Discovering Christie on the Orient Express

Many months ago I decided that this year I was going to read a ‘classic’ crime novel once a month, both to catch up with books I’ve always intended to read, but also to see how they compare with their modern-day equivalents.

Earlier this week I remembered my cunning plan, and being between books, I decided to take the plunge. But, where to start?
The eagle-eyed detectives amongst you will have deduced that it was the case of a Murder On the Orient Express, featuring one M. Poirot and his ‘little grey cells’ (and splendid moustaches). I’d watched the trailer for the new movie (Ken’s moustache is PHENOMENAL and I now have new facial hair goals). Just look at it!

Anyway. What can I say about the book? I was aware of the premise (the title rather gives it away), but I don’t think I’ve ever really watched any of the adaptations of Christie’s work, so I was coming to it pretty fresh.

It’s utterly wonderful, and I’m vaguely horrified that I’ve not read any of her books before. WHY DID NO-ONE TELL ME? The setting is glorious (and I’m a sucker for a book which immerses you in a location to the point where you can almost feel it), the characters splendid and varied, Poirot is cunning and devilishly clever and the mysterious murder is, at the end of the day, delightfully solved. It’s not Poirot’s first case, but you don’t really need to have read the others to benefit from it.

Of course, now I have a HUGE backlog of Christie’s work to get through (crikey but she wrote a lot) – but before I do, does anyone have a recommendation for next month’s “Dave Reads A Classic Crime Novel” series? I can feel a list coming on…

Just after midnight, the famous Orient Express is stopped in its tracks by a snowdrift. By morning, the millionaire Samuel Ratchett lies dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside. One of his fellow passengers must be the murderer.

Isolated by the storm and with a killer in their midst, detective Hercule Poirot must find the killer amongst a dozen of the dead man’s enemies, before the murderer decides to strike again…

Artemis – Andy Weir

Jazz Bashara is a criminal.

Well, sort of. Life on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, is tough if you’re not a rich tourist or an eccentric billionaire. So smuggling in the occasional harmless bit of contraband barely counts, right? Not when you’ve got debts to pay and your job as a porter barely covers the rent.

Everything changes when Jazz sees the chance to commit the perfect crime, with a reward too lucrative to turn down. But pulling off the impossible is just the start of Jazz’s problems, as she learns that she’s stepped square into a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself – and that now, her only chance at survival lies in a gambit even more unlikely than the first.

First off, let me just say that I loved the Martian. I loved the premise, the setting, the character of Mark Watney and his internal monologue as he figured his way through life on Mars. Even the movie was pretty good.

So it was with no small measure of excitement that I opened a parcel to find Andy Weir’s second book, Artemis. The TBR pile was pushed unceremoniously to one side and I sat down to read it.

Alas, I was disappointed. My first problem was with Jazz herself – she comes across as a bouncy enthusiastic teen, which would be absolutely fine, but it turned out she’s supposed to be in her mid-twenties. I did like a lot of the other characters, and found them at times to be better written and more… plausible? Particularly fond of Svoboda, Jazz’s excitable engineer friend. Jazz was a bit too much of a Mary Sue for me – very very competent, and nothing much seemed to get in her way – some quite dicey situations cropped up but were too swiftly resolved with no real sense of peril.

Some of the science seemed a bit shonky too, which *really* surprised me. Unless my understanding of lighting fires around pure oxygen is off (don’t do it kids, things go BADABOOM), bits of the story made me scratch my head.

[Edit] having spoken to some people about this (thanks @SafeNotAnOption), my grumbles about the sciencey bit may have been unfounded and my understanding of fires in low-pressure O2 environments isn’t what I thought it was. My apologies.

I now return you to the review…

There’s also some weirdness and inconsistency with how things react in the lunar gravity, and a scene involving a free beer which turns out not to be… Minor niggles, but they jarred for me.

The plot itself is a bit on the cheese grater side[1], but given that a lot of heist movies fall into the same trap I was prepared to forgive it. And the story did grow on me – whilst the first half of the book did feel a bit sluggish and exposition-heavy at times, I rattled through the second half and found myself quite enjoying it towards the end.

There’s a cracking story in there somewhere, it just feels a bit… muddled in places. A friend commented that he suspected that Mark Watney in The Martian *was* Andy Weir – figuring out the problems in his head as the character had more misfortune lumped on him, and I agree. In The Martian, the style really worked, but here there’s a bit too much info-dumping as the author tries to set up the next thing.

Artemis will shift by the bucketload, given its provenance. It’s got Hollywood written all over it too, and I reckon it’ll make for a fantastic movie, given the right casting.

Artemis by Andy Weir is published by Del Rey and is out on 14th November.

Many thanks to Emma and Del Rey for the gorgeous advance copy for review. It really is stunning!

[1] full of holes. OH COME ON.  🙂

Wychwood – George Mann

Wychwood image

After losing her job and her partner in one fell swoop, journalist Elspeth Reeves is back in her mother s house in the sleepy village of Wilsby-under-Wychwood, wondering where it all went wrong. Then a body is found in the neighbouring Wychwoods: a woman ritually slaughtered, with cryptic symbols scattered around her corpse. Elspeth recognizes these from a local myth of the Carrion King, a Saxon magician who once held a malevolent court deep in the forest. As more murders follow, Elspeth joins her childhood friend DS Peter Shaw to investigate, and the two discover sinister village secrets harking back decades.

A small town murder mystery with a healthy dose of the supernatural? Count me in!

Elspeth Reeves is an interesting change to the standard police whodunnit (or in this case, howdidtheydunnit?). She’s a reporter who’s returned home to her little village after losing her job and her partner in short order, only to stumble over a rather gruesome murder scene literally on her back doorstep.

There’s a nice interplay between Elspeth and childhood friend-turned-copper Peter Shaw as they team up to solve the mystery of Carrion King, a figure from local mythology. Plenty of potential suspects, a netful of red herrings and some genuinely quirky murders make this an entertaining, if sometimes a little gory read. I polished it off in a couple of sittings, eager to get to the bottom of who was behind it all!

Wychwood, by George Mann is published by Titan Books and is out now. Many thanks to Phillipa at Titan Books for the review copy.

The House of Spines – Michael J. Malone

Ran McGhie’s world has been turned upside down. A young, lonely and frustrated writer, and suffering from mental-health problems, he discovers that his long-dead mother was related to one of Glasgow’s oldest merchant families. Not only that, but Ran has inherited Newton Hall, a vast mansion that belonged to his great-uncle, who appears to have been watching from afar as his estranged great-nephew has grown up. Entering his new-found home, he finds that Great-Uncle Fitzpatrick has turned it into a temple to the written word – the perfect place for poet Ran. But everything is not as it seems. As he explores the Hall’s endless corridors, Ran’s grasp on reality appears to be loosening. And then he comes across an ancient lift; and in that lift a mirror. And in the mirror … the reflection of a woman …

House of Spines is a deliciously gothic, spooky tale set in an old house near Glasgow. Inherited by writer Ranald McGhie from a long-lost relative, the house is host to a magnificent collection of books, and more than a few family secrets.

Michael J. Malone has created a beautifully layered story, filled with strong characters, not least of which is Newton Hall which becomes a character in and of itself in the book – with creepy corridors, an ancient lift and long-forgotten rooms and a housekeeper/gardener couple who seem to have become part of the very fabric of the house. We follow young Ran as he first delights in his new-found property owner status but soon the house’s… quirks start to show up. As the secrets unravel, so does Ran’s sanity. Are the events really happening, or has his grip on the real world started to fray?

Fantastic characters, a gloriously mysterious house and a delightfully twisty plot. Highly recommended.

House of Spines by Michael J. Malone is out now, from Orenda Books. You can find Michael on twitter @MichaelJMalone1

Many thanks to Anne Cater and Orenda Books for asking me to take part in the tour, and for the review copy.

All The Wicked Girls – Chris Whitaker

“Raine sometimes complains that nothing exciting is ever gonna happen in Grace again. Daddy told her careful what you wish for.”

Everyone loves Summer Ryan. A model student and musical prodigy, she’s a ray of light in the struggling small town of Grace, Alabama – especially compared to her troubled sister, Raine.

Then Summer goes missing. Grace is already simmering, and with this new tragedy the police have their hands full keeping the peace. Only Raine throws herself into the search, supported by a most unlikely ally.

But perhaps there was always more to Summer than met the eye

Regular readers (and twitter followers) will be well aware of my love for Tall Oaks, Chris Whitaker’s stunning debut novel. It kept me up until the wee small hours reading.

It was with some trepidation that I started his second book, All The Wicked Girls. The bar had been set pretty high.

I needn’t have worried. All The Wicked Girls is utterly brilliant, though in a different way to Tall Oaks. I’d struggle to pick one to recommend to you if pressed, and would probably insist that you just buy both and thank me (or rather thank Chris) later.

It’s deep and complex, harrowing and heartbreaking, a story of a young girl’s hunt for her missing sister in a small southern bible belt town. Chris Whitaker does small-town America really really well, and the town and townsfolk are pitch perfect. As with Tall Oaks, All The Wicked Girls is a character piece, and what characters they are – from the distraught parents to the fire & brimstone preachers, the harried cops and Raine’s unlikely partners, Noah and Purv.

Much like Manny and Abe from Tall Oaks, I loved the three kids, each with their own secrets, each trying to make it in their own version of the world.

All The Wicked Girls will sit firmly alongside Tall Oaks in my books of the year. As I said earlier, don’t make me choose – buy both and settle down for some of the best storycrafting you’re likely to see for a long time.

Chris Whitaker can be found on twitter @whittyauthor. Go say hi. The go read his books.

The Fourth Monkey – JD Barker

For over five years, the Four Monkey Killer has terrorized the residents of Chicago. When his body is found, the police quickly realize he was on his way to deliver one final message, one which proves he has taken another victim who may still be alive.

As the lead investigator on the 4MK task force, Detective Sam Porter knows even in death, the killer is far from finished. When he discovers a personal diary in the jacket pocket of the body, Porter finds himself caught up in the mind of a psychopath, unraveling a twisted history in hopes of finding one last girl, all while struggling with personal demons of his own.

With only a handful of clues, the elusive killer’s identity remains a mystery. Time is running out and the Four Monkey Killer taunts from beyond the grave in this masterfully written fast-paced thriller.

The Fourth Monkey is enormous fun, if you can call a tale of a serial killer ‘fun’. Even if I did spot the twist some twenty pages in and worked out how it would pan out way before the end (one of the perils of reading so many books, I suspect!), and I *still* really enjoyed it! I loved the detectives’ banter as they raced to solve the clues left by 4MK – they made a fantastic team and I’d love to see them in more investigations. I also really liked the way the main story is interspersed with the diary extracts of 4MK as a young boy – they really gave the story added depth and intrigue – you’re torn between wanting to find out more about the diary, but also more about the investigation in the present day.

It’s creepy and twisty and has definite shades of Jeffrey Deaver. Definitely falls into the ‘page-turner’ category, The Fourth Monkey is highly recommended.

You can find JD Barker on twitter @jdbarker. The Fourth Monkey is published by HQ and is out now in hardback and ebook.

Thanks to Liz @Cvr_2_Cvr from Cover to Cover for hosting the competition which resulted in me getting a copy of the book!

The Other Twin – LV Hay

When India falls to her death from a bridge over a railway, her sister Poppy returns home to Brighton for the first time in years. Unconvinced by official explanations, Poppy begins her own investigation into India’s death. But the deeper she digs, the closer she comes to uncovering deeply buried secrets. Could Matthew Temple, the boyfriend she abandoned, be involved?
And what of his powerful and wealthy parents, and his twin sister, Ana? Enter the mysterious and ethereal Jenny: the girl Poppy discovers after hacking into India’s laptop. What exactly is she hiding, and what did India find out about her?

What happened to Poppy’s sister? Was it suicide, or was she pushed? Poppy isn’t convinced it’s the former, so starts digging into her sister’s life, revealing a host of secrets that others would far rather have remained firmly buried.

The Other Twin is a smart psychological thriller, with an expertly woven web of twisted plot strands. There are secrets, lies and half-truths buried in the wintry lanes of Brighton, and Hay delivers an authentic taste of the city and its inhabitants as the tension ramps up and Poppy gets deeper into the mystery.

Poppy is a compelling heroine, drawn inexorably into the sometimes murky lives of her friends and family. It’s been some time since she was last home, and the people she knew have changed – who’s telling the truth and who’s bending the truth? I loved Poppy’s detective work into her sister’s life through the medium of blog posts, each throwing a new slant on what she thought she knew of her sister. Who is the mysterious Jenny? How is she linked to Poppy’s former boyfriend Matthew, his sister Ana, or any of the other key players?

The Other Twin is a relatively short read and I whistled through it in a couple of sittings. The writing is sharp and smart, the twists and turns nicely paced, and the characters well-drawn. Highly recommended.

The Other Twin by LV Hay is published by Orenda Books, and is available now. You can find Lucy on twitter @LucyVHayAuthor or at her website
Many thanks to Karen at @OrendaBooks for the review copy.