Monday 31 October 2011

Short stories for R.I.P. VI

What I, rather stupidly, didn't anticipate when R.I.P. VI started and I said that I fancied doing some short story weekends, was exactly how busy my weekends are at the moment, what with Real Life and its little problems. So, I did one at the beginning of the challenge and have not found time to do another until now, right at the end of it! Oh well... better late than never, as they say, hopefully I can do better next year. In the meantime I've read a small handful this weekend:

I started off with a story Susan Hill recommended in her book, Howards End is on the Landing; it's called Mr. Jones, it's by Edith Wharton, and can be read online here and/or uploaded to your e.reader if you have one (which is what I did).

Lady Jane Lynke inherits 'Bells', an old property in Sussex, and, while staying with friend in Kent, decides to visit it anonymously.

It was a lustrous motionless day. Autumn bloom lay on the Sussex downs, on the heavy trees of the weald, on streams moving indolently, far off across the marshes. Farther still, Dungeness, a fitful streak, floated on an immaterial sky which was perhaps, after all, only sky.

She comes upon the house...

In a dip of the land, the long low house, its ripe brick masonry overhanging a moat deeply sunk about its roots, resembled an aged cedar spreading immemorial red branches. Lady Jane held her breath and gazed.

It's love at first sight but, because she doesn't tell the maid who answers the door who she is, she can't gain admittance because 'Mr. Jones says that no one is allowed to visit the house'.

Eventually she does of course get in, and subsequently moves in too. But there's an odd thing - although the housekeeper and maid talk about 'Mr. Jones', he's nowhere to be found. The excuse is that he's old and frail and not well, but this continues on for weeks. Not only that, certain parts of the house appear off limits, keys lost etc. Lady Jane and her writer guest start to investigate and their investigations involve a plaque in the church, a portrait of a woman, and a locked room where the family archives are kept...

How can anyone resist writing like this? Truthfully, it's not a story to read if you want to be scared out of your wits, it being only slightly creepy. Really, it's one to read if you love beautiful writing and a very strong sense of place. Sadly, I've never been to the Sussex Weald, but writers such as Kipling wrote so beautifully about the area that I feel as though I have. Edith Wharton must have been there herself as the timeless atmosphere feels perfect to me. Well worth half an hour of your time.

Next, I read a story recommended by Susan at You Can Never Have Too Many Books. It's The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman, which can be read online if you click on the link or as I did once again, transferred to your e.reader.

A man goes in search of a guide to take him to a cave on the Misty Isle: he wants someone in particular, one Calum MacInnes. MacInnes is reluctant to take him to this mythical cave. It is said that inside a man can collect as much gold as he can carry and MacInnes is one of the few men to have actually done this. But the man is insistant and they go, but is MacInnes to be trusted? The long, arduous journey will reveal all...

I love it when I read a story thinking it's one thing... and it turns out it's something else altogether. Clever, clever writing, that. I'm not overwhelmingly a fan of Gaiman's writing. Some of his books and stories I love - The Graveyard Book for instance - and some I'm so-so about. This though is pretty skilful stuff and I liked it a lot. There's an almost lyrical feel to the prose and a very strong sense of time and place. And also a very clever twist. Another one that's well worth half an hour.

And last, but not least, I reread a story that was sent to me some months ago by the author, Julia Kavan: Dreaming Not Sleeping.

Hard to describe this one as it's about dreams and, rather cleverly, written like a dream. The reader isn't sure what's going on at first. Then it becomes clear that a woman is having strange dreams and that, subsequently, her husband is concerned about the depth of these dreams and the state she's in when she awakes... the fact that she clearly doesn't want to wake from them. Is she becoming obsessed?

I'm not saying any more. This is a beautifully written, atmospheric, creepy little story.

It was a kiss that brought me here. Soft and gentle. It ripped away my breath and tore away my soul. Now I can't find my way back. I don't want to find my way back. I hope you understand.

It's quite short, but I think it works at this length as many of the best short stories often do. A small word of warning, this is quite an erotic piece of work. I was fine with it but it might not be everyone's cup of tea. The story is available for purchase here on AmazonUK. I have to say that if Julia ever writes a full length novel I would be very interested in reading it.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Wicked Appetite & The Mephisto Club

Two books to do quick reviews of today: Wicked Appetite by Janet Evanovich and The Mephisto Club by Tess Gerritsen. Both are for various challenges. Wicked Appetite covers no less than *three* - Carl's R.I.P. VI challenge, The Foodie's Reading challenge which is being hosted by Margot at Joyfully Retired, and it also covers the 'Evil in the title' category of the What's in a Name challenge which is being hosted by Beth Fish Reads. So that's the one I will start with.

I'm going to be lazy with this one and use the Amazon blurb to describe it.

Life is pleasantly predictable for Lizzy, until a tall, black-haired, dark eyed man shows up. His name is Gerwulf Grimoire, also known as Wulf. And he wants what Lizzy has: knowledge. Almost simultaneously comes another man, a different man, but this one just as dangerous. His name is Diesel. And he wants several things Lizzy has, only one of them being knowledge.

Unbeknownst to Lizzy, she has the ability to find 'empowered objects'. A collection of stones that represent the seven deadly sins have made their way to Marblehead. If the stones are grouped together, they have the power to unleash hell on earth. Wulf wants them. Diesel wants to stop him. And Lizzy is the key to all of it.

Can Lizzy stay one step ahead of two men who both want her...both body and soul?

Janet Evanovich is of course best known for her Stephanie Plum series of crime books. I believe it's a series of comedy style stories about a bounty hunter; I've not read any but my husband has enjoyed quite a few of them in the past. In fact this was his library book which I nabbed after he'd read it as I thought it sounded like a lot of fun. I *think* there might be a connection between these and the Stephanie Plum books to be honest as one of the synopses of one of those books I happened upon mentioned a 'Diesel', so it seems like there might be a crossing over of characters there.

Anyway, this was a lot of fun. I enjoyed all the baking that went on, Lizzy is an expert at making cup-cakes, in fact she's almost supernaturally good at them... and it's quite crucial to the plot. There's a lot of humour, mainly provided by a pet monkey anmed Carl, and a friend of Lizzy's called Glo who has bought a book of spells and begins practising them with disastrous consequences. But I also loved Diesel's very dry humour.

There's not a lot else to say about this one really. It was a very light, fun, read, perfect for bedtime reading... I assume it's part one of a new series but am not certain about that, or whether I'll read any more. Maybe.

Next up, The Mephisto Club by Tess Gerritsen. This one just qualifies for Carl's R.I.P. VI challenge - my 9th. and probably final book for this challenge.

'I HAVE SINNED' is scrawled in Latin in blood at the scene of a young woman's brutal murder. It's a chilling Christmas greeting for Boston medical examiner Maura Isles and Detective Jane Rizzoli, who swiftly link the victim to controversial celebrity psychiatrist Joyce O'Donnell - Jane's professional nemesis and member of a sinister cabal called the Mephisto Club.

In Italy a young American woman is on the run. Someone is after her and she can't afford to stay more than a few months in any one city. Some years ago Lily Saul's family made the mistake of taking in a nephew after his father had died. They had no idea what they were admitting into their home.

A policewoman is killed outside the meeting place of The Mephisto Club and yet more ancient symbols written on the door and, later, on Maura Isles front door too.

The body found at Christmas was mutillated and the hands removed. It's soon discovered that one of the hands does not belong to the body, so where is the second victim? Jane and Maura travel to upstate New York to view the body of a woman with a hand missing, in a deserted house in the country. What is the link between these two women?

The case is so complicated that the police realise they have a very clever adversary on the loose. And that in order to solve this crime they need the help of the group of people who not only understand the ancient symbols, but possibly the devil himself - The Mephisto Club.

Can these books possibly get any better? Surely not. They're all excellent but, like everything else, I do have my favourites, and those *two* would be Body Double, which is book 4, and this one, book 6, The Mephisto Club.

To be honest, I didn't know, before I started it, that it would be suitable for R.I.P VI. But then the rather weird supernatural background became apparent with its hints at satanic rituals and I knew it was perfect. I love all this centuries old bible-based, historical or not, stuff. Tess Gerritsen weaves her plot around all kinds of amazing ideas and I lapped it up. I won't go into what kind of ideas as that would involve major spoilers but it is fascinating stuff. Whether there will be more with this background I don't know. There is certainly scope for it and I can but hope!

Monday 17 October 2011

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

The evenings are certainly drawing in now and the weather here in the UK is turning pretty chilly. They're talking about sleet and snow this week, in the highlands of Scotland, and I suspect it's going to be cold enough for light frosts down here in the SW. Autumn is well and truly with us and Carl's R.I.P. VI challenge is entering its final weeks. How sad! I think I'll probably carry on reading my spooky books to be honest as I've had such a ball with them all. I finished my 7th. book yesterday and it was Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.

Jacob Portman's grandfather has just died in suspicious circumstances. *Very* suspicious circumstances. It seems that Jacob was the only one able to see the monstrous thing lurking in the undergrowth when he found the body, but did he really see it? And what do the nightmares he's started to have mean? Slowly his parents and his psychiatrist manage to convince him that the cause of all this weirdness is a mental breakdown and Jacob eventually starts to recover.

The trouble is, Jacob can't quite forget all the tales his grandfather told him about his childhood. How he was the only one of his family to escape Poland when the Nazis invaded and how he ended up on an island off the the coast of Wales under the care of a certain Miss Peregrine. It seems she ran a home for rather odd children and his grandfather had shown him photos of some of them. One seemed to have levitated, another was lifting a huge rock and in another all you could see was clothes, the indication being that the child was invisible. Jacob is sure the photos are fakes, but are they?

Jacob manages to convince his father, a keen ornithologist, that a holiday (they live in California) on the Welsh island, birdwatching, is a good idea and off the two of them go. They settle into the local pub and Jacob sets off the next day to find the home. It's on the other side of the island and, to his dismay, what Jacob finds is a wreck of a house. It seems it was destroyed by WW2 bombs and all but his grandfather killed, but Jacob is sure he's being watched. Who could it be? The truth, when Jacob eventually gets to the bottom of the mystery, could hardly be more astonishing... or more dangerous.

I think this one might go down as my weirdest book of the year. The photos I mentioned are actually in the book and are, apparently, *real*. The author used them to illustrate his book, I assume with permission. It all makes for rather an odd book which might not be to everyone's taste, but I quite enjoyed it.

The unusual plot is what has made this one popular I think. Although some things are guessable, the way things are arrived at is not, in my opinion, and I found myself both intrigued and admiring of the author's imagination. It's quite some achievement to keep someone as jaundiced as me guessing, especially in the supernatural genre as I've read quite a lot.

There's also quite a nice sense of place. There are several such islands off the coast of Wales, none of which I've been to but have observed from the mainland, and it feels like the author had it fairly spot on. I don't know whether he based his island on any one of them, I suspect it's an amalgam but, whatever, it works.

It's always hard for an American author to write a book set in the UK, and vice versa; it usually shows. In this one I thought the author did a good job though I was thrown quite badly when Miss Peregrine used the word 'knob-head'. That's not a term that would have been around in her time, plus... it's not a word a woman of her generation would use... at least I don't personally think so. I don't even use it now, in the 21st. century. So that threw me, but overall I thought that aspect was pretty well done.

If you like your supernatural fiction to have scary monster type characters then this is the book for you. The sense of menace is always present and you never quite know what's going to happen next. I'm assuming, from the end, that this is going to be a series. I'm quite pleased about that as I'd like to see what happens to the children and am very intrigued by the 'monsters'. A good read and I can understand why it's so popular at the moment.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

The Wine of Angels

I'm still finding that there are several blogs I can't comment on without having to be 'anonymous'. Is anyone else still having problems? because this has been going on for months and months now and is pretty irritating.

Anyway. Enough of minor annoyances. I've just finished my 6th. book for Carl's R.I.P VI... the best of the lot so far... and that is The Wine of Angels by Phil Rickman.

Ledwardine is a fictitious village in Herefordshire, an English county on the Welsh borders. It's had no vicar for a little while and Merrily Watkins is brought in as the 'priest in charge'. Right from the start there are traumatic events. An elderly man commits suicide in the large apple orchard that almost surrounds the village, during a kind of pagan night-time ceremony, witnessed by a large crowd. And, aside from that, things just don't feel right in the village. Lucy Devenish, a local shop owner and expert on folklore in the county, hints at all kinds of rum goings on and starts to involve Merrily's fifteen year old daughter, Jane.

One night, Jane goes out drinking with Colette, a local restaurant owner's daughter. Not realising the strength of the local cidar, Jane gets drunk and, pursued by local yobs, the two girls end up in that same apple orchard. Things become confused and Colette disappears. Being a bit of a trollope, people think she's just disappeared off with some lad, but has she?

It doesn't help that Merrily hates the vicarage. It's a huge place that doesn't feel at all welcoming and her and Jane find themselves rattling around in its large rooms and corridors. Not only that, Merrily is having waking nightmares and starts to wonder if the place is haunted.

More problems arise when a local playwright and his young boyfriend want to stage a play in the church. It's based on the story of a young seventeenth century priest of the parish who was accused of witchcraft and put to death. The boyfriend, an actor, feels the priest might have been gay and this was the reason he was hounded to death. The play is clearly controversial and the village is divided, some supporting, some violently against, led by the sort of squire figure, John Bull-Davies whose ancestor was involved with the trial.

From not being able to believe her luck at being transferred from inner Liverpool to the rural idyll of Ledwardine, Merrily now regrets her move. She not only finds herself between a rock and a hard place as regards the play... she also has no idea what's going on with her own daughter who clearly has a lot of secrets she does not want to share. If Merrily is to keep this job she has sort the mess out before someone else disappears in mysterious circumstances, or even dies...

Well, this was a bit of doorstop of a book (600 pages) which has kept me royally entertained for a week. My eldest daughter pressed it on me, saying that I must read it as it was excellent. And so it was!

I would describe it as a 'busy' novel. A lot going on in respect of plot lines - things going on in people's lives... much more than I've been able to describe here to be honest. And it's all very cleverly interwoven. Things affecting one person inter-connect with someone else so it's a bit like a jig-saw puzzle where all the pieces need putting togther to see the whole.

It's a while since I've been this involved in a book and I think that's down to the main character, Merrily, and her daughter, Jane. They seemed very real to me, especially the difficult relationship that can exist between mothers and their teenage daughters. How does a modern teenager feel, for instance, when her mother finds God and becomes a Church of England vicar? Jane is especially embarrassed to see her mother praying in front of the window and in one bit they sit to eat dinner and Jane says to herself over and over, 'Please don't say grace, please don't say grace...' It's thought provoking and very very honest.

There's also a very real sense of place. Herefordshire is a very pretty county and you can sense the history as you travel around. There are still many villages just like Ledwardine with their black and white timbered houses and apple orchards. In this story orchard is a character in itself, creepy, atmospheric, stifling almost, and the centre of much that is weird and strange.

If the book has a fault it's that some of the village characters are a trifle clichéd. There's an overbearing squire figure, a crazy 'folklore' expert who's an older woman, the playwright is gay because of course all artistic people are... and so on. It didn't worry me particularly because I do realise that clichéd characters are written because they are often like that in real life and to pretend otherwise is to deny the reality of things.

All in all, this is the best book I've read in ages, and I've read a few good ones recently. I'm delighted that it's book one of a series of eleven and can see that I'm going to get completely hooked on Merrily Watkins and her adventures in Herefordshire!

Monday 3 October 2011

Books read in September & Sweetness

I'm going to do this as a combined post so that I can catch up on myself a bit. First, a quick run-down of what I read in September, and then secondly a quick review of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley.

September was pretty much an average reading month for me, six books read... well actually five and half... as one of them, Barchester Towers, is a book I started back in August and have been reading slowly. So this is what I read:

58. Bone Crossed - Patricia Briggs
59. The Gates - John Connolly
60. Barchester Towers - Anthony Trollope
61. Blood Detective - Dan Waddell
62, Eclipse - Stephanie Meyer
63. The Small Hand - Susan Hill

Every single one of these was a thoroughly good read, but if I had to choose a favourite it would probably be Barchester Towers. It was just so beautifully written, characters that were very memorable and superbly drawn such as Obadiah Slope, and an excellent storyline. And honestly, it was so much fun and a joy to read. My next book in the Barchester series is Dr. Thorne which I have on my Kindle but I'm wondering how long I'll be able to resist getting myself a nice hard copy.

So six books read, five of those for Carl's R.I.P. VI challenge, so I'm very pleased with that acheivement. If I don't manage to read anything else for the challenge, five will complete it quite nicely. Although I *am* hoping to read several more... I have the Miss Peregrine book everyone's talking about, from the library, and a couple of others that will fit in very well. It all depends on real life circumstances really.

Next up, a quick review... my first book for October is The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley.

The story here is based around the De Luce family who live in a crumbling country pile by the name of Buckshaw. Flavia de Luce is eleven or there abouts and very keen on chemistry, a child prodigy you would probably say. She lives with her father, and two older sisters that she doesn't get on with. In fact at the beginning of the tale she's tied up and gagged and left by them in a wardrobe. Their father lives there but is not there in spirit. His wife died some years ago and he has become a bit of a recluse, interested only in his stamp collection.

When Flavia finds a dead body in the cucumber patch early one morning, after witnessing a strange meeting between her father and the dead man the night before, she sets about investigating the crime. Is it connected to the dead bird with a stamp impaled on its beak that turned up on the doorstep a few days ago? The answer is almost definitely yes. But where does her father's stamp collection fit in? And why is the local librarian obsessed with Flavia's father's school days and clique of friends? The local police seem clueless but Flavia is not. Methodically sorting out the clues and using her skills as a chemist to aid the investigation, Flavia finds herself not only one step ahead of the police but ultimately in some considerable danger herself.

I think I might be the last person in the world to read this book. Since I first read about it on various blogs two more books have been written in the series! And I'm very pleased about that as I enjoyed this one immensely.

Flavia is such a wonderful character, full of curiosity, intelligence and enthusiasm. I have to say I'm not too sure that an eleven year old would have quite that grasp of the English language but it's all so charming that it's quite easy to suspend disbelief. You find yourself not only rooting for her all the way through the book but also feeling a lot of sympathy as her family is really quite dysfunctional. The father has no interest in his three daughters and Flavia's sisters are appalling in their disinterest and spitefulness.

The plot itself is huge fun, I loved following the clues and, as a lapsed stamp collector, found all the philately details fascinating. Humour abounds as Flavia flies around the countryside on her trusty bike, Gladys, telling the reader her thoughts on everything imaginable but especially chemistry. Truthfully, it was one of those books I found myself reading with a smile on my face and that's not to be sneezed at as an accomplishment of the author, Alan Bradley.

Wonderful. Loved it and have already reserved book two, The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag, from the library.