25 October 2016

After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry

After thoroughly enjoying The Essex Serpent I wasted little time in ordering After Me Comes the Flood, Perry's first novel.  With a slightly spooky synopsis it would make a well-timed October read leading up to Halloween.  My hopes were high....

'I'm writing this in a stranger's room on a broken chair at an old school desk.  The chair creaks if I move, and so I must keep very still.  The lid of the desk is scored with symbols that might have been made by children or men, and at the bottom of the inkwell a beetle is lying on its back.  Just now I thought I saw it move, but it's dry as a husk and must've died long before I came.'

So how did John Cole come to be in a stranger's room?  A heatwave hangs over London that eventually drives away anyone who can pack up and leave.  Feeling isolated, not to mention a bit ill, John decides to close his bookshop until further notice and visit his brother in Norfolk.  When his car begins to overheat with London an hour behind him, John pulls over in a shady patch.  In a trance-like state, along with periodic bouts of vomiting, John walks toward a large house that has been neglected and 'bears stains where ivy had been pulled down from the walls'.  As he approaches, a young woman, not much more than a girl, opens the door and addresses John by name.

Now at this point most people would get the heebie jeebies and think of a quick reason to retreat, but I'm well on my way to suspending disbelief and am willing to just go with it.  Crossing the threshold of the house, into the unknown, ramps up my anticipation that something very bad is about to happen.  And after all, being driven into spasms of gut-wrenching fear is exactly what you want in a Halloween read.  But the story changed gears which left me a bit wanting.  I wanted John to hone every psychological trick in the book to get out of the house in one piece but in no time at all he's at the dinner table and tucking in for the night.  And just who are John's new hosts?  They're former residents of a psychiatric convalescent home.

Hester owns the house and is quite the imposing figure, Alex and Clare are red-haired twins who seem relatively innocent, Eve is mysterious, aloof, and having an affair with Walker. Elijah is a retired preacher...and there are plenty of biblical references within the story.  A day of reckoning is swiftly approaching as Alex becomes obsessed with the idea that the nearby reservoir has a crack which could lead to a catastrophe.

The weather holds its own as a character in this story as does a wonderful sense of timelessness.  Even the sundial is broken so you can never be sure of the hour.

There is a thread of illness that plagues John which made me wonder if he was being drugged into some sort of compliance.  I silently yelled at him to refuse cups of tea and glasses of wine but he is an equal partner in what amounts to a case of mistaken identity.  In any case, the story never went where I thought it would and I'm left wondering if that's a good thing or not.  Did Sarah Perry write a superbly clever novel or did she have a terrific idea that didn't quite come together?  There were several convenient aspects that I couldn't let go, but perhaps I like my stories to be a bit more cut and dried.  In any case, I do look forward to seeing what Perry turns out next.


12 October 2016

Birthday Books

 Having my birthday fall during the Thanksgiving long weekend has all sorts of advantages.  The humidity of summer is gone which means the sweaters you couldn't wait to cast aside last May are fabulous again.  There is no limit to the amount of pumpkin pie you can eat, fall fairs reeking with the aroma of candy floss and woodsmoke, and the trees are literally making a show of themselves.

Kip is quickly learning that a ride in the car can lead to goodness knows where.  On Monday we went for a hike along the trails of Burlington's botanical gardens.  Throngs of other people had the same idea.  Being able to feed a chickadee while it's perched on your hand is the popular thing to do, but it is a bit funny to see so many people standing along the paths with their eyes and palms to the sky...waiting.  It's a bit like a spontaneous art installation project and a lovely one at that.

Despite the fact my actual birthday was not on Friday, it was close enough to finagle a couple of new books under the pretence.  Last month I had one of those dreaded experiences in which you realize a fabulous bookshop is around the corner, but when you walk up to the door it's closed.  Venturing back with one hundred percent certainty that Archetype Books was open, we spent an hour browsing and talking books with the owner Natalie, whose reading tastes are a lot like mine.  I wanted to choose a stand-out book to mark the occasion so the minute I spied Weatherland by Alexandra Harris my browsing stopped there.

'The weather is vast and yet we experience it intimately, which is why Alexandra Harris builds her remarkable story from small evocative details.  There is the drawing of a twelfth-century man in February warming his toes by the fire.  There is the tiny glass left behind from the Frost Fair of 1684, and the Sunspan house in Angmering that embodies the bright ambitions of the 1930s.  Harris catches the distinct voices of compelling individuals.  "Bloody cold" says Jonathan Swift in the "slobbery' January of 1713.  Percy Shelley wants to become a cloud and John Ruskin wants to bottle one.'

 If a snippet like that doesn't make you want to cuddle up with the book and a pot of tea for the evening then what will?  As for Tea & Cake London by Zena Alkayat. it's going to help me plan my next trip across the pond.  And after the amount of indulging I managed last weekend, looking at cake is what I'm disciplining myself to for the next little bit if I want to fit into my fall wardrobe.

Oh, and I almost forgot...the fluorite bookmark was made by The Bookmark Lady (Celia Pursley) and purchased at the fair in Vineland.  The colour reminds me of stormy water - perfect in its current location.

6 October 2016

The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff

My plans to see out September with a perfectly-timed title crumbled a bit when I needed emergency laser surgery on my eye.  Two weeks ago, first thing in the morning, three quick rounds of flashing appeared in the peripheral vision of my right eye.  This is never a good sign.  I had two choices:  go to the hospital, or go to work and call my optometrist's office once it opened.  The second option would be quicker, and sure enough, within a couple of hours I was assessed and had an appointment with a vitreoretinal surgeon in a neighbouring city for later the same day.  My retina was torn and needed to be fixed right away.

I'm not the sort of person who takes things for granted but I can't tell you how thankful I am for modern medicine.  It didn't take long to consider the people this has happened to who simply went blind for lack of treatment whether it be a hundred years ago, or yesterday, due to lack of available resources.  My follow-up appointment on Monday went well but I have to go once again in three months just to make sure everything is stable.  Fingers crossed!  But enough about me, on with my thoughts about the book.

The Fortnight in September is a seaside holiday sandwiched in cheery endpapers.  The first page paints a picture of the Stevens family, living in Dulwich with a Railway Embankment at the bottom of their garden.  Mary is nearly twenty (which makes her a honeymoon baby) and works at a tailor's shop, Dick is seventeen and has recently started working for a wholesale stationers off Ludgate Hill,  Ernie is ten years old.  Everyone is excited about their impending annual trip to the seaside, except for Mrs Stevens who harbours a secret fear of the water.

With hilarious military precision, the Stevens family consult a list of duties before closing up their modest home on Corunna Road for two weeks.  Things to be dealt with include stopping all tradesmen, locking up the silver, and having the neighbour pour puss a bowl of milk every other day and to leave out a bloater on Mondays and Thursdays.  Even something as mundane as packing Ernie's kite is considered, it's always packed in the large case first so as not to be crumpled.  And the beach shoes need to be pipeclayed, which is something I needed to look up on Google.

I absolutely loved the image of a family anticipating a holiday to relieve them of their daily routines and looking forward to a change of scenery, only to fix their gaze on their humble home through the window of the train as it passes the end of their garden.  And who wouldn't recognize the thoughts of Mrs Stevens....

'Her only anxiety was to see that no smoke issued from the chimneys or windows - for she dreaded the possibility of having left a dishcloth near the hot stove or a few smouldering cinders in the kitchen range.'

RC Sherriff writes an account of the Stevens' train journey so intricately the reader feels as though they're right beside them in the compartment.  The obligatory flask of tea, the wrapped sandwiches, anticipated landmarks inching nearer all mark the traditional ride and their nearness to Bognor Station.

Mrs. Huggett runs 'Seaview', a small B&B, and has watched the family grow over the twenty years she's had their custom. The house is starting to look a bit tired but the lumps in the mattress and dreary corners are overlooked because the Stevens are loyal to tradition.  Husband and wife need to place a bolster down the middle of the bed each night to stop them from rolling into one another.  The following paragraph is absolutely brilliant...

'For many years it had been Mrs. Huggett's ambition and pride to renew something every spring, and this year the old yellow patterned linoleum on the stairs had been replaced by a brightly coloured carpet that glared with cheap insolence at the old, faded banister.  Dick and Mary dared not think of the scraping and saving that must have gone to the purchase of this carpet, yet its cheap gaudy colours seemed to jeer and scoff at Mrs. Huggett, and turn the nobility of her striving into something paltry and almost comic.'

Over the next two blissful weeks everyone in the family will take some time to assess the past year and look ahead to the future.  And such are the joys of reading a novel from the 1930s that Mary is anxious about asking her parents if it's alright to venture our for a stroll with a new friend, but thinks nothing of lighting up a cigarette while out with her family.  Though I felt a bit sad for Mrs, Stevens as she secretly revels in one hour of peace in the evening with a glass of port - strictly for the purpose of enriching her 'thin' blood.  The author did make me laugh as he knows something of being a young boy when I read...

'But Ernie could scarcely be counted as a human being after twelve hectic hours of ceaseless activity on the sands, and after he had drowsed away ten minutes on the sofa Mrs, Stevens took him up to bed'.

Everything about The Fortnight in September harkens back to another era and yet is so identifiable today.  Mr Stevens walks a little taller during his holiday as he's no longer just another member of the lower middle-classes, he is addressed as 'Sir' by porters and drivers.  No one is who they are the other fifty weeks of the year.  But while tradition has held strong for the past twenty years, change is inevitable.

This edition was one of the first books I bought at Persephone Books because the reviews were glowing.  Not being able to get away this summer because we chose to bring a new puppy into the house made this the perfect time to at least read about a holiday.  The Fortnight in September ticked all sorts of boxes for me and I will definitely be on the lookout for more books by RC Sherriff.

18 September 2016

Sandlands by Rosy Thornton

This sublime collection of short stories arrived at the most perfect of moments.  The house is a whirlwind of activity with the constant surveillance it takes to spare furniture from teeth marks, carpets from stains, and the almost daily public service announcements to neighbourhood children that young pups are not for winding up.  I put my hand up in solemn confession that the email connected with my blog has probably been checked a mere few times in the three months we've had Kip.  I couldn't be more pleased, and quite thankful, that Rosy Thornton's email was caught in time before disappearing amidst Goodreads announcements, comment notifications and the odd bit of spam.

There are so many things to say about this book.  Each time I sat down with my cup of tea and began another story was like stepping onto a country lane.  Fields and forest feature prominently as a backdrop to tales that range from mythical to biblical and downright spooky.  And at one delightful point I realized that these stories are joined by a thread of community.  On a few occasions characters are mentioned in more than one story, and regardless of the story, if villagers are popping over to the pub they'll be at The Ship Inn.  As you read you form an image of what the Suffolk landscape is like, learn how different generations view its past, and discover that sometimes no matter how modern a village has become, legend and superstition still hold a firm grip.

One of the most admirable aspects of a short story (in the hands of a good writer) is the ability to stir emotion in so short a time frame.  The first story The White Doe is eleven pages long but by the last page my t-shirt was pulled up to my chin and I was filled with dread.  By the fourth story The Watcher of Souls I had resorted to a horrible habit of using my t-shirt to wipe away tears.  Well who wants to put down a book to fetch a tissue at a moment like that?  Another story The Level Crossing is about a young woman who is pregnant and quite sure she's going to have to go it alone.  While out jogging she recalls the story of an ancestor who was killed by a train and wonders what the little girl might have seen or felt.  As the signal lights announce an approaching train, Isobel contemplates an immediate resolve to the stream of doubt regarding her ability to move forward as a single parent.  By the end of the story I was holding my breath in terror, afraid of what would happen next.

I read the stories in Sandlands in the order they fell and loved not knowing which era I would find myself in next.  Whether writing about brothers flying missions during World War II, contemporary bell ringers, or witches from the 1500s, Rosy Thornton's meticulous research delivers authenticity to her stories without weighing them down in detail.

The final story is called Mackerel.  I admit to thinking 'you're going to finish this fabulous book with a story about fish?'.  But as is so often the case, where you start out is rarely where you end up, and such was the case here.  I finished this story, and the book, welling up with tears...yes, again.  I don't want to give anything away but will share a sample of a paragraph from Mackerel so beautiful, and so typical of Rosy's way with words, that I read it several times...

    'This is a land of sand.  The earth hereabouts is nothing but; it's a wonder anything grows in it at all.  On the common it's a pale powder grey, soft as ash and lifted by the slightest breeze, but on the roads it's as golden yellow as any treasure island beach.  Every May or June it starts its creeping invasion, sending fingers across the tarmac from right and left.  Baked to dust by the sun, it shakes out from around the feet of the bracken and cow parsley, the campion and cuckooflowers which swell the verges.  You could almost fancy it the work of strange, secret tides which rise in the night to cover the fields and lanes, then slip away before daylight to leave new spits and sandbars like a signature on the landscape.  A land with the imprint of the sea.' 

Thank you, Rosy, for sending me a copy of Sandlands.  You are a talented writer, and while you really didn't need my humble opinion in promoting this wonderful collection, I am so very glad your book found its way to me.  Sneaking an hour to read, here and there, while Kip slept off his horseplay, was like escaping to a tranquil place - even if you did bring me to tears several times.

Blaxhall Church by David Gillingwater