Friday, 13 May 2011

REVIEW: Long Lankin, by Lindsey Barraclough (4.5*)

(The Bodley Head, 2011)

This amazing debut novel opens with the ballad of Long Lankin - a tale of murder, witchcraft and supernatural menace that immediately sets the tone of the story to come. Cora and her little sister Mimi aren't exactly thrilled when they're sent to live with their great-Auntie Ida at the creepy old Guerdon Hall, but with their mother falling apart and their father unable to cope they have little choice in the matter. Things get even worse when they arrive on her doorstep and are met with a barrage of threats, warnings, rules and the bitter knowledge that she wants them gone as soon as humanly possible.

But what Cora doesn't know is that there is a dark evil lurking in Bryers Guerdon - an evil that has been haunting the village for hundreds of years and has ripped her family apart down the generations. Why are the children forbidden from visiting the old church, and who is the man in black in the graveyard? Why do all the doors and windows have to be kept permanently locked, and what are the long scratches marking more than one local door? Together with her new friends Roger and Pete, Cora must uncover the mystery of Bryers Guerdon before it's too late for her little sister - maybe even for them all...

Although this is a young adult book, for me it bordered on Stephen King-esque in the way it preyed on my mind and used psychological thrills to build tension.  Barraclough excels at creating unbearable fear in the reader using tantalising clues, a slow reveal of the truth, and terrifying glimpses of the menace on the marshes, skilfully bringing the whole story to a macabre and gritty climax in the inevitable final encounter between Lankin and the last of the long-suffering Guerdons.

I can't recommend this highly enough. It is an outstanding first novel that had me absolutely gripped, weaving a complex tale that spanned centuries yet never felt dull or over-written. It captures post-war rural England beautifully, and has a refreshing thread of humour through it that owes much to Barraclough's wonderful eye for the little things children say and do that always make adults smile! The Long Lankin ballad is a haunting theme that preys on our deepest fears, and I raced to the end of the book, heart pounding in my chest, winding up absolutely exhausted, weeping, as I finished the final chapter. Read it!

Said my lord to my lady, as he mounted his horse:
'Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the moss.'

Said my lord to my lady, as he rode away:
'Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the hay.

'Let the doors be all bolted and the windows all pinned,
And leave not a hole for a mouse to creep in.'

The doors were all bolted and the windows all pinned,
Except one little window where Long Lankin crept in...

Source: Many thanks to Random House Children's Books, who sent a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

REVIEW: How Reading Changed My Life, by Anna Quindlen (4*)

(The Library of Contemporary Thought, 1998)

When I picked this book up, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Was it going to be a serious discourse on certain key books, like Francis Spufford's The Child that Books Built? Perhaps a few bookish essays in the vein of Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris, or a sentimental autobiography about hardship and bookish redemption? Actually, it is none of those things.

Instead, what Quindlen offers us is an extended essay on books and reading, split into sections and garnished with bookish quotes from the likes of Thoreau and Whitman. In delicious prose that exudes enthusiasm, Quindlen meanders skilfully across a range of topics including the feeling of a being a book-lover in the midst of others who just don't 'get it', book snobbishness, academic elitism, book clubs, libraries, how men and women read differently, banned books and coming-of-age reading. Perhaps the most telling part is that on the future of the book and the rise of modern technology. This book was published in 1998, and Quindlen seems to find the idea of e-readers and online reading a bit of a curiosity, comparing it to the old fantasy films in which we were all eating capsule meals by the year 2000. I guess it just goes to show how quickly technology is leaping forward these days...

Though the final result bears little resemblance to what I'd expected from the rather self-centred title, this was even better than I'd hoped - a marvellous, well-reasoned look at the world of books, with enough of an 'every woman' feel to the anecdotes and examples to make it more inclusive and therefore more enjoyable to read. There is also a section at the back of the book with 'top ten' reading lists like '10 Books That Will Help a Teenager Feel More Human' and '10 Mystery Novels I'd Most Like to Find in a Summer Rental', which is a nice touch and added a few more titles to my wishlist... Highly recommended!

Source: I bought this book from a seller on Amazon Marketplace.