Tag Archives: book reviews

Circe by Madeline Miller, a review

“He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none.”

Circe by Madeline Miller

I was a huge fan of Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles (read my review here) so you can imagine I was thrilled when I received a copy of her new book Circe to help while away the hours while I waited for my very overdue baby while I was on maternity leave earlier this year.

In Miller’s retelling of the Circe from Homer’s Odyssey, Circe is the unloved daughter of Helios, the Titan sun god, and Perse, a sea nymph. Overlooked by her mother for lacking the beauty that might secure her a marriage to a god, and thus her mother’s social standing, she is left to her own devices and mocked by her more attractive siblings. When the abandoned brother she has raised from infancy rejects her too, she is desperate for any affection and discovers that she has the power of witchcraft. But this sees her banished from her father’s palace and placed on an island in complete isolation, where she truly comes to know herself and her power.

While I very much enjoyed reading Circe, and Miller’s writing is on point as always, I thought it was interesting that it was branded as a feminist retelling of the Greek myth. For me, even throughout Miller’s version, much of our perception of Circe is derived from her interactions with the male characters. We see Circe’s struggle to find her place in her powerful and abusive father’s court; the terror she strikes into Glaucus, the human she falls in love with but who abandons her when she gifts him divinity; Apollo who takes her as a lover, but for the novelty more than anything else; the men who rape her and set her on her course of turning men into pigs…the only men she feels comfortable with are brilliant humans like Daedalus and Odysseus, but even then her relationships with those are complicated by the existence of their sons. Even when she seems to achieve a degree of freedom, it is always the result of having to bargain with the male world, I suppose that you could argue that that’s the system that every woman operates within but even when Penelope comes onto the scene and in scenes with Parsiphae, I’m not convinced that Circe would pass the Bechdel test.

As for the happy ending that Circe is said to receive in both myth and this retelling, her character certainly deserves it. But I couldn’t help but feel that it was another example of her giving something away for a man.

Oh and if this leaves you wondering, as I always have, “How do you say Circe?” The correct Greek pronunciation would be Kirky, but Miller says that she finds Sirsee to be more accessible to the modern reader.

Help, I just lost all my followers!

Hello… is anybody… out there?

 

Would you like to know how I lost all my followers with one simple click? Or is that to clickbaity?

So, I transferred from self-hosting to hosting back with WordPress and lost all my followers. I mean, I don’t think they mass unfollowed me because they didn’t like my decision to move away from Hostgator (did you?) but the list has been lost to the ether and the kind people at WordPress can’t get you back. So if you followed me and would like to stay on board for this erratic tour of the rabbit hole feel free to sign back up.

If not, this is awkward… but I get it. No, I mean honestly, it’s no big deal, I’ll just… I’ll just be over here doing a thing…

Actually this is probably a good thing, because I’ve decided to see it as a sign that the time is right for a fresh start. I’m not reading in the same way I used to. Back in the early days of this blog, if I only read a book a week I saw it as a personal failing, now I’d take it as a sign that I am crushing life and getting my children to bed at a sensible time on a regular basis.

And speaking of blogging when you have children, or blogging about books when you have children. I read a lot of picture books these days and had been hesitant to post about them because that’s not what people followed my blog for. Well they’re not following me anymore! So I’m going to post a bit more about early literacy and the books I read with my daughters without feeling too bad about it.

I’ll be updating my About Me to reflect my new world order in due course (if the baby lets me, she pretty much runs the show these days) but feel free to check out my back catalogue if you’re curious as to why anyone did follow in the first place.

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, a review

Just in case you were ever in any doubt as to whether I’m the kind of person to come late to a party, this week I read the ubiquitous Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.

This originally published in 2013, and the coverage it received in the media is difficult to overstate. Newspapers, blogs, TV, radio, it seemed like you couldn’t move without someone giving their take on what it means to lean in to the point that the phrase lean in seems to have slipped into common usage with its own prominent entry in the Working Woman’s Guide to Business Jargon. What do Lean In and Fifty Shades of Grey have in common? You don’t have to have read them to have a pretty good idea of the narrative arc of either book.

So why read it now? In the years after the book was released, Sheryl Sandberg was everywhere. And I’d read profiles in the paper, but I was never interested enough to seek out what effectively sounded like a careers advice book for women. But my friend recently got me into a podcast player, and I’ve started listening to Desert Island Discs (I know) and one of the people featured was Sheryl Sandberg. Not only were her choices of tracks strong, but hers was the most heartbreakingly raw and human interview I’ve heard on there, so I decided to read her book.

And wow. What can you say in a review of Lean In that hasn’t been said before? Barring George Monbiot’s books about our impending doom, I don’t think I’ve ever read something which has managed to inform, entertain and depress me in such equal measure. On the one hand the anecdotes about Sandberg’s own career are interesting, the statistics looking at gender disparity in the workplace are fascinating and the advice is, in part, so f***ing depressing. I mean really f***ing depressing. There’s some advice in the book which says that men can ask for payrises and promotions based on their personal achievements and individual performance, while a woman has to link it to the common good to make herself seem unthreatening, likeable and a team player. And I can see that it would be true. And that’s what’s so bloody depressing about it all.

Honestly, by the end of reading it I was pretty much ready to reject my place in the world of work and take up subsistence farming. I’m mostly joking. But seriously, it’s an important book to read if you want to gain a better appreciation of how little progress society has made since the 1950s.

 

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan, a review

“As specimens go, they always get excited about me. I’m a good one. A show-stopper. I’m the kind of kid they’ll still enquire about ten years later. Fifty-one placements, drug problems, violence, dead adopted mum, no biological links, constant offending. Tick, tick, tick.”

The Panopticon, Jenni Fagan

 

At the opening of Jenni Fagan’s debut novel, fifteen year old Anais Hendricks, the anti-hero of the piece, is sitting hand cuffed in the back of a police car being transferred to The Panopticon a children’s unit with a watchtower that forces its residents to live under constant observation. She has blood on her school uniform, and a police woman is lying in a coma that she is unlikely to come out of.

The opening of the novel, coupled with the fact that Anais is feisty, intelligent and stylish, seemingly possessed of a six sense which allows her to see to the very core of people, could make this sound like a middle of the road, young adult dystopian novel. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Because beneath her tough exterior, Anais is incredibly vulnerable, a teenage girl for whom the label at risk might have been invented- in the grip of delusions fuelled by narcotic psychosis or untreated borderline personality disorder, she has been exploited or failed by most of the adults she has encountered in her short life. This is not a novel which uses a dystopia as a smoke screen for real world issues, this is a novel about real world issues which hammers home the appalling ways that the most vulnerable members of society are so often failed and demonized.

Jenni Fagan’s writing is like slam poetry, the perfect words chosen with flair that punches you in the guts. Her characterisation is exemplary and nothing I can say will do it justice, so what I will say is that The Panopticon is a novel which probably needs a thousand trigger warnings, but I would recommend that everyone reads it.

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

Hollow City Ransom RiggsRetaining the high production values of the first book in the series, Hollow City by Ransom Riggs is a stylish follow-up to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Following on where the first book left off, it sees Jacob Portman and his peculiar friends running for their lives from the wights and hollowgasts that are pursuing them. Their fight for survival becomes a race against time when they realise that their injured headmistress, an ymbryne trapped in bird form, is at risk of losing her humanity for ever unless they can find another ymbryne to save her within two days.

Though it retains the style and charm of the first book in the series, there were times when I became a little frustrated with aspects of the characterisation. Many of the peculiar children have been living the same day since the Second World War, which would easily make them in their 70s, but their emotional responses to many of the situations in the book make them seem like ordinary children. I can appreciate that a lot of the tension derives from this, but at times I felt the children’s emotional vulnerability was played on a little too much. Even if you have grown up in an incredibly sheltered manner, surely you have to some extent grown up?

Either way, it’s a minor criticism and the book should be praised for its originality and flair. There are some brilliant moments where minor characters in the plot of the story like Olive’s friend Jessica, or Sam and Elsa, steal the scene completely. The idea of time travelling within the loops is a great one as well, and the examples of people aging forward are horrible and highly effective. I only wish there’d been a little time to explore the landscapes that the characters travelled to within the loops in a little more detail, as this was a real strength of the first title in the series.

I’ve no idea when the third book is due, but I’m really looking forward to it. I only hope I get to read it before the rumoured Tim Burton film adaptation comes out.

Vellum by Hal Duncan

Vellum Hal Duncan book of hoursHave you ever read a book that you can feel is soaring way over your head, but you’ve loved it anyway? I just had one of those moments reading Vellum by Hal Duncan from The Book of All Hours series.

Fragmented, erratic and brilliant, it flips forward and shuffles back through time to narrate the gathering of the unkin, angels and demons, as they fight for the rule of the Vellum, an infinite universe of which the world we know is a tiny fragment. Twisting through time and across multiverses, characters’ lives are revealed to have extended beyond the borders of a typical human span, linked to archetypes dating back to classical myth and ancient Sumer.

It’s incredibly clever, like a cyberpunk epic sprung from the dust of ancient myths (though apparently the correct generic categorisation for that is New Weird, you learn something new every day…) and while you do need to pay attention to fully keep a grip on the novel’s ambitious scope, it’s certainly worth it. I just need to dig out a copy of the follow-up, Ink.

My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin (not Robert Browning…)

In Daisy Goodwin’s My Last Duchess, the hopelessly naïve, not especially bright but incredibly rich  and aptly named Cora Cash comes across the pond to England to hunt down a titled husband at her mother’s bidding, even though she half thinks she might be in love with Teddy van der Leyden, the New World’s most eligible bachelor. She meets and falls for her Duke with alarming rapidity, and much of the rest of the novel is spent trying to wedge in references to the Browning poem (numerous chapter titles are direct quotations) while still come out with a happy ending.

As a historical romance, My Last Duchess does its job. The Duke is a suitably Romantic hero, brooding and unpredictable, but for me, there wasn’t enough to convince me that he was in love with Cora or she in love with him. I might have been convinced by a spoilt American heiress’ struggle to fit in with the English aristocracy, but I didn’t buy in to the whole Malteavers/Beauchamp love affair and felt that the novel, especially the storyline surrounding the most interesting character, Bertha, were insufficiently resolved. Having said that, it was an enjoyable enough read for a Sunday afternoon, even if I did hope that Cora might eventually show a little of the spark that the other characters credited her with.

An enjoyable, if not blisteringly good, piece of genre fiction. Just a pity it had to force a comparison with Browning’s ingenious poem.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick

forgive me leonard peacock by Matthew QuickThe P-38 WWII Nazi handgun looks comical lying on the breakfast table next to a bowl of oatmeal. It’s like some weird steampunk utensil anachronism. But if you look very closely just about the handle you can see the tiny stamped swastika and the eagle perched on top, which is as real as hell.

I take a photo of my place setting with my iPhone, thinking it could be both evidence and modern art.

Then I laugh my ass off looking at it on the miniscreen, because modern art is such bullshit.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock– Matthew Quick

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is the kind of young adult fiction that every young adult should want to read, by which I mean it doesn’t feel “aimed” at young adults at all. It doesn’t deal in “themes of teenage angst” and the “friend who changed everything” trope but addresses raw, intense pain without shying away or compromising. It is, in short, a book for anyone who liked Thirteen Reason Why but felt that The Perks of Being A Wallflower was just a little patronising, and more than a little overrated.

Quick’s narrative is brilliant and convincing, and we inhabit Leonard, recognising that, despite his intelligence and self-knowledge which make him seem older than his years, that he is a vulnerable and flawed teenager who has been badly damaged, and emotionally neglected by his parents. The novel opens on Leonard’s eighteenth birthday as he sits alone (his vacuous mother away in New York and has forgotten his birthday) and lays out his plan to kill his former best friend with his grandfather’s WWII trophy before turning the gun on himself. Before he does though, he wants to give you a thank you present to his four friends: his elderly neighbour, a brilliant violinist at his school, an evangelical Christian who looks like Lauren Bacall, and his holocaust studies teacher. Each interaction makes Leonard’s dark secret and tragic plan clearer to the reader, and prompts a gut sinking feeling as Leonard avoids each life line thrown his way, or burns his bridges to avoid deterring himself from the mission he has laid out.

There are moments of the book which you could argue aren’t especially original or subtle. Leonard’s fixation on Hamlet, for example, might be something we would expect from a teenage boy contemplating suicide but I would argue that this too is a strength of the novel. Leonard is in so many ways exceptional and different, that this common touch makes him seem that little more human, even while his theatrical flair makes him seem otherworldly.

I recommend this book to everyone, but a word of warning- it deals with some very difficult themes and issues that some may feel are not the remit of “young adult” fiction and you shouldn’t expect a happy ending.

Quick holds his nerve and doesn’t sell out.  I look forward to reading more of his work.

Books and Reading in 2013

Happy new year, readers! Instead of telling you my New Years Resolutions, I’m interested to hear what you would like to see from me.

I am hoping to bring you some exciting book related posts in 2013, but am really interested to know what you would like to see on The Book and Biscuit in 2013. If you have any ideas for blog posts in 2013, please submit them via the form below.

Thanks!