BOOK REVIEWS

The Survivors by Jane Harper

Alas, figuring out the murderer’s identity in the first 15% made this book kind of a drag.

Having highly enjoyed Jane Harper’s The Lost Man, The Survivors felt by comparison vaguely uninspired. While the setting is just as atmospheric and vividly rendered as the ones in Harper’s other novels, the characters and mystery were very run-of-the-mill. In many ways it reminded me of Tana French’s latest novel, The Searcher: we have a not-so-young-anymore male protagonist who thinks he is a regular Joe and a crime forces him to reconsider his past behaviour/actions/attitudes. The Survivors begins with a juicy prologues that is meant to intrigue readers but I was not particularly lured by it. A lot of the dynamics in this novel seemed a rehash of the ones from The Lost Man and The Dry. Our protagonist, Kieran, returns to his small coastal hometown where a violent crime brings to light secrets from his own past. Kieran is happily married and a new father, and there were a lot of scenes featuring him being a soft dad and they just did nothing for me. I guess they were meant to emphasise the gulf between teenage-Kieran, who acted like a typical Chad, and father-Kieran. The ‘tragedy’ that irrevocably changed his life did not have the same emotional heft as Nathan’s family struggles in The Lost Man. Kieran tells other characters that he feels guilt-ridden but…it just didn’t really come across. Anyhow, Kieran returns to his home, he catches up with two best-friends, one is a bit of a loudmouth and kind of a douchebag while the other one has always been the more sensible and mature in the trio. The discovery of a young woman’s body lands the community in crisis. There is a lot finger pointing and gossip on a FB-knockoff. Kieran, who is not a detective nor a crime aficionado, wants to know what happened to this young woman as he seems to be acting under a sense of misplaced obligation towards her (and her death reminds him of his own tragedy). While he doesn’t starts snooping around he’s lucky enough that he happens to hear people’s private conversation, which often reveal something essential to the mystery. For some bizarre reason the person who is actually officially investigating this young woman’s death confides in Kieran, which…I had a hard time getting behind (job integrity? None).

Anyway, chances are you’ve read this kind of story before. Maybe I wouldn’t have minded this type of boilerplate plot if the characters had been somewhat interesting or layered. But they remain rather one-dimensional. Dick guy acts like a dick because deep down he’s insecure. The cold mother is cold because she’s still suffering the loss of her son. Artistic woman fears she will never leave her ‘dead-end’ job and ‘make’ it. Kieran is they type of character who is blandly inoffensive. After the trauma he experienced and now that he is a father & husband he realises that as a teenager he acted badly. Most of the conversations he has with women seemed to exist only to make him reflect on ‘toxic masculinity’ and the harm caused by the ‘boys will be boys’ mentality. And these realisations he has about sexisms seemed forced. Also, Kieran is meant to be in his thirties…and he comes across like a middle-aged man. I understand that there are people in their thirties who may as well be luddites but really? Kieran’s voice just wasn’t very convincing.
The male side characters like that writer, Kieran’s friends, and that impertinent young guy, were rather dull. The female characters were so obviously meant to be ‘strong’ and ’empowering’ but that didn’t really make them into realistic or likeable characters.
The culprit was obvious, so I did not feel any real ‘suspense’ or curiosity. Sometimes, even if you know who did it, you can still be able to enjoy the ride…but here I just wanted to get it over and done with. The murderer was extremely underdeveloped and their explanation at the end was very Scooby Doo-ish.

All in all, this was a disappointing read. While it wasn’t all that bad, and the story had at least a strong sense of place, I expected more from Harper.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars
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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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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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The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie — book review

51Cf9ajBQ3L._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThe Murder of Roger Ackroyd is an excellent example of why I consider Agatha Christie to be the Queen of Crime.

“Fortunately words, ingeniously used, will serve to mask the ugliness of naked facts.”

It’s curious that one of the most influential crime novels ever written came about by accident. The idea for this novel was given to Christie by her brother-in-law (she states as much in
her autobiography). Still, I doubt that there are many authors who could have pulled it off as Christie does. Now that I have finally re-read it I can also confirm that knowing the twist did not deter my reading experience…if anything I was able to appreciate just how clever a twist it was.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is in many ways a very Christiesque type of book.
While the story implements a lot of the established conventions of the detective novel (the countryside setting, red herrings, the eccentric and brilliant detective and his intellectually inferior companion) it is also cleverly and unexpectedly subversive.
Once again Christie plays around with themes of justice and good & evil. Poirot calls into question the morals of the people connected to Roger Ackroyd (his family, friends, and employees). Thanks to his little grey cells he’s able to disentangle the truth from an increasingly intricate web of lies…

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

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Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case by Agatha Christie

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“Who is there who has not felt a sudden startled pang at reliving an old experience, or feeling an old emotion?”

Curtain bids a bittersweet farewell to the one and only Hercule Poirot. While I know that by this point Agatha Christie feelings towards him were less than amicable, her novel doesn’t convey its creators impatience. Rather than hurrying Poirot off from the stage, Christie grants him one final performance.
I will admit that seeing the formidable Poirot altered in such a visible way did indeed affect me. Still, in spite of his physical appearance, his mind remains as sharp as ever and he is, as per usual, always a mile ahead of his naïve friend Hastings (who is yet again played like a fiddle). Surprisingly Hastings was not as irritating as he could usually be, and while his younger self was more of a stick-in-the-mud kind of chap (at times acting like little more than disgruntled child), this older Hastings seems far more genial. Hastings’ feelings mirrored my own ones: being at Styles again brings about a bout of nostalgia, and his reunion with Poirot reveals that underneath his somewhat priggish British exterior, lies a deep affection for his Belgian friend.
Their banter was as amusing as ever, especially in those occasions when Poirot teases Hastings about his partiality for redheads.

While many of Christie’s murderers are often motived by financial gain, in Curtain our ‘X‘ is driven by much more fiendish impulses. Suspecting this, Poirot is forced to act fast. Sadly, his failing health does seem to disrupt his investigation so much so that Poirot finds himself seeking once again Hastings’ assistance.
The group of people residing in Styles offer us with interesting little portraits of human nature: a domineering spouse, an ambitious doctor, a womaniser…some of these have indeed in some form or other in previous works by Christie but that doesn’t make them any less interesting. Christie, as per usual, demonstrates that she is perfectly attuned to capture certain personalities—their attitudes, moral and political standpoints, as well as their fears and desires, their strengths and weaknesses—and the way in which they talk—through different word choices, expressions, and turns of phrases—so that each character leaves a vivid impression in the readers’ mind.

“As my taxi passed through the village, though, I realised the passage of years. Styles St Mary was altered out of all recognition. Petrol stations, a cinema, two more inns and rows of council houses.”

Christie’s own nostalgia is apparent in this novel, and Hastings, similarly to his creator, perceives the changes in his world with an uneasy acceptance. There are quite a few works by Christie that express uncertainty over the modernisation and rapidly changing social norms of her country, and these feelings particularly suited the story of Curtain as much of it seems to be a dialogue between the various cases that have shaped Poirot’s career.
The mystery was skillfully executed, and I enjoyed reading of the way in which seemingly small events and exchanges seemed to alienate the characters from one another. The reveal was both clever and effective, bringing light to the whole affair.
I thoroughly recommend this one to fans of Poirot. Sad as it may be it demonstrates Christie’s greatest strengths (wit, murder, drama). And while the novel might be presenting us with Poirot’s final case, I am eager to be reunited with him in his early adventures…

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars
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Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie — book review

51wWO72YhvL._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThis was a light and entertaining read perfect for a warm summer day.
Christie must have had fun writing the character of Mrs Boynton, an oppressive and tyrannical matriarch who wouldn’t be out of place in a story by Shirley Jackson. The hatred that Mrs Boynton’s children nurture for their mother seems understandable…and I doubt that any reader will find themselves saddened by her death. Poirot, as per usual, happens to be in the vicinity and, unlike the readers, is unwilling to let the murderer go…
Christie’s portrays Mrs Boynton in a vivid and dramatic way, and it often in the scenes in which she is spoken of, where she does not feature directly, that we see how terrifying a person she is. Her children, although they fear and resent her, are mere puppets in her hands.
However, even if I enjoyed reading this novel, this is one of the few cases were I preferred ITV’s adaptation…perhaps because they change the identity and motive of the murderer, which in the novel feel somewhat unsatisfying

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars stars

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The Body in Question by Jill Ciment — book review

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“A flirtation would make the sequestered nights more interesting. ”

This was an interesting novella that reminded me of some short stories by Joyce Carol Oates. There is this sense of unease which permeates the narrative as well as a growing sense of foreboding. The writing style is intentionally detached, for instance addressing two of the main character as C-2 and F-17, and the other jurors by nicknames (deriving from their profession or appearance). The story was an intriguing take on the usual whodunnit as it is up to the jurors to decide wherever the accused, a teenage girl, murdered her toddler brother. The focus of the story shifts from this case to the affair between C-2 and F-17. Both the case, the “romance”, and the various dynamics between the jurors were rendered in a realistic and captivating way.

“To pay attention to something you don’t understand when there is such an alluring narrative waiting to take over your thoughts proves undoable. ”

The less you know about this story the better. It is a compelling work with a strong vision and plenty of atmosphere. The narrative addresses many interesting things (such as the complicated marriage between a fifty-two-year-old and someone in their eighties) in a quietly observant way. I particularly enjoyed references to Madame Bovary and Forman’s Amadeus (two favourites of mine) as well as the cold yet evocative writing style.

“C-2 has never had the patience to listen to someone else’s story and not try to guess the ending. But guessing the ending is different than calcifying into certitude. She would be willing to switch sides if persuaded, but that wouldn’t stop her from speculating. Who honestly imagines themselves to be that neutral and fair?”

The only reason why I am not giving this a full 4 stars is that towards the end it seemed that the narrative lost some of its original momentum and my interest waned. Nevertheless, I am looking forward to reading something else by Climent and, if you are looking for an engaging read that provides plenty of food for thought, you should consider picking this up.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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THE LAST: BOOK REVIEW

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The Last
 by Hanna Jameson
★★★★✰ 4.5 of 5 stars

“You know what we think of as right and wrong don’t exist anymore. Everything that happened before, it has no meaning now.”

The Last is a very compelling read. The story has plenty of atmosphere, well-rounded characters, and poses a lot of interesting questions.
I wouldn’t necessarily describe this as yet another post-apocalyptic novel…to do so seems reductive. The Last depicts the way in which a group of people once isolated —cut off from the rest of society—could act. There is tension underlining a lot of the characters’ interactions especially after they discover the body of a young girl in one of the hotel’s water tanks.
It is Jon, our narrator and an American historian, who decides to find out who killed this mysterious girl. Was she murdered before the nuclear attacks? Is her murderer still in the hotel? While the others believe that the girl’s death has little importance compared to what could possibly be the end of the civilisation as they know it…but Jon is determined to find out what exactly happened to this girl.
His investigation is impeded by their situation…the approaching winter season, their dwindling resources, and a growing sense of unrest interfere with Jon’s search for the murderer’s identity.

I thought that that the author did a brilliant job. Jon’s account —which takes the form of a diary of sorts— pulled me right in. As time passes, and as he and the others attempt to come to terms with their new ‘nightmarish’ reality, Jon revisits that ‘first day’, when he first heard/saw the news about the nuclear attacks. Grief, guilt, and shock, make an impact on both Jon and his account.
Being a historian, he wants to ‘commit to paper’ the history, and experiences of the other survivors. Also, as he begins to suspect that the girl’s murderer is still at the hotel, ‘interviewing’ the others gives him the chance to carry out his investigation.

Jon and the other survivors felt very fleshed out. I loved the way in which Jameson can make you care or respect characters who are rather unlikable. Jon’s account is not always reliable yet I ended up really liking him. He has retained a strong sense of justice (view spoiler) and while he might not always say the right thing, he could be incredibly understanding and kind. I also appreciated the way in which his ‘bravery’ is different from the usual ‘act/shoot’ now sort of bravery. Just because he is a thinker, and not a fighter, doesn’t make unable to act in order to help the others. Of course, given the situation he is in, it isn’t at all surprising that he begins to suspect some of his fellow survivors.
The survivors at the hotel come from different backgrounds. They are shown to have different personalities and priorities, and often clash in their views on politics etc. Funnily enough, I ended up really appreciating Tomi, the only American other than Jon.At the start I found her grating and once we discover that she voted for Trump…well, I really hated her. Yet, as things get more tense, she shows that she has plenty of courage and can be incredibly loyal. By the end, I understood and respected her, flaws and all.
I also really liked Nathan, the former bartender of the hotel, Yuka Yobari, who is at the hotel alongside her family, and Rob, who is possibly the sweetest character of them all.

As the novel progresses I found the creepy setting and the mounting tension among the survivors to be nerve-racking.
Jameson’s novel poses a lot of interesting questions; do laws and justice still matter in the even of a a societal collapse? What would you be prepared to do when it comes to us vs. them/me vs. you in order to survive?

“…we’re friends,” I said.
Jessie laughed. “Are you serious? It’s the end of the world, Jon. Grow up.”

The ending did feel rushed —especially when compared to the rest of Jon’s narrative— but I wasn’t disappointed by the story’s conclusion.
The Last is a compelling page-turning novel with a story that gives readers plenty of food for thought.

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THE MOVING FINGER (MISS MARPLE): BOOK REVIEW


The Moving Finger
by Agatha Christie

★★★★✰ 4.5 of 5 stars

It seems odd, now, to remember that Joanna and I were more amused by the letter than anything else. We hadn’t, then, the faintest inkling of what was to come – the trail of blood and violence and suspicion and fear.

The Moving Finger reveals a more mature side of Christie’s writing. While the narrative showcases her well-known traits, her wit and her amusing characters, underlining this story is a serious tone not often encountered in Christie’s mystery.

“There’s too much tendency to attribute to God the evils that man does of his own free will. I might concede you the Devil. God doesn’t really need to punish us, Miss Barton. We’re so very busy punishing ourselves.”

On a superficial level this is due the terms some of her characters use, but if I were to try and pin point the reason why The Moving Finger seems different from Christie’s usual, is the letters that set in motion the narrative. These vicious and insidious letters that bring about anger, shame and suspicion. These childish yet insidious letters make the mystery of this novel more likely, more real. Rich American millionaires and diamonds seem to belong in far off realities. These letters instead seem all too likely. They also reminded of a short story by Shirley Jackson (which was published in 1965), called The Possibility of Evil.
The narrator was a bit arrogant but I loved reading the scenes between him and his sister. Christie has mastered writing the ‘bickering’ siblings.
Overall, this was incredibly entertaining. The mystery wasn’t convoluted and I, for one, enjoyed reading about the various characters.

“Mrs. Dane Calthrop is a very remarkable woman, you know. She’s nearly always right.”
“It makes her rather alarming,” I said.
“Sincerity has that effect,” said Miss Marple.

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THE GHOST FIELDS (RUTH GALLOWAY): BOOK REVIEW


The Ghost Fields
by Elly Griffiths

★★★✰✰ 3 stars

“Stop!” shouts Nelson. “Police!”
In answer a bullet shoots past his ear.
“Ruth!” yells Nelson. “Get behind the duck.”

While I did find The Ghost Fields to be rather entertaining, it also made me realise that Elly Griffiths is not for me.
Maybe it’s down to the tone of her stories, which seem far from being the mysteries or crime stories that they are labeled as. The sort of humour that pervades the narrative in The Ghost Fields often came across as silly and out of place. More often than not it seems that the narrative makes fun of the characters, which made it difficult for me to take either them or their drama seriously.
Another thing that I disliked is the dichotomous portrayal of class: there is Ruth, a University lecturer therefore she lives cast off from other, throws literary or historical references, brains over looks etc…then we have Nelson who is a straight-talking policeman (who finds words such as feminism repelling) who dislikes the Blackstocks on sight (aristocrats…yuck!). We have the ‘eccentric’ Professors who talk only of their subject, the bitter aristocrats….everyone is either entitled or pretentious. Other characters are also rather one-dimensional: gym-bunnies, the kind pregnant woman, the self-assured American…it was hard for me to think of them as ‘people’ since they are merely stereotypes…that don’t even succeed in being amusing.
There is very little that would make this novel into mystery/crime. Yes, there is a body, and there are a few ‘detectives’ but it seemed to be more of melodrama: Ruth likes Nelson, Nelson has a wife but is jealous that Ruth is interest in Frank, Nelson’s wife is also interested in someone else. Drama alert!
Anyway, I still finished it so it wasn’t all that bad. It might be that Griffiths is simply not for me.

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