Season of mists …

I feel like I’ve been lazy, but in fact it’s the entire opposite. I’ve been doing stuff: so much stuff that I have scarcely had time to sleep. I have to factor that into my diary along with everything else. My two weeks in gorgeous Greece feel like a very, very long time ago. Back then I was able to read until words spilled out of my eyes like tears. I’ve been tickled into laughter on the beach, scared to death on a boat, annoyed, intrigued, heartbroken – occasionally bored – and above all entertained.fbf8wubgur6ilmt_rect2100

I have also started writing again. A chance outing to Southwold made something click in my brain. Or rather, not my brain, but the bit behind the brain where all the creating takes place. Like Frankenstein’s laboratory. It is exciting, like a reunion with an old friend whose company you have missed for years. More of that later. A lot of my time is taken up with work, and when not working I’m training for a sponsored walk. It’s ridiculous how long miles turn out to be when you have to walk more than 5 of them.

Autumn appears to have come on us overnight. You can smell it in the air: leaf mould and damp grass. The country getting ready to hibernate for winter. The brambles are bending low with blackberries.  The sun is thinner, more tentative.

I’ve picked the wrong time to plant a load of herbs, obviously.

I’ve had TONS of messages asking when my next blog post is coming. (Well, three.) So as promised – and I also promise I won’t leave it another 4 months for the next one, here is my holiday reading list:

John Connolly – A Time of Torment

The latest in the Charlie Parker series. Classic Connolly – funny in places, spine-chilling, deliciously dark and all too believable. He never lets you down.

Amy Hempel – The Dog in the Marriage

I read these stories after a recommendation in The Week. Some of them were dull but some of them really hit home. This line in particular sums up a feeling I’m still hoping to have:

“Not touching for so long was a drive to the beach with the windows rolled up
so the waves feel that much cooler.”

Isn’t it gorgeous? And – right?

The Shipping News – Annie Proux

Kevin Spacey was by far a more attractive Coyle than depicted in this novel, but it’s very readable and quite amusing in parts.

Nancy Goldstone – Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe

Girl power in the 14th century, looking at the Queen Consorts Eleanor, Beatrice, Sanchia and Marguerite in 13th century Europe. Unfortunately it wasn’t very well-written and I spotted several continuity bloopers. An interesting subject but I wouldn’t use this as a basis for any proper research.

Robert Nye – Mrs Shakespeare

A bit odd. Not convinced Shakespeare got his inspiration from what Nye claims. I would be interested to know if anyone feels similarly having read it.

Joan Didion – The Last Thing He Wanted

Story of a woman who tries to do her father’s dying wish, with catatrophic results. OK, but rather dull with none of the raw emotion of The Year of Magical Thinking.

Walter de la Mare – The Return

I had high hopes for Walter de la Mare’s prose but I much prefer his poetry. This story of a man who falls asleep on a gravestone and wakes up with the dead man’s face doesn’t really go anywhere.

Nick Griffiths – In The Footsteps of Harrison Dextrose and Searching For Mrs Dextrose

These are the books which made me laugh out loud. They’re a bit crazy and quirky but they were most amusing.

Mark Edwards – The Magpies, Because She Loves Me, What You Wish For

I gobbled up these books by the author of Follow Me Home. Mark is the male Lucie Whitehouse: intelligent, original thrillers.

Michelle Paver – Without Charity, A Place in the Hills

I loved Dark Matter by the author, which is a chilling ghost story. These were very different: both very enjoyable romances with depth. A Place in the Hills in particular was so good I started to research the poet Cassius which Paver writes about before realising she’d invented him. I don’t normally like romance stories but I did like these.

Oliver Potzsch – The Werewolf of Bamberg , The Poisoned Pilgrim

These aren’t great literature but they are enjoyable.  The story of the hangman, Jacob Kuisl, his assertive daughter Magdalena and their various escapades are always good fun.

Sarah Perry – After Me Comes the Flood

Weird, enticing and utterly heart-breaking story of a man who goes to a house and is mistaken for a guest who never turns up.

Helen Oyeyemi – Mr Fox

I am not intellectual. I did not enjoy this. I didn’t really enjoy White is for Witching either, which is a shame as I feel it says more about me than it does about the author.

Sarah Hall – The Wolf Border

The narrator of this book about a woman trying to set up a nature reserve in Scotland annoyed me a lot, but that’s because one of the men she slept with was married. Other than that, it was an enjoyable read.

Joanne Harris – Different Class

What I love about Joanne Harris is that she turns her pen (if one still uses pens!) to many different styles and voices and does so well. OK so Different Class sounds slightly self-aware but it’s immensely readable and there’s a real twist in it which makes you go “ooh!”

It says a lot that I can’t remember anything about these two beyond that they weren’t very good:

Darcy Coates – The Haunting of Blackwood House

Helen Moorhouse – The Dead Summer

So don’t bother looking at them. Kindle freebies – they never tend to be worth the paper they’re written on. (Yes, that is a deliberate pun.)

This is bitty. Not great. Allow me to get back into the swing of things. My mind has been on its own summer holiday. Let me quote Amy Hempel again:

“If it’s true your life flashes past your eyes before you die,
it is also the truth that your life rushes forth when you are ready to start to truly be alive.”

Bring on the sea.

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Hydra, after a storm

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My Mad Thin Teenage Diary

Only good girls keep diaries. Bad girls don’t have time.

I kept a daily diary from age 9 until the age of 26. I have missed 4 days in total: 2 days when I was at Brownie Camp, and 2 days in 2004 when my boyfriend and I split up and I could not bear to have my feelings recorded anywhere for anyone, least of all myself.

Damn it. Tallulah Bankhead was right.

Reading My Mad Fat Teenage Diary by Rae Earl sent a gentle but persistent wave of nostalgia to lap at my feet, daring me to remember my own youth. She swears that everything in the diary Actually Happened, although I do wonder if she really wrote quite like that, with such colour and vigour, when she was 16. Nevertheless it was an enjoyable, sometimes painful, read, and made me think of my own teens. At the weekend I downloaded some of the dance tracks to which I used to shimmy my cigarette-shaped body in nightclubs, in the days when I wore silver velvet hotpants or pale blue PVC trousers I couldn’t get a thigh into now. When you would get drunk and snog highly unsuitable boys and not feel obliged to swap names, let alone numbers, just because you’d swapped saliva. The music that makes me feel like a dog sniffing out a rabbit: tense and excited and unable NOT to move, as the tune flows like quicksilver through your veins, the beat pulses faster and the notes becomes more and more frantic building to the pinnacle that just makes you want to jump up and down for the sheer joy of living in that moment.

I don’t think my knees would let me get away with that now.

In contrast to Rae’s diaries (or even Mother Theresa’s), my GOD mine are dull, and uninspiring, and self-absorbed, and slightly disturbing. I tried reading them a few years ago and felt a combination of contempt and sadness for the young woman who wrote a large amount about not a lot. The thought of letting anyone else see them, let alone publish them, makes my skin prickle with horror. But I won’t throw them away. They are – second to my epic 40-chapter book about seven sisters which I wrote between the ages of 13 and 22 – my biggest project.

I’ve started diarising again, partly because I need the writing practice, and there’s stuff in my diary (which I don’t write every day) which I would balk at sharing even with you. But still, we are all writing for some sort of audience; as a result I do wonder if what I write is a true reflection of myself. When I was in my early teens I wrote some stories for absolutely nobody else (in fact I burned them as soon as I’d written them) which hinted at a side of me that I don’t think anyone else will glimpse. Which is probably for the best, as it would be rather like being flashed at by Ann Widdecombe.

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Anyway. So! That’s what I’ve been reading. I also read Human Remains by Elizabeth Haynes; unfortunately (for me) she still hasn’t matched her astounding, chilling debut Into The Darkest Corner, and this story fell flat and ultimately was of little interest. I live in hope, so I’m going to give her another shot. If you enjoyed her debut, skip her second book Revenge of the Tide; try Erin Kelly instead, who in a similar and somewhat superior vein.

Then I read The Examined Life, which is by a psychoanalyst who, with the permission of his patients, collated their cases and his thoughts on them. It rang several bells with me (I dared not ask for whom they tolled) and I couldn’t help liking Stephen Grosz, the author. Analysis and therapy are such cliches nowadays – one is probably considered abnormal if one hasn’t had some sort of psychological ‘work’ – that we forget how hard it is to see our situations clearly when we are actually in them.

Then good ole Shakespeare reared his head again, this time in his Restless World by Neil MacGregor. The author has taken little parts of Elizabethan life – an abandoned fork, a rather pornographic goblet, a cap – and linked them to Shakespeare’s plays, and what was happening in the world when he wrote them. The book is a fascinating read, building up layers around seemingly innocuous objects which open your eyes to not just the history of the plays but the period during which they were conceived. As an abrupt contrast I then went onto Cold Hands by John Niven, which started off as a chilling and discomfiting examination of maladjusted teenage boys and turned out to be a disappointing and over-the-top serial killer with a villain who Will. Not. Die. (That’s not a spoiler.)

Cleansing my literary palate, I went onto The Palace of Curiosities by Rosie Garland. A rather captivating story of a hirsuite young girl, Eve, and a man who cannot die; and their life together in a Victorian ‘freak show’. The story was a little peculiar, but I like odd, and it held my attention. It was kind of like eating candyfloss; not particularly sustaining or nutritious but very enjoyable all the same.

I then devoured the third book (this is like the feast of Saturnalia) by Oliver Potzsch about the hangman Jacob Kuisl and his daughter: The Beggar King. I think I’ve mentioned these books in previous rambles, but if I haven’t, I encourage you to look up the series which is hugely enjoyable despite the slightly clunky translation which sometimes jars dialogue. Potzsch’s stories are based on his ancestor who was the town hangman and executioner, and he has found a very likeable character in Jacob Kuisl who is strong and heroic, but also human and at times vulnerable. Potzsch is not a brilliant writer and this is not great literature: but it is original, imaginative, and great fun. His stories are painstakingly researched and the historic detail in them is a joy to read, if a bit grisly at times (those of a more sensitive disposition may wish to skip the torture scenes).

Anyway. Most of this reading I did in Cornwall, where I went for a few days to recover from the last few weeks/months/years. I’ll write about that another time. Bet you can’t wait. If I hint that, as I drove over the hill, the dark gothic hotel loomed up out of the sea-mist like the House of Usher, is that enough to whet your appetite?

NB: After writing this post I was overcome by sudden fierce hunger and had to eat two bowls of Muesli.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas….

I have meant to write this post for about two weeks. But I’ve been wrapping presents, baking odd-looking biscuits, partaying at carol concerts (including The Messiah), making pomanders, cleaning, and buying new gerbils. I have to schedule in ‘relax’ in my diary alongside my hair appointment and delivering a Christmas card to the bloke down the road – I don’t know him, but he puts up the prettiest little Father Christmas lights in his tree every Christmas. It look forward to seeing them, and when I do I know Christmas is on its way, so I wanted to say thank you for that. He might think I’m a bit peculiar, but I won’t put my address on it so he won’t be able to alert the police.

This little guy came from a mountain somewhere in Scotland when he was but a sapling and grows happily in my parents' garden all year before coming to stay with me for the festive period.

This little guy came from a mountain somewhere in Scotland when he was but a sapling and grows happily in my parents’ garden all year before coming to stay with me for the festive period.

I don’t quite know how it’s happened but a few days ago I was getting on a plane to Greece (July to be exact). And suddenly 2012 is in its dotage once again. I was talking about it with a friend, who said that time does go quicker when you get older, but I also think we have so much more to DO in our lives nowadays. I’ve just read a wonderful book – which details how Victorian women passed their time (sewing, cutting up bits of paper, printing things, calling on people). More about that in due course – but think how much more we have to occupy ourselves with. Gyms, book clubs, TV, computer gaming, surfing the net, emailing, charity work, second/third jobs, shopping, and all the rest of it – we fill our days so it is inevitable that you blink and hours have passed. It reminds me of the poem Solitude by Ella Wheeler Wilcox –

What is this life if, full of care
We have no time to stand and stare?

I intend to ‘stand and stare’ (and not just at Father Christmas tree-lights) a bit more in future. That, together with not going into my overdraft, is my resolution for 2013.

SO. I will post about Christmas in a bit because I want to devote a whole post to the delicious time, and I want to recommend some reading especially for Christmas too. But I’ve read some great books recently and wanted to share them with you. I love the fact that people (well, two) mention that they’re going to try books I blog about, or add them to their Kindles. I am doing links to books where I can to Waterstone’s (note the apostrophe!) rather than Amazon now but I would recommend trying secondhand bookshops or independent stores when you can, as they are few and far between and need protecting. I am also going to do more of this in 2013.

So! Here is what I have read in the last almost-month for those of you who fancy trying something new:

The Heresy of Dr Dee by Phil Rickman
I ADORE Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins stories, and his lesser known earlier novels including December, Candlenight and The Man in the Moss. This is his second novel about John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s ‘wise man’, and it’s another fascinating read. Rickman’s stories are human and believable with a supernatural edge which sends a shiver down the most cynical spine. The story is set shortly after the death of Amy Robsart, the wife of Robert Dudley who was in love with Queen Elizabeth 1 (it is believed she reciprocated his feelings). Amy’s death was never fully explained and Dudley was heavily under suspicion of causing it. Dee and Dudley set off for the dark borders of Wales to try and discover a scrying globe. (Scrying is the ancient art of seeing phantoms or spirits in a mirror in the shadows cast by candlelight or similar. Don’t try it alone!)

Rickman has researched his tale accurately and his characters are believable, modern-day humans amongst a perfect historical back-drop. I really hope he continues with the Dee series as well as the Merrily books. Check out The Bones of Avalon which is his first Dee book and he also wrote under the name Will Kingdom.

The Waiting Room – F G Cottam
This is a ghost story about a haunted waiting-room and is bloody sinister – though I felt somewhat cheated by the end as it was a bit ‘meh’ to use yoof-speak. It went rather melodramatic. Those who’ve read it will know what I mean but I don’t want to ruin it for those who haven’t. I do recommend you try it as it’s a good old-fashioned ghost story, but the ending did make me feel a bit like Piglet’s balloon.

1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare – James Shapiro
A fascinating glimpse into Shakespeare’s life, and his world, and what was going on at around the time that he wrote some of his most famous plays. Recommended not just for fans of the playwright but also anyone with an interest in Elizabethan history.

The Victorian House – Judith Flanders
I started this book and felt bored for about the first 4 pages – then it leapt into life and I couldn’t put it down. Flanders takes each room in a Victorian house and uses it as an anchor for which to describe in fascinating detail Victorian lives: food, costume, etiquettes, pastimes, sanitation, illness, beliefs, streets, etc. I had already read one by her about murder in Victorian Britain but this one made me hop to my library and order all her other titles. I really can’t rate it highly enough, not just for someone interested in the Victorian period but it was just absolutely fascinating and so beautifully written. I think Flanders may be quite unique in her method of telling the facts of the past in such readable and enthralling fashion.

The Daylight Gate – Jeanette Winterson
This is a story about the Pendle ‘witches’ and it comes from an unusual approach in that the characters accused of witchcraft are not as innocent as history may tell us. I felt very odd reading this book knowing that whatever the truth about the crimes they were accused of, the characters Winterson writes about genuinely went through the torments and tortures that she describes. Odd and very sad. aside from that it’s a spell-binding (sorry) story, very well written (not that that should surprise you from Winterson!).

Sweet Heart – Peter James
I made a note in my diary that this was “a rather superior thriller” but to my shame I couldn’t actually remember anything about it, which says rather a lot. The story of a woman who moves to a new house with her husband and starts having flashbacks was, though (now I recall it!) interesting and exciting, though some of the deaths totting up remained unexplained. I would read more of James, though Mark Billingham would be ahead of him.

The Dark Monk – Oliver Potzsch
I stumbled over The Hangman’s Daughter (the first book in this series) quite accidentally and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Delightfully gory, and fascinating historically, the books also follow good if somewhat complex stories. The hangman Jacob is a most likeable hero: strong, amusing, yet ultimately human, and his feisty daughter Magdalena is a great sidekick.

In this, the second book of the series, a strange death in a church leads to investigations into the Knights Templar for Jacob, Magdalena and Simon, the local medic and Magdalena’s unofficial boyfriend. Simon’s relationship with Magdalena is put under strain by the arrival of a beautiful femme fatale and Jacob also has to deal with robbers near the town, showing touching humanity and restraint considering he is supposed to be the lowest of the low due to his trade.

I don’t just find these books great because they are a bit dark and old; they teach the reader a lot about 17th century Germany: its laws, its customs, its traditions. In particular the advances in medicine, as forward-thinking medic Simon battles with his old-fashioned father and common superstitions, are really interesting to read about. The author originally wrote The Hangman’s Daughter when he discovered the history of his own family, and his warmth and respect for his characters (loosely based on his ancestors) makes these books a real pleasure to read, and more than just a historical potboiler. I look forward to the third volume.

The King’s Spy – Andrew Swanson
I would like to know how much of this story is actually based on historical fact, but whether it is or not is a moot point really as it’s an enjoyable yarn. The story of a ‘simple’ man who breaks the code of a traitor within the King’s court during the Civil War is interesting although, as the endless paragraphs on cyphers and how to crack them are rather laborious. I’m not the most mathematical-minded of people, nor the most logical (!) and the detailed descriptions left me cold (and lost). Passing this, it’s an interesting story with some surprising twists which I wasn’t expecting. Although this isn’t a classic and didn’t get my heart racing, I will certainly search out the next one in the series.

For the Sender – Alex Woodard
This book was a bit of a let down. I closed it thinking, “OK” and then wandered off to do something else. It’s the story of a song-writer who started writing songs for people who wrote letters to him. The stories of the letter-writers are touching, but Alex’s story itself is a bit self-indulgent (I couldn’t believe that it took him 14 odd years to ‘find himself’). I can’t really comment on his music, which was pleasant enough, as music is very personal, and I sort of enjoyed the book, but not a huge amount. Alex is at his best when he writes about Kona, his beloved labrador, and I felt these passages really lived for me in a way that the others didn’t. Perhaps because I could empathise with his writing, as someone who lost a dearly-beloved dog myself; this story touched the soul, but the rest of it was as beige and forgettable as the cover. (Sorry Alex!)

Everything Beautiful Began After – Simon Van Booy
Sometimes writers are a little too aware of their own writing and less aware of their reader, and unfortunately I feel this is the problem with this book. I haven’t read anything else by the author so am not sure if it’s a one-off or this is his style, but the prose felt painfully artistic like a ballerina balancing on the very tips of her toes. I didn’t feel or understand any of the characters, and the desperate love of Henry for Rebecca felt like it came out of nowhere after a few weeks in each other’s company (and again felt utterly self-absorbed and over dramatic).

That’s not to totally destroy the book! There is some real beauty in the writing; but if only those lovely moments could be left to stand as they are rather than the author continually trying to better his previous effort. Actually whatever is beautiful, never actually begins at all, and the reader is left feeling as if he has been force-fed meringues: sweet and tempting, but ultimately empty.

Speaking of sweet and tempting, I’m off to make some more reindeer biscuits. I’ll come back later with my suggestions for Christmas reading and would love to hear anyone else’s (if nothing else it tells me that someone is reading this bloody thing)…