#Halloween #BookReview of ‘Starve Acre’ by Andrew Michael Hurley #netgalley @johnmurrays #andrewmichaelhurley #StarveAcre

What’s it all about?

The worst thing possible has happened. Richard and Juliette Willoughby’s son, Ewan, has died suddenly at the age of five. Starve Acre, their house by the moors, was to be full of life, but is now a haunted place.

Juliette, convinced Ewan still lives there in some form, seeks the help of the Beacons, a seemingly benevolent group of occultists. Richard, to try and keep the boy out of his mind, has turned his attention to the field opposite the house, where he patiently digs the barren dirt in search of a legendary oak tree.

Starve Acre is a devastating new novel by the author of the prize-winning bestseller The Loney. It is a novel about the way in which grief splits the world in two and how, in searching for hope, we can so easily unearth horror.

My thoughts:

I was falling over myself trying to get an ARC of Starve Acre, having loved The Loney so much that it makes my top ten every time I’m asked! I was beyond excited when I was accepted by the publisher. Thank you so much Netgalley and John Murray Press.

Starting with the sudden death of their five-year-old son, Ewan, Richard and Juliette are trying to cope with the aftermath. Juliette is unwilling to let go, and we soon suspect that there is more to this than mere grief. Her authoritarian sister, Harriet, arrives to try to prise Juliette from the house and back to her parents, but realises there is no chance until the Beacons, a seeming innocuous group of occultists have visited to impart some other-worldly knowledge upon the bereaved parents. Great characters, deliciously chilling folklore, adept capture of the divisive nature of grief, and perfect setting.

Dripping with menace, it plays on our darkest fears and intensifies the superstitious mindset of some British countryside folk. It’s gorgeous.

The story reminded me of Henry James and the best of MR James, and one Stephen King novel in particular *feels hair on arms rise. It’s brief; I read it in one sitting. It feels like I’ve been given a flash of something awful in the torchlight and now all I can do is think about it and let my imagination do the rest. This is also a BBC Radio 4 Book At Bedtime. Sleep well listeners….

Having experienced the worst nightmare of my adult life halfway through reading The Loney, I am pleased to confirm that Starve Acre is another masterpiece of modern folk horror. My only regret is that I read this on a sun lounger in Morocco and not cosied up in a chair, with a suitable autumn storm blowing wildly outside. I’m going to read it again in the dark when the weather turns. Stunning, Andrew Michael Hurley. I can still feel this one in my bones.

To snare yourself a copy:    Wordery

Amazon UK

 About the author:

Andrew Michael Hurley picture
Andrew Michael Hurley has lived in Manchester and London, and is now based in Lancashire. The Loney, his debut novel – was first published in October 2014 by Tartarus Press, a tiny independent publisher based in Yorkshire, as a 300-copy limited-edition. It won the Costa First Novel Award 2015 and went on to be named Debut of the Year and Overall Book of the Year at the British Book Industry Awards in May 2016.

‘Bird Box’ by Josh Malerman #bookbloggers #BirdBox #bookreview #amreading

There’s a lot of buzz about this book at the moment. I bought it a while ago, and it had been waiting patiently on my TBR pile. Then the Netflix film hit, and before I had the chance to read it, my husband had put it on TV. Slightly miffed that I hadn’t got to read it first, I gave in, because it just looked so good. I had also listened to the director, Susanne Bier, talking about it on Women’s hour on Radio 4 the previous week, and found what she said about it fascinating.

I loved the film, despite finding it stressful and frightening. Putting all else aside, I decided to read the book next.

The book is different, as you’d expect. Worse things happen. The film is faithful to the story, with obvious artistic license. When I had read it, I realised how well the casting had been done, for a start. Sandra Bullock has got the character of Malorie down to a tee. She is incredible in this role.

The book then, starts in the most recent period of the story, where Malorie is facing the awful decision to leave the house where she and her two very young children have been for over four years. They must do so blindfolded, and we are struck immediately by the bleakness of their situation and the peril in which she has to put them all to try to escape it. They must somehow negotiate a 20-mile trip down the river, relying only on their hearing in order to navigate it. They believe that someone can help them at the end of this journey, if they make it.

We move interchangeably from the time immediately prior to the collapse of society, where Malorie and her sister, Shannon, are living in a flat together, just starting to notice news reports of unexplained mass suicides in areas of Russia and Europe, to the time where Malorie lives with a group of survivors, and then the journey down the river alone with the children.

During the week where Malorie discovers she is pregnant, following a brief fling, the news that the suicides have come to the USA, and the rumour that it is something that people are seeing, creatures maybe, causing it, leads Shannon to put blankets over the windows and start to block out the outside world. There is no going back from this darkness throughout the vast majority of this novel. The sisters live like this for three months, eating everything they have in the house without leaving it, watching the breaking news which becomes increasingly despondent.

People flood to social media over everything now. I don’t think an apocalyptic event would stop that in the first days, but it doesn’t explicitly happen here. The author is a young guy; I don’t think he would ignore this without purpose, so I guess it was a choice to leave it out. It’s actually scarier without, somehow. As though the emerging situation was of such horror and fear, that people just couldn’t bear to talk about it between themselves. Malorie follows blogs, and reads theories online, but there is no mass hysteria in the way that social media would generate.

Then, the worst happens. Malorie finds her sister dead, and it’s horrific. The blanket had fallen a little from an upstairs window. There is no doubt that there is something outside, and that it’s causing rational people to lose their minds. I can honestly say that I don’t think there is a more chilling premise for a story out there. This situation must come close to the absolute worst thing you can think of. Josh Malerman’s mind is a dark and brilliant place.

Malorie has seen an advert for a place she can go, where other survivors are. Somehow, she drives there with her eyes mostly closed, seeing sinister movement in her peripheral vision. She then begins a prolonged and tense cohabitation with strangers who have survived. The owner of the house, who placed the advert is already dead.
If you have ever cohabitated with other adults before, it’s difficult. Personality clashes, falling out, the peacemakers, the confronters, positive outlook people, negative Noras.

The dynamics are altered here because of the situation; everyone has lost every other person close to them, but the undertones of cohabitation begin to come through, as there is no escape from each other. There is incredible pressure on resources. Malorie and Olympia are the two pregnant women in the house, each with their own huge anxieties about what will happen during and after the birth of their children in this terrifying, claustrophobic, blind world. Tom is the housemate (at the risk of going all Big Brother) who Malorie knows she can rely on, but he is the innovator, the solutions guy, who goes outside to try to find things to help them survive. On one journey, he finds some birds, who are put outside in a box as an alert system. The birdbox outside, resembles the birdbox inside, all trapped.

It turns Sylvia Plath’s bell jar of suicidal thoughts on its head; Malerman’s birdbox is the only prevention from it, although both are suffocating and claustrophobic.

I like how the author gets across the division between what are considered ‘old world fears’, like fear of the dark, fear of basements and attics, and the ‘old world’ problems. The new world is ONLY fear, and nothing else, apart from perhaps, the remotest glint of hope. This is not hope of defeating what’s out there. Malorie’s only desire is to get her children somewhere where they won’t starve, they can take off their blindfolds, and to let them have a taste of a childhood.

Disaster strikes the house eventually, and devastatingly, Malorie is left alone. She is resourceful and determined though, a meticulous planner.

One of the central themes of this novel is motherhood, and to what lengths Malorie forces herself for the children to survive. It’s impossible to fathom what it must be like to think or do the things Malorie does. It’s against instinct. The children are completely compliant with her and are unfailingly obedient. They have learned how to hear and identify sequences of up to forty of the minutest individual sounds. They are only called Boy and Girl, a reflection of Malorie’s reluctance to be attached to them, when she has lost everyone else. She has spent four years training them to make this journey.

If you can follow the journey down the river with Malorie and the children without suffering palpitations, I admire you. It’s just the worst thing. The capability and resilience that children can have in desperate situations is captured so poignantly. Josh Malerman’s ability to describe hearing without seeing in the most hostile world imaginable is terrific.

It is just a happy coincidence that they lived so close to the river in the first place! There are some questions, but I’m not sure they really matter. It’s a cracking book. If you’ve enjoyed the film, the book, I’m sure won’t disappoint you, and likewise, the film won’t let fans of the book down.

‘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!

‘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

‘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.