A contemporary take on the myth of Athena

The Helios Disaster by Linda Boström Knausgård

The-Helios-DisasterTranslated by Rachel Willson-Broyles.

I am born of a father. I split his head. For an instant that is as long as life itself we face one another and look each other in the eye. You are my father, I tell him with my eyes. My father. The person in front of me, standing in the blood on the floor, is my father. … He looks at me. At my shining armour. … Lean against him. His arms, which embrace me. We cry together. … I want nothing but to stand like this with my father and feel his warmth, listen to the beating of this heart. I have a father. I am my father’s daughter. These words ring through me like bells in that instant.
Then he screams.
His scream tears everything apart. I will ever again be close to him Never again rest my head against his chest. We have met and must immediately part.

In Greek myth, Athena, one of the Olympian goddesses, is born of no mother. Zeus has a headache and asks Hephaestus to split his head open.  Out pops Athena – emerging fully formed in her armour.  However, this is modern-day Sweden and the ground is covered with snow. The girl who is twelve sheds her armour and leaves the house – the neighbours take charge of her.  They won’t believe that Conrad is her father. ‘Conrad is bit different, after all.’  She’s taken in by social services and given a name – Anna Bergstrom.

Then they find her a family. They already had two boys and had always wanted a girl. Sven and Birgitta live with their teenaged sons Urban and Ulf in a village of teetotallers and a Pentecostal church. ‘Most people were in both.’  Birgitta tries to involve Anna in family life, but Anna spends more time with Urban who persuades her to start speaking in tongues in church. Eventually she ends up being committed.  All the time, she dreams of her father – she’d been sending secret letters to Conrad. She’s desperate to find him again and to run away with him…

This is a strange story. Naturally it requires a suspension of belief to believe that was how Anna is born, but the intensity of the telling is such that you’re readily absorbed into it. At 125 pages, it can easily be read in one session. I immersed myself without thinking too much until after I’d finished reading it.

When I had finished, I was full of questions.  Why did the author called it The Helios Disaster. If you read the book and then Google ‘Helios Disaster’ you’ll find the answer to that question.  I wanted to know too if Athena had anything to do with Helios in the Greek pantheon of gods? Helios was the Greek sun god, one of the Titans, he drives his chariot through the sky each day. Apart from them both appearing in Homer’s Odyssey, (and some computer games inspired by Homer!) along with practically all the other Greek gods, I couldn’t find anything to connect them in the myths of antiquity, the connection alluded to above appears to be of the author’s invention.

You’ve probably wondered if Linda Boström Knausgård is anything to do with Karl Ove Knausgård, the author of the autobiographical series of novels My Struggle. Yes, she is his wife.  I did chuckle once during this novella – Birgitta takes Anna shopping in the city and Birgitta buys a book, ‘I’ll take one by our own … He’s just had a new one come out,‘ she said.  A little in-joke to acknowledge the publishing phenomenon he has become.

The Pentecostal community is an odd one too.  Glossolalia – or speaking in tongues – is an essential part of their way of worship.  In the book of Acts in the Bible, it tells about the Apostles speaking in tongues, where each person there heard their own tongue being spoken – it’s rather the opposite with Anna … less being filled with the Holy Spirit, rather something altogether more ancient and Olympian.

No-one understands Anna, neither her foster family nor her doctors. She, our narrator, tries to fit in and sometimes, just fleetingly, she feels part of the family, but always she ultimately holds back thinking of her father.

The author is also a poet, and that shows in the short sentences and rhythm of the text, preserved in Rachel Willson-Broyles’ translation.  I always enjoy reading modern retellings and reimaginings of old myths; The Helios Disaster is a challenging and thought-provoking example. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.

To explore further on Amazon UK, (affiliate links), please click below:
The Helios Disaster by Linda Boström Knausgård. Pub Feb 2015 by World Editions. Paperback original, 125 pages.
A Death in the Family: My Struggle Book 1 (Knausgaard) by Karl Ove Knausgård

 

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The myth of Izanami and Izanagi

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.

 

Top Ten Authors Whose Books I Own…

I don’t usually take part in the Top Ten weekly meme, but occasionally they and/or other regular memes will pick a topic that piques my interest. A couple of weeks ago the Top Ten topic was ‘The Top Ten Authors Whose Books I Own’. I’m glad they made the distinction between own and read! Thanks to Librarything this was easy as I could sort my catalogue accordingly. I wasn’t really surprised by the results (except one), but it was fun. So here they are:

beryl bIain Banks BanksReadLeading the charge with 24 books on the shelves each are two of the three authors I am most passionate about. So much so that they have their own pages up at the top of this blog. Of course it’s the late-lamented Beryl and Iain. Have a look above to see more about both of them.

I really must make time to continue my plans to (re)read everything they’ve ever written.

ackroydFollowing close on their heels with 23 books is Peter Ackroyd. I find his books are a little hit and miss with me, but his best are wonderful, and the others are always interesting. Amazingly prolific, I’ve only managed to read/review one of his (The Death of King Arthur) since starting this blog. Others I’ve enjoyed include Hawksmoor, English Music and Dan Leno & The Limehouse Golem.

Then come four authors with twenty books apiece.

Paul auster sh #1:4Top of the list alphabetically is Paul Auster, who happens to be the third of my favourite authors. Again he is definitely overdue another read. See here and here for posts on him and his books.

Don’t you think he has the most compelling eyes?  Married to Siri Hustvedt, he’s a New Yorker, and is the king of meta-fiction. Some people don’t like that, but I do!

Auster shares twenty books with Lawrence Block, John Le Carre and Michael Connelly. Two crime writers and one spy novelist.

liam-neeson-as matt scudderI see that Block’s tenth Matt Scudder novel A Walk Among The Tombstones will be on the big screen soon starring Liam Neeson as the ex-cop, alcoholic but now TT private eye. Again I say to the adapters – why do you always start in the middle of a series?  Actually I’ve read up to about number twelve, so am ahead so to speak, and I really recommend them.

More spies and crime next.  At sixteen comes Ian Fleming – I have a complete set of James Bond naturally, and he keeps company with Elmore Leonard, who is probably the crime writer that makes me laugh the most – his dialogue-driven novels are usually hilarious as well as violent!

Having told you about nine authors, I can’t have a top ten – it’ll have to be a top twelve as three tie on fourteen books each. They are the incomparable Graham Greene, the prolific Stephen King, and the intriguingly named L Du Garde Peach.

l du Garde PeachPictures of Du Garde Peach are few and far between, so you’ll have to make do with this painting by Thomas Cantrell Dugdale (not dated but Dugdale died in 1952, Du Garde Peach in 1974).

LDGP was the author of many plays for radio and stage, having a long association with the Sheffield Playhouse. He also wrote film scripts including the Boris Karloff film The Ghoul (1933).

Nelson ladybirdBut how would I own fourteen books by him?

Well, he wrote thirty titles for the Ladybird Adventures from History series, and I still have a pile of them from my childhood – much treasured (and all bearing my homemade library stickers).

If you want to find out more about old Ladybird books, visit The Wee Web which has them all!

So that’s my top twelve authors whose books I own.  Which authors feature at the top of your lists? 

 

What a nasty yet unputdownable novel! Book group report …

I didn’t mean to leave such a gap between posting – but that first week back at school is always a killer.  The kittens don’t help either, those attention-seeking little bundles of fluff!

Still, I have been reading and have more books read to write up, which is a good thing as I’ve just started reading a 950 page novel – From Here to Eternity by James Jones. It’s an army novel set in peacetime USA before WWII. I’ve only read 65 pages so far, and it’s a little hard going – lots of army terminology – but I hope it’ll click soon.

Meanwhile, on to our book group’s choice of book for September …

The Dinner by Herman Koch

the-dinner trade paperback

Two couples go out to dinner at a rather posh restaurant.  Brothers and their wives. One brother, Serge – a politician, a candidate to lead his party, the other – our narrator Paul, a teacher who was asked to leave his school.

They order, and their appetisers arrive:

‘The crayfish are dressed in a vinaigrette of tarragon and baby green onions,’ said the manager: he was at Serge’s plate now, pointing with his pinkie.  ‘And these are chanterelles from the Vosges.’ The pinkie vaulted over the crayfish to point out two brown toadstools, cut lengthwise; the ‘chanterelles’ look as though they had been uprooted only a few minutes ago: what was sticking to the bottom, I figured, could only be dirt.

It was a well-groomed hand, as I’d established while the manager was uncorking the bottle Chablis Serge had ordered. Despite my earlier suspicions, there was nothing for him to hide: neat cuticles without hangnails, the nail itself trimmed short, no rings – it looked freshly washed, no signs of anything chronic. For the hand of a stranger, though, I felt as though it was coming too close to our food; it hovered less than an inch above the crayfish, and the pinkie itself came even closer, almost brushing the chanterelles.

I wasn’t sure I would be able to sit still when that hand, with its pinkie, was floating over my own plate, but for the sake of a pleasant evening I knew it would be better to restrain myself.

Paul is seething underneath at the pretentious maître d’, and you can sense that he may have anger management problems.

the dinner paperback

Although they’ve come out to a public place to eat, the two couples have a very serious and private discussion to come. Their teenage sons will be the subject – they’ve done something – something bad…

This much you can get from the blurb. It is hard to discuss this book in details without spoilers but I can assure you that Koch whips up the tension and piles on the levels of ghastliness throughout the dinner.

There’s not a single character to like.  Serge is too self-important, Paul is angry and jealous. Serge’s wife Babette is a trophy wife, and Paul’s wife Claire is, underneath her smiling exterior, a steely, manipulative cow who will do anything for her son.

It’s fair to say that although most of us found The Dinner compelling reading, all of us found it very distasteful, and downright nasty in places.  It made an ideal book to discuss at book group through being an issue-based novel with nature vs nurture at its heart – there being a key scene in this regard in a bike shop. This was especially so, as some years ago we read We need to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver; there were plenty of points of comparison and contrast between the two.

We also had a good chuckle about pretentious restaurants as represented by the lobster on the trade paperback cover, and that tables near the toilets always seem to feature in books about food.  We also remembered other books we’d read where food is important, like John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure.

The Dinner is easy to read. It was a great book group choice – provided you can fully discuss it with spoilers, however it didn’t leave us wanting to read more by its author necessarily.  (7.5/10)

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Source: Giveaway from the publisher. To explore books mentioned further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Dinner by Herman Koch translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett – pub Aug 2012, Atlantic Books, paperback 320 pages.
We Need To Talk About Kevin (Serpent’s Tail Classics) by Lionel Shriver
The Debt To Pleasure by John Lanchester

Stirring things up on Martha’s Vineyard

Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann

AD20120811934468-Tigers_In_Red_WCousins, Nick and Helena Derringer, grew up spending their summers at Tiger House on the Vineyard. Now WWII has ended, they’re grown up and married, Nick to Hughes, freshly returned from the navy and working in Florida, and newly-wed Helena to Avery, a Hollywood producer. Florida doesn’t suit Nick and Hughes, they stifle in the heat, and you wonder how long their relationship will last.  There are tense times and too many shrimp dinners…

Nick looked up from the shrimp. Hughes hadn’t switched the radio on, but he was fingering the silver knobs. He had elegant fingers with neat, square nails. Everything about his was like his hands, tailored and clean, the color of pine. Nick watched him gaze at the dials, run the tips of his fingers over the brown covering of the speaker. She wanted to eat him, he was so beautiful. She wanted to cry or melt or gnash her teeth. Instead, she peeled the skin off another shrimp.

Things are left unsaid between them, secrets are not shared, but a move north to Cambridge, and the decision to have a baby seems to settle them. There will always be an underlying tension between Nick and Hughes though.

Shoot forward to 1959, and their daughter Daisy takes up the story. We’re on Martha’s Vineyard now at Tiger House, which Nick had inherited.  It was ‘the summer they found the body‘.  Helena and her son Ed were visiting for the summer, Ed, who can be very strange at times (like his father), skives off tennis school, then appears saying he has something to show Daisy – it’s the body of a maid from one of the local families.  This event naturally sends a shock-wave through the entire community. Hughes makes arrangements to keep Ed otherwise occupied.

Helena will take up the story next, and it’s clear that the tension between her and Nick, that Nick doesn’t realise is there, is growing. The problems with her strange husband and strange son too, lead her to an increasing dependence on pills and booze, something Avery had got her started on.

Alternate cover

Stoic Hughes and weird Ed in turn will take up the story, which jumps from the mid forties to the 1950s, to the 1960s; Back and fro. However such is the skill of the author, that you’re never confused whom you’re listening to when.  In having the five main characters present the story in turn, we get inside their heads, and find out what they really think about each other.

Literary allusions abound, with lead characters being called Nick and Daisy and New England replacing Long Island, you are bound to think of The Great Gatsby.  The stifling start to Nick and Hughes’ relationship after the war recalls Yates’ Revolutionary Road.  The gin o’clock culture is pure Mad Men meets Hemingway, and to top it all, the author is related to another early chronicler of New England – Herman Melville!

This novel is not a heavy read however, combining the heady family drama with a central mystery that keeps on giving. It’s hard to believe that this was a debut novel – the writing is so accomplished, the characters are rounded and the plot is beautifully tense and controlled.  I was enthralled from the opening pages, and found this book near impossible to put down.  (10/10)

P.S. The title is from a 1915 poem (below) by Wallace Stevens about life made dull by a lack of imagination.

Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches Tigers
In red weather.

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I received a review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann

Reading Thomas Keneally for Australian Literature Month

Oz Lit MonthApril is Australian Literature Month at Reading Matters. Kim is also generously donating 50p for each linked review to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation which gives books to families in remote parts of Australia, which is a fab incentive to participate!

A swift perusal of my shelves came up with several authors to consider, including Kate Grenville and Tim Winton, but the book that grabbed me more than any other was:

The Widow and Her Hero
by Thomas Keneally

This novel complements my wartime reading perfectly – but looks to the consequences of war rather than its precursors.

Keneally’s novel takes its inspiration from two real covert operations carried out by the Australian equivalent of our SOE (Special Ops Exec) in which a team of commandos mined Japanese ships in Singapore. The aims were similar in intent to the British op which inspired the 1955 film Cockleshell Heroes, in which Trevor Howard led his team in canoes to raid shipping in Bordeaux.

Grace Waterhouse had only been married for a short while to the love of her life, Leo.  It was during the latter stages of WWII, and Leo was seconded to a group planning a daring raid on the Japanese ships moored in Singapore, led by a charismatic Englisman called Doucette.  Their first raid using kayaks was a big success, so they planned to do it again in a different harbour, this time using mini-submarines to get close to the boats, but it was a disaster. The group split up, but were killed or captured by the Japanese.  Leo was captured and eventually executed.

Decades after the event, Grace, now in her late eighties is still finding that it won’t let her go. She eventually remarried and had a child, but the past won’t go away and leave her with good memories of Leo. There were people involved who have personal burdens they still need to unload, there are researchers and authors determined to find out exactly what happened, opening cans of worms with each new piece of evidence they uncover.

I knew in general terms that I was marrying a hero. The burden lay lightly on Leo, and to be a hero’s wife in times supposedly suited to the heroic caused a woman to swallow doubt or to understate her demands. Although, as much as women now, we suspected men might be childish or make mysterious decisions, it wasn’t our place to say it for fear of damage to the fabric of what we had. The Japanese had barely been turned back and had not abandoned the field of ambition. It was heresy and unlucky to undermine young men at such a supreme hour.

But with the confidence of near-on nine decades I can talk about doubt now. I would at least ask, what is so precious about the heroic impulse? Why do ordinary lusty boys love it better in the end than lust itself, and better than love? Why did Leo – judging by his actions – love the Boss, Charlie Doucette, in a way that rose above love of any woman, me included?

Grace gradually tells her story, how she and Leo met and fell in love, and interspersed with Grace’s recollections of her short life with Leo, are excerpts from Leo’s diaries.  We also hear from her how Leo met Doucette – somewhat bitterly, she always refers to him by his surname.  We gradually meet the other characters in their story, including Leo’s colleague Rufus Mortmain and his wife Dottie, who becomes her best friend when the two young couples share a large apartment while they plan the operations.  Then there is the American Colonel Creed who is the liaison with General MacArthur, whom Doucette doesn’t trust.

In later life, Grace has found the pressures of being the widow of a hero very trying. She knows that Leo was a hero, but she hasn’t ever understood his boyish devotion to Doucette, the man who would lead them all to their deaths. There was no doubting of their bravery, but it is the fundamental sense of some element of foolhardiness that she struggles to come to terms with.

With every reveal, we find out more about the true characters of all involved. It’s gripping stuff. In the latter stages, it doesn’t make for easy reading though, as what happened becomes clear, but it allows Grace to come to terms with Leo’s death.

Keneally’s novel is a powerful exploration of what happens to grief and memory when it is modified, when beliefs have to be changed.  It questions what a hero is, but the fundamental love beneath lives on.  Great pacing, great complexity, great questions, great insights.  This novel evoked complex and confusing emotions as I read, trying to understand Leo and Grace’s situations. A thought-provoking read – I highly recommend this book.

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Widow and Her Hero by Thomas Keneally, Sceptre paperback, 264 pages.
Cockleshell Heroes [DVD]

Return to the Dark Tower saga

The Dark Tower #5 – Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King

Last year I took part in Teresa & Jenny’s Dark Tower readalong at Shelf Love, but I dropped out after book four in the series. I didn’t have the time to get through the increasing page-count then, but was definitely hooked by the genre-busting dystopian western cum SF & fantasy series.

I always intended to return the following summer to read the remaining couple of thousand pages!  However, events prompted me to pick up book five sooner; more of that below.

* * * * *

This is a series of books which you have to begin at the beginning, it would be nigh on impossible to join in successfully partway through, despite the author’s summary at the beginning of each volume.

The Wolves of the Calla introduces a major new character. Pere Callahan is an ex-drunk priest from New York who, like the rest of Roland Deschain’s ka-tet (fate-bound compadres), found his way into Roland’s world when life got too hot in his own.  The ka-tet make his acquaintance as they stop in Calla Bryn Sturgis on their quest to the tower, and we soon find out that he will become essential to the story.

Meanwhile the folks of the Calla are expecting something awful to happen, and  believe that the Gunslingers could be their salvation. Once every generation, the ‘Wolves’ arrive in force and carry away half the children, who return to their families years later as mutant idiots. They can’t let it happen again…

This traditional Western guns-for-hire against the bandits story forms the back-bone to this chunkster, but the real plot developments are in all the other bits. It gets quite complex but holes get filled in and back-stories expanded, and more strands start. Such is King’s skill though that it all hangs together really well. The final battle is everything it should be, and the cliff-hanger coda left me dying to open volume six.  (8.5/10)

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Or should I read the new volume 4.5 instead?  

King’s latest novel is another in the Dark Tower series set between books 4 & 5 called The Wind Through the Keyhole.  Jenny and Teresa have already read and reviewed it here.

I only really mention it because I entered a Facebook competition to have my photo (see left) included in the photo montage on the back cover of the UK hardback – and I’m on there – somewhere!

I was sent a link to my exact location – but the link is now broken and I can’t remember where I am (serve me right for not printing it out). You can see the dots in the cover which are the size of everyone’s heads. There are over 7000 on there, so it may take some time with an enlargement and a magnifying glass to find me again if I bother.

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I bought my copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Dark Tower #5 – Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King, Pub Hodder 2003, 771pp.
The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel by Stephen King, pub Hodder & Stoughton, April 2012, Hardback 352pp

A brilliantly entertaining “Not a Sherlock Holmes” novel…

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R King

Novels which adopt other authors’ characters can be a bit hit or miss – I think I was the only person who thoroughly enjoyed PD James’s Pride & Prejudice sequel. With the benefit of hindsight, I totally saw it as a continuation of the TV series though, rather than P&P the novel.  So, not having read any of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories properly, I possibly wouldn’t have picked this book up.  I was lucky enough, however, to win a copy from Shelf Love’s blogiversary giveaway last year, and given the BBC’s huge (and justified) success with Sherlock, it was finally time to see what someone else could do with Holmes.  Jenny and Teresa both loved it, friends of mine have read and loved it, so I had high hopes.

Let me get this straight at the start: this is not a Sherlock Holmes novel. Mary Russell tells the story.  Holmes gets second billing, and there are minor supporting performances from Mrs Hudson, Dr Watson, Mycroft Holmes and Inspector Lestrade too.

Mary, at the story’s start in 1915, is just fifteen herself.  Recently orphaned, she is chafing under the guardianship of her penny-pinching aunt, and one morning out walking on the Sussex downs to escape her argumentative relative, she stumbles upon a man whom at first she mistakes for a tramp.  He has been observing bees, and puts her in her place, but mistakes her for a boy.  So insults traded, she reveals her plaits, and then finally realises who she is sparring with – ‘A Legend.’ Holmes has been impressed by the sparky, gawky girl who knows her own mind, and invites her join him for tea.  Thus begins Mary Russell’s apprenticeship to the greatest detective who ever lived, who is not quite ready to retire fully yet.

The opening chapters follow Mary’s education by Holmes, and soon she is off to Oxford as a bluestocking.  Oxford suits her, and she keeps in touch with her mentor.  Visiting back home, she finds that the partnership has its first case which easily solved.  A subsequent visit provides a more substantial challenge which will put Russell in some real danger, in the rescue of the kidnapped daughter of an American senator.  But this is nothing compared with what is to come, when a bomber targets Holmes and Russell and they must solve the crime to save their lives…

Mary & Holmes’s adventures are, first and foremost, great page-turning fun. There’s scarcely time to breathe, so packed is the book with adventure, disguises, deduction, detection, observation, acting, logic, forensics, body language, code-breaking and more – all the tools of the great detective are at Mary’s disposal, and luckily for her, she has been a great pupil for that will save her life again and again.  Blessed with a boyish physique, Mary is the kind of heroine that will throw herself into the game, she’s certainly not afraid to get her hands dirty.

I’ve already admitted that I don’t know the true Holmes well, but by cleverly setting the books after the end of Doyle’s stories and into the start of Holmes’s wind-down into retirement, King gets some leeway to play with. Ditto with the period – starting in 1915, we’re already into WWI, and attitudes to women are having to change, so having a female apprentice is not such an unusual thing.  It’s fair to say, that Holmes would never strike me as a man to accept retirement easily, and having a young person about will help keep him young at heart.  Mary fits seamlessly into Holmes’s circle, even though she is so young.  At first she fits in like a favoured niece, but as she matures into a young woman, this semi-familial bond changes into something more affectionate, and despite the age-gap, you sense a deepening bond …   (9/10)

Thank you to Jenny and Teresa for introducing me to this cracking good read.  I definitely want to read more in the series – there are currently 10, with an 11th to come.  Even more it makes me want to read some of Doyle’s originals to get the real measure of the man who is Sherlock Holmes.

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I received my copy as a gift. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (Mary Russell Mystery 01) by Laurie R King (Allison & Busby paperback, 448 pages).
Sherlock – Series 1 and 2 Box Set [DVD]

War & Peace – without much peace, but with added Vampires…

It’s that time of year again when I like to pepper my reading with a bit of blood and gore and undead creatures.  I won’t be reading all vampires and zombies – the plan is to alternate roughly, so do come back later if the undead are not your thang!

My first book in the Transworld Book Group challenge however fits the bill perfectly to kick off Gaskella’s new … Duh-duh-daaah!…

Twelve (Danilov Quintet 1) by Jasper Kent.

I have read War and Peace, so I know a little bit about Napoleon v. General Kutozsov, the Battle of Borodino and Napoleon’s march on Moscow, and I’m sure we all know that Napoleon had to retreat and Tchaikovsky wrote the 1812 overture to commemorate it.

This military setting forms the backbone of this novel as we follow the exploits of Captain Alexei Ivanovich Danilov and his small band of officer comrades.  They work as a kind of elite force, spying on the French and using guerilla tactics to keep one step ahead. It’s hard work though – Alexei lost two fingers when he was captured in a previous campaign.

It’s not going well for the Russians, and Dmitry, nominally in charge of Alexei’s group, has taken matters into his own hands. He has engaged a band of mercenaries whom he met in the Balkans to help. He explains that they’re like the monks the Tsar once had as a bodyguard – the ‘Oprichniki’. The Balkans will act as a guerilla force to pick off a few French soldiers here and there and generally sow fear amongst them.  Dmitry explains …

‘They enjoy their work. Like any army, they live off the vanquished.’ None of us quite followed Dmitry’s meaning. ‘The spoils of war. Armies live off the gold and the food and whatever other plunder they take from the enemy.’
‘I’m not sure they’ll find enough gold with the French army to make their journey worthwhile,’ I said.
‘There are rewards other than gold,’ said Dmitry with an uncharacteristic lack of materialism. ‘They are experts at taking what the rest of us would ignore.’

They are a scary band of chaps, and they certainly go to work with relish – but then they would be, the Oprichniki are vampires.  It’s obvious from the start to us the reader what they are, but it takes Alexei some time to cotton on, and then he becomes a man with a rather different mission.

Meanwhile, in between bouts of spying on the French and haring around the place trying to catch up with his fellow officers, Alexei hangs around Moscow, where he acquires a mistress – a posh prostitute called Domnikiia. Alexei’s wife and young son remain in Petersburg – he feels little guilt though, and continued encounters with the Oprichniki give him no time to consider his position.

Then, of course, there’s a third element after the French and vampires to do battle with – the weather.  It’s winter, and a foodless, occupied Moscow is no place to hang out for humans – the vampires do OK though!

At the beginning of this book, I had wondered whether the military setting would overshadow the rest of the story, which was something I found slightly with The Officer’s Prey – a Napoleonic military detective story by Armand Cabasson I read a couple of years ago.  Twelve though, with its domestic sections in Moscow, came alive in a less soldierly fashion.

Although this book was rather long at 539 pages, and took a little while to get into, I did enjoy it.   It does have a high gore and violence count, but these vampires are the real thing – proper nasty blood-drinking, flesh-rending, sunshine hating, superhuman monsters from the borders of Europe and Asia.   Twelve in the first in a planned quintet of novels – would I read another?  Next vampire season certainly!  (7.5/10)

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My copy was supplied by the publisher, Transworld – thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Twelve (Danilov Quintet 1)by Jasper Kent – paperback 539 pages
Thirteen Years Later (Danilov Quintet 2)
The Third Section (Danilov Quintet 3)
War and Peace (Vintage Classics) by Leo Tolstoy
The Officer’s Prey: The Napoleonic Murders by Armand Cabasson.

A fabulous little modern fable…

The Tiny Wifeby Andrew Kaufman

This small but perfectly formed novella could be the wackiest thing you’ll read this year. A modern fairy tale about a bank robber that doesn’t steal money, but items of sentimental value from everyone held up.

He explains before he leaves, that those items give him 51% of everyone’s souls, and that will have ‘bizarre and strange consequences‘ in their lives, and they’ll have to learn to grow them back or die. Strange things do indeed begin to happen, and the victims meet to share their experiences, some of which are rather unsettling to say the least.

The story is recounted by the husband of Stacey, who had been in the bank.  She’d handed over her calculator on which she worked out everything – at first she thought she was just losing weight, but it soon becomes clear that Stacey is shrinking!  Will she work out how to stop it, and even reverse it, before she pops out of existence like the Incredible Shrinking Man did?

This story has a large amount of charm, which is augmented by wonderful illustrations in silhouette by Tony Percival. however it’s not all nice – parts of it are totally grim, (or should I say Grimm!).  The story is deceptively simple, yet packs the suitable moral punch that all good fairy tales need.  I will be definitely be searching out Kaufman’s previous short novel My friends are superheroes, after reading this great little book. (9/10)

My ARC came from publisher The Friday Project – thank you!

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If you like modern fairy tales, I can also wholly recommend The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw, and Tokyo, cancelled by Rana Dasgupta.  Links below:

To explore further on Amazon, click below:
The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman. Pub Sep 1, as a gift hardback, 80 pages.
All My Friends are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman
The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw
Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta.
Incredible Shrinking Man [DVD]