Category Archives: Harper Collins

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

Hopefully in the future realms of time, if my plans work out which they are often unlikely to do, this won’t be noticeable as the blog post that ‘brought Savidge Reads back’ after some time away. Yet when I was thinking about which book I should ‘come back’ with it seemed Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine was the most apt as it is the book I have talked about the most in a literal sense in the last year or so. The reason for that being that is was the winner of the category (debuts) I judged for last year’s Costa Awards. It is the book that I have had some of the most heated conversations about, not with my fellow judges (Sandy and Sophie who were both a joy) though we talked about it at length, with people in my day to day life who felt very strongly one way or the other and were surprised when it won. I wasn’t surprised. No, not because I knew in advance, ha, but because I think it is a book that can appeal to anyone and does a huge variety of things, with so many layers, and remains wonderfully readable – a word which can open a huge can of worms but I am not literary snob and embrace the joys of readability. Anyway, the book…

Harper Collins, paperback, 2018, fiction, 400 pages, kindly sent by the Costa Awards

 When people ask me what I do – taxi drivers, hairdressers – I tell them I work in an office. In almost eight years, no one’s ever asked me what kind of office, or what sort of job I do there. I can’t decide whether that’s because I fit perfectly with their idea of what an office worker looks like, or whether it’s just that people hear the phrase work in an office and automatically fill in the blanks themselves – lady doing photocopying, man tapping at keyboard. I’m not complaining. I’m delighted that I don’t have to get into the fascinating intricacies of accounts receivable with them.

And so we are thrown into the life of Eleanor Oliphant a woman whom to many would seem in the centre of society, with a decent job her own home etc, but who actually has become someone much more on the periphery of society that the facade of a ‘steady life’ would let on. She does her nine to five, Monday to Friday, and at the end of the latter she buys herself a few margarita pizzas and a couple of bottles of vodka and drinks the weekend away. It is here that the novel then takes two paths, though with many layers. Firstly we wonder why it is that Eleanor has found herself in this position and secondly we wonder how this cycle might be broken.

It is the latter that unfolds itself first. Walking home with a colleague Ray, who seems to want to befriend Eleanor much to her confusion, they witness an elderly man collapse and in helping him become embroiled further with each other and Sammy. A turning point in Eleanor’s life has come, even if she doesn’t really see it as an opportunity she particularly wants, the question is how she will deal with it? Especially when she has recently become besotted with a local pop star who she thinks she is destined to marry.

As to why Eleanor has ended up so isolated and alone, Honeyman does something which I really admired – if admittedly it does go a little twist-tatsic (I might trademark that) towards the end. We get a slow reveal which is at once heartbreaking but also eye opening. It is hard to say anything for fear of spoilers but there is some serious trauma in her past which we are slowly alluded to. For me the most heartbreaking moments were much more subtle, and this is what I hope to see lots more of in Honeyman’s writing in the future, where a single paragraph says so much within its subtext and the reader can start to fill in the blanks to much emotional effect.

 She came with me from my childhood bedroom, survived the rough treatment in foster placements and children’s homes and, like me, she’s still here. I’ve looked after her, tended to her, picked her up and repotted her when she was dropped or thrown. She likes the light, and she’s thirsty. Apart from that, she requires minimal care and attention, and largely looks after herself. I talk to her sometimes, I’m not ashamed to admit it. When the silence and aloneness press down and around me, crushing me, carving through me like ice, I need to speak aloud, if only for proof of life.

That makes this novel sound like it is a misery feast and that is not the case at all, often I found myself chuckling along as I read. (I have said many a time on this blog in the past that a good dose of comedy can make the darker parts of a book all the more so.) As Eleanor reluctantly forces herself out into the world more and more the deadpan comedy comes in many high street spaces such as her first visit for a wax. ‘Hollywood’, I said, finally. ‘Holly would, and so would Eleanor’. Yet, again, here Honeyman does something which I think is very clever, she occasionally blurs the lines between when we are laughing with and laughing at Eleanor. A short sharp shock every now and again that we are doing exactly what those horrid co-workers are doing we dislike so much at the start. This isn’t intended as judgement, it is simply a reminder to check ourselves once in a while, to be kinder.

That said Eleanor is not always particularly kind herself. But her flaws and quirks are what make her such an interesting character. Her directness often made me ponder if we are meant to assume that she is on the autistic scale, though sometimes she is just simply rude to people. This is a woman though who has been so much on the sidelines of the world that everything seems as at odds with her as she as with it. It also reminds us that not everyone is instantly loveable but they are always relatable and there is almost always, if we make the effort to look and don’t expect everyone to come to us, an ‘in’ to their world.

 When Raymond returned, I paid for lunch, since he had paid last time; I was really starting to get the hang of the concept of a payment schedule. He insisted on leaving the tip, however. Five pounds! All the man had done was carry our food from the kitchen to the table, a job for which he was already being recompensed by the cafe owner. Raymond was reckless and profligate – no wonder he couldn’t afford proper shoes or an iron.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is very much like its central character; quirky, funny, frank and honest. Once you look past that facade it is also brimming with layers about being different but not being obviously or any stereotype of different. It is a blunt, yet digestible which is not always easy, look at the awful nature of loneliness and how easy it can be to become a loner. It is also about hope and a reminder that we should never judge anyone by any assumptions we might make of them. I applaud it for all of these things.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Costa Book Awards, Gail Honeyman, Harper Collins, Review

We Should All Be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

As I mentioned when I shared the Baileys Women’s Prize longlist yesterday, it was International Women’s Day. I decided to mark the occasion by reading a book that felt appropriate for the occasion which was We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who I am a huge fan of. As someone who believes in equal rights for everyone regardless of gender, race, sexuality, disability etc, I believe that I am a feminist. Yet, as Chimamanda points out in this work, the word feminist really divides people. I have been told I cannot be a feminist because I am a man, though once I was told begrudgingly that I could be one because I was a gay man, interesting. I disagree. In fact some people may say I shouldn’t even be commenting on this book, or say I am ‘mansplaining’; well I’m not and I want to talk about it so I will…

9780008115272

4th Estate, paperback, 2014, non-fiction, 62 pages, bought by myself for myself

In her essay We Should All Be Feminists, based on a TEDx talk that she gave, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie looks at her experiences and relationships with being a feminist and the reaction her feminism that people have had. Chimamanda was first called a feminist when she was young and having debates with one of her best friends, Okoloma who was tragically killed in a plane crash some years later. The thing was that when he said it, it wasn’t a flattering statement. This experience continued in her education as she reminisces about a moment she competed to be a school monitor, only to win and find out only boys could be school monitors – a small matter no one bothered to mention or question. It has carried on into her career as a novelist.

In 2003, I wrote a novel called Purple Hibiscus, about a man who, among other things, beats his wife, and whose story doesn’t end too well. While I was promoting the novel in Nigeria, a journalist, a nice, well meaning man, told me he wanted to advise me. (Nigerians, as you might know, are very quick to give unsolicited advice.)
He told me that people were saying my novel was feminist, and his advice to me – he was shaking his head sadly as he spoke – was that I should never call myself a feminist, since feminists are women who are unhappy because they cannot find husbands.
So I decided to call myself a Happy Feminist.

As she writes on Chimamanda looks at how the term ‘feminist’ has made people see her. From people thinking she doesn’t like men, to thinking she flaunts her feminism by wearing high heels, or trying to conform to the stereotype of what men find attracted. All wrong, all leading her to call herself a ‘Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men And Who Likes To Wear Lip Gloss And High Heels For Herself And Not Men’. Blimey, that is quite some title. Which leads to the question which many have asked, and will sadly continue to ask, which is ‘why then call yourself a feminist?’

Some people ask, ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender.  It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem is not about being human, but specifically about being a female human. For centuries, the world divided humans into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem should acknowledge that.

This I found really interesting. Firstly it is a perfectly correct and justifiable response which I hadn’t personally thought about. As I said earlier I see myself as someone who believes in equal rights which I thought automatically made me a feminist, but maybe it makes me a feminist by proxy instead, or not. It is the openness and/or interpretation of the word which differs so much that seems to cause much, not all, of the hoo-ha around it. Secondly, I wondered what Chimamanda’s thoughts on equal rights might be, as equal rights and human rights themselves can differ, dependent on the view. I think. Maybe. More food for thought. Thirdly I started to think about cultural backgrounds or beliefs and how they differ and was just pondering all this and what Chimamanda’s thoughts were on this (reading this became an interesting conversation in my head with Chimamanda that she wasn’t technically a part of but very much the catalyst of, if that doesn’t sound psychotic) when she second guessed me and brought it up.

Culture does not make people. People make culture. Chimamanda then goes on to look at how culture, informed by societies, makes the rules and sometimes those rules become outdated or simply become wrong. An example she uses is with her twin nieces who she and all her family see as a wonderful gift, however a while back in certain cultures this would not have been the case. The example she gives is that Igbo people used to kill twins 100 people, now the idea is abhorrent. This can be applied elsewhere in our more freethinking and modern world. If we keep seeing only men as heads of corporations, it starts to seem ‘natural’ that only men should be heads of corporations.

My next thought, see I did a lot of thinking about this, was if culture changes surely the term of feminism does too. Is feminism becoming more fluid as gender does? I am thinking in particular in relation to transgender and non-binary feminism, as I said I have been told I can’t be a feminist because I am a man, so what then in those instances. I would love, love, love some essays on this from transgender and non-binary writers please, I think that could create some really interesting debate. If you read this Chimamanda (I can dream, right?) I would love your thoughts on this. That said Chimamanda does look at the roles of each gender and how it is not just down to daughters of the present and future but importantly sons too.

Gender matters everywhere in the world. And I would like today to ask that we should begin to plan for a different world. A fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how to start: we must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our suns differently.

As the son of a woman who brought me up by herself whilst going to university, passing her degree and becoming a successful teacher, I like to think my mother has brought up such a son. So I found it all the more interesting that considering (if I do say so myself) I am very much open to all views and being a big believer in equality for everyone, this essay made me think all the more about it, question it and myself subsequently giving me a real brain work out. Hence why I think everyone should read it and why, as Chimamanda so eloquently argues, We Should All Be Feminists. We should.

11 Comments

Filed under Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Fourth Estate Books, Harper Collins, Non Fiction, Review

And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie

I hope you have all had a marvellous Christmas? I certainly have so far. Those of you who have been kind enough to pop by over the last seven years will know that today, Boxing Day, is my very favourite day of the festive season. I love it because the stress of Christmas is gone, you generally end up seeing another set of family and so have all the grub and present delight but it is more of a slobbing day where you can wear your pyjamas for 70% of it and read, catch up on some telly or both. I am actually making the following two days additional Boxing Day’s I love it so much. Where does this link in with Agatha Christie? Well, it is the perfect day to read a classic crime and invariably there is one on the telly, tonight being the night a whole new adaptation of And Then There Were None starts, so I thought I’d better read the book before I watched it.

9646992

Harper Collins, 1939 (2011 USA edition), paperback, fiction, 247 pages, bought by myself for myself

Soldier Island! Why, there had been nothing else in the papers lately! All sorts of hints and interesting rumours. Though probably they were mostly untrue. But the house had certainly been built by a millionaire and was said to be absolutely the last word in luxury.

When eight strangers are separately invited to spend a weekend on Satin Island, they find their host missing with only the staff, Mr and Mrs Rogers, left to attend to them. After having settled in and having a pre-dinner drink they are all shocked to hear a message from an unknown voice telling them all of their complicity in various deaths. No sooner have they taken in the shock, one of their group suddenly dies and the poem ‘And Then There Were None’ hanging in their rooms along with the ten figurines in the dining room start to take on an even more sinister twist. Who is it who wants revenge on this party and why? More importantly with a murderer in their mist, who seems to be one of their own, will anyone survive?

From the very start of And Then There Were None I was hooked. As we travel with each member of the party by train, car and boat the tension is instantly racked up by the fact that we know from the off that they are being lied to. There’s also a wicked streak to it where  we know that doom is around the corner and the characters don’t, so we are ahead of them as the apprehension, tension and fear slowly dawns on the hapless guests and suspicions begins to mount. 

Mrs. Rogers had a flat monotonous voice. Vera looked at her curiously. What a white bloodless ghost of a woman! Very respectable-looking, with her hair dragged back from her face and her black dress. Queer light eyes that shifted the whole time from place to place.
Vera thought:
“She looks frightened of her own shadow.”
Yes, that was it – frightened!
She looked like a woman who walked in mortal fear.
A little shiver passed down Vera’s back. What on earth was the woman afraid of?

For me this novel is Agatha Christie at the most gothic and sinister that I have read her so far. She is also at her sharpest in terms of plotting. As I read on I had no idea who the victim might be (though thanks to the nursery rhyme I had the ability to guess how they might be bumped off) and certainly had no clue as to who the murderer was and if they were one of the group or not which is brilliantly puzzling. It seems impossible the more it goes on and then at the end I marvelled at Christie’s cleverness rather than feeling miffed I didn’t cotton on. Something only the best crime writers can achieve, especially as it does make sense (and there are some very clever clues left) by the end. She’s a genius.

It would be amiss of me not to mention this book without the history of the title which I think has somewhat unfairly labelled it as being a classic that is racist. Here me out… Firstly, language and times have changed thank goodness and the original title isn’t acceptable anymore, rightly so. I admit initially when one of the characters started saying some pretty anti-Semitic things I had a wobble until it clicked, Agatha Christie is pointing out how stupid and backward these attitudes and thoughts are. You are meant to flinch at the casual racism and sexism throughout.

“Ah, I understand you now. Well, there is that Mr. Lombard. He admits to having abandoned twenty men to their deaths.”
Vera said: “They were only natives…”
Emily Brent said sharply: “Black or white, they are our brothers.”
Vera thought: “Our black brothers – our black brothers. Oh, I’m going to laugh. I’m hysterical. I’m not myself…”

I actually think characters prejudices are all part of the plot, they certainly add to the flaws of all the characters and their unreliable nature. You might think ‘good on Emily Brent’  (above) one minute, before she launches a tirade about single mothers and women having children out of wedlock. None of these characters a lacking in prejudice, often it is this that has lead someone to the island and to their deaths. Christie is using a page turning novel to make a point and possibly educate a few people along the way about the ridiculous nature of some views, she does it without bashing them over the head (well, with the exception of some of the fates of her characters – is this symbolic?) or taking a moral high ground which turns any reader off frankly. We don’t want to be preached to and Agatha doesn’t, she just makes a point, with murder.

So there you have it, I can completely understand why And Then There Were None has gone on to become not only Agatha Christie’s best selling novel, but one of the bestselling thrillers/crime novels of all time. It certainly ties with Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (which is totally different but if you haven’t read you simply must) as my favourite of Christie’s novel and shows what an incredible master of plot she was. Highly recommended, if you aren’t one of the 100+ million people who have already read it!

18 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Books of 2015, Harper Collins, Review

The Bees – Laline Paull

For someone who always bangs on about how much they dislike horses in fiction, as I am so suspicious of them in real life, you might think I am not a lover of nature. Actually I am a bit of a nature geek, I will lose the tiniest bit of street cred I have left now by saying I used to be a bird watcher or ‘twitcher’ (we won’t mention the stamp collecting, oops) and any television show with David Attenborough I have to record and will then watch enraptured. It is my fascination with nature that led to a small obsession over the New Year that I simply had to read Laline Paull’s debut The Bees a tale about a hive of bees. Even the fact that these bees talk (and we all know that I am deeply distrustful of talking animals in general) didn’t put me off. I did wonder if it might be a little Disney like yet as I discovered it couldn’t be further on the opposite end of the spectrum, The Bees is a gripping and often chilling literary thriller – make no mistake.

9780007557745

4th Estate Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 400 pages, bought by myself as my first treat of the year

The cell squeezed her and the air was hot and fetid. All the joints of her body burned from her frantic twisting against the walls, her head was pressed into her chest and her legs shot with cramp, but her struggles had worked – one wall felt weaker. She kicked out with all her strength and felt something crack and break. She forced and tore and bit until there was a jagged hole into fresher air beyond.
She dragged her body through and fell out onto the floor of an alien world. Static roared through her brain, thunderous vibration shook the ground and a thousand scents dazed her. All she could do was breathe until gradually the vibration and static subsided and the scent evaporated into air. Her rigid body unlocked and she calmed as knowledge filled her mind.
This was the Arrivals Hall and she was a worker.
Her kin was Flora and her number was 717.

And so Flora is born into the world of the hive and the hive mind. As a lowly worker Flora instinctively knows  from birth she only lives to do four things; accept, obey, serve and be prepared to sacrifice everything for her beloved holy mother, the Queen. But Flora is not like the other bees, something which one of the Sister Sage’s (the priestesses of the hive) notices from her birth, she is different. While mutant bees are usually destroyed by their own kind, Flora has talents others of her kin don’t (speech and the ability to act alone, worker bees naturally just collect and dispose of the dead until they are, well, dead) and so is removed from sanitation duty and is allowed to feed the Queen’s offspring, before becoming a forager out collecting pollen. However Flora is also different from all the bees in another way (which I won’t spoil for you) and soon Flora becomes both a threat to the hive and potentially its only hope of survival.

Laline Paull does so many brilliant things with this book it is frankly rather difficult to know where to begin. Firstly though let us start with Flora 717 who, after getting over the initial unusual narration from a talking bee, is a wonderful protagonist and the perfect antiheroine in a novel that i by its very nature one of totalitarian regime. She questions things, she questions everything, she answers back, she does things she shouldn’t and she’s blooming brave in the face of many dangers. She’s gutsy and we all like a feisty protagonist don’t we? She is also an outsider and so we have empathy for her, especially when things take a darker and more complex turn.

Paull also creates a dark, controlled and claustrophobic world where orders must just be obeyed and the constant threat of ‘The Kindness’ lies in the eyes of all the other bees working to one hive mind. These are not cute and cuddly bumble bee’s, these are honey bees which, pun intended, are not as sweet as they sound –  for example there is a massacre, which happens once a year,  that I found genuinely shocking. There is also the danger of the outside world as a constant threat to the hive. There are other insects (let’s just say that spider and wasps aren’t bees natural allies) as well as other mammalian intruders including humans ourselves. The latter, along with the chemical threats to a bee, also highlight how in many ways we are abusing and endangering bees, which the environment needs and how a decline in them could be catastrophic in the long term. It has certainly made me rethink the value of honey.

Then there is also the world of the hive and how it operates. For the bees it is normal and they know no different but as readers we naturally humanise it, meaning from the start of the novel we compare their world to a totalitarian regime rather than nature doing what it has to do. Paull knows this and uses it wisely to highlight the cause and effect of such a culture. She also brings much more into the analogy of humankind as bees, if you know what I mean, in terms of gender politics, class, monarchy, religion and being different. There are layers and layers and layers, it’s a brimming book.

I mentioned above that this is a gripping novel. There is the pace and directness of the prose which to me read like a thriller, each chapter leaves you wanting to read on be it that something had happened in the hive or indeed to Flora herself. You also want to read on because the life of the bee and the beehive is so utterly fascinating. Both during reading and since I finished reading I have been coming out with endless facts about bees that I learnt through the book to anyone who will listen and several who won’t. Did you know bees can sting other bees without dying? Did you know bees were actually related to wasps but flowers changed all that? Did you know that there is a special mating ritual with a princess bee and her suitors? I could go on.

All this came together to form an absolutely brilliant novel; if you haven’t guessed it by now I absolutely loved The Bees. It is one of those books that has, like a beehive, so many levels to it. You can read it as a fascinating nature book (Laline only embellishes a few facts here and there for fictional purposes, bees don’t live a year for example) with an insight into the world of the bee. You can read it as a literary novel about feminism, society and beliefs. You can read it as a thriller or a fantasy, almost sci-fi like, novel too. However it is you read it, do read it. I cannot praise it highly enough.

So there we go my instincts were right, it’s a corker. Maybe insects are my think as I have also read and loved Grasshopper Jungle recently another very different book for me. Anyway, I will be very surprised if The Bees doesn’t get a nod from those lovely folk at The Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction and even more surprised if it isn’t in my top five books of the year in December. If you would like to hear more about The Bees then listen to the latest You Wrote the Book where you can find me in conversation with Laline. Who else has read The Bees and what did you make of it?

14 Comments

Filed under 4th Estate Books, Books of 2015, Harper Collins, Laline Paull, Review

The Floating Admiral – The Detection Club

One of the big talks in recent months on a certain social media platform that I got involved with was about bloggers and how much positivity they put out there in the ether, though hardly a bad thing right? Yet interestingly I can see if I don’t write about books I don’t like then how will people know the full extent of my tastes. The problem then lies in the fact that generally I don’t finish or get very far with books I don’t like and so then just bin them off and carry on with something else, after all reading is all about enjoyment, or should be. There is one exception to this rule, book group books! And as I would probably have never chosen The Floating Admiral unless Gavin hadn’t chosen it for the latest episode of Hear Read This I ended up reading a book I didn’t like very much. Well, I utterly loathed it, yet somehow finished it, so thought I would share a gloves off moment with you all…

Harper Collins, 1931 (2011 edition), paperback, fiction, 336 pages (in tiny print), sadly bought by my good self

The Floating Admiral is a crime novel like many of its ilk written in the 1920’s and 1930’s. This should come as no surprise when you see that Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, Dororthy L. Sayers and many more were part of The Detection Club who collaborated on novels such as this one, taking it in turns to write the chapters. In this tale the body of Admiral Penistone (try not to snigger as I did) is found having been stabbed and left in the vicar’s boat which has been set adrift, ideally to be undiscovered but of course getting found or there would be no mystery. Sure enough it is up to Inspector Rudge to solve the mystery, though with fourteen writers at the helm who can do what they want with the plot (as long as they have a solution to their twists, part of the Detection Club rules, more on later) good luck to him I say.

From the cover of the book, with a bloody boat on it (and you know how I feel about them), I have to say I was thinking of ways to murder Gavin for his choice. Saving grace though is that the boat is just a piece of evidence really and even the Admiral’s Navy past isn’t brought up to much. So I soon started to relax into the story and was reminded for a while of how much I enjoy the golden age of crime novels, I even smirked once or twice…

Everyone in Lingham knew old Neddy Ware, though he was not a native of the village, having only resided there for the last ten years; which, in the eyes of the older inhabitants who had spent the whole of your lives in that quiet spot, constituted him still a “stranger”.
Not that they really knew very much about him, for the old man was of a retiring disposition and had few cronies. What they did know was that he was a retired petty officer in the Royal Navy, subsisting his pension, that he was whole-heartedly devoted to the Waltonian craft, spending most of his time fishing in the River Whyn, and that, though he was of a peaceful disposition generally, he had a vocabulary of awful and blood-curdling, swear words if anyone upset him by interfering with his sport.

…Then I got so bored; so, so bored. This novel wasn’t even chundering along; it dragged itself rambling through several chapters. This was like a really bad/tedious/dull version of an Agatha Christie novel. Then thank heavens Agatha actually turns up for Chapter Four and it is like a breath of fresh air; it is wryly camp, she brings in a brilliant character which adds some gusto… and then she hurries away as fast as she can after 8 pages!

“Now,” he said with a twinkle; “I’m going to ask you a question.”
“Yes, sir?”
“Who is the biggest talker in Whynmouth?”
P.C Hempstead grinned in spite of himself.
“Mrs. Davis, sir who keeps the Lord Marshall. Nobody else can get a word in edgeways when she’s about.”
“One of that kind, is she?”
“Yes, indeed, sir.”
“ Well, that will just suit me. The Admiral was a new comer to the place. There’s always talk about a new comer. For ninety nine false rumours, there will be one true thing that somebody has noticed and observed. Attention had been focussed on Rundel Croft. I want to know just what has transpired in village gossip.”
“Then it’s Mrs Davis you want, sir.”

It then swiftly descends again and I found myself thinking ‘just hold out for Dorothy L Sayers, Simon, she is meant to be amazing.’ Amazing? Amazingly full of herself! Her chapter rambles on and on and on, compared to Agatha’s eight snappy pages Dorothy decides why go for eight when forty will do. It is relentless. I even tried to be charitable and say to myself ‘poor Dorothy, she’s been given some dross to work with and sort out’ still that dreary never ending chapter doesn’t read well. She’s a pro so I feared for what followed and I was right to.

The whole idea behind The Floating Admiral was supposedly a fun exercise for the authors involved to test themselves and just be creative, sworn over a skull or some such delightful gothic ritual. It becomes a case of showing off and one-upmanship. Take the chapters after Agatha; John Rhode decides that Inspector Rudge Begins to Form a Theory, then clearly not happy with this at all Milward Kennedy decides that in the following chapter Inspector Rudge Thinks Better Of It. And I almost wept as after Dororthy had finished her smug tirade Ronald A. Knox decides to go over the whole case again with Thirty-Nine Articles of Doubt where basically, possibly out of confusion or more likely one-upmanship, he decides to go over the whole case again from the beginning and see what can be worked out. By then there was so little left I felt I had to get to the final chapter, ironically called Clearing Up The Mess, where upon I wish I hadn’t bloody bothered. I can’t think why we have hardly heard of most of these authors can you?

There was one small glimmer of hope, though this shows how bad it got for me; the Appendices’ were quite good, sort of. You see as I mentioned before each author had to give their solution to explain why they had done what they had. As you read them you can see how the writers were writing and plotting and twisting and that is quite interesting. I say quite because one of two of them (yes you Dorothy) decide they need to show how clever they are by almost writing the rest of the book word for word. Here the star of the show shines through again, Agatha Christie’s solution is brilliant (it involves cross-dressing) and frankly should have been a book, and in fact I am hoping it is actually the plot of one of hers I have yet to read.

You could say that The Floating Admiral really just isn’t a book for me. I would go further and say it is possibly one of the most tedious crime novels I have ever read/endured. I will not be reading another; I may also now never read Dorothy L. Sayers unless someone does some serious convincing. I would rather just read Agatha; you can see why she was Queen of Crime at the time.

10 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Harper Collins, Review, The Detection Club

The Preacher – Camilla Lackberg

It is unusual for me to review two novels by the same author in succession but then it unusual for me to read several novels by the same author in quick succession. Or having, as some of you may like to call it, a binge read. However this is what I did with Camilla Lekberg’s first three novels whilst I was in the place that they were set, the stunning village of Fjallbacka. Having enjoyed The Ice Princess I was looking forward to The Preacher, I didn’t realise that in many ways they would be polar opposites of each other…

Harper Books, paperback, 2009, fiction, 432 pages, bought by my good self

When a young boy goes out to play one morning in Fjallbacka and discovers the body of a girl, Detective Patrik Hedstrom is called to investigate a murder cutting short his summer holiday at home with wife Erica. However things get more complicated, and Patrik’s holiday is cut short, when they discover a further two skeletons have been left under the body of the recent victim. Could these be the bodies of two girls who mysteriously disappeared back in the 1970’s which became linked to the Hult family? If so does that mean that they may have had the wrong man down for murder or that a member of the Hult family has been biding their time? Or do they have a new killer who is copying the murders of the 1970’s? As another girl goes missing, a killer needs to be uncovered quickly.

As I mentioned above The Preacher interestingly is like a polar opposite of The Ice Princess. Here I should note that I don’t mean that it is a bad novel as I enjoyed the first, I enjoyed this one equally. However Lackberg seems to have turned everything on its head for her second novel. First of all there is the fact that we were previously in Fjallbacka in the depths of winter, the snow was thick on the ground adding a cold and icy edge to the book. This time however we are in the dead heat of summer. Fjallbacka is sweltering, much to the Erica’s dismay as she is eight months pregnant, yet this cleverly brings the tense balmy heat which can be just as hard to deal with as the severe cold and seems to bring out the madness in people.

The second, and probably biggest, change is that our focus has completely switched from Erica to Patrik. In The Ice Princess we followed Erica as she tried to find out the mysteries behind her friend Alex’s death as an amateur investigator with a personal link to it all. In The Preacher we have a novel that is much more of a police procedural as we follow Patrik and his team and their investigation.

He began writing down notes about how he was going to handle the investigation into the Tanja case.  First, contact the German police authorities, which he had been about to do when he was interrupted by the call from Tord Pedersen. Then he had to talk with Liese again, and finally he thought he’d get Gosta to drive out to the campground with him and ask around. See whether Tanja might have spoken to anyone there. Or perhaps it would be better to ask Patrik to assign that task to Gosta. In this investigation Patrik, not Martin, had the authority to give orders to Gosta. And things had a tendency to go much more smoothly if protocol was followed to the letter.

This adds two new dynamics though as we get a new cast of characters, like the brilliant Annika who keeps it all together and the more complex Martin and Gosta. We also get a detective who has a happy home life which is unusual in the genre, they are normally angry drunks in their spare time. It also adds some light relief and comedy into the mix as Erica and Patrik keep getting deluged by unwanted guests who make themselves less and less welcome.

These light moments are needed as The Preacher is a very dark book. Without giving away any spoilers the Hult family have many secrets in their past and are not a happy bunch and the more we are given insight into their family life the darker things can get. We also have a continuation of the story of Erica’s sister, Anna, who has left her aggressive bullying husband and is now in a new relationship, but will this be any better? There is also of course the murders at the heart of the novel the mystery of them and also as importantly the emotions they bring up. Lackberg looks at how people are affected by the present murder and also that of a cold case, how does it affect those who have never been able to say a proper farewell when that final farewell comes?

She also throws in a rather brilliant and thought provoking strand as another girl goes missing. We follow the story of Jenny’s parents after her disappearance and as they have to wait to see if she will be discovered alive or be the latest victim of a cruel and torturing killer. This adds a real poignancy to The Preacher and really takes us into the lives of a family who are being torn apart by someone else’s cruelty. It is a side that we don’t always see in thrillers and gives both Lackberg and The Preacher a certain edge in the genre.

Seventeen years flickered quickly past like in some sort of internal film. Kerstin felt the weight of Jenny’s little new born body in her arms. Unconsciously she formed her arms into a cradle. The baby grew and after a while everything seemed to go so fast. Much too fast. Why had they spent so much of their precious time bickering and squabbling? If only she had known what was going to happen, she wouldn’t have said a single mean word to Jenny. Sitting at the table with a hole in her heart, she swore that if everything ended well, she would never raise her voice to her daughter again.

All in all the second in Lackberg’s series is a smart police procedural that delivers on dark thrills as it does on an emotional level. I also liked the ending, which does do what you might think – always a clever move. Lackberg is building a great cast of characters in a wonderful setting that I want to get to know better and follow further. I am hoping we get a little bit more Erica as we continue the series as I warmed to her so much in the first. Either way, I am looking forward to returning to Fjallbacka again.

This post is the third in a week of Savidge Reads in Sweden after I was sent by the lovely people at the West Sweden Tourist Board to go on a cold crime adventure.

2 Comments

Filed under Camilla Lackberg, Harper Collins, Review

The Ice Princess – Camilla Lackberg

In preparation for my trip to Sweden I thought that it was time for me to read some Camilla Lackberg, especially as in essence Camilla was the reason that I was being sent off to her homeland of Fjallbacka by the lovely people at West Sweden tourism. Well believe you me I had many an offer to lend me a copy of The Ice Princess (you have to start at the beginning of a series don’t you?) because it turned out Camilla has a lot of fans in my office, which shouldn’t be a surprise as she has sold over 9,000,000 copies of her books. I have always meant to read her novels, partly because people like Gav have raved so much about her, yet been hesitant to start a new series of crime novels (as I think I am addicted to about five already, aren’t we all?) Fortunately Lackberg’s novels do stand out from the crowd…

Harper Books, paperback, 2008, fiction, 400 pages, borrowed from my mate Barb

Upon her return to her hometown following the death of her parents, Erica Falck begins to feel that death and tragedy might be following her when her childhood friend Alex is found dead in the bath with her wrists slashed. Erica and Alex’s friendship had however waned after Alex suddenly stopped speaking to her before leaving in her pre-teens. The bonds have not been forgotten by Alex’s parents who, as Erica is a semi-successful writer of biographies and has become a small celebrity in Fjallbacka, ask her to write about their daughter.

In doing so Erica starts to discover that the perfect life Alex had created wasn’t all that she made people believe and that there were many secrets in her past. It soon dawns on Erica that Alex may not have committed suicide at all, but who would want to kill her? Subsequently local detective in charge of the case Patrik Hedstrom is coming to the same conclusion and it looks like something from Alex’s past has returned to haunt her, but what and why?

It was eerie stepping into the shadowy house. Her fear of the dark made it hard for her to breathe, and she forced herself to take some deep breaths to calm her nerves. She thankfully remembered the torch in her coat pocket and said a silent prayer that the batteries were good. They were. The light from the torch made her feel a bit calmer.

You might be thinking this sounds very like a lot of other thrillers, be they cold crime or not, out there however Lackberg does several things that make this different. Firstly she invests heavily in her characters, Erica and Patrik come fully formed off the page foibles and all. Erica is restless with a longing for her homeland yet a desire to escape it and a small yearning to settle down despite herself, there is also the complicated relationship with her sister who she has become slightly estranged from due to her violent abusive husband. Patrik too is at a cross roads in his life after a failed marriage but guess what, he is actually a decent guy – no signs of being a bastard in the office or having a drink problem insight, which we see so often in this genre.

It would be true to say that The Ice Princess is not a thriller which has a plot which whizzes you into a page turning frenzy, yet we don’t always want that do we? It has a slower pace and uses other ways to grip the reader. After all there are other things that keep you reading on as the plot slowly twists and turns when more is brought to light about Alex and the mysteries surrounding both her life and death. The biggest being the town of Fjallbacka, where the mystery is set, and the people who inhabit it – obviously the fictional ones.

As we learn more about the village Fjallbacka itself becomes one of the main characters as Lackberg slowly builds its streets and its people, and the cast of peripheral characters and their stories within the stories are marvellous. Characters such as the lonely old woman who collects Santa’s and shows them off in her house so children come to visit her or a man so caught up in OCD that he dare not leave the house add to the layers of the setting and the book itself. These also add layers in terms of themes for the book be it loneliness, people stuck in unhappy marriages, grief and in the case of Erica’s sister the very big theme of domestic violence which often is harder to read than the murders as they start to rise.

Lackberg also throws the love story between Erica and Patrik into The Ice Princess. Now before I get accused of spoilers we learn very swiftly that Patrik and Erica know each other from their youths and he had a mammoth crush on her, so its hinted at from the off. I was really worried as I was thinking it was going to be really saccharine, in fact it is wonderfully developed and adds lightness to the book which does get darker and darker. If that wasn’t enough there is more. As someone who loves books and reading about them or the writing process there is also an interesting theme in The Ice Princess as Erica goes from writing her biographies to writing what might be her first novel. As the book continues we almost follow an author fictionally writing about writing, which gives the book another dynamic in a way.

At first, when she’d thought that Alex’s death was suicide, she’d considered writing a book to answer the question ‘why?’ It would have been more of a biography. Now the material was increasingly taking the shape of a crime novel, a genre to which she’d never felt particularly attracted. It was people – their relationships and psychological motivations – that she was interested in; she thought that was something most crime novels had to give up in favour of bloody murders and cold shivers running down the spine.

So all in all if you like your crime thrillers to be more than just twist after twist after page turning twist then I would recommend you give The Ice Princess a whirl. It is one of those crime novels that not only has a mystery, and indeed a rather grim and horrendous one, at its heart but also looks at the way a murder affects the characters and the place around it with multiple layers and facets. It seems I might have a new crime series to regularly dip in and out of.

In truth I have already read the first three, more on those soon, and if that wasn’t enough in my next post I will be taking you on a tour of the town of Fjallbacka and some of its murder sites. I really do spoil you rotten don’t I? In the meantime though who else had read The Ice Princess and Lackberg’s series and what have you made of them?

This post is the first in a week of Savidge Reads in Sweden after I was sent by the lovely people at the West Sweden Tourist Board to go on a cold crime adventure.

 

4 Comments

Filed under Camilla Lackberg, Harper Collins, Review