Saturday, 1 May 2021

My Year in Books 2021: April

Time for my monthly blog post about the books I've read for pleasure recently. It's not a bad sized list (though not my longest), but sadly there was really only one standout book this time.

In case you're interested, here are my other posts from 2021 so far: January, February, March

One by One by Freida McFadden (2020)

For some reason, I was back on my ‘Books Like And Then There Were None’ kick this month… with somewhat different results to last time. I’ve still not read The Ninth Guest (the book the precursor to And Then There Were None), but I did find two books on Prime Reading that looked promising. First up, I read One by One – not One by One by Ruth Ware, but a different One by One. Hmmm… One by One by Freida McFadden is about a group of friends – Claire (the narrator), Noah (her husband), Lindsay (her best friend), Warner (Lindsay’s new boyfriend), and Jack and Michelle (their old college friends). The group are heading off to a luxury spa, which is somewhat surprisingly set in the midst of a forbidding forest that may or may not be home to bears and coyotes. Of course, as soon as they get to the forest (with no mobile reception), the car breaks down and they’re forced to head out on foot. We’re already primed for the deaths to start, by both the title and the use of the near-ubiquitous chapter-in-italics-with-an-undisclosed-narrator technique. One by One is an alright read, but it’s a bit predictable and the characters aren’t the most nuanced. It also uses an… erm… familiar trope (from And Then There Were None and Saw) but in a way that makes it quite obvious what’s going on. All in all, this isn’t the worst Prime Reading book I’ve read, but it isn’t the best.

The House Party by Mary Grand (2020)

And onto the next one… The House Party sounds like it’s going to be classic And Then There Were None territory, doesn’t it? Well, sadly, it isn’t. The eponymous party is simply the backdrop to the first chapter – all of which takes place outside the party rather than actually in it. The party in question is a housewarming for Kathleen and Patrick’s fancy new house, and all their friends are having a great time. Kathleen isn’t, though, and she takes time out to talk to her mild-mannered friend Beth (who is the novel’s protagonist) about what’s bothering her. Of course, she doesn’t give quite enough detail – she just says that someone at the party has been threatening her, and that she’s worried they know her big secret – so when she turns up dead shortly afterwards, Beth doesn’t have a lot to go on. The party itself isn’t really an important plot point, but it serves to provide a list of suspects. I’ll admit that there was a lot here that didn’t work for me (e.g. the murderer is really obvious, and there’s a very odd eBay link embedded into the text for some reason), but I did like the main character. I enjoyed seeing Beth coming into her own as she insisted on pursuing the truth, despite all her friends telling her to let it drop. Other than that, this one didn’t really do it for me. Like One by One, there weren’t a lot of surprises with this one.

The Arrangement by Miranda Rijks (2020)

I really can’t explain what happened next. I have a towering to-read pile, and I only read One by One and The House Party because of my And Then There Were None thing. I don’t know why I went on to read The Arrangement, which certainly didn’t give any indication that it would be something along those lines. It’s a domestic thriller that touches on the world of sugar daddies/babies. But it isn’t The Arrangement by Robyn Harding (the ‘master of domestic suspense), which is set in the world of sugar daddies/babies. It’s a different The Arrangement. Between this and One by One, I feel like I’ve stumbled into the mockbuster section of Prime Reading (you know, like watching I Am Omega when you meant to watch I Am Legend, which wouldn’t be a bad thing – I Am Omega is great). I don’t have a huge amount to say about The Arrangement (the one I read), as it’s a fairly pedestrian thriller with an unremarkable conclusion. It’s another book marketed as having a ‘stunning twist’, when, in fact, it just has a standard reveal. Divorced mother-of-two Grace is devastated when her daughter Abi is murdered while on holiday in South Africa. The police believe it was a random attack by a drug addict, but when Grace discovers Abi was working as a sugar baby, she suspects there’s more to her daughter’s death. At least she has her oldest friends by her side to support her, eh? Not a strong recommendation.

Apartment 16 by Adam Nevill (2010)

I decided to switch from domestic thrillers to darker fare next, when I returned to my towering Abominable Books pile. The first one I chose from the pile was one of the ‘bonus’ (secondhand) books that come with the monthly subscription. Surprisingly enough, I hadn’t read Nevill’s Apartment 16 before. I’m very glad I have done now, though, as I really enjoyed it. The book’s protagonists are Apryl, a young American woman who has unexpectedly inherited a swanky London flat from an estranged great aunt, and Seth, a night porter who works in the building in which the flat is found. However, the book’s main character is really the apartment building itself. I completely fell in love with Barrington House! It’s an ostensibly upmarket block in one of the more expensive areas of London – a number of the flats belong to rich foreign businessmen and various upper class types. But what we actually see of Barrington House is an unsettling shadow of (probably) former glory. The flat Apryl inherits is gloomy and outdated, and it’s filled with the debris hoarded by her great aunt. Other flats that we ‘see’ reveal a similar story. The staff accommodation – what we see of it – is cramped, overheated and oppressive. And then there’s Apartment 16… this flat has been emptied for over 50 years, but the place has a strange effect on night porter Seth. I was definitely captivated by this setting, and the reveal of Apartment 16’s history was suitably chilling and unpleasant.

The Last House on Needless Street (2021)

I’m torn with this one. It was the featured book in the March Abominable Books box. It looks amazing, and it’s certainly had a lot of high praise. And that’s kind of the first problem… This is undoubtedly the most over-hyped book I’ve read in a long time. The hardback edition has FIVE pages of gushingly OTT blurbs from writers including Stephen King, Joanne Harris and Adam Nevill, describing the book as the most exciting thing they’ve ever read, better than Shirley Jackson, the best book since Gone Girl, etc. etc. No book could live up to that, and The Last House on Needless Street certainly doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautifully written, and it has several wonderfully-realized unreliable narrators (always a key to my heart). But the story itself is pretty mundane and predictable. Ted is a loner who lives in the eponymous house, sharing his life with a young girl he calls his daughter and his cat (who sometimes narrates). Dee is a troubled woman searching for her sister Lulu, who disappeared a decade earlier. The book sets us up for one story, before revealing that something else is going on. The author includes an earnest afterword and bibliography about that something else, stating that she wanted to write sensitively about a horror cliché. However, in order to do that, the book falls back on probably the most clichéd trope of the genre. The Last House on Needless Street is good, but it’s not Shirley Jackson good.

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

My Year in Books 2021: March

Well... this is definitely a longer post than last month's! I've read a few more novels this month than in February, mostly due to me finding a new series I like and binge-reading most of it.

So here come my mini-reviews of the books I read in March, and in case you're interested, here are the other posts so far from this year: January, February

The Boatman's Daughter by Andy Davidson (2020)

I’ve fallen really behind with my Abominable Book Club reading (that’s the amazing monthly horror book box that I subscribe to). I’ve got a few months’ worth of books from them to read – all of which look great – and so I thought I’d make a start on catching up this month. The first one I read was the featured book a couple of months ago. The Boatman’s Daughter is the story of Miranda Crabtree (the daughter of the title). It begins with Miranda accompanying her dad on a job – he is taking the local ‘witch’ out to perform some clandestine service for Billy Cotton, the local (unhinged) preacher. Things take a pretty unpleasant turn early on, setting in motion a dark tale in which Miranda is forced to take on horrible work for horrible people, before realizing that things have to change if she’s going to ensure her survival (and the survival of those she cares for). That plot summary is a bit rubbish, to be honest, but I don’t want to give too much away. The dark, unsettling pleasure of The Boatman’s Daughter lies in its feel as much as its plot. The book is Southern Gothic, but in the best possible way. It’s full of sleazy darkness, the oozing murk of the bayou, and crumbling old buildings that house really nasty secrets. And, like all good horrors, the shadowy supernatural threats are utterly overshadowed by the human ones. It’s darkly lush and really quite compelling. Definitely recommend this.

Deity by Matt Wesolowski (2020)

The next book I read was also from the Abominable Book Club, but it was actually the featured book in this month’s parcel. Despite still having some books to catch up on, I couldn’t wait to read Deity. It appeared to have been written especially for me. Deity is the fifth book in Wesolowski’s Six Stories series (though you don’t need to have read the others). The series premise is that online journalist Scott King presents a podcast exploring the darker mysteries of the online world. Each story is presented through six interviews, each offering a different perspective. It’s Rashomon for the internet age. I was completely intrigued by this premise (and if you’ve read my blogs before you’ll know how much I adore unreliable narrators/narratives). And I was not wrong to be intrigued – this book was absolutely right up my street. Deity has Scott King explore the case of Zach Crystal, an enigmatic pop star who died amid a flurry of #MeToo allegations. The book came out in late 2020, and it’s understandably been described as ‘timely’. It opens with epigraphs from books about Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson, but I suspect they were added shortly before publication. Wesolowski’s Zach Crystal is an amalgamation of elements inspired by other pop culture stories (not least a certain iconic pop star who was… bad?), but with a very British backstory. Deity is incredibly readable, and I loved it. And I bought the rest of the series the minute I’d finished it!

Shame on You by Amy Heydenrych (2017)

For reasons best left unsaid, I jumped away from my Abominable Book pile and grabbed the first eBook to hand. This next one was on Prime Reading, and I chose it because the blurb looked the most intriguing of the available titles (and I know, I know, I said I wasn’t going to do that again). Heydenrych’s novel is about Holly Evans, a lifestyle influencer who has amassed large numbers of followers on Instagram and YouTube. Holly posts food videos, espousing a vegan, raw food, clean eating diet that – raise your eyebrows here – she says helped to her to beat cancer without the aid of chemotherapy or other chemical intervention. However, Shame on You doesn’t start with Holly’s rise to social media fame. It starts with a dishevelled and bleeding Holly stumbling into McDonald’s one night after being attacked. What could have led to this? And is Holly’s social media life somehow to blame? Actually… you don’t have to read very much of the book to find out the answers to this, as the circumstances of the attack and the motivation of the attacker become apparent very early on. Sadly, what isn’t said outright in the first couple of chapters is pretty easy to deduce. Shame on You has an interesting premise, but the execution is rather pedestrian and lacking in surprise (unless you count my surprise that, despite knowing her attacker has been in her flat, Holly never once considers calling a locksmith). Not a strong recommendation from me.

Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski (2016)

So after that slightly random departure, I went back to Matt Wesolowski’s series and started at the beginning. Six Stories is Wesolowski’s debut novel and the first in a series of (at the current time) five books. It was little weird reading Six Stories having already read Deity, though I can’t explain exactly why that was without giving a major spoiler. This did make me wonder what it would’ve been like to pick up Six Stories without any preconceptions, but it also made me realize that this is a series that can stand being read out of sequence. Six Stories follows the same format as Deity – a mystery is explored and discussed via interviews on a podcast, and each of the six chapters is an ‘episode’ of the show. The mystery here is the death of teenage Tom Jeffries, who disappeared during a trip to Scarclaw Fell and whose body was found a year later. Podcast host Scott King speaks with people who knew Tom, or who were involved in the case, to try and get to the truth of the case. There’s plenty here about the complexity and nuance of teen dynamics, but also a healthy dose of sinister folklore and urban legend, particularly focused around the supposedly supernatural threats that lurk on Scarclaw Fell. The mystery here held, perhaps, fewer surprises than Deity (and some things were quite obvious early on), but the way the story is told is just captivating, and I really couldn’t put it down.

Hydra by Matt Wesolowski (2017)

After Six Stories, I went straight into the second book, Hydra. And I think this one is my favourite of the three I’ve read so far. Following the same format as the other books, Hydra sees Scott King look into the ‘Macleod Massacre’ of 2014. A young woman named Arla Macleod killed her family in a shocking and frenzied attack. She was found guilty of manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility and sent to a secure unit. But why did Arla do it? Is ‘psychosis’ enough of an explanation? Spoiler alert: no, ‘psychosis’ is not enough of an explanation, and the book does an admirable job of attempting to cut through some of the panic induced by the word (though I will say, as a minor criticism, it doesn’t go far enough and still relies on the idea that ‘psychosis’ only exists in the super-scary hallucinations-and-violent-delusions flavour, ignoring the somewhat more mundane breaks from reality that are more common). That said, I enjoyed the way the book’s fictional podcaster pushed to get under the skin of Arla’s story, revealing some pretty horrible things in the end. While Six Stories and Deity cloak their stories with a folk horror fog, Hydra draws on urban legends, creepypastas and internet games (Black-Eyed Kids, the Korean Elevator Game). It was also nice to see the first appearance of Wesolowski’s own antichrist superstar Skexxixx, who appears in Deity as well. This fictional character is turning out to be way more sympathetic than his real-life counterpart!

Changeling by Matt Wesolowski (2018)

I really have just ploughed on with Wesolowski’s series, haven’t I? I’m finding them a bit moreish! And I’m now really not sure whether Hydra is still my favourite, or whether it’s been usurped by Changeling. I’m definitely noticing some themes that run through the Six Stories series as well. While the mysteries in each book have a hint of the supernatural, they all have a very human heart, dealing with social issues that are both current and, sadly, deep-rooted. There’s a recurrent sympathizing with the disenfranchised – particularly children in care – and an implicit criticism of just how much of blind eye is turned when someone is exhibiting behavioural problems indicative of trauma. But all the books also reveal a fascination with both traditional and contemporary folklore and, strikingly, terrifying forests. Changeling has all of this in spades: podcaster Scott King investigates a thirty-year-old missing child case. One night in 1988, little Alfie Marsden went missing from his dad’s car on the edge of Wentshire Forest Pass (and Wentshire joins Six Stories’ Scarclaw Fell and Deity’s Crystal Forest as a place of sylvan terror and folk legend). But there’s more to the story than just the threat of the forest’s fair folk. I’ll admit to spotting the secret here, though I wasn’t totally sure that it was really going to go where I suspected. But it did, and the ending packed the punch I was anticipating. As with the other books in the series, I couldn’t put this one down.

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Review: Dear People of No Colour (Abbey Theatre/Esosa Ighodaro)

HOME, Manchester

In this post, I’m going to be returning to my blog and radio reviews of the Homemakers series of commissions from Home, Manchester, a programme of digitally-accessible creative content that can be enjoyed from the comfort of your own home. This post is a review of Dear People of No Colour by Esosa Ighodaro. The radio version of this review went out on Saturday’s on Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, but here’s the blog version…

For this review, I’m returning to the Homemakers at HOME series. You may remember that I reviewed a few of the pieces on offer last year. It’s a series of short theatre, comedy, music and other performance pieces commissioned by HOME Manchester, and available to watch via their website. The pieces were all commissioned and made during lockdown, for most of which HOME has sadly had to remain closed to audiences. In the last couple of weeks, as HOME prepares (with fingers tightly crossed I imagine) to reopen once again, they announced a further two pieces in the series, which are also currently available on the website.

Last year on the blog, I reviewed three of the Homemakers commissions: A Small Gathering, ABC (Anything But Covid) and Turkey Sausage Roll. Today, I’m going to be talking about one of the newest pieces to be released: Dear People of No Colour, a short film written and performed by Esosa Ighodaro.

Dear People of No Colour is a short piece – it runs at just seven minutes – but it’s a thought-provoking one. It begins with Ighodaro, standing in front of a painting, performing vocal warm-up exercises (like Red Leather, Yellow Leather). We then cut to Ighodaro dressed glamorously in a gold dress and make-up, but standing in a rather ordinary kitchen. As she explains, she should be getting ready to perform in a role she can get her teeth into, but coronavirus has put paid to that and now she has to stay at home.

That’s a very broad-brush summary, and I’m not going to say a lot more about the details of Ighodaro’s performance piece, as it would be very easy to dissect it completely and take away all your enjoyment of watching it!

What I will say, though, is that, although the monologue begins by examining the internal life of the creative – who might be feeling grateful for only having Imposter Syndrome and not COVID-19 – Ighodaro springboards from that to a consideration of identity and of humanity (and, conversely, of inhumanity). She describes the times we currently find ourselves in as ‘strange and inhuman’, but states that this has meant she gets ‘to be at last human’. This is a performance about connections lost and connections found, but also about the connections that are sometimes (for both human and inhuman reasons) resisted and denied.

Ighodaro’s consideration of race and identity – of what it means to her to be a black woman – I have no doubt will strike a chord with many. She speaks to experiences that many women in the UK will recognize from their own experience. And though some of us (and I include myself here, as a white woman) will not have personally experienced what is being described, I hope we will recognize them from actually listening in solidarity to what other women have told us (I hope that’s the case… maybe that’s misplaced hope… I don’t know).

Ighodaro’s performance throughout Dear People of No Colour is beautiful. And I really think that is the right word, as this simply is a pleasurable and charismatic vocal performance. To be honest, I thought that when she began with the warm-up exercises, and it was no surprise to learn afterwards that Ighodaro is a vocalist as well as a writer and actor.

But while the skilful performance gives Dear People of No Colour an enjoyable charm, and the opening part of the monologue offers a relatable (for many) description of where things are at, the really striking part of the performance comes from the development and conclusion of Ighodaro’s exploration.

I don’t want to say too much about where she takes the idea of ‘being at last a human’ in the ‘strange and inhuman times’, but it is a – that word again – thought-provoking assessment, and one that offers a message of tentative hope.

And I think it’s this that makes me instinctively want to look back at some of the earlier pieces in the Homemakers series, particularly A Small Gathering and ABC (Anything But Covid). Which I did, by the way. I rewatched those two performances (which I thoroughly enjoyed when I reviewed them last year) immediately after I finished watching Dear People of No Colour, and… well… that provoked even more thoughts.

I don’t know for certain that Dear People of No Colour was written in 2021, but it certainly feels like a 2021 piece. Is that a strange thing to say? A Small Gathering and ABC (Anything But Covid) are – what I think we can now recognize as – quintessentially 2020. Specifically, they are both immediate – and surreal and manic and occasionally terrifying and grotesque – responses to the early days of Lockdown 1. It’s almost unsettling to watch them back now, and to remember what that heightened state felt like, and then to remember that it was only one year ago.

Dear People of No Colour, however, is not (or at least doesn’t feel like) a response to the beginning of the Time of Corona. It’s much more meditative, more contemplative, eschewing frenzy and angst in favour of quiet anger, loss and (once again, tentative) hope. Compare the final sequence of Dear People of No Colour to that of ABC (Anything But Covid) – and no spoilers here for either of them! – and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

Or consider the part of Ighodaro’s monologue that’s film in a kitchen. With her gold sequinned dress and ‘going out’ hair and make-up, I was reminded quite strongly of Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s Kitchen Discos last year (remember them?). That kind of frenetic ‘Stay Home, we’ll get through this, we’re all in it together, let’s all dance!’ energy that we all attempted (pretended?) to have. But for all her disco glamour, Ighodaro is perfectly still here (if anything, there is more emotional force in the sections filmed in a garden – ironically the place we were all told we could go to find our calm last year), as though the fever is spent and it’s time to reflect.

I hope – and I really mean this – that we will be able to look on Dear People of No Colour as a reflection on the final weeks of the final lockdown. But it’s not simply that I share the hope expressed in the final words of the piece (though I do). The piece also says something quite powerful about the way lockdown has caused many of us to shift from that whirling dervish energy of banana bread, Joe Wicks and Kitchen Discos last year to a more introspective frame of mind.

What have we learnt in a year of living with corona? That, ultimately, is what Ighodaro is asking us to consider in this thoughtful and powerful performance.

Dear People of No Colour by Esosa Ighodaro is available to watch now at HOME Manchester, part of the Homemakers at HOME series. For more information, or to watch the film, visit the HOME website.

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.