The Monogram Murders

From her own admission Sophie Hannah would say she has not tried to mimic or replicate Agatha Christie’s style in this Hercule Poirot offering that has been blessed by Christie’s estate, and even if she had I would not be the person to tell you how it compares. This book is my maiden voyage into Agatha Christie’s tales and I can only judge it on its own merit.

Through the narration of Mr Catchpool, Poirot is described as an articulate and precise man who rises to many a challenge and forgets not even the smallest of details. Between Poirot and catchpool we get a marvellously intriguing mystery that despite their two very different styles, and possible competencies, leads to a winding mystery that had me guessing right until the end.

The story had an antiquated quality, which is relevant due to the 1920’s setting, and focuses heavily on the uncovering of faux alibis and treacherous pasts and, regardless of the purpose of the book, I now want to pick up an original Agatha Christie novel… just to see.

I’d call that work well done to a clearly very brave author.

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Man at the Helm

Nina Stibbe’s debut novel follows her successful epistolary memoir, Love, Nina, and I truly believe this book should be received with the same acclaim.

Following a far from pleasant divorce, Lizzie and her siblings move out to a village with their ponies, dog (Princess Debbie Reynolds) and their play writing, whisky drinking and initially purposeless mother in tow. The fear of becoming ‘wards of court’ leads them to the need for a plan and the plan that forms is to find the most appropriate man to be ‘at the helm’ of their family.

Set in the 1970’s and told from the perspective of the middle child, Lizzie, this book is laugh out loud funny. We follow the family from wealth and village exile to poverty and begrudging acceptance in addition to the ups and downs of their mother’s dalliances with men both on and off the ‘man list’.

Although a little slow initially I did end up reading the second half in one sitting and by that point I had a real emotional attachment to this slightly mad family and their array of worries, upsets and life’s idiosyncrasies.

 

8/10

 

The Giver/ We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

I seem to have stepped out of the habit of writing, yet again, recently. So I thought maybe today I would try and get back to that place where I think words are worth writing and maybe, just maybe, my words are worth reading.

 

The last couple of books I have read at work have been enjoyable, thought provoking and one of which I cannot believe has been around for so long that I have NEVER heard of it. Now I have read it of course it is quite literally everywhere and now there is even a film. Who am I kidding? There is always a film.

 

 

So quick run down.

 

The Giver – Lois Lowry.

A book that was recommended to me by a friend who was made to read it when she was 11 or 12 (not sure of American grades) at school. I think if I were a teacher or someone in charge of all things literary curriculum I would certainly plop this one right at the top of the list! Being written for children, it seems to simplify language yet still throw words that can only enhance vocabulary and really hits hard at the topic of our world and how devastating and yet brilliant it is. The message for me was basic. Be good. Be kind. Don’t let’s lose our individuality and real, body and heart felt feelings for the sake of wars and bloodshed that surely can be stopped. Less hate and more love.

Obviously this is a simplified opinion of the book and as always with older, more defined and set into history, books I struggle to really assess my opinion and differentiate it from all the many opinions of other’s that litter the web and general media.

I think this is more telling about me then the book itself.

 

 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler.

This is Fowler’s most recent offering to the world and it is my first reach into her writing. In hindsight it turns out I had heard of a few of her books but have never been pressed to pick any of them up before now.

I must admit that a lot of the fiction I have read this year has been down to my magpie-esque fascination with long and short lists for literary prizes, this one coming from the Man Booker Prize 2014 long list. Personally I think it was one of my better decisions.

The story of Rosemary Cooke’s life is told to us from the perspective of Rosemary herself and my, she is one of the most confused, self deprecating narrators I have read yet I found her likeable, often very funny and on a regular basis I wished I was friends with her and yet wanted to shake her furiously all within the space of ten pages. This story is engaging, is thought provoking and yet profoundly different from anything I have read in a long time.

I don’t want to give anymore details. Don’t read about this book, just read it.

I want you to have the same experience I had with this one.

Eleanor & Park

Eleanor and Park…

Is just that. Eleanor and Park.

A chunky, red haired girl and a slight but beautifully offbeat boy.

A teenage love story that has the depth to deal with domestic abuse, racism, body image, bullying and self worth.

It is because of this that I seem to have fallen head over heels for this pair of quirky individuals as they become embroiled in each other’s lives in Nebraska, USA circa 1986. Eleanor has to deal with poverty and fear whilst trying to keep the one good thing clear of all the things her home represents and by the middle of the book she seems to cling to his loving, accepting household like he and it is her one remaining life raft. He is just learning about acceptance outside of his tight family circle in a neighbourhood that has not always been so welcoming.

On paper this book sounds like it has all the factors needed for a painful cheesy teenage novel but Rowell has been clever enough to make her characters so real it hurts. They know what they feel is real but are aware that they are teenagers. They also show embarrassment and humility in bucket loads and it is so refreshing that Eleanor, a girl who has never had positivity in her life, realises that while a boyfriend is a good thing he will never be able to fix everything and should not be the only safe person in her life.

If that isn’t a good lesson for a teenage girl I don’t know what is.

I was especially blown away by the end of this book. It finished to imply it was a short story, a mere chapter in a life that could never fit into one novel.

I will be thinking about this one for a while to come.

 

Hurray for Rainbow Lowell!

 

 

 

How To Build A Girl

I guess the problem I have with Caitlin Moran is that she could write any old rubbish and I would probably be too blinded by hero worship to actually see it for what it is… old rubbish.

That is not to say that is what her latest offering is but if you are here expecting a lack of bias and detachment, keep moving.

In fact, if her next book happens to detail how positively cool it is to meet on a weekend and shear sheep of their beautiful wooliness, I will be there. Second hand clippers in tow and a few unwitting friends I may have blindsided with the words ‘just going to the pub’. Friends, beware.

So, with that out of the way, let’s discuss How to Build a Girl.

It starts with a very clear introduction from the author reminding one and all that it is a work of fiction, despite the very clear links with Caitlin’s past. Wolverhampton, large family, benefit dependency and a wholly determined and devastatingly embarrassing protagonist, Johanna, all let us slip into a world that could be confused with the author’s own determined and devastatingly embarrassing adolescence (See How to Be a Woman).

With that little bit of confusion cleared up it is on with the tale.

We follow Johanna and her alter ego writer, Dolly Wilde, as she potters around the house looking after her siblings, trying to keep on the top side of teenage sexual frustration whilst looking for a way to help fund her family out of their financial woes.

We see her build a career in music journalism, fall in love, take a stroll into a myriad of sex adventures, nearly burn down her career along with her family’s finances as well as the obligatory reminder of the sheer misery that is cystitis*. Quite an escapade really! And one that I really did enjoy. It made me laugh loudly and smile like a fool, unfortunately it did also make me cry but that is my cross to bear as that had more to do with my relating strongly to a far from self assured teenager at the grand old age of twenty five.

What I think she has achieved here is giving a voice to that youth inside all of us that remains eternally outcast, the opportunity to ‘rebuild’ for all those who think ‘this is not me’ and a gentle reminder that the only person allowed to judge you is you.

A positive message as far as I can tell!

So, as far as I am concerned Caitlin Moran’s jaunt into fiction is a success.

Keep the fiction flowing!

 

Now, in order to complete my full transformation into ‘fan girl’ I need this particular hardback signing!

Roll on next week when I shall be attending Caitlin Moran Live (in Leeds)**.

 

 

 

 

 

*we all know that nothing written by Moran would be worth its salt without this terribly painful reminder.

** ramble on this to follow.

We Are Called To Rise – UPDATED

My current read, We Are called To Rise, is drawing to a close and I must say it has been one of the most compelling reads of the year for me and considering we are 6 months in that must be saying something. It is because of this that I have slowed down the pace in order not to finish it in a blur.

One of the reflections I have taken from this read is how close I was to not reading it. I didn’t choose it. It didn’t even make my top three from the long list of options given on the monthly book review email.

(the top three for this month, in order of preference, were; How to Build a Girl – Caitlin Moran. Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Mutiny – Laurie Penny. The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton. These were fiction, non-fiction and fiction respectively.)

Unfortunately this list is heavily reliant on the traditional ‘first come, first served’ and I happened to miss the email coming out by a full weekend. Blast. The boat was well and truly missed. So, at the request of my editor, I opted for one from under the ‘Fun & Romance’ umbrella and like it or not the genre automatically takes me to phrases like ‘beach read’ and ‘another Nicholas bloomin’ Sparks’. Well, I have been proved wrong. Hats are being eaten all over the shop.

Or maybe my snobbery still stands. It may be that this book is being marketed specifically to the holiday market as one thing when actually it something entirely different.

I think this is a fun book because I think books are fun. Reading is fun. Put me in a book shop or library with unlimited time and resources and fun will preside.

But the question is, is the story fun? No. It is thought provoking and initially gripping. In places it is desperately sad yet also quite rousing in terms of human compassion and strength in adversity. While these are great attributes to have they do not scream ‘fun’. Fun, to me, is the light hearted reads you get, those ones that make you giggle on the bus or titter at your desk at lunch. The likes of Love, Nina, Where’d you go Bernadette and How to Be a Woman. Many people may want to splutter into a cocktail whilst lying on a beach, covered in factor 50 and praying the sun gods decide not to burn them on that day.

So whilst this is billed as romance/fun, and it is not quite that, it is great. Laura McBride has done a sterling job. If you normally avoid the genre this has been billed as – read it. If you normally like your books with a tinge of romance and giggles I suggest pushing through with this one as it may just take you away from a life of potentially mediocre reads.

REVIEW

We Are Called To Rise is the debut novel by Las Vegas based author, Laura McBride, following the lives of four very different characters as their stories circulate up to, and including the aftermath of, a life changing incident that ripples through each and every one of them.
McBride writes from the different view points of each of her Las Vegas based characters; middle aged Avis, struggling with an imminent divorce and a war torn son while Bashkim is an eight year old Albanian boy with immigrant parents and a strong sense of responsibility. Alongside them is Luis, a troubled soldier suffering from PTSD and a world of other issues and Roberta, a volunteer caseworker helping the lost and soon to be lost children of Las Vegas.
With these character’s perspectives McBride creates a desperately sad tale that still manages to encapsulate a sense of hope and positivity through the gloom.
An excellent read that will cling to you long after you have closed the book.

9/10

Blood Whispers

On a monthly basis I receive a book through the internal post at work which I get to read (keep!) and review.

This one didn’t blow my mind, so I’d say 7/10 was pretty damn generous.

See below.

 

Blood Whispers is the follow up to Sinclair’s debut Seventy Times Seven and fans of this ‘fast and bloody’ style will no doubt be thrilled by this follow up.

Keira Lynch, successful lawyer to the down and outs of Glasgow, finds herself embroiled in the life of Kaltrina, a prostitute on the run from a ruthless Serbian gang leader. She is no stranger to unrequited violence, with the tale of her own background unravelling behind her, yet only seems to be getting herself deeper and deeper into a world of lies and corruption in the present as the plot unfolds and she is left wondering who she can trust and, more importantly, who is watching her every move.

This novel packs a certain punch and has a pace that keeps you guessing. A web of names, relating to gang members, police officers and CIA personnel, not to mention the protagonist’s past, does lead to a little over kill but Sinclair has managed to muster enough intrigue to push through to the end of the book.

7/10

I’ve Got Your Number

Okay, so it took me longer than normal to finish this Sophie Kinsella book and yes, that may be because it didn’t grab me until about 3 quarters of the way in but that does not mean I didn’t enjoy ambling through this somewhat lackadaisical tale.

Poppy, our protagonist, is introduced to us as a happy-go-lucky type of girl who, while a little clumsy, has a big heart and has been completely swept up by a whirlwind romance with a prominent intellectual, so much so that they are engaged after only a few months.

Sam, who gets embroiled in Poppy’s life when she loses her engagement ring, her phone and picks up his PA’s abandoned mobile from a bin, is seen as a cold, severe business man who never responds to emails, not even those from his crazy fiancé and his own father.

Or so his emails would have Poppy believe.

And so the story goes, missing ring, found phone, disapproving parents-in-law, Poppy the physiotherapist and Sam the successful business man communicating via email/text/phone call – helping each other in and out of scrapes.

To say anything more about the story would surely give it away, if I haven’t already.

 

To me, this is the ideal beach read. Nothing out of the ordinary, pleasant, sometimes funny and with the much needed happy ending that if you don’t see coming you really have had too many rum based cocktails.

I guess my reason to read this was slightly two fold:

My friend recommended it to me.

I have never really embraced that whole ‘chicklit’ genre.

 

And by Chick Lit I of course mean literature written by a woman about women/love/romance, often including a certain level of comedy.

I think it is the term that has always put me off. It is not an especially flattering.

I mean I have never come across a situation in my life where it has been acceptable for anyone to refer to me as a ‘chick’ (this includes those dreadful radio edits of songs that like to change references to women from ‘bitch’ to ‘chick’ – neither of these are ideal, are they??).

 

So next time my head is far too full of life/intense literature/mess I probably will reach for something of a similar tone because I can now say, and mean, I am not a book snob*.

 

 

Happy Monday.**

 

 

 

*Find a chair, stand on it and shout it with me – please see Caitlin Moran’s ‘How To Be A Woman’.

** I wrote this ages ago. Last Monday. It is now the following Thursday. Winning.

The Undertaking

The Orange prize for women’s fiction has recently become the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and I feel the marketing has really ramped up this year! It is probably because of this that the long list made it onto my radar. Well, it could be this or it could be my obsession with one of the judges that caused me to pay attention. Caitlin Moran. Enough said.
Moving on from unhealthy obsessions, a few of the books caught my eye including; Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The luminaries – Eleanor Catton, Burial Rights – Hannah Kent and the Undertaking by Audrey Magee. I decided to opt for the latter based on the premise of the book and an urge to read some historical fiction from that particular time (Life after Life – Kate Atkinson paved the way for this I believe).

The Undertaking is set in 1930’s Germany, as Nazi propaganda is at its strongest and fit, young and able men are sent off to fight for their country and a bigger, better future. Heads held high, a proud and noble nation. Due to a woman’s need at the time for stability through marriage and a soldier’s desire for relief from the incessant fighting, both Katharina Spinell and Peter Faber opt to marry, at two separate ‘ceremonies’ and only meet after the marriage is complete. A bank worker and a former teacher come soldier, perfect strangers. The story goes on to follow these two who, whether for strength, personal moral, genuine affection or for appearances, meet, fall in love and continue to write to one another despite both living through very different wars.
Katharina’s Berlin, first experiencing war rations and witnessing daily persecution of the Jewish communities around her, then feeling her city shaken and torn by bombs and finally being invaded by the English, Americans and Russians as Hitler’s Germany falls.
Peter, referred to predominantly as Faber, is at the front of the fighting, having been in Belgium and France and now based on the seemingly hopeless Russian front. He is seen to be experiencing unbearably cold conditions, the daily violence of war and near starvation.
It would not be an overstatement to label some parts of this book as harrowing. It ranges from the glamour of the high society of Berlin to the lows of a hopeless Stalingrad siege, from the hurt of separation to the depravity of loss. Brutal violence, while highly unpleasant to read in places, just further hits home that while this is fiction these situations are not unfounded.

I would find it difficult to recommend this book to people because while it is great, it is written superbly, it has heart and multiple dimensions and characters that break your heart, I wouldn’t want other people to experience the need to weep quite as heavily as I did. I think this is more a reflection of me as emotionally unsteady but if you are looking for a joyous book this is not it. If you are looking for a book with hope and light. This is not it. This book has the feeling of realism to the maximum and a terrifying reminder that the Second World War happened and it was devastating for all involved regardless of what side of the North Sea they happened to be born on.

Magee’s The Undertaking has clearly impressed itself upon the judges of the Baileys Prize as it has made it into the six shortlisted this year and I am rather intrigued to see which book wins. Despite the ever present ‘to read’ list I feel I may need to hit the remaining five on the shortlist.

On Beauty

Zadie Smith’s ‘On Beauty’ really does beg the question ‘can this woman do no wrong?!’ This is the third Smith novel I have read and every time she seems to completely capture the heart and soul of her characters. You can hate, love, pity and despair for each of them but the point is indifference isn’t a feeling up for grabs.

This is a story centred on the Belsey family, their life in the suburbs of New England and a long standing feud between two professors in the field of Art History. The Belsey family consists of Howard (a reference to ‘Howard’s End’, a novel by EM Forster that I have yet to investigate), his wife Kiki and their three very different children living their lives in and out of a university in the suburbs of Boston. It is a snap shot of a time where fifty seven year old Howard has been ‘indiscreet’ with one of their old friends, Claire, while his academic ‘nemesis’ takes up a position with in the same university as him. His eldest son Jerome has embraced Christianity, his daughter is throwing herself into academia and a potential soul destroying ‘project’ crush on a ‘brother’ from Boston, whilst his youngest son Levi struggles with his identity as a middle class and privileged black teenager.
Smith seems to open this family’s crises so that it plays out like a film swinging in and out of focus on individuals and their personal contentions.
While the story is solid it is not this that has kept me hooked for the last week, the character’s depth and personalities are what achieved this, including Howard’s hypocrisy, Zora’s tenacity and sheer stubbornness and Kiki’s beauty, presence and slightly bruised and very lost spirit that all add up to create a web that, in equal measures, made me root for and despise various members of this family and others found on the university campus.
A family like the Belsey’s, with such diversity, creates the perfect stage for the humour and heart that Smith really builds on. I was a little sad for it to end if I am honest.

The inclusion of Howard’s specific field of Art History and Zora’s interest in poetry gave this book an added dimension which I thought to be fascinating. More so is the fact that some of the poetry found in the book can be credited to the author’s husband, Nick Laird, and is done so heavily, in the author’s notes, the dedication and in the copyright notes.

Over all a great read, Zadie completely deserves the accolades she received for this modern take on an apparent Forster classic.