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.

#indiechallenge – Common Murder (Val McDermid)

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The blurb

Common Murder finds journalist Lindsay Gordon at the peace camp on Brownlow Common, reporting a case of alleged assault by Deborah, a peacewoman, on Rupert Crabtree, Chairman of the local opposition to the camp.

Then the body of Crabtree is found on common ground, victim of a vicious attack, and Deborah is accused of murder. Lindsay is plunged into an investigation with far-reaching political implications, in which no one – be they ratepayer or reporter, policeman or peacewoman – is wholly above suspicion.

The author

Val McDermid is of course a very big name in crime fiction these days; this was only her second novel, and the biography in the front talks more about her career as a journalist and her NUJ activity.

The publisher

The Women’s Press now seems to be defunct, but it used to put out a lot of feminist fiction and non-fiction. Its steam iron logo and stripy black-and-white spines are still worth keeping an eye out for when browsing charity shop shelves.

The bookshop

This was another one from the Book Bus.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘Genre fiction’; ‘Book from a series’; ‘A Women’s Press’; ‘A book from my TBR’; ‘A press over 20 years old’ (The Women’s Press made it to at least 30 before disappearing); or ‘LGBTQIA’.

My thoughts

This seemed like an appropriate choice for International Women’s Day and the first day of this year’s IndieAthon.

Set in a thinly disguised Greenham Common, this was a diverting murder mystery which veered off into sensationalist spy thriller territory towards the end (I wasn’t complaining; I like spy thrillers!) but it was just as absorbing as a reflection of the world of journalism and the politics and preoccupations of the 1980s.

McDermid’s observation of the crossover between different groups, and the fault lines within groups, is very sharp, and the way she portrays the uncomfortable sense that one isn’t doing enough for the cause of the moment feels just as relevant today. Lindsay, on the edge of two worlds as a self-described hack in a relationship with the highbrow writer Cordelia as much as in her compromised dealings with press, police, and protesters, makes a convincing character. I loved the depiction of lesbian subculture (one character runs a restaurant called ‘Rubyfruits’) and the casual assumption that the reader will find their way around it (recognising the jargon puts them ahead of at least one plot development). I’ll be keeping an eye out for the rest of the Lindsay Gordon series.