“Madness” by Roald Dahl (1944-1977)

Leave a comment

“Louisa, holding a dishcloth in her hand, stepped out the kitchen door at the back of the house into the cool October sunshine.”

Roald Dahl is best known for his subversive and dark children’s novels like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and The Witches, populated usually by useless and abusive adults and children who were always capable of outwitting them. Far fewer people are aware, however, that he also wrote extensively for adults. This is the first time I’ve ever delved into his adult work and, unsurprisingly, it’s quite dark. Yet, it’s still somehow not quite as dark as some of his more familiar works. Here’s the collection Madness.

Each story features someone who has gone a bit mad in one way or another. The opening story, “Edward the Conqueror” tells us of a woman who rescues a cat that she’s convinced is the reincarnation of Franz Liszt and her husband who is jealous of all the affection the cat is now receiving. “The Landlady” is a quick tale of a woman running a B&B who doesn’t seem to ever want her guests to leave. “William and Mary” is the story of a man who dies of cancer but has his brain (and eye) kept alive by a scientist friend while the rest of the body is peeled away, and the reactions of his widow. These are not stories for the especially faint of heart.

The story “Pig” is actually probably the one that most felt like the Dahl I knew, and yet is also probably the darkest of the lot. In it, we find a young boy called Lexington who is raised by an elderly aunt to be a vegetarian. After her death, he makes a visit to New York for the first time where he tastes pork and declares it to be the finest food he’s ever eaten. In his desperation to get more and learn how it is cooked, he is very quickly led astray. Despite the content, the tone is very light and breezy.

I was less taken with the stories “Katina” (set in Greece during the Second World War) and “Dip in the Pool” (set aboard a cruise ship), although both were still compelling enough to hold my attention. Like sketch shows though, short story collections can always be a bit hit-or-miss, and these come from throughout Dahl’s career. Still, it’s been an interesting look at insanity from the minds of one of the oddest writers the planet produced. I have a funny feeling I’ll be buying up the other collections too.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

 

Advertisements

“Curtain” by Agatha Christie (1975)

1 Comment

The end of an era…

“Who is there who has not felt a sudden startled pang at reliving an old experience, or feeling an old emotion?”

The exact date I first picked up an Agatha Christie novel is lost to me now; it was before I had started recording everything I read. 2009, most likely, as I was just finishing university and it was a lecture there that had inspired me to finally pick up one of her novels. It was Death in the Clouds, and I was hooked from the very first moment.

The world has changed since then, but my admiration and love for Christie and her work has only grown. I’m feeling very sentimental today because with this review, I have reached an end – having finished Curtain, I have now read all of her mysteries. Curtain is particularly notable. She wrote it during the Second World War, to be published in case she was killed during the war. She survived, but the book stayed locked in a safe until the 1970s. It was finally revealed to the world and told everyone how the story of Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings ended. She died a year later.

In this novel, the setting is a familiar one to her fans. It is set in the country house of Styles, which was the key location in her very first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which is now a boarding house. Hastings has been summoned to visit his dearest friend, Poirot. The famous Belgian, however, is not in a good way. Confined to a wheelchair, crippled with arthritis, and prone to heart problems, he is nearing the end of his life. Poirot, however, notes that all his little grey cells are still in tact, and has one final mission – he is at Styles to prevent another murder, as one of the other guests seems to be something of a serial killer. Hastings is employed as the detective’s eyes and ears, to study the residents and work out not only who the killer is, but who is going to be the next victim.

It’s a mixed bunch, as is usual for a Christie novel, including the Luttrells, the old couple who now run Styles and are usually bickering; the quiet birdwatcher Stephen Norton; researcher Dr Franklin and his hypochondriac wife; Hastings’ own daughter, the headstrong Judith; and Mrs Franklin’s nurse, the no-nonsense Nurse Craven. Poirot claims to know who the killer will be, but decides it is safer if Hastings isn’t told. The two must try and prevent another murder from happening, but an accident changes everything, and now they’re all definitely running out of time…

The plot is all we’ve come to expect from the Queen of Crime, but even more so. It has apparently been a long time since Hastings and Poirot have seen one another, and indeed, the readers hadn’t seen Hastings for quite some time now. It is wonderful to have him back, as he is easily one of the most charming and well-bred men in fiction, and such a sweet modest fellow compared to the arrogance of Poirot. The characters are all finely realised and it’s tragic to see Poirot in the state he’s in. The solution is inspired – I was wrong, as ever – and provides an utterly incredible end to the series. Given that the books Christie wrote towards the end of her life were, it’s fair to say, not her finest, it’s a thrill to get a snatch again here for her at the height of her powers. There will never be another like her.

It’s not really the end, of course. I’ve not read her romance novels, or her poems. There are still plays to see, adaptations to get hold of, and her autobiography still sits on my shelf awaiting consumption. But the mystery novels are at the core of who Christie was and the work she did. I’ve finished now, and I know for a fact that this isn’t the end – I’m coming back. They’re not all recorded on the blog for a start! You can only do these things for the first time once, though, and this has been an incredible journey.

So, as I say my goodbyes to the worlds that Agatha Christie created, I raise a glass to Harley Quin and Mr Satterthwaite; to Mr Parker Pyne; to Ariadne Oliver; to Miss Lemon, George, and Inspector Japp; to Superintendent Battle, and Colonel Race; to Tommy, and to Tuppence; to Captain Hastings; to Miss Marple; to Hercule Poirot; and, of course, to Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie herself. This has been the adventure of a lifetime, and to quote Poirot himself: “They were good days. Yes, they have been good days…

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Red House Mystery” by A. A. Milne (1922)

Leave a comment

“In the drowsy heat of the summer afternoon the Red House was taking its siesta.”

A. A. Milne, despite all his work as a playwright, poet, comedic journalist and soldier, is these days remembered primarily for just one thing: Winnie the Pooh. His life story, or at least the part focused around Pooh, featured heavily in the recent film Goodbye Christopher Robin. It is therefore easy for many these days to assume that that was all he did. However, four years before a certain bear of very little brain wandered into our hearts, Milne created an entirely different story, set a long way away in space and substance from the adventures in the Hundred Acre Woods. This is Milne’s only foray into the world of mystery writing.

The Red House Mystery opens with the servants of the titular property discussing their master, Mark Ablett. It seems he’s just received a letter that his ne’er-do-well brother Robert has returned from Australia and is coming to see him that afternoon. Not long after the arrival of Robert, however, a gunshot is heard from somewhere in the house.

Antony Gillingham, a stranger in these parts, has got off at the village train station on a whim, upon learning that his old friend Bill is staying at the Red House. He arrives just as Mark’s friend and manservant Cayley is struggling to get into the house to learn who has died. Robert is dead on the floor, and Mark has gone missing. The police speak to the servants and the guests who had been staying at the house, and the latter are bundled off quickly when it transpires they were all off playing golf. Bill, however, stays on to keep Antony company, as the newcomer has decided to take on the role of Sherlock Holmes and needs a Watson. Without telling the police, the pair set about solving the murder themselves…

The novel is filled with most of the trappings of the classic crime story. There are secret passages, missing keys, a dredged lake … and yet what’s really missing are suspects. From the off, it seems there are very few people who could possibly have committed the crime, so quite quickly it stops being a “whodunnit” and instead a “howdunnit”. That’s not necessarily a complaint, as they can be just as engaging.

I did find the character in the Sherlock role, Antony, to be faintly unbelievable though. His guesses are always correct, never mind how flimsy the evidence that points him to a conclusion. While with Sherlock Holmes himself, you sort of accept it as he’s been training himself for years on how to be the world’s greatest detective, but Antony is by his own admission an amateur, so some of his leaps of faith are a bit of a stretch. Still, it’s entertaining enough that I didn’t mind too much. The characters are funny, and there’s definitely the occasional burst of the kind of wit and humour that Milne used to great effect in his time with Punch, and while writing Winnie the Pooh.

Alexander Woolcott noted that this novel was “one of the three best mystery stories of all time”, but I think he’s being rather too generous on that front. It has its place, certainly, and Milne can happily be counted among the authors of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, but if you ask me, it is right that we remember Winnie the Pooh over this. I don’t anyone would really disagree.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“No-One Ever Has Sex On A Tuesday” by Tracy Bloom (2014)

Leave a comment

(Incorrect.)

“There are those who get to choose the father of their child and those who don’t.”

It’s easy to be conned into buying a book if it’s got a silly title. There was something weirdly captivating about this one. I even ignored the unusual grammatical choice, but that alone should have clued me in to the fact that I was about to embark on something ludicrous. If Bridget Jones’s Diary is the Waitrose of this genre, then No-One Ever Has Sex on a Tuesday is Lidl.

Our heroine, Katy Chapman (the budget Bridget), is in something of a pickle. She’s pregnant, and she’s pretty sure that the father is her casual boyfriend Ben, who is a bit of a lad and eight years younger than her. However, there’s a slim chance that the father could be Matthew, her teenage ex who she had a one night stand with at a school reunion. After that incident, they vowed not to see one another again, but when they both turn up in the same antenatal class, they have to face facts.

Katy tries to keep their former dalliance a secret from Ben, while Matthew attempts the same with his wife Alison, who is now pregnant after a long time struggling with fertility issues. Secrets, of course, do not stay hidden in literature, and soon the truth begins to spill out as the births get nearer, with potentially disastrous consequences.

So, we’re supposed to be on the side of Katy, but from the moment she sleeps with Matthew behind Ben’s back, my sympathy for her vanished. She spends the rest of the novel hoping that her secret is contained, but it feels like something too big to be swept under the rug. She is selfish and doesn’t seem to give much thought to anyone else’s feelings, least of all Ben or Alison. Matthew, in turn, is somewhat misogynistic and while at first he’s determined not to ruin his stability with Alison, by the end he’s all but ready to drop Alison and believes that Katy wants him back immediately. He can’t understand that times have changed and he was other responsibilities now.

This is to say nothing of the supporting cast. Ben is so wrapped up in his own feelings that he absconds on a stag do instead of being with his girlfriend. The character of Daniel, Katy’s best friend, is a walking stereotype and almost offensive in the portrayal of gay men, with his dialogue so camp it may as well be written in pink glitter. He, too, is far too concerned with how the birth will affect him, despite him really having no part in it whatsoever. He also throws the most inappropriate baby shower in history. Alison is perhaps the only character I have even a smidgen of sympathy for as she has apparently no clue all this drama is going on around her, but even she’s not an especially pleasant person.

The plot is relatively straightforward and doesn’t meander too much, but there’s a lot of emphasis on how funny everyone is being, and how hilarious their pranks and jokes are. If you have to signpost the humour, then it’s not there. There’s also the “hysterical” character known only as Braindead, who is supposedly Ben’s comic foil, and so stupid it’s apparently a wonder he manages to get out of bed in the morning without suffocating himself with the pillow. There are some very staged scenes where trivial things have to happen to move the story along, such as when Matthew spills coffee on himself in front of Ben, and has to remove his shirt, thus revealing that he has the same tattoo on his hip as Katy.

Ultimately, the book struggles under its own delusions of being much funnier and more original than it really is. The writing itself is fine, but the humour is forced and there isn’t a single person here I’d go out of my way to save from walking into traffic. And yet, inexplicably, there are over 1,000 five-star reviews of the book on Amazon. Since the sequel has less than 100 reviews in total, I sense something afoot here, but that may just be in my head.

I’m not disparaging “chick lit”, as I think there’s quite a lot of it that’s very good, but this isn’t one to go for. Lisa Jewell, Alexandra Potter and Veronica Henry would all serve you better. I’m not carrying on with this series.

If dystopian fiction is your thing, I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over two-thirds of the way funded – we’re nearly there! – and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Goddess Of Buttercups And Daisies” by Martin Millar (2015)

1 Comment

“The agora was always busy.”

If I was ever to acquire a time machine, I’d head straight back to Ancient Greece. It’s not that I’m particularly interested in the country now even, I just really love so much of what I read about the place. Most of that, granted, is the myths, monsters and gods, all of which – we assume – didn’t actually exist, which is a shame. Nonetheless, it’s always a pleasure to dive back into that world now and again, so I did.

Playwright Aristophanes is panicking. He’s lost the funding for his next big comic play, the props aren’t funny enough, and he’s constantly being pestered by Luxos, the self-proclaimed best lyric poet in Athens. The fact that Athens has been at war with Sparta for years isn’t helping matters, but Aristophanes is convinced that his play will help change people’s minds and bring about peace. But he wasn’t counting on Laet, a goddess of strife and discord. When she enters a room, everyone in it immediately makes the worst possible decision, and it’s tearing Athens apart.

Athena, the city’s goddess, sends the Amazon Bremusa down to Athens to hunt down Laet and scare her off. She enlists Metris, a permanently happy water nymph who claims to have inherited her mother’s powers to restore happiness and order to nasty situations. However, when it turns out that the only power she actually has is to make buttercups and daisies grow wherever she walks, the problem suddenly doesn’t look so easy to solve.

Will Luxos ever get an audience for his poems? Can Aristophanes ensure his play is a hit and win first prize at the Dionysia festival? And can Metris and Bremusa save the day, without getting distracted by such mundane trivialities as love and revenge?

The novel is a blend of reality and fiction. Aristophanes was a real playwright and the play he’s putting on, Peace, really does exist and is still occasionally performed. In turn, Athena was, of course, really one of the gods, and Bremusa was one of the Amazon women. However, other characters have been inserted into the narrative that are of Millar’s own creation, including Luxos the poet and Metris, the titular goddess.

What Millar does well, though, is to seamlessly blend the mortal world and that of the gods and divine beings together so that they exist in perfect harmony. My favourite thing about the Greek gods has always been that they were so petty and so human in their flaws, meaning that when they meet, real narrative magic happens. In this novel, as in many set at the time, the gods are taken as fact, and indeed few people are ever truly surprised to learn of a deity or nymph walking among them. They have some interesting powers, and are probably the most engaging characters in the book, but that might just be me and my love of mythology. Some of the human characters, particularly Aristophanes and Luxos, are fun too, but most others don’t get enough page time to be fleshed out particularly.

It’s quite funny in places, but a very broad humour.However, Greek humour was broad – much is made of the fact that the play will be deemed a failure if the comedy penises aren’t big enough – so the style fits the era.  It’s also a comment on satire, with Aristophanes’ plays mocking important figures of the time like an ancient Dead Ringers. A jolly little book, worth spending an afternoon with.

If dystopian fiction is your thing, I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over two-thirds of the way funded – we’re nearly there! – and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Death Of Grass” by John Christopher (1956)

Leave a comment

“As sometimes happens, death healed a family breach.”

For all my love of city breaks and wandering around London, I’m a child of the countryside through and through. Last time I was working in a London office for a few weeks, it was only a matter of days before I had to escape for my lunch break to the nearest green space to sit on some spongy turf. (Mint Street Park, incidentally, is charming.) My hometown is surrounded by field, forest and farm, and it’s great. So the idea of living in a world suddenly that lacked so much greenery feels like one of the worst dystopian scenarios available. Despite me promise to myself that I’d stop reading dystopian fiction until we stopped living in one, I found myself this weekend engaged in John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, a sort of distant cousin to The Day of the Triffids.

John and David Custance have lived very different lives. While David inherited the family farm and concerned himself solely with growing crops and raising livestock, John adopted a more sedate and comfortable life in London, working as an engineer. Both, however, are troubled by the news from Asia. A virus has caused the rice harvest to fail, and massive swathes of the continent are now starving and suffering from near-total anarchy. The rest of the world is working on a cure, but everyone’s quietly convinced that something like that could never happen in the West.

But soon the virus mutates and now is taking out all grasses, from lawns to wheat, barley and rye. With enormous food shortages across the whole world, there soon comes the discovery that the government have been lying: there is no cure for the virus. The Prime Minister is rumoured to be arranging a plan to drop atom bombs on the UK’s major cities, leaving a smaller population to feed on whatever root vegetables and fish can be harvested, but panic sets in before that, and soon anarchy finds its way to British shores too. John rounds him his family and friends, and a couple of other stragglers, and they set off on a cross-country journey to his brother’s farm, where they hope they will find salvation. They just have to make sure they don’t lose their humanity along the way.

John Christopher (real name Sam Youd) has created here a terrifying world. While the virus is what causes all of the problems, it’s fair to say that the real villain here are humans themselves. As soon as word leaks out that there’s no hope, everyone begins to change. John takes the lead of his group and becomes almost fixated by his role of “tribal chief”. He quickly becomes harsher and more stubborn. His friend, Roger, who has always been very jovial and unable to take much seriously, seems to be sobered up quickly by the events. His sense of humour can’t cope with this new world. Even Ann, John’s wife, changes and becomes unafraid to wield a weapon.

Hands down, though, creepiest character is Henry Pirrie. He’s an older man, a gunsmith, who joins the group with his wife because he knows how to use weapons better than any of them. He is, however, more cunning than they first realise, and uses the new lawless state as an excuse to fulfill his fantasies. He’s deeply unpleasant, but John appears unable to be able to do away with him. Perhaps the most tragic figures are the children, who seem so full of life but the reader knows that there is unlikely to be a happy ending.

The science behind a lot of it seems sound to me. The rise of monocultures and pesticides have led to this virus being able to spread and mutate easily. It does make one wonder whether we’d be able to halt something like this before it got out of hand. The only science that seems particularly dated is the use of atom bombs to destroy the cities. While I understand, theoretically, that a smaller population would find it easier to survive than a large one, it does beg the question: did no one consider that the nuclear fallout would render the entire country sterile anyway?

When the Financial Times reviewed the book (I didn’t know they did that), they said, “of all fiction’s apocalypses, this is one of the most haunting” and I really have to agree. Aliens, zombies and nuclear weapons may be scary, but there’s something insidiously terrifying about this one. I think it’s the speed at which society collapses (an issue I deal with in my second novel, see below) and how soon people are willing to turn on one another. The fact that something like this has already begun to happen – a fungus called Ug99 has been spreading around wheat fields in Africa and the Indian subcontient since 1999 – only makes the whole thing even more unnerving. Brilliant, shocking, and maybe a little too prescient for comfort.

If dystopian fiction is your thing, I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over two-thirds of the way funded – we’re nearly there! – and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

FILM: “Murder On The Orient Express”

1 Comment

“My name is Hercule Poirot, and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.”

Trains. Humans have invented all sorts of ways to move themselves around quicker than by foot, but there is something oddly captivating about a train. In the real world, we have such famous vehicles as the Mallard, and the Flying Scotsman. In fiction, there’s the Hogwarts Express, the Ada Lovelace, and who could forget Thomas the Tank Engine? But there is, to my mind, just one train that hangs large in both the fictional world and our own. And as a Christie fan of the highest order, as regular readers of my blog will know, there was no way I was going to let this film pass without a review. Ladies and gentlemen, please, all aboard, the Orient Express.

For the few who don’t know, this story takes place aboard the Orient Express, a luxurious train that, for over a hundred years, ran travellers – usually wealthy ones – from Istanbul to London across Europe. On this particular journey, Hercule Poirot finds himself aboard with a number of passengers, all of whom seem to be keeping something quiet.

Along the journey, an avalanche derails the train and everyone is stuck in the middle of the mountains until rescue comes. To make matters worse, one of the passengers has been murdered. The stabbed body is surrounded by potential clues, and with Poirot on board, it seems inevitable that the moving finger will soon settle on the killer. But, the eternal question remains – whodunnit?

I’ll start positive. The film perfectly captures the lavishness and wealth of Poirot’s world. Christie almost never put him anywhere unsuitable, and he was forever found only in the most sumptuous surroundings, be they trains, boats or country houses. The Orient Express was the last word in luxury, and the beautiful scenery and set design of this film helps cement that. There are also some interesting directorial decisions made. The discovery and study of the body is filmed entirely from overhead. The film makes great use of the train’s length and the glass panels throughout the carriages. While in the novel, the drama takes place almost exclusively inside the train, here we venture off a couple of times, with each character questioned in different surroundings, leading to everyone lined up at a table in the snow like the Last Supper when the reveal occurs. Since the reveal is one of literature’s worst kept secrets, the real magic here lies in seeing how Poirot will solve it, rather than who is responsible. I will not, however, be revealing the ending here.

The characters are great, too, and while some don’t get quite enough screen time, everyone is pulling out the stops and many chew the scenery like there wasn’t time for lunch. Branagh, as Poirot, is still a decision I’ll never understand. The film industry apparently stopped saying “no” to him a long time ago. I like Branagh, he’s talented, but talent can only go so far and doesn’t mean you can play anyone.

Which leads me nicely onto my few very crucial complaints regarding the plot.

Firstly, Poirot is not an action hero. He does not run after criminals, and he does not engage first-hand in dangerous activities. He has never had a romantic relationship, and if he has, it is none of our concern and has no bearing on the plot. He is not as young as Branagh is playing him, and actually, whatever Christie herself said regarding the moustache, it does not look like that. It’s incredibly distracting.

Perhaps we were spoiled with David Suchet in the role for so long, but he provides, to me and many others, the pinnacle of a Poirot performance. Here, Branagh is not suited to the role. It’s a shame, because around him every single other member of the cast shines. The cream of the acting world is riding this train, including Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman, Michelle Pfeiffer and Leslie Odom Jr. I confess that seeing everyone arrive one by one did give me slight goosebumps.

It’s not a terrible film. It’s beautiful, and Christie’s original, wonderful plot is still in place, but it lacks something. I was quite happy to accept it as a one-off, but I shouldn’t have been surprised when the ending provided a sequel hook. Of course this’ll be run into the ground all the while it can make money. But all the luxury of a stunning train and all the wise deductions of a mustachioed Belgian can’t quite save it. I’m sure the film will do well, and I hope it introduces more people to Christie’s amazing novels, but Branagh is not and never will be Poirot, and I’m afraid I’m finding it hard to look past the facial hair.

#NotMyPoirot

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over two-thirds of the way funded – we’re nearly there! – and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

Older Entries