A Haunting Tale for Halloween – Matthew Marland on Little Sister Death by William Gay

LITTLE SISTER DEATH COVER 2“It is tempting to say that the discovery of William Gay’s last manuscript is a story as compelling as the novel’s own brilliantly constructed, deeply chilling plot. There are many examples of posthumously published, ‘undiscovered’ books – Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Henry Darger’s In the Realms of the Unreal – but Little Sister Death, William Gay’s ‘lost’ horror novel published this month by Faber & Faber is a remarkable addition to the list. Pessoa’s is a sprawling and unfinished work of over five hundred pages, Darger’s book – like the paintings which were also found in his home after his death – raw and immediate, but crucially incomplete. Little Sister Death, though, comes to us fully formed, a book about death and haunting that seems to appear from the land of the dead.

Like Henry Darger, Gay was a self-taught artist who worked in blue-collar jobs and wrote after hours. Gay was a construction worker from rural Tennessee, a man who, as Tom Franklin writes in his wonderful introduction to this edition, cut his own hair and bathed in the creek behind his house, and who found fame as a writer late in life. His first novel, The Long Way, was published when he was 57, and only handful more appeared before his death in 2012. Working as builder, a dry-wall hanger, a carpenter, it wasn’t the thing to talk about writing, especially your own. ‘You don’t come out on Monday morning and then tell these guys you’re working with about this sonnet you wrote over the weekend.’ It is thus not surprising that a manuscript was found among his paper’s after he was discovered dead in his log cabin in Hohenwald, southwest Nashville.

Little Sister Death is a truly frightening book. Inspired by the famous 19th-century Bell Witch haunting of Tennessee, it follows the unravelling life of David Binder, a writer who moves his young family to a haunted farmstead to find inspiration for his faltering work. Movingly between the early 1800s and 1982, the two periods conjoined by the ghostly appearance of a girl in a green dress, disembodied laughter cackling in the night, sexual obscenities muttered from behind closed doors, the book is beautifully written and deeply unsettling. Binder, a writer with one published novel to his name and desperate to find his next story, knows the house’s terrible history but chooses nonetheless to bring his family there. As has been noted in The Telegraph, it is ‘scary story but also a study of the writer – his temperament, his torment and his devil’s pact for the price of a good story.’ Or, as Tom Franklin puts it, it is about how ‘the necessary obsessions of writing can cause its practitioners to risk alienating or losing not their loves ones but (perhaps) their sanity as well’. It is a sublime piece of writing, a darkly gripping, terrifying tale, a masterly example of Southern Gothic horror and book that confirms Gay’s place among writers such as William Faulker and Flannery O’Connor. But for all that, let’s not forget – it’s really, really scary.”

For your chance to win a copy of Little Sister Death, simply visit our @CBBookgroup Twitter handle and retweet one of our competitionTweets by midnight on Saturday 23st October.

Little Sister Death is published by Faber & Faber and is available now.


Five Classic Mary Renault Novels

In honour of our book of the month, THE LAST OF THE WINE by Mary Renault, for this month’s ‘Five Books Feature’ we have given ourselves the tough act of choosing just five classic novels from Mary Renault’s illustrious oeuvre. With a writing career that spanned five decades and hundreds of thousands of copies of her novels sold worldwide during her lifetime, we certainly had plenty to choose from! As ever, we’d love to hear your favourites too.

97818440895051) The Charioteer

In this story of a love affair between two young servicemen in the Second World War, Mary cleverly recasts contemporary questions surrounding the politics of homosexual love in the classical context of platonic ideals. When it was first published in the UK in 1953, William Morrow’s fears of hostility towards the serious gay love story in the U.S. meant that it couldn’t be published across the Atlantic for a further six years. Good thing it finally escaped the censors, as its recent Virago reprint features a fantastic introduction from Simon Russell Beale.

2) Return to Night9781844089536

Mary’s fourth novel was important in more ways than one. Aside from being another great example of how Mary allows her readers to get inside the heads of famous classical figures, this was also the book which allowed the author to take a one-way trip out of the UK. When MGM Studios bought the rights for $150,000 (worth over £1,000,000 today), Mary and her long-term partner Julie Mullard were able to escape to South Africa which, in the 1940s, had a far more liberal attitude towards homosexuality than the English Home Counties.

97818440895743) Fire from Heaven

There are no surviving contemporary accounts of the first two-thirds of Alexander’s life. In this first novel about the heroic leader, Mary exploits this fascinating gap, gaining some serious posthumous success in the process. In 2010, it was shortlisted for the Lost Booker Prize (an award given retrospectively to novels from 1970 when the Booker Prize skipped a year). Despite losing out to J G Farrell’s Troubles, Mary gained a series of high-profile fans, including broadcaster Katie Derham, critic Rachel Cooke, and poet and novelist Tobias Hill.

4) The Last of the Wine9781844089611

The first of Mary’s classical works, the strand of writing for which she is best known, this novel (this month’s Book Group read) moves through the lives of Theseus, Plato, Dionysius and Alexander during the Peloponnesian War, blending fact with Mary’s unique brand of imaginative speculation and humanising these legendary figures. Coupled with highly realistic scenes of daily life in times of both war and peace, this is an absolute must-read for Mary fans.

The Nature of Alexander5) The Nature of Alexander

For our final pick, we’ve chosen a non-fiction gem. Despite writing several historical novels featuring the mighty Alexander, Mary still felt this wasn’t enough to tell his whole story, completing this biography instead. Mary manages to capture, on the one hand, his extraordinary grace and beauty and, on the other, the brutality and menace associated with his life and legacy. What Mary creates is a profile of a truly great man, although whether that reputation is based on equally great reasons is for you to decide…

There you have it – our favourite five Mary Renault novels. Any that you think we’ve left off? Tweet us your suggestions @CBBookGroup.

The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault is our October book of the month, available now from @ViragoBooks

Writer’s Room Envy by Donald Hounam

I’m a big believer in envy. Particularly class envy. And writer’s room envy.

A few years back, The Guardian’s Saturday Review used to run a small piece called Where I Write. Every week this would feature a photograph of a writer’s workroom, and list its contents: the comfortable chair, the computers, the shelves of awards…

Impressive. Although not half as impressive as Terry Pratchett’s set-up, displayed during a BBC documentary about his struggle with Alzheimer’s. Huge twin monitors, like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise…

Not just impressed. Green with envy.

It’s nearly nine years since I knocked up my first notes on Gifted; in Microsoft Word, on a Hewlett-Packard laptop that’s now hosting a colony of woodlice under a wardrobe in the back room.photo

Subsequently, when one of the perks of the day job turned out to be a 17-inch MacBook Pro, I treated myself to Keith Blount’s excellent Scrivener software and mangled the story on an uncomfortable chair at a small table in a corner of the living room of a cramped, one-bedroom flat.

The Pro was a fine machine, but with one significant drawback: it weighed a ton. When I couldn’t work at home, I used to drag it around various local branches of the Caffè Nero. And when Irealised that I was doing my back in, I printed up an outline of what I’d assembled so far, and hand-wrote most of the rest of the book in a series of WH Smith school exercise books. On the three days a week that I worked in central London, I’d stumble out early and get in an hour or so before hitting the office. Other days, I’d traipse up to the high street and scribble away.

My point is, I think, that this must be pretty much the way most speculative novels and screenplays are written: in whatever space and through whatever medium is available; on the fly; on the sufferance of nearest and dearest; and in any free time that can be found between professional and personal commitments. It’s a messy, incoherent business; and it’s very easy to lose track of what you’re doing.

Desk 2 (2)In particular, the material can end up splattered all over the landscape. In my case, there were fragments in all shapes and sizes of notebook, and in files (“Gifted-v07-Jan2010-use-THIS-one”) scattered around several computers. I remember whiling away many happy hours flipping between different versions of the same text, wondering which (if any) was canonical…

At some point I decided that the Pro was, literally, too much to bear, and I lashed out some of my own hard-earned cash on a refurbished MacBook Air. This was a howling success: compact and light enough to drag around with me and still run Scrivener.

Eventually the book was done. And after we moved out of London and got ourselves a little more space, the writer’s room envy has receded.

I don’t have to hog the front room any more. I have a proper desk and a comfy chair. But I still find myself hopping between notebooks, computers, scraps of paper and the margins of newspapers. I can’t honestly say that it makes sense. It’s at least partly driven by the delusion that the grass is always greener elsewhere: that there’s another way of working — a special pen, a clever piece of software — that will magically cause everything to fall into place.

Fat chance.

In Gifted, my protagonist, teenage wizard Frank Sampson, is visited in his studio by his Master, Matthew Le Geyt:

He takes off this expensive-looking grey coat and he’s wearing this even more expensive-looking suit underneath it. He’s about to drape the coat over the back of a chair when he hesitates, runs one finger along the wood and peers distastefully at a smear of chalk dust. He sniffs the air suspiciously and looks round.

‘My God, this place is a mess!’

‘I’ve been busy.’

‘So I see.’ He doesn’t sound angry, just amused in a despairing sort of way. He’s at the bench, with the coat over his arm, staring down at the remains of the cat.

‘Sometimes,’ he says, ‘I’m relieved that I don’t have to deal with this sort of business any more.’

Me, I’d rather get my hands dirty. I dread going post-peak.

Matthew sighs. ‘I never understood how you could be so disorganised, Frank, yet such a brilliant sorcerer.’

Frank’s brilliance is an author’s compensatory fantasy and a sort of genre necessity: I feel I have to big up my hero.Desk 1

But the mess…?

Let’s face it, I’m simply chaotic. Receipts, bank statements, cables, pens, notebooks, spare buttons (no idea what for), computers…

I could pretend it’s constructive chaos; but who’s kidding who?

Every time I clear space to work by pushing stuff aside, I tell myself that once Gifted is out and once I’ve bunged off a second draft of the sequel, Pariah, to the grown-ups, I’ll get it all tidied up.

Some hope.

I work like this because… actually, I don’t for the life of me know why. Every year or so, when it all finally gets too much to bear, I settle down and spend as long as it takes sorting through it all. The result is a spookily clear desk and an enormous sense of clarity and liberation.

But maybe I just don’t feel comfortable with clarity. Maybe I need the padding.


Donald Hounam’s novel Gifted is out today, published by Random House Children’s Publishers. We’ve got three copies to give away over on Twitter (@CBBookGroup). 

Welcome to CB Book Group

We’ve nearly selected all the members of our first Book Group now- hello!- and before Christmas we sent each of them a welcome pack. However, each welcome pack was different, so here we reveal a bit about the titles that were included…

 The Serpent Papers by Jessica Cornwell

Jessica Cornwell’s The Serpent Papers is the hotly anticipated début which heralds the first in a trilogy. Featuring Anna Verco, a book hunter on a secret mission, we follow  as she uncovers a mystery harking back hundreds of years…

A vividly rendered Barcelona provides the backdrop for a story of murders, secret messages and witches that reaches back to Medieval mysteries. A novel to get lost in!

Publication date: 29th January 2015

Twitter comments?: ‘Cannot wait to get stuck in!’ @CatWomanFran. We guarantee you will get stuck in- we missed meals and bus stops engrossed in this!

Alice and the Fly by James Rice

Greg is a shy, troubled, arachnaphobic teenager. Alice has red curls and a black eye, sunglasses and a sweet smile. Greg has never talked to Alice, but she smiled at him once, and he’s worried about her – worried that she’s started dating Goose, worried that her dad gave her that black eye.

Alice and the Fly is spellbinding début by an exceptional new young British talent, a book about phobias and obsessions, isolation and dark corners. It’s about families, friendships, and carefully preserved secrets. But above everything else it’s about love. Finding love – in any of its forms.

Publication date: 15th January 2015

Twitter comments?: ‘One of the best débuts I’ve read in a while!’ @CatWomanFran

The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes by Anna McPartlin

Look up ‘Rabbit Hayes’ in the dictionary and you will probably find ‘inspirational’ in capitals.

It is at turns heartbreaking, hilarious and life-affirming, opening on the day that Rabbit, after a long battle with cancer, enters a hospice to die (hankies at the ready!). That having been said, we promise it will have you laughing through your tears. It’ll make you never take your friends, family, and above all love, for granted ever again.

Publication date: 1st January 2015

Twitter comments?: ‘A must read!’

(This will also be on Simon Mayo’s Book Club on Radio 2 – don’t say we don’t have good taste!)

The Woman Who Stole My Life by Marian Keyes

We love Marian. Her books are funny, and clever, and touching, and always, always brilliantly written. The Woman Who Stole My Life is no different.

Our Lucia Rae says: Glorious and life-affirming, Marian’s novel is about losing the life you had and finding a better one. One day, sitting in traffic, married Dublin mum Stella Sweeney attempts a good deed. The resulting car crash changes her life. For she meets a man who wants her telephone number (for the insurance, it turns out). That’s okay. She doesn’t really like him much anyway (his Range Rover totally banjaxed her car). But in this meeting is born the seed of something which will take Stella thousands of miles from her old life, turning an ordinary woman into a superstar, and, along the way, wrenching her whole family apart.

Publication date: 6th November 2014

Twitter comments?: ‘Brilliant!’ @bookswithacuppa

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce

We all fell in love with Harold Fry, so this companion novel, featuring Queenie (who Harold sets off to walk to, of course!) was a huge treat for fans.

As Harold walks towards her and she awaits his arrival in her hospice, a new volunteer suggests that she writes her story. And tells everything. And so she does, confessing 20 year old secrets seeking atonement for the past. It’s a glorious story for fans of Harold and newcomers to Joyce’s writing (we enjoyed the debates on Twitter about whether you needed to have met Harold!).

Publication date: 9th October 2014

Twitter comments?: ‘One good thing about a cold is I’ve finished #RachelJoyce’s new novel in a day! Wonderful addition to the Harold Fry story.’ @CHMooreWriter

 Us by David Nicholls

David Nicholls has produced another glorious book- this time, the story of the disintegration of a marriage, and a difficult father-son relationship. Okay, this doesn’t sound so glorious, but trust us on this one.

Douglas’ wife announces before they leave for a ‘grand tour’ of Europe with their son that on their return, she will be leaving him. And so he sets out to make this the most wonderful holiday ever- one that will make his son respect and love him, and his wife rediscover why she married him. Inevitably, things do not go as planned. But the joy of this book is in Nicholls reminding us that when life doesn’t go the way you expected, it’s not always the end of the world…

Publication date: 30th September 2014

Twitter comments?: ‘Another perfect novel.’

Which books did you get, book groupers?

And for those of you who aren’t members of our group- we’ve got five of special packs to give away! Win by telling us what your favourite book of 2014 was, and why. Tweet at us (@CBBookGroup), and we’ll pick 5 winners on Friday afternoon.

Good luck and happy reading!

The Twelve Days of Christmas: A Little In Love by Susan Fletcher

We’re into week two of our Twelve Days of Christmas Giveaway and today Vivienne Schuster has chosen her perfect Christmas book to give away.  Just visit our @CBBookGroup Twitter page for your chance to win.

A Little IN Love
A Little In Love by Susan Fletcher, chosen by Vivienne Schuster, Literary Agent at Curtis Brown.
Viv Schuster (c) Toby Amies“If you’re planning on snuggling up and watching Les Miserables while it snows outside- or even if you’re just a huge Les Mis fan- then you’ve found THE book for you this Christmas.

Susan Fletcher is well known for being a wonderful author of adult novels, but she’s branched out into the Young Adult genre with this novel. However, this isn’t just a book for teenagers. It appeals to fans young and old who want to find out more about the story of the feisty, doomed waif, Eponine. Based on Victor Hugo’s novel (though musical interludes I’m sure can be provided by family and friends after a few sherries), Susan has created a moving portrait of Eponine- from being brought up in an Inn with parents teaching her how to thieve from their guests, to her unrequited love for the brave Marius. Beautiful, atmospheric, vivid, sad- check, check, check, check. This gorgeous book really does make the perfect Christmas present.”

For your chance to win a copy of A Little In Love – for yourself or to giveaway – just vist our @CBBookGroup Twitter page today and retweet or favourite one of our promotional tweets about the book.  We will be announcing one lucky winner on our Twitter page on Tuesday 9th December, so stay tuned.

The Twelve Days of Christmas: THE WOMAN WHO STOLE MY LIFE by Marian Keyes

It’s time for our last Twelve Days of Christmas giveaway of this week and today Lucia Rae has picked the perfect stocking filler from one of the most succesful Irish novelists of all time.  Check our @CBBookGroup Twitter page for details of how to win and come back for even more giveaways next week.

The Woman who Stole my Life

The Woman Who Stole My Life, chosen by Lucia Rae of Curtis Brown

Lucia Rae“My perfect Christmas book which would appeal just as much to men as well as women is the truly extraordinary new novel from Marian Keyes, The Woman Who Stole My Life. Glorious and life-affirming, Marian’s novel is about losing the life you had and finding a better one. One day, sitting in traffic, married Dublin mum Stella Sweeney attempts a good deed. The resulting car crash changes her life.

For she meets a man who wants her telephone number (for the insurance, it turns out). That’s okay. She doesn’t really like him much anyway (his Range Rover totally banjaxed her car). But in this meeting is born the seed of something which will take Stella thousands of miles from her old life, turning an ordinary woman into a superstar, and, along the way, wrenching her whole family apart.

The writing is all-enveloping in its warmth (just like your favourite Christmas jumper!) and the brilliant humour is just the thing to get you through the festive period.”

For your chance to win a copy of The Woman Who Stole My Life – for yourself or to giveaway – just vist our @CBBookGroup Twitter page on Friday 5th December and retweet or favourite one of our tweets about the book.  We will be announcing one lucky winner on our Twitter page on Monday 8th December, so stay tuned.

The Twelve Days of Christmas: DYING FOR CHRISTMAS by Tammy Cohen

It’s day four of our Twelve Days of Christmas Giveaway and today Felicity Blunt has chosen her perfect Christmas book to give away.  Visit our @CBBookGroup Twitter page for your chance to win.

DYING FOR CHRISTMAS by Tammy Cohen, chosen by Felicity Blunt, Literary Agent at Curtis Brown.

felicity“What do you do at Christmas when you’re stuffed full of chocolate, overdosed on sickly sweet films and trying to avoid yet another family outing? Well, I would suggest that you get stuck into a grizzly psychological thriller. And there’s none better for this time of year than Tammy Cohen’s gripping Dying For Christmas.

Jessica Gold is having a break from Christmas shopping in the cafe of a department store when someone asks to join her table. It’s busy, he’s attractive- why would she refuse? As they begin to chat, she’s even more pleased with her out of character decision to say yes. His name is Dominic, and he’s a dimpled charmer who finds her fascinating. A far cry from her boyfriend, Travis. So when Dominic invites her back to his for a Christmas nightcap, Jessica, in a calculated moment of weakness, says yes, and goes back with him to his flat- where she is kept prisoner by a Dominic who turns out to be not kind and suave, but manipulative and sadistic.

Concurrently with Jessica’s deadly story, we get the story of the woman heading up the police search for her, Kim. A welcome respite from the events taking place inside Dominic’s flat, Kim’s story is equally compelling and is beautifully spun. The two stories combine to make for a book that you will zip through in record time, from the opening line (‘Chances are, by the time you finish reading this, I’ll be dead.’) to the twists you won’t see coming. Guaranteed to give you shivers no matter what the weather.’


For your chance to win a copy of DYING FOR CHRISTMAS – for yourself or to giveaway – visit our @CBBookGroup Twitter page on Thursday 4th December and retweet one of our tweets about the book.  The winner will be announced on the same day- so stay tuned!