‘Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children’ by Ransom Riggs or strange things happen when you step inside Mesolithic chambers…

‘Miss Peregrine’s’ has been on my radar for quite some time, but as anyone with an out of control to-read pile can testify, sometimes you just have to wait until the mood is right and the stars align. Said alignment seemed to come together for me as a result of two auspicious signs converging at once:

  1. Seeing the trailer for Burton and Goldman’s upcoming filming adaption (enough said).
  2. Another Quirk title, ‘My Best Friends Exorcism’ by Grady Hendrix, spectacularly grabbing my full attention with its promise of 80/90s nostalgia cum Heathers cum horror-fest (recently been reminiscing about Christopher Pike and other cool YA retro memories).

You can see why, with this heady mix why I HAD to start reading (and pre-ordering Hendrix). Thanks Quirk Books, seems like you have your finger well and truly on the pulse.

Page one in to Peregrines, and I knew I was onto something special. Not only did it start with a real assured sense of confidence about the story it had to tell but it also littered its prose with the curious kind of bombs that you know are going to pepper your communications, in the form of phrases and words that even you a certified dictionary reader haven’t yet encountered! Even if some of the subject matter, must necessarily take a dark turn, it does not mean you cannot have fun with the words you chose to convey meaning or inject humour into the proceedings. The piss/ priest hole mix up being a prime example or even ‘a purgatory of beige waiting rooms’. It also held the sense of the unsual that ‘The Book Thief’ conjured as soon as you started reading- and that magic doesn’t happen often.

While the clue was already there to see, in the operative word of the title, and is one of the novels many great strengths, it was the loving relationship displayed between Jacob and his Grandfather that really suckered me in. If you have had an adoring Grandparent, that has devoted the most precious thing to you (Time), then you will be equally warmed to the novels central plot driver: how this relationship evolved and reaffirms itself in the host of changes that are flung their way. The novel celebrates this bond and it’s informative influences as Jacob turns from boy to man: even in the face of learning the truth about what his world looks like and the horrors it contains. There was something that deeply touched my soul, as the novel progressed and it became clear to Jacob that his Grandad was still always the man he thought he was and that he shared more than a familial bond, with Portman Snr.

While Portman and Portman carry most of the emotional load of this magical story, we must not ignore some of the many ways that it uses imagery to convey its meaning. Clearly, this is a visually driven and inspired book. It is fascinating to read as  it allows us to more closely examine the usually hidden relationship between author and inspiration, through its inclusion of a series of black and white images that support many of the more intriguing elements of the story. You can see exactly how Miss Peregrine became a shape-shifting bird of prey- when you look at the image of a rifle with said birds shadow hanging over it. It really is fascinating to explore how Rigg’s imagination took such isolated, quirky images, drew them together and created a cohesive narrative full of vibrancy and interest. He really does have some skill because he could easily have over complicated things- but as with his narrative, keeping ideas simple and in a solid framework, he truly does succeed in telling a novel story. This then allows inspiration to flow from objects and experiences- such as Cairns and bog men, why people wear sunglasses. I could go on. How would you use such seemingly mundane starting points to weave a story, that captures a similar level of interest?

So if you like allegorical, coming of age stories that use magic and mystery to teach you universal truths: go to Narnia or Hogwarts. If you like yours to do something truly unusual, in a creative and quirky way: grab ‘Miss Peregrine’ with both hands and do not let go. Let it intrigue you, amuse you, scare you and warm you. Relish in all of its peculiar elements and embrace your own and love your Grandad that little but more, if he was a loving and supportive influence, he is always with you.

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special skills need not always be obvious

‘A Mad and Wonderful Thing’ by Mark Mulholland or is all fair in love and war?

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I came to this novel full of curiosity and a sense of longing, having read the blurb and seeing that it featured a young and bookish Irish man, full of passion yet hiding a dark other side in which he masquerades as an IRA sniper. While such contrasts of course are of great interest to me as a reader (I am fascinated by what motivates people and how they end up where they do) it was actually the tentative glimpse towards  my long dead grandfather, that certain aspects of this novel seemed to cover that really intrigued me. While I am not suggesting he was an IRA sniper, I do know that he was a very quiet, bookish man who passed away when my mother was a young girl- thus remaining mysterious and enigmatic as we try to piece together our understanding of a man that died over 50 years ago. Clearly he was An Irish emigre, and clearly he came from an era in which the troubles Ireland have faced must have influenced his decision to move to the UK? What did he experience? What were his opinions? While I know that a book cannot possibly speak for a person, I do know that they can offer snap shots and pointers: something I was interested to explore in this novel. This, then was the particular baggage that I brought to the reading of this text.

And what a text! It is complex and rich. It explores uncomfortable questions and leaves you to examine all of the viewpoints it puts forth; to reach your own conclusions about the decisions that Johnny Connolly makes and the representation they put forth regarding Irish troubles (and really the troubles that occupation and war bring in any nation). This novel is full of scars, that are ripped wide open so that you may explore their painful and horrifying realities: no matter how uncomfortable. Although the subject matter differs wildly, to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, it shares it’s clever approach to its dark subject matter in that it places judgement firmly within the readers hands. That and that it is a love story (Johnny and Cora, and towards Ireland). This is a brave and clever choice, something that allows us to move beyond black and white into the complexities of grey. If we are to understand and learn from Johnny’s experiences (or indeed from any young, angry person that wishes to avenge oppression, brutality or occupation) then we must pay close attention. Though the reasoning may differ, the motivations must have a universality to them.

Interestingly, Mulholland does have the foresight to locate Johnny’s personal struggles against historic ones- namely Nazi Germany. How could such horrors happen?  Ask the teachers, doctors, solicitors etc. Indeed, it is his old teacher that I remain most horrified with- responsible for recruiting and corrupting a vulnerable and impressionable 12 year old boy. Makes you really think about similar corruptions going on in other struggles and how the weak manipulate those who have not yet matured and lack true insight into carrying out their bidding, without true understanding of consequences.

There are many bleak moments in this novel, they come early and come fast- unlike ‘One Day’ by Nicholls our trauma at tragedy is just the beginning. Instead we get to truly see what happens next and how much further Johnny can spiral. It is an emotional, gut wrenching read. The love he feels for Cora and for his Ireland are palpable. You can feel them too, in all their glory. I feel that this novel helped me understand the beauty of this country, so linked to me yet not fully understood. I also got to understand the complexities of Johnny’s choices- alarmingly, I found that I really liked him and could perhaps negate some of the horrific violence he propagates. Johnny is kind to his family, so he can’t be a bad person. Yet he does bad things. Perhaps this was the writers point. This is how easily people turn a blind eye. It certainly made me sit up and think more deeply and realise that people are as complex as their reasoning is illogical, at times.

To me, though, the biggest gift of this novel was in both the beauty of its crafting and it’s ability to weave metaphors throughout the heart of this story (and heart is what it all boils down to). It is worth reading just for the mountain metaphor alone, in the great wisdom it imparts. We all begin at the bottom, and we must climb its arduous path overcoming obstacle, despite not knowing what we may reach. We must find ropes (or guiding lights) in the form of inspiring/ encouraging people or ideas. We must always do everything with heart. In this way we can see Johnny’s struggles as representing Ireland’s struggles and you hope that it has reached the top of the mountain (and that others struggling may do so too).

So while I sought some understanding of my grandfather, instead I gained some understanding of how and why people struggle with dark decisions. How they can justify violence, in the name of some warring cause. While it may not be my path, it is a path that keeps being trodden. It is a complex one that involves interplay between different sides. It is not black (like the portentous fox that foreshadows the first trouble) or white, but complex grey. So thank you, Mark Mulholland, for tackling such an important subject and giving me pause. I hope that others are given pause, too and instead consider how such a situation/ action is born before reducing it into unhelpful judgements. If they only realised, novels can hold the key to unlocking deeper understanding of such matters.

‘The Watchers’ or tin foil is no use in New Haven

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Genuinely eerie, tapping into childhood memories and fears to deliver chills

Well that was a whirlwind of a page turner! I have to say that it blew me away. Perhaps I wasn’t as excited as I should have been, with it’s enticing premise, due to my prior excitement being dashed on reading ‘The Ghost Hunters’ (whose premise ticked every box on paper, but just didn’t work for me). But what a read! From reading the first chapter, I could not put it down. I devoured it in under 24 hours, which is testament to its narrative power. Neil Spring is clearly one to watch, and reminds me that it always pays to give writers you think you should like another shot (David Mitchell’s ‘Cloud Atlas’ to ‘The Bone Clocks’ being a case in point- couldn’t get into ‘Cloud Atlas’ but ‘The Bone Clocks’ is up there with the greats).

I have to say that the thought of reading a spooky story about Aliens/Ufos really isn’t my bag. However, the enticing cover, with its monochrome lighthouse drew me in (proving that covers can help you judge a book). On realising that the novel drew on the very sightings in 70s Wales that had terrified me, as an impressionable infant, sneaking reads of my Gramphs’ Unexplained magazines, I was sold. Alongside the Enfield poltergeist and Gef the talking mongoose (fertile subject matter Neil could ably explore) events in the Havens totally shit me up, sleeping with the covers pulled over my eyes style. These days I am able to style my fear out much better, most likely due to desensitising myself to all things supernaturally scary by reading/watching/exploring anything with a spooky theme! Rarely do things scare me. While Neil succeeded with giving me chills, perhaps this novel worked so well because it didn’t attempt to neatly define itself as one genre. The suspense that pulsed through it carried the story, and while lingering on some of the alien interplay would have suited my own tastes, not focusing deeply on them did not detract from the story in any way.

That said, the menace of Stack Rocks really seeped through, as did Taid Llewelyn’s Religious fervour and the hostility of a remote and insular community. You could really feel the wind chimes rattling, warning of an unknown threat descending. Despite some outlandish concepts, such as animal mutilation and secret societies deep in Whitehall your belief is totally suspended and they are woven together so effortlessly that you don’t question the explanation offered by way of the developing plot. Roberts own doubts and psychological clouding, due to blocked childhood trauma, are a great device for delivering the story. His confusion and probing mirrors ours as the audience and allows us to assess the evidence as it is revealed in increments, allowing us to remain vested in a plot that could seem ridiculous if delivered in a more straightforward manner. This to me, highlights the crux of how Spring has developed as a writer- showing confidence and mastery when he delivers his story and delivering more than a great premise. While ‘The Ghost Hunters’ will clearly make great TV, this has the potential to be even better! I can’t wait to see what Mr Spring will deliver next…..

‘The Daylight Gate’ by Jeanette Winterson or don’t look North

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Macabre and chilling take on Witches and their historic persecution.

‘The Daylight Gate’ by Jeanette Winterson was a chance find, in my local bookshop, when scouring for any potential spooky reads as Halloween approached. I have to say that I have probably exhausted the larger part of this canon, so I was intrigued when I spotted this one alongside Neil Spring’s excellent ‘The Watchers’. Two new reads in one foray! One with a spooky alien interplay, and the other veering towards Covens and Sabbats. Happy days.

So far, so different. Yet in some weird twist of fate, both books also share an uncanny ability to weave extant events of their times together, with unexpected links and connections drawn- making their stories their own re-workings (despite their vastly differing subject matter). Indeed, Winterson, has succeeded in bringing a little, gruesome piece of Hammer to the page that wears its power lightly. It is a short read, but this does not compromise on the horror. You get the feeling that she has expertly made every word count, in the delivery of this tragic tale. Short sentences abound, adding to the unease! Word choices are precise, cutting the atmosphere with a knife. A feeling of darkness descends as you immerse yourself into Jacobean Lancashire, and the Puritan terrors it enfolds.

Yet this sense of horror does not rely on our stereotypical expectations, in terms of characterisation. Witches naturally provide fertile ground for the exploitation of our primal fears. The atmosphere that is conjured, in the opening pages, lends itself closely to the dark and menacing premise that the three witches of Macbeth themselves embody. A dank, brooding air descends upon our senses reflecting the hopelessness that this novella expresses in its continuation. This subdued and oppressive atmosphere lends a melancholy sentiment to the enfolding misfortune that the unfortunates of this story endure. The real horror, unfortunately, lies in our realisation that certain strata of society, such as Catholics or independent women were annihilated in order to appease those with any grievance- real or imagined that may be afforded a sense of power from their accusations. Some of the actions exhibited by the power hungry males we encounter, make for uncomfortable reading and express a barbarity that we are less likely to understand in our modern lives, but that do still threaten us.

Ultimately, this tale succeeds in helping us pull our freedoms a little closer to us, appreciating them a little more than we did before, while being mindful that horrors could descend on any of us at anytime- reminding us that the darker aspect of humanity has never been entirely been eliminated. As they say, it’s not the dead you should fear….

‘The Supernatural Enhancements’by Edgar Cantero or strange things happen

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Such an unusual, quirky joy of a book. Merging of unusual elements that really works.

I inherited a strange book.
This is not a chance encounter.
Perhaps I will need a guardian? Someone to watch me while I read it…..
Tuesday 30th December

Been to the local GP about my bloodshot eyes.
She suggests that I shouldn’t read so late or watch quite so many X-Files boxsets. They are now playing on my nerves…

Weds 31st December

I have arranged to meet with other readers/enthusiasts of the ‘Order of the Supernatural Enhancements’.

Perhaps they can decode its meaning? It’s a bloody mystery to me!

Thurs 1st January

Woken up in a hospital bed. It got messy last night.
My thoughts are a labyrinth.
All my best crystal got smashed. Might explain the blood loss…

I think I definitely need someone to watch over me! Who knew a book could cause this much carnage.

EDGAR CANTERO: making a comic-strip read like a novel, with verve!

I’m neving as I think about it.

‘Benighted’ by J.B. Priestley or stick to well-lighted places

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Valancourt Books: republishing lost gems. Seek em out!

Imagine my delight, when perusing the net, in discovering a specialist publisher- a la Valancourt Books- that seeks out and republishes long-forgotten titles from the ghostly and macabre canon. Clearly a major spending splurge will commence. I have already added ‘The Elementals’ by McDowell to the pile and am seriously coveting ‘The Moorstone Sickness’ by Taylor and ‘The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral’ by Westall, after only a mere customary glance.

Having loved Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’, it was a given that I would select ‘Benighted’ first, if only out of curiosity. Exploring how his writing would transfer from a play script to the novel format, holds a certain fascination for me. That said, it’s premise was equally as intriguing: that of an old haunted house in which a band of strangers must take unwitting shelter, from uncontrollable forces. While such a plot is now in danger of being perceived as mere trope, by today’s standards, I knew that Priestley would bring enough skill to his writing to move beyond this premise (we must also acknowledge that this novel was written long before our tired expectations). If I was to be wrong, and find this novel tiresome it would still appeal to the more Hammer-horror esque aspect of my imagination.

While Brad and Janet would of course be proud of the setting and exposition offered up in this novel, it cannot be denied that Priestley expertly conjures an oppressive and brooding backdrop to his tale. Surprisingly, his theatrical bent lends itself very well to the story itself. Instead of overloading itself on the expression of fear through language (which in other novels can become tedious, in that the narrative description becomes exaggerated and renders itself detrimental to the tone intended). To say his language is simple, would be unfair, as he obviously wears his vocabulary lightly. However, he is confident enough to allow the story to speak for itself and rely on the careful foreshadowing of what will come in the littering of a few carefully placed words amongst the ordinary flow of the narrative, to build tension. Indeed words such as ‘devilish’, ‘hunted beast’, ‘unfamiliar’, ‘savage, ‘trembling’ and ‘threatening’, while being used to explain their situation and the torrential weather they are at the mercy of also expertly ratchet up the ominous unease that creeps up on you as you read.

Perhaps the setting and exposure to natures power, touch on our primal fears (much like painted clown faces and ghost trains do for me- tied to the hidden and unknown aspects of experience, that which you cannot see and control). Indeed, this novel circles carefully around metaphors of light and dark and how they juxtapose each other in our experience. The titular choice, ‘Benighted’, sums up nicely both Priestley’s command and control of language and also reflects the main themes of the novel- both moral and physical. Benighted can mean:

A) overtaken by night or darkness

or

B) lacking enlightenment or knowledge
which we understand clearly, once we have completed the novel and daylight has returned. Things always seem better in the light. While I was genuinely scared, while reading this novel, waiting to see what horror the writing would reveal and what fate would befall the protagonists, it was in the cold light of day and the dawning that we must all face our fears in the light, to examine them with clear sight that stayed with me the most. This is where the novel succeeds most and this is where Valancourt have done credit to the genre, by reminding us that great writing can be found amongst genre fodder. Thanks very much for the chills and the elucidation.

‘The Trouble with Goats and Sheep’ by Joanna Cannon

Who knew that the long, sticky summer of ’76 or suburbia could hold so much magic. Emerging writer, Joanna Cannon has used this inspiration to spawn a really intriguing story. Never before has prose made me feel like I am sticking to the very pages I am reading (the complete antithesis of the watery immersion Sarah Winman’s delightful ‘A Year of Marvellous Ways’ evoked). Nor melt so much at the wonder of its central protagonists, Tilly and Grace (10 year old wannabe Nancy Drews). In fact, I defy any reader not to melt, too. This book has become a firm favourite, in the esteemed company of Mockingbird itself, Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime and the Book  Thief in terms of its ability to move and inspire.

So what is the trouble with goats (and sheep) you may ask? I have to admit that it was the quirky title that first caught my eye. I have long held an affinity towards goats, amusing and petulant creatures that they are. My Granddad used to have on brought round to mow his lawn in central Liverpool (quirky is a good, solid family trait) and my Grandmother used to keep them on her land in Wales. Funny how our experiences shape our preferences and book choices in unexpected ways, isn’t it!

I digress… So the title was catchy and segments effortlessly into the central message of the story (which I won’t spoil for you) with much the same skill demonstrated in Mockingbird. Indeed, it shares many features with its forbearer:

Young, innocent, idealistic protagonists: check

Injustice and prejudice: check

Enabling of the reader to explore their own, perhaps, unseen prejudices through the prism of innocent eyes, as reflected in its straightforward prose: check

A book with the power to make an enormous difference, without preaching: check

I’m sure you are getting the message. This is a powerful and important book. Everyone should read it. Once you have read it, tell everyone you know. Spread the word fast and loud!

Yet none of this would work without the mastery and experience that Joanna cannon imparts at every turn. She has cleverly drawn her ideas together into a tightly controlled plot. She has confidence in this plot and in her narrative skill, which she allows to convey her ideas (which shine through)without resorting to overstating them. Instead we can enjoy the nostalgic trip back to 1976 her writing invokes, we can yearn for its apparent simplicity, yet also be comforted by the fact life even then was not as simple as it may have appeared. We have the gift of Tilly and Grace, two curious, but naive 10 year old girls as they try to unravel the disappearance of their neighbour Mrs Creasy. Along the way we get to consider peoples’ differences and how we judge one another, without evidence or consideration of the effect this may cause- all while allowing us to understand we are all flawed. There is no black and white- only grey. It’s that simple. Wow.

So thank you, Joanna Cannon- for tackling such important issues in such an inspired way. May this novel inspire all that read it…

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Know this cover! It will become a faithful friend.