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, 2020
Available as: e, audio (4 June), HB (6 August), 416pp
Read as: Advance e-copy
ISBN: 9780008289072

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.