Tag Archives: Review

Agatha Christie – Hickory Dickory Dock

45-hickoryThe same old thing from Agatha, but not one of her finest.  It’s the usual lack of character development with  a load of posh and/or annoying people with some casual racism thrown in.  My favourite unintentionally funny line was “He was friendly soul, with a cockney accent and mercifully free from any kind of inferiority complex”.

Poirot is called to investigate a spate of kleptomania at a student hostel run by the  sister of his secretary Miss Lemon.  Then the crimes  develop further.

I was unconvinced by the finale and Poirot’s method of solving this seemed frankly even less plausible than normal.  It probably didn’t help that I was reading a kindle edition full of spelling mistakes and errors with the paragraphing.  I was reading on another blog that the Italian title, moreover, was Poirot si annoia, or Poirot is Bored – I’m not surprised.  Read one of her other better ones before reading this.

 

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The loveliest book I have read all year: Jon McGregor – If nobody speaks of remarkable things.

This is a  really beautiful book, I was hooked as soon as I read the first page simply describing the sound of a city at night.  This tells the story of various people all  living on the same English street  who are joined together in a tragic event on one day.   The characters are not referred to by name but their house number.  Every other chapter tells  the story from different perspectives of people on the street, such as the lovely old couple, the widowed father, the painfully shy young man.   These are interspersed with remembrances written in the first person by the girl in number 22 who tries to come to terms with the tragic event and a dilemma in her life.

McGregor uses beautiful,  poetic language to describe everyday occurrences. The Guardian and some other readers have slated it, saying  nothing happens or that it is a poor imitation of  Mrs Dalloway  but I actually like it more.  I love the beauty of the descriptions of ordinary streets or the rain  and  his observations of the complexity of human relationships.  He refers to the isolation that the characters often feel;  “She never said anything to me, not really, not when it mattered”.

This book keeps you hooked as you try to work out what the terrible event could be and there is a  twist at the end of the book, which makes you want to go back and read it all over again.  I will definitely be reading more of Jon McGregor’s books in the future.

 

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Is the best book I have read all year? Mohsin Hamid – Moth Smoke

If you thought the Reluctant Fundamentalist was great and thought-provoking, this is just as good or even better.  It has been a while since I have read a book that I want to rate five stars  but this is  highly recommended.

The story is set in contemporary Pakistan – don’t let this put you off, it is Pakistan as you never imagined.   It is full  of rich, corrupt, drug taking, go-getters all set within the backdrop of Pakistan’s first successful nuclear test.  However this life is brilliantly  juxtaposed with the lives of the have-nots.

It opens with an intriguing story of a Mughal Emperor which signposts the disintegration of the main character Darashikoh.  Daru is a  banker,  however after losing his job his jealousy of his rich, successful, best friend Ozi, and his affair with Ozi’s wife Mumtaz, begin to consume him and he increasingly seems bent on self-destruction.  Daru’s decline is likened to the  moth to a flame analogy with Daru as the moth circling Mumtaz´s candle.

Hamid is constantly reminding us of the gulf  between rich and the poor, Hamid shows this as the,

“air-conditioned/non-air-conditioned divide the power-hungry AC units of the rich collapse the city’s electricity grid just as their corruption has drained the life from the state” .  As the selfish but pragmatic Ozi puts it: “You have to have money these days. The roads are falling apart, so you need a Pajero or a Land Cruiser… The colleges are overrun with fundos… so you have to go abroad… The police are corrupt and ineffective, so you need private security guards. People are pulling their pieces out of the pie, and the pie is getting smaller, so if you love your family, you’d better take your piece now, while there’s still some left.” Observation this sharp needs no elaboration.” (The Guardian).

He draws attention to the differences between Daru and Mumtaz  again through the analogy of air conditioning; “You see , Mumtaz was over-air conditioned and longed to be uncooled, while Darashikoh was under-air conditioned and longed to be cooled.  Although they walked the same path for a while, they were heading in opposite directions”.

The amazing aspect of Hamid’s writing is that fact that he constantly makes you question your original judgement of Daru, and as the book progresses he includes  different interpretations from the other characters so you begin to question who is telling the truth.   He does this through the brilliant device of having one chapter from Daru’s perspective, then one from someone else.  Daru is critical of Ozi and his selfishness and lack of empathy with those less fortunate, when Daru says at a party of wealthy people “It’s not my crowd”, Ozi replies “That’s because you can’t afford it.  But you´re lucky in a sense. being broke keeps you honest”.  Daru however, has exactly the same attitude towards characters of a lower status than him.  He turns on his servant, Manucci, and justifies it with “servants have to be kept in line”.  His attitude to his drug dealer is similar and shows the same lack of self-awareness; ” I don’t like it when low-class types forget their place and try to become too frank with you.  But its my fault I suppose: the price of being a nice guy”.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist certainly had me thinking about this book for a long time after I finished it – why did this  book not get noticed  when it was first published? This edition has been reissued by Penguin.   Now, is it the best book I have read all year?  Well, that is difficult, as I read Rebecca for the first time this year but it would definitely come in my top three.  It is absolutely amazing.  

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Is this the secret to the Art of Writing? Al Alvarez – The Writers Voice

My lovely English teacher friend Sara bought me this whilst on a day trip to Salts Mills and their lovely book shop in Yorkshire.  She said she thought I would really appreciate it, I enjoyed parts of it, unfortunately, however, I just don’t think I am clever enough for this book.  I tried to read it once before, got stuck and gave up but now I have finally made it to the end, and it was largely worth it.

This is a selection of three essays on the art of writing by Alvarez a well-respected critic, the first is Finding a Voice, the second Listening and finally, The Cult of Personality and the Myth of the Artist.  Of the three I found the final one much more accessible and would have to admit to not really understanding the others.  The essays are backed up with reference to writers such as Plath, Donne, Shakespeare and Yeats amongst others.

There was a very interesting piece about the author Jean Rhys and her life as a part-time prostitute and alcoholic, and the heartbreaking passage about the death of her three-week old son in a hospital in Paris in the book Good Morning, Midnight.  The most interesting part of this however, is Rhys´ life and how her neglect led to him getting pneumonia and how she was out partying whilst he was in hospital.  Alvarez has used this as an example of how writers can rewrite reality and how she only wrote about things she had experience of.  Although he later goes on to argue that an obsession with writers´ lives in order to analyse their work is unnecessary, although I enjoyed this more when he did this, as in this case.

One part I particularly enjoyed was his criticism of the Beat Generation, having just read and hated On the Road myself.  He discusses how new radicalism changed during the ´50s from joining the Young Communist League to smoking dope;

“To the impartial observer outside the stoned circle, the most obvious feature of cannabis and LSD is that they constrict thought more than they expand the mind.  Dope may make you feel good but it doesn’t do much for the conversation”

Anyone who has experienced this can probably confirm this observation, so a handy piece of advice for writers is probably not to write while you are off your head.  He then contrasts Rhys and Ginsberg,

“It was as though all Jean Rhys’ worst nightmares had come true: instead of using their art to redeem the mess they had made of their lives, the Beats served the mess up uncooked and called it poetry.”

Alvarez´s observations on the myth of the artist were really interesting; he dispels the myth that in order to be a good writer you have to suffer for your art in the style of Sylvia Plath et al, and instead argues that you have to conclude that no poetry, no however fine, is worth the cost.

He uses a lovely example about the perfection of the written word – Yeats’s verse from Memory;

“One had a lovely face,

and two or three had charm,

but charm and face were in vain.

Because the mountain grass cannot keep the form where the mountain hare has lain.”

He finishes reminding us that “Work that is considered great now will not necessarily stand the test of time.”  Bad art is always with us, and only history, will be our judge!”

A short, challenging, little book.

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Paul Murray – Skippy Dies

This was recommended by an English teacher friend who loved it so much that she nearly recommended it to students but held back due to some slightly dodgy content.  It was therefore a bit of a disappointment to find that I was largely bored for the first two thirds.  There was a lot of science that I skimmed over and generally boring, boyish humour centring on porn.  I also found the lack of speech marks slightly irritating.

Skippy a 12 year old student (not a bush kangaroo) at the Seabrook boarding school, collapses and dies in Ed’s doughnut house in the opening chapter.  The rest of the book then goes back to the preceding months to show the build up to this tragic event.  There are a range of flawed characters – Howard the, disillusioned, crap History teacher, Lara the screwed up girl who wants to be skinny, Carl and Brian the student drug dealers, Tom the swimming coach who was originally a sports hero but was disabled in a bungee incident and Skippy whose mother is dying of cancer but refuses to discuss this with anyone.

This book is very long and it is only after the book returns to the events after Skippy’s death that it becomes interesting. The book is full of generally horrible characters – are teenage boys really like this?  If so, that is slightly depressing.  I am not sure what this book wants to be – funny, clever, an exposé of abuse in Ireland but I think maybe it is trying to be too many things and the result is a bit confusing.

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Daphne du Maurier – The Scapegoat

After enjoying Rebecca so much I am on a Daphne Du Maurier rediscovery.  I always like to take a book on holiday that is set in the country I am visiting so this was a great choice for my trip to France.

The story is one of suspense like Rebecca, but lacks the romance element. When the lonely, depressed, history obsessed (see it’s not all bad) Englishman John meets his doppelganger Jean in French bar his life changes forever.  He wakes up the next morning to find that Jean has stolen his identity and left him to take on his life that he has left behind.  Now of course this sounds implausible, especially the fact that John just goes along with it and makes little attempt to get back his own life or indeed ever think of it again, however Du Maurier writes in a way that makes this seem believable and thrilling.

It turns out that Jean is a French count who lives in a chateau with his wife,  his brother and sister who hate him, his sinister mother and religion-fixated daughter who both worship him, and his sister in law with whom he is having an affair.  As well as this complicated familial situation Jean has also virtually ruined the family business, their glass factory.  He is facing bankruptcy unless his wife has a son or dies before him, due to her father’s strange provisions in his will.

John finds he enjoys being part of this family despite the fact they are all a bit mad and throws himself into Jean’s life even beginning to inwardly take on his personality; however along the way he discovers lots of sinister events both in the present and during the period of the German occupation.

This is a great mystery and a really interesting study of identity, although slightly overlong and I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys a good thriller.

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Oh no, I am criticising a classic! The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

Well this was my first free book downloaded on the Kindle and it has taken me SIX weeks to finish it which is an appalling record.  Admittedly, I have been reading other things too but I really struggled to finish this.

The story is set in 17th century Puritan Boston and deals with the lives of the English immigrants there.  Hester Prynne has been found guilty of having a child out-of-wedlock and is then forced to wear a scarlet letter A (for adulteress) as a sign of her shame.  She also refuses to name the father of her child.  The story  deals with the theme of guilt, sin and repentance and the subsequent treatment by the town’s Puritans of Hester and her daughter Pearl. Hawthorne represents the adulteress Hester as a heroine and this is interesting considering it was written in the 19th century.

Unfortunately this book has the longest opening chapter ever which seems to add absolutely nothing to the plot. When Hester enters the story you become interested imagining this brave woman standing with her baby at the town’s pillory, but this largely fades again as there as so many convoluted descriptions.  I am sure I must be wrong on this, after all it is a classic but I just a bit bored, I am wondering does anyone love this?

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