The Odyssey – Homer (Translated by Emily Wilson)

022 - The Odyssey

022 - The Odyssey

★★★★

I first read The Odyssey in August 2014 – so it’s been 5 years almost exactly since I last read it and, honestly, I think I enjoyed it so much more this time around. I don’t know if that’s because I listened to it as an audiobook this time around, the fact it was a different translation, or a combination of the two, but it moved it from a 3 star read to a 4/5 star read easily.

Most people are familiar with parts of The Odyssey – the stories of Circe, the Cyclops, Odysseus’ journey to the underworld – so it doesn’t seem worth rehashing over something that has been reviewed numerous times before in much better ways than I am capable of.

What I would like to discuss is the translation I read. Emily Wilson is the first female to translate The Odyssey in to English – and she didn’t just do that, she intended to keep the same rhythm as the “original” Greek verse so rewrote it in iambic pentameter. Not only that but she made it accessible. The foreword to this edition was enlightening, and discussed her translation process and choices and is actually something I’d highly recommend you read – before or after reading the main meat of the book. She points out in this section that many translations have made the book inaccessible due to their linguistic choices to give their version that “authentic” feel – something she says is absolute rubbish as the story has an oral tradition, and would have been adapted by each generation to fit in with the language of the day. If her goal was to bring The Odyssey to a new generation, I think she’s certainly going to achieve it with this translation.

Something else she’s done throughout this book is stripped away the former translators misogyny. This book is always going to be problematic in the way women are treated and represented, and while she has stayed true to the original story. Previous translations refer to the women who are enslaved to Odysseus and Penelope “sluts” or “prostitutes” – Wilson addresses them as slaves, and does seem to imply that a lot of their perceived wrongdoing against Odysseus is not entirely their fault, but a nature of their station. She explores Odysseus as a “complicated” man, which he most certainly is – and she doesn’t sugarcoat him or enhance his heroic deeds, which for me is appreciated.

She has stripped this story back to the roots, removing a lot of ingrained misogyny of translators along the way, leaving it to be told as simply and effectively as possible. I for one loved this translation.

The audiobook, read by Claire Danes, was also spectacular and something I would highly recommend. The story is, historically, orally told and hearing it rather than reading it was a very different experience and one I really enjoyed.

The Familiars – Stacey Halls

021 - The Familiars

021 - The Familiars

★★★★

I was lucky enough to win this book in a competition run by Bibliobeth way back at the start of the year, and I’m so glad I finally picked it up. For me this book had echoes of Rebecca – high praise given it’s one of my favourite books – not in the sense that it is an altered version of it, but in the characters and  the general atmosphere. Rather than being a poor-mans du Maurier, Stacey Halls takes all of that style and puts it in her own setting and it really, really worked for me.

In my opinion there are not enough books about witches – witches of the historical variety that is – and certainly not enough books about British witches. This book is based around the story of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, and is a fictional account of her life around the time of the Pendle witch trials in Lancashire. At the start of the book she is 17 and pregnant for the fourth time, but fearing for her life after her last 3 pregnancies – which ended in miscarriage and stillbirth – she chooses to hire a midwife of her choosing, Alice Grey. Alice is deeply entwined with those accused of witchcraft and over the course of the novel (and Fleetwood’s pregnancy) we unravel her story, and with it we watch Fleetwood grow. Fleetwood’s pregnancy goes on, along with the witch trials, and both reach their peak at the same time – Fleetwood going in to labour the night before the accused women take the stand.

Something I loved in this book was the friendship which developed between Fleetwood and Alice. Two women of very different upbringings and classes, yet they found this very unorthodox friendship and working relationship. The love that Fleetwood has for Alice – someone she calls her first friend of her own choosing – is special. I love a good friendship in a book, especially one which is so unlikely. The transformations in both Fleetwood and Alice over this book are something to love – Fleetwood was a bit of an airheaded socialite-wife who becomes a mature woman, a woman who fights for her child and her friend; and Fleetwood’s belief in the unassuming Alice gives her the confidence to grow. The true magic of this book is friendship – not witchcraft.

Womanhood is something that is also explored in this book – what it means to be a woman in 1612. At one point Fleetwood says that she “wouldn’t wish a girls life on anyone” and in a time when women are treated as objects, that isn’t exactly a surprise. Fleetwood, while still being a woman of the 17th century, has a (slightly) more modern monologue which enables these themes to be explored. She points out that most of the women accused of witchcraft are just poor women, using what skills they have to make their way in the world, they were mistresses to a man who wanted them to disappear, most accusations of witchcraft cam from a person of standing – and who was going to be believed in a public arena?

Having mentioned it, I can’t not go back to it  – the echoes of Rebecca. Fleetwood reminds me very much of Mrs de Winter, and her husband of  Maxim. Their relationship is very similar to the relationship between Mr and Mrs de Winter once they’re back at Manderley, a husband keeping secrets and a wife trying to unravel a mystery. We have a woman in the background who, while alive, torments Fleetwood much the same way that Rebecca did Mrs de Winter. There’s also a token Mrs Danvers like character, and even a dog who is similar to Jasper. All in all, there are a lot of similarities which I actually really loved because this was very much its own story, but I can see a lot of inspiration there and (for once) it’s done very well.

Ultimately this is a fantastic debut, and Stacey Halls is an author I will keenly await a second book from. I also think this would be a really good book-club book. For me, there was a few things lacking which is why this is a 3/4 star book opposed to a 5 star book. But make no mistake, I really enjoyed this and I would recommend it (especially alongside a read of Rebecca! Just for the parallels!)

 

Review: The Priory of the Orange Tree – Samantha Shannon

020 - The Priory of the Orange Tree

020 - The Priory of the Orange Tree

★★★★

After what feels like a very long reading slump I thought it’d be a great idea to pick up an 850 page epic fantasy novel to ease myself back in to reading gently, I don’t like to make things easy for myself after all. But I’m really, really glad I picked this up. Samantha Shannon is a new author to me, having not read The Bone Season, but as soon as I found out there were lady gays and dragons in this, I knew I had to read it. It took me a little while to get in to it, but my word once I was in to it I devoured it.

As far as fantasy goes, this book is very “traditional” in that there are two very different parts of a world, one where dragons are revered as gods and the other where they’re considered dangerous. These two parts of the world are separated also by geography (East and West), and their religious views. They have differing views on what happened 1000 years ago, when The Nameless One – a dragon like creature – was vanquished and with the imminent return of this creature threatening them all, is what drives this story along. All of this is explored through our four narrators: Tane, Ead, Niclays and Loth. Tane, a young girl in the East hoping to become a dragon rider; Ead, a young woman who has been appointed as a member of the household staff to Queen Sabran Berethnet but is hiding a lot of herself; Naclays, an alchemist who is spiteful and driven by a lost love; and Loth, best friend to Queen Sabran who is sent on a dangerous diplomatic mission. All of these threads interweave perfectly by the end of this though, which is much appreciated! Something unusual for me, however, is that all of these points of view were enjoyable. Each character had a unique voice which made the jumping perspectives more tolerable, and by the time all their stories intertwined I appreciated each of them individually.

Far and a way my favourite character in this book though was Sabran – for me the central character who never got her own voice. A very deliberate move on Shannon’s part. Sabran is directed in her queenly duties by those who surround her, she hasn’t left the palace since her mother died, every move she makes at the beginning is very much decided by someone else and by the end of the book she’s her own person, and a lot stronger as an individual than she was at the start. The whole story revolves around Sabran and her family’s involvement in the slaying of The Nameless One, and Sabran feels that pressure.

The relationships depicted in this book are also something special – and not just the romantic ones – the love between friends and family is something explored beautifully in here. And while there is romance, it’s not forced, it’s not over the top and it’s not in your face. It feels natural and organic, which is a rarity in fantasy! Romantic love comes in all varieties too – gay and heterosexual – and rather than being shoehorned in, it just is and I LOVED that.

Ultimately for me the start of this book let it down a bit. It was a bit slow going which is why it’s only a 4* read for me.

Review: And the Wind Sees All – Guðmundur Andri Thorsson

011 - And the Wind Sees All

011 - And the Wind Sees All

★★★★

One of my many mini-challenges to myself in 2019 is to read more translated fiction, and a good place to start with any translated fiction is publishers which specialise in it. As I always seem to go for the same few publishers for translated fiction I decided to do a bit of research and branch out this time around which is how I discovered Peirene. I had previously heard of them, but just never picked anything up from them (so they disappeared from my memory, bad Ashleigh.) Anyway, I decided to go over to their website to see what they had on offer and was happy to find a number of books from countries I’ve never read before. Including this little gem from Iceland.

The blurb says that this book all takes place in 2 minutes, and that is sort of the case. What I thought it was and what it became were very different things in that I thought it was from one persons perspective, but it wasn’t. The book is a series of vignettes, from a series of individuals who all have one thing in common – the village in which they live. The main thread of the book is that the narrative takes place over a two minute bike journey which Kata – the choir conductor – takes through the village to the concert that evening. Each vignette from there is a snapshot in to the life of different villagers – some she encounters herself, others who observe her from their homes – sometimes we’re in the present but often we’re in the past.

With chapter exploring a different person it becomes more interesting the further in to it you get. I love seeing how characters from one persons past fit in to another past, or hearing a story from the other side of the fence. It really does bring the village alive, everyone is involved in everyone elses lives in one way or another. People have secrets, people have pasts, some people left the village and inevitably find themselves coming back, others have come to the village with no previous ties to it to escape from the city.

The writing in this book, and therefore also the translation, were beautiful. Parts of this were so, so poetic. I loved the more atmospheric descriptions of the landscape and whatnot, I’m a sucker for beautifully described nature and this was spot on for me. If this is the quality of all books published by Peirene I absolutely cannot wait to get my hands on my next one from them (and bonus, some of the eBooks are 99p on the Kindle store at the moment, which cannot be snuffed at).

Review: Her Body and Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado

005 - her body and other parties

005 - her body and other parties

★★★★

Something I want to do in 2019 is get back in to Short Story Collections. I love a short story collection and they were woefully absent from my reading last year. So when I tasked my sister to pick a few books for me and she picked this up I was very excited. Not only because yes, the cover is that green, but because the content sounded right up my street.

The stories in this collection are fantastic. They’re fabulist, magical, feminist and queer. There’s not a lot to dislike if I’m honest. There was one story that didn’t really engage me, and it seems to be a common theme among readers of this collection, and it’s the one which is an episode-by-episode account of Law and Order. As someone who isn’t a Law and Order fan that was a miss for me. But the rest of this collection? Amazing.

There are so many unreliable, but interesting narrators in here with stories which just err on the side of the fantastic but are grounded in reality. We have a woman who is documenting her survival in a devastating epidemic by her sexual encounters, in another story we join a woman who works in a clothes shop in a world where women are fading out of existence. There’s one story, Mothers, which is so out there it’s hard to follow and very open to interpretation; it’s the best example in the whole collection of the unreliable narrator in that our protagonist is handed a baby by her female ex-lover and it’s hard to follow what’s real and what isn’t after that event.

All of the stories in this collection are raw, gritty and at times difficult to read. But it’s fantastic and genuinely one of the most well put together collections I’ve read in a long time. It reminded me why I love short stories so much. It was the perfect blend of reality and magical, it’s feminist, it’s queer, it’s sexy. It’s a lot of things. I wouldn’t say this is the easiest collection to read, not when there’s elements of abuse and sexual violence interspersed throughout but it’s definitely a great book and one I’d recommend to people in the future.

Review: The Winter of the Witch – Katherine Arden

008 - the winter of the witch

008 - the winter of the witch

★★★★

It is absolutely no secret that I love this series, and this book has been at the top of my most anticipated releases since I finished book 2 in the Winternight series. I will start with saying that the series as a whole from me would get 5 stars but this book didn’t satisfy me in a way I had hoped it would.

It’s hard to review sequels – especially in a trilogy as far spanning as this one – without giving any spoilers away. This book picks up right in the action where the second book ended, and it definitely started as a 5* read. It was fast paced, exciting, starting to tie up loose ends and I loved it but I feel that some of it was unnecessary and ruined the plot for me. There is a lot going on in this book and at times, the action felt drawn out. Other times, I wanted it to move a little faster.

I love how Arden has blended medieval Russia and her fantasy world so seamlessly, I love how history, mythology, folklore and fairy tales have all been blended together. I found the afterword and the historical context to the series genuinely really interesting – not something I can often say about an afterword. I just feel there was something missing here, or maybe it was that there was too much to cram in to one final book, which left it feeling unresolved.

Vasya continues to be a fantastic character in this book; all the things I’ve loved about her in previous books come to a head and I felt in this book she became herself. She embraced all of her powers, and she owned them. She made decisions and stood by them. Everything she did she did of her own volition. Yet throughout the book her family is her main driving force, and I love that. I will say that there are a couple of scenes in which characters die – and those were intense, Vasya’s reactions were intense and believable and I felt emotionally invested in her.

Overall I felt this wasn’t the perfect ending at least for me. I will say it was a fantastic read, and I read it in the space of an afternoon. I just think it could have done with a bit of editing down, or a fourth book to properly develop some ideas. As with all the books in this series I listened to this as an audiobook and followed along with a print version and would very highly recommend this series on audio because it, somehow, makes it feel cosier. Perfect winter afternoon read in my eyes and I can’t wait to reread the series over the space of a weekend next winter!

Review: Heroes – Stephen Fry

003 - heroes

003 - heroes

★★★★

After listening to Mythos last year and really enjoying it I knew I had to have Heroes as soon as it was announced. It was one of the few audiobooks I preordered last year. So naturally it’s one of the first books I picked up in 2019 as I knew it was going to be good. I really wasn’t disappointed.

Heroes follows the everyday people of Greek mythology – not that the everyday people were ever less interesting. But rather than Gods themselves it’s their children, and demi-gods that this book focuses on. What I love about Greek myth, and especially how Stephen Fry has reworked them, is how much they all interlink in to each other. It’s often hard to tell where one narrative ends and the next begins because the transition happens so seamlessly.

There are so many myths that are familiar in here; the labours of Hercules/Heracles, Theseus and the Minotaur and the story of Oedipus to name but a few. The way Stephen Fry has reworked these and put an almost modern narrative on top of them is really a joy to read (or rather listen to in my case!) I also appreciated how interspersed throughout the stories are little bits of fact which explain discrepancies in the story through time and geography. I believe in the print version these are footnotes, but in the audio version it’s just like listening to him going off on a tangent of “oh but did you know this…” and it was great!

I think it’s also worth saying that the audiobook for this (and also Mythos) is incredible and one I would very highly recommend. Stephen is one of those people who it is so easy to listen to, and there is one bit which was just made magic for me simply because it was an audiobook I was listening to. Were it a print copy I’m sure it would be entertaining, but hearing Stephen Fry once again say “Yer a wizard, ‘Arry” in Hagrid’s voice in the middle of a very-important-factual-footnote-bit of the book while explaining the tragic orphan trope in fiction and it’s origins in myth just made me laugh. It’s worth it just for that.

So, for anyone interested in ancient myth I think this is a great place to go to. Stephen Fry is a brilliant storyteller, and much like with Mythos this was a joy to listen to. I enjoyed it just as much as it’s predecessor, and rumour has it that he’s going to be tackling another piece of myth or history in the future to add to the series. I for one can’t wait.

Review: Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata

002 - Convenience Store Woman.png

 

002 - convenience store woman

★★★★★

I went in to my local Waterstones looking for a book I could read in one sitting – I really wanted a book I could just binge. I will confess I didn’t actually look at this book myself, it was my sister who picked it up and said “this seems to be your level of weird” that ended up winning me over. Let me say now, she’s good at picking books.

Convenience Store Woman follows Keiko Furukura – a woman in her mid-30s who has worked part time in a convenience store for the last 18 years, much to the dismay of her family and few friends. We find out very early on in the book that Keiko has never been a “normal” woman by societies standards; she’s practical, needs routine, and takes social cues and conversational tactics from other people around her. As a child we see her getting told off for her way of doing things, and her natural response was to silence herself and observe, acting through imitation of her peers and putting on a facade of normality to please her family. As a 36 year old woman in her society, it’s expected of her at this point of her life to be married, have children, have a full time job – or at least actively be searching for them – but that’s not what Keiko wants. All Keiko wants is a quiet life, she’s happy being her and she doesn’t want to change for anyone; not her family, not her friends. She wants to exist in her bubble of routine.

In an effort to appease her friends and family, both of which she has been lying to in order to get them off of her back, she ends up in a very bizarre situation with an ex-coworker who is absolutely infuriating, but similar to her in a number of ways. Where she finds comfort and purpose working at the shop, he doesn’t want to conform to society and lashes out. But Keiko, being her wonderful self, sees it almost as an experiment and reacts in the most incredible ways.

I won’t say too much more about the plot, because at just over 150 pages, I don’t want to ruin this for anyone who wants to read it.

My first impressions of Keiko as a character were that it was an almost perfect representation of someone who is both on the autism spectrum and is completely asexual – something you don’t get a lot of in fiction, especially from a female protagonist. Her understanding of humans and relationships, how she mimics people in social situations to appear “normal”, her need of routine and guidance and rules. I loved her as a character, and I identified with her enormously. I honestly could have read 200 pages more of her day-to-day in the convenience store because she’s just so wonderful.

So, it was very easy for me to give this book 5 stars, if only because Keiko was a joy to have in my life for a couple of hours while I read this. If you want a good representation of female autism in fiction, I’d highly recommend this!

Review: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman – Theodora Goss

059 - European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman

059 - European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman

Rating – 4*

After reading the first book in this series and loving it, I had to immediately pick up the second in the series. Now, I’ll admit I was a little intimidated when I saw the size of this (700 and something pages!) but I somehow read this book in 2 or 3 sittings. I just couldn’t put this down.

Just to apologise in advance, this may contain spoilers for the first book, even though I am trying my best to make it spoiler free!

This book picks up where the previous left off, the characters are just as wonderful – if not more so – than they were in the first book. All of the female characters develop more, and we are introduced to a few more amazing women including Lucinda van Helsing, Carmilla, and an interesting woman in power – Aisha. We also get to meet Count Dracula and Mina Harker, which is always a bonus! My love of Dracula made me love this book all the more. The inclusion of Carmilla, and her female lover, made me very happy. Even though this is set in the 1890s every character that met them both just accepted it, maybe it’s just their nature as they themselves aren’t exactly your stereotypical citizen of the world, but it was just really refreshing! Dare I say that I loved Carmilla in this more than I loved Carmilla?

The initial premise of this is that Lucinda van Helsing needs rescued, and much like with all of the girls in the Athena Club did at one point in the first book. Something weird is happening to Lucinda, and they need to get to the bottom of it as soon as possible. This journey takes them across Europe and out of the London that we became familiar with in the first book. And while there is a more in depth plot to this book than the first, it’s the characters that give the book momentum to move forward. The women in this are all incredible, and it’s why I loved the first book so much, and while I loved the plot it was them that made it all the better. We also get a more in depth look at their lives before they were all together, in freak shows and circuses, and all the colourful characters they knew (and new friends too!) Much like with the first book, their main motivation is understanding why their fathers created them all; it’s just taken to a new, more international, level in this.

Much like with the first book there is a strong female empowerment message, even in the characters from a different generation have the same view, mainly through the persuasion and influence from the younger girls! The women are so varied in their characteristics, and skills and it’s just so, so wonderful to see such a mish-mash of characters as friends. It makes me very happy.

Needless to say this has very easily become one of my favourite book series. I really can’t wait for the third and final book to tie all the loose ends in this up. I just can’t express how much I love this series, and a third book is going to be bittersweet when it’s finally released because I don’t want this series to end, but equally I can’t see where it goes. I think it’s safe to say I’d highly recommend this!

Review: The Geek Feminist Revolution – Kameron Hurley

054 - The Geek Feminist Revolution

054 - The Geek Feminist Revolution

Rating – 4*

I saw this collection on YouTube a few years ago and knew I needed to get my paws on it, so when I saw it in my local Waterstones I snatched it up without hesitation.

This book is a collection of thought provoking, feminist essays, focusing on female representation in geek, sci-fi and pop culture. There is such a variety of content in here, and as someone new to Hurley’s work I found every essay interesting and enjoyable. I’m aware that some people who are long time followers of her blog have found this collection repetitive.

I found the writing easy to read and follow. She has a way with words that makes the content really engaging, and it makes it all the better when I really agree with what the author is saying – which in this case I did. So much of the content rang true with me that it made for uncomfortable reading, uncomfortable in the sense that it hit far too close to home!

One thing I loved about this is how she addressed her own faults and privilege. She discusses intersectionality well throughout, and is aware that this is a fault of her own and knows the importance of hearing voices from minority groups. One of my favourite essays in the collection covers the problem of double standards in literature, how male protagonists can be anything they want to be and far more complex than a female protagonist. Female protagonists have to fit in to far more societal “norms” than a male counterparts, and in general have far more complex story arcs – and those arcs focus around the same tropes.

Overall I really enjoyed this collection. For me it was a really new perspective on feminism, and one that I’ve thought but never been able to vocalise coherently. The reason this gets a 4* opposed to a 5* is that, as I’ve found with a lot of essay collections, there is an element of repetition. Repetition in an essay collection is, in my mind, inevitable due to their nature. In being able to put them in a collection there has to be a common theme, and that just naturally going to involve repetition. I feel that if I hadn’t binged on them maybe it would have been much less of an issue for me as a reader.

I’d definitely recommend this to anyone who is interested in a new take on feminism, especially anyone interested in feminism in literature. It’s a breath of fresh air in and amongst a lot of essay collections on the same overarching topic, and has really built up my appetite for more essay collections in the future.