A little literary vacation…

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Hello you lovely lot.

I thought it’d only be polite to drop by to say hello and apologise, first of all, for my dwindling posts over the past few months. Needless to say things have been rather hectic over at the Rock-Seed household (not least due to the little poppet attached) and, although my reading and internet lurking has survived, actually thinking about what I read and putting it into some kind of coherent review has dwindled to zero and I have to say, I’m kind of enjoying it!

This blog has been going for quite some time and I am so grateful to you bookish folk for sticking around so long. Although Literary Relish is far from dead, it’s time I took a much needed break with a temporary 2016 hiatus. It’d be just lovely to spend some time getting on top of my TBR and playing with the puppy. Pressure off.

I will of course, be duly lurking around everyone else’s blogs and podcasts (how would I figure out what to read next otherwise?!) but am taking a break from my own garble for now. A little refresher. Although I always appreciate review requests, that’ll also mean a break from these just for a little while.

So for now, peeps, it’s goodbye from me (and goodbye from Milton!) I will see you all very soon on some other part of the tinterweb. Keep reading!

Dirty Thirty

Never too old for a tutu...
Never too old for a tutu…

2015 may have been a so-so year on the reading front but it was the year I turned the big 3-0. Indeedy do. We had so many lovely bookish adventures last year but our trip to York for my thirtieth had to top it all. So, donning the tutu my 5 year old niece very kindly bought for me and bagsying an astonishingly cheap hotel deal, the other half and I proceeded to explore the winding old streets of York; its bookish nooks and oldy woldy pubs, for the first time.

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With my deep love of history, real ale and all things bookish, I’d always been told that York would be absolute heaven. It really was and I’m hugely embarrassed that it took me 30 years to experience a city that really isn’t very far at all as the crow flies. Nestled within the city walls we discovered a cornucopia of cobbly streets, wonky buildings and, best of all, cute bookshops to explore, spandangling window displays included.

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The Minster Gate Bookshop features at the top of every York book shop list and was the one place I was hell-bent on visiting but, unbelievably, very almost missed! After a good hour getting lost in the windy medieval streets, we finally chanced upon this absolute treasure trove, nestled in the shadow of the Minster.

PicMonkey CollageSet over five floors in an old Georgian town house it’s hard to believe this shop has only existed since 1970; so cosy and bedded-in does it feel. Although (as you can see from the pic above) there are countless sections to explore I found myself routed to the spot in the ‘bargain basement’ fiction section downstairs. Lordy lord. Brand new books; contemporary and classic fiction all as cheap as cheap as can be. It is, if you’re ever lucky enough to be visiting York, the nicest way to while away an afternoon. Indeed I got so lost in my perusals that the OH had to come and bring me back to reality after I’d been down there for well over an hour….sigh…

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Dotted around the outlying streets are some nicher offerings, like Janette Ray’s colourful shop above. Others are open by appointment only, I tremble to think of the delights inside.

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Our shabby-chic hotel was the perfect place to retire after a day of hardcore city tramping. The cosiest corner to settle down with my book haul, which included the following:

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou –

Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann

The Luminaries  by Eleanor Catton

The Lazy Tour Of Two Idle Apprentices by Charles Dickens & Wilkie Collins

The Perils of Certain English Prisoners by Charles Dickens & Wilkie Collins

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

Mugby Junction by Charles Dickens

Crash by J.G. Ballard

The Parasites by Daphne du Maurier

Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier

 

Bingo! Have those of you who’ve had the pleasure of York before got any favourite corners of this fabulous ancient city? If you haven’t been please do take some time this year to give yourself a wonderful weekend out and report back here to let me know what you think!

The Ballroom

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Although you can reach saturation point a few weeks in, one of the greatest joys of the New Year is reading and listening to everyone’s most anticipated books of 2016. The Ballroom; writer and actress Anna Hope‘s second novel in just over two years, featured on many lists in January and immediately caught my eye. Set in the oppressive corridors of an asylum on the edge of the Yorkshire moors, this was just the ticket to while away the hours sheltering from the disgusting weather outside. After reading Patrick McGrath’s Asylum late last year, it was particularly interesting to see that, although sharing a similarly subtly oppressive feeling, how differently each author deals with the sensitive subject of mental health.

Set during the torturous heatwave of 1911, in a split three-way narrative we explore the lives of John and Ella, both patients at the asylum and Charles Fuller, their doctor. Charles is an enthusiastic, modern young psychiatrist who believes in the power of art to help heal the minds of his patients. Under his lead, a small band gather in the ballroom of the asylum every week, where patients on good behaviour are permitted to attend to dance the night away. Ella and John, both stupefied in their incarceration and desperate at first to hide themselves away in the shadows, lock eyes across the dance floor, finding solace and companionship in their mutual attraction. As Fuller’s personal life and ideals crumble, so does the wellbeing of his patients, leading to potentially disastrous consequences for our passionate pair…

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Courtesy of netgalley.com

 

Hope is an author of exceptional skill and subtlety and I devoured The Ballroom in just a few sittings. Though a pretty easy read, the depth of her characters and the quiet colours of asylum life on these desolate moors left me gripped.

Although the narrative is centered around the three main characters, the peripheral supporting cast are just as strong, drawing the reader in with intrigue but stopping short of ruining the mystery. Both John and Ella’s right hand men; Dan and Clem, are fascinating characters. Dan, with his sea shanties and rosy outlook on life, begs us to ask just how he has ended up in an asylum. Clementine Church; Ella’s saviour, with her serene, wise demeanour seems to hiding from something or someone out in the ‘real world’, rather than from herself. Her passion for reading one we can all identify with:

Unlike music, excessive reading has been shown to be dangerous for the female mind…Perhaps it would serve Miss Church to have a break from her books?

The asylum setting undoubtedly makes this novel difficult to place in time. Although set just before World War I, our minds are steeped in the Victorian institution and mindset that accompanies the patients. This view, unlike McGrath’s Asylum, that sees life from the other side of the bars, offers an all important imagining of the multi-faceted , complex nature of mental health,the conditions of life in such institutions during the early 20th century and the legitimacy of the admission of certain individuals deemed ‘unstable’; particularly women.

A wonderful read. The beautiful cover is worth a look alone.

Literature can provide a safe way in which to explore difficult subjects such as mental health. Which other novels would you recommend that deal with such topics in a sensitive way?

Gone with the Wind

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Clark Gable & Vivien Leigh. Just delicious.

I’ll start with my conclusion. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind has been the best reading experience I have had in years. Hands down. Why then have I found it so insurmountably difficult to jot down my thoughts? Perhaps it’s the fear that I simply won’t be able to do it justice….

It’s crazy to think that, up until a couple of months ago I had neither read the classic novel nor watched the universally popular film adaptation of GWTW. With a grossly misinformed view that this might be a little too trashily romantic for me (perhaps due to the famous swooning snapshot), it took a discounted Oxfam copy for me to finally pick up, having no idea just how much fun I was letting myself in for.

Not that many of you will need a synopsis but, for ignoramuses like myself; GWTW follows the life and times of quintessential Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara during the American Civil War and the turbulent period of Restoration afterwards. Scarlett is a charming, confident, manipulative young woman, the offspring of French aristocracy on her Mother’s side and Irish ne’er-do-wells on that of her Father; Gerald O’Hara. We witness her survival and that of her family and friends during the most turbulent period of their lives, desperately clinging to the ‘old ways’ and what they represent. For Scarlett this is the red earth and billowing cotton fields of Tara; her home.

Overlapping the action and high drama of war is the passion Scarlett holds for impenetrable aristocrat Ashley Wilkes; a man with his head in his books and the past, unable to come to terms with the changes around him. With her tempestuous relationship with blockader and all around cad Rhett Butler running in sharp contrast, it is for the intrepid reader to discover just which way the wind will blow for Scarlett …

819699This doorstop, epic novel quite literally has it all. Romance, history, politics, action and even feminism. Gone With the Wind was a bestseller from its publication back in 1936 and has never been out of print, with the Hollywood movie starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh (the very essence of the characters they portray) coming out just 3 years later.

No need for a cast list for this bad boy. Every single one of Mitchell’s hundreds of characters; from the field hands and soldiers to Scarlett and Rhett themselves are so colourfully, wonderfully drawn that even I, with my rubbish memory and lack attention to detail remembered and cared about every last one of them. Even Scarlett; a fickle, unscrupulous, selfish woman is just so imperfect, so flawed in every way (apart from her green green eyes of course!) that you can’t help but hold her close to your heart. Her strength and modernity in comparison with the social norms for women in the American south at the time makes her, flaws aside, an indisputable literary role model. Between her flagrant rejection of social norms and niceties and Rhett’s bulging biceps, I was captivated.

On top of all this and as I’ve said in the past, it makes me so happy when I actually manage to learn something from my fiction reading. Being British, it follows that we don’t necessarily tend to learn much about US domestic history at school (focusing instead on the very short reign of one sensational royal family). The knowledge I’ve gained about the civil conflict and restoration in 19th century America by virtue of reading this book has just been a huge eye opener. Mitchell’s epic has come under criticism for presenting a ‘positive’ slave narrative, where slaves are seen to enjoy their jobs and feel secure in their lives and lot, a point of view that is understandably difficult to swallow. Although GWTW makes some feel uncomfortable in that respect, it didn’t bother to me too much considering that Mitchell’s narrative is essentially told through the eyes of the white, slave-owning confederate classes. If anything it made me think a little more deeply about the slave trade in America; it’s complexities, horrors and implications.

Thought-provoking, breathtaking and heartwarming, I won’t be forgetting this book in a hurry. Now….how long should I wait until I tackle a reread?

Is it possible to have a favourite book? If so, what is yours and why?

 

Crooked Heart

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My review below was featured as part of the lovereading.com’s feature on the brilliant Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans. Find the whole caboodle here: http://www.lovereading.co.uk/book/14371/Crooked-Heart-by-Lissa-Evans.html

World War II, the Blitz and the human dramas surrounding it do, and have always, provided perfect fodder for authors. But has this well-trodden path seen one too many interpretations? If the wit and uplifting spirit of Lissa Evans’ new novel is anything to go by, not one bit. 

Longlisted for the Baileys Prize for Fiction this year, in ‘Crooked Heart’ Evans provides a refreshing perspective on the traumas of war on the Homefront through the unlikely, amusing and thoroughly heart-warming pairing of debtridden widow Vera ‘Vee’ Sedge and evacuee Noel Bostock; whose mysterious upbringing and book smarts Vee faces with incredulity. Stumbling around the bomb-ridden capital, the two encounter a variety of quirky, achingly British characters whose stories truly bring this period to life.

Careful not to forget the very pertinent hardships of those now living under bombardment, Evans’ remembrance and inclusion of the country’s suffragettes provided a refreshing angle that leaves the reader hankering for more. From Noel’s indomitable godmother to the flirty factory girls and the painfully flawed Vera, women really are represented as forming the backbone of the nation in this frank, bittersweet novel.

With the sweetness and subtle humour of this tale chugging along until the very end, the lack of any ‘big reveal’ or hard-hitting Blitz-extravaganza may disappoint some. For me this was an honest, touching and terribly funny book, all the more poignant for its fun and its foibles. Unpretentious historical fiction at its best.

I rarely let book prize-hype sway my reading but so enjoyed Evans’ entertaining new novel. Which book was the highlight of the 2015 prizes for you?