My review of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Before starting Christie’s The ABC Murders, I made the mistake of opening another book, Win, by the much overrated Harlen Corben. I abandoned after only 20 pages, and frankly only got that far because I was intrigued to know if a bestselling author could sustain that incredibly low level of writing beyond one ill-conceived chapter. So it’s probable that my high opinion of The ABC Murders is somewhat flattered by this comparison.
Still, the contrast between what sells today and what sold 70 years ago could not have been more apparent. Both Christie’s and Corben’s protagonists are cliched and superficial. Yet whereas Hercule Poirot’s arrogant self-importance is tongue-in-cheek (the reader is in on the joke), Win is simply insufferable. Christie’s characters lack depth because they are clever and deliberate illustrations – line art that indicates form rather than creating true texture. Corben’s characters, on the other hand, lack depth because they are badly painted hyperreal portraits, a poor likeness of actual human beings.
But where Christie really shows her mastery is in the pacing of the plot. I’m curious to know if she mapped out the sequence of murders and events carefully, the way an animator plans his drawings from pose to pose. Or did she just let it flow – frame by frame – and was so adept at feeling her way that the result was perfect timing – landing on the beats without the aid of a metronome?
Whether deliberate and practiced; or innate and lucky, the effect is that the reader feels loved by every page. Christie knows how to write with her readers in mind. You cannot hear the pounding of her fingers on the typewriter. There are no painfully obvious sequences of the otherwise cynical title character funding a shelter for battered women, sardine-packed in there by an editor because someone felt the protagonist had to be made more ‘likeable’. With the Queen of Crime, there is a simple love of the story, and a flair for sketching human beings – not perhaps as they really are, but with enough truthful lines that we, the reader, can fill in the gritty details with our imagination.
Hercule Poirot remains in The ABC Murders as he always is – larger than life. Preposterous, even. A shared joke between Christie and the reader. And yet he is as alive as any hero.
Agatha Christie will never be the Rembrandt of literature. But she is perhaps the Norman Rockwell, and that is a wonderful thing in itself.

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My review of Harry Harrison’s ‘West of Eden’

West of Eden by Harry Harrison

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Like many children from troubled, broken homes, at age 12 I sought refuge from trauma by seeking to escape from the world that surrounded me. It was my good fortune that my chosen escape was not into drugs or gangs, but rather into books. I devoured works of fiction like an opioid – for how important were the financial woes of my family compared to the danger facing Frodo and indeed all of Middle Earth? How could the feuds of embittered parents matter, pinned against the fate of the majestic Ringworlds?
It was then that I found Harry Harrison’s West of Eden, a book that spoke to me even more than Lord of the Rings or Larry Niven’s Ringworld. Because Harrison’s epic is also a coming-of-age story, and that is what I needed at the time. It might be too much to say West of Eden, on its own, saved me. But it certainly felt like that at the time.
I rarely re-read books, but when I saw it last month on the shelf of a neighbour’s house (ok, it’s true I bought it for them), I perused the first chapter out of wry nostalgia. How would a fantasy coming-of-age story hit a reader whose coming of age was three decades in the past? Were the things I loved so much about it a product of circumstance, like that cheap packaged hot dog you had that one time by the campfire, which tasted like nothing else on earth?
To my great surprise, in under a chapter I was hooked all over again. Like the resolution of an Ultra-HD television, the richness in the narrative is at first only felt. It comes from an untold backstory that exists only in Harrison’s head. It’s not until you get to the appendix that you realise he bothered to think out an entire language for both the Tanu (the tribe of hunter-gatherers flying the banner for warm-blooded civilisation) and the Yilane (the dino-humanoids flying the cold-blooded banner).
With all the sensitivity of a subtle thinker, Harrison invites the reader to sympathise with both sides in this clash of civilisations. And in doing so, he makes a strong statement about the meaning of right and wrong. Like the protagonist Kerrick, a part of us cheers when the Tanu hunters plunge their spears into the hideous reptilian beasts. And like Kerrick, another part of us weeps at the wanton savagery and destruction of a beautiful Yilane, cut down in her prime. We can glimpse how the reptilians might see us – stinking, half-fur covered beasts with low cunning and no real knowledge of science. Is not every war a question of perspective? Is the Ukrainian soldier lying dead in the frozen mud any different to the Russian one?
West of Eden deserves to be called an epic because it is more than a coming-of-age story. It is more than a clash-of-civilisations story. It is more than just escapism. In the same way as Lord of the Rings, it transcends its own genre and tells us something important about who we: Like Kerrick, we are all, somehow, the damaged children of broken homes. And we are all searching for the peace and comfort of a better life. We are all alone, surrounded by the other, caught between two worlds.



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My review of Thackeray’s ‘The History of Henry Esmond, Esq.’

The History of Henry Esmond, Esq. by William Makepeace Thackeray

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was motivated to read ‘The History of Henry Esmond, Esq.‘ by the back cover blurb, in which it was noted that contemporaries of Thackeray, as well as the author himself, considered this novel not only superior to Vanity Fair, but in fact the greatest English novel ever written.

How could it be, I wondered, that a book which at the time was considered peerless, could today be utterly forgotten? Esmond, after all, appears on no one’s secondary school reading list. And while not technically out of print (in the age of print-on-demand, this is no longer a meaningful concept) you will not see this book on the shelves of booksellers. What’s more, all currently available editions on Amazon have less than half the number of reviews and a lower rating than my own first novel, “The Hydra“. What grim fate, then, could have befallen the greatest novel ever written in the English language?

The answer is important because of what it might imply about the nature of cultural capital as it is passed down to us through history. We assume, perhaps naively, that the great filtre of time is effective in separating out the literary wheat from the chaff. In other words, that the novels that survive the test of time represent the best of their kind, and therefore with limited reading time at our disposal, the casual reader should never bother looking beyond the Penguin classics shelf at their local Barnes & Nobel. As I cracked open the pages of the tattered 1950s paperback that chance had thrown into my possession, I wondered whether the filtre did in fact work as it was supposed to. Or were there great novels, Henry Esmond perhaps being one, which history had simply forgotten?

The plot line is linear yet compelling – like a nice piece of meat that doesn’t need an elaborate sauce. It tells the story of the title character as he straddles the religious divide between catholicism and protestantism, as well as the political divide between the Whigs and the Tories following the successful protestant insurgency led by William of Orange and his wife, Mary Stuart in 1688. Born to a great house but as an illegitimate son, our protagonist is likeable and nuanced. Esmond is a devout protestant and an English patriot, yet also fiercely loyal to the exiled catholic king, James III & VIII.
His love for his flighty and vain cousin Beatrix Castlewood mirrors his devotion to the ill-fated Stuart regency. These personal and political threads are woven together with delicious ingenuity, leading to a satisfying conclusion to the novel, including with a refreshingly surprising and modern ‘plot reveal’, which I will of course not spoil.

Yet I can’t help shrinking back from asserting this novel is better than Thackeray’s acknowledged masterpiece, Vanity Fair, or a host of other 19th Century chart-topping classics. As a historical fiction, much of Henry Esmond’s appeal no doubt lies in the readers’ prior knowledge of the events Thackeray brings to life – and by all accounts the author was a legit scholar of the age. To the modern reader, for whom the infamous misdeeds of Lord Mohun mean nothing, this spice is lost. Indeed, religious sectarianism is the pulse-raising plot dynamic motivating much of the action. But that which tore 17th Century England apart fails to inspire in the modern reader any emotional response beyond mild curiosity, save perhaps in enclaves in Northern Ireland or insofar as we can imagine parallels to the Middle East.

On balance, therefore, I would say that the great filtre of time is not entirely broken, even if great novels do slip through the cracks and get washed into the gutters of literary oblivion – and Henry Esmond is arguably such a case.
One message to would-be writers is, if you want your story to have lasting historical impact, know that adorning it with the baubles of The Current Thing will not be enough to earn you a place on your great great grandchildren’s bookshelf. For that, you will need the timeless elements of a perfect story, outstanding characters, compelling and unpredictable plot turns – and the most important ingredient of all: luck.




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My review of George Orwell’s ‘Coming Up for Air’




Coming Up for Air by George Orwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Before starting to read Coming Up for Air, I was 150 pages into a lesser known Dickens called Martin Chuzzlewit. I had resigned myself to the pompous 19th Century style, with its improbably overwritten dialogue and run-on sentences. After all, it was a Dickens, and that meant the payoff would be a good story.

Well, there is a reason why Chuzzlewit was lesser known. 140 years before the Fonz was doing it on waterskis, Dickens managed to jump a rather ugly shark – petty personal grievances arising from his America trip, and the even more unforgivable sin of writing what he did not know. And as the story of Chuzzlewit became less engaging, the prose appeared to grow more overwritten and tortorous by the page.

Coming out of this and into a nice George Orwell felt like, well, coming up for air. It also put Orwell’s style in just the right social context. He was among those post-WWI writers whose plain prose stood in deliberate counterpoint to the exclusive and pretentious verbosity of the Victorians, for whom ‘common’ was a synonym of ‘cheap’. For Orwell, a plainly written novel was in itself a political statement: the socialism of the written word.
This theme is also perfectly echoed in the book itself, which tells the story of an ordinary middle aged man with a deliberately ordinary name – George Bowling – whose life spans the trenches of the Great War. As his youth unfolds in memory, the reader is taken through the great changes that redefined England in the early 20th Century. The social: A shopboy finding a higher place in the new social order, with its illusion of meritocracy, and ‘iron cage’ economy. The physical: The engorgement of bucolic villages by industry, the surburban sprawl of London, turning the South of England into the ugly maze of A-roads, roundabouts and semi-detatched houses we all know and hate.

Coming Up for Air is also a deeply personal story, unlike Orwell’s more overtly political (and better known) works. Drawing on personal experience, the author manages to tread the perilous line of a flawed protagonist; one who yet remains human enough for us to like. That’s not easy to do. But Orwell goes further – he crafts a tale that is captivating despite having no real plot beyond whether or not George Bowling will catch a fish.
Yet the novel is most memorable not for its retrospective on the first four decades of the 20th Century, but rather for its precience concerning the fifth. At various times during my read, I had to return to the copyright page to check that the book truly was written in 1940. The foreshadowing of the Second World War was so uncanny it left the impression that Orwell had written it 8 years later, when the dust had begun to settle. This in itself makes the book compelling, especially for today’s reader, whose spidey sense is perhaps tingling with the same grim forebodings.
In summary, if you were to read only one book that covers the great social change in England caused by the wars, this would be the one I would recommend.




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My review of ‘The Truth’ by Stanisław Lem

The Truth and Other StoriesThe Truth and Other Stories by Stanisław Lem
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just finished the title short story, The Truth, with tremendous thanks to a Polish friend of mine, who recommended it to me.

Humbly and with embarrassment for my Anglo-centricity, I am forced to admit I would otherwise never have read Lem, nor was I even truly aware of his existence as a writer – despite his having written the book behind the classic sci-fi film Solaris.

Yet The Truth, in its execution and in the concepts it evokes, is as deserving of a place among the great works of 20th Century sci-fi as anything written by Bradbury, Asimov or Clarke.

Nor does the genius of the story repose entirely on the strength of its ideas. The writing is more than competent – some passages touch on the beautiful. But what I really liked was how Lem uses the common narrative device of an unreliable narrator to reflect on a personal level the story’s (eponymous) philosophical question. In this way, he creates a perfect mirror between the metaphysical and the psychosocial.

Of course, in the end, it is the ideas that are the lasting mark of this story’s greatness. Here we come back to humility – in under ten thousand words, Lem manages to construct a plausible hypothesis that challenges our most basic assumptions about the universe and our place in it. That is enough to humble even the most widely read sci-fi enthusiast.

The Truth deserves more than just five stars. It deserves all of them.

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My review of Philip K. Dick’s “Ubik”

Ubik by Philip K. Dick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


The promotional quote on the cover my copy of Ubik is from Terry Gilliam. It reminds the would-be reader that “Philip K. Dick got there first.”

I took this as a warning more than a commendation. So often, we find the pioneers of great art lacking, when seen in the rear view mirror of progress. They have been copied, improved upon, and remain only as curiosities, historical artefacts who can better help us appreciate their predecessors.

Such will not be the fate of Philip K. Dick. His work remains timeless and inspiring today, even after all the copycats. One can barely imagine what it must have been like to read him in his heyday, the late 1960s, when even the whiff of such ideas had not yet been breathed into existence.

To be sure, there are weaknesses in the writing of Ubik. The prose is typical of mid-20th Century America, naive and blunt, almost to the point of disrespect for the English language. As if the very conventions of writing were a hindrance to Dick and the ideas that were dear to him. If Dick had had some other means of conveying those ideas – perhaps via the very instruments of telepathy he describes in the story – he would likely have made recourse to them.

But the ideas remain timeless, uncompromising in their complexity. Inspiring stories like The Matrix, but going further and deeper into the metaphysical. Asking questions of the reader, instead of providing the comfortable, Hollywood answers to which we have since grown accustomed.

I take the fact that Dick has yet to be outclassed by those who follow in his wake as a testament to his greatness. His apostles should take it as a challenge.




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My review of Andre Gide’s “Straight is the Gate”

Straight Is the GateStraight Is the Gate by André Gide
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It so often happens that I read 19th Century fiction and marvel at how much better the writers of the day were at controlling the mechanics of their craft. Characters are richer, the vocabulary is wielded with greater ease and the plots flow with the confidence of certain conclusion. Is it the Great Filter of History in action? Or is it simply that our ancestors spent more time reading and writing than we do, therefore became better at it?

Whatever the reason, Andre Gide’s “Straight is the Gate”, a masterful novella, is further evidence that older is sometimes better. Even in translation, it easily surpasses most, if not all, of the digitally processed fast food that streams across the cyberbookshops of the digital age. And as is often the case, it does so without the aid of gimmickry: no bodies on page two, and a simplicity of narrative style (first person, referencing the letters of a second person) at which most modern writers would balk – I am including myself here.

The story is nonetheless interesting, in the very complexity of its eventlessness. A young couple, in love, yet unable to come together as a result of twisted piety and self-imposed restraint; one which belies a deeper psychological illness. I have often reflected how the current state of COVID-hysteria has a religious dimension to it, and in reading ‘Straight is the Gate’, I found eerie parallels. The female protagonist, Alissa, uses her religion as a cloak for her mental illness, in the same way our mentally ill society is using COVID as an excuse to collapse into itself.

Great novels may yet be written about our time, which explore a similar theme – how COVID is being used by the mask-wearing masses to shield themselves against the emotional void created by this godless, consumerist society in which they feel so lost. I just hope that, buried in the ashheap of digital junkies, there are enough real writers out there with the craft to do such a theme justice.

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My Review of Ken Follett’s “The Pillars of the Earth”

The Pillars of the Earth (Kingsbridge, #1)The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Imagine an apple that has been drawn two different ways. The first is a mere illustration, an outline in black and white, one which lacks detail. Simple, yes. Yet it perfectly expresses the essence of the fruit – like the logo of a certain computer company.

The second drawing attempts to render the apple as true to life as possible, with colour, texture and background: all the details the human eye supplies to the brain when confronted with the real thing. But imagine the artist lacks the high degree of skill to deliver on this photographic promise. Let’s say the colour is wrong, the hue of the light rings false, the texture is not sufficiently apple-y.

When we put these two pictures side by side, we ‘see’ a better apple in the illustration. By providing us only with an idea, it allows our imagination to fill in the other details. The second, on the other hand, jars in our brains. It bothers us, despite the effort that might have gone into its crafting. Less is sometimes more.

In ‘The Pillars of the Earth’, Ken Follett has tried for more. A lot more. His portrayal of medieval life in the south west of England is very detailed. We eat, sleep, travel and even copulate with the stonemasons, monks and earls who populate his pages. It is obvious to the reader that he has meticulously researched his subject. But that is precisely the problem – the reader is too aware of the research. At times it feels like we are reading his notes and not his fiction. It is too studied, and therefore rings false.

There are also a number of structural problems, again due to the high level of ambition. It’s damn nigh impossible to sustain over three generations and as many cathedrals the strong plot dynamics for which Follett is known. There are lulls and the conclusion to one of the central plot threads is both contrived and unsatisfying. Follett also seems unsure whether to write Aliena, one of the central characters, as a fierce female protagonist, or as a weeping damsel in distress. In the end, he tries a bit of both, and for me it simply doesn’t work. This I found particularly disappointing, given how well he rendered the characters in the other novel of his I read (“Night Over Water”).

That said, the opening is strong enough; the protagonists likeable enough and the villains loathsome enough to keep the reader hooked.

It’s just a pity he didn’t stick to mere illustration.

My review of George du Maurier’s Trilby

TrilbyTrilby by George du Maurier
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It happened the other day, while I was reading George du Maurier’s Trilby, that a young man asked me whether I read mainly fiction or non-fiction – his preference clearly being for the latter. I answered the former, and had to supress within me a slight sense of shame. Does the fiction reader not, after all, sunbathe in supercillious fantasy while lazing on the beach; whereas the non-fiction reader applies his mind to the ‘hard facts’?

Maybe it is engrained in us to think so. But the distinction is shallow and meaningless when you dig a little deeper. For one thing, if 2020 has anything to teach us, it is that the ‘hard facts’, even those that are as hard as rock, are so numerous and tiny that they give way to the cudgel of dogma and zealotry, like grains of sand on that very same beach. One eye-catching event, propelled by the right algorithms, can trump an entire discipline of rigorous empiricism.

Non-fiction can easily fall into the trap of pretending the ‘castle of truth’ which the author has built up is structurally sound. Fiction, as written from the perspective of the narrator, or better still, the third persons who inhabit the narration, harbours no such pretense of architectural stability. The reader knows that the truth on which a novel is based is a shifty one; changing with the tide and giving way to the footprints left by the author’s own biases, those of his characters and those of the reader.

In this respect, a book like ‘Trilby’ helps us gain perspective on the ‘truthiness’ of our own age. It places fantastical events in a historical and subjective context, and in doing so removes us from the fantastical context of our own time, allowing us to regard these as no less subjective and ephemeral.

At the time of its publication, ‘Trilby’ was a sensation – the ‘Da Vinci Code’ of its day. Upon reading it, it’s easy to see why. Borrowing with self-effacing openness from Thackery, Dickens and Dumas, this festival of vanity, a tale set in Two Cities, chronicles the adventures of three very British ‘musketeers of the brush’ (artists) and their acquaintance with the Anglo-Irish Parisian washerwoman of the title. The narrative is light and fun, rich in the tradition of turn-of-the-Century satirists like Wilde or Saki. The plot is compelling, though perhaps somewhat too linear for modern tastes.

Mostly though, I read it as an antidote to the irrationality and illiberalism of the dominant ‘Liberal’ world view. If we must inhabit sand castles in order to have a coherent frame of reference, let’s at least decorate them with the colourful seashells of funny, well-written Victorian prose.

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My review of Gary Paulsen’s ‘Hatchet’

Hatchet (Brian's Saga, #1)Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some books smack of polish. The prose is heavy with the weight of old creative writing classes or mimickry of past literary idols.

Sometimes the polish even drips and coagulates into globs at the bottom of the page. It’s as if we can smell the coffee from the Starbucks where the author sat, back in February of 1998, when she first read Hemingway and, looking out the window at the drab Seattle rain, dreamt of one day living in New York City and ‘being an author’. Or else we hear the writer’s impatient fingers upon the keyboard at his office in the community college’s English department, desperately trying to ‘find his voice’ the way he tells his students to, rather than just telling a story.

Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet is certainly not one of these books. The prose has no polish whatsoever. As a result, the writing is crude, almost to the point of distraction. Choppy. Fragments of sentences, running on. An attempt. An attempt to convey the protagonist’s panicked state of mind. A heavy-handed abuse of language. At least in my opinion.

But what Paulsen lacks in literary finesse, he more than makes up for with the quality of his story. The tale is a simple one – a teenage boy named Brian survives the crash of a single engine plane and must learn to live in the Canadian wilderness, with only the eponymous hatchet and the clothes on his back.

Like all great stories, Paulsen has no need to mimic other writers, or to worry about finding a voice. He simply tells Brian’s story, and that is more than enough for the reader to suspend disbelief; to join Brian in the woods, rejoicing with him over every little comfort, salivating at the taste of berries and fish in the starving boy’s mouth.

I understand completely why this book has become a favourite of high school English teachers. And as is the case with all good young adult fiction, it reads just as well, even if you are much older.

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