Fantastically creepy Christmas ghost story collection

Ghosts of Christmas Past by various authors

We may think of ghost stories as a Victorian tradition, but the habit of telling spooky tales at the end of the year goes back a long way. Centuries before Dickens and his contemporaries began writing for a mass market fascinated by spiritualism and the occult, workers and families were gathering in the long nights to work, talk and swap tall stories of magic and horror.’

Who knows what haunts the night at this dark time of the year? This collection of seasonal chillers looks beneath Christmas cheer to a world of ghosts and horrors, mixing terrifying modern fiction with classic stories by masters of the macabre. From Neil Gaiman and M.R. James to Muriel Spark and E. Nesbit, there are stories here to make the hardiest soul quail.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes the glitter and shine of the Christmas season becomes too much, and I start to long for something darker, perhaps even a little spooky. This book offered me the perfect escape from the tooth-aching sweetness of the holiday season with its creepy tales of ghosts and poltergeists.

This collection includes a mix of stories from masters of the ghost story like M.R. James, to newcomers to the field, like Neil Gaiman. Although I admit I found a few of the stories failed to grab my attention (and was more than a little disappointed to find that Gaiman’s was one of them), overall this is a fantastic collection.

Without a doubt my favourite story in the collection is Dinner for One by Jenn Ashworth. It’s one of those stories I can’t say too much about without giving it away, but suffice to say this ghostly story told from a unique perspective will send a shiver down your spine, and the final reveal is sure to send you reeling. I also thoroughly enjoyed Frank Cowper’s Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk; with its fantastically creepy atmosphere it reminded me of Michelle Paver’s ghost stories.

Snuggle down beneath a warm blanket on a cold night, perhaps with a hot drink to hand and a Christmas tree twinkling in the background, and prepare to be spooked.

Many thanks to John Murray for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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First book in new fantasy series introduces cast of bold female characters

Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size. For Sister Thorn of the Sweet Mercy Convent Lano Tacsis brought two hundred men.

At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes 10 years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist. But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder, guilty of worse.

Fantasy novels about assassins are ten-a-penny, so if you want to stand out in this overcrowded genre you’re going to have to do something pretty special. Though it is not without its flaws, I can confirm that Red Sister by Mark Lawrence is something pretty special.

In essence, this is a fantasy boarding school novel. Much of the action takes place in the Convent of Sweet Mercy, where young girls attend classes, forge close friendships, sleep in dormitories and sneak around after lights out. It will be a formula familiar to many readers, but Lawrence ensures his world has edges sharp enough to make sure the familiarity doesn’t breed boredom.

It’s a shame that the middle of the book becomes dull and repetitive. However, it’s worth getting through these slower moments to experience Lawrence’s skill when it comes to action scenes.

There are also moments when Lawrence falls prey to the fantasy writer’s worst enemy: the info-dump (in which writers give lots of information about their fantasy world in one long section). Some of the concepts he has come up with are quite complicated and he seems unsure as to how best explain them, so he runs to paragraphs explaining the same thing in a few different ways in the hope readers will understand.

But, luckily, the world Lawrence has created is fascinating – and his characters endearing. You will have to suspend your disbelief in regard to the characters’ ages (no eight-year-old talks like that) but Nona’s spiky attitude, witty comebacks and vulnerability will quickly bring you round to liking her. The only problem is that she verges on Mary-Sue territory – the perfect character who never gets anything wrong – and I hope Lawrence takes the chance to develop her character further in the sequel.

I also loved that the majority of the large cast are female. As such Lawrence presents the reader with a wide range of women – women who are brave, bold, frightened and flawed. In a genre that is often dominated by male characters wielding swords, it was refreshing to see women take the lead.

This book has its flaws but it opens up a fantasy world that I am more than happy to spend time in.

Red Sister is dark and bloody, marking the beginning of a new fantasy series that I will definitely be keen to continue reading.

Many thanks to HarperCollins for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Wildly imaginative fantasy invites you into a world of magic and myth

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

‘He drifted about with his head full of myths, always at least half lost in some otherland of story. Demons and wingsmiths, seraphim and spirits, he loved it all. He believed in magic, like a child, and in ghosts, like a peasant. His nose was broken by a falling volume of fairy tales his first day on the job, and that, they said, told you everything you needed to know about Lazlo Strange: head in the clouds, world of his own, fairy tales and fancy.’

Since he was five years old, war orphan and junior librarian Lazlo Strange has been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep. But it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and Lazlo has the chance to follow his dream.

Laini Taylor, the Sunday Times bestselling author of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, once again puts her huge, fearsome imagination to the test in her latest offering – technically a young adult novel, it is nevertheless complex enough to warrant a devoted legion of adult readers.

I tumbled head over heels in love with this book. The world is utterly engrossing, captivating and wildly imaginative. Taylor has created a world that is so rich in imagery, myth and magic that readers will be hard-pressed to find the will to put it down.

Lazlo is a wonderfully charming character. He’s very likeable – sweet, courageous and a compulsive reader – so much so that when the viewpoint shifts to our other main character, Sarai, at first I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that I was leaving Lazlo’s company. Thankfully Sarai turned out to be just as interesting to spend time with – tough but conflicted, powerful but flawed. Oh, and she’s also the daughter of the most feared goddess of all time.

Despite the depth and intricacy of the world Taylor has created, she has managed to create characters who still feel like real people – they’ve just been placed in extraordinary situations.

Unfortunately, the pacing is where this book was let down. The last third or so of the book is where I began to lose interest. All the adventure and strife that had gone before was relegated to the background and in its place was a story of two characters falling in love. Admittedly the way they fall in love and carry out their romance is unusual and intriguing, but no one needs a two-page description of two characters’ first kiss. The problem was that the story felt so big, the scale and the risks so momentous, but then it kept shrinking until all it amounted to was two characters pining for each other.

It’s quite obvious to see where the plot is going most of the time, and it does veer dangerously close to the Chosen One trope so overused in fantasy fiction, but it was nevertheless a highly enjoyable journey to get there, and I will definitely be looking forward to the next book in the series.

It will be up to each individual reader to decide whether Strange the Dreamer’s positives outweigh its flaws, whether the fantastic first two-thirds of the book are enough to make up for the disappointment of a muddled ending.

New book releases December 2017

Year One by Nora Roberts

They call it The Doom – a deadly pandemic that starts on New Year’s Eve in the Scottish countryside. As billions fall sick and die, some survivors find themselves invested with strange, unexpected abilities.

This dystopian thriller is the latest release from New York Times bestseller Nora Roberts, who is the author of a staggering 190 novels.

Release date: 5th December

The Silver Music Box by Mina Baites

1914. Jewish silversmith Johann Blumenthal crafted a tiny ornamented box for his young son before leaving to fight in a war to honour his beloved country – a country that would soon turn against him. A half century later, Londoner Lilian Morrison inherits the box, and finds a link to an astonishing past.

This historical novel was originally published in Baites’ native German and has already received a slew of five-star reviews on Amazon.

Release date: 1st December

Catalina by Liska Jacobs

Elsa Fisher retreats to Los Angeles after being fired from MoMA on the heels of an affair with her married boss. Her abandoned crew of college friends receive her with open arms and, thinking she’s on vacation, a plan to celebrate their reunion on a booze-soaked sailing trip to Catalina Island. But Elsa is hell-bent on self-destruction.

Jacobs’ debut has already been compared to Bret Easton Ellis’ early work, and bestselling author Jill Alexander Essbaum has said: ‘Liska Jacobs writes with teeth; this book’s got bite.’

Release date: 13th December

The Good Samaritan by John Marrs

The people who call End of the Line need hope. They need reassurance that life is worth living. But some are unlucky enough to get through to Laura. Laura doesn’t want them to hope. She wants them to die. But now someone’s onto her – Ryan, whose world falls apart when his pregnant wife ends her life, hand-in-hand with a stranger.

This book is the fourth from journalist Marrs and has an intriguing, unusual premise.

Release date: 1st December

The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond

Newlyweds Jake and Alice are offered a mysterious wedding gift – membership of a club which promises its couples will never divorce. Signing The Pact seems the start to a perfect marriage. Until one of them breaks the rules.

This new thriller has perhaps inevitably been compared with Gone Girl, and author Lisa Gardner has issued a warning that ‘this will keep you up all night’.

Release date: 14th December

 

What Remains True by Janis Thomas

From the outside, the Davenports look like any other family – until that devastating day when five-year-old Jonah is killed, and the family is torn apart. As guilt engulfs them, the Davenports slowly start to unravel, one by one.

This intimate portrayal of familial guilt is told from multiple points of view – including Jonah’s.

Release date: 1st December

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss anniversary edition

An Unremarkable Body by Elisa Lodato

When Katharine is found dead at the foot of her stairs, it is the mystery of her life that consumes her daughter, Laura. The medical examiner’s report, in which parts of Katharine’s body are weighed and categorised, motivates Laura to write her own version of events; to bear witness to the unbearable blank space between each itemised entry.

This novel has been described as part memoir, part thriller, and promises to be both heartfelt and haunting.

Release date: 14th December

The Vanishing Season by Joanna Schaffhausen

No one in sleepy Woodbury where Ellery works as a police officer knows she was once victim number 17 of serial killer Francis Michael Coben. The only one who lived. When three people disappear from her town in three years, Ellery fears someone knows her secret.

This idea has been done many times before, but Scaffhausen’s credentials as winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Competition suggests this might be something special.

Release date: 5th December

Quick Curtain by Alan Melville

When Douglas B. Douglas – leading light of the London theatre – premieres his new musical extravaganza, he is sure the packed house will be dazzled by the performance. What he couldn’t predict is the death of his star on stage in the middle of act two.

This satirical novel from the golden age of British crime fiction between the world wars has been rediscovered in a new edition by British Library Crime Classics.

Release date: 5th December

The Name of the Wind: 10th anniversary deluxe illustrated edition by Patrick Rothfuss

Kvothe is living as an unassuming innkeeper. Few suspect that the man serving them drinks is actually a notorious magician, masterful musician, dragon-slayer and infamous assassin.

This deluxe edition marks the 10th anniversary of this brilliant fantasy novel, and would make a great Christmas gift for any fantasy fan in your life.

Release date: 7th December

New thriller examines close-knit community shaken by rumours

The Blackbird Season by Kate Moretti

‘He had no way of knowing that this moment would become the lynchpin, the moment that all the moments after would hinge upon. The papers would call him a murderer; the police would come to him; his ex-friends, his gym buddies, the guys who knew him for God’s sake; and say, Nate was the last one to see her alive, right? The last one is always the guilty one.’

In a quiet town, a thousand dead starlings fall onto a school playing field. As journalists flock to the scene, one of them catches a teacher, Nate Winters, embracing a female student. The student claims that she and Nate are having an affair, sending shockwaves through the close-knit community. Then the student disappears, and the police have only one suspect: Nate.

This story is told through the points of view of four different characters: Nate, Alecia (Nate’s wife), Bridget (Nate’s best friend) and Lucia. None of these characters are particularly likeable. They bicker with each other over the smallest things and they make stupid decisions. Occasionally their brutal honesty about the lives they lead inspire a dull flicker of empathy, but the problem with creating a cast full of unlikeable characters is that the reader doesn’t really care what’s happening to them.

That said, there were a lot of things I liked about this book. The close-knit community rocked by gossip and speculation is hardly a new concept, but Moretti manages to cleverly explore the ripples that spread through the town. Nate’s insidious influence as a pillar of the community makes it impossible for other characters to see him clearly and decide whether they believe him or not.

However, this book also has a lot of flaws, not least the way the female characters relate to each other. At one point one character points out how much she hates women turning against women, but that’s exactly what these women do throughout the course of the story. Women are judged harshly here and Moretti tends to lump them into easy categories based on the way they look.

This book is also rife with clichés. The golden boy Nate, the tortured wrong-side-of-the-tracks teenager Lucia, the aspiring sport star student, the grumbling police officer… I could go on. It’s a shame because the writing is absorbing and clever.

The more I read the more concerned I became that the ending was going to be disappointing. Fortunately I was proved wrong and Moretti wraps things up with a conclusion that is both satisfying and realistic, twisted but not over-the-top.

Thanks very much to Titan for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Fantastically creepy ghost stories inspired by haunted English Heritage sites

Eight Ghosts: The English Heritage Book of New Ghost Stories

‘“It wouldn’t be a proper country house,” she said, “without a ghost attached.”’

Eight authors were given after-hours freedom at their chosen English heritage site. Immersed in the history, atmosphere and rumours of hauntings, they channelled their darker imaginings into a series of new ghost stories.

I was so excited when I heard about this collection. You have to admit it’s a fantastic idea; eight authors, eight haunted locations, and eight ghost stories based on places the reader is able to visit in real life. I was expecting a lot from a group of stories by writers including The Essex Serpent author Sarah Perry, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time author Mark Haddon, and The Loney author Andrew Michael Hurley. Thankfully, I was not disappointed.

There’s a chance that any collection of short stories based on a common theme will be repetitive. But these delightfully creepy ghost stories are varied enough to make sure the reader never gets complacent, and can never guess what is going to happen next. From Sarah Perry’s tale of possession at a Jacobean country house, to Mark Haddon’s story set in a Cold War bunker, each story is as unique as the writer who created it, and every reader is sure to find something to enjoy here.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the section in the afterword – A Gazetteer of English Heritage Hauntings – in which we explore some of the most haunted buildings looked after by English Heritage, including the ones chosen by the writers. The only change I would have liked to see would be to have the notes about the authors’ chosen settings immediately after each story, to add a little more context.

Sarah Perry’s story set at Audley End, They Flee From Me That Sometime Did Me Seek, and Mark Haddon’s The Bunker were my favourite stories from this collection. They build a sense of dread so powerful that I almost didn’t want to keep reading.

The collection also includes Kate Clanchy’s heart-breaking tale set at Housesteads Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall, and Kamila Shamsie’s chilling story about a night security guard at Kenilworth Castle.

These brilliantly written and fantastically creepy tales are a must for ghost story fans. Guaranteed to send a chill down your spine.

Many thanks to September Publishing for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Nostalgic book examines the authors we thought we’d forgotten

The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler

Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. It makes people think you’re dead.

Christopher Fowler takes a journey into the back catalogues of 99 authors who, once hugely popular, have all but disappeared from our shelves. Whether male or female, domestic or international, no author, it seems, can ever be fully immune from the fate of being forgotten. Fowler, as well as remembering their careers, lifts the lid on their lives.

Fowler delves into the annals of history to bring keen readers the fascinating and often astonishing stories behind some formerly popular authors who have since fallen out of favour. Their real lives were often just as interesting as their fiction and the stories are sure to send you scurrying into second-hand bookshops to find one of these lost gems.

The short chapters (two to three pages on each author) make this the perfect book to dip in and out of. The authors are interspersed with essays about lost favourites, including the novels Walt Disney brought to the screen and the rivals of Sherlock Holmes.

We learn about the author of Bambi who sold the rights to Disney for $1,000; the female writers who pioneered the suspense genre long before Gillian Flynn; and the now forgotten author who wrote the short story upon which Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds is based (hint: it’s not Daphne du Maurier).

Fowler has a clear passion for the subject he has spent so long researching and writing about, and this shines through, but there are moments when some of his personal (some would say old-fashioned) opinions jarred with me, such as when he dismisses Georgette Heyer and Eleanor Hibbert’s novels as having ‘the kind of pastel covers no man would ever pick up’.

While it is interesting reading about the individual authors and their stories, it is more interesting learning about how tastes have changed over the years and thus why certain writers have fallen out of favour. Fowler places each writer within the context of their time and examines why they became popular at the time that they did.

Anyone who loves books will find plenty to enjoy here. A perfect Christmas gift for bibliophiles – just be prepared to spend hours watching them rummage through second-hand bookshops.

Many thanks to Quercus for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.