Spooktober Roundup

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I don’t know what happened this month. I feel like I must have walked into a timewarp at some point, but I keep checking my list and it IS accurate. Somehow or other I managed to read 21 books (Hands up this is a total humble brag, but I AM genuinely shocked). Given I read FOUR last month and thought that was good going I actually don’t know how I managed this. The only thing I can think is that SO MANY of them were just fantastic that I just couldn’t stop. Anyway, apologies for the length of this – it won’t happen again. Honestly, if you make it through this more power to you! (I might even send you one of the mythical Orange Twirls as a reward!)

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff (5 stars)

Mia was born into privilege, and enjoyed the high life until she was 10. Content with her parents, baby brother and beloved cat (who is relevant in the story, I promise!). Then a misplaced coup results in everything being torn from her and her running for her life. 6 years later she is looking to enter the secretive and elite assassins training school to become a Blade and get justice for the wrongs done to her family by the corrupt power structures of ????. The guild is comprised of zealots who excel at what they do, but competition is fierce, and each and every one of the acolytes is a murderer already. Added to that: their training consists of surviving the masters’ multiple attempts to murder them, and this becomes Hogwarts for adults – with swearing, sex and bloody gory murder a plenty.

This book grabbed me from the first line, and I’d ordered the rest of the trilogy before I was halfway through. It’s compelling, brutal and wonderfully written. I cannot express how much I loved it. But it is absolutely definitely NOT for children or young adults. I’ve seen a lot of reviewers really struggle with this and try to fit it into that box, I’m assuming because the protagonist is a teenage girl?

The Lost Ones by Anita Frank (5 stars)

In 1917 Stella Marchem returns from nursing in the Great War, traumatised and having to come to terms with the horrific loss of her childhood sweetheart and fiancé. Steeped in a deep depression, Stella is given the mission of attending to her lonely and newly the Lost ones backpregnant sister, Madeline, who currently lives with her mother-in-law and a handful of servants in an oppressive and chilling country manor. And so off she sets with her maid, Annie Burrows; a young girl who makes everyone around her nervous and who seems to on the knife edge of madness. But Madeline is facing more than simple loneliness; from running footsteps to sudden chills; misplaced items and sobbing in the night. Is it hormonal hysteria, or is there something more sinister at work?

Anita Frank has woven together a terrifying and nerve wracking tale which warrants becoming an instant classic of the genre. The first half ratchets up the tension unbearably; I genuinely found myself with goosebumps and nervous to go into unlit rooms, before unravelling its macabre revelations. It creates a tangibly unsettling atmosphere which, even with a satisfying ending, stays with you long after the book closes. This had me gripped from the start to the end and I’ll be recommending it to everyone for some time to come.

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd (5 stars)

So having 4 5 star reviews in one month makes it look like I hand them out Willy Nilly, but I promise I don’t! I just read a lot of good stuff this month! But also somehow or other I’ve read 3 mermaid or “people of the sea” stories this year. It’s not a genre I specifically seek out, but I guess coincidences happen. After the first two: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock and Pisces, I decided that maybe I just didn’t like mermaid stories, cause I HATED those two. (To be fair they both contained some pretty atrocious sex scenes and a lot of very unlikeable characters.) Then along came Things in Jars to prove me wrong.

Bridie Devine is a Victorian era detective, interested in figuring out how things work and

Things in Jars
Things in Jars atop a Piano in Lews Castle

helping people that most would overlook. Having risen from an Irish Street rat to a doctor’s apprentice and now an independent woman who advocates for the less privileged, Bridie’s reputation is still recovering from her last case. Which is why a Baron with something…fishy to hide feels confident that she’ll keep his case confidential. So Bridie and her 7 foot tall ferocious maid, Cora get drafted in to find Christabel Berwick; a missing child that no one was supposed to know even existed, and who has a little something of Kirstin Dunst’s “butter wouldn’t melt/oh so vicious” character from Interview with a Vampire about her. Oh and Bridie absolutely doesn’t believe in anything inexplainable or supernatural. She DEFINITELY doesn’t believe in ghosts, and definitely isn’t developing feelings for the really handsome half dressed spectre from her past who just so happens to be following her everywhere.

What Jess Kidd has produced here is a book full of warmth, heart and genuinely hilarious quirks. It’s a Victorian detective story, but with a folklore twist and loveable characters. So loveable that I found myself digging my heels in as I neared the ending (which fair warning, is inevitably bittersweet) and desperate for the ability to spend more time with Bridie and Cora. The fact that these characters aren’t in a series is a travesty and if I’m ever fortunate enough to meet Kidd I’ll be on my knees begging for more of them.

Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (4 stars)

I, along with every other millennial out there, am utterly obsessed with Fleabag. It’s captured a zeitgeist that is hard to explain. It is whip-smart, dark and oh so identifiable. So I loved reading the original version which has most of the elements of Season 1 and demonstrates one of the earlier evolutions of the show that stole everyone’s heart. This edition also collated memories of the stage show from the cast and crew.

The Institute by Stephen King (4 stars)

12 year old Luke has displayed minor skills in Telekinesis. Not even powerful to alert himself to his skills, he has been spotted by the Institute, a shady organisation in Maine who captures children with special talents and puts them to nefarious use. Meanwhile in Small town South Carolina, an ex-cop from Florida is starting a new life with the Sheriff’s department.

It’s very hard to go into the intricacies of this book without giving too much away, but as always King is a master story weaver, walking that fine line of compelling and making the unbelievable believable. If you’re a King fan I think you’ll enjoy this one. If not, start with Carrie and you will be!

Rivers of London: Black mould by Ben Aaronovitch (4 stars)

The Rivers of London book series is one of my Go To fantasy series’. Full confession, I don’t always fully understand what’s going on, particularly with whatever mystical revelation happens towards the end, and I’m totally lost from one book to the next about where things stand with Lesley May (not sure why this flummoxes me, it’s usually stated pretty clearly.) But this confusion is where I found the Graphic Novel really came into its own. Black Mould is a standalone orginal graphic novel story that sees Peter and Guleed have to fight both sentient fungus and slum landlords as Peter continues his training with The Folly, the super secret supernatural branch of the Met Police.

It’s a simple enough story, but seeing the characters and humour that I love in illustration really expanded my understanding of the series as a whole. I’ll definitely be seeking out the other graphic novels.

Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon by James Lovegrove (4 stars)

20191022_175948.jpgHaving been approached in a coffee shop by Eve Allerthorpe, eldest daughter of a wealthy and entirely batshit crazy Yorkshire family who live in a gothic black castle in the middle of a lake, Holmes and Watson are engaged to investigate the mysterious myth of the Black Thurrick; an evil side kick to Father Christmas who likes to leave bunches of birch sticks around and snack on naughty children.

Eve’s sudden interest in the myth is, in large, thanks to some weird goings on and supernatural sightings around her creepy and not at all cosy home. Of course she’s due a substantial inheritance on her 21st birthday on Christmas Eve, on one condition; that she has managed to retain control of her mental faculties by then. But while investigating out of curiosity a far more serious crime occurs almost in front of Holmes and Watson. So has local folklore come to life or is someone trying to drive Eve mad? Who would dare try and pull the wool over Holmes and Watson’s eyes? And can the grumpiest and most eccentric family in England make it through a holiday season in one piece?

This is a highly entertaining and enjoyably ludicrous tale. Holme’s eccentricity and Watson’s sarcasm are set off perfectly by being surrounded by like-minded and similarly oddball members of the upper classes. There a moments of slapstick and exquisite arguments of the absurd where Holmes again proves his ability to always be right is pure luck, but is nothing compared to his unparalleled confidence in himself. And beneath it all the story is beautifully written and imagined. A truly enjoyable festive mystery.

Safe House by Jo Jakeman (4 stars)

Charlie Miller is a woman on the run from her past. She’s just been released from prison for perverting the course of justice, but is also having to come to terms with her own guilt and abuse at the hands of ex-boyfriend and serial killer Lee. With few ties to her old life and hankering after a new start, she flees to Cornwall, intending to keep her head down and try and acclimatise to her new freedom and self-awareness, but she’s being hunted by multiple people. Can she really just start anew?

Thrillers are brain popcorn for me, I read them as a palate cleanser; a mini puzzle where I try and figure out the twists and turns as soon as possible. Usually the foreshadowing is pretty obvious but not with Safe House. This genuinely kept me second guessing myself until the end, and even when I did just about figure it out (About a chapter and a half before the reveal, but I wasn’t certain) it still managed to throw a twist at me that I REALLY didn’t see coming. (It’s fairly minor, but I appreciated the surprise).

Charlie is a likeable character who made catastrophic mistakes.. She was a victim herself, but is having to find the balance of accepting her own vulnerabilities, complicity and abuse. There was the odd scene, particularly towards the end which felt like it was written with cinematic dreams in mind and ignore the prologue which feels much clumsier than the rest of the book, this is a well drawn, subtle character driven story with edge of the seat tension and jeopardy.

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Tam O Shanter by Robert Burns, adapted by Richmond Clements (4 Stars)

From Cranachan Books comes this new vibrant Manga rendering of the classic Burns poem Tam O’Shanter. I always struggled with the depth of the Scots Language in Tam O Shanter, but this rendition really does bring it too life and is chock full of atmosphere. A good Scottish Autumnal tale for a creepy Halloween. Highly recommended.

My Name is Monster by Katie Hale (3 stars)

Monster has survived the apocalypse deep in the Arctic Seed vault, miles from home. Emerging weeks later, she must make her world through a totally changed and deserted world and find a new home, but she’s not entirely alone. In an unnamed city she discovers a child who she takes under her wing, naming her Monster and renaming herself Mother.

This is a strange slow burner of a book, showing the fears and hopes of motherhood spliced alongside a child’s need to become their own person and make their own way in the world. It is beautiful but dark.

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry (3 Stars)

Two ageing Irish gangsters have staked out the Gibraltar ferry port, searching for Dilly, a daughter that hasn’t been seen in 3 years. What follows reads in part like an atmospheric one act play and in part like a painful flashback to the drug glory days of the 90s when Charlie and Maurice were making names for themselves.

It’s an interesting book that is absolutely not for everyone – it’s written very stylistically – but contains lifetimes of pain and love while two Irish fuckups try to figure out what the hell life is about. Their conversations are hilarious, but spin on a dime and turn dangerous with breathtaking speed. Their entire beings are wrought through with violence and pathos as they reflect back on the mistakes they’ve made and the hurt they’ve caused over the decades. Drugs and uncontrollable urges abound, and yet despite the fact that they have been horrible people who have committed unforgiveable crimes, Maurice and Charlie are pretty likeable; in part because they own up to their mistakes (even if it is too late), and in part because of the fondness with which Dilly views them. Safely. From a distance.

Duckett & Dyer: Dicks for Hire by G.M Nair (3 stars)

Michael Duckett and Stephanie Dyer are chalk and cheese but have been friends forever. She’s chaotic and he’s Type A. But just as their friendship if falling apart they mysteriously get dragged into a manic adventure to save the multiverse.

This is the first book in a new series which relies a little too heavily on stereotypes but offers a tantalising glimpse of a promising new sci-fi/humour series. I’ll definitely be checking out the sequel when it arrives.

The Aunt who Wouldn’t Die by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay (3 stars)

Lyrical prose succinctly captures three very different women in a Bengali family struggling to navigate the social conventions expected of them: a young modern woman who wants nothing to do with marriage and feels she has to duck, dive and lie to retain her independence, a shrewd young bride who carefully “manages” her new husband and family towards success from a position of supposedly happy meekness (although there is burning passion present too, which eventually takes over), and a righteously furious ghost of an elderly aunt who taunts and goads her family with scathing rants, pushing them via sneering insults and death threats to achieve more than she was allowed too. A quick read but containing massive riches (and some hidden treasure).

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (3 stars)

This was a brutal read. Written as a lilting stream of consciousness from the point of view of Sylvie, an abused and brainwashed 17 year old girl on a summer “study” retreat with her psychopathic father who is obsessed with the Iron age; her institutionalised mother and an archaeological study group. Sylvie knows not to enrage her father, and knows to hide his physical abuse from prying eyes, but also takes it as normal that she is whipped black and blue based on his whims. The Horror that unfolds as her father and the professor explore their obsessions with the past and the Britishness of the Iron Age feels like sliding uncontrollably and inevitably towards a cliff edge, but the tension is built with poetical intensity.

The Guardians by John Grisham (3 stars)

John Grisham deserves his reputation as a crime writer. Normally I loathe present tense writing as it often smacks of immaturity, so my heart sank when I saw that’s what this was, but within the first few pages I was gripped as Grisham wove his typically tight, tense and compelling narrative.

The Guardians of the title are pro bono legal sharks who pursue exonerations for the wrongfully convicted, and this novel, some of which is sadly based on true cases, looks at two particularly intricate cases. The characters are interesting and sympathetic, the plot is believable yet also insane and the tension is palable . Indubitably readable.

Captain America Dark Designs by Stefan Petrucha (3 stars)

It’s 2005 and Captain America has finally gotten some semblance of a life back, but following routine tests after a mission, it’s discovered that within his body Cap carries an extinction level virus. Why it’s not currently active, and what might trigger it is anyone’s guess, but to protect humanity Rogers has to head back to the deep freeze until a cure can be found.Captain America

However, old nemesis Red Skull is back, in a body cloned from Captain America himself, so he also carries the virus, except that he has become symptomatic. Knowing the end is insight, and without the selfless gene that is sending Rogers into cryogenic sleep, Red Skull sets about fulfilling his bucket list; specifically ending Captain America, with the aid of some hidden old Nazi Tech. Can Rogers fight off giant killer Nazi robots and a psychopathic enemy with a bug that makes Ebola look like a cold all while he’s technically in quarantine?

What follows is a rollicking good adventure which explores the extremes of Steve’s moral code, and what sets him apart from other heroes. Philosophical questions are thrown into the mix like challenges which Steve side steps with ease.

The Silent House by Nell Pattison (3 stars)

Waking up to their worst nightmare, the Hunter Family discover one of their children was murdered in the night. But they are deaf and heard nothing. Paige Northwood is called in as an interpreter, but being part of the Deaf Community herself her interest quickly becomes much more personal and her investigations lead her to a dark place.

Despite the promising concept this is a pretty run of the mill thriller, with red herrings a plenty and a so so conclusion. Worth a read, but doesn’t fulfil the promise it makes.

The Extinction trials by SM Wilson (The Extinction Trials: 3 stars Exile, 2 Stars,  Rebel 2 Stars)

Stormchaser Knux accidentally finds herself taking part in trials to become a finalist to go to Piloria in search of food, resources and a way of survival. Piloria, as opposed to Earthasia, Storm’s home continent which is struggling to sustain its population, is the dinosaur continent across the sea. Thus Storm and a hodge podge band of comrades and a cardboard cut-out villain find themselves shipped off to face the living fossils.

I’m not totally sure why I kept reading these, honestly I’m exhausted just writing the summary, remembering how they were executed. Maybe it’s cause I grabbed them at the Library and they were easy reads, but good grief they were not good. The blurby bit describes them as The Hunger Games meets Jurassic World. Maybe in Ambition; it’s a good summation of what the series tries to do, but absolutely not in execution. It’s one dimensional, predictable, tries to be gory and edgy but really isn’t and the exposition; oh god the exposition is endless, clumsy and repetitive. Yet I read them all. And Quickly. I’m not sure why.

Of course I’m not the target audience for these. It says 13 + (Nope) but I try and put myself in my 7 year old’s shoes and I think he’d just have got bored, especially compared to the quality of some of the stuff he’s been reading. However, given that I tore through them I don’t feel I can warn you off despite not wanting to recommend them. (Look at my expert level of fence sitting!). Make your own minds up, but good luck!

Everything you Ever Wanted By Luiza Sauma (2 stars)

Oh Boy was this a disappointment.

Stuck in an overpopulated rat race Iris is struggling with depression and feeling her life is meaningless, when she gets the opportunity to be part of a lead colony on Nyx, a new planet on the other side of the galaxy which offers a new start and open space. The catch is it’s a one way ticket. The concept had so much promise but was a massive disappointment. It raises questions about Depression and the society we’re living in. Is the grass really greener on the other side? The answer will be obvious from the start, but it felt like a mystery was set up that never really paid off, the characters were one dimensional and their motivation never particularly compelling. Definitely NOT everything that I wanted.

Pick of the Month: Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

Dud of the Month: Everything you Ever Wanted by Luiza Sauma

Sonny and Me by Ross Sayers

Book Review

After spending a week of my life immersed in my new favourite novel I picked up Sonny and Me by Ross Sayers to review, stealing myself that it just wasn’t going to be as good but “I’d better give it a chance”. And something amazing happened; it completely blew me over and stormed into my heart.

Set in Battlefield High in Stirlingshire, Sonny and Me follows two teenage boys; Sonny and Billy Daughter, best friends just trying to make it through secondary school with their dignity intact, when Daughter’s favourite school teacher, Miss Baird, is summarily20190521_183953 (1) kicked out of school and his hopes of making it through his Maths National 5 are dashed. Being a good Scots lad, Daughter is not willing to let this stand and he and Billy set about sticking their noses in and trying to unravel the web of gossip and intrigue that permeates their school. Is Miss Baird a home-wrecking villain, or is something more sinister going on?

The description of Sonny and Me doesn’t begin to touch on the warmth and humour that characterise this book. Sonny and Daughter are so well drawn, so recognisable and relatable, that I would willingly read about them watching paint dry; because I guarantee that their take on it would make me laugh. From the first time Sonny opens his beautifully naive mouth on page 1 I was laughing. These are two young boys who may not always have everything sorted, but deal with unrequited love, coming out and criminals with the same compassion, twinkle of wit and groan inducing jokes. Who express their “wokeness” with moral integrity but also a strong sense of Scottish mischief. Who, if my sons grew to be anything like them, I would be intensely proud; even while pulling my hair out with stress and despair. They feel like a true and honest depiction of kind and full of trouble teenage boys.

Around them the plot flows, always grounded in believability, even as it weaves its way through its mad cap revelations at the end (perhaps the one exception is the headmistress who feels a little pantomime villain in her boo-hiss evilness, but that is real nit picking.). Every step and choice the boys make is logical and relatable and often hilariously funny.

Maybe it’s because I spent four years in Stirling and so the geographical references made me feel like I’d come home, but Sonny and Me is so full of heart, humour and a rollicking good plot that reading it feels like hanging out with your best friends. This is a story targeted at young adults but endlessly enjoyable and highly recommended for everyone. Mature, thoughtful and genuinely laugh out loud funny.