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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The 2018 Reading Challenge!

I read a great article yesterday about new year’s resolutions that struck a chord with me. It talked about the Christmas and New Year break can be a time for powerful reflection, on what has passed as well as what is to come, as you step away from the day-to-day routine. But it also said that 1st February is a much better time to start your resolutions if you really want to succeed at them. I was saying similar things when I posted the other day about New Year and how I prefer not to resolve to change things at the start of January – how can I possibly keep to a promise to, for example, eat a perfect diet when there is still Christmas chocolate lying around?

All of which is building up to giving myself an excuse for posting about my 2018 reading challenge when it’s already the second week of January. Ah, but my kids only went back to school on Monday. Anyway, who minds?

So, here it is, my 2018 reading challenge! Care to join me?

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Click The 2018 Reading Challenge to download and print your own copy.

At the beginning of each month I will post my choice of book for the month and then share my review at the end of the month. I’d love for you to join in the conversation, so do look out for my posts. I’ve also set up a Facebook page for the challenge, so do join that too.

35529075The first book in the challenge (the theme is a Young Adult novel) will I hope be a nice one to start with – The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy. It’s part science fiction/fantasy, part coming to terms with love and loss.

I have a particular passion for children’s literature, and we know that kids like reading about characters a little older than themselves. So, it shouldn’t surprise us that even younger teenagers are reading books that we might assume are more for 17-18 year olds. So, if you are a parent, knowing what is going on in these books can help you to engage with the culture your young people might be in (or encourage their reading if they have a preference for more digital distractions). And if you are not a parent, you might find this particular genre is not one that you usually pick, and, for me, that is what reading groups are all about.

I look forward to you joining in the conversation.

 

 

Happy New Year!

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After a two-week break from blogging, writing, and working generally, I’m returning to my desk today refreshed and with a renewed sense of vigour. I had a proper rest over Christmas, mostly spending time with friends and family. The build-up to Christmas is always a crazily busy time, I never seem to get to the end of the to-do list, and the things that normally sustain me – nutritious food, quality sleep, exercise, and reading, of course – are all compromised as there is always another event to attend, party to host, gift to purchase. Don’t get me wrong, I love all the excitement, the sparkle, the dressing-up and going out, the shopping, etc, but I can only keep it up for so long. For me, this Christmas, all of that stopped at the Winter Solstice on the 22nd, fittingly perhaps. At that point, school ended, and time spent with those closest to me began. It would also have been my late father’s 74th birthday so is always a time when I pause to reflect. Two weeks of rest ensued and I now feel ready to face all the challenges that 2018 will no doubt bring.

My biggest goal this year will be to complete the first full draft of my book. I’ve been working pretty hard on it over the last three or four months and I’m hoping to finish it by the Spring. I’ve also been giving a great deal of thought to this blog and have decided that my passion really lies with children’s literacy, so I will be doing a lot more this year focussing on books for kids. After the posts I put out before Christmas with literary gift ideas for children, I had so many conversations with other parents desperate to support their children’s literacy, and looking for ideas on how to motivate a good reading habit, that I feel there is a real hunger out there for more on this topic.

January is a tough month in my view, long, cold (in northern England), damp and dark, so I’m always wary of making too many ‘resolutions’ (I find Autumn a much more fruitful time for me). It is also the month of my birthday and this year I am having one with a zero so that will be challenge enough! At our family New Year’s Eve celebration we were each asked what we would be letting go of, what we would be bringing more of into our lives. I will be trying to let go of ‘busy-ness’ – it doesn’t suit me, I lose my sense of myself and I get irritated with those around me. Yes, we are all busy at least some of the time, but I will try instead to focus on priorities and to let go of what I don’t need to do. I will try to bring more music into my life, listening, playing, singing and dancing. It is a primal human expression of our self and our creativity and allows us to connect with others on a deeper level. I also have a very narrow range of music I listen to (mostly Radiohead!) so I’ll be attempting to broaden my scope.

I will also, of course, try hard to maintain my reading habit. I had a great year of reading in 2017, thanks to this blog, my book club and to the Reading Challenge I set myself at the start of the year. I’ll be posting later in the week with another Reading Challenge for 2018, so look out for that if you’d like to join me.

Whatever your goals and aspirations for 2018 I wish you well in them. The sun is shining as I write this and life feels good!

What are your reading goals for 2018?

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Happy Christmas!

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Thank you to everyone who has followed, liked and commented on my blog this last year. It’s been a fantastic year of reading and I’ve loved posting every week about my literary adventures. I’m signing off for a week or so to spend time with the husband and children, and then off to Ireland to visit family for New Year.

2017-12-18 11.06.58I plan to spend the time eating, sleeping, walking, watching movies, playing games and, of course, reading. I’m planning to tackle the enormous 4321, the Man Booker nominated tome by Paul Auster, and the only one on the shortlist I have not yet managed to read.

And if by some miracle I get through this, then there are a few other books I have on the TBR pile, three titles I picked up from the library (easier reads than 4321, I suspect!), plus a book I have been wanting to read for a while Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. I treated myself to it after I filled up my loyalty card from a well-known bookshop chain!

 

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So, I would like to wish everyone who is reading this, a very happy and restful Christmas. See you in the New Year!

 

December reading challenge: a short story

2017-12-18 10.46.14So, it’s my final reading challenge post of 2017, and this month it’s a short story. Just as well, because there isn’t very much month left! The reason I picked this genre for December is that I predicted, correctly, that it would be a busy month and my reading would slacken off. It is taking me ages to get through the book I am currently reading (the book club’s choice of Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami).

I’d been thinking for a while what I might read this month; there are some fantastic short story writers out there, and I have to confess to not having read many of them, so I wanted to make a real effort to delve in. Then last week I heard about a short story published in the New Yorker magazine recently that has caused a furore on social media, provoking praise and disdain in equal measure. I have also learned a new word as a result – ‘misandrist’ – a person who dislikes, despises, or is strongly prejudiced against men, the opposite of misogynist. You have to wonder why we don’t hear this word very much!

Anyway, Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian is about sex and relationships in the 21st century. What’s not to like?! If your appetite is whetted by this, you too can read along by clicking on the link below:

Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian

Let me know what you think!

Kids’s books for Christmas – fiction

I posted last week with some suggestions for non-fiction books for children for Christmas. Today, I’ve got some fiction ideas for you. Here is my round-up of some of the best books around at the moment, which I recommend for children. I’ve given you an idea of the age range too. As a rule of thumb, the central character in a book is generally a year or two older than the age of the children the book is aimed at. Kids like reading about people who are slightly older than them.

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Pax by Sara Pennypacker – suitable for 10-11 year olds

I reviewed this book here a few weeks ago. I loved it. Set in America, it concerns 12 year old Peter and a ‘pet’ fox he has raised from a cub. Peter is forced to release Pax into the wild when his father is called up to serve in the army. Peter’s mother is dead and he is sent to live with his grandfather. He runs away to search for Pax after realising what a terrible mistake he has made, and meets Vola, who lives on an isolated farm. Vola nurses Peter after he breaks his ankle and the two form an unlikely friendship which sets them both on a journey of self-discovery. Some challenging themes, but ultimately a heart-warming tale, with some lovely illustrations.

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Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada – suitable for 11-13 year olds

Perfect for pre-teens whose reading tastes and skills are maturing but who still love their animals. Narrated in three parts by three generations of a polar bear family who find themselves in different parts of the world: beginning with the matriarch in the Soviet Union, her daughter Tosca in East Germany, and her grandson, Knut, raised in Leipzig zoo. Very quirky and gently political. It is translated from the original Japanese so will also give children a taste of a quite different style of writing.

 

 

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Lucky Button by Michael Morpurgo – suitable for 9-12 year olds

I love a book with illustrations and I love Michael Morpurgo. This entry-level Morpurgo is a perfect Christmas offering. It concerns Jonah Trelawney who is the victim of school bullies and a carer for his mother. an accidental encounter gives him a life-changing insight to life in a Foundling Hospital in the 18th century (the original Foundling Museum was the inspiration for the story). Lovers of Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather will enjoy this.

 

The Adventures of John Blake: Mystery of the Ghost Ship by Philip Pullman – suitable for 10-13 year olds

Pullman’s The Book of Dust, part of the Lyra trilogy, is possibly the biggest children’s literature event of the year. Fans will already have bought it, so I’m not going to mention it here. Instead, I draw your attention to this graphic novel by the same author, which may encourage more reluctant readers, particularly boys. Just because it has pictures, does not mean it is for younger ones, who may find the storyline complex and the themes quite dark. John Blake is a seafaring time traveller. He rescues a young girl from a shipwreck, but his efforts to return her to her own time place them both in grave danger.

 

35529075The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy – suitable for 12-14 year olds

This debut has been very well-reviewed. It concerns Aila and her younger brother Miles who are sent to live in the rural town of Sterling, after their enigmatic mother, Juliet dies. The town carries a mysterious affliction: every seven years certain memories, experiences that people share in common, vanish. The locals believe that Aila’s dead mother, is somehow responsible and Aila must bear the brunt of their prejudice and hostility. A long book with some challenging themes which will suit keen readers who like a bit of depth.

 

2017-12-11 12.05.07Do You Speak Chocolate? by Cas Lester – suitable for 10-12 year olds

Friendship between girls is explored in this novel, which has been compared to Jacqueline Wilson. It is also a story about how friendship can transcend the bounds of language. Nadima is a new girl at school, recently arrived from Syria, and speaks no English. Jaz is a strong personality, and becomes friends with Nadima after the two share some confectionery. Their relationship does not always go smoothly and this book explores the ups and downs via themes of integration, community, and the things that bring us together.

 

Do you have any recommendations for children’s fiction this Christmas? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

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