Sunday, 28 February 2021

My Year in Books 2021: February

Gosh... February went by quickly, didn't it? And I hardly read anything. So I'm afraid this is a pretty short post this month, as there's only two books on my February list. I finished off my 'comfort reading' of Peter May's Enzo Macleod series, ahead of the launch of his new book in March. Sadly, there's nothing else to report on this month, but I'm hoping I'll have more to add in March!

In case you're interested, here are my reviews of the books I read in January. And here are the two books I read in February:

Blowback by Peter May (2011)

I continued my rereading of Peter May’s Enzo Macleod series this month (or, at least, the series so far, as there’s another book coming out in March). As I said in last month’s post, this is my ‘comfort reading’ series, and so I have written about all six of the books before in these monthly posts. Blowback sees Enzo entering the world of haut cuisine (giving May an opportunity to luxuriate in quite a few descriptions of food, just as he did with wine in The Critic). The cold case in question here is the death of a 3-star Michelin chef, whose body was found in a remote bothy (or buron to give the French term that’s used in the book). As with the other books in the series, there’s a really great sense of place in Blowback. May’s decision to set the story at the end of the restaurant’s season, just as it’s about to close down for the winter, really adds atmosphere (there’s something ominous about a restaurant/hotel locking down for the winter… or is that just me?). There’s not as much of ‘the gang’ in this one, but Enzo’s love life gets a bit more complicated when he meets a good-looking young gendarme – and it was pretty complicated to begin with. I think I like this one mostly for the descriptions of setting, though there’s a good little mystery at the heart. And unlike the previous two, there’s nothing here that the reader knows before the detective.

Cast Iron by Peter May (2017)

And so to the sixth and (until this year) final story in the Enzo Macleod series. It came as a bit of a surprise to readers that Cast Iron would be the last in the series, as Enzo was supposed to be investigating the seven notorious cases in Raffin’s book – and yet it appeared the series would end with just six. However, Cast Iron is a fitting end to the series, as it draws together all the loose threads that were left hanging in the other books and brings the entire narrative arc to a close (with a few explosive reveals, it has to be said). On top of this, there are quite a few developments in Enzo’s personal life, and a number of the loose threads relate more to this than to his investigations (or is there a connection…?). Last time I read Cast Iron, I think I said it felt like an appropriate end to the series, and that it brought things to a satisfactory conclusion. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in The Night Gate (at the time of writing this, I haven’t read the new book in the series), and to see what it’s like revisiting Enzo and the gang several years after the end of Cast Iron. I think it’s safe to say that the Enzo books will continue to be my ‘comfort reading’ series for a while… I just don’t know yet whether I’ll be including The Night Gate on the reading list!

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Performers Wanted for (Not Quite) Live Poetry Special 2021

Want to perform your poetry on the radio?

The annual Hannah's Bookshelf Live Poetry Special is back! (But not quite live...)

On Saturday 3rd April, Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM will be hosting its annual (Not Quite) Live Poetry Special. And once again I’d like to invite poets and spoken word performers to get involved and perform their work on the show.

Due to COVID restrictions, it's still not possible to invite performers into the studio, so I'll be asking poets to pre-record their performance with me prior to the show. The good news is that means we can invite poets from anywhere in the world to perform, as geography isn't a barrier!

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, tweet me or message me on Facebook if you’d like to perform or would like more information about how to take part. Slots are limited, and will be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis.

The Hannah’s Bookshelf (Not Quite) Live Poetry Special will be going out on North Manchester FM on Saturday 3rd April 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.

Sunday, 14 February 2021

My Year in Books 2021: January

So, this month's list is a little strange. I finished off my 'Books Like And Then There Were None' list, but then I found myself struggling a bit with my motivation for reading again after that. This is something that I've been experiencing on and off throughout lockdown, and this month I decided to deal with it by going back to a 'comfort reading' series. Apologies for any repetition, but some of the books on this month's list are ones I've written about before in my monthly blog posts from previous years.

That said, here's my first post of 2021, and the books I read for pleasure in January...

They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall (2019)

I continued my ‘Books Like And Then There Were None’ list into the New Year. The next one I read was They All Fall Down, which was a little more explicitly indebted to Christie’s novel than The Dying Game (it even includes a quote from Christie as its epigraph). The narrator is Miriam Macy. Keen to escape some bad experiences at home, Miriam accepts an invitation to take part in a new reality TV show. She’s to travel to an isolated – but luxurious – island in Mexico, where she’ll stay with a group of strangers until one of them is crowned the winner. On the trip to the island, she discovers a motley crew of companions: a businessman, an ex-cop, a naïve widow, a nurse – none of whom she has any inclination to befriend. But, when they reach the house (called Artemis) on the island, it seems things are not how they initially appeared. And then the killing starts… They All Fall Down is a great homage to Christie’s novel and a fun book in its own right (the dark humour in one particular passage involving the ex-cop was particularly on-the-nose). It also has an unreliable narrator in Miriam, which is something that always wins me over. However, it lacks the shock value of Christie’s ‘big reveal’ and, for all its intentions, it lacks some of the darkness too. I did enjoy this one though. It’s well-paced, a bit of a page-turner, and it’s got a great sense of narrative voice.

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (2017)

And now… to space! Next on my ‘Books Like And Then There Were None’ list is a science fiction story set on a spaceship staffed by clones. Not my usual fare, but it definitely seemed interesting. The story begins with one of the clones, Maria, waking up in a cloning pod. She knows this means that her previous ‘shell’ (body) has died, but she has no memories of the event. As she emerges, she discovers all six of the crew have been cloned, and that their dead ‘shells’ are still floating around in the zero gravity of the room… and they’ve been murdered! Admittedly, this one doesn’t really follow the same formula as And Then There Were None, as all the victims/suspects are already dead (but also not dead) when the story begins. But it’s still a fun book and definitely one I’d recommend. The cloning storyline is a little hard to get your head around – I had to flip back and forth on occasions to double check timelines and details to keep things straight – but that’s part of its charm. And the question as to what any of this backstory has to do with the murders on board the spaceship (which is transporting a load of cryogenically frozen people to a new home on a planet called Artemis, by the way) is something that unfolds slowly throughout the narrative. The only thing I didn’t like about Six Wakes was the incongruously upbeat ending – it didn’t quite work for me.

Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada (1982)

The last book on my little list was Shimada’s Murder in the Crooked House – a ‘classic Japanese locked room mystery’. The eponymous house here is the Ice Floe Mansion, an eccentric building in a remote location in northern Japan. It was constructed by successful businessman Kozaburo Hamamoto, who has retreated from public life to enjoy a reclusive life in his unusual house. The story begins with Hamamoto welcoming a group of guests to the Ice Floe Mansion to celebrate Christmas. It’s a dark and stormy night, and some guests are (of course!) bringing secrets and resentments to the party. It’s hardly surprising that, by the end of the first day, one of them is dead. What is surprising (for the characters, though perhaps not for readers who are fans of the genre) is that the victim is a hired driver with no connection to the rest of the guests, that his body has been found in a completely locked room, that the killer left no footprints in the snow, and that there are a series of cryptic clues in the room with the body. And then another guest dies… This is a locked room mystery that’s more John Dickson Carr than Agatha Christie, and you need to pay much more attention to mechanics than motive if you want a chance of working it out. It also uses something that is generally considered a no-no in locked room fiction, but I enjoyed the story so much I can completely forgive this!

Extraordinary People by Peter May (2006)

So… this is a bit weird, and I’m not quite sure how I’m going to do this, as the next six books on my list(s) are ones I’ve already written about since I started these monthly round-up posts. I don’t imagine I’m alone in saying that January was particularly tough this year (it’s never an easy month, is it?), and so – despite having that towering to-read pile of wonderful looking books – I retreated into my ‘comfort reading’ series and reread Peter May’s Enzo Macleod books. Or, I should say, I reread the Enzo series so far, as I found out part way through my reread that there’s going to be another one out next month! Clearly, my timing was impeccable. I have written mini-reviews of all six of the books before, so I’m not sure whether I’ll be repeating myself a bit in this post. Half-Italian, half-Scottish Enzo Macleod is a lecturer in biology and forensics at a French university who turns his hand to solving France’s most famous cold cases by applying new scientific techniques to old evidence. This is mostly done as a bet – he has waged he can solve the seven cases in a book about unsolved murders written by a journalist called Roger Raffin (sometimes Enzo’s colleague, sometimes his antagonist, sometimes something else altogether). That’s a very rough series synopsis, but it doesn’t really capture the pleasure of the novels, which are often as much about the ensemble (‘the gang’) than the (very) idiosyncratic main character.

The Critic by Peter May (2007)

Continuing with my comfort reading, I obviously moved on to the second Enzo book. Extraordinary People introduces the characters and the overall series arc, plus it sees Enzo solve the first of the notorious cases in Raffin’s book (the disappearance of a senior civil servant/film critic). Enzo is based in Cahors – and occasionally in Paris – and one of the things I love about this series is the very affectionate (and very Francophile) sense of place that comes through in each one. Extraordinary People is, perhaps, the most Parisian of the series, involving a very memorable trip into the catacombs beneath the city. The Critic takes Enzo to the Gaillac region to investigate the murder of a famous wine critic. I think I said in my last mini-review, I do like the bits involving ‘the gang’ in this one (Enzo’s daughter Sophie, her boyfriend Bertrand, star student Nicole, and on/off lover Charlotte all make an appearance, as well as small appearances by Raffin and Enzo’s older daughter Kirsty). And The Critic also lets May indulge in a lot of descriptions of wine, as Enzo and the gang decide that, to understand who might have killed the wine critic, they have to immerse themselves in the culture of the wine-producing region. They sample a lot of wine to get to the bottom of this one, and there are some interesting little details about the French wine industry – just be careful not to get side-tracked by the vin and miss all the clues!

Blacklight Blue by Peter May (2008)

The next book in the series starts off pretty dramatically, with various members of the gang coming under attack (as well as some nasty news for Enzo himself). Guessing that this has something to do with the next case in Raffin’s book, Enzo decides that he needs to get his nearest and dearest to a safe place, and then start investigating. It’s time for a road trip! (Sadly, Nicole doesn’t get to join in this time, but we do see a bit more of Raffin, who is now in a relationship with Enzo’s daughter Kirsty.) This is the first book in the series that plays around with narrator and perspective, with the story of… well… a mystery man being interspersed with the present-day story of the investigation. This does mean that the reader is privy to some information that the detective isn’t – which would normally be a bit of a no-no – but the point here is that we need Enzo’s investigation to put all the pieces together and make them fit. Also, it’s quite good fun watching to find out how on earth he’ll be able to work out some of the information that we only know because we read the killer’s flashbacks. The first two books ended with a couple of tantalizing loose ends, but Blacklight Blue takes that to the next level, and there’s quite a few unanswered questions at the end of this one. It’ll be a bit later in the series before we get the answers.

Freeze Frame by Peter May (2010)

Moving straight on to the next book… as I think I mentioned in my previous mini-review, Freeze Frame uses a similar technique to Blacklight Blue, in that the reader gets a lot of backstory for the killer (and even ‘witnesses’ a key event in the run-up to the murder) before Enzo gets involved at all. In fact, there’s even more information revealed in this one than in the previous book, and so we are coming into the mystery with quite a bit of background knowledge. Enzo isn’t though, and so we are once again watching the detective to see how he’ll catch up with what we already know. Freeze Frame takes Enzo to Brittany to reinvestigate the case of Adam Killian, who was murdered twenty years ago. While there was a suspect for Killian’s murder, his involvement was never proven. And, more intriguingly (for both Enzo and the reader), Killian rang his daughter-in-law shortly before his death to tell her that he was leaving a secret message for his son in his study that would explain everything. The son died in an accident before he saw the message, and so Killian’s daughter-in-law has carefully preserved the study until the day when someone can both find and interpret the dead man’s final code. Freeze Frame sort of breaks with Enzo’s stated intention of using new scientific methods to solve old crimes, as although developments in science are an important part of the plot, it’s not actually the key to the solution.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

My Year in Books 2020: December

And so it's my final book post of the year. As seems to be usual, I read a little more in December than in previous months. This month's list isn't quite as festive as last December's (mostly because I didn't feel as festive as usual). This is a list of the books I read for pleasure - I did read quite a few others for teaching and for review. And in case you don't think this list is festive enough, here's a list of the much more seasonal reading I did in December for the Christmas Special of my radio show!

For the curious, here are my other book posts from 2020: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November

The Woman in the Wardrobe by Peter Shaffer (1951)

As it’s December, I found myself in the mood for some Golden Age crime (as I do most years, to be honest). I had two British Library Crime Classics on my to-read pile that my mother-in-law bought me for my birthday, so it felt like time to crack into them. The accidental theme of this pairing was ‘mystery novels written by people you didn’t know wrote mystery novels’. The first one I read was The Woman in the Wardrobe by Peter Shaffer, who is much better known as a playwright. It’s a locked room mystery, set in a B&B in the seaside town of Amnestie, and features a larger-than-life detective figure (Mr Verity). A man has been found dead in his bedroom. The room is locked, but this is somewhat confused by the fact that a man is seen leaving by the window, and another man was seen entering the room prior to the murder. It’s also confused by the fact that there’s – as the title announces – a woman in the wardrobe. The puzzle here (which I did like) is that, although there appears to be three people who all had the opportunity to commit the murder, Mr Verity keeps offering evidence that they couldn’t have done it. Sadly, though, this one didn’t quite do it for me. It didn’t quite hit the right Golden Age notes, and I didn’t find Shaffer’s Verity a particularly engaging or likable sleuth. It’s a shame, because the puzzle and its solution are great.

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson (1932)

The second book in my ‘surprising mystery authors’ pair worked a lot better for me – and I absolutely loved it! Ellen Wilkinson is (of course) better known as a firebrand Labour MP who served as Minister of Education. Although Wilkinson’s parliamentary career and legacy is reasonably well-known – though perhaps it could be better known? – there are some aspects of her career that are less famous. Firstly (something I did know), she served as a councillor on Manchester City Council for being elected to parliament for the first time. Secondly (something I didn’t know), when she lost her seat in 1931, she turned her hand to mystery writing. The Division Bell Mystery is actually the only mystery she wrote, as she was re-elected to parliament in 1935, but it’s absolutely brilliant. Set in the House of Commons and – surprisingly – with a Tory private secretary as its decent and earnest ‘sleuth’, Wilkinson’s novel is one part locked-ish room mystery with international intrigue as a backdrop, and one part fun little tale of the secrets and charm that lies behind the scenes at the House of Commons. Admittedly, the puzzle itself isn’t that complex (though it has a cheeky little solution), but the characters and setting completely won me over. I especially liked the friendship between Robert West, the Tory protagonist, and the socialist Labour MP (Gracie Richards) of the neighbouring constituency to his. This is a real gem of a book, and not at all what I was expecting. I loved it.

The Guest List by Lucy Foley (2020)

I decided to stick with mystery books, but moved on to something a little more recent. I read Foley’s The Hunting Party last Christmas and really enjoyed it. I knew (it’s pretty obvious from the cover) that The Guest List was in a similar mode. This time, instead of a remote hunting lodge for a New Year party, we have a group of guests assembled on a remote Irish island for a wedding. As in The Hunting Party, the story is told from a number of perspectives – the bride, bridesmaid, wedding planning, best man and a ‘plus-one’ guest all take turns to share their view on what’s going on. Foley also uses the same technique as in the earlier book, in which the identity of the victim is held back until just before the murderer is revealed. The story is told through flashbacks and flashforwards, so we’re left trying to work out whodunnit, but also what it is that they dun. I’m in two minds with this one. I worked out the victim and the murderer pretty early on, and I didn’t think the clues were as well-placed as in The Hunting Party (plus one of the red herrings relies on a massive coincidence that I didn’t quite buy). However, in some ways I liked this one more than the first book. I loved the atmosphere of The Hunting Party, but I think The Guest List is even better. I loved the island setting – it made for an immersive read.

Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins (2020)

If you’ve read any of my previous book review posts, you’ll know that I am very fond of stories with twists. But you’ll also know that I’m constantly disappointed by books that are marketed on ‘twists’ that turn out just to be standard plot points. Sadly, Magpie Lane was one of these books. It’s described as ‘chilling’ and ‘twisty’, but it is neither of those things. There’s a nice framing device used (a police interview after the disappearance of a child, through which the narrator remembers events leading up to that moment), but otherwise it’s a pretty standard, linear narrative with a mostly predictable plot. That said, there are some things I liked about Magpie Lane – Atkins’ story of a nanny-with-a-troubled-past who is employed by the new Master of an Oxford college to take care of his bright-but-silent young daughter hits some good Gothic notes, and the characters are all engaging (if not always likable). I would’ve quite enjoyed spending more time with the dysfunctional family in their somewhat creepy Oxford house, and the descriptions of setting (the house and the town more generally) are really atmospheric and evocative. For me, this one had great characters and setting, but it was let down by a fairly mundane and underdeveloped plot. The framing device builds up expectations of a mystery that just doesn’t materialize, and I think that’s why I was disappointed. I have preferred to read more chapters about the frosty and brittle relationship between the nanny and the stepmother!

Darkened Wings Flutter by Lou Yardley (2020)

I am very behind with my Abominable Books subscription. Each month, I get an exciting parcel with a new horror novel, a surprise ‘vintage’ paperback, and other goodies (including magazines and eBooks). I love opening my monthly parcels, but I’ve fallen a bit behind with actually reading the books. I tried to catch up with all the magazines this month (issues of Black Static and Hellebore), and then decided to read the eBook that I got with the December delivery: Darkened Wings Flutter. Sadly, this one’s not a strong recommendation from me. Yardley’s novel starts out okay (though it is in need of a strong edit, I’m afraid) – it’s got a bit of suburban folk horror about it, with an ominous forest at the edge of town offering some good creepiness. There are some early descriptions of moths that set up a kind of underplayed horror that I liked – the moths aren’t necessarily doing anything unusual, but the very fact that they’re being described in such detail is unsettling. And I was okay when we’re introduced to an odd young girl who is being visited by ‘monsters’ who tell her about her ‘destiny’. But partway through the book just veers off into different territory and descends into gratuitous and unconvincing schlock (including graphic and splatter-style violence against children that just seemed to be in there for shock value). The book is tonally rather confused, particularly in terms of its use of humour (which is pretty scattergun throughout). A disappointing one.

The Dying Game by Åsa Avdic (2016)

Even though I’m behind with my Abominable Books and my otherwise massive to-read pile, I ended up buying a small selection of books on a whim. I really fancied reading something like Christie’s And Then There Were None. I did a search, and after going through a few blogs and lists of other Christie books or country house mysteries, I finally found a post with some titles I hadn’t heard of. I picked the four most surprising/intriguing books off the list, and these were the books I read next. First up: Avdic’s The Dying Game (Swedish title is Isola, but I read it in translation). The book is set in a dystopian near-future based on an alternate history that imagines a version of Sweden if the Berlin Wall hadn’t come down in 1989 (that’s a broad description – it’s a little more complex than that!). Our protagonist is Anna Francis, a Party member (in the Orwellian sense) who is invited/instructed to attend a recruitment ‘game’. Six potential candidates for a project have been invited to a remote island where they will be tested. Anna is to ‘play dead’ – her ‘murder’ will be staged on the first night of the game, and then she will hide herself in the house to observe the behaviour of the others. Of course, when the game begins, Anna quickly learns that things aren’t what they seem. I enjoyed this one. It was a bit heavier on the dystopia than the mystery, but otherwise a fun read.