Facebook Reading Challenge – choice for August

This month’s theme for my Facebook Reading Challenge is a love story. I always try to pick a topic for August which is suitable for a holiday read, a bit of escapism, not too taxing. When I came up with the 2020 list of themes I could not have known how 2020 would pan out and that most of us would not in fact be going on holiday at all. Barely going outside our front doors for many weeks. I had no holiday plans at all in fact – my elder daughter was due to be doing the four-week NCS (National Citizenship Service) programme this month, and then getting her GCSE results on the 20th, so there was no space for a holiday. We had a loose plan to take a last-minute week off just before the end of the school holiday but no firm ideas. The NCS programme was cancelled, of course, and travel restrictions abound. However, we are hoping to drive to Zeeland, in the Netherlands, our usual Spring vacation destination, in a couple of days. That is, of course, if the Dutch allow us in! And since I live in Greater Manchester, which is seeing a resurgence in cases of Covid-19, it is entirely possible that we Brits will not be welcome. However, let us remain hopeful. And vigilant.

Back to books…

Call me by your name imgI had been thinking about some of the classic love stories – Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Gone with the Wind, The Remains of the Day – but none of these felt much like ‘holiday reading’. But then a bit of online research threw up the perfect suggestion – Call Me By Your Name  by Andre Aciman. First published in 2007, this novel was made into a very successful film in 2018 starring Timothee Chalemet and Armie Hammer. It is set in the 1980s on the Italian Riviera (perfect!) and concerns a romance between Italian-American Elio (Chalemet), spending the long hot summer at his parents’ holiday home, and visiting academic Oliver (Hammer). It is apparently quite steamy (perfect!). I have not yet seen the film, so I am delighted to read the book first.

My choice for July was ‘something from the Americas’ and I picked a contemporary Argentinian crime novelist, Claudia Pineiro – a prolific author, well-known in her own country, and someone I had never heard of. Yay for reading challenges! I selected her novel Betty Boo, first published in 2010. The novel begins with the murder of Pedro Chazarreta at his home on the exclusive Maravillosa Country Club estate. Chazarreta is a wealthy businessman and widower, whose wife was murdered three years earlier, also at their home and in suspicious circumstances which were never fully resolved. The murder of Senor Chazarreta is equally mysterious and whilst suicide is widely suggested (a sign of his guilt in relation to his late wife’s death?), there are inconsistencies which arouse the curiosity of among others, Nurit Iscar. Nurit is a writer whose crime novels made her famous. However, she has written nothing for some years after her last novel received terrible reviews; she decided to write a romantic novel, encouraged by her then lover, newspaper editor Lorenzo Rinaldi, but the change of genre was not a successful career move.

Betty B00 imgAt the start of this novel Nurit is divorced, ghost-writing money-spinner books for celebrities and somewhat directionless. Her affair with Rinaldi is long over, but he contacts her and asks her to write some columns on Chazarreta’s murder. He arranges for her to stay at the home of his newspaper’s proprietor at La Maravillosa so that she can get close to the scene of the crime and the people who live there. It was Rinaldi who called Nurit ‘Betty Boo’, because of her dark eyes and dark curly hair. As Nurit gradually becomes immersed in the crime, her relationship develops with two other journalists at El Tribuno, which her ex-lover edits: Jaime Brena, the disillusioned middle-aged hack, former crime journalist, now reduced to the lifestyle section of the paper, and ‘Crime Boy’ the young upstart, now the lead crime writer on the paper, who, with his limited experience, turns increasingly to Brena for help on the Chazarreta case.

These three disparate individuals thus find themselves thrown together on the case, not entirely through their own choosing. Each brings their own skills to bear to try and solve a case (two cases in fact, both Chazarreta and his wife), that the police seem unable, or unwilling, to. As they get closer to what they believe is the truth, more murders occur, which appear to our intrepid trio, to be connected.

This book felt like it had a slow start to me; some of the scene-setting felt a little laboured. Also, I felt that perhaps the translation was not the best; at times the language was awkward and stilted. One problem I had with it was the lack of punctuation to delineate speech! No speech marks or ‘he/she said’ which at times made it difficult to follow who was speaking. Perhaps this is Pineiro’s style or perhaps it is more obvious in Spanish, but for me it really affected the flow at times.

I liked the characters though and in particular the relationship that develops between Nurit, Brena and Crime Boy. Investigating the murder becomes a cathartic process for each of them, a journey, and at the end of it they have resolved some complicated personal issues they each have. The plot also develops in interesting an unexpected ways which keeps you turning the page.

I’d definitely read more of Pineiro – I think it’s always good to broaden your reading horizons and it can give you a good insight into other societies. I am ashamed at how little I know about Argentina. An interesting book that is not too demanding.

Recommended.

I would love for you to join me on the Reading Challenge this month – look out for my review of Call Me By Your Name in September.

 

Book review – “The ABC Murders” by Agatha Christie

This was the title I chose for May in my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was classic crime fiction. I’ve read a few Agatha Christie’s in the last couple of years, having never much delved into this genre for most of my reading life. I loved the escapism of Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express and I wanted to see if I would enjoy just as much a murder mystery set in the more prosaic location of London. I had also seen a little of the television adaptation from 2018 starring John Malkovich (though I think I only caught a couple of episodes) and it seemed altogether more grounded in the grim reality of its criminal subject. I’d love to watch it, actually, now that I’ve read the book, but sadly it’s not available at the moment. The film and television adaptations I have watched of Agatha Christie works have been more like costume dramas with more than a hint of comedy. I think I might prefer that to the darker readings of more recent years (rather like my late grandmother who was a voracious reader and loved nothing more than losing herself for a day in “a good murder”!)

The ABC Murders imgIn The ABC Murders Poirot is involved in a cat and mouse game with a serial killer, someone who warns in advance where and when he will strike, taunting our Belgian hero; the murderer begins with middle-aged shopkeeper Mrs Alice Ascher in Andover, then flirty young waitress Betty Barnard in Bexhill-on-sea, and so on. In this novel Poirot is past his career peak and his approach is challenged as somewhat old-fashioned in the form of Inspector Crome, an ambitious young detective who prefers more modern methods in his investigation. The murderer, however, pits himself squarely against our ageing Belgian hero; it is, unusually for the Poirot novels (it seems to me), a psychological game between perpetrator and hunter.

I also found Christie much more philosophical here than in the other Poirot novels I have read, on the criminal mind and on human nature and society more generally, such as in the following quote from Poirot:

“Speech, so a wise old Frenchman said to me once, is an invention of man’s to prevent him from thinking. It is also an infallible means of discovering that which he wishes to hide.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Like so many before me I have come to love the character of Poirot, though in my mind, I can only ever see him as David Suchet! This was the quintessential book to curl up in a chair with and lose myself for an hour or so. As such, it was the perfect antidote to the continuous grim news about Coronavirus which dominated this Spring for most of us. Every time I read a Christie novel I want to run away and just read more. That might take me years since she was so prolific! I have been exploring the official Agatha Christie website with interest and it has fantastic recommendations on screen adaptations of her work, though I might need another lockdown to get through them!

If you are an Agatha Christie fan, what are your favourite novels and screen adaptations?

Book review – “Fear of Falling” by Cath Staincliffe

This book was July’s choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge 2019, the theme of which last month was contemporary crime fiction. I picked Cath Staincliffe because I have met her and she’s very nice (and very successful!) and I have read a couple of her other books which I have thoroughly enjoyed, even though crime fiction is not usually my thing. Unlike much of her other work (and the last book of hers that I read – The Girl in the Green Dress), this is not strictly crime fiction, although a crime is committed. To that extent it is something of a departure for this author, I think, although the dedication at the front of the book to “my mothers”, Evelyn Cullen and Margaret Staincliffe, both of whom died in 2017, gives a clue as to what might have motivated this book, which was published in 2018.

Fear of Falling imgThe centre of the story is the relationship between two women, Bel and Lydia, who meet at a New Year’s party in 1985, when they are both sixth-formers although at different schools in Yorkshire. They are very different people – Lydia is reserved, generally quite sensible, and from a secure and ordinary family. Bel is wilder, her family rather more bohemian and she has a difficult relationship with her parents. Bel grew up in France and then London and it is her father’s job that has brought them to northern England, where she is something of an outsider. Bel and Lydia are drawn to one another, despite their very different personalities; for Lydia, Bel represents spontenaiety, excitement, danger even. For Bel, Lydia represents security, a steady point in a turning world.

Their lives begin to diverge after university: Lydia works in the scientific field, in a hospital laboratory, enjoys a successful career in which she is respected, and eventually meets the love of her life, Mac, an Irishman who runs a tattoo parlour. Lydia flits from one job to the next, travels the world, and never holds down either a long-term job or a long-term relationship. She seems to flee from commitment. Although she is never as diligent, thoughtful or kind a friend to Bel as Bel is to her, she somehow always seems to return to her.

Some years into their relationship Lydia and Mac decide the time is right to have children, but they find they cannot conceive. After three failed IVF attempts they decide to apply for adoption. In the meantime, Bel, in her usual fashion, finds herself unexpectedly pregnant by a man who wants nothing to do with the baby. Bel gives birth to Freya and the contrast between her indifference to the child, her inability to cope and her post-natal depression, and Lydia’s anguish at her and Mac’s  infertility is starkly portrayed. Lydia and Mac’s journey through the adoption process is equally traumatic, but eventually they are given a little girl to adopt, Chloe. She is about the same age as Freya.

This is where the story really begins: Chloe, it turns out, has had a very difficult start, with parents who neglected her. This absence of attachment in her first two years of life has caused damage which Lydia and Mac, despite their very best efforts, will never be able to repair. Chloe’s life becomes a series of dramas, problems, misdemeanours and eventually crimes. In contrast, Freya, who has a stormy relationship with Bel, becomes a bright, high achieving, outgoing teenager. Like the differences between Bel and Lydia, the contrast between their two daughters is stark.

I don’t want to give away the plot, although it is arguably not difficult to work out what is going to happen, but, as readers, we watch with horror as events unfold. Chloe gets increasingly out of control and Lydia and Mac become ever more desperate as they try and fail to bring their vulnerable daughter back from the precipice, time after time.

I enjoyed the book, I found it very compelling. Staincliffe has a writing style that is deceptively simple, but actually draws you effortlessly into the world of the characters. A lot of the novel is spent on building up the history of the friendship between the two central women, which I must admit, at first made me feel slightly frustrated as I just wanted to get to the main plot. By the end, however, it was clear that this was part of the author’s building of the narrative. The relationship IS the story; the two girls, the adoption story, yes these are also key plot lines, but it is as much about the vulnerability of mothers, about single mothers left alone and especially about couples who adopt (usually post-IVF disappointment) and are unprepared for the challenges, as it is about the plight of ‘looked after’ children.

The author’s afterword, where she writes about her own experience of being adopted as a baby after her young Irish mother became pregnant outside marriage, makes clear what has driven her desire to write this book. Her story had a happy ending, but for too many adopted children today, that is not the case.

It is a heartbreaking novel that will give you an insight into world about which most of us know very little. A difficult read but one that is definitely worth it.

How do you cope when a difficult story doesn’t have the ‘happy ending’?

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Facebook Reading Challenge July – “Fear of Falling” by Cath Staincliffe

The start of the month is rolling around with alarming regularity! It does not seem four weeks since I was setting June’s title (Tayari Jones’s “An American Marriage”) – which I still haven’t finished by the way. I’ve had a very busy few months and this has seriously curtailed my reading time. I try to read for an hour every day, which means I get through one and a bit books a week, and I find this is by far the best way for me to relax and re-energise. It also gets me out of ‘doing’ mode and into ‘creative thinking’ mode – a must for the writing side of my life. The focus of recent weeks, however, has been very much about ‘doing’ and early summer is usually a time when I know I’m not going to have much writing time. This blog has suffered too….

Fear of Falling imgHowever, the full diary will be emptying out a little as this month progresses, so I’m hopeful I’ll be able to restore my daily reading hour. My selection for the Facebook Reading Challenge this month will also help. The theme is contemporary crime fiction and I’ve chosen the latest book by north-west (England) crime writer Cath Staincliffe, Fear of Fallling, which was published last year. I met Cath at a writer’s conference a couple of years ago and she was such a lovely, warm, down to earth person that she really inspired me to think that I too might be able to pursue a writing life. Crime is not usually my genre of choice, but I read a couple of her books, including The Girl in the Green Dress, which I reviewed on this blog, and was gripped. Cath tackles major contemporary issues fearlessly and her writing style draws you subtly into the world she creates.

Fear of Falling is about the friendship between two women Lydia and Bel who have known each other for many years. As mothers, both face challenges – Bel has a difficult relationship with her daughter Freya, while Lydia and her partner adopt after she is unable to conceive. Lydia’s daughter Chloe’s actions as a teenager place immense pressures on the relationship between the two friends.

I’m really looking forward to getting into this; recent titles I have set on the Reading Challenge have been hard-going. I’m not expecting this to be ‘light’ but I’m hoping for a page-turner to get lost in and get me back on my reading track!

 

I would love for you to join us on the reading challenge. The book is available on Kindle if you can’t get hold of a copy.

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Book review: “The Girl in the Green Dress” by Cath Staincliffe

Last week I posted a review of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, the first of two crime fiction novels I read over the Christmas holidays. The Girl in the Green Dress could hardly be more different, despite also being a crime novel and it is indicative of how the way we entertain ourselves has changed in the eighty odd years that separate the publication of these two books. Where Agatha Christie provided escapism, upper class characters, exotic locations and traditional murder mystery with the big reveal at the end, Cath Staincliffe’s book provides gritty realism, some repellent characters, familiar locations and a limited amount of mystery. There is no job here for the reader to play the detective, spot the clues and guess the outcome. The job of the reader is to engage with the characters at a deep level.

The girl in the green dress imgThe book starts with 18 year-old Allie Kennaway, and her friends heading out for their college prom night. They are at Allie’s home with her father Steve and younger sister Teagan. Steve is a single parent, his wife, the girls’ mother, Sarah, having died a couple of years earlier from cancer. Allie, we learn is a transgender woman, formerly Aled.

We meet the other characters who will form the main part of the drama, in quite quick succession: Donna, the workaholic Detective Inspector, who has four children and a less than happy marriage; Jade, a new detective, Asian, and whose mental health problems are hinted at early on; Martin, a long-standing colleague of Donna’s, a horny-handed old-fashioned copper. The murder takes place quite early on; Allie’s body is discovered in a deserted street near the nightclub where the prom was being held. Soon after, we meet Sonia, single mother of the feckless youth Oliver, who spends his days eating junk food, hanging out with his mates and playing online games. His culpability for the crime is fairly obvious.

If we know whodunnit, then what is the story about? Well, there is a fairly major and dramatic plot twist, which, of course, I shan’t reveal. Mostly, though, it’s about the characters and their internal lives, their hopes, dreams, motivations and frustrations. The police (Donna, Jade and Martin) are all flawed in their own individual ways and are trying to deal in a systematic and process-orientated way with a terrible event, trying to set aside their personal selves, and yet completely unable to do so. Work and ‘home’ cross over in the most challenging ways. Much like the crime shows I watch on television (I’m thinking Happy Valley, Morse, Prime Suspect), the issues of the central character are part of and not separate from the story. Although, for Agatha Christie, Poirot’s personality is key to the narrative, it does not form part of the plot in the way that more modern crime fiction does. Or perhaps you would disagree?

There is also the storyline of transgender young people and their experiences, which the author handles deftly with great care and sensitivity. It is a huge and topical issue to tackle and the result is commendable.

I struggled to get into this at first. The clipped writing style, which reminded of the way police officers narrate radio dramas, ie not in fully-formed sentences, was off-putting to me, and I found the structure, short chapters within chapters focussing on a different character in turn, meant it did not flow so easily. Having just read Agatha Christie, however, knowing the murderer from the outset seemed odd and I wondered what on earth the rest of the book was going to be about! There is that twist, of course, and as I got to know the characters, so I began to engage with them and their stories more.

I did get hooked and enjoyed the book immensely. It’s a quick read, though its grittiness makes it hard-going in places; the reader is not spared any detail! I’d recommend this book, though, and I will definitely read more of Cath Staincliffe’s work.

If you are a reader of crime fiction do you prefer the modern or the more old-fashioned Christie-style writing?

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Book review: “Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie

I am not a big reader of crime fiction, but I read two over the Christmas holidays, as I feel this has been something of a gap in my education. I read Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, first published in 1934, and The Girl in the Green Dress by Cath Staincliffe who gave an excellent talk at the Northern Lights Writers Conference which I attended last year. Separated in terms of their publication by over 80 years the two titles are so different they could hardly be said to be part of the same genre but I don’t know enough about crime fiction to understand the path that links the two. I enjoyed both, but for very different reasons. I’ll start by reviewing the older of the two books.

Murder on the Orient Express img  To my shame, I have not read anything by Agatha Christie before, although I have stayed at the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate, to which Agatha famously disappeared for nearly two weeks in 1926 after a row with her husband! She is quite extraordinary when you look at the stats: said to be the best-selling author of all time, her books have sold around two billion copies (yes two billion!) worldwide, second only to Shakespeare and the Bible. She wrote 72 novels, 14 short story collections, and one play, The Mousetrap, the longest-running in the world. Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are perhaps two of the best-known literary characters of all time, and her work has been adapted for film and television countless times. She is truly a literary giant.

Murder on the Orient Express was released as a film once again last year, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, and a clutch of other huge names including Johnny Depp, Judi Dench and Penelope Cruz, although it has not been well-received critically. The release of the film prompted my book club to give this title a go. We subsequently watched the 1974 film adaptation starring Albert Finney as Poirot, and an equally stellar cast including Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman and Sean Connery. The film was very close to the book and we thoroughly enjoyed it. It was true escapism.

The book, also, was true escapism, though I’m glad I read it before watching the film. The structure is linear and to us would seem quite old-fashioned, but it’s a joy. It is split into three distinct parts: the facts, which sets the scene on the train, and gives us the background to the tragic Armstrong child abduction and killing case in America five years earlier. In part two Poirot hears evidence from each of the characters on the train, one of whom MUST have committed the crime, and the final part is Poirot’s analysis and conclusion, a set-piece beautifully played out in the film.

The plot is genius (I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, though I think most people who know anything about the book will know the ending – this will not detract from your enjoyment), but the way that Poirot makes his intellectual leaps is at times, totally contrived. For example, I am still not clear how he could have made the connection with the Armstrong case on such an insignificant piece of evidence. This matters not a jot, however, because it is Poirot’s cross-examinations, his exposition of ‘the facts’ and his closing revelatory monologue, which provide the real pleasure for the reader. The writing is also joyous, laced with irony, brilliant characterisation and the evocation of place….sublime! On this latter point this was the real escapism for me. I have always fantasised about travelling on the Orient Express in the golden age of steam (as long as I can travel fist class!) and this book took me right there. The opening scene of the book is set in Aleppo, which was rather poignant.

I’ll definitely be reading more Agatha Christie. This was quite a quick read, in just a couple of sittings, because it flows so beautifully and once you start it is hard to put down. Highly recommended.

If you are a fan of Christie, which of her books would you recommend I read next?

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