The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles was just shortlisted for the Orange Prize and I couldn’t be more excited.This retelling of the story of Achilles and the Trojan War is one of the most gorgeously written books I’ve read in a while and made me completely engrossed in learning more about Greek mythology and the ancient world.

I’m not totally ignorant of Greek mythology, but I willingly forgot all of the little details that are so battered into our minds in school. I’ve never read The Iliad and only remembered the basics of the Trojan War (you know, ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’) so this story not only entertained me on its own but had me researching the various players involved and the gods and goddesses who decided their fates.

Miller tells the story of Achilles from the viewpoint of Patroclus, who in her version is not only Achilles’ friend but his lover. They are raised together from the time they are young boys and when Achilles goes to Mount Pelion to undergo his specialized training with Chiron, the Centaur, Patroclus goes with him. They live in harmony and bliss while discovering each other and learning the skills Achilles will need to fulfill the prophecy that he will be the greatest Greek warrior of his generation. After several years of living so uneventfully, a messenger comes with the news that Greece will send ships to invade Troy. Their peace is shattered.

Achilles is portrayed as achingly beautiful, artistic, physically gifted, with a definite sense of superiority yet a reluctance to fulfill his destiny. Patroclus is kind, giving, quiet, reserved and devoted to Achilles. Their bond is firm and unwavering so it is no surprise that the story turns on their parting.

I love this book in a major way. Miller has a talent for making the ancient stories entirely believable and I felt immersed every time I opened the pages. Her writing has that dreamy, lyrical quality that lulls your senses and makes you float along on the cloud of her narrative. Even the battle chapters are elevated to an otherworldly level and they are not too gritty, though she doesn’t leave out the horrible details. She just has a beautiful writing style that is truly transporting. The reader benefits from seeing the events through Patroclus’s eyes as he is an observant and calm narrator who gives us an insider’s view of the chief characters and their decisions.

I really hope Ms. Miller continues to write novels based on Greek mythology. Her interpretation of them is intriguing and will, I think, inspire a new passion for learning more about the ancient world. I have been inspired to attempt The Iliad sometime soon and am very much looking forward to it. Have you read The Iliad? What is the best translation?

The Orange Prize will be awarded on May 30 and I would not be surprised if The Song of Achilles wins.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child seems to be one of those books that everyone loves. Last fall I read many shining reviews of it that convinced me that I would love this too, which was surprising to me because I usually don’t like books that have a ‘fairytale’ element. I think they try too hard to capture that otherworldly and fragile quality that the original fairytales emanate, but I have to say that The Snow Child gets it right.

The book opens on a dream-like note as we are introduced to middle-aged Mabel, a farm wife who is struggling with depression and despair. She’s living in the Alaskan wilderness in the 1920’s with her silent and disappointed husband, Jack, and is drawn to the icy river to contemplate her fate. In this first chapter the white, snowy, crunchy, crystal world of Alaska in wintertime is dazzlingly set and this creates the environment for something strangely beautiful to happen.

One night, in a moment of unusual frivolity, Jack and Mabel form a snow child. They craft the sparkling snow into a small child-like resemblance, Jack carves it a tiny and perfect face and Mabel adorns it with her red scarf and mittens. The next morning, the snow child has melted, the scarf and mittens are gone and Jack sees a red-flashing figure running through the trees. Jack and Mabel both begin to sight the elusive child and finally lure this enchanting girl into their home where they dote on her, nurture her and love her.

The girl tells them her name is Faina, but the rest of her life is a mystery. Faina reminded me of all the fragile, unearthly, luminously and impossibly beautiful girls and women who are strewn through literature and films. The ones who are ultimately untouchable. And Faina is true to this. She leaves in the summer and only visits Jack and Mabel occasionally in the winter. They don’t know where she goes or what she does when she is away from them. Is Faina a real child or could they have somehow created her?

Real or not, Faina’s presence changes their lives. They grow closer to one another, Jack’s heart softens, and Mabel blooms. Their days become more meaningful.

I won’t say more about the plot because, like the snow, it is best when fresh.

Artist: Victor Vasnetsov.

I will say, though, that it was inspired by the Russian fairytale, Snegurochka, and though the setting is the harsh and brutal Alaskan wilderness, the magical quality of traditional fairytales is still in evidence.

I don’t think I liked this quite as much as other people did, but I did enjoy it and wanted so much for it to have a happy ending. I loved Mabel and was most interested in how her life was enhanced by the arrival of someone to love and to nurture, how she grew and found strength and a renewed interest in creativity and art through Faina’s presence.

The Snow Child is a lovely and beguiling read that will probably be remembered as one of the best of 2012.

 

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I contemplated not writing a post about Wolf Hall because I liked it so much and found it so incredibly wonderful that I know I really can’t convey my admiration for it or communicate the sheer enjoyment I derived from this book. I’ve decided to share my thoughts anyway because part of the purpose of blogging is to spread the news about our favorite reads, right?

Wolf Hall is the story of Thomas Cromwell and his rise to power during the reign of Henry VIII.  Mantel’s Cromwell is charismatic, mysterious, brutish, surprisingly kind, intelligent, manipulative, and has a remarkable ability to see into the human heart. He’s an amazingly complex man and I marveled with each turn of the page as another facet of his character was revealed.

This book is all about character. Historical events are the prism through which we see the decisions and motivations of each major player but they seem fuzzy, a backdrop to a study of human behavior. If you are not a reader who enjoys dissecting the motivations of people or who constantly wonders why someone would make a certain decision or be attracted to a certain person, this book will probably drive you crazy. The plot is there for sure, chugging along, but the real focus is the people.

The characters are almost too human, just as changeable, frightening and maddening as people we know in real life. King Henry is like a child one day, the next a tyrant. Anne Boleyn (my unfortunate namesake) is vengeful, yet lives in fear and finds comfort in her association with the accommodating Cromwell. A majority of the characters operate out of fear; fear of dying, fear of disease,  fear of losing love or fear of losing their influence and power. Even Thomas More is portrayed as going to his death because of his fear of losing face if he signed the King’s Oath.

Because the narrative doesn’t undertake to explain the historical events at all, it is almost a requirement that the reader is somewhat knowledgeable about the period of English history it covers. You don’t have to know it in depth, however; a basic understanding of the events surrounding the divorce of Henry and Katherine of Aragon and Henry’s marriage and relationship to Anne Boleyn will suffice. There were many aspects of the story I had forgotten, but I remembered the gist of it once I started reading. Even if you don’t remember, you can always Google it.

I loved the glimpse Mantel gives into everyday life during the sixteenth century. The clothes, the food, the living arrangements, and even the interior design are all discussed and made part of the story, just as important to these people as they are to us. I think Mantel truly succeeded in bringing the period and the people so vibrantly to life that I was sad when the book ended right after Thomas More’s execution.

The book is written in the limited third-person point of view (I had to look that up) and it was off-putting the first few times I tried to read it, but you eventually get used to the style. Mantel’s writing is very descriptive, colorful and funny and the world she re-creates is so alive and believable that I feel I know what it was like to live in Cromwell’s household.

I didn’t want to like this book. It won the Man Booker Prize in 2009, the same year that The Little Stranger and The Children’s Book were shortlisted and I was peeved that it had taken the prize over those two splendid and treasured books. Now I see that it was entirely worthy of the honor and I am thrilled to bits that a second book in the Cromwell trilogy is coming in May. I have already pre-ordered it on Amazon and am hoping that Bring Up the Bodies will be as wonderful as Wolf Hall. I read an interview with Mantel where she explained that the new book will be shorter and intensely focused on the story of Anne Boleyn’s fall. I can’t wait to live in Cromwell’s household again.

Possession by A.S. Byatt

Possession is a novel that strongly captured my imagination and my heart when I first read it as a teenager. I loved the dense, layered, symbol-filled narrative that neatly weaves together the tale of two Victorian poets and their forbidden love with a group of contemporary academics and their search for groundbreaking  evidence of that love.

I read it again a few years later and felt the same swoony admiration for its brilliant use of language and intensely smoldering description of the entanglement between poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. I thought it was crazy romantic.

This time around I didn’t feel the same enchantment, but that’s okay – clear-headedness allowed me to appreciate the utter genius of the novel’s construction and to realize what a feat of creativity Byatt achieved with this entertaining tale of passion and scholarly adventure.

Roland Michell is a young academic who’s specialty is Randolph Henry Ash, a Victorian poet of high esteem. While researching him in the London Library he discovers an unfinished letter Ash composed to a mysterious woman. His curiosity fuelled, he begins a cautious investigation which leads him to Maud Bailey, an expert on the work of a forgotten female poet, Christabel LaMotte. As the evidence accumulates they realize that Ash and LaMotte may have had a relationship and they are excited, yet wary of revealing this knowledge because they aren’t the only scholars who care. A particular scholar from New Mexico, Professor Cropper, is hot on the chase and willing to pay any price to be the first to own the intimate letters the poets exchanged.

As the connection between Ash and LaMotte is rapidly explored, Roland and Maude slowly form a bond with each other and their own love story takes shape.

There are so many themes and elements fizzing around in Possession that it is hard to pinpoint what this novel is really about. It is most certainly a fantastic story, thrilling and suspenseful, yet there are many, many layers to the story that truly intensify the pleasure of reading it. Byatt’s creation of the numerous letters, poems and journal entries that help to tell the story in addition to the narrative is astounding. The poems range from full length epics to Emily Dickinson-style verses and the letters bring the voices of Ash and LaMotte alive in a way that simply reading about them would not.

The main traits I admire in A.S. Byatt’s writing are her ability as a natural storyteller and her ability to make me feel smart. Her books are full of allusions that I only occasionally understand yet she isn’t snobby about it. Her knowledge is inclusive – I think she wants everyone to delight in it.

My re-read of Possession was very satisfying and I’m sure that in another 10 years or so I will be ready for the 4th reading of it – what will I think of it then?

Affinity by Sarah Waters

Well, Sarah Waters has done it again. She’s completely hijacked my life with one of her engrossing, agonizing novels. I’ve previously read Fingersmith and The Little Stranger and loved them both so turned to Affinity with much anticipation. I bought a copy of it about a year ago and just couldn’t work up any interest in it at that time. When I picked it up last week during the midst of my reading slump I knew that it was the golden book that was going to break me out of the slump.

Margaret Prior is a mentally ill spinster who lives with her widowed mother in London during the 1870’s. In an effort to distract her from the depression that has overwhelmed her after the death of her father, a family friend suggests that she become a “lady visitor” at Millbank Prison. The role of the lady visitor is to inspire the prisoners to be better people by the example of their good breeding and good sense. Margaret immediately feels the hypocrisy of this effort yet continues to visit the prison when she becomes smitten with Selina Dawes, who is a spirit medium in prison for abusing a patron of her work. Selina is enchantingly beautiful with golden hair and the look of a renaissance painting. She seems to be a cut above the other prisoners and more refined and innocent than her fellow inmates. Margaret soon becomes obsessed with her, an obsession that leads to terrible decisions and feverish choices. Will Margaret risk her comfortable middle-class life to have the woman she loves?

Affinity oozes with dread. The novel is dark and dangerous and the sense of foreboding for the reader corresponds with the downward spiral of Margaret’s despair. I love when authors can match the reader’s feelings to the plot. I really liked Margaret. She is clearly intelligent and gifted, yet she is bored with her status in society. She so desperately does not want to be her mother’s companion for the remainder of her life. She is looking for passion, for beauty, for an experience that will lift her above the drudgery and routine of daily life. Selina provides this escape. Selina is mysterious, exotic and powerful and is maybe the more fascinating character because we never really know her. The novel is told through diary entries, Margaret’s interspersed with Selina’s daily jottings of her life before prison. Margaret is easy to sympathize with, Selina is not and she is also a bit frightening because of her ability to sway people’s impressions of her.

Despite its unhappy premise I adored this novel. I really do think Sarah Waters is a fabulous writer and she is, at the moment, my favorite.

Have you read Affinity or any other novels by Sarah Waters? What do you think of her books?

A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper

Sophie FitzOsborne lives on the island of Montmaray with her sister Henry, cousin Veronica, Uncle John and their housekeeper Rebecca. Sophie has just turned 16 and suffers the usual self-doubt and anxiety about her looks and skills that many young girls have. She shares a loyal friendship with Veronica and suffers her sister’s eccentricities and aversion to reading with patience. Her uncle stays out of their way and they share a mutual dislike of Rebecca, who barely cooks and cleans, but who looks after them in her way.

So how is this different from other coming-of-age novels? Well, Montmaray is an island kingdom off the coasts of Spain and France. Uncle John is the king, Veronica is the princess royal and Sophie and Henry are princesses whose brother Toby, off at school in England, is heir to the throne. They live in a crumbling castle, have no money, and only rule over five villagers, who eventually end up leaving the island for Cornwall. Oh, and it is 1936, the Spanish Civil War is raging and they keep hearing news of Hitler’s activities in Germany. Last, but not least, King John is mentally ill and never leaves his bedroom.

Cooper takes all of these unusual plot elements and crafts them into a riveting, adventurous, horrifying tale. The story is told in a series of diary entries that Sophie pens at the urging of Veronica, who is passionate about keeping and preserving her kingdom’s history. The beginning of the novel concerns the typical thoughts of a teen girl as Sophie ponders her feelings for Rebecca’s son Simon and recites the domestic travails and tribulations of their family and friends in the village. The narrative subtly turns sinister, however, when two German men show up on the island for “research” purposes. The family then faces an immense struggle for survival that climaxes in a dramatically suspenseful ending.

I really admired and enjoyed this novel and am pleased that it is shelved in the young adult section. This is the kind of YA novel I wish more teens would read. It is a lovely blend of history, adventure, strong and interesting characters and humor. There is even a tinge of the supernatural included. This is the first in a trilogy, the second of which was published in the spring. I will definitely be continuing the series and look forward to reading about the further adventures of Sophie and her family.

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin

Titled My Last Duchess outside of the US

Many reviews of this entertaining novel have mentioned that “If you’re missing Downton Abbey, read this to fill the void” and really this could have been the story of Lady Grantham if she had married a dissembling dirt bag instead of Lord Grantham, who seems like a good guy.

This particular story tells the saga of Cora Cash, an American heiress to a flour fortune who stumbles into marriage with an Englishman, the Duke of Wareham. Cora is headstrong, feisty, selfish and demanding, yet she is also innocent and trusting. The combination of these traits makes her a realistic character. Her mother’s dream has always been to marry her to English nobility yet Cora surprises everyone when she truly falls in love with the Duke and he seems to fall in love with her too (not to mention her money). The novel covers the span of their first year of marriage in which Ivo, the Duke, leaves for five months to accompany the Prince of Wales to India as Cora marks time at their home, Lulworth, waiting for their child to be born.

Social mishaps, ill-advised purchases, trust in the wrong people, all befall Cora before the year is out. And so does the discovery that her husband is not the stellar human being we all knew he wasn’t.

Also similar to Downton Abbey is the parallel storyline of Cora’s maid, Bertha, and her romance with the Duke’s valet, Jim. This was interesting and sweet, but I always preferred to read about the goings on above stairs. The lavish meals, wicked manipulations, dazzling dresses and coy flirtations had me spellbound.

I listened to this on audio during my daily commute. It’s read by Katherine Kellgren who does a top-notch job. She gives every character their own distinct voice and they were all so different I knew exactly what character was speaking during scenes with dialogue.

Though not as endearing as Downton Abbey, I have to say this really is a good substitute. It is a hugely tantalizing read!

(I apologize for the photo. I took it on my phone at work where the harsh office lighting was not conducive to good photography!)

Other thoughts:

BookBath

Book Group of One

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