Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Young Adult Ancient Greek thriller

Murder at Mykenai by Catherine Mayo, Walker Books Australia

I thoroughly enjoyed this YA book because I like historical stories, I’m fascinated by anything to do with Greece, and I always enjoy stories that are a bit different to the norm, especially well-researched ones. For a first book by a New Zealand author, this is stunning. Congratulations to Catherine Mayo - I’m delighted to hear she’s working on a sequel.

Set in the Bronze Age, before the Trojan War, the story focuses on the friendship between Menelaos, second son of the High King of Greece, and Odysseus, son of the king of Ithaka. Menelaos and his older brother, Agamemnon, are on the run because their father has been assassinated. In addition, Menelaos is being cruelly abused by his tutor - but can’t do anything about it because of political machinations. Eventually Odysseus, a clever and forthright character, is instrumental in sorting out his friend’s problems.
The author skilfully whisks the reader back to ancient Greece - the setting is convincing, the dialogue sounds authentic, the characters are believable (especially the nervous Menelaos and the cunning Odysseus) and the plot moves speedily to a satisfactory end. However the intricacies of ancient Greek politics are somewhat demanding for the reader, so I would recommend this book to keen teenagers who are looking for a challenging story with depth and interest (ie. not the paranormal!).

Highly recommended for ages 13+

Secondary School Teacher Notes here

ISBN 878 1 922077 94 3 RRP NZ$19.99 Hb
Reviewed by Lorraine Orman
Maria Gill Interviews Cath Mayo, 30th May 2013:

1.       Why did you decide to use Greek mythology as a theme for your first book?

 Ever since I was a small child I’ve been fascinated by Ancient Greece and especially by the character of Odysseus, that wily man of many turns.  Barbara Leonie Picard’s retelling of the Odyssey was the catalyst – I have my original copy parked next to my computer desk and I’m amazed it’s still in one piece.

 As a kid I spent a lot of time reading mythology and acting out my Odysseus fantasies, dressing up in towels when I was supposed to be having a bath, and with the family thumping on the bathroom door. Joy Cowley’s story, The Reading Room captures the spirit if not the subject matter, and I just about burst a blood vessel laughing when I read it.

 When I grew up, I did more normal, adult things with my love of the past. I studied History at university, read voraciously about Bronze Age Greece, The Odyssey and Greek mythology, and went back to uni to learn Ancient Greek, to help me understand these remarkable people better.

 In the meantime, Odysseus had set up permanent camp in my imagination, spinning probable and improbable yarns about his life and times. Finally I summoned up the courage to share some of these stories with other people and began writing.

2.       Where did you get the idea for the book?

The idea for Murder at Mykenai grew out of a completely different book concept! Basically I got ambushed in Chapter Two and frogmarched off into a totally different adventure to the one I thought I was going to write. My only excuses are that I’m not the first author to be mentally kidnapped, and it turned out to be a very exciting journey!

Let me tell you where I was before my abduction.

Lots of writers have retold the Troy and Odyssey stories, but almost no one has strayed much outside these boundaries.  I had often wondered what adventures Odysseus had as a boy. What did he do before he became a hero, before Helen of Troy ran away with Paris and all the armies of Bronze Age Greece set off to fetch her home?

This isn’t quite as vacuous a fantasy as it might appear. In Homer’s Odyssey there are a couple of snippets about Odysseus as a teenager - how he was wounded by a boar and how he came by his great bow. I planned to tackle these, but I was also curious to find out how he met his close friend Menelaos, Helen’s husband. Menelaos describes the friendship in Book 4 of the Odyssey and he makes it sound like it’s one of the most important things in his life.

So I decided to start my first book project with their initial meeting, with the vague idea the Menelaos could then accompany Odysseus on his adventures. Being a complete novice, I hadn’t written any kind of book plan – I knew I should begin at the beginning and sit down to write every morning, and that way, all would take care of itself. Huh!

This is what really happened: Odysseus duly arrives in Mykenai, climbs up onto the palace roof for a lark, as you do, and meets Menelaos, who’s up on the roof having a bit of a lark himself. Menelaos looks like a nice boy – a loyal follower, as his older brother Agamemnon describes him in the Iliad. And then …

Not only does Menelaos turn out to have a will and a story of his own, he proceeds to take over the whole book. Instead of stringing the great bow or going boar hunting, poor Odysseus spends the rest  of the novel running round trying to look after Menelaos as disaster turns to catastrophe and catastrophe to calamity. And not always doing as stunning a job of it as he expects.

 In case you want to blame some random thought for the storyline, it is also based on a thread of Greek mythology, which I’ve then developed in my own way while having fun with the process of mythologizing – see Chapter 24 for a good example.

 And because I wanted to write a historical novel, rather than a mythological retelling, the book uses lots of information about the Greek Bronze Age which would otherwise be gathering dust on my bookshelves (yes, I know you can dust books but do you know anyone who does?)

3.       Have you been to Greece? If so, did it help with the description of the setting. If not, what did you do to help you get a feel for the setting?

Yes, I have been to Greece – three times – and I love it. It’s so fabulous to set a book somewhere I feel so strongly about. There are four principle settings in Murder at Mykenai - Mykenai itself, Ithaka, Aitolia and Pylos – and I’ve now been to three of them.

The very first trip took me to Mykenai, or Mycenae as we English speakers usually spell it. It’s still an impressive and scary place, with vast stone walls and the massive Lion Gate that features in all the tourist books. You can walk over most of the site and although the very top of the hill was wiped clean for a later temple, you can still see Atreus’s great hall. I found it an amazing experience and the physical look and emotional feel of the place certainly fed straight into the book.

The second trip took me to Rhodos and to Lesbos, where I drank lots of ouzo and ate heaps of olives. I’m still trying to work out how to incorporate this into a book! But because Lesbos especially is quite out of the normal tourist path, visiting the mountain villages there gave me an idea of how traditional Greeks have lived, perhaps for thousands of years.

Going to Ithaka – Odysseus’s home and a major setting in Murder - on my third trip was incredible, and because it isn’t a tourist target either (no nice sandy beaches to put those horrid plastic loungers on), I felt very tuned in to the passage of time, even while my right index finger was working away at my camera shutter. Ithakan hospitality is famous and I found the people there very kind and generous.

Ithakan Homeric geography has been the subject of furious debate for the last 3000 years, and even that was valuable – the Ithakans sailors in the Odyssey were a notoriously argumentative lot and I could witness how the Ithakans have kept the tradition going.

When I haven’t been to a place, or I need a refresher, I find Google Earth a wonderful resource. And I have my books and my notes – I’m a compulsive book buyer and note taker, so my reference library is embarrassingly large.

I was very lucky during the early drafts to have a highly regarded English archaeologist, Dr Elizabeth French, read the m/s. Elizabeth used to be the head of The British School at Athens and spent her whole career excavating at Mykenai, so she knows the site and the whole culture of Bronze Age Greece very well. She has been remarkably generous whenever I ask her dumb questions.

4.       If the book was made into a film who would you have play the leads?

Ouch! I loved Sean Bean as Odysseus in Troy, but he’s far too old to play a teenager. We do so need a red-head. Rupert Grint (Ron Weaseley in Harry Potter) has the cheeky looks but he’s also getting a bit long in the tooth. Menelaos needs to be tall and blonde, which rules out Tom Cruise … maybe Liam Hemswort (Gale in The Hunger Games)???

Perhaps we should hold world-wide auditions and find some magical unknowns!

 5.       Have you got plans for a sequel?

Yes indeed. My next book, which is into its third draft, follows on from Murder at Mykenai. I’ve managed (finally) to tell the story of Odysseus and the great bow. Though there’s a stroppy girl in there who threatens to take over, I’m in control so far. Wish me luck!


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