Cannonball Read 6, Book 58: Agatha Raisin & The Haunted House by MC Beaton

9781849011471The other day, I looked at my “Already on the Kindle” shelf over on Goodreads and I thought to myself “you know, I have a LOT of crime books here. Like a LOT”. So I decided, there and then, to make 2015 my Year of Crime. While I’m not going to devote myself solely to reading crime novels, they will make up the majority of my Cannonball 7 input. The plan originally was to end Cannonball 6 with Station Eleven, but it was so good I burned through it in record time and was left with a bit more time than I thought. So I am kickstarting the Year of Crime a bit early with the 14th (yes really) entry into the tireless Agatha Raisin series.

So here we are again. Back on familiar territory with our Agatha. They have made a TV movie out of the first book in the series, which aired here on Boxing Day. I have been wondering why on earth they didn’t make a Midsomer Murders style show out of the books years ago, and finally, my wishes have possibly been answered. That Raisin, a stout but sexy mid-fifties headstrong woman with a cut glass accent to hide her Birmingham upbringing is being played by someone ten years too young and 100% too Scottish is vexing, but hey ho. In my mind, she’s always been Frances Barber, and that is how she will stay. If they make more and don’t cast Tom Hollander as Charles Fraith, then I give up.

Anyway, I digress. So Agatha is once again bored and once again fawning over her handsome new neighbour and once again getting herself caught up in a murder mystery. There is not one single millimetre of new territory being explored here, but then you don’t read these books for them to re-invent the wheel. Amusing pop culture references to Oprah Winfrey and Lolita aside, Beaton is still setting feminism back decades while seemingly thinking she’s advancing it. Her only true friend Bill Wong notes that she’s of a generation who can’t help but fall in love with every handsome man they meet, or something along those lines. First of all, bullshit. Second of all, it does NOT stack up, and never has that someone as forthright and brittle as Agatha would turn into some awful mewling fool every time someone vaguely handsome walks within 100 yards of her and has always been my biggest bugbear of the books.

The identity of the murderer won’t tax your brain, and the whole thing with the haunted house is very silly. It also gets bogged down with some heavy plodding work about Roundheads and Cavaliers and some comedy amateur dramatics. All in all, this is a perfectly acceptable entry into the series, and if you’ve read the previous thirteen books, there’s nothing new I (or indeed MC Beaton) can tell you. However, my other bugbear has at last been addressed. The book ends with Agatha turning down an offer of work from her ex-colleague because she’s going to open her own detective agency. Thank heavens for that.

And that’s it for Cannonball Read 6 and 2014. Cannonball Read 7 is on the horizon so stay tuned. And in the meantime, check out everyone else on Cannonball Read. Use the links to buy any books you fancy and consider joining in next year too, why not? All the money the site raises goes to cancer charities, so it’s a win/win.

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Cannonball Read 6, Book 50: Just What Kind Of Mother Are You? by Paula Daly

18104711I love a good thriller. Anyone who’s been reading my reviews since I started Cannonballing will have noticed that I’m a bit partial to a Sophie Hannah here, a Val McDermid there. So this much talked about debut from Paula Daly, with its intriguing tagline of “Your friend’s child is missing. It’s your fault” seemed right up my street. So it’s a shame it ended up leaving me flat.

Our put upon heroine is Lisa Kallisto. Living in the quiet Lake District, she’s a working mother of three kids, so she’s a bit pushed busywise, is Lisa. Her best friend is posh Kate, who’s married to well to do Guy. Their children are besties with Lisa’s children. When Lisa takes her eye off the ball over a planned sleepover at her house with her teenage daughter Sally and Kate’s daughter Lucinda, then Lucinda vanishes, leaving Lisa held responsible, wracked with guilt and determined to get to the bottom of what’s happened. Lucinda isn’t the first girl in the area to go missing though, and when the first girl turns up stripped naked and shellshocked by her ordeal, Lisa goes into a desperate tailspin as she races against the clock to find Lucinda.

See how that should be quite gripping? But Daly is so hellbent on trying to show us how Lisa’s life is beset with domestic normality and working class drudgery, that whole swathes of the book are devoted to banging on about her busy life and are not that interesting. Once we get into the investigation, alternate chapters go to DC Joanna Aspinall, told in the 3rd  person and again, tons of time given over to her awkward living arrangements and her pursuit of a breast reduction. It makes for fully rounded characters, yes. It also makes for some dull reading in what is supposed to be a thriller.

I would forgive that amount of extraneous faffery if the story being told was a cracking one, but this ended up falling short. All the clues as to what’s happened to Lucinda are uncovered by chance and coincidence. The mystery behind the other girls who are disappearing and then showing back up naked and abused is resolved by a tip off from the public. And when the full unpleasant truth as to where Lucinda went and why is unravelled, it’s both so lame and far-fetched as to cause much rolling of eyes and comments of “bitch, please” from the reader. Disappointing. But enough glimmers of talent shone through that I’d be willing to give her next book a try. Let’s see how it goes.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 46: The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

18925235Now, as the blog title tells you, I really do read a lot. But it’s an odd gap in my book life that I haven’t read very many Agatha Christie novels. Those I have read, I read when I was in my teens and don’t really remember them anyway. So I decided to address this and read all the Poirot and Marple books, as well as her most famous stand alone novels like And Then There Were None. So what better place to start than at the beginning of the Poirots, with his introduction in The Mysterious Affair at Styles?

Well, like all beginnings of a series, it’s a slight little thing. Narrated by Captain Hastings, who has encountered Poirot in a professional capacity prior to the start of the novel. He’s staying at Styles and one night, the lady of the house, Emily Inglethorpe, is fatally poisoned. Handily enough, Poirot is staying in the village and knows the Inglethorpes well. Hastings asks him to investigate and naturally he agrees.

This is a book which can be enjoyed on many levels. There are many occasions where you can snigger behind your hand at the unintentional double entendre (people “ejaculate in surprise” more than once, for example). You can read it as an unrequited love story between Hastings and Poirot to rival that of Smithers and Mr Burns. You can read it as the first instalment of a sociopathic Belgian who goes around killing people and then getting away with it by framing someone else and blinding everyone else with the science of his “little grey cells”. Or you can read it as a straightforward mystery. Sadly, it’s that last one which is probably the least satisfying.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s by no means terrible. But it’s just a little but silly, protracted and then when the killer is finally revealed, oddly unsatisfactory. It’s not difficult to work out where it’s going, despite the amount of red herrings Christie litters about the place. I am not discouraged from carrying on with the series, not by a long stretch, as I am sure there are many delights in store. But as introductions go, this is a very inauspicious one.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 24: Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

18481678How do you solve a mystery when you can’t remember the clues?

I mentioned in an earlier review that I do love me an unconventional detective and thus I was really looking forward to reading this book. And, having been lucky enough to score and advance copy, I’ve just finished it and it didn’t disappoint. Maud is old. Maud is forgetful. She makes cups of tea and doesn’t drink them, makes toast and sets fire to the kitchen. But Maud is sure of one thing. Her best friend, Elizabeth, is missing. And Maud has to find her.

Emma Healey is making her debut with this unusual novel and she is, not to put too fine a point on it, disgustingly young. It’s likely there will be brickbats thrown her way just for that, but the chances are increased by the fact she’s written a novel in the first person and the narrator is over eighty years old. To me, it just made the level of insight Healey writes with all the more incredible. Maud is a living, breathing, fully three dimensional creation. As her grip on day to day life diminishes and her dogged monomaniacal quest to find Elizabeth strengthens, Maud will grip your mind and break your heart with every page turn.

But even the most skilled of authors would struggle to fill a book running to almost 300 pages with one dotty old woman who regularly forgets what she’s doing. As is true of most Alzheimer’s sufferers, while Maud has trouble remembering things that happened a few minutes before, the events of fifty years ago are recalled with piercing clarity and in minute detail. And Maud’s past harbours a dark secret, another mystery she couldn’t solve, even when she was in full control of her faculties. A few years after the end of World War II, Maud’s sister Sukey disappeared. Suspicion fell on her wayward husband, but nothing was ever proved and Sukey was never seen again.

Haunted by her past, Maud is determined to find Elizabeth but finds herself thwarted at pretty much every turn by her own failing brain power as well by Elizabeth’s son, who Maud is convinced is behind his mother’s disappearance. A word of advice for people thinking of reading this book: start it when you have a full day or two free so you can switch your phone off and lose yourself in the gorgeously written journey Maud goes on. Once you start, you won’t want to put this down until you reach the final page. Another word of advice though. If you have even the tiniest fear of growing older, then I would approach this with extreme caution. Healey nails Maud’s state of mind so accurately that if you share any of her concerns around ageing, then you might have a very different experience reading this than I did.

I’m not overly sure I agree with the review featured on the book jacket describing it as a psychological thriller though. It is not so much a “whodunnit” as it is a “has anyone actually done something?” and while I’d be tempted to deduct some points for the “eureka” moment towards the end, the whole book is so intricate, intelligent and delightful, it would just be mean of me. It is a richly satisfying read and despite the premise, one that will appeal to a far wider audience than the Cosy Crime demographic it is aiming for. Read it.

And one last note, one that you’ll need to remember is coming from a Kindle evangelist. Do not read this one in e-book format. Viking have done an absolutely bang up job with the book, it looks and feels gorgeous. More than one person I showed it to commented that it looked like I was reading an old fashioned Agatha Christie. I mean, look. It’s just perfect:

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Cannonball Read 6, Book 23: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

17684326Pen names are funny things aren’t they? It’s pretty impossible for the real author behind them to stay hidden for long. Either the books become so successful that the lack of personal appearances becomes telling, or someone in the know leaks the story just because they can. Sometimes, authors have pen names so they can publish books outside their own genre with impunity (Barbara Vine and Richard Bachman spring to mind here) and it’s no secret who the real author behind it is. It is a proper shame that Galbraith’s true identity as J.K. Rowling was leaked by some smug moron on social media so very quickly, as it would have been fascinating to see if The Cuckoo’s Calling could have become a bestseller in its own right. It certainly had the reviews to make it so, and not just from critics, but from other authors too, none of whom were aware Galbraith was a pseudonym.

None of that hoopla can take away from this that it’s a cracking read with a magnificent antihero creation at its centre. Improbable name aside, Cormoran Strike is brilliant. After losing a leg to a landmine in Afghanistan, he has been working as a private investigator ever since. When we meet him, he is at a particularly low ebb. Sleeping in his office after breaking up with his girlfriend, down to one client and fast heading towards bankruptcy, Strike is not so much about to throw in the towel, but accept the inevitability of it being thrown in whether he likes it or not. Then, John Bristow comes to see him. His adopted sister, the supermodel Lula Landry, committed suicide by jumping off her penthouse balcony a few months ago, but Bristow thinks someone killed her and wants Strike to find out who. Strike thinks he’s on a hiding to nothing, but Bristow tells him money is no object, so Strike agrees to look into it. And finds that Bristow may have a point.

Say what you like about Rowling, she’s a damn good story teller. And she knows how to create three dimensional characters too. Cuckoo’s Calling is stuffed to the gills with people who, in less talented hands, would undoubtedly be shrieking caricatures. Rowling isn’t afraid to flesh them out, make us believe in and care about them. And the mystery of who killed Lula and why is sufficiently twisted to justify the book’s length (over 500 pages in paperback). But when Strike finally gets to the bottom of it and lays it all out for the reader, it is breathtaking in its audacious simplicity. It takes a writer of considerable daring to pull off what she does with this denouement, and while it may require a couple of forgiving moments with some of the leaps in logic, I was still absolutely engrossed and impressed.

Pleasingly, Rowling hasn’t allowed her cover being blown to give up on her alter ego or her antihero. A second Strike novel is coming out any moment now. I can’t wait to read it and I hope there are many more to come.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 19: The Likeness by Tana French

18686117Tana French made a lot of noise when her debut novel, In The Woods, hit shelves seven years ago. I finally read it last year and really enjoyed it. So much so that I bought the follow up novel almost right away but have only just read it. One of the joys of owning a Kindle and living with a bibliophile who has covered every available wall space of the flat with books is I’m always spoilt for choice. So that’s part of the reason for the delay in reading it. The other part is the same as its predecessor. The synopsis all but makes me break out in hives.

Cassie Maddox is our narrator here. She was front and centre in the first book too, and as we all know, that book did not end well for her. So we find her bloodied but (only barely) unbowed and now working for Domestic Violence instead of the Murder Squad. Before all of that, Cassie worked in Undercover. When a body identical to Cassie turns up, with ID on her bearing the alias Cassie used in her only undercover op, her ex-boss convinces her that the best way to find out who the dead girl really is and who killed her is to go undercover as her. They concoct a cover story that Lexie Madison (the dead girl) almost died from her wounds, was in a coma for a while, but has made a recovery. So Cassie becomes Lexie again, moves in to her old room with her four close knit housemates, goes back to University and tries to unmask Lexie’s secret past and her killer.

And that is one BIG pill to swallow. The central conceit of this book is just so unworkable and so unbelievable that I couldn’t really get past it. If Lexie lived alone and only attended classes at Uni, then maybe she’d get away with it. But Lexie is part of a very co-dependent unit of housemates and leads seminars as part of her post-graduate degree. Come on now. Also, the book owes a debt to both A Fatal Inversion (Lexie lives in a huge house that one of the housemates inherited and together the five of them try and create a new Utopia with it. Ultimately, it doesn’t end well) and The Secret History (group of friends with an impenetrable relationship which ultimately doesn’t end well). There are many subplots and red herrings along the way which pad out the length of the book, some go nowhere, others end quite unpleasantly. All of them are narrated by Cassie in the most florid language. That girl loves a lyrical simile, that’s for sure.

And yet through all that, I was still wavering on giving this book 4 stars. For all its irritations, it was still somehow compulsively readable. I wanted to know who offed the “real” Lexie Madison. But, as the mystery progresses, Cassie is such a thundering idiot in how she handles things that I could not deal with her. Every time she opened her mouth, I wanted to punch her in it. And then when French finally unravels the mystery, well, here’s the thing: it doesn’t work. To quote an Ani DiFranco lyric “my whole life blew up and now it’s all coming down” and the coming down part in the epilogue, dealing what happens to the friends Lexie lived with, is touching and moving. Cassie’s post-Lexie life is also neatly and pleasingly laid out. But it’s the blowing up part I had issues with. When the truth comes out, for me it made the whole book even more unworkable than it already was. I ended up unable to believe a word of it and had to deduct another star for it. If you still want to read this book after reading this review, then the best thing to do is take your brain out around the halfway mark. It’ll make it much more enjoyable.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 18: Agatha Raisin & The Curious Curate by M.C. Beaton

8051243Continuing my brain dead decompression from the lengthy Booker challenge finds me reading the 13th instalment of the Agatha Raisin books. At the start of the year, for a brief window, the entire series (apart from the recently published latest instalment, the brilliantly titled Something Borrowed, Someone Dead. I’m going to just go ahead and say the death in that one is wedding related), was just 84p a piece on Kindle. So I bought them all. They are the perfect palate cleansers in between bigger and better books.

The thirteenth book is terribly similar to books 1 to 12, really. Firstly, we have a new arrival to the tiny village where Raisin is spending her retirement. In this case, it’s the terribly handsome, utterly charming, unpleasantly devious curate Tristan Delon. He’s introduced, described and killed off all in the first chapter, since Beaton really doesn’t believe in hanging around. Naturally, in the brief amount of time he’s in the book, Delon has managed to cross paths with our inimitable amateur sleuth and when the suspicion falls on the local vicar, Agatha takes it on herself to clear his name and find the real killer.

So what happens? Essentially, the same thing that happens in all the others. Agatha meddles, gets warned off by the police, ignores them, spars with the handsome neighbour, meddles some more, gets herself entangled in life threatening situations, stumbles across the identity of the killer by accident and no discernible skill. There’s some comic moments with some of her bungled investigating, for sure, but any of that is offset by how lamely she works out the killer’s identity and how repetitious her back and forth feelings over the handsome neighbour become.

And with this one, Beaton throws a lot of balls in the air, only to find out she can’t quite juggle them as well as she might. There is at least one glaring error which makes the final pages all very obvious. And to dispatch the second handsome neighbour Agatha has locked horns (but this time not loins) with only to replace him with a third would indicate Beaton doesn’t plan to deviate from the tried and tested structure just yet. Here’s hoping that she at least starts to give Agatha some self-esteem and actual sleuthing skills before too much longer though.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 76: The Burning Girl by Mark Billingham

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I discovered Mark Billingham’s books featuring Tom Thorne after Sky One adapted the first two for television. The finished product bore almost no resemblance to the source material though. It’s been three years now and there doesn’t seem to be any plans for there to be any further adaptations, so it would seem the TV adaptations were not a roaring success. The Burning Girl is the fourth in the series of books which now numbers eleven, and sees the first stumble from Billingham. I have been reading them in order and very much enjoyed the first three, but this one didn’t grab me at all.

Rival London gangster families are the focus of this novel. The girl of the title had the misfortune of being best friends with the daughter in one of the families and is burned alive in a case of mistaken identity. The arsonist confessed and fourteen years later, he is still behind bars. Carol Chamberlain put him away and is spending her retirement working with cold cases when someone contacts her to tell her that she put the wrong man away. That it was HIM who burned the girl.

This runs alongside and eventually spills over into Thorne’s investigation into who is offing members of the gangster families and carving an X into their backs when he’s done so. And it’s here that the lack of interest really bites (or fails to?). None of the family members are particularly deeply or realistically drawn, so much so that they all sort of blend into one and you don’t really care which one of them ends up with a bullet in their brain. Thorne pays such scant attention to rules and regulations that it’s impossible to believe he would have remained in the job for any length of time. While the final act revelations are pleasingly twisted, the way the information is uncovered is so ridiculous and unbelievable, that one really does cancel out the other.

So it’s really not great, but at the same time, the first three are so much better and this isn’t flat out dreadful, so I’ll keep reading the Thorne series. This one I’ll chalk up to a blip.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 63: Agatha Raisin & The Love From Hell by M.C. Beaton

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Ok, people. We can all relax. This is the last of the Raisin books I’ll be reading on this particular Cannonball. I’m sure in the future there will be more offers for them on Kindle (I enjoy them, but I don’t enjoy them enough to pay more than £1 for them, don’t get me wrong) and they will feature in future Cannonballs, but for now, we’re done.

At the end of the previous instalment, James Lacey performed a volte face and re-proposed to Agatha. To the surprise of absolutely nobody, the marriage doesn’t go well. Private arguments soon become public arguments when Agatha finds out that James didn’t quite end things with the blonde beauty he was seeing before marrying Agatha. And then, OF COURSE, James disappears from his bloodstained cottage and Nubile Blonde shows up with her head stoved in. Once again, Agatha is a prime suspect and once again, Sir Charles Fraith rides to her rescue.

This is probably the best of the series so far. It’s entirely ridiculous with the James Lacey sub-plot, but at least it puts the love triangle to rest once and for all. And for once the usual motives are absent. Nothing so straightforward as adultery and blackmail feature as possibilities. The waters are deeper and murkier here, and much improved for it. When Beaton makes it personal, it works so much better.

Alas, some of the good work is undone by a finale that is exactly the same as the other ten finales before it, but with Lacey out of the picture, if Beaton can smooth some of Raisin’s rough edges and make her just a titch less spiky and insecure, then the only way for this series to go is up.

 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 62: Agatha Raisin & The Fairies of Fryfram by M.C. Beaton

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Well, here we are again. After the Larsson slog, I needed something silly, something lightweight and not too taxing. Cue book 10 in the Agatha Raisin series, which sees our titular amateur detective take the advice of a fortune teller and decamp to Norfolk to find her romantic destiny. Naturally, what she finds are unfriendly folk in Fryfram, followed by mysterious fairies, and then, of course, murder.

Raisin decides, while trying to ingratiate herself with the locals, to tell them she’s writing a novel, Murder at the Manor, in which the local squire gets his throat cut. Guess what then happens to the ghastly nouveau-riche squire of the manor in Fryfram? I KNOW! Who would have guessed? It all gets a bit complicated since Agatha did take a crack at the novel and the police find it, thus considering her their prime suspect. Ignoring her erstwhile beau and neighbour, James Lacey, Agatha enlists the help of her friend and shag buddy Sir Charles Fraith to get the bottom of things.

The one thing I really can’t fathom here is why these books haven’t been adapted for television. They’re crying out for it. Someone on Pajiba once wrote that it’s the average book which makes the best adaptations, and that is what Beaton writes. Reliably average fare. I even find myself casting the show. Clare Higgins for Raisin, Tom Hollander for Fraith, Ralph Fiennes for Lacey and Anne Reid as Agatha’s dependable friend, the vicar’s wife Mrs Bloxby. Like that would ever happen, but in my head, it works very well.

Suffice it to say that the same old motives are investigated and the killer is revealed in the usual manner. The sub plots are kind of fun though and Beaton is wise to occasionally get Raisin out of her home village of Carsley. With twenty four books in the series, credibility would be strained even further if every book was in the same tiny place. Unless there was some fantastic final twist that Agatha was in fact a psycho mass murderer, framing innocent people as she goes…..Somehow I don’t think it likely.