“The Goddess Of Buttercups And Daisies” by Martin Millar (2015)

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“The agora was always busy.”

If I was ever to acquire a time machine, I’d head straight back to Ancient Greece. It’s not that I’m particularly interested in the country now even, I just really love so much of what I read about the place. Most of that, granted, is the myths, monsters and gods, all of which – we assume – didn’t actually exist, which is a shame. Nonetheless, it’s always a pleasure to dive back into that world now and again, so I did.

Playwright Aristophanes is panicking. He’s lost the funding for his next big comic play, the props aren’t funny enough, and he’s constantly being pestered by Luxos, the self-proclaimed best lyric poet in Athens. The fact that Athens has been at war with Sparta for years isn’t helping matters, but Aristophanes is convinced that his play will help change people’s minds and bring about peace. But he wasn’t counting on Laet, a goddess of strife and discord. When she enters a room, everyone in it immediately makes the worst possible decision, and it’s tearing Athens apart.

Athena, the city’s goddess, sends the Amazon Bremusa down to Athens to hunt down Laet and scare her off. She enlists Metris, a permanently happy water nymph who claims to have inherited her mother’s powers to restore happiness and order to nasty situations. However, when it turns out that the only power she actually has is to make buttercups and daisies grow wherever she walks, the problem suddenly doesn’t look so easy to solve.

Will Luxos ever get an audience for his poems? Can Aristophanes ensure his play is a hit and win first prize at the Dionysia festival? And can Metris and Bremusa save the day, without getting distracted by such mundane trivialities as love and revenge?

The novel is a blend of reality and fiction. Aristophanes was a real playwright and the play he’s putting on, Peace, really does exist and is still occasionally performed. In turn, Athena was, of course, really one of the gods, and Bremusa was one of the Amazon women. However, other characters have been inserted into the narrative that are of Millar’s own creation, including Luxos the poet and Metris, the titular goddess.

What Millar does well, though, is to seamlessly blend the mortal world and that of the gods and divine beings together so that they exist in perfect harmony. My favourite thing about the Greek gods has always been that they were so petty and so human in their flaws, meaning that when they meet, real narrative magic happens. In this novel, as in many set at the time, the gods are taken as fact, and indeed few people are ever truly surprised to learn of a deity or nymph walking among them. They have some interesting powers, and are probably the most engaging characters in the book, but that might just be me and my love of mythology. Some of the human characters, particularly Aristophanes and Luxos, are fun too, but most others don’t get enough page time to be fleshed out particularly.

It’s quite funny in places, but a very broad humour.However, Greek humour was broad – much is made of the fact that the play will be deemed a failure if the comedy penises aren’t big enough – so the style fits the era.  It’s also a comment on satire, with Aristophanes’ plays mocking important figures of the time like an ancient Dead Ringers. A jolly little book, worth spending an afternoon with.

If dystopian fiction is your thing, I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over two-thirds of the way funded – we’re nearly there! – and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“Dionysus” by Walter F. Otto (1965)

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13609

Welcome to the cult.

“All of antiquity extolled Dionysus as the god who gave man wine.”

Mythology is something that has always interested me, in particular the Greek myths. I’ve read a few stories about them, and I’m writing one too, so I thought it was about time I did some research and looked up the history behind one or two of them. At least, that’s what ended up happening – I didn’t quite plan it like that.

I bought this book under the assumption that it was about the myths and would tell me all the wacky adventures that my second favourite Greek god Dionysus (Hermes, in case you’re wondering) had got up to. He was the god of madness, hedonism and wine, after all, so there were bound to be some stories. What I instead got was basically a textbook that was more suited to someone reading classical studies.

I’m not going to even suggest that the book is a laugh a minute, but it actually turned out to be pretty interesting. Dionysus appears to be a late addition to the pantheon, although no one’s quite sure where he came from. He only became one of the Twelve Olympians because Hestia gave up her seat for him. He was actually half-mortal, the son of Zeus and human Semele, and was actually born from Zeus’ thigh. (Don’t ask.) Surrounded all his life by women, he threw parties and gave people the gift of wine to that they could let loose and forget their inhibitions. However, he was also the god of insanity, being insane himself, and provoking in his female followers an animalistic nature that caused them to eat their own sons.

He is associated with the bull, snake, panther and goat, and was notable for once entering the Underworld, finding his mother and bringing her back out again, a feat that no other god ever seemed to pull off. He was a symbol of life and death, and there exists a constant duality around his personality. Some believe that he and Hades were actually one at the same.

The book is intriguing and goes into some detail that I would otherwise never have found out, but at the end of the day, it is a textbook and so there are some very dry passages and also far too many untranslated Greek terms. Still, if you’re really into your mythology, it’s worth a skim.

This has been a niche post. Carry on.

“Skios” by Michael Frayn (2012)

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skios

Grab your hat and sun cream, it’s holiday time!

“‘I just want to say a big thank-you to our distinguished guest,’ said Nikki Hook, ‘for making this evening such a fascinating and wonderful occasion, and one that I’m sure none of us here will ever forget…'”

The name Michael Frayn was an unfamiliar one to me, although I have heard of one of his most famous works, the play Noises Off, probably the most notable farce in the history of theatre. The play, as I understand it, is all about mistaken entrances and wrong exits, people getting confused among themselves and no one quite being in the right place at the right time. This is the basis for Skios.

Skios is the farcical story of Oliver Fox. He has arrived on the Greek island of Skios to spend the weekend with someone else’s girlfriend, but has a crisis of faith and identity, becomes sick of who he is. He becomes further messed around when the woman he’s meant to be in Greece with has missed her flight and won’t be able to get another one until the next day. With twenty-four hours to kill in paradise, he heads to the arrivals lounge and, on a whim, selects another name from the signs being held up and steps into the role of Dr. Norman Wilfred. He is rushed off with the most efficient PA this side of the Mediterranean, Nikki, to the luxury compound where, the following day, he will be delivering a speech.

The real Dr. Wilfred is on the same flight and things aren’t looking so great for him. His suitcase has gone missing and he’s ended up with one beloning to Annuka Vos. He becomes enraged with the airport staff and then confused by the taxi driver who has a limited understanding of English, but is eventually sure that he has managed to communicate his desire to get to the Fred Toppler Foundation. He is instead whisked off to the villa where Oliver should be staying.

And then Oliver’s new lover, Georgie, gets an earlier flight and finds herself in Greece and heading to the villa right on time.

The novel is a farce from beginning to end, with the central characters all entirely mistaking one another’s identity, and everyone jumping to conclusions about everyone else. Oliver barely struggles to convince people that he is the speech-giver, even though he looks nothing like the photo on his CV, and his passport has his actual name on it quite clearly. The real Dr Wilfred, however, is having a much more difficult time in a villa with Georgie.

There’s a lot here about our attitudes to identity – we act differently around different people and, if we just change our names and tell a few white lies, can we completely change who we are and pass of as someone else? Are we really who we say we are, or is everyone lying? There’s also a good deal of discussion on the nature of coincidence and fate. Have the events in our lives been inevitable since the big bang, with the universe working to get everything into position, or does it all happen on the spur of the moment by sudden decisions? The ending could’ve been incredibly predictable, but there’s a twist and it seems to resolve itself satisfactorily.

I become instantly wary of any book that is covered in quotes saying how funny it is. Yes, there are a few titters and smirks to be had here, but I didn’t laugh out loud at any point. It is quite funny but in a theatrical sort of way, which is Frayn’s background anyway, and by no means a bad thing. It would work well on stage, and it’s not a terrible book, but it has a tendency to get bogged down in itself and can be as stifling in places as the weather we’ve got at the moment. I recommend it for a quick summer read, if you’re off on a beach holiday and need some light entertainment.