Sunday, 25 October 2015

Chilling Autumn Reads

Ah, Autumn. The season of falling leaves, golden colours, chill mornings and darkening nights; the dying of the year. A perfect time for curling up by the fireplace with a hot beverage and a good book. And, whilst I'm not a big believer in Halloween (I find the most horrifying thing about it the rampant commercialism), I do think the last days of Autumn are the perfect time for settling down with a good old-fashioned ghost story - something to send the shivers up your spine whilst you sit by the fireside and watch the night roll in from your armchair. So, pull up a chair, dim the lights and grab a mug of hot cocoa, as I introduce you to some of my favourite chilling autumn reads...

The Woman In BlackThe Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Without a doubt the creepiest book I've ever read. It might only clock in at 160 pages but Susan Hill's classic ghost story packs in enough creeping terror to keep you starting a shadows for a good few days. The story follows junior solicitor Arthur Kipps, sent by his employers to attend the funeral of Mrs Alice Drablow and to sort through the papers she kept at the dreary and desolate Eel Marsh House. Whilst attending Mrs Drablow's funeral, Arthur catches sight of a pale and wasted young woman, standing to one side. A woman whose very name terrifies the local townsfolk. A woman who is dressed all in black...

The real charm of this book lies in the atmosphere that Hill creates. The desolate marshland surrounding Eel Marsh House is vividly described - you get a real feel for its Gothic eeriness and can almost see the rolling fog that envelops the house when tide draws in. Into this oppressive atmosphere, Hill drops a ghost who is felt more than seen; caught in shadows and noises and as a face at the window. This isn't a book for fans of jump scares - you won't find any axe-wielding maniacs or bloody apparitions - but, if you like quiet, spine-tingling chills, this is perfect for devouring in one sitting. And then there is the ending. Oh the ending. Never have I been more chilled by a final sentence or left with such a lingering sense of disquiet. One to read by candlelight, as the wind howls round the house.

Dark MatterDark Matter by Michelle Paver

Paver is probably best known for her YA 'Chronicles of Ancient Darkness' series but this perfectly-executed and, in my opinion at least, under-rated ghost story, proves that she is more than capable of writing adult fiction that can chill the bones and send a shiver down the spine. Set in the unending darkness of an Arctic winter, the novel follows twenty-eight year old Jack who hopes to change his life by embarking on the expedition of a lifetime. Lead by the charismatic Gus, the team sets out in high spirits for the isolated bay of Gruhuken, where they will make camp and see out the winter. But Gruhuken is not as uninhabited as it seems. And, as one by one his companions are forced to leave, Jack is faced with a stark choice: go back to civilization with the mission in tatters or stay and face the thing that walks in the polar dark.

This is another story that revels in atmosphere. Paver is familiar with the Arctic and this really shows in her writing, which captures the desolate beauty and isolation of Jack's snow-bound base camp. Again, there's no shock-horror here and no violence or gore but Paver understands the rules of the classic ghost story - the oppressive atmosphere, the slow building of tension, the way in which the smallest of incidents can create the most fear. Add in the psychological make-up of lonely, awkward Jack and you've got a small masterpiece of suspenseful writing that doesn't let go until the creeping, inevitable end is realised. Read it fresh from the cold of an Autumn day, while you de-frost with a mug of something hot, black and strong. 

The Historian
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

'To you, perceptive reader, I bequeath my history..."

Show me a book-lover who wouldn't be drawn in by that tag-line and I'll find you a pig flying somewhere. I picked this up as soon as I read the lines under the cover, and started reading it as soon as I got home. The story concerns a young woman who stumbles across a cache of letters and documents when exploring her father's library late one night. Letters ominously addressed to "my dear and unfortunate successor." When her father subsequently goes missing, she is plunged into a quest for the truth about his past and about her mother's mysterious fate - a fate that is entwined with an ancient evil that goes by the name Dracula. 

Mixing Dracula lore with a globe-trotting trip worthy of Indiana Jones, this is a full-speed ahead adventure tale that has been saturated in ancient history and mixed with a pinch of Gothic horror. I love the richly described settings, from the magical exoticism of ancient Istanbul to the isolated churches and ancient libraries of eastern Europe. This is a vampire story of the highest order, re-claiming Dracula from twinkly 'Twilight' territory and returning him to his rightful place at the top of the gothic horror pile. Having read Bram Stoker's classic horror novel, to which this clearly owes a debt, I feel knowledge of the original does add depth to Kostova's story but you can manage perfectly well without. It's a bit schlocky in places and there are times when the plot goes a little 'Da Vinci Code' on you but, overall, 'The Historian' is a great pastiche of the Victorian Gothic and is sure to raise a hair or two on the back of your neck (and leave you in fear of finding strange books in the library) long after you've turned the final page. Pick it up when you need reminding that book-lovers can save the world. 

The Thirteenth TaleThe Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

I don't know if this is chilling so much as it has a real sense of atmosphere that, I feel, makes it best read at this time of year. This is a novel about secrets and the damage that they do. And about time and how it always catches up with you in the end. Biographer Margaret Lee leads an unassuming life with her antiquarian bookseller father until a letter lands on her doorstep inviting her to write the life of one of Britain's most prolific and well-loved storytellers. Vida Winter has told her life story many times but it has never been the real one. She has twisted her tale as much as she twists her novels, folding fiction into reality and creating a myth of her own existence. Now she is dying and she wants to tell the truth. A truth that includes two sisters, a fire-ravaged country mansion and a secret that has lasted generations. 

I have a real love for nineteenth century Gothic novels and this is a modern-day tribute to them, with echoes of 'Jane Eyre', 'The Turn of the Screw' and 'Wuthering Heights'. It revels in creating an oppressive atmosphere, weaving a tangled web of inter-connected stories with characters capable of both great love and great evil. Vida Winter is the spider sitting at the heart of this web, seducing and manipulating both Margaret and the reader with her words and her tales. By the time I finished this book, I desperately wanted to go and read a Vida Winter novel, she was so convincing as a character. Add in enough skeletons to fill a whole raft of cupboards, and you've got a book to curl up by the fireside with when you want a little magic in your life again. 

So those are a few of my favourite chilling Autumn reads that I would recommend as the nights draw in. There are other Gothic favourites I haven't had chance to mention here - classics of the genre such as Wilkie Collins' 'The Woman in White' - and fantastic short stories such as those by M R James and Edgar Allen Poe. All worth checking out - as are "Jane Eyre" and "Dracula" if you've never read them. For anyone wanting to mix a bit of humour with their horror, 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' also comes highly recommended. And, when you've finished indulging in all that Gothic melodrama, I thoroughly recommend Jane Austen's classic pastiche of the genre, 'Northanger Abbey', as a reminder that it's usually the machinations of living you need to watch out for, rather than those of the dead.

And on that note, dear readers, I shall leave you. Don't have nightmares and, until next time....

Happy Reading!


Monday, 12 October 2015

September Wrap Up

Before anyone says anything, I am aware that we are 12 days into October when I write this wrap up. All I can say by way of apology is that, following on from 10 blissful days of holiday, the return to the world of work and home has been...well, let's just say rather busy and leave it at that shall we. Needless to say, I didn't get too many books read when I got back from hols but I did read a couple before I went that weren't included in my last wrap up and finished one on my return. So without further ado, we begin with...

Arsenic for Tea (Wells and Wong, #2)Arsenic For Tea by Robyn Stevens

The second in the 'Wells and Wong' YA mystery series (the first being 'Murder Most Unladylike', which I reviewed here) is another enjoyable romp into the 1930s, this time taking place in the classic country house setting of Fallingford Hall, Daisy Wells' home. Unfortunately for schoolgirl detective Daisy and her best friend Hazel Wong, murder seems to have a habit of following them around and it isn't long before they are embroiled in another mystery when one of their tea guests takes an unexpected turn for the worst. And, to make matters more complicated, it looks as if a member of Daisy's family might be one of the perpetrators...

Like the first book in the series, this was another fast-paced and fun read, although with some slightly darker undertones and a little more character development this time around. For those who have read 'Murder Most Unladylike', this is more of the same - definitely no bad thing when a series is this much fun. Whilst 'Arsenic For Tea' does a good job of introducing unfamiliar readers to the characters, I'd still recommend starting with 'Murder Most Unladylike' if you can - you'll have a better feel for the background and setting and enjoy this one more. A third in the series, 'First Class Murder', is on my too read pile and I hope there will be more to follow from this dynamic duo.

The Dumb HouseThe Dumb House by John Burnside

There has been a great deal of talk about this novel on Booktube of late, with two of my favourite booktubers - Jen Campbell and Jean from Jean's Bookish Thoughts - raving about it. The premise is certainly intriguing - as a young boy Luke becomes obsessed with the story of the dumb house, an isolated mansion where babies are raised only by mute servants in an effort to discover whether language is innate. Determined to try and recreate the experiment himself, he becomes entwined with a strange woman and her mute son before taking in a young homeless girl, setting of a chain of events that eventually leads to murder, death and madness.

This is a difficult novel to love - it's dark and twisted in the extreme and Luke's head is an extremely unpleasant place to be most of the time. His attitude towards women is particularly abhorrent although, in fairness, he seems to view most creatures as being tools of his own whims and desires. That said, the writing in this is absolutely gorgeous, in sharp contrast to some of the content. Burnside has an expressive, poetic prose style that lingers in the brain and draws you back into his twisted tale like a moth to the flame. This is a dark and difficult book, filled with complicated morality and twisted actions but it is guaranteed to keep you thinking long after the final page has turned. If you like you beautiful literature to come with a shade of darkness and your morality tinted with shades of grey, this is one to check out.

And now for something completely different! My book group read for the month was light-hearted, funny and irreverent from beginning to end. Led by the reliably un-insightful Binder, a team of seven men set out to tackle to unconquered summit of Mount Rum Doodle. They have navigator who is constantly getting lost, a doctor who is perpetually ill and a diplomat who can't issue an instruction without starting a fight so what could possibly go wrong?

A parody of the classic mountaineering journals of the golden age of exploration, this is a gently humorous novel; albeit one that is starting to show its age somewhat. Written in the 1950s, some of the humour in the book is rather dated, especially that which relates to the native people who act as guides for the expedition who are given comedic names that, to modern readers, might seem in rather poor taste.  Allowing for these few exceptions however, this book has the gentle humour of a classic Ealing comedy, good-natured and gently piercing. I wouldn't say I loved it but it certainly made me chortle more than once and I can honestly say I'm glad to have read it. Anyone who enjoys classic comedy would do well to check this out and, for anyone who enjoys climbing or mountaineering, the extra depth would probably add to the laughs to be had.

The Heart Goes LastThe Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

I adore Margaret Atwood's writing and 'The Handmaid's Tale' is one of my all-time favourite novels. So imagine my delight to win a proof copy of this, her latest standalone novel and her first dystopian standalone since that illustrious book. Living in an America bought low by an all-too realistic economic crisis, Stan and Charmaine are reduced to living off scraps and sleeping in their car. So when they hear about the Positron Project, a utopian community that offers housing, food and work; it's like a dream come true. The catch? For each month that they spend in the community, they must spend a month in prison whilst another couple - their 'alternates' live in their house and go to their jobs. But when Stan and Charmaine become unwittingly embroiled with the lives of their alternates, the dark underbelly of Positron becomes exposed. 

The inevitable comparisons to 'The Handmaid's Tale' do this novel little good. Whilst it is a dystopian novel from the same pen, this is an very different book in both tone and style. Shot through with dark humour (there's a series of prostitute Elvis robots, I kid you not) and her trademark wit, this is Atwood at her most wicked. She plays with her readers expectations as much as she plays with her characters, constantly twisting the narrative and melding the story into something new. Is this a cautionary morality tale? A meditation on the perils of greed? An examination of the nature of love? Having read it, I think it might be a little of all of them, shot through with twisted humour and a wicked sense of the absurd. At times I admit that there may be a little too much going in - Atwood gives her narrative too much of a free rein at times - and the plot can become a little slippery at times, without a sense of purpose to drive it forwards. But Atwood remains a masterful storyteller and soon rests control again, tightening things back up towards the end and leaving this reader satisfied and longing for more. Fans of Atwood will love this novel as long as they aren't expecting too much - go in looking for 'The Handmaid's Tale 2' and you will end up disappointed. But go in hoping for a bit of Atwood's trademark magic and a story to whisk you away and you will find an enjoyable, though-provoking novel with much to offer.

So that was September. A little late but we got there in the end. And with October's reading well underway, I should be back in the not-too-distant future with some more book-based banter, including some recommendations for spooky Halloween reads. Until then, you can find me @amyinstaffs on Twitter, or leave me a comment down below with any thoughts, recommendations and general bookish chat.

Happy Reading!