Recent Reads May 2020

Goooood afternoon all!

So here we are, with rules relaxed slightly but still very much in weird lockdown land. The (slight) relaxation of the lockdown rules has meant one thing though – my partner and I were able to look at houses. We managed to find our *dream house* and we’ve already had our offer accepted, so now it’s all just subject to contract. It’s bizarre to think that I’ll be an *actual homeowner* with my partner, because this was something I honestly thought was never going to happen – certainly not on a big ol’ house, anyway.

As always, I’ve been doing lots of reading lately. Take a look at some of the books I’ve been reading and see if you can’t find something interesting for yourself. This is a lighthearted post because, well…I’m in a lighthearted mood!

The Secret Garden

Lately I’ve been really into classic children’s books – ones that I never read as a child because I (wrongly) assumed they’d be boring and long and fuddy-duddy. It’s only now that I’m a fully-fledged adult that I find myself intrigued by these beautiful books. The Secret Garden was a truly beautiful story about how children change and grow, with just a little nurturing, like roses might in a secret garden. This sweet and heartwarming friendship story, about reigniting love in the hearts of the frozen and bitter inhabitants of one lonely mansion, brought me to tears more than a few times. I so thoroughly recommend it – and by the way, in the end, you’ll be desperate to plant your own beautiful garden. The details and descriptions of every single bud will ignite an appreciation for nature’s beauty in you, and if you already had that, it’ll deepen all the more. This was my first taste of Frances Hodgson Burnett; I read all about her after this and found to my delight that she wrote this novel from her own beautiful secret garden!

A Little Princess

Following on from The Secret Garden, I dove straight into A Little Princess and wasn’t disappointed. Again, this story brought me to tears with its honest and sweet telling of true loving friendships that can only occur in childhood. I’m a huge fan of the film from the 90s, which touched me on a soul-deep level, so I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read the actual novel. It does differ from the film, however, in a very sad way – I won’t spoil it – but you’ll wish it was more like the film in some ways. Again, Frances Hodgson Burnett wove a beautiful tear-jerking story about a child’s need to be loved – really loved – no matter how rich or poor they are. I’ll definitely be reading more from this author – I believe the next on my list is Little Lord Fontleroy.

Whitefern

Whitefern is the ghostwritten sequel of an amazing V C Andrews novel called My Sweet Audrina, which is one of the few novels that was actually written by the woman herself before she died. I’ve never taken much to the ghostwritten sequels or series’ that were created since her death, although people still voraciously read them. This one was different, however, because I genuinely felt a strong pull to read this “sequel”, even if it’s only really official fan-fiction. Unfortunately, while I still enjoyed the ride and re-visit to the Whitefern mansion, I was overall disappointed. This had so much potential, but it was drawn-out and thin on story and pretty boring. I guessed the major twists and turns very early on in the book, so it was a slog to finally get to the end. A part of me is tempted to write my own damn sequel, because they could have done so much more than they did. It had very little of the mystery and creepy hints at the occult that the first novel had. This was a long-awaited book and I felt they did very little with it when you consider its potential, and most fans have said the same thing.

The Outsiders

This book has been recommended by just about everybody who has ever known the joy of reading. The Outsiders was apparently the first ‘young adult’ novel, published in the 60s after it was written by S E Hinton between the ages of 14 and 17. Amazing, huh? Imagine being a published, runaway success at 17! I thoroughly enjoyed this story and found it to be so much more than clichés about the Greasers and the Socs – there were so many very touching moments, especially between the brothers Darry, Sodapop and Ponyboy – not to mention their friends, especially Johnny – that made it a highly sentimental read. This novel has been loved from generation to generation, even though it’s a pretty short story, and I can absolutely see why. It’s a great piece of storytelling and incredibly heartwarming. I look forward to seeing the movie!

Practical Magic

And finally, I’m currently reading this gorgeous, mysterious book about a family of witches – the Owens family – called Practical Magic. I wasn’t far into this novel (another beloved classic, as you can see by the cover!), when I realised the voice seemed ‘familiar’ to me. Ah! I realised! I’d read Alice Hoffman before! I borrowed a book from my nan’s bookcase called White Horses and I fell in love with that story – it was realism mixed with hints of magic, just like this novel. It had a V C Andrews vibe, with the magic and mystery and peculiar relationships. Houses seem to feature a lot in Hoffman’s books too, much like V C. With that in mind, I know I’m going to love this novel come the finish – and again, I cannot wait to see the film everybody raves about. I’ve been told the film seems disappointing to most compared to the book, but I’ve no problem letting filmmakers take creative licence – I see them as two separate things. I’ll tell you what – I cannot wait to see that house!

I hope you’re all keeping safe and well.

See you next time!

Best wishes,
Ashleigh

The Southern Gothic Novels of V C Andrews

One of my early writing heroes – Virginia Andrews

Most young women, coming of age, at the tender ages of 12 and 13, might be reading Jacqueline Wilson or Stephanie Meyer, or perhaps the latest of the Harry Potter novels. At least, they were when I was around that age.
But, I was different.
I was among the tribe of very peculiar young girls who read the dark, incestuous southern gothic novels of V C Andrews, and my god, how we loved them.

These were not the sorts of novels that were marketed and promoted to young girls. No, membership into the secret society of V C Andrews fans was by invitation-only, and I remember my invitation very well. A little friend of mine at school in year 8 (or it could have been as early as year 7) was a fellow avid-reader, and she started telling me about this whacky book she was reading. I remember thinking that she was telling me tales, because they didn’t make books like that. She was describing the story of four children who are locked away in the attic of a huge gothic mansion called Foxworth Hall, where they are abandoned and then poisoned by their own mother, who kills one of the twins and causes the later suicide of the other, who couldn’t bear to live without her sibling. Not only that, but the two elder children, Cathy and Christopher, became so lonely during their hormone-riddled teen years that they develop an incestuous relationship.

My friend told me about all the raunchy scenes (and not just those between siblings, which was shocking enough), and all the dirty bits about mysterious stains on sheets and how the children navigated their developing sexuality while being trapped in an attic.

So, naturally, I asked my mum if she could buy me this lovely, quaint little novel called Flowers in the Attic by V C Andrews. I devoured this book and was utterly thrilled to find there was a whole series, and I gobbled those ones up too. Not only was it every bit as filthy, scandalous, and raunchy as my friend had warned me, but it was a fascinating gothic tale of abandonment, of loneliness, of greed, and of the raw human need to be loved. I remember crying buckets at certain scenes, truly invested in these wild and unhinged characters.

The amazing thing about V C Andrews’ writing was that, in many cases, it was actually so bad it was good. I read an article once (I forget where) which stated that one of the pulls for the literary agent who read VC’s work (her ninth attempt at a novel after a successful career as an illustrator) was that she wrote in such a bizarre and dreamy way. Her characters spoke in a highly dramatic and unrealistic way, and yet it’s what keeps you turning the pages. The twists and turns were outlandish too, almost too bizarre, which meant that you could never ever guess where it was going next.

Looking back, what I loved about the Flowers in the Attic series (and subsequent novels by V C before she died and subsequent works under her name were ghostwritten) was that her characters were ultimately flawed by their lack of self-control when it came to their needs. And my god, were her characters needy. Men were pathetic, woman-hungry, and even the most powerful were in want of a mother-figure in their lives; their relationships were awash with Oedipus complexes of the highest magnitude. The women were desperate, love-starved, vengeful, furious and sometimes psychotic. Oh, and beautiful – breathtakingly, divinely beautiful creatures, every one of them.

I would later go on to read the Heaven series and My Sweet Audrina, the deliciously spooky standalone novel. As far as I know, this very sadly concluded the books V C herself actually wrote, though her estate was to later to approve a ghostwriter to come up with Andrews-esque titles, of which there are now about 4 billion.

On the surface, these characters were unreal. But in other ways, they were somehow too real – unnervingly so. They were our ugly underbellies, and the melodrama that we craved in our boring, mundane, very British lives.

Which brings me to the other draw for me: these novels were written and indeed set in Virginia, USA. There ain’t no gothic like southern gothic, and that’s a fact – (look at the game Red Dead Redemption for a modern example). Now, all right – that’s the deep south, with marshy swamps and hanging willows and dirty secrets in hidden pond shacks. But V C Andrews’ works had that same feel; that earth-deep drama of the kind Joan Collins would be proud of.

Actually, the 1980s series Dynasty reminds me a lot of V C Andrews’ novels; something about the 80s glamour shots, the pouffed satin sleeves, the shoulder pads, the power suits, the eccentric blow-dried hair, the bitch-slapping. Then there’s the wealth; the dripping, seeping wealth. V C Andrews wrote a lot about young women going from rags to riches as their beauty and secret lineage led them to huge sprawling estates and spooky mansions with hidden passages and candle-lit liaisons and forbidden love.

Say no more, right? Hence, my eternal love for these spooky, outlandish, beautiful gothic novels.

So what about Virginia Andrews herself?

V C Andrews at home with her mother

Even though our dear southern belle Virginia sadly died in 1986 of breast cancer, I still feel guilty for posting that photo above. Allegedly the author absolutely hated it, because People Magazine covertly took the picture and published it without her consent. This was one of only two known interviews Virginia did (the other was in a horror anthology of authors called Faces of Fear, which I’ve yet to read). She was famously reclusive and private, and ashamed of the back injury and terrible arthritis that can be seen in the photo above.

I read that Virginia often wrote her novels standing up, because her back would be too painful to sit up straight for long hours while she typed on an old typewriter. She had been made disabled by an accidental fall down a staircase at school aged 15, and it changed her life forever. She became dependent on care from her mother and, as far as we’re aware, never married or had children.
Which to me is a terrible shame, because any fan of her novels will know what a flame that woman had in her heart. You can see from her photographs at the age of about 60 (though she never revealed her age – a true southern belle of Blanche from Golden Girls standards) that she was beautiful and unique in her appearance; a true individual. She looked like a character from one of her novels, though I’m sure which one exactly depended entirely on her mood.

The fact that her novels span the genres of horror, gothic, romance and family saga all in one go should give you some idea of just what page-turners they are, and how thrilling they are to her adoring fans of the past and present.

Now, many people would call these novels fast-fiction, or pure trash – and you know what? I think V C would be the first to agree with you. She said:

I think I tell a whopping good story. And I don’t drift away from it a great deal into descriptive material. When I read, if a book doesn’t hold my interest in what’s going to happen next, I put it down and don’t finish it. So I’m not going to let anybody put one of my books down and not finish it. My stuff is a very fast read.

V C Andrews in Faces of Fear.

What V C Andrews taught me from a writer’s perspective is to be entirely true to yourself, your vision, and to never be afraid to write outside the lines. We wanted melodrama and we got it in spades; she turned it up to 11. Nobody before or since has managed to quite capture that peculiar mix of gothic horror and lusty romance; not in my opinion. Maybe some have come close, but if you ask me, they’re imitating – and that’s the highest form of flattery.

Are you a V C Andrews fan? What did her works teach you as a reader and/or writer? How old were you when you discovered her?

I hope you enjoyed reading about one of my favourite authors.

Until next time, keep well, keep safe, and stay indoors.

Best wishes,
Ashleigh

Isolation Projects Part 2

Me on a beautiful spring walk in the sunshine.

Welcome to my blog! I used to put out content every Wednesday, but since we got into the thick of lockdown, my routine has been so screwed up that I’ve found it difficult to blog at all.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t been up to this and that, however – I’m as creative as ever, and probably more so, with all this time to fill. I’ve been working at home and I’m one of the very fortunate people who can collect their full paycheck every month, with no need for the furlough or to claim universal credit. I’m hugely thankful for that, and I’m thankful for the fact that my family, my partner (who is 180 miles away) and my loved ones are happy, safe, and healthy. I’m also thankful that it appears all the third parties I’m in contact with for work are still ticking along as essential services, which means I can continue my job like normal without any bumps in the road.

As you can see from the photo above, I’ve been enjoying the sunshine! Mostly in the garden, mind you, with my family and my darling little dog – but on this occasion I took a walk to the local park and enjoyed the pond and the blossoms.

I also “celebrated” my birthday recently, which was a beautiful day with presents, wine, food, cake – what more could I honestly ask for? (My boyfriend is the answer, but it was still a great day). At the time of writing, I am 29 years old. I find that pretty depressing and difficult to deal with, but I’m trying to see the beauty in ageing. Hey, at least I’m here.

Writing

My children’s novel is ticking away nicely! I’ve made a lot of progress on my current project, but I’m usually very well-disciplined and so far I haven’t had too many snags. I’ve just been enjoying the process of creation, as I always do. If anything comes of it by the finish, I’ll let you know.

Reading

I’m currently working my way through the old children’s classics. I fall in love with every book I read, especially if it’s a children’s classic, because they just had a knack for capturing a certain magic that I find so rarely in fiction today. Currently I’m reading The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, who I was amazed to see also wrote A Little Princess, which is on my to-read list and was a huge favourite film of mine as a child. TSG parallels the maturation of emotionally and physically stunted children with the growth of flowers, against a backdrop of adults who have cast the ‘gardens’ of their lives, and their offspring, into the shadows of their own grief. I’m enjoying this enormously in ways that I couldn’t enjoy The Fireman by Joe Hill, which I recently started. Getting 200 pages in was like wading through treacle and about as fun, which is such a shame – there was a time when I described him as one of my favourite authors. Given that it’s an 800 page book, you can see why I’ve put it to one side for now. Much like his father, I do fear that the publishers simply aren’t cutting his work down to size, perhaps to justify the price or the hype.

Watercolour challenge

Here’s a cute idea; great for children and adults. If you can’t think what to draw, but you feel like being creative, then try this out: simply blob on a load of watercolours, any you like, and let them run and play on the page. Once they’ve dried (you can use paper towel to soak up excess and a hairdryer to dry it off if it’s too soggy), you can perform a sort of inkblot test on yourself. Hold it up at different angles: what shapes emerge? What can you see? Once you see something emerging, get a pen and start drawing. As you can see from my two pictures above, I saw a snail slithering over some twigs and leaves. Nifty idea, hm?

Other than that, I did some baking today: I chucked some cupboard ingredients together with a few spotty bananas and made a delicious, springy, *moist* (god I hate that word) coffee, chocolate and banana loaf cake. I sat in my dad’s little art workshop in the garden, listened to music and painted while my cake baked in the kitchen on a beautiful warm spring day. I even had my faithful companion by my side, snoozing in the sunlight.

Times may be very difficult right now, and very frightening – but you can still see some beauty in the world.

Keep indoors, keep social distancing, and keep safe, folks – I wish you all the good health in the world.

Best wishes,
Ashleigh

My handsome little boy, Sputnik.

Scary Novels for Halloween

Novels to make your skin quiver

Welcome to my blog! I put out new posts every Wednesday.

This week, I thought I’d help you get into the spooky spirit of October by introducing you to some of my favourite scary novels.

I am an avid reader and always have been; I absolutely panic if I find myself at a loose end without a book. In the last year, I’ve found that I’m more partial to memoirs and autobiographies – particularly ones related to death and the medical professions – but there was a time when I was all about horror fiction.
Now, some horror – and perhaps most, actually – is purely that: horrific. Gorey, gross, revolting – you name it. And that’s great – I can recommend some absolute corkers if that’s what you’re into.

But below, I want to focus on novels that *really* scared or fascinated me – the ones that got under my skin. Some of these novels aren’t even remotely close to the typical horror fiction genre; some very definitely are. That doesn’t matter: what matters is the effect it has on you, the reader.

So to cater for all tastes, I’ve included some gore and some more psychological stories, plus some honourable bonus mentions of stories I just couldn’t leave out. I’ve also included some memoirs for non-fiction lovers.

You could say, in fact, that this is not a top 5(as stipulated below), but actually…a top 14. I’m not indecisive! You’re indecisive!

If you’re a prolific reader of genre fiction, then you’ll have heard of a few of these – if you aren’t, then I’m glad I could introduce you to something new.

As an aside, true horror lovers will find this list incredibly ‘light’, and find that it includes only mainstream releases (I’ve done this deliberately to make it accessible all-round). There is an entire indie community out there for horror writers – some of the most terrifying novels come from small presses. Check out Black Static magazine, where you can find short stories and all the new releases.
(My tastes moved on, so it’s been a long time since I read an indie horror novel)

I hope you’ll find something to suit your tastes, or at least learn a little something about mine.

My top 5 novels for Halloween

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
A must-read for rockers and goths. An ageing rockstar, Jude, collects morbid memorabilia and curiosities. He finds himself in possession of a heart-shaped box, and within this box is a dead man’s suit. Despite being warned that he was buying himself a ghost on Ebay, curiosity gets the better of him – and soon, terrible things start to happen. The suit is hexed, releasing a malevolent ghost. Jude and his girlfriend Georgia need to delve into the afterlife to free themselves from the torment. This debut novel from Joe Hill thrilled me beyond words when I read it years ago, and I still hold it close to me (in my heart-shaped box). I have actually met Joe Hill twice, and I have all my books signed with his signature doodles – he even drew me a birthday cake for my birthday!

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
A foreboding, crumbling mansion at the turn of the century, when aristocracy is fading into the past – when the filthy-rich upperclasses are dissolving before our eyes like spirits. Told from the perspective of an ambitious young doctor, sceptical of these tales of strange happenings in the night, this is a classic ghost story in the context of a dying class system.

Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z Brite
Based on Jeffrey Dahmer and other fun-loving folks, this novel is beautifully wrought and utterly disgusting. Read about exploding abdomens and gay lovers entwined; never has horror been so erotic before or since. I didn’t know what to think of this at the time, but I’ve never forgotten some of the images Brite casts for us in a big ol’ pool of blood.

The Rats by James Herbert
An absolute classic genre novel – there’s no way you haven’t heard of this. Don’t underestimate this novel’s ability to nibble away at your fingernails and wriggle under your skin – this book made me shudder. The realism is incredible – yes, the realism of hoards of rats in London. I’ve not read the sequels yet, but I’ve been threatening to ever since I read the ending – the image has stayed with me for years.

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
One of my favourite novels. Meet Frank, a psychopathic teenager running free on a bog in Scotland. This is a fascinating gothic novel about a teen obsessed with bombs, death – and who believes he can tell the future by the fate of entrapped wasps. But he’s missing a terrible secret about himself. You will never guess the big twist.

Honourable mentions (or further reading)

Horns by Joe Hill
Not quite horror, not quite fantasy; surely you’ve seen the Daniel Radcliffe film. I personally thought the film did the novel a lot of justice, and I was a pleased fan – however, as always, the novel is so much better. A novel combining religion and fantasy, this story follows a man who has lost the love of his life to a rapist and murderer – yet one morning, he wakes up to find horns are growing from his temples. Is he the monster?

Lost Souls by Poppy Z Brite
Vampires in New Orleans and sticky Chartreuse liqueur – this is the official goth bible and every vampire nut’s wet dream. Go on a joyride around the deep south to the echoing drone of Bauhaus from the stereo with your very best friends. You will not want to come back.

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
Another Radcliffe film – you know this one. A classic ghost story, praised by many – this will genuinely make your teeth chatter, and you’ll be checking every window and corner of the room. Every black smudge on the horizon could be…The Woman in Black.

Affinity by Sarah Waters
A recently bereft woman in 1870s Victorian-era London becomes a Lady Visitor to a curious woman in Millbank Prison. Echoing corridors, ectoplasm, seances, and Victorian superstition – is this woman truly a medium? Can she channel the dead? This haunting novel will make your skin prickle (and actually, I’ve yet to read a Sarah Waters novel that didn’t).

Now for some fantastic memoirs about death (or even further reading!)

To be in-keeping with the spooky theme, you might like to read some of these fantastic memoirs about those who work in the business of death and dying. That might sound pretty harrowing, and it is – these memoirs will open your eyes to forensic pathology and anthropology on a bone-deep level, taking you from the death process, cultural experiences of death, dissection, murder, the handling of mass disasters, methods of preservation and donation of bodies to medical science, all in the context of the practitioner’s every day life.

I have read many medical memoirs by nurses, doctors and the like – but these are particularly cracking ones about death and dying. They are (believe me) as touching as they are gruesome, and as empowering as they are gut-wrenching. Prepare to be educated, moved, and enthralled.

Unnatural Causes by Richard Shepherd
Richard Shepherd weaves some of his most harrowing murder cases between the fabric of his personal and home life, as fine and precise as a needle pulling thread. He even delves into his PTSD diagnosis, where the tinkling of ice in a glass reminded him of a gruesome mass disaster, where bodies were packed in ice to prevent decomposition in the summer heat. This is an honest, well-fleshed account of life as a forensic pathologist.

All that Remains by Sue Black
How do you identify who somebody was before they died? How do you put a name to a bag of bones? Sue Black takes us through her first experiences of death (a Butcher’s shop, and her Uncle Willy), her time identifying children in Kosovo, and what drove her to this morbid line of work. You’ll be fascinated to learn how she created a new preservation facility for bodies donated to medical science, explaining what it means to be ‘Thield’. Sue will show you a new perspective on body donation, and you’ll develop a deep respect for its value. (I even considered it myself after reading, and I’m still thinking on it)

In the Midst of Life by Jennifer Worth
A nurse discusses the changing perspectives and rituals surrounding death, comparing Britain to other parts of the world. She has an interesting take on the way hospitals and resuscitation have interrupted the natural passages of life and death, almost spoiling the purity of families looking after one another in their passing. A moving and contemplative memoir; perhaps lighter on the gore than the above examples (but not completely bereft of it!)

Admissions and Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

You will never find a more honest account of what it means to hold an entire universe in your hands than these accounts from one of the world’s leading brain surgeons. Detailing his work in the poorest parts of Ukraine, near-misses, heartbreaking losses and incredible victories, the stories Marsh tells are humbly portrayed. Living by a quote such as the following, it’s easy to understand the immense delicacy of his work and the tightrope he walks with every patient: “Every surgeon carries within himself a small cemetery, where from time to time he goes to pray – a place of bitterness and regret, where he must look for an explanation for his failures.’ René Leriche, La philosophie de la chirurgie, 1951” 

I hope you enjoyed those recommendations, and that you found something to tide you over through the Halloween season. The Autumn period is a time for people to think about the death of their old lives, and the beginning of a new one; a time when we shed our old selves the way the trees let go of crisp brown leaves. I find this time of year is a time of contemplation and a chance to prepare yourself for regrowth.

It’s also a time for boots, fluffy jackets, pumpkin spice lattés – and a bloody good book.

Please subscribe to my blog if you would like to see more; I put out new posts every Wednesday.

Best wishes,
Ashleigh