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Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “The Orient Express was unusually full for the time of year. Hercule Poirot sat in the elegant restaurant car and amused himself by observing his fellow passengers: A Russian princess of great ugliness, a haughty English colonel, an American with a strange glint in his eye…and many more. The food and company were most congenial and the little Belgian detective was looking forward to a pleasant journey.

But it was not to be. After a restless night, Poirot awoke to find that tragedy had struck. First, the train had been brought to a standstill by a huge snowdrift. Secondly, a passenger lay dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside…”

REVIEW: I love a good murder mystery, and it amazes me that despite having seen any number of stage and screen adaptations of Agatha Christie novels, I had never actually read one until now. Many of the Christie screen adaptations were ones I binge watched with my Nan, so my Grandad purchased me the beautiful copy pictured above for my birthday this year as a sort of gift in rememberance of her. However, with a story as famous as ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, I had already broken my number one rule as a bookworm: I had seen the movie before reading the book. This is something I hate doing, but is even more frustrating considering the incredibly clever layers of mystery that Christie builds up throughout this novel, which should have made the ending of the mystery more of a shock to me. This did not mean, however, that I appreciated the intellignet intricacies of Christie’s writing any less, nor did it mean that I did not enjoy the novel, but unfortunately I do think it may have affected my overall enjoyment.

The novel is easy to get into and instantly intriguing; Hercule Poirot is a familiar character, well-known and likeable despite his rather pompous nature. His fun, witty and engaging nature makes him trustworthy to the reader even when we can sense his arrogance, a trait that is not normally endearing. I did find some parts of the novel slower than others, and also found the frequent use of French without translation somewhat frustrating, though in the time period in which Christie was writing more readers would probably have been able to translate this from their own education. I enjoyed the duplicity of the mystery with the clever weaving in of the Daisy Armstrong case, which eventually provided many of the answers to this particular mystery. Although knowing the ending meant that I was not held in suspense, I could appreciate the way in which the reader was held in suspense right up until the last minute. The mystery still provided a satisfactory conclusion for the reader, however; we felt sympathy for the murderer(s) and understand the motives, and therefore are glad of the ending which Poirot devises for them.

I would recommend this novel and am looking forward to reading further stories by Christie in the future.

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Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

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“A heart may desire a thing powerfully indeed, but that heart’s desire might be what a person least needs, for her health, for her continuing happiness”

RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “In her inspired re-working of the fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red, Margo Lanagan has created characters that are vivid, passionate, flawed and fiercely devoted to their hearts’ desires, whether these desires are good or evil. It is the story of two worlds – one real, one magical – and how, despite the safe haven her magical world offers to those who have suffered, her characters can never turn their backs on the real world, with all its beauty and brutality”

REVIEW: I have often said how much I enjoy reading novels that are retellings or reworkings of fairytales, and I’ve had ‘Tender Morsels’ on my bookshelf for so long that I’d almost completely forgotten about it. I was really excited to get stuck in, and see how Lanagan had managed to twist the traditional Snow White and Rose Red story.

‘Tender Morsels’ tells the story of Liga, a young woman who is raped and abused by her father and, after his death, is gang raped by a group of boys from the nearby village. Destroyed by what has happened, Liga hardly knows where to turn, and ends up opening a kind of magical portal to a new world, in which she and the two daughters she has bourne from these terrifying encounters will be safe. However, there are other points of view that appear throughout the story, such as that of the midget Collaby Dought and Davit Ramstrong, a man who accidentally enters into Liga’s magical world in the form of a bear, becoming close to her and both of her daughters. These points of view seem to switch very suddenly, and the fast move from third to first person can be quite confusing, particularly in the beginning of the novel when the reader is not yet used to it. The writing style also seems a little jumbled at times, but I think this may just be due to the author’s attempt to keep up a fast pace and to ensure that the stories of all the characters are included. It only appears to be the male characters in the novel who are granted a first-person perspective, despite the fact that the female characters – particularly Liga and her daughters, Branza and Urdda – are more central to the plot of the novel. This was another thing that I found slightly confusing, and I would have much rather heard more from the female characters; particularly as I found the character of Collaby to serve very little purpose as a whole in the novel, other than as an illustration of how dangerous the magical world could be despite the safety it provided to Liga and her family.

I did begin to enjoy the book significantly more from around halfway through, with the introduction of the first bear that the girls learn to befriend. From this point onwards the novel became more gripping, and it was from this point that the gradual discovery of the two parallel worlds began. Even in this section, however, which I enjoyed,  I found some aspects of the plot to be disappointing. The disappearance of Urdda, who finds her way into the real world from within the magical, is strangely dealt with by both Liga and Branza, neither of whom seemed to feel any hugely significant emotion towards her loss. The later transition of Liga and Branza into the real world, and their reunion with Urdda and the character of Annie (a favourite of mine) was well-written, with the real world being portrayed in stark contrast and Liga and Branza’s adjustment to this being completely believable. The reader also feels a grim satisfaction when Urdda uses the hidden magic within her to accidentally reap a terrible revenge on the five men who gang raped and abused Liga, leading to Urdda’s conception. However, I also felt that the announcement of Davit’s marriage to Branza came too close to the end of the novel and too suddenly, which did not allow Lanagan to sufficiently explore the emotions of Liga, who had nursed feelings for Davit ever since the time he spent with her as a bear in the magical world.

Lanagan’s writing style is unusual, and often vividly descriptive. The story itself, however, is highly complex and fast-paced, and could sometimes have done with being more detailed in places to ensure that the reader understood what was happening. As previously mentioned, the transitions from third- to first-person were also confusing and sometimes made the story hard to follow, and it would have been  nice to hear first-hand from the female characters. I enjoyed this novel, but would not read it a second time, and nor would I neccessarily make an enthusiastic recommendation. It was intriguing, but I had expected something a little different and think Lanagan could have gone down a different and more engaging route.

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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“I simply didn’t know how to make things better. I could not solve the puzzle of me.”

RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend. Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled existence. Except, sometimes, everything…”

REVIEW: I’d heard a lot of good things about this novel, including a recommendation from a work colleague with whom I have very similar taste in books. I was also intrigued by the premise of the novel itself; as someone who suffers with depression, anxiety and frequent low moods that leave me feeling like the loneliest person in the world, despite the incredible support I have around me. From that perspective, I wondered what it would be like for a person to truly be alone, without the network of family and friends that I am lucky enough to have. And the character of Eleanor is one who is truly alone. Her social skills are basically nonexistent, meaning that even in environments where she is surrounded by people, like in her work place, she finds it almost impossible to click or make connections with anyone. Eleanor lives alone, and has done for many years, enduring only a weekly, highly unpleasant phone call with her emotionally abusive Mother as her only outside human contact. This makes it difficult for even the reader to connect with Eleanor; she feels distant to us, as distant as she is to the rest of the outside world within the pages of the novel. And even though we know from the scars on Eleanor’s face, her relationship with her mother and the subtle hints she gives throughout the novel about her past that she has clearly been through something traumatic, we still don’t feel hugely attached to her – we just feel sorry for her. The isolation Eleanor experiences is, I think, what makes it difficult to become instantly hooked by the novel. However, the more Eleanor begins to integrate with the outside world through her budding friendship with Raymond and the events it leads her into, the more the reader becomes attached to her and, in turn, the more gripping the book becomes. As Eleanor ingratiates herself with more of the characters, she also does so with the reader. Her friendship with Raymond does develop in a way that could be seen as predictable, but in that sense it is also highly believable and realistic.

All of the aforementioned events, however, happen in the ‘Good Days’ section of the novel, where Eleanor is beginning to explore her surroundings, has developed a crush on a local musician and has begun to make herself over with new clothes, a fresh haircut and the advice of Bobbi Brown. This all takes place alongside her friendship with Raymond. The ‘Bad Days’ section of the novel, however, is far shorter, but made a huge impact on me. It’s painful to read, particularly for someone who understands some of what Eleanor is feeling and has had similar experiences in thinking of their own self worth. This section is incredibly written by Honeyman, sensitively done by someone who clearly understands the issues involved and so striking that it had me in tears despite the fact that all ended relatively well, with Eleanor’s back story finally being revealed and her relationship with Raymond left open to the interpretation that it could, perhaps, end up as something more.

I completely fell in love with this novel. It is rare that I find a writer who I feel truly understands mental illness, but reading this book I felt like Honeyman really understands and empathises with what myself and thousands of others go through every day. I would highly recommend it.

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Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

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“I think the hardest part of losing anyone is that you still have to live with the same scenery. It’s just that the person you are used to isn’t a part of it anymore, and all you notice are the gaps where they used to be. It feels as though, if you concentrated hard enough, you could find them again in those empty spaces. Waiting for you.”

RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “There are three things you should know about Elsie.
The first thing is that she’s my best friend.
The second is that she always knows what to say to make me feel better.
And the third thing… might take a little bit more explaining.

84-year-old Florence has fallen in her flat at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. As she waits to be rescued, Florence wonders if a terrible secret from her past is about to come to light; and, if the charming new resident is who he claims to be, why does he look exactly like a man who died sixty years ago?”

REVIEW: My Mum and I both read this book within the space of a week – in fact, I was so hooked I read it in less than 48 hours. The quote I selected to share with you above is just one example of how incredibly moving, poignant and bittersweet this novel is, and demonstrates how well Cannon is able to describe even the most complex of emotions and events. It called to me, as someone who has relatively recently lost one of the people I loved above anything else in the world, and as with so many things in this book, rang true despite the echo of uncertainty that the novel as a whole leaves you with. The main cause of this uncertainty comes from the protagonist, Florence, who we gather very early on is a somewhat unreliable narrator due to her lapses in memory; she relies heavily on her best friend, Elsie, to prompt her and help her rememeber the important things. Although the book has two other narrators, one of whom helps to run the residence where Florence lives, the other the household handyman, Simon, Florence is the focal character in this novel and it is from her that most of the suspense and mystery develops throughout. The novel flits between the present time, where Florence lays waiting in her home for someone to find her and help her after she has suffered a fall, and telling the story of her recent months in the residential care home in which she lives. The chapters where Florence lays waiting for someone to find her are particularly poignant, as it highlights a fear that I am sure many of us dread – that of being completely alone. However, both these chapters and the ones in which Florence tells her earlier story allows us to form a bond with her, and we trust her despite her forgetfulness. When an old and familiar face arrives at the home, however, Florence is determined to find out why a man whom she believed to have been dead has suddenly returned to her life – is he here to torment her, to kill her, or to reveal her secrets? Either way, Florence soon engages a reluctant Elsie and a somewhat enthusiastic friend named Jack to help her uncover the secret of Gabriel Price, and discover his true identity.

The suspense in the novel is cleverly and well built-up, aided by the gaps in Florence’s memory that add tension and mystery. The twists come thick and fast towards the end of the novel, and the main twist is truly heartbreaking. Although it is unexpected, in hindsight the reader is able to think back on hints that Cannon cleverly threaded throughout the novel in order for this ultimate revelation to make sense. The book is truly gripping and bittersweet, and one I would highly recommend as something that really makes the reader think about life, humanity and how strong the bonds between people can be.

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “London 1893. When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness. Retreating to the countryside with her son, she encounters rumours of the ‘Essex Serpent’, a creature of folklore said to have returned  to roam the marshes. Cora is enthralled, believing it may be an undiscovered species. Setting out on its trail, she collides with local minister William Ransome, who thinks the cure for hysteria lies in faith, while Cora is convinced that science offers the answers. Despite disagreeing on everything, he and Cora find themselves drawn together, changing each other’s lives in unexpected ways…”

REVIEW: I was lent this book by a friend, and after hearing and reading nothing but rave reviews – as well as loving a bit of historical fiction – I was really looking forward to reading it. Although it seems a little slow to get into at first, I was soon gripped, and was disappointed that I didn’t have as much free time as I would have liked to be able to whiz through it! ‘The Essex Serpent’ tells the story of Cora Seabourne, but also a number of smaller characters who are equally fascinating – her friend the surgeon, Luke, her Socialist maid Martha, William’s wife Stella, the schoolgirl Naomi Banks, and Cora’s son, Francis. All of the characters combine to add a real depth to the story, and the reader grows to care about all of them and is eager to find out how their stories will end.

When Cora is told about the Essex Serpent after the death of her husband, she travels to the tiny village of Aldwinter and meets the vicar William Ransome, his wife Stella, and their three children, including their intelligent and curious daughter Joanna. Despite their differing ideals a strange connection blossoms between Cora and William, much to the disappointment of Luke, who has long been in love with Cora. As events within Aldwinter, particularly near the Blackwater, begin to darken, it seems more and more likely that the presence of the Essex Serpent may actually be a reality. The book continues to twist and turn right up until its end, and hooks the reader not just with the plotline of the serpent itself, but also with all of the threads leading off from this book. Perry’s writing is wonderfully descriptive, making the reader feel as though they are really there, and has a fast-paced, gripping style that nicely builds up the suspense that is so crucial to the novel. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it, particularly for the relationship between William and Cora, which develops and progresses realistically and is more believable than many of the romances that develop in the majority of historical fiction novels.

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Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession by Alison Weir

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “Fresh from the palaces of Burgundy and France, Anne draws attention at the English court, embracing the play of courtly love. But when the King commands, nothing is ever a game. Anne has a spirit worthy of a crown – and the crown is what she seeks. At any price”

REVIEW: I am a huge fan of Alison Weir, and have been to see her give lectures on several occasions; I even have a signed copy of my favourite one of her books, ‘The Lady in the Tower’, a non-fiction book on Anne’s downfall. I have spoken to her about my research and writing ambitions, and she is genuinely a lovely woman. I am also a big Anne Boleyn fan, having written my undergraduate dissertation on how she was portrayed by Catholics and Protestants during the reign of her daughter, Elizabeth I – she is also now forming a large part of my Masters dissertation on how Henry VIII manipulated the treason laws on his descent into tyranny. My interest in Anne means that I am always on the lookout for new books about her, so I was very excited to read this book, the second in Weir’s collection of historical fiction novels from the perspective of Henry VIII’s six wives.

The book was incredibly well-written, as Weir’s always are. It was engaging and considering it amounts to over 500 pages, I read it quickly as I found it difficult to put down. I found Weir’s portrayal of Anne particularly compelling, as it very much fit with my own perspective on what Anne was like as a woman, and what her motivations were for marrying Henry. Weir has Anne marry him not for love, but for her own ambition, although her love for Henry begins to grow throughout their courtship, leading her to eventually become jealous of his relationships with other women and thereby slowly turning him against her. This is very much how I have always seen their relationship, so it was refreshing to read of a historical ficiton point of view that still paints Anne as a good person, motivated by her religious and radical beliefs just as much by ambition, and keen to do good despite lacking popular support; usually, if Anne is portrayed as ambitious, she is often also depicted cruelly. The scenes regarding Anne’s downfall, particularly the final few pages that deal with her execution, are extremely beautifully written and very emotional, allowing the reader to experience the horrific moment of the execution through Anne’s eyes. The sheer amount of historical research was evident, and where many historians tend to skim over writing about politics, for fear of losing the interest of the reader, Weir makes sure the reader is always aware of the political, religious and international context in which the events are taking place. She also uses phrases in the dialogue that have clearly been lifted and adapted from primary texts of the period, which adds an aspect of authenticity.

I loved the book for all of these reasons. I did, however, have two main issues with the novel that has caused me to give it a lower rating. Tbe more minor one of these was the idea of Anne’s secret love for Henry Norris, and even this alone would not have caused me to enjoy the book any less – I just don’t believe that this was a factor in Anne’s time as Queen or, indeed, in her downfall. But Weir explains her choice to write this in the author’s note, and I understand her use of the evidence for artistic licence and can see how, in light of writing the novel, she has shaped the evidence to fit this conclusion; it did add to the novel, and therefore I enjoyed it. My main problem was the way in which Weir chose to portray George Boleyn.

George Boleyn is one of my particular areas of interest and speciality. I am in the very slow process of writing a book on him myself; he also forms a large part of my Masters dissertation, which I am currently writing, and has been a fascination of mine for several years. I have looked at him in depth and, although I acknowledge that he had many flaws, namely his pride and ambition, I admit that as a historical figure I am attracted to him, and wish that he was more widely known. A poem by a Spanish author once accused George of being a rapist. This is a theme that Weir has chosen to use and run with, and she has George confess to Anne that he has ‘forced widows and deflowered maidens’,  a line taken directly from this poem. Yet, in her non-fiction work, Weir cites a poem by the same Spanish author, which accused Anne of being guilty in her adultery and acting as a whore with many men, and states that it is an unreliable piece of evidence. The poetry was written from a point of view which would have been extremely hostile to Anne and the Boleyn family as a whole, coming from both a Catholic perspective and one which would have supported Katherine of Aragon and the Princess Mary, seeing Anne and her daughter as nothing more than a concubine and a bastard. I have always agreed with this assessment of the poem being unreliable, and do not understand how Weir could say this herself and then use a poem by the same author as evidence for writing George as a rapist. The evidence is flimsy at best, and although I appreciate that he has been dead for several hundred years, I feel this is a strong and unfair accusation to make, and as one that has also been mistakenly portrayed in the TV drama ‘The Tudors’, may end up being all that people who focus only on popular fiction end up believing, thereby damaging George’s reputation completely. Weir also has George involved in the poisoning of Bishop Fisher, a rumour which was spread about at the time and one which, with the use of artistic licence, I can understand her using although I may not agree. What I cannot support, however, is her writing that George also poisoned Katherine of Aragon, when it is known full well that she died from cancer. Although I acknowledge the fact that I am protective of George and the way he is portrayed, and therefore am biased, I do believe it is wrong to write of someone as a rapist when the evidence is unreliable, even when taking artistic licence into consideration.

Overall, I would recommend the book very highly to fans of Anne, as I enjoyed the way she was written.

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All the Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “A chance encounter in New York brings two strangers together: Liat is an idealistic translation student, Hilmi a talented young painter. Together they explore the city, share fantasies, jokes and homemade meals, and soon fall in love. There is only one problem: Liat is from Israel, Hilmi from Palestine.

Keeping their relationship secret works for a while, but the outside world always finds a way in. After a stormy visit from Hilmi’s brother, cracks begin to form and their points of difference – Liat’s military service, Hilmi’s hopes for Palestine’s future – threaten to overwhelm their shared life. Then comes the inevitable return to their divided communities, and the lovers must decide whether to keep going or let go, or have the decision made for them.”

REVIEW: I was lent this book by a friend and was looking forward to reading it upon her recommendation. Rabityan’s writing is beautiful; poetic but also fast-paced, it adds to the heightened emotions that already fill the story of Liat and Hilmi, two lovers who seem destined never to be together. Their warring backgrounds put a constant strain on their budding relationship as they clash over politics, over the secrecy of their relationships, and over the future of themselves and their warring nations. Added to this is the fact that Liat has a clear date in mind for when she must return to Israel, putting a time limit on their relationship that earmarks their happiness as only temporary. The cracks begin to show when socialising with their friends and the few family members they let in on the secret, but when Liat returns to Israel with Hilmi following not close behind to visit his own family members, the reader begins to hope that the two will find a way to defy their politics and families and be together after all. It is difficult to continue to give a summary of this novel without giving too much away; the ending was truly a shock and left me in tears for quite some time afterwards. Rabinyat has a way of writing that makes the reader feel as though they are in Liat’s shoes, which allows us to experience both her joy and her pain. I cannot emphasise enough the sheer quality of the writing in this book, which was both thought-provoking and heartbreaking – my only complaint is that I wish it could have been longer.