A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes | Book Review

Happy Sunday, all!!

How are you? I hope you are having a relaxing and restful day at home and that you are staying safe given the recent winter weather!

On my end, today marks the end of my February vacation from school. I think I spent the last night of break well, though, staying up late to write this post. (On vacation, rules are out the window! I can read all day and write all night and eat ice cream whenever I please! Chaos reigns!!)

I offer today some thoughts on classicist Natalie Haynes’ new book, A Thousand Ships, which retells Greek mythology and the aftermath of the legend of Helen of Troy. So cool!

This was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of all of them… 

In the middle of the night, Creusa wakes to find her beloved Troy engulfed in flames. Ten seemingly endless years of brutal conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans are over, and the Greeks are victorious. Over the next few hours, the only life she has ever known will turn to ash . . .

The devastating consequences of the fall of Troy stretch from Mount Olympus to Mount Ida, from the citadel of Troy to the distant Greek islands, and across oceans and sky in between. These are the stories of the women embroiled in that legendary war and its terrible aftermath, as well as the feud and the fatal decisions that started it all…

Powerfully told from an all-female perspective, A Thousand Ships gives voices to the women, girls and goddesses who, for so long, have been silent.

I LOVED this book. It’s brimming with lore, feminism, sharp witticisms, and sadness — all things I love in a story! I cannot fawn over it enough. 

Though largely episodic in nature, A Thousand Ships *does* feature a loose framing device: a weary writer, hoping to craft an epic, has called upon the muse of poetry for inspiration. That muse – Calliope – is delightful, beleaguered, and blunt, and she leads both the poet and us readers on a journey to explore the lives of the women of the Trojan War. Each resulting chapter centers upon a different queen, captive, goddess, or deity, and I found that this sweeping structure was well-suited to the novel’s goals. Haynes, with the skill of a Fate, weaves consistent themes and prose into each tale, helping to unify the proceedings.

While reading, it became apparent that my knowledge of the Trojan conflict stems mainly from Percy Jackson books and Wikipedia rabbit holes. Luckily, Haynes crafts a distinctive voice for each woman in A Thousand Ships, and a handy list of the saga’s players at the start of the book kept me from confusing Thetis with Themis or Polydorus with Polyxena. I loved that the book played with perspective and time to distinguish the voice of each woman, and the large cast allowed for moments of levity alongside prolonged grief. (Penelope’s chapters, styled as increasingly impatient letters to her long-absent husband, were a real highlight of the novel!)

Like the chopped-up version of Troy I watched in my middle school history class, A Thousand Ships depicts very little actual fighting. Instead, it shuns the gore and glory of battlefields in favor of examining the intense grief that existed within mythical city limits. (Far more interesting, to me!) And the women’s stories still displayed a level of gravitas appropriate for a classical epic. Yay!!

I’ll leave you with a quote, from Haynes’ Calliope: “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. They have waited long enough for their turn.”

Thanks to A Thousand Ships, I’m on a quest for more mythology-inspired books! I recently finished Alexandra Bracken’s action-packed Lore, and next on my list is Circe and The Song of Achilles. I’m also quite excited to check out Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, which similarly recounts the Trojan conflict from the perspective of a woman, Briseis. If you have any recommendations for books in this vein, I’d love to know!

Have a delightful week, my friend. Stay safe and stay warm! :–) 

xx 

lulu

Poisoned Apples and Clockwork Hearts | Mini Book Review + Desktop Wallpaper!

Happy Sunday friends!

I hope you’re enjoying all the lovely things that late fall has to offer: fuzzy socks, warm tea, gingersnaps, the start of plaid skirt season, the works! My mind, per usual, has jumped straight to the holidays (A Very Kacey Christmas plays in an eternal loop on my Spotify account) but I am enjoying these last tastes of fall as well.

Autumn, after all, is one of my favorite times of year to read fairytales! With an abundance of spooky forests, magic lore, and gruesome-yet-beautiful imagery, folklore retellings always seem to feel at home in the brisk fall air. My latest read, Poisoned, certainly does! Jennifer Donnelly’s newest book has Grimm-style gore, plenty of kindness, and a heroine whose clockwork heart charmed my own.

Once upon a time, a girl named Sophie rode into the forest with the queen’s huntsman. Her lips were the color of ripe cherries, her skin as soft as new-fallen snow, her hair as dark as midnight. When they stopped to rest, the huntsman pulled out his knife . . . and took Sophie’s heart.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Sophie had heard the rumors, the whispers. They said she was too kind and foolish to rule — a waste of a princess. A disaster of a future queen. And Sophie believed them. She believed everything she’d heard about herself, the poisonous words people use to keep girls like Sophie from becoming too powerful, too strong . . .

With the help of seven mysterious strangers, Sophie manages to survive. But when she realizes that the jealous queen might not be to blame, Sophie must find the courage to face an even more terrifying enemy, proving that even the darkest magic can’t extinguish the fire burning inside every girl, and that kindness is the ultimate form of strength.

Goodreads

Jennifer Donnelly is such a talented writer, and I always marvel at the command of language she displays in her books. Poisoned — like Donnelly’s 2019 output, Stepsister — is a refreshing take on a classic tale; it both celebrates and subverts the beats of the Grimm Brothers’ Snow White. It’s feminist and folksy! A winning combo!!

In honor of Poisoned, I’ve created some desktop wallpapers with a favorite quote of mine from the book. You can check out the wallpapers and download them below!

Desktop Wallpaper Version 1

Desktop Wallpaper Version 2

iPhone

To make these wallpapers, I used the font Bevalonia. Download it here!

Have a fantastic start to your week, and happy reading!

xx

lulu

Broken Wish by Julie C. Dao | Book Review

Hello, friends! This review contains very mild, very vague spoilers.

I hope you’re all having a fantastic Sunday! Some highlights from my weekend have included making Orangette’s amazing caramel blondie recipe, laughing/crying at Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, and getting into the Christmas spirit with playlists and gift guides (it’s never too early, y’all!!)

I’m taking a break from eating raw cookie dough and avoiding essays, though, to pop in here with a book review! I’ve been in a fantasy, fairytale mood as of late, and so today we’re going to take a look at Julie C. Dao’s Broken Wish, the first book in a new series. Let’s get to it!

1865. Hanau, Germany.

Sixteen-year-old Elva has a secret. She has visions and strange powers that she will do anything to hide. She knows the warnings about what happens to witches in their small village of Hanau. She’s heard the terrible things people say about the Witch of the North Woods, and the malicious hunts that follow. But when Elva accidentally witnesses a devastating vision of the future, she decides she has to do everything she can to prevent it. Tapping into her powers for the first time, Elva discovers a magical mirror and its owner—none other than the Witch of the North Woods herself. As Elva learns more about her burgeoning magic, and the lines between hero and villain start to blur, she must find a way to right past wrongs before it’s too late.

Julie C. Dao is one of my favorite authors of recent years! Her books often reimagine folklore, imbuing classic tales with new takes on unsettled magic and complicated love. So, it’s fitting that she wrote Broken Wish, the first in a series of four books to be written by four different YA writers, with each installment taking place in a different time period but all dealing with the same family curse. I thought the novel was an exciting, Grimm-inspired kickoff to the venture, and it felt perfect for the autumn season!

Though it features superstitions, witch-trials, and false pretenses galore, Broken Wish is simultaneously such a cozy, warm book. Dao’s characters show their love for one another through baked goods (I approve!) and the novel’s sensory descriptions of molasses cookies, ginger cakes, and steaming tea are truly lovely. The settings, descriptions, and character relationships are where the book shines. Overall, Broken Wish is the literary equivalent of a delightful fall bonfire (with magical s’mores!) 

Dao has had great success in writing protagonists with diverse personalities. Her debut novel, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, chronicled the rise of a ruthless, fascinating queen, Xifeng, who couldn’t be more different than Broken Wish’s perpetually optimistic Elva. Yet Dao excelled in writing both girls; I loved the fact that Elva grew as a character without losing her positive, genuine nature. Dao’s books feature women who are outwardly strong, inwardly brave, and everything in between, and I’m here for it. Feminist fairytales rule. 

On that note, Broken Wish honors classic folklore, but it also celebrates people who don’t fall under historic fairytale archetypes. One of my favorite characters in the book was Cay, Elva’s younger brother who adores embroidery, exploration, and farm work. His versatile personality reflects one of Broken Wish’s strengths: the novel finds humanity in characters whom traditional fairytales may have been left one-dimensional.

I say cheers to complex witches, heroines, sorceresses, and mortals, yes?

xx

lulu

book review | The Downstairs Girl

Hello, friends! This review contains mild, vague spoilers.

Historical Fiction has stealthily become my favorite genre of late! I have quite a few historical books on my TBR list, including My Calamity Jane and The Jane Austen Society, one of which contains a great number of werewolves and one of which does not. This past week I enjoyed Stacey Lee’s The Downstairs Girl, a moving story about family and identity in the late 1800s. The novel features hats, horses, and possible poisonings, oh my! Let’s get to it…

By day seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan works as a lady’s maid for the cruel daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Atlanta. But by night, Jo moonlights as the pseudonymous author of a newspaper advice column for the genteel Southern lady, “Dear Miss Sweetie.” When her column becomes wildly popular, she uses the power of the pen to address some of society’s ills, but she’s not prepared for the backlash that follows when her column challenges fixed ideas about race and gender.

While her opponents clamor to uncover the secret identity of Miss Sweetie, a mysterious letter sets Jo off on a search for her own past and the parents who abandoned her as a baby. But when her efforts put her in the crosshairs of Atlanta’s most notorious criminal, Jo must decide whether she, a girl used to living in the shadows, is ready to step into the light. (Goodreads)

When readers first meet Jo Kuan, she has been fired from her position in a milliner’s shop. Jo’s employer admits that she creates lovely, unique silk knots in record time, but claims that Jo is too opinionated when it comes to their well-to-do white customers. Jo protests that these criticisms reek of racism rather than genuine concern.

It’s a fitting introduction to the novel, which addresses Jo’s struggle to understand her role in an increasingly segregated city. She and her caretaker, Old Gin, are Chinese, living in Atlanta towards the end of the 19th century. Battling discrimination and racism, the pair secretly lives in the basement of a newspaper print shop. Jo thus grew up in hiding, but also in an environment in which words carry great power and currency.

The stakes of the book are personal. While the cover jacket may boast of newspaper dramatics and of threats from a local crime boss, those stories tend to exist in the background of The Downstairs Girl. Instead, Jo’s growing boldness regarding her work and her family drives the plot. This is a character-based book, for sure; conflicts wrap up rather easily, and characters don’t stay angry for long. Still, the book addresses large themes like racism, intersectionality, and poverty, and it treats such subjects with the complexity they warrant.

Like my fave Ruta Sepetys, Stacey Lee exposes readers to an area of history they likely didn’t learn about in school. I appreciate Lee spotlighting this fascinating subject; YA historical fiction needs more diverse stories and voices. The novel also showcases important solidarity, with Jo giving her Black friend Noemi earnest support as they spar with racist white suffragists. Important messages, all around!

Jo is one of my favorite protagonists of late. She is progressive, relatable, and witty – especially in her work as Miss Sweetie – and I delighted in reading her newspaper columns. Throughout the book, Jo’s work as an “agony aunt” reflects her growing courage, but also her firm sense of self; she jumps from providing household tips to penning progressive manifestos with ease. Miss Sweetie’s columns and letters appear at the start of the chapters throughout the novel, giving readers insight into side characters’ woes. The columns are a fun framing device, and they never feel too gimmicky!

notes

  •  The Downstairs Girl is cover cousins with Lovely War, but I think a more fitting companion is Jennifer Donnelly’s These Shallow Graves. Donnelly’s novel is also about an aspiring girl journalist near the turn of the century, and, funny enough, her protagonist is also named Jo! (Louisa May Alcott would be proud)
  • Speaking of covers, The Downstairs Girl is such a gorgeous book. 
  • Stacey Lee is a part of the team at We Need Diverse Books, which I urge everyone to follow! Their work is fantastic and vital.
  • This was the first book I added manually to my StoryGraph account! I can’t recommend the site enough, but be sure to check out Rubyfruit Reads‘ review.

what have you been reading lately? 

xx

lulu

book review | The Fountains of Silence

Hello, friends! This review contains mild, vague spoilers.

I loved Ruta Sepetys’ Out of the EasyWith its impeccable research and compelling depiction of New Orleans’ historic underbelly, the novel quickly joined the ranks of my all-time favorite books.

I read Easy recently, and Sepetys’ work was on my mind. So, as the weather in my state grows hot and humid, I thought it natural to revisit The Fountains of SilenceTaking place in the summer of 1957, Sepetys’ latter novel explores life in the period following the Spanish Civil War, when Madrid was under the control of fascist leader Francisco Franco. I found the story, and its deceiving golden tones, fascinating.

Madrid, 1957. Under the fascist dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, Spain is hiding a dark secret. Meanwhile, tourists and foreign businessmen flood into Spain under the welcoming promise of sunshine and wine. Among them is eighteen-year-old Daniel Matheson, the son of an oil tycoon, who arrives in Madrid with his parents hoping to connect with the country of his mother’s birth through the lens of his camera. Photography–and fate–introduce him to Ana, whose family’s interweaving obstacles reveal the lingering grasp of the Spanish Civil War–as well as chilling definitions of fortune and fear. Daniel’s photographs leave him with uncomfortable questions amidst shadows of danger. He is backed into a corner of difficult decisions to protect those he loves. Lives and hearts collide, revealing an incredibly dark side to the sunny Spanish city (Goodreads).

Sepetys’ main characters may be Dan and Ana, but she crafts her tale using multiple perspectives. Readers learn of the importance of persistence from Rafa, Ana’s earnest and optimistic brother. Puri, their young cousin, gives us a peek into the psyche of a woman questioning the society she has always obeyed. Julia, Ana’s older sister, struggles to provide for their family and survive amid suspicion. We even get brief interludes from a young bellhop and a matador-in-training. Quotes from US officials and ambassadors separate the chapters, providing real-life context for readers unfamiliar with Franco’s regime. 

The cast of characters is large, and it requires readers to process a lot of information. Luckily, Sepetys has experience in creating memorable supporting characters (Out Of the Easy’s French Quarter misfits were my favorite part of that story!) In this novel, highlights included: Carlitos, a preteen hotel employee whose love of Texas renders him Dan’s confidant, Ben, a grizzled (albeit trope-y) reporter/romantic sage, and Miguel, a kind photography store owner. With so many characters, though, a few inevitably fell flat: I struggled to understand the book’s stance on the elder Mr. Matheson, for example. But overall, a cast of vibrant personalities inhabits The Fountains of Silence and its vision of midcentury Madrid.

While the collection of fleeting perspectives can be unsettling, Sepetys’ structure is no mere gimmick. Rather, it complements the novel’s setting: the glimpses into characters’ lives reflect the voyeuristic nature of Franco’s Spain. The set-up worked especially well during the novel’s confession sequence, in which four young people successively talk to a priest. Those few pages manage to confront moral ideology, desire, and religion’s role in corrupt power structures.

I enjoyed The Fountains of Silence immensely, but it is not an easy read. Sure, the love story is charming and warm and moving. But like the novel’s tropical, wine-washed setting, dark tones lurk underneath the breezy surface. At no point does Sepetys shy away from the complexities of life under a dictatorship: The Fountains of Silence contains chilling descriptions of death, hardship, and heartbreak, and it has a slow, immersive plot.

Readers (both young and old! Sepetys’ writing targets a YA crowd but dances the line between teenage and adult literature) should take time to sit with the novel’s messages. I latched onto the opening line, which Rafa first utters while working at a butcher shop in Vallecas. His words haunt the book. 

“They stand in line for blood.”  

notes

  • I bought this book last year from my favorite local bookstore. If possible, support local booksellers and libraries during this time. Consider buying your next purchase from Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis.  
  • Sepetys’ earlier novel, Salt to the Sea, also has multiple perspectives. I am so eager to check out the rest of her work!  
  • Fountains of Silence, in structure and theme, reminded me of the BBC’s World on Fire. On a literary front, Sepetys’s novels recall Julie Berry’s books. (Berry is one of my absolute favorite authors, and I will forever maintain that The Passion of Dolssa is a gosh darn masterpiece.) 

xx

lulu

book review | Deathless Divide

After the fall of Summerland, Jane McKeene hoped her life would get simpler: Get out of town, stay alive, and head west to California to find her mother.

But nothing is easy when you’re a girl trained in putting down the restless dead, and a devastating loss on the road to a protected village called Nicodemus has Jane questioning everything she thought she knew about surviving in 1880’s America.

What’s more, this safe haven is not what it appears – as Jane discovers when she sees familiar faces from Summerland amid this new society. Caught between mysteries and lies, the undead, and her own inner demons, Jane soon finds herself on a dark path of blood and violence that threatens to consume her.

But she won’t be in it alone.

Katherine Deveraux never expected to be allied with Jane McKeene. But after the hell she has endured, she knows friends are hard to come by – and that Jane needs her, too, whether Jane wants to admit it or not.

Watching Jane’s back, however, is more than she bargained for, and when they both reach a breaking point, it’s up to Katherine to keep hope alive – even as she begins to fear that there is no happily-ever-after for girls like her (Goodreads).

walking up to the party after some casual zombie-slaying.

This weekend was big on zombies for me, apparently. Having binge-watched the final season of the CW’s delightful and shamefully underrated izombie, I went all in on the day’s undead theme and settled in to read Deathless Divide. My mind was already brimming with zombie-adjacent media (9 episodes worth!), and I had high expectations for the sequel to Dread Nation, one of my favorite books of the previous year. Would this second installment be able to maintain the clever tone and gory action that made the first book so great? Would the body count possibly surpass the murder-fest that was Dread Nation? Would I read the book, be disappointed, and then have to retroactively apologize to the numerous people I had cornered and forced to listen to my waxing poetic about the virtues of Justina’s Ireland undead histories?

Now, these were some deep thoughts. They weighed heavy on my shoulders; I feared my expectations would be left unmet. But(!) I knew Jane McKeene would not back down from such trials. So, neither would I. Like our favorite bounty-hunter-heroine facing an undead shambler horde, I put on a brave face (a Korean beauty sheet mask), harnessed my scythes (a pristine copy of Deathless Divide lovingly purchased from a local small bookstore), and went headfirst into battle (spending hours on my couch with the book, tea, and a blanket). 

Deathless Divide emerged from the fight triumphant!

Ireland’s characters remain the best part of the novel. Jane has my back, Katherine has my heart, and the novel’s abundance of ruffians have my ire. The new dual perspective between Jane and Katherine did throw me for a loop, but I adjusted quickly enough and never suffered from narrative confusion. Ireland was able to make the girls’ stories distinct, compelling, and exciting. I also enjoyed the quotes that accompanied each character’s chapter – those were fun! 

The writing takes on the (bloody, bloody) action with zeal, but Ireland’s overall descriptions and rhythm are truly lovely. She plays with the genre, using the zombie scenario to enhance descriptions and heighten emotion. One of my favorite passages comes from a Jane chapter, in which she surveys a gritty saloon: 

The inside is dark, dreary. The wooden floorboards are warped, the air hangs heavy with the stink of unwashed bodies, and the few lanterns that burn inside do more to heighten the gloom than to dispel it. There’s a small hearth, but the fire there ain’t enough to chase away the chill that clings to the room like a shambler that’s latched on for a bite. 

…one might think that in the end times there’d be no more use for such a den of iniquity, but the men within these four walls know better. They know that survival comes with a hefty price, and sometimes the only way is in forgetting.

PAGE 287

The novel is long and features a time jump, but the continuous action keeps things exciting and compelling. I appreciated the character growth in Jane over the long time span; that poor girl goes through hell by the novel’s end! Things ain’t easy when you’re tracking down your enemies, plagued with zombies and regret. 

Overall, this zombie western was so fun to read, gory bits and all. Its Black girl protagonists and depictions of love (both romantic and platonic) are super cool. Living on a frontier overrun with walking dead is a nightmare, but reading Deathless Divide was a dream. 

notes

  • Katherine is the best? Her narration was my favorite? I want to be her best friend/zombie-fighting partner? (The answer is yes.)
  • The cover! The clothes! The blood! Truly badass.
  • I recommend reading Audrey’s review on Goodreads for some important points about the depiction of non-Black minority groups in Deathless Divide. She articulated some thoughts that I myself had not considered!

Have you read Dread Nation or Deathless Divide? If not, do you have a favorite zombie-related piece of media? Do you, unlike me, think you’d be able to survive a zombie apocalypse? Key questions, everyone.