“Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier (1938)

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“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

My journey through the Western canon has been sporadic. Sometimes I stumble onto something I like very much. Other times, I read Thomas Hardy. The trouble is that when everyone is telling you something is really good, it raises your expectations. You also come to think that you know the story. However, as I learnt from the likes of Frankenstein or Catch-22, what I thought I knew barely touched the surface or was wildly incorrect. That was how I felt about Rebecca – I know all about the woman who overshadowed her husband, I know about Manderley, and I know all about the terrifying Mrs Danvers. But, it turns out, I knew nothing.

Our nameless narrator begins the novel dreaming of visiting Manderley, the house where she lived with her husband, Maxim de Winter. The de Winters are now living in Europe, in exile, living a dull life, and we wonder how they got there. Skipping back through the past, we find our heroine serving as a companion for the bad-tempered and status-obsessed Mrs Van Hopper in Monte Carlo. She finds herself interested in the quiet, brooding gentleman who dines next to them every night. Mrs Van Hopper informs her that this is Maxim de Winter, who owns the exquisite country seat of Manderley and has never got over the death of his devoted wife, Rebecca. By the time the holiday is over, our narrator finds that she is to become the second Mrs de Winter, with Maxim determined to give her a more exciting life.

When they arrive at Manderley, however, things do not seem as rosy as promised. Maxim is distant and somewhat harsh, and everything about the house is reminiscent of Rebecca, with the staff – particularly the skeletal and domineering housekeeper Mrs Danvers – still determined to do things just as Rebecca did them. Trapped behind the reputation of Maxim’s first wife, our heroine tries to forge her own path and make a name for herself in this world. How can one woman retain such power from beyond the grave, and will it ever be removed?

The story is naturally about a woman seeking to find her identity, which makes it all the more ironic and fitting that we never find out what her name is. Indeed, aside from a few hints at her hobbies and appearance, we know very little about her. It is Rebecca who dominates the book, which should be obvious given she’s the title character, but it’s unusual to have a story named for a character who never actually appears. Waiting for Godot is the only other one that springs to mind. Despite not really existing, Rebecca’s personality shines through the text and it seems that no one will ever be over her death, although as the novel progresses and more is uncovered, it seems that perhaps not everything was as it seems at first glance. The new Mrs de Winter is shy and doesn’t want to tread on any toes, but when the time comes to be severe and take on a more commanding presence, she does so with aplomb.

There are, however, two real stars of the novel. The first is Manderley itself, regarded as one of the most important houses in the area, if not the country. Legend surrounds it and people clamour to be invited to one of the famous parties that Rebecca frequently held. Maxim seems less keen on them, but his apparent devotion to his wife suggests that he will let her do as she pleases to keep her happy. The second is Mrs Danvers. Almost certainly a monomaniacal psychopath, she is the one with the strongest loyalty to Rebecca. She has never got over the death and knew Rebecca for much of her life. They were close, and I’d argue that Mrs Danvers may even have been in love with her employer. She is cruel and manipulative, tricking the narrator into humiliating herself and at one point trying to convince her to kill herself. She is terrifying at first, but she certainly has a human side, too. She’s got a misplaced devotion, a resistance to change, and a fierce need to protect the woman she loved, even from beyond the grave. She is an utterly fascinating character, made all the more interesting by the fact that she only seems scary to the narrator when they are alone. As soon as she sees Mrs Danvers in the company of others, it is clear that she is not so intimidating.

I know no one’s asking me to curate the list of what “counts” on the list of canonical Western fiction, but if they did, Rebecca gets a spot without question. My advice to everyone is to head back to this and maybe some of the other classics that you think you know so well and see if maybe you weren’t a bit wrong after all.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Chalk Man” by C. J. Tudor (2018)

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“The girl’s head rested on a small pile of orange-and-brown leaves.”

Given the state of the world, fiction always serves as a grand, eternal escape, but one would imagine I’d be wanting to fall into something soft and funny that acts as a welcome distraction. As it is, I find myself inside the creepiest thriller I’ve read in a long time. Despite the subject matter, I can’t recommend it enough.

In 1986, Eddie was just twelve years old. He was pretty normal, spending time with his friends Fat Gav, Hoppo, Metal Mickey and Nicky in their average town. That was, until he saved Waltzer Girl’s life. This is perhaps the beginning of the story, although he can’t be entirely sure. It was certainly then that he met the albino teacher Mr Halloran. It would be later that he and his friends began drawing chalk men, and later still that the chalk men began appearing on their own. It was before the body was found, however. That was when it all came to an end.

In 2016, Ed, now a teacher himself and doing his best to hide from the past receives a letter in the post that threatens to bring everything back to the forefront of his mind. When Metal Mickey reappears in his life, too, things seem particularly nasty. Mickey wants to write a book about what happened back in 1986 and wants Ed’s help in filling in the gaps. Because it turns out that the police were wrong all those years ago. Mickey knows who really killed her, and now Ed sees that he’s got to dive back into the past and relive the worst years of his life in order to get the answers the world has been missing for thirty years…

It’s been a long time since I devoured a book so quickly. It is the very definition of gripping, and keeps you enticed until the very last page before it finally lets go of your lapels and throws you back into reality, confused and scared. The fact the narrative switches between the two time periods in roughly alternating chapters means we pick up the story in the wrong order, but references are often made to things that will happen in the future, or happened in the past that we’ve not seen yet. As such, the jigsaw begins to come together, but we must have lost the box with the picture on it, as it never seems to get any clearer. If anything, I found it much easier to work out what wasn’t going on than what was.

It’s the kind of story that, in the wrong hands, would be bland, boring and tiresomely predictable. As it is, Tudor manages to produce a masterful example of the genre, filled with exactly the right levels of unease, tension, bluff and pathos that is required. The characters are rich and interesting, and even when it feels like it’s leaning too heavily on coincidences and chance, she somehow gets away with it and there is an answer for everything. I’m wary to say too much about this book, as to speak too openly about it will remove much of the tension and might untangle some of the twists before you get to them. Most, you’ll never see coming.

I guess, really, the book is all about questions and answers, memory and secrets. It reminds us that in seeking out the truth, sometimes we find out things we’ve always wondered about, and other times we learn things that we simply wish we’d never uncovered. As Fat Gav says, conjuring up a vivid mental image, everyone has secrets and everyone has an arsehole, but some are just dirtier than others.

Beware the past – it is not the place it once was.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Elephants Can Remember” by Agatha Christie (1972)

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elephants“Mrs Oliver looked at herself in the glass.”

If I’ve done the maths right, I’ve only got twelve Agatha Christie novels left to go before I’ve made my way through all of them. I reckon that means there’s only a year to go, if I continue at the rate of roughly one a month, so soon this blog will become devoid of fresh Christie reviews. Some people might like that, who knows, but until then, let’s soldier on with the last book she wrote that contained Hercule Poirot.

Ariadne Oliver, the well-known crime novelist, has decided to attend a literary luncheon for the first time. Normally she avoids the things, and doesn’t enjoy the business of talking to people who want to compliment her while she has nothing to say back. However, she is enjoying this one and making pleasant conversation with those around her, until she is cornered by a bossy woman who gives her name as Mrs Burton-Cox. While they’ve never met, Burton-Cox asks Oliver to confirm that she is indeed the godmother of one Celia Ravenscourt. Oliver states that she is and then Burton-Cox drops a bombshell of a question: “Did her mother kill her father, or was it the father who killed the mother?”

More than a decade previously, Celia’s parents were found dead on a clifftop, both shot and with a gun between them on the ground, both their fingerprints present on the weapon. The police ruled that it was a suicide pact and while much gossip passed between friends and locals at the time, much of the detail has been lost to history. But now questions are arising, and they aren’t necessarily welcome ones. Was that conclusion really the truth? Who killed whom? And why is it so important that Mrs Burton-Cox finds out? Her curiosity piqued, Ariadne Oliver seeks out help from her old friend Hercule Poirot, and together they track down the people involved who have the best memories; the, as it were, elephants who never forget.

Ariadne Oliver has turned up in several previous novels, and this is her last appearance, but it’s where I feel she really comes into her own. Poirot is not so central to the story here, and it is Oliver who does much of the early legwork and shows her talents at getting people to talk. This is really her most wonderful appearance, although I will thankfully meet her once more in earlier novel Third Girl which I’ve yet to read. Oliver was notably based on Christie herself, and the two share many traits, including being the inventors of foreign detectives that they grew to loathe, and a lack of enthusiasm when it comes to public speaking and literary events.

The novel uses extensively the themes of memory and oral testimony. Some people cite this, as well as the reduced vocabulary size as evidence that Christie was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, with which she was never officially diagnosed. While they might have a point with the style and language, the use of memory is nothing new. Indeed, the book itself discusses the plots of Five Little Pigs, Hallowe’en Party and Mrs McGinty’s Dead, all of which, along with the unmentioned Ordeal by Innocence, feature murders that took place years before the events of the novel. It’s an interesting idea, and one that allows for a variance on a typical murder plot.

Astute readers will have noticed that I’ve not explicitly said whether I liked it or not. I did – I always do – but it’s definitely not one of my favourites, which seems to often be the case with the books she wrote later in her career. There’s a certain amount of rambling, and the solution isn’t hidden very well, so I can’t even consider this a win when I got it right because it’s obvious from about halfway though. I wondered if she’s pull the rug from under me with a double bluff at the end, but it wasn’t to be.

Frankly, it’s not her strongest, but the right people get happy endings, and for a big fan, it’s of course a must-read, but it’s not one to start with. It lacks a certain sparkle, but it’s still classic Christie.

“Lost In A Good Book” by Jasper Fforde (2002)

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It's my favourite place to go missing.

It’s my favourite place to go missing.

“I didn’t ask to be a celebrity.”

I’m back to Jasper Fforde and I’m going to open immediately by saying that if you haven’t read The Eyre Affair and care about spoilers then stop reading now. This book opens pretty much where the last one left off, so I will have to talk about the ending of the first book as a matter of course. In some series, this probably doesn’t matter, but in Fforde’s world, while each book contains the important information from previous novels, you miss out on a lot of character work and nuanced details.

So, spoilers ahead, you have been warned.

It’s a month since Thursday Next had chased down dangerous criminal Acheron Hades into Jane Eyre and accidentally changed the ending of the novel, and now she’s struggling with the pressures of fame when she’d much rather be spending time with her new husband, Landen. However, most of the time she finds herself caught between her duties at SpecOps (a genuine copy of Cardenio has been discovered), the villains of Goliath (their operative Jack Schitt is still trapped in The Raven), and Cordelia Flakk who is insistent that she does more press and publicity. But things are about to get a whole lot worse.

When coincidences start happening around her, Thursday starts to worry that she’s going mad. She attacks a Neanderthal who she believes has a gun, she is nearly crushed by a car, and just when things couldn’t get any worse, her husband is eradicated from time and now died when he was two years old. Only she has any memory of the fact that she was ever married, and everyone else is concerned for her health. Just when things couldn’t get anymore troublesome, she makes contact with a lawyer who works for the Jurisfiction, the organisation that polices books from inside the books. Thursday is assigned to be trained up as their newest member under the watchful eye of Miss Havisham (yes, that one) and must learn the ropes of the book industry.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the world is due to end in just over a week, and someone is after Thursday who makes Acheron Hades look as nasty as a kitten. Life would be so much easier if she was just allowed to sit back and get lost in a good book.

OK, so trying to write a coherent (and short) plot synopsis for a Jasper Fforde book is nearly impossible, so that’s as good as you’re going to get. As usual, there are so many threads going on here, but they still all make sense and tie together in such wonderfully implausible ways that you almost can’t get over the sheer nerve of the man. Thursday remains one of the greatest characters in literature, and this is where the books really start to come into their own, as we spend some time in the Great Library and meet the fictional characters who run the Jurisfiction, most notably in this book, Miss Havisham, the Cheshire Cat, the Red Queen and Commander Bradshaw.

It also introduces us to one of the most terrifying villains in fiction. With the abilities to mess with people’s memories, as well as affect the laws of coincidence and probability, this is one of the most horrifying people you could imagine meeting. Maybe you already have…

It is the Bookworld, though, that really shines through. I forgot how far into the book you get before Thursday actually makes it into the Great Library, but once you’re there, it’s clear that Fforde has never had quite so much fun. He populates the fictional world with characters who we know from the classics, as well as more of his own devising, and has them all as real as anyone from the real world. A particularly funny example is with Mrs Dashwood from Sense & Sensibility, who worries what the readers think of her and her husband. Miss Havisham is awesome; we’re more used to thinking of her sat in her ballroom wasting away in her wedding dress, but here she’s full of life and has a strange passion for sports cars, or indeed anything with a big motor. It also introduces some of the concepts that will become important later like pagerunners (characters who escape from their books) and the Well of Lost Plots (where all unfinished stories reside).

It’s a book that is hilarious and smart, certainly, but it’s so full of warmth and love too, and it really feels like settling down with an old friend, albeit a well-read friend who in equal measure likes to make you laugh, cry and quake with fear. Fforde seems to understand literature in a way that few others do, and he really, really loves books. It would be so easy to mock literature from the inside, but he doesn’t. It’s all done with passion and joy.

This series is a must for anyone who loves literature, and if that’s you, then get on with it.