The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

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After reading so many contemporary novels over the past few months, last week I wanted to read something old fashioned, comforting and familiar – so I turned to Agatha Christie. It seems odd to say that a book about a murder is comforting, but there is something about Christie that is so routine and recognizable and that makes her novels a nice reprieve from modern life. And haven’t we needed an escape lately?

This novel is narrated by a Dr. Sheppard of King’s Abbot, a small village to where Hercule Poirot has retired to tend to his garden and retire from society. But as everyone there knows he is a lauded detective he gets asked to help when Roger Ackroyd, a wealthy businessman, is found stabbed to death in a locked room. With the assistance of Dr. Sheppard, Poirot goes through his usual logic-based investigations, relying on village gossip and speculation to fill in the blanks.

It all smoothly hurtles along until the reader is snapped to attention by the completely astounding ending. It’s an ending that I certainly didn’t see coming and it is so admirably clever that I sat in silent admiration for Christie’s skill after the last page had been turned.

I’ve read a lot of  contemporary mysteries lately and I have to say that this novel trumps them all. I’d forgotten what a skillful writer Christie is and how you can get lost in her books like nothing else. After finishing this I ordered a few more Poirots to read over the summer and I’m looking forward to spending a few lazy afternoons  reading about the Belgian detective and his little grey cells.

*Thanks to Simon and Rachel for mentioning The Murder of Roger Ackroyd on their “Tea or Books?” podcast and inspiring me to read it.

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Anderby Wold by Winifred Holtby

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I’m counting this as my first book read for the All Virago/All August event even though I finished it on the last day of July. It is the reason, however, that I visited the Librarything Virago group (to see if anyone else had recently read it) and found out about AV/AA so I believe it’s earned its place on the list.

Set just before WWI, the novel opens with a party in honor of Mary Robson and her husband, John. It’s their ten year anniversary, but more importantly, they’ve just bought Anderby Wold, Mary’s family home. As the relatives interact with each other at the party, we get a sense of their personalities and relation to each other which sets the scene for the rest of the novel.

Mary is quite a bit younger than her husband John, who is also her second cousin. She married him out of necessity and accepts his passive nature and rather boring demeanor because he doesn’t interfere with her running their two farms. John’s sister Sarah thinks that Mary treats him badly but she’s about the only one in their small villages in Yorkshire who thinks badly of her. Mary’s revered by the community for being service-minded, fair and capable. Underneath her practical nature, however, lurks a romantic streak that leads her to daydream about a great passion and to stubbornly sentimentalize her land and possessions.

Everything in her world starts to shift when a union man comes to the village and urges the farm workers to lobby for better wages or to strike during the upcoming harvest. David Rossitur is energetic, ambitious and idealistic and though he hates everything Mary stands for they are both young and charming and Mary quickly falls in love. The combination of the difficulty of the demands of the workforce and her violent hidden feelings for David upset Mary’s world to a remarkable degree yet she’s determined to carry on in the traditional ways of the village until a shocking tragedy demands a change.

Holtby is a wonderful storyteller, balancing the story of political upheaval and the inner struggles of individual characters with a perfect touch. Her story weaves the villagers lives together in such a way that if one of them is affected by something, they’re all affected and this really illuminates the idea that we’re all connected whether we realize it or not. I also like the way she places Mary’s wrestle with her personal problems against the backdrop of labor organizing to really intensify the understanding of how much the world was changing during this period in history.

This is a fantastic novel and I’m so glad I finally read my first Holtby. I’m now looking forward to reading the other Holtby novels that I have in my collection.

Willa Cather Reading Week: A Lost Lady

A Lost Lady

I was so happy to read Willa Cather this week – to be back in the West, in the beautiful landscape of Nebraska, in the small railroad towns and among the pioneers who are rough yet cultured in their own way. I always feel that reading Cather is the closest I get to reading about my own heritage in a novel (other than reading Westerns, I suppose) as my mom’s family were all pioneers, settling in Utah, Nevada, New Mexico and, eventually, Arizona. Cather’s settings and characters are so familiar to me.

A Lost Lady is set in Sweet Water, a small town in Nebraska that is on the rail line between Omaha and Denver. Mrs. Forrester is a beautiful, mysterious, refined woman who lives with her wealthy husband in a big, lovely house on the outskirts of town. She’s vibrant and flirtatious – what is often called a man’s woman. Young Niel Herbert falls under her spell rather early in his life and as he grows up we see Mrs. Forrester from his perspective – from near perfection to the clear-eyed disappointment we sometimes develop in the cherished adults of our youth. But always he protects her, helps her, forgives her, until she finally puts her faith in the wrong person and his respect for her cracks.

This is a fascinating portrait of a woman who, like the West, is in transition. Though Niel longs for her to remain steady in her charms and perfection, Mrs. Forrester needs to change as the world changes. It is upsetting to all of the men around her and ultimately leads her to break with the people who want to maintain tradition and stability. It is a convincing character study and a classic portrait of frontier life on the verge of vanishing.

A short novel at just 150 pages, but a powerful one. Willa Cather’s writing is sensational, especially as it is not showy, but subtle and quiet.

Thank you to Ali for hosting this week. I’m now motivated to read the rest of Cather’s novels.

The Dark Tide by Vera Brittain

The Dark Tide was published in 1923 and was Vera Brittain’s first novel. It caused quite a stir when it was released as it caricatured several Oxford dons and nearly insulted her good friend Winifred Holtby, whom the main character is modeled after. However, Holtby took it “with good humor”. I think I would have been insulted if I were Holtby after reading the first 1/3 of the novel as she makes the protagonist, Daphne Lethbridge, seem like a horrid, ignorant, mean girl. But Brittain does redeem her character in the end.

As the novel opens, Daphne has returned to Oxford after serving as a driver during the War. She’s looking forward to continuing her studies in International Relations, but things go south when she begins coaching with a fellow student, Virginia Dennison. Virginia is simply brilliant. She’s also attractive and dresses beautifully. Daphne can’t control her jealousy and develops a dislike of Virginia that borders on hatred. For Virginia, the feeling is mutual. She thinks Daphne is idiotic, clumsy and ridiculous. Daphne tries so hard to eclipse Virginia’s work, but Virginia’s natural abilities far outshine her own. This antagonism and competition inadvertently leads to Daphne agreeing to marry their coach, a man named Raymond Sylvester, who had really wanted to marry Virginia. The tragedy that erupts from this marriage results in Daphne and Virginia forming an unlikely alliance.

I very much liked The Dark Tide and Vera Brittain’s clear writing style. This is the type of novel that you can get lost in at the end of a long day. It has a tinge of melodrama, not too much, just the right amount to make it addicting. Daphne and Virginia are both engaging characters and the transformations realized in their personalities by the end of the novel are admirable. There is definitely a “feel good” ending to the book that was a tad surprising –  I did not predict the ending at all. More than anything, this is hugely enjoyable and completely absorbing – time well spent.

For anyone wondering about my storytime experience – it went fairly well, but I don’t feel great about it. I had about 35 people and it was chaotic, but I did learn more about pacing and story length. I know that as I do more of them, I’ll learn more and be able to refine and improve the experience for both me and the babies. The babies were the best part – one little boy named Jack let me hold him and his grandparents told me that he never lets anyone outside of the family hold him – that made me feel great!