Agatha Christie Reading Challenge – Month 11 – Crooked House (1949)

The challenge this month was to read a title set after World War 2 with the recommendation from agathachristie.com being this standalone which in the Foreword the author claims as being one of her favourites which she planned for years.

I’m quite surprised by this because it feels to me fairly standard Christie, maybe a stronger literary feeling than some of her works yet lacking a little in tension.  Her narrator Charles is effective in that he is able to observe situations both from those involved in the crime committed and those involved in the solving of it as his father is Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard.

When his girlfriend’s wealthy grandfather Aristide Leonides is believed to be murdered Charles decamps down to Swinley Dean and the Crooked House of the title to see what he can find out.  Sophia’s family have not met him before but they conveniently embrace him and soon trust him with confidences rather than seeing him as the outsider with police associations which he actually is.  This gives him a good position in the middle of the situation.  It’s obvious that Christie is using the Crooked Man nursery rhyme as a device as she does in a number of her books but I do not really see how it fits in here despite it being quoted in full in the third chapter.  I would have thought that if she was going to use this she would have made more of it than she has (as she did in “A Pocket Full Of Rye” (1953)).

The family are all suspects giving this crime a very domestic feel.  Sophia’s mother, Magda, steals scenes with her dramatics and her brother and sister Eustace and Josephine are distinctly odd (the younger generation damaged by the uncertainties of the war years?).  Grandfather married a woman a fraction of his age not long before his death so it is no stretch of the imagination to see who the family thinks bumped him off.

It is enjoyable throughout but I wouldn’t consider it amongst Christie’s best works and of the 11 read for the challenge I would put it around mid-way.  Next month the theme to finish off this year long reading challenge is a book set in bad weather.

Crooked House was published in 1949.  I read the Harper Collins e-book edition.

Le Freak- Nile Rodgers (2011)

I don’t know why it has taken me ten years to read a book which seems so suited to me.  Subtitled “An Upside Down Story Of Family, Disco and Destiny” and written by a true original, gentleman and legend in the popular music industry this is a fascinating insight into Nile Rodgers and his Chic organisation.

I particularly favour music autobiographies when you really feel like you get to know the subject, where there is no holding back and when there is a good balance between the personal and professional life. This book has these elements just right.

I thought I knew a fair bit about Nile Rodgers.  In interviews he is a great raconteur and so stories like the conception of Chic’s biggest song “Le Freak” linked to an attempt to get into Studio 54 to see Grace Jones are very familiar but there was a lot I didn’t know.  This is where the family aspect comes in.  The suave appearance of himself and musical partner Bernard Edwards always gave off well-heeled vibes of the black urban professional making a name within the sophisticated world of disco culture of the late 70’s, Nile, however, was pretty much a street kid.  Born to a mother who was 13 years old when she got pregnant he was moved around for relatives to care for him and then back to mum.  By the age of 6 he was skipping school and travelling to forbidden areas of cities to spend his day in the cinema and before he was much older than that he was following family members’ proclivities in prodigious drug taking and alcoholism.

He was largely a functioning addict so it didn’t really hold back his multi-million selling career with Chic and production duties for Sister Sledge and Diana Ross and when disco succumbed to the racist, homophobic backlash of the Disco Sucks movement as a producer for David Bowie, Duran Duran, Madonna, Grace Jones and countless more.

The extent of his addictions, his attempts at sobriety and his response to the tragic death of Bernard Edwards in Japan in 1996 when Chic were firmly on the comeback trail are handled very effectively and poignantly.

We end in 2011 with a cancer diagnosis which we know he survives as 10 years on he is still very much with us and still a musical force to be reckoned with (especially as a live festival act).  I’m looking forward to a second volume to bring the Nile Rodgers story up to date.

Le Freak was published in 2011.  I read the Sphere paperback edition.

The Magic Box- Rob Young (Faber 2021)

I can’t resist a chunky well-researched book about British television and Rob Young’s latest certainly ticked these boxes for me.  Subtitled “Viewing Britain Through The Rectangular Window” this is a thorough work within its scope even if it is not quite the book I had thought it was.

Young examines Britishness through what we have watched for entertainment over the decades but this is not the social history I was expecting – this is more a guide to folk history.  The focus is evenly on film and television and the author is happy to divulge plot spoilers occasionally to prove a point (I admit this grated on me even if the likelihood of me watching many of his examples is minimal).

To be honest, I realised quite early on, after the first few chapters, that most of the productions Young focuses on I hadn’t ever seen, and that was because, in a lot of cases they wouldn’t have appealed at the time they appeared.  I would have written a lot of it as too weird or too rural or elemental, although with the passing of time many do hold a greater appeal to the me of now.

He is very good on British folk horror and cites three films as being vital in the development of this genre, “Witchfinder General” (1968), “Blood On Satan’s Claw” (1971) and,unsurprisingly, “The Wicker Man” (1973) all hugely influential in Young’s study.  I found the author’s observation about threats in horror film fascinating.  In British productions it often came from the ground whereas in the USA it was more likely to come from the air.

The land and our response to it is present from “Quatermass” to the recent revival of “Worzel Gummidge”.  As children we were often presented with the weird and Young cites cult and ground-breaking (often in more ways than one) programmes which offered dystopias, ghost, alternate histories and parallel times set within our land which is not always , through the eyes of TV and film-makers, a green and pleasant one.

The author has sat through a lot of material to produce this work from slow-paced rural documentaries and information films to Plays For Today, which in itself has provided rich pickings.  This was a long running strand on television which I remember being so diverse that you always had to give it ten minutes or so to know whether you were watching a future classic or needed to change channel.  It’s scope was broad in that it offered something for everybody although rarely within the same play. 

The book is tightly-structured and always readable and as I was reading it I was aware of the people I could recommend certain sections to.  I personally did not end up with a massive list of things I wanted to watch as I had anticipated when starting it but these are insights into our past the like of which we will never see again.  Young is right in his statement that in the times of streaming services, Netflix and viewer algorithms there is no way that most of the works featured in this book would ever be commissioned.  It felt good to be informed and reminded of them.

The Magic Box was published in both the UK and US by Faber and Faber in 2021.

The Hidden Case Of Ewan Forbes -Zoe Playdon (Bloomsbury 2021)

This is the first book by LGBT+ activist and human rights specialist and Emeritus Professor of Medical Humanities at University of London Zoe Playdon.  This is an author with an impressive CV and this book comes out of a five year research project which she only had the time to begin after retirement.

It’s both a simple story of basic human rights and an incredibly complex web of legal ramifications which attempts to put into context society’s treatment of individuals who do not belong in the gender to which they were assigned at birth and tracks how much of society’s response to trans people has developed from a court case from 1968, the details of which were hidden from the public.  The author states;

“Most people are unaware that until the late 1960s trans people lived in complete legal equality with everyone else.  Ewan was the reason that changed.”

Ewan Forbes Semphill was an unassuming figure to have caused such a seismic shift in attitudes.  A religious man, born in 1912, a gifted and popular local doctor in the small Scottish community where he lived, he liked dancing and was happily married.  Ewan, however, was born the Hon. Elizabeth Forbes-Semphill, a member of one of Scotland’s distinguished families and whose father had the dual titles of a baronetcy and a barony (he was the 8th Baronet Forbes of Craigievar and the 17th Lord Semphill).

The child became known as Benjie and had a very outdoorsy existence made miserable when forced to don dresses and pose as the “Hon. Elizabeth”.  With money, prestige and a supportive mother came the opportunity to tour Europe and receive revolutionary new treatments and Benjie became Ewan.  His gender was reassigned and an action which would surprise many who battled in later decades to achieve this, his birth certificate was changed without that much fuss.

Ewan slipped easily into the life he wanted to follow and that might have been it if the concept of primogeniture did not raise its ugly head.  With titles succeeding along the male line Ewan’s right to succession was challenged by a cousin he had barely met who forced a court-case to get Ewan to prove he was male who had been wrongly assigned to a female gender at birth.

It is an extraordinary tale of a man who just wanted to get on with his life but became inevitably and continually swept up in developments even though he lived largely under the radar.  I found this clash of the simplicity of Ewan’s life as a Highlands doctor against the whole maelstrom of long-lasting legal ramifications not easy to read.  There were so many big issues going on here that I found it hard occasionally to maintain focus in this format.  Perhaps it was too ambitious to condense a five year research project into one book for the general reader who may be grappling with these concepts of gender and sexual identity for the first time.  It is a demanding work but at the heart of it is this one man who probably never saw his life as extraordinary.

The actual tale of Ewan Forbes I loved.  His hidden case did have me lost at times but the author does bring it back to contemplate the legacy of the case and the gap that still exists in terms of trans rights and the ongoing threats to the existence of trans men and women.  This is some hope with greater acceptance, and strong following and support for a new wave of activists as well as Joe Biden’s pledge to improve matters in the US, following shocking policies from the Trump administration as well as the gradual removal of long-lasting practices which contravened basic human rights, in both US, UK and world-wide, even in places we might consider “enlightened”.

I do think just a little tweaking would have made this work a little more accessible and would have got it the wider audience it deserves but it is a sobering, thought-provoking and at times quite extraordinary read.

The Hidden Case Of Ewan Forbes was published by Bloomsbury on 11th November 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Lily – Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus 2021)

I haven’t read Rose Tremain for 8 years since I discovered her via her 1989 publication “Restoration”.  I absolutely loved it and it ended up in my Top 3 books for 2013. For some reason I’ve not got round to her novel from a decade later “Music & Silence” which I have had on my shelves for some years.  On reading the description of this, her latest and 16th novel, I felt it was time to revisit her as an author.

Nineteenth century settings are always going to win me over.  We start with an abandoned baby in an East London park at night and wolves who chew off her toe.  She is rescued by a Police Constable and taken to the London Foundling Hospital.  This is the story of the first 17 years of Lily’s life.

Subtitled “A Tale Of Revenge” we know from early on that guilt hangs over the young girl.  She sees herself as a murderer but we don’t know who or why.  The story is told in a third person narrative from her past and her present as a 17 year old employed as a wigmaker.  Some of these switches are a little abrupt I felt which tended to jar rather than build up the suspense as intended.

I was totally captivated by Lily’s story.  I really enjoyed the author’s writing style, use of language and ability to bring Lily’s world to life with some great characterisation.  It did, however, feel a slighter more understated work than I was expecting, plot-wise it hovers towards the sentimental and predictable and I felt disappointed that some plot-lines fizzled out.  Since finishing the book I read an interview with Rose Tremain in The Daily Telegraph Review section (30/10/21) where it is described as a recovery novel following a pancreatic cancer diagnosis which has led to her not being able to retain as much historical research as she has in the past which might explain the route she decided to take with this book.  She also says an initial inspiration came from hallucinations from drugs she was taking or anti-nausea which conjured up Victorian type children asking her for help.

I relished the writing and story-telling here.  It’s not going to end up in my end of year Top 10 like “Restoration” but I was certainly rooting for Lily throughout.

Lily is published by Chatto & Windus in the UK on 4th November 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Mr Loverman – Bernardine Evaristo (2013)

I’ve had a copy of Bernadine Evaristo’s joint Man Booker winning “Girl, Woman, Other” unread on my shelves for some time now.  I’ve never read her before and felt I needed another book rather than the prizewinner to be my introduction to her and I thought this would fit the bill.  My hesitancy is because I’ve found responses from people I’ve asked about “Girl, Woman, Other” to be a little mixed and some people just don’t seem to get it.  I thought this would offer a more traditional narrative style and would perhaps be stronger on plot which would enable me to really get into Evaristo as a writer.

It has succeeded.  I really enjoyed this and I’m now sure it won’t be long before I read something else by her.  This is a very character-led piece, a tale of a rogue, Antiguan born Barrington Walker who emigrated to London in 1960 in the early days of his marriage to Carmel, but unbeknownst to her he was following his male lover, Morris, with whom he continues a secret relationship until the 2010 setting of the story when they are both in their seventies.

Barrington in his first-person narrative has seen much change and believes that social acceptance of his love for Morris is now more likely but acknowledges that this would not be the case from his church-going wife nor one of his two daughters.  His narrative is clearly structured and very much from his own point of view.  Running alongside this is a second narrative which reflects the thoughts of Carmel, looser in tone, which gradually reveals her responses to her marriage.

I loved the characterisation, I love the way the author gets the characters to play off one another with real authenticity.  I love the relationship between these two men who have found it necessary to hide their love for decades.  I love the vibrancy of Barrington’s narrative even though he is undoubtedly exasperating.

This was Bernardine Evaristo’s second novel which has had a new lease of life following her Man Booker success.  I’ve seen it appearing on recommended lists in recent times although at time of publication it passed me by.  I think it would be an ideal reading group book as the viewpoints of the characters would provide much discussion.  This is a very strong four star read.

Mr Loverman was first published by Penguin in 2013.  

Agatha Christie Reading Challenge – Month 10 – Death In The Clouds (1935)

This month’s theme at agathachristie.com was to read a book set on a form of transport.  The recommended title was held until the start of the month and I just assumed it would be her most famous luxury train-set novel but no, they opted for her 12th Poirot written some 15 years after the Belgian detective was first introduced.

I’ve not been the greatest Poirot fan up to now, but having completed this and reflected, it is not only the best Poirot novel I have read but my favourite Christie I’ve read for the Challenge.  The set-up is simple and yet the work seems more substantial and involving.  It’s a classic locked-room mystery in many ways only this locked room is an air-liner, Promethus, making a crossing from Paris to Croydon.  Poirot is one of the passengers but air-sickness makes him less observant and he doesn’t notice one of his fellow travellers being bumped off.  With a weapon found by the side of his seat he becomes a suspect and has to clear his name as well as satisfying his hunger for crime-solving.

There’s the usual mish-mash of characters- a Countess, French archaeologists, a doctor, a dentist, a businessman and a hairdresser who paid for her flight from a winning Irish Sweepstake ticket.  The plot moves on from the on-board incident, to the inquest and the French and British police’s handling of the crime both aided by Poirot. 

The writing feels more vibrant, there’s humour and, admittedly, the odd cringe-worthy moment where Christie’s characters seem inappropriate for 2021 but all in all this seems the sort of book that would have enhanced Christie’s reputation as the leading crime writer back in the day.  Next month (month 11 already!) the challenge is to read a book set after World War II, so there will be a bit of a chronological leap from this pre-war novel.

Death In The Clouds was originally published in 1935.  I read a Harper Collins hardback edition.

Carefree Black Girls – Zeba Blay (Square Peg 2021)

This is a difficult review to write for a white middle-aged man and I am sure that the author would appreciate the fact that I would find it difficult- it means that the issues she raises have hit home.

I selected this book on the basis of its subtitle “A Celebration Of Black Women In Pop Culture”.  I have often used this site to applaud the contribution of Black women within music, the arts and literature and thought this celebration was something I really wanted to be a part of.  The subtitle is not inaccurate, it is a celebration, but not quite what I had anticipated.

The author is central to this work, she is Ghanaian who has become an American citizen in recent years and works as a film critic and commentator on culture.  She also has struggled with fragile mental health, with suicide attempts and attributes this, at least in part, as her experience of being a Black woman in America.

You can appreciate from this the tone would not be as celebratory as I had anticipated.  An author’s note warns the reader to “be tender with yourself” if likely to be triggered by the issues in this book.

Zeba Blay studies the Black American female experience in terms of racist expectations and stereotypes borne from white supremacy including the body, sexual identity, skin tone, childhood and the quest to be “carefree” using women from popular culture as evidence.  Her arguments are powerful and impressive.  I do not feel it appropriate for me to comment on these truths other than to encourage a reading and an absorbing of what the author is saying.  I’m just going to write 10 quotes from the book which will be enough for you to know whether you are prepared to go on this journey with her.  I read the US edition before publication over here.  I see the UK edition has a Foreword by radio DJ Clara Amfo which may put some of this into context for the British reader.

I’ll give you the quotes as they appear chronologically within the book and also the section in which you will find them.  They will be out of context, perhaps, but I have not distorted them in any way.

“And writing about Black women is the thing that put me together again, that got me through and helped me become reacquainted with the concept of joy and freedom” (Introduction)

“To say that Black women are everything, are indeed essential to American Culture, to the global Zeitgeist is simply to observe things as they actually are” (Introduction)

“… to exist in a Black body is to exist in a persistent state of precarity, to be in constant anticipation of some form of violence” (Bodies)

“Black women’s bodies were once legally considered property.  They were bought and sold, traded and loaned” (She’s A Freak)

“How can a piece of property be raped?  Black women were therefore assumed as always being sexually available and this way of seeing them was sanctioned by the American government” (She’s A Freak)

“The fact that one in four Black girls will be abused before the age of 18, that one in five Black women are survivors of rape and yet for every fifteen Black women who are assaulted just one reports her rape comes as no surprise” (She’s A Freak)

“If Beyonce had a deeper complexion would her dominance within the Zeitgeist be as ubiquitous as it is” (Extra Black)

“My Blackness doesn’t make me depressed, but being Black in this world can be depressing.” (Strong Black Lead)

“the exuberance of Black joy springs forth from Black despair.  Collectively, we made a way out of no way.” (Strong Black Lead)

“Black women are killed in America at a higher rate than women of any other race.  Trans Black women are killed at an even higher rate.” (Strong Black Lead)

Carefree Black Girls is published in the UK by Square Peg on October 21st 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The 800th Post – Reviewsrevues’ Creme De La Creme

Here it is! My 800th post! To celebrate I thought I’d choose to revisit 8 posts -my creme de la creme. This is a celebration of the best books/music/TV/film which makes up reviewsrevues.com which I have discovered or rediscovered and most enjoyed during the last six+ years.

John Boyne – The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017) (Reviewed in 2017)- A Five Star Review, 100 Essential Books & #10 in My Most Read Posts Of All Time

Grace Jones – Portfolio (1977) (Reviewed in 2016) – Number 1 in my Essential CD List

Scott & Bailey – Series 5 (2016) (Reviewed in 2016) – A Five Star What I’ve Been Watching Review & #2 in My Most Read Posts Of All Time

Marjorie Wallace – The Silent Twins (1986) (Reviewed in 2015 ) – A Five Star Review, 100 Essential Books

Michel Faber – The Crimson Petal & The White (2002) (Reviewed in 2015)- A Five Star Review, 100 Essential Books

God’s Own Country (2017) (Reviewed in 2019) – A Five Star What I’ve Been Watching Film Review

Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band – The Very Best Of (1996) (Reviewed in 2015) – Number 2 in my Essential CD List

Philip Ridley – Krindlekrax (1991) (Reviewed in 2015) – A Five Star Kid-Lit Review

Feel free to visit the reviews by clicking on the titles, hopefully it will spur you on to discover or rediscover some of my favourite things. Many thanks for supporting me in ever increasing numbers over the last 800 posts. Here’s to plenty more!

Black Drop – Leonora Nattrass (Viper 2021)

It’s London in 1794 and those with power are nervous. A fragile treaty with America is being attempted, relations with France have become further rattled by events following the French Revolution, and their own subjects fill the pungent air with talk of sedition and treason. This provides the starting point for Leonora Nattrass’ historical  debut novel.

Nattrass has combined fictional characters with those really around at the time and provides us with a useful cast list at the beginning (I consulted this a number of times).  Largely the confession of Foreign Office clerk Laurence Jago, who is hiding his French ancestry and offering information to a shadowy female spy (an underdeveloped character I felt here and perhaps the only one the author does not bring fully to life).  Jago becomes implicated in leaking information which would hurt the British army in France but he is innocent and the house of cards he had built up around himself begins to fall.

This is Jago’s narrative throughout and he meets some lively characters, most notably Philpott, a loyalist journalist who the author states she based upon William Cobbett, who brings a lot of life to the scenes he is in, including one set in a menagerie.  There’s much political intrigue in this well-researched novel but I found it most gripping away from the main plot to uncover spies when it deals with the human cost and the changing loyalties of the volatile mobs.  A trial for treason follows closely along historical facts and involves the Prime Minister William Pitt and provides a high point of the novel.  The title refers to a laudanam type medicine Jago becomes addicted to but this is somewhat underplayed.  This is a strong debut from a promising author.  There were, admittedly, times when my attention wandered but I was pulled back in and found myself caring about the outcome for these characters.

Black Drop is published by Viper on October 14th 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.