Tag Archives: love

The Song of Achilles- Madeline Miller

I’ve always been a fan of classical mythology, though this tends to manifest itself through adaptations because having tried reading translations of The Iliad and They Odyssey, I found them a little dull… I would never cut it as a classicist.

I was quick to buy The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, but delayed reading it because a friend whose opinion I trust made the book sound like Fifty Shades of Troy, all action (if you know what I mean) and no plot. This time they were off the mark.

The Song of Achilles is primarily a love story, yes, but I thought that any sexual allusions were actually pretty tame and completely sympathetic to the story. Miller’s prose is clear and controlled, and the use of Patroclus’ narrative is a masterstroke in characterisation, allowing the reader to grow close to the apparently unremarkable Patroclus who earns the love of a flawed demigod and the wrath of his ambitious mother. As our affection for Patroclus grows, we see each character through his eyes, and share his discomfort as he witnesses the man he loves distorted by his quest for heroism and recognition. As the novel draws towards its inevitable conclusion, the reader is pulled along, unable to resist, wondering which will triumph? Destiny, glory, love?

It comes as no surprise to me that this novel won the Orange Prize for Fiction, it is a stunning debut novel and, for me, a far more accomplished adaptation that the likes of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad.

I highly recommend it.

Nine Uses for an Ex-Boyfriend- Sarra Manning

I was feeling pretty down towards the end of this week, so looking for a light, easy read to cheer me up, I picked up Nine Uses for an Ex-Boyfriend by Sarah Manning.

I know that Chick Lit is a pretty controversial term these days- for me it’s less a term denoting fiction written by women as fiction written by former women’s interest magazine editors who’ve put Cosmopolitan in a food processor and baked the pulp into a novel… But controversy aside, this book sits smack bang in the middle of the Chick Lit genre. Hope is a twenty-six year old teacher, who thinks that life is going pretty well and that her biggest worry is throwing a decent dinner party, until she finds her boyfriend of thirteen years kissing her best friend and has to decide what to do…

The book in itself was okay, if you like lukewarm characters who can’t make their minds up, but really not my cup of tea.The on again, off again relationship was irritating, scenes repeating over and over again. It wouldn’t normally be a book I’d bother writing a blog entry about, but I think it deserves some kind of award for the most misleading blurb and book title ever. I still can see where the title came from but it doesn’t reflect the contents of the book, and the teaser “Does true love forgive and forget? Or does it get mad… and get even?” is completely misleading. I thought there’d be a pleasantly twisted tale of revenge. But really? There was no revenge whatsoever and most of the novel consisted of the heroine busying herself with forgiving and forgetting.

If the contents had matched the title and teaser, this might have been an interesting book, but they didn’t and it wasn’t.

Desire Denied, Poems About Dissatisfaction

The guardian books section today had a subheading instructing us, “Steel yourself for romantic disappointment as the poet considers the literature of desire, from Marvell’s coy mistress to John Betjeman’s lovelorn subaltern.” In the article, poet John Stammers picks out his top ten love poems in which Desire is unsatisfied or denied. I was certainly disappointed, but not by thwarted desire, but the staid and predictable selection of poems, many of which had nothing to do with unsatisfied desire.

Why is it, of all the poems in the English language Sonnet 116 has to be stuck on every list of romantic poetry? It’s not even Shakespeare’s best. And perhaps I’m being slow here, but isn’t it about steadfast love and not desire unsatisfied or denied? Likewise Betjeman’s A Subaltern’s Love Song may reflect Betjeman’s feelings for the lovely Miss Hunter Dunn being unrequited in real life, but in the poem they sit in the car ‘til twenty to one and are engaged after… I wonder what went on in the car, between the lines. Nudge nudge, wink wink and all that. Not exactly unsatisfied or denied.

I agree that Donne’s The Flea deserves its place on the list; I would have put it at number one. Likewise, I love Wyatt’s Whoso List to Hunt though I suspect that has to do with the Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII love triangle that was going on, not just the poem itself. But To His Coy Mistress? This is why people say they hate poetry. The same boring tat trotted out again and again. It’s like people stop reading poems when they finish their school career or at the very latest their undergraduate degree and churn out the one cannon of poetry-that-was-considered-worthy-thirty-years-ago.

So for anyone who has made it through that rant and cares, here’s my alternative selection:

1. Correspondents- Carol Ann Duffy

A highly erotic description of a chaste and futile love affair between a married man and woman, who do not touch, but send letters and conceal their love for fear of shocking polite society.

2. Like The Touch of Rain/Go Now- Edward Thomas

The bliss of unsought love bleeds into the shock and pain of unexpected rejection.

3. Love Songs in Age- Philip Larkin

An elderly lady looks back at her collection of love songs, and realises with sadness that the idea that love will sustain and heal all has never been true, and will not be true.

4. For Desire- Kim Addonizo

What can I say? She wants to be desired. Definitely a poem about unsatisfied urges…

5. The Bath Tub- Ezra Pound

Have you ever anticipated something so much, that when it doesn’t live up to your expectations you feel the most disappointing anticlimax? Ezra Pound tells it like it is…

6. Porphyria’s Lover- Robert Browning

When obsessive love goes wrong. A cautionary tale ladies, about what happens when you toy with your lover but don’t give him the adoration he desires. That or a warning about what happens when you hook up with a psycho.

7. Libido- Rupert Brooke

Desire is portrayed as a pestilence and it’s fulfilment as death.

8. Nothing-James Fenton

“Nothing I give, Nothing I do or say,

Nothing I am will make you love me more.”

 

9. The Flea- John Donne

How can you not include this playful petition?

10. The Toilet- Hugo Williams

You meet an attractive stranger on the train, but what will happen when you decide to make your move?

The Swan Thieves- Elizabeth Kostova


An artist, Robert Oliver, is admitted to a psychiatric hospital having desperately attacked a painting at the National Gallery in Washington. Refusing to speak he spends his days obsessively painting a mysterious and beautiful woman. The novel follows Marlowe, a psychiatrist, as he struggles to treat Oliver, with nothing more to go on than his observations of the patient and conversations with Oliver’s ex-wife and lover, which hint darkly at the insanity which is consuming the artist. Who is the dark lady he paints? And what is the significance of the ancient letters that Robert keeps so close at all times?

Personally I found The Swan Thieves somewhat slow to start as the author was overly keen to establish relationships between minor characters that didn’t really enhance the story, possibly because of a fear of being seen to “tell” the story rather than “show” it. I found the split narrative perspectives lacked cohesion which left the story with a fragmented feel, especially given that the author frequently inserts letters to replace elements of the narrative prior to developing a sequence of chapters which are set in the late 1870s. There are those who will probably attempt to claim that this unity is a clever technique meant to reflect Oliver’s inner turmoil. If so, it’s pretentious, as well as fussy and irritating. It prevented any real sense of urgency developing; something which made Kostova’s debut novel The Historian so enjoyable.

Kostova has clearly researched the art scene carefully, and her presentation of both the modern artists and impressionists are convincing, if not truly engaging. Despite the beautiful language use, her characterisation in this novel is generally poor. The voice of the three main narrators was too similar, and as a result I didn’t believe in the characters. Even when Kostova switched to the third person to narrate the events of Paris in 1870s, I was left with a feeling that the slow progress of Beatrice and Olivier’s relationship was lacking passion and conviction.

The most convincing characters in the novel were the minor characters that were observed by the narrator without a voice of their own, save in sparse dialogue. As the focus of the novel’s quest for truth, Robert Oliver grew in complexity and developed sufficiently to appeal to the reader’s curiosity, though for me this was ruined by the novel’s hurried ending, which was over simplified and somewhat trite.

I have to admit, for me this novel is far too reminiscent of Kate Mosse’s Sepulchre (another disappointing second novel). The time switch in the narrative, the descriptions of painting and the lack lustre characterisation all pulled me back to this.  I was incredibly disappointed, as The Historian suggests that Kostova is the more accomplished writer when developing a unique and compelling story. However, this novel was a far cry from its excellent predecessor.

Mistress of Rome- Kate Quinn


Thea is a slave girl, one of the few survivors of a mass suicide in Judea. Arius is a gladiator, fighting for survival and revenge. Both are outcasts in a hostile world until they find comfort together. But they are pawns in the games of the rich and powerful in Rome and their happiness is short lived. When a mysterious Jewish singer, Athena, becomes the most powerful woman in Rome, Mistress to the Emperor, few realise the old hostilities which simmer, waiting to erupt.

The plot of Mistress of Rome was simple, yet well paced enough to be compelling. It encompassed the full time spectrum of the novel, a feat many writers seem to struggle with, following Thea from being a 13 year old girl, to a woman of approximately 39 and tracking the lives of many characters in between.

In many ways the narrative assisted this, chapters being sectioned according to who is the active character in the story. I did find the way the author did this very odd. For example, in a chapter which was assigned to Thea, you would have Thea giving a first person account of events in one section, then in another section of the same chapter, the author would suddenly switch to a third person narrative, though still focussing on Thea as the action occurs. This may have allowed the author to make the plot tight and coherent, but as a reader I found it moderately irritating, as I had to stop and get my bearings, deciding which character was being narrated or described this time. Annoying.

The writing wasn’t a mastery of majestic prose, it shouldn’t be in a story about Gladiators, if any particular detail catches the eye, it means something has been crammed in awkwardly. In this case it was the descriptions of the women’s clothing. I’m guessing the writer had researched this in detail and was damn well going to prove it. It wasn’t just used to embellish the story or highlight the status difference between characters at one point in the story. No. Every time a female character was mentioned you had a full description of her outfit, jewellery and hairstyle. It added pages to the book, but little to the story. The decadence and chaos of Rome would have come through without this.

The characterisation made this Rome credible. Despite the back drop of Rome; ideas about slavery and freedom; the role of fate and destiny in the life of man- this is a novel about people. The characters are working examples of the human condition. A heroine who does not crumble in the face of heart break, a hero seeking his own death, a man who needs to be feared by the people he loves scratch the surface and there is a bleak darkness to the novel are the driving force behind this story. There is a cloying hopelessness as many are destroyed by their own actions or those of others, but the characters, endearing or repulsive, make you need to follow, need to learn what will happen.

My feeling is this book was undersold by the publishing company because it’s a difficult niche. Men read books about gladiators, but here you have a historic novel which tells the female experience and doesn’t lapse into bodice ripping stereotypes. Hard to sell when the market is saturated with chic lit and teenage vamp fiction. It’s definitely worth a read on your commute or at the poolside.