Creepy tales to get you in the mood for Halloween

I’ve never been the biggest fan of either Halloween or horror films – I’m a total wuss, hate things jumping out at me, and faint at the sight of blood. Not exactly a prime candidate for Saw III. I do, however, rather like a creepy book; I prefer a story that’s going to give me the heebie jeebies to anything too gory, so these five ghostly tales are perfect. So, turn off all of the lights (apart from a reading lamp, obviously), get a big glass of wine, curl up, and pretend to any trick or treaters that you’ve gone out.

  1. The Three by Sarah Lotz: Eerie fantasy/horror/thriller centred on creepy children. Nothing scarier, etc.
  2. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson: classic and terrifying; not one to read in a strange old mansion…
  3. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters: a slow-burning ghost story by a master of atmosphere.
  4. The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier: all of the stories here are supremely chilling, as you’d expect from du Maurier.
  5. The Woman in Black by Susan Hillgenuinely scary, with a killer twist. So to speak.

What are you favourite scary books?

150 word(ish) reviews: In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward

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I’m a long-time reader of Sarah’s excellent crime review blog, Crimepieces, and was thrilled when I found out that her first novel had been published last year by Faber.

Set in the fictional town of Bampton, Derbyshire, In Bitter Chill focusses on the investigation by DI Sadler and DC Childs into the suicide of Yvonne Jenkins, a woman whose daughter Sophie has been kidnapped, and never seen again, in 1978, as they link the suicide to the decades-old case. Rachel Jones, taken at the same time but who managed to escape, still lives in Bampton and works as a genealogist. The death of her friend’s mother sends her off on a parallel investigation as she tries desperately to remember what happened when her and Sophie were kidnapped.

Sadler and Childs are a promising pair, with just enough character flaws to be believable without descending into cliché, and a relationship which walks a fine line between professional respect and sexual tension. Having Rachel be a genealogist provides the opportunity for much digging around in family histories and secrets without it seeming forced – I don’t know why this conceit isn’t used more frequently in crime novels, to be honest! There’s a great build of atmosphere and I thought that the flashback chapters worked rather well, although occasionally the pace dipped slightly. I’m really looking forward to the next book and hope that it’s the start of a long series.

150 word(ish) reviews: This Must be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell

this-must-be-the-place-by-maggie-o-farrellI haven’t always been a huge fan of Maggie O’Farrell’s novels – I’ve enjoyed those that I’ve read but haven’t sort them out for a re-read – but her new book is really very good.

This Must Be The Place centres around Daniel Sullivan, a New Yorker living in the depths of rural Ireland with his wife Claudette. Claudette is an ex-film-star who became disillusioned with her career and staged a disappearance to become a recluse with a penchant for pulling a shot gun on unexpected visitors. As Daniel leaves his home to go back to the States for his father’s birthday, he hears about a woman he last saw decades ago, sending him off on a journey which may or may not end back where he started, with Claudette.

O’Farrell has such a light touch and unsentimental tone that even the most poignant moment don’t feel overworked. The many threads of the story are woven effortlessly so it’s never confusing, and the way that the narrative skips around means that characters, with their quirks and their flaws, are developed slowly and end up being people you could really care about. The text is interspersed with images, correspondence, and extracts from scripts which, in combination with the multiple perspectives, create a complex novel which works on many levels.

I received a proof copy from the publisher (thank you!) but all views are my own.

150 word(ish) reviews: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

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I was so late the party with this one it’s ridiculous. Not only did it come out in the middle of my reading-less period, it was also so raved about by everyone that even if I had been interested in picking up a book, I probably would’ve avoided it on principle. And I’d have missed out.

In case there are others who didn’t read it two years ago, Jessie Burton’s debut is set in 17th Century Amsterdam, where eighteen year old Nella is sent from the countryside to marry prosperous merchant Johannes. She arrives to find that he ignores her, leaving her to his sister, Marin, who runs the household and isn’t about to let a teenager change that. When Nella is bought a huge dolls house as a wedding present, she finds a miniaturist to help her furnish it, but the objects arrive, they are never what she ordered and are worryingly prophetic.

Burton’s writing can be both lyrical and spare, which combines to make a novel which is rich in detail whilst avoiding becoming bogged down in superfluous minutiae. It’s not a page-turner, in the strictest sense, but the prose is so immersive and compelling that you find yourself torn between racing through it and deliberately slowing down in order to appreciate the use of language.

I can’t wait to get started on The Muse, Jessie’s new novel, when it comes out on 30 June, or to hear her read from it at an event in August. If it’s as good as her début, it’ll definitely be worth the wait.

5 picks for Mental Health Awareness Week 2016

  1. Shoot the Damn Dog by Sally Brampton. An amazing memoir from a fabulous writer who knew how to say what many struggle to find the words for.
  2. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. A completely different look at mental health, this is both pant-wettingly funny and heart-rending.
  3. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. A complete Marmite book (I’m sorry, I hate that phrase too), this is best approached completely blind (but yes, I wept like a baby).
  4. The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes. It’s rare to find a book perceived as ‘chick lit’ dealing with severe depression and suicide attempts, so Keyes’ novel is both hilarious and important.
  5. The View on the Way Down by Rebecca Wait. I still struggle to talk about Wait’s debut novel without crying. It’s amazing. Read it.

 

150(ish) word reviews: ‘The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend’ by Katarina Bivald

Readers-of-Broken-Wheel-Recommend-The-hb If I was to recommend a book to someone looking for a book for when they feel crap, this would definitely be on the list.

Bibliophile Sara Lindqvist travels from Sweden to stay with her elderly penpal Amy in the tiny Iowan town of Broken Wheel, only to find that Amy has died. Persuaded to stay by some of Amy’s friends, she finds herself fighting the townsfolk’s slightly oppressive kindness as no-one will let her pay for anything, so she uses Amy’s numerous books to set up a town bookshop for everyone, matching people with unlikely yet perfectly-suited books and dispensing advice. Excerpts from Amy’s letters to Sara are dotted throughout the text, giving a glimpse into the town and its inhabitants’ history, and suggesting that she may have known the outcome of the story all along.

A gorgeous tale of books and those who love them, it manages to be thoroughly charming and heart-warming without being twee or cheesy; familiar without being predictable or clichéd.

Depression, books, and me

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As of September, I officially have recurrent depression. I say officially because I only forced myself to go to see the doctor then but I’ve known for months, if not longer, that the depression has come back. I don’t think that it ever went away, actually, not completely.

I made the decision to stop taking the anti-depressants the first time when my brain had reached a point where it was able to cope, when it felt as if the chemicals were a bit more balanced than they had been for the previous couple of years. I was feeling better but not cured. The shadows retreated to the fringes of my mind, hovering around the corners and occasionally blurring the edges of my vision. I was able to generally make them stay at the edges for most of the time, especially at work, but this effort was frankly bloody exhausting. Some days were easier than others; I could go for weeks feeling ok and then have a bad run of days where the murkiness would increase and feel like it was intruding further, as if someone has dialled up the ‘vignette’ function in my brain.

This time around much of the experience is different to the first time. Last time there were long periods of me alternating between silent sobbing and staring into space, unable to muster enthusiasm for anything and terrified of being around people I didn’t know (and most of the people I did). One of the only things that I could concentrate on was reading, where the characters in well-loved books felt more familiar and safe than people in real life. It sounds cheesy but books sustained me.

When I stopped taking the tablets, convinced that my brain was rebalanced, it became clear to me that although I was acting ‘normally’, things weren’t quite right. I found it easier to interact with people, which was lucky as my job was in customer services, and I was no longer hiding away from the world, but my old friends, the ones who had always been there for me – books – had gone from being a source of comfort to one of anxiety.

I’ve never been a great book blogger, partly because there are much better writers out there and partly because, even when I was blogging more regularly, I never had a particularly high output of reviews and posts, but I did receive books from publishers and authors for review occasionally. Whereas these were once a cause of excitement – I don’t know any keen reader who wouldn’t like to be sent free books – they became a bit of a problem for me. I couldn’t read them but I also didn’t want to admit that anything was wrong so I just kept accepting them with promises to review them soon – because I believed that I really would. Wherever I’ve lived has always been filled with bookcases stacked with novels three books deep, piles of cookbooks and academic doorstops everywhere, and the stack on my bedside table constantly threatens to tumble down in the night and flatten me, but it wasn’t until recently that I felt anything other than safe in my paper fort.

Now, most of the stories and the characters were too much for me. If I could concentrate on the page long enough to read more than a chapter, narratives worried me. I couldn’t cope with any tension, or the idea that the stories might not turn out the way I’d imagined. When A God in Ruins came out, the sequel to one of my favourite books of the last few years, Mr Mouse bought it for me and we both thought that it would be the one that changed things. After all, I’d been looking forward to it for months. I made it four chapters in before the fact that Teddy’s life wasn’t going to be as I’d decided it would be made me cry and I abandoned it.

It was when I couldn’t bear to try even the books that I’d always found the most comforting – when I started worrying about Cassandra injuring herself in the sink, about Jane not going back to Rochester, about Poirot not being able to tell numerous assembled groups of suspects who’dunnit – that I knew I had to get help again, so after weeks of trying to get up the courage, I made myself an appointment with the doctor.

I’ve now been taking anti-depressants again for just over three months and am feeling more balanced and even than I have in a long time. I knew that the pills had started to work when Mr Mouse and I went away for a week, and I sped through one of the books I’d taken with me in a day in front of the fire. I’d had the proof of Cuckoo’s Calling for about two years but hadn’t been able to pick it up before; now, I just wanted to get my hands on the sequel as quickly as possible, and have since bought and devoured the third in the series. I’m feeling slightly bereft as my brain is still firmly in the world of those books and I can’t quite shake myself out of it yet, but I’ll get there, and I’ll find another world to immerse myself in.

I can’t say that I’m going to become blogger of the year – it still isn’t easy for me to concentrate long enough to write many reviews, and I still have almost no confidence in my writing, which makes it harder to overcome the anxiety – but I’m going to try to not let the poor blog expire completely. And if that doesn’t go to plan, and I never review anything again, then I’ll try my best not to worry about it. I have a second blog, about pretty, shiny things, which is much easier for me to write because, conversely, it’s about things that matter less than books.

I’m building a new TBR pile, full of books that I really want to read and I’m actually looking forward to curling up with them at Christmas. If I don’t enjoy one, I’ll move on to the next until I find something I enjoy, which I know hope I will. I think I took reading, and the comfort I get from it, for granted until recently, which isn’t a mistake I’ll be making again.