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Travels With My Aunt

Travels With My Aunt: Graham Greene, December 9—17, 2014
My rating: ♦◊◊◊◊

TravelsWithMyAuntTravels With My Aunt sees retired banker Henry reconnect with his estranged aunt at his mother’s funeral, fifty years after they last saw each other. His aunt soon convinces him to travel with her as she shares the story of her life.

There is an interesting idea at the core of Travels. In her seventies, the titular Aunt Augusta is reflecting on the characters, settings and plots that made up her life. Everybody has a story, and this is hers.

There are always two narratives: present day (1969) and the aunt’s past as she tells it. Neither is particularly interesting. Whenever we are in the present day, we feel the aunt’s reminiscing is interrupted, and whenever she begins talking it feels as though the present day is being neglected. Simply, neither time period has any particular plot to speak of.

For Travels to be a decent character piece, it requires some strong characters. Henry is a decent audience surrogate, who learns of his aunt’s life apace with us, but is utterly boring and without any distinguishing personality features. Aunt Augusta is a matriarchal battle-axe, but more by reputation and just grumpily tells her uninspiring stories; most a variation on the theme of her dalliances with men.

Stronger characterisation and a more developed plot could have made this idea into a masterpiece. Instead, it is a dull and dreary journey that drags on for far too long.

  • Thanks to the patient who recommended this to me while were in hospital together in September, and happy 80th birthday!
 
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Posted by on December 17, 2014 in 1 star

 

Cat Among the Pigeons

Cat Among the Pigeons: Agatha Christie, December 4—8, 2014
My rating: ♦♦♦♦◊
CatAmongThePigeonsIn Cat Among the Pigeons, Agatha Christie combines many of her most successful elements in a very readable case. Set in a girls’ boarding school, the quaint middle class character base is a strong feature, and there is an international espionage subplot reminiscent of The Secret Adversary, Man in the Brown Suit and They Came to Baghdad. There is also something of a cameo from her iconic sleuth, Poirot.
The ensemble cast features the strong-willed headmistress Miss Bulstrode, co-founder of the school and formidable as they come. Supporting her are a slew of teaching staff and a select few students. One of the best features of the novel is seeing the school from the perspectives of different cast members and getting an insight into the different opinions represented.
There’s a few subplots running that are a little underdeveloped but entertaining enough to follow. The murder itself is less of a how-did-they-do-it, at which Christie often excels, and more of a straightforward whodunit based on the fact practically every character had the opportunity.
The investigation itself is unfocussed and quite ordinary. Inspector Kelsey, while cooperating with Special Branch’s “Adam”, also inexplicably takes Miss Bulstrode into his confidence when she should surely have been a suspect. Very little in the way of investigation actually takes place, with minimal interviewing and next to no seeking and gathering of clues, with instead a small amount of hypothesising forming the sleuthing scenes.
Although billed as a Poirot novel, the Belgian moustaches only arrive at the end after one of the schoolgirls fetches him (having heard of him via Maureen Summerhayes of Mrs McGinty’s Dead fame). Sadly, his own workings appear to equally occur ‘off-page’, with only his trademark denouement, with the murderer being in this very room, is seen. He isn’t even afforded a chance to speak of his little grey calls or say “Ah bien!“.
Despite the criminally short shrift for Poirot, the world of Meadowbank School for Girls is a pleasant one to visit, and the story strands keep this short tale moving. There seem to be many missed opportunities for more; Poirot in an all girls’ school could have been comedy gold. This could have been a classic, but instead isn’t even a particularly clever murder mystery. It is simply a short and enjoyable read, and that is quite entertaining on its own merits.
 
 

The Christmas Book

The Christmas Book: Juliana Foster, December 1—3, 2014
My rating: ♦♦♦◊◊
41T1V6zTBhL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Christmas Book sets out to tell the reader how to have the best Christmas ever, and does so by covering a wide variety of festive topics from how to wrap presents, to hosting a party, to selecting the top 10 Christmas films of all time.

Although each topic is only given a little overview, it is plenty for the purposes of the book. The breadth of topics is also impressive, and there are plenty of festive quotes and trivia facts dotted about for the inquisitive mind.

Foster makes the occasional sarcastic (even catty) remark, but generally keeps quite a neutral tone. Some humour would have made this book better. After all, Christmas is a celebration and a slightly more fun writing style would certainly have been more fitting for the season.

Overall, a surprisingly interesting and useful collection of hints, tips and advice with some background information that you might not have heard before.

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2014 in 3 star

 

Dying Light

Dying Light: Stuart MacBride, November 3—30, 2014
My rating: ♦♦♦♦◊
DyingLightDS Logan McRae returns for his sophomore outing. Now his caseload includes a serial killer targeting Aberdeen’s prostitutes and a particularly sadistic arsonist.

McRae still proves to be a well formed lead character. You feel for him on the days every little thing goes wrong, and want to fist pump the air when it goes right. He’s got a very human, relatable element that sees him screw up, be a jerk and cause himself problems but you’re always on his side.

The biggest change from Cold Granite is McRae’s transfer from Team Insch to Team Steel. After her sporadic appearances last time, Steel has a much bigger role. She’s as unlike Insch as possible: sloppy, lazy and constantly screwing up. The change, although unsettling on paper, is a master stroke. Yes, Insch is missed aside from the odd fleeting scene, but Steel is just as hilariously entertaining and the new dynamic makes this very much a follow up to, and not repeat of, Cold Granite.

All the favourites return: Colin Miller, Isobel, Jackie Watson, DS Rennie and Steve alongside Hissing Sid and the bureaucratic Napier. Again, the supporting characters are given their own tests and trials which makes them marvellously fleshed out.

As before, there are a number of concurrent investigations which have the same level of setbacks and breakthroughs as before. It’s always interesting, and the multiple-case strategy continues to work by keeping the action moving when one stalls. MacBride wisely avoids the temptation of linking all the investigations with a contrivance at the end: sometimes things just don’t need to all be connected.

The plot delivers some excellent twists, right up until the final scene. But best of all, the brilliant Scottish banter is still at the heart of both dialogue and narration. You wouldn’t want the ‘Screw Up Squad’ of Steel, McRae et al investigating your granny’s murder, but boy is it fun to watch them doing someone else’s!

 
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Posted by on November 30, 2014 in 4 star, Logan McRae

 

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: J.K. Rowling, October 22—November 2, 2014
My rating: ♦♦♦♦◊

HarryPotterandthePhilosophersStoneJ.K. Rowling’s smash hit series begins with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. This rather unassuming title introduces us to Harry, Hogwarts and the magical world that would take the world by storm.

It is easy to see the appeal of this book. Clearly aimed at children, Potter #1 is written in an accessible, light-hearted style. Rowling uses Harry’s plight to tap into many feelings that children will understand: fears about fitting in, adequacy and family strife. Despite the madcap plot, it’s easy to sympathise with Harry, and to root for him.

Writing a magical story about a wizarding school, Rowling embraces the utter insanity of it and goes full pelt into the craziness. The characters are colourful and almost caricatured at points, much more so than the film. The school –  a character in its own right – has been carefully planned. In fact, the whole wizarding world has been created with so much detail that it really does feel like you’re stepping into a bona fide, if bizarre, world.

Kudos to Rowling for making Harry’s ignorance of his heritage a plot point. This is a masterclass in how to use an audience surrogate.

The Philospher’s Stone notably trumps the film when it comes to pacing. Where the film rushes through from one thing to the next, the source material is much more even, and allows both Harry and the reader time to absorb and respond to each new idea before presenting the next. Having said that, it is never slow or boring – it’s just right.

Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone is a very engaging, moreish introduction to the series, and it’s easy to see just why it took off so rapidly.

(NB – According to the Pottermore website, I’m a Ravenclaw!)

 
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Posted by on November 2, 2014 in 3 star, Harry Potter

 

Room

Room: Emma Donoghue, October 7—21, 2014
My rating: ♦♦♦◊◊

RoomRoom is told from the perspective of five-year-old Jack, who has lived forever in the titular Room with his mother, Ma. He considers the room to be the extent of the planet and he, his mother and ‘Old Nick’ who brings food to be the only inhabitants. Everything changes when Ma admits she lied; there’s a whole world outside the door.

Jack’s narration features the syntactical misunderstandings you souks expect for a child of his age (“She putted it down/The tree is twice my tall”), but it’s easy to read. After a very short while you get used to his voice. More than just enhancing the character, Jack’s narration helps the reader understand what is an enormously different paradigm. For example, Jack speaks almost entirely in general nominatives; the rug is Rug, the wall behind the bed is Bed Wall and so on. These inanimate objects are treated as proper nouns, bestowed genders and are generally given far greater status than normal, because when your world is a room, it’s composite parts are much more significant.

Although I found Ma alternately tragic and unlikeable, given that events are told from Jack’s point of view we are perhaps not always encouraged to feel as much sympathy for her as we otherwise might. More prominent is her relationship with Jack and the way it evolves over the course of the book.

Donoghue writes with skill and passion. As well as being truthful to Jack’s cognitive and emotional development, she writes with depth and emotion. Some parts are heRtbreaking, others incredibly tense.

Nothing very important happens during the first full act, but it’s fascinating nevertheless to be inducted info this bizarre situation. This wanes, and throughout the second half of the novel Jack’s challenges become more and more minor. It seems the climax is somewhere around the two-thirds to one-half mark, and the fourth act verges on, dare I say it, dull. Rather than build to a climax, Room slows to an eventual stop.

A fascinating concept with intelligent and emotive writing, Room is let down by its awkward structure and variable pace.

 
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Posted by on November 1, 2014 in 3 star

 

Along Came A Spider

Along Came A Spider: James Patterson, September 21—October 7, 2014
My rating: ♦♦♦◊◊

AlongCameASpiderDetective Alex Cross is introduced in this first instalment in James Patterson’s series.

Along Came A Spider sees Detective Cross investigate the kidnapping of two children by their schoolteacher, Gary Murphy/Soneji which is heavily inspired by the Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932. Unlike Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient ExpressSpider makes explicit reference to the case, with Murphy/Soneji referring to himself as the ‘Son of Lindbergh’, and expressing a desire to emulate the notoriety of Richard Hauptmann.

Cross is a likeable lead character with a background in psychology. Using his background to analyse his nemesis makes for an interesting dynamic, and hopefully this will be used more as the series progresses. His tragic backstory is quite run-of-the-mill, but Patterson has crafted him with believability. We accept Cross was alive before the events of the first book.

There was a bloated supporting cast of representatives from various agencies. Although the most important ones – Sampson and Flanagan – become more prominent as time passes, it’s unclear for the first third of the novel who we should be investing in and who is merely a stock character. As Cross’s partner, Sampson is underused in favour of his relationship with Jezzie Flanagan. Despite this, their ‘buddy cop’ friendship looks set to be enduring and Patterson will do well to explore this further in future instalments.

The stand-out supporting character is actually Nana Mamma, Cross’s grandmother and family matriarch. A strong-willed character who always gets the last word, she is tough and caring in equal measure. Her racism towards white people would not be tolerated were it inverted – which she almost acknowledges herself – and that bothers me a little. However, race is a predominant theme in the first book and doubtless the series, and it’s an attitude I hope is challenged or at least justified with more context.

Soneji/Murphy is a wonderfully creepy villain. He is clearly psychotic and at times chilling. Patterson cleverly builds elements of doubt into what is real and and what he is faking, leaving questions dangling beyond the book’s end. I like that the reader can make their own mind up, even if there are strong hints as to what the truth is.

The plot itself is unpredictable, perhaps due to the writing. Told in first person from Cross’s perspective, and third person from others including Murphy/Soneji’s, there are often major developments at the end of a chapter, with the following one set days or weeks later. The entire novel covers a time period of almost two years, and the structure means that the aftermath of major events is generally summarised as a historical event. You can’t help but feel a little cheated out of the action sometimes. And because of this, the assumption is that whatever has just been glossed over is not the “main part” of the story, and what comes next will be, however it is a pattern that repeats throughout. This leaves very little tension or immediacy, and instead makes the whole thing seem a little out of the reader’s reach.

Alex Cross gets a decent introduction that I don’t think shows him at his best yet. More psychology, more page-time with Sampson and the continuing presence of Nana could make this an interesting series which is quite unlike many others.

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2014 in 3 star, Alex Cross

 
 
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