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review 2020-08-08 08:22
'Poirot Investigates' by Agatha Christie
Poirot Investigates - Agatha Christie

'Poirot Investigates', originally published in 1924, is a collection of fourteen Poirot stories, told over 211 pages. They are short, energetic, playful pieces, all centring around Poirot's brilliance in solving apparently unsolvable puzzles. 


At an average of fifteen pages per story, there isn't a lot of space for anything more than exposition, investigation and resolution - think the kind of thirty-minute TV mystery shows that were pumped out in the 1970's - but they're delivered with brio, self-confidence and humour that makes them engaging.


The subjects of the stories range widely. We have spies, blackmailers, jewel thieves, cursed Egyptian tombs, a kidnapped Prime Minister and opportunistic but devilishly cunning murders.


The only thing that they have in common is that they let Hercule Poirot play his part of Magician Detective, the man who can and does solve crimes while sitting at his desk with his eyes closed.


I began to see Poirot like this:

What pulls the stories together, and what I found more interesting than the puzzles posed, is the way Poirot and Hastings are revealed to us. With rapid, deft strokes, Christie gives us a clear portrait of both men and the relationship between them. 


Poirot, the small man with the large ego, a compulsion for neatness, a self-serving sense of humour and an analytical mind that treats people and their actions as no more than puzzle pieces. A man whose vanity is displayed as much in his refusal to speak English fluently as his luxurious moustaches. He is bright but often less than kind. My main impression of him? M. Poirot, il est un connard, non?


Christie skilfully manages to give us Hastings through his own eyes and still present someone different from the man Hastings sees when he looks in the mirror. He's an affable, reliable man, the epitome of his class, one step up from Bertie Wooster. Woman are an alien species to him but he is always willing to worship at the altar of the auburn-haired beauty, provided she's a woman of good family and character and not one of these 'new' women. It was pointed out to me that he's a perfect example of the Dunning-Krugar effect, a cognitive bias that allows a person of low ability to sustain an internal illusion of superiority.


The early stories read like playful trope twists on Sherlock Holmes stories. They all read as if Christie is having fun playing with ideas and using her stories as a lab for testing them out. Yet, taken together, they give a picture of this odd couple that is very different from Holmes and Watson and much more endearing.

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review 2020-08-04 18:34
'Kitchens Of The Great Midwest' by J. Ryan Stradal - highly recommended.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest - J. Ryan Stradal,Caitlin Thorburn

I fell in love with the cover and the title and the conceit that the book is built around but I half expected to be disappointed, so many books don't live up to their covers and so many clever conceits turn into pedestrian prose, but instead, I was deeply impressed by 'The Kitchens Of The Great Midwest'. So much so that I immediately bought Stradal's second novel 'The Lager Queen Of Minnesota' (another great cover and catchy title but this time my expectations are high).


The life of Eva Thorvald, from her conception onwards, is le fil rouge that stitches together 'The Kitchens Of The Great Midwest'. Eva's life provides a sense of connection and continuity but, except for one chapter, when she is ten turning elven, Eva's is not the main focus of the book. Each chapter of the book is focused on and told from the point of view of someone whose life has touched Eva's. Each chapter also involves a dish that Eva will use by the end of the book. 


It's easy to imagine how disjointed and burdensome a story structure like that could become but Stradal makes it work brilliantly. He never lets the structure distract from the narrative, like seeing a puppet's strings. He uses it as a trellis, helping the story climb higher. 


I think it works so well because each new character is at the centre of their own world, is fully and empathetically imagined and has their own distinctive voice. As each person's story is told, we get only the most indirect view of Eva, filtered through the passions and problems of the person the chapter is about but we get a deeply personal account of a key moment in each person's life and what it means to them. Each character's story is also linked to a dish which acts as a kind of emoji for the mood of the chapter, With each new dish we taste a new life and build up a sort of scent trail of intense flavours wrapped around memories of important moments.


Yet 'The Kitchens Of The Great Midwest' comes together as something more than a set of thematically linked short stories. The novel has a shape of its own. The effect reminds me of how Hockney amalgamated polaroids for his self-portrait.


Food and food culture are central to the story. Eva has a once-in-a-generation palet and an extreme tolerance for hot spices. Her obsession with sourcing and making perfect dishes coincides with the rise of Foodie culture in the US. I enjoyed watching her lead the charge in sourcing fresh food and getting perfect flavours by having perfect ingredients. I also enjoyed the chapter where we were shown the Foodie culture grown into a pretentious, intolerant cult that was unable to recognise the love in traditional home cooking. 


One of the things that I loved about 'The Kitchens Of The Great Midwest' was how accessible the book is. The writing is engaging, honest, compassionate and deceptively simple. It made me smile and it made me cry but it never made me feel manipulated. 


Here's an example. When we meet the man who will be Eva's father, he is a chef who, after an extended period of involuntary celibacy, caused mainly by spending his teens stinking of cod from making Lutefisk, finally falls for a waitress with 'strong erroneous food opinions.' His reaction to his good fortune made me smile:


'He couldn't help it. He was in love by the time she left the kitchen but love made him feel sad and doomed as usual.'


I recommend the audiobook version of 'Kitchens Of The Great Midwest' which was perfectly narrated by Caitlin Thorburn. Go here to hear a sample of Audible.

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review 2020-07-22 16:01
‘Fingerprints Of Previous Owners’ by Rebecca Entel – highly recommended
Fingerprints Of Previous Owners - Rebecca Entel,Ron Butler,Cherise Boothe,Robin Miles

'Fingerprints Of Previous Owners' (2017) is an exceptional book: diverse, credible characters; beautifully crafted descriptions and perfectly inflected dialogue, and an innovative structure work together to deliver a view of the legacy of slavery, its modern faces and the ways in which a community descended from slaves deal with their heritage and their present challenges. 


This is not a polemic or a thinly-written anthem for the newly-woke. This is a novel that is firmly centred in the experiences, hopes, loves and frustrations of the people living on a small, formerly British, Caribbean island that once had a Plantation at its centre and the blood of slaves on its stones, and is now dominated by a foreign-owned, American-run holiday resort, built on the site of the plantation.


Most of the story is told from the point of view of Myrna, a young islander who spends her days supporting herself and her mother by working as a maid at the resort and spends her nights using her machete to cut her way into the thornbush-choked inland in search of all the things the older generations refuse to speak of.


The book opens with Event Management (white, brought in from off-island) at the resort curating the presentation of a fictional island and fictional islanders (black women, including Myrna, born on the island and employed as maids) to the tourists arriving by boat at the resort. The maids are required to dress in sheets so a white staffer, playing the role of Columbus, can deliver a narrative around 'Natives' welcoming Columbus the island hundreds of years ago. All the resort staff know that the islanders are descendants of African slaves and the original islanders who met Columbus were either killed or sent to die working in silver mines.


Here's Myrna, describes her work at the resort: 


'My ID tag said nothing but "Maid" but it was also my job to be silent and visible only when the tourists wanted to see me. "At work2 meant not just a place or a time. A being. A not being.'


Here is her description of taking part in the charade for the tourists, where, dressed as 'natives' in white sheets, they offer the tourists beads in exchange for pennies:


'Christine and I ducked our heads to remove strands of plastic beads and handed them to the tourists in exchange for pennies. I could see in their eyes the expectation of gratitude. Pennies, not worth stooping to the ground for back at their homes, were transformed through some sort of island alchemy. The alchemy of poverty.'

I felt this to be astonishingly powerful. It made me squirm because I could image myself both as 'native' and tourist and would have hated being either.


As the novel progresses, we learn about Myrna's life, her family (father and brother now dead. Mother a retired school teacher who now scavenges a living), Myrna's self-imposed distance from the islanders around her and her obsession with the inland and what lies buried beneath the bush there.


Change in the story is driven by the arrival of a black American woman, her whiter-than-white husband and their son and their white blonde, college-age nanny as guests on the island. It is the first time that a black woman has been a guest and neither the brought-in staff nor the islanders know what to make of it. The woman brings with her an old book, dating back to the days of the plantation, that Myrna yearns to read and which will change everything.


Myrna's narrative is interspersed with chapters called 'Bench Stories' Each has an islander sitting on a bench, telling a story from his or her life. We don't know until the final chapters of the book who the stories are being told to or why but they're no less powerful for that. They're basically short stories with a common context and they are so intense. I'd buy the book for them alone.


There's one where a man explains why he walks the island wearing an old sock with a worn violin hanging on his back. It is human, so full of remembered love and pain and present courage that it hurts.


When I finally understood what the Bench Stories were, their power was increased immensely and they ended-up re-framing the whole novel.


'Fingerprints Of Previous Owners' was beautifully written but I found it very hard to take. When I read a chapter that finally gave a view (albeit an owner's view) of plantation life, I had to stop for a while before I could read more. The details of the way in which the slaves were treated, punished, used, sold are not new to me. I grew up on Merseyside. We were taught all about the slave trade and its cruelties. There's a museum to it in Liverpool's Albert Dock, but this book made the things I'd been told real in a way that they hadn't been before. It was the difference between reading a map and walking the land. It was the difference between thinking about things happening to 'them' and imagining things happening to 'us'.


As I sat and took this in: what it means, what the wealthy English did, for decades, to hundreds of thousands of people, I understood the outrage behind pulling down Colston's statue in Bristol.


The main narrative, while staying a very human, quietly told but emotionally rich story, showed me the ways in which modern Corporate Colonialism carries the ethics of slavery with it. The removal of dignity. Turning local people into second class citizens. The assertion of the rights of the owners over the needs of the people. And the so-taken-for-granted-we-don't-think-about-it racism. And none of it sounds like an exaggeration or a distortion. It's simply a stark exposition of a global corporate culture that treats people as things.


I liked the ending of the novel. No magic solutions were offered. No battle cry was raised. But there was change. The kind of change that comes from people talking to each other about their past and their present and doing what they can to claim and keeps their identity and their dignity.


I strongly recommend the audiobook version of 'Fingerprints Of Previous Owners'. All the narrators do a great job, especially in bringing the rhythms of the language to life.

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review 2020-07-13 09:30
'Her Final Words' by Brianna Labuskes
Her Final Words - Brianna Labuskes

Tightly plotted and tensely told mystery that kept me guessing and gave me a strong sense of a place and its people.



The only thing I didn't like about 'Her Final Words' was the opening. It's the hook the rest of the book wriggles on: a teenage girl from rural Idaho drives for five hours, crossing a State line, to the FBI field office in Seattle, asks for agent Lucy Thorne by name, confesses to having murdered a twelve-year-old boy, explains that the boy's body has a bible verse carved into it and then refuses to say more. It's a great hook that was never going to need much to sell it, yet I felt like everything in the opening was too bright and too loud and trying too hard to tell 'look how dramatic this is!'

I almost stopped there. Except it really was a great hook and I wanted to wriggle on it a little so I persisted. I'm very glad I did. The tone changed as soon as Lucy Thorne arrives in Idaho, with a long weekend to check out the details of an apparently open and shut case that feels off because there is no motive. The image of the Sheriff standing in the rain waiting to meet Thorne and take her to where the body was found was dramatic without being pushed hard.

It quickly becomes clear that the teenager who confessed to the killing and the boy who was killed were both members of a local Church/Cult and I wondered for a while if we were up for Federal Government rescuing the poor country folk from an abusive cult sort of story, because that never ends well but, thankfully, Brianna Labuskes was more ambitious and more original than that.

This is a story where good guys and bad guys are hard to tell apart. Where everyone is connected to everyone else but how and what it means are not clear and where the only thing the FBI agent is certain about is that she doesn't understand what's really going on.

The false simplicity of 'the bad cult must be to blame' is quickly replaced with something denser and more textured. I liked the way Brianna Labuskes brought out the geographical isolation of this rural community while showing how aware everyone is of what everyone else is doing and who they're doing it with.

Telling the story through multiple points of view and cross-cutting timelines that flip from 'Now' to 'Three Days Earlier' really tightened the tension and kept the surprises coming. The more Agent Thorne learns about the people and their history with one another, the more complicated the puzzle becomes and the fewer people she can trust. Discovering the story from the point of view of the teenagers involved and the Sheriff as well as Agent Thorne made everything more personal and more human as well as deepening the mystery.

The plot, the characters and the tightly controlled pace kept me engaged all the way through. The denouement was unexpected, memorable, believable and deeply sad.

I'll be back for more of Brianna Labuskes' stories.

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review 2020-07-03 18:32
'The Bathwater Conspiracy' by Janet Kellough - a subtly subversive mystery
The Bathwater Conspiracy - Janet Kellough

'The Bathwater Conspiracy' is a quietly subversive book that imagines a world without men.


I've read some very good pieces of speculative fiction recently that have confronted me with the things men do to women, from 'The Southern Book Club's Guide To Slaying Vampires' with the vampire embodying all that is worst about the patriarchy through 'Girls With Sharp Sticks' and 'The Grace Year' which set women up in life and death struggles against the men controlling them. 'The Bathwater Conspiracy' takes a different, gentler but ultimately much more damning approach. It just makes the men disappear and wonders if we would miss them. The answer that I came away with was, 'not so much.'


Set in a future where men have been extinct for generations and humanity has moved on, 'The Bathwater Conspiracy' follows the investigation of Detective Carson “Mac” MacHenry into the exceptionally violent murder of a young woman and the subsequent attempts of the Federal authorities to cover it up. It set Mac on a path that will reveal a secret that could change the world.


I was initially a little thrown by the gentle, low-key tone of this mystery. Then I came to see that the tone was part of the evocation of an all-woman world where even an experienced detective has difficulty imagining levels of violence and aggression that we would take for granted.


It's actually quite a profound change, like suddenly not having any traffic noise in a city. It affects everything.


I also enjoyed the humour in this book. When Mac is researching ancient history to see what men were like, she finds that many religions imposed restrictions on how women dressed or even prevented them going out lest the men who see them are thrown into a frenzy of lust that they can’t control. Here’s her reaction:

'If men were so unreliable as to go off the deep end whenever they saw a stray tress or two, wouldn’t it make more sense to lock them up and just let the women get on with their lives? Otherwise, it would be like having a dog that bites and insisting that the people on your street stay inside so they won’t get bitten.'

I now want more of Janet Kellough's writing so I'll be taking a look at her Thaddeus Lewis series of historical mysteries set in mid-nineteenth-century Canada.

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