Thursday 24 August 2023

House of Odysseus by Claire North

In this second book of the Songs of Penelope, we return to the rocky island of Ithaca, home to Odysseus, who has been absent nearly twenty years, and to his wife, Penelope, who was left behind to wait, and keep things going as best she can.

Time is moving on though. Troy is defeated. Helen is back in Sparta with her husband Menelaus. Soldiers and sailors are now returned - all except Odysseus. On Ithaca, Penelope's position has become more precarious than ever after her son left in search of his father. With only a council of elderly men to support her, she needs to maintain peace and independence.
  Enter Orestes and Elektra, children of Agamemnon, caught up in their own Greek tragedy - their sister killed by their father, their father killed by their mother, Clytemnestra, who was in turn slain by Orestes in the name of justice. Remorse now seems to have driven Orestes to madness, and Elektra fears what will happen to both of them when word gets out. Their uncle, Menelaus, flush with his victory in Troy, seeks to take over Orestes' throne and make himself king of all the Greeks.

Book One, Ithaca, was told from the omniscient viewpoint of the goddess Hera. Now her role is taken over by Aphrodite, goddess of love with an eye for warriors' rippling muscles or women's softly turned limbs. She's sly and playful, but a fierce advocate of love in all its forms - romantic, familial, or just between friends.

Penelope is a lonely figure, in need of compassion and love. Her maids try their best but Penelope is still queen with the isolation and responsibility that position brings. She has though found a better path through the rules and restrictions laid down by the patriarchal society in which she lives than her fellow queens.  As the story evolves Penelope is proving to be just as wily and cunning as her renowned husband. While she manoeuvres men, playing them like chess pieces, and hiding her own involvement,  Helen employs a different sort of subterfuge. Subjected to her husband's beatings and repeated rapes, she hides her thoughts and feelings behind the cover of childishness and drunkenness, while biding her time for opportunities for revenge. Clytemnestra, throwing off any subterfuge, and openly taking a lover while her husband is absent was never going to succeed and live happily ever after; the rules of her world would never allow it.

I loved Ithaca with its story of the resilient, resourceful women of Ithaca, left behind to cope without their menfolk, and was just that little worried that House of Odysseus might not live up to it - but it did, possibly even surpassing it.

Wednesday 23 August 2023

Prophet by Helen Macdonald and Sin Blache


Sunil Rao is brought in by US forces to investigate when an all-American diner pops up overnight in a British field. His unique talent is the ability to spot lies and fakes, and he soon realises that this diner is not, however improbable its sudden appearance, a real diner, but a construct formed of someone's idea of how a diner should look. It's apparent quite early on that the high-ups in the US military have some idea of what's going on, and Rao and his partner/minder Lt Col Adam Rubenstein (who he's worked with before) are soon off to the US, to meet with the people behind the secret Prophet project, which twists memories to control its subjects, but which is getting dangerously out of hand.

While this started off with an original idea that feels more like fantasy than anything else, the way the story progresses is like a military espionage drama - a little bit X Files, a lot of A Few Good Men or The Presedio - so not quite what I'd expected which wrong-footed me at first, and I found it difficult to get into the story and care about our two heroes, Rao and Rubenstein. The plot seemed slow to advance, with a lot of time spent in military conference rooms or laboratories, debating what is happening, who's behind Prophet, laying down military plans, with the 'higher ups' trying to obscure the issue rather than help to solve it.

The relationship between the two men also takes up a considerable amount of the book, as it delves into their pasts, and the feelings which Rao is happy to openly acknowledge while Rubenstein remains a very prim and proper model soldier. Would the story have been better without this aspect? I'm not sure. It slows the progress of events, although the ending would need considerable re-thinking without it.

Friday 11 August 2023

The Fall of the House of Byron: scandal and seduction in Georgian England by Emily Brand

George Gordon, Lord Byron, has gone down in history for his poetry but also for his reputation as someone 'mad, bad, and dangerous to know'. Lady Caroline Lamb, may have been referring solely to her lover when she said this, but a little investigation into his family history shows that it's an epithet that could have applied to many of his relatives as well.
At the start of the eighteenth century, Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire was home to William, 4th Baron Byron, an amateur composer and artist, and his young wife, France. The house was widely admired, the family fortunes seemed secure. But by 1798 when George inherited the title of sixth baron, the building had become a dilapidated ruin, and the fortune dissipated. 
In the intervening years the family had immersed itself in seemingly one scandal after another; murder, elopement, separation and (above all) the running up of mountainous debts seemed to be almost everyday activities for the Byrons, even the daring sea-adventures of John (later vice-admiral), or the quiet, unremarkable life of Richard (who became a vicar) couldn't save the family's reputation.

Emily Brand's fascinating book follows the Byrons' ups and (more frequent) downs, their loves and squabbles, and introduces the reader to lives full of drama and excess. To be honest if they had been fictional characters they'd hardly seem believable.
The style is almost one of fictionalised biography, told on the one hand from the perspective of young George Gordon making his first acquaintance with his ancestral home and family history, and on the other charting the troubles that befell his forebears, and it's a technique which brings them to life on the page. 

There's a lot to take in, especially as the family seem fond of christening children after their uncles or aunts, or even in some melancholy circumstances after a deceased sibling, but I found it an engrossing read which shed a whole new light on the poet Byron's character and heritage.

Friday 4 August 2023

The Den by Keith Gray

 It's the beginning of the summer holidays, and Marshall and Rory are out on their bikes enjoying the thought of weeks without school, even though living in the 'middle of nowhere' there's nothing new or adventurous to be found. Desperate for something, anything, to do, they head for Skelter Cottage, an abandoned house they once believed was haunted. At 13 they're too big for such childish ideas now but at least it's somewhere to go. The cottage has been knocked down though. Not even a pile of rubble remains. But hidden under leaves and branches, they find a trapdoor, and beneath it the perfect place for a den. 

Marshall thinks this is an ideal place to get away from his dad and his moods. He and Rory can make it their own secret hideout where no one can find them. But Rory wants to share it with some of his friends, and a difference of opinion quickly turns into something potentially nasty.

The Den is an easily read, easily relatable tale of boys being, well, boys. Their friendships, their arguments, the bravado hiding their fears and insecurities. There's a real sense of tension from both investigating the 'den', and the way emotions easily run out of control. It feels like a wrong decision could easily lead to disaster. 

Balanced between childhood and teenage, Marshall and Rory are also learning to cope with family issues - Rory's mum wants to know his every move; Marshall's dad is so caught up with his own problems that he doesn't care. 

Presented in Barrington Stoke's dyslexia-friendly font on cream pages, it's aimed at 11 years and over, but with a reading age of 8 to entice readers who might not feel too confident of their abilities. 

Thursday 3 August 2023

The Black Crescent by Jane Johnson


As a child in his native Moroccan mountain village, Hamou Badi stumbles across a corpse dumped unceremoniously by a dried-up river bed. It's a random event which influences his life, for his desire to give this dead person some dignity and justice leads him, later in life, to join the Surete, the police force of the French colonialists who rule the country. 
He hopes this way he can help people and make things better for them but as the 1950s progress, Moroccan demands for freedom become more violent and the French response increasingly aggressive and ruthless. Hamou is caught between the two, in a position which is rapidly becoming untenable.
It's also a love story, with Hamou finding himself in a similar quandary. His mother prefers the old traditional ways to make a match for her son - to talk to her neighbours, and find a suitable bride, whereas Hamou finds himself attracted to the daughter of his Casablanca neighbours, a modern relatively independent women, working as a nurse, and running dangerous errands at night.     

The Black Crescent is definitely a page-turner of a read, set in a period of comparatively recent history about which I suspect most readers will know little.  
With input from her Moroccan husband, the author has crafted an incredibly atmospheric novel capturing the sights of sounds of 1950s Morocco from ancient hill village where life seems quiet and almost unchanged in hundreds of years to the modern bustle of Casablanca, from the crowded older parts of the city where the poorest workers live, to the luxurious seaside villas of the French colonialists.