Ragnarok – A.S. Byatt

This retelling of the Norse myth of Ragnarok – the fall of the gods – is told from the point of view of a young girl evacuated to the British countryside during World War Two.

Instead of trying to modernise or truly ‘re-imagine’ the story, Byatt has stuck with the nature of the myth, which has quite a chaotic and disorganised feel to it. None of the characters are introduced in much detail, because it is taken as a given that the reader is already familiar with key players such as Loki, Thor and Odin. The one character that is explored more in this book than in any other I’ve read is Jörmungandr, the World Serpent, which I really enjoyed.

I wouldn’t say that Ragnarok did anything particularly new or memorable with what is quite an iconic story, but it’s a good read and I certainly don’t have any negative points to make.

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Love in Colour – Bolu Babalola

49200728._SY475_Love in Colour is a collection of love stories from history and mythology, told with a modern twist, from different cultures around the world. The stories range from ancient Greek myth to Nigerian folktales, all re-imagined to put the female characters in centre-stage.

I adored this anthology. The stories are short, and all centre around romantic love told from the point of view of the female characters. Babalola has recreated classic myths to elevate the women to positions of power and tell stories of them falling in love (rather than being bought, stolen or raped, as many of the original stories had it).

It was wonderful to read stories from less commonly seen cultures with a lot of non-white characters. The stories originate from a wide range of areas, including Nigeria, Lesotho, Senegal, Persia and Ghana, to name just a few. The variety in sources for the tales also helped to create diversity between the stories, despite them all being the same genre. One was set in a modern office version of Olympus, while another in an eastern marketplace; one takes place during a taxi journey through a modern city, while another in a rebel hideout in a jungle.

Choosing a favourite story would be too difficult, because there were so many I loved, but some stand-out ones for me were Psyche, Attem, Naleli and Thisbe.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Feathertide – Beth Cartwright

52099370._SY475_Marea was born with the feathers of a bird. After growing up hidden from the world in a brothel, she decides to go in search of the father she’s never met, to find out why she’s so different from everyone else. Her search brings her to the City of Murmurs; a place of magic and mystery, where she hopes to find answers and a place to belong.

This book is truly magical. It has a very slow-build plot, and very little actually happens, but that doesn’t matter. Cartwright’s style and prose is beautiful, making it possible to really clearly picture the City of Murmurs; the canals, the characters and the magic. I was completely drawn in by the scenery and the simple beauty of life in the City of Murmurs. The world-building is so detailed and imaginative that the other elements of the story are merely background.

That being said, some of the characters are really lovely. The Keeper of the Hours was particularly bewitching, while Leo and most of the others were nicely likeable. What they did lack was any real depth. Although they were enjoyable characters to read about, we don’t really get to know much about any of them other than Marea, and even she wasn’t especially complex.

With a slightly more imaginative plot, this book could have passed into excellence. As it is, Feathertide is a poetic and engrossing read.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Dream Angus – Alexander McCall Smith

44049637._SY475_A retelling of the Celtic myth of Dream Angus; a god of love, beauty and dreams.

This has to be one of my favourites of the Canons myth collection. I don’t know any Celtic mythology, so it was great to read a story I wasn’t already familiar with, and it’s a really good one. The tale is simple, and Alexander McCall Smith has presented the ancient myth alongside contemporary stories, almost like different reincarnations of Angus and the effect he has on the individuals in each story.

Smith’s writing style is excellent (which came as no surprise because I was already a big fan of The No1 Ladies Detective Agency). It’s a very easy read; short but absolutely complete and totally engrossing.

Frankly, I loved it.

I received a complementary copy of this book from the publisher.

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The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break – Steven Sherrill

48563980._SY475_Thousands of years since the Labyrinth, the Minotaur (‘M’ to his friends) is living in a trailer park in the American South, working as a line cook in a steakhouse. Stuck on the periphery of society, the Minotaur is a lonely, socially inept creature with very human needs.

The Minotaur is a sweet and largely relatable character. It’s surprisingly easy to empathise with his situation, which makes the moments where he acts in a way that most humans probably wouldn’t, all the more shocking. Because of the way the Minotaur has integrated into human life and the way the reader is exposed to his very human feelings, it’s quite jarring when he behaves like the immortal being that he is.

There really isn’t much of a plot, and it certainly isn’t an exciting read. But that’s where the genius lies: The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break is brilliant and gripping, despite not being particularly eventful. The main theme is about how it feels to be an outsider, desperately trying to fit in, whether that’s because of appearance, social skill, or position in society. In this instance, the Minotaur is an immortal being who has undergone steady humanisation over many years, but is still learning to understand human emotions and behaviours.

There is an underlying sadness to M’s quiet life, being well aware of his inhuman existence, but there is also a sense of hope as he begins to see possibilities for his future.

I’d recommend this book to anyone, as something different and outside of your comfort zone, but a beautiful and melancholy story.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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The Porpoise – Mark Haddon

42105243._SY475_TW: Sexual abuse and incest.

Full disclosure, I don’t really understand what happened in this book, so here is the synopsis from Goodreads:

A newborn baby is the sole survivor of a terrifying plane crash. She is raised in wealthy isolation by an overprotective father. She knows nothing of the rumours about a beautiful young woman, hidden from the world. When a suitor visits, he understands far more than he should. Forced to run for his life, he escapes aboard The Porpoise, an assassin on his tail… So begins a wild adventure of a novel, damp with salt spray, blood and tears. A novel that leaps from the modern era to ancient times; a novel that soars, and sails, and burns long and bright; a novel that almost drowns in grief yet swims ashore; in which pirates rampage, a princess wins a wrestler’s hand, and ghost women with lampreys’ teeth drag a man to hell – and in which the members of a shattered family, adrift in a violent world, journey towards a place called home.

The big negative to The Porpoise is that, having finished it, I don’t actually know what I read. The plot is based on the Greek legend of Apollonius and his exposure of a king who falls in love with his own daughter after the death of his wife, and the incestuous relationship that follows. This isn’t a story I was familiar with, but feels pretty standard for Greek mythology. However, the narrative of The Porpoise isn’t as straightforward as that. The book opens with the story of Philippe, whose wife is killed in a plane accident, developing a deeply unhealthy obsession with his daughter, Angelica – the sole survivor of the crash. Some years later, a young man makes an attempt to rescue Angelica, fails, and escapes on board The Porpoise. At this point, the book expands into a new storyline following the tale of Pericles. As if this wasn’t enough, another thread is introduced with Shakespeare, so the book ends up covering at least three stories at once and I never managed to quite work out where they all linked up.

Despite my  lack of comprehension, I still thoroughly enjoyed this book. If you take the different threads as separate stories, you can just enjoy them for what they are, which is beautifully written and quite exciting stories of familial abuse, escape and adventure.

The Porpoise is a unique and engaging novel, highly entertaining despite the uncomfortable subject matter. It certainly won’t be for everyone, but it is guaranteed to be a good read for anyone who can properly get to grips with the narrative style and multilayered plot.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman

31199021._SY475_Fat Charlie Nancy’s life is pretty normal, until the day his father drops dead in a karaoke bar. Returning from London to Florida for the funeral, Fat Charlie makes a series of unexpected discoveries, including that his father was a god, and that he has a secret brother he never knew about. Fat Charlie unwittingly invites his brother, Spider, into his life only for him to decide to take it over completely, leaving Fat Charlie with little option but to take drastic measures to get his flat, his fiancé, and his life back.

I really loved Anansi Boys. I’m a big Neil Gaiman fan, and I think this might be my favourite yet. I had read American Gods before this, so I was familiar with Anansi already, but that is my no means necessary. This is NOT a sequel to American Gods, and the fact that Anansi appears in both is the only real link between the two.

The characters are excellent (as Gaiman’s characters usually are). I really liked Fat Charlie, and the way his confidence and personality grew throughout the story was very effective and realistic. Spider, Daisy, Rosie and her mum were all also brilliant, but the other top stand-out characters for me were definitely Maeve and Mrs Higgler.

The way race is represented in this book is, in my opinion, incredibly well done. All the main characters are black, but this isn’t explicitly mentioned for most of the book. Instead, it’s implied through their language and behaviours. I really liked that the protagonists were black without it being a gimmick or key plot feature (beyond the context of Anansi being an African god).

The plot isn’t particularly epic or fantastical. It is, essentially, one man trying to solve the problem of his charismatic brother, but with some mythology and magic thrown in. The magical aspect of this book is particularly good. I loved the way Spider’s magic worked; with things being a certain way or people thinking things just because he says so. He isn’t casting spells or really ‘doing magic’ as such, but he’s the son of a god, so if he says something is so then it must be.

I 100% recommend Anansi Boys to all Gaiman fans, fantasy or mythology fans, and all fiction readers in general. It’s Gaiman at his best, with all the thought-provoking depth of American Gods but much lighter and more humorous.

Finally, I read the version illustrated by Daniel Egneus, and the visuals are stunning. They complement the style and the story so incredibly well, I definitely recommend reading this particular version.

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Girl Meets Boy – Ali Smith

40847246._SY475_Ali Smith’s modern remix of Ovid’s Metamorphosis explores the fluid romance between  two women, Anthea and Robin, how Anthea’s sister processes this relationship, and makes a statement about love, transformation, women’s rights and fluidity.

I wasn’t at all familiar with Ovid’s original Metamorphosis, but luckily Girl Meets Boy includes a short re-telling of the story, in which two women, Iphis and Ianthe, fall in love and, thanks to some divine intervention, Iphis becomes a man and they are able to get married. I did enjoy the summary of Iphis’ story, but the main focus of this book is the commentary on the position of women in the world and loving whoever you love. It’s a story of it’s own, rather than a modern re-telling of a myth, which is what the other books in this collection are.

I was able to follow probably about half of this book. Robin and Anthea’s love story, and Imogen’s coming to terms with her sister being gay were easy enough to understand. What I didn’t get was whatever was going on with the girls’ grandparents at the beginning. They seemed to be telling a story, which abruptly stopped and turned into Anthea’s story without any kind of segway leading into it. Overall, I found the style and general story-telling very confusing.

As much as a didn’t get on with the writing style, the story itself is meaningful and contains some very poignant observations.

I received a complementary copy of this book from the publisher.

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A Short History of Myth – Karen Armstrong

40200434._SY475_In A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong takes a brief but detailed look at the history of mythology and its impact on human life from the Palaeolithic Period (c.20000 to 8000 BC) to the Great Western Transformation (c.1500 to 2000).

I love mythology, so I was very interested to learn more about the development of myths throughout time, and particularly what we humans actually use it for. However, despite being on such a fascinating subject – and the book really is interesting – the writing is quite dry and it was a bit of a chore to read. I found myself zoning out a lot, but fortunately it’s a very short book and it wasn’t too hard to power through.

I found the final chapter, on the Great Western Transformation, the most interesting, which surprised me. Armstrong explains how and why we have lost mythology in the modern world, and the effect logical thinking and lack of myth has had on religion and compassion.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher.

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The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood

39837245In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus’ wife Penelope is portrayed as unwaveringly faithful and loyal, pining for her husband throughout his 20-year absence and using her wiles to trick the suitors competing to take his place. On Odysseus’ return, after killing monsters, and sleeping with goddesses, he slays all the treacherous suitors, and Penelope’s twelve favourite maids who had been forced to serve the suitors in his absence. Curiously, no explanation was ever provided for the brutal murder of the maids, beyond their being bedded by the suitors without their master’s permission – which they would have had no choice about. In this contemporary addition to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood imagines events from Penelope’s point of view, as well as that of the twelve hanged maids.

Atwood has managed to pull off an outstanding retelling, keeping all the familiar details of The Odyssey but twisting them into a new, modern perspective. I really liked the way Penelope tells the story from the underworld is present day. She refers to the way the world has moved on since the time of Odysseus and his contemporaries, and is able to bring a really fresh, modern voice to the story despite being one of the original characters.

The other characters we meet in Penelope’s underworld (Helen, Amphinomus, the maids) bring a level of real comic value to what is otherwise actually quite a dark tale. These details, along with the Greek, tragicomedy-style songs and ‘performances’ by the chorus line of maids, really push The Penelopiad over the line of ‘very good’ to ‘genius’.

I would 100% recommend this book to anyone with even a remote interest in mythology, but I would say that it would help to be at least vaguely familiar with The Odyssey.

I received a complementary copy of this book from the publisher.

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