Book review: The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

blog book review The Stranger Diaries

I decided to request this on NetGalley when I saw that it was described as “A gripping contemporary Gothic thriller… Wilkie Collins and MR James meet Gone Girl and Disclaimer”; I do love a Gothic thriller!

Clare Cassidy is a literature teacher specialising in the Gothic writer RM Holland, about whom she teaches a short course  every year. Then Clare’s life and work collide tragically when one of her colleagues is found dead, a line from an RM Holland story by the body. The investigating police detective is convinced the writer’s works somehow hold the key to the case. And Claire realises she is right when, after the (first) murder, she notices some other writing in her diary. Writing that isn’t hers…

I enjoyed this novel, particularly the meta narrative element of the novel. Elly Griffiths ‘quotes’ regularly from Holland’s work throughout The Stranger Diaries and in fact opens the novel with a long extract from his most famous short story, before shifting the reader cleverly into the main story arc by introducing Clare’s creative writing group deconstructing the Gothic story.

The only quibble I had was with the ‘big reveal’ – I wasn’t necessarily convinced by the murderer or his motive. However, it was a lot of fun getting to the denouement and I really enjoyed reading it.

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“There is no friend as loyal as a book” (Hemingway) – a review of Bookworm by Lucy Mangan

blog book review of Bookworm

Never has the old adage, you can’t judge a book by its cover been proved more wrong. You can and you should. Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading is beautiful inside and out. A tribute to the extraordinary importance that books have in childhood. I laughed, nodded my head vigorously, and even shed a tear as I read this wonderful memoir.

childrens-stories.jpgIn one of those coincidences that life throws at you, I visited my parents while reading Bookworm. My dad casually mentioned that there were a couple of boxes of mine still up in the loft and I should go through them as he was planning a clear out. And oh, how glad I am that I did. I opened up the boxes and there were some of my old childhood friends. The rush of nostalgia when I saw the covers overwhelmed me. Many of my favourites have sadly been lost, or donated, over the years so it was a very eclectic mix that remained. But every book had a history for me. And I spent a couple of hours exclaiming happily over each and every book in those boxes.

I had the same feeling reading Bookworm.  Reading as a child, I would frequently emerge dazed and blinking, hours after first picking up the book, confused as to why I wasn’t in Narnia, fleeing from a laboratory with my fellow rats, ice skating with Hatty in the moonlight, or making a shelter from willow branches on a secret island.

My parents supported, but were slightly baffled by, my constant urge to read. Breakfast (“put that book down and eat your toast!”), still breakfast (“are you reading the cereal box?! just finish your breakfast!”), post school/pre-tea time (“why don’t you go and run around outside?”), bedtime (“alright, one more chapter”), still bedtime (“lights off now”), still bedtime (give me that torch), still bedtime (“you’ll ruin your eyes sitting in the windowsill using light from streetlamp, for the last time, stop reading and go to sleep”)…you get the idea.

The only way to keep me in books was our local library. Without fail, every week my dad would take me to there (and in school holidays, twice a week, such a treat that was!) where he would patiently wait as I agonised over which five books to check out. And every birthday and Christmas, my mum would make sure that all the relatives knew which books I did(n’t) own or hadn’t read, in a vain attempt to ensure that I received books I hadn’t already read.

owl afraid of the darkAs adults we forget that intense love and passion we had for our books as children. How we could read and reread the same book over and over again. Every now and then I still have a flash of that childhood passion, like when I come across a particular  edition of the The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark. [He was an owl. He had issues. He was called Plop. He was perfect in my eyes.] I read and reread Plop’s story so many times. And every time I finished the story, I felt the same sense of satisfaction that Plop had managed to overcome his fears.  Another children’s book that I reread obsessively was The Secret Garden. It was a revelation to me; the main character was a girl, but not a sweet ‘setting an example’ kind of girl, but a grumpy one. A girl who gave as good as she got, who could scream louder than a boy, a girl who had an adventurous spirit and who wasn’t afraid. Mary Lennox, I salute you.

Reading this memoir, it felt as if Mangan was telling the story of MY childhood reading; every chapter of her book journey reflects a step I took on my reading journey (I suspect we are a similar age!). The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The Garden Gang (The Garden Gang!!). Enid Blyton. Roald Dahl. Tom’s Midnight Garden. The horsey books. Narnia. The boarding school stories (Ah, Chalet School!). The dystopian future books (Z for Zachariah, Changes). Judy Blume who gave me the courage that I would survive my teenage angst. And last, but certainly not least, I Capture the Castle.

This is a memoir for anyone who loved books as a child, who saw them as friends, who could quote whole chunks from them. And for anyone who still loves reading as an adult.

 

I am, I am, I am by Maggie O’Farrell

blog book review of I am I am I am

I read this in hardback when it was first released (as I do all of Maggie O’Farrell’s books) but the recent release of the paperback prompted me to go back and reread it.

And thank goodness I did. Once again I got to marvel at the perfect tone of her stories and her lyricism. What struck me, as I read her stories, is her sense of optimism and above all her will. Her will to survive. Her will to succeed. Her will to carry on carrying on. There is not a single self-pitying sentence in the entire book. Her wit and her wisdom shine through every page, but not in a saintly way – she is matter of fact and tells her tales warts and all.

You would be forgiven for thinking that 17 brushes with death (well 16, those who have read it will understand my caveat) would make O’Farrell maudlin, fearful, or see herself as ‘unlucky’. But, as she tells an ex-boyfriend, she sees herself as lucky.

I read this book in a single sitting the first time, and again this time round. And I suspect I will, the third and fourth time (ad infinitum) that I read this. And you should to.

Can you ever own ‘too many books’? …

Decisions, decisions

Up to last month I would have unhesitatingly said ‘No!’ Impossible! I could never have “too many” books. What a thought?!’

As far as I am concerned, I ‘AM’ my library; I have been building my collection for over 20 years. Crime fiction, art history, literary criticism, history, literature, popular, lexicographical, the list is endless.  Luckily space has not been a constraint for me as wherever I have lived I have always had space for my books. Although sometimes I have had to get a bit creative: I have turned spare bedrooms into a library. And the drawing room. And the dining room. And well, sometimes the bathroom. In fact, let’s just say that I am an expert at putting IKEA Billy bookcases together and leave it at that. Of course I dream of the day when I have a beautiful bespoke library and/or cosy reading nook surrounded by books; in fact I have a Pinterest board devoted to book shelving!

A couple of years ago I owned over 1100 books. And I was all set to keep going. But then I relocated back from the US (my third international relocation in seven years) and I realised that I just couldn’t justify the expense of shipping (and insuring) over 30 boxes of books – again. Sighing, I managed to convince myself that a small cull was the only way and donated/sold maybe 300 books. It was a wrench but as I had found books much cheaper in the US (than Australia, where I was living before) I had been buying indiscriminately and joyfully for two years, so I targeted those books and the cull wasn’t as heartbreaking as it could have been.

Three years on we are moving again, this time to England and the 800 books I had shipped back to Australia from the US have somehow increased in number again. So once more I have to give myself a stern talking to. Do I really ‘NEED’ all these books? Can I really ship/insure them for a fourth time which would mean that I will have spent more on shipping my personal library, than the cost of compiling it?!

And let’s be honest, I am not going to reread all 1000-odd. So why do I want to keep them all? Why am I finding this cull so hard? Part of it is book lust – I like looking at them; I receive a huge amount of satisfaction from just standing in front of my wall(s) of books and looking at them, browsing them, dipping into old favourites. Part of it (and this does not reflect well on me) is that I am proud of the number of books I have – ‘Look at me, I’m a big reader’, that’s what my shelves say to anyone visiting my home. And part of it is that I just can’t let go of a book once I have read it. Books are friends, they are companions. One of the reasons I have taken my library with me on all my moves is that they are a constant, a familiar ‘place’ that I can recreate no matter where I live. They are a source of memories (books given as gifts, books signed by authors, books bought when travelling, books bought as a result of recommendations from friends), a source of comfort (there really is nothing like rereading an old favourite, curled up with a cup of tea in a comfy chair). And, obviously, they are a source of entertainment which I needed when I was new in town and hadn’t had the chance to meet people (usually by joining three local book clubs!).

But I have to cull. I cannot ship over 1000 books internationally again so I made a rule and it’s a simple one. Any book that I have read and have no intention of rereading I decided I had to discard. But it’s not simple. Because every time I find a book I haven’t reread and that I have no intention of ever rereading, I find a reason to keep it. I like the cover. I like the author. I ‘might’ read it again, who knows?

So there I was, a couple of weeks ago, on the floor in my study surrounded by piles and piles of books in the ‘to ship’ area and one lonely pile in the ‘to donate/sell’ area trying to follow my simple rule and I had an epiphany. Maybe I’m ready to make the move without all of my books. Maybe I can just take my favourites and my reference books and ‘let go’ of the rest. After all, I am moving ‘home’, I don’t need my ‘comfort blanket’ this time. And suddenly I was at peace with my book culling. The piles and piles of books transformed themselves from friends into a mixture of friends, colleagues and distant acquaintances, making it much easier to sort them. And so I packed my acquaintances and colleagues into boxes and took them down to the local charity stores, the secondhand bookstores and handed them out to friends with a light heart.

And anyway, I can always buy some more when I get home…

Now read, was unread, book on my shelf – The Machine, James Smythe

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As promised, here is the first ‘now read, was unread’ book review (see previous blog article for details!). I had James Smythe’s The Machine on my bookshelf to read because it was listed in a ‘best dystopian novels’ article and was the only one listed I hadn’t read.

Maybe my expectations were too high, but I have to admit to being rather disappointed by this novel. The protagonist, Beth, lives on a ‘rough’ housing estate near the sea in the south of the UK where the local kids terrorize the residents. Apparently sea levels have risen, temperatures have risen, it hardly ever rains any more and even when it does rain, it is very heavy and doesn’t help as the ground is too parched. But, rather than appear dystopian and challenging, it just seems as if it’s all just a bit hot and a bit of a nuisance. Life seems exactly the same as it is right now, everyone still appears to have jobs and housing, although water is rationed, and certain areas have been flooded so people have been relocated. And quite frankly, there are scary teenage boys in gangs hanging around every housing estate; you don’t need rising sea levels for that to happen.

We slowly (very slowly!) find out about Beth’s husband, Vic, who came back from the war with PTSD and voluntarily went through an untested and controversial ‘commit/purge/replenish’ memory treatment that was meant to remove his war memories (and the subsequent bouts of aggression and bad dreams affecting him) and give him new, happier ‘false’, memories but has instead left him a blank shell, a vegetable. Beth is convinced she can ‘bring him back’ from his current vegetative state and tracks down a version of ‘The Machine’ that was used in Vic’s original treatments, in order to put back the memories that were taken from him initially, using the original files she kept back after his treatments.

I don’t want to put in any spoilers so I will resist from writing further on the obvious plot ‘twists and turns’. I think my main issue is that the world this novel portrays just doesn’t seem very different, and certainly not any more dystopian, than society now. And it didn’t make me think about the ethics/moral code/attitudes being acted upon, which is one of the reasons I like reading dystopian novels.

Another issue is that being inside Beth’s head all the time gets a bit wearing, she just isn’t very interesting as a character. Her continuing mental disintegration seems workmanlike when you compare it to the woman’s in The Yellow Wallpaper for example. And for all the mysterious hints about ‘The Machine’, they don’t really come to much.

In summary, good concept, well-written with good descriptions of PTSD but could have been much more. However, don’t take my word for it. I read quite a few reviews on Goodreads, after reading The Machine, and it has received lots of positive reviews so maybe it’s just me!

Who am I? And who are you? Book review of ‘Before I go to sleep’ by S.J.Watson

before i go to sleep cover

What would you do if you woke up every morning with no memory of who you are? Where you are? And who the man walking into the bedroom towards you is?

Before I go to Sleep is a psychological thriller about a woman suffering from anterograde amnesia (the loss of ability to create new memories after the event that caused the amnesia, leading to an inability to recall the recent past but with long-term memories from before the event usually remaining intact). The novel follows her day by day as she tries to reconstruct her memories from a journal she finds that apparently she has written. She learns that she been seeing a doctor who is helping her recover her memory, her name is Christine Lucas, she is 47 years old and married, and she has a son.

But is this the truth? As Christine ‘rediscovers’ her journal each day, and reads more and more about her own life, she feels increasing disquiet at the ‘official’ story and with the man in her life who claims to be her husband.

This makes for an uneasy read, it is a great first novel that cranks up the tension very effectively as more and more is revealed.