Monday, 30 July 2018

The Mystery of Three Quarters by Sophie Hannah: Review

In Sophie Hannah’s third “new” story featuring a certain little Belgian detective with magnificent moustaches and an egg-shaped head, Poirot finds himself confronted by four people who have all received a letter accusing them of murder - a letter mysteriously signed by one Hercule Poirot. Who is Barnabas Pandy, and has he or hasn’t he actually been murdered? Poirot’s investigations, assisted by Scotland Yard detective Edward Catchpool, encompass a country house complete with aged retainer, a boys’ boarding school, a solicitor with a passion for the death penalty known unaffectionately as Rowland Rope, and - in a very Christie-ish touch - a typewriter with a dodgy letter ‘e’.

You wouldn’t actually mistake it for Christie - it’s definitely Sophie Hannah’s own take  and while set in the past, has a more modern feel - but Poirot is very recognisably Poirot (and apparently protects his moustaches with a net at night. Did we know this?) Captain Hastings is nowhere to be seen, but Catchpool is a worthy substitute, as is waitress Euphemia (Fee) Spring, though she doesn’t have a great deal to do here.... though her Church Window Cake (Battenberg, surely?) provides a source of inspiration.

Liked the chapter titles.... Proper chapter titles aren’t really a thing any more in most modern novels. Stuff like “Poirot Returns to Combingham Hall” and “The Typewriter Experiment”. They should be. Bring back the chapter title, modern authors!

I enjoyed the various renderings of Poirot’s name (Porrott, Prarrow) which reminded me of first reading the books as a child back in ye olden days and not knowing how to pronounce it ( I think Pworrot was as close as I got, and I had no idea what the M. - for Monsieur - stood for. I asked my mum, but she didn’t know either). 

I think this is my favourite of Sophie Hannah’s three Poirot novels so far... neatly plotted and characterised, and though nobody can entirely recreate the spirit of the originals (and nor should they), Sophie does a very good job. I really enjoyed it.

Many thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for the opportunity to read and provide an honest review.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth: Review

Possible mild spoilers ahead if you really know nothing about the story...

In fact this was one of those times when I kind of wished I’d known nothing about the story before starting, because I spent the first half of the book waiting for what I knew was going to happen to happen, which it didn’t till approximately the half way point.

Anyway leaving that aside, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is an undoubtedly good read. It’s a coming of age story beginning in 1989 when Cameron is 12, growing up in rural Montana. We follow Cameron’s life over several years - commencing with her experiencing tentative first kisses with best friend Irene and, almost simultaneously, the death of her parents in an accident. Not surprisingly, the trauma of the latter becomes somewhat associated with the former in young Cameron’s mind.

Now in the care of her grandmother and conservative, very religious Aunt Ruth, Cameron immerses herself in a world of movies and sports, hanging out with a group of boys following the departure of Irene. She attends Ruth’s fundamentalist church where the “sin” of homosexuality is preached, develops a relationship with summer visitor Lindsey and later falls in love with an alluring - but apparently straight - classmate, Coley Taylor. And it’s the fallout from this relationship that brings Cameron’s world crashing down, sent away by Ruth to be “de-gayed” at an extreme Christian residential school called Promise.

Cameron’s experiences at Promise and the friends she makes there make up the second half of the book and it’s a powerful read. The young people are supposedly helped to “overcome their sin” through faith - there is no shock treatment or extreme aversion therapy used - but the regime is nevertheless appalling. (And evidently - unsurprisingly- doesn’t work.) Students are encouraged to examine their pasts and taught “appropriate gender roles”... which for the girls means trips to a beauty salon. (Yes, really.) I can’t remember what the boys did - learn to fix cars, or something. Anyway it all makes for painful reading and the consequences, for some in particular, are devastating.

However, there are no real villains here - well, maybe Lydia is the closest. However misguided they are, characters like aunt Ruth and (head of Promise) Rick are following a genuine belief that they are doing the right - the only - thing, and acting in Cameron’s long term best interest. There’s no room for doubt in their minds and that’s frightening in itself.

Like I said it’s a powerful read and Cameron’s voice is engaging and compelling. The book made me laugh at times and made me very angry at others. It’s quite a long book but there were things I’d have liked more of - Margot, for instance, who seemed like an interesting character. And I’d love to know what happens to Cameron after the end.... (I need a sequel!)

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

BLOG TOUR! The Vanished Child by M.J. Lee: Review

The book...

What would you do if you discovered you had a brother you never knew existed?

On her deathbed, Freda Duckworth confesses to giving birth to an illegitimate child in 1944 and temporarily placing him in a children’s home. She returned later but he had vanished.

What happened to the child? Why did he disappear? Where did he go?

Jayne Sinclair, genealogical investigator, is faced with lies, secrets and one of the most shameful episodes in recent history as she attempts to uncover the truth.

Can she find the vanished child?

This book is the fourth in the Jayne Sinclair Genealogical Mystery series, but can be read as a standalone novel.

Every childhood lasts a lifetime.

The review...

A few years ago, I signed up on a whim to one of those find your family history websites, and promptly fell down a rabbit warren of censuses and war records, labourers and cotton mill workers, emerging, slightly dazed and with a lot of new, if not especially earth-shattering, information several hours later.

I haven’t as yet pursued the interest further, but I can definitely see the attraction, so that aspect of this story appealed to me right away - even more so when I realised that, like me, the characters originate from Lancashire mill towns. 

However as well as a genealogical mystery it’s also a moving and emotional (and harrowing, and rage-inducing) story which shines a light on a shameful period of British history; when over a hundred thousand children - some as young as four - were shipped off to the then colonies (Canada, Australia, New Zealand) to work as farm labourers and domestic servants. 

The Vanished Child is the fourth in a series - though I haven’t read the others - featuring genealogical investigator (and ex-police officer) Jayne Sinclair. Here, Jayne undertakes an investigation on behalf of her father’s new wife, Vera. On her deathbed, Vera’s mother had expressed her regrets about the child she had unwillingly lost contact with many years earlier - the brother Vera never knew she had. Unable to forget this disclosure, Vera has to learn the truth. Digging, Jayne soon begins to uncover a heartbreaking story.

The narrative switches between Jayne’s investigations in the present day and the story from “vanished child” Harry’s viewpoint in the postwar years, and this works very effectively. I enjoyed both narratives - Harry’s story and Jayne’s investigation - very much. Harry’s was the most emotionally engaging, for obvious reasons, but I also found Jayne’s inquiries to be fascinating (I do love to dig and research, so this was up my street). Although it is horribly apparent right from the beginning that young Harry’s life, and those of his fellow child migrants, were very difficult, I longed for a happy eventual outcome for him, although we know from the start he will never be reunited with his mother. 

It’s a powerful story which moved me to tears at times (particularly one moment towards the end...).  Jayne is a strong and likeable protagonist and I would certainly read more books featuring her, but it was Harry who stole and broke my heart, all the more so because his story, while fictional, represents the real experience of so many children.

Many thanks to the author and Rachel’s Random Resources for the opportunity to be part of the blog tour.

The author...

Martin has spent most of his adult life writing in one form or another. As a University researcher in history, he wrote pages of notes on reams of obscure topics. As a social worker with Vietnamese refugees, he wrote memoranda. And, as the creative director of an advertising agency, he has written print and press ads, TV commercials, short films and innumerable backs of cornflake packets and hotel websites.

He has spent 25 years of his life working outside the North of England, in London, Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore, Bangkok and Shanghai, winning awards from Cannes, One Show, D&AD, New York and London Festivals, and the United Nations.

When he's not writing, he splits his time between the UK and Asia, taking pleasure in playing with his daughter, researching his family history, single-handedly solving the problem of the French wine lake and wishing he were George Clooney.

Social Media Links...

Sunday, 8 July 2018

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas: Review

I knew right away I was going to love this book. (The gorgeous cover didn’t hurt.) It opens in 1967 when four young women scientists - Margaret, Lucille, Grace and Barbara - are pioneering time travel (with the help of a rabbit called Patrick Troughton). What’s not to love? But it all goes a bit pear-shaped for them - at least from a public image point of view - when Barbara has a bit of a meltdown in front of the BBC.

By 2017 time travel is a day to day reality, overseen by the Time Travel Conclave, a powerful quango under Margaret’s directorship. Barbara, now a grandmother and long since excluded from any possibility of time travel, receives a cryptic message from the future and expresses a wish to time travel one more time. Barbara’s granddaughter Ruby, a psychologist, is concerned about what the message could mean and seeks some answers.

And Odette, a young student, stumbles upon the body of a woman in a mysteriously locked room, and finds herself unable to move on until she can understand what has happened. 

Stories about time travel always tie my brain up in knots - I find it impossible to keep it straight in my head. I probably need a flowchart. The plot here does become quite complex as the truth is gradually uncovered. But it’s the fully realised world Kate Mascarenhas has created here that is truly compelling - a world recognisably ours, yet fundamentally different. The Conclave itself operates outside of government jurisdiction, with its own laws and customs, led by the terrifying Margaret, who began to acquire a certain Thatcherishness in my imagination. 

At one point, Odette observes upon visiting the Conclave that most of the time travellers she sees appear to be women, and likewise almost every character of significance in this book is female; the handful of male characters - Barbara’s husband, Odette’s father, a journalist - appear only fleetingly. It’s quite refreshing, since science fiction has so often been the other way round.

The book is a hugely thought provoking read which has mystery, adventure, an unexpected romance and a Biblically apocalyptic ending (... kind of).

Like the books that somehow appear for each time traveller, received from their “silver selves”, there’s something unknowably mysterious about time travel. The Psychology of Time Travel is deeply intriguing speculative fiction about its effects on the human psyche. I loved it.

The book is out on 9 August and can be preordered here