Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Sooky Halloween Reads

I love ghosts and haunted houses, but always run out of time before October 31st to actually *fit any in* as September/October is often "Frantically reading the Booker Shortlist" time. So in the interests of being nice and early...If you were in the market for some spooky Halloween reads, theses are some of my all time favourites.

Say Her Name, by Juno Dawson
A classic bloody Mary ghost story set in a girls' boarding school. Bobbie, the main character is just so funny and realistic and badass, and it's genuinely a scary, blood curdling story of tragic boarding school girls, vengeance and classic malevolent spirits that aren't bothered who they damn forever.

The Secret of Crickley Hall, by James Herbert
Nefarious orphanage patrons. Ghostly boys. A celler door that won't stay locked. A bereaved family looking for peace. Draughty corridors and secretive locals. Proper classic stuff.

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson
The OG of all the films, both ones directly adapted from this novel and all those slightly similar- it seems familiar because it kind of started it all. The tweedy professor type, the handsome posh boy, the shy retiring girl and the balshy bohemian investigate a reportedly haunted house. By daylight Hill House seems a dilapidated, handsome but disheveled country manor. By night, something slightly more sinister. I love the idea of places and buildings being diffused with malignant evil, that they soak up all of the bad things that ever happen within their walls and mete it out to the unwise fools that get close enough. SJ is absolutely masterful and pulling suspense out of nowhere. A masterclass in unease.

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins
So not technically a ghost story, but that beginning scene is one of the most creepy, atmospheric perfect little book beginnings in 200 years. Mist. Gas lamps. A cemetery. A white clad figure, looking sad. It's all there.

So what am I trying to squeeze in this year? The plan is:
Let the Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Strangers on a Train, by Patricia Highsmith
Ghost Story, by Peter Straub
Something by HP Lovecraft because I have read absolutely nothing of his and that is shameful.

Does anybody else have some good spooky/ghostly/haunt-y recs? Let's face it, horror works so much better on the page because the author is automatically denied the possibility of the dreaded, lazy ass JUMP SCARE!! you can't resort to cheap tricks and a too-loud made-you-jump soundtrack in a book my sneaky Hollywood friends.

After the Fire, by Will Hill

Probably the best standalone YA novel I have read this year. After the Fire is compelling, empathetic and so perfectly paced. Narrator and protagonist Moonbeam is a remarkable character- despite never knowing life in the real world, she is humane, intelligent and ceaselessly strong. What an amazing young woman, I kind of love her.

The novel jumps right in to a chaotic siege, there is gunfire, panic, roaring flames. The frantic narrator recognises bloodied, dead and dying faces around her; she's running, apparently on neither one side nor the other. We don't know these dead people yet. The next time we see Moonbeam, she is waking up in a secure facility, alive and bandaged. She has survived the fire, but she does not know if she is safe. She is now in the hands of the Outsiders, the Government- people she has been raised to believe are torturers, murderers and devils. She is suspicious of them to begin with, as anyone would be waking up in what they have always been told is the lion's den.

The book is split into numerous sections, each one labelled Before and After (the fire). In the After, a shell-shocked, confused and doubt riddled Moonbeam is required to sit down in therapy sessions with a Dr Hernandez and eventually also Agent Carlyle, as they work to piece together the aspects of her life and experiences. Moonbeam grew up and lived most of her life on the "Base", the homestead of the Lord's Legion, a cultish branch of extremist Christianity led by the charismatic, tyrannical Father John; a fire and brimstone Prophet who claims to commune directly with The Lord.

As Moonbeam reveals more about Father John, his increasing powers and his means of control, life on the Base is laid bare. The manipulation. The fear. The brainwashing. The disappearances. The radicalisation of angry young men by means of isolation, ego stoking, entitlement and gun access. The reader follows Moonbeam's gradual realisation that her religion is deeply flawed, that how she and her peers are treated is wrong, that Father John is an absolute maniac and that nobody else is going to be able to help her get away- nobody except for Nate, a dreamy guy from the outside that manages to win the favour of Father John, chucks a spanner in his works and then promptly vanishes into the dust. It's really easy to relate to Moonbeam's feelings for Nate- being convinced that he just sees her as this annoying, doting kid with a crush.

Moonbeam takes her time to recount her story, gradually leading up to what she considers to be a sickening, gut churning secret, a festering guilt that will taint her in the eyes of the men she has come to trust, and the remaining Base kids that are still at the facility with her. The ones that look up to her. It's a hearbreaking story of abuse, a yearning for belonging and powerlessness that is both emotional and fascinating.

I love books that feature cults, and the people that come to their senses and escape. After the Fire is honestly one of the best novels I've read this year and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone- readers that loved Lisa Heathfield's Seed will go mad for it, as would any adult readers that enjoyed last year's runaway cult bestseller The Girls, by Emma Cline. After the Fire is pacy, intelligent, filled with compelling characters, both innocent and evil and a fascinating study of how charismatic, forceful individuals can create their own empires if they are deluded enough, they believe their own lies enough, and if the supply of lost, damaged and disillusioned individuals to convert is plentiful enough.


Thursday, 28 September 2017

History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund

Ahhh, the first bum note of the Booker Shortlist 2017.

Normally, narratives about cults and communes are right up my street. Coupled with the isolated woodlands of Minnesota, I was fairly confident that this was going to be a winner for me. How very wrong I was.

Linda, aka Mattie aka Madeline, now 37, remembers a pivotal summer when she was 14. The summer the Gardners moved into the neighbouring cabin on the lake. Apparently the perfect city family, glamorous Patra and toddler Paul are awaiting the arrival of husband/father Leo when Linda initially befriends them. Part babysitter, part governess, Linda teaches the upfront, oddly serious three year old about the woods, survival and nature, as well as keeping him out from under his parents’ feet. Leo is a controlling and manipulative Astronomer, dubbed a genius by his doting, fawning wife. A wife that is 11 years his junior and a former student.

It is hinted at, then referred to as the book goes on that there is something wrong with Paul, something that, in the future, Linda will be quizzed about. Her actions, responses and thoughts will be analysed and assessed in minute detail. These later events break into the summer narrative periodically, recounted by a much older Linda.

During her narrative, Linda bounces from topic to topic, from decade to decade. There’s a teacher arrested on pedophilia charges; her 20s spent living with a Canadian girl, a mechanic boyfriend; the summer she babysat for the Gardners; lots of meandering through the beautiful but somehow uninteresting forests; writing to the pervert teacher; a sudden death. I did find it quite hard to keep track of what age Linda was supposed to be in which scenes, perhaps because the storytelling was kind of sloppy, perhaps because I wasn’t super bothered.

Even the woods were stripped of their magic by the detached Linda and her unvaried treks through familiar trails. The lakeside woods were simply an unremarkable reality, her known landscape. No more unusual or noteworthy than buildings or roads. The same cycles went round and round, bringing their own tasks, challenges and temperatures.

I found this book dull and pretentious- there was no atmosphere, no suspense. I don’t know what the wolf business was about. The subplot with the teacher and Lily was entirely divorced from the Gardner’s plot.. The structure was abrasive, the characters forgettable, dull and lacking in any kind of agency. Linda was incredibly irritating, her inner monologue unbearable. She seemed periodically obsessed with Patra, with classmate Lily, with Wolves...all intense but transient. She had no motivation, no interests, no convictions, no opinions, no identity. She seemed thoroughly damaged, fantasizing about doing something (anything) shocking or inappropriate, then invariably standing there like a silent lemon wrestling with her thoughts. She’s socially awkward, emotionally distant from her family. She seems to have no friends, and she delights in pranks and stunts, cruel or inexplicable letters. She was obviously very lonely and isolated, left behind with her presumed parents after the breakdown and drifting off of their commune community. I just couldn't care about her at all. An unlikable character is not always a deal breaker, but I didn’t find the prose particularly beguiling and I was glad to finally have done with this tedious story.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Autumn, by Ali Smith

Autumn begins with a trippy out of body experience- there’s definitely a beach, possibly a dead body, definitely a copse and trees, sand and leaves and nature. It’s ethereal and floaty, dreamlike and disorientating. Having read Lincoln in the Bardo, this summer I was expecting it to be some kind of purgatory, because it seemed oddly familiar. We eventually learn that this is Daniel Gluck, one of two characters that will recur at different times, at different ages throughout the novel. The next time we see him, slightly more corporeally, he is 101 and clinging to life in a soulless care home.

Next we meet Elisabeth Demand, a thoroughly modern just-about millennial, over educated and under employed. Scraping an existence as a casual contract lecturer in Art History, she seems harassed, unfulfilled and adrift in a world that she no longer recognises. The first time we meet her is to observe a farcical, almost Fawlty Towers-esque ordeal with the bureaucratic minions at the Post Office involving head sizes, deli tickets and the humourless jobsworths that work there- the erosion and decay of Public institutions and social bankruptcy are recurrent themes throughout. The Post Office, on this visit, is full of homeless people as the library has closed. The book declares itself to be the first post-Brexit novel, and it captures the melancholy betrayal of a divided and abandoned nation, one that is confused, angry and adrift. I loved the book just for how disappointed it is in people. It’s not really a hopeful story, there’s no suggestion of a conclusion and that fits how us official 48% feel about pretty much everything.

As a child, Elasabeth lived next door to a late 70s aged Daniel- their friendship was an odd one, encouraged by Elisabeth’s mother when she needed a babysitter, recast as suspicious if she thought about it too hard. The sprightly for his age Daniel taught his young neighbour to think, to imagine, to wonder. To see things that weren’t there and change things that were. He seems to be one of the first people to really recognise Elisabeth’s intelligence, and he treats her like an equal. We also get a glimpse of his immigrant backstory and his lost sister, a woman that Resisted and was promptly never heard of again.

Elisabeth’s mother, the only other character we really see much of is an odd woman, to begin with almost Mrs Wormwood-ish in her brashness and presumed negligence. When her daughter is young, she seems reckless, irresponsible. She lies to her kid about where she’s going and Elisabeth is smart enough to see through it with adult-level cynicism and exasperation. Mum encourages her daughter lie about her homework and leaves her in the practically stranger danger hands of a next door neighbour. Later on she is suspicious of their friendship, wilfully and frustratingly misunderstanding their shared love of art as something sinister and inappropriate. After moving to the village in later life, she becomes this liberal antiques enthusiast, lamenting the hate crime wave and railing against the lies and the wilful ignorance. 25 years makes her unrecognisable. I don’t know what that means, but Ali Smith never makes it seem like a mistake. It’s just mysterious people being mysterious.

Autumn is a non-linear novel that flits around between Elisabeth’s lifetime- the art dissertation she wrote on a forgotten British pop artist, her canalside walks as a child with Daniel, sat at his bedside in the present day reading Brave New World. The prose is beautiful and powerful, a slideshow of images and emotions. It manages to be both playful and furious at the same time, which I was incredibly impressed with. I love books that have art as a central theme, how art makes a person feel. It’s fascinating to have such visceral and personal responses captured in prose, which is one of the elements that I found the most joyous about How To Be Both.

I enjoyed this book hugely, I was absolutely captivated by the world it created- this murky Autumnal landscape of apathy and gloom. I loved Elisabeth and did not find it difficult to empathise with her for a second. I loved how ordinary she was- how responsible she felt for everything, how resentful she was towards her mother’s generation and how guilty and conflicted she felt about being so. It’s not a novel that everyone I going to be able to get on with, but I thought it was witty and playful, with a generous and cathartic helping of righteous Brexit fury

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

This is Going to Hurt, by Adam Kay

Wow. For 95% of this book, I was imagining how I’d write it up; praising its hilarity, its pace, its wit. I was going to do a big paragraph about how much I loved all the Harry Potter name swaps. I was going to gush about how Green Wing this whole book is in its absurdity and farcical “you couldn’t make it up” vibes… about how entitled some of the British public are. How stoic, how bonkers how utterly unfit for walking the Earth unsupervised and being allowed to operate heavy machinery. I was going to talk about how the author definitely knows how to regale his audience with almost Keaton-esque timing…It’s all in here. But the last entry, the last major incident that Dr Kay deals with in his career as an ObGyn senior registrar is chilling to the point where all of the funny, human warmth of the other 250 pages kind of feels distant and like it happened in a different book. I think the last 5 pages of this book is going to haunt me forever.

What starts off as a hilarious but illuminating peek behind the curtain into the operation of NHS hospitals becomes a very sobering biography of a beloved institution on the brink of collapse- a diary of a man with a scalpel and a wipe-clean hoover desperately trying to keep things running in a system that seems designed to make everything grind to a bloody, crunching halt. Not because of these greedy, workshy doctors that won’t turn up for a Saturday shift and are only in Medicine for the special parking space and the rivers of cash, but because there are simply not enough doctors to do all of the things that need to be done so that people don’t die. The ratio of work to sleep/home/sustenance sounds like something out of a PoW camp. The normal rules of workload, work/life balance and being awake enough to function simply do not apply and it is both horrifying and fascinating.

I’m worried now that writing this so soon after finishing the book (within 30 minutes) has made me err on the side of glumness, so I just want to reiterate what a (and I do not use this phrase lightly or without a trace of self hatred) laugh out loud book this is. I read half of it in one sitting, sat in a plastic chair in the King’s Mill Hospital A&E waiting room, watching the giant, rusty, beloved behemoth that is the NHS in motion. I marveled at the smiley, efficient nurses as I tried to stifle snorts about the likelihood of French holiday homes, or hold in a horrified WTF face at the “degloving” story. But I was always, always amazed at the commitment, the proficiency and the sheer iron will of Adam Kay and his colleagues, who soldiered on long after any normal person would have understandably collapsed in a snotty, tearful mess. These people are superheroes that don’t even realise they are extraordinary.

I urge everyone with eyes to read this. Partly because it’s painfully funny, partly because it’s pretty much the whole of human experience wrapped up in scrubs and then bled on. Mostly though, because nobody could read this, this dispatch from the frontline of an NHS hospital and fail to recognise what an asset it is, what a good thing we have here and how ESSENTIAL it is that we protect it. Nobody could read about these men and women repeatedly jeopardising their own home lives and happiness for the wellbeing of total strangers and not feel compelled to defend and protect the NHS and all who sail in her with their last, gurgling breath. READ IT!!

Monday, 17 July 2017

Frozen Charlotte, by Alex Bell

Motivated by a sudden and unexpected tragedy born of messing around with a Ouija Board app, Sophie heads off to the moody, weather-beaten Isle of Skye to stay with the kind-of-cousins she met once and only once when she was a small child. 16 year old Cameron is a broody musical prodigy with a hand injury that prevents him from achieving greatness. 15 year old Piper is perfect- the sweetly smiling hostess who seems too good to be true. 7 year old Lilias is strange and once tried to cut her own skeleton out. Rebecca is dead and has been for 7 years. Their father, Sophie’s kind of Uncle James, is either the most gormlessly absent parent in the world, the most wilfully ignorant, or he genuinely doesn’t care what’s going on in the lives of his weird offspring.

Rebecca is the one that started it all- the spirit that Sophie tried to summon, the probable reason for the tragedy, the reason Sophie is on Skye. All Sophie knows is that her kind-of cousin died in an accident at her family’s home. So it turns out that the Skye house has a tragic and accident-prone history and that strange things have happened there for a long time. Rebecca was acting oddly before she died, and the family seem very reluctant to talk about her, or any of the similarly odd behaviour exhibited by Lilias. Intrigued, and a bit afraid, Sophie is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Rebecca’s death, as she is convinced it connects with a death in her own life.

The novel lays its cards on the table pretty early- there is a ghost, level of malice unknown, let’s see what she wants, and there are creepy dolls that whisper to the children. Lilias claims they tell her to do bad things, even when she doesn’t want to. Each chapter begins with 4 lines from the Frozen Charlotte ballad, a poem that inspired the production of the dolls and a tune that threads the most chilling parts of the story together. The book was vaguely atmospheric, aided mostly by the wind and Dark Tom, the shrieking parrot. Personally I found the writing basic to the point that it felt robotic- I guess I wanted more emotion, more menace, more sensation. I felt like Sophie was just running a bit of commentary on what was happening, not feeling much of any of it.

I did like the psychological warfare that Cameron and Piper were engaged in- each one is determined to paint the other as the villain of the piece by dropping carefully chosen facts and suggestions out of context. Not sure of the full stories, at the mercy of the information drip fed to her, Sophie becomes less and less sure who’s telling the truth, who she can trust and which of the three cousins is the most dangerous.

Also, if you live in a house that was a school over 100 years ago, why on Earth would you keep the school’s stage in your living room? Why would the blackboards still be up? If you’ve got one kid that wandered off into the frosty night and died, why would you not keep a better eye on your remaining 3? Maybe check once in a while that they’ve not deteriorated into some sort of psychotic fog? Why don’t people trust their own eyes?

Frozen Charlotte was an easy enough read with the occasional spooky moment, but for me it lacked atmosphere and suspense. I found Sophie to be a bit of a limp protagonist and after how much I had enjoyed Fir, also in the Red Eye series, I think I had very high expectations for Frozen Charlotte that just weren’t met. Kids are always asking me for horror books, and the China Doll trope is very well known, so I don't think it will lack readers, this one just didn't do anything for me.

Friday, 7 July 2017

No Dominion, by Louise Welsh

I understand that this is the third part of a trilogy, but I haven’t read either of the first two, so I’ll be viewing it (fairly or unfairly) as a standalone. It works- I didn’t feel like I was missing a load of back story or context, plenty of post-apocalyptic novels start after the collapse of society. I usually prefer ones that do- I find the establishing of a new humanity to be much more fascinating than the flight from danger/disease/violence, whatever shape the apocalypse takes.

No Dominion is set seven years after The Sweats, a pandemic of fever which saw most of (I assume) the world wiped out. The book begins on the Island of Orkney, where survivors have carved out a functioning, democratic society. Enough for there to be freedom, enough food to eat, houses to live in and no Sweats. We begin with an Easter celebration with a drunken stand-off between a native Islander, Magnus, and a bullish thug of a man named Bjarne. They row about their adopted teen kids, who seem to be pairing off in a way that boys and girls have since the beginning of time. Shug, Magnus’ adopted son is a surly, defiant 15 year old, convinced there is more to life than the island. Willow, ward of the bullying Bjarne and his jealous wife Candice is a rebellious, confident young woman that seems to be the cause of a lot of upheaval at home. During the party, trio of newcomers arrive- there is tension, newcomers are rare, but Stevie, the president of the Orkneys arranges for them to be quarantined and to join the community.

In the days that follow, Candice turns up at the President’s office to beg them to take Willow away. She is convinced the teen has cast a spell on her husband and is trying to ensnare him. Stevie is not convinced that is *actually* what’s going on, but keep to keep peace and due to her deep distrust of Bjarne, she offers to relocate Willow. Fifteen, after all, is adult enough to take care of yourself in the post Sweats world. The following day Magnus goes to confront Bjarne about a beating inflicted upon his son. He discovers the dead bodies of Candice, Bjarne and every other animal in their household. Willow is gone. So is Shug. So are a bunch of other teens and a toddler, apparently spirited away in the night by the newcomers, who are also missing.

Stevie, her dog Pistol and Magnus set off on a crusade to Glasgow to locate their missing kids, and hopefully return them to Orkney. The Island’s children have been raised in a reasonably democratic, protective society that gives its citizens freedom- who knows what set ups they have in Glasgow and every remaining village on the way- such naive and trusting kids would not last ten minutes. It never seems to occur to the pair that their teens might not want rescuing.

There were things I liked- I always love exploring emerging power dynamics in ruined worlds, the former nobodies that grab the opportunity presented by an apocalypse to re-cast themselves as villains, tyrants and overlords. The feudal societies they create, the willingness of people to cede power for the chance to feel vaguely normal again. The trade-off of freedom for security. I thought this book handled the various sorts of society that might spring up in a post democratic world, though they were all visited quite briefly and in quite an episodic way. The religious cult, the slaver, the feudal lord-of-the-manner- I would’ve liked more time to explore these, but for our protagonists time is of the essence. Also, if there is a next book, please revisit the band of badass teen girls building the resistance in the Petrol Brothers’ territory. I was so disappointed that they waltzed out of the story so early, they had so much potential.

I liked Magnus and Stevie, they were interesting people, easy to root for. Other than vague recollections of Stevie’s London life of tubes and Tinder and Magnus remembering stand up gigs and motorways, they kept their pasts to themselves. Possibly because long-time readers will know their backstory, possibly because to survivors, the past doesn’t matter much. Such mystery kept me intrigued and maintained a good dynamic between the pair with a good amount of chemistry.

What I didn’t like.

Towards the end of the novel, Magnus and Stevie meet an old man and his child lover, a guitarist of indeterminate gender in an abandoned shopping centre. It really made me double take to see this character literally referred to as “he/she” and “it”. Like, I’m not bothered if No Dominion is not a trying to make (or avoid) a massive statement about gender politics with the inclusion of this guitarist character, but that’s not on. Their role in the novel, as a semi-feral , neglected tunnel dweller turned activist and ‘lover’ of a man old enough to be their grandfather, is intended to demonstrate that abuse and manipulation can be disguised as kindness, not to make a statement about gender in a ruined world. However. An androgynous or genderless character, whatever their part to play in the narrative, deserves better than “he/she” and “it”. How hard is it really to do a singular They? I just felt such narration was completely at odds with the until-that-point voice of the novel and as a reader, it stood out on the page as a NEVER DO THAT and it kind of ruined the whole thing.

It’s definitely not in the same league as Station Eleven or After the Flood, which is what it will probably be compared to, but it holds the attention with its fast pace and is straightforward enough. Perhaps a little too straight forward. I feel like it was a tad episodic, as Stevie and Magnus propel themselves from one hostile situation to another, fighting, tricking and talking themselves into and out of settlements and societies. Personally I found the ending quite unsatisfying- it felt super rushed, a bit of a weak pay off for so much build up and journeying. Plus, there’s a textbook case of Deus ex Machina to finish the whole thing. I realise now that it never surprised me with its plot. There were a few arresting moments or images, but for the most part it brings nothing new to the Post Civilisation genre.