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review 2018-08-16 12:35
A good old-fashioned and convoluted mystery with a Poirot in good shape.
The Mystery of Three Quarters: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery (Hercule Poirot Mysteries) - Sophie Hannah

Thanks to NetGalley and to Harper Collins UK for the ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I had not realised that an author had been commissioned to write new Poirot mysteries, and as I saw this book after a conversation about Agatha Christie, I could not resist requesting a copy of it. This means I have not read the author’s two previous New Poirot Mysteries (The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket), so I cannot discuss the evolution of the characters or compare this one to the previous two. I am not familiar with any of Hannah’s previous writing either. I have read some of Agatha Christie’s novels and short stories, some of them I read translated into Spanish many years back (and might not have fully reflected her style of writing although I remember enjoying them) and I have not read a Poirot one in many years, although I have watched both films and TV series adapting some of Christie’s classic Poirot novels, so I would not dare to address this review to connoisseurs. Still, for what is worth, this is my opinion.

I enjoyed the novel. The case starts with four seemingly random people accusing Poirot of sending them letters accusing them of a crime. Not only has Poirot not sent them such letters, but the alleged victim died of natural causes (he was an elderly man and drowned whilst bathing, alone in his bathroom). So, who is behind the letters? And what’s his or her motive? I will try and not reveal any spoilers, but I can say that there are plenty of clues to follow, red-herrings along the way, peculiar characters, true and false motivations, slices of cake, dogs, a public school for boys, a wonderful old mansion, faulty typewriters, likeable and less likeable characters, and a Poirot in full form.

The novel is told by Edward Catchpool, a Scotland Yard Inspector who, like Captain Hastings in Christie’s stories, is the scribe behind the stories. He is a new creation and one of a couple of characters that, from the comments, I have read, are regulars in The New Poirot Mysteries. The narration is split between parts written in the third person (when Catchpool is not present) that, when we are some way into the book, he explains he has compiled through later discussions with Poirot, and those written in the first person, that pertain to events he witnessed or participated in himself. This works well, in general (we might wonder briefly how Poirot might have become aware of some detail or conversation, but we all know he has his ways), and it also allows for any differences in style with previous novels to be blamed on Catchpool’s own style of writing (that would not be the same as Hastings’). The language is straightforward and effective in conveying the story, without any jarring moments due to usage inappropriate to the historical period. Catchpool himself does not reveal much of his own personality through the novel and he is mostly a blank canvas to reflect Poirot’s thoughts and his deductive process. There are some interesting personal morsels about the inspector included in the narrative (he does not like his boss at work and he is averse to the idea of marriage, especially one to suit his mother’s taste) but not enough for readers to become truly attached to him. As this is the third novel and I have not read the two previous one, it is likely that people who have followed the whole series will know and appreciate the character more fully (but this is not necessary for the enjoyment of the mystery).

Notwithstanding my disclaimer on my limited expertise in all things Poirot, the Poirot in the novel will be recognisable to most people who have some familiarity with Christie’s detective. People still think he is French, his ‘little grey cells’ are mentioned often, he sprinkles his dialogue with French terms and some peculiar English translations (‘oil of the olives’ instead of olive oil, for instance), he is a keen observer, opinionated, with high regard for himself, and a lover of comfort and good food and drink. Perhaps he is an extreme version of Poirot, but I could not help but remember, as I read the book, that Christie expressed her dislike for the character and called him: detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep. (We might agree or not with her assessment, although her Poirot had some moments of weakness and sometimes showed more of a soft heart than he would have liked to admit). He is that here and keeps making demands on people, puts to the test his ideas and theories in pretty cruel ways, and drags the resolution of the case, creating anxiety and disquiet among all. But he can come up with pretty amazing insights and his figure has always been one of those that perhaps we would not like to meet personally, but we nonetheless admire.

Some of the secondary characters are almost caricatures, and the story is fundamentally about the plot and not about the psychological complexity of those involved, but there are some likeable characters, and I had a soft spot for the younger generation (and the dog). There are good descriptions and observations that will keep people guessing and turning the pages, although the story is not told at a fast pace, and the ending drags on (as is usual for this type of stories, where the reveal can become as frustrating for the readers as for those present). Although the evidence, in this case, remains mostly circumstantial and stretches somewhat the imagination, everything is explained and tied up and people who like a definite ending will have no complaint. There is a murder but there is no explicit violence or bad language and although it will not suit readers looking for gritty and realistic thrillers, it should not offend or discourage most readers who love a gentler mystery.

I am not sure if this would fit into the category of cozy mystery. By its tone and nature, it should do, but many books marketed as cozy mysteries abound in over-the-top characters, seem to place more emphasis on other aspects rather than the actual mystery (romance, recipes, pets…), include elements of other genres (paranormal, for instance), and can be frustrating to any readers looking for logical explanation and a meaty, intriguing, and complex mystery they can actually solve. This is like a good old-fashioned mystery, with plenty of character, a light read that will keep you entertained, and if that’s what you’d like to read, I’d recommend it. (Does it add anything new to the Poirot canon? Well, that is a matter for another discussion. Judging by the reviews, most people think the author has done a good job and has made the character her own). Personally, I’ll keep track of the author and future novels in the series.

 

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review 2018-07-17 18:23
STRANGER IN THE HOUSE: Examining War's Impact Upon Women & Families
Stranger in the House: Women's Stories of Men Returning from the Second World War - Julie Summers

"STRANGER IN THE HOUSE: Women's Stories of Men Returning from the Second World War" is made up of multi-layered stories spanning generations of the adjustments women in Britain had to make upon the return of their husbands or sweethearts from war.   Many of these men had served in the military in places as diverse as France, Italy, India, Singapore, and Java during various stages of the war.   Indeed, a large majority of these men ended up as POWs of the Germans (most of them ended up in prisoner-of-war camps in Germany and Poland for almost 5 years) or the Japanese.   The ones who were prisoners of the Japanese suffered the worst in terms of physical and psychological abuse.

 

Many of these stories I found deeply moving.   Julie Summers is to be commended for her research into an aspect of the war and its impact on families that has been little explored by historians.     It is my hope that a similar book will be written, detailing the impact of the Second World War on returning American veterans and their families.

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text 2018-06-10 13:49
Puffins!
RSPB Birds of Britain and Europe - Rob Hume

Have just got back home after visiting friends and family back in the UK. We had a great time catching up with everyone and celebrating my Dad's 86th birthday, but one of the highlights of our trip was the RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliffs in North Yorkshire.

 

We saw gannets, razorbills, guillemots (or murres as they're known in the US), kittiwakes, fulmars, and shags. But none of them are as cute as a puffin.

 

Gannets

 

Razorbill

 

Puffin (seriously, can you get any cuter than this?)

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review 2018-05-13 19:21
WALKING WITH NATURISTS IN THE UK
Naked Britain - Amelia Allen

A year ago, I learned about this book in a radio interview the author, an established fashion photographer, had given BBC Radio London. As someone who once tried the "naturist lifestyle" many years ago in the West Indies, I was curious to read, see, and learn about Amelia Allen's take on the naturist world in the UK. 

For Allen, "[s]hooting 'Naked Britain' was a study in mindfulness for me. I photographed this book fully naked, because I wanted to completely immerse myself in the world of naturism and understand how this way of life feels." Allen met with many of the people - of various ages and backgrounds - who practice naturism at a naturist club about 20 miles from London. The photographs - all in B&W - are of the highest quality. and show people engaged in conversation over cards, cycling, swimming, doing calisthenics, walking in the woods, playing tennis, gardening, playing billiards, sitting poolside, and standing on the shore. There is a pure and simple honesty in this book about living and being at peace with one's nakedness among one's fellow human beings similarly free of clothing. 

Two of the more memorable insights Allen said she got from the time she spent among naturists are the following --- 'Naturism changes how you feel about our body and yourself, it changes your perspective on what the body is.' AND - 'People are just people; it's liberating to just be yourself.'

"NAKED BRITAIN" is a book I would recommend to anyone who is interested in learning more about naturism and values quality photography

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review 2018-05-04 19:34
If you believe in the power of stories and love magic, theatre, families, and heart-warming novels, you must read this feel-good book. Love at first-read.
Days of Wonder - Keith Stuart

Thanks to NetGalley and to Little, Brown and Company UK (Clara Díaz in particular) for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I read and reviewed Keith Stuart’s first novel A Boy Made of Blocks, a truly extraordinary book, a couple of years ago, and loved it. I could not resist when I was offered the opportunity to read the author’s second novel. And, again, it was love at first read.

Days of Wonder has some similarities to A Boy. It does center on the relationship between a father and his child (in this case, Hannah), and how their relationship is shaped by a specific condition affecting the child (Asperger’s in the first novel, a chronic cardiac illness that cannot be cured and will only get worse in this novel). All the characters are beautifully portrayed, not only the protagonists but, in this case, also an array of secondary characters that become an ersatz family unit.

Tom, the father, runs a small theatre and has close links to the amateur theatrical group. His wife, Elizabeth, left the family when their daughter was three and leads the life of a high-flier, with no real contact with her family. Hannah has grown-up in the theatre, surrounded by the players and by stories, both on stage and out.

The book, narrated in the first person by both Tom and Hanna (mostly in alternating chapters, although towards the end there are some that follow the same character’s point of view, due to the logic of the story). Hannah’s narration in the present is interspersed with what appear to be diary entries addressed to Willow, (the theatre is called The Willow Tree). She is a strong girl, who loves her father, the theatre and the players, her friends, and who has a can-do attitude, despite her serious illness, or perhaps because of it. She knows how valuable each moment is, and lives it to the fullest (within her limitations). She is worried about her father and how much he has focused his life on her and decides that he must find a woman and live a fuller life. She loves comics, fairy-tales, is funny (having a sense of humour does help in such a situation, without a doubt), witty, and wise beyond her years, whilst being a credible teenager who worries about boys and can sometimes have questionable judgement. I challenge anybody not to fall in love with Hannah, her enthusiasm, and her zest for life.

Tom is a father who tries his hardest in a very difficult situation, and who sometimes finds himself in above his head, unable to function or to decide, frozen by the enormity of the situation. He is one of the good guys, he’d do anything to help anybody, and some of his philosophical reflections are fairly accurate, although, like most of us, he’s better at reading others than at understanding himself. His date disasters provide some comic relief but he is somebody we’d all love to count as a friend. Or, indeed, a father.

One of my favourite characters is Margaret, an older woman who has become a substitute grandmother for Hannah, and who is absolutely fabulous, with her anecdotes, her straight speaking, her X-ray vision (she knows everything that goes on even before the people involved realise what is going on sometimes), and she is a bit like the fairy-godmother of the fairy tales Hannah loves so much. As for the rest, Callum, Hannah’s boyfriend, is a very touching character, with many problems (the depiction of his depression is accurate and another one of the strong points of a book full of them), and the rest of the theatre crew, although they appear to be recognisable types at first sight (the very busy mother who wants some space for herself, the very capable woman whose husband is abusive, a retired man whose relationship with his wife seems to be falling apart, a gay man who can’t confess his attraction for another member of the group…), later come across as genuine people, truly invested in the project, and happy to put everything on the line for the theatre.

The novel is set in the UK and it has many references that will delight the anglophiles and lovers of all-things-British, from language quirks to references to plays, movies, TV series and festivals. (Oh, and to local politics as well), but I’m sure that the lack of familiarity with them will not hinder the readers’ enjoyment. Although there are also quite a number of references to theatre plays and comics (and I don’t know much about comics, I confess), they never overwhelm the narration and are well integrated into the story, adding to its depth.

The book deals in serious subjects (family break-ups, abuse, chronic physical and mental illnesses [affecting young people, in particular], aging and death, growing-up, single-parent families) and whilst it makes important points about them, which many readers will relate to, they are seamlessly incorporated into the fabric of the novel, and it never feels preachy or as if it was beating you over the head with a particular opinion or take on the topic.

Reading the author’s comment above, I can vouch for his success. This is indeed a book about love, life, and magic. It is a declaration of love to the world of theatre and to the power of stories. The novel is beautifully written, flows well, and the readers end up becoming members of their troupe, living their adventures, laughing sometimes and crying (oh, yes, get the tissues ready) at other times. Overall, despite its sad moments, this is a hopeful feel-good book, heart-warming and one that will make readers feel at peace with themselves and the world. It has a great ending and although I wondered at first if the epilogue was necessary, on reflection, it is the cherry on top of the trifle. Perfect.

The book is endlessly quotable and I’ve highlighted a tonne of stuff, but I couldn’t leave you without sharing something.

Here is Hanna, talking about magic:

I don’t mean pulling rabbits out of hats or sawing people in half (and then putting them back together: otherwise it’s not magic, it’s technically murder). I just mean the idea that incredible things are possible, and that they can be conjured into existence through will, effort and love.

As I’m writing this review on Star Wars Day, I could not resist this quote, again from Hannah:

I feel as though it’s closing in around me, like the trash-compactor scene in Star Wars, except I have no robots to rescue me although I do have an annoying beeping box next to the bed doing a twenty-four-hours-a-day impression of R2-D2.

Oh, and another Star Wars reference:

It’s as though the spirit of Margaret is working through me, like a cross between Maggie Smith and Yoda.

And a particularly inspiring one:

Margaret told me that you must measure life in moments —because unlike hours or days or weeks or years, moments last forever. I want more of them. I am determined. I will steal as many as I can.

A beautiful book, a roller-coaster of emotions, and an ode to the power of stories, to their magic, and to family love, whichever way we choose to define family. I urge you to read it. You’ll feel better for it. And I look forward to reading more books by its author, who has become one of my favourites.

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