The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

By Agatha Christie

Rating: 4 stars

I’m a fan of Christie in general but hadn’t read this one before. I really only picked it up because I was looking for new books and noticed this going for free on Kindle. I enjoyed it all the way through, as Christie does her usual whodunnit thing, with Poirot being wonderfully Poirot. The setting is also classically Christie, in a small English village, with a coterie of elderly spinsters running the local gossip network in an efficient and delightful way. Poirot laments the missing Captain Hastings (who has apparently moved to Argentina) several times throughout the book to his substitute, the village doctor, James Sheppard, who narrates the book.

And then we have that twist! Without dropping any spoilers, I was completely floored and did not see that coming. There’s a lot of layers of misdirection going on here and I thought it worked really well. I’d like to reread it at some point to see how it reads knowing the resolution. The end was interesting, being reminiscent of Murder on the Orient Express, with Poirot foregoing the legal process in favour of his own conscience. I’m still not sure how I feel about that. But it’s an excellent whodunnit with a great cast of characters and a twist I’ll be thinking about for days to come.

Book details

ISBN: 9782380378061

The Labours of Hercules (Hercule Poirot, #27)

By Agatha Christie

Rating: 4 stars

This is a fun collection of loosely connected short stories. The great Hercule Poirot is getting on a bit and thinking about retirement (and marrows). But first he’s going to go out in style, by taking on twelve carefully selected cases, each one mirroring one of the famous Labours of his classical namesake, Hercules.

The cases are lovely little stories, for the most part. Christie manages to construct surprisingly intricate stories, for the size of them, with only a couple of them feeling morally dubious to me (the one where Poirot gets the PM out of hot water with the media made me feel grubby, in particular). It did make me realise that I’m not as familiar with Greek myth as I thought I was as I had to google (or infer) several of the classical Labours.

Even in short stories, where there’s not as much build-up as is possible in a novel, I stayed true to type and resolutely failed to figure out whodunnit in any of the stories (although I came close once or twice). But if the journey is the point, I had fun travelling with the Great Detective.

Book details

ISBN: 9780006141969
Publisher: Fontana
Year of publication: 1976

The Murder at the Vicarage

By Agatha Christie

Rating: 4 stars

While I’m a fan of Christie’s Poirot (as much to do with the David Suchet series being on the telly a lot when I was younger as the books), I’m not as familiar with Miss Marple. A friend has recently been on a big Christie binge which encouraged me to seek this out and I’m rather glad that I did as it was a lot of fun. Narrated by the vicar (at whose vicarage the murder occurred) it was full of the misdirection and red herrings that Christie was famous for. The vicar is a pleasant sort of character with enough bite to dislike the police detective assigned to the case and to take some pleasure in the way that Miss Marple solves it in front of him. That sort of pettiness very much endeared him to me (but then, I can be a rather petty person myself).

There were some threads that I think I either failed to understand or weren’t explained (like who was sending the anonymous notes about the vicar’s wife, and why) but all in all it was a great read and, in line with tradition, I completely failed to spot whodunnit.

Book details

Publisher: HarperCollins
Year of publication: 2010

Kidnapped (David Balfour, #1)

By Robert Louis Stevenson

Rating: 3 stars

David Balfour is newly an orphan at seventeen. A message from his late father directs him to seek out his uncle Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws to make his fortune. Said uncle, however, betrays him and sees him on a ship bound for slavery in the Americas. Through a series of unlikely events, David makes it back to Scotland with his new companion Alan Breck Stewart and begins a journey across the highlands to reclaim his inheritance.

I didn’t know much about this book before I saw an absolutely stonking theatrical production put on by the National Theatre of Scotland. I adored that and was inspired to seek out the original text, which didn’t disappoint (mostly). It’s a cracking read, well-paced, full of adventure, and male bonding. Despite having lived in Scotland for well over half a lifetime, I confess I don’t know its history hugely well. But I did, coincidentally, just read up a bit on the Jacobite rebellion not long before reading the book, which provided invaluable context.

I do think it slightly ran out of steam towards the end. By the time David sees Alan away on the ship to France and turns away to go to a bank, I was just sort of left bemused. Like there were a few pages missing, maybe? But no, a quick check on Wikipedia reveals that’s where the book ends. Seems like an odd note to end on, but the main body of the book is a great fun read, that still works into the 21st century.

Book details

ISBN: 9780439295789
Publisher: Scholastic Paperbacks
Year of publication: 2002

Around the World in Eighty Days

By Jules Verne

Rating: 4 stars

I really enjoyed this tale of Phileas Fogg and his wager to travel around the world in 80 days. I found the pacing good, the action enjoyable and the characters engaging, although I can’t help wondering if Mr Fogg has a form of autism that led to his complete exactitude and lack of deviance from schedules.

There’s a good mix of good and bad fortune that Fogg and crew encounter and the scheming Inspector Fix of the Yard keeps changing his colours, always trying to apprehend Fogg, who he suspects of a bank robbery. A highly enjoyable read.

UPDATE 2022-12-06: reread after being gifted a beautiful Folio Society edition, complete with gorgeous map tucked into a pocket at the back. This time round, I read Fogg more as being Verne’s pastiche of an Englishman – mechanically minded and with an upper lip so stiff that no emotion dare passes. The loyal Passepartout, on the other hand, is the everyman, the sensible French antithesis to this, always wearing his emotion on his sleeve. They make a fun duo, in their own ways.

The book is obviously dated in other ways, the sections interacting with Indians and Native Americans in particular left me wincing in their stereotypes. But there’s no doubting Verne’s glee at the shrinking of the globe and the joy he takes in describing both the lands that the travellers go through, and the various modes of transport that take them, including trains, boats, sledges, even and elephant. But no hot air balloon, despite what the various media adaptations would have us believe. So I retain my original conclusion that this is a highly enjoyable read (even if you do have to put on your Product-of-its-Time rose-tinted specs at times).

Book details

Publisher: The Folio Society
Year of publication: 2021

Murder in Mesopotamia

By Agatha Christie

Rating: 4 stars

Amy Leatheran is brought in as a nurse to the wife of an eminent archaeologist who is on a dig in Iraq. Nurse Leatheran senses that all is not well on the dig, but is still shocked when there’s a murder. Thankfully, Hercule Poirot is in the vicinity and is called in to assist on the case.

I really enjoyed this mystery, with its evocative setting and intriguing characters. As Poirot says, the key to the murder is the psychology of the situation – especially that of the victim, and how her personality affected those around her.

The book is narrated in the first person by nurse Leatheran, who is a fun character to have in that role. She’s very prim and proper, and has the appropriate amount of British distrust of foreigners, although she does fall into playing the Hastings/Watson role with remarkable ease.

Something that I thought was quite odd was how unsympathetically that the female characters in the book spoke about other women. There are several women involved, starting with nurse Leatheran, and all of them often speak badly about both specific other women, and the female sex generally. I wouldn’t have been surprised by this if the book had been written by a man, but it wasn’t. Both Mrs Leidner, the woman that nurse Leatheran is here to look after, and Mrs Mercado, the wife of another member of the dig team, are described in particularly, one might say, catty, terms.

But leaving that aside, the mystery was intriguing, I enjoyed the characters a lot and, as usual, I completely failed to figure out whodunnit.

Book details

Publisher: Pan Books in association with Collins
Year of publication: 1981

The Illustrated Man

By Ray Bradbury

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve read a lot of Ray Bradbury short stories over the years, but somehow it seems that most of the ones in this collection were new to me, which is always a treat. There’s no linked theme to these stories the way there is in something like The Martian Chronicles, but there is a prologue and epilogue featuring the eponymous Illustrated Man and his magical tattoos that come to life and tell stories – the stories contained in this volume.

The first story, The Veldt is actually one that I’ve encountered before. It’s sort of prescient, with parents worried about amount of screen time their children are getting and what to do about it. It has an eerie, ominous sort of feel to it that sets the tone of the collection to come.

The Other Foot is a moving tale of Black colonisation of Mars, and what happens when the White man finally follows them. While the Venus of The Long Rain may have been made obsolete by science, its tale of a group of crashed rocketmen trudging through the (literally) never-ending rain of that world, searching for the most basic of needs: warmth and shelter, is still powerful, as the eternal rain takes it toll on their psyches.

Usher II is a lovely little fable about the dangers of banning fiction and forgetting stories; while The City is a revenge story writ large, on the scale of millennia. The collection ends with the eminently creepy The Playground, a story about a father who just wants to protect his son from the dangers of the wide world.

There’s a lot to enjoy and to savour here, even if several of the stories are darker than my taste normally runs to. If nothing else, Bradbury’s tone and style never fails to engage.

Book details

ISBN: 9780006479222
Publisher: Flamingo
Year of publication: 2005

The Secret Garden

By Frances Hodgson Burnett

Rating: 4 stars

This was a firm favourite as a child and whatever fondness I have for nature, I think I can, to some degree, thank it for. I feared that returning to it as an adult, it might not stand up, but, despite the flaws that I see now, it retains all the charm that I remember, and I finished it with a smile on my face.

The flaws definitely need discussed: its attitude to colonised peoples is patronising at best; it’s a good thing I’ve got a fairly strong product-of-its-time filter, trained in my youth on Golden Age science fiction stories. It has a remote, rose-tinted view of “virtuous” poverty, with Mrs Sowerby and her dozen children painted as healthy and happy, despite always being hungry and crammed into a tiny cottage while a hundred-room mansion lies mostly empty. And there’s a lot more child neglect than I remember, with the early chapters showing how both her parents had no interest in Mary, leaving her upbringing to the servants. That’s also mirrored in Colin, the “young rajah” of Misselthwaite and the relationship between those two children is the heart of the book.

There’s also, as I mentioned, a true love of nature here, and especially the Yorkshire countryside. The turning of the seasons, the joy of planting and tending and growing are all major themes, the growing plants of spring mirroring the growing children who begin to unfurl and grow healthily in when planted in the outdoors of England.

Despite flaws seen through 21st century adult eyes, this remains a delight to read, making me wish I could just roam the moors for days on end, with Dickon as my guide.

Book details

ISBN: 9781855345041
Publisher: Geddes & Grosset Ltd
Year of publication: 1990

The Book of Three (The Chronicles of Prydain #1)

By Lloyd Alexander

Rating: 3 stars

Taran is an assistant pig-keeper in Caer Dallben, which he doesn’t find very interesting, even if the (singular) pig he looks after is oracular (it’s completely unrelated, but I couldn’t help comparing Hen-Wen to the Empress of Blandings, and the various scrapes the latter gets into). Soon enough, Taran gets his wish to go adventuring and, as you’d expect, finds it less pleasant than he’d expected. He soon gathers a little group around him (although, frankly, I still don’t really understand why the others followed such an inexperienced youth, other than for Plot Reasons) and tries to take news of the coming of the evil Horned King to the ruler.

I’ve owned The Black Cauldron since I was a child, but had never read it. On a recent visit to my parents, I pulled the book down, intending to read it when I got home, before I realised that it wasn’t the first in the series, which led me to picking up this so that I could read the series in order.

It feels very Hero’s Journey, and you can all but tick off the stages of Taran’s development. To be honest, Taran isn’t a hugely interesting character, and can be oblivious and arrogant. His companions are interesting and more fun: the king turned bard Fflewddur Fflam, whose harp strings snap when he lies, and the princess Eilonwy, not to mention the marvellous Gurgi, with his crunchings and munchings and other rhyming.

It’s impossible to read this without comparing it to Tolkien. At times, it does feel quite “Lord of the Rings for children”, with many of the same tropes emerging, including a Dark Lord with powerful supernatural minions, a fellowship on a quest and a mentor who falls into darkness. But, at least, the Welsh-inspired setting gives it a distinctive flavour.

It’s an entertaining book though and the language is evocative. I’ll definitely read the next one.

Book details

ISBN: 9780006705925
Publisher: Armada Lions
Year of publication: 1973

The Incredible Journey

By Sheila Burnford

Rating: 4 stars

I found this old, quite fragile copy of this book while rummaging around my favourite second hand bookstore (Voltaire and Rousseau, in Glasgow, thanks for asking). I’ve never actually read it before, nor have I seen the film, although I do know the basic plot. I enjoyed this story of two dogs and a rather dog-like cat who make a journey of several hundred miles from the person who’s looking after them while their actual family are are away in Europe, back to their home.

I hadn’t realised that Burnford didn’t fully anthropomorphise the animals – rather than talking to each other, she refers to their instincts and love of each other to guide us through the story. Some of the episodes on their travels are mundane, like passing park rangers, while others are just odd, and a little sad – like the elderly gent living by himself who invites them in for dinner, but we slowly realise that he’s got dementia.

Now, as much as I love Labradors, the young Lab who led the trio was stubborn and maybe not the best at leading. The old, good natured bull terrier was my favourite of the trio, and the firm friendship between him and the cat was beautiful – leading to a joyous final paragraph, to leave the book on a high.

A fairly quick read, and the prose is lovely, both in describing the landscape that the trio travel through and their actions and relationships. The illustrations, by Carl Burger, are also delightful – full page sized and detailed. It was just a shame I couldn’t view them as clearly as I wanted to, for fear the opening the book too wide would cause it to fall apart (I mentioned it was an old, fragile copy, right?).

Book details

Publisher: Bantam Pathfinder
Year of publication: 1965

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