Monday, 20 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island (dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2017)

Contains major spoilers

Caught this movie this weekend (after seeing the live-action Beauty and the Beast, which is probably my favourite live-action Disney adaptation so far, though this may have something to do with it starring Dan Stevens, aka Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey, aka an actor I have loved since he was in obscure BBC drama The Line of Beauty). Kong: Skull Island was quite a bit better than I was expecting, though my expectations were quite low and I'm not really that into monster movies anyway, so that may not be saying much!

One of the things I found very odd before going to see the film was the fact that it's a mash-up of a Vietnam war movie and the story of King Kong, which seemed a bit strange. Over the course of the film, that aspect of it did start to win me over, as it did seem to be doing some interesting things with that setting. The story had some interesting things to say about war - for example, one character points out that sometimes an enemy doesn't become an enemy until you make them an enemy, which is an important point that runs through the film, and is illustrated in reverse - an enemy can become a friend - in John C. Reilly's Hank Marlow's mourning for the man we first saw trying to kill him because they were fighting on opposite sides in a war.

The complexities of the issue are illustrated nicely through the group's changing attitudes towards Kong. Kong killed a number of the group when they arrive - that is an unassailable fact. However, the problem with Samuel L Jackson's character is, that fact is all he sees. He has no interest in either the reasons Kong behaved that way, which might seem valid from Kong's point of view, or in the ramifications of his desire for revenge on Kong, which might seem temporarily satisfying but will ultimately lead to more death and destruction for everyone. These are important issues and rather nicely brought out.

Of course the main reason for the Vietnam war setting is that this is basically a re-telling of the Heart of Darkness story that formed the basis of Apocalypse Now. The number of images and sequences in this film that come straight from Apocalypse Now are countless, from helicopters to sunsets to images of silent, staring indigenous people to journeys up a jungle river. Tom Hiddleston's character is even named after the author of Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad. At the centre of the story is Jackson's Colonel, echoing Apocalypse Now's Colonel Kurtz, a man who does not want to return home, who cannot see beyond his desire for revenge, who has been twisted into madness by war.

There is another story that is arguably the through-line of the film, however, and that is John C. Reilly's character Hank Marlow's story. It is with Marlow that we begin and end the film (discounting the post-credits sequences that refers to the wider cinematic Monsterverse) and his story is an even older one - the Odyssey. Like Odysseus, Marlow has been prevented from returning home for a long time, has a grown-up son he has never met, and worries about whether his wife is still waiting for him (though he has been gone 9 years longer than even Odysseus). It's no wonder, then, that the boat that brings salvation closer to him is named Athena, after the goddess who protects Odysseus and helps him. It's a tiny little Classical reference, easy not to notice, but it might just be a key to the true heart of the film - not the journey of Jackson's grim Colonel or those trying to stop him, but ultimately, really the story of Marlow and his long, epic struggle to get home.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Types of historical fiction

I'm at the Historical Fictions Research Network conference this weekend, presenting with Tony Keen on our ongoing project looking at screen representations of Roman Britain. While sitting here listening to very interesting papers and wishing I wasn't going to miss the panel on counter-factual history, I got to thinking about the distinct types of historical fiction and how they relate to each other.

Defining what historical fiction is probably seems like a pretty simple job - it's fiction set in the past. But several of the works being discussed at the conference aren't technically historical fiction, but science fiction. Alternative history stories draw on history but are set in alternative worlds where things turned out differently, like The Man in the High Castle, set in a north America where Germany and Japan won World War Two. Another SFF form of historical fiction becoming popular is retellings of real events with fantasy elements added, like Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

I wonder if there's another category that should be included under 'historical fiction' as well. In our project on representations of Roman Britain we'll be thinking, however briefly, about the Wall in Game of Thrones. I'm also looking at a new project on Classical reception in the works of Terry Pratchett, and have been discussing whether the Discworld novels set for a substantial section in a fantasy version of an ancient world (primarily Pyramids, and to a lesser extent, Small Gods, parts of Eric, and The Last Hero) belong in a different category to the Classical references found more generally in Pratchett's work. George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (the book series behind Game of Thrones) presents a pseudo-medieval world rooted in real medieval practices and including events, most notoriously the Red Wedding, based on real medieval incidents. These are works set in a secondary fantasy world, but clearly drawing on specific periods of real history. (We could even throw in pseudo-medieval retellings of the stories of King Arthur based on medieval literature rather than Anglo-Saxon history, though that's something else again). Aren't these also forms of historical fiction?

This ties in to our understanding of ancient literature as well. I have often pointed out to students that the Homeric poems are works of historical literature, though they are clearly also what would in modern terms be fantasy (I am sure the Greeks did not regularly encounter talking horses or battle rivers). For the most part, these of the type that puts fantasy elements into historical events, though the ancient definition of 'historical events' (e.g. the Trojan War) is a bit different from the modern one! Secondary world fantasy and portal fantasy are rather rare in Greco-Roman literature, perhaps because real world fiction so often included fantasy elements, though underworld narratives might be considered an exception there. 

The biggest advantage of writing secondary world fantasy inspired by history rather than historical fiction with fantasy in it, of course, is that the author is released from any need for historical accuracy. All historical fiction takes liberties with history, but in this century, there is an expectation that it will be reasonably, largely, accurate to the current interpretation of what happened (this was not the case when either the ancients or Shakespeare were writing, of course!). I think Martin has actually discussed this though I can't remember where - but writing fantasy inspired by history gives the author so much more freedom to ignore potential objections from modern readers who are inclined to complain about inaccuracies in historical fiction. It also, of course, introduces doubt as to the outcome and allows the author to surprise the reader with events like the aforementioned Red Wedding.

In terms of reception, the clearest difference between these and more traditional historical fiction is that people are less likely to learn all they know about a period of history from these stories (though it might still happen!). But in terms of the way the author uses their material, they clearly exist in the same general sphere. And even audience/reader reception may be similar in some ways, for although the events may be different, where aspects of an historical culture are clearly represented, something of that representation is bound to stick in the reader's mind and colour their idea of that historical period.

This isn't a comprehensive summary of types of historical fiction, and one step further on from historically inspired fantasy must be historically inspired secondary world computer games like the Fable series, though the 'history' might become increasingly set dressing more than anything else in those cases. But it is perhaps a neglected area in research on historical fiction which, if it embraces alternative history (which is, essentially, secondary world fantasy or science fiction) should surely embrace historically inspired secondary world fantasy as well.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2 (dir. Chad Stahelski, 2017)

He got a new dog!

This weekend I ended up, through a combination of timings, movie length and the preferences of my companions, going to see John Wick: Chapter 2 and The Great Wall at the cinema, despite the many other impressive movies I still haven't seen! I am a big fan of Keanu Reeves, who I think genuinely think is under-rated as an actor (OK, there's a certain similarity to his performances, but they work) and John Wick: Chapter 2 was by far the better of the two films.

Spoiler alert! I'm about to discuss the film in detail, including the ending.

The film is, of course, ridiculous. In interviews for the Empire Podcast Spoiler Special on the film, both director and star described it as such, with Reeves accurately describing it as 'ridiculous but fun'. It is over-the-top, totally amoral (enjoy watching people kill each other for money and/or over mafia business!) and, generally, nonsense. But it does what it does well and is an entertaining ride.

It's also a film make with genuine care and attention, regardless of how daft the plot and setting may be. That applies to the care taken in the depiction of guns, cars and martial arts, and the artistic choices made throughout the film. Director Chad Stahelski talks enthusiastically in the interview about his love for Greek and Roman mythology (he even uses the word 'plebeians' in everyday conversation!) and the film is jam-packed with references to Classical literature and ancient history.

These include but are not limited to: the names of Ruby Rose's mute assassin (Ares, the Greek name of the god of war, Mars in Latin), Bridget Moynahan's dear, departed wife (Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world) and Lance Reddick's concierge (Charon, the ferryman to the underworld); the death of Claudia Gerini's Gianna D'Antonio (slashing her wrists in a huge Roman-style bath in the middle of an ancient ruin, rather than allowing herself to be executed, the traditional method of execution/death for disgraced or condemned Roman elites); the setting for the middle act of the film, in Rome with a strong focus on the ancient forums and Trajan's markets between the 19th century Victor Emmanuel II monument and the Colosseum, and the basic nature of the plot, concerning Italian organised crime (which has its roots in ancient Roman culture) and the eternal cycle of violence and vengeance.

It's the eternity and inescapability of this cycle that is main theme of the film, and one of the reasons for the substantial use of Classical allusions. Underneath all the cartoon violence, the film is about the difficulty of escaping a destructive spiral once in it. Unlike the personally motivated revenge story of the first film, in this case, John Wick is pulled back into the cycle of violence by a prior commitment he has no strong feelings about, into a situation with no way out (since the first rule of assassination is to kill the assassin). He tries to break the cycle by getting rid of Santino D'Antonio, but the rules he breaks in order to do so only drag him down deeper.
Hercules and Lichas, by Antonio Canova.
Ironically, the original is actually in Rome.

This is especially emphasised by my favourite Classical allusion in the film, one repeated several times. In a museum in New York City, several conversations take place in font of a series of sculptures of the Greco-Roman gods, with, front and centre, a late eighteenth-century sculpture of Hercules killing Lichas. In Greek mythology, Hercules (or Heracles in Greek) is dying from a poisoned cloak sent to him by his wife, who thought it was imbued with a love potion. The cloak makes him feel as if he is on fire as it slowly kills him. In agony, Hercules catches sight of the slave, Lichas, who brought the cloak to him from his wife. He grabs him and hurls the unlucky slave into the sea.

The statue is a perfect summary of the film itself. John Wick refuses to give up and die, fighting for survival, but he is dying nevertheless; he has lost his home and all traces of his life with his wife, and turned his back on his life as an assassin, and while Winston gives him a stay of execution at the end of the film, it cannot last forever. However, he is determined to take down those who condemned him as he dies, refusing to go quietly but creating as much suffering for those he blames in his rage as he is able to do. It's a dramatic, moving sculpture and nicely lends the weight of ancient myth to the film.

I enjoyed the film a lot, even if sometimes it was for the wrong reasons (I could not stop laughing at the Matrix reunion between Reeves and Laurance Fishburne). John Wick belongs very much to a particular genre, but that is not an excuse for careless film-making, and everyone involved in this is well aware that however silly the story, it still needs to be produced in a way that creates a satisfying experience. Reeves clearly loves what he's doing - I'd recommend listening to the Empire podcast interview, as well as his interview on Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo's film review podcast, which are both a joy. It's that love and care that make this a thoroughly solid example of the genre and a good night out.

P.S. The Great Wall was pretty much the opposite of this film. Historical objections about the real reasons the wall was built are not really the point - it's fantasy, so of course the wall was built for different reasons in this alternative reality. The thing is, it's silly and reasonably entertaining, but displaying none of the love and care of John Wick: Chapter 2, and featuring millions of the green snot monster from outer space from a particularly poor episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Though Pedro Pascal was funny, and I did like Tian Jing's kick-ass commander Lin Mae.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Escape from Rome (by Caroline Lawrence)

Fans of The Roman Mysteries, rejoice! This book is the first in a new series that forms a direct sequel to The Roman Mysteries. Set a few years later and aimed at slightly older readers (as you can tell from the slightly smaller type!), although this story features new, teenaged, lead characters, it also includes appearances from some of the main characters from The Roman Mysteries. While not resolved in this first volume, the series also promises to wrap up the main significant dangling plot thread from the end of that series as well.

The new leads are a likeable group of children descended from an African freedman, forced to run away to Britain when the historically unpopular Emperor Domitian has their parents murdered. I liked the book's treatment of race, which is accurate to the period. Racism certainly existed in the ancient world, and we encounter it towards the end, when a rich black character chooses to keep blonde, pale-skinned slaves (including one albino) in a reaction to a white man who had kept black slaves. However, in the Roman world, status and money were far more important than race, and that is accurately reflected in the book; this also allows the story to showcase a predominantly black cast of main characters in an historical story that is not about Afro-Caribbean slavery or US Civil Rights, which seems to me to make a pleasant change (not that there is anything wrong with those stories, but they do tend to dominate, especially in the Young Adult market!).

Like all Caroline Lawrence stories, the cast of characters also includes characters with disabilities, the less physical ones not well understood in the Roman world (like the Western Mysteries, this series includes a main character on the autistic spectrum). In addition to exploring how the children deal with their disabilities, the story also explores in some depth the effect such challenges can have on other children within the family, and that was nicely done, acknowledging the effect of the problem without ever implying that it was unsolvable or excessively burdensome.

The story also evokes a wonderful sense of place and highlights several sites that children lucky enough to be able to reach them might like to visit - in particular, Fishbourne Palace in south-east England, and the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius, which now sits outside the train station for Ostia in Rome (as well as Ostia itself, of course, the main setting for many of the Roman Mysteries). Not being a very visual person, I always find it easier to appreciate a site when I can attach some kind of story to it, and this is a perfect way to get excited about a visit to Fishbourne! (More so than the Cambridge Latin Course, fond as I am of it!).

I also really liked the chapter headings, which are Latin words - a list with translations is provided at the back. Some are guessable from context, others need to be looked up to be understood - and I confess, I had to look one up myself! (For some reason 'fax', meaning torch, not electronic mailing device, has not been a major part of my Latin vocabulary so far). They are definitely a good way to improve anyone's Latin vocabulary. At the same time, it doesn't matter if the reader doesn't understand them or doesn't want to stop to look them up - it might even help to increase the suspense not to know what they mean.

This is a fast-paced, exciting and dramatic story that I really enjoyed. It reminded me of some of my favourite elements from classic children's literature, like the kitten that reminded me of a favourite Arthur Ransome character, and unsurprisingly the whole thing felt very much like a spiritual successor to Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth. I look forward to the next instalment - partly because there's still that dangling mystery from the earlier series that's oh so close to being solved...

All Caroline Lawrence book reviews

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Eye in the Sky (dir. Gavin Hood, 2016): A modern Iphigenia

Greek tragedy often sets a up a moral problem in which the interests of the oikos - the household, i.e. the family and family unit - are at odds with the interests of the polis - the city, i.e. the political state. In some cases, we as a modern audience can understand the dilemma - surely Antigone, for example, should be allowed to bury her traitor brother? And yet, we understand that Creon is tenuously holding on to hard-won power and nervous of any sign of frailty.

In other cases, however, we might find it difficult to see the choice as a real choice. When the goddess Artemis demands that Agamemnon sacrifice his young daughter, Iphigenia, so that the Greek army can get the right winds to sail for Troy (for an aggressive attack supposedly intended to retrieve his sister-in-law), it can be hard for a modern audience to sympathise. How could we ever consider killing a young girl in the hope of gaining a better wind?

At least since the publication of Jonathan Shay's excellent Achilles in Vietnam if not before, though, a number of scholars have been working on interpretations of Greek myth as stories which allowed the Greeks to deal with real traumas in a metaphorical way, much like the best science fiction and fantasy does in the modern world. A myth about a hero who is driven mad by a goddess and attacks his family, for example, may be an expression of very real incidences of post-traumatic stress disorder experienced, though of course not diagnosed, by returning Greek soldiers. In myth, the gods are the cause of the trouble, but these divine figures may be metaphors for more human causes.

The sacrifice of Iphigenia does not bear any particular relation to post-traumatic stress disorder, but it may reflect real experiences of Greek soldiers and the agonising decisions they have to make. We see almost the same decision, minus the personal connection, play out in Gavin Hood's excellent Eye in the Sky (which is also Alan Rickman's final on-screen performance, and a fitting swan song for a great actor). In this film, British and American forces face a dilemma - they have a chance to kill a group of dangerous terrorists, but doing so will almost certainly kill or severely maim an innocent little girl. What should they do?

Of course, in ancient Greece, drone warfare did not exist and this exact dilemma could not have happened. But enemy camps would not necessarily have been devoid of women and children, even in the ancient world. Camp followers would have been present, and some of them may have had children. Officers also sometimes brought their wives and children with them - in the Roman period, a group of mutineers were famously pacified when they frightened away the two-year-old Caligula and his mother. It is not inconceivable that an attack that would provide a strong tactical advantage would also kill or harm innocent children, and of course, any attack tended to result in the enslavement of the women and children on the losing side.

Agamemnon's specific dilemma (killing his own daughter) is unlikely to have occurred, just as the specific set of circumstances depicted in Eye in the Sky, while plausible, is fairly unlikely. But both Iphigenia and Eye in the Sky's Alia stand for all the young girls and boys killed or maimed, directly or indirectly, in warfare. The decision-making process in reality may not be so calculated or so personal, but any military attack, especially if it is anywhere near a civilian habitation, may bring with it innocent casualties, and those in the military must weigh up impossible decisions concerning the rights and wrongs of any such attack, decisions the rest of us hope never to have to face. That was a dilemma that affected the ancient Greeks just as much as it affects the modern military, and the fates of Iphigenia and Alia are a reminder of the true weight of those decisions.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Queen of the Silver Arrow (by Caroline Lawrence)

A couple of years ago, I reviewed The Night Raid, by Caroline Lawrence (author of The Roman Mysteries), a book written especially for dyslexic teenage boys and published by specialists Barrington Stoke. Queen of the Silver Arrow is a new companion volume focusing this time on female characters (The Night Raid was a re-telling of a story from Book 9 of the Aeneid, while Queen of the Silver Arrow re-tells a story from Books 7 and 11). Like The Night Raid, the content of the story is aimed primarily at older readers, but in simpler language and shorter sentences, paragraphs and chapters than you might expect in a Young Adult book.

Both books are, true to the source material, fairly downbeat. Without wishing to discuss the ending in too much detail, this volume works hard to produce a satisfying ending from a tragic story, and largely succeeds, mostly by making a point of the changing attitudes of the narrator Acca and her friends to the Trojans. The book is an inverse of The Night Raid in several ways, not just in focusing on characters of another gender, but on characters fighting on the opposite side of the same war, and the books work particularly well if read together, providing two difference perspectives on some of the same events.

The content of this book is not quite as violent as The Night Raid, but it doesn't pull any punches when it comes to battle scenes, and if any young readers catch the brief appearance of Nisus and Rye from that book in this one they might be a bit squicked out. It is interesting to see that the story also explores the use of make-up, clothing and hair-styling for young girls. I remember a (male) friend once complaining to me about the amount of time dedicated to styling in The Hunger Games (a similarly themed story in many ways), but I felt that was an absolutely essential part of the story, because so much of how people respond to young women is determined - however subconsciously - by how they dress, do or don't make themselves up, and style their hair. This story actively explores the use of hair, make-up and clothes to project what the young woman wants to project, and the ways in which that can be manipulated, which is interesting - as well as providing plenty of action and allowing its young heroines to hunt and fight alongside male characters in other chapters.

Classicists will enjoy spotting who's who and reading an enhanced and expanded re-telling of the story of Camilla. Like The Night Raid, the book echoes Virgil's Latin where appropriate, particularly in its description of Camilla's final battle (Virgil, Aeneid, 11.794-835). Most of the names have been kept the same here as they are reasonably easy to read, except Tarpeia, who is called Tarpi, as Euryalus was re-named Rye.

I enjoyed this book very much, and especially in conjunction with The Night Raid, as they make excellent companion pieces. Hopefully boys who enjoyed The Night Raid will be encouraged to read this, and girls who enjoyed this will be encouraged to read The Night Raid!

See my reviews of Caroline Lawrence's Roman Mysteries series here.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Imagining the Afterlife

Apologies for having neglected the blog somewhat lately - things have been very busy at work, but I haven't totally forgotten it!

One of the things keeping me busy is organising a conference to take place at Newman and the University of Birmingham next June. The conference is on 'Imagining the Afterlife in the Ancient World', and is part of a new project I'm working on about how people imagine the afterlife and how that relates (or doesn't) to real world afterlife beliefs. The conference will be inter-disciplinary and cover a broad range of topics relating to how people thought about the afterlife in the ancient world.

I'm planning to do some comparative work for this project, comparing modern Western depictions of the afterlife and how they relate to Christian afterlife belief with ancient depictions of the afterlife and how they relate to ancient beliefs. I may post a few related reviews here, some of which may not be Classical themselves, but useful points of comparison. Suggestions for useful books, films or TV episodes are welcome!

UPDATE: The conference programme is now in place here!

Thursday, 27 August 2015

10 Classics-themed beach reads

A few weeks ago, I contributed to a Den of Geek article providing geek-specific recommendations for beach reads, so I thought it would be fun to do the same with a Classics-based theme as well. I'm aware that most of us the Northern hemisphere have probably come back from our beach holidays already but never mind, it's never too early to start planning for next year!

Other than being good books, these recommendations are based largely on what I'm looking for in a beach read. Although Kindles have made it possible to read even the biggest George RR Martin tome wherever you want, I still think a beach read should ideally be relatively short, so that if you prefer to expose the paperback to sand, sea, salt, and (depending on the beach) rain it's not too huge, and you can reasonably expect to read the whole book during one short holiday.

I also quite like to read something appropriate to the environment when on a beach, so tend to avoid stories set in snow-bound mountains or similar, though again, this depends to an extent on the beach. (Classics-themed novels have an advantage there, of course, as Greece and Rome are quite warm - if you're European, chances are the beach you are on was once part of the Roman Empire).

And they should be reasonably light in tone for the most part, as convulsive crying because your favourite character has been tortured/sacrificed/behaved like a an idiot while reading on a public beach can be a little embarrassing. I've also restricted this list to novels, though I've often enjoyed reading non-fiction (especially travel literature) on a beach as well. There are a lot of mystery novels here, mostly because I like the genre, but also because the stories tend to be self-contained puzzles leading up to the satisfying conclusion of finding out whodunnit, so they work especially well as beach reads. (If you're wondering where my one of favourite Classics-based novels of all, I, Claudius, is, it was discounted for not being quite light enough in terms of readability - all those ancient-historian-inspired digressions - or weight, especially if you wanted both the novel and its sequel, Claudius the God).

I've been pretty broad in what counts as 'Classics-themed' here, so some of these are stories set entirely within the ancient world, while others just use Classical themes or include hints and elements of Classical mythology or culture.

10. The Evil That Men Do, by Nancy Holder

Between TVs in hotels, films on memory sticks, laptops, portable DVD players and so on, two-week holidays with no TV are much rarer than they used to be. But if you want something to read without requiring headphones on the beach, but find you're missing your TV, what better to bring than a TV tie-in novel?! I'm rather fond of official tie-in novels. Essentially fan fiction that's gone through a professional spell check, they're usually light, frothy and often good fun. This particular Buffy the Vampire Slayer tie-in novel comes with ancient Roman vampires, Bacchae and an amphitheatre - close your eyes to historical inaccuracy and enjoy.

9. Dead in the Family, by Charlaine Harris

I recommended Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire Mysteries among my suggestions for geeky beach reads, and the same reasons still stand here - nice, hot setting, good pace, a fun and light read. The second, seventh and tenth books all have major Classical elements, and the seventh is one of my favourites, but I'm recommending this tenth volume as a really interesting representation of an ancient Roman character thrown into a modern context. If you haven't read any of these before and just want to give them a go the second book, Living Dead in Dallas, might be a better bet.

8. Poseidon's Gold, by Lindsey Davis

This is the fifth of Lindsey Davis' Roman detective stories told by private investigator Marcus Didius Falco. This story is lighter than the first few and stands more or less alone, and is set entirely in Rome  and Capua - no descriptions of wet and cold Britain or Germania here! It introduces Falco's father, a lively character, and features a plot revolving around stolen art and antiquities and is generally a good read and a pretty good introduction to the series if you haven't read any before (the first book, The Silver Pigs, is the one I think is the best, but doesn't reflect the slightly lighter tone of some of the later books so well).

7. The Day Aberystwyth Stood Still, by Malcolm Pryce

This is the latest entry in another series I'd recommended among the geeky beach reads. Not actually science fiction and fantasy, Malcolm Pryce's Chandler-esque pastiches set in the Welsh seaside town of Aberystwyth are perfect if your type of beach holiday leans more towards windy walks on pebble beaches and bracing gales (as my childhood holidays did) than sand between your toes and bikinis. The downside is you'd be skipping to the end of the series, but the Classical parallels in this story - which features a Welsh Hercules and katabasis ice cream - are good fun.

6. Arms of Nemesis, by Steven Saylor

This is the second full-length novel Steven Saylor wrote about Roman detective Gordianus the Finder (two volumes of short stories are set between the first and second novels, and he has now written two prequel novels). It's set around the Bay of Naples, which was a popular holiday resort for ancient Romans, so it makes great holiday reading, though the plot is pretty heavy in places. As only the second novel written, it doesn't require much foreknowledge of Gordianus or his family, so it's a pretty good place to jump in, though of course, the first novel to be written, Roman Blood, is equally good - but includes more Cicero. For me, that's a bad thing!

5. The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

I have frequently compared The Song of Achilles to Twilight, and I stand by that comparison. It's fan fiction of the Iliad (which I suppose makes it 50 Shades of Grey rather than Twilight itself, but I haven't read that). The descriptions of Achilles are ludicrously over-done - I know, in the author's defence, that he is literally a demi-god but I don't think we need to hear how gorgeous and god-like his appearance is every five minutes. Two thirds of the book are teenage romance, followed by a final third in which it finally gets to the Iliad and gets really quite good. But, as I've said before, I read and enjoyed Twilight, which does what it does perfectly well, and I enjoyed reading this, too. The easily flowing writing, sweet romantic theme and, in the last third, fast-paced action make this a perfect beach read.

4. The Charioteer of Delphi, by Caroline Lawrence

All of the Roman Mysteries make great beach reads and I have, indeed, read several of them on a beach (or boat in Croatia, as the case may be). They're perfect for a holiday in Greece, Spain or Italy - appropriate setting, short length and fast-paced since they're middle grade books, hinting at a darker reality but keeping the tone reasonably light, again, because they're aimed at child readers. Most of them can be read independently of the others as long as you don't mind spoiling a few plot developments, up until The Slave-girl From Jerusalem, after which the last few books do need to be read in order so you can follow the story arc. The Charioteer of Delphi is the last truly stand-alone of the books before that final group, and the conclusion is one of the most satisfying of all - plus it's got exciting descriptions of chariot racing, which would have been my favourite sport if I'd been an ancient Roman (looking back at my review, I know a lot more about sport than I did when I wrote it, and about various motor sports in particular! I'd totally have been into chariot racing if I'd lived in ancient Rome). My absolute favourite of the books in The Gladiators from Capua, but for a slightly lighter summer read, this is the one I'd recommend.

3. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

OK, so this may not entirely answer the 'light' qualification, I confess. In fact, the first time I read it, I stopped after ten pages and had to be persuaded to continue by the hearty recommendation of OldHousematetheRomeone, because it was too depressing. But as soon as I got to the end of the first chapter I was hooked, because it is very fast-paced, making excellent use of the ancient technique of writing in the vivid present in a story on one of my favourite themes, gladiators. If you want something you can really get stuck into to the detriment of paying attention to anything else while you're on holiday, this is a good choice (and I can add, from personal experience, that hanging around Birmingham airport for hours on end is a considerably less frustrating way to start your holiday if you have this to read).

2. Metamorphoses (The Golden Ass), by Apuleius of Madaura

If you want to read something Classics-themed while you're away, why not read an actual ancient text? There are several ancient Greek romance novels involving pirates, kidnapping and main characters turning out to be African princesses, but I would always recommend this, the only complete surviving novel in Latin, sometimes known as The Golden Ass to distinguish it from Ovid's Metamorphoses (unfairly, I think - I enjoy reading this much more than anything by Ovid, Metamorphoses included. I don't care how beautiful his Latin is, I don't like his attitude). After a few isolated stories to kick us off, the main plot of the novel is about the trials and tribulations of Lucius, who is accidentally turned into a donkey while trying to turn himself into a bird. There's also a lengthy digression into one of the very few Greco-Roman myths with a happy ending. If you want some genuine and genuinely fun ancient literature to take to the beach, this is the one to go for.

1. Pyramids, by Terry Pratchett

Discworld is another series I recommended among my geeky beach reads, and there are several Discworld novels with a heavily Classical theme. The most Classics-y novels, conveniently, are both stand-alone novels that can be read alone without needing to know anything about the rest of the series, Small Gods and Pyramids (also Eric, a spoof of Doctor Faustus which, of course, features the Discworld version of the Trojan War, but which is a much shorter, illustrated novel and part of the Rincewind sub-series). Both are brilliant. Pyramids is slightly earlier in the series, but since neither are part of a wider group that doesn't make much difference. There are two reasons I've *just* given Pyramids the edge here. One is that Small Gods is heavier on the philosophy (both within the text, as in, it features philosophers, and as a reading experience) so for 'light' beach reads, Pyramids fits slightly better. And the other is simply that, though both are brilliant, I prefer Pyramids. If you've ever taken a British driving test, it's certainly a must-read, but even without that, it's a fast-paced, fun and occasionally moving novel, and a pretty good introduction to the Discworld if you haven't read any before.

Although, as you can see, I'm quite fond of children's and Young Adult literature, it's probably noticeable that there's no Percy Jackson on this list. I'm afraid that's because I literally tried to read Percy Jackson while on a beach a couple of years ago and just couldn't get into it. I ended up reading Michael Palin's Pole to Pole instead, which had a nice travel aspect even if not all of it fit the beach atmosphere! I'm sure I'll try Percy Jackson again some day.

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