Thursday 31 December 2020

2020: My Year in Reading—A Retrospect

“Read!” is the number one tip I give aspiring writers, and, in 2020, I managed to follow my own advice. With our social lives non-existent, this year was a good year to escape into a great book, and I hit my goal of reading 50.

For the full list, check out my Goodreads profile. I read 43 novels to seven works of non-fiction and 42 books by women to eight books by men. And 11 of the books were by authors of colour.

In this post, I’m not going to summarise everything, but to highlight some of the best—the books that have stood out most to me from the year.

Favourite Fiction

It was so tough to choose my favourite reads of 2020, as different books are great for different moods. But there were three that I’ve been raving about to anyone who will listen. 

Mary Toft; Or, The Rabbit Queen, by Dexter Palmer is the novel I would recommend to everyone, despite its slightly strange synopsis. The book is based on the true story of an eighteenth-century Englishwoman who claimed to be giving birth to butchered rabbits. But it’s so much more than that. A book about fake news, the nature of truth, and the dangers of partisan hysteria, this piece of historical fiction couldn’t have felt more 2020.

I also couldn’t go without mentioning The Mirror and the Light, the third novel in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell. Mantel is probably the best living historical novelist and the final book in the series more than delivers. 

I’ve been reading lots of books set during the French Revolution (check out a recent summary here), and Edward Carey’s Little, an imaginative look at the childhood of famous waxwork artist Madame Tussaud, is a standout. Like Dexter’s novel, this one isn’t for the squeamish, with Carey’s own illustrations bringing a visual dimension to a lively, gruesome, and original novel.

Non-Fiction Favourite

As you can see from my stats, I read much more fiction than non-fiction, but I did read some great non-fiction this year, on everything from ballet to millennial politicians, and Napoleon’s mistresses to Queen Victoria.

My favourite non-fiction read was, unsurprisingly, one of the most fiction-related—How the French Invented Love, by Marilyn Yalom. This book takes readers on a whirlwind tour through French literary history, charting how the country and its capital have become synonymous with romantic love.

Top Nineteenth-Century Read

I didn’t read as many books as usual this year actually written during the nineteenth century, probably because the publication of my own debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, brought me into contact with so many talented living authors.

My top pick of those I did read is decadent novel The Marquise de Sade, by Rachilde. Check out my full review here and venture into this scandalous story of late nineteenth-century depravity if you dare.

Top Neo-Victorian Voices Read

I also continued to review books set in the nineteenth century, but written in the twenty-first, for my Neo-Victorian Voices series. Of those I blogged about this year, The Confessions of Frannie Langton, by Sara Collins was my favourite. The story of a woman formerly enslaved on a Jamaican sugar plantation and now on trial for her London employers’ murders, this book is written in a compelling first person.  

Top Reads for Bronte Lovers

If you follow my blog and me, you might very well be a lover of the Brontes. So, as well as recommending you read my Bronte-inspired novel, Bronte’s Mistress, I wanted to suggest some other Bronte-related reads. 

The Mother of the Brontes by Sharon Wright, a biography of Maria Bronte (nee Branwell), is my non-fiction Bronte pick (review here). And novels I recommend you check out are The Vanished Bride, by Bella Ellis (review here), The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, by Syrie James (review here), and Mr Rochester, by Sarah Shoemaker (review here).

Self-Published Pick

My reading skews heavily towards traditionally published books, but I also wanted to give you an indie pick—The Best Man on the Planet by C.G. Twiles. This genre-bending modern Gothic is exactly the kind of gem non-traditional publishing gives us. Check out my interview with Twiles here.

Debut Novels

Finally, the best part of 2020 for me has been the support and community I’ve enjoyed from and with other debut novelists. You might have noticed that none of them were mentioned above, but that’s because I didn’t want to pick between them! I still have plenty more novels to read by the other debuts, but here’s a list of the ones I got to this year.

Historical fiction lovers should read Fifty Words for Rain, by Asha Lemmie (set in post-WWII Japan), and regency rom-com To Have and To Hoax, by Martha Waters. I’m also shouting out The Jane Austen Society, by Natalie Jenner, which I actually read in 2019, but reviewed in 2020, its publication year.

Both contemporary debuts I have to recommend deal with grief. In Lindsey Rogers Cook’s How To Bury Your Brother, a woman discovers undelivered letters from her dead brother and takes a journey to the past. And in The All-Night Sun, by Diane Zinna, a young orphaned college professor develops an inappropriate relationship with her female student.

Love thrillers, mystery and suspense? Sisters are pitted against each other in The Better Liar, by Tanen Jones, and family drama is also at the heart of A.H. Kim’s A Good Family. While Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden is a dark and violent tale of a vigilante tracking down drug dealers on a Native American reservation.

What did you read in 2020? I’d love to hear your recommendations! If you did read and enjoy Bronte’s Mistress, please consider reviewing the book on Goodreads and Amazon—every review helps. Wishing you a very happy 2021 and beyond. To stay up to date with books, news and reviews from me, sign up to my email newsletter below.

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Tuesday 22 December 2020

November Articles about Bronte’s Mistress

My debut year is almost over and I’m still sharing roundups of the lovely coverage my historical novel, Bronte’s Mistress, has been receiving. If you’re interested in going back in time, check out the February/March, April/May, June/July, August, September and October editions too!

In November, I received one of my favourite five-star reviews so far—this write up from the San Francisco Book Review. The reviewer calls the novel and my Author’s Note “fascinating,” and concludes, “wicked women of the [Victorian] era were humans as well and deserve to be remembered as such, Lydia Robinson included.”

Bronte’s Mistress was also the weekly book pick for radio show What’s the Story? on The Krush 95.9. Check out the full episode here.

My interview with Carol Fitzgerald at Bookreporter, centred on my research for Bronte’s Mistress, was part of the Miami Book Fair, a huge event in the publishing calendar, which went virtual for the first time. It’s free to register if you’d like to hear us chat all things Brontes and to check out other great literary content. 

Dixon Public Library recommended Bronte’s Mistress on National Author’s Day, which falls on November 2nd. I loved that they used the day to celebrate and support other debut authors and me!

Personally, the highlight on my month was spending time at a socially distanced writers’ retreat hosted by the Highlights Foundation. Check out my full review of the experience here, or check out this blog post from my friend and fellow writer Cate Simon, who was reading Bronte’s Mistress during our time away!

If you’re looking for a great read this holiday season or the perfect book to give as a gift, I’d of course recommend Bronte’s Mistress! And, don’t be a stranger. If you’d like to get in touch for any reason, contact me via Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, and make sure you sign up for monthly updates on my writing and me below.

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Thursday 3 December 2020

Review: The Marquise de Sade, Rachilde (1887)

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading The Marquise de Sade, by Rachilde (first published in French in 1887). 

I’ve read books by other writers who were part of the late nineteenth-century Decadent Movement. I’ve blogged, for instance, about Joris-Karl Huysmans’s 1884 À Rebours (Against Nature), which is often held up as representative of the excesses of the artistic and literary movement. I’ve read Oscar Wilde, Max Beerbohm, and Algernon Charles Swinburne, some of the most famous Decadent writers in English. And I’ve enjoyed the illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley, probably the most famous British visual artist in this group.

However, I had no idea until recently that there was a woman writer amongst the leading French Decadent authors—Marguerite Vallette-Eymery, who published under the pen name Rachilde.

The Marquise de Sade, Rachilde (1887)

The novel of Rachilde’s I picked up was The Marquise de Sade (1887), though her 1884 Monsieur Venus is perhaps slightly better known. Flicking through its front pages, I discovered that it had taken more than a hundred years (!!) for The Marquise de Sade to be published in English, with this translation, by Liz Heron, appearing in 1994.

An intriguing writer, a racy title, and a recent translation? I was in, and flew through the novel within days. Now I’m blogging to tell you all about it. Warning: spoilers ahead, as this one’s a little off the beaten track…

CN: Sexual Violence, Animal Cruelty, Transphobia, Homophobia 

First up, the title is pretty misleading. The novel has nothing directly to do with the nobleman, philosopher, and sexual libertine who put the “S” in “BDSM.” Rather, the feminisation of the title (this is the Marquise de Sade, rather than the masculine Marquis) is a reference to the novel’s central theme. Rachilde’s book is a bildungsroman about how a girl grows into a woman with a perverse taste for cruelty.

Second, if you’re expecting sex on every page, you’re going to be disappointed. Mary Barbe, our protagonist, is seven years old in the opening chapter and the book mainly deals with her childhood. This, of course, includes references to her nascent sexuality, but it’s only in the last quarter of the novel, when Mary is an adult, that the content becomes overtly and consistently sexual.

What I was least prepared for was how (deliberately!) funny the book was in parts. Mary is the daughter of a colonel and Rachilde’s satirical depiction of the social life of officers in the French army is incredibly entertaining. 

As a writer, I was also impressed by Rachilde’s convincing use of a child’s point of view, while the narrative still winks at what’s really going on between the grown-up characters. Even as the book plays with the excessive and the absurd (e.g. a brawl between the officers’ children over live lambs, which have been given out as gifts at a kids’ party), I felt like the writer really knew and could empathise with children—something that’s pretty rare in nineteenth-century novels.

I’m no psychiatrist, but Rachilde’s psychological portrait of Mary reads as proto-Freudian and progressive. Mary is initially a sensitive and caring child. But neglected by her family, who would prefer her to be a boy, she is starved of affection and has several early experiences that lead to her associating love and pain. Her first (pretty innocent) fumblings with a boy in her tweenage years are also linked to power play, as she convinces him to steal a prized rose from his employer for her in return for a kiss.  

As the novel progresses, her development becomes less believable. She ends the novel fantasising about murder, having tasted every other excess. And, in a strange twist I didn’t see coming, it is a “transvestite man” that she considers killing. She talks of men who sleep with other men as “fallen” and “ill-equipped to defend [themselves] against women.” And says, “her conscience would be clear if the chosen victim were among that kind!” 

While the ending is a clear escalation in violence, there are also plenty of other moments readers will find problematic, distasteful and shocking throughout the book.

There are various instances of animal cruelty. The opening scene sees Mary faint as she watches an ox being butchered and its blood drained as a cure for her consumptive mother. As a small child, Mary’s beloved companion is a cat (even though it scratches her). I won’t go into details, but, predictably, the cat and her kittens meet unpleasant ends, further cementing Mary’s misandry and misogyny. 

Mary’s own “cruelty” as an adult at first revolves around exercising her newfound power to deny men. She pretends she loves them, but refuses to have sex with them, or goads them into making sexual advances, but then blackmails them about what they have done. Eventually, one of the young men she’s been playing with rapes her, cuckolding his father in the process. The narrative suggests that he is the victim.

But it’s not only men who Mary can captivate and torture. In one of the most memorable scenes in the novel, Mary has a woman who wishes to sleep with her strip naked before her, and then, without warning, brands her with a red-hot poker. Reader, I gasped.

I’ve written before about the misconceptions people can have about the nineteenth century. This was certainly not a period when everyone was swooning at the sight of an ankle or an uncovered table leg. French Decadent literature may be more out there than the novels of British novelists in the time period, but you can be sure that many of our literary greats were reading books like this one. Overall, I’d recommend The Marquise de Sade to enthusiasts for the period with a strong constitution, and to adventurous readers with a taste for more than Fifty Shades of Grey

Compared to The Marquise de Sade, my own novel, Bronte’s Mistress, seems almost wholesome, but, if you love the nineteenth century, please consider buying a copy for yourself or as Holiday gift this Christmas season! Want to get in touch? You can always message me on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter (no creepy DMs please), and you can also sign up for my monthly email below.

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