Book Review: The Poison Artist by Jonathan Moore

The Poison Artist
Jonathan Moore
Mariner Books, December 2016
ISBN 978-0-5448-1182-9
Trade Paperback

There are obsessions and there are fantasies.  And usually they don’t coincide.  But they do in this fascinating novel, which encompasses the elements of a serial murder mystery, a thriller and possibly a psychological analysis of a sick mind.  It is the story of Dr. Caleb Maddox, a brilliant San Francisco toxicologist studying the chemical effects of pain in the most advanced laboratory in the country.

After his live-in girlfriend walks out on him following an argument, he goes out drinking.  In a bar, he meets a beautiful woman named Emmeline. He becomes obsessed with her, and has to find her again. Meanwhile, he gets caught up in a serial murder investigation, helping his best friend, the Medical Examiner.  One of the victims turns out to be someone who also was drinking in the same bar as Caleb that night.  The detective  in charge of the case is aware of Caleb’s early history, and suspicion arises implicating him.

The novel is a complicated tale and is rather confusing until the author finally gets around to providing details on earlier history.  Until then, the reader remains in the dark and has to take everything at face value.  And the conclusion is somewhat offbeat as Caleb, perhaps, slips away from reality.

Written well, it is an unusual story well worth reading, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2017.

Book Review: The Drowned Boy by Karin Fossum

the-drowned-boyThe Drowned Boy
An Inspector Sejer Mystery #11
Karin Fossum
Translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson
Mariner Books, August 2016
ISBN 978-0-5447-0484-8
Trade Paperback

From the publisher:  Carmen and Nicolai failed to resuscitate their son, Tommy, after finding him drowning in their backyard pond.  When Inspector Skarre arrives on the scene, Carmen reports that Tommy, a healthy toddler with Down’s syndrome, wandered into the garden while Nicolai was working in the basement and she was doing housework.  Skarre senses something is off with Carmen’s story and consults his trusted colleague, the famed Inspector Sejer.  An autopsy reveals Tommy’s lungs to be full of soap.

I will go no further with the material from the back of the book for fear of spoilers.  But the ensuing tale, dark almost by definition as it deals with the death of a 16-month old child, is a wonderful psychological thriller such as we have come to expect from this author.

The child had just learned to walk.  And he had certainly been a challenge to his parents, very young as they are: 19 and 20, respectively.   DI Sejer, of the Sondre Buskerud Police District, has no proof, but his instincts tell him that there is something wrong with Carmen’s version of the events, and soon his younger colleague, Skarre, starts to feel the same way.  What ensues is an intriguing tale, which begins in mid-August, ending in the summer of the following year.

Sejer, now 55 years old, has always been a fascinating protagonist.  His beloved wife had died of liver cancer, and he has for company only his daughter, Ingrid, and his Chinese shar-pei dog, Frank Robert, who is almost as much a presence as the humans around him.  Sejer has of late been troubled by dizzy spells, although he puts off having himself checked out until nearly the end of the book.  The reader does not find out the truth about the child’s death until about the same time, in a not entirely unexpected, but still stunning ending.  Well-written and with wonderful descriptions of the characters, both outwardly and with some insight into their inner selves, the novel is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, September 2016.

Book Review: The Patron Saint of Ugly by Marie Manilla

The Patron Saint of UglyThe Patron Saint of Ugly
Marie Manilla
Mariner Books, June 2014
ISBN 978-0-544-14624-2
Trade Paperback

After chomping at the bit for months, finally, at long last, I get to tell you: I have read 2014’s Best Novel and it is The Patron Saint of Ugly. Created, crafted and chronicled by the magnificent Marie Manilla, this written work of art will capture your mind, tug your heart-strings and enrich your very essence. This is Garnet’s story, and what a tale it is. The intricacy of layers within, akin to hand-made lace: have been painstakingly woven to be lovely, seemingly delicate; but actually quite strong.

Growing up in Sweetwater, WV, Garnet has simple desires and dreams; to be like everyone else. Things that come so easily to others: quick conversations, best friends, flirting; all seem elusive to the girl covered in port-wine stains; looking as if a globe exploded, scattering land masses and constellations randomly over her entire body. But, this isn’t a simple story of an ugly duckling and inner beauty. Rather, it is a narrative of a family comprised of Old World Sicilians, blue-bloods able and willing to trace lineage all the way back to the Mayflower, small-town socialites, bad people, despicable people, heart-ache, hope and unconditional love.

As she begins, and throughout her memoir, Garnet’s tone is generally light; however, an undeniable sense of foreboding lurks. There is little to no doubt that Garnet’s words are most honest and sincere; just as surely as the reader realizes: Garnet is not telling us everything. As she relaxes in her role of story-teller, the whole, sordid truth begins to seep out; foreshadowing was very subtle, yet tangible. I actually got butterflies in my stomach when Garnet explained why she no longer ate penny candy. I didn’t want to keep reading, but I couldn’t stop. Sometimes, I really, truly, did not want to turn the page…..but I had to. A feeling of dread would swell up inside of me; I anticipated something bad, but the truth was never, ever, what I expected.

Continuing to provide the unexpected, Ms. Manilla’s wisdom shines as she allows Garnet to share her story orally, via recorded cassettes: pure genius. Living as an outcast, in the shadows, Garnet is privy to many secrets. Coupled with her uncanny observing skills, she simply must serve as narrator. Of course, the ladies closest to Garnet have well-guarded, deep secrets, too. Bits and pieces divulged in stolen moments, whispering into the recorder are poignant, heart-felt and sometimes…down-right shocking.

I love absolutely everything about this unique, sad, hopeful, strong, sweet story. Ms. Manilla’s craft is unparalleled, evoking tears, laughter and hope.

Reviewed by jv poore, May 2014.