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.”

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.

story time

My mum found this old photo of my brothers and I the other day and I can’t get it out of my head. It makes me smile. It makes me full of memories. It makes me miss dungarees, even though I’m not the one wearing them in the pic. It makes me embarrassed (I mean, who thought a pudding bowl hair cut on an already super round face was a good idea? How could you, Mum?!). It makes me wonder what dramatic events were unfolding in the story to provoke such an anxious expression from me (clearly it was a nail-biter). It makes me wonder what dramatic events were unfolding in real life that resulted in all the family (minus Dad) gathered around a book for a photo. It makes me grateful that I grew up with parents who took the time to read to, and make up stories on the spot for, me and my siblings. It makes me realise books have been my world, forever. And it makes me realise that I wouldn’t want it any other way, forever.

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? •

Reads – The Mermaid of Black Conch

*looks to the heavens for help*

I’ve been trying for a whole week to think how I can review The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey in a way that will do it justice.

But I don’t think I can.

Put simply, this book is utterly, utterly beautiful.

‘The flat dark sea broke open. The mermaid rose up and out of the water, her hair flying like a nest of cables, her arms flung backwards in the jump, her body glistening with scales and her tail flailing, huge and muscular, like that of a creature from the deepest part of the ocean.’

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey.

The Caribbean, 1976. David Baptiste, a fisherman, is out in his boat one morning – not fishing, but smoking, singing, and playing his guitar. His music lures an ancient mermaid – the legendary Aycayia, a young woman cursed to live as a mermaid centuries before. Over time, David and Aycayia form a tentative bond. He, a hopeful performer; she, an intrigued spectator. But the arrival of two American fishermen in the town spells trouble for the star-crossed pair, and the effects of those troubles ripple through the whole community.

‘David was strumming his guitar and singing to himself when she first raised her barnacled, seaweed-clotted head from the flat, grey sea…’

This is the sort of book that’ll leave you bereft when you finish it – it’ll leave your emotions all at sea, your heart achy, and your soul spellbound. It’s the sort of book that’ll make you look at your TBR pile and sigh forlornly, knowing your reader’s heart is spoken for. It’s the sort of story that’ll sink down into your skin and weld itself to your bones; the sort of story that’ll leave you listening for cackles of laughter in the wind and have you double checking for silvery scales on your legs.

‘What had happened?… Had she done her time in exile?… Men had pulled her from the sea, where she’d been safe but lonely. Now she was contending with another life, one with reggae music, peacocks, cake and people who wore clothes.’

People who wear clothes, cake, peacocks, and reggae music – plus love, trust, curses, pride, jealousy, and a mermaid.

Together, they make one magical book.

a tale of one bookshelf

Yesterday, I built a little bookcase using scraps of wood from the garden and a lot of blind hope (mixed with only a small amount of blood loss).

I was more than happy with the end result…

HomemadeBookcase
it actually works!

HandmadeBookcase
it’s not wonky, it’s rustic…

BookcaseCloseUp
pretty patterns

Despite having a bit of an incident involving a saw and my right thigh; despite kneeling in chicken poop (fyi: I was much more upset about the chicken poop); despite deafening myself and my neighbours with a lot of sanding, nailing, and swearing; despite forgetting to wear sun cream and ending up with burnt shoulders; despite winging most of the measurements; despite having pretty much no idea what I was doing (my brain: “straight pieces of wood + nails = bookcase.”); despite spending an embarrassing amount of time trying to find pencils/bradawls/rulers/nails I’d only JUST THAT ACTUAL SECOND put down… despite all of those things, I feel that the whole DIY experience was a positive one.

And the shelf hasn’t fallen apart yet, so that’s another plus. #winning

All of this is good news, because I’m going to need to build another one VERY soon.

Note to self: must. stop. buying. books.