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fmagraphicIn July I joined the #Firemanalong, a group read hosted by Care’s Books and Pies and The Capricious Reader. The Fireman is the newest book from Joe Hill, son of Stephen King, about whom I’ve been most curious.

I was all set for this to be a new favorite, especially after reading the opening page, in which Hill cites as “inspiration”: J.K. Rowling, P.L. Travers, Julie Andrews … and Ray Bradbury. Excellent!

Hill has fun with his allusions, one moment citing Samuel Beckett and then MTV VJ Martha Quinn. There are also nods to Dumbledore, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Graham Greene, Mary Poppins, and, of course, zombies.

The Fireman starts out much like one of King’s novels in that it grabs you straightaway. It was an exciting and addictive page-turner … right until about page one hundred and forty-something, when it really slowed down. Considering the book was 747 pages, I wish Hill had kept up the thrill ride a bit longer.

The first part deals with an outbreak of a mysterious epidemic of “Dragonscale,” which causes its victims to self-combust. Hill offered a plausible and scientific explanation for the disease and that kept me invested.

Our heroine is a plucky nurse named Harper (after another of Hill’s favorite authors) who volunteers as a nurse and ultimately gets infected.

The scenes of mass hysteria and of the unraveling of society were believable and suspenseful. There’s a compelling, vivid urgency that makes you think, wow, this could happen. There are also several buzzy cameos: George Clooney, President Obama, and Glenn Beck.

fireman in boxIt wasn’t until Harper joined a sort of commune for the infected, Camp Wyndham, that the book stepped into the slow lane and became more of a morality tale. I felt Hill had pulled a bait-and-switch—I wanted more of the excitement that he had teased me with for over 100 pages.

Instead, I got lots and lots (and lots) of backstory! I don’t know why Hill decided to go the route of having all the subplots and complications relayed second-hand. Hill is a master of twists and turns, but this genius was somewhat diluted because instead of experiencing it … we had it retold by other characters. I like my suspense real-time.

In particular, the Harold Cross subplot and the prison story would have been so gripping to read as they occurred. I cannot think why we had to hear about them postmortem? I wanted to be in there with the prisoners, looking around and fearful of what might happen next. What did happen would have been much more chilling to me if I didn’t already know who would survive. Also, the Mazz and Father Story question would have been spookier and more complicated if I had first known and identified with Mazz.

The Harold Cross thread reminded me of something from 24—the stray character who makes a series of judgment errors that escalate. I just wish I had gotten to experience that paranoia and tension. Likewise, I would have cared more about Cross’s fate.

Even if Hill were not King’s son I would be contrasting this to Under the Dome, in which King had several subplots spinning out at once via many lead characters. Michael Crichton also did this very well.

Since the action was elsewhere, the whole camp kibbutz storyline got stale for me. I wanted to know more about what was going on beyond their hideaway. The state of Maine had burned to a crisp, but what about the rest of the country? The rest of the world?

The camp dynamics of, say, who got soggy oatmeal versus who got fancy coffeecake seemed a bit trifling when there was a worldwide catastrophe going on.

Also, I felt a bit let down by the ending. I’m not asking for things to be tidied up and happy. I loved how Christopher Nolan tantalized us with the conclusions of Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. (I even loved the LOST finale!)

But, after 747 pages, I do expect some sort of pay off. This felt like it ended midstream with little resolution and almost no reveals as to what was next for Harper—or for the world. It was like ending halfway through Homer’s Odyssey and just as frustrating as the fuzzy, fade-to-black of The Sopranos.

Having said all this, I must add that Hill is a very good writer and (when he wants) can make for some addictive reading. If he had presented his subplots (with their creepy twists) firsthand and given them the same sense of urgency as the first one hundred pages, then The Fireman would likely have been *the* blockbuster, can’t-put-down book of the summer. Hill definitely has that potential.

Lots of the #Firemanalong readers loved the book! They posted all sorts of shrewd observations and fun reactions on twitter. Indeed, for me, the #Firemanalong was the best part of this read.

 

#Firemanalong at Care’s Books and Pies

#Firemanalong at The Capricious Reader

#Firemanalong on twitter

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Adventure Christmas PuddingAfter three murderous mysteries, it was delightful to discover this festive and Christmassy caper.

“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” reads like Agatha Christie’s ode to the traditional English Christmas. Hercule Poirot is invited to experience “an old-fashioned Christmas in the English countryside” at Kings Lacey, a grand manor house that dates from the fourteenth century.

However, the finicky Poirot reisists at first, put off by fears of cold stone and large drafty rooms. Instead he finds King Lacy full of warmth (central heating set at 68°) and cheer, with charming hosts and excited children.

Of course, there are suspicious characters and rather curious doings, but the bulk of this longer short story focuses on the ritual of Christmas in a country house: crackling fires, holly and mistletoe, midnight mass, a feast with all the trimmings, plum pudding, and plenty of Christmas cheer.

This is certainly the coziest Christie I have read. She wraps it up nicely with some unexpected fun on Boxing Day. Indeed, Poirot tells himself, “he had a very good Christmas,” as did I along with him—so much so that I plan to make this story a part of my own Christmas tradition each year.

Double Sin“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” is an extended version of a story called “Christmas Adventure” which first appeared in the Sunday Dispatch in 1928. This longer version debuted in a collection of short stories also called The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding that was released only in the U.K. in 1960. This story was also published in several other collections as “The Theft of the Royal Ruby,” which is the title of the story I read in Double Sin and Other Stories.

Under either name this is a most enjoyable and highly recommended holiday read.

 

Agatha Christmas: A Reading of Christie’s Holiday Classics

agatha christmas logo

4:50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie

A Christmas Tragedy by Agatha Christie

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie

Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie

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hercule poirots christmas lg“It is, then, your opinion that Christmastime is an unlikely season for crime?” asks Hercule Poirot of Colonel Johnson, in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (also published as Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder).

Johnson (whom readers will remember from Three Act Tragedy) has invited the mustachioed sleuth for the holiday and is anticipating a relaxing break free from any detective work. Poirot, however, is not so assured. Nor does he agree with his host regarding the value of a wood fire. The fastidious Belgian feels a draught about his shoulders and pines wistfully for central heating.

Nearby at Gorston Hall, a tyrannical and slightly mad patriarch Simon Lee has gathered his estranged, grumbling clan for their first Christmas together in years. Once again, Agatha Christie shines in providing an appealing cast of disparate characters, from the grasping politician, to the prodigal son, to the mysterious Spanish granddaughter, to the long-suffering loyal son and his well-bred, decorous wife who runs the house prodigiously.

The novel takes place from December 22 to December 28, so it’s fun to read over this time period. Christmas serves as a sort of ironic offset to the action, as the atmosphere is more lugubrious than jolly. After the murder, the traditional festivities are curtailed, and the characters themselves lament the lack of merriment.

Instead, this is a brilliant murder mystery. Christie incorporates both the “locked-room” setup (in which it seems that no one could have entered or left the crime scene to actually commit the murder) and the “closed circle of suspects” (in which the characters know that one of their small number did it).

Indeed, the already strained relations among the Lee family worsen exponentially when they each suspect one another of murder—quite a dysfunctional Christmas!

There’s also international intrigue with complications from the Spanish Civil War and from business ties to South African diamonds.

This whodunit kept me guessing. It seems likewise for Poirot, who in his summation makes a case for how each family member had motive and opportunity in this murder. Ultimately, the reveal is surprising and inevitable—as the best endings are.

Spoiler alert! Johnson and Poirot discuss the outcome of Three Act Tragedy so best to read that book ahead of this one.

Finally, Christie nicely rounds off the subplots and future plans are made to celebrate a traditional English Christmas with all the trimmings. All in all, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is another Christie classic. Most satisfying and highly recommended!

 

Agatha Christmas: A Reading of Christie’s Holiday Classics

agatha christmas logo

4:50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie

A Christmas Tragedy by Agatha Christie

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie

Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie

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Christmas Tragedy“A Christmas Tragedy” is a short story in The Thirteen Problems collection, which was also published under the title The Tuesday Club Murders. I particularly like the setup, in which the different stories are told by a group of friends gathered together to discuss mysteries.

Sir Henry Clithering presses Miss Marple for a mystery that has happened to her. She recalls an incident, which she quickly redefines as a “tragedy.” Indeed, I found this one of Christie’s more chilling stories. While Christmas serves a bit as a plot device, this is not a “Christmas story.”

Miss Marple recounts a visit to a spa for the holiday, but she recalls “a curiously eerie feeling in the air. There seemed to be something weighing on us all. A feeling of misfortune.”

Upon seeing a fellow guest, Mr. Sanders, she immediately knew that he planned to kill his wife. Miss Marple had no proof, however, just gut instinct.

13 ProblemsThe narrative progresses with tension and a sense of impending doom. Some of the characters are shocked by the happenings and some seem to take a “positively ghoulish” delight in it all.

Miss Marple holds it together though, offering one of her classic dictums: “a gentlewoman should always be able to control herself in public, however much she may give way in private.”

So while it’s not a cheery holiday fable, “A Christmas Tragedy” is a typical Christie whodunit—a fast read that ends with one of her trademark inverted plot twists.

 

Agatha Christmas: A Reading of Christie’s Holiday Classics

agatha christmas logo

4:50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie

Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie

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agatha christmas img lg“A Christie for Christmas” was a popular saying and holiday tradition back when Agatha Christie was writing a book a year. Her latest release would be timed so that it could be in stockings or wrapped up under trees. Reading the new Christie was somewhat of a Christmas Day ritual.

Christie incorporated the holiday into several of her mysteries, so I thought it would be fun to read these Christmas-themed works. I’ll be posting my (spoiler-free) reviews below over the next week.

Agatha Christmas to all!

4 50 from Paddington4:50 from Paddington
Novel featuring Miss Marple
After a day of hectic Christmas shopping, Elspeth McGillicuddy is certain that she witnessed murder on a train.

No one believes her but her friend, Miss Jane Marple …

 

 

 

Christmas TragedyA Christmas Tragedy
Short story featuring Miss Marple

Miss Marple goes to a spa for the holidays in this chilling, not cheery, tale.

Upon seeing a fellow guest, Mr. Sanders, she immediately knew that he planned to kill his wife. She has no proof, however, just instinct.

 

 

 

hercule poirots christmas  Hercule Poirot’s Christmas
(aka: Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder)
Novel featuring Hercule Poirot

“It is, then, your opinion that Christmastime is an unlikely season for crime?” asks Hercule Poirot of Colonel Johnson.

Christmas serves as a sort of ironic offset to the action in this brilliant murder mystery.

 

 

Adventure Christmas Pudding The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding
(aka: “The Theft of the Royal Ruby”)
Short story featuring Hercule Poirot

This longer short story reads like Agatha Christie’s ode to the “old-fashioned Christmas in the English countryside”with all the ritual and trimmings.

This is certainly the coziest Christie I’ve read and a perfect holiday read.

 

Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie

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Jane Austen Birthday Chawton House Library

Image: Chawton House Library

Today, December 16, is Jane Austen’s birthday!

As such, it seems the ideal moment to shout-out to the upcoming “Emmaversary”—the 200th anniversary of Emma, which was published on December 23 1815. (A very Merry Christmas present for all Janeites!)

In honor, Austen scholar and author Sarah Emsley is hosting a literary fete online, “Emma in the Snow,” which will feature a series of posts celebrating this unique and seminal novel. I will be contributing a paean to Emma … more precisely to Mr. Knightley (my favorite of Austen’s romantic heroes).

The first offering recounts The Publishing History of Emma.

Now is the perfect time reread Emma (or discover for the first time) while also tapping into the Emmaversary fanfare in the press and online.

How Jane Austen’s Emma Changed the Face of Fiction—The Guardian

Why Jane Austen’s Emma Still Intrigues 200 Years Later

How Well Do You Know Emma—BBC Radio R Quiz

Chawton House Library

On Twitter:
#Emma200
#EmmaInTheSnow
#FridayEmma200

My Favorite Posts on Jane Austen:

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World

Worn Out With Civility at Mansfield Park

Jane Austen, Genius of Economic Game Theory?

How Did I Not Know About Marvel’s Pride & Prejudice?

Kate Middleton Decried as Jane Austen Character

When Pride and Prejudice Clicks, from Boring to Brilliant

Spoiler Alert: This Book Has No Ending

More Jane Austen on WordHits

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4 50 from Paddington lgAgatha Christie’s 4:50 from Paddington opens amid the pre-Christmas rush in London. There is all the excitement of holiday crowds at the shops and jostling along train platforms. Christie, always so deft with her descriptions of rail travel, brings the reader right into the moment as one train passes closely by another and Elspeth McGillicuddy witnesses a murder.

This is the original The Girl on the Train (another book I highly recommend). Elspeth does not seem to be able to get anyone (the porter, the local police) to take her story seriously. No one believes her, except her friend Miss Jane Marple …

There are some cozy scenes in St Mary Mead with cameos of favorite characters. But my one complaint is that—while Miss Marple has been invited to Christmas dinner at the vicarage—Christie offers us no glimpse into that gathering. We get a passing update on the vicar’s family, but I wanted more, having gotten to know them so well in The Murder at the Vicarage.

There is also quite a bit of train travel early on, but ultimately this is one of Christie’s “country house” mysteries. Miss Marple sends the plucky Lucy Eyelesbarrow (who seems a sort of younger version of the aged sleuth) to infiltrate the household of Rutherford Hall and snoop around for evidence.

Unlike some of Christie’s more luxurious manor house settings, Rutherford Hall is menacing. “A long winding drive led through large gloomy clumps of rhododendrons up to … a kind of miniature Windsor Castle. The stone steps in front of the door could have done with a bit of attention and the gravel sweep was green with neglected weeds.” Indeed, this turned out to be one of Christie’s scarier and more suspenseful novels, as I feared for Lucy as well as for some of the inhabitants of the hall. Danger looms.

Christie offers up some memorable characters at Rutherford Hall and, like Lucy, I was confounded a bit trying to guess who the killer was. The plot takes several clever turns, including an ingenious twist in the actual reveal of the murderer at the end. Also, there are satisfying resolutions to some of the sub-plots.

Overall, 4:50 from Paddington brought together several of my favorite aspects of Christie: Miss Marple, the inherent intrigue of train travel, the closed-circle of suspects, and the happy ending for some of the characters. It’s hard to pick a favorite Christie, but this is definitely one of mine. Highly recommended.

 

Agatha Christmas: A Reading of Christie’s Holiday Classics

agatha christmas logo

A Christmas Tragedy by Agatha Christie

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie

Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie

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