Tuesday, 31 August 2021

My Year in Books 2021: August

Time for my monthly round-up of the books I've read for fun recently. Once again, it's not a long post - most of the things I read in August were for review (though many of them were fun as well, of course). So there are just three mini-reviews in this post.

In case you're interested, here are my posts from the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June, July

Beast by Matt Wesolowski (2019)

I’ve been saving this as a treat. I first stumbled on Wesolowski’s Six Stories series when I got Book 5 (Deity) from Abominable Books. I loved it so much, I immediately bought Books 1-4. After I’d read Six Stories, Hydra and Changeling, I suddenly panicked as Wesolowski apparently hadn’t even started writing Book 6. I didn’t want to leave myself with a massive wait (I really do love the series that much!), so I decided to keep Beast for as long as I could. This month we went on holiday for the first time since December 2019, and it seemed like the perfect time for a book I was looking forward to. You’ll be glad to know that it didn’t disappoint. The Six Stories books all follow the same format: podcaster Scott King explores a mystery (not usually a cold case, but rather a case where the solution has left lingering questions) through six episodes of his show. Each episode (each chapter) offers a different perspective, with the answer only becoming apparent at the end. Beast is about the death of a YouTube influencer, Lizzie Barton, during a cold snap in a small north-east town. Three men were tried and convicted for the crime, but their motive has never been explained. Was it jealousy? Or was it something to do with the town’s legend about a vampire who was killed in the same tower where Lizzie’s body was found? Absolutely loved this one (and I can’t wait for Book 6)!

Death in White Pyjamas by John Bude (1944)

Another one I’ve been saving... I like reading British Library Crime Classics when I’m on holiday, so I’ve saved this one since my mother-in-law bought it for me. It’s a double-bill of John Bude novels, but I read Death in White Pyjamas first. In many ways, it’s pretty classic Golden Age detective fiction. A group of people gather in a country house, and someone gets bumped off (and, of course, all the other guests have a motive for seeing the victim off). What gives this one its charm is that a lot of time is spent describing the world in which the suspects and victim live, with the murder only coming a good way into the story. The assembled guests are all members of a London theatre company, who are staying at the country home of their millionaire investor. There’s intrigue, blackmail, theft and threats, but there’s also a lot of backstage chatter and theatrical gossip. I’ve read some of John Bude’s other novels, most of which have a strong sense of place that I really enjoy. Rather than focusing on a specific location, this one is more evocative of its theatre backdrop, which turns out to be equally enjoyable. It’s perhaps a bit more light and airy than other Golden Age novels (though the murder method turns out to be surprisingly unsettling), and Martin Edwards’s introduction explains that this was a deliberate choice by Bude. I found it nicely immersive, and there were some rather neat clues as well.

The Children's Secret by Nina Monroe (2021)

And now… another free eBook from Secret Readers, despite my insistence last month that I was going to stop reading free eBooks. Perhaps that was a bit hasty, as The Children’s Secret wasn’t too bad. There were some bits of it I really enjoyed, and Monroe’s writing is very good. The story is set in Middlebrook, a small town in New Hampshire near the Canadian border. It begins with Kaitlin preparing a party to bring local families together before the start of the new school year. Her son Bryar has been having difficulty socializing, and Kaitlin believes a party with the neighbours will help him. It all goes horribly wrong when the children sneak off to the stables. Someone gets hold of a gun belonging to Kaitlin’s husband Ben, and one of the children ends up seriously injured. What happened in the stables? Well, that’s the children’s secret. They aren’t telling, and growing suspicions set the adults against one another. What I liked about this book was the ease with which Monroe introduces a large cast of characters, but without it being bewildering. I also liked the way the relationships between the children emerge and evolve as the story goes on. What didn’t I like? The ending is remarkably heavy-handed and a bit too idealistic for me. Some of the points (specifically about gun control), which had been handled with nuance and sensitivity, are glossed over in the end. So, great characters, bad ending. I’d still probably recommend it though.

Monday, 30 August 2021

Stories to be Read with the Lights On 3: Shadows on the Road by Robert Colby

Onto the third story in my Stories to be Read with the Lights On reread then... I didn't get as much of a wave of nostalgia with this one as with the previous one, but I definitely remember reading it when I was younger. I also had to stop and check 'Strangers on the Road' wasn't originally a Twilight Zone episode (or inspired by a Twilight Zone episode), because the opening set-up feels a bit Twilight Zone-y. But on reflection, I don't think I've ever seen an adaptation of the story. If I'm missing something here, let me know!

Colby's story begins with two bad lads heading out across the desert towards Mexico, carrying the loot they've got from a recent robbery. There's something about the way the desert is described. Makes you think that they might not make it to the border as planned... Just in time, they see a sign for a motel that looks too good to be true. And what could be more Alfred Hitchcock than an apparently fortuitous motel appearing when you're on the lam?

This story's quite charming (mostly due to atmosphere and description), but I think it is one that has dated a bit. I imagine it probably had a bit more punch to it when it first came out. I don't want to give any spoilers, but the 'reveal' revolves around a technology that's ubiquitous now but probably had more shock value in 1971. Still, it's got that Tales of the Unexpected 'bad guys get a fitting comeuppance' vibe to the ending, and the suspense (the uncertainty & apprehension) lies in not knowing exactly how/when they'll get that comeuppance.

I remember thinking Colby's story was pretty cool but not mind-blowing when I was a teenager. I think it's pretty cool but not mind-blowing now. I wonder if that's going to be a running theme with this book?

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Stories to be Read with the Lights On 2: Witness in the Dark by Fredric Brown

I'm continuing with my reread of Stories to be Read with Lights On today. As I said in the previous post, I don't think I'm going to be doing a story-a-day reread, but just story-by-story as and when I can. I did have a bit of a wobble when I read the first story and didn't remember anything about it, in case it turned out my fondness for this book was based on a false memory of reading the book as a teenager. Fortunately, that feeling was dispelled with the second story!

I had a massive wave of nostalgia reading 'Witness in the Dark'. I could even picture where I was the first time I read it (particularly the 'all cats be grey' lines), so that was a bit more reassuring.

'Witness in the Dark' is much more of a crime story than a horror story ('Death Out of Season' probably leans slightly the other way). So I think it's worth remembering that Stories to be Read with the Lights On isn't actually meant to be a horror collection. The introduction (supposedly by Hitchcock himself, but I doubt he personally wrote it) says the selected stories are 'startling, horrifying perhaps', but the overarching genre is 'suspense'. Suspense is defined here (as per the dictionary) as 'uncertainty accompanied by apprehension'. But I think for publishing purposes, it's very much being used as the 'Alfred Hitchcock Brand'. That kinda makes sense as a genre to me. According to the acknowledgements, quite a few of the stories in this collection were previously published in either Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine or Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which very much fits with this idea of an 'Alfred Hitchcock Brand' story.

Brown's story is about a murder committed in the bedroom of a man who has temporarily lost his sight (he is the 'witness in the dark'), and it's got a nice layer of uncertainty and apprehension to that set-up. I think what I liked about it when I was a teen (being a fan of classic detective fiction) is that, for all its atmosphere of suspense, there's still a mystery here and there are clues along the way to allow the reader to (potentially) solve it. Does it hold up now? Yes - I think so. It's a bit dated in terms of its style and aesthetic, but given it was first published in the 50s, it would've seemed retro when the collection came out in the 70s too.

I'm just glad I remembered this one, to be honest!

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Sunday, 29 August 2021

Stories to be Read with the Lights On 1: Death Out of Season by Mary Barrett

On my mystery (birthday) themed episode of Hannah's Bookshelf on North Manchester FM earlier this month, I talked about an 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents...' book called Stories to be Read With the Lights On. I mentioned that I got my copy of the book at some point in the 1990s from a jumble sale or charity shop (not sure which) & that I have good memories of reading some of the stories in my teens.

I was curious about what it would be like to go back to it again as an adult. Would it be nostalgic? Would the stories appeal to adult-me as much as they did to teenage-me? I boldly suggested on the show that I would do a full re-read of the book to find out, and so that's what I'm going to do. I was originally going to do a story-a-day reread, but this week has already thrown me off schedule. So it'll be story-by-story, but some days there might be more than one (and some days less!).

The first story in the book is 'Death Out of Season' by Mary Barrett. Let's go...

And a bit of a curveball at the start... I don't remember a single thing about this story! Hmmm... I thought it might all come rushing back to me when I started reading it, but I now I'm just worried that maybe I didn't read this book when I was a teenager after all! Still, even though I don't remember reading it before, I enjoyed Barrett's story. It's got that Tales of the Unexpected feel to it, and an ending that's satisfying although not wholly unpredictable.

Miss Witherspoon is an eccentric and reclusive older lady who spends most of her time tending her garden and making what her glamorous neighbour dismissively calls her 'little May baskets'. What I like about this story is that it's a bit like Se7en, but with an old lady in the John Doe role. In some ways, Miss Witherspoon is a much more unsettling villain as well.

And although I don't remember anything about the specifics of Barrett's story, it's very much in the tone and style I remembered the book having. Not sure why this one didn't stick in my memory, but I enjoyed (re)reading it!

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Monday, 2 August 2021

My Year in Books 2021: July

Time for my monthly round-up of the books I've read for pleasure recently, and once again it's a short post. My to-read pile is getting dangerously tall, so hopefully I'll be able to catch-up a bit and have more to share next month.

In case you're interested, here are my posts from the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June

And here are the books I read in July...

Bone Harvest by James Brogden (2020)

The first book on this month’s list was very nearly the final book on last month’s. It’s another from my Abominable Books pile, and it’s another bit of surprise folk horror. I don’t know why, but I had it in my head that this was another American novel (this is what comes of my resistance to reading blurbs before I start reading!). In fact, Bone Harvest is set in the UK, mostly around the English-Welsh border and then in Staffordshire. And I’ll say right off – I loved this one, despite not being the world’s biggest folk horror fan. The story begins with an unnamed man deserting in the trenches of WWI (he continues to be technically unnamed throughout the book, though he adopts the name Everett from some stolen dog tags). As the deserter moves amongst the carnage of the war, he meets with the ‘No Men’ and is introduced to the religion of Moccus, a pre-Christian deity whose followers consume their god’s flesh in a cyclical ritual. When he returns to the UK, the deserter seeks out those followers and becomes an acolyte of Moccus. The first half (roughly) of the novel was really striking and totally unsettling, and I was fascinated by the deserter as a character. However, the book really comes into its own in the second half as we move into the present day and to a wonderful setting for folk horror: allotments. This one is a real page-turner with a rich story and excellent characterization.

Sealand: The True Story of the World's Most Stubborn Micronation by Dylan Taylor-Lehman (2020)

I fell down a bit of a rabbit hole earlier this year. When Prince Phillip was first taken to hospital, I noticed a number of strange Twitter accounts sending him their (rather formal) regards. Each account looked like an ‘official’ account of an embassy or other state functionary, complete with crests or other state insignia, but all of them had names that were nothing like any country I’d ever seen before. Intrigued, I looked one of the names up and discovered it was the name of a micronation: a small ‘country’, founded by an individual, with claims of sovereign identity despite existing within the boundaries of another country’s territory. I started reading about the history and theory behind micronations – from the serious attempts at secession (sometimes for tax purposes) to the more frivolous home-based projects – and I couldn’t help but notice the name ‘Sealand’ kept popping up. And with good reason, it turns out. Sealand is one of the longest-standing, but also (arguably) the most successful micronation. Founded in 1967 on a disused naval fort off the coast at Southend, Sealand is a ‘principality’ ruled by an eccentric ‘royal family’ who have seen off numerous attempts to usurp them over the years. Taylor-Lehman’s book takes us through the hilarious, terrifying and occasionally downright unbelievable story of the Bates family and their concrete micronation. I can’t do justice to how bonkers the story is – and I’d definitely recommend reading the book to learn more. It’s even stranger than you might think.

The Madman's Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History by Edward Brooke-Hitching (2020)

I read a review of The Madman’s Library in the Manchester Review of Books earlier this year, and I knew it would be right up my street. Interestingly, I’d bought a copy of one of the author’s other books – The Phantom Atlas – as a birthday present for my brother, but I didn’t realize it was by the same author until I was part way through The Madman’s Library. We’re going to do a swap, so I might write about The Phantom Atlas in the future. For now… The Madman’s Library is a beautifully illustrated coffee-table-type book about curiosities from the world of literature. Some of these are well-known – the Voynich manuscript gets some attention, as does the Codex Gigas (aka the Devil’s Bible) – but there’s an absolute wealth of other, more obscure stories here that are a delight to dip into. Some books are just bizarre or baffling, but others reveal a lot about the history of literature, writing and bookbinding. Most of the books discussed are unique (in one way or another) artifacts, so this isn’t a timeline of the development of the book. It’s arranged thematically rather than chronologically so you can dip in and out of different types of strangeness (one grisly chapter looks at ‘Books of Flesh and Blood’, for instance, and another ‘Cryptic Books’). I personally enjoyed ‘Literary Hoaxes’, many of which were new to me. This one is a strong recommendation for people interested in the weirder side of the history of the book.