Top Five Saturday: Retellings

The Top 5 series is back! Top Five Saturday is a meme hosted by Devouring Books to discover and share books that all have a common theme. Previously on the blog I have focused on witches, werewolves, thrillers, faeries, fairy tale re-tellings, high fantasy and many more. I am going to try and bring this series back for every Saturday.


4th April 2020: Books to Read whilst Stuck Inside / Quarantined

11th April 2020: Books with a Colour in the Title

18th April 2020: Books with Sibling Relationships

25th April 2020: Books Under 300 Pages

I can distinctly recall an examination question when I was at University in my Practical Criticism Paper (probably, it was a long long time ago now) which gave three versions of the same biblical tale of Adam being tempted by Eve. I know one was Milton from Paradise Lost, one was Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale and the other – modern feminist, possibly by Carol Anne Duffy, it has echoes of Mrs Lazarus – I have never found again. But the question was “Which of these is a re-telling, a re-imagination and a re-creation of the original?”

What a great question! I remember changing my mind half way through the exam too and whizzing back to redraft it! But this is one thing I love about literature and writing: the books talk to each other, inspire each other, critique each other, re-evaluate each other.

And the monolith at the heart of so much Western European culture and literature are the Greek myths and tragedies. So here are my top five recently read and wonderful re-imaginings and re-creations of the classics.

Retellings of Greek Myths

A Thousand Ships, Natalie Haynes

(One of) my current read(s) and nominated for the Women’s Prize, Haynes’ novel re-tells that most familiar and iconic of conflicts, the Trojan War – this time as the women’s war.

“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. . .”

The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker

The same setting of Troy is the setting for Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, but really she focuses on the single girl Briseis – Trojan queen, wife, sister and enslaved by the Greeks. Gifted to Achilles, her presence nearly changed history (or mythology) by causing Achilles to withdraw from the fighting and nearly caused the Greeks to fall. Bit who was she, really?

“There was a woman at the heart of the Trojan war whose voice has been silent – till now. Discover the greatest Greek myth of all – retold by the witness that history forgot . . .

“Briseis was a queen until her city was destroyed. Now she is slave to Achilles, the man who butchered her husband and brothers. Trapped in a world defined by men, can she survive to become the author of her own story?”

Everything Under, Daisy Johnson

It’s been sixteen years since Gretel last saw her mother, half a lifetime to forget her childhood on the canals. But a phone call will soon reunite them, and bring those wild years flooding back: the secret language that Gretel and her mother invented; the strange boy, Marcus, living on the boat that final winter; the creature said to be underwater, swimming ever closer.

In the end there will be nothing for Gretel to do but to wade deeper into their past, where family secrets and aged prophesies will all come tragically alive again.

This is a poignant, powerful re-telling of the Oedipus myth complete with transgender prophets, murdered fathers and beloved mothers… and the lurking Bonak beneath it all. Wonderful!

Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie

After years spent raising her twin siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, Isma is finally studying in America, resuming a dream long deferred. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London – or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream: to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Handsome and privileged, he inhabits a London worlds away from theirs. As the son of a powerful British Muslim politician, Eamonn has his own birthright to live up to – or defy. Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz’s salvation? Two families’ fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined in this searing novel that asks: what sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

A contemporary reimagining of Sophocles’ Antigone, Home Fire is an urgent, fiercely compelling story of loyalties torn apart when love and politics collide – confirming Kamila Shamsie as a master storyteller of our times.

girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith

This was my first ever Ali Smith and it is an absolute gem: all the features that I love about Smith in a concise and lyrical re-imagining of the myth of Iphis and Ianthe.

Fluid and transformative – as you would expect from any re-telling of a myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses – there is a joy in the wonders of language and love and gender and identity and sexuality….

“Ali Smith’s remix of Ovid’s most joyful metamorphosis is a story about the kind of fluidity that can’t be bottled and sold. It is about girls and boys, girls and girls, love and transformation, a story of puns and doubles, reversals and revelations. Funny and fresh, poetic and political, here is a tale of change for the modern world.”

Retellings of Fairy Tales

Outside of the Greeks, all cultures are rich and deeply indebted to the most ancient of narratives, the fairy tale and to a greater or lesser extent, are not all stories re-tellings of those core myths – not the sanitised Disney versions but the darker truer unsettling tales. If we are looking at Western European fairy tales, the first re-telling has to be…

The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter (British)

Angela Carter was a storytelling sorceress, the literary godmother of such contemporary masters of supernatural fiction as Neil Gaiman, David Mitchell, Audrey Niffenegger, J. K. Rowling, and Kelly Link, who introduces this edition of Carter’s most celebrated book, published for the seventy-fifth anniversary of her birth.

In The Bloody Chamber – which includes the story that is the basis of Neil Jordan’s 1984 movie The Company of Wolves – Carter spins subversively dark and sensual versions of familiar fairy tales and legends like “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Bluebeard,” “Puss in Boots,” and “Beauty and the Beast,” giving them exhilarating new life in a style steeped in the romantic trappings of the gothic tradition. 

Kissing the Witch, Emma Donoghue

In Kissing the Witch, Emma Donoghue (author of the Man Booker and Orange prize shortlisted novel Room) unwinds thirteen fairy tales and writes them anew: Cinderella forsakes the handsome prince and runs off with the fairy godmother, Beauty discovers the Beast behind the mask is not so very different from the face she sees in the mirror, and Snow White is awakened from slumber by the bittersweet fruit of an unnamed desire.

In these stories, Emma Donoghue reveals heroines young and old in unexpected alliances – sometimes treacherous, sometimes erotic, but always courageous. Told with luminous voices that shimmer with sensuality and truth, these age-old characters shed their antiquated cloaks to travel a seductive new landscape, radiantly transformed.

The Sleeper and the Spindle, Neil Gaiman

A thrillingly reimagined fairy tale from the truly magical combination of author Neil Gaiman and illustrator Chris Riddell – weaving together a sort-of Snow White and an almost Sleeping Beauty with a thread of dark magic, which will hold readers spellbound from start to finish.

On the eve of her wedding, a young queen sets out to rescue a princess from an enchantment. She casts aside her fine wedding clothes, takes her chain mail and her sword and follows her brave dwarf retainers into the tunnels under the mountain towards the sleeping kingdom. This queen will decide her own future – and the princess who needs rescuing is not quite what she seems.

The Book of Lost things, John Connolly

Goilly it was a while ago that I read this, but I remember it as touching on and twisting many of those fairy tale characters and tropes…

“High in his attic bedroom, twelve-year-old David mourns the death of his mother, with only the books on his shelf for company. But those books have begun to whisper to him in the darkness. Angry and alone, he takes refuge in his imagination and soon finds that reality and fantasy have begun to meld. While his family falls apart around him, David is violently propelled into a world that is a strange reflection of his own — populated by heroes and monsters and ruled by a faded king who keeps his secrets in a mysterious book, The Book of Lost Things.”

“‘Once upon a time, there was a boy who lost his mother . . .’ As twelve-year-old David takes refuge from his grief in the myths and fairytales so beloved of his dead mother, he finds the real world and the fantasy world begin to blend. That is when bad things start to happen. That is when the Crooked Man comes. And David is violently propelled into a land populated by heroes, wolves and monsters in his quest to find the legendary Book of Lost Things.”

The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey

Alaska, the 1920s. Jack and Mabel have staked everything on a fresh start in a remote homestead, but the wilderness is a stark place, and Mabel is haunted by the baby she lost many years before. When a little girl appears mysteriously on their land, each is filled with wonder, but also foreboding: is she what she seems, and can they find room in their hearts for her?

Written with the clarity and vividness of the Russian fairy tale from which it takes its inspiration, The Snow Child is an instant classic.

For some reason, this has lingered in my TBR pile for far too long – always tempting but also always overlooked… must remedy that… sometime!

No tags this week, as I am running late already and hope to whisk myself off to bed imminently! But I do look forward to hearing about your favourite re-tellings!

Again, a David Mitchell book is an event, and a thing of beauty! But the music industry is not my natural setting and again I was caught between this and another book – Daisy Jones and the Six in this case – and Daisy Jones was read first. This time, because it was nominated on a book club I was part of.

Bonus: The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch

They say that the Thorn of Camorr can beat anyone in a fight. They say he steals from the rich and gives to the poor. They say he’s part man, part myth, and mostly street-corner rumor. And they are wrong on every count.

Only averagely tall, slender, and god-awful with a sword, Locke Lamora is the fabled Thorn, and the greatest weapons at his disposal are his wit and cunning. He steals from the rich – they’re the only ones worth stealing from – but the poor can go steal for themselves. What Locke cons, wheedles and tricks into his possession is strictly for him and his band of fellow con-artists and thieves: the Gentleman Bastards.

This one has been on my TBR for years. Literally years. I have heard nothing but praise for it, but so far have never quite got around to reading it! Go figure!

So, there we go: a range of books that I got in 2020 – save for the Scott Lynch – and do regret not reading during the year. Is regret the right word? Probably not to be honest: I do not regret the reading that I did do last year at all. But these are books that I would like to find time to catch up with this year – before prize season hits us again!

Pop in the comments below your thoughts on these – maybe let me know which I should read first!


9th May 2020 — Books with a Number in the Title

16th May 2020 — Books by Debut Authors

23rd May 2020 — Books about Plants/Flowers (Can be on cover, in title or plot)

30th May 2020 — Books from a Male POV

8 thoughts on “Top Five Saturday: Retellings”

  1. Wow, so many suggestions, I love it 😃 I had no idea Home Fire was a retelling but I’ve heard some great things about that book. This is also the second time today that I’ve seen The Silence of the Girls so maybe it’s a sign I should be picking it up soon? 😅 Great list!

    Liked by 1 person

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