27 December 2019

Mistletoe Berries - A Ghost Story from Ambridge

Until 2013, the BBC hosted a lively messageboard for The Archers, their long-running radio soap set in the fictional English village of Ambridge.  Among other things, it encouraged listeners to post Archers parodies and fantasies (Archers fanfic, I suppose, though I never saw the term used) and I contributed a few from 2006 onwards, writing as vicarshusband. Mine included crossovers between The Archers and Biggles, Doctor Who and Dad's Army as well as a parody of the WB Yeats poem The Death of Cuchulain - and some ghost stories.

A couple of years ago I saved all the ones that I could find and put them on this very blog in their own tab. I'm disinterring this one now as next week the BBC are actually doing some "Ghost Stories from Ambridge" and also as a small tribute to Edward Kelsey, the actor who played Joe Grundy and who died earlier this year. (And because it's seasonal!)

For context, I wrote this referring to a then current storyline in which Joe was selling mistletoe (harvested, of course, illicitly) and performing "Druidic" rites (for cash, of course).


Mistletoe Berries

Joe Grundy opened the back door of Keeper's Cottage very, very cautiously and peered out. Nobody was in sight. He scuttled out - as much as a man in his late 80s can be said to scuttle - and made for the shed. Try as he might, he couldn't shake off the sensation of being... watched. To a man with as many past and present scams and dodges on his conscience as Joe had, this was a far from welcome feeling. (The word "conscience" should not be taken to imply any sense of guilt, rather a fervent desire Not To Be Caught. Especially not by Clarrie. Or by Jim Lloyd, bother him.)

Once Joe had reached the shed, he soothed his nerves with a spot of cider and tried to remember when the feeling began, but it was hopeless. 'Pull yourself together, Joe' he told himself. 'What would your Susan say if she could see you?' The thought of his departed wife watching him did not bring the comfort it ought to, and he took another gulp of cider, before slipping the bottle of Tumble Tussock into the poacher's pocket of his long coat and collecting up his Druid outfit. Although he had - nearly - promised Jim that his days of Druidry were over, he had one or two appointments, made beforehand, to keep, and it was only nearly a promise. A man deserved a little bit of money to spend down the Bull when it was cold and his farmer's lung (cough) was bothering him, didn't he?

Joe set out down the lane, then took the short cut through the field. He had known these fields and paths all his life and could walk them near blindfold. His knowledge had served him well many times when there had been a need to avoid gamekeepers or other trouble. But he didn't feel at home as he usually did. There was that sense again of watching, and waiting. His shook his head impatiently. Cut across the back here -

Joe stopped. There was a small clump of trees in front of him which he didn't remember. Must have missed the gap in the hedge - but no, there was the Am. It was that Brian Aldridge, no doubt he'd been planting more trees to get a green subsidy or such. There'd been no green subsidies for the Grundys when they were at Grange Farm. Wasn't fair, all the money went to the Aldridges and the Archers.

He made towards the trees. As he came closer, he saw that there were little lights among them, and he seemed to hear voices. Perhaps best leave well alone, it might be Jamie and some of his nasty mates. Joe tried to stop, but it was if he had been lifted up by a host of invisible hands, carrying him closer and closer to the circle of trees, set atop a mound that definitely hadn't been in the field that morning. Joe seemed to hear laughter, and faint hoofbeats.

As he entered - or rather, was flung into - the ring, Joe saw, by the light of a small fire, a seated figure. It was an ancient man, dressed in a garment made all of green leaves. He had a long, white beard and wore a garland set with small, white berries. Mistletoe berries. Behind this figure, Joe though he saw little, flickering creatures that seemed to dart around like licking flames. When he looked directly at them, he saw nothing. But the sense of being watched returned tenfold.

'Joseph Grundy!' boomed the figure

'Your honour?' replied Joe 'What do you want with me? I'm only a poor farmer!'

'Joseph Grundy!' repeated the figure 'You have taken the golden sickle, and sung the growing song to the trees in the midst of winter. There is a price to be paid.'

'It were only a bit of fun' said Joe. 'Didn't mean no harm by it'

'Harm!' replied the other, rising from his throne. 'You have woken the Sleepers from the Nine Mounds. The Maidens have risen from the seven pools. The Three...'

'Now' said Joe 'it was all a misunderstanding, that's all. But seeing as I'm here, perhaps you'd care to join me in a drop of cider, and we can talk about it.'  He pulled the bottle out of his pocket, and offered it 'And there's more where that come from. And why don't you just invite them Seven Maidens over an' all...' (this accompanied by a filthy wink).

Lights and music drifted through the village all that night, but nobody woke to look for the disturbance or complain about it, not even Lynda Snell.

And when Joe woke the next morning in his bed, he thought that he had had the strangest dream - until he saw the mistletoe berries scattered about on the floor.

18 December 2019

Review - Agent Running in the Field by John Le Carré

Cover design by Superfantastic
Agent Running in the Field
John Le Carré
Penguin, 17 October 2019
HB, 281pp
Source - HB purchased at my local bookshop, audio via online subscription.

Agent Running in the Field is another book that I have been catching up with on audio. Again, I cheated and switched to the hardback as I approached the end (I had to finish!) It was a surprise to me to find that the story is narrated by the author himself who does a very good job of inhabiting the range of accents and intonations needed for the different characters. (I did feel though that at times, the characterisations do cross the line from giving someone a distinctive voice that conveys their nationality or social background, to demonstrating that Le Carré likes or dislikes them: see Dom, for example, as one who is voiced as unpleasant and almost slimy.)

I love Le Carré's thrillers, I always have and I always will, and I've been delighted in his recent books to see him returning to core territory, focussing on what he used to call the Circus, now the "Office". (I don't know if that is accurate jargon, when I have heard "Office" used in Civil Service circles it's always referred to the Home Office). They are pared down, short, books giving us protagonists up to their eyes in the minutiae of the new Great Game, the revived concentration on the "Russia target" as it's put here. Agent Running in the Field has the added complication of launching a salvo against Brexit and Trump - and what a salvo! Le Carré portrays his service as diminished, struggling as old alliances fracture, friends turn hostile and certainties melt. Yet still, the day to day work remains and so we see Nat, the first person protagonist, returning from a shady career under diplomatic cover in various Eastern European capitals, appointed to head the Haven, a forgotten outstation staffed by no-hopers and those who have fallen from grace.

(Yes, I think there are overtones here of Joe Herron's Slough House. Or perhaps Le Carré knows of such a place for real?)

I found Nat's background here perhaps a little anachronistic. He seems, at least in part, to have been running operations out of the glory days of Smiley's Circus - infiltrating agents over the border from the Baltic States, for example, engaging in the kinds of derring-do that seem more post-war that early 21st century. Combined with the fact that Le Carré's voice is, obviously, that of an elderly man, his narration of Nat did keep making me think that his career had been in the 70s or 80s and that he was somehow emerging in the present to deal with unfinished business, much the scenario of Le Carré's last, Legacy of Spies, where there is definitely some elasticity to the timeline.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. There is no unfinished business here. The challenges faced by Nat and his colleagues arise directly from the present and concern the US, Russia and the EU. But Nat and the Office bring to these problems their repertoire of tricks and tradecraft (wonderfully described and acted out: I really enjoy this stuff) as well as loyalties and attitudes from an age before authoritarian populism and malign shadow of Putin (which name Le Carré gives a distinctive pronunciation, 'putter').

It feels like a glorious miniature piece, the stakes less control of the Office and victory over Moscow Centre than the loyalty and even soul of one individual or another. The certainties have melted away, one officer storming out of the Office because 'I don't feel like fucking lying any more' and - when it comes - a real sympathy for the potential defector. I think Le Carré's work has always been about the morality of the game as much as the tricks and traps, but here those questions are open, urgent - Nat visits a former asset and seemingly agrees with him that it had all been for nothing. It is in many ways a depressing picture, but Nat - and Le Carré -  won't give up, but seek to rescue what they can from what seems like impending darkness.

My they, and their counterparts in reality, be successful in that.

This is a wonderful read, a wonderful listen, and I'd recommend it to anyone.

For more information about the book, see the publisher's website here.


15 December 2019

Review - The Never Game by Jeffrey Deaver

Design by Claire Ward
The Never Game
Jeffery Deaver
HarperCollins, 16 May 2019
HB, e, audio

I bought my copy of this book from Wallingford Bookshop and also listened to the audio via a subscription service. (This was another book I listened to mainly on audio, while driving to the station and back, but as ever I got impatient and read the last 30 or so pages).

I've recently become a fan of Deaver's Lincoln Rhymes crime novels, so was glad to see this new series start. The contrasts - and similarities between the two series are interesting. Rhymes, a forensic specialist ac ting as consult to various law-enforcement agencies, has disabilities and spends most of his time in his home which is fully fitted out as a forensics lab. He has a group of colleagues around him who have built over the course of the novels, and they tend to be the ones who go out to collect the evidence (and actually engage in the detective work) so that the books typically have many points of view, including those of the perpetrators.

Colter Shaw is much more of a loner. (Well, he hasn't had a series of novels in which to accumulate a circle of friends!) He travels the US in a recreational vehicle, making a living by claiming rewards for missing persons, abscondees or suspects. That sounds a quite romantic life - here today, gone tomorrow, everything you need in the back of the van - though Shaw is far from a romantic personality, moulded as he has been by his survivalist father and pursuing a career where he breaks everything down to percentage chances. This book was told largely from Shaw's perspective, so felt much more linear than the Rhymes novels, even though there are many flashbacks to Shaw's earlier life.

There's a mystery surrounding Shaw's family, which I think will become an ongoing theme in this series but given that Shaw is a new player and we haven't yet really got to know him that well, Deaver shrewdly doesn't let that get too much in the way of the immediate focus which is an intricately plotted, related series of kidnappings. In each case the abductee is abandoned in a dangerous location - a deserted factory, remote wilderness, a sinking boat - and for much of the first half of the book Shaw is the only person really aware of what's going on, the police paying little attention and Shaw having to persuade them that something is up. At the same time we know he will succeed in this because the story is bookended by Shaw's attempts to rescue the woman in that sinking boat, something for which his background and experience fits him well. (Shaw's father once insisted on his teenage children going mountain climbing, in the dark as a rite of passage).

If that sounds as though it would drain the tension from the story, well it doesn't - Deaver is far to wily for that! - we get plenty of heart-pounding moments, lots of jeopardy and a series of nested puzzles disguising just what is really going on (there are, of course, many red herrings).

Put simply this book is class and if you want a polished, compelling thriller this book will do the trick, as well as promising future revelations and twists about Shaw and his background.

Would definitely recommend.



13 December 2019

Review - The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

Cover design by Tom Sanderson
The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust, 2)
Philip Pullman
David Fickling Books and Penguin Books, 3 October 2019
Audio, 686pp (also available HB, e)

OK: The Secret Commonwealth then!

I listened to this book via an audio subscription service.

It may be an exercise in vanity or futility to review a book whose launch was such a high profile event. The Secret Commonwealth may have been the most anticipated book this year (unless that was The Testaments). But we are where we are. This is a blog and I am a blogger. I don't think anyone is waiting for my say-so to buy The Secret Commonwealth (I certainly hope not) but I do have a few thoughts so I will share them.

And I have even done footnotes!

Warning - this may be a slightly more spoilery review that I would normally do. That's partly because (see above) I don't believe anyone who hasn't read the book will hear about it first from me, partly because when I cross post this to Amazon my review will be the (*checks*) 191st or something like that.

But most of all because I think the book demands it. I see for example that the most "useful" (how I hate that feature!) Amazon reviews wrestle with it, but fail to "get" it. Too long, one says. Too dark. Not for younger people. (This latter is something Pullman has been quite upfront about - READ THE ******* AUTHOR'S NOTE!) As to the length - I'm with Tolkein who lamented that the greatest failing of The Lord of the Rings was that his book was too short. I love a big book. If it's good, I want more.

As to the content - I think I do "get" it. And I won't say it is perfect (see below). But this book is trying to do something brave and difficult, and I think any decent review needs to engage with that and discuss it.

Yes, this IS a dark book. It is very dark in places - for example, there is (CW) an attempted rape, but even without that, the story would not be a happy one. Most obviously, The Secret Commonwealth undermines, contradicts, the hard-won sense of happiness we got at the end of His Dark Materials in a way that La Belle Sauvage didn't, it being set before His Dark Materials and also, as a more self-contained story than Commonwealth, ending on its own note of triumph, almost a prequel to His Dark Materials.

Yes, I know that Lyra and Will were to be separated for ever, sitting each on their own version of that bench in the Botanics. I know they would have to deal with the consequences of having been separated from their dæmons. But when we checked in with Lyra in Lyra's Oxford, set between The Amber Spyglass and Commonwealth, Lyra and Pan were on good terms[1].

Here, they hate each other. HATE.

The first half of the book is punctuated by furious quarrels between Lyra and Pan, the atmosphere this creates overshadowing even grim events in the outside world and what are clearly moves against Lyra herself by the Magisterium. (There's an irony here. In Amber Spyglass, we saw the death of the Authority, the gnostic-tinged demiurge which is behind religion in Pullman's world[2], and Lyra's and Will's victory over the Magisterium which made them into a kind of second Eve and second Adam. However news of that never - I think - came back to Geneva,  so in Commonwealth that body carries on much as ever, indeed in some ways worse.) We saw in La Belle Sauvage what could become of someone wishing ill to their dæmon so there is a tinge of horror to this whole process. As a parent of a young person (Lyra is in her early 20s) I admit that at times I wanted to take Pan aside and tell him just to give Lyra a bit of time and space. She seems taken with some fashionable nonsense, that's all, but she'll soon see through it. But of course he's part of her so that would hardly work.

If I had a criticism of this, it would be that - spoiler ahead! - this discord seems a bit confected, in terms of the book it seems designed to separate Lyra and Pan, to enable her to explore the consequences of "separation" which form a theme later on. Looking at the specifics of the fashionable nonsense Lyra has swallowed - a kind of ultra Dawkins-esque reductionist realism, on the one hand, and a solipsistic denial of reality, on the other, neither allowing any time for wonder, imagination or the supernatural - it's hard to believe that the girl, now a woman, who lived through the events of His Dark Materials would be taken in for a moment, because that lived reality so strongly contradicts both. So this whole conflict seems a bit, well, staged, and therefore, slightly annoying.

But never enough to detract from what is a pacey and exciting story. (I didn't mind too much that the main inciting event - spoiler! - the murder of a clandestine agent on the bank of an Oxford canal, seemed a bit familiar from La Belle Sauvage). Pullman's construction of his alternate Oxford is also, as ever, a joy. I am lucky enough to live near our Oxford, and the resonance, the reality, that Pullman extracts from little references and in-jokes (such as that 'Little Clarendon Street had been adopted by Oxford's jeunesse dorée as a fashionable destination') is impressive (there's even a callout to Boswell's, a much loved and venerable department store that is sadly to close in a few weeks). His wider world, too, makes sense - the smoky atmosphere, the Gyptians, the machinations of the remote Magisterium and the collaborationist bureaucracies, men (mostly) who are not "bad" as such (or not all) but want an easy life.

If the darkness in the first part of the book came from Pan and Lyra's squabbling, in the second, it arises much more from world events. Lyra's world is, as Pullman gradually reveals, in crisis. There is religious and political turmoil in the East and refugees are heading away from this, to be treated with the same lack of care and lack of welcome that has been shown in our world to those fleeing the troubles in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

We first hear about these troubles from a distance, as a cause of economic crisis, and then see them more closely as Lyra travels East. She first sets out because she's menaced, hunted, threatened at home - it's not clear exactly why, though Pullman gives us some hints through glimpses of the inner Magisterium - but her journey gradually acquires a focus, and it is one that takes her into the heart off the storm, into greater peril than any sage faced in the previous trilogy, I think. In the course of that we are shown and told many dark things, not least that the match between dæmon and human is less permanent than we might have thought. I think Pullman is slightly retconning his world here - in His Dark Materials, separation from a dæmon was so traumatic, so vile, that it seemed it almost led to death (poor Billy clutching his fish) or at least, to psychic damage. Lyra and Will seemed to be the exception to that and as we will see, many people still won't accept the idea of a human with no dæmon. But as Lyra finds out, it is much more common that you'd think. That troubles her, alongside the gathering clouds of war, the personal threat to her and the cruelty meted out to the poor, the weak. There is not much sign here that the Republic of Heaven, which Lyra and Will swore to build, is being established. Perhaps Lyra was sidetracked by those fashionable philosophies? Will the quest she's on, headed, ultimately, in the heart os Asia, put her back on course?

Unlike its predecessor, The Secret Commonwealth doesn't come to a tidy end but leaves things in the middle of the action, with Lyra, Pan and Malcolm Polsted (making a welcome return from La Belle Sauvage) all in danger and other loved characters suffering too.

I found it a gripping read. It isn't a book for children, but Pullman understands how to hook his readers - adult or child - and isn't above throwing in startling, nailbiting incidents which may deviate a bit from the main plot but which keep the tension high and allow his characters to shine - think of Alamo Gulch in His Dark Materials[3].

I did, as I have said, listen to this book rather than "reading" it and I found that the audio, narrated by Michael Sheen, really brought the story alive. Sheen uses dozens of voices, including giving Lyra a proper Oxford accent (the real, local accent, not the posh one) and imbuing the villains with appropriately menacing tones.

The story isn't perfect. I agree with those who think (more spoilers!) we would better have been spared the whole Malcolm-fancies-teenage-Lyra bit. While very tastefully achieved, told from a distance and with Malcolm portrayed as very honourably distancing himself form any hint of anything bad, it still comes over a bit icky. Just no.

Also, I could have done with more followthrough on some of those startling incidents - several times in this book, something startling happens, I mean something really AMAZINGLY salient (you'll know these things when then they happen) and then - nothing. No passing mention in the following days, no reaction in the (often overheard) secret councils of the Magisterium. Nothing.

But this is still a better book to read than many that you'll see piled high on the bookshop tables this Christmas. I'd say it lives up to the expectations. It's fun, it's scary - deeply, morally scary - it's pertinent and warning (look what's happening to two of the main characters on trains towards the end). A book not to be missed.

[1] Do read Lyra's Oxford, before or after this - it provides a wealth of helpful hints and material that support The Secret Commonwealth.

[2] Don't ask me if by "Pullman's world" I mean, Lyra's world, or the whole set of parallel ones that includes Will's - but which is meant to be ours. I don't know. I would like to ask him (Pullman, not Will).

[3] Pullman loves his filmy references, doesn't he? Look at the title of the other "companion" book, Once upon a Time in the North.


9 December 2019

Review - Skein Island by Aliya Whiteley

Design by Julia Lloyd
Skein Island
Aliya Whiteley
Titan Books, 5 November 2019
PB, 314pp

I'm grateful to Titan Books for a free copy of Skein Island to consider for review.

As a blogger it's easy to get a bit formulaic in your reviews. Plot précis. What the book meant to you. Some pithy quotes. A bit about the author's previous work and perhaps wider context.  Summing up.

In the case of Skein Island, I can't do that and not just because - bad David! - I hadn't read any Whiteley before (that's something I'll have to fix). No. There's something about this book that is different. It's not that the plot is complex or difficult to engage with, or that the underlying themes are unclear - rather these are admirably laid out.

We meet Marianne, a librarian who's just suffered a traumatic act committed by a man - but who has also received an invitation to attend a week long retreat on an island community set aside for women. (An invitation from a dead woman, but let's leave that for now).

We also meet her husband, David. The story then follows both in the succeeding days as they adjust (differently) to what happened. Marianne, of course, has rather more to bear (it's not just what happened in the library that night, her mother disappeared seventeen years ago - after visiting that same island).

David is... rather annoying. (Can I take this chance to invent the hashtag #NotAllDavids ?) Clearly desiring to be supportive, or at least to play the role of somebody who is supportive, he seems to be subtly off key, not quite reading the situation right. He wants to make what happened about him, not Marianne. He should have protected her. Now, he should avenge her. He lurks outside the library, waiting for the suspect. David is casting himself as the hero in a story that isn't even about him. In this, he receives succour and support from the regulars who assemble nightly in The Cornerhouse, a dive pub where a strange game is played ('the cubes') that casts men in one of four roles - hero, villain, sidekick or sage.

As the story developed, I began to find Whiteley's description of David truly creepy. He seems to be on a voyage of discovery, but also to know what he's discovering. He falls into that hero role far too easily, too unquestioningly. He also seems to foster an unhealthy relationship very quickly with the female PCSO who's investigating what happened to Marianne. I think that given Marianne's absence, Sam may in his mind be taking the part of the woman who David has to "protect".

At a more thematic level there's an oddness about the whole setup , As I said, David isn't, shouldn't be the hero here but the story also gives him that role, it's as though there is an unfilled space, an empty niche, in the structure that simply won't be denied. I think that Whiteley's being very clever with this, she seems to be saying, look - this is what men do, but also - even when I'm writing a book about women, they still do it. In a sense I think that what's being shown up here isn't only the world as we find it but also the very narrative conventions that tell us how stories about the world must be written (and which therefore tell us how we will find it).

Enough of David!

While all that is going on, Marianne is also discovering a great deal of strangeness on Skein Island, that women-only community (the name itself an allusion to spinning and weaving, crafts often seen as embodying the unwinding of fate fate and, of course, as women's work).  I enjoyed the scenes describing her - and the other women's - arrival there, recalling Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None - another book in which a hidden hand is directing choices and imposing a narrative. I also enjoyed discovering the inhabitants of the island - Inger, Vanessa, Kay, Rebecca. Whiteley observes closely how they react and work together, or don't - the rational Rebecca, who Marianne doesn't like much but who will come to act as her anchor, Inger who - like the men in The Cornerhouse - feels an urge to be a rescuer but who doesn't - unlike them - allow that to define her life.

During the part of the narrative we begin to learn a little about what's really happening, about what is guiding this drive to narrative and its implications for both men and women. That is important knowledge, as the world begins to spiral out of control due to all those men acting out their roles. it is knowledge that may allow things to be fixed - but that has to be done by a woman, and how can that be achieved in the face of all the self dramatising would-be heroes?

The form of the narrative throughout is very tightly bound with the themes being discussed. Its impossible to separate the underlying motivation of this book - which I think is the tendency of men to appropriate and redefine women's experience - from the fact that it is, indeed, a book, a story, a narrative so in a sense everyone here is playing a role set out for them by the author. Combined with the idea of a very active Fate shaping and snipping at destinies, all this gives the reader a lot of material for thought - though it does not weigh down what is a tightly plotted, absorbing narrative inhabited by sharp drawn, engaging characters.

As a coda to the main story there is a short story too, The Cold Smoke Declaration, taking place in the same world but some time after the main events. The themes are slightly different - it is more a ghost story than the main one which is more fantasy or folk horror - but the observation, the characterisation and the sharpness of the plot are equally good.

For more about Skein Island, see the publisher's website here.

6 December 2019

Review - The Twelve Strange days of Christmas by Syd Moore

The Twelve Strange Days of Christmas
Syd Moore
Point Blank, 10 October 2019
PB, e, 199pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free copy of The Twelve Strange Days of Christmas to consider for review.

These are short stories which take place in the world of Moore's Essex Witches novels - supernatural thrillers focussed on Rosie Strange and her family museum in the village of Adder's Fork, Essex. The Strange family and its history entwine with that of the Museum which is itself a slightly uncanny place.

The stories fit with the wider series in a number of ways, variously taking place in Adder's Fork, featuring minor characters from the books or members's of Rosie's family (including Septimus himself), narrated to familiar figures or, in a couple of cases, I think anticipating future books. A couple are not, perhaps, strictly ghost stories but they slot in very nicely with the general theme which is of course death is a common - death anticipated, death mourned, death overcome - death awaited.

The collection does feature some stories which were in The Strange Casebook published last year but there are as many new ones, and the older stories stand up very well to rereading. If you've read and enjoyed the Essex Witch Museum books you'll have the chance to spot how the stories fit in to that world.

Septimus and the Shaman sees Septimus Strange recounting a wartime episode that took place while he was on active service. As well as shedding light on just what he got up to at that time (and perhaps his wider connections with the Establishment) it also contains a warning and some hints about Rosie's future.

Snowy is a gentle hymn to death and loss and perhaps - perhaps - to consolations beyond.

The House on Savage Lane, and Jocelyn's Story are stories of a slightly different kind, the sort where the revelation of what is really going on is what drives the horror (even if you'd begun to guess as I did for the first, not the second) so I won't say much about them. I think they look forward to potential future Witch Museum mysteries. I especially found Jocelyn's Story to be genuinely strange and unsettling. The House on Savage Lane was a bit more conventional but still had a couple of effective twists.

Easily Made is a kind of sequel to Snow, introducing a different kind of horror.

In the Bag is a classic ghost story, with a humorous twist on death and revenge. 

Death Becomes Her focuses on a policewoman we have seen before, and perhaps explains a bit about her.

She Saw Three Ships is a delight, a whole story featuring Ethel-Rose and taking place in that most ghost haunted and uncanny of English counties, Cornwall. What happens when the locals make you unwelcome on the eve of a creepy local festival? Well, you dig in and see what happens, obviously. This slice of folk horror is calculated to raise a shiver.

Madness in A Coruña is the longest story in the book, and is an effective and creepy ghost story, perhaps with an MR Jamesian bent. An unwary traveller to the Spanish city (yes, the same as in the poem by Charles Wolfe) discovers mysteries. The city seems to be guarded against something. But is it guarded well enough? As this story came to a climax I found myself sitting forward and gripping my Kindle, so tense did it get.

Christmas Eve at the Witch Museum is a real joy, a little slice of life at the Museum. It's all much as you'd expect, with Rosie hanging up the mistletoe and thinking thoughts of Sam, some gruesome exhibits on display and a surprise appearance by a very English phantom.

Barefoot Through the Snow is  a delicious, sad, classic ghost story fitting well into the Witch Museum mythology - the stories of innocent women tormented and put to death - as a mother seeks out her children across the cold, cold fields. It suggests some unfinished business that perhaps Rosie will be able to sort out one day?

A Christmas Carole is, as the name suggests, Moore's version of a time hallowed classic, one without which no collection of Christmas ghost stories would be complete. It's familiar, but she also gives it a distinct twist and make sit her own.

These are great stories. They will mean most to those who are familiar with the Witch Museum series, but the collection as a whole may be read as an entertaining and chilling group for Christmas. While some have appeared before that was in an e-only version and you'll want a print copy of this to live on your shelves next to the other Strange books, won't you?

For more about the book see the publisher's website here.


4 December 2019

Review - Dead to Her by Sarah Pinborough

Dead to Her
Sarah Pinborough
HarperCollins, 6 August 2020
HB, e, 416pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Dead to Her via NetGalley.

When I saw there was a new novel by Sarah Pinborough coming in 2020, and that it was available on NetGalley, I got very excited and put in my request as soon as I could. And when I was lucky enough to be approved, I read it straight away, rather than waiting till next Summer. I appreciate this review is way early but it's been a year or two without a book from this author so just couldn't delay. Look at this as a peek into the future - what you may be reading next August...

You can't tame a wild thing

Dead to Her opens with a party and an entrance.

'Eyes scanned the new wife's gold dress - Versace maybe - figure-hugging but an inch too short for this society crowd. The heels - half an inch too high. The jewellery, thick coils around her neck and hanging from her ears, impressive but attention-seeking. All of the women - nearly all over fifty - would be making the same assessment: She's not one of us.'

William, a wealthy and influential, but ageing, (and White) lawyer practising in stately Savannah, Georgie, has invited his wealthy, influential (and mostly ageing) White friends to meet his new English wife, Keisha (young, not wealthy, Black).

Returned early from a trip to Europe he'd taken after the death of first wife, Eleanor, he's eager to present Keisha to Savannah society... and to begin moulding her into someone that will do him credit. There was an element of Pgymalion in William's attitude to Keisha, if Professor Higgin, besides being sexist and a snob, also had a streak of malice. William may have been taken with Keisa when he spotted her waitressing in a strip club, attracted by her youth and looks and even because she was not like his friends, not like Eleanor.  But that is past. William is home now. Keisha has to fit in, take golf and tennis lessons, behave herself. If she's going to keep her place, she needs to earn it not just by meeting his needs in bed (those little blue pills are stern masters) but by becoming something she's not.

Keisha - one of the two main viewpoint characters - is on the cusp of discovering this, and the first part of the novel follows her as she realises how things are going to be. She comes to recognise the fix she's in, that William is not what she thought he was. But that's actually the least of her worries. She has secrets of her own. She was brought up by a ghastly uncle and aunt who think she's now their meal ticket. She's addicted to tranquillisers ('Thank fuck for her Valium') and she's in a very unfamiliar society. Under the eye of the first wife - in the form of portrait hung over the staircase - living in a house where Eleanor's bedroom, left as it was when she dies, mustn't be touched, intimidated by William's housekeeper Zelda, there are Gothic echoes here from the outset. Add to that Keisha's conviction that she is cursed, her memory of seeing a ghostly boy, and a sultry, voodoo-laden atmosphere, this is a book that seems to invite the uncanny.

From that first appearance Keisha is under suspicion by Marcie, young second wife to Jason, William's partner, who thinks Keisha has an eye on her husband. Marcie knows the ground here, having won Jason away from his first wife, Jacquie (who is also, we soon learn, back in town). Having a lot in common with Keisha - Marcie also come from the wrong side of the tracks, and also, as we will see, has secrets too - she's not unsympathetic to Keisha, but business and position come first in Savannah. Marcie won't be poor again and she won't lose Jason, despite the shine having come off her marriage too. ('It was amazing how you could contain yourself - imprison yourself - if you really tried')

So when the two women are thrown together - Jason is keen that Marcie befriend Keisha and persuade her to put pressure on William to retire - there is bound to be trouble. I often found myself holding my breath as the scenes between them teetered on the verge of blowing up into something truly scandalous. Keisha has a streak of recklessness, of daring, in her which leads her to cross lines and, combined with the tension between the two women, this gives the early parts of the book a real sense of danger, of things getting out of control.

Pinborough has a deft hand at sketching such relationships, giving both the light and the dark sides as she's shown in previous books such as 13 Minutes - there is something of the same atmosphere here, a mix of respectability and naughtiness with boundaries mutable and a sense of risk. That is articulated by Marcie, the other main character here, who's consciously rowing back at times from the "fun" out of concern at provoking Jason and falling from grace. As I've said, Marcie has her own secrets - and she becomes concerned that someone else knows them. Just how much will Jason put up with from her? Just how much will she put up with from him?

But this book is more than a study of male control of women, though it is grounded in that: that's the reality of life among the privileged in Savannah, however much it's disguised by the Club, the parties, the charity fundraising drives. There are obvious nexuses of rebellion such as gay party planners Julian and Pierre, who seem at first as though they're going to be a bit of a cliché - until Pinborough demolishes that: 'I was born Peter. I became Pierre.' There are deeper and more dangerous fractures in the elegant structure too, glitches in the family connections, the twisted links going back generations - more challenging, more scandalous secrets. Jason's father, for example, committed suicide ('the honourable thing') after being caught embezzling clients' money. And others besides which it would be spoilery to describe.

There is also some design working out here. Someone who knows things. Who pulls strings. Keisha, in her fear and panic, fears Eleanor's ghost, thinks she sees evidence of even darker things going on - but neither actually sees what's coming to them. As you'll know if you read Pinborough's books, things can get very nasty, very tense, very quickly. Part of the thrill here is realising just how wide the web has been spun - when that's made clear it drops with the surprise of a master.

Pinborough also has a gift for description. There is some perfect language in this book. The 'luxuriously slow' pace of leisured Savannah life is compared to 'a cat's stretch'. As Keisha suffers withdrawal from her Valium we read that 'The ants in her head were starting to emerge...' In particular there are some very evocative descriptions of sex (not all of it good sex!)  We hear about William's 'lips cold and rubbery - old man mouth' as well as Keisha's fantasy of 'younger hands and warmer lips pressing her back onto the hood of her new red sports car'. The furniture sees a lot of action, so that sometimes it's easy to take an innocuous phrase the wrong way. After reading 'He'd fucked her over the dining table, huffing and puffing at her back' I didn't know for a moment quite how to interpret 'having Marcie across the luncheon table' but it turns out to be just a meal. (That time). We're left in no doubt that Keisha and Marcie may be privileged, may be more comfortable that their backgrounds would have allowed, but they pay a real price, they are little more than assets or trappings to their husbands who retain all the power and whose word goes.

It's a stultifying, claustrophobic life, even before weird things start happening. When they do - and regardless of who may have been reckless in the first place - those young wives, those second wives, those disposable, outsider wives - are the ones directly in line to take the blame and suffer the consequences.

And even behind that there is something else too...

I really enjoyed this book. It's compelling, scary, sharp-eyed but also written with genuine warmth and sympathy for those caught up in the evolving scandal. And the peril and jeopardy last till the very end, with some revelations about one character there is NO WAY I saw coming.

I would strongly recommend.

(If, like me, you've read Pinborough's earlier books you might also spot - I think I'm right here - a little nod to Murder and Mayhem).




2 December 2019

Review - Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

Trail of Lightning (The Sixth World, 1)
Rebecca Roanhorse
Hodder & Stoughton, 28 November 2019
PB, 304pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley.

I love a book with a big, bold premise. Trail of Lightning certainly delivers this - Maggie Hoskie is a Native American monster hunter in a post-apocalyptic world where climate change ('the Big Water') has inundated much of the US and left the Diné (Navajo) people clinging to a precarious existence on part of their ancestral land, albeit (and ironically) subject to endless drought.

Maggie herself is an orphan, rescued and raised by the god Neizgháni - who trained her as an apprentice hunter before disappearing. Put baldly that sounds a lot of backstory in a short book (and there is more) but Roanhorse very skilfully parcels it out, only revealing details and facts as they are needed and allowing the reader to piece things together. The setup gives Maggie a degree of vulnerability - she is alone and mortal, facing supernatural threats that don't pull their punches, and her past has left her unpopular among the cops ('Law Dogs'), gangs, mercenaries and trade bosses who vie for power in Dinétah. There's sexism, too, highlighted when she's negotiating with a family over the price for monster-hunting job when their daughter has been snatched away by a 'tsé-naayéé'. ('Maybe they don't want to pay because I'm a woman').

I was impressed by the gritty reality of the world that Roanhorse describes, the impoverishment and general air of scrabbling for existence in a hard world. Of course it's not too much of a stretch to suggest that for Native Americans that is less an awful dystopian future than a version of their present lives and that they are already living in a post-apocalyptic world. Indeed, as described here the Big Water and its aftereffects have brought benefits such as independence ('Dinetáh risen') and - for some - even wealth. That's not a point overtly made - the story is really too fast paced to allow much time for such comparisons (though nor does the book gloss over injustices and marginalisation, past or present). Indeed it is pretty much contentious action from introducing Maggie on that first monster hunt to a final, awful confrontation with gods, monsters and vigilantes.

In between she's basically on the run, collecting a ragged assortment of allies who (of course) have their own agendas and trying to work out what's going on. Something really bad is at large, slaughtering people in the towns and leaving that trail of lightning. Even the best organised places aren't immune.

To solve the mystery, Maggie has to dig deep into her people's traditions, telling us in the course of that of a fantastical collection of gods and heroes from the old stories who are now, it seems, all to real in Dinetáh (I loved that Roanhorse makes no concessions to the English speaker, or indeed, review writer or typesetter, using spellings that I literally can't find the symbols for - for example, a word like 'wóshdee' where the two final "e"s ought to have both an acute accent é and a little mark underneath ę. My keyboard will allow one or the other but not both at once.) I loved this sense of thinness between two worlds, of the inhabitants of story walking this world, and it's done very plausibly (one god, Ma'ii/ Coyote, is a particularly natty dresser).

Maggie herself is a wonderful character - resourceful, slightly bitter in a way that's almost noir ('I lean back and start at the ceiling of the truck, asking the heavens for help dealing with men with their heads up their assess. I'm pretty sure no help will be forthcoming, but I feel the need to ask anyway') and always, always, slightly disappointed by those around her but carrying on anyway. She doesn't know everything, she's not always right (for example, she misjudges one young man she meets - he's handy with a gun, and she's surprised when her turns out to be gay) but is always ready to admit that and do better. Is she perhaps a bit overfamiliar with present day cultural references and technology? perhaps - but who knows what's current in 2030+ Dinetáh and that's intrinsically more plausible than gods and monsters anyway.

Overall then: I loved this book. I galloped through it, enjoying the buildup to the finalé, caring about the characters, refreshed by its not being another Western European strongmen in furs type of fantasy, and thoroughly liking the plot, characters and setting.

Best of all there is a sequel coming (the e-ARC had an extract in it, hopefully the publishers books does too) and I am keen to read that.



30 November 2019

#Blogtour #Review - Violet by SJI Holliday

Violet
SJI Holliday
Orenda Books, 14 November 2019
PB, e, 231pp

Today, I'm rounding off the blogtour for Violet, the tense new psychological thriller by SJI Holliday whose previous book The Lingering told of supernatural horror among a cultish group living in an abandoned asylum (and to which there's a bit of a callback here). I'm grateful to Orenda Books for a free copy of Violet for review and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part.

This is a story of two young women. Violet walked out on her boyfriend Sam, leaving him in Vietnam and travelling to Beijing to find something better (but losing half her luggage en route). It seems Sam just wasn't the man she thought he was...

Carrie set out on the holiday of a lifetime - but without her best friend Laura, who was going to come with her. Laura had an unfortunate accident back in Edinburgh involving drink, cobblestones and high heels and is currently immobilised as a result. So Laura has spare tickets for a rail trip back through Mongolia and Siberia to Moscow.

When the two meet in a Beijing hotel lobby, where Violet is stranded having just missed the opening hours of the booking office it therefore sounds like fate. The two go off and get drunk, and their problems are solved. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, as you can imagine, quite a lot. Once these two apparently straightforward women are thrown together in a small sleeping compartment, it becomes clear that they both have complicated histories. And complicated secrets. The themes of strangers on a train, of the claustrophobic, isolated space of the sleeping car, the endless days crossing a bleak landscape, may seem very well worn - but Holliday is here now to inject new life and menace into them.

The story is told mostly from Violet's perspective, but interspersed by emails between Carrie and her family and friends. We soon begin to see that there's something... off... about Violet. She has, we are told, had 'many looks' and it may be time to try a new one. This feels a bit more like a fashion choice. Hearing Violet's internal monologue, we're aware of her latching on to Carrie. Carrie could be what Violet needs, muses Violet (even as she obsessively stalks her ex on Facebook). But Violet has to be careful. Just what is her game? Is she sponging off Carrie? Certainly Violet (still missing her luggage) ends up wearing items of Carrie's clothing which Carrie can't remember lending her. But they are drinking rather a lot so perhaps things get missed...

So it continues until the two stop off in Mongolia for shopping, an encounter with wild horses and, eventually, an allegedly indigenous religious ceremony that seems to be a cover for consumption of potent mushrooms leadings to an experience we are never, quite, told the details of. Whatever, it seems to reset the relationship between Violet and Carrie (and to put Carrie's behaviour in a rather different light).

After this, things get complicated between the two and the enclosed atmosphere of the train even more chaffing. There's nowhere to go. There's a dependency between the women but at the same time a hostility. Is it a case of grifter and mark? Seducer and seduced? Are they both playing each other, using one another? Jealousy also rears its head. Different levels, different layers of need, of abuse, of deceit, surface. If this were a film there would be many scenes of uneasy silence, of watching, of glances intercepted. It gets

really

really

REALLY

intense, the journey being soaked in an atmosphere of palpable menace and, yes, even of evil. We don't really have a clue what is going on - Holliday reveals things slowly and you have to put together little clues (it's as much about what you don't see happening as what you do). We do know, sort of, where it will end up - the book opens with a short prologue - or rather we think we do, but I will warn you: trust nothing and no-one here. Like her characters, Holliday has many secrets and the book keeps springing them to the very end.

It is a great, tense read which I burned through in a single day. Whether describing Violet's and Carrie's raucous progress across Asia, their fractious relationship, the shifty groups of young men who wait in station car parks and seedy markets or the dubious pleasures of tourist hotels and packaged experiences, Holliday's eye is always sharp and you'll feel as though you are right there. Violet and Carrie also feel real - horrible at times, but real - and as their history emerges you'll feel sympathy for both, if at times limited sympathy.

Recommended.

For more information about Violet, see the Orenda Books website.

You can buy the book from your local bookshop, or online from Hive Books (which supports local shops), from Blackwell's, WH Smith, Foyles, Waterstones or Amazon.

As you can see from the tour poster below, there have been some superb reviews of Violet so far in the tour, and I'd urge you to dip in and sample some of them.





28 November 2019

The Sunday Times/ University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award - Shadow Panel result! #YoungWriterAwardShadow

Well, I've got some news...

Over the past month, with four other bloggers - Anne Cater of Random Things Though My Letterbox, Linda Hill of Linda's Book Bag, Clare Reynolds of Years Of Reading Selfishly and Phoebe Williams, The Brixton Bookworm - I have been reading and reviewing the nominated books for The Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award. We are the Shadow Panel, assembled to give a bloggy view on the shortlist. before the judges proper announce the official winner.

I found the standard of each dauntingly high, and they are also very different books.

Last Thursday, the shadow panellists met to decide our winner. It was all done in the offices of FMcM Associates, which - to make things even more bookish - turns out to be near King's Cross Station, through a REALLY small, scruffy door set in a larger gate - and then through a hidden yard and up a ladder. All very Harry Potter.

We were hosted by the incredibly efficient and friendly Robert Greer, who made sure tea, coffee and biscuits flowed, and we were kept on task by Houman Barekat whose main aim was I think to ensure we did, actually, choose a single winner (no Booker shenanigans here, thank you very much). He excelled at this - as well as keeping us to time and on task (put a group of bloggers together unmoderated and you know what'll happen).

But - despite the biscuits and Houman's gentle guidance - it was, as I have said, HARD. The books on the shortlist are ALL GOOD.

VERY GOOD. Here, as a reminder, they are - in the order we discussed them, that is, alphabetically by author.

The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus (Penned in the Margins) has been described as "an extraordinary debut from a young British-Jamaican poet. The Perseverance is a book of loss, language and praise. One of the most crucial new voices to emerge from Britain, Raymond Antrobus explores the d/Deaf experience, the death of his father and the failure to communicate. Ranging across history, time zones and continents, The Perseverance operates in the in betweens of dual heritages, of form and expression emerging to show us what it means to exist, and to flourish."

I reviewed The Perseverance here. It is a fascinating and enlightening collection of poems with a very strong voice throughout, staking a claim against ensure and marginalisation. It deserves to be widely read.

You can buy The Perseverance from your local bookshop, from Hive Books, Waterstones or Amazon.

salt slow by Julie Armfield (Picador) is a "brilliantly inventive and haunting debut collection of stories, [in which] Julia Armfield explores bodies and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of her characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession, love and revenge. Teenagers develop ungodly appetites, a city becomes insomniac overnight, and bodies are diligently picked apart to make up better ones.

The mundane worlds of schools and sleepy sea-side towns are invaded and transformed, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to its inhabitants. Blurring the mythic and the gothic with the everyday, salt slow considers characters in motion – turning away, turning back or simply turning into something new entirely."

These are stories that centre young women's experiences, that take the time to express their feelings, indeed to personify those feelings. They have an eerie sense of being at the same time in the mundane world and also somewhere quite different - with the combination being totally compatible, totally to be expected, something to be lived with and through. Taken together this is a strong collection, and a joy to read.

My review of salt slow is here. You can buy salt slow from your local bookshop, from Hive Books, Waterstones or Amazon.




Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler (fleet) is "A bold debut novel exploring the nuances and the spaces between ourselves and our bodies, told through the shards collected by our own stubborn archivist. When your mother considers another country home, it’s hard to know where you belong. When the people you live among can’t pronounce your name, it’s hard to know exactly who you are. And when your body no longer feels like your own, it’s hard to understand your place in the world. This is a novel of growing up between cultures, of finding your space within them and of learning to live in a traumatized body. Our stubborn archivist tells her story through history, through family conversations, through the eyes of her mother, her grandmother and her aunt and slowly she begins to emerge into the world, defining her own sense of identity."

I found the book's playfulness with form a joy to read, perfectly matching the subject and themes by depicting the gaps and crossovers between languages, cultures and experiences. It documents some dark experiences and times, as well as the joy of family life lived well, and made excellent reading.

My review is here. You can buy Stubborn Archivist from your local bookshop, from Hive Books, Waterstones or Amazon.

The fourth book on the shortlist was Testament by Kim Sherwood (riverrun), introduced thus: 'The letter was in the Blue Room - her grandfather’s painting studio, where Eva spent the happier days of her childhood. After his death, she is the one responsible for his legacy - a legacy threatened by the letter she finds. It is from the Jewish Museum in Berlin. They have found the testimony her grandfather gave after surviving the labour camps in Austria. And, since he was one of Britain’s greatest twentieth century artists, they want to exhibit it. But Joseph Silk - leaving behind József Zyyad - remade himself long ago. As Eva begins to uncover the truth, she understands the trauma, and the lies, that have haunted her family. She will unravel what happened to József and his brother, who came to England as refugees. One never spoke of his past - the other couldn’t let it go. Their story - and that of the woman they both loved - is in her hands. Revealing it would change her grandfather’s hard- won identity. But it could also change the tide of history. This testament can lend words to wordless grief, and teach her how to live."

For me, Testament is a book that beautifully masters what it is trying to say, shows what has been and what the consequences can be. I loved the characters in this book, their flaws and their struggles, and felt that it truly honoured those who suffered and those who inherited aspects of that suffering. It's also a book which has, because it must have, warnings for us, warning not to forget, warnings to be on guard, to keep watch.

My review is here. You can buy Testament from your local bookshop, from Hive Books, Waterstones or Amazon.

So - how could we compare these books? There were so many differences and similarities. A book of poems, focusing very strongly on identity and family. Short stories making visible and real the dislocations and tensions of modern life. A novel about family and belonging and not belonging, often veering into the poetic and also based firmly in identity. A novel about family lost and regained, survival and consequences and, again, identity lost, captured, remoulded.

The only way, we felt, was to take them as books. How far did each achieve what it set out to do? Did it make sense to compare it to other books of the same type or was it too distinctive for that to work? What did we think about the language? We all had different reading experiences and focusses and this was useful in putting the books in context.  We had also read each others' reviews and sometimes found that another panel member our own feelings into words better than we could ourselves. So we gave our views, in turn, on each book, after which Houman summed up. Then, we had a general discussion after which we voted on the winner.

The books are, as I have said, all of a very high standard and any one of them would have been a worthy winner, but at the end of our fiendish judging process we decided that the winning book for the 2019 Sunday Times/ University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award would be...

26 November 2019

#Review - salt slow by Julia Armfield #YoungWriterAwardShadow

Cover design by Ami Smithson,
Picador Art Department
salt slow
Julia Armfield
Picador, 30 May 2019
HB, e, 193pp

This is my final review as part of shadow judging the The Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award. I am part of the Shadow Panel which will make its own choice from the shortlist for the award.

The four shortlisted books are Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler (Fleet/ Little, Brown), Testament by Kim Sherwood (riverrun), The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus (Penned in the Margins) and salt slow by Julia Armfield (Picador).

About the Author

Julia Armfield lives and works in London. She is a fiction writer and occasional playwright with a Masters in Victorian Art and Literature from Royal Holloway University. Her work has been published in Lighthouse, Analog Magazine, Neon Magazine and The Stockholm Review. She was commended in the Moth Short Story Prize 2017, longlisted for the Deborah Rogers Prize 2018 and is the winner of The White Review Short Story Prize 2018.

About the Book

In her brilliantly inventive and haunting debut collection of stories, Julia Armfield explores bodies and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of her characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession, love and revenge. Teenagers develop ungodly appetites, a city becomes insomniac overnight, and bodies are diligently picked apart to make up better ones.

The mundane worlds of schools and sleepy sea-side towns are invaded and transformed, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to its inhabitants. Blurring the mythic and the gothic with the everyday, salt slow considers characters in motion – turning away, turning back or simply turning into something new entirely.

My Review

salt slow is a collection of Armfield's short stories, mostly with a fantastical element. There are nine stories in all, which in varying ways make a metaphor, an inner condition or aspect of being real. That might mean losing the ability to sleep when that sleep takes physical form and steps away, incarnating a Valkyrie-like feminine force as a rock group on tour or expressing the tension and mourning of one's parents breaking up by taking on the nature of a wolf. They're stories that centre young women's experiences, that take the time to express their feelings, indeed to personify those feelings.

Every one of the stories is a joy to read. My favourite was Formerly Feral which begins 'When the woman who lived across the road adopted a wold and brought it to live with her...' It just gets - beautifully, richly - stranger from there. The words 'adopted' and 'live with' mean a bit more than they sound. The wolf is treated as a daughter, dressed and bathed. At the same time there's no twee anthropomorphism, the narrator quotes handbooks and articles which advise against wold-ownership and the book makes a lot of its animalism, from the smell to the biting. At the same time it explores the affinity between the narrator, whose parents have split, and the animal, blurring the boundaries between the two and finding unexpected common ground. I just loved this story.

Mantis is a closely observed story of a young woman in adolescence, her experiences at school, her
hopes and fears and thoughts about life, boys and her body - framed as a concern over having bad skin. All sorts of applications and treatments are tried, and family history evoked: the (never named) narrator's family is invoked, it's a genetic thing, and we hear about her grandmother (a 'party girl'). Is that genetic as well? Is that why the references to a grandfather are so enigmatic ('Your Granddad wasn't around by that time'). I thought I could see the fantastical premise that was coming, but it's a tribute to the power of Armfield's writing that even as it looms she keeps a balance between the believable, psychologically right feeling of her narrator and the ultimate destination of the story. It all fits together.

In The Great Awake, Janey narrates a worldwide change, as one by one, city-dwellers lose their Sleep. That is, a part of them steps away. The Sleeps are like silent, annoying houseguests who lurk, never speaking, rearranging one's books or studying the rugs or bickering with each other - but their visibility, their separateness, denies their (what? Owners?) the ability to sleep at all. It doesn't happen to everyone, not at once, and those who are missed begin to feel left out. Like a milder version of a John Wyndham catastrophe, Armfield draws out the implications of having the Sleeps around, the 24 hour society that forms, the dilemmas and betrayals that results, and the personal impact.

The Collectables is... kind of a horror story. A group of women, graduate students, sharing a house, order pizza and decry the men who have, in various ways, treated them badly. But, they admit, those men all had some good features. Isn't it a pity you can't take just those things and put them together in a single man? Given the crossover here between yearning emotional truth and the real, that poses a challenge which one of the women takes up.

Stop Your Women's Ears with Wax is - as the title suggests - somewhat myth influenced. Mona is a filmmaker attached with an all-women band on tour. As the coach slogs from Manchester to Liverpool, over the sea to Ireland, to York, to London, a strangeness sets in. Gruesome events happen in the tour's wake, and the group's female fans rampage. Details blur - Mona's not sure how she joined the tour - and anyone who crosses them suffers misfortunes. Again in this story Armfield holds the mundane and the mythic in balance, crossing glimpses of the strange with streetlights and motorway services at 2am.

In Granite, men are fragile, hard to love because they 'are not built to withstand the same internal pressures'. Nevertheless, Maggie fall for one - late, and she never thought it would happen. Will she be careful enough with him? Can she? I think this story beatifically exposes the fragility and delicacy of a relationship, despite (or because of) it being all-consuming, and the helplessness one faces in the faces of the the world, of others outside who will impress their own presuppositions on it.

Smack does a similar thing. It has less of the fantastical about it than many of the stories here - the sudden stranding of thousands of jellyfish aside, but that is a real thing that happens - as it focusses on Nicola. Following divorce, she has holed up in her ex's beach house - literally, she's locked herself in with food and plans to withstand a siege. With nothing to do - the power has been cut off - she explores the relationship and where it went wrong.

In Cassandra After, the narrator's girlfriend returns to her one night... from the grave. ('Mt mother had always told me it was better not to answer the door between midnight and three am') Peeling skin and with holes in her, she engages in polite conversation and we see in capsule a history of the relationship. The tone of the story is exquisitely calibrated, the narrator not so much shocked or scared as embarrassed.

salt slow, the titular story off the collection is a little different from most of the rest in that it takes place in a visibly strange, deranged world. The lather stories feature disturbances, fantasy elements, in a normal, rational world (and one of Armfield's accomplishments is to keep this sense of "normality" even as weird things go on) but in salt slow, the world itself has turned strange. We are in some kind of post-apocalyptic setting where the world is flooded and a man and woman survive in a boat, scavenging what they can from the water (iffy, because the saline appears to be dying) or fro other survivors. Again though there is that talent for preserving some kind of normality between thew two, which here seems to mean avoiding the big questions: What has happened? What do we do? As things get stranger and stranger though there must - we think - come a point when that can't be maintained...

Taken together this is a strong collection of stories. They have an eerie sense of being at the same time in the mundane world and also somewhere quite different - with the combination being totally compatible, totally to be expected, something to be lived with and through.

A very enjoyable book.






24 November 2019

Review - Realm of Ash by Tasha Suri

Cover design by Lauren Panepinto
Realm of Ash (The Books of Ambha, 2)
Tasha Suri
Orbit, 14 November 2019
PB, e, 454pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of Realm of Ash to consider for review.

Realm of Ash follows on from Empire of Sand, published last year although - and I found this rather welcome - it doesn't just take forward the story of Mehr, who was central to the earlier book. Instead it follows the life of Mehr's sister Arwa, skipping forward a number of years.

While Mehr chose to follow her Amrithi ancestry in defiance of the ruling Empire of Ambha, a desire that led her into the hands of the centuries-old spiritual leader known as the Maha, Arwa, we find, instead sought to suppress her heritage, trying to become an obedient, honourable member of Ambhan society.

We thus get quite a different perspective from that in Empire of Sand. Instead of rebellion and outright repression, Arwa's story is one of internal struggle, of self disgust at her Amrithi blood and - coaxed by her father's new wife - of her attempts to be "better" than that blood. As the book opens, Arwa is a widow, travelling to a distant hermitage to regroup after a horrific experience. Yet she's got no plans for rebellion or escape. Yes, Mehr has secrets, but they're about self-preservation and keeping those around her safe, rather than defiance. That makes, perhaps, for a slower start to a book than if this was all about rebellion and opposition. An introspective, more nuanced start, rather than one of blazing action (although that does come!).

It also makes this a fascinating and convincing study of an oppressed woman. Arwa's culture, her birthright, has been traduced and stripped from her, leaving only the ways of the invader. Her people are persecuted and her sister dead. Arwa is anxious to "pass", to earn a little bit of respect, of regard - something made harder, in a deeply patriarchal society, by her widowhood.

Try as she might, she is still, though, an outsider, a stranger and is reduced, eventually, to offering her very blood to nurture the Empire that enslaves her. All is not well for the Empire, after the events of Empire of Sand, though it has not fallen overnight - and again Suri departs a bit from the template of heroic fantasy by portraying this decay and the dangers it presents. The wounded beast may be a greater threat than the monster was when intact: following the Maha's death, and the misfortunes that arose for the Empire and its people, there are heresy hunts, military campaigns against the indigenous people, and power struggles at Court. 'Court has talons' as one character tells Arwa - and indeed, she is soon plunged into a heady whirl of politics, forbidden magic and suspicion.

I really enjoyed how Suri portrays Arwa, a woman wracked by internal conflict and fear who cannot, must not, allow anyone to see what she's going through. The story of someone who sets out to uphold an Empire may not sound as sexy as a tale of rebels and revolutionaries but please believe me, Tasha Suri weaves a taut, exciting narrative. It's never more so than when Arwa, or the born-the-wrong-side-of-the-sheets prince, Zahir, for whom she's obliged to work, seems to be close to removing the curse that is on Ambha. Will all Mehr's sacrifices be undone by her own people's inherited magic?

So - an evil. oppressive Empire but seen from the inside, with real passion, real determination yoked to its preservation because - in these disordered times - people are suffering, starving, dying and they need help. There is genuine moral conflict and tension here as a submerged heritage fights with the imperative to earn respect and honour, and an urge to maintain the familiar, even if that brings risks.

The book has brilliantly realised characters, a morally complex setup, a wonderfully constructed society based on Mughal India - and also a dash of romance (tricky, given the hierarchical and sexist constraints of that society). And of course, also magic, the sometimes glimpsed, sometimes felt twilight of the daiva with whom the Amrithi share a history.

I loved Empire of Sand. I adored Realm of Ash. Frankly, I just can't wait to see what Tasha Suri brings us next.

For more about Realm of Ash, see the publisher's website here.







22 November 2019

#Review The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus #YoungWriterAwardShadow

Cover design by Daniel Benneworth-Gray
The Perseverance
Raymond Antrobus
Penned in the Margins, 1 October 2018
PB, 91pp

This is my third (of four) reviews as part of shadow judging the The Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award. I am part of the Shadow Panel which will make its own choice from the shortlist for the award.

The four shortlisted books are Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler (Fleet/ Little, Brown), Testament by Kim Sherwood (riverrun), The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus (Penned in the Margins) and salt slow by Julia Armfield (Picador).

About the Author

Raymond Antrobus was born in Hackney to an English mother and Jamaican father. He is the recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem, Complete Works III and Jerwood Compton Poetry. He is one of the world’s first recipients of an MA in Spoken Word Education from Goldsmiths, University of London. Raymond is a founding member of Chill Pill and Keats House Poets Forum. He has had multiple residencies in deaf and hearing schools around London, as well as Pupil Referral Units. In 2018 he was awarded the Geoffrey Dearmer Award by the Poetry Society (judged by Ocean Vuong). The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins, 2018), was a Poetry Book Society Choice, the winner of the Rathbones Folio Prize and the Ted Hughes Award, and was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize and Forward Prize for Best First Collection.

About the Book

"An extraordinary debut from a young British-Jamaican poet, The Perseverance is a book of loss, language and praise. One of the most crucial new voices to emerge from Britain, Raymond Antrobus explores the d/Deaf experience, the death of his father and the failure to communicate. Ranging across history, time zones and continents, The Perseverance operates in the in betweens of dual heritages, of form and expression emerging to show us what it means to exist, and to flourish."


My Review

The Perseverance (named, Antrobus explains in a note, after the London pub where his father used to drink) is a collection of twenty nine poems. In form they range from traditional poems to paragraphs of poetic text to scattered, bare words. There is a dense, angry reversal of a Ted Hughes poem written after Hughes had visited a Deaf school, Hughes' words blocked out in a commentary on his thoughts about the Deaf pupils (look to the next poem, After Reading 'Deaf School' by the Mississippi River for specifics: it refers back scathingly to Hughes' poem and makes a connection with the way French settlers usurped and overwrote the language and land of the indigenous people of the Mississippi region).

In places the verse is supplemented by sign, very sparing, but enough to remind those who don't sign of the other side of the language divide. In others, Antrobus seeks to reproduce the experience of hearing, or speaking, as a Deaf person - the first poem, Echo, begins with the whistling of his ear amps 'as if singing/ to Echo, Goddess of noise' and goes on to recount his  own attempts as a child to pronounce his family name 'as 'Antrob' (he doesn't hear 'bus'). Echo is a kind of introduction, leading to the moment that Antrobus's Deafness is identified and hinting at some of the themes of this book - for example family.

Family is central here, especially Antrobus's relationship with is father and his father's history. It is, I think ambivalent, as shown in The Perseverance where his father disappears into the pub for a drink (or drinks) eventually popping out to give his sone 50p. This is a particularly beautiful poem, as well as being particularly sad. Other poems explore Antrobus's father's illness and dementia as well as his father's Jamaican heritage and the impact on him: half English, half Jamaican. And family remain back in Jamaica too.

It's a very keenly observed book, a sharpened book in some places, skewering particular injustices such as the killing of a Black Deaf man by US police (Two Guns in the Sky for Daniel Harris: the 'two guns' referring to the ASL sign for 'Alive') or Antrobus's treatment by US border officials (Miami Airport - a poem where the words literally sublime, turning into a cloud of fragments which both conveys how they may come over to a Deaf person and also shows up the unfairness, the fractured logic and weird presuppositions of a basically racist worldview. Sorry, that sounds very pompous. Just read the poem!)

As well as being inspired by contemporary events and themes Antrobus also looks at Deaf people in history - finding stories for example in Dickens. Doctor Marigold Re-evaluated doesn't give Dickens the same treatment as Ted Hughes but it does very elegantly point up the able-ism of the original story. One of the things about this book that is so impressive is the range of material covered, and the amount of information it imparts - for example, The Shame of Mabel Gardiner Hubbards, who was Deaf and married Alexander Graham Bell.

This is a fascinating and enlightening collection of poems with a very strong voice throughout, staking a claim against ensure and marginalisation. It deserves to be widely read.










20 November 2019

#Blogtour #Review - Nothing Important Happened Today by Will Carver

Nothing Important Happened Today
Will Carver
Orenda Books, 14 November 2019
PB, e, 287pp

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for a free advance copy of Nothing Important Happened Today and to Anne for inviting me to take part in the blogtour, which I am joining today.

I should give a content warning that this book, and consequences try review, deal with themes of suicide.

Well.

For once, I'm genuinely unsure what to say.

This is a thriller different to any other I've read before. I'm really not exaggerating there. It has me speechless. Nothing I have read before is like this

One evening, as trains bear commuters home from London, nine strangers walk out onto Chelsea Bridge. Attaching nooses to the structure, they place them round their necks, and jump.

Nine deaths, nine strangers - and a manifesto from the "People of Choice". A cult is born.

But why did they die? How was the whole thing arranged? And what happens next? Important questions...

This is high concept material already, but Carver's handling of the story then takes things to an even stranger place. We don't follow the investigation, see how the police track down... something or someone, whoever or whatever caused this. We don't have a detailed examination of one or two of the victims. Instead we get short, intense vignettes of the nine and their lives before. We see the tiny tragedies, the miscommunications, self-absorption, the fatigue, the disappointments of the Lovers, the Poet, the Doctor, the Ungrateful and so on (where do these names come from?)

And Young Levant.

Almost unbearable at times, Carver's clear, simple prose illuminates what are ordinary lives, ordinary failings, ordinary lapses, which - when some obscure switch is turned - become despairing lives, hopeless failings, unforgivable lapses. We see that switch click, but we don't see where it came from, what happened. It is VERY dark, very sad, and we spend a lot of time in the heads of what seem very disagreeable people. Not disagreeable because they are contemplating killing themselves - as becomes clear, most of this group actually want to live (whereby hangs much of the mystery...) Not disagreeable because they are lavishly, epically BAD people. No, disagreeable because they are rather ordinary, rather normal, rather - uncomfortably - like you. Or no, that's not fair, I don't know what you're like.

Rather like me. Irritatingly so. A bit out of it, a bit lazy. There. In a scary, inescapable way, Carver has skewered me on his page. And see where that leads...

Around the story of the Nine (and later, the Two, and then, the Twenty) he then gives us musings on,  clinical, cold instruction in, and discussion of, how to be a mass murderer and not get discovered. And on how to establish a successful cult (and on the intersection of the two).

Again, this can get really grim. There are discussions of murders - Dahmer, Manson, Shipman, Bradey - and how their killings began and what exposed them. There are discussions of cults and how they started and grew, and how their leaders took ordinary people (like me!) and influenced them.

As you might expect these parts can also be hard to read. This is about real murders of real people. I have always shied away from "True Crime" for this very reason - in fiction, however grim, one has the consolation of knowing that at least it's all made up, and the dashy, flashy nature of crime fiction with its hero DIs helps establish that distance, even when (especially when) it gets all noir on you. Here, there isn't that distance. And Carver has clearly thought about his stuff here. There are philosophies and practicalities: the cult leader should have a Number Two who will take the fall when it all comes down. the serial killer should, through, work alone. And so on.

It's a mark, I think, of how good Carver's writing is that he engages despite this dark, grim material. And how he does. Phrases like "unputdownable" and "page-turner" are thrown around too lightly today, but they are really apt here. This is a book that, once started, you have to finish. It's a bit like getting into a very grubby bath which has rather unpleasant things floating in it but basically you have no choice.

An unforgettable book. It is scary to think what Carver could do if he turned his talents to bad. For my part, I'll watch out for crisp white envelopes in the post and put any I do receive straight in the fire...

The Nothing Important Happened Today blogtour continues with a star studded cult, sorry, cast of bloggers as you can see below. For more information about the book, see the publisher's webpage here.

You can buy it from your local independent bookshop, or from Hive Books who support Indies, as well as from Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones, WH Smith or Amazon, to name only a few.