The library routine, comfort reading, and what I read for: six months of books

A brightly coloured striped deckchair with a book in the seat, on a grassy lawn

When I’ve finished writing this post, I’ll be off to the library to return A Place of Greater Safety and, very likely, pay a small fine. I have had it on loan for ages and run out of renewals on it. Granted, it’s a very thick book. I started reading it on the fourth of June. Then I put it down. Then I picked it up again when I got the email to say that my books were due. I lost the game of chicken, but only just.

My usual practice when I visit the library is to choose something light, something heavy, and some non-fiction. The first two categories are pretty subjective, it has to be said. The current something light is Val McDermid’s Broken Ground, which I’m expecting to get quite dark, actually. Something heavy is, of course, A Place of Greater Safety.

I don’t think I was entirely over Covid when I got it out, and as best I recall my thought process went something like: oh yes, a big fat Hilary Mantel book. I’m not sure that I remembered that it was actually about the French Revolution until I got it home and started reading it.

(If you’re wondering about the non-fiction, it’s usually pop history, often about some bit of Europe I’m vaguely meaning to visit. Or travel writing about some bit of Europe I’m vaguely meaning to visit. At the moment it’s Lotharingia: a personal history of Europe’s lost country.)

The last couple of months have been incredibly busy. I got over Covid, I went on holiday, and since then I’ve been up to my eyes. Some of that’s been work stuff, but I’ve also become a lot more involved in the Cursillo movement this year and that’s meant that a load of my Saturdays have disappeared. And of course there have been the ongoing emotional and practical after-effects of bereavement, though Covid did a number on my capacity to cart boxes full of family papers/beer mats/model railway track and, in the early days, to travel at all.

But I have been reading. I’ve spent a lot of time on trains, and I’ve spent a lot of time on the sofa, and both of those are good environments for reading. In the early part of the year it was K. J. Charles: I got through most of the Sins of the Cities series on the way to and from the Isle of Wight, thinking I don’t know how she’s going to get them out of this, but I am confident that she will find a way and I can’t wait to see what it is. Which was pretty much what I needed at the time.

I’ve read loads of Agatha Christie. I’m counting some of this as research as well, since getting into the head of over-privileged 1920s rich kids is very much on point for the current book.

I’ve read my grandmother’s memoirs, also for research, but found them fascinating in their own right.

I was greatly reassure to discover that my brain hadn’t melted away entirely when I tried Light Perpetual and found that, not only could I read it, I could also see how it worked as a book.

I’ve read two Persuasion retellings in which Frederick Wentworth is an ice hockey player (very different, but both good).

I’ve read The God Painter, which will get its own post sooner or later.

I have followed along with The Company of Heaven.

I’ve started Hamnet and got stuck on Magrat Garlick’s ideal self, sorry, I mean Anne Hathaway. I might go back to it, but then again I might not.

I’ve done that thing where you pick up a book because the premise looks really intriguing but the execution isn’t quite there but you keep reading because it’s not quite bad enough to stop and you want to know how it’s going to work out and there’s only a little bit more to go and then it’s one in the morning and you hate yourself because, as it turns out, it wasn’t even a good book.

I’ve also been thrown out of a historical novel by the mention of broccoli in about 1830. Personally, I would consider broccoli daring and exotic in 1930. Maybe it isn’t, maybe it’s the Tiffany problem in action, but anyway, I was thrown out.

And I’ve been thinking a lot about comfort reading, because my goodness, has this been the year for it. Mind you, I’ve been thinking about it on and off since 2020 at least, when I read A Prince on Paper and came away with a profound feeling of gloom. If only the monarchy really were like that, I thought. But it isn’t. And the disconnect between fiction and reality became, for me, painful in itself. I note that I followed it up with Fair Play, which was a better fit for my mood. Crotchety lesbians in Helsinki or a cabin on an island, working around each other’s artistic temperaments. It hit the spot. For me, anyway.

Of course, books hit you differently at different times. I reread We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea last October and surprised myself greatly by crying all through the second half. Because… because my head always does weird things in autumn, and there’s something about knowing that it’s all going to turn out OK? I don’t know. We’ll see what happens next time. Maybe this wasn’t the moment for A Place of Greater Safety, as much as my library card whispers, if not now, when?

Rachel Manija Brown says, of horror:

Sometimes we want to hear that everything will be fine. But sometimes the only way anything can ever be fine is if we admit that everything isn’t fine right now. Horror tells us that everything isn’t fine, and we should start listening to the people who’ve been saying so all along. And if we are those people, it tells us what we most need to hear: “I believe you.”

On Horror

Horror fiction doesn’t do much for me, but I recognise that mindset. The message I need/want to hear is, I think, something like:

No, everything is not fine at the moment, and it is dishonest to pretend otherwise. And you are human, and so you too will contribute to its not being fine. Nevertheless, it is worth hoping and striving for a world in which things are better. And you can begin now – not, perhaps, in huge, heroic acts, not by single-handedly bringing about revolution, but by doing the best you can in the life that you have.

Is that what I read? I think so, though it doesn’t always look the same. Sometimes I want genre fic that follows the rules all the way to the happy ending. Sometimes I want litfic that breaks them in interesting ways. Either way, I want it to acknowledge the fact that actually things aren’t easy, not at all. And it’s certainly what I write.

Maybe it’s time I reread Middlemarch. It usually is.

And as it turned out, A Place of Greater Safety was a very appropriate read for the last few days. And the contrast between the current clown-car succession of resignations (and the clown-in-chief’s inability even to resign properly) and the Terror’s queue for the guillotine is one that I can live with quite happily.

The Reader’s Gazetteer: T

West front of a cathedral with two west towers and one central one in yellow-grey stone, seen across a broad grass green
Wells, standing in for Torminster. We’ll get there shortly…

Tarta is purely a place to spend the night, so I return to The House of the Four Winds and Evallonia for the sake of the inn, which is another of those wonderful Buchan establishments:

Part of it was as old as the oldest part of the Schloss, and indeed at one time it may have formed an outlying appendage of the castle. In the eighteenth century, in the heyday of the Odalchinis, it was a cheerful place, where great men came with their retinues, and where in the vast kitchen the Prince’s servitors and foresters drank with the town folk of Tarta. It still remained the principal inn of the little borough, but Tarta had decayed, and it stood on no main road, so while its tap-room was commonly full, its guest-rooms were commonly empty. But the landlord had been valet in his youth to the Prince’s father, and he had a memory of past glories and an honest pride in his profession; besides, he was a wealthy man, the owner of the best vineyard in the neighbourhood. So the inn had never been allowed to get into disrepair; its rambling galleries, though they echoed to the tread of few guests, were kept clean and fresh; the empty stalls in the big stables were ready at a moment’s notice for the horses that never came; there was good wine in the cellars against the advent of a connoisseur. It stood in an alley before you reached the market-place, and its courtyard and back parts lay directly under the shadow of the castle walls.

You could come by horse, as implied here, but it’s the 1930s and this party is travelling by car. Start in the Tirol (more on that next time), drive all day, cross the Rave, pass through the village of Zutpha, and follow the boundary of the Odalchini estate. Dinner will be worth it.

Alyssa Cole’s Thesolo takes us to Africa for the first time in this series. (In fact, reading her Reluctant Royals series earlier would have solved my problem finding a place for the letter N, since we also visit a country called Njaza.)

I have to say that I think the way that Cole introduces the country is absolute genius: our heroine Naledi receives an email headed Salutations from the Royal Family of Thesolo. No wonder she thinks it’s a scam. The reader, more familiar with the conventions of the genre, knows better, and into that gap between the character’s suspicions and the reader’s knowledge Cole slips an entire country.

Much of the action takes place in the USA, and we learn about Thesolo little by little. It’s in the south of Africa. (In fact, a little anagram work makes it seem plausible that it’s modelled on Lesotho.) There is ‘an above ground light rail system in the main city’. (This is the sort of detail I like. I am always here for fictional public transport infrastructure.)

It’s at about the two thirds mark that we arrive in Thesolo, and it is perhaps not what we expect:

Your current location is fifteen hundred feet above sea level, nestled in the mountains, and it is winter. It’s ski season here.

You can get there by private jet, getting a good view of the mountains and waterfalls, if you are a reluctant royal. There seems to be a reasonable commercial service, too. And of course the longer we spend there the more we learn about the culture, the scenery – and the politics. Of which there are plenty. Delicious.

And T has a cathedral city, too, in Torminster. Elizabeth Goudge says in the foreword to my edition:

Torminster is not an entirely accurate picture of Wells in Somerset, where I was born and spent the first eleven years of my life, but I think it is an accurate picture of a small west-country cathedral city in those safe, motorless days.

I have a soft spot for Wells; I was there for a week with a visiting choir in the summer of 2013, and spent most of the time when I wasn’t rehearsing finally getting Speak Its Name into a coherent shape. Here is Torminster in the narrative:

The train swung round a bend, the blue hills parted like a curtain and the city of Torminster was visible. Seen from a little distance it had a curiously insubstantial air, as though it were something real yet intangible, a thing you could see but not touch. It lay in a hollow of the hills like a child in its mother’s lap, and it seemed that as it lay there it slept. It looked so quiet that it was hard to believe the ordinary life of men and women went on in its streets. Rather it seemed a buried city sunk at the bottom of the sea, where no life stirred and no sound was heard but the ringing of the bells as the tide surged through forgotten towers and steeples. Jocelyn could see a confused mass of roofs and chimneys and church spires, some high and some low, weather-stained and twisted by age into fantastic shapes. The smoke from the chimneys went straight up into the windless air and then seemed to dissolve into a mist that lay over the city like the waves of the sea that had drowned it, and out of this sea rose a grey rock with three towers… The cathedral… It stood there gloriously, its majesty softened by the warm day but not diminished, its towers a little withdrawn in the sky but no less watchful.

Gorgeous.

Books mentioned in this post

The House of the Four Winds, John Buchan

A Princess in Theory, Alyssa Cole

A Prince on Paper, Alyssa Cole

City of Bells, Elizabeth Goudge

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