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.”

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?

my favourite reads of 2020

Well, what a year. There’s so, so much I want to say about it, but also nothing left I have the heart or energy to say. All I know is that I’m really, really tired and I’m looking forward to sunnier times ahead.

Reading – as always – has kept me sane this year.

These are five of my highlights.

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey.

the mermaid of black conch by Monique Roffey. Normally, I can’t pick a definitive book favourite – but this is the year of normal going out the window and I can safely say I have a favourite read from the passed twelve months. I thought that The Mermaid of Black Conch was beautiful and strange and utterly bewitching.

(you can find my original review here.)

one hundred years of solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. This book is the definition of weird and wonderful. It’s a force of nature and, at first, I wasn’t sure that I could survive its unrelenting madness – but its madness is magical and sparkling and brilliant and it was unputdownable once I was in the zone.

(you can find my original review here.)

piranesi by Susanna Clarke. This short tale about a peculiar young man living all alone in a sinister, labyrinthine house left me haunted, in the way that only a good book can.

(you can find my original review here.)

the salt path by Raynor Winn. This book follows the emotional and geographical ups and downs of the author and her husband’s trek along the South West Coast Path after they are made homeless. It’s a raw account of hitting rock bottom and rebuilding a life from what’s left. And, if you’re anything like me, it’ll give you seriously ithcy feet as you read it…

mudlarking by Lara Maiklem. I got lost in the sludgy Thames mud from the safety of my sofa with this delightful and treasure-filled book. Maiklem shines a light on the secretive world of mudlarks and on the hidden histories of London found within the objects they unearth. It was quirky and unendingly interesting.

Here’s to a happy and healthy new year!

piranesi to the rescue

Can you tell from the recent radio silence here that I may have suffered from a bit of a reading slump?

May have meaning 100%, absolutely, definitely.

*looks sheepish*

I was in one of those moods that made it impossible to settle on a genre/author/subject/book length; one of those moods where my mind fluttered from thing to thing, worry to worry, upsetting news story to upsetting news story, chore to chore, sparkly idea to sparkly idea – all without really getting anywhere.

But respite from this brain fog came – not a moment too soon – in the form of a wonderful, mysterious, and labyrinthine hardback from Susanna Clarke (author of the equally wonderful, mysterious, and labyrinthine Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell).

‘I almost forgot to breathe. For a moment I had an inkling of what it might be like if instead of two people in the world there were thousands.’

Piranesi – our peculiar, fastidious, and naïve, but utterly charming, protagonist – inhabits a world of strange and deadly tides, avant-garde statues, warped time, confusing omens, complex corridor mazes, and mindboggling rooms. He lives alone in this bizarre world, with only weekly(ish) meetings from an elusive man known simply as “The Other” to keep him company. He is uneasily content with his fragmented universe – but everything Piranesi thinks he knows about life, everything he religiously catalogues in his journals, everything he thinks keeps him safe, is thrown into disarray by the arrival of “16”.

I thought it was a beautiful book. Every page was infused with a quiet melancholy and delicately twisted mystery that haunted me not only as I was reading it, but inbetween readings too. And emotions that follow you around and play on your mind between reads are always a good sign with a book.

If you loved Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, you’ll love Piranesi. I think too, even though they’re very different, Piranesi would make a great gateway book for anyone who is intrigued by Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell but is daunted by the prospect of committing to 1000 pages (god knows, I was).

And if you’re just a little ol’ book blogger in the middle of a two month long reading slump? Well, it’s the sort of book that’ll fix that too.

Reads – Breaking & Mending

breaking&mending

Breaking & Mending by Joanna Cannon caught me completely off guard.

This little book was meant to be a kind of filler read, an inbetween, a papery breather before a deeper dive into the book sea – but it became so much more.

I know that I overuse this word when it comes to books, but this one deserves it…

It was b.e.a.utiful.

It’s 158 pages of gut-wrenching honesty that spans life and death and all the messiness between. It’s about so much more than the author’s journey to become a doctor (although that would be more than enough) – it’s about love, loss, learning, what it feels like to realise a dream, what it feels like to sleepwalk into a waking nightmare, unsustainable pressures, broken working environments, the NHS, burnout, and the process of building yourself back up again.

‘Breaking is accumulative. We collect small episodes of despair and unhappiness, our own Kodak moments, and we carry them with us until their weight becomes too much to bear and we fracture under the burden. Mending is the same. The more often we witness small moments of compassion, the more humanity we see; and the more likely we are to be able to mend ourselves and the quicker we are to heal.’

It’s filled with pain and exhaustion and despair, but it’s filled with happiness and hope and wonder too.

B.e.a.utiful.

I’ve Started, So I’ll Finish

… but that’s not usually my attitude to books.

BookEdges_edited

Normally, I’m a pretty picky reader. If a book hasn’t hooked me by about the fifty page mark (and that’s if I’m feeling really generous, yikes), it’ll be out on its ear and unlikely to be given a second chance to redeem itself.

Recently, though, something weird seems to have happened to me and I’m not 100% sure how I feel about the development.

I’ve ploughed on through two books (who shall remain nameless) that I wasn’t partlicularly enjoying. I refused to give up on them until I made it to their very ends. I stubbornly kept turning their pages. I kept telling myself that things would get better and fall into place. I kept feeling FOMO (of what I don’t actually know) flood my veins each time I considered DNFing them.

One book felt worth the struggle, but only just. The other really, really didn’t.

Boooored_edited
my reading face recently…

And these reading experiences have left my reader’s heart and my bookish insticts confused and shaken. I’m not used to feeling unsure about whether to stick books out. Reading decisions are one of the only things in my life I don’t tend to overthink and it’s weirdly unsettling to have that confidence disrupted.

Maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe it’ll shake up my entrenched reading habits and force me to grow and change in unexpected ways. Maybe it means I need to challenge myself.

Maybe it’s just overthinking.

I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

• How do you decide when to stop reading a book? • Have you ever regretted sticking with a book? • Have you ever been thankful you didn’t give up on one? • Do you find changes to your reading habits disruptive in unexpected ways? •

between the world and me, rebecca, the salt path, & my sister the serial killer

These are a few of my reading highlights from the last few weeks…

BTWAMbook_edited

between the world and me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This is a raw, heartfelt, and compelling letter by the author to his son on the subject of race in America. Not only does it lay bare the sustained experiences of racism most black Americans face in their lives, it also unpicks the idea of the American dream itself. It’s a beautifully written, brutally honest, and insightful book.

‘You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable… The people who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick. I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.’

RebeccaBook

rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I ordered a copy of Rebecca from the library just before lockdown, and finally got my hands on a copy earlier this month (yay for libraries re-opening!). I found it just as twisted and gothic and haunting and suspenseful as My Cousin Rachel – although I did find it infuriating to have such an aloof main character (she’s never even named) despite appreciating that this detachment was a deliberate (and, granted, effective) narrative tool. It’s a classic for a reason, so I won’t bore you with more of my analysis – basically, if you read it it’ll mess with your mind and keep you on your emotional toes.

‘He would never love me because of Rebecca. She was in the house still… she was in that room in the west wing, she was in the library, in the morning-room, in the gallery above the hall… and in the garden, and in the woods, and down in the stone cottage. Her footsteps sounded in the corridors, her scent lingered on the stairs.’

the salt path by Raynor Winn. Weirdly, I started The Salt Path last year but returned it to my TBR pile for another try when I didn’t get into it as much as I’d expected to. And I’m so glad I saved it for future reading, because when I picked it up again last month I clicked with it instantly. The book follows Raynor and her husband, Moth, on the physical and emotional ups and downs as they walk the South West Coast Path in England after they’re made homeless and as Moth struggles with the effects of a debilitating illness. It’s a raw account of hitting life’s rock bottom and rebuilding from what’s left. Be careful, though – it’ll make you want to go for a really, really, really long walk.

TheSaltPath

my sister, the serial killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Every now and again, I read a book that I just want to press into the hands of every passer-by I see and shout dramatically: “read it, I beg of you, please, you shall have no regrets!”. My Sister, the Serial Killer is one of those books. I’d seen it all over instagram and the book blogosphere for aaages, but was nervous a book about a serial killing sister would be too macabre for me. Turns out, I was totally wrong. I loved it. The story itself is simple but addictive, the characters are lovable if a bit morally adrift, and the tone is incredibly witty despite the dark subject matter. Read it, I beg of you, please, you shall have no regrets.

‘Ayoola summons me with these words – Korede, I killed him. I had hoped I would never hear those words again.’

MSTSKbook

• Have you read any of these? • What did you make of them? • What have you been reading recently? •

bitesized book thoughts

So, the real world is still being weird and scary and stressful. But, have no fear! If you’re looking for some papery, fictional worlds to distract you, I have a couple of books you might want to consider for your reading list (although most of them aren’t set in worlds that are actually any nicer than this one)…

a different drummer by william melvin kelley

a different drummer by William Melvin Kelley. This is a powerful and unique, and utterly unputdownable, book that explores racism in a (fictional) Southern state in 1950s America. In it, we follow a handful of the white townsfolk of Sutton as they grapple with the meaning behind an exodus of all the town’s, and wider state’s, black citizens. It’s inevitably painful and hard to read but it’s also so, so good. The writing is beautiful, the pacing is perfect, and the characters – the good, the bad, the ugly – come alive on the page. I would highly, highly recommend this one for your TBR list! (I first heard about A Different Drummer via Books, Baking & Blogging – Anne’s review is excellent and well worth a read.)

my cousin rachel by Daphne Du Maurier. Oof, I had so many feelings about this one. It’s incredibly tense and unsettling and uncomfortable, it plays so many mind games, it leaves so many questions unanswered, and it throws up so many issues. I found it painfully infuriating and painfully intoxicating all at the same time. Philip Ashley lives a comfortable and sheltered life in Cornwall under the guardianship of his wealthy cousin, Ambrose. When Ambrose leaves for Italy one winter and marries a mysterious woman during his stay, Philip is mortified. Mortification turns to devastation and suspicion when Ambrose dies suddenly after suggesting his new wife, Rachel, is poisoning him. And when Rachel turns up in Cornwall, Philip’s suspicion descends into twisted obsession. Despite loving me a story full of twisted obsession, I was hesitant to start My Cousin Rachel, ummed and ahhed over it for ages, because I was worried it might be a bit dowdy, a bit stale, a bit old fashioned – and although it’s a book that’s certainly of its time (beware some very offensive language), it was anything but stale or dowdy. I could not stop turning the pages. It’s safe to say my first foray into Du Maurier’s gothic world was a success.

my cousin rachel by daphne du maurier

machines like me by Ian McEwan. Ah god, this was a funny one. I liked it… aaand I also hated it a little bit. It follows Charlie, a self-employed financial speculator in an alternate history version of eighties London, as he adapts to life with an AI robot called Adam. The plot itself doesn’t feel very eventful or gripping – the focus of the story stays firmly on the moral can of worms that living with an artificially intelligent, and possibly conscious, machine opens up. It’s peppered with loads of wry humour which I loved, and the questions it raises are undoubtedly interesting, but it just didn’t hit the book spot for me – perhaps ironically, it was full of clever, intriguing brains but lacked a beating heart.

machines like me by ian mcewan

tales from moominvalley by Tove Jansson. *sighs dreamily* This collection of short Moomin stories is just perfect – each one is life-affirming, heart-warming, surreal, thoughtful, and delightful in its own way. Travel with Snufkin, discover a tiny golden dragon, build a fun fair with a Hemulen, overcome worries with an anxious Fillyjonk – explore the weird wonders of Moominland in all their whimsical glory. Moomin books always make the best comfort reading!

• What have you been reading recently? • Have you read any of these? • What are your thoughts on them? •