Book choice for March 2011

The Little Stranger [suggested by Helen Close]

front cover

To be honest I have always had a bit of a soft spot for ghost stories but even allowing for a certain bias regarding the subject matter this is without doubt a blindingly good novel. On the surface it is all so deceptively simple. A country doctor, approaching a dreary and unloved middle age, finds himself paying regular visits to the local stately pile where he encounters the once grand but now rather moth-eaten Ayres family. Soon afterwards strange and seemingly supernatural events begin to take place: the formerly placid family dog attacks a small child; strange marks appear on the walls; bells ring for no apparent reason; doors occasionally seem to lock themselves and sinister scribbles inexplicably turn up on doors and windowsills. Dr Faraday seeks, and believes he finds, a rational explanation for the strange events but the Ayres are altogether less sure.

What makes this apparently rather simple set-up so compelling is the skill with which Waters applies layer after gentle, rustling layer of doubt, paranoia and unease. Dr Faraday is, for example, a far from perfect narrator. Unimaginative, class-conscious and painfully aware that he doesn't have the 'right accent' to fit in with the grand Ayres he finds himself alternating between cloying resentment towards the family one minute and fawning servility the next. In turn the Ayres have fallen on financially ruinous times and the - from their perspective - frankly unpleasant plebian classes are literally encroaching on Ayres territory in the form of council houses being built on land skirting Hundreds Hall. Working class on the way up collides with landed gentry on the way down. The whole situation is a portrait in minature of post-war England preparing to tear itself apart. Throw in a possible romance and an unhappy event from the Ayres's recent past and you have an explosive mixture - sort of 'Rebecca' meets 'The Turn of the Screw' via Borley Rectory.

I finished reading The Little Stranger a few days ago and it hasn't settled quietly into its grave. It rustles and creaks; it casts shadows where shadows really shouldn't be and it refuses to tie itself up into a neat little bundle of comfortable conclusions. The more I think about it the more wheels within wheels within wheels I begin to see. It's beautifully elegant and it flows in the way only novels written by born story-tellers ever seem to manage; and more than anything else it creeps up on you in subtle, disturbing ways. Sarah Waters is one of our finest novelists and while this may not have the immediate shock impact of, say, Fingersmith, I think in its quiet and deceptively gentle way it is every bit as good. A beautiful novel with dark, haunted depths.[Gregory S. Buzwell on amazon]

Here as always is the novel's Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Sarah Waters was born in Wales in 1966. She has a Ph.D. in English Literature and has been an associate lecturer with the Open University.

She has written five novels: Tipping the Velvet (1998), which won the Betty Trask Award; Affinity (1999), which won the Somerset Maugham Award, the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Mail on Sunday / John Llewellyn Rhys Prize; Fingersmith (2002), which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize, and won the South Bank Show Award for Literature and the CWA Historical Dagger; The Night Watch (2006), which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize; and The Little Stranger (2009), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the South Bank Show Literature Award.

She was included in Granta's prestigious list of 'Best of Young British Novelists 2003', and in the same year was voted Author of the Year by both publishers and booksellers at the British Book Awards and the BA Conference, and won the Waterstone's Author of the Year Award.

Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith have both been adapted for BBC television by Sally Head Productions. The adaptation of Fingersmith was nominated for a BAFTA. Affinity has been adapted for ITV by Box Productions. The Night Watch is currently in development with BBC2, and film rights in The Little Stranger have been optioned by Potboiler Productions.

Sarah Waters lives in London.

She has a Wikipedia page and an extensive personal website from where the above biography is taken.

 

Shortlisted for this month

Book selectors can bring one, two or three books for selection, although it's usual to bring three. This month, Helen's two alternative suggestions were:

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories

In these stories whose lives come into focus through single events or sudden memories which bring the past bubbling to the surface. The past, as her characters discover, is made up not only of what is remembered, but also what isn't. The past is there, just out of the picture, but if memories haven't been savoured, recalled in the mind and boxed away, it's as if they have never been until a moment when the pieces of the jigsaw re-form suddenly, sometimes pleasurably but more often painfully. Women look back at their young selves, at first marriages made when they were naive and trusting, at husbands and their difficult, demanding little ways. There is in this new collection an underlying heartbreak, a sense of regret in her characters for what might have been, for a fork in the road not taken, a memory suppressed in an act of prudent emotional housekeeping. But at the same time there is hope, there are second changes her are people who reinvent themselves, seize life by the throat, who have moved on and can dare to conjure up the hidden memories, daring to go beyond what is remembered. [synopsis from letsbuyit.com]

A writer of Munro's ilk hardly needs a hook like the intriguing title of her 10th collection to pull readers into her orbit. Serving as a teasing introduction to these nine brilliantly executed tales, the range of mentioned relationships merely suggests a few of the nuances of human behavior that Munro evokes with the skill of a psychological magician. Johanna Parry, the protagonist of the title story, stands alone among her fictional sisters in achieving her goal by force of will. A rough, uneducated country girl, blatantly plain ("her teeth were crowded into the front of her mouth as if they were ready for an argument"), she seems doomed to heartbreak because of a teenager's trick, but the bracingly ironic denouement turns the reader's dire expectations into glee. The women in the other stories generally cannot control their fate. Having finally been reunited with the soul mate of her youth, the narrator of "Nettles" discovers that apparently benevolent fate can be cruel. In a similar moment of perception that signals the end of hope, Lorna in "Post and Beam" realizes that she is condemned to a life of submission to her overbearing, supercilious husband; ironically, her frowsy country cousin envies Lorna's luck in escaping their common origin. In nearly every story, there's a contrast between the behavior and expectations of country people and those who have made it to Toronto or Vancouver. Regardless of situation, however, the basics of survival are endured in stoic sorrow. Only the institutionalized wife of a philanderer in "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" manages to outwit her husband, and she has to lose her sanity to do it. All of the stories share Munro's characteristic style, looping gracefully from the present to the past, interpolating vignettes that seem extraneous and bringing the strands together in a deceptively gentle windup whose impact takes the breath away. Munro has few peers in her understanding of the bargains women make with life and the measureless price they pay.

The above review taken from Publishers Weekly and is copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

About the Author

Canadian writer Alice Munro grew up in Wingham, South West Ontario and has written short fiction since 1950. Her books consist of collections of short stories, and one book which has been published as a novel, although it is actually a set of inter-linked stories which falls between the two genres. Her accessible, moving stories are set in her native Canada, in small, provincial towns like the one in which she grew up, and explore human relationships through ordinary everyday events. Although not necessarily directly autobiographical, they reflect the author's own life experiences, are concerned with women's lives and are 'probably unrivalled in their fullness' (Washington Post 1998)

She has a Wikipedia page and there is also an entry on contemporarywriters.com from where the above brief biography is taken.

Quite Ugly One Morning

Quite Ugly One Morning

Yeah, yeah, the usual. A crime. A corpse. A killer. Heard it. Except this stiff happens to be a Ponsonby, scion of a venerable Edinburgh medical clan, and the manner of his death speaks of unspeakable things. Why is the body displayed like a slice of beef? How come his hands are digitally challenged? And if it's not the corpse, what is that awful smell? A post-Thatcherite nightmare of frightening plausibility, QUITE UGLY ONE MORNING is a wickedly entertaining and vivacious thriller, full of acerbic wit, cracking dialogue and villains both reputed and shell-suited. 'Very violent, very funny. A comedy with political edge, which you take gleefully in one gulp' LITERARY REVIEW 'The dialogue is a joy throughout and the plot crackles along with confident gusto and intelligence...an assured debut by a talented writer' THE TIMES

Here's the Wikipedia page. The novel was made into a TV movie in 2004, details of which are on IMDb.

About the Author

Christopher Brookmyre has a website, whose "about the author" section gives us a few interesting snippets:
In 2006 Christopher won the seventh Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction with All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses An Eye and, as is tradition, a Gloucestershire Old Spot pig was named after the winning novel: see the photograph of Christopher Brookmyre and the piglet now known as 'AFAG'.

On accepting the award, Christopher said:
"My favourite PG Wodehouse quote is 'It is seldom difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine'; today I'd like to think that I resemble the ray of sunshine."

Quite Ugly One Morning was the winner of the Critics' First Blood Award for Best First Crime Novel of the Year in 1996.

The short story "Bampot Central" was shortlisted for the Crime Writers' Association Macallan Short Story Dagger in 1997; Christopher has written a fair few other pieces of short fiction.

Boiling a Frog won the Sherlock Award for Best Comic Detective Novel in 2000 and Christopher became the only writer to win two Sherlocks when Be My Enemy picked up the 2004 prize.

In 2007, Christopher was given the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award for Writing.

As always he also has a Wikipedia entry.

 

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