Showing posts with label Tom Fletcher. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tom Fletcher. Show all posts

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

My Year in Books 2018: March

I've managed to stick to my New Year's Resolution for three months! Go me! I'm still making time to read books for pleasure, and I've managed to keep writing short-form reviews as well. Admittedly, I'm a bit late posting my reviews for March, but I reckon I'm doing alright, given how busy April was for me.

In case you're curious, you can click on these links for my reviews from January and February. But here are the books I read in March...

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (2004)

I’ve been a fan of Kate Atkinson’s writing since I first read Behind the Scenes at the Museum as an undergraduate (and that book remains one of my favourite novels of all time). I’m also – as you might have guessed from other posts on this blog – a big fan of detective fiction. However, until now, I hadn’t read any of Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels. And I’m not sure why. They’ve been recommended to me by a number of people, so I thought it was about time I took the plunge. Hmmm… not sure I’m glad I did, to be honest. I started with Case Histories, which seemed to have a great premise: three seemingly unconnected cold cases all fall into the lap of Jackson Brodie, private investigator, who becomes (professionally) involved with the eccentric sisters of one of the victims, and the tragic father of one of the others. The book has been described as a ‘tragi-comedy’ and ‘complex’, qualities I love in Atkinson’s other novels. However, Case Histories just didn’t do it for me. It is undoubtedly a novel about a detective, but it isn’t a detective novel. There’s no sense of a mystery to be solved, or clues to be uncovered, but rather the unravelling of a series of tragic stories. While this type of unravelling works well in Atkinson’s other fiction, the presence of a rather cliched P.I. here makes it all seem rather forced. I’ve got to admit, I was really quite disappointed with this one.

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson (2006)

I know I didn’t really enjoy Case Histories, but I was still determined to give Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books a good try. So next up, I read One Good Turn. In this book, Brodie has retired from detective work and is living in France. On a visit to the Edinburgh Fringe, he becomes wrapped up in a ‘Russian doll’ series of events: a brutal road rage incident leads to another incident, which leads to another, and another, and so on. In many ways, the story unfolds in a more typically Atkinson way than in Case Histories, and the focus on how (sometimes minor) occurrences can have a ripple effect on the lives of people only tangentially involved is characteristic of Atkinson’s style (which works so well in Behind the Scenes and A God in Ruins, for instance). But the book’s over-arching mystery just didn’t work for me. It lacked any sense of realism or suspense, and the characters were unconvincing. Jackson Brodie himself felt like an afterthought. Although he’s caught up in the mystery at various points, he doesn’t really play a role in investigating or solving it. In fact, I’m not sure how much of it is really ‘solved’ at the end – things have happened, and some people are aware of the truth, but there’s no real denouement. Overall, I felt that this (and Case Histories) were too Atkinson-y to be good detective fiction, but too detective fiction-y to be good Atkinson novels. Jackson Brodie is not for me.

The Ravenglass Eye by Tom Fletcher (2012)

Oh dear, it seems this month’s theme is ‘disappointing books by authors I love’. Tom Fletcher’s debut novel The Leaping is one of my favourite horror novels of all time. I also really enjoyed his second novel The Thing on the Shore, particularly the way it evokes a version of Cumbria far removed from the more usual romanticized Lake District. (I’m Cumbrian by birth, by the way, and I’m from the other, non-Lake District bit of Cumbria.) Ravenglass is one of my favourite places in the UK, so I was over-the-moon when I heard that Fletcher’s third horror novel was set in the little Northern Lakes village. Sigh. I’m gutted to say it, but I really didn’t enjoy The Ravenglass Eye. The book tells the story of Edie, a barmaid at The Tup (like most of the locations, this is a thinly fictionalized version of a real pub in Ravenglass) who develops ‘the Eye’, a power which allows her to see strange events and another world. When a horrifically mutilated corpse is found, Edie realizes that she is part of something much bigger – and far-reaching – than she knew. While this is a fairly solid premise for a horror novel, the book lacks the lyricism and philosophical quality that I enjoyed in Fletcher’s previous two horror novels. We lurch from one grotesque set piece to the next, without any time to dwell on the magnitude of what we’re seeing. Sadly, the book feels rather hurried, and the ending is a let-down.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (2006)

I’ve been meaning to read this one for a while, as it’s cropped up a couple of times when I’ve been looking for themes for episodes of my radio show. Setterfield’s novel features Margaret Lea, a bookseller and amateur biographer, who is contacted by reclusive (but super-famous) novelist Vida Winter. Vida is dying and wants to finally tell the story of her life – putting to bed the various fabrications she’s created over the years – and she’s chosen Margaret as her biographer. Vida insists on letting the story unfold chronologically, though Margaret can’t resist fact-checking and leaping ahead at times, which creates an enjoyable story-within-a-story format. The Thirteenth Tale is definitely a page-turner, and there’s a lot that I really liked about it. I did guess a couple of the twists (including the final ‘reveal’), but that didn’t prevent me enjoying the way the story unfolded. My only problem with the book was that I couldn’t stand the protagonist! I found Margaret to be one of the most irritating characters I’ve read for a long while. Hardly a page goes by without her mentioning either (a) that she loves books (other people might love books, but she like really loves them) and (b) she drinks cocoa rather than tea or coffee. Fortunately, the book keeps taking us back to Vida’s story which, though a little OTT, is a lot more engaging than Margaret’s narration. Overall, I enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale, though. It’s a great Gothic mystery with some decent ghostly twists.

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver (2010)

My mother-in-law lent me Dark Matter ages ago, after I mentioned I’d become a bit fascinated by Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. I kept meaning to read it, but never seem to get chance. I thought this New Year’s resolution was a good spur to finally get around to it. The book is set in 1937; a young man named Jack Miller signs up to be a wireless operator with an expedition to Spitsbergen (part of the Svalbard archipelago). A party of five men and eight huskies leave Norway, with the intention of making camp in Gruhuken and making a scientific study of the area. But, as they leave Longyearbyen (the main settlement in Svalbard), things start to go wrong. And as it’s the final days of the Arctic summer, there’s a long winter stretching ahead of them. Paver’s novel is subtitled ‘A Ghost Story’, and this is an accurate description (more accurate than it being tagged ‘horror’). This is definitely a story about a haunting. However, what I really enjoyed was the way the landscape is evoked. It would be trite to say that Gruhuken is a ‘character’ in the book, but Paver is careful to keep the desolate bay centre-stage throughout the book. Dark Matter is a short book, but wonderfully absorbing. It’s a story about how people and place are inextricably intertwined, and (strange to say) it’s revitalised my desire to visit Svalbard one day. I’m glad I finally got chance to read it!

The Liar by Nora Roberts (2015)

Okay, this is a strange one. It’s another book my mother-in-law lent me, but I’m still at a loss to know why. Or why she read it in the first place. My mother-in-law and I share a love of horror and crime fiction. She lent me Dark Matter, and we went to a Peter May book launch together. Where did this Nora Roberts book come from? (She can’t remember, by the way. I think she might have been convinced by the Stephen King endorsement on the cover!) I’m not a romance fan, but I thought I’d give this one a go for the sake of variety. The blurb promised something almost like a thriller: when Shelby Pomeroy’s husband dies unexpectedly, she discovers a web of deception and debt that makes her question whether she really knew the man she was married to. Sadly, that’s not really what the book is about. Instead, it’s the story of a very dull young woman who returns to her hometown after her husband supposedly dies. Despite her having done nothing in life except marrying an obnoxious man, everyone is inexplicably in awe of Shelby Pomeroy. The book is littered with people praising her skills at selling her husband’s designer suits to pay off his debts, and she’s the greatest singer ever. The plot mostly revolves around her copping off with a local carpenter, and the reappearance of the dastardly not-dead husband is simply an underdeveloped subplot. Suffice to say, I was bored to tears.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Review: Tom Fletcher, The Leaping (Quercus, 2010)

Published by Quercus in 2010, Tom Fletcher's The Leaping tells the story of Jack and Francis, two university graduates who work in a call centre in Manchester. Fletcher's debut novel has already attracted a great deal of praise - and was nominated for The Guardian's Not the Booker Prize.

It's quite difficult to write a synopsis of the plot of The Leaping without giving too much away. So suffice to say, Jack meets a woman named Jennifer at work, and the two quickly form a relationship. Eager to escape the city, Jennifer buys a dilapidated house in the Lake District, and she and Jack move there. Horror (and genuinely frightening horror at that) ensues. Paralleling this is the story of Francis, who is obsessed by the danger and disease (particularly cancer) that he perceives as existing all around him. Francis is forced to address some of these issues when his dad is diagnosed with throat cancer. Francis's revulsion and fascination with the diseased and disintegrating human body is a driving force of his narrative, and contributes significantly to the awfulness of what happens.

I was first made aware of Fletcher's novel when I was contacted by writer and lecturer Nicholas Royle. Having heard about the She-Wolf conference, Royle wanted to recommend The Leaping, and I was duly sent a review copy. The tagline on the front of the paperback edition reads: "An ancient evil is waiting...", and the blurb on the back promises: "When the sky is blood-red, when the rivers freeze and snow lies upon the fells, it's time for the wolves to cross - time for the Leaping." Given this introduction, I was expecting a 'werewolf novel' - indeed, that was the reason it had been recommended to me in the first place - but I soon realized that this is far from an adequate assessment of Fletcher's novel.

Although the "ancient evil" is waiting for the protagonists in Cumbria, the first part of The Leaping is set in Manchester. Fletcher's portrayal of the city combines the familiar (for example, the characters drink in 'actual' Manchester bars) and the uncanny (such as the unsettling presentation of Jack's bosses in the call centre), creating a 'Manchester' that is just as terrifying as the Cumbrian setting of the second half of the novel. Indeed, Fletcher skillfully weaves 'urban horror' with 'horror at the urban' to make an unnerving cityscape. Consider this passage from early in the novel, which exemplifies the book's approach to modern life: "The Christmas lights were up but not yet turned on. Electricity meant we could work all kinds of shifts and stay out all night with our vision unimpaired, and it turned us into unnatural creatures, awake and ravenous all the time." Or this apt description of work in a faceless call centre: "The slimish scorn of the nation, dripping through earpieces and trickling into our open ears like warm, lumpy milk." It is from this horror that Jack and Jennifer attempt to escape by moving to the Lakes - only to run into something potentially worse. However, Fletcher's presentation of the two different settings leaves the reader to question whether the "ancient evil" of Fell House is really much worse that the "darkness of our own invention, all muggings, murders, rapes".

This 'urban horror' is compounded by Fletcher's careful characterization. Jack and Francis - the novel's two narrators - live in a student-house-like residence with other recent graduates, Graham, Taylor and Erin. The five met at university, completed their studies, and have since drifted into shift work at a call centre, regular drinking and a gradual loss of motivation and ambition. Fletcher's descriptions of student-esque life are evocative and identifiable, as well as grounded definitively in the early 21st century: "So if you drew a Venn diagram of all the things that we - the five of us - like, the area in which all our circles overlap would contain one thing: Mario Kart." Later on, as the five attempt to come up with a name (for something I shall not reveal), they run through a medley of pop culture, history and politics that reads like a who's who for today's twenty-somethings - beginning with Tim Burton, ending with Hitler, and including Gandhi, Kilroy, Homer, Brad, Spacey, Bush and Spongebob.

Though Fletcher's graduate cast are instantly recognizable - particularly for those who have lived through that transition from 'student' to 'real world' - they are not stereotypes or cliches. Each character is carefully and individually drawn. By doing this, Fletcher manages to pull of the difficult task of using multiple first person narrators. Alternate chapters are told from Jack's and Francis's perspective. I have read a number of books recently that employ this technique, and, in my opinion, Fletcher has mastered it. Unlike with some multiple-narrator novels, I did not find myself having to flick back to the beginning of the chapters to remind myself who was speaking. Jack and Francis have distinct voices, and I came to feel that I 'knew' each narrator well enough to tell the difference between their stories. And of course, the identification and empathy the reader feels for the central characters adds further layers to the horrific events that occur later in the novel.

One exception to this - and one of the few criticisms I have of the book - is the characterization of Jennifer, Jack's girlfriend. Jack is instantly besotted with the woman he describes throughout as "Morgana le Fay"; Francis also becomes fixated on her. As Jack and Francis utterly idealize and near-venerate Jennifer - and it should be remembered that Morgana has long been associated with goddesses and 'the Goddess' - it is hard to move beyond the young men's awe and see the woman behind it. The novel's other female character, Erin, is somewhat more fleshed out, and this is partly achieved by the novel's beginning with a prologue spoken in her voice. I would, nevertheless, like to have seen and known more of Jennifer.

I am aware that I have almost come to the end of this review without mentioning werewolves at all. And this is no accident. In many respects, it is a shame that Fletcher's book has been consistently categorized, marketed and reviewed as a 'werewolf book'. There is so much more to the novel than lycanthropy; as I have suggested, the book is as much an unsettling tale of modern life for today's burgeoning graduate class as it is a werewolf gorefest. The scope of the horror in The Leaping is carried through the precision and skill with which Fletcher uses language. The hallucinatory quality to his writing makes even the most mundane incident seem dangerous and sinister, while also making the more fantastic elements utterly believable.

Fletcher's werewolves are original, frightening and thought-provoking - and, indeed, I shall be exploring them more in future articles - and, for that reason, I recommend the novel to anyone interested in the werewolf mythos or lycanthropy. However, I would also recommend this book to people who are not particularly interested in werewolves, or who may be turned off by the idea of a novel about lycanthropy. It is an accomplished and stylish contemporary horror novel, and well worth a read.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Update: She-Wolf Fringe Events

Here's an update on our She-Wolf fringe events... novelist Tom Fletcher is going to be joining us for the discussion panel on Wednesday 8th September. Tom's first novel, The Leaping, was published by Quercus. We're really happy that he's taking part - it should be a great night.

For more information on the She-Wolf fringe events, contact Hannah Kate.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Oxfam Manchester Sci Fi/Horror/Fantasy Event

The lovely people at Oxfam Manchester have sent me details of an event they are running that might be of interest to some. Funnily enough, it's being held at the shop that I used to manage before I left the world of charity retail for academia. Sometimes, it's a very small world.

Manchester Oxfam is holding a FREE science fiction/fantasy/horror event at the
Oxfam Emporium, 8-10 Oldham Street, on Thursday, July 8, from 6-8pm. We have debut Manchester horror novelist Tom Fletcher, Dr. Who writers Paul Magrs and Steve Lyons and and feminist sci-fi writer Gwyneth Jones all reading, there will be a sci-fi quiz, music, drinks and refreshments, and an informal Q&A. Cos play is encouraged with a prize for the best costume. For more information email Emma Cooney or call 0161 273 2019.