Ransom: David Malouf

★★★★

This book has been on my to-read list for a very long time. Such anticipation can lead to disappointment if a novel fails to meet expectations; but this one turned out to be well worth the wait. Simple and yet deeply poetic, it tells the story of an old man – Priam, King of Troy – who sets out to ransom back his son Hector’s body from the man who has killed him – Achilles, the ruthless warrior par excellence. Malouf’s book goes beyond the story as related in the Iliad, probing questions of majesty, nobility and, most importantly of all, humanity. Elegant and poignant, it centres on a moment of unforeseen compassion in the heat of war and breathes new life into its two famous protagonists.

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Lavinia: Ursula Le Guin

★★★½

As a child, I read Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet, which I loved for its wizards and fantasy (I hope to reread it soon). In my early twenties, I read her Left Hand of Darkness, which was one of the first books that made me think seriously about gender. And now I’ve turned to what I thought would be a comparatively straightforward historical novel: her book about Lavinia, princess of Latium, who becomes the wife of Aeneas. But Le Guin is never simple. Her Lavinia is a bright, demanding person: full of questions. She probes at the limitations of the way she has been preserved for posterity, rebelling against the strictures of a poem in which she doesn’t even get to speak. Playful, intelligent and just a little bit angry, this novel reimagines one of the great epics of the Western tradition. Le Guin, and Lavinia, take Virgil to task for his omissions but this isn’t just a scolding. It’s also a great love letter from one author to another: a tribute to the power of story-telling, which can give the figures of the past a voice.

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Tales Retold at Tor.com

Tor.com

In the background of the other books I’m reading, I continue to burrow my way through Tor’s archive of short fiction. In fact, I’ve stacked up so many of their short stories to write about that I’ve divided them into thematic groups. Here, to kick things off, are five stories dealing with tales you think you know, retold with flair and a twist. From fairy tale to Greek myth to Gothic horror, these novelettes reintroduce us to familiar heroes and villains as you’ve never quite seen them before.

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Penelope’s Web: Christopher Rush

★★★

I was drawn towards this book in the library by a kind of magnetic field, as usually happens with books about Troy. I’d never heard of Christopher Rush before, but I was tempted by the sound of a novel that retold the story of the Odyssey and Iliad from different perspectives, focusing on the way that stories ennoble and refine the hard, unpalatable facts of real life. The concept is intelligent, but the language is occasionally unremittingly filthy and the attitude to women is (perhaps unsurprisingly for soldiers in Bronze Age Greece) dismally misogynistic. While I don’t for a minute suggest that the author shares the views of his characters, I found it very hard to warm to a book in which women are seen as having only one function.

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House of Names: Colm Tóibín

★★★

I had high expectations for Colm Tóibín’s new novel. His Testament of Mary was so powerful, so raw in its evocation of a mother’s grief, that I thought his treatment of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon would be equally striking. And the opening line seemed to bear that promise out: ‘I have been acquainted,’ muses Clytemnestra, with the smell of death’. Unfortunately, however, the book has a strangely detached quality, as if all the emotion of this shocking story has been cauterised out of the characters.

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The Oresteia: Aeschylus

The Oresteia

★★★★

(The Globe, London, 6 September 2015)

Seeing this the day after Hamlet, I definitely feel that I’ve met my Great Tragedy Quota for this month. Written in 458 BC, when Aeschylus was in his late sixties, this feels like the Dane’s ancient counterpart: if Hamlet is the great modern exploration of the self, then the Oresteia is a monument not just to human nature, but to civilisation itself. Continue reading

Helen of Troy: Margaret George

★★

Although I bought this more than a year ago, I’ve only just got round to reading it, mainly because Helen recently reviewed another of Margaret George’s books, Elizabeth I. Remembering that I had this novel on my shelf, I decided it was time to take the plunge (at 747 pages long, it’s quite a commitment). It’s the first of George’s books that I’ve read, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t quite match up to Helen’s report on Elizabeth. While I could see that a lot of research had gone into it, it never developed the alluring sparkle and epic grandeur that I’d hoped for from the woman whose face launched a thousand ships.

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The Song of Achilles: Madeline Miller

★★★½

I went over to the dark side recently and treated myself to a Kindle. In my defence, it was mainly a matter of expedience. Being a fast reader, I suffer the consequences of long train journeys or business trips.  Things reached a peak when, during a visit to Germany, my copy of World Without End weighed more than the rest of my hand luggage put together.  Rather than heave enormous books around Europe, just in case I run out of something to read, it seems much more sensible to have multiple e-books at my fingertips. And so, for my first Kindle experience, I lighted on Madeleine Miller’s Song of Achilles, which promised to indulge my fascination with the myth cycle of the Trojan War.

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Troy: Fact and Fiction

Troy

Imagine you’re at a party.  You’re in the middle of a crowded room with conversation going on all around you, but suddenly in the midst of the hubbub you hear a word which immediately makes your ears prick up.  What words or phrases would catch your ear like that?  I have a few, but one of them is ‘Troy’.  If I overheard someone talking about Troy, I’d be compelled to shuffle closer and eavesdrop quite shamelessly until they either changed the subject or let me into their conversation.  There’s a magic to the name, a grandeur, not unlike that conjured up by the word ‘Byzantium’.  Unfortunately, if you hear the word ‘Troy’ nowadays it’s most likely that people would be talking about the film.

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