Being Nancy Drew and other literary obsessions

When I was about ten, I spent most of my waking hours fantasizing about being Nancy Drew, girl detective.  She not only had a proper, grown-up boyfriend and a CAR (unimaginable!) but also managed to escape from an almost infinite succession of hair-raising situations (sabotaged skis, runaway cars, being locked in a room with a poisonous spider) whilst remaining impossibly cool and, to my youthful eyes, incredibly glamorous.  I borrowed book after book from the library before a slightly more sophisticated friend lent me The Nancy Drew Files: an extension of the original series where the perils were even grittier and the boys even sexier.  Quite simply, I was Nancy Drew, as I walked around town in an imaginary leather jacket just like the one she wore in the books, with imaginary glossy hair as opposed to my pre-pubescent rat-tails, keeping an eye out for suspicious characters.

So far, so standard as far as childhood obsessions go.  The next one was slightly weirder however, coming as it did in the form of a warrior squirrel (please stay with me here!)  I became infatuated with Brian Jacques’ Redwall saga, a long series of books set in a world of animals who were almost constantly at war with each other and that involved a little more death and bloodshed than you might expect.  Lady Amber, the squirrel in question, was ballsy, outspoken and an utterly formidable fighter, and I wanted to be her more than anything, as she moved effortlessly through the forest, an untouchable and unseen assassin, taking out villainous rats with her slingshot and outfighting every male warrior around her.  With hindsight though perhaps it wasn’t so strange; in spite of – or maybe because of – my reasonable sedate and mundane lifestyle, in my head I’ve always been the action girl.  I’ve never, ever wanted to be the princess: I am Lara Croft, I am Ripley, I am Nancy Drew, girl detective.

Adulthood came, however, and the idea of living vicariously through various spirited literary characters disappeared.  Thank goodness, you might say – but in fact I know a number of people who still have these obsessions even now.  And actually, there’s a part of me that’s a bit sorry I no longer have daydreams in which I’m running across a mist-smothered moor shrieking “Heathcliff”.  Perhaps I’m too busy obsessing about real life to imagine existing as a fantastical figure any more, which would be pretty sad; or maybe I just haven’t yet found that perfect character who fulfils a missing part of my adult life.  Either way, there are definitely times when being someone else, if only in your own mind, can be immensely liberating and an awful lot of fun, and it’s something I should probably learn to do again.  So it seems there’s nothing for it but to return to the girl who never let my pre-adolescent self down.  Tomorrow morning as I set off for work, I’ll lower the (imaginary) soft-top on my convertible Skoda Fabia and cruise down the A2, ready to take on the world as Nancy Drew, girl detective.

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Books I want but don’t need #1

Books are like shoes…and handbags…and lipsticks…there are ALWAYS ones you see that you want but very definitely DO NOT need.

And now Christmas is coming, which is the worst/best time for a book addict as the bookshops become filled to bursting with glorious temptations of the literary kind.  I’m hoping that by sharing some pics of the books I want (but definitely do not need) I’ll get them out of my system and save myself from book-induced bankruptcy.

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See, now this looks gorgeous doesn’t it?  I have a bit of obsession with medieval manuscripts (slightly odd, I know) so was instantly drawn to this.  But I’m restraining myself because, let’s be honest, it would take me about a year to read such is its tome-like status, and I already have a number of beautiful books that cover the same subject.  So reluctantly I’m putting this into the “want not need” category.

There will be more to follow over the coming weeks on the blog without a doubt.  Do let me know which books are giving you the come hither look right now…

“Painter of Silence” by Georgina Harding – review

I’ve had this on my shelf for a few years; a slim, unassuming book that didn’t scream “read me now”, but I finally picked it up simply because I wasn’t sure what else I was in the mood for.  The contents are as understated as the exterior, but this is a novel that’s all the more powerful for its restraint.  On reflection, the subject matter is extremely harrowing, yet at the time of reading there was almost a dreamlike quality to events, as if everything was covered in delicate gauze that prevented the worst of the horrors from seeming completely real.  This isn’t a criticism; far from it.  In fact, as you get under the skin of the characters, the writing style starts to make perfect sense.

We first meet Augustin as a young man in 1950s Romania when, destitute and on the verge of a physical breakdown, he makes his way to the city hospital in Iaşi.  Once there, the medical staff are mystified as to how he got into his current state, since the patient doesn’t utter a single word and barely attempts to interact with anyone.  Then, as if ordained by fate, a new nurse appears on the ward and recognises the man she hasn’t seen for close to a decade.  Safta, the nurse, seems to know how to get through to Augustin, bringing him blank paper and a pencil.  Slowly but surely, the weak and isolated man begins to draw, just as he did many years ago.

From then on the novel progresses in a series of episodes alternating between Augustin’s youth and the 1950s.  We learn that Safta and Augustin were companions through much of their childhood, the boy being the son of a servant working in the grand country house belonging to Safta’s family.  Yet these most unlikely of friends are not only polar opposites in terms of class: while Safta lives a normal life of social interactions with sibling, cousins and friends, Augustin inhabits a world that only he can fully understand.  His silence in the hospital wasn’t, as many suspected, a physical reaction to a traumatic event; Augustin was in fact born a deaf-mute.  Kind-hearted Safta is the only one of his peers who makes any effort to befriend him and they develop an unspoken connection that continues for several years.  As time passes, however, Safta is lured away by the heady infatuation of her first romance and the prospect of adventures in a world that extends far beyond the family estate, and Augustin is left almost entirely without companionship.  And loneliness is not the only threat he faces, for the second world war is looming large on the horizon.

Although Augustin is the only one of the main characters whom we follow during the war years, back in the 1950s we begin to get a sense of how the conflict still echoes in the hearts and minds of those who lost members of their family or, and this is almost worse, those who still don’t know for sure whether their loved ones are alive or dead.  The Stalinist regime that took hold as the conflict drew to a close has also left the country in a state of paranoia and unease.  Adriana, one of Safta’s colleagues at the hospital, takes Augustin in and pretends at first that he’s her long-lost son, but she knows it’s only a matter of time before his presence will arouse suspicion and questions will start being asked by the neighbours and the authorities.  All of this leads me back to the feeling I described at the start of this review, that the novel’s events seemed ever so slightly distant to the reader, with the worst of the physical and emotional horrors kept an arm’s length away.  This sensation of being very much an observer, putting the emotional experiences of the characters together from fragments of their lives and trying to fill in the blank spaces – some of which last years – as best we can with our imagination is, I’m sure, a very deliberate choice on the author’s part.  Augustin himself lives in a state of being permanently divided from the rest of the world by his deafness and inability to communicate to others the nuances of his feelings, and for much of the book it’s as if we’re seeing events in the same way that he does – seeing and examining but never able to fully participate.  Safta too has to be content with imagining the terrible things to which her friends and family were subjected during the war after she left to escape Romania.  At one point she returns with Augustin to their old home, but he will never manage to describe to her the hellish things he saw or the effect they had upon him.  This clever novel is never about having tragedy pushed in your face through graphic or histrionic depiction.  It’s about watching, listening and then putting the pieces together to come to an empathetic understanding – just as it is for the characters themselves.

“Painter of Silence” is a novel that really sneaks up on you.  It’s quiet, thoughtful and the charatcer of Augustin, particularly during his childhood years, will tug at your heartstrings like never before.

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Autumn reads

One thing I know for sure is that I’ve got an awful lot of reading to get through over the next couple of months.  I’ve never been much of a one for celebrating Hallowe’en, but so many people are getting excited about their spooky reads this year I really feel I should join in the fun.  Then before you know it you’re onto the question of when is too soon to start on the Christmas fiction…I waited until December last year and found I’d left it far too late to get through all the snowy, sparkle-encrusted books I’d bought the month before.   I also have an immense dislike of anything Christmassy once Christmas is over, with the result that I’m still waiting to find out whodunit in British Library Classic “The Santa Klaus Murder” as I failed to finish it last festive season and my slight obsessive streak wouldn’t allow me to carry on with it in January…

Before any of that, though, there are a few enticing books on my radar right now.  I’ve just finished “Painter of Silence”, an understated but quietly striking novel – the review will be up on Girl, Reading soon.  In progress at the moment is “Passion” by the criminally under-read Jude Morgan, a big beast of a novel featuring some of the greatest literary love affairs of all time, and next up is the much talked-about “His Bloody Project”.  I have to say that the Man Booker shortlist has almost no appeal for me this year; this is the only one I’m tempted to try, but I keep hearing good things about it so am hopeful of an enjoyable read.  For non-fiction I have “Weatherland”, which is shaping up to be an absolutely fascinating look at how writers and artists since ancient times have responded to the British weather in their work.   With any luck I will have finished it in time to start Antonia Fraser’s history of the Gunpowder Plot by the time November 5th comes round, but that may too much of an ask!

All being well there will be some more reviews for you all soon, but in the meantime, happy reading!

A post in belated celebration of World Mental Health Awareness Day!

The evidence may only be anecdotal, but it really seems to me that with every year that goes by there are more and more people putting themselves out there on social media and in the public eye talking candidly about mental health.  The old adage that it’s good to talk has been, and still is, the cornerstone of many campaigns promoting awareness of the mind-centred problems that besiege so many millions of us.  As an avid reader, I find it interesting to think about the part that books have to play in stimulating the mental health conversation, and I want to share with you a few that have not only helped me, but whose wider influence I have witnessed first-hand.

Alongside an increase in online and media discussion has come a noticeable growth in the publishing of books – some factual, some not – that explore mental health issues.  Often our instinct is to seek out others whose experiences are similar to our own, and it’s a source of great comfort to me that whatever you’re struggling with, there will in all likelihood be someone somewhere who’s written about it.  It was for that reason I was drawn to “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop” by David Adam, an unflinchingly honest and illuminating book charting the author’s experience of OCD.  I’m fortunate enough not to suffer with that condition myself, but spending many years close to someone who does has raised many questions that I haven’t always felt able to ask.  Now here was someone who could explain to me in black and white something of what it’s like to live with these compulsions, without my feeling that I was being intrusive or inappropriate by wanting to know.  Matt Haig, in his book “Reasons to Stay Alive”, did a similarly excellent job of explaining depression from the point of view of someone who has himself been to places most of us cannot imagine.  The book was incredibly successful commercially, partly I think because so many of us have either experienced some level of depression ourselves or know someone who has; but also because he managed to put his feelings into the most perfect of words again and again.  Finding the most effective language with which to convey the sense of any mental health disorder can seem almost impossible, but this was a book I was ardently pressing into people’s hands telling them that, finally, here were the words that would make them begin to understand.

Responsibly researched fiction can also have a part to play, I believe, in helping to break down the taboos and the mystery surrounding many mental health conditions.  We’ve come a long way, mercifully, from the lunatic in the asylum motif of the gothic horror and into an era where there is in many instances a genuine desire to understand the suffering of others.  Nathan Filer’s remarkable novel “The Shock of the Fall” is one such example: a portrait of a man in excruciating mental anguish that has stayed with me for the past couple of years.  The author actually had experience in the nursing of mental health patients, and I think knowing that before I started reading gave me confidence that the book wasn’t going to be sensationalist, inaccurate or exploitative in any way.

Events such as World Mental Health Day are ideal opportunities to bring the issue back to the forefront of our minds, but the conversation has to continue every single day for it to have an ongoing effect.  The fact that there are so many books out there to help make this a reality is definitely something to be celebrated.

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Ginseng and other problems

In the quiet of my flat, the tiny sound of rustling foliage.  Another leaf has fallen from my recently acquired ginseng tree.  Why are they dropping with such alarming frequency?  Google has provided spectacularly little help, with a late night trawl informing me only that ginsengs shed their leaves either when too wet or too dry, too hot or too cold.  Well, thanks for that.  Being a book nerd my first port of call was naturally my horticultural bible, “The Houseplant Expert” – except my well-thumbed edition was written in the days before anyone dreamt of bringing anything as exotic and alien as a ginseng tree into their home.  I’ve probably got what I deserve for buying a plant from a supermarket whose care instruction labels were exactly the same for every single species they sold; but still, it niggles me that yet another beloved houseplant will take its last gasp and expire sometime very soon.

The imminent fate of my little ginseng is the smallest of a whole host of mental distractions that have kept me away from blogging of late.  Writing is something I love, and as such would probably have been the perfect antidote to the intrusive negative thoughts that have been stubbornly hanging around me recently, but my brain has been too saturated to leave even the tiniest bit of room for a pleasurable escape route.  A couple of days ago though, the door opened just a crack and a sliver of light peeked through; after a few weeks of stupor and barely caring if no-one ever read my blog again, I suddenly wanted to write again more than anything.

So here I am.  And next time I’ll be back talking about books as per usual.  Unless anyone out there can shed any light on exactly why my ginseng tree might be losing its leaves, in which case I’ll feel compelled to pass it on…

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“The Watchmaker of Filigree Street” by Natasha Pulley – review

It’s been a while since I’ve read such a magical literary concoction as “The Watchmaker of Filigree Street”.  Part steampunk, part Victorian gothic, part crime thriller, with splashes of the fantastical thrown in, it’s an endlessly intriguing kaleidoscope whose patterns never fall quite as you expect them to.  I don’t even want to talk about the plot as to do so would be to somehow dull the shine of a book sparkling so brightly with imagination.  If I tell you, however, that it involves bomb plots, exiled Japanese nobility, Gilbert and Sullivan and a clockwork octopus called Katsu you’ll start to get a small sense of the eclectic pick-and-mix that makes this book such enormous fun.

With so many ideas flying about it could easily have turned into a bit of a disjointed muddle, but this isn’t the case.  Yes, it’s a whirlwind of a read, but a very tightly controlled one.  Keep your concentration, because it moves between timeframes, countries and characters, and by the time the action-packed denouement arrives you’ll need to have your wits about you to keep track of what’s going on.  In fact, there was one section towards the end that I had to go back and read again in order to get my head around what had actually happened – but truthfully, I’d rather have that any day than a story professing to be a mystery but whose ending is signposted a mile off.  I would never have guessed how the story would end, and I was glad to have been wrong-footed.

I like my fantasy firmly grounded in a believable reality (Ben Aaronovitch, Erin Morgenstern and Sergei Lukyanenko all do this incredibly well) and for me the novel’s great success lies in the seamlessness with which it blends the surreal with the everyday.  Keita Mori’s quasi-magical clockwork emporium on Filigree Street sits perfectly congruously alongside the earthly drudgery of the Home Office telegraphy department where his soon-to-be friend Nathaniel Steepleton works.  This is a London beset by terrorist bomb threats such as those within living memory that make even fictional ones seem all too real; yet the concept that within this very recognisable city there exist individuals with the ability to pre-empt future events by picking up disturbances in the ether caused by human though never seems at all improbable.  I suspect many of us would like to believe there’s something a little bit magical lurking just around the corner from our everyday lives, and Natasha Pulley delivers on this promise.

She’s an extremely elegant writer, who delivers dry wit and deep-seated emotion with equal finesse, and it’s to her absolute credit that she took me to paces I never thought I’d go at the novel’s start.  This is definitely one for those who love relishing the dexterity of the written word as much as they do a great story; it comes highly recommended from me on both counts.

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