The Monogram Murders

The Monogram Murders, by Sophie Hannah

Harper Collins (2014), Paperback, 384 pages

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I cannot in all honesty say that I am a dedicated Agatha Christie fan. I read many of the best-known examples many years ago and have never felt particularly tempted to re-visit. I though the humble whodunnit had moved on considerably  and grown up in the process, and the era of cosy mysteries in cosy villages was probably over. However, in the middle of a particularly dry spell of watchable television, I started, casually at first, but with growing interest, to watch the excellent Poirot series on TV starring David Suchet. I now own the whole set on DVD and they have given me many hours of pleasure. As usual when something on TV grabs me, I instinctively start looking for books that reflect what I am watching. But the thought of revisiting the old original Christie Poirots did not enthuse me, as I was pretty sure that they would be nothing like the TV adaptations. Then I heard about this new reboot by Sophie Hannah and grabbed it with glee, it sounded just what I was looking for. It would be the Poirot for modern sensibilities I had seen in the TV series, I thought. Well, it didn’t quite turn out that way. This is not a bad book, by any means. The beginning is intriguing, the denouement sparkles, with intricate twists and turns. Unfortunately, the middle third is a let-down. To put it bluntly the book feels padded, as if 380 pages should really be about 280, perhaps 300. The plot itself is interesting enough, Poirot, while dining at an insalubrious coffee house, is waylaid by a woman in obvious fear, who blurts out that she is about to be murdered, but that her murder must never be solved. She then runs into the night. Poirot is led to a nearby hotel where three people have been murdered, all with monogrammed cufflinks thrust into their mouths. Poirot, assisted by the latest in his long line of reasonably thick police offsiders, Edward Catchpool, finds a link between the murders, the terrified woman and the long-ago suicide of a minister and his wife in a village with many secrets. It is a well-written, intricately plotted, fiendishly complicated story, it’s just that middle third where it seems to get lost. Disappointing, but far from a total loss. As of time of writing, the second book in the series, Closed Casket, has just hit the shelves, I will be reading it. I think this is a series that is worth sticking through for the long haul.

7.5/10

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Fifteen Young Men

Fifteen Young Men: Australia’s Untold Football Tragedy, by Paul Kennedy

Random House (2016), Paperback, 320 pages

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On May 21, 1892, the pleasant seaside town of Mornington, about 60 km from Melbourne, on the shores of Port Phillip Bay, suffered a truly devastating tragedy. At a stroke, fifteen of the town’s young men, its best and brightest, were lost in an appalling tragedy. The young men were members of the Mornington Australian Rules Football team, and they had travelled to play a game at Mordialloc, a suburb of Melbourne up the coast from Mornington. They were returning in the early evening in a small yacht owned by one of the players, when a sudden squall capsized the vessel, leaving them struggling for survival in the icy waters. None survived, and only 4 bodies were recovered. The loss for one family in particular was truly devastating. The Presbyterian  Minister, James Caldwell,  lost three of his sons in the disaster. Paul Kennedy relates this awful tragedy, one of the worst in Australia’s sporting history, but which has been almost forgotten, with verve, empathy and a real feel for the times. In part it is a story of a tragedy, but it is also a story of the growth of Australia’s obsession with sport. Kennedy carefully documents how the sport of Australian Rules began to have the extraordinary hold it has over southern Australia at least, and especially in Victoria, by showing it evolved from simple scratch matches between nearby towns, into organised leagues with fierce rivalries developing. The feel of the times, the hazards and difficulties of life and travel in 19th century Australia are well-captured, as are the close bonds between family members and neighbours. This is a great read for those who love sport, those who love history, or those who just appreciate a good story of warmth and tragedy well-told.  Highly recommended.

9.5/10

The Last Days of Night

The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore

Simon & Schuster (2016), Paperback, 384 pages.

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I had previously been aware of the so-called “Current Wars” between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse from reading about the development of the electric chair, but now this superb fictionalized account of the battle to power the world has made me realise that was merely one front in a truly epic legal struggle. The story revolves around Paul Cravath, a lawyer fresh out of college, who is hired by Westinghouse to defend an avalanche of lawsuits from Edison over infringments on Edison’s lightbulb patent. Edison’s stated intention, in a mesmerizing opening scene where he demonstrates his power to Cravath, is to bankrupt Westinghouse and force him out of business. Cravath takes on the challenge and is forced to come up with truly novel legal strategies to thwart Edison. Meanwhile Westinghouse is pinning his hopes on the charmingly eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla to invent a lightbulb that will not infringe the patent. However Tesla is simply not amenable to any form of control, and it takes the combined efforts of Cravath and Agnes Huntington, a young singer with a mysterious past, who becomes Cravath’s love interest as well as Tesla’s protector, to keep him safe and productive. It won’t be giving anything away to say Cravath is eventually successful, and Westinghouse the ultimate winner of the Current Wars, but the process of getting there is fascinating and scintillating. The book fairly crackles along, there are no blacks or whites, everyone has their own motives, some noble, some less so. Giving it added spice is the knowledge that all these events actually happened, with some creative licence where needed.  This is a terrific piece of writing, it grabs the reader and never lets go, in Moore’s sure hand even tedious legal manoeuvering becomes exciting and suspenseful.  The book is ably finished off with an fascinating epilogue where Moore describes where he has used creative licence, what really happened during those events, and the future lives of each of the protagonists. First-class piece of writing, I cannot wait for more from this author.

10/10

Hamilton Hume

Hamilton Hume: Our Greatest Explorer, by Robert Macklin

Hachette (2016), Paperback, 352 pages.

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Like most Australians, I guess, at school I was bombarded with Explorers. We were lectured in serious tones about the history of Australia’s exploration and given a list parrot-fashion of all the explorers. One of the curious results of this is that all the explorers who travelled in pairs or threes have become run together in a sing-song fashion in most people’s minds. Burke and Wills; Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson; Hume and Hovell. I’ll wager most people can recite these names off by heart, but can actually remember very little about their feats. That certainly goes, in my case, for the last-named pair. The particularly alliterative Hume and Hovell comes very easily to the tongue, but apart from the fact that Australia’s busiest highway is named after one of them, I could have told you nothing about what they discovered. Until I read this book, that is. And it’s a great story. Hamilton Hume was in fact one of the few early explorers who was native-born. In the panoply of British-born soldiers, sailors and civil servants who navigated the country in the first 50 years of settlement, Hume stands out as the only genuine Australian to lead a major expedition. For this reason, his contribution was shamefully downgraded, the cultural cringe and shameless snobbery, that elevated British-born “sterling” over native “currency”, meant his part in the discovery of the land route bewteen Sydney and Port Phillip, which was to become the site of Melbourne, was barely acknowledged until well into the 20th century. Yet Hume’s contribution was pivotal, not only did the expedition he led open the way to travel between Australia’s two largest cities, along the way he discovered millions of acres of some of the richest farmland in the world, the bread basket of Australia and the cradle of its economic wealth. He did this largely without the help of his expedition co-leader, the Scottish naval officer William Hovell, who proved to be a whining defeatist, and who threatened to turn back several times. Hume saved the expedition from starvation through his superb bushcraft and his empathy for the indigenous people, whom he recognised before anyone else as not being savages, but a people finely attuned to the land, who has mastered the arts of survival that the whites needed to learn before thay could master the vast country. Yet after the expedition’s return, Hovell arrogantly assumed the lion’s share of credit, and because he was British, the establishment automatically accepted his version over the native-born Hume. Hume lived the rest of his life as a gentleman farmer, sinking into relative obscurity after his death, but Macklin has done a great job of resurrecting this early Australian hero. Not only are the early explorations of Australia well-covered, but along the way he provides an excellent potted history of the struggles and tribulations of the young settlement. This is one of the betetr books I have read on Australia’s early history in recent times. It’s really a cracking read as well as paying long overdue credit to a genuine hero of Australia’s past.

9.5/10

Seinfeldia

Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything, by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Simon & Schuster (2016), Hardcover, 320 pages

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I can’t truthfully say that I was an obsessive fan of Seinfeld. It took me a quite a while to start watching the show, my initial impressions weren’t good, and my frequently expressed opinion regarding the program to those who kept telling me how good it was were generally short and sharp However, like most of the TV programs I have watched in my life and come to enjoy, there was a breakthrough episode. I don’t even know its proper title, but it was the one where Jerry and Elaine are on the same flight, and for some reason Jerry ends up in first class, while Elaine is stuck in cattle class. It plays the very familiar trope of class envy, playing on something that everyone who has flown on a plane in economy class, and that includes me, feels when they walk through those comfortable, quiet first or business class sections, en route to the crowded, noisy confines of cattle class, “Why them and not me?”Seinfeld takes these feelings we have all had and articulates them eloquently and hilariously. And that I discovered while watching that episode, is what Seinfeld was all about, not a show about nothing, but a show that articulated the mute anger, frustration, envy, confusion and anxiety of modern urban life and made it very funny at the same time as it struck a nerve in everyone who had every experienced something akin to the many awkward social situations the show captured so well. This book is an excellent companion to the series, covering the show’s background, the story of how Seinfeld and Larry David came to sell the series to NBC, in pretty much the same way as was depicted in the fictional show “Jerry” which Serinfeld and George tried to sell in a hilarious mirror-image self-reference. The book further goes on to describe how each of the main cast members was chosen, how each of the numerous writers, a continuous rollover of them, each mining their own life experiences for storylines, came and went from the show. Also featured are the bit-part actors, who may only have appeared in one episode, but have become cult figures because of it, for example the eponymous Soup Nazi, who has parlayed his cult status into a profitable business catering to Seinfeld obssessives. The book is an absolute mine of Seinfeld trivia (The most frequently appearing character other than the main four is the unobtrusive cashier in the cafe; both George and Jerry’s fathers were played by different actors in their first appearances; Elaine was heavily pregnant during several episodes and was shown bundled up in voluminous clothes or concealed under blankets to hide the fact; the woman who appeared only on the poster for Rochelle Rochelle has become a cult figure). After the show’s less than stellar finale, Armstrong goes on to show how the fans refused to let it die, creating a world that she dubs “Seinfeldia”, part-reality, part fantasy, where the show has come to be more than the sum of its parts. This is a fascinating book, even if you don’t particularly like the show, but are interested in how modern TV is created, some of it not very edifying, to tell the truth, this is a must read.

9.5/10

Revenger

Revenger, by Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz (2016), Hardcover, 432 pages

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At first glance, and indeed for about the first 100 pages or so, this seemed like another in the ever-growing collection of what I like to call Firefly porn. The familiar trope – racketty spaceship, crusty but lovable captain, crew of misfits – there’s a lot of it out there. The beginning is pure Firefly homage – Adrana and Arafura are sisters who run away from a cossetted life and overbearing father on a planet in the Congregation, a collection of 50 million artificial worlds huddled together against the dark of interstellar space,  to join the Monetta’s Mourn, a ship engaged in the quest for baubles. Baubles are time-locked vaults left by long-departed aliens, full of advanced technology, and cracking them requires all the disparate skills of a crew like those of Monetta’s Mourn. The girls quickly find they have the talent to be Bone Readers, highly prized individuals who can tap the psychic emanations from a long-dead alien skull to scout for danger and spy on communications between other ships and learn where the best baubles are located. However, any thought this story might turn into just a long, cozy treasure-hunt are shattered, when in a orgy of violence, the Monetta’s Mourn is attacked by a vicious pirate and most of the crew slaughtered.  Adrana is kidnapped by the evil Bosa Sennen and Fura is left to plot revenge and get her sister back. It makes for a great story, and Reynolds manage to extract much mileage from a familiar story with quick-paced plotting, strong and believable characters and an idiosyncratic but plausible universe. Much of the strength of the book rests on the shoulders of Arafura, who quickly develops under the pressure of events beyond her control into a formidable but endearing character. In addition, there is an excellent support cast to back her up. I really enjoyed this book, there seems certain to be a sequel, and its one I am really looking forward to.

9.5/10

Revival

Revival, by Stephen King

Hodder & Stoughton (2014), Hardcover, 384 pages

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This may be the best King novel I have read since his glory days in the 80’s and 90’s. I have felt there’s been diminishing returns in King’s offerings lately, none of them within the last 5 years have I felt like finishing, certainly nothing like the impact The Stand, Salem’s Lot, It, Needful Things, The Tommyknockers and the like had on me. Then Revival came along, and its a gem. Its probably one of the best novels I have read this year. Much less a horror story, although the ending is pure King, as a story of obsession, the questioning of faith and the catastrophic effects tragedy can have on a man’s life. It is also a superb evocation of childhood, of memory, of ageing both gracefully and disgracefully. The story revolves around the relationship over many years between Jamie Morton, a musician from a small town in Maine, and Charles Jacobs, who meets Jamie as a boy while taking over as minister in the boy’s home town. A bond grows between them, based on a mutual fascination with electricity, but it is shattered when Jacobs endures a horrific personal tragedy and reacts by cursing God from the pulpit. Years later, Jamie is a down and out, drug-addicted musician, whom is saved by Jacobs, now a carny act doing portraits of the rubes with electricity. Jacobs uses his skill with electricity to cure Jamie of his addictions, but Jamie is left with worrying after-effects and questions over exactly what Jacobs has done to him. Their last meeting occurrs when Jamie has found his calling as manager of a recording studio, and Jacobs is raking in millions as a faith healer, again using electricity. The suspense builds from there, and the ending is quite horrifying, but as I said, pure King. I didn’t really sleep well after finishing it, but its a great read, enthralling from beginning to end, and with characters who are human, realistic and who grow  on you. I loved it.

9.5/10

 

 

Van Gogh’s Ear

Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story, by Bernadette Murphy

Chatto & Windus (2016), Paperback, 336 pages

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As an obsessed Van Gogh fan since first seeing photos of Starry Night at high school, this book approaches perfection. Bernadette Murphy, an amateur researcher living in Provence, became obsessed herself, with finding out what really happened in the village of Arles on the night of December 23, 1888, when the most famous self-mutilation in the history of art occurred. Everyone knows the story – distraught after an argument with Gauguin, Van Gogh hacked off his left ear and presented it to a prostitute he was fond of. Murphy started with that well-worn tale and decided to research not only the incident itself, but the whole of Van Gogh’s sojourn in Arles. And her research is amazing, it is certainly one of the most determined and exhaustive searches I can recall from an avowed amateur. Through dogged determination, lots of leg work, and what must have been weeks of poring over archive records, she meticulously documents Van Gogh’s life in Arles. She manages to come up with archival evidence and in some cases a back story for just about everyone Van Gogh interacted with in Arles. In fact, her research becomes almost as interesting as the story itself. This is a masterclass in how an amateur can top professionals who have combed over the subject’s life for more than a century. In the end, Murphy gets to the bottom of the ear severing incident, including, through finding a drawing done by a young doctor who tended van Gogh, lost for almost a century, exactly how much of Van Gogh’s ear was amputated. She also discovers that the girl Van Gogh gave the ear to was not a prostitute, but a girl of good family who worked as a servant in the brothel, in the process she discovers the back story of the girl and her ultimately tragic life. This is a tour de force of historical research, I cannot recommend it highly enough, it will fascinte those like me who obssess about that brilliant, tormented young artist, as well as those who love the history of art, and those who just love history, or for that matter a damn good read. Top-notch writing.

10/10

The Dry

The Dry, by Jane Harper

Pan Macmillan (2016), Paperback, 352 pages

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This is a seriously good piece of writing from a debut author. Jane Harper takes a very familiar trope – the small town with dark secrets – and makes of it a punchy, raw journey into the dark heart of a a small Australian town suffering under a prolonged drought and a brutal crime. The protagonist in this drama is Aaron Falk, an officer with the Australian Federal Police, who returns to the small town of Kiewarra where he grew up, to attend the funeral of his best friend Luke Hadler, who has apparently murdered his wife and son and then killed himself. Falk has unhappy memories of Kiewarra and plans to depart as soon as the funeral is over, but is waylaid by Luke’s parents, who want him to prove Luke did not commit the crime, and use their knowledge of a lie told by himself and Luke to escape suspicion in the mysterious drowning of one their friends 20 years earlier to blackmail him into doing so. Aaron reluctantly agrees to stay, and strikes up a working relationship with a young policeman as they explore Kiewarra’s darker secrets as the real story of two crimes decades apart start to emerge. However, Aaron finds that the town that drove him out because of the drowning, has neither forgotten nor forgiven him. The real appeal of this book is not in the story, which is by no means startlingly original, but in the way it’s told. Harper captures the oppressiveness of the hot dry landscape perfectly, mirroring the simmering tension in the inhabitants of the town. Everyone is under pressure, and it shows in the sparse, punchy, confrontational dialogue and explosions of violence. Falk’s continuing confrontation with those in the town who want him gone, as well as his developing friendships with others whom he works with to solve the crimes, in particular are really well-handled. the ending is not particularly a surprise, but the ramping up of tension leading to the denouement is exceptional. This is a great Australian suspense novel, up there with classics like Wake in Fright, immensely enjoyable if very confronting. A superb debut by Harper, and I look forward to more like it in the future.

9.5/10

The Silent Deep

The Silent Deep: The Royal Navy Submarine Service since 1945, by Peter Hennessy and James Jinks

Penguin (2016), Paperback, 864 pages

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An engaging mixture of detailed technical stuff and boy’s own derring under the sea. Hennessy and Jinks begin with the capture and examination of the last, state of the art German U-boats in 1945, carry through the early years of post-diesel boats utilising the technology pilfered from the Nazis, the first tentative moves towards nuclear boats, the advent of Polaris, then Trident, as the UK moved its nuclear deterrent entirely under the waves, and ends with the uncertain future facing the Submarine Service as boat numbers are slashed, and the very future of submarines are under question. Along the way they enliven the dense technical and political details with captivating accounts of the crews and their Cold War cat & mouse games with the Soviet submarines, along with a real shooting war in the Falklands, where HMS Conqueror became only the second submarine since 1945 to sink a vessel in anger. The description of the sinking of the General Belgrano is arguably the highlight of the book, and the account of the political machinations behind the decision to sink her are fascinating.  Also of great interest are the often fraught relations between the British and Americans, who of necessity had to supply much of the technology used to go nuclear, and the authors do an excellent job of conveying the tensions and high-stakes politicking involved. There are some sadder moments, the tragic loss of submarines and crews in accidents, and the retirement of submarines after long years of service. Overall, I really enjoyed this book, in places it can be dry, but it manages to mix up the denser technical material and the thrilling stuff quite well. Anyone who loved the Hunt For Red October is bound to love the real-life thing, anyone else with a penchant for anything naval will also find it captivating.

8.5/10