‘After the first death, there is no other.’ – or is there?

Advantages of the Older Man by Gwyneth Lewis

seren_-_the_advantages_of_an_older_man

When this short novel popped through the door, I couldn’t resist reading it straight away. Gwyneth Lewis is a poet, author and playwright and I’ve previously read her volume in Seren Book’s New Tales of the Mabinogion series. The Meat Tree is a retelling of the strange and ancient story of Blodeuwedd, the woman made from flowers. Lewis’s version had a science fiction setting.

Her writings are very varied – so what could I expect from this new book?…

Now it can’t escape your notice that this new novella has the profile of Dylan Thomas lurking on the cover – indeed he looms large over the whole proceedings, so much so I dug around for an apt quotation to title this post and found his poem A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.  (You can read it here.) In this elegiac poem, written in 1946, the death of an unnamed child is seen as a parallel to that of the Unknown Soldier.

However, the last line of that poem, taken slightly out of context, fitted perfectly – for this is an extraordinary little ghost story told with humour and a lot of heart…

Jennie has finished university and is back at home living with her parents in Swansea. She applies for a job with The Dylan Thomas Gallery which only shares the poet’s name – in their house her mother goes ‘Pig of a man,’ every time his name is mentioned and she is aghast when Jenny gets the job – it turns out she knew him – but she won’t give any details. It is there she meets Peter, a poet and hoping he’ll ask her out, she helps him to start up an Open Mic Poetry Club despite not being a poetry fan. Peter doesn’t seem to notice her though, so when he and Bernard decide to hold a Dylan Thomas celebration, Jennie leaps into helping and gets into the spirit of Dylan…

… or rather he gets into her. All this attention has brought the ghost of Dylan Thomas back and he appears to Jennie in her bedroom – he says he had no choice but to come:

‘If you’re worried, your reputation is still good. You seem to get more famous by the year, not less.’
‘The thing about death is that it’s very hard to accept, even when you’re dead. Maybe especially then.’
‘Mind you, I think that people know more about your rackety life than read your poems.’
For the first time, the ghost appeared perturbed. ‘Don’t they study me in schools and universities?’
‘They do. But you’re know as one of the Three Thomases.’
‘There are others?’
‘Yes, Edward Thomas, and then RS. He lived into his eighties. He wrote a lot about God.’
‘Was he known for being drunk on language like me?’
‘No. A vicar. Clean-living. Liked ornithology.’
‘Is he better known than me?’
‘Nominated for the Nobel.’
‘Bugger.’
‘You were telling me why I’ve been graced with your presence.’

He tells Jenny he’s writing new poems, haiku, she could ‘find’ them and make him more famous again, in return he could help her to get Peter…

There’s a lot more to his return than that deal though and I’m not about to spoil the story for you. Jenny and Dylan will strike up a love-hate relationship – at one stage he’ll possess her leading to the priest being called, at other times they’ll happily walk on the beach together. One thing is certain – a life which includes Dylan Thomas, alive or dead, is always going to be interesting!

Although a comedy, this novel has some great moving moments and a couple of fantastic twists. (Yes! and all inside a mere one hundred pages). I loved it, and it would make an ideal stocking filler. (9/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
To buy or find out more visit:

Amazon or Seren Books directly (which may be cheaper for new copies for non-Amazon Prime members).

Short but not so sweet – The Galley Beggar Ghosts

I know it’s not quite December, but I am busy Christmas shopping – and between review posts for the next couple of weeks, I shall be recommending some books and bookish things that make ideal Christmas presents and stocking fillers. We’ll start with some stocking fillers…

 

Galley Beggar Ghosts

galley-beggar-ghosts-mulitpackThose lovely people at Galley Beggar Press in Norwich sent me one of their little series of single short stories all about ghosts, as a thank you for using their on-line shop earlier this year.

The four pocket-sized little paperbacks are beautifully produced with stiff card covers. They cost £3.50 each – available on-line or in good bookshops.  On-line, you can also buy the fourpack for £12. (+P&P)

There are four to choose from:
The Eyes by Edith Wharton
Honeysuckle Cottage by P.G.Wodehouse
The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson
Lost Journey by A.L.Barker

I got sent Lost Journey by A.L.Barker – an English novelist who was new to me, but apparently her novel John Brown’s Body was short-listed for the Booker prize in 1970; she died in 2002. She wrote many short story collections from the late 1940s through to the end of the twentieth century.

Having polished off and much enjoyed this creepy little number in bed this morning, I’d be very keen to read some more of her, especially after seeing this quote by Rebecca West:

“I am a fanatical admirer of A. L. Barker. If you cannot read her it is your fault. You should ask your vet to put you down if you do not admire The Middling or An Occasion for Embarrassment.”

Lost journey is about a young (one assumes) man who takes pity on a voluptuous young woman pushing a cart up the hill in which sits a legless (no legs, not drunk) old woman. Gerda claims to the cousin of Robert Dudley, lover of Elizabeth I, and she wants to die. With the help of Lalla and the narrator, the cruel old crone might be able to enact her plan…

GBP_Packaging_STICKERS_DU_LOSTGEN-500x345For more literary stocking fillers, see their sets of postcards – there are several designs to pick from and they come neatly packaged in a wallet. £3.50 per set of 6 (+P&P).

The postcards are what I bought loads of for my blog’s 6th birthday giveaway.

 

Although I received a free book from them, I have no connection with Galley Beggar Press other than previously having been a satisfied customer!

 

A clever parody or a triumph of style over substance?

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

Horrorstor_final_300dpi
A couple of weeks ago, I got inordinately excited when this book I’d ordered arrived.

For all its faults, IKEA is the booklover’s friend. Affordable shelving, in practical and/or posher versions, is what the bibliomane needs (I’m speaking as a 10x Billy owner here – I can construct those boys at speed!). I’m an IKEA fan – but only if I pick the right time, i.e. when the least number of people are likely to be there – say opening time on a Tuesday term-time morning. I can happily spend the morning browsing and filling my trolley to the brim with crocks, lamps, picture frames, throws, cushions, wine glasses and all the things those clever marketers put in my way in the circuitous you-must-see-everything route to the checkout.

The front cover of Horrorstör is stunning!  At first you don’t notice the faces in the pictures, or register that the title has the word ‘Horror’ in it – you just giggle at the umlaut and you want to get inside the book and see more of the IKEA parody. Horrorstör, like the giant it is parodying, is a clever piece of design – there are floormaps, furniture descriptions, order forms, and more. Each chapter is named after (complete with umlauts as needed), and preceded by an illustration, of a particular piece of furniture. My favourite was the Hügga office chair – available in Night Leather.

The novel starts well:

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It was dawn, and the zombies were stumbling through the parking lot, streaming towards the massive beige box at the far end. Later they’d be resurrected by megadoses of Starbucks, but for now they were the barely living dead. Their causes of death differed: hangovers, nightmares, strung out from epic online gaming sessions, circadian rhythms broken by late-night TV, children who couldn’t stop crying, neighbours partying until 4 a.m., broken hearts, unpaid bills, roads not taken, sick dogs, deployed daughters, ailing parents, midnight ice cream binges.
But every morning, five days a week (seven during the holidays), they dragged themselves here, to the one thing in their lives that never changed, the one thing they could count on come rain, or shine, or dead pets, or divorce: work.

And that’s just the employees. They work for Orsk – an IKEA-copycat furniture superstore, at the Cuyahoga, Ohio branch. There’s Amy, who’s too clever to be just a floor saleswoman but is stuck in a rut, Basil the deputy manager – a real jobsworth, Ruth-Anne a gentle soul who always thinks well of people, Trinity – a Goth who believes in the supernatural and her boyfriend Matt who doesn’t.

As the story opens, the staff have arrived to find that furniture has been moved and soiled – a Brooka sofa to be exact, not the first item to be vandalised in the past days. Basil, who knows that a management inspection is imminent, persuades (with the lure of double time) Amy and Ruth-Anne to stay in the store with him overnight to seek out the perpetrator and get rid of them – he suspects a tramp has got in somewhere. Trinity and Matt say it’s ghosts – the Orsk site has history apparently. Trinity has visions of moving on from Orsk to hosting her own TV show about haunting, and she and Matt sneak back into the store after work with detectors to look for the spectres.

That’s all I can tell you about the plot, suffice to say that – surprise! It’s not a tramp that’s trashing the store. It all gets nastier and nastier in the early hours of the morning. Will any of them get out alive?

As a ghost story, once we find out about what happened back in history, the plot was entirely predictable. We’ve all read that kind of horror story before, but I did really enjoy it. The author has taken a classic haunted house trope and relocated it in a commercial world where management-speak rules and work is the treadmill you get on every day. That extends to the customers too – as Matt explains: ‘Orsk is all about scripted disorientation. The store wants you to surrender to a programmed shopping experience.’

There are some genuinely creepy moments – this will make you shudder with recognition…

She took one last glance around the room and noticed that the sign on the wall had changed. Its message used to be “The hard work makes Orsk your family, and the hard work is free.” But the running water had worn away many of the letters. Now it simply read: “Work makes you free.”

There are other moments that will make you squirm with laughter and disgust – the thought that lazy parents will change an infant’s nappy on a display sofa and stuff it down the back rather than retrace their steps the half-mile to the toilets is the ickiest thing in the whole book! (sad but probably true too…)

So – was this book a clever parody or a triumph of style over substance? My answer is both! Every aspect of the design of this book is well done inside and out – even the sizing – no prizes for guessing whose catalogue it matches. The line drawings, fonts, all the little details are so well done and the design team get their credits on the inside back French flap. The substance of the plot may not be terribly original – a debt to Stephen King is in order, plus a nod to Mark Z Danielewski’s ground-breaking House of Leaves (I must re-read that!), but the sheer comedy in the spoofing of management goobledegook and rigid work practices is spot on and raises the text above an average ghost story.

Hendrix cleverly makes Orsk a cut-price IKEA, putting them on a pedestal in a ‘We’re not worthy’ way. While IKEA can’t officially approve of this book, I bet they love it as much, or even more, than I did. (9/10)

P.S. An ideal Christmas present for Billy bookcase fans…

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Horrorstorby Grady Hendrix. Pub October 2014 by Quirk Books. Softback, 256 pages.
House Of Leavesby Mark Z Danielewski

Reprint reviews at Shiny…

It has been lovely to contribute to the section of Shiny that Simon edits – Reprints in our August inbetweeny – and not just one article, but two!

BonfiglioliFirstly I’d like to highlight Don’t Point That Thing At Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli, the first in a series of cult classics from the 1970s reprinted this summer by Penguin – full review here.

The books feature Charlie Mortdecai – minor aristo, lover of wine, sex, art and having fun. Together with his manservant they have a sort of anti-Jeeves and Wooster relationship, and this book is very funny, very non-PC and is sort of Jeeves & Wooster crossed with Raffles and Lovejoy with a good dash of Ian Fleming thrown in. Loved it.

They’re making a film of one of the books out next year. The trailer is all over the internet. Please – read the books and ignore the film trailer – the film could be brilliant, but it will probably spoil the books for you!

aickmanNext – more cult classics reprinted from the 1960s onwards. I’d not heard of Robert Aickman and his ‘strange stories’ but loved the first two volumes of Faber reprints (with two more still to read).

See my review of them here. Aickman turned out to be a fascinating chap, so I compiled a Five Fascinating Facts article for the BookBuzz section too, see that here.

That’s my plugs for Shiny New Books done now.  I can promise you a book review or two very soon, meanwhile tomorrow evening I’m off to London for a Hesperus do to see Cilla and Rolf Borjlind, scriptwriters for the Swedish Wallander series and authors of a great thriller called Spring Tide.

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Source: Publishers – Thank you!

To explore titles mentioned further at Amazon UK, please click below:
Don’t point that thing at me: The First Charlie Mortdecai Novel (Mortdecai Trilogy 1) by Kyril Bonfiglioli, Penguin paperbacks.
Dark Entries and Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman, Faber paperbacks.
Spring Tide by Cilla and Rolf Borjlind, Hesperus paperback, March 2014.

 

A Trio of Short Reviews

I thought I’d sneak a couple of short book reviews into that week between Christmas and New Year.  Too bloated with turkey, booze and chocolate to concentrate on reading, I often find I’m scouring the web at this time for stuff to read and do!

The Last Kings of Sark by Rosa Rankin-Gee

last kings of sarkThis is the story of new graduate Jude, who is engaged to be a tutor during the summer to Pip, a sixteen year old boy and Sofi, a young Polish cook from Ealing. The action takes place initially on the island of Sark (one of the smaller Channel Islands between England and France).

It’s an odd household. Eddy, Pip’s father, is often absent, away on business. Esmé, Pip’s French mother, mostly stays upstairs and never appears to eat anything. Pip doesn’t want a tutor, but it is to prepare him for school on the mainland for the sixth form. Sofi, meanwhile is full of life, and not a very good cook!  When Eddy goes away on an extended trip, the three drop lessons and get a life. Needless to say summer doesn’t last forever and the trio have to part after an extended farewell. The last part of the novel looks back several years later at where the three of them are now, and how they wish they could rekindle that summer.

This was a beautifully crafted novel, but not enough happened in it for me. Narrated by the quieter Jude, Sofi dominates the story and her weird little flashes of insight can’t make up for her limited ambitions and love of partying. Pip is underdrawn, and I couldn’t bond with Jude either, and wanted to know why Esmé was so reclusive. This could have been brilliant, but was rather so-so for me. (6/10, review copy)

The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah

orphan choirThis was another novel I really wanted to love – Sophie Hannah turning her hand to a short horror novel in Hammer’s new imprint.

Set in and around Cambridge and Hannah’s invented Spilling, The Orphan Choir concerns Louise Beeston, a woman who is slowly being driven mad on all sides (we think): by her neighbour’s late night parties that always end with the same Queen song played at loud volume; by her husband who wants to get their expensive house sandblasted, which will mean covering the windows and living in the dark for weeks; by Dr Freeman, the choirmaster of the boarding school where her seven year old son is a chorister – Joseph has to board, and he is taking him away from her; and the voices of children singing! She finds escape, persuading her husband to buy them a second home in a gated community near Spilling, but after an idyllic start the voices start again. Is she going mad?

While I could understand Louise’s problems, especially with her son having to board at only seven years old, I didn’t like her at all. The first half of this quite short book went on for so long with the spat between Louise and her noisy neighbour, I got a bit fed up with it, then the second half rushed by, getting twistier and twistier in Hannah’s trademark style, and I reached the end thinking what just happened?  However, Hannah is always readable, and her twisty plots are something else – I look forward to her next horror outing, but this one missed being a hit for me. (6.5/10, own copy)

Dr Who: Last of the Gadarene by Mark Gatiss

bbc-book-50th-3I love all Mark Gatiss’ TV work, but I’ve not read one of his novels before. This Dr Who one, reissued as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations probably wasn’t the best place to start, I should have tried one of his Lucifer Box novels perhaps?

This novel features the third incarnation of Dr Who, as played by Jon Pertwee together with his assistant Jo Grant. The Dr was Earth-bound at this stage of Who-history and worked for UNIT, investigating supernatural phenomena.  Set in a disused RAF base in East Anglia, which is taken over by a secretive organisation. Local villagers go missing, only to return grinning inanely, having been taken over by the Gadarene who are invading Earth as their own planet is dying.

It may have had a classic plot, but there were quite a few boring bits in this novel, and the Doctor didn’t appear until over a quarter of the way in. I didn’t quite warm to Gatiss’ style of writing here either – a little overdone in places, and quite adverby. Basically though, I’m not a fan of the third doctor – his outfit, cape and yellow vintage car (Bessie) wasn’t my cup of tea, even if the Maggots (remember them?) scared me stiff (though not as much as the Yeti).  (6/10, own copy)

Sorry to end my book reviewing of the year with several books that didn’t quite make the grade for me – but you may think differently!

I will be back in a day or two with my BOOKS OF THE YEAR post.

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Last Kings of Sark by Rosa Rankin-Gee. Pub Virago Nov 2013. Hardback 288 pages.
The Orphan Choir (Hammer) by Sophie Hannah. Pub Hammer Oct 2013. Hardback 336 pages
Doctor Who: Last of the Gaderene: 50th Anniversary Edition (Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Collection) by Mark Gatiss, pub 2000, BBC paperback 320 pages.

A book of homecoming and letting go …

Like Bees to Honeyby Caroline Smailes

It was Juxtabook’s review of this book a couple of weeks ago, that made me pick this book up to read immediately, and she wasn’t wrong – this book is LOVELY!

It tells the story of Nina, a Maltese woman, whose rather traditional family disowned her when she got pregnant as a student in England. Marrying her baby’s father Matt didn’t help either. Some years on, she is drawn back to Malta, to see her family and ageing parents. Nina is depressed and grief-stricken and needs to lay her ghosts to rest, literally.

As Nina finds that Malta is both different and the same, we are treated to a tour of the island – all its best bits, as Nina sometimes feels like a tourist in the land of her birth.  Through some innovative touches the author brings the island to life, but also its culture and spiritual side for Malta is a place to heal.  Snatches of the Maltese language and their translations are wafted through the text, sometimes repeated, like bits of a favourite tune hummed in the background.

This is a book of strong emotions and equally strong contrasts – tradition vs modern liberal attitudes, homecoming vs letting go, and all through coloured by Nina’s battles with her depression.  If that makes the book sound rather dark – maybe it is in parts; however Nina is surrounded by people who care for her, and they’re not going to let her go down without a fight.  They bring some Mediterranean sunshine and much humour.

I’ve deliberately not told you much about the plot, because if you’re tempted to read this book, you should discover it for yourself. In the author’s safe pair of hands a story, that otherwise could have been overwrought or cloying, is instead a breath of fresh air, and you too will feel better for having read it.  (10/10)

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Like Bees to Honey by Caroline Smailes

On the side of the angels …

Ministry of Pandemonium by Chris Westwood

Teenager Ben Harvester likes to get away from it all by taking his sketchbook into Highgate Cemetery.  His Dad left his Mum several years ago, they’ve had to move into a new flat and Ben will be going to a new school.  Added to that, his Mum has to work all hours to make ends meet and she gets so tired.

One day he meets an old man in the cemetery and helps him with a drink of water. Mr October seems to know things about his family, and Ben will soon see him again at the funeral of his aunt, after which he keeps a lookout for him. They meet again back in London, where Mr October introduces him to the Ministry of Pandemonium.  The Ministry is an organisation dedicated to helping ghosts of the newly departed across into the afterlife, thereby saving them from getting into the clutches of dark forces with their monstrous minions.  Ben, a helpful sort, has been selected to join the Ministry – and so begins his new other life …

The fantasy elements of this novel contrast well with those of the struggles of everyday life, new house, new school, missing Dad and tired out Mum. Ben grows to relish his new skills, and even though the job requires empathy and calmness, he soon has to battle evil creatures who want the souls for their own devilish uses.  Indeed, some of the monsters are horrific enough to scare adults, let alone teens.  You know however, that the forces of good will ultimately prevail.

Ben is a different kind of hero – caring, observant, quiet and artistic. These qualities made this adventure into the supernatural a much better and definitely more interesting read than almost all of the other YA fantasies I’ve read in the past few years – and I have read a lot of them!  This novel will be enjoyed by teenaged boys and girls alike too which is a great advantage, and I found it a jolly good read. (8.5/10)

I chose this book to review from a list sent by Amazon Vine.

To buy from Amazon.co.uk click below:
Ministry of Pandemonium by Chris Westwood

Becoming human

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

This book has won the top awards for children’s fiction going – the US Newbery, the UK Carnegie, plus a Hugo for SF/Fantasy amongst many other awards and nominations. The Graveyard Book is Gaiman’s first full length novel for children since Coraline, (which I loved and reviewed here). Would it live up to my expectations and the hype, as it had been sitting on my bedside pile for long enough…?

The story of Nobody Owens, a boy whose family were all murdered one night in the first few pages of the book.   He was just a toddler then, but somehow evaded the killer by toddling into the adjacent graveyard, where a pair of kindly ghosts adopt him and give him his name. They bring him up with the help of the mysterious Silas who becomes his mentor – a rather vampirical character; all the other spectral inhabitants of the graveyard help out of course.  Young ‘Bod’, as they call him, gets a rather fantastical education from all of these phantoms, many of whom died centuries ago.  As he grows up he has many adventures in the graveyard with the ghosts, also venturing into some of the other portals within. As he nears adolescence though, he yearns to find out what lies outside – but the murderer is still looking for him.  Bod has to find the perfect balance and manage not to draw attention to himself, but he is a caring boy and when he stands up for a bullied child he puts himself in danger …

I’d defy older children and frankly anyone else not to enjoy this book.  The various adventures of Bod as he grows up read like short stories, with the linked background and threat of murder all the way through. Gaiman wrote with Kipling’s Jungle Book as inspiration for the tale of an orphan brought up by non-humans, and then puts his own macabre and spooky twists on the orphan’s tale.   The Graveyard itself has a ‘Highgate Cemetery’ feel to it with its old stones and its very own Egyptian Avenue – Highgate enthusiast Audrey Niffenegger took Gaiman on the tour.

What I liked about the graveyard was that during the daytime it is a haven, a tranquil place for reflection, yet one where you wouldn’t be surprised to find children happily playing among the headstones.  Step outside the consecrated ground into the big, bad world beyond though, and its powers and inhabitants can no longer help you. This is where one of the other great characters in the book was helpful – Liza Hempstock, a young witch who died in the ducking stool was buried outside, and has a wonderful devil may care attitude, but Bod befriends her and she comes to his aid.

Gaiman’s imagination is fantastic, and aided by Chris Riddell’s wonderfully quirky illustrations (I’m a huge fan of Riddell), this book leapt off the page.  Also published in a YA/adult crossover edition with illustrations by Dave McKean too.

The Graveyard Book is much less of a horror story than Coraline, this book is more of a coming of age tale, and has positively wistful moments too – I loved it. (9/10)

I bought this book (with the Riddell illustrations). For another recent review read what Simon S thought about it.

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To buy from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
The Graveyard Book
Coraline

A Gothic spine-chiller for kids & adults too!

The Dead of Winter by Chris Priestley

Priestley is an accomplished author and illustrator of children’s books, fiction and non-fiction. The past couple of years, he has specialised in horror stories for children. He’s written a series called Tales of Terror which have been well-received, (I know Scott Pack is a fan).

The cover of his latest novel is brilliant – what you can’t see is all the silver highlighting on the ice crystals.  Inside, The Dead of Winter is a Gothic spine-chiller that is absolutely classic in its scope.

The tale is recounted by the adult Michael Vyner – a boy who was orphaned when his mother dies, and is sent to live with his guardian in a large and creepy moated manor house in the East Anglian fens. His guardian is Sir Stephen Clarendon – a rich man whom Michael’s father had died protecting during the British Empire’s fighting in Afghanistan.  Clarendon had ever since looked after Michael’s family from afar.

Michael is not happy, but sets off towards Hawton Mere with Mr Jerwood, Sir Stephen’s lawyer. As they near the house Michael sees a distressed woman in a white shift on the side of the road, but when they stop the carriage she is nowhere to be seen. They arrive at the house and Michael waits in the hall …

There was a huge mirror there, with a gold frame. The frame gilt was missing here and there and the mirror pockmarked about the outer edges. It was rather like gazing into a frozen pool.
‘I was terrified of that mirror as a child,’ said a voice behind me.
I turned to see a tall, thin man. He was dressed all in black and was silhouetted against the candlelight. The effect was so strange that I stepped back, more than a little afraid. a huge wolfhound edged forward, head down, growling.
‘Clarence,’ said the man, as though to a child. ‘Is that any way to greet a visitor?’
But, alarming though the wolfhound was, I saw very quickly that it was not me he was growling at, but the mirror behind me.
‘I am your guardian, Michael,’ said the man, holding out a hand. ‘Sir Stephen Clarendon. I am very pleased to meet you.’
As he said these words he stepped into the light and I had my first glimpse of the man I had heard so much about and in whose hands my fate now rested.

Michael’s sense of unease is not allayed on meeting Sir Stephen and his sister Charlotte. Sir Stephen is clearly rather mad. and the house is huge, dark and full of secrets.  As the tale goes on, more and more creepy events occur as Michael begins to find out some of the history.  I’m not going to tell any more, as that would spoil things, but Priestley ups the tension all the time until the big climax where all becomes clear.

If I had read this book on my own as a child, it would have creeped me out (as they say nowadays).  As an adult, I really enjoyed it, and I can imagine it being a fantastic book to read out loud to brave older children, and it would make a good Christmas present for those of a strong disposition. Priestley seems to have found a niche as the Susan Hill equivalent for older kids and I’d like to read the Tales of Terror too. (8.5/10)
I bought this book.  Pub Bloomsbury Oct 2010, Hdbk 218 pages, £10.99

To buy these books from Amazon, click below:
The Dead of Winter
Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror – the first in the Tales of Terror series

Twins & Ghosts – a complex combination

 Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

There was an awful lot written about this book around the time of its publication last year.  I generally prefer to miss all the hullaballoo, to let things settle down for a bit and read books at the time of my choosing. This autumn, I decided to include it in my Season of the living dead as it is a ghostly tale. This turns out to be timely as the paperback has recently been released.  By the way, I think the hardback cover (left) is far more atmospheric than the fluffier paperback one (right).

The novel centres around the occupants of a large house converted into flats adjoining Highgate Cemetery.  It also involves two pairs of identical twins. Elspeth and Edie are estranged, and Elspeth actually dies in hospital in the first sentence of the book …

Elspeth died while Robert was standing in front of a vending machine watching tea shoot into a small plastic cup.

But Elspeth lives on as a ghost, haunting her flat, missing her lover Robert who lives in one of the other apartments. Elspeth had made a rather strange will, she left nearly all of her posessions and flat to Edie’s twin daughters, Julia and Valentina, if they live in it for a year, and that their parents must never set foot inside.  Julia and Valentina are just 21, and the idea of moving to London from the US is irresistible.  Elspeth gradually gets stronger as a ghost, and finds ways to communicate with Robert and the twins, in particular she clicks with Valentina who is sickly as a result of being the weaker baby and a mirror image twin.  Also living in the house are Martin and Marijke. They are very much in love, but Martin suffers from such severe OCD, and Marijke will soon flee back to Amsterdam, until he sorts himself out. 

The other star of this novel is Highgate Cemetery; Robert is a volunteer guide and is writing a book about its inhabitants. We are left in no doubt that the author knows the area well – much has been made of her training to become a guide at Highgate herself as research.  As cemeteries go, it is up there with Père Lachaise in Paris for the quantity of its celebrated graves, and we do read a lot about the place and how it is operated.

Highgate Cemetery, Egyptian Avenue. Photo by Roger Noguera Arnau

So that’s the set-up from which Niffenegger crafts her thrilling tale, which gets more and more complex as the chapters speed by ending with rather a rush – but it is full of thrills, both pleasant and rather nasty with some just desserts meted out. It is really Robert and Elspeth’s novel. The twins are almost like a ‘MacGuffin’ – there to drive the plot. Martin who is a superb character, despite his own problems provides the sanity that gives a welcome relief to the problems all the others have in communicating with a ghost. I really didn’t work out what was going to happen in the end either, that took me completely by surprise.

Overall, I found it lacked the emotional impact that made The Time Travellers Wife such a wonderful read. That was a book that made me cry – twice! Her Fearful Symmetry is engaging and original and I really enjoyed reading it. (7.5/10)

I see that Niffenegger has now published her first graphic novel set in a library, The Night Bookmobile – it sounds exciting too and that’s gone on my wishlist.

For some other reviews, visit Vulpes Libris, Savidge Reads, and Farm Lane Books.

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To buy from Amazon.co.uk click below:
Her Fearful Symmetry
The Time Traveler’s WifeThe Night Bookmobile