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 clich├ęs 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