This mysterious novella is highly charged and seriously – but deliciously – chilling. I’m glad I didn’t read this alone on a dark winter night! Exploring ideas about how technology might interact with the human soul, and whether events and emotions might be transmitted down a bloodline, this book both elevates and shudders at the connections we humans can’t even begin to comprehend. I repeat: seriously chilling!
Set on Morecambe Bay, this novel evokes brilliantly the sense of mystery and compulsion that encapsulates the sands which stretch out across the vastness of the bay; you can gaze out across the bay, knowing that countless lives have been lost – in many cases those of local people caught out despite their knowledge of the tides and quicksand – and still feel an unexplained desire to stride out on to the sands where the light dazzles and disorientates. ‘Unmappable and treacherous’ writes Ashworth of the bay – or is it of the volatile stranger who appears in the lives of the Clifford family at their most desperate hour, to whom they are drawn despite the increasingly obvious dangers? Raising so many more questions than it answers, as a truly great novel should, Fell is thought-provoking, unsettling, haunting – but ultimately hopeful. A stunning novel.
Like Fell by Jenn Ashworth, this novel is set on the Lancashire coast, less than an hour from my home. There’s a brooding sense of menace from the outset and there’s little to redeem the unending bleakness and isolation of an area seemingly forgotten by the world. Says the protagonist, ‘I often thought there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it. Time didn’t leak away as it should. There was nowhere for it to go and no modernity to hurry it along.’ The horrors that unfold in the darkness and decay of the Loney have stayed with me in the days since I closed the book for the last time. Chilling.
Mickey Donnelly is about to go up to secondary school. He’s a bright boy living in Belfast during the Troubles. Paul McVeigh constructs a voice for Mickey that is really quite extraordinary. I laughed with him, I ached with him and I cheered for him. It felt as though I was standing right next to him. It’s been some time since I’ve felt such an emotional link with a protagonist. And just when I thought I’d figured out where the plot was going, it went somewhere so much better, with layers of subtle and complex humanity pouring out of the final chapters. A cracking read. Highly recommended.
This is what I've read so far this year. Another real mixture of material, but that just makes it more fun!
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Oh, this is just a wonderful book. Set in the depths of the harsh Russian countryside, it is poetic, evocative and compelling. If you like legends and fairy stories (not the sugary Disney-type ones) this may well be for you. Beware the evil in the woods...
Rule Britannia by Daphne du Maurier
I love Daphne du Maurier and have read almost every work of fiction she wrote. This one is uncannily topical in its subject matter, given that it was written decades before the word Brexit was coined. We’ve pulled out of Europe and so we need a new economic and political ally … the US. Ringing any bells yet? Du Maurier explores what happens when two countries so unbalanced in their respective powers seek to forge an alliance. It’s quite chilling reading.
Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson
This fabulous book is quirky and delightful beyond measure. I absolutely fell in love with it. It is both dark and light, filled with humour and sorrow. It’s lyrical and mystical. And yes, lighthousekeeping plays quite a big part in it. If you’ve ever wondered where a story really begins, this is the book for you!
Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal
One of my favourite books is Shakespeare’s Words, a marvellous and accessible compilation of the words Shakespeare used, with a staggering amount of fascinating information about usage and context. It was invaluable to me during my postgraduate Shakespearean studies. It helped bring the Bard to life in a way that very few ‘literary companions’ can. It was written by the celebrated linguist David Crystal and his son, Ben. Ben is, among other things, an actor and Shakespeare on Toast is a short guide to making Shakespeare jump off the page and engage an audience. There’s nothing dry and academic about this book. If you’d like to know more about the Bard – in practice, not theory – then give this book a go.
Six Years by Harlan Coben
Jake Fisher attends the funeral of the husband of Natalie, the love of his life. Six years previously he’d seen Natalie marry Todd and he resolved to leave her alone. There's just one problem: the wife at Todd’s funeral is not Natalie. So where is she? If you want a quick and easy read with a reasonably intriguing and fast-moving plot, you could do worse than this. But don’t take it on holiday thinking it’ll last you the week because it won’t!
The Many by Wyl Menmuir
A slip of a book, yet mighty in its ability to instil a creeping sense of unease, this book covers the side of small coastal communities that you won’t get from TripAdvisor. Published by the marvellous independent publisher, Salt.
The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson
‘This is Lancashire. This is Pendle. This is witch country.’
Gosh, right … what to say about this horrifying tale of the men and woman convicted of witchcraft in Lancashire in 1612? First, I should declare a particular interest here: I live almost in the shadow of the infamous Pendle Hill, and I went to school with a descendant of one of the women convicted. So perhaps the appalling events of this period feel all the more real to me. And they are appalling, of course, because these ‘witches’ were ordinary men and women with desperate, empty lives. Following the Gunpowder Plot, Lancashire, a last bastion of the Catholic faith, was targeted by the authorities, who were equally zealous in their pursuit of those practising the old faith and those practising witchcraft. James I saw both as treasonable and, at times, the two offences were almost indistinguishable. Jeanette Winterson’s tale is grounded in the facts of the trial and some of the events which led up to it, but it is also a reimagining, a tale of what might have been. It’s compelling reading and wonderfully crafted. But, readers, be warned: some parts are deeply unpleasant and quite upsetting.
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
If you’ve never read any Shirley Jackson – and you may not have; she’s nothing like as well known as she ought to be – this short story is a good place to start. In a small American town, the annual lottery is the big event. But it’s a lottery no one wants to win. Jackson creates a chilling atmosphere as the horror begins to unfold. The story was first published in a newspaper and readers wrote in to ask where they could go to watch the lottery. I’m still trying to fathom what this says about us humans! If you enjoy this, try The Haunting of Hill House for further chills and tingles down the spine.
Five Go Parenting by ‘Enid Blyton’
Part of the ‘Enid Blyton for Grown-Ups’ series and not, of course, written by Enid Blyton at all, but by Bruno Vincent. It’s a bit of fun, a light-hearted read, and doesn’t feel too much like a betrayal of my childhood memories of the wonderful Famous Five books. I would say that unless you were a big fan of the Five and unless you have experience of the trials of nappy-changing and pram-buying, the humour probably won’t appeal. But there are others in the series…
Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch
This book was a joy to read. With dry wit and plenty of quirk, I found myself completely absorbed in the activities of the Met’s secret unit, dealing with crimes of a supernatural nature. Oh, and you’ll never think of the Royal Opera House in the same way again. Ever.
The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by P.D. James
A Christmas gift, and my first read of 2017. I haven’t read any P.D. James before, but I loved it and will be exploring more of her work. This book consists of four short stories, all revolving around a murder and all extremely readable. It’s a small hardback with a pleasing cover and I can already think of several people who’ll be getting this for Christmas in 2017!
Tidings: a Christmas Journey by Ruth Padel
This stunningly beautiful poem was brought to my attention by the counter at Waterstones where the fabulously eye-catching cover did its job and I couldn’t resist. It was incredibly moving, almost painfully so at times. There were tears. This would make a really wonderful gift for someone next Christmas. And if you’re not normally a poetry person, please don’t be put off by that. Read it; you won’t be disappointed.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Warning: do not finish this book in a public place. I did. It wasn’t pretty. Once in a while a book comes along that really makes you feel, that stays with you, that makes you want to go back to page one as soon as you’ve finished it. This is one of those books. Before she died of cancer, novelist Siobhan Dowd left an idea. She hadn’t had time to write the novel. So Patrick Ness did. It just blew me away. Please read it before the film comes out in January 2017.
The Ship by Antonia Honeywell
Our planet has crashed and burned. We’ve finally killed off the bees, used too many antibiotics, ignored climate change for too long. The banks have collapsed, the economy with them. There’s no oil left, no gas. Half the planet lies under contaminated water, the other half has dried up. Military governments rule, controlling the distribution of property, food and resources. Vast tent-cities in Regent’s Park are bombed to reduce the population. All in all, it’s a bit of a nightmare. But not to worry for Lalla, because her dad has got hold of a cruise ship, stocked it to the rafters and chosen five hundred lovely people to board it. Off they sail into the sunset for a happy-ever-after. Or is it?
Notes From a Big Country by Bill Bryson
Observations on America, its people and their lifestyle. A great read for busy people who need something to chuckle over at the end of the day. The book contains Bryson’s columns written for the Mail on Sunday when he lived in the US. Each takes up only two or three pages and so it’s ideal for dipping into without losing the thread.
The Crooked Sixpence (The Uncommoners) by Jennifer Bell
‘If you like Harry Potter, you’ll like this.’ So said the bookseller. And there are indeed many similarities.
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
Gripping young adult book with a strong narrative voice and a wonderful idea at its core. Fabulous!
What’s So Special About Shakespeare? By Michael Rosen
Aimed at young readers, but also useful for parents who’d like to ignite an interest in our greatest storyteller.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
So much fuss. Would it be worth it? Yes! I whipped through this in just a couple of days. Interesting scenario and a marvellous example of the impact of the unreliable narrator (I’m not giving anything away there; it’s mentioned on the cover). I did start to suspect the twist that was coming, but it was still well worth the read.
Eliza Rose by Lucy Worsley
I love Lucy Worsley! She’s my favourite TV historian. I so hoped she’d pull off this foray into the world of young adult fiction, and she did! If you find the Tudor period interesting, this is the book for you. It’s a look at the rise and fall of Katherine Howard. A note of caution to parents, though: the narrator is very young and is being prepared for a life at court that includes sexual activity.
Nail Your Novel (Draft, Fix and Finish) by Roz Morris
Author, ghostwriter and teacher (The Guardian’s writing masterclasses) Roz Morris suggests a system that won’t stifle your creativity but will help you to finish your novel.
Viral by Helen FitzGerald
A very thought-provoking book exploring, in part, the issue of culpability when uploading, sharing and viewing online material.
Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
I read this because an editing job in this genre came up and it’s not my natural habitat. It’s fairly readable if you just want something to glide through without being challenged. And, of course, it’s always nice to see what all the fuss is about. I’m not sure I found the answer though…
Captivated by You by Sylvia Day
Sold to me as Fifty Shades better written. OK, I thought, I’ll read another book in this genre and I’ll be a better editor for it. I didn’t find it as engaging as Fifty Shades, but then, to be fair, I did come in at book three. You don’t have to have read the preceding two to make sense of this one, but I do feel I might have missed some of the mounting tension by skipping the first two.
Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
The play, not the novel. The play came first. I still find it captivating, even after numerous re-reads. It is also deeply unsettling. If your only experience of Peter is grounded in Disney, be warned: the original is decidedly not Disney material!
The History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes
Highly original. The first chapter is narrated by a stowaway on Noah’s Ark. You think you know that story? Think again, my friend. Other events covered include Chernobyl, the sinking of the Titanic and the Israel–Palestine conflict. A seriously good book (although not seriously long), and well worth the time.
Just in Case by Meg Rosoff
A witty and original look at a teenager’s angst-ridden view of the world and his place in it. I found the scenes between the protagonist and his brother, a toddler, very clever and very moving.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven is not light reading but, then, end-of-the-world (as we know it, at least) stuff isn’t going to be, is it? It’s thought-provoking, though, as post-apocalyptic literature should be. The end comes via a mutation of swine flu, to which 99% of the population succumbs. A group of travelling performers take Shakespeare productions to survivors. But the mysterious figure of 'the prophet' lurks menacingly in the background. A fabulous read.
Do these posts represent an eclectic list? A strange mixture of fiction and non-fiction, older books and current ones, literary fiction and genre fiction? Good; that’s exactly what it should look like.
Why? Because as an editor I try to read a wide range of books, including some to which I don’t feel naturally drawn (and it’s so interesting how many of those I enjoy!).
I read for pleasure, of course; I was a reader long before I became an editor. But I also choose my books with this in mind: I am a better editor for a wider range of clients if I have a wider reading spectrum.
So, I’d like to share my thoughts on what I’m reading, but in brief. Hence short & sweet book reviews. There are lots of good-quality, lengthier book reviews out there (The Guardian reviews are especially good), but it’s not always easy to find the time to plough through them all. I hope my lightly annotated reading list will give you some ideas for your own list!