The Changeling – Joy Williams

Reading this book I had a very strange sense of deja vu. Not because it is a 1978 book republished for its 40th Anniversary and I have read it before (which I haven’t) but because the setting is almost identical to another excellent book I have read, We were liars by E. Lockhart. The similarities are interesting, The Changeling  is set on an island owned by a very rich American family.  There is a main house on the island which is ruled over by a patriarchal figure and there is a large number of children living on the island as well, some related, some not but all running wild and free. Maybe Lockhart was inspired by The Changeling but even if she was, the similarities end there.

I enjoyed the first few chapters of the book; Pearl has run away from the island and is sitting in a Florida bar getting drunk with her baby, Sam, until her other half turns up to take her back. Then something pretty horrendous happens and we see Pearl back on the island several years later. This is where it slowly spirals into madness and frankly weirdness.

What follows is an alcohol fuelled, delirium narrative. In other words, it is completely unreliable and seems to slip into fantasy and myth regularly. Who are we to believe? Is Pearl speaking the truth or is she hallucinating? Can we believe the children and what are they? Or even Thomas, her brother-in-law? There is something very magical and mythical about this book with serious dark undertones and mental instability. 

The second last chapter is key and since I don’t do spoilers I’m just going to say it really hits the jackpot on the ‘what the hell is going on’ scale. Suddenly, everything you thought was real might not be and it made me rethink the whole book. I have a suspicion that if you are interested in recreational drugs then you may well enjoy this or at least understand more of what is going on. There are moments of brilliance and because of that I liked The Changeling. The flashes of brilliance overcame the weirdness and the unsettling and dark tale sparked my imagination. 


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The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

Fifty per cent of me loves this book and the other fifty per cent doesn’t.  What I loved was the story. I thoroughly enjoyed Dorian’s downward spiral into debauchery, cruelty and general all round badness. Who doesn’t love a bad boy? And I was completely convinced by the appeal he had to others and his ability to corrupt and ruin them. Anyone who was foolish enough to get too close to Dorian ended up dead or as good as. Marvellous!

I also liked Wilde’s use of the painting to show Dorian’s true self, mirroring his inner evil and wicked deeds which are hinted at in the book rather than spelled out. It is up to the reader to fill in the blanks using their imagination. Partly, I’m sure, because of the legal implications of writing about homosexual relationships at the time and also because, in this way, readers have to acknowledge their own indecent thoughts and imaginations. I believe the argument that Wilde did not write indecent material, it was assumed by the readers’ indecent minds, was used in Wilde’s defence during his trial for sodomy and gross indecency – probably not an argument that helped his case!  

The large amount of period and cultural details is fascinating and I really appreciated the end notes in my edition. Knowing background details to the story added a richness to the reading experience and a desire to research more. 

There is always a but and this time it is because I don’t think this novel should have been a novel. It feels very well staged and the dialogue is more like a play script than a novel. There are several long soliloquies in the book and many witty one-liners but they don’t read smoothly. However, if they were written into a script I think it could have been very amusing and the novel is written in such a way we can see the characters entering and exiting the narrative, usually very dramatically. Maybe, this was the Edwardian equivalent of the modern day novel written with the film rights in mind.  

This is a good story and I would definitely recommend it as it is a gothic classic but I also reckon that Wilde was a playwright not an author. Oh, and by the way my edition was the Penguin Classics edition as shown above, the only cover I could find that accurately depicts Dorian with blonde hair as he has in the book. 

The Ghost Wall – Sarah Moss

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Sarah Perry and Sarah Moss talking about their respective books at the Cambridge Literary Festival. Sarah Perry was talking about Melmoth (reviewed here) and Sarah Moss about her latest novel The Ghost Wall. It’s fair to say that I was quite disturbed by The Ghost Wall and it was interesting to hear Moss say herself that she wouldn’t read the first few paragraphs as they were too disturbing for a book reading. 

The story is about a family, Mum, Dad and seventeen year old daughter who spend one summer re-enacting Iron Age Britain in the countryside with a University professor and his students. Dad is a bit of an enthusiast and his desire to be authentic to the time period very quickly becomes sinister and threatening. 

To me the key element of the book was the relationships between the characters even though there is a huge amount more packed into the book, impressive considering it is only 160 pages. Possibly there is too much but I didn’t feel that whilst reading it, it is only now a few days later that I am considering the possibility. 

The book also examines boundaries between the present and the past and also between Britain and other countries, in particular, delving into the discussion is anyone truly British and how far back do we have to go to find a ‘true Brit’? Very interesting and very topical considering our current political climate and Brexit. 

As I said, whilst reading The Ghost wall my main focus was the characters’ relationships with each other and I didn’t think too deeply about the other issues but at the Festival when I asked Moss why she had chosen the title of the book she clearly felt that the key theme of the book was boundaries. 

I can only say that given the extent to which this affected me, it is very well written. Almost a week later and it is still vivid and clear in my mind. Therefore, I would definitely recommend it. I would also recommend going to hear Authors speak about their books at Literary Festivals. It really helps the book to come alive and gives you some fascinating insights to the writing process and the issues the author was trying to convey and explore. 

Dracula – Bram Stoker

This is a reread for me and I so glad that my Masters degree has a Vampire module. I think this is a fantastic book and truly deserves to be a classic. There was so much more to get from it on a second reading, especially since I researched the time and culture when Stoker wrote the book. Without knowing more about fin de siecle society I wouldn’t have understood the themes explored by Stoker e.g. the fear of immigration, anti-semitism, the New Woman, new technology and medical practices, as well as a good chunk of folklore and gothic chills.  

I must admit the Francis Ford Coppola Dracula film was always in my mind when I was reading the book, but I reckon that is a compliment to the film, as it was so well done; in the same way that David Suchet will always be Poirot to me. The film stayed true to the book and it is interesting to see how the characters were interpreted.

One thing I had forgotten was how much Stoker reinforces the Victorian Stereotype that all women are weak and feeble; this time it really stood out. It’s annoying and you want to be angry with him in a very feminist contemporary mindset but I also wonder if he’s doing this to contrast his characters effectively. The delicate, chaste, male-dependant woman was the ideal in Victorian society and he uses this to good effect to show a significant contrast with the stronger, erotically depicted female vampires. He also highlights the more subtle differences between Lucy and Mina. Lucy is portrayed as a New Woman and is therefore flirtatious and morally questionable, whereas Mina is the perfect wife and ‘Angel in the Home’.  

If you haven’t yet read this classic then I really would recommend it and do a little background reading, it will give you much more of an insight to the book and its themes. 

The Outrun – Amy Liptrot

In a nutshell, this book is about Liptrot’s recovery from alcoholism, set briefly in London and then on Orkney, whilst describing the birds she worked with in her job at the RSPB. Don’t worry that summary wouldn’t have sold it to me either but the bookseller in Waterstones a few years ago did. She had bought this book for her best friend who had, apparently, loved it. Honestly, it doesn’t take much to get me to buy books.            

Although the premise is simple, there is a depth to this book. It is a love letter to Orkney and its surrounding islands and as such the writing is actually quite beautiful. There was a marked difference in the style of writing at the beginning when Amy is living in London and still drinking; the pace is quicker and more frantic than when she moves to Orkney, sober, trying to find peace and recovery in the islands and their wildlife. I would say, however, that the latter half of the book does have a lack of flow at times and is more a loose gathering of reminiscences and facts rather than an actual narrative. But, and it’s a big one, Liptrot completely captures the Island of Orkney, its inhabitants and amazing wildness so very well. I could see, feel and hear it. The sense of place in a book is very important to me and this book has it in abundance.

Liptrot’s honest and frank discussion of her addiction and recovery is refreshing and really helps us to understand what she is battling every single day. Although she has been accused of being too introspective and occasionally self centred, I think she had to be this way to recover. She does admit to her character flaws and I was glad that she didn’t try to blame others for her drinking.

This is a quietly well written book which I would recommend, even if you’re really not that keen on birds! 

Melmoth – Sarah Perry

61sm5CUgTML._SX313_BO1,204,203,200_‘Deliciously dark’ is probably how someone much more important than me has described this book, but it is a very good description. Perry’s depiction of Melmoth, a woman fated to walk the earth witnessing man’s atrocities is fantastically gothic and unsettling.  I now have a picture of Melmoth in my mind that is not going to leave me. She is that shadow you seen out of the corner of your eye in a dark room. Perry writes characters that intrigue and pull you into their stories, whilst maintaining a permanent  feeling of unease.

The start of the book is excellent and you really feel that you are floating through the city following Helen, experiencing and seeing the city and its inhabitants with her. Perry’s depiction of Prague is extremely atmospheric and although I have never been, I could imagine it clearly from her descriptions. I was so pleased she managed to maintain this throughout the book. Every time we were told to ‘Look‘, I felt as if we were being placed in the position of witness and these descriptions of the city and its people were perfect. And who wouldn’t love Melmoth’s creepy catchphrase and the threat it holds.

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Apart from this being a beautifully written story it really does have a lot to say and made me think about how we believe we are doing a good deed but that is not always how it appears to others, or we do not pay attention to our actions thereby not seeing the harm they cause.

I am going to put my head on the line here and say I think this is better than The Essex Serpent and we all know how popular that was. I also have After Me Comes the Flood (Perry’s first novel) on the ‘to be read’ shelf; it might have to come down from there very soon.

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I also couldn’t resist a lovely new edition of the original Melmoth the Wanderer 1820 by Charles Robert Maturin, with an introduction by Sarah Perry and will hopefully get round to it soon. Now I want to read Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss before I go to hear Perry and Moss talk about their books at the end of November at a Cambridge Literary Festival event. Should be a good night.

The Diary of a Bookseller – Shaun Bythell

51OJJ19x7hL._AC_US436_QL65_This is a one year diary written by the owner of ‘The Bookshop’ in Wigtown, Dumfries and Galloway, aka Scotland’s Booktown. Bythell documents the daily ins and outs of running a second hand bookshop. It is an interesting insight into the job and also into the local community.

What I enjoyed most about this was the owner’s grumpiness and complete lack of patience with most of his customers and all of his staff. Although, Nicky, the member of staff who gets the most stick is a legend. I would love to meet this woman in real life. Not just because she is hugely eccentric and speaks her mind at every opportunity, but because when you read between the lines you see the good friendship she and Shaun have. I bet they are hilarious company and they have some good stories to tell over a drink in front of the fire.

I read this book from start to finish in a couple of days but I don’t think that is the best way to read it. It’s not a novel, it is a series of diary entries, and as such is too fragmentary to try and read at once. Maybe read a month’s entries, put it down and then go back to it later. Then you always have something handy to make you laugh.

Would I recommend it? Yes, as a bit of light reading. However, I probably won’t be rushing to buy Bythell’s follow up book which I heard is in production. One diary is enough for me, even though the second book should be just as funny as the first.