Wednesday 30 May 2012

The Song of Achilles wins Orange Prize 2012

I was so excited to see Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles announced as the winner of the 2012 Orange Prize earlier this evening. I haven't managed to read all of the shortlist but I've read the majority of it and also the majority of the longlist - Song of Achilles was by far the stand out book. It's a retelling of the Trojan war from the point of view of Patroclus, the close companion of Achilles, but it's also a beautiful love story that had me crying in the final chapters. I didn't expect to love this book but once I started it, I couldn't put it down.

You can read my review here.

I hope both Miller and Song of Achilles get all the attention they deserve as a result of winning the prize. If you've not read Song of Achilles yet, what are you waiting for?

Monday 28 May 2012

Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding

I've failed miserably at reading all of the books shortlisted for the Orange Prize read before the awards ceremony on 30th May.  I blame both the difficulty in getting hold of certain books in a timely manner from the library due to long hold lists and the distraction of other, shiny new books.  I plan on finishing up the shortlist after the winner is announced.

Painter of Silence is the story of Augustin, a deaf and mute man who is found on the hospital steps of Iasi, Romania.  Through a connection with one of the nurses, Safta, the story of their shared childhood and war experiences slowly unfold, all told through art and silence.  The idyllic world of their childhood has been forever changed by war and a brutal new Communist regime.

Painter of Silence is the first shortlisted book to disappoint me.  I went into it expecting a treat as generally I enjoy these human stories set in war and Eastern Europe.  But from the first few pages I was disappointed with the story and Harding completely failed to engage me.  At certain points in the book, I was bored and just hoping for it to end.

I think there are a few reasons I felt this way about the book:
*The lack of a clear feel for the setting - Harding told me this book was set in Romania before and after the second world war, but I would never have known otherwise.  The country house with servants could have been practically anywhere and I didn't get a feel for Romania as distinct from any other country, there was nothing about Painter of Silence that transported me to another time or place.
*Augustin himself - Maybe it's brave picking a deaf-mute as a central character and Harding did show the power of silence, but at times this felt like a convenient way of not addressing issues to do with the war - Augustin wouldn't have picked up on it so Harding didn't have to write about it.
*The lack of terror associated with the new Communist state - The best books set in this time period have a sense of the all-pervading fear that often went along with Communist regimes (Sofi Oksanen's Purge is a great example).  This was absent in Painter of Silence; yes, people had to move home and Safta had to become a nurse, but there was too much emotional detachment for there to be any power in this.

So it's safe to say I had quite a few issues with this book.  At certain points I even became angry with it as it seemed like such a cliche of literary award winning writing (pick a war zone, choose a character with a unique perspective, offer some analysis of art and hey presto, you've won!).  But what saved the book to some degree was the writing itself.  I may have had issues with the story and characters, but the writing was simply stunning, quiet but powerful.  I have no doubt that Harding is a talented writer but Painter of Silence was definitely not a book for me.

Source: Library
First Published: 2012
Score: 2.5 out of 5

My pick for the Orange Prize: I've not read all of the shortlist, but out of the ones I have read, I'm rooting for Madeline Miller's Song of Achilles, a simply beautiful book.

Sunday 27 May 2012

Sunday Salon: The Travel Bug Edition

In our house we are saving hard towards the goal of buying our own home in 2013 (we rent now).  At the moment we are on track to have our target deposit by Christmas, which will be fantastic.  We are tied into our rental contract until April 2013, which would give us four months to get approved for a mortgage, house hunt and exchange contracts.  We already own all of our own furniture, so it's all theoretically possible.

Except that I've been bitten by the travel bug, hard!  Almost a year ago we went on an amazing honeymoon to America (we're Brits) and travelled around ourselves, completely free of any itinerary.  Before that, I had only been on European city breaks and I loved the freedom of being in charge of what we would do and when, acting on a whim.  For the past year, I've been daydreaming of spending the current savings on another holiday of a lifetime.

What I would absolutely love to do this summer is travel around Eastern Europe, especially Bucharest/ Romania.  I'd love to visit one of those small Transylvanian towns and see the Borgo Pass in the Carpathian mountains, as well as Dracula's castle of course.  Some of our friends actually did this a few years back and had an incredible time.   It's completely out of budget, so will remain a nice daydream.

So that's my first choice but I do have some more affordable ideas.  All of the following would be possible if not the strict saving we are trying to do this year:

1. Reykjavik, Iceland - A city break plus whale watching and the Northern lights.  Sign me up!
2. Istanbul, Turkey - We have wanted to go here for years.  We had planned to go in summer 2011, but then we got engaged and married and Istanbul faded into the background.
3. Prague, Czech Republic - It's supposed to be gorgeous.
4. Krakow, Poland - This is really my husband's choice, although I am by no means opposed to it.  He studied Jewish history whilst at university and wants to see Auschwitz, even though it won't be a pleasant trip.  We saw Sachsenhausen when we visited Berlin and it was very affecting.

So that's the short list of destinations we would both like to visit.  I've kept off Rome, because only my husband wanted to go there and Marrakech and Fez, which are my choices but he vetoed due to being paranoid about safety.  I've also kept off European destinations we have already visited (Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Brussels, Bruges, Amsterdam).

If you were me and money were no issue, where would you go?
Do you know of a cure for the travel bug, besides copius reading of travel books and memoirs?

Thursday 24 May 2012

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

This book had been on my wish list for a long time.  I remember seeing positive reviews of it last year and placed a hold on it in October 2011.  As my library system owns just one copy of the book, it was only last week, almost seven months later, that I got my hands on it.  It was consequently under a lot of pressure to perform!

Hotel On The Corner of Bitter and Sweet starts with the discovery of property belonging to Japanese American citizens in the basement of a Seattle hotel.  Watching this discovery is Henry Lee, a Chinese American who was only a child when World War Two began.  The items take him back to his school days, in which he struck up an unlikely friendship with Japanese Keiko Okabe, the only other Asian student at his expensive school.  Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet traces their friendship through family disapproval, internment camps for the Japanese and the end of the war.  Does Henry have to live with only regret?

I had such a mixed reaction to this book.  To start with the positives, it was definitely an engrossing reading experience.  Whilst the initial section was perhaps a bit slow, things soon picked up and I found myself reluctant to put the book down and go to sleep each night. I knew very little about the treatment of Japanese citizens during World War Two in America, so I found these parts fascinating to read.  There are parallels with other kinds of camps, but Ford does it all with a light touch.  The two main characters of Henry and Keiko are easy to relate to and their relationship is written just right for their age and situation.  I was hoping for a happy ending.

But I did have one big issue with the book and that was it's lack of depth.  Yes Ford is writing about something that not too many people know about, but he does so only shallowly.  At times Hotel on the Corner of Bitter Sweet was more about the tragic romance of the two characters than anything else.  Now, I don't mind that if it's done well, but I wanted to know more about the camps and about Keiko's family.  How did her father really feel?  I don't mean this as harshly as it sounds, but it was a bit like a Nicholas Sparks novel with an unusual backdrop.

And whilst Henry and Keiko were well drawn, substantial characters, the same couldn't be said for the rest of the cast.  Henry's future daughter in law Samantha was just too perfect to be believable, as was the whole Okabe family.  They really had no opinion on their daughter being so close to a Chinese boy, accepting him almost as a member of the family from the moment they met him?

I don't want to be too negative about the book as I did have a positive experience reading it.  It's just that the experience was sort of shallow, it won't stay with me for long.

Source: Library
First Published: 2009
Score: 3 out of 5

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Arabella by Georgette Heyer

I am a stranger to the romance sections of bookshops and libraries.  I tend to stick with historical fiction, classics, literary fiction and contemporary fiction.  I'm not adverse to romance taking place in the stories I read but I have this perception of the romance genre as being a bit tacky and bodice busting, not 'proper literature' (judge me for this if you like!).  But I've seen Georgette Heyer's name mentioned on lots of blogs I follow and last week felt the need for a read I could escape into, so I braved the romance section of the library and came out with Arabella.

Arabella is the daughter of a country vicar who is sent into London for the season to live with her Godmother in the hope of making a fortunate match.  On the way to town, her carriage breaks down and she meets wealthy and sarcastic Robert Beaumaris.  Arabella overhears him accuse her of being yet another girl only after his money and reacts strongly.  Soon all of London believes her to be a wealthy heiress and Arabella finds herself caught in her own deception.

I have to admit that I very much enjoyed Arabella.  The writing was sharp, witty and events moved on at a good pace.  Arabella herself was a sympathetic main character as she wasn't perfect (although of course she was perfectly gorgeous), and it was easy to see her character develop over the course of the novel.  Robert Beaumaris was a leading man in the mold of Rhett Butler, a man so fabulously rich he could think whatever he liked and have a sarcastic, half-joking, half-sneering manner, even though he's a bit of a softy underneath.  I was rooting for the two of them to get together by the end of the book.

I was also impressed with the historical setting of Arabella.  It was clear that Heyer really understood the time period and consequently there were lots of small details about dress, meals and social events that I as a historical fiction fan definitely appreciated.

Of course, I could argue that events in the novel were predictable, which they were.  It's easy to see the consequences of Arabella's deception before they actually happen and what will happen between Arabella and Robert is obvious from their first meeting.  But I was in a mood where I found the predictability comforting and Heyer still took me on a fun ride to the predictable ending.  Arabella is a great comfort read for times when you simply want to lose yourself in a good story, well told.  It's not going to change the world but I can guarantee you will have a smile on your face when you finish it.

Source: Library
First Published: 1949
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Sunday 20 May 2012

Sunday Salon: Balance

I've started my astrophysics module for the Open University and I'm now in my second week of trying to balance teaching with study with hobbies with family with having fun.  It was challenging in the first week, but I think I'm starting to grips with it all now.

The key is being more organised with my time at work.  Teaching is one of those jobs that could fill up every second of your life if you let it as there is always something more you could do.  I'm using my time more smartly at work which has freed up more of my evenings and weekends.  It also feels good to not always be focused on teaching, to have other interests too.

Having said that, studying again has been a bit of a shock!  I've done no study since finishing my postgrad teaching course three years ago and no science since finishing my psychology degree four years ago.  I had not studied physics for 10 years before starting.  I've discovered that my brain is pretty rusty to say the least and I'm having to take it slow, working at my own speed.  I'm following the content matter of the course but it's taking substantial effort.  My brain is starting to adjust to study again so I'm sure it will gradually start to feel like less of a marathon as time goes by.

I am enjoying it though.  There's so much I didn't know about the universe before starting and so many amazing pieces of knowledge I have found out.  It's changing the way I look at the world around me and the way I think of myself.  I'm already starting to wonder which module I should take once I finish this one.

Is anyone else balancing study and work?  If so, any tips for me?

Thursday 17 May 2012

The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey

Kate Crane is a soloist for a New York ballet company.  Ambitious and driven, she and her sister Gwen have devoted their whole lives to ballet.  But when Gwen has a mental breakdown, Kate is left alone in New York for the first time.  As she reflects on her relationship with her sister and their sibling rivalry, the threads of her life begin to spin out of control. 

I should start this review by saying that I had a reaction to this book that was very personal to me and led me to experience it in a different way than others would.  Basically, I strongly identified with Kate.  Like Kate I'm a perfectionist, I'm ambitious, I find it hard to share my feelings with others, I suffer with anxiety if I think my 'performance' is not perfect, I turn events over and over in my head and I can be emotionally unstable at times although I'm good at keeping it hidden.  I'm not a ballet dancer but these facets of my personality have been directed towards different things during my life - getting top marks in school, graduating university as the top of my class, becoming a teacher and even to a certain extent building my blog up.  I live in constant fear of being observed teaching as it's something you can never be perfect at no matter what you do and any criticism, no matter how constructive, latches on to my brain and looms larger than any compliments will ever do.

That said, I found reading The Cranes Dance to be an emotional experience.  As Kate descended more into anxiety and extreme emotion, I was right there with her.  Howrey described her emotions and thought processes so beautifully that I was completely swept along with and invested in Kate.  I think even readers that don't identify with the main character in the same way would still be caught up in the emotion.  Towards the latter sections of the book, I literally couldn't put it down because I had to know where Kate's journey would take her.

The sections dealing with Kate and Gwen's sibling relationship were very well done.  I have an older sister I am close to and thought Howrey did a good job at explaining the mix of love, jealousy, competition, pride and admiration that can exist between sisters.  I also enjoyed the ballet parts of the book, they were interesting but not over done, ballet was more the backdrop to the main story than the story itself.

Objectively, The Cranes Dance was too long in parts and risked losing momentum in the middle sections.  Perhaps it wasn't the best idea to start with a long explanation of the story of Swan Lake, even if Kate's voice made it more fun.  But I can't be objective about this book as I had such a subjective response to it and for me it was all about the emotion.  This one packs a punch.

Source: From Vintage Books, via NetGalley.
Published: May 15th 2012
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Monday 14 May 2012

Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran

Marie works with her uncle creating wax models that reflect politics and society in eighteenth century France.  In the Parisian salons she meets men like Robespierre, Marat and Desmoulins, men who are intent on seizing power from the monarchy.  As the Revolution begins, Marie and her family try to tread a fine line between the revolutionists and the monarchists.  But events escalate out of control and Marie finds herself in increasing danger.

Before I start this review properly, I have to admit that I knew next to nothing about the French Revolution before reading this book.  I knew the French rose up and executed King Louis and Marie Antoinette using the newly invented guillotene but I couldn't have told you what the Third Estate was or how the population was encouraged to revolt.  Madame Tussaud was a great way to fill in the gaps in my knowledge as Marie was acquainted with all of the important players on both sides.  As learning about new times and places is one of the reasons I enjoy historical fiction, I loved this aspect of the book and could tell that Moran had really done her research.

The story was compelling too.  I found the pace of the novel a bit slow at the beginning but once the Revoltuion got underway things moved at a whirlwind pace.  Marie was an easy main character to identify with, she was hard working and devoted to her family but determined to find her own path in life.  Her relationship with Henri worked to balance the grimness of other aspects of the story.

At times, I found Madame Tussaud to be very profound.  Moran doesn't shy away from the horrors Robespierre inflicted after executing the King and she has a lot to say about human nature.  At one point Marie compares the revolutionists to animals who, having destroyed their enemies, had nothing left to do but destroy themselves.  I found it interesting to reflect on society and how easily all of our civilised veneer can be swept away or destroyed.  I liked that Moran refrained from making any judgement on the events through Marie, she let actions speak for themselves.  I also enjoyed the afterword that let me know what happened to all the famous characters in the novel.

That's not to say the book wasn't without flaws.  I thought Henri was just too perfect to be real and therefore didn't buy the romance completely.  The beginning section of the book could have been edited down to make it tighter.  But all in all, Madame Tussaud is a competent, thoroughly research piece of historical fiction that's very enjoyable to read.  Michelle Moran is going on my list of 'historical fiction authors to trust'.

Source: Library
First Published: February 2011
Score: 4 out of 5

Saturday 12 May 2012

The Western Lit Survival Kit by Sandra Newman

The Western Lit Survival Kit is a whistlestop tour through Western Literature from the Greeks to the twentieth century. The sections on each author include a brief biography, a summary of major works and then a rating for importance, accessibility and fun. Designed for the non-expert, it's all written in a tongue in cheek style that is the opposite of a stuffy academic writing.

I was really excited to read The Western Lit Survival Kit because even though I studied English Literature to A-Level, I chose to study science at university and therefore never continued with literature.  Although I have tried to educate myself by reading classics, I definitely lack an overarching view of how it all fits together and there are glaring gaps in my knowledge.

And I think The Western Lit Survival Kit was perfect for a reader like me, someone who is interested and knows about the basics but isn't university-educated in the subject.  One of the most enjoyable aspects about reading it was working out which bits I was already familiar with and which were completely new.  Surprising I discovered that I have a much better background than I thought in poetry (that's definitely from the A-Level) and that I'm OK at Russian Literature and gothic literature.  On the other hand, my knowledge of French literature is non-existent.

Newman's writing style worked well for this kind of book as she didn't take herself or the subject too seriously.  I found myself smiling at the humour and it was refreshing to see her treating the books as just books, rather than awe-inspiring works that are to be admired at all costs.  Reading this, I felt like it was OK that there are certain authors I have no interest in reading, even though I know they are important (basically all the Greeks, Proust and Balzac). 

I've seen a few other reviews critical of Newman's rating scales and they didn't always match up with my reading experience either, but that's fine.  Reading literature is such an objective thing (especially when it comes to the fun scale) and I enjoyed seeing if my views matched up to hers.  Newman doesn't put her perspective across as the be-all-and-end-all, although it was fun to see her share some of my opinions, for example I hated the writing in Frankenstein when I read it and so smiled when I saw Newman criticising it too.  If you are precious about certain authors and wouldn't like them to be criticised, this perhaps isn't the book for you.

Overall, I had a lot of fun with The Western Lit Survival Kit and came away with a much better idea of what classic authors I want to read next and which ones I'm going to stop feeling guilty about not wanting to read.  The light tone means that it's easy to read and never dry.  I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in the classics.

Source: From the publisher, via NetGalley
Score: 4 out of 5
First Published: In the Penguin UK edition, 19th April 2012

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Island Of Wings by Karin Altenberg

Island of Wings is one of the books on the Orange Prize long-list that I was really looking forward to reading.  It's set in 1830 when Reverend Neil McKenzie and his wife Lizzie set sail for the desolate islands of St Kilda from the Hebrides.  Neil is tasked with winning the local population round to Christianity and away from their 'Pagan' traditions.  Neil is also running away from a difficult past and Lizzie is leaving behind everything she knows.  They are both tested in the harsh environment of their new home.

I went into this book thinking that I would love it.  And whilst there were elements about it I very much enjoyed, Island of Wings fell short of my expectations.  To start with the positives, it was obvious that Alternberg had really done her research - I knew nothing about St Kilda before starting the book but almost felt as if I had visited it myself after closing it.  I was very interested in the lives of the residents of St Kilda, especially the high rate of infant mortality (up to 80%) due to neonatal tetanus.  Their whole lifestyle was fascinating, as was watching the lengths Neil had to go to in order to convert them to Christianity.  The basic bones of the story were decent and events played out well.

But for some reason, the book just didn't click.  The writing felt very awkward in places, especially towards the beginning of the novel.  There were multiple persepective shifts within each chapter with no line breaks or signalling, which made the reading experience jarring.  One minute I was deep in Neil's crisis of regret, the next in Lizzie's mind pondering what guests will think of her house.  My example is extreme, but I really do like clear signs of perspective change and don't like constantly having to work out who is thinking what.

Another thing that bothered me was how Lizzie lived on the island for well over twelve years but never learned any Gaelic, meaning she couldn't communicate with the natives at all.  Surely she would have picked it up over time?  All in all, Island of Wings was an evocative book with a good story that taught me a lot about a different place but it was let down by an awkward writing style.  It's Karin Altenberg's debut novel and the promise of the story means I would definitely read her future books.

Source: Library (reserved)
First Published: 2011
Score: 3 out of 5

Read Alongside:
The obvious comparison is with Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible.  This also features a minister visiting a harsh environment (the Congo).  It's one of my all time favourite books, which is one of the reasons I really wanted to read Island of Wings.

Monday 7 May 2012

The Countess by Rebecca Johns

Countess Elizabeth Bathory is known to history as a blood-thirsty Hungarian murderess who bathed in the blood of virgins in order to stay young.  Like Vlad Tepes (Dracula), her name is linked to vampire legends.  In The Countess, Rebecca Johns presents a literary version of the life of Erzsebet Bathory from her childhood to her eventual imprisonment in a walled up tower (not a spoiler, this is revealed in the early pages of the book).  Through letters to her son, Bathory reveals the motivations behind some of her terrible actions.

I really enjoyed reading The Countess.  I appreciated the research Johns had obviously completed and how she placed Bathory squarely in her historical context.  From the early chapters about Bathory's childhood in which a gypsy man is sewn into the bowels of a dead horse, it's clear that violence had a different role in seventeenth century Hungarian society than it does now.  Indeed Bathory's main argument throughout the book is that she is punishing her maids as she, a Hungarian noblewoman, is entitled to;

"I was not a madwoman who enjoyed the suffering of others but a fair mistress who had meted out punishment under the eyes of everyone in the house, who had nothing to hide." p181

Although lots of the acts in the book are repulsive to a modern day audience, it's interesting that only some of Bathory's actions cross the line into unacceptable.  Her husband, mother and father all engage in horrific acts of punishment against their servants; Bathory just goes too far by actually killing them.

The Countess is very evocative of place too.  Anyone who has read Dracula or The Historian and wanted to visit the gloomy, foggy forests, castles and mountains will enjoy losing themselves in the setting of this book.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and the only criticism I will make is that it was perhaps a bit too slow paced throughout the beginning and middle with the pace picking up towards the end.  I also wanted to know a bit more about how Bathory's children reacted to her imprisonment.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2010
Score: 4 out of 5

Read Alongside:
1. Vlad: The Last Confession by C.C. Humphreys - Another literary account of the historical life of someone linked to vampirism, this time Vlad Tepes aka Dracula himself.  Humphreys tells the story of Vlad's life, setting his crimes fully in historical context.
2. From Demons To Dracula by Matthew Beresford - History of the vampire myth, with a section on Elizabeth Bathory. 
3. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova - The ultimate literary vampire book - Vlad Tepes really was a vampire and there's a hunt across Europe and Asia to track him to his lair.  One of my favourite books.
4. Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu - Carmilla is an Austrian noblewoman who is also a vampire in this gothic fiction.  Like The Countess, this has a strong sense of setting.

Saturday 5 May 2012

The Secret River by Kate Grenville (Audio)

In 1806, Londoner William Thornhill is sentenced to be deported to New South Wales for the crime of theft.  Taking his wife Sal and their children with him, Will starts a new life on the banks of the Hawkesbury river.  But this land is already home to a group of aborigines and soon tensions between the aborigines and the settlers start to appear.

Kate Grenville is certainly a talented author.  The Secret River is set in the slums of London, nineteenth century Sydney and the wilderness of the Hawkesbury river but all of these settings came across as remarkably vivid.  I love historical fiction that is about 'ordinary' people rather than monarchy or nobility so I really enjoyed the opening section about Will and Sal's life in London.  Born poor, Will tries to make his way honestly but ends up in a series of ever worsening damp slum houses and with children he can't afford to feed.  London at that time in all it's grime and poverty is portrayed extremely well. Given his background, it's easy to see why Will becomes possessed with the desire to own his own land once he gains freedom in Australia.  The Hawkesbury river seems like a paradise and listening to this book, I felt as though I was almost there.

I thought the way Grenville wrote about the aborigines was very clever.  Although the book is written from the point of view of Will, it's easy to see that the settlers are at a disadvantage in some ways from the start - they spend time cultivating the land when there is already food aplenty if only they would see it, they can't create and manage fire in the way the aborigines can, guns aren't as effective as spears in this environment.  It's a real culture clash with the white settlers seeing the land as free because there aren't fences and farms all over it and the aborigines unable to comprehend the settlers and unsure at how they should react to them.

I also appreciated that Grenville created some variation amoungst the settlers, with many different viewpoints considered.  Some, like Smasher Sullivan, are repulsive examples of humanity, seeing the blacks as animals and others, like one of Will's boys and Blackwood find common cause and admire the aborigines.  As events moved towards the conclusion, the book became gripping reading.  The only criticism I would make is that after the dramtic event happened, the final section of the book seemed to lag, almost as if Grenville didn't know when to stop.

A word on the narrator - at first I found Bill Wallis'gravelly voice hard to listen to, but as I got caught up in the story his voice seemed perfect for Will's viewpoint.

Verdict: Fascinating historical fiction about a clash between a group of white settlers and aborigines in New South Wales.
Source: Library (audiobook)
Score: 4 out of 5

Wednesday 2 May 2012

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood (reread)

Last month, I read the wonderful Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, a retelling of the Trojan War.  In my 'Read Alongside' section I recommended Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad and doing so made me itch to read it again.  I first picked it up in 2005 when it first came out (I was 19 at the time) and I loved it so much that I recommended it to everyone and even bought my sister a copy for her birthday.  I wanted to see if the book had stood the test of time.

Told from the perspective of Penelope and twelve of her maids, The Penelopiad recounts what happened to everyone left behind whilst Odysseus was on his many voyages after the Trojan War.  Was Penelope as loyal and devoted as she made out to be?  The Penelopiad is part of the Canongate Myth series.

The good news is that The Penelopiad definitely passed the test of time for me.  It's a short book but from the first sentence ("Now that I'm dead I know everything"), I was engrossed and I breezed through the whole book in under a day, just what I needed after reading stuffy non-fiction all week.  At the simplest level, The Penelopiad is a well told, engrossing story with an interesting cast of characters.

On the second read I understood the character of Penelope and the subtle hints in the book a lot more.  On goodreads there are quite a few negative reviews of this book, people complaining about the 'militant feminism' or Penelope's 'whining' and it was only on a second reading that I understood what these reviewers had missed - Penelope is such an unreliable narrator but it's up to the reader to work it out for themselves.  We don't get what really happened from Penelope, we just get her spin on the story, what she would like to have happened.  There are no conclusive answers, not even from the maids.

I also found myself appreciating the way Atwood wrote Odysseus more on the reread. There's just the right mix of honesty, lies, tricks and honest deception.  I liked his portrayal in Song of Achilles too, he must be one of those characters authors love to write.

The Penelopiad definitely isn't for everyone - if you don't like Atwood's other work, you won't like this, but it is a fun retelling of The Odyssey that has more to it than meets the eye.  Recommended.

Source: Library
First Published: 2005
Score: 4.5 out of 5