Book Review: A Thousand Ships

“This was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of them all.” A Thousand Ships is an all-female retelling of the Trojan War, with each chapter told from the perspective of a different woman.

The book: A Thousand Ships by Natalie Hayes
Genre: Historical fiction/fantasy
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

A Thousand Ships was an uneven reading experience for me: some sections were incredibly compelling, while others felt dry and repetitive. For example, the Penthesilea and Laodamia chapters were short, and the respective protagonists of those chapters barely reappeared in the novel, so those chapters didn’t add much to the story for me. On the other hand, the longer chapters (like the Clytemnestra chapter) and the characters that reappeared throughout the story (like Cassandra) were well-developed and compelling.

Even if not all the individual characters in A Thousand Ships were well-developed, the role of women as a whole in the Trojan War was well-explored. With great detail and compassion, Haynes demonstrated that the women of the Trojan War were more than just wives and daughters of the warriors who normally take the center stage in Trojan War stories: they were complex women who experienced loss, anger, grief, and devastation. I did wish at times that Haynes had been more subtle with this message, though: there were points when it felt like she was beating the reader over the head with the message that the Trojan War was also a woman’s war. The message is important, but it would have been effectively communicated without repeated statements like: “But no one sings of the courage required by those of us who were left behind” or “he needs to accept that the casualties of war aren’t just the ones who die” or “When a war ended, the men lost their lives. But the women lost everything else.”

Something that surprised me (in a good way) was the familiarity of some of the novel’s themes and characters’ behaviors. From overpopulation stressing the Earth’s resources, to egomaniac leaders who are power-hungry yet incompetent, to women attacking other women when their real issue is with the men who hold unfair amounts of power over them — I appreciated how Haynes presented an ancient story in a way that felt somewhat relatable.

Although I normally don’t enjoy “uneven” reading experiences, A Thousand Ships was an overall enjoyable read for me. Even when the story got dull or repetitive, the prose was lovely. And certain chapters (like Clytemnestra’s chapter, which explores her emotions and motives in a beautifully written and moving way) were so powerful that they made it easy for me to overlook some of the novel’s shortcomings. I liked this all-female retelling of the Trojan War, and would certainly read more of Haynes’ work in the future (especially if she ever wrote an entire Cassandra or Clytemnestra book).

Book Review: Circe

The book: Circe by Madeline Miller
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

This weekend, I finished reading Madeline Miller’s Circe. This story takes the mythological figure Circe – the Greek goddess of magic who is most famous for turning Odysseus’ crew into swine in The Odyssey – and imagines her life story from her own perspective. In the novel, Circe is banished to an isolated desert island as punishment for using witchcraft to turn a mortal into a god. Alone on the island, she hones her magical abilities, entertains and helps visitors, and ultimately discovers who she is.

I tend not to read many fantasy novels, but I really enjoyed Circe! While the novel is centered around Greek mythology and contains many fantastical elements, the story is about so much more than fantasy and witchcraft. Circe is a book about finding yourself and staying true to your personal values.

One of the things I liked most about Circe was how author Madeline Miller characterized many of the famous Greek gods and heroes as power-hungry and narcissistic, while showing Circe as soft and compassionate. This portrayal spoke to me a lot, because in history (and in present-day America) we tend to glorify those who become powerful and successful, even though those people are not necessarily morally good. Circe shows that the people we deem “witches” might just be misfits who were never given the opportunity to tell their side of the story.

Circe also demonstrated how any person can thrive when they are in the right environment. Amongst the gods and goddesses, Circe is considered powerless and unlovable by her family, who generally ignore her. It is only after she is banished to the island of Aiaia – away from the influence of her destructive family – that she realizes that she is, in fact, powerful. As she hones her witchcraft on the island, she learns how to protect herself, express herself, and help others. This message is important, too: just because some people don’t see your worth, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

The reason why I didn’t give this book 5 stars was because the plot was slightly too long-winded for me. Specifically, I thought that the scene where Jason and Medea visit the island could have been omitted, because it didn’t add that much to the story (in my opinion). Also, I’m not sure there needed to be two intense run-ins with Scylla…but that might be my disinterest for action scenes speaking.

Overall, I really enjoyed Circe, and the way it retold the story of a supposed evil witch. The book is full of self-discovery and growth, as well as many beautifully inspirational quotes, including this one: “All my life had been murk and depths, but I was not a part of that dark water. I was a creature within it.

The Pisces (and donuts to satisfy her cravings)

The book: The Pisces by Melissa Broder.

This weekend, I binge-read The Pisces by Melissa Broder. I heard a lot of buzz about this novel, because many book bloggers that I follow have already reviewed it. Between their (mostly) glowing reviews, and the book’s appearance on the Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, I was really eager to read The Pisces. The basic premise of the book is that Lucy, a 9th-year PhD student, breaks up with her non-committal boyfriend of 8 years, causing her to fall into a severe depression. A couple of “episodes” result in her spending the summer in California dog-sitting for her older sister, while attempting to fill her emptiness with sex and relationships.

My first impression of The Pisces was that the narrator’s worldview was pretty disturbing. Lucy is simultaneously emotionally needy and emotionally unavailable, which results in her being infatuated with love and sex, yet also never satisfied in relationships. She is also impulsive and selfish, and routinely abandons all progress toward a healthy mental state at even the slightest hint of a potential romance. Still, I could not help but root for Lucy to break her destructive relationship patterns and make healthier choices. This was part of the addictive allure of The Pisces: Lucy is frustrating, but she is also believable and she’s somebody that you want to be okay in the end.

What I found most interesting about Lucy was that despite being disturbed and depressed, she is still a pretty reliable narrator. In some ways, Lucy deludes herself into thinking that her lifestyle of seeking romance is sustainable, but she also has some awareness that she is deluding herself: “There was something about the morning of a date that tricked me…It punctured the nothingness. Now I felt passion and love for everything.”

This brings me to my favorite thing about The Pisces: Lucy’s profound and relatable descriptions of existential despair. Melissa Broder did such a beautiful job of articulating the despair and confusion that is felt yet unspoken among many, like in this scene where Lucy talks to her sister’s dog while she is sick: “I heard myself talking to the dog, and it reminded me that I existed. Existence always looked like something other than I thought it would.” Or in this scene, where Lucy reflects on her need for romance: “Was it ever real: the way we felt about another person? Or was it always a projection of something we needed or wanted regardless of them?”

While I personally enjoyed The Pisces, I should point out that it is NOT for everyone! Lucy’s impulsive and destructive behavior could be very triggering for some readers, especially those who struggle with sex and love addiction, borderline personality disorder, or severe depression. There are also a couple disturbing scenes involving animal neglect, and several extremely graphic sex scenes. So those are all things to keep in mind before reading this book! But with those caveats, I still enjoyed and would recommend this book.

The bake: matcha green tea donuts

At the beginning of The Pisces, when Lucy has just broken up with her boyfriend and is severely depressed, she craves donuts and drives to buy them while under the influence of Ambien. It is this donut-incident that indirectly results in her spending the summer in California and spinning out. My bake for The Pisces is a tribute to that “donut-incident”: matcha green tea donuts with chocolate glaze. (Note: the flavor of the donut isn’t symbolic of anything in the book; I just recently bought a lovely matcha powder and wanted to use it in baking).

Matcha green tea donuts, glazed in chocolate and dusted with a bit of matcha powder.

To make the donuts, I followed this recipe from King Arthur Flour, but I replaced the nutmeg with matcha powder (and also used oat-milk instead of buttermilk, since that is what I had in my kitchen). Then, I glazed the donuts with the chocolate glaze recipe shown here (also from KAF) and sprinkled a bit of matcha powder over them.

These donuts turned out wonderfully! I was worried that the matcha flavor might not come through, but it absolutely did! These were definitely good enough to satisfy my own donut cravings, so hopefully they will be satisfying to others as well. I plan to hand deliver these treats to my neighbors so, unlike in the novel, there should be no incidents of driving under the influence involved with these donuts. 😉

Donuts are best enjoyed with a good book and a cup of chocolate oat milk!

Welcome to Night Vale (mostly void, partially stars) (yes this post is also about cake)

The book: Welcome to Night Vale.

Last week I read Welcome to Night Vale, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor’s fiction/mystery/fantasy novel inspired by their hit podcast of the same name. The book follows the independent lives of two Night Vale women: Jackie Fierro, a 19-year-old owner of the town’s pawnshop who has been stuck at age 19 for what feels like centuries and cannot remember her childhood, and Diane Creyton, a working single mother of a 15-year-old shape shifter. Eventually, their stories intersect and the two join together on an adventure to the mysterious town of King City. 

Welcome to Night Vale is certainly weird – creepy, even. Night Vale is a world in which children get piñatas full of bees on their birthdays, angels named Erika are part of the community (though you mustn’t acknowledge that they are, in fact, angels), there is a 24-hour diner where a tree serves invisible coffee to customers, and – oh yeah – time just doesn’t work there. These things (and more) all set Night Vale apart as a weird and mystical place, but other aspects of Night Vale felt unnervingly familiar: there is a general mistrust of science, the government forces citizens to acknowledge facts that are contrary to reality, and there are police officers who “instead of looking after our interests, work under arbitrary authority to unfairly target and extort those who are least able, societally, to fight back.” I found it fascinating that since the novel’s publication (in 2015), America has become a lot more like Night Vale (or maybe these similarities were always here, and I just didn’t notice until recently). In this way, Welcome to Night Vale struck me as surprisingly profound.

Other, less dark, descriptions of life in Night Vale were also profoundly relatable. Take, for example, this description of the Moonlite All-Nite, a 24-hour diner that appeals to individuals dining solo: There is nothing more lonely than an action taken quietly on your own, and nothing more comforting than doing that same quiet action in parallel with fellow humans doing the same action. This simple description of solo-dining is so deep and instantly relatable! Perhaps this is what makes Welcome to Night Vale so compelling: despite taking place in a dark and creepy fantasy world, the authors describe mundanity and humanity in profound and poetic ways that immediately resonate, and make us feel connected to the odd land of Night Vale.

There were only two things that I didn’t like about Welcome to Night Vale. The first was the interweaving of “the voice of Night Vale” passages. These are chapters that are written as radio broadcasts from Night Vale Community Radio station. I understood the idea behind this – the Welcome to Night Vale podcast is presented entirely as a radio broadcast to its citizens (for those who haven’t listened: think Prairie Home Companion but creepier)  – but in the novel, these passages just weren’t very effective. In my opinion, they did not illustrate anything that the 3rd-person narrative chapters couldn’t. 

The other issue I had with Welcome to Night Vale was the ending of the story. A couple components of the mystery just weren’t resolved satisfyingly (and there’s one thing that wasn’t really resolved at all). For the first 350 pages, Welcome to Night Vale was a compelling and addictive page-turner that I couldn’t put down. Then, near the end of the book, the mystery is explained to the protagonists who have gone through so much (including sprinting through a hellish horror-library and somewhat losing their minds) to solve it…and I just found myself thinking “that’s it?” I was a bit underwhelmed, but maybe that was the point, because the protagonists seemed pretty miffed about the explanation too. As I type this, I feel pretty sure that the underwhelming explanation of the mystery was probably intentional. 

So Welcome to Night Vale is mysterious, weird, intriguing, and moving. Would you believe me if I told you that, on top of all of that, it’s also funny? Well, it is. This passage, for example, had me laughing out loud at midnight while my fiancé tried to sleep: …attacking a person with a hatchet…is technically a crime. But Leann made it work by engaging in semiotic arguments with law enforcement about what is assault and what is a business plan. Also this gem: Ralph’s…offering fresh food and low, low prices, although never at the same time. 

All in all, Welcome to Night Vale is a great read. As a mystery novel, it is compelling and nearly impossible to put down. Night Vale is simultaneously strange and relatable, making the fictional fantasy world surprisingly endearing. And, of course, the writing is beautiful, moving, and oftentimes funny. 

The bake: “Mostly void, partially stars” cake.

For Welcome to Night Vale, I decided to bake a cake based on the phrase used to describe the Night Vale sky in chapter 1 of the novel: “Mostly void, partially stars.” It seems that “mostly void, partially stars” has become emblematic of Welcome to Night Vale fandom. You can find clothing, fan-art, and even tattoos inspired by this quote. 

Because it’s the holiday season here in the U.S., I also wanted this cake to be seasonally festive. I chose a white chocolate cake with cranberry curd filling and cream cheese frosting. I colored the frosting purple using gel food coloring because I associate Night Vale with purple (probably since the podcast logo and novel’s cover are both this color). I also decorated the top of the cake with silver and gold sprinkles to look like stars. But not too many sprinkles because it should be mostly void, only partially stars. 

The finished cake: purple and starry.

This was the hardest cake I have ever made, and I am happy with how it turned out. As you can probably tell from the picture below, I had difficulty cutting the cake horizontally and filling it. But that is fine. Every component of the cake worked, and that in itself was an accomplishment (I had never successfully made a curd before, I was so worried that it wouldn’t set). And the cake as a whole is delicious: the sponge is rich and buttery, the frosting is sweet, and the curd is wonderfully tangy. Taken together, each component of the cake blends to create a delightfully satisfying dessert. Also, an added bonus: when you cut into the cake, a bit of curd spills out from the center; a bleeding cake seems very Night Vale. 

This is what it looks like sliced: slightly uneven and bleeding curd. Still delicious.