‘Elmet’ by Fiona Mozley #Elmet #bookreview #bookbloggers

“Elmet was the last independent Celtic kingdom in England and originally stretched out over the vale of York….But even into the seventeenth century this narrow cleft and its side-gunnels, under the glaciated moors, were still a ‘badlands’, a sanctuary for refugees of the law”

Remains of Elmet
Ted Hughes

Elmet was the ancient name for an area which, more or less, encompasses the West Riding of Yorkshire; roughly from York to just south of Doncaster. This is where I live now, and with chagrin, I realised that I had never heard of it, other than in place names of which, I suppose, I had thought nothing.

Elmet, is then associated with that which is far removed from recent history, and this, along with the above quotation from Ted Hughes, sets the scene for this dark, heart-rending, immersive and brilliant debut novel from Fiona Mozley.

We begin Elmet near the end, with our narrator, Daniel, who is alone and heading north, in the bleak hope that he has taken the right path. His situation is desperate.

He has never been alone before, but neither has he been much in company. Without a mother from an early age, he and his sister, Cathy, have lived with Daddy. Daddy builds a house near the woods with his bare hands, manipulating wood like a master craftsman would have done centuries ago, before such skills became at the behest of the wealthy or to make novelties and trinkets. Daddy is almost a figure of legend; not Robin Hood perhaps. Maybe Little John; built like a giant. He belongs to a world before modern laws and social norms; he broods with a simmering violence, he disappears for days on end. They have enough money to survive. He moves on the very outskirts of society, he bareknuckle fights, and resolves local disputes in lieu of the law. Daddy is feared and revered, and feared some more, yet he is unfailing gentle with his children.

Daniel and Cathy are removed from mainstream school, after an incident involving Cathy. In an effort to provide some level of education, or perhaps just to keep them safe while he spends time away, Daddy takes them to Vivien, who is a reclusive friend of their mother. She has a warm and comforting home, but she is not motherly; rather awkward. We don’t really get to the bottom of this relationship; it’s mysterious between her and Daddy. Cathy can’t stay to read or learn, she’s not interested, and leaves to go outside every day. She is like Daddy, she belongs to, and is a force of, nature. Cathy is the tragic heroine of this novel; she’s extremely complex and has, if anything, a greater animalistic anger than Daddy.

Daniel is said to be like his mother, and indeed he is gender fluid, unconcerned about any physical difference between men and women. At home he is the care giver and the home maker, and he is accepted and appreciated for his way of being, without comment or prejudice. He loves to be at Vivien’s. It is here that he can see a future for himself, different from his past.

But they don’t own the land where their house is built, and there is a man who does, who cares very much about ownership and fealty. Mr. Price is the local landowner; rich and influential, and always gets his own way. He inspires fear in a different way to Daddy. While one lives outside of the societal norms, the other, it can be imagined, hides in plain sight. His children are in a prestigious private school and no doubt he can function in far higher society than Daddy. Morally, we are uncertain of Daddy, but we are in far less doubt with Price.

Who can control the most fear? The concluding chapters of Elmet are brutal and tragic. There is a great deal of inequality in the book, the social, the economic, the balance of power, the ability to determine what will happen, when, and how. Unbridled fury though, is the great equaliser, where all bets are off and the outcome becomes unpredictable. There is one part which I found to be like Lord of the Flies in reverse; where the children, in one moment of clarity, are horrified by the actions of adults, in a place where the law holds no sway.

There is a restless quality to this novel; comfortable moments are short-lived. The language is poetic and lyrical; some sentences are so profoundly beautiful, or laced with such visceral brutality, that I had to read them again, just to appreciate the skill with which they have been written. Much of the speech is in the vernacular. We talk funny in Yorkshire, finding the determiner ‘the’ unnecessary in most situations. ‘Doesn’t’, ‘wouldn’t’ and ‘couldn’t’ don’t require all their syllables when vocalised, and the word ‘was’, is invariably ‘were’ regardless of whether the subject is singular or plural.

And yet, the story on another level, is told so level headedly. Daniel has none of the anger in him that the other characters have. He is faced by choices, paths he could take, and although he thinks he is cowardly sometimes, his bravery is part of what makes this book so very powerful and so sad. The final, bleak observation, as a product of all he has experienced, nearly brought me to tears. One of my favourite reads this year.

Winner of the 2018 Polari First Book Prize and Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017.

‘Shivers’ by Adam Z. Robinson @DarkLightBook #Shivers #GhostStories

I’m adding this feature to my blog today for two reasons. Firstly, last night, my husband and I, along with his parents, went to see a performance called ‘Shivers’ at the Cast Theatre in Doncaster. Secondly, I love theatre; the atmosphere, the story-telling, the nervousness and excitement I feel when seeing actors performing live, the kinetic potential of the props, and above all else, the opportunity to immerse myself completely, and without interruption, in another world for an hour or two. I love sitting in the dark; the anonymity of it, with the spotlight on the stage. It’s wonderful.

Shivers is a collection of three short stories taken from The Book of Darkness and Light. It is the second instalment in what I believe will be a trilogy, perhaps more. I do hope so.
It is performed with a simple stage setup, with Adam Z. Robinson as the story-teller and as various other characters. There are also some recorded roles as required, which adds to the unquiet tension. The tales are accompanied by the violinist, Ben Styles. I’m not a musician, so I will describe the music as only a layperson can. It varies between hauntingly beautiful melodies, heart-curdling ‘plinking’ and Psycho-style ‘sawing’. Better described, I’m sure it could be; however, the sound is perfectly pitched to allow the diction of what is being said to be heard clearly. It is very well produced, and faultlessly performed.

The play tells three short stories: The New Priest of Blackpines, Dead Air, and A Horror in Porcelain, and the premise of the telling is that a book has come into the possession of the story-teller and musician, and that they are charged with the deliverance of the tales to others. This is the Book of Darkness and Light, and we already, as an audience, accept that this inanimate object is possessed by a malevolence, and its evil will permeate through the performance.

The New Priest of Blackpines is a folk horror story about a small community on a remote North Sea island. A new priest has taken up position here, has fallen gravely ill, and calls for his sister, a doctor, to come urgently. This is a story about how isolated and remote communities foster their own superstitions and adopt their own, often gruesome and horrifying remedies to them. And there might just be something in the woods.

Dead Air is a different type of story. There is no monster in the woods. Here, we find a child’s fear, grown up, complete with the kind of post traumatic guilt, anxiety and terror which can result. A radio call show, hosted by a spirit medium, asks listeners to call in with their true ghost stories. She gets a good deal more than she had bargained for. It’s a brilliant story; there was palpable tension in the audience during this one.

After the interval, is the final story, which is the pièce de résistance; A Horror in Porcelain. I’m not convinced that there is anything more frightening than a lifelike doll. Numerous horror films use the diminutive human form as a medium to frighten us, usually through reanimation. Here though, the malevolence comes as a result of its origin, and is communicated to us by a character who is picking up and transporting the doll for a ‘collector’. Do you want to play? I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to.

At the end of the show yesterday evening, the writer and actor Adam Z. Robinson, and the composer and musician, Ben Styles came out into the foyer and were chatting informally with the audience. There was also a team recording video reactions to the performance, for whom my excitable mother-in-law was a gift! We had all been completely absorbed in the performance and chilled to the bone by the stories that were told, but there really is no-one quite like her to put that across. The cast and crew were genuinely lovely people too and were obviously delighted that the show had been very well attended and had been enjoyed so thoroughly.

Playdead Press has published the manuscripts on book form, beginning with the credentials of the cast and crew, and then, a note by Adam Z. Robinson.

“There’s an old theory that the horror genre holds up a mirror to society. That each novel, short story, film and play reflects and reacts to what’s happening in the world at the precise moment in which it was created. The tales in Shivers are shot-through with the themes of isolationism, ubiquitous fear and selfishness. The play includes a story of a community cut off from the rest of the world in an attempt to preserve ‘the old ways’; a confession of a man who lives with daily, lonesome anxiety and a constant lurking terror of communication, a tale of an authority figure who obeys his reactionary gut rather than his rational brain. Perhaps the old theory is true”.

What better way is there to celebrate the thinning of the veil, than the embracement of a gloriously well written ghost story? Shivers encapsulates all that is great in this tradition. Adam Z. Robinson clearly loves the ghostly and gothic; he’s read so many of the great stories, and has created some more in the process. Go and see this show this season. Be brave; feed your dark side. You won’t regret it.

The tour will run up until February 2019 and conclude in Stowe. For more details, and to book tickets, go to www.thebookofdarknessandlight.com , where you can find a list of venues, add your own ghostly story if you have one, and lots more.

‘Ravens Gathering’ by Graeme Cumming #BookReview #RavensGathering #Blogtober18 @GraemeCumming63 @book_problem

 

Ravens-Gathering-Cover

“ And they lapsed into an uncomfortable silence, neither knowing what to say to the other. Neither knowing what they should do. Until the cawing began. It didn’t last long, only a few seconds. But the sound tore through them like slashing blades. Terrified, they looked across at the ravens, in time to see them rise from their perches and, in the effortless way that birds do, soar above the trees, then wheel away and disappear from view.

For a few moments, they watched the treetops, waiting for the birds to come back into sight. When they didn’t, the two men felt the tension begin to ebb away, started to hope that it had all been a matter of their imaginations running wild.

The hope was short-lived.

“Hello Dad.” ”

Ravens Gathering is set in the 1980s, and before I start my review, I’m going to make some brazen ’80s references to help readers decide if they should embark on this tale, or not. So, if you are channelling your inner Mary Whitehouse, Mavis Wilton or Adrian Mole, (i.e. if you are easily offended, have delicate sensibilities, or are a touch on the young side), you’ll probably want to read something else, if you wish to preserve and nurture your innocence!

Fortunately (or, possibly,  disturbingly), I am none of those things, and I was excited to read ‘Ravens Gathering’, based on a great review by, and personal recommendation from my friend Julie, who is an excellent, and most vigorous book blogger (ALittleBookProblem). It sounded like a dark and macabre read, right up my street, and perfect for my seasonal spooky reading list.

The first chapter sets the scene effectively; it’s a horrifying dream, experienced by a child. There is a sense of coercion and ritual; an unusual and dark rhythm with which to begin. I was already sitting in the camp of those who compare this to ‘The Wicker Man’.

The story then shifts to a rural Nottinghamshire village called Ravens Gathering, in the 1980s. I am from South Yorkshire, and so already, the location spoke to me. I felt like I could already know this village; friendly enough, but under the surface, insular and suspicious of strangers.

Martin Gates, whose family live in the village, makes a sudden, and apparently unwelcome, appearance in Ravens Gathering, after having spent a long time abroad. He soon attracts the attention of Tanya McLean, and afterwards, her husband Ian. They have lived in Ravens Gathering for some time, but are still considered outsiders. Martin moves into their farmhouse, as he has nowhere else to stay, and it is an arrangement which seems to suit them all. To begin with…

It is easy to make assumptions about the characters, and to suspect who is behind the gruesome occurrences which have recently started happening. The characters are well described and I could visualise them, and everything going on around them, but I can’t say that I particularly liked any of them, apart from Claire. I am sure this is intentional on the part of the author, as he holds a lot back for the final third of the book. It’s full of energy and is fast paced; indeed positive and negative energies are explored at some length; the destructive and divisive effects of the negative, and the reconstructive and redemptive powers of the positive. 

The writing style seems to be straightforward. You could easily be lulled into thinking that you are being shown and told everything, but you would be mistaken. The plot takes so many twists and turns, that you almost meet yourself coming back.

(Here is my gripe about my e-reader and my inability to use it! I needed to flick back and forwards often, to check what I had missed or to reread parts, and I just couldn’t! So frustrating, bah!)

There are so many mysteries to be solved here, and there are subtle clues placed strategically. I actually finished the book a couple of days ago, and it has been occupying my thoughts, so I have had to spend time haphazardly negotiating my Kindle to find what I needed to know, before I wrote the review! It was no trial to revisit it though; essentially, what I took from it in the end, was the importance of family and community. A feeling of belonging. And this I wasn’t expecting; the mysteries, the ominous build up, the horror, the unsettling experiences, and yet, somehow, I ended up with a warm feeling. I enjoyed this very much; a good read for Blogtober18.

 

About the Author

Graeme Cumming - Author

Graeme Cumming has spent most of his life immersed in fiction – books, TV and movies – turning to writing his own stories during his early teens.

He first realised he genuinely had some talent when he submitted a story to his English teacher, Christine Tubb, who raved about it. The same story was published in the school magazine and spawned a series that was met with enthusiasm by readers. Christine was subsequently overheard saying that if Graeme wasn’t a published author by the time he was 25, she’d eat her hat. Sadly, she probably spent the next 25 years buying her groceries exclusively from milliners. (Even more sadly, having left school with no clear direction in life, Graeme made no effort to keep in touch with any teachers, so has lost track of this source of great support and encouragement.)

Having allowed himself to be distracted (in no particular order) by girls, alcohol and rock concerts, Graeme spent little of his late teens and twenties writing. A year-long burst of activity produced a first draft of a futuristic thriller, Beyond Salvage, which has since lain dormant, waiting for a significant edit.

With the onset of family life, opportunities to write became more limited (though it could be argued that he got his priorities wrong), until he reached his early forties, when he realised he hadn’t written anything for several years. Deciding to become more focused, since then he has written regularly.

With his interests in story-telling sparked by an excessive amount of time sitting in front of a black and white television, his tastes are varied. Influences ranged from the Irwin Allen shows (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, etc.) to ITC series (The Saint, The Champions, Randall and Hopkirk (deceased) and so many more), so the common theme was action and adventure, but crossed into territories including horror, fantasy and science fiction as well as crime and espionage.

This diverse interest in fiction continued with reading books and his discovery of the magical world of cinema. As a result, his stories don’t always fall into a specific genre, but are always written as thrillers.

Graeme’s first novel, Ravens Gathering, was published in 2012, and has been warmly received.

When not writing, Graeme is an enthusiastic sailor (and, by default, swimmer), and enjoys off-road cycling and walking. He is currently Education Director at Sheffield Speakers Club, although he lives in Robin Hood country. Oh yes, and he reads (a lot) and still loves the cinema.

Website: https://www.graemecumming.co.uk

 

 

 

 

‘The Birds and other stories’ by Daphne du Maurier

The Birds and other stories

Daphne Du Maurier is one of my favourite authors; she is one of a cherished few who nourishes my dark side. Rebecca is a serious contender for my most loved piece of fiction ever, and My Cousin Rachel is right up there too.

Having said that, I’ve never actually seen a film adaptation of any du Maurier book. Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ though, will be going straight on to my viewing timetable this Autumn.

This collection of stories begins with The Birds, which is a gripping and horrific epic in short form. On one level, it is about a man, Nat, trying to protect his family against a building ominous threat, culminating in an unprecedented attack of nature; freakish, violent and malevolent.

Then, if we consider that this was written with WWII in recent memory, and imagine how it might feel, in a remote location, being under attack and isolated from all communication, with the consummation of a threat which has been underestimated and misunderstood, we can conceive how apocalyptic it would seem. A terrific story.

The second in the collection is Monte Verita, and this is the most lengthy in the book. Fate and destiny, the power of enduring, obsessive love, superstition, worship and fear, and the formidable, indomitable power of nature are all explored in this story. This is arguably the least popular of the collection, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I think I approached this book with the preconception that The Birds was the classic, and from what I already knew about it, believed it would be my favourite. But, I think I loved The Apple Tree the most, because it has the Daphne du Maurier hallmark of taking an (often subconscious) anxiety, and transforming it into a shrouded, crippling dread for her narrator!

This is a story about an elderly, recently bereaved widower, except he’s not in mourning. He’s gained the freedom he appears to have always wanted from his passive-aggressive, shrew-martyr of a wife. I didn’t like him one bit, mind. I was glad of the crippled, wizened, and bent old apple tree in his garden, that haunted and tormented him to distraction. Good on it!

The Little Photographer follows The Apple Tree, and to me, it has the feel of Roald Dahl’s ‘Tales of the Unexpected’. The young Marquise, basking, bored and beautiful, is on a luxury holiday with her two children and their nanny. She lures a local to whom she has a vague attraction, to take some photographs of her in various locations and poses. A one-sided obsession begins; the story takes a dark turn and by the end, there is the sobering sense that no-one can escape the consequences of their actions.

Kiss Me Again, Stranger is I think, my least favourite of the collection. A young war veteran becomes obsessed with an usherette at his local cinema. The urban equivalent of a siren story.

The Old Man. What a story!! A voyeuristic neighbour becomes obsessed with the comings and goings at the home of an individual, known only to us as ‘the old man’. He has a wife, with whom, our narrator observes, he has a relationship which is romantic and exclusive. Over time, children are born to them, but the neighbour worries that, as parents, there is something abnormal and worrying in their level of attention and affection towards them. The climax of this story will, without doubt, have you going back to the start and reading it again. This is a real treat to conclude the collection.

Hope you enjoy it, if you are picking this up for the first time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Little Fires Everywhere’ by Celeste NG

Little Fires Everywhere

In my blog post, ‘The Thinning of the Veil’, I did somewhat commit to exclusively reading scary or bloodthirsty literature for the forthcoming weeks. In error though, I started with ‘The Woman in Black’, and thought perhaps I could have a little comfort break already with Celeste NG’s second novel, ‘Little Fires Everywhere’. My friend Sarah did lend this to me a few weeks ago, so I did also think I should read and return it. So really, I’m not being a wimp; I’m being a responsible friend…

However, Little Fires Everywhere was not anything like a comfortable read. It’s a superb novel though. Matt Haig (of whom I am a big fan), described it as ‘a masterclass in characterisation’, and as usual, he’s dead right.

It starts with a postscript chapter, where we discover that a fire has been deliberately set in the Richardson family home, leaving this previously affluent family with the clothes on their backs and nothing much more. No-one has been hurt, but their youngest child, Izzy, has gone missing.

The book is set in Shaker Heights, an affluent suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, which is a community set up to be a form of utopia for its inhabitants. Founded on Shaker values of order, regulation and uniformity, it was designed to be ‘a patch of heaven on earth, a little refuge from the world’. Up until the 1960s, this patch of heaven was reserved for a white community; afterwards it became inclusive, although still essentially a symbol for white privilege, and this comes across effectively as a theme in this novel.

The plot centres around two families; the Richardsons, a large, affluent family, and the Warrens. Elena Richardson, a journalist, philanthropically places the Warrens, Mia and her daughter, Pearl, in her small downtown rental apartment block. There are glaring differences in these families’ outlooks, incomes and attitudes, yet the children of both families intertwine so much, that the lines between them all become quickly blurred. Little fires are lit.

The imagery of little fires is intelligently spread through the text. It’s like the butterfly effect, where the butterfly slowly flaps wings of smouldering embers, throwing sparks out along with the ripples. Some sparks will fade away to nothing, either mercifully or tragically. Others may form flames which can be carefully controlled, regulated and passed on like an Olympic torch. Some could burn down the world.

Above all else though, this is a novel predominantly about motherhood. Is it a bond forged by blood, or love, or both? Who is deserving of being a mother; are there rules to be followed, and who sets them? Clearly, there are going to be no simple answers, and all the central characters, as in life, are getting it simultaneously right and wrong.

I should have read this faster than I did; it’s certainly absorbing enough, but I had to take a day out. Around halfway through, I suddenly felt as though I had been seized and had a mirror slammed in front of my face, forcing me to confront myself as a person, and particularly as a mother. I felt I had to try to understand which little fires of my own I may have set, both in my triumphs as a mum, and in my many failures. You hope to ignite flames of passion, so that your children become everything that they want and to achieve what they can. But what harm do you do along the way? Have I, during the course of my 40 years on the planet, set fires which have harmed other people, however inadvertently or ignorantly? During the day in which I couldn’t read any more, I was caught up in this reflection, and atypically for me, I cried my heart out.

Such can be the power of a book. I hope I’ve learned something.

I did find that in the earlier stages of the book, I formed opinions about the characters, which unravelled completely in later chapters. There is no good or bad here, just a mass of grey areas. It’s fairly rare to feel the rush of empathy that I did for all of them. They were living, breathing entities for me, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget this book. It did, and will affect me for a while yet.

I haven’t read ‘Everything I Never Told You, the author’s first novel, but I will be looking for it in the near future. I really do recommend ‘Little Fires Everywhere’, but readers should be aware for the potential for it to take its emotional pound of flesh. Not just if you are a reflective type like me, but because it tackles difficult themes; motherhood, ethics, displacement and loss.

And if you like a cozy read with a happy ending, this one might not be for you!