The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

I wanted to join in with this year’s Margaret Atwood Reading Month (hosted by Buried in Print) but knew I wouldn’t have time for one of her longer novels; The Penelopiad, at 199 pages, seemed the perfect choice as it would also count for the Novellas in November event (hosted by 746 Books and Bookish Beck). The Penelopiad was published in 2005 as part of the Canongate Myths series, of which I’ve previously read Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugrešić and Ragnarok by AS Byatt. It’s a retelling of the events of the Odyssey from the perspectives of Penelope and the twelve maids who were hanged by her son, Telemachus.

Penelope narrates her story from a modern day underworld where she wanders through the fields of asphodel occasionally encountering the spirits of other characters from Greek mythology. With little to do in the afterlife other than to think and remember, Penelope recalls her childhood in Sparta, her marriage to Odysseus and, particularly, the events that followed her husband’s departure to fight in the Trojan War. Left behind in Ithaca to raise baby Telemachus, Penelope awaits news of Odysseus but as the years go by it looks less and less likely that he is going to return.

Many of you will already know how the story progresses from there – the suitors, the shroud, the fate of the twelve maids, the bed carved from an olive tree – so I won’t go into the plot in any more detail. However, Atwood doesn’t just use Homer’s Odyssey as a source; she also draws upon other works including Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths to help fill in the gaps and provide a different view of Penelope’s character and story. Penelope is usually associated with faithfulness and patience and seen as perhaps a less interesting woman than Helen of Troy or Clytemnestra; in The Penelopiad, Penelope tells us how frustrated she is with the way she has been portrayed and how she really feels about rivals such as Helen.

Penelope’s own narrative is interrupted now and then by her twelve maids, who speak with one voice in a Greek chorus. As well as giving their own version of the events that build up to Odysseus ordering Telemachus to kill them, they also comment on Penelope’s account, leading us to question her motives and to wonder what exactly was and was not true. The sections narrated by the maids are written in a different style every time – a poem, a ballad, a lecture and even a court trial – but although I understood the need for a second perspective other than Penelope’s, these were my least favourite parts of the book. I found the modern language used by Penelope and the maids a bit jarring too and I think overall, I would have just preferred a more straightforward and conventional retelling of Penelope’s story.

I didn’t find this as satisfying as the other Margaret Atwood books I’ve read, but it was a quick, witty and entertaining read and it’s always good to see women from Greek myth given voices of their own.

They Do It with Mirrors by Agatha Christie

This month’s theme for the Read Christie 2021 challenge is ‘a story set after WWII’. There were plenty of options for this one – any book published after 1945 would count – and I eventually decided on They Do It with Mirrors, a 1952 Miss Marple novel.

The story begins with Miss Marple meeting an old friend, Ruth, who tells her that she’s worried about her sister, Carrie Louise, although she doesn’t give any specific reasons for her concern. Carrie Louise, like Ruth, has had several husbands and her latest, Lewis Serrocold, has established a rehabilitation centre for juvenile criminals at their home, Stonygates. Miss Marple agrees to go and visit Stonygates to see if she can find out what’s going on and, on her arrival, she finds a large number of people assembled at the house, including Carrie Louise’s daughter, granddaughter and stepson, as well as several other family members and servants.

As Miss Marple gets to know the various members of the household, she also begins to feel that something is not quite right – and she is proved to be correct when Christian Gulbrandsen, the son of Carrie Louise’s first husband, is found shot dead in his room. At the same time, Lewis Serrocold is shot at in his study by one of the ‘juvenile delinquents’, a young man who claims to be Winston Churchill’s son. Lewis is unharmed, but as one of the other characters remarks, “you don’t expect murder and attempted murder in the same house on the same night!” The police, led by Inspector Curry, soon arrive on the scene and begin their investigations, but it’s Miss Marple, of course, who eventually solves the mystery.

I don’t think this is one of Christie’s best, but I did still enjoy it – and unlike my last Christie novel, Death on the Nile, where I guessed the solution almost immediately, I didn’t manage to solve this one before the culprit was revealed. The title of the book refers to the fact that things and people are not always what they seem and sometimes, like a magician, ‘they do it with mirrors’ to cause confusion and misdirection. Well, I certainly allowed myself to be misdirected, but I do think it would have been possible to work it out if I’d been paying more attention.

This book has an interesting setting which gives Christie a chance to explore Lewis Serrocold’s work with the young offenders and the way in which these young men were viewed by 1950s society. This doesn’t really play a big part in the story and it could have worked just as well as a conventional country house mystery without this element, but it does provide some extra interest.

December’s theme for Read Christie 2021 is ‘a story set during bad weather’. The suggested title is The Sittaford Mystery, which is one I haven’t read yet.

Nonfiction November Week 4: Stranger than Fiction

I haven’t managed to take part in all of the weekly posts for this year’s Nonfiction November, but I particularly wanted to join in with this one – an intriguing new topic for 2021.

Week 4: (November 22-26) – Stranger Than Fiction with Christopher at Plucked from the Stacks: This week we’re focusing on all the great nonfiction books that *almost* don’t seem real. A sports biography involving overcoming massive obstacles, a profile on a bizarre scam, a look into the natural wonders in our world—basically, if it makes your jaw drop, you can highlight it for this week’s topic.

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One book came to mind as soon as I saw this week’s topic…

The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse by Piu Marie Eatwell

Here’s what it’s about:

In The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and The Missing Corpse, Piu Marie Eatwell gives a thoroughly researched account of one of the most bizarre legal cases of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. In 1897, Anna Maria Druce approached the courts to request the exhumation of her father-in-law’s grave. She sensationally claimed that her father-in-law, T.C. Druce, was actually the 5th Duke of Portland and had been leading a double life until deciding to kill off his alter ego. Druce had faked his own death, she said, and if his coffin was opened it would be found to be empty. This would leave Anna Maria’s son as the true heir to the Portland fortune. This was only the beginning of a fascinating legal battle that would continue for years, attracting a huge amount of media attention and capturing the imaginations of the public.

And here are my thoughts, taken from my review originally posted in 2015:

With tales of secret wives and illegitimate children, fraud and forgery, stolen evidence and unreliable witnesses, lies and deception and double identities, this could have been the storyline of a Wilkie Collins or Mary Elizabeth Braddon novel (and Eatwell does draw some parallels with the lives and works of these authors and others). As a fan of Victorian sensation novels, it’s not surprising that I enjoyed this book so much.

I particularly loved reading about the eccentric lifestyle of the 5th Duke of Portland. Becoming increasingly reclusive in his later years, he rarely went out in daylight and constructed a labyrinth of underground tunnels beneath his estate. He often wore six coats at the same time, had a large collection of wigs and only ate in the mornings and evenings. His alleged alter ego, T.C. Druce, who ran a London department store, was said to have some similar habits, which added some support to the theory that the two men were one and the same.

I was impressed with the huge amount of research the author must have carried out while she was writing this book, drawing on newspaper articles, letters, photographs, census records and other documents to build up a full and balanced picture of the case. Every time a new character is introduced we are given details of their family history, personal background, appearance and personality, all of which helps to bring them to life rather than being just names on the page. Further notes are provided at the back of the book, along with a list of primary and secondary sources.

In the final three chapters, set in 2013, Piu Marie Eatwell describes some of the new evidence she was able to discover during her investigations and her enthusiasm for the subject really shines through here. It must have been a fascinating book to research and it was certainly a fascinating book to read!

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Have you read this book – or any other non-fiction books that are ‘stranger than fiction’?

Nightmare in Berlin by Hans Fallada

The war had destroyed everything, and all that was left to him were the ruins and the ugly, incinerated detritus of former memories.

For this year’s German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy and Caroline, I decided to read a book by one of my favourite German authors, Hans Fallada. Nightmare in Berlin was one of his final novels, written just before his death in 1947, and although I don’t think it’s as good as some of his others – particularly Alone in Berlin and Little Man, What Now? – I did find it an interesting and powerful read. This 2016 translation by Allan Blunden is the first time the book has been made available in English.

Nightmare in Berlin begins in the spring of 1945, just as the war ends and the Red Army march into Berlin. Dr Doll, who had been a successful author before the war, and his much younger wife Alma, live in a small rural town and, unlike most of their neighbours, choose to welcome the Soviet troops into their home. Doll is rewarded by being appointed mayor of the town, but soon finds that he is being viewed with suspicion and resentment by his fellow Germans. Eventually, they decide that it’s time to move back to Berlin, having fled from the city to the countryside during the war. When they arrive in Berlin, however, they discover that someone else has moved into their apartment and that it’s going to be much harder than they’d expected to pick up the threads of their old life.

As Doll sets out to look for help in finding somewhere to live and in getting medical treatment for his wife’s injured leg, he is struck by the greed and selfishness of many of the people he encounters, who think nothing of cheating other Germans to get what they want. Disillusioned and depressed, Doll is overcome with shame and apathy, beginning to despair for Germany’s future.

In this time of the country’s collapse and defeat, no feelings last for long; the hatred passed away, leaving only emptiness, deadness, and indifference behind, and people seemed remote, out of reach.

Although this is obviously quite a bleak novel, it does have its more uplifting moments: there are times when Doll is shown some kindness and compassion, restoring his faith in human nature at least temporarily. The relationship between Doll and Alma is portrayed as a warm and loving one, so that no matter what is going on around them, they know they can always rely on each other. However, the Dolls are also both reliant on drugs, taking morphine and sleeping pills to escape from reality and get through the day, and the middle section of the novel follows their experiences in the hospitals and sanatoriums where they are being treated for their addictions. This part of the book was of much less interest to me (I wanted to see more of post-war Berlin, rather than the inside of a hospital) and I felt that it seemed to come out of nowhere – drugs were never mentioned until the Dolls left their rural town to return to Berlin and yet they had apparently both been addicts for a long time.

Nightmare in Berlin seems to be a very autobiographical novel. Hans Fallada (born Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen) struggled with morphine addiction himself, as did his younger second wife, Ursula Losch. Like Dr Doll, he was appointed mayor of a small country town shortly after the Soviet invasion and then spent the remainder of his life going in and out of hospital. I think the book might have worked better as non-fiction rather than a novel, but maybe Fallada found it easier to write about his own experiences by disguising them as fiction. Still, this is a fascinating novel and worth reading for the insights it offers into the mood of the German people in the aftermath of the war.

This is book 24/50 from my second Classics Club list.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

There are many events taking place in the book blogging calendar this month and AusReading Month hosted by Brona’s Books is one of them. I have a few books by Australian authors waiting to be read, but I decided to read one that has been waiting a long time: Kate Morton’s 2012 novel, The Secret Keeper. I’ve previously read three books by Morton and had mixed experiences with them; I loved The Forgotten Garden but was slightly disappointed in both The Distant Hours and The Clockmaker’s Daughter, so wasn’t sure whether I wanted to bother with this one. I’m pleased I did, because I enjoyed it much more than I expected to.

Like Morton’s other books, The Secret Keeper is set in multiple time periods. It begins in 1961, with sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson hiding in a wooden tree house during a family celebration. Laurel just wants some time alone to think, but this means that, from her position in the tree, she is able to see a strange man approaching the Nicolson farmhouse – and is witness to a violent crime involving her mother, Dorothy. We then jump forward fifty years to 2011, when the Nicolsons are gathering at their childhood home for Dorothy’s ninetieth birthday. Laurel, now a successful actress, is still haunted by what she saw on that long ago day and decides that, with Dorothy in poor health, she needs to find out what really happened before her mother dies and takes her secrets with her.

As Laurel begins to investigate her mother’s past, the novel moves back and forth between 2011 and 1940s London where the young Dorothy is looking forward to marrying war photographer Jimmy as soon as their financial situation improves. Dorothy has also made a new friend (or so she thinks): the beautiful, wealthy Vivien, who lives in the house opposite. But when she is betrayed by Vivien, Dorothy puts together a plan of revenge – with unexpected and tragic results.

As is usually the case when I read books set in more than one time period, it was the historical one I enjoyed the most. The present day story was interesting – I enjoyed Laurel’s interactions with her younger brother Gerry, who helps her to uncover the truth about their mother – but I felt that it was effectively just a frame for the much more compelling story of Dorothy, Jimmy and Vivien. I was surprised by how absorbed I became in these parts of the novel, considering that I found Dorothy a particularly unpleasant and irritating character! I did like Jimmy, was intrigued by Vivien and loved the wartime setting, especially as things build to a climax during the London Blitz.

Somewhere in the second half of the book I started to have some suspicions regarding Laurel’s mother and the secrets she was hiding, but this came late enough that it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the story and I was pleased to find that my guess was correct. Of Kate Morton’s other books, I only have The House at Riverton and The Lake House left to read. Which should I read first?

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten books to read if you love the Brontës

This week’s topic for Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl) is “Books to Read If You Love/Loved X (X can be a genre, specific book, author, movie/TV show, etc)”.

I have chosen to list ten books with connections to the Brontë family – a mixture of non-fiction, historical fiction, classics and retellings! These are all books that I have read and reviewed on my blog.

1. The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan – My favourite of the ten books listed here, this is a beautifully written fictional biography of Charlotte, Emily and Anne with strong characterisation bringing all three sisters to life.

2. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys – This is probably one of the best-known Brontë-inspired novels, giving a voice to Mr Rochester’s wife Bertha, and has become a modern classic in its own right.

3. Sanctuary by Robert Edric – A fictional account of the life of Branwell Brontë, a young man who starts out with so much potential only to find himself living in the shadow of his sisters.

4. Ill Will by Michael Stewart – In the middle of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff disappears for three years. This novel imagines what may have happened to him during that time. An interesting idea, but the anachronistic language ruined this book for me!

5. The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell – A contemporary novel about a young American woman who is the last living descendant of the Brontë family and finds herself searching for the lost Brontë literary estate.

6. Dark Quartet by Lynne Reid Banks – Another fictional biography of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell, published in the 1970s. There’s a sequel covering the final years of Charlotte’s life, but I haven’t read that one yet.

7. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye – Part historical crime/part Jane Eyre retelling, this is the story of Jane Steele, a murderer whose life seems to mirror that of the heroine of her favourite Brontë novel. I loved all the Jane Eyre parallels, but found the crime aspect less successful.

8. Nelly Dean by Alison Case – A retelling of Wuthering Heights with a focus on the life of the housekeeper Nelly Dean. I didn’t enjoy this as much as I’d hoped; I liked Nelly, but her story wasn’t as interesting as Cathy and Heathcliff’s – which is why Emily Brontë wrote that book and not this one!

9. The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë by Daphne du Maurier – Another book about Branwell Brontë, but a non-fiction one this time – and written by another of my favourite authors! Several of du Maurier’s novels also show a strong Brontë influence.

10. Mr Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker – This version of Jane Eyre is written from the perspective of Mr Rochester. I enjoyed the earlier sections of the novel that imagine Rochester’s childhood and time in Jamaica, but the final part – retelling the familiar events of Jane Eyre – didn’t work as well.

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What do you think? Have you read any of these? What other books have you read that are about or inspired by the Brontës?

I am the Mask Maker and other stories by Rhiannon Lewis

I enjoyed Rhiannon Lewis’ My Beautiful Imperial, a fascinating novel set in 19th century Wales and Chile, so I was pleased to receive a copy of her new book, I am the Mask Maker and other stories. This is a collection of eleven short stories, some of which have previously been shortlisted or won prizes in literary competitions and been published in other anthologies. The stories are very varied (apart from two which work together as a pair and provide opposite perspectives on the same event). The settings range from a farm in 1960s Wales and a nursing home for the elderly to a bookshop in London and a version of heaven where the angels have decommissioned their halos and are getting ready to leave. Some of the stories are funny and uplifting; others are more poignant, but every one of them left me with a lot to think about.

I find it difficult to write about the individual stories in collections like this without giving away too many of the surprises that each one contains, so I will just briefly highlight a few that I thought were particularly impressive. These include Piano Solo, the story of an unhappy, middle-aged school teacher whose life takes on new meaning when he sits down at his piano, and Being Bob, in which an Oscar-winning actor takes the place of his driver, Bob, for the day – with unexpected results. But I think my favourite story was The Significance of Swans, an eerie tale of disappearances following the sighting of seven flying swans. I was so intrigued by this one and wished it had been longer!

The final story in the collection, I am the Mask Maker, also deserves a mention. When I first saw the title it made me think of the masks many of us have been wearing throughout the pandemic, but this is a story set in Renaissance Venice where our young narrator dreams of learning to make the beautiful decorative masks for which the city is famous. However, halfway through the story it becomes obvious that it’s much more timely than it appeared to be at first.

I’m not always a fan of short stories as I prefer fiction in its longer form, but I found these eleven stories entertaining, original and thought-provoking – and the perfect length for dipping into as a break from my other current reads. It’s also nice to be able to support a small independent publisher like Victorina Press. The book ends with a short piece by the artist David Hopkins describing his artwork which appears on the cover of the book. The painting is called Javi and fits the ‘mask’ theme of the book. I found it very interesting to read about the background to the painting and how he came to create it!

Thanks to Rhiannon Lewis and Victorina Press for providing a copy of this book for review.