Day 1250: Pigeon English

Cover for Pigeon EnglishOnce again, I’ve been charmed by the unique voice of the narrator of Pigeon English, Harri Opuku, an eleven-year-old boy from Ghana living in a rough area of London. Harri is such an eleven-year-old boy, fascinated by bodily functions but still repelled by the realities of sex, exuberant, funny in a crass boy way, strong in family feelings and the joy of life. He has a hilarious command of English and is liable to comment “Everyone agrees” just when he comes out with the most ridiculous bits of misinformation.

The big news in the neighborhood is the stabbing death of an older boy. Harri and his friends are fascinated by this crime, and one of their games is to investigate it, picking up fingerprints with cellophane tape and watching people for signs of guilt. This situation is one to which the readers know the answer but the boys do not.

Harri is also flirting with the idea of joining the Dell Farm Crew, a local gang that seems to have lots of advantages. But his essential niceness makes him fail the gang’s tests.

This novel makes you laugh while creating a growing sense of dread. For Harri’s world is violent, and he seems singularly unprepared for it.

The only part of the book that didn’t completely work for me was the role of the pigeon, a bird Harri decides is his, who makes occasional comments that are much too sophisticated for Harri (or a pigeon, obviously). The pigeon acts as an omniscient narrator or perhaps more like a Greek chorus.

This was another book I read for my Man Booker Prize project.

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Day 1243: Dear Thief

Cover for Dear ThiefDear Thief is one of the first books I read specifically for my James Tait Black Prize project, and it is an unusual one. The entire novel consists of a letter that we suspect will never be sent to its recipient.

The unnamed narrator addresses her letter to her friend Nina, whom she has not seen for 18 years. Although not exactly plotless, the novel is concerned with the narrator’s memories of their friendship, imaginings about how Nina is living now, and thoughts about the events that destroyed their friendship and broke up the narrator’s marriage.

Beautifully written, sometimes stunning, the novel is a meditation on memory and on the need for connection. It is an examination of the complexities of relationship, for the narrator both wishes to see Nina again and hopes she will destroy herself.

The focus of the novel is of course on Nina, or Butterfly, as she was named by the narrator’s son when he was small. Harvey makes readers understand Nina’s allure, a beautiful, scarily intelligent woman who seems to be on a path of self-destruction.

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Day 1241: Calamity in Kent

Cover for Calamity in KentReporter Jimmy London is on vacation in the seaside town of Broadgate recovering from an illness when he meets a man behaving oddly. This man is the operator of the Broadgate Lift, a cliff railway. He has discovered a body in the locked lift.

Jimmy is happy to be on the spot of a scoop, so he investigates while he sends the operator to the police. He is delighted to find that his old friend, Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard, will be on the case. Shelley offers to exchange information with him if he will help investigate.

A classic locked door novel with a twist, the book was heavy going for me, for some reason. I think it was because if anyone made a point or explained anything, Rowland found a way, usually through Jimmy’s questions, to repeat it, as if he assumed his readers are dolts. As with many older mysteries, there’s not much characterization. So, a meh for this mystery.

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Day 1238: Raven Black

Cover for Raven BlackTo our delight, our local PBS station airs a lot of British and Australian mysteries. Even though most of them are older, we have not seen them before, so we are happy. Two series we have begun watching (and getting older ones from Netflix) are Vera and Shetland, both from the novels of Ann Cleeves. So, I looked for the first book in each series. Raven Black is the first novel of the series set in the Shetland Islands.

Magnus Tait is an old man hoping for visitors on Hogmanny. He hasn’t had any for years, though, ever since he was suspected in the disappearance of an 11-year-old girl years ago. But this year is different. Two drunken teenage girls, Catherine and Sally, stop by on their way home from a party.

The next day, Magnus sees Catherine on the bus, and she walks home with him. The day after, her body is found lying in a field by a neighbor. She has been strangled with her own scarf.

Immediately, the islanders, even many of the police, assume Magnus killed her. Inspector Jimmy Perez isn’t so sure there are similarities in the cases, but he’s not in charge. Instead, it’s Inspector Taylor, over from the mainland.

Who could have killed Catherine? Was it Mr. Scott, her teacher, who invited her over after school to discuss extracurricular reading? Robert Isbister, a grown man that Sally likes, has been asking questions about Catherine. She was seen talking to Duncan Hunter, an ex-school friend of Perez’s, at one of his wild parties. Or was it Magnus?

This novel is absorbing, although I thought it could have been more atmospheric, given the setting. I liked Jimmy Perez, though, and I never guessed the murderer or the motive. (I missed the first episode of this series on TV, which was this one.) That, I have to tell you, doesn’t happen often.

As an aside, I love the theme music forĀ Shetland, and just rereading this review before publication has brought it to mind.

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Day 1235: In a Dark, Dark Wood

Cover for In a Dark, Dark WoodNora is surprised to be invited to Clare’s bachelorette party (I prefer the Brit term “hen party”). Clare used to be Nora’s best friend, but Nora cut herself off from her old life 10 years ago. She is hesitant to go but agrees to accompany a mutual friend from school, Nina.

All the women meet in a modern house made of glass, which in the wintry landscape seems forbidding. To Nora’s shock, she finds out that Clare is marrying James, the man whose breakup with Nora was traumatic enough to make her change her life.

The weekend is uncomfortable and awkward, led by Flo, who is plainly neurotic and forces all of them into silly games in an attempt to give Clare “the best hen party ever.” But someone might be on the property with them, and it is clear from the beginning of the book that events are converging toward crime.

This novel did lead me along to want to read it, but its secrets were not hard for me to predict. If a predictable book can be suspenseful as well, this is it. I knew well before the crime who the criminal would turn out to be. So, just sort of average marks for this one.

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Day 1234: The Siege Winter

Cover for The Siege WinterI am a big fan of anything by Ariana Franklin, so even though I was a little doubtful about The Siege Winter (also known as The Winter Siege) because it is a posthumous novel finished by her daughter, I had high hopes. Unfortunately, it bears almost no resemblance to any other novel by Franklin. Perhaps she wrote the plot synopsis, but I doubt she wrote anything else.

The Siege Winter is purportedly an account of the civil war between King Stephen and Queen Matilda in the 12th century from the point of view of the common people. Gratingly, it is written in modern vernacular and not well written at that. I was alarmed during the prologue, supposedly narrated by a 12th century monk, especially when two sentences began with “Anyway.” It just got worse. I couldn’t take it. I read five pages. Franklin’s prose was beautiful. This is not. I recommend you read one of the other books under “Related Posts.”

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Day 1224: The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire

Cover for The Alphabet of Heart's DesireThe Alphabet of Heart’s Desire is about an incident in the early life of Thomas De Quincey, best known as the author of Confessions of an Opium Eater. The bare bones of fact are that De Quincey, as a young man, was given an allowance to use in his travels around the country, which he stopped getting when he fell out of touch with his family. Destitute, he was rescued by Anne, a prostitute. This novel tells their stories, along with that of Tuah, a Malay slave who is taken in by Archie, who sells used clothing.

I had a lot of trouble reading this novel and kept putting it aside to read other books. I almost decided to quit reading it when I realized I was 80% done, so I finished it. My problem was that I didn’t find any of the three major characters, De Quincey, Anne, and Tuah, particularly interesting. Here is a situation where the author tries to invoke interest in his characters by making bad things happen to them, trying to raise our sympathy from these unfortunate events rather than from the characters’ own personalities.

link to NetgalleyI also found this fictionalized interpretation of a short period in De Quincey’s life to be relatively pointless. All it serves is to wrap up Anne’s fate in a pretty bow. In reality, she disappeared into the London stews.

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