October Scares: One

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So somehow it’s October.

You probably already knew, but just thought I’d say.

October. Totally here.

Leaves are caramelly yellow, fall to the ground like tree confetti; sunlight vanishes weirdly and disappointingly and offensively early; the air is really rather kinda chilly, surprisingly so; blackberry and apple crumble is back on the menu (pudding is a very very very important part of my life); and my scarves (again, very important) are officially out of hibernation.

And seeing as there’s a lot of Halloween stuff around already too, I figured I’d get into the spirit (no pun intended) of it and do a few posts on scary stories.

I only heard of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman last week – I read about it on the brilliant book blog The Orangutan Librarian – but there are some stories you know you have to read straight away, and this was one of them. It’s really short (#winning), really ahead of its 1892 time, and really really creepy.

Suffering from “nervous troubles”, the narrator moves into a colonial mansion with her husband and newborn son for the summer. The upstairs room where the narrator spends most of her time is covered in a horrible old wallpaper she is initially repulsed by.

‘The colour is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.’

As the long and empty days pass, she becomes more and more obsessed with the paper, convinced there is a woman – maybe even a whole group of women – trapped behind the pattern.

‘Nobody could get through that pattern – it strangles so.’

But, with a little bit of help, the woman does get out.

This is such a clever and compelling piece of writing that packs a lot of spooky punch into its 26 little pages.

And it’s the perfect remedy to the shock of realising it’s officially, definitely-can’t-deny-it, seriously and absolutely October.

Reads – Nights at the Circus

Nights at the circus by Angela Carter book review

Back in August there was an brilliant documentary on the BBC about the author Angela Carter, called Of Wolves and Women (sadly not available on iPlayer anymore). I’d had a few of her books on my radar for a little while, but this fascinating film just sealed the reading deal. Nights at the Circus seemed like a good place to start.

I really loved how avant garde and strange it was – it brimmed and bubbled with a weirdness that was hard to grapple with but that was completely charming all the same. And I loved how angry it is – you can sense Carter’s indignation at injustice, sexism, class issues, etc., on almost every page. I’m guessing that’s what all her books are like.

But I didn’t love the book. My main annoyance with it was that – apart from the spellings of Fevvers’, Lizzie’s, and the Colonel’s actual literal voices – none of the characters seemed to have a unique voice beyond Carter’s and I struggled to connect with them individually (although I really did love Lizzie for all her old lady mischief). I went through long waves of feeling like I was barely hanging on in there with the narrative, followed by shorter waves of feeling completely entranced, and then back to the long, struggling waves again.

And Buffo the clown was honestly the stuff of my nightmares. *shudders*

Roller. Coaster.

I’m looking forward to trying out another of Carter’s books soon* – I’m sure there will be one where I love both the setting and the characters, and where I don’t end up having nightmares about Buffo. I have a feeling it will be a favourite when I find it.

But for now, seeing as it’s October, I think it’s only right to get my teeth into a ghost story or two.

*recommendations very very welcome!

Reads – The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck

FYI for those who don’t like swearing: there are lots of ‘f’s and ‘u’s and ‘c’s and ‘k’s ahead.

So I have a confession: until last week, I had never ever read a self-help book. Not because I thought I was perfect (trust me when I say that is absolutely the opposite of what I think), but because I was (and am) wary of anything that claims it can change/fix your life. Snake meet oil, oil meet snake.

But 2018 has thrown quite the collection of existential crises at me, and I figured that maybe now was as good a time as any to see what the self-help genre had to offer.

I feel like The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson was the best book with which to dip my literary toe into the murky self-help waters.

the subtle art of not giving a fuck by Mark Manson book review.

Unsurprisingly, I chose this book because there really are some things in my life I hope one day to give much less of a fuck about so I can spend that giving-a-fuck-time on things that are actually beneficial for me to give a fuck about. (Woops, sorry about all the fucks. Aaand sorry again.)

These are some of my main impressions of the book:

  • I love the way it’s written. It’s blunt and eloquent. No matter how hard my mum tried to raise me otherwise, I absolutely love love love swearing. Granted, not pointless, inappropriately timed and/or set swearing. But when it’s used to emphasize meaning or if it’s used creatively or just portrays how people talk in everyday life, then I’m all for it. I don’t accept the argument that swearing always lowers the tone. This book inevitably has a lot of fucks in it, but it didn’t feel like too many. It just felt converstaional.
  • I don’t agree with everything in it. There were some conclusions the author drew that felt a little simplistic and some arguments that seemed to double back on themselves. But I enjoyed going over the ideas and questions that were raised by these points all the same.
  • I love the way it embraces failure. Maybe that’s just because I fail at a lot of things a lot of the time and it’s good to know I’m not alone in my general life failings. But I think it’s mostly because I’ve actually seen how failing “well” – in my own life and in my friends’ and families’ lives – has been the greatest teacher. Phew, sorry if that all sounds a bit new-agey.

Basically, the book is full of common sense and hope – as well as many linguistical fucks – and there are plenty of lessons to be learned from it. I will certainly be keeping my copy of it near to hand, ready and waiting to wave frantically at any other existential crises that threaten to rear their ugly heads.

*walks away from keyboard to wash mouth out with soap*

Reads – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine book review.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect from Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, but I certainly wasn’t expecting to love it as much as I did. I’d heard so many good things about it and I wasn’t sure if it could live up ot the hype.

It could. It really, really could.

It’s got all the feels – happy, sad, funny, painful, heart-warming – and Eleanor is by far and away one of the best protagonists I’ve read for a while. I felt geuinely attached to her life and was rooting for her all the way.

The writing is brilliant. It’s laugh-out-loud funny at points, tender at times, pretty savage at others, and always insightful.

I’m pretty sure a lot of people will relate to a number of issues raised by the book, even if they haven’t experienced them to the same extent that Eleanor goes through them. I certainly did.

‘My life, I realized, had gone wrong. Very, very wrong. I wasn’t supposed to live like this. No one was supposed to live like this. The problem was that I simply didn’t know how to make it right… I could not solve the puzzle of me.’

And I think, perhaps most importantly, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a good reminder of how a little kindness and understanding has the potential to go a long, long way.

Memory Books

It’s funny how some things bring back very specific memories.

I get it, maybe weirdly, with shampoo. If I go back to using a shampoo after months/years (basically, whenever discounts and empty bottles align) the smell on the first couple of washes will always send a flood of memories rushing through my head from around the time I was using it before.

It’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to time travel – which is kinda disappointing, but you have to work with what you’ve got I guess.

I got this whole memory-time-travel thing again the other day, except this time it was triggered by a book cover. I didn’t travel back in time very far – ahem, March – but in the middle of the longest heatwave of my lifetime it does feel a little like another world away.

And there were a couple of others that brought back some unusually clear memories.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton book cover.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton – the book that started it all. The cover took me straight back to the “beast from the East” at the beginning of March. Two days curled up in front of the woodburner, cocooned in giant woolly jumpers, the world outside made quiet with thick snow and freezing rain. The book was brilliant but claustrophobic by the end, just like the weather.

Old boots in ice and snow. The beast from the East, March 2018.
Cold toes in old boots.

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry – my first driving lesson, May 2017. Sat in the garden, sunshine falling on my back, and waves of scaredy-cat butterflies blooming in my belly. Focussing on this book basically stopped me from ringing my instructor to call the whole me + driving thing off. And it’s a good thing I didn’t ring to cancel, because it turns out that driving is actually quite useful. Who even knew?

The Essex Serpent book cover
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry.

The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien – 2003 Easter holidays, Spain. Aged 10, lounging on the tiles of a balcony on a blue-grey Mediterranean day, the sound of the sea lulling in the background. I was a bit unsure what was going on plot-wise but pretty darn sure I would at least finish the book before the final film came out at Christmas. I decided afterwards it was best to wait a few years before attempting The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. (Now I want to read them all over again.)

TROTKbook
The return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Most books bring back hazy memories from around the time I read them, but these ones just seemed to bring back strangely strong ones. Maybe ones that don’t trigger anything now will in the future? Brains are definitely weird and full of surprises.

Is it just me, or do you get memories popping out of your head like a bright lightbulb moment with some books too? I’d love to know what they are if you do.

Reads – A Darker Shade of Magic

A darker shade of magic by V E Schwab. Book review.

You know when someone says push and a cheeky part of your brain says pull?

Well, for a long while I had recommendations for A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab coming out of my ears. So many that my brain said pull. I actively resisted it. Skipped reviews for it, skipped passed its spine on shelves, blanked ads that popped up for it. Avoided, avoided, avoided.

That, let me tell you, was a really silly thing to do.

Because it’s brilliant.

I don’t know why I was so stubborn or what finally made the stubborness stop. *looks over shoulder for the giant computer cookie monster*

But I’m glad it did stop, because this was an amazing read.

I loved the world building. Four colour-coded Londons probably should have felt like too many, but it was cleverly done, and the descriptions were vivid and absorbing without being too much. I loved Kell and Lila. They were good company, full of magical, sparking life. I loved the plot. It twisted and turned – expectedly, unexpectedly, always entertainingly.

And, you know what made it even better?

Knowing it’s part of a trilogy that – because of all that avoiding – is complete.

*smiles smugly, as if it was always part of the plan*

If anybody needs me over the next few days, you’ll find me in a London – grey, red, white, or maybe even black.

Reads – Hydra

I can safely say I have never read a book quite like Hydra by Matt Wesolowski.

Which is a shame, because it’s mesmerisingly and disorientatingly brilliant.

It’s a standalone sequel to Wesolowski’s Six Stories (which I haven’t read – though I definitely want to now), told in the style of six podcasts by investigative journalist Scott King as he tries to unpick the story behind a family massacre. He first interviews the disturbed Arla Macleod, who bludgeoned to death her family one winter night, and then five people connected to Arla.

The identity of the murderer is never ever in doubt, so this isn’t a whodunnit. Well, it’s not quite a whodunnit. The skill of the book lies in the unveiling of increasingly spooky and unsettling events in the build up to the murders, and a growing sense of danger to Scott King as he uncovers new information about Arla’s past.

It’s cleverly and compellingly done.

For anyone thinking of reading it, I have one major piece of advice: don’t read the first podcast at midnight after a long day at work, with rain lashing down outside and ivy tapping on the window pane. That is one sure fire way of leaving you terrified, wide awake, eyes peeping out from the top of the duvet, desperately hoping no-one comes a-knocking at the door.

I did not sleep well.

But I learnt my lesson and made sure I read the rest of the book well before my bedtime.

Hydra is a creepy and addictive story told in a fresh way. It’s absolutely worth a read.

Perhaps, though, in daylight hours only.

Book review of Hydra.
Hydra by Matt Wesolowski

Reads – The Invisible Child

My love for the Moomins already knew no bounds, but this little book of two short stories by Tove Jansson – a special edition for charity – has sent my love for them skyrocketing even further.

The Invisible Child is a heartwarming story about Ninny – who is, as the title suggests, invisible – and the Moomins attempts to help her. I think anyone who has experienced shyness and/or social anxiety will find a kindred spirit in Ninny. I literally wanted to high-five Tove Jansson for summing up pretty much my entire childhood and teenagehood.

“You all know, don’t you, that if people are frightened very often, they sometimes become invisible.”

The second story, called The Fir Tree, is, quite simply, one of the funniest things I have ever read. I could not stop giggling.

“‘Mamma, wake up,’ Moomintroll said anxiously. ‘Something awful is happening. It’s called Christmas.'”

It follows the Moomins as they try to come to grips with Christmas, after being awoken during their hibernation by the Hemulen as he tries to find his yellow mittens.

“‘You need a fir tree for protection,’ Moominpappa mused. ‘I don’t understand it.'”

Oh, Moomins.

They make everything better.

The Invisible Child and The Fir Tree by Tove Jansson, special Oxfam edition. Moomin short stories.
The Invisible Child and The Fir Tree by Tove Jansson.

Reads – The Gallows Pole

The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers is based on the true story of the Cragg Vale Coiners in 1760s Yorkshire. It follows the fates of “King” David Hartley and his gang as they exploit the close-knit and secluded location of the Upper Calder Valley to clip real coins and forge new ones – an activity that got so out of hand it threatened to destabilise the economy and meant death by hanging for anyone found guilty of it.

In my head, it played out like a cross between Poldark and Peaky Blinders, only set in Yorkshire and much more grisly.

Book review of The Gallows Pole
The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers

I had very mixed feelings about it.

I want to say that I love it, but I don’t so I won’t.

I respect it and admire it and marvel at it, though. #awkward

Here are some of my main takeaways…

Sections of the book are written phonetically – from David Hartley’s point of view – and for the first half of the book it kind of drove me up the wall. I’d see the itallics and a little piece of me would shrivel up and die inside. It just felt so painful to read, so slow, so laboured. But, somewhere along the line, I had an upiffanee. It’s not that it became easier to read, it just somehow – unexpectedly and weirdly – became a joy to read. David Hartley is mad and delusional, yet brilliant in his own horrible way. The phonetic writing is the same and the book would lose something without it. So I can forgive Benjamin Myers the fingernails-on-blackboard pain it initially induced in my brain. *pats self on back for moral goodness*

The other thing that was a joy to read, though this time throughout the whole book, was the writing about the landscape. It lives and breathes and sets the page alight. There’s lots of rain, lots of clouds, lots of fields, hills, and mud. Endless skies and knotted trees. Wild wind in your hair and fresh air in your lungs.

The descriptions are intense and vivid.

‘Finally the sky was free of clouds and stars cut through the night like smashed quartz sprinkled and thrown aloft to stick there.’

Well, holy moly is that one lovely sentence. One of many.

‘The night came in like a bruise of purples and blues and then finally gripped so tight that the sky was black and broken by the weight of time impressing upon it.’

(Just a heads up here: the description of the landscape is intense and so too is the description of brutal, sick violence. It hurt to read. If you can’t stand that kind of thing in a book, this absolutely isn’t the one for you.)

Ultimately, there was only one thing that deep-down bothered me about the book.

Maybe this is a totally unfair criticism, but I hated the fact there wasn’t really any character to root for, that there was no-one to give you a sense of hope. I personally found it hard to read a book where I didn’t feel tethered to at least one character’s soul, even in a little, teeny-tiny way. I did enjoy the moral conflict between law and order and the “clip a coin, fuck the crown” spirit – because how exactly do you live freely and fairly when the weight of the law is always stacked against you, when people can pick you up and move you on, lock you up, kick you when you’re already down on a whim? – but I just wish there had been someone in the book that I felt less than 90% negatively about.

Everybody – and I solemnly swear this – is up to no good.

It wore me down.

Like I say, maybe that’s unfair. But it’s how I feel. So there. *sticks out tongue*

It’s a beautiful and bleak, brilliant and frustrating, intriguing and unnerving story. I loved it in a way, and hated it too for making me feel kind of miserable. If I were a star-giver, I’d give it four out of five. Four for its rugged beauty; the fifth being held back because it made me grumpy. (Or perhaps just grumpier.)

So, yeah. Feelings all over the place for this one.

I can see how that’s not really helpful. But it’s how I feel.

So there.

Reads – The Girl in the Tower

Oh. My.

I don’t have enough words to describe my feelings for this book. I just have lots of long, drawn out, unintelligible, half-language/half-noise things that I can’t figure out how to spell, which is making writing a review tricky.

Basically, in conclusion (introduction?), I really really, truly truly loved it.

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden. Book cover. Book review.
The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

Why? Well, let me get out some trusty bullet points and give you a few reasons.*

  • The writing. Ah gosh. It’s magical. Captivating. Bewitching. [Insert all other synonyms here.] The descriptions are beautiful without being overbearing. Characters pop out of the page, right into your heart and brain.
  • The setting. The Girl in the Tower evolves brilliantly from the small town setting of The Bear and the Nightingale. Things are no longer exclusively lush and natural and wild – they’re also golden and glittering, bewilderingly human.
  • The relationships. They spark, falter, realign, flourish, and die – believably, joyously, and painfully. It’s an emotional roller-coaster of the best kind.
  • There are consequences. There were points when I worried that everything was all too easy and convenient, but the easiness was snatched away. It was perfectly timed and excruciatingly brutal.
  • Vasya. I’ve read criticism that Vasya is too headstrong, too stubborn, and too selfish. She is absolutely headstrong, absolutely stubborn, and sometimes she’s selfish. That’s the point of the story though, right? She’s growing. She’s learning to balance being resolute in her wants, beliefs, and dreams, and the world(s) she lives in. She’s learning how to navigate herself towards a life of freedom, without veering into selfishness and without harming others. She’s always gone with her heart and gut, now she’ll have to step up and factor in the cool, calm calculations of her mind too. She’s a great and flawed protagonist.

So as you might have guessed, I thoroughly and heartily (right from the bottom of it in fact) recommend this book. And if you haven’t read The Bear and the Nightingale please go read it now. Pretty please. Then read this one. If you like fairytales and wonder and magic, or even just snow and ice and winter, you’ll love the world Katherine Arden has created.

You’ll love it.

Really really, truly truly.

Right, now it’s back to the noises I can’t figure out how to spell.

*Disclosure: I am still completely and utterly book drunk at this point. Mixing bullet points and book drunkeness is not generally advisable.