Monday, 31 October 2016

Halloween Reads - Top Ten, or so ...

I've said frequently on social media that many supposedly chilling ghost or horror stories don't get the whole spine-tingling vibe going for me. Too long is spent setting the scene, then there's a couple of short, sharp shocks, and a quick resolution. For me, a spooky novel must have a good but rapid build up of atmosphere, sustained menace, and proper characters that it's possible to care about.

Having asked around for suggestions, I've been reading MR James, Stephen King, Wilkie Collins, and many other authors; short stories and novels, books that have turned up for review, some that have been waiting for ages on my book shelves, quickly downloaded e-books, library books. I still have a list of 'those I didn't get round to' so maybe they'll be here next year.

Anyway, here are my Top Ten Halloween reads, and a short story collection ..or four. Some of these are stories with very definite ghostly presences, some just exude a feeling of dread, some hint at a world beyond our own which slips past the veil from time to time .... and some aren't scary at all ...

First, proper ghostly, scary stuff ... where better to start than Sugar Hall with its slave boy returned to haunt the descendants of the family which once owned him ... I've read and re-read this, and it doesn't fail to chill.

Another mysterious house, David Mitchell's  Slade House lies hidden up a narrow alleyway, but every nine years it entices someone inside its walls - and they're never seen again... need I say more?

Marcus Sedgwick is best known for his gothic thrillers for children and teens (though many of those, especially  My Swordhand Is Singing , could have made it onto this list) but A Love Like Blood  is an adult read, a tale of vampires and obsession, exploring the depths that love, fear and revenge may drag us into.

It's back to the haunted house theme with Chris Priestley's The Dead of Winter - although a teen/YA read, the only things that mark this as such are the main character's age, and a lack of gratuitous violence. It ticks all the boxes for a chilling ghostly read - a lonely house, secret rooms, noises in the night, and a growing sense of something evil waiting for the unwary. I definitely felt a chill crawling up my spine as I read it!
Another book for teens but quite scary enough for me! The Creeper Man by Dawn Kurtagich - nearer to 'horror' than a 'ghost story' it tells of two sisters who seek refuge in their aunt's country manor, another isolated house, this time surrounded by impenetrable woods, where The Creeper Man lurks and bides his time. The trees begin to creep nearer, the sense of claustrophobia builds and the horrors outside start to work their way in ...

Not all ghosts have to be scary and/or evil - so two 'different' ghostly tales

In A Ghost's Story Lorna Gibb brings back to life 'superstar' spirit Katie King, star of Victorian seances. Told from Katie's point of view, this is actually a very human story of a search for companionship and even love.

Lucy Wood's Weathering is a story of mothers and daughters, about home and belonging - told through the relationship between three generations of women, it just happens that one, Pearl, is a ghost. Poetic prose, close observation, a stream-of-consciousness style, all make this a delight to read.

Vampires, zombies and flesh-eaters - well, Halloween wouldn't be the same without them ...

The Radleys are nice, middle-class suburban vampires hiding in plain sight. Acting the part of a normal couple, they share many of the problems that normal couples have - getting middle-aged, looking back with nostalgia to their long lost youth, and coping with their teenage children. Yes, it's about vampires but also about that average family that they're trying so hard to be.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - to be honest the title says it all. Seth Grahame-Smith takes Jane Austen's original, works in some extra zombie-killing action, and there you are! One for if you don't mind classic literature being taken a little less than seriously.

Sweeny Todd meets Desperate Housewives in Natalie Young's tale of middle-aged, Volvo driving Lizzie Prain, who murders her husband and then is needs to dispose of the body - again, it's all in the title!  Season To Taste, or How To Eat Your Husband

So, I've managed to whittle it down to ten top novels, but there's still space for some otherworldly story collections. I've always loved Mrs Gaskell's Curious, If True collection and these all share that ambivalence about what is real, and what imagined...

Sing Sorrow, Sorrow - a chilling collection from Seren Books, drawing on the darker side of folk tales.

 The Woman Under the Ground, and other stories - dark, disturbing, don't read in the dark tales by Megan Taylor

The Other World, It Whispers by Stephanie Victoire - a bit of a cheat, as this isn't published till mid-November. Maybe a little less scary than some, these nine spine-tingling stories tread the fine line between this world and the other.

And last, and by no means least, I had to include this  - The Penguin Book of Classic Fantasy by Women. It includes ghostly stories from Mary Shelly, George Eliot, Edith Nesbit, Virginia Woolfe, Isak Dinesen, and, my favourite, Katherine Mansfield's parable-style story, A Suburban Fairy Tale; it's not so spooky as some, but carries a message as important today as in 1917 when it was first published.

Now .., what do you think I should have read?

Sunday, 30 October 2016


Maybe it's the clear blue skies and sunshine, maybe something in the sap, but Autumn seems to have put an an extra brilliant display this year.

Almost everywhere I've been - round about our housing estate, down in the city centre or driving to the supermarket - roads and pavements are edged with the most wonderful reds and yellows.

And, of course, with a phone in my pocket I haven't stopped taking photographs. They aren't such brilliant photos as many are taken from the car, and some have odd markings on them - sorry, that's the dirt on the front window but I think the brilliance of autumn's colours shines through it!

It just shows you don't need to go anywhere 'special' like planned gardens or arboretums - this beauty is sitting there right on your doorstep or daily commute just waiting to be noticed (just don't get distracted if you are the driver!)

Monday, 24 October 2016

Happy Twentieth Birthday, Lara Croft

This weekend Derby Quad held a very special birthday party (of sorts) for local girl Lara Croft, brought to life twenty years ago by Core Design and Eidos Interactive. Since then she's swung, and climbed, and shot her way through numerous adventures, climbed icy mountains, hacked through jungles, fought off dinosaurs and mythical monsters, jumped from waterfalls and swum in underground lakes, and generally proved that, if a man can do it, a woman can, too!

I've never been particularly a 'gamer' but through playing on my daughter's Playstation2 I discovered Lego StarWars and then Lara Croft, and became addicted to them both! I've tried other games but have never found that mix of adventure and puzzle-solving that the Lara Croft games have (I'm sure somebody will know of something and if so please tell me!) So when I heard about the exhibition I had to go investigate ...

To be honest, at first sight it didn't look very interesting - just a couple of rows of game consoles... but Lara only really comes to life on screen and that's where the fun was. 

There were a series of games loaded and ready to play from really early examples of games on Sega Mega Drive and Nintendo Game Cube, through PS2 and Wii, to the latest game on PS4 - and yes, I tried most of them!

The graphics on the early games probably seemed wonderful at the time, but now they look so chunky and clunky. When she moved, it was with a jerk and a hop, not the smooth-flowing life-like action expected today. At times I found it hard to make her move beyond a shuffle though that was probably my fault, not the game's!

This photo from the latest game hopefully shows how realistic things look now - this was taken on my phone and the actual screen image looks almost like a video. After a year or more of not playing games of any kind, controlling Lara up a cliff in a snow storm was tricky but with a little help from an expert I got her up to a safe spot - and re-discovered my love Lara Croft. I could have stayed there all day, just wanting to get to the next level... then the next ...
I don't have anything more modern than a Wii so buying new games isn't possible but, not having played them for a while, I'm hoping I've forgotten where the 'prizes' are hidden and the tricks to outwit fearsome beasts and armed mercenaries, and I can play my old games again as if 'new'.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Another night out!

You know how you can wait forever without a bus and then three come along at once? Well, my theory is that opportunities for a night out are the same.

Last Friday I was in Nottingham at a book launch then a Skinny Lister gig; on Tuesday I went over to Eastwood to a pub gig organised by Roots Acoustic Evening; on this Friday, I might head into Nottingham for another book event (Australian YA fantasy author Garth Nix); after a period of quiet nights in watching my Fargo box set it's been a hectic week!

Anyway, back to Tuesday night ...

Michael Upton
Roots Acoustic Evening is the brainchild of local music promoter Chris Barlow, and stages evenings of (yes, you've guessed) acoustic music in pubs in the Notts/Derbys area. We've already been to a couple of the venues, but this was our first time at Eastwood's Wellington Inn. 

The evening started with an open mic slot, which we didn't catch, followed by three 'booked' musicians. First of these was Michael Upton from Derby - we were later than expected arriving, had trouble parking the car (!) and missed the beginning of his set. I wish I'd caught more as I rather liked his sound, particularly his own songs (though I couldn't understand why he apologised for playing them. I, for one, would rather hear something original that yet another evening full of covers)

Isaac Walters

Next was another local guy, Isaac Walters, who was playing with a broken wrist! His set was again a mix of his own work and covers - including Britney Spears' Toxic, and Stereophonics' Dakota.

Joe McCorriston

Rounding off the evening was Joe McCorriston, heading back north to Morecambe on the last few days of his 'Halloween' tour. No covers this time, as Joe is soon to release his third album so has a fairly wide repertoire of his own to choose from. I've heard Joe play before - maybe as many as half a dozen times in the last year - so some of his songs were familiar, though as a professional musician he almost always has something new.

I had a great time, definitely more fun than sitting home watching tv, and I just think it's a slight pity that I can never persuade my friends to come out too!

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

A 'proper' gig - Skinny Lister at Bodega, Nottingham

I saw Skinny Lister for the first time at Curious Arts Festival this summer, and absolutely loved them and their strange mix of rock and sea shanties that had everyone there toe-tapping and jigging along. Ever since then I've wanted to catch them again - in fact almost straight away I checked to see where and when they might be on tour, and, yes! they were coming to Bodega in Nottingham, promoting their new album The Devil, the Heart & the Fight but, oh so sadly, tickets were already sold out. Fortunately, in these days of social media, that's not the end of the world, and at the last minute I (or at least my teen acting for me) struck lucky as someone had two spare tickets.

With apologies to the other guys I've seen performing here and there, this was really my first 'proper' gig, and I was getting mixed feelings of being excited but nervy. This, of course, is the point at which I begin to wonder how stupid this whole idea is - aren't I really too old for this sort of thing? I've whittled about this before, pulled out of plans at the last minute and I'd made up my mind that in future I wouldn't use my age as an excuse, but bite the bullet and GO! 
My teen seemed less worried by my age, and more that I would talk to strangers; probably about knitting or something. Perhaps with that thought in mind, she abandoned me as soon as we entered the venue - she tried to get down near the front, while I went up to a slightly raised area from where I think I got a better view of the band, but possibly at the expense of feeling a little out of the thick of things. Even so, I stamped and clapped my way through the evening, and I couldn't have helped support a guy crowd-surfing with a double bass anyway! 

going for a ride with the bass

It was such a wonderful evening! 
Skinny Lister were as great as I'd remembered, full of enthusiasm and energy, though on this smaller stage there was less space for dancing, and a risk that one of them might get punched by the accordion or a flying elbow. I love that their music is almost impossible to sit still to, and leaves me with a huge grin on my face.

And I certainly wasn't the oldest there!

Something I haven't got round to yet though is buying one of their cds. 
At Curious Arts, I'd left my money in the tent; last week I took my money along but was put off by the crowds flocking round the merch table after the gig. 
Still, it just means I'll have to see them again ...

Friday, 7 October 2016

A New Routine

This time last year, I was one of those parents in shock after their offspring's departure for university - wondering how my world would change, reflecting on how much I'd miss my Teen.

This autumn I'm feeling relieved as I'm not one of these bereft parents - my Teen has decided to take a year out, get a job locally and earn some serious cash, before returning to uni next autumn.

So we have a new set-up here. It's like going back to the rhythm of college days. Alarm clocks at the ready. Get up early to organise breakfast and a packed lunch. Teen out of the house from 8.30 to 6. In fact, it's so much like being back to her college days, that I woke up last weekend wondering if she had homework to do!

What I have found though, is that somehow I don't actually seem to have any more hours in the day - they've just moved earlier. No more sitting up till 2 o'clock watching box-sets or chatting on twitter; now I'm falling asleep on the sofa before midnight!

It's great having her back, hearing guitar sounds coming from her room, watching Netflix together, going out at weekends as a family, but, if I'm being honest, I'm dreading this time NEXT year, when she'll be going away again. Time to worry about that later though ...