Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Review: Curtain: Poirot's Last Case by Agatha Christie

Book cover of Curtain: Poirot's Last Case by Agatha Christie
It's rare that I bother to post a review of an Agatha Christie book. They're sort of like the Discworld books in that I like them all and they all have the same quirks. Plus, if I'm honest, they all tend to blend together. Curtain though... Curtain needs talking about because I just can't get it out of my head.

Plot summary: The crime-fighting careers of Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings have come full circle - they are back once again in the rambling county house in which they solved their first murder together.

Both Poirot and Great Styles have seen better days - but despite being crippled with arthritis, there is nothing wrong with the great detective's 'little grey cells.' However, when Poirot brands one of the seemingly harmless guests a five-times murderer, some people have their doubts. But Poirot alone knows he must prevent a sixth murder before the curtain falls...

On the face of it, this is a fairly straighforward Agatha Christie novel. There's a big country house, a murder and lots of guests of varying genders, ages, professions and potential motives. The 'twist' with this one is that Poirot's knocking on a bit in years. He's confined to a wheelchair because of his arthritis so he has to use Captain Hastings as his eyes and ears... much to his evident (and fully justified) frustration. More on Captain Hopeless later.

Turning to the actual plot, this is possibly the cleverest Agatha Christie novel I have read, with the exception of perhaps And Then There Were None. It's certainly the cleverest in the Poirot series. I think what made it stand out for me was how sinister it is. It's very, very dark, much more so than any of the others. It's possibly why it's stuck in my head more than a  week later. I keep thinking about it and shuddering a little. 

The ending is... unexpected. I ran round asking everybody I knew, 'Does Poirot die?'  before I even dared to pick it up. The answer is almost irrelevant -  it's so much more than that. I also liked that this book, the last of the series, takes place at the same manor house that features in the first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It's a perfect end to the 84 novels, stories and plays featuring the little Belgian detective. 

I'm not sure this book would have the same impact if you didn't have a few of the previous novels under your belt so that you really understand Poirot's character. It is quite depressing that that he's is old and poorly but I felt better when I realised his mental faculties were completely unimpaired, and that he retained his inherent cheerfulness (and lack of faith in Captain Hastings).

Speaking of. I've ranted about Captain Hastings on several occasions before, but he really takes the cake with this one. Look. You have been a sidekick to this detective for three decades, during which time Poirot has never once, NOT ONCE, been wrong. This means that you could probably stop from questioning his sanity, experience and sense every single time he implies he might have reached a conclusion. His age is immaterial. SHUT UP.

It's just that he seems even sulkier in Curtain. His best friend is stuck in a wheelchair, has suffered multiple heart attacks and can't run around solving the murder he desperately wants to... and you're going to sit there and give him the cold shoulder because he won't tell you who he suspects in case they murder you next. How unreasonable. I haaaate you.

Curain is genuinely amazing. I'm not sure I'll read it again in a hurry, partly because I don't think it would have the same impact if you already knew what was coming, but also because I'm not quite ready to be this traumatised again in the near future.
 
Read my review of Death on the Nile, my favourite Hercule Poirot novel.
 

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Hanna Gets Lots of Nice Books For Her Birthday v. 2016


This year really has taken the cake for 'lots of nice birthday books' though. I just can't believe how lucky I've been and how much I'm dying to read any one of them.

The top two books are from Laura, bless her heart. The tiny little blue book on top is The Drugs Don't Work: A Global Threat by Professor Dame Sally Davies, who is the Chief Medical Officer for England. I recently read Cracked: Why Psychiatry is Doing More Harm Than Good by James Davies, which refers to medication and its effects on quite a large scale, so I'm really excited to read another opinion.

The book underneath that I can never remember the name of, and I keep referring to it as That Book With Those Tampons On The Cover. Occasionally I make a rough guess as to the title but invariably get the day wrong. Anyway, this is The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton and those tampons are actually, apparently, sticks of dynamite. I admit that makes slightly more sense but in my defence, everybody I spoke to KNEW WHICH BOOK I MEANT, SO THERE.

The blue book in the middle of the pile is Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis, bought for me by the lovely Katie. Another medical-ish non-fiction. I think I'm going through a bit of a phase at the moment!

Charlotte also outdid herself this year and sent The Darker Shade of Magic, The Super Mutant Magic Academy and Invasion of the Tearling. I think The Darker Shade of Magic might be the first one I read out of this pile, even though it has some seriously tough competition. I think I first found out about it from Charlotte's wishlist anyway, so it's probably a fitting beginning.

The Super Mutant Magic Academy is a graphic novel that's been on my wishlist for ages. It's somewhat like X-Men, but much younger and full of high-school drama and boyfriends... and also tentacles. I'm also excited about Invasion of the Tearling. Somehow Charlotte knew I liked the first in the series (even though I didn't get round to reviewing it - stalker lady!) and now I have the second book to jump right into it!

Ellie though... Oh Ellie.


Ellie bought me a copy of Jane Austen: Cover to Cover, which is essentially a beautiful hardback of lots of the different Jane Austen covers that have been around over the last two centuries. There are sections on foreign language translations, Austen for younger readers, etc. as well as just the simple but beautiful covers we all know and love.

If you've ever set sight on this blog before, you know that I collect different editions of Pride and Prejudice - 74 at last count. This is essentially a beautiful looking catalogue for me. Whilst I already possess more than I thought I would, there are several earmarked (not literally, obviously!) to actively search for.



These are two of my favourite editions and they're both in the book! The Pulp Classic on the left Charlotte bought for me from WH Smiths after getting all excited and the one on the right (I know it's Persuasion, but I do have the Pride and Prejudice) is so pretty and was only the second edition I bought, before I even started collecting.

I'm getting so excited looking through this to see which I have and which I still need to collect. Is this the world's most Hanna book or what?

  Have you read any of these books? Which books are you hoping to get for your birthday?


Monday, 8 August 2016

On How Books Change Over Time

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters - theatre play programmeA few weeks ago, I went to see a play called The Night Watch with a friend of mine at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. It's based on a book of the same name by Sarah Waters which, to be honest, I hadn't liked very much. I don't think I even got past the first few chapters before giving up and moving on to something else.

I agreed to go on the basis that I'd liked Sarah Waters' previous books, Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, and a trip to theatre is a trip to the theatre, after all. Even if a play turns out to be awful, it's still an experience.

In the end, it absolutely blew me away. It was implemented perfectly, with wonderful actors, and was infinitely better than I remember the book being. After a few days weeks of being unable to get it out of my head, I decided I'd go back to her previous books in order to get some closure from the amazing play.

I knew I owned Tipping the Velvet, I absolutely knew it. But I'll be damned if I could find it on my shelf. I consulted my LibraryThing catalogue and it wasn't even bloody listed and I've kept that updated since 2006, people. I knew I'd read it a long time ago, but I hadn't realised it was at least ten years previously.

(Also, can we just take a moment to appreciate the fact that I've been meticulously cataloguing my reading for ten years!? I feel like I deserve an award to celebrate my anniversary of anal retentiveness). 

The more I thought about it, however, that started to make a little bit of sense. I developed a vague recollection of borrowing it from Shipley library when I was first starting to delve into the Adult section (in retrospect, Victorian lesbians possibly not the best book with which to start), and I must never have gotten around to buying a copy. You know, in ten years.

So I bought a copy (for a whole £2.96) and settled down with Tipping the Velvet, ready to revisit the book I remember quite enjoying as (apparently) a teenager.

That brings me to my point. The book ending up being so different to how I remembered, in pretty much every way imaginable. How can that be? It's not like the words in the book have changed, after all, so presumably I must have, but I'm still me, after all. It's odd and I feel a distinct need to discuss it.

The Plot that I Apparently Completely Invented

Firstly, starting with the simplest, the plot just isn't how I remembered it. I'm going to write a proper review later (haha, I'm way past that point), but for now it will suffice to say that the book is divided into three parts, each one dealing with a different stage of Nancy Astley's life. I have zero recollection of the second or third stages; I was under the impression that the entire book regarded Nancy's music hall career. Apparently not. That could be because this part is by far the most interesting and the other two fall a little flat - I mean, of course I was going to remember the interesting parts better.

Book cover of Tipping the Velvet by Sarah WatersBut then, doesn't that mean that my memories grew fonder with distance? Because, I assure you, that is not usually the case. I can look at books now that I quite liked a year ago that I wouldn't dream of picking up now because their shine wore off, or there's one character who continued to grate on me even from the distance of several months. I clear out my shelves every few months for just that reason.

Then, continuing with my memory problems, I apparently invented quite a pivotal scene. There were only two scenes I definitely remembered from Tipping the Velvet - one was Nancy and Kitty dancing on stage in a music hall and receiving some sort of heckling, and the other was where they met later in life around a piano in somebody's parlour.

I can still picture that last scene so vividly - whenever I'd thought of the book in the previous ten years, I'd thought of that scene. And it simple didn't exist. I kept expecting it to pop up and I was starting to get confused towards the end, when the plot was running out of opportunities for it to happen. Some time, somehow, I'd just invented the whole damn thing. But why!? Why would my brain just make up a scene from a book instead of remembering what actually happened?

My emotions

I can't be completely clear on this as I wasn't making notes on my reading at the time, but I think I remember really resenting Kitty. I mean, that's fine, you're meant to; she screws Nancy over and is really only out for herself. At 16 years old, with no experience of relationships, I felt exactly how I was probably meant to feel. Betrayed, slighted and angry. Everything is so clear cut when you're that age - all your knowledge of how things 'should' be comes from movies or books, so you know that when somebody gets hurt, it means the other person must be Bad.

Now though, having been through some troublesome relationship issues of my own, Kitty seems more nuanced. I've learned in the intervening decade that nothing in affairs of the heart is ever black and white, and there are two sides to every tale. Sometimes people hurt you without meaning to. Sometimes they don't want to hurt you, but they're putting themselves first and you can't really blame them for it.

I just feel sorry for Kitty now. She was clearly conflicted and whilst what she ended up doing wasn't ideal, she did what she thought was best. She simply wasn't able to provide what Nancy wanted and part of adulthood is realising that you can't judge everybody else by your own standards  (I'll try and remember that when I'm complaining at 11:28am that somebody is late for our 11:30am meeting... ). I accept that Kitty genuinely tried her hardest to make it work and I blame Nancy at least somewhat for being naive and overly dramatic. In other words, get a grip Nance.

Clearly your own experiences influence how you perceive a certain situation and the characters therein. I'd be interested to reread this in another ten years to see where I stand on Kitty, Nancy and the decline of their relationship.

Quality

In the intervening approximate-ten years since my first reading of Tipping the Velvet, assuming I've read an average of 100 books a year, I've finished about a 1,000 books. A thousand books. Obviously these will have been of varying quality, but I've definitely read more classics and more literary fiction than I had in 2006. I suppose I now have a different frame of reference for what makes a 'good' book, aside from just having more books under under my belt with which to compare it to.

I still really enjoyed reading this book. But I now notice inconsistencies, character flaws and shoddy dialogue much more than previously... or at least I assume I didn't notice, considering I remember being pretty impressed by it. I like it regardless, but I now have a more accurate (or at least more cynical) idea of where it belongs on the scale.

_________________________________________

I just felt that I had to talk about this because it shocked me how much I'd changed over ten years. The ages of sixteeen and twentysix are so far apart in terms of experience, maturity and knowledge that I probably shouldn't have been surprised, but I didn't expect it to affect my reading so much.

I'm looking forward to reading this again in ten years time, when I'm 36, and seeing how I feel about it then. After another ten years of experience, maybe I'll have a completely different perspective again!

I'd love to know your take on this. Have your reading opinions ever changed with time? Why do you think that is?      

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Review: The Collector by John Fowles

Vintage edition book cover of The Collector by John Fowles
I would never have read this if it wasn't for Charlotte, although I say that about a lot of books. Usually in a good way, but every so often I like to poke her about the misery of Hope: A Tragedy. Thanks Charlotte.

She's headed a little closer to forgiveness with The Collector though. I knew very little going in, but I ended up with a dark and twisted novel that I absolutely couldn't put down.

Plot summary: Withdrawn, uneducated and unloved, Frederick collects butterflies and takes photographs. He is obsessed with a beautiful stranger, the art student Miranda. When he wins the pools he buys a remote Sussex house and calmly abducts Miranda, believing she will grow to love him in time. Alone and desperate, Miranda must struggle to overcome her own prejudices and contempt if she is understand her captor, and so gain her freedom.

I really, really loved this book. The first half is told from the perspective of Frederick, who is an avid butterfly collector. He loves having beautiful specimens that he can admire in his own home whenever he chooses. It's told in a sort of stream of consciousness way, but not too obnoxiously. I didn't quite realise until a good portion of the way into the book, so it doesn't halt the flow of the narrative in the slightest.

Frederick is so perfectly described. I feel like he could jump out of the page and judge me from a distance. I didn't hate him, but then I'm not entirely sure you're meant to. Some of his views and mannerisms annoy me, but those are aspects of his general personality, not his kidnappery ways. It's a sign of the truly amazing characterisation.

And Miranda. I loathed her. She didn't seem like a real person at all, but then I suspect that, again, that's sort of the point. She's a twenty year old art student who's incredibly concerned with the impression she makes and looking down on everybody that doesn't understand art the way she does. Her diary, then, is possibly her just writing as the person she's trying to be, which is therefore why it doesn't always seem overly genuine?

And partly, too, it's been a sort of indulging in wicked vanity about myself. Knowing I am a rather special person. Knowing I am intelligent, knowing that I am beginning to understand life much better than most people of my age. Even knowing that I shall never be so stupid as to be vain about it, but be grateful, be terribly glad to be alive, to be who I am - Miranda, and unique.
Ugh. Her perspective is interesting though, to see her view on the events already described by Frederick. The only flaw in the book at all is that her descriptions of her life before do tend to go on a bit too long. She has a complicated relationship with an older artist and she's studying at the Slade... it's frankly just not as interesting as the fact that SHE'S BEEN ABDUCTED, FOR GOD'S SAKE. 

He is solid; immovable, iron-willed. He showed me one day his killing bottle. I'm imprisoned in it. Fluttering against the glass. Because I can see through it I still think I can escape. I have hope. But it's all an illusion. A thick round wall of glass.
I wasn't sure about the ending, but it's been going round and round in my head since I finished reading and I don't think it could have ended any other way. It just fit the theme perfectly. Speaking of, the theme of 'collection' is hinted at throughout the book, but in an oh-so-subtle way and it's very clever. The final paragraphs are appropriate and haunting, and I LOVE THIS BOOK. 

Read Charlotte's review of The Collector at Lit Addicted Brit.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Review: Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us by Jesse Bering

This is an interesting book to read on the train, or in a hospital. At least your fellow passengers and patients seem to regard you with some interest anyway... or maybe that's just concern. To some extent though, that's Dr Bering's point with this book. Sexual deviance is far more common and far less dangerous than is commonly believed, and shouldn't be regarded with fear or disgust. Even if you are sat across from a grouchy looking redhead reading a suspect-looking book.

Summary: “You are a sexual deviant. A pervert, through and through.” We may not want to admit it, but as the award-winning columnist and psychologist Jesse Bering reveals in Perv, there is a spectrum of perversion along which we all sit. Whether it’s voyeurism, exhibitionism, or your run-of-the-mill foot fetish, we all possess a suite of sexual tastes as unique as our fingerprints—and as secret as the rest of the skeletons we’ve hidden in our closets.

Combining cutting-edge studies and critiques of landmark research and conclusions drawn by Sigmund Freud, Alfred Kinsey, and the DSM-5
, Bering pulls the curtain back on paraphilias, arguing that sexual deviance is commonplace. He explores the countless fetishists of the world, including people who wear a respectable suit during the day and handcuff a willing sexual partner at night. But he also takes us into the lives of “erotic outliers,” such as a woman who falls madly in love with the Eiffel Tower; a pair of deeply affectionate identical twins; those with a particular penchant for statues; and others who are enamored of crevices not found on the human body.

Moving from science to politics, psychology, history, and his own reflections on growing up gay in America, Bering confronts hypocrisy, prejudice, and harm as they relate to sexuality on a global scale. Humanizing so-called deviants while at the same time asking serious questions about the differences between thought and action, he presents us with a challenge: to understand that our best hope of solving some of the most troubling problems of our age hinges entirely on the amoral study of sex.


I actually ended up really liking this book. It's been on my wishlist for a while, but I never took the plunge and got a copy in case it was one of those heavy, dry scientific non-fictions or one of those fluffy popular science books. In the end, it was neither. Dr Bering writes very well and avoids, for the most part, becoming stuffy or condescending. It was an accessible read and one that I enjoyed picking up in the evenings.

The point of Perv, in a nutshell, is that the sexual preferences of others (homosexuality, acrotomophilia, sadism, etc) is completely and utterless harmless in itself and should be treated as such. If it isn't causing any damage, why does it matter? It sounds fairly logical, but then Dr Bering brings up the concept of paedophilia. The meaning has been distorted in recent years, but he points out that the word refers only to those with a preference for young children not those who act upon their desires or have been convicted of a sexual offence. Suddenly the 'has any harm been caused?' doesn't seem so innocuous, but what's the alternative? Imprisoning people for their thoughts?

It's an interesting point. He raises the example of a (hypothetical) necrophilia club that devised a way for their members to have sex with dead people. Each member would donate their body to the club after death so the other members could have sex with the corpse. A study asked participants whether it would be wrong for a man to have sex with a dead woman who has given her body to the club.

Most participants in this study defaulted to a 'presumption of harm' in their moral reasoning. Even when they were told explicitly that the woman didn't have any family members who might get upset if they found out what happened to her corpse, that the club isn't interested in recruiting or harming living people, that neither the man nor any of the other club members suffer any regrets or anguish about their sexuality, that the group's activities are kept private and consensual, that the man used protection to prevent disease, and per her instructions, that the club cremated the woman's body after the man was done having sex with it, people still insisted that somehow or other, someone, somewhere, must be getting harmed.   
Perv looks at why/how we attempt to impose our own morality on others by assuming that a certain sexual preference is 'wrong' and therefore must be harming someone, even when there's zero evidence to support that view. That said, it's not a preachy book at all. Dr Bering doesn't look down from his high horse to lecture on how we should all be more open-minded. It's more of a psychological perspective than a sermon.

I particularly appreciate that the book took the time to explain the differences in sexual 'deviance' between men and women, and gay and straight people. For example, men are much more likely to have a paraphilia (an abnormal sexual desire) than women, but sexuality was irrelevant. A lot of similar books either lump everybody together or only deal with heterosexual male preferences, so the expansive explanation was interesting.

I do recommend reading this. I learned a lot but, more importantly, I actually enjoyeding reading this book too. I was quite happy to just sit with it for several hours on the go - it's fascinating, accessible, thought-provoking and downright enjoyable.

What non-fiction books have you been reading this year? 

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