Saturday, 3 October 2015

The House of Susan Lulham by Phil Rickman

The House of Susan Lulham is part of Phil Rickman's popular Merrily Watkins series*, but is not a full-length instalment - it's a novella (around 100ish pages), currently available as a rather beautiful little hardback edition as well as an appropriate-priced Kindle Single and a three-hour audiobook download. Parish priest Merrily is contacted by a woman convinced that her modern, architect-designed home is haunted by the ghost of its previous occupant, a minor celebrity who took her own life in a particularly gruesome manner. As a trained 'deliverance' minister - that's a Church of England exorcist to you and me - Merrily blesses the property, but as usual with Merrily's cases, things don't end there.

The length of the story means there are no subplots and the large cast of recurring characters regular Merrily readers would recognise is mostly absent - there are brief appearances from Jane, Francis Bliss and Sophie (who happens to be one of my favourite characters in the series) but this is very much Merrily's story. That's not a criticism - my principal disappointment in the last full-length book in the series was that there was not enough of Merrily in it, and a novella is very different animal from a 400-page novel, with less room for a complex plot.

Perhaps also for this reason, there is less in the way of mystery here than in the full-length books. Many bookshops classify the Merrily Watkins series as crime rather than horror or paranormal, but The House of Susan Lulham feels much more like a straightforward ghost story than anything else. Many of Rickman's books feature old properties and ancient rural folklore, but in this story there's a pleasing contrast between age-old fears and rituals and the modernity of the haunted property.

If you're a big Merrily fan, I'd recommend this an interesting, although non-essential, add-on to the series. If you're not, this book probably works well as a standalone introduction - whereas the other novels are best read in order of publication, The House of Susan Lulham doesn't really require any additional context to be enjoyed. It's strong on atmosphere and the characters - even the ones we only encounter through conversations with others - are credible and three-dimensional. 

*At the time of this blog post, a TV adaptation of the second book in the series, The Midwinter of the Spirit, is being broadcast on ITV, starring Anna Maxwell Martin as Merrily. It's a well-made and creepy drama, but not especially faithful to the book, with various changes made to the circumstances and relationships of the characters.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Alice and the Fly by James Rice

Alice and the Fly by James Rice is a first-person novel narrated by Greg Hall, a teenage boy isolated by his mental health problems. There's some debate over the diagnosis of his condition - Greg himself talks only of a phobia of spiders so severe that it triggers vomiting and seizures - but his medication is anti-psychotic and it seems to be only when he is particularly agitated that most of his spider encounters occur. Greg is friendless at school and emotionally neglected at home by his aspirational middle-class parents and wary sister Sarah. He collects classic movies - Casablanca, Breakfast At Tiffany's and Brief Encounter are his favourites. As the novel begins, Greg is on a bus - but he isn't actually going anywhere. He catches the bus every day for the sole purpose of watching his beloved Alice.

The story of Greg and Alice is told primarily through a journal Greg has been encouraged to keep by his kind but naive English teacher, interspersed with some brief transcripts of police interviews which hint that Greg's all-consuming obsession with Alice has ended in an unspecified but serious incident.

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Alice and the Fly has inevitably been compared to Nathan Filer's The Shock of the Fall and Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and it is fair to say that they are all novels of a similar type, but there's plenty in Alice and the Fly that feels fresh and original. Although the setting is contemporary and recognisable, there's a slightly dystopian feel to Greg's world. The social and physical divide between the middle-class area where Greg lives and the Pitt, the council estate where Alice lives, is extreme; Skipdale High, the school that serves both catchments, is a frightening and almost lawless place as seen through Greg's eyes, with a misogynistic and sexualised culture in which girls choreograph suggestive routines to songs with explicit lyrics for the school dance evening and get breast implants in their teens. Greg's Saturday job cleaning in a butcher's shop is described in grotesque detail, all trays of congealing fat and skin-peeling industrial bleach, and a teenage house party becomes a technicolour nightmare of vindictive destruction. Even Greg's affluent middle-class home has a sense of heightened, off-kilter reality about it: an expensive sofa assumes an almost sinister significance and the family silently eat the same meal night after night as Greg's mother becomes obsessed with perfecting it for a dinner party.

Is Greg a victim of a wider familial and societal dysfunction, or are we simply seeing a normal world filtered by his own disordered thinking? Certainly Greg is not a reliable narrator. His naivety is often endearing and it's impossible not to feel sympathetic towards him as he attempts to navigate his way through school and his home life drawing as little attention to himself as possible, perpetually fearful of 'Them', as he calls the spiders he so fears, and of any kind of social interaction. However, an increasingly unsettling note starts to creep into his narrative as his grip on reality begins to slip and veiled references to his past raise uncomfortable questions.

There is a lot of darkness in this book, and you have to look pretty hard to find characters beyond Greg that you can really like - even the well-meaning ones are often infuriatingly or even dangerously misguided - but equally there are some weakly hopeful moments and, perhaps somewhat against the odds, there is also plenty of astute, observant humour (if your best subject at school was English, you'll recognise the frequency with which it's assumed that 'English teacher' is your sole career option).

I found Alice and the Fly an involving read, skilfully structured and vivid. In Greg, James Rice has created a teenage protagonist with a strong, highly individual voice, and the book's depiction of mental illness is fascinating and memorable. This is an exceptional debut. 

Monday, 7 September 2015

Rawblood by Catriona Ward

I’m grateful to Weidenfeld & Nicolson, the publisher, for sending me a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Rawblood is a complex, multi-layered ghost story, deeply atmospheric, of the kind that stays with the reader long after the last page has been read and the book snapped shut. Spanning almost a century in the history of Rawblood, a Dartmoor mansion, it tells the story of a family cursed by an oppressive, terrifying evil presence that stalks the house and picks off one by one members of the family who live there, prematurely and violently. The books begins in 1910 with 11-year-old Iris Villarca and her tortured, drug-addicted father Alonso, trying to pass of the Villarca curse as a congenital disease. Next, through the diary of a former friend of Alonso's, we learn of the grotesque medical experiments of his youth, his marriage to a much younger woman hopelessly damaged by her abusive foster parents; we also take a step further back to the 1830s when Mary Hopewood, dying of tuberculosis overseas, came to meet the mysterious Spanish nobleman who made Rawblood the Villarca family home.

Rawblood is a remarkable achievement in many ways. It’s swimming in gothic imagery with strong echoes of Poe and even a few dark shadows of Wuthering Heights. In its pages you’ll find guilt-ridden opium addicts, children isolated by grief-stricken, paranoid parents and destructive, obsessive relationships in which love and fear are almost one and the same. Throughout it all a nameless – and, I must say, genuinely terrifying – ghost of a woman inhabits the house and torments every Villarca who attempts to end the cycle of loneliness and grief through new relationships, yet in a cruel twist also causes them to sicken whenever they leave. For Her, the Villarcas must be at Rawblood, but they must be there alone.

Unsurprisingly, this makes for novel that is frequently oppressive and claustrophobic – occasionally to the point of overkill as the narrative drifts into long passages of dreamlike, confusing and almost hallucinogenic description. This does, of course, reflect the mental state of the characters and the nightmarish atmosphere of Rawblood and the surrounding landscape, but there are times when it’s simply too much, and more disciplined editing would have been welcome. This is in fact my only substantial criticism of the novel: there are several chapters in which the gothic intensity simply reaches saturation point. Personally, I think a tighter edit could have retained every bit of Rawblood’s haunting power, and maintained the author’s well-executed evocation of a 19th century prose style, while stopping short of the point where the languid richness of the description begins to cloy.

That’s not to say that it’s all opium-fuelled visions and supernatural dread, however. The story of Mary Hopewell and her painfully genteel, largely disappointing sojourn in Italy is almost at times a comedy of manners, and the stiff, pomposity of the doctor's journal before his visit to Rawblood descends into terror also brings a welcome change of pace. Sections set in a mental hospital in the aftermath of the First World War also help bring about a shift in atmosphere with a chillingly clinical kind of horror that's altogether different to the more to that which we get from the wild, untamed environment of Rawblood and the natural world around it.  

It might be easy to imagine that Rawblood would be an act of mimicry, simply aping gothic fiction of the 18th and 19th century, but don’t be fooled: it’s so much more than that. Rawblood is a million miles away from being a simple ghost story (not that a simple ghost story is a bad thing) and is somehow greater than the sum of its parts, drawing on obvious influences but retaining a strong sense of originality. It’s a story of mental illness, of folklore, of the everlasting damage that one terrible wrong can do to countless generations, and the impossibility of escaping not only one’s past, but one’s future. It’s also a powerful tale of landscape and psychogeography that occasionally brought to mind Alan Garner’s Thursbitch.

Definitely not a cosy, fireside sort of ghost story, Rawblood can be demanding of its readers, but for me, absolutely worth the effort, and a very impressive debut.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

The Bones Of You by Debbie Howells

The Bones Of You by Debbie Howells begins with the murder of a teenage girl, Rosie Anderson. Kate, a neighbour, befriends her grieving mother Joanna and becomes obsessed with finding out the truth about Rosie's death. The story is told partly from the point of view of Kate, but partly also from the perspective of the deceased Rosie, who pieces together the Anderson family's troubled history as her ghostly presence drifts between present and past.

You may be thinking that this sounds an awful lot like Alice Sebold's bestseller The Lovely Bones. And yes, the basic premise is very much like that. Unfortunately, The Bones Of You is simply not as well-constructed and sensitively written as The Lovely Bones, although it's a reasonably diverting psychological thriller. It's not groundbreaking stuff, and I strongly suspect that I'll have completely forgotten about it in a few months' time, but equally I was keen to keep turning the pages even when I was rolling my eyes at various plot developments.

Although I found The Bones Of You reasonably entertaining, I have some pretty significant criticisms of it, most notably that I felt, from about the halfway point, that it was pretty obvious who murdered Rosie. Certain characters are flagged up so obviously as being the prime suspects from the beginning that we know they absolutely won't be guilty of the murder, and I think most readers would be able to see the 'twist' coming from a mile away. I still wanted to keep reading to find out more about the killer's motive and background, but a few more surprises would have been nice.

Moreover, there are many moments that simply don't ring true. Kate, for example, is a terrible judge of character: she fails to notice that Joanna is painfully thin and never eats anything at at any of their lunch dates, and continues to think that Rosie's father Neil must be perfectly charming even after his wife has turned up in tears on the doorstep as a result of his behaviour. 

Like a lot of the 'domestic noir' psychological thrillers that seem to be out there at the moment, the characters are almost universally smug, affluent and oh-so-middle-class. Please can someone start producing some thrillers in this genre in which the characters aren't all people who can afford to own horses and have children with names like Grace and Delphine, and where the men aren't all architects and broadcast journalists while the women do pleasant little 'hobby' jobs like schooling problem horses or garden design?

Where The Bones Of You does succeed is in its uncomfortably chilling, oppressive depiction of emotional (and at times physical) abuse: the portrait of a family keeping up appearances while constantly treading on eggshells is extremely effective - so much so that I found it genuinely disturbing at times. The story of Delphine, Rosie's surviving younger sister, almost edges into modern Gothic at times: a scared, silent girl alone and in peril in a huge house.

In summary, this book is ... well, OK. It has its effective moments, but it's nothing particularly memorable and offers nothing new. It's not terrible, but there are far better examples of the psychological thriller genre out there.

Monday, 24 August 2015

In The Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

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Although Judy Blume has written previously for adults, anyone – certainly any girl – who grew up in the 70s or 80s will be familiar her novels for children and teenagers. Blume was one of a relatively small number of children’s writers prepared to address awkward topics in a way that was non-judgemental and empathetic but often also funny. Friendships, sibling rivalry, the mortifying anxieties of puberty, divorce, first love, racism and even the death are all part of Judy Blume’s fictional world, and yet her stories are full of warmth, wit and hope. I'm sure there are plenty of girls who can truthfully say that they only found what periods were from reading Judy Blume, but in fact, the most important thing I took away from books is that however embarrassing your adolescent mistakes, however different from your peers you think you are and however infuriating your family and friends, you will, eventually, Be All Right.

In The Unlikely Event is in fact not a children's or YA novel, although its main character is a teenager throughout much of the story and Blume's breezily straightforward prose style makes it an easy read that many young adult readers would also enjoy. Set in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1951 it’s a fictional account of an extraordinary year in the town’s real-life history: a year in which three separate passenger planes crashed in the town, entirely by coincidence, killing 118 people. Blume herself, as she explained at an ‘Audience With...’ event I attended at Manchester Central Library while she was promoting the book, was a teenager in Elizabeth at the time, and In The Unlikely Event draws strongly from her own memories of that year, and from local newspaper reports at the time.

Forming the backdrop to the three plane crashes is a fascinating chronicle of  various characters' lives, which combine to form a pin-sharp portrait of small town American life in the 1950s that at times reminded me of Grace Metalious' greatly underrated Peyton Place. Although the main character is 15-year-old Miri Ammerman , there are also numerous sections told from the points of view of many other characters – including, most poignantly, a number of crash victims – and beneath the bright, aspirational, wholesome exterior of 1950s America, almost everyone has something to hide.

Miri lives with her pretty, hardworking mother Rusty, her indomitable grandmother Irene and Uncle Henry, a kind, principled local journalist: Rusty has never had a husband but this is rarely spoken of within the family, let alone outside it. By contrast Miri’s friend Natalie appears to have the perfect 1950s nuclear family - affluent, well-dressed and charming. But Natalie herself is soon showing signs of serious emotional disturbance, and her charming father Dr Osner smashes plaster figurines in his office to let off steam. His receptionist Christina has a long-term secret boyfriend her family will never accept because he isn't Greek. Miri's orphaned boyfriend Mason is reveals some shocking facts about his troubled past, but has another secret he can't bring himself to reveal.

Options for the women of Elizabeth are terribly limited – a young woman who dreams of becoming an air stewardess notes that candidates must be ‘single, not married, divorced or separated’ and Miri's headmaster is openly disapproving of her mother's work in a New York department store.

As speculation starts to grow over how three planes could possibly crash over the same town in one year, we're reminded of the paranoia of 1950s McCarthyism and the Cold War - the pupils at Miri's high school constantly share their conspiracy theories, yet are forbidden from writing about the plane crashes in the school newspaper.

And yet, despite the repression and the secrets, the fear that hangs over the town of Elizabeth in the wake of the disasters and the terrible things the people have witnessed, the crashes seem to be a catalyst for change.  For some, adversity simply seems to bring out the best in them: Henry, for example, makes his name as a journalist with his perceptive, distinctive reports on the disasters. But for others, the simple realisation not only that life is short but that death can be random seems to spur them to make decisions that will change the course of their lives forever.

In The Unlikely Event is a beautifully evocative read – with cashmere sweaters and powder compacts, dancing to Nat King Cole with a boy who has a pack of Lucky Strikes in his shirt pocket and lingerie shops that specialise in girdles, Blume conjures up a perfect picture of 50s America. Each chapter is introduced by one of Henry’s newspaper articles, all of which are so pitch-perfect for the journalism of the time that it’s hard not to hear them being read in the voice of Ed Murrow. There are occasional appearances by real-life Jewish gangster Longy Zwillman, and Las Vegas is talked of as a soon-to-be-built land of opportunity for modern-day pioneers.

If you read Judy Blume’s books as a child and liked them, you’ll almost certainly like In The Unlikely Event too: Blume’s warmth and sympathy for her own characters really shines through, even as they make terrible mistakes, and her ability to see an adult world through Miri’s teenage eyes is second to none. But this isn’t just a book for Blume fans – it’s an excellent and extremely readable portrait of a community, its relationships and its secrets. The language throughout is straightforward and the plot is episodic rather than complex, but none of this matters, because what Blume is interested in is people: the worries they have, the mistakes they make, the lies they tell and the secrets they keep. The tone of In The Unlikely Event is always understanding, never judgemental, and its end note is very much one of life going on.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

The Ghost Fields by Elly Griffiths

As I've written before in my reviews of Elly Griffiths' other books, I'm a big fan of the Ruth Galloway series  (all of which I've reviewed on this blog). Ruth herself, a forensic archaeologist, is tremendously likeable, and the series, in which The Ghost Fields is the seventh installment, also features a host of other recurring characters who are convincingly developed from story to story. If you've read any of the previous Ruth Galloway books and are already acquainted with these supporting characters, you'll feel like you're greeting old friends as they make their appearances here.

Image result for elly griffiths ghost fieldsThe Ghost Fields begins with the body of a Second World War fighter pilot unearthed in the buried wreckage of a plane - but Ruth, a local academic seconded to the police to provide expert advice, immediately sees that there's something wrong. The body is certainly that of a man who died in the 1940s, but the field in which he's found is certainly not where he died. More to the point, there's a bullet hole in his skull. Who is the mysterious lost pilot? How did he die? And who, exactly, had a motive for burying his body, not just once, but twice?

It soon becomes clear that the investigation will focus on the Blackstocks, an old, land-owning Norfolk family struggling to keep their increasingly dilapidated manor house standing. I greatly enjoyed meeting the Blackstocks, who are the sort of eccentric failing aristocrats that absolutely still exist in England, but who always seem hopelessly out of step with the 21st century and have sprung from a disturbingly small local gene pool. For all their oddness, I had no trouble believing that this family exists, and Griffiths' observations of them are full of the dry, astute humour that runs through all the books in the series.

The flat, bleak beauty of the North Norfolk coast is used to great effect in The Ghost Fields. Elly Griffiths is adept at creating atmosphere through landscape and a sense of place, and at making the history and geography of the area play a pivotal role in the plots of her novels, and she does this particularly well in this book.

As always, the investigation sees Ruth join forces with DCI Harry Nelson, who to complicate matters is the father of her young daughter Kate after an exceptionally brief affair five years previously, yet still happily married to beautiful Michelle. Generally speaking, I tend to be irritated by on-off, will-they-won't-they, love-hate pairings in fiction, yet somehow Griffiths manages to make the complicated relationship between Ruth and Nelson entirely sympathetic. Fundamentally, Ruth and Nelson are both decent people who try hard to do the right thing; moreover, Griffiths doesn't fall into the easy trap of making Nelson's wife Michelle a character we want to hate - Michelle may be a slim, attractive hairdresser, but she's far from the shallow stereotype she could so easily have become. Instead, she's an intelligent, capable, kind and forgiving woman: it's almost impossible not to like her, and we see a lot more in The Ghost Fields from Michelle's point of view than we have previously.

The crime plot of The Ghost Fields is a little crazy, but definitely in a good way - the investigation itself is one of my favourites in the series so far, and builds to an extremely gripping, fast-paced climax.

The Ghost Fields is an effortless read - I read it more or less one sitting while recovering from a rotten flu-ish cold, and it was the perfect page-turner for that. Despite an often sinister atmosphere, some horribly dark secrets and some genuinely gruesome goings-on, the recurring characters and the dry, observant humour of The Ghost Fields makes it, like the series overall, somehow comforting, not to mention highly immersive.

If you're interested in this series, I'd strongly recommend you read the books in the order of publication, as you'll get much more out of the characters, and understand Ruth and Nelson's relationship much better, if you do. The first in the series is The Crossing Places.