Sunday 30 September 2012

Book title meme

I'm behind by two with book reviews but am having a busy, family, weekend so those will have to wait. I just couldn't resist one these 'Answer the question with the title of a book you've read this year' memes. I pinched it from Cathy at Kitling Books and had huge fun choosing the titles.

So, here goes.

1. Every Monday I look like: Damsel in Distress (Carola Dunn)

2. Last time I went to a doctor was because: I am Half Sick of Shadows (Alan Bradley)

3. Last Meal I ate was: In Tearing Haste (edited by Charlotte Mosely)

4. My savings account is: Partnership (Anne McCaffrey)

5. When a creepy guy asks for my number I: Die Laughing (Carola Dunn)

6. Ignorant politicians make me: The Killing Kind (John Connolly)

7. Some people need to spend more time: Living Dangerously (Katie Fforde)

8. My memoir could be titled: Time for the Stars (Robert Heinlein)

9. If I could have, I would've told my teenage self: Stories (edited by Neil
Gaiman and Al Sorrantinio)

10. In five years I hope I am: At Home in Thrush Green (Miss Read)

Go on... have a go. You know you want to...


Monday 24 September 2012

R.I.P. VII short stories

This weekend I thought I would read a few short stories for Carl's R.I.P. VII.

I have so many books of ghostly or macabre short stories that it's ridiculous but I couldn't part with any of them, especially as a few are no longer that easily available. Anyway, I dug out a few new stories and a couple of ones that I'd read before.

I started with a favourite book of stories of the macabre by John Connolly: Nocturnes.

I'd read almost all of this book but had come to a halt at the Charlie Parker novella, The Reflecting Eye, mainly because I'd not read any of this series back then and didn't want to start here. It fits, according to the author, between The White Road and The Black Angel which is exactly the place I'm at so it was time. And it was a terrific story, introducing a character known as The Collector into the series. But the story actually concerns the Grady house, where a serial child killer died after being caught with children in his basement. The house is now owned by the father of the child who died that day but is attracting a lot of unwanted attention, mainly to do with the mirrors in the house. Charlie, Louis and Angel set up a stake-out. Fantastic little story.

I then read on and finished the four final stories in this collection - The Cycle, referring to the female 'cycle', The Bridal Bed, The Man From the Second Fifteen and my favourite, The Inn at Shillingford, a very traditional story of an inn with a nasty reputation where in Insurance man spends the night. Good one.

This collection of stories by John Connolly is fabulous and really not well known enough, which is a tragedy.

Next, inspired by Susan's post at You Can Never Have Too Many Books, I picked up The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories, a book which I read back in the early 1990s but not since.

Susan read The Upper Berth by F. Marion Crawford, so I went for that first and was not disappointed. It's told as an after dinner tale in the best tradition of ghost story telling. The narrator was a frequent traveller by ship across the Atlantic and explained why he would never again use a certain ship. He'd been put into a cabin with a bad reputation and, despite warnings from a steward and the ship's doctor, spent the night there. During the night the stranger sharing his cabin jumped from the top berth, ran through the ship and jumped overboard. One might have thought this would tell the narrator something but not a bit of it. LOL. I do love these stories where People Refuse to See Sense... Good yarn though.

The second story I read from the collection was The Lost Ghost by Mary E. Wilkins. It was neither set in England nor by an English author, so how it made it into the collection I'm not sure. It matters not. It was in fact set in New England and is told by a woman reflecting with a friend about the strangeness of some houses. As a younger woman she had been a school teacher and lodged in an old house with two elderly sisters. She'd got home one evening and left her wet coat in the hallway to dry out. She thought it was odd when one of the sisters advised her not to leave it there, but did it anyway. When she woke up in the night to find a young girl standing in her doorway, holding the coat and saying, 'I can't find my mother', she thought it was odder still. This was another terrific little story, very sad and thought provoking.

Next and for my final story I moved on to a slim viloume entitled A Night on the Moor and Other Tales of Dread by R. Murray Gilchrist. Don't you just love some of these titles? ;-)

Not an author I've previously been familiar with, I must admit, I believe I grabbed this in a cheap bookshop somewhere and there are in fact quite a few of these little Wordsworth published ghost collections around. I decided to read the title story, A Night on the Moor. It was a fairly straightforward tale of a Victorian gent lost on the moors in the Peak District, in a snow storm, after a day out shooting. He finds a shepherd's bothy to sleep in but is awoken in the night by a woman knocking on the door. She's clearly a lady, but dressed in an old fashioned way. She's hiding a pet fawn from her husband so leaves the fawn in the bothy and takes the stranger back to her house for the night, warning that her husband might react badly. The outcome of this was fairly obvious but it was still a well written, entertaining yarn.

So that was my weekend of ghostly short stories. Huge fun, I enjoyed some excellent writing, particularly the Victorian stories which are always so beautifully crafted. Hope to read a few more in a couple of weeks but in the meantime I'm back with Charlie Parker, chasing after Black Angels. Such fun.

Friday 21 September 2012

A Room Full of Bones

Well, I've just previewed this post before posting and all the paragraph breaks have disappeared. This was a problem with the new interface before, I seem to recall. I'm going to post and see if it alters but I imagine it won't and have no clue what to do about it. *Sigh* Why the hell can't these internet people just leave things alone?

ETA: Solved... you have to go to 'options' the first time you do a new post, scroll down to 'line breaks' and choose 'press enter for line breaks. The new interface has set it on a 'use br tag' default for some crazy reason. *Fumes silently*

ANYWAY. Still reading for Carl's R.I.P. VII, and still thoroughly enjoying the books I'm reading for it. Book four is A Room Full of Bones by Elly Griffiths, book four in her 'Ruth Galloway' series.

It's Halloween and Ruth has an appointment at the Smith Museum in King's Lynn in Norfolk. She's there to supervise the opening of a coffin which has been found on a building site. The coffin is marked and thus they know it contains the remains of one Bishop Augustine who lived back in the 14th. century. Arriving early, Ruth finds the small museum silent and empty. She takes a look around the museum and then heads for the room where the coffin is to be opened. There on the floor, apparently dead, is the museum curator, Neil Topham.

DI Harry Nelson is called in to investigate the murder. An awkward situation given he is the father of Ruth's daughter, Kate, but already married with two teenage daughters.

It seems the museum curator has been receiving threatening letters, connected with some bones held in the museum archives. These bones, Australian Aboriginal in origin, had been brought back from Australia by one of the current owner's, Lord Smith's, ancestors in the 19th. century. Needless to say, the modern day descendants want the remains back. Coincidently, Ruth has a new neighbour, Brian Woonunga, and he, with a name like that, is of course an Australian Aborigine. There has to be a connection and of course, when weirdness begins, Ruth's druid friend, Cathbad, is automatically on the scene.

The current Lord Smith runs a racing stables and clearly this is the first place to look for the truth. Nelson finds the family a difficult one, with many awkward and complicated relationships. Things are not right here, he can feel it, and the feeling is confirmed when he discovers that Lord Smith has also been receiving threatening letters. What on earth is going on? Dead snakes turning up people's doorsteps? Ritualistic dancing in the woods around the stables? And then someone else is killed in very odd circumstances. Ruth comes to realise her friends might be involved and needs to decide where exactly her loyalties lie.

Another page turner from Elly Griffiths. Great plot, full of weirdness. I love the way the author injects just a smidgeon of new age magic into these books, leaving the reader wondering if it's real or whether there's a logical explanation for Cathbad the druid's cermonies and machinations. I love this odd character the author's created, and he has an important part to play in this particular plot.

I also love Ruth Galloway of course. Her life is difficult and there's a substantial amount of hurt for her at the moment. I felt so sorry for her in regard to one particular thing that's going on, to do with Nelson, and it lessened my respect for him I have to admit. It was sort of solved at the end, but was it? The last sentence indicated that it might not be. I felt very ambivilent about the whole situation, knowing I 'should' feel one way and feeling quite guilty that I didn't. I wonder if I'm alone in this...

This relationship stuff is part of what's keeping me reading this series... plus of course they really are cracking good reads that gallop along at a very swift pace. I also adore the Norfolk setting and especially where Ruth's home is situated on the saltmarsh. Fabulous spot I would imagine. The next book is due out in March 2013 I gather. Can't wait.

Sunday 16 September 2012

Dark Matter

I seem to be on a roll with Carl's R.I.P. VII as I've just finished my third book for it, Dark Matter - A Ghost Story by Michelle Paver.

Warning: This review might be a bit spoilerish although I've tried hard not to make it too much so.

Jack Miller is down on his luck. He has a dead-end job even though he struggled to get a physics degree back in the 1930s when someone from a poorish background like his rarely managed such an achievement. Almost at the end of his tether he answers an advert to join an expedition to the Arctic as the radio expert. He almost doesn't accept the offer. Meeting the five other members he finds they are from upper-class backgrounds and feels they are looking down on him. As he leaves he hears a comment to that effect and knows it for sure. Coming to his senses though, he realises that he would be missing a rare opportunity and basically has nothing to lose.

The five members end up as three when accidents befall two of the men. Jack is accompanied by Gus, a good looking young man, very much a leader of men, and Algie, plump and irritating. Jack takes to Gus but not to Algie.

They reach Norway and the three are tranported from Tromso to the island of Spitsbergen where they will spend the Arctic winter. They've picked a part of the island known as Gruhuken, an old mining area now deserted. But there's a problem. The captain of the ship transporting them, Eriksson, is not at all keen to take them to the spot they've chosen. When Jack tries to find out what the captain has against Gruhuken the man is tight-lipped: it's clear he's very much afraid of something but refuses to say what.

Eventually they reach the cove and set about making a camp. The crew stay to help but will not sleep ashore at night. In order to build a hut they have to demolish a hut built by the miners, which is not habitable, partly because of the terrible atmosphere there. And there's a strange post outside the hut known as the 'bear post' which is giving everyone the creeps.

The ship is about to leave and Jack, on his way back from a walk, sees the figure of a man standing beside the post, his head at a strange angle to his body. It was nobody that he knew. The ship leaves and the three men settle into a routine but something is not right. Jack is seeing and feeling strange things but feels he can't tell the others for fear of being ridiculed. Then Gus takes ill with apendicitis. Erikssen's ship returns and takes both Gus and Algie away, leaving Jack on his own with the winter darkness about to descend...

Well, this is a ghost story in the true sense of the word. It's told in journal fashion, a method which to me has a very Victorian feel to it, even though the story is set in 1937 with WW2 looming. The tension builds slowly. Even though there are small problems right from the start and the reader cannot help but feel the mission is doomed, you get carried away by the excitement the men so clearly feel, setting out, and are hoping for the best even though you just *know* it'll all end badly.

This is a genuinely creepy story. Not just the ghostly aspect which is well done and very effective, but more so because we watch the slow deterioration of a man's mind. It's impossible for anyone who hasn't done it to imagine how it must feel to be left completely alone in an Arctic winter. No daylight whatsoever to look forward to for four long months- no company, no one to speak to. Impossible *not* to go a bit potty, even in normal circumstances, let alone in a place that gives you the creeps. And this is all beautifully depicted by the author in this slow build-up to the devastating climax of the book.

I gather the author, Michelle Paver, has a fascination with Arctic wastes and has actually been to Northern Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia and Spitsbergen itself. This shows. To the point of the island feeling like a fourth character... the descriptions are so fantastic - the bleakness, the desolation, the stark beauty - you are actually *there*. I too am a bit taken with these regions so this was a massive plus for me and I adored this aspect of the book.

I wish there were more books written like this - more genuine ghost stories. Susan Hill is a master of the genre of course but I struggle to think of many others. Most fiction of this type was written in Victorian and Edwardian times as short stories, novels were rare, although some of the short stories could be pretty long. This book makes me want to search out some of the fantastic ones I've read and perhaps I will now do so. This was an excellent read and I highly recommend it if you fancy a proper ghostly read for RIP.

Two other reviews of this book are here at Margaret's blog, Booksplease and Susan's, You Can Never Have Too Many Books. I haven't read them yet as I wanted to come to the book fresh, but I shall go and read them now.

And another, GeraniumCat: here.

Friday 14 September 2012

Mistletoe and Murder

My second read for Carl's R.I.P. VII is Mistletoe and Murder by Carola Dunn.

It's Christmas 1923 and Daisy Dalrymple has conceded to the demands of her snobbish mother and agreed to take her family to Brockdene for the holidays. Brockdene is a Tudor manor house in Cornwall, situated beside the river Tamar, which forms the border with Devon and Cornwall. It's isolated and therefore tricky to get to. It has a long, long history of smuggling and therefore tales of secret tunnels and ghosts abound.

Daisy goes ahead of the family as she is doing an article for a magazine and wants to gather information and photos before the Christmas mayhem begins. The house is occupied by the Norville family, poor relations of the the Duke of Westmoor.

Once there, Daisy's detective nose is alerted by the oddness of the family. Godfrey Norville is obsessed with the history of the house, to the exclusion of all else. His mother is an Indian woman and very soon Daisy discovers that there is some doubt as to whether she was actually married to the father of her two sons. The fact that he had gone to India and married a local girl causing scandal within his family back home. This is not helped by the fact that he died soon after arriving back in England and the marriage certificate was lost.

The current family are a peculiar lot and made even more so when the other brother, a captain in the navy, arrives home from India with a rather puritanical minister. It seems he might know something about the marriage but before he can reveal all is killed with a knife in the chapel on the estate. Daisy's husband, Alec, a Scotland yard detective, has to give up his Christmas holiday in order to investigate the murder. And of course there's no way that Daisy is not going to help...

This is Carola Dunn on top form, in my opinion. I thoroughly enjoyed this country house mystery and the reason for that is that the author states at the beginning of the book that she based the house on Cotehele in Cornwall. I've been there several times so this really brought the book alive for me.

Sadly it's many years since we were there so I don't have photos but I borrowed this one from the Cornish Tours website:

The property is now owned by the National Trust and here's the page for Cotehele. It's a stunning property in beautiful grounds and an ideal setting for a mystery novel.

Anyway, the book was, as are all the Daisy books, huge fun. The author fills her books with wonderfully quirky characters and this one was no exception. There are also some very human moments... the surprise Daisy feels at how much she misses Alec when she's not with him, the hurt her mother inflicts on Daisy as she denigrates Alec and his police job in front of strangers, and Daisy wishing she had the kind of mother or mother-in-law that she could look after and cosset. Daisy finds her life interesting and fun, but all is not a bed of roses by any means.

So that's my second read for R.I.P. VII. Two very different books read so far but both excellent.

Sunday 9 September 2012

The White Road

At last I have my first book for Carl's R.I.P. VIII under my belt. I actually had to finish another book before I could start... it was a very good book... but a little frustrating as I wanted to be off and running with R.I.P. Well now I am and my first book for it was The White Road by John Connolly, book four in his very well known 'Charlie Parker' series.

Charlie and his new partner, Rachel, are now expecting a baby. Charlie is understandably uneasy as his former wife and young daughter were brutally murdered. The murderer was caught but Charlie knows full well that there are still people out there who want to get him and would stop at nothing to achieve their aims.

He gets a call from a former colleague now living in South Carolina, Elliot Norton. Norton is a lawyer and has taken on the case of a young black man, Atys Jones, accused of raping and murdering his girlfriend. The case is high profile because the girl is a member of a white, well-to-do family in the Charleston area. Norton is asking Charlie for his help but Charlie is reluctant, partly because of Rachel's pregnancy and not wishing to leave her alone, but also the case is giving him a bad feeling. Faulkner, the religious psychopath who was involved in his last case, is in prison but likely to be bailed by a man also local to Charleston. Is there a connection with all that's going on?

Charlie somehow feels compelled to go to Charleston to help his friend, Norton, out. What he finds there is a tangled web of lies and deceit that go back forty or fifty years to the days of racial segregation, and even beyond. It seems that Atys Jones' mother and sister disappeared in suspicious circumstances. Slowly, Charlie discovers that a group of young white men were involved, who these boys were, and that they are all still alive. His involvement is apparently highly unpopular because of his reputation, but is that all there is to it? And then someone starts to murder the group of men, one by one...

This book is a lot more complicated than I have managed to describe. John Connolly writes fabulously complicated plots and you need to keep your wits about you when you embark on one of them. The background plots are always some kind of grisly murder but never, ever simple. Charlie Parker sees dead people, has done since the death of his wife and daughter. In this book the supernatural element is increased to the point where we begin to wonder what Charlie is. It's partially explained - I'm not saying how, but I have to admit to being somewhat gobsmacked at the ideas behind it all. John Connolly is such a classy horror writer, one of the best and certainly my favourite at the moment.

The other thing I just love about this series is that the author does not treat the reader as an idiot: so we get history and geography lessons. In this we learn a little about the history of slavery, racial segregation, what the area around Charleston, SC, is like, the swamps and so forth. I did not know, for instance, that rice was grown in South Carolina. I thought slavery was based mainly on cotton and sugar... but 'rice'... news to me. Fascinating.

There are now eleven books in this series, plus a novella in the anthology, Nocturnes. The indication seems to be that the novella fits in after The White Road - I haven't read it yet, so will probably read that after my current RIP read. So thrilled that there are still so many Charlie Parker books for me to enjoy. A word of warning - they're probably not for everyone!

An excellent first read for R.I.P. VII. If every book I read is a good as this one I shall be a happy bunny.