Book Reviews, Mini Reviews

Mini Reviews: Feminism, Shakespeare, Sicilian Crime, and Snow

I’ve fallen behind on my read-to-review ratio, and lately a few of my reads have been ones I’ve enjoyed but don’t have enough to say about them to warrant giving them their own post. So hopefully they don’t mind sharing with one another!

The Heroine with 1001 Faces by Maria Tatar

How do we explain our newfound cultural investment in empathy and social justice? For decades, Joseph Campbell had defined our cultural aspirations in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, emphasizing the value of seeking glory and earning immortality. His work became the playbook for Hollywood, with its many male-centric quest narratives. Challenging the models in Campbell’s canonical work, Maria Tatar explores how heroines, rarely wielding a sword and deprived of a pen, have flown beneath the radar even as they have been bent on social missions. Using the domestic arts and storytelling skills, they have displayed audacity, curiosity, and care as they struggled to survive and change the reigning culture. Animating figures from Ovid’s Philomela, her tongue severed yet still weaving a tale about sexual assault, to Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, a high-tech wizard seeking justice for victims of a serial killer, The Heroine with 1,001 Faces creates a luminous arc that takes us from ancient times to the present.

Taking Joseph Campbell’s famous word The Hero with a Thousand Faces as a starting point, Maria Tatar looks at the women in our stories, from the early women in ancient myth all the way to the female detectives of the 20th century and the creation of Wonder Woman, and all the kick-ass women who followed in her footsteps. It was a fascinating read, and I was probably most interested in the sections about fairytale and myth, especially when Tatar started looking at some of the recent retellings of them, and the ways that they morphed over years of being copied down and transcribed from one person to the next. This is a brilliant and comprehensive work that is well suited both for casual reading and as an academic source. It’s well presented and dives deep into its topic, while still remaining accessible to readers who may not have spent a lot of time studying literature. It’s certainly about time that Campbell receives a counter-argument, and this one is perfect!

Thank you to NetGalley and WW Norton & Co for the eARC

Learwife by J R Thorp

I am the queen of two crowns, banished fifteen years, the famed and gilded woman, bad-luck baleful girl, mother of three small animals, now gone. I am fifty-five years old. I am Lear’s wife. I am here.

Word has come. Care-bent King Lear is dead, driven mad and betrayed. His three daughters too, broken in battle. But someone has survived: Lear’s queen. Exiled to a nunnery years ago, written out of history, her name forgotten. Now she can tell her story.

Though her grief and rage may threaten to crack the earth open, she knows she must seek answers. Why was she sent away in shame and disgrace? What has happened to Kent, her oldest friend and ally? And what will become of her now, in this place of women? To find peace she must reckon with her past and make a terrible choice – one upon which her destiny, and that of the entire abbey, rests.

I have never read King Lear before, though I knew the general arc of the plot, and I am always interested in the untold stories of those in the margins of our classic literature that lie like precious gems, waiting for someone to dig them up. It was a no brainer, then, that I’d pick this up, and I’m glad I did. J R Thorp writes with a style I had not encountered before, and the majority of this book passes without direct dialogue – we are inside the Queen’s mind, and she spends a lot of time alone. The language is both stark and lyrical, evoking Shakespearean verse while reflecting the Queen’s surroundings; a nunnery in the cold north, days away from anything and anyone familiar to her. There is not much plot to the story, which starts with the memorial service held by the nuns to commemorate the deceased King Lear and his three daughters, when the Queen begins to think she may finally leave her exile now that the man who sentenced her no longer lives. She begins plans to head south, to find the graves of her family, to find her old friend Kent, but the plans she make continue to delay and she finds herself, for the first time, more involved in the life of the abbey.

The Queen’s thoughts often lapse into the past, remembering times with Lear, times with her first husband who died young, her three daughters with their whims and tempers, and all the while she tries to unravel the reason she was exiled fifteen years before. Discovering this was my main motivation to keep reading. I loved the language and the character, but I found it very slow at times, so I will admit to skipping through a chunk of the middle to get to the revelation and the consequences of it. If you like character-focused stories then this is definitely one to read!

Thank you to NetGalley and Canongate for the eARC.

Riccardino by Andrea Camilleri

When Inspector Montalbano receives an early-morning phone call it proves to be the start of a very trying day. For the caller expects Montalbano to arrive imminently at a rendezvous with some friends. But before he can reply the caller announces himself as someone called Riccardino and hangs up. Later that day news comes in of a brutal slaying in broad daylight by an unknown assassin who makes his getaway on a motorbike.

And when the Inspector learns of the victim’s identity – a man called Riccardino – his troubles are only just beginning. For soon he must contend with the involvement of a local bishop and a fortune teller who reports some strange goings-on in her neighbourhood. All roads soon lead to a local salt mine but the case proves stubbornly intractable until Montalbano receives another unexpected call . . .

In my second year at university I took an Italian Crime Fiction class and among the texts we studied was one called Excursion to Tindari by Andrea Camilleri (or, in the original Italian, Gita a Tindari). I read it in both English and Italian and fell in love with it. I loved the writing style – witty, intelligent, conspiratorial – I loved the setting, and I loved the detective: Inspector Salvo Montalbano. In the years since I have picked up an Inspector Montalbano book whenever it crosses my path, reading them mainly in English as it’s hard to find the originals here in the UK, but the translator Stephen Sartarelli does such a wonderful job that I often forget it has been translated at all! I can’t say I’ve read every single Montalbano book, but I can now say I have read the last one, and it has left me with a bittersweet feeling.

In Montalbano’s final adventure, all the usual suspects are present: the opening with the inspector jolted awake by the phone ringing, the comical yet endearing Catarella, the tedious bureaucracy of the government, mouth-watering descriptions of sea food, and multiple, seemingly-unconnected crimes that will inevitably be linked later on. What isn’t usual, though, is that within this last book, the author has inserted himself within the narrative, creating a very meta scenario and battling with his main character to steer the course of the investigation and the story itself. It made for some very amusing conversations, and I like the way Camilleri did it, but there is no denying a great sense of nostalgia and repetition to Riccardino, which is perhaps appropriate to end Montalbano’s tale. I am glad to have read it, but I do not think it will be one to pick up again, because of its sense of finality, but I will certainly think of it whenever I read any other book in the series, and appreciate the role it plays.

Fifty Words For Snow by Nancy Campbell

Snow. Every language has its own words for the feather-like flakes that come from the sky. In Japanese we find Yuki-onna – a ‘snow woman’ who drifts through the frosted land. In Icelandic falls Hundslappadrifa – ‘big as a dog’s paw’. And in Maori we meet Huka-rere – ‘one of the children of rain and wind’. From mountain tops and frozen seas to city parks and desert hills, writer and Arctic traveller Nancy Campbell digs deep into the meanings of fifty words for snow. Under her gaze, each of these linguistic snow crystals offers a whole world of myth and story.

If you ever thought the perfect combination of nature writing, linguistics, history, and poetry didn’t exist, think again. Nancy Campbell has crafted the perfect book to read during the cold winter months, showing the incredibly diversity of the way humanity interacts with snow, and all the words that have risen up in many languages from just one phenomenon. It has short chapters (most just two pages long), perfect to read just before bed or in between work or other obligations and it is simply delightful! If you’re not a big non-fiction reader but have been wanting to venture into that vast world, I highly recommend starting here because it’s got a bit of everything and Campbell writes in an engaging, accessible manner with the style of a story teller. It’s also a great Christmas gift!

1 thought on “Mini Reviews: Feminism, Shakespeare, Sicilian Crime, and Snow”

  1. You made me think of how authors finish a series – and how not all get the chance to do it THEIR way.

    Sometimes we don’t revisit the last book because the author died unexpectedly – and didn’t get this chance.

    And of course not all series merit it.

    But you made me interested in the Inspector, and I’ll try to remember that.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s