Book Review: Eastmouth and Other Stories


Eastmouth and Other Stories, by Alison Moore, is one of a new series of books being released by Salt Publishing – Salt Modern Stories. This particular collection of short stories is written by one of my go to authors although, until now, I had yet to read her in shorter form. Each entry in the collection reflects Moore’s trademark style – understated and quietly disturbing. Lurking riptides beneath the smoothly flowing surface will pull readers inside her carefully crafted worlds. Perfect for spooky season, these are tales of ghosts – real and imagined? – alongside manifestations of fears that can be hard to supress when inhabiting dark and lonely places. There are malevolent spirits aplenty, particularly in houses and other supposedly safe spaces. These have been patiently awaiting their chance for mischief or revenge.

Twenty-one stories are included, opening with the titular Eastmouth. Like several others in the collection it is set in a tired, English seaside town. It tells of Sonia, a young woman visiting her boyfriend’s parents. Their welcome is unfettered, unlike their willingness to grant Sonia personal agency. Her boyfriend reveals concern when she will not comply as expected.

Many of the stories exude this need to gain control of another’s personal decision making. Partners attempt to undermine confidence. Help is offered that proves anything but beneficial. Other recurring themes include the presence of water in less than benign circumstances. Unsettling scenes include clever use of a variety of ordinary yet increasingly claustrophobic settings.

Characters are mostly British and exhibit the tics that, being so recognisable, can be amusing. When this develops into something more sinister it is done without fuss, as fits the psyche. Small town life and attitudes are captured skilfully, the apparent stoicism spilling over into an eventual need to deal with an irritant who won’t listen or learn. Readers will almost here them quietly state, ‘but you made me do it’.

A Month of Sundays is a curiously uplifting tale of an elderly gentleman attending a funeral. His last friend has died, going the way of the rest of their circle. The gentleman wondered how many would attend the service so is surprised to find the crematorium chapel more or less full. In chatting to others afterwards he finds himself accepted for unanticipated reasons.

The unexpected turn taken in Common Ground makes it both poignant and exasperatingly relatable. A new neighbour tries to ingratiate himself on the woman next door. When she remains unwilling to go on a date, to do as he wishes and thinks she should, he starts to complain about a tree in her garden. It becomes a metaphor for the way she has acted in the past although cannot admit to regretting.

“She can imagine how he is feeling now: righteous and miserable.”

The collection finishes with Ooderwald, a tale of the myriad ways one can say, ‘I lost’. The story being told is wound around the protagonist’s study of the English language, the many complex tenses few can define clearly yet with subtle differences in meaning. The losses suffered may differ in perceived scope but all cause degrees of suffering.

An eminently satisfying read from a master storyteller with a deliciously chilling imagination. Perfect for curling up with as the nights draw in – if you dare.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.


Book Review: The Retreat

the retreat

The Retreat, by Alison Moore, is a gloriously mischievous study of human interactions and behaviour when a group of six strangers come together on a small island for an artistic retreat. Alongside this tale is the parallel story of a writer who takes up an offer to stay alone on an island, that she may finish the novel she has been trying to complete for many years. Moore’s trademark undercurrents of foreboding shadow both storylines adding to the interest and tension. The sea surrounded setting is as much a character as the people inhabiting the closed off spaces.

The prologue introduces Sandra who, as a child, holidayed with her family on the island of Liel. From the window of their sea-front hotel, Sandra can see the smaller island of Lieloh, a place that anchors itself in her imagination. Her mother tells her it is privately owned, occupied by Valerie Swanson who was an actress in the era of silent films. Sandra is drawn to the idea of artistic types coming together for lavish parties, mingling in hope of meeting the resident celebrity. Between times Swanson could enjoy the peace and seclusion of her immaculately kept surrounds.

The second story focuses on Carol, a city dwelling short story writer who enjoys the finer things in life. Her friend, Jayne, is concerned when she learns Carol plans to stay alone on a private island, owned by a friend, until the first draft of her long discussed novel is finally complete. Jayne worries that Carol will struggle with the solitude, especially in the big old house where she will live. Carol, however, is determined to proceed.

“She wants to write the novel that for years she has been talking about writing. She wants to appear in window displays. She wants to be translated and read around the world. She wants a Netflix series, or to see her work on the big screen.”

Sandra once harboured a desire to attend art college but took an office job instead as a safer option. With middle age now approaching she wonders if it is too late to nurture what latent artistic talent she may possess. When she spots an advertisement for a fortnight long retreat on Lieloh, she signs up with high expectations.

“Here she is, on her way to live in Valerie Swanson’s house, among artists, in a little community. She imagines them supporting and inspiring one another, fetching vegetables from a kitchen garden, cooking together.”

Despite her best efforts, Sandra struggles to fit into the group that forms seamlessly around her. This is not a new experience – she recognises it from childhood. Sandra is required to share a room with a woman who is messy, offending Sandra’s more ordered habits. She is bossed around by another who expects everyone to follow her house rules.

“she speaks with a confidence that would prompt Sandra’s mother to say, as a disapproving aside, ‘She’s very sure of herself.'”

With no allies, Sandra feels she must acquiesce, trying to quash her simmering resentment. As the days go by she becomes ever more aware of how critically she is being viewed. Decisions are made for her without consultation. Sandra reacts by withdrawing, trying not to care and to focus on her painting. In doing her own thing, making it obvious she has no interest in chosen shared activities, she alienates the group further. Disappointment and loneliness lead to ever more risky undertakings as she tries to salvage her reasons for being on the retreat in the first place.

Carol settles into a routine and makes progress with writing her novel. Around her the old house creaks and groans, taking on a life of its own. The reader may decide if it is her muse or undoing, if her story is one of fantasy or horror.

Given how many writers appear to dream of going on a retreat, some with like minded individuals and others alone, these parallel stories offer both humour and a darker note of caution. They are a reminder that artistic types are all too human, with all this entails. Egos are easily bruised. Talent begs an appreciative audience. Jealousies fester. Those regarded as outsiders may be tolerated but will be kept on the margins. Established cliques have hierarchies and codes of conduct guarded opaquely by those who enjoy their sense of belonging.

As is typical for this author, the writing throughout is taut and spare. Threads are woven together with skilful precision. There is a warmth and depth to the character depictions and to the evocation of place across both storylines. The reader may never fully get to know Sandra, who has obvious flaws, but enough is revealed to garner sympathy. The group’s actions may appear unkind but are not without basis.

Carol’s story provides elements of the uncanny with plenty to unpick around the wisdom of longer term solitude. This is particularly interesting to consider given the years we have just lived through.

A spicy yet understanding take on tribal behaviour, artistic endeavours, and the effects of aspiration, judgement and rejection. Another excellent novel from an author deserving the widest acclaim.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Book Review: He Wants

he wants

He Wants, by Alison Moore, tells the story of Lewis Sullivan, a retired teacher who has lived his entire life in the same Midlands village. A widower, he is visited daily by his daughter, Ruth, and follows a predictable routine. On Sundays he walks with his elderly father, Lawrence, from the latter’s care home to church. On most other days he will walk to a local pub for a half of shandy and more interesting food than Ruth brings. Lewis misses his wife’s cooking. His restricted lifestyle is not what he once aspired to but he recognises that it was his inability to make life-changing decisions, to take risks, that has led him to this insular old age.

In taut and spare prose, Lewis’s past is revealed. As a child he dreamed of being a hero but never found the opportunity to act out the events he played over and over in his head. An avid reader, he regarded himself as a disappointment to his father who had tried to encourage a more adventurous spirit. Now he in turn observes his coddled grandchild and worries about the boy’s anxiety when encouraged to undertake any outdoor activity.

When Lewis was eighteen he experienced two pivotal events. Lawrence took him to see the preacher Billy Graham in Manchester, where they stayed with a couple they met at the event. Lewis also befriended Sydney Flynn, a local boy his age who was willing to rebel against his parents’ strictures. The pair’s time together was short lived but significant. Both sets of parents regarded the boy their son occasionally hung out with as a damaging influence.

The author’s writing is imbued with shadows and inference. There are shocking moments when it is made clear the role a secondary character is playing. The lives exposed are steeped in melancholy, the wanting and realisation that life offers few second chances. Conforming to parental and societal expectations comes with a price tag.

Moore has long been one of my favourite authors and this work once again confirms why I hold her in such esteem. She is a master at capturing the darkness lurking withing the everyday, of the damage carried by those who appear ordinary, that they suppress but cannot escape.

He Wants is published by Salt.

Book Review: Sunny and the Wicked Lady

“‘Just because she’s a story in a book,’ said Herbert, ‘doesn’t mean she’s not real.”

Sunny and the Wicked Lady, by Alison Moore (illustrated by Ross Collins), is the third story in a delightful series of children’s books featuring the titular young boy and his cohort of friendly ghosts. Sunny lives in the flat above his parents’ antique, vintage and second-hand shop, where the ghosts mostly rest by day inside furniture or a store cupboard. They come out at night to socialise and pursue their hobbies, although will occasionally join Sunny on wider adventures. Adults cannot see ghosts so Sunny’s parents believe he has imaginary friends. They tolerate this as a phase he is expected to outgrow.

The tale opens with a daytrip to Okehampton Castle – a ruin that is rumoured to be haunted. In a delicious quirk we are reminded that it is not just people who can be afraid of ghosts. The long dead Herbert has been reading a book of ghost stories that left him decidedly nervous. He became convinced that a lady said to have murdered each of her husbands could now come after him.

It turns out that Okehampton Castle is where the lady lived. She tries to follow Herbert, who is subsequently terrified when she turns up outside the shop in her carriage made from human bones. Meanwhile, the proprietor of a new museum starts to buy the ghosts’ favoured furniture. She has nefarious plans linked to her proposed exhibits.

Just like people who are still alive, ghosts can get lonely if denied company. They value their friends and are willing to help them when necessary. First impressions can be wrong, and a willingness to accept what others find important is a strength that should not be mocked. Such awareness is equally valid for adults and children.

The language and structure of the story are perfectly pitched to engage young readers whilst avoiding condescension. Indeed, there is plenty to entertain readers of all ages. The adventures related are enhanced by the wonderful illustrations. Along with the previous books in the series, this is a story of bravery and friendship that I highly recommend.

“‘You only get one afterlife,’ said Walter. ‘You might as well make the most of it.'”


My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Book Review: The Lighthouse

“He turns, gazing back at the path of trampled grass along which he has come. Considering retracing his steps, he wonders about all the points along the way at which he might have made a mistake, missed a turning, lost in thought.”

The protagonist of The Lighthouse is a middle aged man named Futh who has recently separated from his wife, Angela. It is set over the course of a week during which he is taking what he hopes will be a restorative walking holiday in Germany. Opening on the ferry in which he travels from his home in England, the reader is quickly appraised of events that have shaped Futh’s life to date. His mother left him and his father when he was a child and he has not heard from her since. His father has always been bad tempered and Futh learned to tread carefully or keep his distance. After his mother left, Futh turned for comfort to a neighbour, Gloria, whose marriage had also broken down. Gloria’s son, Kenny, did not appreciate the attention his mother offered his classmate. The boys had little in common other than proximity and age.

Futh has booked into a different hotel each night along his planned walking route, arranging for his luggage to be transported ahead of him during each day. The first hotel is in the town of Hellhaus, run by a married couple, Ester and Bernard. Ester is a faded beauty who seeks attention through infidelity with guests. She accepts the punishments Bernard metes out for this behaviour.

As Futh travels he recalls the days just prior to his mother’s departure. He remembers the evenings spent with Gloria and his failed friendship with Kenny. Futh had a schoolboy crush on Angela but only later managed to attract her attention. She would grow irritated when he mentioned any aspect of her behaviour that reminded him of his mother. She berated Futh for what she regarded as his failings, wanting him to be more practical, like Kenny.

Futh works for a company that produces the chemical scents added to products to make them smell of the more natural essence they claim to contain – coffee bean scent added to instant coffee or flower scent added to perfume. He is attuned to smells and the memories they evoke, the people he has wanted to matter to. His mother smelled of violets, her clothes of camphor. Baked goods remind him of food she would make – of the time when she paid him attention.

The story winds itself around Futh as he stoically walks from hotel to hotel, the journey not always progressing as planned and anticipated. There are also threads exploring Ester’s background and her behaviour back at Hellhaus, where Futh will spend his final night. The reader knows that a crisis is brewing.

The author writes in taut, understated prose that is impressive in how much it conveys through brief scenes and fragmented memory. There are cracks in Futh’s life through which glimpses are offered of events he suppresses. There is a yearning for something lost that may never have existed.

I am impressed that such depth of plot and character development can be achieved in a novel of less than two hundred pages. This is a fantastic read and one that lingers well beyond the final page.

The Lighthouse is published by Salt.

Book Review: Sunny and the Hotel Splendid

Sunny and the Hotel Splendid, by Alison Moore (illustrated by Ross Collins), is the second book in the author’s series of fiction for children. As in the first book, Sunny and the Ghosts, a key character is a young boy named Sunny who lives with his mum and dad in the flat above their antique shop in Devon. In this latest book the family go on holiday where they meet Ana who is at the seaside for a week with her mother. They are all staying in the titular hotel where two of Sunny’s friends now live. Sunny’s friends are somewhat unusual as they are ghosts who arrive in his parent’s shop with furniture. The ghosts can only be seen by children so the adults will not believe that they exist.

“‘It’s funny’, she said, ‘how something can be right in front of you and you just don’t see it.'”

Despite its prime location, the Hotel Splendid is not doing well. Guests are disturbed by strange noises and bumps in the night which interrupt their sleep, leading to negative reviews on TripAdvisor. The proprietor is concerned that she may have to close if she cannot find a way to make the business pay.

Ana has always wanted to see a ghost so is delighted when Sunny introduces her to his friends. She suggests that others may choose to stay in a hotel with such residents and suggests they put on a play to highlight their existence. The adults agree to indulge what they regard as a childish fantasy. When word spreads about strange goings on, the ghosts’ settled existence is threatened.

The writing is pitched perfectly at children but the quick witted humour makes this tale enjoyable for every reader. The detailed illustrations scattered throughout the text add to the pleasure.

I particularly enjoyed the ghosts’ reaction when it appeared the hotel really was haunted. Sunny and Ana are fabulous with their calm reactions, particularly to adult disbelief.

A warm and witty story of friendship and acceptance. A plot and protagonists that will fire the imagination of readers whatever their age.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt. 

Book Review: Sunny and the Ghosts

Sunny and the Ghosts, by Alison Moore, is quirky and captivating. It is the author’s first book for children (there is wise advice for aspiring young writers on her linked website). The tale is enhanced by appealing pencil illustrations by Ross Collins. It is the first book in a proposed series.

The protagonist is eight year old Sunny who lives with his mum and dad in the flat above their antique shop in Devon. When not at school Sunny helps out with tidying, polishing and arranging the stock. His dad mends any items that are broken. Sunny’s mum then describes them as ‘good as new’, a phrase that Sunny and his dad find curious. They like old things and Sunny feels regret when favoured items from the shop are sold.

The story opens with the arrival of a Victorian piano and a blanket box. Inside the box Sunny finds a ghost. His parent’s accept this disclosure calmly even though they cannot see the apparition. Sunny isn’t sure if they believe him.

A regular visitor to the shop is Mr Ramsbottom. He browses until well after closing time and sells more things than he buys. Often he then changes his mind and wants the items back, paying no heed to the fact they may now be mended.

Over the course of days and weeks more stock is brought into the shop and Sunny finds more ghosts. They play the piano at night, read books plucked from shelves and move things around leaving the shop untidy. Sunny’s parents ask if he is responsible. Even the ghosts deny culpability. Sunny discovers that, just like living people, not all ghosts are well behaved.

Sunny takes the ghosts along on a trip to the seaside. He teaches one of them to read. He comes to realise that it doesn’t really matter what others believe so long as they remain open to possibilities.

The writing is clear and well structured, avoiding over simplification. Interest and momentum are maintained. There is humour and kindness alongside the mischief and mystery. A delightful and satisfying read for any age.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Book Review: Missing

Missing, by Alison Moore, tells the story of Jessie Noon, a middle aged women living in a Scottish border town who works from home as a literary translator. Jessie has been married twice and has a grown up son. She now lives alone with her cat and dog. She believes her house harbours a ghost. She tries to keep her thoughts and feelings in order by following daily and weekly routines.

Much of the action involves the ordinary: Jessie attends a professional conference, shops for groceries, walks her dog, enters into a new relationship. Throughout there exists an undercurrent of darkness, gaps in the narrative. The sense of unease is palpable.

Interspersed with the contemporary tale are chapters set in 1985 when Jessie was eighteen. Her big sister, Gail, would call on her sibling to mind her five year old daughter, Eleanor. Although sometimes resentful of the expectation that she would help, Jessie was fond of the little girl. She did not always treat her as Gail requested, giving Eleanor cola to drink and making promises she couldn’t keep. Jessie’s relationship with her family is now strained.

At the heart of the tale are the words people use, so often misconstrued causing pain. Jessie struggles to maintain relationships despite her desires and good intentions. She understands how people regard her but cannot change what has been done or said. Others choose to leave or cut contact. Jessie may have moved location but must still find ways to live with herself.

There is a tension in the writing, a disconnect between the personal world Jessie inhabits, the expectations of those she encounters, and her desire to somehow fit in. When a postcard arrives telling her ‘I’m on my way home’ it is unclear who is sending or where home may be. The reader is offered glimpses but the portrayal of Jessie remains elusive. Subliminally she may believe her treatment by others is deserved.

This is a glorious evocation of alienation and misunderstanding. Jessie could be deemed tragic but she is also a survivor. The author has created a masterpiece. A haunting tale of devastating insight and depth.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Book Review: Death and the Seaside


Death and the Seaside, by Alison Moore, introduces the reader to two women whose lives overlap with devastating results.

Bonnie is approaching her thirtieth birthday but her life has been stunted, much to the frustration of her overbearing parents who regard their daughter as clumsy and incapable. Her mother is constantly impatient with her daughter. Her father systematically puts her down. When they require her to move out of the family home she finds a small flat in a converted house owned by Sylvia, an enigmatic landlady who starts to take an invasive interest in the detail of Bonnie’s life.

Bonnie is an aspiring writer. She is well read and studied English Literature at university. Having dropped out in her final year she did not graduate and now works as a cleaner. She is not the most reliable of employees, struggling to find work  and rarely holding down any job for long.

The book opens with a chapter from Bonnie’s latest story. She starts many stories but takes none to completion. It soon becomes clear that her stories are variations and reflections of her own life.

Sylvia mentions early on that she had met Bonnie and her mother when Bonnie was a child but does not elaborate. She offers little of her own background, the burgeoning friendship being one way and controlling. Bonnie has few friends and welcomes attention from whatever source.

Sylvia reads Bonnie’s latest story and encourages her to write more. When Bonnie is unable to tell her the planned ending she suggests that they take a holiday at the setting of the tale, a seaside town Bonnie visited as a child, in order to generate inspiration. Bonnie is excited to be taking a holiday with a friend despite her accommodation requests being ignored.

A sinister undercurrent pervades the tale. On the surface it is is a variation on the theme of a lonely young women who is influenced by a stronger personality. Lurking unsaid is what Sylvia wants from Bonnie and why.

The pleasure of reading is in the detail: Bonnie’s apparent acceptance of her oppressive existence; her relationship with work colleagues, young men, her constantly critical parents. Bonnie appears adrift in the world. Her knowledge of literature and the intelligence this suggests belying the current state of her life.

As Sylvia’s background is revealed the plot takes a sinister turn. The reader is left with much to ponder about influences, known and unknown.

At 160 pages this is not a long read. For the size of the work it packs a mighty, subversive punch.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.