‘Collected Ghost Stories’ by M.R. James #bookreview #bookbloggers #ghoststories #booklove #2018

I am certainly a braver person after completing this season’s reading. I’ve just finished M.R. James’ Collected Ghost Stories, which were originally published between 1904 and 1925, and were amalgamated in this collection by Penguin Random House in 2018.
I was dreading reading these stories almost as much as I did ‘The Woman in Black’ by Susan Hill. The reason for this, is that a few years ago, I watched a 2010 TV dramatisation of ‘O, Whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad’, starring John Hurt. It was a modern re-telling of the original story and it scared the living bejesus out of me.

Now that I’ve read it, however, I think I’ll give the old movies a try as well. There are sixteen other stories in this collection, but I’m not going to review them individually, as it would just take too long. (I’m WAAAY behind on my Goodreads reading challenge this year). Suffice it to say, that there are several reasons why I think these are such great ghost stories, and they are typical to each one.

Firstly, they are presented as true accounts of events. James tells these stories as though they are based on written evidence or have been told as personal recollections of diabolical happenings.

Secondly, the subject of the stories is always an academic; an expert in a particular field, most commonly antiquary. As a result, we infer that this person would not usually succumb to superstition, although they would perhaps listen to it with an academic interest. We trust them as a reliable witness; they have not become anxious, ill or dead for any reason other than because something dreadful, or inexplicable has happened to them.

Thirdly, the stories mostly involve churches, relics found therein, and religious people. Therefore, the comfort, peace of mind and faith held in such places and objects, is ripped from under the feet. There are desecrations and horrors, and no safe haven to be found.

Having said this, they are also rather different from other paranormal stories, in that the settings are more modern than usual, and so are more relatable to the ordinary circumstances in which a reader could find themselves.

There is a touch of the Blair Witch occasionally as well. Sometimes, we are left fairly uncertain as to what has happened, and the story just ends, but I like this.

If I was to make a final point, as a note to self, it would be this:

Don’t investigate any object, or undertake any task, unless it is familiar to you. So, cleaning your house, washing clothes, making beds and going to work are generally SAFE activities.

Digging things up in the garden, noticing anything at all in churches, being too well educated, being overly interested in antiquary, habituating desolate beaches, taking interest in other people’s conversations, reading diaries, doing anything whatsoever in inclement weather, and staying in hotels with windows, are NOT SAFE. I repeat, NOT SAFE.

Beware these stories, but certainly read them. Read them in the dark, and love them, like I did!

So, braver I am. I even relished watching the brilliant Netflix series, ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, and the first four series of American Horror Story.

But then, I watched ‘Elf’ for the first time this year (not the first time ever obvs), and now it’s going to be all about the Christmas reading list. Blog post to follow.

I’m also looking for suggestions for what to read over the festive period. I’m unlikely to be found reading a cosy and comfortable romance, but I’ll try anything! My favourite types of story are usually based on fables and legends. For example, last year, I loved ‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey and ‘Followed by Frost’ by Charlie N Holmberg. I’d love to hear from you, if you can think of anything I might enjoy!

Happy reading and best wishes for the winter season,

Jill x

‘The Witches of New York’ by Ami McKay #TheWitchesofNewYork #bookbloggers #bookreviews

I’m a sucker for a cover and an interesting blurb, so I bought this book almost without thinking. Therefore, I haven’t read the prequel novels, however, this is fine as a standalone.

It’s set in 1880-81, and the historical backdrop of this story, which is for women, about women (although for men too, of course, if you enjoy an empowering read), is the transportation and erection (sorry) by men, of the mystical and undeniably phallic Cleopatra’s Needle in Manhattan.

Two hundred years after the witch trials in Salem, two witches, Adelaide Thom and Eleanor St. Clair open a tea shop in Manhattan, whose reputation builds a high society clientele, seeking cures, potions, and palmistry. Eleanor and Adelaide keep their secrets and are protected by these women in return. One of my favourite characters, Perdu, a raven, lives with Eleanor. He is not a bird.

Beatrice Dunn is a seventeen-year-old girl, with a dream of adventure and excitement. She makes a special wish, and soon afterwards, sees an advert for a job as an assistant in a Manhattan tea shop. The ad says that “those averse to magic need not apply.” It seems like just the opportunity she has been waiting for and, saying goodbye to her well-wishing aunt, she heads for Manhattan.

Beatrice becomes Eleanor’s apprentice, but her new life with the witches allows newly found powers to emerge. Adelaide, perhaps prematurely, introduces her to Dr. Quinn Brody who is a war veteran, newly arrived from Paris following the death of his father. He has become involved in the association in which his father was a member: The Fraternal Order of the Unknown Philosophers, which seeks to understand those phenomena which are inexplicable. Beatrice is introduced to a device of his, which she appears more than capable of producing results from, thereby drawing unwanted attention to the witches. Still at risk from dogmatic religion, these enlightened, self-assured, intelligent and independent women come under threat.

The differences between men who believe in the mystical, the unexplained and the spiritual, and women who do the same or less, is stark, disturbing and is explored at length. It is subtly done though and doesn’t seek to be divisive; simply to show.

During some musing, Dr. Brody, who is a thoroughly likeable character, wonders
“‘What is the weight of a soul? Where does it go when we die? Are there such things as ghosts? Can they speak to the living? What of spirits, demons, fairies and angels? Can dreams hold portents, visions, foretellings? Are witches real? Does magic exist?’

He thought if he could gain the answers he sought, he might publish them in a short book. It would be no doubt a risky endeavour, but wasn’t that the sort of risk that every scientist had to be willing to take? To profess truth despite the looming spectre of ridicule.”

Meanwhile, the highly esteemed Reverend Townsend has written a sermon, entitled ‘Against Intuition’ in which his train of thought is thus:

“Women often say they have a ‘knowing’, a ‘feeling’, that something is right or wrong. They’ll claim they’ve seen the answer to a great dilemma in a dream. Who are they to claim the gift of prophecy? What force compels them to speak such lies? More often than not their words are merely a ploy to get others to do their bidding. When caught, they say it was nothing but a silly, foolish game. They insist no one got hurt. But this sort of deceit is no laughing matter. It is a terribly crafty tool of women, especially when used upon trusting men – a tool of Satan himself. I say to all gentlemen, do not be fooled by women’s talk of intuition. I say to all women, do not be used by Devils as a mouthpiece for Satan’s foul words. The only special knowledge he’ll afford to you is misery.”

So, in 1880, the risks to a man of wondering and trying to prove such hypotheses included such horrors as ridicule. At the time, although the majority of witchcraft trials were over, the insane asylums were full. The book lists some of the reasons for women being committed and although I’ve seen these before, you’d need to read them to believe them.

This is a thought-provoking book, with an absorbing storyline, and appears well researched. I particularly liked the ‘witchy’ aspects; the family grimoire, the raven, the Dearlies, dreams, herbalism, tarot, palmistry, spirit mediumship etc. There are dark forces at work as well, but these are not related to the actions of the witches, rather those set against them who are willing to take matters into their own hands. There are some great female characters in the book; Beatrice and her Aunt Lydia, Eleanor, Adelaide, Mrs. Dashley and Mrs. Stevens. I liked the Bird Lady, and the ghosts are pretty fun too.

It is interesting to note the sources the author has used in the acknowledgements as well, particularly with regards to the Oz author L. Frank Baum.

All this having been said, I did make relatively slow progress. I did read a few chapters every day: I don’t know why, maybe life just got in the way this week, but it was certainly good enough to keep going back to, and a great read for this time of year.

‘A Discovery of Witches’ by Deborah Harkness #bookreview #ADiscoveryOfWitches #bookblogger

I did read a few of the Goodreads reviews after I bought this book, back in July 2018; the recent ones were a bit dismal about it; I may not have bothered buying it, had I read these before. That would have been a real shame, because this is a well-written and absorbing historical fantasy, which I am glad I have read; I suspect that Stephenie Meyer was holding Deborah Harkness’ beer while she was writing it (although I did actually quite enjoy Twilight at the time!). I’ve already put the sequel, Shadow of Night, on my Christmas list (if I can wait that long – experience says not likely).

The blurb reads, “Deep in the stacks of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, young scholar Diana Bishop unwittingly calls up a bewitched alchemical manuscript in the course of her research. Descended from an old and distinguished line of witches, Diana wants nothing to do with sorcery; so after a furtive glance and a few notes, she banishes the book to the stacks. But her discovery sets a fantastical underworld stirring, and a horde of daemons, witches, and vampires soon descends upon the library. Diana has stumbled upon a coveted treasure lost for centuries-and she is the only creature who can break its spell… 
 ..Diana is a bold heroine who meets her equal in vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont, and gradually warms up to him as their alliance deepens into an intimacy that violates age-old taboos. “

I devoured this 600+page book in two and a half days flat; I couldn’t put it down for long. I was invested in all the main characters, and despite finding the romance aspect a little too suffocating for my taste, it didn’t spoil it for me. I have the same sort of issue with the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J Maas; while I enjoy reading it, and terrifically strong female characters are to be applauded, something about the relationships with dominating, fierce, brooding males, who are devastatingly attractive, doesn’t quite sit comfortably with me, however pulse-racing it is! And it is pulse-racing, albeit a slow pulse in Matthew’s case.

If I have any criticism of it, for me personally, it’s simply that there are slightly too many descriptions of what the characters are eating, drinking and wearing. Some of this of course, is necessary. I completely get that when preparing a meal for an alluring vampire, one may have to go the extra mile on researching a suitable menu and sourcing the ingredients, and how those, once having been assembled, are received by said Ancient.

However, we quickly learn that fine wines will be being quaffed, copiously and especially during the evening, and that Diana will be famished and wearing black leggings and a variety of turtleneck jumpers, and Matthew will be donning a cashmere sweater in one of all shades of monochrome. I thought that some of the extra unnecessary detail detracted a little from the storytelling.

There are many aspects which I really liked; I love a university library reading room for a start! It’s intelligently written; the academic in the author is evident. I found the alchemical references and the scholarly discussions within the university setting and beyond, absorbing and interesting. Some people who have reviewed it said that they found it boring, but I wouldn’t agree, despite the level of detail. I would qualify this by admitting that I have an enormously high tolerance for boredom. Now I think about it, I don’t believe I’ve ever actually felt bored in my entire life, and I’ve lived a very unremarkable one. I’m not sure what that says about me. So, I can understand why some readers got bogged down with it, but I didn’t at all.

There are some smart scientific ideas here too; I enjoyed the exploration of the evolutionary discussion. The threatening behaviour towards Diana feels realistic and the dialogue throughout is convincing. The fact that love is love, no matter who it is between and whose social sensibilities are offended, is well communicated and heartfelt. The descriptions of all the residences in the novel are rich and atmospheric; I particularly love Sarah and Em’s chaotic, unpredictable and riotous home. It’s also a good mystery; you really don’t know what exactly is going on. The suspense is well-managed and timed. The history is enjoyable too. It’s part Dan Brown in places, but I mean this as a compliment. It keeps the pages turning quickly and gives a bit of an education while it’s at it.

And it all goes all Outlander at the end, so I’m itching to get my hands on the sequel! It’s also been made into a TV series this year, so I’m sure to be watching that too.