‘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!

 

 

 

‘The Woman in Black’ by Susan Hill

 

The Woman in Black

I’ve seen the stage version of The Woman in Black twice, both times at The Theatre on the Lake in Keswick. The first time was as a young woman, and I came out of the auditorium creeped out, but had enjoyed it immensely. The second time, older, and after I’d had children, I emerged gripped with terror and wondering what had possessed me to go again! I couldn’t face the film.

And now, like an idiot, I’ve gone and read the book.

But maybe, it’s the irresistible pull of the haunted house tale. Like any decent haunted house, however repulsive and forbidding, it malevolently draws its victims in, like moths to a flame. And as with crime, there is no such thing as a victimless horror story.

On the front cover of my copy, which is very beautiful (sinister, but lovely), it states, “The Classic English Ghost Story”, and it is. It’s short; it can easily be read in one sitting. Rather foolishly though, I started this at bedtime, on my own. My husband was still faffing around downstairs, and I realised after the first chapter, that I needed to put it down and finish it during the day. The closed book then seemed to throb ominously on my bedside table, but in fairness, I may have got myself slightly overwrought with anticipation.

So, I’ve finished it today. It’s really an excellent ghost story with a heart-freezing climax. I know this is a book which is studied in schools now and so I’m not going to try to be clever or go into an in-depth analysis, as:

a) It’s unlikely I’d be able to

b) It’s already been done a few hundred thousand times

But for those who haven’t already read it, the premise of the story is this:

In a fictional town in the north-east of England called Crythin Gifford, an old lady, Mrs. Alice Drablow, has died intestate. A firm of London solicitors has been appointed to sift through her personal effects at her home, the aptly named Eel Marsh House. The firm appoints a young solicitor, Arthur Kipps, who is our protagonist. Arthur is keen to further his situation at the firm in order that he may provide well for his life with Stella, his fiancée, and he embarks on the long train journey so that he may firstly attend Mrs. Drablow’s funeral and then get on with the task at hand.

Beyond this, it’s every reader for themselves. It’s so frightening!

Almost every moment of this story is either ominous or terrifying, although we do get the odd minute of reprieve, just to allow the crescendo of tension to build back up.

There is a nauseating sense of isolation, decay and abandonment. The past cannot be changed, nor escaped; time cannot heal.

If you’re looking for a chilling tale to start off the season’s reading, I can’t think of a finer place to start. I am writing this in the cold light of day though. I still have to sleep tonight. Having said that, I’ve somehow managed to book us on a candlelit late night tour of our local ‘haunted’ stately home and bought tickets for a show called ‘Shivers’, all within the next few weeks.

I’m sure my brain must be a bit loose…..

 

 

 

Paperback, 200 pages
Published 2016 by Vintage (first published October 10th 1983)
Original Title
The Woman in Black
Edition Language
English
Series
The Woman in Black #1

‘Rotherweird’ by Andrew Caldecott

Rotherweird CoverWeird science, weird history, weird regulations, weird disappearances, weird murder and some very odd behaviour… Welcome to Rotherweird. I loved this book, what a joy!

A tricky one to review though, as I don’t want to risk spoiling it for anyone and it would be very easily done. I can probably just about get away with the following synopsis:

Rotherweird, in the 1500s, becomes home to twelve exceptionally gifted children, who are seen as such a threat to the Tudor monarchy, that they become secretly isolated. Then, their education begins in earnest.

Fast forward… Rotherweird in the 21st century remains an anomaly. It’s self governing, isn’t on any map and even if you found yourself at the top of Rotherweird Valley, the town itself wouldn’t be visible below.

Guidebooks describe the Rotherweird community as secretive and hostile. If you are defined as an ‘Outsider’, it means they don’t trust you and you aren’t allowed in. Unless there are exceptional circumstances. Should you live in the Rotherweird Valley, but not in the town, you are a ‘Countrysider’; thereby, not only being a bit of a bumpkin, but not to be trusted: you can be let inside the town walls if you’re useful, although not for very long. So there.

Sir Veronal Slickstone (an Outsider), for sinister reasons of his own, hires a prima-donna method actress and a young man who has, up to press, lived the veritable life of a shifty, petty street criminal. Then, forthwith, after some minor preparations, they all get into a big black luxury car and head out, off grid, into Rotherweird. And they’ve been invited. And so has a hapless history teacher called Jonah Oblong, who has been called to interview for a position at Rotherweird School. But he has to find his way there using his wits alone…

(Remember the scene in ‘Salem’s Lot, where the really bad guy turns up in a big black luxury car, and it transpires he’s arrived to take up residence in the boarded up, run down mansion, notorious with the locals? Well, it’s a bit like that.)

So, on to the things I loved about this book, and there are many. It’s very well written, unsurprising considering the author, finely balanced between comedy, adventure, fantasy and tragedy, with a touch of the gothic to it. I would genuinely struggle to assign a genre. It’s a fascinating, intriguing, unfurling macabre story, with well-named, multi-faceted characters, whose motives are difficult to fathom until the moment the author wants you to. The plot thickens all the time; I never lost interest. I did once or twice think I’d been pretty clever in working out some twists and turns, but actually the author leads you there, revealing bit by bit, quite intentionally.

I’d like to just interrupt myself here, and take a minute to pay tribute to the illustrator. She is called Sasha Laika, and she studied figurative art in Moscow. I fervently hope that the process by which she created the artwork in this book was through Andrew Caldecott providing the title of the drawing and then letting her design her wonderful illustrations to it. For example, my favourite one is entitled, ‘Oblong at the Oak: That’s the Twelve-Mile post, that’s the Rotherweird Valley, and you owe me six quid’.
They are fantastic and, even if you are a book Puritan, you may actually be a bit tempted to sharpen your coloured pencils and make a start on the front cover.

If you enjoyed Peake’s Gormenghast, I think you’ll find yourself at home here in Rotherweird. I dare say a Pratchett fan or two will find something to enjoy here too. I don’t think there are any particular age restrictions in terms of inappropriate material. Probably 11 + though, more from a comprehension standpoint than anything else. I mean, I’m 40 and I had to google some things. Ha. For anyone giving it a go, I honestly hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I have.

This reader will be figuratively placing her feet on the nearest decorative black or white tile in range, and enthusiastically tumbling down the weasel hole to land in Wyntertide, for the next installment.

 

Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott, illustrated by Sasha Laika

Published:  Published June 16th 2017 by Jo Fletcher Books (first published May 18th 2017) 
Original Title: Rotherweird
Edition Language: English
Series: Rotherweird #1