“N Or M?” by Agatha Christie (1941)

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n or m“Tommy Beresford removed his overcoat in the hall of the flat.”

Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are unique in the Christie canon as they are the only protagonists she has that age in time with the real world. When we first met them, they were in their twenties and simply old friends. They turned up again a little later, now married. As it is, the world has now changed greatly, and so have our heroes. It’s 1940, war is upon us, and with two grown up children and middle age descending unwelcomingly over their lives, the pair are once again bored. The war effort doesn’t want them, and they need something to do.

And then a Mr Grant turns up and offers Tommy a job in Scotland, involving some top secret paperwork. Once Tuppence leaves, however, Grant changes this offer – Tommy is to go undercover in the search of Fifth Columnists on the south coast. Ashamed of having to hide the truth from Tuppence, he nonetheless heads off to the hotel Sans Souci to do his sleuthing. Upon arrival, he meets the various residents which include the ditzy young mother Mrs Sprot, fearsome Irishwoman Mrs O’Roarke, German refugee Carl von Deinim, blustering old soldier Major Bletchley and Tuppence Beresford.

As it turns out, little gets past her – she heard of the plans and beat Tommy down here to join in the search. Now under their guises of Mr Meadows and Mrs Blenkensop, they must investigate all the staff and residents of the Sans Souci, any of whom could be taking secrets from the British and sharing them with the Nazis. And after Tuppence overhears a phone call in the hotel, they soon find that they may be very quickly running out of time. They must find out the true identities of the mysterious N and M.

The five Tommy and Tuppence novels are different to the Christie fare, as I’ve said before and all other readers have noted. The focus is less on the whodunnit, and more on having adventures. These are spy novels; thrillers rather than the cosy crime we expect of Marple and Poirot. This doesn’t make them any less interesting, however. There is still a mystery element, but the action is fast-paced and the tropes of adventure are present.

Tommy remains solid and stalwart, but it is Tuppence who I prefer of the two. A heroine in her forties – a rare thing indeed, the only other one I could name right now is Thursday Next – but refusing to accept that women are weaker than men. In fact, the novel is packed with strong female characters. Tuppence doesn’t falter when the call comes, indeed, doesn’t even get the call but answers anyway. She is a wonderful creation.

The story has a few odd contrivances, such as a perfectly placed bar of soap, and a bizarre moment when someone communicates in Morse code via snoring. Still, you go with it, and you want the heroes to thrive. Like many Christie books (sadly), there is a touch of racism about the thing, but in this case it is fairly justified, the characters being English people during World War Two, who are naturally unfriendly towards the Germans. This makes Carl von Deinim the prime suspect, but surely that’s too easy, isn’t it? However, the book makes an acceptance that while the Nazis are deplorable, it is not all the German people. Tuppence feels pity for those German mothers who have lost their sons at war. Still, there’s a number of comments along the lines of describing people as having Prussian faces and distinctly un-British jawlines.

This is a great, fun book which plays with your expectations and keeps you hooked until the surprising conclusion. The Beresfords return again in By The Pricking Of My Thumbs, which will undoubtedly be on this blog before too long as well.

“Life After God” by Douglas Coupland (1994)

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life after God“I was driving you up to Prince George to the home of your grandfather, the golf wino.”

For centuries, religion and faith in an almighty were central factors of the way life worked. Church was important, prayer was necessary, and no one had come along yet that had really had a convincing enough alternative. However, over the last couple of hundred years, and in the last few decades in particular, things have changed. Society is less interested in organised religion and is more enthralled by blockbuster movies and bargain stores. So what happens to us in a world that is now run by Hollywood rather than the holy word? Coupland is back with a few short stories detailing some struggling people.

In these eight short stories, Coupland gives us a collection of nameless narrators, each struggling to cope with loss, loneliness and a lack of emotion. Many of them lament the loss of God from their lives, while others are simply struggling to come to terms with growing up and the modern experience. They’re all seeking out something they’ve lost, or simply trying to escape.

Stories cover a man whose wife has fallen out of love with him, a man lost in the desert trying to hide a stash of illegal steroids, a man who has found himself in a tent in the middle of the forest, and a whole group of people detailing where they were and what they were doing during the end of the world.

Like all of Coupland’s stuff, he’s right on the money with how the world works. He is phenomenally smart and can get some truly profound thoughts out that others can only dream of imagining. As I’ve quoted his work in my other reviews of his books, it would be a shame not to here as well, although narrowing the quotes down to just a few is nigh-on impossible.

“Sometimes you can’t realise you’re in a bad mood until someone else enters your orbit.”

“The only activities I could think of that humans do that have no other animal equivalent were smoking, body-building and writing. That’s not much, considering how special we seem to think we are.”

“…I realized that once people are broken in certain ways they can’t ever be fixed, and this is something nobody ever tells you when you are young, and it never fails to surprise you as you grow older, as you see the people in your life break one by one.”

While this isn’t my favourite Coupland – wasn’t after the first read and still isn’t now – it remains a beautiful, hopeful breath of air and is a vital part of his catalogue. If ever you feel that you life has lost its meaning, read this and you’ll immediately feel less alone.

“Sick Building” by Paul Magrs (2007)

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This is more than a tickly throat.

This is more than a tickly throat.

“She was running through the winter woods because death was at her heels.”

In my eyes, books are superior to films and TV in many ways, but one way in which their superiority is undeniable is the fact that books are not limited by budgets or special effects. While I love Doctor Who, you can’t deny that a huge number of episodes are set in early 21st century Britain, despite the fact that the entire premise of the show is that the Doctor has a machine that allows him to travel anywhere in time and space. This is why the Doctor Who novels are a great boon, as you can tell the stories that take place on other worlds and with very strange events without spending an extra penny on costumes or location scouting. However, unlike the show, the books are far more hit and miss with how well they’re executed.

In this novel, the Tenth Doctor and Martha Jones have arrived on Tiermann’s World, a planet in the distant future that is owned by one man who lives there with his wife and son surrounded by robot servants to do everything for them. They are, however, in trouble, as the planet is being consumed by a huge alien beast called a Voracious Craw, a tapeworm-like creature that is more mouth than anything else. It circles the planet and sucks up anything and everything into its maw. The Doctor and Martha intend to save the Tiermann family.

However, Ernest Tiermann is something of a madman, having build his perfect house, the Dreamhome, and encased it in force shields to protect him from the outside world. This won’t stop the Craw though, and they all know it. While trying to save the TARDIS, the Doctor is accused of damaging the force shields and consigned to Level Minus Thirty-Nine of the Dreamhome, where he becomes friends with a vending machine and a sunbed. (Yes, that’s right.) When it becomes clear that Tiermann is going to leave all his robots behind however, they and the sentient computer that runs the Dreamhome, the Domovoi, begin to plot their revenge.

So what did I like about this book? I liked the set up and the concept of a man being vain and rich enough to buy a whole planet and name it after himself. I liked the sheer strangeness of a vending machine and sunbed becoming central characters. I even quite liked some of the really dark stuff that’s going on here. But the list of things that disappointed me is far longer.

Martha had barely any page time at all and, aside from administering a little bit of medical assitance, she does next to nothing. The Doctor is at his most arrogant and adventurous, and with a new writer penning his story, the characterisation seemed a little off. Magrs appears to be trying to out-Doctor the Doctor. I mean, can you really imagine him stopping everything to sing the entire of “Bohemian Rhapsody” to a machine to calm it down? Problems are solved too quickly, there’s mention of all technology going haywire, and yet the TARDIS somehow remains completely unaffected, and distinctly Earth-like saber-toothed cats roam the wintry forests of the planet. And the method of saving themselves from the Vorarcious Craw, which is otherwise quite an interesting beast and concept, is downright stupid.

There are good Doctor Who books, just as there are bad episodes on the TV, but this one felt a touch forced. I’ll soldier on through the novels because sometimes I find a gem, but this wasn’t one. It had so much potential, but failed to completely live up to it.

“Horns” by Joe Hill (2010)

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Devilishly good...

Devilishly good…

“Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things.”

There are certain traits that are definitely genetic; eye colour, hair colour, that sort of thing. But then sometimes abilities or personalities get passed down through generations. The Redgrave family are all actors. Michael McIntyre’s dad was a comedian before him. And it turns out that Stephen King’s skill in the field of horror stories has been passed down to his son, Joe Hill.

I didn’t actually know that they were related until I was looking up the book just after having finished it a short while ago, but from the limited experience I have from King, I can say it hardly comes as a surprise.

This is the story of Ig Perrish who wakes up with a thundering hangover one morning to discover that he has grown a pair of horns in the night, frightful things of bone jutting out from his forehead. Speaking to his sort-of-girlfriend Glenna, he finds that she’s acting strange. Firstly she doesn’t even acknowledge the horns, and then she tells him that she wants to eat all the doughnuts in the box before her – would he mind if she did? It seems a bit odd, but convinced that things are wrong, Ig heads to the doctor’s surgery. There, more people beginning telling him secrets. A mother in the waiting room reveals her affair to him, a child declares arsonist tendencies, his doctor talks about wanting to sleep with his teenage daughter’s friend. They all seem to want his permission to do these things.

Ig heads to his parents house, desperate to see someone he loves, but worried that they’ll reveal more secrets. When he arrives, they do indeed pour out some secrets, first and foremost that they believe he was guilty of the rape and murder of his ex-girlfriend Merrin the previous year, something he was absolutely innocent of. However, his brother Terry has a slightly different confession: he knows who killed Merrin, and once Ig has the knowledge, the fires of Hell can’t hold him back from extracting his revenge.

Rarely have I read a book so incredibly immersive. Horns drags you in with jagged claws and holds your face to the flames as images pop up and you feel like you’re right there for every single page. Ig is an incredibly unlikely character to develop horns, having been someone always willing to help and unable to lie for the last quarter century, and this is what makes the changes in him so pronounced. The story jumps back and forth in time, detailing how Ig and Merrin met, how he became friends with the slimy Lee Tourneau, how Ig and Merrin eventually broke up and what he’s doing with himself now he has the horns and, apparently, the power to hear everyone’s darkest secrets.

There’s much in here about religion, about willpower and about sin, as well as copious references to songs and Christian mythology regarding the devil. Whether Ig has become the devil himself or merely one of his agents is never quite clear – in fact, a few things are a little unclear – but what is known is that he can now make people act on their vile urges, as well as control any snakes that happen to be nearby.

Ig is a lovely character who suffers greatly, even before the horns have appeared, although his suffering naturally gets worse from then on. Merrin is a fascinating girl who knows her own mind, but can perhaps be a little easily swayed on certain topics. The secondary characters – Lee, Terry, Eric, Glenna – are also an interesting patchwork, ranging from the truly despicable to the innocents dragged along through hellfire, well-meaning but perhaps stupid or just willing to follow whoever has the power. The chapter where Ig’s own family turn against him is torturous to read, as it’s almost impossible to imagine your parents thinking these things about you.

The book emphasises the fact that the devil is probably not actually the bad guy that we have painted him – he’s an anti-hero, rather than a villain. As Ig suggests at one point, if God hates sinners and Satan punishes sinners, surely they’re working for the same team? It also notes that the devil turns up in most religions as more of a trickster, or the one responsible for bringing life to the world. We may not always like his methods, but he does what he needs to do.

A dark book that is wholly graphic but thoroughly absorbing and will definitely haunt you once the final page is done with.

“The Ocean At The End Of The Lane” by Neil Gaiman (2013)

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Bring your trunks!

Bring your trunks!

“It was only a duckpond, out at the back of the farm.”

I’ve been contemplating joining a writer’s group for a while, if only to discuss ideas and get feedback on work in progress, but finding one locally has been a challenge. As it happens, however, I will be able to attend one nearby next week, one that is frequented by two good friends of mine. It then transpired that every other meeting is dedicated to a certain book, meaning the group is both a writer’s group and a book club. The meeting I’m attending – yep, book club. Had I read the book? No.

So, here we are. Neil Gaiman.

The paperback was cheaper than the hardback, but it only came out yesterday (yes, I’ve read this in two days) so I had to wait for it. That’s actually part of the reason I then got to finish Jane Eyre – to have something to potter through until it arrived. Gaiman is an author I love, and while I knew that this book had had great reviews and been universally applauded, I was in no real hurry to get hold of it – until circumstances changed, obviously. So, am I just going to join the masses and say what a great book this is? Yeah, pretty much.

The book opens with the nameless narrator escaping a funeral and heading down to the place his childhood house was. He continues down the lane and finds the farmhouse that sits at the end of it, and begins to wonder if the young girl he knew back when he was seven, Lettie Hempstock, is still there. He instead finds an old woman and he asks to go and see the pond in the back garden, a pond that Lettie claimed was an ocean. As he remembers this, he recalls that Lettie said she – along with her mother and grandmother – arrived from across this ocean, and then more and more memories begin to pour from him…

The narrative flies back forty-odd years to when the narrator was seven years old, and tells the story of how he met Lettie Hempstock, a curious girl who was apparently eleven, but had been for a very long time. His story begins to unfold, talking about his kitten, and the opal miner, and then the visit to Lettie’s house, where she introduces him to a world unlike any he’s ever known. While doing battle with a strange creature from another universe, something happens and he returns with a hole in his foot. There’s something inside that hole, and pulling it out won’t end the horror. That’s when Ursula Monkton turns up, and everything for the narrator begins to go wrong.

As magical as we’ve come to expect from Gaiman, he takes the fantastical and makes it almost mundane. He appreciates that children are far more accepting of things than adults are – the narrator notes that most of the time he tells the truth, people think he’s lying, so why would they believe that his nanny is a creature from another space and time – and more willing to take things in their stride, unaware of their own morality. Everyone thinks they’re immortal at seven.

Predominately, however, it is a book about memory. Memory continually fluctuates, changing depending on what else happens in our lives. As Old Mrs Hempstock says, you’ll never get two people to agree about anything, not entirely. The magical women in the old farmhouse at the end of the lane – Lettie, Ginnie and Old Mrs Hempstock – are wonderful creatures, a tad menacing given that their powers are totally unexplained, but they have nothing but affection for the narrator and are only really seen to use their powers for good, despite them being capable of things few could imagine, such as summoning creatures from other places, and stitching and sewing time to remove bad patches.

There are some wonderful moments, and some deeply disturbing ones. A scene that sticks out is when the narrator dreams that he’s choking on something, only to wake up and find a shilling in his throat. He begins to doubt what is real and what isn’t. He’s not afraid to ask questions, even if he doesn’t always get answers from them.

The ending is, without question, a little surprising, but it absolutely works and Gaiman has once again done truly marvellous things with that powerhouse he calls an imagination. It’s a quick read, but it’s beautiful and might make you think about how clearly you remember some things from your youth…

“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë (1847)

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The Eyre affair...

The Eyre affair…

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

Last year, I embarked on the task of reading Jane Eyre. It was November, and since I was taking part in NaNoWriMo at the time, I figured that a (potentially) dull book would almost force me to spend time writing rather than reading. As it was, I got to a point nearly three weeks into the month and was only halfway through the book.

I gave up.

Then I had a spare week this month (I’m awaiting a book for a book club, more on that later, I’m sure) so I thought I’d read a few more chapters of this and get closer to the ending. As it was, I managed to fight my way through it a good deal quicker and have now finished it. Yes chaps, in a combined twenty-four days (the longest time it’s taken me to read a book since, I think, Stephen Baxter’s Evolution) and with a good deal of patience, I have completed another classic novel – something I don’t do very often.

I suppose I chose Jane Eyre because one of my favourite books is Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, which is well worth a read and is the story of what happens when Jane is kidnapped from the novel. Because it focuses rather a lot on the climax of the original novel, I knew what was going to happen, and maybe that is what caused the book to drag from time to time. Anyway, on with the review proper.

Miss Jane Eyre is an orphan, forced to live with a family who do not care for her; a nasty aunt Mrs Reed, and cousins who are mean to her and not chastised for being so. Jane has a sharp tongue and a temper she cannot always control, thus making her something of an outsider and not at all what girls of her age should become. She is soon shipped off to Lowood, a charity school run by the nasty Brocklehurst where, while the situation is often miserable, she meets good friends and learns much. After teaching there for a couple of years once her studies are over, she accepts a governess position for a young girl called Adele at Thornfield Hall.

Arriving, she finds that the master of the house is absent, but the other servants and housekeepers make her feel at home, and she carries on with Adele, spending time with her and helping her with her lessons. Soon, the mysterious Mr Rochester does indeed make an appearance, and while he’s grumpy and ugly, she is curious about him and finds herself attracted to this strange man. He, however, seems more intend on marrying bimbo Blance Ingram. That is, until Jane saves his life from an unexplained fire that nearly kills him. He claims the fire was started by servant Grace Poole, but he doesn’t sack her. Jane becomes convinced that there is something going on at Thornfield that she doesn’t know about, but no one will tell her what it is.

However, Rochester has now fallen for Jane and proposes. She accepts but on the day they come to be married, a lawyer turns up with an objection to the wedding. As everything comes crashing down around them and secrets and skeletons pour from the closets and the attics, it seems that Jane will never be happy…

What I found most surprising about this book is simply that it’s actually very good. I’m biased towards the classics, usually scorning them, but this is definitely one that has a right to last. That was partly why I wanted to finish it, because it’s a story I wanted to hear. The difficult bit comes with the language, which is frequently dense. I like to devour books, but this was like eating a whole deer raw with a fish knife. But despite its age and the language, there’s something incredibly modern about it.

Jane is not a woman content to sit around and wait for a husband and do the bidding of whatever man crosses her path. She is unafraid to shout at Rochester or others and tell them what she really thinks, arguing that they are equals, despite their gender. Jane is determined to make her own place in the world and not defer to a man. She will marry who and when she wants, not just because someone tells her it is time. Men continually try to establish dominance over her, and fail every time.

It may well be full of Biblical allusions that I don’t get, and Brontë might well take three hundred words to say what could be said in three, but despite it all, I absolutely did not hate the book. The story is excellent, compelling and a bit strange (not least the bit where Rochester disguises himself as a gypsy woman in order to entice secrets from Jane), with hints of the supernatural about it. It was also interesting to read having read the aforementioned The Eyre Affair, which turns this novel on its head. (Think of it as how The Wizard of Oz appears different after you’ve read or seen Wicked.) The emotions are raw and real, both Jane and Rochester are fascinating and likeable characters, and while the pace is occasionally slow, there’s something here that keeps you plowing on, even if not all in one go.

While I’m still not in favour of all the classics, this one has definitely been awarded a new fan.

“Glaciers” by Alexis M. Smith (2012)

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glaciers“Isabel often thinks of Amsterdam, though she has never been there, and probably will never go.”

Some stories take place over extensive periods of time. Some, however, need just one day. Glaciers is such a book, detailing a day in the life of Isabel, a small-town girl from the frozen heart of Alaska.

These are the events of a single day in her quiet, easy life, in which she goes to work, goes shopping, has lunch and attends a party. In that time, she discovers that the man she has fallen for at work, Spoke, has been called back into military service and will be leaving her small team at the library the next day. With just hours left with him, she is determined to do something, although she may not be sure what.

Set against the backdrop of melancholic memories, and bittersweet thoughts of times gone by, the reader is taken by the hand and led into Isabel’s inner thoughts and a story of longing. She is a young woman obsessed with old things, enjoying vintage clothes and holding on tight to photographs and letters from people she never knew. A pivotal scene involves her trying on a vintage dress, and is described in such simplistic beauty that even I fell in love with it.

Some authors write books like oil paintings, others like pop art, and then there’s Stephanie Meyer who does potato printing. Smith, however, has managed to produce a watercolour with delicate brushstrokes and intelligent language that means not a single word is wasted in the short book. It’s worth taking an afternoon out to breeze through this sweet novella and while, in all honesty, I’ll probably have forgotten much about it in a year’s time, it definitely has a wonderful charm.

“The Rules Of Attraction” by Bret Easton Ellis (1987)

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There are no rules...

There are no rules…

“and it’s a story that might bore you but you don’t have to listen, she told me, because she always knew it was going to be like that…”

So far this year, I have travelled via book to the Middle East, the sewers of London, dangerous foreign planets and ancient Scandinavia, but is there really any spot as terrifying as an American university in the 1980s? That’s the location for Bret Easton Ellis’s zeitgeist-y novel, The Rules of Attraction. Everyone has vaguely heard of Ellis, if only for American Psycho, and I’d looked at getting one of his books for some time. When my birthday approached I gave a list of books to my friends the teacher and the psychologist; generally those that my mother was unlikely to want to buy me. This one came from the teacher.

Attraction is about, at its core, horrible people doing horrible things to one another, and not much caring about the consequences. However, there’s far more too it than all of that. There are three main characters. Sean is, or at least thinks of himself, as being too cool for anything that’s going on around him, will sleep with anything with a pulse and later falls in love with Lauren when they start dating. Lauren is pining after her boyfriend Victor and dates Sean just to pass the time between waiting for her boyfriend to return and changing her major again and again. Finally, Paul, who is an openly bisexual guy who used to date Lauren and is now sleeping with Sean. Their love triangle is fuelled mostly by cocaine and beer, and their strange/strained relationships get mixed up with everyone else’s.

Many parts of the story are left ambigious for the reader to interpret how they want. For example, Paul’s narration is full of stories of his sexual exploits with Sean, declaring how strongly they seem to feel for one another, but in Sean’s chapters, he never mentions so much as even kissing Paul. Is all of it in Paul’s head, or is Sean just carefully selecting what he wants to tell us? At the same time, Sean seems in love with Lauren and says how much she enjoys their sex, but when it’s Lauren’s turn to talk, she’s far less impressed. And even Lauren and Victor – in his few brief chapters – have entirely different stances on what their relationship actually is.

The novel deals with many huge topics such as suicide, drugs (from weed through to meth), violence, divorce and abortion. The characters are generally unpleasant, almost all of them out to help themselves and make sure that they come out on top of any situation that they end up in. They treat these issues with contempt and, occasionally, humour.

Ellis writes with smart style, each character very much having their own voice so you can immediately tell without looking if it’s Sean, Lauren or Paul speaking. Even the more minor characters who occasionally get their own chapters have an individual voice. The most unique is Bertrand, Sean’s French roommate who has a chapter written entirely in French. Given that I don’t speak French, I had to skip this, although I have since found translations for it online. Apparently a number of the characters appear earlier and later in Ellis’ other novels, and Sean is actually the brother of American Psycho‘s killer Patrick Bateman. Lauren and Victor appear as the main characters in later novel Glamdrama, and minor character Clay is apparently the main figure from his first novel, Less Than Zero.

While the people involved may all be vile to various degrees (Paul is probably the most sympathetic, but that’s not by much), it’s an engaging and quick read as you watch these young men and women, presumably with some intelligence about them, crash and burn. They’re living in a world where money is everything, drugs are abundant and the future looks uncertain, so maybe you can excuse them some of their behaviour. Then again, maybe not. I guess it boils down once again to the fact that we always want what we can’t have, and how much that hurts or annoys us.

The novel begins and ends mid-sentence, implying the endlessness of student futility as people make the same mistakes again and again. Few questions are properly answered, but somehow this is still satisfying, as how much do we really know about everything that goes on around us?