It’s been a while since I’ve done a Three on a Theme post (over eight months, in fact). I thought it would be fun to round up a few nonfiction books about ravens that I’ve read over the last year or so – I just finished the Skaife last night.
I tend to associate ravens with Halloween because of Edgar Allan Poe’s eerie poem “The Raven.” In eighth grade English class we had the challenge of memorizing as much of this multi-stanza poem as possible. A friend and I took this very seriously and recited the whole thing, I think (or at least enough to be obnoxious), in front of the class. I can still conjure up big chunks of it in my memory: “Once upon a midnight dreary / while I pondered, weak and weary / over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore…” The rhymes and alliteration make it a real earworm.
The Book of the Raven: Corvids in Art and Legend by Angus Hyland and Caroline Roberts (2021)
I loved the art, which ranges from the well-known (Van Gogh) to the recent and obscure and includes etchings, paintings and photographs, and wood carvings. The text was less illuminating, relying on some very familiar points of reference like Aesop’s fables, Norse myths, Poe’s “The Raven,” and so on. It’s slightly confusing that the authors decided to lump all corvids together as it suits them, so they include legends and poems associated with crows and magpies as well as ravens.
Most pieces are only one page and have an image facing, as well as at least two pages of wordless spreads between them. There are also shorter quotations embedded in some of the illustrations. Gothic font abounds and there is an overall black, white and red colour scheme. I was glad to be reminded that Charles Dickens’s pet raven, Grip III, was stuffed and is now in display in the Free Library of Philadelphia – that will be a sight to seek out on my next trip there. I also enjoyed learning about Jimmy, a Hollywood raven who appeared in over 1,000 films between 1938 and 1954, including It’s a Wonderful Life. This was a surprise Christmas gift, and a fun enough coffee table read.
A Shadow Above: The Fall and Rise of the Raven by Joe Shute (2018)
Ravens are freighted with such symbolism that people attribute special significance to their presence or absence. In parts of Britain, they were persecuted to the point of extirpation, but in recent years they have been finding new strongholds everywhere from sea cliffs and abandoned quarries to the New Forest and city centres. Travelling around the country, Shute learns how mythology reflects humans’ historical relationships with the birds and meets with those who hate and shoot ravens (farmers whose lambs and piglets they gang up to kill) as well as those who rehabilitate them or live with them as companions. It’s a balanced and well informed book, if a little by-the-numbers in its approach.
A terrific final paragraph: “Watching the birds dive under the fizzing pylon wires, I also realise just how much we need them close by. To provide us with a glimpse of wildness in a world hell-bent on civilising its furthest reaches, while at the same time inching closer towards the abyss. The raven will always continue to represent our own projections. This modern omen remains as yet ill-defined; our shared futures unresolved.” (Public library)
The Ravenmaster by Christopher Skaife (2018)
A newspaper/magazine feature I enjoy is when a journalist interviews someone with a really random job – you know, like a cat food taste tester or the guy who cleans the Tube tunnels in London or empties the loos after Glastonbury Festival. This memoir was moderately interesting in the same sort of way.
How does one get to be raven keeper at the Tower of London? In Skaife’s case, via the military. He was an indifferent student so joined the Army young and served for 24 years, including as a Drum Major and in Northern Ireland, before becoming a Yeoman Warder. He’s the sixth Ravenmaster (a new title after 1946), in post since 2011. He was always interested in history and as a mature student took a degree in archaeology, so he’s well suited to introducing the Tower to visitors. I appreciated his description of the challenge of making the experience fresh each time even though for him it’s become daily drudgery: “Doing a really great tour is like being a jazz musician: a moment’s improvisation based on a lifetime’s experience.”
Seeing to seven resident ravens’ needs is also repetitive and has to be done in the same way, on time, every day if he doesn’t want revolt – when he once tried to put them to bed in their cages in a different order, Merlina (who also plays dead and engages in hide-and-seek) led him a merry dance and he ended up falling into the moat. He’s sometimes learned the hard way, as when a raven died when it hid in scaffolding and then plunged to the ground – he realized he’d clipped its wings too severely. Other birds have been lost to foxes, so he’s gotten in the habit of feeding foxes in one spot so they’ll stay away from the raven enclosure.
It’s a good-natured, anecdotal book, but didn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know about ravens from various other books; it reports pretty entry-level information on bird intelligence, communication, and representations in popular culture. I most liked hearing about the ravens’ individual personalities and the little mishaps and surprises he’s experienced in dealing with them. But many chapters feel thrown together in an arbitrary order, and Skaife’s writing about his life before the Tower doesn’t add anything. So while I envy him living in such a history-saturated place and would probably like to tour the Tower one day, the book wasn’t the intriguing insider’s account I was looking for. A ghostwriter or extra helping editorial hand wouldn’t have gone amiss, honestly. (A gift from my wish list a couple of Christmases ago)
If you read just one … A Shadow Above by Joe Shute was the stand-out for me.
My next raven-themed read will be: Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich.
I don’t often read anything that could be classed as suspense or horror, so the R.I.P. challenge is a fun excuse to dip a toe into these genres each year. This year I have an eerie relationship study, a dystopian scenario where cannibalism has become the norm, some traditional ghost stories old and new, and a bonus story encountered in an unrelated anthology.
Ghosted: A Love Story by Jenn Ashworth (2021)
Laurie’s life is thrown off kilter when, after they’ve been together 15 years, her husband Mark disappears one day, taking nothing with him. She continues in her job as a cleaner on a university campus in northwest England. After work she visits her father, who is suffering from dementia, and his Ukrainian carer Olena. In general, she pretends that nothing has happened, caring little how odd it will appear that she didn’t call the police until Mark had been gone for five weeks. Despite her obsession with true crime podcasts, she can’t seem to imagine that anything untoward has happened to him. What happened to Mark, and what’s with that spooky spare room in their flat that Laurie won’t let anyone enter?
If you find unreliable narrators delicious, you’re in the right place. The mood is confessional, yet Laurie is anything but confiding. Occasionally she apologizes for her behaviour: “I realise this does not sound very sane” is one of her concessions to readers’ rationality. So her drinking problem doesn’t become evident until nearly halfway through, and a bombshell is still to come. It’s the key to understanding our protagonist and why she’s acted this way.
Ghosted wasn’t what I expected. Its air of supernatural menace mellows; what is to be feared is much more ordinary. The subtitle should have been more of a clue for me. I appreciated the working class, northern setting (not often represented; Ashworth is up for this year’s Portico Prize) and the unusual relationships Laurie has with Olena, as well as with co-worker Eddie and neighbour Katrina. Reminiscent of Jo Baker’s The Body Lies and Sue Miller’s Monogamy, this story of a storm-tossed marriage was a solid introduction to Ashworth’s fiction – this is her fifth novel – but I’m not sure the payoff lived up to that amazing cover.
With thanks to Sceptre for the free copy for review.
Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica (2017; 2020)
[Translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses]
This sledgehammer of a short Argentinian novel has a simple premise: not long ago, animals were found to be infected with a virus that made them toxic to humans. During the euphemistic “Transition,” all domesticated and herd animals were killed and the roles they once held began to be filled by humans – hunted, sacrificed, butchered, scavenged, cooked and eaten. A whole gastronomic culture quickly developed around cannibalism.
Marcos is our guide to this horrific near-future world. Although he works in a slaughterhouse, he’s still uneasy with some aspects of the arrangement. The standard terminology is an attempt at dispassion: the “heads” are “processed” for their “meat.” Smarting from the loss of his baby son and with his father in a nursing home, Marcos still has enough compassion that when he’s gifted a high-quality female he views her as a person rather than potential cuts of flesh. His decisions from here on will call into question his loyalty to the new system.
I wondered if there would come a point where I was no longer physically able to keep reading. But it’s fiendishly clever how the book beckons you into analogical situations and then forces you to face up to cold truths. It’s impossible to avoid the animal-rights message (in a book full of gruesome scenes, the one that involves animals somehow hits hardest), but I also thought a lot about how human castes might work – dooming some to muteness, breeding and commodification, while others are the privileged overseers granted peaceful ends. Bazterrica also conflates sex and death in uncomfortable ways. In one sense, this was not easy to read. But in another, I was morbidly compelled to turn the pages. Brutal but brilliant stuff. (Public library/Edelweiss)
Fear: Tales of Terror and Suspense, selected by Roald Dahl (2017)
I reviewed the five female-penned ghost stories for R.I.P. back in 2019. This year I picked out another five, leaving a final four for another year. (Review copy)
“W.S.” by L.P. Hartley: The only thing I’ve read of Hartley’s besides The Go-Between. Novelist Walter Streeter is confronted by one of his characters, to whom he gave the same initials. What’s real and what’s only going on in his head? Perfectly plotted and delicious.
“In the Tube” by E.F. Benson: The concept of time is called into question when someone witnesses a suicide on the London Underground some days before it could actually have happened. All recounted as a retrospective tale. Believably uncanny.
“Elias and the Draug” by Jonas Lie: A sea monster and ghost ship plague Norwegian fishermen.
“The Ghost of a Hand” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu: A disembodied hand wreaks havoc in an eighteenth-century household.
“On the Brighton Road” by Richard Middleton: A tramp meets an ill boy on a road in the Sussex Downs. A classic ghost story that pivots on its final line.
The Small Hand: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill (2010)
This was my fourth of Hill’s classic ghost stories, after The Woman in Black, The Man in the Picture and Dolly. They’re always concise and so fluently written that the storytelling voice feels effortless. I wondered if this one might have been inspired by “The Ghost of a Hand” (above). It doesn’t feature a disembodied hand, per se, but the presence of a young boy who slips his hand into antiquarian book dealer Adam Snow’s when he stops at an abandoned house in the English countryside, and again when he goes to a French monastery to purchase a Shakespeare First Folio. Each time, Adam feels the ghost is pulling him to throw himself into a pond. When Adam confides in the monks and in his brother, he gets different advice. A pleasant and very quick read, if a little predictable. (Free from a neighbour)
And a bonus story:
Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror” appears in Kink (2021), a short story anthology edited by Garth Greenwell and R.O. Kwon. (I requested it from NetGalley just so I could read the stories by Machado and Brandon Taylor.) It opens “I would never forget the night I saw Maxa decompose before me.” A seamstress, obsessed with an actress, becomes her dresser. Set in the 19th-century Parisian theatre world, this pairs queer desire and early special effects and is over-the-top sensual in the vein of Angela Carter, with hints of the sadomasochism that got it a place here.
Sample lines: “Women seep because they occupy the filmy gauze between the world of the living and the dead.” & “Her body blotted out the moon. She was an ambulatory garden, a beacon in a dead season, life where life should not grow.”
Browsing through old magazines, I found a fun BookPage reading list from October 2019 entitled “Pumpkin spice latte literature.” It asks, “what if autumn were distilled into a book? The mixture of crispness and warmth, the thrill of possibility, the bittersweetness of change—these books are pure pumpkin spice.” I love the lateral thinking that came up with
- The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (back to school in the Midwest)
- I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron (wry reflections from the autumn of a life)
- Possession by A.S. Byatt (bookish geeking out)
- Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar (taking comfort from a vision of recovery from alcoholism)
- An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson (wit and magic)
I’ve read the first three, and am keen to catch up on Akbar’s debut poetry collection after loving Pilgrim Bell this summer. I’m only unlikely to pick up Rogerson’s fantasy. In any case, I enjoyed seeing how the editors came up with their selections.
I tend to be rather more literal with my seasonal reading recommendations. Does it have autumn in the title or as a setting?! Is it about pumpkins or Halloween?
This year I happen to have amassed all children’s and YA selections.
October, October by Katya Balen (2020)
I’ll admit it: it was Angela Harding’s gorgeous cover illustration that drew me to this one. But I found a story that lived up to it, too. October, who has just turned 11 and is named after her birth month, lives in the woods with her father. Their shelter and their ways are fairly primitive, but it’s what October knows and loves. When her father has an accident and she’s forced into joining her mother’s London life, her only consolations are her rescued barn owl chick, Stig, and the mudlarking hobby she takes up with her new friend, Yusuf.
The child’s perspective is well rendered through artful run-on sentences. Balen is careful to show the consequences of October’s decisions and to present advantages as well as disadvantages so it’s not just countryside = good, city = bad. I thought the father’s recovery a bit too quick, but overall, this middle grade novel was a great read for any age, as well as one to get kids thinking about illness and loss. And how about these heart-tugging last lines? “There are stories everywhere and I want to tell them all. And all the world is wild and waiting for me.” (Public library)
Autumn Story by Jill Barklem (1980)
The second in the quartet of seasonal “Brambly Hedge” stories. Autumn is a time for stocking the pantry shelves with preserves, so the mice are out gathering berries, fruit and mushrooms. Young Primrose wanders off, inadvertently causing alarm – though all she does is meet a pair of elderly harvest mice and stay for tea and cake in their round nest amid the cornstalks. I love all the little touches in the illustrations: the patchwork tea cosy matches the quilt on the bed one floor up, and nearly every page is adorned with flowers and other foliage. After we get past the mild peril that seems to be de rigueur for any children’s book, all is returned to a comforting normal. Time to get the Winter volume out from the library. (Public library)
Une Chanson d’ours by Benjamin Chaud (2011)
The first whole book I’ve read in French in many a year. I just about coped, given that it’s a picture book with not all that many words on a page; any vocabulary I didn’t know offhand, I could understand in context. It’s late into the autumn and Papa Bear is ready to start hibernating for the year, but Little Bear spies a late-flying bee and follows it out of the woods and all the way to the big city. Papa Bear, realizing his lad isn’t beside him in the cave, sets out in pursuit and bee, cub and bear all end up at the opera hall, to the great surprise of the audience. What will Papa do with his moment in the spotlight? This is a lovely book that, despite the whimsy, still teaches about the seasons and parent–child bonds as it offers a vision of how humans and animals could coexist. I’ve since found out that this was made into a series of four books, all available in English translation. (Little Free Library)
Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell; illus. Faith Erin Hicks (2019)
This YA graphic novel is set on a Nebraska pumpkin patch that’s more like Disney World than a simple field down the road. Josiah and Deja have worked together at the Succotash Hut for the last three autumns. Today they’re aware that it’s their final Halloween before leaving for college. Deja’s goal is to try every culinary delicacy the patch has to offer – a smorgasbord of foodstuffs that are likely to be utterly baffling to non-American readers: candy apples, Frito pie (even I hadn’t heard of this one), kettle corn, s’mores, and plenty of other saccharine confections.
Josiah’s goal, by contrast, is to catch the eye of Marcy, the beauty who works at the fudge stand. Deja convinces him to desert the Succotash Hut and go in pursuit of Marcy via as many food stands as possible. She’s willing to indulge his unrealistic fantasy even though, as a bisexual who’s dated just about everyone at the patch, she knows romance is sometimes not all it’s cracked up to be. Meanwhile, there’s an angry billy goat on the loose.
This is a fun and quick romp, and the ending genuinely surprised me. I liked the story better than the art, though – my main problem was that these teen characters look more like they’re 30 (Josiah, especially, looks almost haggard what with the sharp lines down the sides of his face – I guess they’re to give him a ‘chiselled’ jaw?), similar to that weird phenomenon of much older actors playing high schoolers. So, I laughed to see in an afterword conversation between Rowell and Hicks that one of the major things they changed from early mock-ups was making the protagonists look older. (Public library)
Pick a Pumpkin by Patricia Toht; illus. Jarvis (2019)
From picking the best pumpkin at the patch to going out trick-or-treating, this is a great introduction to Halloween traditions. It even gives step-by-step instructions for carving a jack-o’-lantern. The drawing style – generally 2D, and looking like it could be part cut paper collages, with some sponge painting – reminds me of Ezra Jack Keats and most of the characters are not white, which is refreshing. There are lots of little autumnal details to pick out in the two-page spreads, with a black cat and crows on most pages and a set of twins and a mouse on some others. The rhymes are either in couplets or ABCB patterns. Perfect October reading. (Public library)
Any super-autumnal reading for you this year?
Do you read children’s picture books and YA novels even if you (and any children) are well past that age – or is it just me?
Today I have a book of poems about Covid lockdown and being autistic, a reprint of a vintage cookbook with a difference, the pinnacle of autofiction that I’ve found thus far, and a prize-winning collection of short stories about immigrants’ everyday challenges.
The Oscillations by Kate Fox (2021)
The first section, “After,” responds to the events of 2020; six of its poems were part of a “Twelve Days of Lockdown” commission. Fox remembers how sinister a cougher at a public event felt on 13th March and remarks on how quickly social distancing came to feel like the norm, though hikes and wild swimming helped her to retain a sense of possibility. I especially liked “Pharmacopoeia,” which opens the collection and looks back to the Black Death that hit Amsterdam in 1635 – “suddenly the plagues / are the most interesting parts / of a city’s history.” “Returns” plots her next trip to a bookshop (“The plague books won’t be in yet, / but the dystopia section will be well stocked / … I spend fifty pounds I no longer had last time, will spend another fifty next. / Feeling I’m preserving an ecology, a sort of home”), while “The Funerals” wryly sings the glories of a spring the deceased didn’t get to see.
The second section, “Before,” is more wide-ranging, responding to artworks, historical events, family situations, and more. Fox has been vocal about her ASD, which is the subject of “What Could Be Called Communication,” about some habits of the neurodivergent that you might recognize. I also liked “The Fruits,” which narrates the end of a pregnancy, and the closing poem, “Emergency” (“between us, / sometimes despite us / love spreads like a satellite signal, / like sea foam, / like spilt coffee on a counter top, / like home.”). That was one of the few places in the whole book where the language (alliteration and an end-rhyme) struck me; elsewhere, the themes felt more notable than the poetic techniques.
With thanks to Nine Arches Press for the proof copy for review.
Eating Alone by Kathleen Le Riche (1954)
Recently reprinted as a facsimile edition by Faber, this was Le Riche’s third cookbook. It’s like no other cookbook I’ve read, though: It doesn’t list ingredients or, generally, quantities, and its steps are imprecise, more like suggestions. What it reads like is a set of short stories with incidental recipes. Le Riche had noted that people who live alone some or all of the time, for whatever reason, often can’t be bothered to cook for themselves properly. Through these old ladies, bachelors, career girls, and mothers with children off at school, she voices her ideas on shopping, food storage, simple cooking, and making good use of leftovers, but all through the medium of anecdote.
For instance, “The Grass Widower,” while his wife is away visiting her mother, indulges his love of seafood and learns how to wash up effectively. A convalescent plans the uncomplicated meals she’ll fix, including lots of egg dishes and some pleasingly dated fare like “junket” and cherries in brandy. A brother and sister, students left on their own for a day, try out all the different pancakes and quick breads in their repertoire. The bulk of the actual meal ideas come in a chapter called “The Happy Potterer,” whom Le Riche styles as a friend of hers named Flora who wrote out all her recipes on cards collected in an envelope. I enjoyed some of the little notes to self in this section: appended to a recipe for kidney and mushrooms, “Keep a few back for mushrooms-on-toast next day for a mid-morning snack”; “Forgive yourself if you have to use margarine instead of butter for frying.”
I don’t think there are any recipes here that I would actually try to reproduce, though I may one day attempt the Grass Widower’s silver-polishing method (put a strip of aluminium foil and some “washing soda” (soda crystals?) in the sink and pour over some boiling water from the kettle; dip in the silver items, touching them to the foil, and watch the tarnish disappear like magic!). This was interesting as a cultural artefact, to see the meals and ingredients that were mainstays of the 1950s (evaporated milk, anyone?) and how people coped without guaranteed refrigeration. It’s also a good reminder to eat well no matter your circumstances.
With thanks to Faber for the free copy for review.
A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez (1995)
My third from Nunez, after The Friend and What Are You Going Through, and my most loved of her books thus far, cementing her as one of my favourite authors. Like the other two, it’s narrated by an unnamed woman who defines herself by the people she encounters and the experiences she has in an unforgiving but still somehow beautiful and funny old world. From the little I know of Nunez, this seems the closest to autofiction, especially in terms of her parental origins. The father, Chang, born in Panama and raised in China, immigrated to the USA at age 12. In Germany for war service, he met her mother, Christa, just after VE Day.
Chang and Christa, the subjects of the book’s first two sections – accounting for about half the length – were opposites and had a volatile relationship. Their home in the New York City projects was an argumentative place the narrator was eager to escape. She felt she never knew her father, a humourless man who lost touch with Chinese culture. He worked on the kitchen staff of a hospital and never learned English properly. Christa, by contrast, was fastidious about English grammar but never lost her thick accent. An obstinate and contradictory woman, she resented her lot in life and never truly loved Chang, but was good with her hands and loved baking and sewing for her daughters.
Growing up, the narrator never knew quite what to make of her mixed, “exotic” background. For a time, she escaped into ballet, a tantalizingly female discipline that threw up a lot of issues: class pretensions, the eroticization of young girls and of pain, and eating disorders. When she went without solid food for days at a time, she felt she was approaching the weightlessness Saint Hildegard likened to being “a feather on the breath of God.” The final chapter, “Immigrant Love,” jumps ahead to when the narrator taught English as a foreign language and had an affair with Vadim, a married Russian taxi driver full of charisma but also of flaws. This finale is a brilliant twist on her parents’ situation, and a decision to teach English in China brings things full circle, promising a connection to her late father’s heritage.
The strategy of identifying the self by the key relationships and obsessions of a life struck me as spot on. This short novel punches above its weight, with profound observations on every page. Its specific situations are engaging, yet it speaks to the universals of how we cope with a troublesome past. “One wants a way of looking back without anger or bitterness or shame. One wants to be able to tell everything without blaming or apologizing,” Nunez writes, crystallizing her frank, wry approach. I’m eager to read all the rest of her oeuvre.
First published in the UK in 2021. With thanks to Virago Press for the free copy for review.
How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa (2020)
Thammavongsa pivoted from poetry to short stories and won Canada’s Giller Prize for this debut collection that mostly explores the lives of Laotian immigrants and refugees in a North American city. The 14 stories are split equally between first- and third-person perspectives, many of them narrated by young women remembering how they and their parents adjusted to an utterly foreign culture. The title story and “Chick-A-Chee!” are both built around a misunderstanding of the English language – the latter is a father’s approximation of what his children should say on doorsteps on Halloween. Television soaps and country music on the radio are ways to pick up more of the language. Farm and factory work are de rigueur, but characters nurture dreams of experiences beyond menial labour – at least for their children.
The stories are punchy: perfect snapshots of lives lived on the tightrope between expectation and despair. In “Mani Pedi,” Raymond is a former boxer who starts working at his sister’s nail salon and falls in love with a client. His sister warns him, “Don’t you be dreaming big now, little brother. Keep your dreams small. The size of a grain of rice.” In “Slingshot,” an older woman loses touch with her much younger lover, while in “The Gas Station,” Mary, a prim tax accountant, opens herself to love but ends up disappointed. The great-grandmother in “Ewwrrrkk” warns an eight-year-old that “I love you” pries open one’s legs like nothing else. “Randy Travis” and “Picking Worms” were probably my two overall favourites. Looking back, I have trouble remembering some of the individual stories. It’s not so much that they all blend into one, but that they form a cohesive whole. I’d recommend this even to readers who don’t normally pick up short stories, and will look out for more from this author.
Out in paperback on Thursday the 18th. With thanks to Bloomsbury for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
A rainy and blustery Halloween here in southern England, with a second lockdown looming later in the week. I haven’t done anything special to mark Halloween since I was in college, though this year a children’s book inspired me to have some fun with our veg box vegetables for this photo shoot. Just call us Christopher Pumpkin and Rebecca Red Cabbage.
It’s my third year participating in R.I.P. (Readers Imbibing Peril). In each of those three years I’ve reviewed a novel by Michelle Paver. First it was Thin Air, then Dark Matter – two 1930s ghost stories of men undertaking an adventure in a bleak setting (the Himalayas and the Arctic, respectively). I found a copy of her latest in the temporary Little Free Library I started to keep the neighborhood going while the public library was closed during the first lockdown.
Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver (2019)
There’s a Gothic flavor to this story of a mentally unstable artist and his teenage daughter. Edmund Stearne is obsessed with the writings of Medieval mystic Alice Pyett (based on Margery Kempe) and with a Bosch-like Doom painting recently uncovered at the local church. Serving as his secretary after her mother’s death, Maud reads his journals to follow his thinking – but also uncovers unpleasant truths about his sister’s death and his relationship with the servant girl. As Maud tries to prevent her father from acting on his hallucinations of demons and witches rising from the Suffolk Fens, she falls in love with someone beneath her class. Only in the 1960s framing story, which has a journalist and scholar digging into what really happened at Wake’s End in 1913, does it become clear how much Maud gave up.
There are a lot of appealing elements in this novel, including Maud’s pet magpie, the travails of her constantly pregnant mother (based on the author’s Belgian great-grandmother), the information on early lobotomies, and the mixture of real (eels!) and imagined threats encountered at the fen. The focus on a female character is refreshing after her two male-dominated ghost stories. But as atmospheric and readable as Paver’s writing always is, here the plot sags, taking too much time over each section and filtering too much through Stearne’s journal. After three average ratings in a row, I doubt I’ll pick up another of her books in the future.
My top R.I.P. read this year was Sisters by Daisy Johnson, followed by 666 Charing Cross by Paul Magrs (both reviewed here).
Have you been reading anything spooky for Halloween?
I’ve been gearing up for Novellas in November with a few short autumnal reads, as well as some picture books bedecked with fallen leaves, pumpkins and warm scarves.
An Event in Autumn by Henning Mankell (2004)
[Translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson, 2014]
My first and probably only Mankell novel; I have a bad habit of trying mystery series and giving up after one book – or not even making it through a whole one. This was written for a Dutch promotional deal and falls chronologically between The Pyramid and The Troubled Man, making it #9.5 in the Wallander series. It opens in late October 2002. After 30 years as a police officer, Kurt Wallander is interested in living in the countryside instead of the town-center flat he shares with his daughter Linda, also a police officer. A colleague tells him about a house in the country owned by his wife’s cousin and Wallander goes to have a look.
Of course things aren’t going to go smoothly with this venture. You have to suspend disbelief when reading about the adventures of investigators; it’s like they attract corpses. So it’s not much of a surprise that while he’s walking the grounds of this house he finds a human hand poking out of the soil, and eventually the remains of a middle-aged couple are unearthed. The rest of the book is about finding out what happened on the property at the time of the Second World War. Wallander says he doesn’t believe in ghosts, but victims of wrongful death are as persistent as ghosts: they won’t be ignored until answers are found.
This was a quick and easy read, but nothing about it (setting, topics, characterization, prose) made me inclined to read further in the author’s work.
The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer (1962)
(Classic of the Month, #1)
Like a nursery rhyme gone horribly wrong, this is the story of a woman who can’t keep it together. She’s the woman in the shoe, the wife whose pumpkin-eating husband keeps her safe in a pumpkin shell, the ladybird flying home to find her home and children in danger. Aged 31 and already on her fourth husband, the narrator, known only as Mrs. Armitage, has an indeterminate number of children. Her current husband, Jake, is a busy filmmaker whose philandering soon becomes clear, starting with the nanny. A breakdown at Harrods is the sign that Mrs. A. isn’t coping, and she starts therapy. Meanwhile, they’re building a glass tower as their countryside getaway, allowing her to contemplate an escape from motherhood.
An excellent 2011 introduction by Daphne Merkin reveals how autobiographical this seventh novel was for Mortimer. But her backstory isn’t a necessary prerequisite for appreciating this razor-sharp period piece. You get a sense of a woman overwhelmed by responsibility and chafing at the thought that she’s had no choice in what life has dealt her. Most chapters begin in medias res and are composed largely of dialogue, including with Jake or her therapist. The book has a dark, bitter humor and brilliantly recreates a troubled mind. I was reminded of Janice Galloway’s The Trick Is to Keep Breathing and Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights. If you’re still looking for ideas for Novellas in November, I recommend it highly.
Snow in Autumn by Irène Némirovsky (1931)
[Translated from the French by Sandra Smith, 2007]
(Classic of the Month, #2)
I have a copy of Suite Française, Némirovsky’s renowned posthumous classic, in a box in America, but have never gotten around to reading it. This early tale of the Karine family, forced into exile in Paris after the Russian Revolution, draws on the author’s family history. The perspective is that of the family’s old nanny, Tatiana Ivanovna, who guards the house for five months after the Karines flee and then, joining them in Paris after a shocking loss, longs for the snows of home. “Autumn is very long here … In Karinova, it’s already all white, of course, and the river will be frozen over.” Nostalgia is not as innocuous as it might seem, though. This gloomy short piece brought to mind Gustave Flaubert’s story “A Simple Heart.” I wouldn’t say I’m taken by Némirovsky’s style thus far; in fact, the frequent ellipses drove me mad! The other novella in my paperback is Le Bal, which I’ll read next month.
Plus a quartet of children’s picture books from the library:
Pumpkin Soup by Helen Cooper: A cat, a squirrel and a duck live together in a teapot-shaped cabin in the woods. They cook pumpkin soup and make music in perfect harmony, each cheerfully playing their assigned role, until the day Duck decides he wants to be the one to stir the soup. A vicious quarrel ensues, and Duck leaves. Nothing is the same without the whole trio there. After some misadventures, when the gang is finally back together, they’ve learned their lesson about flexibility … or have they? Adorably mischievous.
Moomin and the Golden Leaf by Richard Dungworth: Beware: this is not actually a Tove Jansson plot, although her name is, misleadingly, printed on the cover (under tiny letters “Based on the original stories by…”). Autumn has come to Moominvalley. Moomin and Sniff find a golden leaf while they’re out foraging. He sets out to find the golden tree it must have come from, but the source is not what he expected. Meanwhile, the rest are rehearsing a play to perform at the Autumn Ball before a seasonal feast. This was rather twee and didn’t capture Jansson’s playful, slightly melancholy charm.
Little Owl’s Orange Scarf by Tatyana Feeney: Ungrateful Little Owl thinks the orange scarf his mother knit for him is too scratchy. He tries “very hard to lose his new scarf” and finally manages it on a trip to the zoo. His mother lets him choose his replacement wool, a soft green. I liked the color blocks and the simple design, and the final reveal of what happened to the orange scarf is cute, but I’m not sure the message is one to support (pickiness vs. making do with what you have).
Christopher Pumpkin by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet: The witch of Spooksville needs help preparing for a big party, so brings a set of pumpkins to life. Something goes a bit wrong with the last one, though: instead of all things ghoulish, Christopher Pumpkin loves all things fun. He bakes cupcakes instead of stirring gross potions and strums a blue ukulele instead of inducing screams. The witch threatens to turn Chris into soup if he can’t be scary. The plan he comes up with is the icing on the cake of a sweet, funny book delivered in rhyming couplets. Good for helping kids think about stereotypes and how we treat those who don’t fit in.
Have you read any autumn-appropriate books lately?
My five new releases for July include historical pandemic fiction, a fun contemporary story about a father-and-daughter burglar team, a new poetry collection from Carcanet Press, a lighthearted nature/travel book, and a poetic bereavement memoir about a violent death.
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
Donoghue’s last two novels, The Wonder and Akin, were big hits with me. Less than a year after the contemporary-set Akin, she’s back to a historical setting – and an uncannily pertinent pandemic theme – with her latest. In 1918, Julia Power is a nurse on a Dublin maternity ward. It’s Halloween and she is about to turn 30, making her a spinster for her day; she lives with her mute, shell-shocked veteran brother, Tim, and his pet magpie.
Because she’s already had “the grip” (influenza), she is considered immune and is one of a few staff members dealing with the flu-ridden expectant mothers in quarantine in her overcrowded hospital. Each patient serves as a type, and Donoghue whirls through all the possible complications of historical childbirth: stillbirth, obstructed labor, catheterization, forceps, blood loss, transfusion, maternal death, and so on.
It’s not for the squeamish, and despite my usual love of medical reads, I felt it was something of a box-ticking exercise, with too much telling about medical procedures and recent Irish history. Because of the limited time frame – just three days – the book is far too rushed. We simply don’t have enough time to get to know Julia through and through, despite her first-person narration; the final 20 pages, in particular, are so far-fetched and melodramatic it’s hard to believe in a romance you’d miss if you blinked. And the omission of speech marks just doesn’t work – it’s downright confusing with so many dialogue-driven scenes.
Donoghue must have been writing this well before Covid-19, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the publication was hurried forward to take advantage of the story’s newfound relevance. It shows: what I read in May and June felt like an unpolished draft, with threads prematurely tied up to meet a deadline. This was an extremely promising project that, for me, was let down by the execution, but it’s still a gripping read that I wouldn’t steer you away from if you find the synopsis appealing. (Some more spoiler-y thoughts here.)
Prescient words about pandemics:
“All over the globe … some flu patients are dropping like flies while others recover, and we can’t solve the puzzle, nor do a blasted thing about it. … There’s no rhyme or reason to who’s struck down.”
“Doctor Lynn went on, As for the authorities, I believe the epidemic will have run its course before they’ve agreed to any but the most feeble action. Recommending onions and eucalyptus oil! Like sending beetles to stop a steamroller.”
Why the title?
Flu comes from the phrase “influenza delle stelle” – medieval Italians thought that illness was fated by the stars. There’s also one baby born a “stargazer” (facing up) and some literal looking up at the stars in the book.
My thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.
Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes
This is Maizes’ debut novel, after her 2019 short story collection We Love Anderson Cooper. Louise “La La” Fine and her father, Zev, share an unusual profession: While outwardly they are a veterinary student and a locksmith, respectively, for many years they broke into homes and sold the stolen goods. Despite close shaves, they’ve always gotten away with it – until now. When Zev is arrested, La La decides to return to her criminal ways just long enough to raise the money to post bail for him. But she doesn’t reckon on a few complications, like her father getting fed up with house arrest, her fiancé finding out about her side hustle, and her animal empathy becoming so strong that when she goes into a house she not only pilfers valuables but also cares for the needs of ailing pets inside.
Flashbacks to La La’s growing-up years, especially her hurt over her mother leaving, take this deeper than your average humorous crime caper. The way the plot branches means that for quite a while Zev and La La are separated, and I grew a bit weary of extended time in Zev’s company, but this was a great summer read – especially for animal lovers – that never lost my attention. The magic realism of the human‒pet connection is believable and mild enough not to turn off readers who avoid fantasy. Think The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley meets Hollow Kingdom.
My thanks to the author and Celadon Books for the free e-copy for review.
The Long Beds by Kate Miller
Here and there; now and then: the poems in Miller’s second collection enlarge such dichotomies by showcasing the interplay of the familiar and the foreign. A scientist struggles to transcribe birdsong, and a poppy opens in slow motion. “Flag” evokes the electric blue air and water of a Greek island, while “The Quarters” is set in the middle of the night in a French village. A few commissions, including “Waterloo Sunrise,” stick close to home in London or other southern England locales.
Various poems, including the multi-part “Album Without Photographs,” are about ancestor Muriel Miller’s experiences in India and Britain in the 1910s-20s. “Keepers of the States of Sleep and Wakefulness, fragment from A Masque,” patterned after “The Second Masque” by Ben Jonson, is an up-to-the-minute one written in April that names eight nurses from the night staff at King’s College Hospital (and the short YouTube film based on it is dedicated to all NHS nurses).
My two favorites were “Outside the Mind Shop,” in which urban foxes tear into bags of donations outside a charity shop one night while the speaker lies awake, and “Knapsack of Parting Gifts” a lovely elegy to a lost loved one. I spotted a lot of alliteration and assonance in the former, especially. Thematically, the collection is a bit scattered, but there are a lot of individual high points.
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.
Into the Tangled Bank: In Which Our Author Ventures Outdoors to Consider the British in Nature by Lev Parikian
In the same way that kids sometimes write their address by going from the specific to the cosmic (street, city, country, continent, hemisphere, planet, galaxy), this book, a delightfully Bryson-esque tour, moves ever outwards, starting with the author’s own home and garden and proceeding to take in his South London patch and his journeys around the British Isles before closing with the wonders of the night sky. By slowing down to appreciate what is all around us, he proposes, we might enthuse others to engage with nature.
With the zeal of a recent convert, he guides readers through momentous sightings and everyday moments of connection. As they were his gateway, many of these memories involve birds: looking for the year’s first swifts, trying to sketch a heron and realizing he’s never looked at one properly before, avoiding angry terns on the Farne Islands, ringing a storm petrel on Skokholm, and seeing white-tailed eagles on the Isle of Skye. He brings unique places to life, and pays tribute to British naturalists who paved the way for today’s nature-lovers by visiting the homes of Charles Darwin, Gilbert White, Peter Scott, and more.
I was on the blog tour for Parikian’s previous book, Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear?, in 2018. While the books are alike in levity (pun intended!), being full of self-deprecation and witty asides along with the astute observations, I think I enjoyed this one that little bit more for its all-encompassing approach to the experience of nature. I fully expect to see it on next year’s Wainwright Prize longlist (speaking of the Wainwright Prize, in yesterday’s post I correctly predicted four on the UK nature shortlist and two on the global conservation list!).
My thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the free copy for review.
Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey
Trethewey grew up in 1960s Mississippi with a Black mother and a white Canadian father, at a time when interracial marriage remained illegal in parts of the South. After her parents’ divorce, she and her mother, Gwen, moved to Georgia to start a new life, but her stepfather Joel was physically and psychologically abusive. Gwen’s murder opens and closes the book. Trethewey only returned to that Atlanta apartment on Memorial Drive after 30 years had passed. The blend of the objective (official testimonies and transcripts) and the subjective (interpreting photographs, and rendering dream sequences in poetic language) makes this a striking memoir, as delicate as it is painful. I recommend it highly to readers of Elizabeth Alexander and Dani Shapiro. (Full review forthcoming at Shiny New Books.)
My thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.
I’m reading two more July releases, Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett (Corsair, 2 July; for Shiny New Books review), about a family taxidermy business in Florida, and The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams (William Heinemann, 2 July), about an unusual dictionary being compiled in the Victorian period and digitized in the present day.
What July releases can you recommend?
I’ve enjoyed my second year participating in the Readers Imbibing Peril challenge. The highlights from my spooky October of reading were the classic ghost stories from my first installment and the Shirley Jackson novel below.
As this goes live I’m preparing to catch a train to York for the New Networks for Nature conference. Ever since the year I did my Master’s at Leeds, York is a place I’ve often contrived to be in late October or early November. What with ghost tours and fireworks for Bonfire Night, its cobbled streets are an atmospheric place to spend chilly evenings.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
The only thing I’d read by Jackson before is “The Lottery,” which I studied in a high school English class. I’d long meant to read one of her full-length books, so I snapped this up when it came into the free bookshop where I volunteer.
Dr. Montague, an anthropologist, assembles a small team to live at Hill House one summer and record any evidence that it is indeed haunted. Joining him are Luke Sanderson, the flippant heir to the house; Theodora (“Theo”), rumoured to have psychic abilities; and Eleanor Vance, a diffident 32-year-old who experienced an unexplained event when she was a child and now, after the recent death of the mother for whom she was a nurse for years, determines to have an adventure all of her own. As the four become familiar with the house’s history of tragedies and feuds, their attempts to explore the house and grounds leave them feeling disoriented and, later, terrified.
Things really heat up at about the halfway point. There’s a feeling that the house has power –
“the evil is the house itself, I think … it is a place of contained ill will” (Dr. Montague)
“It’s the house. I think it’s biding its time.” (Eleanor)
– what could it make them all do? I don’t often read from the suspense or horror genre, but I did find this gripping and frightening, and I never saw the ending coming. Hard to believe the book is 60 years old.
(I wondered if Claire Fuller could have taken this as partial inspiration for Bitter Orange, in which a thirtysomething woman who was her mother’s carer for many years until the older woman’s death undertakes a summer of study at a dilapidated house.)
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
As with The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I attempted in 2017, I think the problem here was that the story was too culturally familiar to me. Everyone knows the basics of Jekyll & Hyde: a respectable doctor occasionally transforms into a snarling boor and commits acts of violence. The only thing that was murky for me was exactly how this happens. (Jekyll has been experimenting with drugs that will provoke mystical experiences and a taste of the dark side of humanity; to become Hyde he takes a potion of his own devising. At first the metamorphosis is something he can control, but eventually he starts becoming Hyde without any warning, until it seems there’s no returning to his normal life.)
The novella is mostly from the point of view of Mr. Utterson, Jekyll’s lawyer friend, who drew up his will leaving everything to Hyde. Utterson has always been uncomfortable with the terms of the will, but even more so as he hears of Hyde knocking over a young girl and beating a gentleman to death in the street. The third-person narrative is interspersed with documents including letters and confessions, a bit like in Dracula. For its first readers this must have been a thrilling read full of shocking revelations, but I found my mind wandering. I’ve tried a few Stevenson books now; I think this was probably my last.
(Available as a free download from Project Gutenberg.)
I’m not at all one for scary books; horror and even crime fiction rarely make it onto my reading agenda. But in advance of Halloween I did read a few books that would count as creepy. Maybe you’ll fancy picking one of them up today?
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Vol. II by M.R. James
I’ve only ever read one M.R. James piece before, in an anthology of stories about libraries. This was perhaps not an ideal way to encounter his ghost stories for the first time. Though all four (“Number 13,” “Count Magnus,” “Oh, Whistle and I Will Come to You, My Lad” and “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”) are adapted by the same pair, Leah Moore and John Reppion, each is illustrated by a different artist, so the drawing style ranges from rounded and minimalist to an angular, watercolor Marvel style. The stories have thematic links of research, travel, archaeological discovery and antiquities. Very often there are found documents that must be interpreted. Several narrators are scholars coming across unexplained phenomena: a hotel room that appears and disappears, a sarcophagus lid that opens on its own, a storm summoned by a whistle, and so on.
In a brief introduction, Jason Arnopp applauds the decision to “show readers the ghouls and ghosts,” but I disagree – to me a central problem with using the graphic form for these tales that center around nameless horror is that depicting the source of horror saps it of its power. Still, I appreciated the introduction to James’s ghost stories.
With thanks to SelfMadeHero for the free copy for review.
Devil’s Day by Andrew Michael Hurley
In Hurley’s Lancashire farmland setting, Devil’s Day is a regional Halloween-time ritual when the locals serve up the firstborn lamb of spring as a sacrifice to ward off the Devil’s shape-shifting appearance in the human or animal flock. Is it all a bit of fun, or necessary for surviving supernatural threat? We see the year’s turning through the eyes of John Pentecost, now settled back on his ancestral land with his wife, Kat, and their blind son, Adam. However, he focuses on two points from his past: his bullied childhood and a visit home early on in his marriage that coincided with the funeral of his grandfather, “the Gaffer”. The Endlands is a tight-knit community with a long history of being cut off from everywhere else, which makes it an awfully good place to keep secrets.
The first and last quarters of the book flew by for me, while the middle dragged a bit. The rural atmosphere and the subtle air of menace reminded me of Elmet and Bellman and Black. I’ll certainly seek out Hurley’s acclaimed debut, The Loney. [Read via NetGalley]
“Nothing changed in Underclough. Nothing happened. Not really. … elsewhere was always a place where the worst things happened. … The world outside the valley might well collapse but we wouldn’t necessarily feel the ripples here.”
Slade House by David Mitchell
“If I could just see a ghost, just once … Just one ghost, so I know that death’s not game over, but a door.”
This was so cool! I feel like I’d never experienced a “real” Mitchell book before (having only read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which is in some ways the odd one out), and I was impressed by how he brings everything together in this short novel. Every nine years between 1979 and 2015, a different visitor gets sucked into the treacherous world-within-a-world of the Grayer twins’ Slade House. This dilapidated mansion located off an unassuming alley morphs to fit each guest’s desires. To reveal more would spoil the fun, so I’ll just say that I love how Mitchell lulls you into a pretty horrific pattern before springing a couple of major surprises in later chapters. Each time period and narrator feels distinct and believable, and I’m told one character is from two other Mitchell novels (and the phrase “bone clock” even makes an appearance). I need to pick up Cloud Atlas soon for sure. [Public library copy]
Recommended spooky listening: The album That Ghost Belongs to Me by The Bookshop Band – all songs inspired by scary books.