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Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie — book review

Death on the Nile is one of Agatha Christie’s most ingenuous mysteries. While Christie has definitely penned more ‘twisty’ whoddunits, the shifting dynamics between the book’s various players make for a suspenseful story.
With the exception of our wonderfully punctilious Poirot, Death on the Nile is almost entirely populated by unlikable characters (who are either blatantly racist or express misogynistic and classist sentiments). While Christie’s characters are in essence stereotypes—the self-centred socialites, the oppressive mothers, the vociferous communist, the self-effacing plain-Jane, the vengeful scorned woman—to dismiss them as ‘shallow’ or ‘caricatures’ is rather unjustified. Through her sharp-wit, Christie observes how duplicitous her characters are, regardless of their class and gender. The murder victim is initially presented as heroine of sorts: admired for her beauty, wealth, and altruism. But, here and there, we see glimpses of her flippant and selfish nature.
Throughout the course of the novel, Poirot, as per usual, demonstrates the power of his little grey cells. His denouement, however, wasn’t as satisfying as it could have been. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed how enraged the suspects became once Poirot confronts them about their lies (I mean, they had it coming).

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann

2505972493_e0150cbe1c_b.jpgInvitation to the Waltz is a short novel which was first published in 1932 and written by Rosamond Lehmann, an overlooked yet clearly talented author. The narrative takes place over the course of two days: the day of Olivia Curtis’ seventeenth birthday and the day in which, together with her older sister Kate and a dullish male chaperone, she goes to her first dance.

“And they waltzed together to the music made for joy. She danced with him in love and sorrow. He held her close to him, and he was far away from her, far from the music, buried and indifferent. She danced with his youth and his death.”

This is not the type of novel that has a clear storyline or plot. Lehmann spends a large portion of her narrative conveying Olivia’s various states of mind and detailing the frivolous chit-chat between the people around her on these two separate days (from her family members to her neighbours).
From the start readers will be aware of Olivia’s self-awareness over her own shyness and inexperience. Feeling inferior to the more mature and beautiful Kate, Olivia is desperately looking forward to her first dance as she hopes that something will happen there, even if she does not know exactly what that something should or will be. Lehmann skilfully renders Olivia’s innermost thoughts, emphasising the elusive shape of her desires. Olivia’s character brought to mind the nameless narrator of Rebecca as they are both almost painfully aware of being seen as young and green by the people around them. Olivia comes to mythologize the dance, regarding this event as something more than a rite of passage.

Lehmann’s style possesses an unflagging rhythm that effectively propels readers along. Between Olivia’s inner monologue and the constant—and often empty—chatter between the various characters Lehmann’s narrative almost becomes too much. The way in which she moves from conversation to conversation or from thought to thought gave her style a syncopated energy that was too nervy for my liking (it brought to mind the writing of Muriel Spark and Dorothy Baker).
I can definitely see why many readers compare Lehmann to Virginia Woolf. At the best of times I will find stream of consciousness to be too florid for my taste…so I was slightly put off by Lehmann’s use of this technique.

The long-awaited dance did not strike me as particularly memorable as lot of potentially significant scenes or conversations are absorbed into the noisy and forgettable chatter and general hubbub of the party.

On the one hand, I appreciated how upbeat this novel is and the way Lehmann captured that awkward transition between girlhood and adulthood…on the other, I can’t say that I was particularly engaged by her narrative or her characters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton — book review


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Whodunnits, Agatha Christie, mysteries, and puzzles are all favourites of mine…so I was pretty excited to read The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle as it promised to combine all of these things together.

“I suddenly have the sense of taking part in a play in which everybody knows their lines but me.”

With a fascinating premise and unique structure I was expecting The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle to be an amazing read…and while it certainly did succeeded in grabbing my attention, I was ultimately unconvinced by much of its narrative, which struck me as confusing for the sole sake of being confusing.35967101.jpg

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is the type of book that will make you want to scratch your head in confusion and start taking notes. The story maintains its momentum through a blend of action and detection. To start with, I enjoyed how complex the story seemed to be. It definitely kept me guessing and wondering what would happen next. After the half-way point however it seemed to me that all of the different threads were becoming knotted together in a rather tangled mess.

A few of my gripes

➜The Groundhog Day scenario would have been interesting enough…and yet Stuart Turton seems to have felt the need to make his story all the more convoluted by adding weird rules (view spoiler) or using the ‘time-loop’ excuse to make things go a certain way.

➜I know that this is the type of novel that requires one to suspend their disbelief…and I was willing to do so for the seven-days-in-one thing but I struggled to believe in the historical setting. The period was chosen as an homage to Agatha Christie…which is fair enough. There are certain 1930s aesthetics that lend themselves quite nicely to a whodunnit. In Turton’s novel however we have a murky image of this period…the dialogue felt gimmicky and the narrative never gave a clear impression of what year the party was actually taking place in. Just a vague ‘after the War’ sort of setting. The guests attending the party acted in a very impolite manner. Customs and conventions are often forgotten in favour of creating some drama between characters. Everybody seems ready to shoot one another (these type of people usually prefer to shoot pigeons and whatnot) and they are so openly aggressive and rude as to seem completely unconvincing. Turton’s portrayal of the class divide is frankly misleading (so that we will have servants act with open hostility towards the guests).
This cast of characters would have been better suited to a story in the Old Wild West.

➜The whodunnit should have been the heart of the novel. Yet, it is often obscured by a series of weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird nonsense that is there only to confuse the reader. If I were to take the whodunnit out of this ‘context’ it would just seem over-the-top. If you’ve read a few novels by Christie—or any other Golden Age Detective novel—you are bound to find the whole thing derivative. The other mystery is rendered in such a backhanded sort of way as not to be all that compelling.

➜The twists were mildly annoying. (view spoiler)

With so much focus on the structure of his story Turton ends up neglecting the characterisations of his characters so that most of them appear as little more than thinly rendered caricatures. Some of Aiden’s hosts possessed similarly unpleasant and interchangeable personalities while a lot of the men at this party acted in the same blustering way. None of the characters affected me on an emotional level as they seemed closer to cardboard cutouts than real people. The footman is such a laughably one-dimensional villain (seriously, he hunts Aiden singing “Run, rabbit, run”) and so is the main culprit.

➜Turton’s writing could occasionally resort to eye-roll worthy descriptions such as “Blakheath shrinks around me, shrivelling like a spider touched to the flame” and “our entire future’s written in the creases around her eyes; that pale white face is a crystal ball with only horrors in the fog”. Phrases such as these made Aiden’s narration seem rather theatrical.

Overall
The story is so focused on eluding its readers as to leave a lot to be desired. From the poorly rendered time period to the cartoonish characters…this novel was a bit of mess. Still, I did stick to it so it was obviously doing at least something right.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier — book review

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Rebecca is a work of Gothic suspense that is told in a mesmerising prose and makes for an enthralling and evocative read.

“Colour and scent and sound, rain and the lapping of water, even the mists of autumn and the smell of the flood tide, these are memories of Manderley that will not be denied.”

While reading Rebecca I realised that I was already familiar with its opening lines and some of the novel’s key scenes. This may be because of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca film or thanks to the hilarious sketch by That Mitchell and Webb Look.
In many ways Rebecca—its story, its characters, its use of Gothic elements—is not incredibly original. Yet, rather than relying wholly on its precursors (such as Bluebeard and Jane Eyre) Rebecca presents us with a more self-aware take on these otherwise tired dynamics and scenarios.
While the cast of characters do have attributes that bring to mind Jane Eyre (not only is du Maurier’s narrator a ‘plain Jane’ but one of her few hobbies happens to be ‘drawing’) they also possess qualities that reflect their own period.

The narrator’s namelessness is incredibly effective. It suggests that this novel is indeed not about her, but about Rebecca (after all the novel is titled after her). Her namelessness also reinforces her sense of inadequacy—that is of being less, not enough, simply unequal to Rebecca—and her anxiety regarding herself and others.
Daphne du Maurier untangles the mystery at the heart of her novel in a slow yet utterly compelling way. During the ‘final’ explanation she details in incisive precision the motivations and circumstances that can lead ‘ordinary’ individuals to commit a major crime. More impressive still is that even after this ‘twisty’ revelation the narrative maintains its suspense.
Much of the narrative’s ‘tension’ arises from seemingly ordinary moments. Our narrator seems to find the conventions and traditions of the British upper class to be exhausting. In spite of her often reiterated wish to be a magnetic and socially accomplished woman, she shrinks away from her role as Manderley mistress (during ‘unpleasant’ or simply adult conversations she will lower her gaze and occupy herself with her hands or with petting the dog).
The narrator’s namelessness emphasises her disempowerment. While she refers to herself as Maxim’s wife, and others will address her as Mrs de Winter, our narrator feels unequal to her position and inferior in all aspects to the previous Mrs de Winter.
The narrator’s unwillingness and inability to fulfill Rebecca’s old duties or to partake in the daily runnings of Manderley, render her vulnerable to the creepy Mrs. Danvers (a woman who is as watchful as Madame Beck in Villette).
The second Mrs de Winter struggles to assert herself, so much so that she falls victim to Mrs. Danvers’ psychological attacks. It is because she is constantly undermined by Mrs. Danvers, timid towards Manderley’s staff, and painfully aware of being scrutinised, surveyed, and compared to Rebecca, that our narrator becomes convinced of her own inferiority.
While the premise and dynamics within this novel are far from unique, I enjoyed seeing how things played out. A naive young woman, her distant and secretive husband, his recently deceased achingly-beautiful-and-charming first wife, his Bluebeard-esque estate with its skull-faced servant…these are all exceedingly Gothic elements. Given the popularity of the ‘domestic thriller’ genre, it appears that readers have yet to grow tired of these type of stories. There are few authors however who have du Maurier’s sensual prose. There is a sensuality in the narrator’s obsession and jealousy towards Rebecca. While the second Mrs de Winter never sees a photo or portrait of Rebecca, she becomes familiar with everything about her. From her perfume and clothes to her calligraphy and daily routine. Other people’s impression of Rebecca shape the narrator’s own vision of her. Rebecca comes to embody all the characteristics that the present Mrs de Winter would like to possess. Her fascination is intermingled with a deeply felt hatred.

There is little romance in the love story within Rebecca. In spite of her naïveté, our narrator soon realises that Maxim is far from love-struck. His marriage proposal seems much closer to a business proposal, and later on, not only does he seem disinterested in our narrator but he is quick to dismiss her worries and anxieties (he will tell her not to be a little idiot).
Jealousy and paranoia soon begin to plague the second Mrs de Winter. She desires more than anything to be loved by Maxim, and fears that she will never live up to his first wife Rebecca. As she becomes more and more haunted by Rebecca, the narrator’s susceptible mind often lead her to distort and exaggerate simple conversations, and to observe in her surroundings Rebecca’s imprint (there were many moments in which she reminded me of Jane Austen’s incredibly impressionable heroine Catherine Morland). Through the narrator’s dreams and her moments of dissociation readers begin to see just how deep Rebecca’s presence is within her psyche and life.
The landscape alleviates our heroine’s mystification. The gardens and the sea mirror her state of minds, and allow her to examine and question her own feelings and circumstances. Manderley’s flora and fauna, as well as its weather, capture a sense of the sublime. The idyllic and haunted Manderley plays a central role in the story and constantly occupies the narrator’s mind.
Amidst love, jealousy, and feminine ideals, this beautifully written novel conveys with perfect clarity what it means to be young and inexperienced.

 

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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THE NIGHT TIGER: BOOK REVIEW

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The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo
★★★✰✰ 3 of 5 stars

“[His] voice was icy. He’s an ass if he can’t tell you’re obviously a virgin.

and they say romance is dead.

On paper The Night Tiger has a lot of potential but there were several things that prevent it from being a really good novel.

Things that I liked
This is the sort of story that slowly intertwines the fates of seemingly disconnected people. Set in the 1930s in Malaya the narrative brims with the promise of magic and legends and folklore underline the story.
Yangsze Choo’s alluring prose complements beautifully the romantic and dreamy quality of her story. She often uses sweet-sounding metaphors that really appeal to the senses. Her descriptions have this rich and smooth sort of flair that make her setting really stand out.
A missing finger links the story of Ji Lin, a young dressmaker apprentice + dancehall girl, and Ren, a houseboy whose master has recently died. Ji Lin finds herself in the possession of a detached finger while Ren was tasked with finding his master’s missing finger and burying it with his now buried body. The promising premise leads way to a slow paced narrative. The mystery behind the fingers and the ‘odd’ deaths were to me the main drive of the story.

Things that I didn’t like
Dual narrative
While I was intrigued I soon found myself disliked the ‘format’ of the dual narrative. The chapters ended almost with abruptness, as to pique the reader’s interest. I wouldn’t have minded but for the switching between 1st and 3rd person. It didn’t really add anything to the narrative, rather it made a lot of chapters clash with one another. One moment I was deep in Ji Lin’s story next thing I was an ‘outsider’ observing Ren, or worse still William.
Because these chapters interrupted each other’s ‘action’ there were a lot of observations and ‘realisations’ that are repeated, and often it seemed that I was getting a ‘recap’ of what had happened previously to that character.
Characters (Ji Lin is not like other girls, and all men are pigs )
I really wanted to like both Ji Lin and Ren. Sadly, I soon found Ji Lin to be insufferable and Ren was both boring and had some very non-child-like moments
Ji Lin is the typical gorgeous and smart girl who doesn’t know how beautiful and charming she is. She wanted to study medicine, like her step-brother Shin, but decides not to disobey her “tyrannical” stepfather. Ji Lin seems to find it unfair that Shin was able to study and that she is only excepted to become a wife…and yet Ji Lin soon reveals herself to be the type of young woman who judges and condemns women in situations similar to her own. She seems to think herself better than the other dancehall girls (and their shock horror promiscuous ways). If she is progressive enough to think that women should be doing the same things as the men do, why does she so quickly condemn those like her? Does she think she is the only one who works as a dancehall girl because she in desperate need of money? Is it not likely that the other girls are going through similar ‘hard times’?
Worse still is that the narrative and the other characters constantly remind us that Ji Lin is not like other girls:
—“Most girls in my position would probably be over the moon”
—“You don’t scream about things like this,”
—“You really are blunt, he said. Don’t you know how to act like a girl?”
—“You don’t talk like most local girls”
So, other girls are flirty, air-headed, and easily scared of spiders. Ji Lin is DIFFERENT, she is SPECIAL, she is NOT LIKE OTHER GIRLS.
Thanks to her new haircut everybody mistakes for Louise Brooks.

“Seen up close, she’s shockingly pretty. Or at least, she is to him, thought some might say her cropped hair and slender frame are too boyish.”

How can I believe that her beauty is ‘particular’ and ‘not to everyone’s taste’ when every single male character tries it on with her? There is only one guy (who makes only a brief appearance and is already married) who doesn’t pine after her. I kid you not.
Her whole character seems reduced to how men behave around her. She spent her time bickering with Shin, and failing to avoid/turn-down perverts. Her motivations and her actions seemed completely random.
Her character is clouded by her infuriating relationship with (view spoiler)
There are plenty of other vulgar men except that they are not as beautiful as Ji Lin’s love interest is…so they are just creeps.
William is this foreign (I think British) doctor who is made to seem like this possibly ‘bad’ man. Yet, his actions are far from monstrous. More than being loathsome, he seems pathetic. It would have been better to cut his POV entirely from the narrative since it just shows us how insubstantial he is. Really, what was the point of him?
All the men are either sexist or violent. They either act like animals, (“They were like two dogs sizing each other up”), look like animals (Koh Beng, who has a ‘porky face’ and is compared to a pig looks up Ji Lin’s skirt), or are compared to beasts(“Men are beasts, aren’t they?”). Their behaviours and actions are dictated by their reproductive organs. They have no brains! They are just there to behave inappropriately towards Ji Lin or mistreat other ‘lesser’ women.
Lastly, Ren did not act like a child. He is too self-aware to pass for a child. Yet, he also has these naive moments that came across as forced. We never get to know him well because his chapters often focus on William, his new master. Ren’s ‘cat sense’ was cringeworthy: his ‘tendrils’ travel here and there and can sense thing…how about n-o.

What could have been a great story focuses on a ‘will they/won’t they’ romance. The mystery of the fingers soon lost its appeal to me. The ‘murder’ storyline managed to be both disappointing and predictable.
I might try other books by Choo but this just didn’t work for me.

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THE REMAINS OF THE DAY: BOOK REVIEW

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The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

 ★★★★★ 5 of 5 stars

“Indeed — why should I not admit it? — in that moment, my heart was breaking.”

…and now I am sad.
This hit me harder than expected.

I find it impossible hard to believe that this book was written by Kazuo Ishiguro and not Mr. Stevens. The thing is, by the end, I believed in Mr. Stevens’ existence…
Okay, it might sound odd but that’s just how good this novel is. It made me nostalgic for something I have never known. I was overwhelmed by sadness and regret on behalf of Mr. Stevens. 71raA6p02aL.jpg
Regardless of its author, it is a beautifully written story. The narrative takes us back to certain pivotal moments of Mr. Stevens’ time at Darlington Hall. Through these glimpses we gain a vivid impression of Mr. Stevens. The other characters are just as nuanced and believable as the narrator himself. As Mr. Stevens’ looks back on his years of service, I became acquainted with him. He keeps back quite a lot, especially when it comes to his innermost feelings, and that made him all the more realistic.
This is a poignant and heart-rendering character study that was perfect for a melancholic soul like mine.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Dominic West (Mr. Stevens) who did an outstanding job.

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The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

“Alexandra was trembling, because she had see the end and the beginning . And the sun had reached out and found her, stroked her, chosen her.”

An encompassing tale that is slowly unraveled through the meanderings of Alexandra – an American and newcomer to Bulgaria – and Bobby, her taxi driver. After a mishap in front of a hotel, Alexandra finds herself with an urn, holding human ashes. Distressed she attempts to return the urn to its owners, enlisting the help of her taxi driver as to make her way through Bulgaria in search of the owners.
I know that this is the type of novel that is difficult to read. For one, it takes its time. Secondly, it includes harrowing accounts of the forced labour camps in Bulgaria. It can – and will – overwhelm you. But, Kostova’s elegant writing style and her painfully humane characters, make this novel an experience worth undergoing.

The increasingly frequent switching of perspective works well because it is cleverly presented: enwinted in Alexandra’s story are the accounts of those she encounters during her journey. Characters narrate to her snippets concerning the family to which the urn belongs to. At times the novel includes what Alexandra herself reads. This ‘format’ also allows the main characters to ‘move’ around a lot: as they go from village to village they discover more and more about the owners of the urn.
Half-way through the novel there is a focus on past events, events which are difficult if not horrifying to read.

“I considered allowing my thoughts to return to that wonderful field, by the river, where my son sat, and then drew back. I wanted to save that, still–to look forward to it. I sent out a short prayer […] although I had not prayed since childhood and had no idea how to address it. It went out from me like a letter with no stamp.”

There is no escaping the brutality that occurs in these camps. My lack of knowledge –for I was ignorant of such camps existing after the end of WWII – left me incredulous. I did not want to believe that such things have happened, and so recently. Kostova’s depicts a painfully graphic image of these places. But by then, I was so involved, that I could not turn away. I had to –alongside Alexandra and Bobby – keep reading. I cared too much for the characters and I needed to know what would had happened and what was yet to come.
I adored Alexandra, Bobby and their furry companion. Their friendship underlines their travels and time and again we glimpse and feel their connection. It is a nuanced depiction of friendship that does not happen overnight. The people they meet are just as strikingly ‘real’: the ‘cast’ is largely composed of elderly characters and Kostova offers us a wide-ranging portrait of elderliness.
There is an almost wistful quality to this novel. There are moments where there is an otherworldly ‘feel’ to the storytelling which further enthralls the reader.
The rhythm created by the protagonists’ search – which slowly unfolds the mystery of the ‘urn’ – combines perfectly with Kostova’s beautiful writing. Her graceful style accentuates the nostalgic atmosphere of the story.

“ She knew the shapes of his head and the fine planes of his face, the way the thick hair would someday be cropped short, the long quiet body, the magnificent hands, the look of curiosity curbed into diffidence but not tamed–the directness of the eyes,”

A moving tale which will stay with you long after the last page.

“People seem to believe that despair is the same as anguish, but it is not. It’s true that despair is surrounded by anguish, but at its core, despair is a silent, blank page.”

My rating: 4.75 stars

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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

A moving novel that has a few flaws. Yes, I was – in more than one occasion – moved to tears, however, I was also aware that the story and its characters were rather clichèd.

Full of ‘compassion, suffering, romance, and constant danger’, Kristin Hannah was inspired by a Resistance heroine — the 19-year-old Belgian woman Andrée de Jongh – who established the Comet Escape Line, a secret network of people who risked their lives to help Allied servicemen escape over the Pyrenees to Spain.
The Nightingale focuses on two strong but vulnerable sisters, bolder Isabelle who has been kicked out of her latest private school, and Viann, the eldest sister, who lives a quiet and happy life with her husband and young daughter. When her husband – a ‘simple’ postman – is enlisted things take a turn for the worst. The sisterly relationship between Viann and Isabelle is a tricky one, and when Isabelle made to stay with her in the countryside tensions soon arise. After the Germans invade France, Viann is forced to let a German captain lodge in her home while Isabelle joins the Resistance. Casting past regrets behind them is not easy, especially when the sisters are constantly thrusted in life-or-death situations.

Hannah portrays in painstaking detail the cruel and brutal world that these women inhabited. Page after page, we see their freedom being eroded. However, it is when their loved ones are in danger, that the sisters are faced with making the most difficult choices.It is perhaps because – throughout the whole book – we see both Viann and Isabelle suffer all kinds of abuse that the reader comes to care for them.

Hannah has created an encompassing epic that is capable of moving to tears and of making the reader incredibly frustrated by the terrible circumstances that the characters are in and the choices they make. The Nightingale has it all, so much so that perhaps the story could at times feel a tad melodramatic; that is to say that the writing occasionally resorted to cheesy turns of phrases and that there were too many convenient occurrences within the plot. Nevertheless, the over-the-top parts do not deter from the overall enjoyment of the book and its themes. A touching –albeit occasionally corny– tale of survival that combines high-stake scenarios with a realistic family portrait.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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