Festive · Seasonal Reads

All I Want for Christmas is Books!

A festive welcome to The Shelf today! Yes, it’s that time of the year again – the season of goodwill and books to all men. As Mariah Carey should have sung, All I Want for Christmas is Books so, in the spirit of the season, I thought this week I’d share a few of my festive favourites, as well as some details about what I’ll be reading this Christmas.

18048390The Christmas Tradition Read

Whether that’s mince pies by the fire, singing carols around the crib, or getting grandma tiddled on sherry by 3 o’clock in the afternoon, we all have our favourite Christmas traditions. One of mine is starting my regular re-read of my favourite book, J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. There’s something about the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring that I find really festive – the party, the lights, the copious amounts of food and merriment. It gives me all the festive feels. I’m lucky enough to have some gorgeous softcover editions to curl up with and, this year, I’m hoping I might persuade my husband to start reading and finally attend Bilbo’s long-expected party with me.

The Classic Christmas Crime Novel

31900372It seems so odd to choose to read crime at Christmastime but it has become something of a thing for me. That said, I’m not a fan of the dark and gritty at this time of year. As the nights go crisper and the sound of jingle bells fills the air, I turn instead to classic crime. The British Library Crime Classics have been producing some brilliant re-issues of neglected crime classics for some years now, including several festive titles. This year I’m planning to finally pick up their Christmas bestseller, Mystery in White by J Jefferson Farjeon, a classic country house murder mystery featuring a trainload full of strangers, a deserted country manor and, you guessed it, a murderer amongst them.

I’ll also be dipping into P D James’ short story collection The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories. I love James’ writing – she balances the ingenious plotting and classic scenarios of the golden age with a keenly observed psychological drama – and she is a real master of the short story form, so I’ve been saving this festive collection of four of her stories to read at the most appropriate time of year.

The Festive Ghost Story

39098246A Christmas Carol is, of course, the grandfather of festive ghost stories and is, I feel, what probably puts us in mind of spooky happenings at this time of year. I’m not a huge fan of Dickens’ writing but I make an exception for the tale of Ebeneezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit (although I’ll admit to still preferring the Muppet version every time).

This year however I’m hoping to get to some more modern ghost stories. Laura Purcell’s The Corset has been on my TBR for far too long now. Having read and loved her debut, The Silent Companions, I’m hoping that this second novel, which focuses on a young seamstress who believes she can kill with a supernatural power imbued within in her needle and thread, demonstrates the same ability to send shivers creeping gradually up your spine.

And although not strictly a ghost story, Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, a tale of a mysterious dark-robed figure that haunts the complicit and the cowardly, promises gothic vibes in abundance. I adored Perry’s The Essex Serpent and have almost been avoiding this follow-up in case it don’t love it quite as much. Now however might be time to face my fears and dive in.

The Book I’m Giving. And the One I Want to Receive!

SevenDeathsI’m urging everyone I know to read Stuart Turton’s fantastic genre-bending crime novel The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – it’s a brilliant blend of Agatha Christie and Quantum Leap with a dash of Groundhog Day thrown in. Quite how he managed to plot the whole thing I have no idea but it’s an absolute marvel and will definitely be making my Books of 2018 list. So that might be appearing in a few stockings with my name on the tag!

As for what I’d like to receive, I do like a humour book at Christmas. They’re the sort of books I’d never buy myself but that I enjoy chuckling over whilst I polish off the last of the cheese board on Christmas Day. As I’m currently up to my eyeballs in work for my MA, the thought of reading Academia Obscura: The Hidden Silly Side of Higher Education appeals, so that’s gone on my list to Santa. And although it might raise a few eyebrows on Christmas morning, I love the idea of New Erotica for Feminists: Get What You Deserve, Again and Again and Again, which features the brilliant line ‘He calls me into his office and closes the door . . . to promote me. He promotes me again and again. I am wild with ecstasy.’ I need no other reason for wishing to read it.

I also want to take this opportunity to mention the annual Booktrust Christmas Appeal. For a donation of £10.00, Booktrust will send out book parcels to children who are vulnerable or in care this Christmas. The parcels include an age-appropriate book, a letter (this year it’s been written by Jacqueline Wilson) and a festive postcard. Many of the children get no other post or may have no books of their own so the campaign is an opportunity to spread the joy of reading this festive season. Please do consider making a donation if you can.

So that is it for my Christmas reading this year. What will you be hoping to get to? And what books will you be giving this year, or asking Santa to bring? Do let me know in the comments, or come and say hi on Twitter (@shelfofunread).

Wishing all of you a Merry Christmas – do eat, drink and be merry and I’ll be back again after the festivities for my Best Books of 2018 list. And until then…

Happy Reading! x

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NB: I’ve previously done quite a few other festive posts, including Bookish Christmas Gift Guides and reviews of seasonal crime classics. I’ve linked the blog posts down below for anyone who wants more festive reading picks, so please do check them out!

Bookish Christmas Gift Guide 2017

Bookish Christmas Gift Guide 2016

Christmas Reads 2016

Feeling Festive Tag

Review: The Long Shadow by Celia Fremlin (Faber Christmas Crime 2018)

Review: A Very English Murder by Cyril Hare (Faber Christmas Crime 2017)

 

 

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Reviews · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!! Help the Witch by Tom Cox

40799510As night draws through country lanes, and darkness sweeps across the hills and hedgerows, shadows appear where figures are not; things do not remain in their places; a new home is punctured by abandoned objects; a watering hole conceals depths greater than its swimmers can fathom.

Inspired by our native landscapes and traversing boundaries of the past and the future, this collection is Tom Cox’s first foray into fiction.

I’m not a huge reader of short stories as a general rule but I do make an exception for ghost stories. There’s something sublime in reading a snippet of the strange and uncanny, like getting a little shot of the shivers straight into your spine. So I was thrilled when I discovered that Tom Cox was planning his first foray into fiction with Help the Witch, a collection of ghost stories, inspired in part by a very cold, dark winter spent living in a possibly haunted house in a remote part of the Peak District.

I’ve been a fan of Cox’s writing for a while, having been introduced to it through the medium of Twitter and the account of the much-missed @mysadcat, otherwise known as The Bear. Cox has written four humorous, wry and observant books about The Bear, his other feline companions Shipley, Roscoe, and Ralph, and the indefinable way that cats have of upending your life whilst still managing to make themselves one of the most adorable things in it. Those books, in turn, led me to Cox’s website/blog, with its fantastic posts about everything from walks in the countryside to conversations with his (VERY LOUD AND EXCITABLE) Dad, via cat anecdotes, 1970s folk music, love letters to the beach and, of course, the occasional ghost story.

Cox’s writing has a fantastic richness of language, something he showcased to great effect in his non-fiction nature/memoir/essay collection, 21st Century Yokel, and which is on display in Help The Witch. In just a few words, he conjures spirits out of hill fogs, and talismans from tree branches. The collection is filled with the shadows that lurk behind doors and live forever at the corners of your vision. It’s fabulously atmospheric writing, couched in a real sense of landscape and place.

As with all short story collections, I had my favourites. The title story, Help the Witch, is the probably the most traditional ‘ghost story’ in the collection, featuring an isolated house, a long, dark winter, and more than a few bumps in the night. I particularly enjoyed the subtle observations within the story, told in diary form, of everyday encounters, twisted here into loaded encounters imbued with possibly sinister meanings. As with many of the best ghost stories, Help the Witch finds madness lurking just beneath the realm of the everyday.

As a former estate agent, the story Listings provided some amusement, being made up of a number of advertisements for a property with a very unique selling point. And Just Good Friends provided a fantastic slice of sinister, showing how the supernatural can creep into our everyday existence through memory, wish-fulfilment and longing.

This is a collection influenced by folk tales, with their strange, twisting narratives and sharp, sinister finality. This is most evident in Folk Tales of the Twenty-Third Century, a brilliant collection of shorts that encompasses a fabulously dark Rumplestiltskin re-telling and a cautionary tale about a banjo player and the perils of fame. However, it’s also imbued with Cox’s warmth and his wryly observant humour. Seance, for example, features a medium channelling an embittered cyclist who doesn’t realise he’s dead, a life coach called Adrianne (“Adrianne is actually quite boring”), and a fox, much to the disappointment of a client expecting a rather more personalised encounter with the spirit realm.

By turns spookily sinister and wryly amusing, this is an eclectic and quirky collection written with a light but controlled touch. Beautifully evocative of the eerieness inherent in nature, Cox has an eye for the unusual and a real skill for conveying this. Gorgeously produced, with artwork by Tom’s talented artist mum Jo throughout, and a stunning front cover by Joe McLaren, Help the Witch would make a fantastic gift for yourself or a loved one this festive season – it’s the perfect collection for curling up by the fire with on a dark winter’s night!

Help the Witch by Tom Cox is published by Unbound and is available now in hardback and ebook from all good booksellers and online retailers including Unbound, Waterstones, and Amazon

 

Blog Tours · Reviews · Seasonal Reads

BLOG TOUR!! The Long Shadow by Celia Fremlin

Long ShadowJolted from sleep by the ringing of the telephone, Imogen stumbles through the dark, empty house to answer it. At first, she can’t quite understand the man on the other end of the line. Surely he can’t honestly be accusing her of killing her husband, Ivor, who died in a car crash barely two months ago.

As the nights draw in, Imogen finds her home filling up with unexpected Christmas guests, who may be looking for more than simple festive cheer. Has someone been rifling through Ivor’s papers? Who left the half-drunk whiskey bottle beside his favourite chair? And why won’t that man stop phoning, insisting he can prove Imogen’s guilt?

As the nights draw in and cosying up in front of the fire with a book and a blanket once again becomes a socially acceptable way to spend an entire evening, I do love reading a good mystery. There’s something about settling down with a puzzle that fits with the season so I’ve been a big fan of recent efforts by a number of publishers to track down and reissue seasonally appropriate titles.

Celia Fremlin’s The Long Shadow is the latest in Faber & Faber’s re-discovery of the Edgar Award-winning novelist, following on from their 2017 edition of her debut, The Hours Before Dawn. Fremlin, heralded as a talented writer of domestic suspense in her day, seems to have been largely forgotten following her death in 2009 and, on the evidence of The Long Shadow, certainly deserves a larger readership upon the reissuing of her works.

Although there is nothing particularly innovative about the mystery element of The Long Shadow, the tone is something quite unique. Fremlin has given her main character, the newly widowed Imogen, a sharp, wry tone completely at odds with her role of the grieving widow. It’s the source of a great deal of dark humour within the book, as in this scene, where Imogen and her widowed neighbour, Edith, discuss the new year:

“‘Not a happy New Year, Imogen, because we both know hat cannot be,’ Edith was saying, her lined, indoor face haggard and hungry-looking in the silvery winter sunshine. ‘Not a happy, but a peaceful year, that’s what I shall wish for you, my dear: I pray that you may discover what I discovered: that even though happiness is at an end, you may still win through to a kind of peace….’

I won’t. If they try to palm me off with peace, I’ll throw it at them. Happiness is where I’m going and I shan’t stop till I get there. If Peace comes and gets in the way, I shall kick it.

‘Thank you, Edith, and the same to you,’ was what she said aloud: and five minutes later, found herself wondering whether Peace hadn’t, after all, something to be said for it.”

Brilliant isn’t it?! So sharp yet without acid. To me, Fremlin perfectly captures the exact thoughts that often go through our heads during a polite conversation, but which we would never dare to say out loud! It makes Imogen a very different kind of narrator and gives the tone of the book a feel of Patricia Highsmith, filled with sharp observations on human nature and character.

This isn’t to say that the plot is in any way lacking, however. There is a well-crafted mystery here, with plenty of subtle clues that require astute reading to unravel. I feel though that Fremlin is more interested in the psychological aspects of crime that the method and means. Her focus in The Long Shadow is what makes her characters tick – the nuances of human behaviour and personal circumstance that might lead someone to do something desperate. In pursuit of this, she succeeds in crafting a tense and suspenseful domestic setting, filled with acutely observed characters with plenty of secrets to hide.

The Christmas link is, if I’m honest, a little tenuous. Although Christmas is the occasion that results in the deceased Ivor’s eclectic friends and family descending on Imogen, only part of the action takes place over the festive season and I think if you were seeking a specifically festive flavour complete with oodles of mince pies and snow at every corner, you might be a tad disappointed here. That said, I can’t blame Faber for seeing the marketing opportunity and if it brings more readers to this excellent writer, then I think we should forgive the slight over-emphasis on the holiday that the cover suggests.

Astute, well-observed, and cleverly crafted, The Long Shadow is a clever and compelling mystery with a side order of domestic noir. It’s clearly the product of a writer with a talent for observation and a wry, dark sense of humour. I can certainly recommend it to fans of Patricia Highsmith, as well as those who enjoyed more recent domestic chillers such as Kate Muray Browne’s The Upstairs Room. Well done to Faber for reissuing Fremlin’s work and helping her work enjoy the readership that it surely deserves.

The Long Shadow by Celia Fremlin and published by Faber & Faber is available now as a paperback and ebook in all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher, Faber & Faber, for providing me with a copy of the book and inviting me to take part in this tour in return for an honest and unbiased review. The blog tour continues until 24 November 2018 so please do go and check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Long_Shadow_blog

 

Seasonal Reads

Spooky Reading Recommendations

The leaves are changing, the nights are drawing in, and it’s time to drag that favourite  jumper out of the closet. Is any more of an excuse needed to settle down with a mug of tea, curl up under your favourite blanket and pick up a book? And, for me personally, if that book has a touch of the sinister about it – something that’ll send a slight chill down my spine despite all that cosiness – then even better! So without further ado here are five of my favourite chilling reads, plus a few choices that I’m hoping to get to during 2018’s season of spookiness.

584843I can’t talk about spooky books without mentioning The Woman in Black. Susan Hill has written a number of ghost stories but this, without a doubt, remains my favourite. Possibly this is because I first read the book one dark All Hallows Eve, curled up in a caravan on the wet and wild Welsh coast whilst the rain lashed on the roof and the wind howled outside. Talk about pathetic fallacy! Having re-read the book many times in considerably finer weather since however, I can attest to it being an extremely fine ghost story with just the right level of menace. Arthur Kipps’ visit to desolate Eel Marsh House and his glimpses of the vengeful woman in black remain utterly terrifying on even the brightest of days.

8350864More readily known for her young adult series, Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, Michelle Paver has also written two chilling ghost stories after the Gothic mould. My favourite of the two, Dark Matter, is set during an ill-fated expedition to Arctic and brilliantly adds chilling events to an even colder location. Her second, Thin Air, takes place during a similarly doomed mountaineering expedition. Both books play with ideas of repression and psychology, cleverly weaving the characters’ fears into the narrative so that the reader begins to doubt the veracity of their narratives. Paver is also excellent at using the stark yet dangerous beauty of the natural environment to great effect when creating her sinister tales.

36434359Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions, which I reviewed at the start of the year, is an unsettling gothic chiller that will leave you curled up under the covers and peering into the shadows. Part ghost story, part psychological mystery, the book uses interweaving narratives from the 1600s and 1800s to unravel the unhappy tale of the wooden companions that haunt crumbling country estate The Bridge, with possibly sinister intent.  Plus it has a really creepy child in it and nothing says dark and disturbing quite as much as childish innocence gone bad.

10692Moving away from ghost stories for a moment, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian is a brilliant romp which combines the gothic horror of Dracula with the country-hoping adventure of a Dan Brown thriller. Late one night when exploring her father’s study, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters ominously addressed ‘To my dear and unfortunate successor’. When her father goes missing, our unnamed narrator is forced into an epic cross-continental quest that takes her into the heart of Romania, uncovering the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s disappearance, and constantly coming up against the name of one Vlad Ţepeş. As you can probably tell from the synopsis, The Historian is a bit of a romp but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable one written in a high gothic style and with plenty of literary and historical references for Dracula fans.

6550482For those who like their horror to come with a more literary flavour, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger combines Waters masterful prose with a dash of the supernatural. Set in the crumbling Hundred Hall, the novel follows the provincial, middle-class Dr Faraday as he gradually integrates himself into the life of the once wealthy Ayres family. Struggling to keep up with a changing society, the Ayreses are haunted by past glories. But are they also being haunted by something more sinister than their dying way of life? Combining a thoughtful meditation on class in post-war Britain with a creeping sense of dread and a fantastically creepy atmosphere, this is a slow, understated chill of a novel with a fantastic twist in its tale.

So what is on The Shelf’s spooky TBR for this season? Having still not got around to Laura Purcell’s latest chiller, The Corset, I’m eager to pick that up. Sarah Perry’s latest slice of gothic, Melmoth, is also on the pile – I loved The Essex Serpent so much that I’m almost afraid to read it! I’m taking part in the blog tour for SJI Holliday’s psychological ghost story The Lingering in November so am also very much looking forward to reading that, especially given all the high praise it has been getting from fellow bloggers. Finally Katherine Clements’ The Coffin Path picked up a lot of praise on its release last year but remains unread so I’m hoping to get to that now that the season is appropriate again.

As always, I would love to know if you’ve read any of my recommendations – or any of my TBR books. I do love a good ghost or supernatural story so if you’ve got any chilling recommendations for me then do also drop me a line in the comments, or come say hi over on Twitter (@amyinstaffs), and let me know about them!

Happy Reading!!