It’s been a dark year, it seems, on my reading list…
As I reflect on my completed Goodreads challenge, I can see a firm theme of the year: I just love gothic fiction and girls who can give me a good scare. For any fans of historical fiction with a Gothic twist here are my MUST READS from recent years
The Corset, Laura Purcell : She is fast becoming one of my favourite authors, Laura Purcell does not disappoint with her second novel. Set in a Victorian town we flit between the fliverous but earnest Dorothea and the dark tales from Ruth who is awaiting sentence in the town prison. We hear through both of them tales of deceit. Ruth, a skilled seamstress and corserteer is incarcerated for the crime of murder, though as the do-gooder Dorothea learns she may have committed many more through the power of her needle and evil thoughts. The darkness of course comes from the horrors the Ruth has endured in her life but also, like Dotty we must try and work out if Ruth is in a state of madness or if we actually believe the harm she can do.
This makes for a really enjoyable mystery, a story full of shocks and surprises. The historical details are relayed well but it is the gothic atmosphere that makes this so appealing.
Slammerkin, Emma Donaghue If the prison setting fascinates you the eighteenth century tale, Slammerkin is a great novel I would also recommend. It’s a few years since I read this one, but I loved the details of the horrors Mary Saunder faces just because her head is turned by a red ribbon, the unravelling of her world, will appeal to fans of a gothic feel in their historical fiction.
The Doll Factory, Elizabeth MacNeal I loved this debut though I found some of the violence hard to read, the menace of the characters involved made you understand how the author decided to develop this idea. I found the ideas around artists and trying to escape her life really compelling
The Story Keeper, Anna Mazzola This historical fiction is full of the mystery surrounding the death and disappearances of girls on the island in Skye. Audrey Hart, herself running away from her life, is collecting the stories from Folklore on the island and becomes embroiled in the mystery. The description of scenery, wind and rain whipping around her – the lost land and the clearances also a central feature of the novel – all of this makes for an atmospheric read that I recommend.
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters No list I make about gothic fiction would be complete without one of my favourite books. I am fascinated by the use of ambiguity in fiction. The Ayres mansion makes for a disturbing sense of being out of place. The Little Stranger haunts the pages and like the crumbling world of certainity of the past, leaves the reader uncertain.
And if you want a real classic, Turn of the Screw by Henry James has to be one of the best gothic tales. (And yes I know he is not a Gothic girl.)
On one on the to be read pile:
Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver has had many plaudit’s already and this one is definitely going to start my New Year right.
Without knowing it, I find myself in dark and spooky places quite often, centring round a murder or a mystery. I never meant for this time be my main form of escape. I would love to know: what genre do you love to read.
What genre do you return to most often?
One benefit of using Artist’s Dates is to spend time each week with your sense of wonder…
Pushing through the crush at the Tutankhamun exhibition was a little overwhelming. There was a chaos of people being carrelled through the exhibit from the first video about the Ancient Egyptian Mythology there was no more structure other than the divide between the treasures and the dig. On the day I visited, everyone was hustled into the next room without much ceremony. There was little to direct you to say what exhibit was first. Perhaps that’s because they wanted you to buy audio guides?
When I said I was going someone asked me if I had taking my son. Well, I can tell you the dark room and crush of people was enough for me to cope with, I would not know where to start making it accessible for someone with sensory needs. But my sensitivity to dark and busy places has been heightened by having a child whose anxiety and overwhelm can lead to painful meltdowns so I went instead as an Artist Date. I enjoyed it greatly even if having a child with these particular needs does make me hypersensitive to crowds.
It is not just an awareness for challenging environments that my son has taught me, it is also something much more marvellous: a sense of wonder at small detail. As a small child he noticed a stonework lizard climbing at the National History Museum. I had looked past it. On a recent transport adventure, he danced for joy to see a tile with the tube map on. They are hidden outside Vauxhall Station and even the bored looking young man sat on the wall at the time was quite impressed with our find. I think that some of his inbuilt visual skills make it easier for my son to spot these details. It’s a blessing that I am happy to share.
Really what all children can teach us though is to LOOK! Whether your child has natural joint attention and points things out to you or not, they are often fascinated by things that are low down and hidden.
I was amazed by the treasures I saw on that day. Startled by the depth of the colour. The blue. The passion behind preserving these wonders for over 3500 years is awe-inspiring in itself. Both the religious practices that lead to the immense artistry thousands of years ago, the preservation since Carter plundered the grave and the new project that is being developed in Egypt to finally house the treasures all in one place.
Other than the “exit through the gift shop” mentality (the shops were listed as a galleries) this is a must-see exhibition!
It particularly worked as an Artist Date for me because I was so inspired by the truth that runs through the story: in Egyptian Mythology you must say the name as an act of memory. Despite large scale erasure one might say of Tutankhamun: there’s not a child in our world who does not know his name. That is a fascinating reflection on the power of art and history.
Inspired by work on by inner Artist’s strength, I have been writing letters to my encouragers
There are many exercises in The Artist’s Way programme to uncover what holds you back. In week 8, the chapter on finding your strength, Cameron writes about using your jealousy as a map. As much as I found this useful to identify the desires that I hide even from myself, I also find it quite a negative mindset.
Envy is a difficult emotion, in an ideal world we could pursue every dream, but berating ourselves for feeling like this at times is very deflating. Particularly, as I am fond of thinking, if life gets in the way. It certainly feels like we can’t always act on our dreams, even if those dreams are mapped out by our feelings of envy of others.
I decided then to consider the other more positive way of looking at things from her programme and from the week on finding connection by considering those “encouragers” in my life. Early on she asked us to gather compliments we had received on our work. I drew a blank. A couple of comments from my writing class aside, until recently few people have ever read my creative work. Julia Cameron (the programme’s author) actually advises against getting your first draft review. Your inner artist, like a child, must be looked after. Discouragement at an early stage of work is very detrimental.
So, with these wise words in mind, knowing too that I am sensitive in criticism, I decided to start using my morning pages time to write to my encouragers.
The structure of each letter is to first thank them for what they did for me:
“You saw my passion and allowed me to take time on the project” or “You taught me the skills I needed to improve my work.”
I then think about what that help showed me about my work, in the examples given they were teachers from various stages of my education so I thought about what they taught me. For me, I need to take time and develop a sense of depth in my knowledge to feel like I am doing good work. Not everyone advises that spending a long time on backstory is worthwhile and I read this really interesting blog post about this issue recently. Certainly Brenda Hill advises knowing the motivation behind using details from a backstory saying, “If…it’s not very important and isn’t relevant to the story. When you’re writing tight, it should not be included. “
But for me, whilst I agree not to spend all your time on back story, I have to weigh this idea up with how I best develop my writing. By remembering my encouragers dedication to my work, giving me time to research in depth and explore the subject around the novel I was studying, I can see what has worked well for me in the past. It reminded me how powerful research can be for me.
Finally, in my letters, I use my imagination to think how they might encourage me now. This has been harder so I use the basis of the lesson I learnt from reflecting on the help they gave me to construct the advice. The person who enjoyed the amusing details about the run down cottage that I described in a chapter she read might suggest I consider where I could add more colour to certain scenes, for example.
Write a letter to your encourager:
So, if you want to construct some advice and complements from past encouragers follow these easy steps
- Choose someone who has helped you with some written work, a teacher may be a good place to start
- Think of a few things to thank them for
- Review how their action has helped you
- Imagine what they might say about what you are working on
- Reflect on any advice this letter is giving you and implement it!
Gratitude is a great practice to cultivate and I hope you might find this idea encouraging too.
So this was the year I stopped drinking and forgot to tell anyone
It struck me after a supremely stressful week that quite a few people around me suggested I treat myself to a large glass of wine. Not unusual advice. How many memes, tshirts and mugs are there about mothers needing wine or gin? But what they don’t know: this was the year I stopped drinking. Well, I had two drinks in total and may have a tipple or not at Christmas…
Giving up was not a big deal for me. I am lucky that I don’t have an issue with addiction though I have been around it. Saying no up was just a case of stopping when I didn’t fancy the side effects anymore. I know it was the right thing because earlier this week I had a two day hangover from having one small drink. Somehow though kind friends, who haven’t noticed my lifestyle change, thought I had really earned a drink this weekend after a tough week. But I am happy that I decided against it though I really needed to unwind.
You see, this time last year I had a few social occassions (this is rare, I have little opportunity and very few childcare options). Being the fun mum I am I took it way too far and drank too much on those nights out. I got migraine level hangovers (bad), flushed skin like hives (awful) and a debilitating bout of anxiety (the worst.) So, with actually very little soul-searching, I decided to stop drinking.
It bothered very few people. Afterall, I don’t go out that much anyway. A few older relatives were a little put out. I can’t decide if it’s because they were hopeful I was pregnant (ha) or they just felt judged. Most friends who do know though haven’t given a hoot. Apparently I am not alone, Millenials (I’m almost that young!) are also give up drinking or “Dragged down alcohol sales” as Business Insider put it in an article earlier this year.
According to them, this is a side effect of a surveillance culture because any indiscretion is immediately online. As I say, I don’t go out enough to really humiliate myself but I still realised this year I needed a change. For me, living with the consequences of a drink has been too much. Because the “hang-xiety” isn’t the only reason it takes me to a dark place. I think we often ignore the depressant factor in alcohol in order to enjoy being less inhibited. I am writing about a protagonist at the moment who is really not good at parties. Her awkwardness like many around her is only overcome by drinking copious glasses of wine. I mean, I may have given it up but I can still imagine myself in this position. But weighing it up, I can cope better this way.
This is not to say, of course, that anyone out there who uses wine to unwind is an alcoholic nor that anyone doesn’t have a right to use whatever they like in the name of self-care. Afterall, I have the book Hurrah for Gin in my kitchen to turn to after a hard day of motherhood. However, for me, this year has been giving self-care a bit of a makeover.
It is all about finding what works for you, for me, escaping to books is great. I have on a number occassions this year camped out in my bedroom whilst my husband entertains my son. And it is an escape that sometimes you need. I have also done much more swimming. So reminding myself of this, after a stressful week, I have turned to these two things over alcohol to unwind.
All this is to say, handling anxiety is more important than if I feel awkward at parties or don’t have an easy way to unwind. So for me, I’ll pass on the continuous memes and the wine for now.