A book to scare the living daylights out of you

OK, I know monsters don’t exist. There are no vampires, bogey men or Frankenstein’s creatures. These are monsters of fiction, and are not real.
There is no space monster as depicted in the films Alien and Aliens and it will not come crashing through the bathroom window at night to get me.
There is no longer a big bad wolf living under my bed, as there was when I was a child, with enormous teeth all the better to eat me.
Shape-changers cannot slip under the door and lurk in the shadows, waiting to spring.
Ghosts of poor unfortunates who died in a sinking ship in the 19th century are not haunting people and leaving icy footprints on the stairs.
Oh but they are, they are.
At least they are in the American writer Keith Donohue’s masterful horror novel The Boy Who Drew Monsters, and while by day it all seems like a bit of nonsense, by night, every creak and bump in the house announces that there could be a bit of truth in that fiction…
It is, of course, the power of an excellent and accomplished writer to make you believe the unbelievable.
There will be no spoilers here, but I can say that The Boy Who Drew Monsters focuses on two 10-year-old boys, friends whose lives changed when they are both nearly drowned in the sea three years before. Nick becomes a loner but manages to function fairly normally, while Jack Peter is diagnosed with autism and refuses to leave the house, spending almost all his time drawing pictures.
Then strange things start to happen. Jack Peter’s parents start seeing creepy apparitions and hearing noises as if something is trying to get into their house. The horror escalates, and then they discover their son has been drawing monsters…beings that somehow seem to be coming to life. Then they discover that a ship sank in the sea in front of their house in the 19th century, and the bodies of some of the drowned were never found.
There has been some criticism of the end of the novel but—again without any spoilers—I thought the ending was great. Why? Because I can’t stop thinking about it. Donohue makes you question your beliefs about what is real and what is not, the power of the imagination and the power of suggestion. Granted, there are holes in the plot and certain plot points that remain unresolved at the end—but this leaves the reader to make up her or his own mind.
While verdicts on The Good Read website of The Boy Who Drew Monsters  are mixed, acclaimed horror writer Peter Straub wrote a glowing review in The Washington Post. According to Straub, “This novel is beautifully carpentered, and its effects are perfectly timed. The sheer professionalism here, an achievement which should never be undervalued, is felt on one’s nerve ends.” You can read the full review on Donohue’s website here.

I’ve been a fan of Donohue’s writing since his masterful first novel, the magical reality story The Stolen Child (2006), inspired by the Yeats poem of the same name. The novel went on to become a NY Times bestseller.
Donohue lives in Maryland, and by profession is an archivist with a PhD in English—Irish literature, to be precise. He was 47 before his first novel was published and despite large success, he still has a day job as the Director of Communications for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission at the US National Archives.

Actually, horror is not usually my choice in novels. I prefer non-gory crime, historical romances and stories of everyday life, but Donohue’s compelling literary prose and ability to build tension in the narrative hook me every time.

Although I found the book terribly scary, I could not tear myself away from it, save to gingerly look up the stairs or behind the door to make sure there really wasn’t a monster hiding there. Thanks, Dr Donohue: with The Boy Who Drew Monsters, you have scared the living daylights out of me!

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I would read anything you wrote…

FullSizeRenderUsually, when I’m looking for a new novel to read, I go by topic, setting and storyline. I might read some reviews from trusted sources, though they don’t necessarily sway me.

But there are just a few authors whose work I will read regardless of its plot. Just the byline is enough to get me in.

Here, in no particular order, is a list of some of my favourite authors right now, who have me at the mention of their name, and why I love their work:

Geraldine Brooks

This US-based Australian journalist-turned novelist and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize writes extraordinarily beautiful prose, meticulously researched but never slow or boring in its detail. She’s one of those writers who makes me sigh to myself and mutter, ‘Why would I ever bother to write’?

I can recommend March (2005), her story of the US Civil War experience of Mr March from the classic American children’s novel Little Women; and Year of Wonders (2001) set in the UK in 1666 during the bubonic plague.

Keith Donohue

When I read Donohue’s riveting novel The Stolen Child (2006), a modern take on the ancient tale of the changeling, I was astounded. For me, it was one of the most imaginative novels I had ever read. The story transports you to a parallel world where two realities can exist side by side.

His follow-up novel, Angels of Destruction (2009) is also intriguing, concerning the case of a child who turns up at a woman’s door claiming to be her daughter who went missing nine years before.

Angela Savage

OK, here’s a disclaimer: Savage is a friend of mine. But that’s not why I read her books. She and I got to know each other only after I started reading her novels and determined that I would read everything she wrote.

I’ve read and can recommend all three in her crime series featuring Jayne Keeny, PI, Behind the Night Bizarre (2006), The Half-Child (2010), and The Dying Beach (2013). If you like gritty crime thrillers with integrity, set in the fascinating culture of Thailand, these novels are for you.

Savage lived in South-East Asia herself for many years before returning to Australia, and this shows in her authentic descriptions. Her books are set in the near past, around the same time I was living in Thailand, so they’re of interest beyond their engaging plots, as well.

Paddy Richardson

I’ve discovered Richardson’s books this year, thanks to my blogosphere friend Margot Kinberg at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist. Richardson comes from the same part of New Zealand’s South Island as I do (Dunedin), which is what first peaked my interest. Once you start one of her crime novels, I assure you that it is very difficult to put it down or to think of much else.

I can recommend her fabulous series with TV journalist Rebecca Thorne as the protagonist, the latest of which is Cross Fingers (2013). While set in the present, the book has Thorne researching a cold case during the tumultuous events in NZ during the 1981 tour of the South African rugby team, the Springboks. This writer has an uncanny ability to put pace into her narrative, and to take the reader to the scene.

Incidentally, you won’t find a picture of Richardson’s book cover above, because I’ve read her books on my Kindle. But such is her skill, the medium on which you are reading is immaterial, because you are soon immersed in the story.

Mitch Albom

I resisted reading Albom’s books for ages, because everyone was reading them and raving about them. But they were right. When I finally took the plunge, I found them to be real page-turners. The Five People You Meet in Heaven (1997) didn’t even sound like my sort of book, being a sort-of modern day twist on Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. But it’s fabulous, believe me—just read it.

What I like also about Albom’s books is that they’re short and easy to read. You can finish one within a few nights of bedtime reading. Tuesdays with Morrie (2003), about a young man who has the opportunity to glean the wisdom of his former professor as he is dying, is extraordinarily wonderful, too.

Kate Morton

The big, meaty, atmospheric historical novels by this Australian novelist are set in the UK among the castles, ruins and family secrets of bygone eras. She manages to get me in from the very first page of each of her novels.

The Shifting Fog (2006) is set in two time zones, 1999 and 1924, which is a plot device that always intrigues me. The story concerns a film director who is making a film about the suicide of a poet at a manor house in 1924, and who discovers that a housemaid from the time is still alive. So the film maker travels from the US to the UK to interview the 98-year-old. The plot involves a perfect Edwardian summer, a shocking secret and its revelation.

Equally riveting is The Forgotten Garden (2008), concerning a young woman who inherits a cottage with a secret garden on the Cornish coast, and discovers a mystery concerning a missing girl from nearly a century before.

Alexander McCall Smith

One of the world’s most prolific authors, I first came across McCall Smith when I read The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998), set in Gabarone, Botswana. There are now at least 15 in the series, of which I’ve read 12, and they are all delightful, particularly for their wonderful titles, including The Kalahari Typing School for Men and Tea Time for the Traditionally Built (a bit of an in-joke for readers). The series concerns the wonderful Precious Ramotswe, who sets up a PI agency with a small inheritance from her father.

The stories have been called ‘gentle’ and ‘delightful’, and that they are. However, I think they are deceptively simple: McCall Smith deals with some of the harshest and most difficult problems affecting the world today, and his novels always make me think. I’ve also read and loved several of his other series, including the Isabel Dalhousie, Professor Dr von Igelfeld and 44 Scotland St series (of which The Importance of Being Seven, pictured, is one), and have enjoyed them all. But No. 1 is his best.

How thrilled I was to discover that Ursula Bischoff, the writer who translated my own novel The Occidentals into German, was also McCall Smith’s translator for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

 

I have to read a lot for work, so for recreational reading, I have time for only about 20 books a year (sometimes more, depending on my workload). So, everything I read has to engage me, because reading time is so precious.

Why an autobiographer can never tell the whole truth…even Agatha Christie

I’ve often thought that if I were famous, and a publisher wanted me to write my autobiography, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it. Writing about one’s life would require a degree of candour and honesty, a revealing of certain personal events and private thoughts that I just wouldn’t be prepared to share with the world.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. The other option is that you are in control of what you leave out of an autobiography.

Contrary to the idea that you get the true story of events ‘from the horse’s mouth’, so to speak, an autobiography is just another version of a life. As a journalist or a biographer has an agenda—to titillate and draw in readers in order to  sell newspapers or books, or to get high ratings—so the autobiographer. That is, to present themselves as they want the world to see them.

Add to that the fact that, especially as we grow older and farther away from the events we describe, our memories often aren’t precise, particularly childhood events when we might not have understood everything that was happening around us. I remember at my father’s funeral, I related some stories that were exactly as I remembered them happening, yet my mother said I had got the facts wrong in several of them.

I could swear, for example, that when my father and I watched the Apollo lunar landing on TV in 1969 when I was a very little girl (this is my first memory of television), we did so in our flat at Heslington, York, in the UK. But no, if I look at the date of that landing, we would have been back in Auckland, New Zealand by then. Strange.

a-christieDame Agatha Christie’s autobiography

I was prompted to muse about autobiographical writing when reading this month the 551-page tome Agatha Christie: An Autobiography, kindly given to me by my friend, the crime writer Angela Savage (whose blog you can read here: http://angelasavage.wordpress.com/).

It’s a fabulous read, quite possibly the best autobiography I have read, beside Roald Dahl’s Boy (1984) and Going Solo (1986). I couldn’t put it down, in fact.

It is intriguing in its description of a Victorian upper-middle-class childhood in an age that seems so strange these days. Born in 1890, young Agatha Miller was brought into a world of apparent privilege—gracious mansions, servants, extended trips to France. Yet,  as she explains, it was not full of luxuries, at least not in the way we would expect today. There wasn’t much cash, and her father was always on the brink of financial ruin, relying on an inheritance. He never worked, and eventually depleted his inheritance by a combination of bad decisions and bad luck.

daily-mirror-agatha-christieA mystery fit for the little Belgian detective

Coincidentally, while I was reading Christie’s autobiography, there was a TV special on her life hosted by David Suchet, who played her most famous character, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot from 1989 to 2013. Part of the show looked at what happened when her first marriage broke down in 1926, and her husband left her for a young woman he had worked with. During that time, Christie disappeared for 11 days, kissing her daughter Rosalind goodbye, leaving late at night, then deserting her car by the side of the road and disappearing. The media speculated that the by-then famous author had killed herself, perhaps by drowning. Eventually, she turned up, and it transpired that she had been staying at a hotel under an assumed name.

Christie never spoke about the incident, completely skipped it in her autobiography, and it remains something of a mystery.

So why didn’t she tell her side of the story? The only thing she says in the book is that it was well documented in the news media and she doesn’t want to say any more: and that’s the answer. She didn’t want to revisit it. Of course, in the 1970s when this book was published, readers couldn’t then look up the internet to view news archives: you would actually have had to go to a library with British newspapers of the time, and few readers would have taken the time to do that. Nowadays, you can simply google it. Speculation continues, as evidenced in this recent article: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2006/oct/15/books.booksnews

Second marriage and life in Iraq

Some of her views, such as those on transportation of criminals to Australia and on empire would not be appreciated by many readers today: she must be read as a product of her times and class, however.

Christie travelled extensively and adventurously, and tales of these travels are another intriguing part of her autobiography. With her first husband, she travelled round the world in the early 1920s, surfed in Hawaii and visited Australia and New Zealand, all of which she describes in the book with relish. She travelled through the Middle East on her own after her divorce, and met her second husband, Max Mallowan, at Ur. He was an archaeologist who was 14 years younger than Christie. They married when he was 26 and she 40, and the marriage lasted until she died in 1976.

They had an interesting life, living for years in Iraq, at Ur, Ninevah and Nimrud for Mallowan’s archeological digs. Christie even joined in the archeological work, including photographing and drawing it for classification purposes.

Through it all, Christie kept writing, and became very wealthy. She was prolific, sometimes taking only a couple of weeks to write one of her mysteries. But she had to slow down: as she says in the autobiography she had to cut back to writing only one book a year, because writing any more resulted in such high tax that it wasn’t worth doing. She also wrote books under the pen name of Mary Westmacott. They sold well, too, and for years no one knew Westmacott was really Christie.
Interestingly, although Christie and Mallowan were both knighted in their own right—he in 1968 and she in 1971—this is another thing Christie doesn’t mention at all in her autobiography—see “At the end”, below, for the reason.

“Thanks, Grandma!”

In her later life, instead of writing cheques for her family and close friends, she would sign over the royalties of a certain work. For example, her grandson, Mathew Prichard, got the rights to The Mousetrap (then later inherited the bulk of her estate after his mother, Christie’s daughter Rosalind, died in 2004). At the time she gifted her grandson the rights to the world’s longest running play, Christie had no idea that it would be the phenomenal success it was. Read more here about Pritchard and how in 2010 he found long-lost tapes of his grandmother dictating her autobiography.

For the record, Christie’s books have sold about four billion copies—as an author, she is outsold only perhaps by Shakespeare.

At the end

While Christie writes enthusiastically of her young life and middle years, she rather trails off after the late 1940s, and only a small section at the end of the book talks about the 1950s and 1960s. The book was published posthumously in 1977, but she was clear that she would not write about anything after 1965. Although she was still working in the last 10 years of her life, she ended the book at age 75 because “it seems the right moment to stop. Because, as far as life is concerned, that is all there is to say” (Christie 1977:7).

The book is rather haphazard in parts, skipping across vast decades and back again, contradicting itself along the way. But this is part of its charm. I will leave the last word to Christie herself, who explains why the book is like this, after recovering from an illness in the mid-1960s:

“Returning from the valley of the shadow of death, I have decided not to tidy up this book too much. For one thing I am elderly. Nothing is more wearying than going over things you have written and trying to arrange them in proper sequence or turn them the other way round. I am perhaps talking to myself —a thing one is apt to do when one is a writer. One walks along the street, passing all the shops one meant to go into, or all the offices one ought to have visited, talking to oneself hard—not too loud, I hope—and rolling one’s eyes expressively, and then one suddenly sees people looking at one and drawing slightly aside, clearly thinking one is mad.”

Long-Ago Interviews: Lord Jeffrey Archer, author

In a previous career, I was a journalist who specialised in writing about the entertainment industry, celebrities, books and authors. I did this from the 1980s until 2008, when I became a university lecturer in media studies and journalism. In this series, “Long Ago Interviews”, I want to share some anecdotes from some of my more memorable interview subjects.

In the mid-to-late 1980s, I was books editor at the Sunday Star newspaper in New Zealand (now the Sunday Star Times). I had moved back to the big city, where I was brought up, after paying my dues from the age of 17 working at rural newspapers at Waipukurau in Hawke’s Bay and Warkworth, north of Auckland. I was still only in my early 20s when I became books editor of this major newspaper, but in those days, because we started so young, we were quite accomplished by age 23 or 24.

An example of my Sunday Star books page from 1986. Unfortunately, I no longer have a clipping of my Jeffrey Archer interview.

An example of my Sunday Star books page from 1986. Unfortunately, I no longer have a clipping of my Jeffrey Archer interview

Books editor

When I say I was books editor, this was an extra duty. I was primarily employed as the TV-page writer/editor, and before that the arts writer/editor of the Auckland Star Monday to Saturday. When the new Sunday edition was being planned, I sent the Editor—the big man upstairs who we lowly reporters barely ever saw—a proposal for a books page in the Sunday Star, because management had asked for ideas from staff and were prepared to give everyone a go. My proposal for a weekly books page was accepted, but it was additional to my role as arts editor then, later, TV editor. They paid me an extra $50 a week, but as all book lovers would know, it wasn’t about the money. I would be thrilled with anticipation every day as boxes of new books were delivered from publishers hoping to get a mention on the page.

Each week, as well as reviews by myself and other journalists happy to grab a free book (they got paid for reviews too, by the way), I wrote a news story about the book industry and did an interview with an author. It was a broadsheet newspaper, so there was lots of room.

As you can imagine, I was very busy, basically doing two jobs. As TV editor, every day I had to write a page of interviews and stories about local TV, and I also had to type out the program guide with witty comments! On Saturdays, I produced a TV lift-out. Then Sunday was thrown into the mix, though I’m not sure now if it was a dedicated TV page or just a news story or two.

“Mr Archer doesn’t go to interviews; you go to him”

Jeffrey Archer in 1998. Picture courtesy London School of Economics.

Jeffrey Archer in 1998. Picture courtesy London School of Economics.

One of the interviews I remember vividly from this time was with the British author, Jeffrey Archer (now Lord Archer, but back then, plain old “Mr”). Before I write further, let me say I do not agree with his politics at all, and I wouldn’t comment on his private life, of which there are many versions (for an interesting article on truth versus fiction in his life, click here). Nevertheless, I have to say he was a most charming interviewee, humorous and talkative. In addition, he is one of only a very few among hundreds of authors I have interviewed who sent me a personally signed letter  after the interview, thanking me for my time. I still have that letter.

Jeffrey Archer was extremely famous in the 1980s, and few authors could match his sales. He is perhaps best known for Kane And Abel, of which a 30th anniversary edition was released last year, and which alone has sold 37 million copies, according to Archer himself on his blog. I’ve read several of his books and enjoyed them immensely.

Anyway, Archer’s publishing company’s publicist had called me to set up an interview time, assuming I would go to his hotel. When I said that I was actually too busy to go out to an interview that day and that Mr Archer would have to come to the Star building to see me, the publicist was aghast:
“Mr Archer doesn’t go to interviews; you go to him,” she said.

I said that unfortunately, then, I would have to pass on the interview. She then got back to me with the exciting news that the author would indeed go to the journalist.

He duly arrived. I met him in the foyer, and up the rickety elevator we went in the ancient but quaint Auckland Star building, to an interview room on the editorial floor. He was with a young male assistant, who I prefer to think of as a sort of manservant (and I’ll tell you why in a moment).

Now, when I say interview room, think monk’s cellar. These rooms were just cubbyholes, really, with only a small table and a couple of chairs inside. Nothing on the drab grey walls, rather musty smelling, no windows. They were like interview rooms you see in those old hard-boiled cop movies. Nevertheless, I got him a bad cup of instant coffee in a paper cup and away we went.

Ask a rude question…

In the 1980s, young people still mostly lived by a lot of rules about how to behave in company and, especially, to have respect for their elders. You did not talk about money, religion or politics, as a rule, and you never asked a woman over 30 her age. But as journalists, we had to forget these rules, and we used to have to ask what I saw as tough questions, which you always kept until last. For Jeffrey Archer, the tough question I had to ask was, “How much money do you earn from your writing?”

He laughed and told me he had no idea. I don’t believe that for a moment, but he qualified it with some good material for my story. This is not the exact quotation, as unfortunately, I no longer have the clipping, but he answered something like this: “Let’s just put it this way. I have enough money to go anywhere I want to and to buy anything I want without having to check if there is enough money in my bank account.” He told me he had Louis Vuitton luggage, which was very impressive. He also told me that the sole reason he had started writing his first novel, Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less, was because he desperately needed money to stop himself going bankrupt.

One’s manservant has the pen

Archer signs books in Bangalore, India, 2009. Picture: Mike Lynch.

Archer signs books in Bangalore, India, 2009. Picture: Mike Lynch

Another thing that has changed in journalism is that, in those days, you would never ask a celebrity for their autograph if you were a professional reporter. You would never show that you were “star struck”. This is the one time I broke the rules: I asked Jeffrey Archer if he would sign my paperback review copy of his book First Among Equals, which was what he was in New Zealand to publicise. He agreed, then held up his right arm with palm outstretched. Immediately, the “manservant” took a pen from his pocket and placed it in Archer’s hand. Archer signed the book, and handed the pen back to the assistant. I still have that signed paperback: you can see Archer’s signature and find out what happened to my copy of the book here.

I say “manservant”, because in New Zealand, we had nowhere like as rigid or apparent a class system as existed in England. No one else I knew or had interviewed had ever had someone else to carry their pen for them, including the then-Prime Minister, David Lange, who I met at the Beehive (as the Parliament Buildings executive area is known) in Wellington in the 1980s. Well, whatever the real reason the assistant had the pen, it makes a good story and is something that has stuck in my memory all these years.

Agatha Christie and “the quiet moments of everyday life”

In her enormously entertaining self-titled autobiography, the 20th-century mystery writer Agatha Christie discusses a letter she rediscovered in old age that had been written to her by her father about Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

Forgotten by Christie: Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, 1897. Picture courtesy National Maritime Museum from Greenwich, UK, via Wikimedia Commons

Forgotten by Christie: Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, 1897. Picture courtesy National Maritime Museum from Greenwich, UK, via Wikimedia Commons

Young Agatha’s grandmother had arranged to take the six-year-old girl to the jubilee procession on June 22, celebrating 60 years of the Queen’s reign. Agatha’s father, who was away in the US at the time, remarks in the letter how lucky his daughter is to see “this wonderful show”, as he refers to it. “I know you will never forget it,” he adds.

Christie comments wryly: “My father lacked the gift of prophecy, because I have forgotten it. How maddening children are! When I look back to the past, what do I remember? Silly little things about local sewing-women, the bread twists I made in the kitchen, the smell of Colonel F.’s breath—and what do I forget? A spectacle that somebody paid a great deal of money for me to see and remember. I feel very angry with myself. What a horrible, ungrateful child!”

Mary_Cassatt_Young_Mother_Sewing

Remembered by Christie: sewing women. This painting, “Young Mother Sewing” (1900), is by the impressionist painter Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)

She goes on to write much about memories from childhood that stuck most in her mind: a field of buttercups, the smell of lime trees and grass. The happiest memories, she says, “are almost always the quiet moments of everyday life”.

I agree with her: my most vivid memories are tiny snapshots, seemingly randomly selected from the millions that make up a life. I remember, for example, aged about 8 and going through what was then called a “tomboy” stage, running inside, highly excited, after playing “cowboys and Indians” (in our ignorant way then and meaning no disrespect, but emulating the movies of the day). My nana, who was visiting, exclaimed, “Gosh, you look exactly like a cowgirl!” I beamed with pride: it seemed like the most wonderful thing anyone had ever said to me.

Years before that, I remember the live televised coverage of the lunar landing in 1969, when the astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. It was extraordinary not just for the event itself, but for the amazing feat of broadcasting, which British broadcaster and science historian James Burke has called “the greatest media event of all time”.

In fact, I don’t actually remember the coverage itself very much because of something else that happened. My father must have got us all to sit in the living room and watch the event, but I didn’t understand why we had to sit so still or why it was important, even though it had been explained to me.

Suddenly, I thought of something more interesting to tell Dad, and, at what must have been a crucial part of the broadcast, I started yabbering on.

Uncharacteristically, he spoke very sharply to me, told me to keep quiet, and saying didn’t I realise this would be one of the most important events in history? I was so upset, I couldn’t speak for hours—upset and mystified as to why my lovely daddy had cut me off when he was usually so interested in what I had to say, why he would rather watch something on TV than listen to me. I was so upset, I didn’t really see or hear the event itself. I can still feel my hurt today, all these decades later. Funnily enough, when I mentioned it to my dad many years later, he didn’t remember me interrupting, but he vividly remembered watching the exciting telecast (grainy and in black and white as it was).

With thanks to the novelist Angela Savage, not only for urging me to read Agatha Christie’s autobiography, but for acquiring a copy of it for me. I’m 110 pages into the 551-page tome, and enjoying it immensely. Thanks again, Angela!