Audio Review: The Arrangement by Sarah Dunn

The Arrangement follows the lives of happily married but struggling Owen and Lucy, two New Yorkers who have moved out of the city to small-town Beekman. Here they have become ensconced in the local community – helping out at the school, fundraising, barbecues with friends, and gossip. They have a son, Wyatt, who’s on the autistic spectrum and that means Lucy is always tired and it’s hard to find a caregiver for a bit of respite.

When friends over for dinner, and quite a bit of wine, reveal they are planning an open marriage, Owen and Lucy balk at the thought. Somehow the idea festers and the couple agree to give the concept a trial of six months. Something to nip any wandering thoughts in the bud and make them a stronger, happier couple, right? What could possibly go wrong?

Here’s what I liked about the book:

  • The novel is very funny. It captures all the silliness of modern life – the keeping up with the Joneses, the guilt trips over daft things, the pretensions and fads.
  • The characters of Owen and Lucy are very believable and likeable. Their relationship seems strong. But the result of the ‘arrangement’ is that Owen behaves like a young bloke having a final fling/s while Lucy runs the risk of falling in love with someone else. Well, what do you know?
  • There are some very funny supporting characters: Izzy, Owen’s bat-shit crazy girlfriend who becomes more and more demanding; Sunny Bang, Lucy’s tell-it-like-is Korean friend who finds Lucy a ‘partner’; the billionaire with the trophy wife who forgot to have her sign a pre-nup; the hefty beekeeper who sat on a small dog while on a date – an event which caused him to vanish and change his life entirely.
  • There are some hilarious scenes: such as when Owen is caught depositing Izzy’s used plastic bags at the supermarket recycling bin by a sanctimonious neighbour and has to pretend they are his; a blessing of the animals at church when a dog monsters one of Wyatt’s chickens and the llamas bolt into the churchyard.
  • The natural dialogue and its snappy New York ring.

“I think it’s a huge myth that women can’t have meaningless sex,” said Victoria. “You should see these millennials in my office. All they do is have sex, all the time. The girls, the guys. They’re not worried about getting AIDS or getting pregnant or being called a slut. They’re all vociferously opposed to slut-shaming in any form.”

“Slut-shaming?” Owen asked, rotating the cheese plate and slicing off a hunk of Jasper Hill cheddar.

“Yeah,” said Victoria. “It’s a thing.”

  • The reader Ellen Archer has done an amazing job of giving life to all the characters and making them sound different without sounding ridiculous. Men and women alike. I really loved her Sunny Bang. I am not sure I would have enjoyed the novel nearly so much if it wasn’t for Archer’s performance. I imagine if I read the book in print form, I would be looking at a three-star read, maybe three-and-a-half; as an audio-book, it happily earns an extra star. Another reason to give audiobooks a go.

Review: The Porpoise by Mark Haddon

A few authors lately have been dipping into the ancient classics for inspiration (Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls; Madeline Miller’s Circe and earlier Song of Achilles). Now we have The Porpoise, which is a reimagining of the story of Apollonius of Tyre, which inspired Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre. All these newbies are brilliant novels, full of tragedy, adventure, passion and twists of fate.

With Apollonius/Pericles, a young prince must lead the life of a fugitive when he discovers the incestuous relationship between a king (Antiochus) and his daughter. Lots of adventure follows, with storms at sea, shipwrecks, plagues, mutinies, and amid all that, our hero marries a princess and gains a daughter, only to lose them both. The evil king gets his comeuppance, and fortune, whether driven by divine intervention or luck, eventually shines on Pericles and he is reunited with his family.

The trick with these stories is to make them accessible to the modern reader. Haddon does this by starting us off in modern times and using a lively present tense narration. Philippe is overcome with grief when his wife dies in a plane crash, his daughter Angelica born moments later. He becomes obsessed with Angelica and as she matures he keeps her isolated, tutored at home, sequestered in his English mansion, Antioch.

Enter Darius, the son of an art dealer. Seeing his chance to make some easy money, Darius drives to Antioch hoping to interest Philippe in some collectibles he’d shown interest in. Here he meets Angelica whom he decides needs rescuing. Darius is set upon by Philippe’s thug, just getting away when chance hands him help in the form of a friend with a yacht. Darius and crew sail away from danger, but also into the past where Darius becomes Pericles and the adventures really begin.

Woven through the narrative are updates with the modern-day Angelica/Philippe situation as well as glimpses of Shakespeare and his fellow Pericles author, George Wilkins, whose main source of income was running prostitutes. Women are frequently badly treated in the book, pawns in the ambitions of powerful men, but the gods take note and justice prevails. There are strong female characters too: Helena, the captain of the Porpoise which rescues Darius; Chloe, Pericles’s wife is feisty and headstrong, Marina, their daughter, a determined survivor – to name but three.

Pericles has all the hallmarks of a hero – both the son of a king, as well as an adventurer who can fight and live off his wits. He makes mistakes and pays the price, being brought down to a life of hardship and near death more than once before fortune can shine upon him again. All of this really puts the reader through the mill with plenty of ‘Oh, no!’ moments.

The Porpoise might have been a plot-driven adventure story, and at that there is plenty to keep you turning the pages, but Haddon’s prose is lyrical and elegant. He creates wonderful visual pictures that make you feel you are there on the ship at Pericles’s side, on the barge that will take Wilkins to hell, in ancient palace gardens, or sequestered temples. There’s plenty to mull over plus a few literary references you might want to look up from time to time. Which all adds to the richness of the read. I loved it – five out of five from me.

Review: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

I can’t quite put my finger on what I found so engaging about Ann Patchett’s latest novel. But once into the story (around the second paragraph), it soon became the book I wanted to drop everything for and sit and read.

The Dutch House is told over several decades from the point of view of Danny Conroy, the son of Cyril, a property developer, and his missing mother. It’s the missing mother that’s a key part of the story, the woman who abandoned her family when Danny was three, his sister Maeve ten, to go to India and help the poor.

Maeve becomes ill with diabetes when her mother leaves and nearly dies, and the children are raised by their housekeeper and cook. These two kindly sisters help fill the gaps, until Cyril marries again and brings to the Dutch house a gold-digging blonde and her two young daughters. It’s hard to know if Andrea loves Cyril, but she certainly loves the house – a large glass monstrosity filled with ornate furniture and portraits in oil that were left behind by the VanHoebeeks, a family blighted by tragedy who made their fortune in tobacco.

Andrea isn’t the step-mother any child would want – there’s a hint of Cinderella here – so it’s lucky that Maeve is about old enough to take over Danny’s parenting when their father suddenly dies. The novel follows their relationship over the years, their bitterness over Andrea and her stealthy theft of their inheritance, and Maeve’s plot to cream off the only thing their father left them: an education fund. Too bad Danny doesn’t really want to be a doctor. Glimpses of their feelings about events from the past are often recounted in scenes outside the Dutch house in Maeve’s car at night – the two of them smoking and staring, waiting for Andrea to appear, though she never does.

What makes the book so entertaining is Danny’s narrative. I was reminded of Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye) with the laid-back, intimacy of the storytelling. But Danny is a complex and interesting character, charming in many ways, but with a cruel kind of indifference as well. You can tell he’s been messed up by his parenting, but he and Maeve, the mother/sister he adores, gradually come to terms with the past when several key events take place.

And that’s really all it is. One of those ‘happy families are all alike but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ kind of novels. It’s told with the present and past artfully woven together and this makes it compelling. It isn’t a big story, filled with nail-biting moments of high drama or sweeping events around people caught up in history. But there’s a heap of heart here and some big ideas about what it is to be a parent, a son, a family; about money and goodness; about memory and love. All the important things, revealed in a simple story about a Philadelphia family. I loved it. A five out of five read from me.

Review: Miss Garnet's Angel (kind of Eat, Pray, Love in half the time)

If you haven’t discovered Salley Vickers, she’s well worth a go for novels that explore the complexities of the human psyche while telling an entertaining story. Her first book is Miss Garnet’s Angel, a witty yet haunting novel about a retired school-teacher and the overwhelming effects visiting Venice has on her.

Julia Garnet decides to visit Venice in winter when the accommodation is half the price of the summer season. She and her old chum and housemate, Harriet, had planned to travel together. When Harriet suddenly dies, Julia on a whim decides to make the trip alone. Italy in general, with its Catholic traditions, emotional art and jaw-dropping beauty is an odd choice in many ways for Julia, a prickly, buttoned-up Englishwoman and paid-up member of the Communist Party.

However Venice is a revelation – the gorgeous churches and cathedrals, the quiet watery decrepitude, the food, wine and other indulgences. Julia falls in love with Venice, and in particular a little church near her digs – the Chapel of the Plague, and through its art becomes besotted with the Archangel Raphael and his story.

Salley Vickers really knows what makes people tick. Julia has had an upbringing lacking in love and thinks she is unloveable, and really not all that likeable either. Her stay in Venice sees her connect with other people, open up her heart, and even indulge herself a little.

Julia is a great character for the reader because Venice shown through her eyes is like seeing beauty through the eyes of someone recently cured of blindness. There’s plenty of humour in her interactions with others: the attractive, silver-haired Carlo, the American Cutforths who are much nicer to Julia than she really deserves, her CP friend Vera, who answers Julia’s requests for biblical texts and fears all that popery will have a bad effect on her friend.

Woven through Julia’s story is the biblical tale of Tobias and the Angel. Tobias, sent by his blind and dying father to collect a debt, is looked after on his journey by a guide who turns out to be Raphael. There are clever connections with Julia’s journey of discovery and the plot evolves in unpredictable ways.

Miss Garnet’s Angel first came out around twenty years ago and Vickers has added some terrific fiction to her list (Dancing Backwards, Cousins, The Cleaner of Chartres). Her first novel is timeless, original, full of heart, humour and brilliantly paced, pared down writing. Four out of five from me.

Review: Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Jackson Brodie is back, still working as a private investigator, mostly divorce and missing persons cases, and still trying to save people. He’s nudging sixty, still single, though with Julia’s voice constantly in his head reminding him of his shortcomings, you’d think they were an old married couple.

We catch up with him back in Yorkshire, keeping an eye on his son, Nathan, who is fourteen and riveted to the screen on his phone. Brodie uses their time together to attempt fatherly education in things like British history, good manners and a lot more Nathan patently isn’t interested in.

Running parallel to this story is that of Vince, left by his wife and recently made redundant, but still keeping up appearances on the golf course with sort-of friends, Tommy, who owns a transport company, a gorgeous home and trophy wife, Crystal; and Andy, a smooth and savvy BandB owner and Tommy’s partner in crime. Vince’s life is set to implode as his wife is taking him to the cleaners.

Another story thread is told through the eyes of Crystal, who has literally come up through the gutter, a past she hides from everyone, especially Tommy. She has the care of their wee daughter Candy and Tommy’s teenage son Harry (whose mother mysteriously fell off a cliff) and a house she keeps immaculate. But someone is following her in a silver sedan. She hires Jackson to discover just who.

Also on the scene is Reggie (remember her from When Will There Be Good News?), now a police detective working on an old pedophile-ring case, with fellow officer, Ronnie. They’re meant to be tying up a few loose ends but suddenly there’s a murder with an odd connection to our golfing buddies and the sex trafficking of migrant women promised good jobs in Britain.

There’s a lot of very unpleasant crime here but Atkinson, as always, lightens the load on the reader with humour and lively characterisation. Not that she shies away from the facts. We have Crystal’s troubled past to remind us of the evils of what happens when sex and money go hand in hand, a past that is all set to come back to haunt her. And while it’s great to see Reggie again and spend time with Jackson, Crystal is a wonderful invention the reader will cheer for.

I’ve enjoyed my foray into the world of Brodie again and Big Sky didn’t disappoint. Incidentally, it works fine as a standalone novel if you haven’t read the previous books, or forgotten what they were about. A solid four out of five from me.

Started Early, Took My Dog – the penultimate Brodie

Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels, while involving crime, mysteries, disappearances and detectives, don’t follow the typical plot-lines of many crime novels. This makes the series unique and charming, depending on interesting and believable characters caught up in a variety of moral dilemmas to push the plot along.

Started Early, Took My Dog gets off to a rip-roaring start when ex-police Superintendent Tracy Waterhouse, large, unmarried and believing herself unloveable, buys a child. She’s seen so many mistreated children that confronted with a drug-raddled prostitute abusing a little girl in a Leeds shopping mall, Tracey hands over a wad of cash for the child as the woman hops on a bus.

And why not? the reader thinks. Tracey has worked hard, has a nice house and plenty of love to give. The event has Tracey looking over her shoulder as Jackson Brodie arrives in Leeds to look for the birth family of a woman whose adoptive parents took her to New Zealand as a wee tot. The case has odd connections to the death of a prostitute years before when Tracey was a young PC. Jackson, incidentally, has acquired a dog in a similar but more violent manner to Tracy’s acquiring a daughter. This involves a fair bit of sneaking about with the dog in a backpack as Jackson enters and leaves his hotel.

Julia is on the scene again, playing the part of a pathologist in the tv crime drama, Collier, along with ageing actress Tilly, who just happened to witness the events in the shopping mall. As the various stories of the different characters converge, overlap and entangle, Atkinson brings everything to a brilliant ending with a bunch of surprises to keep the average whodunit fan happy.

Perhaps Started Early, Took My Dog is in this sense a more traditional crime novel than others in the series. And Atkinson’s characters are so refreshingly real, their behaviour so surprising yet understandable, you can’t help but become caught up in their worlds. ‘Oh, no, don’t do that!’ you want to yell at Tracy, at Jackson. So yes, there’s plenty of tension too. There are also themes to do with parenthood, abuse of power, of women of the law.

But what I always remember fondly about these books is the humour, which is so often down to the smart prose and the ongoing battle between Julia and Jackson. Another brilliant and very entertaining read; easily a four out of five from me.

Review: The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

Another tick in the box for my progress through the marvellous Chief Inspector Gamache books by Louise Penny. Like many in the series, The Beautiful Mystery begins when a murder takes place in a remote area, and the Quebec Sûreté are called in to investigate. Usually it’s the hard-to-find village of Three Pines, but this time it’s an isolated monastery.

Gamache and side-kick Inspector Beauvoir take a plane then a fishing boat to the abbey of Saint Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups (St Gilbert among the Wolves), situated on the far side of a lake surrounded by wilderness. The Abbey’s prior and choirmaster, Frère Mathieu, has been found in the Abbot’s private garden, with his head bashed in. Clutched to his chest is a document on vellum bearing the arcane notation of a Gregorian chant.

As the police officers piece together the events of the morning and interview the twenty-four resident monks, they discover that Frère Mathieu wasn’t an easy man to get on with. A schism has appeared between the brothers following the release of a music CD two years before which shot the Gilbertines to fame and saved the order from bankruptcy. While half of the brothers supported their choirmaster, half felt the recording compromised the integrity of the order’s silent vows. Was this enough to cause someone to kill the prior?

Things are just getting interesting when a seaplane arrives the following day bearing the head of the Sûreté, Superintendent Francoeur. Has the Super come all this way just to deliver the post mortem report, or does he have another agenda? Events from previous books come back to haunt both Gamache and Beauvoir, with Francoeur at his smug and devious best, surely the wolf among the fold.

The two storylines merge together to create a satisfying crime novel, with plenty of interesting digressions that enrich the story. I enjoyed learning about the art of Gregorian Chant and the early methods of recording the music using neumes – extraordinarily, this becomes crucial to Gamache figuring out the crime. You just have to hand it to Penny – she is brilliant at coming up with original and quirky story-lines.

Events are left up in the air with the continuing subplot and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next book in the series to see what happens next. It’s no wonder Louise Penny has done so well with the series – four out of five from me.

Brodie No. 3: When Will There Be Good News?

For much of Kate Atkinson’s third novel in the wonderful Jackson Brodie series, our rugged hero is more like a victim than the white knight of earlier books. In the beginning of When Will There Be Good News?, we catch up with Jackson stalking the child he thinks might be his son. He manages to steal a hair from little Nathan’s head, ready for DNA testing.

Accidentally taking a train bound for Edinburgh instead of London and his love-nest with new wife, Tessa, Brodie is caught up in a train accident and badly injured. His life is saved by first-aid performed by the real hero of the story, sixteen-year-old Reggie, a little battler who is adjusting to living on her own since her mother’s sudden death on holiday.

Reggie is a terrific character. Her brother is a ne’er-do-well who always brings trouble. So she soldiers on alone, her meagre existence brightened by her job as nanny for Dr Joanne Hunter (Call me Jo) and baby Gabriel. Reggie is quite devoted to Dr H and Gabriel, but when the two disappear, Reggie suspects foul play, in spite of the husband’s assurances that everything is fine and his wife is just visiting a sick relative. So why did she not change out of her working clothes? And why is her car in the garage? And worst of all, why didn’t she pack the baby’s favourite comforter, the scrap of cloth he is never without.

Also in the mix is DCI Louise Monroe who is seeking the murderer of three people at a family party, his estranged wife and children now hiding in a safe house and in terror for their lives. Like Jackson, Louise is also newly married – to a wonderfully understanding surgeon she has no idea how to love. Instead of returning to her love-nest, Louise sits in her car outside the safe house, watching and tetchy.

Each character is on a trajectory that crashes into that of the other characters and eventually Brodie rouses himself from his hospital bed to save the day in his own unconventional way. It’s a brilliant ending on so many levels and events of Brodie’s past make interesting connections to the main plot-line.

Which is what I love so much about these novels. As well as the quirky characters, the witty dialogue, the snappy storytelling and the intriguing plots, Atkinson brings together divergent characters who often in more ways than one, have something in common. As Jackson says, ‘a coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.’ But maybe it’s also something to do with the human condition, and is why these are a grade or two above your standard crime novel. Four and a half out five from me.

Review: The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan

Set mostly in Galway, McTiernan’s debut crime novel, The Ruin, introduces Detective Sergeant Cormac Reilly, freshly arrived after a lengthy stint with the anti-terrorist mob in Dublin. He has good reason to make Galway his home – his partner, Emma, has a top-notch research job in Galway and with a more settled, peaceful Ireland – this is 2013 – it was time to look for a new career direction.

Only taking on a bunch of cold cases isn’t quite as challenging or adrenaline charged as what he’s used to. And why does get the feeling that his colleagues are all whispering behind his back? Just as well his old friend from police school, Danny, is on the team or he’d feel well and truly isolated.

The past keeps creeping back as well. Twenty years ago, Cormac was a rookie cop, called out on a miserable night to a decrepit manor house in the middle of nowhere to rescue two children. Their addict mother is dead from an overdose, the children, five-year-old Jack and fifteen-year-old Maude, look malnourished and cold. His squad car radio is broken so Cormac can only pile them into the back seat and take them to the hospital. The scene makes a compelling opening to the novel, and you just can’t wait to find out what has happened to the three of them in the intervening years.

Flicking forward to 2013, a suspected suicide turns out to be the same Jack, now a twenty-five-year-old engineer, with a stable relationship and a baby on the way. Had the past found a way of catching up with him too?

The Ruin is a solid detective story, with engaging characters and a ton of secrets ready to be revealed. There is plenty of action to keep you engaged, with an edge-of-the-seat ending that has you biting your nails. Cormac is a good cop, without the bad habits or lurking darkness that so often beleaguers fictional sleuths. Yet McTiernan makes him interesting. As well as settling into a new job and discovering who he can trust and who he can’t, Cormac has a new relationship. There are hints around how me met Emma during a previous investigation which are yet to be revealed.

The next book, The Scholar, is already out, and with another due to appear in March, the series is off to a flying start. I shall definitely be stopping by to see how Cormac is getting on. Three and a half out of five from me.

Jackson Brodie – the plot thickens

As I continue to read Kate Atkinson’s popular series, I ponder if any of the books can be as good as the first one – Case Histories.

One Good Turn is next, a hundred pages longer than Case Histories, with a shift in setting from Cambridge to Edinburgh. Jackson is here for the arts festival. Girlfriend Julia (yes, that Julia) is in a play, otherwise Jackson would be somewhere else – anywhere else probably, arts festivals not really being his thing. He witnesses an extreme case of road rage, and on a visit to an island, finds the body of a young woman, whom he can’t quite save from the tide. He reports his findings to the police but they think he imagined it all. Jackson seems to be constantly getting into trouble one way or another. We also meet Edinburgh detective Louise Monroe, who is really more Jackson’s type than Julia.

The story switches to follow Martin Canning, an unassuming period-mystery writer, another witness to the road rage incident. Here, in a rare moment of bravery, Martin intervenes against a madman with a baseball bat. He becomes caught up in the lives of victim and attacker in ways he never expected.

And then there’s Gloria, whose dodgy businessman husband has had a major coronary while in bed with a Russian prostitute. Young Russian women feature in all the story threads, one way or another, and the eventual connection between these threads is appropriately symbolised by the recurring image of Russian dolls.

One Good Turn is another terrific read, with a clever and complex storyline. As always Atkinson deserves a medal for characterisation and snappy dialogue, while the plot is pacy enough, once you get used to the constantly shifting narrative points of view. As you might expect, there are plenty of twists with a stunning surprise saved for the last page. Not quite as enjoyable as the knock-out Case Histories but still a respectable four out of five from me.