Book reviews


The Haunting of Henry Twist by Rebecca F John. Shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2017. John is a Welsh author and I must say this book was a very pleasant surprise. I borrowed it from the local library. Yes!! I’ve joined the library. Haven’t borrowed books from a library in yeeeeeears.

The title led me to think it was Gothic horror but it’s not. Nor is it a traditional ghost story in the true sense. The time setting is London, 1926 – that short pause between WWI and WWII. The narrative centres around Henry Twist who was a British soldier in WWI. He marries Ruby after the war and their relationship is a short but intense one. We meet Ruby in the first chapter and that’s it, because she dies following an accident. She was nine months pregnant and the baby (Libby) miraculously survives. Henry Twist is heartbroken and a large part of the story is Henry’s remembrances of Ruby and how he must raise his daughter as a single parent.

After the funeral, Henry meets the mysterious and charismatic Jack Turner who is first seen outside Henry’s flat, but also follows him over subsequent weeks. Jack seems to know who Henry is, but Henry does not know Jack. Eventually, they meet and get to know each other. Henry believes that Ruby has come back to him in the form of Jack. Henry is obsessed with soul transfer and this I guess is the haunting aspect of the book. The whole story has a dream-like quality to it.

What follows is a love story between two men and it is extremely well-handled. In a sense, Henry is haunted – by his memories of Ruby; by Matilda who is their friend and in love with Henry; by his war-time experiences; by his love for Jack at a time when homosexuality was a crime. I thought that Henry’s character was developed to the point that I felt I knew what was going on in his mind, such is the power of John’s writing.

We eventually discover who Jack Turner really is (I won’t spoil it) but I did feel the ending was a bit weak. This is a quiet novel about grief, anxiety and fear and I think it’s a cracker of a debut.

There are shades of Sarah Perry in her writing (The Essex Serpent, which I loved and reviewed here). I highly recommend The Haunting of Henry Twist.

The Illumination of Ursula Flight by Anna-Marie Crowhurst. British author. Debut novel and published in 2018. I’m lukewarm on this novel to be honest. I’m not a fan of the historical time-period (1670s/1680s Restoration England) and I did find the 17th Century slang and dialect a bit tiresome – although I appreciated the attention to historical detail. I also enjoyed the descriptions of 17th Century life and decided that I’m very thankful to be in the 21st Century.

This is the first-person narrative of an inquisitive young country girl who is married off to a tiresome thirty-five year old. Ursula was schooled by her father in the Classics and astronomy but ends up in the restrained halls of her husband’s stately home. Ursula writes plays and poems and dreams of going to the theatre in London. Her husband eventually takes her to King Charles’ Court, where she is seduced by Samuel, a boy she met as a fourteen year old and fell for.

Basically the story is full of lovers and scoundrels, arranged marriages and a young woman who ends up as a playwright.

There’s something about this book that just fell flat for me. The author uses diary entries, letters and play dialogue (complete with period fonts) interspersed with the narrative. This was clever since the structure mirrored the Restoration-era theatre. I found though that it interfered with the narrative too much at times.

I did think the character of Ursula was well-formed and she grew with each chapter. It’s a light-hearted read and definitely a good old romp through Restoration England. It just wasn’t a page turner.

The Healer by Antti Tuomainen. This crime novel is translated from Finnish and won the award for Best Finnish Crime Novel of the Year (2011). I really enjoyed this story set in a not-too-distant future when climate change has wreaked havoc. Johanna is the wife of struggling poet, Tapani Lehtinen, and she goes missing. She is a journalist and has been investigating a serial killer known as The Healer.

Tapani undertakes a frantic search as Helsinki literally crumbles around him and climate change forces people to move north in search of food and work. What I liked most about this book was that the urban environment was a character in itself. There were plenty of vivid descriptions of parks overflowing with climate refugees and people taking advantage of civic chaos. I also liked the secondary character of Hamid, a taxi driver who drives Tapani around the city but also ends up involved in the search for Johanna.

The writing style is effortless and the pace steady. I don’t think it’s the most exciting crime novel I’ve ever read but…I think it’s the most original. I believe this is the author’s third novel and I will see if his other novels are available in English.

The Feed by Nick Clark Windo. Published 2018. This is a debut novel and I think its premise is great – in a not-too-distant future, everyone is wired up to The Feed. You don’t have to talk or worry about a thing, because The Feed allows you to read others’ thoughts, tells you when to eat and drink, monitors your health. Then one day, all hell breaks loose because The Feed goes down. President Taylor has been assassinated, stock markets plummet, planes drop from the sky and people literally drop dead (because The Feed is wetware, implanted in the brain). I did like this aspect of the novel – the post-apocalyptic world – and it really shows the dangers of our connectivity-obsessed culture. How addictive it can all be and what might lie in our future if we’re not careful. I think the author was a bit heavy-handed and moralistic about our techno-obsession, but can’t say I disagree with him.

We then flash forward six years and survivors have lost all knowledge. They have to forage for food in a new wilderness, learn how to speak again, work out how to fix generators. It’s the collapse of civilisation. But something really sinister lurks – the survivors have to watch each other sleep because, during sleep, random survivors are taken. Their minds are invaded and they wake up as different people.

Tom and Kate are the two main characters, along with their six-year old daughter, Bea, who goes missing or, rather, is abducted. The question becomes – how do you find someone in a world without technology? In a world overgrown by nature, inhabited by vicious, wild dogs and equally vicious survivors?

I had a few problems with this book and nearly did a DNF on it, but persevered. The writing style I found odd and clunky at times. I don’t know how many times I needed to read about the clouds, the trees, the forest, the weather – very atmospheric but sometimes at the expense of action. There were some lovely descriptive passages along the way though. But I didn’t find the world building all that convincing. My pet hate: adverbs. There were plenty of them in this book.

I found it a really slow start and I didn’t engage with the first few pages at all. There’s a fair bit of techno-speak you have to wrap your head around. I never connected with Kate. I found her very one-dimensional. Because of the slow start, I ended up feeling Tom and Kate (who go in search of Bea) meander through the narrative. The pace never really picked up for me.

It started to get interesting at about the 45% mark when we find out something about Kate. It gave the author an opportunity to explore the motives of those who caused the apocalypse and those who are suffering in a dystopian world that is the result of the collapse of everything.

I can see The Feed would have a ton of commercial appeal and I think it’s been picked up for a TV series. It just fell short for me. No page turner.

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Tangerine by Christine Mangan. Debut novel, published in 2018.  The setting is Tangier, 1956 and basically it’s a lesbian thriller. I was sold on the description: “The perfect read for fans of Daphne du Maurier and Patricia Highsmith, set in 1950’s Morocco“.

Alice Shipley moves to Tangier with her shady husband, John. We never really learn what John’s job is but we do know he is having an affair. Alice doesn’t cope well with the heat, dust and noise of Tangier and hides away in their apartment. Enter her ex-college room mate from Vermont, Lucy Mason. An incident happened in Vermont a year or so earlier, which tore their friendship apart. Lucy pops up in Tangier, surprising Alice with a visit. Alice has desperately been trying to forget what happened and Lucy’s appearance threatens to rip her life apart.

Each chapter alternates between Alice and Lucy as we learn about their backstory and each recall their version of what happened on that icy cold night in Vermont. Both of them are unreliable narrators. There’s also a few local characters thrown into the mix – Youssef and a mysterious man with a scar. And there’s a murder.

Lucy is obsessed with Alice and wants to possess her. Alice doesn’t seem to know what she wants if you ask me. It’s a toxic tale of love, deception and betrayal. I did find the two female characters a bit overdrawn. Alice is nervous and wilting, possibly not right in the head; whereas Lucy is the duplicitous, manipulative type. Alice is British, an orphan raised by her aunt, and has a trust fund. Lucy is American and comes from poorer economic circumstances. She spent her childhood living above the garage where her father worked.

Despite the polarity, I didn’t find their narrative voices distinct enough and I think the crazed lesbian trope is a bit hackneyed. This novel was more about plot than character. I never really felt Alice and Lucy’s friendship in college was authentic. There were too few memories of that time period to build up in the reader’s mind a convincing image of their tense, somewhat odd, friendship.  I also felt the setting could have been given more attention. I didn’t get a feel for Tangier 1956 and Mangan just went on and on about the heat (and mint tea).

There were very familiar shades of du Maurier, Single White Female, and Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley in this novel. So it was almost as though I’ve read this before. Nothing overly original and it lacked the suspense of a Donna Tartt novel or a Patricia Highsmith tale. The writing style was ornate and I found myself wondering – would the characters really be saying things like skirting the liminal boundaries between laughing and crying or intertextuality (referring to their friendship)? I thought the ending was a let down with its unoriginal identity theft plot.

Apparently, Hollywood has picked up this novel and I suspect I will like the movie more. Hollywood will give it the treatment and provide the chaotic souks of Tangier and entertain us with a good 1950’s film noir.

This is not to say I didn’t like the book. I actually did enjoy it despite feeling it was often too forced and too cliched. I just think it’s another example of an over-hyped book. It has a very Hitchcockian cover I must say. I read somewhere that it’s a photo taken in 1953. Love it.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. This book won the Man Booker Prize in 2017 and I can see why. I recently read Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, which was shortlisted for the prize. I reviewed that book in a recent post. I really liked that book and remember thinking to myself that the winner would have to be very, very good. Well, it is. It’s remarkable.

For the first few pages though, you are thinking what on earth is this story all about? Once the book was announced as the winner, I knew I would read it and I didn’t want to be influenced by any reviews. All I knew was that it had to do with President Lincoln’s son and the bardo, the transitional world that separates life and rebirth. The term bardo comes from Tibetan Buddhism.

The structure of this novel is brilliant. At first, I found it a tad confusing but, once I realised what I was dealing with, I could not put this book down.  Apparently, it’s a debut novel and I find this hard to believe – such is the quality of the writing and the quirky structure. I know that Saunders is well-known for his short story writing, but I have not read any of his work until now. Believe me when I say I will be snapping up all his short story collections.

The story is about Willie Lincoln, the president’s son, who died at eleven years of age in 1862, most likely of typhoid. We first learn that Willie is dying as his parents hold a lavish state dinner and the country is in the throes of Civil War. Lincoln is consumed with internal doubt about his own performance as president.

Willie is interred in a Georgetown cemetery and we meet the many characters in this novel – the dead that surround Willie but who don’t actually realise they are dead or, rather, do not accept it. The two main characters are Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III. Bored to death in the bardo they decide that Willie must go to a better place, for children are not meant to “tarry” in the bardo.

Lincoln visits the body of Willie and does not know the voices of the dead are calling out to him, telling him their stories. And this is where the structure comes in – the book is written entirely in dialogue, interspersed with extracts from historical accounts (many real but some invented). Saunders tells us what Lincoln looked like and what people thought of him through the extracts. In fact, Lincoln’s presence in the novel is pervasive. We see him as a gaunt, long-limbed, grieving father and this gives another layer of texture to the novel.

It’s an exhausting read but a gloriously exhausting one. The stories and dialogue of the dead are like a stream of consciousness. I think a few characters could have been axed (for example, the three bachelors) and I thought Willie’s funeral was glossed over.

I’ve not read yet what Saunders intended to achieve with this novel. I don’t think it’s merely a meditation on grief. For me, it is about letting go. Lincoln must let go of Willie; the spirits in the bardo must let go of their previous life and cross over; humans must let go of life and accept that nothing is permanent.

As I reached the end of the novel, I wondered how Saunders would wrap it up. Let me say the final page is a cracker. LOVED the ending.

He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly. Psychological thriller published in 2017. Kelly is the co-author of Broadchurch, which was adapted for TV, so I had high expectations. I quite enjoyed this book due to the unusual backdrop of a total eclipse.

Laura and Kit go to Cornwell in 1999 to witness an eclipse. Kit is something of an eclipse-chaser, if there’s such a thing. In the immediate aftermath of the eclipse, Laura witnesses what she believes to be the brutal rape of a young woman, Beth. The police become involved and it ends up in a court case. The alleged rapist, Jamie, says he didn’t do it. Laura is called as an eyewitness and so is Kit, who arrived on the scene minutes after what Laura saw or thought she saw.

This is where I thought the subject matter of eclipses worked so very well. There are five stages of a total eclipse and the book is divided into these stages. An eclipse serves as a metaphor for what we can see or think we see. During an eclipse, the landscape is shrouded in darkness, everything is quiet, things are surreal. Then our familiar sun reappears and light streams across the same landscape. Laura sees or maybe doesn’t see a rape; Kit is maybe telling the truth or not; Beth is not what she seems to be or is she? Someone is always in the dark.

It’s a slow-burn start to this book but I became invested in the two main characters of Laura and Kit. Their story unfolds in the first person and spans the period from 1999 to 2015. I tend to like books that are character-driven, especially when characters are deeply flawed and complex.

Laura becomes a tad obsessed with the whole trial and even Beth herself. Beth becomes a part of Laura and Kit’s life once the trial ends and things get a bit sinister. Laura is crippled with anxiety because she is keeping a dark secret. Laura and Kit go into hiding but Beth finds them fifteen years later. The reader is led on a merry chase and towards the end, there’s quite the surprise (and I didn’t see it coming, even though I never really trusted any of the characters). However, one aspect of the ending? Nah.

I know this is all very vague, but you might want to read this book. I guess I can sum it all up by saying it’s a story of betrayal, guilt, infidelity, the heavy weight of lies, psychological trauma and stress. It’s also the story of how a single event can alter and shape the course of  lives.

I thought the court room scenes were handled very well. Kelly certainly didn’t shy away from an uncomfortable topic. The second half of the book ramps up the tension but this is a 400+ page read and, frankly, I think it could have been shorter. It’s a good plot and a deftly written book, but sometimes things just seemed a bit too drawn out. The constant switching between two timelines and between Laura and Kit’s narrative was fatiguing. I’m not a great fan of the alternating point of view for this very reason.

I also thought there was odd phrasing every now and then. An example being comparing the sky to bacon rashers (streaky pink and purple rashers). Kelly also refers to an eclipse in Cairns in 2012 and says: “tens of thousands of people watched from the miles of palm beaches on Australia’s Gold Coast….” Cairns is at least 1700 km north of the Gold Coast; it is not part of the Gold Coast. Just a couple of examples of things that threw me out of the narrative for a bit.

This aside, I enjoyed the book.

Nickel Fictions: 50 Exceedingly Short Stories by Bob Thurber. Wow, I enjoyed this quirky collection of short, short stories. This is writing at its very best – concise and with each word carefully chosen for maximum punch. Most of the tales are a bit dark and one story is just 25 words (a story this length is called Hint Fiction). The titles of the stories were clever and added to the layered meaning in each story.

I had to go back and reread a few stories, such was their subtlety. My favourite tale is called The Cricket War. You can read it here if you like. What’s interesting is that Thurber, an American writer, says: I’m unschooled. Self-taught. No academic credentials of any kind, no degrees in literature or anything else.

I find this very refreshing. When you take writing courses, it’s all about the craft and I find this is often at the expense of telling a darn good story. What you end up with is beautiful words weaving across a page, but perhaps a story that the reader isn’t invested in. Thoroughly enjoyed Thurber’s collection.

 

 

Yes, dear reader: MORE book reviews.

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson. Published 2018. This was a fascinating piece of historical fiction and a very impressive debut novel. It’s a re-imagining of an historical event that took place in the 17th century. Barbary pirates invaded the coast of Iceland in 1627 and captured four hundred people and sold them into slavery in Algiers. Among those captured was Reverend Olafur Egilsson, his wife Asta and their children.

The story is told from the point of view of Asta and we experience her life as a slave in a foreign land. There are many layers to the story but essentially it’s a tale of survival. Asta finds comfort in Icelandic sagas she heard as a child; the women of the harem tell tales from One Thousand and One Nights. Powerful stories help us during times of adversity. What I loved about this novel is how these stories can also be those told by the mind itself – to protect us from unbearable sorrow.

I had no idea Icelandic people were captured and sold into slavery, so it was a fascinating read for this alone. After nine years in captivity, the Danish King finally agrees to raise ransom money (Iceland falling under Danish sovereignty). The Reverend was sent to the King to obtain ransom money but the King refused to meet with him. Olafur found his way back to Iceland, but never gave up on his quest to bring back Asta and the children.

What follows is a heartbreaking tale of children who disappear into slavery, never to be seen again; of faithful Christians who converted to Islam in order to survive; of mothers separated from their children and husbands. After nine years in captivity, Asta returns to Iceland but is between the two cultures. The drabness and poverty of Iceland is now foreign to her; the brightly-coloured multi-national Muslim community of Algiers tempts her. On this level, the novel is about cultural identity.

Only thirty-four of the Icelanders enslaved in Algiers were freed and returned to Iceland. Reverend Ólafur penned a detailed journal of his experiences that Magnusson drew on. Asta was only mentioned briefly in the journal and Magnusson researched her life and told a tale of captivity from the female perspective.

The prose is lush, deeply moving. I was a tad concerned when Asta falls for the slave owner with blue eyes (he has a Dutch father). I thought it might descend into a bodice-ripper and deflect from the focus on the heartache and isolation felt by Asta. Thankfully, this part of the story was well-handled.

I have read a number of accounts of Christian slaves held captive. To some extent, their terrible stories are glossed over in this novel. Asta leads a fairly comfortable life, whereas most slaves of that time period I believe were held in public prisons in appalling conditions and were often subject to extreme cruelty.

This aside, I think the novel shines a light on a little known subject. Highly recommend.

Poor Things by Alasdair Gray. Published in 1992. Well, this was a cracker of a novel by the Scottish writer. It won the Whitbread Novel Award in 1992 (now called the Costa Book Awards). I read it on my Kindle as part of a read-along being done on a BookTube channel (basically, you read the book the person suggests and will talk about in a video).

The setting is Victorian-era Glasgow. Archibald McCandless is a medical student and falls hopelessly in love with a childish but beautiful woman by the name of Bella Baxter. She is the “niece” of a medical colleague, the very strange Godwin Baxter. With a nod to Frankenstein, Baxter fished out Bella’s body from the water after her suicidal leap off a bridge. He takes the brain of her unborn child and creates a new woman. The three form a bizarre love triangle.

What then follows is a tale of sex, dark humour and brilliant illustrations done by Gray himself. The memoirs of McCandless are found in a rubbish heap – part of old records being thrown out by a legal firm in a city increasingly tearing down old buildings to make way for the bright and shiny. The memoirs are called Episodes from the Early Life of a Scottish Public Health Officer, and it is McCandless’ side of the story of how he met Bella and how he believes her to be a scientific creation.

We are also given Bella’s account. She became a doctor after marrying McCandless and presents a very different version of events. Along the way, we find she already has a husband, the sadistic General Sir Aubrey de la Pole Blessington.

Poor Things is a pastiche and a political novel. So-called Victorian morals are held up to scrutiny, as well as the suffering and injustices of the workhouses of the 19th century.

The novel is summed up for me by Bella, who says her late husband’s memoirs`stinks of Victorianism.” That is the whole point: Alasdair Gray wrote a novel that is a stinging critique of the 19th century.

Sugar Money by Jane Harris. Published in 2017. Historical fiction set in 1765. I really liked this well-paced novel by the Scottish author. It is the story of two slaves: Lucien who is around 14 years old and his much older brother, Emile, who is 28 years old. They live on French-controlled Martinique with the monks of The Brothers of Charity of the Order of St John of God. Father Cleophas asks Emile to travel to the island of Grenada and bring back 40 slaves. Grenada was under French control until 1763 when the English invaded and claimed all slaves. The reason the monks wanted the slaves back was so they could restore their depleting fortune by growing cane to extract sugar to make alcohol. The slaves would work the cane fields.

It’s an adventure doomed to failure as the siblings sail to Grenada on a rickety boat, captained by a rum-drinking Englishman. The relationship between Lucien and Emile is at the heart of this novel. Lucien often feels that he lives in his brother’s shadow and needs to prove that he is a man, as the brothers trudge overland through thick jungle to reach the hospital overlooking Fort Royal. It is here they find the slaves and convince them to flee on Christmas Eve, 1765.

Sugar Money is based on a true account, so one can only imagine how brutal was the British treatment of slaves. Colonial cruelty is the other theme that runs through this narrative, which is told by Lucien.

Harris has great attention to detail. The brothers and the slaves speak a mixture of French, English and Kréyòl. We learn a number of terms along the way, my favourite being kickeraboo (dead). Fwance is France and chyen pa ka fè chat means “dogs don’t make cats”.

I have seen reviews that question whether a white female writer can or should use as her narrator the voice of a 14-year-old Afro-Caribbean boy. Can a white female of the 21st century truly understand the cruelty of being traded like livestock, of being whipped or raped while held as a slave? Of course not. But my view is that the story of slavery should be told through all lenses. If white readers learn about slavery by reading this novel, and are aghast at the treatment of humans hundreds of years ago, then surely this is a good thing. Modern slavery is alive and well, so the narrative also raises discussion around slavery in contemporary times.

I thought Harris excelled at the first-person characterisation of Lucien. By adopting a teenage narrator, Harris keeps the prose simple and we really get inside the head of Lucien as the mission to free the slaves starts to unravel. We feel his fears and self-doubts. It’s a harrowing story that does not end well for Emile and many of the slaves. Highly recommend this novel.

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon. Sci-fi. This 340+ page book is getting a fair bit of hype on BookTube. It was a bit of a hot mess for me. Basically the author has transposed the antebellum south and its treatment of slaves onto a gigantic colony spaceship called Matilda.

Aster Grey is the main character and lives on the lower decks of the Matilda. She is a young woman of colour, as is the author (and I must say I did like Aster’s strong character and her fluid gender). White people live on the upper decks and they have all the comforts: heating, trees, wealth and so on. The whole ship is ruled by a supremacy cult known as the Sovereignty. Thousands of people live on the alphabetically-ordered decks of Matilda.

Matilda has been in space for hundreds of years, since Earth (aka the Great Lifehouse) suffered an ecological disaster (by what we are not told). The ship, which is powered by Baby Sun, is on its way to the promised land and who knows where that is because Matilda is kind of drifting in the cosmos.

Each deck on the ship has its own language and I think the world building was done reasonably well. Issues of race, treatment of women, abortion, violence and lawlessness were covered. The reader is confronted with a brutally repressive and segregated society – from this aspect I liked the book. What I also liked was how queer and non-binary characters were just an assumed part of Matilda’s society.

Aster is a self-taught botanist and medical assistant to Theo, the Surgeon General. The Sovereign dies and there seems to be a connection between him and Aster’s mother, who she believes committed suicide twenty five years previously. Without giving the game away too much, Aster’s mother found a way off Matilda and Aster is determined to discover what she knew.

I think this book was trying just a little too hard. As much as I liked Aster’s character, she became fatiguing. Very fatiguing. The Lieutenant (who is Theo’s uncle and took over as Sovereign) was the stereotypical bad guy. I did not find his reason for disliking and tormenting Aster convincing. Aster’s actions became a bit unbelievable as the story progressed.

I also thought that some of the white characters could have been presented in a more sympathetic manner. I get that this was Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Space but, since many generations had been mixing for hundreds of years, I think that all races would have talked it out, come to understand each other and found a level of sympathy. Maybe that’s just me. Too optimistic.

The ending didn’t gel with the rest of the book. It was too neat and tidy, not to mention a tad confusing. And there were parts of the novel that were just plain boring. I think I’m in the minority with my opinion on this book, but there you have it.

 

 

 

I know I’ve mentioned before that, growing up in Australia, I was a HUGE fan of Bill Collins’ Golden Years of Hollywood. Every Saturday night at 8.30pm, I was glued to the TV as Bill presented an old Hollywood classic. He would introduce a film by giving details about the director or the actors. I credit him with my reasonably good knowledge of old Hollywood actors and films.

My all-time favourite movies that Bill Collins taught me to love are: Laura (with that most stunning of actresses, Gene Tierney); The Rains Came with Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy; The Maltese Falcon with the oddly sexy Humphrey Bogart; and Strangers on a Train with Farley Granger and Robert Walker.

I’ve recently found a hard-to-find books bookshop in the South Island and I send them requests for old books I want to buy. I much prefer writers of the 1920s to 1970s or so. One day I must do a post on why this is so. I decided I must read Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith and written in 1950. Obviously, it inspired the movie. I generally don’t like to see a film and read the book it’s based on because Hollywood tends to leave good stuff out or change things around. So we’ll see.

I also snapped up an old copy of Not After Midnight – a short story collection by Daphne du Maurier – and The Black House, also a short story collection but by Patricia Highsmith. I’ve said many times before that I consider du Maurier one of the best writers in terms of plot, suspense and characterisation.

I have a loooooooong reading pile, so not sure when I’ll get to read these three books!

 

I know I just posted some book reviews but I’ve been reading a ton lately. Largely to prepare for writing some short stories. I believe that nothing equips you to be a better writer than reading. I don’t stop and analyse a book to death, but I do take notes on things like character development, plot, story arc and so on.

Here are my latest reads.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Published in 2017 and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Frankly, I think this book should have won but I admit I haven’t read all the others on the shortlist 🙂 Such a beautifully-written book. Simple, razor sharp language that is lyrical and emotional.

This is a raw story about migration and its effects on populations. The two central characters are Nadia and Saeed living in an unnamed city in the Middle East. They meet at a night class and fall for each other. Nadia wears a black robe in order to avoid unwanted attention and is fiercely independent. Saeed is religious and prays every day. Despite their differences, love blooms.

Unrest hits the city with militants arresting and killing people, and bombs and guns going off. Electricity and food are rationed. Rumours emerge of dark doors or portals that lead people to other parts of the world. Nadia and Saeed pay a black market agent a hefty fee to flee their war-torn city.

They end up in refugee camps on Mykonos, in London and San Francisco. Violence is always at the margins of their lives, which is interspersed with the magic black doorways through which millions of migrants surge into a new life. I have read that some readers didn’t like the doorways device but it works perfectly in my view. Without some way of quickly getting to a new destination, Hamid would need to describe the lengthy migrant journey. And I think his time was far better spent in exploring Nadia and Saeed’s life before and after fleeing their city.

Their time in the camps provides them with the opportunity to explore what it means to belong to a certain ethnic group or nation. While squatting in London, Hamid brilliantly raises the issue of Brexiters without even mentioning them. “Native” Londoners take up arms against the migrants, who they perceive as a threat to their way of life. Fear of the other is a dominant theme in this remarkable novel.

Nadia and Saeed begin to drift apart. In San Francisco, Saeed falls for a preacher’s daughter (whose mother is from Saeed’s country) and Nadia for a female cook. So the novel also explores how people come together in times of disaster and war. As their world changes, people often begin to see themselves through a different lens and this is what happens to Nadia and Saeed. Nadia leaves Saeed and they pursue separate lives.

We flash forward fifty years for the ending of the novel, when the two meet again in old age. How Hamid describes this scene shows the power of his writing: “Above them bright satellites transited in the darkening sky and the last hawks were returning to the rests of their nests and around them passersby did not pause to look at this old woman in her black robe or this old man with his stubble.

I cannot recommend this book more highly. I will read it again and again.

Potpourri by Anusha VR. This is an eclectic collection of flash fiction and poems. There were way too many adverbs for my liking in most of the stories but you probably know this by now: I’m not a fan of adverbs. But to each his or her own. Animals featured in quite a few stories and I thought this worked well, particularly the story of Luis, the crocodile.

The author is from India and I liked the Indian setting of many stories. They were extremely varied – from evil fairies to an old granny child killer to postpartum depression – and the imagery was good. There is a theme of darkness running through this collection. You’re not in for a happy read but that’s fine. I’ll certainly read this collection again. That’s why I like flash fiction collections – the stories keep you thinking long after you’ve finished and, when you reread, you discover gold within a story that you didn’t notice first time round.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Tom Sweterlitsch. Science fiction, dystopian novel. Possibly this is cyberpunk but I’m not that clued up on the genre to know. Published in 2014.

Well, this was a very pleasant surprise. I read this book on Kindle after browsing on Amazon for something different to read. I liked the blurb and thought why not, let’s give it a whirl. I REALLY liked this book.

I loved the bleak setting. I’m right into dystopian futures and this one I think is set around 2080-something. I say that because there is a mention of the Madonna Centenary and since she burst onto the musical scene in the 1980s – I’m assuming. But it’s a near future that we can most certainly imagine and even feel somewhat familiar with.

Pittsburgh has been nuked by a terrorist and the MC, John Dominic Blaxton, spends hours and hours in virtual reality (VR) reliving his time with his pregnant wife, Theresa, who was killed by the nuclear bomb (ten years before). Blaxton was out of town on the day Pittsburgh was reduced to ashes.

The world building in this book is exceptionally good. A future in which you can hard-wire your brain to Adware and have companies bombard you with products for sale right before your eyes. What you are presented with changes according to your emotional response. Social media profiles of people walking by are displayed in your retinas. Our current obsession with social media, selfies and consumerism seems to have taken a dark turn though. Graphic violence and porn are freely available on what are called ‘the streams’ and can be viewed with just the blink of an eye. It’s all that catches the attention of people. I think Sweterlitsch did very well here – as a reader you actually became a bit fatigued by all the references to adverts and companies, sex and violence. Just as the MC was bombarded, so is the reader.

Characterisation of the MC was great – he’s a troubled loner who is deteriorating mentally and physically, because he cannot come to terms with the loss of his wife and unborn child. He works for a private firm who research the digital Archive, helping families prove how people have died so they can make insurance claims. CCTV and retinal cameras have recorded a vast amount of information that can be searched and loaded as VR. Blaxton finds the body of a woman in VR. A cold case. But he becomes obsessed and this leads to all hell breaking loose. Someone is hacking the Archive and deleting references to her life. Who? Why?

I really liked the writing style, which was journalistic and allowed the reader to really come to know Blaxton. The whole story is very noir thriller and the pace was steady. I don’t like thrillers where the MC rushes around in scenes with guns and explosions, giving the reader little time to pause and catch a breath. There were twists and turns in this story but they flowed well, they were not forced or too unbelievable.

What I also liked in this book was the notion of relatives who survived the blast being able to visit lost loved ones in VR by using digital information in the archive. Blaxton could relive his time at cafes with his wife; he could upload scenes of what Pittsburgh used to look like before it was nuked.

I have to say that the subject matter is dark and disturbing – violence towards women and torture – and this is a trigger warning to anyone who might want to read this book. But there’s also a strong thread of grief in this novel, as well as retribution.

I do think the setting of Pittsburgh was a bit overdone. There were a ton of references to buildings and streets that someone not from Pittsburgh has little hope understanding (although you can consult Google Maps). And there were times where I felt more rigorous editing was needed. Aside from these minor niggles, I really enjoyed the book.

The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty. This is a debut novel and the first book in The Daevabad Trilogy. Middle Eastern/Muslim 500+ page fantasy tale. Really trying to stretch my wings and read more fantasy but, to be honest, I have mixed feelings on this one. I liked it but I didn’t like it. It’s touted to be an adult fantasy but read more like YA to me. In part, it reminded me a bit of Rebel of the Sands, which I reviewed here.

It starts off in 18th-century Cairo and our young, orphaned heroine is Nahri – a 20-something year old thief and con-artist. She seems to have healing powers and one day conjures up a great warrior named Dara (a.k.a an ancient djinn with nasty tendencies). Dara tells Nahri of a fantastical city. The legendary city of brass named Daevabad. Six djinn tribes live within this city but peace between them is fragile. They are all ruled by the powerful al Qahtani family.

Nahri and Dara embark on a perilous journey across desert, mountains and lakes towards the fabled city. Honestly, I can’t remember why and I think this is part of my issue. Fantasy novels revolve around a quest for something and I’m not sure what the quest was in this book. Other than it turns out Nahri is part-djinn and the last of a line of magical healers.

They meet up with scary creatures such as huge flying birds called rukh, ghouls escaping from cemeteries and lots of other things out to get them. Nahri and Dara fly around on a magic carpet and, naturally, attraction between them crops up. I’m not really sure what function Dara served in this story other than being an attractive, mysterious djinn who has a pretty violent past.

I had hoped that there would be more world-building in Cairo before being whisked off to Daevabad. Nahri’s time in Cairo wasn’t fleshed out enough for me.

And so they reach Daevabad and all hell breaks loose. The current ruling family is full of political intrigue and Nahri is part of the tribe that clashed with this family. So what is to be done with her? Will her arrival in the city trigger a war between the tribes? I did like the focus on court politics and power – you never know who Nahri can trust.

The second point of view is that of Prince Alizayd, the younger son of the king of Daevabad. I liked his character but found it irritating that we had to fall into the love triangle of Nahri, Dara and Alizayd. It felt forced.

I actually found the whole book a bit slow going. It wasn’t fast-paced (except at the end) and at times I felt the author was throwing everything at the plot – magical creatures, a prince wielding a fiery sword, curses, flying carpets, shapeshifters, magic – there was a little bit too much going on. It could be because I don’t read a lot of fantasy, I sometimes struggle with the magic systems, weird character names and languages.

Because this is basically a story of trying to survive (surviving the trip to Daevabad; surviving being attacked; negotiating and surviving politics) it becomes less of a compelling narrative or quest for something and more of “this happened, then that happened”. However, I think the writing style was strong, although how many times did I need to know a character’s heart skipped a beat? I think the second book is due out in 2019. I doubt I’ll be rushing off to the bookshop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For the last month or so, I’ve been reading a fair bit of Gothic Horror. In fact, I’ve become totally obsessed with it. I’ve also been been reading a lot of short story collections and two collections feature in my reviews in this post. Might be a book or two in this lot for you to read? Enjoy!

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Published in 1902. I know I’ve read this before, perhaps as a teenager. What can I say? This is Sherlock Holmes in top form and it’s a gripping Gothic horror novel. Despite my love of minimalist language with no horrid adverbs, I am drawn to the florid Victorian-era language. And you certainly cop it with this novel.

The plot is well-known so I won’t go into it, other than to say it revolves around the legend of a hell-hound and an ancient curse on the Baskerville family. What I really liked about this novel was the contrast between the supernatural, and science and reason. For every supernatural possibility (such as a hound from Hell), Holmes and Dr Watson come up with a rational explanation. This novel represents the new age of science and industrialisation.

Any good Gothic novel focuses on an eerie setting and Conan Doyle excels here – the bleak, lonely Devonshire moors complete with a dangerous bog-filled expanse that wild ponies get sucked into and die in (Grimpen Mire). It’s a countryside full of suspicious local people and the old stone ruins of long-forgotten people. Baskerville Hall is a gloomy manor house with servants creaking down corridors in the middle of the night, and Watson hearing the sobs of a mysterious woman. When the action really heats up and Holmes and Watson are watching their prime suspect, a thick pea soup fog rolls on in. Out of this fog, the hell-hound appears. It’s all pretty gripping stuff, especially the description of the terrifying cry of a hound across the moors.

Holmes takes a bit of a back-seat to Watson in this story but the relationship between the two is full of wonderful characterisation and witty dialogue. The Baskerville family curse and death of Sir Charles Baskerville turns out to be a classic Victorian crime, motivated by money and planned by an arrogant cad.

There is a reason why Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are characters still well-known and loved in 2018. And that’s due to the flawless plotting of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a dazzling story that keeps you turning the page.

Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt. Gothic romance and published in 1960. I’m not one for romance novels and I kind of wish I hadn’t started this book. But it’s said to be classic Gothic so I thought I would read it. Victoria Holt was a prolific English author whose real name was Eleanor Hibbert. She wrote in many genres and under many different names. To name a few – Jean Plaidy for novels about British royalty, and Philippa Carr for family sagas.

It’s a very predictable formula in this novel: young woman in the 1800s falls on hard times and has to earn her living as a governess. She secures a job in the countryside of Cornwall looking after a troubled eight-year old girl whose mother (Alice)  recently died. Governess falls for The Master of the house but there’s also a potential love interest with a dashing neighbour, who rushes around the countryside on his majestic horse. Throw in a few nasty bitches (who are of course beautiful and of a higher station in life than the MC, Martha Leigh).

Also throw in the suggestion that the grand Cornish home is haunted by Alice who may, or may not, have run off with the dashing horseman’s brother. But not to despair, because Martha ends up marrying The Master (who goes by the odd name of Connan TreMellyn).

I found this book pretty boring to be honest. I didn’t like the formulaic impoverished gentlewoman falls for mysterious (but rich) landowner. It was also missing the Gothic element of atmosphere in my view. I was wanting more description of the house and the setting. Sure, some mist and fog was thrown in here and there, but the setting failed to provide the eerie atmosphere. I read this novel straight after Hound of the Baskervilles, so couldn’t help but compare. Conan Doyle excelled when it came to scaring the bejesus out of the reader; whereas Holt provided a bit of a yawn.

Holt’s writing style was bland and the characters were a bit like cardboard – except for the dashing horseman. He at least was quirky. There was no real suspense. When we find out what happened to Alice, it started to get interesting but this lasted all of one minute. We discovered who dunnit but the reader didn’t need The Epilogue, which explained the bleeding obvious. The motive for the crime was a tad unbelievable.

The novel borrowed from Jane Eyre and Rebecca but was not up to the standard of either. Meh.

Paisley Shirt by Gail Aldwin. This is a collection of 27 short tales. I read it on my Kindle – getting a bit more used to reading e-books. Much easier on a Kindle than it is on a laptop.

I really liked this collection for a couple of reasons. I appreciated the minimalist writing style and I thought the stories were varied from character point of view and setting. It was like listening into the conversations of people from many different cultures.

I sensed the theme of overcoming challenges in this collection or resilience if you like. My favourite piece was Accidental Brother, a very poignant story about a young African boy fleeing (without his family) from marauding soldiers. Another piece I liked was the opening story, Paisley Shirt, about finding love in middle age.

I didn’t like (or rather didn’t really understand) Breastfeeding. This story seemed to be instructions on how to attach a baby to the breast. I must have missed the point. Another story, called Packing, seemed to be a list of items a person should take to college or university. I didn’t get the subtlety behind this. On the whole though, I really enjoyed the eclectic mix of stories and characters, along with the simple but powerful writing style. Aldwin can pack a punch in a small space and I’ll certainly revisit this collection.

Badlands by Alyson Faye. This is a collection of pretty creepy short tales. Most of the stories revolve around ghosts and the macabre, and were often quite twisted and unsettling – maybe that’s a good thing though as it took me out of my comfort zone.

Each story was well-written and I thought Scarecrow was a very powerful story of revenge (to do with a German soldier found in an English field in WWII). It’s another collection I’ll certainly read again.

The Book Collector by Alice Thompson. Scottish novelist. Gothic suspense published in 2015. Well, this was a macabre page-turner. The setting is the Edwardian era and that was a welcome change from Victorian times. The MC is Violet, a young woman who meets a mysterious older man at a cafe. There is instant attraction between them and a month later, Violet and Lord Archibald Murray are married. Lord Murray is a book collector and seems to have a bit of an obsession with books, particularly a book of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen that he keeps locked in a safe.

This is a story about wishing for a fairy tale life – a happy marriage, loving husband, children and a comfortable home. But what  happens when two people come together and their life is anything but a fairy tale? This is the question explored in this novel. Violet too becomes obsessed with the book of fairy tales and descends into delusions and nightmares. Is she mad? Her husband thinks so and has her promptly committed to the nearby insane asylum.

All the trappings of Gothic fiction are here: house in the remote countryside; the asylum, a husband who disappears at nights; a dark cave; a foreboding forest. I liked the straight-forward writing style and this was interesting because it had a modern feel to it, rather than florid Edwardian vocabulary. I loved Thompson’s observation about the male-dominated world. When Violet is committed, she looks around her and realises that it is her husband who has the power to commit her; the doctors are male and do not believe her; the male family doctor seems to be in collusion with the husband. The female of the time period is a pawn in the male chess game.

I also liked that Thompson employed the unreliable narrator for this story – is Violet completely bonkers or is she sane, but trapped in a horrifying web of deceit and unspeakable darkness? Lord Murray harbours a pretty shocking secret. I won’t spoil it for you in case you decide to read The Book Collector. I did find parts of this novel pretty gruesome.

One thing that bothered me about this book though was the pace. Violet is a 19 year-old girl looking for a job in London when she meets Lord Murray at a cafe. From marriage to the birth of their son, Felix; to Violet’s descent into seeming madness; to the insane asylum and her return home; and dealing with more delusions and fantasies – well, all of this happened rapidly and in a linear sequence of events. When Violet returned from the insane asylum, I thought that might have been a good place to start the novel. Have Violet return home, try to work out her strange surroundings and what her husband is up to – this might have been an intriguing entry point for the story.

This aside, it was a cracker of a novel and I might just go off and read some other books by Alice Thompson.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Gothic horror novel from 1959. This is considered one of the best ghost stories written in the 20th century and Stephen King admits to be heavily influenced by Jackson’s writing. Unfortunately, I did not like the writing style – too many adverbs and the dialogue was unnatural to my ear – but the story itself was very well-executed.

Hill House is an eighty-year old spooky mansion and four people spend a summer there investigating possible paranormal activity. The house is rented by Dr Montague, an academic interested in the supernatural, and he gathers two people who have experience with bizarre events: Theodora and Eleanor Vance. Also present is Luke Sanderson who is a member of the family who own the house, built by the mysterious and unpleasant Hugh Crain. He is also its heir. I guess the fifth character is the house itself and this is somewhat reminiscent of Rebecca.

Eleanor is the narrator and has spent years looking after her ailing mother. She is shy and longing to live her own life. Theodora is somewhat bohemian (she goes only by her first name) and Luke is your dashing male character. I do think that Jackson bordered on turning the four into caricatures at times.

However, Jackson excels at creating ambience. In this case, a sense of foreboding. All seems well during the day at Hill House but the housekeeper, Mrs Dudley, repeatedly warns the four guests that she will not stay at Hill House after dark. People in the nearby village of Hillsdale also warn Eleanor that people will not go near the house, due to its history of psychic disturbance and suicide.

What unfolds is a psychological study of fear or rather the state of being afraid. But we only have Eleanor’s view of the events and she is unreliable. Unexplained events occur – the sound of something roaming the hallways at night; bloody words scrawled on the walls of Theodora’s bedroom; doors mysteriously closing. Eleanor experiences these occurrences, including believing she was holding Theo’s hand as a “ghost” was trying to batter down their bedroom door – only to find it wasn’t Theo’s hand at all. But is Eleanor imaging these events and losing touch with reality? The other characters don’t always seem to experience what Eleanor sees or feels.

Jackson never spells out what is happening. The two daughters of Hugh Crain had a falling out over a man, so is Eleanor possessed by the spirit of one of them? Does the house itself possess her? The ending is also ambiguous – does Eleanor commit suicide or is her life taken by the house and its spirits?

Although I found the writing style dated, it was certainly a very satisfying read.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. This is a very well-known 6,000 word short story by the American feminist writer Gilman, published in 1892.

I really enjoyed this story based on the author’s own experience with depression. The MC (unnamed but sometimes referred to as Jane) is recovering from the birth of her baby. Her husband, John, is a doctor and misdiagnoses her postpartum depression as hysteria. He rents a country house for three months and prescribes a rest cure – bed rest in a former nursery. What seems to be a sunny and spacious room is dominated by ugly, crumbling yellow wallpaper of a chaotic pattern.

The MC spends her time obsessing over the wallpaper in which she sees the figure of a woman, bulbous eyes and broken necks. John’s sister, Jennie, takes care of the house and a nanny looks after the baby. This provides the MC with plenty of time to become anxious over the visions she sees or imagines in the wallpaper. As a result, her health deteriorates but John refuses to move her out of the room.

At night, the MC believes a young woman is desperately trying to break out of the wallpaper, but the bars on the nursery room windows prevent her from breaking free. The MC decides to help the woman by peeling off the wallpaper during the night. She then believes she sees the woman (or women) creeping about in the sunlight in the garden. She locks herself inside the room the next night and basically turns into one of the women of the wallpaper.

The Yellow Wallpaper is very clearly a story written to highlight the role of women in Victorian society. A woman was dependent on her husband in the Victorian era and the lack of autonomy could lead to mental and physical decline. The story reminded me quite a bit of The Victorian Chaise Longue, which I reviewed here.

A must-read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski. Published 1953 and I have A Guild Original edition from that year. As part of my New Year’s resolution to read books and authors from the early to mid-20th C, I picked up this book at a second-hand book shop. This is a novella by an English novelist widely known in the early 1950s for her book, Little Boy Lost.

Given the premise, I was expecting more suspense and horror but I think you need to approach this book as a study in fear. The MC is Melanie Langdon, who is recovering from tuberculosis. She is married to Guy and has a baby who is looked after by a nanny. One afternoon, she relaxes on a chaise-longue she bought at an antique shop in 1950’s London. She drifts off to sleep and…..awakens in the year 1864 and in the body of Milly Baines. She is lying on the very same chaise-longue and we learn that Milly also suffers from TB but her condition is far more advanced. She is kept in a dark, smelly room by her sister, Adelaide, and we quickly learn that the sister disapproves of something Milly has done.

What I liked about this novella is how we are inside Melanie’s mind as she looks at the unfamiliar surroundings: the furniture in the room, the dress worn by Adelaide. Along with Melanie, we wonder: is this a nightmare? But it can’t be since Melanie starts to recognise people, particularly Mr Charters, who she is instantly and emotionally drawn to.

Melanie’s thoughts become those of Milly and we start to question whether they are one and the same person; or whether Melanie has time-travelled; or is remembering a previous life. Melanie is trapped and desperate to have Dr. Endworthy (who is attending her) believe that she is from the future and is not Milly Baines.

I don’t know if I’m placing a modern interpretation on this book, because after all, it might just be a study of fear. But I wonder if Laski was commenting on the changing role of women: Victorian-era Milly was cloistered away, not only due to her illness, but because her secret brought great shame on women of that time period. On the other hand, Melanie lived in the post-WWII era, which had more economic opportunities since women had been a part of the war effort. However, the 1950s was still a repressed decade for women and so Melanie finds herself a victim of the very same claustrophobic and powerless milieu Victorian women found themselves in. I think it’s a great book for the contemporary woman to read: you will be in the grip of panic just thinking about the lack of power and independence women had in both time periods.

The writing style I found a bit turgid and, towards the end of the novella, it gets philosophical (which I didn’t mind). I’d thoroughly recommend this book.

The Boat Runner by Devin Murphy. Debut novel published in 2017. This is a very original look at WWII through the eyes of a 14-year-old Dutch boy, Jacob Koopman, who lives in Delfzijl, Netherlands, where his father has a light bulb factory. I liked the way this story started off on the cusp of war in 1939 – a fairly affluent Dutch family, complete with family dog. Jacob and his brother Edwin are sent to a boy’s camp in Germany and this is basically a Hitler Youth Camp.

The Germans declare war and eventually the Dutch surrender. Delfzijl is occupied and Jacob’s father must flee because he has been sabotaging the German war efforts. Jacob’s uncle has his fishing boat confiscated by the occupiers and goes to work for the Germans, although we discover that he works tirelessly against the Germans.

Jacob’s mother is killed when the Allies bomb Delfzijl and he decides to fight for the Germans and enlists in the naval programme. He is trained to run solo missions in midget submarines and sinks an Allied ship. Uncle Martin reappears in his life and urges him to flee Europe.

Essentially, this novel is about guilt. Jacob considered his uncle guilty of murder by shooting the German soldiers he was supposed to be ferrying to Delfzijl. When he sinks the Allied ship with a torpedo, Jacob sees a man leaping to a fiery death and he becomes consumed with guilt. He then escapes the naval programme and begins an arduous journey across Europe, suffers frost bite and is nearly captured. Ultimately, Jacob makes it to England and I won’t spoilt it for you – what he becomes in life is quite fitting.

I liked this novel but it was not a page turner. I think due to the prose. Murphy certainly has a way with words but, at times, the purple prose descriptions were a bit too much. I kept expecting some Biblical theme music or trumpets sounding from the heavens.

I think characterisation was extremely good but this novel is no light read. It’s full of sadness and loss. But that is the story of WWII. Sometimes I found the dialogue a bit too contemporary. For example on p.231 a character says: “Wait, what?”. I’m not sure that would have been said in the 1940s.

I like ambiguous or untidy endings but one part of this irritated me – we never found out what happened to Jacob’s father.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. This is the first book in a trilogy by a Chinese author, originally published in 2006 and now translated for an English-speaking audience. I know this is a highly-regarded sci-fi novel in China and although it’s interesting, I found it incredibly boring in parts. I don’t normally read sci-fi or fantasy but decided to branch out in 2018. This novel won the Hugo Award for best novel in 2015, so I thought let’s give it a go.

Basically, it’s the story of humanity’s first contact with aliens, set against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution. A signal was sent out from Earth and discovered by the Trisolaran civilisation, who inhabit a world with three unpredictable suns. On Earth, factions form from those who want to welcome the aliens to those who will fight the invasion. Any number of important questions are raised along the way – do we really want aliens to know of our existence? Given our destruction of the environment and natural resources, is humanity worth saving? What is the role and importance of randomness in our universe?

What I found particularly fascinating was the link between the Cultural Revolution (which occurred between 1966-1976) and one of the main characters, Ye Wenjie, an astrophysicist who witnesses the beating to death of her father during the revolution. Many years later, she becomes the first person to contact an alien race. Her dark experience during the Cultural Revolution led her to be so disappointed in humanity that she could entertain inviting an alien race to come to Earth, despite a warning from someone on Trisolaris that she should not respond to any message (clearly indicating that the Trisolarans are a nasty bunch of aliens).

However, the problem I have with this novel (over 400+ pages) is the writing style – lengthy passages of technical exposition about everything from quantum mechanics to artificial intelligence. Interesting yes, but also could send you off to sleep. I sometimes thought I was reading a textbook, such was the stilted academic-type prose. I could not engage with any (of the many!) wooden characters.

This is a book of ideas, not Independence Day with spaceships buzzing around. Why it took over 400 pages to say what the author wanted, I don’t know.

The fascinating parts of the book for me were learning more about China under the Cultural Revolution; the postscript in which Cixin Liu talks about his fascination with the first Chinese satellite, launched in 1970, and his early life in a small village; and the translator’s explanation regarding choice of words, as well as the footnotes in the novel explaining Chinese historical or cultural references.

Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu – Irish writer of Gothic horror. This novella was recommended to me by a writing friend and it’s a cracker. I have an e-book version. Some niggly points – I had to ignore the fact that the word “languid” was used many, many times – to describe eyes and general disposition of a character. And I had to accept the dense language of the time period, because this novella was published in 1872.

It’s a simple story of a young girl, Laura, who is preyed on by a female vampire called Carmilla. Apparently, Carmilla was a major influence on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was written some twenty years later. I say this novella was a cracker for a number of reasons. The slow, steady pace got me hooked. No nutty, sharp teeth-baring vampires. This story was a study in restraint.

Laura lives with her father in a castle in a remote area of Styria (Austria) and they give shelter to a young woman, Carmilla. The girls become very close; to the extent that Laura is a bit creeped out.

Laura starts to suffer horrible nightmares after Carmilla’s arrival. She dreams of being bitten on the chest by a creature that looks like a large black cat. Her troubled nights lead to exhaustion and lethargy during the day. The author builds up the tension through Carmilla being possessive of Laura, who is both attracted and repulsed by her but does not have the energy to resist the vampire. Here’s an example of the writing style that suggests an erotic undertone (narrated by Laura):

“I have been in love with no one, and never shall,” she whispered, “unless it should be with you.”

How beautiful she looked in the moonlight!

Shy and strange was the look with which she quickly hid her face in my neck and hair, with tumultuous sighs, that seemed almost to sob, and pressed in mine a hand that trembled.

Her soft cheek was glowing against mine. “Darling, darling,” she murmured, “I live in you; and you would die for me, I love you so.”

This is a novella that pits good against evil and all the elements of a good Gothic horror setting are thrown in: old castle, dark forests, nights illuminated by silver moonlight, mist, old chapels, and graveyards.

I wondered at times if I was reading some cross between a vampire and a ghost story. Because Carmilla could disappear through walls or appear at the foot of Laura’s bed as a shadowy figure. I have not read a lot of vampire stories so am not entirely clued up on vampire lore.

I love the mystery built up around Carmilla’s identity. We never really know her back story. We never learn who the mysterious older woman was that accompanied Carmilla at the time of the carriage accident (this accident was witnessed by Laura and her father, who agreed to take the injured Carmilla into the castle while the older woman dashed off on some emergency).

Modern vampires sparkle in the sunlight a’la Twilight, but Carmilla is a character with intriguing depth. Innocent and beautiful to look at; but lies in her coffin while bathed in seven inches of blood. Terrifying!!

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier. Published in 1951. I’m a great fan of this author and have recently reread Rebecca. This is my third time (I think) reading My Cousin Rachel and I consider it better than Rebecca. Absolutely flawless plotting and writing pace.

Phillip Ashley is the narrator. He is the 24-year old cousin of Ambrose, who sets out from his Cornwall estate for the warmer climate of Italy for health reasons, only to meet and marry Rachel (who is apparently a daughter in some obscure Cornish branch of the Ashley family). Ambrose sends increasingly disturbing letters back to Phillip in Cornwall, suggesting that he is being poisoned by Rachel and her Italian friend, Rainaldi. Phillips rushes to Italy (as best you can rush in the early 1800s when the novel is set) only to find Ambrose died weeks earlier in Rachel’s Florentine villa.

Phillip nurtures a simmering hatred for Rachel but then she shows up in England. Due to propriety, Phillip is forced to invite her to the Cornwall estate he shared with Ambrose (who raised Phillip after his parents died when he was very young). Rachel brings with her Ambrose’s books and clothes. Phillip quickly finds that she is not the woman he had constructed in his mind and falls for her.

From this point onward, it’s a guessing game: is Rachel innocent or a cold-hearted poisoner out to get the Cornwall estate and the family jewels? The novel is chock full of unreliable narrators – all the characters see Rachel and her relationship with Phillip from their own preconceptions. We only ever know Rachel through Phillip’s eyes, so we never learn whether she is telling the truth. Phillip makes some eye-popping choices but the time period meant that he led a rather sheltered life and was naive. This just contributes to his unreliability as a narrator.

There’s a great Gothic atmosphere to this book – pastoral scenes, sweeping Cornish landscape, large estate house, brooding storms. It’s a psychological study of obsession and du Maurier leaves us hanging with the ambiguous ending. Loved every minute of this classic novel.

 

 

 

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