The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The call of Greek mythology and their retellings is a hard call to resist.

The ancient mix of heady dramas, swashbuckling adventures, love and hatred, messy mortals, conniving gods, magical creatures and tragic, twisting fates is dangerously intoxicating. And the sheer wealth of literature, old and new, adapted from these tales means that a casual dip of a toe into these mythological waters can very easily turn into a deep dive.

This year, I’ve been caught up in one of these accidental deep dives and The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller was my latest myth-retelling read.

Narrated by Patroclus, the story follows him from his childhood as an awkward, exiled prince in Phthia, through his blossoming romance with Achilles, and then to the battlefields of Troy.

Miller’s writing is beautiful. It’s lyrical and dreamlike, even when mired in blood and gore. She balances the threads, twists and turns of the story in a way that feels effortless, just like in Circe (which I read and also loved last year).

“Thetis stood in the doorway, hot as a living flame. Her divinity swept over us all, singeing our eyes, blackening the broken edges of the door. I could feel it pulling at my bones, sucking at the blood in my veins as if it would drink me.”

Achilles wasn’t a character I was expecting to sympathise with but Miller captures, through Patroclus’ (admittedly rose-tinted) eyes, a tenderness in him that is initially strange but ultimately mesmerizing. Their relationship is hypnotic and hauntingly bittersweet from the start. I found myself hoping they would somehow sidestep the messy web of kings and honour and war, and sail off into the sunset, happily ever after.

“That night I lie in bed beside Achilles. His face is innocent, sleep-smoothed and sweetly boyish. I love to see it. This is his truest self, earnest and guileless, full of mischief, but without malice.”

But kings and honour and war come calling and there is no escape, no happily ever after.

The sunsoaked, rosy-fingered peace of the book’s first half gives way to a bloodsoaked, spear-punctured second half. Tension hangs heavy over the story, murmuring painfully away like brittle autumn leaves whipping in the wind, ready and waiting, waiting to fall.

Achilles knows his fate, has chosen it. Neither know Patroclus’ and it’s devastating to watch unfold.

“I lay back and tried not to think of the minutes passing. Just yesterday we had a wealth of them. Now each was a drop of heart’s lost blood… I rose and rubbed my limbs, slapped them awake, trying to ward off a rising hysteria. This is what it will be, every day, without him. I felt a wide-eyed tightness in my chest, like a scream. Every day, without him.”

By the end, I couldn’t put the book down. The pain was cruelly addictive, fresh and sharp despite being three thousand years in the making.

I didn’t want it to end.

“It is right to seek peace for the dead. You and I both know there is no peace for those who live after.”

After The Song Of Achilles, I suspect it will be a long time before my reading heart finds peace again.

The Element by Ken Robinson

If you’ve ever found yourself lost down the TED talk rabbit hole, the chances are you will have come across one of Sir Ken Robinson’s talks. His most famous – Do Schools Kill Creativity? – has been viewed over 73 million times on TED’s website alone, plus over 20 million times on YouTube, since it was first published in 2006. If you haven’t watched it, you really should. It’s an informative, laugh out loud, and thought provoking talk, still frighteningly relevant 16 years after it was given.

His book, The Element, expands on the themes in this talk, in a way that is just as engaging and compelling. Every page is a goldmine of inspiring stories from people who found their life’s calling and flourished, often in spite of pressures from their loved ones and society in general.

Robinson’s central argument is a rally cry against the traditional belief that being academic is the only (and highest) form of intelligence. Most of us intuitively know that this idea is bullshit, but it’s refreshing to see it dismantled in such a thorough and eloquent way. Robinson makes and supports his case with a lightness of touch but richness of detail that is hard to fault.

“The view goes something like this: We are all born with a fixed amount of intelligence. It’s a trait, like blue or green eyes, or long or short limbs. Intelligence shows itself in certain types of activity, especially in math or our use of words. It’s possible to measure how much intelligence we have through pencil-and-paper tests, and to express this as a numerical grade. That’s it.

Put bluntly, I hope this definition of intelligence sounds as questionable as it is.”

We’re taught the hierarchy of subjects and careers from such a young age that unlearning it, shedding the skin of it, can take years, decades, whole lifetimes even.

On the topic of age, The Element is a source of hope for anyone who feels like they’ve missed their chance to find/pursue what they love. In my own life, I’ve spent a lot of time despairing that I’m a failure rather than appreciating that I’m learning (and unlearning). Life is full of twists and turns. We all grow at different rates, and this is before you even factor in things like the personal/socio-economic environments we’re raised/live in and the opportunities that happen to come our way.

“While physical age is absolute as a way of measuring the number of years that have passed since you were born, it is purely relative when it comes to health and quality of life. Certainly, we are all getting older by the clock. But I know plenty of people who are the same age chronologically and generations apart emotionally and creatively.”

The Element felt like a particularly timely read for me. It was a reassuring pat on the back as well as a gentle kick up the bum. We only get one life, so we may as well try to forge ones we enjoy.

If, like me, you feel in need of a little bit of clarity and a lot of inspiration, then I can highly recommend The Element as a place to start.

reads – a thousand ships

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes retells the legends of the Trojan war through the eyes of the women and goddesses ensnared in its bloodthirsty web.

We are taken under each character’s wings and given a glimpse into their hearts; from Iphigenia – daughter of Agamemnon – as she realises she is being taken to her death rather than her wedding, to Eris – the goddess of strife – as she discovers the golden apple of discord. Haynes conjures a vivid connection between reader and subject, one that is almost painful to break as each part draws to a pause or a close.

It was a delight to explore more thoroughly the stories of the women who (for the most part) get brushed aside in the Iliad and the Odyssey and I would strongly recommend A Thousand Ships to anyone looking to immerse themselves in the messy but beguiling world of Greek mythology from a fresh perspective.

“Sing, Muse, he said, and I have sung. I have sung of men. I have sung of gods and monsters, I have sung of stories and lies. I have sung of death and of life, of joy and of pain. I have sung of life after death. And I have sung of the women, the women in the shadows. I have sung of the forgotten, the ignored, the untold. I have picked up the old stories and I have shaken them until the hidden women appear in plain sight.”

afresh

Well, it’s been a while.

I wrote my last blog post in the depths of a lush, green spring last year and now somehow it’s January 2022 and warm, sunny days surronded by bluebells and blossom and ivy feel like a distant dream from another universe. Lots has happened between then and now. I’ve started writing and stopped writing so many posts in the time that’s passed – my drafts folder is embarrassingly full. And although there’s part of me that wants to patch over the cavernous hole of time and words on my blog with a post to match the size of that gap, there’s also a part of me that just wants to draw a line under the last seven months and start afresh.

So, here’s to a 2022 filled with happiness, growth, and words words words.

escape to the chapel

The gridlocked cars on the other side of the road stretched in a long, shimmering, heat-hazy line and I couldn’t help but smile a cheeky smile.

The road on our side was clear.

They were bound for the Weymouth beach, we were destined for a chapel in the woods.

I feel the draw and pull and spell of the sea in my blood pretty much every day and I know I am incredibly lucky to live so near the coast, but on a sun drenched UK Bank Holiday weekend you won’t find me anywhere near the sand. Last weekend, my heart wanted lush green leaves and light dappled bluebells and pretty bird song and burbling streams and old chapel ruins with ivy spilling down the walls and a wash, a wave, a shiver of peace through my veins.

And, at St Luke’s Chapel near Abbotsbury, that is exactly what my heart got.

After getting a bit lost due to me mixing up St Luke’s Chapel on Ashley Chase with Chapel Coppice in Abbotsbury (it was the nicest and prettiest lost I’ve ever been), Patrick and I eventually made it to the right woodlands (thank you to Bellenie’s Bakehouse for the directions and the yummy pasties).

The road to the walking track was twisty and bumpy, but stunning. We parked up when we got to the end of the public road and set off to the chapel on foot.

Shaggy grass, patchworked across the hills, rippled in the wind. Branches of gnarly trees, knotted from a lifetime of sea breezes, pointed us on our way. Constellations of salt-misted bluebells twinkled beside the path as we walked by. Canopies of leaves shimmied above our heads and showered our feet with dancing shadows.

It felt like heaven.

The chapel was bigger than I’d expected. It was beautiful and peaceful and eery; a muddle of brick, statues, and gravestones haunting earth, ivy, and trees.

And the quiet.

It was the sort of hush that sinks into your bones and untangles all the noise in your head and all the worry in your heart. We only saw one other pair of walkers the entire time we were there, and that was when were almost back at the car. For most of the journey, we had only the cows in the fields beside the path for company.

We were so close to crowds and crowds of people but so, so far.

And the traffic on our journey home? Well, the universe got me back for my cheeky smile as we’d zoomed passed the morning’s traffic jams…

Only in Dorset.

bye bye Pippin

You may have noticed there’s been a blog name change.

It’s a decision that’s been months in the making. I always thought I would want to write under the name Pippin, always thought it helped me to shake off my every day world and focus, always liked how it connected me to a time before I felt self-conscious and anxious about every little thing, a time when getting things Goldilocks-perfect didn’t matter, when I could just try and experiment and see where things led without having an existential crisis.

Now, I don’t think I want to shake off my every day world. I want my every day world and my writing world to be the same. I want them to complement each other and grow together.

So I’m shaking off my childhood nickname and stepping into my real life name shoes – Joanna or, most commonly, Jo.

It feels a little bit weird, but it’s a good weird.

So it’s bye bye to Pippin.

Although Pippin is still most definitely my spirit hobbit…

spring things

Oh, hey there!

*waves*

Sorry it’s been so long. I’ve been hibernating. And reading. And writing. And thinking about writing (more than actually writing, woops). And just generally muddling on through this weird time.

Spring is well and truly blooming here in the UK and its arrival always sparks a shift in me. Things feel lighter, brighter, easier in my heart. My head feels clearer. Possiblities seem to blossom, grow. The year stretches out ahead like one big adventure. And all this blossoming and adventure and growth has got me thinking about some of the things I want to do this spring.

I want to…

read twelve books. Books just had to feature somewhere so here they are right at the top. One for each week of spring is my kinda pace. And, so far, I’m on track to meet this target…

watch twelve new (to me) films. Apart from when I’m reading and writing, I tend to get quite restless when I’m sat still, so watching a movie (unless it’s really, really good) can sometimes feel like torture for me and my wriggly legs – which means watching them is not very high on my list of things to do in my spare time. But films – the good, the bad, and the ugly – are great storytelling lessons so I want to watch more. I think it will be good for my writing, if not my legs. (On track with this one too!)

be a good plant mum. Historically, I have been worryingly bad at looking after plants but I am DETERMINED to get the hang of it this year. So far, I’ve managed to keep alive a spearmint, a peppermint, and a holly fern; regrow two supermarket pak choi from their bases; and start off quite a few seedlings. It turns out that remembering to water and checking the weather forecasts for frost are surprisingly simple and effective ways of not killing off plants. (Who knew?) Slowly and steadily, my fingers are getting greener…

yoga four times a week. I love yoga and always feel better after a session – but it is sooooo tempting, as with most things worth doing, to put off doing it until the evening, until tomorrow, until I feel more energetic, until I have a bit more time, until, until, until ad infinitum. I want to be more consistent with my practise this spring and stretch myself (pun fully intended). I’ve been steadily working my way through Yoga With Adriene‘s videos on YouTube since the beginning of the year and can definitely recommend them for practising at home.

start project for baby nephew. I’m going to become an auntie in July and I am so excited! ❤ My sister has already knitted a blanket and my mum is sewing a quilt, which means I’m very far behind in the “welcome to the world” crafting game! I need to get a wiggle on and come up with some ideas…

go camping. As much as I feel very lucky to live where I do, I also feel very much like I need to escape where I live. After the last few months, I want to explore and I want to spend as much time outside as possible. Camping seems like the best answer to both these wants. And it’s bank balance friendly!

go paddleboarding or canoeing. I think I was a mermaid (okay, maybe a whale) in a previous life because I am obsessed with the sea and rivers (and having too many baths) and finding excuses to spend time in/on/by them. Most of the time, I’m boring and just go for a swim but this year I want to be more adventurous. I last went paddleboaring in September, but haven’t stepped foot in a canoe since I was eleven. Either activity in the next few weeks would happily tick the “find an excuse to be in/on the water” list…

take part in a litter pick. We’re lucky to have loads of beautiful coastline and countryside in Dorset, which means we get a lot of visitors in the spring and summer – and, unfortunately, some of those visitors leave more than just footprints. Last year, I got angry; this year, I want to actually help.

make a recipe folder. I loooove cooking and baking (and eating) but I’m so disorganised with recipes. I want to keep better track of new finds and old favourites, plus it feels like a great excuse to get crafty. I’ll be the one in the corner surrounded by glitter glue…

What have you been getting up to so far this spring (or autumn!)? What have you got planned?

falling in half-love with three books

I’ve been struggling to write about the books I’ve read recently and it’s made me feel like a complete book blogger failure (despite the fact that there is no one right way to blog about what you love). I think the reason I’ve struggled so much is because I have had wildly mixed feelings about my last few reads. They’ve all had moments in them that have made me go “wow!” and others that have left me knotting my eyebrows together in confusion. Basically, I’ve fallen in half-love with each of them – and half-love feels a whole lot more difficult to explain than head over heels love. But here goes…

rest and be thankful by Emma Glass. Rest and Be Thankful follows the quietly falling apart Laura, a paediatric nurse in London, as her interior and outer worlds slowly collapse shift after shift after shift. It’s a poignant book, packing a huge punch of sadness and strangess and desperation into only 135 pages. The writing is almost psychedelic as it unfurls the kaleidoscope of Laura’s exhausted and breaking mind, which made it both beautiful and infuriating to read.

“We are cotton buds sucking up the sadness of others, we are saturated, we are saviours. We absorb pain, too thick with mess to notice that everything around us is drying up and growing over. We will wake up one day in a wasteland, surrounded by the crumbling bones of those who loved us and waited for us to love them back. We did not forget but we were too busy being useful. We will crumble next to them but it will take forever, we will sit amongst the piles of dust alone.”

Poppy wanted to make sure I got the best possible angle…

jamaica inn by Daphne Du Maurier. Jamaica Inn was my third foray into the literary world of Daphne Du Maurier in the last nine months and was, unfortunately, my least favourite of the three (first place goes to My Cousin Rachel, second goes to Rebecca). It follows the tale of twenty-three year old Mary Yellan as she is sent to live with her reclusive – and, as she will discover later, notorious – Uncle and Aunt at the lonely, foreboding, moor-bound Jamaica Inn after the death of her mother. I half loved, half hated the book. I really resented some of the rambling passages and Mary’s in depth dwellings of doom, but also had to admire Du Maurier’s evocative writing, its rooted sense of place, and Mary’s feistiness. It just didn’t quite chime with me.

“Strange winds blew from nowhere; they crept along the surface of the grass, and the grass shivered; they breathed upon the little pools of rain in the hollowed stones, and the pools rippled. Sometimes the wind shouted and cried, and the cry echoed in the crevices, and moaned, and was lost again. There was a silence on the tors that belonged to another age; an age that is past and vanished as though it had never been, an age when man did not exist, but pagan footsteps trod upon the hills. And their was a stillness in the air, and a stranger, older peace, that was not the peace of God.”

ponti by Sharlene Teo. I have a habit of ordering secondhand books online on an whim and then forgetting that I’ve ordered them, which is a little bit worrying but mostly great – it’s like getting a surprise present from the postman (except for the fact that I technically knew about it and that I payed for it myself. But, oh well). Ponti was one of these “unexpected gifts” courtesy (ahem) of Royal Mail. The book threads across three timelines, following the messy relationships between a bitter mother, a lost daughter, and a bewildered best friend as they blossom and wither and unravel – together, then apart. Sharlene Teo beautifully captures the tortured nature of close female friendship as teenagers and the pain of motherly/daughterly rejection, reverence, and contempt. I connected most to the timeline set in 2003, probably because of the pop culture references that made me feel kinda old (the fact that 2003 is eighteen years ago is still blowing my mind) and brought back a lot of memories. And I really enjoyed getting more of a feel for Singapore, it’s made me want to visit someday. But the writing bothered me – it had a tendency to veer from brilliant to burdened, back to brilliant, back again to burdened, all in the space of a page which meant that it never felt like it fully flowed. The book is littered with similes – some are beautiful, some I really wish had been edited out. Having said that, I will be keeping an eye out to see what Sharlene Teo writes next.

“I’m a bad person because I haven’t let go of how she crumpled me up like a ball of paper my whole life, and now that she’s gone I don’t know how to get the creases out.”

Have you read any books that have left you in half-love? What have you been reading recently? Have you read any of these? If so, what did you think of them?

ready steady colour

The last ten months of lots of staying in has meant lots of finding things to keep busy at home – ideally things that don’t involve staring forlornly at the ceiling or climbing up the walls. And colouring fits that keeping busy bill pretty much perfectly.

If, like me, you’re not massively into colouring books but still want to have a go, I’ve found a few *free* printable colouring pages that are too pretty not to share…

Examples of printable colouring page designs by Emma J Shipley

Looking for a walk on the mystical and wild side? Then look no further than Emma J Shipley’s beautiful printables. I absolutely love the ‘Lynx’ and ‘Zambezi’ designs (which are shown in the photo above).

Are you Moomin crazy like me? You’ll love these illustrations.

Calling all Disney fans! Crayola have some fun designs, from Snow White to the adorable Grogu.

Looking for a more antique and unusual vibe? Check out the #ColorOurCollections initiative, set up by the New York Academy of Medicine. Museums and libraries from all around the world have created colouring pages using art and illustrations from their collections. There are loads and loads of really interesting designs to choose from!

I love this vintage fan colouring page by The Fan Museum in London. Liberty have some gorgeous and intricate designs here. And if you’re an Emma Bridgewater fan, you’ll love these three pages.

Happy colouring!

things to love about january

January isn’t my favourite month. Every year, it feels like a slog; a time to be endured rather than enjoyed. And January 2021? Well, a still raging pandemic and a UK wide lockdown are just the icky icing and mouldy cherry on top of an already pretty rubbish month cake.

But oh well.

In an effort to combat a bout of the January blues, I had a sit down with a notebook and a cup of tea and brainstormed some things to love about this month.

sales. I really don’t like the mantra of “shop till you drop” but I really do like saving money. So if I can pick up some bargains and those bargains are actually things that I need, or are actually things that will make me smile and bring me sustained happiness, or are things that will bring a smile to someone I love’s face, then I’m all in favour. Sale me up!

ice cold tap water. Maybe this is just me, and I get it’s a bit weird, but I love being able to pour a glass of super cold water straight from the tap. Who wants lukewarm when you can have ice cold without having to put any effort in?

it’s named after an ancient Roman god. Although quite a few months are named after Roman gods/goddesses, Janus was the only god to have been blessed with two faces. Having two meant that he could look into the past and the future all at once, which is a skill I think we all wish we could share sometimes. He was the god of beginnings, transitions, journeys, passages, gates, doorways, and time. Here’s to Janus! *raises a glass*

hot chocolates. Cold weather means that the calories in cups of hot chocolate go on a well earned holiday to somewhere sunny and warm (this is totally science*) so you can have as many as you like without fear at this time of year. I think they go to the Maldives (maybe the Seychelles?) for the winter months, but it’s not important where the calories go it’s just important that they really, truly** go. More people should know. Spread the word.

*maybe

**possibly, perhaps

layers. Thermals, knitwear, leggings, fluffy socks, coats, gloves, scarves – there’s so much to wear and I actually kinda like it. I basically look like the Michelin man every time I leave my house at the moment, but I’m at peace with that.

days getting longer. The sun is rising a little earlier and setting a little later every day here in the Northern hemisphere and that’s something worth celebrating! Slowly and steadily, spring is on its way.

snowdrops. I love snowdrops. They’re so pretty and dainty and magical. They brighten up the grey-brown world of winter with pearly seas of whiteness when they appear and for that reason alone I will always love them. They’re arrival also means that daffodils and crocuses and bluebells and blossom aren’t far away. For such teeny tiny flowers, they pack an almighty punch of hope.

Snowdrops on the Kingston Lacy estate, Dorset.

mini eggs and hot cross buns appearing in the shops. Everyone else is probably fed up with chocolate and carbohydrates after Christmas, but I’m really not. Easter is coming! *claps with childish excitement*

hibernation. Hibernation is basically government approved this year! Although I desperately, desperately want to leave the house more than once a day and desperately, desperately want to be able to see all the people I love – don’t we all *cries* – I’m also trying to make the most of this enforced downtime. Rest and relaxation is much needed by all of us after the year we’ve had.

vaccines. This is a very 2021 specific reason to love January, but I had to include it because knowing that there’s an end in sight to at least some of this madness in brings me so much happiness. My Grandma had her first Covid-19 vaccination yesterday and I actually did a little jiggly wriggly dance of joy when I heard the news. I can’t wait for my parents to have theirs and I’m excited for my turn when it comes. It feels like hugs are on the horizon!

What do you love about January? Do you like, or dislike, anything on my list? What’s keeping your spirits up this month?