Review: Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Magpie MurdersThe story: When she first starts reading the manuscript for crime writer Alan Conway’s latest novel, editor Susan Ryland has no idea what’s coming. On the surface, the new book is bestseller material – a vintage whodunit set in a quiet English village featuring Alan’s well-loved fictional private investigator, Atticus Pund. The book will change her life.

My thoughts: Magpie Murders has a totally unique format that I’ve never come across before. It is essentially a book within a book. The first half is Alan Conway’s fictional manuscript – which is pure Agatha Christie, a traditional whodunit in a quintessential English village, full of red herrings and suspicious characters.

I loved the traditional setting and that this half of the book is set in the 1950s – which creates a totally different atmosphere to most crime/detective novels that are set in the present day. This is back to the good old days of handprints under windows, squeaky bicycle wheels and big dramatic reveals. It’s comforting in a way, like settling in to watch an episode of your favourite period drama or (if you’re from the UK) Midsomer Murders.

The second half of the book is then the story of Susan and her attempts to get to the bottom of a real life mystery concerning Alan Conway (the fictional author), along with her realisation that the fictional novel may hold a deeper meaning and clues to help her solve her current conundrum.

I’m finding it hard to review this book without giving away spoilers, and I honestly think that it’s better as a reader to come at this book without knowing too much about it. I can say that I loved the way this book was written. It comes together on so many levels, with clues hidden within clues and hidden references throughout. If you love vintage crime, great mysteries and clever links, you’ll love this book.

In conclusion… All in all, this was a really enjoyable read from start to finish, and I can’t wait to read Anthony Horowitz’s next novel.

How to Stop Time – Matt Haig

How to Stop TimeThe story: Tom Hazard, currently working as a teacher living in London, has spent his life hiding a secret – he was actually born in 1581. Tom has a condition that means that he ages so slowly that he has lived through many lifetimes. Now under the protection of others like him through the Albatross society, Tom is given all he needs to reinvent his identity every eight years. The only rule is never to fall in love.

But although Tom tries to stick to the rules, being back in the city where he was born brings back long forgotten memories and desires. He’s also been searching for something for a long time which seems to finally be within his reach.

My thoughts: I really enjoyed this book and the way it was written, and once I’d started I couldn’t put it down. I loved how Tom’s past was overlaid with the present throughout this book – over the centuries he’s been on a stage with Shakespeare, sailed with great explorers and drank in a bar in Paris with the Fitzgerald’s – and when he’s teaching his students history, he’s drawing on all his own personal experiences to really bring the past to life.

At first glance, he appears to have it all – he’s travelled the world, set up with everything he needs and has enjoyed all that the world has to offer.

But there are of course the inevitable problems. He’s watched loved ones die and been unable to stop it, he’s unable to for any meaningful attachments for fear of questions, and the mundane details of daily life become increasingly insignificant.

Threaded throughout the whole novel are little insights that make us think about what it means to be human.  It raises some really interesting questions – what is life without love and the people that surround us? Are existing and living the same thing?

The villain of the piece, Hendrich, the leader of the Albatross Society, is suitably dastardly and threatening, which keeps the pace moving along well and adds some additional drama to a story that otherwise may have run the risk of becoming a little bogged down in reflection and memories.

The subject matter and style really reminded me of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, which I also loved. I’m not surprised to hear that there’s a film of this in the making, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role. The skill of Haig’s writing means that in my head I can already imagine exactly how it will play out on screen, and I can’t wait to watch it.

Blood Wedding – Pierre Lemaitre

Blood WeddingThe story: Sophie is convinced she’s losing her mind. She forgets things, has erratic mood swings and there are stretches of time that are complete blanks. Her carefully ordered life has fallen apart. Things come to a head when she’s working as a nanny,  and one morning finds her six year old charge brutally murdered – and all the evidence says it was Sophie that did it. Fleeing the scene, she must find a way to survive while she tries to come to terms with what’s happened.

My thoughts: Sophie as a narrator is as unreliable as they come. While she has fragments of memories that convince her of her own guilt, she cannot explain her actions, even to herself. She has a natural instinct to survive and evade capture, but to do so she must go to places that she never thought she could. She thinks she’s lost her mind, and maybe she has. But then again, maybe she hasn’t.

Pierre Lemaitre specialises in switching up viewpoints mid-way through a story and turning everything we thought we knew completely on its head. He’s done it before, in Alex, and he does it again here superbly. I can’t go into detail or it would completely spoil the story, but there are some intense scenes of psychological torture and violence. It’s very dark and very twisted. It’s like Gone Girl on steroids.

Not everything is as it first seems. We get a unique insight into the minds of two main characters, who are each seeing events from a different point of view and force us to re-examine everything we’ve been told in a new light. Whether or not you believe Sophie is guilty of murdering her charge, she certainly crosses numerous lines as the novel progresses – playing with our concepts of responsibility and blame.

As much as I appreciated the clever plot and the masterful character development that we see in Sophie throughout the novel, I personally found the subject matter to be a bit too intense. I’d like to point out that I read a lot of crime fiction and psychological thrillers, including a number of other books by Pierre Lemaitre (Alex and Camille), and I’d say that generally I’m not too squeamish. However, the more I read of Blood Wedding, the more disturbing I found it. Sophie’s thought processes and experiences are deeply troubling, and I found it a really uncomfortable read.

I still think that Pierre Lemaitre can write a cracking psychological thriller to rival the best in the genre, but this one wasn’t for me. I’m not going to let it put me off reading his books in the future though.

House of Names – Colm Tóibín

House of NamesThe story:

Agamemnon, believing he is acting out the wishes of the gods, sacrifices his eldest daughter for success on the battlefield on the eve of her wedding day. His wife, Clytemnestra, cannot forgive such a betrayal, and silently seething, plots his downfall. Her actions force her down a dark path and her choices have far-reaching consequences for her, her remaining children and their kingdom.

My thoughts…

This is a retelling of a classic Greek tragedy, full of scheming, revenge and murder. I must admit that I haven’t read the original text. While I’d heard of a couple of the key players, I didn’t know the story, so have nothing to directly compare this to.

As events unfold, all of the characters find themselves stuck in a cycle that seems impossible to break. With each crime committed or action taken, there’s another character waiting in the wings to demand payback or retribution.

Although this is set in ancient Greece, there are themes running through this book that are entirely relatable to the present day – such as Clytemnestra’s loss of faith, her grief and her feelings of abandonment by a higher power after a tragic loss. Revenge and the idea of ‘an eye for an eye’ also still resonates. Although the actions of Clytemnestra and those around her are extreme and melodramatic, the motivations behind them are understandable in the context, if not forgivable.

Despite the high emotions that the characters must feel, the writing style feels quite distant and detached. Clytemnestra is the only one that I felt any real attachment too. Her emotions shine through and I wish we’d had more from her point of view. Her actions reverberate through the palace, affecting everyone around her. This includes her daughter Electra, who brims with silent fury. Electra eventually becomes what she despises – another example of how without change, everything comes round in a circle and no progress is made.

Orestes was an interesting character. He’s continually being pushed in various directions by other characters, such as Leander and Electra, but never fully included. His sense of isolation is echoed in the rest of the novel – everyone has their own secrets and motivations and they’re not willing to share them. The result is a general feeling of mistrust and suspicion, summing up the pervading overall feel of this book.

In conclusion?

While I didn’t dislike this book, I can’t say that it really provoked any strong emotions in me either way. It was quite an interesting read though, and I did enjoy learning more about the Greek myths.

Into the Water – Paula Hawkins

Into the WaterThe story: The drowning pool in Beckford has claimed many lives over the centuries. Originally the chosen place to drown witches, it’s now a notorious suicide spot. Most recently, Nel Abbott either jumped, fell or was pushed to her death, depending on who you believe. Nel’s daughter Lena’s best friend, Katie, walked into the pool with pockets full of rocks months earlier. And 30 years before that, Lauren Townsend threw herself from the cliff. It soon becomes clear that all of these deaths are connected in more ways than one, and that the people in Beckford are hiding many secrets that they don’t want brought to light.

My thoughts: There are a large number of narrators in this book (around 11 in total) which I initially found confusing. After a while though, I’d managed to get everyone straight in my head and didn’t find this to be too much of a problem in terms of following the story.

As each section is written in the first person, we spend a lot of time in people’s heads hearing their inner monologues. Each of these narrators is also biased to their own point of view and influenced by their own experiences and beliefs. Many of the things they think are true are distorted by false memories, heightened emotions or a misinterpretation of the facts. This creates an atmosphere where we as readers are never quite sure of the facts. Nothing we find out is solid, and truths seem to fall away like an eroding river bed as things are slowly revealed.

While in general I quite liked the descriptive writing style, having so many narrators did mean that we often heard the same events from several points of view, with a new perspective to throw things into a different light. This got a bit repetitive at times. In my opinion losing a few of these characters – Nickie, the psychic, or Josh, Katie’s younger brother, for example – wouldn’t have taken anything away from the overall plot, and we could have easily kept up to date on their stories through their interactions with others.

The character I cared the most about was Lena. She makes some questionable decisions and often lies, but she’s fifteen and grieving. She’s allowed to make mistakes and her motivations are understandable. She’s struggling under the weight of a huge secret, and she doesn’t know how to fix the mistakes that have been made in the past. I really felt for her and wanted her life to take a turn for the better.

The pace of Into the Water is definitely slower than Paula Hawkin’s first novel, The Girl on the Train, and as a result the twists and reveals felt like they had less impact, and I also had a good idea of what the final twist might be. I also wasn’t keen on a particular subplot that delves into the supernatural – it wasn’t needed in my opinion. While I did enjoy Into the Water, it didn’t keep me gripped as much as others in this genre have recently.

 

Buy it here: Amazon UK

The Ice – Laline Paull

The IceThe story: In the near future, the polar ice caps are melting, the transpolar shipping route is being heavily utilised and individuals and countries are jostling for power and control. When a cruise ship searching for an increasingly rare glimpse of the elusive polar bears travels into the restricted waters of the Midgard Lodge, they get more than they bargained for when a calving glacier reveals the preserved body of a man.

The Midgard Lodge is a private retreat run by businessman Sean Cawson, and the body discovered is that of his long-time friend, business partner, and ex-Greenpeace activist Tom Harding. The discovery of Tom’s body starts an inquest into the events that led to his death, led by his friends and family, while Sean also faces an internal struggle that is increasingly difficult to contain.

My thoughts: Much of the novel focuses on Sean’s character development. At the beginning of the novel, he is presented as a selfish opportunist taking advantage of the people around him for his own personal and monetary gain. I feel like as we got to know him more we were supposed to see that there was more to his character, but for me this never really happened. I couldn’t connect with him as a character. He wasn’t likeable and I struggled to see his redeeming features.  I think as a character though, he was written really well and came across as totally believable.

The environmental message is one that is impossible to escape from. At the end of the book, I wasn’t thinking about the characters or their stories, I was thinking about the trans-polar route, global warming and capitalism – and the future of the world as we know it. There are two conflicting viewpoints set out here – those who can see the damage that is being done to the environment and want to slow it or stop it as best they can, versus those who can see that change is coming no matter what and believe they may as well be at the forefront of progress.

The descriptions of the Arctic from the early polar explorers talking about the hostility of the natural landscape, which precede each chapter, are sharply contrasted against commercialisation and modernity. There’s a real sense that the natural world as we know it is shrinking and dying, to be replaced by luxury hotels and convenient mod-cons.

This conflict is brought to life through Sean and Tom’s personal story. Although I thought this was handled a bit heavy-handedly at some points, it is a valid and valuable debate and it certainly made an impression.

Pacing was a bit of an issue in this book for me. I felt it really took some time to really get going. Until I got to around 50%, I was struggling to find a compelling reason to pick it back up. After this, the story does really pick up the pace, but if I hadn’t received a copy of The Ice for review, it might have taken me a while to get through it. Having finished it though, I’m glad I persevered. It was a really insightful and thought provoking read.

Discussion post: Why reviewing books can be tough

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Most of the time I love writing book reviews. There’s a reason why there are so many more review posts on my site than any other type. However, sometimes it can be harder than you’d think to come up with a balanced review that you’re happy with – for a whole variety of reasons. Here are some of the main reasons I’ve found that reviewing books can be difficult!

  1. You just don’t care about it either way. Sometimes books just aren’t remarkable and don’t inspire any emotions at all. These are filler books – a way to pass the time but nothing to write home about. Or nothing to write about at all in fact. These don’t make for very interesting reviews – if you don’t care and can’t think of anything interesting to say, why should anyone else care about reading it?
  2. You received it as an ARC but you hated it/couldn’t finish it. Sometimes it’s easier to bury your head in the sand and put reviewing books off for a while than tell the publisher that provided you with a free copy that you thought it was garbage and no-one should waste their time on it. If you really don’t enjoy a book, it can be a real challenge to pick out some positives and present the negatives in a way that’s fair.
  3. You read it and liked it but it’s been a few months, you’ve read twenty other books since then and you just can’t remember what was so great about it. Then you either have to spend ages reading other reviews to remember the finer details of the plot, wing it and risk your own review being sub-standard, or get into the whole to reread or not to reread debate.
  4. You can’t review it without including major spoilers. This is hard. Sometimes the best bit about a book or a character revolves around a particular plot twist, but you really shouldn’t talk about it, or else you might ruin the book for others before they’ve even picked it up. It’s like playing that game where you can’t say the words ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – it’s much harder than you first think!
  5. You’ve just finished a second or third book in a series and realise that you never reviewed the first book. You could go ahead and review it anyway, but you have nothing to refer people back to. The OCD in me feels like things need to be in order and I just can’t review out of order, which means some books unfortunately go un-reviewed!

Do you ever come across similar issues? Do you have any tips for overcoming any of these stumbling blocks?