Read something which would look good if you were found dead in the middle of it

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Sudeley Castle from Belas Knapp

I think this is great advice, though I am ashamed to say I don’t always take it – The Killer Next Door by Alex Marwood may not look as good in my cold, withered hand as Do No Harm but I’ve enjoyed each as much as the other. The first is a taut, graphic and surprisingly well-written thriller (I say surprisingly because the cover looks a little generic and substandard) and the second an equally graphic memoir of a brain surgeon. I could only read it in chunks. The advice comes from Novel Cure, a book I’ve been dipping in and out which prescribes a book for whatever the mood you’re in, whatever’s happened to you.

I started writing this post 13 days ago and am ashamed that it’s taken me this long to finish it off. But I’ve been busy – working and going to weddings and moreover actually reading so I haven’t had much time to write about reading. It’s been a literary roller-coaster as I’ve swooped to the exhilarating high you get of finding a book you fall in love with, and plummet to a disappointing low as the story you hoped would enrapture you leaves you cold. Top of the Big One was, of course, Night after Night by Phil Rickman, set in Winchcombe by Sudeley Castle. I evangelise about Rickman because I don’t think he’s lauded nearly enough for his carefully-plotted, dark stories. This book reunites us with Kelvyn Kite and the shaman Cindy as a TV company decide to screen a version of Big Brother in a haunted house. Taut, clever and utterly believable -there aren’t many supernatural writers who make you believe the story they tell could happen to you at any time. Reading the book prompted me to visit Sudeley the following week which was one of the most peaceful, relaxing, special days of my life. The castle is friendly, warm and beautiful with a feast of history and stunning gardens. It was bathed in shy sunlight when I spent the day there and I was mostly by myself which is just how I like to be, both walking through uneven corridors with panelling as dark and glossy as chocolate, or breathing in the healing aroma of the herb garden. After my visit to Sudeley I walked up to Belas Knapp, the Neolithic tomb which plays an important role in Rickman’s book. Books which read well are great; books which prompt you to do something and enrich your life are something else entirely.

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Grotesques at St Mary’s Church, Sudeley Castle

Longbourn by Jo Baker was also very believable – Pride and Prejudice from the eyes of the servants. I actually preferred it to the original, which I know is blasphemy, so don’t tell anyone I said that. I went back to The Other Side in The Mistletoe Bride by Kate Mosse, a collection of ghost stories as delicate as handmade lace.

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams was anything but delicate – packing a punch from the very first page with its strong description of the buffalo-skin trade in the West. I found it exhausting to read but am glad I did so. Less so with What She Left by T R Richmond, in which a dead girl is brought to life through her emails, texts and Facebook posts, and those of her friends, while one acquaintance narrates using good old-fashioned letters. The format of the book is more interesting than the plot itself. How to be Both by Ali Smith is another book in a hugely original format, about both a 15th century painter and a teenage girl 500 years later. The best way of describing the book is to say the first half is written as one would paint – in dabs and swirls, not really coherent until you take a step back and look at it in its frame as a whole, and realise it all makes sense. Fabulous, epic writing.

No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary was a surprisingly good detective story about two young boys who are found in an underground bunker. It was above all very sad, which you don’t often get in detective stories. The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen was also very sad, but left me oddly untouched. The story of a Jehovah’s Witness family struggling increasingly with an unsympathetic world and an unsympathetic God should perhaps have affected me more than it did. I enjoyed Flora by Gail Godwin a lot more: about another disturbed young girl. This was a sort of twisted Turn of the Screw told from the point of view of the child, and was a satisfying read.

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin was anything but satisfying. I felt rather underwhelmed by the story of Nora regathering her life after her husband dies, and didn’t really care much about any of the characters. I felt like I’d had a very bland unsatisfying meal in a restaurant everyone else raves about. Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig cleaned my reading palate. I recommend for anyone who suffers from depression, or who just feels a bit low. I finished it and felt like I’d had a comforting hug from an old friend.

The Crooked House by Christobel Kent was another detective story about a young girl who lost her entire family in a horrific night of violence. It started off well and then disintegrated, as one more person stared into the distance without speaking or trailed off a sentence which really should have been finished. I wouldn’t allow anyone to get away with that in real life, so putting up with it in a book was not easy.

Initially I enjoyed A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, but it palled about half way through, and stopped being funny. I was sick of hearing about Ignatius’s valve. Imperium by Robert Harris was the opposite:  a story of Cicero told by his slave, it was initially hard to get into, but suddenly I found myself enjoyed it immensely so I’m glad I stuck with it. My Sister, My Love by Joyce Carol Oates, based on the JonBenet Ramsey case, was appalling and addictive reading all the way through.

I went into the world of autobiography with The Lives & Loves of a She-Devil by Graham Norton, and Still Standing: The Savage Years by Paul O’Grady, both of which were hugely entertaining and well-written (you wouldn’t expect anything else from these Greats though). I promised I’d let you know what I thought of John Cleese’s autobiography, and I’ve kept you hanging for months … in fact you might actually have read it yourself in the meantime! But if you haven’t, I would say I felt a little disappointed by it. It was quite well-written but a little fleshless, I thought. I’m sure he’ll be gutted to read that, so I’m not tagging him.

The Cove by Ron Rash about a family of misfits post-war and Ladies of the House about another house of misfits by Molly McGrann were both OK reads, but nothing particularly special. Neither was The Marriage Game by Alison Weir about Elizabeth 1 and Robert Dudley. I felt this was very poorly written and disjointed, which is unusual as I normally like her stuff. Again, blasphemy: The Girl Next Door by Ruth Rendell wasn’t her best either. It was OK, but nothing special. I feel bad writing this as the great lady has only been gone a week and she is an utter tour de force in literature. Everyone’s entitled to an off-day and I have another of hers on my bookshelf beckoning to me so I’ll make up for this review next week. After all it’s only one person’s opinion and why should mine – or indeed, anyone’s – matter more than someone else’s? Don’t ever be put off reading a book just because someone else didn’t rate it.

I will write less, but more often, in future. So that’s good or bad news, depending on your opinion.

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Home Comforts

Comfort is one of the most basic needs after food and water.

I’ve been in need of a lot lately, for reasons I can’t fathom. My eating has not been wonderful; binge-and-purge (which sounds like a pair of Terry Pratchett villains) has been on my mind for the last couple of months. I felt hideously ashamed of myself after eating six squares of chocolate one after the other, none of them satisfying the need I couldn’t name. Food is on my mind constantly. I walked past a packet of Jaffa cakes at work, left temptingly open, their smooth dark surfaces shining, and it took all my strength not to scurry back and wolf the lot. I don’t feel proud of myself for resisting my urge; I feel a little defeated that 20 years after my eating issues first started they are still whispering, twitching, tickling at the back of my mind, like hideous sirens.

The last few weeks have been difficult not only because of physical illness which while ultimately harmless has left me drained; I’ve spent far too much time online debating sensitive matters. In my social circle, I do not come into contact with these people who believe that girls who get drunk deserve what happens to them; that women who don’t like Page 3 are “hairy arsed lesbians”; that asylum seekers should be left to drown; that disabled people should just learn to walk. You probably don’t associate with these types either, but someone must; they do exist, because I hear them on Jeremy Vine (I now turn over to Radio 4 1200-1400), I see them commenting on newspaper articles and Facebook campaigns, and they appear utterly unashamed of their views and the fact millions of people can see or hear what they think, and will judge them on it. I wonder if the creator(s) of the internet ever considered allowing online access only to those who had passed a basic IQ and decency test. It’s a little late now, but because these people see their views shared they believe they are validated, and this makes them more convinced they are right. Much as I love the internet and how it has utterly revolutionised our society, in many ways for the better, I also think it’s one of the most dangerous things invented. I found I was getting really distressed by engaging with people like this; I was staying awake late at night or waking up early just to refute their arguments. It helps nobody, and means nothing, and made me hate the world. So I’m withdrawing from it, living in my own little bubble for a time while I grow a new skin, as right now I feel I’ve had mine peeled off and I’m open, raw and bleeding. I hope this will make me happier person, and help me spend my time more productively – and perhaps stop me looking to food to make myself feel better about people who really do not matter.

Reading is of course one way of escaping the unpleasantness of real life. Spending less time online has the knock-on effect of having more time to spend on a book. A few days off sick were also beneficial to my bookshelves as I ploughed through the following:

Dark Angel by Sally Beauman. I enjoyed this although I wanted to strangle the erstwhile heroine, Constance, and all those who got sucked in by her.

Trespass by Rose Tremain. I keep forgetting how good she is, and then I find her again and want to read ALL THE BOOKS.

Disclaimer by Renee Knight. A startlingly original book about a woman who starts reading a novel and then realises it’s her life. The twist in the story made my stomach flip like I was on a rollercoaster.

The Marriage Game by Alison Weir This was about Elizabeth I and her relationship with Robert Dudley. I usually enjoy Weir’s stuff, but this was a little patchy. I do think reading it didn’t help me feel better about myself as Elizabeth – at my age – began losing her teeth, getting wrinkly, and wearing a dreadful wig.

Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach. A story set in 17th century Amsterdam when a young artist falls in love with the woman whose portrait he is commissioned to paint. The plot seems simple enough, but like an Old Master the brush-strokes are only the surface of the painting. What lies beneath is a rich, bubbling tapestry of life.

No Safe House by Linwood Barclay. This is the sequel to the fantastic No Time To Say Goodbye about a teenage girl who wakes up to find her whole family missing. I loved the latter, but this was a big let down. Cliched, uninteresting and a bit pointless.

The Strangler Vine by M J Carter.  A mystery set in colonial India. It was fun enough, but I wouldn’t seek out any more of them (it appears to be the first in a detective series).

The Girl Next Door by Ruth Rendell. When severed hands are discovered in a box, old schoolfriends are unexpectedly – and not entirely happily – reunited. The detective/crime story is almost forgotten in Rendell’s effortless detailing of lives turned upside down.

The Revival by Stephen King. This is an odd story of one man’s obsession following the death of his wife and son, as told through the eyes of someone who once looked up to him. It lost its power at the end, as I found the the climax of the story unconvincing and a little hackneyed. I’m not saying that I think King is a factual writer, but some things are easier to believe than others!

Rifleman: A Front Line Life by Victor Gregg and Rick Stroud This really taught me about the Dresden bombings, of which I knew very little. The interesting and readable autobiography of a rifleman in WW2 which makes difficult reading in places, and rightfully so.

Last night not even John Cleese’s autobiography (which I’ll tell you about once I’ve finished it!) could distract me from my very dark (chocolate) thoughts. So I decided to be practical, and determined, and I tried something new. Jogging by moonlit in air so cold it cuts off your breath.

Bell ringers were practising in the church and the moon was as crisp and clear as a newly minted coin. Me and my shadow, slowly but nonetheless steadily, running on the road, my trainers regularly smacking on the tarmac. My nose ached, my ears were numb and my thighs felt like slabs of frozen meat, but gradually peace seeped into me.

Back home it was warm. I put on a thick rust-coloured cardigan and felt like someone had put their arm over my shoulders.pinkie

Since I was born I’ve slept with a toy dog which now resembles nothing more than a dessicated raisin. She still fits in the crook of my arm and the weight of her, the shape of her and feel of her makes me feel very calm, even though I’m far too old to still do this. So I curled up on the sofa with Pippa, and a mug of warm milk with a sprinkling of cinnamon.

I thought about chocolate, crumpets dripping with golden syrup, bags of crisps, cheese, bread. The moment passed, and I slept.