Book review: Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

Death on the Nile (Hercule Poirot, #17)Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy than a group of rich people travelling together.

Hercule Poirot decides that he has earned himself a holiday and thinks it would be nice to travel up The Nile in Eygpt. As he ventures out he meets a newlywed couple, their stalker, their maid, their trustee, a romance novelist and her daughter, a socialite and her cousin and nurse, a mother and son, a communist, an archaeologist, a solicitor, a doctor, and Poirot’s friend Colonel Race. He is soon taken into the confidence of newlywed Linnet and her stalker Jacqueline and thinks that it will not be long before something tragic happens. But more than one person is targeting Linnet and it isn’t long before Poirot has another mystery to solve.

I read my first Agatha Christie Poirot novel a couple of years ago and felt that it was time for another. In that previous outing, I had enjoyed discovering many of the mystery tropes in their original form. This time, knowing what to expect, I was more interested in the story itself. Which was okay.

This mystery was interesting and I enjoyed the use of multiple crimes to muddy the waters. Christie certainly earned her reputation. But it did all feel just a little bit quaint. Whether it be the characters reminding you of the class system the Brits loved (and still do), or that the setting could have been the steamer or a country manor – as long as it had a sitting room. You can’t help but agree with the commie character that a few more could do with shooting.

I’m probably being a little harsh. This was a quick and entertaining read that was enjoyable. And they are making it into a movie soon, so best to read it before watching the movie.

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How JK Rowling writes mystery

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We don’t often think of fantasy novels as being mysteries. And yet, in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, the mystery elements are cornerstones of the plot.

Mystery isn’t easy to do well, either, as we will see in the two videos below from Just Write. In the Harry Potter novels we see the elements Rowling used to great effect, and in the new Fantastic Beasts movies, we see how Rowling bungles those elements.

I suppose the big takeaway is that even a master writer* can mangle the craft.

*Feel free to disagree with this assertion and point out to me Rowling’s various flaws as an author in painful detail that assumes I’ve never read the Potter books. That’s why they invented the comments section.

Book review: Bleak Harbor by Bryan Gruley

Bleak Harbor: A NovelBleak Harbor: A Novel by Bryan Gruley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you received a dollar for everytime someone said “X business is a license to print money” you’d have the first instance of that statement being true.

On the day before the Dragonfly Festival in Bleak Harbor, Danny Peters goes missing. Pete Peters, his stepdad, is having a quick beer after work at his medicinal marijuana shop before he and Danny go fishing when he receives a strange text message. Carey Peters is halfway through her long commute, thinking of her work problems, when she receives the message. At first, they aren’t sure if Danny has run off again or if something more sinister has happened until they receive the photo. But which of their secrets has gotten Danny in trouble?

From the very start, we see that this mystery will be built upon the layers of secrets Danny’s parents have been keeping. The twists and turns this gives us are tightly woven together. Pete and Carey feel like painfully human characters stumbling through life and now stumbling through the disappearance of their son. Danny is a refreshing and interesting portrayal of someone with autism, steering clear of the usual cliches and errors.

But I really did find it hard to engage with this novel. I liked Danny, but Pete and Carey weren’t particularly interesting or charismatic. It is hard to follow along with their trials and tribulations when you just want to slap them and tell them to talk to one another. As a result, it was hard to give this more than three stars despite how well the mystery was structured and the book was written.

I received an advance review copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

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How to write suspense

'Oh-oh!... The tempo of the background music just changed.'

TL/DW = the unknown.

  1. Limit the point of view so the reader has limited information.
  2. Choose the right setting to limit the known.
  3. Style and form can be used to mess with the conveying and pacing of information.
  4. Dramatic irony can be used to reveal some information to the reader that the characters don’t know.
  5. Cliffhangers can be used… If you also like coming up with implausible resolutions to them.

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See also: http://www.writersdigest.com/qp7-migration-conferencesevents/nine-tricks-to-writing-suspense-fiction

Who Reads?

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Us readers know how awesome we are. And if we ever socially interacted with people everyone would realise that. We also want to know that we’re not alone. In a holistic sense. Obviously alone in the physical sense because otherwise, someone would try to interrupt our reading.

Sensing our need for connection to a nationwide community of book nerds, The Australian Arts Council commissioned a report to figure out who was reading books. The report surveyed 2,944 people to see who read, how much, how they found books, and whether they preferred waiting for the movie adaptation. Let’s see what they found.

Firstly they wanted to establish how often people read and how that compared to other leisure activities. Reading was obviously less popular than dicking around on the internet and watching TV, but apparently beat out exercise. Although they excluded sport, and Aussies have a funny definition of sport. But this finding is similar to 2006 ABS figures that suggest Aussies spend 23 minutes per day reading, versus 21 minutes for sport and outdoor activities, and 138 minutes for Audio/Visual Media (Table 3.3).

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Next are the reader categories. Non-readers were actually a small group, mostly male and more likely to have less education (although I wouldn’t read too much into that last detail). Occasional readers made up half the population and were defined as reading 1 to 10 books in the last 12 months. Frequent readers were a surprisingly large segment, were defined as reading more than 10 books in a year, and were mostly female, older, better educated, and clearly better looking with tonnes of charisma.

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Reading is to intellectuals what the bench press is to lifters. On the surface, they might appear to be a good representation, but most exaggerate how much to appear better than they really are. Oh, and they generally aren’t fooling anyone… So I’m a little suspicious of the popularity of reading suggested by the above figures.

For one, only 34% of Aussies have visited a library in the last 12 months (2009-2010 ABS data) and 70% of them attended at least 5 times. Yet this new survey suggests 39% of people borrowed one or more books from a library in the last month. That’s roughly comparative figures of 24% from the ABS and 39% from this survey.

I’m suspicious. This survey might not be as representative as claimed. Or reading may have suddenly risen in popularity since 2010… Doubtful given that both the ABS and this survey suggest otherwise. ABS suggested the amount of time spent reading had decreased by 2 hours between 1997 and 2006, whilst this survey suggested the book reading times were roughly the same as 5 years ago (Figure 8 – not presented).

The next figure of average reading rates either suggests Aussies are reading quite a bit, or inflating their numbers like an “all you” bench press. The average Aussie is reading 7 hours a week (5 of those for pleasure) and getting through 3 books a month (36 a year: not bad). Occasional readers are reading one book a month from 5 hours a week, compared to the Frequent readers who are reading 6 books a month from 11 hours per week (72 books a year: nice).

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But I’m not sure how accurate these claims are. I cited ABS figures above that suggested Aussies spend 23 minutes per day reading, or 2hrs 41mins (161 minutes) per week. So either one of these two samples is unrepresentative, or some people just love to inflate how much they read. I’m leaning toward the latter.* But you can trust me on my bench press numbers. Totally accurate and “all me”.

The final figure I found interesting was of favourite reading genre. When you included non-fiction and fiction genres there were two clear winners: Crime/Mystery/Thrillers; and Science Fiction/Fantasy.

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These are our favourites yet our bookstores would suggest that Sci-fi and Fantasy are niche and only deserving of a shelf at the back of the store. Cookbooks, memoirs, literature, and the latest contemporary thing that isn’t quite literature but isn’t exciting enough to be genre, are typically dominating shelves in stores. This would annoy me more if I wasn’t already suspicious of how representative this survey was, or how honest the respondents were being.

It could well be that people enjoy reading Thrillers and Fantasy but feel compelled to read other things. Maybe people are brow-beaten by the literary snobs to read only the worthy stuff and not the guilty pleasures. Maybe the snobs in Fort Literature have successfully turned favour against the invading Lesser Works. This might not be the case though, as 51% in this survey say they are interested in literary fiction but only 15% actually read it.

It could be that people are borrowing books from libraries or friends. Borrowing books is popular with 41% borrowing one or more books per month, mostly from friends (43%) and libraries (39%). But 39.5% bought at least one book in the last month (92% of 43% buying for themselves). So the tiny niche sections in bookstores for the most enjoyed genres still doesn’t make much sense.

I’m not sure what to make of all this. I mean, aside from Yay, Reading!

For comparison, the USA Pew Research’s 2016 annual survey of readers data is presented below. This suggests that Aussies read more than Americans. Assuming people are being honest.

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“Key” insights from the Aussie research:

•  We value and enjoy reading and would like to do it more – 95% of Australians enjoy reading books for pleasure or interest; 68% would like to read more, with relaxation and stress release the most common reason for reading; and almost three-quarters believe books make a contribution to their life that goes beyond their cost. Over 80% of Australians with children encourage them to read.

• Most of us still turn pages but many are swiping too –  While print books still dominate our reading, over half of all readers in-clude e-books in the mix, and 12% audio books. Most Australians (71%) continue to buy books from bricks-and-mortar shops, while half (52%) are purchasing online. Word of mouth recommendations and browsing in a bricks and mortar bookshop are our preferred ways to find out what to read next. At the same time, nearly a third of us interact with books and reading through social media and online platforms.

•  We are reading more than book sales data alone suggests – each month almost as many people borrow books (41%) as those who buy them (43%) and second-hand outlets are the third most popular source for buying books (39%), after major book chains (47%) and overseas websites (40%). Those who borrow books acquire them almost as frequently from public libraries as they do by sharing among friends.

•  We value Australian stories and our book industry – 71% believe it is important for Australia children to read books set in Australia and written by Australian authors; and 60% believe it is important that books written by Australian authors be published in Australia. While there is a common perception among Australians that books are too expensive, more than half believe Australian literary fiction is important. Almost two-thirds of Australians believe books by Indigenous Australian writers are important for Australian culture.

•  We like mysteries and thrillers best – the crime/mystery/thriller genre is the most widely read and takes top spot as our favourite reading category. We also love an autobiography, biography or memoir. (Source)

* I’m biased toward the ABS survey results over the Australian Arts Council for a few reasons. The first is that the ABS data is part of a larger Time Use Survey (How Australians Use Their Time, 2006, cat. no. 4153.0), so this removes a few biases in how people would answer questions (i.e. ask people specifically about how awesome books are, you’re going to talk up your reading more). It is also the larger survey covering 3,900 households. The methodology was also more likely to produce better data since respondents were filling in a daily diary and being interviewed. The Arts Council methodology wasn’t bad, but the survey was developed by interest groups, so the questions were presuming some things.

Book review: Peril at End House by Agatha Christie

Peril at End House (Hercule Poirot, #8)Peril at End House by Agatha Christie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you try to kill someone five times and fail, does the intended victim have to at least feign injury?

Hercule Poirot the world’s best detective thought he had retired. Then a bullet intended for Nick Buckly lands at his feet. He can’t very well continue to modestly claim the title of world’s best detective if he doesn’t solve a case that literally lands at his feet, now can he?

I’ve not previously read any Agatha Christie novels, so it was interesting to galavant off to 1930s England for a mystery. It is hard not to be familiar with the Christie tropes, what with the countless plays, radio, TV, and movie adaptations, not to mention the imitators. But seeing the tropes in their original form was entertaining in and of itself, whilst also grounding a lot of the other works.

Recently I had the pleasure of seeing The Play That Goes Wrong. Probably one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen, and one that wouldn’t have worked without the influence of Christie. That alone probably added to my enjoyment of this novel. And the mystery itself was actually quite well layered. So as long as you don’t mind the slight quaintness of the characters (rich English people from 1930s high society) and the tropes (let’s go to the drawing-room, sit around the log fire, and I’ll slowly reveal who did it) this is well worth a read.

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Book review: The Forgotten Room by Lincoln Child

The Forgotten Room (Jeremy Logan #4)The Forgotten Room by Lincoln Child
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

One day I’m going to start a think tank and name it after a bodywash – possibly a shampoo – just like Lincoln Child did with his fictional institution, Lux.

There’s a problem in the west wing of the think tank Lux. No, it isn’t that their research is funded by special interest groups. No, it isn’t that they are neo-cons intent on bending governments to their policy wills. Lux has a slight problem with residents going crazy. So they contact Dr Jeremy Logan, a former resident and investigator who specialises in the extraordinary, to figure out what is causing the problems. That’s when they find The Forgotten Room and its contents.

Without realising it, I’ve actually read one of the other Jeremy Logan mysteries. The reason I didn’t realise I had read the first in the series (this being #4) was that Jeremy wasn’t the main character in Deep Storm. But much like Deep Storm, The Forgotten Room is a compelling mystery that hits all the right beats. Where Deep Storm was more techno/sci-fi based, The Forgotten Room has allusions to the supernatural whilst being more conventional. Where Deep Storm had a mysterious illness, The Forgotten Room has a mysterious illness. Where Deep Storm tried to kill off as many characters as possible, The Forgotten Room keeps the fatalities to a minimum. I don’t know why I’m comparing the two books in the series this much, probably because they seem to have the same general plot and feel to them. Although I do prefer the character of Logan to Crane.

As with all Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston books, you can be assured of an entertaining read. Whilst Logan is no Pendergast, he does make for an interesting character to follow as he unravels the mystery. But as with my review of Deep Storm, I did feel this book to be a little too “by the numbers”.

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