The Visitor’s Book (2015) by Sophie Hannah

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Sophie Hannah gave a talk at my local library back in October. I’ve not read much of her work (one novel and a handful of poems) but I was intrigued enough to go along, despite the fact that it was at a really awkward hour after work and I didn’t have enough time to go home first. In the end my colleague and I retired to a pub round the corner, drank a bottle of wine, waltzed into the talk half-tipsy and proceeded to wolf down all the complimentary tea and biscuits we could lay our hands on before it started. Ho hum. That’ll teach ‘em for holding an event at seven o’clock on a school night.

It’s been ages since I last went to an author event, mainly because there’s a part of me that wonders whether they’re a bit self-indulgent whilst the other is all indignant and secretly gets a thrill from hearing authors reading aloud from their own works. I’m so indecisive. It’s a wonder I make up my mind about anything. Thankfully this talk was exactly what I hoped it would be and Hannah was really funny and engaging. She spoke a little about her love for murder mysteries and ghost stories, where she gets her ideas from and how she ended up being commissioned to write the new Hercule Poirot novel.

Quite near the beginning she read an extract from The Visitor’s Book, her newest release, and I was hooked pretty much instantly. I needed to know the secret of that visitor’s book. Unfortunately the same need seems to have gripped everyone else and I wasn’t quick enough to purchase a signed copy at the end (although Hannah did sign another book for me). Thankfully my colleague was luckier and lent me her signed copy last week. I didn’t need to borrow it for long because it’s a really short read, equating roughly to two twenty minute commutes, a cup of tea and a lunch break. Perfect.

The Visitor’s Book is a collection of four supernatural stories. The first of these, the one that inspired the title, is about a young woman who’s unnerved to find that her creepy new boyfriend is a bit obsessed with getting her to sign the visitor’s book in his suburban terraced house in Walthamstow. It’s the best of the four stories I think and I really enjoyed all that to-ing and fro-ing between the couple about whether it’s a bit pretentious to have such a book in a rather ordinary home. The dialogue feels really natural and easy. I liked it.

The other stories feature a small boy left behind at a party, a woman who starts seeing living dead people and a resentful mum plotting her revenge on the other women gathered in a school playground. Two of these were a little predictable and I didn’t particularly enjoy them but I quite liked the lady who saw dead people who were really alive (or live people who were really dead if that’s a better way of putting it). It was weird but that’s probably the reason why I liked it.

I’ve read a few ghost stories recently and I’ve found all of them disappointingly unspooky. These weren’t an exception, although that’s not to say I disliked them. Is it just me? Maybe the problem is that they’ve all been short stories? Perhaps you need a bit more time to build up some tension. Or maybe it’s because so many of them have been classics and the things we find scary now are probably different to the things that terrified the Victorians. I don’t know. I should say, though, that I hate being spooked and I never watch or read horror for this reason. But still there’s a little bit of me that wants to be scared by one of these books… How’s that for indecision?

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Top Ten Tuesday: Books to read this autumn

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the folks at the Broke and Bookish. This week the theme is all about the top books we’d like to read this coming autumn.

Before writing this post I looked back at my TBR list from the start of the summer and realised, with dismay, that I have only read three of the books that I listed. Three! Well, three plus one short story. Good grief.

I said at the time that I don’t really plan my reading ahead because I’m too fickle, too easily distracted. I believe I have just proved my point. So here’s the latest attempt but with the usual disclaimer: this list will have very little bearing on what I will actually end up reading in the coming months.

1). The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith. I’m looking forward to reading something a little more grown up from Rowling. I know absolutely nothing about it – I didn’t even read the blurb before buying it – so whatever happens hopefully it’ll be a nice surprise!

2). The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy. This was on the TBR list I made in June and I’m still desperate to read it. I think I have to be in the right mood for Hardy and lately I just haven’t been.  Sometimes I just want to read a book where I know all the main characters will survive to the end, is that too much to ask?

3). The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley. I loved this book when I read it back in 2005 but until last week I hadn’t even thought about it in ages. It wasn’t until I saw the advert for the latest BBC adaptation that it all came flooding back to me. I’ve recorded the show but I think this needs a reread first.

4). The Warden by Anthony Trollope. After months of searching I finally found a second hand copy of this amongst some new donations at the charity shop. About bloody time. Who knew that the residents of this little town were so keen to hold onto their Trollopes?

5). The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. I’m so ashamed of not having read this yet. It’s been sitting unread on my shelf for at least ten years. Possibly more.

6). War and peace by Leo Tolstoy. Another example of the BBC shaping my reading habits. I was only saying a few weeks ago that I want to have another go at this and then I heard that there’s a big adaptation planned for next year…. but maybe I’ll leave it a little longer. I’ve had enough big books recently.

7). The Sot Weed Factor by John Barth. P’s dad lent me this nearly a year ago and has been far too polite to ask for it back. I need to get on this soon.

8). Classic Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories by Rex Collings (ed). I don’t plan on reading these all in one go but I think I might try to do one a month or so. Now the nights are closing in they’re pretty perfect for some ghost stories by the fire I think.

9). Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. This has been lurking at the top of my TBR pile for ages and there have been several times when I’ve reached for it…. and then changed my mind. Soon, Lady Audley, soon.

10). Something, anything at all, written by Sophie Hannah. I’m going to an author talk in October and it occurs to me that besides some poetry and The Monogram Murders, I haven’t actually read much by Sophie Hannah. I know I’ll get more from the talk if I’m reasonably well prepared before hand.

Voila! Do other people stick to their TBR lists? Or is it just that I’m a bit of a flake?

The Monogram Murders (2014) by Sophie Hannah

MonogramI was a bit dubious about reading this, I have to admit it.  Hercule Poirot is without doubt my favourite fictional detective so I was pretty scathing about the idea that another author would even attempt to write a Poirot mystery. But my colleague (who’s also a big Agatha Christie fan) had already read this and she swore it wasn’t half bad. And since I value her opinion on all things bookish (this is the same colleague who kicked off The Forsyte Saga craze that swept our office a few years ago) I decided I’d have to give it a go after all. We agreed on a swap; her copy of The Monogram Murders in exchange for my tatty ex-library copy of The Moving Finger . I got the better deal obviously.  The Monogram Murders, although flawed, is actually a more entertaining read (sorry Agatha).

The mystery all centres around three dead bodies which are discovered carefully laid out in separate rooms of the Bloxham Hotel in London, each with a monogrammed cufflink placed inside the mouth. It’s 1929 and the famous detective Hercule Poirot is in temporary retirement but he joins forces with Inspector Catchpool of Scotland Yard to investigate. Poirot is convinced the murders are related to his encounter with a mysterious woman in a coffee shop on the same night of the murders, a woman who swore that she was in danger for her life but begged that her murderers not be apprehended. Catchpool isn’t convinced.

Oh Catchpool. How the heck did he make it through detective school?  Poirot has had to put up with some sidekick dunces in his time but Catchpool really takes the biscuit. I got a bit fed up with his little flashbacks, his whinging, his failure to see the obvious right before his eyes… not to mention the fact that he’s so afraid of looking at the bodies in the hotel that he abandons the crime scene and goes home. Surely that’s not what detectives are supposed to do? Scotland Yard’s finest? Yeah right.

If we leave the inept Catchpool aside, this book is actually very readable and I think Hannah does a great job of reimagining the little Belgian detective. Hercule Poirot is such a well-known figure, famous for his characteristic little foibles and unique turns of phrase, that recreating him was always going to be difficult. But Hannah clearly did her research and I think she convincingly brings him back to life. To me her character always felt like Poirot, mainly because she’d taken a lot of care to include all those little traits that he’s known for. I thought the neatness was perhaps a little over exaggerated, and the dialogue of other characters didn’t always feel authentic, but on the whole everything was there that I expected to be there. Except the casual 1920s bigotry of course. I’m not sure Christie could have included a central character like Signor Luca Lazzari without using him as an excuse to have a pop at the Italians.

Maybe I’m just too harsh on Christie sometimes.

The real problem with this novel isn’t with Poirot but with the mystery, which I’m not sure is worthy of Christie. It’s a clever idea but I don’t think Hannah weaves it altogether with the same skill. The hints aren’t subtle enough, the red herrings are too few and far between and the real clues just a little too obvious. With an original Agatha Christie novel the killer almost always ends up being someone you’ve not even considered or, if it is someone obvious, she throws in a clever twist that you didn’t see coming instead. In contrast, I can’t say that I was ever surprised by The Monogram Murders. I almost always felt like I knew which way the story was heading. It was clever, but just not quite clever enough.

I’m very glad I read this though, just because it’s nice to see someone new have a stab (sorry) at such a familiar character. For all its faults it did really have me gripped for a good few days.

Apologies if this review is not up to my usual standards (whatever they may be). I’ve been in bed with a nasty, shivery cold for the past few days and concentrating on writing this has been the most exertion I’ve had in a while. I’ve spent all my weekend curled up in bed watching rugby, property makeover shows and old episodes of The Adam & Joe Show on 4 OD. I’m now going to make myself a Lemsip and return to my room. Night all.