Review: Anna K by Jenny Lee

Hello. It is me, your retelling obsessed librarian here with another review of a classic novel turned modern. 

And can I just say that everyone is on their A game this year? I haven’t read a flop in months and most of them have honestly been some version of a retelling.  There was Only Mostly Devastated and A Thousand Ship. I’m looking at my copy of Hagseed now thinking I may give Atwood and her crack at The Tempest another try, given my recent luck. 

Anyway, today I am here to talk to you about Anna K. I’m sure you’ve been seeing the cover around. It screams teen drama. Which is perfect because Anna K is a retelling of Anna Karenina. It is a pretty true retelling at that. Except swap Russia with New York and all the high society functions with dog shows and NYC private schools. It is basically Gossip Girl but with Tolstoy added in. 

As someone who really did love the Tolstoy classic I was skeptical. I loved the interconnected stories and the high level of drama and eunni. I wasn’t sure if the source material would lend itself to such a modern setting, but selecting the very privileged setting of private school Manhattan was brilliant. If anything the motivation of everyone’s favorite Tolstoy characters makes more sense coming from a 17 year old. 

Anna K was completely immersive. While I clearly am a lover of the source material this is an instance where I think a reader could go in blind. You don’t need to know about the upcoming love triangles, the side characters, or anyones tragic backstory. Lee fleshes out all of her characters. You won’t miss anything from having not read Anna Karenina. I always think that this, the ability to read a retelling on its own, is pretty high praise. 

Lee’s prose is also brilliant. She is firmly in the mind of these over privileged teenagers and is guiding them ever so slowly to their impending fates. Anna K was a story I couldn’t put down because of Lee. In lesser hands this is a story that could flounder in an opulent setting but without real emotion. Not here.

If you like YA drama, Tolstoy novels, Gossip Girl, or really just a romp through old money NYC give Anna K a try. It is easily one of the most surprising books I have read this year.

New Releases, Berries, and a Touch of Spring

Spring is here. In Michigan this means that most days barely reach 50 degrees, but you can take a walk in a light jacket or nice sweatshirt. It means flowers are starting to pop up, the grass transitions from a dull brown to a vibrant green, and the sun is out regularly. 

After a winter of grey skies I am THRIVING sitting by my big picture window and soaking in sunlight. 

Spring also means an onslaught of new book releases. I am finding I can’t keep up with all the books coming out in April that I must have. Clearly my self imposed book buying ban is not working very well. I’m also doing a Scridb trial to get more reading in at a cheaper rate. 

But I must say the quality of books coming out this quarantine have been fantastic. Lately I have found myself floating through Emily St. John Mandel’s world. The Glass Hotel is everything I needed in a book. Straight up literary drama with the most intriguing characters and thoughtful settings. I adored Station 11 so I am so pleased her latest novel lives up to the hype and then some. 

It doesn’t hurt that I was able to sit outside with The Glass Hotel with a nice cup of tea and a slice of Mixed Berry Banana Bread. Berries are another great signifier of the start of spring for me.  

This recipe was everything I needed to brighten my week. It is delicate, sweet, and full of lovely pops of berry goodness. I used a mixture of blackberries, blueberries and cut up strawberries. Now my heart is happy and my stomach is full of carbs. 

You should totally make it. Slather on some cream cheese, jam, honey, whatever you like. It makes any day a little brighter. 

Ingredients:

2 cup All Purpose Flour

¾  cup Sugar

1 teaspoon Baking Soda

½  tsp Salt

¼ cup Buttermilk 

2 egg 

¼ cup Vegetable Oil

2 tsp Vanilla extract

½  cup Blueberries

½  cup Blackberries

1 cup diced Strawberry

3 medium Banana

Steps:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9 by 5 loaf pan and set aside. 

Combine dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Mix. 

In a separate bowl mash bananas and mix together wet ingredients and eggs. 

Pour dry mixture into wet and stir until just combined. Gentle stir in berries. Pour mixture into the prepared loaf pan.

Bake for 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. 

Let cool for 10 minutes in pan, then transfer to cooling rack. Wait until completely cool to slice.  

Enjoy!

Oh, and let me know what new releases are on your radar

On Loving the Movie More than the Book: Little Women

A few weeks ago I mentioned I was going to try and read more American classics, specifically Little Women.

I won’t lie, most of my motivation for finally giving the Alcott classic a chance was the new Greta Gerwig movie. I love her work and the cast looked amazing. Every trailer screamed period piece love and I wanted to read the book before I saw someone’s interpretation on screen. 

Unfortunately after finishing Little Women I don’t have a lot of love for Jo, Beth, Meg, or Amy. I didn’t want to be a Marsh sister. I didn’t see myself strongly in any of these iconic women. Maybe I came to the story too old, too cynical, or too stressed. Maybe they were never for me. I knew going in that Little Women was a character drama. I knew the plot wasn’t strong. I knew this meant I was going to have to route for the Marsh family. Unfortunately I was unmoved. 

But now I know that I am not a Jo or a Meg. I don’t much care about Beth’s fate. I never want to think of young Amy again.

At least not in their original form. 

A week after finishing the book I sat down and watched Gerwig’s adaptation. While I still didn’t care about the Marsh sisters I was in love with non linear storytelling. The set was complete eye candy and the acting was superb. It was like being transported. 

I actually found myself caring about Amy. Weird, I know. Many have already told me this is the “wrong opinion” but that’s fine. 

It turns out what I needed to enjoy Little Women was more than words. I needed brilliant dresses and well cast actresses. I needed a 2 hour commitment, not several days. I needed a feminst tale for 2020. 

So yes, this was one of the few times I liked the movie more than the book.

Review: Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales

It turns out the thing my life was missing was an LGBT retelling of grease set in North Carolina written by a  wonderful Australian woman who seems to have the American high school experience down. 

Enter, Only Mostly Devastated, the above mentioned retelling. 

Gonzales’ novel centers around Ollie, a high school senior who thought he was going to be in North Carolina for the summer with his family to tend to his sick aunt and babysit their kids. Except now it is more than a summer, and the beachy fling he had with the incredibly handsome Will could be something more. Except life isn’t that easy. Among making new friends, learning the ropes, and dealing with his aunt’s declining health Ollie must decide if Will staying friends with Will is worth the heartbreak, or if he’s okay being Only Mostly Devastated for all of his senior year. 

I’m going to level with all of you. I finished this book in about 2 days. Still hung over from the spectacular Red, White, and Royal Blue my expectations were not high but woah, was I wrong. There was something beautiful about Gonzales’ storytelling. She portrayed her characters as real teenagers with real teenage emotions.

The fact that teenage emotions often lead to teenage level problems probably helped. For every real, life changing level crisis Ollie faced he and his friends had a dozen more little hiccups that were obviously going to be the end of their world. Oh. Em. Gee. 

I’m not going to lie, it was incredibly refreshing. I’m a big fan of characters with proper motivation and realistic reactions and Only Mostly Devastated was everything I needed. Reading it felt like being a fly on Ollie’s wall. I’m now hoping for some sort of mini series so I can revisit him and his friends over and over. 

In short: if you’ve been looking for a fast and immersive read, if you love flawed but growing characters, and if you love a good LGBT romance please pick up Sophie Gonzales new novel. It is so much better than watching Grease.

On Traveling Through Books

One of the major things I find myself missing the most as I am stuck at home is the idea of travel. My boyfriend and I have the travel bug and had 4 trips planned for this year. Luckily we were able to hit Nashville at the beginning of February, but now as our future plans collapse I find myself wishing for the ability to jump on a plane and see new places. 

Luckily, I have my trusty (and overstuffed) bookshelves to get me through this time. As I find myself longing to go back to New Orleans I look to my copies of Bryan Camps’ Crescent City books. The City of Lost Fortunes is a tour through the French Quarter and greater New Orleans, with demigods, vampires, and tricksters as tour guides. It is both evocative and transporting. I can almost taste the begniets and Po’boys just thinking about it. 

I can pull down my Outlander books as I mourn my canceled trip to Scotland. I find myself drawn to more books like Rachel Hawkin’s Royal series to experience the highlands while I wait to reschedule my own adventure. I’m currently accepting all books (that aren’t Trainspotting) that are set in Scotland so I can continue living vicariously through my books. 

This is nothing to say of the Shakespeare retellings I have been eyeing as my annual trip to Stratford is on indefinite hold. My trip to Chicago, a former home, has me longing for the descriptions of the city in The Time Traveler’s Wife. There is something about remembering the tiny details of a place once familiar to me that makes me feel like I’m in on a secret. This happens with places I’ve traveled to as well. 

Lately I’ve found myself in Pakistan, New York, Italy and Norway. I’ve taken comfort in descriptions of settings different from half acre of Michigan land. It is good to remember that armchair traveling is still a thing and that learning about places and cultures so different from my own can still be enjoyable from the comfort of my couch. I’m searching out books with diverse characters in settings to expand my mental horizon while at the same time watching the plants outside start to grow. 

What is everyone reading to escape? What places are you learning about and enjoying? Are you planning any trips based on your quarantine reads?

Review: A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

Two years ago I discovered Madeline Miller. Two years ago I fell down what I now know is a greek mythology rabbit hole. I thought I could pull myself out. 

I was wrong. Super wrong. So wrong it is hilarious. 

I have told you about my love of Circe and The Penelopiad. I gave you a list of retellings that I wanted to read

In short, I have spent a lot of time talking about really old Greek things. I promise you I am more annoying to my friends, who have been here for buddy reads of the Iliad, author events for Madeline Miller, and my general screaming about how Achilles totally 100% has PTSD. 

He totally does. Let’s not start this fight. 

But I digress. 

At the beginning of the month, before we were all stuck at home and our worlds turned upside down I ordered Natalie Hayne’s A Thousand Ships. It has been near the top of my TBF since it’s release and has been impossible to find in my local libraries, shops, or for my kindle. It finally arrived from somewhere in the UK this past week and I absolutely devoured it. 

A Thousand Ships is the story of the Trojan war. You know, that war where Achilles fought and died, Paris started with a bit of light adultery, and in general a lot of carnage ensued? Here Haynes gives us a new perspective of the fighting and sacking of Troy that is no less bloody but a lot more heartfelt. Through the eyes of the women affected by the war she unfolds this well known tale to a stunning effect. 

At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about A Thousand Ships. Haynes shifts perspective every chapter, and occasionally I found myself flipping back to the helpful list of characters at the beginning of the book to ensure I understood their significance. Because of this the first 40 or so pages feels a bit like a disjointed collection of short stories.

I urge anyone that has this feeling to push further. The shifting perspectives highlights the different types of sadness and horror there was to face. Penelople’s letters to her long missing husband start hopeful and sad before becoming bitter and threatening. Cassandra’s muttering goes from a shared annoyance to absolute tragedy. Even looking through the eyes of the Goddesses so responsible for the ongoing war was insightful. 

There’s a particularly good moment with Athene’s owl. I promise you’ll laugh. 

Hayne’s did what is so hard to do with a retelling. She created her own epic. All of Homer’s original points are there. There’s a plague because of some aragonance. Hector dies. Troy falls because of some business with a wooden horse. Somehow Hayne’s makes all of these moments her own. Nothing feels repeativie or reductive. Her characters have soul, and their perspective gives the timeless tale of Troy new eyes. 

I honestly cannot sing A Thousand Ships praises loud enough. I urge you if you have a copy and any love of mythology to pick it up. It is a stunning read. 

Sometimes when reviewing retellings I add a caveat – sometimes they fall flat without knowledge of the source material. While I feel this could be true with books that have a slow burn like Circe I think A Thousand Ships is a bit more accessible. Any knowledge of The Iliad or even The Odyssey would help the reading experience but I don’t think it is necessary to enjoy this story of the resilience of women. 

On Books, Grief, and Bread

My best friend and I have a bit of a theory: When someone gets REALLY into making bread they’re probably not okay.

We laugh at this as people who occasionally like to bake bread for parties, nourish sourdough starters, and generally like carbs. 

But everytime we hear a new friend or acquaintance talk about their new found love for breadmaking we think “are you okay?” 

This week I have made a lot of bread. This week I haven’t felt okay. 

Yesterday I cried. I cried listening to some of my favorite music. I cried watching the news. I cried talking to my mother, my boyfriend, and my friends. 

I couldn’t always name the specific reason I was crying, but I know it was all varying kinds of grief. Grief at not seeing my family, for seeing my brother’s wedding canceled. Grief over not being able to water my plants at work. Grief over the sudden new fear and anxiety that accompanies me anytime I step outside my house, or whenever one of my loved ones does. Grief for my country and my state as I watched our president shit talk my governor instead of sending emergency supplies. 

Baking, much like reading, has always been a form of escape for me. There is something relaxing and imminent about combining ingredients and watching them form something new. With bread there is the added benefit of watching something living grow. I particularly love shaping dough after it has risen. The smell of baked goods in a small house also can’t be beat.  

I’m finding that this week I have taken solace in my kitchen and my couch. My kitchen, while small, is a space I control, and the things that come out of it nourish me in more ways than I can count. My couch has become my go to spot of reading, and after a few weeks of spott focus and anxiety I have found books are again my escape from this crazy world. Sometimes, after a particularly good reading session I can almost forget that I can’t go to my favorite restaurant, even if just for a few minutes. 

Earlier this week I spent some meditative time making a chai banana bread. It helped keep me grounded when I felt like my meager routine wasn’t enough.

Today I am combining my escapes. Today I made a lovely herby focaccia. I listened to my seemingly infinite Outlander audiobook as I made the dough. I turned it up as I did dishes. I wondered if I would be stuck at home long enough to finish the almost 50 hour Drums of Autumn. 

While waiting for the dough to rise I sat down with A Thousand Ships and lost myself in the Trojan war. Again. For those of you following along, yes, I am still obsessed with mythology retellings. I have no shame. What’s more, I was surprised when my timer went off an hour later to shape my dough. 

Today I had a morning full of self care and mindfulness. I didn’t chide myself for not reading faster. I didn’t get flustered when the pepper I was adding to my oil infusion opened up like an angry vulcano. This is life, and while I can’t control what is happening outside my walls I can control how I respond to the things happening inside of them. 

The bread was still fantastic, even if it made me sneeze. I plan on using it for breakfast sandwiches this morning and to sop up sauce from dinner tonight. I’m sure I’ll continue to snack on it as I read. 

I hope you all are practicing self care in whatever form makes sense to you. I hope you have tasty snacks and friends who will play games with you online or tandem watch a netflix show with you. I hope you’re coping well in these trying times.

And until we are free to go out in public again, I hope you make as much bread as you need. 
As ingredients are scarce right now I didn’t test my own Focaccia recipe and instead used Inspired Tastes tried and true version. It was totally worth it, even with the excess of pepper.