Recently I’ve been exploring the role and function of book blogging and how I want to fit into it. For a while I’ve just reviewed each book I read individually, and I think for me that format was getting a little stale, and I wasn’t sure how appealing it actually was to readers – especially as I don’t read as many books as I used to, so the posts were a bit sporadic and random. In an attempt to be more organised I am going to post a reading diary at the end of each month, and see how that goes. So here we have January, a month in which I had a huge stack of new books to read thanks to Christmas and my birthday. I started with The Manningtree Witches (which I actually began at the end of December but finished in January) and ended with making a start on The Paper Palace (2021) by Miranda Cowley Heller. First I’ll chat about each book and then there’s a bit of summary/random thoughts at the end, as well as a look forward to February.
The Manningtree Witches (2021) by A.K. Blakemore
In some ways I really loved this book, and what Blakemore is trying to achieve with it. In the afterword she says she wanted to give voices to the persecuted women, and I think she did that; but for me, personally, this just wasn’t quite enough. I’ve read a handful of other books about English witches and I think this meant that I didn’t find anything that was really new for me in The Manningtree Witches. The story of how suspicion grows and accusations are made, how these injustices happen, was not new to me – crucially I already had a decent picture of Matthew Hopkins in my mind and an idea of his character and motivations so I didn’t get anything new from his appearance in this book. Really this is just unfair to A.K. Blakemore, who has written a beautiful, intelligent, and vivid book that deserves praise and insight. Perhaps I just read it at the wrong time so it wasn’t right for me; but it could be right for a lot of people and deserves plenty of attention.
Matrix (2021) by Lauren Groff
What appealed to me with Matrix was the setting and the character of Marie. I can only think of one other novel I have read based so early in history (Hild by Nicola Griffith), and so the unknown but intriguing set up drew me straight in. There is a strange mix of the story being connected to our modern life, in the philosophical lessons or musings on legacy, in the commentary on women’s power and strength, and their desire to isolate themselves from anyone else; but also completely separate from us and in its own world. This is partly due to the distance in time and context, but also through Groff’s use of the present tense and how this creates an immediacy that sets the world of the abbey apart from any other. I found it to be quite an intense reading experience. One downside to the use of the present tense, and to the huge jumps forward in time, is that you can sometimes feel like you are skimming over the story a bit and missing details. A lot happens in a few pages and you feel like you need to go back and check. For me this also meant that I felt a bit detached from the story and the characters, even Marie – especially because there is no actual speech, just summaries or small phrases. But perhaps this detachment is intentional, to make the whole thing feel a bit like a dream, or a memory – or one of Marie’s visions. I did enjoy reading Matrix though and I am keen to see what Groff produces next.
Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph (2021) by Lucasta Miller
I studied Keats at university and managed to get through about half of Andrew Motion’s very long biography, but I haven’t read much about Keats for several years. My love for his work and philosophy has never faded, however. In this book Lucasta Miller’s writing flows wonderfully and is engaging and digestible, yet still challenges the reader to keep up and understand the references and contexts. She assumes you have read Keats before and know at least something about his life, but she still provides details for those who might be less familiar with his biography. I was very happy to go back to text analysis with Keats and look deeper into the meanings of his poems, and how they connect to his own life as well as the time and world in which he lived (the whole concept and structure of the book is a strong validation of my rejection of Barthes’ Death of the Author, which I found quite pleasing). I learned a huge amount but it was also a joyous and satisfying book to read. I felt most alive reading about Keats’ connection with nature, his musings on the purpose and function of art, and how he was trying to find his place in the world. Of course you know how it’s all going to end, but this doesn’t make it any less devastating, especially when Miller writes so tenderly about visiting a few key locations in Hampstead where Keats either lived or visited. I’m now planning my own little Keats day out to visit Keats House and the places Miller mentions.
The Key in the Lock (2022) by Beth Underdown
I loved Beth Underdown’s previous novel The Witchfinder’s Sister (which was one of better depictions of Matthew Hopkins I have read), and when I read about The Key in the Lock I was intrigued. It has echoes of Rebecca with the opening line, “I still dream, every night, of Polneath on fire”, and of du Maurier in general with the Gothic themes and atmosphere. The structure and plotting are excellent, slowly laying out the story using two timelines to great effect. Ivy’s narrative voice is quite strong and all the characters are expertly drawn with lots of sharp little details to indicate what they might be thinking, their background, their point of view. The storyline is quite twisting and dramatic, but it doesn’t veer into melodrama and Underdown is an incredibly elegant writer. If you like a Gothic mystery, with lots of family and romantic drama, read The Key in the Lock.
As mentioned above I am finishing the month by starting a new book, The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller, which came out last year. I saw it a lot on social media, and while I don’t always love contemporary novels (and can be put off by hype) this seemed to have a really interesting set up, and the first few pages had me hooked. So far I love the style and the blend of quite ‘literary’ imagery and down to earth description and storytelling. I’ll include my thoughts on it in my February reading diary. I’ve been making a lot more time to read recently, especially in the quiet of the evenings, which I’ve really loved. I’ve torn through books that until recently would have taken me weeks to finish, and I plan to continue like this. It’s amazing how restorative reading can be for me.
I also bought a couple of new books this month (couldn’t resist)…
- Devotion by Hannah Kent – I read and enjoyed her previous two novels, especially Burial Rites which was deeply moving and insightful. Probably one of the best debut novels I’ve ever read. Her second novel The Good People was equally well crafted but I found it unbelievably sad and quite upsetting at points, and so this reduced my ‘enjoyment’ but I still thought it was an incredible novel.
- Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield – I have a copy of Julia’s short story collected salt slow on my shelves, which I have never actually got around to reading, but I’m going to make a point of doing so as soon as I can. I’m often drawn to realism more than the magical realism of Armfield’s work but this intrigued me and I’m keen to see what it’s like.
And some the other upcoming books on my shelves are…
- Betty by Tiffany McDaniel – I hadn’t heard of this until I saw it in Waterstones last month, so added it to my Christmas list. I love a coming-of-age tale and this is set in a time and place I don’t know much about. Intrigued!
- The Fall of the House of Byron by Emily Brand – I might read this next as it’s vaguely related to the Keats book so I’m in that sort of headspace. Like many people I’m fascinated by Lord Byron and I’ve read a little about his family so this was an obvious choice for me.
- Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucie McKnight Hardy – I’ve seen this a lot on social media so added it to my Christmas list. I love the premise and am keen to read a bit more outside my usual comfort zone, so I’m looking forward to this.
- Miss Dior by Justine Picardie – this was a birthday present from my mum, and it ticks a lot of boxes for me. Women’s history, fashion, the Second World War, Paris – plus lots of beautiful photographs. It’s a chonk of a book so I’m looking forward to getting stuck in.
I have quite a few more books lined up so I might not end up reading these ones first, but they are in the queue nonetheless.
As always, happy reading!