Six Degrees of Separation – From Yates to…

Chain links…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before…

revolutionary-road

This month’s starting book is Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. This is a book that blew me away when I read it as part of the Great American Novel Quest a couple of years ago. It’s a book about failure – of individual hopes and dreams, of a marriage, of the American Dream.

Long after the time had come for what the director called “really getting this thing off the ground; really making it happen,” it remained a static, shapeless, inhumanly heavy weight; time and again they read the promise of failure in each other’s eyes, in the apologetic nods and smiles of their parting and the spastic haste with which they broke for their cars and drove home to whatever older, less explicit promises of failure might wait for them there.

The film can’t quite match the depth of the book, but it’s excellent nevertheless.

kate winslet in RR

It stars Kate Winslet, which made me think of…

enigma 2

Robert Harris’ Enigma. A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, this story is set amid the codebreakers of Bletchley Park during WW2. A great depiction of the almost intolerable pressure placed on the shoulders of these mainly young men at a time when the course of the whole war depended on their success.

enigma 1

The WW2 setting reminded me of…

vertigo

Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. The book from which the famous Hitchcock film was made but, unlike the film, the book is set in wartime France, with the first section taking place in Paris just as the war is beginning and the second part four years later in Marseilles as it is heading towards its end. This gives a feeling of disruption and displacement which is entirely missing from the film, set as it is in peacetime America. For once, despite my abiding love for Mr Hitchcock, on this occasion the victory goes to the book!

vertigo-alfred-hitchcock-865414_1024_768

And thinking of Hitchcock reminded me of…

the birds

The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier. The title story is of course the one on which Hitchcock based his film of the same name, but my favourite story in this great little collection tells the tale of a recent (unnamed) widower, bereaved but not bereft. Frankly, he had found his wife Midge irritating for years. So he happily admits to himself, though not to the world, that her death from pneumonia was more of a relief than a loss. And suddenly he’s enjoying life again – until one day he looks out of his window and spots that one of his apple trees bears an uncanny resemblance to the hunched, drudging image of his late wife…

Up and down went the heavy axe, splitting and tearing at the tree. Off came the peeling bark, the great white strips of underwood, raw and stringy. Hack at it, blast at it, gouge at the tough tissue, throw the axe away, claw at the rubbery flesh with the bare hands. Not far enough yet, go on, go on.

That story is called The Apple Tree, which made me think of…

the color master

The Color Master by Aimee Bender. The first story in this excellent collection of modern folk tales is called Appleless, and has undertones of the story of Eve and the fall from grace. The quality of the stories varies but the quality of the writing is so high that it easily carries the weaker ones in the collection.

“…I did what the Color Master had asked, and went for blue, then black, and I was incredibly slow, but for one moment I felt something as I hovered over the bins of blue. Just a tug of guidance from the white of the dress that led my hand to the middle blue. It felt, for a second, like harmonizing in a choir, the moment when the voice sinks into the chord structure and the sound grows, becomes more layered and full than before. So that was the right choice.”

donkeyskinOne of the stories I particularly liked is The Devourings, which tells the story of a woman who married a troll. And that made me think of…

the shapeshifters

Stefan Spjut’s strange but rather wonderful The Shapeshifters. In many ways, this is a traditional crime novel set in modern Sweden – but in this version of Sweden trolls still exist in some of the more isolated places. There’s a folk-tale feel about the whole thing as if the fables of the old days have somehow strayed back into the real world. As with so much Nordic fiction, the weather and landscape plays a huge role in creating an atmosphere of isolation – all those trees, and the snow, and the freezing cold.

Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914
Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914

 

Thinking of crime novels set in Sweden reminded me of…

the voices beyond

The Voices Beyond by Johan Theorin. The bulk of the book is set in the present day, but there’s another strand that takes the reader back to time of the Great Terror in the Stalinist USSR, and it is this strand that lifts the book so far above average. This time of horrors is brilliantly depicted – no punches are pulled, and there are some scenes that are grim and dark indeed. Theorin doesn’t wallow, though, and at all times he puts a great deal of humanity into the story which, while it doesn’t mitigate the horrors, softens the edges a little, making it very moving at times.

Stalin poster

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So Yates to Theorin via Kate Winslet, WW2, Alfred Hitchcock,  apple trees, trolls, and Swedish crime.

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
APRIL

SMILEYS

Each month this year, I’ll be looking back over my reviews of the past five years and picking out my favourite from each year. Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with this brilliant idea and kindly agreed to let me borrow it. I was a bit later in starting reviewing than Cleo, really getting properly underway in about April/May of 2011, so for the first few months I might have to be a bit creative in my 2011 selections.

So here are my favourite April reads…click on the covers to go to the full reviews, though it must be said my early reviews were somewhat basic…

 

2011

 

pureWhen I reviewed this, I only gave it 4 stars, but remarked that some of the images in it would stay with me for a long time. Indeed they have, and I’ve felt for some time that I did it an injustice and that it deserves the full 5 star status. Set in pre-Revolutionary France, it is the story of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young man contracted to clear the overcrowded cemetery of les Innocents in Paris. The sense of time and place in the novel is truly remarkable, and the book allows us to see the build-up of Revolutionary ideas from the perspective of the ‘ordinary’ man. As Miller describes the malignant stench and rotting horrors of the cemetery, parallels can be drawn with the glimpses we get of the corrupt state and political system. My review does it no justice – this is one of the best books I’ve read in the last decade.

 

2012

 

dare meA dark journey into the mind of adolescent girlhood, this book tells of the jealousies and tensions amongst a group of high-school cheerleaders. Abbott’s use of language is innovative, imaginative and often poetic. Throughout the book, she uses the physicality and danger of the cheer stunts to heighten the sense of tension and fear at the heart of the story, and changed my condescending Brit view of cheerleading for ever. When a new coach arrives to lead the cheerleading team, she will prove to be the catalyst for a dangerous reassessment and realignment of friendships that have lasted for years, and will eventually lead both reader and characters to some very dark places. The body is an important theme throughout – the punishment the girls put themselves through, the intimacy of their physical reliance on each other, the underlying sexuality and sensuality of these girls on the brink of womanhood. Dark and wonderful.

 

2013

 

and the mountains echoedA beautiful and very moving book from the pen of a master storyteller, this tells the tale of various members of one extended family affected by war and poverty in Afghanistan. Though many of the events of the book take place in Europe or America following characters driven abroad in the diaspora, Afghanistan remains at the heart of the novel, because it remains in the hearts of the unforgettable people who populate the pages. In structure, this feels almost like a series of short stories, but Hosseini brings them all together in the end in one perfect circle. Truth is, I sobbed my heart out over this book, starting at page 5 and not stopping till about two weeks after I’d finished it. And even now, I only have to think about the first chapter to find myself reaching for the Kleenex again. But alongside the sorrow and sadness, there is love and joy here, and a deep sense of hope…

 

2014

 

the birdsSix short stories from the mistress of supenseful terror, this collection starts with the story on which Hitchcock based his famous film The Birds. While he made some changes to it, mainly so he could find a role for one of his famous blondes, all of the tension and atmosphere comes from du Maurier. The other stories may not be so well known but they stand up very well to the title story. One of my favourites is The Apple Tree – a tale of a man who becomes obsessed with the belief that the tree in his garden bears an uncanny resemblance to his late unlamented wife. The whole collection gives a great flavour of du Maurier’s style – rarely overtly supernatural and using elements of nature to great effect in building atmospheres filled with tension. And her trademark ambiguity leaves room for the reader to incorporate her own fears between the lines of the stories – truly chilling.

 

2015

 

the martian chronicles Written as short stories for magazines in the late 1940s and pulled together with a series of linking pieces for publication in book form in 1951, the book is set around the turn of the millennium, when man is beginning to colonise Mars. It’s episodic in nature and the Martian world that Bradbury creates doesn’t have quite the coherence of some fantasy worlds. But like all the best sci-fi, this book is fundamentally about humanity and Bradbury uses his created world to muse on, amongst other things, loneliness, community and the mid-20th century obsession with the inevitability of nuclear self-destruction. Many of the stories, especially the later ones, are beautifully written fantasies that are both moving and profound. It certainly deserves its reputation as one of the great classics of the genre but, in my opinion, it goes beyond genre – it is as well written and thought-provoking as most ‘literary’ novels and shows a great deal more imagination than they usually do.

 

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If you haven’t already seen Cleo’s selection for April, why not pop on over? Here’s the link…

And Kay has joined in too, over on kay’s reading life, but with a twist – she’s highlighting books from 5, 10, 15 and 20 years ago. Here’s the link…

FictionFan Awards 2014 – Genre Fiction

All stand please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2014 in the Genre Fiction Category.

In case any of you missed them last week (or have forgotten them – you mean you don’t memorise every word I say?), a quick reminder of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2013 and October 2014 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories

Factual – click to see awards

Genre Fiction

Literary Fiction

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2014

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the authors’ next book even if I have to buy it myself!

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

GENRE FICTION

 

This is a new category, created because I’ve read several things this year that don’t quite fall into any of the others. The Transwarp Tuesday! and Tuesday Terror!  features have led to me reading considerably more horror, sci-fi and fantasy than I have done for years, and I’ve also enjoyed a tiny foray into graphic novels. So, since I had to think of a catch-all title for all these bits of things, Genre Fiction it is. And I must say some of my most enjoyable reads this year have come from this new category. An almost impossible choice, especially with the ‘comparing apples with oranges’ effect of this mixed-bag category, and as I type this I’m still not totally sure who the winner will be…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the birdsThe Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

There are some true standouts in this collection of six stories, and if you don’t believe me, believe Alfred Hitchcock. As well as the title story, I loved The Apple Tree best, but the whole collection gives a great flavour of du Maurier’s style – rarely overtly supernatural and using elements of nature to great effect in building atmospheres filled with tension. From mountains to lakes, bright summer to freezing winter, frightening trees to terrifying birds, nothing can be taken at face value in du Maurier’s world. And her trademark ambiguity leaves room for the reader to incorporate her own fears between the lines of the stories – truly chilling.

Click to see the full review

the birds

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p&p mangaPride and Prejudice (Manga Classics) by Jane Austen adapted by Stacy King

This is an utterly charming, witty and affectionate adaptation with some really fabulous artwork by Po Tse, (who is apparently a manga-ka, whatever that might be). Apart from the cover all the artwork is black and white, which apparently is the norm for manga, but this really doesn’t detract from the enjoyment. Most of the social commentary has been thrown out, but all the fun and romance of the original has been retained – enhanced, even – by the great marrying together of the original text with a beautifully modern outlook. I can see how this adaptation might annoy Austen purists (and you know that usually includes me). But this is done with such skill and warmth that it completely won me over. I adored it and I’m not alone, it seems – the book is through to the semi-finals in the Best Graphic Novels and Comics category of the Goodreads Choice Awards 2014 (not quite as prestigious as the FF Awards, but not bad…)

Click to see the full review and other illustrations

p&p manga 1

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the martian 2The Martian by Andy Weir

After an accident during a dust storm, Mark Watney finds himself alone on Mars. His colleagues in the Ares 3 expedition believed he was dead and were forced to evacuate the planet while they still could, leaving him to survive alone until a rescue attempt can be made. This is a fantastic adventure story set in the near future. It only just scrapes into the sci-fi category since all the science and equipment is pretty much stuff that’s available now – and though it’s chock full of science and technology, it’s presented in a way that makes it not just interesting but fun. Mark is a hero of the old school – he just decides to get on with things and doesn’t waste time angsting or philosophising. And he’s got a great sense of humour which keeps the whole thing deliciously light-hearted. It reminded me of the way old-time adventure stories were written – the Challenger books or the Quatermain stories mixed with a generous dash of HG Wells – but brought bang up to date in terms of language and setting. Superb entertainment!

Click to see the full review

mars and earth

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a princess of marsA Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Our hero John Carter is transported to Barsoom (Mars) and must save not only his own life but his beloved Princess, Dejah Thoris. A surprise hit – I truly expected to dislike this and ended up enjoying it so much I went on to read the first sequel and watch the movie. And I suspect I’ll be reading the later sequels too sometime. It’s silly beyond belief and, even making allowances for the fact that it was written in 1911, the ‘science’ aspects are…unique! But it’s hugely imaginative and a great old-fashioned heroic adventure yarn, from the days when men were men and damsels were perpetually in distress. The action never lets up from beginning to end, from one-to-one fights to the death, attacks by killer white apes, all the way up to full-scale wars complete with flying ships and half-crazed (eight-limbed) thoats. Great escapist fantasy, with action, humour and a little bit of romance – plus Woola the Calot! What more could a girl want? (And see? I didn’t even mention the naked people… 😉 )

Click to see the full review

a princess art2

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2014

for

BEST GENRE FICTION

 

the truth is a cave

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman

 

You ask me if I can forgive myself?

I can forgive myself for many things. For where I left him. For what I did. But I will not forgive myself for the year that I hated my daughter…

So starts this dark tale of a journey, a quest into the Black Mountains to find a cave – to find the truth. Our narrator is a small man, a dwarf, but he’s strong and he’s driven; by what, we don’t yet know but we feel a slow anger in him, an undiminished determination despite his ten year search for the object of his obsession. As we meet him, he is about to hire a guide, Calum MacInnes, to take him to a cave on the Misty Isle which is reputed to be filled with gold…

This book is nothing less than stunning. Gaiman’s wonderfully dark story is equalled and enhanced by the amazingly atmospheric illustrations of Eddie Campbell. The two elements – words and pictures – are completely entwined. There’s no feeling of the one being an addition to the other – each is essential and together they form something magical. The story is by turns moving, mystical, dramatic, frightening; and the illustrations, many of them done in very dark colours, create a sense of mirky gloom and growing apprehension. Words, pictures and production values of the hardback combine to make this a dark and beautiful read – a worthy winner!

Click to see the full review and other illustrations

DSCN0545

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Next week: Literary Fiction Award

Tuesday Terror! The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

Six of the best…

If proof were needed that Daphne du Maurier knew how to tell a chilling tale, then the fact that Hitchcock chose to make three of her stories into films surely provides it. Rebecca and Jamaica Inn are both full-length novels but the third of the trio is based on the short story which provides the title for this collection. So what could be a more appropriate choice for…

TUESDAY TERROR!

the birdsThe introduction to this edition tells us that Hitchcock did not claim that his film of The Birds was an exact reproduction of du Maurier’s story. “What I do is to read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema.” However, although Hitchcock moved the setting from Cornwall in England to Bodega Bay in California and created a character suitable for one of his famous blondes (in this case, Tippi Hedren), the suspense and horror all originate from du Maurier’s story.

He felt the thud of bodies, heard the fluttering of wings, but they were not yet defeated, for again and again they returned to the assault, jabbing his hands, his head, the little stabbing beaks sharp as a pointed fork.

On a cold winter’s night, Nat Hocken is awoken by the sound of tapping at his window and discovers it’s a bird seemingly trying to get in. Then screams come from the children’s bedroom and when he rushes there, he finds hundreds of birds have come through the window and are attacking his son and daughter. He fights them off, but when he tells his neighbours about the attack the next day they don’t believe him – until reports start to come in over the radio that attacks have been taking place all over the country. No-one knows why the birds have suddenly started attacking and no-one knows how to stop them. Du Maurier creates a wonderfully terrifying atmosphere of isolation and claustrophobia as Nat battles to protect his family, and as with the film both the reasons and the ending are left ambiguous, adding greatly to the horror.

the birds

* * * * * * * * *

The other five stories in the collection stand up well in comparison to The Birds. For me, the highlight was The Apple Tree, which I have already reviewed in Tuesday Terror! The other four are:

Monte Verità – the tale of a mysterious sect which lures women away from their families, never to be seen again. Is there something supernatural about it, or is it a religious cult? And what happens when the villagers eventually decide they will destroy it?

The Little Photographer – a bored and lonely Marquise starts a casual affair with a local photographer, but when he begins to take it too seriously, she finds her marriage and lifestyle threatened. No supernatural threat in this one – this is a story of cruelty and guilt as we are taken inside the mind of the Marquise. Starting light, the story gradually gets darker and darker as we see the lengths to which desperation can drive people…

Daphne du Maurier
Daphne du Maurier

Kiss Me, Stranger – on going to the cinema one night, the narrator falls in love at first sight with the usherette. This is a very ambiguous story – the narrator believes the girl is flesh and blood, but the reader is left with the sneaking suspicion that she may be a ghost. Touching on the psychological aftermath of the war, this is another deceptively dark story with an ending that is guaranteed to surprise.

The Old Man – the story of an isolated family as seen through the eyes of an outside observer. As the story builds towards a seemingly inevitable tragedy, the narrator watches helplessly – unable to intervene because he doesn’t speak the same language as the family. An odd story, perhaps my least favourite of the collection, but nonetheless beautifully written and building up a truly chilling atmosphere.

…the old man turned like a flash of lightning and came down the other side of the lake towards the marshes, towards Boy. He looked terrible. I shall never forget his appearance. That magnificent head I had always admired now angry, evil; and he was cursing Boy as he came. I tell you, I heard him.

The whole collection gives a great flavour of du Maurier’s style – rarely overtly supernatural and using elements of nature to great effect in building atmospheres filled with tension. From mountains to lakes, bright summer to freezing winter, frightening trees to terrifying birds, nothing can be taken at face value in du Maurier’s world. And her trademark ambiguity leaves room for the reader to incorporate her own fears between the lines of the stories – truly chilling.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown and Company.

IT’S A FRETFUL PORPENTINE!

porpentine

Fretful porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:         😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Apple Tree by Daphne du Maurier

Seeds of fear…

 

Daphne du Maurier’s collection The Birds and Other Stories contains not only the title story that Hitchcock turned into one of his greatest films, but also five other perhaps lesser known stories. So in advance of reading the full collection, I have randomly picked one to feature as this week’s…

TUESDAY TERROR!

Suddenly, for no reason, he was seized with a kind of fear, a feeling of panic almost. What if the smell filled the whole house through the night, came up from the kitchen quarters to the floor above, and while he slept found its way into the bedroom, choking him, stifling him, so that he could not breathe? The thought was ridiculous, insane – and yet…

the birdsThe Apple Tree tells the tale of a recent (unnamed) widower, bereaved but not bereft. Frankly, he had found his wife Midge irritating for years. A self-appointed martyr, she had always managed to make him feel guilty about how little he did around the house and how hard she worked, though he always felt she took on tasks that could easily have been left undone or left for the daily maid. She had always taken the pessimistic view of any piece of news and for years he had felt she sucked the joy out of life. So he happily admits to himself, though not to the world, that her death from pneumonia was more of a relief than a loss. And suddenly he’s enjoying life again – until one day he looks out of his window and spots that one of his apple trees bears an uncanny resemblance to the hunched, drudging image of his late wife…

This is a fine example of what du Maurier does best – creating a chilling atmosphere just bordering on the supernatural but never clearly crossing that line. Although the story is told in the third person, we see it unfold through the widower’s eyes, giving it the effect of an ‘unreliable narrator’. If Midge was as the widower saw her, then his happiness at her death is understandable. But how much did he contribute to making her what she became? We catch glimpses of the young woman she once was, trying to please the husband she loved and having her enthusiasm stamped on by this man who clearly looked down on her. Is the widower to be pitied or condemned? And is the story one of a ghostly haunting or of self-inflicted psychological horror brought on by guilt?

As the seasons wear past, the tree affects the widower more and more – its blossom horribly overblown to his eyes, while seeming to be admired by others; its fruit disgusting to him while seeming fine to his daily maid; the smell of the wood from a fallen branch that he burns nauseating…choking. And in all its oversized ugliness, it hides the beauty of the little tree next to it – a tree that reminds the widower of a girl he once knew, perhaps a little too well. At last he decides to do what he has been putting off for too long – he will chop the tree down…

Up and down went the heavy axe, splitting and tearing at the tree. Off came the peeling bark, the great white strips of underwood, raw and stringy. Hack at it, blast at it, gouge at the tough tissue, throw the axe away, claw at the rubbery flesh with the bare hands. Not far enough yet, go on, go on.

Daphne du Maurier
Daphne du Maurier

Supernatural or psychological, either way this is a superbly written chiller. Du Maurier uses the weather to great effect, as she often does, going from the contrast of sunny blossomy summer days to the bitter cold and snow of deep winter. She never piles on the horror – instead she lets the atmosphere build slowly and gradually, making the reader share in the widower’s growing revulsion. And the ending works beautifully to leave the reader’s spine a-tingling…

Fretful porpentine rating 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

NB This book was provided for review by the publishers, Little, Brown and Company.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link