Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie — Firm Favourite

My mum introduced me to Agatha Christie as a preteen in the form of audiobooks. We were driving in Oman, probably coming back from a camping trip, and I very clearly remember her pausing Motive v. Opportunity – one of the Thirteen Problems – at the moment before the solution is revealed to ask me what I thought. Of course, I had no idea! But from then on, I would borrow all her books on tape, which were mostly of the BBC radio adaptation.

Later, when she discovered Audible, I’d borrow her iPod during summer holidays and listen to the unabridged editions of the same stories. And eventually, I got my own account, which has, at current count 24 Agatha Christie titles.

It’s safe to say I’m familiar with almost all of the novels and short stories. But I’ve only read very few of them. Including Five Little Pigs, I could count the number on one hand.

“It’s psychology that interests you, isn’t it? Well, that doesn’t change with time. The tangible things are gone – the cigarette end and the footprints and the bent blades of grass. You can’t look for those anymore.”

Five Little Pigs, Agatha Christie

Five Little Pigs is probably the Agatha Christie novel that I, personally, think is the cleverest. I always enjoy the ones where the murder happened a long time ago, because – as Agatha Christie herself points out – they showcase the methods of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple very effectively. These aren’t, by and large, detectives who hunt around for physical evidence, and I would be a lot less interested if they were!

As is hinted at in the title, Five Little Pigs is written in the form of five interviews with witnesses, followed by five written statements by those witnesses. And despite the fact that all ten of these go over broadly the same ground, it never feels repetitive! I really can’t over-emphasise how cleverly this novel is constructed. Each witness has gaps in their recollection, some of which will be filled in by subsequent accounts, while some of the outright contradictions between statements prove to be vital to solving the mystery!

How would he, Hercule Poirot, have seen her?
On the answer to that question depended, he felt, the success of his quest.
So far, not one of the people he had seen had doubted that, whatever else she was, Caroline Crale was also a murderess.

Five Little Pigs, Agatha Christie

To see every character from five different perspectives is a fairly unique thing in crime fiction, as far as I’m aware. And as someone who values character, it’s really fascinating. It’s no surprise to me that Five Little Pigs was very highly ranked by podcast All About Agatha.

Five Little Pigs is truly a firm favourite of mine. On the whole, I think I prefer Miss Marple to Hercule Poirot, but it certainly didn’t hurt that I had John Moffat’s familiar voice reading certain lines in my head as I enjoyed this novel!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie — New Review, Bookclub Edition

This month’s bookclub meeting promises to be a very interesting one! I had a lot of mixed feelings and thoughts about Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower. Doubtless most reviews make mention of the fact that it’s written in the second person — which is unusual! But it’s also written in the first person at the same time. I had a lot of questions as I started the book about why it needed to be written this way, and who the first person narrator was.

The problem with the second person narrative voice is that it describes ‘you’ doing things when you, the reader, are not doing them. My suspension of disbelief just about stretched to that, especially once I’d been reading for a few minutes. What I had a greater problem with were sentences like this:

You would have no cause to realise this but the streets of town were far more empty than they ought to have been given the unseasonably warm, sunny day, given boats in the harbor.

The Raven Tower, Ann Leckie

Obviously, as someone who’s never read this book before, it’s true I have no cause to realise anything about this fictional town, but it still felt wrong to be told by this narrator what I did or didn’t know, knowing that they didn’t really mean me. Besides which, if there’s no way for the second person narrator to know a thing, then it shouldn’t be in the narrative! And telling me that I don’t know only draws attention to the fact!

I favour a strictly limited narrative voice. Granted, Ann Leckie is somewhat able to get around this because her first person narrator does know about the streets of town, but I still found it off-putting to begin with. I found it was difficult to get any sense of what Eolo was like, because his character was constantly being addressed as if he were me!

As I said, I wondered why The Raven Tower needed to be written this way, I kept expecting some moment which would hit me over the head with how it could only be written in combined first/second person. I don’t think that moment ever came, but maybe someone in bookclub will point something out that I missed!

No one in the far north would sit naked outside the door of someone who had wronged them and expect any result beyond hypothermia.

The Raven Tower, Ann Leckie

Putting aside the narrative choices, the plot of The Raven Tower was mostly good! I was interested in what was going on with Eolo, Mawat and the question of the Raven’s Lease. I was even interested in the experiences of The Strength and Patience of the Hill – a god, whose narrative started centuries before the main events of the book. But there were times I felt distanced from the world-building and really would’ve preferred to get back to the story, especially when The Strength and Patience of the Hill was describing warfare that seemed to have no direct bearing on either narrative.

I liked the emphasis placed on how the gods had to be really specific with language, because anything they said would become true – or could kill them, if they didn’t have enough power to make it true. After what bookclub said about Under the Pendulum Sun, though, I was always waiting for some moment when these rules would trip someone up in a clever way. And that’s another thing that didn’t really follow-through, as far as I could tell.

The Raven Tower was a very plot-driven book, and I did find the plot exciting! The fact that it ended on a cliffhanger might even be enough to overcome my aversion to the second-person narrative…

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Nella Last’s War by Nella Last — Reread Review

Every time I read Nella Last’s War, or watch Housewife, 49, I start wishing I could write as engaging a diary of my own. But I just don’t seem to have the knack of making my own days or thoughts seem interesting, not to mention my total inability to be consistent. I started a new diary system at the beginning of this year, but I haven’t touched it since early June, and even then I was sporadic.

I’m dreadfully balanced at times, and can see both sides – the weakness and strength of both viewpoints. It must be my Libra birth star, or as the boys used to say when they were cross, ‘just ornery cussedness’.

Nella Last’s War, Nella Last

Of course, Nella Last’s diaries have been edited. Days in which nothing of interest happened have been cut out, leaving only the entries which contribute to a narrative. Maybe, if I did that, I could make my own life seem interesting! (Assuming, of course, that I wrote enough entries to require editing.)

I thought Nella Last’s diaries might be uplifting reading, during lockdown. There ought to be some similarities, living through a national emergency, everybody’s lifestyle changing so quickly and out of their control. But I’ve really struggled to sit down to any reading. Now that I’m home all the time, it just never seems to be at the top of the to-do-list. As much as I did enjoy Nella Last’s diaries, it took me far longer to finish them than it usually takes me to finish a book.

She says she prays to God to strike Hitler dead. Cannot help thinking if God wanted to do that he would not have waited till Mrs Helm asked him to do so.

Nella Last’s War, Nella Last

Perhaps that’s why I just don’t have very much to say about Nella Last’s War this time around. I enjoyed it for the same reasons I enjoyed it last time, because Nella Last had a gift for making her life sound interesting. I took a lot of quotations from it for my own diary, if I ever actually get around to writing one!

It’s definitely worth a read, if you haven’t already, but do be warned it might make you wish you could replicate the effects!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones — New Review

Diana Wynne Jones is one of those fantasy authors people are always recommending but who I’d never really got into, despite being a self-professed fantasy fan. (Though, whether Howl’s Moving Castle qualifies as fantasy or children’s lit is somewhat unclear to me.) I bought Hexwood in senior school, and mostly found it… confusing — I mentally put it in the same category as Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. Then I borrowed what I think was Fire and Hemlock from my ex’s mum (I remember nothing about it apart from vaguely the cover, and if it wasn’t Fire and Hemlock then it might have been The Merlin Conspiracy.)

I had watched Studio Ghibli’s Howl’s Moving Castle, which I liked better than Spirited Away, but less than Princess Mononoke. And the one thing I’d heard about the book was that it was totally different from the book. Which is true of a lot of adaptations, and so isn’t really saying all that much.

“You must do something about yourself, Sophie,” Martha panted as they went. “Lettie kept saying she didn’t know what would happen to you when we weren’t around to give you some self-respected.”

Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones

It was obvious from early on that I was going to like Howl’s Moving Castle a lot more than the previous Diana Wynne Jones I’d tried. Sophie was set up almost instantly as a sympathetic character — I particularly liked that she felt constrained because she didn’t fit the fairy tale narrative of which daughters are allowed to go and do things. I could see that this was going to be a character-development heavy book. Which, to be honest, I could have guessed from the film adaption, too!

The concept – of having a woman without much self-assurance become an old woman – is clever! And the writing is charming and easy, far more so than in the what I remember of Hexwood. Which does incline me towards putting this in children’s literature rather than fantasy fiction. But there’s nothing wrong with that!

She sat down gladly on one of the two chairs. It was not very comfortable. Miss Angorian’s room was not designed for comfort but for study. Though many of the things in it were strange, Sophie understood the walls of books, and the piles of paper on the table, and the folders stacked on the floor.

Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones

As someone who lived in Cardiff for five years, I enjoyed all the Welsh touches. And as someone who studied English Lit, I appreciated the use of John Donne’s Song.

This was a quick read, but definitely one I’d recommend if the premise sounds appealing!

Rating: 3 out of 5.