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Reading Life: 12th April 2017

A photograph of a copy of Emma Henderson's The Valentine House

I’ve been reading so much lately it felt time to write another post of this type. After what has been a long semi-slump – which often turned into a short complete slump – I’ve a lot of motivation.

My current older read, though I use ‘current’ loosely as the book is not a priority at the moment, is Charlotte Turner Smith’s Emmeline – the full title includes ‘The Orphan Of The Castle’ but I’m going to employ the single word/name most of the time. (I’m not sure how correct that is, but many pages online shorten it.) I discovered Turner Smith some years ago but Emmeline, which is a Cinderella-type story, was only available in scanned fragments of old editions and difficult to find in print. In the years since, Project Gutenberg have produced a full text. Finding that made my day.

Born in the mid 1700s, Turner Smith led a mixed life. She was rather well-known in literary circles for her poetry – she wrote both poetry and prose, a good few novels at that – finding praise from Wordsworth and Coleridge, but otherwise her life was not so good. Her husband got into enough debt that he was sent to prison and Turner Smith joined him; the couple separated at one point and whilst the author later made good money she ultimately ended up in poverty.

I intend to make the book a priority when I can; at the moment I’m just a few pages in, having wanted to get a sense of the atmosphere. So far, so great. There’s a very, very, gentle humour and a lot of what seems to be goodwill. It’s a fairly long book but yes, if these few pages are something to go by, it’ll be worth it. I wasn’t aware of Turner Smith’s other work, didn’t even know she was a poet, and I can’t remember how and why I first found out about her, but I’m considering reading her other work if I enjoy this one. I love the idea of reading older fiction and as this is 1700s (which is quite early in terms of female writers – I’m also looking at 1600s’ Aphra Behn) it suits.

Emma Henderson’s The Valentine House has been welcomed this month. I had been wondering if she was writing a second book, after her Orange Prize shortlister, Grace Williams Says It Loud; it’s been an exciting few days. There seems to be a bit of a disability theme going on, with one character making vague references to a ‘weird gait’ and what appears to be Bell’s Palsy. I’m almost half-way through and it’s not been made clear yet but again, as with Henderson’s previous book, it’s a look at things from a more distant view, for want of a better term, and the focus is on the story. I’m not quite sure where the narrative is going but I think it may turn out to be one of those books you read to relax. It’s set in various decades of the 20th century, always in the French Alps, and features a lot about climbing and family requirements. This said, there’s a sexual theme lingering beneath that is quite dark – it may well be that it’s a nice easy read up to a certain point.

Phillip Lewis’s The Barrowfields made my (previous) week. I was working on a deadline, semi-self imposed as review deadlines can be, and it was the best kind of book for such a situation – I could have stopped reading, in that ‘could put it down’ way, but I was really very happy to continue. I came close to waxing lyrical in my review so I won’t carry on now except to say I’m really looking forward to Lewis’ next, even if I’ve not heard hide nor hair of it.

Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution is fairly good. I’m finding the writing a bit lazy, as though Donnelly has tried too hard to get contemporary young adult speech right, and the letters written by a 1700s teenager don’t read any differently, but the story is promising. It’s a lovely little book; I found a hardback copy which was very welcome as I’d wanted the book for a while and it was one of those situations where you regret not having got a book before a cover change.

I’ve Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent waiting in the wings. I might be very excited about that.

What are you reading?

Reading Life: 15th March 2017

A photograph of a blackbird

I’ve read outside, sleeves pulled up to the elbows, twice now this month. Glorious. I currently have a couple of books I’m right in the middle of and a couple more I’ve put on hold for the time being. Those on hold I hope to get back to soon – I know I should finish them anyway but there’s the additional downside of it seeming as though I’ve read more books than I have: my reading log has six unfinished books on it which inevitably ups the overall number of ‘books’.

At the moment I’m concentrating on two novels – Sally O’Reilly’s Dark Aemilia and Rory Gleeson’s Rockadoon Shore.

The O’Reilly is a book I chose from a back catalogue. It’s one I heard a lot about around the time it was published and was intrigued by, but I’m glad of the space in-between its release date and my reading it. It’s about Aemilia Lanyer, a poet/minor courtier who lived in the 1600s. She was the first woman, at least in Britain, to be paid for her craft and knew Queen Elizabeth. ‘Craft’ in the other sense is also relevant – literature about her involves a level of what would have been termed witchcraft (herbs, potions) and Lanyer is known to have visited an astrologer.

Dark Aemilia

I’m glad I waited because I have added context in which to read it; Elizabeth Fremantle’s most recent release, The Girl In The Glass Tower, is another interpretation of Aemilia and so I liked the idea of hearing two different voices on the subject in a short period of time. Both books are indeed very different – whereas Fremantle’s Aemilia is widowed, poor, and focused on her possibly fictional friendship with the Lady Arbella Stuart (great-great-granddaughter of Henry VII), as well as the rumours of witchcraft, O’Reilly’s book takes place at court during Aemilia’s younger years and concerns the possible connection between the poet and Shakespeare. Both books are written in very differing manners so whilst they’re fictional you do get the feeling you’re reading widely.

(Of Shakespeare it has been proposed Aemilia was his ‘Dark Lady’, hence O’Reilly’s title. It’s suggested that Aemilia may have been his muse; the film Shakespeare In Love seems to have been a starting point for O’Reilly and after having read up on Aemilia, I was rather surprised to discover the film does not directly reference her.)

Dark Aemilia is a good book; there is a lot of period detail and O’Reilly’s evidently taken her time over it. The chapters are appropriately titled ‘scenes’ and there are a fair number of nods towards the theatre in the narrative but for me it’s proving a little too theatrical. Aemilia, here, is also quite black-and-white in her thinking and quite frustrating. I’m appreciating the book rather than actively enjoying it.

Rory Gleeson’s Rockadoon Shore is a book I picked up at the John Murray Fiction Showcase earlier this year. Many of the books highlighted will not be published until much later in the year; Gleeson’s publishing date was January. At the event the author made the book sound quite humorous and very intriguing; it’s about a group of friends who go on a weekend away – the story takes place over a couple of days. Growing up I always wondered why characters in books so rarely ate lunch and hardly ever bathed so the short time period in the book appealed to me. There are indeed more showers and much food and drink is consumed. The general style of it I’m enjoying – there’s a lot of white-space as the dialogue often consists of single words (the F word is one of them) and Gleeson has a pretty good knack for characters. Interesting is the way he writes the women, often in the male gaze and yet other times a lot more objectively, more as a woman would write them – I’m sensing a deliberate decision here to portray both genders from various perspectives. This said, when it comes to the female characters’ narratives (Gleeson’s narrative is third person and the chapters cycle through the characters, one at a time) they aren’t completely realistic.

Rockadoon Shore

I’m yet to work out where the story is going; at this point I’m under the impression it may just be an exploration. If it is an exploration then I’m not sure how successful the whole will turn out to be, partly because the scope is so limited. But it’s a good escape and relatively short, an easy read. As a slow reader I’m enjoying being able to read 70 pages an hour.

As a general update on the books I’ve put aside for now: Vanity Fair is still there, but now alive and kicking. I recently decided to re-start it which may be ill-advised as I was already half-way through but I could not see myself getting through it otherwise; Tender Is The Night lounges somewhere at home – I last picked it up at Christmas and I’m not worried about that; Twelve Years A Slave is excellent, I’m just aware I can’t give it the full attention it requires; A Brief History Of Seven Killings I’ll be going back to after my current two books; With Her In Ourland I’m slowly making my way through. The ‘problem’ with the Perkins Gilman is it’s very much a lecture, a sort of fictional political tract, than a novel, and as Herland was so good it’s been quite a let down.

So that’s my reading – a bit all over the place at the moment, rather like me in general. I’m hoping it’ll settle down sometime soon.

What have you read recently?

Reading Life: 27th January 2017

A photograph of a pen resting on an open diary

It has been quite some time since I last wrote one of these posts. I think I got so caught up in ‘topic’ posts and using an editorial calendar that it got pushed to the wayside. Writing about your current reading doesn’t really fit the idea of planning ahead.

My reading so far this year has been minimal. I’m finding that January is a hit-or-miss month – some years I’ll read a lot, others not much at all (if I finish a few books it’s usually down to a last-week-before-February ‘rush’ wherein that last week is sufficiently far enough from the holidays to feel detached from them). Thinking back to years I read a lot in January, it was mostly down to Long-Awaited Reads Month. I considered doing it again this year, just me, but found I wasn’t in the mood.

So I’ve been in a slump but it’s coming to an end. It got to the stage where I had to read because of the books I’d taken on for review. The books have been good. The Stone Angel has a horrible heroine but the book otherwise has been a fair read. I identified with it, having known people like Hagar Shipley, and that made it easier to work out what was happening, what was really going on. The book I’m currently reading, Nicola Cornick’s The Phantom Tree, was one I’d been looking forward to in that way of a reader who loved the author’s previous book and doesn’t care what the next will be, they just want to read it. It’s in a similar vein to House Of Shadows but different enough – there’s a lovely difference between the narrative voices in the two books wherein Cornick has stuck to her writing style whilst delivering a new voice. Hopefully that makes sense!

I’m also slowly getting through Evie Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing. I’m not keen on it, mostly because there is no suggestion, other than name usage, as to when the narrative has moved back and forth in time. The effect is huge – what could have been an interesting, pacey, book, is rendered confusing because you often don’t know where you are until a couple of pages into each chapter. Wyld is, I believe, the fourth ‘Granta best novelist’ I have read and I’m finding it intriguing that three of the four authors have something confusing in their narratives, as though to be a Granta Best Novelist one must be very vague. Xiaolu Guo. Helen Oyeyemi. Evie Wyld. Even Zadie Smith, who isn’t confusing as such, can be rather experimental. I’m wondering if I should keep a look out for the Granta line on covers so that I’m prepared and can plan my reading accordingly; I wouldn’t want to give them up but they’re best left for those times you’re particularly motivated.

Lastly, I’ve encountered my first erroneous blank page in a book. I read about this happening and it feels almost like a rite of passage. It was an early print so I doubt many will find it, though I believe at least one of you will know which book it was…

How is your reading going, and have you ever encountered a blank page?

Reading Life: 4th May 2016

A photograph of the site of the Curious Arts Festival

As much as I like using flowers as the visual theme of these posts, I can’t say I’ve all that many photographs left so I welcomed the chance to change it up a bit this time. The photo above is of last year’s Curious Arts Festival which I’ll be speaking about in a moment.

I’m still reading Far From The Madding Crowd; about half-way through now. I have come to terms with the fact that it isn’t (wasn’t? considering I’m half-way) going to be the glorious revelation I’d hoped when I first decided to read it – whilst my fifteen year old self may not have enjoyed it due to it being classwork and something she couldn’t relate to at that age and not having yet studied the period enough, I didn’t expect I would feel a similar boredom, if caused by different factors, this time. I’d thought I would love it; I don’t know why – I suppose there was something in my subconscious that paired ‘classic’ with ‘older now’ and with my teacher’s stopping the video cassette of the old film and saying “look at his eyes, girls!” which continues to be one of the very few things I remember verbatim from those years. (I now realise she was speaking of Troy as I vaguely remember a dark-haired man in a red military jacket, all 70s or 80s hair and that screen distortion that came with pausing videos.)

I digress. I don’t hate it by any means – I love Hardy’s clever independent woman moments wherein an appearance from Destiny’s Child wouldn’t go amiss, and I like his use of gender stereotypes and even the way he feels a need to explain obvious things, but the endless description of the country and night sky I could do without. It’s not Dickens – it’s not wordy – it’s just a bit dull. Yes, Hardy, I get it – please move on. This said, as I near 65% (I stopped reading my physical version because seeing the number of pages put me off) it’s starting to look up. There’s potential in it, I think, to get really good.

So Hardy’s book is my long-term read; I’m reading a couple of chapters a day, sometimes more if they’re short, full of dialogue, and unaccented (not often, then) and in the meantime I’ve been getting through the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist and whatever takes my fancy. I’ve put A Little Life on the sidelines until I finish Hardy because two long reads, albeit I know Yanagihara is a more compelling read for me, is a bit much. I’ve still the Thackeray and Tender Is The Night unfinished on my 2016 list which is giving me enough of a false sense of having read a good number of books; I don’t need to up that count.

A photograph of the Curious Arts Festival

Moving away from books themselves I’m contemplating the Curious Arts Festival. It’s a smaller festival, less known, hosted at Pylewell Park in the New Forest. This year it’s from 22-24th July and if you go for the whole weekend you can take a tent and pitch it in the grounds; you’re right there, no need to travel during the festival itself. Pitching is free once you’ve a ticket but you can rent a more luxury tent if you wish. It promises to be a weekend of literature, music, theatre, and good food, and there are plenty activities for children, too.

Given it’s not for a few months yet, the list of people confirmed is still growing; at present highlights include Carol Ann Duffy, Deborah Moggach, S J Parris, Renée Knight, Meg Rosoff, Joanna Cannon, and S J Watson.

Part of the selling point for it is surely the location – to paraphrase Marks And Spencer’s adverts (“this is not just chocolate, this is Marks And Spencer’s chocolate”, repeat for any other number of items) this is not just the New Forest, this is an estate in the New Forest, and beautiful, too.

I’ve been watching TV recently; this happens rarely at the moment – there are too many books to read. I pulled a muscle which caused me pain for a good while and for a few days could do nothing but sit still. A few years ago – well, 2010, I suppose, when it was first shown – I’d earmarked The Indian Doctor as something I wanted to watch and then went and missed it. Anyway, it was repeated on iplayer. I liked it but it was a bit cringey at times and the Indian drumming used as incidental music was a bit too, ‘don’t forget, there are Indians in Wales’, making the situation be a bit too exotic. Other than that I watched Maigret and Being The Brontës. The latter was fair, the former I thought very good. A lot of people have said Rowan Atkinson’s Maigret isn’t sprightly enough, not humorous enough, but be that as it may I thought it was a good programme and dealt with the source material well.

No Star Wars comment from me today; I’m sure you’ve heard it enough.

How is your reading going?

Reading Life: 25th March 2016

A photograph of branch on a tree in the sunshine

The slump has gone; I’m now in that mood colloquially known as ‘read all the books’ and trying my best not to succumb to the notion that I make up for lost time because it could easily lead to another slump. My enthusiasm for blogging has also returned with a force; I knew 2 weeks at Christmas wasn’t enough and that I was heading for burnout. I managed to keep blogging throughout the time but if it happens again I think I’ll just take a break.

A couple of weekends ago I finally finished The Spring Of Kasper Meier and read Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To The Sun. The latter is a book in the same vein as Elizabeth Is Missing – it’s about a 75-year-old Nigerian woman who is starting to loose her independence. It’s also a book about books; I’m looking forward to sharing an extract with you when I review it.

After finishing the Manyika I tried to read City Of Wisdom And Blood, the second book in a series that begun with The Brethren – a book overwhelmed by bosoms. You’ll remember I spoke highly of the opening line of the second book and I was excited to get back to the series; now the characters are away from home I expected less lust and more of the good historical fiction. But no, within the first ten pages were four references and as the saying goes, I just can’t even. I will be giving it another go but not just yet; I might have to make it a long-term read.

Putting it down, I knew I wasn’t ready to return to Tender Is The Night or Cranford (Helen’s description of ‘frothy’ is correct on that second one, it is so and I’m craving studies) so I decided I’d have a read of the first pages of the books I want to read soon. Thinking I’d start with A Little Life I opened it… and that was it, Yanagihara had me hooked by the end of the first half-page. I’d been wanting to leave the book until later due to its length but I have to read it now. Already I can see why it’s been nominated for so many awards. I’m guessing it’s 600-odd pages but refraining from actually checking.

This said, in regards to the Gaskell, I have gone back to it, and Helen’s apt description has made me think of the contrast between it and North And South. I think it’s interesting how Gaskell’s work could be read by different people owing to its variety. Whereas Jane Austen, for example, deals with the same sort of atmosphere in every book, and it’s more a case of whether you like the characters and plot each time, with Gaskell you get totally different worlds. Speaking of what I’ve read so far, you’ve a book about personal religious changes and the industrial revolution with its social studies and economics, and you’ve a book that’s rather like a soap opera in the way there are lots of mini stories and episodes and nothing is particularly noteworthy. I’m assuming that Gaskell’s other works may, at least one of them, fall somewhere in between the two as they are quite far apart on the scale but either way I am liking the difference.

One of my reading goals this year is to even out the ratio of male to female authors, as well as read more Asian fiction – pre-blogging my balance was better and I read much more diversely. I don’t know why it changed but I didn’t like it and I also don’t like it because diversity is a major factor in my musical and film interests. Already I’m doing well, better than I’d planned, in fact, which I believe has likely helped keep me on track since the slump went away.

To talk of writing about books, I’ve returned to Rebecca – I’m writing about themes again. I’ve two posts completed, a sort of round up post in mind, and one other one in pre-production so to speak. (I’ll not post them one after another.) I’m also looking at Margaret Forster’s biography though I know it’s a bit romanticised – have you read it? I’d like some opinions. I’m finding I can’t get enough of the author’s most famous work and whilst I’d love to return to The House On The Strand which I started and then forgot to keep reading, the nameless heroine is too alluring a character to leave. With all the comparisons to Jane Eyre I kind of want to do a mash-up post, blending the Du Maurier, Brontë, and the Samantha Sotto I loved a few years ago (whose hero I see as a mix of Max De Winter and Mr Rochester, so it’d be a post about a book that’s about a book that’s about a book).

How’s your reading life?


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