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.

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.

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?

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.

little things

I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that 2020 has been all about revelling in the little wins. It’s been about celebrating the tiny nice things that have oiled the news-rusted cogs of each day. Sometimes, it’s simply been clinging on to delicate rays of light at the end of unexpected tunnels. And lockdown 2.0 in the middle of a rainy English autumn has only heightened that need (for me, at least) to find the good in the often bad and sometimes ugly.

This post is in honour of some of those random little things that have been my delicate rays of light.

In no particular order, they are…

watercolour clouds. Fluffy, wispy, and wavy; low, heavy, and menacing; in pretty purples, peachy oranges, pastel pinks, shining golds, glittering silvers, and grumpy greys. Clouds at this time of year certainly know how to keep us all guessing what their next moves will be. Which isn’t always ideal, but it is often nice to look at.

jumpers. I love summer, but being reunited with my jumper collection makes my heart ridiculously happy. I just love wrapping up in oversized knitwear, snug as a bug. If you need me anytime in the next six months, you’ll find me hiding in a cocoon of wool.

singing Fleetwood Mac around the house. My family and neighbours might not appreciate me doing this, but I appreciate me doing it so there. Songs to be particularly careful of when they start to play include: Isn’t It Midnight (my favourite), Gypsy, and – of course – Everywhere. Tbh though, no Fleetwood Mac song is safe from my vocal butchery.

bake off. Ah god, the Great British Bake Off brings so much joy to my 2020 wearied soul. It’s comfort TV at its absolute best. Although, did anyone else find watching all the bakers mess up the making of brownies during chocolate week worryingly distressing? FREEZER JUICE! *suppresses eye twitch* Freezer. Juice. I just can’t. *cries*

fresh sheets. Clean sheet day is my favourite day of the week. I love being snuggly, I love being squeaky clean – the match is made in heaven. Sweet dreams are made of this.

watching hair tutorials gone wrong on YouTube. I lay the blame for this obsession entirely at Brad Mondo’s door. It’s such a waste of time, but I can’t seem to stop and I kinda don’t want to stop. It is worryingly addictive witnessing people melt off their hair with bleach, and it somehow makes the worries of the world melt away too…

new music. Old favourites keep my soul cosy, but new finds keep my ears happy. I’m one of those annoying people who has no preferred genre, I just like what I like when I hear it and I don’t think internet algorithms and cookies know quite what to do with me. I’ve been on a new finds roll recently, and one of the tracks from this roll is Loom by Olafur Arnalds and Bonobo. I love it. And how b.e.a.utiful is this video?!

old photos. I love the nostalgia, I love the embarrassment, I love seeing how much clothes/hairstyles/make-up/tech has changed, I love the little stories behind each one… I can’t get enough. And they don’t even have to be my old photos. Vintage/antique photographs make me wonder about lives I’ll most likely never know anything about, and are great for inspiring story ideas.

chocolate. Chocolate makes pretty much every list post I write, which is probably a sign that I need some serious help… but I don’t actually want to recover from this addiction so there. *sticks out chocolate coated tongue*

putting on socks fresh from the radiator. I cannot recommend this enough. It is SUCH a toasty warm feeling and makes for VERY happy feet. If there’s only one thing that you take away from this list, let radiator socks be it.

reflections. One of the few good things about rain is that it makes great puddles, and great puddles make great reflections. And I love a great reflection. What can I say?

eBay. Lockdowns and the reduced opening hours of a lot of local charity shops have made second-hand shopping sprees rare for me this year, but eBay has been a great substitute fix. Which leads me onto…

dressing up. Lockdown boredom has resulted in me reaching to my wardrobe to brighten up quieter days on (a lot) more than one occasion. Sure, sometimes the visual results of my “pick the sparkliest, floweriest clothes I can find” attitude are questionable but it makes me happy so I’m not really fussed if I offensively clash a pattern or two.

wild time. Spending time in nature makes painful days bearable, and already good days even better. Most of my favourite memories from this year involve blue skies, trees, the sea, and/or flowers in some way. And although autumn and winter make outside time a little more tricky, it’s nothing a good piece of knitwear and a hot chocolate can’t fix.

boooooooks. I’m not even going to explain this one. My love will never die. ❤

So, those are a few of the very random things that have been seeing me through the harder moments of autumn 2020. How about you? I’d love to know what little things have been bringing you joy in all of this year’s strangeness…

I’ve Started, So I’ll Finish

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

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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.

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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? •

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? •

Change Is Needed

Never in my life have I felt that if I said the words “I can’t breathe” to a person in authority that there would be a chance they wouldn’t listen to me and try to help me. That basic feeling of security – that feeling that I don’t even notice, that feeling I don’t consider each time I step outside my house, that feeling that doesn’t keep me second guessing how any action I take or any things I say could be misinterpreted, that feeling that wraps me up safe and lets me know society values my life – is a privilege (along with many, many others).

It’s a privilege that’s handed to me on a plate simply because I am white.

And that is outrageous.

That feeling should be a basic human right.

Black voices matter. Black stories matter. Black cultures matter. Black experiences matter. Black history matters. Black representation matters. Black. Lives. Matter.

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The rest of us need to listen. We need to do better. We need to ask uncomfortable questions and challenge uncomfortable realities. We need to open our eyes to the things that have happened and the things that are still happening every single day all around us, big and small. We need to stop pretending this isn’t our problem too. We need to accept that silence and inaction perpetuates injustices. We need to learn – not just now, but always. We need to be open to criticism and not become defensive if we’re told we’ve messed up. We need to offer our support and action for when it’s wanted/needed.

Personally, books/stories feel like the best way for me to try and make a difference, and the best way to educate myself. Going forwards, I will be reading more books by Black authors (as well as more by BAME authors in general), and I’ll make sure I write more reviews/post more bookstagram recommendations for these books too. I’ll keep my mind wide open, ask hard questions, speak up, try to be aware of unconcious bias and challenge it. I’ll check my privilege. I will listen, listen, listen. And I’ll put my money where my mouth is for the causes tackling racism and raising awareness for Black voices whenever I can. I know these things aren’t much in the grand scheme of things, but I hope they can contribute towards positive change.

The world NEEDS to be a better, fairer, more just place.

We all have a part to play in making it so.

There’s one day left for this fundraiser by Inclusive Indies. If you can contribute, please do!

https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/inclusive-indies

dream world

I’m not much of a night dreamer.

A day dreamer? One hundred infuriating and very distracting percent.

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lunartic

For some reason, though, when it comes to remembering what strange/terrifying/lovely/boring things have been going on in my brain overnight all I’m usually able to draw from it is a complete, dark blank. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. It definitely doesn’t feel like a good thing. It actually makes me a little bit sad and lottle bit jealous – especially when other people talk about their weird and wonderful dreams and all I can offer in return is a (now, thankfully, less frequent) recurring nightmare in which I balloon like Violet Beauregarde from Charlie in the Chocolate Factory and get trapped in my bedroom because I’m too big to fit through the door to get out.

*scrunches up face in embarrassment and shame*

Let’s not delve too much into it.

It’ll just get messy and awkward, and there’s enough messy awkwardness going on in the world already.

*smiles a messy and awkward smile*

So, anyway.

Dreams.

MudMaiden5
The Mud Maiden in the Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall

Since lockdown began, people all around the world have reported that they’re experiencing more frequent and more vivid dreams. I’ve seen article after article after article on them, and there’s even a study being conducted by postgraduate students at University College London on the effect the pandemic has had on our dreams.

It makes sense that our sleeping imaginations have gone haywire in the wake of Covid-19 – all of us have had to process some pretty intense emotions recently and most of us have had a lot more free time to reflect on the stories our stressed-out brains have been coming up with.

My dreams, though, are proving to be just as elusive as ever and I’m beginning to feel seriously left out.

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peek-a-moon

But, there’s hope.

At least, I hope there’s hope.

I have this next week off of work – my first break since everything went weird.

Seeing as I won’t be getting up at 4.30am and seeing as I can’t actually go out to explore the real world, I’m hoping I can have a few (hopefully not nightmarish) adventures in some dream ones instead. I’ve bought a book on lucid dreaming (not 100% sure if this was a good idea, but I guess I’ll find out), stocked up on camomile tea, turned my alarm off off off, and I’ve even got myself a special notebook (any excuse) to write out any dreams that decide to stick around in my brain for long enough for me to get them down on paper.

I might be (definitely am) taking it too seriously, but, in my defence, my social and events calendar – like everyone else’s – is looking very, very free at the moment and I need things to keep me distracted.

I’ll let you know what dream worlds I discover.

• Do you have trouble remembering dreams like me? • Have you noticed a change in your dreams since the Covid-19 pandemic started? • Have you ever kept a dream diary? •