The Haunting Season – Bridget Collins, Laura Purcell, Elizabeth Macneal, Imogen Hermes Gowar, Jess Kidd, Natasha Pulley, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Andrew Michael Hurley (2021)

This creepy collection of eight short stories by the above listed authors first appeared in hardback in 2021 and has just been published in paperback in time for Halloween.  In fact, it is equally well suited to the winter months with a number of stories being set around Christmas with quite a bit of snow on the ground in the mainly Victorian settings.

I decided to read this because of this selection of authors.  I have only read books by two of them but the other six have certainly been on my radar and this proved a good way to try their writing out.  Both of the two I have read, Imogen Hermes Gowar and Jess Kidd have produced five star novels as far as I am concerned.

The time settings are explicitly Victorian apart from Andrew Michael Hurley’s tale which is modern.  They all have a Gothic/Classic Ghost Story feel.  I don’t think any of them would keep you awake at night, the creepiness is more atmospheric than horror.

Although I loved the idea of this book I can be sniffy regarding the short story format.  I’ve never really got to grips as to why this is but I rarely feel totally satisfied.  I suspect it is because what I like about reading fiction- the development of characters over time, multiple plot strands and the feeling of being on a journey with the author cannot be fully realised in the short story format.

These authors are ideal for such a collection as their writing style is not entirely dissimilar to one another.  All of them gave me some level of enjoyment and it is the story-telling and the actual plots that illuminated the strongest.  Best of the bunch, probably, not that surprisingly as it is the author I have read the most books by, is Jess Kidd with “Lily Wilt”, a tale of a Victorian photographer who falls in love with a corpse.  The author keeps it snappy (see what I did here…? Although the process of nineteenth century photography was hardly snappy) in short sections and writes with a relish and verve which is evident in her novels.  Runner-up could very well be Elizabeth Macneal’s dark Lyme-Regis set account of fossil-hunting where characterisation is strong and a wicked tale is spun.  Kiran Millwood Hargraves’ “Confinement” explores post-partum psychosis in a tale with echoes of the true crimes of baby killer Amelia Dyer very efficiently.  Andrew Michael Hurley’s tale is modern but reflects ancient traditions which reminded me I must get round to reading his breakthrough novel “The Loney”.  Natasha Pulley brings back her characters from “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” which would please existing fans and has urged me once again that I should read that novel.  New tenants in creepy houses forms the backbone of Bridget Collins and Imogen Hermes Gowar’s contributions and Laura Purcell uses supernatural elements in a satisfactory whodunnit in “The Chillingham Chair”.

This was a highly enjoyable read, even if it sometimes took me a while to get into each new tale but that’s more a reflection of me as a short-story reader than the writing.  I’m already excited that for 2023 we are being promised further stories with a Christmas theme from these eight contributors together with Laura Shepherd-Robinson, Susan Stokes-Chapman, Stuart Turton and Catriona Ward which could very well be a late 2023 highlight and gives me a chance until then to discover more of all these authors’ longer works.

The Haunting Season was published by Sphere in hardback in 2021.  I read the 2022 paperback edition.

Top 10 Books Of The Year – 2018 – Part 1 (10-6)

2018 – 66 books read, which was one down on last year.  It looked like I would beat last year’s total until it took me a month to read the final book.  That seems to be very much around the sort of total that I can manage in a year, apart from 2016 when I managed 80, my 2015 figure was exactly the same as last year.  So, now it is time to whittle those 66 down to the 10 which created the greatest impression.  For the first time ever I’ve awarded more 5 stars than places in the top 10, 12 in fact, which means that two five star reads will not even make my Top 10, which has never happened before because I’m stingy with those five stars.  It just shows how many good books I have read this year.  To complete the breakdown I read 12 five stars, 32 four stars and 22 three stars (2017’s spread was 10/31/26).  Like last year I haven’t read anything I rated below three stars (I think this is because I am better at choosing titles to read) and absolutely everything I read this year has been reviewed on this site.

Where things are different to last year is the publication dates.  Last year the whole top 10 was made up of books published either that year or the year before, here there is a wider spread as I’ve caught up with older books I’ve been meaning to read for ages.  If I read it this year then it’s eligible for a Top 10 placing.  There’s a geographic spread of writers from the UK, US, Europe and Africa and co-incidentally I’m back to the 50-50 gender balance after last year when the women edged ahead.  Unlike last year when all the authors made their first appearance on the list this year three have been celebrated here before and for the first time since 2014 when Peter James appeared twice there is an author who takes up two of the coveted spots (and also just missed out on a third novel making the Top 10).  Last year the list was entirely fiction but we have a bit of non-fiction creeping in for 2018.   If you would like to read the full reviews on this site just click on the link to be taken to the full review.

10. The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass (Vintage 1959) – Read and reviewed in June

the-tin-drumI’m still not sure whether I count this as a re-read or not, for although I know that I started to read it not too far off 40 years ago I’m not sure whether I ever finished it but I put that right this year with a different translation by Breon Mitchell which was authorised for the fiftieth anniversary of this classic of German post-war literature. Nobel Prize winner Gunter Grass’ (1927-2015) most famous work.  I said of it “This is an extraordinary novel which at times I loved and at other times felt frustrated or just plain baffled by but it is incredibly powerful and would benefit from countless re-readings.”  As this made my Top 10 I’m allowing myself to hold on to my copy (the books that don’t make this list get culled, unfortunately)  so that re-reading may be sometime within the next 40 years!

9. Dead Man’s Grip – Peter James (Macmillan 2011) – Read and reviewed in February

peterjamesNo stranger to my end of year Top 10, in fact James’ Brighton-set Roy Grace novels have now made it four times from the first seven books in the series.  I felt this was his best yet and yet, because of strong competition he has just crept in the lower reaches of the list.  The other titles to make the list in previous years are the first instalment “Dead Simple” (#3 in 2008), Dead Man’s Footsteps (#10 in 2014) and “Dead Tomorrow” (#3 in 2014).  I also read the 8th book this year “Not Dead Yet”, a four star read but not good enough to do the double for a second time.  Of “Dead Man’s Grip” I said “this really does have everything I look for in a police procedural crime novel.

8. The Water Thief – Claire Hajaj (Oneworld 2018)- Read and reviewed in November

waterthiefI was sent this novel as a potential longlister for the Edward Stanford Travel Awards in their Fiction with a sense of place category and although the location is non-specific Claire Hajaj, in her second novel, creates a vivid picture of African life.  It’s a rich, haunting tale and the author almost brought this tough old reviewer to the verge of tears with superb characterisation and the unfolding of the plot, as gripping as any thriller I have read this year.

7. The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gower (Harvill Secker 2018) – Read and reviewed in May

mrshancockOne of two debut novels to appear in my Top 10 this year. Published early on in 2018 there was a lot of buzz around this book and it made shortlists for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and a National Book Award amongst others and has appeared on a number of best of the year lists but has been eclipsed by some of the big hitters of the year.  I thought it was a terrific read and deserved all the accolades it has got.  I loved the first two thirds best before a little fantasy crept in when it read like a right rollicking modern slant on “Vanity Fair”.  I said “This is an ambitious novel which works beautifully.  It’s the kind of gutsy, spirited writing that I love with rich characterisation and a real feel of a love for history and literature.”

6.Ladder Of Years- Anne Tyler (Vintage 1995) -Read and reviewed in March.

tylerladderI have only read two of Anne Tyler’s 22 novels yet they have both appeared in my end of year Top 10 (“A Spool Of Blue Thread was my #3 in 2015 in the year of its publication).  I’m  not even sure I can explain the appeal of this author to me, I wouldn’t have thought that tales of American family life would really strike that much of a chord but I can tell that as I read more of  her novels she is going to appear more and more in my end of year lists.  Here a middle-aged woman who feels her family is taking her for granted just walks away to start a new life- a selfish act, which nevertheless got this reader willing her to succeed. I said “it is just the quality of the writing and the deftness of characterisation that has me hanging on every word, not wanting it to end and that is what makes it a five star read.”  If you haven’t discovered Anne Tyler yet you have a treat in store.

Next post – My Top 5 reads of 2018

The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar (2018)

mrshancock

The second book I have read to make it onto the shortlist for the 2018 Women’s Prize For Fiction.  I was very impressed with Kamila Shamsie’s “Home Fire” with it making number 6 on last year’s Top 10 books.  Expect this one also to be in my end of year best read countdown.

 Here we have a debut novel for ex-Museum worker Imogen Hermes Gowar and with her background of archaeology, anthropology and Art History she has certainly followed the perennial advice to write about what you know and seamlessly incorporated aspects of her experience into a right rollicking novel.

 Set in London of the 1780’s I had slight concerns that it might be overly twee, as perhaps implied by the title.  I actually chose to read it, however, because of this title, as it brought back echoes of “The Ghost And Mrs Muir” a delightful 1947 movie starring Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney.  This, however, is no tale of a transparent salty sea dog and actually feels closer to a modern slant on WM Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair”.

 It is no plot spoiler to say that for much of the novel Mrs Hancock is Angelica Neal, a high class prostitute whose protector has died leading her to face re-entry into society in order to find the next potential wealthy man who will support her.  Angelica is fabulous and has to face the realisation that she might not be the attraction she once was and may end up once again in the “nunnery” of another great character, Mrs Chappell.  Meanwhile, merchant Jonah Hancock is presented with a withered object, claimed to be the remains of a mermaid in compensation for a lost ship.  This exhibit becomes, for a short time, the toast of London and draws the attentions of both Mrs Chappell and Angelica.

 This is all done so well and Mr Hancock’s ascendancy because of his mermaid is an absolute joy to read.  What is slightly less successful for me is when a little fantasy element creeps in during the final third.  I know why the author does this but it doesn’t work quite as well when we lose the very real feel of eighteenth century London society with all its hypocrisies and limited attention spans cooing over Mr Hancock’s desiccated piece of exotica.

 This is an ambitious novel which works beautifully.  It’s the kind of gutsy, spirited writing that I love with rich characterisation and a real feel of a love for history and literature.  It is an extremely impressive debut.

fivestarsThe Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was published by Harvill Secker in 2018