Book review: “The Girl in the Green Dress” by Cath Staincliffe

Last week I posted a review of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, the first of two crime fiction novels I read over the Christmas holidays. The Girl in the Green Dress could hardly be more different, despite also being a crime novel and it is indicative of how the way we entertain ourselves has changed in the eighty odd years that separate the publication of these two books. Where Agatha Christie provided escapism, upper class characters, exotic locations and traditional murder mystery with the big reveal at the end, Cath Staincliffe’s book provides gritty realism, some repellent characters, familiar locations and a limited amount of mystery. There is no job here for the reader to play the detective, spot the clues and guess the outcome. The job of the reader is to engage with the characters at a deep level.

The girl in the green dress imgThe book starts with 18 year-old Allie Kennaway, and her friends heading out for their college prom night. They are at Allie’s home with her father Steve and younger sister Teagan. Steve is a single parent, his wife, the girls’ mother, Sarah, having died a couple of years earlier from cancer. Allie, we learn is a transgender woman, formerly Aled.

We meet the other characters who will form the main part of the drama, in quite quick succession: Donna, the workaholic Detective Inspector, who has four children and a less than happy marriage; Jade, a new detective, Asian, and whose mental health problems are hinted at early on; Martin, a long-standing colleague of Donna’s, a horny-handed old-fashioned copper. The murder takes place quite early on; Allie’s body is discovered in a deserted street near the nightclub where the prom was being held. Soon after, we meet Sonia, single mother of the feckless youth Oliver, who spends his days eating junk food, hanging out with his mates and playing online games. His culpability for the crime is fairly obvious.

If we know whodunnit, then what is the story about? Well, there is a fairly major and dramatic plot twist, which, of course, I shan’t reveal. Mostly, though, it’s about the characters and their internal lives, their hopes, dreams, motivations and frustrations. The police (Donna, Jade and Martin) are all flawed in their own individual ways and are trying to deal in a systematic and process-orientated way with a terrible event, trying to set aside their personal selves, and yet completely unable to do so. Work and ‘home’ cross over in the most challenging ways. Much like the crime shows I watch on television (I’m thinking Happy Valley, Morse, Prime Suspect), the issues of the central character are part of and not separate from the story. Although, for Agatha Christie, Poirot’s personality is key to the narrative, it does not form part of the plot in the way that more modern crime fiction does. Or perhaps you would disagree?

There is also the storyline of transgender young people and their experiences, which the author handles deftly with great care and sensitivity. It is a huge and topical issue to tackle and the result is commendable.

I struggled to get into this at first. The clipped writing style, which reminded of the way police officers narrate radio dramas, ie not in fully-formed sentences, was off-putting to me, and I found the structure, short chapters within chapters focussing on a different character in turn, meant it did not flow so easily. Having just read Agatha Christie, however, knowing the murderer from the outset seemed odd and I wondered what on earth the rest of the book was going to be about! There is that twist, of course, and as I got to know the characters, so I began to engage with them and their stories more.

I did get hooked and enjoyed the book immensely. It’s a quick read, though its grittiness makes it hard-going in places; the reader is not spared any detail! I’d recommend this book, though, and I will definitely read more of Cath Staincliffe’s work.

If you are a reader of crime fiction do you prefer the modern or the more old-fashioned Christie-style writing?

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Book review: “Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie

I am not a big reader of crime fiction, but I read two over the Christmas holidays, as I feel this has been something of a gap in my education. I read Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, first published in 1934, and The Girl in the Green Dress by Cath Staincliffe who gave an excellent talk at the Northern Lights Writers Conference which I attended last year. Separated in terms of their publication by over 80 years the two titles are so different they could hardly be said to be part of the same genre but I don’t know enough about crime fiction to understand the path that links the two. I enjoyed both, but for very different reasons. I’ll start by reviewing the older of the two books.

Murder on the Orient Express img  To my shame, I have not read anything by Agatha Christie before, although I have stayed at the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate, to which Agatha famously disappeared for nearly two weeks in 1926 after a row with her husband! She is quite extraordinary when you look at the stats: said to be the best-selling author of all time, her books have sold around two billion copies (yes two billion!) worldwide, second only to Shakespeare and the Bible. She wrote 72 novels, 14 short story collections, and one play, The Mousetrap, the longest-running in the world. Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are perhaps two of the best-known literary characters of all time, and her work has been adapted for film and television countless times. She is truly a literary giant.

Murder on the Orient Express was released as a film once again last year, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, and a clutch of other huge names including Johnny Depp, Judi Dench and Penelope Cruz, although it has not been well-received critically. The release of the film prompted my book club to give this title a go. We subsequently watched the 1974 film adaptation starring Albert Finney as Poirot, and an equally stellar cast including Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman and Sean Connery. The film was very close to the book and we thoroughly enjoyed it. It was true escapism.

The book, also, was true escapism, though I’m glad I read it before watching the film. The structure is linear and to us would seem quite old-fashioned, but it’s a joy. It is split into three distinct parts: the facts, which sets the scene on the train, and gives us the background to the tragic Armstrong child abduction and killing case in America five years earlier. In part two Poirot hears evidence from each of the characters on the train, one of whom MUST have committed the crime, and the final part is Poirot’s analysis and conclusion, a set-piece beautifully played out in the film.

The plot is genius (I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, though I think most people who know anything about the book will know the ending – this will not detract from your enjoyment), but the way that Poirot makes his intellectual leaps is at times, totally contrived. For example, I am still not clear how he could have made the connection with the Armstrong case on such an insignificant piece of evidence. This matters not a jot, however, because it is Poirot’s cross-examinations, his exposition of ‘the facts’ and his closing revelatory monologue, which provide the real pleasure for the reader. The writing is also joyous, laced with irony, brilliant characterisation and the evocation of place….sublime! On this latter point this was the real escapism for me. I have always fantasised about travelling on the Orient Express in the golden age of steam (as long as I can travel fist class!) and this book took me right there. The opening scene of the book is set in Aleppo, which was rather poignant.

I’ll definitely be reading more Agatha Christie. This was quite a quick read, in just a couple of sittings, because it flows so beautifully and once you start it is hard to put down. Highly recommended.

If you are a fan of Christie, which of her books would you recommend I read next?

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Book review: “Norwegian Wood” & “The Strange Library” by Haruki Murakami

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Gorgeous covers

Murakami is a giant of Japanese literature, and it was Norwegian Wood that sealed his international fame. Prior to its publication (in Japan in 1987) his reputation and readership were more modest, but when he became internationally famous with this book, he fled the country and eschewed all publicity (oh for that luxury!). I had read nothing by Murakami before this although a friend told me (when I’d only just started it) that Norwegian Wood was his favourite book of all time and after reading he went out and got hold of everything else Murakami had written.

It’s a book that really defies description. To say it’s a love story (which it is) does not do justice to the complex interweaving of themes, the darkness, the painterly portrayal of intimate relationships and the forensic examination of the dilemmas of youth and coming of age.

Toru Watanabe is on a plane at the age of 37, about to land at Hamburg airport, when the song Norwegian Wood by The Beatles is played on the aircraft’s PA system. It takes him immediately back to his youth, when he was at university in 1969. His girlfriend at that time was Naoko, a fragile young woman with whom he used to walk miles around Tokyo. Naoko was, previously, the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki, who committed suicide. Thus the scene is set that this novel is going to explore some challenging themes.

Naoko and Toru become lovers, but their relationship stalls when Naoko is admitted to long-term psychiatric care for severe mental health issues. Toru remains loyal to Naoko, visits her occasionally at the special hospital where she lives, some distance from Tokyo, and also strikes up a friendship with Naoko’s roommate Reiko, who, because of the very close relationship she has with Naoko, appears to know everything about Toru. A further character then enters and places Toru in something of a love triangle; Midori is a feisty, passionate fellow student to whom Toru is immediately attracted. They become friends but nothing more, mainly because of Toru’s loyalty to Naoko. Midori also has a boyfriend, although she says is not in love with him.

It is a novel in which nothing very much happens, so I don’t want to say more about the ‘plot’, and I have had some difficulty explaining to myself what is so engaging about it; I had high expectations after my friend’s endorsement. When we discussed it in my book club, we all said we found it a slow read; it is not a book you can read quickly. In a weird sort of way it forces you to read at reading out loud pace. You have to take in and savour every word, and every word has been written to be savoured. The level of detail in the observations is extraordinary. The main characters, especially Toru and Naoko, are so gentle and sensitive, that it almost has the same effect as when you hold a newborn baby – they are so fragile that all your movements become softer, your heart and breathing seem to slow down. The purpose of this, I think, is to try to take the reader deeply into the private worlds of the characters, to feel what they feel, see what they see.

There are some brash peripheral characters in the novel, such as Toru’s dorm mates, and there is a strong sense of time and place – student revolts in Japan in the late ‘60s – which serve to highlight the quietness and sensitivity of the main characters, even Midori, who comes across initially as a strong personality, but who is masking deeper insecurities.

It is a novel about coming of age, about growing up, but also about the deep darkness of depression and suicide. Insofar as it is a love story, it asks the reader what the limits of human beings’ commitments to one another are, but it will not give you a straightforward answer.

After reading Norwegian Wood I was given a copy of another of Murakami’s works, published in the UK in 2014, The Strange Library. This is a work of short fiction, a very surreal and fascinating story about a young boy who is imprisoned in the bowels of his local library after being tricked into following a strange old man in search of a reference book about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire. Whilst trapped inside he meets a collection of other weird and wonderful characters also trapped in a kind of time and space limbo. Like much short fiction it concludes in a way that leaves more questions than answers. The edition I read is beautifully illustrated, which added to my appreciation of it immensely, and it has left me wanting to explore more of Murakami’s work.

Norwegian Wood is a strange and powerful novel that will certainly leave its mark. It stays with you long after you finish it. Highly recommended.

If you are familiar with Murakami, which of his books would you recommend?

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Short story review: “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian

2018-01-10 10.43.49I concluded my 2017 Reading Challenge with something a little less challenging (in terms of length anyway), a short story. I knew it would be a busy month so I did not want to set myself up to fail by choosing some lengthy tome. (I’ve done the same for my 2018 Reading Challenge). December was so busy that it actually took me a couple of weeks to get around to choosing what to read, and then Cat Person fell in my lap, so to speak!

It’s hard to write a review a short story without spoilers so you can read it here, and then move on the reading the rest of this post, if you wish. It will take you no longer than 20-30 minutes, or you can actually listen to the author reading it herself via the same link.

Cat Person imgCat Person, by Kristen Roupenian has caused a social media storm. Set in America it is a story about Margot, a 20-year old college student, and a brief relationship she has with 34-year old Robert. Margot works at a small independent cinema and she meets Robert when he buys some confectionery from her stand before watching a movie. She feels mildly attracted to him:

“She did think that Robert was cute. Not so cute that she would have, say, gone up to him at a party, but cute enough that she could have drummed up an imaginary crush on him if he’d sat across from her during a dull class.”

Margot flirts lightly with Robert, to ease her boredom, but, initially, at least, he does not reciprocate. He returns to the cinema a week later and this time they exchange phone numbers. Over the next few weeks they develop a text relationship, then he meets her late one night at a convenience store. She expects that he will try to kiss her but he merely gives her a peck on the forehead. They eventually go on a date, to see a movie about the Holocaust that Margot finds slightly inappropriate for a first date. Afterward, when they have been for a drink at a bar, he kisses her, ineptly, and she finds she has mixed feelings about him. Despite this, Margot seems to feel she cannot back down from the inevitable, at this point, and they go back to his place to have sex. Margot finds the sex repellent and decides that she does not want to see him again, but she also feels that her flirtatious behaviour may have ‘led him on’.

This is a highly topical story about the complicated business of dating and sexual relations in the 21st century. The “cat person” of the title refers to Robert; when they go back to his place he announces that he “has cats”, although Margot never sees them. This is clearly meant to convey a slight ‘oddness’. In Margot’s eyes Robert falls well short of expectations (on all levels not just physically and sexually, she does not even feel completely safe with him) and she decides she wants nothing more to do with him, which he clearly finds confusing. When she finally rejects him by text (encouraged by her roommate who becomes impatient with Margot’s dithering and takes the matter into her own hands), Robert reacts in quite a needy way, before becoming angry (all by text). His final text “Whore” clearly echoes the aggressive and unsolicited sexual behaviour we are hearing too much about at the moment, but it could be argued that Margot’s behaviour, her flirtation, her initiation of the sex, means she created that situation for herself and it is no wonder that Robert, clearly no master at relationships, does not know how to react to her seemingly unpredictable behaviour.

It is a story that left me somewhat morally adrift.  There is no clear right and wrong party here. How you judge Margot, or Robert, will depend entirely on your perspective – your age, your gender, whether you have male or female children, etc. And it perhaps goes to show how the sexual politics that are currently being renegotiated make for a complex environment for both men and women.

A thought-provoking read, highly recommended.

If you have read this story, what did you think?

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Book Review: “Portrait in Sepia” by Isabel Allende

 

 

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My Reading Challenge for November, was to read a book by a writer from the southern hemisphere. The reason for this was to try to distract me from any midwinter misery! As I write this, the light dusting of snow which made everything look so pretty these last few days, has given way to a persistent rain and I feel plunged into dark greyness once again. I swear it stayed night until about 11am today! Less than two weeks to the Winter solstice and we can start to look forward to longer days again.

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Stunning front cover

Chilean author Isabel Allende has to be one of the finest writers alive today. As in most of her books, the central characters are strong females. This novel tells the story of Aurora del Valle, who was born in Chinatown, San Francisco in 1880. Her mother was a spectacularly beautiful but fatally naïve young woman, Lynn Sommers, who was duped into sleeping with the wealthy and wayward Matias Rodriguez de Santa Cruz. Lynn is the daughter of Eliza Sommers, and Matias the son of Paulina del Valle. Both these women were central characters in the forerunner to this book, Daughter of Fortune. Severo del Valle, Matias’s cousin, marries Lynn to spare her honour (though the marriage is never consummated) and becomes Aurora’s legal guardian. Lynn dies from a haemorrhage just after her daughter is born so when Severo returns to Chile to fight in the war he leaves the child in the care of her maternal grandparents, Eliza and her husband Tao Chi’en. Aurora spends her first five years with them, happy and much-loved. When Tao Chi’en dies, Eliza fulfils a promise to return her husband’s body to his native China and leaves the child with her paternal grandmother, the indomitable Paulina del Valle. Paulina agrees to this on the basis that Eliza sever all ties with the child.

Thus, Aurora grows up with Paulina and the rest of the story follows her life, from her early years growing up amidst the pomp and wealth of her voracious grandmother’s vast household, such a contrast from the modest life she led in Chinatown, through to her early adulthood as the family moves to Chile. Allende gives a stunning account of the Chilean civil war, and the effect this had on the family, particularly Severo del Valle, who has now married his cousin Nivea, and with whom he goes on to have fifteen children. Nivea is another strong woman in the book, an idealist with fierce views on women’s rights, who does not let childbirth get in the way of her campaigning. She is devoted to Severo and their marriage provides a powerful model of spousal partnership for Aurora. Her grandmother Paulina is also a strong role model, teaching her about business and about feminine power.

In the latter part of the book, the adult Aurora becomes a photographer and enters into a disastrous marriage with Diego Dominguez. Lacking the wilfulness of Paulina and the inner confidence of Eliza, Aurora’s life is miserable, stuck on a farm in a rural part of Chile with a husband who does not love her. She feels as if her fate is not in her own hands.

The novel is classic Allende, an epic saga, covering the period 1862 (before Aurora’s birth) to 1910 with a beautifully drawn cast of characters. Yet despite its scale, the novel digs deep into the human condition – what it is to love and be loved, romantic love, marriage, the love between child, parent and grandparent, blood ties, and the pain and the pleasure that family can bring. The meaning of the title is cryptic, but it is revealed beautifully by the author at the end, in such a way that made me want to go straight back and read it all again! It’s a novel to get lost in, and Allende has this immense talent for drawing the reader in to the extraordinary world she creates.

A flawless book, highly recommended.

Have you read this book? How does it compare with Allende’s other works?

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Books to give at Christmas

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A book is a great gift to give at Christmas – long-lasting, can be personalised, relatively inexpensive, easy to wrap, and wil always look as if you’ve thought hard about it, even when you haven’t! And if the worst comes to the worst it’s recyclable and re-giftable! I’ve posted recently about books for children, both fiction and non-fiction, but what about the grown-ups? Below, I’ve listed my stand-out reads of the year, any one of which would make a fantastic gift. Click on the title of each book to see my longer reviews.

Days Without End img Days Without End by Sebastian Barry 

Would suit men or women of any age who just love a great story, brilliantly told. It’s about two young men, mercenaries in the American Civil War, one of whom is an Irish immigrant, who find love amidst the horror, carnage, poverty and degradation. It’s graphic and hard-hitting but also tender and moving. Shouldda won the Man Booker IMHO.

 

 

 

Photo 11-10-2017, 12 45 36Elmet by Fiona Mozley

For lovers of Yorkshire who like their fiction a bit dark. Shortlisted for the Man Booker but sadly did not win. Daniel lives with his father, a bare-knuckle fighter, and his sister Cathy in an isolated rural home they built themselves, life takes a very dramatic turn when they are threatened by the local landowner who bears a grudge against the family.

 

 

Eleanor Oliphant  Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

For anyone interested in mental health issues. A fine first novel, which has rightly won many plaudits. Eleanor is our narrator, an unusual and vulnerable young woman who struggles to find her place in the world and conform to social norms. At times funny, at others heart-breaking, it’s a cracking read.

 

 

The Power img2The Power by Naomi Alderman

A great book for strong women who would like to turn the gender tables! Winner of this years Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, it’s a brilliant satire on what it might be like if women ran the world. In this powerful commentary on gender politics, the world’s women find they have a physical ability to injure, kill and therefore control men with an electrical charge. Imaginative and original.

 

 

More in Common img Jo Cox: More in Common by Brendan Cox

For campaigners and humanitarians. Written by the widower of the late Jo Cox MP, brutally murdered in her Yorkshire constituency by a Far Right Extremist, this account of the woman and her values, not only gives an insight into the life of this extraordinary politician, but is also a reminder of what it is to be human.

 

 

 

Stay-with-Me img Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

For anyone fascinated by the tussle between modernity and tradition or for lovers of Africa. Set in Nigeria in the 1980s, this novel is a story about Yejide and Akin, an infertile couple and the pressures that places on their relationship. Moving and brilliantly plotted.

 

 

 

 

The Essex Serpent img The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

For natives of Essex or London or those who like a grown-up mystery story. Newly-widowed Cora Seaborne moves to a small Essex village with her autistic son, and strikes up a deep friendship with the local vicar, Will Ransome, over a mutual fascination with archaeology and in particular a local legend about a serpent who blights the lives of the inhabitants. It explores the conflict between science and religion, reason and superstition at the end of the 19th century, and the nature of love in all its forms.

 

I’ve just realised that all of these books explore the many types of love. Perfect for this season!

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Book review: “The Bastard of Istanbul” by Elif Shafak

As I write this, it is being announced on the radio news that Ratko Mladic has been convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in the The Hague, for his orchestration of the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 where as many as 8,000 Bosnian muslims were killed. It is ironic then that my book review this week concerns a novel, at the heart of which lies the Armenian genocide of 1915. It is believed that up to 1.2 million ethnic Armenians were systematically killed by the Ottoman Turks in 1915-16. A few thousand managed to escape, mostly to America. This atrocity is considered to be the first genocide of the twentieth century and led ultimately to the establishment of the concept of ‘genocide’ in international law after World War II, which was considered at length by Philippe Sands in his book East West Street, which I reviewed here last year after it won the Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction.

2017-11-14 14.33.12The Bastard of Istanbul is a curious book, which my fellow book club members found disappointing. At the heart of the novel is the Kazanci family, living in Istanbul. The household is exclusively female and comprises Asya, (the eponymous ‘Bastard’) her three aunts and her mother (whom she also calls ‘Auntie’), her grandmother and ‘Petite-Ma’ who I think is her great-grandmother (more of that later, it’s part of the problem with the book). There is an uncle, who moved to America as a young man and has never returned. All the men in the family are afflicted by early death. Mustafa, the prodigal son, is in his 30s.

 

There is a second family to get to grips with, living in Arizona. Teenager Armanoush is the product of Rose (a southern gal) and Barsam Tchakhmakhchian, the son of an Armenian family, part of the Armenian diaspora. Rose and Barsam separated when Armanoush (also called ‘Amy’) was a toddler, and Rose then bumped into and married Mustafa (the prodigal Kazanci son). Still with me? Armanoush, curious to learn about her Armenian forebears’ early life in Istanbul, contrives to travel to the city and stay with her stepfather Mustafa’s family (the Kazanci women) without her parents knowing (they would not have approved.)

The novel opens with a bang – Zeliha, the most flamboyant and wayward of the quirky Kazanci sisters, arrives at a clinic demanding an abortion. At the very last minute, however, she does not go through with it. Enter Asya. The first half of the book is setting the scene of both Asya’s life (she is now a slightly surly teenager) and the Kazanci household as well as Armanoush’s life in the US. The second half is mainly concerned with the two young women and their developing relationship in Istanbul, and gradually the connection between them unfolds. Throughout the novel, the history of the Armenian genocide is woven in, particularly as it relates to the Turkish Kazancis and the Armenian Tchakhmakhchians.

Let me tell you what’s good about this book: I loved the sense of place – I have never been to Istanbul but am fascinated by it and by this part of the world generally and it’s on my bucket-list. I loved the characters: they are interesting and credible and the way the author builds our impression of them is beautifully done. Elif Shafak can write, and she can write with humour; there are some laugh-out loud moments, although knowing what I now do about the Armenian genocide, I’m wondering if it was fitting.

However, there are also some problems with the book, mainly it is over-written. For me, it needed some skilful editing. There is a large cast-list here and I’m afraid I rather lost track of some of the peripheral characters (Petite-Ma, for example), who are actually rather important to the story because you need to understand the ancestor relationships in order to fully appreciate the plot. There are some superfluous chunks that could easily have been stripped out and this would have given the plot lines (and later twists) greater force. Also, the historical thread, the background on the genocide, would have been given greater prominence.

The author states in the Acknowledgements that she was put on trial in 2006 for “denigrating Turkishness” with this novel (charges were later dropped). For that reason, and for the historical detail, it is worth a read, but I’m afraid, for me, it was a novel that did not quite live up to its potential.

If you have read The Bastard of Istanbul I’d love to hear your views.

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