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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Chocolate and the Guilty Secret

ChocI’ve never been much of a chocolate eater in adulthood. The odd Cadbury’s Milk Tray soft centre at Christmas or chocolate egg at Easter would pass my lips, but that was about it, unless it was my lifelong favourite, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, which until recently, I could buy only when I visited the US.
Lately, however, I’ve taken to having a couple of squares of chocolate with my nightly cup of tea, last thing when I’m reading in bed.
Wow, has chocolate come on in the last couple of decades! Who knew? Everyone except me, it seems.
I’ve had crème brûlée flavour, cookies and cream, dark chocolate with cocoa nibs, dark chocolate with sea salt, milk chocolate with salted caramel, dark chocolate with ginger and dark chocolate with lime and chili. The choices are endless.
Chocolate has become so exotic. In my childhood, the most exotic it got was the family-size block of Cadbury’s milk chocolate that my parents occasionally bought as a treat to be shared among the family after dinner, probably on a Saturday night. This block cost the enormous sum of 50c (five times my weekly pocket money in the 1970s).
We shared the chocolate evenly between the four of us, and I would infuriate my brother by making mine last all evening, or even having some left, in its silver wrapping, for next day. He and my dad would scoff their shares immediately and then be looking for more, and I’m sure Mum lost half of hers. But I jealously guarded mine, loving the feeling of envious eyes on chocolate they would never get.
My late dad was a dentist, so we weren’t allowed to eat much candy. But chocolate wasn’t too bad, he said, as long as you cleaned your teeth after eating it.
Dad wouldn’t be too happy if he knew the guilty secret I’m about to confide: sometimes, these days, I don’t clean my teeth after drinking my tea and eating my chocolate in bed at night!

The Books That Were: my 2013 top reads

I’m what you’d call an eclectic reader: I’m just as happy reading a literary tome that’s won the Man Booker Prize as I am reading a “chick-lit” novel.

I want different things from different books. Sometimes, I want to read beautiful writing for its own sake; sometimes, I want to read classics because I should; sometimes, the location interests me (this is why I liked Twilight—I thought the location of Forks was a great choice, no matter what criticism could be levelled at the writing); sometimes, I’m interested in what on earth a mega-selling author could write next; and sometimes, I just want to have a laugh and a “good read” that doesn’t tax me too much.

There are some authors whose works I will read whatever they publish. There are some subjects I will read no matter who they are by.

Anyway, here are my top five novels of 2013 in no particular order. To note: four of them are historical novels set in the 19th century, and the fifth, The Dying Beach, is set in the 1990s. Two are set during 19th-century gold rushes, one in Australia, the other in New Zealand. Three are murder mysteries, though I don’t set out to read crime fiction: it just kind-of happens. Four are by New Zealand or Australian writers. I read three of them on my Kindle, and the other two as trade paperbacks (the bigger format paperback).

Books-MarchMarch, by Geraldine Brooks (Fourth Estate, 2005, 346pp)

This is set in the 1860s during the American Civil War. The protagonist, Mr March, is the father from Louisa May Alcott’s children’s classic Little Women, who barely appears in the original book. But Brooks has cleverly modeled the character more on Alcott’s real father, an abolitionist, educator and writer.

The book is compelling and, although violent in parts, it also has moments of joy and sensuality. It taught me much more about the complicated issues surrounding the American Civil War—and their legacy—than history books I studied at university.  The novel is something of an antidote to the overly moralistic Little Women, which I re-read in preparation for March.

Interestingly, Brooks is an Australian journalist who now lives in the US, and this book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. It is a superb work of art that is among the best books I’ve read. I’ll definitely be reading more Brooks novels, and her Year of Wonders is sitting in my bookcase, waiting its turn.

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton (Granta, 2013, 834pp)books-luminaries

This historical murder mystery, the 2013 Man Booker Prize winner, is set in New Zealand in the Otago goldfields, mainly in and around Hokitika, in the mid-1860s. Its brilliance lies in its clever structure and its exquisite use of language. The plot is actually quite simple—a man is found dead and another disappears, and a woman collapses in the street after what is thought to be a suicide attempt. The rest of the book considers what might have happened to them and why, but it is far from a simple book. The complexity of characterisation is a triumph for Catton, as is her ability to speak believably and primarily in the book from a male point-of-view.

The author, Eleanor Catton, 28, is the youngest recipient of the Booker, and only the second New Zealand writer to win it. I was literary editor of the Sunday Star newspaper in Auckland when Keri Hulme won the Booker for The Bone People in 1985. The Bone People had been published by a small feminist publisher, Spiral Collective, but was later released by Hodder & Stoughton. I wish I had one of the original small-print-run copies!

Much against her liking, Hulme became a celebrity overnight, everyone wanting to interview her, quote her, find out how she ticked. Hulme avoided the limelight as much as possible, and lives a quiet life in Okarito on the West Coast of the South Island. She has written and published short stories and poetry since winning the Booker, but has not published another novel, although she currently has two in progress.

I emailed Hulme in 2007 and asked her if I could interview her for a story I was writing for Good Reading magazine on the state of New Zealand publishing. She declined, graciously, saying a 2000-word article wouldn’t do NZ literature justice and that, anyway, she didn’t want to be “quote fodder”. Fair enough.

Books-1Mr Chen’s Emporium, by Deborah O’Brien (Bantam, 2012, 352pp)

Set in the fictional Australian gold rush town of  Millbrooke, New South Wales, in the 1870s, this is the riveting story of Amy, a young woman who falls in love with a Chinese man. Their tragic story is interspersed with another set in the present, concerning a middle-aged woman, Angie, who comes to live in the manse where Amy once lived, and who is given a trunk containing clues to Amy’s life.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable read—one of those books you can feel lurking on your bedside table, begging you to pick it up again.
I’ve always been attracted by stories that take place in two different times. Two of my favourites from long ago are The Lady of Hay (1986) by Barbara Erskine, and, when I was a child, The Sunbird (1972), by Wilbur Smith (not a child’s book, but, nevertheless, cadged from my dad’s bookcase).

 

The Dying Beach, by Angela Savage (Text, 2013, 334pp)Dyingbeach

This is the third in Savage’s series about Jayne Keeney, P.I., an Australian detective based in Thailand. This time, Jayne has a mystery to solve at Krabi. She is accompanied by her partner, Rajiv, a wonderfully drawn character who is turning out to be a star of the show. Rajiv appeared in the second book, The Half-Child, when he was working in a second-hand bookshop, and he has now become her partner in business and in love.
The book tackles some serious issues, including environmental problems, corruption and the negative side of tourism. Savage has an adept style that brings in these issues almost by stealth, because all the time the reader is being carried along by the fast-paced story.

Savage knows her subject very well, having lived and worked in Southeast Asia for many years, though she is now based back in Melbourne. She is currently working on a fourth novel in the series. For more on Angela Savage, see my interview here.

Death-comes-to-PemberleyDeath Comes to Pemberley, by P. D. James (Knopf, 2011, 304pp)

This is a brilliant sequel to Pride and Prejudice, written masterfully as a tribute to Austen’s style of writing but with satirical elements, with a wink to fans of Austen, who will get the in-jokes, and crossed with the crime thriller genre. James also further develops Austen’s characters in this page-turner that is hard to put down.

As the quotation on the UK cover says: “Dazzling…A book that combines the grace of Jane Austen with the pace of a thriller” (Sunday Express).

The novel was published in 2011 when Baroness James, as she is otherwise known, was 91. It’s interesting that P. D. James herself admits that writing the book was self-indulgence. You can read more about her reasons for and process of writing the book in a story she wrote herself for The Telegraph here.

The book is now a three-part BBC series screened last month in the UK, so let’s hope it comes to Australia soon! It has had mixed reviews—some scathing—as has the book, but I loved this novel, and I hope she does more sequels to Austen novels.

Honourable mentions: The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling; Possession, by A. S. Byatt; The Castlemaine Murders, by Kerry Greenwood (one of three Phryne Fisher books I read this year, as well as viewing the ABC series); The Girl You Left Behind, by JoJo Moyes; A Hundred Summers, by Beatriz Williams.