October Scares: One

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So somehow it’s October.

You probably already knew, but just thought I’d say.

October. Totally here.

Leaves are caramelly yellow, fall to the ground like tree confetti; sunlight vanishes weirdly and disappointingly and offensively early; the air is really rather kinda chilly, surprisingly so; blackberry and apple crumble is back on the menu (pudding is a very very very important part of my life); and my scarves (again, very important) are officially out of hibernation.

And seeing as there’s a lot of Halloween stuff around already too, I figured I’d get into the spirit (no pun intended) of it and do a few posts on scary stories.

I only heard of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman last week – I read about it on the brilliant book blog The Orangutan Librarian – but there are some stories you know you have to read straight away, and this was one of them. It’s really short (#winning), really ahead of its 1892 time, and really really creepy.

Suffering from “nervous troubles”, the narrator moves into a colonial mansion with her husband and newborn son for the summer. The upstairs room where the narrator spends most of her time is covered in a horrible old wallpaper she is initially repulsed by.

‘The colour is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.’

As the long and empty days pass, she becomes more and more obsessed with the paper, convinced there is a woman – maybe even a whole group of women – trapped behind the pattern.

‘Nobody could get through that pattern – it strangles so.’

But, with a little bit of help, the woman does get out.

This is such a clever and compelling piece of writing that packs a lot of spooky punch into its 26 little pages.

And it’s the perfect remedy to the shock of realising it’s officially, definitely-can’t-deny-it, seriously and absolutely October.

Reads – Nights at the Circus

Nights at the circus by Angela Carter book review

Back in August there was an brilliant documentary on the BBC about the author Angela Carter, called Of Wolves and Women (sadly not available on iPlayer anymore). I’d had a few of her books on my radar for a little while, but this fascinating film just sealed the reading deal. Nights at the Circus seemed like a good place to start.

I really loved how avant garde and strange it was – it brimmed and bubbled with a weirdness that was hard to grapple with but that was completely charming all the same. And I loved how angry it is – you can sense Carter’s indignation at injustice, sexism, class issues, etc., on almost every page. I’m guessing that’s what all her books are like.

But I didn’t love the book. My main annoyance with it was that – apart from the spellings of Fevvers’, Lizzie’s, and the Colonel’s actual literal voices – none of the characters seemed to have a unique voice beyond Carter’s and I struggled to connect with them individually (although I really did love Lizzie for all her old lady mischief). I went through long waves of feeling like I was barely hanging on in there with the narrative, followed by shorter waves of feeling completely entranced, and then back to the long, struggling waves again.

And Buffo the clown was honestly the stuff of my nightmares. *shudders*

Roller. Coaster.

I’m looking forward to trying out another of Carter’s books soon* – I’m sure there will be one where I love both the setting and the characters, and where I don’t end up having nightmares about Buffo. I have a feeling it will be a favourite when I find it.

But for now, seeing as it’s October, I think it’s only right to get my teeth into a ghost story or two.

*recommendations very very welcome!

Secret Diaries of a Shy Girl

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Top secret ramblings of an angsty teenager.

I found some old notebooks at the weekend and it was a strange and eye-opening experience going through them. The oldest one is from almost ten years ago, from when I was sixteen, and it made me smile, frown, and cringe all at the same time. It’s a bit of a mash up – part diary, part story about an Edwardian suffragette, part sketchbook. You can definitely tell I had been reading lots of classics for my GCSEs from the writing style of the fictional bits, and you can absolutely tell I was a teenager from the diary parts (holy moly, the angst!). And from the sketches, I clearly had an obsession with drawing trees and eyes.

The more recent ones still make me cringe a little, though I’m super happy to report I ditched the faux old-fashioned writing style.

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Moody sixteen-year-old me self-portrait.

I’m so so tempted to get rid of them because the idea of anyone else reading them actually mortifies me down to my gooey and very messy core, but I also know I’ll want to read them again in the future – even if it is just for something to giggle at. It’s nice also, maybe even helpful, to see the progression of my style and my ideas.

So it’s back into hiding they go, ready to embarrass me in another ten years.

Reads – The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck

FYI for those who don’t like swearing: there are lots of ‘f’s and ‘u’s and ‘c’s and ‘k’s ahead.

So I have a confession: until last week, I had never ever read a self-help book. Not because I thought I was perfect (trust me when I say that is absolutely the opposite of what I think), but because I was (and am) wary of anything that claims it can change/fix your life. Snake meet oil, oil meet snake.

But 2018 has thrown quite the collection of existential crises at me, and I figured that maybe now was as good a time as any to see what the self-help genre had to offer.

I feel like The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson was the best book with which to dip my literary toe into the murky self-help waters.

the subtle art of not giving a fuck by Mark Manson book review.

Unsurprisingly, I chose this book because there really are some things in my life I hope one day to give much less of a fuck about so I can spend that giving-a-fuck-time on things that are actually beneficial for me to give a fuck about. (Woops, sorry about all the fucks. Aaand sorry again.)

These are some of my main impressions of the book:

  • I love the way it’s written. It’s blunt and eloquent. No matter how hard my mum tried to raise me otherwise, I absolutely love love love swearing. Granted, not pointless, inappropriately timed and/or set swearing. But when it’s used to emphasize meaning or if it’s used creatively or just portrays how people talk in everyday life, then I’m all for it. I don’t accept the argument that swearing always lowers the tone. This book inevitably has a lot of fucks in it, but it didn’t feel like too many. It just felt converstaional.
  • I don’t agree with everything in it. There were some conclusions the author drew that felt a little simplistic and some arguments that seemed to double back on themselves. But I enjoyed going over the ideas and questions that were raised by these points all the same.
  • I love the way it embraces failure. Maybe that’s just because I fail at a lot of things a lot of the time and it’s good to know I’m not alone in my general life failings. But I think it’s mostly because I’ve actually seen how failing “well” – in my own life and in my friends’ and families’ lives – has been the greatest teacher. Phew, sorry if that all sounds a bit new-agey.

Basically, the book is full of common sense and hope – as well as many linguistical fucks – and there are plenty of lessons to be learned from it. I will certainly be keeping my copy of it near to hand, ready and waiting to wave frantically at any other existential crises that threaten to rear their ugly heads.

*walks away from keyboard to wash mouth out with soap*

Bestival Skies

It’s been over a month, and I still dream of the sky. It was all fire and bruising purples, peachy pinks and electric blues. It was the deepest navy pinpricked with the shiniest stars. It was never-ending shards of multi-coloured light severing through the dark. It was glittering fireworks, and it was a sun so bright it burned the tops of my ears purple and my scalp a furious red. It was a sky speckled with tight-rope walkers and flying trapeze artists. It was a sky filled with dust that whipped into eyes and flags streaming in the breeze and a ferris wheel with rickety seats. It was confetti and it was the moon. And it was butterflies, so delicate and quiet in the middle of all the chaos and noise.

It was, most of all, a sky of magic.

Sunset sky and helter skelter at Bestival 2018, Lulworth Estate, Dorset. Bestival circus 2018. Vintage funfair ride.

Reads – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine book review.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect from Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, but I certainly wasn’t expecting to love it as much as I did. I’d heard so many good things about it and I wasn’t sure if it could live up ot the hype.

It could. It really, really could.

It’s got all the feels – happy, sad, funny, painful, heart-warming – and Eleanor is by far and away one of the best protagonists I’ve read for a while. I felt geuinely attached to her life and was rooting for her all the way.

The writing is brilliant. It’s laugh-out-loud funny at points, tender at times, pretty savage at others, and always insightful.

I’m pretty sure a lot of people will relate to a number of issues raised by the book, even if they haven’t experienced them to the same extent that Eleanor goes through them. I certainly did.

‘My life, I realized, had gone wrong. Very, very wrong. I wasn’t supposed to live like this. No one was supposed to live like this. The problem was that I simply didn’t know how to make it right… I could not solve the puzzle of me.’

And I think, perhaps most importantly, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a good reminder of how a little kindness and understanding has the potential to go a long, long way.

Memory Books

It’s funny how some things bring back very specific memories.

I get it, maybe weirdly, with shampoo. If I go back to using a shampoo after months/years (basically, whenever discounts and empty bottles align) the smell on the first couple of washes will always send a flood of memories rushing through my head from around the time I was using it before.

It’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to time travel – which is kinda disappointing, but you have to work with what you’ve got I guess.

I got this whole memory-time-travel thing again the other day, except this time it was triggered by a book cover. I didn’t travel back in time very far – ahem, March – but in the middle of the longest heatwave of my lifetime it does feel a little like another world away.

And there were a couple of others that brought back some unusually clear memories.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton book cover.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton – the book that started it all. The cover took me straight back to the “beast from the East” at the beginning of March. Two days curled up in front of the woodburner, cocooned in giant woolly jumpers, the world outside made quiet with thick snow and freezing rain. The book was brilliant but claustrophobic by the end, just like the weather.

Old boots in ice and snow. The beast from the East, March 2018.
Cold toes in old boots.

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry – my first driving lesson, May 2017. Sat in the garden, sunshine falling on my back, and waves of scaredy-cat butterflies blooming in my belly. Focussing on this book basically stopped me from ringing my instructor to call the whole me + driving thing off. And it’s a good thing I didn’t ring to cancel, because it turns out that driving is actually quite useful. Who even knew?

The Essex Serpent book cover
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry.

The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien – 2003 Easter holidays, Spain. Aged 10, lounging on the tiles of a balcony on a blue-grey Mediterranean day, the sound of the sea lulling in the background. I was a bit unsure what was going on plot-wise but pretty darn sure I would at least finish the book before the final film came out at Christmas. I decided afterwards it was best to wait a few years before attempting The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. (Now I want to read them all over again.)

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The return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Most books bring back hazy memories from around the time I read them, but these ones just seemed to bring back strangely strong ones. Maybe ones that don’t trigger anything now will in the future? Brains are definitely weird and full of surprises.

Is it just me, or do you get memories popping out of your head like a bright lightbulb moment with some books too? I’d love to know what they are if you do.

Green

If you look too long into the green the green will eat you up. It will wind its way around your heart and its splintered roots will lodge inside your bones. Underneath your skull, a whole forest will unfurl and make your thoughts a muddle. You’ll try to leave it, try to live beyond it, but you’ll find your soul ensnared, find it calling you back, pulling you back, painting your blood and staining you through.

Smoky light beams in a woodland, Dorset.

Reads – A Darker Shade of Magic

A darker shade of magic by V E Schwab. Book review.

You know when someone says push and a cheeky part of your brain says pull?

Well, for a long while I had recommendations for A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab coming out of my ears. So many that my brain said pull. I actively resisted it. Skipped reviews for it, skipped passed its spine on shelves, blanked ads that popped up for it. Avoided, avoided, avoided.

That, let me tell you, was a really silly thing to do.

Because it’s brilliant.

I don’t know why I was so stubborn or what finally made the stubborness stop. *looks over shoulder for the giant computer cookie monster*

But I’m glad it did stop, because this was an amazing read.

I loved the world building. Four colour-coded Londons probably should have felt like too many, but it was cleverly done, and the descriptions were vivid and absorbing without being too much. I loved Kell and Lila. They were good company, full of magical, sparking life. I loved the plot. It twisted and turned – expectedly, unexpectedly, always entertainingly.

And, you know what made it even better?

Knowing it’s part of a trilogy that – because of all that avoiding – is complete.

*smiles smugly, as if it was always part of the plan*

If anybody needs me over the next few days, you’ll find me in a London – grey, red, white, or maybe even black.

Salty Bones

Man O' War bay by Durdle Door, Dorset, July 2018.
Man O’ War cove by Durdle Door.

The sun is burning hot and the sea shimmers a thousand beautiful blues.

We pick our way down a washed-away jumble of steps and baked mud, beyond a sign that says not to go further. The beach is toasty under my soles and tingly around my toes.

We set up camp half way round the bay and I strip quickly down to my bikini, head straight to the water because if I don’t get in now I never will.

The water is sharp and cold, a shock, a relief, icy as it slicks across my goose-bumpled skin. It cloaks me, hides me. I float, I swim, paddle, sit, stand, wriggle till I’m soaked through to my blood, salty down to my bones.

And I stay longer and longer, a fear bubbling under my skin until the cold forces me to ignore the fear.

Getting out is the worst part because my head hates my body, even though my body doesn’t really deserve to be hated.

Somewhere lost – very lost – inside me, I know that.

The short walk back to our spot makes me, ridiculously, want to cry.

The towel is my saviour, a shroud, a thin paisley-strewn defence against eyes that will surely hate my body too if they glimpse it.

A book is my saviour too, releases me from my self.

Butterflies dance over pebbles, brush across my knees. They save me as well.

And the skylarks, they save me. They sing and sing, cheep and cheep, and they lull me away from the thoughts that circle round like vultures desperate to pick apart, literally, my flesh.

As we head back, back up those jumbly stairs, back up a very hilly hill, I try to love my legs, love every sinew, every muscle, every bit of cellulite as every one of them helps me back to the car, but I struggle to undo over half-a-life’s worth of muddled thinking. Of being. Of knowing. Believing.

How can going for a swim be so hard?