And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie — Revisit Review

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Like most Agatha Christie novels, I’ve listened to And Then There Were None a dozen times and know the solution of the mystery by heart. It was interesting to slow down and read it on paper, because different things jumped out at me.

Enveloped in an aura of righteousness and unyielding principles, Miss Brent sat in her crowded third-class carriage and triumphed over its discomfort and its heat.

And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie’s prose is clear and to-the-point, summing up all ten of her main characters in only a few words. The descriptions of Emily Brent and Anthony Marston were particularly effective, while on the other hand it’s easy to get ex-Inspector Blore and Philip Lombard mixed up in the early stages. Even knowing the ending, it’s interesting to watch the atmosphere of increasing dread play havoc on everyone’s anxieties.

“My point is that there can be no exceptions allowed on the score of character, position or probability. What we must now examine is the possibility of eliminating one or more persons on the facts. To put it simply, is there among us one or more persons who could not possibly have administered cyanide to [the first victim], or an overdose of sleeping draughts to [the second victim], and who had no opportunity of striking the blow that killed [the third victim]?”

And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie

One of the things which makes And Then There Were None a really clever mystery is the total lack of trustworthy sources. Every character is equally open to suspicion, and that means the reader can’t trust anything, not even murder mystery staples like time of death or who last saw the victim alive. And by the time solid alibis are established, the characters are all too psychologically wound up to recognise and act on it.

While And Then There Were None is widely recognised as one of Agatha Christie’s most unique offerings, it’s surprising to me that it’s so often recommended to people who haven’t read any others. The very fact that it’s not a detective story makes it a slightly odd place to begin. I’d advise new Christie readers to start with something a bit more traditional and work their way up to And Then There Were None once they’re familiar with the format!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett — New Review

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It’s always exciting to make another inroad into the vast universe of Discworld, especially one which falls into a new subcategory, as Going Postal did for me. The name Moist von Lipwig was familiar, but everything else about the character and his history came as a delightful surprise. As goals go, ‘rejuvenate the postal system’ doesn’t sound as though it will be all that absorbing and yet, as Moist applies his skills as a conman to the business of civil service, the story sweeps you along nicely. Had Going Postalbeen nothing but a series of escalating problems successfully solved, it would have been enjoyable. 

He felt the tingle he always felt when the game was afoot. Life should be made up of moments like this, he decided.

Going Postal, Terry Pratchett

Of course, things can’t be that simple: the conflict is well-paced, reminding me a little of The Once and Future Witches, though with a less dramatic emotional punch. Everything that Terry Pratchett sets up pays off, or else seems like fertile ground for future novels to explore. Going Postal’s prose is of the clear, unassuming kind that doesn’t get in the way of enjoying the plot. The only rough part was a portion of dramatic irony, which I have an incredibly low tolerance for.

But what was happening now… this was magical. Ordinary men had dreamed it up and put it together, building towers on rafts in swamps and across the frozen spines of mountains. They’d cursed and, worse; used logarithms. They’d waded through rivers and dabbled in trigonometry. They hadn’t dreamed, in the way people usually used the word, but they’d imagined a different world, and bent metal round it. And out of all the sweat and swearing and mathematics had come this… thing, dropping words across the world as softly as starlight.

Going Postal, Terry Pratchett

While it seems necessary to mention social commentary in any Discworld review, it’s not something which jumps out to me as a reviewer. This may be why I find Terry Pratchett’s novels enjoyable but not sparklingly magical. For any readers in a similar position: Going Postal is perfectly enjoyable without engaging with the deeper meaning! 

While I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to reading every Discworld novel, I do hope to eventually make the acquaintance of Samuel Vimes and Granny Weatherwax, so this won’t be the last time I read Terry Pratchett.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough — Reread Review

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I picked up The Thorn Birds four years ago because it was mentioned in The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club. I devoured it over the course of a week in a holiday cottage, and it packed an enormous emotional punch. I’ve been looking forward to rereading it ever since, which might seem odd because almost nothing nice happens in the entire 54-year span of the novel’s plot.

She knew her son well enough to be convinced that one word from her would bring him back, so she must not utter that word, ever. If the days were long and bitter with a sense of failure, she must bear it in silence.

The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough

The Thorn Birds appeals to the part of me that signed up to take a module on Settler Identity: Fictions of Oz/Nz at university; it starts out as a story about coming to a new place and trying to make a life there. All the characters’ lives are limited in some way – by class, by money, by gender. It’s not even as if the characters band together to overcome these problems, because most of the relationships in the book are strained to some degree.

Away from Fee, her brothers, Luke, the unsparing, unthinking domination of her whole life, Meggie discovered pure leisure; a whole kaleidoscope of thought patterns wove and unwove novel designs in her mind. For the first time in her life she wasn’t keeping her conscious self absorbed in work thoughts of one description or another. Surprised, she realised that keeping physically busy is the most effective blockade against totally mental activity human beings can erect.

The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough

Colleen McCullough makes these tragedies cathartic, rather than depressing. The characters and their emotions feel incredibly well-observed and realistic. The prose has just the right balance between descriptions, interior thoughts, action and dialogue. Specific scenes linger in the memory so that, on rereading, I found myself recalling them just before they happened and was able to see the foreshadowing which I missed when I didn’t know what was coming. Even though these events no longer came as a surprise, they were still able to bring on a storm of tears.

Reading this so close after Brideshead Revisited, it struck me that Colleen McCullough does a better job at making Catholicism understandable to someone who wasn’t brought up with it than Evelyn Waugh does, as well as offering a more sympathetic portrayal.

Though I’m not a reader who loves or goes looking for tragedy, The Thorn Birds is such an incredibly satisfying novel that I know I’ll return to it again and again.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu — New Review, Bookclub Too

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Interior Chinatown is unlike anything else I’ve read. The book is written as if it were a TV show, with exterior and interior shots and dialogue laid out in script format, but it’s also about a TV show and the lines between what’s ‘real’ in the universe of the book versus what’s only acting are never terribly clear. Charles Yu writes in the second person, which was much more palatable than the second person narrative in The Raven Tower.

Even if Older Brother were not actually a real person, he would still be the most important character in some yet-to-be-conceived story of Chinatown. Would still be real in everyone’s minds and hearts, the mythical Asian American Man, the ideal mix of assimilated and authentic.

Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu

Despite the confusion about what was happening, Interior Chinatown managed to maintain interest. The reflections on living as an Asian-American weren’t subject to the same uncertainly as the action of the plot; the descriptions of living in the SRO above the Golden Palace restaurant (or the film set of the restaurant…) were particularly memorable.

Your whole life you’ve wanted to be Kung Fu Guy, to be something you are not, and here is this person who is whatever she is at all times.

Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu

The romance was sweet, though the rapid jumps in timeline meant it didn’t have as deep an emotional impact as it might otherwise have done. The biggest problem with Interior Chinatown was that it set the scene at one pace but then sped through the rest of the story so much faster that it felt disjointed.

It was a surprise to find Interior Chinatown listed as a comedy; the comedic tone didn’t come through, though that may be because Charles Yu was parodying a specifically American experience. The section which was supposed to be a children’s show was particularly surreal, so that may have been funny to people who found comedy in Geek Love.

Overall, Interior Chinatown probably merits a second read at some point in the future.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery — Firm Favourite

Previous in the series: Anne of Green Gables.

Anne of Avonlea has everything I love about Anne of Green Gables: the gorgeous descriptions, the endearing character moments, the most perfect slow-burn love story of all time. While reading Lucy Maud Montgomery’s books, I feel like Charlotta the Fourth: constantly watching Anne in the hopes that I might take on a little of her character if only I try hard enough. Even though I’m 34 and Anne’s only 17 in this novel, she’ll always feel like an aspirational figure of impossible enchantment. Some might find that cloying, but I simply get swept up in Anne’s spell the same way her most ardent admirers do.

Fortunately, some of the other characters are a little more down to earth. Before this reread, I’d entirely forgotten about Mr Harrison, but I love how he morphs from tirading bachelor to almost a kindred spirit in a matter of moments. I’d forgotten about Marilla adopting the twins, too, and this time around I felt quite bad for Dora. She’s constantly described as being incredibly obedient and yet she is so overlooked that adults describe her as monotonous and forgettable. She’s a child! As an overlooked orphan herself, it really feels as though Anne could have taken more of an interest.

But what is the use of being an independent old maid if you can’t be silly when you want to, and when it doesn’t hurt anybody?

Anne of Avonlea, Lucy Maud Montgomery

Of course, Anne of Avonlea‘s true kindred spirits are Paul Irving and Miss Lavender Lewis — Echo Lodge with its fairy echoes is one of the most memorable settings on Prince Edward Island. I spent much of the book waiting with bated breath for Anne and Diana to finally stumble upon the little stone house. Miss Lavender inviting the girls to share the tea she prepared for pretend guests is up there among my favourite moments in the series.

As I said in my review of Anne of Green Gables, Gilbert Blythe continues to be literature’s most perfect romantic lead. His steadfast love for Anne, even before she is ready to realise it, never fails to make me feel emotional, and I know that Anne of the Island will have even more perfect moments of happiness for the pair of them.

“That’s a lovely idea, Diana,” said Anne enthusiastically. “Living so that you beautify your name. Even if it wasn’t beautiful to begin with… making it stand in people’s thoughts for something so lovely and pleasant that they never think of it by itself.”

Anne of Avonlea, Lucy Maud Montgomery

No book is perfect, so I draw attention once again to the fact that Anne’s female friends her own age are, barring Diana Barry, fairly forgettable. Jane and Priscilla are different from one another, but I literally can’t remember a single thing either of them did in the previous novel, and by the time I start the next I doubt I’ll remember what distinguishes them. Diana makes up for it all, though, because her friendship with Anne is so beautifully encapsulated on the eve of her engagement. It was another moment that made me all misty-eyed.

“Another chapter in my life is closed,” said Anne aloud, as she locked her desk. She really felt very sad over it; but the romance in the idea of that ‘closed chapter’ did comfort her a little.

Anne of Avonlea, Lucy Maud Montgomery

I love the whole Anne series so whole-heartedly that I literally hugged the book to my chest every evening after I finished reading. I can hardly wait to carry on inhabiting Lucy Maud Montgomery’s beautiful world.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal — New Review

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The premise of Unmarriageable appealed to me: Pride and Prejudice set in contemporary Pakistan. Retellings of the same story are usually interesting, and while I’ve experienced a few modern takes of Pride and Prejudice, the Pakistani setting made this one stand out as something different. Soniah Kamal makes it work well in several ways: the urgency placed on getting the Binat sisters married, and the way their family’s reputation reflects on their eligibility feels much more at home here than it might in a British retelling.

We like reading and we have growing up abroad in common. We both grew up multi-cultural kids. We know no one person represents a group or a country in things good or bad. We know how to plant roots where there are none. We know that friends can be made anywhere regardless of race or religion. We know how to uproot. We know how to move on from memories, or at least not let memories bury us.

Unmarriageable, Soniah Kamal

Unmarriageable‘s characters are interesting, too. Alys and Darsee have a history of displacement in common with each other, and with me, which is something fresh bringing them together, as is their love of literature. It surprised me, at first, that Jane Austen actually exists in the novel, but it made sense. The criticism of Anne de Bourgh by her re-imagined character was a particularly nice touch. Soniah Kamal also takes the award for the grossest version of Mr Collins since the original, he actually made my skin crawl.

“You wait, Mummy,” Qitty said, “Bathool the fool is going to do something so unforgivable one day that my being fat will be nothing in comparison.”

Unmarriageable, Soniah Kamal

In some places, Unmarriageable stuck too closely to the original. It was fairly obvious what was going to happen, with relatively few surprises, which made reading the book an experience in exasperated impatience. That said, there were some differences, mostly in the characters rather than the plot. And at one point, I genuinely questioned whether Alys Binat was going to end the book unmarried, which would certainly have been a twist!

Unfortunately, what really let Unmarriageable down was the prose; it was just terrible. Sentences rambled in a way that made me cringe almost as much as Farhat Kaleen. While I could understand what Soniah Kamal was getting at, there was no grace in it, and I kept being thrown out of the world by constructions like ‘she was beginning to believe that truly of what use was beauty without a brain that could plot’.

Usually, I say that characters are the most important part of a book for me, but Unmarriageable has taught me that prose quality is at least equally significant, if not more so.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh — Reread Review

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But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognised apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

Like Moab is My Washpot, Brideshead Revisited seemed wonderfully romantic to me when I read it at 23, having bought it because a boy I liked was reading it. Over ten years later, I remembered the relationship between Charles and Julia, but had forgotten that they were both married to other people, and that they don’t even get a happy ending. While I’d like to think this second reading was more objective, the truth is that it’s probably just as subjective, but in a different way.

While I found all the characters in Brideshead Revisited interesting, none of them struck me as particularly true to life. The whole book has the dreamy, unreal tone of a Neverland — where the characters never grow up, or at least where Charles’ perspective of them and his worldview never really changes. He’s always looking back on history through a particular lens, and the story ends where it began, so that each scene has the same kind of feeling.

”But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”
”Can’t I?”
”I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”
”Oh, yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”
”But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”
”But I do. That’s how I believe.”

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

Even with very little understanding of Catholicism, I found the theological discussions interesting. Like everything else, there’s a lot that goes unspoken, and I probably missed a great deal of context which would’ve helped me understand what the characters were struggling with. On the other hand, Charles is also an outsider to the Marchmains’ religion, and to some extent their social class, so maybe feeling a distance from it all is the intended effect.

Although I didn’t love the romance, or the characters, this time around, I still appreciated the prose, and found plot interesting, if rather sad.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft — New Review, Bookclub Edition

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When I reviewed Red Seas Under Red Skies, I said that fantasy heist meets pirate adventure was tailor-made to my interests. Senlin Ascends proves that even when a book has one’s favourite elements, there’s no guarantee it will become a favourite. Senlin Ascends has an art heist!, piracy!, a group of misfits struggling against society! and yet I’m not at all sure I’ll ever read the next book in the series.

The Tower of Babel is most famous for the silk fineries and marvellous airships it produces, but visitors will discover other intangible exports. Whimsy, adventure, and romance are the Tower’s real trade.

Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft

Senlin Ascends gets off to a bad start. The first two thirds of the book consist of Senlin’s episodic encounters with a world and a cast of characters that unrelentingly want to screw him over. The Tower of Babel was such a disappointing, chaotic place that I found myself wondering why I was supposed to want to read about it. To give full credit to Josiah Bancroft, that’s not entirely his fault: I made an early assumption about Senlin’s relationship with Marya which coloured his rescue mission as more cynically hopeless than intended.

Even an art heist wasn’t enough to get me on board, because although Senlin had to work with others to pull it off, there was no sense of connection to any of the characters. Tarrou gave the impression of being too superficial to ever be relied upon, and Senlin had left everyone else he’d encountered worse off than when he found them, which didn’t encourage much sympathy.

It is easier to accept who you’ve become than to recollect who you were.

Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft

Fortunately, there was a turning point when almost everything I disliked about the book changed at once: Senlin took responsibility for the consequences of his actions, he started connecting with other characters who had stories of their own and I was finally able to hope that his quest might not be as doomed as I’d first assumed. The leaps of personality taken by Senlin came a little too quickly, but I was so relieved not to be miserable reading about this unpleasant place that I didn’t really mind.

The ending of Senlin Ascends is promising, which is a weird thing to say about the ending of a book. It left me torn about whether or not to continue the series; does the potential of a group of misfits attempting piracy on an airship outweigh the fact that I really didn’t enjoy most of the book? Fortunately, my TBR is long enough that I can put the decision off for several months….

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall — Reread Review

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Skylarking is my second-favourite of my lighthouse books, and I’ve been looking forward to rereading it. I remember enjoying the atmosphere, and being pleased that the plot wasn’t about falsifying the identity of a child, since that was what The Lightkeeper’s Daughters and The Light Between Oceans had in common.

Unfortunately, reading Skylarking a second time, the one thing I vividly remembered from my previous read was the climax of the story. Knowing what was coming robbed the novel of some of its power and I found the whole plot somewhat underwhelming.

Knowing that he wanted nothing from me, no outburst or tears or thanks, I could just sit and let the humiliation find its place amongst all the rest of me.

Skylarking, Kate Mildenhall

At just over 200 pages, Sklyarking doesn’t deeply explore any of its themes, character or setting. Kate Mildenhall tells the story from Kate’s perspective; she and Albert are the characters who most vividly come to life, but even so, I didn’t feel any of Kate’s emotions had particular impact. The lighthouse and the life of a lighthouse keeper is mentioned, but not delved into. There are a few very shallow mentions of Australian Aboriginal people, which left me wondering what the point of including them was.

I still see it sometimes, in my dreams, my mind’s eye. I see it but not quite as it was, and I wonder what other imaginings I have mixed up with the truth of the past.

Skylarking, Kate Mildenhall

The prose is fine, but without the mystery of wondering what happened to carry me forward through it, it wasn’t more than that. I don’t mean to be harsh: this is an enjoyable read the first time, but it doesn’t hold up to repeated readings as well as some other books.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone — New Review, Bookclub Too

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I’d heard good things about This is How You Lose the Time War, and I enjoyed Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone, so in as much as I had any expectations, I suppose they were fairly high. And yet, I just felt as though I didn’t connect with the book at all for the first 80 per cent of it. The prose is nice, but it flowed over me without leaving much of an impression. The characters write about their lives, but they’re from such a different reality from our own that I never felt like I had enough context to understand their significance.

Let me also speak plain, before this tree runs out of years, before the fine fellows under your command make siege weapons of my words: what do you want from this, Red? What are you doing here?
Tell me something true, or tell me nothing at all.

This is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Usually, I like epistolary novels, but despite their long correspondence, Red and Blue never stopped feeling like strangers to one another. I did get slightly more interested toward the end, when Red finally felt as though she had some motivation to actually do something, but I finished the book only a few days ago, and already I can’t tell you how the story concluded.

Perhaps This is How You Lose the Time War would be more compelling on a reread, though I’m not convinced. Certainly, I expect it would be more interesting to someone who likes puzzling out how a world works and piecing together the bigger picture from small fragments — what, in video games, is called ‘environmental storytelling’. It just didn’t work for me, but I’m still curious to see what other people say about it on bookclub’s discussion day.

Rating: 2 out of 5.