Category Archives: Sort of Books

The Visitors Book and Other Ghost Stories – Sophie Hannah

There are three types of stories that I love in the autumn and winter months; gothic tales, Victorian sensations and ghost stories. It is the perfect time for all three in my opinion. I especially love a short sharp ghost story to unsettle me just before bed (I am not a believer that ghost stories are just for Halloween) which is possibly a bit weird. Sophie Hannah’s new collection The Visitors Book and Other Ghost Stories is the perfect fodder as I discovered when I read a story a night a few weeks ago.

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Sort Of Books, 2015, hardback, ghost stories, 96 pages, bought by myself for myself

In her (brilliant) crime novels Sophie Hannah usually sets out to find a seemingly impossible crime and, after covering up her tracks cleverly, making it all too plausible by the end of it. In this collection of four ghostly tales she uses that deft touch to make the everyday and the ordinary unsettling and rather chilling. This might mean that these tales won’t have you jumping out of your seat screaming in fear (but not many ghost stories do it is not their intention) instead each story disturbed me, and stayed with me, because it was in many ways conceivable and because of the atmosphere and twist in each tale. How to explain this without giving each of the endings or twists away is going to be bothersome in a whole different way.

 In the title story, and indeed the opener, The Visitors Book a woman goes to her boyfriends house for the first time where upon he becomes insistent that she sign the visitors book that he has in the hall, the more she refuses the more intense he gets. In The Last Boy To Leave a woman holds a party for her child only to discover that afterwards one of the children, who she hadn’t really noticed, hasn’t been picked up by his parents. All the Dead Mothers of My Daughter’s Friends sees motherly competition at the school gates take on a whole other meaning and in Justified True Belief someone has started seeing ghosts in the street, the question is why?

The second thing I notice about the woman waiting to cross the road is that the roots of her teeth are visible and blackened where they meet the gum. I see them clearly as she talks; dark flashes in her pink mouth. She hasn’t noticed that the green man is illuminated. Her friend has, but doesn’t want to interrupt. Both are smartly dressed, with laminated name badges on strings around their necks. I can’t read their names. The friend, the listener, is considerably more attractive. How could she not be, when the speaking woman is a ghost?
Which was the first thing I noticed about her.

What I loved about this collection, and what I think makes all great ghostly tales a perfect thrill, is that in none of the four did I even guess the way that it was going. Somehow in a condensed space of words Sophie Hannah manages to take you in one direction before pulling you down a dark alley you hadn’t even noticed ahead of you, it was just out the corner of your eye right in your blind spot. This is as deeply satisfying, entertaining and thrilling as it is in her crime fiction.

Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again…
Manderley, in the novel, is a vast country estate. Would Rebecca have become a classic if Maxim De Winter had lived in a two-bedroomed terrace in in Walthamstow? No, it would not. Mrs Danvers would have had to sleep in the second bedroom. A stone’s throw from the first; she’d have heard her boss and his new wife having sex through the partition wall.

I used the above quote for two reasons, well three as naturally if any book mentions Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca it needs to be acknowledged and gives me the chance to remind you that if you haven’t read it then you really should. Anyway, where was I? Yes, the quote… What I thought this highlights is twofold. Firstly, it shows both Hannah’s wonderful sense of humour which I like, sprinkled with a hint of sauce, and Hannah’s nod to the gothic greats. Secondly, I think Du Maurier could make a classic tale set in a two bedroomed semi detached in Walthamstow  if she had been given a chance, and Sophie Hannah certainly could as she makes the domestic and the ‘normal’ somehow very other, it is the strength of the whole collection.

If you are after a thrill and chill or two then I would highly recommend The Visitors Book and Other Stories, it is a slight and solid spooky selection that I think would be a wonderful addition to your autumn or winter reading – or even better as an extra gift in someone’s stocking for a festive fright or two.

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The Claude Glass – Tom Bullough

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

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

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

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

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

The effects of a Claude glass...

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

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

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

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

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

So Many Books – Gabriel Zaid

I am just over halfway through The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt which I have to say I absolutely love so far. It is utterly beautifully written in fact it’s so rich and filled with wonderful descriptions and depictions that you occasionally need a break which when you have another eleven of the Man Booker isn’t the best option but I took one just for a few hours with a book about books that one of my friends bought for me recently. 

Gabriel Zaid’s non-fiction book ‘So Many Books’ isn’t initially what you might think it would be. I was expecting from the cover and from the title that this would be a book all about the books that he loves and with over ten thousand books in his home (which he delightfully calls ‘an embarrassment of books’ – I might steal that) you would think that he would have lots of delightful books to recommend and share with you. Actually what you get, which in many ways is just as good, is a discussion and in many ways a conversation with you about books. 

How can it be a conversation if you are reading the book and can’t answer? Well you see that is where Zaid is very clever as he asks many questions and then provides the answers sometimes even with varying thought processes, such as ‘why people read’. He also brings in some amazing facts about books. For example I had no idea that in recent years over 52,000,000 new books get published every year. How on earth are we as readers ever going to read all the books we can? 

A new titled book is published every 30 seconds. If a person read a book a day he would be neglecting 4,000 others published on the same day 

All this information is definitely for the avid book lover and in some parts it could become incredibly dull but Which when you have an hour or so (one thing I did disagree with him was the fact a paperback book ‘averages at £6 and takes only two hours to read”) to spare and you want to indulge yourself in something a little different during a long read, or just for a change or read this is something for any book lover. 

There were a few bits that I had to skip if I am one hundred per cent honest. ‘Culture and Commerce’ was one, which just seemed a little bit too business minded and so I whizzed through. The other was ‘The Supply and Demand of Poetry’ simply because I don’t really read poetry and I couldn’t identify with that. That was only ten pages; the rest of it was incredibly close to home for this reader.  

Truly cultured people are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more 

With lines like the above, I knew I was in the company of someone very much of my mind, and quite possibly of yours if you are a book-a-holic. I also have to praise the chapter ‘The End of the Book’ which sounds like it could be grim reading for anyone who loves books but Zaid left me with a smile on my face and a spring in my step. A fabulous book, definitely only for the true book lover and addict. 

What other books about books are there out there? Which ones would you recommend? Do you like books about books and reading habits or do you just prefer to stick to your fiction?

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Filed under Books About Books, Gabriel Zaid, Review, Sort of Books

The Fantastic Book of Everybodys Secrets – Sophie Hannah

I had wanted to get this book since Polly had picked up a copy for her beach holiday and been very tempted but I am not normally great with short stories (other than Sherlock Holmes) as a rule, something that I want to change. However I found this in Oxfam and you cant go wrong with a brand new book that’s only just out in pristine condition for 99p can you? Plus its recycling and giving money to charity, I must do a post on the best charity and book shops round my way sometime. Sorry I digress.

This was the book I started on my last night in Philadelphia (yes the holiday where I took too many books) and was the book for my flight back, I needed something entertaining that would take my mine of the fact I hate flying and I was in a tin can 30,000 feet above earth. Did it do the trick? Indeed it did.

Sophie Hannah predominantly writes new crime thrillers and poetry which I haven’t read yet (did you know that her mother is the author Adele Geras?) yet you could see both of these reflected in this collection of dark twisted tales. Her prose has a rhythm and natural flow and she manages to say a lot in a paragraph, also the plotting of these short stories I thought was excellent none of them seemed too long or too short they were just right.

‘The Octopus Nest’ is a very dark tale that won Hannah several awards and you can see why, the twist isn’t until the very last paragraph and is genuinely creepy. Other tales feature obsession, jealousy, envy and madness. I don’t want to give too much away so I shan’t waffle on much more. This is an incredibly accomplished and entertaining collection of stories and made me run out and get her crime novels, one of which I must read soon. It was also the perfect book for escapism, I completely forgot I was in the plane, and have enjoyed reading it a home since I have come back. I might yet be converted to short stories, I will have to try some other collections at some point, if anyone has any recommendations please let me know.

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Filed under Review, Short Stories, Sophie Hannah, Sort of Books