Monthly Archives: November 2014

Through the Woods – Emily Carroll

Those of you who have been visiting this blog for some time will know that I am a huge fan of the fairy tale and have been since I was a youngster, so much so that I named my first pet, a duck, Rapunzel. Imagine my delight then when Faber emailed me and asked me if I would like to read a copy of Emily Carroll’s graphic/comic short stories, Through the Woods, a collection of creepy fairy tales and urban legend like tales. Of course I practically bit their hands off through the medium of email and what arrived in the post a few days later was a thing of beauty, though as we know even the most beautiful of things can have a dark heart…

Faber & Faber, hardback, 2014, graphic short story collection, 208 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Through the Woods is a collection of five very eerie, gothic and deliciously chilling tales. Each tale manages to do that wonderfully uneasy thing of somehow allaying themselves to your childhood, and indeed grown up, fear.  First there is Our Neighbours House which tells of three sisters who are told by their father, before he goes off hunting in the snow, that if he does not return they must head to their neighbours house, of course he disappears and so the sisters must decide what to do alone with only each other and the mysterious neighbour through the snow and woods. Second up is A Lady’s Hands Are Cold about a second wife who moves into her new home where something isn’t happy about her arrival.

Next up His Face All Red looks at how dangerous jealousy can be even between siblings, though admittedly this is the one that worked the least for me. Penultimate tale My Friend Janna is a tale of a medium which has a very, very clever twist as it goes on which I admired very much. Then finally we have The Nesting Place which is all about a young girl who visits her brother and his wife and soon wishes she had never made the journey and superbly describes one of the most sinister written noises, skreaaak skriiiick, which has just made me shiver thinking about it. I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone who has the joy, or terror, of this collection to come so I will say no more on how the tales twist and turn out.

Carroll does some very clever things with this collection. The first of which is that, as I mentioned before, she marvellously plays with fears we have as children such as isolation or being lost, be it in a wood or the middle of a snowy wasteland. She also plays on more adult fears like the loss of teeth, which is something I have nightmares about now and comes up in one of the tales. She also plays with things that bother us, even if we don’t admit it, as adults and children the noises that you hear in the middle of the night and tell yourself that the house is either warming up or cooling down for the night for example. We all do this even as adults don’t we? No, just me? Oh, let us move swiftly on…

She also delightfully, be it for the blatant inner fairy tale geek in you or the nostalgic one in your subconscious, brings back and plays homage to the fairy tales of your childhood. Notably it is the darker  well know ones like Red Riding Hood (come on, who wasn’t petrified of meeting a wolf in a wood that would eat your Granny?) and the lesser known but very, very dark tale of Bluebeard. She also does it with some of the more modern gothic tales, with I thought a nod to Rebecca in one, but I would think that wouldn’t I? She also plays with the tropes that we know so well, for example swapping the wicked step mother figure in one tale to being a different new member of the family. These nods and winks add to the delight of the collection.

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She also plays with emotions we all know all too well and have done all our lives; jealousy, rage and most importantly fear. At the start of Through the Woods there is a brilliant introduction in the form of a tiny piece of memoir which explains how as a child Emily would read long into the night herself and be scared to turn the light out just in case something was outside waiting at the window or ready to grab her from under the bed.

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In channelling that into these five tales along with the incredibly atmospheric and (cliché alert) haunting illustrations Emily Carroll genuinely creates a book that will properly creep you out, not just give you the odd chill or two. The Nesting Place, which was my favourite tale, is one that actually wormed (once you have read it you will see what I did there) itself into my brain and stayed in there bothering me, especially at night when I dreamt about it – and I know about three other people this has happened to with one or two of these stories.

Through the Woods is an incredible achievement and a cracking collection.  Somehow in using just the right words and just the right images Carroll creates a piece of work that genuinely gets into your head and plays with your fears in both a good shivery way and a really uncomfortable one. You will be reading it well into the early hours and left wondering just what on earth could be lurking outside your window on one of these cold dark nights before you turn the light off.

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Who else has read Through the Woods and what did you make of it? Will anyone else admit to be genuinely bothered by it? Which other collections of spooky stories or fairy tales, be they retellings or originals, would you recommend?

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Filed under Books of 2014, Faber & Faber, Graphic Novels, Review, Short Stories

Read Any Warhol?

This week I had the pleasure of going to a special preview of the new Andy Warhol exhibition which has come to Tate Liverpool (yes, we do much culture and art oop North – there is more to the UK than just London, ha!) this week.

It was amazing to see some of the wonderful art that, being Warhol, I have seen pictures of but never in the flesh before. There’s something very surreal (and a bit tingly) when you see world famous pieces in the flesh. I couldn’t get over the Brillo boxes, Campbell’s soup tins and of course the Marilyn’s…

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The beard and I managed to selfie bomb with Marilyn as you can see. Anyway, one of the things I hadn’t realised was that he had designed so many books covers, being the geek I am I will have to look up these titles…

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I had also forgotten about the books that Andy Warhol had written. I knew they existed and am sure one of the libraries had them recently. Now of course, as is always the way, I am really intrigued by them. Especially by A.

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The only things that worry me are that it will be too bonkers/experimental for me or too clever. So I wondered if any of you have read A and if so what you thought of it? I am tempted to give it a whirl. (If you have read any of the books he designed the covers of above let me know about those too!) Oh and if you are in Liverpool at all anytime before the 8th of February do check out this marvellous exhibition, though one room had me really trippy – which might be the point, at the brilliant Tate Liverpool on the Albert Dock!

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After Me Comes The Flood – Sarah Perry

Some books are rather tricky to read and therefore tricky to write about. Sarah Perry’s debut novel, After Me Comes the Flood, was the first book I read when I returned from America and I have to say at first I thought was the worst possible choice of book to read whilst in the throes of jetlag. Now Sarah, on the off chance you have popped by, don’t fret because once I realised that it wasn’t the jet lag (or that it was me being a bit thick) and that you cleverly, and trickily, wanted me to feel rather thrown and confused initially. Yet I soon got enveloped in a wonderful and often tricky (have I mentioned the tricky factor yet or mentioned the word tricky so many times its gone weird) dark and unsettling gothic world somewhere on the Norfolk coast.

Serpent’s Tail Books, paperback, 2014, fiction, 240 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

If you decided, after being sick to death of a seemingly never ending heat wave in London, that you would go and take a trip to visit a family member before breaking down in a wood and then finding a house where a bunch of strangers are waiting for you to turn up, you might think something really weird was going on. This is the case for John Cole, a bookseller who, after a thirty five day drought of rain and indeed customers in his bookshop, finds himself in this very predicament. Why would people that he has never met be waiting for him? Is there more to it than merely just some strange coincidence?

John is naturally wondering just what the funk is going on, feeling both saved and yet, quite naturally, completely disorientated and confused. We too as the reader are instantly thrown into a world where we feel that the rug has been pulled from under us and can’t work it out either. I have to admit I was feeling rather confused and cross at first, yet Sarah’s wonderful writing and the mystery of what was going on with this strange cast of characters and why they new John kept me reading – then the penny dropped. It wasn’t the book that was confusing, John was confused and bothered and through his narrative so was I. Clever. Tricky. A risk. Yet one that pays off if you let it just take over you and go with it.

‘I know. And I don’t know which would be worst. Isn’t it odd,’ she said, smiling: ‘You turned up and I never for a minute thought it might be you, though even as strangers go, you’re fairly strange.’ Much later John was to remember that phrase, and wonder why it had felt so like an unexpected touch on the arm. Pressing her hands against the dip in her spine and turning her face to the sun she said, ‘Let’s not talk about it anymore.’ Then she ran to peer at the shadow on the broken sundial, swore beneath her breath, and vanished into the cool dark house. Clare stood, examining a bitten-down thumbnail, while the sound of a piano played in intricate swift patterns reached them across the lawn.
‘How did she know the time,’ said John, when the sundial’s broken?’

I mentioned that it is the intrigue that carries you through the initial confusion. There is of course the mystery of how on earth these characters know, or think they know, John. There is also the question of why he allows them to go on thinking this and what will happen should they realise he might not be who they think, if he isn’t who they think. There is also the mystery of the characters that have come together in this crumbling old mansion, which is often a character in its own right.  We have head of the house, the unnervingly ugly yet motherly Hester who is clearly in charge; a former preacher named Elijah who has pages from the bible all over his walls; the beautiful yet cold Eve; the childlike (to the point of dim) Claire and her brother Alex who everyone is concerned about and a man named Walker, who stays aloof. Why have this group of strangers come together when they have no family ties, how do they know each other, what ties them together? It gets stranger and more mysterious as it goes on. Oh and there is the question of what on earth Eadwacer is? I will say no more because one of the wonders of this book is how it unwinds and unravels slowly but surely revealing all.

If I can’t say much more about the plot, what else can I say about the book? Well, Perry’s writing is rather wonderful. It takes a very accomplished author to write a book that is so strange, other and confusing at times you almost throw the book across the room, almost, never quite. The strangeness and confusion give it a rather beguiling nature which, along with the aforementioned characters and mystery, carries you on through. There is also the wonderful way in which Sarah Perry plays with words, often flipping them on their own meaning, how strange can a stranger be; can a stranger get stranger and stranger for example. There is a love of words and what they can do which shines through in the text which gives a playful nature to the book and can make an oppressive moment seem like a funny one and vice versa.

The gull padded scowling towards him and screamed again. The sound startled the pair inside the glasshouse – another of the windows flew open and a small white pebble was flung out. It startled the gull, which gave a weary thrust of its wings, shot John and aggrieved glare, and wheeled away towards the reservoir where Alex and Clare lay unmoving on the bright grass of the embankment, It found a rising current of hot air, and rode it out of sight.
‘Do you remember being a child and drawing birds so they made the letter M?’ said Eve, watching it go and bringing her tilted head against Walker’s shoulder. ‘And every house had a chimney, and the sky was a blue stripe with nothing between it and the green earth.’

There is also a wonderful duality to the novel which I really enjoyed. After Me Comes The Flood feels like it is set in the past, with its almost Victorian gothic atmosphere, and yet could easily be set in the future when global warming is rife. The book also has both a sense of nostalgic innocence and a knowing darkness. Sometimes is it maddeningly mysterious, other times thrillingly so. There is also a real sadness etched within its pages, yet it is also very funny, sometimes quite darkly and inappropriately so.

After Me Comes The Flood is a book that I would call brilliantly confusing and compelling. Oh and of course tricky, both in it playing joyful and dark tricks with its reader, though now I have used that word so much it does indeed seem wrong so maybe quirky is better. It is also incredibly original, whilst having nods and winks to literature from the past. It is a book which is both maddeningly and thrillingly strange and will require you to stop trying to rationalise everything and just go with it. Some people might be put off by this and that is their loss, I interestingly wanted to start it all over again when I had finished and think it could be one of those books you read every few years and get something completely different from. It is a fantastic example of a modern gothic novel and I am very excited about what Sarah might just do next, though I guess I should already be expecting something quite unexpected, which is very exciting.

Who else has read After Me Comes The Flood and what did you make of it? Which books have you read that have really thrown you off kilter initially before becoming brilliant and quirky tales you will never forget and even go back to?

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Filed under Review, Sarah Perry, Serpent's Tail

It Looks Like I Have a Crime to Solve…

Today while I was sat at my desk work, work, working away, I had a random text message from my neighbour. She was rather worried as she has signed for something for Sumci Salidge at our address and it looked a bit dodgy as it was covered in evidence tape. My mind went into overdrive. Firstly I wondered if I had done anything really naughty that the law could be after me for. Then I wondered if my divorce papers were finally here. Then I started thinking of the movie Seven and that scene with that  box. I then had a meeting and forgot about it until I got home.

Indeed it was a box that was covered in evidence tape which said ‘Do Not Open’, which of course made me want to open it…

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So I did…

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Well, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw all the evidence bags – I was in my element! I should here explain that my dream job, had I finished my A-Levels and gone to university after, would have been to become a Criminal Psychologist or Profiler. You know like Sue Johnston in Waking The Dead, the person who they call in when they want to work out who the killer might be, what their personality, predilections and motives might be. I would have found it fascinating. (Instead I have ended up working in events and business tourism with a sprinkling of booky delight.) So to get this box was just too much.

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There is dust and a brush for finger printing, a blue light torch for looking for blood stains (see I know what I am talking about), a magnifying glass, seven cents, a USB stick and various files and clues. This is all for the sampler of the new novel Flesh and Blood by Patricia Cornwell, which as you read you must refer to the numbered evidence and make sense of it all. So actually being a detective as you go, amazing. I cannot wait. I haven’t started yet, but plan on giving it a whirl over the weekend. I will report back in the next week or so…

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Filed under Random Savidgeness