Saturday, 7 July 2018

Review: A Surgeon’s Photograph (Rising Shadows Productions, GM Fringe)

Tuesday 3rd July 2018
Footlights House, Media City

So… the Greater Manchester Fringe kicks off for another year! As my alter ego, Hannah Kate, I hosted a GM Fringe Hannah’s Bookshelf Special on North Manchester FM on Saturday 30th June, interviewing many of the actors, writers, directors and producers taking part in this year’s festival.

The Fringe is now in its seventh year, and the programme this year is bigger than ever, taking in theatre, music, comedy, spoken word and other performances. There are hundreds of performances across numerous Greater Manchester venues (admittedly, mostly in Manchester and Salford – though there are way more non-Manc/Sal places taking part this year than previously). The Fringe runs from the 1st-31st July, and details of all the shows are available on the festival’s website.

For me, the Fringe started with a performance of A Surgeon’s Photograph by Rising Shadows Productions at Footlights House in Salford.

A Surgeon’s Photograph is a new musical by Jacob Dufton, produced and directed by Ella Dufton. This Bury-born brother and sister founded Rising Shadows, with the goal of ‘re-inspiring regional film and theatre’. This year’s show is a musical set in Scotland in the 1970s.

The title of the show is taken from the name given to an iconic (but fake) photograph of the Loch Ness Monster, which was published in 1934. And Nessie is a key player in Rising Shadows’ show.

When he is ten years old, Robert McCoy (played by Dufton) loses his father. His godfather, Rev. John Sullivan (played by Joe Davies), tells the young boy that his father was killed during a fishing trip on Loch Ness… and that the monster was to blame. Rob grows up believing that he must avenge his father’s death.

The play’s main story takes place a number of years later, when a now-teenaged Rob joins with friends Duncan (Christian Fuchs) and Cathy (Sophie Rush) for a final attempt to confront the monster that killed his dad. However, this is complicated by the love triangle that has developed between the three childhood friends. As Rob grows increasingly unhinged in his obsession with Nessie, Duncan and Cathy have to decide how far they can go to support their friend.

A Surgeon’s Photograph began life as a concept album (written by Dufton), and so the story is really carried through the musical numbers. Each scene is set and developed through a song, and there is limited dramatic development between them – almost all the plot and characterization is presented through music and lyrics, though there is naturally some dialogue holding everything together. This makes sense given the story’s origins as an album, rather than a script, but there are moments where the narrative would have benefitted from some more development. However, this isn’t a criticism as such. The play has been created to fit the constraints of a Fringe production (and so it is short by musical standards), and I appreciate the way in which the narrative has had to be shaped. But it’s worth saying that the story could easily stand expansion into a full-length production, and I think it’s good that I was left wanting more!

As I’ve said, A Surgeon’s Photograph is – mostly – set on and around Loch Ness. Before I saw the show, I had some concerns about how the company were going to handle this. Without a lavish budget and ambitious set-dressing, how do you conjure up the vastness and majesty of a place like Loch Ness?

Of course, this conjuring is done in A Surgeon’s Photograph through the music. Dufton’s dramatic and passionate score blends Celtic and Scottish influences with nods to the music of the 70s, and the performers do a good job of singing as though a massive body of water separates them from the audience. I very much enjoyed the fact that the vastness of the music is paired with minimal set design – only one piece of staging is used, a triangle of wood that forms the hull of a boat (and, at one point, the seats of a car), which is very effective. The cast is also minimal, with just four actors (Dufton, Fuchs and Rush play the younger versions of their characters as well as the teenagers).

Overall, these performances are strong and all the right notes are hit throughout (with just the odd occasional wobble on the Scottish accents). Dufton is convincing as the beloved kind – but dangerously obsessed – young man dealing with his father’s death. Rush is likable as the vicar’s daughter confused by her feelings towards the two boys (though Cathy’s relationship to her rather conflicted father is one of the aspects of the play that could really benefit from expansion). But I think it was Fuchs’ performance that I found most compelling. His Duncan is sweetly steadfast and understated, but (much like Loch Ness) there’s plenty going on under the surface. Chemistry between Dufton and Fuchs means that the lads’ friendship is sympathetic, making Duncan’s continued willingness to hunt for a (supposedly) fictional monster believable.

But for all its majestic music and monster-hunting, A Surgeon’s Photograph isn’t really about Nessie. There’s another story here, and that’s where the real heart of the show lies. It’s a coming-of-age story about friendship, love and sexuality. And I will admit that I shed a little tear at one point.

All in all, a very enjoyable production. A charming premise, conveyed through great music and compelling performances. I hope to see more from Rising Shadows in the future.

Monday, 18 June 2018

My Year in Books 2018: May

Okay, so May was a pretty hectic month. I read quite a lot of stuff for work, but didn't really get chance to read much for pleasure. So embarrassingly, there's only one book on my list for May. I'm still trying to stick to my resolution, though, so here's a review anywhere.

In case you missed them, here are my posts from months when I did better: January, February, March and April.

The Lake District Murder by John Bude (1935)

I love the British Library Crime Classics series, and I’m building up quite a collection of them – mostly thanks to my mother-in-law, who’s bought me loads of titles for birthdays and Christmas (and a couple that she’s picked up second-hand too!). I read John Bude’s The Cornish Coast Murder last Christmas (when we were staying in Cornwall), so I was looking forward to this one. Bude’s novels are a bit unusual for Golden Age detective fiction, as they tend more towards the ‘police procedural’ side of things. Cornish Coast combines this with a bit of amateur sleuthing by other characters, but Lake District goes the whole hog and just focuses on the police investigation. A garage owner is found dead in his car, apparently having taken his own life. Inspector Meredith suspects there’s more to it, and he launches a meticulously thorough investigation to get to the bottom of things. But everything he uncovers leads to a further puzzle. Police procedurals aren’t my favourite – I’m more of a whodunnit type of person – but, as is usually the case with the BL’s Crime Classics, you get so swept away with the atmosphere and scenery that you can forgive a slightly dull plot (this one has a lot of talk of garages and petrol deliveries)! Bude’s novel is set in one of my favourite places in the world, and there’s something quite compelling about watching the dogged Inspector Meredith zooming round Cumbria on his motorcycle, before heading home for a cold-cut lunch.

I'll try and have more books to talk about next month!

Friday, 15 June 2018

Review: Hobson’s Choice (Salford Theatre Company)

Friday 8th June 2018
Salford Arts Theatre

Hobson’s Choice was written by Harold Brighouse in 1916. Set in Salford in the 1880s, the play is about bootmaker Henry Hobson and his three daughters, Maggie, Alice and Vickey. This new production by Salford Theatre Company is on at the Salford Arts Theatre from 6th to 23rd June.

It’s fairly standard to see reviews of Hobson’s Choice stating that the play was ‘shocking’ in its day, both for its depiction of female characters and its side-swipe at snobbishness and a rigid class system. Undoubtedly, there are unexpected elements – Maggie’s coercing/bullying Will Mossop into marriage on the grounds of ‘good business sense’, Hobson’s pathetic diatribe on the uppishness of women and the value of the British middle class – but I’m not convinced that these would have been scandalous in 1916.

Maggie Hobson/Mossop is certainly a character who defies feminine stereotypes and behaves in an unconventional way. At 30, she is ‘old’ (a fact that her father points out on a number of occasions), and she rejects romance for sensible business practice. She demands Hobson’s meek boothand Will Mossop marries her, sending away poor Ada Figgins (Will’s erstwhile fiancée) with a flea in her ear, and then effectively puts her own father out of business. But while Maggie doesn’t conform to the stereotype of the polite young lady, she certainly embodies another stereotype – the northern battle-axe. Hobson’s Choice isn’t so much shocking as it is proper northern. Perhaps Maggie would have been seen as an outrageous character if Brighouse had set his play in that London, but she seems perfectly at home in Salford.

The Salford Theatre Company’s production presents Brighouse’s play ‘as is’, i.e. without any attempt to update the material. Their version is a period piece set in 1880 – as the play was always intended to be (being set over 30 years earlier than it was written). Any attempt to modernize Hobson’s Choice or ‘make it relevant’ would only obscure the play’s comical balance of affectionate nostalgia and modernizing desire.

This balance is struck in the Salford Theatre Company’s production quite simply through staging and performance. The period features are there, but not overdone. The sets feel like 1880, but aren’t meticulous or overdressed. The performances aren’t overstated or mannered.

Stand-out performances are Scott Berry as Henry Hobson and Lyndsay Fielding as Maggie. Inevitably, productions of Hobson’s Choice encourage comparisons with David Lean’s 1954 film version – indeed, I heard people in the bar before the show talking about Lean’s film – but Berry and Fielding offered very different performances to those of Charles Laughton and Brenda de Banzie.

Fielding’s Maggie is believable as a not-quite-old-maid with a good business head on her shoulders. No-nonsense and shrewd, rather than bossy and bitter, this Maggie is easy to root for and more three-dimensional than some other portrayals of the character. It’s quite easy to see why Will Mossop quickly comes round to the idea that she’s the woman for him (making the final scenes with the couple all the more enjoyable).

Berry is excellent as Hobson. He avoids a bombastic, larger-than-life performance in favour of a more personable, sympathetic portrayal. Berry’s Hobson is a small man, shrinking back into his outdated beliefs in an attempt to fight off the inevitable. Even his most well-known speech (on the ‘uppishness’ of women) is deflated – as though he already knows he’s on a losing streak. It’s a relief to know he has a daughter (and son-in-law) who can take care of him at the end.

Of the other performances, Elka Lee-Green and Connie James are enjoyable as Alice and Vickey – keeping up a comical array of facial expressions whenever the other characters were talking. Joseph Walsh is likable as Willie Mossop, handling the transition from hapless boothand to confident small businessman well. The warmth that develops between Will and Maggie is convincing and satisfying.

It’s always nice to watch a production of Hobson’s Choice on its home turf. The local references (like Willie’s lines about the metaphorical distance from Oldfield Road to Chapel Street to St Ann’s Square) still make you smile, and Hobson and his daughters haven’t lost their Salfordian charm.

Hobson’s Choice is on at Salford Arts Theatre until 23rd June.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

My Year in Books 2018: April

I'm doing alright with this New Year's Resolution business! Didn't get as much time to read in April as previously, as it's been a pretty hectic month, but still found some snatches of time to read a couple of novels for pleasure. And I'm still sticking to my word count for reviews as well. This is probably the best I've ever done with a resolution!

Here are the links to my previous posts from January, February and March. And here are the books I read in April.

The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (2008; translated by Lucia Graves, 2009)

One thing I’m trying to do with this New Year’s resolution is catch up with the books I’ve borrowed over the past couple of years, then never read. This is another loan from my mother-in-law – though, like The Liar last month, it’s not the sort of thing we normally share. The Angel’s Game definitely has supernatural undertones, but it’s more ‘literary fiction’ than I normally go for. Set in Barcelona in the 1920s, the book tells the story of a struggling writer, David Martín, who begins his career at a newspaper after his father is killed. As David excels in the world of pulp serial fiction, he dreams of writing a ‘real’ novel. Dogged by failure, he’s approached by a mysterious French publisher who makes him an offer that seems too good to be true. The premise had me totally hooked, but I found the novel patchy. Some chapters/sequences were captivating and evocative, but much of the book was drawn-out and tedious. In places, it was rather repetitive and, as with a lot of men’s literary fiction, the presentation of women was awful (we’re only a couple of chapters in before the first Manic Pixie Dream Girl appears, and oh boy! is the protagonist’s mum to blame for a lot). That said, those captivating sequences kept me reading, and I did love the house that is the setting for much of the novel, so it wasn’t all bad. I’m on the fence as to whether this is a recommendation though.

Fall of Night by Rachel Caine (2013)

Fall of Night is the fourteenth and penultimate book in Caine’s Morganville Vampires YA series. I’ve been a fan of the series for a while – I’d go as far as to say the books are the best YA vampire books I’ve read – but I never got round to reading the last two books in the series (collateral damage in my ‘no time to read for pleasure’ situation). It’s been a few years since I read the thirteenth book (Bitter Blood), but it was surprisingly easy to get back into the series. At the end of Bitter Blood, protagonist Claire Danvers had finally helped her uneasy vampire allies defeat the various foes attacking the small Texas town of Morganville, and she’s played her part in setting a new era of human/vampire relations in motion. As a reward, she’s been given permission by head vampire and town founder to leave the town and pursue her studies at MIT (something Claire has dreamed of since she first rocked up in Morganville in the first book). Of course, things aren’t really what they seem and Claire has more enemies (human and vampire) to face. As with the rest of the series, the books feature a likable heroine, with a great team of sidekicks, and vampires that are more three-dimensional than in (perhaps) any other YA series. It’s a fun read, but I’d suggest reading the rest of the series first – so you’re familiar with the characters and the rules of their quirky vampiric town.

Daylighters by Rachel Caine (2013)

I followed Fall of Night straightaway with Daylighters, the fifteenth and final book in Caine’s series. Morganville Vampires is an interesting series in that most books follow on immediately from their predecessor, with some ending on a mid-action cliffhanger. Fall of Night and Daylighters work like this, with the shock ending of the former being the dramatic opening scene of the latter. It’s an aspect of the series that encourages binge reading, and I’ve read quite a few of the books back-to-back. Without spoiling the plot of Fall of Night, I’ll say that Daylighters sees Claire and her (human and vampire) friends return to Morganville after their brief sojourn in Cambridge (the one in Massachusetts) to find that things are very different to when they left – there is, of course, one final battle to be faced. While there were certain aspects of this book I loved – it has all the chemistry of the previous titles, and a certain supernatural creature (sort of) makes its long-awaited appearance in the series – it is a little let down by its continuity, which was really apparent reading it straight after Fall of Night. The problem is that the events of Fall of Night clearly took place over the course of a single week, but several months seem to have passed in Morganville. I did enjoy Daylighters, but this niggle annoyed me, as the rest of the series was pretty tight on chronology and continuity. Not my favourite Morganville book, but still a fun read.

The Skeleton Road by Val McDermid (2014)

The last book I read this month was Val McDermid’s The Skeleton Road. I’ve read quite a few of McDermid’s books, and I’ve enjoyed almost all the ones I’ve read so far (the only one I haven’t liked was A Darker Domain). I picked this one up in a bookshop while we were away and didn’t have any preconceptions about it. I hadn’t clocked that it was in the same series as A Darker Domain, and to be honest I didn’t even notice it had the same detective until I came to write this review! This tells you something about how McDermid does series fiction – it’s not always necessary to read the books in the order they were published, as most of them work as standalones as well as instalments. The Skeleton Road is the third novel to feature Karen Pirie, a cold case detective, and this book begins with the discovery of a decades-old body on the roof of an old school in Edinburgh. The first challenge for the detective is to identify the body, and there isn’t much for her to go on. Interweaving narratives introduce other storylines and characters: a man is killed in his apartment in Crete, a university professor worries about the fate of her Croatian lover, who left her eight years earlier, an International Criminal Tribunal prepares to wrap up its search for Balkan war criminals. The pleasure here is seeing how everything fits together, but also how the characters handle the various revelations.

My Year in Books 2018: March

I've managed to stick to my New Year's Resolution for three months! Go me! I'm still making time to read books for pleasure, and I've managed to keep writing short-form reviews as well. Admittedly, I'm a bit late posting my reviews for March, but I reckon I'm doing alright, given how busy April was for me.

In case you're curious, you can click on these links for my reviews from January and February. But here are the books I read in March...

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (2004)

I’ve been a fan of Kate Atkinson’s writing since I first read Behind the Scenes at the Museum as an undergraduate (and that book remains one of my favourite novels of all time). I’m also – as you might have guessed from other posts on this blog – a big fan of detective fiction. However, until now, I hadn’t read any of Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels. And I’m not sure why. They’ve been recommended to me by a number of people, so I thought it was about time I took the plunge. Hmmm… not sure I’m glad I did, to be honest. I started with Case Histories, which seemed to have a great premise: three seemingly unconnected cold cases all fall into the lap of Jackson Brodie, private investigator, who becomes (professionally) involved with the eccentric sisters of one of the victims, and the tragic father of one of the others. The book has been described as a ‘tragi-comedy’ and ‘complex’, qualities I love in Atkinson’s other novels. However, Case Histories just didn’t do it for me. It is undoubtedly a novel about a detective, but it isn’t a detective novel. There’s no sense of a mystery to be solved, or clues to be uncovered, but rather the unravelling of a series of tragic stories. While this type of unravelling works well in Atkinson’s other fiction, the presence of a rather cliched P.I. here makes it all seem rather forced. I’ve got to admit, I was really quite disappointed with this one.

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson (2006)

I know I didn’t really enjoy Case Histories, but I was still determined to give Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books a good try. So next up, I read One Good Turn. In this book, Brodie has retired from detective work and is living in France. On a visit to the Edinburgh Fringe, he becomes wrapped up in a ‘Russian doll’ series of events: a brutal road rage incident leads to another incident, which leads to another, and another, and so on. In many ways, the story unfolds in a more typically Atkinson way than in Case Histories, and the focus on how (sometimes minor) occurrences can have a ripple effect on the lives of people only tangentially involved is characteristic of Atkinson’s style (which works so well in Behind the Scenes and A God in Ruins, for instance). But the book’s over-arching mystery just didn’t work for me. It lacked any sense of realism or suspense, and the characters were unconvincing. Jackson Brodie himself felt like an afterthought. Although he’s caught up in the mystery at various points, he doesn’t really play a role in investigating or solving it. In fact, I’m not sure how much of it is really ‘solved’ at the end – things have happened, and some people are aware of the truth, but there’s no real denouement. Overall, I felt that this (and Case Histories) were too Atkinson-y to be good detective fiction, but too detective fiction-y to be good Atkinson novels. Jackson Brodie is not for me.

The Ravenglass Eye by Tom Fletcher (2012)

Oh dear, it seems this month’s theme is ‘disappointing books by authors I love’. Tom Fletcher’s debut novel The Leaping is one of my favourite horror novels of all time. I also really enjoyed his second novel The Thing on the Shore, particularly the way it evokes a version of Cumbria far removed from the more usual romanticized Lake District. (I’m Cumbrian by birth, by the way, and I’m from the other, non-Lake District bit of Cumbria.) Ravenglass is one of my favourite places in the UK, so I was over-the-moon when I heard that Fletcher’s third horror novel was set in the little Northern Lakes village. Sigh. I’m gutted to say it, but I really didn’t enjoy The Ravenglass Eye. The book tells the story of Edie, a barmaid at The Tup (like most of the locations, this is a thinly fictionalized version of a real pub in Ravenglass) who develops ‘the Eye’, a power which allows her to see strange events and another world. When a horrifically mutilated corpse is found, Edie realizes that she is part of something much bigger – and far-reaching – than she knew. While this is a fairly solid premise for a horror novel, the book lacks the lyricism and philosophical quality that I enjoyed in Fletcher’s previous two horror novels. We lurch from one grotesque set piece to the next, without any time to dwell on the magnitude of what we’re seeing. Sadly, the book feels rather hurried, and the ending is a let-down.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (2006)

I’ve been meaning to read this one for a while, as it’s cropped up a couple of times when I’ve been looking for themes for episodes of my radio show. Setterfield’s novel features Margaret Lea, a bookseller and amateur biographer, who is contacted by reclusive (but super-famous) novelist Vida Winter. Vida is dying and wants to finally tell the story of her life – putting to bed the various fabrications she’s created over the years – and she’s chosen Margaret as her biographer. Vida insists on letting the story unfold chronologically, though Margaret can’t resist fact-checking and leaping ahead at times, which creates an enjoyable story-within-a-story format. The Thirteenth Tale is definitely a page-turner, and there’s a lot that I really liked about it. I did guess a couple of the twists (including the final ‘reveal’), but that didn’t prevent me enjoying the way the story unfolded. My only problem with the book was that I couldn’t stand the protagonist! I found Margaret to be one of the most irritating characters I’ve read for a long while. Hardly a page goes by without her mentioning either (a) that she loves books (other people might love books, but she like really loves them) and (b) she drinks cocoa rather than tea or coffee. Fortunately, the book keeps taking us back to Vida’s story which, though a little OTT, is a lot more engaging than Margaret’s narration. Overall, I enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale, though. It’s a great Gothic mystery with some decent ghostly twists.

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver (2010)

My mother-in-law lent me Dark Matter ages ago, after I mentioned I’d become a bit fascinated by Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. I kept meaning to read it, but never seem to get chance. I thought this New Year’s resolution was a good spur to finally get around to it. The book is set in 1937; a young man named Jack Miller signs up to be a wireless operator with an expedition to Spitsbergen (part of the Svalbard archipelago). A party of five men and eight huskies leave Norway, with the intention of making camp in Gruhuken and making a scientific study of the area. But, as they leave Longyearbyen (the main settlement in Svalbard), things start to go wrong. And as it’s the final days of the Arctic summer, there’s a long winter stretching ahead of them. Paver’s novel is subtitled ‘A Ghost Story’, and this is an accurate description (more accurate than it being tagged ‘horror’). This is definitely a story about a haunting. However, what I really enjoyed was the way the landscape is evoked. It would be trite to say that Gruhuken is a ‘character’ in the book, but Paver is careful to keep the desolate bay centre-stage throughout the book. Dark Matter is a short book, but wonderfully absorbing. It’s a story about how people and place are inextricably intertwined, and (strange to say) it’s revitalised my desire to visit Svalbard one day. I’m glad I finally got chance to read it!

The Liar by Nora Roberts (2015)

Okay, this is a strange one. It’s another book my mother-in-law lent me, but I’m still at a loss to know why. Or why she read it in the first place. My mother-in-law and I share a love of horror and crime fiction. She lent me Dark Matter, and we went to a Peter May book launch together. Where did this Nora Roberts book come from? (She can’t remember, by the way. I think she might have been convinced by the Stephen King endorsement on the cover!) I’m not a romance fan, but I thought I’d give this one a go for the sake of variety. The blurb promised something almost like a thriller: when Shelby Pomeroy’s husband dies unexpectedly, she discovers a web of deception and debt that makes her question whether she really knew the man she was married to. Sadly, that’s not really what the book is about. Instead, it’s the story of a very dull young woman who returns to her hometown after her husband supposedly dies. Despite her having done nothing in life except marrying an obnoxious man, everyone is inexplicably in awe of Shelby Pomeroy. The book is littered with people praising her skills at selling her husband’s designer suits to pay off his debts, and she’s the greatest singer ever. The plot mostly revolves around her copping off with a local carpenter, and the reappearance of the dastardly not-dead husband is simply an underdeveloped subplot. Suffice to say, I was bored to tears.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Poirot Project: Death in the Clouds (review)

This post is part of my 2016 2016-17 lifelong Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The ABC Murders’, quite a while ago. Because of work commitments, it’s taken me a while to get back to my little project, but I’m hoping I can crack on now… let’s see how that goes…

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The second episode of the fourth ‘series’ of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 12th January 1992. (Have a look at the previous post for an explanation of why I’ve put ‘series’ in inverted commas.) It was based on the novel of the same name (aka Death in the Air), which was published in 1935. The academic in me wants to note the edition of the novel I’m using here:

It’s the Hamlyn Collected Edition from 1969 (which also includes Murder on the Orient Express and Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?). My grandma had a collection of these hardback triple editions, and I inherited them when she died. Obviously, where possible, I’m reading my grandma’s books for this project.

Death in the Clouds was published just a couple of months after the UK publication of Three Act Tragedy, and the two novels share a few minor details and plot points. I’ll come back to this when I get to Three Act Tragedy, I think. For now, let’s talk about Poirot’s airborne adventure.

By this point in Poirot’s story, Hastings has departed for South America (and this novel doesn’t feature one of his periodic returns), and Miss Lemon hasn’t yet joined his team (‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ wouldn’t be published until August 1935). So this is a Poirot story where our detective is flying solo, at least at first.

The story begins with a group of passengers boarding a plane, the Prometheus, from Le Bourget to Croydon. Amongst the passengers is, of course, Poirot, but we’re actually introduced to someone else first: a young hairdresser named Jane Grey. In fact, much of the novel is told from Jane’s POV, including quite a few scenes in which Poirot isn’t present. In the first chapter, Jane assesses her fellow passengers – including the ‘little elderly man with large moustaches and an eggshaped head’ – and reflects on the holiday she has just taken to Le Pinet and an incident that occurred while she was there.

Aside from Poirot, the passengers observed by Jane are: Lady Horbury, a cocaine-addicted former chorus-girl turned peeress-by-marriage; Venetia Kerr, a ‘horsey, county type’; a nice man in a periwinkle-blue pullover, who Jane had met at the roulette table one night; Dr Bryant, a tall man with a flute; the Duponts, two excited French archaeologists; Daniel Clancy, a detective fiction writer; and James Ryder, who is worrying about money. The final passenger to be mentioned, right at the end of the first chapter, is Madame Giselle. But Madame Giselle is already dead…

As the murder must have occurred while the plane was in the air, these passengers form our list of suspects (along with the two stewards, Mitchell and Davis, I guess… though no Christie fan would genuinely suspect a young lad called Albert Davis whose first word in the novel is ‘Coo!’). As the victim was sitting across the aisle from the great Hercule Poirot, the detective is naturally inclined to investigate. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to fly solo for long. When the plane arrives in Croydon, he’s joined by his old friend Inspector Japp, who views it all as a ‘rum business’.

You see, the initial investigation of the body on the plane (carried out by Poirot and Dr Bryant before they land) seems to suggest that Madame Giselle was killed by a poisoned dart. Daniel Clancy is able to supply further information:
‘“This object, gentlemen, is the native thorn shot from a blowpipe by certain tribes – er – I cannot be exactly certain now if it is South American tribes or whether it is the inhabitants of Borneo which I have in mind; but that is undoubtedly a native dart that has been aimed by a blowpipe, and I strongly suspect that on the tip –”
“Is the famous arrow poison of the South American Indians,” finished Hercule Poirot.’
Readers of Three Act Tragedy will already be aware of how seriously they should take this suggestion, of course, but Poirot can’t ignore the fact that a dart has been found, and that a number of the passengers were carrying tubes that could have been used as a blowpipe (Lady Horbury’s long cigarette holder, Dr Bryant’s flute, the Duponts’ collection of Kurdish pipes). It certainly does seem to be a ‘rum business’.

The investigation, then, turns to the background of the victim. Madame Giselle – or Marie Morisot (her real name) – was a Parisian moneylender, who had a client list comprising ‘the upper and professional classes’. She travelled to England regularly, as she had a habit of learning her clients’ deepest, darkest secrets, and then using this knowledge to ensure they didn’t fail to repay their debts. In order to find out more, Poirot and Japp have to work with the Paris Sûreté, specifically M. Fournier, who has heard all about Poirot from a M. Giraud. Readers familiar with Murder on the Links will already know about Poirot’s relationship with Giraud, but fortunately it doesn’t cause any problems on this case!

What’s interesting about Death in the Clouds, though, is that this is not the only investigation. Jane Grey and Norman Gale (the nice man in the periwinkle-blue pullover) are also keen to team up to solve the crime and exonerate themselves. Or are they just keen to team up (wink wink)? Poirot sees an opportunity and deputizes the young couple into his investigation, using them as a fake secretary and a disguised blackmailer in turn. After all, he can trust these two as they’re without doubt the most unlikely suspects from the plane. And at least the reader can trust that the killer would never be one of the characters from whose perspective the story is told. Lol.

In a bit of typical Christie slight-of-hand (or arrogance), we’re directly warned against trusting these deputy-detectives. But of course, we pay no attention to the warning, couched as it is in a sly joke from Japp at his friend’s expense:
‘“Well,” said Japp with a grin, “detectives do turn out to be criminals sometimes – in story books.”’
Similarly, we probably paid no attention to the barrage of clues that appeared before Madame Giselle’s inquest, as it’s so very easy to gloss over the wealth of incriminating details Christie often stuffs into the opening chapters of her books.

I’m going to move on to the adaptation in a sec, but there’s a few other bits of the book that are worth noting first…

There are a few references to other Poirot books in Death in the Clouds, but the weird thing is that some of them were yet to be written. Poirot is clearly still thinking about two of his previous cases, for instance, as he makes mention of both Three Act Tragedy and Murder on the Orient Express. When he and Fournier discuss the possibility of a ‘psychological reason’ why no one on the plane noticed someone whipping out a blowpipe to dispatch Madame Giselle, Poirot says:
‘I remember a case in which I was concerned – a case of poison, where that very point arose. There was, as you call it, a psychological moment.’
I should think you do remember it, Poirot – it only happened a couple of months ago!

Then, when an exasperated Japp says that he’s already questioned the passengers about this ‘psychological moment’ to no avail, declaring ‘Everyone can’t be lying’, Poirot notes that in one case he investigated ‘everyone was!’ (Japp just shakes his head at this – ‘You and your cases!’)

But then, we also have a few hints at the future as well. Jane Grey’s performance as Poirot’s secretary (‘As an efficient secretary, Miss Grey has at times to undertake certain work of a temporary nature – you understand?’) reminds us that in a few months Poirot will have engaged the services of a very efficient secretary (though she won’t always be willing to ‘undertake certain work of a temporary nature’). Jane accompanies Poirot to interview Daniel Clancy, a crime writer whose detective, Wilbraham Rice, is a very popular character with a number of quirks and a predilection for eating bananas. In just over a year, Poirot will have teamed up with another creator of popular detective fiction (though it’s Ariadne Oliver, rather than Sven Hjerson, who has the fruit habit).

But the future hint that made me smile most on rereading comes in Chapter 14. We get one of our little glimpses into the mind of dentist Norman Gale – the book really is quite head-hoppy – who briefly considers what it must be like for his patients: ‘Nasty helpless feeling you have in a dentist’s chair. If the dentist were to run amuck…’ Now, perhaps this is just one of those moments where Christie near enough tells you whodunit, but I like to imagine that, at some point over the next few years, she remembered this line and thought, ‘Now that could be a good plot to use.’ And it’s interesting that the programme-makers chose to follow Death in the Clouds with an adaptation of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe

A flippant point, and then a serious one before I go on to the TV version.

Flippancy: In one of the early chapters, there’s a list of items included in all the passengers’ hand luggage. I was a bit thrown to discover that Venetia Kerr, Jane Grey and Lady Horbury were all carrying some delicious oaty treats, presumably for a snack on the plane. Thinking about it, though, it is possible that a ‘flapjack’ here means a powder compact.

On a less palatable note, it would be wrong of me not to mention one of the most uncomfortable passages in the book. Jane, as I’ve said, is a hairdresser. She works at a salon run by a man who calls himself ‘M. Antoine’, but whose real name is Andrew Leech. We’re told that his ‘claims to foreign nationality consisted of having had a Jewish mother’. Jane’s co-workers are… not cool with this. One woman, Gladys, refers to their employer as ‘Ikey Andrew’, after the man has (probably rightly) questioned Jane’s demands for a pay rise while she’s still a suspect in a murder investigation. Then, on the same page as Gladys’s anti-Semitism, comes another bit of gross casual racism: Jane and Norman go on their first date, and discover that they have a lot in common. They both like dogs and smoked salmon; they both dislike fat women and Katherine Hepburn. And: ‘They disliked loud voices, noisy restaurants and negroes.’ Wow. Nice couple.

It’s easy to dismiss these racial slurs as being a product of their time – and in many ways that’s what they are. There are other examples of such views going unquestioned in Christie’s work. But it’s notable that, here, the racism is coming almost entirely from unpleasant characters. Gladys is not a sympathetic character – she is described as having a ‘haughty demeanour’ in public and being ‘hoarse and jocular’ in private. Jane can’t seem to wait to be away from her. The other comment comes during a date with a murderer, so I’m not sure there’s any moral high ground here.

As it turns out, Poirot has a scheme in mind to draw Jane away from these anti-Semitic hairdressers and racist murdering dentists… he sees a different path for his heroine and hatches a match-making plot. It’s not clear whether this plot is due to his suspicion of Gale, or whether he just genuinely believes it is a better match for Jane, but he devotes some time and money to orchestrating a relationship between Jane Grey and Jean Dupont, the French archaeologist from the plane. After Gale’s arrest, Poirot believes he has finally been successful in this, noting that Jane and Dupont will likely soon be married. Jane will be accompanying Dupont to Persia, and specifically tells Poirot that she’s looking forward to having her worldview expanded.

Of course Agatha Christie would see hooking up with an archaeologist as a happy ending.

Okay… time to talk about the TV version…

‘Death in the Clouds’ was written by William Humble and directed by Stephen Whittaker. It follows the book in having Poirot ‘flying solo’ (so there’s no Hastings or Miss Lemon), then picking up Japp (Chief Inspector Japp here) along the way.

The adaptation keeps the bones of the story and characterization from the novel, but there are a few revisions and omissions to fit the television format. Dr Bryant, James Ryder and Armand Dupont (Jean’s father) are dropped, presumably to streamline the list of suspects. Jane Grey is no longer a hairdresser, but instead is one of the air stewards, replacing Albert Davis (Coo!). There’s also no mention of Giraud in the TV episode, which makes sense given there’s been no previous mention of him in the series.

Not only are things streamlined, some of the ‘hidden secrets’ of the novel are presented more explicitly in the adaptation. Lady Horbury’s gambling addiction and money problems are clear from the start; her relationship with her husband, and with Venetia Kerr, aren’t hidden either. We also see the wedding of Anne Giselle – the victim’s daughter – on screen, though we don’t find out who the groom is until the end.

Christie’s first chapter is a very neat piece of introduction and subterfuge. It introduces the various suspects – giving us a glimpse into everyone’s thoughts – without telling us what the crime is, or why we might need to know about these people. This technique wouldn’t translate well onto the screen, so we get some pre-flight sequences in Paris to establish the characters. It is 1936, and so several of our cast are attending the French Championships, watching von Cramm vs. Crawford, and then von Cramm vs. Fred Perry.

Although we don’t meet Jean Dupont and Daniel Clancy at this stage, these early scenes set up the love triangle between Lord Horbury, Cicely Horbury (who is a drinker, but not a cokehead in the episode) and Venetia Kerr. It also allows the ‘nice’ Norman Gale to accidentally meet Jane Grey without having the pair of them gambling the night away in Le Pinet, though Jane appears to prefer the company of the avuncular Belgian detective who talks her through the Surrealist art in a gallery. And who wouldn’t?

Because we see the pre-death activities of the main characters, rather than just having them narrated from the perspectives of the characters themselves, this set-up means that the programme-makers have to pull off a trick that’s had mixed results in the series as a whole: we have to see a character playing two parts, and it’s important we don’t see through her disguise (okay, maybe not as important as it is in some other stories, but still). In my opinion, they pull it off here to an extent. Jenny Downham’s first appearance on screen is as Madeleine, Lady Horbury’s maid. Madeleine is undoubtedly in frump-face – a technique used in other Christie adaptations – but she’s not as unbelievably made-up as, say, Mrs Middleton in 'The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge'. I think they just about get away with us not thinking of Madeleine when Poirot asks if he’s ever met Anne Giselle before (perhaps they were playing with the idea that nobody notices a maid particularly).

The other effect of the pre-flight scenes is that we get a sense of Madame Giselle (Eve Pearce) before she dies – in the novel, we don’t even know she exists until she is dead. Still, the adaptation doesn’t labour the point of Madame Giselle too much; she remains a shadowy figure, who seems to have a hold on Lady Horbury but is giving nothing away.

Reading other reviews of this episode, there seems to be a bit of disagreement among fans as to whether this is a faithful or good adaptation of the novel. Personally, I think it’s a good one. The plot is pretty much unchanged, and many of the minor alterations are due to the constraints of the format.

The biggest changes, really, are to do with characterization and the relationships between characters. Anne Giselle, for instance, is slightly revised to become a willing accomplice in her mother’s death (though not, obviously, an accomplice in the second murder). The inexplicably German-sounding Jean Dupont (Guy Manning) is a little more sinister – orchestrating a meeting with Jane Grey (Sarah Woodward) for the purpose of getting money out of Poirot – and the detective doesn’t do any match-making in the TV version. And Fournier (Richard Ireson) is much less competent here, playing sidekick to a rather bombastic Japp. (I find it ironic that Japp happily invades Fournier’s office and steals his desk, given how much he hated it when a foreign detective did that to him in 'The Adventure of the Cheap Flat'!)

One of the questions I’ve mused on with this episode is whether or not Lady Horbury is a more sympathetic character in the TV adaptation. In the book, she’s a rich, pretty drug addict (often a figure of pity in the Poirot novels – c.f. Freddie Rice and Coco Courtenay). Her husband clearly prefers – and is possibly having an affair with – Venetia Kerr, to whom he is engaged by the end of the book. Poirot, however, is having none of it: ‘[s]he is not the type I admire,’ he says.

In the TV version, Cathryn Harrison plays the actress-cum-peeress with a mixture of brash arrogance (she’s rude to waiters and stewards) and tragic vulnerability (she’s ignored by waiters and stewards). She’s no longer a cokehead, but rather someone who likes partying, while her husband (David Firth) is out being horsey with his mistress (Amanda Royle). Harrison’s portrayal makes us question, through small gestures and facial expressions, if Cicely is neglecting her wifely duties, or if she was never given a chance to fulfil them in the first place. I like this interpretation of the character.

Some final – rather random – observations about the episode…

1. Daniel Clancy’s character is a little exaggerated here. In the TV version (played by Roger Heathcott), he’s a rather distracted man who talks to his fictional creation. He tells Poirot that he can’t help solve the crime, as it’s only Wilbraham Rice who’s able to do solve mysteries. This underlines Clancy’s character as a proto-Ariadne, as Christie’s more developed character often mentions talking to her detective Sven. I like that the programme-makers kept the title of Clancy’s book, The Clue of the Scarlet Petal, to stay faithful to Christie’s version; however, in Christie's novel The Clue of the Scarlet Petal features death by South American arrow poison, but in the TV show Clancy is familiar with the poison but has never included it in a published book. (They take out some red herrings, they put some red herrings in.)

2. In this episode, the French characters actually speak French. Japp has to ask Fournier to speak English, and Poirot questions Giselle’s maid Elise (Gabrielle Lloyd) in French. The show won’t always be consistent with this, but at least here there’s no weird speaking-English-with-a-French-accent characters.

3. Nice return of one of Poirot’s classic accessories: the walking stick spyglass.

4. There’s a line in the adaptation – which is based on a line (earlier) in the novel – in which Poirot describes the disguised Gale as ‘wearing American spectacles’. This seems to have caused a bit of confusion with reviewers and commenters, so I looked into this. ‘American spectacles’ or ‘American-style spectacles’ are horn-rimmed glasses. Thanks to Vision Aids in America: A Social History of Eyewear and Sight Correction Since 1900 by Kerry Seagrave, I now know that horn-rimmed glasses were introduced to the UK in the early 1930s and popularized after King George gave them a whirl. Prior to that, they’d been associated entirely with Americans, and cartoonists and satirists had used them in images lampooning our transatlantic cousins. So there you go.

5. Okay. I shouldn’t care about this one. I shouldn’t have spent so much time looking into this one as I have done. I shouldn’t be so bothered about this. But I can’t stop pondering it, so I have to get it out. Maybe you can help me clear this up?

When Poirot goes to see Japp to discuss Lady Horbury’s connection to Madame Giselle, he walks in on his friend reading the Daily Mirror. We get a quick shot of the paper Japp is reading:

That’s a pretty believable copy of the Daily Mirror. The masthead, layout and fonts are from the 1930s. It’s a broadsheet (the Mirror didn’t go tabloid until 1937). The advert on the back page appears to be for Genaspirin, which was advertised in the top right-hand corner of the back page of the Mirror in the 30s. (You can see I’ve spent far too much time on this.)

A genuine Mirror front page from 1933 for comparison

But it’s ALL WRONG. And I’m so confused.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but that headline definitely says ‘Big fight lasts 100 seconds’, doesn’t it? And if I squint, I’m pretty sure the subheading says ‘Record crowd for Petersen win’. (I’m not 100% sure of that one, but I think I’m right.)

But that’s ALL WRONG. That would mean that the front page of the paper is referring to the light-heavyweight fight between Jack Petersen and Jack Doyle at White City, which drew an audience of 30,000 and ended with Doyle being disqualified in less than two rounds (trust me, I went through all of Petersen’s fights till I found one that matched). But the Petersen vs. Doyle fight took place on 12th July 1933!

To make matters worse, I’ve had a look through issues of the Mirror from 1933 (because that’s the sort of madness I’m prone to), and there’s quite a bit of coverage of the controversial fight, the massive audience, and Doyle’s subsequent six-month ban – but I can’t find the ‘Big fight lasts 100 seconds’ front page in the online archive. (But it is clear that the masthead and the Genaspirin advert are from 1933 and weren’t used in 1936.) ARGH! PLEASE HELP ME!

My working theory is that this is a copy of the late edition of the 12th July paper, or an early edition from the 13th. The online archive has a different edition, and the controversial fight was either bumped to or bumped from the front page at a later stage.

But that means that Japp is definitely reading a paper from 1933, despite the tennis match we saw at the beginning setting the episode firmly in June 1936.

When Poirot notes Japp’s choice of reading material, he wryly points out that he’s reading an old paper. But then he simply points out that it’s a day old. What he should have said is that the paper is nearly three years old, and so it’s unlikely to have any bearing on the case.

Alternatively, I’ve read the headline wrong.

It doesn’t really matter, does it?

Anyway, all this talk of dentists and disguises is making me keen to move things along. On to the next episode: ‘One, Two, Buckle My Shoe’

Sunday, 4 March 2018

My Year in Books 2018: February

So I managed to stick to my New Year's Resolution for another month. Yay! I'm still making time to read for pleasure (even if I didn't read quite as much as last month), and I'm still sticking to my 250-word limit for my reviews.

If you missed it, you can click here for my reading list in January. But here are the books I read in February...

The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas (2006)

I’ve been meaning to read Thomas’s novel for some time now, as it was recommended to me a couple of years ago. The person who told me about it really enjoyed it, and the blurb sounded right up my street. Ariel Manto, a PhD student working on nineteenth-century thought experiments, stumbles upon a copy of a supposedly lost and cursed work by obscure writer Thomas Lumas (the eponymous The End of Mr Y). The only person Ariel knows who has read Mr Y is her PhD supervisor, but he disappeared eighteen months earlier. As Ariel begins to read Mr Y, she discovers the secret that (presumably) drove Lumas to his death and her supervisor to disappear. I really wanted to like this book, as it’s a fabulous premise. But sadly, The End of Mr Y left me rather disappointed. I know I’m going to sound like a bit of a snob here, but, for all its academic pretensions, it just wasn’t quite clever enough. There are casual mentions of various ‘classic’ thought experiments (from Schrödinger’s Cat to Einstein’s theory of relativity) and philosophical principles, but these are never really treated in much detail. There’s also a tendency to stick to the famous examples, which makes Ariel’s PhD research seem a wee bit superficial. Strangely, for all Ariel’s insistence, Lumas’s novel doesn’t seem to be a thought experiment at all, in the end. However, for all that, I really liked the book’s ending, which is presented with a wonderfully light touch.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (2017)

I read McGregor’s debut novel If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things about ten years ago, on the recommendation of a Yr 10 lad I was tutoring at the time. I completely fell in love with the book and read So Many Ways to Begin shortly afterwards. I loved that McGregor’s first (and, to a lesser extent, second) book was, essentially, a prose poem, and that the narrative isn’t constructed in a particularly easy way. You sort of let the fragments wash over you, until you somehow know (without really being told) what is going on. I was hoping Reservoir 13 would do something similar – and I wasn’t disappointed. The book has thirteen chapters, and each one tells a year in the life of an English village, moving from New Year through the seasons until it reaches Christmas. But, as with McGregor’s first two novels, the thread of the story is strung on a communal tragedy. The first chapter tells of the first ‘new year’ since the unexplained disappearance of a young teenager who was visiting the village with her family. As in Remarkable Things, this is the story of how life continues around the hole formed by a devastating event, with characters and events presented through fragmentary and semi-objective snippets. The pace of the novel constantly reminds you of the unstoppable march of time and change, but the use of repetition and echoed phrases suggest that, perhaps, things aren’t changing as much as you think. I really enjoyed this one.

We Are All Made of Glue by Marina Lewycka (2009)

Some people don’t get Lewycka’s work, which blends madcap and often absurd comic writing with serious themes and references, but I really like the way that this works, as there’s something so human and so hopeful about the way life unfolds in her books. In her third novel, the protagonist is Georgie Sinclair, who is a copy-writer for a magazine called Adhesives in the Modern World and an aspiring romance writer. When Georgie’s husband walks out, she decides to chuck his stuff into a skip. She’s surprised to find her odd elderly neighbour, Mrs Shapiro, rooting items out and taking them away in a pram. She’s even more surprised when, a short time later, she is called by the hospital because Mrs Shapiro has listed Georgie as her next-of-kin. A quirky kind of alliance forms between the two women, with Georgie stumbling into taking care of Mrs Shapiro’s rambling, squalid home and assortment of earthy felines. She begins to get a glimpse into her neighbour’s past – taking in the Holocaust, Jewish diaspora, and the foundation of the Israeli state. A chance encounter with a Palestinian shop assistant with a side line in home repairs, the underhanded behaviour of a social worker of dubious morals, and the predations of an array of estate agents fixated on acquiring Mrs Shapiro’s house add further absurdity and trauma to the mix. I didn’t find this mix ‘glib’ as some reviewers have, but rather a testament to the extraordinary resilience of the survivor.

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (2015)

Okay, this one is a reread. I originally read Career of Evil when it first came out but ended up rereading it after the first episode of the BBC adaptation on 25th February. I knew the TV version had cut a lot of subplots out/down to fit the format, so I wanted to remind myself what was missing! Career of Evil is the third Cormoran Strike novel by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling). As I’ve said to too many people (I’m such a hipster), I’ve never read anything by J.K. Rowling, but I do love Robert Galbraith. I couldn’t put The Cuckoo’s Calling or The Silkworm down. Career of Evil is a longer read – not so easy to finish in one sitting! – but it’s still a real page-turner. Galbraith’s detective, Strike, is a man out of time. He’s part hardboiled P.I., part whodunnit-unraveller. Like the rest of the characters who surround him, Strike is a larger-than-life figure, with enough quirks to keep a fleet of fictional detectives going. But there’s something so enjoyable about the novels, and I think it’s the story-telling. Galbraith sure can weave a yarn. Career of Evil sees Strike facing a figure from his past – someone who has sent a severed leg to his office, with a cryptic note that can only be meant for him. The mystery is: which unsavoury character is out for revenge? Strike gives us three suspects, the police offer up another, and there’s always a chance it’s someone else entirely. A really fun mystery novel.

Monday, 26 February 2018

OUT NOW: Twenty-First-Century Popular Fiction, edited by Bernice M. Murphy and Stephen Matterson (Edinburgh University Press, 2017)

Contains a chapter by me on Stephenie Meyer's fiction (including The Host and the anniversary edition of Twilight)...

This groundbreaking collection captures the state of popular fiction in present day. It features twenty new essays on key authors associated with a wide range of genres and sub-genres, providing chapter-length discussions of major post-2000 works of contemporary popular fiction. The lively, accessible and academically rigorous essays presented here cover a wider range of established popular fiction genres such as fantasy, horror and the romance, as well as more niche areas such as Domestic Noir, Steampunk, the New Weird, Nordic Noir and Zombie Lit. The collection will primarily appeal to undergraduate and postgraduate students but general readers may also find the focus on many of today’s most prominent and influential authors to be of interest.

- Introduction: ‘Changing the story’: Popular Fiction Today
Bernice M. Murphy and Stephen Matterson

- Larry McMurtry’s Vanishing Breeds
Stephen Matterson

- ‘Time to Open the Door’: Stephen King’s Legacy
Rebecca Janicker

- Terry Pratchett: Mostly Human
Jim Shanahan

- From Westeros to HBO: George R.R. Martin and the Mainstreaming of Fantasy
Gerard Hynes

- Nora Roberts: The Power of Love
Jarlath Killeen

- The King of Stories: Neil Gaiman’s Twenty-first Century Fiction
Tara Prescott

- Jo Nesbø: Murder in the Folkhemmet
Clare Clarke

- ‘It’s a trap! Don’t turn the page.’ Metafiction and the Multiverse in the Comics of Grant Morrison
Kate Roddy

- Panoptic and Synoptic Surveillance in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games Series
Keith O’Sullivan

- E.L. James and the Fifty Shades of Grey Phenomenon
Dara Downey

- Fact, Fiction, Fabrication: The Popular Appeal of Dan Brown’s Global Bestsellers
Ian Kinane

- ‘I Need to Disillusion You’: J.K. Rowling and Twenty-First-Century Young Adult Fantasy

Kate Harvey
- Jodi Picoult: Good Grief
Clare Hayes-Brady

- ‘We Will Have a Happy Marriage If It Kills Him’: Gillian Flynn and the Rise of Domestic Noir
Bernice M. Murphy

- ‘The Bastard Zone’: China Miéville, Perdido Street Station and the New Weird
Kirsten Tranter

- Sparkly Vampires and Shimmering Aliens: The Paranormal Romance of Stephanie Meyer
Hannah Priest

- ‘We needed to get a lot of white collars dirty’: The Apocalypse as Opportunity in Max Brooks’ World War Z
Bernice M. Murphy

- Genre and Uncertainty in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad Mysteries
Brian Cliff
- ‘You Get What You Ask For’: Hugh Howey, SF, and Authorial Agency
Stephen Kenneally

- Cherie Priest: At the Intersection of History and Technology
Catherine Siemann

For more information, or to buy a copy, please see the publisher's website.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

My Year in Books 2018: January

This post is part of my New Year's Resolution. I realised at Christmas that I'd started to fall out of a couple of habits. (1) I haven't been finding time to read for pleasure. (2) I'm out of practice at writing short-form reviews (to be frank, I don't seem to be able to do any short-form writing at all at the moment!).

So, I have resolved to read more books just for fun, and to write short (250 words maximum) reviews of each one as I go along. These are just the books I've read because I liked the look of them - so I won't be including any books I read to 'officially' review, for academic research, for a long-form blog post, or for my radio show. The plan is to post the reviews on here each month (though, let's be honest, how long am I actually going to stick to a New Year's Resolution??).

Here are the books I read in January...

Faithful Place by Tana French (2010)

Faithful Place is the third of French’s ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ novels. I loved the first two novels, In the Woods and The Likeness (particularly In the Woods). The novels aren’t a series as such, but rather feature detectives from the same fictional squad. Each book has a narrator who had appeared as a minor character in an earlier novel. So, the narrator-protagonist of Faithful Place is Frank Mackey, who previously appeared in The Likeness. Frank is a murder detective, who is estranged from his dysfunctional family. He’s called back home on the discovery of a twenty-year-old suitcase during construction work on the estate (the ‘Faithful Place’ of the book’s title). The suitcase belonged to Rosie Daly, Frank’s girlfriend. Once upon a time, Frank and Rosie planned to elope to England, but on the night they were due to go, Rosie didn’t show up. For two decades, Frank believed that Rosie had gone to England on her own… but the discovery of her suitcase makes that seem unlikely. Frank is drawn back into his old life to find out the truth about Rosie’s disappearance. I love French’s writing, and Faithful Place is a gripping and compelling story. I didn’t like it quite as much as her two earlier books – perhaps because it doesn’t feel quite as richly layered (the earlier two were almost dazzling in the way past and present narratives intertwined), or perhaps because I found the denouement a bit predictable. Still, it was an enjoyable read and very well-written.

The Trespasser by Tana French (2016)

Because I can be a bit bingey with my reading, the next book I read this month was another of French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels. But I made a mistake and went straight to the sixth and most recent title, instead of carrying on in order. Good thing it’s not a straight series, eh? The Trespasser features Antoinette Conway as the narrator (she’d previously appeared in one of the books I accidentally skipped), a hotheaded detective who’s teamed up with Stephen Moran (a minor character in Faithful Place). Conway and Moran are assigned to a case that looks like a straightforward domestic, but soon discover (obviously) that there’s much more to it. I’ve got to admit, I didn’t enjoy The Trespasser as much as French’s other novels, though it was still undoubtedly well-written. Conway is a bit of a cliché – the short-tempered rookie with a chip on her shoulder, the woman fighting to be taken seriously in a man’s world – and the case itself is a little flat compared to some of the others French has created. As Conway and Moran discover the victim’s hidden depths and secrets, I couldn’t help but think back to The Likeness, which was a much richer and more compelling read. That said, I’m not giving up on French, as she’s still one of the best writers of police procedural thrillers (not always my favourite genre) that I’ve come across. I guess she just set the bar high with In the Woods and The Likeness!

Broken Harbour by Tana French (2012)

Continuing with my Tana French binge: Broken Harbour is the fourth of the Dublin Murder Squad novels. The narrator-protagonist is Michael ‘Scorcher’ Kennedy, who appeared as a minor (rather unsympathetic) character in Faithful Place. This was the best example of French’s narrator series so far. On the one hand, Broken Harbour redeems and clarifies some of the negative characteristics seen in the previous book; on the other, the presentation of Kennedy here is always shadowed by what we saw in Faithful Place. The book is in first-person, so we’re seeing the narrator through his own eyes, and it’s good to have the earlier book as a reminder of how this comes across to others. The case in Broken Harbour is multiple murder: the seemingly happy Spain family have been brutally attacked in their home. It appears that Pat Spain has snapped and killed his children, attempted to kill his wife Jenny, and then committed suicide. But (obviously) there may be more going on here… The Spains lived in a house on a ‘ghost estate’ (a housing development abruptly halted mid-construction as a result of the financial crash). French creates a setting that is paradoxically claustrophobic and desolate, to great effect. Added to this, her detective brings further ghosts to the investigation, not least his memories of the estate’s former existence as Broken Harbour, a holiday village he visited as a child. I really enjoyed Broken Harbour, certainly as much as The Likeness and almost as much as In the Woods.

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough (2017)

I bought my mum this book for Christmas, as I’d heard good things (and it was shelved in the bookshop next to other writers that she likes). She read it, then passed it to me. She didn’t give anything away but wanted me to read it so we could talk about the ending. Behind her Eyes was marketed on this ending – the publishers claimed it was one you would never see coming, and exhorted readers not to give anything away after they’d discovered the twist. The book is told from alternating perspectives. Mostly, it switches between Adele, the fragile but devoted wife of psychiatrist David, and Louise, a much warmer and engaging character, who works as a secretary at David’s new practice. Almost accidentally, Louise begins a relationship with David and a friendship with Adele, quickly suspecting there’s something lurking beneath the surface of their marriage. In a way, it’s a shame the publicity for the book focused on the shock ending. Ignoring the twist, Behind her Eyes is really well-written and compelling, and Louise in particular is a wonderfully crafted unreliable narrator. The growing tension of the relationships between the three main characters make for a real page-turner. But, sadly, the ending is a let-down. You don’t see the twist coming because it belongs to an entirely different genre to the rest of the novel and feels somewhat incongruous. Turns out my mum wanted me to read it so she could tell me why she didn’t like the ending.

The Child by Fiona Barton (2017)

Barton’s second novel was apparently a Richard and Judy Book Club pick – and I’ve had some disappointing experiences with these in the past – but the plot description seemed right up my street. (And it’s another book with alternating first-person unreliable narrators, which appears to be my jam this month.) When the skeleton of a new-born baby is discovered during building work in London, journalist Kate Waters is intrigued and determines to find an angle on the story. Meanwhile, the discovery of the body causes anxiety for a woman named Emma, and hope for grieving mother Angela, whose daughter went missing several decades earlier. These three women are our main narrators, and we switch between their perspectives on the ‘Building Site Baby’ case. Barton’s novel is nicely readable, and the intertwining of the story’s threads is well done. I admit, I initially had a bit of trouble distinguishing Emma from Angela, but the book finds its voice(s) as the story progresses, and the decision to hold things together with Kate’s investigation was a good one. Of course, there’s more to the story than just the death of the child, and the various revelations were pretty well paced. The Child was an enjoyable and gripping enough read, which I finished in a couple of sittings. It’s a solid thriller, but I wouldn’t say it was a stand-out (and I did work out the ending about halfway through). Overall, I’d say this was a solid ‘cold case thriller’ novel, but not particularly mind-blowing.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (2014)

The last book I read this month was Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing, a book which got a lot of praise on its publication, and which has been compared more than once to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The novel’s narrator is Maud, an older woman with dementia, who is concerned that her friend Elizabeth has gone missing. As with The Curious Incident, we are given a mystery through the eyes of someone who doesn’t actually know what it is they’re investigating, and we’re encouraged as readers to look beyond what is being described to what must be ‘really’ happening. But Elizabeth is Missing is much more than this. Despite her narration being distorted, fragmented, repetitive and contradictory, Maud is an engaging and sympathetic protagonist. As she interacts with other characters (who, supposedly, understand what’s happening), I found myself empathizing with Maud’s frustration, internally shouting at one character in particular ‘Just answer her question!’. As the story progresses, Maud increasingly sees the behaviour of others as difficult and erratic, and it’s hard not to feel the same as a reader. That said, Maud’s occasional moments of self-awareness are painful and poignant (as is the ending). But my favourite part of the book was the copious notes that Maud left for herself, in order to retain a focus on the mystery of Elizabeth’s disappearance. These made the book feel a bit like an old lady version of Memento, which I very much enjoyed. Highly recommended.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Performers Wanted for Live Poetry Special

On Saturday 17th March, Hannah's Bookshelf on North Manchester FM will be hosting a live poetry special. I'd like to invite poets and spoken word performers to come along and perform their work on the show.

The Hannah's Bookshelf Live Poetry Special will be going out live from the studio in Harpurhey, North Manchester at 2-4pm. It will be broadcast on 106.6FM (in the North Manchester area) and online (for the rest of the world). Performance slots are 6 minutes long.

Whether you're a veteran performer or new to reading your work, I'd love to hear from you. Drop me a line via email, Twitter or Facebook if you'd like to perform. Slots will be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis.

Please share this with anyone you think might be interested!

Sunday, 10 December 2017

OUT NOW: The Darkest Midnight in December, edited by Storm Constantine (Immanion Press, 2017)

A new collection of seasonal ghost stories, including 'Log', a tale of festive foliage by yours truly...

The ghost story is a Christmas tradition; shadows looming over the brightly-lit tree in a room where logs crackle in the hearth, and the smell of spice and brandy fill the air. Outside the weather is chill; perhaps snow is falling. The house is far from town – lights twinkle in the distance. And over the festive season, as people gather to celebrate and welcome in the New Year, eerie breath might be heard in a dark corridor, hurrying footsteps overhead, a sigh in the depths of a stairwell. When all are supposed to be happy and secure, the intrusion of fear, grief or sadness are alien, and yet bizarrely integral to a time of celebration whose roots lie in ancient, pagan festivals. What stirs in the darkness?


An Eye for an Eye by Rosie Garland
On the Loop Line by Misha Herwin
Holly and Ivy by Fiona Lane
The House with the Gable by Nerine Dorman
When He Comes Home Through the Snow by Storm Constantine
Bethany's Visit by Jessica Gilling
The Supernatural Stocking by Rhys Hughes
Log by Hannah Kate
Driving Home for Christmas by Fiona McGavin
Gift from the Sea by Adele Marie Park
Kindred Spirit by J.E. Bryant
A Midwinter Nightmare by Suzanne Gyseman
Spirit of the Season by Rick Hudson
The Shadow by Wendy Darling
Jay's Ghost by Louise Coquio

For more information, or to buy a copy of the book, please visit the Immanion Press website.