Thursday, 28 May 2015

The Clocks, by Agatha Christie

Sheila Webb, a young and emphatically attractive typist-for-hire is sent out on a job by the secretarial bureau that she works for. Instructed to let herself in and wait in the sitting room, Sheila makes a traumatic discovery: a well-dressed, respectable looking apart from being obviously dead corpse, surrounded by six clocks some of which are set to 4.13, an hour fast. Tearing out of the house screaming murder, Sheila collides with young private detective/spy Colin Lamb who sets about getting things in order- he calls his old friend Inspector Hardcastle to investigate. Mysteriously, the house's owner, Miss Pebmarsh claims she did no such thing as to request a typist, let alone ask for Sheila specifically. Together Colin and Inspector Hardcastle must get to the bottom of the neatly dressed body and the clocks. When another body is discovered in a phone box, a woman connected with the case that seemed to have a secret of her own, decide that they need a little help (little indeed) from Hercule Poirot.

I enjoyed this late offering from AC, mistress of the crimson herring. It had a nice mix of international espionage (Lamb is searching for a potential spy based on half a clue and a hunch when he collides with Sheila) and neighbourhood curtain twitchery. I love how masterfully Christie suggests murder and mystery in even the most respectable and affluent areas. She's an absolute demon for misdirection and there's ideas and idea-ruining-discoveries flying in all directions. This felt more of a traditional murder thriller, as the investigation was such a uniquely twisting one that suspicion never really rests on anybody- there are discoveries that seem to suggest the possibility of this neighbour or this motive, but never enough that the reader thinks gotcha! as with other AC novels that I've read. The reader is at as much of a loss as the detectives.

I found myself raising eyebrow a little at Colin's immediate feelings for Sheila, despite his initial denial of them- no fooling Hardcastle though. He's obviously working now not to find the truth, but to see her cleared of all suspicion because he's fallen head over heels for his damsel scream queen. As the investigation progresses in the usual order; interviewing the collection of oddball neighbours, each household opening up potential lines of enquiries, riddled with red herrings; attempting to identify the body and discovering the origins and the meaning of the clocks...but promising lead after promising lead fails to reveal a satisfactory motive or the victim's identity. 

This tangled web of murder, lies, and deceits has Lamb and Hardcastle stumped- the genteel neighbourhood of Wilbraham Crescent is truly unfathomable. This is where Poirot comes in. Colin becomes his eyes and ears, recounting the whole story to him and his "Little Grey Cells" in the hope of identifying the murderer courtesy of Poirot's inimitable and evidently successful strategy.

The narrative style is at times a bit disjointed, flitting between first and third person accounts, at-the-time information from Colin Lamb, then retrospective accounts from Inspector Hardcastle. While I really liked Hardcastle as a character (his 'I'm older than you, cleverer than you and more official than you act was frustratingly funny) I'm not sure that his turns at the narrative brought much to the story itself. I think Colin, a more traditional, Christy-ish "Young detective with a conscience and lots of questions about the nature of detecting" type, a bright young thing, was a more readable and more relevant narrator. It would've really tightened everything up if it had stuck with Colin as narrator. Poirot felt a bit shoe-horned it too, to be honest. Much as I love him, he was kind of be-throned in his apartments, revered by a young follower and it kind of recalled the crazy old Kurtz-king from Apocalypse Now. Sorry.

Ultimately while not one the canon Poirot novels, perhaps due to his slightly abbreviated 'also starring' appearance. The Clocks does, however, benefit from an incredibly strong and very memorable opening, an excellent, likeable narrator detective in Colin Lamb, a host of convenient coincidences and a ton of trademark red herrings and carefully constructed, twisting plot-lines. Even if the eventual explanation is disappointing for such an elaborate set-up.

Friday, 22 May 2015

The Good Son, by Paul McVeigh

The long summer holiday is a time of dread and confusion for 11 year old Mickey Donnelly; fantasist, aspiring actor and in his head, the community trend-setter. Secondary school is looming ever closer, but the cost of a grammar school uniform means that Mickey will be going to his local school, described as one of the roughest in Ireland. His big brother Paddy goes to that school, and he assures Mickey in no uncertain terms that there's no way a "soft, fruity" lad like him will survive there. Deprived of his chance to escape Belfast’s turbulent Ardoyne neighbourhood, Mickey concludes that school is ages away and tries to make the best of his summer; playing with his new dog, Killer and his little sister wee Maggie, running errands for his Mammy and generally keeping out of the way of his drunken and violent Pa whilst trying to avoid getting shot or detonated.

Set during The Troubles, McVeigh's Belfast is raw and brutal, full of paranoia, violence, poverty and fear. The reader understands immediately the claustrophobia and brutality of the life of a Catholic in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s. It's all the more terrifying in this instance because the violence comes from all sides and Mickey is as likely to get hurt by one of his own as one of his enemies. Raids and explosions happen with no warning, and it's never clear who's attacking who at any given time. The author really establishes the paranoid watchfulness of a cornered community; there's always the sense that somebody is spying, listening and waiting to get you. The British, the IRA, the gang of cruel boys that call Mickey gay or your own family that could land you in trouble or get you killed. 

I loved how close-up Mickey's world felt- it was a truly child's eye view of a place and a time that seems very hard to appreciate from an outside perspective. Personally I know next to nothing about the Troubles, so this book was quite a learning experience. It's very much a coming of age narrative, unique though Mickey's personal circumstances are, there are things common to all childhoods; skipping games, 10p mixes and first crushes on next door neighbours. It is a heartwrenching and hugely sympathetic narrative about growing up confused and without the Manual of Life. Just made all the more difficult against a backdrop of Civil War.

I absolutely adored Mickey as a narrator- his voice was so strong and he has absolutely heaps of character. Cheeky, imaginative, insecure, hilariously funny. He wants nothing more than for his family to show that they love him, and to be allowed to be himself. The taunts and jeers of the neighbourhood kids were devastating. Mickey's love for his Mammy and his little sister, and The Wizard of Oz and Grease make him gay in their eyes. Despite their teasing and despite growing up knowing nothing but the poverty and destruction of the Troubles, Mickey has a heart of gold. The passages that show how torn Mickey is between fear and love for his Mammy are genuinely difficult to read. I just wonder how they could have been but for the Troubles. 

I was thoroughly impressed by how this novel manages to be accessible and endearing, relateable on some level to everyone, but it manages to pack a real emotional punch too. Vivid though the setting is, it could quite easily be any childhood spent in a war zone- playing in the bomb-sites, curfews and no-go areas. Much of this book put me in mind of the also excellent Girl at War by Sara Novic- a war seen through the eyes of a child that knows nothing else. I found McVeigh's writing to be absolutely captivating- the plotting is so tight it makes your eyes water, there is not a single line or incident that does not further the reader's understanding of the characters, or the feelings and fears of a community virtually under siege. Very much recommend.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton

Leslye Walton's début novel The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is first and foremost a family saga, the winding and tragic story of four generations of the Lavender family. We start with narrator Ava's great-grandparents, Beauregard Roux and "Maman" who emigrate from France to a squalid "Manhatine" tenement in the early twentieth century. After a hefty bout of tragedy, Rouxs' daughter Emilienne (Ava's grandmother) marries a deformed baker in heartbroken haste and moves to Seattle. There, she settles into a blue-painted house with an infamous, if slightly mythical history, becomes a witch in the eyes of the neighbours and takes over her newly-deceased husband's bakery (and makes it better than ever). Emilienne is haunted by her dead siblings and believes her heart to be broken beyond repair. She gives birth to a daughter, Viviane, Ava's mother. Viviane's life is no less tragic, filled with unrequited love, betrayal and single-parenthood, wasted potential and isolation. She has twins, Harry and Ava, and none of them leave the house for years.

We dip in and out of the three women's lives, living together in the blue house. We find out more about the emotional wounds that they've suffered for love, but it’s Ava who is at the heart of this story- she narrates, though doesn't appear herself until about half way in. She’s a normal girl, but born with wings sprouting from her shoulder blades. Whether this makes her an angel, bird or girl, nobody seems to be sure. What it does make her is different, so Viviane hides her away. She hides herself away too, out of the way of the man that loved her but spurned her for a more socially acceptable bride.

The novel explores love in all its countless and destructive forms: unrequited, lost, forsaken, brutal, selfish, abusive, desperate. If there's one thing the Lavender family have learned it's that "Love makes us such fools". But there's hope there too; familial love, passion, unwavering love and love that is thoroughly trampled on but refuses to die. Even if sometimes it would be better off doing so.

Quite an epic and mythology-filled narrative, the book is full of the passage of time, the nature of mortality, drama and woe, odd encounters and quirky characters. There's a sort of fatalistic streak to it too- the idea that lives are preordained and will unravel as intended, regardless of a person's intent or decisions. It certainly seems that the Lavender family are doomed to repeat the same mistake- being rejected by men that they are too quick to commit themselves to, men that don't appreciate them. Ava, thankfully seems able to have broken the cycle, but at a horrific and brutal cost.

It's beautifully written prose, lyrical and filled with sensory description and beautiful, mystical imagery. An absolute joy to read, despite some pretty horrific scenes that jar with the coming-of-age narrative of the rest of the book. But people do so like to destroy the things they love. Ava really is a compelling little narrator; headstrong, brave and never defeated. Her voice is strong and clear, she accepts her fate without submitting to it in a way that's characteristically stoic, but she's incredibly warm and funny in places too. A very memorable character.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, by Joel Decker (translated by Sam Taylor)

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair starts one summer's evening in 1975 with a phone call from a witness to the police- a young girl has just been sighted, running into the woods pursued by a man. She is never seen alive again.

Marcus Goldman is a successful writer, the new kid on the literary block basking in the success of his first novel. He is America's hottest young thing. But now he's suffering from crippling writer's block. Unsure whether or not he can continue to be a writer and desperate for a solution, he gets in touch with his mentor, ex professor and friend Harry Quebert for the first time since his success. Harry invites him to his beach side house in Somerset, New Hampshire. It is here, on his self-induced writers' retreat that Marcus learns that HQ, retired academic and successful novelist, at the age of 36 had a relationship with a 15 year old girl.

Putting this out of his mind, Marcus tries to write. He returns to New York. He's at his wit's end when Harry calls, distraught; Nola Kellergan is dead. Her skeletal remains are excavated from Harry Quebert's garden, along with a leather bag containing the handwritten manuscript of Harry's most successful novel, The Origin of Evil. It's swiftly pulled from stores and libraries as America reels from the revelation that this giant of American literature, this lauded book is inspired by a love affair between a 36 year old man and a 15 year old girl. Things are not looking good for Harry.

Marcus is not convinced. Determined to clear the name of his only friend, he sets out to investigate the murder. It's gripping, page turning stuff; we watch as Marcus feverishly goes over the evidence, talks to witnesses and townspeople, goes off-piste in the houses of suspicious millionaires, trying to understand what happened that night in 1975. Alienating a whole town in the process, Marcus uncovers some shoddy police work, statements that don't add up, people that did inexplicable or odd things that night 36 years ago- every answer leads to 3 more questions and the more he pulls at the thread, the more secrets come tumbling out into the open.

There's no denying that this is a compelling detective investigation. There are red herrings around every corner, and more twists and cliffhangers than is probably healthy for a reader. The small-town tight-knit community comes alive effortlessly; the supporting cast of this novel contributes so much to the novel. There are comedically toxic mothers, useless husbands, pushy parents and deformed chauffeurs, reclusive millionaires, beauty queens and corrupt cops. Somerset is a town that nobody ever seems to leave and so everyone knows everyone else's business. Or so they think. The Edward Hopper painting on the cover sums it up beautifully. On the outside it's all apple pie, community barbecues and picket fences, but every resident hides a secret, a part of the puzzle that on its own means nothing. I was really impressed with Decker's ability to conjure up this inward-looking small town- it all felt so real; its normalcy was so convincing that its seedy secrets became all the more shocking.

It's also a book about writing. Each chapter starts with a piece of writing wisdom from Harry; the master imparting the rules of the craft. Only there aren't any rules, not really. Marcus' investigation fuels his next novel The Harry Quebert Affair and then The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. The book in the reader's hands contains excerpts from its main character's book of the same name, and excerpts from the fictional The Origin of Evil. Marcus wrestles with his creative demons throughout, dedicated to truth but not sure of his ending. It also lambastes the vultures and schemers of the publishing and legal worlds, those that want scandals and monstrous exposes whatever the cost. Truth or fiction doesn't matter- as long as it makes money.

There's an abundance of themes explored in the novel; love, lust and obsession, fame and infamy, murder, madness, religious mania, theft and duplicity. Marcus delves into the past and learns more about the people around him. As the characters' lives are filled in, they become easier to understand, but harder to trust. Every character is a mystery- what seems concrete and believable can crumble in a moment. Essentially the book is about the extent to which appearances can be deceiving. A perfect beach-side town can prove to be a sordid hotbed of lust, lies and bitterness; Nola Kellergan is not what she appears. Neither, apparently is Harry.

Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed this book and found it to be an engrossing, intelligent thriller, I did find the final 100 pages a bit of a test. The tension has been piled on for 500 odd pages, it feels like it's coming to a natural and satisfying end much earlier than makes sense...but then Decker undertakes a narrative key-change and the plot twists itself into knots, lobs in the kitchen sink and a handful of odds and ends and depends, just that little bit too much, on the reader's willingness to totally suspend disbelief. I don't think that's enough to condemn it though. Some readers might enjoy the novel's bonus-round, but I found I lost patience a little. I would definitely recommend this to thriller and murder mystery fans- I imagine it would make an exceptionally good plane-ride book- you need some serious chunks of time at your disposal to get properly immersed in this novel if you're going to de-tangle it properly.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Smart, by Kim Slater

Smart is a charming and heartwarming book that begins with Kieran, amateur detective and CSI expert sitting on a bench beside the Trent comforting his friend Jean, a homeless woman who has just discovered the body of her friend Colin in the river. When the police dismiss the case as a probably drunken but tragic nonetheless accident, Kieran sets about using his unusual skills; an uncanny drawing knack, an unusually honed sense of observation and a kindhearted determination to solve the case and punish the person responsible.

Kieron quickly emerges as quite a remarkable boy. His narration is straightforward and honest, and in a lot of places thoroughly funny. The reader understands him perfectly, and though he doesn't speak much to other characters, he describes his thoughts and impressions and fears to the reader beautifully. It's obvious he struggles socially- he doesn't fit in at school, he's called names, he never knows what he should and shouldn't say, he has his own teaching assistant at school and suffers from anxiety blackouts when he gets stressed. He's different from everybody else but he's obviously an intelligent and incredibly thoughtful boy.

What makes him most remarkable though is his warmth and his impeccable conscience is in spite of being severely mistreated at home. When Kieron's mother goes to work, his lazy, abusive stepdad Tony threatens and bullies Kieron, and often beats him and his mother. Tony's son Ryan is cruel to Kieran and often breaks or ruins his things, a thug like his dad. Abused, hungry and terrorised, they're trapped in the house of a bullying criminal and living in fear of Tony's whims and moods. Banished to his room during the afternoons Kieran begins sketching the faces and writing down the numberplates of the 'visitors' that come to buy things in little plastic bags from Tony.

Influenced throughout by the paintings and philosophy of CS Lowry, the TV show CSI and half-remembered bits of advice about socially-acceptable behaviour from his TA Miss Crane, Kieran proceeds with his investigations that take him from Nottingham to Mansfield and back, and uncovers a few other mysteries on the way, some that hit harder to home, some that result in justice for the people he cares for. While the comparisons to Curious Incident, by Mark Haddon are inevitable, it feels like a very different book. More accessible, less isolating to the reader. More art and less maths. Kieron's strong sense of right and wrong is more identifiable than the impenetrable mysteries of Christopher's mind. Kieron's condition seems poles apart to Christopher's, though they have their amateur detective observation skills and tenacity in common. It deals more with the seedier side of life, the circles of poverty in forgotten estates, the things that go on behind closed doors.

I loved this book. It's a tightly plotted emotional whirlwind that celebrates doing the right thing and helping out friends. I'm from Nottingham, and it's weird to read about places that I know so well; the Lace Market, the Embankment...I'd even worked out which bus Kieron must have taken if it took an hour and 10 mins from Nottingham to the Ashfield Community Hospital (which is a real place, my Grandma was in there too for a while). Even Sutton (my hometown) got a namecheck and that almost certainly is a first.

It's a story that's both heartbreaking and warm at the same time, and it sensitively handles many dark themes; drugs, poverty, homelessness, alcoholism, domestic violence and abusive relationships. Kieron's learning difficulties are handled well too- you really see the person underneath the classification and that's brilliant. While Kieron obviously has difficulties, we never really find out much about his condition. Most readers of this book will have shared their classroom with someone like Kieron, whether that's the AS-ish disorder or the tragic homelife. I like that it doesn't shy away from handling difficult subjects. It's never preachy, and though Tony and Ryan are despicable it never feels too grim and desperate, so I think most school-aged kids could handle this book and relate to some aspect of Kieron's character.

Monday, 11 May 2015

And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie

And Then There Were None is an absolute genre staple, and is, as far as I'm aware, the template for the 'picked off one by one' formula that has become the backbone of the murder spree genre. It's murder mystery at its finest, but without that singular detective character. The reader ties knots around themselves trying to work out who the killer is, betting on one, then another, then another, only to have them picked off one by one and prove themselves innocent by being dispatched. Even as the list of suspects gets shorter the reader gets no closer to certainty. It's so tightly plotted it's really quite staggering. For such a short novel, it twists and turns and wastes no time in getting down to the business of imaginative, grisly murders.

Eight strangers arrive at an impressive, grand house on an isolated island off the coast of England. Each of the eight has an invitation from an employer, an acquaintance, or the friend of a friend inviting them down to Devonshire for a job or a gathering, or a holiday. As they meet, swap small talk and introduce themselves, the eight strangers are perplexed to discover that none amongst them have been here before, nor can clearly recall the hosts- more baffling still, each invitation has been signed differently. But they're here now, and returning to the mainland seems off the cards.

The cast is comprised of an elderly, prim spinster, a retired judge, a merchant sailor, a PE teacher engaged as a summer secretary, a rich playboy, an out-of-work detective, a respected doctor and a decorated War veteran. They are greeted on the island by the house's butler and cook, recently employed and who have also never met their employers in person. This makes ten on the island. 

Instructed to await their hosts, the guests drift off to their rooms and find framed copies of the nursery rhyme "Ten Little Soldiers" hanging on the wall. Discovering that their mysterious summoners will not arrive tonight, the guests make a start on their dinner. As they eat and drink, they relax and begin to discuss the oddities of the house and the strange circumstances of their visit. They notice ten little soldier figurines on the dining room table, probably to complement the framed nursery rhymes. After the guests have eaten (expertly served by the butler, competently prepared by the cook) the butler plays a gramophone recording, as instructed by his employer, while the guests are relaxing in the drawing room. Unexpectedly the recording contains a terrifyingly magnified voice that addresses each of the quaking visitors in turn and accuses each individual of having committed murder and evading justice. All are shocked by these revelations, and 9 of the 10 immediately offer a defence, an explanation as to why it wasn't murder. Having heard each other out, one of the guests (Anthony Marston, rich and beautiful, but kind of an ass) has a cheeky drink to help with the shock. Within seconds he chokes and dies, just like in the rhyme. One of the figurines from the table is gone. Then there were nine. 

The book continues in this way until there are, obviously, none- there are only so many accidents and apparent suicides that can occur in a 24 hour period before somebody smells a rat. Naturally, as the plot progresses, the reader finds out more about the remaining characters and the circumstances of the deaths that they are accused of causing. I loved how the increasingly small circle of guests get more and more suspicious of each other as they dwindle, full of doubt and hostility. The more assertive characters, the judge, for example, and the detective begin to analyse and deconstruct the deaths in search of a suspect, sifting through evidence, eliminating people from suspicion, or failing to eliminate them as the case may be. The power struggles and tensions that arise in a life or death pressure cooker environment are thrilling and really reveal a lot about human nature and people's behaviour under scrutiny. I was so certain I'd guessed whodunit, smugly proceeding to the final sections only to be confused, shocked, then realise I was oh so wrong.

Agatha Christie is not the best selling author of all time by accident. Her plots are so incredibly tight and polished beyond belief, her characters full of secrets and deceits.  She sets up her scenarios carefully and meticulously, then the reader is let loose to unravel the strands and try to make sense of what's happening. She's a masterful author that never reveals her hand until the end- when she does so spectacularly with a flourish. For a book that's 79 years old to still have plenty of twist left in its tale is something quite extraordinary. Yes the characters and locations are old fashioned, obviously, but these plots don't depend on technology or communications to work, so they never really feel old- jealousy, justice and judgement, three very important themes in this book have unravelled people for generations, so it still rings true. Very highly recommended

Friday, 1 May 2015

A Complicated Kindness, by Miriam Toews

A Complicated Kindness is a coming-of-age story set in a Canadian Mennonite community, a reclusive and devout Christian sect that's similar in its ways to the more familiar Amish, much to the fascination of the visiting tourists. Mennonites reject the modern world and all its temptations, instead living like 18th century farmers. But with TVs. Sometimes. The town's main industry is the chicken slaughter place and the town's youth look forward to illustrious careers slaughtering chickens before being called up to Heaven in the rapture.

The novel is narrated by 16 year old Nomi in a wry, deadpan style that's very endearing and often funny, in a bittersweet kind of way. She definitely has a sharp sense of the comedic tragedy of her life- musing on the bemused-looking mural of Jesus on the high street, why did their religious founder Menno Simons name his following after his first name? Why does he love damnation so much but isn't bothered about explanation? How is moving one's body to music a sin? Nomi's mother and sister have both left the family, separately and suddenly- but probably for the same reasons. Nomi recalls them in chunks, their reasons for their departures become more and more clear, and sadly inevitable as she offers her memories up to the reader. Her missing family haunt her, but Nomi's father is unable to give up the religion that he loves and that has formed him and Nomi finds herself unable to give up on her father. She is trying her hardest to hold everything together in a ramshackle house by the highway that is falling apart, and with a father with increasingly erratic behaviour. Though previously a devout believer and follower of her religion, Nomi is just beginning to question the lifestyle she has been brought up in in a traditional rebellious angsty teen style.

She and her band of disillusioned teen exiles spend their weekends dressing up as pioneers and churning butter in the mocked-up 'Ye Olden Times' dioramas for tourists, then drive around in pickup trucks, smoking dope, listening to Lou Reed and reading hipster novels and beat poetry. In many ways she's very much an  ordinary teenager- boys, music her parents disapprove of, barely noticeable acts of rebellion. Nomi declares her survival strategy to be using “drugs and my imagination”- her greatest weapons against a town and a religion so desperate to get a foot in the door of Heaven that they forget completely to live. 

I really liked Nomi as a character- she was kidding herself about ever leaving, and she knew that but she lied to herself anyway was a way to cope. She's smart, honest and naturally inquiring, all the things that hardcore religious communities seek to crush, and it's painful to watch her struggle to understand that and then to force herself to live with it. I loved the pitiful but loving relationship she had with her father too, the bond and the burden. They didn't speak much, but understood one another entirely, even if the motives and attitudes were completely different. The scene where she helps him clean up the rubbish at the dump is heartbreaking- this religion seems to have crushed them both.

Though it's not a particularly plot heavy book, it's a fascinating character study of Nomi and her religion, which will be pretty alien to UK readers. It's beautifully written with a mastery of language and image that I haven't seen in a long time. As it's not driven by action, the characters and their lives have to be compelling, as Nomi was a truly arresting narrator. It's a fast and engrossing read all about self-discovery and betrayal, family and escape.