2. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton – Is it strange that I don’t really think of this as taking place on an island? I guess the dinosaurs commend attention more than the location! But actually the fact that it takes place on an island is important because it’s means that a) it’s an isolated location (so the dinosaurs don’t threaten the rest of the world) and b) the characters can’t get away so easily.
3. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray – I said I wouldn’t count Lord of the Flies, and I didn’t but I will count this satire. It’s sort of an all female version of Lord of the Flies meets Lost meets America’s Next Top Model meets Pirates of the Caribbean.
4. Foe by JM Coetzee – This one is also strongly inspired by a book I wouldn’t allow on my list, in this case Robinson Crusoe. It’s about a woman who was supposedly on the island with “Cruso” she tells writer Danie Foe her story.
6. Circe by Madeline Miller- A lot of the action of this novel takes place on Aiaia, the island where Circe has been banished by Zeus. But she makes the place a home, and it becomes sort of an extension of Circe’s powers as she uses things growing on the island to make spells.
7. The Magus by John Fowles– This is another book I don’t often think of as being on an island. In this case I think it would work in any isolated spot cut off from outside influence.
8. The Beach by Alex Garland – This one is also strongly inspired by Lord of the Flies, but since it’s not Lord of the Flies, it counts. I’m actually not the biggest fan of this book (just not really my taste), but it does fit the list…
9. Moloka’i by Alan Brennert- This book opens in Honolulu in the 1890’s and then moves to Kalaupapa, the leper colony on the island of Moloka’i. There’s a sequel, called Daughter of Moloka’i but once again this moves the action away from the island.
10. The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve – This is a dual timeline novel set on the island of Smuttynose in New Hampshire. One timeline is contemporary and one follows murders that happened in 1873
Anything by LM Montgomery– Most of her work is set on Prince Edward Island. I didn’t include any in the list because I couldn’t settle on just one.
Since there aren’t many books I’d gladly throw in the ocean (even if I strongly dislike it, someone else may like it! That just seems like such a waste!) I decided to take the ocean theme in it’s own direction. These are my top books set at/near/on the ocean.
Just an early disclaimer: I have read a lot of the sea set novels that we now think of as for children (though are some aren’t) like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Treasure Island. My opinion varies depending on the book but for one reason or another a lot of them don’t resonate with me. So this won’t be a list of novels with “the most” ocean presence. But they’re books about the ocean that I enjoyed.
Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter-Naslund– I suppose this list is a good place to confess that I’ve never actually read Moby Dick, so that won’t be on this list. But the ocean takes a strong role in Una’s epic as well. I actually did really like this book, but it didn’t make me want to read Moby Dick more. I was actually more interested in what Una was up to while Ahab was off at sea.
Circe by Madeline Miller– Parts of this novel (based on a character who shows up in The Odyssey) take place at sea. Other parts take place under it, and still others take place on an island, but the sea is present throughout, so I’m counting it as “nautical.”
The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware– Not only a whodunnit, but also a “did it even happen?” set at sea. A travel journalist sees someone thrown overboard on a cruise. But no one else saw anything and no one is missing.
The Pearl by John Steinbeck– Years ago, I read this short novel about a poor pearl diver with a sick son. But it’s haunted me for a long time. When he finds a huge pearl the family’s fortunes change, and his family dreams of a better life. But the pearl may be more of a curse than a blessing. It’s a retelling of a Mexican folktale, in which diving, pearls, and the sea, play an important role.
Foe by JM Coetzee– This is the third book on this list that reimagines a sea set classic. In this case, Coetzee imagines that a woman named Susan Barton tells Daniel Foe (Defoe’s name before he fancified it) about her experiences on an island with a shipwrecked Cruso (Robinson Crusoe) and his manservant Friday. But Foe changes up the story a bit to make it more marketable. Barton turns Cruso into her own invention in the story, and then Foe turns that into his invention. It’s really about the enigmatic nature of storytelling, but the ocean (and an island) are strong settings throughout.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys- Wow, yet another classic reimagining with a strong nautical element. Jane Eyre isn’t nautical at all, but this tale of the madwoman in the attic, begins on the shores of the Caribbean.
What is your fantasy origin story? (The first fantasy you read)
I honesty don’t know which one I first read. I read fairy tales obsessively as a child. When I loved a story I’d seek out as many versions of it as I could find, and compare and contrast them. (Yes, I was like 5 at the time!)
If you could be the hero/heroine in a fantasy novel, who would be the author and what’s one trope you’d insist be in the story?
Hmm… That’s an interesting question. I’d want it to be someone who wouldn’t do anything too terrible to a hero or heroine, so that leaves out a lot of authors! Maybe I’d go with Eva Ibbotson. Her fantasy books are intended mostly for younger readers, and while enough happens to make them interesting to an older audience, it’s usually nothing terrible to characters we like! As for tropes, I’d like to be the “Lucky Novice” whose never done something before, or done something with minimal training, and can do it really well. I usually have to practice a lot to be even halfway decent at something!
What is a fantasy series you’ve read this year, that you want more people to read?
This year is still fairly young and I haven’t read that many fantasy series yet. I suppose I’ll highlight Fairy Godmothers Inc., which is the first in the Fairy Godmothers, Inc. series. But it’s got a major caveat: while I think the series has potential I didn’t like the first book. I found the two main characters to be awful, separately and together. I say the series has potential though because it seems like the kind of thing that follows different characters in each book. It’s about three fairy godmothers living in the magical town of Ever After, Missouri. Love is the source of the magic in their world, but it’s running low. They decided to help attract more love to the town of Ever After by making it a popular wedding destination. But they need some help promoting it. They ask their goddaughter Lucky (who tends to have terrible luck!) a popular artist, to fake-marry their godson (and her ex) Ransom Payne (a billionaire who runs a chocolate company) in a high profile ceremony. Lucky and Ransom both agree because they want to help their beloved godmothers, but they are both the most annoying characters I’ve read in a long time. But the book is clearly setting up for a series set in Ever After, revolving around Fairy Godmothers, Inc. The residents of Ever After include Red and her werewolf Grammy, a frog prince named “Charming”, a reformed evil queen, and more. I don’t recommend it yet, because as I said I didn’t like the first book. But I think it has the potential to be a feel good, fun series, so I’ll give it another chance.
What is your favourite fantasy subgenre?
Ummm, I can’t choose! I’ll say that fantasy inspired by fairy tales; even though that can fall into several different subgenres. After all, Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series which is sci-fi oriented, but is fairy tale inspired. Meanwhile Juliet Marillier’s work is also fairy tale/legend inspired but it tends have a strong historical setting. The Fairy Godmothers, Inc series I mention above seems like it also draws heavily from fairy tales, but it has a light, magical realist tone. So I guess “fairy tale inspired fantasy” allows me to cheat and pick lots of different subgenres!
What subgenre have you not read much from?
I don’t read much in the way of Sword and Sorcery. I’m not really into reading about straight out battles and violent conflicts most of the time. I prefer more subtle rivalries. But there are exceptions to every rule.
Who is one of your auto-buy fantasy authors?
Just one?! I’ll say Juliet Marillier. I’ve read some books of hers that I’ve liked more than others, but I don’t think I’ve ever read one that I disliked.
How do you typically find fantasy recommendations? (Goodreads, Youtube, Podcasts, Instagram..)
All of the above. There are some bloggers whose opinions I trust, and I look at what my friends are reading on Goodreads mostly though.
What is an upcoming fantasy release you’re excited for?
Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley is described as “Jamaica Inn by way of Jeff Vandermeer, Ursula Le Guin, Angela Carter and Michel Faber” so that’s a big “yes, please!” from me.
What is one misconception about fantasy you would like to lay to rest?
I suppose I’d have to differentiate between reading fantasy and writing fantasy for this one. For reading, I’d say the notion that it’s only for kids has to go. Yes, you can absolutely have fantasy intended for children. But the genre can often get dark, violent, subversive, and disturbing. In other words, not for children at all! In terms of writing, I’ll say that the idea that fantasy writing requires no research needs to die. There’s a lot of research involved. I rant about it a bit in this post.
If someone had never read a fantasy before and asked you to recommend the first 3 books that come to mind as places to start, what would those recommendations be?
This is a tough one!
I wouldn’t do series because that’s a commitment and some don’t get really good until quite a ways in. I also think some classics of the genre tend to be too dense for beginners. Plus those always come with high expectations. So I’ll go with
–The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern– I recommend this one because it’s a stand alone of reasonable length that introduces readers to a more magic realist variation on fantasy. Plus I think Morgenstern beautifully engages the reader’s senses.
-The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker- This gets into the mythical creates of two different traditions and draws them together in a historical setting. It’s a great example of how fantasy can draw on different sources, and set itself in the “real” world. I actually see now that there’s a sequel that’s coming out in June, but I think it works as a stand alone, if someone chooses to read it that way.
The one that jumps to my mind is War and Peace. I read it in college in a freshman seminar that explored the themes of war and peace in general. It wasn’t the worst book I read in that class (Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, I’m looking at you!) but after some really dense stuff, I was sort of looking forward to getting into a novel. Besides which, I actually enjoy big, sweeping, epic stories,. But nothing about the narrative or the characters grabbed me. My professor said that Tolstoy was “a great writer, who needed a great editor.” While I think that’s true, I think some of his writing is more compelling in other work. Here he gets to bogged down in extraneous stuff.
Favorite time period to read about
I’m a fan of the Victorian era, which is a pretty long era, spanning Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837-1901. A lot of my favorite writers of days past (the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Elliot, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins) were of this time period.
To be honest I think Beauty and the Beast has always been a favorite. I love almost every version I’ve read/seen (yes, including Disney!) It’s strange that one of the elements that always appealed to me was the forgotten, enchanted, castle where the Beast lives, but that’s an element that I didn’t include in my retelling at all!
I go on to talk about some pitfalls I wanted to avoid in my own work, so read the interview if that interests you. But I do think that the “gothicness” of the story always appealed to me. The brooding hero, who seems like a villain at first, the abandoned, enchanted castle…
What is the classic you are most embarrassed you haven’t read yet
I try not to be too embarrassed about not having read certain books yet. I mean, having new books to read (even when they’re not technically “new”) is one of life’s great joys, isn’t it? I consider myself pretty well read, but I’ve only been on earth so long, and there are other things I’ve had to do!
There are a few books I feel like I should have gotten to by now though. One of them is Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. I think what’s stopped me so far from reading it, is the fact that it’s considered depressing, even by Hardy’s standards! I think he’s a beautiful writer, but he can be kind of a downer, and lately I haven’t felt up to tackling anything like that.
I was in a recent book club discussion where someone mentioned Moby Dick and I realized I’ve never read that before either. I’m not sure if I want to. Part of me wants to read it, if only to say I did, but another part figures “why bother? There so much out there I actually want to read!” Any advice from anyone who’s read it?
Top 5 classics you would like to read soon
Well there are many, many classics that I’d like to reread. But in addition to those I’d like to get to these for the first time:
Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay- I really like the film adaptation and I’ve always found the story to be very intriguing.
The Lark by E. Nesbit- I’ve enjoyed E. Nesbit’s books for children and I’d like to read some of her work for adults as well.
Armadale by Wilkie Collins- I’ve really enjoyed Wilkie Collins’ other work that I’ve read. The is the only one of his “major” novels that I haven’t read yet.
Maggie-Now by Betty Smith- Again this is a case of me having liked the author’s other work, and wanting to read more of it.
The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf- I’ve always liked Virginia Woolf best as an essayist so I definitely want to get to this at some point.
Favorite modern book/series based on a classic
So many wonderful choices… Can’t decide on just one…
I’ll go with two books by one author: Circe and Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. It’s strange that I loved these books even though I’m not a big fan of the Greek classics on which they were based! I discuss them in this post for anyone interested.
Favorite movie version/tv-series based on a classic
Again, I feel almost like my head is about to explode from so many choices! I’m going to cheat and pick one movie and one tv series.
For film, I’m going with an adaptation of Little Women. I know the Greta Gerwig adaptation was really popular recently, but I actually prefer the 1994 adaptation. Not only is it a beautifully made film with an excellent cast, but it focuses on the story and characters, and not some of the more pedantic aspects that Louisa May Alcott got bogged down with at times. It emphasizes some of the politics and philosophy in which Louisa May Alcott (and her father, Amos Bronson Alcott) strongly believed, but it never espouses these ideas at the expense of the narrative. Rather, it highlights the moments that the narrative espouses these ideas.
For a TV series, I’m going to go with the 2005 BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. It’s an eight episode miniseries, that manages to convey the epic scope of the novel, without getting bogged down in the minutia. Some of Dickens’ work easily lends itself to adaptation. This book isn’t one of them. I’m very fond of it. In fact, I might call it a favorite, but the plot, surrounding a chancery court case doesn’t lend itself to big, dramatic scenes or spectacle. Some of the twists and turns may even seem contrived to 21st century readers/viewers. However this series manages to make it compelling drama with a strong cast. It also manages to recreate the dark, well, bleak, atmosphere of Dickens’ novel in a way that works cinematically.
Worst classic to movie adaptation
The one that comes to mind first is the 1995 adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. The book was about the cruelty of public shaming and punishment, guilt, and pain. The movie features a Hollywoodized romance that changes the ending and in the process ends up contradicting the message of the book. It also features a very miscast (IMO) Demi Moore.
Favorite edition(s) you’d like to collect more classics from
I think that Virago Modern Classics are very pretty, and they include a lot of lesser known, underrated classic works. Ditto for Persephone Books. I don’t want to replace all my classics with fancy elaborate editions tough. I like the mishmash of classics that line my walls, with my notes in them, and places I’ve dog-eared still creased a bit. It always annoys me a bit when people have classic editions that look like they haven’t been opened!
An under-hyped classic you would recommend to someone
I’m going to push for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte. She’s often overlooked in favor of her sisters (which is easy to happen when your sisters are Emily and Charlotte Bronte!) and even Lucasta Miller’s book, The Bronte Myth, dismissed her in a few sentences. But her work was just as strong in it’s own way, as that of either of her sisters. I love how angry she looks in the family portrait that’s on the book cover next to this text. I always imagine her saying “How dare you overlook me! I’m brilliant!”
March 3: Books With Single-Word Titles (submitted by Kitty from Kitty Marie’s Reading Corner)
For this one I decided to do the last ten books I read with one word titles. I made a few rules for myself: Subtitles don’t count. “The” counts as word. Titles that are names are acceptable. I usually add some commentary, but since this is about economy of words, that doesn’t feel right!
February 25: Characters I’d Follow On Social Media (submitted by Tilly @thebiblioshelf)
1. Anne Shirley from LM Montgomery’s Anne series: Anne’s social media would be positive and upbeat enough for me to feel good when it pops up on my feed, but not so much so that it gets annoying/overbearing.
2. Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: I have the sense that her social media would be witty. It might also be occasionally judgmental but once you brought that to her attention she’d try to do better in the future. Actually I think a lot of Austen’s characters would be great on social media…
4. Claire Randall Fraser from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series: Claire’s funny, self aware observations of life amid 18th century natives and time travelers would make me laugh.
5. Circe from Circe by Madeline Miller– I can see this character as being a very fierce and inspiring, empowering presence on social media.
6. Eloise from Eloise by Kay Thompson– I think that Eloise’s 140 character observations about life in the Plaza would be so much fun!
7. Harry Dresden from The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher– This guy has a job that’s made for social media and sense of humor that’s perfect for it. Who wouldn’t want to follow the only wizard in the Chicago area?
1.The Starless Sea by Erin Morganstern– About eight years ago I read Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel The Night Circus, and loved it. It was one of those rare books that you can get lost in as you read. Since then I’ve had my eye out for her follow up and it was finally released. The Starless Sea isn’t an easy read, but its one to savor . Once again Morgenstern has created a novel that lets the reader live in it. Yes there is a (confusing at times) plot and characters, but much likeThe Night Circus, it’s the setting that will stand out in my memory. This book is a vivid, dreamlike, haunting experience. I reviewed it a little in this post.
2. Educated by Tara Westover– Tara Westover was 17 the first time she sat in a classroom. Raised by fundamentalist parents on a mountain in Idaho, Westover was taught to distrust established schools, hospitals and government. She was ostensibly homeschooled, but in reality that stopped once she’d learned to read, write, and do basic math. She was encouraged to try to educate herself enough to get into college by her older brother, and brave enough to take the leap when another older brother became abusive enough to be a serious threat to her safety. But Bringham Young University, and later Harvard and Cambridge, were a world away from the life she’d lived under the thumb of a mentally ill father. Trying to adjust to the change, finding a way to relate to her family, and construct her reality as an adult was where Westover’s education was truly tested. This book is shocking, haunting and thought provoking.
3. Circe and The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller– I discussed my response to these books a bit in this post. I’m not usually a fan of Greek mythology and Classics, but Madeline Miller’s writing is vivid and compelling, and the the characters are so human (even when technically they aren’t!) that its hard not to become invested. I loved both of these books and couldn’t decide which to put on my “best” list.
4. The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware– Harriet ‘Hal’ Westaway has been living hand to mouth since her mother’s death three years ago. She’s barely getting by when she gets a letter from a lawyer saying that her grandmother has recently died and left her money. Hal knows it’s a mistake: her grandmother died years ago. But she’s also desperate. She heads to Mrs. Westway’s Cornwall mansion to try to claim the inheritance. But when she arrives she discovers a family that may be more closely connected to her than she realizes. The estate comes with a lot of secrets, that might give Hal the family she’s always wanted, or might get her killed. This books was reminiscent of Agatha Christie and Daphne DuMaurier. It’s perfect for a cold winter night.
5. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar– This book is historical fiction with fantasy gorgeously brushing the edges. When shipping merchant, Jonah Hancock learns that one of his ship’s was sold in exchange for a mermaid, he finds himself thrust into a new life. He travels from London’s seedy underbelly to the finest drawing rooms of high society. His new life brings him to Angelica Neal, a courtesan, who finds that her destiny is entwined with Jonah’s and his mermaid.
6. The Library Book by Susan Orlean– In the book, Orlean explores a 1986 fire that almost destroyed the Los Angeles Public Library, and may have been the result of arson. In the process, she also explores the city’s history, the library’s history and the importance of libraries in general. Reading this book gives an appreciation for libraries as community centers, educational institutions and one of the most uniquely democratic endeavors in the world. People often wonder if libraries still serve a purpose, or if they will one day be obsolete. Orlean’s book makes the case that they serve a vital and irreplaceable function every day.
7.Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield- About ten years ago I read Diane Setterfield’s debut The Thirteenth Taleand was entranced. Once Upon A Riveris just as compelling but in it’s own way. Set in a pub by the Thames in the late 19th century, this book opens on a winter’s night when a badly injured, soaking wet man staggers into the pub, holding a little girl who appears to be dead. A local nurse saves his life and quickly realizes that the little girl is not dead (anymore?) but the girl is silent and the man can’t remember how they came to be in this situation and has no idea who the girl is. One local family thinks that she’s the daughter who was kidnapped years earlier. Another thinks she’s the long lost daughter of their prodigal son. A middle aged woman is inexplicably convinced that the 4 year old child is her sister… .
9.I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’ Farrell– In seventeen essays O’Farrell recounts her life via near death experiences. These experiences range from the dramatic (a plane that almost crashed) to the more mundane (a stressful medical test) but each one prompted O’Farrell to reflect and evaluate her life. Naturally an eight year old O’Farrell in the hospital with Encephalitis perceives things very differently from a thirty-something O’Farrell experiencing a risky childbirth. While the subject matter is rather heavy, this book never feels it. O’Farrell’s writing is occasionally witty, often perceptive, and always beautiful.
10. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie– Set in Nigeria, this book tells the story of 15 year old Kambili and her older brother Jaja. Kambili and Jaja are wealthy and privileged. Their father is an important person in their local community, known for his generosity. But with his family, he is a religious fanatic and a tyrant. As the country begins to fall apart under a military coup, Kambili and Jaja are sent outside the city to stay with their aunt. Aunty Ifeoma is a progressive university professor whose home is a relaxed place of laughter and lightness. In her home, Kambili and Jaja experience life without their father’s oppressive presence for the first time. When they return to his house nothing can be the same again.
I’ve been seeing a lot of “best of the decade” lists lately, so I figured that this week I’d share my top books of the last ten years.
Room by Emma Donoghue (2010) I think that the first thing that really struck me about this book was the perspective: five year old Jack, a boy who has never left the small room where he and his mother are held captive, makes a unique voice. He doesn’t know anything different so he doesn’t fully understand how messed up his reality is. His mother keeps it that way for his own protection: why tell him about a world he may never see? But when he and his mother escape, his perspective changes. Donoghue’s mastery of Jack’s voice comes across as we begin to understand how Jack’s minuscule reality and limited experience has shaped the way he thinks, and how that grows as Jack’s world expands.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie (2013) In some ways it feels like this book, about being an African immigrant in America was written 100 years ago. It feels like racial tensions in America in the past decade have erupted in a way that make the Obama era seem like a distant dream. But that’s how it feels to me, as a white, native born citizen. In other words, I’m in a very privileged position in my country in many ways, and therefore I don’t experience it in the same way that someone who has a different position experiences it. I think that this book made me aware of some of the ways that make privilege impacts my perception of events that might help answer the “how did we get here?” question.
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014) This novel set during WWII features two endearing protagonists; a blind French girl who must flee Nazi occupied Paris and a German boy who uses his skills building and fixing radios to help the Nazis find the Resistance. Even though these characters are from different countries and on different sides of the war, their stories are intrinsically interwoven. When their paths cross it feels almost inevitable.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanaghiara (2015)- This is a story of friendship over many years and the families that we create. It’s also a story of trauma, and it asks whether recovery is even possible. When we meet Jude, he his is a young college grad with several close friends, a good job, and a traumatic past. As we come to know him and his friends, we see him grow into a successful attorney who maintains his friendships and develops new relationships. But he’s still haunted by his past. His struggle to overcome it, and doubts about whether that’s possible, are the bulk of this novel. It’s a struggle that isn’t always pretty. At time’s its downright brutal, but the struggle is still beautiful. The novel itself is long and at times difficult but I think one of the reasons it appeals to me is that it recalls a 19th century Bildungsroman.
M Train by Patti Smith (2015)- I’ve seen Smith’s other memoir, Just Kids, on many similar lists. But I actually prefer this one. It’s less linear and more internal. We spend time not just in Smith’s life, but also in her dreams. Just Kids is a memoir of Smith’s youth in the 60’s and 70’s. M Train is a memoir of her life over the past decade or so. While Just Kids gives background that’s important to understanding the woman in M Train, I feel that this is the more mature work.
Circe by Madeline Miller (2018)- I was actually torn between this and Miller’s other book Song of Achilles for this list, because they’re both beautiful works. But I went with this one because it feels somehow larger. Not larger as a physical book (they’re about the same size) but as a story and as a depiction of Miller’s world. But I highly recommend both books.
Educated by Tara Westover (2018)- Tara Westover was the daughter of mentally ill survivalists who was homeschooled (a process which ended once she learned to read and write) and later pushed herself to get into Brigham Young University, Harvard, and Cambridge. But her educational success doesn’t give her what she needs to understand her upbringing. Even after she earns her PHD, her understanding of her abusive childhood depended on learning to trust herself and her memory. I appreciated the fact that this book complicated the notion of “hard work = success.” Westover depicts success, and education, as a process rather than a fait accompli.
Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield (2018) I was really excited to read this because I loved Setterfield’s previous novel The Thirteenth Tale. This was one of the rare highly anticipated novels that lives up to expectations. I think one of the reasons that it works for me is that it doesn’t try to give easy answers. It opens with a mystery and offers several possible conclusions but doesn’t tie itself down to any of them.
I read the Odyssey in high school and bits and pieces of the Iliad in high school and college. I read some Greek drama over the course of my education and I’m familiar with the usual mythology. But in general it was never my thing. I’m totally a mythology and folklore junkie but for some reason the Greco-Roman variety never really spoke to me.
When I fist heard of Madeline Miller’s work I wasn’t particularly interested in it. Sure I remember the figures of Achilles and Circe from the Iliad and the Odyssey respectively, but I had no desire to revisit them. However when I saw both novels praised extensively by reviewers who also professed to have little interest in the Greek Classics I became slightly curious, but I still had the sense that it would end up being the kind of thing that I’d end up being disappointed in due to overhype.
Well, I admit it. I was wrong. I actually read Circe first. It comes second chronologically but since both books are essentially stand alone, it doesn’t really matter which you read first. I found that Miller had told a very human story featuring witches, gods and monsters. Song of Achilles focus more on “human” characters (with a few exceptions) but turns the Trojan war into the setting for a beautiful love story between the titular hero and his longtime (male) companion Patroclus.
After reading these books I did what I always do after reading something great: I googled the author. I discovered several essays that she wrote, including one about adapting existing works. Though in the essay Miller writes about adapting the Greek Classics, I think that what she says encompasses everything from classic literature to mythology and folklore. She writes about feeling like writing adaptations is cheating somehow:
When I was a teenager, the thought of a classical story being rewritten sent me into a rage. I cherished the ancient Greeks’ myths deeply, and adaptations seemed like nothing but assault: an unnecessary adulteration of something that was already perfect. Why rewrite Homer, I thought, when you can re-read the original? Adaptations were an admission of artistic laziness. Couldn’t these authors find something original to write about?
She started to write Song of Achilles while she was directing a production of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida in college. The play is Shakespeare’s take on the Trojan war, so Miller figured it was permissible for Shakespeare to adapt, because it was a play: it was being retold for a different artistic medium. But seeing it acted made her think about the voice of a character she hadn’t heard from and she started to write. She was embarrassed by what she was doing: her (now ex) boyfriend contemptuously called it “Homeric fan fiction.”
This struck me because I had a similar feeling when I was writing Beautiful. I felt like because I was retelling the Beauty and the Beast story, I wasn’t original. I was tackling a story that had been retold so many times. But like Miller, I felt like I had something to say about it.
As she wrote, Miller discovered other authors that had written innovative work adapting Homer:
Not one of these authors seeks to supplant Homer, but to engage and illuminate him. They do what adaptation does at its very best: stand brilliantly on its own, while inspiring a fresh look at the original. And there is absolutely nothing lazy about any of it – all those works show how the authors steeped themselves in the source material, and how thoughtfully they approached it. Besides, if I had been thinking straight from the beginning, I would have realised that some of my favourite ancient authors are themselves adapters – Virgil’s Aeneid is based on the Iliad and Odyssey, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses draws on everyone from Homer to Virgil himself.
I think that while Greek Classics are never going to be my favorite genre, this author sees and understands what’s beautiful about literary adaptation. To me that’s something exciting. I’m eager for her future work.