The Goodreads Challenge – July’s slight change, Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss

Hello all! Now I know what you may be thinking – it’s not the beginning of a new month, let alone the end of the last, so why am I updating my Goodreads Challenge now? Well, it’s because I have failed. Semi-failed, let’s call it.

As you may recall, for July I was meant to be reading Ben Wilson’s history of the British Navy, Empire of the Deep. However, it is the last week of the month and I am barely a quarter of the way through. I’m enjoying it but it’s hard going. There’s a lot of history, a lot of people and place names, and a lotta lot of writing. Sometimes, after a hard day’s work, I don’t fancy ploughing through a thesis on the Spanish Armada.

So I’m tweaking my Goodreads Challenge – just for July. And since I’ve had this book on my shelves for longer than Empire of the Deep, and began and finished it in the month of July, then my month’s read will be Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss. And according to my Goodreads, I have read 11 out of my pledged 12 books to read this year! (I have the rest of my own challenge to read too, so I should be well on my way to a good book year.)

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A bit of a blue theme for the current books. If I knew anything about photography I would make more of this…

I was drawn to this book because of its connection to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of painters, prolific in Victorian England. My favourite artist is John William Waterhouse, who wasn’t a core member of the Brotherhood but affiliated nonetheless, and one reason why I chose to study my MA at Hull was because they offered a module in Victorian Literature and the Visual Arts. After reading this book, I wish I had encountered it when I was writing my dissertation, as it definitely ties into my study of the female protagonist/antagonist and the use of hysteria/lunacy to demean and belittle women.

To begin with, I was quite confused, as the part of the book the blurb talks about happens much further in, so for a while I wondered if there was a typo on the sleeve, the characters of Ally and May bearing too much similarity to the names of Elizabeth and Mary, who we encounter first. Elizabeth is the mother of Ally and May, married to Alfred Moberley, a painter and artist, and if it was her goal to transform into her own mother, she achieves it perfectly, and then some. The story is set mostly in Manchester, though we move to London later on, and follows chiefly Ally, who struggles to achieve the nigh-impossible aspirations her mother has dreamt up for her, inspired both by her own upbringing and issues following Ally’s birth. As she aspires to things only just becoming available to her gender, her unresponsive mother just sets the bar higher, even as Ally smashes Victorian versions of the glass ceiling as she studies and works herself nearly to death to qualify as one of the first female doctors.

I really enjoyed this book, once I got over the initial hurdle. Moss writes – I don’t know if this makes sense – like an Oxbridge graduate, but her descriptions are sparse and evocative of the Victorian family life. The exchanges between Ally and May, particularly when they are left alone as their parents go away and the girl who works for them disappears, are so believable, and I loved their arguments about the laundry. Poor Ally lives in terror of her mother’s disapproval but May is the typical second child – can do no wrong.

I would have liked more about the artwork, and the artists, purely for my own interests. But I soon got caught up in Ally’s life and invested in her progress as she faced the trials against her. Moss skilfully depicts Ally’s mental health, outbursts of nightmares and episodes of suffocation brought about by her mother’s gargantuan expectations and treated in typical Victorian ways – bruising, burning, slapping and the general demeaning treatment of medical staff and the people around her. Elizabeth, Mrs Moberley, works with poor and abused women and mothers and constantly compares her daughter’s struggles with those of people who have no money, no opportunity and never seem to grumble despite the horrors thrown at them. It is a powerful parallel to today’s treatment of those with mental health problems. While we might acknowledge the illness nowadays and be trying to tackle it, Moss’s novel exposes the Victorian attitudes most people hold towards it today. Mental health is not directly comparable – it is so individual and particular, what would be manageable to Person A just tips Person B off the cliff.

So I would definitely recommend this somewhat secret gem of a book to anyone interested in the Pre-Raphaelites/Arts and Crafts movement, Victorian literature, gender studies and mental health.

I’m still persevering with Empire of the Deep. It’s a worthy read and I’m learning loads, and it will run nicely alongside my nautical fantasy novel I’m writing. To keep me ticking over till August I’ve picked up Amanda Owen’s A Year in the Life of the Yorkshire Shepherdess, though I do have the new Robin Hobb book ready and waiting in the wings. My next book, for August, will by Lucky Jim. My book that I’m writing has a university setting for part of it so this book will help with that.

What are you reading? Have you read Sarah Moss’s Bodies of Light? Or anything similar? Let me know in the comments!

Mid-year recap and plans for the rest

July is very much here and I spent the weekend at Castle Combe race circuit for the RSOC track day with my dad and our friends. It’s been my first proper car day of the year and it was great fun. I passengered all but one session with Dad in the Subaru and had an ace time.

Dad’s new trailer, but hang on a minute – that’s not a GTR inside!

Half of the year is gone already! I’m still enjoying my little job and it’s keeping me out of trouble, though I’ve not had nearly as much time to do my writing or even my blog as I’d have liked. I manage to get up early enough to do maybe an hour before work – or I get up earnestly intending to do an hour before work, but I usually mess around on social media and news sites for about half an hour. As for my blog, it looks like I manage my book review and that’s it!

Things I’ve achieved so far

I’ve finished my third draft of my book! This is the big one, so now it should just be a brutal edit and then I’m hoping to send it out to agents. I’ve started editing the first part and so far have cut a chapter out, which bodes very well as in total I wanted to cut 6 – 8 chapters. Considering once upon a time the story had about seventy chapters and 350,000 words I’m not doing too bad condensing it down.

We’ve got on a bit with the other house. I’ve cleared most moveable stuff away into storage (or the wheelie bin) and so now we’re looking at the big things. Dad pulled a load of the kitchen units out and I had pulled up all the carpet tiles in there so now it’s on to picking out cookers and worktops! The kitchen and bathroom are the two big jobs so once they’re done and the new flooring is down we should be on it. I spent ages weeding the garden and pulling out monstrous dandelions. Like a bad blogger I didn’t take any before or after pictures of the garden. I’m really excited to live in a bigger house and especially one that has such strong family connections.

I’ve kept up with my reading challenge! I’ve managed to read each of my books for the month and some months I’ve read quite a few extra. It’s a great thing to do as I purposefully diversified the books on my list, and this month I’m reading a non-fiction book about the British navy. I’m trying to read all the books I have on my bookshelves before buying any more, as part of both my decluttering and money-saving goals for the year.

I managed to get my hanging baskets done and they look so pretty now that they’re filling out. I really like being out in the garden and really enjoyed making these. I did nurture a dream of making a little business out of it, but the time is passed (as with all such ideas I have). I’m trying in earnest to keep on top of my wild little garden but every time I turn around there are weeds everywhere, and I have terrible problems with bindweed coming from the wilderness next door, strangling my Viburnum, which makes me so mad. I keep nagging my dad to come and cut my hedge because it’s almost as bad as the one next door. Some lovely flowers are coming out though which is lovely to see.

Things to do for the next half of the year

Edit my book – aggressively, but not to the point where I lose sight of what I’m trying to say. Having a little break since finishing the draft has helped, as I’ve managed to – so far – approach the chapters with a slightly more objective view. I struggled with chapter one as I knew that everything my writing group had said about it was right and I was scared to try and remake it in a more effective way, but after a couple of false starts I think we’re there! I want to get on with it a bit quicker. I’m trying to get up at the same time every morning (earlyish) to spend a little bit of time on it each day. It’s silage time too so while Scott is busy on the farm (and I can’t help) I can sit and write, which I will do, without the telly on or anything.

I really want to get back into making things. I’ve not done much baking since I bake a lot at work, but I’ve not done any crafting at all. I have lots of kits – needle felting and cross stitch, including something I’ve been making for my mum for a birthday for yonks now – and I just haven’t got on with them at all. I also wanted to design a series of Christmas cards starring Bilbo (as he looks so very Christmassy) and did a trial run in March/April for Mum’s birthday, making this picture.

So I want to crack on a bit more with that – design my cards, maybe make a picture or two, and try to do some more cross stitch.

Obviously the house is still a big priority. We want to move in while I’m still pulling a decent wage (though I still want to get a job for over winter) so I can build my savings back up, and also so I can afford to buy nice things for the house – not that I feel much like shopping at the moment. I can walk round a shop and see loads of pretty things and yet not feel compelled to buy one! There are bits to do to the garden in the new house and I just need to finish the little bits inside that I can do before we have to get in workmen.

I have loads of clothes I want to sell on eBay too, nice things that I’ve worn once or twice and never got round to again. I also want to go through my CD and DVD collection and take a load to Cex and/or list on eBay. I’m getting fed up of living in a world of clutter, and while a lot of that comes from having too much stuff in too small a place, I still don’t want to just fill the new house up with stuff (which is very easy to do).

Finally, this blog! It needs a good lot of work. I need a new header, loads of photos, and a few more posts. My blog is meant to support my writing, and be the backing for my eventual website. Someday I would like to make a Facebook page plus host a Twitter chat for my writing. I’m really inspired by the Canadian musician Leah, who is one of my favourite artists of all time (and I’m totally not saying that just because she followed me on Insta, such love!!), who doesn’t tour to support her music while she raises her children, and yet is super active on social media and has amassed a great following. I think nowadays it’s so much easier to connect with fans and potential followers, and it’s something I need to be making use of more.

So tell me about your achievements so far, and your mid-year goals!

Goodreads Challenge – June, The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox

The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox

This is a novel written in modern times but in the very convincing fashion of a Victorian crime thriller. Michael Cox is a history buff of the era so he is a safe pair of hands. The story reads confidently enough, especially for a debut, but reading through the acknowledgements it’s obvious that this has been a long labour of love.

Edward Glapthorn, or Glyver, or others, is our protagonist who opens the story with the most convincing first line I’ve probably ever had the pleasure to read:

“After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.”

Move over Jane Austen! This is exactly the sort of opening line we get told about in writing classes. Grab the reader’s attention, get ’em wanting to read more. And Cox certainly does that.

The world-building is good, with a whirlwind of locations in London (eateries, roads, locales) traversed, often with a helpful Editor’s Note (not that such a thing means a great deal to me, to whom London is a big fog). But beyond that we are immersed in a cultural creation, too, which reminds me greatly of one of my favourite books, AS Byatt’s Possession. Here too we have a poet of the era, convincingly invented, with the irresistible name of Phoebus Rainsford Daunt. And this is our villain, who we barely even see, in a psuedo-Rebecca role. The first half of the novel is devoted to pursuing this man, though we aren’t given the real reason until partway through, at which point Daunt decreases his importance as an agent and instead what he is blocking becomes the bigger goal.

Cox succeeds in creating the typical Victorian style. Hot on the heels of being swamped by Radcliffe’s somewhat clumpy, clunky prose, Cox streamlines it, but only to a suitable point. In Victorian literature, a character doesn’t just leave a room; he admires everything, from the chaise-longue by the window to the writing desk made by the famous carpenter to twenty volumes on the bookshelf. and usually a nugget of information is concealed within all this description, something which throws a speed reader like me.

I really enjoyed this book, even though I read the last 100 pages on the journey down to Castle Combe in a hurry to finish it for the end of the month. At times Edward’s voice started to annoy me, but we were luckily provided with a short reprieve in the form of another character’s account. His hedonism and reliance on substances while he went through his existential crisis phase (or woe-is-me Harry Potter 4 & 5 phase) felt a little stale, but it fit with the obsessive aspects of his personality. The ending was quite satisfying (no spoilers here!). It only took me so long to read because again I had a few other bits to do and I took about a week off reading it.

If you like Victorian literature, murder mysteries or crime thrillers, I definitely recommend it. I’ve had it on my bookshelf for ages. I will also recommend the other book I mentioned, too, Possession by AS Byatt, as I love that book and it goes further to actually create the poetry.

Now I’ve taken on maybe a bit more than I can chew here with July’s choice.

I had a couple of non-fiction reads in the pile that I’ve been steering clear of and so I decided to pick one up. I love anything to do with the sea and one of my own books is going to be partially set at sea in a naval environment, so I’m on with Ben Wilson’s Empire of the Deep: The Rise and Fall of the British Navy. I’ve read about fifty pages and am really enjoying it, but as it’s a historical narrative it’s taking a good bit longer as I need to concentrate. The font is teeny tiny and a fair few things I don’t have a clue on. Why do all kings have to have similar names? So far I’m keeping up, but Wilson’s style is conversational to the point of being on first name terms with Edwards I – III, to the point where I don’t know which one is being talked about.

I am entertaining the idea of reading one of my fiction books alongside, maybe Lucky Jim, to give two months to read this mammoth beast of a book. I’m determined not to fail in my quest!

How is your reading going?