Book Review: House of Names by Colm Toibin

HouseofNamesAbout the Book

Publisher’s description: ‘They cut her hair before they dragged her to the place of sacrifice. Her mouth was gagged to stop her cursing her father, her cowardly, two-tongued father. Nonetheless, they heard her muffled screams.’ On the day of his daughter’s wedding, Agamemnon orders her sacrifice. His daughter is led to her death, and Agamemnon leads his army into battle, where he is rewarded with glorious victory. Three years later, he returns home and his murderous action has set the entire family – mother, brother, sister – on a path of intimate violence, as they enter a world of hushed commands and soundless journeys through the palace’s dungeons and bedchambers. As his wife seeks his death, his daughter, Electra, is the silent observer to the family’s game of innocence while his son, Orestes, is sent into bewildering, frightening exile where survival is far from certain. Out of their desolating loss, Electra and Orestes must find a way to right these wrongs of the past even if it means committing themselves to a terrible, barbarous act.

Format: ebook Publisher: Viking Pages: 260
Publication: 18th May 2017 Genre: Historical Fiction    

Purchase Links* ǀ ǀ Barnes & Noble
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

Find House of Names on Goodreads

My Review

House of Names is Colm Tóibín’s retelling of the myth of Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon, and mother of Orestes, Electra and Iphigenia. According to one of many versions of the legend, Iphigenia is sacrificed by Agamemnon in order for the Gods to grant a favourable wind for his fleet of ships to sail to Troy. In revenge, Clytemnestra murders Agamemnon on his return from the Trojan Wars and she is in turn murdered by her son, Orestes.

At the outset, I have to say that, although some of the names were familiar to me, I was unfamiliar with the detail of the myth, or its different versions, until I researched it once I’d finished the book. So while reading it I had no idea how much of the story was from the author’s own imagination or an embellishment of a well-established legend.

Colm Tóibín presents the story from the viewpoints of Clytemnestra, Orestes and Electra. Clytemnestra’s story is told in the first person and this allows the reader to experience first-hand her grief at the death of her daughter, Iphigenia, her anger at the deception which delivered Iphigenia to her death and her implacable desire for revenge against her husband, Agamemnon.  As Electra later reflects, ‘She was a woman filled with a scheming hunger for murder’.

Electra’s story is also told in the first person. She is observant, watchful, interpreting character from gestures and looks that others might miss. For example, this description of her mother’s lover, Aegisthus:

‘Aegisthus is like an animal that has come indoors for comfort and safety. He has learned to smile instead of snarl, but he is still all instinct, all nails and teeth. He can sniff out danger. He will attack first. He will arch his back and pounce at the slightest hint of a threat.’

Unlike her mother, Electra maintains her belief in the gods and that they will assist her in revenging the murder of her father by Clytemnestra when the time comes.

‘Each day, I appeal to the gods to help me prevail…I appeal to them to give my own spirit strength when the time comes. I am with the gods in their watchfulness as I watch too.’

Between the accounts narrated by Clytemnestra and Electra, are sections describing the kidnap (as it turns out to be) of Orestes, his escape alongside his friends, Leander and Mithros, and his eventual return to the Palace. I liked the way the author captured Orestes’ initial confusion about his kidnap, about where he was being taken and his understandable obsession with food and drink. With childish simplicity, Orestes categorises his two guards as the ‘nice’ one and the ‘nasty’ one but doesn’t understand why the ‘nice’ one won’t engage in sword play with him as before.  For me, these sections, written in the third person, didn’t have the immediacy of the sections from the point of view of Electra and Clytemnestra.   The latter part of the book, once Orestes has returned to the Palace, were more engaging as he gradually realises he has been used as a tool by most of those around him, even his close friend, Leander.

Although this is my first book by Colm Tóibín, his reputation precedes him and I think I was expecting to be more blown away by his writing than I was in this book. There were only a few passages that came close to what I was hoping for and these tended to be in the sections focusing on Clytemnestra and Electra. For instance, Electra’s observation on Aegisthus’ sexual conquests: ‘The rooms beneath us were thus filled with this fecundity as the corridors were filled with rough desire.’ Having said this, I enjoyed the book and I will certainly look forward to reading other books by this author.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publisher s, Viking, in return for an honest review.

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In three words: Dramatic, intimate, mythology

Try something similar…The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Colm ToibinAbout the Author

Colm Tóibín was born in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford in 1955. He studied at University College Dublin and lived in Barcelona between 1975 and 1978. On his retur to Ireland in 1978 he worked as a journalist becoming features editor of ‘In Dublin’ in 1981 and editor of Magill, Ireland’s current affairs magazine, in 1982. He left Magill in 1985 and travelled in Africa and South America. His novels include: The Blackwater Lightship (shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Prize and the Booker Prize and made into a film starring Angela Lansbury); The Master (winner of the Dublin IMPAC Prize, the Prix du Meilleur Livre, the LA Times Novel of the Year and shortlisted for the Booker Prize); Brooklyn (winner of the Costa Novel of the Year). His work has been translated into thirty languages and he has received honorary doctorates from the University of Ulster and from University College Dublin. In 2006 he was appointed to the Arts Council in Ireland. He is currently Leonard Milberg Lecturer in Irish Letters at Princeton University.

[Can I just say that the photo is how I imagine the study of every writer should look]

Connect with Colm

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My Week in Books


New arrivals

A few review copies received and I (almost) managed to keep to my self-imposed rule of not purchasing books unless they’re titles already on my Goodreads wishlist.

CourtofLionsCourt of Lions by Jane Johnson (hardback, ARC courtesy of Head of Zeus)

Kate Fordham, escaping terrible trauma, has fled to the beautiful sunlit city of Granada, the ancient capital of the Moors in Spain, where she is scraping by with an unfulfilling job in a busy bar. One day in the glorious gardens of the Alhambra, once home to Sultan Abu Abdullah Mohammed, also known as Boabdil, Kate finds a scrap of paper hidden in one of the ancient walls. Upon it, in strange symbols, has been inscribed a message from another age. It has lain undiscovered since before the Fall of Granada in 1492, when the city was surrendered to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Born of love, in a time of danger and desperation, the fragment will be the catalyst that changes Kate’s life forever.

TheThirteenthGateThe Thirteenth Gate by Kat Ross (ebook, review copy courtesy of the author)

Winter 1888. At a private asylum in the English countryside, a man suspected of being Jack the Ripper kills an orderly and flees into the rain-soaked night. His distraught keepers summon the Lady Vivienne Cumberland—who’s interviewed their patient and isn’t sure he’s a man at all. An enigmatic woman who guards her own secrets closely, Lady Vivienne knows a creature from the underworld when she sees one. And he’s the most dangerous she’s ever encountered. As Jack rampages through London, this time targeting rare book collectors, Lady Vivienne begins to suspect what he’s looking for. And if he finds it, the doors to purgatory will be thrown wide open…

Across the Atlantic, an archaeologist is brutally murdered after a Christmas Eve gala at the American Museum of Natural History. Certain peculiar aspects of the crime attract the interest of the Society for Psychical Research and its newest investigator, Harrison Fearing Pell. Is Dr. Julius Sabelline’s death related to his recent dig in Alexandria? Or is the motive something darker? As Harry uncovers troubling connections to a serial murder case she’d believed was definitively solved, two mysteries converge amid the grit and glamour of Gilded Age New York. Harry and Lady Vivienne must join forces to stop an ancient evil. The key is something called the Thirteenth Gate. But where is it? And more importantly, who will find it first?

ArminiusArminius: The Limits of Empire by Robert Fabbri (ebook, 99p)

AD9: In the depths of the Teutoburg Wald, in a landscape riven by ravines, darkened by ancient oak and bisected by fast-flowing streams, Arminius of the Cherusci led a confederation of six Germanic tribes in the annihilation of three Roman legions. Deep in the forest almost twenty thousand men were massacred without mercy; fewer than two hundred of them ever made it back across the Rhine. To Rome’s shame, three sacred Eagles were lost that day. But Arminius wasn’t brought up in Germania Magna – he had been raised as a Roman. This is the story of how Arminius came to turn his back on the people who raised him and went on to commit a betrayal so great and so deep, it echoed through the ages.

TheWatchHouseThe Watch House by Bernie McGill (eARC, courtesy of NetGalley & Tinder Press)

As the twentieth century dawns on the island of Rathlin, a place ravaged by storms and haunted by past tragedies, Nuala Byrne is faced with a difficult decision. Abandoned by her family for the new world, she receives a proposal from the island’s aging tailor. For the price of a roof over her head, she accepts. Meanwhile the island is alive with gossip about the strangers who have arrived from the mainland, armed with mysterious equipment which can reportedly steal a person’s words and transmit them through thin air. When Nuala is sent to cook for these men – engineers, who have been sent to Rathlin by Marconi to conduct experiments in the use of wireless telegraphy – she encounters an Italian named Gabriel, who offers her the chance to equip herself with new skills and knowledge. As her friendship with Gabriel opens up horizons beyond the rocky and treacherous cliffs of her island home, Nuala begins to realise that her deal with the tailor was a bargain she should never have struck.

On What Cathy Read Next last week

Book Reviews

On Thursday, I published my review of Broken Branches by M. Jonathan Lee and on Friday the next comparison post in my From Page to Screen challenge. This time the film adaptation under the spotlight was The Sense of an Ending from the novel of the same name by Julian Barnes.

Other posts

On Monday, I hosted a guest post from Lucy Appadoo as part of the blog tour for her book, Dancing in the Rain. The following day I took part in the book blitz for Shades of the Gods by Erin Hayes.   Wednesday is WWW Wednesday, where I and other book bloggers share what we’ve been reading, are currently reading and plan to read next. I find it fascinating to see what other book bloggers have been up to and it’s a great way to find amazing new blogs to follow. Also on my blog that day was a Q&A with first time author, Ed Duncan, about his thriller, Pigeon-Blood Red. Finally, on Saturday the spotlight was on Master of Alaska by Roger Seiler, a historical fiction novel based on the life of the first governor of Alaska.

Challenge updates

  • Goodreads 2017 Reading Challenge – 75 out of 78 books read (3 more than last week)
  • Classics Club Challenge– 2 out of 50 books reviewed (same as last week)
  • NetGalley/Edelweiss Reading Challenge 2017 (Gold) – 38 ARCs reviewed out of 50 (2 more than last week)
  • From Page to Screen 2017– 7 book/film comparisons out of 12 completed (1 more than last week)
  • The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction Shortlist 2017 – completed

On What Cathy Read Next this week

Currently reading

Planned posts

  • Book Review: City of Masks by S D Sykes
  • Blog Tour/Review: Dark Dawn over Steep House by M R C Kasasian
  • Blog Tour/Review: Exquisite by Sarah Stovell
  • Blog Tour/Review: Wolves in the Dark by Gunnar Staalesen
  • Blog Tour/Review: Did You Whisper Back? by Kate Rigby
  • Meme: WWW Wednesday
  • Book Review: House of Names by Colm Toibin

Reviews to be added to NetGalley

  • House of Names by Colm Toibin

Blog Tour/Giveaway: Master of Alaska by Roger Seiler

Master of Alaska

I’m delighted to host today’s stop on the blog tour for Master of Alaska by Roger Seiler and spotlight this fascinating book. Based on detailed research, including actual letters and reports by Aleksandr Baranov, the author has created an exciting story of determination and survival against the odds.

Watch the trailer and listen to the author reading excerpts from the book here

WinGIVEAWAY – Roger Seiler is giving away EACH DAY one SIGNED hard-copy Master of Alaska during the virtual book tour from 12th June to 30th June 2017.  For a chance to win, register at Roger’s website. Good Luck!


Find links to the other great book bloggers taking part in the tour here

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MasterofAlaskaAbout the Book

Master of Alaska is a compelling historical fiction about the first governor of Alaska, Aleksandr Baranov, sent to the colony by Russia in 1790. Leaving his family in Russia, Baranov sails across the North Pacific to Kodiak to become the chief manager for Tsarina Catherine the Great’s colony in the far Northwest of North America. Baranov is shipwrecked, saved and adopted by the Aleut natives. Later he is forced to marry Anooka the daughter of the tribal chief, despite still having a wife back in Russia, to save his men from starvation. Only slated to serve five years, Baranov spends the next 28 years in Alaska, surviving natural disasters, a massacre of his people at Sitka, meddling competing Russian authorities, a British attempt to undermine his colony and an assassination attempt. Baranov built an empire and sought peace with the warring Tlingit, and thanks largely to his efforts Alaska is part of the U.S. today.

Format: ebook Publisher: True North Pages: 294
Publication: 12th June 2017 Genre: Historical Fiction    

Purchase Links* ǀ ǀ Barnes & Noble
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

Find Master of Alaska on Goodreads

RogerSeilerAbout the Author

Award-winning filmmaker and author, Roger Seiler grew up in Alaska from the age of three. His love of adventure comes from his parents. His father, Edwin, was a civil engineer who eventually became an Alaskan bush pilot. His mother, Josefina, was a writer and Alaskan sport-fishing lodge manager. In his late teens, Roger was a King Salmon sport fishing guide on Alaska’s Naknek River and also a commercial salmon fisherman in Bristol Bay.

Roger attended Deep Springs College and graduated With Honors from UCLA with a BA in Theater Arts – Film. While attending UCLA, Roger worked with actor Karl Malden and famed director Francis Ford Coppola. Roger worked for IBM for several years as an in-house filmmaker involved largely in producing and directing motivational films for employee conventions. He has made over 30 documentary films. His IBM film, “The Inner Eye of Alexander Rutsch” had a special screening at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and won the CINE Golden Eagle Award, as did three of his other films, “Frontiers,” “Challenge Over the Atlantic,” and “Strategy of the Achiever.”

Roger currently lives in South Nyack, NY with his wife Sally. Roger is a devoted reader and supporter of libraries. In 1977 he was elected to the Board of Trustees of the Nyack Library (Carnegie funded in 1879) and has continued to serve for 40 years, 16 as Board President. Master of Alaska is his second book..

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From Page to Screen: The Sense of an Ending

About the Book: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The book is both a reminiscence on adolescent friendships, early romantic relationships and their aftermath and an exploration of the unintended consequences that can flow from actions. In this case, it is the events set in train by the main character’s reaction to a romantic disappointment. The reader becomes aware early on that the narrator, Tony, is being selective in the events he recounts, either consciously or subconsciously. At one point, he admits, ‘I told her the story of my life. The version I tell myself, the account that stands up.’ So key themes explored in the book are truth, memory and storytelling.

Read my review of the book here.

About the Film: The Sense of an Ending (2017)

The Sense of an Ending is directed by Ritesh Batra from a screenplay by Nick Payne based on Julian Barnes’ novel. The film stars Jim Broadbent as Tony, Charlotte Rampling as Veronica, Harriet Walter as Margaret and Emily Mortimer as Sarah Ford.

More information about the film can be found here.

Book v Film

The film largely follows the plot of the book but chooses to put more focus on some characters, for instance, Tony’s daughter, who does not appear in person in the book at all. In the film, Susie (played by Michelle Dockery) gets quite a bit of screen time and we see Tony supporting her in the latter stages of her pregnancy. I can only assume this was done to give his character more humanity but to my mind the whole point is that Tony finds it difficult to read and respond to other people. Young Tony’s visit to his girlfriend Veronica’s parents is close to the book and I liked the way the director emphasised the allure Veronica’s mother, Sarah, might hold for a young man, as this helps to make sense of later events.

Presented with an actress of the stature of Charlotte Rampling, it’s not surprising that the film expands the meetings between Tony and Veronica in later life. I felt the characterisation of Veronica downplayed the anger she displays in the book.  I thought Harriet Walter’s performance really captured the essence of Tony’s ex-wife, Margaret, as portrayed in the book and she communicated Margaret’s affectionate exasperation with Tony perfectly.

I enjoyed the flashback scenes to Tony’s schooldays and adolescence and I thought they had a really credible period feel. The director uses an imaginative technique at several points that allows us to see Tony reassessing events in his past and seeing them from a new perspective.

The Verdict

In the book, Tony muses: ‘How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts?’ Adjusting, embellishing and making cuts are clearly all part of adapting a book into a film. Some of the changes I could understand, others less so.  The film is well-crafted with good performances but I don’t believe it is completely successful in communicating the essence of the book.

What do you think? Have you read the book or seen the film?

Book Review: Broken Branches by M. Jonathan Lee

BrokenBranchesAbout the Book

Publisher’s description: ‘Family curses don’t exist. Sure, some families seem to suffer more pain than others, but a curse? An actual curse? I don’t think so.’

A family tragedy was the catalyst for Ian Perkins to return to the isolated cottage with his wife and young son. But now they are back, it seems yet more grief might befall the family.

There is still time to act, but that means Ian must face the uncomfortable truth about his past. And in doing so, he must uncover the truth behind the supposed family curse.

Format: Paperback Publisher: Hideaway Fall Pages: 294
Publication: 27th July 2017 Genre: Mystery    

Purchase Links* ǀ
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

Find Broken Branches on Goodreads

My Review

This is the first title from newly established publishers, Hideaway Fall, and I must say they have come up with a cracker.

Following his marriage to Rachel and the birth of his son, Harry, Ian Perkins has unexpectedly returned to the isolated cottage where he spent his childhood. Despite the idyllic sounding location, the giant sycamore in the garden exercises a brooding presence over the cottage. Could this be the source of the curse that has been the cause of such tragedy for the Perkins’ family over the years?

Early in the book, we find out the circumstances surrounding Ian’s return to the cottage but this is not the only “incident” that appears to be occupying his mind and causing difficulties in his marriage. For Ian, his son, Harry, is the only bright presence in a house seemingly overwhelmed by depression and inertia. The author brilliantly depicts Ian’s obsessive search to prove that the curse exists and so provide a reason for the tragedies the family has experienced. After all, if there is indeed a curse, then no-one else can be to blame, can they?

Alternating between the present day as Ian searches for answers, and scenes from Ian’s troubled childhood, the author creates an unsettling atmosphere with a distinctly gothic feel. I’m not going to say much more for fear of spoilers but I suggest Broken Branches is best read in the daytime with other people in the house (who are meant to be there).

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of publishers, Hideaway Fall, in return for an honest review.

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In three words: Creepy, unsettling, intense

Try something similar…The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (contemporary option) or Casting the Runes by M. R. James (classic option)

MJonathanLeeAbout the Author

M. Jonathan Lee was born in Yorkshire, England where he still lives to this day. When not writing, you’ll find him at the back door thinking.  His first novel, The Radio, was nationally shortlisted in the Novel Prize 2012. Broken Branches is his fourth novel.

Connect with Jonathan

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