July reading round up

This is a few days late! I am sorry. But look, here we are, halfway through the year already. And there has been warmth and sun and my daughter has hilarious sock tan lines from her school uniform. I still haven’t spent much time reading in the garden though. I have, on the other hand, read these:

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra – Vassem Khan

I bought this because my daughter (9) spotted it in the local bookshop and wanted to read it. She likes crime stories so I thought I’d better check it was suitable. This is the first in the Baby Ganesh detective series, set in India and featuring Inspector Chopra who retires from the Indian police force but is nonetheless sucked into investigating a crime. His unexpected inheritance is a baby elephant, who he keeps in the garden until he can figure out what to do with it. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to tell you that OF COURSE the elephant helps him with the case, hence the name of the series. I enjoyed this. It’s cosy crime of a sort, though there are serious crime issues to look at, but it’s great that the Inspector is not drunk, pitiful and lovelorn, but has a sense of humour and the required stubbornness, as well as a tough wife.

One of Them – Musa Okwonga

This is a biography of sorts, by Okwonga who writes of his time as a black student at Eton. Our fascination with the boys who go to this school continues as they carry on destroying the country with their corruption and nastiness. There was, I think, quite a bit of coverage when this was first published, especially the line that reads ‘They don’t learn shamelessness at Eton but this is where they perfect it.’

Okwonga has an interesting take on this. He clearly enjoyed his time at Eton, and made the best of the opportunity he was given – he talks of working hard, of having education that changed his mind about certain issues and his gratitude towards the teachers. But he is always aware that he is different from most of the students, not only in his race but in his family’s financial situation and his background. He experiences shame at the area of London he lives in, but also pride and his confusion is at least honest – he is not carrying the arrogance of those he schools with. But he is also shocked and surprised later in the book to find that the people he went to school with commented about him and his race behind his back. I found his naivete a little odd simply because I thought the reason the book was written was to explore that difference? I would also have liked to see him discuss what can be done to make changes to the system that chucks boys into politics as a birthright and without any ideas of why they should do this. He ends by discussing the ways in which he would no longer be able to attend Eton, through enormous hikes in fees. It’s an interesting read but perhaps lacking in the critical depth that I think it needed.

Bowlaway – Elizabeth McCracken

I really enjoyed McCracken’s The Giant’s House when I read it a few years ago and bought this on a whim. It does have whimsical and amusing set ups but on the whole was a crashing overly long disappointment.

Knife Edge – Simon Mayo

My mum lent me this, she may have been reading my rant about wanting plot driven books last month and this is indeed plotty. It’s a thriller which starts off with seven journalists murdered within half an hour one London morning, and continues in a breathless pace throughout. I used to listen to Simon Mayo before leaving the house for school when he was still the Radio 1 breakfast DJ (showing my age) and am very fond of him. This is a pretty tightly written novel and absolutely worth a binge through when you need a good thriller that doesn’t ask too much of you.

The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller

My reading group chose Circe (see below) to read this month and I decided to read this too, and get really into it. The Song of Achilles is a retelling of the Iliad, focusing on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, while dabbling into all the other stuff that happens along the way. I’m not very knowledgeable about the Classics, though they are an area I keep meaning to find out more about – they’re everywhere, references in our language, myths, art and literature – so this was a pretty good way to get up to speed. I enjoyed this – it’s a good story and she painted the characters well.

Circe – Madeline Miller

I did, however, enjoy this more. Circe is the story of the witch who is a small part of the Odyssey, the woman Odysseus spends a year with on his way home. This novel goes into much more detail about who Circe was, how she got to live on her island, her powers and her relationship with the gods and mortals she encounters. It’s a rich, rewarding book, though slow to start with, but it’s a fantastic exploration of the world of the Greeks in classical times, with its whims and casual attitude towards love and death.

Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths – Natalie Haynes

When I said, I like to get into a subject, I really mean it. Having read two novels that cover some of the major stories, I decided to read more. This is partly a book form of Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics programme on Radio 4 (see below) but covers a range of women from Greek Myth and uncovers what we know about each one from the surviving texts, pottery shards and art works. She’s a good guide, being at once a classical scholar and a comedian who can make concepts and ideas come to life, while also making fun of them.

Into the Tangled Bank – Lev Parikian

I am not good at nature, on the whole. I respect it, appreciate it mainly from a distance, and am happy to support any efforts in helping nature overcome whatever hideous sin man has committed against it. So I thought I’d read this amble into how the British experience nature as it promised to be about my level of scientific interest. Parikian starts off locally, in his street, and looks at the nature and then branches out to his local area, and then across the country visiting the parks and residences of famous nature writers such as Gilbert White, Thomas Bewick and so on. Finally he branches out into island retreats and star gazing, going from the tiny and local to the massive and unknowable. This was a pleasant enough read, though I can’t remember a lot of it and after a while, I think I confirmed my level of interest is not very high.

Clock Dance – Anne Tyler

I keep meaning to try reading Anne Tyler and the reopening of the local library gave me the chance to do just that. This is fine. You’re in competent hands, it turns out, with Tyler and her reputation as a quiet chronicler of ordinary lives is well earned. I enjoyed this but have little desire to read more of hers UNLESS you want to recommend some.

The Murder of Harriet Monckton – Elizabeth Haynes

This is a crime novel based on a true but unsolved murder. Harriet Monckton was found, dead but unmarried and pregnant, in a church building and this novel offers a glimpse into the lives of those who knew her and who may have wanted to kill her. I wanted to like it more than I did. There is a lot of detail and it’s obviously very well researched But in the end, I just didn’t care who killed her. I think a stronger editing process could have helped this a lot.

Moments of Pleasure

As mentioned above, listening to old episodes of Natalie Haynes Stands up for the Classics has been a good way to keep my mind occupied while I’m out running. She covers a lot about the ancient writers and their bitchy ways, as well as exploring different versions of the same stories. One thing that comes out clear is that it seems to have been later versions of classic stories, from the Victorians onwards, who made the stories so one sided and pro-men. The Greek writers had lots more nuance in them, in terms of creating fascinating female characters. I mean, we’re not going to be giving the Greeks any prizes for equality or anything, but later renditions of a lot of the stories are much more one sided and less interesting because of the strict gender representations. We reflect the times in our tales.

This round up is late because I spent the weekend away from my computer at Deershed festival with my daughter. We go every year, and this year they held a socially distanced, slightly smaller version (for insurance reasons). While only lasting three days, it was such a good break for us both, despite a leaking tent, poor attempts on my part to make pancakes, and a few bands that weren’t quite to our taste. It did just feel so good to be doing something different, and to watch small run around covered in eco glitter, with flowers in her hair and mud all over her leggings and a big smile on her face.

And we met up with friends one evening at their house. We ate cheese, drank wine and put the world to rights. It was splendid.

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