Bruce’s Reading Round-Up: Picture Books for Lovers of Libraries, Ballet, Gardeners and Girls with BIG IDEAS…

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Cheerio me hearties!  I’m a little bit behind on my review schedule this week, so apologies that you had to wait two extra days for this round up of worthy picture books.  Since there’s no time to waste we’re going to ride straight in – yaa!

The Night Gardener (Terry & Eric Fan)

*We received a copy of The Night Gardener from Allen & Unwin for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:

 

William looks out his window one night to discover that the hedge in the yard has been sculpted into a beautiful owl shape.  As the days continue, more hedge shapes appear around the town until William discovers the secret and begins to share in the work of the night gardener.

Muster up the motivation because…

…this is an atmospheric picture book with a story that unfolds through the imagery as much as the text.  Not to be confused with Jonathan Auxier’s middle grade novel of the same name, this book contains many visual cues and clues for the keen-eyed reader to collect on the way to a charming finish.  The palette of deep greens and blues, alternating with sepia page spreads highlights both the sense of mysterious night-time gardening and the historical setting of the characters.  The colour palette changes as the story progresses and we are treated to the glorious browns and golds of autumn, the sweeping whites and greys of winter and the bright, busy colours of spring and summer by the end of the tale.  The mini-fleshlings were mildly interested in the story of William discovering the identity of the night gardener and taking on the secret himself, but were entranced by the illustrations.  This edition came with a dust jacket featuring the cover image above, that hid a beautifully etched drawing of leaves and lawn tools on the hardback cover, and some gorgeous line-drawn endpapers.  The Night Gardener is a visual feast and will bring to life the sense of adventure that goes along with discovering a secret for your mini-fleshlings.

Brand it with:

Terrific topiary; hedging one’s bets; walks in the moonlight

Lucy’s Book (Natalie Jane Prior & Cheryl Orsini)

*We received a copy of Lucy’s Book from Hachette Australia for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:

 

Lucy loves visiting the library and always checks out her favourite book.  When Lucy tells her friends about the book, they check it out too and take it on all sorts of adventures…until the book is no longer able to be borrowed.

Muster up the motivation because…

…this is one for the book lovers, the library lovers and the lovers of unexpected discoveries that stay with us forever.  If you’ve ever had the experience of finding a wonderful book at the library and have had to come to terms with the fact that other people are also allowed to borrow it, take it away and – gasp! – possibly damage it, you will definitely relate to Lucy here.  As well as the immense joy that Lucy gets from sharing her favourite story with her friends, and thus multiplying the level of joy she finds in the book, there is also the lingering sense of irritation that she doesn’t get to have the book with her all the time.  When Lucy arrives at the library one day to find that the book is no longer in circulation, and subsequently, out of print – oh the horror! – Lucy discovers that while other books and stories may temporarily fill the gap in Lucy’s bookshelf, nothing will ever plug the special story-shaped hole in her heart that the disappearance of her favourite book has left.  I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it will restore your faith in the support found in the bookish community and have you believing the claptrap that The Secret tries to have us believe.  This is definitely one for the mini-fleshling of your acquaintance who has that special appreciation of time spent with a favourite story.

Brand it with:

Lost and found; Try Abebooks; Neverending book club

Little People, Big Dreams: Marie Curie (Isabel Sanchez Vegara & Frau Isa)

Little People, Big Dreams: Agatha Christie (Isabel Sanchez Vegara & Elisa Munso)

*We received copies of both of these titles from Allen & Unwin for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:  

 

These two books are from a series of narrative nonfiction picture books about the lives of famous women.  Other books in the series focus on the lives of Maya Angelou, Emilia Earhart, Ella Fitzgerald, Audrey Hepburn, Frida Kahlo and Coco Chanel.  You can check out the full list of titles at Goodreads here.

Muster up the motivation because…

…these little gems are the perfect way to introduce mini-fleshlings to the biography format and the lives of some truly inspirational ladies in an engaging way.  I originally requested the Agatha Christie one for obvious reasons, but was sent both and I am highly impressed by the quality of information and the gorgeous illustrative styles. Each book seems to be illustrated by a different person, so while the books are part of a series, each book has its own individual style.

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Little People, BIG DREAMS: Agatha Christie by Isabel Sanchez Vegara and Elisa Munso.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 22nd February 2017.  RRP: $18.99

 

Agatha Christie’s edition relies heavily on black and white with splashes of red and a certain Deco flair.  I particularly enjoyed the page recounting the number of books Christie wrote, accompanied by an image of the lady herself looking over a field of tombstones – each carved with the name of a victim from her novels!  Marie Curie’s edition is awash in shades of blue, green and brown and cleverly, yet subtly, highlights the struggles of Curie as a woman making her way in science.  I actually learned a lot from this little picture book.  I knew the basics of Curie’s life of course – her work in discovering radium and so forth – but expanded my general knowledge in discovering that she is the only woman to have so far won two Nobel Prizes in two separate subjects – Chemistry and Physics.  Each book also includes a short timeline at the end featuring actual photos of the women along with some important dates in their lives and a quick overview of their lives in traditional non-fiction style.  If you have a mini-fleshling about the place who is interested in nonfiction (or even one who isn’t, because these don’t read like your typical nonfiction picture books), you should definitely leave some of these lying around in plain sight.

Brand it with:

All the awesome ladies; little people, big brains; narrative nonfiction

Where’s the Ballerina? (Anna Claybourne & Abigail Goh)

*We received a copy of Where’s the Ballerina? from Allen & Unwin for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:  

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Where’s the Ballerina? Find the Hidden Ballerina in the Ballets by Anna Claybourne and Abigail Goh.  Published by Allen & Unwin (HardieGrantEgmont), 25th January, 2017.  RRP: $19.99

If you have been waiting for the day when information about classical ballets is combined with a search and find picture book, then wait no longer!  This book retells the stories behind famous ballets from around the world along with fun search and find scenes related to each ballet.

Muster up the motivation because…

…as well as a fun search and find book, this book cleverly provides brief, illustrated retellings of famous ballets from around the world.  From Swan Lake and the Nutcracker to India’s La Bayadere and Spain’s Don Quixote, each ballet is retold in a beautiful double page spread, and followed by an eye-popping double page illustration in which mini-fleshlings are encouraged to find particular characters.  The double page illustrations bring to life the colours and settings of each ballet, so young readers can clearly see the differences in each story and come to understand that not all ballet involves pink tutus and dying swans.  This would be a fantastic gift book for a young one who is entranced by dance and wants to know more about ballet in particular, while enjoying a fun activity at the same time.  Similarly, this would be a great book for a classroom library, to trick  entice youngsters in with a search-and-find activity before they realise they are actually learning something.

Brand it with:

Dance like someone’s scrutinising every page; international ballet; fun with tutus

Clearly you will forgive my lateness in posting given how stunning these titles are and I will graciously accept that forgiveness and promise not to get behind on my schedule again.  Until the next time I have too many books and not enough time.

Tally ho my friends!

Bruce

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mondays are for Murder: The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding

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It’s our final Monday Murder for the year, so I thought I’d go a bit festive and bring you Agatha Christie’s The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, a collection of six short stories with all but one featuring Poirot.  The odd one out features Miss Marple in a remarkably brief appearance.  The book also has a foreword by Agatha Christie, which I found delightful, recounting, as it does, Christie’s memories of Christmas time as a youngster.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Agatha Christie’s seasonal Poirot and Marple short story collection.

First came a sinister warning to Poirot not to eat any plum pudding… then the discovery of a corpse in a chest… next, an overheard quarrel that led to murder… the strange case of the dead man who altered his eating habits… and the puzzle of the victim who dreamt his own suicide.

What links these five baffling cases? The little grey cells of Monsieur Hercule Poirot!

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Plot Summary:

The six stories contained herein are the titular Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, The Under Dog, Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds, The Dream and Greenshaw’s Folly (which features Miss Marple).  All but the first feature murders being solved ingeniously by either Poirot or Marple.  The first story, however, is about the theft of a priceless jewel.  

The Usual Suspects:

As there are so many different stories here, I can’t really go into detail about the suspects, but you can rest assured that the stories include all the old favourites, from long lost brothers returned from the African continent, to people pretending to be someone else, to people in disguise, to people hoping to inherit the murdered person’s worldly goods.  

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

Once again, specific details vary, but for the Poirot stories, our favourite Belgian is generally called in by the police or an interested party, does his questioning bit, and then casually reveals the killer before the story abruptly finishes.  Similarly, in Greenshaw’s Folly, Miss Marple only experiences proceedings second-hand, yet still manages to pick motive, method and murderer, having never laid eyes on the scene or the players.

 

Overall Rating:

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Four poison bottles for the cheery thought of a traditional Christmas party peopled by thieves and murderers.

It’s been a while since I read a Christie mystery so it was jolly good fun to jump back in with Poirot and Miss Marple and kick around some theories about who done it.  I really enjoyed the fact that these were short stories too, because I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed with end of year busyness just now and the short tales meant that I didn’t have to remember names and roles across a whole novel.  I did get close to the answers in a number of the stories, guessing part, if not the whole solution, which is always satisfying and cause for a smug internal smile.  I also found it interesting that the TV adaption of Greenshaw’s Folly that I saw earlier this year (or it could have even been last year) was much more in depth than the story here.  It’s put me in just the right frame of mind to gear up for the The Murder of Roger Ackroyd that gets shown on telly here every Christmas Eve (or maybe the day before Christmas Eve).  I’d definitely recommend this if you’re looking for a mildly festive foray into murder in short, easily-digestible chunks.

Finishing this book is especially satisfying because I pulled it from my TBR shelf and so….that’s another chink from Mt TBR!

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Until next time,

Bruce

Mondays are for Murder: Magpie Murders…

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I’m bringing out the big guns for our sojourn into humanity’s dark underbelly today, with the much-anticipated new release Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. We received our copy from Hachette Australia for review, and while the blurb is intriguing enough, it’s nothing compared to the twisty-turny-ness that goes on in the pages.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When editor Susan Ryeland is given the tattered manuscript of Alan Conway’s latest novel, she has little idea it will change her life. She’s worked with the revered crime writer for years and his detective, Atticus Pund, is renowned for solving crimes in the sleepy English villages of the 1950s. As Susan knows only too well, vintage crime sells handsomely. It’s just a shame that it means dealing with an author like Alan Conway…

But Conway’s latest tale of murder at Pye Hall is not quite what it seems. Yes, there are dead bodies and a host of intriguing suspects, but hidden in the pages of the manuscript there lies another story: a tale written between the very words on the page, telling of real-life jealousy, greed, ruthless ambition and murder.

From Sunday Times bestseller Anthony Horowitz comes Magpie Murders, his deliciously dark take on the vintage crime novel, brought bang- up-to-date with a fiendish modern twist.

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Plot Summary:

It’s going to be quite difficult to tell you much about the plot without disturbing the intended reading experience, so I’ll keep this bit brief.  Susan Ryeland is an editor at a semi-successful publishing house that is kept from going under mostly due to the best-selling titles of one Alan Conway.  Conway writes the wildly popular Atticus Pund detective series, and while he is a complete pill to work with – demanding, selfish and generally unpleasant – he nevertheless delivers on providing his manuscripts bang on time.  It is after Conway has dropped off the manuscript of the ninth book in the series, Magpie Murders, to Cloverleaf books, that life begins imitating art and secrets that have the potential to shed a whole new light on the books and Conway himself are both revealed and kept back.  Even though Conway’s books are keeping her in a job, Susan wishes she had never laid eyes on Conway or Atticus Pund.

The Usual Suspects:

Okay, this section isn’t going to work particularly well for this novel because in essence you are getting two mysteries for the price of one.  You see, one section of the novel is devoted to the manuscript – yes, the entire manuscript – of the ninth Atticus Pund novel, so the reader gets to experience a vintage-style, golden age of crime, sleepy English village mystery, written by Conway, as well as a contemporary amateur sleuth mystery, narrated by Ryeland.  Incredible value for money, when you think about it!  I can tell you that the Pund manuscript features all the usual suspects you would expect from a Christie-esque mystery: the Lord and Lady of the Manor, various lackeys in the form of housekeepers, groundsmen and their families, the village doctor, the sister of the Lord of the Manor, a Johnny-come-lately store owner, a shady Reverend and his wife, a young couple trying to make a go of things…

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

Once again, there are two separate, but intertwined mysteries going on here, so I will focus on the Atticus Pund manuscript.  Again, this follows exactly the formula of a vintage British crime novel.  Atticus Pund is essentially Poirot, but German (indeed, Poirot, Marple and various other crime writers are mentioned throughout the contemporary part of the novel, and the reader is supposed to get the sense that the Atticus Pund series has been deliberately written in this style).  The detective and his young assistant come into town and question the appropriate people, Pund smugly lets on that he knows the answer to the mystery, the mystery is revealed in the typical fashion.

Overall Rating:

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Four poison bottles for the utter bewilderment of trying to solve two mysteries simultaneously

I’m finding it hard to really get to the nitty-gritty of this novel and express what I thought about its quirks and twists, because I don’t want to give anything away. There are two major plot points that I think would really detract from the reading experience if you were to find them out before reading the book, so if you know any reviewers who are fond of spoilers, it might be best to steer clear until you’ve read it.  Suffice to say that if you are a fan of murder mysteries of the contemporary or historical variety, you should definitely give this a go and see what you think, because the format will most likely be different to anything you’ve read before in this genre.

The story itself has layers upon layers, with puzzles and sideways references hidden throughout.  In terms of solving the mystery/s along with the characters, it is decidedly tricky to do because there are so many clues that are given piecemeal, or only make sense in the context of information that is revealed later.  Having said that, I certainly came across a few clues that had me thinking “Yes! I’ve got it!”.  I was proved wrong, of course, but not in the way I was expecting.

One of the strange things that I experienced, that most readers probably won’t have to contend with, is the fact that I was reading an uncorrected manuscript of an uncorrected manuscript, so I was trying to find clues where no clues were intended! My review copy was an ARC (or advanced readers copy, or uncorrected proof copy for the uninitiated) and therefore contained minor errors – typos mostly, and in one case, the wrong name assigned to a character – and as the Atticus Pund manuscript within the novel also contains minor errors (deliberately, I suspect, to make it look like a first draft manuscript), I was thinking that the errors in the contemporary bits might have some hidden meaning.

They didn’t.

But it certainly made reading the book a bizarre, code-cracking experience.

Horowitz has done a brilliant job of creating two complete mysteries within the one novel.  I enjoyed the Atticus Pund manuscript very much, given that it is in the vintage style that I prefer.  In fact, Horowitz has done such a good job with making Pund like Poirot that I wish he had been given charge of the new Poirot stories, rather than Sophie Hannah.  The contemporary part of the novel was a little bit slow for my liking, mostly because we have already been presented with what is essentially an entire book within the greater story, so I just wanted to hurry things along and get to the dual reveals.

Horowitz has proved once again what a fantastic mastery of writing he has with Magpie Murders.  We on the Shelf have long been fans of his work,  and although there were some parts of the book overall that don’t sit quite right with me on reflection, Magpie Murders is a wonderful, quirky and unexpected addition to the murder mystery section of the shelf that will have readers trying to puzzle out clues within clues.

Highly recommended.

Until next time,

Bruce

Monday is for Murder: First Class Murder (+ a little extra!)

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It’s Monday, so it’s murder time and today I am catching up on a series I just love to bits. I’ve also got a little extra today, with a short story from the same series.  First Class Murder is book three in Robin Stevens’ wildly popular Wells & Wong series for younger readers that harks back to the golden age of British murder mystery fiction.  I am desperately trying to keep pace with the series, but am still one book behind (soon to be two, as Mistletoe and Murder is to be released before Christmas in a fetching and festive red cover!!).  Let’s battle on then, with the blurb from Goodreads:

Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are taking a holiday through Europe on the world-famous Orient Express. From the moment the girls step aboard, it’s clear that each of their fellow first-class passengers has something to hide. Even more intriguing: rumour has it that there is a spy in their midst.

Then, during dinner, there is a bloodcurdling scream from inside one of the cabins. When the door is broken down, a passenger is found murdered, her stunning ruby necklace gone. But the killer is nowhere to be seen – almost as if they had vanished into thin air.

Daisy and Hazel are faced with their first ever locked-room mystery – and with competition from several other sleuths, who are just as determined to crack the case as they are.

first class murder

Plot Summary:

First Class Murder is a tribute to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, not a retelling for juniors, so while there will be familiar aspects – the unexpected stoppage, for example – don’t expect the story to unfold in exactly the same fashion.  The girls find themselves on the train and under the ever-watchful eye of Hazel’s father; the grown-ups seem to think that the girls have got themselves into enough mischief and danger to be going on with and a change of scenery and civilised society should do them a world of good.  Even before the murder happens, Daisy is determined to scent adventure, and after the incident Daisy and Hazel must employ all of their wits and cunning to continue detecting under the nose of a variety of meddling adults.

The Usual Suspects:

There’s a real collection of weirdos colourful characters on the train, including an elderly and angry Russian Countess, a writer of appalling crime novels, a spiritual medium, a world famous magician, a purveyor of diet pills, a wealthy heiress and a familiar face in unfamiliar clothing.  All of them have a motive for murdering the poor unfortunate victim and all seem to have skills that could lend themselves to a classic, locked room mystery!

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

The detecting aspect of the case has an added element of fun in this book because the girls have been expressly forbidden to engage in any detection by not one, but two, authoritative figures after the murder takes place.  This means that a lot of listening at doors and hiding under tables is required in order to get the juicy clues.  The prospect of competition is raised too, as the bumbling Doctor Sandwich and his much cleverer sidekick Alexander, are officially “on the case”.  There are some red herrings left lying about in plain sight as well as a few hints that clever clogs should pick up on fairly early on, but the entire puzzle should remain a mystery until the reveal.

Overall Rating:

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Four poison bottles for the cheering prospect of being murdered in first class luxury

First Class Murder felt like the most fun of the three books I have read of this series.  There’s the light-hearted feeling of adventure from going on an unexpected holiday, the vaguely amusing collection of characters on the train and the lengths to which Daisy and Hazel must go to ferret out the murderer/s.  I particularly enjoyed the introduction of Alexander and the mention of the Junior Pinkertons, as I think the girls can handle a little competition and this sets things up nicely for later books in the series.  It was also a wonderful twist that the book doesn’t just become a retelling of Murder on the Orient Express, because it means that the reveal isn’t a given for anyone who has read that other classic story first.  Overall, this was an excellent, slightly quirky addition to the series and I can’t wait to back up with book four, Jolly Foul Play.

I’m submitting this book under category seven of The Title Fight Reading Challenge: a book with a word or phrase implying victory in the title.  Only one more category to go to complete this challenge! To find out more about the challenge (and join in – there’s still plenty of time!) just click on this large attractive button:

Title Fight Button 2016

Now I told you there’d be a little extra on this post, so I will now mini-review The Case of the Blue Violet by Robin Stevens.  It’s a little ebook novella – book three-and-a-half in the series, if you will – featuring Daisy and Hazel back at school at Deepdean.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

I am the Honourable Daisy Wells, President of the Detective Society, one of the greatest detectives ever known – and also a fourth former at Deepdean School for Girls.

Violet Darby – one of the Big Girls – recently asked me to solve a most puzzling romantic mystery. I knew I’d be able to crack the case, and I did, in just a day and a half. It was one of my greatest triumphs (Hazel Wong, my Vice-President and best friend, is telling me that this is boasting, but it is also the truth). Hazel didn’t believe I would have the patience to write the account of it, but of course, she was wrong. I did write it down, and it came out very well.

I now, therefore, present to you: the Case of the Blue Violet.

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This novella can be knocked over in under half an hour if you’re quick and is the perfect teaser for when you are in-between the novels.  There’s no murder in this one, but instead a mystery relating to the love interest of an older girl at Deepdean.  I won’t say much about the plot because, this being such a short story, I would give too much away, but the puzzle is just as satisfying to solve as the more complex ones found in the novels.  Keen-eyed readers may have an inkling as to which way the wind is blowing here, but the brevity of the story means it’s loaded with fun and the pace is quick.  I’d definitely recommend this as a perfect pick for when you need a brain-break, or as a great taster for the series as a whole.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Mondays are for Murder: Peril at End House…

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I’ve fallen back on an old favourite this month, since it’s been ages since I last got into a Poirot mystery.  The copy of Peril at End House by Agatha Christie that I borrowed from the library had obviously been subjected to a series of borrowers who clearly enjoyed a cigarette (or seven thousand) while reading, and I subsequently suffered a reading experience that included itchy eyes, runny nose and a general pervading stink…but I soldiered on and quite enjoyed the story.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Hercule Poirot is vacationing on the Cornish coast when he meets Nick Buckly. Nick is the young and reckless mistress of End House, an imposing structure perched on the rocky cliffs of St. Loo.
Poirot has taken a particular interest in the young woman who has recently narrowly escaped a series of life-threatening accidents. Something tells the Belgian sleuth that these so-called accidents are more than just mere coincidences or a spate of bad luck. It seems all too clear to him that someone is trying to do away with poor Nick, but who? And, what is the motive? In his quest for answers, Poirot must delve into the dark history of End House. The deeper he gets into his investigation, the more certain he is that the killer will soon strike again. And, this time, Nick may not escape with her life.

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Plot Summary:

It’s a classic Poirot-comes-out-of-retirement story here, with Poirot and Captain Hastings inadvertently stumbling onto a life-threatening mystery while on holiday.  The standard set-up applies: a strange event draws Poirot in, a murder happens despite his best intentions and then Poirot goes full bloodhound mode until the murderer is found and the iconic “get everyone in a room and reveal the murderous fiend’s identity” unfolds to the delight of the reader.

The Usual Suspects:

This one has a good range of expected suspects.  There is the slightly mysterious and cold best friend of the threatened protagonist, her rich (or is he?) boyfriend, the true-blue Aussie renters on the block with some connection to the previous master of the house, the beyond-reproach military man who is fond of the protagonist, the family lawyer with a possible claim on the protagonist’s residence, and a collection of servants who may or may not be acting as the “person on the inside” for the killer.  Poirot actually writes a handy list of all the suspects at one point, including a mysterious unknown person who may or may not be involved.  Or actually exist.

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

I’d have to say that this is a pretty straightforward example of a Poirot mystery, with exactly the expected amount of red herrings.  If this was the first Christie you had ever picked up, I expect you would be drawn in by various twists and turns, but for the seasoned Christie fan, the hunt unfolds just in the way you would expect it, with plenty of clues dropped that will allow canny sleuths to form a viable theory of who the murderer/s might be.  Prepare for a lot of self-flagellation on the part of Poirot and the usual amount of Hastings-baiting.

Overall Rating:

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Three poison bottles for the truth in the old saying that bad things happen in threes.

Since it’s been such a long time since I’ve picked up a Poirot, I probably enjoyed this more than I would have otherwise.  It’s a textbook Christie, with all the plot twists you would expect (if you’re an experienced Christie reader) and a reveal that I probably could have guessed had I really pressed the little grey cells, but was completely satisfied with regardless.  The strange thing about this book compared to other Poirot stories I’ve read is that Christie seemed to leave obvious clues in plain sight.  I actually picked a few up as I was reading them, rather than my usual of thinking back to them later in the story as things start to come together.  Even though there was a bit of a sense of “been there, read that” with the story, I still found it really enjoyable as the characters are personable enough and the dialogue of the Australian characters was faintly hilarious.

I’d recommend this as a good starter if you haven’t read any Poirot mysteries before, or if you are looking for a fun Poirot romp that won’t make you work too hard, but will leave a satisfying aftertaste nonetheless.

I’m also submitting this one for the Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge hosted by Escape with Dollycas:

alphabet soup challenge 2016

You can check out my progress toward that challenge here.

Until next time,

Bruce

Mondays with Marple: They Do It With Mirrors…

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Welcome to the final Mondays with Marple post for 2014.  I’ve enjoyed Marpling along with you all this year and it’s been fun to explore the world of Jane Marple to such an extent.  This final offering for the year was quite a satisfying puzzle, which is a relief since the last few Marples I picked were less than stellar.  Today we will explore Christie’s misdirection and sleight of hand in They Do It With Mirrors.

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Plot Summary:

Miss Marple is coerced into visiting an old school friend at her home, Stonygates – a Victorian mansion that has been repurposed to include a boarding school for delinquent boys – after a mutual friend’s insistence that something isn’t right with Carrie Louise Serrocold.  On her arrival, Miss Marple can find nothing obviously amiss, but traces the threads of a few patterns that give her cause for disquiet.  When Carrie Louise’s stepson (from her first marriage) – Christian Gulbrandsen – arrives unexpectedly, Miss Marple manages to overhear a conversation that leads her to believe that something important is being kept from her dear friend.  An alarming incident involving Carrie Louise’s current husband – Lewis Serrocold – and one of the young delinquents draws all eyes in the mansion, and shortly after this Christian Gulbrandsen is found murdered.  The murder sends the occupants of the house into a flurry of suspicion.  Any one of them could have been responsible for the shooting of Gulbrandsen, and as they are all intimately connected, nobody knows who to trust.

The Usual Suspects:

This is a bit of a convoluted story where characters are concerned – there’s grande olde dame, the quiet, sweet-hearted, trusting Carrie Louise, her third (and current) husband, Lewis, her daughter Mildred, her granddaughter (from her adopted eldest deceased child) Gina; Gina’s American husband Wally; the two grown-up sons of Carrie Louise’s second husband, Steven and Alex; Carrie Louise’s elderly stepson (from her first marriage) Gulbrandsen, Carrie Louise’s brisk and competent companion, Jolly; Edgar Lawson, a troubled young man from the boarding school, and a few assorted psychiatrists and juveniles.

Level of Carnage:

Low for most of the book.  There are a few secondary murders that take place in a rather violent fashion, and a few extra deaths to round out the reveal.

Level of Wiley-Tricksiness:

High.  Obviously the title hints that there will be a bit of misdirection going on here, but as even Miss Marple gets tricked by this initially I don’t feel too bad about falling for certain red herrings.

Overall Rating:

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Four knitting needles for the tangled family relationships involved

It was a relief, after a few hit-and-miss Marples, to pick up a standard, old-fashioned pyschological puzzle.  This is Christie at her typical high quality.  The action happens in one place, there’s plenty of opportunity for readers to make a stab (pun intended) at the murderer/s and the eventual reveal is pretty satisfying.  It’s not a “blow you away with it’s brilliance” novel, but it’s a lot better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.  A lot less painful too.  Not to mention less messy.

Next year I will be moving on to a broader review program that encompasses the works of more writers of murder mystery.  Christie’s work will, of course, be included in this program, but I will also branch out to include others such as Dorothy L. Sayers and …. others, who I haven’t discovered yet.  Feel free to suggest some good murdery tales and you may find them featured in my 2015 review series: Monday is for Murder!

Until next time,

Bruce

Mondays with Marple: The Moving Finger…

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Greetings Marplophiles! The next instalment of my quest to immerse myself in the life work of Jane Marple continues with The Moving Finger….

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Plot Summary:

Jerry Burton is under strict relaxation orders as he recovers from an accident and he and his sister Joanna decide to rent a house in the entirely forgettable village of Lymstock to facilitate this end.  Shortly after their arrival Joanna receives a poison pen letter containing some entirely unsavoury (and completely unfounded) accusations.  While the siblings laugh the letter off as the work of a bored or religiously zealous resident, other poison pen letters begin making their way around the village causing great upset to their recipients.  When one resident is found dead after receiving a letter, with a handwritten note stating, “I can’t go on” beside her corpse, police begin to take the poison pen epidemic more seriously.  As suspicions are raised and neighbour turns against neighbour, Jerry becomes more convinced that the poison pen letter writer must be apprehended before another life is taken.  Miss Marple makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her appearance towards the end of the book when the investigation stalls and then returns at the climax to apprehend the murderer and explain her methods.

The Usual Suspects:

The handsome gentleman and his equally handsome sister, interlopers in a quiet village, the owner of the house the siblings rent (a delightful elderly spinster fallen on hard times), the overprotective maidservant, the honest, noble village doctor and his energetic, loud-mouthed sister, the well-respected family with a past (including the black sheep adult daughter) and the slightly odd bachelor with a distinctly feminine mind. Plus assorted servants, maids and hangers on.

Level of Carnage:

Low.

Level of Wiley-Tricksiness:

Fair to middling.  I wasn’t able to guess the killer or the poison pen writer, falling as I did for the red herrings that Christie left lying about to trick to slow of wit.  I didn’t feel that the eventual reveal was overly ingenious or satisfying though.

Overall Rating:

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Two knitting needles.

I’m not entirely sure why Christie made this a Marple novel because she’s in it for such an insignificant amount of time and has absolutely nothing to do with the main plot.  The book would have been just as good without her and I actually felt a bit cheated that I had to wade through a pretty standard mystery for such a small dose of Marple.  I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one if you’re new to Marple, or indeed finishing with it….it was all a bit mediocre and forgettable unfortunately.

Ah well. Better luck next time I suppose.

Until then,

Bruce

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Mondays with Marple: A break in transmission…

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Welcome once again to the reasonably self-explanatory Mondays with Marple, in which we discuss Agatha Christie’s works featuring the delightful Jane Marple.  Today I’m doing things a bit differently, because I’m going to present to you a book that doesn’t feature Miss Marple, and of which Agatha Christie has only written a chapter.  The reason I’ve chosen this one is because I immediately became enamoured of the premise under which it was written and couldn’t wait to dive in and see how it all turned out.

The Floating Admiral is today’s book and it is a collaborative murder mystery written, chapter by chapter, by the members of The Detection Club, circa 1931.  What is the Detection Club? Well, it was a club comprised of a whole host of authors of crime fiction who met regularly to eat, drink and be merry.  Essentially, in the creation of The Floating Admiral, they decided to collaboratively write a murder mystery – but with a twist.  Here’s how it went down:

* Each author got to write one chapter of the mystery, which they then passed on to the next person in line to continue

* One author was chosen to tie all the loose ends together and reveal the murderer/s in the final chapter

* The authors, along with their chapter, had to include their solution to the mystery in a sealed envelope.  These were printed as an appendix at the end of the novel

* The authors had to “play fair” by the reader – that is, they couldn’t use any twee tropes such as “it was all a dream” to get out of solving the mystery, and they had to assume that any clues or characters included in the chapters before theirs was included for a reason and therefore needed to feature in some way in their proposed solution

Isn’t this a GREAT IDEA??! Well, I thought it was, and that’s why I’m reviewing it today.  All up there were 14 contributors,, including (in writing order): G. K. Chesterton, Canon Victor Whitechurch, G. D. H. Cole and Margaret Cole, Henry Wade, Agatha Christie, John Rhode, Milward Kennedy, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ronald Knox, Freeman Wills Crofts, Edgar Jepson, Clemence Dane and Anthony Berkeley.

floating admiralPlot Summary:

When the vicar’s boat is found floating aimlessly down the river, no one expects it to contain the body of the his neighbour, the retired Admiral Penistone, featuring a nasty stab wound.  Inspector Rudge is called to take the case and immediately finds himself stymied when the Admiral’s niece and mysterious fiance leave town before they can be adequately questioned.  But this isn’t going to be Rudge’s only trouble – with the vicar clearly behaving in a slightly shady fashion, and some very odd stipulations in the Admiral’s will, it’s going to take all of Rudge’s wits (and some local knowledge of the tidal river currents) to unravel this mystery.

The Usual Suspects:

The slightly-unhelpful-while-appearing-to-be-helpful vicar, the niece of the victim (complete with attitude), the somewhat-shady fiance of said niece, the local old sea dog, a collection of house staff with secrets, a retired acquaintance of the deceased, and a number of absent relatives and hangers-on that may or may not have anything to do with the current circumstances.

Level of Carnage:

Reasonably low for most of the book, although towards the end there is a bit more reasonably graphic carnage to liven things up.

Level-of-Wiley-Tricksiness:

High.  Given that there’s 12 people adding to the story, the level of tricksiness is cumulative.  There are red herrings all over the place here and more arrive with every chapter.

Overall Rating:

 

Boat without mast Boat without mast  Boat without mast

Three Abandoned Punts

While the premise for the mystery excited me to begin with, it did take a long time to play out and the plot was pretty convoluted by the end.  The narrative ended up being not so much dialogue driven, as is the case with many Christie novels, but featured a lot of introspection on the part of Inspector Rudge as he works through the case.  I felt that an extra detective or assistant would have helped in this regard to avoid slowing the narrative too much – one of the chapters features 39 articles of doubt, in which Rudge postulates on 39 of the most puzzling bits of the case. At great length.  Which was good for getting everyone up to speed on what was happening and where the investigation might go next, but also became quite tedious after about article 20 or so.

The best thing about this book for me was the opportunity to sample the work of a whole lot of mystery writers who were contemporaries of Christie, and whose work I might like to try in the future.  Also, reading all the solutions at the end and the comments from the authors in the vein of “I’ve got no idea where such-and-such comes into it!” really brought home the idea that for the people that wrote it, mystery writing really was like a game of intellect that was fun to unravel.

Definitely give this one a go if you’re a fan of mystery writing from this era, but keep in mind that the end result was more a game for the writers than an exemplary piece of crime fiction for the readers.

Until next time,

Bruce

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A Middle-Grade Double-Dip: Awkward Falls and Unladylike Murders…

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Turn your salsa up to extra-hot folks, because I have two books for you today that will set your tastebuds tingling (in a metaphorical sense, obviously).  Both are aimed at the older end of the middle-grade audience, both feature shocking murders, and both also feature a team of two young friends intent on solving the respective mysteries presented.  Let us begin!

First up, we have The Orphan of Awkward Falls by Keith Graves.  I’m going to be submitting this one as my entry in category seven of the Small Fry Safari Kid Lit Readers Challenge – a book with something unsightly in the title – because there’s nothing more unsightly than an awkward fall!

awkward fallsWhen Josephine moves to Awkward Falls with her parents for her father’s new job, she can’t resist poking around in the abandoned mansion next store.  Unfortunately for Josephine, the mansion next store is not abandoned, and she is promptly taken prisoner by an overprotective automaton, and presented to one Thaddeus Hibble, a small boy with all the bearings of a nutty professor. Thaddeus lives alone in the mansion with his robot butler and frankensteinish cat, carrying out experiments, all the time in constant hope for his parents’ return, and in constant fear that he will be discovered and shipped off to the orphanage.

At around about the same time as Josephine’s family is moving in to their new home, Fetid Stenchley, resident of the Asylum for the Dangerously Insane and cheerful cannibal, is planning an audacious escape.  Stenchley also has reason to come poking around Thaddeus’ mansion…because Stenchley used to be the assistant of Thaddeus’ grandfather. Before Stenchley murdered him, of course. 

Unbeknownst to Josephine and Thaddeus, danger has broken loose and is now making its way slowly but surely toward Awkward Falls.  But other secrets are about to be uncovered and for our two young heroes, the information that they unearth could change the course of their own personal histories…forever!

Dip into it for…

…a super-original book with fantastically creepy illustrations and quirky, but likeable characters.  The story drew me in immediately and though this is pitched at a middle-grade audience, with the protagonist being thirteen, there’s a lot here that is far more suited to the adult reader with a slightly juvenile attitude (ie: me).  There’s action a-plenty here, wacky inventions (including the aforementioned robot butler and frankensteinish cat) and a pervasive underlying theme about the importance of friendship.  Graves obviously has a reasonably dry sense of humour because I laughed at a lot of the bizarre situations and was continuously double-checking to make sure I had actually picked up a kid’s book.

Don’t dip if…

…you have a sensitive stomach, or you are a child reader who does not wish to be scarred for life.  While this book is super-original, it also features the super-original use of open-brain surgery on the criminally insane, a cannibalistic murderer, descriptions of implied cannibalistic murdering, genetic experimentation on animals, the unlawful exhumation of a corpse (with accompanied illustration), the reanimation of said corpse and a range of other gorily odd bits and pieces that one wouldn’t expect to find in a book for this age-bracket.  I did question the inclusion of many of these darker elements – particularly the illustrated corpse exhumation – although I decided that as an adult reader, these added to the atmosphere of the story.  If you’re a kid though, I’d probably skip those bits if I were you.

Overall dip factor:

As a concerned gargoyle citizen, I would say that if you’re planning to give this one to your kid to read, you probably should read it yourself first.  Otherwise, I heartily recommend it – I really loved the story and while I had to contend with a bit of stomach-churning imagery as I was reading, the book as a whole was both original and engaging.

Now onto the much-less-ambiguously targeted Murder Most Unladylike, the first Wells and Wong mystery by Robin Stevens.

murder most unladylikeThere’s been a murder at Deepdean School for Girls, but where is the body?  Hazel Wong, the logical and precise secretary of the Wells and Wong Detective Agency, unwittingly stumbles across the body of Science Mistress Miss Bell in the gymnasium – but in the time it takes her to alert her friend Daisy Wells, the body disappears.

Without a body, or any proof of a murder, Hazel and Daisy find that it’s quite difficult to catch a murderer!  As secrets old and new are unearthed and potential motives  come to light, the girls look to be making progress – until another mistress dies in suspicious circumstances, and Hazel begins to wonder whether she and Daisy will be next.  But with Daisy’s intrepid investigative skills and Hazel’s accurate recording of events, the girls know that soon they’ll have their man (or woman).  Look out murderers – Wells and Wong are on the case!

Dip into it for…

…a combination of good old-fashioned boarding school story and Christie-esque murder mystery.  The moment I saw the cover of this book, read the blurb and found out about the author’s interest in Agatha Christie, I had to have it (hooray for preorders!), and it didn’t disappoint.  Set in 1934, the writing is delightfully nostalgic, without being too difficult for youngsters of today to understand, although Stevens does provide a handy glossary of 1930s English schoolgirl slang at the end for the uninitiated.  If you can imagine murders occurring at say, Malory Towers or St. Clare’s, but with a bit more oomph in the main characters, then you’ve pretty much got the idea of what this book is going to be like.

Hazel is a tentative narrator who is very aware of her differences from the other girls, hailing as she does from Hong Kong, and sensitively relates some of the difficulties inherent in making friends and staking an authentic identity in a largely mono-cultural environment.  The parts of the book dealing with Hazel and Daisy’s friendship are an interesting inclusion and broaden the story’s appeal above that of a simple kid-detective romp.

The plot reads much like a Christie novel, with multiple suspects, red herrings a-plenty and a satisfyingly thorough reveal-scene at the end.  All of this adds up to me pre-ordering book two, Tea and Arsenic, so I can dip into that one as soon as it’s out!

Don’t dip if…

…um…you don’t like murder mysteries? There’s not a lot wrong with this book, but admittedly, as is the case with most murder-mysteries, there is a lot of conversation, recapping and consolidating the evidence and those who enjoy lots of action might find that a bit off-putting.  There’s also quite a bit of friendship/everyday school life type stuff added in, given that it’s a school story, so if you’re hoping for a plot completely focused on the murder, you might be disappointed.

Overall dip factor:

If you’re a fan (of any age) of murder mysteries, dip into it.  If you love boarding school stories, dip into it.  If you enjoy historical fiction of this era, dip into it.  If you like girly friendship stories with plucky protagonists, dip into it. Oh, just go on, you know you want to!

I have to say, that after finishing this book, I got so attached to Hazel in particular, that on remembering when the book was set I suddenly realised that by the time Hazel and Daisy turned seventeen, they would have been slapped right into the middle of the second World War…and I was WORRIED for them!  I was particularly worried about Hazel, given that she’s from Hong Kong – I didn’t know which was better, to stay in England and face the war in Europe or return to Hong Kong and become stuck in the war in the Pacific…obviously, Stevens is good at writing believable characters, otherwise I wouldn’t be wringing my claws over fictional characters that would probably be dead by now, war or no war.

Oh, and just for our American friends – if you’re looking for this book on your side of the Pond, it will be released under the title Murder is Bad Manners in April next year.  Beautiful cover though:

murder is bad manners

I particularly like the body in the wheelbarrow in the bottom corner being carted off in a jaunty fashion.

And for those interested in participating in (or just want to know more about) the Small Fry Safari Kid Lit Readers Challenge, simply click here.  To have a look at some of the entries from those already on the Safari Bus, click on this attractive little button:

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And then come join in! There’s still plenty of time!

Until next time,

Bruce

 

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Mondays with Marple: The Thirteen Problems…

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Morning Marple fans! Today’s Mondays with Marple pick is The Thirteen Problems. This book is a collection of short stories, so it’s a bit different from Christie’s usual fare, but let’s plunge right in anyway, shall we?  Knitting needles ready everyone?

Thirteen Problems

Plot Summary:

The Thirteen Problems centres around the exploits of the Tuesday Night Club, a group of St Mary Mead locals and others who, on a whim, decide to regale each other with true tales of murder and the macabre to see if anyone present is able to unravel the mystery.  The stories run the gamut from your standard, quite-easy-to-guess puzzle, to the complex, “well-I-never-saw-that-coming”, in-depth examination of motives and opportunities.

The Usual Suspects:

As there are so many stories here, every usual suspect you could ever hope to find graces the pages, from the retired military man, to the nurse/household help/elderly companion enveigling their way into polite society after a well-hidden stint in prison, to the jealous sister-in-law/wife/lover/next door neighbour….and then of course there’s Miss Marple’s odious and smug nephew, the famous writer Raymond West.

Level of Carnage:

High.  There are plenty of murders, obviously, given the fact that there are multiple stories.

Level-of-Wiley-Tricksiness:

Variable.  Some of the stories are typical of Christie’s ability to seamlessly weave in complex character backstories in the face of baffling events, whereas some others follow a slightly more predictable route.  As I was reading a few of the stories I had the sense that I knew where things were going and I eventually figured out that I had actually watched a few of the stories as full-length telemovies and so I already knew the ending.  Bizarrely, I am almost certain that in one case, the telemovie I had seen for one particular story featured Poirot, so that was disorienting to say the least.

Overall Rating:

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Three knitting needles.  I read this in the manner of a novel but I suspect it would best be savoured in parts.  I recommend popping it on your nightstand (or other book receptacle) and dipping into it whenever you feel like pitting your wits against the spinster who knits.

99 problems

Until next time,

Bruce

 

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