“The Witches” by Roald Dahl (1983)

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“In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks.”

I’ve been re-reading all of Roald Dahl this year, but most of them I haven’t reviewed as they’re often too short for me to have much to say about them. The Witches, however, I have to talk about. Inexplicably, despite being a Dahl fan throughout my childhood and this battered copy sitting on my shelf for as long as I can remember, I’ve somehow never read it. I don’t really know how it slipped by me, but it’s OK, the matter has been resolved now.

The Witches is the story of a young boy who is taught all about the evil hags by his kindly grandmother, with whom he lives after his parents die in a tragic car crash. Grandmother likes telling the boy stories about witches and warning him to stay away from them. She gives him advice on how to spot a witch including the fact that they wear gloves to hide their claws, and they’re always itching their heads because of their wigs, used to hide their bald heads. On a holiday in Bournemouth, our hero discovers that he’s sharing the hotel with all of England’s witches who have gathered under the instruction of the Grand High Witch. She has come up with a plan that will rid England of all its children.

Before he can warn anyone, the boy is caught and turned into a mouse, which prompts him and his grandmother to formulate their own plan to eradicate all the witches and make the country a safer place.

I don’t think I knew anything about the plot of this one, save for the fact it contained a Grand High Witch and a small boy was the hero. I certainly knew nothing of him turning into a mouse, which arguably is one of the main features of the novel. Like in many Dahl novels, there isn’t an awful lot that really happens. The novel takes place over a short space of time and the plot is simple to grasp, none of which is a complaint. There’s still more of a plot than, say, The Twits, which always felt quite loose to me.

I have heard people say, however, that this is Dahl’s scariest book and I think I probably agree with them. The darkness is much less subtle here, with genuinely vile characters and a pair of protagonists you care about strongly. It’s creepy, and the witches are portrayed very well as malevolent and just the wrong side of odd. The fact that they have slightly different noses or feet to real humans is the sort of thing that would appeal to a child who wants there to be some fantasy in their world. The Grand High Witch is repulsive and genuinely quite terrifying – the polar opposite to the kind, warm Grandmother in the novel. The Grandmother’s inclusion is perhaps the most important aspect. Dahl explains that all witches are women, but does say, “I do not wish to speak badly about women. Most women are lovely.” I presume this is so children don’t go through their young lives fearing all women or believing them to be evil – I suppose there’s a suggestion of internalised misogyny here, if one wanted to take on that aspect – so the inclusion of the kindly Grandmother is in direct contrast to the witches.

I sense that had I read this as a kid, I would’ve found it very scary, and I still do to some degree. It’s that fear of something evil lurking in plain sight, I think. Nothing is so unnerving and eerie as something ordinary suddenly becoming dangerous. A great story.

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“Lost Boy” by Christina Henry (2017)

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“Sometimes I dreamed of blood.”

When books enter the public domain, it’s always an interesting moment. People suddenly have the freedom to explore the worlds and add to them, for better or for worse. Many books, will eventually spawn prequels and sequels that probably stray entirely from the plans of the original writer. The Alice in Wonderland books have been explored repeatedly, and there’s always the “companion” books to Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre (Death Comes to Pemberley and Wide Sargasso Sea, respectively). Sometimes it’s done badly, but other times the results are very interesting and add new layers that still fit with the original text. Lost Boy explores the history of Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up, and long before he ever met Wendy…

Our narrator is Jamie, one of the Lost Boys that Peter has taken from the Other Place to his magical island where the only adults are scary pirates and the children never have to grow up. It is not, however, the Neverland that we would expect. Here, the Lost Boys can and repeatedly do die, with Peter never seeming to care, instead disappearing to get some more. Jamie is the heart of the troop, actually taking time to care about the boys, especially Charlie, who was far too young to be brought across.

Peter is jealous of Charlie, and later Sal, two recruits who take away so much of Jamie’s time that he feels he’s losing his oldest friend. Their adventures become more dangerous than ever, involving the Many-Eyed (a race of giant spiders that inhabit the island), a fight to the death with an uncooperative Lost Boy, and the pirates who are even more enraged than ever when Peter burns down their camp. Jamie comes to realise that Peter is not the benevolent figure he always assumed he was. Peter has been keeping secrets for a long time, and when they start to spill out, it threatens the life he wants. Jamie, it seems, can’t stay young forever…

I can’t say that Peter Pan has ever been one of my favourite stories ever – I’ve not read the original and I’ve not seen the Disney version in a very long time – but it is certainly a world that seems to require exploring, given that it has so many unanswered questions there within it, such as where Peter came from, why Hook hates him quite so much, and the biology behind those fairies. This book serves as an interesting prequel and one I’m fully happy to accept as canonically correct. It’s hard to write about this without giving away one or two of the reveals towards the end of the book which I’m always loathe to do, but it’s quite obvious from early on – if not from the cover – that the Jamie narrating the story is (or will one day be) none other than Captain James Hook. It’s a great twist to have him as one of Peter’s young friends originally but lose his faith in his leader.

The themes of guilt, blame, friendship, belief and loss jump around one another playfully, but it’s important to note that while we think of Peter Pan has being quite a whimsical character thanks to Disney, the concept of never growing up and having young boys do battle with genuinely threatening pirates is pretty dark. Christina Henry has no problems in taking the story to even darker places, explaining exactly why Peter does what he does and how he manages to never get hurt. The Peter in this novel promises adventures that he can’t deliver, and is selfish in the extreme, with every action being done simply to make him happy. He is unwilling – or maybe unable – to give anyone else much of his time, with the exception of Jamie, who he does seem to particularly love. As the backstory of how Jamie arrived on the island unfolds, however, it reveals itself to be a very sick and twisted kind of love.

I feel it’s not a book that’s going to drop easily from my mind, and if you like delving into expanded universes, this is certainly a strong contender for the best Peter Pan based fiction. But then, I’ve not watched Hook in a long time either.

“Kill Your Boss” by Shane Kuhn (2014)

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“If you’re reading this, you’re a new employee at Human Resources, Inc.”

I remember reading once that you’re more likely to die prematurely being a character in a soap opera than you are in a war. In literature, it seems that the odds are stacked even more against you. There are so few books that don’t involve the two constants somewhere in their narrative – love and death. And in literature, we meet not only the victims and those tracking down the killers, but we get to know quite a lot of the killers too. John Lago, for example.

John Lago is a hitman for Human Resources, Inc. They are a large company of trained assassins who will take on any job for the right money and scrub someone off the face of the Earth before you can blink. They specialise in crooked white-collar workers by using assassins in their early twenties who pose as interns in their companies. Interns, it seems, are easily forgotten, can seemlessly blend into their surroundings and never draw attention to themselves, making them perfect sleeper agents. John is twenty-five and on his last assignment, taking on a role at Bendini, Lambert & Locke, an enormous New York law firm. One of the top men is selling witness protection data, and they need to find out which one it is and take him out.

John begins to blend into his office as usual, but things are complicated when he meets and falls for Alice who works for the same company and is clearly into him. Distracted by such hindrances as romance and emotions, John is finding it a little harder than usual to find a way to his target, and matters are complicated further when he hacks into Alice’s computer and discovers that she’s an undercover FBI agent investigating the very man he’s trying to kill. John will need all of his wits about him as he tackles his final challenge. Once he’s done this, he can retire with sacks of money, have plastic surgery and disappear for good. That is, if he survives…

The book is written as a guide to new recruits to HR Inc., and indeed in the USA it was published as The Intern’s Handbook, which is also the name John gives his book in-universe. He is a desperately unpleasant character, which may seem obvious given that he’s a hitman, but I’ve read about them before and some of them are much more likeable, oddly. While there are redeeming features and much is made of his horrific, abusive and neglectful childhood shunted around between foster homes and the care system, there’s no way of getting around the fact he committed his first murder aged eight and is recruited by Bob at HR Inc. when he’s twelve. Unpleasant perhaps, but not without humour. John is quite funny, as is the book in general, and the concept of planting faceless interns into companies to bring down criminals is a really good one.

However, all in all, while it had some interesting moments and a cast of rather fascinating characters, it lacked any really satisfying payoff and by the time you’re there it’s almost impossible to work out what was true and what wasn’t after all. Not in the sense of “it was all a dream” which would be unforgivable, but just in that when you’re dealing with secret agencies, there are always more lies being spread around than you might realise. Naturally as one might expect of the theme, there are a lot of very violent scenes and complicated fights that are described in painstaking detail. One or two are fine, but you become somewhat desensitised to it towards the end and the suspension of disbelief that John is surviving all these attacks threatens to fail. It was an interesting concept and I enjoyed it, but it feels like one of those that I wouldn’t be able to tell you much about six months down the line.

A fun, quick read, and perhaps deserving of cult classic status one day.

“Bleaker House” by Nell Stevens (2017)

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“This is a landscape an art-therapy patient might paint to represent depression: grey sky and a sweep of featureless peat rising out of the sea.”

I seem to have an unfortunate attraction to books about loneliness. They have in the past caused my own feelings to become exacerbated, but occasionally they do the opposite and make me feel less alone. Bleaker House is definitely one that falls into the latter category.

This book – which I first picked up thinking it was fiction – follows Nell Stevens to the Falkland Islands in her quest to become a writer. Convinced that if she spends six weeks on the remote Bleaker Island (human population: two), she will have enough time and freedom from distractions to pen the novel she’s been meaning to write forever and finally become a writer. The twenty-something sets off, packing up rations for the duration and is convinced that this is the answer to her problems.

However, once there, she realises just how remote the islands are. With nothing but some penguins, sea lions and a potato for company, she begins writing. But more than that. She begins to learn who she is when no one is around. She analyses her past and explores her mistakes. And, most importantly, she learns that plans don’t always work out the way you expect them to.

The narrative is haphazard, but in the way that one’s thoughts do skitter about with snooker balls in a hurricane when you’ve no distractions or company, and it adds to the mania that pervades the premise of Nell’s situation. Chapters alternate between talking about her experiences on the Falkland Islands (particularly Bleaker, but also visiting briefly the capital Stanley), her times back in London and Boston, and her own fiction, either excerpts from the novel-in-progress or previous short stories. I saw one reviewer complain that the book seemed only to serve as a vehicle for Nell to publish stories that had otherwise been rejected, but I disagree. The stories are great, and a vital part of the narrative. After all, it would be almost cheating to send a writer all the way out to the edge of civilisation and then not see their work.

Nell is a comforting, compelling narrator who has by all accounts lived an interesting life. Before her journey, she travelled and tried to be a good person, taking up positions teaching in war-torn nations or helping – as best she was able – a boyfriend with depression. She does, however, have a knack of always being right in the middle of some of the most dramatic moments in the last ten years, including the Boston Marathon bombing, the London riots of 2011, and the shelling of Beirut by Israeli forces. It’s frankly a wonder she’s as balanced as she seems – and for a writer that’s not bad going, as none of us are that balanced – or perhaps it was all the horror she got caught up in that caused her to vanish to the remote wilderness.

As I said at the top, some books about loneliness make me feel lonely. This one did not. It was curiously comforting, honest and beautiful. Frank Turner sings in his song “Be More Kind”, “When you go out searching don’t decide what you will find” and that feels apt here. No matter how excellent your plans seem, there is never a guarantee that they’ll come to fruition. Or, at least, maybe not in the way you expect.

Book Chat: Ste Sharp

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Ste Sharp is another one of the myriad authors working with Unbound to get his projects off the ground. Earlier this year, he achieved the funding on his debut novel, Darwin’s Soldiers, the first in a trilogy about rapidly evolving warriors. By day, however, you may not suspect him of writing something like this, being a 41-year-old IT developer for a major publisher. After years working on the technical side of book production, he’s decided it’s time to swap sides for a bit.

A family man, he lives in Suffolk with his wife and two sons, and when not writing or taking care of the family, he still finds him to paint, play guitar and sing in indie band Atlas, as well as being, what he calls, an “avid allotmenteer”. Despite this harrowing schedule which I doubt allows for much sleep, he even manages to get a lot of reading done.

I managed to commandeer a few moments of his time to ask about the books he’s currently reading and what books grab his imagination.

What are you reading at the moment?

Spring Tide: a short story collection by Chris Beckett (author of the Dark Eden trilogy and America City), which is a surprising mix of speculative and contemporary fiction. “The End of Time” blew me away!

What were your favourite books growing up?

Anything by Roald Dahl! The first book I read in one sitting was The BFG – I was totally addicted. On the other hand, I was sick over Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator after a marathon reading session during a long journey in a Talbot Horizon.

Which is your favourite book from the classical canon?

I guess this depends on what you class as classical. I loved the Iliad and the Odyssey, which gave some great inspiration for writing battle scenes. I had no idea how graphically detailed they were! As for more modern classics, The Grapes of Wrath would be high on my list.

Can you describe your ideal reading set up? Where, when and what?

A thought-provoking, fast-paced sci-fi paperback in a hammock in the dappled shade of an apple tree just after lunch, with a pot of coffee, which also how I’d like to pass away – preferably having finished the book first.

What genres do you prefer?

You could argue there’s only one genre – science fiction – and everything else is a sub-genre that fits inside the literally limitless boundaries of SF, but I’m sure many people would disagree. Often, what I read depends what I’m writing at the time, but I gravitate towards sci-fi and fantasy novels (nothing beats how they meld well-crafted characters with intricate plots and mind-bending scenarios) but I like to cleanse the palate with the odd historical novel every now and then (fewer robots).

What factors are important to you when choosing a book?

Whatever I read tends to be in the same tense as whatever I’m writing at the time. Last year I wrote a first person crime novel set in Brighton in the nineties, so I only read first person novels for ten months. Now I’m back into third person, which is way less intense and much better for head-hopping from character to character like how George R.R. Martin does in his Song of Ice and Fire novels. More importantly, the book has to entice me and make me want to know what happens next.

Can you tell me about a book that taught you something, either about yourself or the world?

The Good Immigrant taught me a great deal about the UK today and, on a personal level, how everyone has to deal with how they are perceived or judged by their physical appearance in modern society.

Can you tell me about a book that made you laugh?

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion was filled with genuinely laugh out loud stuff. The main character reminded me of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, but Australian, and the story of how he tries to find what he deems as the ‘perfect wife’ is hilarious. Definitely worth a read, along with the sequel, The Rosie Effect.

Do you judge a book by its cover?

Only if it has a so-called celebrity’s name on the front – then I may judge it harshly. Actually, a great deal of pressure is put on book covers, especially these days when many readers just see thumbnails when they’re searching for their next read. The cover for my book, Darwin’s Soldiers, is being designed right now and I have a lot of respect for the designers who manage to attract readers to a book whilst somehow distilling the themes into one image. I know a picture paints a thousand words but cover designers paint a hundred thousand words with one picture. Legends.

The impossible question: what is your favourite book?

Today I’m going to say Cloud Atlas because of the genre switches, range of characters and pleasing structure. But tomorrow, I could easily choose another title… probably something by John Steinbeck.


You can find out more about Ste’s upcoming novel, Darwin’s Soldiers – and pledge your support – by visiting Unbound, or following Ste on Twitter: @SteSharpAuthor.

“The Saltmarsh Murders” by Gladys Mitchell (1932)

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“There are all sorts of disadvantages in telling a story in the first person, especially a tale of murder.”

After reading a parody of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, it seemed fitting to dip back into a genuine one. I’ve long been ignorant of Gladys Mitchell, which seems odd given she was so prolific. Perhaps her profile is simply lower, or maybe even not all of her books are currently available. I can only make excuses for my ignorance. Nonetheless, I’m here now with the surprising The Saltmarsh Murders.

Noel Wells, the curate in the small village of Saltmarsh, sets about telling us the story of the murders that he got caught up in. He prefers to spend his time dancing with the vicar’s niece, but the peace is shattered when the unmarried housemaid is found to be pregnant, and the vicar’s shrewish, vindictive wife throws her out. A few days after the baby is born, the housemaid is strangled and the baby disappears, with no one ever having set eyes on it. Questions are raised – who had the motive and the opportunity? Why was the girl so secretive? And was there even a baby at all?

Noel calls on Mrs Bradley, an amateur detective and psychologist who happens to be staying in the village, to investigate the murder and together they find themselves dragged into Saltmarsh’s seedy underbelly as the story grows to incorporate a false letter, a kidnapped vicar, smuggling, the village lunatic, a missing corpse and an excavation of the local quarries. With Mrs Bradley convinced that the wrong man has been convicted, it is a race against time to find the true culprit and save an innocent man from death.

For much of the reading, I was worried I’d have to come here afterwards and give a negative review. The opening chapters were slow, somewhat repetitive and I kept losing track of who was who. It took a while to get to the actual murder, giving us some strange plots earlier on that quickly get discarded and prove not to be so important. I’d also made guesses on a number of plot points and was rapidly proven right on them all. However, when Mitchell finally reveals who the murderer was, the rug was pulled out from under me and I wasn’t anything like close. It’s a curiously satisfying solution.

The style of its time, with language and attitudes one would expect of the 1930s, so there are some terms that seem questionable to modern readers, but in many other respects there are some curiously modern topics involved, including pre-marital sex, incest, racial tension, and pornography. It was undoubtedly quite a shocking read at the time, and indeed, parts of it are still so today. Many other elements remain typical of books of the sort – small village, missing people, a secret passage and a country vicar.

I’d probably read Mitchell again, although I don’t necessarily see Mrs Bradley as one of fiction’s “most memorable personalities”, but I’m in no particular hurry.

“A Murder To Die For” by Stevyn Colgan (2018)

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“A warm drizzle began to fall just as the very last piece of festival bunting was being hung.”

As surely anyone who follows me on Twitter or is a regular reader here will know, I went through the crowdfunding publishers Unbound to produce my second novel, The Third Wheel, and thanks to the support of many of you, it will be out later this year (and there is still time to pre-order a copy!) While scratching around the website, however, I of course stumbled across many other works-in-progress, some of which I have supported in turn. A Murder to Die For was already funded by the time I got to it, but that’s no bad thing. As seems to be the purpose of Unbound, it seemed exactly the sort of book I was looking for…

Agnes Crabbe lived a solitary life between 1895 and 1943, penning many murder mystery novels, none of which saw the light of day. By accordance with her will, her manuscripts were revealed to the world at the turn of the millennium, and what was discovered blew everyone’s minds. Some of the best stories from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction were flung out into the world decades after they’d been written, birthing hundreds of TV adaptations, radio plays, stage shows, and fan clubs. Not least of these is the annual Agnes Crabbe Murder Mystery Festival held in her hometown of Nasely.

Normally a fairly sedate event where hundreds of fans – usually all dressed as Crabbe’s famous detective, Millicent Cutter – turn up to hear talks, swap theories and drink heavily, this year things go a bit different when the festival opens with a shocking murder. The heads of the different fan clubs begin to spread their own theories and given that the town is overrun with murder mystery fans, everyone thinks that they can be the one to solve the case. However, fiction isn’t as neat as reality, and the police first have to deal with all the amateur sleuths before they can get to the issue of what actually happened. But given that this is a village where the suspects, witnesses and victim are all dressed as Millicent Cutter, things are not always what they seem…

After a run of books that were temperate, unimpressive, or simply not capable to hitting exactly the right spots, it was a delight to breeze through this excellent novel over the weekend. Sat in the garden under a scorching sun, I consumed this in two days and slightly regret having done so, as it just made it end all the quicker. Stevyn Colgan, who has previously appeared in my consciousness as one of the QI elves and as a guest on one of my favourite podcasts, Worst Foot Forward, now turns his attention to fiction and does it with serious skill. A former policeman himself, he knows the ins and outs of the crime solving world and is as such perfectly placed to be able to bring the reality to the table.

The novel joyfully plays up the tropes and themes of murder mystery stories and while some of them are retained in full, he’s not above twisting, bending or snapping the rules as he deems fit. After all, crime stories follow a pattern – real life doesn’t. Colgan wrote the entire book, I’m sure, with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, giving the overblown and eccentric characters life in a way I’ve not seen for some time. It’s very silly, but it’s also very clever, much like something by Jasper Fforde. Although Colgan states in the novel’s acknowledgements that Agnes Crabbe’s life story mimics in many ways that of Vivian Maier, a photographer who only received acclaim for her work after her death, there feel enough references in here to also parody the greats like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. Beautifully, the novel also opens with an introduction to the life and work of Crabbe, and a complete list of her titles, all of which sound so improbably like mysteries from the golden age that I would love to have a read.

A truly remarkable, funny, sharp, creative and interesting look at murder mysteries. Bring on the sequel.

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