Hastings District Libraries

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Hollow by Agatha Christie

With a new series of Poirot now screening on TV, I thought it timely to share my enjoyment for one particular Agatha Christie novel featuring her Belgian detective. The Hollow takes its name from the Angkatell’s genteel country house, where during a weekend hosted for their friends and relations, a murder takes place. No surprises there.

The victim is the handsomely brilliant Dr John Christow, shot dead by the pool just as Hercule Poirot arrives on the scene for luncheon. Standing over the dying doctor, clutching a gun is his mousy wife, Gerda. She has a motive to kill her husband, as he frequently treats her with ill-concealed exasperation and has recently become involved in a dangerous flirtation - to say nothing of his mistress, Henrietta, another guest at the Hollow.

Things are definitely not what they seem and there are motives and suspects by the truckload, as well as an assortment of guns hidden in the oddest places. It is just as well Poirot is on the spot to sort it all out, which he does in his usual fashion, chatting to suspects and putting his little grey cells into gear.

But what I really enjoy about this one is the cast of characters, particularly the snobbish and charmingly off-hand hostess, Lucy Angkatell. There’s also her ‘poor cousin’ Midge, making ends meet working in a posh dress shop where she is treated like a skivvy, and shamelessly theatrical Veronica Cray, Cristow’s old flame.

There are plenty of digs at the oddities of the leisured classes and some interesting thoughts on a woman’s place in a post-war Britain. All this is wrapped up in a very satisfying mystery loaded with red herrings and laced with gentle humour. Classic Christie at her best.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: The Hollow

About the author

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Reckless by William Nicholson

William Nicholson’s latest novel follows three characters, each at critical times of their lives at the time of two critical points in history. The first event is the atomic bomb going off in Hiroshima in 1945; the second, taking place nearly twenty years later, is the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Rupert is something of a philosopher, working for Mountbatten, British Chief of Staff, as the Cuba/US stand-off unfolds. At the end of World War Two he'd pledged to do what he could so there would be no more wars. Mary, living in a remote part of Ireland, has had visions as a young girl, predicting the end of the world. Cosseted in a convent, Mary’s life changes dramatically when she meets Rupert.

At the age of eighteen, Pamela has begged to be allowed to live in London, and devotes her time trying to dazzle everyone with her youth and loveliness. She is soon caught up with the artistic and moneyed crowd who become the major players in what will go down in history as the Profumo Affair.

Nicholson has captured a period when things could have all gone horribly wrong and the end of the world seemed a distinct possibility. The growing tension throws the characters into various types of crisis and Nicholson makes them all very real and sympathetic. The reader is also treated to a fly-on-the-wall view of history through scenes involving Kruschev, Mountbatten and even JFK, which is a big help if your grasp on these events is a bit shaky. I found the novel by turns moving and thought-provoking, and throughout, utterly gripping.

Posted by JAM

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Village Against the World by Dan Hancox

Dan Hancox is a British journalist who went in search of the last communist village in Spain. Marinaleda is a village of about 2,700 residents, who live in what is the closest example of a modern day communist utopia. This is an incredible story of community, hope, and resistance in contemporary Europe.

Under the charismatic leadership of the mayor, Sanchez Gordillo, the village has managed to retain its young people and provide nearly full employment. The villagers have a co-operative that allows them to build their own houses. There are also Red Sundays – days when all residents are expected to work on maintaining the pristine condition of the village. In return, there is free internet and a community who will support you when the chips are down.

Gordillo, who has been mayor since 1979, has been known to lead Robin Hood-like raids on local supermarkets to feed the local unemployed. His unconventional and Marxist views on life have contributed to a community that has survived the Spanish financial crisis with its tail in the air. This is a fascinating read.

Reviewed at Young at Heart Book Group

Catalogue Link:   The Village Against the World

Thursday, August 7, 2014

From a Distance by Rafaella Baker

The understated cover of From a Distance hides a novel loaded with colour and textures and tastes. It concerns three main characters beginning with Michael, just off the boat that brought him back to Blighty after his grim experiences in World War Two. Reluctant to return to Norfolk and his fiancé, he winds up in Penzance where he meets Felicity and decides to stay on for a bit.

Felicity designs colourful fabrics, and Cornwall is full of sunshine while the sea glistens. Suddenly the narrative shifts to present-day Norfolk, where the reader is regaled with the flavours of Luisa’s ice cream. She has a busy life with her business, husband and family, but finds time for a new friendship with Kit, a stranger from Cornwall. Kit owns a family textile business, and for reasons he can barely guess at, has inherited a lighthouse in Norfolk.

The reader manages to put two and two together long before any of the characters. Slowly the connections between the two coastal towns and the past and the present will emerge and only then do we discover the effects on the characters. This is a novel that dips into the murky water that is the long-reaching effects of the past on subsequent generations, and there is a nod to the damage done by war to ordinary people.

But mostly, what you get is a shimmering, summery sort of novel, about the good things in life: friends and family, love and art, and of course, ice cream.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: From a Distance

Thursday, July 31, 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler has just earned a place on the Mann Booker Prize long-list for her latest novel, the weirdly titled, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. The story concerns Rosemary, a long-term university student who is struggling. The reader gets the sense that there’s a deep-seated problem, and next thing you know Rosemary is in trouble for hitting a policeman at the campus café. This launches her friendship with Harlow, a wild sort of character who is always in and out of trouble, and gets the plot off to an interesting start.

But the main story thread begins in Rosemary’s past, and for this we have to go back to when Rosemary was five and her sister, Fern, disappeared, causing a rift between her parents and her brother, and he hasn’t been seen in years either.

For me, what made this book really sing, apart from a wonderfully different kind of back-story, is the character of Rosemary herself. A scientific experiment that framed her childhood has undoubtedly damaged her and her family, but it has also made Rosemary interesting. She looks at the world in a slightly different way from most people, and this is because of her early years and Fern.

And while there is heart-break in the novel, there is also plenty of humour, with lively scenes involving student flats, missing luggage and a ventriloquist’s dummy. Fowler adds plenty of insight about the field of behavioural science, which provides the book with a powerful message. This is another great read from the author that gave us The Jane Austen Book Club and to my mind it is very deserving of its place among the best novels of the year.

Posted by JAM

Friday, July 25, 2014

Mrs Sinclair's Suitcase by Louise Walters

Debut novelist, Louise Walters has come up with an engaging intergenerational tale for her first book. Roberta works in a bookshop, secretly doting on its good-looking owner, Philip, when her dying father gives her a suitcase. It once belonged to her grandmother, who had always gone by the Polish name of Mrs Pietrykowski, not Mrs Sinclair as the suitcase would suggest.

Also peculiar is the letter Roberta finds inside which is written by her grandfather and dated some time after he’d been killed in the war. An avid hoarder of postcards and messages left in the second-hand books she sells, Roberta can't help but be curious.

The story switches back to the past, to the time of the Battle of Britain during World War Two, and we meet Roberta’s grandmother Dorothy, living in the country near an airfield and grieving for her still-born son. While her husband is away at war, she develops a friendship with a Polish squadron leader.

Events will lead Dorothy to make a desperate decision and bury a secret that won’t be revealed until Roberta can develop the courage to talk to her frail grandmother about the past. Both women are given difficult choices which make the book particularly gripping, as the chapters alternate between their different viewpoints.

While Dorothy has a tendency to fly in the face of convention and ignores the whisperings of those around her, Roberta accepts second best, muddling along in her job and ignoring her heart. Walters has created some wonderful characters and her writing style shows a care for language that makes for pleasant reading. I for one will be looking out for Walter's next novel.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: Mrs Sinclair's Suitcase

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach

This psychological thriller explores the possibilities and problems in the world of social media. 

Leila is an intelligent but socially isolated young woman who agrees to help maintain an online presence for the suicidal but larger than life, Tess. Leila has never met Tess, but she knows more about her than anyone else. She has read all her emails, researched her background, and asked Tess for every detail about her family and friends. 

So when Tess first feels the need to slip away from the pressures of life, Leila feels well prepared to maintain Tess’s online identity in her absence. But Leila soon learns that there is more to a person than the facts and, slowly, her own life becomes consumed and complicated by Tess’s. This is an interesting and gripping read which will keep your attention till the end.

Reviewed by Katrina H

Catalogue Link:  Kiss Me First