Novellas in November

Although I’ll be taking part in Nonfiction November I’ve been wondering whether to join in with Novellas in November, a month long event co-hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of BookishBeck. Their definition of a novella is loose – it’s based on word count rather than number of pages – but they suggest aiming for 150 pages or under, with a firm upper limit of 200 pages. Any genre is valid. Each week has a theme:

2–8 November: Contemporary fiction (Cathy)

9–15 November: Nonfiction novellas (Rebecca)

16–22 November: Literature in translation (Cathy)

23–29 November: Short classics (Rebecca)

So, I’ve been looking on my TBR shelves and found these novellas – a mix of genres:

I don’t expect I’ll read all of these – but I should be able to read one or two, maybe three?

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

I read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson at the end of September and it is one of the books that’s in my ‘to be reviewed pile’, which is getting far too big, as I keep reading book after book without writing about them!

About the book:

It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, the lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own. (Goodreads)

This is a horror story, but thank goodness there is no gore. Instead it is macabre and has a chilling atmosphere. It’s more of a psychological study than a horror story and as such I don’t think it’s as good or as terrifying as her later book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Dr. Montague, a doctor of philosophy with a keen interest in the supernatural and psychic manifestations had been looking for a ‘haunted’ house to investigate all his life. So, when he heard the stories about the strange goings on at Hill House he decided he would spend three months living there and see what happened, and he set about finding other people to stay there with him.

Eleanor is the main character in the book, next to the House itself, and what happens is told from Eleanor’s point of view. As a child Eleanor had once seemed to activate a poltergeist, although she doesn’t remember that. As an adult she had spent eleven years looking after her invalid mother and it had left her a lonely, embittered spinster of thirty two. After her mother died she sees Dr. Montague’s invitation to spend the summer at Hill House as something she had been waiting for all her life, an opportunity to change her life. Theodora is not at all like Eleanor – her ‘world was one of delight and soft colors’ and after arguing with her friend with whom she shared an apartment, she accepted Dr. Montague’s invitation too. The third person to accept was Luke, the nephew of the owner of Hill House, who would one day inherit the House. He was a liar and also a thief.

These four people arrived at Hill House where they were met by the Dudleys – Mr Dudley, the surly caretaker and his dour wife, the housekeeper. Neither of them live in the house but having told the guests which rooms they were to sleep in, and the arrangements for meals, they leave them alone at night. They leave before it gets dark.

Eleanor realises she should have turned back at the gate and a voice inside her tells her to ‘get away from here, get away.’ There are stories about the tragedies connected with the house, scandal, madness and a suicide – when a girl hanged herself from the turret in the tower. Dr Montague believes

the evil is in the house itself and that it has enchained and destroyed its people and their lives, it is a place of contained ill will.

Strange things happen, doors open themselves, the walls and floors are at odd angles, the rooms all connect so Eleanor and the others lose their sense of direction and get lost, the rooms they want to find eluding them. There are places where there are ‘cold spots’, and strange noises scare them at night. The tone shifts from the bright sunlight outside to the chill and foreboding of the house. Nothing is what it first appears to be and as I read on I felt I was sinking into the story in an unpleasant way – Eleanor becomes increasingly unstable and I began to realise that she is an unreliable narrator. The story took several ambiguous turns, so that I was not quite sure what was really happening. Was the house really haunted or was it all an effect of what was going on in their minds, or was it all just in Eleanor’s fevered imagination?

The book is well written, full of confusion and misdirection. There are moments of pure fear, a sense of excitement, friendship and even humour with the arrival of Dr Montague’s wife and her pompous friend Arthur Parker, and their ridiculous efforts with a ‘planchette’, a device similar to a Ouija Board. I thought was an odd interlude in the story, and not really necessary. The best parts are, I think, the descriptions of Hill House – the dark horror at the centre of the story.

No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a manic juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice. …

It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fir place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed. (pages 34 – 35)

My Friday Post: Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

As I’ve nearly finished reading Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year I’ve been wondering what to read next. I had thought I might read Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch, which is the second Rivers of London book. But this morning I picked up The Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter and began reading and just carried on. It’s the first Morse book in which Morse and Lewis first met and worked together. Morse thought they would get on well together.

It begins:

‘Let’s just wait a bit longer please,’ said the girl in dark-blue trousers and the light summer coat. ‘I’m sure there’s one due soon.’

This is a scene at a bus stop where two girls are waiting for the next bus to Woodstock. One of the girls doesn’t want to wait, wanting to hitch a lift and they both left the bus stop – it was the wrong decision.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

She pointed to a large volume, also lying open on the carpet in front of the TV set. ‘Mary’s started to read it.’ Morse picked it up and looked at the title. Who was Jack the Ripper?

‘Mm.’

‘I’m sure you’ve read that.’

Morse’s moral began to sag again. ‘I don’t think I’ve read that particular account, no.’ (page 56)

Blurb:


The death of Sylvia Kaye figured dramatically in Thursday afternoon’s edition of the Oxford Mail. By Friday evening Inspector Morse had informed the nation that the police were looking for a dangerous man – facing charges of wilful murder, sexual assault and rape.

But as the obvious leads fade into twilight and darkness, Morse becomes more and more convinced that passion holds the key . . .

The Birdwatcher by William Shaw

I read The Birdwatcher by William Shaw in the summer and didn’t get round to reviewing it. So, this is a short post summarising what I thought about it.

I enjoyed this book, set in Dungeness on the Kent coast. Sergeant William South is a birdwatcher a methodical and quiet man. Very much a loner, South is not a detective and has always avoided investigating murder. But he does have one friend, a fellow birdwatcher, Bob Rayner and one morning he finds Bob has been brutally beaten to death. DS Alexandra Cupidi, a new CID officer, is leading the investigation and Shaw is reluctantly assigned to her team. Having recently moved from London she relies on William for his knowledge of the area.

Alternating with the present day story is the story of Billy, a thirteen year old living in Northern Ireland during the ‘Troubles’. And hidden within that story is the reason for South’s reluctance to investigate murders. Life becomes uncomfortable for South as Cupidi takes over his house for the base for their investigation and also lands him with the responsibility of entertaining her troubled teenage daughter, Zoe after school – he introduces her to birdwatching.

Shaw is an excellent storyteller and I liked his writing style. This is very much a character-driven mystery as the suspense builds to a climax and his description of Dungeness, with its wind-swept shingle beach close to the Nuclear Power Station and Romney Marsh provides an atmospheric and vivid backdrop. I liked William, and was irritated by Alexandra. So I’m pleased to discover that this is a prequel to Shaw’s DS Alexandra Cupidi series. Currently there are five books, with the sixth to be published next year, so I have plenty more to read.

  • File Size : 3045 KB
  • Print Length : 337 pages
  • Publisher : Riverrun (19 May 2016)
  • Source: I bought it
  • Rating: 5*

WWW Wednesday: 21 October 2020

WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

I’m currently reading David Cameron’s autobiography For the Record and making slow progress. It’s interesting reading his version of events. I’ve not got much to say about it yet, though as I’ve only just got up to the 2010 election.

The other book I’m reading is Daniel Defoe’s novel, A Journal of the Plague Year, a most depressing book about the truly terrible details of the Great Plague of London in 1665 – 1666 in which killed an estimated 100,000 people—almost a quarter of London’s population—in 18 months.

I recently finished reading The Searcher by Tana French, her latest book published on 5 November. I enjoyed it, although not as much as The Wych Elm. It has a leisurely pace that I wasn’t expecting, but I loved the characters and most of all Tana French’s beautifully descriptive writing. I’ll be writing more about it in a later post.

Next I’m thinking about reading some escapism, maybe the second book in the Rivers of London series Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch. I loved the first book – pure fantasy.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books People Have Recommended To Me

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish and now hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl. For the rules see her blog.

This week’s topic is Books I Read Because Someone Recommended Them to Me. These are all books I enjoyed, recommended by family and friends.

After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell – her debut novel. The main character, Alice is in a coma after being in road accident, which may or may not have been a suicide attempt. She has been grieving the death of her husband, John. It’s quite a complicated story, following the life stories not only of Alice, but also those of her mother, Ann (who I didn’t like much),  her grandmother, Elspeth (who I did like very much), her two sisters and John. Her family gathers at her bedside as Alice drifts in and out of consciousness, remembering her childhood, her first romance, and the love of her life — her now-deceased husband, John, a journalist felled by a bomb.

The Long Song by Andrea Levy is one of the best books I’ve read. It’s brutal, savage, and unrelenting in depicting the lives of the slaves in Jamaica in the 19th century, just as slavery was coming to an end and both the slaves and their former owners were adjusting to their freedom. The narrator is July, at the beginning a spirited young woman, born in a sugar-cane field, telling her story at her son’s suggestion.

 A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving – I have mixed feelings about this book, parts of it are brilliant, fascinating and funny, but parts of it are tedious and boring. It is about Owen Meany, a very small boy with a strange voice who believes his life is directed by God, and his friend Johnny Wheelwright. 

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. I really enjoyed this book, for its content, the characters and setting and last but not least Sylvia Townsend Warner’s style of writing After the death of her adored father, Laura ‘Lolly’ Willowes settles into her role of the ‘indispensable’ maiden aunt of the family, wholly dependent, an unpaid nanny and housekeeper. Two decades pass; the children are grown, and Lolly unexpectedly moves to a village, alone. Here, happy and unfettered, she revels in a new existence, nagged only by the sense of a secret she has yet to discover.

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. Steinbeck’s style is perfect for me, I could see Cannery Row itself, a strip of Monterey’s Ocean View Avenue, where the Monterey sardines were caught and canned or reduced to oil or fishmeal, along with all the characters – no, it was more than that -I was there in the thick of it, transported in my mind, whilst I was reading and even afterwards as I thought about the novel.

Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War II by Ben Macintyre. Nonfiction that reads like fiction. It’s about the Allies’ deception plan code-named Operation Mincemeat in 1943, which underpinned the invasion of Sicily. It was framed around a man who never was. I marvelled at the ingenuity of the minds of the plans’ originators and the daring it took to carry it out.

Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin, a memoir, a travelogue about the interdependence of human beings and trees. I think parts of this book are brilliant and fascinating, but my eyes glazed over in other parts as I got lost in all the facts and details that he recounts, which were just too much at times for me. But sometimes his writing is poetical, full of imagery. He covers a huge area of natural history, not just trees, but also plants, birds, moths, hedges, as well as the uses of wood for living, working and pleasure. He also describes his journeys to numerous places – not just in Britain, but also to the Pyrenees, Bieszczady, Australia, east to Kazakhstan, China, and the walnut forests of Kyrgyzstan.

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor in which he describes his travels on foot in 1933 from the Hook of Holland through Germany, to Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, on his way to Constantinople. In a way his journey was a gilded experience as he had introductions to people in different places – people who gave him a bed for the night, or longer stays. There were also people who didn’t know him who welcomed him into their homes as a guest – as the title says it was a time of gifts. It was the period when Hitler came to power in Germany. Parts are vividly described, but there are also passages which are so tedious and hard work to read, so full of dry facts and arcane words.

Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre begins with a graphic description of a particularly nasty murder scene, which is normally guaranteed to make me stop reading. But it would have been a great shame if I’d let it put me off this book, because I thoroughly enjoyed it. The dead man is Dr Ponsonby, a well- respected doctor working for the Midlothian NHS Trust in Edinburgh. Investigative journalist, Jack Parlabane gets involved as he lives in the flat above Ponsonby and the terrible smell (think blood, poo and sick) coming up from below leads him into the murder scene. It soon becomes apparent to the reader who did the murder and it is the motive behind it that needs to be ferreted out.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett, her first novel. I loved it. I saw the film before I read the book – Octavia Spencer won a Golden Globe award as best supporting actress for her performance as Minny – and even though I knew the story I still found the book full of tension and completely absorbing. When I wrote about the film, I said I hoped the book lived up to my expectations. In fact, it did and more. As good as the film is, the book is even better and I think it’s one of the best books I’ve read. It’s set in Jackson, Mississippi, 1962 where the tension caused by the contrast between the black maids and their white employers is so appalling.

And Now For the Good News … To the Future With Love by Ruby Wax

Penguin Life/ 17 September 2020/ 256 pages/ e-book/ Review copy/ 3*

And Now For the Good News … To the Future With Love by Ruby Wax is a positive look at some recent developments in community, business, education, technology, and food that promise to make the world a better place.

She began writing this in 2018 before the outbreak of Covid-19, but ends the book with some ‘Post Covid-19 Good News.’ Whilst researching for her book she found what she calls ‘green shoots of hope peeping through the soil of civilisation’ that ‘may just bloom into a brighter future.’ It’s easy reading, written clearly in a breezy conversational style, covering a large amount of information. She emphasises the importance of compassion and kindness, of community and on working for the good of all. Maybe, above all she focuses on the benefits of mindfulness and on positive experiences.

She begins with writing about herself and sections about her own story are interspersed between the ‘Bad News’ and the ‘Good News’ throughout the book. In each section she gives a brief history of the topic, along with the story of her own experiences and then looks at examples of how things are improving. Not all of it was new to me, but I did learn a lot, as the book is simply crammed with information.

I’ll just mention two examples that interested me particularly. In the section on Education I was amazed to read about the discipline and regimentation in Chinese schools contrasting with the relaxed and caring approach in Finnish schools. And in the UK she visited a school in Hertfordshire, where children, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, learn about emotions as well as academic topics.

In the Business section she writes about new models of businesses that are ‘going green’ in companies such as the outdoor clothing company Patagonia, based in California. They believe they owe the earth for the industrial impact of business and consequently give away 10% of all profits and are very conscientious about what products they use because the textile industry is one of the most chemically intensive industries on earth, second only to agriculture.

The final section of the book is called ‘To the Future with Love’ in which she summarises the good news for each of the topics covered in her book. Her hope is that we will remember the’ feelings of interconnnectedness and caring for each other and … keep them going’ when the pandemic is over.

Overall, this is an interesting book with some inspiring stories but in places it felt as though I was reading newspaper articles or company brochures, which is why I’ve given it 3 stars rather than 4.

My thanks to the publishers for my copy via NetGalley.

My Friday Post: A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

Today my book beginning is from A Journal of the Plague Year: being observations or memorials of the most remarkable occurrences, as well public as private, which happened in London during the last great visitation in 1665 by Daniel Defoe, one of my TBRs. Now would seem to be the right time to read it.

It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that l, among the rest of my neighbours, heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland; for it had been very violent there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, in the year 1663, whither they say it was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant, among goods which were brought home by their Turkish fleet; others said it was brought from Canada; others from Cyprus.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

On page 56 Defoe is describing the work of the undersexton – the grave digger and bearer of the dead – in the parish of St Stephen, Coleman, who went out along the many alleys and thoroughfares to fetch the bodies a very long way:

Here they went with a kind of hand-barrow and laid dead bodies on it, and carried them to the carts; which work he performed and never had the distemper [the plague] at all, but lived about twenty years after it, and was sexton of the parish to the time of his death. His wife at the same time was a nurse to infected people, and tended many who died in the parish, being for her honesty recommended by the parish officers; yet she was never infected either.

Defoe went on to describe how the sexton and his wife protected themselves against the infection. He held garlic and rue in his mouth and smoked tobacco. His wife’s remedy was to wash her head in vinegar and she sprinkled her head-clothes with vinegar – if the smell was particularly offensive she snuffed vinegar up her nose and held a handkerchief wetted with vinegar to her mouth.

Blurb:

In 1665 the plague swept through London, claiming over 97,000 lives. Daniel Defoe was just five at the time of the plague, but he later called on his own memories, as well as his writing experience, to create this vivid chronicle of the epidemic and its victims. ‘A Journal’ (1722) follows Defoe’s fictional narrator as he traces the devastating progress of the plague through the streets of London. Here we see a city transformed: some of its streets suspiciously empty, some – with crosses on their doors – overwhelmingly full of the sounds and smells of human suffering. And every living citizen he meets has a horrifying story that demands to be heard.

Top Ten Tuesday: Long Book Titles

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish and now hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl. For the rules see her blog.

This week’s top is Long Book Titles. Here are some of the longest book titles I’ve reviewed on this blog. It appears that non-fiction books lend themselves more to long titles than fiction as six of them are non-fiction –

  1. 100 Days on Holy Island: a Writer’s Exile by Peter Mortimer – a record of his experience of living on the island of Lindisfarne.
  2. The Abbess of Whitby: a novel of Hild of Northumbria by Jill Dalladay – Hild was born in 614 and died in 680.
  3. Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill – her memories, thoughts and reflections on her life as she approaches her 100th year (she was born in 1917).
  4. Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs: the Left Bank World of Shakespeare & Co by Jeremy Mercer – a memoir of the author’s refuge at the Paris bookshop, Shakespeare & Co. on the banks of the River Seine opposite Notre Dame. 
  5. Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains by Catriona McPherson – crime fiction set in Edinburgh in 1926.
  6. Our Longest Days: A People’s History of the Second World War by the writers of Mass Observation – absolutely fascinating, this is a collection from diaries kept during the War.
  7. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain – I loved this book, an ideal book to read for both introverts and extroverts.
  8. Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog) by Jerome K Jerome –  a gentle witty book that kept me entertained all the way through.
  9. When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies by Andy Beckett – an excellent book, using original material such as diaries, letters, personal memoirs as well as books written about the period.
  10. The Woman Who Walked into the Sea by Mark Douglas-Hume – I don’t think this quite lived up to The Sea Detective, the first Cal McGill book. Cal is an oceanographer using his skills in tracking human bodies and sea-borne objects.

Thin Air by Michelle Paver

I read Thin Air: A Ghost Story by Michelle Paver in the summer, but it’s a good choice to read for Halloween. I didn’t find it as scary as Dark Matter, but even so it is very atmospheric and chilling – in more ways than one. The setting is Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas as a group of five men set out to climb the mountain in 1935.

Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, had claimed many lives and no one had reached the summit. Held to be a sacred mountain, it is one of the most dangerous mountains in the world – believed to be the haunt of demons and evil spirits. An unsuccessful attempt had been made in 1907, led by Edmund Lyell, when only two men had returned. The group in 1935, led by Major Cotterell, attempted to follow the 1907 route up the south-west face.

Their story is narrated by medic, Dr. Stephen Pearce, accompanying his older brother, Kits. The brothers have always been rivals and this continues as they make their way up the mountain. Things start to go wrong almost straight away and Stephen is full of foreboding. He fears someone is following them and when he finds a rucksack left behind by the earlier climbers he fears he is loosing his mind. Under the most extreme weather conditions, the constant fear of an avalanche and the increasing effects of mountain sickness Stephen’s paranoia rises. More horrors keep piling on.

It’s not a long book, 240 pages, and almost half of it describes the mountain itself and the route the climbers took to get to the start of the climb and setting up their base camp. So it is only in the later part where the terror hinted at before sets in. The isolation, a sense of ‘otherness’, the extreme cold and the immense scale of the mountain with its towering pinnacles, deep crevasses, and above all the silence dominates. Were Stephen’s experiences the result of being at a high altitude, were they hallucinations – or was what he saw really there? I was never sure and that was part of the horror.

Thin Air is based on real events, although the 1907 and 1935 expeditions described in it are fictional. But the setting is real, the characterisation is excellent as is the feel of the 1930s, with its class snobbery, and racism and above all the creeping sense of dread that pervades the whole book.