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 ├ůsa 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.