1891. In a crumbling New England mansion, 12 year-old orphan Florence and her younger brother Giles are neglected by their guardian uncle. Banned from reading, Florence devours books in secret and twists words and phrases into a language uniquely her own. After the violent death of the children’s first governess, a second arrives. Florence becomes convinced she is a vengeful and malevolent spirit who means to do Giles harm. Against a powerful enemy, with no adult to turn to for help, Florence will need all her intelligence and ingenuity to save Giles and preserve her private world. This is her chilling tale . . .
For a really good analysis and review of Florence and Giles listen to this from New Zealand Radio:
‘John Harding’s Florence and Giles is an elegant literary exercise worked out with the strictness of a fugue; imagine Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw rewritten by Edgar Allan Poe. Plotted to the last detail, it is punctuated with an ominous image of flawed innocence: a black rook on white snow. Nothing prepares you for the chillingly ruthless but – in retrospect – inevitable finale.’
‘It is a brave writer who will take on Henry James, but John Harding’s publishers trumpet his debt to The Turn of the Screw. Fortunately, however, Harding rings enough ingenious changes on James’s study of perversity to produce his own full-blown Gothic horror tale. Florence’s often very personal narrative powerfully and convincingly conveys the vulnerability of children faced with terror.’
‘Nodding to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, John Harding’s fourth novel is a tight gothic thriller about governesses and their frightened charges. The climax becomes unbearably tense. Florence (the 12-year-old heroine and narrator) feels the horror of her situation “cheese-grating” her soul, which is just how Harding leaves the reader feeling at the end of this creepily suggestive story.’
‘Real atmosphere is increasingly rare in novels and here it is in spades. Like James, Harding keeps his dramatis personae tightly confined and ramps up the terror until even the most careful reader wonders what’s going on. A tour de force.’
‘A brilliant tension where the reader knows something wicked is this way coming, but with little clue as to the direction. The eeriness pervades like a dank fog. A good clever modern take on old-style American gothic, a creepy haunted house tale in which the living are just as eerie as any real or imagined ghouls.’
New Zealand Herald
‘Mysterious towers, faces in mirrors, shadowy corridors and long black dresses all conspire to create an intriguing, atmospheric ghost story told in a wonderfully captivating narrative voice.’
Edinburgh International Book Festival Top 10 Reads of 2010
‘Harding doesn’t pull his punches. The novel’s tension is skilfully built and maintained. If nothing else, this novel is likely to put inhabitants of any dark, draughty Victorian mansions off the idea of home education for some considerable time.’
‘Unputdownable. In Florence, Harding has created an extraordinary character. Intrigue, suspense and tension colour the pages of this novel, drawing the reader into a sinister world from which not even the surprise ending will pull you back.’
‘Perfect for mystery thriller fans.’
‘An exciting, metaphorical novel.’
‘I gave up smoking on 8th December 2008 and I must admit that I occasionally miss that nicotine kick but every now and then a great book comes along which replicates that surge to the brain! Florence and Giles is such a book. You don’t have to read The Turn of the Screw to appreciate Florence and Giles. This clever, gothic chiller has its own distinct merits. First and foremost is Florence’s idiosyncratic use of language as she transposes nouns with verbs and vice versa. Look at this wonderful description of the neglected library:
“No maid ever ventures here; the floors are left unbroomed, for unfootfalled as they are, what would be the point? The shelves go unfingerprinted, the wheeled ladders to the upper ones unmoved, the books upon them yearning for an opening, the hole place a dustery of disregard.”
I would be very surprised if this doesn’t make it into my Top Ten Reads for this year – who needs nicotine, eh?’
‘Thoroughly ingenious and captivating, a book in which nothing is certain – neither for the characters, nor for our perception of them and of what is happening. It’s a scarily good story, in an arrestingly unusual narrative voice. For Florence, having secretly taught herself to read in defiance of her uncle’s wishes, has developed her own idiosyncratic vocabulary and grammar that provide as much enjoyment for the reader as the story itself.
‘Quite simply, this book blew me away. Florence and Giles is one of the best books I’ve read this year, if not the best. I don’t get scared easily but I can honestly tell you that I was on the edge of my seat and contemplating whether I had the guts to turn the page. Sometimes, the whole “scary mystery” can be lame/cheesy in a book, and even though Florence and Giles involved evil spirits, ghosts, and other supernatural references, it felt real – which scared me. I found myself accepting whatever was thrown at me. I could keep going. I’m not even halfway through expressing all I feel about this book – yes, it was that good. If you’re going to read one book that I’ve blogged about so far, please, let it be this one.'
‘I did wonder towards the end if Harding was going to be able to pull everything off and I was nervous that the whole experience would be let down in the final pages. It’s quite the opposite in fact. Harding knows where this tale is heading from the start. The clues are there and have been all along. The tale was disturbing enough for me to feel uncomfortable being home alone at night when I was reading it. One for fans of suspense, tension and girls who are far too intelligent for their own good.’
Florence and Giles has been a bestseller in Brazil where it was titled A Menina que nao sabia ler - The Girl Who Didn’t Know How to Read. This is how they sold it in Rio:
You can see the very wonderful Brazilian ad for the book here.
On a remote South Pacific island paradise the struggles of an elderly tribesman to translate Shakespeare’s Hamlet into the local pidgin English are interrupted by the unexpected arrival of a young American lawyer with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. From that moment on, nothing will ever be the same . . . What follows is an ambitious and wonderfully original novel, inviting us into a sublimely imagined world teeming with life, ideas and full of wonders – the islanders with their strange notions about sex, their madly logical rituals and their tortured but addictive version of the English language, a curiously large number of people with artificial legs, and the dwarf pigs they hunt (when they can be bothered). It’s a place where magic is everywhere, where you can buy a potion to make someone fall in love with you (all it costs is a few yams) and visit the kassa house and discover that the dead may not be so dead after all. It’s a world so different it questions our own values and ideas about love, life and even death. Life-affirming, achingly funny and profoundly moving, One Big Damn Puzzler confirms John Harding as one of contemporary fiction’s most entertaining and observant chroniclers of the human condition.
‘A multi-layered comedy with characters and language that are still funny on repeated readings. Laugh-out loud funny, ambitious, carefully constructed, addictive, this novel is one big damn fine achievement.’
‘It’s hard to imagine a more instantly winning conceit than that which opens One Big Damn Puzzler . . . it made me laugh. A lot. The charm and comic invention continue. Harding’s novel is a looping, playful flight of fancy, full of affection and silliness. Gaugin-gaudy, and as rich and spicy as a good dish of stewed yam.’
Daily Telegraph (Hardback review)
‘This big ambitious novel works very well: Harding’s islanders are convincing and he expertly plays chicken along the borderline of political correctness. More than that, it is touching and, in its ruminations on a theme by Shakespeare, damn clever.’
Daily Telegraph (Paperback review)
‘Feel good . . . life affirming . . . One Big Damn Puzzler begins at a furious pace and contains some genuinely original touches. A gentle satire subtly underlines the topicality. Laugh-out-loud funny and moving.’
‘In this masterly tragicomedy, ambitious in scope and executed with wit and exuberance, John Harding has created a rich, complex and enduring fictitious world which nevertheless holds important truths for our own.’
‘Blackly comic . . . reminiscent of Waugh and Pynchon by turns . . . intensely literary. A thoroughly entertaining read.'
‘A large, rambunctious novel filled with memorable characters and generous helpings of wit and compassion. An intricate and exciting plot ensures you’ll be hooked to the very end.’
Good Book Guide
‘A timely parable about the American drive to superimpose its cultural values on others.’
‘One of the most delightfully wacky, beautifully written, wise and moving farces you’ll read in a long while.’
‘Harding is an equal opportunity and brutally sharp lampooner. Folly, silliness and cultural sucker punches come at full speed in this ribald, imaginative farce.’
U.S. Publishers Weekly
‘A cracking read.’
‘Bladder-emptyingly funny . . . a big damn excellent book.’
‘Enormously enjoyable. Harding tackles this novel’s huge subject with a blissfully skewed lightness of touch. And I’ll never be able to look at a pair of green slingbacks again without wanting to cry. And laugh.’
‘If you want to buy a book this year for someone who loves inventive fiction and a good laugh, make it this one. Achingly funny and very touching. As the natives would say: “This be one damn fine novel.’
‘Comic and moving . . . stays with you long after you have read it.’
New Books Magazine
Obsessed with sex, increasingly cocaine-fuelled and gripped by a crippling fear of death, Professor Michael Cole finds his life spinning out of control. He’s supposed to be writing the definitive biography of his literary hero, John Donne, yet barely manages a few hundred words a week. He knows he really shouldn’t seduce his prettier female students but he can’t stop. And the failure of a colleague to succumb to his waning charms is a challenge he could well do without. Throw in a fight for promotion, a wife to lie to and two small children to look after and it’s no wonder his blood pressure has soared to life-threatening heights. But Michael is a creature of habit and old habits die hard. It’s only when he’s caught in the act of adultery by his grandmother that he sees the writing on the wall. After all, she’s been dead for twenty-five years . . .
Funny, compelling and truthful, While the Sun Shines confirms John Harding as a wonderfully shrewd and provocative chronicler of the human condition.
‘Very funny in a straightforward, joyful and relaxed way, full of exuberant sentences and lovely set pieces. Full of penetrating moments. Harding’s ability to switch smoothly from comedy to pathos is truly memorable. The ending is stunning, both unexpected and inevitable.’
‘A refreshingly funny and affectionate university novel’
‘Recalls (Philip) Roth and the films and fiction of Woody Allen . . . very funny, its tone is ironic and affectionate and there are moments of appalling tenderness that will give you a lump in your throat.’
‘Harding’s humour is close to hysteria, the tears are never far away, and the novel is that rare thing – painfully funny.’
‘A subtle and skilful writer . . . a worthy successor to the likes of The History Man, Lucky Jim and Porterhouse Blue.’
‘Harding is wonderfully wise about the human predicament but has a special weakness for menopausal men with their twin obsessions of sex and death.’
Best Holiday Books, Daily Mail
‘Donne’s poetry and spirit are scattered throughout the book, which somehow manages to end up lauding its shambling, decadent, unfaithful protagonist. But the story is a tender one and wonders about mortality and morality in a gentle way despite the hyperactivity of Professor Cole’s heart, mind and soul.’
‘This is a provocative exploration of the human condition, bursting with insight and wry wit as our protagonist deepens his rut of self-obsession and self-delusion.’
The Irish Times
A brilliantly written blend of comedy and tragedy.’
‘Dad Lit not Lad Lit, but still a hoot.’
‘Harding can certainly write. He has an infectious style, some great comic moments, a touch of the unexpected and a feel for character and family. If folk are looking for someone new to chuckle over, empathise with and thoroughly enjoy, they can’t go wrong with this.’
‘A witty novel about growing old disgracefully. Wild and wacky.’
‘From the author of the poignant, hilarious What We Did On Our Holiday comes this wonderful novel concerning a beleaguered professor with a rampant libido, a mid-life crisis and endless family problems. Very funny about fatherhood.’
Woman and Home
‘Michael Cole is charging headlong into the kind of proper midlife crisis that you just don’t see enough of since Tony Parsons and his ilk started making it trendy. Good book.’
‘Is there life after death? How can we go on living in the shadow of our own annihilation? And how much food should you order for a meal out with three dead people? Just some of the questions asked in this wonderfully funny novel.’
‘It’s impossible not to love this hilarious and poignant tale.’
‘Guaranteed to get you laughing out loud.’
Nick could have a great time in Malta if it weren’t for one thing: his family. His wife Laura, biological clock ticking, is desperate for children and that means a nightly test of Nick’s ingenuity to resist her amorous advances. There’s Dad, afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, scarcely able to walk or talk, unsure which country or decade he’s in and obsessed by sex and lavatories. And there’s Mum, weighing in at a formidable 18 stone (although she’s convinced she’s a size 10) with a personality to match. Then there’s the ghost from Dad’s wartime past, come back to haunt them all . . .
Tackling a taboo subject with sensitivity, compassion and a total lack of sentimentality, What We Did On Our Holiday is about the time in our lives when we find ourselves looking after the very people we’d always assumed would be there to look after us.
Shortlisted for the W H Smith New Talent Award
‘An exceptional first novel. The rite of passage that occurs when the roles of parent and child are reversed has been well covered in fiction, but rarely as movingly as here. Harding tackles a difficult subject with a light touch, great humour and a complete lack of mawkishness. What really makes this book special, however, is its lack of blame or rancour. For all his characters’ annoyances, jealousies and power struggles, the relationships Harding explores – in what Richard Ford called “applause-less lives” – are underpinned with great love and humanity. A really wonderful book.’
‘The brutal honesty of life with an ailing parent is relieved by wild humour and heartbreaking compassion in this very impressive debut novel. Using his own father’s 25-year experience of Parkinson’s disease as a subject was a brave move by John Harding which succeeds brilliantly.’
‘A brilliant first novel that tackles disability with humour.’
‘At times so moving it’s painful to read, this book is beautifully written and very funny.’
‘This is a novel about the trials and tribulations of family life which will strike a chord with many readers. Harding handles a difficult subject with great sensitivity.’
Mail on Sunday
‘A wonderfully funny, original and moving novel. Harding has knife-sharp observation, immaculate timing, and the guts to take his story as far as it will go.’
‘A wonderful novel, written with great humour and a rare generosity of spirit. Truly original and beautifully controlled, right up to its gripping and painful denouement.’
‘Black humour tinged with despair. A wonderfully touching portrait of the relationship between a son and his father as the latter descends into senility.’
‘A truly lovely tale of a couple taking elderly parents on holiday. A warm, affectionate, humorous and touching read. I highly recommend it.’
‘Funny and touching.’
‘Potentially grim reading, but Harding mixes humour with the tragedy and there’s so much humanity in his writing that it’s difficult not to be drawn into the lives of his characters.’
Hampstead and Highgate Express
‘With characters who are warm and funny, yet demanding too, What We Did On Our Holiday is a truly moving novel, tackling an emotional subject with humour and compassion.’
‘Witty and sad – very sad in parts – but the ending is not an unhappy one.’
‘John Harding balances warmth and wonderful humour with genuine, from-the-heart compassion to produce the most unusual, entertaining and thought-provoking book I’ve read in years.‘
WHAT WE DID ON OUR HOLIDAY was made into a two hour television film by ITV, starring Shane Richie, Roger Lloyd-Pack and Pauline Collins, broadcast in 2006. The film rights are now available again.