Book Review: Bitterhall

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This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Bitterhall is a story of intersecting lives and the effects of childhood experiences on how a person manages relationships. It is also a ghost story of sorts, including a murder mystery. Set in contemporary times but with disturbing undercurrents from the past, the narrative offers three perspectives on events that occurred over some weeks one autumn in recent history.

The first key character to be introduced is Daniel – thirty-six years old and one of three tenants living in a large house in a northern city. He works at the local university where his innovative work is nearing fruition. He has recently stolen an historic diary from a long time friend.

Daniel is attracted to the most recent tenant to take up residence in the house share. Tom is handsome, works in marketing, and is in a new relationship with Órla, a PhD student. Daniel discovers he has an affinity with Órla that he rarely enjoys with anyone. It is these three who recount the unfolding tale.

The third tenant, Badr, appears more centred than the rest. Also living in the house is Minto, the reclusive owner of the place.

In the opening section of the book there is a suggestion of suppressed violence in Daniel’s behaviour. He worries about how he appears to others, often choosing his own company as less stressful. His recollections focus on the insular – observing but rarely empathising.

Órla lives in another house share but stays over with Tom regularly. She is already waiting to have her heart broken, trying hard to tamp down this expectation.

“I loathed this being the one running after; I wanted to be the one people chase.”

When Tom starts reading the stolen diary, his behaviour notably changes. Órla grows worried but has little idea how to help.

“He has succeeded where I haven’t in becoming plural. And it’s not just down to me it happened – he split himself. He was split. Something clawed at him and he let it in and in the process let himself out. Selfletting, like bloodletting.”

By the time narrative shifts to Tom’s perspective it has become clear that some uncanny force has manifested. Órla turns to Daniel for help.

Tom lives his life in cycles, accepting that each will end. He is currently at the start of a new sexual cycle with Órla. His current job has lost its appeal and he desires change. He is disturbed by his reaction to Daniel and this is exacerbated by the diary’s effect on him. Is the force it unleashes obsession or possession?

“Everyone is drenched in ghosts – there are so many more dead people than alive – so it takes a cut to let them get in.”

There is an oblique quality to each of the character’s remembrances that, while building depth to events recounted, remain skewed by personal perspectives. The stealthy progression will lead the reader to examine what they believe.

The story starts at the housewarming party organised when Tom moves in. A second party, held at the home of the owner of the diary, is pivotal. The denouement is masterfully rendered exposing a truth many may try to avoid accepting. Spectres are raised over how much control anyone can have over their own feelings and behaviour – and how much they can influence the actions of those they care for.

Within each character’s sections the book is structured in short chapters with intriguing headings. Although this bite sized approach maintains pace, I found chapters meaty, requiring pauses for digestion. I was fully engaged but could not rush the reading.

Any Cop?: A skilfully shadowed story that will creep into the reader’s psyche inducing a questioning of possibilities. An exploration of the power of the mind – how difficult it can be to control when personal fears are triggered.

Jackie Law

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: Haverscroft

Haverscroft, by S.A. Harris, is a deliciously creepy ghost story. It opens with the Keeling family – Kate, Mark and nine year old twins, Sophie and Tom – moving into a big, old house on the edge of a small town in Suffolk. Having renovated their London home the couple are aware of the work ahead of them. Their relocation has mostly been driven by Mark with Kate agreeing for the sake of their faltering marriage. She has been ill for many months but is now determined to stop taking her medication and return to her former, capable self.

The old house creaks and groans but there are other noises that cannot be explained. The children are scared so Kate must try to be rational despite her own fears. During the working week Mark still resides in the city. With no internet and patchy mobile reception the couple struggle to communicate. Kate is concerned that if she tells her husband of the malevolent presence she sometimes feels he will believe she is relapsing and stop listening to anything she says.

The Keelings have kept on the former owner’s cleaner and gardener, with the cleaner soon becoming a friend. Through her Kate learns more about the history of the place and those who have lived there. The Havers family harboured dark secrets yet few in the gossipy town seem willing to share the detail with Kate. She starts to research on her own. Each new discovery increases the tension with Mark.

The story is told from Kate’s perspective, her shaky mental state leaving the reader unsure of the veracity of the narration. The unfolding tale puts many under suspicion. The denouement offers potential explanations without taking from the chilling portrayal.

The writing is taut and fluid. Both the atmosphere of the old house and the wider family dynamics are evoked with skill. Whatever one thinks of a place harbouring the spirit of past deeds this story could throw shade over certainties. Recommended, but exercise caution if reading after dark.

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: Thin Air

Thin Air, by Michelle Paver, is a ghost story from an author who knows how to write compelling suspense. Having read her excellent Dark Matter a couple of years ago I had been saving this one for my Halloween read. It did not disappoint.

Set in 1935 it tells the story of a group of five wealthy, English gentlemen who set out to conquer Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak on earth. Public school and Oxbridge educated, they climb to prove their supremacy over nature, with some regarding aids such as crampons or oxygen tanks as unsporting on such an endeavour. One of the group has not had quite such as privileged an upbringing, something that sets him apart – a suspicion over his trustworthiness in a crisis.

“He’s also a shade off in the vowels, and seems very eager to fit in”

Such snobbery is nothing compared to the way these grown boys, setting off on a spiffing adventure, regard the natives they employ to fetch and carry. These men and women include the Sherpas who will transport kit and provisions as well as guiding the group through the hostile high terrain. Where the ‘sahibs’ struggle with exertion and altitude, the local men cover the same ground numerous times setting up base camps, cooking food, and advising on conditions. Their wariness of the mountain, manifesting in rituals, is treated with disdain.

The English party includes two brothers, Kit and Stephen, who struggle to contain their long standing sibling rivalry. Stephen was invited late, as the necessary group doctor, after the original choice suffered an incapacitating mishap.

The story is narrated by Stephen as it unfolds. Although excited and determined he increasingly suffers nightmares and a heightened awareness of malevolent forces. He must suppress his fears if he is to be permitted to continue.

The story opens with a visit to the last remaining survivor of a previous attempt to climb the mountain, which ended in failure and numerous deaths. A memoir was written about this self-declared heroic experience which led to Kit revering the author and group leader, Lyell. Kit now intends to follow in Lyell’s footsteps, and to succeed in reaching the summit and planting the British flag before rival Germans. Their native helpers are fearful of the spirits that linger on a doomed route.

The attitudes of the Englishmen are astonishing. They regard day climbs in the Alps as sufficient preparation for the Himalayas. One has a touch of arthritis which the others try not to mention. They bring a typewriter and a gramophone as luggage, carried of course by the Sherpas who they treat as animals, load bearers with no sense or agency. The English regard their endeavour as meritorious despite the obvious risks to themselves and their essential helpers.

The journey offers many challenges, exacerbated by altitude sickness. As a doctor Stephen understands the effects but cannot shake his growing, visceral fear. When mail is delivered (incongruous as this may seem during a challenging mountain adventure, but the English abroad do demand that their standards be catered for) he learns of the true fate of the group’s predecessors. What he has tried to convince himself cannot exist, now presents as a deadly threat.

The story is masterfully structured with an authentic voice, interesting character development and building tension. The self-importance of the English is both staggering and depressingly familiar. This is a ghost story but also a portrayal of the foolishness of those raised to believe themselves superior due to birth and wealth. It is a reminder that nature does not distinguish, and it is in man’s interest to treat his surrounds with care and respect.

Thin Air is published by Orion Books.

Book Review: The Coffin Path

The Coffin Path, by Katherine Clements, is a ghost story set on the edge of a lonesome moor in 1674. Its protagonist is thirty-two year old Mercy Booth who lives in the gradually decaying splendour of Scarcross Hall with her ageing father, Bartram, and his faithful servant, Agnes. Mercy works alongside the shepherds and farmhands hired to till their land and care for the flock of sheep that provide the family’s main income. She has been told that one day it will all be hers.

The story opens with the arrival of the first of the season’s lambs. It is not an easy birth and proves a portent of happenings to come. The first of these is the arrival of a stranger, Ellis Ferreby, who is looking for employment. Although the locals are wary of outsiders he is taken on, proving himself a capable shepherd and hard worker.

Mercy has spent her life out on the moor but notices a new, chilling presence, a feeling of being watched as she goes about familiar tasks. Within the hall she hears unexplained noises above the expected creaks and movement of the old house. There have long been rumours of a curse, and her father is suffering a decline of mind.

In her troubles Mercy finds herself drawn to Ellis although both keep their thoughts and fears close. Their interactions are noticed by a local man, Henry Ravens, who grows jealous and threatens to denounce Mercy. Within the hall, Bartram becomes agitated when items he values go missing. These include three old coins, one of which is found under the pillow of a young lad named Sam, the son of the head shepherd and a favourite of the master.

Sam is often around the hall, spending time with Bartram in his study. As the year progresses and strange events continue to unfold the boy becomes agitated and withdrawn. Mercy suspects he knows more than he is saying but cannot coax him to confide in her. Likewise she is unwilling to share her fears with even those she would previously have trusted.

Mutilated lambs are discovered and bad weather threatens the harvest. Along with the ghostly noises from an unused chamber within Scarcross there is much to concern the Booths and those who rely on their employ. Mercy fears that her sinfulness has brought down punishment from God. Ellis watches and waits, keeping his true reason for being there from all.

The plot has many elements of a good ghost story: a run down hall housing secretive sinister artefacts; rumours of an ancient curse linked to the devil; fear of the dead returning; accusations of witchcraft. The church plays a role as does the stranger with a past that is revealed gradually. It is unfortunate that I guessed the main twist early on, and that I struggled to maintain engagement as the Booth’s troubles mounted. I would have preferred a tighter plot construction and a clearer drawing together of the mysterious and the supernatural.

Having said that the last fifty pages held the strongest part of the story. There was horror aplenty and a spine chilling final line.

A tale that started and ended well enough but felt somewhat bloated in between. I am left feeling underwhelmed.

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

Book Review: House of Spines

House of Spines, by Michael J Malone, is a ghost story. Set in present day Glasgow its protagonist is Ranald McGhie, a bipolar writer whose parents died when he was eighteen and whose marriage fell apart after his wife had him sectioned. Now living alone in a small rented flat he is surprised to be summoned to a lawyers office for the reading of a will. Here he discovers that his mother’s estranged family were wealthy and that he has inherited a large house, Newton Hall, on condition he retain it and the many books therein.

The house comes with a housekeeper and gardener along with funds left in trust for its upkeep. Ran’s Great-Uncle Alexander had been preparing this bequest for some time. Ran finds quality clothes in his size along with new bedding and other essentials. What he also discovers is that the old property has a resident ghost, but is it real or a construct of his long disturbed mind?

Ran is not the only relative still alive and two cousins, Marcus and Rebecca, soon put in an appearance. The lawyer had assured Ran that Newton Hall was not wanted by anyone else, that his cousins were well provided for in the will. This turns out not to have been enough for the unpleasant siblings who have lucrative plans for the hall’s sale and redevelopment. Marcus tries to persuade Ran that it would be in his best interests to move away, sharing the proceeds, but Ran has developed an affinity for his great-uncle and is reluctant to agree.

The shock of his changed circumstances and the loneliness of this vast new home affect Ran’s mental wellbeing. He hears noises, sees shadows, discovers notebooks and letters in desks that affect his subconscious. The only places he feels truly comfortable are in the library or newly installed fitness suite. His uneasiness manifests in vivid dreams, activities he does not remember, and episodes of sleepwalking. He is continually drawn to a broken lift that his housekeeper had kept locked, advising him to stay away.

The writing is sharp, intense, and deliciously chilling until the last hundred or so pages. By this stage Marcus has become immured by the evolving situation, understandable given his illness and stuttered medication but a tad irritating to read. I guessed where the plot was going and wondered why his concerned friends had not checked in on him. Perhaps I have unrealistic expectations of those he pushed away, and the impact of his trust issues.

The gothic elements of the tale are masterfully written; Newton Hall a fabulous creation. Ran’s reluctance to face up to his illness, his disavowal of the management strategies prescribed by professionals, added an interesting layer to the more usual fear of the dark, shadows behind curtains and monsters under the bed tropes of haunted houses.

This is an enjoyable read even if I did find the structuring of the conclusion weaker than the beginning and middle sections. I am, however, left pondering what will happen to Ran next, if perhaps this is a circular tale.

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

This post is a stop on the House of Spines Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

House of Spines is published by Orenda Books.

Book Review: The Doll Funeral

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The Doll Funeral, by Kate Hamer, is a story of ghosts and the lasting influence of family and upbringing. Its protagonist is Ruby who is informed by her parents on her thirteenth birthday that they adopted her when she was just a few months old. Ruby is ecstatic at this news – suddenly she has hope. If she can find her birth parents she may escape the vicious physical abuse regularly inflicted on her by Mick, the man she believed was her dad.

For as long as she can remember Ruby has seen shadow people, some only once but others come and go. Living in the Forest of Dean she has grown up surrounded by trees and finds comfort in their protection. She decides to try to summon her birth parents by copying mystical techniques she remembers from her late grandmother. What follows weaves a poignant tale of a child desperate for love with elements of the supernatural.

Ruby meets Tom who has been abandoned with his teenage siblings by their hippy parents who have travelled to India to find themselves. They live in a huge, dilapidated house where they are expected to survive on food farmed or hunted. With winter approaching these young people are now struggling. They also harbour a terrible secret.

Both Ruby and Tom have been damaged by their forebears. It is not just the direct actions of parents but the lasting impact of their upbringing and the wider prejudices of those who live in the forest that has shaped how Ruby and Tom have been raised. Each generation inflicts their values, beliefs and aspirations on those who come next. Psychological inheritance can be devastating.

The story is bleak, filled with restless ghosts and crippled potential. The fluid construction of the tale makes it easy to read but the unremitting darkness of the subject matter offered little prospect of cheer for any of the characters.

As a parent it is hard to read a book such as this without considering how one’s own children may have been affected by values passed on to them. Ghosts need not take physical form to exert influence.

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

Book Review: Dark Matter

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Dark Matter, by Michelle Paver, is a deliciously disturbing story of a 1930s arctic expedition that pitted rational man against isolation, darkness and the supernatural. Presented in the form of a journal it offers an insight into the effects of anxiety over time, and how the mind cannot always be controlled.

When the story opens, Jack Miller, a grammar school boy with a London degree, has just met with the wealthy and titled Oxbridge educated quartet who have gained funding for a year long scientific research trip to a remote arctic island between Norway and the North Pole. They require a communications expert and have been told that Jack may be their man. Intimidated by their privilege and familiarity, Jack struggles to believe he could fit in. However, his life in London is such that he is desparate for change.

Six months later he has resigned from his job, not without some misgivings, and sets off as an accepted member of the team. The excitement of the undertaking carries them all through the journey and the setting up of their camp. Rotas are agreed and a routine established as the days shorten towards what, in this part of the world, will be four months of darkness cut off from the world by a frozen sea.

The skipper of the boat which provided their transport had been reluctant to take them to their chosen base. He had talked of it being a place that made bad things happen. The scientists refuse to accept such an irrational opinion, but a seed of doubt has been sown. By the time the boat leaves events have conspired to shrink the team to three. Jack has also experienced moments of sudden fear that he cannot explain.

Before the long winter truly closes in around the group, illness hits and Jack is left to cope on his own. Amidst the relentless darkness and isolation he must also deal with the prescence of a terrifying spectral being whose existence he was loath to admit but which he can no longer deny.

The stark beauty of the frozen wilderness becomes a threat. Jack does his best to continue the work the team was funded to undertake but his mind is battling with a fear he cannot rationally explain. Reluctant to appear foolish, and eager to retain the admiration of his team leader, he denies that anything is wrong when he communicates with the outside world. Alone he struggles to maintain any semblance of a normal existence.

The author brilliantly evokes the irrationality of certain fears and the very real impact they can have. The reader feels the cold seeping in under doors, and listens with trepidation for unexplained footfall or the breathing of someone who cannot be there.

With new scientific discoveries being made all the time, how much is really known about the world in which we live? This is a ghost story of the highest order.