A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes ★★★★☆

Read 11/18/19 – 11/24/19

This is the first book I chose to read for Buzzwordathon 5.0, and you can read more about why I choose A Thousand Ships there!

11/20/19, Page 134

I’m making good progress on this. It is early Wednesday morning and I’m already over half way to my daily goal (50 pages/day). The novel is well written and easy to enjoy. I am not entirely sure who our narrator is. We are getting excerpts from Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, and she keeps referring to the “poet” recording this epic. I wonder whether this is the poets narrative, whether that be Haynes or Homer, or if this is the epic directly from Calliope as told to Homer. Early in the novel Calliope refers to the story and the poet:

I’m giving him the chance to see the war from both ends: how it was caused, and how its consequences played out. Epic in scale and subject matter…It’s not her story…It’s their story.

Calliope, Chapter 5, Page 40-41, Natalie Haynes

That quote really encapsulates the story. It seems to be a collection of stories about women on both sides of the war. They’re tales from before, during, and even after. Haynes approach of jumping from perspective and time is surprisingly effective. Alone, it’s easy to get lost in any one story, but as a whole, they all come together naturally.

At one point, the Calliope becomes irked by the poet as if the story is too tragic. This is in fact a story of loss, on all sides, but why is it that a man’s death is considered an epic but a women’s is a tragedy? To understand the price of war, we have to understand more than those who die (the “heroes”), but those who live as well. Soon after the fall of Troy, the women are captured and described as follows:

None of the women wept. The dead husbands, fathers, brothers and sons were fresh wounds to them all… But all knew that they would never know solitude again. When a war was ended, the men lost their lives. But the women lost everything else.

Chapter 3, page 33-34, Natalie Haynes

It is easy to sympathize with the Trojans. Although, that doesn’t make the Greeks the monsters of this tale because the pain doesn’t stop with the Trojan women. That is how it is so easily to mistake this epic for a tragedy, but that doesn’t mean they can ignored.

It does hurt, I whispered. It should hurt. She isn’t a footnote, she’s a person. And she – all the Trojan women – should be memorialized as much as any other person. Their Greek counterparts too.

Calliope, Chapter 12, Page 109, Natalie Haynes.

“Their Greek counterparts too” is a key part of the story as well. The pain extends to the winners and losers, so who is the villain here? Only time will tell for sure. However, it certainly seems as though the villains are the men so lost in their jealousy, greed and anger. There is one part where the king of the Greeks Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter to Artemis for wind (this is Greek retelling, so I don’t consider this a spoiler). It comes right after these statements by Calliope and after so much time is spent on the pain of the Trojan women. This the perfect illustration of how well Haynes has structured this story to reveal what is already known in a light.

Finished 11/24/19

I really enjoyed reading A Thousand Ships. It brought life to a story that I am only loosely familiar with, and I leave it feeling not only inspired to try other retellings, but with an improved understanding of the story as a whole. Haynes acknoweldges how she takes some creative licenses where necessary. However, that is for the outermost parts of the story, so it probably stands well as a true telling of the Trojan War.

What it does different is re-frame our perception of the war and the people in it. What does it mean to be a hero? Cleary, the men who fight, win or lose, are often seen as heroes, depending on your perception. What Hayne’s does is try, and I think succeeds, to convey the heroism of the women. Whether they won or lost, everyone suffered. It is in how we handle this suffering that heroes can be found. It’s so easy to disregard the women, but it seems as though they’re story is the more harrowing one.

Many of the women in this story convey the loss that is so easily overlooked in these tales. We see the winners and losers in war, but it is through the women that we see the true extent. That is why I think this is such an effective story. Considering the scope, it is a difficult task to tell this story, but I think Haynes did it well, overall.

It almost reads like collection of short stories interlaced (forgive me if I mentioned this earlier, I don’t remember), but it flows rather seamlessly. Each story is told, not necessarily linearly, as it comes to the forefront. At times that involves going back in time to give context. This is all being told by the Muse goddess, Calliope. I don’t have a problem with this; it works well as a way of structuring the narrative. However, I can’t help but feel it becomes a little heavy handed. It is as if we aren’t capable of piecing together the greater narrative without the author, through Calliope, holding our hand through it.

You can see what I mean from the quotes I give before, and the novel ends with a note from the author Calliope to bring it to a close:

I have sung of the women, the women in the shadows. I have sung of the forgotten, the ignored, the untold…They have waited to have their story told, and I will make them wait no longer.

Calliope, Chapter 43, Page 339

The question becomes how much is too much, and does this type of narration take away from the story? For me, it felt like a bit much, even though I did enjoy Calliope’s snarky attitude toward the poet. That said, it isn’t a major issue I have with the novel. My only other issue, again, comes from how Hayne’s structured the story.

Hayne’s method of telling Penelope’s story as a series of letters of her “talking” to Odysseus. In doing so, we get her reaction to Odysseus’ journey (AKA his story) as told by the bards. While I enjoy her quippy commentary, this read less like Penelope’s story and more like a retelling of Odysseus. This story is spread out in a series of letters over the ten years it takes Odysseus to get home after the war end, and every time, I can’t help but ask if this is necessary. Am I getting Penelope’s story or just exciting filler? That sounds harsh, but I have to believe there was a more effective means to tell her story than just having her narrate the same old story we know about Odysseus.

I love Penelope as a character, so perhaps that is evidence of it doing what it was supposed to. Nevertheless, I’m left wanting more. It is very likely I read Margaret Atwood’s retelling of her story, the Penelopiad. I’m also intrigued by Odysseus, so I will probably explore other stories about him (perhaps Ullysses by James Joyce or just watch the film by the same name, which I realize is not an adaption of the book.

My desire to keep the mythology going hopefully shows that I did love this book, despite my stated issues. 4/5 stars.

The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton ★★☆☆☆

Started 11/22/19 (10% progress)

This was the worst (updated after finishing) book I chose to read for Buzzwordathon 5.0, and you can read more about why I choose 7½ Deaths there! I’m about 10% into the novel, and I don’t see me liking this. It is too soon to give up on it. Unfortunately, I have I good idea of this author’s writing style, and it just isn’t for me. For starters, the story is about a wealthy family (Evelyn being the wife I think) who just don’t seem that interesting. I just read the story of Evelyn Hugo, and I really enjoyed the subtitles of her and her story. Here, this feel like your caricature of a pretentious wealthy family.

I recognize I can’t make a sweeping judgment off of 10% of the book. Nevertheless, I get the impression this story is about the spectacle of the idea rather than the using the idea to write interesting situations for interesting characters. If we aren’t given real characters then it doesn’t matter how cool the situation is. All that said, I am not giving up; I am hoping I enjoy this more. What’s more, I want to complete the book for the readathon and because I already own it own hardback.

Finished 11/24/19

This story did not work for me. There was no redemption; my initial impression was a good one. The story is mildly interesting, but I can’t say I enjoyed it all that much. As I said before, this is a concept or plot driven narrative. The characters are boring and lifeless; our main character literally has no character because he has no memory. This story feels like a twist on Clue but not a good one. On top of that, I really do not like Turton’s writing style. It’s all so pretentious and contrived. He leans heavily on the histrionics when describing different situations, and fails to get me interested on those overdone scenarios.

I think the mystery is supposed to be what gains our interest since it can’t possibly be the characters. Unfortunately, there is no reason to do that. We have a lifeless main character trapped in some loop; the problem is we aren’t given any reason to actually care. The central character, Evelyn Hardcastle is a victim of murder. Again, what’s so interesting abut her or anyone else around her. From where I’m sitting, the answer is none.

It seems an overarching theme of this novel is redemption and punishment. Unfortunately, anything it tries to say just isn’t earned. We rush to a plot convenient revelation of what’s going and why, but it happens far too late to actually work. Part of me wonders if Stuart Turton is actually Game of Throne’s Weiss and Benioff. That is how poorly written this story is. Like W&B, Turton wants to subvert expectations with an underlying lesson. It is sadly rushed and is poorly executed.

This book probably wasn’t worth finishing. The big reason why I didn’t was because I become so compelled when I create goals (i.e. buzzwordathon). What’s more, I made the mistake of buying it on bookoutlet.ca, and I didn’t want it to be a waste. That’s another book that can go on my shelf as read; it’s a reminder of what I don’t enjoy. 2/5 stars (literally the second book to get that low a rating from me this year).

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid ★★★★★

Started Reading 11/21/19

This is one of the books I chose to read for Buzzwordathon 5.0, and you can read more about why I choose Seven Husbands there! I am pleasantly surprised. I am reading this fresh off Reid’s newest novel, Daisy Jones and the Six. That was a story that was easy and fun, but it wasn’t nearly as great as so many professed. I struggled to connect to the characters in a real way. That was my fear here. Although, I don’t think that is an issue this go around. I am about 75% through the story, and I can say with confidence that I am connecting more than Daisy Jones.

Evelyn Hugo isn’t a very good person, at least in my estimation. However, she is successful, and it seems as though she is the way she has to be to succeed. The world isn’t/wasn’t very amenable to women 70 years ago, let alone to a woman of color (Hugo is a cuban woman). The question then becomes where does the blame belong? There is no great answer. All that matters is that Hugo is a woman with real desires who isn’t afraid to pursue them using all the powers she has at hand, the consequences be damned.

A lot of the time, it is hard not to root for her, but there are others where it is hard to believe she’d do this. Honestly, as interesting a situation as it becomes, it does at times feel a bit contrived. In large part, her hands are tied. In others, there is a serious destructive mindset. Nevertheless, her cavalier attitude makes her come across as a bit of caricature which was the problem I had with the characters in Daisy Jones. All in all, I think this novel is working better, but that is one problem I have with it.

Finished 11/22/19

I loved this book. Part of me was proud of my dissent from the popular opinion, but that can’t stand. This book resonated too much with me. Sure, parts of it felt convenient. Nevertheless, the Evelyn’s story of finding herself and what she wanted really resonated with me. I felt for her in a way that only a great book can do. In this book, there is love and loss and scandal, and I am here for it. 4.5/5 stars founding up.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield ★★★★☆

Read 11/18/19 – 11/19/19

This is the most anticipated book I chose to read for Buzzwordathon 5.0, and you can read more about why I choose Thirteenth Tale there! It was easier to get into the Thirteenth Tale than Setterfield’s newest novel, Once Upon a River. I think it helps that the premise is just easier to understand. Well, there is plenty of mystery as it pertains to Vida Winters, our central character and famous author. Who I would consider the main narrator, Margaret Lea, is the book lover and casual autobiographer.

The story begins with Margaret Lea. Setterfield immerses us into her life so that we can get a sense of the type of person she is and for her love of books. I have heard this is a book about books, and this is most true in this early parts of the book. That made it easy to fall in love with the story and our character Margaret. However, to classify the novel as a book about books feels like a simplification. It is part of it, but it is much more than that. This story isn’t about a love for books as much as it is for the art of storytelling. In that way, it is very much like Once Upon a River, but there is a difference. Once Upon a River is a story of perspective. While the Thirteenth Tale is a story of how stories are structured.

Ms. Winters is a famous author whose history is unknown to many. Attempts to get the truth have led to countless fables about her life, but she has yet to tell a truthful story. Now, something seems to suggest she is ready. Even as we begin to learn, however, we begin to appreciate her art of story telling because she recognizes when details ought to be shared. There are lies and then their are half truths, and a good story often relies on half truths to maintain an ere of mystery with the reader.

When the story finally begins to come together, it becomes clear how each piece of the story is interconnected. That makes it hard not to compare it to Setterfield’s other novel Once Upon a River, and because they are so similar, her newest novel feels like the same idea but with more ideas built onto it. Once Upon a River has the same love of stories, if not books, and it has a feel of magical realism and fairy tales.

A quote from early in the story.

This quote is but a piece of the conversation they have about books early in the story. This quote resonated with me, but it was a part of a larger conversation about the different kinds of books. It was a conversation about how people have different tastes, and that is okay. Nevertheless, I connected with the Margaret’s father (the he she is talking about). I found his desire to read a wide variety of books inspiring.

I was very pleased when I saw Diane Setterfield liked my tweet!

In the end, I really enjoyed the Thirteenth Tale, and I appreciated the ease of which I was engrossed into the story. I had to check a character list on Wikipedia a few times, but it wasn’t nearly as difficult to follow along as Once Upon a River. Part of that is the magical realism coupled with what I thought was a more Victorian setting. That might sound odd, but I found this story didn’t have as many characteristics of a Victorian story so far as how characters acted.

Is it better than Once Upon a River? I don’t know. I think I would have been annoyed with Once Upon a River had read it after the Thirteenth Tale because magical realism makes everything more ambiguous, and while it isn’t bad, it would make it harder for me to get into. As it is, I read it first, and I am inclined to put them on par. 4.25/5 stars. (I gave Once Upon a River 4.5 originally but in retrospective I feel 4.25 is more appropriate and have changed it.)