5

Armchair Travelling: Africa

I am a keen traveller in normal times, and am missing the freedom in planning trips, and exploring new places with my boyfriend. At present, like almost everyone else around the world, my only travelling is occurring through books, and watching foreign language films and Scandi-crime dramas on Netflix.

I created the first of the posts in this new series in February, alerting you to eight books set in Korea which I am keen to read, or which I count amongst my favourites. For my second post, I have selected three African countries, merely because I could not find a great deal of books set in each location. My birthday trip to Morocco was cancelled last year, and we could not go ahead with our planned safari to The Gambia and Senegal either; therefore, these are my choices.

The Gambia

Four Guineas by Elspeth Huxley

‘This account of Elspeth Huxley’s travels in Gambia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast and Nigeria gilds the Dark Continent–not because the author romanticizes it, but because she clarifies it…its history, superstitions and tribal ways, its beauty and power, its great contrasts and complexities. But this is no postcard and Huxley is not diverted by the exotic scenery and colorful natives. Instead, she pictures a region striving to maintain its heritage while finding a future. It’s like going ahead with one foot on the brake.’

A Season in Sinji by J.L. Carr

A Season in Sinji recreates life on a wartime RAF flying boat station in an African backwater. The dialogue evokes a wide range of characters, and in the bizarre cricket match which acts as a catharsis to the novel’s mounting passions, human dramas and irony are portrayed.’

Senegal

Ambiguous Adventure by Cheikh Hamidou Kane

‘Hailed by Chinua Achebe as one of the greatest African novels ever written, this long-unavailable classic tells the tale of young Samba Diallo, a devout pupil in a Koranic school in Senegal whose parents send him to Paris to study philosophy. But unknown to Samba, it is a desperate attempt by his parents to better understand the French colonial forces transforming their traditional way of life. Instead, for Samba, it seems an exciting adventure, and once in France he excels at his new studies and is delighted by his new “marvelous comprehension and total communion” with the Western world. Soon, though, he finds himself torn between the materialistic secularism and isolation of French civilization and the deeper spiritual influences of his homeland. As Samba puts it: “I have become the two.” Written in an elegant, lyrical prose, Ambiguous Adventure is a masterful expression of the immigrant experience and the repercussions of colonialism, and a great work of literature about the uneasy relationship between Islamic Africa and the West—a relationship more important today than ever before.’

Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye

‘In this new novel, the first by a black woman ever to win the coveted Prix Goncourt, Marie NDiaye creates a luminous narrative triptych as harrowing as it is beautiful. This is the story of three women who say no: Norah, a French-born lawyer who finds herself in Senegal, summoned by her estranged, tyrannical father to save another victim of his paternity; Fanta, who leaves a modest but contented life as a teacher in Dakar to follow her white boyfriend back to France, where his delusional depression and sense of failure poison everything; and Khady, a penniless widow put out by her husband’s family with nothing but the name of a distant cousin (the aforementioned Fanta) who lives in France, a place Khady can scarcely conceive of but toward which she must now take desperate flight. With lyrical intensity, Marie NDiaye masterfully evokes the relentless denial of dignity, to say nothing of happiness, in these lives caught between Africa and Europe. We see with stunning emotional exactitude how ordinary women discover unimagined reserves of strength, even as their humanity is chipped away. Three Strong Women admits us to an immigrant experience rarely if ever examined in fiction, but even more into the depths of the suffering heart.’

Morocco

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami

‘Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits evokes the grit and enduring grace that is modern Morocco. As four Moroccans illegally cross the Strait of Gibraltar in an inflatable boat headed for Spain, author Laila Lalami asks, What has driven them to risk their lives? And will the rewards prove to be worth the danger? There’s Murad, a gentle, unemployed man who’s been reduced to hustling tourists around Tangier; Halima, who’s fleeing her drunken husband and the slums of Casablanca; Aziz, who must leave behind his devoted wife in hope of securing work in Spain; and Faten, a student and religious fanatic whose faith is at odds with an influential man determined to destroy her future. Sensitively written with beauty and boldness, this is a gripping book about what propels people to risk their lives in search of a better future.’

A House in Fez: Building a Life in the Ancient Heart of Morocco by Suzanna Clarke

‘The Medina — the Old City — of Fez is the best-preserved, medieval walled city in the world. Inside this vibrant Moroccan community, internet cafes and mobile phones coexist with a maze of donkey-trod alleyways, thousand-year-old sewer systems, and Arab-style houses, gorgeous with intricate, if often shabby, mosaic work. While vacationing in Morocco, Suzanna Clarke and her husband, Sandy, are inspired to buy a dilapidated, centuries-old riad in Fez with the aim of restoring it to its original splendor, using only traditional craftsmen and handmade materials. So begins a remarkable adventure that is bewildering, at times hilarious, and ultimately immensely rewarding. A House in Fez chronicles their meticulous restoration, but it is also a journey into Moroccan customs and lore and a window into the lives of its people as friendships blossom. When the riad is finally returned to its former glory, Suzanna finds she has not just restored an old house, but also her soul.’

Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

‘In Agatha Christie’s gripping international thriller Destination Unknown, a woman at the end of her rope chooses a more exciting way to die when she embarks upon an almost certain suicide mission to find a missing scientist. When a number of leading scientists disappear without a trace, concern grows within the international intelligence community. And the one woman who appears to hold the key to the mystery is dying from injuries sustained in a plane crash. Meanwhile, in a Casablanca hotel room, Hilary Craven prepares to take her own life. But her suicide attempt is about to be interrupted by a man who will offer her an altogether more thrilling way to die…’

Have you read any of these books? Where have you been travelling to through literature lately? If you have any countries which you’re itching to travel to, and wish me to include in this series, please just let me know!

7

Ten Great Mysteries

I have loved reading mystery novels since I was a child, when I reread Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven series over and over.  Whilst I still read a lot of mystery books, I realised recently that I often neglect to post about them.  This is largely because I do not like to give things away.  I myself tend to read reviews of mystery novels only when I have read them, just in case a major plot point is thrown in by mistake.  With this in mind, I have decided to compile a list of ten great mysteries, all of which I have really enjoyed, and which I would highly recommend, whether you are a seasoned mystery reader or not.

 

1. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie 9780007136834
‘Ten strangers, apparently with little in common, are lured to an island mansion off the coast of Devon by the mysterious U.N.Owen. Over dinner, a record begins to play, and the voice of an unseen host accuses each person of hiding a guilty secret. That evening, former reckless driver Tony Marston is found murdered by a deadly dose of cyanide.  The tension escalates as the survivors realise the killer is not only among them but is preparing to strike again… and again…’

 

97807515372842. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
‘Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters addressed ominously to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor’. Her discovery plunges her into a world she never dreamed of – a labyrinth where the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an evil hidden in the depths of history.  In those few quiet moments, she unwittingly assumes a quest she will discover is her birthright – a hunt for the truth about Vlad the Impaler, the medieval ruler whose barbarous reign formed the basis of the Dracula myth. Deciphering obscure signs and hidden texts, reading codes worked into the fabric of medieval monastic traditions, and evading terrifying adversaries, one woman comes ever closer to the secret of her own past and a confrontation with the very definition of evil.  Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel is an adventure of monumental proportions – a captivating tale that blends fact and fantasy, history and the present with an assurance that is almost unbearably suspenseful – and utterly unforgettable.’

 

 

3. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (my review can be found here) 9780099466031
‘The year is 1327. Franciscans in a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate. When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths, Brother William turns detective.  William collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and digs into the eerie labyrinth of the abbey where extraordinary things are happening under the cover of night. A spectacular popular and critical success, The Name of the Rose is not only a narrative of a murder investigation but an astonishing chronicle of the Middle Ages.

 

97818604925944. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (my review can be found here)
‘Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor.’ Grace Marks. Female fiend? Femme fatale? Or weak and unwilling victim? Around the true story of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the 1840s, Margaret Atwood has created an extraordinarily potent tale of sexuality, cruelty and mystery.’

 

5. The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin 9780008124120
‘Richard Cadogan, poet and would-be bon vivant, arrives for what he thinks will be a relaxing holiday in the city of dreaming spires. Late one night, however, he discovers the dead body of an elderly woman lying in a toyshop and is coshed on the head. When he comes to, he finds that the toyshop has disappeared and been replaced with a grocery store. The police are understandably skeptical of this tale but Richard’s former schoolmate, Gervase Fen (Oxford professor and amateur detective), knows that truth is stranger than fiction (in fiction, at least). Soon the intrepid duo are careening around town in hot pursuit of clues but just when they think they understand what has happened, the disappearing-toyshop mystery takes a sharp turn…’

 

97801401677716. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
‘Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of morality, their lives are changed profoundly and for ever.  The Secret History is a story of two parts; the chain of events that led to the death of a classmate – and what happened next.’

 

7. The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle 9780241952979
‘In this tale drawn from the note books of Dr Watson, the deadly hand of Professor Moriarty once more reaches out to commit a vile and ingenious crime. However, a mole in Moriarty’s frightening criminal organization alerts Sherlock Holmes of the evil deed by means of a cipher.  When Holmes and Watson arrive at a Sussex manor house they appear to be too late. The discovery of a body suggests that Moriarty’s henchmen have been at their work. But there is much more to this tale of murder than at first meets the eye and Sherlock Holmes is determined to get to the bottom of it.’

 

97814091929548. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
‘Angelfield House stands abandoned and forgotten.  It was once home to the March family: fascinating, manipulative Isabelle; brutal, dangerous Charlie; and the wild, untamed twins, Emmeline and Adeline. But the house hides a chilling secret which strikes at the very heart of each of them, tearing their lives apart…  Now Margaret Lea is investigating Angelfield’s past, and its mysterious connection to the enigmatic writer Vida Winter. Vida’s history is mesmering – a tale of ghosts, governesses, and gothic strangeness. But as Margaret succumbs to the power of her storytelling, two parallel stories begin to unfold…  What has Angelfield been hiding? What is the secret that strikes at the heart of Margaret’s own, troubled life? And can both women ever confront the ghosts that haunt them…?  The Thirteenth Tale is a spellbinding mystery, a love letter to storytelling, and a modern classic.’

 

9. The House at Riverton by Kate Morton 9781416550532
‘Grace Bradley went to work at Riverton House as a servant when she was just a girl, before the First World War. For years her life was inextricably tied up with the Hartford family, most particularly the two daughters, Hannah and Emmeline. In the summer of 1924, at a glittering society party held at the house, a young poet shot himself. The only witnesses were Hannah and Emmeline and only they–and Grace–know the truth. In 1999, when Grace is ninety-eight years old and living out her last days in a nursing home, she is visited by a young director who is making a film about the events of that summer. She takes Grace back to Riverton House and reawakens her memories. Told in flashback, this is the story of Grace’s youth during the last days of Edwardian aristocratic privilege shattered by war, of the vibrant twenties and the changes she witnessed as an entire way of life vanished forever. The novel is full of secrets–some revealed, others hidden forever, reminiscent of the romantic suspense of Daphne du Maurier. It is also a meditation on memory, the devastation of war and a beautifully rendered window into a fascinating time in history. ‘

 

978000819651610. The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
‘”Anyone who murdered Colonel Protheroe,” declared the parson, brandishing a carving knife above a joint of roast beef, “would be doing the world at large a service!”  It was a careless remark for a man of the cloth. And one which was to come back and haunt the clergyman just a few hours later. From seven potential murderers, Miss Marple must seek out the suspect who has both motive and opportunity.’

 

Which are your favourite mystery novels?  Has anything on this list caught your eye?

5

Getting Into Crime Fiction

Crime fiction – particularly of the contemporary period – was a genre which I oddly found myself steering away from in my teenage years, but of late, I have been veering more and more toward it.  I love a good mystery, and whilst I have always been a fan of cosy crime, I am now drawn to more recent releases.  For those of you who don’t classify crime fiction as within your favourite literary genres, I thought it would be a good idea to point out five crime books which I would highly recommend, giving you a springboard from which to dive into some exciting books.

  1. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Flavia de Luce series #1) by Alan Bradley 9780752883212
    ‘Take one precocious eleven-year-old girl called Flavia. Add an ancient country house somewhere in England in 1950. Then sprinkle with murder, mystery and dark family secrets…For very nearly eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, the discovery of a dead snipe on the doorstep of Buckshaw, the crumbling de Luce country seat, was a marvellous mystery – especially since this particular snipe had a rather rare stamp neatly impaled on its beak. Even more astonishing was the effect of the dead bird on her stamp-collector father, who appeared to be genuinely frightened. Soon Flavia discovers something even more shocking in the cucumber patch, and it’s clear that the snipe was a bird of very ill omen indeed. As the police descend on Buckshaw, Flavia decides it is up to her to piece together the clues and solve the puzzle. Who was the man she heard her father arguing with? What was the snipe doing in England at all? Who or what is the Ulster Avenger? And, most peculiar of all, who took a slice of Mrs Mullet’s unspeakable custard pie that had been cooling by the window…?’
  2. The Secret Adversary (Tommy and Tuppence, #1) by Agatha Christie
    ‘Tommy and Tuppence, two young people short of money and restless for excitement, embark on a daring business scheme – Young Adventurers Ltd. Their advertisement says they are ‘willing to do anything, go anywhere’. But their first assignment, for the sinister Mr Whittington, plunges them into more danger than they ever imagined…’
  3. 9780008124120The Moving Toyshop (Gervase Fen Mysteries) by Edmund Crispin
    ‘As inventive as Agatha Christie, as hilarious as P.G. Wodehouse – discover the delightful detective stories of Edmund Crispin. Crime fiction at its quirkiest and best. Richard Cadogan, poet and would-be bon vivant, arrives for what he thinks will be a relaxing holiday in the city of dreaming spires. Late one night, however, he discovers the dead body of an elderly woman lying in a toyshop and is coshed on the head. When he comes to, he finds that the toyshop has disappeared and been replaced with a grocery store. The police are understandably skeptical of this tale but Richard’s former schoolmate, Gervase Fen (Oxford professor and amateur detective), knows that truth is stranger than fiction (in fiction, at least). Soon the intrepid duo are careening around town in hot pursuit of clues but just when they think they understand what has happened, the disappearing-toyshop mystery takes a sharp turn…Erudite, eccentric and entirely delightful – Before Morse, Oxford’s murders were solved by Gervase Fen, the most unpredictable detective in classic crime fiction.’
  4. In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
    ‘Nora hasn’t seen Clare for ten years. Not since the day Nora walked out of her old life and never looked back. Until, out of the blue, an invitation to Clare’s hen party arrives. A weekend in a remote cottage – the perfect opportunity for Nora to reconnect with her best friend, to put the past behind her. But something goes wrong. Very wrong. And as secrets and lies unravel, out in the dark, dark wood the past will finally catch up with Nora.’
  5. Case Histories (Jackson Brodie, #1) by Kate Atkinson 9780552772433
    ‘Cambridge is sweltering, during an unusually hot summer. To Jackson Brodie, former police inspector turned private investigator, the world consists of one accounting sheet – Lost on the left, Found on the right – and the two never seem to balance. Jackson has never felt at home in Cambridge, and has a failed marriage to prove it. Surrounded by death, intrigue and misfortune, his own life haunted by a family tragedy, he attempts to unravel three disparate case histories and begins to realise that in spite of apparent diversity, everything is connected…’

 

Which are your favourite crime books?  Which would you recommend to someone just starting out with the genre?

4

The Fifty Women Challenge: ‘The Moving Finger’ by Agatha Christie ****

I purchased a Miss Marple Omnibus not too long ago, and decided to read The Moving Finger for mine and Yamini’s Fifty Women Challenge.  The novel was published in 1943, and takes place in Lymstock, a ‘village full of secrets’.
9780007120840

Injured war veteran Jerry Burton moves to the village with his sister, Joanna, on advice from his doctor: ‘”take a house, get interested in local politics, in local scandal, in village gossip.  Take an inquisitive and violent interest in your neighbours”‘.  Almost as soon as the siblings are settled into the house which they are renting from an elderly spinster named Emily Barton, they receive a poison pen letter.  At first, they dismiss it as a joke, believing themselves to be merely moderately unwelcome newcomers, but soon afterwards, they find that such letters are ‘currently terrorising’ many of the inhabitants of the village: ‘In a place like Lymstock nothing nasty could happen.  It is odd to think that it was just a week later that we got the first letter’.

This letter is made up of ‘printed words and letters… cut out and gummed to a sheet of paper’.  It insinuates that Jerry and Joanna are not brother and sister, as they share very little in terms of looks.  Of this, Jerry candidly tells us the following: ‘In novels, I have noticed, anonymous letters of a foul and disgusting character are never shown, if possible, 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 to her at once’.

Quite unusually, The Moving Finger makes use of the first person perspective; a rarity in the books by Christie which I have read to date.  This builds Jerry up believably, and never does the narrative voice feel too effeminate, or its turns of phrase unlikely for a man within the period to utter.  The character development has been believably structured too, and Christie’s descriptions of some of the story’s protagonists sum them up wonderfully in just a few deft phrases: ‘Joanna is very pretty and very gay, and she likes dancing and cocktails, and love affairs and rushing about in high-powered cars’.  Oddly, Miss Marple does not make much of an appearance here, but the story does not suffer for it.

The Moving Finger is certainly one of the strongest Christie stories which I have read to date, and is one which I would heartily recommend.

Purchase from The Book Depository

16

Classics Club #41: ‘And Then There Were None’ by Agatha Christie ****

The 41st book on my Classics Club list is the incredibly clever And Then There Were None, from veritable queen of crime, Agatha Christie.  I am on quite a big Christie kick at present, and so I decided to read And Then There Were None just days after finishing Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, another novel which is well worth checking out.

The blurb of my 1930s Omnibus states that in this novel, which was first published in 1939, ‘Ten strangers are lured to an island mansion and realise in horror that a killer is loose among them’.  Christie begins the book by introducing us to Mr Justice Walgrave, ‘lately retired from the bench’ who receives a letter from Lady Constance Culmington, a woman whom he has not seen for some years.  Lady Constance asks him to visit her mysterious and much-talked-about new home on Soldier Island in Devon.  Each of the remaining characters are then introduced in turn, and the reasons have been succinctly stated for their being lured to the island.

We meet Vera Claythorne, who has been engaged as a secretary; Captain Lombard, who is offered one hundred guineas to go there and see to a mysterious ‘client’; sixty five-year-old Emily Brent, who is invited by an old holiday acquaintance to stay for free in the new guesthouse which they have just opened; General Macarthur, invited under the guise of having ‘a talk over old times’ with a couple of his ‘cronies’; Dr Armstrong, called there under the pretence of ‘a husband who was worried about his wife’s health and wanted a report on it without her being alarmed’; moneyed Tony Marston, who has been invited to a party, in which he hopes ‘they’d do one well in drinks – never knew with these fellows who made their money and weren’t born to it’; Mr and Mrs Rogers, a manservant and his wife; and Mr Blore, who is travelling down to the island on a train and interestingly has the names of everyone else who will be there.

I really like the way in which Christie introduces each of the characters here.  In the primary views which she allows us of each protagonist, she gives us details about their backstories; in this manner, she begins to build a rather realistic picture of them immediately, and they come to the fore as a believable cast of characters.  Everyone assembled on Soldier Island is thought to be responsible for a death which has not been justly punished by the law; this is a simple yet clever idea which serves to draw everyone together.

The old nursery rhyme, which contains the order as to which the murders play out, is as follows:

“Ten little soldier boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were Nine.
Nine little soldier boys sat up very late; One overslept himself and then there were Eight.
Eight little soldier boys travelling in Devon; One said he’d stay there and then there were Seven.
Seven little soldier boys chopping up sticks; One chopped himself in halves and then there were Six.
Six little soldier boys playing with a hive; A bumble bee stung one and then there were Five.
Five little soldier boys going in for law; One got in Chancery and then there were Four.
Four little soldier boys going out to sea; A red herring swallowed one and then there were Three.
Three little soldier boys walking in the Zoo; A big bear hugged one and then there were Two.
Two little soldier boys sitting in the sun; One got frizzled up and then there was One.
One little soldier boy left all alone; He went and hanged himself and then there were None.”

Each chapter in And Then There Were None has been split into shorter sections; this is a great technique which propels the story onwards.  It also allows Christie to follow different characters and to describe things which are happening simultaneously.  And Then There Were None is a taut and well controlled crime novel, and one which I will be heartily recommending.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘Speedy Death’ by Gladys Mitchell ****

‘Speedy Death’ by Gladys Mitchell (Vintage)

Gladys Mitchell, although she has somewhat fallen by the wayside in recent decades, was one of the ‘Big Three’ female crime writers of the ‘golden age’, alongside Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.  She was even the recipient of the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger in 1976.  Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, ‘the most gloriously unorthodox female detective’ in the golden age of crime fiction is introduced in the first of Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley mysteries, Speedy Death, which was first published in 1929.  Sixty six novels in total were penned in which she appears as protagonist.  Vintage have republished four of her Mrs Bradley novels – the others are The Longer Bodies, Devil at Saxon Wall and Here Comes a Chopper – and have sixteen of her other titles available via their print-on-demand service.

Speedy Death opens with a young woman, Dorothy Clark, being chastised by her brother because she has appeared at the country house, to which many have been invited, on a far later train than she originally specified: ‘Our brother in the front row has been trying to get through to Paddington to find out whether you’d been rendered dead in the buffet through eating one of their ham sandwiches’, he tells her. The host of the dinner is one Alastair Bing, whose son, Garde, is Dorothy’s fiance.  Mrs Bradley, whom Mitchell describes as being ‘dry without being shrivelled, and birdlike without being pretty’, is also a guest at this party.

The main thread of the story comes to the forefront of the novel when, during a dinner at Chaynings, the ‘charming country manor’, one of the guests – much-revered explorer Everard Mountjoy, who is engaged to Garde’s sister Eleanor – fails to turn up.  Whilst searching around the manor for him, the other guests discover the body of an unknown woman in a bathtub.  It is believed, upon further investigation, that Mountjoy was actually a woman who was masquerading as a man.  The two men who discover this fact keep it from the rest of the party, and merely tell them that ‘Mountjoy was dead before any of us came down to dinner this evening’.  Almost everyone present at Chaynings takes it upon themselves to try and solve what is believed to be the murder – rather than the accidental death – of the woman in the bath; a technique which holds intrigue.

The case is an interesting one, and holds surprises from beginning to end.  Mitchell’s writing is consistently good, and particularly shines when one regards the conversational patterns which she has crafted throughout.  Her writing is shrewd, intelligent, interesting, and really rather funny.  Speedy Death is so well paced, and is not at all a predictable murder mystery.  Mitchell has such skill as a novelist, and I for one am so glad that Vintage are reprinting some of her work.  Fans of Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey are sure to love her.

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

Flash Reviews (14th April 2014)

‘The Ice Queen’ by Alice Hoffman

The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman ****
Alice Hoffman’s The Ice Queen is another of the library books which I borrowed during my first trip there for quite a while.  I have long been a fan of Hoffman’s work, and was so pleased to see that my branch stocks so many of her novels, many of which I shall be borrowing in the future.  She somehow manages to write incredibly intelligent novels without making them feel too heavy in their style or tone, most of which can be read in just a few hours.  A review on the book’s blurb writes of Hoffman favourably, and states – quite rightly, I feel – that her work can be compared to that of writers like Carol Shields and Alice Munro.  It has the same brand of distinctiveness and power which their writing is suffused with.

The Ice Queen is intriguing from the very first page.  It centres upon a female narrator, who is struck by lightning after wishing it upon herself.  Everything becomes the ‘colour of ice’ in consequence.  She works a librarian and moves from New Jersey to Florida after her grandmother’s death, in order to live closer to her brother, who becomes her only living relative.  Our protagonist believes that she is cursed, and that she wished death upon her mother when she screamed in a childish fit of fury that she never wanted to see her again.  Her mother was killed in a car crash that very night.

The way in which the narrator remains nameless works well.  She is a strong enough presence that she does not have to be defined by a name, and an almost enigmatic quality surrounds her because of it.  The Ice Queen is a wonderfully absorbing novel, and I for one am so glad that Hoffman is such a prolific writer.

Purchase from the Book Depository

Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie ***

Apparently, Death Comes as the End is the only one of Agatha Christie’s novels to have an historical setting.  It is set in Egypt – on the West Bank of the River Nile at Thebes, to be precise – in 2000BC, ‘where death gives meaning to life’.  The novel begins with a widow named Renisenb, who has returned to her childhood home with her child, Teti.

From the very beginning, Christie sets out the familial relationship within Renisenb’s home rather well.  Unlike some of her other novels, the murder in Death Comes as the End does not come to the fore until around a third of the way in.  Instead, the sense of place and the building of the characters have been focused upon.  Whilst the setting has been well considered, the novel does not feel as though it has been entirely fixed in time.  Parts of it seem suspended without any real, concrete details, and could quite easily relate to a different time period entirely.  Nothing really made it feel as though it was fixed within Ancient Egypt, as I was expecting it to.

Whilst the plot of Death Comes at the End was rather clever, I must admit that I did guess it whilst it was still quite a way from the end.  It is not my favourite of Christie’s works by any means, but it was interesting to see how an historical setting both inspired and affected her work.

Purchase from the Book Depository

‘The Lessons of the Master’ by Henry James

The Lesson of the Master by Henry James ****
I really enjoy Henry James’ work, and spotted this lovely Hesperus edition quite by chance in the library.  Whilst I had heard of it, I did not know anything about the novella before I began to read.  Colm Toibin’s foreword provides a nice little introduction to the story, and also sets out the details which drove James to write.  The Lesson of the Master was first published in 1888, but parts of it feel as though they are of a far more modern era.

The story’s protagonist, Paul Overt, is an ambitious young author, who has had work published.  The ‘master’ of the novella’s title is an established and revered novelist named Henry St. George, who quite happily decides to take the surprised Paul under his wing, so to speak.  I much admired the way in which the characters throughout were portrayed, Paul particularly.  He is such a believable creature that one could imagine walking around a corner and bumping into him as he sauntered out of his club.  The way in which he presents different characters is quite splendid.  When speaking of Henry’s wife, James writes: ‘She looked as if she had put on her best clothes to go to church and then had decided they were too good for that and had stayed at home’.

James has such a marvellous grasp of language, and demonstrates his skill tremendously throughout.  The Lesson of the Master is a very character driven work.  Whilst part of it is quite a tasteful love story of sorts, it is still ultimately an impression of the cast of protagonists which one comes away with.  The novella is an enjoyable one; a great classic work which can easily be read in just a couple of hours, and which will leave you with a thirst for James’ other work.

Purchase from the Book Depository

0

Flash Reviews (18th December 2013)

Percy Jackson and the Battle for the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan ****
This year, I have read through the entirety of the Percy Jackson series of books, all of which deal with a young American boy who finds out that he is the son of Poseidon, and has to battle many beings from Greek mythology with his ragtag band of friends from thereon in.  I find Riordan’s interpretation of ancient and modern so very interesting, and Percy’s voice is believable throughout.  In The Battle for the Labyrinth, the story which has been set out in the first three books carries on marvellously.

Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian by Rick Riordan ***
I have been so enjoying this series of books, and am surprised that I reached the end of them so quickly.  Throughout the entire series, Riordan has crafted all of his characters well, and as with the previous four books, I love the parallels which he draws between Ancient Greece and present-day America.  The Last Olympian was, however, my least favourite of the five Percy Jackson books.  It felt at times as though it had been written merely for the sake of ending the series.  The ending was a satisfactory one on the whole, but I predicted it in its entirety, which was a real shame.

The Amazing Spider-Man: Shattered by the Shocker (Marvel)

The Amazing Spider-Man: Shattered by the Shocker ***
Being rather an enormous fan of the man himself, I was given this graphic novel for my birthday by one of my University friends.  It has taken me rather a long time to get around to it, I admit, but it stubbornly refused to come out of my next-reads jar.  In Shattered by the Shocker, there are ten mini comics, all of which have the same thread of plot running through them.  On the whole, I enjoyed the drawings more than the text.  It seemed a little stolid and cliched at times, which was a real shame.  As is often the case with such collections, I suppose, some of the comics were far better than others.  I was also a little baffled that Peter Parker and friends, all of whom were meant to be young students, looked as though they were approaching middle age in the illustrations.

Richard II by William Shakespeare ****
Richard II was my third to last Shakespeare play.  It was not my favourite, and when it began, I did not know if I was going to enjoy it.  I am pleased to say that it did improve a lot as it went on.  Overall, the play is an interesting one.  The history within it is presented well, and a real feel for the characters and their personalities is present from the outset.  The writing throughout is lovely, and some of the speeches absolutely beautiful.  I far preferred it to Richard III, which I read as part of my AS Level study and very much disliked.

‘Best Detective Stories of Agatha Christie’

Best Detective Stories by Agatha Christie ****
Winter nights always make me want to curl up with cosy books, and as far as crime stories go, Agatha Christie seems to me to be as close to cosy as one can get.  Although all of the stories in this collection are rather short, they are all very clever.  I found them morally interesting in terms of the consequences of and musings behind the motives of the killers.  I really liked the use of different detectives in the volume, and was pleased to see the appearance of good old Poirot and Miss Marple.  I love Christie’s writing, and her plot twists work marvellously.  I cannot wait to get stuck into more of her stories!