“The Binding” by Bridget Collins (2019)

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“When the letter came I was out in the fields, binding up my last sheaf of wheat with hands that were shaking so much I could hardly tie the knot.”

If it wasn’t obvious, I love books. They hold such power and mystery, each one containing a new world that we’re free to explore if only we open the covers. Sometimes they are magical, other times dangerous. Sometimes they’re to entertain, or to teach. They have all sorts of purposes. Perhaps their most powerful ability is that they can store our thoughts, but what if that could be abused?

Emmett Farmer is a country boy, recovering from a long unexplained illness that rendered him weak, but he refuses to let it change him and he continues to work on the family’s farm. That is, until a letter comes that summons him to the position of apprentice to a bookbinder. Neither he nor his family can afford to pass up this opportunity, and so he is sent off to meet Seredith, the binder. Under her tuition, he learns that books are not what they seem. Each one contains a memory.

This is a world where binders are employed to take memories from people, things they would rather forget, and store them into beautiful, unique books for safekeeping. But binders are not always trusted and some people disagree with what they do. Seredith is no exception, and when an angry group arrives on her doorstep, she and Emmett manage to chase them away but to the detriment of her health. But Emmett has another problem. Beneath Seredith’s house sits all the books she has ever bound, stored away so that the people can forget. Down here, however, Emmett makes a shocking discovery: one of the books has his name on it.

Frankly, this is just a beautiful book. I mean the prose, but the book itself as a physical object is simply stunning. It would have to be, given the content. The writing is beautiful and easy, almost melodic at times, and it creates a world not unlike ours, but just subtly different enough to be captivating. Emmett Farmer is a great every man, but not as passive as he first seems. The boy has a core of steel and is willing to go to great lengths to protect those he loves. Lucian Darnay, his rival, is basically his antithesis. He is born of privilege and never had to work a day in his life, but lives in the shadow of his abusive father. Seredith is a wonderful creation, something like Minerva McGonagall, and I enjoyed her. How the magic works is never fully explained, but that works. It isn’t about how it’s done, but instead about why and how it is handled. Collins does this with great beauty and wisdom.

The concept of binding is, of course, at the heart of the novel. One can see how it would be tempting to be bound. You could forget failed love affairs and embarrassing moments in society, but surely the point is that we are all better people because we can remember our flaws? At first, the characters we see who are being bound are doing it for important reasons, just once a lifetime, to banish something they cannot live with from their brain. It’s an act of self-care, in some ways. As it progresses, however, we see how people use and abuse this ability, such as the vile Piers Darnay who rapes his maids and then periodically has them bound again so he can read their thoughts and take advantage again without them knowing it’s not the first time. There is also a horrible trade in books, with people prepared to sell others memories. A lighter note is made that some people are now making up fake memories, called “novels”, but the characters can’t comprehend of someone who would willingly make up a tragedy and spend so much time in that head space.

A surprisingly beautiful and moving novel about what we are willing to sacrifice for our happy endings.

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!

“The Penultimate Truth” by Philip K. Dick (1964)

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“A fog can drift in from outside and get you; it can invade.”

It’s been a very hot week and I really should have picked up something light and easy to read instead of a dystopian novel from the 1960s with a heavy political bent, but here we are. I’ve enjoyed books by Philip K. Dick in the past, so I hoped I’d get on with this one too, as it had an engaging premise. The reality, however, wasn’t quite like that.

In the future, people are crammed into underground tanks, living beneath the surface while World War III rages on the land above them. For fifteen years, the world’s population has lived like this, with daily broadcasts from government officials telling them what is happening and how the war is progressing, showing them footage of destruction and catastrophe. However, all is not as it seems.

In truth, the war finished a long time ago, and the world is at peace. Those in charge choose to deceive everyone else so they can live with great wealth and prosperity on the planet’s surface, with those who aren’t part of the conspiracy tucked away doing the dirty work and not messing everything up. Is it for the greater good, or just pure selfishness? Things begin to unravel, however, when one of the most prominent tank engineers is dying and desperately needs a new liver. President Nicholas St. James sets out on a mission to the surface in search of truth to the stories of artificial organs being used by the military. When he gets there, however, he learns that his life has been a carefully preserved lie, and he needs to work out who he can trust and fast.

Normally, I get on quite well with Philip K Dick’s work. It’s weird, sure, but there’s something engaging about it nonetheless and he sucks you in to his bizarre worlds easily. This one, however, was nigh on impenetrable. You’re thrown into the world, which isn’t always a bad thing, but the immediate submerging in a text full of neologisms that refer to technology we don’t have, means you’re already on the back foot. Yes, there is a lot in here about the state of politics and how the government will just out-and-out lie to give themselves better lives, talking about sacrifice like it’s something they have to deal with as well as the working classes, but because I’m one of the “little people”, I find absolutely nothing redeeming about these figures and found myself entirely uninterested in what they were doing or what they had to say. Fiction has always been an escape – lying, self-serving politicians is a bit too real in 2019.

Maybe it’s not as bad as all that. Maybe I’m just in a bad mood because of the oppressive humidity of the last week and having argued with technology all morning and I’m taking it out on the book. But I think that overall it’s just not one of the best books available from the great man. If they taught Dick’s work in schools, they’d probably make you read this one because it’s all political and not very funny. There are much better examples of his fiction available. I don’t think this one has aged all that well, and would be better forgotten.

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!

“The True Deceiver” by Tove Jansson (1982)

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“It was an ordinary dark winter morning, and snow was still falling.”

With the weather finally beginning to show signs that it’s remembered what spring should look like, I inexplicably took it upon myself to dive into a book full of snowscapes. As a kid, I loved snow, but as I got older it just became more of an inconvenience. I remain somewhat enchanted by it however – especially if I have nowhere I need to be – and am always fascinated by how quiet it seems. Rain and wind both come with noise, and even a sunny day will ensure some noise as people cut lawns and have barbecues, but snow is entirely silent. It blankets the world in sheer nothingness and hides a multitude of sins, and when it thaws, who knows what may be revealed…

Katri Kling is an unusual young woman in many ways. She has no time for the niceties most people engage in, is short and sharp and seems only to have meaningful relationships with her brother Mats and her nameless dog. Anna Aemelin, an elderly book illustrator, however is respected around the Finnish village the two call home, even if no one much sees her. Katri has decided that she and her brother should live in Anna’s house, known around the village as the Rabbit House, and sets about putting her plan in motion to convince Anna she’s not safe alone.

Once in, the two women begin a strange and somewhat aggressive relationship. Neither completely comfortable in the others company and having very different views on the world means that soon it’s not quite clear who’s telling the truth. As the Finnish winter begins to move into spring, they realise that their lives have changed, but whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be seen.

The novel is written by Tove Jansson who is more famous for creating The Moomins, but there is little here to compare the two works save for perhaps a fondness for nature and open spaces. There are no earth-shattering events taking place in this novel, merely two women with very different aims and a small flurry of nosy villagers who all have their own opinions on what’s going on and aren’t afraid to share them. The snowscape setting is somewhat unnerving and there is a sort of eerie chill to a world like this. I find snow gives a sense of mystery and almost menace to a plot, and the book is chilling in more ways than one, despite the lack of extreme drama. As we all know, nothing is scarier than something. And there isn’t anything scary here – not that Jansson is writing anything that’s meant to be a horror story. In many ways it’s quite a sweet tale of loneliness and expectation. It is, however, about so much more. It’s about where we belong and more importantly it’s about truth, lies and how flexible the line is between the two.

An interesting novel – the sort that will suddenly come back to mind inexplicably on a quiet, snowy morning several years from now.

“While The Light Lasts” by Agatha Christie (1997)

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“The Ford car bumped from rut to rut, and the hot African sun poured down unmercifully.”

Were this a blog where I discussed all manner of pop culture issues, I’d open with a loud scream of joy that Doctor Who has finally taken a great step and cast a woman in the lead role. I, for one, cannot wait to see what Jodie Whittaker does with the part, and I fail to understand anyone who has considered themselves a fan of this show all the while a man has been central to it, yet has somehow failed to pick up on a single one of its messages about tolerance, peace and equality. As it is, this is a blog that deals mostly with books, so if you want more of my mad rantings about Doctor Who, follow me on Twitter. Here, we’re getting back to another superb woman – hello, Agatha.

While the Light Lasts collects together nine of her most disparate stories together for the first time. Published in 1997, it feels very much like an act of mopping up the few that were yet to have been captured, which isn’t a complaint. Most of these, if not all, were writing in the 1920s at the beginning of her career, and each of them sparkles with a promise of greater things to come. That’s not to say that these stories aren’t good on their own merit, they’re great, but ideas used here occur later in far more famous tales.

“The Actress”, for example, is about, what else, an actress who tries to take revenge against a blackmailer. Her method of doing so will reappear later in Evil Under the Sun. The titular story, “While the Light Lasts” takes on a new life in the romance novels she wrote under the name Mary Westmacott. Each story is accompanied by an afterword that explains further about the story and how it came to be. “The Edge” was written not long before Christie’s disappearance, and seems to lay bare many of the feelings she had at the time about her husband. “Christmas Adventure” has links to her childhood homes.

Perhaps the most interesting story is “Manx Gold”; not because it’s especially devious but because of how it came into being. The novel was written to contain clues for a very real treasure hunt on the Isle of Man. Conceived to boost tourism, the local council hid four “treasure chests” around the island and Christie then wrote a novel which showed characters trying to find them. The characters are successful in finding all four, and smart readers are able to hunt down all of them by following the clues within the text. In reality, only three of the prizes were found. While the story lacks some detail because at no point can the characters fully explain where they are or what they’re doing, it’s still compelling, and the truth behind the story is perhaps even more interesting.

Two of the stories here also contain supernatural elements that Christie occasionally employed, many of them gathered in The Hound of Death. Two more contain Poirot, but a couple contain no crime at all, especially “The Lonely God” which is about two lonely figures bonding over a statuette in the British Museum.

A charming collection and a quick read, enough to whet the appetite of any Christie fan.

“Peril At End House” by Agatha Christie (1932)

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peril end house“No seaside town in the south of England is, I think, as attractive as St. Loo.”

I like new books, but there is little that pleases me more than the smell of an old book. The version of Peril at End House I have is in the same book as The Pale Horse, which I’ll review another time, and is a beautiful leather-bound copy from the 1970s. While not exactly ancient, it’s old enough to have developed its own scent, and the leather certainly helps. If you’re in need of new books, head to where I got this, the book market beneath Waterloo Bridge. But I digress, on we get with the review.

In what is chronologically the eighth Poirot novel, he and Hastings are on holiday in the picturesque Cornish town of St. Loo. Poirot is, once again, determined that he has retired, but when he gets talking to a young woman who lives nearby, he finds that he might be coaxed out of retirement once more. Miss Buckley, known to all as Nick, lives alone in End House, the old family home, and is the last of her lineage, but it turns out that in the last few weeks she has been at the wrong end of four nasty accidents. At least, what might be accidents. There was the heavy picture frame that fell on her bed, the boulder that fell from the clifftop, the tampering of her car brakes, and now she’s just been shot at.

Poirot is adamant that these are not mere accidents and that someone has it in for Nick Buckley. He is determined that the fifth attempt will not be successful, but when it leads to the death of Nick’s innocent cousin Maggie, Poirot thinks that for once he might just have his work cut out for him, as he investigates the nine people who have close contact to Nick, and contemplates that, maybe this time, he’s missing one suspect entirely.

I confess upfront that for some reason this book didn’t grab me as other Christie novels do. I’ve been quite distracted this week, so I think it was probably just that, because it took me longer than usual to find it interesting. But, as usual, particularly with her earlier work, Christie does deliver. We see a more personable and human Poirot here, one who seems to have real affection for the intended victim, and we also get to see him more stumped than ever as he struggles to piece together the jigsaw, the pieces of which don’t seem to fit.

It’s potentially quite racy for the time too, as one of the characters – and a woman no less – is revealed to be taking cocaine on a regular basis, to which none of the other characters seem to react with horror. It is very much a product of its time – the 1920s were a time when everything was changing quickly, as particularly noted in a funny scene where Poirot searches Nick’s underwear drawer and Hastings flusters in a very English manner about the whole thing in the corner. Poirot notes that these “modern” girls are far less secretive about their under garments in these enlightened, un-Victorian times. If only he could see how people dress today.

Despite feeling slightly underwhelmed for much of the novel, the ending is probably one of her best and while, once again, all the clues are there, I did not pick up on them. Christie is as intentionally misleading as ever, and allows you to chase many theories round and round your mind before settling on, undoubtedly, the wrong solution. The ending alone redeems the rest of the book, and while not one of my favourites all over, it’s definitely another one that shows simply how skilled she was at laying traps and plotting genius ideas.