Back when I was eleven years old, if you had handed me a book featuring a magic using, skeleton detective, I would have likely snapped your hand off and demanded to know where I could get the next twenty books. As a soon to be 44 year old it takes a little more to impress me. Although there are some gems of children's fiction about these days, this one doesn't come close to competing with the current gold standards of Rowling, Pullman and Stroud. The book, on the whole, is quite easy to read and the action is enthusiastically described like a blow by blow radio commentary for WWF. Derek Landy's world building follows his small group of characters around like a small bubble generated by their presence. There is little depth to it. It just sort of springs up as the characters progress. Skulduggery Pleasant isn't the dynamic and extraordinary figure the cover blurb promises either. He's a rather contradictory fellow who happens to be a skeleton. He doesn't do much detecting either, coming across as more of a gung-ho soldier, though perhaps in future novels he will get a chance to show off his skills rather than his kills. I had trouble sometimes, when there were extended scenes filled with dialogue, in keeping track of who was actually speaking, which considering usually featured a centuries old undead skeleton detective sorcerer conversing with a 12 year old girl hardly seems possible. Stephanie is also too shallow a character, her motivations seem mainly to be driven by avoiding boredom. There are moments when she almost comes alive, notably as she wonders how her parents will deal with the doppelganger living in her bedroom, who will continue to fool the world with a hollow smile after the real Stephanie has died in her quest for adventure but these are way too few. Back when I was eleven none of this would have mattered. My imagination would have filled in all the blanks and coloured all the characters in blazing technicolor. These days my imagination needs a bit more grist for the mill.
Susan Hill has been writing extraordinary fiction for over four decades. She is adept at characterisation and building complex emotional landscapes for her characters to inhabit. In 2004 she turned her hand to writing in a completely new genre; the detective novel. She plays with the genre's staple ingredients and adds her own flare for exploring human relationships to the mix, creating a thoroughly engrossing series. The latest installment The Shadows in the Street, continues to follow the primary characters, brother and sister, DCI Simon Serrailler and Dr. Cat Deerborn. Serrailler often takes a back seat in the narrative, most notably in the first book, The Various Haunts of Men. The crime or mystery is used primarily as a backdrop to explore related themes of the effects of crime, murder, loss, insanity, loneliness, paranoia and more. Hill never coddles the reader with comfort reading; there are many scenes of true heart rending sadness in all the books. It's not offered up as melodrama but rather as an attempt to show the results of tragedy that can enter any of our lives at any moment. The sixth Serrailler book, The Betrayal of Trust will be out sometime next year. I recommend them all.
This week I had lunch at The Boat Yard, which is a pub/restaurant/coffee bar by the canal side at Hoghton. While I was waiting for my fish and chips a bunch of kids turned up on an outdoor activity thing. Some chap took them through all the rules and safety issues and then unleashed the kids onto the water. They careened about like a bunch of multi-coloured slices of fruit bobbing about in a large trough of water. At least they've got some water to bob about on. Some parts of the canal have been allowed to run dry and are sill closed. After plenty of torrential rain this month the hose-pipe ban was lifted at last today. Water levels in reservoirs are still low but apparently they are higher than they were and water in Cumbria and North Wales is at decent levels. It was only after the kids moved away that the true masters of the water started to reappear.
Neon rain is the first of the books by James Lee Burke to feature Dave Robicheaux. He's still employed as a New Orleans homicide detective and by the time the book opens he's already managed to trigger events that will explode in his face with ever more violent consequences. Robicheaux is an odd character. A Cajun Viet Nam vet driven to alcoholism but now dry for some years. Lauded as an outstanding detective by his superiors but seen here to be more versed in the arts of violence and intimidation. He's a master of the N'awlins' jive-talk and colloquialisms, so much so many of the natives don't know what the hell he just said, though thankfully Burke never even attempts to annotate the accent. Intelligent and widely read, anecdotes and philosophical opinions flow from him like water - even sometimes bandied with the low-lifes and cut-throats that dog his world. His relationship with Annie displays the gentler side of his nature, to a degree patronizing, but never really becomes as real as the violence around him; it's a movie romance, accelerated to match the screen's pace and caught in dream-like glimpses. He's like the extra cog from another machine, jammed into the works and striking sparks from every other character he encounters. He does wax-poetic from time to time, often about the natural world beyond the fringes of the human one. He lives on a house boat, listens to classic jazz and eats industrial quantities of shrimp. It does all sort of work though, even if the character of our hero is quite hard to pin down. Burke writes well, his own voice is there from time to time, hiding among Dave's thoughts, and there may be an element of the author setting up the character for the long running series that is to come.
The sun has become an infrequent visitor to our gardens in recent years. If we can't have the real thing then we have decided that we'll grow the sun. Last August I introduced Frank the Sunflower to the world. He was the shining light of the garden for a few weeks but eventually his light waned and we made him into sunflower seed bread so that the last day of August became The Day We Ate Frank. Any Frank fans can still see him by looking at last years August blog Archives or by clicking the highlighted links in this post. We still talk about Frank. He was a legend. But every legend has to step aside one day to let the new kids on the block have their day in the lime-light. This year we grew more sunflowers. We tried to grow different varieties too. One of the top shiners this year is the guy in these pictures. Let me introduce you to Raymondo Sunshine. And guess what? On the day I pointed my camera at him the real sun came barging onto the scene.
This week I set out to visit a little village called Scorton near the River Wyre on the edges of the Forest of Bowland. The village is relatively new, dating back to the 16th century when it was then known as Scurton, which translated from the Anglo-Saxon means farmstead near a ditch or ravine.
A little dog was so friendly, every time he got up to greet a new friend he managed to tangle himself up a little more on his lead. He just seemed happy to be out in the air. We had an excellent lunch and drinks at The Priory, which serves the village as a restaurant, tea-rooms, pub & accommodation. The sun even came out for the duration of our stay and made it a very pleasant afternoon.
This collection of fifteen famous ghost stories edited by Dorothy Scarborough was first published in 1921. Only about half of the stories have survived the past century with any notoriety intact. Scarborough's selection process was quite wide and loose with the term ghost. Most of the stories are drawn from American publications of the time, the Harper brothers gaining the biggest slice of the publishing credits. Gems for me are:
The Willows by Algernon Blackwood, more a novella than a short story but one of the great horror stories of the 20th Century (see my previous review).
The Beast With Five Fingers by W.F. Harvey - A very creepy story about a possessed severed hand. This story spawned two feature films.
The Woman at Seven Brothers by Wilbur Daniel Steele - Very atmospheric ghost story set on a remote lighthouse. I admit I have a love of lighthouses and relish any story well told from its windy staircases, lamp-rooms and common rooms. This story is a little traditional but still well told.
Ligeia by Edgar Alllan Poe - Poe shows off his sumptuous use of the English language, penning on the layers of creepiness with aplomb. Some of Poe's stories are worth reading just for the use of language alone: e.g. 'blacker than the raven wings of midnight'. Brilliant.
The rest of the stories range from quite good to quite trite. None of them are particularly bad but some seem to have been added to raise the story count. There are also a few oddities worth a read like Myla Jo Closser's At the Gate. The image of all the faithful dogs waiting patiently at the gates of Heaven for their owners to arrive is quite moving. None of the dogs will go through without their owners.
Another family of ducks from last month to brighten the day of anybody needing a bit of pure cuteness to get them through the day. This isn't the family I featured earlier in the year. Where did the sunshine go anyway? This month just seems to be cloud and wetness again. I suppose the ducks don't really mind but I crave a bit of sunshine on my face. This wetness this week seems to have triggered the annual frog pilgrimage down the hill again with several hoppers fetching up in the gardens again. This one is having a rest on my back step before he sets off again.
After exploring some more of the leafy lanes of Lancashire near Chorley we found ourselves in the small parish of Brindle which was established here well over 800 years ago, though its name has gradually morphed over the centuries, as our language does, from the Old English Burnhull, which means hill by the stream, to Brindle. It's claimed that the battle of Brunanburh was fought here between King Athelstan and a mixed force of Vikings and Northmen in 937, images of which can be found around the parish if you look closely. Other places claim as much including my own home patch of Livesey. The great Cuerdale treasure was discovered near to Brindle which perhaps adds some substance to the claim. It has a great traditional village pub called the Cavendish Arms, which dates back to the 1540s complete with a shady beer garden off to the side and a most singular bar: a desk and chest of drawers. The church of St James (in pre-Reformation days known as St. Helen’s) stands beside the pub, the oldest part still remaining being the tower shown here, built in the 15th Century, though the clock was a later addition made by Thomas Kirkhall of Bolton-le-Moors, 1637. Two of the original bells are still intact and operational. Much of the rest of the church has been rebuilt or restored.