[See also previous and subsequent posts in this series.]
And Then There Were None — Agatha Christie
Arguably Christie’s most ridiculous plot — it strands its principal cast on an island and features ten murders and a suicide. Yet also, oddly, one of her most successful books, both commercially and artistically. If Wikipedia is to be trusted, it’s not only Christie’s best-selling book, but the fifth-best selling single-volume book of all time (surpassed only by The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Little Prince and, er, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. All seven of the Harry Potter books make it into the top 20).
Is it worthy of that level of popularity? Well, no, of course not. But it does have an elegant, surreal quality that marks it out distinctly from the rest of Christie’s oeuvre, and it certainly deserves to classified as both an experiment and a successful one. The resolution makes a certain amount of sense — it’s the best we could realistically hope for, in light of the extreme nature of the set-up — but what really makes it work is the atmosphere, and particularly its nightmarish sense of crescendo. Well worth a read.
[This book was originally published as Ten Little Niggers, a title that was of course dropped as racist, and was variously republished as Ten Little Indians and Ten Little Soldiers before settling on the title by which it’s now known.]
The Well of Lost Plots — Jasper Fforde
Thursday Next returns for her third outing (of seven, so far). As best as I remember, this one takes place entirely inside books, and the Real World is at best a shadowy presence in the background. But that’s fine, because the in-book world is well developed by this point, with its Jurisfiction Department, legions of generic characters and book operating-system upgrades. I’m still enjoying myself in this series, but I am about ready for it to settle down into a slightly more serious and consistent tone.
Sad Cypress — Agatha Christie
A return to what passes for normality in Christie’s world, with a murder (or perhaps two) at a country house, investigated by Poirot. The interesting thing here is a structural innovation: the novel is in three parts. The first is very much from the viewpoint of the character suspected of the murder, the second a third-person oniscient account of Poirot’s investigations, and the third a courtroom scene in which the results of his deduction are unveiled. Satisfying without being dazzling.
15 Minutes: A Time Travel Suspense Thriller — Jill Cooper
By some distance the best of the sci-fi freebies I’ve picked up from BookBub. Cooper tells a compelling story, piling concept on concept and doing it all in the context of a character who we quickly come to know and care about, and two different versions of many of the other characters (in two different alternative presents, based on the result of an excursion to the past). I admired how this story just kept on happening — just when I was confident I knew where we were, some other factor would come in, but not in a way that felt forced or artificial.
It’s not perfect — there are far too many passages about how sick the protagonist feels, and how painful her headaches are; and the use of first person present tense becomes rather breathless — but it’s well worth reading, and I will pick up the sequel if I can get it cheaply.
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom — Cory Doctorow
My third Doctorow book, coming after Little Brother and Pirate Cinema. While those were set in very near futures with dystopic escalation of copyright enforcement and privacy erosion, and have obvious resonances for today, Down and Out is far-future science fiction, in a post-scarcity society where people routinely back up their minds and have them reinstalled in force-grown clones as an antidote to death — or even just to shrug off the inconvenience of having a cold. (This raises a whole lot of questions about identity which simply don’t get addressed: it’s all very well for a copy of my consciousness to live on in a clone, but that doesn’t mean I want to be euthanised. And what about the clone’s own consciousness?)
Down and Out is at its best when the characters are taking this tech for granted while talking about other things — the idea of it becoming an everyday thing is never conveyed more compellingly then when it’s just taken as read. Unfortunately, the actual story — about the narrator’s struggle to protect the Disney World Haunted Mansion from a soulless upgrade — is not particularly compelling; and the subplot about his break-up with a girlfriend is even less so.
So I was left with a feeling of “nice world, shame about the plot”. But to be fair to Doctorow, this was his first novel and he seems to have found a distinctive idiom of his own since then.
Lucky You — Carl Hiaasen
More of what Hiaasen does best — appalling South Florida scumbags in semi-comic conflict with other, less appalling, South Floridans, against a backdrop of ecological armageddon. All Hiaasen’s books are good — he is, at the very least, a consumate craftsman. But this is not one of my favourites. The scumbags are just that shade too horrible to be amusing, and there is a distinct feeling of aniticlimax in the last quarter of the book. Not a good one to start with for newcomers to Hiaasen.
One, Two, Buckle my Shoe — Agatha Christie
Typically well executed, this is perhaps among the better Christie novels, though it’s difficult to comment on the reasons without being spoilery. Perhaps what marks it out is the selection of different possible motives that different people might have had for the central murder.
I’ve now read the first 28 of Christie’s novels, in chronological order, interleaved with her first nine short-story collections. You’d think that 37 very similar books would be enough, and that I’d be bored by now. Oddly, no: the books are very pleasant, easy reading, so that I keep wanting to come back and read just one more.
The Love You Make: an Insider’s Story of the Beatles — Peter Brown and Steven Gaines
I absolutely love the Beatles, and remain in awe of their astonishing productivity and artistic growth across seven short years. For that reason, I have quite a few books about them: Mark Lewisohn’s Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Ian McDonald’s Revolution in the Head (which I’ve read four or five times), George Harrison’s own I Me Mine, Barry Miles’s Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now, Hunter Davies’ authorized biography The Beatles, and others. Peter Brown’s book deserves to stand alongside the best of these.
It’s not just that this is a genuine insider view, written by someone who knew the Beatles from very early in their career. What makes this such compelling reading is simply that it’s so darned sad. Really, it’s a classic tragedy: not one, but four heroes, brought low not just by external circumstances but by their own hubris and even by their own great abilities. And the story of the Beatles is more tragic than a classic tragedy, because what was destroyed in the end was not just a single entity, the Beatles as a band, but precious battle-hardened friendships that would never be reforged or replaced.
Brown brings home how awful this story is, not by hammering the point or writing in ostensibly emotional terms, but just by dispassionately recounting the facts (or at least, since so much about the Beatles story is disputed, the facts as best as he remembers them). The cumulative effect is powerful and appalling. By the time the book draws to a close in 1981, John is dead, never having reconciled with Paul; George remains so isolated and hostile that his own biography I Me Mine pointedly doesn’t even mention John; Ringo is in a string of drug-related illnesses and desperately poor albums; and even Paul, who perhaps came out of the Beatles a little less damaged than the others, has lost his best friend forever, and is becoming reconciled to the fact that the music he creates alone will never match what he did with his friends.
The Beatles story is a very familiar one, and it’s tough to tell it in a way that doesn’t feel a bit same-old, same-old. It’s to the credit of Peter Brown that this retelling feels fresh and new; and no doubt the prose work of Steven Gaines also contributes to how the story leaps along rather than trudging dutifully and hitting all the Big Moments on cue. Perhaps surprisingly, The Love You Make hardly touches on the Beatles’ actual music at all — each album is discussed in maybe a third of a page. But even more surprisingly, that turns out to be the right decision for this book. It avoids getting the story bogged down. And of course, you can (and I did, in part) always re-read Revolution in the Head in parallel.
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions — Mark Lewisohn
If ever there was a book that does exactly what it says on the cover, this is it. It’s essentially a factual chronicle of every recording session the Beatles ever did, from their EMI audition through the last mixing of Let It Be. There is relatively little anecdote or musical analysis. If you are already a big Beatles fan, this is encyclopaedic and indispensable. If you’re not, then this won’t be the book to persuade you. (For that, you’ll want Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, which talks much more about the actual music, and correspondingly less about the process of making it.)
My biggest problem with the book was its physical form. It’s a hefty paperback, 12 inches square to mimic an LP. That makes it awkward to read lying in bed. First world, problem, I know.