Thursday, 25 December 2014

12 Days of Kindle: What to buy

The annual event that is the 12 Days of Kindle sale has begun again. Maybe it's a bit pathetic to be hunched over my laptop buying books at Christmas (though since you're reading this on a book blog, you're a lot less likely to think so than the average person), but this is one of the biggest ebook sales Amazon have all year and I always look forward to it!

So without further ado, here are some of my picks of books that might be worth buying before it all ends on the 6th of January. If you can be bothered to go through all 61 pages of the sale, it turns out there's some interesting translated fiction and Pushkin Press titles, and a few recent releases, among all the usual stuff.

Books for 99p:
Beware of Pity and The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig - 99p each
The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall
Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb
The Explorer by James Smythe
Place of the Heart by Steinunn Sigurðardóttir
A Bright Moon for Fools by Jasper Gibson
Weirdo by Cathi Unsworth
See You Tomorrow by Tore Renberg
The Small Hand by Susan Hill
I Was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia
The Islanders by Pascal Garnier
Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy
The Blue Fox, From the Mouth of the Whale and The Whispering Muse by Sjón - all 99p each
Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hamada
Layla by Nina de la Mer
Dear Reader by Paul Fournel
Pompey by Jonathan Meades
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov
Alarm Girl by Hannah Vincent
After I'm Gone by Laura Lippman
The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman
Melting the Snow on Hester Street by Daisy Waugh
Palo Alto by James Franco

And some for a bit more:
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson - £1.99
The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell - £1.39
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - £1.99
The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing - £1.99
Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray - £1.09
The full Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams - £2.89
Ayoade on Ayoade by Richard Ayoade - £1.09
The Palace of Curiosities by Rosie Garland - £1.49
The Dynamite Room by Jason Hewitt - £1.99
We are All Completely Bedside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler - £1.59
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen - £1.49

I could have included quite a few more - but this list is already long enough, I think. Let me know your own picks... and happy Christmas!

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Thursday, 18 December 2014

The final piece of the puzzle: The Rendezvous and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

The Rendezvous and Other Stories by Daphne du MaurierThe Rendezvous and Other Stories (1980) by Daphne du Maurier

The Rendezvous and Other Stories is, or rather was, the only volume of Daphne du Maurier's short stories I hadn't read. It also seems to be the least popular; it has the fewest ratings on Goodreads, and I didn't even know it existed until recently. It is a collection of du Maurier stories from various points in the author's life, including several very early ones, though in terms of original publication date it was the last collection of her stories to be published (prior to the discovery of those included in The Doll). No exact dates are included, but I found a rough chronology here which suggests that many of these stories were written in du Maurier's early 20s, with four tales dating from later in her career. It's fair to say, then, that this is far from the strongest collection of the author's short fiction, but as I've read all her other stories, I simply couldn't resist the opportunity to be a total completist.

No Motive
A mystery: a woman shoots herself for no apparent reason, having seemed previously content, and her distraught husband employs a private investigator to establish her motive. The investigator, Black, rakes through the woman's past and discovers a multitude of secrets. Well-formed, fast-moving and intriguing, taking in a number of settings and characters, this is an effective tale which, unlike some of the others included here, feels complete.

A man and a woman arrive in Paris, on what appears to be an illicit weekend together, although they don't seem to like each other very much. This scenario is familiar from some of the author's other stories, as is the narrative device of switching from one character's point of view to the other, showing them both to be having different negative thoughts about the situation. The pair take a room in a distinctly shabby backstreet hotel, and then disaster strikes. There is an inevitable twist at the end, but it's almost too predictable. I would have preferred to have some more context to the couple's relationship and what might have led them to embark on this trip.

The Supreme Artist
After finishing a show, a stage actor is visited by a woman he doesn't recognise, though she claims to have known him well in the past. He pretends to remember her and they talk, their conversation gradually revealing that they had a romance he has forgotten entirely. I was expecting a bigger punchline to this, but it's still an enjoyable story: the conversation illustrates the actor's tendency to turn any interaction into a performance, and his perception of the woman makes him keenly aware of his own mortality.

Adieu Sagesse
A man known to be particularly dull shocks his family and acquaintances when he has a sudden change of character and decides to embark on a boat trip. More of a social satire, this story wasn't that interesting to me and I found the rendering of local dialect in some characters' speech extremely annoying.

Fairy Tale
A sweet story about an impoverished couple who face destitution. (It's nice to read about a genuinely happy couple in a du Maurier story for once, even if they are so poor they're on the verge of starving...) The husband spins a vision of a warm, welcoming room and a delicious feast to make his wife feel better, but is it fantasy or fact?

The Rendezvous
As you would expect given that it lends its name to the title, 'The Rendezvous' is one of the longest, most developed stories here. An arrogant, but somewhat lonely, writer strikes up a written correspondence with a young female fan, and arranges to meet her during a trip to Geneva. Anticipating the start of an affair, he is disappointed to find she already has a lover, and the rest of the story is predictable but very entertaining fare - the writer agonising about the situation but ultimately doing nothing, the girl manipulating him; a mostly internalised power struggle and an eventual moment of clarity.

La Sainte-Vierge
The atmospheric, sad tale of a naive, loving wife. Though one of the shortest, this is particularly evocative and sadly ironic.

Leading Lady
Like 'The Rendezvous', this is about an arrogant man and a manipulative woman, but it is much lighter and more comic in tone. A pompous producer attempts to persuade a successful actress to work with him, envisioning the two of them embarking on a campaign to 'purify' the theatre industry, little suspecting she has been involved in various permutations of the immoral affairs he hates so much.

I really liked this, partly because it's a ghost story so... obviously I did; but also because its themes and general sense of atmosphere made it stand out from the rest. In wartime, a British merchant ship is threatened by a German submarine, only to be approached by a strange, unidentified ship which offers to provide an escort home. This would have benefited from being a bit longer, I think, but it still manages to convey a wonderfully sinister ambience.

The Lover
A stinging portrait of a man who seduces various women, telling the same lies to all of them, yet blaming their weak natures for the fact that they believe in what he says. While it's an effective portrayal of a character, there is no actual plot here and it doesn't go anywhere.

The Closing Door
A dark and rather dispiriting story which begins with some abstract and somewhat surreal descriptions: 'perhaps the room was furnished as a reminder that life was already a dead thing, waving a hand in farewell behind the closed door.' A man is told he is terminally ill and is likely to suffer full paralysis, albeit slowly. He then goes to meet a woman (his girlfriend, lover?) who unwittingly makes things worse with her careless words.

The narrator sets out to illustrate the terrible consequences 'a moment of indiscretion' can cause. Recounting the story of a woman who swindled him to a happily engaged work colleague, he discovers an unfortunate overlap between their affairs.

Angels and Archangels
This features the Reverend James Hollaway, a character also at the centre of 'And Now to God the Father', one of the tales in The Doll. As with that story, this snapshot of church society didn't do anything for me and I felt it was one of the least effective stories in the collection (though I should emphasise that's due to the fact that the subject matter wasn't to my taste, not because it's badly written).

Split Second
The longest story in the book - and it becomes evident, albeit gradually, that the best has been saved for last. 'Split Second' starts off seeming uninteresting - a portrayal of a widowed woman with a nine-year-old daughter, it's very domestic, spending several interminable pages describing what she does around the house and how she dotes on her child. But everything changes when the protagonist has a brush with death, and returns to find circumstances at home have bizarrely and inexplicably changed. Though it's easy for the reader to guess the twist, the characters never quite catch up, which makes for a delicious and beautifully paced unfolding of events rife with confusion and anguish.

I found this collection generally less compelling than du Maurier's others, of which Don't Look Now and The Birds are the best. Many of these tales focus on relationships, lacking the weirdness and hints of the macabre that define her finest short stories, and occasionally The Rendezvous and Other Stories does feel like it's made up of leftover scraps. That said, the scraps are still perfectly engrossing in their own right, and 'Split Second', 'Escort' and 'No Motive' are memorable. If you haven't read any of the author's stories before, I wouldn't suggest that you start with this, but for me it felt like a satisfying final piece of the puzzle.

I've written story-by-story reviews of du Maurier's other short story collections on Goodreads: Don't Look Now; The Birds; The Breaking Point; and The Doll.

Rating: 6/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin' | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

Friday, 12 December 2014

A book-themed Christmas gift guide

Christmas Books Gift Guide 2014

Christmas is coming, so in the spirit of... getting into the spirit of things, I thought I'd do a little round-up of some book-related Christmas gifts I'm either coveting myself or thinking of buying for others.

Christmas Books Gift Guide 2014

I've read a few great reviews of this recently: That Glimpse of Truth: The 100 Finest Short Stories Ever Written. As the title suggests, it's a volume of 100 short stories from around the world, ranging 'from the essential to the unexpected, the traditional to the surreal', from classics to modern writers. There'll doubtless be some stories here that any potential recipient will already have read, but so many more to discover, which makes it a good gift for anyone who loves books but has already read most of the novels you might otherwise buy them. The hardback is currently under £14 on Amazon, which seems reasonable since it'll probably take several months to read the whole thing.

For lovers of huge short story collections, the same publisher (Head of Zeus) also offers The Story: Love, Loss & The Lives of Women, a compilation of 100 stories from women writers.

Christmas Books Gift Guide 2014

Speaking of short stories, I recently stumbled across Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales in a bookshop and fell in love with it. Carter's The Bloody Chamber, a reinterpretation of several traditional tales, is one of my favourite books, and this extensive compilation - of which she is editor - collects hundreds of original (mostly meaning dark, bloody and bawdy) tales from all over the world. The hardback is a beautiful object, complete with an embossed cover and woodcut illustrations, and this is the kind of book I'd rather own a physical copy of so I can dip in and out of it whenever.

I also have my eye on Through the Woods by Emily Carroll. Carroll is a comic artist, and this - a set of five gothic tales - is her graphic novel debut. Frequently compared to the tales of the Brothers Grimm, it's received huge amounts of praise from newspapers, magazines, other authors etc., and looks like it would make a great gift for anyone who loves dark, twisted folk stories.

Christmas Books Gift Guide 2014
Christmas Books Gift Guide 2014

A failsafe gift idea for any book lover: buy them a really beautiful edition of their favourite classic. Waterstones generally has a great selection of gift books - I've been coveting the Penguin Clothbound Classics edition of Tess of the D'Urbervilles for years, and there are loads of other titles available. The Barnes & Noble Leatherbound editions are also beautiful.

Christmas Books Gift Guide 2014

I was going to mention this in my ghost stories post, but forgot/didn't have room... The BBC/BFI's excellent Ghost Stories for Christmas DVD boxset is really cheap at the moment - just under £20 at the time of writing; it's previously been about twice that. It's a six-disc collection containing 23 filmed ghost stories in total (lots of adaptations of M.R. James stories), plus lots of extras and a detailed booklet. If you want a ghost-stories-on-DVD starter pack, this and Crooked House are all you really need.

Christmas Books Gift Guide 2014

My Black Friday present to myself was the Kindle Fire HDX tablet, which was reduced to £99; it's now gone back up by £50, but the Fire HD 7 tablet is now £99 (for the 8Gb version). If you want to get someone an ordinary, just-for-reading-books Kindle, they're only £49 now, and you can sometimes get refurbished Kindles at even cheaper prices.

As usual at this time of year, there are also some discounted Kindle books on offer, so it's a good time to stock up on winter reads. The current offers (Kindle Holiday Deals) include The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton at £1.79; The Magicians by Lev Grossman at £1.99; Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill at £2.49; and Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss at £2.49, and plenty of Christmas-themed books too.

Christmas Books Gift Guide 2014

For the woman who already has every book you could possibly think of, why not fork out £1k for a bag? The Olympia Le-Tan book clutches pictured above start at £1,035. They're very nice to look at, though. They're basically just on this list so I had an excuse to include a picture of them.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Ghosts, horror and the uncanny: the definitive* guide to spooky winter stories

*Okay, it's not THE definitive guide, it's just A guide - my personal guide - although I have tried to make it as definitive as I possibly can.

Over Halloween I saw so many terrible lists of ghost story recommendations that I started getting quite annoyed. I resolved to create my own, but it soon become obvious that it wouldn't be an easy or quick job, which is why this list, intended for Halloween, is only making an appearance now, in December. Once I'd started it, I found myself adding all manner of books to this list and separating them into categories: spooky stories, gothic fiction, twisted tales, winter reads. So, some of them have nothing whatsoever to do with ghosts or the supernatural, but capture the same uneasy mood, or else are just perfect for winter reading.

What makes a good ghost story? For me, it's all about atmosphere. If a tense, terrifying atmosphere is created effectively, it doesn't matter if the plot verges on the ridiculous (as they must often do). Subtlety is important - even if the climax of the story ends up being lurid and bloody, whatever gets it there needs to have some restraint to it, and should initially be rooted in reality for the most disconcerting result. You need to care about the characters, too, enough that their fate matters - but perhaps not so much that you'll be completely devastated if they meet a terrible end. And when it comes to this particular genre, I quite enjoy clichés. In the right hands, executed properly, they can be wonderfully effective, even genuinely frightening. The old country house in the winter night, the inexplicable sense of some strange presence nearby, the sound where there should be no sound...

Ghosts, horror and the uncanny - the definitive guide to spooky winter stories

If you've been reading my blog or reviews for any length of time, you'll already know that F.G. Cottam is one of my favourite authors. He writes ghost/horror stories with bags of atmosphere - I can truly lose myself in them - and also has a knack for creating very believable and likeable characters, something that's often neglected in this genre. My favourite ever Cottam book is the wonderful Dark Echo, in which a millionaire's son is drawn into the dark and bloody history of a 'cursed' boat bought by his father. I've read it FOUR times and can confirm that it remains just as powerful and compelling as it did the first time I read it (and that first time remains one of my favourite reading memories). Other Cottam books I'd recommend are The Waiting Room, Brodmaw Bay, The House of Lost Souls - well, all of them, really. This year's The Lazarus Prophecy is a departure from the author's usual template - it's as much a murder mystery and a thriller as it is a horror story - but is also excellent.

Also near the very top of my top picks is Dark Matter by Michelle Paver. Set in the Arctic winter, in a state of permanent night and amongst frozen landscapes, this story of a disastrous expedition - told in the form of a diary - is brilliant in its depiction of desolation and loneliness, and the tricks the mind can play in such a situation.

Some might argue that Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger doesn't belong on this list - arguably, it isn't a ghost story at all... But to say any more about that interpretation would give the game away. It follows an apparently unassuming doctor who becomes involved with an aristocratic family, the inhabitants of crumbling Hundreds Hall, one post-war summer. Tense, unpredictable and unputdownable; in my opinion it's the author's best work, and whether it can be counted as a ghost story or not, it's undeniably haunting. (It also has the best ending of any book I've read. Ever.)

No list of ghostly tales is complete without some mention of Susan Hill and her famous story The Woman in Black, which has become something of a modern classic. While The Woman in Black is good (and certainly better than the daft film), I've often found Hill's ghost stories to be slightly disappointing - they usually start so promisingly, but inevitably turn out to be too short and lacking in satisfying conclusions. My favourite of hers (and the most fully-formed) is The Mist in the Mirror. And while it's not about anything supernatural, her short story Hunger is delightfully unnerving.

Edith Wharton is best known for her novels, but her collection of ghost stories - imaginatively titled The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton - is honestly one of the best I've read. With malevolent ghost dogs in 'Kerfol' and disembodied eyeballs in 'The Eyes', the horrors in these stories are so original, and their hints of satire and humour make them feel way ahead of their time.

A modern example of the Christmas ghost story that works exceptionally well is The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse. Set in 1928 in the Pyrenees, this tale of a solider who meets a mysterious girl at a winter feast is generally not very well-liked, but I think it deserves reassessment. The hardback version is worth seeking out, as Brian Gallagher's illustrations really bring the story to life. Mosse's collection of short ghost stories (many winter or Christmas-themed), The Mistletoe Bride and Other Haunting Tales is good too: some of the tales are much stronger than others, but I found that their settings and atmospheres stayed with me long after finishing the book.

This House is Haunted by John Boyne is an effective, affectionate send-up of every ghost story cliché in the, er, book; at least, that's how I read it. It's gloriously gothic, but at the same time rather tongue-in-cheek with its deliberately clichéd setting and heroine - altogether very enjoyable. Another book that's equal parts homage and humour is Jeremy Dyson's The Haunted Book. It mixes traditional styles of ghost story with modern updates and an abstract ending, and although it isn't entirely successful, it's really interesting in parts - best read as a collection of short stories than a single narrative. Like The Mistletoe Bride, it contains stories set in the past, recent history and present, making for a pleasingly varied collection.

I'm probably required by law to mention The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, so here I am mentioning it, even though I just thought it was alright (sorry). Better 'classic' ghost and horror stories can be found in collections such as Selected Tales by Edgar Allan Poe, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James, and The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories by Algernon Blackwood.

I'm sure there are lots and lots of good ghost stories for children; it just isn't an area I know much about. One author I can recommend, though, is Chris Priestley. His Tales of Terror books are great fun - in terms of scariness, some of the tales are easily the equal of many ghost stories for grown-ups - and I also really enjoyed The Dead of Winter (set in a classic ghostly, gothic manor) and Through Dead Eyes (a tale of haunting in wintery Amsterdam).

A couple of ghost stories I've recently added to my shelves... I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is about as bleak and icy as you can get - if you love Scandinavian crime, this is the ghost story for you. It weaves murder mystery with supernatural goings-on in an extremely remote part of Iceland, to brilliantly tense effect. On the other hand (as the title may suggest), Springtime by Michelle de Kretser is almost the opposite: set in Sydney during a balmy spring, it is a character study with a few disquieting touches. It plays with the reader's expectations by using the subtitle 'A Ghost Story' and then appearing to have very little of the ghost story about it... But there is a twist in the tale.

Most recently, I was blown away by A Phantom Lover by Vernon Lee. This strange, beautiful story follows an artist who, while staying at a country manor where he has been engaged to paint portraits, becomes obsessed with his client's wife. It turns out that not only does she bear a striking resemblance to a painting of one of her ancestors, she also has an unhealthy fixation on that ancestor's life... I can't recommend this enough - it is unexpectedly innovative, repeatedly surprising, and wonderfully written.

I've also just finished reading Cold Hand in Mine, a book of short stories by Robert Aickman, whose works are typically described as 'strange stories' (the author's own preferred term). True to that description, they are not quite ghost stories, but ambiguous tales in which very odd things happen and are not always explained. I found Cold Hand generally uneven but parts of it excellent - I'll be reading more Aickman. My favourite tales were 'The Hospice', an immensely creepy story about a sinister hotel, and 'Pages from a Young Girl's Journal', a perfect pastiche of a historical vampire story related through a teenage girl's diary. That brings me neatly to the fantastic Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu: deservedly a vampire classic, it's a deliciously readable story about the burgeoning friendship between a young woman and her enigmatic new friend, saturated with melodrama and sexual tension. A modern take on Carmilla can be found in Rachel Klein's The Moth Diaries - one of the very best books I've read this year - which is replete with fabulous gothic detail. Like Le Fanu's story, it focuses on female friendship, capturing the teenage psyche beautifully, and melds this with supernatural overtones, keeping you guessing about what is and isn't real. For more vampires, Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian mixes a loose reworking of Dracula with a rich historical travelogue, creating a story you can really lose yourself in.

Many of Daphne du Maurier's short stories - which are, in my opinion, her finest work - might also be categorised as 'strange stories'. They frequently have an uncanny feel about them; the subject matter is dark and often shocking, the stories full of dread and tension. Pretty much all of her short story collections are worth reading, but the two essential volumes are Don't Look Now and The Birds. While it's explicitly more fantastical, Diving Belles by Lucy Wood is a similarly well-written set of short stories, combining very believable characters with magical elements drawn from traditional folklore. And dark, sensual reworkings of fairytales can be found in Angela Carter's superb The Bloody Chamber.

In recent years, Random House's Hammer Horror imprint has published a number of ghost and horror novellas from a variety of authors, many of whom are not known for writing in this genre. A lot of the books have had poor press, but I've really enjoyed most of those I've read - like a good B-movie, the best of them blend schlocky horror with a generous helping of comedy. My favourites from the series: Cat Out of Hell by Lynne Truss (evil talking cats - enough said); Breakfast with the Borgias by DBC Pierre (the B&B from hell, possibly quite literally); and The Quickening by Julie Myerson (newlyweds take a doomed honeymoon in Antigua).

A few more gothic horror novels I've liked: The Possessions of Doctor Forrest by Richard T. Kelly, told through diary entries, moves slowly from a mysterious disappearance to devilish horror; The Sleep Room by F.R. Tallis is a haunting blend of ghosts and gruesomeness, set in a psychiatric hospital, with a great ending; The Asylum by John Harwood has a similar set-up, following a young woman who has been falsely imprisoned in a lunatic asylum - or has she? All of these have the added advantage of being quick, easy and thoroughly absorbing reads, so they'd also be perfect to take with you on holiday.

And you can't beat a good creepypasta...

There's a whole other grouping here of what I could call 'winter stories'. They may simply be set in winter, but I think there's something special about all of these that really captures the spirit of the winter months. Winter stories exist in a huge variety of genres, but what all of the books below have in common is an ability to evoke setting and atmosphere in a vivid, memorable way.

Don't be fooled by the title: A Summer of Drowning by John Burnside is set in the Arctic Circle, and offers a wonderful portrait of solitude laced with a profound sense of unease. Remote and snowy settings also come into their own in When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones, a superb historical mystery about four women who form an Antarctic exploration society. (I'm going a bit off-topic here, but Jones is good in general and I also loved her debut, The Earthquake Bird, an unreliable-narrator thriller set in Japan). Amy Sackville's Orkney is a skin-crawlingly creepy tale of an obsessive husband's 'love' for his wife, unfolding over the course of their unconventional honeymoon in rainy, wind-swept Orkney. Archangel by Robert Harris is a completely different sort of book, more of a political thriller, which makes brilliant use of its bleak settings in 1990s Russia - written so powerfully that the country essentially becomes a main character in the story. The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker focuses on a woman with a troubled past living alone on an isolated farm, where something or someone is picking off her animals one by one - see also All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld, which has a similar premise. The Burning Air by Erin Kelly, set mainly around Bonfire Night, is one of my favourite mysteries and a superior book from the generally great Kelly. A Berlin winter is the beautifully portrayed backdrop for Louise Welsh's tense and subtle thriller The Girl on the Stairs; Welsh has also written a short volume of three ghost stories, The Face at the Window, which is worth a look if you enjoy her other work. And finally, I can't finish this post without mentioning Ice by Anna Kavan - a recent read and an immediate addition to my list of favourites. Kavan's surreal, fractured narrative creates fantastical frozen dreamscapes; arguably a winter story taken to the furthest extreme.

PS, here's what you shouldn't read. Sophie Hannah's The Orphan Choir (a less successful part of the Hammer series), because it's just plain awful. Diane Setterfield's Bellman & Black, because it's extremely dull, and despite being subtitled A Ghost Story, it isn't really one - her pseudo-gothic debut The Thirteenth Tale is good, though. Kate Mosse's The Taxidermist's Daughter - also very dull; the other books by this author mentioned above are much more worthwhile.

If you made it through the whole of this, you probably deserve a medal, and I hope you found some useful recommendations. Of course, there's loads of books and authors within the ghost story genre (and related genres) that I've never read, and I'm always keen to find out about lesser-known books similar to those listed in this post, so please feel free to give me further recommendations.

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Monday, 1 December 2014

Reading round-up: November

November 2014 books

Antwerp by Roberto Bolaño - 7/10. Buy the book
Short, fragmentary and surreal, this fractured narrative is filled with potent imagery, menace, and constant darkness. It's often described as prose poetry, and it's hard to determine any real story or meaning - the book is open to all sorts of interpretations. Made up of scattered scenes and snatches of dialogue, it is powerful and compelling, but probably one to avoid if you prefer stories that... make obvious sense.

The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld by Jamie Bartlett - 7/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
One of the few non-fiction books I've read this year, The Dark Net was a really insightful and entertaining read. Bartlett sets out to explore the darker corners of the internet, a category that covers everything from drug-dealing forums on the deep web to extreme right-wing nationalists on Facebook. There is some disturbing subject matter - child porn, pro-ana sites, online harrassment - but also some really interesting stuff about the history of the internet, how online behaviour has developed over the last 20-30 years, and how online activity is shaping our personalities and philosophies. Split into chapters on different topics (most of which can be read as self-contained essays), it's a useful, informative primer, with loads of recommended reading should you want to continue investigating any one of its focal points.

Five Fires by Laura Lippman - 8/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
This is a Kindle Single, and I usually find them hit and miss - they're often a bit too insubstantial to bother with. Thankfully, this one was a definite hit. It is a perfectly constructed mini-mystery with a fantastic twist and a wonderfully devious narrator. The suspense, the atmosphere, the characterisation are all insanely good for such a short story. Though a quick read, it's 100% worth the money.

Springtime: A Ghost Story by Michelle de Kretser - 8/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
The subtitle of de Kretser's atmospheric novella is deliberately misleading - it both is and isn't a ghost story. First and foremost, it's the tale of Frances, a new wife in a new home who feels out of place and uncertain about everything. It's in the midst of this uncertainty that she becomes fixated on a strange, diaphanous figure she spots in a nearby garden. Springtime constantly evades the reader's expectations, playing with the ghost story theme in order to keep you guessing. Readers looking for spooky thrills are likely to be disappointed, but this is a beautifully written, elegant book nevertheless.

The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories by Algernon Blackwood - 6/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
In contrast to the above, these are definitely old-school ghost stories, complete with things that go bump in the night, spine-chilling apparitions and very haunted houses. If you've read any 'traditional' ghost stories before - M.R. James, Edgar Allan Poe et al - there won't be anything new here, but they are still enjoyable to read. Of particular note are 'Keeping His Promise' (comically spooky), 'The Wood of the Dead' (impressively subtle and haunting) and 'A Suspicious Gift' (not actually supernatural at all, but still scary).

Ice by Anna Kavan - 10/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Ice is a cult classic, and once you've read it, you'll see why. The difficulty in reviewing it lies with the fact that you kind of have to read it in order to understand why it's so brilliant; it's an extremely abstract novel, and very difficult to describe. In simple terms, it's about a man who is trying to find a girl in a vaguely dystopian world, a world ravaged by ice. There is, however, much more to it than that. It is frequently dreamlike, changes direction all the time, and slips in and out of reality; the characters and environments become symbolic; the meaning is elusive, the language as hallucinatory and incandescent as the ice itself. Ice is often described as one of the major works of the slipstream sub-genre, but really it's impossible to categorise. Perhaps the thing that explains it best is this fact: after I finished it, I immediately ordered SIX more of Kavan's books. Yes, it's that good.

The Well by Catherine Chanter - 9/10. Full review / Pre-order the ebook
In any other month (i.e. a month that didn't also include me reading Ice and A Phantom Lover), The Well would have been my runaway favourite. I doubt, at this point, that I really need to mention that I'm a fan of debut novels in general, but even so, this is an OUTSTANDING example. Fantastically original, it had me totally hooked from the first page and it just never stopped being amazing. The story follows Ruth Ardingly as she moves to a country farm with her husband; soon afterwards, drought begins to spread across the country while the Ardinglys' home, The Well, remains miraculously unaffected. Mixing elements of science fiction, domestic saga and mystery/thriller, the book focuses unflinchingly on Ruth's life before and after she supposedly commits a crime, the nature of which is at first unknown to the reader. Though the basic plot may sound like nothing out of the ordinary, the narrative voice is completely unique, and it all adds up to a story that's unlike anything else I've ever read. Ugh, I really struggle to describe it in a way that makes it sounds as good as it is. Just please get it on your 2015 wishlist.

Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman - 7/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Aickman famously defined his own work as 'strange stories' - somewhere between ghost stories, horror and weird fiction. There are eight tales in this collection, which, while consistently intriguing, is rather patchy. Two of the stories - the award-winning vampire narrative 'Pages from a Young Girl's Journal' and the really quite terrifying 'The Hospice' - were amazing, but the rest failed to live up to that standard. If you find traditional ghost stories a bit formulaic, the unpredictable nature of Aickman's tales might be what you're looking for, although they have a tendency towards ambiguity which may frustrate some. I didn't love this, but it was good enough that I'll definitely read more by the author.

Liars and Thieves by Karen Maitland - 6/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Another Kindle Single - published to promote the release of Maitland's novel The Vanishing Witch - this story revisits the characters of the author's debut, Company of Liars. It's good to be back in that world, and Maitland is reliably great at recreating medieval England in typically grotesque detail. However, the plot itself is nothing particularly special: unless you're already a fan, I would recommend just reading Company of Liars instead, or one of her other books (my favourite is The Gallows Curse).

Disclaimer by Renée Knight - 6/10. Full review / Pre-order the book
Disclaimer is a debut suspense/thriller novel that's hotly tipped to be a big success in 2015. And it probably will be a big success, since it's very gripping and suspenseful. The story flips between a fortysomething mother with a secret and a retired teacher with a grudge; the plot hinges on a book the former finds on her bedside table - a book that seems to be the story of the very thing she's been trying to hide for twenty years. I enjoyed the mystery, which kept me guessing, and at times I found the book almost impossible to put down; but it really isn't that remarkable, and doesn't seem designed to be at all memorable once you've finished it. Fun enough, but throwaway.

A Phantom Lover by Vernon Lee - 10/10. Full review to come / Get the ebook
This book is phenomenal. A ghost story slash love triangle. A meditation on aesthetics and art. A book from 1886 that feels like it was written yesterday. This deserves to be much more widely read than it appears to be - I'm going to write a proper review later, but honestly, just get it now, the ebook is FREE.

I decided to write some more in-depth summaries of this month's books because I haven't been posting reviews here very often. This November batch takes me up to a total of 115 books read this year (a personal record!) I know it's a pointless thing to say, but I can't believe it's December already. I don't have anything in particular lined up to read (although I do want to read A Christmas Carol this year) and that's partly because I have so much to write up before the year ends. Time to get going with my best of 2014 list...

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Thursday, 20 November 2014

Catherine Chanter's The Well: A unique, outstanding debut

The Well by Catherine ChanterThe Well (5 March 2015) by Catherine Chanter

When I get a new book, I always read the first couple of pages straight away. This is not because I have any intention of actually reading the book in full; it's just a habit (and, on Kindle, I do it to get rid of those 'new' badges that sit next to the titles if I don't). When I received the electronic ARC of Catherine Chanter's debut novel, The Well, I scanned the opening, as I routinely do - but that was all it took for me to be completely and utterly hooked. By that night, I was almost a third of the way through, and I'd finished the book within days.

The titular Well is a house, an idyllic country retreat discovered by Ruth and Mark Ardingly, a harassed fortysomething couple seeking escape from London. So idyllic that you just know the place can't possibly be as perfect as it seems. But we're not in the realm of horror or gothic fiction (and while that initial set-up might seem mundane and domestic, that's where the normality ends). In actual fact there is nothing wrong with The Well - it really is 'paradise' - and that's the problem. While the rest of the country suffers ceaseless drought, The Well flourishes. Rain continues to fall on the house and its land, crops are abundant and livestock thrives. Antipathy towards the Ardinglys starts with the locals - lifelong farmers jealous of the newcomers' effortlessly huge harvest, while their enterprises fail - but the longer the drought lasts, the more notorious they become. They have, as Mark comments, what everyone else wants but can only dream of, and those benefits come at a high price: their ostracised status gradually becomes total isolation.

Eventually, Ruth and Mark let in some visitors: first Ruth's flighty daughter Angie, a former drug addict, with her young son Lucien and a band of hippyish travellers; and second, a small group of nuns. The nuns are the Sisters of the Rose of Jericho - this being a 'resurrection plant' capable of surviving long periods of drought, which comes 'miraculously' back to life when brought into contact with moisture. (It really exists, although apparently the name 'Rose of Jericho' is used for several species with the same attributes.) It isn't really clear where they have come from or how the group formed, but they (quite literally) worship Ruth, and advocate a totally female-focused form of Christianity which she starts to find persuasive; the men, they say, are poisoning the land. Their arrival is the beginning of the end. Mark is frustrated and desperate; he becomes embittered and violent. Ruth is torn between her devotion to Lucien, the son she never had, and her new-found faith, the ecstasy she discovers at worship with the Sisters. And through all of this there is Sister Amelia - calm, ruthlessly dedicated, and incredibly sinister.

What's most intriguing about the story - and here I can loop back to what I found so immediately compelling about the first few pages - is that in the present day, all of this is gone. Not only is Ruth alone, she is returning to The Well from a short stay in prison, and is to be kept under house arrest. It is from the vantage point of this situation that Ruth tells the story of this place, all of it seen through her eyes, and all pieced together around her new life: reacquainting herself with this house that's been both heaven and hell for her, getting to know her three male guards, forming an unlikely friendship with a visiting priest. The Well is Ruth's narrative, a patchwork of memories too painful to forget and those too painful to remember. It is a curious mixture of a story being told, a personal history being recalled, and a reminder being related to a close friend, or even to oneself; that is a person who already knows many of the most important facts. Ruth rations some of the details, and sometimes talks as if the reader or listener will naturally know what she is referring to. This bitty doling out of information can seem frustrating at first, but this is a book in which patience is rewarded, although in some areas - the nature of Ruth and Amelia's relationship, the questions surrounding Mark's behaviour with Lucien - ambiguity persists through to the end.

There's a passage I want to quote because I think it is a perfect example of Ruth's voice, but I can't because my copy is an uncorrected proof. If I remember, I'll come back here and add it after the book is published. This passage is nothing important in terms of the plot - it's just Ruth describing a sunrise - but it just seems like a very exact distillation of everything that makes her distinctive: it's so strange and idiosyncratic, and quite odd and a bit flowery but it just works. That voice, for me, was crucial to the success of the story, and I think it will be something other readers either love or hate. It is the biggest part of what makes the book so incredibly unique, but it probably isn't what many will expect to find behind this particular cover.

The Well slots in well next to a crop of vaguely similar books I've read in the past year or so, books I can't quite fit into any existing sub-genre, though slipstream and transrealism come the closest. They typically have an element of fantasy, and they typically focus on a handful of ordinary lives quietly attempting to carry on in the face of some disaster or significant environmental change, rather than exploring the science of whatever this disaster is, rather than attempting to depict a dystopian society in detail. A thread of this type of everyday realism runs through The Well. The 'magic' of the house and its environs is clearly evident, and we know the media and public are obsessed with it - but we're confined to Ruth's view, cut off from most of this speculation, just trying to hold her family together in much the same way as anyone would in the midst of any emergency. Later, when that falls apart, she is enraptured not by her extraordinary surroundings, but by the love and friendship offered by a group of women. The story bears similarities to a number of other memorable books by female authors, namely Sarah Perry's After Me Comes the Flood (set during a drought, clear religious influences and overtones, an otherworldly feel); Paula Lichtarowicz's The First Book of Calamity Leek (explores the effects of (unorthodox) religious belief, insular living and the damage done by intensely close-knit bonds within an all-female community); and Samantha Harvey's Dear Thief (one woman's personal testament, told in order to unravel the truth, with a marriage at its centre but a friendship as its pivotal, and most destructive, relationship).

The Well is perhaps done a disservice by its thriller-like cover and synopsis (and that bloody inane 'I loved this book!' quote, which I'm hoping to god doesn't end up on the final cover). But then, how could you accurately summarise this book? I've written well over a thousand words and still don't feel I've captured it at all. I'm certain it won't be to everyone's taste - it sits in a weird and wonderful niche between commercial, experimental, literary and fantasy fiction - but I couldn't get enough of it. I'll be keeping an eye out for it (and urging everyone to try it) when it's published in March.

TL;DR - The Well is comparable to lots of other books in various small ways, but ultimately stands on its own as something totally unique. It confounds expectations and is a stunning debut.

I received an advance review copy of The Well from the publisher through NetGalley.

Rating: 10/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin' | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Springtime by Michelle de Kretser: A ghost story. Or is it?

Springtime: A Ghost Story by Michelle de KretserSpringtime: A Ghost Story (22 October 2014) by Michelle de Kretser

It's a ghost story. It must be, because it says so on the cover. Or is it? Well, it is, but that prominent subtitle is also deliberately misleading.

The protagonist of Springtime is Frances. A writer and academic in her late twenties, she's recently moved from Melbourne to Sydney with her new partner, Charlie, a much older man with a young son. She is disorientated by her new surroundings: in contrast to the ordered grid system of Melbourne, 'in Sydney the streets ran everywhere like something spilled'. She takes walks with her dog, Rod, whose imposing appearance obscures the fact that he's terrified of other animals. It's on one of these walks that Frances spots, in one of the gardens she frequently passes, a woman in distinctive clothes, and experiences 'a sensation that sometimes overtook her when she was looking at a painting: space was foreshortened, time stilled'.

Before this, there is an early glimpse of ghostly happenings to come when Frances remembers Charlie's mother, who, like hers, was French. She was 'a drunk' who stole from Charlie, but in the present day of the story she is dead: 'that meant Charlie was free of her, Frances believed'. The ominous suggestion inherent in this belief is obvious - it seems naive on Frances's part to assume this, and of course, the ghost story subtitle leads the reader to suspect that the continuing presence of Charlie's mother may well turn out to be literal.

The sightings continue, always when Frances is alone: each time she spots the woman, flitting through the garden with her own dog, her feeling is that 'the morning swayed, as duplicitous as déjà vu'. She can't quite pinpoint the house the garden belongs to - 'it merged with the sun in Frances's mind: it was something else that shifted about and wasn't always where she looked'. However, the story makes these experiences as opaque as the sightings themselves. It moves on, to talk about Frances and Charlie's complicated relationship, the menacing presence of his ex-wife, and Frances's difficulties in dealing with his son, Luke. At home, they receive mysterious phone calls which consist of nothing but a computerised female voice saying only 'goodbye'; Frances suspects they are somehow the ex-wife's work, but can't prove it.

The longest single scene, although it's fractured and scattered throughout the narrative, depicts a dinner party which sharply illustrates the tensions between Frances and Charlie, as well as Frances's feelings of not fitting, being conspicuously out of place. Talk turns to ghosts, and here de Kretser puts her cards on the table with a tongue-in-cheek flourish, as one attendee, a writer, theorises: 'ghost stories work up to a shock, but the modern form of the short story is different. When a loose, open kind of story came in, writing about ghosts went out'. Springtime is both that loose, open kind of story this character mentions, and a story about ghosts that works up to a shock, albeit a dulled one. It's at this point, wishing only to provoke another guest, that Frances is compelled to confess her own experience, and in the process, begins to feel frightened herself for the first time. The 'ghost' only becomes a real threat when it is spoken about, having hitherto only hovered around the edges of a story that is more about the difficulties of ordinary life and relationships.

When the secret of the ghost is revealed, it's benign, even mundane, though not without a twist of something macabre. If there is anything frightening here, it's the everyday things like Frances's uncertainty about Charlie, and their inability to talk to one another clearly about the things that matter; and while his mother doesn't hang around the couple as some sort of apparition, Frances sees echoes of her in Charlie, in the same way that she sees echoes of Charlie's ex-wife in Luke. An epilogue set eight years later shows that things - as we might expect - are much changed for Frances, but links with her old life remain. This underlines the spirit of transience that seems to be the book's major theme - the scene of Frances's sightings of the ghost can't be fixed in her mind, and her trust in Charlie fluctuates, as do her feelings for him, her belief in her work, and her certainty of her own place in the world.

While very short - probably too short, really, to have been published as a novella in its own right (although it seems to be available only as an ebook in the UK) - Springtime presents a beautiful, unexpectedly eerie portrait of believable and nuanced characters. 'What people don't pay attention to changes the story', says Charlie at one point (Frances is concerned he won't understand her research - she is writing about 'objects', small details, in eighteenth-century French portraits). And this is why it's so clever, as well as quite daring, that de Kretser's story is explicitly positioned as a ghost story. The reader is given certain expectations which are bound to colour their experience of the tale, what they do and don't take away from it. Personally, I wouldn't categorise this as a ghost story in the traditional sense, but as a self-contained short story and a character study, it is an excellent piece of work, with layers that demand to be unpicked.

Rating: 8/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin' | Buy on Amazon: Kindle

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Reading round-up: October

October 2014 books

96. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel - 7/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
97. How to be both by Ali Smith - 8/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
98. The Spirit Cabinet by Paul Quarrington - 6/10. Read my full review / Buy the book
99. The Room by Jonas Karlsson - 9/10. Read my full review / Pre-order the ebook
100. Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong by Joyce Carol Oates - 6/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
101. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins - 6/10. Read my full review / Pre-order the ebook
102. The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol - 8/10. Read my full review / Read the story online
103. Random Violence by Jassy Mackenzie - 6/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
104. Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zamba - 6/10. Buy the ebook

Nine books seems a lot, considering that this was the month I decided to try and change my reading habits and priorities. But I do feel different: I've been trying to go with my instincts more often, just reading what I feel like, as well as putting less pressure on myself to write reviews. I've also spent more time writing - and on Tumblr I've been compiling weekly lists of interesting links and writing a bit about some books I didn't finish reading.

I don't want this to be a rambling post, so I'll keep it as brief as possible. The Room is an amazing novella - look out for it in January next year. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and (especially) How to be both deserve the critical acclaim they've received. The other books I read in October were less notable; but at least two of them form part of projects I'm thinking about, so I'll probably discuss them in further detail at some point in the future.

I was planning to give ARCs a complete rest after The Room, but I was quite excited about Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train and couldn't resist reading it immediately upon getting hold of a copy. Unfortunately, I found it far more formulaic than I'd hoped. You can read my review of it on Goodreads, but some of the stuff I've discussed might be considered spoilery, so proceed with caution...

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