Saturday, 30 June 2012

Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Published: 2011
Pages: 352 (Bloomsbury, 2012)
Read: 27/6/12 - 29/6/12

Synopsis: Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia. Here he is just another unwanted boy living in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. Yet one day, Achilles takes the shamed prince under his wing. As they grow into young men their bond blossoms into something far deeper — despite the displeasure of Achilles's mother. When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows Achilles into war, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they have learned. (from Goodreads)   

First Line: "My father was a king and the son of kings."

Review: I'm trying to keep this review from being too effusive, as I've just finished the book and am still in the afterglow of a fantastic read.  Suffice to say: I love this book.

I'm something of a Classics nerd, to the extent that I can be a bit precious about the Greek myths in general and Homer in particular.  I was wary about reading Percy Jackson (though I really like those books; another series I need to finish*) and I refuse to watch Troy because I'm sorry you cut the gods and made Achilles and Patroclus cousins I do not want this, so I was a little worried about The Song of Achilles.  I needn't have been: even though I knew what was going to happen to everyone, I was still gripped and cared about the characters - to the extent that I cried at the end, even though I knew exactly what that end would be.

I think part of the reason I loved the book so much is that it fitted almost exactly with my own view of the Trojan War.  Not only because of the Achilles/Patroclus relationship, but the portrayal of the other heroes, especially Odysseus.  I started reading the book on my lunch break at work, and I had to smother laughs at the sheer snark of Odysseus at Tyndareus's palace.  And then the epic snarkfest between him and Diomedes - so much joy.  If there is one tiny complaint it's that we don't get Diomedes kicking the arses of Ares and Aphrodite because that would be awesome (but I see why we don't).  And a quick note on the gods: they appear and are involved in the fate of the heroes, and they have all the power that features in the myths, as well as the ability to guide men without the men quite realising, which works perfectly.

But it's in the portrayal of Achilles that the book works best.  In The Iliad he's either stubbornly proud or psychotically vengeful, so to get more depth to his character and story is wonderful.  I've never particularly liked him as a hero, but this made him more human and his story even more tragic, and I wanted to reach into the pages and stop everything from happening.  And this is me trying not to spoil for people who don't know Homer, but the end of the book is a steady rush to a finale I knew but dreaded.  That is the strength of the book for me: that it made me care even though there was no suspense for me.

I think even if you go into this book with no knowledge of the Trojan War, it's still a fantastic read.  If anything that might add to it as a story, because I was foreshadowing everything that was going to happen by myself.  But I wouldn't give up the sheer joy of discovering that someone else views these characters as I do for the chance to read this book as if it was a new story.  As a book it is beautifully written, the battle scenes are fantastic, the research is clear but never shown off, and it is a marvellous read.  At its heart - taking away the epic story and the foreknowledge of the character's fates - it is a love story between two young men caught up in a war neither of them want, and it is wonderfully told.

50 Words Or Less: A marvellous read, even without a foreknowledge of the Trojan War.  While my Classics geekery added an enormous amount to my enjoyment, it is a wonderful book regardless, working as both a romance and a historical novel.  My fantastic read afterglow will last.

Rating: 10/10

* Although I did work myself up into a somewhat ridiculous fury over the whole Percy calling himself Nobody to Polyphemus won't make sense to anyone reading the book thing. 

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books On My Summer TBR List

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

Today's, as the name suggests, is the top ten books I want to read this summer.  I'm taking them from my TBR list (all but one are books I own; the remaining one is in my stack of library books) rather than books that will be released this summer.  When I did this for autumn I managed to read 4/10, so maybe this time I'll be more productive.

1. Divergent by Veronica Roth - somehow this completely passed me by until I saw a couple of reviews online for Insurgent and decided it sounded awesome. Nothing says summer like kick-ass dystopia.

2. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green - bought this when it came out and I still haven't read it, it sits there in my pile of hardbacks judging me.

3. Bumped by Megan McCafferty - my flatmate got me this for Christmas and I promised she could read it after me. She is still waiting.

4. Heist Society by Ally Carter - I love heists of all kinds (one of the many reasons I love Inception) and a review I've read of this made it sound a) badass and b) perfect for me.

5. Amy and Roger's Epic Detour by Morgan Matson - the library book, though I suspect I'll end up buying it. It just seems perfect for summer.

6. The Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller - I've been wanting to read this for ages, and I finally caved in and bought it.  It's Achilles/Patroclus (as it is so blatantly is in The Iliad) and is beautiful from the first page.

7. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (from an idea by Siobhan Dowd) - I'm a big fan of The Knife of Never Letting Go, and this book is a work of art as well.  Looking forward to reading it even though I think it will destroy me.

8. Sweetly by Jackson Pearce - I liked Sisters Red, and this is yet another book heckling me from my pile of hardbacks.

9. The Iron Queen by Julie Kagawa - this is the third in the series, I really liked one and two, I cannot figure out why I haven't read this yet.

10. The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz - yet another Christmas present I haven't read yet. It's a new Sherlock Holmes by someone who writes great teen spy books. Clearly I am mad for not even starting it yet.

If this list shows anything, it's that my habit of acquiring books and not reading them is, possibly, getting worse.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Review: Tom Brown's Schooldays by Thomas Hughes

Published: 1857
Pages: 307 (Penguin, 2004)
Read: 4/6/12 - 6/6/12
Challenge(s): Project Fill in the Gaps
Also part of: A Victorian Celebration

Synopsis: Tom Brown attends Rugby, deals with a bully who goes on to have his own spin off, cheats at Greek, drinks beer, plays cricket and rugby, and generally grows into a thoroughly good chap (albeit one with alarming Victorian facial hair).

First line: "The Browns have become illustrious by the pen of Thackeray and the pencil of Doyle within the memory of the young gentlemen who are now matriculating at the universities."

Review: I have to admit, I started reading this with a couple of fixed opinions - that the book would contain all those elements which later became cliche in boys' school stories, and that it would be a slog to get through.  Both were proved wrong.

This really isn't a difficult read at all, for all that the first three chapters are an ode to England that reminded of the Fry and Laurie sketch in which they end up yelling "England! England!" like they're stuck on repeat.  Yet even this part is readable, harking back to a simpler time in which 'folk' ways dominated.  It sets the tone for the book, which is very much about the wonders of England and what the right kind of male characters can do for the country.

As for its position as one of the first (if not the first) school story: there are many elements that I'd say are familiar from later school stories - the sports, the bullies, the need to behave correctly not only for the sake of the school but for later life - but a lot of the more outlandish elements are missing*.  This is more about charting the development of one boy rather than the activities of an entire school, which is borne out by the book featuring so much of Tom's early childhood as well as his time at Rugby.  That this is also evident in the highly Christian ethos of the book - something which does feature heavily in a lot of later school stories, for boys and girls - suggests that this novel is about as instructing as much as entertaining.

Not that it isn't entertaining, if only for the differences between considerations then and now, my favourite being that it's not all right for an eighteen-year-old boy to drink gin (it's never named but that's what the bad drink has to be), but it's perfectly fine for eleven-year-olds to drink a lot of beer while enjoying an all-house-singsong.  And while there aren't all the pranks that are so frequent in later books of the genre, there is the Least Sensible Rugby Match Of All Time:

1) The entire school plays, that's approximately three hundred boys aged between eleven and nineteen.
2) It's school-house vs. the rest of the school, so about sixty boys vs. over two hundred.
3) It's best of three goals, and it's considered miraculous that a goal is scored in the first hour.
4) The match is split over three consecutive Saturdays.
5) The rules are explained in such a way that Quidditch seems like an easy sport.  I'm not a rugby expert, but I can follow a match; even so, I was thinking "what the hell are you saying, Hall, that makes no sense whatsoever!"
6) An eleven-year-old attempts to tackle a much older boy and simply bounces off.
7) Tom ends up at the bottom of a pile up and is only saved from crushing by the fifth former on top of him bearing most of the weight of the boys above.  Still, at least they all think he's a plucky youngster for diving on the ball.

In fact, if I took anything away from this book it's that rugby used to be incredibly chaotic and confusing - and that Thomas Hughes loved it enough to turn Chapter Five into propaganda for the sport (and for school-house, which is fairly obviously his old house). 

I would recommend this book, especially for anyone wanting to read Victorian literature that's more light-hearted than a lot of the tomes that were produced.  The message of marvellous imperial Christian England (never Britain, it's all England) does grate somewhat, but within the context of the times is less wearing than it could be.  For a school story fan, it's fascinating to see where a lot of elements originate, and I found myself thinking most of Elsie J. Oxenham's books, which attempt to view issues such as death through a similar prism of faith.  A fun read, and a good start to my reading for A Victorian Celebration.

Rating: 8/10

* For example, no one is left lying grey and motionless and apparently dead, which is something which always livens up the latter third of a school story.

Monday, 4 June 2012

A Victorian Celebration: Plans

I've decided to take part in A Victorian Celebration which is being hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey.  I've been thinking that I need to get back into a) my classics reading and b) my Project Fill in the Gaps reading, so I'm going to combine the two by tackling this.  And by reading some Victorian literature or, as it is also known,  huge crazy doorstop books that can be used to ward off intruders if hurled accurately. 
Below is a list of my Fill in the Gaps books which qualify for the Celebration - I'm not going to read all of them, but I will aim to read at least two.  There, my target is two, or one a month, aka pitiful. 

Middlemarch by George Eliot
I have read half of Middlemarch before so I know I'm letting myself in for Rosamund and her idiocy and my intense desire to Thursday Next myself into the book and give her a shake.  Which is a shame, because the beginning with Dorothea is awesome. 

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
Think I read the first two chapters years ago, and I've watched quite a bit of the BBC adaptation, but I don't know much about this book.  I think it's definitely something I'm going to aim to read, as it seems fun.  Also: Tiger Joss.

Tom Brown's Schooldays by Thomas Hughes
I love girls' school stories, the few boys' ones I've read I've enjoyed and this is pretty much the grandfather of all school stories.  I really should have read it.  And it's shorter than a lot of the other books (this is always a consideration).

Villette by Charlotte Bronte
I only have three Bronte books left to read, and they're all Charlotte: The Professor, Shirley and Villette.  This is the only one on my Fill in the Gaps list, and I know some people prefer it to Jane Eyre which seems ludicrous because it's Jane Eyre are you mad how could anything be better?, but I think it will be interesting to read, particularly for the autobiographical aspects.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Got halfway through ages ago, and I've watched the BBC adaptation with its Spooks-style editing and ridiculously impressive cast several times ("shake me up, Judy!" and "Sir Lester Dedlock...Baronet" are much quoted amongst my friends), so I really do want to finish this.  I want to read more Dickens now I've read Oliver Twist, and this seems like a good place to start as it seems a lot less sentimental than some of his other works. 

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
Yet another book I've read some of, this time for my Victorian Literature module on my MA (Middlemarch was also part of the reading list).  I quite like the Cranford chronicles, and Gaskell is someone I want to read more of, given her social conscience and politics.  Also, there is a BBC adaptation which I haven't watched, and it's all about the costume dramas with me.

There are other 19th century/Victorian books on my Fill in the Gaps list, but I'm going to stick with these six (for now).  I may split posts about them, especially the long ones.  And I think I'll pick my first one by the simple method of pulling a title out of a hat - though I may overthrow that and just start on Tom Brown's Schooldays.  Or Vanity Fair.   

Month in Review: May 2012

Despite posting early in May about my plans to actually blog more, I failed to do so.  However, I did exceed my target of 'how many books I need to read a month to hit 100 at the end of the year' by reading 11 books (the target is 9) so I'm quite pleased with that.  I also found 5 Dorothy Dunnett books in various second hand shops, causing me to make a strange meeping noise when I spotted 4 in one shop - the teenage boy selecting books beside me looked a little alarmed but books 2-5 of the House of Niccolo series deserve a greeting, I think.

Books Read in May 2012
24. Goodbye to Berlin - Christopher Isherwood
25. 1000 Years of Annoying the French - Stephen Clarke
26. Will Grayson Will Grayson - John Green & David Levithan
27. Dash & Lily's Book of Dares - Rachel Cohn & David Levithan
28. Mr Norris Changes Trains - Christopher Isherwood
29. Franny & Zooey - J.D. Salinger
30. Aenir - Garth Nix
31. Above the Veil - Garth Nix
32. Into Battle - Garth Nix
33. The Violet Keystone - Garth Nix
34. Mister Monday - Garth Nix

Total Books Read = 11
Total Pages Read = 3348
Average Book Length = 304

Library Books = 6
Owned Books = 5

Most Read Author = Garth Nix

Top Three Books
1. Dash & Lily's Book of Dares
2. Will Grayson Will Grayson
3. Goodbye to Berlin

Book of the Month
Dash & Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan
YA / Contemporary
I love Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, and somehow the publication of Dash and Lily passed me by because I am an idiot.  When I saw it in Waterstone's in Cambridge (bless whoever buys in the US imports for their teen section) I pounced, but then didn't read the book for three months.  This was silly: the book is as funny, clever, true and wonderful as Nick and Norah, and I devoured it in as few sittings as I could.  Absolutely wonderful.
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