Category Archives: Challenges

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

This is a book that really captured my imagination. I loved everything about it – the descriptive passages, the mystery, the secrets and the people involved. It was all real to me. It’s one of the best books, if not the best book, I’ve read this year.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton has been sitting unread for two years on my bookshelves, but if I’d read it earlier I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of reading it now – it was well worth the wait!

It begins on a summer’s day in 1961 in Suffolk when sixteen-year old Laurel is shocked when she sees her mother stabbing a stranger who had come to their farm. Fast forward 50 years Laurel and her three sisters and brother are coming to terms with the fact that their mother, Dorothy is moving closer to the end of her life. Laurel realises that there is so much she doesn’t know about Dorothy’s life and when they find a photograph of Dorothy and a friend, Vivien, in a book of the play Peter Pan, it arouses old and ugly memories for Laurel – images of her mother’s frightened face as she confronted the stranger. Who was Vivien and who was the stranger? Why was Dorothy so scared? Laurel is determined to find out.

It’s a story moving between time periods from 2011, back to the 1960s and also to the 1940s when Dorothy first met and fell in love with Jimmy, a war photographer, and also became friends with the wealthy and beautiful Vivien, married to a successful novelist.  Laurel, with the help of her brother, Gerry, tracks down records throwing light on Dorothy’s and Vivian’s past, back to war-time England and pre-war Australia.

It’s not a straight forward story. By that I don’t mean it’s difficult to read, because each time period is clearly headed and the characters are clearly defined. But there are so many twists and turns – I thought several times I’d got things clear and knew where the story was heading only a bit later on to realise that not all the clues had been revealed and I had to revise my thoughts. It’s so cleverly written and so well plotted that it was only near the end that I had an inkling of Dorothy’s relationship with Vivien and what had really happened to them all. It really is a book I didn’t want to put down and also a book I wanted to enjoy as long as possible. By the end, though, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough!

Kate Morton’s next book, The Lake House is due to be published in October 2015. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Note: as well as being my 17th book for the Mount TBR Challenge 2015 this is my 3rd book for the TBR Pile Challenge 2015. And the 9th book for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2015.

First Chapter ∼ First Paragraph Tuesday: Parker Pyne

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter ∼ First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

I’ve been looking at some of Agatha Christie’s short stories and wondering which to read first. One of the collections I own is The Complete Parker Pyne: Private Eye. It looks a good place to start.

In the Author’s Foreword Agatha Christie tells how she came to write these stories:

One day, having lunch at a Corner House, I was enraptured by a conversation on statistics going on at a table behind me. I turned my head and caught a vague glimpse of a bald head, glasses and a beaming smile – I caught sight that is, of Mr Parker Pyne. I had never thought about statistics before (and indeed seldom think about them now!) but the enthusiasm with which they were being discussed awakened my interest. I was just considering a new series of short stories and then and there I decided on the general treatment and scope, and in due course enjoyed writing them.

I like the details she gives – the Corner Houses, smarter and grander than tea shops and noted for their art deco style first appeared in 1909 and  remained until 1977. And I love the fact that she was eavesdropping on the conversation going on behind her and the insight this gives into how she got ideas for her stories.

The stories were all written in the 1930s and first appeared in various UK and US magazines. The first story in this collection is The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife and it begins:

Four grunts, an indignant voice asking why nobody could leave a hat alone, a slammed door, and Mr Packington had departed to catch the eight forty-five to the city. Mrs Packington sat on at the breakfast table. Her face was flushed, her lips were pursed, and the only reason she was not crying was that at the last minute anger had taken the place of grief, ‘I won’t stand it,’ said Mrs Packington. ‘I won’t stand it!’ She remained for some moments brooding , and then murmured: ‘The minx. Nasty sly little cat! How can George be such a fool!’

Agatha Christie: Short Stories

Agatha ChristieSo far in reading Agatha Christie’s books I’ve concentrated on reading her full length novels and have only read some of her short stories. As I’ve nearly read all of her novels, although none of those she wrote as Mary Westmacott, I’ll be reading more of her short stories from now on.

So far I’ve read the following short story collections:

  • The Thirteen Problems – Miss Marple stories. It was first published in the UK in 1933, collecting together 13 short stories previously published in various magazines. The first story The Tuesday Night Club introduces the character of Miss Marple.
  • The Hound of Death – 12 stories of unexplained phenomena, in most cases tales of the supernatural rather than detective stories. Of the twelve stories I think The Witness for the Prosecution is the best. Agatha Christie later wrote a play based on this story which has subsequently been adapted for film and television.
  • The Labours of Hercules – 12 short stories featuring Hercule Poirot, first published in 1947. Poirot is thinking of retiring, but before he does he wants to solve 12 more cases and not just any cases. These have to correspond to the Twelve Labours of Hercules, specially selected problems that personally appeal to him.
  • Murder in the Mews – four stories about crimes solved by Hercule Poirot, first published in 1937.
  • The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and a Selection of Entrées – 6 short stories

I also have the following collections to read:

  • Poirot Investigates – 11 Poirot stories
  • The Golden Ball and Other Stories – 14 stories
  • The Mysterious Mr Quin – 12 stories
  • The Complete Parker Pyne: Private Eye – 14 stories
  • Miss Marple and Mystery – 55 stories

By my reckoning Agatha Christie wrote 157 short stories, published in a number of collections. Wikipedia records that she wrote 153 short stories, published in 14 collections in the UK and in the US. Some stories were published under different names in the US Collections. And some stories appear in more than one collection, which is rather confusing.

So, I’ve compiled a list arranged in a-z order of titles from the list of books on the Official Agatha Christie Site. My list is on my Agatha Christie Short Story Progress Page.

Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie

Sad Cypress, first published in 1940, is a most satisfying mystery, in which Hercule Poirot discovers that almost everyone he talks to is lying. Only the doctor, Peter Lord, believes that Elinor Carlisle did not kill Mary Gerrard, her rival in love, despite the fact that it seems that only Elinor had the motive, the opportunity and the means to poison Mary with morphine hydrochloride. Peter, who is in love with Elinor, appeals to Poirot to prove that she is innocent.

Sad Cypress has a clever and most complicated plot, as is usual in an Agatha Christie book, and it kept me guessing right to the end. Her portrayal of Elinor is excellent – on the surface a calm, almost detached character underneath she is in turmoil, full of repressed passion and unrequited love as it becomes obvious to her that Roddy, her fiancé does not in fact love her and this leads her into actions that seem to point to her guilt.

Then there are the social and cultural themes that always interest me in Agatha Christie’s books. There is the clear distinction between the classes, knowing one’s place in society shown in the relationships between Elinor and Mary, and the almost comic depiction of the two nurses, Nurse O’Brien and Nurse Hopkins, with their gossip over cups of tea. Other themes are the nature of love, and the basis for a happy marriage, the damage caused by family secrets, the ethics of euthanasia, and the difference between thinking about murder and actually committing murder.

This book, if not the best of Agatha Christie’s books, is easily one of my favourites.  I quoted the opening paragraph of Sad Cypress in My Friday Post earlier this month.

The cover photo shown above is my own copy. Details of the latest edition are:

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins (21 May 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0008129576
  • ISBN-13: 978-0008129576

This is the first of my books for the 10 Books of Summer 2015 Challenge.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

I really wanted to love H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, which  won the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, as well as the 2014 Costa Book of the Year but I found it difficult to read and draining, despite some richly descriptive narrative.  It’s really three  books in one – one about herself, her childhood and her intense grief at the sudden death of her father, one about training a goshawk and another about T H White and his book, The Goshawk in which he describes his own struggle to train a hawk.

When her father died she bought Mabel, a ten week old goshawk and became obsessed with training her. It is the training that made this book so difficult for me to read. I am not comfortable with keeping wild creatures in captivity and in my naivete I hadn’t realised just what training a hawk entailed. Even though Helen Macdonald tells her friend’s husband that it had not been a battle training Mabel because ‘she’s a freakishly calm hawk‘, it came across to me that it had been a battle of wills, as she kept Mabel indoors in a darkened room, in a hood, on a perch or restrained on a leash for much of the time. It was a physical battle too that evoked rage, violence and frustration.

I found it difficult too because it is so personal as she exposed just how bereft she was, how she suffered the loss of her father and became depressed almost to the state of madness:

It was about this time that a kind of madness drifted in. Looking back, I think I was never truly mad. More mad north-north-west. I could tell a hawk from a handsaw always but sometimes it was striking to me how similar they were. I knew I wasn’t mad mad because I’d seen people in the grip of psychosis before, and that was madness as obvious as the taste of blood in the mouth. The kind of madness I had was different. It was quiet, and very, very dangerous. It was a madness designed to keep me sane. My mind struggled to build across the gap, make a new and inhabitable world. (location 219)

This a book unlike any other that I’ve read, about wildness, grief and mourning, and obsession, which made it heavy reading for me.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1875 KB
  • Print Length: 322 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0802123414
  • Publisher: Vintage Digital (31 July 2014)
  • Source: I bought it

10 Books of Summer 2015

10 books of summerCathy over at 746Books is hosting her 20 Books of Summer challenge for the second year. I’ve seen this on a few blogs and have been tempted to join in.  The challenge runs from the 1st June 2015 to the 4th September 2015. But I’ve decided to limit the challenge to reading 10 books this summer from my own books. Part of the pleasure in taking on this challenge is compiling the list of books I’d like to read and looking through my unread books. These are double shelved which means that I don’t see the ones at the back very often, so I’ve chosen mainly from those books and tried to get a mix of genres, although most of them just happen to be crime fiction!

These are the books I’d like to read (in no particular order):

  1. The Remorseful Day by Colin Dexter – the last Morse book. I’ve watched the TV version but never read the book.
  2. Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie – an early collection of short stories.
  3. Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie – also featuring Poirot. This is one of the novels I have left to read for the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge.
  4. Zen there was Murder by H R F Keating – murder on a Zen Buddhism course.
  5. The Day of the Lie by William Brodrick – a Father Anselm book. How could I have forgotten I had this book? I’ve loved the other Father Anselm books I’ve read!
  6. A Medal for Murder by Frances Brody – the second Kate Shackleton mystery, set in the 1920s.
  7. The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam – the second book in the Old Filth trilogy. I’ve read the first one and can’t imagine why I haven’t read this one before now – well, I can – other books got in the way!
  8. Silas Marner by George Eliot – I thought I’d include a short classic.
  9. Great Escape Stories by Eric Williams – another book I’ve had so long I can’t remember where or when I got it. It comprises twelve true-life escape and evasion stories from the Second World War and one from the Korean War.
  10. How the Girl Guides Won the War by Janie Hampton. I was full of enthusiasm to read this when I bought it, but then put it on the shelf, where it got hidden behind other books until today!

I’ll collect these books together and post a photo later.

Poirot and Me by David Suchet and Geoffrey Wansell

Prologue

It is a damp, chill Friday morning in November and I am feeling old, very old; so old, indeed, that I am on the brink of death. I have lost two stone in weight, my face is the colour of aged parchment, and my hands are gnarled  like human claws.

I must have watched nearly all, if not all, of David Suchet’s performances as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. For me he was the perfect Poirot, so it was a given that I would read his autobiography, Poirot and Me, written with the help of his friend Geoffrey Wansell. And it really lives up to its title, as the main subject is David Suchet’s role as Poirot. His first performance as Poirot was in 1988. Over the intervening twenty five years he played the part in every one of the seventy Poirot stories that Agatha Christie wrote, with the exception of a tiny short story called The Lemesurier Inheritance (a story in Poirot’s Early Cases and in The Under Dog).

When I started watching the TV dramas it had been years since I’d read any of Agatha Christie’s books and I wasn’t aware that the early shows were based on her short stories – actually I didn’t even know then that she had written any short stories at all. I’ve read nearly all of her full length novels, but only a few of her short stories so far.

I think Poirot and Me may not appeal to people who are not readers of Agatha Christie’s books as it consists largely of Suchet’s summaries of the stories and how he went about analysing Poirot’s character and how he played the part. He began by compiling a list of Poirot’s characteristics, then considering his voice and his appearance. He made 92 ‘character points’ and his original list is reproduced in the book, along with photos of locations, the cast and crew.

He was most concerned that his portrayal of Poirot should be faithful to the character that Agatha Christie had created. He immersed himself so completely in the character that at times he didn’t know where Poirot ended and he began! Even so, some of the dramatisations are not strictly faithful to the original stories, for various reasons; additional characters are included and some of the plots are expanded versions, especially where the original short stories were slight. Or, for example, as in the case of the collection of short stories that make up The Twelve Labours of Hercules, the stories are so diverse that the screenwriter created an almost entirely new story, though using some of the characters.

At the end of each of the Poirot series, David Suchet didn’t know if any more were in the pipeline and he continued to play other parts in film,  on TV and on the stage. I found this just as interesting as the sections on his role as Poirot and it emphasises his qualities as an actor –  he is a ‘character’ actor, a Shakespearean actor and with the exception of Poirot his roles have been pretty dark and menacing parts. I particularly remember him in Blott on the Landscape, in which he played the malevolent gardener and in The Way We Live Now as the sinister financier Melmotte.

He thinks the charm of the Poirot stories is that

… they reveal a world where manners and morals are quite different from today. There are no overt or unnecessary sex scenes, no alcoholic, haunted detectives in Poirot’s world. He lives in a simpler, some would say more human, era; a lost England, seen through the admiring eyes of this foreigner, this little Belgian detective. For me, that makes the stories all the more appealing, for although the days he lives in seem far away, they are all the more enchanting because of it. (page 64 in the hardback edition)

I think so too – and I think the same charm and appeal can be found in the Miss Marple stories.

David Suchet wrote that when Hercule Poirot died on that late November afternoon in 2012 (as he filmed Curtain) a part of him died, but for me and doubtless for many others, Poirot lives on not just in Agatha Christie’s stories but also in David Suchet’s wonderful performances as his ‘cher ami‘, Hercule Poirot.

  • Hardcover: 320 pages (also available in paperback and on Kindle)
  • Publisher: Headline; 1st edition (7 Nov. 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0755364198
  • ISBN-13: 978-0755364190
  • Source: my local library

Reading TBRs & The TBR Pile Challenge: May Checkpoint

In the context of this challenge and also the Mount TBR Challenge TBRs are books that have a publication date before 1/1/2014 (ie any book published in the year 2013 or earlier qualifies, as long as it has been on your TBR pile). It does not include all the books you’ve acquired since 1/1/204 even though they are, of course To Be Read books too!

official tbr challengeIt’s time for the MAY Check-in for the  2015 TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader! We’re now almost half-way into the challenge, which is to identify and to read 12 books during 2015!

Question of the Month: If you could go back and edit your list to make ONE change, what do you think you would have done differently? A book or author that you wish you had included? A book that you wish you hadn’t bothered with?

First of all  this is my answer to Adam’s question – I wish I hadn’t included The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower, which I have put back one of the books on my shelves, at least for the time being, as I found it so confusing and I don’t like the fact that  it’s written in the third person present tense, which I find awkward. I bought this book 7 years ago and like to think that I am more careful now in choosing books and would avoid books written in that tense.

My Progress: 2 of 12 Completed – I am way behind! I’ve read The Burning by Jane Casey and The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld. The books for this challenge are shown in the sidebar to the right.

So, why am I behind when the books on the list are ones I’ve identified as ones I have owned for a while and want to read? One of the reasons is that I’m a great believer that there is a right time to read a book and often these books are not the right books this time. But there are other reasons too:

  • I start reading one of the books from the TBR Pile and find it difficult to read because it’s in a small font, or it’s very heavy/bulky to hold, so I read something else.
  • Or it’s very long and I fancy reading something shorter.
  • I keep reading about interesting books on other book blogs and want to read those now, so I either borrow them from the library, which means I have to read those first in case I can’t renew them, or I buy them and start reading them straight away.
  • Then there are books I read for my local book group which I have to fit in each month.

I’ll have to overcome these reasons if I’m ever going to read those books!

Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes

I read Nothing To be Frightened Of over several weeks, reading short sections at a time. This book is described on the back cover by Penelope Lively as:

A maverick form of family memoir that is mainly an extended reflection on the fear of death and on that great consolation, religious belief … it is entertaining, intriguing, absorbing … an inventive and invigorating slant on what is nowadays called “life writing”.

It is a collection of thoughts centred around Barnes’s fear of death and so inevitably he considers the question of religion and especially God – in fact he begins his book with this statement: I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.

Later, he writes, Missing God is rather like Being English, a feeling aroused mainly by attack. When my country is abused, a dormant, if not to say narcoleptic, patriotism stirs. And when it comes to God, I find myself more provoked by atheistic absolutism than by, say, the often bland, tentative hopefulness of the Church of England. (page 77)

His agnosticism doesn’t help him with his fear of dying, but then, again, he thinks that faith does not necessarily remove the fear of death anyway – there are those who fear death among those who have faith as well as among the irreligious.

But this is more than a book about dying because interwoven with his thoughts about his agnosticism and death are anecdotes about his family and himself, thoughts on literature (particularly French literature) and it’s relationship to life. I found it all fascinating,  but it’s his autobiographical passages that I found the most interesting, sharing details about his family’s beliefs and the deaths of his parents and grandparents, of the rivalry between him and his brother, his mother’s solipsism and manipulative behaviour, his father’s seemingly passive approach to life and the difficulties of really knowing a person.

He states that it is easier with fiction than with life – fictional characters are easier to see, whereas in real life ‘the better you know someone , the less well often you see them. … They may be so close as to be out of focus … Often when we talk about someone very familiar, we are referring back to the time when we first properly saw them, when they were held in the most useful -and flattering light – light at the correct focal distance.’ (page 157)

He and his brother have different memories of their parents and grandparents and of their own early relationship, which shows how unreliable memory can be. I suppose I agree more with his brother, the philosopher Jonathan Barnes, who thinks that memories are often false and not to be trusted without external support, rather than Julian, who says he is more trusting, or self deluding, so shall continue as all my memories are true.

This is by no means a gloomy, pessimistic book.  It’s written in an informal tone, almost as though he is talking to the reader, and not being divided into chapters adds to that sense of being involved in a conversation. But is far from being a simple read – there is an awful lot packed into this book, an intensely personal book that reflects the complexity of our views of life and death. It gave me much to think about and even made me chuckle in parts.

And finally thinking about being remembered/forgotten after his death, Barnes considers who will be his last reader because with that reader he will finally be forgotten – and then he reflects that your last reader is, by definition, someone who didn’t recommend your books to anyone else. You bastard! Not good enough, eh? (page 226)

I think it extremely unlikely that I’ll be his last reader!

Reading Challenge: Non Fiction Reading Challenge 2015. This is only the 5th non fiction book I’ve read so far this year!

Gently North West by Alan Hunter

I first came across Inspector George Gently through the TV drama with Martin Shaw as Gently. There are 46 books in Alan Hinter’s Gently series and I’ve  read the first two , Gently Does It and Gently by the Shore and now the 14th book, Gently North West (first published in 1967). The full list of the Gently books is on Fantastic Fiction.  In the TV version Gently is based in Northumberland, whereas the books are mainly set in Norfolk.

Summary (Amazon)

There’s blood in the heather and a murderer on the loose when Gently pays a quiet visit to the Highlands of Scotland. Had Brenda Merryn not been such a strong-willed woman and had she not been so much in love with George Gently, driving all the way to Scotland for a holiday with Gently’s sister and brother-in-law might have been a bit of a challenge. Spying on a heavily armed private army of nationalists, being held at gunpoint on the hillside, being held prisoner in a filthy outhouse and becoming involved in a murder would be unthinkable. For Gently, it’s all in a day’s work and his holiday is put on hold while he stalks a murderer in the mountains, with Brenda by his side.

My view:

Gently North West is set in the fictitious village of Strathtudlem in Scotland in 1967 where Gently is on holiday with his friend, Barbara Merryn and his sister, Bridget and her husband. There is quite a lot of detailed descriptions not only of the Scottish Highlands but also of the route of Gently’s journey from London to Scotland. On their journey a man with a red beard nearly crashes into Gently’s car.

Then on their first evening in the Highlands, Gently and Brenda go for a walk and see the same man, standing high on a crag above the glen, peering at them through his binoculars.  The next morning, the body of Donnie Dunglass is found, stabbed in the back, face down on the heather near where Gently had seen the man with the red beard. He feels it is his duty to inform the local constabulary about the man he saw and so becomes involved in the search for the killer.

In this book there are several references that set the book firmly in the late 1960s with reference to the Scottish Nationalists ‘ activities during that time and even to Mary Quant. But what particularly interested me about Gently North West is not the actual murder mystery which I think is rather far-fetched, but the fact that Gently is no longer an Inspector working in Norfolk but is living in London, a Chief Superintendent with Scotland Yard. Obviously since the events in the second book Gently had been promoted several times!

Now I’m wondering if I want to read all the books to find out more about Alan Hunter’s Gently.

Alan Hunter was born in Hoveton, Norfolk in 1922. He left school at the age of fourteen to work on his father’s farm, spending his spare time sailing on the Norfolk Broads and writing nature notes for the Eastern Evening News. He also wrote poetry, some of which was published while he was in the RAF during the Second World War. By 1950, he was running his own book shop in Norwich and in 1955, the first of what would become a series of forty-six George Gently novels was published.  He died in 2005, aged eighty-two.

He dedicated Gently North West to his mother, Isabella Hunter, nee Andrews, who was from Culsalmond in Aberdeenshire. In his own words she ‘contrived to possess her son with an indelible prejudice for the land of heroes and poets. Rest her well where she lies and greetings to my unknown Scottish cousins.

Reading Challenge: this is the fifth book I’ve read that qualifies for the Read Scotland Challenge 2015.