Review | Fate of Flames (Effigies # 1), Sarah Raughley

28954021Touted as Pacific Rim meets Avengers with a Sailor Moon cast,” Sarah Raughley’s Fate of Flames was simply irresistible to this geek girl. Having read it, the book felt more like Captain Planet meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but that just be my age talking. The Effigies are a group of four girls, each with the power to control an element (earth, air, water, fire), who are tasked to protect the world from Phantoms. When one girl dies, another is chosen to take her place. Fate of Flames is the story of one such girl, Maia, a lifelong Effigy fangirl who is chosen to become the next Fire Effigy. Not only does she have to live up to the legacy of her legendary predecessor Natalya, whose fourteen years as Effigy is double the expected lifespan, but Maia also has to deal with having power over an element that took the lives of her parents and twin sister June. Added to that are the other three Effigies who can’t stand each other, and the Sect, an agency that manages the Effigies and may have a hidden agenda.

Fate of Flames is an entertaining fantasy adventure that feels very much like the first book of a series. It does a good job in creating its main characters, the four Effigies, as vulnerable superheroes. I like that Raughley makes them all celebrities, and highlights the challenges of living as a superhero under the spotlight. Early on, Maia is afraid of coming out as the new Effigy because she knows people will expect her to save them, whether or not she is ready to do so. The Air Effigy, Lake, is an especially interesting character in this regard, as a singer-supermodel by day. Many people (including Maia before she was chosen) criticize her online for her lack of commitment to being an Effigy, while many other people (her “Swans”) defend her actions and argue for some compassion. This mix of censure and defense is such a true representation of how I can imagine being a public superhero will be in the Twitter age that I can actually imagine Lake in our real world today.

I also like how Raughley makes each of the Effigies vulnerably human. Lake’s perceived lack of commitment to being an Effigy is rooted in her fear of the role. The Water Effigy, Belle, who is perceived by most as the most badass heroine in the group, doesn’t see herself as a hero, and instead is all too aware of the tragic fate that awaits all Effigies. And my personal favourite, Chae Rin the Earth Effigy, is like the Raphael (from Ninja Turtles) of the group, tough and with a violent temper. But her work as an Effigy has distanced her from her family, and a scene at a Montreal circus hints at how much she is affected by this distance. I love this, because in some ways, the Effigies are all badasses who can create fault lines in the ground or create a big enough wind gust to keep a train from falling. But these little notes remind us that they’re all teenage girls, who are trying to work out what being an Effigy means for their real lives.

With this being the first book in a series, Raughley is very clearly trying to build a mythology and to craft a world that will give rise to a much longer story arc. The good news is that there’s a lot of richness to be mined in future books. Unfortunately, somewhat similar to the movie adaptation of Cassie Clare’s Mortal Instruments, there are a lot of elements that end up being juggled and some of it ends up feeling muddled. For example, when one of the characters says that the villain’s actions are unlike anything that the Effigies have ever faced before, the drama of this moment is undercut by the fact that I’m still unclear on what it is that Effigies usually face, so I just have to accept the character’s word that this is momentous and unusual.

In another example, an early scene shows a single Effigy fighting a Phantom, which made me wonder where the other Effigies were. It isn’t until much later that we learn that with a notable exception decades ago, Effigies don’t usually work as a team, but then pretty soon after, we also learn that Maia’s generation of Effigies will be working together and that this makes them unusual. Again, having assumed throughout that Effigies usually fought as a team, I was pretty meh over Maia’s batch uniting as a team. Raughley seems to assume that we know as much about Effigies as Maia does, and while I wouldn’t necessarily have wanted a full chapter detailing the history, a little more background on Effigies up front would have helped.

One particularly frustrating logical hole is a revelation about the villain, which calls into question one of the basic tenets about Effigies. It was presented for dramatic effect and the characters do react with surprise, but none of them appears bothered by a logical inconsistency with the Effigy mythology, and it just irritated me for the rest of the story.

All that being said, Fate of Flames was an entertaining read that sets up some interesting threads to be picked up in future books. There is lots more to be revealed about the Effigies and the Phantoms in the next book, which should be interesting to learn about. I’d especially love to learn more about Rhys, the cute, dorky agent who clearly has a secret but whom I hope turns out to be a good guy.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Blog Tour Review | Her Nightly Embrace (Ravi, P.I. Book 1), Adi Tantimedh

9781501130571I was excited about Her Nightly Embrace ever since I saw it in the Simon and Schuster Canada blogger email. It’s the first in a new mystery trilogy featuring a protagonist of Indian descent and written by a graphic novelist and screenwriter of Chinese-Thai descent. Even better, it is part of a multimedia approach to storytelling with a TV show and podcast produced by Idris Elba and starring Sendhil Ramamurthy, whom I loved in Heroes. So to be completely honest, I began this book already predisposed to liking it.

And now, having read the book, forget just liking the book. I’m a full-fledged fan girl and am so excited to see how these stories will play out on the screen! Structured to fit the multimedia publication format, Her Nightly Embrace is a collection of four short mysteries, each focusing on a particular case, and all four exploring a larger narrative around protagonist Ravi Chandra Singh’s introduction into life as a private investigator, and in particular a P.I. working at Golden Sentinels, an upmarket London investigations firm staffed by “strays with skills”, “brilliant fuckups with nowhere else to go.”

Indeed, the cast of characters is probably the biggest strength of this series. Ravi is fantastic as the “regular” guy in the group, a failed religious scholar and former high school teacher who sees gods. The very first line of the book reveals his propensity to find gods, usually Hindu, at stressful times, and I love how matter of factly Tantimedh treats this particular skill, simply inserting Kali into a corner tweeting to the other gods about Ravi’s latest exploits. The rest of the staff at Golden Sentinels is even more colourful. My favourite is probably Olivia Wong, a Hong Kong heiress and genius hacker, just because she’s super smart and, yes, an Asian woman, so I’m really excited to see her onscreen. Other memorable characters include: Ken and Clive, a pair of ex-cops who act as the firm’s muscle and who also happen to be a couple; Marcie Holder, an American former publicist; Benjamin Lee, a MacGyver-style techie; Mark Chapman, a stoner; David Okri, a lawyer from a Nigerian immigrant family who often goes with their boss Roger Golden to woo super rich potential clients; and Cheryl Hughes, the office manager and Roger’s right hand woman. With so many characters, it can get a bit difficult to tell them apart in the beginning, but Tantimedh does such a great job in making each of them so vivid that each becomes memorable in their own way.

The cases as well are intriguing. Tantimedh’s writing is funny and fast-paced, and the mysteries suck you in. I particularly love “War of the Sock Puppets,” about a female celebrity who faces online harassment and doxxing for being a feminist, and “The Hideaway Bride,” about a woman from a traditional Pakistani family who goes missing shortly before her arranged marriage. I found both cases particularly relevant, and found myself cheering Ravi and his team on as they investigate. The final case, “The Leaky Banker,” about a banker who fears for her life, had the highest stakes and it was great to see Ravi truly settling into his role and taking charge, but it also had the most traditional feel to it and so didn’t quite stick with me as much.

The titular case “Her Nightly Embrace” had an interesting premise — a politician claims his dead fiancee is haunting him for sex — and I like how the character of the politician evolved over the story, but I admit to being dissatisfied with how something was handled at the end. This is one instance where I thought the episodic format worked against the book, as I felt that in the interest of wrapping things up, the extent of a particular act’s impact in this story wasn’t given due significance for how heinous it really was. That being said, it’s a single glitch in an otherwise enjoyable set of mysteries, and I really like how most of the time, Ravi serves as the voice of conscience to his more experienced colleagues, and in that way probably addresses audience concerns as well.

Overall, Her Nightly Embrace is a fantastic start to this new mystery series. I love Ravi and his co-workers, and I also loved his scenes with his family, which are all hilarious and feel so real. I’m so excited for the next books in the series, and I can’t wait to see how the podcast and TV show turn out! (I have no idea if they’ll be based on the same stories or will have their own, but selfishly, I’m rather hoping for original stories on screen, just so I have more Ravi, P.I. cases to enjoy!)

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Film Review | Effi Briest, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder at TIFF Nov 3

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Image courtesy of the TIFF website

Effi Briest shows at TIFF Bell Lightbox November 3rd at 6:45 pm, as part of Imitations of Life: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a retrospective that runs from October 28 – December 3.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Effi Briest, a 1974 film starring Hanna Schygulla, feels very faithful to the format of its source material. While I haven’t read the 1896 novel Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane, Fassbinder’s approach in this film feels so novelistic in its quiet tone that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the scenes and dialogue have a one-to-one correlation to the original book. Take for example the opening scene, where the screen shows a still image of a house and a narrator describes the house in great detail and says that across it, “the village street lay still, bathed in the midday sun.” There are also scenes where there is no dialogue, but rather the narrator relays an earlier conversation or the characters’ inner thoughts while the actors move about silently on screen.

This style fits particularly well with the restrictive 19th century social conventions explored in the story, which is about an unhappy marriage told from the perspective of a 19th century woman and has been compared to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. Effi Briest’s parents arrange her marriage to Baron Innstetten, a man over twice her age who had courted her mother many years ago. As her mother told her, the marriage would increase her status and let her achieve at 20 what many women do at 40.

Unfortunately, Baron Innstetten is a scary, controlling figure, and rather than comfort Effi when she has trouble sleeping, Innstetten dismisses her fears about a ghost in their home, and worse, Effi later realizes he had been trying to use the ghost to ‘educate’ her. Effi finds a much-needed friend in the handsome and dashing Major Crampas, an acquaintance of the Baron, and as anyone who’s read Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary can predict, this cannot end well.

The main highlight of the movie for me is the performance by Hanna Schygulla, who plays Effi which such lovely innocence that it’s heart-breaking to see her transform from the joyous ‘aerial spirit’ in the first scene to the more restricted, fearful wife and tragic figure that she becomes. I wanted her to find a happy ending with Major Crampas, yet knew she was restricted by the unfortunate reality of her time.

Effi Briest is a beautiful film, and it’s no wonder the book on which it was based was a literary classic.

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Image from Berlin Alexanderplatz courtesy of the TIFF website

About Imitations of Life: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Running from October 28 to December 23, Imitations of Life showcases 34 feature films and 2 short films (28 of them presented on 35mm), including several restorations, rarities, and Toronto premieres. From November 22 to January 5 will present Fassbinder’s favourite films in All That Heaven Allows: Fassbinder’s Favourites. This sidebar offers a rich selection of classic films that shaped Fassbinder’s acidulous vision, ranging from Hollywood noirs and melodramas to masterpieces of European cinema. See the TIFF website for a full schedule.

About Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Fassbinder was a German film director, screenwriter, and actor who remains as one of the most controversial, highly praised, and greatly influential directors of postwar cinema. During the 17/18 years of his professional career, he maintained a frenetic pace and completed forty feature length films; two television film series; three short films; four video productions; twenty-four stage plays and four radio plays; and thirty-six acting roles in his own and others’ films. He died in 1982 at 37 from a lethal cocktail of cocaine and barbiturates.

Underlying Fassbinder’s work was a desire to provoke and disturb, he focused on outsiders, his films are populated by misfit characters that often reflected his own fluid sexuality and self-destructive tendencies. His phenomenal creative energy, when working, coexisted with that wild, self-destructive tendency that earned him a reputation as the enfant terrible of the New German Cinema, as well as being its central figure. He had tortured personal relationships with the actors and technicians around him who formed a surrogate family. However, his films demonstrate his deep sensitivity to social outsiders and his hatred of institutionalized violence. He ruthlessly attacked both German bourgeois society and the larger limitations of humanity.

Also at TIFF: Berlin Alexanderplatz : An adaptation of the 1929 novel by Alfred Döblin

In the mountainous ex-con protagonist Franz Biberkopf, Fassbinder found an image of himself, a true alter ego. Fassbinder rarely revealed as much tenderness as he did in his portrayal of Franz’s struggle to go straight after being released from prison, as he is pulled between the embodiments of Good and Evil. Offering some of the most memorable characters and greatest acting in all of cinema, Berlin Alexanderplatz is the summa and summit of Fassbinder’s career.
The first two events in this series will be introduced by Barbara Sukowa, who won the Best Young Actress Award in Germany for her breakthrough role in this wildly controversial and immersive epic.
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Thanks to TIFF for a screener of this film in exchange for an honest review.

#IFOA2016 Blog Tour Review | The Parcel, Anosh Irani

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28185967Anosh Irani’s The Parcel hooked me from the very first line: “I go by many names, none of my own choosing.”

In Madhu, Irani has created such a beautifully arresting and evocative heroine whose story just draws the reader in and refuses to let go. This is particularly significant since Madhu’s story isn’t an easy one to read, and Madhu herself isn’t an easy person to root for, given what she is tasked to do. See, Madhu’s job is to ready a parcel for delivery, and in this case, ‘parcel’ refers to a ten year old girl from the provinces who was sold by her family into prostitution, and ‘delivery’ means readying the girl for the man who bought her.

I struggled to write this review, because, really, how can I admit feeling empathy for a character who does such a horrible thing? How can I detest what Madhu is doing while still in many ways understanding why she is doing it? It’s a terrible, inescapable tension that permeated my entire experience of reading this book, and it’s made even more difficult by the realization that there are likely people in the real world who live as Irani’s characters do and who face the same situation as Madhu and the parcel and the other characters in this book do. I’m not completely sure how I feel about this book or its characters, but I do believe it’s a testament to Irani’s writing that the book has affected me this much.

Irani plunges us deep into Madhu’s life, and shows us the world of Kamathipura, a red light district in Bombay, India, through her eyes. Madhu is a eunuch and a hijra, one who is neither man nor woman but a third gender. At forty, she is too old to continue as a prostitute, and based on experience, too ill-suited for performing at weddings. She is thus relegated to begging for alms from passengers in taxis, and when her hijra clan’s leader Gurumai orders her to prepare a parcel for a powerful brothel owner, Madhu can’t refuse.

In some ways, Madhu sees her task as merciful. Rather than the usual way of ‘opening’ a ‘parcel’ through force, Madhu takes the time to first remove any last shred of hope or humanity in the girl. Madhu’s reluctance is clear — she distances herself from the girl’s humanity, referring to her as a ‘parcel’ throughout, yet at one point, loses control and lashes out during a particularly disturbing stage of the preparation process. Madhu also clearly forms an empathetic link with the girl, being reminded of the past as she tries to make the girl break all links to her own past.

What’s clear is that Madhu views her work as necessary. She says that hope is dangerous, and the sooner a parcel accepts her fate, the easier it will be. So much of me rebels against this, yet part of me is also aware that, for Madhu and other hijras, and for so many other characters in this book, hope is indeed futile. Among the most heart-wrenching scenes in this book are centred on hope — Madhu standing on a bridge and looking at her childhood home wondering if she can ever return, or an elderly hijra Bulbul listening to the radio and absolutely certain she hears coded messages from a former lover who wants her back.

The full extent of Irani’s talent, however, is not in the bleakness of such themes, but in teasing out the strands of light and humanity in them. I absolutely love the community of hijras in Irani’s Kamathipura, in particular Gurumai and Bulbul, who take Madhu into their family and become the loving and accepting mother and sister she never had. I love how they take in hijra prostitutes who are ‘pojeetive’ or have angered their clan leader and are therefore cast out from the hijra community. Even these loving relationships and close-knit communities aren’t perfect — Gurumai is a maternal figure yet still takes her share of Madhu’s earnings — and it’s this inextricable intertwining of the positives and the negatives that make this world feel ever more real.

The Parcel is not an easy read, but it’s a powerful one. Irani’s world of hijras in Kamathipura will move you, and Madhu’s story will stick with you long after you finish reading.

Anosh Irani’s appearances at Toronto’s 2016 International Festival of Authors:

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and to the International Festival of Authors and blog tour organizer Buried in Print for the invitation to participate in this blog tour!

Review | The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World, Abigail Tucker

29430840I’m a happily self-confessed crazy cat lady, so when I see the adorable kitten on the cover of this book and when I learn that it’s about how cats are ruling the world, it was like bookish catnip to me.

Abigail Tucker, a cat lady herself, knows her audience, and so wastes no time trying to convince us of how cute and adorable our little felines are. Rather, she delves into a scientific socio-cultural history of the species to argue her main point that the proper reaction to a house cat isn’t “awww,” but rather awe. Cats are amazing creatures not because they’re adorable and can be amused for hours by a ball of yarn, but rather because they are evolutionary masterminds, weaving their way into our hearts and homes sometimes despite all human efforts to the contrary.

Tucker begins the book with a sobering look at the endangerment and sometimes extinction of some wildcats. Due to human encroachment into their territory, lions, tigers and other wildcats are losing access to food, and far from the kings and queens of the jungle they used to be, they are now often seen in zoos and controlled sanctuaries. The house cat is therefore the evolutionary answer to human civilization — while jungle cats can’t survive in the wilds of an urban landscape, their smaller and more domesticated versions are better equipped to live in apartments and other human dwellings.

The book is chockfull of many such interesting tidbits of cat information that many cat lovers will geek out over. Most interesting to me is that the facial features of the contemporary house cat are very similar to those of lions and tigers, and that this is unusual for domesticated animals. Tucker hypothesizes that this is because, unlike dogs whom humans have bred for specific purposes, cats don’t really serve humans any purpose except to exist, and so their evolution has been mostly left alone. At one point, Tucker says, “We like to chuckle at feline savagery in miniature–but only now that we’ve won. Maybe a lion purring in our lap or cavorting in our living room evokes our global mastery, our total control of nature.” (p. 24) I admit I rebelled against that thought; I hate to think of my cooing over my cat as a form of gloating of my dominance over him. But then I remember how I laugh when he playfully nibbles at my hand, knowing he won’t actually break skin, and I wonder if Tucker may have been on to something after all.

Tucker also observes that cats’ faces are a “mesmerizing” combination of deadly killer and adorable baby, and that this effect is especially potent to women of reproductive age. I don’t know how much that is or can be backed up by science, but she supports it with some observational research on cat shows, where the language used to describe cats (“little girl” or “little boy”) sounds very maternal.

She also writes a lot about the effect of cats on a neighbourhood (sometimes the endangerment or extinction of rodent or avian species), advocacy around cats (“TNR” or trap-neuter-return as the preferred method to deal with stray cats), and on a lighter note, celebrity cats. I particularly like a chapter where she talks about how cats train their humans. According to Tucker, “These cues are unique and don’t translate across homes – an owner can heed his cat’s specific directives, but not necessarily the cat next door’s.” This training is so complete that MRI’s show “blood-flow patterns of our brains change with the tenor of the feline voice.” (p. 132) Isn’t that fascinating?

In short, whatever you feel about cats, this book is unlikely to change your mind. It’s a total geek-fest of cat history and evolution, and will likely reinforce whatever you already feel about cats in general. Are they supreme killers destroying bird and rat lives in the neighbourhood or are they highly intelligent predators who deserve their spot at the top of the food chain? Is their training of humans utterly diabolical or fantastically clever? Is it worth the time and effort to trap-neuter-return when the stats show this method having little effect on the cat population? (A note that other, deadlier measures are also shown by stats to be ineffective, and I was glad to hear that.)

I really loved this book and, as you can see from my Goodreads status updates, I geeked out over practically every chapter. Read it, enjoy, and gaze at your cat in awe for the clever little hunter and ruler they are.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Small Great Things, Jodi Picoult

28587957Ruth Jefferson is an African-American nurse who is pulled from the care of a newborn patient upon the request of his white supremacist parents. When the child dies while Ruth is alone in the ward, she is charged with causing his death, either through negligence or wilful murder. The story is told through three perspectives: Ruth’s, the baby’s father Turk, and Ruth’s lawyer Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender and a liberal who is forced by this trial to confront her own privilege and unconscious racism.

Jodi Picoult is never one to shy away from relevant social issues, and Small Great Things is no exception. To be honest, I don’t know quite how I feel about a white author telling a story of a Black woman’s experience of racism. To be fair, Picoult acknowledges the potentially problematic nature of this in her Author’s Note, and admits she struggled with it personally. Her solution was that she wasn’t writing it “to tell people of colour what their own lives were like” but rather “to my own community,” white people who recognize racism in a neo-Nazi skinhead but can’t recognize their own racism. I also don’t know how I feel about a story of racism becoming a story about confronting one’s own white privilege, but I admit that’s my own bias going in, and I may have felt differently if the author were a person of colour.

To Picoult’s credit, Kennedy realizes the importance of letting Ruth speak for herself on the stand, despite the risk it poses for their case. Kennedy also learns that some of the beliefs she’s long held as “liberal” are actually problematic, for example, the idea that she “doesn’t see colour.” That being said, there’s a moment near the end that made me cringe, where Kennedy gives her closing remarks to the jury and Ruth thinks

What Kennedy has said to all those strangers, it’s been the narrative of my life, the outline inside of which I have lived. But I could have screamed it from the rooftops, and it wouldn’t have done any good. For the jurors to hear it, really hear it, it had to be said by one of their own. [p. 432]

Yikes. To be clear: there is nothing wrong with Kennedy giving the closing remarks, because obviously, she’s the lawyer. Also to be fair, there is probably some truth in Ruth’s assertion above. But to have a Black character think this, particularly after they’ve had their own moment to speak and particularly within the context of celebration at potentially winning the case, felt wrong. It feels like buying into the whole White Saviour trope, and it hurt to read.

That being said, the story was engaging and an entertaining read. I like Kennedy’s character arc, and I especially like the dynamic between Ruth and her son Edison. I also like how Picoult includes Turk’s perspective, because on one hand, he’s a totally reprehensible character but on the other hand, he’s also an object of sympathy, because he’s lost his son. It’s disturbing to think that the things in Turk’s life that Picoult writes about are true (e.g. children’s parties where the piñata is shaped like a person of colour and where rather than pin the tail on the donkey, they pin a star on a Jew), but there likely are such horrible people in the world, and I’m sure there’s much worse than what Picoult included.

Picoult’s endings usually feature a surprise twist or two, and while I usually enjoy her books, I often don’t like the endings because these twists feel contrived to me. True to form, there is a surprise twist in this book as well, which I felt was unnecessary, but I actually liked the ending overall. The twist in this case felt like a minor hiccup that didn’t really change the outcome, and while the ending still felt a bit convenient, it also seemed fitting for the story and I’m glad that it happened.

I do have some mixed feelings about this book, but overall, it’s an entertaining read that prompts reflection about some difficult subjects. As Picoult points out, it’s easy to see racism when it’s someone else perpetuating it, especially if they have a swastika tattooed on their head, but it’s also important to see our own complicity in it, and to see the ways in which despite our liberal beliefs, we can also be racist.

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Thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review | Closed Casket, Sophie Hannah

Poirot is back! I’m a huge Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot fan, so I admit to being initially a bit wary of Sophie Hannah’s take on such a beloved character. To Hannah’s credit, she doesn’t attempt to imitate Christie’s style nor to present a Poirot rigidly identical to Christie’s original, but rather pays homage to author and character while weaving her own yarn of a story. The mysteries themselves are akin to what Christie may have written — a series of mysterious deaths in a hotel (Monogram Murders) and a matriarch changing her will and thereby causing a murder in the family (Closed Casket) — but the dialogue and characters and plot twists feel more Hannah than Christie.

This is especially evident in Closed Casket, which I think is much better than Monogram MurdersClosed Casket just feels a lot more confident, Hannah coming into her own as a Poirot writer and simply letting the mystery take shape rather than worrying about proving how much she knows Christie’s Poirot.

It’s due to that confidence, I think, that she finally gives Edward Catchpool, her narrator, his due as a character in his own right rather than merely a bumbling foil for Poirot’s brilliance. Catchpool is, of course, still not as smart as Poirot, but we can at least understand now why Poirot saw such potential in him. Whereas Catchpool annoyed me in Monogram Murders with his sheer stupidity (seriously, how he even got a job in Scotland Yard baffled me), he appears more like a real detective in Closed Casket. He still doesn’t have quite as many little grey cells as Poirot (because no one really does), but he’s at least become a valuable partner, slightly more capable perhaps than Hastings and a bit more like Martin Freeman’s John Watson than Nigel Bruce’s take.

I also geeked out quite a bit more over the Closed Casket mystery, possibly because it felt more Christie-like, and also possibly just because I love family dramas that culminate in locked room (locked house?) murders. There is a tiny pool of suspects, all of whom have known each other for years, most of whom have a viable motive to kill. It begins with Lady Athelinda Playford, a wealthy author of children’s mysteries (and possibly Hannah’s take on Ariadne Oliver?), inviting Poirot and Catchpool to her home and then announcing to her family at dinner that she has changed her will to leave everything to her secretary rather than her children. The catch? Her secretary is fatally ill and expected to live only a few weeks more. Why would a woman leave her fortune to someone whom she will very likely outlive? And who better to figure it out than a Belgian detective with an overload of little grey cells and a penchant for relying on psychology to solve a case?

I absolutely loved the mystery in this book. Like the characters, I couldn’t figure out Athelinda’s motive for changing her will in that way, and when a murder is committed, I couldn’t figure out who could have done it or why it was done in the first place. As Catchpool and Poirot uncover clues and learn about the other characters’ stories, Hannah keeps the psychological twists and turns coming and, as with any of Christie’s best mysteries, I found it best to simply sit back and enjoy the ride. Best of all, the big reveal did not disappoint. The culprit’s motivation was unexpected and chilling, and as messed up as the motive of any of Christie’s murderers.

Hannah’s Poirot isn’t (to me) as loveable as Christie’s original, but this book will certainly stay in my collection of beloved mysteries. More than anything, it made me want to read more of Sophie Hannah’s work. If she does this well with a classic character, how much better will her mysteries be when she’s completely unfettered by tradition and can completely let loose with her mystery-writing muscles? Part of me also wants to re-read Monogram Murders to see if I will appreciate it more now, and perhaps despite the annoying level of Catchpool’s stupidity, there’s the same gem of mystery genius I enjoyed so much in Closed Casket.

It’s tough to fill shoes as big as those of Agatha Christie, who is the best-selling novelist of all time, outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. I hesitate to call Sophie Hannah as the successor to Christie, but then that hesitation for me would apply even to such mystery writing greats as Val McDermid and P.D. James, simply because their styles are all so different from Christie’s. Rather, I say that Sophie Hannah is a brilliant mystery author in her own right. I enjoyed Closed Casket and can’t wait to start reading Sophie Hannah’s non-Poirot mysteries.

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As an aside, isn’t the UK cover (top image, right) gorgeous? Both covers have their charm, and possibly a mood will strike when I prefer the US cover, but the UK cover just really caught my eye.

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Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.