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
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).

Would You Rather Book Tag

Thank you to Gilana for tagging me in this book tag – it looks like so much fun! Gil is a wonderful book blogger who reviews a variety of genres, and has recently been reading through the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. I definitely recommend checking out her blog!

The rules:

  1. Answer the questions given to you by your nominator.
  2. Make up your own questions and tag others.

My answers to gil’s questions:

1. Would you rather only read mass market paperbacks or only read stiff, non-floppy paperbacks?

Tough choice, but I’ll go with non-floppy paperbacks. Mass-market paperbacks tend to have smaller print, which strains my rapidly declining eyes. Also, many new contemporary and literary fiction books are only available as non-floppy paperbacks. If I could only read mass-market paperbacks, I would miss out on some great new books!

2. Would you rather have your favourite character be a terrible person in real life or your favourite author be horrible in real life?

Have my favorite character be a terrible person in real-life. Like Gil said, some of my favorite characters are unlikable anyway, so it wouldn’t be shocking (or a problem for me) if I met them in real life and they were awful.

3. Would you rather meet your favourite booktubers or meet your favourite book blogger?

I don’t do BookTube, so definitely meet my favorite book blogger. The challenge here would be picking just ONE favorite book blogger, because there are many that I would love the opportunity to chat with in real life!

4. Would you rather have to dog-ear your pages or have to write on them?

I am a chaotic monster and do both of these things already. I dog-ear pages mainly out of habit; I’ve just done it that way since I was a kid. I write on pages intentionally because it helps me engage with the book more, and process/internalize it better. So if I could only do one of these blasphemous things, it would be writing on book pages.

5. Would you rather have a damaged book delivered to you every time or the wrong book to be delivered to you every time (the second or third time you may get the right one)?

This is a tough choice because I could potentially be okay with both of these. But I’ll pick having a damaged book delivered every time (as long as the damage doesn’t interfere with my ability to read the book). Having the wrong book delivered would eventually get on my nerves, especially if I wanted the book for a reading challenge with a deadline (like reading through the WP longlist before the winner announcement) or a book club.

6. Would you rather be a librarian or a bookseller?

Librarian! If I ever decided to (somewhat radically) change career paths, I would seriously consider a degree in library sciences.

7. Would you rather have your favourite character die in the end or have your favourite character not complete their mission/life goal?

Have my favorite character not complete their mission/life goal. I could see myself getting really into a book where a character fails to complete their mission, but realizes that the journey was still worth it, and that their inherent value as a human being is not defined by their successes or failures. Or a book where a character fails at what they thought their mission was, only to realize that they were prioritizing the wrong things in life. It’s cheesy, but it could be done really well!

8. Would you rather live in a library in space or a live in a library under the sea?

I love Gil’s idea of an underwater city in a sealed vessel, so library under the sea!

9. Would you rather not be able to read any books from your favourite author or have them not publish anything again?

Copying Gil’s answer again: have them never publish anything again, so that way I could at least read and re-read their previous works.

10. Would you rather read everything ever published (even the worst books) or read only one book a year?

I know that it would be impossible to read everything ever published, and that it would entail a lot of books that aren’t good matches for me. But I absolutely love reading and can’t imagine my life without it as a constant…so I would TRY to read everything ever published.

my questions:

  1. Would you rather read an amazing book with a disappointing ending, or a book that is lackluster but gets really good at the end?
  2. Would you rather read only books from your favorite authors, or only books from new authors?
  3. Would you rather write a book (and it could be about anything), or have somebody write a book based on you?
  4. Would you rather read books only as ebooks for the rest of your life, or only listen to them as audiobooks?
  5. Would you rather read only books from series, or read whatever you want EXCEPT that you’d never be able to finish a series?
  6. Would you rather read on the beach or in a cozy cabin in the snow?
  7. Would you rather read in public a book that makes you laugh hysterically or one that makes you ugly cry?
  8. Would you rather read your favorite book out loud to someone else, or listen to a friend read their favorite book out loud to you?
  9. Would you rather be transported to the world of your favorite fantasy/sci-fi novel, or the world of your favorite historical fiction novel?
  10. Would you rather perform in a Shakespeare play, or write a re-telling/re-imagination of one?

I tag…

  • Nirmala @ Red Lips & Bibliomaniacs
  • Rose @ Novels & Teacups
  • Beth @ Beth’s Bookish Backpacking
  • Fatma @ The Book Place
  • Neriman @ Reading Under The Olive Tree
  • Anybody else who wants to do this!!

If you were tagged and can’t or don’t want to do this, please don’t feel pressured to participate. Also, this tag is open to anybody who wants to participate! If you do post your answers to this, please tag me or let me know in the comments so I can read your answers! 🙂

Earth Day Reading List, 2020 edition

Happy Earth Day, everyone! Earlier today Stephanie posted her Earth Day reading list, and it inspired me to do the same. I love reading books spanning diverse topics, so I do end up reading some books with environmental themes every year. If you’re interested in adding some environmentally-themed books to your TBR, these are my recommendations:

Through the Arc of the Rainforest by Karen Tei Yamashita (1991). This wonderfully weird magical realism novel explores how corporate greed results in the destruction of the environment, and how even well-intentioned people may be complicit. My only caveat about this book is that I read it quite a while ago (in 2010 or 2011, maybe); although it stuck with me at the time, I’m not sure if it still holds up today.

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf (2015). This book is a biography of the almost-forgotten Prussian scientist, Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt laid out the groundwork for the branch of science that we now know as ecology, and he identified the negative effects of industrialization on the environment in the late 1700’s/early 1800’s. Although the book is a bit dense, it gives a fair and nuanced account of a fascinating scientist whose ideas were a century ahead of his time.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (2016). A crossover from Stephanie’s list, this is Dr. Hope Jahren’s memoir about trying to “make it” as a female science professor in academia. In addition to being a compelling memoir, this book is full of beautifully accessible science writing. One of my favorite passages in this book is the chapter about how seeds have staggeringly low odds of germinating in the wild, but grow easily under artificial conditions in a laboratory. Jahren writes about this: in the right place, under the right conditions, you can finally stretch out into what you’re supposed to be.

Spineless by Juli Berwald (2017). Part science non-fiction and part memoir, Spineless follows Dr. Juli Berwald on her quest to answer the question: how will climate change impact jellyfish populations? The answer, it turns out, is so complex that Berwald wrote an entire book about it. But it is a really interesting and well-written book, and the science is explained in an accessible way.

Weather by Jenny Offill (2020). This literary fiction novel is more focused on coping with the anxiety of an uncertain world than on climate change or the environment – but it captures that uncertainty so well! It is also gorgeously written, and shows the narrator’s anxieties in a wonderfully intimate way. It’s also fresh in my mind, since it just advanced to the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist yesterday.


Some other Earth-Day-appropriate books on my TBR that I hope to get to soon are:

  • I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong (2016) – science non-fiction exploring the benefits that microbes bring to the environment
  • The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See (2019) – a historical fiction novel about a collective of female divers on Jeju Island, South Korea
  • The Story of More by Hope Jahren (2020) – a compassionate exploration of “how we got to climate change and where to go from here”

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Shortlist Reaction

This year I decided to read my way through the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. I’ve currently read 10 out of 16 of the longlisted titles, with plans to read four more. Today, the six books that advanced to the shortlist were announced; they are:

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
My rating: 5 stars out of 5 [review]

This was my favorite read from the WP longlist, and I would have been furious if it didn’t advance to the shortlist. I found this book to be so fresh and ambitious. From the writing style, to the social commentary, to the complex characters, everything in this novel really worked for me. And of all the books on the longlist (that I’ve read so far), this one painted the most nuanced picture of womanhood. I would be very happy to see this win the Women’s Prize.

Weather by Jenny Offill
My rating: 4 stars out of 5 [review]

This was one of the more polarizing reads on the longlist, due to the novel’s inner-monologue writing-style and lack of plot. While I thought it was brilliantly compelling and intimate, other readers found it boring. Despite its mixed reception, this book was very skillfully written, and its focus on coping with uncertainty in a rapidly-changing world makes it an unsurprising choice for the shortlist. That said, I’m still not rooting for this one to win the prize because it wasn’t nearly as impactful as Girl, Woman, Other.

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
Currently reading
Current rating: 4 stars out of 5 (subject to change)

Another unsurprising shortlist choice, since the WP judges seem to have a soft spot for Greek mythology and Trojan War retellings (last year both Circe and The Silence of the Girls advanced to the shortlist). I do think A Thousand Ships deserves its place on the shortlist, though. While perhaps not the freshest novel, it is well-written and features well-balanced characters and nuanced takes on womanhood.

Dominicana by Angie Cruz
My rating: 2 stars out of 5 [review]

This was my least favorite read from the WP longlist. Dominicana had the potential to tell an immigration/American Dream story in a nuanced and historically interesting way…but instead it followed all of the tropes that you would expect. I won’t launch into my disappointment over this novel all over again (I already did that in my review), but I am surprised to see the WP judges shortlist a novel where the most well-developed character was the abusive husband.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
TBR

I’ve read nothing but positive reviews for this novel, so I’m excited to see it on the shortlist (and equally excited to read it soon).

The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel.
TBR

I’m not surprised to see this on the shortlist. I’ve seen overwhelmingly positive reviews for this book, and the first two books in Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy received a lot of literary acclaim. I’m really looking forward to reading this, and seeing if it lives up to the hype! And since the winner announcement has been postponed until September, I actually feel confident that I’ll be able to read the entire Wolf Hall series by then!

With only one seriously objectionable book (Dominicana), this year’s shortlist doesn’t seem so bad if you look only at the individual books that comprise it. Given the number of longlisted books that were just fine, but not particularly inspiring, memorable, or insightful, the judges did a pretty good job in advancing only deserving contenders to the shortlist.

But looking at the shortlist as a whole, I wonder: are three historical fiction novels really necessary? And do all three of the shortlisted HF novels need to be Eurocentric? Specifically, I wonder why How We Disappeared or Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line weren’t shortlisted? Of all the books on the WP longlist, these were two of the most universally well-received by fellow WP bloggers. And with three historical fiction novels written by white authors on the shortlist, their exclusion feels especially weird.

Speaking of white authors, this shortlist is not very diverse in terms of authorship! One author is Dominican-American, one is British and black, one is a white American…and the remaining three authors are white women from the UK. The inclusion of How We Disappeared or Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line not only would have made the shortlist more interesting thematically, but also more diverse in terms of authorship.

So while (most of) the individual books comprising the Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist do seem to merit their spot there, the list as a whole feels redundant and somewhat lacking. I guess this shouldn’t come as a shock, since the longlist could also be described as redundant and lacking (that’s another post for another time, though). I will be rooting for Girl, Woman, Other to win, but I suspect that it won’t be chosen since it already won the Booker Prize. The book that I think will actually win is The Mirror & The Light.

To end on a more positive note…one of the best parts of reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist has been reading the posts of fellow book bloggers who are also following the award. I probably would have burnt out on the longlist weeks ago were it not for daily engagement with fellow bloggers. If you’re not following them already, definitely check out Gilana, Callum, Naty, Emily, Rachel, Hannah, Beth, and Corey‘s book blogs!

Book Review: Red at the Bone

My latest read from the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson. Told in vignettes, the novel opens at sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming-of-age ceremony at her grandparent’s house in New York, where she is surrounded by friends and family. As the book moves through various family members’ perspectives and memories, Woodson illustrates an intricate family history.

The book: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

This novel was surprisingly deep and delightful! Despite its short page count, Red at the Bone is powerful and almost instantly immersive. Woodson writes from the perspectives of five characters (Melody, her mother Iris, her father Aubrey, and her grandparents Sabe and Po’Boy) in an intimate and compelling way. While some characters are explored with more depth and nuance than others, I never felt like the novel suffered from lack of character development – an impressive feat for a novel that fits five distinct voices into just 200 pages.

Red at the Bone also compassionately explores topics including intergenerational trauma, sexuality, ambition, class and privilege, and parenthood. I thought that Woodson’s exploration of parenthood – largely done through the character of Iris, who became pregnant with Melody when she was 15, but still had ambitions for herself beyond motherhood – was especially skillful. I loved the way that Woodson flipped the script on some of the common tropes around teenage moms, and instead portrayed a mother who wanted to provide what she could for her child, but ultimately had the ambition and agency to realize that she wanted more from life. This portrayal worked well for me not only because it was different, but also because it was so compassionate: Woodson never insinuates that Iris is a bad person for choosing ambition over motherhood, nor does she suggest that Melody is inherently damaged from not having a close relationship with her mother.

I also liked how Woodson acknowledged some of the clichés and potential criticisms of her novel through the voices of her characters. In the vignette where Po’Boy describes falling in love with Sabe, he says “some people don’t believe that you can meet a person and know that’s the person for you for the rest of your life. I’m not going to try to argue with them on that.” Not only does this sentence convey Po’Boy’s love for Sabe, but it also acknowledges the cliché of the “love at first sight” trope. Woodson demonstrates this same self-awareness when Melody is recalling one of her earliest memories: “They say you don’t remember the early stuff, that you’re suddenly six and having your first memories. But that’s not true. I can go back to five and four and three.” That being said, I’m not sure that this kind of meta self-acknowledgement was sufficient to justify the “characters remembering their own birth” trope.

Overall, I really liked this book. While there were a couple things that didn’t quite work for me, and a couple topics that could have been explored more deeply (Iris and Melody’s mother-daughter relationship, for one), I found Red at the Bone to be a powerful and compelling read. The fact that Woodson managed to develop the novel’s characters and their intricate dynamic in under 200 pages makes it even more impressive. While I’m not actively rooting for this one to make the WP shortlist, I certainly wouldn’t be upset if it did. Based on my experience with this novel, I’d like to check out some of Woodson’s other works in the future.

Book Review: How To Be Fine

I had to take a break from the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. I normally alternate between reading fiction and non-fiction books, so after six novels in a row from the WP longlist, my brain was craving something other than literary fiction. How To Be Fine seemed like the perfect book for the occasion. Written by the co-hosts of the By The Book podcast, How To Be Fine is a reflection on the authors’ experiences living by the rules of various self-help books.

The book: How To Be Fine by Jolenta Greenberg & Kristen Meinzer
Genre: Non-fiction/self-help
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

On a technical level, How To Be Fine is very readable. The writing style is casual to the point that it sometimes feels like hearing a story from a close friend. As a fan of the podcast that inspired How To Be Fine, this writing style worked for me – but if I had picked up this book without ever having listened to an episode of By The Book, I might have found the writing underwhelming.

Structurally, the book is easy-to-follow. It is divided into three sections: what self-help advice worked for Kristen and Jolenta, what didn’t work, and the topics that they wish more self-help books covered. My favorite insights from the first section were Kristen’s philosophy that being an optimist and being an activist actually go hand in hand (she argues that as an optimist, she is hopeful that her activism will amount to something), and the exploration of what a good, meaningful apology entails. Despite containing interesting insights, though, I felt that the first section of the book was bit too long (Kristen and Jolenta detail 13 pieces of advice from self-help books that improved their lives, when 8-10 probably would have sufficed).

In the second and third sections (what didn’t work, and what the authors wish more self-helps books talked about), How To Be Fine really shines. In the section on what advice didn’t improve their lives – or in some cases actually had detrimental effects – Kristen and Jolenta explore how some books written under the guise of self-help seem more like covert marketing tools for authors trying to become famous “lifestyle gurus,” and how the term “self-help” has unfortunately been co-opted by influencers and consumerism. In the section on what advice they wish more self-help books included, Kristen and Jolenta talk about body positivity, acknowledging and accepting all of one’s feelings (even anger, which many self-help books apparently demonize), and the benefits of seeing a therapist. I thought that both the second and third sections provided excellent commentary on the limitations of self-help books, and that the third section nicely complemented the second by offering healthy alternatives to some of the unhelpful – or even toxic – advice that is perpetuated under the label of “self-help.”

Another thing that I appreciated in How To Be Fine was the authors’ transparency. Both Kristen and Jolenta seem to present themselves in all of their complexity. From eating disorders to financial struggles to cruel and unsupportive family members, neither Kristen nor Jolenta pretends to “have it all figured out” or be perfect. Because the authors present themselves in a way that seems authentic, their advice also comes across as genuine.

Overall, I really enjoyed How To Be Fine. The book is a quick and easy read that strikes a surprisingly nice balance between praise and criticism of self-help books. Additionally, the authors present themselves in a way that feels authentic and responsible (although I am likely biased by the fact that I listen to the authors’ podcast, which inspired this book). This book was the exact type of fun – yet not superficial – read that my brain needed after six literary fiction novels in a row.

Book Review: Actress

Yup, another novel from the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist! Actress follows Norah – adult daughter of the (late) superstar Katherine O’Dell – as she looks back on her mother’s life history and tries to figure out why Katherine went mad and shot her colleague in the foot. In retracing her mother’s history, Norah uncovers old secrets and reflects on how her mother’s stardom affected her own life.

The book: Actress by Anne Enright
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 4 stars out 5

One thing that immediately stood out to me about Actress was the writing. The prose is beautiful, intimate, and sometimes cynically funny. Structurally, the novel had a non-linear timeline, and shifts in whose story the novel was telling (Katherine’s and Norah’s stories are intertwined throughout the book). These are both elements that don’t always work for me, but Actress was so well-written that these elements felt natural in the context of the story.

I’ve seen mixed reviews on whether or not Norah was a good choice of narrator for this story – I thought she was. Norah is the person that Katherine was closest to, and therefore the best person to write about her in all her complexity. Because of their close relationship, Norah is able to write about her mother in an unflinchingly honest way, while also expressing tenderness and compassion. The only thing about the narrative that didn’t work for me was it being written in the 2nd-person to Norah’s husband; I think using the 1st-person (still with Norah as the narrator) would have made more sense.

A weird experience that I had reading this novel was immediately loving the writing, but not finding the first ~100-or-so pages of plot to be particularly interesting. I wasn’t that compelled by Katherine’s family history or her childhood exposure to stardom, but at the same time, I could appreciate that it was exceptionally well-written. The remainder of the book – Katherine’s young adult career, her rise to stardom, the way that fame changed her, and Norah looking back and figuring out what broke her – really pulled me in. This could be because Norah, who was born when Katherine was 23, tells the parts of Katherine life that she personally remembers with more warmth, intimacy, and nuance. Or it could just be some personal bias that made it hard for me to get into the story at first!

Another strength of Actress was the historical commentary. Throughout the novel, Enright weaves in historical details about old Hollywood and The Troubles in a way that is believable, immersive, and pertinent to the story. I thought that the impact of certain historical events, especially the political violence of The Troubles, could have been given a bit more consequence…but having just read Dominicana, where major political events were simply mentioned without being meaningfully woven into the story at all, I thought that Enright captured the political climate of 20th-century Ireland in a way that made sense to the story as a whole.

Overall, I thought Actress was a beautifully written novel featuring a realistically complex mother-daughter relationship. I’m not sure if the first ~1/3 of the book was actually slower or less interesting than the rest, or if it was just me. Regardless, once I did get into the story, it absolutely captivated me. I would be very happy to see Actress advance to the WP shortlist.

Side notes:

  1. The summary of this book (the American version) on the inside of the cover contained what I thought were major spoilers. This was on the physical copy of the book only, not in the Goodreads summary.
  2. Once again, this book led me to retroactively change another WP longlist book rating. I keep rating books in a way that makes sense to me at the time, but then doesn’t hold up when I directly compare/rank the longlisted books.