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.

Old Favourite: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

We never thought there’d be a new Jackson Brodie novel. After four brilliant mysteries (and a superb television adaptation starring Jason Isaacs), we thought Atkinson had called it a day, returning to the historical literary fiction she’s so good at. Then nine years since the last Brodie was published, out came Big Sky and the crowds all cheered.

I haven’t got my hands on the new book yet, wanting to do things properly and reread the previous four. I’ve had them there on the bookcase waiting for a special occasion. So I picked up Case Histories thinking, I know what happens so will I still enjoy it?

The story gets off to a fairly gentle, atmospheric start, with the setting of Cambridge during a summer heatwave, following a family of young girls, the elder three doting on the youngest and sweetest, little Olivia. Then the unthinkable happens – little Olivia goes missing.

Thirty years later, Olivia’s sisters, Amelia and Julia, make a discovery that prompts them to hire a private detective. Enter Jackson Brodie – ex-army and-ex police and with a ton of baggage regarding his ex-wife, his eight-year-old daughter, to say nothing of the tragedy of his childhood.

Two more cases hit Jackson’s books at the same time: a grieving man haunted by the murder of his daughter ten years before; a woman who has lost touch with the niece she promised to look out for when her sister was arrested for killing her husband.

The cases shake Jackson out of the stupor that has beset him as he spends long days surveilling an air hostess on behalf of her jealous husband and being at the beck and call of a crazy cat-lady who neglects to pay him. Through the book, someone seems intent on killing Jackson, so the story is livened up by several fights.

Not that it needs enlivening as the story sparkles with humour and terrific characters. They are all notable for various reasons: Mr Wyre’s devotion to his dead daughter mirrors the powerful bond and fear Jackson feels over his own daughter, Marlee, who at eight is pert and has a habit of blurting things out at the wrong time. Julia and Amelia are eccentric opposites – Julia’s outrageous flirting adding to the humour of the book, contrasting with the awkward spinsterishness of her sister. Binky, the crazy cat lady, is a treat for her old colonial airs, and has an odd connection with the sisters and the secrets surrounding them.

I loved this book a second time around. Having finished it, I could pick it up and start it all over again – it was that good. Being character driven rather than plot driven, Case Histories is nevertheless a complete page-turner. The prose is all you could wish for too – smart, witty and honed to perfection.

And then there’s Jackson. He’s an archetypal sleuth – troubled, with a messy past; he’s clever but gets into scrapes through his dogged determination to keep digging. And he’s got that Yorkshire no-nonsense manner that makes relationships with women difficult as he struggles to articulate his feelings (while women readers find him totally gorgeous). It’s no wonder Atkinson brought him back for more outings and even after nine years, the new book’s popularity would suggest he’s a welcome return. Case Histories is a rare five star read from me.

A Very British Mystery

It must be the cooler weather, or just wanting a bit of mid-year R & R, but lately I’ve been devouring cosy mysteries. All have one thing in common – English rural settings. For some reason, there is nothing more entertaining than visualising a charming English village, complete with manor houses, welcoming inns and period churches, and then throwing in a whole lot of murder and mayhem.

First off I went to Bridgestead in Yorkshire, a village which is also home to a woollen mill. In Dying in the Wool, private investigator, and general nosey parker, Kate Shackleton accepts her first commission from soon-to-be-married chum Tabitha. Tabs wants her father to walk her down the aisle, but no one has seen him since the war (WWI, that is) when he ran away from the nursing home where he was being treated for depression. Is he alive or is he dead? That’s the problem. Soon there’s murder, danger and a bunch of characters with plenty to lose, so it’s just as well Kate has a right-hand man: Jim Sykes, an ex-copper too smart for the force. They make a great team. Tootling about in her 1913 Jowett, Kate is independent, undaunted and a sparky narrator. The 1920s era makes a brilliant backdrop too and I learned a lot about the textile industry. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the next in this cosy series by Frances Brody, A Medal for Murder.

The Kurland St Mary series by Catherine Lloyd makes you imagine what would happen if Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy decided to investigate murders together. Or maybe Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester. The Austen era is more accurate for the series, but the Bronte characters seem to fit better somehow. Sir Robert Kurland is a Napoleanic Wars veteran, with the big house up the hill. He gets grumpy because of his leg injury. Lucy is the rector’s daughter who knows how to handle his moods and has an independent streak at odds with what was expected of women of her station. In Death Comes to the Fair, the two are planning their wedding but murder gets in the way when the verger is found with his head bashed in by a gargoyle. You can’t get more period mystery than that. The book introduces all the people who surprisingly hated Ezekiel Thurrock, farming folk mostly, and a story that goes back to events in the 1600s with some interesting stuff about superstition and witchcraft.

I’ve also been catching up with the Superintendent Richard Jury series by American author, Martha Grimes. It’s terrific that ebook versions of the earlier novels are coming out and I picked up The Old Fox Deceiv’d, the second in the series, for a couple of dollars – a genuine bargain. You might think that with Jury investigating, the stories would be more police procedural than cosy. But you couldn’t get a less stereotypical policeman. His mate is Melrose Plant who, with his abandoned title and lovely manners, has entree into the world of people with power, privilege and mansions. Plant loves nothing better than helping his chum Jury on a case. The books are each named after an English pub – here The Old Fox Deceiv’d is in the coastal village of Rackmoor, a bleaker spot you’d have trouble to find, this being Yorkshire in winter. When a woman in mummer’s costume is stabbed, Scotland Yard are called in and Jury and Plant carry on their detecting together, helped by home-alone twelve-year-old Bertie Makepiece and his dog. All the hallmark ingredients of a Richard Jury novel are here: humour, quaint characters, money and position, buried secrets and haunting tragedies. Good food too. What’s not to love?