This year’s March bookshelf was filled with surprises (both pleasant and nasty), some disappointments, a cast of weird creatures and a bit of a song and dance. From dead semi-goddesses to talking war cats, from magicians travelling between worlds to plant-based alien TV executives, this is certainly a mixed bag of books. And mostly wonderful.
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
“It’s always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness.”
After reading this book I love Margaret Atwood more than ever. She basically takes Homer’s Iliad and lets Penelope tell her version from the underworld, thousands of years later, to set the record straight. Penelope’s down-to-earth, delightfully no-nonsense style is at the same time hilarious and tragic, describing her father’s attempt to drown her as a child, her arranged marriage, the long years of waiting for Odysseus and her loneliness among the hostile members of his court, the struggle of fighting off the suitors trying to wriggle their way into her husband’s, and earning nothing but suspicion and scorn for remaining faithful all these years. If you think Odysseus had a hard time, try being a woman in his story. A particularly morbid and wonderful device in Atwood’s storytelling is the chorus line of Penelope’s twelve dead teenage maids, who were cruelly murdered for no apparent reason after Odysseus’ return, and share their version of events here in a number of interludes, from mournful poems to naughty songs and anthropological lectures analysing their own significance. Basically, this is a wickedly clever celebration of feminism and womanhood told by the master of her genre with a ton of wit and soul.
Pens: ELEVEN out of 5!
A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab
I really enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic, but sadly the sequel doesn’t live up to the hype. The first part was all adventure, danger and death; lives were at stake, kingdoms on the verge of falling. The second book is basically a very long lead-up to a not very exciting magic competition of little consequence, followed by a sudden and pretty major cliffhanger on the final pages. For the first two thirds, nothing much happens – neither in the plot nor in terms of character building. Kell still broods, Lila still has secrets, Rhy still self-destructs. Not much development on that front. I think this book would have benefitted greatly from an editor with no emotional involvement taking a good, critical look and cutting at least 150 pages of indulgent and unnecessary dialogue and repetition. I admit I skimmed quite a few pages in the second half, because if I’d had to read one more time how Rhy and Kell feel about being bound to each other, or that Lila has trust issues and a habit of running away from relationships, I may have thrown my Kindle against the wall in frustration. So why the three-star rating? Because Schwab writes beautifully and is brilliant at world-building; because I love how she embellishes the world of Red London in this part, and especially the glimpses at a White London coming back to life. Because overall, I think, she has created a gorgeous universe of overlapping worlds in this series and I greatly enjoy spending time inside it. It’s just that this part reads as if she may have gotten too fond of spending time in the company of her characters, which has slowed down the action and taken the focus away from the overall development of the story. But then again, this kind of stalling is often the curse of the second part in a trilogy. I really do hope she’s got one hell of a finale lined up for us.
Pens: 3 out of 5
Armageddon the Musical by Robert Rankin
Oh Lords! It’s The Truman Show meets The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy! It’s like the love child of Tom Holt and Douglas Adams! I can’t even get over the awesomeness of this scenario: Earth in 2050, post a major nuclear event, isn’t the best place to be. Ruled by the televised terror of the big three religions – who needs God when you can have Buddhavision! – the unhealthy-looking survivors spend their days in underground bunkers staring at their TV creens to earn credits for food, housing and medical care. Little to they know that their entire existence is observed by a race of reality TV loving aliens whose execs have build an empire broadcasting “The Earthers” and like to help the storyline of their best-selling show along with a few tweaks to the “script” of human history every now and then. Of course, when they send a time-travelling sprout named Barry back to 1958 to prevent Elvis from joining the army, things are bound to go wrong in a big way. If none of this makes any sense, you should definitely, urgently read this book.
Pens: 5 out of 5
Mort(e) by Robert Repino
I bought this book purely because I loved the bright orange graphic novel style cover and the fact that it’s told from a cat’s point of view. And to be fair, it’s an entertaining sci-fi story that unfortunately suffers from a number of stylistic weaknesses. I really liked the set-up: A race of super-ants has bio-engineered a way to make animals grow to the size of humans, walk upright and become sentient, and together they rise up to wipe out humanity and take control of the earth. Throughout the ten-year war that ensues, we follow Mort(e), a former house cat turned war hero, as he fights for the cause until he discovers that the ant rulers’ intentions aren’t as good as they appeared, and that the freedom the animals were promised is merely an illusion. This story has so much potential, but it’s let down by some flaws in the writing. There are lengthy passages that do nothing to further the plot or characterisation, and actually take momentum out of the story. What irritated me most was that during important sections of dialogue, the author suddenly switches from direct to indirect speech and back, which feels unnatural and breaks the flow of the conversations. So, although not perfectly written, this is still a good story and raises some interesting ethical questions about humans’ attitude towards animals. I think it would be a great read for a young adult audience, actually. And it would have worked quite well as a graphic novel.
Pens: 3 out of 5
My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl
I can’t really say I read this because I had to pull an emergency stop after 80 pages when the misogyny became too unbearable. What an absolutely dreadful book that glorifies rape in the guise of ‘humorous antics’. This despicable little guy Oswald discovers a new potency pill which makes his clients rush off to violently “ravish” any female in their path – and not necessarily with consent. As well as the constant rape apologism, there’s plenty of racism, sexism and stereotyping as a little extra garnish. I can’t believe this is from the same author whose children’s books I adore. If it’s meant to be satire, it’s failing entirely. I usually see books through to the end even if they’re not very good, but I decided that after 80 pages I had read enough “comedy” rape scenes to last me for a lifetime.
Pens: 0 out of 5