Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Portrait of a Murderer, by Anne Meredith

Another Christmas, another revived cosy crime classic from the forgotten annals of the 1920s and 1930s.
"Each December, Adrian Gray invites his extended family to stay at his lonely house, Kings Poplars. None of Gray's six surviving children is fond of him; several have cause to wish him dead. The family gathers on Christmas Eve - and by the following morning, their wish has been granted.
This fascinating and unusual novel tells the story of what happened that dark Christmas night; and what the murderer did next."
So far, so familiar. A bunch of boorish, entitled relatives gather in the home of their insufferable patriarch for a bitter and resentful Christmas. The Grays are a formerly wealthy family on the way down, financially. *Just how* far down is revealed quite early on.

His offspring are, as ever, after money; politician Richard, an MP whose heart set on a Lordship whatever the cost- he is hemorrhaging money on pointless luxuries in an attempt to impress people into bestowing a lordship on him. Impoverished and despised artist Brand, the family embarrassment, who wants a pay-off to unceremoniously dump his urchin-like family and migrate to Paris to top up his painting inspiration. Eustace, the dodgy financier is married to Adrian's daughter Olivia. They need a substantial sum to buy their way out of sticky imminent legal proceedings and presumed ruin. Murder victim Gray has made a number of very questionable business arrangements via his thoroughly dodgy Son in Law and both are on the brink of ruin. Cringing spinster Amy has never left home and resentfully runs the house on the meager allowance her skinflint father allows her. Isobel, a waif-like ghost of the woman she once was is home permanently following the failure of her marriage. Only Ruth, the youngest child, seems happy. Ruth and her lawyer husband, Miles are the only ones satisfied with their Middle Class lifestyle, content with each other, and neither want anything from Adrian. As the snow falls and Christmas eve becomes Christmas day, one of the family will murder Adrian.

What I liked about this novel was how thoroughly and unapologitically horrible most of the characters were. With the exception of Miles, who only really gets anything to do in the last 20%. I don't know if contemporary audiences would have found them any more appealing to be honest, though the Anti-Semetism might have been less of a contributing factor.

The book is not really a whodunit, as we watch the murder happen. It is more of a study of the psychology of murder, and of the mental intricacies and whims of a murderer. It examines the intellect, the temperament and the awareness required to try and pull off a deception. In this way it reminded me a little of Hitchcock's early masterpiece Rope, which is one of his undeservedly forgotten offerings. The murderer is thorough, calculated and ruthless, painstakingly laying traps and planting evidence to implicate another for their crime. Maybe they aren't capable of pre-mediated murder, but post-murder manipulation seems to be right up their street. The murderer impressively acts the part of the surprised but not terribly sad offspring as the news of Adrian Gray's death is broken over the festive Breakfast Table. It's more a story of trying to get away with murder, than working out who committed it. However, that is the role assigned to lawyer Miles, the man that has to pick through the events of that night, the inaccuracies, the accusations, the possibilities, the sequences of events and the opportunities.

I found the pace a little slow going, and the unpleasantness of most of the characters does not make it a speedy read. There are elements, notably the way Jewish individuals are characterised and talked about that leaves a nasty impression (plus, the vague suggestion that should an entitled white aristocrat find themselves doing a bit of unplanned murdering, it can easily and conveniently be  blamed on the nearest available Jew is a bit ick). I suppose it hasn't aged well, really, and the author may have let their own disdainful prejudices colour their narrative slightly. 

I didn't rate it as highly as Murder in White, and though the psychological pondering about how life might be from the perspective of a murderer is interesting and distinguishes the story perhaps from others of a similar theme, it left me mostly nonplussed and quite pleased to be finished. I've now moved on to the Silent Nights, a collection of short detective stories from the same series, and honestly, it's much better.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor

This novel tells the story of a fictional, unnamed village somewhere in the Peak District. It's a geographical collage of real places squished into one, smaller location. Some of the landscapes and features will be very familiar to those of us who know the area; the cement works, the Seven Sisters stones and its occasional commune of hippies. Some less Midlandy readers may never have experienced the utter bafflement of beholding the spectacle that is Well Dressing, and might not know what a clough or a cob is. You will learn.

The catalyst of the novel, the arbitrary event from which we mark time is the disappearance of a thirteen year old girl, a tourist, who was staying in the Hunters' holiday let in the village one freezing New Year's. She is never found, and the case is never solved. Her name was Becky, or Rebecca, or Bex. The villagers turn out to search for her, they are invested in her fate. Though we never know what happened, the ripples of the event carry a long way, and resurface in unexpected ways. Though this death/disappearance weighs on the minds, consciences and imaginations of the community, it is not enough to halt time, and a new post-Becky normal is established. Life, as it does, goes on. The natural cycles of the plants, the wildlife, the weather continue. Village existence seems mostly unaltered, one year to the next, but as the plot progresses, long term changes in the village's existence begin to emerge, the character of the place itself is felt to subtly evolve. 

The story takes place over a 13 year period, with each chapter following the events of a single year. Each chapter starts with fireworks, observed or unobserved, and each year has various perennial events come and go; the nesting blackbirds, the ripening apples, the lambing, the clocks going back an the nights overtaking the days, the well dressing boards go into the river, the harvest festival display is arranged, the parish council meetings are well attended or poorly attended. New people move to the village and are or are not accepted into the fold. Kids grow up and move away. People get divorced, people hook up. Businesses close down, allotments are tended. Arguments are had, problems are resolved. People keep pushing the Millennium stones off their plinths and the congregation fluctuates at the local church. Nature continues much as it always has, since before there were any people there to observe its business. In many ways, all is the same. In subtler, more unspoken ways the reader gets the sense that the days of communities like this are numbered.

It is by no means a detective story, despite slightly sounding like it might be on the jacket, but the lingering mystery of the missing girl hangs over the village. I loved that it wasn't resolved- it's the questions with no answers that transfix us the most. Jack the Ripper and the Zodiac killer are long-term cases all the more fascinating for never having been solved. It's why the media still hungers after leads on Madeline McCann; we hate to *not know*. I haven't read a book in a long time that just does not offer answers. Not even suspects. It just stops, and I liked that. Although. If I had to guess who knew what happened, it would be Clive. He doesn't miss a trick sat on that allotment. Nothing gets past Clive.

I loved the structure, the repetition, the way the author mapped the lives of an entire village across such a span of time. I loved how people changed, did things that surprised people, did things that everybody was waiting for. I loved how intimate it felt, how well we got to know ordinary people. I loved that there was very little dialogue, just reported speech disclosed by this omniscient narrator. It gave the whole narrative a gossip-y second hand vibe that felt powerfully in keeping with the village lifestyle, with its tight-knit cliques and characters. I loved the women in the novel- the ones that held enormous families together, the ones that had been brave enough to escape abusive spouses. The women who started businesses and cared for their learning disabled sons, and the late middle aged ones that renounce men for good and move in together.

McGregor so obviously has an incredible eye for detail. The landscapes are beautiful, the essence of the passage of time is devastating and all his characters are convincing; young and old, male and female, happy and distraught. They all get breathing space to mature and evolve, to have their own little crises and triumphs. The reader really gets the feeling that they hold the entire village in their hand. The author manages to be sympathetic to the community, but unsentimental about its place on its own timeline. Nature is observed, rather than morally assessed, and the whole reading experience feels quite cleansing and enigmatic. It's an incredible book; quiet and reflective but rich and rewarding.

Friday, 17 November 2017

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly, by Stephanie Oakes

I love books about cults and/or survivalists. I think I secretly want that post-apocalypse grow-your-own veg and build your own house self-sufficiency lifestyle, only without the murderous religious extremism.. After reading the excellent After the Fire earlier this Autumn, I decided to try The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly. Also excellent.

The story begins with a girl kicking a boy half to death and being cuffed and loaded into a police vehicle. Only the officers struggle to cuff her because she has no hands- her arms end in sore, angry stumps. So how did this mutilated girl get to be under this bridge on the outskirts of Missoula, in the snow, kicking a boy to mush? The format of the story is quite similar to the aforementioned After The Fire. Minnow, sentenced to imprisonment in Juvie, recounts to an FBI doctor the story of her decade in the Community, a secluded, polygamous collection of ‘saved’ people, living in the woods under the sketchy doctrine and rabid regulation of the Prophet. These Prophets. It seems that their gods always want them to have absolute authority and to sleep with young girls. Funny that. Anyway, Minnow escaped the cult, somebody burned it to ashes, and there’s a chance Minnow might know what happened, but she isn’t talking.

My favourite thing about this book was Minnow’s relationship with her convicted murdered cellmate Angel, a cornrowed, cynical lifer and long-term resident of ’the system’. As unlikely a friendship as you will ever read, Minnow brings out the softness in her- Angel helps Minnow learn to read and swear properly, to navigate the cliques and gangs of the detention centre, and encourages her to hold on to her hope, having never really grasped her own. In Juvie, Minnow sheds her naivety and becomes this strong, impressive young woman full of excitement at all these new ideas and things to learn. Though she has always been low key rebellious and resistant to the Prophet’s dogma, this scared, betrayed girl is galvanised by exposure to a tiny slice of the real world into this woman who refuses to be a victim and learns to think for herself. She was so resilient and admirable, still wanted things and had hopes and plans and drive.

I really liked how much emphasis the book put on the complexity of families, how a certain amount of love and loyalty can still exist despite violence, regret, loss of agency and harm. It focuses too on consequences of actions and the failings and labyrinths of the criminal justice system, the moral minefields are the differences between murder and self-defence and the impact of physical and psychological torture on a person’s behaviour. It asks is murder ever justified? What about in self-defence? What if a murder prevents a horrible crime?

I must also add that I absolutely adored the writing- it was beautiful. The prose was full of Minnow’s pain and longing and the intelligence that she had never been allowed to cultivate. I loved the sections on the stars, how she kept returning to the stars as her anchor point in the world. First they were a divine certainty, then a celestial mystery and it was through learning about anything and everything that she came to realise that not having answers is okay. I was completely swept away in Oakes’s prose and constantly found myself rereading lines and paragraphs that were particularly stuffed with beautiful images or almost tangible thoughts. I loved the scene in the pear orchard where Minnow sees her only friend from the outside world- there’s something not quite right about him and afterwards, having read the scene in which she saw him last, I’m pretty sure I was right about what that scene was supposed to be- I don’t want to give too much away, but it was composed and reflected on very well within the story. The reader is forced to do a bit of a reappraisal of that scene which I thought was an unusual move and worked well.

In summary, a very good addition to the Cult genre that I enjoyed hugely and would certainly recommend. Loved the characters, loved the pace. Loved that the story was not so much about the cult, but about the recovery from indoctrination and the healing process. Thoughtful, inspiring, bloody, beautifully written, full of growth and maturity and makes you realise that broken people can be put back together to become super-strong heroes and that horrific torture and life-altering mutilations aren’t enough to keep some people down.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

The Haunting, by Alex Bell

Firstly, I am a massive fan of the Red Eye series, and Horror generally. Though I will attest that the thing that is *most scary* is cheap jump scares that go MLLLURH!! At you and books can’t really do that. They have to use mere words to create atmosphere and suspense, and actual craft.

So. The Haunting. Overall, I very much enjoyed it. I was compelled by it, unnerved by it. I loved the setting and the idea of a Cornish Inn built from the salvaged timber of a wrecked ship, an unusual, grotesque building housing its own secrets and its own misery, menacing the living with tricks and manipulation. 

The book tells the story of Emma, returning to Cornwall with her assistance dog Bailey to visit her dying nan. Emma had an accident at the Waterwitch when she was 7 that left her in a wheelchair, and her family relocated shortly after, cutting Nan out of their lives. Poor Nan. She was a bit Ex MachiNan, as she literally just exists to induce the plot- bless her.  Emma is reunited, by accident, with her childhood BFF Jem and his little sister Shell, the witnesses to her accident. They seem to have fallen on hard times in her absence and are noticeably disheveled and haunted looking. Emma is shocked to discover that Shell’s childhood kooks are alive and well despite her nopw being in her mid-teens. She believes herself to be a Witch and plagued by flocks of birds that only she can see. Jem attributes this behaviour to trauma following their mother’s suicide and their troubled home life. Jem, bless his heart, does quite a lot of attributing odd things to Perfectly Reasonable Occurrences. He would have made an excellent guard in Skyrim.

Emma, on half term for the week, decides to move into the Waterwitch to keep Shell company, convinced that isolation and wandering imaginations are mostly responsible for her distress. Shell is adamant that the drowned sailors still haunt the Waterwitch, along with the ship’s two-timing captain, a relative of Shell and Jem, and a haggard, furious witch that craves revenge on the man that wronged her. I loved the mystery woven into the story, the history and secrets that are gradually unraveled by Shell and Emma as they investigate this Waterwitch’s history at various witchcraft museums in Cornwall. Some of the flashback scenes are pretty horrific and gruesome. I loved that once Shell knew the full story, she was in total sympathy with the victim, afraid, sure, but also righteously angry and determined to make things right.

Emma was an interesting character- she was very aware of how people see her and her dog and chair, and deliberately ups the sass levels to go against expectations. I liked how independent she was and how determined to do what she felt was the right thing. I really liked the characters of Jem and Shell, their traumatic home life commands sympathy from the reader. Their father, the one remaining parent, is violent and abusive towards his children, children he resents and despises. There are some heart-breaking sections where Jem wishes that his drunken, abusive father had always and consistently been cruel, as the occasional moments of goodness from him made him harder to hate. Shell talks about how horrific it is to be mortally afraid of someone you love. It’s very much a subplot, but worth noting. I suppose Shell’s damagedness makes it harder to determine if the things she sees are real or not, though they seem consistently real to her.

Some of my frustrations when reading this book were probably necessary. The Horror genre, particularly supernatural horror, depends on a quantity of characters being skeptical. They need to find rational explanations to spooky goings on. We, the reader, need to vocally curse them for refusing to believe things they are seeing with their own eyes- it’s all part of the plan. There is definitely some of that going on with Emma and Jem, who put the Waterwitch’s unusual goings on down to warped, old wood, overactive imaginations and the wind. Shell, on the other hand, knows exactly what the deal is, but is powerless to get anyone to believe her.

I liked that there was no romance, that the plot was allowed to focus on friendship and family and history. I loved the atmospheric setting of the novel, the menacing, grotesque Inn was an incredibly memorable place that conjured up mental comparisons with Jamaica Inn and Smuggler’s Cott and all those wonky, poky buildings all over Britain that defy physics by standing upright at all, let alone remaining vertical for 400 years.

I loved that the book's main character was a person with a disability, it is something that is less visible that it should in fiction- also, I liked that moving on from the accident and adjusting to a new normal was not the crux of the plot, merely an ongoing process, which seemed realistic. My only criticism of the whole novel was that I felt the author was a bit too hung up on Emma being a wheelchair user, something that became particularly evident during Emma’s narrated sections. There were many, many unnecessary reminders that Emma was in a wheelchair that became a bit noticeable and started to bug me every time a narrator needlessly referred to it. Like, it's fine to just go across a room , or move across, no need to specify 'wheeled' every time. And yes, noting another old building's lack of accessible entrance is understandable, but it would be followed by a reminder of the wheelchair in many instances.

Aside from the one small niggle, I absolutely loved it- the pace was great, the characters were memorable and relatable, the atmosphere and the threat were consistent and menacing, and the plot's strands were gathered up well. I think I'll go for Dark Room next, and long may the Red Eye series continue to produce smart, pacy thrillers that leave no corner of the irrational human brain unexplored when it comes to what scares us.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Elmet, by Fiona Mozley

I would really struggle to place this in any kind of genre- I’ve heard Gothic Noir banded about, and that works, but doesn’t really capture the book’s preoccupation with nature, belonging and family, though the also important themes of conflict and male violence fit nicely.  As brutal and as violent as this book is, I couldn’t help but feel that this is how people are supposed to live. In houses that they build, eating things they catch, understanding the flow of the forests and the land.

It’s a beautifully written novel, with a striking turn of phrase and atmospheric prose. Elmet is a Celtic Kingdom, comprising of what is now the West Riding of Yorkshire- the  Ted Hughs’s ‘badlands’, the leafy sanctuary of Robin Hood and various other outlaws of folklore, though we all know that’s sacrilege and Robin was a Nottingham boy.

The story is narrated by 14 year old Daniel, a quiet, gentle boy that idolises his elder sister Cathy and his larger than life father, John aka Daddy. The three of them live in a rough house, built by Daddy’s hands in a secluded copse in an area that their absent mother grew up in- land that had previously belonged to her family but poverty necessitated the sale of. They live on hunted, foraged and traded goods, favours and bartered services. Previously, Daniel and Cathy had lived with their Grandmother- a somewhat odd arrangement that saw both parents periodically appearing then disappearing for long stretches. Both teens were bullied in school- Daniel accepted it as his dues, Cathy was more capable and inclined to fight back, getting into more trouble as a result because that’s how the world works. There’s an interesting commentary on gender, power and the victim/abuser relationship tied up in the characters of Cathy and Daniel.

Daddy is a huge, quiet colossal of a man with a fearsome reputation as an undefeated bareknuckle boxer. Though he speaks little, there is a barely contained rage simmering just beneath his surface- something that seems to be an established and respected fact to his children. Daddy is fiercely resolute in his belief in independence, in his and his family’s right to live how they do, where they do, with no interference. The only things he can allow himself to depend on are his fists and his family. Daddy moonlights as a bit of a Fists For Hire outfit, lending his imposing person and his unquestionable menace to the local population in return for favours. He organises and motivates the impoverished and exploited community into taking action against their bullying landlords by withholding labour and rent payments, lending the strike an air of threat and officialness that nobody else could provide. A single figure is able to empower and revitalise an ailing, fragmented community into something with agency. Price, the main landlord, farmer and cash-in-hand employer of most of the community sees this action as a declaration of war. Price is not only the owner of Daddy’s copse, but the two have a shared history that further aggravates their already poor relationship,  and events reach their tragic but inevitable conclusion.

Cathy and Daniel are close, each the other’s only real company and united in their status as outcasts, but they are nothing alike. Daniel takes after his absent and enigmatic mother; sensitive and thoughtful, intelligent in a bookish way. He avoids conflict, is satisfied with everything he has in life and takes care of the home. He is the cook, the vegetable grower, the neatener and straightener of the house. He enjoys being inside as much as outside. He's a compelling narrator, barley present but thorough in his narrative. Cathy on the other hand is volatile and by her own admission, permanently angry. She belongs outdoors, like her father. She is prepared to back up her beliefs and her judgements with strength and violence. Their differences are most evident when they visit Vivien, a friend of Daddy’s that has been induced to provide the children with some form of education. Cathy shuns her house, her possessions and her attention, preferring to roam the fields, while Daniel builds up an unusual, confusing relationship with her. 

Elmet is bleak and beautiful and a ridiculous accomplishment for a debut novelist. I loved the themes of conformity, family, belonging and conflict, and I think these were played out incredibly effectively against a backdrop of land ownership, ancient woodlands and the idea of legacy and revenge. A really unusual mixture of elements that highlighted the author’s background in medieval history brilliantly. I loved the characters and their odd, abrupt and dreamy narration of Daniel, a person so gently bewildered that the reader cannot help but feel sympathy for him and his eventual predicament.

And the Ass Saw the Angel, by Nick Cave

Euchrid Eucrow is the last word in crazy misfits. The second born but sole surviving twin, Euchrid is born in a rusted out car to a grotesquely drunken beast of a mother and a browbeaten, cruel, brute of a father. It's mostly down hill from there. He lives in a junk heap shack on the edge of a sugarcane town in an isolated valley in the middle of nowhere. Euchrid is not a good advertisement for isolation. Probably also not a poster boy for Incest but that’s less his fault.

As an adolescent, the abused and neglected Euchrid stays out of the way of his monstrous parents, preferring to spend long hours in the hills by himself. He collects skulls, hair, blood, teeth, scabs, toenail clippings…some his own, some of the creatures his father traps and tortures, some from murdered townspeople. Keeping it varied. He constructs a grotto of his treasures, half hideaway, half shrine… He spies on the townspeople, hiding from their fists and accusing eyes. He lurks on the fringes of the town, watching, narrating and applying his own brand of logic to the town’s goings on. He's a mute, but that does not seem to prevent him from narrating his own miserable story.

The rough, neglected, mostly confused, frequently filthy Euchrid eventually becomes convinced he is some sort of emissary from God. He has never known friendship or kindness, never been an equal of anyone, never been accepted and never addressed by name, save in his own sprawling inner monologue. He is not the only apparently Godly being in the town- the foundling Beth, a child of the town, is groomed by the Ukelites for sainthood. To begin with it’s quite easy to pity the unloved and unlovely Euchrid- beaten, ridiculed and scorned as he is. However, as the book goes on he does become quite a successful serial killer and animal torturer and mutilator, and so the reader’s sympathy kind of dries up. Though he is still fascinating, it’s no longer possible to feel any kind of empathy for him as he descends into a violent, gleeful madness.

And the Ass Saw the Angel is a searing, brutal slog of a novel that maps the gradual descent into insanity of its mute protagonist. The prose is vicious and overwrought; usually shocking, occasionally very funny. It jumps around between a first person phonetic Southern dialect of Euchrid, and an effusive, detail obsessed narratorial voice that fills in the gaps. I can see why many readers have bemoaned its lack of editing and view it as a self-indulgent, over inflated short story, but I found it weirdly compelling despite its bile, and enjoyed picking out the familiar lines that were either borrowed from the back catalogue made it into subsequent songs. Fans of Nick Cave’s music will be able to spot little crossovers between his 80s songs and his prose; the moths trying to “enter the bright eyes” of bulbs from Mercy Seat, the dead first born twin, drunk mother and rural, endless rain of Tupelo, themes and images that keep repeating- religion, morality, madness, responsibility, insanity…He’s such a brilliant little weirdo.

For a first time novelist, an Australian and a guy that was about 75% heroin in 1989, it’s a remarkable, striking addition to the Southern Gothic landscape. An intense, uncomfortable read that is drenched in heat, grime and sweat, excessive violence and rage- the landscape of the narrative is brilliantly composed and the characters that populate it are typical Cave creations- fire and brimstone preachers, garish prostitutes, gibbering hobos and inebriated, inbred hillfolk.

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.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Shiver the Whole Night Through, by Darragh McManus

I’ve had this in my giant Read For Work When You Get The Chance pile under my desk since it came in based entirely on the title. I was expecting something gloomy and noir, a murder mystery with Twin Peaks forest vibes and potential Leadbelly/Nirvana soundtracks.

Kind of. It wasn’t as noir as I expected, and I certainly wasn’t expecting a character investigating their *own murder*. Shiver The Whole Night Through is essentially a paranormal romance with some detective work and supernatural badness thrown in, set in n a gloomy Irish town with a tragic, famine related history.

When we first meet Aidan Flood, he is teetering on the edge of the town’s ancient bridge, about to plunge to his self-inflicted death. He has endured months of merciless bullying and psychological torture because his then GF cheated on him, and sees suicide as his best option. Being cheated on is honestly the reason. I feel like this is one of the book’s weakest aspects- I can’t imagine a scenario where this is believable. Kids can be ruthless devils, everyone knows this. You do not need to invent such a weird reason for someone to be bullied. Being poor, as Aiden is, or a bit of a loner, as Aiden also is, is motive enough for him to become a target. The GF cheating story just felt completely unnecessary and redundant and kind of weakened the book’s premise for me.

Anyway, he decides against death at the last minute and goes home- only to discover the following morning that Sláine McAuley, a popular, beautiful, clever girl that was the year above him at school, has been found dead in the haunted Shook Woods. The town is bereft. The police say hypothermia; Sláine simply laid herself down in the cold and froze to death, no matter how out of character it might sound. Unconvinced, Aiden refuses to believe that Sláine was suicidal. Not that he has ever spoken to her…but she didn’t bully him. His suspicions are confirmed when he receives creepy, frozen messages telling him “I didn’t kill myself”. Drawn to the scene, Aidan returns to the woods to look for clues, or to catch the killer, or mope…but what he finds is more unusual than that. It’s Sláine- not alive, but not entirely dead either; a powerful, more beautiful than ever, ghost like entity. And she wants answers.

Together, Aidan and Sláine delve into the town’s tragic history and examine some of its shadier characters in an attempt  to discover who killed her and why, and if the murder is in some way connected to the unnaturally long, sub-zero winter the town seems to be caught up in. Just the town. The rest of Ireland is fine, it’s just the town and the surrounding woods and mountains. Meanwhile, some kind of feral animal is savaging the school’s numerous bullies, leaving them mangled and half dead- they all have one thing in common, Aidan.

I absolutely loved the setting- the mountains and the woodland that made the town so isolated, the reason it suffered such devastating losses during the famine. The author really did a great job of creating that neglected, shabby town vibe. The problem families that think they’re the Corleones, the dodgy estates, the crummy high streets. I really liked Aidan as a character, he was such a real person. Yes, he was quite annoying, smoking too much because he thought it made him edgy, being a dick to his adorable best friend Podsy, feeling sorry for himself and brooding endlessly on why life is So Unfair. Though Aidan is a bit melodramatic, he really aspires to get out of there and live a life, which is interesting considering where we first meet him. He’s an interesting character, and his inner monologue is always compelling, even if it doesn’t always make sense. Definitely not flawless, he would annoy the hell out of me for sure. But teenagers are often like that- it’s the age where you start to *understand* how messed up everything is, and how miniscule  your capacity to change any of it.

Once I’d cast off the shackles of logic, this book was actually genuinely engaging and enjoyable, like a really Irish episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where as long as you don’t think too hard about the practicalities of a mortal human dating a supernatural creature, you’ll do just fine. There were things that didn’t make sense, like why Sláine would choose to reach out to a boy she doesn’t know, how obsessed Aidan gets about his ghost girlfriend, the bullying motives, and the ending is a bit of a Scooby doo special…however. The writing is top notch, really atmospheric and foreboding, successfully combining Irish history with the supernatural and the old school, ancient power of the forest. The prose was really impressive, and successfully papered over some of the logic gaps that I might otherwise have had a hard time with.

So though it sounds like a bit of a mixed bag, I still enjoyed reading this novel and would definitely recommend it to Murder Mystery readers and fans of Paranormal Romances. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever read a PR, I’m not sure I’d have read this if I’d have known that was the core plot. But I’m all for new things. Not as much Nirvana/Leadbelly as I’d hoped, but you cannot say that it isn’t an appropriate title.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

This is a very unusual book, be warned.

Lincoln in the Bardo is an odd and fascinating mixture of historical documentation and fantasy, which together paint a private and tragic portrait of one of American history’s best known figures. The story is mostly a father’s intense struggle with grief following the loss of 11 year old Willie Lincoln, third and much loved son of the President.

The historical parts are accounts from staff, friends, witnesses, guests and colleagues as they write about Abraham Lincoln on the day of his son’s death, along with numerous general accounts from history. In letters, journals, memoirs- they recall the Presidential party that took place that evening, his behaviour, his appearance, they speculate with the benefit of hindsight about the suffering boy upstairs succumbing to Typhoid Fever. 
These sections are referenced within the body of the text, so the reader knows where they’re from. It’s a new kind of narrative woven together with scraps of other documents. It feels and reads like prose- it flows beautifully and does not feel for a second like the historical collage that it seems to be. It does mention in the Q&A with Saunders that some of them are fabricated. Personally I could not tell which, but was happy to go along with the author’s artistic licence and vision.  It really is quite remarkable.

The other side of the story is the bardo, a sort of Purgatory (according to Tibetan belief), a forgotten semi-existence between lives- after death but before the next life. This is where the confused Lincoln Jnr. wakes up, a graveyard city populated with nebulous, vague souls from across the ages. Our main narrators here are hans vollman, a newly re-married printer crushed by a beam in his office and roger bevins iii, a suicidal gay socialite, both of whom died at opposite ends of the 1840s. The third is the reverend everly thomas, a man escaping his final judgement. Vollman and bevins are something of a double act, commenting on goings on around the bardo and inviting various residents to have their say- they are both funny and tragic, utterly convinced that they are merely ill and due to return to ‘the previous place’ any day now.

Abraham Lincoln, bereft at the loss of his golden child, visits him in the mausoleum. Unusually, he is visible to the bardo’s populace. Believing it to be some kind of omen or message, some potential way back in to the world, the bardo’s residents clamour to tell their stories to the boy and the grieving, unhearing form of his father. Though they do not know who he is, they sense that he is a powerful man. Some characters stick around for a while, some get the one chance to speak and are gone. Of the ones that stick around for a while, I found that their voices were so recognisable and distinct, that by the time the reader gets to the end of the segment, the notation of the speaker's identity is usually not needed, because you've grown to recognise how they talk, to whom they most regularly speak, and their backstory.

I really enjoyed this and tore through the whole book in two days. Even the most confused reader cannot fail to be moved by the waves of grief emanating from the President as he spends one last night in the crypt, alone with his son’s body. It’s a partial biography of Lincoln, the private man, rather than the Gettysburg guy as well as a commentary of a time in American history, with plenty of throwbacks to the past. Interestingly (and importantly), slavers and slaves share the same bardo. All those important seeming in-life life distinctions of class, gender, colour, religion and age seem to carry no weight in the nothingness, as they are all there together. I felt the book’s lasting impression was about the idea of an eternal chance to learn to get along, something we are so bad at in life.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a gorgeous book, an absolute one-off. It’s stunningly written, insanely evocative, funny, tragic, profound and ridiculous all at once. The delicacy of balancing farcical, comedic characters with such tragedy, such misery and grief is remarkable. It won’t be a book for everyone, the clamour of voices and the unorthodox style will put some off. But those that persevere are in for one of the most immersive, affecting reading experiences of their lives.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Life on the Refrigerator Door, by Alice Kulpers

An epistolary novel written in notes left on the fridge door by 15 year old Claire, and Claire's Doctor Mom. To begin with, the notes reveal a fairly ordinary domestic reality in a household with a teenage girl and a single parent. They are ships that pass in the night- money left on the counter for Claire to get some groceries on her way home from school. I'm babysitting tonight see you tomorrow. Sorry I forgot about your presentation, hope it went well. Let's do something Saturday. We never see each other anymore. I can't do Saturday, when will you be home. It's sad to see people that obviously love and care for each other take each other for granted and fail to make time to do things as often as they could. But life gets in the way.

The notes reveal the fluctuations in the characters' moods- Claire guilt trips her absent Mom, Mom gets mad about it, they make up. They're frustrated at not seeing much of each other, variously blaming themselves and each other for their failure to catch up. They think about themselves, they think about each other. They apologise, they grab a few hours together, a film or breakfast, and it's enough for now. It's not ideal, but the reader really gets a sense of these characters and how they live. The characters are really brilliantly crafted and both Claire and Mom are absolutely alive through their notes, their personalities poured onto those little scraps of paper. Things happen away from the page that are alluded to but obviously don't make it into the notes, which makes everything feel more realistic. Time passes, but the notes are all we have. It's enough. It's surprising how effectively the notes create a picture of these people's lives, like using historical artifacts to piece together life in the past. A small amount of information gives a lot away.

When Claire's mom gets a devastating diagnosis (Doctors make the worst patients) the notes carry on, but the way both characters handle their new reality is different- each seems determined to deal with it in their own way. They don't communicate, they irritate one another with their perceived selfishness or irritability. They try too hard or don't try hard enough. Claire and her Mom are both a bit guilty of trying to do the right thing but making it worse. There's still scraps of that old domesticity; Clean the Rabbit out. Buy milk and bread. James called. But it's interspersed with note-based evidence of two independent women trying to deal with a horrible situation alone.

In a lot of ways it's quite frustrating to read about two people handling something so badly- cycles of resentment, sadness, making up, shutting each other out and letting each other in. Trying to balance Dealing With Things with Getting On With Life. The book really makes it clear that there is no good, no right way of dealing with grief, anger and bad luck and that sometimes you are not in control. It's awful to read their dawning realisation of what the future holds, their hope and their attempts to get to know each other properly. All that wasted time.

It really is a fascinating format and a brilliant study of two characters that the reader never really sees. We know everything about these characters' lives, but have never technically met them or even overhead a conversation. It creates the same feeling as Instagram stalking, or being really into a celebrity or whatever. You know everything about them based on the trail of information that they have left behind them without ever being face to face. It's a fascinating format, done to perfection.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Decline and Fall, by Evelyn Waugh

This was a book club choice and definitely not something I would usually read. I remember there being a Waugh author study module at uni many moons ago, which was one of the first ones I ruled out when choosing my 2nd year modules, so this is the first Waugh novel (novella?) I have ever read- and I have to say it was rather a pleasant experience.

You cannot, as a reader, help but feel sorry for poor Paul Pennyfeather. As if his name is not daft enough, he always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, acting in utterly the wrong way to limit any damage caused by any such misunderstandings. Expelled from Oxford for indecent behaviour (not really his fault) Paul is denied his sizable inheritance by his guardian. Forced by the pinch of poverty into a teaching position at a sub-rate boarding school in Wales, Paul has absolutely no experience or inclination to teach, and is advised by some of the other "Masters" at the school to just keep the boys quiet and blag his way through the instruction of sports, the organ and other randomly assigned duties. There are an assortment of similarly inept staff at the school, the mysterious, superior butler Philbrick with his many aliases and tall tales, the wooden-legged Grimes who finds himself constantly 'in the soup', the grumpy former man of God, Prendergast who is forever lamenting about his doubts and wears a wig, so finds discipline beyond him. The school is presided over by the pompous and inept Dr Fagan and his two plain daughters.

At the school's disastrous sports day that sees shootings, awful bands and the vilest sounding sandwiches, hapless Paul falls for one of his students' mother, the glamourous widow Margot Beste-Chetwynde which sees him spirited away from the Welsh boarding school to her ugly but immensely expensive house, installed as a private tutor and eventually promoting himself to fiancee. As you might by now expect, the arrangement is far from straightforward. Swept up in the glamour of society, Paul is arrested for his involvement in the human trafficking slash prostitution ring that he knows nothing about- it appears that his betrothed's fortune has its roots in high class South American brothels. Oh dear. How different can prison be to public school, really? There will be some familiar faces, more Unfortunate Events and an unlikely rescue of poor Paul Pennyfeather. You can't help but like him, mildly lurching from one disaster to another.

Published in 1928 (at the ripe old age of 25) to an apparently obliging audience, this novel is variously considered a 'comedy of manners', satire, picaresque and a farce. The story line is undeniably absurd, the characters ridiculous and flawed. Paul is not the only one that staggers from disaster to disaster, apparently oblivious to his fate and any type of consequence, or with any mind for his plight. It's a playful, well timed charade- Waugh lazily flicks obstacles into the paths of his creations and almost a century later it's still funny to watch them stagger around cluelessly, getting themselves deeper and deeper 'in the soup', hopelessly implicated and unfortunate to the last. It seems that not much has changed in the intervening years- money is no ticket out of trouble, the ruling classes are hopelessly divorced from reality and good intentions regarding getting on the straight and narrow are a guaranteed recipe for trouble.

Decline and Fall reminded me of Lucky Jim, in that same Series of Unfortunate Events kind of way...of lumbering from one disaster to another and somehow ending up in academia. There is obviously not much regard for the toil and dedication of scholars and academics, as according to most literature about them, they seem to have washed up in their wood paneled studies entirely by accident.

Monday, 19 June 2017

See What I Have Done, by Sarah Schmidt

Loved loved loved this. Is there anything more maddeningly delicious than a real life murder mystery that was never satisfyingly solved?

The book begins with “Someone’s killed Father”. Yes. Yes they have. Killed him so hard that apparently his eyeball was cleaved in two. Andrew and Abby Borden were hacked to death with an axe in their home in Fall River, MA on August 4, 1892 at some time between 9:00 and 11:00 AM. It is believed that Abby was killed first and then Andrew, though Andrew was the first to be found. Their bodies were discovered separately- Abby was upstairs and Andrew was on a sofa in his office. Andrew's youngest daughter Lizzie was arrested for the murders and spent 10 months in jail. After an 90 minutes' deliberation, the jury acquitted her of Murder. Nobody else was ever formally tried as a suspect.

Personally, I had never heard this rhyme, but apparently it is quite prevalent:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

Sarah Schmidt spins an oppressive, heat soaked narrative of the Borden Murders, creating a disturbing and dysfunctional picture of family life; an unhappy collection of people forced under one roof, plagued by rivalry, resentment, paranoia and generally very unhealthy relationships. Andrew Borden, though wealthy, is incredibly frugal, a self made man but despised in the business world. Abby, step-mother to the girls is hated by them both, despite getting along well when they were young. They are stiff, formal, apparently insular. They do not seem to connect.

Firstly, the writing is absolutely beautiful. It's eerie and oppressive and visceral in that music-box-music-playing-too-slowly kind of way. It gets under your skin and possesses you and is utterly, utterly compelling.

The story is told using the multiple narrators format and this is an absolute textbook example of 1) how this should be done and 2) what kind of effect can be created when used properly. The perspective shifts between the childish, coddled Lizzie, her neglected, put upon sister Emma, maid of all work Bridget who just wants to GTF out of there and ne'er do ruffian Benjamin, an associate of Lizzie and Emma's uncle. We see Lizzie through the eyes of strangers, the people closest to her, and from her own perspective. It's a fascinating examination of a very unusual woman. The narrative moves through time seamlessly, examining the day of the murder in forensic detail, sliding to the day before, then jumping forward 10 years to the trial and acquittal of Lizzie Borden. Each narrator has a distinctive, tangible personality and voice, each one is a living, breathing person, detailed and with depth, earnestly committing their memories to the page. Their voices are distinct, and unique, their stories are there to be believed or discredited.

The characters then. Lizzie and Emma are just so fascinatingly messed up. Lizzie is the most unreasonable, manipulative person, she completely controls Emma's life and influences her parents' opinions of her. Despite their ages, both sisters still live at home, simmering in their co-dependency and bitterness, never allowing the other to break away. Emma wants to escape, had the chance to get married, but Lizzie would never allow her to go. The Lizzie of this novel comes across as greatly infantilised, spoiled, spiteful and tempestuous, while Emma is bitter, forgotten, longing to escape the family home. She feels responsible for Lizzie, enables her behavior and tries to keep her happy for ease's sake. I was especially fond of Bridget - she seemed to be the narrator with the best assessment of the situation. Trusting nobody, keeping her head down, she seemed to slip unnoticed through the Bordens' house, keeping her accumulating impressions quiet and biding her time. I think she best represents the reader, the outsider, the person with the best objective view. She knows from the beginning that the Bordens are odd, and we see how manipulative they can be from her several attempts to leave, their constant retention of her.

As the narrative progresses, there are surprises, the introduction of unlikely characters, witnesses and developments. Lizze's account of her movements changes, the murder weapon is lots, a sinister Uncle lurks around the house. There is lots of vomit. We are thrown a possibility, sent off in certain directions. However, the book has decided its killer, and its fascinating to see that net close around the characters, to see how they change as suspicion turns to confession. I love historical fiction when it uses real history as its skeleton- easier to mess up, sure, but when someone gets it right, it is *the best* fiction. It put me in mind of The Haunting of Hill house, two co-dependent, sisters, one socially stunted and possibly a killer, the other trying desperately to carry on as normal, shielding her sister yet quietly terrified...also of Alias Grace, as there's that idea that truth, innocence, guilt and identity are very slippery, subjective things and that the same events viewed through different eyes will reveal different things. I loved the inclusion of the timeline and the will excerpts at the end- it just underline the factual elements of the book. So this might be a fictionalised account, but these murders happened, these people were real, the lived lives and had motives and they alone know why they behaved in the way they did.

I would absolutely recommend this to crime readers, to Real Crime fans, to anybody and everybody that loves an unsolved, much speculated about historical mystery. Lizzie is a compelling and fascinating character, her dysfunctional family home the perfect incubator for her obsessions and questionable sanity. I loved the sultry prose, all sweaty backs and heat haze, over-ripe pears and stifling rooms. It really is a stunning debut, executed perfectly, if you'll pardon the pun.

The Sport of Kings, by CE Morgan

Things I am a sucker for:
  • Things that proclaim to be 'The Next Great American Novel'
  • Anything vaguely Frontier-ish
  • Family spanning sagas
  • Anything that whiffs of Red Dead Redemption: plains, horses, log cabins, the Old West, buffalo
So bearing this in mind, you would've expected this to be right up my street. So did I. It's quite disappointing. This book took me upwards of 2 months to read, such was the unending slog...and then I DNF'd it 50 pages from the end. At least, it's highly unlikely I'll ever go back for those last pages.

Henry Forge- from the Old Kentucky stock, ancestors built the state with their bare hands. Proud, racist and stubborn as the mules that would probably disgust his thoroughbred breeding self. His lifelong obsession with breeding some kind of superhorse consumes his life- a desire that is shared by his only child, daughter Henrietta. This shared dream apparently makes some father daughter incest acceptable, because it's common practice to "breed back into the line" with horses so okay then.

Allmon Shaughnessy- a young black Irishman that learns to work with horses in prison. Sentenced for essentially being in the wrong place at the wrong time during some riots, he's hungry for success and money, having seen his beloved, uninsured mother waste away in poverty from curable lupus. His ambition draws him to the Forge farm, where he is assigned as a groom to the superhorse Hellsmouth and he begins a super awkward, not entirely into it relationship with Henrietta. He's a very angry, embittered man, definitely the most interesting of the three protagonists. The section on Allmon's promising youth and his potential scholarship, all that was snatched away due to poverty and circumstance was perhaps one of the most engaging parts of the narrative.

Horse racing is a high stakes, phenomenally high cost game, and this epic, multi-generational uber-saga is only to happy to hammer that home, with the relentlessly grim toil, the racism, the betrayal, the death, the ruination, the redemption, the lust, the heat, the everything. It's all incredibly melodramatic, with threats and births and incest, formal dinners and horse genealogy and  Derbys. And all in the most horrendously tiny type to have ever been committed to the page.

I really liked the parts with Scipio, a former slave and ancestor of Allmon. If the whole book had been about Scipio and his traumatic travels with Abby, his life and legacy, I would've been well up for that. I gather that he journeys immense distances from his life of bondage only to hang himself- what a fascinating character. I was always disappointed to leave the enigma that was Scipio and return to the banal, cruel sport of horse racing. Though the novel was fraught with commentary of America's turbulent and shameful past and the abhorrent practice and legacy of slavery, I just found my attention slipping far too frequently to ever make any emotional connection with the narrative.

What I initially thought was beautiful, fever-dream prose, fraught with imagery and symbolism and the blood and sweat of enslaved generations just descended into over written, florid nonsense.