The Big Four

Rating: ***

The Big Four covers an international conspiracy involving four mysterious figureheads from around the world. The idea of this mysterious organization called 'The Big Four' is the birth of a new world (an idea that had obsessed Agatha Christie in Passenger to Frankfurt, N or M? and other novels). The threat of unknown figures with a mania for killing off any number of people to cleanse the existing world was one that scared most people who had gone through the war. Number 1 is a man from China who constitutes the 'brains' of the group; Number 2 is an American representing the money; Number 3 is the scientific genius - a famous French female scientist; Number 4 is the 'enforcer' - a man skilled at transforming his appearance and one who gets the job done. It is this man whom Poirot fears the most.

We start the novel off with Poirot deciding to embark on a journey - a journey by boat - to go to his friend Hastings and live the rest of his days in peace and quiet. But by chance, Hastings has come to London, and the aborted departure is anything but good for 'The Big Four'.

Definitely not one of my favorite novels. I am not a fan of Christie's 'international conspiracies' myself more partial to the intimate and personal mysteries involving a family circle with some romance thrown in!

I find Agatha Christie's introduction in Passenger to Frankfurt also fits this novel,
To write a story .... you must come to terms with your background. If the background is fantastic, then the story must accept its background. It, too, must be a fantasy - an extravaganza. The setting must include the fantastic facts of daily life.
Can one envisage a fantastic cause? A secret Campaign for Power? Can a maniacal desire for destruction create a new world? .....
It is not an impossible story - it is only a fantastic one.

I found this particular novel more fantastic than enjoyable. The only point of interest was the battle of wits between Number 4 and Poirot - although there was never any doubt who would succeed! Hastings was his usual dense self.


They do it with Mirrors

I gotta say, I liked this one better than most Miss Marple mysteries.

Rating: ****

At the center of the mystery lies Carrie Louis; the vague, aloof and unworldly old lady. Miss Marple comes to visit her old friend all because of a 'feeling' Mrs. Van Rydock, Carrie's sister, has about the atmosphere at Stonygates. 'Feelings' are Miss Marple's speciality and when she reaches Stonygates, she sets out to find her village parallels. It is Edgar Lawson who stumps the veteran detective. He just won't fit anyone she knows! There is definitely something wrong about Edgar Lawson - and it's not the fact that he's schizophrenic.....

Things take a turn for the worse when Christian Gulbrandsen, Carrie Louis's stepson from her first marriage, ends up murdered at Stonygates. Further heating up the situation is the discovery that someone has been trying to poison Carrie Louis. Shocked and disturbed, Miss Marple realizes that she is dealing with a very clever murderer. They are all caught up in the deception and no one sees the truth, until Miss Marple realizes which way to look.

The whole clue lies in the character of Carrie Louis. I loved the play of illusion and reality in They do it with Mirrors. Christie once again uses her successful device of getting us involved in an illusion which takes us away from how the murder was really committed. The character portrayals in the novel were also interesting with intense and passionate figures like Gina and Stephen, along with strong characters like Walter. Miss Marple also shines in the novel with her clever deduction - you have to realize that the murderer camouflaged the actual murder pretty cleverly. Going back over the novel, you see all the little clues that point only one way.

Murder in the Mews

Rating: **
Murder in the Mews is a collection of four short stories starring Hercule Poirot alongside Inspector Japp and Mr. Satterthwaite. Most of the stories have similar plots to later short stories (or even novels) written by Christie. Most notable is Triangle at Rhodes which has many similarities to the novel Evil Under the Sun utilizing the same love-triangle. The other stories include Murder in the Mews, the titular story, with a similar setting to The Market Basing Mystery which features in Poirot's Early Cases, The Incredible Theft similar to The Submarine Plans also in Poirot's Early Cases, and finally Dead Man's Mirror, which uses practically the same devices as The Second Gong. The later stories mostly feature Hastings alongside Poirot. Having read all the later stories, I didn't enjoy reading these so much. However, for a first time read, the endings are satisfyingly unexpected and entertaining.

The Red Badge of Courage

The Red Badge of Courage follows young Henry Fleming during his first battle in the American Civil War. The youth battles not only with the Confederate army, but with his own thoughts of succumbing to fear and hysteria. Although covering only one battle, for the infantryman, more than a few days pass.

Stephen Crane was realistic in his depiction of how a mind feels fear. The ups and downs in Henry's moods are expertly sketched. I identified with the hero quite a lot: The sudden sweat when you feel that others know what you are thinking; that you have been a failure; the secret can be anything you feel ashamed about. Vividly we see Henry's shame after he flees from the battle and the sudden false pride when, his secret not being discovered, he is hailed as a hero among his fellow soldiers. It's all so real. We've all felt fear, and the unique portrayal of the step by step process of each thought and feeling was realistic. Henry suffers agonies during the battle and the agony of feeling inadequate haunts him the most. It is with him every step of the way. His mind become his greatest enemy.

As a new author, I have to say I want to read more Stephen Crane. I liked the style of writing and the pace of the story was perfect. As for the Historical Fiction Challenge, I did enjoy the depiction of a battle and it was great as a psychological representation of fear, but didn't make the cut as one of my favorite Historical Fiction books.











And finally my My Blind Date with a Book challenge. This is my first novel by Stephen Crane, and I think I would rate it (see my method of rating here) 4. Enjoyed it. Second will probably happen.


4.50 from Paddington

Rating: ***

On her way to St. Mary Mead, Mrs.McGillicuddy is shocked to her core when she sees a murder committed, by a man whose face she can't see, in a passing train. Luckily for her, she is going to visit an old friend who happens to be great at solving murders!

4.50 from Paddington, or the title I like better, What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!, is one of Christie's more improbable stories. As far as the identity of the murderer is concerned, we are given no point of reference from which we can look back and say, of course, that did seem suspicious, that did indicate so and so! No clues link back to the murderer and we are given no points about his character before the final revelation! (Somewhat like in The Sittaford Mystery) It was an impossible, unlikely and incomplete story.

Miss Marple's contribution is miminum and we find none of the deduction that is so common in Hercule Poirot's mysteries. She stations herself near the area where the body is found, but besides discovering the body, she never shows us how she got to the killer's identity before the final showdown. Another fellow crime writer, Anthony Berkeley Cox hit the nail on the head when he said,

"I have only pity for those poor souls who cannot enjoy the sprightly stories of Agatha Christie; but though sprightliness is not the least of this remarkable writer's qualities, there is another that we look for in her, and that is detection: genuine, steady, logical detection, taking us step by step nearer to the heart of the mystery. Unfortunately it is that quality that is missing in 4.50 from Paddington. The police never seem to find out a single thing, and even Miss Marples lies low and say nuffin' to the point until the final dramatic exposure. There is the usual small gallery of interesting and perfectly credible characters and nothing could be easier to read. But please, Mrs Christie, a little more of that incomparable detection next time."

That being said, it was still a mystery novel with a satisfying murder and a nice little love triangle developing in the midst of all the worry! There is after all, something to be said for Christie's romances - although in this case, the incomplete ending extended to the romance!! The only thing that made the story likable was the character of Lucy Eyelesbarrow (I have never enjoyed Miss Marple's stories), and as we were nearing towards the resolution of her story, Christie mischievously cuts it short and leaves us in suspense!!

Miscellaneous
The novel contains characters from Miss Marple's world including her nephew Raymond's son and the son of her vicar Leonard Clement. Chief Inspector Craddock, who appears alongside Miss Marple on numerous cases, is the godson of her long-time friend Sir Henry Clithering! I just add these facts as interesting tidbits on Christie's world.

Dumb Witness

Rating: ***
The witness may be dumb, but so is Poirot when he receives a two month old letter from a woman who is now dead! Apparently the death was from natural causes, but coincidentally, old Emily Arundell had suspected someone from her family of trying 'to do away with her' on a previous occasion. Certainly the rewards would be great with four dependents standing to inherit a lot of money on her death. Imagine the surprise and consternation of the rest of the family when the money is left to Emily's annoying and dim-witted companion!

Not one of my favorite Hercule Poirot mysteries as you can see by my rating. I spent the entire time suspecting one person because of one clue; imagine my shock when it turned out to be the only person I hadn't suspected! I suddenly realized how Hastings must feel......

The deduction in the novel was sound and looking back I realize that Christie had paved the way for the identity of the murder. But not one I would want to read again any time soon.

A Doll's House

A Doll's House deals with issues in Ibsen's day that weren't even regarded as issues. Ibsen says,

"Modern society isn't a human society, it is only a society of males"

It is with this revealing statement that you should read this play. Once you see that, Nora's actions become clear. Her hiding her forgery from her husband, her taking money from a stranger - are all to protect her husband's pride and illusion of her as a child. Even after eight years of marriage, Nora has only lived in a doll's house. She has never been a real person. Playing first with her father, after her marriage, she molds herself into a plaything for her husband. It is when things become too real that her marriage suffers a crisis. Faced with social ruin, Torvald shows a side of his character that Nora had never seen: the side of reality. All her life she has suffered from what so many women go through; she has lived a lie to please the male members of her family and never known it.

Expected to be a wife and mother first, Nora realizes that for her, being a human being first, like any other man, is more important. As the play progresses, the spendthrift wife's character is developed to show a girl with an immature understanding of the social world. Nora has been content to live her life under the protection of a husband whom she believes loves her unconditionally. She herself, living in this fantasy world, would do anything to protect those she loves. But that the world is a make-believe one she quickly realizes with Torvald's reaction to her actions. He is obviously not the man she thought, but is she the woman he believed her to be? Nora, always honest, realizes that she herself has a lot to grow and decides to leave her husband and children to discover the truth of herself and society.

The play met with a lot of controversy when it was first published in 1879. Dealing with the sacred institution of marriage, A Doll's House came under severe criticism for it's portrayal of such a wife. It was considered unnatural for a woman to walk out on her children. Ibsen was famous for dealing with the 'incomprehensible' and 'unnatural' woman; his effort was to show exactly how it wasn't unnatural and how the roles of women shouldn't be defined but be simply shown as human beings.

N or M?

Rating: ***
Tommy and Tuppence, the indomitable detectives, are back again in their third mystery (I count Partners in Crime, a series of short stories, as their second). Now middle-aged, they have two grown up children and must get used to the idea of not being needed. With the second war, things become harder as they remember their time in The Secret Adversary set in WWI.

But as fate would have it, Mr. Carter finds a job for them - a top secret job, involving great risk, and on which the whole future of England rests! (melodrama, I know) The words of a dying man lead Tommy and Tuppence to Sans Souci, a boarding house near the seaside, where they are certain the top agents of the German government are hiding out. Known only as N or M, they must discover their secret identities before an attack on English soil....

Definitely not my favorite Tommy and Tuppence novel. Unfortunately, the later novels of these two likable characters get worse. N or M? is followed by By the Pricking of My Thumbs and Postern of Fate, both of which feature the couple in old age in uninteresting stories. N or M? like many of Christie's 'detectiveless' novels, is full of surprise happenings and accidental discoveries. While not as bad as Why Didn't They Ask Evans?, a lot of the discoveries in the book are not intended by Tommy and Tuppence, and so reflect poorly on their intelligence. N is discovered absolutely by chance, and M's identity is uncovered by a chance utterance that seems a bit too forced! Also, I find there is a lot of stereotyping in Christie's novels: the bad tempered Prussian officer bullying his subordinates, the rebel Irish girl, the angry German with something to hide....The only person I liked was Betty, the adorable toddler who is loved by everyone in the boarding house - she reminds me of my niece!

And I have a century...........

This is my hundredth post!! Hurray \o/.... For all those who aren't cricketing fans, making a century means getting a hundred runs in cricket - the equivalent to my writing a hundred posts. (ok, not really, but still!)

Lately, reading over my blog, I find I'm slightly obsessed with Christie (and I haven't even written posts on all the books I've read in the past few days). What can I say? She's a great mystery writer. But writing this blog has been, and continues to be, an awesome experience. It's so fun to read and to write all about my views and recommend certain books I find fascinating. It also gets me more out into the world of books; more than I've ever tried to go before. What with different challenges and having my own personal challenges, blogging has become more about finding books for myself than recommending them to others.

Recently, due to some family troubles, I quit blogging for a couple of months. Then, one day, I found I had been awarded the Liebster Blog Award! It was all I needed to get reading again.


Check out the rules for spreading this award here.

I've made two trips to my local old bookshop and have stocked up on quite a number of books. But, whatever my plans for reading may be, it's wedding season here in Pakistan - that means going to the weddings of friends and family is going to take up at least four to five days per wedding! That may seem like a lot, but a traditional wedding has a few days of 'dholki' where relatives sit around and sing songs, one day of 'mehndi' where the dress code is yellow, orange, red or green, the Wedding (hosted by the bride's family), and finally the Walimah (hosted by the groom's family)! It's a crazy week, but so much fun. As soon as the season is over, I'll be back.....

Death in the Clouds

Rating: ***
I started Death in the Clouds knowing who the murderer was (no, I didn't read the ending first) and found that it wasn't all that enjoyable. I liked the romance but the plot was typical of Christie: the murder was confined to a small place (the murder takes place in an airplane). It was a case of been there, read that...

When Marie Morisot, a notorious money-lender is found murdered on a plane, practically every other person on board is tagged with a motive that makes him or her suspicion till the final dramatic moment....could it be the unknown daughter posing as someone else? the embezzling Englishman? perhaps the archaeologist who seems to be forging antiquities? Luckily, or unluckily for the murderer, Hercule Poirot was also on that flight, and he doesn't take kindly to murder happening under his very nose!

In most of her novels, Christie manages to start the whole investigation off with some sort of preconceived idea of the murder......that's what you have to watch out for. The start of an investigation is the most crucial in any Christie novel because the statements and ideas of the murder by the detective are almost always initially wrong! For example (spoiler alert) in Death in the Clouds, the idea is that the murder was committed by someone passing by the victim (with the possibility of a blow-pipe floating around in the background confusing the whole issue) and therefore, automatically the characters are divided into possibilities and non-possibilities: people who passed the victim and others who definitely did not. It's the 'did nots' that you have to look out for! There is always some sort of illusion at work which keeps the detective, and us, away from the reality of the murder. (Talk about suspecting the least likely suspect!)

So, reading back, I see I've been rambling, but I can't make my meaning any clearer. Perhaps, reading more Christie will help me to put my finger on it! All in all, not one of my favorites.

The Hollow

The Hollow is on of the few Agatha Christie mysteries that I would like to have in my permanent collection.  Something about the story always brings me back to it. It has a unique atmosphere and an eerie quality to its characters that fascinates me.

Rating: ****

The Angkatells include Sir Henry and his wife Lucy Angkatell - the hosts at the Hollow. Invited are guests Midge Hardcastle, John and Gerda Christow, Henrietta Savernake, Edward Angkatell, and David Angkatell. Postponing John Christow's murder would have been better for the unknown murderer; unfortunately Hercule Poirot, who had been invited to lunch, arrives unexpectedly at the scene of a crime.

Hercule Poirot finds himself in the middle of a murder and with the gun still being held by the chief suspect: Gerda Christow. But are things what they seem? Poirot thinks not, and sets out to find the truth - something the people at the Hollow seem to know and desire to hide....

Truth is one of the main issues in this novel. For any Agatha Christie fan, Poirot's reverence for the truth is well-known, but we have another view argued by a character in the novel: isn't it better to make people happy? What use would discovering the truth be except to bring more misery to the living? Poirot, for once struck, nevertheless sticks to his own beliefs, but when he at last does know the truth, it is what he does with it that matters. As he says in the end,

You do not understand. To you it is unbearable that anyone should be hurt. But to some minds there is something more unbearable still - not to know.......To the scientific mind, truth comes first. Truth, however bitter, can be accepted, and woven into a design for living.

The scientific mind and the creative mind are poles apart, but the truth is something they both have to face and deal with. The novel is detailed in portraying the various ways the characters have of dealing with the grief of John's death. I feel sympathy for every character caught in the murder (the poignant images of grief are near the end). Everyone has lost something or comes near to losing something. The plot is actually very simple, but Agatha Christie never allows us to grasp it until the end!

Dead Man's Folly

Rating: ***
A folly - I admit I always thought it meant a foolish mistake; apparently it is also some sort of structure! Dead Man's Folly features Hercule Poirot who is summoned peremptorily by the famous detective author Ariadne Oliver to Nasse House. Once he arrives at his destination, Mrs. Oliver tells him her fear: she thinks someone is working behind the scenes, manipulating her murder hunt, to bring about a real murder!

Poirot, never skeptical of his friend's insights, takes a look at the people assembled at Nasse House for the big fete. Things take a turn for the worse when Poirot, unable to avert the disaster, finds the body of young Marlene Tucker; the girl who had been playing the part of the victim is now the real victim. The key to the mystery, Poirot is certain, lies with Mrs. Folliat, the former owner of Nasse House who now lives in the lodge of her former residence. "There will always be Folliats at Nasse House", murmurs an old man. Some sort of message? or curse?

Mrs. Folliat is a unique character and holds the central interest. Being relegated to the outskirts of the house she was once mistress of, she still carries herself with self-assurance and is recognized as the mistress of Nasse House. What secrets she holds is for Poirot to discover - she won't reveal them.

Dead Man's Folly is mostly centered around relationships: the relationship between mother and child, and husband and wife. What people do for family and how much they are willing to accept. Hercule Poirot, always sympathetic, gives his little talks and tries to bring people together. I love his little match-making parts in the novels.

Cotillion

So, I've been searching and searching for this book for months in all the old book stores and two days ago, I find it! Cotillion is my all time favorite Georgette Heyer book, and by all time I mean ALL TIME. I love the book, I love the characters, and most of all, I love the ending.

Kitty Charing has lived a secluded life in the country with eccentric Mr. Penicuik - a man who has adopted her as his daughter. When her miserly guardian comes up with a plan to marry her off to one of her so-called cousins (Hugh, Dolphinton, Freddy and Jack) and bestow his inheritance upon the couple, Kitty decides to be a little adventurous. She is expecting four proposals, but she wants only one........

Piqued at the non-arrival of her childhood-hero Kitty quickly plans and forces another into a sham engagement. Once away from the country, it isn't long before she adapts herself to the more modern London; her improved style and looks are noticed by more than one...........has she accomplished what she wanted?

Cotillion is lighter and so much sweeter than Heyer's other books. The characters seem sweet and charming, yet realistic; simple and so refreshing. There are the normal amount of absurd characters, likable characters, clever characters, and unscrupulous characters and you always manage to fall in love with the ones Heyer intended.

The Elephant Vanishes

Haruki Murakami. The author is all the rage these days so I finally decided to give him a try. I think it's safe to say that I'm lost. Most books have some focus, some central plot or message - with the various stories in The Elephant Vanishes, I found myself at a loss; I couldn't figure out the meaning of any of the stories which is when I decided to let meaning go and just read.

Most of the stories in The Elephant Vanishes were odd and led nowhere, but they all seemed familiar for some reason. Some line or paragraph just rang true. Sex was of course an important issue in most stories - it gave it that modern touch, but besides that, the stories all grasped at some truth that I still can't lay my finger on. The best I can do is say that they seemed to be of today, of this world that we live in.

Haruki Murakami is an experience that is never complete. I think that to figure him out, his style, his meaning, you just have to keep reading - something I mean to do.

I'm Back!!

For two months I have been away from my blog. The year 2012 didn't start out as well as I had hoped, but I'm back now and mean to read like crazy to make up for lost time! With that in mind, I went to the bookstore and stocked up on more Agatha Christie! Hopefully, you'll be reading reviews on her books very soon.

What got me back into the blogging mood was a place in Bundleofbooks' top five new blogs! I was so excited when I read the comment on my blog. Thank you to Bundleofbooks who got me back to reading! So far, the only books I've read in 2012 are The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien and The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami - something I mean to remedy pretty quick.