The Girls by Emma Cline

Cline - The Girls
The Girls by Emma Cline

This was another impulse purchase, I was waiting for the delayed 1027 and had nothing to do but browse the bookshop at the train station. Thank goodness for train station book shops. Anyway, it is set in the US during the summer of ’69*. Evie’s parents are divorcing, and she is killing time during the summer holiday, waiting to go off to boarding school. Whilst hanging around town she meets Suzanne and “the girls”, and is immediately entranced by their lifestyle. They are followers of a man called Russell and are living at a makeshift commune in the countryside. They come to town to search for food in bins or steal it if they can.

According to the girls, Russell is showing them the way to live a selfless life, full of love and freedom. What it really amounts to is a scary and controlling cult. I didn’t realise when I bought the book, but the story is based on the Mason murders. Having realised this, around a third of the way through, the whole narrative became suffocating as I edged ever closer to the violent end.

Despite be based on one of the most notorious crimes in US history, the book has more depth than that. Evie’s innocence, and desperation to be an adult, are a potent mix when combined with a group of people totally under the spell of a very wicked mind.

 

*I know you are all singing Bryan Adams tracks now, don’t deny it!

First Class Murder by Robin Stevens

Stevens - First Class MurderI might be a teensy-weensy behind on my reviews… never mind, better late than never, eh? Today’s literary delight is First Class Murder by Robin Stevens, the third in the Wells and Wong mystery series. Now I will admit that I approached this book with some trepidation dear readers. The reason? Well, this is a book which pays homage to Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. Now you can imagine how I might feel about someone trying to reflect Christie can’t you? This, however, is a Robin Stevens book, and therefore there is no need for panic. In fact, there is need for tea and buns and enough time to sit and read it from beginning to end.

Daisy and Hazel are off on their holidays with Hazel’s dad, and they are travelling on the Orient Express. Hazel’s father is a little bit concerned that the friends have got into the habit of tripping over dead bodies every ten minutes, which is not at all becoming for young ladies. He makes them promise to be good, and not get into any trouble. Well, it isn’t long before a body is found in one of the cabins, completely locked from the inside and the girls set out to solve the mystery on the quiet.

There is as cast of characters  including a psychic, a magician and a Russian princess. There is  also the added bonus of a young American lad who takes a bit of a shine to Hazel. The resemblance to the Christie classic is clear to see, but it’s so deftly done, and handled with such devotion, it’s a joy to read. The friendship between Daisy and Hazel is developing nicely, and really has some depth. I can see these two aged eighty, knitting together whilst chatting to the vicar about the recent murder at the village fete.

It’s a truly glorious read, and as with all the Wells and Wong books, there is a proper mystery with red herrings, twists, turns and clues to indulge the reader. The books may be aimed at younger readers, but there is no shying away from what murder means.

This series is fantastic, and even if you don’t have a Hazel or Daisy in your life to buy a copy for, pretend you do, and read it yourself. You won’t regret it.

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

Hotel du Lac

Edith finds herself at the Hotel du Lac, on the shores of a Swiss lake, having been advised by her friends to go away and think about things for a while. The reasons she needs this break are revealed as the book progresses.

Edith is a serious, woman, not yet married, who find herself in a hotel with a cast of characters she enjoys watching. We have a mother and daughter, Mrs Pusey and Jennifer who are hopelessly devoted to each other, the charming Mr Neville, and Mme de Bonneuil and her little dog. Edith is a romantic novelist and decides to use her expulsion from her social circle to finish her next book, but the words won’t flow. Instead she starts to mope about, and so Mrs Pusey decides she needs taking out of herself.

The prose is wonderful, there are very sly observations on the characters and the small talk is painfully accurate. It isn’t a fast paced read, but then it doesn’t need to be. I found myself slowing the pace to reflect the setting, a slightly old fashioned and snooty family run hotel.

This book came in for a lot of criticism when it won the Booker Prize in 1984 when many thought that The Empire of the Sun should have won. I haven’t read The Empire of the Sun, so can’t comment. What I did like about this book is the theme that a solitary life, when chosen knowingly, is a fine life.

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

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The Moving Finger is a Miss Marple mystery. Well, almost. Miss Marple does appear, mostly drinking tea and knitting and mumbling on about this person and that she is reminded of. To be honest, it would have worked as a plot without her.

The true stars of the book are Jerry and Joanna Burton, a brother sister who have moved to the small town of Lymstock. Jerry was a pilot in the war and is recovering from serious injury, and the pair thought that the quiet life in a small town would help his recovery. Anyone who has lived in a village or small town knows full well there is no such thing as the quiet life in these places, and that’s certainly true of Christie’s fictional world.

No sooner have they got rid of the last packing case and found the kettle, they start to receive poison pen letters accusing them of not being brother and sister, but lovers living in sin. Being Londoners and therefore far more sophisticated than the locals, as far as they are concerned, they burn it and think no more about it. The trouble really starts when it transpires everyone is receiving this nasty letters, and Mrs Symmington, the solicitor’s wife commits suicide after receiving one. Not long after their maid is found dead too.

The murders seem to put a metaphorical spring back in Jerry’s step, and he sets out to uncover the wrongdoer.  It truly is a tangled web, and the culprit isn’t that easy to spot. I liked Jerry and Joanna very much, far more than I liked Tommy and Tuppance, and as with all Christie’s best works it has that juxtaposition of comfy English country life and cold blooded murder.

I remember this story from the marvellous BBC adaptations with Joan Hickson, but not sure how many will have heard of it otherwise. It’s a hidden gem.

Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie
Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

This is one of my favourite Poirot novels. It shows Poirot and his little grey cells solving a crime years after it was committed. 

Caroline Crale was convicted of murdering her artist husband, Amyas Crale 16 years ago. Their little daughter was sent to Canada to live with relatives, but now she is an adult and wants to get married. She is concerned that having a murderer as a mother might put off her betrothed, and so comes to Poirot asking for him to uncover the truth about what happened. She is convinced her mother was innocent. So, Poirot sets off to talk with each of the people who were present when the poisoning occurred and to uncover the truth. 

Each chapter tells the story from a different character’s point of view. We discover unrequited love, illicit affairs, violence and passion, all set against the genteel backdrop of an English summer. It’s marvellous stuff. If you are feeling particularly alert you can compare the evidence of each character and it should allow you to piece together what happened to Amyas Crale. If, like me, you just wanted to enjoy the journey with a nice cup of tea and a biscuit, that’s OK too. 

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Matilda by Roald Dahl
Matilda by Roald Dahl

This is one of the few Dahl books that I didn’t read a child. As with all Dahl books, it has some really nasty adults in it. Matilda is clever. Very, very clever. She also has pretty useless parents, who at best neglect her and are too stupid themselves to realise how brainy their daughter is. 

Matilda attends the local school, and is taught by the very lovely Miss Honey, who in turn works for the awful headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. Miss Honey can see how clever Matilda is and tries to help her. Meanwhile Miss Trunchbull is preparing increasingly abusive punishments for any minor misdemeanours her charges may undertake. 

This is a brilliant book. Miss Trunchbull is a truly horrible character, very dark and very macabre. She of course gets what’s coming to her, but not before Matilda and Miss Honey have gone through some mild peril. It’s funny and icky and exciting. All the things children (and some grown-ups, that is to say, me) love. 

The Body In The Library by Agatha Christie

So here we are at another full length Miss Marple story, and one of my favourites from the BBC adaptations starring Joan Hickson.

Colonel and Dolly Bantry are woken one morning by their maid screaming because she has tripped over the body of a strangled woman in the library. The Colonel phones the police and Mrs Bantry calls her old pal Miss Marple. 

The Bantrys have no idea who the dead woman is, although village gossip soon ramps up to wonder whether the Colonel might have been up to no good behind Dolly’s back. It transpires that the girl is a pro-dancer at a local hotel, and from there the trail leads into a web of family lies and deceit. 

Miss Marple is delicious in this, nudging the ever grumpy Inspector Slack and rather upright Chief Inspector, Colonel Melchett,in the right direction.  The solution is ingenious, and with your eyes open, you can solve this one on your own. You may find tea and knitting help sharpen your mind. 

Christie is at her best when she does these sorts of plots. A closed cast of characters, each one rather shady and with a secret, all bound up with a British stiff upper lip. Marvellous autumnal reading.