Sunday, 19 February 2017

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Universal Harvester is the second novel from John Darnielle, the leading (and often sole) member of The Mountain Goats and one of my all-time favourite songwriters. I previously reviewed his first book, Wolf In White Van, and Universal Harvester once again has many themes that people familiar with Darnielle's music will recognise.

Set in the small towns of America's Mid West, Universal Harvester begins in a video rental shop some time around the start of this century, when customers begin to return tapes complaining that there is 'something else' on them. When shop assistant Jeremy and his boss start to watch the tapes, they discover that the footage consists of grainy home video scenes that they both find frightening, yet strangely compelling. Who filmed the footage, and why are they splicing it into rented movies?

UNIVERSAL HARVESTER, Hardback This isn't, however, the horror story you might expect, and neither is it a mystery novel. It's a contemplative, often poetic book about lost mothers, small towns, displacement, landscape and the gradual decline of America's farming communities. The endless corn fields of Iowa and Nebraska are beautiful, but Darnielle shows us that their uniformity and scale can be disorientating too, almost threatening. Jeremy's teenage colleague Ezra, a farmer's son deeply ingrained with the notion that you shouldn't get into debt or throw away anything you might be able to use, risks his life on a daily basis by driving his dangerously clapped-out car along a gravel track for half a mile before he even reaches the highway, just to get to his minimum-wage job in the video store. Fundamentalist Christian doomsday cults hand out ominous tracts to the vulnerable in town centres while their members scavenge in rubbish bins.

Jeremy and his father live quietly together in apparent harmony, yet there's an ever-present loneliness in each of their lives following the death of Jeremy's mother some years before, and there is much that goes unsaid between them. Another character's life is entirely shaped by the disappearance of her mother in the 1970s. Later, in the present day, a pair of empty-nesters buy a rundown farmhouse as a retirement project and have to learn to find new ways of being a family when their grown-up children come to visit them from their colleges at opposite corners of the country.

The ostensible connection between the characters is, of course, the footage spliced in the video tapes, but while we do learn where it came from, there are still plenty of questions left unanswered; this isn't a plot-driven novel. There's a strong sense of melancholy that's present throughout the story, although there is plenty of hope too; it's bittersweet rather than dark, despite occasional hints at goings-on more sinister than the ones that are actually described to us.

Structurally, Universal Harvester is a surprisingly digressive and complex novel for one so short, shifting between different characters and time periods. Darnielle also uses an interesting technique where the narrator occasionally intervenes in the story, reminding us of its fictionality - telling us, for example, that there are other versions of this story where things happen differently. The first incidence of this pulls the rug from under the reader's feet somewhat, coming out of the blue and telling us, just as we'd settled in to the rhythm of the story, that this might not be quite the book we thought it would be.

It won't come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Darnielle's songs that Universal Harvester is a beautifully written novel. The prose throughout is lyrical, haunting and memorable: it's the sort of book where I found myself wanting to underline my favourite passages.

This is a book that, inevitably, won't be everyone's cup of tea, but I loved it more than any book I've read in a long time, and I know it will be an enduring favourite for years to come.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Ghost Stories by EF Benson (selected and introduced by Mark Gatiss)

I bought the audio download version of this book. The stories are read by Mark Gatiss who also selected the stories and provides the informative introduction to the collection.

Image result for ghost stories ef benson mark gatissIt's a little misleading to call this EF Benson collection Ghost Stories as they aren't all 'ghost' stories at all, although they certainly all have a creepy, supernatural focus. They are beautifully written in a way that somehow seems completely effortless. There's not a word out of place and every descriptive detail is perfectly chosen. As you'd expect from the author who wrote the Mapp and Lucia series, there is also a waspishly observational tone to some of them, particularly the first story in the collection, Spinach, which deals with a pair of money-grabbing spirit mediums who find themselves making contact with a deceased but unrepentant killer. It's very funny, yet somehow at the same time sinister in a cleverly ambiguous way.

Also very sinister is the slightly homoerotic tale of an artist who has seemingly captured the secret of eternal youth, Dorian Gray-style.The ending, although perhaps a little predictable, is written in such a way as to be peculiarly unsettling.

The stories aren't necessarily terrifying, but they are memorable and will certainly make you shiver a little. Each one manages to distil plenty of character and atmosphere into the short story form. They're as much HP Lovecraft as they are MR James - in one story, for instance, the 'haunting' of a guest house is by a grotesque infestation of fleshy, bloated caterpillars which in turn becomes a metaphor for disease.

If you do choose the audio download, you're in for a treat, as Mark Gatiss couldn't be a better choice to read these stories. As well as being an expert in this particular genre, Gatiss is the perfect actor to read this collection and renders different characters' voices convincingly and distinctively. This is great to listen to while curled up indoors on a dark evening or a rainy afternoon.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Real Tigers by Mick Herron

*This review includes spoilers for the previous Jackson Lamb novel, Dead Lions*
Image result for real tigers bookReal Tigers is the third book in Mick Herron's series about Jackson Lamb and the 'slow horses' - a team of MI5 agents who, due to character flaws or past mistakes, have been shunted off to Slough House, where they spend their days sifting through data and compiling pointless reports. Lamb himself is a Cold War veteran gone to seed whose shambling, slobbish exterior conceals a sharp, wily cunning and the previous books have seen him and his team become embroiled - with varying degrees of legitimacy - in operations that are as much about conflicts within the service itself as they are about national security.
Real Tigers takes this to the next level. Kickstarting the action is the kidnap of Catherine Standish, a recovering alcoholic whose role is primarily that of Lamb's PA. Lamb's operation to free Catherine and tackle the kidnappers is heavily entangled with internal service politics, with Home Secretary Peter Judd - whose mop-haired, bumbling public school buffoon persona is a front for a vicious, power-hungry bully, if that helps you guess who he might be based on - playing a key part.
Like the other books in the series (Slow Horses and Dead LionsReal Tigers is full of complicated machinations and double-dealing - so much so that it's occasionally a little hard to keep track of who's on whose side - but it's really the characters and the dialogue between them that makes it such fun to read. Mick Herron writes dialogue that is sharp and witty, even laugh out loud funny at times, and some characters who were perhaps less three-dimensional in the earlier books are more fleshed out here. Socially inept hacker Roderick Ho, for example, has developed a mildly disturbing crush on Louisa Guy, who in turn is doing her best to deal with the death of her colleague and boyfriend Min Harper while slogging her way through work so dull that it doesn't even provide a distraction. There's more of a role here too for Marcus and Shirley, who were introduced in Dead Lions and both appear to have addictions about which they're greatly in denial.
The plot builds to an action-packed and extremely fast-paced climax, although oddly, this was the one sequence that worked less well for me; it just felt too frenetic and a little too much. However, I do generally prefer mystery and detection to guns and fights, so someone more attuned to action thrillers than me would probably welcome this element of the story a lot more than I did.
Overall, Real Tigers is another cracking read from Mick Herron, delivering exactly what readers of this series will want from Jackson Lamb. It comes to a pleasingly neat conclusion while also leaving plenty of scope for certain aspects of the story to be further developed in the next book in the series, Spook Street, which was published on 9 February. I was kindly provided with an advance copy via the publisher, which I will read and report back on very soon.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

Swimming Lessons begins with writer Gil Coleman seeing his wife Ingrid through a bookshop window - which would be nothing to cause alarm if his wife were not presumed to have drowned in a swimming accident 12 years previously. The effects of this shock put Gil in hospital and then bring his daughters, Nan and Flora, to his increasingly dilapidated home to look after him. Sensible, capable Nan insists that their father's declining health has caused him to see things that aren't there, while art student Flora isn't so sure. 

Image result for swimming lessons claire fuller
Swimming Lessons intersperses the present-day narrative, primarily from Flora's point of view, with letters to Gil written by Ingrid and hidden in his vast collection of books - books which he buys not for their own sake but for the notes, inscriptions and doodles left by other readers. The letters tell the story of the couple's marriage, a story Nan can only guess at and of which Flora is entirely ignorant. It begins in 1976 with Norwegian student Ingrid falling in love with her tutor, the much older Gil, and becoming pregnant almost immediately during a summer of drunken parties at the old swimming pavilion Gil has inherited from his parents. Each letter forms another piece in the jigsaw, and the picture it reveals becomes increasingly dark as Gil's true character is gradually exposed through stories within stories.

For all his supposedly bohemian ways, Gil is seemingly intent on trapping Ingrid into the traditional role of housewife and mother, staying at home during his long absences, bearing his children, tolerating his infidelities. Ingrid's creativity, her independence and even her pride are suppressed until her only pleasure comes from her daily open-water swim. The sea becomes symbolic of freedom and escape, so perhaps its unsurprising that Gil tries to stop Ingrid from swimming when he decides it must be harming her ability to bear him another child (specifically a son, the absence of boys in the Coleman family being keenly felt by both parents).

Swimming Lessons is an exceptionally well-written novel, full of beautifully observed and perfectly placed details, I didn't enjoy it quite as much as Fuller's previous book, Our Endless Numbered Days (which also centres around a deeply unpleasant father and a daughter of a troubled, toxic marriage). This was simply because I found Gil so unpleasant right from his first appearance that the contents of Ingrid's letters didn't always feel as revelatory as I wanted them to be. 

Swimming Lessons is a novel of secrets, loss, miscommunication and unsettling, off-kilter moments that surely have a symbolic significance - Flora's boyfriend Richard has anatomical diagrams of his organs and intestines drawn all over his torso; a shower of fish rains down on a causeway during a storm; the dying Gil demands to be dressed in his wife's old evening gown - which make it pleasingly unsettling. There's also a strong sense of place, and the characters feel very real, even those on the periphery of the story. Nan and Flora are entirely convincing products of Gil and Ingrid's marriage, with capable Nan stepping up to the role of parent - to Gil as well as Flora - when Ingrid disappears and Flora maintaining a sense of naive denial which would be irritating were it not tempered with a very real strength of hope.

There were times when sticking with the (to me, at least) inevitable trajectory of Ingrid's relationship with Gil was something of a challenge, simply because I found Ingrid's plight so utterly frustrating and Gil so entirely without charm - but I'm very glad I kept reading as this is a brilliantly constructed family drama with a conclusion that is ultimately fulfilling.

Thank you to Claire Fuller and the publicity team at Penguin Books for kindly sending me a proof copy of Swimming Lessons to review. 

Saturday, 4 February 2017

A Head Full Of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

A Head Full of Ghosts, Paperback Paul Tremblay's Disappearance At Devil's Rock was one of my favourite books of 2016 so I was looking forward to A Head Full Of Ghosts. Like Disappearance At Devil's Rock it's a well-written, ambiguous horror novel that's as much about a family in crisis as it is about the sinister tale that forms the main plot. 

The story focuses on two sisters, eight-year-old Merry and her teenage sister Marjorie. One day, Marjorie starts to behave strangely. The stories she used to make up to entertain her little sister take a sinister turn. She makes terrifying threats. She hears voices. She self-harms, vomits spontaneously and loses all sense of inhibition. At first, her parents take Marjorie to see a psychiatrist, but eventually, her father decides it's time for a priest, and almost before Merry understands what's happening, the Barrett family is the subject of The Possession, a reality TV documentary about Marjorie's plight.

All the classic hallmarks of a story of possession are there in this book - acknowledged in a series of chapters that take the form of an analysis of The Possession by a horror blogger - but this is much more than a straightforward horror novel. It's certainly frightening, and perfectly captures the strong sense of unease and then outright terror that Merry feels as her sister's personality changes. But it's also a portrait of a struggling family gradually breaking down. John Barrett is unemployed and relying on his wife's salary; his sudden commitment to Catholicism begins with his insistence on saying grace before meals when the family are running out of money to put food on the table. Is Marjorie really possessed? Is she faking, for the lucrative TV deal? Or is she simply desperately ill and being failed at best and exploited at worst by the people around her?

I found A Head Full Of Ghosts to be an unsettling read that discomfits the reader more and more as the story unfolds, especially when we start to realise that Merry, telling her story as an adult from the point of view of her hyperactive, happy-go-lucky eight-year-old self, is perhaps not quite as reliable a narrator as we are at first inclined to believe. There is certainly horror to be had - but where, exactly, that horror lies is certainly debatable. As with Disappearance At Devil's Rock, (and, in my view, all the best supernatural fiction) there are numerous possibilities, but each of them is equally unnerving.

This is a chilling but thoughtfully-written read that has echoes of Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived In The Castle. Paul Tremblay is one of the best American writers of supernatural fiction I've read in a long time, and I look forward to more books from him.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

Middle-class single mum Louise works as a secretary at a private psychiatry practice, where she is horrified to discover that her new boss, the handsome, charismatic David, is the very man she drunkenly snogged in a bar the previous night. Despite finding it impossible to suppress her feelings for him, when she (literally) bumps into his wife, Adele, the two women quickly become friends - and when Louise discovers that David is prescribing strong drugs for Adele, controlling her finances and checking up on her by phone at regular intervals, she starts to wonder whether the charming doctor she's fallen for is all that he seems. And what about beautiful, fragile Adele, who seems to know things about Louise and David that she couldn't possibly have witnessed? Who is telling the truth, and who is lying? And can Louise possibly sustain an affair with David and a friendship with Adele without either of them finding out that she knows the other?

As you can probably guess from that description, Behind Her Eyes is primarily a psychological thriller, with all the hallmarks of that genre - flawed characters, a somewhat troubled female protagonist, unreliable narrators, sharp plot twists and intense relationships. However, there is also a plot strand that takes it beyond this. Louise suffers from night terrors, which leads her to practise 'lucid dreaming', a method by which nightmare sufferers learn to retain just enough consciousness to control their dreams and steer them in a less distressing direction. It soon becomes apparent that what she's doing is far more than that, weaving a mildly supernatural element into the story.

Unfortunately, I don't think this quite works. The 'lucid dreaming' part of the story is essential to the plot, yet also somehow feels very minor and develops very slowly. I don't mind books that subvert or combine genres, but when I'd finished the book I felt dissatisfied with the way the paranormal part of the book felt like a cursory add-on for most of hte story, rather than being deftly woven into the action. I think people who are expecting a straightforward psychological thriller grounded in realism might be irritated with the lucid dreaming part of the storyline (which incidentally, I actually found quite dull for the most part) and people who enjoy supernatural fiction will probably feel that the scant treatment that part of the story gets doesn't really do it justice. I would have liked to see more commitment to the mix of genres and more equal time allocated to them. This doesn't feel like a combination of psychological and supernatural fiction - instead it feels like a psychological thriller with a jarring addition. Sarah Pinborough is best known as an author who writes fiction with a supernatural slant and I think Behind Her Eyes would be more satisfying if her expertise in this area was put to better use.

Aside from this, I think it's fair to say that the characters are not groundbreaking - they're all very much recognisable types, including the supporting players - but they;re certainly not unrealistic and do come to life on the page. It's possible to root for Louise even when she's making extremely questionable decisions, of which there are many. The author also succeeds in making the reader hate Adele and/or David one moment and then feel sorry for them the next, which is very effective. This is very much a book in which you feel that you can't quite trust your own judgement.

The promotional hype in advance of Behind Her Eyes being released has already put a strong emphasis on it having a shocking twist at the end, so I feel that I can mention this in the review without revealing anything that won't already have been talked about. I do agree that it's a belter of an ending, and although I was thinking in the vaguely the right direction, I didn't fully see it coming. I also think it was quite a brave choice by the author - it's impossible to say why without giving away spoilers, but all I will say is that it will leave a lot of readers feeling very uncomfortable.

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me, via NetGalley, a free copy of Behind Her Eyes for me to review. The book is due to be released in January 2017.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Pretty Iconic by Sali Hughes

One of the few times I made an exception to my rule of only reviewing fiction on my blog was when I reviewed Sali Hughes' Pretty Honest - and I've decided to make another exception for Sali's second book because Pretty Iconic is such a very special (and I think unique) book that I want to tell people about it.

Image result for pretty iconicSali Hughes is a journalist who writes about a whole range of subjects including politics, film and women's issues and is also well-known for her beauty column in the Guardian and her own website, www.salihughesbeauty.comPretty Iconic is a pleasingly solid and chunky book of short essays about iconic beauty products.

Now, this would be a truly lovely read if it were entirely about the obvious candidates - Chanel No5, Crème de la Mer, Touche Éclat and so on - and indeed, all these products do make an appearance. They are written about with warmth, wit and insight and it's a joy to read about them. But where the real genius of this book lies is in the decision to include alongside them many, many more offbeat and less glamorous choices. Rimmel Hide The Blemish, Carmen heated rollers, Immac, Head & Shoulders and even the monstrous scrunchie ... they all turn up here, and they're all written about with every bit as much affection as Mac Ruby Woo lipstick and Eve Lom Hot Cloth Cleanser.

I'm sure not everybody feels the same way as I do about this stuff. I know not everyone is quite as nerdy as me about things you could buy in Boots in 1990, the nail polish Uma Thurman wore in Pulp Fiction or the specific Max Factor face powder worn by Hollywood icons of the 1950s*. But this book honestly moved me to tears. White Musk perfume and Morello Cherry Lip Balm took me instantly back to being 14 and spending my saved-up pocket money at The Body Shop with my friends during London shopping trips. My mum wore Rive Gauche in the 80s and I wear it myself now (and so should you; it will never not be good). I practically squeaked with excitement at the memory of Natrel Plus deodorant, which I made my dad buy me as part of the weekly shop from Tesco in my teens because the colour schemes of the different fragrances matched my bedroom. I wept at the observation that bath cubes have essentially died out with a generation of nans and if you don't cry at Sali's chapter on Old Spice and the memories of her grandad its scent still carries for her, or when she talks about the Revlon lipstick shade worn by her late friend Carey Lander, you probably aren't human. That said, there are plenty of chapters that made me laugh a lot too (Shaders & Toners and Girl's World spring to mind).

I saw yesterday that Nigel Slater, my favourite food writer of all time, was praising Pretty Iconic on Twitter. If you like the way Nigel Slater writes about food (and agree with him that food, whether it's an eye-wateringly expensive lobster or children's penny sweets, means so much more than something to eat) you will also like the way Sali Hughes writes about beauty. It's a very personal take on the subject and a very evocative one.

I should also add that the book is beautifully designed with a lovely font that reminds me of the most stylish, classic glossy magazines and fantastic photography that correctly treats Mr Matey bubble bath with as much reverence as Sisley Black Rose Mask. If there is anyone in your life who is fascinated by beauty and grooming - men's or women's - then buy it for them now, or put it under the tree on Christmas morning.

*Creme Puff, obviously