Monday, 16 September 2019

Guest review by Katie Fforde: UNEXPECTED LESSONS IN LOVE by Lucy Dillon


'Deals with tough issues in a way that keeps the faint-hearted (i.e. me) reading.'


Katie Fforde has written twenty-six books, the latest of which is Rose Petal Summer, and lives in the Cotswolds surrounded by grandchildren and dogs. It’s not as idyllic as it sounds.

I want to blog about Lucy Dillon’s latest book, Unexpected Lessons in Love, because I feel it’s hard for writers who are not first-timers (everyone loves a debut), are not writing a book with a significant number attached to it, the writer isn’t particularly young, or old, or anything. They've just written consistently great books for years.

As authors we all get books sent to us through the post. Sometimes people ask first but quite often they just arrive. Depending where we are in our writing schedules this can make the heart sink. Guilt, irritation, and plain tiredness can be one’s reaction even if the book comes with biscuits or chocolate or some other inducement to read.

I can’t remember if Lucy Dillon’s editor asked if she could send me an early copy but I would have said yes because I really enjoy her books. I think she manages to deal with tough issues in a way that keeps the faint-hearted (i.e. me) reading.

Her books are often set in a town called Longborough, now peopled with previous heroines. They always involve dogs. For me it is this setting and the dogs that encourage me to read about people who are going through horrible things. I am not a fan of unadulterated misery.

In Unexpected Lessons in Love  we read about Jeannie, who is about to get married to Dan, a vet, who proposed to her on Brooklyn Bridge. He is the perfect man, a vet (who needs anything else?) handsome, kind, funny, everything. We discover this during the prologue. In Chapter 1, Jeannie is on her way to the wedding, gorgeous dress pinching agonisingly, and the unspoken doubts she’d been feeling finally burst out of her and she tells her father she can’t go through with the wedding. She texts Dan telling him she’s breaking it off, that he’s not to go to the town hall. Then he walks under a bus.

The book is about how Jeannie and Dan’s other friends and family react, how she finds out about his past and more importantly how she really feels about him. It is romantic but in an unconventional way.

As always with Lucy Dillon the characters are believable if sometimes surprising. If you’ve read previous books you will meet old friends. There are sub-plots that work well and there are issues that makes us think. And always, there are dogs.

My only criticism is the implication that adopting rescue dogs is an easy and lovely thing to do. I don’t argue with the ‘lovely thing to do’ part, but rescue dogs often have problems that would be difficult for an inexperienced owner to cope with.

If you like to read something that takes you away from your own problems I heartily recommend Lucy Dillon. She deals with real, heart breaking dilemmas, but in a way that doesn’t put off readers who really like nice happy stories with happy endings. Which sums me up pretty well.

Unexpected Lessons in Love is published by Black Swan.





Monday, 9 September 2019

A SINGLE THREAD by Tracy Chevalier, reviewed by Adele Geras


"I'm not going to spoil the pleasure of new readers by outlining the plot, but this is not a 'breakneck speed' sort of book. Take your time with it. Look at the details ..."

Adele Geras has written many books for children and young adults and six novels for adults, the latest of which is Love or Nearest Offer, published by Quercus in paperback. She lives in Cambridge.A historical novel for adults will be published by Michael Joseph in June 2020 under a pseudonym yet to be publicly revealed.

I've been a fan of Tracy Chevalier's work since her wonderful novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring, swept all before it twenty years ago. She's written many novels but the ones I like best seem to be, when I list them in my head, the ones where needlework of some kind plays an important part. The Lady and the Unicorn is about the miraculous tapestries of the same name now to be seen in the Musée de Cluny in Paris. The Last Runaway is about patchwork and quilting, which is another of Chevalier's interests. I've also read her book The Sleep Quilt which is all about the fascinating exhibition of prisoners' work which she curated together with the charity Fine Cell Work.

Fine Cell Work teaches prisoners to sew and embroider. It's part of the process of rehabilitation for sometimes very violent and troubled men. I have a small lavender pillow embroidered with a poppy which I bought in the exhibition and it sits on my bed all the time. I mention this charity not only because I'm always eager to draw it to people's attention but also because it's relevant to Chevalier's new book which demonstrates most beautifully the power of stitching to mend and heal.

My own relationship with sewing and embroidery is chequered to say the least. That's much too polite. I'm useless. I give my trousers to an alteration shop to be turned up. In the Junior House at my boarding school, we all had to embroider things like traycloths while our Housemistress read aloud to us from books like Brother Dusty Feet by Rosemary Sutcliff. The pattern was printed on the fabric and at the beginning, I had visions of perfectly even stitches, executed in shining silky thread. The reality was very different. To be precise, it was a mess. I cannot embroider neatly. The back of my work was always a tangled jungle of silks. Ghastly is too good a word for what I produced.

But I love the idea of embroidery. In fact, it's been an obsession of mine since childhood. I adore it. I'm mad about the Bayeux tapestry which is an embroidery and not a tapestry at all. I've written many poems about sewing and embroidery, It appears in some of my own books and most recently, I've written on the History Girls blog about an exhibition of embroidery at Ely Cathedral. Here is a link to that.

Then a proof of A Single Thread arrived in my house, and of course I read it at once, and I loved it. It embodies in its story the notion that sewing, particularly in the company of others, is soothing, calming, and helpful to anyone whose emotions are in turmoil.

Violet Speedwell is one of the 'surplus women' whose fiancés and boyfriends, husband and lovers, have been killed in the Great War. She moves from living with her mother (a very particular kind of monster) in Southampton to living on her own in a boarding-house in Winchester. She is both escaping and recovering. Her lover is dead and her mother is somewhere else, and Violet has taken a job in an office. She has almost no money. She lives on practically no food at all. Then one day she sees the beautiful needlepoint-covered kneelers in the Cathedral, all hand stitched, and she meets 'the broderers'. The true story of these women, under the guidance of Louisa Pesel, is woven into the fiction Chevalier has created. You can, she tells us in an afterword, still see these kneelers in the Cathedral and use them yourself. Pesel was a real person and the novel places her slightly to the side of the main narrative, but still very important in the book as a factual anchor to the fiction Chevalier has created.

The fiction is Violet's story. How she comes out of the shade and blooms in the warmth of shared work and a very unusual romance. I'm not going to spoil the pleasure of new readers by outlining the plot, but this is not a 'breakneck speed' sort of book. Take your time with it. Look at the details. Learn about bell-ringing, which is vital to the story. Enjoy the glimpses of life in the Cathedral. Follow Violet's progress to the end, stitch by stitch by stitch. It's a very satisfying book and if I had to describe it, I'd say it was the sort of novel which, if it hadn't been written this year, feels like the books published by the excellent Persephone Books in elegant dove-grey covers. Lovers of these volumes know exactly what I mean. If anyone doesn't know them, I recommend a trip to the Persephone Books website or shop. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy following The Single Thread as much as I did.

A Single Thread is published by Borough Press.

Monday, 2 September 2019

LONGBOURN by Jo Baker, reviewed by Linda Newbery


"Jo Baker writes with complete assurance, bringing her characters and settings vividly off the page."

Photograph by Chris Normandale
Linda Newbery edits Writers Review. Having published widely for young readers, she is now working on a new adult novel. 

Jane Austen season is upon us again, with the lavish Andrew Davies dramatisation - and completion - of Sanditon for ITV currently gathering mixed reviews. When I read Sanditon and reached its abrupt end, I felt a pang for the novelist who'd been unable to see her vision through to completion - but what would Jane Austen have made of the nude bathing on a public beach, close-partnered waltzing and modern mannerisms in this screen version?

For a different, sideways look at Jane Austen, I recommend Longbourn, subtitled Pride and Prejudice - the servants' story.  Jo Baker takes us behind the scenes of Jane Austen's world to the toilsome routines that allow the Bennet family to live in leisure and comfort. To housekeeper Mrs Hall, the arrival of Mr Bingley at Netherfield Park, which gives Pride and Prejudice its famous opening sentence, "meant a flurry of giggly activity above stairs; it meant outings, entertainments, and a barrowload of extra work for everyone below." The smooth running of the household depends on housemaids being up before first light to fetch water and light fires, their chilblained fingers flaring with pain. For an evening party at a neighbour's, footman James must wait outside in icy weather ready to drive home, with horses to tend into the early hours while the young ladies go straight to their beds.

If you read this hoping for romantic encounters between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, you'll be disappointed; Jane Austen's key players are in minor roles here. Mr Darcy barely appears in person, and he certainly isn't Colin Firth or Matthew Macfadyen. We see the Bennets' acquaintances only as they affect the servants: Mr and Mrs Hall, Sarah, and the younger, pre-pubescent girl, Polly. When Mr Collins arrives in search of a wife, we're made aware of the insecurity of the servants' livelihoods, for it will be in his power to dismiss them all, should he wish, when he takes ownership. Mrs Hall is relieved when he settles for the homely Charlotte Lucas. A servant like Sarah - an orphan taken in by the stern but kindly Mrs Hall - has nothing to call her own beyond the wooden box in which she keeps her few possessions; not even space, as she shares a room and a bed with Polly. Rare moments of privacy are snatched between chores, so that when Sarah and Mr Bingley's footman are mutually attracted she's astonished by "the dawning revelation that pleasure was possible for her."

The plot hinges on the arrival and later disappearance of the young manservant, James Smith, whose secrets are revealed partly through the machinations of George Wickham, the predatory charmer. Jo Baker picks up on the small detail in Pride and Prejudice that a soldier of the visiting militia has been flogged; here Sarah witnesses the brutal act while on an errand to Meryton, later connecting it with James's story. A middle section takes us back to his army service during the Napoleonic wars, and into territory which ranges far from Longbourn and middle-class Hertfordshire. Mrs Hill, too, has a back-story which throws an intriguing - and plausible - new light on the Bennets' marriage.

While this is a compelling story in its own right, it closely parallels the events of Pride and Prejudice with the fairly safe assumption that readers will be familiar either with the novel or with one of the many adaptations. But there's no attempt to imitate Jane Austen's style. In fact readers may find more similarities to Charlotte or Emily Bronte in Sarah's passionate love for James, her fierce loyalty, and in particular in the descriptions of landscape and weather. Here is James, alone on a beach: "He slipped away to the shore, and walked across the low headland; it fell away into a spit of sand, the grasses thin and fine as old men's hair, the sand drifting and scattering and settling; and white shells and then bleached bones, and then a sheep's skull, picked white, which made him catch his step a moment, not at what it was but at what he thought it might have been. Then skipping sand-fleas, and trails of dried seaweed, and he was out to the edge of the world." You'll never find anything like this in a Jane Austen novel, where landscape is seen only as evidence of status, taste and good management.

Jo Baker writes with complete assurance, bringing her characters and settings vividly off the page. Her story isn't unique in being a spin-off from Pride and Prejudice - Emma Tennant, in Pemberley, and P D James, in Death Comes to Pemberley, have also drawn on this much-loved classic. But in my view Longbourn, with its shift of focus, outshines both.

Longbourn is published by Transworld.

See also: Jane Fairfax by Joan Aiken, reviewed here.


Monday, 26 August 2019

THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS by Lisa Jewell, reviewed by Adèle Geras


"A gem from Lisa Jewell. Someone has probably said this before, but I couldn’t resist ..."


Adèle Geras has written many books for children and young adults and six novels for adults, the latest of which is Love or Nearest Offer, published by Quercus in paperback. She lives in Cambridge. A historical novel for adults will be published by Michael Joseph in June 2020 under a pseudonym yet to be publicly revealed.

This is going to be a very difficult review to write. In fact, now that I come to think of it, I’ve not read that many reviews of Jewell’s work over the years. Her début romantic comedy Ralph’s Party  was very joyfully received but since then, even though her books are bestsellers, and even though she’s moved from romantic comedy to what you could call psychological drama, she’s not the sort of writer who garners half a page in the TLS.

Never mind. Jewell’s books come out with delightful regularity and head straight for the charts. This one is presently sitting at the top of both the Sunday Times bestseller list and the Neilsen Bookscan Original Fiction list in the Bookseller. The readers have made their judgement and I agree with them. The Family Upstairs is a real “can’t put it down even while you’re frying onions “ book. You hold the pages open with one hand and cook with the other.

It’s the very model of my younger daughter’s definition of a good novel: Proper People in Interesting Situations. It centres around a mansion in Chelsea: 16 Cheyne Walk. ( By coincidence the Historical House books written by Linda Newbery, Ann Turnbull and me also take place in Cheyne Walk....what a small world!)

The structure of the book is somewhat complicated because there are three narratives unwinding alongside one another. In one, a young woman takes possession of 16 Cheyne Walk under the terms of a slightly mysterious will and sets out to discover a very murky truth that lies deep in her childhood.

In the second and perhaps overarching strand, Henry, who lived in the house when he was a child, explains exactly what went on there....I’m not going to give even a hint of a spoiler, because plenty of terrible things did go on there.

In the third strand, Lucy, Henry’s sister, tells her quite separately gruelling adventure. All three strands are plaited together to produce maximum tension, gasps of horror and a dénouement in which....but no, I’m going to resist saying anything about that as well. It’s terrific, and has a glorious little twistette in the tail.

If I have a single criticism, it’s that two of the heroines’ names are quite similar: Lucy and Lizzie, but truthfully it’s not really a problem. I got used to it in the end.

This review might be posted too late for the sun-lounger season, but The Family Upstairs would work just as well at a fireside, or in bed or....well, anywhere really. It’s a gem from Lisa Jewell. Someone has probably said this before, but I couldn’t resist.

The Family Upstairs is published by Century.

Monday, 19 August 2019

Guest review by Sue Purkiss: ANY HUMAN HEART by William Boyd


"What a read it is! I feel as if I'm tottering out of a cave, blinking in the daylight, after a long and intense journey..."

Sue Purkiss writes for children and young people. She has been a Royal Literary Fellow at Exeter and Bristol Universities, and has also taught English and worked with young offenders. Her latest novel for children, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley, is an adventure story set in the Himalayas at the end of the 18th century, featuring plant hunters, a sacred mountain – and its mysterious guardian! For more information, see Sue's website. She also has her own literary review blog, A Fool on a Hill, and is a contributor to The History Girls, blogging there once each month.

(This review first appeared on A Fool on a Hill.)

Have just finished this, and what a read it is! I feel as if I'm tottering out of a cave, blinking in the daylight, after a long and intense journey through a goodly portion of the twentieth century, during which I've met Virginia Woolf, Picasso, James Joyce, Hemingway, the Duke of Windsor and heaven knows who else, experienced the Spanish Civil War, been a spy in the Second World War, witnessed the civil war in Nigeria and been a slightly baffled hanger-on of the Baader Meinhof Gang.

The story is told through the character of Logan Mountstuart, and purports to be a collection of his journals, with occasional additional notes from an anonymous editor. Born in 1906, Mountstuart's early childhood is spent in Uruguay, where his father runs a meat processing factory: his mother is Uruguayan. When he's eight, his father has a promotion and they move to England, to Birmingham. Logan is sent to boarding school, and begins his first journal when he's seventeen. Friends he meets there recur throughout the book.

At this stage, Logan seems pretty bumptious - a vivid character, but not necessarily a likeable one. And that's a feature of him: all through his life, he does things he should probably be ashamed of - as we all do - and sometimes you find yourself feeling really cross with him. But then you catch him out in an unexpected act of kindness and you think, oh, well, he's not so bad after all. Which can happen with real people, but not so much with characters in books, who are generally expected to be consistent. So he sleeps with his best friend's wife, Gloria, quite carelessly - but years later, when she's impoverished and dying, he takes her in and cares for her, even though by this stage he's extremely poor himself. He drifts into his first marriage carelessly and is unkind to his wife - but his relationship with his second wife is deep and lovely. The title of the novel comes from a quotation from Henry James, Never say you know the last word about any human heart: and clearly, the human heart, its complexity, its shallowness and its depths, is one of the things Boyd is exploring in this book

Boyd puts his character right in the middle of so many significant places and situations in the 20th century. And he does it so skilfully that it all seems entirely plausible - even, just about, his involvement with the Baader-Meinhof gang, which begins when he finds a leaflet in a phone box asking for volunteers to join a group interested in social justice - just when he's looking for a new purpose in life in old age. He proves to be rather good at selling the group's newspapers, and becomes more and more involved, eventually finding himself smuggling gelignite in Europe - at which point he finds himself bemused but not disconcerted, and yet again extricates himself from what seems an impossible situation.

I found it a remarkable book - one of the best I've read in a long while.

Any Human Heart is published by Penguin.

Monday, 12 August 2019

Guest review by Graeme Fife: BESIDE THE OCEAN OF TIME by George Mackay Brown



'Mackay Brown is a writer of haunting spell, a compelling weaver of yarns...' 


Graeme Fife has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines, and is now a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography and works of history. Great Cycling Climbs, which brings together his books on the French Alps, has just been published by Thames and Hudson. He says, 'I urge everyone to buy from their independent bookshop, if they're lucky enough - as I am - to have one nearby. If not, by any means possible to counter the sprawl of the online consumer graball.'

The great skua is known in the Scottish islands as a bonxie, a Shetland name of Norse origin. He flies low over the sea but think of him cruising into a higher slipstream and circling the string of rocky outcrops that make these other islands, ‘the green hills and the blue waters of Orkney’, the treeless open ground where the men and women of the small population tend the planticrus (walled vegetable patches) and haul up their boats from the chafing sea onto the noust (a scooped-out trench atop a beach, protected by a shallow wall of stones), ready for the next foray into the waters for fish. The low walls are everywhere, sign of the need to win shelter from the wind that sweeps over the low ground, the wind that tosses the bonxie as he espies the pattern of existence that has been the same and changed endlessly over the centuries here.

For these islands have played unwilling host to succeeding waves of ‘land-hungerers’ as George Mackay Brown terms them in this novel, one of a series exploring the vicissitudes and intrigue of Orcadian life. In it he traces the dwindling lines of a story which slips in an out of the strands of history of these people – particularly the abiding menace of ‘war-hunger’: the advent of the Norsemen…the days when the Oracadian men marched south to join Robert the Bruce on the field of Bannockburn against the English come, in vain, to subdue all Scotland…the final chapter of the incursions, a great onslaught of concrete and tarmac at the outset of the war against Germany, laying flat the farms and holdings of the Orkneys as a base for fighter planes to combat the waves of bombers, slashing through the skies at speeds inconceivable to the bonxie and seeing beneath them, on the raw stone, scraped clear of ploughed farmland to make way for landing strips, men and women at war but not displacing the centuries-old hard toil of harbouring the fish, culling the oats for the staple cakes, churning the goat milk to butter and cheese, cutting the peat for the fires that must never be left to die out, for when a fire goes out ‘the croft dies’.

Mackay Brown is a writer of haunting spell, a compelling weaver of yarns – how apt that the image of the woollen garments the Oracadian women knit should chime with the tales that beguiled their long winter evenings by lamplight. He is an outstanding embodiment of what he calls ‘the music of  (the) island speech’, a language that laces together Norse, English and Scots, exploring the pull of ‘the ocean of eternity, the many voiced sea’. One young woman, though, has a voice that is quite different. ‘Her speech had something of the music of breakers in a cave-mouth, or far-off horizon notes, or dolphins in the flood tide.’ She is a selkie. If you don’t know what a selkie is, what enchantment awaits you in finding out. For the selkie is part of the continuum of these island stories and Mackay Brown is a shrewd and kindly companion in the roaming through them.

At the conclusion of the novel, a woman returns there to live, to be with the man she met when she came first and they were young - he written off as an idler, a good-for-nothing and the central narrator of the stories that fill the book to bursting, like the stomachs of Burns’s haggis-feasters, ‘bent like drums’. She contemplates her future: 'I'll dig my three acres and milk my goat,' said Sophie. 'I'll settle for that. We never find what we set our hearts on. We ought to be glad of that.'

For there is no quarrelling with the wind or the winnowing storm. The choice is resignation or accommodation. The peoples of the island, prey to all manner of invasion and incursion, natural and human, are stuck, to a degree, but persist, somehow. Their wandering – their continued defiance - is expressed in the stories they tell, the plunderings of the outer reaches of the imagination where they travel in ‘dream time’ which they bring back to the fires in the crofts, the work on the creels outside the stone-built dwellings, the quiet of the times on the calm seas as they wait for fish...

‘The body laments, the body dances; from somewhere deep within, in the heart’s heart, or from beyond the furthest star, the good angel, the guardian,is playing on his pipe’.        
                 
Beside the Ocean of Time is published by Polygon.

Monday, 5 August 2019

Two eerie tales: MR GODLEY'S PHANTOM by Mal Peet and THIN AIR by Michelle Paver, reviewed by Linda Newbery


'With both these novels, you'd better have uninterrupted time ahead before you begin.'


Linda Newbery has published widely for young readers and is now completing her second novel for adults. Her latest book is The Key to Flambards, which follows K M Peyton's classic Flambards quartet but is set in the present. 

I've admired Mal Peet's work since reading Tamar, a story of the Dutch resistance combined with a present-day mystery. Published for young adults, it won the Carnegie Medal, but is of equal interest to adults (must read it again.) Life: An Exploded Diagram, a coming-of-age novel set at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, was equally impressive. Mal Peet reminds me of Aidan Chambers in that his novels - intelligent, inventive, provocative - blur the boundary between young adult and adult fiction. At his death he had left three unpublished novels: The Murdstone Trilogy (which isn't a trilogy and wasn't intended to be); Beck, a young adult novel still in progress which was completed by Meg Rosoff; and this - a first draft with notes to himself for its revision.

It's a novella really, though generously spaced, illustrated by Ian Beck and handsomely produced in hardback (now in paperback too, with the striking cover shown below). As Daniel Hahn says in his Afterword: "It is many kinds of book rolled into one: a story about a man recovering from trauma, a historical novel, and even a police procedural." It's also a ghost story of a sort. The phantom of the title refers - partly, at least - to Mr Godley's pride and joy, his Rolls-Royce Phantom Three Sedance de Ville, with the bonnet mascot shown on the cover. It's this car that entices Martin Heath, a distinguished young war veteran suffering from what we'd now call PTSD, to take up a post as Mr Godley's chauffeur and handyman at a remote Devon mansion, Burra Hall.  

But there are other 'ghosts', too. The frail and elderly Mr Godley himself reminds Martin, horribly, of the pitiful sights he saw on entering Belsen: 'Martin had felt neither rage nor even revulsion. rather, it was like discovering that he had contracted an incurable disease; that, having inhaled the miasma of death, he could never be well again. That his heart might eat itself.' And Mr Godley in turn is haunted by his son Julian, who was killed in action less than a month before the 1918 Armistice, and of whom Martin seems to remind him.

This might sound unbearably grim, but in Mal Peet's hands it isn't - at least, not all the time. Peet has an expertly light touch that enables him to indicate horrors without ever overdoing the pathos or telling us how to react. Martin's recovery is aided by the willingness of servant girl Annie to engage in regular and vigorous sex, and there's humorous observation: Godley's laugh is "four dry, chickeny sounds" and Martin, assessing Annie's appeal on first meeting her, notes that "it was difficult to judge the attractiveness of a woman eating cabbage." There are unexpected turns, and then more, with light relief provided in the viewpoints of Detective Inspector Sheepstone and DS Panter, called in to investigate the old man's disappearance. But towards the end, reading Mr Godley's years-old journal which is presented in a plausibly crabbed and not easily legible hand, the emotional power was such that I felt I was prying into the private anguish of a real person.

The title, subtitle, and many things in the story don't yield all their meanings at once. As with all Mal Peet's work, it's a novel that will repay re-reading.

Like him, Michelle Paver first made her name by writing for young readers; she's best known for her award-winning Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series. I was gripped by Dark Matter, with its high Arctic setting, so was eager to read Thin Air, which takes us to the Himalayas in the mid 1930s in the company of an expedition attempting to reach the summit of Kangchenjunga. They're following the path of a failed attempt made thirty years previously; five mountaineers of that party were killed, as documented in a published account by leader Sir Edmund Lyell.

From the moment when narrator Dr Stephen Pearce meets the only living survivor of that expedition, the omens are unsettling. Dogged by guilt over a broken engagement and constantly needled by taunts from his brother Kits, a more accomplished climber, Stephen soon realises that he's not the only one alert to forebodings; the 'coolies' on whom the party depend for the conveying of supplies to Base Camp and on upward have many superstitions of their own, partly to do with the demands of the mountain gods but also connected to the presence of an uneasy spirit. When these 'coolies' find an old rucksack, identified as the property of a climber from Lyell's expedition whose body was never discovered, Stephen is assailed by mounting feelings of dread. His scientific background only makes his hallucinations the more worrying: "... even if I'm wildly mistaken about everything, about what I saw on the Crag and now here at the crevasse - even if  it's all simply the result of oxygen deficiency - how does that help? The idea that altitude is giving me waking nightmares, that thin air is altering my very perceptions and deceiving my own mind into betraying me ... I find that horrifying. It's a kind of possession." And the dog Cedric who's adopted the party acts as a barometer, frequently disappearing when the atmosphere darkens.

As bickering breaks out among the group and individuals suffer from frostbite and worse, we're all too aware of the dangers that must be confronted before the summit is reached. But the real horror in the story comes from the cleverly contrived realisation of the fate suffered by the owner of the rucksack - and how the truth about the Lyell expedition has been concealed.  

Michelle Paver excels at taking us with her characters into extreme conditions. I simply couldn't put this book down; it's a ghost story for which I'll willingly suspend disbelief, full of tension and thoroughly convincing on the details of terrain, the lure and terrors of the mountains, bodily frailty and survival. With both these novels, you'd better have uninterrupted time ahead before you begin.

Mr Godley's Phantom - an infection of evil is published by David Fickling Books
Thin Air - a Ghost Story is published by Orion

(Pictured: Mal Peet, and the new paperback cover for Mr Godley's Phantom, published 1st August; Michelle Paver and her latest novel, Wakenhyrst.)