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The BBC Parliament channel’s sound is disturbingly out of sync at the moment. And at such a critical time.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (Books 2019, 13)

A genuinely chilling, even scary, ghost story, is not something you read that often. Or I don’t, these days, at least.

Combine that with compelling characters, comedy, and tragedy, and you’ve got kind of a small masterpiece.

I only say “small” because it’s quite short. I only know Jackson from a film version of “The Lottery” that they used to show us in school. I’m not sure why they showed us it, exactly, because we didn’t study it in English, and as far as I recall we didn’t discuss it. I think maybe it was a sort of treat, and the school only had a few films, that it showed repeatedly. These were actual films, I should add. Played on a projector, watched on a screen.

Anyway Jackson’s story always stuck with me, and now this one joins it.

The 392 by Ashley Hickson-Lovence (Books 2019, 12)

The 392, with a flat peach
The 392, with a flat peach

We went to WOMAD a couple of weekends ago, and in the literary tent we caught the end of a reading from, and an interview with, this young Hackney writer. It was an interesting talk and the book sounded compelling, so we bought a copy (and got it signed).

It’s set over 36 minutes on the inaugural journey of a new (nonexistent) London bus route, from Hoxton to Highbury. Told as the thoughts and conversations of various passengers (and the driver).

If you’re familiar with the area and the local slang (which may in fact be national or global slang in places), it’s particularly enjoyable. But the themes are universal, so don’t suppose it’s only for Hackney & Islington folk.

I have my problems with the ending, but it’s well worth checking out (and it’s very short, and in bite-sized pieces, if you’re looking for something easy).

What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn (Books 2019, 11)

A Kindle showing the cover of Catherine O'Flynn's What Was Lost next to an origami bird
A Kindle showing Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost next to an origami bird

This was recommended to me by an Open University tutor when I was doing the creative writing course a few years back. Which experience, I note, I barely wrote about here. I have a Diploma in Creative Writing, don’t you know?

Anyway, there was an exercise which included writing a plan for the next major piece we were going to write. I wanted to write something that was set in an exotic city, and I mentioned in my plan that I wanted the city to be a character in the story. I was thinking maybe of something like China Mièville’s Bas-Lag.

My tutor suggested that the shopping centre in this book might be a similar kind of thing. Such turns out not really to be accurate. It’s set largely in and around the mall, and some people say they have a sense of it watching them, but nothing is ever made of that.

It’s strange, in that it starts off apparently being a kids’ book, or at least YA; but after the first part it takes a turn, into something else entirely.

It’s not bad, but I wouldn’t particularly recommend it.

Milkman by Anna Burns (Books 2019, 10)

Anna Burns's Milkman alongside a lemon
Anna Burns’s Milkman alongside a lemon

This is not mainly a book about The Troubles; nor about religion or politics, though it is about all of those. It’s a book, above all, about gossip and rumour and silence, and the harm that those can do to a person, to a society.

The unique approach — no-one is named, almost no proper names appear — I found quite endearing. And far from obfuscating things, it many ways it makes the story easier to follow. Instead of having to remember whether Mary, Margaret or Roisin is the oldest sister, it’s “first sister.” “Oldest friend;” “maybe-boyfriend.” Honestly, all books should be like this. Relationships are important, after all.

Though you can also see it as a sly reference to the common complaint about living in small communities, that you’re always someone’s daughter, someone’s brother — never yourself.

Anyway, Booker Prize winner, and all. Dead good.

I’m musing on whether or not to keep the holiday beard. Two weeks in Greece almost over. Home tomorrow.