Book Review: This Poison Will Remain by Fred Vargas

Fred Vargas writes a beguiling and often unusual mystery novel. Her series featuring Commissaire Adamsberg and the Serious Crimes Bureau is immensely entertaining for the weird and wonderful storylines and oddball criminals – usually serial killers of some kind with motives beyond the everyday. The latest book – This Poison Will Remain – involves a type of murder no one believes to be anything other blood-poisoning following a spider bite. In Nimes three old men suffer septicaemia and die, but they were old, right? Could happen to anyone, right?

Jean Baptiste Adamsberg, with his nose for the uncanny, thinks otherwise. But he’s going to have a tough time convincing his team to agree with him. Particularly Commandant Danglard, his second in command and former friend. Danglard, in his impeccable English tailoring has become a formidable opponent and with his gift with words and sharp intellect, he soon has the others thinking Adamsberg has lost the plot. This is a new Danglard. In previous books we see him sipping wine on the job and bemoaning his problematic home-life.

You soon realise that this is not your usual police station. There’s Mercadet whose narcolepsy interrupts his police work daily, so he has a cushiony corner in a quiet office where he can catnap. Maternal Helene Froissy keeps a cupboardful of snacks at the ready and helps Adamsberg look after a family of blackbirds who have nested in the courtyard. Amazonian Violette Retancourt is ‘worth ten men’ and is devoted to Snowball the cat who sleeps on top of the photocopier no one uses but is always on to keep it warm. Voisenet would rather be an ichthyologist and stinks out the office with the head of a moray eel he plans to study. Veyrenc hails from the same corner of the Pyrenees as Adamsberg. With his black-and-ginger striped hair, the result of bullies trying to scalp him as a boy, he bursts into clunky Alexandrine verse at every opportunity.

It is Veyrenc whom Adamsberg first turns to for help in solving the mystery of the spider bites, secretly at first. It emerges that two of the victims lived at the same orphanage and were part of a gang who tormented the other boys, hiding recluse spiders in their clothing. In those days before readily available antibiotics, some of their victims endured terrible injuries. If someone was out for revenge, it would be fitting to kill them with spider venom from the same kind of spider, but such spiders are rare and you would need dozens to produce enough poison. And how on earth would you milk the spider venom anyway?

It seems an impossible puzzle, so it isn’t surprising Adamsberg and Veyrenc adjourn to a nearby café, called La Garbure, after the traditional cabbage soup from the Pyrenees, to discuss the case. This is something else I love about the series. Reminiscent of novels by Simenon, Fred Vargas conjures up Paris through Adamsberg’s walks by the Seine, and scenes set in cafés and restaurants. Veyrenc has a bit of thing for La Garbure’s proprietress and the two send each other glances across the room without quite catching each other’s eye.

Like the best crime fiction, the story is very much character driven, but Vargas has plenty of surprises in store for the reader to keep you turning the pages. Adamsberg has the challenge not only of solving the most perplexing of crimes, one that will take him back to the memory of a terrible event from his childhood, but he must also win back the loyalty of his team. Themes around child abuse, mental illness, isolation and the history of religious hermits give the story plenty of depth.

This Poison Will Remain is an excellent read, with a superb English translation that maintains the spirit of the author’s unique, lively and very French style. A four star read from me.

Book Review: Motherland by William Nicholson

Does anyone write about the human condition with as much heart as William Nicholson? Reading his novels always gives me the impression that he loves his characters as if they were family. He brings us their stories, but also their frailties and dreams, as if he’s been through exactly what they’re going through himself. Often set against an interesting background of political or social upheaval.

In the case of Motherland we start off in the middle of World War II. It’s 1942, and three characters meet and fall in love. Unfortunately, both Larry and Ed fall for Kitty when they meet her in Sussex. She’s an ATS driver, a job she enjoys, while Ed’s a Royal Marine commando and Larry, who’d rather be painting, is a liaison officer with Combined Ops under Mountbatten. Ed and Larry both went to the same school and are each other’s oldest friends, which makes this love triangle even harder to navigate.

Kitty chooses Ed, who is dashing and exciting, but also has a darkness to his nature, probably a problem with depression. Meanwhile Mountbatten and his team are planning a raid on Dieppe, using the commandos and the Canadian Infantry stationed nearby. Larry begs to go, even though he doesn’t have to fight, and he and Ed are caught up in one of the worst military disasters of the war. Thousands of casualties, and while Ed is made a hero, an accolade he loathes, Larry has to come to terms with his lack of bravery in the heat of battle.

The effects of Dieppe on all three, but particularly Ed and Larry, resonate through the book, as each settles into life post-war. Ed struggles to find a vocation and Kitty has to give up work, expected to devote her life to husband and child. Larry tries to make a go of painting, at the risk of disappointing his father who wants him to join the family banana importing company, which had made their fortune.

Mostly the book seems to be Larry’s story. We are with him as he witnesses the effects of the partition of India in 1947 (he briefly joins Mountbatten’s lot again), and later, the exploitation of workers in Jamaican banana enterprises. We have a window into his heart and his abiding love for Kitty, but also onto some of the big events of the 1940s. There’s a collection of supporting characters who each are well-rounded and have their own issues: Kitty’s ATS friend Louise who has never had as much luck with men as Kitty and decides to marry the owner of the estate where the troops are stationed – ineffectual but kind-hearted George. There’re the women in Larry’s life who just aren’t Kitty. Each gives us a glimpse of the narrow roles men and women played in mid 20th century society, and the problems entailed in wanting something else.

Motherland has characters that appear in other books by Nicholson, such as Ed and Kitty’s daughter Pamela who is a protagonist in Reckless, set against a backdrop of 1960s London and the Profumo Affair, while news of the Cuban Missile Crisis has everyone on edge. Another great read and evidence that Williamson loves his characters enough to give them more books. I’m happy with that. Motherland is a three-and-a-half-out-of-five read from me.

Review: The Lost Man by Jane Harper

Jane Harper writes brilliant crime fiction that brings the reader face to face with the extremes of the Australian landscape. In The Lost Man, we’re in the dry, scorching outback of Queensland, an atmospheric setting that cranks up the tension. You can’t just go for a lengthy walk – within hours you become dehydrated and ill. People who get lost don’t survive.

The story begins with the arrival of Nathan, loner of the Bright family, at the site of his brother’s dead body. His farm borders that of his family, run by his brothers, Bub and the now deceased Cameron. What was Cam doing here at the old stockman’s grave, miles from anywhere and his car nowhere in sight? They all know it’s madness to go any distance without your vehicle and its stock of water, food and petrol reserves, enough to sustain you until rescue. The family log book where everyone notes their whereabouts for the day says he would be elsewhere on the property, meeting Bub to fix a repeater mast, an appointment he never kept.

Nathan slowly pieces together what was going on in Cam’s life, moving back to the family farm with his sixteen-year-old son, Xander recently home for Christmas, and now it seems for a family funeral. We meet the characters who could reveal more: his still spritely mother, Liz, and Uncle Harry, the longtime farm help and family retainer. There’s also Cam’s wife Ilse, a former barmaid and onetime squeeze of Nathan’s with whom he finds hard to be alone. There are Cam and Ilse’s young daughters and the English backpacking couple who help out where needed.

We get Nathan’s back-story, his difficult relationship with his father-in-law, his acrimonious divorce, the reason why he keeps to himself on his farm and never comes to town. In a way, he is just as much a lost man as his brother Cam, but the death brings him back to his family and leads him to re-evaluate his life and facts he’d taken for granted. There are a raft of family secrets, including stories about Cam – was he such a great guy as everyone seems to suggest? But how does Nathan ask the difficult questions without causing more upset?

The Lost Man is a character-driven mystery that keeps you turning the pages even though there isn’t an obvious threat of a killer on the loose and the piling up of bodies you often find in this genre. The threats that add the requisite tension lie in the harsh environment and its effects on the characters, plus the slow revelation of past wrongs. Everyone seems to have something to hide but can Nathan, with all his baggage, his his taciturn manner, get to the bottom of it all?

The story is entertaining enough, but also reminds you that in a harsh environment, where old traditions die hard and men are men, women can be vulnerable and have limited choices. At the same time, the landscape has a magic of its own – the stunning ochre colours, the big open skies, full of ghosts and stories. It seems more than just a setting; almost a character in its own right. It isn’t surprising that Jane Harper’s books are so popular and win awards – she is fast becoming a master at this genre. A four out of five read from me.

Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

It took me a while to figure out why there’s an image of a sunset on the cover of Milkman, Anna Burns’s 2018 Man Booker winner. This is a novel about about a young girl’s battle to stay safe and sane in a divided and violent town that is probably Belfast, circa 1978. She’s eighteen, and with her habit of walking while reading pre-twentieth century fiction, is steadily becoming one of those ‘beyond the pale’ people who don’t fit in.

The young narrator has already lost one brother to the ‘troubles’ and a sister to exile, her late father was plagued by depression, so she keeps her head down and her mouth shut where possible. When a senior member of the paramilitary known as ‘the milkman’ takes an interest in her, she draws fury from her family and neighbours even though she does her best to avoid him. He’s over forty, married and with veiled threats against her ‘maybe boyfriend’, is clearly stalking her.

The novel follows the girl’s battle to be herself in an environment marred by terrorism and reprisals, where you have to watch what you say and do, even what you buy (nothing that comes from that place ‘over the water’). Meanwhile the milkman is never far away, and her fears for what he will do next disrupt her life, and she becomes increasingly withdrawn. She even stops going to French classes, where one lesson their teacher has them look at the sunset, something she once did with maybe boyfriend, and which isn’t the sort of thing people tend to do.

Yet the book is oddly humorous. The quirky narrative style takes a bit of getting used to -with long, complex, stream-of-consciousness sentences and paragraphs that go on for pages at a time. But they bring you inside the mind of an engaging, smart and aware young person. Oh, and did I mention the characters’ names? Well, there really aren’t any. As with ‘maybe boyfriend’ people are referred to as ‘third sister’, ‘first brother-in-law’, ‘tablets girl’. It kind of adds to the disconnect the girl has with her world or possibly it helps the characters see themselves as blending in, not standing out. Names can be revealing.

Essentially this is a historical novel, but unlike most historical novels, the specifics of places, dates and names of personnel are missing in favour of creating the feeling of the time and circumstances. I cannot imagine reading anything else that recreates so well the effects of sectarian violence on ordinary people, and particularly women. The rumours, the assumptions of guilt, a fear of loving in case the beloved is killed or imprisoned, the need to conform, the lack of sunset appreciation.

Read Milkman when you have some time to sit and concentrate; when you can get into the feel of the writing and let it draw you into its world. If you can read it with that Northern Irish lilt in your head, even better. It’s a worthy award winner and for me a four and a half star read.

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.