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!!

 

Reviews

REVIEW! The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

35103171One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.

As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee houses, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on…and a courtesan of great accomplishment. The meeting will steer both their lives on a dangerous new course.  

What will be the cost of their ambitions? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess?

Does anyone else ever get that thing where you deliberately don’t read a book because you know it’s going to be amazing and then you’ll never get an opportunity to experience it for the very first time again? Sort of like a ‘saving it for best’ book that you’re waiting for the right moment to be spellbound by? And then you put off reading it for a few months and then you’re not reading it just in case it doesn’t live up to all the expectation and hype you’ve created in your head? Yeah, book nerds are crazy….

Anyhoo, this is exactly what happened with The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock which I have finally finished reading. I’d had it on the shelves since early February when I spent a delightful evening at the wonderful Booka Bookshop listening to Imogen herself introduce the novel and the glittering period of English history in which it is set. I was all intent on reading it straight away but weeks turned into months and then the fear that maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t be quite as good as I expected crept in. Mr Hancock and his mystical mermaid languished unread on the shelf for months – and would have stayed there for even longer if it hadn’t been for in Simon Savidge’s Big Book Weekender (thanks Simon!) giving me that push banish my fears, pick it up and dive straight in.

And the verdict? I was being completely and utterly daft because THIS BOOK IS AMAZING!

Seriously, why did I wait so long to read this?!?! It was an utter joy from start to finish, packed with a rich, evocative sense of time and place, a spell-binding cast of larger than life characters and a mesmerising use of language. An utter romp from the first page to the last that, despite a sedate pace and a plot that’s inclined to meander, led to me tearing through the 484 pages in a matter of days (and it would have been even faster if pesky real-life work hadn’t gotten in the way).

For me, the setting is the real triumph here. I was immersed in the world of Georgian London, particularly the opulent yet secretive world of the nunneries – the high end brothels that catered to the rich and famous of Georgian society; where the courtesans were skilled in both social graces and the art of pleasing the clientele. The unexpected arrival of his ‘mermaid’ plunges the gentle, considerate merchant Jonah Hancock straight into this glittering world of pleasure and debauchery – and straight into the path of Angelica Neal, my second favourite thing about this book.

Angelica is an absolute delight. Accomplished in every sense of the word, she’s smart, sassy and a devilish delight. Her sharp wit, sense of fun and sheer unbridled vivacity instantly earned her a place at my imaginary ‘fictional characters dinner party’ (I can see her cackling in a corner with Elizabeth Bennet, much to the despair of other guests). Yes, she’s petty and petulant and spoilt but she’s just so much fun. And I loved the way she developed as a character throughout the course of the book whilst retaining all the traits that made her so fascinating to begin with.

And the language – oh, the language. This is a novel told in such a rich, layered way. It’s the literary equivalent of really good chocolate fudge cake – dark and delicious, but without ever becoming sickly. I enjoyed every sentence and the quality of Imogen Hermes Gowar’s research seeps through on every page, from the cadence of the characters’ spoken words to the evocative descriptions of London’s bustling street.

So the setting is amazing, the characters are vivid, the language is mesmerising; what about the plot? Well, it’s perfectly solid. Now if that sounds like damning with faint praise it really isn’t meant to be – it’s just that I’m not sure this is a book that’s reliant on plot to provide its core reading experience. The plot, such as it is, is the perfect backdrop to allow these characters and this world to tell their story but the joy, for me anyway, lay in the way the story was being told. It’s a novel of characterisation – so anyone coming to The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock expecting magical mermaids and upstairs/downstairs high-jinks would probably end up slightly disappointed. In this way, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock very much reminded me of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, another book with an apparently mythical creature at its heart that absolutely captivated me, but also focused on small interactions, subtle developments of character and an evocative sense of time and place to tell its intricately woven tale.

So if you’re looking for a book where something happens to move the story forwards on every page, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock might not be for you. But if you want a richly textured historical novel that will suck you into the heart of Georgian London with its atmospheric writing, sharp intelligence and warm humour, then The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock will keep you spellbound in its grasp.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gower is published by Harvill Secker and is available in hardback now from all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon

Books of the Year · Reviews

My Best Books of 2017

2017 has been a very up and down year on the reading front. I started strong, slumped massively in the middle and then re-discovered my reading (and blogging) mojo towards the end of the year. Despite that, I have read some cracking books this year and, whilst it’s not been as challenging a task to narrow down my Best Books this year as in previous years, the quality of what is here is definitely not diminished in any way – in my opinion all of the following are brilliant, brilliant books and I would urge you to read them if you haven’t already.

The Essex SerpentEssex Serpent by Sarah Perry

A gorgeously written treat of a book, this historical novel contains multitudes within it’s pages. Sarah Perry has skillfully captured life with her pen, weaving a web of human interactions around the strange fable of a legendary serpent said to haunt the Essex coastline. Packed with characters you’ll feel like you’re friends with and luscious prose that brings Victorian England vividly to life, this is a vibrant riot of a book and perfect for anyone who has The Miniaturist cravings following the BBC adaptation! My full review of the book appeared earlier this year on the blog and can be found here.

Days Without EndDays Without End by Sebastian Barry

If you’d have told me that a literary novel about two gay men set during the American Civil War would be my bag, I’d have been a mite dubious. But Sebastian Barry has created a miniature epic in Days Without End. A beautiful love story, a sweeping historical saga, a tense description of war, a tender portrayal of family – it’s all in here and surrounded in some of the best prose I’ve read all year. The voice in this novel is so unique and so profound at times – it gave me all the feels and I’d urge anyone to go and read it so that they can have them too. Again, a full review appeared earlier this year here.

The Dark CircleThe Dark Circle by Linda Grant

Again, a novel about twins set in a tuberculosis sanatorium in post-war England didn’t, at first, sound my cup of tea but, thanks to the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I picked up and loved Linda Grant’s novel. As with the Essex Serpent, this is a novel about characters more than plot as twins Lenny and Millie meet a range of residents from across the social spectrum within the enclosed microcosm of the sanatorium walls. Combined with an interesting period of social change and some insight into the early years of the NHS, this is a meditative, layered novel that rewards patient reading.

Six StoriesSix Stories by Matt Wesolowski

I’m a huge fan of the podcast Serial so when I heard that there was a novel that purported to be Serial in book form, you’d better believe I was straight on it! Constructed around six podcasts in which an investigative journalist outlines the circumstances surrounding the death of a teenage boy at an outward-bound centre and interviews witnesses and suspects, this is a compelling page-turner with a chilling edge. With a twisty narrative and some dark psychological insights, this novel is what I’d like all thrillers to be – a page turning read with an ending that packs a punch!

Killers of the Flower MoonKillers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Narrative non-fiction is always a tricky thing to pull off – too much narrative and it feels like a story, too much fact and you’ve got yourself a history book. David Grann gets the balance just right in Killers of the Flower Moon, an investigation into the systematic murders of large numbers of Osage Indians in the 1920s and 30s. Subtitled Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBI, the book is a fascinating account of an overlooked piece of recent American history that retains it’s relevance and still resonates today.

The White RoadThe White Road by Sarah Lotz

Another twisty psychological thriller that gave me the chills in 2017 – although this time the setting might have had something to do with it! Set largely on Everest, this part thriller, part ghost story is gripping from the off and features one of the best unlikeable narrators I’ve ever come across. Simon Newman is the worst kind of journalist – dishonest and self-serving, he and his friend Thierry are willing to go to extremes to get their click-bait website off the ground, even if that means filming the bodies of Everest’s long dead. Taut and chilling, this is a psychological thriller with a supernatural twist, made all the better for the amazing sense of place. I posted a full review of the book earlier this year here.

The Good People by Hannah Kent / Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Get me being cheeky and sneaking in two recommendations for the price of one! In all seriousness though I couldn’t choose between Hannah Kent’s two novels, both of which I read in 2017. They’re both fantastic pieces of well-realised, cleverly crafted historical fiction. Burial Rites tells the story of Agnes Magnusdóttir, the last women to be executed in Iceland- perfect for anyone who has read (or watched) and adored Alias Grace. It’s dark, compelling and richly told. The Good People is a very different novel, centered around three women in early nineteenth century Ireland and their struggle to come to terms with the care of an unusual child. As with Burial Rites, the novel is based on real events but is quite different in tone and takes in a larger examination of societal attitudes and the uneasy truce between religion and folklore, modernity and tradition. I reviewed The Good People in full here and, on the basis of these two novels, I can’t wait to see what Kent produces next.

Honorable Mentions

Honorable mentions this year have to go to:

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell, which came along at just the right time and made me snort my tea due to laughing so much. It also made me realise that maybe being a bookseller wouldn’t be the best career for someone who prefers books to people most of the time!

Matt Haig’s A Boy Called Christmas, wonderfully narrated on audio by Stephen Fry, which is a perfect alternative to A Christmas Carol and deserves to be read by adults everywhere (especially if they happen to be reading it to children). Gave me the real festive feels and has a vital message about importance of being kind.

Pam Smy’s Thornhill is a stunning graphic novel about loneliness, ghosts and a mysterious girl next door. Visually captivating, it tells it’s tale in alternating sections of narrative and pictures.

Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living is an exploration of the way in which books shape and impact our lives and an insight into why and how we read. A must for any book lovers (as is his first book, The End of Your Life Book Club).

Sarah Ward’s A Patient Fury, the third in her series of ‘Derbyshire Noir’ police procedurals. I went on blog tour with this book earlier in the year and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the whole series to crime fiction lovers.

As always, I’d love to know if you’ve read any of my books of the year and what you thought of them – or if you have any of them on your TBR pile for 2018. Do leave me a comment down below or say hello over on Twitter – if you’ve done your own Books of the Year post I’d love to read it! In the meantime, I’d like to wish you all a very Happy New Year and here’s to a bookish 2018!

Happy Reading x