Robyn Reviews: Ariadne

“I would not let a man who knew the value of nothing make me doubt the value of myself”

‘Ariadne’ is a retelling of the Greek myths of Ariadne and Phaedra, the daughters of King Minos of Crete. It sticks faithfully to the source material, weaving a beautiful – if at times tragic – tale of two women, trying to find a place in a world of men. A highly readable novel, it makes a worthy addition to any mythology fans’ shelves.

Ariadne has grown up in luxury as the Princess of Crete, free to spend her days dancing the halls and weaving her loom. However, her life has two blights – her fearsome father, King Minos, and her even more terrifying half-brother, the Bloodthirsty Minotaur. When Theseus, Prince of Athens, arrives as one of the Minotaur’s yearly sacrifices, Ariadne is besotted and vows to help – but helping Theseus means betraying her father and Crete, sacrificing the only life she has ever known. Besides, does the woman in the hero’s story ever get a happy ending?

The novel starts with only Ariadne’s perspective,but from part II onwards there are two – Ariadne and her sister Phaedra. Ariadne is by far the stronger character. Sheltered and naive, she’s a sweet girl who wants to do the right thing, but struggles to figure out what that is. As the story progresses, she grows into a more resilient woman, but still one who turns her face away from the truth of the world in order to preserve her happiness. Her internal dilemmas and insights are fascinating, with the dichotomy of powerlessness and privilege.

Phaedra is always harder and shrewder than her sister, never content to sit back and assume a woman’s role. Her relationship with Ariadne is complicated – she loves her sister, but also hates her passivity and naivety. Phaedra is easy to sympathise with, but there’s a cutting edge to her personality which can make her hard to like, and in some ways she’s even more blinkered and naive than her sister.

Most Greek mythology fans are familiar with Ariadne’s role in the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur, but this is only a very small part of the book. The rest, chronicling what happens afterwards, is far more interesting. Jennifer Saint paints an engrossing picture of the sisters’ separate yet parallel lives, giving an exceptional sense of place and culture. The narrative is relatively sedately paced yet never feels slow. The subject matter inevitably means this book will be compared to Madeleine Miller’s work, and the combination of the focus on feminism and femininity, a prolonged period set on a secluded island, and the writing style, do make this feel much like Miller’s Circe. However, this is a quieter novel than Miller’s work – still emotional, but more of a gentle sea compared to the emotional storm found at the denouement of Miller’s novels.

Saint chooses to stay completely true to the source material – as far as this is possible for a several millennia old translated myth – and my only quibbles with her novel are mostly unavoidable given this. Ariadne’s infatuation with Theseus is instantaneous and feels unrealistic, but then this is very much how love is portrayed in all the major Greek myths. Theseus can come across as two dimensional, with little character development, but then he’s seen entirely through the eyes of Ariadne and Phaedra, who always view him in a certain light. This is an excellent novel, and these complaints are minor, with very little effect on enjoyment.

Overall, Ariadne is a strong addition to the mythology retelling genre, providing an interesting insight into the lives of Ariadne and Phaedra outside of the famed encounter with the Minotaur. Fans of similar modern retellings such as The Song of Achilles and Circe will likely enjoy this book.

Thanks to Wildfire Books for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Wildfire Books
Hardback: 29th April 2021

Advertisement

Book Review: Bury Them Deep

I started reading this crime thriller on a recent stormy weekend when I wished to curl up with a book I could immerse myself in. A few hours later I commented on Twitter: “Plucked some crime fiction from my TBR pile and am reminded once again why this genre, when well written, is so popular with readers”. I was looking forward to getting back to the story the following day.

Unfortunately, by then, I was around 200 pages into what is, in proof form at least, a 450 page tome. The pace from here became glacial. Dinner parties were being detailed along with a trip to an art exhibition. Whilst I enjoyed the take-downs of pseudo-intellectuals trying too hard to impress, I was trying to work out why these scenes were needed. I feared they were there as filler. Twitter confirmed that certain genre writers are contracted by the big publishers to submit manuscripts containing a prescribed number of words.

Don’t get me wrong, I can enjoy crime fiction. Sarah Hilary, for example, may structure her books using a recognisable formula but her writing and plot development contain enough depth and interest to take a reader’s mind off this. I’m certainly not going to criticise the quality of James Oswald’s writing. It is polished and, as I mentioned, contains injections of humour. My problem with Bury Them Deep was that it felt bloated. Eventually, with 50 pages to go, I just wanted it to end.

The story is set in and around Edinburgh, a place I love to visit. It opens with a local legend – the tale of Sawney Bean who, for 25 years in the 16th century, headed a clan of incestuous cannibals, before they were captured and executed without trial. Following this is a chapter introducing an unnamed woman as she heads out for a Friday night of sex with strangers. Her story is subsequently interspersed with that of the various police investigations the protagonist, Detective Chief Inspector Tony McLean, is required to lead.

This is the 10th novel featuring Inspector McLean and the first I have read. There are references throughout to what I assume are his previous cases which are intriguing. The plot of Bury Them Deep does, however, hold up when read standalone.

In this tale, DCI McLean’s team is a small part of Operation Caterwaul, a high security, global investigation into unnamed, high profile, powerful individuals. Details are shared on a strictly need to know basis. When one of Tony McLean’s team goes missing – a long serving admin assistance named Anya Renfrew – there is consternation amongst his superiors who fear they will be blamed for what could be a catastrophic security breach. Tony is more concerned about Anya’s safety.

It is agreed that locating Anya is a high priority task, even if for differing reasons. Tony allocates resources to interviewing those who knew her and working out where she could have been since last seen. He discovers that the quietly competent admin assistant had unimagined secrets. He ignores the paperwork his rank is supposed to deal with and heads out into the field.

Into the mix are added a couple of young teenagers, one of whom enjoys setting fire to things. There is also an inmate of a secure psychiatric unit with whom Tony has history. Emma, Tony’s wife, is demanding that he pay her more attention. Through Emma, Tony is reintroduced to a Forensic Anthropologist he knew as a teenager.

All of these characters play their roles. Ancient, and not so ancient, bones are uncovered. Trails that may lead to Anya are followed. A retired detective takes an active interest in the direction the investigation is taking. The unnamed woman is being put through hell.

There are more references to the relentless hot weather than I found necessary although it is significant. Perhaps my problem with plot development was that everything seemed obvious from early on so I was waiting for the story to catch up and fill in the details. This took more words than I felt were required, certainly more than held my interest.

I rather liked the ending although, as with much of the way Tony worked, it appeared highly unprofessional. There were several threads that, having finished the book, made me wonder why they were included. Perhaps I would have enjoyed the story more had I read previous installments in the series.

Other reviewers have described this as a page-turner. I would be interested to know if crime fiction fans want their books to be the length the big publishers provide. Personally I prefer my fiction to be taut and compelling, or offering prose so exquisite it is simply a joy to savour. Bury Them Deep was not a book for me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Wildfire.

Gig Review: New Voices of 2018 from Headline

Much as I enjoy my trips into London for book events, and am grateful to all the publishers who invite me, it was pleasing to learn that a team from Headline Publishing Group were taking five of their up and coming debut authors around the country to meet booksellers, librarians and reviewers closer to home. The Headline New Voices 2018 Roadshow travelled to Glasgow, Manchester and Bristol before returning to London where they will host a Rooftop Book Club next week, on Tuesday 23rd January at Carmelite House. I was delighted to receive an invitation to the Bristol roadshow event which I attended last Thursday evening.

Held in The Boardroom in central Bristol I spent an interesting few hours chatting to publicists, authors and other attendees about a wide range of book related issues. Although run to promote the five highlighted debuts the conversation and achievement of the event was wider ranging. There was a willingness to talk about the challenges of increasing sales in today’s market. There was palpable excitement from the authors at their creations being released into the wild.

Becky Hunter kicked proceedings off by introducing each book and author. Attendees were then left to mingle and chat while the publicity team – which included Georgina Moore, Millie Seaward and Jenny Harlow – ensured that nobody was left out and that the authors talked to each little group. The wine flowed and delicious canapés were served. The atmosphere was welcoming and convivial.

I managed to fit in conversations with Phoebe Locke (author of The Tall Man), Leo Carew (author of The Wolf) and Nick Clark Windo (author of The Feed). As a medical student, Leo was subjected to my parental pride in my daughter – also a medical student in London. I believe she would be most envious of his time spent in Svalbard, although perhaps not the tent accommodation. I also raised the daughter inspired medical theme with Nick, this time discussing neurology as we discussed how the brain would be changed by an implant as imagined in his book.

I chatted to a poet bookseller from Rossiter Books who was eager to pick up publishing advice from Georgina. I snuck into a conversation with a lovely bookseller from Griffin Books who spoke of the next day service they can offer customers (better than Amazon!). I met lovely library assistant Leah, and was delighted to catch up with my on-line friend, Sue.

I was also pleased to have several opportunities to talk to Georgina, who was candid about the challenges of marketing any book however appealing and well written; and also to Becky, about bloggers and proof distribution. Despite what I have been advised by others it seems that publicists are happy to be approached for review copies. Having said that, no reviewer should feel they ‘deserve’ any particular book. With so many bloggers eager to spread the word about the books they enjoy, not all can be recipients of every ARC.

At this event, though, I came away with copies of each book offered. Having now heard so much about them I am keen to read each one. The roadshow was well worth braving the cold for – thank you Headline for hosting, and for coming to us.

Book Review: Yesterday

Yesterday, by Felicia Yap, is set in an alternative, contemporary world where memory is limited to the previous day (monos) or the day before that (duos). In order to function adults are required to keep diaries where they write down significant thoughts and events. If not written down and subsequently learnt, there can be no recollection of actions or feelings.

Duos consider themselves superior and hold the majority of the powerful and lucrative positions. Intermarriage between monos and duos is rare and frowned upon. As well as the perceived intellectual superiority, few duos are willing to risk creating a mono child.

Mark and Claire Evans defied this popular prejudice resulting in Mark, a duo from a wealthy family, being disinherited. Now a successful author and aspiring politician, he is risking his twenty year marriage to his mono wife by indulging in an affair. When his mistress is found dead in a nearby river he becomes a suspect in a potential murder investigation. The police must gather evidence quickly before ‘live’ memories are lost. People choose what they write in their diaries so the records will always be skewed and incomplete.

Chapters narrate events from a variety of points of view. Sophia has recently been released from a mental asylum after seventeen years and now seeks revenge on those she blames for her incarceration. Claire suffers from depression, is appalled by her husband’s behaviour, but does not believe he is a killer. Mark is fighting to salvage the career of his dreams but has much to hide, especially from his wife. Hans, the detective investigating the murder, has access to the dead woman’s diary but struggles to accept that what he is reading could be true.

To enjoy this story it is necessary to suspend belief, as is of course the case for many fictional tales. There have been a number of thrillers written recently which deal with the memory loss of a protagonist who then suffers manipulation from supposed loved ones. This story involves an entire population of amnesiacs. Readers must accept that the likes of doctors have somehow found a way to qualify and do their jobs in this environment, that it is possible to make certain facts integral to being.

Aspects of the plot brought to mind The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (Fay Weldon). I also enjoyed the occasional news report or excerpt from official guidelines which helped to put into context this society’s habitual limitations.

The tight prose skips along apace. The issue of memory is fundamental – how each person curates their experiences and subsequently presents them, how identity is shaped. Initially I found the characters lacking in depth in a way that reminded me of my first impressions of Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro). As the story progressed this was shown to be fitting. The population are forced to rely on the veracity of their own written words to work out who and what they are. I pondered if this is so very different to more common forms of memory curation.

Although it took me some time to fully engage, the story developed into a thought provoking tale. Issues explored would make it an ideal choice for a book group. This was an enjoyable read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Wildfire.

Book Review: Close To Me

Close To Me, by Amanda Reynolds, is a domestic thriller in which a woman suffers memory loss following a head injury. The protagonist is Jo Harding, an affluent stay-at-home wife and mother of two grown children. When the story opens she is lying at the bottom of a flight of stairs in their luxurious home. Her concerned husband hovers over her and medical assistance is on its way. Jo remembers little of what happened but is aware that she does not want her husband near.

The tale progresses along two timelines, the first starting from her fall, the second from a year ago. It is Jo’s memories of this year that she has lost. Gradually fragments return but she struggles to place them in context. She discovers that the settled family life she has relied upon, the life she still remembers, has fallen apart.

Jo’s husband, Rob, is reluctant to fully fill in her blanks. She finds his proximity and concern stifling. Their two children, Sash and Fin, are also reticent and more distant than she expects. Initially Jo feels too battered and exhausted to fight back against their secrecy. She also grows afraid of what she may discover when her memory returns. As her recovery progresses she sets about reclaiming her life.

There are the requisite twists and turns as the reader is fed suggestions of disagreements, infidelity and violence but must wait for the truths to be revealed. Jo volunteered at a drop-in centre where she befriended Rose and Nick whose existence Rob deleted from her digital records following her fall. Sash has an older boyfriend whose image triggers disturbing recollections. Fin appears estranged for reasons Jo cannot recall.

Jo is a needy mother, mourning the role she assigned herself in life now that her children have flown the nest. She is aspirational on their behalf, convinced that her offspring could have fabulous futures if they would only do as she says. Jo struggles to move on, to accept the decisions they make for themselves.

I read this book in a sitting; the writing throughout is taut and engaging. There were, however, aspects that grated. Jo and Rob played a ‘game’ where they discussed the method they would choose to kill each other, a conversation I found weird. Jo opines that “Rob’s love and loyalty are two things I never have to worry about” which came across as glib.

As a novel to provide escapism this is a well constructed thriller even if personally I prefer stories with more breadth and depth. For those looking for easy entertainment, with an added touch of the disturbing, this could be a good book to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Wildfire.