Book Chat: ‘Wakenhyrst’ by Michelle Paver

I first read one of Michelle Paver’s novels seven years ago. I can’t remember how I came across Dark Matter but I could still describe the plot to you and I still vividly remember how it made me feel. I read it in a single sitting on a gloomy weekend day and it remains one of my absolute favourite ghost stories. Since then, I’ve kept an eye on the release of Paver’s novels and although none have quite lived up to that first experience, I’ve enjoyed every one of her ghostly offerings.

It will come as a surprise to nobody then that I loved Wakenhyrst. The story follows Maud as she grows up in Wake’s End, a crumbling old manor house (obviously) sitting on the edge of the Fens. We start the novel knowing that Maud’s father, Edmund, ends up in an institution painting images of demons, having apparently suffered a mental breakdown and killed a man in a horribly violent attack. Maud has remained resolutely silent on what really happened until, as the novel opens, she finds herself in dire financial straits and decides to sell her story to fund much needed repairs to Wake’s End.

Wakenhyrst alternates between Maud recounting her story in her own words and Edmund’s diary entries, which Maud is reading in an effort to get to know her father (at least initially…). I love a good diary entry in a novel anyway but the way they’re used in Wakenhyrst is just brilliant. We first see Edmund early on through Maud’s eyes as a child, then as she grows up and finds him increasingly difficult to live with, she hunts out his diary to try and learn more about him. Often if authors include diary entries, it’s to give readers an edge over characters; Paver uses them to put us firmly on Maud’s side and to let us share in her frustrations and fears. The characters are all so well drawn and so well balanced but Maud has a special place in my heart. By the end, I was so firmly attached to her that I cried as some of her secrets were revealed.

What I adore most about Paver’s writing is how she balances the hints at supernatural with the personal struggles of her characters. In Wakenhyrst‘s case, the uncertainty sits around Edmund and whether he is losing his mind or whether the phantoms that he sees are something darker and more real wafting in from the Fens. It also plays on the religious ideas of the early 20th century and the demons that so many believed might lurk around every corner, and naturally on the folklore surrounding the Fens. The atmosphere is damp and oppressive and looms over everything. Perfect for getting consumed by during the winter.

Death freezes everything. Whatever you did or didn’t do, whatever you said or left unsaid: none of that is ever going to change. You have no more chances to say sorry or make things right. No more chances for anything except regret

All of which isn’t to say that I think Wakenhyrst is perfect. If I’m being picky, it felt a little longer than it needed to be to me, a slight flaw that means I’ve given it 4.5 rather than 5 out of 5 stars. Some of the extracts from Edmund’s diaries run long and can feel repetitive. It works in places, particularly later on in the novel when it really highlights the tangled and dangerous patterns of Edmund’s mind but I was less keen early on when there’s a lot of religious fervour and general academic ramblings. The ending more than makes up for the occasional lull in pace but the lulls are there all the same.

Overall: Who doesn’t like a sinister story set in a crumbling old house with supernatural undertones and secrets galore in the winter?! I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to call it a ghost story but if you like ghost stories, I’m sure you’ll love this.  And if you do pick this up and love it, make sure you also keep an eye out for Dark Matter, because it is perfection and it makes me sad that it isn’t more popular. Two recommendations for the price of one!

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Date finished: 07 September 2018

Pictured edition published: by Head of Zeus in April 2019

Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley

Book Chat: ‘Nevernight’ and ‘Godsgrave’ by Jay Kristoff

I just finished Godsgrave by Jay Kristoff. Not as in ‘most recently’, as in about an hour ago. I wanted to spend most of this morning reading and I’ve tried picking up a non-fiction book but can’t think about anything other than the ending to Godsgrave so I’m just giving up and wallowing in/sharing my feelings about the Nevernight series as far as I’ve got.

Where to start? Let’s kick off with Nevernight, the first in the series. The basic premise that Mia Corvere has grown up in the shadow of her father’s execution for rebelling against the incumbent government. Her mother was imprisoned in a cruel jail and her baby brother is presumed dead. She’s pretty cross about the whole thing and has sworn her life to killing those she believes were responsible. She also happens to be a ‘darkin’, able to manipulate shadows and communicate with her shadowy non-cat, Mister Kindly (who is fabulous – what’s not to love about a sarcastic sort-of-cat?). Desperate to join the Red Church, an organisation of assassins, she quests off into the desert and pits herself against some brutal challenges and fellow apprentices and our story begins.

I love me a good boarding-school-with-trials story and this was no exception. I adored it. It’s gritty and dark and harsh but as Mia forms friendships and learns more about herself, there’s some light relief too. Be warned though, some of those friendships will break your heart.  Kristoff isn’t shy about killing people off. I’ve cried and stared at my Kindle in shock fairly regularly during both this and the next book. Deaths don’t feel gratuitous but that just makes them all the harder to read. Brace yourself!

Surprisingly enough for a series that’s already about assassins and a pretty vicious republic, Godsgrave manages to up the ante. Shit gets very real. There is much blood and many deaths and it’s not for the faint hearted. Without any spoilers, most of the book focuses on trials of the ‘gladiatii’. Yes, you guessed it. Not only do we have assassins, we also now have battles to the death between gladiator warrior types. The first part of the book (after a very handy refresher on the series so far) is split between catching readers up on how our characters have ended up where they are and in following this new plot line. It was a smidge disorientating at first but a few chapters in, I was hooked. There’s more of the fantastic world-building and character development from the first, with new threats, more political intrigue, more moments to make your heart hurt and twists and turns and…well, everything. It’s bloody brilliant.

There’s a whiff of Terry Pratchett about the series too (albeit very much Pratchett for grown-ups), with a wry, all-seeing narrator chipping in for prologues and epilogues and the occasional footnote. I’ve seen reviews by other readers saying that the footnotes ruined the book for them. I personally like them because they appeal to my fairly dry sense of humour and help expand the world a bit with back stories of towns, myths characters refer to or sayings they use. Read a few and see what you think but if they do bug you, you can skip them and you’ll miss nothing of the main story.

All of which is to say, if you’re a fantasy reader, you really NEED to read this series. If you aren’t usually a fantasy reader, it’s not too heavy on the fantastical side and there isn’t a lot of magic so I wouldn’t say it’s only for the hardcore fans by any stretch – definitely worth giving a try! The hype has died down but it’s one of the best series I’ve read in recent years. I wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of the day I’d bought and started the final instalment (the cliffhangers at the end of the second books are killing me) but I’m trying to hold out for a little while…

Book Chat: ‘Shadows on the Tundra’ by Dalia Grinkeviciute

Translated by Delija Valiukenas

In 1941, 14-year-old Dalia and her family are deported from their native Lithuania to a labour camp in Siberia. As the strongest member of her family she submits to twelve hours a day of manual labour. At the age of 21, she escapes the gulag and returns to Lithuania. She writes her memories on scraps of paper and buries them in the garden, fearing they might be discovered by the KGB. They are not found until 1991, four years after her death. This is the story Dalia buried. The immediacy of her writing bears witness not only to the suffering she endured but also the hope that sustained her. It is a Lithuanian tale that, like its author, beats the odds to survive.

Reading Shadows on the Tundra reminded me just why my main reading goal for 2019 was to read more translated literature. I’ve been to Vilnius, spending days exploring the city and reading about the country’s history in museums and galleries, and even after that I realise now how little I really got the history until I read this. It’s relentless. Brutal. Unflinching. Raw. A thousand similar adjectives still wouldn’t quite convey just how powerful this book is. It isn’t for the faint-hearted – Dalia’s record of her experiences of the Soviet Gulag doesn’t make for easy reading and I often felt physically uneasy while reading what she endured – but it was absolutely worth it. Every grimace and every tear.

I knew about Lithuania’s history but, as with so many things, it’s the personal accounts that get you to see past the overwhelming statistics and stark facts and understand what these sweeping events really meant to individuals. This account is beautifully written and, told as it is from Dalia’s personal experience, doesn’t get lost in trying to convey the scale of the deportations – it’s one young girl’s story of what she and her family went through, and a hugely impactful one at that.

What I suppose is remarkable is that while it’s undeniably dark, there’s hope. I wonder if that’s in part because Dalia wrote this account when she had managed to escape, or if she always did have such a conviction that she’d survive.  Either way (and I know that this sounds melodramatic) there’s something life affirming about Shadows on the Tundra. Even while the Lithuanians were subject to appalling cruelty, there are those that refuse to lose hope, those who show compassion and refuse to give up on their humanity. There’s just so much to take from these 200 pages.

One thing (among the many things) that I love about the books that Peirene Press publishes is that they’re all short enough that you can comfortably read them in one go. Even if that hadn’t been the case, I’m not sure I’d have had much alternative with Shadows on the Tundra. The writing is urgent and direct and almost impossible to wrench yourself away from. There aren’t chapter breaks and it’s often difficult to tell how much time has passed. I’m not always a fan of that type of writing but the stream of consciousness style suits this narrative – the flow and passage of the pages mirroring the flow and passage of Dalia’s days perfectly. People come and go as they pass in and out of Dalia’s life. There are deaths of people you as a reader have only known about for two pages and even those are heartbreaking, not only because they were obviously the deaths of real people but also because death has become so commonplace that each is simply told without emotion.

Read it, cry over it and then please come back here so that we can talk about it.

Overall: I know that book reviewers wheel out this phrase all the time and it can feel like a worn out old statement but this book really is important. There isn’t much more I can say. I finished it yesterday and it’s still playing on my mind. I expect that it will be for some time to come.

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Date finished: 09 March 2019

Pictured edition published: by Peirene Press in June 2018

Source: Bought – publisher subscription

Pop Sugar Challenge Prompt: A novel with no chapters/unusual chapter headings/unconventionally numbered chapters

Book Chat: ‘The Raw Shark Texts’ by Steven Hall

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

FIRST THINGS FIRST, STAY CALM.

If you are reading this, I’m not around anymore. Take the phone and speed dial 1. Tell the woman who answers that you are Eric Sanderson. The woman is Dr Randle. She’ll understand what has happened and you will be able to see her straight away. Take the car keys and drive the yellow Jeep to Dr. Randle’s house. If you haven’t found it yet, there’s a map in the envelope – it isn’t too far and it’s not hard to find.

Dr Randle will be able to answer all your questions. It’s very important that you go straight away. Do not pass go. Do not explore. Do not collect two hundred pounds. The house keys are hanging from a nail on the banister at the bottom of the stairs, don’t forget them.

With regret and also hope,
The First Eric Sanderson

Just look at that for a blurb. How good does that book sound?! Add to it a note on the back billing The Raw Shark Texts as “Jaws meets The Matrix meets The Da Vinci Code” and my expectations were super high. Like so many others, I’ve had the book on my shelves for ages. At the end of last year when I’d already decided that 2019 would be the year I finally focussed properly on reading the books already on my shelves, I picked this up as the first of the bunch because I was almost certain I’d love it.  Spoiler alert: I didn’t really.

The start was excellent. Eric Sanderson wakes up in a house he doesn’t recognise and can’t remember a thing about who he is or how he got there. He receives a letter that purports to be from himself in the past (‘The First Eric Sanderson’) and is left to try and unravel the mysteries of himself and his life.  The writing is sharp and hugely entertaining and there’s plenty of plot to go at. It felt like a real ‘cult movie’ of a book and I was genuinely excited to be reading it.

“I did not know who I was. I did not know where I was.

That simple.

That frightening.

Within 100 pages, I was confused and a bit grumpy. While I do love fantasy and science fiction and some magical realism, I found the plot of The Raw Shark Texts baffling. I just couldn’t get a handle on what was going on. I’m not sure how much to say without straying into spoiler territory. Eric finds out early on that he is believed to have lost his memories following an accident in which his girlfriend was killed and in dealing with the loss somehow managed to attract the attention of a “conceptual shark” called a Ludovician which “feeds on human memories and the intrinsic sense of self”. I think I liked what the shark was there to represent but it was all frankly just too off the wall for me, the novel eventually coming to feel like an overworked extended metaphor.

I didn’t put the book aside because there was always enough that I was enjoying to keep me reading. Eric’s relationship with a vaguely mysterious character called Scout, the cat called Ian who was the most perfect illustration of a cat I’ve ever read, and the development of Eric’s character as he tries to work out what kind of person he is and how he fits in the world, including how he reacts to those who knew the first Eric Sanderson and want to imprint that Eric’s personality onto this later Eric. There were plenty of moments, though, where I was just reading the words on the page and not really engaging with them. They were abstract and bonkers and didn’t translate themselves into anything like meaning in my head. Or where they did, it was just weird. Not dissimilar to when somebody is trying to tell you about a dream they had.

You know those books where in the last couple of pages there’s something that changes how you see everything that’s gone before? Those reveals that make you realise that what you thought you were reading was perhaps something else entirely? I hate them. I don’t like labouring over a book that makes no sense while you’re reading it only to have an author show me in the last two pages what was going on. While I might eventually come to acknowledge that the book was clever, my main takeaway will still almost always be how annoying the reading experience was. That’s The Raw Shark Texts. While I can objectively admire a lot of what Steven Hall does with the pages of the book and the ultimate fate of Eric Sanderson, I’m still irritated that I was made to wade through some surreal borderline nonsense first.

Overall: If you’re into magical realism or you like your fiction particularly quirky, I’m sure that there’s a lot about this book to love. It plays around with language and uses text art in a way that does add to the story rather than just take up space and  I would never deny that it’s clever.  If you like to feel like you understand what’s going on in the book that you’re reading, or if you aren’t a fan of the surreal, I’d pass on this.

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Date finished: 05 January 2019

Pictured edition published: by Canongate Books in March 2017

Source: Bought

Pop Sugar Challenge Prompt: A debut novel