Monday, 30 March 2015

The Secret Adversary - Agatha Christie

The Secret Adversary is a proper old-fashioned adventure story in Agatha Christie form. 'Tuppence' Cowley and her childhood friend Tommy Beresford are unemployed and underfunded following the declaration of peace after World War I, and decide to make their fortunes by becoming adventurers. As luck would have it, their conversation is overheard by a rather suspicious man who offers them an equally suspicious job, and their investigations bring them into contact with an international gang bent on the destabalisation of the British Empire. At its head is the mysterious 'Mr Brown', who none of the gang members know the identity of, but each suspects it is one of his fellows.

Tuppence and Tommy race to find a girl, Jane Finn, who disappeared years ago with the pivotal package of documents on which the gang's plot hinges, with the aid of an imposing King's Councillor and Jane's cousin, an American millionaire.

This story has a fast-paced, light-hearted theatrical feel, with convenient amnesia, hidden document caches, and a high-speed car chase (with guns!). Great fun to read, with a devilishly thought out plot.

Next up: Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu by Honoré de Balzac

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Book vs film results

So a week ago I set up a couple of polls on, to find out the relative popularity of books against their film adaptations. Here are the results, from a sample size of 225 on the book survey and 181 on the film survey (click for a larger, legible version. Books are in blue, films in red):

The most read books were:

1) Harry Potter series: 82%
2) Hunger Games series: 66%
3) Alice in Wonderland: 64%
4) The Diary of Anne Frank: 63%
5) The Hobbit: 61%
=6) The Chronicles of Narnia: 57%
=6) A Christmas Carol: 57%
=6) Mockingjay: 57%
=6) Pride and Prejudice: 57%
10) The Twilight series: 56%

and the most watched films:  
4) The Lord of the Rings trilogy: 77%
=6) Mean Girls: 69%
=6) Jaws: 69%
=9) Twilight (2008): 63%

The lead read books were:

1) Barry Lyndon: 1%
=2) Queen Bees and Wannabes: 2%
=2) Ross Poldark: 2%
=2) Martin Chuzzlewit: 2%
=2) Barnaby Rudge: 2%
=2) The First Men in the Moon: 2%
=2) Dombey and Son: 2%
=8) Bel-Ami: 3%
=8) Father Brown: 3%
=10) The Prestige: 4%
=10) Starter for Ten: 4%
=10) Little Dorrit: 4%
=10) The Mystery of Edwin Drood: 4%

and the least watched films were:

=100) Dombey and Son (1919): 0%
=100) Hard Times (1994): 0%
=98) The First Men in the Moon (2010): 1%
=98) Barnaby Rudge: 1%
=98) The Woman in White (1998): 1%
=94) Martin Chuzzlewit (1994): 2%
=94) A Tale of Two Cities (1980): 2%
=92) The Old Curiosity Shop (2007): 3%
=92) War and Peace (2007): 3%

The largest differences between reading and watching were:

- 67% more watched Mean Girls than read Queen Bees and Wannabes (maybe not surprising as it's a self-help book and a very funny film starring well-known actors)
- 54% more watched Jaws than read the novel
- 52% more watched Disney's animated The Hunchback of Notre Dame than read Hugo's novel (again, not very surprising, given that the film is an easy-access Disney production and the novel is a bit of a dense brick by most peoples' standards)
- 48% more read The Diary of Anne Frank than watched the film. I also discovered that The Diary of Anne Frank is on Goodreads' list of 'worst endings' - a bit of a controversial judgement, surely? It's not as though she ended it that way on purpose.
- 40% more have watched The Princess Bride and The Prestige than have read the novels. Personally I found The Princess Bride to be one of the few books I enjoyed much less than the film, due to the intrusive narrative voice and the fantastic film cast. Non-readers are really missing out on The Prestige, though - it adds a lot that isn't in the film.

I hope that if you're a bit of a statistics nerd, like me, you've found this fairly interesting. Take a look at the graphs for more details!

Friday, 27 March 2015

Constant companion

This week's Booking Through Thursday is:

Do you carry a book around with you? Inside the house? Whenever you go out? Always, everywhere, it’s practically glued to your fingers?
(And yes, digital books very much DO count as long as you’re spending time reading on your Kindle or iPad and not just loading them with books that you never actually read.)

Yes, I definitely carry a book with me almost everywhere I go. I only carry it around my own house when I'm going to be cooking, as then I can read it while stirring things - I don't feel the need to take it to the bathroom and I'm certainly not reading in the shower.

I always take a book when I'm going anywhere with a chance of waiting - for lunch breaks at work, queues in supermarkets, doctor's appointments - and definitely when travelling, I'll bring about 2 books more than I think I can get through in that time because the idea of maybe running out is just awful.

They're always physical books and not digital, I've never really got into reading on Kindle. It just doesn't feel like a book to me, it loses a lot of its character. I can see the logical convenience of it all, but it just doesn't count as a book in my head.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Big Four - Agatha Christie

This is more a series of mini-adventures than one single novel, in which Hercule Poirot and his devoted friend Hastings try to thwart the plans of an international gang known as the Big Four in the quest for world domination. Despite the global influence of these criminal masterminds, Poirot engages them in a war of minds and strategy that has likely deadly consequences.

The Big Four is one of the most unashamedly entertaining Christie novels I've read, with a Shakespearean penchant for unfathomable disguises, plenty of melodramatic grandstanding, and a few satirical digs at the conventions of mystery-writing.

Seen from the sidekick Hastings' point of view, the reader is kept in the dark for much of the novel, while being given plenty of clues to make guesses at the resolution. A fun, light-hearted read of a detective novel.

Next up: The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie (the last in this three-novel volume, and I'll move on to something different!)

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Book-to-film polls

I've made a couple of lists of book-to-film adaptations, as I'm interested to see how popular the books and films are in comparison with each other. I'll share the results when I have a fair sample of users.

Take part here:
and here:

Saturday, 21 March 2015

The Pale Horse - Agatha Christie

As detective novels go, this one stands out a long way - sinister, well crafted and very surprising, this has to be one of the most interesting Christie novels I've read so far.

A priest is called to the bedside of a dying woman in London, and comes away with a list of names scrawled on a scrap of paper. He is later found clubbed to death, and the mysterious list is the only clue the police have to solve the puzzle. Mark Easterbrook, an academic struggling for inspiration, gets involved tracking down the killer when his recently deceased godmother proves to be one of the names scribbled down. Every name on the list turns out to have recently died of apparently natural causes.

With his accomplice, a spirited young woman named Ginger, Easterbrook is led to a converted inn called the Pale Horse in a small country village, now the home of three women claiming to have occult powers.

Appearing as a supporting character is Mrs Oliver, a wonderfully satirical self-portrait by Christie of an abstracted, rambling mystery novelist, who lends the story a much-needed light-hearted aspect.

Rather than simply attempting to solve a murder, The Pale Horse plays with ideas of the supernatural and discusses fascinating psychological or psychosomatic concepts. Not only that, but the novel is very cleverly constructed, with oblique hints throughout and layers within layers hiding the answer. Very much recommended!

Next up: The Big Four by Agatha Christie

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Ross Poldark - Winston Graham

I've had the first 3 novels in this series for a little while now, but the BBC adaptation airing reminded me that I ought to actually read them (or at least the first one) before I watch it.

The titular character, Ross Poldark, returns from fighting in the American civil war to find that his childhood sweetheart is on the brink of marrying his cousin. Plunged into a wave of depression and disillusionment, he cuts himself off from the rest of the family and tries to carve out a life for himself from the ruins of his father's land.

Stylistically, I found this novel a little odd - Graham does an excellent job using the linguistic style of the time period, and his local dialects add a lot of flavour to the text. However, the sense of realism portrayed in the structure of the plot and the sections of unreliable narration during times of great emotion for the characters feel much more modern. Ross Poldark is a convincing historical pastiche language-wise, but tells the story in a modern manner.

It's the start of a typical family saga in that we see the points of view of most of the characters involved, and follow their innermost feelings in great detail for short spaces of time. In that way it reminded me of The Forsyte Saga, in that not very much technically happens, but in a very personal and involving way. The depth and attention to detail in which each character's thoughts are described means that by the end you feel as though you've known all of them personally for a long time.

Now that's finished, I can check out what the BBC adaptation's like!

PS. How fantastic is his matador cape on the cover?

Next up: The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie

Friday, 13 March 2015

Terry Pratchett

Sometimes it's better to light a flamethrower than curse the darkness - Men at Arms

More than 10 years ago, I was lucky enough to meet this wonderful man and heard him speak about writing. It was before his Alzheimer's had begun, and he was sharp, witty and full of self-deprecating humour.

I've read his entire Discworld series at least 3 times, and I'm sorely tempted to do so again now, although I have far too many fresh books to read first.

Alzheimer's is a frighteningly common condition these days, and while I'm lucky enough not to know anyone closely with it (yet), I see so many patients on the ward with dementia on top of their physical problems, and it must be heartbreaking to see someone you love losing part of themselves in front of your eyes, and terrifying to be the one with the condition.

I wish he'd been with us for longer.

Thursday, 12 March 2015


This week's Booking Through Thursday is:

In an ideal world, what kind of book cases would you have? Built-ins? Barrister ones with glass doors? The cheapest you could find so you could have lots of them?
And … what kind of bookcases do you REALLY have?

In an ideal world I'd have a cosy wood-fitted library with wall-to-ceiling books (for instance this gorgeous one here:)

In real life, however,  I currently have a fairly random 5 bookcases that I've picked up along the way, including a repurposed bedside table, a children's bookcase I've had since I was about 8, and a wire bathroom shelf that I found on the street with cardboard acting as shelving base, as well as a couple of more traditional bookshelves. Also books balanced on top of said bookcases because 5 just isn't enough to hold all of them...

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Film adaptation - Murder on the Orient Express

I read the novel quite a while ago, so watching this adaptation was long overdue. I went for the classic David Suchet 1974 version, and I have to say I love the old-style use of dramatic music to highlight key moments. I also liked the slow pace, which reflects the steady information-gathering of the book, and makes a nice change from modern films and TV where the angle or scene cuts once every few seconds.

For me David Suchet is THE Poirot, and Murder on the Orient Express had plenty of the compassion and understated humour that comes across in the novels. The slower, lingering shots added a wonderful sense of atmosphere.

Appearances by many other talented actors and Christie's signature plot twists made this an entertaining and engaging film to watch, even knowing the ending already. Good gentle fun, a long way from more recent (in my opinion rather stressful) gritty realism.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

World Book Day

In honour of the recent world book day (that's a good enough reason, right?) I did a little book shopping. As well as a promising-looking murder mystery set in the 20s I came away with 3 vintage-facsimile hardback Agatha Christies - I just love those covers.

Did anyone else do or pick up anything nice for world book day?

Friday, 6 March 2015

The Assassin's Cloak

Bonus review: The Assassin's Cloak, ed. by Irene and Alan Taylor.

Under a disappointingly exciting title (the significance of which escapes me), this is an extensive and on the whole very enjoyable anthology of diary extracts. For each day of the year there is a collection of extracts written on that day at various points throughout history. There is also a section of brief alphabetised biographies of each person quoted, so the curious can find out some background for the quotes, followed by an index listing which dates each person appears in.

My only minor gripes are that a couple of fictional diarists are also included among the real-life ones (Adrian Mole and The Diary of a Provincial Lady), and the inconsistency in how many extracts come under each date. To be fair though, perhaps it proved difficult to find more than a few short quotes on some days, while it was easier on widely celebrated public holidays, the new year or the anniversaries of some great event to find more interesting excerpts.

The diaries come from a wide variety of people, from Samuel Pepys and Dorothy Wordsworth to Andy Warhol and Tony Benn. Particularly on days like Christmas, it's fascinating to see different peoples' reflections on the same celebrations throughout the years. Another particularly poignant aspect is the World Wars I and II diaries, especially accounts of life in the Weimar republic or in concentration camps.

A very interesting book to dip into every day, with fascinating glimpses into the lives of others throughout recent history.

Thursday, 5 March 2015


This week's Booking Through Thursday is:

Hardcovers or paperbacks?

Honestly, I prefer paperbacks. With modern books hardbacks are usually more expensive, bigger and heavier, which just has the effect of making them more difficult to read from a practical standpoint.

I do love the proper bound covers on antique books, however, especially if they're real embossed leather with the gold leaf intact - they're just beautiful.