January reading

I read eight – eight! – books this month. As a result, I didn’t write much this month. Ah time. But this has been a rich reading month and a pleasure. Here’s what I thought. (The eighth review is the previous blog post)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

I’d not read any Gaiman before and on a whim last year following a social media post he made that I loved, I decided it was time to try his books. I was nervous as I’m not a big fantasy reader but this was excellent. I put it in the ‘Dark is Rising’ sequence style of story, just scary enough even as an adult but with some big themes and memorable characters. I loved it.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest – J. Ryan Stradal

This is a bit fluffy and more interesting to look at the narrative style than the story itself. It features Eva and tells her life from the point of view of several other characters. Eva is interested in food, a geek and an outcast. Her story, from her birth and abandonment by her mother, all the way through school and early relationships, to her starting a unique business is covered. She features as the PoV only once, so we learn about her and a whole cast of characters, all of whom interweave in and out of each other’s stories too. The planning behind this structure must have been impressive and so I was intrigued by this. The ending was, perhaps a little disappointing but more realistic for that.

The House by the Lake – Thomas Harding

Every year I vow to read more non-fiction. This is this year’s first attempt and I was so keen to read it I bought two copies by mistake. A social history of one house and its owners, the book tells the story of twentieth-century Germany as well. The house’s owners were once wealthy and sold off parts of their estate. The author’s grandmother, whose Jewish family bought the house before the Second World War, had fond memories of her childhood there and always regarded it as her home. Her family fled and left it behind, and it fell to be shared by others, including, later, a Stasi informant. Harding’s quest to renovate the house, now in disrepair, and have it listed as something of historical importance is the story that frames the book and it is a great way of covering such a rich and varied but traumatic history. A really enjoyable read.

Midwinter – Fiona Melrose

This is a timeless book. The only clue to the timing was the references to soldiers in Afghanistan, other than that, this could have been any time in the last 50 years.
It’s lovely prose, mature and poetic, full of beauty and violence. The book starts strongly, with a boating accident that shapes the whole story, and then steps back as the characters survey the wreckage.

So many books with male characters stay away from full on emotional scenes that this felt very different, almost daring in the breadth of subject matter and how it was handled. The only thing that spoiled it was a number of typos scattered through the book. Some of them the kind of thing you miss when you do a spellcheck – quite instead of quiet and so on, but there were enough of them to notice and it’s a real shame. With a such a beautiful cover, and the look and feel of the book being such quality – to match the writing, I do feel the publishers did Melrose a disservice with their lack of attention to detail.

March – Geraldine Brooks

This was my reading group’s choice this month, following from our reading of Little Women last month. I have read other Civil War books and felt this was lacking and a little cliched. But it was the characters that let it down the most. Brooks wisely does very little with the things we know from Little Women, but tries to tell us about why Mr March went to war and what he learned while he was there. She also tries to fill in a bit about Marmee’s background. In the notes following the book, she admits to not really liking Marmee very much and this clearly comes through. By focusing on Marmee’s one known flaw, her quick temper, she has tried to make a spirited girl who is tamed by a good man, but in reality she writes Marmee as rude half the time, which I think is wrong. And Mr March! Good lord, need he have been so boring? I am often wary of sequels or related books to classics in case they spoil the original for me but in this case I felt she was so far off the mark it didn’t matter. A pity.

Everybody’s Fool – Richard Russo

My love for Richard Russo knows no bounds and this sequel to my favourite Nobody’s Fool was a slow burning treat. Perhaps less obviously funny than its predecessor, it starts slowly with the main focus not on Sully, the anti-hero of Nobody’s Fool, but on his nemesis Officer Raymer who is now Police Chief of Bath. Ten years have passed since the first book and two of the best characters have died. Their absence is felt, both by the characters and by the reader. But as Russo gets into his swing, and Sully pops up more and more, the old chaos comes to the fore. This is as good a book as Russo has written in some time, having gone a bit off the boil with the last couple of novels. A perfect read for these crappy times and crappy weather to match. Snuggle down and enjoy.

The Good Immigrant – Nikesh Shukla (ed)

The Good Immigrant was crowdfunded after an idea by Nikesh Shukla following a comment on a website (don’t read below the line folks!) A collection of 21 essays by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic writers in Britain, this simply tells their stories. While there is anger in the book, there is no obvious finger pointing and instead the writers let their experiences make their point. What a bloody mess of a country we are. Being a quinoa-eating, Guardian-reading bleeding heart liberal, I was immediately struck with horror at such tales though of course, not all of it was news to me. But I learned a lot, thought about a lot more and resolved to try and make sure I can do whatever I can to make us all kinder to each other. It’s more important than ever now that we make time to read stories of those people we share this little island with. Start with this. It’s a really good book.

Review: How to be a Grown Up

I should start this review with a disclaimer: I am NOT the target demographic for this book. I’m way too old. However, I’m (just) young enough to remember the heady terrifying years of my twenties and now that’s thankfully all behind me, I can sit back and read this with an air of relaxation.

How to be a Grown Up is a positive manual for twenty-somethings navigating their way in the world. While it’s easy for the rest of us to mutter and talk about how there are worse things going on in the world these days, take a moment to think back and remember how important your problems seemed when you were 24. You’re finding your feet in an uncertain world and, let’s face it, the current crop of young people face a precarious situation in employment and housing. So a handbook on how to deal with relationships, parents, jobs, friends and so on would be pretty useful. I think I’d have benefited from this.

Daisy Buchanan is Grazia’s agony aunt, as well as having all kinds of experience writing for magazines and her writing style reads straight off their glossy pages. This makes it readable, funny and relatable. She’s written a friendly this-is-how-i-ballsed-this-up-learn-from-me kind of book, with the help of a few experts thrown in. Let’s face it, we all like those kind of stories don’t we? So reading this is like chatting with a friend you’ve not seen for a while and really gossiping and delving deep into each other’s mistakes.

Chapters include:

  • Confidence
  • Work
  • Loving your body
  • Sex
  • Clothes
  • Parents
  • Money
  • How to deal with mistakes, mental health issues and being sad

There are more. In between some of these are ‘A Few Words about…’ which contain advice on panic attacks, masturbation and, I found most importantly, how to wash your hair. This one is great advice which I have immediately started doing and am thrilled by the results. *tosses hair back in dramatic fashion*

Perhaps there is little that’s new here from what we have been reading in advice columns for years, but the tone is friendlier than many books often are. Buchanan is frank about mental health problems and body confidence issues, both of which seem to be mostly ignored in so many publications. Her advice is simple – learn to love yourself and the rest will follow. Easy to say. But the tone makes you believe you can do it. Even the subtitle of the book is encouraging ‘You’re Doing Fine and Let Me Tell You Why’ is basically – you’re not alone, we’ve all been there and know the way out attitude.

The light tone masks some of the serious subjects, and there’s a couple of things missing that perhaps she could cover in a future volume. (I know I’d have found something about recognising emotional abuse helpful when I was in my twenties.) But this is nit picking and on the whole, I thought this was a useful addition to the canon of advice lit out there. Buy it for the twenty-somethings or nearly twenty-somethings you know.

How to Be a Grown Up by Daisy Buchanan is published on 6 April 2017 by Headline Books. Thanks to Headline (and Georgina Moore) for the review copy.

To read: 2017

My ‘to read’ list currently looks like this:

20170122_210529

Every New Year I resolve to read more non-fiction, so am feeling pleased that I’ve already put a history book on my reads of January list. Four biographies on this list, a book of essays and a book about sport is a good start. I also resolved this year to read more diverse voices so have rushed out to buy Homegoing, and added the Anam and the Hamid to the list as a start, as well as The Good Immigrant. It’s not brilliant but it’s a start.

Last year my to read blog post contained at least six books which I didn’t read so technically I should add those to the list too. Once I’ve checked what they are.

This is just the start.

Best books of 2016

I have read 60 new books this year. That is, books that are new to me, not just books published this year. There have also been 9 re-reads. I’ve amazed myself in how much I’ve read this year – my challenge was to read 50 books and I thought I’d struggle.

As usual the number of women far outnumbers the male authors: 40 female authors against 20 men. The re-reads were all the Harry Potters, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Little Women so they outnumber men too.

Here, in a vague but not particular order, are my top 9. (Why 9? Why not?)

South Riding – Winifred Holtby

Oh what a wonderful book this is! A 1930s Middlemarch, but slightly easier to read (and god knows I love Middlemarch). In brief, it is the story of a schoolteacher who moves to a village in Yorkshire, only to find herself in the middle of land conflicts and a place experiencing the turbulence of a shifting world. The characters are spectacularly well drawn, the landscape as important as the people, and the humour a gift from a masterful but underrated writer. I must re read it very soon.

The Other Mrs Walker – Mary Paulson Ellis

This is a debut novel and I am jealous at Ellis’s skill in rendering such an intricate and mature story. A woman comes home to live with her mother and becomes a professional mourner, and part investigator as she is tasked to find out who the mysterious Mrs Walker was. Thanks to everyone on Twitter who went on about this until I was forced to buy it.

Crooked Heart – Lissa Evans

Another Twitter recommendation. A war story about an evacuee and the woman he ends up living with after his beloved godmother dies. The characters are so well drawn in this, I’m so looking forward to Evans’s next book, published in 2017.

This Must Be the Place – Maggie O’Farrell

BOOK OF THE YEAR. I finished reading this and immediately wanted to start it again. I loved this book. It’s so clever, the characters are believable and often unpleasant but you root for them so much, even when you want to scream at their actions.

The Light Between Oceans – ML Stedman

Oh. Devastating. Couldn’t put it down, knew it was going to end badly, wept buckets at the end. Won’t watch the film, it won’t do it justice.

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey

I don’t often stray into fairytale land but I loved this retelling of Ransome’s Snow Child, set in pioneering Alaska. It held the right blend of mystique and reality, and again, the characters were fabulous. I especially liked that the main characters were older, childless, and had problems that seemed really believeable, even in modern times. I’m looking forward to reading Ivey’s new book.

We Are All Made of Stars – Rowan Coleman

I included this because it got my through a tough time earlier this year. It’s a sweet story of loss and grief, and love and being silly because you can.

Christmas Days – Jeanette Winterson

A combination of short stories and recipes with memoir, Christmas Days is the reading equivalent of a mince pie and glass of Bailey’s. It’s comforting, funny, poignant and, most of all, festive. I’m now adding this to my annual Christmassy reads, alongside Dickens and Little Women.

As You Wish – Cary Elwes

The memoir of an actor whose life was changed by a wonderful fairytale film. Everything about The Princess Bride is funny and makes me want to watch the film again, lip syncing the words, and all the behind the scenes stories in here were great. A humble thank you to the fans and the others who made this film the classic it is, Elwes is good company to read.

December reading

As You Wish – Cary Elwes

This is Westley’s take on the filming of The Princess Bride. If you don’t know The Princess Bride please go and read and watch it – the book and film script are both by William Goldman. This book is an affectionate look at the film that, Elwes admits, changed his life, and had such an effect on its fans. My sister was first in our family to see it and love it, and likes to think of it as ‘her’ film, but I love it too. There are lots of behind the scenes stories here, lots of anecdotes about how the film had an effect on all the cast (each member of cast and crew have little stand out stories to add in throughout) and an especially brilliant tale about Andre the Giant’s childhood involving Samuel Beckett which was quite the most wonderful thing I’ve read all year. Obviously, having finished reading I had to rewatch the film.

Little Women

Re reading an old favourite for Christmas reading group, and horrified to find someone doesn’t really like it? Devastating. But she’s right, it is sentimental. I love it anyway. When reading up some background for the group, I found that Jo March is possibly the character that most women readers identify with above all others – unscientific research but certainly true for me.

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Andy Miller

A light read. Andy Miller set himself a challenge to read 50 books on a list of his and his wife’s choosing. They were mostly classics, and also books that Andy had confessed erroneously to reading over the years. Who does this? I’ve not read Ulysses and don’t care. Anyway, since AM went to my university and worked in a bookshop I feel we have something in common, even if he does lie to people about his reading list. Unfortunately, he doesn’t like Pride and Prejudice and does like War and Peace so our reading choices are polar opposites.

I also couldn’t help notice that while there were fewer women than men on his list (always the case) he also chose not to discuss many of the books by women, just mentioning instead that he’d read them. I’m not saying this was done on purpose but it was depressing to notice anyway.(A lot of the others were on his blog written at the time, but it’s not all available in full now.)

However, a word of advice for him – if you like Middlemarch, you really must read South Riding by Winifred Holtby.

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey 

Oh this is lovely. A retelling of Arthur Ransome’s fairytale story of the Snow Child, set in pioneering Alaska. I liked everything about this – the characters, the setting, the lyrical prose and the poignant story. Ivey captures the magic of the story without sacrificing believability, and doesn’t go overboard with the mystical element so you can choose what exactly to believe. I didn’t want this to end, but also appreciated the version of the book which contained the Arthur Ransome story at the end.

Christmas Days -Jeanette Winterson

I bought this as a gift for my mum and then decided to keep it. I haven’t yet finished it as I’m pacing myself. This is 12 short stories with a Christmas theme, interspersed with 12 recipes and family anecdotes. It is all splendid. I particularly like how positive most of the stories are, there are few big twists or plot crazies, just tales of family and love and festiveness (and a few ghosts but that’s as Christmas should be.)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

I am reading this in between Winterson chapters. I’ve not read any Gaiman before but thought I’d branch out and try some. This is some more magic grounded in reality but with a hefty dose of scariness. I’m really enjoying it.

A Whitelaw Christmas Carol

December 1932

“Mum says don’t forget Christmas dinner,” said Daniel as he left The Whitelaw that afternoon, having safely delivered the account books. “Any time, she said, but we’ll probably eat about two or three-ish.”

“I already told her there was no need,” said Tip. “I’ll be perfectly fine by myself. I’m not a charity case.”

“She said you’d say that,” Daniel grinned. “I’m to tell you to not be silly, Ebenezer, we want to see you.” He did an impression of his mother as he did so, the tone stern but affectionate. He nodded at Tip as he went out the door and repeated, “Dinner at two,” as he went through it. Tip sat back at his desk and considered how much the boy resembled his father George, Tip’s business partner. He smiled and shook his head, returning to that evening’s performance.

Christmas Eve was always fun at a variety theatre. The atmosphere being festive anyway, the performers would rouse themselves at the prospect of an extra day off to pull something special out for the short time they had on stage. For many of the audience, this was the beginning of their seasonal celebrations, and they were ready to shout, laugh, howl or whatever the occasion demanded. Money may be short in these hard times but somehow this just made the wintry celebration more important. Performances had to be perfect. Lew, the stage manager, would manage – he always did – but Tip liked to be on hand, just in case.

A hectic night, full of laughter, applause and rushing about, and it was past midnight when Tip made his final round of the theatre, making sure as he always did that it was left ship shape. Folding back a corner of a loose poster, picking up a dropped ticket stub, needlessly rearranging something in a dressing room, it was part of his daily ritual. He left by the stage door, bidding a goodnight to the theatre’s mouser, Tilley.

It was a clear night, with a bite to the air. There would be a frost tomorrow. Across the city the bells that, at midnight, had rung in the special day had finished and churchgoers were all on their way home. Despite this, he met no one as he strolled through the dark streets.

On one dark corner, he heard a mewing noise. It sounded familiar and for a moment he thought maybe Tilley had followed him home. “Don’t be silly,” he said to himself and carried on but the noise came again, louder this time and with a piercing tone that made him realise it wasn’t a cat. He headed down the alleyway to see. Was there something at the end?

The nearby church struck one. As it did so, Tip saw the shape huddled in the corner. He reached a hand down to touch it.

A man had curled up against the wall, to find some shelter in the bitter air. He was wrapped in a black woollen hooded cloak and as Tip shook his shoulder, the man’s hood dropped back revealing his face. He was dead but in his arms was a tiny baby, an angelic mix of blonde curls and blue eyes. She looked up at him, as if expecting something.

“Bloody hell,” said Tip. “The ghosts of Christmas past and future, together.” He sighed and rubbed a weary hand over his eyes before he picked her up, checked her over and went to find a police station.

The policeman on the front desk didn’t seem surprised at Tip’s story.

“That’s the second this week,” he said. “Bitter cold it is, and with folk not having much, it’s not uncommon. Now I’ll have to get a few details and then I’ll let you get on your merry way this Christmas Eve. How did you find the gent?”

“I heard the baby crying and went to investigate. The man had already passed on,” said Tip.

“The gentleman was dead to begin with,” said the policeman winking at Tip. Tip rolled his eyes and inwardly cursed Dickens.

“What will happen to the girl?” he said.

“We’ll take her along to the orphanage in a bit,” said the policeman. “While we see if there’s any other kin.”

“No.”

“Sir?”

“Could I take her? Just for now? Those places are dreadful, no place for her,” he said. “Come on, constable, think what day it is. I’ll give you my address and,” he said thinking of Charlotte’s invitation, “I’ll be here tomorrow. We’ll take care of her.” He wrote the addresses down on a scrap of paper and held it out. The policeman hesitated.

“It’s not procedure…” he started to say but something stopped him going any further and he reached out for the paper. “Get on with you then,” he said. “Quickly.”

Tip took the girl and headed home to his tiny flat. As he walked in the door, the rashness of his decision struck him. An orphanage couldn’t be worse than this dingy hole he called home. But he looked at her and resolved to make the best of it. He lay her in a drawer from the chest that stood to one side of the room, with an old jumper as her mattress. Arms freed, he set about lighting the fire to banish the cold and damp from the place. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d done this; he’d just have to hope the chimney wasn’t blocked. His usual routine was to come home from the theatre, grab a drink if he fancied one but many nights he simply fell into bed, washing and changing clothes the following morning before heading back into the theatre. The Whitelaw was more his home than here. Hell, even the café around the corner where he got his breakfast was more home than here.

He went into the kitchen and found some bread and cheese and a glass of wine for himself and then heated up some milk on the stove. Improvising, he dripped this into the baby’s mouth with a teaspoon, the process taking a while but she drank it down, all the while staring at him with her big blue eyes.

When she’d finished, he wrapped her up in her blanket and cuddled her for a while. She fell asleep emitting only occasional snores. At four o’clock, by the ding of his carriage clock, he placed her back down in the drawer, curled under a blanket on the sofa and watched the fire die down. His thoughts were of times past, absent friends and old lost love.

She woke him at seven precisely, the mewling noise the closest she got to crying. The fug of sleep lay on his eyes, and he couldn’t remember where he was or what he was or what that noise was but she was persistent, and she was joined by the Christmas bells outside.

“Good morning, little one,” said Tip, sounding merrier than he felt. And yet there was something about her presence that made his spirit cheer, even as he relit the fire and let the warmth spread through the small room.

He picked her up and prepared the milk as he had last night, taking her to the window to look at the festive day outside. Frost sparkled on the window, and had sprinkled the trees and fallen leaves with a sparkling dust that glittered in the morning sun.

“A beautiful day!” said Tip, turning to look at his rooms. “And a dismal room. We can’t spend Christmas here, you and I. Thank heavens for Charlotte.”

He wrapped her in the jumper she’d laid on all night, had a quick change himself and the two of them headed out of the door.

Tip stopped off to pick up some wine, mince pies and small gifts and with these tucked in a bag over one arm and the baby under the other, he hailed a cab to Dulwich. Ringing the doorbell at number 28 Woodwarde Road, he stood back and burst into song as the door opened.

“We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!”

Daniel stood behind the door, and smiled and beckoned them inside. Charlotte appeared in the hallway, wiping her hands on her apron. A not unpleasant bread-like smell filled the house, mixed faintly with the greenery hung in a wreath on the door.

“Tip, how lovely to see you!” She reached in for a hug and a kiss but stopped as she spotted what he was carrying. “Tip? Who’s this?”

“Temporary guest,” he said and began to explain the previous night. As he spoke Charlotte reached instinctively for the child, her face transformed from the swollen disfigured sight she had hidden from the world these last two years, and instead shone with joy at the child. Both Tip and George, her husband, who stood in the doorway to the living room, noted her brief return to the Charlotte of old.

“Oh Tip, how awful! Is she alright? Not hurt? But how have you been feeding her?”

“Teaspoon. She’s drunk enough. She seems absolutely fine, a lovely calm little thing.”

“Daniel, run next door and see if Mrs Barclay can spare a bottle for us. Tip, come through, sit down, you must be worn out. Can I get you anything?”

“I’m fine, thank you Charlotte.”

“Nonsense. A drink? Have you had breakfast? We’ve some sausage left over from ours. I can fry it up, make you a sandwich?”

“That would be lovely. But what I’d really like is a cup of tea.”

“I’ll get it,” said George. Charlotte was reluctant to put the baby down. She wasn’t too besotted to note Tip’s tiredness in sitting down on the sofa nor spot the dark circles beneath his eyes. But he was determined to be sociable and, once his breakfast was eaten, he and the boys sat and played games on the floor. Charlotte had fed the baby again with the bottle this time, bathed and changed her with the help of the kind lady next door who had provided some spare clothes and napkins. Now the child sat on the floor, watching and laughing at the men and boys who entertained her with their singing and nonsense.

“What do you think her name is?” asked Charlotte as they sat at lunch. The turkey was dry, the sprouts were soft and the potatoes were a little too well done, but if you covered it with enough gravy it was at least edible which wasn’t always the case with Charlotte’s cooking. The baby was asleep on the sofa.

“Now, don’t go down that path,” said George. “It will be harder for you to part with her if you start giving her names or imagining a fate.”

“I hadn’t…” Charlotte started to say when she was interrupted by the doorbell. George got up to answer it and found a rotund bearded policeman on the doorstep.

“Good afternoon sir,” he said with a beaming smile. “And a Merry Christmas to you! Are you Mr Harding by any chance?”

“I’m not,” said George. “But he’s through here. Come in, officer.” The policeman stepped through the door, bringing a burst of fresh crisp air to the house. George led him through to the living room and indicated the baby, still asleep on the sofa. “You’re here about her, I suppose?” he said.

“That’s right sir,” said the policeman. “I’m sorry to have interrupted your lunch ma’am,” he said to Charlotte.

“No matter,” she murmured. “Have you found her family?”

“We have yes. The gentleman you found her with last night was her father, I’m afraid to say. Her mother seems to have passed away, records suggest in childbirth, and the gentleman was taking her to his parents, who live in Buckinghamshire. He was having trouble making ends meet, having lost his job and couldn’t look after her very well. There’s no evidence to suggest any foul play, just a poor man and a cold night.”

Tip looked down at the child and remembered how the man’s arm was curled protectively around her, wrapped up in whatever he’d been able to find. The child was loved. He shook his head.

“What happens now?” he asked.

“The man’s parents are happy to take the child in,” said the policeman. “They’re travelling down to collect her, should be here later today. I’ve come to take her back with me so they can take her home.”

“What are their circumstances?” asked Charlotte. “Can we do anything to help?”

“They’re managing, respectable enough by all accounts,” said the policeman. “Just the son who’d fallen on hard times. Happens to many these days.”

“Well, could we send a gift?” Charlotte cast about for something to include with the baby. For a moment her eyes settled on the plate of mince pies on the table.

“Not anything you’ve cooked, Ma,” said Daniel.

“They’ve suffered enough,” joked George. He winked at his wife. “Sorry love.” She made a face in reply and moved to the fireplace instead, gathering down some of the greenery hanging there. With a few deft twists she made it into a bouquet and tied some bon bons from the tree onto the branches.

“Here,” she said, holding it out to the policeman, who was still beaming at them. “And would you like a mince pie, officer? They’re not as bad as you may have been led to suggest.”

“Thank you ma’am, that would be kind,” he replied and twinkled his thanks as he ate it down. Gathering the baby in one enormous hand, and the bouquet in the other he was about to make his way to the door when he turned. “Would you like to say your goodbyes?” he said, and there was something about his face which seemed older and more worn than when he’d walked inside earlier. The afternoon sky was darkening and the crisp day was fading.

Charlotte bent her head over the baby’s and kissed it. “Stay safe, little one,” she whispered. “Thank you for your visit.”

Tip was scribbling a note in his notebook and, when he was done, he ripped it out and tucked it into the baby’s jumper. “Keep this safe for her, when she’s grown,” he said to the policeman. The man nodded.

“Thank you for your help and cooperation, Mr Harding,” he said. “It was much appreciated, I’m sure. A merry Christmas to you all!” And with that, he and the baby faded into the night, leaving nothing behind them but the faint jingle of bells.

Tip and the family gathered at the front door to watch the departure and Tip felt Charlotte suppress a sob.

“That poor darling,” she said. “God bless her.”

It was left to Tip to provide the inevitable reply.

“God bless us, every one.”

A literary weekend

I’ve been trying to get to Haworth to visit the Charlotte Bronte exhibition all year. It finishes this month. I was going to go up on July but went to look after my mum after an op instead. Then I went to some workshops and events in Haworth in September but they overran and I got there too late. Finally the Mr said, “Book a hotel, we’ll go up for the weekend.” And so it came to pass that on the last Saturday of November I stood on the doorstep of Bronte Parsonage, excited and expectant, and heard the guide say “I’m afraid we’ve had a power cut and everything’s in darkness. We may have to close.” I explained that I was clearly destined never to see it and he let us in for free, alongside the lady behind us who had “come a long way” and then closed to everyone else.

Charlotte's writing desk
Charlotte’s writing desk

Once your eyes had adjusted to the light, it wasn’t actually too bad. We could still see the exhibitions – the tiny clothes, the tinier books, the miniscule writing – as well as each room, and the art and displays produced for Charlotte’s 200 anniversary. I feasted my eyes. We went backwards to the normal route round and so ended at the dining room where they wrote their books. By now, we were the last people in there and as we approached the room, the same guide appeared and told us they were going to do something even the guides hadn’t seen before. They opened the blinds in the dining room and revealed it by natural light. (Normally the blinds are down and it’s lit electronically.) It’s a charming room and I felt the same kind of frisson I had when I stood in the Motown studio that Marvin Gaye had used.

The shop where Branwell bought his opium
The shop where Branwell bought his opium

We had a lovely chat with the guide (after we’d all gone they were going to open a box of chocolates so he could have been excused for not talking) about the dreadful conditions of Haworth at the time the Brontes were living there – S was struck by the fact that 40% people never made it past their sixth year – and then the guide asked if E had been named after any of the Brontes. I felt terrible telling him she was named after an Austen character instead. “Ah, well it’s the next best thing,” he said breezily.

Haworth by fading Christmas light
Haworth by fading Christmas light

The church was closed when we emerged so no chance to visit their graves but we ambled through the town instead and pottered in the shops. There was a Victorian Christmas parade on, with carol singers, lights and a fairy scattering sparkly dust on the streets. It was all very jolly and didn’t feel too fake, considering most of the people there must have been visitors.

Proper Yorkshire pudding
Proper Yorkshire pudding

A stay at the Robin Hood Inn at Peckett Well, near Hebden Bridge for our evening meal and sleep. A lovely inn, really nice people but damn, that room was hot. E loves staying in hotels and was excited the whole weekend about it, waving goodbye to the building when we left. We travelled into Hebden Bridge and parked, deciding to clamber up the hill to visit Heptonstall. This was a recommendation from a Twitter friend and I didn’t know it was going to be such a steep hill, up cobbles covered with wet leaves. For some reason I thought Heptonstall would be a few houses but it was larger than expected, with two pubs and a Christmas craft fair. In days of yore it was a Cromwellian stronghold and saw off the Royalists in the Civil War but we were there because it’s the burial spot of Sylvia Plath.

The old yard has the higgledy piggledy charm of wonky stones sinking in towards each other, as well as the ruins of an older church to one side. I love a good graveyard anyway and we found many families with similar names (lots of Sutcliffes, and many women who spelled their name Susy. Why this should be, I don’t know.) Across the lane from the church is the new graveyard, where the plots are in straight lines and being slowly filled up with modern stones. It was less charming to look at but still very peaceful with lots of birdsong, a really lovely spot to spend eternity.

I first encountered Plath as a 13-year old with a male teacher who taught us her poetry for a short time. He described everything as the result of hysteria and terrible illness, never picking out the beauty or examining the female viewpoint, which as a teacher in a girls’ school was pretty unpardonable. As a result I never gave her a thought until I found The Bell Jar at the university book fair, devoured it, loved it and have treasured her ever since.

The quote is from the Bhagavad Gita
The quote is from the Bhagavad Gita

I found the grave and drew in to look at it. There were coins on the stone and at the foot of the grave, visitors had planted pens in the earth. I wasn’t expecting to be so moved by the sight of it, and wiped away a few tears before finding a few scattered oak leaves and arranged them.

We slid and slipped down the hill to lunch in Hebden Bridge before making our way home.

I hope E carries on enjoying reading. I hope she loves Jane Eyre. I hope she finds something important in The Bell Jar. I hope people continue to make little pilgrimages like this to celebrate our women writers.

Thank you, Haworth Parsonage, for letting me in.

November reading

The Museum of Cathy – Anna Stothard

I read this free from The Pigeonhole – thanks – and was intrigued by the premise. I like stories or articles that examine the significance of things and, in this respect, the Museum of Cathy didn’t disappoint. I did however have trouble warming to it, and Cathy especially. Growing up in a shack on the Essex coastline, Cathy collects objects from the natural world, and goes on to work in a natural history museum as a result. But she also has a nasty past and a relationship that’s clearly gone wrong when she receives objects through the post from a past boyfriend. Can she escape her past? Though the flashback scenes and the parts where Cathy examines her objects are beautifully written, I think the style did distance the reader from the characters a little. On the other hand, I was relieved that the author didn’t fall into schlock standard violence scenes for the ending.

His Bloody Project – Graham Burnett Macrae

I liked this but I was also disappointed by it. I think the hype surrounding it was the problem. It’s an excellent portrayal of the hardships faced by small croftsmen and their families, the historical details are wonderful and really draw you in. The issue comes where the reviews have said the novel is an examination of the precariousness of truth. There wasn’t enough of a twist or a change at the end to warrant the reviews; I just went ‘oh ok’ at the extra reveal. Read it for the details, don’t read it for the shite talked about it.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend – Katarina Bivald

OK, this is a bit light but I had some trouble reading the below and had to grab something quickly. It was fairly improbable but fun enough.

The Honourable Schoolboy – John Le Carre

I was nearly halfway through reading this when my husband picked it up and started reading it as well. This has outraged me. Am I the only person that thinks this is rude? It made it difficult to settle down and read, he was reading it when I wanted to and I was just uncomfortable – it made me feel the book wasn’t mine. I find the reading process to be a personal one and I need to know the book will be there when I need it, not when it’s available. Reading is not a sharing activity. Anyway, I enjoyed this though I feel it could have benefited from having about 200 pages edited out (and I’m not just saying that because it took so long to read, there is no real need for long background info on a character Smiley interviews for 15 minutes.)

October reading

The Light Between Oceans

I saw this recommended by a Twitter friend. Good lord, it’s devastating. You kind of know it will be when you pick it up and read the blurb – this is never going to end well for someone involved, you just need to pick who you care about the most. In summary, a lighthouse keeper and his wife suffer traumatic miscarriages and, when a boat washes up on shore near the lighthouse containing a dead man and a baby, they make a decision that will change lives. Beautifully written and emotionally wrenching, I had trouble putting this down to go to work, pick E up from school and so on.

The Reader on the 6.27

This was my holiday reading and a light quirky tale of a Frenchman who works in a book pulping processor. Every day he saves some pages from ‘the machine’ – the pulper takes on a life of its own in this story – and reads them out loud on his morning commute. One day he finds a diary of a young woman and starts to read that instead. This is a fun read, very French, and with a charm and sense of humour.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

I often stay away from the Booker Prize shortlist but was tempted by this. It’s an epic tale of communist China, about family and music, and is beautifully written. I think it’s clear why it was shortlisted, but I did find it difficult to keep track of who is who. It’s a basic complaint but did affect my reading.

Even Dogs in the Wild

I asked for the new Rebus for Christmas and then realised I’d not read the last one yet. Rectified. I forget how easily I slip into Rankin’s writing, how funny and acerbic John Rebus is, and how unique his relationships are.

52 dates for writers: a review

Part of the myth of writing is the amount of time spent in front of a screen. Or a notebook. Or however you do it. Time away from tapping away on that keyboard is time wasted, we think, and sit and try to get something, anything, down on the page.

But of course, it doesn’t really work like that. Interviews with well known writers see them discussing the habits that take them away from actually getting something down – running, walking the dog, baking and so on. Perhaps for those of us writing between working, commuting, looking after the family and so on, doing anything other than sitting at your desk seems like a luxury – or a procrastination technique.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Claire Wingfield’s book 52 Dates for Writers gives you 52 chances to do something that will help develop your writing, explore your characters, find a setting, and generally have a bit of fun with your writing, as well as getting you up and about – literally or figuratively.

Divided into 12 chapters, each covering aspects such as mastering point of view, problem-solving, and timelines, the suggestions ask you to go out and do something different that can then be applied to your writing – a work in progress or maybe something new. While you may not think these themes are new – and you’d be right – the get up and go aspect renders them fresh. Examples of activities include: ride a tandem, go geocaching, take tour of your hometown, and go house hunting. Each subject suggests ways in which you can use the new experience, and how you can shape your thinking or try out a new idea on your WiP.

I take any ideas and assistance I can get and the ideas here were fun and thought provoking. So here’s my tip – get up off your bum and get writing!