Six Degrees of Separation: From The Pearl of Penang to Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

I’ve often really enjoyed those Six Degrees of Separation blog posts that connect books, often books that would never normally appear in the same list. Thinking I’d have a go, here’s what I came up with when I finished The Pearl of Penang by Clare Flynn. Incidentally, these are all books I’ve enjoyed immensely.

The Pearl of Penang is set from 1939 and on into the war years among Malaya’s expats where it seems to be all gin slings and tennis parties, in spite of the havoc in Europe. Reality eventually hits home with the Japanese attacks on South East Asia and the fall of Singapore. It is an engaging story about Evie, who’s missed the marriage boat, stuck working as a lady’s companion, mouldering in rural England and desperate for change. So she accepts a terse proposal of marriage by mail and winds up in Penang, trying to win the heart of her distant but devilishly handsome new husband. I could have gone for Jane Eyre here, as there are definitely a few similarities, or Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. But no, the terrible events that race you through to the end of the novel describing the effects of war on ordinary people are what haunted me most. So, it had to be:

Flight by Elephant by Andrew Martin. This author took time out from trains and his Jim Stringer series to write an amazing non-fiction book about a dramatic rescue following the Japanese invasion of Burma. As the monsoon threatens to make the Chaukan Pass into Assam impenetrable, a group of Indian army soldiers, civilians and their Indian servants turn to Gyles Mackrell for help. He’s a tea planter in his fifties, also a decorated WWI pilot, but more importantly he’s good with elephants. As the Japanese close in, Mackrell and his elephant riders battle rising floodwaters, leeches, biting insects and disease to save the lives of people half dead with starvation and fever. It’s a nail-biting read beating hands down just about anything you could hope to find in fiction for thrills and daring-do.

And speaking of elephants, who would have thought a baby elephant entering the life of a retired policeman could lead to a fabulous new crime-solving duo? The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan is set in Mumbai, a modern, teeming city and not the ideal place for a baby elephant, particularly if you live in a high-rise apartment building. But when Ashwin Chopra leaves his office for the last time, puzzling about the death of a drowned boy – a case his superiors don’t regard as suspicious – he finds he suddenly has to take on responsibility for a baby elephant. This Mumbai is a brilliantly rendered setting, and there are plenty of plot-twists as Ashwin and elephant Ganesh deal to the bad guys. I could follow this one up with another animal detective story, possibly featuring cats or dogs, but these really don’t do it for me. However, there’s a lovely subplot involving a misunderstanding between husband and wife, and their eventual reconciliation.

Another book about a couple going through a hiccup in their marriage is Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler. Forty-year-old Delia Grindstead feels taken for granted, misunderstood, and not knowing what she wants in life. Her husband is a doctor who joined her father’s practice and got to choose one of the three daughters. Like a fairy-tale, he picks the youngest and prettiest, the one who thought she never stood a chance. Years later, she is still living in her childhood home, her children almost grown, the youngest a surly 15 year old. On their annual vacation at the beach, Delia has the impulse to walk away. Wearing only a swimsuit, a beach wrap, and espadrilles, she hitches a ride to wind up in a small town, where she begins a new life. She just wanted to start again ‘from scratch’, she says. How she finds a place to live, a job, then becomes immersed in the lives of the townsfolk makes for a heartfelt and quirky story.

Someone else starting again ‘from scratch’ is Aidan Bishop in The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. A guest at a country house party at a place called Blackheath, Aidan has no recollection of why he’s there, finding himself running through the grounds at night when he hears a woman’s scream and gunshot. The next day he wakes up in the body of a different guest and learns from someone dressed as a Medieval plague doctor that to escape Blackheath he must solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle. He has eight days, waking up each morning as a different guest or servant, reliving the same day. But all is not what it seems and there are further surprises in store for the reader in this most original of novels that reinvents the country house murder mystery as we know it.

Another novel that brings the reader back to square one, time and time again, is Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Ursula Todd is born in 1910, and then because of heavy snow and no medical help at her birth, she dies. Darkness fell. The next chapter, Ursula has another go at life in a novel that puts her through all kinds of mis-steps and disasters including the Spanish Flu, sexual assault, an abusive marriage and the Blitz. Of course, the upheavals of the twentieth century play a big part in the story, but at least Ursula has the chance to get things right in her own life with each reincarnation. The story works on a more personal level, showing the effects of traumatic events on the decisions we make in life later on. Interestingly, both Life After Life and The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle won the Costa Awards.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (another Costa Award winner) also features an unforgettable heroine who like Ursula, is a survivor. Eleanor, a victim of childhood abuse and trauma, has evolved into a version of herself that makes her awkward around others to the point of rudeness. She is intelligent enough to hold down her job in the finance team for a graphic design company, but has no friends and gets through the weekend with a couple of bottles of vodka. But this is fiction, and as the reader would expect, Eleanor is going to change. How she deals with her past and allows others into her life creates a memorable story told by a more than memorable narrator. This novel is set in Glasgow – a strikingly different setting from Penang where we began.

Book Review: Death in a Desert Land by Andrew Wilson

Andrew Wilson is obviously a big fan of Agatha Christie – something he and I have in common – so much so that he has written a series of mystery novels with the Queen of Crime starring as his amateur sleuth. Wilson isn’t the first novelist to find Christie so fascinating that he has fictionalised an aspect of her life. Her famous disappearance in 1926 when her marriage failed has inspired films and fiction (The Woman on the Orient Express by Lyndsay Jayne Ashford; On the Blue Train by Kristel Thornel are two novels worth checking out).

And Wilson isn’t the first novelist to make his detective a famous author. Nicola Upson has chosen Josephine Tey for her sleuth in a series of nine excellent mysteries; Oscar Wilde uses his great wit to solve crime in a series by Gyles Brandreth and more than one author has chosen Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to foil criminals (who better?), the latest I’ve come across: Bradley Harper, pairing the great writer with a Derringer-toting Margaret Harkness in a series kicking off with A Knife in the Fog.

So Andrew Wilson’s series should come as no surprise. How did I feel picking up this book? Were there a few twinges of reluctance? A sense of dabbling with a holy of holies? Yes, definitely. But one day I found myself holding a copy of Death in a Desert Land, the third book in the series, and I just couldn’t help myself.

… I felt a little more secure knowing that in my handbag was a syringe filled with a fast-acting drug that could put a man to sleep in minutes.

In this story, Agatha is divorced and independent, taking a break from novel-writing to help out Davison, her pal from the Foreign Office, to investigate the death of Gertrude Bell. The famous archaeologist, another real person, supposedly died of a drug overdose, but two letters have recently come to light expressing her fears for her life. Agatha is to stay with Katherine and Leonard Woolley who are running a dig at Ur, site of the famous Death Pit and full of wonderful artefacts. Bell had worked with the Woolleys, sorting out which exhibits were to stay in Iraq and which could be shipped to the British Museum.

The storyline has echoes of Christie’s novel, Murder in Mesopotamia, and Wilson wonderfully conjures up the setting – sunsets across the sand-dunes, desert storms, the chanting chain-gang of Iraqi workers. I’ve always loved Christie’s Middle Eastern novels (Death on the Nile, Appointment with Death, They Came to Baghdad) so was soon enjoying myself. When there’s a murder – the spoilt daughter of the wealthy American sponsoring the site bludgeoned to death – Agatha has to forget about Gertrude Bell as the finger is pointed at Katherine, a volatile character at the best of times.

An archaeological dig in the middle of nowhere offers the perfect ‘locked-room’ mystery in that we have a small group of characters in situ, each with their own secrets and motives. The plot puts Agatha through her paces, risking a face-off with a potential killer, wielding her syringe (why couldn’t Davison have set her up with a neat little pistol at the outset?) often at night. The finale around the table with all the suspects and witnesses as Agatha presents an account of events and eventually unmasks the killer will remind you of more than a few Christie novels.

Death in a Desert Land is altogether very entertaining, with enough humour not to take itself too seriously and is a welcome addition to the Christie canon for anyone who has read all the original books and craves more. It is very much in the spirit of Christie, and the smart, deductive and charming character of Agatha, with her knowledge of poisons, a perfect reluctant heroine.

Make sure you read the notes at the end of the book where Wilson outlines The Facts but only when you’ve finished the novel as there could be spoilers. It adds some interesting details and shows us that Wilson has done his homework. Wilson has written a number of biographies, including one of Patricia Highsmith, so we know we’re in good hands. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series; this book gets four-and-a-half out of five from me.

Reading Australia

For a while there, I mostly avoided Australian fiction, fearing the characters would sound as if they’d stepped out of Kath and Kim. I was foolish, I know – I’d read some Tim Winton and Peter Cleary with enjoyment, so can only assume I’d had a bad experience  once somewhere along the line.

But lately, I find myself constantly returning to and even looking forward to new fiction releases from our neighbours across the ditch. Here’s a round-up of some of the Australian novels I would particularly recommend. Continue reading “Reading Australia”