Scenes of a Graphic Nature by Caroline O’Donoghue — book review

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“That’s what it comes down to, I suppose. I was obsessed with what I was, because I had no idea who I was.”

Scenes of a Graphic Nature is a thought-provoking and engrossing novel that is far darker than its brightly coloured cover suggests. After reading and being captivated by Caroline O’Donoghue’s debut novel, Promising Young Women, I had really high hopes for Scenes of a Graphic Nature.
The first person narration is engrossing and adds a sense of urgency to the story which follows Charlie Regan. Charlie, who is twenty-nine, is deeply unhappy: there is her father’s cancer, her strained relationship with her mother and her more successful best friend, her non-existent ‘career’ in the ever competitive film industry. In an attempt to make some extra cash Charlie has even begun selling photos, of a ‘graphic’ nature, of herself online. Given her not-so-great circumstances, Charlie feels understandably lost.
She finds some comfort in her father, whom she idolise, and his stories, one of which an account of his having survived a terrible tragedy. Inspired by this Charlie, alongside Laura, worked on ‘It Takes A Village’ a film that was based on her father’s story. When the film gains the attention of an Irish film festival, Charlie and Laura are invited to the event. With her father’s encouragement, Charlie set off to Ireland, hoping to find some guidance in the country she regards as her ancestral home. It happens that Charlie and Laura end up in Clipim, an island off the west coast of Ireland, and the place in which her father grew up. The people of Clipim however are not very forthcoming about the past, especially towards outsiders. Charlie however is convinced that someone is hiding the truth about the tragedy that irrevocably shaped her father’s life.

Similarly to Promising Young Women, there is a sense of unease permeating the narrative. From Charlie’s awkward interactions with her mother and best friend, to her sense of disillusionment towards her work and love life. Clipim magnifies the story’s ambivalent atmosphere and O’Donoghue does not shy away from portraying the ramifications of the British occupation of Ireland. Over the course of the novel Charlie, who is quick to emphasise that she is indeed ‘half Irish’, realises that she has mythologised Ireland and her own connection to this country. While I was very much interested in Charlie’s journey, and in the story’s engagement with colonialism, national and self identity, and in her shrewd yet nuanced portrayal of Irish–British relations, the plot tangles itself in unnecessary knots. The latter half of the novel veers into clichéd territories: we have the Town with a Dark Secret™, almost a la The Wicker Man, which is almost entirely populated by physically and verbally ‘hostile’ individuals, There Be Strangers™. Charlie herself makes many stupid choices (which do create tension), and seems unable to read a room. Towards the end the story becomes increasingly disconcerting, which in some ways I was expecting given how hallucinatory Promising Young Women ended up being. Charlie hits rock bottom, some bad shit goes on, and then we get a hurried explanation and ending. The violence of certain characters seems totally brushed aside, which was rather unsatisfying. Also, Charlie’s ‘investigation’ seemed less an investigation that her getting drunk and making wild accusations.
Even as the story become increasingly confusing, and frustrating, I was still absorbed by O’Donoghue’s prose. I liked the way she writes and the themes/ideas she explores. Her main character is an imperfect human being who can be selfish and reckless. Her loneliness and her disillusionment however are rendered in an emphatic light. Certain relationships, such as the one between Charlie and Laura, were believably messy.
Yet, as much as I appreciated certain aspects of the story, part of me knows that the Clipim’s residents were depicted in a less cartoonish way. In spite of Charlie’s interesting inner monologue, the storyline could have maintained a better focus. Still, I would thoroughly recommend this books as O’Donoghue’s writing is incredibly compelling and in spite of her blunders Charlie was an all too realistic main character.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie — book review

51Cf9ajBQ3L._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThe Murder of Roger Ackroyd is an excellent example of why I consider Agatha Christie to be the Queen of Crime.

“Fortunately words, ingeniously used, will serve to mask the ugliness of naked facts.”

It’s curious that one of the most influential crime novels ever written came about by accident. The idea for this novel was given to Christie by her brother-in-law (she states as much in
her autobiography). Still, I doubt that there are many authors who could have pulled it off as Christie does. Now that I have finally re-read it I can also confirm that knowing the twist did not deter my reading experience…if anything I was able to appreciate just how clever a twist it was.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is in many ways a very Christiesque type of book.
While the story implements a lot of the established conventions of the detective novel (the countryside setting, red herrings, the eccentric and brilliant detective and his intellectually inferior companion) it is also cleverly and unexpectedly subversive.
Once again Christie plays around with themes of justice and good & evil. Poirot calls into question the morals of the people connected to Roger Ackroyd (his family, friends, and employees). Thanks to his little grey cells he’s able to disentangle the truth from an increasingly intricate web of lies…

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson – book review

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“Bow all your heads to our adored Mary Katherine.”

In recent years Shirley Jackson has experienced a kind of renascence. Perhaps because of Netflix’s adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House or possibly thanks to contemporary authors (such as Donna Tartt, Neil Gaiman, and Stephen King) who have credited Jackson as their inspiration, enhancing her reputation, and prompting a reappraisal of her work. The fact that the Gothic and Horror genres—long regarded as cheap and sensational—are no longer considered ‘lowbrow’ fiction has also contributed to this reassessment of Jackson’s oeuvre. Modern readers now see Jackson as a central figure of the America Gothic as much of her fiction paints a fascinating—if not disturbing—portrait of postwar America . Yet, I find it difficult to pigeonhole Jackson as a Horror writer. Her narratives often feature emotionally disturbed women who are trapped within Kafkaesque worlds. They reality they presents us with seems off. Jackson seems to magnify the way in which traditions and societal expectations threaten one’s individuality and creativity. Most of her stories follow a woman’s ‘quest’ to find or maintain her identify. The ‘horror’ within Jackson’s stories is experienced by her characters. It is because most of her protagonists are labelled as ‘different’ that they are made vulnerable. Yet, readers will often find that all of Jackson’s characters behave with eccentricity (there are whole towns and communities populated by weird people…a bit a la A Series Of Unfortunate Events). In spite of this our protagonists are still singled out, often because they seem more interested in practicing their personal brand of witchcraft than of engaging with the rest of their world.
Madness and evil pervade Jackson’s writing to the extent that even her depictions of everyday occurrences are riddled with human weaknesses, fears, and cruelties. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle evil takes many forms.

The protagonist of We Have Always Lived in the Castle—which happens to be Jackson’s last published novel—has no interest in personal growth. Mary Katherine, who goes by the nickname of Merricat (quite fitting given that she often behaves like her closest companion, a black cat named Jonas), is an untame and defiant tomboy whose apparent ingenuousness hides a razor-alert mind. Six years before the events of the narrative—at the age of twelve—Merricat’s mother, father, aunt, and younger brother died after eating sugar laced with arsenic. Constance, Merricat’s older sister, is accused and acquitted of the crime.
Ostracised from their village, Merricat and Constance have become completely estranged from society. At the age of eighteen—free from her parents’ rules—Merricat has fashioned Blackwood Manor into her own private and idyllic world. The two sisters and Uncle Julian—who survived the poisoning but is now wheelchair-bound and increasingly senile—lead a life that is relatively quiet and governed by the daily chores and the ritual of mealtimes. Constance is in charge of the cooking and spends most of her days looking after Uncle Julian and completing household chores with Merricat, whom she treats with loving indulgence, often condoning Merricat’s disturbing behaviour by saying “silly Merricat”. When Constance voices her desire to go outside of the property, Merricat fear of this begins to manifests itself in her surroundings, skewing the way she perceives her reality so that she views ordinary things as ‘omens’ that “spoke of change.” Merricat attempts to regain control of the situation through her witchcraft and by breaking objects but with cousin Charles’ unannounced visit, Merricat is forced to take more drastic approaches to self-preservation.

A third fourth reading of this short and beautifully odd novel has made me even more appreciative of Shirley Jackson’s mastery of words. The first time I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle I was propelled into an increasingly puzzling yet utterly compelling story. During my second reading, I payed more attention to all of the novel’s components, rather than just getting swept along the bizarrely unapologetic storyline. Each time I re-read this novel, I love it even more. Jackson doesn’t feel the need to explain the surreal reality of her novels which makes readers such as me all the more in awe of her craft. Although it is difficult to draw comparisons, I could describe her style as David Lynch meets Tim Burton. Everything and everyone within this novel is peculiar and most scenes and conservations seem to hold a level of absurdity. Merricat’s narrative is also marked by a sense of growing unease (towards change, the future, anything other than her own version of reality) and the tension created by her various anxieties is alleviated by the story’s dark humour.

There are many different layers to We Have Always Lived in the Castle. One the one hand, it is exactly what its reputation promises it to be: an incredibly eerie and compelling short novel. On the other hand, it also delves into many challenging and unsettling subjects, such as paranoia, persecution and violence. Shirley Jackson does not shy away from portraying the darker corners of human nature, in fact, she delves right into the darkest parts of the human psyche.
On the surface, Merricat’s alienation is debilitating yet a closer look suggests that her estrangement from her society is act of self-preservation, one that is both empowering and subversive, allowing them to defy the societal norms and expectations of their time. Throughout the course of her narrative she attempts—for better or worse—to shape and maintain her own identities, refusing the role thrust upon her by her society. In Jackson’s novels, a world of fantasy is preferable to the ‘real’ world, which is populated by people who perform acts of cruelty, physical brutality and or psychological violence against those they perceive as ‘outsiders’. Merricat, who embodies the feared ‘other’ through her unwillingness, if not outright refusal, to adhere to established social conventions, is the ideal scapegoats of her community.

Merricat’s megalomania shows itself through her desire to exact punishments and for designating things and people as either “good” or “bad”. Her dichotomous view of the world causes her to behave in extremes: she varies between acting like a feral child, a sulky adolescent, and a seemingly Cassandra-like individual. Merricat obeys her childish impulses, and readily resorts to violence when not getting her way. Although Merricat sounds much younger than her eighteen years, her naivety is misleading, and her fantasies can easily move between those of a child (“I really only want a winged horse, anyway. We could fly you to the moon and back, my horse and I”) and those of a far more ruthless and dangerous person.
Her sadistic fantasies, her manipulation and subordination of Constance, and her desire to frighten others (“I always thought about rot when I came toward the row of stores; I thought about burning black painful rot that ate away from inside, hurting dreadfully. I wished it on the village.” ) reveal Merricat’s cunning awareness. Readers might find her charming, yet warped perspective jarring, especially since she avoids explaining her most malevolent deeds.

Merricat’s surreal inner world is conveyed through her first-person narration and readers are granted a unique insight into some of her mental strategies that she uses to feel protected from world around her’. To an outsider like her cousin Charles, many of Merricat’s actions seem to be unwarranted temper tantrums. Readers, on the other hand, know that Merricat always attributes a meaning—however absurd or far-fetched it may appear—to her every action and word. We are aware that she deliberately smashes objects in an effort to regain control over her life.
Merricat’s tendency to let her fantasies dictate her behaviour, turning her imagination into reality, distances herself from the ever-present threat of reality. She attempts to change and control aspects of her life through magical charms and fantasies, with little direct engagement with the outside world. Merricat’s need of control could possibly stems from her ‘fear of change’ which in turn causes her to perceive anything outside her and Constance’s established routine, such as the arrival of uninvited guests, as a threat to their wellbeing. Merricat tries to deflect ‘change’ through her own unique brand of witchcraft, which consists in the performance of various magical rituals, the burying of various ‘safeguards’, unspoken ‘spells’, and even the occasional“‘offering of jewellery out of gratitude”. Merricat draws strength from her belief in magic. What Charles—and presumably the rest of society—would see as childish games, Merricat views as the means to safeguard her future and protect her from the outside.

It is up to Merricat to fashion her home, Blackwood Manor, into a ‘castle’—a stronghold—which she can protect through various magical rituals and wards, and Merricat believes that nothing—and no one—can prevent her from projecting her fantastical and solipsistic view of the world onto her reality.
Shirley Jackson’s style is perfectly attuned to Merricat’s unnerving mind. Her obsessive and impulsive nature is fluidly conveyed by Jackson’s repetitive and rhythmical writing. Jackson also evokes a surrealisms reminiscent of fairy tales through the Merricat’s childlike urges and morbid fascination.
Merricat is a beguiling narrator. Her playful fantasies are juxtaposed against the most violent and bizarre thoughts. Her devotion to her sister borders on the obsessive yet it is through this puzzling relationship that we see a more genuine side to Merricat’s character. In spite of her selfish nature, her palpable fears and unique worldview make her into a fascinating protagonist. Once the stability of the sisters’ purposely reclusive existence is threatened, Merricat survives through her active fantasy. She retreats into the deepest parts of her made-up world. And it is her increasingly desperate attempts to retain control over both Constance’s and her own life that make her into such a brilliant character. Even in those instances where she ‘simply’ observes others, Merricat is always ‘there’, her presence unmissable to the readers.

Her sister Constance also demonstrates worrying behaviour. She too is initially in complete denial over the family’s status. She is in some things, rather controlling, while in other instances, she seemed…on another planet. While Constance remains a cypher of sorts, we see why Merricat needs her.
Uncle Julian ramblings were endearing and his sharp remarks provided much entertainment. Much of the story’s humour springs from his character.
Merricat perceives cousin Charles a threat right from the start. The scenes featuring him are brimming with tension: Merricat’s apprehension is all too real, and I found myself viewing him as an ‘enemy’, just as she does. Merricat’s descriptions of him often present him as something not quite human, a ghost or some such creature. While we can see that some of his criticisms towards Constance and Merricat had some truth, we are always seeing him through Merricat’s eyes.

The underlying suspense, the growing unease, make this uncanny tale hard to put down.The vivid descriptions are simply tantalising, the surreal quality of the characters’ conversations is darkly amusing and the atmospheric setting is almost tangible. We Have Always Lived in the Castle makes for a lush and macabre read, one that will probably strike you as weird yet ultimately compelling. It could be read as a fairy-tale of sorts, an alternative to folklore narratives, or as a story that sets otherness against ‘herd’ mentality.
Recently there has been a film adaptation of this novel (you can watch the trailer for it here) which, in spite of some minor alterations, brings to life Jackson’s story. It conveys the novel’s unapologetic weirdness, its idiosyncrasies, and its black humour. The film Stoker also seems to have drawn inspiration from this novel.
The first page of this novel perfectly encapsulates its style and tone. If you are uncertain whether this is the kind of story for you, I recommend you read its opening paragraph:

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”

edit: I’ve now read this 6 times and I find myself still in love with it. Jackson is a brilliant storyteller and We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a marvel of a book.

My rating: ★★★★★ stars

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illustration by Thomas Ehretsmann

Middlemarch by George Eliot — book review

penguin-cover-george-eliot-middlemarch.jpgWhile I won’t be the first or last reader to address the lengthiness of Middlemarch I do think that it’s worth noting that yes it could easily have benefited from a little ‘trimming’. Still, if you can move past its rather daunting size hopefully you will be able to appreciate George Eliot’s elegant and deeply attentive prose as much as I did.

“One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea—but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage?”

Throughout the course of its lengthy narrative Middlemarch questions the ethics and moral principles of its characters, urging its readers to interrogate their own judgement and previous assessments regarding individual behaviours, whole institutions, and social conditions. Woven through the various storylines, that are running parallel to one another in Middlemarch, there are many thoughtful discussions and reflections regarding marriage, politics, science, faith, and class.

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Like its full title suggests (Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life) the novel is primarily concerned with the lives and opinions of the inhabitants of Middlemarch. Within this small town many find it difficult to uphold their own boundaries, and their freedom and happiness are often hindered by the prejudices and jealousies that characterise provincial existence such as theirs.

In their separate ways both Dorothea and Lydgate—the main two characters of this novel—wish to enact some sort of change in Middlemarch. Yet, their attempts are far too progressive for the relative conservative and close-minded neighbours.
Lydgate methods are regarded with suspicion so that slowly but surely he becomes ostracised from his community. Perhaps his status as a ‘new arrival’ to Middlemarch is the cause of the people’s distrust of him and his ‘innovative’ methods (his aversion towards prescribing prescriptions is misconstrued to the extent of being regarded as a sign of medical malpractice; his keenness to get his hands on a ‘corpse’ seems uncivil). His close association Nicholas Bulstrode further antagonises the people of Middlemarch against him.
His marriage to Rosamond Vincy occupies a significant part of his storyline and reminded me very much of another literary unhappy marriage. Similarly to Dr. Charles Bovary, Lydgate enjoys his work but isn’t well regarded by others. Rosamond struck me as a less fleshed out version of Madame Bovary: she is vain, frivolous, solipsistic, constantly afflicted by ennui, increasingly indifferent towards her husband’s woes, and harbours aspirations towards a more grandiose lifestyle. While Lydgate is by no means flawless I felt quite annoyed that the narrative sometimes presented Rosamond as a victim of sorts.

Dorothea’s obsession to do good (one could even call it her raison d’être) is perceived by others as excessive and of bad taste. Dorothea seems to have aspirations to achieve the saintly status and stature of stature of a figure like Saint Theresa. Feeling like a saint without a cause she goes for the next best thing: similarly to Milton’s daughters, whom she fervently admires, she wants to help a brilliant man in his writing.

“Now she would be able to devote herself to large yet definite duties; now she would be allowed to live continually in the light of a mind that she could reverence. This hope was not unmixed with the glow of proud delight—the joyous maiden surprise that she was chosen by the man whom her admiration had chosen. All Dorothea’s passion was transfused through a mind struggling towards an ideal life; the radiance of her transfigured girlhood fell on the first object that came within its level. The impetus with which inclination became resolution was heightened by those little events of the day which had roused her discontent with the actual conditions of her life.”

balbusso_middlemarch.jpgHer dedication to her old and callous husband, as the narrative points out, verges on reverence. She seems blind to his flaws and to the possibility that his work will not be anything other than a product of a genius mind. Similarly to many other heroines (Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa comes to mind) she seems more than willing to live a life of martyrdom, of becoming some sort of 19th century reincarnation of Joan of Arc.
To me it seemed that Dorothea’s interest in her husband’s work was an attempt to live a more meaningful and intellectually stimulating life vicariously through him. Sadly for her Casaubon is not interested in sharing his ‘genius mind’ with her, and more than once rejects her kind offers to be of assistance to him. His failing health makes him all the more selfish and vindictive. Yet, even as Dorothea’s hope for a more fulfilling existence dwindles she seems unable to cast any blame on Casaubon choosing instead—as the good martyr that she is—to endure the disappointments of marriage with ubiquitous affability, and her affection and devotion to Casaubon will remain almost unaltered.

“Marriage, which was to bring guidance into worthy and imperative occupation, had not yet freed her from the gentlewoman’s oppressive liberty: it had not even filled her leisure with the ruminant joy of unchecked tenderness. Her blooming full-pulsed youth stood there in a moral imprisonment which made itself one with the chill, colorless, narrowed landscape, with the shrunken furniture, the never-read books, and the ghostly stag in a pale fantastic world that seemed to be vanishing from the daylight.”

In spite of the slowness and vastness of the narrative Dorothea and Lydgate do not seem to undergo any signifiant character change but rather they seem to remain true to their beliefs however misguided these may be. In only one instance Dorothea seems to show awareness of her unhappy marriage with Casaubon while Lydgate is forced to leave Middlemarch not for the want of trying but due to external circumstances.
Running alongside Dorothea and Lydagate’s narratives are the ones concerning other inhabitants of Middlemarch among which are the Vincy family, the Garth family, Nicholas Bulstrode, and Camden Farebrother. Some of the characters, such as the Cadwalladers, seem to function as a chorus, gossiping and interrogating the actions of the central figures of the narrative. Yet their role is not a minor one as it is up to the ordinary people of Middlemarch to sway and derail our main characters’ storylines.
There are free-spirits such as Will Ladislaw who seem to function merely as the wild-carefree card’ that—being an outsider in more ways than one—isn’t as affected by Middlemarch’s petty politics and prejudices. His deep infatuation with Dorothea diminishes somewhat this liberty of his.

“I have never done you injustice. Please remember me,” said Dorothea, repressing a rising sob.
“Why should you say that?” said Will, with irritation. “As if I were not in danger of forgetting everything else.”

While I wasn’t entirely sure why Will falls for Dorothea in such a way their slow (read: very slow, incredibly slow) romance made for some of the most tender and heartfelt moments of the whole novel. Speaking of heartfelt scenes, I was pleasantly surprised by the one that takes place towards the end of the novel which stars Dorothea and Rosamond (two characters then until that point had not shared any meaningful heart-to-heart).

“Rosamond, taken hold of by an emotion stronger than her own—hurried along in a new movement which gave all things some new, awful, undefined aspect—could find no words, but involuntarily she put her lips to Dorothea’s forehead which was very near her, and then for a minute the two women clasped each other as if they had been in a shipwreck.”

Many of the characters’ have to contend with their personal weaknesses: there are those like Fred Vincy whose spindrift ways will alienate—with the exception of his mother—those around him, Lydgate’s pride will lead him to refuse time and again the help of others, while Dorothea’s devotion towards her husband will jeopardise her own chance at love and happiness.
The narrative contends with the politics occurring in a provincial town in the 1830s, incorporating historical events and decrees within its various storylines.
The resulting effect seems close to that of a painstakingly realised tapestry representing the most trivial aspects of a ‘provincial life’. Elliot contends with questions of ethics and morality by confronting her characters with various setbacks and challenges. Money seems to be a running topic in each of her characters’ lives: there are the ones who have too much for their liking, such as Dorothea, and the ones who find themselves ruin their reputations and their relationships with their loved ones for it.
While I didn’t feel particularly sympathetic towards the novel’s various characters (I despised Fred’s entitled whininess and found his portions of the story to be intolerable; Dorothea and Will seemed far less interesting and intriguing that what other characters make them to be) I loved George Eliot’s writing. She could create such beautifully articulated insights and observations as to make even the most ordinary of conversations or landscapes something of interest. Her calibrated style brought her characters to life:

“Every nerve and muscle in Rosamond was adjusted to the consciousness that she was being looked at. She was by nature an actress of parts that entered into her physique: she even acted her own character, and so well, that she did not know it to be precisely her own.”

While much of the narrative concerns matters pertaining to a particular moment of time, there were many instances in which Eliot’s writing and narrative seem to transcend the limitations of their time. Throughout her novel she adds many remarks and details as to make her story all the more vivid in the readers’ mind: by specifying the tone of one’s words (“”Rosy!” cried Fred, in a tone of profound brotherly scepticism.in a tone of profound brotherly scepticism”) or ones movements and gestures (“”No,” said Will, shaking his head backward somewhat after the manner of a spirited horse”) she makes her characters and mannerisms all the more real.
Moments of humour are often made at the characters’ expenses. For example the narrative will address the characters as ‘poor’ as they are deeply involved in experiencing moments of personal anguish or self-commiseration. There are also some interesting insults and reproaches that could be surprisingly funny. For example Lydgate calls his wife a ‘basil plant’:

“He once called her his basil plant; and when she asked for an explanation, said that basil was a plant which had flourished wonderfully on a murdered man’s brains. ”

The narration was surprisingly innovative in that it seems to switch from a removed third-person perspective to a vigorous first-person one. The awareness shown by the narrative acquires an almost metafictional quality as it questions the traditional structure of the ‘novel’ and the representation of its characters as the ‘heroes’ and ‘heroines’ of their own stories.
One of the setbacks of this novel is its length. Perhaps if I’d found the characters more compelling I wouldn’t have minded as much but as it is they often frustrated or bored me so I don’t think I’ll be re-reading this anytime soon.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars

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Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz — book review

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I like to think of myself as a “serious” Agatha Christie fan. With the exception of one or two books—aberrations of some sort—I have always enjoyed reading Christie. I also happen to be a huge fan of the Poirot ITV series (starring the impeccable David Suchet) on which Horowitz has worked on. As Horowitz demonstrates in Magpie Murders, he knows a lot about whodunnits, particularly those that are considered to belong to the ‘golden age’ of detective fiction.

Magpie Murders is both a homage and satire of the detective genre. In a similar vein to The Silkworm, this novel focuses on a writer, Alan Conway, whose latest—and last—manuscript brings about some drama. In Conway Horowitz presents readers with the epitome of the self-important and unpleasant writer, and it’s easy to see why his editor—and one of the narrators—Susan Ryeland wants little do with him. Yet, asshe informs us in the very first pages of this novel, Conway’s last manuscript will change her life.
Knowing this, we then read the manuscript alongside her, and Horowitz utilises the device of the story-within-a-story perfectly, giving each narrative more or less the same length. Conway’s novel is full of easter eggs, many of which Susan decodes later on, and I had a lot of fun reading this quintessentially British whodunnit. The narrative, for Conway’s novel and Susan’s story, shows a self-awareness in its use of certain tropes and devices.
This was a fun read that kept me entertained from its opening page to its final one.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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The Missing Years : Book Review

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The Missing Years by Lexie Elliott

★★★✰✰ 3 stars 

The story had some potential, which is why I was very frustrated by the way the storyline developed.
To begin with, I was absorbed by the setting of the novel: a creepy manor in Scotlandwhere the main character, Ailsa, lived as child. After her father’s mysterious disappearance she and her mother moved away. Years later a ‘grown-up’ Ailsa is preoccupied by her missing father, and between each chapter we get a ‘what if’ scenario where she imagines that he is either dead, happily re-married, or after an accident has become an amnesiac and lives abroad. These tidbits were creative and made the otherwise boring Ailsa into an interesting character.
I also enjoyed the way the setting was portrayed: the accents and mannerism of Ailsa’s new acquaintances give the impression that Elliott has an ear for language and speech inflections. The manor too had a foreboding aura which was well depicted.
The slow burn mystery mostly consisted in Ailsa doubting and interrogating the people around her. ‘Someone’ is not happy of her presence in the manor and is leaving rather undesirable gifts…
Ailsa was an ‘okay’ character. I wish she had a bit more of a backbone or at least a bit more character. Her ‘half-sister’ was a rather useless character. The typical ‘younger, more attractive/charming’ sister type who was ready to abandon Ailsa for someone she had met once…the men were sort of interchangeable. I was disappointed to see how little importance some of them had in the overall storyline (given that so much time was spent on them).
A lot of suspense stemmed from what I can best describe as being jump-scares….the whole ‘reveal’ was somewhat ridiculous and off-beat.
Overall, this was a forgetful and rather cliched read. If you are looking for a quick ‘light-suspense’ read, this might be for you.

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The Franchise Affair : Book Review

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The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey
★★★★✰ 4 stars

This was an interesting novel. The tension between the various parties (the accused and the accuser/victim) creates a sense of suspense and the mystery itself is less about ‘who is right and who is lying’ and more about what the court will decide.
The Franchise Affair gives its readers a picturesque look into the dynamics of a small town. The gossiping, the divide and resentment that can occur between classes, the type of ‘herd mentality’ that can turn a whole village or town against someone.
Tey’s writing style is easy to read and could often be rather amusing. The large cast of characters were all rendered in in vivid detail. Even if they made a single appearance the way in which the narrative presented them and their way of speaking gave a really clear cut image of that person.
The novel chronicles Robert Blair’s attempt to clear Marion Sharpe—and her mother’s—names. His investigation was very methodical and he made many clever speculations. He is helped by his cousin (who works at the same firm and is a poet) and by a few other people (such as a mechanic) who believe that the Sharpe women are not guilty.
The witty dialogues and sharp social commentary make this more than a ‘mere’ mystery. Although this novel encapsulates the society and conventions of a particular time and place (England in the late 40s) there were many things that made this a rather relatable story; for example, the Sharpe women are made guilty in the eyes of the public thanks to an article on a fairly gossipy paper reminded me of the way in which certain social medias (ahem, twitter) act like judge, jury, and executioner. Thanks to that one piece they became ostracised from their community and fall victim to their increasingly hostile community, guilty before any trial as taken place There was something vaguely Shirley Jackson-ish about this aspect of the story (two women living in a big house, hated by their village, said to be witches, (view spoiler) ).
Overall, this was an engaging and suspenseful story, and I will certainly pick another novel by Tey.

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