Category Archives: Sceptre Publishing

Fell – Jenn Ashworth

I have been a fan of Jenn Ashworth’s for quite sometime. Ever since our lovely mutual friend Emma Jane Unsworth popped a copy of A Kind of Intimacy into my hands and said ‘read this’ I have become a huge fan of her words both in her second novel Cold Light and also the stories in the wonderful ghostly collections Curious Tales. So when a proof of her fourth novel, I have skipped the third for now, Fell arrived I was so excited I could pop. I was also nervous, would this live up to how much I had enjoyed the previous two? Fortunately for everyone involved, and for those of you yet to read it, I think that Fell might be the best book I have read by Jenn and also one of the best books that I have read this year.

9781473630604

Sceptre Books, hardback, 2016, fiction, 304 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Her key in the lock wakes us. It wakes the starlings too: they rise chattering out of the trees in the front garden and hurl themselves into the sky. They don’t fly far; before the door is open they have landed, disgruntled, on the roof ridge. We flutter at each other like leaves, finding the words for things, laughing, stiff as bark, too wooden to grab and hold on tight.
Our?
Our names.
Yes. We are. We are. Dazed as newborns! The proprietors of this place. A respectable house. Netty. Jack. That’s what they called us.

As the door of The Sycamores opens for the first time in years, so does Fell with the awakening of two ghosts, Netty and Jack, who used to own the property before (as they soon discover/remember) the house was left to fall to wrack and ruin. It is the return of their daughter Annette that has woken them, a begrudging return after what has seemed like decades and where plants, birds, cracks, damp and various creepy crawlies have taken over. As the ghosts of her parents watch over Annette they soon realise that their daughter is once again troubled (yes once again, well noted I will come back to it soon) and they feel, once again, that they have to protect her in some way. What then starts to unravel is not only the story of why Annette has come home after so long but also how decades before, in 1963, their lives were changed forever when Timothy Richardson became a part of their lives in the most unexpected way.

A Scottish accent. Something soft and well bred about it. A gentle voice, with a smirk to it, as Netty might say.The boy has put his tee-shirtback on, but rolled up the sleeves tight under his armpits. He’s only wearing his swimming trunks and the tee-shirt and there’s something faintly obscene about it, much more than the bare chests of his friends. It’s as if (the refreshing sensation fades along with the boys smile, the heat closing in on him again and giving him trouble marshalling his thoughts properly) he’s wearing the shirt to underline the fact that he isn’t wearing any trousers.

As the story unravels, and do not worry I am not going to give masses away, we soon learn that back in 1963 Netty had discovered she was incredibly ill. Around that time the meet Tim at a swimming pool (well lido near Morecombe Bay, which is a wonderful area to set this book) where not only does he mesmerise Jack visually in some strange way, he also does something strange to his vision which seems unbelievable, he fixes his sight. For it seems Tim has a gift for healing and with Netty being so sick and Jack desperate for help, he soon joins the other boys at their boarding house with the hope of making Netty better. Yet is Tim all that he claims to be? And if he is, is he a fallen angel or a charming devil. Jenn Ashworth beguiles the readers as much as Tim beguiles all he knows and starts to take us on a dark and magical tale from there on wards.

There is honestly so much about Fell that I loved I am going to have to try really hard to be succinct and not waffle on about its brilliance. So where to start? Well there is that fact that it is just beautifully and wonderfully written. Firstly there is the narrative, not a lot of authors could get away with writing a novel through the voice of a collective duo of ghosts a tricky device but impressive if pulled off. Netty and Jack can both go through their memories at the time, both separately and together. They are all seeing and all knowing, yet they also look back with a sense of distance and hindsight looking at the things they did and the consequences of those actions on each other and particularly with Annette as a young girl, the can also travel with Annette in the present and potentially influence the now. It is a clever trick which many an author would fail to build compellingly or believably, Ashworth does both with skill.

Then there is the story, which I have alluded to and is brilliant, where Jenn also manages to make the novel/tale riff off the myth of Baucis and Philemon. Though I won’t say any more on that in case of spoilers, so don’t go and Google it until you have read Fell I just wanted to point out another wonderful factor. However as we all know without great characters and setting a story falls apart, again nothing to worry about here. so don’t go and look it up and Ashworth’s creations Netty, Jack, Annette and Tim (even the enigma is a fully formed if tricksy) are all wonderfully drawn as are the periphery folk around them in the past and in the present; Candy, Maddy, Eve, Tom. The area of Morecombe Bay and Grange-over-Sands is also perfect for this tale. For those of you who have not been this area, once a popular place to recover from illness or have a holiday, is now a slight ghost town, nature is raw and a little dangerous, the sea isn’t really sea and it has a sense of the ‘other’ about it; all of which feeds into the whole feel and gothic sensibility of the book.

Then there are the themes, so many it is again hard not to gush endlessly about how brilliant it all is. You have the question of Timothy’s abilities, are they real or are they not, is it a gift or a curse, can we cure everyone (which is of course still a huge question today) and should we, how far will we go for the ones we love, what will we avoid telling the ones we love because we think it will hurt them, when are hope or denial good and/or bad emotions.

In her coming weeks Netty will look back and try to pinpoint the moment when she first started to believe in Timothy Richardson, a butcher’s apprentice from the city of Edinburgh.

Sickness is clearly one of the main themes of the book and it is one that chimed with me the most. Not just because I’ve recently been diagnosed with a lifelong condition, thankfully not terminal and manageable with surgery and painkillers; though I can’t pretend hasn’t caused me some ‘bloody hell life can be unfair’ thoughts, which Ashworth captures wonderfully. But also because I helped care for my Gran when she was terminally ill and as much as it is a gift to be able to look after someone who is unwell, also becomes something of a curse not just because you must watch them decline but also because they can be blooming difficult, and you can totally understand why, and it can be one of the most emotionally gruelling times in all your lives. Again, Jenn captures this all too realistically, yet writes about the intricacies and rawness of all these emotions beautifully and with a sense of compassion and deftness of touch around all that darkness.

Jack glances over the paper. She’s shooting daggers with her eyes. I’m sick and you’re not, and you can go and do what you like and I have to have help to get up out of chairs and I don’t gripe about it. But this small thing. I want. I want it. I want. Sickness has made her selfish. Maybe she’s a bit grateful too. He can put his foot down, which means she can sulk and keep believing that she would have been able to drag herself across the sands if only he’d let her. She can barely get up the stairs these days.

The final theme I will mention is probably the one that has literally haunted, pun intended, me since I have read the book… The themes of haunting. Obviously from the start you have two ghosts narrating it, this is not your average ghost story though, well it is but it is also much more than that. Yes this is a novel about a haunted house, yet it isn’t the kind of ‘crash and jump, things flying around the house’ kind of haunting this is much deeper than that. The house is literally haunted by the memories and events as much as the dead and the living are haunted by them. The idea of haunted ghosts has really stuck with me as has the question that those ghosts bring to Fell; will we always be haunted by what we did or didn’t do in our pasts? It sounds on the surface like a simple question, yet the more you think about it the deeper you have to go inside yourself and your emotions to ponder it. This of course is also the perfect analogy of what Fell as a novel is all about, a darkly magical tale which has many hidden depths. It is quite, quite something and has reminded me that some of the best books we read are those we have to savour slowly and ask ourselves some of the bigger questions. I cannot recommend you read it enough. Don’t rush it, just slowly get lost in it, I promise you it is worth it.

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Filed under Books of 2016, Jenn Ashworth, Review, Sceptre Publishing

The Offering – Grace McCleen

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next few weeks (and indeed last three weeks) I will be (and have been) sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one per week. This week it is Grace McCleen’s strange, alluring and unsettling novel The Offering an insightful and disturbing novel of madness.

Sceptre Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 264 pages, kindly submitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered

There has been a great deal of talk here recently about an event concerning myself and Dr Lucas, which took place from what I can gather in the Platnauer Room some two weeks ago. I presently find myself in the quiet room while Dr Hudson, who has taken over my care in Dr Lucas’s absence, devises an appropriate plan. I said to Dr Hudson: ‘I do hope that whatever happened will not prevent my release from Letham Park, something Dr Lucas talked about on many occasions.’
That was when Dr Hudson stared at me.

I am a huge fan of books which hook you in with a mystery from the start. Grace McCleen’s third novel The Offering does just that as within a few paragraphs we know that something has happened between Madeline and her previous Dr Lucas, we know it is bad, we just have no idea what it is or how bad it might be. We’re instantly interested and intrigued. This ratchets up a notch when we discover that Madeline is not in a hospital but an asylum where she is now in isolation, it ratchets up again when we discover she has been there for twenty years since she was discovered walking along a road with amnesia. We now of course not only feel the need to know about the incident with Dr Lucas, we are also desperate to discover what happened in her childhood despite the very early sense that this is not going to be a comfortable discovery.

I don’t want to say much more about the premise because this is one of those books that needs to be read and discovered rather than have anything given away. I can say that as the book goes on McCleen makes it as gothic, twisty and strange as you would hope from a novel of this kind. It has something of the ‘sensation novel’ about it yet cleverly you cannot work out for the life of you when it is set, there are cars but that is as much as we know adding a slight dreamlike or nightmarish feel as and when Madeline goes through highs and lows. It also interestingly made me occasionally feel slightly disorientated, never lost or confused, as if I had been sedated as Madeline often is – having been sedated (I wasn’t in an asylum) it brought that strange sense of being slightly distant and at odds with everything, yet feel fairly compos mentis, right back.

‘Who are you?’ my father said.
‘Who are you?’ the man replied, and his milky gaze passed over all three of us.
‘We’re just looking around,’ my father said, after a moment.
‘Ah, you’re the new folk moving in,’ said the fellow. ‘He’ll not like it, I can tell you. He won’t like it a bit.’
‘What are you talking about?’ my father said.
‘Him who was here before!’
I caught a whiff of urine on the afternoon breeze, sweet, acrid, animal.
‘The place hasn’t been occupied for years,’ my father said.
‘That’s right,’ said the man. ‘But he’s still here, he’ll never leave!’

As Madeline is forced to look back at her past, no spoilers I promise, she is forced to look at her memories and work out what she remembers right, what she misremembers and what she remembers yet may have misinterpreted. This is something that it is fairly hard for us to do at the best of times, come on can you remember what you were doing on this date exactly twenty years ago, it gets all the more complicated when part of your brain is trying to repress or hide things as a way of self preservation or denial. The Offering  also takes a very blunt and direct look at how we deal with people with mental illness and particularly the questions around treatment and medicines and if they help or hinder leaving the reader to decide for themselves.

If I am making this book sound really dark, intense, creepy and a bit gloomy that is because it is and unapologetically so, yet McCleen doesn’t make this relentless. There are moments of great joy in Madeline’s past as her parents and her find a new home that have that almost golden sheen that you have of particular moments. (I say that though actually I have no memories before the age of ten due to something that happened in my childhood, but moments after that that instantly make me happy have that glow.) She also finds, if slightly darkly or bitter sweetly, moments of humour while Madeline is in the asylum which will make you laugh and then make you feel sorry for those involved.

Today began as a particularly dreary one here at Letham Park, the sun hidden behind banks of cloud, neither cold nor hot, dark nor light. Eugene wet himself; Pam ate clay and had to have her stomach pumped; Margaret taught me a new stitch; Robyn’s parents arrived to take her out for the day; Alice made Mary cry; nothing out of the ordinary at all.

I have often said on the blog that comedy when written well can be a powerful device to highlight the dark and almost create a heightened emotive response which is how McCleen uses it with much effect. Her writing though is marvellous throughout; the plot is tightly twisted and slowly revealed, the book feels uneasy and disorientating yet never confusing, the atmospheres are rife and while the setting and time are an enigma the sense of place and the landscapes appear vividly in your mind. The Offering is quite unlike anything I have read in some time, I recommend you give it a whirl.

Have any of you read The Offering and if so what did you make of it? Have you read either of Grace’s previous novels, and if so what were your thoughts? I have her debut The Land of Decoration on the TBR as I will definitely be reading more of Grace’s novels.

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Filed under Fiction Uncovered, Grace McCleen, Review, Sceptre Publishing

Cold Light – Jenn Ashworth

One of my reading highlights last year was undoubtedly Jenn Ashworth’s debut novel A Kind of Intimacy, a wonderful dark book which featured one of my favourite things – the unreliable narrator. This was made all the better because she was a complete and utter loon, which gives nothing away as watching her go slightly psycho and discovering why she has gone over the edge is one of the fascinating facets of the book. Anyway I have reviewed that one, but it will make you understand why I turned to Cold Light at the start of the year to keep my rather marvellous reading momentum going and it didn’t disappoint.

9781444707762

Sceptre Books, paperback, 2012, fiction, 352 pages, bought by myself for myself

As Cold Light opens we meet Laura as she sits in front of the telly watching a memorial being erected in her home city, only this memorial is to a young girl and her boyfriend who tragically died a decade ago. The girl was Chloe, Laura’s best friend at school, a role she often competed for with Emma, when they were fourteen. However as space is made for the plaque, live on TV, a body is unearthed and Laura instantly recognises the coat it is found in. Laura then starts to unravel a winter in her teens which she has both hidden from, becoming famous after her friends tragic death, and revisit a time when three fourteen year old girls lived a life of lies, jealousy and secrets.

Jenn Ashworth plays some bloody good games with her readers with her second novel. Throughout the book we are constantly wondering what Laura is telling us, how true it is and of course what there is that she is leaving out. In the present we find out that she has completely cut herself off from her parents and yet still occasionally sees Emma, a girl who she competed with in childhood and didn’t really like, but why? She has also made her life the most unnoticeable she could, is this due to a lack of self esteem or is she hiding from her past or something in it?

I never got a job at a cafe, and I never tried Woolworths. I clean the shopping centre. It’s my job to put the out the yellow triangles before I mop: little slipping stick men to warn you of what you’ll get if you walk on wet floors. I use the motorised floor polisher with protectors over my ears while the television screens mounted overhead show the shopping channel, the talk-shows, the consumer revenge panels. I don’t get paid much, but after all the shops in town went 24-hours there’s as much work as I want. It’s not Woolworths or a perfume counter, but I have my own trolley and I know my way around the service corridors even in the dark. I do all right.

One unreliable narrator can often be an abundance of dark secret riches, as Ashworth proved with A Kind of Intimacy, yet she’s done that before and so we also get a cast of characters who might all be hiding secrets. Not only must we question what Laura is hiding must also do the same for those around her. As we slowly go back to the winter when all this happened we get insight into other things going on at the time such as her father and mother seem to be falling apart, there was a flasher out on the streets who has started to want to interact more than just expose and Chloe’s boyfriend Carl starts to show signs of being rather violent and nasty. The plot thickens.

‘I’m not sure I want you going out that far on your own at night,’ she said. ‘It’s dark. And anyway, you’d think – ’ She went to the bottom of the stairs, shouted my father’s name at the top of her voice, and then used the broom she kept there to bang on the ceiling a couple of times.
‘What? You’d think what?’ I said.
‘You’d think on his wages, he’d be able to afford more than fifty pee’s worth.’ She shook her head and pointed through to the front room with a pot-scourer. ‘It isn’t safe for you to be wandering the streets.
‘He’s stopped hasn’t he?’
‘For the time being, perhaps. But no one’s been caught.’

As the book goes on not only does the plot thicken, the plot twists, the plot gets darker. Without giving away any spoilers you start to suspect all the cast of characters of having done all sorts of awful things. Ashworth does this expertly because she isn’t feeding you these thoughts, just leaving you little titbits to take away and make as dark as your own nasty little mind will go. She shows but doesn’t tell and sometimes you might be right, sometimes you will be horrified that you could suspect someone (even a character you have come to really like) of doing something they simply didn’t. You never feel a fool, it just makes you realise what nasty suspicious thoughts you can have. Clever, very clever!

What I also loved about Cold Light is the way it feeds off and plays with(and homage to) some of the great tropes of literature. In some ways it is a crime novel, there is a body discovered at the start and a mystery to unravel, yet it looks at the way the crime now (and something in the past) affects a whole community and the extreme reactions it causes. It also toys with the coming of age tale, or if I was being really pretentious ‘bildungsroman’ which just sounds filthy, as we watch how these three girls navigate life and each other. Teenage girls can be such bitches. Finally it also plays with those bleak, cold, ‘ooh it’s grim up north’ novels and takes it to extremes both in atmosphere but also because it doesn’t feature loads of middle class people moaning about it, it’s the actual working classes who often don’t get a voice. I actually described it as being like Mean Girls meets Broadchurch but ‘oop north’ and more sinister the other day, if that doesn’t sell it to you as being a blooming brilliant, compelling yet complex read you must grab, then nothing will.

So as you can see Jenn Ashworth has done it again for me with Cold Light as we have a dark yet also blackly funny twisted tale. A Kind of Intimacy was a rather confined little wonderfully evil monster of a book; I think Cold Light has a broader scope yet a condensed dark heart at its core. With these two novels and the ghost story that turns itself on its head, in a collection I read over Christmas, Jenn Ashworth is becoming one of my favourite contemporary writers. I cannot wait to see what she does with a family drama in The Friday Gospels. Read her.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Jenn Ashworth, Review, Sceptre Publishing

A Kind of Intimacy – Jenn Ashworth

We all have bad days don’t we, like I might have yesterday, or times in our life when we just want to escape from the world we know and have created for ourselves. In Jenn Ashworth’s debut novel A Kind of Intimacy we follow a woman who gives herself a new start and we then watch as the past slowly starts to haunt her, creeping ever more to the forefront of her life again.

9781906413392

Arcadia Books, paperback, 2009, fiction, 283 pages, borrowed from Emma Jane Unsworth (who may never get it back)

Annie Fairhurst has left her old lonely miserable married life with her husband Will behind her. She wants to start again and so has found herself a new home in the suburbs of a Northern town for herself, and her cat Mr Tips, to start a fresh. She wants to make new friends, have wonderful parties and maybe meet a man like her old love Boris, who rather liked the larger lady like Annie and twice gave her a glimpse of how life could be. She is full of hope for the future, especially when she meets her next door neighbour Neil who she is sure came to her aid once when she was a damsel in distress. Yet this unleashes two things in Annie, firstly the fact that her past is a mystery that keeps rearing its ugly head no matter how hard you try and cover it up, secondly Annie isn’t as stable as she might initially appear nor as truthful or lovely. The plot thickens…

What had I told her that for? Honestly, you can sit me down with a cup of tea and a packet of biscuits and ten minutes you’ve got my whole life story. I clamped my lips together to stop any more noise coming out until I had decided how I was going to approach things. There was no point making a fresh start if you were going to bring all the old junk along with you and I certainly didn’t want new friends to become unnecessarily embroiled in my history.

There is so much to love about A Kind of Intimacy it is going to be hard to do the book justice and also rather difficult not to gush about its brilliance. First credit to Jenn Ashworth has to be the pacing of this book. It is one of those books that really, and I don’t think this gives too much away, slowly racks up the tension. It is also one of those marvellous books where the author will give you a very normal seeming paragraph or two until you spot a word or two in one of the sentences that makes you do a double take and then start to ponder all the layers and dark corners that are going on around the edges. It takes a deft hand to do this, there must be hints and not too much show and tell and yet at the same time you really need to keep the reader interested in the ‘façade’ story, if you will, as the book goes on. It is very blooming clever that, a really hard trick to pull off and Ashworth does it deftly.

‘Annie reacts with appropriate anger when her human rights are infringed,’ I recited, which was as assertiveness affirmation I’d picked up from one of the new books. You were supposed to write them on slips of paper and stick them to all the mirrors in the house, but there were too many, the scraps of paper kept falling off and drifting to the carpet like oblong snowflakes, and so I just spent some time learning them instead. I said it ten times as I washed my bloody and dirtied hands with the lily of the valley liquid soap then I went to my bedroom for a lie down. I stayed up there for a couple of hours, only coming down to get a tub of ice cream and a tin of condensed milk because I hadn’t eaten anything since the sausages and I was hungry again.

Secondly, what makes the book all the more brilliant is the fact it is so centred in reality. The cast of characters around Annie are the people you have around you in any neighbourhood. You have the rather hapless yet helpful Neil and his much younger and rather ‘I am so mature for my age’ but actually not at all girlfriend, Lucy. The slightly randy and often rather drunk neighbour across the way, Raymond, and the lovely and very helpful and thoughtful couple round the corner of the cul-de-sac Barry and Sangita, the latter who sees Annie as a bit of a project to get on the local Neighbourhood Watch. Set in a nondescript town with its hairdressers and discount clothes stores, it all seems oh-so normal.

Thirdly, to create a character like Annie who tells us her side of all her stories (some true, some not so) and yet also cleverly give the reader hints that there is much more, and indeed much darker, things going on in the background making Annie sound delightful yet be utterly unreliable, is some sort of genius. It is something I have rarely seen done quite so well. Somehow Ashworth makes us like Annie despite the fact that we soon learn she is utterly bonkers, I mean loop the loop crazy, does some horrendous things (which are also hilarious whilst nightmarish) yet loves her cat dearly, deep down wants to be the perfect neighbour and friend and who has, if I can be blunt, had a pretty crap past. There are themes of being unwanted, missing out on your full potential, a sense of desperation to be liked and welcomed, and most importantly to be loved. We empathise even though we know we shouldn’t and sometimes might not want to.

Which leads to the fourth point of brilliance, the way in which A Kind of Intimacy switches from hilarious to disturbing, from fantastically filthy to utterly tragic. Ashworth knows how to write with all these emotions and feelings going on without one ever taking over or anything becoming too extreme, even when the book comes to its climax. She also knows how to set one against the other to make the reader more engaged be it the fact that the funny bits make you laugh all the louder because then something disturbing comes along, or because the sense of tragedy in the background hits you all the harder because of the humour, the balance only tilting till Ashworth has you in explosive giggles or feeling devastated or shocked.

As you might just have guessed I rather loved A Kind of Intimacy and thought it was rather brilliant. I love books which are quirky, tell a bloody good story, are well written and make you think. This book makes you do all of those and once you have closed the final page I bet you will find yourself often thinking of Annie. I cannot wait to read all of Jenn Ashworth’s other works.

Note: you can have a nosey through Jenn Ashworth’s bookshelves here.

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Filed under Arcadia Books, Books of 2014, Jenn Ashworth, Review, Sceptre Publishing

The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane

I think 2014 might be the year of ‘grey fiction’. I don’t mean in a fifty shades of grey way though, I do think that we are going to witness a lot more novels about, or narrated by, the older character and two of them are my favourite books of the year by far and both of them are debut novels. First up is The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane which I think is one of the most intensely gripping, worrying and moving novels I have had the pleasure of reading in quite some time, and one which I think will linger hauntingly for the rest of my reading year to come.

Sceptre Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 276 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Ruth is a widow who has been living by herself on the coast round from Sydney and for a little while and been coping quite well thank you very much. However on and off in the night she has felt pretty sure that there is a tiger who is roaming around her house. She doesn’t know where this tiger comes from or goes to after it visits her and yet while she doesn’t think it wants to harm or eat her its presence is unnerving to say the least. Especially when she wakes up and wonders if it was ever really there at all, is she loosing her marbles?

Just as she and her two sons, who both live distances away, are beginning to worry luck intervenes as a young burly and rather bossy woman, Frida, turns up on the door one day announcing that she has been sent by the government and is Ruth’s new home help, initially just staying for an hour or so a day to help all she can. Help indeed she does, she may be bossy and have an edge but Frida cleans thoroughly, helps with bills and even helps Ruth look up and old flame from her youth back in Fiji. Yet as we read on and Ruth continues to tell her narrative a sense of menace builds around Frida and we initially have to work out if Frida is not who she says she is, or is Ruth indeed imagining or confusing things as her mind has started to wander more and more.

I won’t say anything else for fear of giving the plot away because part of what the book is all about, and indeed built up on, is the relationship between Ruth and Frida as it twists and turns with the books progression. In this sense I have to say it was one of the most compelling novels, this would fall into ‘literary thriller’ territory, that I have read in quite some time – so much so I read it in two sittings, didn’t speak to anyone for a whole Sunday and completely forgot to keep any notes for quotes and points to discuss, and much to discuss there is in The Night Guest.

As I mentioned the twists and turns are only one strand of the book. The Night Guest is also very much a book about old age, loneliness, regret and second chances. In terms of old age, I think anyone who reads this book will be keeping a much closer eye on the older people they love and those people around that person. More importantly it looks at the subject of old age unflinchingly, through Ruth we are given an insight into how it feels to be lonely and unable to see or get to those you love as much as you would like, how it feels to be isolated yet lacking in true independence when you aren’t able to do everything for yourself. It isn’t all bad, the time she gets to think and contemplate the sea and whales is delightful, as are the thoughts of what it might be like to shock some young person by saying ‘fuck’ or ‘bitch’ which adds to many of the books darkly funny moments.

I loved how Ruth looked back fondly at her marriage to Harry, living in Sydney and having the boys and yet also longed for the days when she was the daughter of missionaries in Fiji and completely in love with a doctor called Richard. The tale of her contacting and meeting Richard again is a lovely one amongst the darkness and I thought, slight spoiler here but it is so wonderfully done I can’t not mention it, a brilliant and hopeful portrayal of love, lust and even sex once your over seventy, all done tastefully and movingly.

Of course the atmosphere of menace is still present even in these more tranquil moments of McFarlane’s prose, and as the book goes on the menace intensifies yet the book never strays into a sense of farce or the unbelievable. Actually, it is probably the fact that The Night Guest is so realistic and so possible that it makes it all the more effective and chillingly thrilling. I think McFarlane has written a marvellous book, one which I highly recommend to you all as it is definitely one of my reads of the year and as I mentioned, even a month later, haunts me still. Oh, and if you needed any more convincing it is also an utterly beautiful object in itself, you really should judge this book by its covers.

The Night Guest Uncovered

Who else has read The Night Guest and what did you make of it? I have seen it has been long-listed for this year’s Stella Prize in Australia (along with the brilliant All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld and Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, so maybe I should read the whole list if they are this good?) and if it misses out on a long-listing for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction on Friday I will be rather surprised.

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Filed under Books of 2014, Fiona McFarlane, Review, Sceptre Publishing

Pure – Andrew Miller

There are books that you mean to read for ages and ages and simply don’t get around to; ‘Pure’ by Andrew Miller has been one such book for me. With its cemetery setting (I do like a cemetery, I was even a tour guide for one) and the fact it sounded like a dark, brooding, sensational and gothic novel I thought this was going to be the ideal book for me from its release date. I didn’t read it. It then won the Costa prize and again ignited my interest in it. I didn’t read it. Then I begged Gavin to put it on the list of The Readers Summer Book Club titles and so had to read it. So finally I ended up reading it about a year after I intended to. How does this happen with books?

Sceptre Books, paperback, 2012, fiction, 352 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

The year is 1785 as ‘Pure’ opens and we meet Jean-Baptiste Barratte, a young engineer from the countryside who is put in charge of demolishing the oldest (and smelliest) cemetery in Paris, les Innocents, which many believe has become the blight of the city. In doing so Barratte faces one of the most difficult tasks of his career, initially it seems just from a logistical point of view, however as time goes on events unfold Barratte realises that this could be the most difficult tasks for many more reasons than professional, and that a place some wish to destroy is held dear by some.

That all sounds rather grand, gothic and indeed ‘sensational’ which was all part and parcel of why I was looking forward to the book so much. Within a few chapters I was hooked by Miller’s writing, from Barratte’s first meeting at Versailles to his first steps in les Innocents, which is incredibly atmospheric. The stench of the streets, markets and people around the cemetery which have become coated in the stench of death comes of the pages and you can feel it cloying at you. It’s hideous yet also wonderful to feel the place and its history coming alive before your eyes as you read on.

“She has watched it all her life and has never wearied of it, the market and – more directly in her view – the old church of les Innocents with its cemetery, though in the cemetery nothing has happened for years, just the sexton and his granddaughter crossing to one of the gates, or more rarely, the old priest in his blue spectacles, who seems simply to have been forgotten about. How she misses it all. The shuffling processions winding from the church doors, the mourners tilted against each other’s shoulders, the tolling of the bell, the swaying coffins, the muttering of the office and finally – the climax of it all – the moment the dead man or woman or child was lowered into the ground as though being fed to it. And when the others had left and the place was quiet again, she was still there, her face close to the window, keeping watch like a sister or an angel.”

I do love a really dark book and I like a good mystery and as I devoured the first part of the book, in almost a single sitting, I had this wonderful feeling of apprehension in my stomach as things in the Monnard, where Barratte resides, go bump and scratch in the night and whispers are heard and people spy on others sleeping. That and the mystery of those unhappy to see Barratte at the church in les Innocents were making a wonderful ominous concoction and I was thoroughly enjoying it.

I don’t know quite what happened in the second part of the novel, I am not sure if it was Barratte going home to the countryside to find his friend Lecouer, and his mining men, to help him with his task or if it was the introduction of several new strands such as a love story and then the actual task of demolishing, but I sort of lost my way. The writing stayed powerful, precise and completely atmospheric and yet characters names started to confuse me, which woman was which etc, and the task of moving the bodies, which was initially gorily interesting (with mummified corpses and random bones with stories to tell) started to bog me down a little, the mystery seemed to vanish with practicality for a while. Miller did pull it out the bag for me again after this when something completely unexpected and dark happens to Barratte (though it was resolved a little neatly and vaguely all at once) and within the final ten chapters the book had the pace and sense of menace that beguiled me at the start.

The middle did sort of interrupt my flow, partly because I kept having to re-read it and make notes of who was who and why there were there. Yet oddly this isn’t a book that is difficult to read or, again I must praise the writing, get lost in because of its atmosphere, I just wondered if it was trying to do a little too much at one point and so it spread its strengths out which slightly weakened it in the middle over all. Whinge over though because as I said the last third of the book completely won me round and I was shocked with the sudden few twists that came.

So overall I really, really enjoyed ‘Pure’. Without a doubt les Innocents as a place and indeed a character of its own is the absolute star of the show because of the stunning way Miller creates it in your head with his prose. I loved the darkness of the book, it is also darkly funny in parts, and indeed I was fascinated by the period in history which I feel I simply don’t know enough about. A book I would recommend but not sensationalise in case you were left slightly disappointed by the hype someone else had created, which I think was my slight problem with ‘Pure’, though a problem I think I had created in my own head. I will re-read it one day far in the future without expectations and see if it does better, as I do want to return to les Innocents and Miller’s writing is incredible.

Who else out in the ether has read ‘Pure’ and what did you think? Who has read any of Miller’s other books? Where should I go next with regard to reading him? I have been thinking ‘Casanova’ or ‘Ingenious Pain’ might be my next port of call maybe.

I read this book for The Readers Summer Book Club, if you would like to hear the author discussing the book you can on this week’s episode of The Readers Summer Book Club here.

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Filed under Andrew Miller, Review, Sceptre Publishing, The Readers Summer Book Club

Grace Williams Says It Loud – Emma Henderson

Hindsight is a wonderful thing sometimes, and in the case of me and books it’s proving to be somewhat of a wonder above all wonders and a new way to write about the books I read. You see after I first read ‘Grace Williams Says It Loud’, the debut novel by Emma Henderson which is now shortlisted for The Orange Prize this year, I thought that it was a very good book. The more time I have had away from it, letting it weave its magic after the turning of the final page, the more and more brilliant I have thought it is.

I think the most simplistic way of trying to describe ‘Grace Williams Says It Loud’ would be to call it both a melancholic tale and hopeful one of love and life in the face of obstacles. That might sound a bit pretentious but if I were to embody the book in one sentence that is how I would do so. Grace Williams is born disabled, or as she refers to herself ‘a spastic’, both physically and mentally in 1947. This was a time when the world, including those who love her, weren’t of the understanding and acceptance that we are today. After several years of seeing doctors and hoping for the best, when Grace’s mother becomes pregnant with her fourth child a decision is made (though it could be that both things just happened to coincide) that Grace should go and live in ‘The Briars’ mental institute. It is here that she meets the boy who is set to become the love of her life, Daniel, one day at playtime.

“I bit Daniel’s leg at playtime when he knelt and tried to steal the car I’d taken from the toy box. I was lying on my side, on the floor – a fish in the bottom of a bucket – curling and unfurling my limbs. I didn’t see Daniel coming. His bare skin felt, smelt and tasted rough and homely, like old bread. Daniel bit back, on my bad arm, but it didn’t hurt. It was more suck than bite. More kiss. More please.”

I have to say in the initial two parts I was feeling rather heartbroken, we are given an enormous clue that Emma Henderson is going to break our hearts in the end from the very first page as it is, but there is a rather melancholic tone as we learn Graces past – how her parents, siblings and even Grace herself come to terms with the situation that they are in. For example when the decision is made to send Grace to Briars, as I mentioned above, you are never quite sure if the doctors had suggested this before her mother was pregnant or if it was due to that, which adds a question mark in your mind going forward and makes you wonder about everyone’s motives. There is one scene involving Grace and her mother which comes from nowhere and had my jaw hitting the floor. Its this sinking in of the situation and its problems and possibilities that I found rather fascinating and the way Grace takes it all in so normally, even though some of it is hurtful and heartbreaking, like its just the way life is – making the reader feel empowered by her in a way whilst also feeling utterly horrified.

“Bedtime, playtime, poo-time. You-time, me-time, teatime. Bread before cake. You before me. Bread and butter sprinkled with pink, sugary hundreds and thousands. Boiled egg and Marmite fingers. Soldiers, said John. Chicken and egg. There were millions of eggs in Mother’s ovaries, he said. Why was Grace the rotten one?”

From here the story goes on, into the third and longest part of the book, and things become both much worse and much better. We have tales of the attitudes from the nurses to these children, not good ones; there are deaths, disappearances, cruelty and sexual abuse. Just when you are feeling utterly heartbroken thankfully Henderson adds hope in the form of Daniel, though his tale is triumphant initially we learn there is dark there too, and a rare few nurses and teachers at Briars. They are few and far between but they seem to give the book some rays of light and stop it from becoming a novel that just leaves you feeling miserable and nothing more, something I can find rather lazy and had Henderson only highlighted the awful I might not have responded in the emotive way I did oddly enough. There is dark and light in life and there is in this book, it doesn’t mean those two polar opposites have to be equal.

“’It’s ridiculous.’ Mr Maitland, in the lobby outside the classroom, with Miss Blackburn, was almost shouting. ‘Spastics – sitting exams. Your correspondence simply doesn’t convince.’
 ‘They may have spastic bodies, Mr Maitland,’ Miss Blackburn replied, ‘but some of them have the most plastic, malleable, marvellous minds I’ve ever come across – in more than twenty years of teaching.’”

I don’t want people thinking that this is a miserable book because its not. In fact Grace’s narrative saves the book from ever being too dark and too gloomy. Oh, I should mention here that one of the aspects of Grace’s varying disabilities means she can only ever communicate two words at once. I loved how Daniel reads between it all with her body language and facial gestures when others can’t. It seems her speech, or lack thereof outwardly, has weirdly been an issue for some readers. It’s almost like because she can’t speak Grace (see I am talking about her like she really exists, a sign of a great book) therefore can’t narrate? Of course she can and it’s the insular aspect of that which worked so well for me, along with her simple acceptance – not to say she doesn’t ever fight against it because she does – that worked incredibly for me and made it so vivid, visceral and emotive a read whilst also making it a strangely hopeful one.

I think ‘Grace Williams Says It Loud’ is an incredible and rather marvellous novel regardless of it being a debut novel. The passion of the authors experience with disabilities, through her sister Claire, adds a passion to the novel but this is not just a novel told from experience. It’s a novel that lives and breathes; it makes you utterly heartbroken and then laugh out loud. It’s a book that challenges people’s ideas, even if you have the most open of minds this novel will get you thinking outside the box. I can’t really recommend it anymore than that. I initially gave this book a 9/10 but it’s a book I have thought and thought and thought about more and more so I change my mind, this is definitely a 10/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

With the Orange Prize looming in just a few days I have to say its ‘Grace Williams Says It Loud’ and ‘Annabel’ by Kathleen Winter that I am routing for I would be happy if either of these novels won it. I know I haven’t reported back on some of the long-listed reads, and two I won’t be as with this new hindsight outlook I just don’t haven’t anything exciting or interesting to say about them but the others will come in good time. I simply am not writing about everything in the order I read it anymore and its working because I can be 100% sure I want you to read books like ‘Grace Williams Says It Loud’ long after the initial flash of ‘just-read-joy’ has waned and the brilliance continues to shine through. I’ll shush now; I have gone on long enough.

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Filed under Books of 2011, Emma Henderson, Orange Prize, Review, Sceptre Publishing