Saturday, June 7, 2014

Gods Behaving Badly, by Marie Phillips

I like quirky books.  I read so much, that sometimes the plain old plot lines and story telling methods are just humdrum and predictable; a quirky book, that will come at the reader with a unique point of view, or characters, or plot, is one of my favourite things to discover.  And boy, did I ever find that it my latest read, Gods Behaving Badly, by Marie Phillips.  

Gods Behaving Badly tells two connected stories, both set in modern London.  The first is the story of Alice and Neil; Alice is a cleaner and Neil is an engineer.  They love each other, but are so shy and nervous around each other that they’ve had a two year, chaste, friendship.  The second story is about an odd family, living a life of declining fortunes; this is because they are the gods of the ancient Greek pantheon.  Of course, they might be living is squalor at this point, but they still enjoy meddling with the lives of mere mortals, and this is where Neil and Alice come in.  Miffed with Apollo, Aphrodite gets her son Eros to make Apollo fall madly in love with Alice.  When Alice rebuffs him, things don’t go well (and the last time it happened, he turned the chick into a tree).  The rest of the story is a delightful updating of a hero saga, with the modern twist of ‘who the fuck would believe that the ancient Greek gods are living in London?’.

Of course, a quirky plot isn’t enough to keep me happy.  The characters have to be engaging too, and they certainly are.  Phillips is able to write the human and relatable characters of Neil and Alice, who are retiring and afraid of their own shadows, as well as a pantheon of gods, such as Artemis, Hermes and Hera.  Each of the gods have all the characteristics you would expect, but Phillips has also humanized them; Artemis is a dog walker who is constantly hoping to find a spark of wildness in her charges, Hermes is constantly on the go as the god of money and enjoys wearing pin-stripped suites, and Hera is still a vengeful bitch.

Phillips’ writing style is refreshingly tongue-in-cheek; she knows this is a quirky plot and a quirky cast of characters, and she doesn’t appear to take herself too seriously as a result.  The writing style is quick-moving and easy to follow, and turns into a plot with a bunch of twists that are really enjoyable.  Phillips has melded the modern world with the ancient in a completely believable and interesting way.  Hats off to Phillips for creating such a wonderfully unique story-scape.

So, final verdict?  Definitely read this book.  It’s quirky, hilarious, well-written, and unique.  In a world that sees oodles and oodles of books published weekly, Gods Behaving Badly is one that stands out.  Phillips has another book coming out this summer (about King Arthur’s court) that I can’t wait to read; I’m definitely adding Phillips to the list of authors I keep an eye on, and whose books I snap up as soon as they’re published.

The Devil's Queen, by Jeanne Kalogridis

One of the best inventions of the last 20 years has got to be PVR systems.  As much as I like to read, I’m also a fan of binge-watching television shows, so when the PVR came along, it was a god-send for me; no longer was I forced to watch television weekly – instead, I was able to record an entire season of a show, then sit down and watch it back to back to back.  This is exactly what I did with the CW show “Reign.”  Now, I knew going into the show that it was likely to be a mix of “The Tudors” and “Dynasty,” and boy was I right.  The historian in me struggled against the horrible representation of historical facts for about 20 minutes, and then it gave up and approached it more as if it were “Game of Thrones,” that’s to say, a parody of historical European politics.  What watching “Reign” did do, was inspire me to read more about the era, which led to my latest read The Devil’s Queen, by Jeanne Kalogridis.

The Devil’s Queen is the story of Catherine de Medici, daughter of the famed House of Medici in 16th century Florence.  When political turmoil rocks Florence, Catherine’s future is in doubt, and her uncle (then Pope, and a Medici) works to secure it, as well as his own power; the best way to do so was to marry Catherine to a powerful family.  Catherine ends up married to the second son of the King of France, but all is not well in the marriage – Catherine is dealing with a husband who has a mistress he won’t leave and who is exerting power over him, a hostile foreign court, and the inability to have children.  In an age where a woman’s security depended on her marriage, all of this led to a very tenuous position for Catherine, and so she resorts to magic to get pregnant.  The novel is really the story of Catherine’s efforts to hold together her life and those she loves in the face of a hostile destiny.

As far as historical fictions go, this one is incredibly engaging.  I was caught in the first few pages, and couldn’t put the book down after that.  Kalogridis’ writing style is straight forward and uncomplicated – she’s able to easily and clearly convey the thoughts of her characters, as well as the movement of the plot.  This might seem like an obvious thing for an author to do, but having read The Devil’s Queen so shortly after The Woman in White, I really appreciated this level of skill.  

As for characters, Kalogridis has created for her readers a personality and soul for Catherine that is engaging and touching.  The historical view of Catherine tends to be negative; she’s remembered as the woman who ruled France while shunting aside her sons, and as being the architect to a massacre of Protestants in Paris.  All of this contributes to a historical impression of a real harpy of a woman, and yet Kalogridis portrays her more as a woman with an iron backbone who would do anything for her husband and sons, and the royal house of France.  The modern feminist in me is now asking if I’d have the same negative view of a male historical figure if they had been the architect of the St Bartholomew Day Massacre?  Probably not – he’d be taking care of business, while she’s seen as being a monstrous bitch.  Funny how that works.

My one complaint about this book, and it’s come up before in books like this, is that Kalogridis uses actual magic/demonic presence to explain some of the harder plot points.  I find when authors do that, it’s a bit of a cop out – it’s almost as if they can’t find a real explanation for where their plots/characters have ended up, so they swing for the fences with a really odd explanation.  I can understand why Kalogridis did it (it fits with the rumours that have persisted through history that Catherine was dabbling in dark magic), but given she did such a good job reforming the rest of Catherine’s historical memory, I don’t appreciate Kalogridis conceding ground on this point.

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  It’s a really great historical fiction of this era and this historical figure.  Kalogridis did such a great job with Catherine’s story, that I’ll be looking for her other books in the future.  What I don’t recommend is that you check out “Reign.”  Honestly, I can look past the odd fashion choices, and the use of Lorde’s song “Royals,” and the fact that they check in momentarily with reality then take a real left turn with the historical records, but the fact is, it’s a horribly cheesy show.  Rather than waste your time watching it, read Kalogridis’ book instead; not only is it better for your intellect, it’s more enjoyable and less bonkers.