School’s out so it’s time for me to take a little break from the blog to rest and read
Wishing everyone a very happy holiday season. I’ll be back in the New Year which always gives me a new season of writing motivation. If you want some reading inspiration, I have shared my Winter reads and favourite Gothic fiction.
In the meantime, I am taking what time to read that I can and have picked up a fun mystery to complete my Goodreads challenge.
Hope you get some reading time in too. I’ll be back in January to share more about my journey to explore creativity, hone my craft and write NOW!
Halloween has inevitably drawn me to some really scary novels, here are reads I would definitely recommend
I make no secret that I love gothic fiction and as Halloween hits I thought I should share the scary reads I have devoured this month
The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell The novel opens in an asylum (never not creepy) as the good doctor tries to coach the silent Elsie to tell her story. We unravel the mysteries of her past through her recollections. Full of some great elements of gothic fiction: a haunted house, the manorial pile left by her late husband, his mysterious death and spooky “companions” (wooden paintings) that seem to have a life of their own. As she writes her tale we learn about Elsie’s dark past as well as the disturbing history of the manor house. This book kept me gripped and I enjoyed how the histories were woven together in her narrative. This novel would be great for fans of Alias Grace. Though not based on real life like Margaret Attwood’s work, Purcell has a keen delight in historical detail which is satisfying in the same way.
The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond I listened to this novel this month and it was a shocking and at times harrowing read. Currently available on Audible Plus I was intrigued by the mystery of the Pact. Jake and Alice have only recently married and have received a strange gift: an opportunity to join The Pact, a secretive organisation that will help them uphold the sanctity of their marriage. Although I did have some reservations about the premise, not least that Alice is a lawyer but seems to sign up to the organisation without much forethought, I was left pretty shocked by the unfolding action. Their perfect life gradually unravels and leaves them very much in danger within the organisation, much more dangerous than it sounds. This will be a great read if you have been as obsessed learning about the NXIVM cult. I recommend Escaping NXIVM podcast too if you haven’t yet come across this real life horror story.
The Binding by Bridget Collins I am part way through this novel. Emmett has been weakened by a period of madness and is sent away from his family farm, called upon instead by the mysterious binder to come and learn her trade. We know very little about the importance of binding books only that there is something dark and secretive about owing books in the world Collins has created. The magic the binder appears to perform has angered local residents and as I continue this book, it seems there may be a witch hunt coming. The dark fantasy and power of books reninded me of Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver and will be another great read for fellow gothic fiction fans.
A frequent preoccupation, I think about how my Summer of reading might pan out
I have mulled over how Mum’s get time to read before because it is a constant battle. Ultimately, though I love to write and journal, my deepest, longest love has been reading. Often it is escapism. I have been having a real Edwardian fad recently, listening to The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton and The Little Ottley’s books by Ada Levenson on Librivox. Along with my current vogue for the PG Wodehouse collections Stephen Fry is narrating on Audible, I have been experiencing a world of manners and often comic sensibilities. Even with House of Mirth which is frankly tragic, I have found a soothing place to escape to. Though these books are not unproblematic, depicting views reflective of their time that are uncomfortable, most of the times we can be swept away by this historic and yet somehow modern era of feisty women, feckless men and ridiculous social mores that people break with mostly little consequence.
This has been a new part of my resolve to read more. To acknowledge that audiobooks count as reading. How strange that I have held myself to such a strict standard for so long. But then if you had told me at University when I stacked my beloved library desk with piles of books and photocopied chunks of essays, that I would have an electronic reader now, I would have been shocked and saddened. Declaring then that there was nothing like “real” books. I still find grand libraries heavenly, particularly where the stacks are filled with beautifully bound books, and you can browse for hours. It will never stop my heart from soaring, but this is not my everyday life. I graduated fifteen years ago and though I love a research trip, they are not often.
An ereader has been essential to reading more. I can flick between the Kindle app on my phone and my device. I always have a book with me and can pick up whenever I do get a chance. Generally this does involve my son playing on the iPad and I suppose I may never win the war of screen time if I am always on my phone – reading or not. In addition to having access to all my library, I can chop and change as I like. I have always been someone to read different books at one time. Now I acknowledge this about myself without guilt. It’s often about mood. Just as I have been seeking something soothing in recent tired times, there has been other times where I have wanted something deeper or heavier to read (looking at you Hilary Mantel). Switching is so easy now I carry my library around, I wish I hadn’t taken so long to read this way.
And speaking of switching between books, the biggest freedom I given myself over the last few years is simple: I don’t always finish books. As a practice, it feels like giving up or failing. But what precious time I have I need to give to what grabs me. As I wrote in my post about books I didn’t finish, it is frequently about timing. Wintery books are for Winter, some time you’re too bone-tired to concentrate, other times you getting obsessed with a certain era. By not forcing myself to read something that hasn’t wrested my attention away from the world, I do read more. Maybe not of whole books but of a greater breadth, exploring more and letting my whims take me.
I still think that having a goal helps, as I reflected before, the Goodreads reward system helps keep me motivated. Odd to think I need to be motivated to do something I enjoy the most but such is my fickle, distractable brain. By thinking ahead to Summer reading and tracking my progress, I am giving myself the chance of prioritising some energy for escaping into a good book this Summer. Shortly, I will be picking my son up from school as the term ends so here are my Summer picks I aim to make time for this year.
Do vivid images of the first novels you read haunt you?
Relistening to classic novels recently, I am struck by the fondness I have for certain books that I have returned to over the years. Through a myriad life experiences, I have come again to Jane Eyre – the first classic I ever read- and other favourites such as Great Expectations and Wuthering Heights. And listening in the last few weeks it strikes me that the same images come straight to mind that I think I first had as a child.
I vividly remember the first time I envisioned Miss Havisham’s wedding cake. The greyed and dank room as oppressive to me as a child as it is now. Dickens writes that the…
…centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite indistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckle-legged spiders with blotchy bodies run home to it, and running out from it…
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
No wonder I have had life long arachnophobia. The rotten core at the heart of respectability that Pip longs for fascinates us throughout the novel . Though the jilted bride hits differently now, I can’t help marvel that it still has the power to creep me out.
Jane Eyre as I have written about before remains one of my favourites so I struggle to say which scene remains most vivid. Her slap of John, the demise of poor Helen all have a life long resonance. I think probably the terror of the red room, – in my mind’s eye still not the rich red of velvet but more bloodred scarlet, – remains with me from my first reading.
Now I read this book very differently. Hardly surprising. Wild Sargasso Sea, a retelling from the perspective of Bertha, the essay The Mad Woman in the Attic, was written in the 1960 so this novel has long had a questionable commentary about race. As with Wuthering Heights I have discomfort now with some of the descriptions. Jane Eyre has a Bertha Mason described as “a clothed hyena” and she is wholly othered by the novel. In the novel the portrayal of her race and mental state seem to be connected. Heathcliff an “untamed creature” is described using epithets that describe his race ambiguously and problematically. And if course it’s depiction of domestic violence grows more uncomfortable with age, even as we celebrate our strong heroine.
But somehow, though I may analyse and wrestle with my thoughts about these novels (I am an English graduate, afterall,) I still return to them. It strikes me how important a powerful image is to hook the reader. And given my back catalogue of haunted houses, dark moors and madness, it’s hardly surprising I love gothic fiction best of all.
Certain scenes are truly like replaying a movie which I find at once both remarkable that these books impacted my life so much, and a comfort. Though it is right to interrogate this fiction, a re-read will always be a home-coming of sorts.
I would love to know what images remain from your childhood reading list? Do you think they influence you to this day?
Sometimes I find it easier to listen than read but it still feels like cheating
I love a challenge to motivate me and so for the last few years I have had a Goodreads account annual challenge. In 2020 over half the books I read on there were manually added as they were audiobooks that I finished and don’t register automatically. It’s pretty obvious I have wanted to escape. And frankly be soothed by wonderful narrators like Stephen Fry.
In fact the audiobooks have had a unique place in my life during the pandemic. Spending so much time either inside (and trying not to hear youtube all the time – my son is obsessed) or walking around my neighbourhood, I have wanted things that are easy for me to do. And often I could not concentrate long enough to read, either because my anxious brain has been on overdrive or my fatigue has made concentration harder. Remember when I used to complain about not having a room of one’s own. The irony has deepened in the last year. The age of the headphones in our house.
I have read some amazing books in 2020. But I have also needed to forget myself in a book. Recently I listened again to The Discovery of Witches, having just watched the Sky series and being sure they missed important parts! It may be the familiarity of these books that helps bring some small measure of certainty. Phoebe Reads a Mystery was another favourite. Often mysteries in particular follow a formula to some extent, driving towards a usually satisfying conclusion. Offering an odd sort of stability to these odd times.
Part of me (probably the part that studied English,) thinks I am cheating on “real” books. But I find that I remember in much more depth what has happened in a book when I listen to it. Most of these books I had read the book first. I have a terrible habit of skipping over names when I read. And speed reading means I may miss the finer points. I probably am more of an aural learner, always finding lectures a good place to learn at University. I just wished it had occurred to me all that time ago that I could listen to books. Particularly those texts I found so arduous such as Paradise Lost (still haven’t finished it) and Shakespeare. For some reason though there is still this snobbery that reading a book is superior to listening to it. Odd when both these were written to read aloud.
In the Bored and Brilliant project which I tried earlier this year, Manoush Zomorodi explains how reading online all the time has changed our ability to concentrate and take in information. It may be that our brain takes in information differently from physical texts than scrolling. One reason is that you are even more likely to skim read online, apparently. So in comparison, it may be that I take much more in when I am listening to audiobooks.
There is something to be said that there was clearly at time in relative recent history where storytellers would learn swathes of texts or poems and recite them. In China, there would be a tradition of relaying a story and a complex commentary. Feats of memory we cannot imagine now. This though does suggest that there is something about how our memory is fired up when listening to a story.
I have set a challenge again for 2021 but I think it’s time I cut myself some slack and count listening as reading.
Do you prefer audiobooks, ebooks or the real thing?