Friday, 1 December 2017

Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor

This novel tells the story of a fictional, unnamed village somewhere in the Peak District. It's a geographical collage of real places squished into one, smaller location. Some of the landscapes and features will be very familiar to those of us who know the area; the cement works, the Seven Sisters stones and its occasional commune of hippies. Some less Midlandy readers may never have experienced the utter bafflement of beholding the spectacle that is Well Dressing, and might not know what a clough or a cob is. You will learn.

The catalyst of the novel, the arbitrary event from which we mark time is the disappearance of a thirteen year old girl, a tourist, who was staying in the Hunters' holiday let in the village one freezing New Year's. She is never found, and the case is never solved. Her name was Becky, or Rebecca, or Bex. The villagers turn out to search for her, they are invested in her fate. Though we never know what happened, the ripples of the event carry a long way, and resurface in unexpected ways. Though this death/disappearance weighs on the minds, consciences and imaginations of the community, it is not enough to halt time, and a new post-Becky normal is established. Life, as it does, goes on. The natural cycles of the plants, the wildlife, the weather continue. Village existence seems mostly unaltered, one year to the next, but as the plot progresses, long term changes in the village's existence begin to emerge, the character of the place itself is felt to subtly evolve. 

The story takes place over a 13 year period, with each chapter following the events of a single year. Each chapter starts with fireworks, observed or unobserved, and each year has various perennial events come and go; the nesting blackbirds, the ripening apples, the lambing, the clocks going back an the nights overtaking the days, the well dressing boards go into the river, the harvest festival display is arranged, the parish council meetings are well attended or poorly attended. New people move to the village and are or are not accepted into the fold. Kids grow up and move away. People get divorced, people hook up. Businesses close down, allotments are tended. Arguments are had, problems are resolved. People keep pushing the Millennium stones off their plinths and the congregation fluctuates at the local church. Nature continues much as it always has, since before there were any people there to observe its business. In many ways, all is the same. In subtler, more unspoken ways the reader gets the sense that the days of communities like this are numbered.

It is by no means a detective story, despite slightly sounding like it might be on the jacket, but the lingering mystery of the missing girl hangs over the village. I loved that it wasn't resolved- it's the questions with no answers that transfix us the most. Jack the Ripper and the Zodiac killer are long-term cases all the more fascinating for never having been solved. It's why the media still hungers after leads on Madeline McCann; we hate to *not know*. I haven't read a book in a long time that just does not offer answers. Not even suspects. It just stops, and I liked that. Although. If I had to guess who knew what happened, it would be Clive. He doesn't miss a trick sat on that allotment. Nothing gets past Clive.

I loved the structure, the repetition, the way the author mapped the lives of an entire village across such a span of time. I loved how people changed, did things that surprised people, did things that everybody was waiting for. I loved how intimate it felt, how well we got to know ordinary people. I loved that there was very little dialogue, just reported speech disclosed by this omniscient narrator. It gave the whole narrative a gossip-y second hand vibe that felt powerfully in keeping with the village lifestyle, with its tight-knit cliques and characters. I loved the women in the novel- the ones that held enormous families together, the ones that had been brave enough to escape abusive spouses. The women who started businesses and cared for their learning disabled sons, and the late middle aged ones that renounce men for good and move in together.

McGregor so obviously has an incredible eye for detail. The landscapes are beautiful, the essence of the passage of time is devastating and all his characters are convincing; young and old, male and female, happy and distraught. They all get breathing space to mature and evolve, to have their own little crises and triumphs. The reader really gets the feeling that they hold the entire village in their hand. The author manages to be sympathetic to the community, but unsentimental about its place on its own timeline. Nature is observed, rather than morally assessed, and the whole reading experience feels quite cleansing and enigmatic. It's an incredible book; quiet and reflective but rich and rewarding.

Friday, 17 November 2017

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly, by Stephanie Oakes

I love books about cults and/or survivalists. I think I secretly want that post-apocalypse grow-your-own veg and build your own house self-sufficiency lifestyle, only without the murderous religious extremism.. After reading the excellent After the Fire earlier this Autumn, I decided to try The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly. Also excellent.

The story begins with a girl kicking a boy half to death and being cuffed and loaded into a police vehicle. Only the officers struggle to cuff her because she has no hands- her arms end in sore, angry stumps. So how did this mutilated girl get to be under this bridge on the outskirts of Missoula, in the snow, kicking a boy to mush? The format of the story is quite similar to the aforementioned After The Fire. Minnow, sentenced to imprisonment in Juvie, recounts to an FBI doctor the story of her decade in the Community, a secluded, polygamous collection of ‘saved’ people, living in the woods under the sketchy doctrine and rabid regulation of the Prophet. These Prophets. It seems that their gods always want them to have absolute authority and to sleep with young girls. Funny that. Anyway, Minnow escaped the cult, somebody burned it to ashes, and there’s a chance Minnow might know what happened, but she isn’t talking.

My favourite thing about this book was Minnow’s relationship with her convicted murdered cellmate Angel, a cornrowed, cynical lifer and long-term resident of ’the system’. As unlikely a friendship as you will ever read, Minnow brings out the softness in her- Angel helps Minnow learn to read and swear properly, to navigate the cliques and gangs of the detention centre, and encourages her to hold on to her hope, having never really grasped her own. In Juvie, Minnow sheds her naivety and becomes this strong, impressive young woman full of excitement at all these new ideas and things to learn. Though she has always been low key rebellious and resistant to the Prophet’s dogma, this scared, betrayed girl is galvanised by exposure to a tiny slice of the real world into this woman who refuses to be a victim and learns to think for herself. She was so resilient and admirable, still wanted things and had hopes and plans and drive.

I really liked how much emphasis the book put on the complexity of families, how a certain amount of love and loyalty can still exist despite violence, regret, loss of agency and harm. It focuses too on consequences of actions and the failings and labyrinths of the criminal justice system, the moral minefields are the differences between murder and self-defence and the impact of physical and psychological torture on a person’s behaviour. It asks is murder ever justified? What about in self-defence? What if a murder prevents a horrible crime?

I must also add that I absolutely adored the writing- it was beautiful. The prose was full of Minnow’s pain and longing and the intelligence that she had never been allowed to cultivate. I loved the sections on the stars, how she kept returning to the stars as her anchor point in the world. First they were a divine certainty, then a celestial mystery and it was through learning about anything and everything that she came to realise that not having answers is okay. I was completely swept away in Oakes’s prose and constantly found myself rereading lines and paragraphs that were particularly stuffed with beautiful images or almost tangible thoughts. I loved the scene in the pear orchard where Minnow sees her only friend from the outside world- there’s something not quite right about him and afterwards, having read the scene in which she saw him last, I’m pretty sure I was right about what that scene was supposed to be- I don’t want to give too much away, but it was composed and reflected on very well within the story. The reader is forced to do a bit of a reappraisal of that scene which I thought was an unusual move and worked well.

In summary, a very good addition to the Cult genre that I enjoyed hugely and would certainly recommend. Loved the characters, loved the pace. Loved that the story was not so much about the cult, but about the recovery from indoctrination and the healing process. Thoughtful, inspiring, bloody, beautifully written, full of growth and maturity and makes you realise that broken people can be put back together to become super-strong heroes and that horrific torture and life-altering mutilations aren’t enough to keep some people down.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

The Haunting, by Alex Bell

Firstly, I am a massive fan of the Red Eye series, and Horror generally. Though I will attest that the thing that is *most scary* is cheap jump scares that go MLLLURH!! At you and books can’t really do that. They have to use mere words to create atmosphere and suspense, and actual craft.

So. The Haunting. Overall, I very much enjoyed it. I was compelled by it, unnerved by it. I loved the setting and the idea of a Cornish Inn built from the salvaged timber of a wrecked ship, an unusual, grotesque building housing its own secrets and its own misery, menacing the living with tricks and manipulation. 

The book tells the story of Emma, returning to Cornwall with her assistance dog Bailey to visit her dying nan. Emma had an accident at the Waterwitch when she was 7 that left her in a wheelchair, and her family relocated shortly after, cutting Nan out of their lives. Poor Nan. She was a bit Ex MachiNan, as she literally just exists to induce the plot- bless her.  Emma is reunited, by accident, with her childhood BFF Jem and his little sister Shell, the witnesses to her accident. They seem to have fallen on hard times in her absence and are noticeably disheveled and haunted looking. Emma is shocked to discover that Shell’s childhood kooks are alive and well despite her nopw being in her mid-teens. She believes herself to be a Witch and plagued by flocks of birds that only she can see. Jem attributes this behaviour to trauma following their mother’s suicide and their troubled home life. Jem, bless his heart, does quite a lot of attributing odd things to Perfectly Reasonable Occurrences. He would have made an excellent guard in Skyrim.

Emma, on half term for the week, decides to move into the Waterwitch to keep Shell company, convinced that isolation and wandering imaginations are mostly responsible for her distress. Shell is adamant that the drowned sailors still haunt the Waterwitch, along with the ship’s two-timing captain, a relative of Shell and Jem, and a haggard, furious witch that craves revenge on the man that wronged her. I loved the mystery woven into the story, the history and secrets that are gradually unraveled by Shell and Emma as they investigate this Waterwitch’s history at various witchcraft museums in Cornwall. Some of the flashback scenes are pretty horrific and gruesome. I loved that once Shell knew the full story, she was in total sympathy with the victim, afraid, sure, but also righteously angry and determined to make things right.

Emma was an interesting character- she was very aware of how people see her and her dog and chair, and deliberately ups the sass levels to go against expectations. I liked how independent she was and how determined to do what she felt was the right thing. I really liked the characters of Jem and Shell, their traumatic home life commands sympathy from the reader. Their father, the one remaining parent, is violent and abusive towards his children, children he resents and despises. There are some heart-breaking sections where Jem wishes that his drunken, abusive father had always and consistently been cruel, as the occasional moments of goodness from him made him harder to hate. Shell talks about how horrific it is to be mortally afraid of someone you love. It’s very much a subplot, but worth noting. I suppose Shell’s damagedness makes it harder to determine if the things she sees are real or not, though they seem consistently real to her.

Some of my frustrations when reading this book were probably necessary. The Horror genre, particularly supernatural horror, depends on a quantity of characters being skeptical. They need to find rational explanations to spooky goings on. We, the reader, need to vocally curse them for refusing to believe things they are seeing with their own eyes- it’s all part of the plan. There is definitely some of that going on with Emma and Jem, who put the Waterwitch’s unusual goings on down to warped, old wood, overactive imaginations and the wind. Shell, on the other hand, knows exactly what the deal is, but is powerless to get anyone to believe her.

I liked that there was no romance, that the plot was allowed to focus on friendship and family and history. I loved the atmospheric setting of the novel, the menacing, grotesque Inn was an incredibly memorable place that conjured up mental comparisons with Jamaica Inn and Smuggler’s Cott and all those wonky, poky buildings all over Britain that defy physics by standing upright at all, let alone remaining vertical for 400 years.

I loved that the book's main character was a person with a disability, it is something that is less visible that it should in fiction- also, I liked that moving on from the accident and adjusting to a new normal was not the crux of the plot, merely an ongoing process, which seemed realistic. My only criticism of the whole novel was that I felt the author was a bit too hung up on Emma being a wheelchair user, something that became particularly evident during Emma’s narrated sections. There were many, many unnecessary reminders that Emma was in a wheelchair that became a bit noticeable and started to bug me every time a narrator needlessly referred to it. Like, it's fine to just go across a room , or move across, no need to specify 'wheeled' every time. And yes, noting another old building's lack of accessible entrance is understandable, but it would be followed by a reminder of the wheelchair in many instances.

Aside from the one small niggle, I absolutely loved it- the pace was great, the characters were memorable and relatable, the atmosphere and the threat were consistent and menacing, and the plot's strands were gathered up well. I think I'll go for Dark Room next, and long may the Red Eye series continue to produce smart, pacy thrillers that leave no corner of the irrational human brain unexplored when it comes to what scares us.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Elmet, by Fiona Mozley

I would really struggle to place this in any kind of genre- I’ve heard Gothic Noir banded about, and that works, but doesn’t really capture the book’s preoccupation with nature, belonging and family, though the also important themes of conflict and male violence fit nicely.  As brutal and as violent as this book is, I couldn’t help but feel that this is how people are supposed to live. In houses that they build, eating things they catch, understanding the flow of the forests and the land.

It’s a beautifully written novel, with a striking turn of phrase and atmospheric prose. Elmet is a Celtic Kingdom, comprising of what is now the West Riding of Yorkshire- the  Ted Hughs’s ‘badlands’, the leafy sanctuary of Robin Hood and various other outlaws of folklore, though we all know that’s sacrilege and Robin was a Nottingham boy.

The story is narrated by 14 year old Daniel, a quiet, gentle boy that idolises his elder sister Cathy and his larger than life father, John aka Daddy. The three of them live in a rough house, built by Daddy’s hands in a secluded copse in an area that their absent mother grew up in- land that had previously belonged to her family but poverty necessitated the sale of. They live on hunted, foraged and traded goods, favours and bartered services. Previously, Daniel and Cathy had lived with their Grandmother- a somewhat odd arrangement that saw both parents periodically appearing then disappearing for long stretches. Both teens were bullied in school- Daniel accepted it as his dues, Cathy was more capable and inclined to fight back, getting into more trouble as a result because that’s how the world works. There’s an interesting commentary on gender, power and the victim/abuser relationship tied up in the characters of Cathy and Daniel.

Daddy is a huge, quiet colossal of a man with a fearsome reputation as an undefeated bareknuckle boxer. Though he speaks little, there is a barely contained rage simmering just beneath his surface- something that seems to be an established and respected fact to his children. Daddy is fiercely resolute in his belief in independence, in his and his family’s right to live how they do, where they do, with no interference. The only things he can allow himself to depend on are his fists and his family. Daddy moonlights as a bit of a Fists For Hire outfit, lending his imposing person and his unquestionable menace to the local population in return for favours. He organises and motivates the impoverished and exploited community into taking action against their bullying landlords by withholding labour and rent payments, lending the strike an air of threat and officialness that nobody else could provide. A single figure is able to empower and revitalise an ailing, fragmented community into something with agency. Price, the main landlord, farmer and cash-in-hand employer of most of the community sees this action as a declaration of war. Price is not only the owner of Daddy’s copse, but the two have a shared history that further aggravates their already poor relationship,  and events reach their tragic but inevitable conclusion.

Cathy and Daniel are close, each the other’s only real company and united in their status as outcasts, but they are nothing alike. Daniel takes after his absent and enigmatic mother; sensitive and thoughtful, intelligent in a bookish way. He avoids conflict, is satisfied with everything he has in life and takes care of the home. He is the cook, the vegetable grower, the neatener and straightener of the house. He enjoys being inside as much as outside. He's a compelling narrator, barley present but thorough in his narrative. Cathy on the other hand is volatile and by her own admission, permanently angry. She belongs outdoors, like her father. She is prepared to back up her beliefs and her judgements with strength and violence. Their differences are most evident when they visit Vivien, a friend of Daddy’s that has been induced to provide the children with some form of education. Cathy shuns her house, her possessions and her attention, preferring to roam the fields, while Daniel builds up an unusual, confusing relationship with her. 

Elmet is bleak and beautiful and a ridiculous accomplishment for a debut novelist. I loved the themes of conformity, family, belonging and conflict, and I think these were played out incredibly effectively against a backdrop of land ownership, ancient woodlands and the idea of legacy and revenge. A really unusual mixture of elements that highlighted the author’s background in medieval history brilliantly. I loved the characters and their odd, abrupt and dreamy narration of Daniel, a person so gently and bewildered that the reader cannot help but feel sympathy for him and his eventual predicament.

And the Ass Saw the Angel, by Nick Cave

Euchrid Eucrow is the last word in crazy misfits. The second born but sole surviving twin, Euchrid is born in a rusted out car to a grotesquely drunken beast of a mother and a browbeaten, cruel, brute of a father. It's mostly down hill from there. He lives in a junk heap shack on the edge of a sugarcane town in an isolated valley in the middle of nowhere. Euchrid is not a good advertisement for isolation. Probably also not a poster boy for Incest but that’s less his fault.

As an adolescent, the abused and neglected Euchrid stays out of the way of his monstrous parents, preferring to spend long hours in the hills by himself. He collects skulls, hair, blood, teeth, scabs, toenail clippings…some his own, some of the creatures his father traps and tortures, some from murdered townspeople. Keeping it varied. He constructs a grotto of his treasures, half hideaway, half shrine… He spies on the townspeople, hiding from their fists and accusing eyes. He lurks on the fringes of the town, watching, narrating and applying his own brand of logic to the town’s goings on. He's a mute, but that does not seem to prevent him from narrating his own miserable story.

The rough, neglected, mostly confused, frequently filthy Euchrid eventually becomes convinced he is some sort of emissary from God. He has never known friendship or kindness, never been an equal of anyone, never been accepted and never addressed by name, save in his own sprawling inner monologue. He is not the only apparently Godly being in the town- the foundling Beth, a child of the town, is groomed by the Ukelites for sainthood. To begin with it’s quite easy to pity the unloved and unlovely Euchrid- beaten, ridiculed and scorned as he is. However, as the book goes on he does become quite a successful serial killer and animal torturer and mutilator, and so the reader’s sympathy kind of dries up. Though he is still fascinating, it’s no longer possible to feel any kind of empathy for him as he descends into a violent, gleeful madness.

And the Ass Saw the Angel is a searing, brutal slog of a novel that maps the gradual descent into insanity of its mute protagonist. The prose is vicious and overwrought; usually shocking, occasionally very funny. It jumps around between a first person phonetic Southern dialect of Euchrid, and an effusive, detail obsessed narratorial voice that fills in the gaps. I can see why many readers have bemoaned its lack of editing and view it as a self-indulgent, over inflated short story, but I found it weirdly compelling despite its bile, and enjoyed picking out the familiar lines that were either borrowed from the back catalogue made it into subsequent songs. Fans of Nick Cave’s music will be able to spot little crossovers between his 80s songs and his prose; the moths trying to “enter the bright eyes” of bulbs from Mercy Seat, the dead first born twin, drunk mother and rural, endless rain of Tupelo, themes and images that keep repeating- religion, morality, madness, responsibility, insanity…He’s such a brilliant little weirdo.

For a first time novelist, an Australian and a guy that was about 75% heroin in 1989, it’s a remarkable, striking addition to the Southern Gothic landscape. An intense, uncomfortable read that is drenched in heat, grime and sweat, excessive violence and rage- the landscape of the narrative is brilliantly composed and the characters that populate it are typical Cave creations- fire and brimstone preachers, garish prostitutes, gibbering hobos and inebriated, inbred hillfolk.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Sooky Halloween Reads

I love ghosts and haunted houses, but always run out of time before October 31st to actually *fit any in* as September/October is often "Frantically reading the Booker Shortlist" time. So in the interests of being nice and early...If you were in the market for some spooky Halloween reads, theses are some of my all time favourites.

Say Her Name, by Juno Dawson
A classic bloody Mary ghost story set in a girls' boarding school. Bobbie, the main character is just so funny and realistic and badass, and it's genuinely a scary, blood curdling story of tragic boarding school girls, vengeance and classic malevolent spirits that aren't bothered who they damn forever.

The Secret of Crickley Hall, by James Herbert
Nefarious orphanage patrons. Ghostly boys. A celler door that won't stay locked. A bereaved family looking for peace. Draughty corridors and secretive locals. Proper classic stuff.

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson
The OG of all the films, both ones directly adapted from this novel and all those slightly similar- it seems familiar because it kind of started it all. The tweedy professor type, the handsome posh boy, the shy retiring girl and the balshy bohemian investigate a reportedly haunted house. By daylight Hill House seems a dilapidated, handsome but disheveled country manor. By night, something slightly more sinister. I love the idea of places and buildings being diffused with malignant evil, that they soak up all of the bad things that ever happen within their walls and mete it out to the unwise fools that get close enough. SJ is absolutely masterful and pulling suspense out of nowhere. A masterclass in unease.

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins
So not technically a ghost story, but that beginning scene is one of the most creepy, atmospheric perfect little book beginnings in 200 years. Mist. Gas lamps. A cemetery. A white clad figure, looking sad. It's all there.

So what am I trying to squeeze in this year? The plan is:
Let the Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Strangers on a Train, by Patricia Highsmith
Ghost Story, by Peter Straub
Something by HP Lovecraft because I have read absolutely nothing of his and that is shameful.

Does anybody else have some good spooky/ghostly/haunt-y recs? Let's face it, horror works so much better on the page because the author is automatically denied the possibility of the dreaded, lazy ass JUMP SCARE!! you can't resort to cheap tricks and a too-loud made-you-jump soundtrack in a book my sneaky Hollywood friends.

After the Fire, by Will Hill

Probably the best standalone YA novel I have read this year. After the Fire is compelling, empathetic and so perfectly paced. Narrator and protagonist Moonbeam is a remarkable character- despite never knowing life in the real world, she is humane, intelligent and ceaselessly strong. What an amazing young woman, I kind of love her.

The novel jumps right in to a chaotic siege, there is gunfire, panic, roaring flames. The frantic narrator recognises bloodied, dead and dying faces around her; she's running, apparently on neither one side nor the other. We don't know these dead people yet. The next time we see Moonbeam, she is waking up in a secure facility, alive and bandaged. She has survived the fire, but she does not know if she is safe. She is now in the hands of the Outsiders, the Government- people she has been raised to believe are torturers, murderers and devils. She is suspicious of them to begin with, as anyone would be waking up in what they have always been told is the lion's den.

The book is split into numerous sections, each one labelled Before and After (the fire). In the After, a shell-shocked, confused and doubt riddled Moonbeam is required to sit down in therapy sessions with a Dr Hernandez and eventually also Agent Carlyle, as they work to piece together the aspects of her life and experiences. Moonbeam grew up and lived most of her life on the "Base", the homestead of the Lord's Legion, a cultish branch of extremist Christianity led by the charismatic, tyrannical Father John; a fire and brimstone Prophet who claims to commune directly with The Lord.

As Moonbeam reveals more about Father John, his increasing powers and his means of control, life on the Base is laid bare. The manipulation. The fear. The brainwashing. The disappearances. The radicalisation of angry young men by means of isolation, ego stoking, entitlement and gun access. The reader follows Moonbeam's gradual realisation that her religion is deeply flawed, that how she and her peers are treated is wrong, that Father John is an absolute maniac and that nobody else is going to be able to help her get away- nobody except for Nate, a dreamy guy from the outside that manages to win the favour of Father John, chucks a spanner in his works and then promptly vanishes into the dust. It's really easy to relate to Moonbeam's feelings for Nate- being convinced that he just sees her as this annoying, doting kid with a crush.

Moonbeam takes her time to recount her story, gradually leading up to what she considers to be a sickening, gut churning secret, a festering guilt that will taint her in the eyes of the men she has come to trust, and the remaining Base kids that are still at the facility with her. The ones that look up to her. It's a hearbreaking story of abuse, a yearning for belonging and powerlessness that is both emotional and fascinating.

I love books that feature cults, and the people that come to their senses and escape. After the Fire is honestly one of the best novels I've read this year and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone- readers that loved Lisa Heathfield's Seed will go mad for it, as would any adult readers that enjoyed last year's runaway cult bestseller The Girls, by Emma Cline. After the Fire is pacy, intelligent, filled with compelling characters, both innocent and evil and a fascinating study of how charismatic, forceful individuals can create their own empires if they are deluded enough, they believe their own lies enough, and if the supply of lost, damaged and disillusioned individuals to convert is plentiful enough.