Reads – Hydra

I can safely say I have never read a book quite like Hydra by Matt Wesolowski.

Which is a shame, because it’s mesmerisingly and disorientatingly brilliant.

It’s a standalone sequel to Wesolowski’s Six Stories (which I haven’t read – though I definitely want to now), told in the style of six podcasts by investigative journalist Scott King as he tries to unpick the story behind a family massacre. He first interviews the disturbed Arla Macleod, who bludgeoned to death her family one winter night, and then five people connected to Arla.

The identity of the murderer is never ever in doubt, so this isn’t a whodunnit. Well, it’s not quite a whodunnit. The skill of the book lies in the unveiling of increasingly spooky and unsettling events in the build up to the murders, and a growing sense of danger to Scott King as he uncovers new information about Arla’s past.

It’s cleverly and compellingly done.

For anyone thinking of reading it, I have one major piece of advice: don’t read the first podcast at midnight after a long day at work, with rain lashing down outside and ivy tapping on the window pane. That is one sure fire way of leaving you terrified, wide awake, eyes peeping out from the top of the duvet, desperately hoping no-one comes a-knocking at the door.

I did not sleep well.

But I learnt my lesson and made sure I read the rest of the book well before my bedtime.

Hydra is a creepy and addictive story told in a fresh way. It’s absolutely worth a read.

Perhaps, though, in daylight hours only.

Book review of Hydra.
Hydra by Matt Wesolowski
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Paddling

Antique Edwardian photograph, inpsiration for a short story. Paddling at Mudstone.
Antique photograph captioned “Paddling at Mudstone” found in an old album from a flea market.

The water is cold between Esme’s toes and the shingle is prickly against her skin.

The others giggle all around her, but she is silent.

Something isn’t right.

She can feel it in her feet, feel it tangling up her calves, growing over her knees. The sea is bleeding into her, melting to her flesh. Soon, she will not be able to leave.

She stumbles back and the others stop giggling. They ask what’s wrong.

She stumbles back and saltwater sloshes against her skirt. Worst of all, it sloshes in her heart. She feels the weight of it swim left and right inside her chest, feels it splash against her lungs.

She stumbles back and suddenly the cold is all around her. She closes her eyes and holds her breath – sinking and sinking, baptised.

Everything under is quiet. Everything under is calm.

Only her and her fuzzy heartbeat.

Before she feels them, she hears them – their shouts, their screams. And then their hands come – grasping, pulling, dragging her up until she is drowning in air.

Before she feels the sand, she hears the sand. It crunches against her ear and suckers to her face. Voices babble all around her but she cannot understand what they say.

Before she feels it, she sees it. She holds a leg up in the air and watches as her skin shimmers in the light and flashes in the sun. Blue and purple and green and silver. Scales.

She must get back to the water.

Land is not enough.

Reads – The Invisible Child

My love for the Moomins already knew no bounds, but this little book of two short stories by Tove Jansson – a special edition for charity – has sent my love for them skyrocketing even further.

The Invisible Child is a heartwarming story about Ninny – who is, as the title suggests, invisible – and the Moomins attempts to help her. I think anyone who has experienced shyness and/or social anxiety will find a kindred spirit in Ninny. I literally wanted to high-five Tove Jansson for summing up pretty much my entire childhood and teenagehood.

“You all know, don’t you, that if people are frightened very often, they sometimes become invisible.”

The second story, called The Fir Tree, is, quite simply, one of the funniest things I have ever read. I could not stop giggling.

“‘Mamma, wake up,’ Moomintroll said anxiously. ‘Something awful is happening. It’s called Christmas.'”

It follows the Moomins as they try to come to grips with Christmas, after being awoken during their hibernation by the Hemulen as he tries to find his yellow mittens.

“‘You need a fir tree for protection,’ Moominpappa mused. ‘I don’t understand it.'”

Oh, Moomins.

They make everything better.

The Invisible Child and The Fir Tree by Tove Jansson, special Oxfam edition. Moomin short stories.
The Invisible Child and The Fir Tree by Tove Jansson.

Reads – The Gallows Pole

The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers is based on the true story of the Cragg Vale Coiners in 1760s Yorkshire. It follows the fates of “King” David Hartley and his gang as they exploit the close-knit and secluded location of the Upper Calder Valley to clip real coins and forge new ones – an activity that got so out of hand it threatened to destabilise the economy and meant death by hanging for anyone found guilty of it.

In my head, it played out like a cross between Poldark and Peaky Blinders, only set in Yorkshire and much more grisly.

Book review of The Gallows Pole
The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers

I had very mixed feelings about it.

I want to say that I love it, but I don’t so I won’t.

I respect it and admire it and marvel at it, though. #awkward

Here are some of my main takeaways…

Sections of the book are written phonetically – from David Hartley’s point of view – and for the first half of the book it kind of drove me up the wall. I’d see the itallics and a little piece of me would shrivel up and die inside. It just felt so painful to read, so slow, so laboured. But, somewhere along the line, I had an upiffanee. It’s not that it became easier to read, it just somehow – unexpectedly and weirdly – became a joy to read. David Hartley is mad and delusional, yet brilliant in his own horrible way. The phonetic writing is the same and the book would lose something without it. So I can forgive Benjamin Myers the fingernails-on-blackboard pain it initially induced in my brain. *pats self on back for moral goodness*

The other thing that was a joy to read, though this time throughout the whole book, was the writing about the landscape. It lives and breathes and sets the page alight. There’s lots of rain, lots of clouds, lots of fields, hills, and mud. Endless skies and knotted trees. Wild wind in your hair and fresh air in your lungs.

The descriptions are intense and vivid.

‘Finally the sky was free of clouds and stars cut through the night like smashed quartz sprinkled and thrown aloft to stick there.’

Well, holy moly is that one lovely sentence. One of many.

‘The night came in like a bruise of purples and blues and then finally gripped so tight that the sky was black and broken by the weight of time impressing upon it.’

(Just a heads up here: the description of the landscape is intense and so too is the description of brutal, sick violence. It hurt to read. If you can’t stand that kind of thing in a book, this absolutely isn’t the one for you.)

Ultimately, there was only one thing that deep-down bothered me about the book.

Maybe this is a totally unfair criticism, but I hated the fact there wasn’t really any character to root for, that there was no-one to give you a sense of hope. I personally found it hard to read a book where I didn’t feel tethered to at least one character’s soul, even in a little, teeny-tiny way. I did enjoy the moral conflict between law and order and the “clip a coin, fuck the crown” spirit – because how exactly do you live freely and fairly when the weight of the law is always stacked against you, when people can pick you up and move you on, lock you up, kick you when you’re already down on a whim? – but I just wish there had been someone in the book that I felt less than 90% negatively about.

Everybody – and I solemnly swear this – is up to no good.

It wore me down.

Like I say, maybe that’s unfair. But it’s how I feel. So there. *sticks out tongue*

It’s a beautiful and bleak, brilliant and frustrating, intriguing and unnerving story. I loved it in a way, and hated it too for making me feel kind of miserable. If I were a star-giver, I’d give it four out of five. Four for its rugged beauty; the fifth being held back because it made me grumpy. (Or perhaps just grumpier.)

So, yeah. Feelings all over the place for this one.

I can see how that’s not really helpful. But it’s how I feel.

So there.

Reads – The Girl in the Tower

Oh. My.

I don’t have enough words to describe my feelings for this book. I just have lots of long, drawn out, unintelligible, half-language/half-noise things that I can’t figure out how to spell, which is making writing a review tricky.

Basically, in conclusion (introduction?), I really really, truly truly loved it.

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden. Book cover. Book review.
The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

Why? Well, let me get out some trusty bullet points and give you a few reasons.*

  • The writing. Ah gosh. It’s magical. Captivating. Bewitching. [Insert all other synonyms here.] The descriptions are beautiful without being overbearing. Characters pop out of the page, right into your heart and brain.
  • The setting. The Girl in the Tower evolves brilliantly from the small town setting of The Bear and the Nightingale. Things are no longer exclusively lush and natural and wild – they’re also golden and glittering, bewilderingly human.
  • The relationships. They spark, falter, realign, flourish, and die – believably, joyously, and painfully. It’s an emotional roller-coaster of the best kind.
  • There are consequences. There were points when I worried that everything was all too easy and convenient, but the easiness was snatched away. It was perfectly timed and excruciatingly brutal.
  • Vasya. I’ve read criticism that Vasya is too headstrong, too stubborn, and too selfish. She is absolutely headstrong, absolutely stubborn, and sometimes she’s selfish. That’s the point of the story though, right? She’s growing. She’s learning to balance being resolute in her wants, beliefs, and dreams, and the world(s) she lives in. She’s learning how to navigate herself towards a life of freedom, without veering into selfishness and without harming others. She’s always gone with her heart and gut, now she’ll have to step up and factor in the cool, calm calculations of her mind too. She’s a great and flawed protagonist.

So as you might have guessed, I thoroughly and heartily (right from the bottom of it in fact) recommend this book. And if you haven’t read The Bear and the Nightingale please go read it now. Pretty please. Then read this one. If you like fairytales and wonder and magic, or even just snow and ice and winter, you’ll love the world Katherine Arden has created.

You’ll love it.

Really really, truly truly.

Right, now it’s back to the noises I can’t figure out how to spell.

*Disclosure: I am still completely and utterly book drunk at this point. Mixing bullet points and book drunkeness is not generally advisable.

Camellia Stars

The day was silver; cloud flooded and icy cold.

The ground was speckled white with snowdrops, sometimes pink with cyclamen, sometimes even yellow with daffodils. A great big shiny promise of spring.

Soon. One last winter-soaked breath.

We escaped away from the crowds, away from the drops of snow, away from accidentally photobombing people’s flowery snaps, and wandered into the woods.

Wandering into the woods is always a good idea, despite what the fairytales tell you.

We found no wolves or witches.

Only petals fallen to the path and camellia stars stuck to the sky.

Pink camellias and tree silhouettes in winter.
Camellia stars + naked trees + silver skies

Reads – Holloway

At 36 pages, Holloway by Robert Macfarlane isn’t the longest read on the planet, but it was one of the nicest reading experiences I’ve had in a long time.

It’s teeny-tiny and delicate and cherishable, something to be picked up and reread every now and then. Something to get lost in for ten minutes. Something ‘within which ghosts softly flock’. It’s kind of like a prayer book – one where God is south Dorset (biased? me? *waves hand dismissively but guiltily*), gnarly knotted trees, sunken many-lives-haunted pathways, friendship, and quiet adventure.

It made me want to escape to the real world.

Just maybe when it stops raining.

Holloway - by Robert Macfarlane, Stanley Donwood, and Dan Richards - book review.

 

Reads – Lullaby by Leila Slimani

Lullaby by Leila Slimani (translated from French by Sam Taylor) starts and ends with two murders and one attempted suicide. In between, the story tracks the slow unravelling of the bourgeoisie Parisian family and their nanny at the centre of that crime.

It’s not normally a genre I read, and, to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have read it if I hadn’t set a goal to read more translated books this year (trying to beat my score of one from last year – looking likely at this point). But I’m so so so glad I did read it.

The book grew more and more claustrophic, more sinister, more claggy against my heart with every page. It pulled me under and dragged my wimpish soul kicking and screaming, strangely hypnotised, to its ugly conclusion. The writing and translation are dream-like and smooth, a lullaby. Just a lullaby that drifts towards a nightmare.

‘Her heart has grown hard. The years have covered it in a thick, cold rind and she can barely hear it beating.’

Obviously, there’s no happy ending or salvation. But the journey. Ugh, the journey. It’s not perfect, but it is really, really, really good.

Lullaby book cover, by Leila Slimani. Instax mini 9 photograph.
Lullaby by Leila Slimani

At The Castle

The castle looms like it always does, a tangling mess of steely grey rock studded into tufted grass.

I try to ignore my hands as they turn redder and redder, try not to worry about the purple blotches growing in amongst the red.

I collect a ticket and hand it back in a minute later, after the bridge, after the wobbly entrance arch, after getting attached to it and feeling like I don’t want to hand it in (the hoarder in me wants to keep it, as if not keeping it will mean I have never been).

Beyond the entrance, there are stocks to the left. A memory of sticking my head and hands in it years ago flurries round my head. My lungs remember how much my sister and I laughed that day.

Up, up, up goes the path, and I follow.

More paths, more steps.

The views are beautiful. Fields and trees and hills and tantalizing sunbeams falling far away.

Heart slowing, lungs calming, I stop with one hand pressed against a towering chunk of wall that’s angled very unhow a wall should be angled. The picture of it crumbling, the feel of it giving way, floods my head. Maybe it’s best to move on.

Walk, slip, trip.

Broken hallways hiss with icy gusts of wind. Walls are painted green with veils of moss and drip with sticky rain. Elsewhere, they are blotchy with lichen, a mix of grubby white and sickly yellow that blurs into the grey.

The sound of children playing on their lunchbreak twinkles all around the air, filling it with echoes of playful happiness. The sound of traffic buzzes like it buzzes almost everywhere. I wish I could eavesdrop on the sounds of five hundred years ago and five hundred years from now, wish I could know who’s stood here before and who’ll stand here one day.

I take a turn. It leads to a dead end. I head back, try to refind the main path. I attempt to take a shortcut and slide inelegantly between a rock and a hard place. I pray there are no cameras to record my momentary wedgedness between aforementioned rock and hard place. I wonder if walking/shuffling through (getting slightly stuck in) a wall makes me some sort of ghost. I worry I might’ve just frightened someone in the fifteenth century.

Soggy steps lead downwards.

I look up as the sun bubbles through a patch of clouds. It’s framed by one of the many derelict windows and I try to take a nice photo, but, no matter how many I take, none of them look better, none of them shine brighter, than the real-time thing. Away goes the phone.

I head back down the hill, trying not to slide down the cobblestones, trying not to surf down the grass.

The castle looks smaller than it feels in my head when I look back up, and I’m not sure if I’ve imagined it big or my eyes have tricked it small.

I came here looking for something. I don’t know what exactly. I don’t even know if I found it. I hope so.

I do feel better, lighter, clearer.

Colder, redder, and purpler, too.

Corfe Castle on a cloudy, rainy day in January. English castle ruins. Gothic style photograph effect.
Corfe Castle, Dorset, January 2018.

Once Upon a 2018

The clock struck midnight and the world didn’t change. People cheered, danced, started a giant can-can; fireworks went off; confetti filled the air and fluttered to the pavement. The world didn’t change.

Still, there were butterflies in my belly and a stupidly happy happiness in my heart – that I’m sure wasn’t entirely rum based – at the prospect of 2018.

I know it’s just four numbers in a row. I know anything can happen – good and bad, beautiful and ugly. I know for an absolute, sure-fire fact that 2018 will see my face red and puffy and snotty and tear-stained on an embarrassing number of occassions (the ugly). I know I will laugh so hard my stomach will hurt (the good). I know I will love and I’ll probably hate too (naughty me). I know at points I’ll be elated, disappointed, bored, excited, inspired, confused (happens easily), annoyed (again, happens easily. Note to self – work on moral failings). Basically, emotions will be all over the place because that’s how I like to keep my emotions.

And I know that I have an unnervingly good feeling about the next 12 months.

Here’s to the next chapter in all our stories.

Heart drawn on steamed up car window, with raindrops in the background.