What to choose for Reading in Lockdown?

Rather to my surprise, people have been asking me to recommend books for lockdown reading. Virtual strangers, some of them. I suppose they think a writer reads more than other people. Well, to keep abreast of the competition, if nothing else.

Now, I like talking about books. And I am congenitally incapable of ignoring a request for help.

But this particular question throws me into a quandary. I mean I can happily spout for hours on books I love. As you probably know. But…

Finding a story that somebody else might like, especially someone I barely know (not to mention that someone’s son, daughter or grandchild) is hard. To be honest, it has left me  with eyeballs swishing about, looking for the escape hatch.

So far I’ve blundered through, hauling up titles from the cellarage pretty much at random. Do people want books they can read together? Or are they trying to read to block out the effects of too much togetherness?

With a very uncertain Christmas coming, I thought I’d try to be a bit more disciplined.

New Lockdown Bookworms?

Rosie M Banks, readerThe truth is that the UK is not a nation of natural bookworms.

The Reading Agency has been trying to persuade us to read more for years. They tell us that in England 31% of adults don’t read in their free time. This rises to 46% for people aged 16-24. Now, that really scared me. It was only reading that got me through the horrors of adolescence.

According to Nielsen, provider of ISBNs and source of much book research, two fifths of adults are reading more during lockdown. The reasons they give include more time to read and a desire to escape from the coronavirus crisis. Unsurprisingly, they seem to have turned against dystopian fiction (often brutal and/or gloomy) towards crime and thrillers and popular fiction.

I’m not a great believer in age-appropriate reading, so I’ve included at least one book advertised as “for children”. So sue me.

Reading in Lockdown Because of Loneliness?

Of the many reasons to have more time for reading, two are painful and can be a frightening source of stress: loneliness and anxiety, especially about losing your job. A lot of under 24s in the latter category, I suspect.

I’ve certainly escaped into books to alleviate both in the past.

For loneliness, I recommend fiction you can walk around in. The Birdwatcher in my life describes this as where the writer leaves you room to supply your own gloss to the characters and maybe, even, the action. These books are often long, with a wide cast of characters and cover a number of years.

Dickens does it for me, though I know people who call him “claustrophobic”. Try Nicholas Nickleby or David Copperfield, if you’re cautious. They have great stories, cracking villains and a great resolution where the good end happily. They’re also completely absorbing – I know at least one person who regularly rewrote a seduction scene in Nick Nick.

The big continuous chronicles work too – Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga, Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna series, though both are out of fashion now. Harry Potter, of course, if you’re OK with magic. The Lord of the Rings, if you’re OK with having your heart wrung.

And there are the massive single titles too: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. Both will take you into a completely other world and hold you there. (Luminaries is a horribly slow start, but by golly it picks up once you get out of the Gentlemen’s Club.) But both are full of family tensions and impossible situations – with just a touch of the supernatural and Chinese gold miners in Luminaries – that anyone can relate to.

Reading in Lockdown Because of Anxiety?

For anxiety, I turn to PG Wodehouse. He reads very well aloud, too, if you’re sharing your house and even your anxieties.

A classic whodunnit is good, too. I think it was P D James who said that crime fiction is about the restoration of justice. I’m a great fan of her An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. 

My comfort reading shelf also has favourite detective series: Lesley Cookman’s Libby Serjeant, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and Ellis Peters’ Cadfael, as well as her less well known Inspector George Felse.

I think The House of Green Turf might just be my favourite detective novel of all time. The hero is just fabulous. And the moment he falls in love and knows it’s hopeless… wish I could write like that.

Another thing that I find deeply comforting is a story in which characters turn a place into home. The Victorian Children of the New Forest has a marvellous account of the aristocratic children in hiding settling down in the Forest Ranger’s simple cottage. When Sarah is stripped of her privileges in A Little Princess she uses her imagination to make her attic bearable – and then, when it is transformed for real, you actually feel the fire and taste to good things for tea! In Rose Daughter, which I talk about below, one of the greatest pleasures is the impoverished family making themselves at home in the new cottage.

Step away from the Time of Lockdown?

There is nothing like a step into another time to give you a real shift in perspective. One of my favourites is The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe. I read it as a child but she always insisted that her books were for everyone. Indeed, there’s a fabulous article in The Guardian about Sutcliffe and the origins of The Eagle by Charlotte Higgins, who clearly feels the same. (As do I.)

This is based on the real mystery of what happened to the Ninth Legion, which disappears from history, having been quartered in York. The hero, Marcus, is the son of one of the missing officers, now in York himself, wounded and feeling useless. (Sound familiar?) He goes on the most tremendous adventure, seeking the missing legion north of the border.

This is a book about courage and sorrow and loss – and wonderful, inspiring friendship, found in the most unlikely places. Will lift your heart.

Another personal pleasure is both history and detective fiction in one, Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin. Her heroine Adelia Aguilar comes to England, at the behest of Henry II, from the crusaders’ hospital in Syracuse where medical science is leaping forward. Anatomist Adelia uses her skills to identify murders and murderers – and also has to learn from King Henry about the delicate balance between church and state when it comes to matters of law. An absolutely gripping read, the first of a series starring Adelia.

I can’t ignore that most popular of Escape Pod Periods, the Regency, and this is a personal favourite too. By Libertà’s Joanna Maitland, His Cavalry Lady is set in 1814, when the Prince Regent was masterminding major events to celebrate the centenary of the Hanoverian dynasty and Europe thought Napoleon was defeated and was arguing over the division of the spoils.

In this uneasy world our cool, fabulous hero is a spy, as well as a Duke.  And our heroine is, if possible, even more elusive – and based on a real person. Their encounters are full of suspense and the world of London balls and visiting royals is both elegant and utterly believable. And it, too, is the first of a series, in this case The Aikenhead Honours.

This book is free on Kindle from Saturday 21 – Tuesday 24 November 8.00am GMT. (Because it’s midnight, Pacific time.) 

NB Very sorry, I cut this whole section on historicals inadvertently while I was trying to get pictures and live links to work. Didn’t check until much too late. So here it is, at last.  

Prefer Entertainment?

PGW romantic novelist Lady WickhamEntertainment, I think, requires something with a bit of pace to it and probably a good laugh or two along the way. P G Wodehouse, of course, qualifies. So does the blessed Terry Pratchett, who most certainly took PGW’s implicit correspondence course. Pratchett, of course, comes with clear-thinking satire and is not always as joyous as The Master.

OK, this is where I include people who are busier during lockdown than normal. I’m thinking particularly of parents who have to try to home school children because of self-isolation requirements, while also working for home. One solution could be short stories, as in Blandings Castle and Elsewhere.

Another could be reading aloud with those children. Pratchett has a fabulous trilogy, starting with Johnny and the Dead one of those books labelled “for children” which an adult like me can read with absolutely no under-age alibi at all. Bit of history, bit of schoolboy activism, bit of dysfunctional family, lot of mates, masses of fun with stuff to think about, too.

Longer and denser is Robin McKinley’s Rose Daughter, which I’ve been re-reading recently. It’s her second go at retelling Beauty and the Beast. And it’s blissful. Beauty’s sisters, bullies in prosperity, turn into truly good eggs under adversity. Magic sense of magic is a source of equal threat and protection, dreaded confrontation and somehow the best possible opportunity to test yourself. Hopeful and deeply comforting.

Reading in Lockdown for Unexpected Delight

I’ve also read with much pleasure a new novel by Jonathan Coe, Mr Wilder and Me. The narrator looks back on encounters with legendary Billy Wilder, labouring over his penultimate film. The main interest for me was Wilder and his brilliant collaborator, writer Iz Diamond, whose highest expression of enthusiasm is “Why not?”

The narrator is a perceptive, much younger woman, who becomes their “little Greek translator” . What we see of her life is intriguingly woven around her intense encounters with Wilder’s world. Powerful stuff – the research is amazing – and beautifully told. Ultimately hopeful too.

Reading in Lockdown: Pure Romance

Well, given my profession, you wouldn’t expect me to overlook romance, would you? It’s the sure fire route to the comfort of a happy ending, after all.

A question on facebook reminded me of a delightful mature romance that has kept its place on my bookshelf since I first read it. Some lovely characters and a thoroughly believable impossible situation which you can’t imagine ever being resolved. Julie and Romeo by Jeanne Ray is an absolute delight.

And finally, one of my all time favourite novels from Mills and Boon. Published in 1985 it is on my Keeper Shelf and likely to stay there.

The prickly, grumpy, loving heroine is not only deeply believable but all too recognisable in myself and some of my best friends. The hero is, well, school of Mel Gibson before he went peculiar, Hugh Jackman or David Wenham in his Diver Dan incarnation. (Be still my beating heart. Why did no one ever bring fabulous, sweet, funny, truthful Sea Change to UK TV?!)

The story is classic. Woman out of her comfort zone and fighting back, expecting to be dumped at any moment. Theseus and Ariadne. Eros and Psyche. The film world, just touched on, is teeth-achingly shallow. Every character makes mistakes and no one is wholly in the right.  And it’s beautifully written. Happy sigh. The Driftwood Dragon  by Ann Charlton.

So what would you recommend as Lockdown Reading, either to a new Bookworm or an old lag?

Sophie Weston Author


An improper blog : embroidery and the pains of fashion

Apologies to our visitors expecting our normal Sunday morning blog. Things got a bit complicated in the hive this week, and there was no time to prepare a proper blog.

Instead, for an improper (and late) blog, I offer a few pretty pics, especially for those who like our costume series. And normal service will be resumed next weekend 😉

That poor seamstress again?

My blogs have often mentioned the poor seamstress who made those fabulous gowns and, probably, received a pittance for her work. Below are some examples of embroidery from the Hereford museum collections. I don’t know whether these are the work of a seamstress or by a lady, sitting comfortably by her fire. They’re worth a look, whoever did them. [Click to enlarge]

embroidery with flowers

Beautiful flowers, and a finely stitched edging (above) Continue reading

Historical Costume 1800-1820: boots and bags

A couple of weeks ago, in my blog about footwear, there wasn’t room to cover ladies’ boots.
So today I will. Plus some other essentials for the well-dressed lady.


buff cotton and leather half-boots 1815-20 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

cotton & leather half-boots 1815-20 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

If you’ve read your Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, you’ll be familiar with the term “half-boots”.
But what were they?
And what were they made of?

The pair on the right, from the marvellous V&A collection, is made of striped cotton with buff-coloured leather toecaps. The sole is leather and there’s a little heel. From the picture, it looks as though they, like the shoes I discussed in my last blog, are not made for left and right feet. They also look as if they’ve hardly been worn. If they were worn, it probably wasn’t in the rain and mud, judging by how clean and shiny they still are. Continue reading

Halloween and Other Dangerous Days

I am writing this on Halloween. The shops are full of pumpkins and strangely wrapped sweets to give to trick or treaters..

Some of my neighbours’ houses have spooky decorations and carved pumpkins on the doorstep. They look like macabre heads. (The pumpkins, that is. Not the neighbours. Obviously.) It’s all very jolly in a perverse way.

“Come in if you dare,” says one banner. Continue reading

Writing Settings out of Sequence

Writing energy, happy writerI love starting a new book

It is a lovely feeling, a clean sheet  with so many possibilities. New story, new characters, new settings. It’s the time I can let myself dream as I begin weaving the story.

That is the point I am at now.

I have an idea for the book and the settings will be Regency London and mainly (probably) at my hero’s country house. And it is summer.

I first began thinking about this idea in September, when my current work in progress was coming to an end. Now I wonder if I chose a summer setting because the seasons were changing? Maybe I was hoping to hang on to those hot days and balmy summer nights. But I shall be writing the story throughout the winter: bare landscapes, long nights, icy days.

 It shouldn’t be a problem, I am a writer, aren’t I?

Continue reading

Historical Costume, 1790-1830 : Shoes, slippers

riding boot with spurWhy shoes? Well, a few weeks ago, I was ranting about boots. Specifically, the fact that, in images intended for Regency covers, all the male models seem to wear knee-high boots, even with evening dress.

This kind of boot, from the Wade costume collection at Berrington Hall, really doesn’t look appropriate for evening, does it? Imagine dancing with a man wearing those 😉

To be fair, the cover images don’t normally include spurs, as this original does, carefully separated by tissue paper to protect the boot’s leather.

I haven’t found a cure for the boot problem yet—other than cropping out the blasted things—but it gave me the idea of doing a blog about footwear.

And, for the record, an example of the kind of shoe the gents should wear with evening dress is below. (Yes, I admit they look more like slippers to us, but the V&A says they’re shoes.)

men's velvet shoes 1805-10 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

men’s velvet shoes 1805-10 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Right and left shoes?

When I was looking at historical examples of footwear, I realised that right and left shoes were usually the same. Interchangeable. That was a surprise. Continue reading

Christmas Reunion in Paris—a writer’s anxiety and joy

The beginning…

romantic novelist busy editingWriting Christmas Reunion in Paris was a curious mixture of fun and anxiety. Maybe it’s always like that. There are always tough moments when you can’t see an ending, when you sit and stare at the screen and the words won’t come. But, mostly, like childbirth, you forget the agonies when all is delivered safely.

It all started when my editor asked if I’d like to write the first book in a three book mini-series – Christmas at the Harrington Park Hotel. My fellow authors, Kandy Shepherd (in Australia) and Susan Meier (in the US) were old friends. I was delighted to team up with them to work on the books that were about three siblings, each with their own painful past.

The collaboration…

writer at laptop smilingEmails flew back and forth as we worked on settings. The boarding school that James (my character) and his twin Sally had attended. The Harrington Park Hotel. The backstory of their parents, a stepfather, the moments that fractured a once happy family.

That was the fun part!

Paris…we’ve done that…

Paris for Christmas reunion

My story takes place in Paris, in the run up to the holiday, so I grabbed the chance to go and do a little research which I wrote about a few months ago.

More fun.

It couldn’t last…

Continue reading

What I Did On My Holiday : perils, pitfalls and Pratchett

Eton_Schoolboys,_in_ad_Montem_dress,_by_Francis_AlleyneThis is the time of year when school children up and down the land are required to produce an essay, project or even, God help us, art homework on the subject of What I Did On My Holiday.

They are supposed to have had some wonderful new experience to share with their grateful class mates. At least, I suppose that’s the idea.

Might be a bit of a damp squib this year, I’d say. For a lot of people, anyway. But for some of us it was always torture.

Not necessarily because you’d had a bad holiday, either. Just because of the impossibility of a) selection and b) giving enough context without boring the pants off your class mates. Ten-year-olds make a tough audience. I speak from experience.
Except once.

What I Did on My Holiday at Christmas

At my primary school one year we got the assignment when we went back in January as well. (My mother blamed the teacher’s Christmas-through-New Year hangover. Though she didn’t tell me that until after my 21st birthday.)

Me? I’d spent my holiday reading. Continue reading

Formatting ebook text: hints for independent publishers

Beach Hut Surprise, text formatting by Joanna Maitland

Apart from Beach Hut Surprise, I’ve recently been republishing some of my vintage books on Amazon. In revised (and, I hope, better) editions. I do all my own formatting and I thought I would share some of the approach I use. I’ll add in tips and tricks, too.

For those who’d like to do their own e-publishing, but haven’t yet dared, I hope this will encourage you to have a go. It really isn’t all that difficult. Honest.

Though—shameless self-promo here—if you absolutely can’t face doing your own formatting, I’d be happy to do it for you.

For a fee, of course 😉

Formatting: what it isn’t

This blog is not about editing or proofreading a manuscript. Formatting an ebook starts from the point where the manuscript has already been edited and proofread. A formatter does not normally read the detailed text she’s working on. If she had to do that, the charges would be much, much higher.

exclamation mark in fireThe formatter’s job is to take your perfect manuscript and turn it into a file that can be uploaded to the internet. If the manuscript isn’t perfect, your imperfections will be translated into the e-pubbed version. And you don’t want that, do you?

As an aside, I do normally run a spellcheck on manuscripts before I start formatting. And the spellcheck does sometimes point out errors. Does that mean that the author did not run the spellcheck on her manuscript? I hope not. Maybe it’s just that my spellcheck works differently. In the end, if the published ebook contains spelling errors—or any other editing errors that should have been corrected—it is down to the author, not the formatter.

Formatting: four simple constituents

Continue reading

Writing in Lockdown: challenges met, challenges missed

To begin with, I thought writing in lockdown was going to be a doddle. My normal working life was sitting alone for hours alone staring at a computer screen. Then there were those bursts of high energy word-cookery. What would change?

Actually, I was even crazier than that. Staying home and not seeing people, I thought, would give me oodles of time to complete the umpty-um projects on my 2020 schedule. Maybe this was the year I completed three books, cleared out the study, got to grips with social media and started exercising regularly.

Um – no.

The Big Freeze

snow in March 2016What actually happened was that I froze. Pretty much immediately. And completely. Could hardly do a thing.

It was a nasty shock. I was ashamed and a bit scared. At the time, I didn’t tell anyone.

The house got more and more of a tip. I started things I didn’t finish. But for a while I was self-isolating. So nobody knew.

That stage didn’t last. But struggling out of it took me time. And, from things I have been hearing, I’m not alone. Writing in lockdown can be harder than you’d think. Continue reading