A Thousand Ships- Natalie Haynes

“But this is a women’s war, just as much as it is the men’s, and the poet will look upon their pain – the pain of the women who have always been relegated to the edges of the story, victims of men, survivors of men, slaves of men – and he will tell it, or he will tell nothing at all.

There are good retellings of Greek myths and legends – The Song of Achilles, for example. There are good feminist retellings – Circe and The Penelopiad. And there are (I’m sorry to say it) not so good feminist retellings, such as The Silence of the Girls. With A Thousand Ships, we thankfully have a feminist retelling which falls into good – if not excellent- category.

The book follows a mostly chronological story of the Trojan War and Odysseus’ (and other ‘heroes’) various meanderings afterwards, told solely through the eyes of the women involved. Some are well known to fans of the immensely popular recent novels, others were new to me.

A Thousand Ships flits between many of the women involved in and affected by the war, and I have read several views that suggest the book was the worse because of this. I found the opposite- perhaps it’s down to my lack of focus at the moment but I loved gaining a wider perspective through multiple viewpoints.

I gave this book 9/10. Will it win the Women’s Prize? Probably not. It may not be as in-depth and focused as some people would prefer, but it was the perfect read for me at this time. If you want to escape into the world of Greek myths and legends, this is the book for you. And on that note, if you have any other recommendations for myths and legends retellings, pop them in the comments!

You can find A Thousand Ships here.

Quarantine Cookery

I don’t know about you, but since the pandemic started I’ve spent a lot more time in my kitchen. Homemade food is not only good for the body, it’s good for the soul too and cooking never fails to calm me. I’ve used cookery as therapy for as long as I can remember. Whether it’s a quick, whipped together meal or a long, slow cook, the preparation of food has a power that is often overlooked in our usual fast paced world.

My first foray into blogging was a food blog. On What To Have For Dinner Tonight, I shared my favourite recipes. For me, cooking is and always has been cathartic.

If you’re just beginning your cookery journey, or are looking for some inspiration to shake things up, here are my favourite cookery books to bring some fresh ideas.

1. Greenfeast – Nigel Slater

Greenfeast

Nigel Slater’s food philosophy is very similar to my own. Good ingredients, treated well to create delicious meals. His recent offerings are two vegetarian books, one focusing on ingredients in season in spring and summer, the other autumn and winter. These books celebrate vegetables, and make their delicious, varied flavours sing. Even the most dedicated meat eater will enjoy these!

You can find Spring, Summer here and Autumn, Winter here.

2. Persiana – Sabrina Ghayour

Persiana

If you are hankering for travel abroad, these recipes will transport you to the Middle East. Persiana is packed full of fragrant, moreish recipes which can bring some sunshine into your life. From meaty meals to light salads to sweet desserts, there is something for everyone here.

3. 15 Minute Meals – Jamie Oliver

Jamie’s 15 minute meals

People love to hate Jamie Oliver, and both this book and his preceding 30 minute meals book received a lot of criticism about how long the recipes actually take to make. And yes, in real life these recipes do take more than 15 minutes (although I tidy up as I go, and factor that into the time). Despite this, the book is packed full of easy, quick and delicious meals which the whole family will enjoy. You can find it here.

4. SIMPLE – Yotam Ottolenghi

Simple Yotam Ottolenghi

Although cook books which include delightfully complex recipes are great to have around for one-off occasions, SIMPLE has an enormous amount of utility. These are the sort of meals that you won’t just cook once – you’ll make them weekly, add them to your repertoire and enjoy them over and over again. The recipes are simple in various ways – time taken, or amount of pots used, or ingredients, or you can make them ahead of time. If you’re looking for a way to build your skills and become a better cook for the future, have a look here.

I hope you enjoy these books and the recipes they include. Share your favourite cook book in the comments!

The Binding – Bridget Collins

The binding Bridget Collins

“Somehow it went from too soon to too late, without the right moment in between.”

If you had the power to erase your worst memories, would you? The Binding explores this question and the moral and ethical dilemmas involved, and it does so beautifully.

There is a wonderful depth to Collins’ writing as she unwinds her themes. If it were possible to remove memories, would it be done for good, or for ill? All the while, a tragic love story unfolds between Emmett Farmer and Lucian Darnay, one a poor apprentice, the other rich and privileged. The love story was gorgeously written, and added another level to this already intriguing idea.

The books in Collins’ story are dangerous – they contain human memories, just as our own books do, but these are memories that the owner wanted to be hidden, secreted away from the originator themselves.

The Binding is set in a time which has many similarities with 19th century England, and this dark, gloomy setting works perfectly for the story.

I truly enjoyed this book, and highly recommend it.

8/10

You can get it here: The Binding

Top 10 Books Of 2020 (So Far…)

It has been a year for reading, with many of us spending a lot more time at home than we had perhaps envisioned in January. Fortunately, there have been some incredible new releases this year. Here are the books I’ve read and the books I’m most looking forward to this year…

1. My Dark Vanessa

My dark Vanessa

You may be familiar with My Dark Vanessa, a tale about a college student and her relationship with her professor. It is an interesting investigation into the manipulation and balance of power involved.

My Dark Vanessa

2. Hamnet

Hamnet

You may already have read my review of Hamnet, but suffice to say any fan of Shakespeare should read this story.

Hamnet

3. The Mirror And The Light

The mirror and the light

Another epic from Hilary Mantel, this is the final book in the trilogy about Thomas Cromwell and depicts his downfall.

The Mirror and the Light

4. Sisters

Sisters

Out in August, this is a disturbing tale from the author of Everything Under.

Sisters

5. A Long Petal of the Sea

A long petal of the sea

A riveting new historic saga by Isabel Allende, looking at love in exile.

A Long Petal of the Sea

6. Such A Fun Age

Such a fun age

A funny, fast-paced social satire about privilege in America.

Such A Fun Age

7. Long Bright River

Long bright river

A page turning thriller with murder and missing persons, based in Philadelphia.

Long Bright River

8. A Thousand Ships

A thousand ships

Although technically released in 2019, this features on my list because it is the next book I’m going to read (just waiting for it to arrive!) and it has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize this year. Feminist retelling of myths are usually a winner, so I can’t wait to start this one.

A Thousand Ships

9. The Mercies

The mercies

This book has been EVERYWHERE this year, and with good reason. It is based on the 1621 witch trials in Finland so of course I like it (my own book is based on the 1612 witch trials in Pendle), and this is beautifully crafted.

The Mercies

10. Topics of Conversation

Topics of conversation

Another that I’m eagerly anticipating- Topics of Conversation is an exploration of women’s lives through the medium of conversation.

Topics of Conversation

Which books are you most looking forward to this year? Let me know in the comments!

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell

It may be common knowledge for some that Shakespeare’s play Hamlet was named after his son, Hamnet, who died from the plague when he was a child. I didn’t know this, though. So I immediately started the book from a point of learning something new – which is always a delight when reading historical fiction.

From the very first page I continued learning, about Shakespeare’s family and wife (who is not remembered fondly by history, but who is given a voice in this novel), about the plague itself, about the life they lived. The book is very well written, and Maggie O’Farrell has a talent for keeping you captivated and immersed in another time.

The story is well-rounded and we visit the point of view of many characters, giving insight into their way of life. The book is clearly exceptionally well researched. Given the current situation, it was also very interesting to read about the plague and how it affected them. Centuries pass but perhaps not much changes!

I loved this book in the way that I love all beautifully written historical fiction. It is escapism at its finest.

I would rate this a strong 7/10.

I’ve included a link to order below:

Hamnet: SHORTLISTED FOR THE WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR FICTION

Decline and Fall – Evelyn Waugh

Decline and Fall – Evelyn Waugh

“…any one who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison. It is the people brought up in the gay intimacy of the slums, Paul learned, who find prison so soul destroying.”

I have read Brideshead Revisited once, many years ago, but apart from that had never read anything by Evelyn Waugh until I picked up this book. I had no idea what to expect, but I had not expected a laugh-out-loud story which caused me to choke on my chuckles in the quiet carriage of a train to London.

This story tracks Paul Pennyfeather’s escapades following a rather ignominious expulsion from college. Every time things are going right, something goes wrong. The characters Paul meets along the way are invariably a mix of grossly unbelievable and intimately plausible- if you think that sounds like a contradiction, you’d better read this book.

We realise, somewhere close to the end of the story, that Paul’s decline and fall is down to the outside actions of other characters, boisterously thrusting themselves through life. Paul is a bystander and, as a result, is treated if not badly then with a great amount of indifference to his comfort. If there is a moral to this story, then perhaps it is this – do not be a bystander in your own life. I’m not sure Waugh would agree with that conclusion, though.

An entertaining account of the absurdity of life.

8/10

Decline and Fall (2) (Penguin Classics Waugh 02)

American Gods – Neil Gaiman

American Gods – Neil Gaiman

“All your questions can be answered, if that is what you want. But once you learn your answers, you can never unlearn them.”

I am so excited to finally be sharing this review with you. This book is long (635 pages!) and due to various commitments it took me about a month to read. But, I don’t regret it for a second.

So far, I have adored everything I have read by Neil Gaiman – though that is limited to Coraline, Norse Mythology and now American Gods – and it is entirely down to his story craftmanship. So unique.

Anyway, to this story – I had no idea what to expect. However, I was pleased to surmise within the first few pages that there is something to do with ancient gods within these pages – and I am fascinated by ancient gods (as Neil seems to be). I immediately thought, ‘ah! This is a story about gods’. I was wrong. It is a moving, disconcerting dissection of human grief. Well, that was the impression I was left with, though there are so many layers to this story that I am certain every reader could come away with an entirely different perspective.

This was an immense, strange masterpiece and, now that I have read it, I am greatly anticipating watching the series on television. But I’m glad I read the book first. I pity the poor person who squeezes Gaiman’s imagination into eight episodes.

9/10

The book:American Gods + Anansi Boys

The TV series:American Gods [DVD] [2017]

Birds Without Wings – Louis de Bernieres

Birds Without Wings – Louis de Bernieres

“Man is a bird without wings and a bird is a man without sorrow.”

I adore Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. The first time I read it was on holiday, sitting in the sun listening to the birds and the crickets, the scents of oranges and lemons filling the air. I am taken back every time I reread it.

However, this is not a review about Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. This is a review about a less well known book by the same author- Birds Without Wings. I didn’t read this on holiday, because I have none of the nostalgia when I reread it. Instead, it is unsettling.

Louis de Bernieres weaves intensely real stories about incredibly believable people. His settings (this one is set in Anatolia) are compelling and I was left with the impression that I had physically been there. But, Louis de Bernieres takes these people, who you come to love, and these settings, where you can see yourself living, and smashes them up, leaving you heartbroken.

Of course, the smashing is done artfully and poetically. He is mimicking the destruction that occurred during World War I. He turns it into many intimate and devastating personal stories,    reflecting the huge loss of life during that conflict. He manages this, in my opinion, better than that other master of war stories, Sebastian Faulks.

At its heart, this is a love story, as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is. It is as raw and desperate and bittersweet as love can be.

7.9/10

Birds Without Wings

Brushstrokes in Time – Sylvia Vetta

Brushstrokes in Time – Sylvia Vetta

“I come into this world

Bringing only paper, rope, a shadow.”

My Bank Holiday Monday has not quite gone the way I expected it to. I had planned a Spring clean, preparations for the coming week at work, perhaps a walk. None of this has yet happened. I have instead read, from start to finish, Brushstrokes in Time by Sylvia Vetta.

The story, based (heart-wrenchingly) on real-life events, is set in China and spans decades, through the 1950s to the 1990s. Prior to reading this book, I had not considered life in this period as particularly difficult in China. I was born in 1988, and this struggle has been invisible to me before now. Of course, I have seen the image of the solitary man in Tiananmen Square holding up the tanks, but I didn’t know the reasons for this, nor had I considered the human stories behind it.

As with all my reviews, I do not wish to give the plot away here (the joy of reading a story is discovery, surely?) but to briefly overview – we follow a young woman who just wants to experience the joy and beauty in the world. Perhaps unwittingly, she becomes a scapegoat for a regime which is violently and embarrassingly lacking in self-confidence by this time.

By the time I finished reading, I (normally stone-hearted, as anyone who knows me will tell you) was wiping tears from my face. Perhaps the most beautiful part of the story is that our main character was relaying her life story to her daughter, born in America and unaware of the struggles her immigrant mother had faced.

A truly human story, in equal measures enlightening and disheartening. I read this story as an ebook but will be purchasing a physical copy for my bookcase so I don’t forget it.

8.5/10

Brushstrokes in Time

Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman

Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman

I have always adored Norse Mythology. I love the way that the Gods are, despite being all-powerful, as flawed as humans. Thor is reckless. Odin is self-centred. Loki – well, Loki is the most amazing character I have ever come across. Greedy, cunning and always scheming.

I’ve read many depictions of Norse mythology, from many well respected authors. None of them were quite like this re-telling by Neil Gaiman.

Prior to this book, I had, to my shame, only ever read Coraline by Neil Gaiman. I had enjoyed the creepiness of that story, and could see how his style would be well suited to Norse mythology.

Gaiman is true to the original myths, but uses his unique talent to bring the Gods to life as I have never experienced them before. I flew through the book, greedily absorbing the tales of Loki’s terrifying children, Odin’s missing eye, Thor’s unusual wedding day. This may be the only re-telling I ever read again.

A must read for any fan of Norse mythology.

8.5/10

Norse Mythology