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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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The Shining Girls – Lauren Beukes

There are some books that come along and the premise sounds so different that you want to give them a whirl straight away. That was the case for me with Lauren Beukes, who I have been meaning to read for ages, when I heard the premise of ‘The Shining Girls’. I have read many a book about a serial killer and I have read a few books about time travellers but never have these two things merged (well not that spring to mind) before until this book…

Harper, 2013, paperback, fiction, 386 pages, bought by my good self

Harper Curtis is a drifter and no-good-doer in Chicago during the depression of the late 1920’s. After having caused a particularly horrific act of violence, he is on the run from what he knows will be an attack of revenge when upon he is drawn to ‘the House’.

From the outside this house seems like a dump, yet inside not only does Harper find a house much more luxurious than he expected but the house can also transport him through time. Now most people with a criminal personality might think ‘how much money can I make out of this’ yet Harper being a complete psychopath decides to travel through time killing ‘shining girls’ throughout the ages. He can get his kicks and get away with it.

Yet on one occasion, in the 1980’s, Harper gets more than he bargained for when he tries to kill Kirby Mazrachi who is out walking her dog. She survives and she is borderline obsessed about finding out who her killer is, leading her to working for a newspaper with Dan who covered her case as it went cold. As Kirby tries to discover more Harper discovers that Kirby got away and that was never in his plans and so begins a time travelling and twisty game of cat and mouse.

I did have a few issues with this novel which I want to get out of the way before I look at the great things about the novel. Firstly, ‘the House’. I wanted a reason why this house did what it did, yet Beukes doesn’t give it one. The only way I could try and answer the way was to think along the lines of a really dark episode of Doctor Who where Jack the Ripper somehow nicks off with the Tardis and the horror that could unfold from that.  I love Doctor Who, why is a Police Box a time machine? Well, it just is – though I may get some Doctor Who fans putting me right as there may be an actual reason for this. Some people would say, and I do this on occasion, ‘there doesn’t need to be a why, its fiction so it just is’. I often take that line myself, in fact I did with Kate Atkinson’s ‘Life After Life’ yet unlike with ‘The Shining Girls’ I never had to question it whereas Beukes occasionally lost me and I was outside the book again questioning it rather than being lost in it. Another example of this was with the ‘shining girls’ themselves.

As I understood it what Beukes was trying to do, and admirably so, with this novel was look at women’s roles and rights throughout the 20th Century. From club performers to female architects to women fighting for other women to have the right ‘to choose’ we get a real mixture of victims. The problem was, with the exception of Kirby who got away and Alice (a transsexual, whose story moved me the most), we got their back story yet we never got a glimpse of what exceptional things they could have done which I think would have added a much more emotional impact and underline what seemed to be Beukes motivation.

I think Beukes could have done this easily as she proved, and this leads to one of the parts of the book that bowled me over and really moved me, with the murder of Julia Madrigal when she highlighted the ramifications of what happens to family and friends after someone’s murder…

“Her mother draws the pain into herself: a monster she keeps caged in her chest that can only be subdued with vodka. She does not eat her husband’s cooking. When they move back to Canada and downsize the house, she relocates into the spare room. Eventually, he stops hiding her bottles. When her liver seizes up twenty years later, he sits next to her in a Winnipeg hospital and strokes her hand and narrates recipes he’s memorized like scientific formula because there is nothing else to say.
Her sister moves as far away as she can, and keeps moving, first across the state, then across country, then overseas to become an au pair in Portugal. She is not a very good au pair. She doesn’t bond with the children. She is too terrified that something might happen to them.”

Yet I felt because Beukes had so much going on in the book and so many places to take it (and I have seen pictures of the murder wall she created to make it all run smoothly) utter gems like this and indeed Alice’s story suffered by being hidden amongst all the high concept thrills, and maybe one too many victims. On occasion there was a lot of show and not enough tell post show if that makes sense.

However I did ponder, as I was scratching away at the surface of the book, if I was demanding too much of ‘The Shining Girls’ after all it is a bloody (pun not intended) good thriller and you cannot help but be pulled into the chase of Kirby for her killer and her killer for Kirby. Harper is also an absolutely vile and delightfully hateable villain. The fact he goes and leaves something from one victim on another and that he will visit his victims when they are children or young adults letting them know he will come back is properly creepy and psychotic, which makes from gripping reading.

“Here we go. Round and round, like your ferris wheel. I’ll see you when you’re all grown-up. Look out for me, OK, sweetheart? I’ll come back for you.”

You might be surprised, after some of my criticisms above, to hear me say that I would recommend ‘The Shining Girls’ as a good read. But it is. With this book you will be taken on a high octane ride through the twentieth century with several unexpected twists along the way and escape from the world, especially as the autumn nights draw in. I just wish with the time travel element Beukes had written about the victim’s possible futures, and what could have been, as well as their pasts. That for me would have made what was for me a really gripping thriller into what could have been one of my favourite books of the year.

Who else has read ‘The Shining Girls’ and what did you think? If you have read it what did you make of ‘the House’ and also the ‘shining girls’ themselves as plot devices? Which other books of Beukes have you read and which should I turn to next, as I do want to read more of her books. Also, have any of you read another time travelling murder mystery, they are like buses  – you don’t hear of any and then whoosh her come a few, AK Benedict’s ‘The Beauty of Murder’ as I now fancy giving that a whirl.

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The Moving Finger – Agatha Christie

There are some authors that as a reader I will grab off the shelf if a) I am in some kind of reading funk or b) I have just read rather a heavy, yet rewarding, tome and need something in between starting another novel I suspect will be similar. Agatha Christie is one author that fits the bill for both, though that said I do have a random particular demand with a Christie, it can’t be a Poirot, I don’t like him for some reason, whereas I love a Miss Marple or standalone tale. So after something rewarding but weighty reading I decided it was time to pick up ‘The Moving Finger’ the third (or fourth if you include ‘The Thirteen Problems’ short story collection) Marple novel, a series I am trying to read sparingly.

Fontand Books, paperback, 1942, fiction, 197 pages, from my personal TBR

Jerry Burton is sent from London to the sleepy village of Lymstock on doctors orders and brings his sister Joanna in tow. Initially they are utterly charmed with the idyllic surroundings and quaint people that they meet. Yet soon they receive an anonymous poison penned letter accusing them of being lovers not siblings and they soon discover that most people in the village are getting equally scandalous letters too. Things soon take an even darker twist when one of the receivers of these letters dies, at first people think it may be suicide until the facts start to point to murder and another soon follows.

Hopefully that hasn’t given too much of the plot away, however I am about to let you into a small secret which led me to being rather frustrated with this book. Miss Marple herself doesn’t actually appear in the book until three quarters of the way through the novel, and then she is barely on ten pages or more as the novel closes. I am sorry to mention a negative so soon but it was Miss Marple I was really reading this book for, and rather like with ‘At Bertram’s Hotel’ (which I read out of order) I found myself most annoyed that my favourite character was barely in the book.

That said, to be fairer to the book and its author, ‘The Moving Finger’ isn’t half bad. Interestingly though I would describe it rather as I have the village of Lymstock, it is a mystery which is quite sleepy with dark edges. It was entertaining, had me guessing and kept me reading but it bumbled a little, lots of characters were introduced but interestingly more for Christie to write about quirky characters I felt than to create more suspects, which is normally the opposite of what I say with a Christie novel.

‘It’s rather like Happy Families, isn’t it? Mrs Legal the lawyer’s wife, Miss Dose the doctor’s daughter, etc.’ She added with enthusiasm: ‘I do think this is a nice place, Jerry! So sweet and funny and old-world. You just can’t think of anything nasty happening here, can you?

What I did really enjoy though in ‘The Moving Finger’ and stopped me from giving up (well apart from reading on for Miss Marple to barely appear) was Agatha Christie’s sense of humour. I don’t know if I simply haven’t noticed it before, or if it’s particularly prevalent in this book but there seemed to be a wry smile in almost every other page. It could be the descriptions of a character, one of the towns’ effeminate men gets this a lot, or it could just be a dig at the social ways of the time, either way it is definitely always there.

‘In novels, I have noticed, anonymous letters of a foul and disgusting character are never shown to women. It is implied that women must at all cost be shielded from the shock it might give their delicate nervous systems.
I am sorry to say it never occurred to me not to show the letter to Joanna. I handed it her at once.”

All in all I would have to say that ‘The Moving Finger’ isn’t my favourite Christie novel, but I still really rather enjoyed it. I had no idea ‘whodunit’, I enjoyed the setting of the English countryside where no one ever really knows what is going on behind closed doors and I really liked the underlying humour. Is it odd to say that with this book I felt I knew Agatha Christie a little better, because it is strangely how I felt?

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The Queen of Whale Cay – Kate Summerscale

I would like to pretend that after having read ‘The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher’ I had popped Kate Summerscale’s first non-fiction novel ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’ onto my to be read list. That wouldn’t be true. In fact for some reason I didn’t even go and look it up, and yet when I saw Sue Perkins raving about it on the BBC’s ‘My Life In Books’ (which I am hoping they bring back) I thought ‘ooh that sounds like the perfect book for me’ and indeed it was a real treat, and one that showed sometimes life really is stranger than fiction.

HarperPerrenial, paperback, 1997, non-fiction, 248 pages, from the library

I admit that before I opened ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’ I had never heard of Marian Barbara Carstairs, who was known as Joe Carstairs, who was proclaimed ‘the fastest woman on water’ as a world champion and record breaking speedboat racer in the 1920’s and 1930’s. I have to say, as some of you might be thinking, the idea of a book about boat racing could be quite dull but if anything could be said about Joe Carstairs the last thing they could think of would probably be dull. In fact as Kate Summerscale found out, when a relative of Joe’s wrote to her to write an extended obituary in the Telegraph (where Summerscale worked), Joe Carstairs was a rather extraordinary woman.  

Joe was not your stereotypical young girl who stood to inherit a great fortune being the granddaughter of Nellie Bostwick, one of the original trustees of Standard Oil, and a multimillionaire of the time. She didn’t want to run out and meet a husband for a start, instead having lots and lots of lesbian affairs, including one with Oscar Wilde’s niece Dolly (who I thought sounded fascinating and want to find a biography of, anyone know of any?) It appears Joe was never quite herself in childhood, brought up by her mother who never spoke of her father and who married men and had affairs like it was going out of fashion, and after falling off a camel at London Zoo at the age of five Marian B. Carstairs felt that she was reborn as the person she should be ‘Tuffy’. But ‘Tuffy’ grew up and soon became ‘Joe’, a woman who liked boat and car racing and preferred the company and clothes of men.

“Captain Francis disapproved of his wild stepdaughter. ‘He thought he’d cure me,’ recalled Joe, ‘but he didn’t.’ This wildness, the sickness which was not cured, was even then a euphemism for her masculine behaviour. When Francis caught the little girl, aged eight, stealing his cigars, he punished her by ordering her to sit down in his study and smoke one. If you’re sick, he said, go out, throw up and come back. Joe, who had been pilfering his cigars for some time, sat down and calmly smoked her way to the end.”

It is not only the life of Joe that is so fascinating, the fraught relationships with her parents, the sham marriage for inheritance, her role driving ambulances in the war (her I wondered if she was the inspiration for Sarah Waters ‘The Night Watch’), the endless affairs including with some very famous women, the obsession with a small doll called Lord Tod Wadley (who even had his named engraved on the front door so people would actually call for him), the buying of an island ‘Whale Cay’ and it ruling… I could go on and on.

It’s also fascinating because of the time period it covers, the developments in those years (both in technology and science, the latter makes a very interesting story as her mother was part of a movement to use ‘testicular pulp’ as a healing substance – which went wrong), and the eccentricity of Joe’s family and the people close to her. In fact I won’t list every single wonderful story or event; you should simply read ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’ and find out more.

I have to add her that whilst I think any biography could probably have been made interesting by such an eccentric and fascinating person as Joe Carstairs, I think Kate Summerscale makes her come truly alive. Summerscale must have also had quite a job on her hands in trying to separate the fact and the fiction from Carstairs life, as the tapes recorded of her telling her tales sometimes proved to be just that. Summerscale includes these ‘exaggerations’ and if anything it made Joe Carstairs more real to me, I liked her even more. So I am thankful to Kate Summerscale for telling her story in ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’, which I should add won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1998, and for Sue Perkins for enthusing about it. I hope I am now passing on that enthusiasm to all of you.

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Filed under Books of 2011, Harper Collins, Kate Summerscale, Review

Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

‘Purple Hibiscus’, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s debut novel, is one I have been meaning to read ever since I was completely blown away by her Orange Prize Winning ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’. That book really took me by surprise, I knew nothing of Biafra and the war there, I knew nothing of the author and the book (which has since become a favourite and was the title I gave away for World Book Night) before it became a choice for a book group I was in. I couldn’t put it down; it was an amazing reading experience. So funny then that it was a book group that made me finally pick up ‘Purple Hibiscus’.

With her debut novel ‘Purple Hibiscus’ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie takes us into the heart of a family in Nigeria not long after its colonisation, though this not the focus that the book takes, though it’s always bubbling away in the background. Instead Adichie tells us a story of religion as we follow Kambili a fifteen year old girl whose father is an extremist catholic. As the book opens Kambili witnesses her brother Jaja’s defiance of her father as he refuses to take communion in church, something utterly unthinkable, enraging her father and changing the dynamics of the house hold forever.

I did think after the first initial sixteen pages that make part one of the book ‘where is the story here, we’ve got the climax of it all at the beginning haven’t we?’ Well Adichie then proceeded to remind me that to every momentous moment there is a something that triggers it off. In the case of ‘Purple Hibiscus’ Adichie hints in the opening pages that things are pretty fragile for Kambili, Jaja, and their mother, what she does in part two is take us to how things have gotten to that point. For we all know that there is a lead up to every momentous moment. In this case it is their father’s sister Aunty Ifeoma.

The household that Kambili grows up in is, for the reader, an oppressive and claustrophobic one, dominated by a father so obsessed with god and the workings of the devil that he becomes abusive at any turn. Even small things like Kambili coming second in her class leads to some form of abuse based punishment, not sexual but often painful and humiliating. For Kambili this is simply life, its as normal as the schedule, which allows for a few toilet breaks, that her daily life must follow that is until she and Jaja go and stay in her Aunties house. Only this house, whilst with a catholic belief, is one of encouragement, progression and freedom. While they may be poor compared to Kambili’s fathers mass of wealth, they are richer in many other ways. Once Kambili and Jaja have their minds opened and allowed to roam free they begin to question things and so starts unravellings of powers and beliefs.

“I lay in bed after Mama left and let my mind rake through the past, through the years when Jaja and Mama and I spoke more with our spirits than with our lips. Until Nsukka. Nsukka started it all; Aunty Ifeoma’s little garden next to the verandah of her flat in Nsukka began to lift the silence. Jaja’s defiance seemed to me now like Aunty Ifeoma’s experimental purple hibiscus: rare, fragrant with undertones of freedom, a different kind of freedom from the one the crowds waving green leaves chanted at Government Square after the coup. A freedom to be, to do.
But my memories did not start at Nsukka. They started before, when all the hibiscuses in our front yard were a startling red.”

What I found startling, and probably the most effective part of Adichie’s writing and aspect of the book which hit me the hardest, was Kambili’s acceptance of the situation at home. Yet the more I thought about it the more I realised of course she would be, she had been groomed that her fathers form of godliness and the punishment that comes if you don’t come up to those standards are the norm.

“We did that often, asking each other questions whose answers we already knew. Perhaps it was so that we would not ask the other questions, the ones whose answers we did not want to know.”

It also proves an effective device by Adichie, the initial distance she places between the reactions of Kambili and the reaction of a reader gives a reader the room to put there own emotions, shock and horror in there, while this young girl just goes on accepting it. This rather reminded me of the way Margaret Atwood writes Cat’s Eye’ actually, getting the reader to put their emotion into a void purposefully left. Will Kambili go on accepting her fathers ways for good, well of course you will have to find out, you will also have to read on to see that the climatic event you think the book will end with doesn’t at all.

‘Purple Hibiscus’ isn’t a perfect book, it could have either done with being a little shorter and some of the small tangent tales cutting out, or having those tales developed further and been much longer and more epic, the latter I think I would have loved as Adichie is immensely readable. In fact how she fitted all of this and its themes into just over 300 pages is impressive. It is a book that makes you think and one that will leave its narrator with you for some time after. 8.5/10

This is a book I have had in Mount TBR for ages.

It was hard for me not to compare this book to ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ though I did try my hardest. I was worried I had been harder on it slightly because of my subconscious comparisons. This is where reading it for a book group was great because there were other readers who had read them in the same order as me and felt the same, and people for who ‘Purple Hibiscus’ was their first Adichie novel. The latter also felt the same, everyone seemed to like it a lot, yet they sort of wanted either less or more which I found really interesting. It proved a great book for discussion. What are your thoughts have you read ‘Purple Hibiscus’ or ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’? Who has read her short stories?

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Parker Pyne Investigates – Agatha Christie

I don’t know if it’s the way I am feeling during my recovery period from operation one but crime has taken over again and is close to pushing all Orange longlist reading out of the window. I have discovered a few new crime novelists of late but every so often you need to go back to the joys of the long loved masters and so I thought that it was time to turn my attentions back to Agatha Christie, I do have a rather large amount of her books to hand, and so I opted for one I new nothing about ‘Parker Pyne Investigates’.

How people can sneer about Agatha Christie and her novels. Whenever I am in need of something that I can just get completely lost in or when I need something cleansing between other reads then she is just the ticket. As ‘Parker Pyne Investigates’ not only does Agatha Christie show that she truly is the master of plots and twists, she also makes short stories look effortless and in this collection, which I wasn’t expecting to be a collection at all, she also shows a slightly different side to her mysteries which I found rather interesting.

Parker Pyne is not a detective; in fact the balding, plump middle aged man calls himself a ‘specialist in matters of the heart’ and believes he is a man who can make people happy. Every day he runs an advert in The Times newspaper ‘Are You Happy? If Not, Consult Mr Parker Pyne’ and in the first half of these stories that’s just what we read. Unhappy husbands, worried wives, disillusioned rich heiresses, etc pass through Parker Pynes doors and in each case he manages, with his trusty sidekicks ‘Claude Luttrell was one of the handsomest specimens of lounge-lizard to be found in England. Madeline de Sara was the most seductive of vamps’ in the most bizarre ways to make them happy. These might involve sending a bored clerk on an invented adventure murder with Claude or Madeline playing a role, sometimes though accidental adventures take over too. My favourite of this half was ‘The Case of the Distressed Lady’ which saw a story (and at only ten pages I can’t say too much on the plot) but it involves three twists none of which I saw coming.

The second half of these tales takes a very different twist as instead of Parker Pyne having the mysteries come to him in his office, the mysteries seem to come to him when he is on random trips abroad. Possibly the most famous short stories of this half of the book is ‘Death on the Nile’ which I thought was a Poirot story, I had no idea it was Parker Pyne. ‘Death on the Nile’ is also one of the few tales in the book that involves murder, in fact if you are after a murder collection best be off with Miss Marple or Poirot really, but interestingly the fact the crimes and cases in this book weren’t murders made it really stand out. You have con-artists, cheating spouses, kidnappers and jewel thieves instead and in the second half as I mentioned in destinations such as Egypt, Greece and Bagdad.  

It’s also a book where you feel Agatha Christie is having fun with the storylines and characters such as the aforementioned Claude and Madeline and Miss Lemon, there’s almost a feeling that she had rather a delighted twinkle in the eye as she wrote these. I was very pleasantly surprised by ‘Parker Pyne Investigates’. I had expected to find a novel with a new detective of Christie’s that I had not happened upon before. Instead I got a very mixed array of short stories and crime filled capers that were half domestic mysteries and half mysteries of foreign foes and destinations. All in all this was, as all Christie books are, very enjoyable and yet really rather different from her other books.  8/10

I bought this book myself yonks ago when I was on an Agatha Christie Fontana edition spree.

Has anyone else read the Parker Pyne collection and been pleasantly surprised by how different it is, or did the difference put you off? Do you have a favourite Agatha Christie novel? Have any of you read any of her other short story collections you could recommend? Should I finally try a Poirot (I have actually become addicted to an Agatha Christie PC game while I have been recovering, ha) or is it time for another Marple next?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Harper Collins, Review, Short Stories

The Mermaids Singing – Val McDermid

I know that to describe a book as ‘a page-turner’ is an over used cliché in a lot of reviews, including my own, but sometimes no other short expression will suffice. Val McDermid has been an author that I have wanted to try for a while and so when, a while back, I was in the mood for crime and lashings of it McDermid’s first Tony Hill novel ‘The Mermaids Singing’ seemed like it could be the ideal choice. The only slight hesitation that I had with reading her work was that I heard it was an utter gore fest, however as I have been watching all the Saw films on and off whilst recovering from various procedures I was fairly sure I could face any written gore fest after such visual ones.

Men are being tortured and killed before being dumped in Bradfield. Tony Hill, a clinical psychologist and criminal profiler, has had an inkling that this has been the work of one serial killer ever since the first murder several months ago. The police, except for Inspector Carol Jordan, disagree until the fourth murder victim is found and what the police and papers call ‘The Queer Killer’ is given the focus and attention that they crave. (This is where we join the story really so I haven’t given anything away.) Only is everything as simple as is first made out? Might the killer not be a homosexual themselves and using the local gay hot spots to leave victims in as a clever cover? Might it be on of the police dealing with their own sexuality? As you start to read McDermid, just as her character Tony Hill does, gives you so many hypothesis that anything could be possible.

The novel is written in an interesting way as you jump in every chapter between several of the characters, namely Hill and Jordan, as they see things from the latest discoveries. At the end of every chapter we also get into the mindset of the killer, all in italics which slightly annoyed my eyes, as they start preparing to kill and the research and planning that they do. I found this double angle on the whole thing rather fascinating and was also impressed how McDermid set both of the stories up from opposite ends and never gave a hint of anything away. Yes, that’s right; I had no idea who the killer was until the very end though I did kick myself at the end – I will say no more.

If that wasn’t enough there is also the back story of Tony Hill and the strange late night ‘booty calls’ he receives from a mysterious stranger he only knows as Angelica which both fascinate, arouse and disturb him and give us a glimmer that not all of Tony Hill is quite as clear cut or baggage free as we might think. In fact, bar a some of the crime clichés that we all love so much – sexism in the police, Detectives thinking anyone outside the police is an imbecile, the homophobia (which is addressed well and occasionally poignantly), neither lead character being successful at relationships and yet fancying the other – the characters are well rounded and interesting, no loner alcoholic protagonist Detective to be found in this series so far, you find yourself routing for them.

‘The Mermaid’s Singing’ should really come with a warning or two. The first should be that it is quite a graphic book, not just in terms of the murders that take place through it and the remains of their victims but it’s also quite graphic on the sex front too. In neither case did I feel that this was ever done simply for thrills, maybe occasionally to shock but not in a calculated way. However if you aren’t faint hearted or easily shocked then the second warning would be that if you pick up this book, and possibly McDermid’s other novels (though I haven’t read them yet), then you might want to cancel any engagements as they are incredibly addictive. I read all 443 pages in a horrified, tense, thrilled sitting. 9.5/10

I treated myself to this at the local charity shop as I had the latest ‘Trick of The Dark’ from her publishers and a seperate standalone one but wanted to start the Tony Hill series after seeing Hermione Norris was in the TV series and wanted to catch up with that too – is that a bit strange? Have you seen the TV series?

If you are a lover of crime, or books that draw you in and simply will not let you rest until the final page is turned (when you realise you used so much energy reading it you need to sleep a good day or two to catch up) then this is seriously a book for you. It did ponder in their might be a slim chance McDermid’s latest novel ‘Trick of the Dark’ will make it on to the Orange Longlist tomorrow, but its crime so I guess its unlikely which is a shame as she writes incredibly, taught and real, and is immensely readable. I am wondering if all of her novels are this good, have any of you read some of her others?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Harper Collins, Review, Val McDermid

Toast – Nigel Slater

It is thanks to routing through other peoples shelves (I’m going to do a post on the joys of other people’s shelves and having a nosey next week) that I ended up reading a book that I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise and really loved. The book in question was ‘Toast’ by Nigel Slater which had initially piqued my interest after the adaptation on the television over Christmas, which we recorded and then completely forgot to watch. I then forgot about how much I wanted to read the book (see that self hype thing again)… until I was having a nosey and my eyes happened to fall upon it and so I picked it up and absolutely loved it.

All I knew of Nigel Slater before I picked up ‘Toast’ was that he was a rather well known chef whose recipe books seem to be in every single member of my families houses. I’ve never watched his TV shows and really never been that interested in cookery books, other than maybe Nigella, though I like cooking. ‘Toast’ is Nigel Slater’s memories of childhood into adulthood all told through food. I imagined this might be recipes but I was wrong as in fact it’s snippets of memories with titles like ‘Christmas Cake,  ‘The Hostess Trolley’ and ‘Peach Melba’ (which I had forgotten once existed and instantly wanted) each with its own memories attached.

‘Toast’ really is quite a collection of memories as Nigel didn’t have the easiest or happiest of childhoods. His mother had health issues, his father wasn’t the most comforting or friendly of role models and of course there is the cleaner Mrs Poole who soon became the bane of Nigel’s life. It’s never a misery memoir though some of the book is very emotional it also often leaves you in hysterics. In some ways because of the humour I was reminded of Augusten Burroughs, only in this book the addictions are cook books and ingredients rather than drugs, the other thing that reminded me of Augusten Burroughs was the way slowly but surely Slater writes about his being gay, how he noticed it and coped with it in the 60’s and 70’s which again makes for a very heart felt and honest book.  

I knew I was going to be rather smitten with this book when I read the line in ‘Toast 1’ where Nigel writes ‘It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you.’ He is talking about his mother and how when they make it in just the right way you are ‘putty in their hands’. People who arrive as the book progresses are each almost given a flavour in addiction to their character and this works wonderfully. It also really evokes atmosphere and underlying tensions such as when he helps his Mum make the, at the time, novel delicacy of spaghetti for his father which none of them have tried and as soon as they add the parmesan ‘this cheese smells like sick’ is deemed as ‘off’ and its never talked of or mentioned again.

I loved Nigel Slater’s writing, it never felt pretentious or woe is me or anything other than a down to earth account of his childhood filled with both happiness and sadness. It’s a ‘real’ memoir if you know what I mean, there are dramas and trials but they are never melodramatic. I decided Nigel Slater and I would be firm friends when he discussed ‘Butterscotch Angel Delight’ my all time favourite too. This is someone who hasn’t had the easiest start in life who rather than complain about it looks back at it fondly and asks the reader to join in and do so too. This is my favourite book of the year so far. 10/10

I am hoping that any of you who are much more up on Nigel Slater and his writing than I am will please tell me there are more books he has written like this as I would really like to read more of his work. I have since reading this cooked one of his recipes and it wasn’t half bad. Which memoirs have left you feeling like you’ve just had a really honest, open, funny and sad catch up with a new found friend even though you’ve never met them?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Books To Film, Harper Collins, Nigel Slater, Review