31 March 2012

The Moonstone

After The Woman in Black, I was happily reminded of the completely different Woman in White and just how much I relished reading this wonderful Wilkie Collins' novel last year. Having already traveled back in time somewhat with Susan Hill, I really needed an injection of Wilkie magic; deliciously old-fashioned fun and frolics.  The Moonstone is a Collins classic that I have been itching to read for months; widely lauded as the birth of the 'detective' genre, like The Woman in White, it is an epistolary novel originally serialised in Dickens' periodical All the Year Round

Our first homely and humble narrator is Gabriel Betteridge; lifelong and much-respected servant and protector of the Verinder household. It is through a rather rambling, yet heartwarming, narrative, punctuated by inspirational quotations taken from Robinson Crusoe, that we are introduced to Rachel Verinder, her family and their unusual predicament.  Just in time for her eighteenth birthday, Rachel's cousin Mr Franklin Blake appears at the house with the Moonstone; a mysterious jewel she has inherited her uncle; stolen from the forehead of a sacred Hindu statue during the Siege of Seringpatam. During the night, when everyone in the house is supposedly asleep, the exotic jewel is is stolen from Rachel's room.

From here on out we are whipped up in a classic, Cluedo-style whodunnit scenario. Sergeant Cuff; a detective renowned for his successful investigations is summonsed to the house to solve the mystery. As well as interviewing the wide cast of characters in the house, he also investigates the appearance of three 'Hindoo' men at various junctures throughout the previous afternoon/evening; guardians of the Moonstone who it is thought would be prepared to kill to have it returned to its rightful place...

Although I'm not a great reader of modern day 'detective' novels, it is quite plain to see how Wilkie Collins' created a number of archetypal characters for these kinds of stories; the hero, the damsel in distress, the professional, the scapegoat etc etc. I also found it easy to see, having read Dickens' and other authors of his generation, how Collins' was really rather modern in his writing of women; who, rather than acting as a bit of frill around a largely male narrative, are (as in The Woman in White) real, fleshed out characters and really quite complex in some cases. I also found references to the 'Hindoos' quite sensitively done for the time. Although they are represented as being 'other', and outside the norm, his writing of their exoticism managed not to be too racist,an approach greatly assisted by the appearance of Mr Murthwaite; a great explorer, well-versed in Hindu customs and able to shed some light on the three foreign strangers for Sergeant Cuff.

Provided I can follow the story and don't (as I recently had to do with Winifred Holtby's South Riding) have to constantly remind myself who I'm reading about, I love the 'Upstairs, Downstairs' style of these colourful characters. As with his other novels, particularly with narratives like Gabriel Betteridge's which started to become a little rambly at times, the periodic change in narrator acted as a welcome breath of fresh air every so often. Some characters, particularly the bible bashing Miss Clark were laugh-out-loud funny, yet I was left teased by the very brief appearances of fascinating individuals who I would have liked to hear more from; included Mr Murthwaite and Ezra Jennings, the ailing, opium addicted doctor' assistant whose brief appearance at the end of the book engenders an ingenious plan to finally solve the riddle of the Moonstone.

Although some parts of the mystery seemed a little far-fetched to me, that doesn't affect this fun literary romp in any way. However, it seemed to take an inordinate for the investigation to come to its conclusion and I did suffer from 'flicky page' syndrome (i.e. flicking to the back of the book to see how many pages I have left!) throughout the last 200 pages or so. That said, these kinds of novels never fail to make an impression on me. Although there are some obvious, slightly boring lulls in the narrative, I was left completely surprised by the various and twists and turns and even more so when the entire series of events is eventually revealed at the very end. It strikes me that the meticulous planning that must go into a book like this must be, as with writing a ghost story, extensive, and it never fails to impress me as my brain simply doesn't work in such an ordered way. It is all very, very clever indeed.

That said, I would go for The Woman in White before The Moonstone as the ideal introduction to Wilkie Collins'. Both novels are very well written and lots of fun, but The Woman in White didn't take up half of my concentration levels to get into and I found the characters even more entertaining Gabriel Betteridge and chums...

NB: Whilst we're on the subject of this book; this drawing was so brilliant I just had to share it with you; the work of Amy McKay at Scaleface and Friends. It seems she does illustrations for children's books.....Can you guess who's who?!

22 March 2012

The Woman in Black

After my family pouring over this chilling novel at Christmas (not prompted by the recent blockbuster, I might add), in characteristically Relish fashion I was desperate to save The Woman in Black as a little treat for myself once the hoo hah died down. After diving for the TV/Radio on several occasions to save the entire experience from being ruined by Daniel Radcliffe's fizog, I have been beaten into submission and, as recommended by the marvellous Susan Hill herself, managed to devour all 216 pages all in one go one blustery Sunday afternoon in February.

To state the obvious for all of you who have no doubt heard the rumours if you haven't already read it yourselves, this book is bloody terrifying. So scary that I actually had to take myself off to sit with the boyfriend just to have someone else in the room with me!

I have been drawn to Susan Hill ever since reading the disturbing I'm the King of the Castle a few years ago. The Small Hand, a chilling ghost story built around the same mould as The Woman in Black, appeared on my wishlist almost as soon as it was published and has been sat on my bookshelf unread (who knows why!) ever since...

This particular story begins with Arthur Kipps; a man in the autumn of his life who, despite his loving family and creature comforts, has clearly been marked by some harrowing experience lurking in his past, an experience that we are prompted to revisit after a night telling seemingly harmless ghost stories with his family. Travelling back in time to his life as a young solicitor, we follow Arthur as he is sent by his firm to handle the estate of the deceased Alice Drablow, former inhabitant of Eel Marsh House, a bleak building that stands across 'Nine Lives Causeway' on the edge of the remote village of Crythin Gifford.

Following the appearance of a gaunt looking woman at Alice's funeral and his local guide's baffling reaction to enquiries after the worrying figure, Kipps is very quickly dragged into a cycle of inescapable horror, pulled to and from Eel Marsh House and the vengeful, tormented spirits within....


I really am a bit of a wuss myself but everyone I know who has read this book, from English literature students to work colleagues to wise Mummy Relish herself have delighted at the terror lurking within this book. As Susan Hill herself very astutely points out in this interview with Professor John Mullen, the true enjoyment with scary stories of any kind lies in the ability to be afraid whilst being within a safe environment yourself. She quite rightly points out that, whilst there is little joy to be had for most people in truly dangerous and terrifying situations, there is nothing like the anxiety we regularly indulge in witnessing unspeakable terrors whilst safely ensconced in your armchair with a cup of tea and a biscuit.

Hill's description of Jennet Humfrye's (The 'Woman in Black') malevolent, wasted appearance is just phenomenally chilling and really starts the book off on the right note, mainly because you simply do not (and yet do at the same time - how teasing) want to stumble across her again. This is, I think, what you would call a classic ghost story. We are set up from the beginning to travel into Arthur's past and encounter this spirit, who we just know can mean nothing but ill for the poor chap and, because of the framework and devices used (e.g. when it gets foggy/stormy, you just know something bad is going to happen) some readers I know, including Daddy Relish, although appreciating Susan Hill's undeniable talent as a writer, found everything just a little too obvious...

I have to admit that none of this made any difference for me. In fact, the 'obvious' elements of this book are there for good reason; to build up the tension!  Due to the causeway, Arthur is at times completely cut-off from civilisation and all lifelines should he need them. Thank God for little Spider; a dog lent to Arthur by one of the villagers, who after repeated, unheeded warnings about the house and its history, proves to be reassuring company both Arthur and the intrepid reader him/herself.

Do not be mistaken for thinking this to be your bog standard ghost tale - M R James style. This is no ghost story of the antiquary; this is harrowing tale with real flesh and bones, not some mere shadowy floating around your bedroom. As with many great stories; love, loss and revenge feature heavily in The Woman in Black and our fear is satisfyingly amplified by the well-thought out history of the characters, both living and dead.

All I can say is, like I did, be brave, read this wonderful book and acquaint yourself with Susan Hill before someone ruins it for you...

*I hate dolls. *Shudder*

10 March 2012

Manchester Book Group

Although I had decided to abandon all responsibility and just real life in general last night, it seems my resolve has completely failed me and, because I just can't contain myself any longer I am proud to announce that Literery Relish and the fabulous Simon of Savidge Reads http://savidgereads.wordpress.com/ (I cant figure out how to stick a link on professionally with my iPhone so bare with me !) put our book-obsessed minds together over tea last week and, over the coming month, are putting together the 'Manchester Book Club' (a much more dynamic name is in the pipeline I promise)


As you can see from the spanking website Simon has put together, once a month (at a thus far mystery location...) we hope to bring together a group of like-minded, bookwormey Mancs (or, indeed, adoptive Mancs!) who are as desperate to sit around and chat books as we are and who are keen to branch out from the norm. Perhaps picking up a daunting classic you have never had the guts to read or even discovering an entire new genre you didn't even know existed; out into uncharted waters....

Manchester is a gorgeous, vibrant city but it is seriously lacking in book groups, so much so that, much to Simons surprise, I am a book group virgin! All of you good Northern folk please watch this space as I would love to meet you all in person, be inspired by your own bookish views and thoughts and just have a good old natter really!

Meetings start this April ... Have your TBR pile at the ready !

8 March 2012

A cup of tea and a biscuit...

Well, a cup of tea and a book I can't sink into anyway!  The foundations for a review of the thrilling Woman in Black have already been laid at Relish Towers but today, I am on strike. The boyfriend and I are very very lucky to be going on holiday for a whole week (woohoo!) on Saturday. I am going to be merrily strapping two planks of wood to my feet every morning and hurtling uncontrollably down a mountainside after my incredibly sure footed boyfriend and his family; absolute heaven!

I appear however to be having a particularly stressful and inordinately busy week; work that I will never finish before Friday, a million social engagements (which never happens!) and a thousand things to get ready mean that, although I simply do not have the time, this evening Literally Relish is officially off duty. Yes the washing up needs doing, yes I really should be putting together an incredibly clever and insightful review to post up before I leave but, I refuse.

Some very exciting bookish things are afoot which I plan to gush about once I have buggered off for a week and come back fresh and revitalised. For now, a cup of Yorkshire tea, my dressing gown and Phil and Kirsty await me. I shun everything today, even Winifred Holtby; whose South Riding is just not grabbing me at the moment. Even the titillating appearance of the Orange Prize longlist cannot drag me out of my pit today. Farewell bookworms, don't forget me while I'm out of action so very briefly!

2 March 2012

The End of the Affair

I am very proud to announce that over the past 6 months I have started to use the public library properly, in a way that I haven't for a good couple of years really since leaving University - and boy did I forget what a treat it is! There is simply nothing better (apart from being loaded with oodles of cash and going out and buying an entire library yourself) than floating down the shelves and plucking out whatever you like to read with no strings attached. I don't know how it works in other cities but the best thing in Mancland is the fact that once you're a proud owner of your shiny new library card, you can take a book out in any of the libraries run by the city council; happily including our own tiddly local library:

I decided to pick up Graham Greene's The End of the Affair for two reasons; first of all because I'd always wanted to give Greene another go after being a little disappointed with Brighton Rock (not my style) and second of all because, as pointed out by my boyfriend the climber, there is a very well known rock climb in the Peak District named after this famous, albeit short and sweet, novel.

Although learning that the book became 'Daily Mail Book of the Month' almost took the shine off, realising this was way back in 1951 (and that the paper perhaps wasn't the unsavoury read back then that it proves to be nowadays) restored my faith. Set in London during and directly after WWII, this is the seemingly simple story of the love triangle between clandestine lovers Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles, and their (her) somewhat dull, very loyal and predictable gooseberry husband Henry; a pitiful civil servant who is apparently completely oblivious to his wife's passions and betrayals.

As the title denotes, these few chapters explore the end of the adulterous affair that writer Bendrix has been having with his friend's wife. For anyone who understands what it means to fall hopelessly in love with someone, this vivid portrait of intense hatred, love and all-consuming obsession touches, quite pleasurably, close to the bone.  Becoming completely consumed by Sarah's life without him after an apparently inexplicable separation, Bendrix begins to stalk the woman he loves, or rather, have a couple of amusing side-characters do the dirty work for him; in the form of the incredibly efficient and rather naive 'Parkis' and his little boy. Considering a mysterious relationship with outspoken atheist and public speaker Richard Smythe and an abject refusal to see a man for whom she had once risked both her marriage and reputation; Sarah's behaviour is a complete and heart-wrenching mystery that, I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed unravelling. Perhaps I can read a bit of Graham Greene after all!

That said, this book did contain some flaws for me. Although I became completely convinced by Greene's portrayal of the vicious, jealous and obsessive emotions at play here, I wasn't entirely convinced by Bendrix and Sarah, particularly Sarah. At times their words and actions almost seemed indifferent, but is that a sign of the times? If seeing a couple screaming and shouting at each other in the street is a bit of a shock to the system nowadays (and this does happen from time to time!) just think how utterly unacceptable it would have been to lose your composure, particularly in public, 70 years ago? Understanding 1940/50s Britain aside, Sarah was still a bit of a problem for me; her motives VERY difficult to comprehend (some of which I found completely unbelievable/random) and all in all, not my type of woman. 

The warmth I found lacking in certain areas I found in abundance elsewhere. Characters on the periphery of this ruinous relationship such as the amateur inspector Parkis and Henry Miles are both amusing and touching, particularly Henry, who I simply couldn't help but feel very sorry for, even though I presume part of the aim of this story is to challenge this predictable reaction. 

The bare, wartime setting is hopelessly romantic and adds extra underlying tension to our already emotionally stretched characters. As Bendrix claims; 'this a record of hate far more than of love'; a nasty, bitter love and a statement of fanaticism and grief. A very good read indeed.