Agatha Christie Challenge – Month 6 – Nemesis (1971)

It’s half-way through the challenge set by agathachristie.com and I’m still going strong.  This month the choice had to involve gardens and this late-period Miss Marple was the official suggestion.  By 1971 Agatha Christie was a publishing phenomenon and had been putting out her crime stories for over 50 years.  I really enjoyed having Miss Marple as the central character here, rather than off in the side-lines (as she as in last month’s choice “A Pocket Full Of Rye”).  By this time the mature amateur sleuth had been cracking cases for 41 years and as a character, Christie, who by this time was herself 81, allows Miss Marple to feel her age, living a much more sedentary life at St. Mary Mead (her doctor seems to have banned her from gardening) is in need of more care and is less mobile (although she soon leaves the village and is off on location for this book).  There are quite a lot of references made to advancing age for both Marple and other characters here.

There is actually a weird sense of time going on.  Whilst perusing the obituaries Marple notes the passing of a character she has previously encountered in “A Caribbean Mystery” a 1964 novel which I have never read.  Plot-wise, though this is set only around a year and a half later and the death notice leads to her involvement with other characters but its conveyed as if it is years ago and these overlapping characters have only hazy memories of one another.  I’m sure if I met Miss Marple on holiday 18 months ago and became embroiled in a murder situation with her I would have remembered clearly.

It is a strange plot structure here which can feel a little lumbering but it does allow my favourite of Christie’s recurring characters to have prominence.  The dead man offers Miss Marple a reward for some sleuthing but she has to embark on this without knowing what is going on or why.  It requires her attendance on a organised tour of English houses and gardens (there’s the Challenge theme for you) during which she begins to piece together what is asked of her.

There’s a lot of chat and not much action and a lot of reiterating what Marple already knows when she encounters characters who might edge her quest forward.  Christie normally catches me out but I had this one solved quite early on.  A little more tension might have been good for the reader if not for the well-being of Christie’s aging characters.

This was the last Miss Marple novel Agatha Christie wrote (although “Sleeping Murder” was the last one published) and it is a bit of a muted, if age-appropriate farewell.  At the time it was generally considered not be amongst her finest.  On my list of those I have read so far for the challenge I think I would slot in at 4th below “The Hollow” and just above “Lord Edgware Dies”.  For August’s challenge my job is to read a book involving a vicar, a challenge which I could have anticipated would make an appearance before long.

Nemesis was first published in 1971. It is available in the UK as a Harper Collins paperback. Further details/book group info etc on the Reading Challenge can be found at www.agathachristie.com

The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett (2020)

Another book from my What I Should Have Read In 2020 post (I’ve now managed to get through 60% of these).  Here was one I suspected  that I would really like but I enjoyed it even more than I imagined.  This is American author Brit Bennett’s second novel and after this I would certainly be keen on seeking out her 2016 debut “The Mothers”.

This, however, is the book that has established her breakthrough into the big time, appearing on so many Best Of The Year lists and has been shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for fiction.  The hype has built up which is often a dangerous thing for me and my expectations, but I’ll emphasise this, my expectations were exceeded here.

I came to it knowing roughly what it was about but there was so much more to it . Two light-skinned black twin sisters disappear from their small-town home and head for the excitement of New Orleans.  One, Desiree, eventually pairs up with an abusive, dark skinned man and has Jude, whose blue-black darkness of her skin shocks the residents of her home town, Mallard (where its black residents generally have a much lighter tone) on her return whereas her twin, Stella, ditches Desiree to disappear once again and decides to “pass” and live her life as a white woman.  In a decades spanning time frame we have as our starting point 1968 when Desiree returns to Mallard with her young daughter. 

There are so many discussion points in this novel regarding identity that one might expect it to feel issue-driven but no, plot and characterisation are both very strong and that together with its immersive readability provides an extremely impressive rounded work.  Those plot lines and unpredictable turns do drive the reader forward.  It’s not without a healthy dollop of melodrama and on a few occasions the authors use of cliff-hangers resembles the soap operas that one of the characters makes a name for herself on, but this is also a good thing, making it feel highly commercial, this together with its relevance where its publication alongside the media coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement created publicity at a time when lockdown ensured the usual avenues of publicising their work were not open to most authors.  This book deserved the exposure, however, not because it was of the moment but because of the sheer quality of the handling of all areas of the book.

Performance has a major part to play.  Many of the characters are donning a disguise and playing a part, some professionally and some within their lives and even within their closest relationships.  I found the implications and repercussions of this fascinating.  It has the unusual advantages of being both a thought-provoking important novel and a great holiday read and I hope many more people will discover this work over the summer.  My only criticism of a book I found very difficult to put down is that perhaps the ending felt a little flat and less defined than I would have hoped but that may have been because it was the end of the novel and there was no more to read about these characters. 

The Vanishing Half was published in the UK by Dialogue Books in 2020.  The paperback edition is out now.

The Broken House- Horst Kruger (Bodley Head 2021)

This is the first English translation of a German memoir originally published in 1966 as “Das Zerbrochene Haus” and subtitled “Growing Up Under Hitler”.  In the Afterword the author (who died in 1999) reflects that it was a book which was developed backwards, in a way.  As a journalist in 1964 he was invited to attend the Auschwitz trials.  This forms the closing section of the book and is the most powerful and it was his attendance which caused Kruger to look back on his life.  In the 1960s he was stunned by how perpetrators of unthinkable crimes at the concentration camp had assimilated into society before having to answer for their actions at the trials.  I think if this book had been written more recently this central moment would have been the starting point but back in 1966 Kruger chose to employ a chronological approach which leads from his childhood outside Berlin, in Eichkamp, in an apolitical family where his environment would have made the rise of Adolf Hitler seem even more extraordinary.  Alongside this are the family dramas, the suicide of his oldest sister in 1939 and his own dallying with resistance and its repercussions.

There is a sense of detachment throughout which may feasibly be from the translation but I would imagine it is from the original text which does affect the flow and holds the reader at arm’s length.  There is little of Kruger’s own participation in the hostilities, it jumps to the end of his war, and indeed, this is acknowledged by the author in the Afterword which was written in 1975 and reflects back on the work, but this absence of this part of his life does seem a little odd.

In parts, it is magnificent, especially the second half of the book where Kruger feels to be on more certain ground, the actual growing up under Hitler sections in Eichkamp can feel a little tentative but there admittedly would have been so much that the town’s inhabitants would have been unsure about at the time.  It is not quite the masterpiece I had hoped but the author provides many moments that will linger long in my memory.

The English translation of “The Broken House” is by Shaun Whiteside. The book is published on 17th June 2021. The hardback is published by Bodley Head, the e-book by Vintage Digital. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Promise – Damon Galgut (Chatto & Windus 2021)

The me of 16 years ago read this South African author’s breakthrough novel which had been shortlisted for the 2003 Booker Prize.  I had to check back through my records to see that in the winter of 2005 I quite enjoyed “The Good Doctor”, his tale of a remote rural hospital and thought it well-written but I felt it had failed to draw me in and my verdict was that it was unexceptional.  To be honest, I had forgotten all about this opinion when I was invited by the publishers to review his latest title.  I was assured a novel “confident, deft and quietly powerful” and “literary fiction at its finest”.  I was intrigued.

If “The Good Doctor” failed to draw me in 16 years ago then things were soon put right with this.  I was very involved early on and it is the self-assurance of the writing and his handling of life-changing events which kept me hooked.  The Swart family live on a farm outside Pretoria and we visit them at various moments in their lives.  It is the tale of four deaths and the coming together of those left. Linking these occasions is a promise 13 year old Amor believes she has heard her father making to her dying mother, a promise which is denied, ignored or postponed for decades due to circumstances within the country and within the family.  The strength is in the characterisation and interactions between the family members. The tragic trigger points which cause the reunions roll back the preceding years with great economy and truth by the author.  I loved the structure of this novel, some demises are tragic, some violent, some tragi-comic but all imbued with a sense of South African history which is extremely effective.  There is an appealing calmness which runs alongside the tragedies.  It makes me think that the older me might have a greater appreciation of  “The Good Doctor” and I would be very interested in discovering more work (Galgut’s published oeuvre consists of novels, short story collections and plays) by this author.

The Promise will be published in the UK by  Chatto & Windus on 17th June 2021. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy. The Kindle/ebook edition is published by Vintage Digital.

Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line- Deepa Anappara (2020)

This debut has been on my radar since pre-publication and it featured on my “What I Should Have Read In 2020” post (this is now the 5th book on this list I’ve since read).  At that time I said I hadn’t actually seen a copy, perhaps it was initially lost amongst the impossible to promote debuts which appeared in the early months of 2020 but this has now become a very visible title (helped by its striking front cover in hardback, less striking in the paperback edition which appeared on 3rd June 2021.)  There is still a good buzz about this book which suggests it should be a strong seller in paperback.

It deserves success.  It’s an impressive book with characters that will linger for a long time and a lightness of touch which belies some very serious issues.  We begin with street children scavenging for survival for a man called Mental in a preface which suggests this may be dark reading but within a few pages we are into a first person narrative from 9 year old Jai, a child living with his child-like concerns of school, friends and TV, poor but happy in the slum-like conditions of his basti with his parents and sister.  When local children start to go missing Jai takes on detective duties with his two friends, the academically successful Pari and Faiz, a Muslim minority within their Hindu environment.

The authorities are not taking the disappearances seriously, they demand bribes for even basic policing and threaten demolition of the basti.  It is up to the children to find out more.  The superstitious Faiz believes it is the work of the supernatural, namely, djinns.  Pari and Jai remain unconvinced but do not recognise the daily dangers they face closer to home.

These three children are the life-blood of this book and it is impossible not to be drawn in by their outward confidence and swagger.  Anaparra worked for years as a journalist amongst such children and seems to have got her portrayals just right.  The fact that there’s a touch of the “cosy crime” novel about this when behind the façade much is horrific actually serves to intensify its power.  This is a strong work.  It will be interesting to see with Anaparra gives us more from these children in future as her reading public might demand or whether this will remain an enthralling stand-alone novel.

Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line was first published in the UK in hardback in 2020.  The paperback edition is out now published by Vintage.

Agatha Christie Challenge – Month 5- A Pocket Full Of Rye (1953)

This month’s challenge book needed to involve tea and the featured choice, published in 1953 was the most recent Christie I have read so far and the first to feature Miss Marple.  I am beginning to show a preference for her later work, they seem more subtle with greater depth in terms of character and psychology behind the crime, although of course, I am basing this on just a handful of titles.

This one is slipping in at number 2 in my favourite Christie titles.  It didn’t sparkle as much as last month’s “Murder Is Easy” (1939) but positions itself just ahead of “The Hollow” (1946).  The tea makes an early appearance as it is the last thing consumed by Rex Fortescue, the head of Consolidated Investments Trust, a family business, which he has controlled by just being on the right side of the law.  Inspector Neele is on the case and much of the work is done before Miss Marple makes a very delayed appearance and stays at the Fortescue’s home on the flimsiest of pretexts.  Further crimes occur which appear to link to the “Sing A Song Of Sixpence” nursery rhyme or is someone just using this as a device to mask the real motive?

It’s very much a backstage role for Miss Marple here and some may say her presence wasn’t necessary but I did rather enjoy her contribution to balance out the not terribly likeable set of suspects.  I thought I’d picked up on the clues and sorted out the ending but I hadn’t, so there is the pleasure of Miss Christie outfoxing me again.  All in all a very satisfactory read which will have me looking forward to next month without blowing me away on this occasion.  June’s challenge is to pick a book which features a garden.

A Pocket Of Rye was published in 1953.  It is available as a Harper Collins paperback.  I read it from an omnibus edition of Miss Marple novels (number 2) which also includes A Caribbean Mystery, They Do It With Mirrors and The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side. Further details about the Christie Reading Challenge can be found at http://www.agathachristie.com

Goodnight Mister Tom – Michelle Magorian (Puffin 1981)

Puffin have celebrated the 40th anniversary of this enduring children’s classic by issuing it in a new edition which also contains a story of the young Tom and lyrics Magorian wrote for the musical adaptation.  I had always thought I had read this book before but I hadn’t.  I have also never seen the acclaimed TV version which starred John Thaw.  It was one of those books where my vague ideas about it had cemented into what I believed was fact but I was often wrong.  I knew it was a tearjerker but what I had always thought occurred never actually happens.  The twists and turns of the plot were quite a revelation for me.

Will is sent from Deptford, South London, just before the outbreak of World War II, as an evacuee to the rural environment of Little Weirwold where he is allocated to Tom Oakley, an elderly widower who lives a very self-contained life with his dog Sammy.  Will’s arrival disrupts this but the malnourished, poorly treated Londoner wins Tom over from the start and the youngster begins to thrive under his care.

The country scenes have a direct line to earlier children’s classics such as “The Railway Children” where nothing much happens but it is still a ravishing read.  It’s a boy finding his feet amongst a new environment and new friends and the challenges he faces, a common enough theme in junior fiction but it is when the book reverts to London with a grimness which is shocking compared to what we have read before that it is elevated to another level.  Following this, with the war established in both town and country Magorian pulls no punches and conveys the sense of not knowing what is round the corner brilliantly.  As the war disrupts the lives of those in the country there’s a tension between adapting to the new events and wanting their lives to go on as before.

I loved this book.  I loved the characters and the plot.  I enjoyed the short story “Rachel And The Paintbox” which would be a lovely back-story read for long-standing fans of this book.  The song lyrics were inessential but there again would be appreciated by those who have had this book in their lives for decades.

I cannot believe it has taken me this long to get round to it.  My advice to you is to celebrate its special birthday with me by discovering it for yourself, re-reading it or buying a copy for a younger member of the family.  This is a great read.

Originally published by Kestrel in 1981, the first Puffin paperback edition arrived in 1983 and this edition with the additional material was published in the UK on May 6th 2021. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Yes, Daddy – Jonathan Parks-Ramage (HMH Books 2021)

I’m a sucker for any title marketed as “Modern Gothic” and I was also tempted into reading this book as the author and I share an unusual surname.  He is no relation, however, this is an intriguing debut from an author from Los Angeles.  At times I thought it was stunningly powerful and gripping but for me it ran out of steam meaning I finished the book feeling a little flat from an author with so much potential.

This is the tale of Jonah, an aspiring playwright who sets his sights on seducing an older, successful dramatist who then finds he gets considerably more than he bargained for.  As a character his motives are often very questionable which is no bad thing (see John Boyne’s “Ladder To The Sky”, for example, for another ruthless lead ) but some readers’ responses to this book may be affected by his limited likeability.

We begin at a trial so we know from the start that something has gone awry in their relationship, there’s an early twist and then a shuffle back in time to relate the whole story in a first-person narrative by the ambitious, emotionally damaged younger man.  It’s not that long before it gets really good, at a point where Jonah feels woozy at a dinner party and although there’s not a hint of demonic possession here the tension of the writing and the surface of respectability hiding much darkness reminded me of Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby”, a book I love.

There are many plot turns along the way but the last third feels as if the build-up dissipates greatly to find an acceptable resolution and I rather think that this resolution might feel more acceptable to an American audience.

There are issues raised which are relevant to the #MeToo campaign and LGBT considerations here given a powerful, fresh dimension and I’m not sure how Parks-Ramage could have otherwise found his way out of the plot he has weaved but I feel he might have let his dramatic peaks appear too early in the narrative denying me the really splendid reading experience I thought I was going to get with this book.

Yes, Daddy was published on 18th May 2021 by Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt Books.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Don Quixote- Cervantes (Wordsworth Edition 1993) – A Book To “Read Before You Die”

It’s time for my second pick from Peter Boxall’s “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die”.  Last time round, from this chronologically arranged publication I went with “The Golden Ass” dated around 260 AD.  I’m dividing the titles up into groups of five and selecting one to read from these.  The next five choices were:

The Thousand And One Nights

Gargantua and Pantagruel – Rabelais

Euphues: The Anatomy Of Wit – John Lyly

The Unfortunate Traveller – Thomas Nashe

Don Quixote- Cervantes

As with my previous choice I went with the most recent of the bunch but primarily because I had an unread Wordsworth paperback edition on my shelf.  So I set the time machine forward some 355 years from Apuleius for this doorstop of a book which appeared in two parts, the first in 1605, the second 10 years later.

The Wordsworth Edition uses this novel’s third English translation by Peter Motteux which dates from 1712.  Most of us would some idea as to what Don Quixote is about as both he and his squire Sancho Panca have entered our consciousness.  Most would know the “tilting at windmills” episode from early on in the book.  I knew it was a tale of a knight-errant obsessed with tales of chivalry but I had no idea how Cervantes would sustain this for a book of this length, nor did I appreciate just how old this work is, Cervantes was around the same time as Shakespeare, he died just a few days before him and this Spanish classic has proved an intriguing reading experience.

It has taken me a month but I do feel enriched for having read it.  There’s a marked distinction between the two parts, the first was pretty much what I was expecting.  Don Quixote, nothing like the chivalrous heroes of old and suffering from delusions sets out with the verbose Sancho Panca (spelt like this in this edition but the c in his surname is now more commonly a z), Quixote on an old nag he has mentally reinvented into his steed Rozinante and the squire on his beloved donkey Dapple to do deeds of derring do in the name of a peasant woman Quixote has fantasised into his Lady Dulcinea.  They encounter various folk on their way who tend to have fun at their expense with Quixote’s mental wanderings occasionally leading him to make atrocious mistakes.  He believes a dilapidated inn is a castle and is so wrapped up in his image as a chivalrous knight that fact and fiction is blurred.

In the second part this fact vs fiction theme is rounded out nicely.  Cervantes writes as if he is the editor of an Arabic translation of the first part which has become a best seller.  Many of those who meet Quixote from here on in have read about him and his exploits.  A significant part features a Duke and Duchess who have much sport in setting up scenarios for the knight and his squire, bestowing on Sancho Panca a fake governorship of an “island” which was something Quixote has always promised him as a reward for his duties.  Another well rounded dimension is added to the book when Cervantes addresses something which had occurred in the real world when an author stole his characters and published his own “Don Quixote Part 2”.  Cervantes regularly insures his own reputation is intact and employs various methods to attack this author in his text.

All in all this is a very rich, very dense text.  At times it did feel like I was plodding through it but then I would remember the age of the book and the vitality of Cervantes’ tales and it would not be too long before it shifted into a fresh direction.  It’s a comic tale with much more besides and I emerged from my reading of it exhausted but very impressed.

Don Quixote was originally published in two parts in Spanish in 1605 and 1615.  I read the 1712 translation by Peter Motteux.

World Book Night 2021- Books To Make You Smile!

The theme for this year’s World Book Night which took place on 23rd April was Books To Make You Smile, which is something we could all do with after the year we have had. Normally, there would be many public events taking place in libraries and other establishments to get people reading. Of course, these could not take place. My friend and colleague Louise and myself, who both work for Isle Of Wight Libraries decided to produce a Book Chat to discuss books which have made us smile. This can be found here. Just click on the link and Enjoy!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ut1frGMeD1Y