Printer’s Devil Court- Susan Hill (2014) – A What I’ve Been Listening To Review

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I tend to steer clear of short novels.  They often feel a little sketchy for my taste, lacking in the depth of characterisation and plot which are probably the two things I seek out the most in my book choices.  I have though, often found myself attracted by the slim volumes by Susan Hill, most famous for her short novel “The Woman In Black” boosted by a long-running West End adaptation and a so-so 2012 film starring Daniel Radcliffe.  Up to now I hadn’t read any of Hill’s books.

 That changed because the Isle Of Wight Library Service where I live and for whom I work have recently moved their platform of E-Books and Audio Books to Borrowbox, run by Bolinda, a major audio books publisher.  After training to show how much easier it was than our previous system I thought I’d do something I’d never done before and borrow an audio book.  As I know that my listening skills are fairly rudimentary I looked for something that would both appeal to me and be short and at 1 hour 40 this seemed to perfectly fit the bill.

 The joy of this new system is you can stop mid-track, easily rewind and set a sleep timer for it to switch off.  I have listened to most of this in bed in 15 minute chunks over the last few nights, long enough to stay awake and short enough to keep me following the story.  And it has worked.  I have listened to it all and have actually slept better once I’ve switched off the light.

This all may seem rather obvious to the audio book listener but my experience with this format up to now has not been great.  I did have concerns.  If I’m just listening can I actually class “Printer Devil’s Court” as a book I have read?  If I can then what about my compulsion to review everything I read?  Would I even be able to produce a review without having the book to consult?  This one was more of a problem (I knew I wouldn’t be able to remember characters’ names without seeing them written down) so I borrowed a copy off the library shelves.  This I’ve done before with my only other experience of a spoken word novel when I took out a bulky set of CD’s of Robert Galbraith’s “The Silkworm” in addition to the book.  On first listen, I fell asleep, woke with no idea as to what was going on, checked the book to discover it was only a few pages in, which seemed such a ludicrously slow pace that I abandoned the CDs and read the book instead.  This time I told myself I couldn’t even open the book until I finished listening and I did manage to do this.

 As an audiobook it kept me entertained, it didn’t get too bogged down in detail and I wanted to know what was going to happen.  I actually feel that on this occasion I would have been less drawn in had I just read the book, as the tale is slight.  It’s a ghost story of a group of young medics who experiment with bringing a woman back from the dead.  It is rich in atmosphere but not much happens and it’s not at all scary. The horror is largely psychological as main character Hugh Meredith (thanks, book!) comes to terms over his lifetime with what he witnessed one evening.  Listening to it I was misled as to time setting.  I was in Victorian London mode until a mention of Blitz-damaged buildings made me think again.  Looking at the book I would have been even more misled by the attractive yet distinctly nineteenth-century illustrations.  I suppose it is part of the skill of the suspense writer to unsettle the reader.

stevenpaceyPrinter’s Devil Court is read by Steven Pacey

 The audiobook is narrated by Steven Pacey, whose rich tones lends it the authority and gravitas the story needs and has enough of an Alan Bennett feel to his voice to keep me listening.  I know how important the choice of voice artist is and this works well here.  All in all “Printer’s Devil Court” provided an experience I would certainly repeat and even thought I wasn’t blown away by Susan Hill’s tale I was motivated enough by it to pick up her first in her crime series featuring Simon Serrailler, a far more substantial novel, which I am currently reading.

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Printer’s Devil Court was published by Profile Books in 2014.

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I’m Thinking Of Ending Things – Iain Reid (Text 2016)

“…..something that disorients, that unsettles what’s taken for granted, something that disturbs and disrupts reality- that’s scary.”

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If we take the narrator’s words at face value then this literary horror debut is indeed scary.  It has an air of unease running throughout and this undercurrent of disorientation is the most successful aspect of the novel.  It has a simple plot and flows well.  A relationship may be in its last days when the narrator and her boyfriend embark upon a snowy road trip to see his parents.  The girl is being pestered by a stalker and hasn’t told her boyfriend about this.  If the plot seems a little clichéd this becomes even more so with the location chosen for the dramatic climax but the peculiarly vague sense of discomfort lifts it above this.  However, you will be yelling at the narrator as things dawn on her too slowly and may very well become frustrated at the over-analysis of the couple’s relationship and excessive chat.  I felt the novel fell apart by the end- although some may deem the ending clever.  I felt slightly cheated by the direction the author decided to take.  The quirky strangeness does make the comparisons to Michel Faber’s “Under The Skin” seem appropriate but Reid’s debut did not grab me in quite the same way.

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I’m Thinking Of Ending Things was published by Text Publishing Company in June 2016

100 Essential Books- Rosemary’s Baby- Ira Levin (Corsair 1967)

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As a teenager I read all Ira Levin’s then-published novels in a short space of time.  This was the book that kick-started my Levin frenzy and I was interested to see how well it has stood the test of time.

It has.  By twisting horror story conventions it manages to convince as one of the most successful pieces of horror writing of all time, even though it is mainly frightening by implication.  How does it do this?  Firstly, Rosemary is likeable.  Too often the “victims” in horror writing have some flaw that means we feel a little less sympathy for them when the bad things start happening.  Rosemary may be a little irritating and gullible but comes across as an ordinary girl in love, living in a place she had aspired to and contemplating starting a family.  Secondly, we have a glossy urban setting which feels cool and modern.  A lot of the references throughout the book would have resonated with the 60’s audience who would have seen Guy and Rosemary’s life as both aspirational and stylish.  Midway through Rosemary reinvents herself with a then-so trendy short Vidal Sassoon cut.  (It isn’t entirely successful- the damage to her physical health caused by what is lurking inside her leads to one of her friends to refer to her as “Miss Concentration Camp 1966″).  The darkness of traditional Gothic stories is replaced here with the lights of urban New York, but the darkness is there simmering, like the devilish bun in the oven.

Thirdly, it works due to its length.  Levin was a brilliant story-teller and keeps the story moving throughout with the right balance of plot development and almost trivial asides.  No long-winded build-up here. This is even though at first it seems miles away from a horror, a young couple set up new home and  make new friends, but this actually causes the reader to read very carefully with heightened awareness throughout, hanging on the details.  Levin keeps us all on a tight leash.

There’s great characterisation here.  Rosemary and her actor husband, Guy, trying to push himself ahead of his rivals and also their neighbours Roman and Minnie Castevets who smother the couple in good intentions.  Everyone feels real and that is important as Rosemary’s paranoia sets in .  Who is to be trusted?

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Plot-wise, everyone knows this is a story of modern Satanism both from the book’s fame and the equally excellent 1968 Polanski directed movie. Starring a superbly cast Mia Farrow as Rosemary it follows the dialogue from the book extremely closely.  The plot is slight, but so gripping and even more chilling because of its slightness.  I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading this.  I thought perhaps the world of horror had moved on from this and that it might come across as either dull or plain trashy.  It’s neither.  It is an important horror classic and a perfect example of mid-60’s American paranoia.  Anyone searching for that Great American novel – here is an outside the box contender.

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Rosemary’s Baby was originally published in 1967.  I read the Corsair 2011 edition with an introduction by Chuck Palahniuk.

The Demonologist- Andrew Pyper (Orion 2013)- A Running Man Review

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Okay, I’ve let this one go a couple of years now I can get it out of my system.  When this book was released I was lucky to be sent a post a review copy.  Whoever was responsible for sending the books out was a genius because it really was the most sumptuous parcel I have ever received.  The book arrived in a tied brown paper parcel, purporting to come from Venice, with an authentic looking seal and a letter from the Demonologist, the main character.  The whole thing looked delicious, was exciting and just a little bit creepy, which was exactly what I hoped the publishers were trying to achieve.    Top marks for the creative department who thought this up.  I couldn’t wait to read it.  Yes, you’ve guessed it, the book was a let-down……….

My copy was sent on the understanding that if I enjoyed it I would review it favourably on Amazon (I didn’t have the blog site then).  I never posted that review.  I have recently been thinking about books that didn’t live up to the hype so I thought it was about time I put into print what it was that didn’t work for me.  It was a book I should have loved – a blend of horror and action/adventure, a Venetian setting and a very attractive front cover.

Because I am such a sensitive soul I didn’t post on Amazon because I didn’t want the author and publishers to find out I couldn’t rave over the book after all the trouble they had gone to.  The last nine months of reviewing has toughened me up.  I have had a sneaky look at Amazon to see if I’m wide off the mark, opinion-wise and there is the usual mixed views, but with a fascinating spread.  34 reviews are currently listed – ten 5 stars (did they receive the free copy I wonder?) seven 4 stars,  ten 3 stars and seven 2 stars.  Such perfect symmetry needs commenting on……

The whole thing reminded me of another book I should have liked but didn’t, “The Historian” by  Elizabeth Kostova which aimed to take the Dracula story to a new level (only for me it didn’t – nor for the 201/427 Amazon reviewers who rated it 3* or below.  What am I doing looking at these Amazon statistics?  I hardly ever do this!).  The “Demonologist” attempts to give a new sheen to the work of John Milton and his “Paradise Lost”.

Demons make contact with David Ullman, an American Milton specialist and steal his daughter.  This is his quest to get her back in what is truly a race against the Devil.  The main reason it doesn’t work is because it is written in present tense, which is not in itself a bad thing, but leads to a sense of disappointment if you are trying to build suspense.  It means that some of the scary things that happen when the main character is not around have to be reported rather than allowing us as readers to experience them.  I feel instantly cheated and I’m surprised that this wasn’t pointed out before publication as it seems to me to be a considerable flaw.

This, however, might mean that the plot would work better as a film and I noted that Pyper’s previous novels are in development as films.  Visually, with its Venice setting, it could be stunning and the chills could be more effective.

The Professor’s battles with the Devil are largely cerebral and involve Milton’s words from which the Professor can inexplicably gather clue as to his daughter’s whereabouts (some of my mature UK readers might remember the TV show “3-2-1” and this certainly comes to mind here!).

Characterwise, it was one of the supporting characters who attracted my attention rather than the Professor.  Elaine O’Brien, his colleague who is suffering from terminal cancer seems a more rounded character and I wanted to read more about her.  Also, and perhaps, importantly, given the nature of the book, I couldn’t believe in the father/daughter relationship which is so central to the plot.  It didn’t scare me and I didn’t think it was particularly thrilling but it did pass the time well so wasn’t a complete disaster.  I haven’t written Canadian author Pyper off.  His novel “The Damned” was published in the UK in March 2015 and the Daily Mail reviewer certainly liked it – but this for me is one clear case where the promise didn’t deliver.

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The Demonologist was published by Orion (who certainly did a good job in the marketing) in 2013.

(I feel better for that- I’ve been suffering from reviewer’s guilt because I never posted that original review!)