“A Thousand Ships” by Natalie Haynes

Thanks to Pan Macmillan and NetGalley for the Advance Review Copy in exchange for an honest review.

Every so often a book appears on NetGalley that makes me slam the Request button with extreme prejudice whilst muttering fervent prayers to the publishing gods. This was one of those books and I was so excited and chuffed when I was approved for it.

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“The Cold is in Her Bones” by Peternelle van Arsdale

Thanks to Simon and Schuster UK and NetGalley for the Advance Review Copy in exchange for an honest review.

So, I’ve spoken a bit before about my love for all things Classical and I’ve always been fascinated by Medusa. I remember in Primary School we once got to watch Clash of the Titans and I found the Medusa sequence utterly thrilling. Over the years I picked up on the fact that what happened to Medusa was utter bullshit.

Continue reading ““The Cold is in Her Bones” by Peternelle van Arsdale”

A Warning to the Curious

Christmas is approaching so it’s time for….ghosts?? 

Perhaps ghosts are something people relate more to Halloween, but traditionally, in the UK at least, ghost stories are told at Christmastime too. There is of course Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with his famous ghosts, but I thought I’d take the time to talk a little bit about some of my favourite ghost stories. 

In my mind there is no greater teller of ghost stories than M.R. James. If you’ve read any collection of ghost stories, then it is inevitable that you have read some of his work. I have a battered old Penguin edition of his ghost stories that has survived at least eight house moves and still moves me to delight when I come across it unexpectedly.  

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Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad

The first story I ever read of his was Rats which was in a children’s collection of scary stories that I borrowed from my Primary school library. What on earth that story was doing in a children’s book I have no idea, but it chilled me to the bone and continues to do so. Having read it countless times since, I can still vividly imagine the inn and the events of the story. That sense of mystery, the peeking through the mysterious room, the link to some archaeological mystery (a common theme in James’ stories)…all spooky stuff. Other favourites of mine include Lost Hearts, The Mezzotint and of course Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad. I’ve often thought that Lost Hearts would make a great stop motion animation and I still get creeped out when I’m in a bathroom in an old house that has a small window above the door.  

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Lost Hearts by Les Edwards

So, what makes his ghost stories so enthralling? Many of the stories either involve a rather stuffy academic type and take place in settings such as private schools, churches, manor houses and lonely seaside inns. This rather genteel, very Edwardian/Victorian atmosphere is classic ghost story territory and indeed coined their own term – ‘Jamesian’ to describe ghost stories of this type. The stories masterfully build up to the main event and have an otherworldly, uncanny atmosphere and genuine creepiness. There is an imaginative variety of ghouls and ghosts and a common theme is around the dangers of curiosity – A Warning for the Curious perhaps, as indeed one of the stories is titled. 

In my most recent catalogue from The Folio Society there is a gorgeous edition of M.R. James ghost stories that I’ve been lusting after. Perhaps I’ll treat myself in the new year (although it might feel like cheating on my trusty old copy). If you are interested, James’ work is out of copyright now so should be easy to find online. Worth having a paper copy to read in a darkened room of a windy night though. Preferably by candlelight in an old country inn.

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The Mezzotint by Rich Johnson

Sticking to the Supernatural theme, on my To Read list I’ve got some more supernaturally inclined books to work my way through including: 

Melmoth by Sarah Perry
The Loney & Devil’s Day  by Andrew Michael Hurley
The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements

Which all appear to have rather crappy Goodreads scores. I’ve noticed whether it’s books or film, people tend to judge scary stories more harshly than other genres. I sometimes feel people expect far more from these genres than they do others but hey, their loss.

Anna Karenina

So, i’ve spent quite a lot of time recently reading and reviewing advanced reading copies from NetGalley which has been a fantastic experience. I openly admit that i’m not much of a writer, but I hope by continuing to read and review books and updating this blog that my writing skills might improve a little.  Sometimes I write a review and re-read it a few days later and find myself cringing at the way it reads so here’s hoping I will feel this less and less as time goes on.

One of the reasons I decided to write this blog was to start to tackle the many (so many…) unread books currently weighing down my bookshelves. This has inspired the very name of this blog (Tsundoku is explained in more detail here). I have this rather weird habit of buying an interesting book and then not reading it because….why?  I struggle to answer this question to be honest. I know the book will be good, I know I will probably love it, it’s almost as if reading it will break some kind of spell. I want to delay the reading of the book so that it won’t be over? How something can be over if I never even start it? This is a contradiction I know. I also have a weakness for beautiful editions of hardback books or vintage hardbacks which can be an issue when it comes to portability. I read a lot on the go and like to have multiple books on my reading list concurrently, so my Kindle inevitably takes precedence when out and about. Excuses, excuses…

So, this is really a long-winded way of saying that it’s time to make a start on reading some of these forgotten treasures. I decided to start with a book that has been on my “To Read” list for literally years – Anna Karenina.

I have seen a least three film and television versions of Anna Karenina, so the story is familiar to me. I haven’t read any Tolstoy before, but I tend to love books set in Russia and those set in a mythical interpretation of Russia e.g. Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse. I’m also interested in Russian History and Folklore so all that considered, this should be a good read.

At this point I’m approximately a quarter of the way through. I did find it slightly ominous that around page 250 (out of approximately 900…) Vronsky’s horse race occurred. Recalling the screen adaptations, I seem to recall this was something that happened further towards the end so i’m not quite sure how the next 650 pages will play out. I’m more than slightly concerned that it will be filled with Levin’s ruminations on farming and muzhiks. I die a little inside every time I realise it’s going to be another series of Levin chapters as he is such a miserable, unlikeable git. It reminds me of the same feeling I had reading the Game of Thrones series when it was time for a Daenerys chapter.

Thus far I’m finding most of the characters to be completely unsympathetic, particularly Levin and Vronsky. I sometimes find my eyes rolling when someone says they don’t like a book because the characters are unlikeable, especially when their unlikeability is a deliberate decision on the part of the author. I’ve noticed this expressed in regards to Wuthering Heights for example. People seem to completely miss the point that Heathcliff and Cathy are not supposed to be likeable. Their passion for one another is unhealthy, destructive and twisted, that said, they are interesting and compelling characters. Thus far I am not finding Vronsky and Anna to be comparable. I don’t feel like I am really getting a feel for who Anna is. She seems to be a manipulated doll, so far, the events are happening to her rather than her driving them and she seems altogether rather passive. I read somewhere that Tolstoy fell in love with Anna while he was writing her. At this point I’m not quite sure why.

“The King Must Die” by Mary Renault

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Perhaps my first mistake in reading this book was not knowing in advance that it was written with the fantastical elements removed. I think Theseus had made it to Crete before I was thinking “…..what’s all this bull dancing about? Where’s the Minotaur?”

The first part of the novel until Theseus makes it to Athens was pretty dull. He manages to end up shacked up with an “Earthling” queen (by the end of the book I still hadn’t worked out what an Earthling is – is it the same as a Minyan? Someone help) whom he treats abominably, and then proceeds to run about with his new posse until he decides to finally get off his backside and go meet his father in Athens.

We have a briefly interesting respite with the appearance of Medea (she doesn’t disappear in a chariot pulled by dragons though, booooo) before Theseus is volunteering himself to go off to Crete.

The whole bull dancing thing was a total snoozefest but things picked up somewhat towards the climax and the finale on Naxos is suitably bonkers.

It’s clearly a well written book but I struggled with the general misogyny and awfulness of Theseus as a main character. He is deeply unhappy with women even having the smallest amount of agency and the book hammers home ‘women having power = bad’ just too much to enjoy. Ariadne was mildly interesting but grounding the narrative in more historical fact just didn’t work for me. Some of the language was beautiful, but impenetrable, and I found myself reading some parts thinking “bwuh?”

This book took me over a month to slog through and despite everything it left me thinking “hmmm, maybe I’ll read the sequel…”. I guess I’d say it was frustrating, often mind numbing yet strangely compelling. I managed to love it and hate it at the same time.