Top Ten Tuesday: Some Agatha Christie favourites


Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and Bookish. 

This week’s TTT is a Halloween freebie. I don’t read a great many spooky things – and it’s still early days with those Victorian ghost stories – so I plumped instead for a murderous theme rather than a supernatural one. I know Christie isn’t particularly fashionable these days but I love a good, old fashioned Golden Era murder mystery, much, much more than their grim modern equivalents. Here are some of my favourites:

1. The Hollow (1946). On the face of it, this is a fairly typical example of the Christie country house murder but the characterisation is particularly good and the suspects are surprisingly sympathetic. I didn’t really want any of them to be guilty. Full review here.

2. The ABC Murders (1936). Christie takes a pretty silly premise – beginning with the murder of Alice Ascher in Andover – and turns it into something weirdly compelling. Is there an alphabetically obsessed serial killer on the loose? Or is it all a cover for something a bit darker?

3. Murder in Mesopotamia (1936). The murder here takes place amongst a remote community of archaeologists working on an ancient site in the middle of the Iraqi desert. I particularly enjoy Christie’s non-English settings and I remember finding this one particularly atmospheric.

4. Death Comes as the End (1944). A murder mystery set in ancient Egypt was always going to catch my eye. Christie’s expertise shines through and although it never feels particularly authentic I love the idea. Full review here.

5. Five Little Pigs (1942). Poirot is asked to solve a sixteen year old case by the daughter of a woman wrongly hanged for murder. I was pretty happy that I’d caught the murderer with this one, and then absolutely enraged when I got it wrong.

6. Death on the Nile (1937). The murder of a honeymooning heiress on a cruise down the Nile sparks Poirot’s investigation here. There’s some good double and triple bluffing in this one and it’s all so much more complicated than it may first appear.

7. Murder on the Orient Express (1934). Poirot is trapped in a train carriage full of suspects when an infamous child killer is found dead in his compartment. It’s wonderfully tense and another one of those morally ambiguous cases where you don’t really know whether you want the detective to succeed.

8. The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (1960).  A short story from late in Christie’s career, this one gets a mention because it was the very first of her works that I read. I was hooked.

9. Sleeping Murder (1976). It all rests on a fairly unbelievable coincidence; what are the chances of returning to the country of your birth and unwittingly buying the house in which your mother was murdered all those years before? But still, I like the creepiness of the first few chapters when Gwenda can’t quite work out why everything feels so familiar and so wrong at the same time.

10. A Pocket Full of Rye (1953). Christie takes her nursery rhyme references quite literally with this one; there is an actual pocket full of rye, some blackbirds baked in a pie and a ‘King’ eating some bread and honey at the time of his death.

You’ll see that there are some notable omissions here, such as And Then There Were None, 4.50 From Paddington, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and so on. It isn’t that I don’t like them or rate them highly – just that I haven’t read them yet!

As always, recommendations are welcome🙂


The Botathen Ghost (1867) by R. S. Hawker


By Richard Budd (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons

She floated along the field like a sail upon a stream, and glided past the spot where we stood, pausingly. But so deep was the awe that overcame me, as I stood there in the light of day, face to face with a human soul separate from her bones and flesh, that my heart and purpose both failed me…

After swearing a few weeks ago that I’d tackle some of the old unread books on my shelf, I diligently picked up Malcolm Bradbury’s To The Hermitage, which I’ve been hoarding for years. Sadly, within a couple of pages I quickly discovered that I wasn’t really in the mood for such a wordy, convoluted book right now. It’s not the fault of the book – I’m sure on some other occasion we’d have gotten along just fine – but at this moment it just felt like a bit of a chore. This seems to be happening to me quite a bit recently and I never know whether it’s best to persevere or just give up and move on to something else. On this occasion I laboured on for another two weeks, so unenthusiastically that I managed to read just thirty more pages, before deciding that enough was enough. Time to move on. To be brutally honest, I don’t know whether I’ll go back and finish To The Hermitage as this isn’t the first time I’ve given up on it. Maybe it’s just not meant to be.

I was feeling a bit demoralised by the whole experience so I reached for my Penguin volume of Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories for comfort. It’s been nearly a year since I last read any of the short stories in this anthology and it was really quite relaxing to jump back into them. The first of the two stories I read this week was R. S. Hawker’s The Ghost of Botathen. Hawker, I’ve discovered, was an eccentric Cornish clergyman (he apparently excommunicated his own cat) whose works were relatively popular in his time, although they don’t appear to be very widely known today. This particular story is based on a local legend and takes the form of extracts from a diary kept by seventeenth century clergyman, Parson Ruddle. Ruddle describes being called to comfort a teenage boy who claims to have often seen the spectre of an old woman at Botathen, an isolated spot on the Cornish moors. The woman is none other than Dorothy Dinglet who has been conspicuously deceased for several years already so Ruddle blithely trots off into the wilds to witness this vision for himself.

The setting of Ruddle’s encounter with the woman is wonderfully atmospheric although not particularly threatening. This being the seventeenth century he’s unable to exorcise the phantom without express authorisation from a bishop so there’s a bit of a lull in the middle of the story while Ruddle trots off to ensure all the administrative boxes are ticked. In the end, however, the exorcism itself is wrapped up in a few brief, rather unsatisfying sentences that don’t really illuminate things a great deal. It’s all very vague, presumably because the dead woman’s reappearance in the physical world was caused by unfinished business so shocking to Victorian readers that it couldn’t be spelt out in black and white on the page. You can make some guesses, of course, but some cold, hard facts would leave you feeling less cheated. It’s a little austere, this one, but I quite liked the atmosphere and the setting.

The Road to Little Dribbling (2015) by Bill Bryson

“I like being in a country where when cows attack, word of it gets around.”

I read this book’s forerunner, Notes From A Small Island, for my A’Levels, alongside Great Expectations and A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (both of which I loved) and As You Like It (which I hated more than I can tell you). At the time Notes from a Small Island occupied a happy middle ground between those two extremes; I didn’t love it or hate it, but it was quite amusing and very easy to read. Back in August my dad came back from his holiday raving about how much he’d enjoyed reading the follow up so I bumped a few things off my TBR list (AGAIN) to make way for an impromptu Bryson fest.


In this latest instalment Bryon travels the mainland UK along an imaginary line stretching from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath. To be fair, the Bryson Line, as he calls it, is a piece of fiction as Bryson thankfully spends very little time on his official course. In between his stated starting and ending points he’s free to wander into Cornwall, Wales and East Anglia or anywhere else he chooses to visit. The nice thing about reading this now, compared to when I was seventeen, is that I’ve since seen a bit more of my home country and am able, much more than before, to recognise some of the places Bryson stops to admire. My old university gets a mention, as does the seaside town where I spent many childhood summers with my grandparents, along with the village P and I visited a few August Bank Holidays ago. I probably didn’t realise it at the time but it does make a bit of a difference.

I remember, when I read Notes from a Small Island as a teenager, being a little bit baffled as to why anyone would admire Britain so much, let alone love it to the extent that Bryson seems to. I can’t say that I’m any wiser now but I’ve never been particularly patriotic and at the moment I’m still suffering from horrible post-Brexit pessimism. It’s nice that in amongst all that twee British stereotyping Bryson still finds plenty to rage against, whether its austerity, the decline of the high street, littering or the alarming rise in anti-immigrant feeling. I’d have been troubled if Bryson’s picture of the UK had been an entirely rosy one. On the other hand, as much as I think Bryson is at his best when he’s bit peevish, there’s only so many times you can hear someone rant about how expensive absolutely everything is before it becomes a little exasperating. Trust us, Bill, we already know.

On the whole, however, this was really quite funny at times and it was nice to be reminded of some of the places I really do love in the UK. It’s a shame Wales, Scotland and the north get quite short shrift in comparison to the south but I suppose it’s unfair to expect that Bryson should visit every last place in the British Isles. I don’t remember enough of Bryson’s first book to say whether I like this one more or less but I think it’s probably still in that middle ground. It was a pleasant enough way to spend a few hours of reading time.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999) by Stephen Chbosky


There are two things that attracted me to The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Firstly, it’s become something of a cult classic recently and that just makes me curious to know what all the fuss is about. In 1999, when this was published, I turned 16 and was just starting to turn away from the Young Adult novels that had dominated my reading for the past few years so I didn’t read this book then. Instead I was spending my time scratching Jared Leto’s name into my pencil tin with a compass, writing angstily (with lots of exclamation marks!!!) in my diary and hiding behind the school bike sheds to avoid the monthly cross country run. In some ways it’s nice to know that those days are well and truly behind me but occasionally, just occasionally, it’s nice to revisit them and reminisce. The Perks of Being a Wallflower stood out as one of those books that might be a pathway into all that teenage nostalgia. Secondly, it’s an epistolary novel and god knows I love a novel written in letter format. They’re just so personal and chatty.

The letters in this case are written by troubled teenager Charlie who needs a stranger to talk to while he works through some of the big changes that are happening in his life. There’s a new school, new friends and the absence of old ones, bullies and parties, homework and so on and it’s all quite overwhelming. Charlie’s letters are readable and funny. To me he sounded a bit younger than his years but I can see why Chbosky did this; it’s Charlie’s naivety, I think, that draws people around him but itd also what makes him vulnerable. His problems are manifold but Chbosky treats them all sensitively and never once tries to suggest that Charlie might just grow out of all this one day. On the flip side, however, I did wonder whether there was just too much going on here: abortion, abuse, rape, homosexuality, domestic violence, drug taking, suicide, depression… I wasn’t a bit surprised Charlie found it overwhelming. Give the guy a break, Chbosky. The difficulty, of course, with a novel that tries to cram in so many big issues is that you just don’t get to address them with any depth. They lose their impact and you start to wonder whether this is all a bit manipulative, a cynical attempt at getting you to engage with the novel by forcing you to feel something.  It’s a shame really.

All in all, I had mixed feelings about this book. I love the fact that Chbosky treats some serious issues with real care and feeling and I really loved Charlie. But I wonder if I’d have liked it more if I’d read it back in 1999; reading it now it just fell a bit flat.

Apologies for the very brief review. I’m waaaaay behind at the mo and it’s already three weeks since I finished this one. I need to get back into the habit of blogging about books soon after I’ve read them. I’ll do better next time!

Top Ten Tuesday: Autumn TBR



Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week we’re looking at upcoming books on our To Be Read lists…

My last To-Read list was made back in March. Since then I’ve read two of the books I listed. Just two. This means that almost all the books on this new list will sound annoyingly familiar to anyone with a passing acquaintance with this blog. It also means I’m going to have to work harder at reducing my TBR pile to stop this happening EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. It’s pointless to keep listing books that I then don’t read and then having to keep relisting the same ones each time there’s a Top Ten Tuesday theme like this. So, decision time: between now and the end of the year I’m going to have a serious go at some of my unread books, even if it means all my other reading plans get neglected in the mean time. These are dire times and they call for desperate measures.

Here are some of the books that I really hope will get read soon:

1. The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy. Still on the list nearly a year after its first TBR appearance, this is proof (if it was necessary) of all the things I’ve just said.

2. Shylock is my Name by Howard Jacobson. This one hasn’t been on the list for quite as long as it was a present on my last birthday. I’ve not read any of Jacobson’s other books but I’m intrigued by the subject.

3. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimimanda Ngozi Andichi. Yes, I know I’m the only person who hasn’t read it yet.

4. Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh. I bought this in a tiny but brilliant bookshop in Ironbridge. I keep forgetting I have it.

5. The Hermitage by Malcolm Bradbury. I bought this in my first year at university. Thirteen years later it’s still lurking on my shelf, making me feel guilty.

6. Katherine by Anya Seton. I made such a fuss about how much I wanted this book.

7. A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel. I’d feel more optimistic about reading this one if it wasn’t so bloody huge. I seem to have read a lot of big books this year.

8. The Warden by Anthony Trollope. I had every intention of reading loads of Trollope novels last year. It never really happened.

9. The Plague by Albert Camus. I’m just put off by the title. I expect it’s going to be a little bit grim.

10. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. I don’t know why I haven’t read this yet. 

There’s a lot for me to be getting on with here. Wish me luck!

The Story of a New Name (2012) by Elena Ferrante


I surprised myself with how much I was looking forward to jumping back into Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. My Brilliant Friend, which I read back in April, is still one of my favourite books of the whole year and I’ve been desperately impatient to get my grubby little hands on the follow up. It took a while – mainly because of that whole changing jobs/libraries thing – but it finally appeared on the reserve shelf, with its little white label marked with my name, last week and I was over the moon about it. I did a silent dance right there and then in the library. I finished the book in a week (not bad at my current reading pace) and I’m already thirsty for book three so I’ll be back there later this week to add my name to another reservation list.

“How easy it is to tell the story of myself without Lila: time quiets down and the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport; you pick them up, put them on the page, and it’s done. 

It’s more complicated to recount what happened to her in those years. The belt slows down, accelerates, swerves abruptly, goes off the tracks. The suitcases fall off, fly open, their contents scatter here and there.


The Story of a New Name begins almost precisely where My Brilliant Friend left off: with Lila’s marriage and Elena’s growing acceptance that her best friend is finally escaping the poverty and the violence of the neighbourhood they’ve known since childhood. I’ll let you guess whether that actually happens. In this novel Lila has chance to adjust to her new life as Signora Caracci while Elena reluctantly continues her studies, pining for Nino and quietly envying her old friend’s glamorous new existence. This is a surprisingly long (and tumultuous) novel; a lot happens and all I can really say, without giving too much away, is that the friendship between the two becomes increasingly complicated and troubled.

The weird thing about this novel is that my feelings towards Lila evolved almost in time with Elena’s, which almost proves how utterly convincing Ferrante’s writing is. You can completely understand the fascination Lila holds for those around her and why they all seem to love her and hate her in equal measure. She’s at her most ferocious here; she lashes out at others to compensate for her own humiliation and sometimes she seems to do it with real relish. On the other hand you also get a real sense of how terribly afraid she is. You never doubt that she’d happily claw your eyes out to get what she wants, to prove everyone wrong and to salvage some sense of herself from her unhappy existence. Now that I think it over fully I wonder whether she might be one of the realest characters I’ve ever come across. Elena never manages to be quite so compelling but I think that’s probably the whole point. In her reluctance to dwell too much on the details of her own life away from the neighbourhood we get a very clear message that without Lila there’s not much worth dwelling on. Their relationship is frequently exasperating but it’s also engrossing and, at times, horribly distressing to witness. You wish that they weren’t quite so quick to push each other away when times get tough.

Ferrante’s writing, as I’ve now come to expect, is like nothing I’ve really read before. It’s brutal, intense, fierce even, and somehow quite urgent. It really emphasises the volatility of the relationships and the stark realities of life in this violent but rapidly changing neighbourhood. I find it emotionally exhausting at times but in a strangely positive sort of way, almost like I can’t read fast enough to satisfy my hunger to know what will happen next. There aren’t many authors who have that ability to provide such a brilliantly nuanced insight into a relationship or who leave you quite so emotionally drained afterwards.

Bring on book 3🙂

The Hollow (1946) by Agatha Christie

This book was ringing alarm bells in my memory from the start. It was only when I got to this scene…


…that I remembered having watched the TV adaptation a few years ago. Bummer. I very nearly gave up right then – who wants to read a murder mystery when you already know who committed the dirty deed? – but I decided to continue and, with hindsight, it was absolutely the right decision. This isn’t a bad book at all.

At first glance, The Hollow is a pretty typical country house murder mystery; a group of friends gather at the home of a mutual acquaintance only for one of the party, the dazzling Doctor John Christow, to get bumped off near the swimming pool just before lunch. Don’t you just hate it when that happens? When famous detective Hercule Poirot stumbles on the murder scene moments after the shot rings out he’s immediately convinced that things are not all they appear. Is this a carefully staged scene arranged by the guests as part of the afternoon’s amusements? Or is there something more sinister at play here?

What I haven’t yet said, of course, is that by the time Poirot arrives on the scene the story has really been underway for quite some time already. It’s unusual for Christie to leave the arrival of the famous detective to such a late stage in the novel. I think I’d almost expect it of Miss Marple but for Poirot it seems quite out of character. Apparently – according to Wiki – Christie herself was irritated by Poirot’s tardiness and felt that his sudden appearance out of nowhere was jarring for the reader and spoiled the flow of the plot. I can’t say I agree but it did have the odd effect of making Poirot seem almost superfluous to his own story.

In spite of this, I have to say that I think this is one of the best Agatha Christie novels I’ve read in a little while. All the usual ingredients are here – the red herrings, the witty dialogue, the double bluff – but this time there seems to be an extra layer of character development and a more careful set up. The philandering Doctor Christow who, I suspect, would usually be condemned to only the briefest of introductions, is given a good few chapters of background story and there’s a reasonably thorough analysis of his relationships with some of the other characters. When they describe the late doctor as the most ‘alive’ man they ever knew, you can almost believe them.

The character development isn’t limited to just the victim and I was surprised to find that I really quite liked a few of the suspects. Usually Christie peppers her stories with some thoroughly nasty characters; people you can easily believe would be capable of committing the crime. But she doesn’t really do that here; on the whole they appear pretty harmless. I was particularly pleased with the victim’s mistress, the sculptress Henrietta Severnake, and the scatter-brained hostess, Lady Angkatell. They made me almost hope that there wouldn’t be a murderer after all, that whoever it was would somehow end up getting away with it.

It’s all very odd and not what I was expecting at all. But I enjoyed the twists and turns of this novel and wish there were more like it.

The Truce (1960) by Mario Benedetti


A weird thing happened with this book. For the first two thirds at least I was fairly ambivalent about it: I liked the diary format, the intimate tone, the protagonist’s careful, measured approach to his affair with a colleague… but there was something missing that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. At times I think I felt a bit frustrated with the self-indulgent soul searching of the main character; he was selfish, I thought, and his concern for the delicate feelings of his new lover seemed to be a front, a way of protecting himself from pain and embarrassment. A selfish, unlikeable protagonist shouldn’t usually bother me but I found it especially hard to get on board when he kept saying things like this:

I’ve never trusted women with numbers… During their menstrual period and even the day before, if they are normally intelligent, they become a little silly; if they are normally a little silly they become complete imbeciles.

And this on his gay son:

I would have preferred that he turn out to be a thief, a morphine addict, an imbecile. I would like to feel pity for him but I can’t.

And later:

When a person is rotten there is no education that will cure him or any amount of attention that will straighten him out.

I know it’s absolutely unfair to judge 1950’s anywhere by the moral standards of Britain in 2016. I get that. And usually I do a pretty good job of ignoring this sort of thing when it crops up, which it inevitably does when you regularly read books that were written fifty years ago. But still, this time, for some reason I can’t explain, I found it really jarring. Maybe it’s just me being a bit sensitive.

Anyway, as I said, my feelings for this novel at first were pretty lacklustre and I didn’t feel that this was going to be a particularly memorable read. That’s until Benedetti reached through the pages and punched me in the face with a plot turn that I probably should have seen coming. When I reread the blurb afterwards I realised, Oh yeah, of course that was always going to happen, it had to happen. It was at this point that I finally understood why he’d put us through all that moral wrangling, all that painful reminiscing and pondering on the future. It made sense. I knew now just how much Martin had staked on this relationship and why its sudden conclusion was so absolutely devastating. He’d been given a glimpse at a new happiness, a chance to feel really alive for the first time. But it had all been a dirty trick.

So, it’s a weird review this one. Can I say I liked it? I think so, but I’m not sure. Despite my initial reservations I closed the book feeling quite moved by it and wishing there was a happier ending for Martin Santomme. I was rooting for him in the end.

Top Ten Tuesday: Oldies and Newbies


Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish. This week’s theme asks participants to look at some of the unread books that have been on their shelf for the longest. I’ve decided to give you the five oldest books as well as the five newest unread books. 

Here are the oldest:

1. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell. A throwback to the old BBC Big Read days.

2. To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Oh my stars. I’ve started this and given up again more times than I can remember. It’s embarrassing.

3. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. One day, Bulgakov, one day.

4. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Officially the oldest unread book on my shelf. It’s been there years and years and years.

5. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Another BBC oldie but one that I hope to get round to fairly soon.

And the newest:

6. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie. Purchased entirely based on the recommendations of the blogging community!

7. Byron: Life and Legend by Fiona MacCarthy. A lovely birthday present but one that will probably have to wait until a holiday when I can laze around reading for days at a time.

8. Shylock is my Name by Howard Jacobson. Another birthday present but one that I’m looking forward to jumping into quite soon.

9. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. Purchased for a whopping 19p from the British Heart Foundation shop in town.

10. The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood. Another birthday present but not for me (sadly). I bought it for a friend last week and am having to resist the urge to read it before I hand it over!

A very quick and easy TTT this week!

A Very Long Engagement (1991) by Sebastien Japrisot


I might have finished this a bit sooner if it hadn’t been for the Olympics. I’m definitely not complaining – after the dramas of the last few months it’s nice to turn on the TV to something that’s worth getting excited about, isn’t it? But it does mean I’ve been squeezing reading time around sports events. Much of this book was read in between gymnastics and cycling heats!

It’s not the ideal way to read anything, especially A Very Long Engagement which, I found, demands quite a bit of attention if you’re to follow it thoroughly. The novel opens in early January 1917 with five wounded soldiers sentenced to a barbaric punishment for cowardice in the line of duty. Two years later Mathilde Donnay, fiancée of one of those men, discovers that her lover may not have been killed in the fighting that day as she’d been led to believe and so she begins a quest to uncover precisely what happened to those men and why it was covered up.

I’m not able to write today, so a fellow Landis is writing this for me. Your face is all lit up, I can see you. I’m happy, I’m coming home.

As I said, it isn’t the kind of book you can only pay half attention to, in part because Japrisot frequently refers back to small details hidden in earlier parts of the novel, details that didn’t seem worth noticing at the time. Mathilde hounds witnesses and compiles hundreds of statements so over the course of the novel you essentially end up reading varying accounts of the same story from different points of view, again and again and again. Many of these stories are garbled, third hand and half forgotten. Some witnesses are helpful; others are evasive. You might think that it’d make for a repetitive, slow narrative but really I quite enjoyed this meticulous combing over of the details. Mathilde is a much more conscientious investigator than me: I forgot every detail within a page or two but you can bet your ass she was lodging them in her brain for safe keeping.

It’s with Mathilde, in fact, that I think Japrisot really excels here. I love her pig-headedness, her refusal to be pitied, and her shrewd ability to sum up others. Without her at the helm I think this novel could easily get bogged down in all that detail but with her it becomes an intensely compelling journey. Japrisot gets her tone of voice just right so that she’s sarcastic without being alienating, single-minded without becoming utterly exasperating. He also subjects the reader to all of her whims; sometimes you feel like she’s sharing her journey with you but at others she keeps the reader at arm’s length. By the end of this novel I cared about Mathilde enough to not mind the fact that the solution to the mystery rests on a rather unlikely coincidence; I was just glad she’d found some answers.

Given the subject matter I was relieved that A Very Long Engagement never strays into mawkish territory and again I think that’s something to do with Japrisot’s portrayal of the clear headed Mathilde. I also think credit lies with the writing; it’s intimate in its depiction of France before, during and after the war but without ever becoming overly sentimental about the effects of that war. It’s an emotional journey both for Mathilde and for the reader but there are moments of real beauty and humour among the horrors. It’s absolutely worthwhile.