Reading in Dark Times

I don’t know about you, but I have been finding the last number of months to be quite challenging. The news is rather depressing. It’s probably always been depressing, but I, for one, am getting quite sick of the never-ending saga of Covid outbreaks, political stoushes and humanity’s general inability to be kind, tolerant and inclusive. Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth even getting out of bed in the morning. More than any other time that I can remember, the things that I could rely on to give me joy and inspire a sense of purpose have been failing to appeal. I expect that I am not the only one. Covid burnout is becoming a real thing.

One of the things to take a big hit has been reading. It’s not exactly been a drought, but when I look at the books sitting on my shelf to be read this year, I have felt completely unenthused. So many serious themes. So much pain and disaster. So much bad news. Usually I love to be mentally stimulated. I love to get my teeth into something challenging. I love to have my horizons broadened by a wide range of experiences. But not lately. Perhaps our rapidly increasing knowledge of epidemiology, disease prevention and the development of vaccines has already broadened my horizons way more than I could ever have expected and my brain has simply had enough.  

So in a bid to get over this reading slump, escape our disaster laden world and restore some enthusiasm for life, I have reached for titles that feature incredibly unrealistic plots and super-human heroes. I have rummaged through my bookshelves to find the ones where I could just sit back, buckle up and enjoy a thrill-seeking roller-coaster ride. For starters, I turned to Matthew Reilly.

Matthew Reilly is an Australian author who has gained a reputation for writing “non-stop life-threatening action” with “exotic locales…unrelenting menace and dangerous situations that unfold at breakneck pace.” It has even been suggested that his novels should come with a health warning as they are not recommended for the faint-hearted.

 I read my first Matthew Reilly a few years ago. I think it was The Great Zoo of China. Never in my life have I felt so exhausted after reading a book. There was no let up. It was just go go go. You might think that is a strange choice when one is already mentally and emotionally exhausted, but sometimes the sheer thrill of a text can be a great distraction and reprieve from the insanity of everyday life. And let’s face it, Covid 19 has brought a fair bit of insanity into lives that were already under stress.

Reilly is no Nobel Prize writer. The plots unfold at breakneck speed, the character development is often minimal, and any semblance of reality is suspended very early in the piece. I must admit that I have enjoyed some novels better than others and I do have a tendency to skim over the fighting scenes and military details quite quickly. Considering that what I know about military transport, artillery and tactics could be written on a postage stamp, all I need to know at the end is who’s dead, who survived, let’s move on.

It’s clear that Reilly does have a phenomenal knowledge about military transport and artillery and obviously does an incredible amount of research. There have been times though, when I thought he just must have made it up. I know there is such a thing as a chinook and I can accept that there might well be a hawk something or other, but seriously, who would call an aircraft a “Super Stallion”!  I thought Reilly made it up. After all, why would you name an aircraft after an animal that can’t even fly. It made no sense to me. But no, there really is an aircraft called a Super Stallion. Who knew? 

I quite enjoyed the ones about Scarecrow, although it seems I accidentally read them in reverse order. Oh well. The one series of books I did pull up at, though, was the Jack West series. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the character of Jack West. And I did read all the way through Seven Ancient Wonders, but the idea of taking children into an extremely dangerous situation where there were death traps and enemies who had no qualms at killing children or leaving them for dead, just didn’t sit right with me. 

The two stand-out books for me have been The Tournament and Troll Mountain. Both of these mark a change in Reilly’s usual fare and demonstrate that Reilly can write quite well, when he puts his mind to it. The Tournament features a young future Queen Bess in a thrilling historical adventure. An early scene in the book was particularly memorable for the following exchange between Elizabeth and her tutor, Roger Ascham. They had just received an invitation from Suleiman the Magnificent to a chess tournament.  

“For a great sultan who is lord and ruler of all that he surveys, his English is lamentably poor. He can’t even spell England properly.”
"Is that so? Tell me, Bess, do you speak his language? Any Arabic or Turkish-Arabic?"
"You know that I do not."
"Then however lamentable his English may be, he still speaks your language while you cannot speak his. To me, this gives him a considerable advantage over you. Always pause before you criticise. And never unduly criticise one who has made an effort at something you yourself have not even attempted."

Perhaps it is something we might all keep in mind the next time we open our mouths to criticise those for whom English is not their first language.

My favourite Reilly book though is Troll Mountain. It is quite a short book, yet it tells a beautiful story about Raf, who braves the Badlands and ascends Troll Mountain to bring back the cure that will save his sister and the members of his tribe. And, of course, that is not all that Raf achieves.

After ploughing through all the Matthew Reilly on my shelves, I turned my sights to some fantasy by another Australian writer Sara Douglass, reading through the Axis Trilogy and the Wayfarer Redemption series. This was followed by Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters series, which I might have something more to say about at another time, and I have also read The Old Kingdom Chronicles by Garth Nix and The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. I had never read The Three Musketeers before, but I thought a swashbuckling adventure might be the thing for restoring some fun and laughter when the world is going to pot. Thrill-seeking and fantasy might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but for me it has been a welcome and necessary reprieve from real life.

We are facing a lot of serious challenges in the world right now – a pandemic, humanitarian and environmental crises, political turmoil. Perhaps it has always been this way. And while it is important to engage with the movements, challenges and problems of our time, sometimes we need to take a break from the real world to recharge our batteries, relieve stress and experience just a little bit of joy. Sometimes we just need to read for the sheer thrill of the ride and there should always be room for that.

5 thoughts on “Reading in Dark Times

  1. I enjoyed this romp! Just the other day I created a wishlist on my local library for whenever we can get our hands on real paper, and Dumas featured heavily. It’s a conundrum between re-reading things I read so young that I have forgotten, and catching up with new authors.
    As for COVID, people get upset when I say I love lockdown, but I am in the fortunate position of no longer having an elderly, befuddled relative (although I did my penance with 32 years of that), children or grandchildren who depend on me, and a bank balance which depends on my having a job. So COVID has hit me in my sweet spot, and I realise what a fortunate position that is. One thing though, I refuse to read analysis or opinion pieces, and confine myself to a short span “what are today’s facts” check-in. The media are getting very, very carried away writing doomsday pieces. They would be better employed reading history and taking a step back. Now I realise why the British cornered the market on the “Stay Calm and …” logo market.
    None of my experience is relevant to you, I realise that. All I can advise is deep breaths and small, incidental joys. Such as the walk I took today in a local botanic garden. I know it is hard to see the day we will all walk away from this … but it will come. History tells us so.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, so true Gwen. I suspect part of it was due to finally finishing study at the end of June and just being fatigued from the stress and pressure of essays and exams. I haven’t been terribly affected by Covid – no lock downs here – but there are the ongoing battles with the NDIS, concerns about the future of Bec’s generation, elderly parents interstate…a post-Covid world is something to definitely look forward to. Perhaps reading less news online might be an idea and being grateful for everyday mercies.

      Liked by 1 person

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