Monthly Archives: April 2010

The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill

I’ve been intrigued by The Woman in Black for a few years, since my sister saw it staged in London and then almost ran screaming from the book in a bookstore several weeks later. (I should probably clarify that she’d loved it, but it freaked her out so much that even weeks later, she couldn’t face the idea of experiencing it again. This is not an unusual state for either of us. Ask us about The Birds sometime.)

Anyway, I had never read it or seen it, and it intrigued me. Every time I was in London, though, there was something else that I’d wanted to see more, and it wasn’t a huge priority on my TBR list, either. It was there, but it wasn’t at the top. I had gotten as far as downloading an “Old Time Radio” podcast from the 40s or 50s or something that was called “The Woman in Black” – but it had nothing to do with the Susan Hill story. This weekend, I came across a copy in the charity shop where I volunteer, so I picked it up and read it that afternoon in the park (finishing it, coincidentally, approximately thirty seconds before my sister called).

She was right. It’s freaky.

It’s a mystery/suspense story, and not very long – it only took me an hour and a bit to read. I found the first couple of chapters a bit confusing with the timeline and tenses of the narrator, but the first couple of chapters are little more than introduction and lulling the reader into security anyway. Because it’s a mystery/suspense story, I’m not going to say too much about the plot – the reveal adds a lot to the suspense. It leaves a lot unsaid, especially the motivation of the antagonist. I understood why some of the things happened, but not others.

It is supremely creepy, however. It’s the perfect kind of story to read – or read aloud – on a dark, possibly stormy night. If I had read it at, say, Halloween, when I was alone in the house and watching scary movies anyway, I doubt I would have fallen asleep. I would have been imagining the sounds of the story and expecting something to come out of the Dolphin Paradise. I can’t praise enough the atmosphere of the story. After the slight confusion of the first few chapters, I was ready to dismiss it as overblown or possibly something that owed more to the staging and performances than to the story itself. But no – even lying in a sunny park, I could feel the tension and terror of an isolated house in the fens, the companionship of the dog, the sadness at the backstory.

I don’t know if it’s a book that Everyone Should Read or anything, but if you’re in the mood for something freaky and scary, it’s definitely a recommendation of mine.

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Filed under Crime/Mysteries

The Children’s Book, by A.S. Byatt – initial thoughts

I’m reading The Children’s Book right now. It’s long and thick and dense and I’m loving it so far. One of my friends who read it said that Byatt tries to do too much in it, and I can kind of see that – flipping to the last few pages, it ends just after WW1, which is indeed a dense topic that can be difficult to get right. I’m enjoying it so far, though, for the most part.

One slight problem I have is that I want to sink into it, to lose myself in it, but I keep getting distracted by things. Some of these things are external, like the adorable dogs walking by when I was reading in the park. Some of them are internal.

Byatt is the type of writer, I think, who does a lot of research on her books – this one uses fairy tales and late Victorian/Edwardian life. She also likes to display the results of her research. This has led, for me so far, to very beautifully written passages about imagination or mythology or the setting, but also 82 pages before the children’s books enter the novel, and no sense of the story yet.

It’s very atmospheric. It’s very beautifully written. It’s one of the few books where I’ve actually made notes (there are a few words that I don’t instantly know, and a few passages I’ve underlined). I’m just ready to get past the staging and to the story. I’m having problems keeping the characters separate – they’re just images right now, not individuals – and am really wondering where things are going to end up.

Two minor issues: 1. Is it mandatory for a “literary” novel to include a masturbation scene (graphic or not)? It’s a trend I don’t quite see the necessity for. 2. Can someone please explain this sentence to me without commas?

Humphry graduated in 1877, two years after the Christian Arnold Toynbee, whose devotion to the needy, and early death, were commemorated by Canon Barnett’s founding of Toynbee Hall, designed as a community of graduates, who would, themselves, live and teach amongst the poor.

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Filed under General Fiction

Gloaming (Word 2)

I really wanted this to be longer. But it just wasn’t happening. Maybe I’ll come back to it sometime.

Gloaming

The oldest time of day.

The glow of the evening

Shows shadows that

Daylight hides.

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Filed under Words Project

The Forgotten Dead, by Ken Small

My best friend got me totally hooked on Foyle’s War, so I watched the whole series a few weeks ago. It’s such a brilliantly done police drama set in Hastings during WW2; I can’t recommend it highly enough. Anyway, in the last episode, one of the plot points revolves around Exercise Tiger, a training exercise for D-Day that went horribly wrong. I’d never heard of Exercise Tiger before, but the idea that there was a training exercise that ended up as an actual attack where several hundred soldiers and sailors died, which was then “conveniently forgotten” (as Ken Small puts it in his book), intrigued me.  I’m not huge on military history in more than a general sense (General Sense! *salute*). I don’t know troop movements and details of weaponry and things like that, even in wars that I am otherwise fascinated with (WW1 and the Hundred Years War are two notable examples of wars I am fascinated with). The stories behind the battles are much more interesting to me, and it seemed like Exercise Tiger had a good story.

Within days of watching the last episode of Foyle’s War and first hearing about Exercise Tiger, this book came into the charity shop where I volunteer. I wouldn’t have noticed it if I hadn’t just learned about Exercise Tiger; it would have just been stored with all the other hundreds of donated books until it was time to go on the shelves. (I love this shop. Donate your books to charity/second-hand stores, kids.) But I had, so I did, and I took it home to read it.

The book was published in 1988, just after the memorial to Exercise Tiger was dedicated. It moves fairly chronologically through the battle, the discovery by Ken Small of a tank submerged off the Devon coast, and his struggle to raise the tank and put up a formal memorial to those who died in Exercise Tiger. There is a lot of detail – military details about the exercise itself, a brief biography of Ken Small himself to provide context for his search, and details about the bureaucracy and paperwork necessary for the memorial. It’s a great story, both about the exercise and the struggle (for it was a struggle) to recover the tank and put up the memorial.

It’s not the greatest book in the world. The prose isn’t exactly sparkling, to say the least. It’s not bad, it’s just not great. It tends very much toward the “this happened. And then this happened” style. But, then, it doesn’t pretend to be any different. I’m not going to say it has flaws; I’m just going to say that if I’d been ghostwriting it, there are things I would have done differently. The military detail at the beginning is, I’m sure, informative. But it meant very little to me, since I don’t have the background knowledge of tanks and procedures. I was much more interested by the personal stories from survivors, and wish there had been more of them. I would have liked to know what a typical run would have been like, from the point of view of a participant instead of the dry details, in order to understand what was different about this one.

The parts about the memorial also got bogged down in some of the details, although not to a frustrating extent. Again, I would have liked more of the personal stories, more of the emotional connection. If it were me, I probably would have structured it a little bit more like a novel with flashbacks – but that’s just my own personal preference from a 2010 perspective, and not 1988.

But, like I said, the story is pretty much unbeatable. Men training for D-Day, through a series of unfortunate coincidences and mistakes, were actually attacked by E-boats. The survivors were ordered to forget about it, not to discuss it. The dead were barely identified. And almost forty years later, one English man finds what he thinks is a tank, does everything he can to break the wall of silence built around Exercise Tiger, and recovers the tank and sets up a memorial to the dead using only his own resources.

I have no idea if Ken Small is still alive, still running the guest house, still keeping up the memorial. If I’m ever down near the Devon coastline, though, I’m definitely going to look for it.

(Also, this copy of the book was signed by Ken Small in April 1997. Cool, yes?)

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Filed under Non-Fiction (History)