Antigone Rising: The Subversive Power of the Ancient Myths by Helen Morales

Antigone Rising is a look at how Greek and Roman myths can influence radical and rebellious thought and narratives in the modern day. Classicist Helen Morales goes through a selection of myth (starting and ending with Antigone) to think about modern parallels and reimaginings and where myths or elements of them might be reclaimed or reused to look at modern issues around feminism, race, and gender. Some chapters look at rape culture and gender fluidity in mythology, especially Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and how this relates to the modern day, including the issues in these texts and how people have or might reclaim them, and another considers art, race, and the figure of Venus in relation to Beyoncé.

There’s nothing new in drawing contemporary comparisons with Greek and Roman mythology, but what Morales tries to do is to highlight some of the ways this can be done in resistance and for particular issues, and also suggest some of the problems with doing this too. It would’ve been interesting to get more about the problems of using myths like this (the book is quite short), but where she does engage with the complexity is more interesting than a ‘this classical figure could be feminist’ kind of analysis. The topics vary and the pace is quite fast, which makes this an easy book to read, and keeps it engaging. She doesn’t assume knowledge of any of the myths, which is useful for a general audience, and the book would make a good introduction to looking deeper at where mythology can be updated and used in modern contexts for elements of protest and resistance.

Antigone Rising presents a slightly more complex idea of looking at Greek and Roman myths for modern day resonance, and touches on some interesting ideas, including on some of the limitations of doing this. It felt like it could’ve gone on for a lot more chapters covering other myths and topics, but the length makes it good as an introduction, and it has notes and mentions of other texts people could follow up on afterwards.

Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt

Tongues of Fire a collection of poetry that focuses on viewing life through nature, on physicality and reality but also the sacred and untouchable, and on grief, loss, and illness. The poems are mostly short lyric poems, weaving together ideas of nature, belief, and personal connection. What is particularly vivid as you read the collection is the ways in which the natural world is returned to, and offers an escape from the world, and how the poems show this through moments and details of plants and settings as ways of encapsulating feelings, from sex and desire to sadness and grief. This felt particularly notable in poems like ‘Adoration’, which moves from a nature walk to a Berlin club and back again, and it really gives a sense of how the personal can also be part of something much larger about life and earth.

These poems feel like an escape into the tiny details of outside, a kind of mechanism of looking for the natural and the meaning when things seem random or difficult. This was a great collection to sit down with and become immersed in the senses and physicality, but also the emotions of the poems.

The Voice in My Ear by Frances Leviston

The Voice in My Ear is a collection of stories about ten women called Claire, all with different ages and relationships. The stories are all distinct, but also have connecting themes (and the connecting name) which make it the kind of story collection that feels like a complete whole rather than stories put together. Relationships and mothers recur throughout the stories, which are mostly slices of contemporary life (though there is one about an android).

Some of the stories feel more like snapshots that separate stories, and generally the collection feels like you are moving between each Claire rather than having distinct start and end points for each. The writing draws you in and is easily readable, and the stories offer a sometimes bleak and unsettling look at different women’s lives. From the blurb I had expected more of a connection, or maybe more of a sense of an overall meaning or resolution, but if you go in expecting slightly linked short stories it’ll make more sense.

Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez

Rainbow Milk is the story of a young man growing up and dealing with race, sexuality, class, and the after effects of having been brought up a Jehovah’s Witness. At the start of the millennium, Jesse leaves the Black Country and his planned out life in religion to discover London, sex, drugs, love, and freedom. He does sex work and works as a waiter, he looks for friendships and purpose, and most of all, he forms new meaning for his life and who he is. And ultimately, reaching out from the past is a family connection he never knew that might give him a wider sense of belonging.

This is a gripping coming of age novel that really highlights the intersectional nature of oppression and identity, particularly how race affects both sexuality and religious upbringing. The narrative structure moves forward but also flashes back to show how Jesse’ life progresses by focusing on key moments. There is also an initial section focused on Norman, who moves to the Black Country from Jamaica in the 1950s, and places Jesse’s story within a wider picture of the Windrush generation and the treatment of black people in Britain. A lot of the novel is dialogue-focused, with many of the main scenes featuring lengthy conversations, and Mendez makes this very real and immediate, using characters’ respective linguistic styles and dialects to show their complicated relationships and identities.

The content is sex, drugs, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mendez tells it in a bold, sometimes sad, and also heartwarming way. What makes Rainbow Milk feel distinctive is that it is full not only of exploration of big issues of race and sexuality and religion, but it is also full of hope, and forging your own future and family even when it might not fit what you or your upbringing had anticipated.

Q by Christina Dalcher

Q is a tense dystopian novel about eugenics, intelligence, and motherhood, in which one of the privileged must expose the heart of the new education system. Elena is a teacher at an elite school, one for those with the highest Q quotient. Her daughters go to these schools, and her husband runs the politics behind them, the politics that makes the country focused on perfection and unforgiving on those who don’t do well enough. Those who aren’t good enough at these schools end up at the yellow schools, boarding schools out of state with restricted visiting access. Elena thinks the system is fair, until one of her daughters fails a test and is sent to a yellow school. Elena hatches a plan to join her, but to get her out the whole thing will need exposing.

This is a dark book that fits very much into the kind of dystopia where only a few details from reality have to be changed to form the crux of the narrative and where calling it ‘sci-fi’ doesn’t seem appropriate. Dalcher takes historical (and not so historical) ideas about intelligence and eugenics and looks at what would happen if these became the new basis for an educational system that spills out into other areas of life. Elena is an interesting choice of protagonist, someone with a complicated, morally questionable past and a controlling husband in the present. The novel made me want to know more—about the supporting characters, about what the yellow school was like—which was unexpected (often dystopias give you too much detail), and sometimes the plot felt a bit too neat and easily resolved, but as a relatively quick read it at least wasn’t bogged down.

The concept of this novel is interesting and the viewpoint of the protagonist brings complexity due to her past and her present clashing. Easily linked to elements of the modern day, it will probably spark a few conversations and shock a few readers.

The Martian’s Regress by J.O. Morgan

The Martian’s Regress is a book of poetry about a single Martian who returns to Earth, focusing on origin stories, future, and the environment. It is split into separate short poems, but it is also a single work exploring the martian’s present life and the previous history of his people. This is poetry that tells stories and reflects on the stories told by others, and on how you keep going when alone. The martian’s exploration of the now broken and empty Earth is a highlight, as various poems/sections consider the reality of the emptiness.

There are obvious modern themes, from the environmentalism and look at the future of the planet, to the currently weirdly relevant look at being isolated, and the collection has an eerie sense at times, as if you’re also with the Martian. At the same time, it can be light hearted, and also shows how poetry and science fiction can come together in interesting ways to create certain atmospheres. It is a book to read all at once, rather than taking in separate poems, to fully immerse in the story and setting.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet is a novel fictionalising the death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet to look at what happens to a family already stretched between Stratford-upon-Avon and London. One day in 1596, a girl falls ill, and her twin brother searches for help. Their mother is out of the house and their father in London, where he makes his living as a playwright. Soon, one of the twins will be dead of the plague, a death that resonates across the family and through time due to the name connection with the famous play.

The novel moves between the ‘present’ narrative of Hamnet’s last days and the aftermath of his death, and the past, the meeting of a tutor and a woman with a kestrel who will marry and give life to Hamnet and his sisters. The writing style is poetic and readable, making the novel flow far more easily than a lot of historical fiction, and getting across the sense of fate and prescience that Agnes in particular believes in. O’Farrell paints a vivid picture of Agnes, Shakespeare’s wife (there’s a note at the end about why she chose to use this name for her rather than the more well known Anne) and Hamnet’s mother, not only her quirks but also how she deals with the grief and with the constant separation from her husband, who she knew needed to go to London.

There are plenty of fictionalised versions of Shakespeare, but this one, which focuses more on his family and on a kind of inevitability that wouldn’t be out of place in his plays, is on the more engaging end of the scale, for not trying to answer questions about his life as much as paint a story of loss and a strained relationship. The obvious links with the plague and the present day makes these a strangely timely novel in some ways, but hopefully that won’t be all it’ll be read for.

Non-Binary Lives: An Anthology of Intersecting Identities ed. by Jos Twist, Ben Vincent, Meg-John Barker and Kat Gupta

Non-Binary Lives is a collection of personal essays by non-binary people on elements of their lives and identities. As a whole, the anthology considers the range of experiences of being non-binary in the modern day, and how gender identity intersects with race, class, disability, faith, sexuality, and more. The writers come from various backgrounds and the book shows a real range of narratives, showing that there isn’t one way to be non-binary nor is there a typical non-binary person. The pieces are short and numerous, making it easy to keep reading, and the author bios after each essay allow you to connect the writer to their other work easily.

This is an important collection, both in bringing these stories together to be shared and opening up a range of experiences to show people—regardless of their gender—how varied non-binary lives are and expose them to different points of view. 

Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight

Hex is a novel about obsession, complicated relationships, and poison set around a university campus. Nell Barber was expelled from her PhD after the death of a fellow student, but is still desperate to keep trying to find answers for the detoxification of poisonous plants. She is obsessed with her advisor and mentor, Joan, who thinks she should try and pursue less controversial work, and they both find themselves in a web of relationships and grudges that may be more toxic than the plants Nell is now growing in her empty apartment.

Hex is a surprising novel, which seems like it is going to be about poison and death, and turns out to be about relationships and obsession. Written in the second person as Nell’s notebooks, the book’s unusual style and lack of real plot won’t be for everyone, but it creates an atmosphere and draws you into Nell’s obsession, which is less about the poisonous plants and more about Joan. The blend of details about plants and Nell’s focus on the other characters works well in giving it the claustrophobic sense of a campus novel that centres around a small group of people whilst using the academic work as a way of exposing elements of the story and characters.

Going into Hex expecting a poison-focused version of The Secret History probably will leave you disappointed, as it lacks the threat of Tartt’s novel, but it is an interesting look at obsessive love and the complexity of relationships, and one for anyone who likes slightly dark novels set at universities.

Sharks in the Time of Saviours by Kawai Strong Washburn

Sharks in the Time of Saviours is the story of a family, a miraculous son, and life in modern Hawaii. When Nainoa is seven, he is saved from drowning by sharks, and his parents see this as a sign things are looking up for them. But things aren’t simple for Nainoa, and for his siblings Dean and Kaui who both feel like he has a special place in their parents’ affections. Each of them travels to mainland USA looking for something, but things don’t work out as their parents hope.

It is difficult to know what to expect from this novel, which starts with a kind of mystical atmosphere as Nainoa is saved and becomes a kind of myth, but also looks at the struggles of economic downturn, and later the tarnished American dream. The magical elements, though vital to the narrative and the blended atmosphere of myth and harsh reality, are much less prevalent than you might assume, which works well with the different characters’ senses of the myth elements of the book. Though Nainoa’s narrative is the more unusual, it is through Dean and Kaui that you get a real sense of the novel’s power as their connections to Hawaii and their family become complicated and change, and the dreams or goals they once had become untenable.

This is a novel for people who like stories that combine sadness and harsh circumstances with interesting explorations of place, myth, and people. For many readers it’ll give new ways to think about Hawaii and how people might interact with it as a home and what they might seek in mainland USA.