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!

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!

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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.

The Books Everyone Lies About Reading

I heard this on the radio the other day at my mum and dad’s, but before they said what the top book was, the first one I thought of was The Lord of the Rings. It didn’t come out at number one, but was a close second. I’m not ashamed to say I’ve not read No 1 – James Bond (I presume they mean “all” rather than “any”, though I have listened to the Octopussy audiobook as read by Tom Hiddleston, which was a great listen on the commute to work, even if I was laughing sat in traffic at the amount of times he says “pussy”, not very mature I know), but I’ve never said I have read it. So I inspected the list on the original article, found here, and I’ve gone through it with what I have and haven’t read: Continue reading “The Books Everyone Lies About Reading”

My Goodreads Challenge 2017 – March

This month I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. I chose it for my Challenge because I had bought it to read for the PGCE I never finished (like most things in my life) and everybody was raving about it. It’s sat languishing on my bookshelf for long enough.

This is one of those books that everyone raves about, but when it gets down to it, they’ve not read the book, but heard rave reviews about the stage adaptation. Their granny’s mate or little brother’s English class went to see it and it changed their lives.

Continue reading “My Goodreads Challenge 2017 – March”

My Goodreads Challenge – February Review, Burial Rites

So February has been and went and true to my goals, I finished my book for the second month of the year, and this time it was Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites. I’ve had this book on my bookshelf for a good long time and never picked it up so I thought now was as good time as ever. I must admit I think my enjoyment of it was certainly marred by the fact I started reading Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being and was utterly wrapped up in that.

Burial Rites is one of those books that was nominated for awards and was on everyone’s TBR list. There was a lot of hype and if everybody didn’t have a copy in their bag, they knew somebody who did. The story sounded compelling, and it fit into a perfect period of time: Nordic/Scandi thrillers, female-led murder mysteries. If it had been called The Girl in Iceland it might have sold even more.

Kent is only a young writer – one of these that have done Creative Writing XYZ and I’m not bitter at all (I half-wanted to do Creative Writing but everybody I spoke to about it scared me away from it with pitchforks and burning torches so there you go). The story is indeed compelling, about the consequences of a murder that has already happened in 19th century Iceland, of all places. Like Colman’s The Rule, a young writer from my neck of the woods, the barren, cold setting is winningly created with effective, sparse prose. I didn’t like the font the book was published in, which is ridiculous I know but when that’s what you’re staring at, it can really bug you if the story doesn’t drag you in and overpower you completely.

And this didn’t. I found it hard to get into for the first half of the book. There were a lot of viewpoints to follow, and the wet assistant reverend wasn’t my favourite of characters to follow, especially when he missed a lot of the action. Agnes, the central character and the only one with a first person POV, was the most interesting, but even when she told us the truth of the murder for which she was convicted and awaiting the death penalty, I didn’t feel gripped by her story. Based on true events, the narrative was haunted by unchangeability, and that was purposeful of course, but it felt like hopes were being raised every so often, all for nothing.

Kent is a good writer, but I felt the two daughters of the family Agnes stayed with were underdeveloped, bit players in the calm before the storm. Their mother was the strongest character, plagued by a cough, and I was happy she didn’t die in the end. As a newbie to farming, it was comforting to read familiar events and tasks in a cold, unforgiving environment. I think our technology on the farm isn’t much more advanced than theirs!

I haven’t picked my March book yet but it will be something short as I’m a little pressed for time. I’m trying to finish my own book before the end of the month plus we have a lot going on at the farm. I also started re-reading Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Assassin (Book 1 of Fitz and the Fool) after I finished Burial Rites, ready to start on Book 2 soon. Robin Hobb is one of my favourite writers, not just fantasy but overall. I’ve read lots of her trilogies and series, but I think Fool’s Assassin has been the hardest to get into. Fitz as a narrator is always compelling and sucks you into both his world and his thoughts, however in this book not a great deal happens over the first half. A plot point is introduced in chapter 1 and not picked up again, and instead we spend a lot of time with Fitz and Molly, and later Bee, in their home life. If I remember rightly, action picks up again, and I’m excited to see where that leads.

My Reading Challenge 2017 – January recap

So at the beginning of this year I decided I would read more. I have three houses full of books now and it’s high time some of them got read! So I set myself a relatively easy goal: 12 books in the year, 1 book a month. I went through my bookcase in my house and picked 12 books. Some are fiction, some are non-fiction. Some are brand new, some are second-hand shop finds. The idea is to read 1 a month. If I finish that month’s book early, I won’t read the next one for the month. Then I’ll have to pick another book up. A good solid plan.

January’s book was The Magicians by Lev Grossman. A former coworker of mine used to rave about this book and I thought it sounded right up my street: a magic university? What happens when Harry does his degree. I’m a big fantasy fan and I like me a good bit of magic realism too, so I was happy to start off with this one. Continue reading “My Reading Challenge 2017 – January recap”

Reading Challenge 2017

As most people know, I love me a good book. Some people buy clothes, shoes, handbags, makeup, and others buy cigarettes, magazines, whatever, but I like my books. Always have done, and so Casa Katy is filled with books. When I moved out of home I determined to only bring with me books I hadn’t read and wanted to read, which meant that Windy Farm is now full of books I’ve read that I can’t bear to part with just yet or that I will probably never ever read but look pretty good on a shelf somewhere. Last year I didn’t do as much reading as I wanted to. I finished the Wheel of Time, which was a biggie, and I even tried to re-read A Song of Ice and Fire but I got three chapters into Clash of Kings and remembered why it took me so long the first time.

Towards the latter end of 2016 my little life had a bit of a switch-around. Not only did Scott and Fly move in, but I left my job, he then left his job, and we turned to joint endeavours (the farm), which led to days being full of lots of outside work and then evenings full of falling asleep on the settee.

But no more! This year I am committing to the Goodreads 2017 Challenge. I was going to do a reading challenge on my own, but I saw others engaging with this, and since I never make much of a go of my Goodreads account, I thought I would combine the two.

To make it simple, I’m sticking to one book a month. The other morning I went through my bookshelf and pulled off a big mix of books to read. Some are fiction, some are non-fiction, some I’ve started before, some have just languished, their secrets untold. I have visions of reading them in a seasonally appropriate order, so maybe the heavier non-fiction bits might be the sun lounger reads of a hot sticky summer. Who knows!

I’m starting off my 2017 Reading Challenge with The Magicians by Lev Grossman. I’ve had this book for a while now and held off reading it for a couple of reasons, usually the typical started it and something else came along, but in all honesty, I swerved from it because in setting and topic it is quite close to my own story in #MFB, being that they are both set in a magical university. I suppose I worried I might be too influenced by Grossman and subconsciously assimilate some of his themes and features into my own writing. (I also had this highly egocentric fantasy of being read/reviewed/interviewed about #MFB and being able to say “actually I read The Magicians after I finished #MFB so no it didn’t influence me in the slightest”.) But a big part of being a good writer is being a good reader. So I’m going to give it a go.

Plus, I recorded the TV series on my Sky+ box and it’s sat there taking up space, so once I’ve read the book I will watch that before we move and I lose all my recordings. PS. Does anyone know if you can keep your Sky+ box and your recordings if you move from one house to another??? The boy may be heartbroken if he loses all of his Heartbeat episodes.

So I will read The Magicians, my book for January. My rule is that if I finish early I won’t start another book on the list, I will either persevere with other outstanding books (Middlemarch, here’s looking at you) or start something else, and then come 1st February, pick the next one.

Here is my reading list in full! Tell me about yours. What will you be reading? Or what have you read recently? I’m always on the look-out for good books!

Katy’s Goodreads 2017 Reading Challenge

The Ice Museum – Joanna Kavenna (non-fiction)
Empires of the Deep: The Rise and Fall of the British Navy – Ben Wilson (non-fiction)
A Discovery of Witches – Deborah Harkness
The Magicians – Lev Grossman
Magician – Raymond E Feist
Burial Rites – Hannah Kent
Enduring Love – Ian McEwan
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
The Meaning of Night – Michael Cox
The Romance of the Forest – Ann Radcliffe
Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis
The Magus – John Fowles