(Revisiting) The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

imageProud and solitary, Eel Marsh House surveys the windswept reaches of the salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway. Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor, is summoned to attend the funeral of Mrs Alice Drablow, the house’s sole inhabitant, unaware of the tragic secrets which lie hidden behind the shuttered windows. It is not until he glimpses a pale young woman, dressed all in black, at the funeral, that a creeping sense of unease begins to take hold, a feeling deepened by the reluctance of the locals to talk of the woman in black – and her terrible purpose.

I first read The Woman in Black over twenty years ago, right before going to see the stage play, and loved it. I loved the stage play too and have seen it several times since, always amazed by how much it still spooks me out. I know that the play isn’t exactly the same as the book but it is really well done and the changes are more about how it is presented (with only two actors it’s very clever and if you haven’t seen it and get the chance you should). The story itself isn’t really changed.  I think that’s what I expected when I watched the movie. It’s not what I got. Though it’s not the worst film I’ve ever seen I spent most of it distracted thinking “I don’t remember this”…which is why I decided to re-read the book.

The Woman In Black is a fairly short story, which I think a lot of the best ghost stories are. To me, they need to be read in one sitting, at night with the curtains drawn and – ideally – with the rain lashing against the windows. It’s also a simple story – a young man travelling to a remote part of England to deal with the estate of a recently decayed spinster. Once he arrives he finds the locals skittish and unwilling to help him in his mission or talk to him about the mysterious woman in black he keeps seeing. As he begins to realise she isn’t what she seems and things start to go bump in the night, the tension builds and his mind starts to crack. It’s cleverly done and well written and, even though I had read it before and knew the ending, I still found it enjoyable to read and scary and spooky.

I like Susan Hill’s way of writing and how she had reflected the style of the time in which it is set (the late 1800s) in that it is written as a memoir in the first person and quite formal. It fitted the story well and drew me in. It also makes the story feel quite timeless, which I guess it is given it has remained as popular as it has on page and stage (it is apparently the second longest running in the West End after The Mousetrap). After twenty years I still liked this one a lot and am glad I found an excuse to re-read it. A recommended read.

Emma

Only The Brave by Mel Sherratt 

img_0390When DS Allie Shenton gets an early morning call letting her know that a dead body has been found, she hesitates just for a second. Her sister is on life support and the prognosis isn’t good – she should be with her…but that’s where she has been for the last few weeks and she needs a distraction. Murder may not be the most pleasant one but it’s her job, and she’s good at it, so she heads out.

When she arrives at the scene she finds the victim is a local gangster, Jordan Johnson; Jordan also happens to be the boyfriend of Kirstie Ryder, linking back to the first book in this series. Kirstie is the daughter of Terry Ryder, the most feared gangster in Stoke, even though he’s behind bars (thanks to Allie). Given the link, Allie knows there has to be more to Jordan’s death than his just being in the wrong place at the wrong time despite the seeming randomness of the crime.  She also knows that the last people she wants to get involved with again are the Ryders – they are nasty pieces of work.

And then, as if she didn’t have enough on her plate, she has to keep looking over her shoulder, trying to figure out just who is stalking her – when all she knows is that it’s the same man who attacked her sister 17 years before, leaving her with significant brain damage. Never caught, he is back and after Allie.  This is another thread from previous books but I don’t think you have to read them to enjoy this novel because it does work as a standalone.  It is, however, the one gripe I would have about the book – this storyline didn’t feel as strong as the central one and I felt it was a bit rushed. I wish it had rolled over to another book and been the central story.

The main storyline, though, the murder, was well written and tightly plotted – taking place over the course of just over 24 hours with chapters for timeframes. This was well done, keeping me turning pages, and – as I’ve read quite a few books recently with characters / alternating chapters – a good change of pace for me. It didn’t make the story any less compelling though – it was, very, with plenty of twists and turns to keep you guessing.

The main characters were also well developed too, and Sherratt has added layers to them with each book. Allie is more complex than I originally thought, in part because of what happened to her sister but also in her relationship with her husband Mark, who came into his own a bit more in this book. They are people I want to get to know more so I’m hoping that there is another in the series in the offing because I really liked this book a lot. A recommended read.

Emma

Don't You Cry by Mary Kubica

There are very few authors in recent years whose books I have looked forward to reading as much as Mary Kubica’s. I really liked her debut, Good Girl, and loved her follow up, Pretty Baby…meaning I had high hopes for Don’t You Cry. Thankfully, I wasn’t disappointed.

The story opens with Quinn being woken by her flat mate Esther’s alarm clock. Slightly worse for wear after a boozy night out, she turns off the alarm and goes back to bed, barely registering that Esther isn’t in bed and her bedroom window – which is next to a fire escape – is wide open, not something you would expect for winter in Chicago. When she wakes for the second time later in the day, Esther still isn’t home and Quinn still isn’t concerned; her roommate must be at church, she thinks, or shopping or with other friends.

Gradually, though, it dawns on her that this doesn’t make sense. It just isn’t like Esther, or at least the Esther she knows, to go off without letting her know and so – at last – she begins to get worried.  Unfortunately the police aren’t as concerned so Quinn starts to try and figure out what has happened to Esther on her own. The more she searches for answers, though, the more she starts to have questions about just who Esther is…and the more her concern turns into fear for her own life.

Eighty-odd miles away, Alex wonders if he has met the girl of his dreams in Pearl who has appeared seemingly out of nowhere and spends her days sitting in the diner he works in staring out of the window. He is fascinated by her and, as they spend time together, the snippets of her life she shares with him seem to mirror his own.  At 18, Alex is lost, taking care of his drunken father and yearning for the love of a mother who left him when he was a young boy. In Pearl, he sees an answer to his loneliness but also behaviours that scare him. The reader sees someone who looks exactly like Esther.

Told through the eyes of Alex and Quinn in alternating sections and across a series of days, all I could do was wonder what was going on. What was Esther – if it was Esther – up to? I really had no idea till the final chapters when it all came together and started to make sense – at which point most of what I thought I knew had been turned on its head. Kubica is brilliant at doing this and it’s one of the things I’ve liked best about her books.

I also like how she creates characters that are flawed but likeable. The trick is, I think that the flaws aren’t big and scary but make the people who inhabit her pages human. Here, I especially liked Alex. He hit a note with me and I hoped everything would work out for him in the end. He was a decent person and deserved a happy ending. With Quinn, I just hoped would come to her senses and stop thinking the worse; she is quite a selfish character in places. Yet, I didn’t dislike her, just found her frustrating at times and I wanted her to maybe grow up just a little bit.

Other than that, though, I really can’t fault this book. It was well written, a real page turner, and I loved reading it. Highly recommended!

Emma

Note: Don’t You Cry will be published 17th May, 2016. I received a copy of this book via Net Galley / Harlequin in return for a fair and honest review. All thoughts, feelings and opinions are my own. 

The Never-Open Desert Diner by James Anderson

Never-Open-Desert Diner3Ben spends his days driving route 117, delivering packages to people time and the rest of the world seem to have forgotten.  He is their lifeline to the “real” world and they help him eke out a living in a town that is on the edge of nowhere and the desert.

There is a reason that people live off 117 – they want to be left alone or are leaving something behind.  For Ben, it’s being without family and with few friends; he was abandoned as a baby and is a loner by nature.  For Walt, it’s the diner he never opens – or hasn’t for a long time, ever since his wife died.  And for Claire, well – at least at first – Claire is a mystery, one Ben can’t help being drawn to.

He thinks he knows every nook, cranny and turn-off on route 117 until a random stop one day leads him to a house in the middle of the desert and Claire.  She is newly arrived and definitely not wanting to be found.  An ex-husband is in the wings – and might be the one following Ben as he makes his deliveries. It’s all very complicated but also very simple and his and Claire’s lives begin to intersect and then seek each other out as they fall in love.

As they do, life goes on in the desert.  People live, they die, they help each other when they need to.  Anderson’s characterisation of these secondary characters is wonderful.  I felt I knew every single one of them and liked every one of them.  I liked Ben, Claire and Walt too, the central characters.  All are completely dysfunctional but not in a bad way.

Ben, especially, is the type of character I like and, whilst this isn’t a piece of crime fiction, I was reminded in a way of James Sallis’ characters.  He is a man of few words who has made mistakes.  He tries to live his life the best way he can and accepts people for who and what they are.  He doesn’t conform – and doesn’t intend too.    I wanted to be Ben’s friend, or at the very least, have him on my side in a fight.

I also liked the way the novel was written in general, the descriptions of the desert.  I felt how lonely and isolating and harsh it could be but also it’s beauty.  There are moments when I felt I was there and there are moments when I was glad I wasn’t because I’m not sure I would survive.  I was completely drawn in from the beginning.

If I had any criticism it would be that I, personally, didn’t need the ex-husband story line.  I wanted more of Ben and Claire falling in love, more of their relationship developing.  It was the heart of the story and could, for me, have been the story.  That said, it wouldn’t stop me recommending the book at all – I liked it a lot.

Emma

Note: I received this book from blogging for books in return for a fair and honest review.  All thoughts, feelings and opinions are my own. 

 

 

 

 

Carrie by Stephen King

Iimage‘m not much of a one for horror stories (or so I say because given my love of all things vampire-related, I probably read more horror-ish books than I think) but that didn’t stop me signing up for the Spring into Horror read-a-thon organised by Michelle at Seasons of Reading. It’s a low pressure read-a-thon (one of the things I like about participating) and you only had to commit to reading one horror. Because I have never read any Stephen King – an author I immediately associate with horror – I decided he was the man to read.

After much humming, haa’ing, and attempting to read some of his lengthier novels, which left me daunted, I settled on Carrie – his first book and one that came in at just around 200 pages so it also felt manageable to read in a week (well less by the time I made the decision). After taking so long to settle on a book, I wasn’t feeling too positive when I started. That changed pretty quickly and I ended up really enjoying it.

Published in 1979, Carrie is almost as old as me and I imagine a story most people know. Carrie White is a teenager who has spent her entire live being bullied, by her schoolmates and her mother, a religious fanatic who locks her in the closet whenever she needs to be taught a lesson. What no one knows is that Carrie has telekinetic powers, powers she uses to deadly effect on the night of the high school prom and after a particularly nasty prank is played.

The book is in three parts, before prom, prom night, and the aftermath. It’s told through a mix of perspectives including Carrie’s, other students, her mother, and then excerpts from reports, scholarly articles and court transcripts written after the fact. It sounds confusing but it isn’t and it gives what is actually a very simple story more depth than it might have had otherwise. The changes in perspectives were also quite short, sometimes only a paragraph or two so it kept the story moving and me interested. Once I got used to the way the story flowed and the language, which had a bit of a stream of consciousness to it in some places, I found I couldn’t put it down.

I also found that I felt really sad for Carrie, despite the lives she took in the end. I didn’t blame her because there is only so much a human being can take and her classmates were cruel and her mom pretty evil for a God fearing woman. I didn’t feel bad for anyone she took revenge on, other than Tommy who took her to the prom and was a pretty decent guy.

I was surprised by what happened to Carrie at the end though. For some reason I had been expecting a different ending, not that I’m sure what it could have been. Despite this though, I wasn’t disappointed but actually pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the book. I may even go back to some of those meatier novels…liked this a lot.

Emma

Mr Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt

imageSo whilst this isn’t technically part of my Spring into Horror read-a-thon reading, as it is billed as a gothic horror, I had thought that reviewing it today would be a good way to start the week.  Thought being the operative word as a) I’m not sure I would call it a horror, gothic or otherwise and b) it wasn’t that good, which I find myself really disappointed by as I was so looking forward to it when I started reading.

It starts off really well, with the oppressive atmosphere of an overly religious orphanage and two late teens – Ruth and Nat – talking to the dead, parents of other children left to basically rot in the upstate New York childcare system. It is a way of trying to take control of their lives and hide from the fear of not knowing what comes next (they are 18 in a year and will be without any home – good or bad – at all).

Then, one day, they meet Mr. Bell – a man without a home but with a vision of the lives they can all lead thanks to Nat’s ability to see dead people…or at least pretend to see dead people because it isn’t real (or is it? the book, on this part, keeps you guessing for a while).  As with all things in this book, however, Mr. Bell isn’t quite what he seems.  And neither is Zeke, Ruth’s suitor who appears out of nowhere.  Or Ruth or Nat or the Father who runs the orphanage with religious zeal.  It’s all a bit too much.

And then it gets more complicated because Ruth and Nat’s story is in the past and it’s running alongside Ruth and Cora’s story in the present.  Cora is Ruth’s niece, pregnant and persuaded by Ruth to walk across New York state without any reasons given.  They walk and walk and come across random strangers who behave in random ways.  Not one person in this book is normal or undamaged and, again, it’s all too much.  I feel like I was supposed to get something from it, from the ways they spoke, the things they said, that I just couldn’t because I was just so confused by what was going on.

The language, which was flowery and wandered, didn’t help and neither did the characterisations…I didn’t like anybody…but my main problem was my just not understanding what was happening or why.  Characters like Zeke came, went and then came back as someone else (without a nose which was never properly explained and didn’t seem to do much for the plot).  They all spoke a certain way, meaning people blurred into one, and their motives were questionable at best when revealed.   In fact, I’m not sure why I even finished reading, other than I hate putting a book down before the end.  Maybe I should have left this one alone and I wouldn’t have felt quite so disappointed – not one for me – Sorry!

Emma

The Gingerbread House by Carin Gerhardsen

imageIngrid Olsson returns home from a Stockholm hospital to discover a man in her kitchen. She’s never seen the intruder before. But he’s no threat – he’s dead.

Criminal Investigator Conny Sjöberg takes the call, abandoning his wife Åsa and their five children for the night. His team identify the body as that of a middle-aged family man. But why was he there? And who bludgeoned him to death?

Lacking suspect and motive, Sjöberg’s team struggle until they link the case to another – apparently random – killing. And discover they face a serial killer on a terrible vendetta . . .

The Gingerbread House is the first in the Hammarby series, set in Stockholm and following a team of detectives led by Conny Sjoberg. Not that long ago, I read the second in the series, Cinderella Girl, which I really enjoyed. However, there were elements of the plot that I didn’t quite get because they linked to book one, which I immediately went and requested from the library. It arrived this week and I couldn’t wait to read it.

Plot wise, this wasn’t as complex as Cinderella Girl, but it was clever, leading you down one path and – you think – to one suspect before turning things on their head – and, despite their being a very angry serial killer at the centre, doing it without too much blood, guts and gore. And I say angry but there is childhood bullying at the heart of this so it might be better to say sad serial killer (not a spoiler as this is part of the prologue). It is amazing how cruel children, and adults, can be to each other.

The Gingerbread House was well written and translated with quite a sparse style. The story was told in days so you get to follow the investigation as it develops and the deterioration of the killer at the same time. I liked this. I didn’t have to follow too many timelines and, with a pretty large number of characters, this made it easier than if they had each had their own chapters.

That said, there is a sub-plot involving one character, Petra, which is where I felt I was missing something in book 2 as it is this that is carried forward. I am glad to say gaps are now filled. It was also good to understand a bit more about where Petra was coming from. Her character felt well-developed and I would say The Gingerbread House takes time to introduce all the characters; Sjoberg especially is well-rounded with a wife, children and fairly normal home life (always nice to see versus the drink-addled detective I find in a lot of books). It made me like them and the book (a lot). – this is a great and recommended read.

Emma

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

imageLiving in their car, surviving on tips, SCharmaine and Stan are in a desperate state. So, when they see an advertisement for Consilience, a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own, they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month – swapping their home for a prison cell. At first, all is well. But then, unknown to each other, Stan and Charmaine develop passionate obsessions with their ‘Alternates,’ the couple that occupy their house when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire begin to take over.

So I originally planned on posting this review on Monday.  Then I didn’t.  Why? Because I was struggling with how I felt about the novel and what I had written didn’t feel right – and it didn’t, if I’m honest, feel honest which I always try to be.

My problems started with the fact that I love Margaret Atwood.  I have read the majority of her books and I can (honestly this time) say there isn’t one I haven’t liked and a lot of which I’ve loved. That includes the Maddaddam trilogy which I know not everyone enjoyed and did, I admit, take some getting used to.  Once I’d settled into the rhythm of the first book though, the language and the imagry, I was hooked on the stories of a disparate group of people trying to survive in a world wiped out by man-made plagues and problems.

There are many of the same themes in The Heart Goes Last.  The world hasn’t been wiped out by a virus but it has been hit by the financial collapse and the central characters, Stan and Charmaine are struggling as a result having lost their jobs and home and finding themselves living in a car.  When Charmaine sees an ad for a town of Consilience where she can have a house again, clean sheets, a job in return for living an alternate lifestyle as a prisoner every other month she can’t say no  – and, because he loves her, neither can Stan.  Like his brother tells him though if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

At first, all seems well but slowly the dream becomes a nightmare.  They can’t leave Consilience and they can’t talk to the outside world.  There are people watching all the time and big, black, cars silently cruise the streets.  Big corporations with no moral compass are in charge.  Greed, lust, and power are what they care about, not helping people live better lives as they promised.  Not unless you are rich, of course, and can pay for the organs harvested from prisoners who won’t reform or the baby blood sold to make you young again.

These are all things that were touched on in the Maddaddam books and they are all things that scare me because they feel like they could be real and make me think that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.  The thing with this book though, was that I found I didn’t care.  I didn’t feel scared.  And that’s because I didn’t believe in any of the characters or the world Atwood had created in Consilience and beyond.  I wanted to, I really did, but I didn’t.  Instead, Stan and Charmaine annoyed me. I found them weak and ineffectual.  The other central characters were just as bad, flat and stereotypical.  I really didn’t care if they did have their minds wiped because Ed, the man in charge, felt like it.

Even Atwood’s language, which I normally find paints a picture for me, let me down.  It felt like she was going through the motions before beating me over the head with her message in the final pages – just in case I hadn’t understood.  This was originally a series of magazine articles I think or short stories, and maybe that was the problem.  Maybe if I’d read them as that I’d feel differently.  But, unfortunately, I don’t – which means (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) this wasn’t one for me.  Sorry!

Emma

 

Harry's Last Stand by Harry Leslie Smith

HARRYS LAST STAND-B-HB.inddWhen I read this book a few weeks ago I hadn’t originally planned on reviewing it, although I’d enjoyed reading it. Then, over the weekend, with Ian Duncan Smith talking about trying to build a fairer Britain all over the news, the book kept coming back to me and I changed my mind because the messages it is trying to get across are ones I think we should be listening to.

Published in 2014, the book is a series of essays which reflect Harry’s thoughts and feelings about growing up in the Great Depression and the pride he felt in the country after the war when we created the welfare state so no one would have to suffer the indignities and inequalities he did as a child. And they show his anger and despair at the dismantling of this welfare state by the then coalition government.

It is a highly emotive but also sobering read. Harry’s sheer frustration at what he sees happening is apparent, as is how little he feels he can do about it – hence the essays. A lot cover the same ground and they follow the same format; snapshots from his childhood followed by a comparison with today’s society.  There are facts and figures woven through which, though few years out of date, are startling and saddening.

There are memories of his life as a young man, newly returned from the war, and as a young husband – a time when he was able to prosper but also lived knowing there was a safety net if things went wrong. It is a safety net he and many others hadn’t experienced as children. It is a safety net that I, as a child of the seventies, grew up expecting to be there for me – though I have been lucky enough to never need it – and my family.

Now, if I’m honest, I don’t think this would be the case. When I see people queuing at food banks on the news or here about the indignities people with disabilities go through to receive support for the necessities for living a decent life, I feel sick…and think it doesn’t take much for any of us to end up there, just one job loss or accident. It’s depressing and frightening – yet it feels like a lot of us have our heads in the sand and think it could never happen to us.

It’s why I decided to write this review after all because it made me think and wonder if I can do anything (I’m not sure what) and also slightly embarrassed I haven’t done much so far but turn out to vote.  Maybe it will do the same for a few others and we can end up with the society Harry dreamt about as a young man.

Emma

The Well by Catherine Chanter

Iimagen the not so distant future, the world is falling apart. In the UK there has been years of drought, impacting the economy and the way people treat each other. Religious worship is on the rise as people search for answers and government policy is becoming dictatorial. Into the chaos step Ruth and Mark, a middle-aged couple who move to the countryside in search of a new life.

Living and working on a farm has always been Mark’s dream and Ruth goes along with it, hoping it will save them and their marriage. Arriving at The Well, though, she realises is isn’t just for Mark, it is for her. It couldn’t be more perfect. And it couldn’t be more fertile. Whilst the rain refuses to fall in the rest of the country, at The Well it falls most nights. When it doesn’t the land draws nourishment from the natural streams that runs through it’s property.

Lost in their own private oasis, the couple are slow to realise just how much their good fortune is rubbing their neighbours up the wrong way, and drawing attention they don’t need from the wider world. As government agencies start to become interested and worshippers appear at their gate, Ruth and Mark begin to fall apart, each responding differently but each pretty badly to the situation and neither seems to realise the other is struggling. When the sisters arrive things go from bad to worse and death follows.

All this is told from Ruth’s perspective with a sense of doom for things that have already happened, tragedies lived through and decisions made that cannot be undone. It’s a mix of past and present, with Ruth gradually piecing things together. It is all just a bit depressing, a vision of a world where things have gone wrong and nobody knows quite how to make them right again. The world of The Well is a microcosm of what is going on everywhere and you know it can’t end well. Which it doesn’t.

Given that Ruth was under house arrest when the story starts this isn’t a surprise. How the story unfolds is – the slow deterioration of her marriage and her mind before the final rush towards disaster, the lack of understanding of just what is happening and unwillingness to face facts. And the kindness of strangers, showing the world isn’t always all bad.

My library has this book categorised as crime and there is a murder but it feels like more than that. It is about how a lot of people are hanging on by a thread and how it doesn’t take much for that thread to snap. And it is a warning about how easy it is for the world to fall apart thanks to the vagaries of nature, especially if we keep destroying the planet the way we are.

Given the subject matter, I can’t say that this is a book everyone will enjoy, though I did. It’s well written, with great characterisation (even if I didn’t completely like anyone, I did feel for the most) and I would think would be something any fan of dystopian fiction should give a go.  An excellent debut – liked it a lot!

Emma x