Christmas Reading: A Holiday for Murder by Agatha Christie

My continued craving for holiday reading brought me to A Holiday for Murder, also known as Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. I’ve seen the tv version of this mystery novel, but couldn’t remember who the culprit was so thought it would be safe to read it. It isn’t really a Christmas story – the murder takes place at Christmas, but there is hardly any mention of the holiday or the traditions surrounding it. That was okay, though, because reading it reacquainted me with Agatha Christie, whom I haven’t read in many years.

This novel finds Poirot spending Christmas with Colonel Johnson when they are called to Gorston Hall, the scene of a horrific murder. Simeon Lee, the wealthy patriarch of a bickering family, has had his throat slashed. His four sons and their wives, plus two unexpected guests, have assembled for Christmas and they all become suspects as the room Lee was killed in was locked from the inside and the window closed. The assumption is that an intruder would not have been able to leave the house unseen.

The usual interrogations and sly Poirot ‘conversations’ soon give him all the information he needs to reveal the killer of Simeon Lee. It is a very tricky outcome and I definitely didn’t guess who the culprit was.

Agatha Christie is a forceful writer and I’d forgotten how colorful her characters are. I wouldn’t recommend this novel if you are looking for holiday cheer, but it is a good example of the ‘locked room mystery’.

I’d like to read some of her other novels next year – do you have a favorite Christie novel? What is her best mystery?

endpapers designed by Peggy Skycraft.

Thornyhold by Mary Stewart

First off I want to take a moment to *gush* about Mary Stewart. She is amazing. I’ve been reading a lot about her the past few months here and here and here. I felt immediately sure that I would like her novels, but I didn’t know how smitten I would be. Her writing is dreamy and evocative and her main characters are sensible and likeable. And there is the supernatural! I don’t know if all of her novels contain otherworldly elements, but this one and the one I am reading now, Touch Not the Cat, definitely do and I like it.

Thornyhold reminded me in some ways of Practical Magic, Garden Spells and The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. There were elements of all these books drifting through Thornyhold, but Stewart has such a charming, unique style that I didn’t feel like I was entering “been there/done that” territory. Plus, Stewart came first!

Geillis (Jilly) Ramsey has had a tough life. Her parents are not affectionate, won’t let her have pets (which she dearly longs for) and ship her off to school at the first chance they get. Her mother is a cold, stern woman who doesn’t provide any light or sparkling moments for Geillis to cherish. The most memorable interactions of her childhood are with her mother’s cousin, Geillis Saxon. Cousin Geillis has mysteriously appeared in her life a few times throughout her childhood and has left a tender and magical impression on Jilly’s heart. During college Jilly’s mother passes away and she returns home to care for her aging father until he dies as well. With no where to go and feeling anxious for her future she receives notification that Cousin Geillis, whom she hasn’t seen in years, has also passed and has left Jilly her home in the country, a home called Thornyhold.

Could this be Thornyhold?

This miraculous coincidence takes her to a paradisaical home that is surrounded by a neglected, but lush garden.  As Jilly settles into her new environment she encounters her young neighbor William and her cousin’s housekeeper Agnes Tripp who is not altogether trustworthy. She soon discerns that her cousin was known as a wise woman among her neighbors and she suspects that she may have the same gifts herself.

Slow, simmering suspense and a very sweet love story infuse Thornyhold with the perfect mixture of the serious and sublime. Jilly is a great character, a woman I can see myself befriending – she’s so real and believable. The setting is also colorfully alive and tangible – Stewart has a huge talent for description.

Reading this novel was like snuggling down into a soft, warm bed in your own familiar room – completely comfortable and satisfying. I think I have found an author who will stay with me.

Have you read Mary Stewart? Do you have a favorite Mary Stewart novel?

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

I heard about this book back in July when Tayari Jones was at a local bookstore for an appearance (that I didn’t attend, but now wish I had!). The premise intrigued me at the time, but there was a long waiting list for it and I decided to wait until a more opportune time to read this novel. Last week, it jumped out at me from our new books area and I remembered how much I wanted to read it and I am so glad I did.

Silver Sparrow is split in two halves – the first half is narrated by Dana Yarboro, a teen girl with a rebellious voice, a smart and pretty girl who wants to be a doctor. The second half is narrated by her sister, Chaurisse Witherspoon, an average student and mostly obedient daughter who is lonely and longs for a friend. Dana knows that Chaurisse is her sister, but Chaurisse doesn’t know that she and Dana share the same father – James Witherspoon, who’s committed bigamy by marrying both her mother and Dana’s mother.

Dana lives with complete knowledge of her father’s double life. She knows he has a “real” wife and daughter and she’s even seen them because they live within blocks of each other in the same area of Atlanta and her mother, Gwen, has a penchant for surveilling the rival family. Chaurisse, however, doesn’t know anything about her sister and grows up believing that her family is typically normal.

In their senior year of high school the girls suddenly become acquainted and it is only a matter of time before the truth is harshly revealed.

I will not waver in letting you know how wonderful this book is. It is definitely one of my favorites of the year. The characters practically sing their stories – Jones’s language is a kind of raw melody and her dialogue is soaring. I feel like I know both Dana and Chaurisse, as well as their mothers. Each woman’s feelings, desires and fears are distinctly conveyed. James’s character is not as fully explored because neither daughter really understands or connects with their father. But he’s not portrayed as a monster.

The two girls are so different yet I was able to relate to both of them. Their struggles are heartbreaking and I admire the way Jones makes both sides of the story equally significant. She doesn’t sway the reader in either direction or force us to choose sides.

I adored this novel. I experienced an intense emotional connection to the characters and to the story. It is my favorite kind of book – one that will leave a lasting impression.

Possession by A.S. Byatt

Possession is a novel that strongly captured my imagination and my heart when I first read it as a teenager. I loved the dense, layered, symbol-filled narrative that neatly weaves together the tale of two Victorian poets and their forbidden love with a group of contemporary academics and their search for groundbreaking  evidence of that love.

I read it again a few years later and felt the same swoony admiration for its brilliant use of language and intensely smoldering description of the entanglement between poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. I thought it was crazy romantic.

This time around I didn’t feel the same enchantment, but that’s okay – clear-headedness allowed me to appreciate the utter genius of the novel’s construction and to realize what a feat of creativity Byatt achieved with this entertaining tale of passion and scholarly adventure.

Roland Michell is a young academic who’s specialty is Randolph Henry Ash, a Victorian poet of high esteem. While researching him in the London Library he discovers an unfinished letter Ash composed to a mysterious woman. His curiosity fuelled, he begins a cautious investigation which leads him to Maud Bailey, an expert on the work of a forgotten female poet, Christabel LaMotte. As the evidence accumulates they realize that Ash and LaMotte may have had a relationship and they are excited, yet wary of revealing this knowledge because they aren’t the only scholars who care. A particular scholar from New Mexico, Professor Cropper, is hot on the chase and willing to pay any price to be the first to own the intimate letters the poets exchanged.

As the connection between Ash and LaMotte is rapidly explored, Roland and Maude slowly form a bond with each other and their own love story takes shape.

There are so many themes and elements fizzing around in Possession that it is hard to pinpoint what this novel is really about. It is most certainly a fantastic story, thrilling and suspenseful, yet there are many, many layers to the story that truly intensify the pleasure of reading it. Byatt’s creation of the numerous letters, poems and journal entries that help to tell the story in addition to the narrative is astounding. The poems range from full length epics to Emily Dickinson-style verses and the letters bring the voices of Ash and LaMotte alive in a way that simply reading about them would not.

The main traits I admire in A.S. Byatt’s writing are her ability as a natural storyteller and her ability to make me feel smart. Her books are full of allusions that I only occasionally understand yet she isn’t snobby about it. Her knowledge is inclusive – I think she wants everyone to delight in it.

My re-read of Possession was very satisfying and I’m sure that in another 10 years or so I will be ready for the 4th reading of it – what will I think of it then?

Classics Circuit: The Witch of Ravensworth by George Brewer

The Witch of Ravensworth was written by George Brewer, a sailor turned attorney turned writer, and it was published in 1808. According to the Valancourt Books website the witch in the novel “is a precursor to later Gothic literary monsters like Frankenstein and Dracula.”

The very last sentence of The Witch of Ravensworth sums up the novel very handily: “The good were not hurt: the bad repented”.  And there is a lot to repent for in the book, mostly by our main protagonist Baron de la Braunch, a knight during the reign of King Edward I. Tall and handsome with wonderful knightly skills and the owner of a castle, the baron seems to have it all except for one little problem: he’s broke. Always looking for ways to improve his fortune, the baron proposes to the widowed (and wealthy) Lady Bertha. After they marry the baron realizes that he could be the owner of a huge estate if only Lady Bertha’s young son, Edward, was out of the way.

And here is where the witch comes in. The witch lives in a cottage on the edge of town and is believed to be in league with the devil. The baron, previously frightened and scornful of her, decides that she can be useful to him in disposing of his stepson. He precedes to join forces with the witch in carrying out his evil desires which also includes knocking off Lady Bertha so he can carry on with Lady Alwena, a lustful neighbor.

Eventually the Baron begins to feel contrite and things come to a head with a very twisty, surprising  and melodramatic ending.

This short novel is full of punch. I was wary of reading a Gothic novel from this time period, afraid that it would be impenetrable, but this is far from it. The language is straightforward, the storytelling is assertive and, though it is kind of silly, it is a terrific example of an early Gothic book and I would recommend it to others who are reluctant to read a classic of this genre.

I’ve really enjoyed participating in this round of The Classics Circuit. Thanks to Rebecca!

My fellow posters today:

Bibliophilia

Bibliographing

Check out the entire Gothic Classics Circuit tour.

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

I have a very fond association with The Scarlet Letter after having read it in college and so am open to any re-interpretations of the novel, though I have yet to read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. When She Woke is also a futuristic take on the Hawthorne novel, set sometime in America’s future after a nuclear attack has devastated Los Angeles and very strict morality laws have been passed in reaction to a terrible STD outbreak that sterilizes thousands of women.

Hannah Payne lives in suburban Dallas and has been raised in a rather strict, religious household. She’s always been a questioner, however, and doesn’t hesitate in reading forbidden books or using her sewing skills to construct immodest dresses.

As the book opens Hannah is in prison, convicted of murder by having an abortion and her skin is dyed bright red as a symbol of her crime. Melachroming has been legalized by the US government and minor criminals are dyed different colors according to their crime and sent out into society to survive among hatred and prejudice and violence against them. After Hannah serves her 30 days in prison she is released to a demented half-way house until she is presented with an opportunity to completely change her life.

Woven through the tale is her desire and passion for the man who got her pregnant, influential pastor Aidan Dale. Dale is not quite slimy, but very close to being a complete scum bag and it is hard to see why Hannah would love him.

At the other end of the slimy scale is Hannah’s father. Several scenes with her loving, supportive dad had me in tears. I loved that Jordan did not make all of the religious characters ridiculous caricatures – Hannah’s dad is definitely an example of someone who truly lives his religion.

And speaking of religion – this is definitely meant to be an indictment of extremism, but Jordan clearly avoids condemning spirituality and Christianity outright, which made the book more legitimate to me because I don’t like when authors trash religion unconditionally.

This is a really good book. It has complex characters, a suspenseful plot and presents a vision of a scary future that I hope never comes to pass, but that makes you think about how fear and uncertainty can lead to harsh governmental control. Now I’m thinking I need to read The Handmaid’s Tale to experience Atwood’s take on a similar theme.

This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman

I opened my email and she was there, exposed in the raw – not just her body but her emotions

Overwhelmed with awe I had to share the video with someone else and my best friend was the one I trusted

I didn’t think, I didn’t think, I didn’t think

                                           that it would be seen by millions of people.

Now I am suspended from school, bored and alone in a house that is too full

of my parents’ anxiety, regrets, worry and anger.

My dad is as good as suspended from his job. We have more in common than he thinks.

My mom is overbearing, willing my dad to release me (and her) from this bondage.

The cracks in their marriage are creaking and it is all my fault.

My little sister suffers too because of my woe.

What will become of me? What will become of my family?

This Beautiful Life is a family drama that exposes the hardship of modern marriage and family relations. The pain of spouses uncleaving and of children’s poor choices is realistically rendered. Schulman writes in a straightforward and clean style that heightens the voyeuristic feel of this novel. There is gentle humor, humor that makes fun of middle class families and their pretensions and the main family of the story is not spared. It is anguishing to read about the selfish habits and choices that plague us and transform not just ourselves but our families as well, yet it is also illuminating. The novel had more of an abrupt ending than I would have liked and had a vague and somewhat unsatisfying ending, but I still found it powerful.

(Please bear with my juvenile poetry – I’m trying to enliven my blog posts and keep from getting stale!)

Blood Harvest by S.J. Bolton

Reading Blood Harvest was like a breath of fresh, though unpure, air after my recent struggle with The Night Circus. Fast-paced, economically written and never losing my interest for a minute – it was just the book I needed after the density of my previous read.

Trying to describe this novel would involve too many snarled threads so I’ll keep it simple. There is a house near a graveyard, children seeing and hearing spooky “monsters”, unexplained disappearances of little girls, harvest rituals, an unconventional vicar, a beautiful and handicapped psychiatrist, madness, insularity, crypts and nights on the moors.

These threads all miraculously fuse together to form a riveting and truly spine chilling novel. This is the first book I’ve read in quite a while that had me looking over my shoulder and seriously wishing I hadn’t read it before bed. Bolton has a way of injecting the supernatural into the story in a very believable way.

Her characters are not quite lovable, but sympathetic and their motives are understandable. Her writing is like a wildfire burning its way through the pages – she is skilled at crafting page-turners.

I will warn those of you who are distressed by descriptions of violence or harm against children to stay far away from this book as this issue is one of the central themes of the novel, though I don’t think Bolton exploits it for entertainment purposes.

I haven’t read a good thriller since the spring and I thank Helen at She Reads Novels for introducing me to S.J. Bolton. I can see that I will now have to devour her three other novels!

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Creating a world unto itself that entices, enchants and beckons you inside its caramel-scented lair is the forte of The Night Circus. This fanciful novel excels at begetting a secretive and illusive environment that is mirrored by the invention of Le Cirque des Reves, the circus of the novel, that only opens at night and never advertises its appearance.

Set during the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, the story twists around the pillar of magic that is at the heart of the tale. Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair are chosen as youths to engage in a lifelong battle of magicians. Celia is born with her magical gifts, but Marco is trained to be an illusionist. The circus is created to be the venue for their contest and in the course of its creation it absorbs many other talented magicians and entertainers whose lives become forever entwined with the circus.

As the years pass and the circus moves from city to city, Celia and Marco duel by inventing ever more fantastical and original displays in tents around the circus, trying to understand the competition and how they can end it. The descriptions of the Le Cirque des Reves and of its tents and performers make up a large part of the enjoyment this novel provides. Morgenstern is a master of manipulating the reader’s senses, making us feel that we are in the midst of the circus and witnessing the amazing feats of illusion and drama and beauty and mystique that she conjures.

There are faults, however. The pacing is extremely slow, too slow for my liking. With 100 pages to go, I lost interest in the story and debated whether to finish or not. The spell was broken. The characters are also not entirely developed, especially the two main characters whose fate seems a paltry solution to such a colossal dilemma.

Despite its weaknesses, The Night Circus is engrossing, charming, alluring and will bewitch the reader with its fascinating setting.

Affinity by Sarah Waters

Well, Sarah Waters has done it again. She’s completely hijacked my life with one of her engrossing, agonizing novels. I’ve previously read Fingersmith and The Little Stranger and loved them both so turned to Affinity with much anticipation. I bought a copy of it about a year ago and just couldn’t work up any interest in it at that time. When I picked it up last week during the midst of my reading slump I knew that it was the golden book that was going to break me out of the slump.

Margaret Prior is a mentally ill spinster who lives with her widowed mother in London during the 1870’s. In an effort to distract her from the depression that has overwhelmed her after the death of her father, a family friend suggests that she become a “lady visitor” at Millbank Prison. The role of the lady visitor is to inspire the prisoners to be better people by the example of their good breeding and good sense. Margaret immediately feels the hypocrisy of this effort yet continues to visit the prison when she becomes smitten with Selina Dawes, who is a spirit medium in prison for abusing a patron of her work. Selina is enchantingly beautiful with golden hair and the look of a renaissance painting. She seems to be a cut above the other prisoners and more refined and innocent than her fellow inmates. Margaret soon becomes obsessed with her, an obsession that leads to terrible decisions and feverish choices. Will Margaret risk her comfortable middle-class life to have the woman she loves?

Affinity oozes with dread. The novel is dark and dangerous and the sense of foreboding for the reader corresponds with the downward spiral of Margaret’s despair. I love when authors can match the reader’s feelings to the plot. I really liked Margaret. She is clearly intelligent and gifted, yet she is bored with her status in society. She so desperately does not want to be her mother’s companion for the remainder of her life. She is looking for passion, for beauty, for an experience that will lift her above the drudgery and routine of daily life. Selina provides this escape. Selina is mysterious, exotic and powerful and is maybe the more fascinating character because we never really know her. The novel is told through diary entries, Margaret’s interspersed with Selina’s daily jottings of her life before prison. Margaret is easy to sympathize with, Selina is not and she is also a bit frightening because of her ability to sway people’s impressions of her.

Despite its unhappy premise I adored this novel. I really do think Sarah Waters is a fabulous writer and she is, at the moment, my favorite.

Have you read Affinity or any other novels by Sarah Waters? What do you think of her books?