Category: ghosts

Review: ‘As I Descended’ by Robin Talley

Review: ‘As I Descended’ by Robin Talley

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Maria Lyon and Lily Boiten are their school’s ultimate power couple—even if no one knows it but them. Only one thing stands between them and their perfect future: campus superstar Delilah Dufrey.

Maria and Lily will stop at nothing to ensure their victory—including harnessing the dark power long rumored to be present on the former plantation that houses their school. But when feuds turn to fatalities, and madness begins to blur the distinction between what’s real and what is imagined, the girls must decide where they draw the line.

This was the first book that I finished in 2018 but I didn’t want to review it first because I thought that starting my reviewing off by grumbling would set a bit of a gloomy tone! Because disappointingly, grumble I will.

I was really excited about reading As I Descended. I saw it mentioned in a Book Riot article about YA hallowe’en reads and it sounded like just what I fancied at the time – something pacy and sinister. A little while later (after my library reservation had come in and it was stowed safely on my ‘To Read Soon’ pile at home), I discovered that it was a retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (one of my favourite Shakespeare plays) and I picked it up almost immediately.

To begin with, I enjoyed it. The novel is set in a school built in the grounds of an old plantation and the dark and violent history of the site is the perfect backdrop for a ghost story. It opens strongly, with Maria, Lily and Brandon using a ouija board, releasing malevolent spirits in tense scenes that played on the history of the school and really had me hooked. Maria’s hyspanic heritage, the ghost stories she was told as a child and the use of Spanish really add a different feel to the novel and it has a lot of promise.

As events escalated, I sadly became increasingly disengaged. Almost all of the characters come from rich and privileged backgrounds (and that’s not me making me assumptions, we’re actually told), which makes it feel a bit ridiculous that central events revolve around a competition with the prize of a scholarship to the college of their choice. It’s acknowledged more than once that most of the students could go wherever they wanted without the prize so I couldn’t believe that Maria and Lily would drive each other to the lengths that they do all for something that they could have had anyway. Delilah, their nemesis, is also a bit of a caricature of a prima donna teenager (twirling lipgloss and sharp tongue and all) and it’s frustrating. By the end, I pretty much hated all of the central characters and didn’t care what happened to them anyway. I sometimes think that it’s a little bit churlish to intentionally read YA and then complain about the characters being too childish but that’s precisely what I’m going to do! I don’t mind a degree of immaturity but the characters in this are so bloody whiny. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m older than the natural target market but I can’t be persuaded to think that not having the bestest of the best grades is worth killing for.

The subtlety of Macbeth and the main characters’ genuine struggles with guilt and their pain over the loss of control over the events they have set in motion is missing and everything just gets…well, silly if I’m honest. And there are far too many dream sequences! I lost count of the amount of characters relaying dreams of veiled women and horrors from their past. They became eye-rolling-inducingly frequent and I skim read a lot of them.

Ok, last thing, I promise – I just need to get some of this off my chest, unpopular though it might prove. I also struggled with the balance of characters. I obviously appreciate and want diversity in the books I read. I want to read about characters with backgrounds and cultures that are different to mine. What I don’t want is to feel as though an author is forcing diversity in. Of the 8 or so main characters, 5 are LGBT, 3 are people of colour and one is disabled (some have more than one!). In a novel of about 350 pages, it feels a bit much and almost as though the novel is trying too hard to fulfil some unwritten criteria (particularly when the characters don’t feel too distinct).

Overall: If you whip through this in a session or two and don’t pay too much attention, it’s not unentertaining and there are elements of it that are fun so you’ll stand a fair chance of enjoying it. Perhaps if you’re also a little more patient with teenagers being obviously teenage. All in all, though, let’s just say this wasn’t the novel for me. There’s real potential with some of the ghosts and history but it all ended up falling flat. Well, actually I suppose it falls the opposite of flat and spirals into bonkers melodrama but you know what I mean…

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Pictured Edition published by Mira INK in May 2014

Date finished: 04 January 2018

Source: Library

Review: ‘The Mistletoe Bride and Other Haunting Tales’ by Kate Mosse

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

A wonderfully atmospheric collection of stories from one of our most captivating writers, inspired by ghost stories, traditional folk tales and country legends from England and France. These tales are richly populated by spirits and ghosts seeking revenge; by grief-stricken women and haunted men coming to terms with their destiny – all rooted deep in the elemental landscapes of Sussex, Brittany and the Languedoc.

Review


“I hear someone coming. 

It has happened before. I pause and listen but no longer hear anything. I sigh. As always, hope is snatched away before it can take root. And so then, as always, I am carried back to that first December so very long ago…” [The Mistletoe Bride]

I don’t read a lot of short story collections.  I don’t even remember the last time that I picked one up without it being required reading for some course or other.  I grabbed this particular collection last year before Christmas alongside Mystery in White by Jefferson J. Farjeon, mainly because I’ve read a few books by Kate Mosse and have always enjoyed them, particularly her Languedoc trilogy.  To be honest, it was half price with Mystery in White and I don’t even know if I was convinced when I bought it that I’d get round to reading it within the year(ish).  I dug it out this winter and even then only started it because it was in the living room when I wanted something to read and my other book was somewhere else in the house.  Lazy but true.  I figured I could read a story or two without ‘spoiling’ my focus on my other book (I’m usually a monogamous reader).  I read the opening story, The Mistletoe Bride, and absolutely loved it.  Haunting and sad and evocative.  I hurriedly finished up my other book and set upon giving these stories my full attention.

I know that it’s a phrase that’s bandied about with probably too much regularity but the writing in The Mistletoe Bride and Other Haunting Tales (which I’m going to just call The Mistletoe Bride) really is poetic.  The stories are all pretty short (most are between ten and about 30 pages) but the writing is rich and spellbinding, making them feel longer and more indulgent.  I really took my time reading them, going back over the story in a couple of cases to nose out finer details that I’d missed on the first reading but that seemed glaringly obvious when I’d read the ending.

My wariness about reading short stories is that I usually just find them less satisfying than a full novel, feeling as though the ideas aren’t fleshed out enough or that I don’t spend enough time with a character to really care about them.  That absolutely wasn’t the case with this collection.  I was astounded by how much Mosse has packed each tale.  Although the style of the writing is constant in a lot of ways, each story has a distinct tone and atmosphere (perhaps because this is a compilation of stories rather than a collection all written at the same time).  The Revenant is set in Sussex 1955 and somehow it just feels…right and completely different to The Drowned Village, say, that is set in Brittany in 1912.  I even found myself engaging with characters over a short space of time.  The last story in the collection, Ghost of Christmas Past is a mere 7 pages long and I welled up as I was reading the last page.

The Mistletoe Bride.
Find more here

What I particularly like about the way this collection has been put together is that each story starts with an illustration panel that perfectly set the scene and concludes with an ‘Author’s Notes’ section, giving some background on where Mosse got the inspiration for the story or what she was trying to evoke.  The titular story, The Mistletoe Bride, for example, starts with the eerie image on the right and finishes up with a note detailing how Mosse was inspired to write the poignant story by a version that she had read as a child in a book of folklore owned by her parents.  Some are inspired by beautiful historic buildings that she has visited or places that intrigued her as a child.  Even if you aren’t at all interested in the background to the stories, the notes are pretty handy pointers of where to look if you want to read more about the featured folklore or myth.  

If I had one (very minor) criticism, it would be that the ghostly thread linking the stories can make them feel a little predictable if you read too many all in one go.  I found that up to three at a time was about the right dose. For the most part, these are ghost stories and chain reading just made me feel like I was playing a game of ‘Spot the Ghost’.  Niggle aside, these really are perfect for spreading over a few frosty nights where you don’t mind the occasional chill up the spine.

Overall:  A beautiful collection with stunning writing that I would recommend to fans of historical fiction or ghost stories or myths or folklore.  If you don’t normally read short stories, this collection is still absolutely worth giving a go.  There weren’t any stories that I didn’t like and while I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to call myself a short story convert, these have convinced me to give collections a go when they’re written by an author I trust.
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Date finished: 29 December 2015
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Bought
Genre: Fiction; Short Story Collection
Pictured Edition Published:  in October 2014 by Orion Books

Book Club Chatter #3: ’20th Century Ghosts’ by Joe Hill

I was excited about this month’s book club.  I missed the meeting for An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth because I didn’t manage to buy the book in time, never mind read it.  I wasn’t devastated because I wasn’t overly excited about it but I’m still yet to really branch out with the books that I do pick up for book club.  I think that actually it’s partly that every month is a bit much for me – I’m only managing to read a book a week at the moment and I’m reluctant to have a quarter of the books that I read be picked by my book club…
June’s pick:  20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

I was quite excited about this one.  We picked it a few months ago because one of the members had been given it as a gift and it was something different to the other books that we’d read.  There were a few Stephen King fans in the group and the introduction made it sound as though the stories would have a literary edge to entertain those less keen on the gory side of things (yep, ME!).
The verdict wasn’t good.
Out of the 9 people that turned up (me included), only 3 people had read all of the stories all of the way through.  Nobody went so far as to say that they’d enjoyed all (or even most) of what they had read.  The lady who had suggested it actually apologised to everybody for bringing the book into our lives.  3 utterly despised it and refused to read more than a couple of stories (although one of them has quite sensitive taste and has previously complained about ‘bad language’ in books…).  The remaining 3 (me included) had read a good amount of the stories and were sort of ok about some but underwhelmed and disappointed overall.
I think the main problem was that Hill’s short stories are either extremely disturbing (the first story in particular is awful and features eye gouging, rape and mutilation) or plain weird.  Like I said at the ‘meeting’, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was constantly missing something.  There was one story that I really liked (Pop Art) about a boy with an inflatable friend, a sort of balloon boy that bobs along and attends school but who can’t talk and instead writes notes to express himself.  I got that it was in part about vulnerability and about the fragility of life but I’m sure there were plenty of ideas that bypassed me entirely. I hope that I was missing something, actually, because otherwise most of the stories are just bizarre.  
I’ve actually never been a huge fan of short stories and this collection wasn’t the one to change that view.  Of the stories that I finished, I found that there were a couple that I wanted to be developed more (like the haunting tale of a ghost in an ageing cinema) and some that just felt like Hill had woken up from a bad dream, scribbled it down and thrown it into the collection (like the story of a man that wakes up half locust and goes a-rampaging).  There weren’t any that felt like they encapsulated a single idea or image so perfectly that a short story was just enough.
One man’s feeling was that it felt like the work of an undeveloped writer.  The beginnings of most of the stories are solid.  A few fade away, a few go off on a weird tangent but a few do start to build into something that could be great with a little more refinement.  I think that maybe I agree.  I did say that I’d recently read NOS4R2 and really loved it so there was more to Hill than this collection – I genuinely think that his skills are far better shown off in longer stories where he can play on readers’ uncertainty over his characters to far greater effect.  With a full novel, you know that Hill is playing with you and that nothing is quite as it seems because you’re shown enough to know that it isn’t sloppy story telling but a web that he’s weaving.  His short stories didn’t give me (or any of my fellow book clubbers) that impression.  They just feel like he’s had the start of some ideas, the beginnings of a whole host of NOS4R2s, but never quite worked them all way through.  
Part of this could also be the fact that none of us seemed to want to be scared just for the sake of it.  I’ll read scary books (it turns out) but only where there’s more to them than just the chills.  I don’t want to read simple stories designed to terrify with the least amount of words possible or peek at snapshots of horrifying images.  I want grey areas and doubt.  Horror that creeps up on me in a dignified manner or lures me in gradually and artfully.  I don’t want it shouting in my face.  If you prefer/can tolerate the shouting, 20th Century Ghosts could be more for you.
Oh, one last thing!  Interestingly, one person’s complaint was that Joe Hill was over-rated and that the only reason he was published was because he was trading on his father’s name.  It surprised me because I’ve always thought exactly the opposite.  His work could be splattered with quotes from Stephen King raving about how great his son’s books are and he could use the name ‘King’.  He doesn’t.  Those arguments fell on deaf ears, because apparently it’s Hill’s fault that people just know who his father is…you can’t win ’em all, I guess.
July’s pick:  The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

I’m really looking forward to this one.  Station Eleven and The Martian were both in the mix but The House of Silk was picked as the safest bit to pick everyone up after the Joe Hill disappointment.  Anybody have any views?  Please tell me that I’m not going to get let down again!

Review: ‘The Ghost Hunters’ by Neil Spring

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Welcome to Borley Rectory, the most haunted house in England.  The year is 1926 and Sarah Grey has landed herself an unlikely new job – personal assistant to Harry Price, London’s most infamous ghost hunter. Equal parts brilliant and charming, neurotic and manipulative, Harry has devoted his life to exposing the truth behind England’s many ‘false hauntings’, and never has he left a case unsolved, nor a fraud unexposed.

So when Harry and Sarah are invited to Borley Rectory – a house so haunted that objects frequently fly through the air unbidden, and locals avoid the grounds for fear of facing the spectral nun that walks there – they’re sure that this case will be just like any other. But when night falls and still no artifice can be found, the ghost hunters are forced to confront an uncomfortable possibility: the ghost of Borley Rectory may be real. And, if so, they’re about to make its most intimate acquaintance.

Review

I got a really bad craving to read this book during December and picked it up as soon as I’d read A Tale of Two Cities and a little bit of light relief. I was looking forward to spending a few evenings in the company of an intrepid ghost hunter and his plucky assistant and chasing down some spooks. I did get that after a fashion but in the end, I came away from The Ghost Hunters feeling a little bit disappointed.  

I think that part of the reason why I felt a bit let down was that the story was billed as a terrifying account of the “most haunted house in England”, Borley Rectory. Although Borley Rectory and its spooky goings on obviously are a focus, they aren’t really the main focus.  Rather, The Ghost Hunters is a partially-fictional version of the life and work of Harry Price, “one of the most controversial and famous psychic researchers and authors in the history of spiritualist studies” according to this website.  It’s clear that an awful lot of work has gone into putting this book together and as historical fiction, it really is an impressive mixture of fiction and fact (including samples from real letters and quotes from people such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).  But as a thriller?  There’s just something missing and I found that I was left wanting to know more about the history of the Rectory and its ghostly inhabitants.  

The first two thirds or so of the novel are full of foreshadowing.  I actually like a bit of foreshadowing because I like to know what I have to look forward to but there was too much even for me.  In the first chapter of the main narrative, Sarah says, “Only now, with fear in my heart, do I properly understand what he meant.  For now I know what it means to feel the pain of regret, and to wish it gone”.  It got to the point where it felt almost as though she was saying something similar every time an apparently key decision was taken.  There being so much of the “If I’d known then the terror that awaited me…” and “Would I have done the same if I’d known…” type comments made me feel as though what I was reading was the preface to the main event, rather than something that I could just get on and enjoy for what it was.

As the narrator, I found Sarah Grey a bit of an enigma but I liked that there was clearly something that she was holding back.  I’m becoming more than a bit of a fan of the unreliable story-teller, it seems. On the one hand, she’s out pursuing an unorthodox career, supporting her mother and herself financially and running her home, and doesn’t appear to think twice before jumping in to investigate strange goings on that have everybody else running scared. On the other, she continues to tolerate appalling rudeness from her mysterious employer without so much as a peep for quite large portions of the novel.  Her behaviour is explained in the final few chapters so I won’t go into too much detail but the secrets and deception that are a key theme of the book make for some curious reading.

As is often the case with historical fiction “based on real events”, I found the Author’s Note at the end to be one of the most interesting bits. Far more of the characters and their back stories were drawn from actual people than I’d guessed and I do have a morbid interest in reading about people’s accounts of their experiences with the Other Side, considering that I’m actually quite the sceptic when it comes to the paranormal in real life. It certainly added something to the feeling of unease that I was left with after finishing the book late on Thursday night with the wind and rain pelting my windows and meant that I did close it with a bit of a shudder.

I do also have one small criticism of the format that is almost certainly just me being picky but it did bug me a couple of times so I’m still going to mention it. The story is peppered with footnotes that fill in the background on some of the slightly more obscure phenomena that are being discussed and cite where real newspaper articles or excerpts from Harry Price’s books are used, which are fascinating. The footnotes, however, are at the end of the chapters as opposed to at the bottom of the page. Perfectly valid I’m sure but because I like to read the footnotes at the time they’re mentioned, it meant that I had to find and flick to the end of the relevant chapter just to read the footnote and then go back to the story. A minor thing but it did disrupt my reading more than a few times.

It sounds as though I hated The Ghost Hunters.  I really didn’t.  The first third or so was great, the middle third dragged and seemed to go round in circles but the final third returned to the earlier strong form. I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up another book by Neil Spring in the future because there was a lot that I really did enjoy about his writing.  This is a book that is worth reading but it isn’t the white knuckle ride of terror that the cover suggests it is.

Overall: At times chilling and nail-biting, this is a ghost story for fans of historical fiction with a little more time to invest in getting their ghoulish rocks off. The story takes a while to build up but when it does, it’s definitely worth your time. If you can get through the middle couple of hundred pages, you’ll be rewarded in the end.

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Date finished: 02 January 2014
Format: Paperback
Genre: Historical fiction; Ghost story
Pictured Edition Published: by Quercus Books in October 2013

Wondering what to read next? There’s a GUIDE for that!

Like any sensible British reader, I have a Waterstones card.  Books = points = more books. I can’t remember how I found it but it turns out that there’s a section on Waterstones’ website here dedicated to everything good and bookish including some handy hints about where to go when you’ve read something you love and want something similar or only have an inkling of what you fancy reading.  I can’t say that they’re all super accurate, because in a lot of the cases, if I’ve read the lead book, I haven’t read any of the recommendations or vice versa.  The ones where I have read more than one of the featured books, though, are pretty good…


Let’s start with what I know: EPIC FANTASY

I may not always read it (those books are HEAVY!) but when I do find a humongous series to really get into, I feel a little bit like I’ve come home.  The longer, more complicated, more politically mangled and more convoluted the better. I wish that when I was a teenager and had all the time in the world, I’d have had the nerve to dawdle my way through the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section of the local bookshop/library.  

The Read Me First… in this particular guide is The Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, with The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan and The Malzan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson spotlighted as highly recommended.

Added to the wishlist: The Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson – I’ve had the first part of the series on my eReader for ages but I just haven’t got round to reading it yet. Maybe because I’ve never heard much about it other than that I should read it.

Lit Addicted Brit bonus recommendation: I’ll get no prizes for originality here but The Wheel of Time series, definitely.  I *love* the magic system in the series the most but I basically love everything else about it and I would never even try to review it.  Some of the instalments are stronger than others but overall it’s terrific.

For when you’re craving some sleuthing without the nightmares: COZY CRIME

I’ve mentioned roughly a thousand time on the blog how much of a wuss I am (and will do so again in a little while…sorry!).  But seriously – I’m just not grown up enough for creeping through dark corridors, bangs and crashes when you least expect them and sinister serial killers.  Not even a little bit.  And YET I do love the following of clues, using logic and deduction and finding a killer.  I don’t read a lot of cozy crime because I find the feel of them quite repetitive, even when they have a unique twist or are part of a series with a theme that I like, but I do really enjoy them when I do.  I think that maybe they’re what I’d give as my “guilty pleasure”, if I had to pick one.

This is the only guide that I’m mentioning where I haven’t read any of the recommendations BUT I’ve read a few of Agatha Christie’s novels so I think that means I’m faintly comfortable talking about this sub-genre.  The We Love… and Read Me First… spotlights both fall on Agatha Christie; The Murder at the Vicarage and Murder on the Orient Express.  I haven’t read either but it’s nice to have some direction in the face of Christie’s epic bibliography!  

Added to the wishlist:  Dying in the Wool by Frances Brady – the first book in the Kate Shackleton mystery series features scandal against the backdrop of a Yorkshire village, with an amatuer investigator looking into the disappearance of a mill owner.  I live in a Yorkshire village but am originally from Lancashire so I kind of love anything that tries to explain to the particularities of Yorkshire life to “outsiders”.  The more fun stereotypes for me to throw at my Yorkshireman boyfriend, the better 😉

Lit Addicted Brit bonus recommendation:  Ok, so the series isn’t spectacularly literary and I’ve only read two books in the series but if you like a few recipes sprinkled through your stories (because who doesn’t, really), the Hanna Swensen series by Joanne Fluke is kind of cute. Just don’t come back here when you’re full of cookies and on a sugar down.  The first in the series is Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder, which I did a teeny tiny review of here.

For when you’re craving some nightmares without the sleuthing: SPOOKY STORIES

Obviously I rarely fall into this category but I have found recently that I occasionally get struck by a fit of bravery and dare a ghost story.  The Woman in Black by Susan Hill was my most recent indulgence, I think (reviewed here), and features in this guide as the We love… feature title.  Excellent choice, Waterstones.  I own The Secret of Crickley Hall by James Herbert after seemingly forgetting how much of a complete wimp I am and downloading the eBook.  I obviously haven’t read it yet because it looks SCARY but it’s nice to know that I have an endorsement of its quality should I ever find myself feeling courageous.

Added to the wishlist:  Complete Ghost Stories by Charles Dickens – I don’t have a great deal of experience of Dickens’ writing (by which I mean that I’ve read A Christmas Carol and nothing else…) but this guide makes this collection sound packed full of gothic-y goodness.

Lit Addicted Brit bonus recommendation:  I can’t believe I’m about to recommend it again after the many, many years it took me to face up to it but Dracula by Bram Stoker (reviewed here).


Want to check out the whole collection?  Head over HERE to the Reading Guides section of the Waterstones Card area!  The list seems to be ever-growing and there just has to be something for everyone – ENJOY!

Hallowe’en Recommendations for those of a Wimpy Persuasion

Find your own scary cushion here
If there is one thing I have learnt during my 26 years, it is that I am not good at reading/watching horror.  Years ago, I was bullied persuaded to go and see The Hills Have Eyes at the cinema.  I had horrendous nightmares for days.  Before that, in a demonstration of bravado (I assume), I bought Red Dragon and another equally horrific sounding book featuring Hannibal Lecter and just having them on my shelves frightened me so much that I had to remove them from my house.  Not off my shelf or out of my bedroom, out of my HOUSE.  Before I had even read a page.

I tell you this not so that you are all convinced of my lunacy/cowardice but so that you can be sure that, if you are also of a more wimpy persuasion, my recommendations are a safe way for you to spend a couple of hours reading enjoying some goosebumps this Hallowe’en without spending the rest of the week hiding under your duvet.

Vintage Thrills

Image found here
Dracula by Bram Stoker – When it was released in 1897, Dracula was praised as “the sensation of the season” and “the most blood-curdling novel of the paralysed century”.  114 years later and Count Dracula continues to haunt modern readers both in Stoker’s original words and as the forefather of a whole sub-genre.  You don’t need to me to tell you that, even if the vampire craze wasn’t what it is, you should read this book.  It’s atmospheric, tense and creepy without becoming out-and-out scary.  Trust your nineteenth century ancestors’ more staid tastes and enjoy.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving – A teeny tiny test of your courageousness in the form of a classic ghost story.  Don’t let worries about the rather gory film adaptation put you off – this is a wonderfully descriptive little story and spooky rather than gruesome.

YA Chills
This Is Not A Test by Courtney Summers – Yes, there are zombies, but the story doesn’t focus on their slavering, flesh-eating ways and looks instead at the effects their presence has on Summers’ cast of teenagers.  A healthy dose of chills without blood-induced queasiness?  Don’t mind if I do.  Seriously, though, this book is extremely addictive and easy to get caught up in for an evening.

Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake – This is the most gory of my recommendations this year so those of you that are not fond of excessive descriptions of blood and some deaths, be wary of this one, please.  I don’t want to be responsible for your nightmares!  For someone who is generally not brave when it comes to horror, I find that there is something haunting and sad about ghost’s stories (that’s the stories of the ghosts, not a typo in ‘ghost stories’).  Featuring a ghost hunter-type boy, this has those in spades, which makes it a lot more emotive than your standard “Ghost Bad, Kill” story. Although there is a romantic sub-plot that I could live without.  Just sayin’…

Ghost Stories with a Twist
The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde – Fond of some slapstick humour with your ghosts? Or, as is more likely, now that you’ve read that there is something that combines humour and ghosts successfully, like the sound of it?  Oscar Wilde is your man.  I think this is the least horror-ish of my faux-horror recommendations and is genuinely funny.  Grab some pumpkin-shaped chocolates and tuck in.

The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse – Like your ghost stories with a historical fiction edge?   The Winter Ghosts mixes that haunting lost feeling that is often described in relation to survivors of the Great War with that regular haunting feeling.  The writing is superb  meaning you can enjoy your walk on the ghostly side with some class and elegance.


So there you have it!  If you have a few hours to spare this Hallowe’en and feel like spending them hidden away with an appropriately-themed-but-not-terrifying book, you can do much, much worse than these.  Happy Hallowe’en!! 🙂 

Review: ‘The Man in the Picture’ by Susan Hill

Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis

A mysterious depiction of masked revellers at the Venice carnival hangs in the college rooms of Oliver’s old professor in Cambridge. On this cold winter’s night, its eerie secret is revealed by the ageing don. The dark art of the Venetian scene, instead of imitating life, has the power to entrap it. To stare into the painting is to play dangerously with the unseen demons it hides, and become the victim of its macabre beauty.


Review
I’ve had an up-and-down relationship with Susan Hill’s work over the past couple of years.  I read The Small Hand back in September 2011 and was decidedly underwhelmed (review here).  Then I was, as most predicted, in awe of The Woman in Black (review here).  When I saw this teeny tiny book tucked away in my local library, I figured that it was about time I read a tie-breaker.

I was going to try and write this review without comparisons to either but I soon realised that just wasn’t going to happen.  For me, The Man in the Picture was much definitely better than The Small Hand but definitely not as good as The Woman in Black.  A happy medium and a book that I liked but not one that I’ll be forcing on my friends and family.

There’s a lot about this story to like.  The descriptions of the titular picture are wonderfully atmospheric and Hill manages to make the depiction of a Venetian carnival sound genuinely sinister.  In spells, Hill can be one heck of a writer!  


Our main character, Oliver, is one of those superbly sheltered academics with a penchant for rationalising the unusual.  Call me macabre, but I like my ghost stories to be accompanied by the destruction of a young man’s boundaries!  This is a less extreme example than other ghost stories that we might mention but Oliver still has that moment where the shadows are creeping in and he tries to shake them off with logic.  Balancing a wisened professor at the end of his career against the younger and more idealistic counterpart isn’t new but it worked.

For all the good points, there was something about the novella that felt a little off.  Almost as though the key scenes had been dreamt up in isolation, jotted down and then linked together with disquiet.  There were some that were poignant and had me utterly gripped but then there were others where the spell broke and I was left with that feeling that in a longer book might have turned to incredulity. The characters didn’t have much in the way of motivations or ideas or anything, really, that gave me something to cling onto or root for.  Hill trades heavily in atmosphere at the expense of telling a well-rounded story.  The book was based on a fantastic idea and really does have some great moments so I shan’t criticise too much; its length means that there isn’t too much time to dwell on the feeling of disconnection before the next captivating moment comes along.

One thing that I am now utterly convinced about, though, is Hill’s ability to write a fabulous ending.  The ending of The Woman in Black is just…brilliant.  The ending to The Man in the Picture has a similar haunting quality with a question tucked so delicately into its final pages that I finished it and had that moment where you kind of shudder and have the distinct feeling that there might just be some things out there that aren’t very nice at all.

Overall:  A solid ghost story with a fabulous ending. It isn’t perfect but it’s so short that it’s almost impossible not to read in one sitting and revel in its darkness.  A really worthy idea that fell a little short in execution but is still worth curling up with for some chills.

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Date finished:  19 March 2012
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Borrowed from my local library
Genre:  Thriller; Horror
Published: by Profile Books Limited in October 2008

Review: ‘Dark Matter’ by Michelle Paver

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Synopsis (taken from Waterstones.com)

January 1937.

Clouds of war are gathering over a fogbound London. Twenty-eight year old Jack is poor, lonely and desperate to change his life. So when he’s offered the chance to join an Arctic expedition, he jumps at it. Spirits are high as the ship leaves Norway: five men and eight huskies, crossing the Barents Sea by the light of the midnight sun. At last they reach the remote, uninhabited bay where they will camp for the next year. Gruhuken. But the Arctic summer is brief. As night returns to claim the land, Jack feels a creeping unease. One by one, his companions are forced to leave. He faces a stark choice. Stay or go. Soon he will see the last of the sun, as the polar night engulfs the camp in months of darkness. Soon he will reach the point of no return – when the sea will freeze, making escape impossible. And Gruhuken is not uninhabited. Jack is not alone. Something walks there in the dark…


Review

Earlier in the year, when my village in Yorkshire was being snowed upon, I had a sudden craving for curling up next to my fire and devouring a book.  I didn’t want to just read, I wanted to be completely immersed in a story and only come up for air when absolutely necessary.  Dark Matter was without a doubt the perfect choice and I read it in a single snowy day.  

The story opens with a group of intrepid explorers setting out for the Arctic, jauntily taking photographs of themselves in their special clothing and engaging in the kind of British public school banter that I have fortunately not had much direct experience of.  As with so many great ghost stories, there’s a pervasive sense of hope and excitement that you know is being crafted so that the ultimate descent into horror is more shocking.  The setting is fantastically mysterious.  I’ve always wanted to visit somewhere like Norway, see the Northern Lights and experience that other-worldliness that this book excels at describing.  So too, do our merry band of scientists.

Of course, where would we be without a few wisened old characters along the way warning of the great dangers lying ahead?  Dark Matter has an ageing sailor tasked with taking Jack and his group to Gruhuken, grimly warning off the dangers hiding in the perpetual night.  From that moment on, the story takes a turn for the creepier and I was hooked.  Honestly, I only stopped reading to make dinner and eat it.  I was fascinated by the setting but most of all I was captivated by the occasional glimpses at the mysteries of Gruhuken.  Snippets of its history and hints at its secret were doled out sparingly but often enough that it feels as though the story is never going to let you go.  When I was finally “in the know”, everything fit together and I was left staring at the pages in shock, with a faint look of disgust no doubt on my face.

Paver has spent a lot of time travelling in the Arctic and it shows.  The environment and the atmosphere are so detailed and breath-taking that you feel as though you can hear the ice creaking around you and feel the crisp, frozen air swirling.  There’s a fantastic article on the author’s website here that describes how much she put into making this book as perfect as it is:  

“I went in summer, at the time of the midnight sun, and Jack’s experiences on first seeing Spitsbergen are mine: the sinister, black-faced polar bear who’d been eating the walrus from the inside; the abandoned guillemot chick; Jack’s solo walk to the small, cold lake; and those brief but desperate moments when he thinks he’s lost… All this is what I’ve seen and experienced myself”

The unravelling of Jack’s hopes, dreams and sanity in the icy wilderness is utterly heart-breaking.  I desperately wanted him to give up, take his way out and leave the shadows alone and, even with everything else that was brilliant about this book, it was that that kept me reading.  Jack is such a wonderful narrator and his vulnerability is disarmingly charming right from the opening chapters.  As the story is largely told through Jack’s diary entries, there is plenty of time to get to know him.  He is a complex character who is so darn real that it’s impossible not to be sucked in. His naivety and desperation to fit in with his fellow explorers at the outset is tinged with a bitterness that he has to try so hard and his later decisions are constantly coloured by his life experiences.  Nothing he did seemed out of kilter with the character I felt I’d come to know and I wish that more authors knew their characters well enough to make that work.

My only complaint about this book is that it made me agree with the Daily Mail.  No good can come from agreeing with the Daily Mail BUT their reviewer was right, Dark Matter is “a blood-curdling ghost story, evocative not just of icy northern wastes but of a mind turning in on itself”. Read it.

Overall: As a ghost story, Dark Matter is exceptional.  As a description of the dangerous beauty of the Arctic, Dark Matter is also exceptional.  In the end though, the beauty of the novel lies in that age-old haunting question: 


“What’s waiting for you, just beyond the edge of the light?”


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Date finished:  05 February 2012
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Bought
Genre:  Ghost story; Horror
Published: by Orion in 2010

Review: ‘The Woman in Black’ by Susan Hill

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis

Proud and solitary, Eel Marsh House surveys the windswept reaches of the salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway. Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor, is summoned to attend the funeral Mrs Alice Drablow, the house’s sole inhabitant, unaware of the tragic secrets which lie hidden behind the shuttered windows. It is not until he glimpses a wasted young woman, dressed all in black, at the funeral, that a creeping sense of unease begins to take hold, a feeling deepened by the reluctance of the locals to talk of the woman in black – and her terrible purpose.

Review


A
h, young solicitors sent to great huge mansions by your apparently benevolent bosses, when will you learn?  Thankfully for the literary world, never. 


Arthur Kipps is an ambitious but worryingly naive solicitor, plodding his way through dull cases and hoping to catch the eye of his superior and be offered something more fulfilling so that he and his fiancé can buy a little house and live happily ever after.  Unfortunately, Kipps’ blind hope leads him to gallivant off to the moors to wrap up Mrs Drablow’s estate despite an abundance of warnings that he’s running into more than he knows.  As starts to novels go, it’s a classic.  But hey, it works.  There’s something disarming about being ‘introduced’ to a fresh-faced, eager man when you just know that it’s all about to change.

As a proper gothic ghost story should be, though, this is less about the characters and
more about the setting and what they experience.  Kipps, however, is as good a narrator as you could ask for. The unravelling of his objective, legally-trained mind is well-paced and realistic. I think one of my favourite things about the book was how well Hill blended those touches of realism with the paranormal.  Who hasn’t had the occasional moment in the night where something sets you on edge and, even though you know it will more likely than not be something perfectly normal in the morning, at the time, everything seems sinister? Just me?  Ok…Regardless, the way Kipp tried to hold on to his version of reality in the daylight hours was a nice touch and he was just how I like my narrators.  No running around flapping and panicking but equally no getting all gung-ho and toting exorcism equipment about the place. Just good old-fashioned rational thought and a scared man’s attempts to take charge over the situation.    

The beauty of The Woman in Black lies in its simplicity.  There are no superfluous details or incidental conversations detracting from the incisively unnerving descriptions.  Believe me, they’re enough.  This is a book that is as much about what you don’t see as what you do; the inexplicable noises behind the locked door, a glimpse of a face at the window in an empty house, distant screams in the fog.  The atmosphere is really well balanced and I often felt as though I could see the mist descending over Eel Marsh House as much as I could feel the corresponding increase in tension. 


While
I really liked Kipps, I couldn’t say the same for many of the other characters.  I suppose that’s unfair seeing as they aren’t really characters as much as plot devices but I find all the foreshadowing a touch too much – we already have a tormented future version of the main character and a fidgety boss who’s clearly hiding something.  I’m not sure that everybody Kipps then met needed to warn him about the bad things that were coming his way if he carried on.  It’s a small gripe, I know.  I’m clutching at straws to try and be balanced! Forgive me…

It’s impossible to write a review of this without mentioning how downright brilliant the ending is but, at the same time, I don’t want to say anything that would spoil that ending for you. Suffice to say that I would have recommended this book as an exquisitely chilling ghost story without it. With it?  Devastatingly good and a story that will follow you around long after you’ve put it down and shaken off the last of the shivers.

Overall:  Last year I read The Small Hand and was was neither charmed, intrigued nor unsettled. The Woman in Black is everything The Small Hand wasn’t and then some; a perfect example of everything that makes ghost stories great. 

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Date finished:  26 November 2011
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Bought
Genre:  Ghost story; Horror
Published: My edition – by Vintage in November 2007; Originally – 1983

Christmas Review: ‘Jacob T. Marley’ by R. William Bennett

“There are three realisations mankind can experience that might give them cause for change.  First, remorse for what is gone but might have been in the past.  Second, a shocking awareness of where they are in the present.  Finally, fear for what will be in the future, should their paths not change.  These three missions make up our cause”

It’s hard for a lot of us to imagine Christmas without some iteration of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, be it re-reading the novella itself or singing along to the jaunty Muppet adaptation. Any author readying themselves to stand alongside Dickens has to be brave. Fortunately, Bennett also happens to be up to the job and proves it in this re-telling of the old favourite.

The whole book is infused with the same sense of magic and mystery that haunts its predecessor.  Bennett adopts a style that is similar to Dickens’ tale but without feeling like a sham.  The writing was so fluid that it often felt like reading poetry.  At first, I was highlighting the passages that I loved and wanted to remember.  Then I realised that I was doing it so often that it was becoming ridiculous.  It didn’t take long for me to grasp that the everything was going to be noteworthy.

This is a story that feels familiar and follows the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Futrue but still manages to offer something new, filling in the blanks for those that always wondered what Jacob T. Marley was up to in the years between his death and the night he loomed before Scrooge with his face in the door knocker, why it was that he was the one to try to redeem Ebenezer’s soul and how close he came to losing the battle.  

Obviously we can’t know what Dickens was imagining but, because this is so well done, I’d like to think that this is it. As you can imagine, the book is filled with scenes and quotes that at any other time of the year would seem trite. Read at Christmas, however, against a backdrop of tinsel and well-wishing and they are just bewitching. I ‘closed’ the eBook wanting to call everybody I loved and make sure that they knew it, make a concerted effort to sprinkle Christmas spirit everywhere and be better. And isn’t that really what Christmas is about?

5 out of 5 stars, for finally making me feel festive!


“And to this day, when we find ourselves in the right place at the right time to assist a poor wayfarer on the path of life, a moment’s pause may recall the story of good old Scrooge and good old Marley, and our hearts may be softened, we may stop to listen, and we may even offer a hand of kindness to the one who just happens, by some circumstances, to cross our path”