“The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047” by Lionel Shriver (2016)

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“Don’t use clean water to wash your hands!”

Many people have long lived by the notion that money makes the world go round. I’m not sure that’s true, but there’s no denying that if you have money it makes for a more comfortable ride. During the credit crunch last decade, the general population wised up a little to economics and realised that things weren’t necessarily always going to be so rosy. Indeed, with Brexit looming here in the UK, the cost of it and how that money will be raised seems to be a constant topic. Economic destruction is just one of the many negative options for the future of the planet, and Lionel Shriver explores that notion here.

The year is 2029 and things in the USA are bad. The dollar has imploded and is barely worth anything. The national debt will never be repaid. An international currency war is wiping out bank accounts with great speed. The Mandible family are just one of many that are struggling to survive in this world where cabbage costs $38 a head (and rising) and homeless shelters are bursting at the seams. When the family patriarch, Douglas Mandible, sees the inheritance he was set to leave his large family disappear, the whole clan now must deal with disappointment, frustration, and a lack of anything approaching luxury.

Florence works at one of the homeless shelters and is tired of having to turn away people every day because they’ve got a distant uncle with a spare bedroom. Her teenage son, Willing, is precocious and seems to have an innate understanding of economics and the way the world is going. Avery and Lowell are struggling to give up their expensive wines and quality clothes, and their children – Savannah, Goog and Bing – aren’t at all used to going without. In fact, the only one who seems to be doing OK for himself is Jarred, who has disappeared upstate to run a farm, now that agriculture is the only way to make any money.

As prices rise and everyone’s situation becomes increasingly desperate, the family find themselves making one compromise too many as they do whatever they can to survive through to a better future that may or may not be coming.

I’m not an economist by any means, but even I can see that the culture of spending money we don’t have is surely going to cause problems eventually. Shriver uses her characters (in particular Willing and Lowell) to explain the fundamentals of interest, taxation and inflation to us, and while these are the clunkier parts of the novel, they’re very useful to have. The first two thirds of the book are set between 2029 and 2032, when the country is falling apart and the final third takes us to 2047 with the surviving characters in a country that has begun to rebuild itself in a new way to aid its survival for longer. During the gap, a number of characters we’d grown to be interested in are wiped out, which is a shame and a bit of a cop out, but I also understand why it’s done.

One of my favourite aspects of dystopian futures, or anything set in the future really, is simply how the author envisions that world. I don’t mean the major details, more the little ones. In this one, for example, most of the technology brands we know have vanished and been replaced by superior models, which is by now a common idea. I do really love glimpses at future politics, too. While the story is set entirely in the USA, it’s mentioned that North and South Korea have undergone reunification, Ed Balls is the current British Prime Minister, the USA has its first Latin American President, and at some point before the story begins, Putin declared himself President for Life, and the USA went to war with New Zealand for some reason.

It’s an intelligent book, and actually quite funny as well, although the reality of what’s happening is perhaps a little daunting. I’m not sure society will ever get to these extremes, but odder things have happened. While the end careens towards a slightly more positive future, the very final paragraphs suggest that humanity, once again, has never learned from its mistakes. If humanity has a fatal flaw, it’s that, and I think it’s important to show it. Maybe one day we’ll pay attention.

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“Dead Man’s Time” by Peter James (2013)

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“The boy’s father kissed him goodnight for the last time – although neither of them knew that.”

It’s not been long since my last visit to the criminal underbelly of Brighton, but the next visit is never all that far away. I’m going to crack on, but there may be spoilers here if you’ve not read the rest of the series and are bothered about having aspects of the ongoing plot revealed too soon. If not, press on.

A few weeks after the birth of his son, Detective Superintendent Roy Grace hopes that work might give him a bit of a break and let him enjoy some time with Cleo and the new baby. Brighton, on the other hand, has other ideas. There’s been a burglary in a wealthy part of the city that’s left an elderly woman fighting for her life after being tortured, and millions of pounds worth of antiques smuggled off to the black market. The woman’s brother, Gavin Daly may be ninety-five, but when he discovers that a particular item of enormous sentimental value was also taken, he vows at nothing to get it back.

As Roy Grace and his team try to stop Daly and his son from taking matters into their own hands, a story unfolds that reveals a familial promise almost a century old. The race is on to get hold of the missing antiques and bring the villains to justice. Elsewhere, however, unwelcome faces from Grace’s past are closing in, and they’re not coming for a pleasant reunion and catch up over coffee.

As ever when I review a lot of books by the same person, particularly when they’re in the same series or on a similar theme, it’s difficult to keep knowing what to say. This it the ninth novel in the Roy Grace series, and it remains as interesting and captivating as ever. However, the books are beginning to spend more and more time away from Brighton – the reason I became interested in them in the first place – and in other countries, usually the USA. I do miss the simpler times of them being set in locations I know, and while much of the book still is, James appears to be stretching the net wider now. It’s not really a complaint – I enjoy the books and the characters a lot – but just a note that if you came here for the same reason as me, you may be disappointed.

As ever, more layers are added to the characters and they continue to be some of the most three-dimensional and realistic people to ever populate a fictional world. There are a couple of bigger developments here, too, while other aspects have been forgone. More than any other, it feels like a sequel and while there are still introductions to every character, they’re noticeably shorter and some prior knowledge is required. Previous threads – such as the constant leaks to the local press – have by now been resolved, but new sub-plots are emerging. There is the real sense that no one in the story is entirely independent. Every character, no matter how small, has a fully developed life of which we only see a little.

The actual criminal activity in the book is also incredibly dark, but then most of James’s books seem to follow that line. Not for the very faint of heart, this book dabbles in topics of torture and attacks on the weakest members of society, but there is also much about loyalty, familial love, and letting go. There even seem to be more red herrings than usual here, with you never being quite sure how everything links up and what exactly is going to happen. Nonetheless, it all does, and James even provides a surprising final chapter that in the hands of a lesser author might seem cheesy.

Roy Grace and Peter James continue to dazzle, and long may they do so.

“American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis (1991)

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american-psycho“Abandon all hope ye who enter here…”

So, first up, let’s just say that anyone who has come here to see a list of the crimes and depraved acts committed by Patrick Bateman in his book can stop reading now, as I’m not going to go into details about any of them. Partly because it would ruin the impact should you read this book, and partly because I don’t think I can bring myself to type the words. However, if you do plan on reading this book, I should let you know that I’m also going to spoil the crap out of this one and discuss a later plot point that I want to talk about. So, continue at your own risk.

This modern classic tells the story of Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street businessman in his late twenties who on the surface has the perfect life – good friends, a pretty girlfriend, huge amounts of money, a luxury apartment, intelligence, wit and charm – but hides a much darker secret. He is a psychopathic monster who has killed many people in cold blood, subjecting them to the most grostesque tortures before they die. No one else seems to suspect this about him though, and even when he admits it over dinner to people, they don’t listen or don’t believe him.

When he kills a coworker, Paul Owen, he commandeers the man’s apartment to kill more people, mostly women, and slowly becomes more and more deranged, suffering from hallucinations, all the while trying to maintain his appearance as a decent, functional human being. The story is occasionally ambiguous, and appears sometimes more as a series of vignettes, and there is little in the way of a continuing plot.

OK, so where to begin? Bateman is a reprehensible character with apparently no redeeming features but, then again, so is everyone else. Surrounded by wealthy, yuppie friends, his social behaviour is normalised. Every introduction is filled with a complete list of what everyone is wearing and where it’s from, there are pages-long discussions on which fur looks the best, or which brand of bottled water is the nicest. It can come as no surprise to anyone that Bateman seems to worship Donald Trump and longs to be his friend. Brand names fill the pages, and everyone is so obsessed with themselves that no one really pays any attention to anyone else. (In one instance when he admits to a woman he’s into “murders and executions”, she asks if he finds it boring and that she has a friend in “mergers and acquisitions” too.) Frequently people are introduced with the wrong names and never corrected; no one seems to know what any of their friends or colleagues really look like. This is an entirely superficial world.

The acts that Bateman performs on his victims are … well, let’s just say I worry for the mental health of Bret Easton Ellis. As I said, I’m not going into any detail on the foul things he does, but broadly speaking we have torture, rape, mutilation, cannibalism, necrophilia and animal abuse. This is not a book for the faint of heart. You need a strong stomach to get through this stuff, and while I think I’m pretty robust when it comes to the abuses humans perform on one another, I found this a struggle. I’ve not been very happy for much of this week and while there are various reasons for that, this book has certainly done nothing to help matters.

So now to come to what I loathed. Quite late into the book, it becomes ambiguous when it seems that one of the people that Bateman killed is still alive, and merely living in London now. When Bateman goes to the apartment he’s been using that belonged to this man, he finds it tidy and for sale, with an estate agent inside who tells him to leave. This throws up a horrible question – did the murder actually take place? This then sends you spiralling down and down. If this one didn’t happen, did any of them? It would explain why Bateman never gets caught, or why none of his friends believe him. Are they all just the fantasies of a diseased mind? More than anything, I loathe a story that ends “it was all a dream” and while it’s not confirmed that that’s what happened here, it’s suggested. I feel cheated, frustrated and like I just wasted a week of my life on something that built itself up to false promise. I know that, logically, the whole thing is fictional, but if it’s to turn out that these are just the thoughts of a man who wouldn’t act on these desires, it feels like a waste of time. How dare a book subject me to imagining such horrors to then go, “Only joking. Actually, he just thought all this while sitting on his sofa.”

Should you read it? As mentioned above, have a strong stomach. It’s clever, sharp, bitingly satirical and totally scathing about the wealthy. It’s also interesting due to the overlap with his other books. All his stories take place in the same universe, which in some respects adds to the ambiguity, and here we get a scene where Bateman has dinner with his younger brother Sean, who is in turn the main character in The Rules of Attraction. Despite my own personal feelings about the novel’s “twist”, it’s an incredibly interesting read. You just need to be pretty secure and well-balanced to get through it, I think. Good luck.

“The Improbability Of Love” by Hannah Rothschild (2015)

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improbability“It was going to be the sale of the century.”

I’ve never been one for art. I’ve been to several of the country’s most impressive and important galleries in my time, but I’m generally never left feeling how I think I should. Art very rarely makes me feel what other people seem to feel when they look at paintings. I can tell when something’s good, and it’s that old adage of “I know what I like”, but paintings and sculpture don’t really fill me with emotion. I’ve known people who get it, and this book has perhaps nudged me a little closer to intending to visit a gallery soon. The Improbability of Love is, as you may have surmised, set within the art world and the gilded, wealthy corners of creative society, and it’s rather swanky, as you may imagine.

Annie McDee is struggling in her new life without Desmond. She’s now found herself in an antique shop looking for a present for a man she knows she shouldn’t be dating. Tucked away behind a rubber plant, she sees a painting that strikes her as particularly beautiful. She buys it, but she has no idea that she’s just acquired a genuine Watteau; a painting that has passed through the hands of everyone from Voltaire to Hitler and stuns anyone who sees it. Annie has other things to worry about; her new job as a personal chef, her mother’s ongoing struggles with alcoholism, and the fact she’s caught the eye of a young museum guide called Jesse. But she’s desperately uninterested in opening up her heart to let someone else in.

Soon, however, with her painting in tow, she is plunged into the art world, which is populated by arrogant critics, penniless nobility, ruthless art dealers, desperate Russians, kind restorers, and more millionaires than you can shake a stick at. When Rebecca Winkleman is asked by her father, the wildly successful art dealer and Auschwitz survivor Memling, to track down a painting that he’s been missing for years, she finds herself also on the trail of The Improbability of Love, unaware that it’s owned by her new chef. Elsewhere, the mad, fame-and-fortune-hungry Barty has to convince a Russian oligarch to foster an interest in art, Earl Beachendon must find an artist willing to sell his works to the museum or his career is over, and poor Jesse must try not to let his feelings for Annie overcome him.

If only paintings could talk… And fortunately, here, they can. Of sorts, anyway, as the book is interspersed with chapters from the point of view of the painting itself, allowing us to learn about its history and meaning. You can certainly say it’s had an interesting life.

I did wonder if I was going to like this book. It’s one that seemed to have had a lot of publicity and table space in bookshops, which is either a sign that it’s really good, or that they’ve got a lot of them to shift. But actually, yeah, I did. I love the worlds of the fabulously wealthy (wouldn’t you love to have so much money that money stopped mattering?) and it’s fun to see how they spend their millions and billions on too much food, old paintings and extravagant houses. Mine would all go on books and good wine

Something odd is going on in here, though. While the characters are all interesting, three-dimensional and broken in their own ways, the real hero of the book is the painting itself and, to a lesser extent, all art. Much is made of the fact that act can instill emotions in us, change the way we feel, and make us feel things we didn’t know were possible. It’s a book that has inspired me to trek up to London specifically to go peruse another gallery. Maybe art lovers will get even more out of this book, being able to picture the paintings in question and knowing how the fictional ones would look. I mean, I can tell a Klimt from a Caravaggio, but I’ve never been overcome by emotion for a painting. Do I need to try harder?

The look is great, and somewhat unique thanks to the inclusion of the painting’s monologues. The painting is rather funny as a character, full of snobbery and disdain for its new owner, in the beginning at least. The book as a whole is gripping, and we bounce between characters, getting inside everyone’s heads and finding out what a dark and twisted place the world is when there’s this much money at stake. Hannah Rothschild is also great at having you think you know where a plot thread is going, only to twist it at the last moment. A really fun romp through an unfamiliar world.

“Antidote To Venom” by Freeman Wills Croft (1938)

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antidote“George Surridge entered his study shortly before seven on a cold night in mid October.”

Let’s just dive right in, shall we? In Antidote to Venom, Freeman Wills Crofts treats us to a crime novel with a difference. This is a murder mystery unlike any other I’ve read, given that it shows the other side of the story. Here, there is no question of “whodunnit” – we know, immediately. But Crofts is far more wily than that, and his story takes you along routes you never thought possible.

George Surridge is the director of Birmington Zoo, one of the most successful zoos in the UK, but he’s finding things difficult of late. He and his wife are barely speaking, there’s a disease bringing down many of the monkeys, and his lack of money is becoming increasingly problematic. Plus, he’s just started an affair with Nancy, a woman he meets at the zoo one day and is instantly besotted with. George will come into money when his aunt dies, since he is the sole remaining family member, but while his aunt is in ill health, she seems set to hang around. George begins to wonder if he could help hurry things along.

When the aunt is dead, however, the money is not forthcoming. It turns out that the solicitor of the estate, David Capper, has gambled it all away on the stocks. But he in turn is due a large inheritance from his uncle Mr Burnaby, another elderly figure still holding on. Burnaby has long been studying the snakes of Birmington Zoo, but recent events have conspired to mean George has taken away the scientist’s access to the reptiles. Capper, though, has a plan, and if George is willing to help him, they can commit a foul crime and soon be rolling in money. All George has to do is steal one of his own snakes…

The book can roughly be divided into two halves. In the first half, we hear the story from George’s point of view. As I said, there is no doubt that he is the criminal that in any ordinary murder mystery would be revealed at the end. Having it this way round, however, means we get to witness his true motives, and perhaps even develop a sympathy for him. The second half of the book follows the police as they try to work out how Burnaby died. It appears to have been a snake bite, but how did he get hold of a snake?

This “inverted” mystery makes for a hugely compelling read. As George spirals into a form of madness, obsessing over money and his new mistress, we are kept feeling tense as the noose tightens and a plan that at first seemed watertight might now be leaking. George, however, is a sympathetic character, and despite what he does, you can’t help but be rooting for him, if only a little. It’s also fascinating to see the police reach the conclusions that we already know. In your average Christie, we only find out the details in the final chapter. Here, we’ve already seen them. It’s a whole different kind of tension. The question is one more of “how” than “who”.

I’d never heard of Crofts before, and his is another book published in the British Library Crime Classics series. They seem to be specialising in authors whose work has long-since disappeared. Indeed, this is the first reprint of this book in several decades. I’ve read one from this line already, and there’s another on my shelf, but they’re all proof that the ‘Golden Age of murder’ was more than just Christie and Marsh. This is one of the smartest and most interesting books I’ve read all year, and a total must-read for anyone who enjoys a murder but is looking for something a bit different.