Sunday, July 13, 2014

Murder on the Orient Express

Markham, ON: Pocket Books, 1974, c1934.
198 p.

What else can possibly said about this novel? It is as good as the majority of 3,755 reviewers on Goodreads think, and everyone I know who has read it has already told me.

But I just had to read a Christie for my summer mystery reading binge, and since I'd never actually read this previously, and it is another train mystery to follow on to The Wheel Spins, I picked it up, in this movie tie-in edition from 1974. And I greatly enjoyed it.

Somehow I'd never watched one of the movies, and hadn't had the denouement spoiled for me. It was an entertaining, well-structured novel about a long train ride from Stamboul to Paris (or Parrus, as the Americans aboard call it). Poirot just happens to be along by pure chance; he was returning from Syria with the intention to sight-see in Stamboul for a few days, but is called home by a telegram. His good friend M. Bouc who works for the railway, finds him a berth...and they're off.

Just as in The Wheel Spins, it's this unexpected extra passenger that puts a spoke in the wheel, so to speak. The conspirators must quickly reassess and decide what to do now that M. Poirot is along for the ride. After the introduction of  all the characters who make up the roster on the Calais coach, a murder occurs, ending the first part of the book. The second part follows along logically, as Poirot calls in each of the travellers for an interview. Each gives their version of events, and as there are no police to check up on any of their stories, Poirot must solve this one solely by the power of his 'little grey cells'.

The entertainment in this novel comes from the variety of intriguing characters that Christie has placed on this train. Each of them has some notable quirk or characteristic, or fascination for the others. Figuring out how these individuals interact and connect is Poirot's job, and at times his well-known foibles arise as well, sometimes in a very funny way.

For example, when the murder victim, Ratchett, is discovered, Poirot asks to speak to his young American secretary, Mr. MacQueen.The conversation goes as follows:

"What's up on the train? Has anything happened?"
Poirot nodded. "Exactly. Something has happened. Prepare yourself for a shock.Your employer, M. Ratchett, is dead!"
..."So they got him after all," he said. ...
"Your assumption was quite right. M. Ratchett was murdered. Stabbed. But I should like to know why you were so sure it was murder, and not just -- death."
MacQueen hesitated. "I must get this clear," he said. "Who exactly are you? And where do you come in?"
"I represent the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits." Poirot paused, then added, "I am a detective. My name is Hercule Poirot."
If he expected an effect he did not get one. MacQueen said merely, "Oh! Yes?" and waited for him to go on.
"You know the name, perhaps?"
"Why, it does seem kind of familiar. Only I always thought it was a woman's dressmaker."
Hercule Poirot looked at him with distaste. "It is incredible!" he said.
"What's incredible?"
This is a really great read, engaging and puzzling with a good cast of characters -- it all depends on them, as the setting is very limited indeed, nearly all taking place in one coach of the train. It was well worth finally reading for myself even if I felt like I already knew about it by osmosis. There was still lots to surprise me, and the process of reading it was so satisfying. Another addition to recommended summer reading; Christie is a classic for good reason.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Beggar's Choice

Beggar's Choice / Patricia Wentworth
New York: Time Warner, 1990, c1931.
252 p.

This was another very entertaining summer mystery -- which I've had on my shelf for years! It looks like a modern paperback, which is probably why I'd overlooked it for so long, but it is actually a classic 30's story, full of mistaken identities, inheritances and jealous women seeking revenge.

Car Fairfax is down on his luck, with many wry observations about how his upper class friends don't know him anymore -- and how he feels uncomfortable forcing them to acknowledge him in his neediness. Because of this, he also distances himself from Isobel, the only girl he's ever loved (and who still loves him, but is apparently not given a choice in the matter of his noble decision).

Car's on his last legs when he is offered a very strange job via a flyer thrust at him on the street. He takes a weekly salary apparently to dine in fancy restaurants and look well off. Of course his world is very small, and so he invites his cousin Anna (who he had rejected romantically in favour of Isobel long ago) to dine with him. And at that restaurant he runs into just about everyone he knows.

It gets more complicated from there; his cousin Anna is a vengeful woman, seeking her just desserts for his earlier rejection. Since she knows some pretty shady people, things get serious. Car is being framed for theft, B&E, and drug possession. The quiet man he meets in the dark to get new assignments for his "job" offers him the chance to knock off his uncle (who had disinherited him) for the money.

But Car hasn't sunk that low. He still has standards, and indignantly refuses. Upon his return home, he discovers that the police are after him for various crimes, and leaps out of the skylight and across roofs to escape...there follows a wild rooftop chase...then Car drops through another skylight and ends up slipping into an old woman's room... which is one of the funniest moments of the book.

The old woman doesn't scream or even look up. Instead she asks him if he knows a 9 letter word for "a dark knight of Sir Arthur's Court" When he does, she triumphantly fills in her crossword and orders him to hide in the wardrobe.

The story continues, and of course all comes clear in the end. There are lots of elements to this book -- lots of period detail and interest -- and although it involves drugs and attempted murder it's not at all hard-boiled. I appreciate that there is humour in it even while desperate things occur. This is the first Wentworth mystery I've read, and I enjoyed doing so. Light but recommended for a fun period read.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The Wheel Spins, or, The Lady Vanishes

The Wheel Spins / Ethel Lina White
London: Penguin, 1956, c1936.
191 p.

It's summertime. The weather is wonderful, not too hot or humid, and I have time to relax outside. So all I feel like reading is my stack of classic mysteries.

This is one that I've been meaning to pick up for a while now -- it's the basis for the Hitchcock film, The Lady Vanishes. I enjoy that film and have heard that the book is slightly different. I can now say that there are some significant differences between the two!

If you know the movie, you'll find the opening familiar but as it goes along, the plot and especially the character of Miss Froy differ quite a lot. But I enjoyed both the movie and the book. One of the elements that I love is the fact that it's a train mystery, with most of the action taking place in the claustrophobic last train home of the season, from the tiny unnamed European resort that our main character Iris has been staying at with a huge group of raucous friends. Iris has decided to stay behind after they all moved on, but quickly decides it's boring by herself; thus she's completely alone as she heads home.

From the moment she decides to catch this train, nothing goes right. From heat stroke (or something more malicious?) at the station -- nearly missing her train -- getting stuck into a carriage full of strange people -- meeting Miss Froy -- missing Miss Froy -- and then having all the strange people deny that Miss Froy ever existed... Iris is having a bad day.

The rest of the story investigates both why Miss Froy might be a target, and what might have happened to her, and the effect of the denial of reality on Iris' precarious mental state. Iris does not give in to every single other person's insistence that she was imagining Miss Froy, that she is a young hysteric, but determinedly and fixedly believes in her own perceptions. While this situation, added to her original illness, begins to unhinge her, she holds on to that core belief in herself. I found this very powerful. Given that she is proven right in the end, I felt that her character, while flimsy and flippant in the beginning, has been strengthened by this trial. Her character might actually have a chance to become someone in future.

White's characterizations, both of Iris and her friends, and of all the fellow passengers who are drawn in to the denial of Miss Froy for their own various reasons, are fascinating. She examines why people decide to participate in this lie, and how much self-interest affects one's moral ground. Add some suspense, some fun plotting, and enjoyable writing, and this book is truly a great summer read.

The main difference between the book and movie lies in Miss Froy herself. While in the movie Miss Froy is an intrepid English agent, in the book she is what she appears to be... a talkative English nanny who has simply got herself into the wrong place at the wrong time. A nice touch throughout the book is the vision of her parents waiting for her to arrive home for her vacation; they flesh out the rather tiresome and dull Miss Froy herself and create much more sympathy for and understanding of a character who spends much of her time literally missing from the picture.

If you like mysteries from the 30's, or have enjoyed the Hitchock film, do give this a try. It was a truly entertaining read with some very interesting psychological angles as well.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Canada Day!

In these parts it was a holiday yesterday, a national holiday to celebrate Canada Day!

I sat outside and read, and drank red cocktails, and then worked on some sewing a bit later on in the day...all in all, a very relaxing break. Cheers everyone!

I was in such holiday mood that I didn't even turn on the computer yesterday, thus my Canadian Book Challenge 8  post is coming to you a day late. But still oh, so, Canadian!

John at the Book Mine Set created and has been hosting the Canadian Book Challenge since its inception, and it's always great fun. I've been doing it each year, and I still find Canadian titles new to me thanks to the other readers. It runs July 1 - July 1, and it's always fun to begin a new challenge in the middle of the year!

The "challenge" part of it is to read and review 13 Canadian books -- originally it was one from each province, thus the number 13. But these days anything goes! If you read 13 books, you reach the finish line -- read John's full instructions for all the details.

For version 7, I read and reviewed 41 books. For this upcoming year, I'm challenging myself to beat that total. Plus I'm going to carry on with my attempt to make 13 of my reads epistolary novels -- I'll allow myself rereads but am open to any suggestions -- please share if you have a favourite Canadian epistolary novel.

Happy (late) Canada Day and hope you are all planning a luxurious summer of reading.

Friday, June 27, 2014

This Post Brought to You by the Letter...

Simon at Stuck in A Book shared a fun meme this week, detailing some of his favourite creative things 'by the letter' -- and encouraged readers to leave a comment if they wanted to play along. I jumped in and was assigned the letter N.

So here are my favourite things... starting with N.

Favourite book...

What else could it be, of course it has to be Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen! As a former history/literature student I love this quote:

But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. Can you?”
“Yes, I am fond of history.”
“I wish I were too. I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all — it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into the heroes’ mouths, their thoughts and designs — the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books.”

Favourite author...
Edith Nesbit

I'm going back to childhood here and saying Edith Nesbit -- 5 Children and It was a repeated reread for me in my younger years -- I even had my wishes all sorted out just in case I ever ran across a psammead!

Favourite song...

Puccini's Nessun Dorma sung by Pavarotti. Glorious.

Favourite film...

eNchanted April

 (I am cheating a bit but this is my favourite movie, and the only N I could think of!)

Favourite object...

 I can't seem to think of a solid N favourite, but I'll share an N that I enjoy --

Otherwise known as the string of &#@%*#@*!$@*! in comic books :)

Not only does it entertain me that this implied string of swearing has a name, that name makes a perfectly good swear word in itself. Try it, it has the perfect combination of hard sounds and compression of meaning.


Well, N was a tough letter but I enjoyed this exercise! Check out Simon's post for all the others who played along and see their lettered choices too.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Landing Gear

Landing Gear / Kate Pullinger
Toronto: Doubleday, c2014.
286 p.

This was an interesting book, with a great concept. It's set in England, Dubai, and partly in Toronto, in the days immediately following the 2010 explosion of the Iceland volcano which stopped all air traffic over Europe.

It began its life as a virtual project called Flight Paths -- it's great to see an author engage digitally in such a fluid way. This book does carry the flavour of those original short, discrete stories, though they do entwine in a deeper, more detailed way in this book, naturally, as it's much longer. I checked out Flight Paths after I'd finished the book, and do recommend doing both. Rather intriguing! Something else to check out is the publisher's map of locations mentioned in the first 30 pages, for each of the characters. Lots of interactive goodness.

Anyhow, as to the plot... we follow three strands that interweave. Harriet, who works in radio in London, finds that there's a career opportunity when many of her colleagues are stranded in Europe due to this crisis. Her husband Michael is stuck in New York, and travels to Toronto to visit an old flame. Their son Jack, left unsupervised, gets himself into fairly major trouble. Then there's Emily, left an orphan in her 20s when her adoptive father dies -- she's now wondering if she should contact her birth mother, whom she's pretty sure is Harriet. Into this mix falls Yacub, a Pakistani migrant worker who has stowed away in the landing gear of an airplane to get to the US, but only makes it to London.

There are a lot of disconnected bits as the story begins, and you have to have the patience to follow each and wait for the links to show up. I found it easy going, as each of the elements interested me, though the teenage boy drama of Jack's storyline was my least favourite. I liked Pullinger's exploration of Harriet's character, her motivations and longings and self-talk as the story progresses. And Yacub was an interesting development; his back story was relentless but he was always looking forward to the next chance, and his sudden appearance shifts Harriet's family around significantly.

I found this book had a very contemporary, fresh feeling about it. Technology is a major player in the story, from airplanes themselves to Emily's interest in video. The relationships range all over the world, and the impression of global connections is strong. I enjoyed it a lot, and liked the spare structure of it. Just like the cessation of air traffic paused the characters' lives, allowing them to notice the stillness and silence for even just a moment, this book woke up my observational skills and helped me notice details of everyday life after I'd finished it. It was an interesting effect!

There are a few flaws; the disconnections and glossing over of details may not be for everyone. It doesn't delve deeply into the inner experiences and feelings of all the characters, rather it tells us what they are feeling and experiencing -- there is a slight remove from the characters' lives. But I liked that distancing; I thought it fit the contemporary style of the story. It really does work as an online experiment though, and I think it's worth looking into both.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Stamp Collector

The Stamp Collector / Jennifer Lanthier; illus. by Fran├žois Thisdale
Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, c2012.
32 p.

I read a lot of picture books in my work. I've found some excellent favourites and love a lot of my discoveries. But I don't often share them here, as my blog is focused on my personal reading, and not so much on children's lit. But. Sometimes something just meshes with my interests and I have to share! This book is one of those titles. It came to my attention because it just won the 2014 Golden Oak award, an award that is aimed at new readers in adult literacy and ESL programs, letting readers choose the winner. (it's another award in the OLA's Forest of Reading.)

 The book is focused on the power of story, and the power of letters. Here's the summary from the publisher:
A city boy finds a stamp that unlocks his imagination; a country boy is captivated by stories. When they grow up, the two boys take different paths—one becomes a prison guard, the other works in a factory—but their early childhood passions remain. When the country boy's stories of hope land him in prison, the letters and stamps sent to him from faraway places intrigue the prison guard and a unique friendship begins.
This doesn't convey the beauty of the book, though. That prison guard loves stamps, and saves them from all the letters sent to the political prisoner -- even eventually giving the prisoner hope by slipping him a stamp. The two develop a friendship of sorts, and as the prisoner sickens while in captivity, the guard becomes his link to get his new story out into the world. They are together in the end, guard holding the prisoner's hand as he dies.

Yes, that's right, the prisoner dies. And I was weepy! This is a powerful book that would work well with kids 9+ or perhaps Grade 3+. Often we don't think of picture books for older kids but there are so many that are really suited to older readers. This is a great book to read together with someone, and as we can see from its most recent award, it's great adult content in an easier to read format for those learning English, a book that has experience relevant to some newcomers' own.

The illustrations are beautiful, as well, with stamps appearing on nearly every page (in one of my favourites, a stamp appears like a kite). It's done in blues and blacks and greys and browns, very suited to the prison setting, but the stamps are bright jewels among the shades. If you love books about letters, as I do, you will really love this. And if you love books about powerful moral actions and political censorship, you will find this hard-hitting and very moving. An excellent choice to share with other readers.