea, all contribute to a wonderful sense of realism and relatability of place and character – such an achievement in a story that is also so redolent of magic and fantasy. I also love the way she writes about the gulf between the casual cruelty and vanity of the impossibly, frighteningly beautiful gods, and the earthy, scarred, rough-handed humanity of mortals.

I could burble on about this book for a good while. It’s truly excellent. Please do go and read it.

Edition:

Bloomsbury | 2019 | 352p | Paperback | Buy here

 

#2 and #3: The Affinity Bridge (George Mann, 2008); The Osiris Ritual (George Mann, 2009)

These two novels are a tonal handbrake turn from Circe, but I did really enjoy them in their own way. These would be firmly in the escapist romp camp. In terms of their premise – zombies and robots in an alternate steampunk Victorian London – your mileage may vary, but for me, they’re right up my foggy alleyway.

The Affinity Bridge and The Osiris Ritual are the first two instalments in the Newbury & Hobbes series by George Mann. Sir Maurice Newbury is a very dashing mash-up of Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones and James Bond. By day he works at the British Museum as an expert in the occult, but in reality he is a super-sleuth and a secret agent reporting directly to Queen Victoria (who here is incidentally a sinister kind of augmented cyborg on life support!). He is joined on his adventures by his assistant Miss Veronica Hobbes, a no-nonsense trousers-wearing companion more than capable of beating up baddies and solving crimes on her own. They both have interesting personal issues – he has a drug problem, she has a clairvoyant sister locked up in an asylum – and they also have an entertaining sexual chemistry with each other, a will-they-won’t-they vibe that reminded me of Cormoran and Robin in Robert Galbraith’s Strike novels. They’re also frequently joined by Newbury’s old friend and Chief of Police Sir Charles Bainbridge, who’s a bit fusty and bewildered but also brave and loyal when the going gets tough.

The Affinity Bridge mixes together a lot of fun genre ingredients. There’s a mysterious outbreak of zombie plague in the East End, a proliferation of creepy clockwork automata, an airship crash involving a member of the royal family, and a run of brutal murders carried out by a glowing ghostly policeman. Are these things all linked? PERHAPS. The follow-up, The Osiris Ritual, begins with the murder of a prominent Egyptologist, maybe connected to the return from abroad of a former secret agent now turned cyborg (yes that’s right, another cyborg!) and rumours of a lurking mad-scientist super-villain type, as well as the suspicious disappearance of several young women. There’s a steampunk submarine, a rooftop chase, mortal peril – all dashed exciting, what.

While these are hardly particularly memorable, they are entertaining to read in the moment if steampunk’s your thing. The plots are pretty good with lots of different strands and twists, and the characters are strong and likeable. You could definitely do worse! I’ll be reading the next one.

Editions:

Snowbooks | 2008 | 416p | Paperback | Buy here

Snowbooks | 2009 | 416p | Hardback | Buy here

Book Review: The Cunning House (Richard Marggraf Turley, 2015)

A rich stew of conspiracy, murder and debauchery set in a vividly seamy Regency London.

For some reason this brilliant novel by poet and academic Richard Marggraf Turley has garnered some unenthusiastic reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, which is a shame as I think it deserves far better than that. His writing is superb – the setting of London in 1810 is tangibly alive, vibrant and disgusting, the characters are interesting and the plot is satisfyingly labyrinthine and surprising.

The Cunning House begins with the discovery of the body of one of the Duke of York’s footmen, who seems to have shot himself in the stables of St James’s Palace. We then move to a depiction of an infamous real-life raid on a ‘molly house’ (ie a gay brothel) on nearby Vere Street, seen through the eyes of a naive young psychiatrist who is visiting the establishment to do research to further his understanding of a dangerous patient of his. Before the raid the young doctor encounters various clients of the ‘molly house’, including an undercover French spy and an enigmatic masked aristocrat known only as ‘the country gentleman’.

We are then introduced to the novel’s protagonist, the lawyer Christopher Wyre, a rather rigid jobsworth who specialises in prosecuting and hanging ‘mollies’, and who is assigned to investigate another death at St James’s Palace, this time of a valet to the Duke of Cumberland. Amid swirling rumours that the valet’s death is somehow linked both to the Vere Street raid and to the French, Wyre is also drawn into investigating various other brutal assassinations around London by a friend of his, a dashing Bow Street Runner. He is also hired by a beautiful woman to track down her fiancé, the young psychiatrist, who has disappeared since the Vere Street raid.

Turley keeps many different plates spinning in The Cunning House. Wyre is dragged into a quagmire of intrigue involving the ‘mollies’, the French, the royal family, his own superiors, a religious cult, an asylum, and more, and there are many twists and turns along the way. Certain plot points are in fact left unexplained or unresolved by the end, but I actually like when not quite everything is tied up with a neat little bow and some things are left up to us to figure out. In a way it’s a bit like a Regency Raymond Chandler, in that specific plot outcomes are secondary to setting and atmosphere.

The aspect of the novel that really stood out for me was Turley’s prose. He had clearly done his historical research, and that along with his resplendent descriptions of both the seedy, muddy, ruthless underbelly of London contrasted with the sinister yet refined world of the palace was very effective. He makes liberal use of period slang as well, providing no translation or glossary, which creates an immersive authenticity. Turley doesn’t shy away from very raunchy explicit language and description either, of which there is quite a lot specifically related to the brothel scandal, and I can imagine that not being some readers’ cup of tea.

Another thing I really liked about The Cunning House was that its main character, Wyre, is a very realistic sort of investigator. He’s no brilliant Holmesian sleuth, nor is he a swashbuckling hero. He mopes around a bit due to his wife having left him, and is also, true to the historical norm, pretty viciously homophobic, and therefore rather unlikeable as the novel begins. But as he becomes more aware of and angered by the injustice and deceit he’s up against, he began to win me over in his battle to expose what’s going on. He emerges as dogged and clever in a believable sort of way.

While not perfect, this is a very strong first novel by Richard Marggraf Turley which I think deserves to be better known. I hope he’s working on another, as I would certainly want to read it.

Edition:

Sandstone Press | 2015 | 400p | Paperback | Buy here

4P’s #1: The Comedy of Errors and The Merry Wives of Windsor

Like a hibernating hedgehog my blog has long lain dormant, a hedgeblog. But it will now once more emerge blinking into the sun with the fabled Plays, Poems and ‘Panels’ Project!

A sizeable chunk of this reading project has involved reading a whole heap of Shakespeare plays for the first time, particularly the lesser-known ones that have always rather intrigued me. So I’ll start with a couple of those, the comedies The Comedy of Errors and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

I should note that these weren’t read in a scholarly way. I didn’t consult lots of notes or labour over every word but rather just read them as I would an ordinary book and only really looked things up when I got completely lost. So please, if you are an expert on Bill the Bard then do let me know below what I’ve missed or misunderstood!

#1: The Comedy of Errors (c.1594)

Antipholus of Syracuse: Then she bears some breadth?

Dromio of Syracuse: No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip. She is spherical, like a globe. I could find out countries in her.

Both of these plays are comedies, which of course means a whole barrelful of puns and cases of mistaken identity, for which your mileage may vary! Mine certainly does… But The Comedy of Errors is, for my money, one of the better ones, and I’m sure it would work very well on stage.

It’s a classic farce, with some clever moments of physical comedy, and, crucially, as Shakespeare’s shortest play, it doesn’t outstay its welcome. The plot revolves around two sets of identical twins: Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant Dromio of Syracuse, and then their long-lost twin brothers Antipholus of Ephesus and Dromio of Ephesus. They all end up in the same town and many identity-based hijinks ensue, such as one twin encountering the wife of the other twin and not knowing her, a master beating his servant’s twin thinking he’s his own servant, and people being arrested for things their twin actually did. Everything spirals out of control into a kind of fevered madness which must be a delight to see performed well.

The action is sharp and snappy and the premise is actually close to credible… Well you never know when your long-lost identical twin might lock you out of your own house and try it on with your sister-in-law do you? I was left admiring the fact that it was written over 400 years ago and yet is still so entertaining (hardly a groundbreaking thing to say about Shakespeare, but some of the other comedies really do draaaag it out in comparison – on which more later!).

It seemed to me that there’s not really much there in terms of theme or deeper meaning – writing an essay digging down into The Comedy of Errors would be rather tricky. Nor are there many beautiful speeches or soliloquies. But as a frothy bit of light entertainment, a little slight Shakespearian snack, it worked very well. Yes, I liked it a lot.

Edition:

Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare | 1968 | 176p | Paperback

 

#2: The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597)

Falstaff: Setting the attraction of my good parts aside, I have no other charms.

This one though, this one…

The Merry Wives of Windsor was a struggle for me, perhaps the Shakespeare play I enjoyed the least of the ones I read for this project. Whereas in The Comedy of Errors the farcical fun was tight and well-crafted, the similar moments of silliness and misunderstanding in this play fell flat somehow.

Merry Wives features Sir John Falstaff, the overweight drunkard character from the Henry IV plays, in which he plays an important and memorable role. Here, his role is to attempt to seduce two married ladies, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, a plan they are both wise to, and which they go on to stymie mischievously at every turn. One of the ladies’ husbands finds out what’s going on and jealously tries to catch Falstaff red-handed, and meanwhile a stodgy subplot involving the multiple suitors of Mistress Page’s daughter also unfolds.

There are three big set-piece scenes which focus on the humiliation of Falstaff by the two ladies, none of which I found particularly funny. I think the reason it didn’t make me laugh is that Falstaff just seems to me to be a rather unlikeable lech, while the two ladies are somewhat cruel, and the actions of the jealous Mr Ford seemed more sinister than amusing. The subplot involving the suitors of young Anne Page irritated me, as a great deal of the humour derived from the simple fact that one of them has a strong French accent and another has a Welsh accent. Hm. Plotting-wise it was all just rather hard to follow, as there are too many characters and not enough set-up. Where The Comedy of Errors kept things simple and zingy, The Merry Wives of Windsor flailed around like, well, John Falstaff in a laundry basket.

Of course, reading a play like this cannot ever come close to seeing it performed, and I’m sure it comes to life on stage. But on the page, it didn’t work for me.

Edition:

Cambridge University Press | 1997 | 175p | Paperback

The Plays, Poems and ‘Panels’ Project

The other day I happened upon a copy of The Tempest and was struck by the thought that despite having studied English at university my knowledge of Shakespeare is actually pretty woeful. A trip to my local library led to me coming away with stacks of the things and a resolution to fill these gaps in my knowledge.

But while I was there I thought, why limit it to Shakespeare? There are loads of other great plays out there that I’ve never seen performed and can’t know for sure that I necessarily ever will… So I grabbed some of them too.

And why limit it to plays? I’ve mentioned before on this blog that my poetic knowledge is seriously lacking, so I popped a few volumes of poetry in the pile too. I was also interested to see recently that a graphic novel, Sabrina by Nick Drnaso, has been longlisted for the Booker Prize, sparking discussions in the press and online about the comic-book art-form, and I realised that (apart from my childhood favourite Tintin of course) I’ve never read any of those either.

I now have a heap of around thirty plays (from Euripides through to Moliére, Aphra Behn, Henrik Ibsen and Harold Pinter), ten poetry books (eg Lorca, Yeats, Neruda and Wendy Cope) and ten graphic novels (such as Maus, Persepolis and The Sandman) that I’m going to plunge into and write about on here as I go.  A slight broadening of my reading horizons hopefully awaits! I’m going to call it the 4P’s, or the Plays, Poems & Panels Project (that’s panels like the artwork boxes in graphic novels? I scraped the barrel really, anything for alliteration…). I hope you enjoy it!

Book Review: Dracula (Bram Stoker, 1897)

“My revenge is just begun! I spread it over centuries, and time is on my side. Your girls that you all love are mine already. And through them you and others shall yet be mine, my creatures, to do my bidding and to be my jackals when I want to feed.”

I really dig a good vampire story, and yet somehow had never properly read the Big Daddy of them all, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I’ve seen and enjoyed quite a lot of film versions of this story, from Nosferatu to Hammer Horror to Coppola, but I’d say this remains the top of the tree and the bee’s knees.

I’m sure most people know the plot already. It begins with callow young solicitor Jonathan Harker travelling to meet his firm’s new client, a mysterious aristocrat, at his Eastern European castle to conclude a land deal. Once there he quickly realises that there’s something a bit off about the count (spoilers: he’s a vampire!). Later, back in England, Harker bands together with some friends to track down and destroy Dracula before he spreads his malign influence over the world…

I’ll try to rattle through some of the main reasons why I loved Dracula and why it stands up so well. Firstly, it’s an epistolary novel, with all the action pieced together as it happens via the letters and journal entries of a wide cast of characters. I always like this storytelling method – it’s a clever way of building tension, providing believable exposition and giving a fun range of perspectives and voices. The characters Stoker uses are generally Victorian heroic standards but are different enough from each other to provide some variation and are all likeable (apart from the irritating Professor Van Helsing – stop being twinkly and gnomic and just tell them what you know, darn you).

Secondly, I found it unexpectedly frightening in parts, despite the whole concept being so clichéd and well-known nowadays. I think this is mainly because the character of Dracula himself doesn’t really have any of the campness of Christopher Lee or Bela Lugosi; on the page he’s more elemental, savage and demonic than I’d expected. The way Stoker describes the look and smell of his wet, blood-engorged mouth was genuinely unsettling, and certain set-piece scenes worked really well, such as the account of Dracula’s voyage to Whitby, and Harker’s encounter with the vampiric ‘brides’.

Thirdly Dracula reflects a lot of contemporary cultural anxieties from the fin de siècle, a time of fascinating upheaval. The role of women in the novel is very interesting, with Mina particularly standing out as a new kind of literary heroine who actively gets involved in the adventuring herself and is not just a damsel in distress. There’s also a lot of thematic stuff about sexuality in society, with parallels being drawn between Dracula’s seizing of and feasting on women and unfettered sexual desire and weakening public morals. There’s also a connection between Dracula’s attacks and infidelity, with the male characters’ fears over this seeming to reflect a general male anxiety over keeping hold of their wives in this new era of sexual revolution. Another interesting thematic thread is that of xenophobia, with the idea of Dracula as a foreign monster coming over to civilised England to corrupt society and sully its women clearly underpinning the book. The rise of psychiatry and the growing knowledge of mental health is also an intriguing feature, in the context of Dr Seward and his relationship with his patient Renfield, as well as the conflict between modern scientific advances and folkloric tradition in the context of Van Helsing’s practical treatments for vampirism.

Some parts of the novel were a bit repetitive and began to drag, especially the section focused on Lucy Westenra’s illness. But in the main it does nip along, which is nice particularly since it’s a Victorian novel and some rambling is expected. It also remains fresh and exciting in spite of all the piles and piles of cultural baggage it has acquired over the last century and change. In conclusion, I give it two big thumbs up and leave you with this bit of delightfully horrid description:

The cheeks were fuller, and the white skin seemed ruby-red underneath. The mouth was redder than ever, for on the lips were gouts of fresh blood, which trickled from the corners of the mouth and ran down over the chin and neck. Even the deep, burning eyes seemed set amongst swollen flesh, for the lids and pouches underneath were bloated. It seemed as if the whole awful creature were simply gorged with blood. He lay like a filthy leech, exhausted with his repletion.

Edition:

Vintage | 2017 | 421p | Paperback | Buy here

Book Review Round-Up: The Party (Elizabeth Day, 2017); Smut (Alan Bennett, 2011)

Here’s a double dollop of mini book reviews, please enjoy thank you.

#1: The Party (Elizabeth Day, 2017)

I romped through this thriller, a cocktail of Highsmithian amorality and Riot Club style upper-crust hedonism.

It opens in medias res with ex-public-school-boy art expert Martin Gilmour being interviewed by the police about an ‘incident’ at his friend Ben Fitzmaurice’s birthday party, and then we slide into flashback to see the history of the two men’s relationship, and what it led to. It quickly becomes clear that Martin is a distinctly Ripley-esque protagonist, with a chip on his shoulder, an obsessive personality, a dysfunctional upbringing and a troubling proclivity for animal cruelty. Ben Fitzmaurice meanwhile is an effortlessly charming old-money hedge fund manager who hobnobs with prime ministers and actresses and lives in a converted monastery. The twists and turns of their decades-long friendship are enticingly drip-fed to us by Martin while we also edge closer and closer to his account of the eponymous climactic party.

Elizabeth Day is very good at creating recognisable and believable characters, as well as immersing us in specific settings; her descriptions of life at an all-boys boarding school in particular are startlingly accurate! Although it is somewhat generically derivative it’s a gripping story written with aplomb and I’d strongly recommend it as a great holiday read.

Edition:

4th Estate | 2018 | 292p | Paperback | Buy here

 

#2: Smut (Alan Bennett, 2011)

On the other hand… this was actually a bit of a let-down. I’ve enjoyed the other Alan Bennett books and plays that I’ve come across, particularly The Uncommon Reader and The History Boys, but I found the two stories contained in Smut to be a bit twee and rather less funny than I’d expected.

The first story is ‘The Greening of Mrs Donaldson’, the tale of a middle-aged widow who signs up to be a fake patient pretending to suffer from various maladies to help train young medics. This gives her a taste for role-play and she ends up extending this new interest to other aspects of her life… The second story is ‘The Shielding of Mrs Forbes’, in which Mrs Forbes’ handsome but horrid son Graham gets married in order to disguise his secret homosexuality, but is then blackmailed by a male lover.

The main sense I got from reading these was that despite them being published and presumably set in 2011 or thereabouts they really felt like they belonged in another time. The characters in both stories were very buttoned-up and Hyacinth-Bucket-esque – Mrs Donaldson particularly, with her cold cream and her hair rollers and her respectable suburban propriety just felt more like she’d walked out of the 1970’s. The characters’ attitudes likewise seemed dated, and the comedy mostly stemmed from things that I feel were perhaps intended to be scandalous but only really managed to be faintly naughty. Frankly that’s a bit of a shame in a book called Smut! It’s gently amusing but in the end forgettable – perhaps one just for hardcore Bennett fans.

Edition:

Profile | 2012 | 189p | Paperback | Buy here

Book Review Round-Up: Lustrum (Robert Harris, 2009); Conqueror (Conn Iggulden, 2011); The Girl Who Played With Fire (Stieg Larsson, 2006)

That last reading roundup was all very well you say, but have I read more books this spring? Why yes I have and these are they.

#1: Lustrum (Robert Harris, 2009)

This is the middle volume in Robert Harris’s superb trilogy about the life of Cicero and the fall of the Roman Republic. Harris is a novelist whose every book is a highlight of my reading year, without fail, and I’m yet to read a duff one. Even among the quality of his oeuvre, I think these Cicero books are his masterpiece (for sure helped by me being a bit of a Rome nut).

The first book, Imperium, ended with the great orator on the up and up after being elected consul, and Lustrum then focuses on his tenure in that office. This mainly revolves around dealing with the Catilinarian Conspiracy, and Cicero’s battles for dominance with the other big dogs of the Republic: Caesar, Crassus, Pompey, and Clodius.

The thing I really love about this trilogy is the characterisation. Harris makes these historical figures really come stand out in all their flawed, scheming glory, and in their hands the horsetrading and politicking that makes up much of the plot, and which could otherwise be pretty dry, flares into life.

Cicero himself is one of those brilliantly attractive protagonists, a bit like Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, whose actions are often pragmatic, politically expedient and not necessarily morally right, and yet we love him for his charisma, intelligence and essential nobility in spite of his flaws. I’d say that, particularly for those interested in Roman history or politics, this trilogy is right up there with Robert Graves’s I Claudius books as the cream of the crop.

Edition:

Arrow | 2010 | 452p | Paperback | Buy here

 

#2: Conqueror (Conn Iggulden, 2011)

Conqueror is the last in Conn Iggulden’s epic five-book series about Genghis Khan and his descendants. While the first three (Wolf of the Plains, Lords of the Bow and Bones of the Hills) specifically told the story of Genghis himself, the fourth (Empire of Silver) then moved on to cover the reign of his son Ogedai, and this final one takes in the successive khanates of three of Genghis’s grandsons, Guyuk, Mongke and Kublai.

Although most people will have at least heard of Genghis Khan, I don’t think that the extent of the Mongol Empire and the scale of what was achieved by the khans and their armies is that well known – it certainly wasn’t to me. Within just three generations Genghis and his successors had united the disparate Mongol tribes into one nation and then swiftly and brutally conquered Persia, China, Russia and Eastern Europe. These guys were the toughest of tough nuts, metal AF.

Conqueror’s main focus is Kublai’s coming-of-age as a commander as he fought an exhausting war of attrition over many years in Sung Dynasty China. There are plenty of battles and Iggulden writes them well, but the grinding nature of this particular conflict means that it’s not always totally thrilling for the reader and gets a bit repetitive. However, Kublai himself is very appealing and is the highlight of this final book; his intellectualism and flashes of humour make him stand out from the crowd of grim vicious bastards that constitute the majority of the rest of the cast of characters.

For sheer epic sweep these books can’t really be bettered, and Iggulden does a fine job evoking an era and a culture little covered in historical fiction.

Edition:

Harper | 2012 | 576p | Paperback | Buy here

 

#3: The Girl Who Played With Fire (Stieg Larsson, 2006)

I know, how have I not read this already? Everyone did the Salander trilogy years ago, and I missed out for some reason, but, a decade later, this is being rectified.

I quite liked The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo when I read it back in 2011, but I didn’t love it, mainly because Mr Larsson rambled on far too much at the beginning and the end, packing in endless extraneous detail and extending the novel to about twice the length it should have been. And sadly in this, the sequel, he did the same thing!

Whereas Dragon Tattoo was a whodunnit murder mystery, TGWPWF is more of a conspiracy thriller, with the main theme being the Swedish sex-trafficking industry. Two journalists are murdered at the beginning but it’s pretty clear who’s responsible, and the rest of the story consists of the titular Girl, super-hacker Lisbeth Salander, being framed for the killings and going on the run. 

Once the plot got going it was an exciting enough read, and Lisbeth is a fun spiky protagonist, but I thought it was just too baggy. In my view, thrillers like this generally benefit from being trimmed down to their lean mean essentials. 

Edition:

Quercus | 2009 | 608p | Paperback | Buy here