‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ by Jay Asher

My heart feels heavy. I believe I knew what to expect from Thirteen Reasons Why, and I think that it fulfilled all those expectations, in terms of both how it was written and of the content.

I had a primary reason for reading it, and for many parents, I suspect it’s the same. Is this appropriate reading matter for my young teens? I wouldn’t have bought it for them, in the same way that I wouldn’t have let them watch the Netflix series, however, a couple of years ago (when my daughter was only 11), she came home with a bundle of books she had borrowed, on a long-term basis, from her friend of the same age. She then, on her lift to school, had been talking about the books she had recently acquired with her friend in the car. I then got a call from her friend’s mum, who had taken her to school, to warn me not to let her read this one as, in her view, it was extremely harmful subject matter.

I then went to get the book, and removed it to the downstairs bookcases, and popped it behind some other books (all my shelves are double stacked – it isn’t an exaggeration to have named my blog thus) and waited to see if she would ask me about it, and she never has, up to press.

It has taken me over a year to get around to picking it up, and the (other) reason I did, was because my Facebook reading group (The Fiction Café – book club) has set several reading challenges for the year; the first of which, was to read a book about mental health. Thirteen Reasons Why was my choice for this, while it doubled up as the opportunity to see whether I felt that it was appropriate for my now 13-year-old daughter, or my 12-year-old son.

They have, since they were about 11, brought home from school, books which I was surprised that the librarian would let them borrow, as I considered them a few years too old for them. Then I thought that maybe, I was just being prudish or old-fashioned – surely, nooooo!! Generally, they loved and raced through the books they borrowed, and I kept my opinions to myself. After all, I hadn’t actually read them.

However, this is one that I am going to continue to hold back and there are reasons for this, for me personally. The first is that I don’t believe that it would be beneficial for their mental health. I have other books they can read. Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, and Notes on a Nervous Planet are far superior, I think. And I would let my children read them any time, because they are essentially hopeful and inspiring, whilst being completely honest about how emotions can hurt very badly.

Secondly, I had poor mental health as a teenager and into young adulthood. I won’t go into it, but I don’t think reading this would have worked well for me. I think it would have made me feel worse. I can’t be sure of course, as those days are (mostly) a long time ago and I could well just be thinking as ‘adult me’. If it had been there, I would have read it though, and so I’m glad it wasn’t.

Apologies, as I know this has read less like a book review than I would have liked. If the blurb interests you, read it, as you won’t be disappointed in the writing or the emotional way that the story progresses, and the ending is good. It flows well, and I had finished it in a day.

Particularly if you can see it less as a blame game inflicted on other people, and more as the internalised and flawed reasoning of a young person who has suffered the perfect storm of events and feelings that has led to her suicide, and this has been written as an externalised expression of it. Also, to view it as the reasons that we should be kinder to each other.

My view is, that there is only one character in this book who does dreadful things, and I’m not talking about Hannah Baker, so the other trigger warnings, beside suicide, are bullying, sexual harassment and rape.

Samaritans (UK), tel: 116123
SANEline (UK), tel: 0300 304 7000
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (USA), tel: 1-800-273-8255
‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ Matt Haig
‘Notes on a Nervous Planet’ Matt Haig

‘The Cruel Prince’ by Holly Black #TheCruelPrince #HollyBlack #bookreview #bookbloggers #amreading #lovereading

In ‘The Cruel Prince’, the first in The Folk of the Air series, Holly Black has created a Faerie land which is dangerous, vindictive, exploitative and violent. It’s a far cry from any of the Disney fairies. The only fairy dust you’ll find here will be being wiped away by an enslaved and ensorcelled human, who likely believes herself on her gap year in the Maldives.

It reads like a first-person historical fiction, rich on the fine detail of what it is to grow up in the Faerie court circle, with all the associated intrigues and deceptions. Faerie folk cannot lie; however, they can hide a great deal, and all seem to be playing the long game.
Our heroine and narrator, Jude Duarte has a twin sister, Taryn, and an older sister, Vivi.

Within the opening moments, their parents have been murdered and they are taken by their murderer to be brought up in his home in Faerie. The plot is thicker than that though.

Growing up in Faerie, Jude and Taryn are among the only free humans, and among their circle of peers at the high-born school, and in court, they are brutally victimised for their fragile mortality, in a world where everyone else in their sphere is considered strong, beautiful and immortal.

However, Jude has greater ambitions for herself. Using her acquired skill with weaponry, her intelligence and her ruthless, headstrong attitude, she navigates this threatening and dangerous world, and begins to forge a life for herself, from which she may never be able to return, and in which, she will never be safe if her wits fail her.

There are a few cruel princes here, but none crueller to Jude than Prince Cardan. He is dark and dangerous, but weak, arrogant and obsessive. This is an interesting dynamic for any potential romance, but when and how it will come, who knows? The author, probably.

I love how Jude and Taryn negotiate this environment in their own ways. It’s difficult to remember that they are twins somehow, because they are so very different. They are too young to remember their old normal lives and the incongruence between themselves and the Faerie folk is so well expressed in this novel.

“Of course I want to be like them. They’re beautiful as blades forged in some divine fire. They will live forever.

And Cardan is even more beautiful than the rest. I hate him more than all the others. I hate him so much that sometimes when I look at him, I can hardly breathe.”

Holly Black writes beautifully, the world is rich and vibrant, the characters are vivid and emotive. It is tense, clever and enchanting. I really loved it, and am in complete agreement with what Victoria Aveyard said: “I require book two immediately. Holly Black is the Faerie Queen”.

If you would like a copy, you can get one here:

‘The Retreat’ by Mark Edwards #TheRetreat @mredwards #lovebooks #amreading #bookbloggers #bookreview

I’ve devoured this book, as I simply couldn’t put it down. Now I feel like I’ve cheated myself because I would have liked to have made it last so much longer. It was excellent.

The blurb:

A missing child. A desperate mother. And a house full of secrets.

Two years ago, Julia lost her family in a tragic accident. Her husband drowned trying to save their daughter, Lily, in the river near their rural home. But the little girl’s body was never found—and Julia believes Lily is somehow still alive.

Alone and broke, Julia opens her house as a writers’ retreat. One of the first guests is Lucas, a horror novelist, who becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Lily. But within days of his arrival, the peace of the retreat is shattered by a series of eerie events.

When Lucas’s investigation leads him and Julia into the woods, they discover a dark secret—a secret that someone will do anything to protect…

What really happened that day by the river? Why was Lily never found? And who, or what, is haunting the retreat?

I chose The Retreat as my prize, after I won a book voucher from the lovely Facebook book club of which I am a member (The Fiction Café Book Club – if you love reading, writing, or both, join up. It’s the friendliest corner of the Internet). When I posted my choice of book, I was inundated with enthusiasm from fellow members, telling me how great it was.

So, I abandoned The Old Curiosity Shop (Dickens, you’ve never failed me before, but blimey, I got bogged down and fed up with this one), quickly read my Netgalley book as the deadline approached, and without further ado, opened The Retreat.

The book cover is wonderfully sinister, and by the time I had read the first page, I knew I was in the capable hands of someone who really knows how to write.

Our narrator is the horror writer, Lucas Radcliffe. He has written one successful book, and, suffering from writer’s block and a looming deadline for his next one, he books in to a writers’ retreat, near where he was born, in Wales.

The cottage is an old, cold, odd place, and is remote enough to give Lucas some confidence that this will be the ideal spot to work on his writing, despite the worrying development when he learns that the house is a ‘dry’ one. The other writers who are sharing the retreat are down at the pub at the time Lucas is meeting Julia Marsh, the owner of the house. The scene is being set at this point for a chilling tale, as there are some Bluebeard’s rooms in the cottage, which are creepily out of bounds. By the time, the other writers return, I had almost convinced myself that this was going to be like The Haunting of Hill House, and they were going to be supernaturally bumped off, one after the other. (Not a spoiler. Didn’t happen.)

Quick side note: One adjective which is woefully underused, although I hadn’t realised until I read this book, is ‘buttery’, particularly when not used to describe a knife which has been used to spread butter. The author uses it to describe the walls in the cottage, and this gave me a quick jolt of memory. I used to live in a 200-year-old cottage, with my boyfriend at the time. It was in the village where I grew up, and when I was a child, it had been the Post Office, where a very old lady used to shakily dispense our family allowance. When I moved in, as an adult, the walls were indeed buttery. Not only that, but I used to wake up in the night and smell pipe smoke in the bedroom. Things went bump, day and night, and there were the proverbial cold spots. I’m not a believer in ghosts or the supernatural, and so I assigned these things to rational sources. However, this adjective alone, made me think of all these experiences, and I admit, gave me a bit of a chill down my spine.

Lucas discovers, sort of accidentally, about the loss of Julia’s family. Once he plucks up the courage to ask her about it, he finds himself on a path to find out what happened.

Poking around in the past, though, doesn’t seem to suit the cottage, and the eerie occurrences start, and unsettle the residents.

The story is deliciously terrifying, but our narrator is rational, providing a great balance, and propelling the plot forwards, as one ominous discovery leads to another, and another. Grief, sadness and slow healing, are also handled beautifully.

Yesterday afternoon, I was totally absorbed in the story and had to break myself away from it to make the dinner and get the kids in bed etc. My husband also went to bed early, so I settled back down with The Retreat at about 9pm. At 11:30 pm, the room I was sitting in went cold, suddenly. The plot was at a point where I was a bit scared. I put the book down and went to bed. I didn’t run though. I didn’t.

Because, obviously, the heating went off an hour earlier, and it’s January, so naturally it got a bit cold. Yep.

So, the same thought woke me this morning as I had when I first went to bed. What really happened to little Lily Marsh?

We know from the outset that she didn’t drown as the police investigation concluded.

I’ll end this review with one of my favourite quotes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle;

“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

And to make a story as good as The Retreat, yet to make the above true, is an amazing skill and must be the result of meticulous planning.

It’s an absolute triumph, I loved it. I want to read it again, but I can’t! There is too much reading to do. I will however comfort myself with the fact that Mark Edwards has written many more. I can’t wait!

‘The Chestnut Man’ by Søren Sveistrup #TheChestnutMan #netgalley #ScandiNoir #bookreview #bookbloggers #2019books

Brilliant, compelling, unputdownable!

This Scandi-noir novel by The Killing writer Søren Sveistrup, and translated into English by Caroline Waight, concerns the Copenhagen police investigation into a series of cleverly orchestrated and gruesome murders, carried out by a killer who becomes known as The Chestnut Man, on account of the seemingly innocent children’s figures which are found close to each mutilated body.

Rosa Hartsung, the Danish Minister for Social Affairs returns to work, following a period of absence after the abduction of her daughter, Kristine. She is known to have been murdered, but her body has never been found.

As the investigation into The Chestnut Man begins, it appears that Rosa Hartsung’s return to office, and her responsibility for child welfare, may be linked to the killings.
Naia Thulin is a smart young detective assigned to the case as her last, before her coveted move to the cyber-crime unit. To her irritation, Mark Hess from Europol is also transferred to the case. The Hague do not appear to be in a hurry to have him return; he seems to have left under a cloud. The pair’s relationship in the first instance, is polarised, with both detectives’ focuses being on their long-term career objectives, neither of which is to remain in Homicide.

The development and complexity of the case, however, brings them together and they become an effective and close-knit pairing. Thulin follows procedure but is assertive, tech savvy and clever; Hess is more unorthodox and intuitive. They know they are playing a game of cat and mouse with the killer and as they try to break his hold over the game, the darker and more disturbing the story becomes, but are they still being manipulated?

Cleverly sidestepping the obvious, without being obtuse, is one of the major strengths of this story. I suspected, with due motive, almost every character apart from the actual perpetrator. Although I don’t always need it to be so, as a reader, it is really very satisfying when a story ties up every loose end, and this does, despite ending on an unsettling note.

Typical to this genre, which is one of my favourites, this Danish novel is dark and macabre, set in beautiful autumn, beset by driving, relentless rain and bitter snowfall as the seasons change. It provides the faultless atmospheric setting for the brutality and perversity of the most odious side of human nature.

There are some disturbing subjects, particularly concerning children, but they are pertinent to the central theme.

It is written in the present tense, mostly in present day, only occasionally taking us back to events in 1989. This allows a flowing visualisation of the story, and I would love to see this on screen. Fans of The Killing and The Bridge will, I think, love this book.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Penguin Michael Joseph for an ARC, in exchange for an honest and impartial review.

The Kindle and hardcover release date in the UK is 10th January 2019.

‘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.

‘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.

‘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.