Reading Matter

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If you would usually balk at the idea of reading a horror story, then bear with me as I try and persuade you to give this one a go.

As I closed the back page of Rawblood by Catriona Ward, I reached for that claxon again to announce the discovery of a great new (to me) writer. It is something special.

I also meet the independent publishers Vertebrate, and ask them what being based in Sheffield means to them.

Get in touch via email or twitter @AnnaCaig .

Read of the fortnight: Rawblood by Catriona Ward

I was in two minds about whether to choose this book as my read of the fortnight.

I know many people will be put off by the gruesome subject matter, and the marketing description of this book as a horror story.

But the truth is that Rawblood by Catriona Ward is so much more than that.

This is one of those books that makes me want to jump up and down shouting “It’s brilliant. Read it!” rather than write any sort of sensible review. But I’ll give it a go.

Frequent readers of this column will know that I love my stories with a hefty helping of the dark and the weird.

I was expecting to enjoy the subject matter of Rawblood. This is a gothic ghost story about a cursed family.

So far, so massively my cup of tea. But I wasn’t necessarily expecting it to be so beautifully written, so clever, or so impressively varied in setting and viewpoint.

Impressive not only in scope, but in that there is complete coherence throughout the story, through multiple narrators and narrative techniques.

And while Rawblood is definitely horrible, it is not terrifying.

I am a good test of these things, because despite my love of the macabre, I am freakishly easily scared (ask my husband, who has been woken up in the middle of the night to come with me to the loo in case there is a zombie in there on more than one occasion).

Ward tells us the tale of Iris Villarca, a young girl who is the last of her cursed family line, growing up alone with her secretive father.

The grand Villarca house Rawblood (the name is actually a corruption of the Old English Sraw Bont, meaning a house by the bridge, rather than anything more sinister) is haunted by a mysterious white figure.

We uncover their family story back through generations, in a tale that becomes increasingly shocking, moving and thought-provoking.

The truth is that there is as much of EM Forster and Jane Austen in here as there is Arthur Conan Doyle, Ann Radcliffe or Mary Shelley.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a book for the squeamish.

But it is an accomplished feat of literary craftsmanship. And a stunningly good read.

I urge you to give it a chance. Just don’t wake me up if you need the loo in the night and want someone to hold your hand.

Reader Reviews: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Rebekka in the Hope Valley says: I found The Snow Child absorbing and deeply moving. This book club favourite has been described as a fairytale for people who have grown out of fairytales. I’d say it’s also a story about love for people who don’t like love stories.

Ivey skilfully intertwines a number of stories about love, including a long marriage, friendship between women and their families, nurturing relationships between adults and children – and of course the characters’ relationships with the snow child, Faina.

The rekindling of Jack and Mabel’s marriage, and their growing relationship with Faina, are beautifully yet unsentimentally depicted. But it’s the book’s depiction of each character’s relationship with nature and with the harsh Alaskan landscape which has stayed with me the most.

In the opening, the barely-frozen river unexpectedly supports Mabel’s weight and prevents her from killing herself. Playing in the snow together is a catalyst for renewal in her marriage and marks the arrival of Faina. As he labours to plant potatoes, Jack is painfully reminded of digging a grave for their tiny son, but the couple are finally able to talk about their miscarriage.

Mabel’s growing acceptance that the snow child can only thrive when she is living wild, that they can’t force her to stay with them, signals a deeper acceptance of the losses the couple have endured. Against all odds this icy, inhospitable landscape has restored their capacity for love and, ultimately, happiness. Highly recommended.

Literary City: The Sheffield Connection

Sheffield is home to a vibrant, growing publishing scene. This fortnight we meet the independent Vertebrate Publishing, who aim to publish books that will inspire adventure, something close to the heart of many people in Sheffield. Vertebrate is made up of a crack team of climbers, cyclists, walkers and mountain bikers. They first began publishing in August 2004 with Dark Peak Mountain Biking, and have since expanded their programme with a range now including memoirs, fiction, photography and wildlife books.

As well as publishing award-winning new books, they work to make many out-of-print classics available in both print and digital formats. These are stories that they believe are unique and significant and they want to make sure that they continue to be shared and enjoyed.

The Vertebrate offices are on Psalter Lane, within easy reach of the Peak District.

Lorna Hargreaves of Vertebrate describes the difference this makes to their business.

“We are minutes away from the world-class climbing, hillwalking, and biking that is the inspiration behind many of our books.

“We’re driven by our own passion for outdoor exploration, and it’s this passion that we want to share with our readers.

“We think it’s particularly important that young people get outside and explore the natural world, something we support through our new fiction imprint Shrine Bell – the home of some of our best-loved children’s and young adults titles.”

Hargreaves is also enthusiastic about the opportunities that come from being based within Sheffield as a city. “We’re lucky enough to work closely with Sheffield’s excellent library network with whom we organise writers’ workshops and talks, and this year we’ve joined forces again for Sheffield’s second Adventure Book Festival.

For the festival four Vertebrate authors will host events at Sheffield Central Library. These include ultrarunner Steve Birkinshaw, whose book There is no Map in Hell has recently been published to critical acclaim and Bob Comlay, who twice sailed with legendary 20th century explorer and author HW Tilman.

“Plus, every year our authors deliver talks as part of Sheffield’s annual Off the Shelf Festival of Words, which draws in big names and large audiences to the city.

“We also regularly visit Sheffield’s many bookshops, which stock Vertebrate titles that have a local significance.

“Sheffield and the surrounding area offer plenty of opportunities for us to get involved with local events and meet like-minded people.

“We’ll be at Eroica – Derbyshire’s vintage cycling festival – in June, armed with our range of books and guides; and at Cliffhanger, Sheffield’s inner city festival, in July.

“Come along and make sure you stop by the Vertebrate stands!”