Reviews & Rants - Blogging about books, authors, and generally 

Reading progress update: I've read 11%.

They Came to Baghdad - Agatha Christie



This scene!

After lunch Anna Scheele took her key and went up to her suite. The bed had been made, fresh towels were in the bathroom and everything was spick and span. Anna crossed to the two light air-cases that constituted her luggage, one was open, the other locked. She cast an eye over the contents of the unlocked one, then taking her keys from her purse she unlocked the other. All was neat, folded, as she had folded things, nothing had apparently been touched or disturbed. A brief-case of leather lay on top. A small Leica camera and two rolls of films were in one corner. The films were still sealed and unopened. Anna ran her nail across the flap and pulled it up. Then she smiled, very gently. The single almost invisible blonde hair that had been there was there no longer.

This scene, guys, is almost exactly the same in Casino Royale!! 

You guys, Casino Royale was published 2 years after They Came to Baghdad!!!

Reading progress update: I've read 7%.

They Came to Baghdad - Agatha Christie

‘So there you are,’ he observed. ‘I’ve had about enough of you, young lady. Do you see any particular reason why I shouldn’t pay you a week’s salary in lieu of notice and pack you off here and now?’ Victoria (an orphan) had just opened her mouth to explain how the plight of a mother at this moment suffering a major operation had so demoralized her that she had become completely light-headed, and how her small salary was all the aforesaid mother had to depend upon, when, taking an opening glance at Mr Greenholtz’s unwholesome face, she shut her mouth and changed her mind. ‘I couldn’t agree with you more,’ she said heartily and pleasantly.

‘I think you’re absolutely right, if you know what I mean.’

Mr Greenholtz appeared slightly taken aback. He was not used to having his dismissals treated in this approving and congratulatory spirit. To conceal a slight discomfiture he sorted through a pile of coins on the desk in front of him. He then sought once more in his pockets. ‘Ninepence short,’ he murmured gloomily.

‘Never mind,’ said Victoria kindly. ‘Take yourself to the pictures or spend it on sweets.’


I think I'm really going to like Miss Jones. :D

Reading progress update: I've read 5%.

They Came to Baghdad - Agatha Christie

‘But then,’ added Mr Morganthal heavily, ‘all the world is mad.’

I've not made a lot of progress last night, but what I can say from reading the first chapter is that I liked it. It has a different feel to it than Dame Agatha's other "thrillers", almost as if it isn't taking itself too seriously. 

I hope this is a sign of things to come.

A Life in Secrets

A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII - Sarah Helm


No rating.
This is probably not a bad book, and probably well written with a lot of research behind it, but this book is not for me. 
I was interested in Atkins because she was rumoured to have been the inspiration for Fleming's Miss Moneypenny. Both the NYT and the Washington Post mention this in their obituary of Vera Atkins.



However, even if the rumour was based on some fact, from all I have read about Atkins, Fleming must have decided on a personality transplant from some other lady when he created his character... Atkins was no Moneypenny. 


I really don't think the book would be a bad read, but I think the various obituaries and articles on the Internet cover might cover the material that is known about her. At the beginning of the book, Helm acknowledges that little is know about Atkins and that Atkins destroyed many of her letters and other papers, photographs, etc. which would have been useful as a basis of a biography.


So, I'm not sure what the book could bring to the table and can only surmise that a lot of the information would be about the SOE, the fate of different agents that Atkins sent on missions, and Atkins' own mission to uncover what exactly happened to each of these people. 


At least this is what I gather from other reviews, and this is where I'm going to put the book back to the library. I would have been interested in learning about Atkins' motivations etc. but it is made clear from the start that this is something that the author could not get a handle on, as this was something that Atkins did not want to talk about.


Anyway. Someone else might love this.


The Book of Disquiet

The Book of Disquiet - Richard Zenith, Fernando Pessoa



God, this was awful. I wanted to punch that hateful little shit of a narrator/main character/Pessoa on the nose within the first ten pages of the book.

I get that the cynicism is an expression of the guy's struggle to find something to value in his life, but that doesn't make him a metaphor of the modern literary hero or indeed anything I can value. 
Apparently, a lot of people have found some deep insights in his ramblings. Good on them. To me, the narrator's (or Pessoa's??) ignorant, arrogant, disdainful stream-of-consciousness blether held more cliches than a piece of hackneyed journalism, signifying nothing. 
And if the intro to the book is correct and the MC is an alter ego of Pessoa himslef (who hadn't actually published this in his lifetime), then that is rather sad.


Well, the reading this month may not have been riveting - I think it has been a record month for DNFs - but there have been some lovely developments, too:

My colleagues at work presented me with something lovely for my birthday. It was last week, but I took some time off so they surprised me today instead...



It's ginger and rhubarb gin. And I am told it is lovely, so I am just waiting for a proper occasion to give it a try. :D

Bring on the drinking

Reblogged from The Quilty Reader:
They Came to Baghdad - Agatha Christie

Here ye, here ye.


Being that spy fiction seems to be the theme of the summer.


And further being that Agatha Christie's spy thrillers tend to be, erm, interesting.


And further being that several people have this book on their summer list.


It is hereby resolved that:


a buddy read of They Came To Baghdad seems to be a necessity and not merely an option.


Bring on the gin.



Let the drinking commence


Who's in?

Reading progress update: I've read 10%.

The Book of Disquiet - Richard Zenith, Fernando Pessoa

I have a feeling that this month will be all about books that just don't work for me. 


A veritable celebration of DNFs, if you like. 





Reading progress update: I've read 6%.

A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII - Sarah Helm

Erm, this is going to sounds really bad but I think I would be happy enough with a Wikipedia article about Vera Atkins instead of this "biography". 


I am not sure how much substance there is going to be to this book. Sure, there will be plenty to write about with respect to the SOE, and the whole mechanics of the missions during WWII, but the beginning of the book makes clear that Atkins destroyed many of her letters and other papers, photographs, etc. which would have been useful as a basis of a biography.

Sad Cypress

Sad Cypress - Agatha Christie

The court. Faces. Rows and rows of faces! One particular face with a big black moustache and shrewd eyes. Hercule Poirot, his head a little on one side, his eyes thoughtful, was watching her.

   She thought: He’s trying to see just exactly why I did it… He’s trying to get inside my head to see what I thought – what I felt…

   Felt…? A little blur – a slight sense of shock… Roddy’s face – his dear, dear face with its long nose, its sensitive mouth… Roddy! Always Roddy – always, ever since she could remember… since those days at Hunterbury amongst the raspberries and up in the warren and down by the brook. Roddy – Roddy – Roddy… 

   Other faces! Nurse O’Brien, her mouth slightly open, her freckled fresh face thrust forward. Nurse Hopkins looking smug – smug and implacable. Peter Lord’s face – Peter Lord – so kind, so sensible, so – so comforting! But looking now – what was it – lost? Yes – lost! Minding – minding all this frightfully! While she herself, the star performer, didn’t mind at all!

   Here she was, quite calm and cold, standing in the dock, accused of murder.

In my reading of Christie's novels, this is one of the best opening scenes. 


And what is more, I thought this was one of the best Poirot novels of the canon, together with Five Little Pigs, which is quite similar in structure. 

There is a little more to Sad Cypress than meets the eye at first, and it doesn't read like the usual formulaic Christie novel. 


For a start, the character of Elinor, the MC, is not your happy-go-lucky bright young thing. We meet her as the accused, who hesitates when asked whether she pleads guilty or not guilty. 

From there on, we step back in time to see the story unfold from the start but even then, Elinor, is riddled with doubts and cares. Christie does a marvellous job describing a woman being close to a breakdown throughout the story leading up to the arrest. 


By that time, of course we still don't know what happens and whether her state of mind is caused by her guilt over plotting a murder. We won't know this until the end. 

This is another aspect I liked. This book keeps up its suspense until the end - and even then there are elements which remain ... a mystery. 


Yes, the murder is resolved, but much of the book is based on the character of the individuals involved in the plot - and one person's reading of a character may put forth a completely different interpretation of the ending than another reader's. 


I, for one, tended to find the ending unsettling - in both the ways of what happened to the villain and what happened to the victim. I don't know if Dame Agatha had intended this to be a happy ending, but I can't quite see it that way. 

Who is Vera Kelly?

Who is Vera Kelly? - Rosalie Knecht

Who is Vera Kelly? was one of the Summer of Spies books that I have been most anticipating. It's the story of Vera Kelly (yes, really....) told from two different points of view:


In one we have Vera posing as a student of Spanish in Argentina in the mid-60s but secretly spying on the political situation in the country. As the government is over-thrown, Vera's routes of escape are cut off and she needs to find an alternative way to leave the country.


The other point of view shows Vera's back-story and how she ended up being a spy. 


It is not the best spy story I have ever read, but I appreciated that the author chose to tell the story from the point of view of a character that wasn't a trigger-happy, alcoholic guy, and the Vera allowed us to see a character with some silliness, some depth, and a lot of defensive responses to the hostile environments that she's in - and these aren't necessarily at their worst while she's on her mission in Argentina!


Overall, tho, I enjoyed the elements of historical fiction and the Argentinian setting much more than the espionage plot.  

Reading progress update: I've read 51%.

Sad Cypress - Agatha Christie

I'm so sorry, Lillelara, I'm not being a good reading buddy for this - I got side-tracked yesterday by the lovely weather, which made me (yes, made me) play tennis for most of the afternoon, and then I literally was too stiff and knackered to lift my arms...I regret nothing, except for not keeping up with the book. 


I managed to read much further today, tho... until the football. Ahem. It took a while to calm down after that finale and now I will probably finish the book tonight/tomorrow morning.




Anyway, the book:


There is so much to love here: 


1. The opening scene had me hooked. The description of Elinor in shock was superb, I thought, and such a great setup to the story. It has the two storylines shoot off: One, where we find out how the trial is going to conclude, and the other where we find out about the murder. 

It is very much similar to Five Little Pigs in that structure and I really like it.


2. Roddy is a wuss, as Lillelara already described here, but I like him. He's just so ... unsure of everything, including himself.


3. Mary's position is described beautifully, and it must have hit home with quite a few people in a similar situation at the time that the book was set and published (tho it was set a few years before it was published (1940) - so, maybe set in the early to mid-30s?), when the class system took a hit and people found themselves in new "stations" and didn't know what to do with themselves. I really feel for Mary. She really wants people to like her. 


4. Dr Lord - Oh, gee... I loved him in the tv adaptation (mostly because he is played by Paul McGann...which needs no further explanation) but in the book he's a bit of a patronising git.


5. I did enjoy Laura's discussion of euthanasia, tho. Quite a serious topic for a Christie novel. 


6. And then we have this cracker: 

‘Aunt Agatha’s Advice column. “Keep your boy friend guessing! Don’t let him be too sure of you!”’



7. Nurse O'Brien / Nurse Hopkins - I don't like either of them, and it's not because of the the tv adaptation. It's the way they are described in the book and talking about other people.


I'm just about to start Part II, which brings HP on the scene. 



The Nice and the Good

The Nice and the Good (Vintage Classics) - Iris Murdoch, Catherine Bates

This might officially be my last Iris Murdoch novel. 


As with Fitzgerald's short stories, there was a time when I loved Murdoch's novels but the last couple of times I've read her books, I didn't enjoy them much at all ... Granted, the messed up relationship games in A Severed Head did nothing to endear the book to me, but even this one here (The Nice and the Good) is struggling to spark any enthusiasm in me. And I'd be happy to skip much of the relationship-babble and stick to finding out why the Whitehall official shot himself (or did he?).

The trouble is, by focusing on the mystery part, I'm going to miss Murdoch's point, which, inevitably, is not going to be about solving the puzzle. 


Saying that, will this story about a set of well-off members of a rather homogeneous section of society that is really similar to the sets of characters in Murdoch's other books really reveal any new aspects of Murdoch's writing? Unlikely.  


I've dithered for the last 30 pages whether to finish this one or move on to something I am likely to enjoy more, and I don't believe this book will ultimately hold the same magic for me as the novels that introduced Murdoch to me initially.


DNF @ 135 out of 350 pages.

The Love Boat and Other Stories

The Love Boat and Other Stories - F. Scott Fitzgerald

We all have that exasperated moment!

There are times when you almost tell the harmless old lady next door  what you really think of her face - that it ought to be on a night nurse in a house for the blind; when you'd like to ask the man you've been waiting ten minutes for if he isn't all overheated from racing the postman down the block; when you nearly say to the waiter that if they deducted a cent from the bill for every degree the soup was below tepid the hotel would owe you half a dollar; when - and this is the infallible earmark of true exasperation - a smile affects you as an oil baron's undershirt affects a cow's husband.

(from The Smilers)

I may have to face it - I may have grown out of that phase when Fitzgerald's short stories were delightful, quaint, diversions. I still count some of them as my favourites, but more often than not reading his stories has become somewhat repetitive - telling fairly superficial stories about fairly superficial people, most of whom seem to be Princeton men, or Harvard men, or Yale men, or someone closely connected with them. Like the characters in Wodehouse's stories, they never develop, never amount to anything more real than a cliche.  


Unfortunately, many of Fitzgerald's short stories seem to feature them. Even more unfortunate was it that most of the stories in this particular collection featured them. 


Still, there are the odd gems. In this collection, The Smilers stood out for me. I liked it just as much as The Ice Palace, Bernice Bob's her Hair, The Camel's Back, or May Day, but sadly it was the first story in the collection and the rest of the stories did quite manage to live up to the quality of that first story.


Amberlough - Lara Elena Donnelly

On the face of it, I should love this novel: spies, cabaret, a setting that is an alternative take on the Weimar Republic... What's not to love, right?


However, the book just isn't working for me. I've tried to read this several times, but just get lost in the endless names and descriptions that seem to lead nowhere.


This morning, I spent a good hour and a half trying one last time if there was a way to get into the story, but all I am left with is a hankering for some original1920s/30s literature with its roots firmly placed in the Weimar Republic.


I'm not rating the book. I have a clear suspicion that it is not the book's fault that I prefer something closer to a feeling of authenticity than a pastiche any day.

The Double Helix

The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA - James D. Watson

Gossip, backstabbing, petty squabbles, arrogance, snobbishness, and misogyny take a front row seat in this personal account of how the double helix structure of DNA was discovered. 


I expected more from Watson's book. 


And then there is the question about Rosalind Franklin's contribution to the discovery.


While Watson does spend some time in the epilogue to credit Franklin for her work on the subject, it seems too little, too late. He spends the entire book painting her as an uncooperative, dour, argumentative, bossy, frump with an "acid smile" in a career mostly reserved for unattractive women who have little chance of catching a husband. (He actually introduces her in the book in almost exactly those terms.)


Oh, and there is little explanation of the structure of DNA itself. It really is more of an account of his thoughts on girls, stomach pains, and on the personal lives of people Watson encountered when working on the project. 

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