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Audiobook review: ‘The Killings at Kingfisher Hill’ by Sophie Hannah

Thanks to NetGalley and Harper Collins for the ARC of this audiobook.

Confession time: to my shame I’ve never actually read an Agatha Christie book. I tried to read the Poirot mystery ‘The Third Girl’ once but gave up about 80 pages in because it was really dull at not at all what I expected from a Poirot book. I probably picked it because it’s not one I had seen adapted for TV, so I wouldn’t know the story. However, I’ve since realised that it was one of Christie’s later Poirot books and is not considered to be one of the best, so it’s a shame it put me off reading her other books. I should probably try one of her more popular books.

I decided to try one of Sophie Hannah’s new Hercule Poirot books because the cover is just exquisite and really appealing. The audiobook version of this book was an excellent choice for my reintroduction to world of Agatha Christie. It is expertly read by Julian Rhind-Tutt, his narration is a tour-de-force and probably makes this book twice as enjoyable as it would have been reading the paper version. His accent for Poirot is perfect and conjures up David Suchet’s TV Poirot beautifully. I would definitely search out more audiobooks narrated by him.

I’m less convinced by the actual writing of the book. It’s quite enjoyable and I listened to it In the course of one day, so I definitely found it compelling. However, the mystery itself is a bit flat, the murders are crimes of passion rather than premeditated evil which means Poirot does not have a decent villainous sparring partner to outwit. The conclusion was not very exciting and I don’t think there were enough breadcrumbs to help the reader to become engaged in guessing whodunnit.

The other problem with the writing is that it is almost entirely dialogue and exposition and very little action. I usually prefer books which are mostly dialogue and don’t get bogged down with pages and pages of scene-setting and description, but there is very little drama in this book. It really fails the ‘show don’t tell’ test as it is almost all just people standing around relating events to each other. I assume this must be faithful to Christie’s style and that her books probably also just feature Poirot listening to people telling him what happened and then him telling everyone what actually happened, but it’s not a very sophisticated or pleasing way to convey narrative. I guess I’ve been spoiled by the TV adaptations which able to dramatise the explanations characters are giving to make the story more immersive.

I think Sophie Hannah does a good job with the the language she uses of making you feel like you are genuinely reading a book from Christie’s time, but I definitely need to try another Poirot book actually written by Agatha Christie to see how it compares. I’ll pick up one of her more famous books next time.

I would recommend this audiobook for the excellent narration by Julian Rhind-Tutt which really raises the enjoyment level of the slightly lacklustre story.

Review of ‘The Thursday Murder Club’ by Richard Osman

Thanks to NetGalley and Penguin Books for the ARC of this book.

I’m not entirely sure what the make of this book. Despite containing several murders, suicides and drug criminals, it is a very easy, fluffy, cosy, British and just ever so nice crime book. It is set in a retirement community and boils down to 4 OAPs sitting around effectively saying “There’s been a murder, oh how jolly! Would you like another slice of cake while we solve it?”. I think I do prefer a nice cosy crime read like this to the far too prevalent reams of gritty psychological thrillers featuring the abuse/torture of woman and children. However, this chatty, friendly, nice style does make the plot feel a little low-stakes in spite of all the death.

I think you can definitely tell that this is a first novel. The writing manages to be face paced (short chapters, chatty prose) and plodding at the same time. Richard Osman throws in so many red herrings and misdirects that by the end of the book it feels like none of the characters really care that much who has committed the murders, let alone the reader. I think there is something lacking in the set up and resolution of the whodunnits, this is probably because Osman is more interested in his characters than in his plot.

I like Richard Osman and I think his voice comes through very strongly in the book, despite half the entries supposedly being written as a 80-something(?) year old woman’s diary entries. There are lots of witty asides and unnecessary facts added in, probably to the detriment of the narrative but fun for the reader. I feel like Osman has looked at the demographic of his fans, mostly OAPs who watch daytime TV due to his popular TV quiz programmes, and written something specifically to appeal to them in order to sell more books. I’m not sure I find OAPs to be the most compelling protagonists. This is a shame because, according to his author’s note, he was trying to highlight how people in retirement villages all have had interesting worthwhile lives and experiences.

This is the first in a series of books but I’m not sure whether I would bother to read the next one. However, they may improve as Osman gains greater experience as a writer. I can see how it might be nice to follow some of the characters, particularly the police officers, to find out what their future holds. Osman clearly has a great fondness for the characters he has created, so I’m sure he will develop them well over time.

I must add that I absolutely love the cover design for this book. The title is instantly engaging and the font is beautiful. it’s really well done and makes the book seem really appealing. I’m sure it will do really well. It’s probably an ideal comfort read for these troubling times.

Review of “One to Watch” by Kate Stayman-London

Thanks to NetGalley and John Murray Press for the ARC of this book.

I really enjoyed this book! It’s a fun, easy read and I devoured it in a couple days, which at the moment is quite an unusual feat with homeschooling and a baby to look after!

The book is about Bea, a plus-sized blogger, who ends up being the star of a Bachelorette style reality dating show. It considers whether men would compete for a woman who doesn’t fit standard beauty ideals. It’s an interesting concept and delves well into the psyche of a larger woman. However, I was a little put off Bea’s character by her insistence that she was body positive and that she loved her body when she spent the entire book feeling insecure about her body and questioning anyone who said they found her attractive. I also found many of her actions to be callous, selfish and hypocritical, but I was somehow still routing for her to find love in the end.

I really enjoyed the mixed-media style of the writing. Mixing emails, articles and transcripts with traditional third person narrative helps to keep up the pace of the book and means you don’t get bogged down in unnecessary descriptions.

I thought the questions the book raises about traditional beauty standards were interesting. I’ve never really thought about how the term plus-size is only applied to women, as though it is more acceptable for a man to be big. I think the book does a good job of demonstrating how it feels to be a big woman and the insecurities that go with that but less of a good job in knocking down these insecurities/issues. Due to the fairytale nature of the book you have to accept that gorgeous men would fall for a woman who really does not love herself, and it was hard to see what it was that they liked about her because her personality was not great. It would have been more believable if she was genuinely a confident, smart, successful woman who just happened to be fat rather than a neurotic, deceitful, insecure person whose main positive character attribute seems to be that she likes clothes.

This book is a solid 4/5, I probably would have given it 5/5 if I had found Bea more likeable and if she had not slept with one man after telling another man she wanted to make a go of things with him. I thought that was unacceptable, the book seemed to think it was demonstrating that fat women can have great no strings sex too, but why would you want to when you claim you are looking for love?

Despite the issues I had with Bea, I thought this was a fun, well-written romp of a read with a great insight into the machinations of reality TV. If you love the TV show Unreal, you should definitely read this (and vice versa).

Audiobooks

To celebrate the fact that they’ve made audiobooks available on NetGalley this week, I’ve decided to write about a few of the audiobooks I’ve listened to recently.

Eve of Man by Giovanna and Tom Fletcher
I thought this was fairly standard dystopian YA fiction. It had an interesting premise – what would happen if only one girl was born in the world for 50 years? I don’t think the book reached the potential of the premise, the world building was not strong enough, there wasn’t enough detail about what had happened to the world in that time and how relationships between the men left on earth work now. It only cared about the one girl, Eve, who supposedly was beautiful and perfect when in actuality someone in that position would either have a god complex or severe mental health issues. I thought it was well read by the two narrators and was an easy listen.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
I’m not sure what I thought of this book, I found the premise of the main hero also being the anti-hero/future villain to be interesting. It was uncomfortable because it made you want to route for him but also he kept having dubious opinions which reminded you not to. The book lost steam half way through and I was never really invested in the romance as I found the female character too enigmatic. It’s narrated by actor Santino Fontana, who I like, but found his style a bit dry.

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes
I wanted to love this book as I listen to Linda Holmes podcast NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour and I know she is a big fan of romance novels so I thought this one may be exceptional. Sadly it is not, it is dull, very little happens and I couldn’t see any reason why the male lead would be interested in the female lead. It is narrated well.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
This is a fun twisty psychological thriller with a classic unreliable narrator and a good twist that you can kind of see coming. I didn’t love the narration as I find Louise Brearley’s style a bit too breathy and melodramatic. It’s a shame because she narrates a lot of books.

Kid Normal by Greg James and Chris Smith
This is a fantastic book for 8+ year old children. It is brilliantly read by the authors and is genuinely funny. It’s currently available free on the Audible stories website.

The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey
During lockdown I seem to have found reading apocalyptic/dystopian fiction comforting. I’m not sure why. This should have been disturbing as it is about humans being infected by a new disease which turns them into zombies, but for some reason I enjoyed it. Flinty Williams is a good narrator.

Review of ‘Before She Knew Him’ by Peter Swanson

Thanks to NetGalley and Faber and Faber for the ARC of this book.

I think Peter Swanson is a brilliant crime/thriller writer and I have really enjoyed all his books that I’ve read. I found this one slightly less compelling than his other books. I’m not sure why, possibly because the lead characters have severe mental health issues which can be off-putting as they act unreasonably. This behaviour helps the plot, but makes the characters less empathetic.

There are two major twists in this book, normally when reading a thriller I guess the twists, or at least have some inkling that they are coming, but these twists were a complete surprise to me. In retrospect, I could see the seeds of these twists being sewn and the fact that I didn’t pick up on them suggests I wasn’t engaged enough in the book to question the storyline or think about what was going to happen. I just let it wash over me and found it a good but not excellent read.

The book follows Hen, a manic depressive artist, who suspects her new neighbour is a serial killer. She has a history of false accusations, so no one believes her suspicions, therefore she decides to investigate him herself. The drama escalates and results in several deaths.

I’d highly recommend Peter Swanson’s books, but maybe start with another one.

Review of ‘Little Disasters’ by Sarah Vaughan

Thanks to NetGalley and Simon and Schuster for the ARC of this book.

I’m not sure this is the best book to be reading when you have a young baby at home, as it features one character who kills a baby and another who is suffering with maternal OCD and constantly imagines harming her baby. However, it is written very sympathetically towards mothers and gives a really good insight into how it feels to be a mother and how, even if you are not suffering with mental health issues, motherhood changes you, makes you compare yourself to others and makes you feel like you can never be enough for your children.

Despite the unnerving content, I found this book very interesting. It has a really enthralling hook, the quandary which a paediatric doctor faces when one of her best friends, who she thinks is a brilliant mother, brings her infant daughter in with a head injury and lies about how it happened. Should she report her friend to the authorities? I liked the exploration and outcome of their friendship.

There is a secondary plot line about the doctor’s neglectful mother which I thought was less compelling. It rounded out her character, but I don’t think the book would have suffered if it had been cut out.

I thought the book could have ended about 10% earlier. There is an unnecessary twist at the end which makes the story seem less grounded in realism and gives the book more of a villain character, which it has done well to avoid until then by looking at all sides of a story and understanding how difficult parenting can be.

This is a very well written book with a good insight into parenting and the affect of a traumatic birth on a mother’s mental health. I appreciated its nuanced and sympathetic approach, particularly aa I struggled with post natal depression following a traumatic birth with my first child and I am only now reflecting on how much it affected me, as I parent a second baby who was born without trauma. I think Vaughan is a very talented and thoughtful writer.

Review of Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

Thanks to NetGalley and Random House for the ARC of this book.

Anne Tyler is probably my absolute favourite author. I look forward to reading each new novel she writes. It’s hard to put my finger on why I love her writing, because very little happens in her books, there is rarely an exciting plot or much action. Instead, her books are full of beautiful observations of everyday family life and she writes characters really well. It is simply really pleasant to read Tyler’s writing, even though her books are not unpredictable or thrilling.

Nobody writes lonely, emotionally stunted men as well as Tyler, and her latest book features a classic example. Micah Mortimer is a finicky iT technician in his 40s who is ambling through life never committing to anything. The arrival of the teenage son of one of his ex-girlfriends on his doorstep causes him to contemplate what is important in his life. You might expect the boy to be his unknown son, but Tyler is never that melodramatic, instead he is the catalyst for Micah to address what he actually wants from his life.

This is a short, beautifully written novel, with a very predictable ending and is a pleasant way to spend a few hours. There is nothing groundbreaking about this book but the joy of Tyler is in her lovely prose and her ability to observe human life so accurately.

Review of ‘Rules For Perfect Murders’ by Peter Swanson

Thanks to NetGalley and Faber and Faber for the ARC of this book.

I think Peter Swanson must be one of the best crime/thriller writers currently writing. I have thoroughly enjoyed all three of his books that I have read.

This book is the story of man who owns a bookshop which specialises in crime books. He is visited by the FBI when it seems a murderer is killing people based on a blog list he wrote about the best murders in crime fiction. It is fun and twisty with a classic unreliable narrator. I also really enjoyed the celebration of books within the book.

I sped through this book and found it compelling and unpredictable. I highly recommend it and ‘The Kind Worth Killing’ and ‘The Girl with a Clock for her Heart’ if you haven’t read them.

Review of ‘The Last’ by Hanna Jameson

Thanks to NetGalley and Penguin Books for the ARC of this book.

I absolutely loved the premise of this book, essentially a closed-house murder mystery set during a nuclear apocalypse. It’s a really exciting combination of genres. It is absolutely compelling right from the start and I didn’t want to put it down. It is written as first person past tense chronological diary entries which I find the most readable form of fiction and means the style does not get in the way of the story.

It follows Jon Keller, an American professor, who is staying at a Swiss hotel when nuclear war breaks out across the world. He and about 20 survivors remain at the hotel and he begins to investigate the death of a young girl who is found murdered at the hotel. His diary entries describe his investigations and the struggles of the survivors to continue their lives at the hotel.

The first three quarters of this book are utterly brilliant. I was enjoying it so much I knew the ending could never live up to the rest of the book. It’s rare that a mystery book this interesting has a satisfying ending and that was true of this book too; the resolution just didn’t pack the same punch as the rest of the book. In spite of that, it’s easily the most exciting and compelling book I have read in a long time.

I thought I would be looking for comforting feel-good books at this time of global pandemic but I have really enjoyed this and ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ in the past week. Maybe apocalyptic fiction makes our current situation seem less scary and strange.

Review of ‘The Boy From the Woods’ by Harlan Coben

Thanks to NetGalley and Random House for the ARC of this book.

Book cover

I was really excited by the opening to this book because it seemed to be a departure for Coben. It starts with the discovery of a boy living in the woods and no one knows who he is or what he is doing there. I thought the book would unravel this mystery. However, it fast forwards to when this character, Wilde, is grown up and has him investigate the disappearance of two teenagers in a very standard Cobenesque story.

In fact, the mystery of the boy from the woods is not actually resolved in this book, which is very unusual for Coben who usually ties up all his story threads in a neat bow at the end of each book. This made me wonder if this is the start of a new series following this character, or maybe I missed a clue I should have picked up on.

My favourite part of this book was that it has lawyer Hester Crimstein as one of the main characters. She often pops up in Coben’s other books, particularly his Myron Bolitar series, and it was nice to spend some time with this character and find out more about her. I also particularly enjoyed one scene where presidential candidate Rusty Eggers spins some bad news and coordinates his team’s Twitter ‘bot’ reaction, which I thought was a good insight into the current ‘fake news’ era when politicians seem to be able to get away with anything.

I’m a big fan of Coben and enjoyed this book, but I have read so many of his books now that I don’t find much original or surprising in his new books. Instead, they are like settling into a nice comfy pair of slippers and are comforting in their familiarity. Coben is a really reliable author, all of his books are well-crafted and readable and sometimes something expected, unchallenging and familiar is exactly what you want to read, especially at a time when there is so much uncertainty in the world. I look forward to Coben’s new book every year.