Tag Archives: england

Book Review: The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie Title: The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Author: Agatha Christie
Publisher: Harper Collins
ISBN: 9780007282265
Genre: Mystery, Detective
Pages: 297
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

The perfect kind of reading when there is nothing to read is a good Agatha Christie. It just shakes you up and your day is then made. It does not even take too much time to get through one. And of course when it is a mystery that involves the adorable Belgian, Poirot, then you know you cannot go wrong. You will love the book. I decided to go through the entire Poirot collection and hopefully finish it by the end of this year. So, I started where it all began – “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”.

Poirot’s first case and the grand dame of crime does it like no other. The setting is World War I and in England (but obviously, to begin with at least). The Styles mansion residents wake up to find Emily Inglethorpe poisoned and long gone. Captain Hastings is at the scene and this is where his dear friend Poirot enters the scene and everyone is under suspicion. The family, The servants, The neighbors and the well-wishers. Almost everyone.

The writing but of course builds up only towards the middle of the book. The rest of the time it is all about creating the much needed atmosphere of the book. The characters are almost synchronized by Christie brilliantly and Poirot – the one who holds all the threads and cards. It is funny how out of all the Poirots, I had not read this one.

At some point, I thought it was too long for a mystery, but then again, I just had to get that thought of my mind and dive into the book once again. “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” is vintage Christie – it has all the elements of crime – a good setting, characters, and a great detective that is just been introduced. For those who have not read it, I strongly recommend this one . Enjoy.

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Book Review: Lionel Asbo: State of England by Martin Amis

Title: Lionel Asbo: State of England
Author: Martin Amis
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 978-0-224-09621-8
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 3/5

Martin Amis’s writing is weird and I say this with utmost respect. It is also intellectually appeasing and at the same time takes the road, not taken by many writers, that of experimentation in terms of plot and characters that are as anti as they can be.

His characters oscillate between wanting to do the right thing and tempted always to do the wrong thing and go that road. That is why I like reading what he writes. I have always admired what he has written in the past. I then started reading Lionel Asbo and it caught me off-guard a bit.

“Lionel Asbo: State of England” is his latest offering. Let me tell you something about the plot: Desmond Pepperdine is a teen resident of the hopeless borough of Diston Town and shares the home of his late mother, with his uncle Lionel Asbo, the criminal.

Lionel wants Desmond to work according to his crude principles but Desmond wants to be educated – to read and to write. He meets Dawn Sheringham, who becomes his first girlfriend and is just right for him. Desmond also sleeps with his mother’s mother at the beginning of the book. Lionel should not know of this or he will kill Desmond.

Lionel also wins a grand amount of 140 million in the National Lottery and doesn’t want to share the amount with his family. He is on this boisterous buying spree and has a new glamorous girlfriend. The twist in the tale is Lionel finding out about Desmond sleeping with his mother.

So that pretty much is the story of Lionel Asbo (Asbo taken from “Anti-Social Behaviour Order). The writing is funny and odd but I could not handle it after a point of time. It did not have the same effect as Amis’ The Rachel Papers or Money.

I loved some lines like this one that Lionel says, “When you in prison, you have you peace of mind. Because you not worried about getting arrested.” But these lines are few and far in between in the book. Otherwise the book is laced with progressive parade of crudeness throughout, which also I could handle, but then it became monotonous.

Yes the novel has to be experienced for the plot, but that is about it. Desmond’s character does not hold much water and is quite fleshy in places. Lionel on the other hand has an awesome characterization, but obviously. So if you have to read the book, then read it for Lionel. Grace (Lionel’s mother) also has her funny bits but that is about that.

The book is not a masterpiece. It is a fun read in bits and parts. There is sarcasm and there is observation of England. It is not an enjoyable read in other parts. I wanted to feel attached to the book but could not. Having said that, because I am still a Martin Amis fan, I will look forward to his latest book, whenever that is slated for release.

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Book Review: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Title: Sweet Tooth
Author: Ian McEwan
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 978-0224097376
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I remember reading the first Ian McEwan when I was sixteen. I started with, “The Cement Garden” and the idea of a book where only young adults featured while the adults were on a vacation intrigued me and rightly so. The book did not disappoint a single bit and since then I have not stopped reading everything written by him.

Ian McEwan’s female characters have always been enigmatic and rather a mystery, that need to be known and revealed, one page at a time. Whether it is a confused young wife in “On Chesil Beach” or a couple torn between desire and experimentation in “The Comfort of Strangers” or an obsessed lover in, “Enduring Love”; no matter what the book or the plot, McEwan’s characters shine above their plots and come on their own in the books. That is why his books work and seem to connect with readers, or at least with me.

So when I got the opportunity to read his latest book, “Sweet Tooth”, I could not contain my excitement. Sweet Tooth promises everything to a reader that should be expected from a well-written book – the plot, the characterization, the story-telling prowess, the setting, the emotion, the drama, the adventure, intrigue and to end it with masterful strokes. There is not a word which is out of place in this book.

Sweet Tooth is set in the early seventies in England. The world was in turmoil and the Cold War was at its peak. Serena Frome is the cultured attractive daughter of an Anglican Bishop, and a dominating mother (sort of reminded me of Mrs. Bennett). She is coerced into studying Math at Cambridge, while she wanted to study literature. She continues to bury herself in books and the world of fiction, searching for the perfect romance. She falls in love with her boyfriend’s married tutor, Tony Canning. Tony prepares and grooms Serena for the intelligence service. There is more to their brief affair which I will not reveal here.

Serena manages to get through to the screening process for the British Intelligence Service and starts working for MI5 in a very junior position. She is keen to rise through the ranks and because of her knowledge of literature, is given her very first mission, called Sweet Tooth. MI5 have set up a cultural foundation to help writers who speak out against communism (essentially anti-Soviet) and she is to act as a representative of the foundation. Her job is to encourage a young writer called Tom Haley and fund him, allowing him to get into the fold and write full-time, without being aware that the funding is coming from MI5.

Serena undertakes the mission and as always there is a catch in the novel. She gets involved with Tom – emotionally, mentally and physically, giving the so-called relationship her all. From there on she is torn between undertaking and successfully seeing through the mission and being loyal to the one she loves. This in essence is the plot of the book.

The book in an overall sense is not really about spying. There are layers to it which are only known as each page is turn. Ian McEwan touches on topics that defined the 70s like no other era – sexual freedom, cultural values, the dawn of a new era (so to speak), feminism, sophistication, power cuts, political changes, terrorist threats, and mini-skirts. He writes about all of this and that is what makes the narrative gripping and real.

The crispiness of the prose is superlative. As a reader, I definitely did not feel burdened by the volume of the book, considering the pace in which the story went ahead. In fact, I loved the detailing. The elements that needed all the attention – the surroundings in the 70s, the spy association, the love-affair (doomed or not, I leave that to you to discover), and the friendships forged and betrayed.

Sweet Tooth, for me is Ian McEwan’s best work after On Chesil Beach. There are sub-plots and stories that grip you from the very start. The characters are all caught up in their own little turmoil, playing out as the script demands and seeking redemption, but it is not that easily given in the book.

McEwan knows how to structure his story and his characters speak for themselves. Serena and Tom are characters that will live on in the reader’s memory long after the book is over.

The reversals in the book are plenty and have the capacity to either shock or surprise. Sweet Tooth is a cleverly written book, with imaginative prose and a great twist at the end. A must read for all those who have not tried McEwan yet and for those who have read his works, you sure will not be disappointed.

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Book Review: Crusoe’s Daughter by Jane Gardam

Title: Crusoe’s Daughter
Author: Jane Gardam
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609450694
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 265
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

“Crusoe’s Daughter” by Jane Gardam is not everyone’s cup of tea read. It is not the usual fare that novels have to offer. It is different and written in a manner that takes time sinking into and enjoying the book. I went through that and once I did I could not stop reading it. Maybe because it is about books and a young girl understanding their need and loving them over a period of time. It is surreal and also elements of magical realism are present in it which makes it all the more interesting. These are my initial thoughts about the book.

Jane Gardam has always maintained that style of writing which is has been consistent, right from God on the Rocks to Crusoe’s Daughter, that of dry wit and a sense of dramatic irony. I remember reading, “God on the Rocks” for the first time at eighteen and being absolutely awe-struck by the book. The eccentrics, which obviously were the secondary characters, were my most favourite. The same applies to this one.

Readers would be surprised to know that “Crusoe’s Daughter” was first published in 1985, and now reprinted by Europa Editions. The book begins when Polly Flint, a mere five-year old girl arrives with her widowed father at Oversands, a big yellow house inhabited by his wife’s older unmarried sisters. Shortly after the arrival, Polly’s father dies, leaving her to be brought up by the sisters, in an isolated place, where there are virtually no more children but Polly. In her loneliness, Polly turns to books and their comfort. In doing so, she identifies herself the most with Robinson Crusoe, who lived in isolation on an island for twenty eight years. She finds a way to cope with her loneliness and anguish as she grows up.

Polly knows that she has to make her own life given the circumstances. For instance, when she is twelve, she rejects communion and its idea. The realism in her head is too much to be handled by anyone. Polly then moves to live with her elderly family members, Arthur Thwaite and his sister Cecilia, who live in Yorkshire moors, some distance away. Here again, life takes a different turn. Their home is an artist’s retreat. Polly meets various new people – poets, thinkers, writers, believers, musicians and dreamers and this further shapes her character and persona, leading to an end which will for sure surprise readers and make them drop their jaw slightly.

The things that worked for me in the book: The setting. Northeast Rural England is not a place I would be visiting sometime too soon. Reading about it and trying to imagine the moors (as I did while reading Wuthering Heights) and the scenes that play out is a different experience by itself. The charm is unbearable. The characters as I mentioned earlier took me by surprise with their wide range of eccentricity and comfort provided to Polly at times. Ms. Gardam may not talk about them in detail during the course of the book, however when she does, she ensures that their voices are heard.

At times the pace of the book got to me. It was turning out to be slower than what I had expected, but I kept reading, because of the writing and the plot. Polly as a character is hard to put my finger on. She is everything and at the same time, she springs from the pages and does something totally unexpected. Kudos to Ms. Gardam for visualizing and bringing her to life in our heads.

The writing is not only descriptive but also insightful. From the thoughts of the single sisters to Polly’s views on things are unique and refreshing. Jane wants us to empathize with her characters, what they are going through, but never sympathize. So from that perspective, the book is not sentimental and I am glad it isn’t.

“Crusoe’s Daughter” might be termed by some as a coming-of-age book, but for me it is more than that. It is discovering oneself through everything. It is about relationships formed in the world known to us and in the world that isn’t known to most people. “Crusoe’s Daughter” is a cracker of a read that should not be missed. But be warned: It is slow. It is not a thriller. It is not your usual fare. So read it only if the story appeals to you.

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Book Review: The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn

 Title: The Patrick Melrose Novels
 Author: Edward St Aubyn
 Publisher: Picador USA
 ISBN: 978-0312429966
 Genre: Literary Fiction
 Pages: 688
 Source: Publisher
 Rating: 4/5 

The Patrick Melrose novels written by Edward St. Aubyn are not to everyone’s taste. These novels aren’t a happy read and do not promise a rose garden, so to say. The Patrick Melrose novels are made of 4 novels – Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk. The novels trace the English Upper Class through Patrick Melrose and his affluent family.

The four books made me think a lot and sometimes cringe as well while I was reading them. That is because Edward St. Aubyn has written a set of stories so believable that you almost recollect memories of people and times when you have encountered similar situations, may be through different people.

All books in the series take place over twenty-four hours and that is quite a feat for a writer. To be able to fit in everything – the plot, the emotions, the reactions and the thought-process over a given period in a book has always fascinated my sensibilities.

Never Mind – the first book, starts with Patrick at five-years old, being sexually abused by his demonic and narcissist father. The abuse also extends to Patrick’s American mother and at the end of the book; you are left feeling hopeless and angry.

The second book, Bad News, shows Patrick Melrose trying to face his own demons as he at 22, sets off to collect his father’s ashes from New York. Most of the second book is told in interior monologues which makes it both – interesting and confusing at times. Patrick in New York spends a drug-crazed twenty-fours and experiences life in a new form.

The third book, Some Hope reflects on Patrick’s life as a recovering addict. It depicts the possibility of him starting over. In this book, Edward gets us to see the other side of Patrick – the point when he is in-between sorting his life and wanting to start anew. The state of mind, emotions and thoughts are beautifully described in this book.

The fourth book in the series, Mother’s Milk is about Patrick as a parent. In this book, the focus is on Patrick’s mother who is plotting her own scheme of betrayal and hence the title. The series does not end here. There is a fifth book as well, “At Last” which I yet have to read and discover the magic of St Aubyn’s writing all over again.

Edward St Aubyn is not a writer that you take to instantly. His writing grows on you. The writing is vivid, sharp and painful, with the occasional brushes of humour. The Patrick Melrose novels are all about greed, decadence, amorality and the decline of a system of the aristocrats as observed through a person and his family. The story has to be read in order. One cannot skip a novel or read from anywhere. There is a lot of verbal power packed into these books, to the point that I had to read something funny to get back to these books. Like I said it isn’t meant for everyone, however if you do enjoy some serious fiction, then this is it for you.

Here are some quotes to give you an idea of his writing:

“It seems people spend the majority of their lives believing they’re dying, with the only consolation being that at one point they get to be right. ”

“Irony is the hardest addiction of all. Forget heroin. Just try giving up irony, the deep-down need to mean two things at once, to be in two places at once, not to be there for the catastrophe of a fixed meaning.”

“Perhaps all of his problems arose from using the wrong vocabulary, he thought, with a brief flush of excitement that enabled him to throw aside the bedcovers and contemplate getting up. He moved in a world in which the word “charity”, like a beautiful woman shadowed by her jealous husband, was invariably qualified by the words “lunch”, “committee”, or “ball”. “Compassion” nobody had any time for, whereas “leniency” made frequent appearances in the form of complaints about short prison sentences. Still, he knew that his difficulties were more fundamental than that.”