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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 Ben) 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?

 
Books I Read Before I Started Blogging

When I became a book blogger, half-way through the first year I tracked my reading, I made a point of reviewing the previous few months’ books and summing them all up at the end. But besides the odd mention here and there, I never noted the books I’d read before tracking/blogging. This number is obviously a bit too high to make into a blog post and trying to remember everything I’ve read would take a while. In planning this post I’ve realised the truth of my memories of using the library a great deal when younger – I don’t have copies of most of the books I know I read then.

Due to how many books this idea would involve, I’ve limited it to those I own (so regarding the above, not many) and I’m excluding children’s books, including only young adult books and ‘teenager’ books – I think that’s more accurate to what we called them back then. Including only the books I own has the added bonus of me knowing for certain that I read them.

I’ve left out books I’ve re-read since starting my blog. I may end up re-reading some of the books listed – I certainly hope to in some cases – but writing this post ensures I’ve at least commented on them somewhat. Lisa Jewell’s pre-literary/historical work dominates.

I’m not sure the above makes total literal sense – I’m suffering a bit from heatstroke – but hopefully it’s enough for you to get the idea. I thought I’d list them in the order I remembered them in rather than alphabetically – it has the added bonus of creating two equal ‘halves’. Here we go:

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Alma Alexander: The Secrets Of The Jin-Shei – A historical fantasy. This is about a China where women are the dominant gender. It has some magic in it, some battles, and is fairly diverse, but a word of warning must be given regarding the sexual violence which isn’t softened by the magical concepts behind it, no matter how much that may have been the intention. I intend to re-read this one and get an idea of how it reads now I’m old enough not to be so in subjective awe of the genre.

Arthur Golden: Memoirs Of A Geisha – Historical. This is about a young girl who grows up to be a geisha in the years towards the end of the profession. Since made into a film so I doubt I need to note too much. I’m not sure if I’ll re-read it.

Lisa Jewell: Ralph’s Party, Thirty-nothing, One-Hit Wonder, A Friend Of The Family, Vince & Joy, 31 Dream Street – Chick-lit. I’m going to sum these up as it was a phase and say that they were pretty good, escapism. Didn’t like Jewell’s use of ‘spastic’ however and am glad she seems to have now dropped it from her more recent books.

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Maile Meloy: Liars And Saints – Contemporary, mostly and may be classed now as literary fiction. This is about different generations of a family, fairly dysfunctional people. Reading this made me feel very grown up. I want to re-read it in the near future as I’d like to read it in the way I read now and work out just what all the sex was for.

Anchee Min: Empress Orchid – Historical about the last empress of China, Ci Xi. Min is quite forgiving of her character but not completely. Suffice to say this is a difficult read at times but good nonetheless. I intend to re-read it.

Terry Pratchett: The Colour Of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Equal Rites, Mort – The first four Discworld novels. I wasn’t too keen on the first two, but Granny Weatherwax of the third is great and Mort remains my favourite so far.

Celia Rees: Witch Child – Historical fantasy. A girl with witch-like powers travels to the New World. I don’t remember too much of the story but do remember it made me cry. I’ll re-read it at some point.

Celia Rees: Sorceress – Fantasy. Set in the present day this is about a descendent of the heroine of Witch Child and her discoveries. Pretty good but not as good. I’ll probably read it as par for the course.

I used to read a lot more fantasy than I do now, though I still love it. The later teen years were when I discovered historical fantasy; for a while I read nothing else. I still have the sequel to the Alexander on my shelves to read; I bought it because it made sense at the time but upon reading the blurb I discovered it’s quite a bit different. Still, I’m glad I have it because it’s difficult to find nowadays.

There are so many books I want to re-read to see how I find them in, as said above, to ‘read it in the way I read now’. I have that urge to re-read constantly, finding that the more I read the more I feel I should go back and re-read books read previously because I’ve changed, grown as a reader, and so on. I even find myself feeling that way about books I read in more recent years. I think we all feel this way at times.

What books did you read in your younger years that stood out to you? Do you think you’d still like them if you read them now?

 
Phillip Lewis – The Barrowfields

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A contemporary coming-of-age tale with a slice of Southern gothic.

Publisher: Sphere (Hodder)
Pages: 348
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-63682-8
First Published: 7th March 2017
Date Reviewed: 5th April 2017
Rating: 5/5

Henry’s father wanted to be a writer. Growing up in a house without books in a town that didn’t value reading, he struggled, achieving a little success but ultimately not getting far, in part, by that time, due to his need to get things right. Henry himself thus grew up around thousands of books, housed in a large library in a large foreboding house. As he grows up himself, he too struggles to find success, his life marred by the disappearance of his father, other family deaths, and communication problems with his family that he doesn’t want to acknowledge.

The Barrowfields is a magnificent work that reads like a great work of American literature. Lewis’s writing style is subtle, beautiful, and the book feels as though it is from another time. It’s very much literary fiction, the plot simple but full of meaning. The end result is a book that is in many ways an easy read, and for all the right reasons.

At its heart are two major elements: the effect of parental neglect and loss on children, and the wonder of literature. The effect on Henry of his father’s leaving is huge but he doesn’t often confront it directly, he can’t. Lewis’ characterisation is fantastic, the author makes you second-guess for a very long time as to the worth of the story as a whole whilst simultaneously giving you plenty of other reasons to keep reading, which has the effect, particularly by the end, of demonstrating how damaging being silent can be but also showing how it can be difficult to identify problems when you are on the outside looking in. Even though you spend the entire book in Henry’s head, you are kept back from many of his deepest thoughts – what he portrays as his deepest thoughts are often layers of disguise.

It is perhaps easier to see where parental loss has an effect (I apologise for using that word so much) in the character of Threnody, Henry’s sister with whom, as a child, he had a terrific bond. Henry is very open about his sister and as Lewis’s character development shines throughout the novel, it is through Threnody that all the hurt and pain is revealed. (Lewis’s sibling relationship here, in terms of literary bonding, is influenced by his becoming a father early in life.) Yet The Barrowfields is not a depressing book. Whilst Lewis deals with the darkness of his subject, he includes a lot of humour in his description and dialogue, enough to make you laugh out loud.

This humour brings us to the second major theme of the book – this is a book about books. About books and literary studies and grammar and the classics, even book banning and burning. The Barrowsfields is soaked in references to classic works of many genres and eras – literature is what father and son bond over, what son and daughter fill their time with, and what Henry often discusses with his friends. Harper Lee. Faulkner. Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe. Marion Zimmer Bradley. References are sometimes blunt (a character asks someone if their situation isn’t straight out of To Kill A Mockingbird), others are woven into the text in such a way that the book seems at its heart a love letter to literature. Many references are made to Southern literature, matching Lewis’s setting of North Carolina. It is difficult to explain just how satisfying this novel is; it goes above and beyond many others.

The foreboding nature of the house has its place, forever towing the line between being in the background and becoming a character in its own right. It’s what situates the novel firmly in gothic territory, beckoning over another couple of classic works – Du Maurier, Brontë – but remaining almost defiantly apart from them. The plot line here is often on the back-burner but it smolders constantly until Lewis gets to the place you come to realise most makes sense to explain it. Whether or not the house has or had a direct influence on the rest of what happens is left up to you to decide; Lewis, through his characters, never says one way or another. It’s the big old dark creepy house with the residents who are used to it.

The Barrowfields sometimes takes patience, holding back much for a while, but it rewards in spades. It also takes a sudden seemingly odd turn during the middle – one of those occasions where a character joins the narrative half-way through and due to experience you wonder if it’ll work; it does so with good reason. This is very much a bildungsroman, and you learn along with Henry, at his pace. It reads as partly autobiographical, the extent of the detail, the depth of the knowledge that seeps from it.

It’s just glorious. If you want to read something classical from our present day, if you want a book about books and a skilled, careful, look at heavy themes that will nevertheless make you feel positive, this is your book. I can’t recommend it enough.

I received this book for review.

Related Books

None yet.

 
The Worm Hole Turns 7

A screenshot from the Sims 3 of a birthday party

Yesterday was my blog’s birthday. I feel I’m getting back on my feet after a few strange months so this birthday celebration is particularly special. It coincides with the start of my plans for the next In Conversation event and a few other bookish happenings. Much coffee has been consumed.

At this time of year I tend to post my blog statistics but I’ve an extra celebration coming up in a few weeks so to avoid repetition I’ll save numbers for then.

I’m grateful for all the friends I’ve made through blogging, for the support, and for everyone here who reads my posts. You guys are all awesome and I can’t thank you enough.

Thank you!

 
March 2017 Reading Round-Up

This month I decided to concentrate on finishing a longer-term book or two and get through some classics; they crossed over a (minor) bit. At the end of the month I also found myself in a mini Southern states phase, reading Harper Lee and Kate Chopin at the same time. It was accidental but it allowed me to compare the historic periods and get a better idea of the situations from those who lived them, something I’ve so far almost completely read about third-hand in non-fiction.

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman: With Her In Ourland – Ellador travels around the world with Van, giving him her opinions on everything the world does wrong. A lecture about why we should do things differently, whilst it has some good points this sequel to Herland falls widely from the mark.

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Harper Lee: To Kill A Mockingbird – A girl grows up amidst a changing society that’s not quite ready to let go of the idea of racial superiority. Loved it – it was different to what I thought it would be like (I thought it was all courtroom drama) but nevertheless great.

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Kate Chopin: Bayou Folk – A collection of short stories that were originally published in magazines. Not a bad collection – some stunning stories some very mediocre.

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Rory Gleeson: Rockadoon Shore – A group of friends go on a weekend away in the hope that they can improve their collective relationship. Not bad but doesn’t have enough going on.

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Samanta Schweblin: Fever Dream – A woman on her death bed is made to explain recent happenings to an acquaintance with the idea that she must work out how she became so ill. This is a very confusing book but it’s meant to be so; it’s also rather enjoyable in a literary sense.

I enjoyed a lot of what I read this month. I suppose it would be fair to say that the Lee was a stand out, alongside some of the stories in the Chopin. The Perkins Gilman was very different to what I thought it would be like, the story moving from its beginnings in science fiction to sociological tract; I think I’d read Herland again but not this sequel. In all I’ve finished 6 pre-1970s books so far this year which I believe is more books than any other (whole) year. I’m in a bit of a classics phase at the moment.

Quotation Report

In Bayou Folk, a woman who seems 125 years old is respected, however, she is not 125 years old… she may be older.

Looking forward to spending more time out in the sunshine and the return of Easter in April (last year was very strange).

How was your March?

 

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