Thursday, 3 December 2015

Reading round-up: November

November 2015 books

Rawblood by Catriona Ward - 9/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
One of the most creative and original ghost stories I've ever read, this - Catriona Ward's debut - follows several generations of the same family, all believing themselves to be under a blood curse. Through a variety of voices, we see snapshots of the Villarcas' history and learn the heartbreaking truth about the 'curse'. It drags slightly in places (including the first few chapters, so stick with it if you're not immediately hooked), but Rawblood contains some of the most brilliant and memorable scenes I've come across in any book.

The Undesired by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir - 7/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
This is a well-structured mystery with spooky, maybe-supernatural elements woven through it. There are two threads to the plot: one focusing on a care home for 'delinquent' boys in the 1970s, and one taking place in the present day, when past events at the home are being investigated. I'd have preferred a few more scares, but nevertheless this was my favourite Sigurðardóttir book yet.

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg - 7/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
The biggest debut of the year (literally) - a 960-page epic about a large cast of characters in late-1970s New York, with a New Year's Eve shooting as the focal point, but about a hundred different mini-plots spinning off from that. This has been getting mixed reviews and, although I enjoyed it, I can see why.  It's a lengthy story to commit to with little payoff, as the ending doesn't resolve very much, despite a couple of tantalising glimpses into the future. 

The Visitors Book and Other Ghost Stories by Sophie Hannah - 3/10. Buy the ebook
Why do I do this to myself?! These are basically slightly (I said slightly) better-written versions of THEN WHO WAS PHONE? Don't bother.

Animals by Keith Ridgway - 10/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
A brilliant, weird, very funny story that defies description or explanation. Animals opens with our nameless and stubbornly mysterious narrator spotting the corpse of a mouse - an event that causes him to come close to a breakdown. That's the starting point for a hilarious existential adventure through a warped version of London filled with eccentric characters, conspiracies around every corner, and menacing creatures lurking in the shadows. It's the sort of fiction that might be described as 'challenging' or 'experimental', but it's also gripping from the first page and incredibly readable. My favourite of the month, and one of the best books I've read all year.

The Ice Twins by S.K. Tremayne - 5/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Touted as horror, but isn't. The Ice Twins is actually a psychological thriller about a couple who make the wise decision to move to a near-inaccessible island after the death of one of their twin daughters. Of course, they're keeping all kinds of secrets from each other. It's formulaic, and the conclusion is pretty distasteful when you think about it, but the book gets extra points for being can't-put-it-down compelling and having a few really creepy bits (the singing!)

Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked by James Lasdun - 8/10. Buy the ebook
Lasdun's account of being stalked by an obsessed former student is beautifully written, insightful and thought-provoking. It manages to remain even-handed and fair while also communicating with great (and painful) effectiveness the hysteria and paranoia that results from becoming trapped in a situation like this. It's a very affecting book, and essential reading for anyone who's ever been harrassed.

The Secret by the Lake by Louise Douglas - 7/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
A return to form for Douglas, this book combines her classic romantic thriller formula with a deliciously creepy ghost story. A nanny moves to a dreary riverside cottage with the family she works for, only to find out her employer's older sister died there. Weirder still, her young charge, Viviane, is now claiming the dead girl is her new best friend... [cue spooky music] Perfect winter reading with loads of gothic intrigue.

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum - 9/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
This is the story of adulterous housewife Anna Benz; on one level, a simple tale of ennui and betrayal. But there are so many layers to Anna's story, and it's so cleverly constructed, that I couldn't tear myself away from it. I was gripped all the way through, and would have enjoyed it immensely anyway, but when I reached the end and saw how perfectly every single part of the story had been pieced together - how even the smallest details have meaning and significance that doesn't necessarily become clear until later - I was even more impressed with it. Hausfrau also paints such a vivid picture of Zürich and its environs that it's (probably) the next best thing to actually going there. I loved it.

Congregation of Innocents: Five Curious Tales by various authors - 8/10. Full review / Buy the book
The third annual limited-edition short story collection from author collective Curious Tales, Congregation of Innocents is inspired by the work of Shirley Jackson. Whether you've read Jackson's fiction or not, it's a very enjoyable compilation of unsettling vignettes, truly deserving of the title 'curious tales'. Contributions from Tom Fletcher and Ian Williams  are the highlights.

Under Ground by S.L. Grey - 6/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Dystopian thriller meets 21st-century update of a standard Agatha Christie plot: a group of wealthy people, fearing societal collapse and a fast-spreading virus, hole themselves up in condos in an underground bunker, only to find there's a killer in their midst, picking them off one by one. Under Ground starts at a fantastic pace, but sadly runs out of steam about halfway through. It's also very, very similar to Day Four by Sarah Lotz - who is one of the two authors writing under the pen name S.L. Grey - so you're likely to experience quite a bit of déjà vu if you've read that as well. 

A Slanting of the Sun: Stories by Donal Ryan - 6/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
A clutch of 20 stories, written in what I take to be Ryan's signature style - first person, present tense, Irish dialect - often reminiscent of his 2012 novel The Spinning Heart. They're effective in small doses, but over the course of a whole book, I began to find some repetitive details of the stories grating. The Spinning Heart was a better demonstration of the potential power of Ryan's approach to character and voice.

Plans for December: make my way through a bunch of leftover ARCs so I can start my 2016 reading with a clean slate!

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