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!

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?

May Goodreads Challenge – The Magus

For May I chose The Magus to read from my remaining books. I’ve read John Fowles before – The French Lieutenant’s Woman is one of my favourite books so I had high hopes about The Magus.

It is a big book – not just in length but in content. The blurb talks about our protagonist, Nicholas Urfe, being held by a master trickster – but make no mistake, the master trickster in residence here is Fowles himself.

It took me a long time to read it – not because it was uninteresting or particularly hard, but because it just is a very big book. That being said, the last 200 pages roared by as the plot kicked it up about four gears.

Nicholas Urfe, as a typical rudderless middle-class graduate of the post-war era, finds himself teaching English in a Greek school for boys on a remote, isolated island. It follows nicely from Romance of the Forest with a travel literature edge. Fowles captures Greece wonderfully – his prose reminded me of holidays to Crete and Lesvos and brought back lovely memories. I also liked the TEFL aspect, especially so as Nicholas had similar feelings of unfulfilment regarding teaching that I had experienced in my short tenure.

The book is best thought of as London and England bracketing either side of the fat Grecian middle section. Nicholas flees a girlfriend, disappointment in his own failings and general disillusionment to an island that then reflects these three things again back at him. The master trickster he meets is a strange patriarch, Conchis, who Fowles paints expertly as a man who shifts in all but shape. There are powerful moments detailing Conchis’s life, in particular the recollection of his days serving on the front in WWI, but in typical Fowles style (a la French Lieutenant’s Woman) the rug is pulled out from under the reader’s feet. As a result, the story is lush, deceptive, and twists and turns at every page.

I enjoyed it, though it was strange, and at times felt a little laboured. (I am in the middle of my own editing so I’m seeing everything bloated and over-egged so I might just be projecting outwards.) As a mystery it was good to figure bits out, though sometimes the cycles of mystery were so dense it was hard to decide what the actual point of it all was. It felt a little too high-brow for me at times: a lot about psychology and psychiatry, which went over my head, and sometimes it was hard to keep track of what was real and what wasn’t (though I guess that was purposeful). Nicholas, our narrator, also did my head in from time to time. He was full of his own self-importance, but then again, all his flaws got called out on. This is a story about how our own selfishness and egocentric behaviour can drastically affect those around us – and Nicholas is forced to confront his own shortcomings. I’m not sure if he will really learn from his mistakes, but over the course of the novel he comes a step closer to comprehending that he is not the only player on the stage.

The ending was wholly ambiguous and I made my own conclusion, based on a Disney-fuelled happily ever after.

It is very much a sort of book that will haunt you, and it also makes you not trust anybody or anything they ever say, which is very helpful in everyday life.

My next book is The Meaning of Night, a contemporary Victorian crime thriller, which Maura is cuddling up to below.

April’s Goodreads Challenge – The Romance of the Forest

I was worried I might have to start this post reporting my failure to uphold my resolution. (Instead I need to start it with an apology that it’s so late, and a disclosure saying that I did in fact finish the book in April, and I wrote this post a week ago, but I’ve only just got round to posting it!) The Romance of the Forest proved a hard book to read. I could harp on about all the other things going on that have been taking up my time and attention, and granted they all exist, but in all honesty, I just really struggled with this book. But I’m happy to say I finished it, at about quarter to eleven last night, so just in time hurrah!

An eighteenth-century Gothic novel that has sat on my shelves for long enough, I had tried to read it before and stalled on the first page. I’m pleased I persevered, and I have enjoyed it (at times). The problem with eighteenth and nineteenth century writing – that I’ve found, anyway – isn’t in the old-fashioned style they use, the long sentences, the incomprehensible sentence structure, the wayward subjects or even subject matter now quite alien to a modern reader. I get all that and like all that. The problem is I am a fast reader. My imagination leaps beyond the words that I’m reading so when I’m in a story that has very dense writing, including join-the-dots descriptions and misleading sentence starters that begin somewhere and then randomly out of nowhere go off on a tangent, I struggle with it. I probably need to sit down with my imagination and tell it to behave. Not that it’ll listen, and not that I’d want it to anyway.

So The Romance of the Forest is a book that moves too fast and too slow all at once. Confusing? Yes. At least the majority of the characters have different names, right? Well, up until the last few chapters and then we had two characters with the same title and it was all a bit of a blur. The main character is Adeline, and I think the reason I didn’t like her is because I saw much too much of myself in her. She’s a melodramatic, melancholy slip of a thing, prone to bursting into tears at the slightest thing, and she just annoyed me a little too much. The storyline starts with a mystery, then more mysteries come up and unless I totally just didn’t pay attention, the mysteries are all resolved at the end. Hurrah! Adeline is an orphan, essentially, and is placed under the care of the La Motte family, who are themselves fleeing debtors. Together they take refuge in a spooky abbey, where they find all these mysterious objects, some of which suggest a sinister past to the abbey. Then the abbey’s real owner appears and makes their lives very difficult.

There are some serious plot twists in this book. A lot of the twists happen in about the last 50 pages, and some twists are fun little false twists too, which do work quite well to keep you guessing. Part of the book’s style is the way Radcliffe starts by introducing a sinister motif, or a thrilling moment, and then dissolving it – spoiler alert: for example, Adeline sees a mysterious man in the woods and is afraid, but he turns out to be a nice chap indeed.

Radcliffe was a travel writing buff and so her own writing is rich with descriptions of exotic places that she herself may not have made it to. I must admit I did skim through a few of the longer passages waxing about the beauty of this French town or this lake with its acacias.

I thought I would enjoy this a bit more than I did. I gave it 2 stars on Goodreads, which is an OK rating on the Goodreads scale. It just was a bit of a slog, unfortunately.

For May I’m jumping into The Magus by John Fowles. Now Fowles wrote one of my favourite books ever, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, so let’s see if this one can live up to my high expectations. The blurb suggests it should be right up my street. I am feeling some The Name of the Rose vibes with it, so we shall see!

Kipling photobomb

The Magus, by John Fowles: On a remote Greek Island, Nicholas Urfe finds himself embroiled in the deceptions of a master trickster. As reality and illusion intertwine, Urfe is caught up in the darkest of psychological games. John Fowles expertly unfolds a tale that is lush with over-powering imagery in a spellbinding exploration of human complexities. By turns disturbing, thrilling and seductive, The Magus is a feast for the mind and the senses.

April’s Goodreads Challenge: Starting Line

I get to come into April with a bit of a clean slate. Alongside my allotted monthly books I’ve been catching up with Robin Hobb’s Fitz and the Fool series, in anticipation for book 3 coming out soon. I finished the second book last month so have a relatively low on-the-go pile.

While waiting about in the lambing shed I started re-reading a book I’ve attempted many times – Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, Book One of the Dark Tower series. I’ve read lots of Stephen Kings over my time, including what is probably one of the scariest books ever, It. Have you seen the trailer for the new film coming out this year? It looks absolutely terrifying. I mean, clowns, hello! The scariest things out there. When I have kids we are so not having clowns at kids’ parties. And Pennywise isn’t even the big bad in It – he’s just a facet, a mouthpiece.
Continue reading “April’s Goodreads Challenge: Starting Line”