Reading Books: Past, Present & Future

I have to do this from time to time. I have to celebrate the books I’ve read, organise the books I’m reading, and think about what might come next.

Past present and future …

The past …..

R.I.P VIII ended at Halloween and, though I didn’t read many of the books I lined up at the start of the season, I was very pleased with the eight books I did read.

RIP8main1My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart
The Misbegotten by Katherine Webb
Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield
Treveryan by Angela Du Maurier
Frost Hollow Hall by Emma Carroll
The Unforgiving by Charlotte Cory
Hell! Said the Duchess by Michael Arlen
The Blackheath Séance Parlour by Alan Williams

I’ve nearly finished Burial Rites by Hannah Kent too, and I’ve made a start on Deborah Harkness’s Shadow of Night.

Two of my RIP books – Treveryan and The Unforgiving slotted into my Century of Books, and I passed the 80% mark in the middle of last month.

The present …..

I have a few books in progress.

I spotted a beautiful 30th anniversary edition of The Sunne in Splendor in the library a few weeks ago, and that made up my mind to re-read it for my Century of Books. I loved it years ago, I love it now, and I’m into the final act.

winters-night-jpgI was warmly recommended Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller to fill a difficult year – 1979 in my century of books – I was intrigued, I ordered a copy from the library, and then I discovered a readalong. Clearly I was meant to read this book, I started to read last night, and I am already smitten.

I’m re-reading Angel by Elizabeth Taylor too, in a lovely new hardback edition. It won’t fit into my century, but it was too lovely to resist and I have books that will fit lined up. Books like And Then You Came by Ann Bridge for 1948, A Little Love, A Little Learning by Nina Bawden for 1965, High Rising by Angela Thirkell for 1933 ….

I had a few books to choose from for 1933, but when I learned that Christmas at High Rising was on the was my mind was made up.

AusReading Month badge1901, on the other hand, was a tricky year. In the end I decided to re-read My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, and again it seemed to be meant, because I discovered that this was Australian Reading Month.  A survey of my shelves found books by Eleanor Dark, Kathleen Susannah Pritchard and Henry Handel Richardson that I’d love to read. Or I could re-read Oscar and Lucinda or The Thorn Birds, either of which I could slot into my Century of Books ….

More books than I could hope to read, but it’s good to have choices!

The future …

I can’t think much beyond finishing my century at the moment. I’m clearing the decks as much as I can to get that done – no more book-buying and no more library reservations this year, because I need to focus on the books I have already.

But I bought The Luminaries and The Goldfinch, before the I put those restrictions in place, and they are going the first books of  my new project – of a year of reading the books that call me …

The Blackheath Séance Parlour by Alan Williams

17707065Now is a strange concoction, but it is utterly perfect for this particular evening …

Imagine, if you will, two sisters living and working in a village not so very far from London. They both liked good food, strong drink and nights out, but their chocolate shop was never going to fund the lifestyle they wanted. In fact, they could barely make ends meet, and so they agreed that it was time for a change. Maggie, the leader of the pair, suggested that what Blackheath needed was a curtain shop, but Judy told her that as the chocolate shop had been Maggie’s idea it was her turn to make the decision, and she was going to open a séance parlour.

The sisters did not agree, but in the end Judy got her way; she recruited Mrs Nettie Walters, an ageing medium, she painted everything black, and the Blackheath Séance Parlour opened for business.

Their timing was not good – they opened for business on the day of the funeral of the most recent victim of a murderer who had been preying on women on the nearby heath – but after raising their eyebrows in disapproval curiosity got the better of the local population. They were impressed, and the news spread quickly and soon people were coming from far and wide, to have their tea leaves read, to discover what the crystal ball saw in their future, and to take part in séances. The Blackheath Séance Parlour became ridiculously successful. But success did not bring happiness. It brought new pressures, and the three women had different concerns, different hopes for the future, so soon jealousies, resentments and recriminations came to the surface.

Nettie came face to face with the past she hoped was gone and forgotten, Judy found a publisher for her gothic novel and found that it brought her more notoriety, and after a slow start Maggie found that the séance business rather suited her, only to be horribly tricked.

Take all of that, plus a novel within a novel – Judy’s wonderfully gruesome ‘penny dreadful’ – and you have a heck of a lot going on. But it works!

The characters lived and breathed, their world was quite perfectly realised, the atmosphere was so very dark and sinister, and there was always something that made me want to keep turning the pages. The story was played completely straight – there was no explaining away of the supernatural elements – it was lightened with well judged dashes of humour and wit, and it was told with such verve.

There were some magnificent set pieces, there was high drama, but ultimately this is a very human story that works because the relationships, characters and stories of the three women were so very well drawn, and so horribly believable. And because the story plays out exactly as it should, without ever becoming predictable.

I was a little disappointed there were moments when the story drifted a little, and that there were moments when things went a little over the top. Though I should say that I think that’s due to my sensitivities being a little more delicate than those of the author, and not because he has done anything wrong.

Those things made me pause, but I was never going to let go of this story. The mixture of the gothic and the historical, of mystery and horror, was unusual but it was very, very effective.