Monthly Archives: December 2014

Agatha Raisin Round Up; Curious Curates, Haunted Houses and Christmas Crimes

So my Christmas holidays started with the news that I had a stomach ulcer, which put paid to much merriment then and there (snowballs etc) and then I got a stonking cold within two days. Bah humbug, was how I was feeling. So what did I do? I ordered in plenty of ginger beer (Gran swore by this and it does kill a cold and sore throat honest) took to my bed and dusted off my Agatha Raisin series. I say dusted off because I have almost the whole series yet shockingly, I am actually a little bit disgusted with myself, I have not read any for TWO YEARS?!?!?  Well, to make up for it I binged.

For all those snobs out there who might think my love of Agatha Raisin is bonkers or a step into cosy crime I say you are all fools and good day to you. Firstly, Agatha Raisin books have become New York Times Bestsellers, though so did Fifty Shades of Grey I am aware. Secondly and I think most tellingly, M. C. Beaton is the most borrowed author in libraries in the United Kingdom with the Agatha Raisin’s being the most borrowed and I can see why. You know what you are going to get.

Constable Books, 2003 (2010 edition), paperback, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Within turning the first few pages of Agatha Raisin and the Curious Curate I knew I was back in a world that is familiar and going to give me just what I want, some escapist fun. The faithful characters who live in the fictional Cotswold village of Carsely are all waiting for me from the off. Agatha as usual is a bit bored having solved a case, maybe having been and done a PR freelance job in London for her gay best friend Roy, and now being back with her cats and pondering about why she is single, probably whilst eating a microwave meal and thinking something saucy about her male neighbour of something bitchy about one of the women in the Carsely Ladies Society.

Yet there has been a change in Carsely of late, there is a new curate and the ladies in the village are all besides themselves for Tristan Delon is a dish. Agatha has decided, after her second failed marriage and rebuff of her handsome crime writing neighbour John, she is off men for life. Yet when Tristan comes round and invites her for dinner she practically swoons. After dinner she can almost see her life ahead with a toy boy, until the next day when the potential toy boy is found dead.

Whilst she has sworn of her amateur detecting, when the eye of suspicion turns on the Vicar though Agatha knows she must clear the name of her best friend’s (Mrs Bloxby) husband she starts to do some digging, the initial clues coming from her dinner spent with the man himself. What follows is, as always, a wonderful darkly funny bumbling investigation where you may just guess that Agatha will solve it all (badly and possibly by fluke) whilst causing more mayhem (one scene with a suit of armour had me laughing, and then coughing) for about ten minutes.

Constable, 2003 (2010 edition), paperback, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Next up was Agatha Raisin and the Haunted House where initially there is no body to deduce but some ghost hunting. As usual Agatha is bored having solved a case, maybe having been and done a PR freelance job in London for her gay best friend Roy, and now being back with her cats and pondering about why she is single, whilst having a fag and trying to ignore the new handsome neighbour Paul Chatterton.

Yet when she hears of a haunted house in a neighbouring village she, with Paul who she initial fobs off, turns ghost hunter to no great results other than embarrassing herself. However several weeks later the owner of the house, Mrs Witherspoon, is found dead with a broken neck and something seems suspicious. So naturally Agatha starts to investigate yet soon discovers with a woman like Mrs Witherspoon, whose daughter describes as ‘an old bitch’, there are many, many people who might have liked to have killed her. Yet which one did, and for what reason?

Again, I raced through this one which actually seemed to have a slight change in its formula, for once it isn’t Agatha who is so hapless and also there is a really interesting historical link to it all, there are the return of an old face or two, none of which I will say more about it for fear of spoilers. Suffice to say I loved it and was thrilled at the end where, and this is not a major spoiler as it in the blurbs of the later books, Agatha is setting up her own detective agency. Hoorah!

‘I hope you’re not doing anything to interfere with our investigations,’ he said.
‘Simply paying our respects.’
‘A word of warning to you Mrs Raisin. It’s only in books that old biddies from villages can help the police. In real life, they’re a pain in the arse.
‘Just like you,’ said Agatha savagely. ‘Sod off.’

Now the amateur detectives in you out there will notice I mentioned Christmas crimes. This is because by the time this goes live I may well have read two more Agatha Raisin stories since then, Agatha Raisin: Hell’s Bells and Agatha Raisin and the Christmas Crumble which are both Christmas specials and *mumbles* are also ebook short novellas. ALSO (as if this wasn’t enough Agatha Raisin delight) on Boxing Day, my favourite day of the year, there will also be a new adaptation of Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death (the first one) on Sky 1. (All trailers here.) More below…

I have to say the jury will be out for me on Ashley Jensen as Agatha but M.C. Beaton has said on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour that she is amazing so we will see, I am very much looking forward to watching it over Chrimbles though. Anyway, if you haven’t given Agatha a whirl then please do and if you have tell me all about it…

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Filed under Agatha Raisin, Constable & Robinson Publishing, M.C. Beaton, Review

The American Lover – Rose Tremain

If one book could sum up my reading year it would probably be Rose Tremain’s collection The American Lover. In part this is because this has been a year in which I have rediscovered my love of the short story. It wasn’t that I had abandoned them; I think I was just reading the wrong ones. It is also the year that I finally read Rose Tremain, after reading her work in honour of Granny Savidge who rated her as one of her favourite living authors. I am kicking myself for not having read her sooner and The American Lover again shows why she is such a master of the story whatever length.

Chatto & Windus, 2014, hardback, short stories, 232 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

One of the things that I most love about Rose Tremain’s writing is how she gets into the heads of the outsider or the underdog, or indeed the forgotten voices in society. This is probably the theme that runs through all her work and is the only thing that really connects The American Lover which is about as eclectic a selection of short stories as you could ask for in terms of scope, lengths and subject matter.

We have all felt, even the most confident of us, like outsiders at some point in her lives and this theme chimes within us even if we aren’t like the two old men in Captive or Smithy, who both live alone and try to get by and be helpful both (heartbreakingly so), we can empathise with them from what we have experienced as we do in all the stories. Rose also looks at people who choose to be outsiders such as Walter and Lena in A View of Lake Superior in the Fall who have become recluses hidden away in the wilds to hide from their grown up daughter, you will laugh and you will cry; and in another tale the very real Leo Tolstoy who appears, having escaped his horrendous wife in The Jester of Astapovo. She also looks at Sapphic love and how being different in whatever way makes us feel an outsider in the brilliant Extra Geography. Another highlight for me though was the appearance of one of my very favourite fictional outsiders…

Everybody believes that I am an invented person: Mrs Danvers. They say I am a creation: ‘Miss du Maurier’s finest creation’, in the opinion of many. But I have my own story. I have a history and a soul. I am a breathing woman.

You can imagine my chills of excitement when I saw that yes, Rose Tremain takes on Rebecca in The Housekeeper looking at it from a completely different angle of the relationship between muse, writer and the finished works. In fact writing is one of the themes interspersed throughout The American Lover, indeed in the title story we discover the tale of Beth whose affair with a much older man when she was younger inspired the bestselling novel The American Lover, yet what was she left with after. This is a wonderful and, another Tremain trope, heartbreaking tale and you can see why it was up for the short story award earlier in the year. As we have a reimaging of how Rebecca was inspired and how Tolstoy spent his last days we also get a wonderful modern retelling of a rather famous Shakespeare play with 21st Century Juliet, which had me cackling. The excerpt below made me laugh and also reminds you all to pop my birthday date in your diaries, ha!

24th March
Cook supper for Cousin Tibs. I adore the bastard like the brother I never had. We get smashed on the (four) bottles of Corvo he’s brought and I tell him about Mayo and about Perry’s declaration. Relief to get everything out in the open. And Tibs is really sweet and on my side and agrees with me that good sex is awesomely rare and that Perry Paris is verging on being a pillock.

What I also love about Rose Tremain’s writing (and I have a lot of love for it if you hadn’t noticed) is that she explores all aspects of we strange human folk. She looks at loneliness, grief, rage, love, loss, death, kindness, bitterness in all their forms. One of the tales that did this best (and is probably in my favourites of the collection with The American Lover, Captive and obviously The Housekeeper) is BlackBerry Winter where we meet Fran as she goes home for Christmas. Here with time to reflect she does the things we all do now and again, and something that Tremain is very good at discussing in her work, asking the questions of ourselves we don’t like to face or are shocked to face. Some are hard and dark; what are we doing with our lives, are we in the right relationship, do we like ourselves? Some are dark but funny (Tremain does black comedy so, so well) like when we contemplate killing our mothers, or wishing we were dead, even just for a moment.

Fran unpacked her clothes and put them in her old wardrobe, which used to creak and grumble in the night, like something alive. Then, she sat down on the single bed and took out her BlackBerry and emailed David. She told him that she almost wished Peggy had been sliced in half by the gin trap; she told him that the moonshine on The Trib had made her long to be a Tahitian again; she told him that her love for him was as dark and familiar as the wood. When she signed off and contemplated her evening alone with Peggy and the TV, she experienced thirty seconds of wanting to be dead.

I loved the whole collection of The American Lover, there is so much that is wonderful in here I haven’t managed to mention A Man in the Water, Juliette Greco’s Black Dress, Lucy & Gaston  or The Closing Door which are all marvellous, and all have all the Tremain-isms in them that I mention above. Also you might need another reason to quickly run and get this from the shops for loved ones, though really I would recommend you just treat yourself and find a few hours to curl up with it and all the worlds and stories Rose Tremain creates for you.

When Simon Met Rose...

When Simon Met Rose…

I had the joy of meeting Rose, who is just lovely, and talking about The American Lover and some of the other books she has written (and indeed I have read for Trespassing with Tremain, the review of Restoration coming before the end of the year) a month or so ago which you can listen to here on You Wrote The Book. Who else has read this collection and what did you think? What about Tremain’s other works? I still have plenty to go which I am so excited about; she is definitely a firm favourite author of mine now.

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Filed under Books of 2014, Chatto & Windus, Review, Rose Tremain, Short Stories

Bitter Greens – Kate Forsyth

Rapunzel is my favourite fairytale of all time, I actually broke the spine of the Ladybird Classic I had of it I read it/was read it so much. Being brought up in the town of Matlock Bath we had a Tower on our hillside, part of the Heights of Abraham where I used to be allowed to play at will as a child as they were our neighbours, which naturally I thought Rapunzel lived in. When I got my first pet, a duck, guess what she was called? Yep, Rapunzel! What did I nearly have tattooed on my arm? Rapunzel letting her hair down, from a tower at the top of my shoulder all the way to my wrist. I settled for Once Upon A Time. So you knowing Bitter Greens was about this tale and even came with the tagline ‘you think you know the story of Rapunzel’ I was both really excited about it and slightly fearful. If possible it has made me love the story of Rapunzel and the story behind the story even more.

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Allison & Busby, 2013, paperback, fiction, 544 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Bitter Greens follows the lives and stories of three women. First is Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who has been exiled from the court of the Sun King Louis XIV after a fall from grace too far (which in those times was saying something) and is banished to live in an Abbey with nuns. Second is Selena Leonelli, once one of the most beautiful women in Italy and even the muse of the Venetian artist Titian. Depicted forever in his paintings she has one fear, time, and how it will take her beauty something she will do anything to keep. Thirdly we have Margherita, a young girl trapped in a tower forever unless she finds a way to escape.

These three things were true;
Her name was Margherita.
Her parents had loved her.
One day, she would escape.
At the worst of times, when the walls of the tower seemed to press upon her ribcage, Margherita would repeat these three things over and over again, like sorrowful mysteries muttered over a rosary.
She had been locked away in this one small stone room at the age of twelve. Fifty-one full moons had passed since then, shown by the scars on her wrists. If she did not escape soon, surely she would die.

The question you are probably all wondering, as was I, is how on earth (bar Margherita) do all these stories link to the tale of Rapunzel. Good question and one I will half answer because to know all the ways this tale weaves around that one would be to spoil it. What I can say is that Charlotte-Rose de la Force was a real woman, who really did get expelled from the court of Louis XIV (for all in all being a right naughty minx) and who wrote fairytales including Persinette, which was the first written account of the tale which became Rapunzel, whilst expelled in the Abbey of Gercy-en-Brie. This Kate all found out whilst doing her doctorate in fairytale, I know sign me up for that course right now!

It is interesting because Charlotte-Rose is really the heart of this story and initially I was thinking ‘erm, where is the Rapunzel bit?’ yet within a few chapters I was so enjoying spending time in the court of Louis XIV I was quite happy to just see what happened. What I am saying here is that the Rapunzel story that links Charlotte-Rose, Selena and Margherita was brilliant and fascinating but I wasn’t only wanting that part, if you see what I mean. I was happily reading about a woman who was a flirt, a gossip, a teller of tales and who once dressed up as a bear to rescue a lover. What more could you want from a heroine.

Forsyth also creates a fascinating insight into the time; yes there is the political and religious histories, which I found fascinating, but also the social history too. I loved reading about how the court worked, how the King dealt with his rampant libido (sometimes just with a servant up against a wall if he felt the need) and mistresses and also how the fear of witchcraft spread the land. Forsyth brilliantly fills Bitter Greens sort of historical facts that I find fascinating, who knew that architects had to rebuild doors for dresses and head fashion or that people threw cats at carriages containing fleeing protestants? Fascinating.

The other themes at the heart of Bitter Greens are or course fairytales and storytelling. We don’t get the Ladybird Classic version, or the Tangled one (both I love just to note) we get the dark one that was originally told, the one where Rapunzel endures many horrors in the tower, and the prince sleeps with her and gets her pregnant and all the twists that brings. Disney couldn’t have done that, Forsyth revels in its gothic nature. She also explores the famous tropes of fairytales, what makes a woman a witch or become one, for example.

She also celebrates storytellers and storytelling whilst telling a great story, it would be a bit awkward otherwise wouldn’t it? Through Charlotte-Rose we see both how stories were an important part of the social world of the time historically, think going to a book club only you hear the story told by someone and might get impregnated by the King after, and also how stories and their escapism can help us at our darkest times.

The Marquis de Maulevrier used to lock me in the caves under the Chateau de Cazeneuve. They were as cold as the church, and much darker. A hermit lived there once, many hundreds of years before, and had died there. I wondered if his skeleton was still there, hidden under the stones. I imagined I heard his footsteps shuffling closer and closer, then I felt his cold breath on the back of my neck, the brush of a spectral finger. I screamed, but no one heard me.
Surely he was a good man, that long-ago hermit, I told myself. He would not hurt a little girl. I imagined he was taking my hand because he wanted to show me the way to escape the cave. Perhaps there was a secret door down low in the wall, a door only large enough for a child. If I stepped through that door, I would be in another world, in fairyland perhaps. It would be warm and bright there, and I would have a magical wand to protect myself. I’d ride on the back of a dragonfly, swooping through the forest. I’d battle dragons and talk to birds and have all kinds of adventures.

Kate Forsyth has created quite an incredible piece of work in Bitter Greens. It is the story of Rapunzel that you thought you knew, yet told bare, and it is also so much more. It is the tale of three women in three different time periods that are all fighting for survival and a place, and in some cases stature, in a world dominated by men. It is also a wonderful historical novel that captures the essence of all the time periods it covers in all its glory and all its gothic nasty corners. It is also a romping story that celebrates storytellers and the power of stories. I loved it, you should read it.

Mary Magdalen Repentant - Titian

Mary Magdalen Repentant – Titian

As you might have guessed this will be very high on my list of books of the year and may well be in a few lovely lucky peoples stockings, oops spoiler there. It has reminded me how much I love a really good historical chunkster of a novel and how much I love fairytales for adults (not adult fairytales that is quite something else, though this book is brilliantly saucy and salacious). I also need to read much more about the court of Louis the XIV, I have Nancy Mitford’s The Sun King and Jean Teule’s Monsieur Montespan (whose wife features in this book a lot) on my shelves by the bed in readiness. Any other recommendations about that period would be most welcomed. As would thoughts from anyone else who has read Bitter Greens or any of Kate’s other books, and indeed any other great fairytales for grownups. You can also hear Kate and I in conversation about Bitter Greens and fairytales here.

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Filed under Allison & Busby, Books of 2014, Kate Forsyth, Review

The Floating Admiral – The Detection Club

One of the big talks in recent months on a certain social media platform that I got involved with was about bloggers and how much positivity they put out there in the ether, though hardly a bad thing right? Yet interestingly I can see if I don’t write about books I don’t like then how will people know the full extent of my tastes. The problem then lies in the fact that generally I don’t finish or get very far with books I don’t like and so then just bin them off and carry on with something else, after all reading is all about enjoyment, or should be. There is one exception to this rule, book group books! And as I would probably have never chosen The Floating Admiral unless Gavin hadn’t chosen it for the latest episode of Hear Read This I ended up reading a book I didn’t like very much. Well, I utterly loathed it, yet somehow finished it, so thought I would share a gloves off moment with you all…

Harper Collins, 1931 (2011 edition), paperback, fiction, 336 pages (in tiny print), sadly bought by my good self

The Floating Admiral is a crime novel like many of its ilk written in the 1920’s and 1930’s. This should come as no surprise when you see that Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, Dororthy L. Sayers and many more were part of The Detection Club who collaborated on novels such as this one, taking it in turns to write the chapters. In this tale the body of Admiral Penistone (try not to snigger as I did) is found having been stabbed and left in the vicar’s boat which has been set adrift, ideally to be undiscovered but of course getting found or there would be no mystery. Sure enough it is up to Inspector Rudge to solve the mystery, though with fourteen writers at the helm who can do what they want with the plot (as long as they have a solution to their twists, part of the Detection Club rules, more on later) good luck to him I say.

From the cover of the book, with a bloody boat on it (and you know how I feel about them), I have to say I was thinking of ways to murder Gavin for his choice. Saving grace though is that the boat is just a piece of evidence really and even the Admiral’s Navy past isn’t brought up to much. So I soon started to relax into the story and was reminded for a while of how much I enjoy the golden age of crime novels, I even smirked once or twice…

Everyone in Lingham knew old Neddy Ware, though he was not a native of the village, having only resided there for the last ten years; which, in the eyes of the older inhabitants who had spent the whole of your lives in that quiet spot, constituted him still a “stranger”.
Not that they really knew very much about him, for the old man was of a retiring disposition and had few cronies. What they did know was that he was a retired petty officer in the Royal Navy, subsisting his pension, that he was whole-heartedly devoted to the Waltonian craft, spending most of his time fishing in the River Whyn, and that, though he was of a peaceful disposition generally, he had a vocabulary of awful and blood-curdling, swear words if anyone upset him by interfering with his sport.

…Then I got so bored; so, so bored. This novel wasn’t even chundering along; it dragged itself rambling through several chapters. This was like a really bad/tedious/dull version of an Agatha Christie novel. Then thank heavens Agatha actually turns up for Chapter Four and it is like a breath of fresh air; it is wryly camp, she brings in a brilliant character which adds some gusto… and then she hurries away as fast as she can after 8 pages!

“Now,” he said with a twinkle; “I’m going to ask you a question.”
“Yes, sir?”
“Who is the biggest talker in Whynmouth?”
P.C Hempstead grinned in spite of himself.
“Mrs. Davis, sir who keeps the Lord Marshall. Nobody else can get a word in edgeways when she’s about.”
“One of that kind, is she?”
“Yes, indeed, sir.”
“ Well, that will just suit me. The Admiral was a new comer to the place. There’s always talk about a new comer. For ninety nine false rumours, there will be one true thing that somebody has noticed and observed. Attention had been focussed on Rundel Croft. I want to know just what has transpired in village gossip.”
“Then it’s Mrs Davis you want, sir.”

It then swiftly descends again and I found myself thinking ‘just hold out for Dorothy L Sayers, Simon, she is meant to be amazing.’ Amazing? Amazingly full of herself! Her chapter rambles on and on and on, compared to Agatha’s eight snappy pages Dorothy decides why go for eight when forty will do. It is relentless. I even tried to be charitable and say to myself ‘poor Dorothy, she’s been given some dross to work with and sort out’ still that dreary never ending chapter doesn’t read well. She’s a pro so I feared for what followed and I was right to.

The whole idea behind The Floating Admiral was supposedly a fun exercise for the authors involved to test themselves and just be creative, sworn over a skull or some such delightful gothic ritual. It becomes a case of showing off and one-upmanship. Take the chapters after Agatha; John Rhode decides that Inspector Rudge Begins to Form a Theory, then clearly not happy with this at all Milward Kennedy decides that in the following chapter Inspector Rudge Thinks Better Of It. And I almost wept as after Dororthy had finished her smug tirade Ronald A. Knox decides to go over the whole case again with Thirty-Nine Articles of Doubt where basically, possibly out of confusion or more likely one-upmanship, he decides to go over the whole case again from the beginning and see what can be worked out. By then there was so little left I felt I had to get to the final chapter, ironically called Clearing Up The Mess, where upon I wish I hadn’t bloody bothered. I can’t think why we have hardly heard of most of these authors can you?

There was one small glimmer of hope, though this shows how bad it got for me; the Appendices’ were quite good, sort of. You see as I mentioned before each author had to give their solution to explain why they had done what they had. As you read them you can see how the writers were writing and plotting and twisting and that is quite interesting. I say quite because one of two of them (yes you Dorothy) decide they need to show how clever they are by almost writing the rest of the book word for word. Here the star of the show shines through again, Agatha Christie’s solution is brilliant (it involves cross-dressing) and frankly should have been a book, and in fact I am hoping it is actually the plot of one of hers I have yet to read.

You could say that The Floating Admiral really just isn’t a book for me. I would go further and say it is possibly one of the most tedious crime novels I have ever read/endured. I will not be reading another; I may also now never read Dorothy L. Sayers unless someone does some serious convincing. I would rather just read Agatha; you can see why she was Queen of Crime at the time.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Harper Collins, Review, The Detection Club

Lord of the Flies – William Golding

I know, I know, I know. It is shocking that someone who claims to love books has missed out on some of the classics, both modern and ‘classic’ classic as I call them, we can’t read everything after all can we? Though to be fair one of the reasons that I have finally ended up reading it now was because no one else at my new book club, made up of some of my new Liverpool friends who all love books though possibly not as religiously as me, had ever read it before and so we decided that we should.

Faber & Faber, 1954 (2011 edition), paperback, fiction, 140 pages, bought by my good self

In an unknown time, and for reasons that are only ever hinted at (mainly for a crash or air strike in some unnamed war), a group of boys end up stranded on a desert island in the middle of nowhere with no sign of adult life. These boys, of all ages,. With Ralph, through the help of his sidekick Piggy, and alongside Jack and Simon as the leader the boys must somehow try and survive and create their own society. Yet as time goes on and the initial joy of a land free of parents and full of adventure starts to lose its charm, fractions form and rumours of something dark and terrifying inhabiting the land, sea or sky above them things start to take an ever darker turn.

I know lots and lots of people have read The Lord of the Flies and so it would be easy just to ramble on and on about it and give everything away BUT that said there are some people who haven’t read it and I want to be mindful of them, especially when three people ruined it for me, two on twitter and one on GoodReads. So I am going to do my best not to give too much away and focus on the initial plot and mystically hint at one or two other things. I may nod at the ending, because it had a real effect on what I thought of the book overall, but I will warn you of that when it comes and it won’t have a single spoiler in it. Promise. So, the book…

Firstly I have to say I was hooked by it, enjoyed almost seems the wrong word as it unravels. I found the ambiguity of what had happened intriguing from the start, and indeed the whole way through, and found the boys reaction to it all utterly believable just as I did as the book gets darker and darker. I was with the boys as they got over, rather quickly but you may well do at that age, the terror of what had happened, the jubilation and confusion of surviving and then the illation of having a place of paradise as your playground.

Having been a young boy once back in the distant past, I could imagine how I would have behaved. I was instantly utterly charmed by Piggy, the slightly plump boy who doesn’t want to be called Piggy and then of course does, with his glasses and his brains and yet not really a boy who looks like a leader. (One of the things we asked ourselves at book group was who we would be – hands up I am a Piggy, as it were.) I could remember the Ralph’s of the world who sort of just ended up being athletic and the leader by sheer happenstance, every bloody time how did they do it, and the Jack’s who were head boy material, if not the head boy, and who craved leadership and popularity like I would have been craving another Crunchie bar. I could also see how fun would need to become survival and work, and invariably be easier to be fun until the nights came and along with it the terrors imagined or otherwise.

All this is captured effortlessly by Golding, as is the decent into fractions that follow and humans do as humans would in that situation as uncomfortable and confronting as that might be. I have to say I didn’t expect what is now deemed to be a children’s classic too to be quite so brutal and uncompromising. There may be sunshine and sandy beaches but the sense of impending doom as the novel goes on, and what happens as it weaves its way along and onto the end, is quite horrifying and I spent quite a lot of the book feeling very tense. It got to me. I think part of that is how Golding makes the atmosphere, environment and nature of the island take over the characters in the book in all the different ways, I haven’t seen this so skilfully done in many books.

The silence of the forest was more oppressive than the heat, and at this hour of the day there was not even the whine of insects. Only when Jack himself roused a gaudy bird from a primitive nest of sticks was the silence shattered and echoes set ringing by a harsh cry that seemed to come out of the abyss of ages. Jack himself shrank at this cry with a hiss of indrawn breath; and for a minute became less a hunter than a furtive thing, ape-like among the tangle of trees. Then the trial, the frustration, claimed him again and he searched the ground avidly. By the bole of a vast tree that grew pale flowers on a grey trunk he checked, closed his eyes, and once more drew in the warm air; and this time his breath came short, there was even a passing pallor in his face, and then the surge of blood again.

Though some naughty people had spoiled one major element of the book I was surprised on two occasions and genuinely horrified on two others. Golding does something very clever which I love in good books (without bloody precious kids narrating it) where we have two levels in how we read some of the situations. Ralph, Piggy, Simon and Jack all read events that unfollow with a child’s mind, as adults we see the full picture and often this only adds more tension and fear as you read. As I mentioned I was tense and genuinely fearful as the book went on both for the kids and those poor pigs who had been living in such peace.

Now I have to mention the ending. I won’t say what happens but if you haven’t read the book skip to the next paragraph anyway. I mention the ending specifically because it took the book from a solid five out of five down to a four. We go from high drama to such a sudden and ultimately disappointing, if slightly appeasing and teeny bit redemptive, ending that I felt really cheated.  I certainly thought that as Golding was so determined to have this ending, it being so sudden and coming from nowhere it made you wonder why, the book should have ended exactly a paragraph before it did. Another thing we all agreed on in book group.

I am really pleased that I have finally read Lord of the Flies and spent time lost on that desert island with those boys. It is a fascinating, if rather grim, portrayal of both a world if children ruled and how human nature unfolds. That might sound grand but can you see it unravelling any other way than Golding describes, isn’t that is what is so powerful about the book? What is also so impressive is that in 60 years this book hasn’t dated at all. If you haven’t read it then do, and if you are teaching it at school please teach it well and don’t beat kids over the head with it all (just enough to get them thinking and passing their exams) because there is much to get from reading it. I will certainly be reading more Golding.

They wouldn't have had these delights on the island... we did at Book Group!

They wouldn’t have had these delights on the island… we did at Book Group!

I should add, as illustrated by the image above, it is also a brilliant book group book with much to discuss. If you fancy discussing it in the comments below then we can go for it, so do comment as I would love to chat about it all over again if you have read it. If you haven’t read it, go read it and then pop back later!

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Filed under Faber & Faber, Review, William Golding

Poor Souls’ Light; Seven Curious Tales

Almost a year ago I told you about a collection of short stories entitled The Longest Night; Five Curious Tales. These were just the right sort of ghostly tales you need around Christmas and saw some authors I love such as Jenn Ashworth, Alison Moore and Emma Jane Unsworth who collectively self published it and went on spooky nights here there and everywhere telling these tales and discussing ghost stories. Well guess what? It has only come back for a second year. Last year it was five tales in homage, of sorts, to M.R. James; this year it is seven tales in homage (again of sorts) to Robert Aickman. Now as you know I have some issue with Aickman’s tales, so when I realised that I did a small wince before getting going…

Curious Tales, 2014, paperback, fiction, ghost stories, 140 pages, kindly sent by Emma Jane Unsworth

Having read Aickman I can see how the stories by Jenn Ashworth, Alison Moore, Johnny Mains, Tom Fletcher, Richard Hirst, Emma Jane Unsworth and M. John Harrison are all inspired by his works as they all have elements of the supernatural and the ‘weird’ about them. If, like me (as you may have seen recently), you find Aickman and the ‘weird’ a little too, erm, weird then fret not.

Even when the element of the strange rather than supernatural or ghostly is there, even in the most Aickman like tale Blossom by Mains which really plays homage to The Hospice the story of Aickmans I most loved, it never goes to the point where the plot is spoiled by the weirdness or the reader feels somewhat played unfairly by the author. I admit there was a scene in Blossom which had me thinking ‘WTF?’ yet Mains handles it really well and the plot gets even darker after with a real sting in the tales tail.

The rest of the tales veer more to the traditional edges of the ghost story. For example with both Alison Moore’s The Spite House and M. John Harrison’s Animals deal with haunted houses though in very different ways. One is very much about a house haunted by its past and something it lived through, the other is very much about how a house feels about someone who returns to it and the imprints of how those who lived in it felt about the returned person. I enjoyed both of these especially the element of the house as a character within the narrative, or almost with its own narrative itself.

The cottage could be quiet, especially in the early evening, when the lane, with its fringe of trees against the setting sun, filled up with shadows. She heard what she thought were movements, half drowned by the sound of the radio she kept in the kitchen, even in the day. ‘It must be the central heating,’ she thought, but soon it became clear that these sounds were actually voices. Whatever room Susan was in, she heard them somewhere else.

Emma Jane Unsworth’s Smoke takes on the tale of someone becoming haunted by something, indeed something that follows them afterwards wherever they go. I am not being funny but the idea of seeing something ghostly and then it following you to the ends of the earth/your bed, or in this case around Europe, is something I find truly creepy and Unsworth nicely plays with that primal fear. Tom Fletcher also plays with the primal fear of being followed yet in The Exotic Dancer it is the case of a stranger following you with their eyes and their intent. Fletcher’s tale too is incredibly creepy and the setting of an old canal tow path and the industrial edge of a town/city is spot on. It has reminded me how much I want to read his novels.

In a collection where there isn’t a dud note you shouldn’t really have a favourite, yet I had two. As you might have guessed I really enjoyed them all, Richard Hirst’s and Jenn Ashworth’s tales just edged it; I think Ashworth’s in particular should be put forward for every short story award going. Now both of them have a couple of twists so I don’t want to spoil them so I will tread carefully. Hirst’s And The Children Followed is set around evacuees in one of the World Wars, it is vague about which not that it matters, as a recently bereaved (and going off the rails) young woman grieves for a sibling. I will say no more than that on the plot but as the tale goes on and the dread and horror mount I was instantly reminded of Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery, you will gasp at the end. Ashworth’s story I actually want to say almost nothing about, other than it will turn a ghostly tale on its head for you and have you asking all sorts of questions. That is all, oh and it’s bloody marvellous with the games it plays and how she cleverly lets it unfold and toys with the reader in the best o f ways, marvellous.

I embrace her but she only shivers and pulls away to turn all the radiators on the house onto their highest setting. I wait for her in our bedroom, worrying about my cough and my breath, which is starting to smell like mushrooms, even to myself. She will not come up, but begins again to scrub the kitchen floor.

All in all a great collection again from the Curious Tales crew/collective, one that I would heartily recommend you get your mitts on and get reading over these dark winter nights. I have often said that I think modern ghost stories are very difficult to get right, this collection proves me completely wrong and I am thrilled.

If you are looking to get a copy you best hurry as there is a limited run of just 500 of them in print. I am not sure what the plan is on eBooks. For more info and to buy it head to the website here where you can also find out about some live events ahead this month and next – erm, massive hint guys bring it to Liverpool at some point or else, I know just the place! Now I am in the mood for more ghostly tales, so which ghost stories and collections would you recommend I go and hunt down?

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Filed under Alison Moore, Curious Tales, Emma Jane Unsworth, Ghost Stories, Johnny Mains, M. John Harrison, Review, Richard Hirst, Short Stories, Tom Fletcher

Rounding Up The Reviews #4; A Bumper Crop of Book Reviews Before 2014 Ends

So in an effort to combat my blog OCD panic, I like to have reviewed everything I have read in a year and start a year a fresh, and a backlog of reviews I thought I’d do a round up of some of the books – there are more to come – that I have read and wanted to share thoughts with you about – be they good, bad or indifferent. So no waffle, just some quick(ish) book reviews today…

Scoop – Evelyn Waugh

Penguin Modern Classics, paperback, 1938 (2000 edition), fiction, 240 pages, bought by my good self

I like Evelyn Waugh a lot and had heard marvellous things about Scoop from all the right people, so it had been on my ‘to read at some point’ list for quite some time when Rob chose it as a classic choice for Hear Read This! a few months ago. Sadly I really, really, really didn’t like it. The tale is one of mistaken identity as William Boot, who usually writes about things such as badgers and crested grebes, is sent in place of another journalist named Boot to the African state of Ishmaelia where he is to report for The Beat on a ‘very promising little war’.

By rights this book should have been completely up my street, a satire on the industry that I worked for (and hasn’t changed) for quite some time by an author I loved. I just found it deeply dated, rather boring, nothing new and actually a little bit (to put it mildly, I hate the excuse ‘of it’s time’) racist frankly. There were a few moments that I almost enjoyed but generally I was bored and couldn’t wait for it to be over. You can hear my thoughts along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter

Vintage Classics, paperback, 1984 (1998 edition), fiction, 368 pages, inherited from Granny Savidge

I have an interesting relationship with Carter’s writing, I either think it is utterly magical and wonderful or I just think it is rather bonkers verging on silly. Sophie Fevvers is famous around the world for supposedly being either part swan, with her amazing wings, or an utter fraud. Jack Waltzer, journalist, goes to interview her and find out not realising he is about to follow Sophie on quite the journey between nineteenth-century London, St Petersberg and Siberia. I found Nights at the Circus (again another book I have been meaning to read for ages and then my old book group chose it) to be a mixture of the two the whole way through, a romp I enjoyed yet occasionally didn’t get or felt went a bit too far magically and plot wise – what was Carter on?

Overall I enjoyed it immensely for its camp bonkers moments and gothic turns and eventually succumbed to its madness. Yet having finished it, I realised I didn’t have that much to say about it, I just enjoyed it overall which makes it sound more of a damp squib than I mean it to. I felt it should be a collection of short stories about Sophie rather than an adventure with her, if that makes sense? I think I wanted something like her fairy tales and didn’t get it; maybe I need to read it again?

Wind Sand and Stars – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Penguin Modern Classics, paperback, 1939 (2000 edition), memoir, 144 pages, borrowed from the library

Like me, you may not know Saint-Exupery for anything other than The Little Prince and not for his stories, both fiction and none, of pilots and airborne adventures. Wind Sand and Stars is a nonfiction set of accounts of some of his flights from when he started in 1926 until and just passed the time in 1936 when he crashed in the desert and somehow survived. I have to say the idea of a book about planes excites me about as much, well maybe a bit more, as a book about boats BUT having loved Julian Barnes Levels of Life and its tales of ballooning and grief I was up for something new.

On one level, pun not intended, Wind Sand and Stars is a tale of one man and his first exciting, and often death defying, trips into the air. Now I don’t like flying but I could completely understand, through his writing, how Antoine became addicted. The descriptions of the freedom and the awe it gives is rather contagious. I also found the story of the crash to be a genuinely terrifying then thrilling reading experience. Yes, there’s a but coming. The problem with the book is that it takes on this almost meta meets philosophical tone which becomes rather preachy/smug and a bit annoying, so apart from the beginning and the drama I found the book a bit ‘meh’. I wanted to like it more, honest. You can hear my thoughts in more detail along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

Cold Hand in Mine – Robert Aickman

Faber & Faber, paperback, 1975 (2014 edition), short stories, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I received all of Aickman’s reissued collections unsolicited from Faber & Faber earlier in the year and thought ‘ooh these sound weird and wonderful’ and so thought they would be interesting to bring to the table for a classic choice on Hear Read This! (I know most of the books we do on there end up in round up review posts) as something different. As you will see in the next week or so 2014 has been the year of rediscovering the short story for me and so it ticked that box too being a collection of self proclaimed ‘strange stories’.

Well strange indeed they are but almost too strange. I like a ghost story, a horror story, urban legend, twisted fairy tale or just piece of bizarreness if it has a point/plot/thrill to it. All Aickman’s tales in this collection rather let me down, even the ones I rather loved like the almost-but-not-quite brilliant The Hospice, because the endings all let them down. Sadly in actuality sometimes the bonkers premise/middle (The Real Road to the Church, Niemandswasser, The Clockwatcher) just didn’t make sense and lacked punch. I felt like Aickman wanted to always be more clever, tricksy or just weird than the reader but in a way that made him feel better and doesn’t actually do anything for the reader. Each tale left me feeling cheated. Gav said this is the weird genre, I think maybe it is just not the genre for me. Glad I can say I have read them, unsure if I will read anymore unless one of you convinces me. You can hear my thoughts in more detail along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

The Poisoning Angel – Jean Teule

Gallic Books, paperback, 2014, fiction, 240 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I love Jean Teule’s writing and so chose The Poisoning Angel for Hear Read This! as I thought a darkly funny book in translation would be something different. Like the brilliant, but very dark and gory Eat Him If You Like, this is based on a true story – the case of Helene Jegado who became one of the most notorious prisoners of her time and indeed in French history, we follow her journey from the time she poisons her mother…

Unlike Rob, Kate and Gavin, I really enjoyed this book. I laughed the whole way through, which I think you are meant to do, as Helene just wanders around the countryside for a few decades killing people off, not being caught by the police and no one thinking the better or inviting her in. That isn’t a complete spoiler, you know that from the blurb. There isn’t masses more to say about the book other than give it a whirl! You can hear my thoughts in more detail along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

The Hypnotist – Lars Kepler

Blue Door Books, paperback, 2012, fiction, 624 pages, from my own personal TBR

I read this while I was off in the authors; there are actually two of them, homeland of Sweden between two of the Camilla Lackberg novels – I truly was on a cold crime binge. It is a hard book to explain so I am stealing the blurb “Detective Inspector Joona Linna is faced with a boy who witnessed the gruesome murder of his family. He’s suffered more than one hundred knife wounds and is comatose with shock. Linna’s running out of time. The killer’s on the run and, seemingly, there are no clues. Desperate for information, Linna enlists disgraced specialist Dr Erik Maria Bark, a hypnotist who vowed never to practice again. As the hypnosis begins, a long and terrifying chain of events unfurls with reverberations far beyond Linna’s case.” This sounded just my kind of thing.

Now it is quite a doorstopper but as it started I was racing through the book. A creepy child, a scary serial killer, some hypnotism what wasn’t to love? Then I started to get, not bored exactly, a little jaded with it. You see I love a twisty book like Gone Girl or the even better (seriously) Alex and this felt like one of those initially, in fact more like Alex as it’s really quite nasty. Then the twists started to get too much, I started to get confused and lose belief in the story as I went on. I think the best crime authors have the generosity to make the reader feel clever and twist them at just the right times whilst spinning a true spiders web, this began to feel a bit like the authors were being too clever – Aickman syndrome, see above. It was a page turner, it was clever, it was twisty… It just didn’t quite get me along for the whole whirlwind ride.

Orfeo – Richard Powers

Atlantic Books, paperback, 2014, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I have left my thoughts on this one till last as it is the only book in this selection I didn’t finish and actually threw at a wall. I admit it started off very, very well. I liked the idea of a lonely composer calling the police when his dog dies, them discovering his home made science lab and thinking he might be a terrorist. A bit farfetched maybe, but fun. Then the writing bowled me over, I have never seen music written about so brilliantly.

The notes float and rise. They turn speech as pointless as a radio ventriloquist. Light and darkness splash over Peter at each chord change, thrill with no middleman. The pitches topple forward; they fall beat by beat into their followers, obeying an inner logic, dark and beautiful.
Another milky, troubled chord twists the boy’s belly. Several promising paths lead forward into unknown notes. But of all possible branches, the melody goes strange. One surprise leap prickles Peter’s skin. Welts bloom on his forearms. His tiny manhood stiffens with inchoate desire.
The drunken angel band sets out on a harder song. These new chords are like the woods on the hill near Peter’s grandmother’s, where his father once took them sledding. Step by step the singers stumble forward in a thicket of tangled harmonies.

So why did I throw it at the wall? Two reasons. Firstly, the writing about music is incredible… the first, second and even possibly the third time. Powers soon becomes a one trick pony as he carts this trick out over and over and over, there is almost a lyrical comparative sentence in every paragraph at one point. Clever becomes too clever and smug a theme with some of this selection of books! Secondly, remember I mentioned the farcical element, again went too far and made the story of Peter’s past seem all at odds with itself and slightly clichéd and done before. You can hear my thoughts in more detail along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

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So there we are the last round up of the year, well if you exclude a small catch up of books I don’t want to spoil which I will post in the next week or so! Have you read any of these books? If so what did you think of them? Would you recommend any other books by these authors?

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Filed under Angela Carter, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Atlantic Books, Blue Door Books, Book Thoughts, Evelyn Waugh, Faber & Faber, Gallic Books, Lars Kepler, Penguin Classics, Review, Richard Powers, Robert Aickman, Rounding Up The Reviews, Vintage Classics