“The Big Four” by Agatha Christie (1927)

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“I have met people who enjoy a channel crossing; men who can sit calmly in their deckchairs and, on arrival, wait until the boat is moored, then gather their belongings together without fuss and disembark.”

Famed for her murder mysteries, it’s not so well known that Agatha Christie also penned a few thrillers. Some of them I’ve covered before, and rarely are they among my favourites, but they’re generally still entertaining. They’re also important because Christie wrote some of them after a belief was shared in society that only men could write thrillers. She set out to prove them wrong and, as usual, did it with aplomb.

The Big Four opens with Captain Hastings returning from Argentina only to find that Poirot is on his way out to South America. However, when a man covered in dust and dirt appears at the door of Poirot’s apartment and falls down dead, Poirot decides he has to stay and is soon learning all about a shady cabal of criminal masterminds known as the Big Four. Everywhere he turns, he sees their handiwork and a number of supposedly unconnected cases begin to tie up together as he gets closer to unmasking the four.

What he, or indeed anyone, knows about them is very little. Number One is a brilliant Chinese man who is said to have the world’s greatest brain. Number Two is a very wealthy American with a stack of investments and an almost limitless supply of cash. Number Three is France’s most skilled scientist, a woman who makes Marie Curie look like an amateur. And no one seems to know anything at all about Number Four. Poirot and Hastings find themselves drawn deeper and deeper into a world of espionage, lies and disguises, and they soon learn that the Big Four will stop at nothing to get their nemeses out of the way so they can fulfil their plans.

Although Christie edited some of her earlier works to reflect changing times as the century drew on (see the original title of And Then There Were None, and her characters attitudes towards the Jews), it appears that The Big Four got missed out, or else progress didn’t come to quickly to racism against the Chinese. True, there’s nothing that declares them evil as a whole or anything like that, but the dialogue of her Chinese characters and their heavily cliched appearances, not to mention Hastings asserting that he could never tell any of them apart and Japp using an outdated racial slur about them, has definitely not aged well. It was the time, of course, but it’s damn jarring to read suddenly now.

Fortunately, aside from that, the book holds up. In other places it’s curiously modern and is perhaps the “biggest” story Christie ever told, being the novel that comes closest to an apocalyptic scenario. We’re far removed from a body in the parlour, as here we deal with potential atomic weapons (almost twenty years before they became a reality), international surveillance and an evil troupe controlling the planet from the shadows. Whether she can do these big blockbuster type stories remains up in the air, and personally I think she’s better when she’s dealing with the little people, but it’s still a fascinating tale that also plays fast and loose with the ten commandments of writing detective fiction.

Because it isn’t a traditional murder mystery, we also get to see a different side of Poirot. He seems a touch more emotional than usual here, and shows signs of a man who, despite constantly being surrounded by people who need him, has been lonely and feeling detached. The return of Hastings into his life, and later Japp, gives him a new sense of vitality and urgency, and despite his age, he is soon whizzing around the place once more, outsmarting everyone else. Although it isn’t my favourite Christie, it’s one for the completists and for anyone who tires of a necklace stolen from the drawing room and wants to see the world burn.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Less” by Andrew Sean Greer (2017)

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“From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.”

The advice for dealing with your problems is often to suck it up and deal with them as best you can, rather than hiding away under the duvet, never mind which you’d rather do. I, however, am of the belief that aside from things like earthquakes, forest fires, or the person you were about to break up with kneeling in front of you with a wedding ring in hand, there aren’t many problems you can run away from, just for a little bit, or just until you’re stronger and have been able to regroup your thoughts. Arthur Less, the hero of this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, appears to be of a similar opinion.

Less is about to turn fifty and not handling it very well. His publisher has just turned down his latest novel, and the man he loved for nine years is about to marry someone else. When Less receives an invitation to the wedding, he is faced with a conundrum. If he accepts, it would be too awkward. If he turns it down, it looks like defeat. Instead, he turns to a stack of other invitations he’s been ignoring; an interview panel in New York, an article in Japan, a series of lectures in Germany, an award ceremony in Italy. Apologising that he’ll be out of the country, Less heads off on a world tour.

You can, however, only run so far, and Less discovers that maybe he’s not so happy away from the action. As he catapults himself across continents, he finds himself continually struggling against misunderstandings, language barriers, lost suitcases and the barbed comments of old acquaintances. And rumours follow him too, of a scandal at the wedding he’s missing, but no one will tell him what happened. Less is left with a lot of time to think about his past and what really matters in life.

Simultaneously tragic and comical, it’s rare that a comic novel wins such a prestigious award. It’s not a fast book, and reads rather like much other literary fiction, but in a delightful twist of fate, it actually has some jokes in it. Less is immensely likeable – an innocent, sweet and nice man, who is beset by misfortune as wherever he arrives he gets the wrong end of the stick, loses something important, mistakes a situation, and is never on time to see or experience the best of the place he’s at. For example, he’s in Mexico on the day their grandest museum is closed. He’s too early in Japan for the cherry blossom, and too late in Germany for the autumn festivals.

As Less puts more and more distance between himself and the problems he’s trying to ignore, they do their best to make sure he can’t forget about them entirely. Indeed, the further away he goes, the more intense his emotions become. He tries to have affairs, and works on his rejected novel, but mostly he worries about his age. Fifty isn’t particularly old, especially not today, but at one point he laments that being fifty is like you’ve only just understood youth, and then it’s snatched away from you, like how on the last day of a holiday you finally work out where to get the best lunch or see the best views, but it’s too late and you’ll never be going back. Greer paints beautiful landscapes too, making the cities that Less visits a big part of the story in themselves, almost characters too.

While it is funny, above all I found the book very poignant. I came close to tears a few times with the sheer sadness and feeling of loss and loneliness that saturates the pages. Those around Less aren’t nearly as sympathetic as he is, adding to how alone he feels surrounded by people he views as being more attractive, more successful and more wanted than he is. He’s one of the most endearing characters I’ve come across all year, and I feel a huge amount of affection for him. The novel ends with several unanswered questions, and I really do hope that he is happy once the book is over. But it’s not for us to see.

Charming, funny and very moving.

“Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman (2007)

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“‘Later!’ The word, the voice, the attitude.”

I’ve been away at a wedding this weekend, and a trip away always requires at least two books to be packed. As it was (and as I think I expected) I had hardly any time to read, so most of this was completed once I was back. It felt right to take a romance with me to a wedding, and this one ties into the fact it’s Pride Month, too. Where better to spend a few days at this time of year than the Italian Riviera. Come with me, let’s go.

It’s the late eighties, and seventeen-year-old Elio has just met the man who’ll be staying with his family for the summer. His parents take in a lodger every summer, someone who is working on a book and needs time and space to write. This year, it’s Oliver. He’s twenty-four, intelligent, effortlessly cool, and utterly beautiful. Elio is smitten from almost the moment Oliver gets out of his taxi and becomes conflicted about whether he should make his feelings known. Oliver is at times friendly and perhaps encouraging, but at others distant and determinedly ignores Elio, who begins to wonder if he should start a relationship with the local girl Marzia instead.

As the weeks progress, the two young men grow closer and become more entangled in one another’s lives and emotions. The six weeks of the summer may not mark a particularly long time on the calendar, but they will forever change Elio and Oliver as they seek out true intimacy for the first time, and maybe the last.

At its heart, the book is simply about the difference between sex and intimacy and how they can easily be confused. Pure intimacy is perhaps the rarest relationship one can have with another human, and while at times you could argue that Elio tries to force it here, there’s no denying that they do have something pretty special, if at times somewhat bizarre. Although the sex scenes with them together are kept discreet and half-hidden, there are still enough scenes of Elio pleasuring himself – often in fetishistic and unusual ways – to counterbalance.

Anyone of any sexual stripe will be familiar with this sense of lust; a longing for someone that you can’t be sure returns the feeling. This being literary fiction, however, the characters are not necessarily people we know, even if their emotions are. Elio is precocious at seventeen, transcribing music and blending artists together for his own compositions. Oliver teaches at Colombia and spends most of his time in Italy working hard on his new book. The characters around them all have an other-worldly sheen, too, as if the Riviera polishes everyone to a high gleam and makes even their faults look more acceptable.

As for the prose itself, like much literary fiction, the book is awfully fond of itself and its use of extensive paragraphs that detail very little action at all. Elio spends much of his time fretting and while he’s not unpleasant as a person, some may find him beginning to grate after a while. Fortunately, the book’s wise words and descriptions of life are rather good. It’s also notable that despite being a book about two gay lovers, I don’t think the words “gay” or “love” make a single appearance. The book is open and aware of bisexuality, which is a novelty, and does its very best to avoid labels. Love is love, after all.

A warming and thoughtful novel, which can make even the hardest heart believe in the worth and power of intimacy.

“Veni, Vidi, Vici” by Peter Jones (2014)

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“Romans came up with two stories about how they were founded.”

So far this year, I noted that I’d been pretty low on non-fiction fodder, having worked my way through just three non-fiction books based on the future, economics and poison. Part of this is because I’ve been going through some stuff this year, and my default position is to hide inside fiction, and I’d made myself very comfortable there, escaping into imaginary worlds. However, I decided to step out and headed back in time to learn about the Roman Empire.

Peter Jones provides us with a whistle-stop tour of Ancient Rome, from the mythical Trojan War that started the whole thing in 1150 BC to the empire’s fall in 476 AD. He covers almost every aspect of the time, including politics, religion, entertainment, economy, hygiene, architecture, war, literature, discovery, mythology and diet. Each chapter is divided into bite size chunks of information regarding a particular aspect of the time period.

This is probably where I fell down with this book. It seems to be designed to be dipped into, not read all in one go, as I’ve spent the last week doing. It’s interesting, for sure, and Jones has an engaging writing style, but in places it’s really quite dense, and there are so many names in here, most of them fairly similar, that before long I found I couldn’t keep up with the rotating cast list of emperors, politicians, philosophers and writers. That’s all on me though, and I don’t claim the book to be boring at all. It’s just rather a lot to take in.

I think Ancient Rome for many people means Julius Caesar, public baths, slavery, Pompeii and gladiatorial fights. All of these are discussed in detail here, of course, but there’s also a lot regarding some of the more obscure or nasty emperors, the role of women in society (they had no power and were generally believed to be sex-crazed) and the fact that sexuality was defined entirely different here than it is today. There’s no distinction between “gay” or “straight”, and men had sex with men as a matter of course, just as women slept with other women. Heteronormativity was right out the window with the ancients. It was also great to learn more about Hadrian, whom I know for building a wall and not much else.

Other historical figures also make appearances, emphasising just how long the Romans ruled for. Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, Jesus Christ and Attila the Hun all play pivotal roles in the story of Rome, and there’s much to be made of the fact that in 1000 BC, Rome was just a small collection of huts on some hills. It is remarkable that the small town ended up dominating much of the known world at the time, and the ramifications of that dominance are still in evidence today, found in our calendar, language and architecture.

If you want a quick introduction into the world of the Romans, this is the book for you.

“If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller” by Italo Calvino


if-on-a-winters-night-a-traveller“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller.”

It’s been an interesting weekend in the UK. The news at the moment seems to be constantly full of very big, important stories, so my attention hasn’t been entirely on books. Hence, this short book has taken me longer to read than usual because of hours spent in front of news reports, as well as the book itself being incredibly dense. Anyway, this isn’t a political platform, so on with the business of reviewing fiction.

The novel begins with you, the Reader, settling down with a new novel, getting comfortable and telling the people in the room next door to turn down the television, and so on. You embark on the novel but discover a printing error; after thirty pages, it begins to repeat. Annoyed, you take it back to the shop to get a new copy, only to find that you haven’t even been reading If on a winter’s night a traveller, but instead Outside the town of Malbork which was in the wrong cover. You ask for that instead, return home, start reading, but find that this book is nothing at all like the one you just started.

This book becomes blank pages just as you’re getting into it, so you must return to the shop again, where you find the intriguing Ludmilla who is having the same problem. As you desperately try to finish the book, again and again you find yourself given copies of a novel that is nothing like the last and ends just when the story gets going. You are sent on a wild adventure where you must struggle with the police, who may or may not be undercover revolutionaries, your feelings for Ludmilla, and a conspiracy of faked literature. If you manage to keep anything straight in this book, then good luck to you.

What a novel. It’s so postmodern that it’s basically eaten itself. I really love the idea, as it really is a bunch of unrelated opening chapters interspersed with an increasingly confusing narrative, but I just couldn’t get into it very well. There’s not much dialogue, and paragraphs are generally huge and unwieldy. The use of the second person is an unusual choice, but you’re soon reminded why it doesn’t get used much, and doesn’t help when the “you” in question changes for certain chapters. It probably also doesn’t help that I read the last twenty or so pages after drinking, so they washed over me.

I don’t really know what to say about this book. Obviously it’s a modern classic, and it’s really interesting and it probably is very smart, but I’m just not smart enough to compete. The way in which each novel is stopped is quite good fun and they work as ideas, but I had real issues with trying to keep the narrative and the unrelated chapters straight in my head. You might have better luck with it, but Calvino has bested me, well and truly.

“You’re The One That I Don’t Want” by Alexandra Potter (2010)

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Fate has a lot to answer for.

Fate has a lot to answer for.

“The summer heat creates a shimmering haze, through which Venice appears like a Canaletto brought to life.”

The two themes that run through all fiction are, of course, love and death. Eros and Thanatos seem to control all the drama of literature, and indeed in the real world too. You find me a story that doesn’t concern itself with one or the other (or both) and I’ll eat my hat, providing I’m wearing my bacon hat. “Chick lit”, a term I discussed last month, usually brings great helpings of love to the table, although usually spends the meal complaining about cellulite and that they really shouldn’t have another scoop but go on then, as it’s a Friday and the diet starts tomorrow.

I’ve read Alexandra Potter before and I enjoy her slight twist on traditionally romantic fare. I bought this one for a friend’s birthday and it was proclaimed to be very good, so I borrowed it back off her. The thing with Potter is that while her characters are very much cut from the same cloth as every other protagonist in this sort of fiction, she adds a dash of the supernatural to her stories. For example, in Who’s That Girl? the heroine accidentally travels back in time and meets her younger self; in Be Careful What You Wish For, she finds everything she wishes for coming true. This time around, we’re dealing with folk legends and what happens when they come true.

The story begins in Venice in 1999 where teenagers Lucy and Nate have met and are rapidly falling in love. They hear a rumour from a street vendor that if they kiss under the Bridge of Sighs, they will never be parted and they will stay together for eternity. Deciding to give it a go – young love being what it is – they follow it through and then laugh it off as a silly superstition. They part ways at the end of their holiday and she returns to Manchester while he goes back to America.

Ten years later, they have entirely lost contact after the relationship soured, but now Lucy has just moved to New York to work for an art gallery. Her sister Kate is already a successful lawyer in the city, and Lucy moves in with new age hippie Robyn, a woman who casts spells, thinks tie-dye is the height of fashion and has been told by a psychic that her soulmate is called Harold. Then one day and quite out of the blue, Lucy bumps into Nate again. They rekindle their relationship when he admits that losing her was the biggest mistake of his life and soon they’re back to acting like lovesick teenagers.

But in the intervening decade, they discover that they’ve both changed, and not necessarily into someone that the other one likes. Lucy lives off junk food and loves spending time in art galleries. Nate is a wealthy TV producer who spends every waking minute on the phone and no longer has time for carbs or coffee. After a massive row, they break up again when it turns out that you can’t just pick up where you left off. But the legend of the Bridge of Sighs is apparently more powerful than either of them realised and suddenly they’re bumping into each other all over the city, as if the universe is determined to keep them together, just like it originally promised.

All of which makes it a bit awkward given that Lucy has just met Adam, and he might actually be a far better option than Nate ever was…

So there are clichés stacked up here by the crate – love at first sight, a creative protagonist who worries about her body, a love triangle, the sensible sister who is the polar opposite to the ditzy heroine – but it’s also quite refreshing. Not only is Potter genuinely quite a funny writer, this is a hugely interesting twist on the idea that we don’t always know what we really want for ourselves. We’ve all seen stories where people are told they’ll be together forever, and then have to fight the obstacles in the way, but this shows what happens when the people stop wanting to be together. The blessing becomes a curse and soon life becomes unbearable. After all, how would you feel if every time you got into a taxi, sat down in a restaurant or stepped into a shop, your ex was already there?

The secondary characters seem more developed than Lucy, but that’s because we’ve seen her type before. She’s an artist who is very good but had to give it all up. She’s clumsy, weak-willed when it comes to food, always late, and desperately seeking out The One. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book a lot simply because it takes an old idea and turns it upside down. Sometimes you don’t need a hugely different story (although it is nice). You just need to take a classic and shake it up a little.

“The Shape Of Water” by Andrea Camilleri (1994)

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Image“No light of daybreak filtered yet into the courtyard of Splendour, the company under government contract to collect trash in the town of Vigàta.”

There are many reasons that I buy books. Sometimes because the cover and the blurb has attracted me. Sometimes because a friend has endorsed them. Sometimes because I already love the author. And other times because they’re on an offer that means I get 100 points on my Waterstone’s loyalty card if I buy it.

Hence, Andrea Camilleri.

Not a name I knew, he adds to my collection this year of reading books that have been translated from European languages. German, Dutch, and now Italian. It’s a crime novel this time, and apparently the first in a series following the Italian version of Poirot or Holmes, one Salvo Montalbano. His methods are a little different to the aforementioned detectives, but nonetheless he gets the job done.

The novel is set in Sicily, and opens with the discovery of the body of an engineer, Silvio Luparello, in a location that is home to trash, drug dealers and prostitutes of every sort. Despite the shady circumstances surrounding this location and the death that has occured there, the coroner states that he died of natural causes (as Camilleri says, “refreshingly unusual for Sicily”). Montalbano is called in to find out what happened, if the causes really were natural, if a particular necklace has been found at the trash site and what famous political lawyer Rizzo has to do with any of it.

The novel is fast-paced and quick to jump from scene to scene, sometimes not giving you enough time to keep up. Of course, the names are all Italian and their similarities can make it difficult for a foolish Englishman like me to be able to differenciate at all times. The plot seems a little hashed together, but it ties up neatly and does make sense. Montalbano is something of a maverick and not above playing god to get the answers he wants. He seems smart, but doesn’t always let you in on how he has made certain deductions, making you wonder if it’s all just smart guesswork.

The book has an amazing use of language (even post-translation) with such wonderful words as “improcrastinable” and evocative phrases like, “Are you going to spit it out or do you need a midwife to pull the words out of your mouth?” It’s all very Italian, with discussions of the Mafia and the crime that seems to infest Sicily (I’ve never been, I’m going on this book), and lots of talks about food and the love of food.

It’s OK as quick reads go, but it doesn’t stand out for me in any particular way. I may return to the series at a later date (Montalbano is certainly a man with a complex life) but I’m sated on my Italian crime for now.