Now here’s an author I’ve mentioned a few times before, including a note of the work she’s done collaboratively with Jonathan Hill. Kath Middleton is not a writer who likes to stick herself in a rut: you never quite know when you pick up her next work whether it will be a short story or a novel or something in between, or whether you’ll get history, fantasy, crime, comedy, the supernatural or simply an observational piece. It doesn’t matter, they’re all good. A great deal of her strength lies in her characters, who are ordinary people dealing with odd situations in a way that the reader can really sympathise with: they are people we feel we know. The real trouble is that because her work is so varied, it’s extremely difficult to pick out a few favourites. So here, without (much) apology, is all I’ve read and reviewed of her work so far!
Next came Message in a Bottle. After reading Ravenfold and her short stories, I expected a dark twist, but instead it is very heart-warming. She portrays the confusion of grief and bereavement beautifully, as well as the intricacies of friendship of different kinds and with different histories.
Just when everyone thought they had pegged down her style, she came back with Top Banana.
Bananas and spiders, the greatest risks to the life of the dedicated greengrocer. Steve leads a miserable life, in a deadend job and at the receiving end of his mother’s unrelenting criticism, until the time he is bitten by a spider and slips on a banana. The result is a step on to the steeply curving path of improvement and his life turns around, in a witty comedy with a wonderful feelgood ending. There are some hilarious situations and apt descriptions: I particularly like ‘like eleven gallons of anger trying to fit into a ten gallon bucket’.
Then for a winter treat we had Stir-Up Sunday, one of her quicker reads, and spot-on for the time of year when the fire is glowing and the night is thick with frost. As always she is right inside the head of ordinary people to whom odd things happen, and her descriptions are lightly done but so apt. There were just the right number of shivers up my spine!
Then we have Long Spoon. Rather against Kath's usual style (even when I’ve said she keeps changing it!), the main character in this book is thoroughly unlikeable, and we're carried through the book more by the two secondary characters, Paul and Rose, and by a desire for Ed to receive his come-uppance. Whether he does or not I shan't say, but the ending was definitely satisfactory, and the writing and plotting well up to standard.
Beneath the Ink, too, tweaked our expectations again. It took me a little while to get past the cover on this book! But once I did I was intrigued. It was not the horror plot I was expecting but a kind of espionage thriller, full of tragic coincidences and the kind of human interactment that Kath always does so well, along with a bleak view of what could happen to our country through one small accident far away.
Souls Disturbed saw a return to shorter works. This is a beautifully written set of three spooky tales, involving a haunted mirror, a case of apparently inherited insanity, and an ancient well. All will send chills up your spine, but there is more to them than that. The stories see into the minds of ordinary people facing crises on various scales, hoping, dreaming, fearing and grieving, with a gentle and often humorous understanding that brings the words to life.
The Novice’s Demon is a creepy little story with some horrible touches - or was that just my imagination being teased? Though it was short, the characters came across strongly and I'd like to see more of them, if Kath ever does a sequel to any of her stories.
Her latest work (though I suspect there’s more imminent) is to my mind her best so far – The Flesh of Trees. While she is highly skilled at humour and at supernatural suspense, this is the first I’ve seen from her such rich descriptive writing in which the reader can simply submerge themselves. The plot is neat and relatively simple, combining the oft-told story of the little man against the greedy entrepreneur with the mystery of what happens to the village children who wander into the wrong part of the forest. The characters are entirely natural, sympathetically drawn and real.
Kath describes herself as retired, but she certainly keeps herself busy. She is also immensely supportive of other writers, beta-reading, reviewing, and editing the collections A Splendid Salmagundi and A Goodreads Gallimaufrey. You feel that if you have Kath on your side, things will go well! But if you’re not intending to write, or indeed if you are (for there is much to learn) then go and read her publications. You’ll find plenty to enjoy, and plenty to think about.