Captured by Candlelight

I indulged a great deal this Christmas. Possibly because last year it took all my strength to put one foot in front of the other, so I made up for it. Elton John tells us to step into Christmas, but I plunged headfirst into it, and came up smelling of cinnamon and cloves, covered in glitter which I can’t bring myself to wash off.

The title of this particular post is a perfume by 4160 Tuesdays – check it out.

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His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet wasn’t exactly festive reading, but it was an astonishing novel worthy of its place in the Booker list. It comprises of witness statements, a memoir from a jailed man, and other documents which the author apparently stumbled upon when looking up his family history. I am rather embarrassed to admit that I didn’t realise it wasn’t true at first, but the fact that it is fiction does not stop it being a powerful lesson on truth.

I was a few months late with Ali Smith’s Autumn but this was another wonderful read: deceptively light and gentle, with a great depth and tenderness interweaved through the story like gold thread through a tapestry. It’s about the relationship between Daniel Gluck, aged 101, and Elisabeth Demand, aged 30. But it’s also about artist Pauline Boty, who I immediately Googled once I’d finished.

The Tempest comes to life in Margaret Attwood’s latest, the Chinese-box narrative Hag-seed. The story is retold as a retired theatre director helps men in a prison put on their own version of the play. Spell-binding.

Continuing my investigation into new publications by some of my regular authors I enjoyed The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland. As always, her historical detail is both fascinating and sickening (the detail of how regular-sized babies are made into dwarves is particularly horrific). Not one to be read if one is of a sensitive disposition!

And then to Christmas reading; Silent Nights and Murder Under The Christmas Tree (anthologies of Christmas mysteries), The Mistletoe Murder, four great new stories by P D James, and The Children of Green Knowe which anyone who has ever been a child should read. The best by far though was Mark Forsyth’s A Christmas Cornucopia which tells you anything you ever needed to know about Christmas and a load of other stuff. Not only is it fascinating, it’s really, really well-written, and you could read it any time of the year, not just Christmas.

Inhaling all these words means that you have to exhale at some point, and I did yesterday – 2 hours of writing. It made me very happy. A good way to end the old year, and to welcome in the new one.

I wish anyone who’s taken the trouble to read this a very, very happy new year.

 

 

 

Picture Perfect

On Sunday night I went to a carol concert in my village. As I came out of the church from the back, the village was in darkness. A plume of grey chimney smoke from a small ivy-covered cottage was spreading into the fading stains of sunset and the stars hung in the sky like tiny chips of ice. My initial thought was “I wish I had my camera” but I know if I’d had it I would have taken a rubbish photo anyway, so I just had to settle for looking at it. I started wondering when I’d last done that: just ‘stood and stared’ as Ella Wheeler Wilcox exhorted us to. Nowadays we reach for our cameras or phones to record everything and nothing, to splash it across the internet or store and forget it forever on a memory card. Memories don’t last as long in our heads when they’re committed to pixels. You can’t capture the mouth-watering steam of the Christmas dinner, the bright smack of the Greek sun, or the cold anticipation of the winter dusk, anywhere apart from in your mind. One of my most precious memories is standing in my garden with my dog at night, awestruck by how the moon had tipped upside down and spilled silver everywhere. Each blade of grass looked like it had been dipped in mercury. If I hadn’t written in my diary about that brief moment of a lifetime I probably would have been convinced I’d dreamt it, but the memory is as fresh and bright as it was twenty years ago. I think if I’d tried to photograph it, it would have faded, and I’d have wound up with yet another disappointing picture and a vague memory of something nice that once happened.

November is always a month of memories for me: four anniversaries of friends dearly loved and sorely missed. I decided to inject some positivity into it and organised a reunion of people I had joined in Sri Lanka ten years ago to trek in aid of BorIMG_5008n Free. It was like we had never been apart. I took photos from that. Not a lot, but some. Here is one of them, because a whole page of text can be pretty dreary unless it’s well written.

 

These are the latest additions to my mental library. Some titles will be archived, a few given to charity and one or two put out on the ‘recommended’ shelf for a long time to come. Check out anything you like – there’s no due by date. (But please don’t turn down the corners of the pages!)

Losing It by Lesley Glaister

Glaister is one of my unsung heroines. I love her simple, dark stories of suburbia and normal life which is anything but. This is the story of a marriage which seems quite happy until a new neighbour moves in and cracks start to show.

The Little Black Book by A. S. Byatt

A collection of odd, disturbing little stories – two of the things I like most in a book.

Quarter Past Two on a Wednesday Afternoon by Linda Newberry

This story of a woman whose sister disappeared 20 years ago started off promisingly, but it dragged and after a bit I started getting very annoyed with it. The ending was a real let-down and reminded me of another book about a missing girl I’d read which had exactly the same effect on me. It’s such a shame that a promising premise fades away into something pedestrian. I felt frustrated when I put down the book, as if I had been cheated out of the good story it could have been.

 Wolf Winter by Celia Erkind

This is my ‘pick of the post’. Reading this book is like drinking a glass of ice-cold water. The story and writing are astonishingly beautiful and chilling. The story, set in 17th century Sweden, is that of a splintered community who are forced to come together when one of their member dies in suspicious circumstances. It’s also about the supernatural clashing with everyday life, and the struggle of one woman to keep her family together and alive in cruel weather.

Not only do I want to read this book again, I also want to search out everything else by the author. Great stuff. You’ll have to put your heating up a notch whenever you open it though!

The Raven’s Head by Karen Maitland

I really enjoy Maitland’s books and The Raven’s Head is another rollicking historical read. It doesn’t have the power of its predecessors A Company of Liars or the more recent Vanishing Witch but I recommend it nonetheless. A blackmail attempt leads a young man into unprecedented danger and an apothecary’s niece is flung into the mysterious, terrifying world of alchemy. Nearby, little boys live in fear of the friars supposed to protect them. The story doesn’t always hang well together, but it’s an enjoyable read and the author’s masterful historical research gives it a real edge. Maitland isn’t scared to kill off characters you assume will live happily ever after, or to throw in twists which alter the entire plot. I look forward to the next in her catalogue.

 The Gift of Darkness by V M Giambanco

This could be the start of a good new crime/thriller series. A young female detective joins the hunt for a particularly sadistic killer and danger spreads like a virus. I like Alice’s character and I like the author who has a subtle touch despite her killer’s gore.

The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory

The Tudor series continues through the eyes of Margaret Pole, Henry VIII’s aunt. Philippa Gregory may take some liberties with her history, but you can’t deny she’s a great story-teller and this is such a fascinating period in our past that you just want to gobble up every detail you can get your hands on.

Cop Town by Karin Slaughter

I have enjoyed Slaughter’s previous books, but I’m not totally convinced by her new characters, Kate and Maggie, female detectives in 1970s Atlanta. I admire their grit and strength of character, but this detective story was a bit stretched and I found I didn’t care who’d killed why.

Home Corner by Ruth Thomas

Luisa has failed her exams and is working as a TA in a primary school, wondering where her life. As things go downhill and Luisa loses every scrap of self-belief her grip on reality also begins to unravel. Thomas writes simply yet devastatingly and reminds me of Lesley Glaister which explains why I like her!

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

This story of a POW on the Burma Death railway is hard enough to read in itself without the added trauma of a doomed love affair. It deservedly won the Man Booker Prize.

Daddy’s Rules by Rachel Sontag

This isn’t your average “true misery” story. Rachel Sontag’s father is a vicious, cruel control-freak and her mother hopelessly passive in response. Rachel’s struggle to disentangle herself from this nightmare family had me urging her on from page to page.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Plunged into poverty by the death of her feckless father, Frances and her mother are forced to take in lodgers. None of them could have foreseen the effect Leonard and Lilian Barber have on their prim, carefully-kept household. You know what you’re getting with Sarah Waters: another emotionally taut, historically detailed, passionate and fiercely original story.

The Devil’s Children by Loretta Loach

A fascinating and deeply disturbing look at child murder through the centuries, asking how far we have come in dealing with these particularly distressing crimes and looking at the idea of childhood, innocence and moral purity as a whole.

Coming Up Trumps by Jean Trumpington

I really enjoyed this honest, forthright and fascinating memoir. Jean Trumpington has worked as a land girl, a code-cracker at Bletchley Park, in advertising, and then embarked on a political career. She’s interesting and witty.

A History of Loneliness by John Boyne

A family tragedy forces an Irish priest to confront at the abuse committed by his friends and colleagues in the Church. Like The Narrow Road… I found this very difficult to read but it is a masterful study of what it is to be human and fallible.

The Forgotten Highlander by Alistair Urquhart

Captured by the Japanese in WW2, Urquhart survived the Bridge over the Kwai and then was put on a prison ship which was promptly torpedoed. He then worked in a mine near Nagasaki, ten miles from where the bomb was then dropped. The guy has more lives than a cat and writes in a very matter-of-fact manner which makes his story ever the more incredible.

I hope some of these books give you vivid pictures which stay in your mind’s eye long after it’s closed.

Island in the Sun


IMG_3662This summer I realised I am now older than Jesus, and have achieved not 1/1000000 of what He did while on Earth. I don’t expect to have redeemed the world of all its sins – I am not a saint and moreover there are some people I’d like to redeem a lot more than others, which is not how the Son (or Daughter) of God would think, all men being equal, etc., etc. But I did feel my stomach hitting my toes when I realised I’m 5 years off 40 and not much has changed since I first stepped onto the island of Hydra twenty years ago.

I can still remember the dusty hours spent packing T-shirts in the garage to save up for the flight. Didy’s hedgehog-bright eyes picking me out of the crowd at the airport. The heat of Athens smacking me playfully in the face. The smooth stones beneath my feet, silky and hot with a million days of sun. I filled an entire notebook with the magic of those two weeks: the yacht decked with thousands of lights, like a fairy ship, coming into the port the first evening; the rhythmic chirrup of cicadas; the sweaty pulse of the nightclub at the very top of the hill; the heady scent of an unknown flower I found in a bath oil several months later which made my eyes fill with longing. Twenty years later the island’s Siren song is as powerful as ever. Hydra untangles my knotted stomach, cradles me in its stony embrace, and sends me to sleep, heavy as a ship resting on the seabed.

I don’t do a lot in Greece, which means of course plenty of reading time.

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel
A fabulous book about French Revolution. I’ll need to re-read it though as it was in the first couple of days of my holiday and I kept falling asleep in the middle of it. It’s in turn amusing, heart-breaking and horrifying, but always fascinating.

Under a Silent Moon by Elizabeth Haynes
She of Into the Darkest Corner, which is one of the most disturbing books I had read over the last few years. This was better than her subsequent books; chilling, sexy and unnerving.

Curfew by Lucy M Boston
These are really, really spooky stories. Fantastic. I got goose-pimples on the beach reading them; the titular tale made me feel quite sick, in a good way. Get your copy from Robert Lloyd Parry who reads the scariest tales aloud. Honestly, if you have a liking for ghost stories and Curfew is not on your bookshelf, this needs remedying.

The Heroes’ Welcome by Louisa Young
This book never seems entirely sure of itself, but it is an original and unflinching look at the recovery of two couples, both mental and physical, from WW1. Louisa Young also wrote My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You, which I read a couple of years ago. I like her unique approach to the well-trod literary path of the Great War.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
Oskar, the narrator of this book, made me want to wallop him with a wet fish. Which is pretty nasty of me considering he’s a little boy whose father died on 9/11. But these thoughts I tend to keep to myself (or, er, publish online for all to see). Anyway, fortunately the people Oskar meets in his search for an answer to his father’s riddle do not want to wallop him. Whether you share my fish-fantasy or not, this is a painful book to read, which is a compliment, as I was wincing reading the final pages.

The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland
Hoorah! Maitland back on form – spooky, mysterious and great fun. This is a story of witchcraft, romance and intrigue set during the Peasants’ Revolt. As always Maitland weaves a fascinating tale with great historical accuracy and I thoroughly enjoyed this, having been a little disappointed by her books following the excellent Company of Liars.

Beyond the Silence by Andrew Chapman
A quite good book about Van Gogh’s last doctor and the village in which he practised. It was interesting, but the writing felt a bit clunky in places. I think it must have been self-published. Which I don’t mean as an insult, but you know sometimes you can tell…? Anyway it was an original and interesting story.

Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates
This woman doesn’t put a foot wrong and Carthage is another triumph, a journey through PTSD, mental illness, recovery from violence and forgiveness.

Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera
Three generations of an Asian family in a corner shop tell out their tale in a story which is by turns amusing, touching and unsettling. I REALLY enjoyed this and it made me laugh out loud twice, which is always a good sign.

The May Bride by Susannah Dunn
I’ve sung Dunn’s praises before – I consider her writing more delicate and complex than the commercially popular Philippa Gregory – and she hasn’t disappointed with this, her latest, a captivating story about the Seymour family pre-Jane-marrying-Henry-VIII.

I, Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan
This made me do real life LOLs on the beach which was a bit embarrassing. Apparently the audio version, read by Alan himself, is even better and I can believe it. An absolute must for Partridge fans, or anyone who needs cheering up – someone who’s had a crap day, who’s stubbed their toe, who’s coming back from a funeral (perhaps not that of a well-loved friend or relative).

The Children’s Book by A S Byatt
This is a fabulous rich tapestry of fairytales and history. I need to re-read it already, but my copy fell apart. One of the best books I’ve read in ages, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Christine by Stephen King
I hadn’t read this since I was about 11. It’s more sinister, disturbing, and heart-rending than I remembered. I guess that’s because first time round I read most of it with my fingers over my eyes. Where does this guy get his ideas from? He’s unparalleled.

Three and a Half Deaths, Landing and Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue
I love this author because when I was younger I was told by an agent you can only ever have one writing style if you’re going to be successful. This gutted me as my three books I had going at the time – Water Sign, A Makeless Maiden and my ghost stories – were all totally different and it depended how I felt as to which one I worked on. Emma Donoghue proves him wrong. Three and a Half Deaths are haunting stories which do just what they say on the tin; Kissing the Witch is a collection of delicately woven fairytales in the vein of Angela Carter or Michele Roberts; Landing is a contemporary love story which didn’t end at all as I expected it to.

Tommy at War by John Sadler
I may have got a bit of WW1-fatigue, but this book, containing excerpts from soldiers’ letters and diaries, didn’t grip me as others have. I felt it was written in a slightly disjointed fashion and while the primary sources never lose their impact, the book didn’t hang together very well.

I think that’s it. The links have been given to http://www.bookmail.co.uk – if I couldn’t link there then you will have to do your own digging. And if there’s not one book on this page which appeals, this is not the blog for you!

(But, er, please don’t stop reading… you never know what might come up next time…)

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On the Beach – Reading List

Seeing as the idea for this blog was commenced on holiday in Greece this year when I thought, I really ought to start a reading blog, I really ought to write a brief synopsis of the books I read on holiday.  So here you go. This is especially for Clare who asked for a reading list!

Jubilee by Shelley Harris

This book was quite interesting, but didn’t really grip me. The scenes where one young character is abused are very distressing and well-written though.

Empire by Jeremy Paxman

One of the best books I have read in a long time! Fascinating and v well written. I learned a lot from this which is written in Paxman’s intelligent yet user-friendly prose.

The case of Mary Bell by Gitta Sereny

Already blogged about this.

The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

My first encounter with Wodehouse, and oh how I loved him. I laughed all day on the beach. Interestingly, my first ever gerbil was called Jeeves.

Porterhouse Blue : a Porterhouse chronicle by Tom Sharpe

Quite funny but not on Wodehouse’s scale. I felt that I ought to be ‘getting’ it a bit more than I was, like there was an in-joke I didn’t find terribly funny.

Deity – Stephen Dunne

While I wouldn’t put Steven Dunne up with Mark Billingham, he’s a gifted crime writer and DI Damen Brook is an agreeable and believable creation. The deaths of several homeless men seem initially unconnected with the sudden disappearance of some teenagers, but slowly horrifying details help Brook put two and two together, and the ending is really quite shocking – you don’t see it coming! Which is what I like most in a book. The plot staggers a little at times, and it does lose its way in the middle, but by the end of the book you are racing to read through. I enjoyed The Reaper, and would certainly read more by Steven Dunne.

The Guilty One – Lisa Ballantyne

The Guilty One is another story about a child killer of children, but its tone is absolutely original. Paul, the main character, is representing a young boy accused of murdering a peer. As court commences we go back into Paul’s past and see how he has been shaped by events in his own life.

Ballantyne has the rare gift of being able to give both adult and child utterly authentic voices. The characters are believable, and the plot taut and deep. I stayed up far past my bedtime to finish off the story and find out what happens to both the main protagonists. This is a book which will stay with you long after you have put it down. I thoroughly recommend it and look forward to reading more by this author.

The Falcons of Fire and Ice by Karen Maitland

For me Maitland has yet to top “The Company of Liars”, her first book, but the Falcons… is an improvement on “The Owl Killers” (her second), and her historical research and characters never fail to disappoint. As usual the story is full of mysticism and mystery. The supernatural is entwined with actual historical events (in this case the Spanish Inquisition and the horrific auto da fee), all the more powerful because belief in the supernatural was a lot stronger in the past.

This is the story of Isabela, who must must travel from Portugal to Iceland to find pure white falcons in order to save her father’s life (he, the Royal Falconer, is accused of killing those in his care). But members of the Spanish Inquisition are on their way to stop her, and the journey becomes fraught with peril for all involved with an unusual ending which I liked.

Maitland’s history is carefully researched and she brings the past to life, but the story doesn’t have quite the intensity of “Liars”. I enjoyed reading it but not to the extent that I couldn’t put it down. It’s a good book, but the author still has to regain the captivating magic of her first novel and unlike that I probably wouldn’t reread this one.

Stranded by Emily Barr

I haven’t read Emily Barr since “Backpack” and I really enjoyed that, so I looked forward to “Stranded”. It didn’t fail to deliver: well-written, with a strong background and good characters, it’s a highly readable if somewhat implausible story about a woman who following her divorce goes on holiday to Malaysia and is stranded (hence the title) with fellow holidaymakers on a deserted island.

The story twists and turns enjoyably and the characters are on the whole well-drawn, though one of the stories between the two Americans fails to convince, and the sub-plot doesn’t quite add up. (I’m trying not to say too much as I don’t want to give anything away.) Some of the plotting is clunky: one of the lines about a pivotal email plot (“who uses hotmail nowadays?”) feels forced and doesn’t make much sense. But don’t let these small flaws distract you, suspend your disbelief and enjoy. “Stranded” is a good holiday read (as long as you’re not in Malaysia).

The Secret Life of William Shakespeare by Jude Morgan

Jude Morgan has a gift for bringing shadowy people of the past to life, and The Secret Life is a real gem of a book, particularly for Shakespeare lovers but in fairness to anyone who enjoys a good read, particularly a historical one. Morgan writes from the viewpoint of both William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway, and brings them, their friends and family to life. I learned a lot about Shakespeare, and his family, that I had never known, and while of course this is a work of fiction and should not be taken as gospel, it’s still hugely enjoyable and informative.

She also gives us the history of many of his most famous plays, and their places in his life, giving them emotional context. You read not only about the man and his family but about his texts. I couldn’t wait to continue reading this book and will seek out more from this author.

666 Charing Cross Road by Paul Magrs

I’m not normally terribly keen on books about fantasy, vampires, witches et al – no, I haven’t read Twilight! – but I found 666 Charing Cross Road funny, readable and original. When Liza Bathory (yes, you’ll recognise the name) discovers a mysterious booksheller in London she begins ordering from them, with disasterous results; while her niece Shelley who works in a museum finds one of the most unusual artefacts comes quite startlingly to life. Something has been unleashed by Liza’s parcel, but can its evil be contained?

The book is well-written and amusing, without losing its sinister edge. Another review describes it as “unclassifiable” and I’d agree with this. Original and quirky, this is a new voice in fantasy that I look forward to hearing from again.

There But For The – Ali Smith

I really love Ali Smith’s stories. They are small snippets of life, cleverly observed and don’t appear to be about very much, but you come away from them glad that you read them. I also read The First Person, another collection of stories, by her too. Good short stories are often harder to write than novels, I think. I know authors whose novels I have enjoyed (Joanne Harris, Emma Donoghue) whose stories disappointed me. Ali Smith is not one of these.

The Bryant and May books are all tremendous fun. They are detectives working in the Peculiar Crimes Unit, and anyone who knows me knows that peculiar crimes are my most favourite of crimes! I like Fowler’s odd, offbeat spooky stories. I also read Bryant and May on the Loose and White Corridor, and look forward to seeking the rest of the series out.
I read another Fowler novel, Breathe, which was good, but not as human and enjoyable as Bryant and May. There should be gaps in the paragraph now, but I have tried editing it 5 times and it won’t work, and I’m afraid I am losing my temper now, so I am going to leave it and you’ll just have to know I did my best.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D H Lawrence

I finally got around to this, the 50 Shades of its day; and found it rather uninteresting. I didn’t understand any of the characters, or warm to them, and I’m afraid Mellors have a moustache absolutely killed it for me. Frankly I thought the pair of lovers, with their little garlands of flowers, remarkably silly, and Lawrence really has no idea what sex is like for a woman because he is very inaccurate (sorry to my brother if you are reading this, just pretend you didn’t see that bit).

I did however think that the book raised interesting questions about relationships based on physical attraction and whether they have long-lasting foundations; the last paragraph of the book says quite a lot on that. I am not keen to seek out more Lawrence, though I fear that says more about me than it does about him.

The Turtle Boy by Kealan Patrick Burke

This is a very odd little book, and is right up my street. It’s the first in the Timothy Quinn series, about a young boy with a most extraordinary gift. He has no idea about it, though, when he and his friend Pete find an odd boy ‘feeding the turtles’ at the local pond. Oof, it’s giving me the heebies just writing it. I am looking forward to purchasing the rest of the series.

The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Potzsch

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this. The hero of the story is the local hangman who’s (believe it or not) a jolly good sort, and you can’t help but warm to him, even as he’s preparing his instruments for torture. The translation is a little clunky at times, but the historical detail is fascinating and I’ve just ordered the second in the series.

The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman is one of my favourite authors, and another of those rare writers who captures both the art of the novel and the short story perfectly. This series of stories tells the story of a ‘red garden’ through the generations and has Hoffman’s trademark whimsy which strays just on the right side of sentimentality.

The Submission by Amy Waldman

An original and thought-provoking book about a group’s attempts to make a memorial for those lost in the 9/11 attack.  I consider this very well-written and winced on many pages, understanding where both sides of the argument regarding the winning entry were coming from.

The Mark of the Angel by Nancy Huston

A silent, secretive German woman enters into an illicit affair with a man who mends instruments. I’m sure there is much more that could be said about this book, but I didn’t find it interesting, and it left me cold. Not just the heroine Saffie’s reservation, and the fact that she and her husband get married for no reason whatsoever, but because I didn’t think the story went anywhere. It’s got good reviews on Amazon though, so pay no attention to me.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

The first Steinbeck I have read, and it made me cry on the beach just as Wooster made me laugh. Steinbeck is as clever with character and dialogue as Stephen King, who I think is a master of it. The story of the friends George and Lennie warms and breaks your heart simultaneously.

Now Clare, if you can’t find something you fancy in that lot, you can pay for me to go back to Greece and spend another fortnight doing nothing but read…