Now We Are Six…



As much as I’d like to tell you this post is about A.A.Milne’s charming book of poetry for children – it isn’t! It’s about something much closer to my heart, for it was six years ago today that I dipped my toe into the book-blogging world. It’s gone so quickly! (On other days I might question has it only been six years, mind.)

There are treats at the bottom of this post, but first I’d like to tell you about my blogging year so far…

I can’t deny that finding out at the beginning of July that my blog was inexplicably top of the literature blog rankings at e-buzzing in June was a huge thrill, and finding it still there a month later made me snort with laughter – I had truly expected it to be for strictly one month only. (It was only two though – down in August – Ed). High rankings are nice, but I will be happier not to be up there, especially now some bloggers who’ve had a break recently like Kim are back. Stats are definitely not what’s at the heart of book-blogging, so I won’t mention them again; it should be about sharing thoughts about reading with you lot of course.

Thank you for visiting, commenting, sharing – everything basically.

P1020045 compressedThe other more important blogging milestone I’ve achieved this year is of course to have set up Shiny New Books with my friends Victoria, Harriet and Simon. The four of us have become even firmer friends through this enterprise, and we’re delighted to have been able to involve so many of you too to review for us. (And we’re still recruiting… do drop us a line )

This has also meant that I’ve become a more disciplined reader, but with Shiny’s ethos based upon book recommendations, I’ve read some really good books to feature there. Then I’ve been reading for this blog too, so am reading more than ever before which is rather brilliant. Of course my year-end stats will be skewed even further towards new publications than they usually are, but that doesn’t matter one iota because I am loving it!


GBP_Packaging_STICKERS_DU_ROMANTICS1-500x345I always like to share my blog-birthday and have found some gorgeous bookish things to give away this year …

Galley Beggar Press are based in Norwich in the UK – they are a tiny independent publisher and were responsible for discovering prize-winning debut author Eimear McBride.  They have also produced three lovely sets of postcards. Each set contains 6 dress-up doll postcards of authors:

GBP_Packaging_STICKERS_DU_LOSTGEN-500x345The Romantics has John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Mary Wollstonecraft, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley.

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The Lost Generation comprises Hemingway, Anais Nin, F Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, Henry Miller and Gertrude Stein.

GBP_Packaging_STICKERS_DU_BEATS1-500x345The Beats contains Carolyn Cassady, Jack Kerouac, Joan Vollmer, Luanne Henderson, Neal Cassady and William Burroughs in the set.

Just say which set you’d prefer in a comment and I’ll pick three names from the hat in about a week’s time. Open worldwide.


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I made a little film of some books…

Such fun!

A Comic Caper of Camelot and Cross-purposes…


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The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips

the-table-of-less-valued-knights-187x300I read Marie Phillips first novel, Gods Behaving Badly, an hilarious story of the Greek gods and goddesses living out their lives in modern day North London, pre-blog, and I loved it – I can remember that without having to go back to my records.

These bickering deities, living in domestic squalor and trying to make ends meet while struggling to find a meaning to their lives in a world where few know about them were a delight. Aphrodite did phone sex, another god was a dog-walker; they were wonderfully raunchy and non-PC.

We’ve had to wait seven years for Phillips’ second novel – this time she gives us a comic take on Arthurian legend – was it worth the wait?

Imagine King Arthur’s court with the Round Table where Arthur sat with Lancelot, Gawain and the other famous knights. To his right is an empty chair, the Siege Perilous, ‘said to bring instant death to anyone who sat in it, though this was rumoured to be a lie invented by Sir Kay so that he’d have somewhere to put his coat.’ Further down the Great Hall of Camelot are two more tables: The Table of Errant Companions – which mostly seats those on their way up the Camelot hierarchy, and further away still is the lop-sided Table of Less Valued Knights, where those knights who are on their way down through being elderly, infirm, cowardly and not forgetting the disgraced sit.

Sir Humphrey du Val is a less-valued knight; relegated when a quest went wrong which we’ll find out about later. Being the only one left in the hall after the Pentecost feast, he surreptitiously accepts a quest when a late petitioner arrives needing help. The fiancé of Lady Elaine du Mont, from Tuft, was kidnapped from the tournée he should have won for Elaine’s hand in marriage, she wants him found asap. Sir Humphrey is not allowed to go on a quest, but doing this successfully could get him back up the greasy pole at Camelot. They set off, together with squire Conrad. Conrad, a teenaged half-giant by the way, rides an elephant, being too big for a horse.

Running parallel to Sir Humphrey’s quest, is the story of Martha, the new young Queen of Puddock, another neighbouring kingdom. She has been forced to marry Edwin, younger brother of King Leo of Tuft – and decides to run away on her wedding night, disguised as a young man. She meets the locum Lady of the Lake (Nimue is off with Merlin), who gives her an enchanted sword which will help her find her elder brother Jasper, who was presumed dead, but is still alive.

So we have a good set-up for a comedy of mistaken identity, feisty ladies and plenty of ‘Bob‘ moments (cf Blackadder) especially once the two stories collide, and then it charges on to the ending which sorts everyone out but was not quite as one might expect!

This book was great fun to read; it had some great moments and some really good gags, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Although there was a sprinkling of earthy language, it wasn’t as raunchy as GBB in particular. Over the years, I’ve read a lot of Arthurian and other dark-ages or medieval comedies, like Fool by Christopher Moore and The Food Taster by Peter Elbling. Monty Python & the Holy Grail and other films like A Knight’s Tale have a lot to answer for too, plus the aforementioned Blackadder. The result is that so much of it is familiar. However, Phillips, by giving her two ladies the lead for a large part of the novel does give the this Arthurian comedy an original and modern touch without introducing anachronisms.

It may not have been quite as funny as GBB, but it was so light-hearted I couldn’t help but enjoy it, and I hope we won’t have to wait so long for a third novel from Phillips. (7.5/10)

P.S. The Tables of Errant Companions and Less Valued Knights did ‘exist’ – they are mentioned in the post-Vulgate Merlin continuation of the 13thC French romances that are the source of much Arthurian legend.

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Source: Publisher – Thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Table Of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips. Pub Aug 2014 by Jonathan Cape, hardback, 320 pages.
Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips (2007) paperback.


Mothers and Daughters again…


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Clara’s Daughter by Meike Ziervogel

Layout 1The relationships between mothers and daughters, or daughters and their mothers – whichever way around you want to put it, is obviously something that fascinates Meike Ziervogel.

Her first novella, published away from her own Peirene publishing house was also about a mother and daughter, and the daughter’s own daughter. Magda, based on the life of that Magda – Goebbels that is – is an immensely powerful novella that looked hard at the dysfunctional relationship between the Nazi wife and her own mother, (read my review here).

Ziervogel’s second novella, Clara’s Daughter is a contemporary story set in leafy North London and may not have a famous protagonist, but is none the less powerful for that. Michele is a successful businesswoman, yet feels defined by her relationship with her ageing mother as Clara’s Daughter. Michele’s own children are grown-up and have flown the nest and now her job and her mother taking over again from her childrens’ needs have put Michele’s marriage under a terrible strain. Michele feels increasingly trapped – something will have to give, but Michele can’t let it be her.

Then Jim betrays her with a younger woman, and she starts to snap…

I take a pencil and snap it in half, just because I have to do something. I can’t sit here and do nothing. Then I am still, and the house is still, and I know it wasn’t enough simply to break a pencil. I want to do more. So I take the metal pen holder, turn slightly on my chair and throw it straight through the open door across the balcony and into the garden. The clattering noise as it hits the patio tells me I have achieved my aim. I get to my feet and pick up the two cushions from the chair and fling them into the garden too.

Having bagged up his clothes and got the need to throw things out of her system, Michele retaliates by phoning the builder and commissioning the conversion of their basement into a granny flat, something Jim hadn’t wanted (after having a fall, they had planned to move her mother into a retirement home). Her sister Hilary will be delighted with Michele taking on their mother…

This all unfolds within the first twenty pages of this novella. We really do get to feel Michele’s anger. Later we’ll see other sides of her, especially once her mother is installed. Clara, naturally enough, resents being moved out of her own home and her growing confusion with having to face new things is scarily real.  I have to say that the author absolutely nails it again – they all love each other, but find living together even more of a strain.

Reading about this unhappy family does make you stop and think about your own situation. It’s not an easy read; there are many elements in this story that undoubtedly will have happened, or may happen later to any of us. Meike successfully makes us sympathise with and understand both mother and daughter’s points of view right through to the story’s moving conclusion.

If mothers and daughters are something of an obsession for the author, the novella form is another. As many of you will know, Ziervogel is the founder of Peirene Press which publishes novellas in translation, in addition to those she writes herself. I’m a big fan of novellas and short novels, they allow a story to be told in full without diversions getting in the way of the arc and, for me, they are more satisfying than short stories. I’ll stick my neck out and christen Meike ‘Queen of the Novella’. I hope to read many more, whether written by her or published by her. Meanwhile I’d highly recommend that you get your hands on Clara’s Daughter. (9/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Clara’s Daughter by Meike Ziervogel. Salt Publishing, September 15th 2014, paperback original.

Getting all bound up…



Crowd-funding is beginning to really take off in the world of publishing…

The wonderful indie publisher And Other Stories have sort of been doing it for ages based upon a subscription model. You subscribe and get your name printed in the back of the books produced over your subscription period, plus a copy of the book. It works, and I’ve been a subscriber as the books are rather brilliant.

KingsnorthUnbound is doing it book by book, and has been elevated into the spotlight recently with the selection of The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth in the Man Booker longlist for 2014.

Their model is a true crowd-funding approach – authors pitch books and ask for pledges towards producing them. When Unbound gets enough pledges, the author can start writing (if they haven’t done so already), Unbound will publish the book and depending what level you pledged at you get an e-book, tree-book, signed tree-book, invite to the launch party too etc., plus your name in the back.

I’ve now pledged to two books…

lists of noteThe first is the sequel to Letters of Note (which I mentioned in my Quirky Christmas Gift Guide last year. Letters of Note was one of the first Unbound successes, and Shaun Usher’s sequel is Lists of Note. It includes Newton’s list of sins he’d already committed, Michaelangelo’s shopping list and Chrissy Hynde’s advice for girl rockers amongst many others. Lists of Note is now fully funded and will, I hope, be due out for Christmas. If it’s as beautifully produced as Letters, it’ll be a volume to treasure.

The second is a novel by David Quantick to be called The Mule (click here for info). Quantick is primarily a comedy writer and has worked on many top TV and radio shows including The Thick of It, Mitchell & Webb, Brass Eye, and The Day Today – so the lure of a comic novel from him seemed irresistible, especially after I’d watched his video pitch. Here’s hoping that The Mule will make it!

There is a huge variety of books seeking sponsors – from memoirs to poetry to cookery to novels. It’s rather fascinating and every potential author has a pitch on their page…

To celebrate reaching £1,000,000 worth of pledges, Unbound have offered all their pledgers free e-books of any (or all) of the books they’ve published so far, which is absolutely lovely (and I’ve availed myself of that to download The Wake and several others!).

If you’re interested in Unbound – you can get £10 off your first pledge by quoting the code ‘newcomer’ when you check out.

Very telling – a DNF


I still don’t like it when I give up on a book, but it’s finally getting home to me that even though I have taken hundreds of books to charity shops this summer, I’ll never get through the remaining books I have, let alone all the new ones I keep acquiring. I’m starting to be able to let go on books that aren’t engaging me for whatever reason.

towerOne such recently was The Tower by Alessandro Gallenzi.

It’s a dual narrative tale: the contemporary strand is a thriller about a manuscript theft from a high tech organisation based in Jordan that aims to scan everything of note ever written; the historical part is about the author of said manuscripts – Giordano Bruno, a philosopher of the late Renaissance who has a photographic memory and is on the run from the inquisition.

The Latin and history experts drafted in by the mysterious Biblia organisation to work out what was so special about the missing papers (which were stolen by a Jesuit priest who was subsequently murdered) are the stereotypical laid-back Brit, Peter Simms and an intense Italian, Giulia. This pair, thrust together are chalk and cheese, and I couldn’t see any chemistry between them. The moment I gave up was when I read this paragraph on page 115:

‘Giulia, I’ve got the message. But how did his system work? – I mean, if it’s not too complicated and it’s not going to take you until tomorrow to explain.’

The blurb championed the novel’s meticulous research, but it was oh so visible. This was a shame as I had liked the idea of the parallels between Bruno and Biblia both scanning all they read. What I read of the historic strand was much more interesting though than the cliché-ridden present day one. DNF

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
The Tower by Alessandro Gallenzi, pub 15 Sept by Alma Books. Trade paperback, 300 pages.



They were soldiers…


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All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Translated by Brian Murdoch

all-quiet-on-the-western-front This remarkable novel about young German soldiers in WWI was our book group’s read for August; I had pushed strongly for a WWI-related choice for the month of the 100th anniversary of the war’s start. Several of us had already read some of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, but none had read this book. Indeed, despite having owned a copy for years, I don’t think I would ever have got around to reading it – now, I am so glad I did.

All Quiet (as I shall abbreviate it to) was published in 1929. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they denounced and burned copies of it as being anti-German. Remarque went to Switzerland, and in 1938 the Nazis withdrew his German citizenship. In 1939, with help from Marlene Dietrich, he got a US visa just before war broke out in Europe again and, ending up in Hollywood a film was made of the novel just a few years after that.

Remarque was sixteen when WWI started and was called up two years later. He survived Passchendaele and was later wounded, spending the rest of the war in hospital, then serving there. It is fair to assume that All Quiet reflects many of his own experiences as a young soldier for it is remarkable in its honesty.

The novel starts with a band of young soldiers getting a belly full of food for a change. We soon read that they had been sent up the line with 150 men but less than 80 returned – so they got double rations. These young men are already hardened survivors.

It moves on to tell us how a group of young students, barely nineteen years old had signed up in a romantic fit of nationalism, urged on by their tutor:

We went down to the local recruiting office, still a class of twenty young men, and then we marched off en masse, full of ourselves, to get a shave at the barber’s – some of us for the first time – before we set on a parade-ground. We had no real plans for the future and only very few of us had thoughts of careers or jobs that were firm enough to be meaningful in practical terms. On the other hand, our heads were full of nebulous ideas which cast an idealized, almost romantic glow over life and even the war for us.

We all now know what happened, and how the lives of millions of young men were wasted in WWI. There are scenes of real horror in the novel: a memorable one is where Paul, the narrator, is hiding in a cemetery under bombardment, surrounded by flying bits of already dead bodies, an arm hangs from a tree. Then there are the scenes in the hospital, where the surgeons couldn’t cope and any serious wound or large dose of gas became a death sentence.

The irony of the book’s title (originally Im Western nichts neues – In the West, nothing is new) is renewed afresh with each bombardment and slaughter. There is one scene where the soldiers acknowledge that surely the French feel the same way about their country, and they wonder why are they doing this. The soldiers in All Quiet could have been from any of the nations involved – all their experiences were similar.

As you’d expect, the cameraderie that grows between the soldiers is touching, but at the front there has to be an element of self-preservation in order to survive. This may mean killing the opposition, or escaping being mown down oneself. As Paul says:

We set out as soldiers, and we might be grumbling or we might be cheerful – we reach the zone where the front line begins, and we have turned into human animals.

Yet amongst all the sturm und drang there are some moments of pure comedy – the soldiers pull their latrines round in a circle so they can play cards in the middle, and this which must have inspired Black Adder…

The recruit pulls a face. ‘Bread made out of turnips for breakfast, turnips for lunch and turnip cutlets with turnip salad in the evening.’

Baldrick!  And that neatly brings me to the one point that several of our book group made in our discussions – Since we (or some of us) had read Birdsong or The Regeneration Trilogy, and seen Black Adder Goes Forth, it felt as if this novel was just another war novel, even not quite as good – but of course it is the original that inspired all the others!

Personally, this was another Moby Dick book for me – i.e. a classic that I’m so glad I finally read and saw how it has inspired and been referenced in so many other places; All Quiet is much more readable than Moby though. As the first great anti-war novel it is a compulsive read – I thoroughly enjoyed it as did our book group – it also generated some excellent discussion. (10/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Pub 1929. Vintage paperback translated by Brian Murdoch, 224 pages.

DVD Review – The Coen Brothers do the 1960s folk music scene…


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Inside Llewyn Davis by the Coen Brothers

inside llewyn davis cover

I’ve been taking advantage of my daughter being on holiday with her Dad to catch up on TV and movies. I binge-watched Broadchurch (loved) and The Honorable Woman (good, but confusing and irritating), but finished my week by watching the Coen Brother’s latest movie from earlier this year on Blu-Ray.

As a folk music fan brought up on Peter, Paul and Mary and being no stranger to Bob Dylan, I was bound to appreciate this film, and it’s one of the Coen’s finest, moving straight into my film faves.

Llewyn Davis is a folk singer struggling to make ends meet in New York. It’s winter and he’s homeless, moving from couch to couch between friends and relations around Greenwich Village. He doesn’t help himself, being a martyr to his own brand of earnest folk, and intolerant of others. He was part of a duo, they might have made it, but Mikey threw himself off the George Washington Bridge.

Llewyn davisThe film follows Llewyn over the course of a week in 1961, which starts off with him accidentally letting his hosts’ cat out and locking himself out in the process, so he is left to wander the streets with guitar and cat until he can return it.

Another night, another sofa, another evening in the folk club watching other people play, another girlfriend in trouble. Luckily Jean’s new (unknowing) man can rustle up a recording session to put a few dollars his way. Later in the week, Llewyn makes a pilgrimage to Chicago for a chance to impress a music mogul, and the failure of this trip will begin to show him how his dream will end…

I hadn’t heard of Oscar Isaac, whose wisecracks and moody outbursts as Llewyn keep getting him into trouble. He was brilliant as the brooding folk-singer and he played and sang all his character’s songs. Fans will probably recognise the hand of O Brother Where Art Thou? collaborator T Bone Burnett in the soundtrack, in this case aided by Marcus Mumford (I’ve ordered the CD).

inside-llewyn-davis-10If Oscar Isaac was brilliant, all the supporting cast were too – from Carey Mulligan as the embittered Jean and a beardy Justin Timberlake as her husband to an extended cameo from John Goodman as the elderly madman in a syrup (of figs = wig) being driven to Chicago.

However, just like the Fedora hats being a recurring motif in the Coen brothers’ earlier feature Miller’s Crossing, Inside Llewyn Davis also has its own idée fixe, which upstages the actors at every possible opportunity – the cats. After Llewyn’s initial problems with his friends’ cat, a ginger cat crops up all over the place.

The Coen brothers have heightened the feel of it being set during the winter, and so many of the locations being very dingy be they bedsits or the folk clubs by using a washed out palette of colours and always grey skies. When a bit of colour intrudes, it fair zings out of the screen. The whole film looks stunning in its dullness, if you know what I mean.

Comedy is never far from the Coen’s minds. There were some great laugh out loud set pieces – when Jim (Timberlake) is teaching Llewyn a pop song in the recording session for instance, but it was quietly funny in their ironic way all the way through, even though the story was full of Llewyn’s increasing despair.  I loved it. (10/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Inside Llewyn Davis [DVD] [2014], written & directed by the Coen Brothers.
Inside Llewyn Davis: Original Soundtrack Recording

Cover Art – The Vivisector by Patrick White


My late Mum had several books by English-born Australian author Patrick White in her collection which I later inherited. All were ex-library copies, well-used, covered in stamps and flyleafs cut out, so once I decided I would never get around to reading them (they look challenging reads), out they went – but I saved the dustjacket of his 1970 novel The Vivisector to show you, particularly as it was the first edition.

P1020174 (800x560)

It’s a challenging cover, isn’t it – of course not having read the book, I don’t really understand it apart from its Australian landscape. It reminds me of Francis Bacon with those jagged-toothed gaping maws in the sky. It’s by renowned cover artist Tom Adams (whose website you can see here and shows his fascinating range of styles).

Death of Sergeant Kennedy at Stringybark Creek by Sidney NolanThe novel is about a painter, and is dedicated to great Australian artist Sidney Nolan, whom I must admit I don’t know. Looking him up, I find he is particularly famous for his series of paintings featuring Ned Kelly… pictured right is The Death of Sergeant Kennedy at Stringybark Creek. Adams says that his painting is inspired by Nolan.

Apparently White was being considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature, but this novel put the judges off. They didn’t like the big question in it of whether one could be a human being and artist at the same time. They did give him the prize three years later though. White claims that The Vivisector was not about Sidney Nolan, others say it is more likely autobiographical.

Should I have kept one of White’s novels to read? If so, which would you recommend? (I also recycled The Tree of Man (1955) and The Eye of the Storm (1973))

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Source: Inherited. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Vivisector (Penguin Classics)by Patrick White. O/P but S/H copies available.

The myth of Izanami and Izanagi


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The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino

Translated by Rebecca Copeland

goddess My most recent reading of the Canongate Myths series (which now has its own page above) fits in nicely with Women In Translation Month, hosted by Biblibio.

I’ve yet to read one of Kirino’s other books, but she is hailed as a top crime author. After reading The Goddess Chronicle, I think I would enjoy them.

Kirino weaves her story around the Shinto creation myth of Izanagi and Izanami, the divine beings who gave birth to all the islands of Japan. Izanami died giving birth to the fire god, and went to the underworld. Izanagi went to retrieve her, but she couldn’t return as she’d eaten the food of the underworld. He had promised not to look at her, but did – seeing her as an undead hag. In revenge, she vowed to kill a thousand people a day; he retaliated saying that 1500 would be born every day (many of them his progeny).

Izanagi’s visit to the underworld reminds me strongly of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and that of Persephone too – who having eaten Hades’ pomegranate seeds was forced to return each year, but these parallels are only a small part of the tale.

And so to Kirino’s story: Two girls live on the last island in the Japanese chain, a beautiful place shaped like a teardrop, but it is hard to survive in this land and the men spend most of their time at sea. Namima and Kamikuu are the best of friends, however, they are separated on Kamikuu’s sixth birthday when the older girl is sent to live with her grandmother, the island’s Oracle, to be trained to succeed her. Namima is told not to look at Kamikuu now, because she is ‘the impure one’, reinforcing the sense of difference she had always felt between the two of them. When the Oracle dies, Kamikuu becomes the new priestess, however there is a shock in store for Namima. Tradition dictates that she will have to become the new guardian of the dead, helping the spirits onto the afterlife. She is taken and locked into the cave area where the bodies are left to decay.

However, no-one knew that Namima was pregnant, by the one-armed son of the island’s second family. A big adventure begins for Namima with escape, giving birth and her own death. She ends up in the underworld where she becomes a servant to Izanami helping the goddess serve up her cold dish of daily revenge. Eventually she feels compelled to ask to be reincarnated and return to the real world to find out what happened to her own baby daughter … is this something she would be better off not knowing?

Although Namima lives in a matriarchal society, in which a family lineage that produces many girls is revered, it’s not a particularly nurturing one. Life is hard and only the top families are permitted to even have children and if, like the island’s second family, they keep producing boys, disgrace beckons. The role of the oracle seems sacrosanct, everything is geared towards making her life easy, happy and full of children; the life of the poor girl who has to take on the other lonely role is near forgotten. The moment at which it becomes clear to Namima that when Kamikuu dies she must perish too as did her predecessor (the great-aunt she never knew) is heart-rending.

Gods and Goddesses from many cultures are renowned for their capricious natures, and the long-lasting torments they inflict upon all who dare to challenge them. Izanami is so hardened by her daily task of choosing those to die, you can’t hope but wish that she and Izanagi would find a way to ease their quarrel. There is also a sense that Izanami and Namima’s work in looking after the dead in both the underworld and on the island is women’s work in this culture, they have a sense of pride in a job well done.

The Goddess Chronicle has every thing you’d want from a mythological fable: a plucky young heroine full of questions who will come to understand her place in the scheme of things as she comes of age, adventure in a beautiful yet cruel world at the end of the Earth, love and vengeance for both gods and humans. Namina’s tale is sad and dark, yet there is hope – and we need that. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Goddess Chronicle (Canongate Myths) by Natsuo Kirino, pub Jan 2014 by Canongate, paperback 320 pages.


The first in an Italian trilogy…


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My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Translated by Ann Goldstein

my brilliant friendI came to reading this book, the first volume in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Trilogy, with more than a little trepidation. Firstly I have only heard good things about it, so I was hoping that it would live up to its reputation.

Secondly, my only previous experience of Ferrante’s work – her early novel, Troubling Love, which I read back in the early days of this blog, was not entirely a success, particularly as I was thrown by the first sentence: “My mother drowned on the night of May 23rd, my birthday, in the sea at a place called Spaccavento, a few miles from Minturno.” May 23rd was my wedding anniversary, and a new relative by marriage died of a heart attack on my wedding night. (I hasten to add that he was already in hospital, not at the wedding and it was his third heart attack, so while terribly sad, it was not sudden nor unexpected.) In fact, having read this book, I’m beginning to wonder if I have a psychic connection with Ferrante, because the major event which takes place at the end of My Brilliant Friend happens on my late mum’s birthday – it’s a happier date in both cases this time.

So, to the books … The Neapolitan Trilogy is the story of childhood friends, Elena and Lila. The first volume opens in the 1950s and follows the story of the girls up until Lila’s marriage while still a teenager. The second sees them mature into young women, and the third volume, which will be published in September, carries on their story.

The prologue to My Brilliant Friend is narrated by Elena, now in her mid-sixties. She is contacted by Lila’s son worried about his mother who appears to have done a disappearing act.

It’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace, and I’m the only one who knows what she means. [...] she wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found. And since I know her well, or at least I think I know her, I take it for granted that she has found a way to disappear, to leave not so much as a hair anywhere in this world. [...]

I was really angry.
We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write – all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.

We can immediately sense a rivalry between the two women, and that Elena is not necessarily the top dog in their relationship. Let’s go back to the start in the 1950s – and here I can’t help but think of the song Where do you go to (my lovely)? by Peter Sarstedt from 1969, which towards the end includes the lyric…

I remember the back streets of Naples,
Two children begging in rags,
Both touched with a burning ambition,
To shake off their lowly born tags, they tried.

A rough and tough neighbourhood in Naples is the scene. Everyone fights; including the women who fight between themselves. ‘Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.’ Don Achille is feared by all, and the tentative friendship between Elena and Lila is cemented by a series of dares, the most scary of which is to sneak up the back stairs into Don Achille’s house and the little girls hold hands to go together.

Lila’s family run a shoe-repair business. Her older brother aspires to craft handmade shoes rather than only repair them. They are poorer than Elena’s family, her father is a porter at the city hall. Both girls start school and both are clever. The teachers are amazed that Lila has already taught herself to read and write, but Elena soon catches up and the girls study together. Both could get into the senior school, but Lila’s family can’t afford it. This is the first point at which the girls’ lives could split, but Lila has an urge to keep learning – and after she finishes her work in the shop, she continues to study with Elena.

Becoming teenagers, their lives outside school and work begin to take a different emphasis. The arrival of puberty and their periods, Elena before Lila for once, brings boys to the forefront. Getting a good match is the key to elevation in Neapolitan society, and while the girls will get to know most of the boys of most of the local families, their paths are still set by circumstance. Elena, doing well at school, can’t now marry someone uneducated, and Lila has always had her eyes set on the son of Don Achille.

Ferrante brings this story of working class Neapolitans to life with an incredible eye for detail. We really get to see what life is like for these families in 1950s Naples. One eye-opening aspect that would never have occurred to me was that they don’t speak Italian as their first language, using a Neapolitan dialect instead. It soon starts to become a barrier for Elena as some childhood friends who don’t go on to the senior school can’t speak Italian, let alone read Latin as she will. This is one reason why Lila continues to teach herself and study with Elena.

They live in a close-knit community, full of feuds, the haves and the have-nots with a hierarchy of families. Every so often events will happen to shake things up a little – Lila will often be involved somewhere, yet as her wedding approaches, she begins to have occasional strange turns (are they symptoms of petit mal? I don’t know). It ends with Lila’s wedding – a mostly happy event, but for the cliff-hanger ending…

In making Elena her narrator writing from memory, Ferrante very cleverly builds the two girls’ characters, with Elena usually looking to Lila to take the lead, yet relishing those occasions when she came in first. We come to realise that Lila does need Elena as much as Elena needs Lila, yet there will be falling-outs aplenty along the way. As I found in Troubling Love, Ferrante is an author very concerned with the physiology of womanhood, there is a power in the coming of monthly blood, here it wasn’t overpowering – it just marked the transition.

Ferrante is famed for her elusiveness – yet in sharing her name with one of the characters, we do wonder how much the Elena on the page is based on Elena herself, or is there more of Lila in her?  We’ll probably never know, but I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the other volumes as soon as I can. (9/10)

I read this book for Women in Translation month. Finally, having mentioned it up the page, I shall leave you with Peter Sarstedt…

* * * * *
Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. Published by Europa editions, 2012. Paperback original 336 pages.
The Story of a New Name – Volume 2
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay – Volume 3, pub Sept 11.


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