Category Archives: Reading

Friday Flashback — a new “mini-series”

I’m introducing a new feature here on the blog in which I revisit my oldest blog posts from the archaic platform known as Livejournal. (Shout out if you started the whole blogging thing on LJ. I know you’re out there! Do you ever miss those days?)

Not so long ago, I sat down and manually copied/pasted my favorite posts from Livejournal into a Word document before deleting the account entirely. Not all of the posts are worth sharing here (perhaps none of them are), but I hope you’ll indulge me if, every month or so, I share an old favorite.

I’ll start with an early offering from 2014, back when I was still teaching. At this point I was teaching half-time and trying to finish that first (terrible) novel. Oh, how I struggled!

Thursday natterings
DEC. 9TH, 2004 AT 8:44 AM

I’ve been out-of-sorts for a day now. Was very crabby with my students yesterday. I’ve just been feeling mopey. So this morning I picked up Madeleine L’Engle’s Circle of Quiet in hopes of shaking myself out of the doldrums.

I’d read this ages ago, but forgotten most of it. Now I see where my fantasies of the perfect house originated. Crosswicks, the L’Engle summer home in New England, is the ultimate artist’s retreat–a two hundred year old farm house surrounded by meandering paths, stone bridges, babbling brooks, rocky outcroppings, etc. AND, best of all, it has a Private Workroom above the garage. (I’ve always wanted a little room of my own for writing–not necessarily in the Woolfian sense, just a room separate from the “office”. That way I could have my stuff strewn all about and not have to worry about my husband frowning and sighing when it’s time to do something mundane, like pay bills.)

But anyway, here’s my favorite quote from the book so far:

When we are self-conscious, we cannot be wholly aware; we must throw ourselves out first. This throwing ourselves away is the act of creativity. So, when we wholly concentrate, like a child in play, or an artist at work, then we share in the act of creating. We not only escape time, we also escape our self-conscious selves.

She says “a writer may be self-conscious about his work before and after but not during the writing.” I know this, but I still have difficulty pushing that self-consciousness out of the way as I write a first draft. Now I will endeavor to “throw myself out” the next time I sit down to write!

I feel a little better now.

I do think it’s about time to revisit A Circle of Quiet. L’Engle fans–what’s your favorite non-fiction book by her? How about your favorite book (by anyone) about writing or creativity?

Favorite books read in 2018

I read 54 novels in 2018, five of them re-reads (which I count because my memory is terrible and subsequent readings still manage to surprise and delight). Last year I was determined to raise my overall count and I managed to do that by 6 books!

Here are my favorites (excluding re-reads). Blurbs are excerpted from Goodreads, as are most of my quick takes.

Fiction

To the Bright Edge of the World, by Eowyn Ivey. Blurb: Eowyn Ivey’s second novel is a breathtaking story of discovery and adventure, set at the end of the nineteenth century, and of a marriage tested by a closely held secret. My take: I enjoyed Ivey’s debut, The Snow Child, but this epistolary tale captivated me even more. The characters were so vividly realized, and the epic scope of Allen’s adventure is beautifully balanced by Sophie’s artistic journey. In a starred review, Kirkus praises it as “an exceptionally well-turned adventure tale…Heartfelt, rip-snorting storytelling,” and I agree.

A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr. Blurb: Tom Birkin, a veteran of the Great War and a broken marriage, arrives in the remote Yorkshire village of Oxgodby where he is to restore a recently discovered medieval mural in the local church. My take: This seemed a perfect read for Thanksgiving week — such a lovely story of healing through art and friendship. (The 1987 film adaptation, starring Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh, is quite good, as well.)

YA/MG Fiction

A Sky Painted Gold, by Laura Wood. Blurb: Growing up in her sleepy Cornish village dreaming of being a writer, seventeen-year-old Lou has always wondered about the grand Cardew house which has stood empty for years. And when the owners arrive for the summer – a handsome, dashing brother and sister – Lou is quite swept off her feet. My take: A very appealing Young Adult story set in 1929 Cornwall and reminiscent of I CAPTURE THE CASTLE.

Elizabeth & Zenobia, by Jessica Miller. Blurb: When Elizabeth and her unusual and fearless friend Zenobia arrive at Witheringe House, peculiar things begin to happen. Especially in the forbidden East Wing. My take: A deliciously Gothic story with a conclusion that defied my expectations. Looking forward to more from this author.

Non-fiction

Take Courage, by Samantha Ellis. Blurb: [a] personal, poignant and surprising journey into the life and work of a woman sidelined by history. My take: A pure delight! This is NOT a straightforward/scholarly/detached biography of Anne Bronte by any means–more a personal account of Ellis’ interactions with the novels and subsequent revelations about Anne’s life, talent, and vision.

Manderley Forever, by Tatiana de Rosnay. Blurb: a vividly compelling portrait and celebration of an intriguing, hugely popular and (at the time) critically underrated writer. My take: This is such an unconventional biography, and yet so compelling. What kept me glued to the page was the way de Rosnay portrayed Daphne’s passion for history, her obsession with place, and her fascination with dark secrets and twisted psychology.

I offer these “Best of 2018” links for your perusal:

Top Ten Books of 2018 from The Captive Reader.
A Box of Books for 2018 from Beyond Eden Rock.
My Favorite Books of 2018 from Modern Mrs. Darcy.
My Favourite Books of 2018 from Michelle Cooper

What were your favorite reads from 2018? I’d love to read (and share) your list!

Tea and Books for Christmas

I come to you with tidings of tea and holiday reads!

For young (and young-at-heart) readers:


Christmas with the Savages, by Mary Clive: Seen through the eyes of a prim little eight-year-old, and based on real events and people, this novel perfectly recaptures a Christmas holiday of 100 years ago, and is effortlessly funny.

This delightful story, first published in 1955, brings to mind a “Downton Abbey” Christmas, only from the perspective of the nursery children. It’s episodic, lighthearted, and lots of fun! I purchased a used hardcover, but there’s a very pretty paperback available from Amazon and other places.

The Night Before the Night Before Christmas, by Richard Scary: It’s the night before the night before Christmas, and Mr. Frumble wants to be helpful. When he stumbles into Santa Bear’s workshop and mixes up the dates, everyone thinks it’s the night before Christmas! Santa dashes off to deliver the presents, but then gets stuck in Mr. Frumble’s chimney! Find out how Mr. Frumble saves the day in this funny, topsy-turvy Christmas story.

I adored Richard Scarry as a kid and loved reading the books to my little siblings later on. I’m not sure how much Scarry actually had to do with this book considering when he died, but the characters are familiar and the story will entertain your young ones.

For fans of romance:


A Holiday by Gaslight, by Mimi Matthews: Sophie Appersett is quite willing to marry outside of her class to ensure the survival of her family. But the darkly handsome Mr. Edward Sharpe is no run-of-the-mill London merchant. He’s grim and silent. A man of little emotion–or perhaps no emotion at all. After two months of courtship, she’s ready to put an end to things. But severing ties with her taciturn suitor isn’t as straightforward as Sophie envisioned…

This is just perfect for the holidays, particularly if you’re in the mood for a heart-fluttering yet chaste Victorian romance. The author is well-versed in the era, having published various non-fiction books and scholarly articles. Bottom line: this novella is fun, romantic, and free of cringe-worthy anachronisms.

For fans of “Literary” Christmas fiction:


Mr. Dickens and his Carol, by Samantha Silva: Charles Dickens is not feeling the Christmas spirit. His newest book is an utter flop, the critics have turned against him, relatives near and far hound him for money. While his wife plans a lavish holiday party for their ever-expanding family and circle of friends, Dickens has visions of the poor house. But when his publishers try to blackmail him into writing a Christmas book to save them all from financial ruin, he refuses. And a serious bout of writer’s block sets in…

I’m right in the middle of this story and enjoying it even more than I’d expected. Samantha Silva brings to life the people and places of Victorian London and makes Dickens appealing even as she draws attention to his personal failings. It’s quite an absorbing read.

(I’d wondered if the book had anything to do with the recent film, The Man Who Invented Christmas, but that was based on a novel by Les Standiford. Anyone read that one or seen the film? Apparently there are several novels dealing with the creation of A Christmas Carol.)

And now for tea:


I made my usual ginger cookies and frosted sugar cookies, but perhaps you notice another item on the plate above. Yes, it’s a mince pie! Steve and I love indulging in these when we’re in England over Christmas, but they’re not ubiquitous here in the States. One year I made crusts from scratch and filled them with mincemeat I’d purchased at Chatsworth. This year, however, I found orange & cranberry mince pies from Walkers on Amazon! All you need do is warm them up in the oven (one at a time or all at once), and voila! Scrumptious.

As for the tea blend, I learned of Chado Tea’s Noel while reading the Holiday issue of Teatime Magazine. If you like black tea blended with cinnamon, orange zest, vanilla and almond, you’ll no doubt find this tea delicious and festive. Check out all the offerings from Chado Tea here.

***Remember that you can click the Christmas tag below for past recommendations for holiday reading, drinking, and eating!

What are you reading/brewing/baking for the holidays this year? I do love recommendations!

Tea and a Book and a GIVEAWAY for Thanksgiving: A Long Way from Verona

Quick take: Quirky and endearing.

From the book jacket: Jessica Vye introduces herself with an enigmatic pronouncement: “I ought to tell at the beginning that I am not quite normal, having had a violent experience at the age of nine.” A revered author has told Jessica that she is, beyond all doubt, a born writer. This proves an accurate prediction of the future, one that indelibly colors her life at school and her perception of the world.

Jessica has always known that her destiny would be shaped by her refusal to conform, her compulsion to tell the absolute truth, and her dedication to observing the strange wartime world that surrounds her. What she doesn’t know, however, is that the experiences and ideas that set her apart will also lead her to a new and wholly unexpected life.

My thoughts: Such a delight! This was my second reading and I’m sure there will be many more. Jane Gardam somehow captures the awkwardness and alienation of adolescence while also managing to make her heroine thoroughly charming. It is a very English sort of book, just so you know. (Among other things I had to google “viyella,” which is a certain type of dress, and now I see why Jessica was in agonies.) I’ve very much enjoyed other books by Gardam, but I will read Long Way to Verona again and again.

Scroll to the bottom for a giveaway!

And now for tea: I was in the mood for something autumnal so I made pumpkin spice cookies from this recipe at A Family Feast. They were simple enough to make, but do keep in mind that the dough is sticky even after chilling overnight. The cookies turn out quite soft–not the same chewy texture as a ginger cookie–but rest assured the flavor is excellent. For tea, I’d recommend one that doesn’t compete with the pumpkin spice–an Assam, Ceylon, or perhaps a blend of the two. I chose St. James from Mariage Frères. The “Autumn Tree” cup and plate featured in the photo are from Pier 1–soon to go on sale, I’m sure!

Other books that make me thankful because they are endlessly re-readable:
Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons
French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles
Gaudy Night (best if you read Strong Poison & Have His Carcase first), by Dorothy Sayers
High Rising, by Angela Thirkell
I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
Possession, by A. S. Byatt (tho I skim Ash’s poetry)
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Winter Solstice, by Rosamund Pilcher
+ practically anything by Jane Austen or L.M. Montgomery

GIVEAWAY — I have an extra brand-new copy of Long Way from Verona up for grabs! All you need do is share the title of a book you’re thankful for in the comments and briefly explain why the book means so much to you. The winner will be chosen randomly with the help of Random.org.Open to US/CA only, please!

Geeked on Gothic

It’s mid-September and each day we draw closer to the season of ghosts, ghouls, and witches (not to mention sugar hangovers). I must confess, however, that I wrote this post not just to celebrate the season. I’m also hoping for a particular sort of redemption.

Over the years, I’ve talked at great length about Gothic with students, teachers, and librarians. For some reason, however, when I recently was asked by a very nice person — in a non-classroom/conference setting — why I liked Gothic, I FROZE.

My mind emptied of all words.

Today’s post is my way of correcting that particular brain lapse. It also strikes me as an appropriate way to kick off my 2018 Spooky Film Recs blog series. (If you’re new to this blog, click the “spooky film recs” tag at the bottom of this post to scroll through past recommendations.)


As you probably already know, the genre’s name comes from Gothic architecture–castles, cathedrals, abbeys, towers, and crypts–designed to inspire awe and fear. (Cologne Cathedral is a great example.) For the most part, Gothic literature concerns itself with these structures when in partial or total ruin, long after the Medieval period. The literary label of “Gothic” came into being with Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, which was subtitled “A Gothic Story.”

In early Gothic novels the setting was a fortress, secular or religious, located in a foreign land long ago. The villain was an evil and murderous man, the heroine was pious and prone to fainting, and more often that not, a ghost or monster made an appearance. At times, early Gothic was so over-the-top that it strikes us now as rather ridiculous. (And thus it was very easy to parody, as Jane Austen did with Northanger Abbey.) However, these stories paved the way for more subtle offerings in the 19th and 20th centuries.

What really fascinates me about early Gothic literature is how it bridges the gap between the Medieval and the Modern. I see it as a reaction both to the Enlightenment, which lauded Reason and Logic, and Romanticism, which exalted Emotion and Imagination. Gothic celebrates emotional excess while also showing its dark consequences. It offers commentary on rapid social change, the possibilities and dangers inherent in scientific experimentation, as well as the oppressive nature of institutions and mores. Gothic conveys nostalgia for the past and its traditions while also celebrating characters who break the rules and cross boundaries.


What are you hiding in the attic, Mr. Rochester?

Why are Gothic stories still so popular and accessible today? I think Sigmund Freud had something to do with that, as Gothic gave him a visual vocabulary for talking about the human mind. He coined the term unheimlich (“the uncanny,” or literally “unhomely”) to describe something that is mysterious in an unsettling way–familiar yet horrifying at the same time. The attics, labyrinths, and underground vaults of Gothic fiction provided metaphors for repression as heroes and villains struggled between their compulsions and better natures (id and superego). From Gothic literature and Freud we learned that the dark secret, terrible sin, or dead body you’re trying to hide will always return to haunt you, no matter how deeply you bury it.

For me, the best Gothic stories rely on atmosphere, mystery, tension, and dread rather than sudden shocks or explicit violence. My favorite thing about modern Gothic is that the “evil” rarely has a specific external source, and in many cases the hero/heroine may have brought into being, consciously or unconsciously, the very problem that haunts them.

***For a humorous overview of classic Gothic literature, read How to Tell You’re Reading a Gothic Novel

***Also check out this very informative blog post on Gothic Horror and Children’s Books.

My top five Gothic novels:


(Click images for more details from Goodreads)

My top five Gothic films:


(Click images for more details from imdb.com)

***Are you a fan of Gothic? If so, what are your favorite stories, novels, or films?