Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Claude Glass – Tom Bullough

Last year I made a mini pledge with myself to read more books set in the wilds of the countryside. This had happened after reading two novels, The Proof of Love’ by Catherine Hall and ‘The Hunger Trace’ by Edward Hogan, which blew me away and haunted me all the more with their atmosphere of the brooding rural landscapes. When my eyes happened upon ‘The Claude Glass’ by Tom Bullough in the library the cover alone suggested to me that this could be one of these types of reads and so I took it away with me as fast as I could. The fact I knew nothing of the book or indeed the author only excited me more, would I be discovering a hidden unknown gem. It appears I have, an incredible one in fact.

Sort of Books, paperback, 2007, fiction, 201 pages, borrowed from the library

‘The Claude Glass’ has the story of two boys at its heart. Both aged seven years old Robin and Andrew, who live on the neighbouring farms of Ty’n-y-coed and Werndunvan in Wales, couldn’t be more different. Robin is brought up in a comfortable, if slightly controlled, environment with his seemingly new age parents, who seem to prefer to have their children call them Tara and Adam (which confused me at first) than Mum and Dad. They aren’t wealthy but they seem happy living the life they had idolised. Andrew however is almost feral; he can barely speak, never washes and in fact lives in the crumbling uninhabitable part of the farm hidden behind its pleasant facade. His father Philip is clearly in need of some anger management therapy and his mother Dora spends her days pretending to cook in a kitchen that has barely been cleaned in years.

‘Andrew knew already that it was going to thunder. He had known for some time – in the same way that he knew when he was hungry, or when he needed to go to sleep. Thunder grew in him, as it grew in the air and the wind around them. It scared him in ways that he couldn’t hold in his mind. It was the animal at the door with the yellow eyes, the face that had gawped at him in the room with the pattern for a floor, these people in the yard, calling his name periodically, hunting him down to his den.’

So what is a Claude glass and what is its relevance in the book? Well in part it is pivotal in the ending of the novel, which I won’t give away, but it is also rather symbolic. Claude glasses were created in the late 18th century as a way of seeing the world framed and, due to mirrored glass being tinted a dark colour, making everything look rather other worldly and eerily beautiful. For me as a reader this almost became a metaphor for the two families involved in the story being so polar opposite to one another. Robin’s family being ‘ex-hippies’ who have come to set up a stable life, and Andrews family who appear to have the external physically stable world and yet behind that facade is a crumbling world of madness and abuse.

The effects of a Claude glass...

Yet these two polar opposite families have to communicate, there is an interesting mix of both competition and understanding in part, and in doing so Robin and Andrew meet and a form of friendship seems to spark. I won’t say what happens after because you need to follow the journey there but I will say that it takes quite a long time to get to this point. Bullough seems to want this to be a really slow building novel, the smallest tensions slowly appearing leading up to the novels conclusion, one that is so open ended it may frustrate some readers.

In fact I could imagine this could be a rather frustrating read for some people, there is a plot but it’s built one the smallest moments of near silence. The atmosphere simmers and broods the whole way through building a quite claustrophobic feeling in what should be open space. You think nothing is happening but it is quite the contrary. There are also slightly magical elements of the book too. Set in the early 1980’s Robin and Andrew don’t have access to television their imaginations run wild with ghosts and monsters. The atmosphere around them, and the fact their teacher them the local myths and legends, of Wales only adds to this.

‘Wales, he explained, had once been a very different place to the way it was today: a wilderness of fathomless forests, of talking beasts and birds that pecked at the stars.’

These factors might put off some readers, here I should admit I initially struggled to get my bearings, as there is quite a bit of work and piecing things together, as we have snapshots of the two families lives in different seasons, big things happen and then we skip a month or two not seeing the initial repercussions, plus the magical elements. Yet I loved these elements about the book and I really liked the fact Bullough creates this sense of place and people and wants you to work with him on building the bigger picture and using all the things unsaid along with tiny tensions to create the full narrative tale.  I think by now you will have probably guessed that I thought ‘The Claude Glass’ was an unusual and incredibly accomplished piece of writing, silently impressive and one that rewards you in many ways.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Review, Sort of Books, Tom Bullough

Three for Thirty & Forty for Forty

I am going to be thirty in less than a month, something I have mixed feelings about and may possibly keep pretending to myself isn’t happening. It’s not the getting older thing, I am not that bothered about that, it’s that feeling I had (which I have clearly held onto) from being at school and in my late teens that ‘by thirty you should know what you are doing with your life’ – I still have no idea. Anyway, that is by the by but being 30 does have something to do with books as the other day I muttered the worlds I have long used ‘oh that’s another book to read by the time I am 30’. The friend I was with flippantly quipped back ‘better hurry up then’ and I felt perplexed.

I think most book lovers have several lists in their heads at any one time (though of course this could just be me). First is the list of what you have just read, are reading and want to read pretty much next, second is the list of all those periphery books that you want to get your mitts on, third is the list of books for rainy days or to read as a treat, fourth are those books ‘you really should read before…’ Mine has always been books I should read before I am thirty. Oops, failed there.

These are books that as a reader part of me does genuinely want to read and also some of me feels I simply have to have read. These include some of the generic classics I have missed out on as yet like ‘Madame Bovary’, ‘Crime and Punishment’,  ‘Of Human Bondage’ etc as well as more modern novels like ‘Catch 22’. Do you know the sorts of books I mean?

Of course I can’t read all the books on my ‘to read before I am thirty’ (Dickens was one but I am now bored of the whole Dickens anniversary to the point it has officially put me off) list, especially as I said I would read by whim this year. But I think I will try and read three of them, one for each week I have left in my twenties. The first of these might just be ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ by Anne Frank which I cannot believe I have almost reached the age of thirty and not read. I am mulling over the other two options, but mulling is good because I also want to create another list of novels, and here I need your help, as I want to create a list of 40 books I should have read by the time I hit forty. I know it is ten years away but that makes it rather manageable.

I would love you to suggest your very favourite books, choose a few that you think I should definitely read or you would recommend to anyone as a perfect read. They don’t have to be classics, they just have to be books you adore (and tell me why) in fact the lesser know ones along with some infamous ones might make a nice mix. I am thinking of books which it simply is a crime not to have read by then in your opinion. I will then compile a list of the forty to publish in my first week post thirty and start reading, four of these a year seems manageable.

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

The Poison Tree – Erin Kelly

I always watch each Richard and Judy, or TV Book Club, announcement of novels with interest. Some will instantly grab me; some leave me needing a little coaxing. ‘The Poison Tree’ by Erin Kelly was one of the latter cases when I saw it on the list last year. It looked like it could be an interesting thriller but I wasn’t sure it would be anything out of the ordinary. Twitter changed all that. You see though it may not prove to be the best form of picking an author, if I have a bit of banter with one on twitter, and they don’t try to sell me their book, I invariably want to read it because they seem lovely. Erin Kelly was one such author. I’d never met her but we have chattered about books, the weather and music and got on, so I thought I would probably like her book.

Hodder Books, paperback, 2011, fiction, 368 pages, from my personal TBR

I really like a good crime novel and I really like a good thriller, I tend to forget that sometimes they don’t need to have any police involved (or rather on the periphery rather than as a lead character) and ‘The Poison Tree’ is one of those novels. The story centres on Karen Clarke and her time studying languages in a university in London in 1997 where she meets Biba. Biba isn’t quite like anyone that Karen has ever met before; she’s a young rather bohemian aspiring actress who spends most of her life partying quite the antithesis of Karen who is rather prim, proper and studious. This of course is all set to change as she befriends Biba when teaching her how to pronounce German authentically for a part. We know from the very start that somewhere in this particular summer something awful is going to happen, what that is we aren’t quite sure, but we know that it’s bad, life changing and involves Karen, Biba and Biba’s brother Rex (as there is an alternating storyline in the present which alludes to things that could have happened).

I don’t tend to get on with ‘student’ books set in those ‘wonderful university years’, this may possibly be because I didn’t experience them myself as I went into work rather than studying. However I found myself really enjoying ‘The Poison Tree’ and I think that is because Erin Kelly really focuses on characters. Biba in particular is incredibly readable, if rather annoying, because of her nature, she is mysterious and flighty and (possibly due to the past we discover she and Rex have) rather on the edge a lot of the time, she has a sense of darkness. The first hundred and fifty or so pages flew by, and then I had a mini wobble. Biba goes off the rails and it seemed a little unoriginal, she dates a druggy and starts living a rather dubious life all in the name of ‘role research’, that and her first role in a play seemed a little over drawn but I carried on and the pace came back.

I am not going to say what ‘the event’, which I what I shall call it, that we are leading up to is because I don’t want to spoil it, but I do need to mention it because it had an interesting affect on me as a reader. For when ‘the event’ happened I was rather non plussed. In part this was because it wasn’t what I was expecting and so completely wrong footed me, but also because I had this strange feeling of ‘oh… is that it?’ and I stopped reading to mull over my reaction. I wasn’t disappointed exactly, because Erin Kelly does so wrong foot you it is impressive, it just didn’t seem to gel for me. I should be honest and say this could be because I had felt so clever guessing what was coming or expecting some massive heightened event that this left me feeling a bit cheated, or less clever. I almost sulked. Yet I read on and soon Erin Kelly saved it again (though I wonder if she ever lost it and with the alternating present storyline was actually wanting the reader to have the complete wrong idea) as in the last 50 or so pages she throws in some twists one of which I had hazarded at and was proved right (and so felt clever again) and two which genuinely threw me and, to coin a cliché, thrilled me. I actually had to speed read the last twenty pages in a panic simply desperate to know how it would all unfold.

So overall I liked ‘The Poison Tree’ and I am glad I gave it a whirl. I want to add the clichéd review comment of ‘this shows a promising new voice’ because a) it does and b) when this novel had me gripped it really had me gripped. I liked the evocation of 1990’s London, the mention of the Spice Girls took me right back, and the fact that Kelly’s characters are so well drawn that when things do have a small lull in the middle you read on because you want to know more about them. In a way that’s why you read on after ‘the event’ and get those final surprising twists and turns. I was an enjoyable and escapist read and at some point I will try her follow up novel, this isn’t a series by the way, ‘The Sick Rose’ (and I am not just saying that as she is a good chatting companion on Twitter, i don’t even think she knows I read the book).

Has anyone else read ‘The Poison Tree’? If so what did you think? What about ‘The Sick Rose’?

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Filed under Erin Kelly, Hodder & Stoughton, Review

What Happens When You Move & Don’t Update Publishers With Your New Address?

Well, you go and visit the lovely family members you were staying with after a few weeks of being in your own little new world and find they have had an avalanche of parcels for you, which you then have to lug all the way back to your new abode. Let me illustrate that for you…

Oh and…

I stopped doing ‘incoming posts’ but know some of you like them so see this is a random special return. (I’m not going to list all the books just some highlights, you can click on the pics for a bigger image I think.)

There was some delightful parcel opening once I had dragged several ‘bags for life’ (and really tested them to see if they live up to their name) brimming with parcels home, as some of the finds were wonderful. In general these were unsolicited copies, but I had asked for a few. Maura at Riot PR had sent some of the Waterstones 11, so I think I have almost all of those now, as I don’t have relationships with all of the publishers on the list. I have been very excited about them all but both ‘Care of Wooden Floors’ by Will Wiles and ‘The Lifeboat’ by Charlotte Rogan in particular, but didn’t think those two would be appearing via my postman, I was wrong as I had a copy from Little Brown, so I might give one away when the book comes out. ‘The Art of Fielding’ by Chad Harbach I asked for with the clause that I would try it but I might not finish it, I am being honest, and so I will at some point.

I am beyond excited about Peter Ackroyd’s biography on ‘Wilkie Collins’ and the new short story collection ‘Guilt’ by Ferdinand Von Schirach as I greatly admired ‘Crime’ when I read it last year. I think William Boyd’s new book, which Alice at Bloomsbury had signed for me as I couldn’t make the Bloomsbury Blogger event, ‘Waiting For Sunrise’ might be the next from these piles I read, though it is getting a lot of mentions on blogs, we will see. It could have some stiff competition from ‘Love From Nancy’ (which is more Nancy Mitford letters than I could dream of) as to who makes it from the TBR to the bedside table, we will see.

Pretty much all the other books came unsolicited as I mentioned but there are some titles there that I am intrigued by, I will have a proper sift over this weekend, and so am pleased arrived. I have yet to read Peter Carey, ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ just looks so looooong, but ‘Chemistry of Tears’ looks shorter and sounds very interesting so I will give this major Man Booker winner a whirl finally. I am also thrilled with two of the recovered (in a team up with the V&A) and soon to be reissued Vintage Classics which turned up, ‘The Sea, The Sea’ by Iris Murdoch and ‘The French Lieutenants Woman’ by  John Fowles. They are authors I have read one book by before and then I said I will return to and then haven’t. Both look very good, and I fancy some more chunksters this year, and I had no idea ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ was neo-Victorian until recently so I am definitely going to give that a whirl soon.

What books have you bought/been sent/been given lately? Which of these would you like to see me give a whirl on a whim? What are you reading now?

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Filed under Book Thoughts

First Love, Last Rites – Ian McEwan

I am not generally a prudish person. I might not like the odd swear word in a book if it jars or seems out of character, but I don’t believe reading should always be comfortable and in fact some literature needs to be confronting to address certain issues. Odd then that, a favourite author of mine too, Ian McEwan’s debut collection of short stories ‘First Love, Last Rites’ has left me feeling rather conflicted, I read it all with a feeling that I really shouldn’t continue on and yet I did.

Vintage Books, paperback, 1975, fiction, short stories, 176 pages, from my personal TBR

‘First Love, Last Rites’ is a murky collection of tales. The subject matter in these short stories will disturb and quite possibly offend the most hardened or open minded of us. Here we have a mixture of titillating tales of naked posing, masturbation and dressing up, but we also have a much darker selection based on incest, rape, child abduction, possible murder and abuse. With the lighter few of these stories like ‘Cocker at the Theatre’ (think Mrs Henderson Present’s but a bit filthier and made me guffaw) I read in a rather teenage giggly way. However the darker stories really divided me.

I have read many book in which horrific things are depicted, be they from incest to the horrors of war, and have found the occasional graphic nature of them to be appropriate and justified rather than offensive, uncomfortable yes but not without reason. With ‘First Love, Last Rites’ I couldn’t really work out if these darker tales needed to be told (odd I know seeing as I think McEwan’s ‘The Cement Garden’ is a fantastic if horrific novella) and if so how graphically. For example ‘Butterflies’ would be a celver but disturbing tale of a man abducting a child, agreed not a story for everyone, and yet when the actual horrific act happens McEwan does a lot of showing and telling, rather than possibly leave it to the readers imagination – which can actually be worse.

It was this factor that made me feel rather like a voyeur and made me ponder on why I was reading these stories. What was the point in them when they had no real depth and seemed to be a young author’s first works based on how to be shocking; this was the difference between these shorts and ‘The Cement Garden’ which is a fully rounded deeply disturbing tale. It was this very feeling which I tried to express on twitter when I said that I had been compelled to read them when I didn’t think I should and how I then ended up feeling rather ‘grubby’ afterwards.

As a fan of McEwan’s work (and I have read a lot of it) I weirdly wasn’t as disappointed with this collection as I could have been despite my thoughts above. It sort of seemed to make sense. I interestingly don’t think I would have been compelled to read anymore of McEwan’s work; in fact I was rather surprised it won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976, if I had happened upon this first apart from possibly as a teenager when the titillation factor would have won over, hey I wasn’t so selective in my reading then. However having become a fan of McEwan from his more modern and better known novels I can see this whole series of tales as almost warm ups as to what was to come. This didn’t endear me to ‘First Love, Last Rites’ any the more, it just explained it in some way to me.

‘First Love, Last Rites’ is a challenging and dark read, one which should you choose to try out will have you looking at the fine lines between being a reader and a voyeur and also between what makes a challenging read and one which seems set simply to shock, albeit very well written like all of McEwan’s works.

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Filed under Ian McEwan, Review, Short Stories, Vintage Books

Black Books…

I am probably the last person to the Black Books party, however I did turn down anyone who invited me to try and join it. I didn’t think that a comedy set in a bookshop run by an alcoholic would be my thing. How wrong was I? I am completely converted. (I must admit that anything with Tamsin Grieg in it will almost certainly be brilliant, The Archers, Green Wing I could go on. She is brilliant in this as Fran.) I thought in case anyone else has missed it or resisted it I would share my favourite scene so far, well the least rude one, with you all. Bear with it, I howled with laughter.

Who else is a convert, any favourite scenes? Any other bookish situation comedies out there I am missing? I have The Book Group and need to dig it out again.

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Filed under Random Savidgeness

The Greatcoat – Helen Dunmore

When I heard that Hammer Horror were going into a publishing partnership with Random House I was instantly excited. I do love a good ghost story and who better than Hammer to bring the genre back again. The first of the novellas to come out is ‘The Greatcoat’ by Helen Dunmore, not an author I have to admit I would have associated with ghost stories, I was intrigued.

Hammer Horror Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 196 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Ghost stories are always really difficult to write too much about as they work best when the reader knows very little and so they can work their suspenseful magic. This is something Dunmore does very well and it would be bad of me to spoil any of this. I will however give you the premise. Our narrator Isabel is a young woman, recently married, taking on the life as doctor’s wife in a small English town in the countryside near York in the early 1950’s. As a new found housewife Isabel is unsure what to do, she feels the locals love her husband yet don’t feel so inclined towards her and so she leads a solitary life under the roof of her slightly disapproving landlady. However when she discovers an wartime greatcoat in her flat there is soon a rapping at her windows when her husband is on call one night things begin to change.

That sounds incredibly vague but really it’s all I want to say about the premise, what I can talk more about are the factors of what makes a great ghost story and the way Dunmore uses them to create a quietly gripping tale with ‘The Greatcoat’ which gets under your skin more than you think.

The first thing you need in a great ghost story is the perfect location ripe for a spooky atmosphere. Isabel leads a solitary life in a small town, often frequented by fogs, surrounded by fields and nothingness, well apart from a disused over grown dank airfield. The second is the question of a narrators reliability, Isabel spends a lot of time on her own and her husband Philip starts to notice that she not only becomes slightly too attached to an item of seemingly forgotten clothing from the war but that gin is disappearing in the house. Is Isabel really coping with her newfound life, could more be going on than meets the eye.

You also need unease and here I think Dunmore created her finest character in the form of Mrs Atkinson the landlady. Does she go into Isabel and Philip’s flat when they aren’t there? Is she moving things? Why does she seem to intensely dislike Isabel from the off? Why does she walk back and forth in her room upstairs all night long? As you can probably imagine I loved Mrs Atkinson and was most intrigued by her, there is a slight Mrs Danvers likeness about her.

Finally and most importantly you need a good ghost. Should the ghost at any point seem unreal then all the work the author has put in is lost for good. Well, again without giving anything too much away here, Helen Dunmore does something very clever because we have an initial obvious (but believable) ghost and then as the story goes on we realise there might be more than one ghostly thing going on, if not more. That sounds incredibly vague yet again, but sadly I must be if not to ruin everything should you read the book.

‘The Greatcoat’ is a very good ghost story. It didn’t scare me like I imagined it would (though there is one scene with a fingernail and a tap-tap-tapping which did bother me quite a lot), possibly because this was after all a Hammer Horror book so I had hyped it in my head a little, but the unease builds and just when you think you have worked it all out, or that it might all be over, like the best ghost stories there are some very clever twists in the end you don’t see coming.

I am very interested to see what the next Hammer release, written by Jeanette Winterson and based on the British legend/true story of the Pendle Witches, is like as they have certainly got off to a very promising start. I am also looking forward to seeing ‘The Woman in Black’ tomorrow, how I have managed not to dash to the cinema and see it for so long I do not know.  What’s your favourite ghost story?  Have you read any of Helen Dunmore’s other novels, should I give them a whirl?

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Filed under Hammer Horror, Helen Dunmore, Random House Publishing, Review