“The Secret Adversary” by Agatha Christie (1922)

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secret adversary

Probably the guy with the briefcase…

“It was 2 p.m. on the afternoon of May 7th, 1915.”

I have been a fan of Agatha Christie ever since the Doctor Who episode in which she featured. My knowledge of her prior to this was minimal, although I was aware she was the bestselling author of all time and known as the Queen of Crime. I fought through my reluctance to read anything published before 1990, picked one up and was instantly hooked. She truly is the best crime and mystery writer that history has yet given us.

The Secret Adversary is her second novel, published in 1922 after the success of her debut The Mysterious Affair at Styles which featured Hercule Poirot in the leading role. Here, she dispenses with him (and with the straight mystery genre with which she is so closely associated) and it’s a whole new ball game. This book is about Tommy Beresford and Tuppence Cowley, two young things who have known each other since their childhood and have just met again in 1920s London, at the height of the jazz age.

As I said, this is also not one of the traditional mysteries, being much more of an action story, providing far more chasing about than Poirot does. This is a spy novel, perhaps a precursor to the James Bond novels in some respects. However, the traditional Christie mystery aspect remains forefront.

Tommy and Tuppence are in their early twenties and, broke and bored, decide to set up Young Adventurers Ltd, a silly idea of a company that they will advertise, letting them have small excitements and adventures and get paid for them – in fact, the advertisement states that the pay must be good. However, before they even get a chance to make their plans known, they are met by a man who has overheard their talk and says that his boss would wish to hire them. Tuppence meets the man in question and, after claiming her name is Jane Finn and convincing him that she knows more than she does, manages to anger him so much that he pays her off handsomely. (Apparently £50 is enough to buy two dinners for two people, and a trip to the theatre, and still retain 80% of the original sum in 1922.)

Tommy and Tuppence then find themselves embroiled in one hell of a mess. Who is this Jane Finn, and why has her name upset this man Whittington so much? Who is Mr Brown? Where are these orders coming from? Can Julius Hersheimmer be trusted? Where are the documents hidden? What’s up with Mrs Vandemeyer?

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The Ritz: both then and now a sign of splendour

The novel makes good use of the time period, using the sinking of the Luistania as the catalyst for all over events. The characters of Tommy and Tuppence – who appear in several other of Christie’s works and are unique in being the only characters who age along with the real world – are introduced cleverly and the exposition of their backstories does not feel forced. They meet again after a few years, and therefore the discussion of what they’re been up to in that time feels natural. You are soon caught up in them. They are both grand characters, very different but immediately likeable. Tommy is considered slow and stupid, and called so a number of times, but he is merely someone who likes to have a solid opinion before speaking, and he can rarely be swayed from it. He is good in a tight corner and cannot be decieved because he has no imagination. Tuppence on the other hand is a quick thinker, obsessed with money and one of those thoroughly modern girls who wears short skirts and displays their ankles. Together, they make an excellent detecting team.

I previously read a Christie novel that was more action based, The Big Four, and was not so impressed, but I think it was because she was shoehorning Poirot and Hastings into the genre, when the whole thing was beneath them. Giving the roles of action heroes to two younger characters works far better.

It’s a gripping read and kept me going until the very end, when, in typical Christie fashion, everything comes together in a way you (or I, as usual) didn’t see coming. Yes, it has a few cliches in it, but that’s the nature of the genre and still the whole thing works and is a very enjoyable read. Hersheimmer is a great addition as the slightly eccentric millionaire, and there’s even a nod within the book to other aspects of Christie’s world, implying that these books are set in the same universe was Poirot, even if the characters don’t meet.

An exciting visit to London at its finest. A must for any adventure fan.

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“Elisabeth Sladen: The Autobiography” (2011)

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sladen

1946-2011

There are some things you never quite get over. Some of them are deeply personal to you, and others had absolutely no relation to you whatsoever. The death of Lis Sladen is one of the latter. I never knew the woman, am not particularly well-versed in classic Doctor Who, but there is something about her that I love. After reading this book, I think I’ve sort of worked it out.

Lis Sladen is most famous for her role in Doctor Who as journalist and feminist Sarah Jane Smith, a role she actually only played for three years. I’ll admit that my main reason for reading this book was for the insider scoop on what it was like to work on the show, both in the seventies and in the noughties revival. She is, of course, the only (human) assistant to have appeared in both.

The book, of course, is not only about Doctor Who, although that does take up the majority of it. Lis discusses her previous work in the theatre, both behind and in front of the curtain, her marriage to Brian Miller, and the work she fell into after leaving Who.

I have never been hugely into biographies, although if I do read them, I only will read ones written by the people themselves. You never know what has been embellished, second-guessed or entirely made up by someone who wasn’t actually present at the time. Most of the autobiographies I have read have been from comedians – Peter Kay, Dawn French, Stephen Fry … I’ve got Miranda Hart’s sitting on the shelf awaiting reading – so it was interesting to read one that wasn’t going to be explicitly funny.

Lis writes with the most amazing warmth. On television, she seems such a nice person, although I know she’s acting. However, whenever I caught her in an interview, she seemed humble, warm and genuine. Her writing spills over with all of those qualities. While not afraid to discuss the people she didn’t like so much (there’s many a director or producer she didn’t get on with), she does it magnanimously, on a couple of occasions going so far as to not mention the person’s name, lest she offend someone. She says it wouldn’t be fair.

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My calm, collected, and I think wholly measured reaction to her death back in April 2011.

Perhaps the most interesting parts are, naturally, her relationships with the three Doctors she is most famous for working with: Jon Pertwee (3rd), Tom Baker (4th) and David Tennant (10th). Regarding Tennant, she says what most people already assumed – he is kind and sweet and “like an electrical storm”. Jon was the Doctor when she joined and their relationship flip-flops over the years, occasionally close as anything, yet occasionally distant and difficult. She candidly discusses a time when he slapped her – she gave back as good as she got – and another when, after her daughter was born, they didn’t speak for eight years.

She appears to have got on best with Tom, although states that they had little in common and rarely if ever saw one another outside of work. Lis is also surprisingly candid about her interest, or lack thereof, in the series, although she never denies that without it, her life would have been entirely different. She writes with a rare warmth and I would love to have been able to meet her. Her death was too sudden, and she was too young. The book was published after her death.

If you want to get a feel for what making television was like in the seventies, then this is a fascinating insight into that world. And if you are a Whovian of any degree, then this book is worth a go just to learn a few more secrets from the Whoniverse.

Sarah Jane Smith. The Doctor’s one true companion.

“The Wasp Factory” by Iain Banks (1984)

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wasp

Oh. Oh no.

“I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped.”

Despite what I’m doing here, I’m not one to read reviews, especially before having read a book. After I’ve finished one, I will spend some time seeing what other people thought of it, what they liked and if they thought the same as me. In particular, I do my best to avoid any reviews of people who make their money from reviewing. It seems to me that they also think it’s part of their job to insult and pick holes in whatever they’re reviewing, be it a book or a restaurant.

The Wasp Factory was given to me with the warning, “You have to read this. I can’t promise you’re going to like it, but it’s very memorable.” I realised not long after starting that there were actually some reviews in the front of the book, so I did a quick scan. And then read them all. Excerpts include:

“There is something foreign and nasty here.”

“Perhaps it is all a joke, meant to fool literary London into respect for rubbish.”

“There is nothing to force you … to read it; nor do I recommend it.”

“A repulsive piece of work.”

“The majority of the literate public … will be relieved that only reviewers are obliged to look at any of it.”

Basically, this is a book that seems so sure of itself that it is willing to fill the first three pages with negative reviews. Considering that Iain Banks (or Iain M. Banks as he is known to science fiction readers) is now considered one of the best writers of the last century. This was his debut novel, and there’s nothing like entering the scene with a crash, which is exactly what he did. The book was controversial at the time, and remains so now, nearly thirty years later.

The blurb alone warns you that this is not going to be a particularly happy read, telling as it does that the narrator has killed three people, and is just sixteen years old. These deaths are later played out in complete and gory detail within the story, although they are probably the parts that are easiest to read. If you are in the least bit squeamish, you shouldn’t even consider this book.

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Pictured: the novel’s most sympathetic character

There isn’t a likeable character in here, not one that you wouldn’t mind being stuck in a lift with for three hours (possible exception to be made for Jamie the dwarf). Frank, Eric and Angus are all lunatics, living on a secluded Scottish island, each wrapped in a cocoon of secrets, both against the outside world and each other. With twists you shouldn’t even try to second guess, the book, while disgusting and shocking, is one that keeps you going, although there are some chapters that shouldn’t be read over lunch, as I discovered to my own cost.

Frank is a keen abuser of animals, a trait he appears to share with Eric who, it is claimed, set fire to dogs before he was sent to a  mental institution. Dogs, however, are not the only animals here to find themselves getting the abuse. The titular wasps get it, as well as other various insects, rabbits, gulls, crows, hamsters, mice and even an adder.

If you enjoy being shocked, want to read the literary equivalent of a video nasty, and have a strong stomach and a mind capable of living with the knowledge of this book for the rest of your life, then by all means try this book. It isn’t bad, in fact, it’s very good, tightly constructed and well written, but I don’t feel I can properly recommend it out of a sense of duty.

If you aren’t into this sort of thing, then go and see Les Miserables again, and I’ll be back here when I’ve read something a little more innocent.

“Sorry” by Zoran Drvenkar (2009)

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“You’re surprised how easy it is to track her down.”

soz

Oddly enough, not a British comedy of manners

Joining the ranks of authors whose names I cannot pronounce (see also: Chbosky, Palahniuk, etc), comes Zoran Drvenkar, a Croation-born German writer with his translated-from-German novel Sorry. This thriller is one of several firsts for me. First book translated from German, first book by a German and, as far as I can recall, first book even set in Germany.

The translation doesn’t feel particularly translated, but I’m sure something is lost in the change as it usually is, so maybe if you do speak the language, go for the original copy. However, I only have the English one, so let’s have a look.

Sorry is the story of four friends – Kris, Tamara, Wolf and Frauke – who are all approaching their thirties and still seeking meaning in their life. After losing his job, Kris realises that no one seems to know how to apologise anymore, and so the four of them set up an agency whose job it is to do the apologising that other people find hard. If someone has been unfairly dismissed or wrongly accused, the company hires these guys to say sorry for them, usually accompanied by some kind of pay off.

However, it calls goes wrong when a certain call is placed. Wolf goes to the apartment where he is to be apologising only to find his client is nailed to the wall, long dead. The four become embroiled in an ethical battle and have to decide whether to call the police (and potentially incriminate themselves), leave and pretend they saw nothing, or follow the orders of the killer to remove and dispose of the body.

The narrative is completely unique, switching not only between the four agency members, the murderer and another mysterious figure, but also mixing first person, third person and even second person points of view. You, yes you, become part of the story and the whole thing works wonderfully to really drag you inside. The resulting novel has the effect that, for most of the time, you can never be totally sure who is who, or who is actually narrating. It keeps you going until everything unties itself and becomes clear in the most surprising manner towards the end.

This is a thriller, so it’s riddled with the usual cliches, but it gets away with them because of an intelligent premise, fully-rounded and likeable characters and snapshots of comedy, whether intentional or not. The book slips through time, telling the story out of chronological order, further adding to confusion as to which character is where, who’s really narrating and what the final outcome will be.

Some of the scenes are a little gory and described as such, but if you can stomach modern-day crucifixion and pedophilia, then by all means have at it. It’s also worth a go if you’re interested in different narrative structures and want to see how they can mix effectively, as well as giving an insight into the power second person viewpoints have.

And if that doesn’t sound like your sort of thing, then, well, sorry.

“Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend” by Matthew Green (2012)

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memoirs

Imaginary friend: not pictured

“Here is what I know: My name is Budo. I have been alive for five years.”

Despite the seemingly unique premise, this is not the first book I’ve ever read from the point of view of an imaginary friend. However, in the other one, the narrator’s identity as such was a twist (hence not giving the name here). This book offers that up on a plate.

This is the story of Budo, an imaginary friend who was brought into being five years ago by Max, an 8-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome (as I understand it – it is never explicitly addressed). Five years is a long time for an imaginary friend to stick around, so Budo is respected and revered by other imaginary friends he meets. Max has done a good job of imagining him, however, and he looks almost exactly like a teenage boy. Max is the only human who can see him and communicate with him, and Budo can have no contact with the outside world.

Budo is intelligent, but has limits. When born, he only knows what Max knows, but since he has been imagined older, he is able to learn things quicker. He understands people and the fact that they don’t always mean what they say, or can’t always be trusted. He has learned these things from watching Max’s parents and teachers when he wanders off. He can then pass this information onto Max.

It’s very hard to describe much of the plot without giving too much away, but the story all seems to be going in one direction before veering off wildly into another in a manner that works, but has you caught off-guard by a red herring. It’s a bit like how episodes of The Simpsons begin with one story only to drop it after five minutes and move onto another one.

Memoirs is much darker than I expected it to be, although it is very cleverly written. Because Budo effectively has the mental capacity of a small boy, he tells the story much as you imagine a child would. As someone who has never had much affection for child narrators (Alice and Lyra come immediately to mind), I found that this worked really well. You could only know what Budo knew, and he didn’t understand some of the things the adults were saying. There is a point, for example, when one of the teachers complains about the “damunion“, a term that Budo cannot understand. It took me a while to cotton on to the fact that she is referring to the teacher’s union: the “damn union“.

spoon

Would you like to play a game?

Budo is not the only imaginary friend in the story. Most children have one, but very rarely do they last anything like as long as Budo has. They are also all entirely unique, capable of doing only what their children have imagined they can do. For example, Budo has the ability to pass through doors and windows, but does not and cannot sleep. Others may be able to fly, or teleport. Some are less lucky and have been imagined without arms, or without the ability to speak. Most imaginary friends are fuzzy air from the waist down, and almost none of them have ears or eyebrows. There’s even one Budo meets who is just a large spoon with arms and legs. He’s called Spoon.

The book delves deep and explores one of the greatest fears of the modern world, and Budo too deals with something that has plagued humankind for generations – the thought of being ignored, left behind and forgotten. Having seen hundreds of imaginary friends come and go over the years, he seems consistently terrified that he will be next.

There is a beautiful observation in the novel about teachers, saying that some of them “teach school” and some of the “play school”, the latter being ones who just show up and do the job, but don’t really care about the children and are just doing it for the paypacket. We certainly need more of the former in schools today. I was lucky enough to have several of those during my education, and I’m forever grateful to them for making me who I am today.

The mythology of the imaginary friends is particularly brilliant. It is not a very well explored subject, so Green can take it wherever he likes. I love the idea that they are all unique and can communicate with one another. The idea that they cannot make contact with the human world is nice, makes sense and adds a level of complexity to the whole thing, as when Max gets in trouble, Budo can do nothing to help him out of it. There is a question mark over how the imaginary friends can pass on information to their imaginers that they could have absolutely no idea about, potentially giving the children almost psychic powers. I suppose though that when they said, “My imaginary friend told me” then it would simply be ignored.

If you loved The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, this book is definitely for you. If you simply want to discover something unique and meet a cast of quirky, delightful characters, then it’s also worth looking into. It might just change the way that you look at a few things.

“The Magicians” by Lev Grossman (2009)

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the magicians

Welcome to Hogwarts Brakebills

“Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.”

When J. K. Rowling was finishing up Harry Potter and wrapping the loose ends around one another, people began to get itchy for one more book. However, she said no and stated without any hesitation that there was not a wizarding university and that education ended at eighteen. We muttered a bit and said, “Well, OK then” and then carried on.

And then along came The Magicians by Lev Grossman, which is part “Harry Potter at university discovering sex and drugs” and part “Chronicles of Narnia with pissed-off rams”. Seriously, this is a flat out merge of two of the most famous fantasy worlds in the last sixty years. Except this is not a book for kids.

The Magicians tells the story of Quentin Coldwater, a very bright seventeen-year-old living in twenty-first century Brooklyn. He is fond of card and coin tricks, and secretly still obsessed with a series of books he read as a child called Fillory and Further by Christopher Plover, which are rather obviously the in-universe equivalent of C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Despite them being children’s books, Quentin has never got over their charm and still wishes he could enter the world of Fillory like the Chatwin siblings did, have adventures and be crowned king.

When we meet him, he is on the way to have an interview for Princeton University, but when he arrives he finds that the man who is supposed to be interviewing him is dead. While in shock, a paramedic tries to hand him a thick envelope with his name on. He takes it and before he can say “Dumbledore”, he has found himself sitting the entrance exam to a secret magical college somewhere in upstate New York.

The first half of the book then details his five years at the college, Brakebills, studying the rules of magic (it’s not all wand-waving and pseudo-Latin here; it’s deeply precise hand movements, words in every conceivable language and a knowledge of how to alter these things depending on your gender, age, how close you are to a body of water, etc, etc. As the book says, “Magic was a lot wonkier than Quentin thought it would be.”). In this world, magic is not easy – it is an exact science. At the school, however, he gathers a small clique – Eliot (the brainy but lazy alcoholic), Janet (the brusque, bossy one), Josh (not always a successful spellcaster) and Alice (the very powerful geek) – and they become as fully trained as they can.

hermy book

“There’s nothing in here about any of this.”

However, come graduation, they are flung back into the real world and find themselves living in magically hidden apartments in New York, struggling to find a purpose. And then one comes along – someone from their college days who thinks he may have found a way to magically travel inside Fillory, the land that had enchanted Quentin for so long…

The first of a trilogy, this is a great book, well-constructed and never one to get too bogged down in the details. Five years of college pass in two hundred pages and while part of me wanted to find out more about the subjects they study and the magic they learn, it still worked and I never found myself wanting it to hurry itself along. It’s quite tongue-in-cheek in places. It knows full well that it is mocking Narnia, dropping in mentions of the Fillory books having Christian overtones, and being about siblings becoming crowned in a world where, if they’re inside it, time doesn’t move outside.

It’s also very knowing about its references to Harry Potter, although curiously the books do seem to exist within the universe as they – as well as time-turners, Quidditch, Hermione Granger and even Grunnings – are mentioned by name. I think it might be touches like that that make the book work so well. It feels so solidly grounded in our universe. They are real people with real flaws, behaving in a way that one expects real magicians would behave. We all know that if we were really to give humans the ability to do magic, the planet wouldn’t last six minutes. These are some of the worst people to give the power to – they are very brainy, very lonely and very sad. Some of them want to forget, some of them want revenge. They have very human desires and wishes, and magic is just going to help them in their selfish exploits.

There are some beautiful, funny touches. The entrance exam is a particular favourite. All the papers are charmed so that if you try to cheat off someone, you won’t be able to see anything they’ve written and, it turns out, that everyone has done a different exam anyway. Questions on Quentin’s paper include basic calculus, the invention of a new language (and then the geography of the country where the language is spoken), and drawing a rabbit that won’t sit still.

The ending is not exactly unsatisfactory, but merely completely sets itself up for the sequel, which is something I will be hunting down. The third and final book is out later this year some time. All in all, if you enjoy flawed characters, urban fantasy and the thought of normal people discovering magic, or if you simply grew up on Harry Potter and still wish there was one more, this is absolutely worth a look.