18 June 2017

Library Limelights 135

Val McDermid. The Grave Tattoo. Canada: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2006.
A body found in a bog starts a chain of deadly circumstances; it's an old body but not that old. Jane the literature scholar and various others interested in poet William Wordsworth hope the body proves to be that of Fletcher Christian who led the Bounty mutiny. Rumour has long been that Christian met Wordsworth upon his secret return to England. Did Wordsworth create an epic but undiscovered poem about it? Jane's associates Anthony and Dan are supportive in a search for missing papers but other interests have a dark side, including her brother Matthew and her ex-boyfriend Jake. Jane and Dan work out a two-hundred year family tree for tracing living people, but their interviews have grave consequences. The little cluster of Lake District (England) villages have seldom seen so much activity as one funeral follows another.

Dr Wilde, the forensic anthropologist studying the body, is making a documentary and Rigston, the local detective, wants to arrest Jane as the cause behind all the suspicious events. Then there's Tenille, the sharp kid in the London council estates whom Jane befriended. Tenille's unacknowledged father is John "Hammer" Hampton, scariest man in the London underworld. When she gets in trouble, she heads for Jane, not knowing the Lake District has become a busy hot spot. Interspersed are portions of Wordsworth's (fictional) notes recounting Christian's maritime saga. McDermid is a crafty old hand at puzzles and never disappoints.

Like the poor, the past is always with us. (1)
"Mixing with the likes of the Hammer isn't right for a woman like you." (305)
He'd be damned if she ever got a sniff of William Wordsworth's missing masterpiece. (326)

"Use your charm, Jake. There's not much point in having it otherwise, is there?" (83)

Transporting bog man:
We make a pretty strange cortege, she thought to herself as she eased the bulk of her Land Rover out of its car park space and into the wake of the hearse. Talk about the odd couple. A body with no one to mourn it and a forensic anthropologist who wants to steal all its secrets. A limo and a Landie. Hell, I could just have loaded the body in the back and not bothered the guys from Gibson's. (71)

Scumbag manuscripts dealer:
The dial-up connection via the phone point was tediously slow compared to wireless access, but he wanted privacy for his piracy. He booted up Jane's email program and was please to see that, as he'd suspected, she'd left her password stored on the dial-up screen. He hesitated for a moment. What he was planning was about as shabby as it got. And Jane didn't like to think of himself as shabby. But he had his future to consider. Frankly, a little shabbiness was neither here nor there if that was all that stood between him and the literary find of the century. (195)

Parental freakout at telly news:
"So why are you acting like you've just seen a ghost?" Matthew asked, for once not unkindly. "What are you not telling us, Jane?"
She visibly pulled herself together. "I know Tenille, that's all."
"That black girl in the photo? You know her?" Her father sounded bewildered, as if an alien world had reached out and touched his own. "How do you know someone like that?"
"You mean because she's black or because she's a teenager?" Jane asked, showing a rare irritation with her father.
"Because she's mixed up with a murder, your father means," Judy the peacemaker said. "And it's a good question. How do you know a lass who's wanted by the police in connection with a murder?" (205)

Sharyn McCrumb. Prayers the Devil Answers. USA: Center Point Large Print, 2016.
I had a vague memory of reading this author some time ago, so why not try her latest. My mistake. The book is not my cup of tea no mystery here, no detecting, no danger, suspense, excitement ― blame it on misleading cover blurb? There is a crime that we know about from the get-go, and the story concentrates on how the local sheriff handles the arrest and the execution. It's the dirty-thirties in the hardscrabble Appalachians; the sheriff is Ellendor Robbins, appointed temporarily after her husband Albert's death. A woman sheriff in the back of beyond is a tale McCrumb built on the meagre basics of a true story.

Apparently I have a mental block against reading about poverty and hardship in semi-illiterate surroundings, but anyone else will appreciate McCrumb's gentle, descriptive immersion into a world of eighty years ago; it's full of great contemporary atmosphere whether you like it or not. One thing, she often drops back stories into the midst of dialogue that have you losing the thread of the conversation. Maybe it's your cup of tea?

He was a wiry banty rooster of a man with slicked-back hair and a hand-rolled cigarette hanging off his lip every time I saw him. (57)
Bravery was only a virtue if you were doing something that needed doing, which, in their view, persecuting local bootleggers was not. (92)
He wasn't afraid of steel-eyed old ladies; it's just that they always made him feel ten years old again, with lessons forgotten and a frog in his pocket. (143)

But by the end, I knew that if, by the grace of God, Albert did return to life long enough to speak even a few words, I would ask him about everything. By then I'd had many waking hours to sit by the bedside in silence and dwell on the big questions, knowing that the answers to questions would have to last me the rest of my life. I needed to ask him about money, about the boys, about a future without him, whether he wanted me to stay here or go back up the mountain. So many questions, but they all boiled down to a single one: What must I do? (40)

The in-laws:
"But we do have a little money put by from his pay, and I reckon I could use some of it to buy him a place in the burying ground."
Henry shut his eyes and heaved a weary sigh. "Well, I can't think of a greater waste of money. Leave it to a woman to make a hash of practical matters once she is on her own. It's a good thing we came to tell you what to do before it was too late."
Elva spoke up, perhaps to prove that she could be practical despite being female. "Bury him in town, Ellendor? But where is the sense in that?"
Not that it's any of your business, I thought. "The sense is this, Elva: when he died, Albert was the county sheriff. He made friends heremen from the railroad shop, the church, the neighbours―enough well-wishers to get him elected to office, in fact. People here respected him. He was the sheriff, and he was proud of that. Here he was somebody." (197)

Claire Cameron. The Last Neanderthal. Canada: Doubleday Canada, 2017.
Another not-a-mystery unless you count great issues such as evolution among yours. I read it not because Cameron's mother is a pretty good friend of mine, but because the author has proven to be a stellar Canadian writer (remember Bear?). Neanderthal just might blow you away. Back in the '80s, I loved Jean Auel's prehistoric series beginning with Clan of the Cave Bear. Ergo, how would Cameron treat that period of which we have so few traces? With immense aplomb and vigour, as it turns out. The life of "Girl" is contrasted with that of Dr. Rose Gale, the archaeologist who discovers new skeletons in France. The result presents a startling and compassionate portrait of two women.

Rose believes that Neanderthals had far greater cognitive skills than scientists give credit for. In her excavation, a human skeleton is found embracing a female Neanderthal. Maybe they will provide answers to the ascendancy of humans. Museum politics intrude while pregnant Rose struggles to retain control of her dig site. For her part, Girl is finely tuned to nature around her, consciously trying to adapt to loss and change by distinguishing what remains the same in her world. There are some harrowing scenes on each side; suspense becomes a finely handled element. Cameron appears to have as much affinity with the natural world of animals as Neanderthal Girl does, which is part of her whole point. Cameron makes us feel this connection in her incredibly moving novel:
When you look into her eyes, you will feel an immediate connection. All the differences drop away. You each know with certainty that you can feel the mind of the other. You share a single thought: I am not alone. (5)

[Girl] Life was a moving set of decisions. (18)
[Rose] I knew a fear so deep it opened its gaping mouth and swallowed me up. (227)

There were only two kinds of meat: The meat that gets to eat. And the meat that gets eaten. (38)

Sponsors and funding:
One more spot, presumably for me, was set across from them; it looked like I would be facing a firing line. They were talking among themselves, and they stood when they saw me enter. The only person I recognized was Tim Spalding, the trustee I'd spoken with on the phone.
"Dr. Gale, wonderful to see you again. Thank you for coming."
"Nice to see you again, Mr. Spalding," I said.
"Tim, please."
His palm was dry and his grip firm. I pulled my hand back with a glance down. I still had dirt under the edges of my nails. I had given them a scrub earlier, but I hadn't worried about it too much. Every archaeologist in the field suffers the same. But then, under the grandly arched ceiling of the museum conference room, all that digging and dirt felt far away. (49-50)

The mother bear also sniffed curiously. She held up her nose and lingered in a way that reminded Girl of Big Mother. Had this bear eaten her mother's meat? Was the old woman inside? It was rare for the bears to pass by the land of the family on their way to the fish run, but they might have. Rather than feeling disturbed at the thought of the family being meat, Girl hung on to the idea. ...
The idea of the bear bringing part of Big Mother to the meeting place in her belly felt efficient, since Girl couldn't have carried the body. She found herself trying to feel Big Mother in this bear. The bear dipped her head and seemed to eye Girl's belly. (161)

Raison d'être:
He ate the meatball on his fork and stabbed another one. "You know why we were put on this planet?" He waved the meatball at me. "All this time, the answer was here?"
"I don't wonder anymore."
"I was going to say the same. That I suddenly do see a larger point to all this." He smiled broadly.
"I found her." I grinned back.
The baby."
"The Neanderthal."
"I have this feeling, Simon. Once I've excavated her completely, she's going to show that my theories are exactly right." (168)

Emotional power:
Feeling like she had received a kick to her gut, Girl dropped to her knees, and the air rushed out of her body in one gasp. Here was one change too many. The careful equation of Girl's life tilted. Her balance was lost. Too few things kept her feet rooted to the ground, as a tree that becomes vulnerable when the one next to it falls after a strong gust of wind. Her senses shut down. She could no longer see. She lost track of the land around her. Noise filled her head and she clutched her ears. They were her screams, although she barely recognized the sound. (206)

03 June 2017

Library Limelights 134

Ruth Ware. The Woman in Cabin 10. Toronto: Simon & Schuster Canada, 2016.
Laura Blackstock is a journalist for a travel magazine, whose boss sends her on the maiden voyage of a new, small luxury ship. They will be sailing the Norwegian fjords as she tries to reconcile her feelings about her lover Judah. Laura's assignment is to send articles about the ship and its passengers a collection of twelve wealthy and/or celebrity guests. Somewhat derailed and sleepless after a frightening incident at her apartment, Laura drags herself on board to find that she's acquainted with a few others, particularly her ex-boyfriend Ben. She's barely met them all when she half-witnesses what she thinks is a murder in the cabin next door. No-one seems to believe her, a woman who periodically suffers from panic attacks.

It becomes a heart stopper, guessing what is real and what may be Laura's imagination. The insertion of post facto reports from the home front are a brilliant addition to the suspense; understanding the timing is crucial. And you may find yourself drawing diagrams of the ship's cabins. At times Laura's paranoia seems a bit over the top, making me distance myself. Likewise, her ultimate dash for freedom skeptically conjures a bionic woman. Nevertheless, Ware has fashioned a superbly chilling read, worthy of the best British thriller writers.

Apparently the majority of ball gowns were designed by five-year-old girls armed with glitter guns, but at least this one didn't look entirely like an explosion in a Barbie factory. (52)
I dreamed of her laughing eyes white and bloated with salt water, of her soft skin, wrinkled and sloughing, of her T-shirt ripped by jagged rocks and disintegrating into rags. (159)
I might as well have been in outer space, screaming into a soundless vacuum. (237-8)

Was this it, then? Was I never going to sleep again?
I had to sleep. I had to. I'd had ... I counted on my fingers, unable to do the maths in my head. What ... less than four hours of sleep in the last three days.
I could taste sleep. I could feel it, just out of my reach. I had to sleep. I just had to. I was going to go crazy if I didn't sleep.
The tears were coming againI didn't even know what they were. Tears of frustration? Rage, at myself, at the burglar? Or just exhaustion?I only knew that I couldn't sleepthat it was dangling like an unkept promise just inches away from me. I felt like I was running towards a mirage that kept receding, slipping away faster and faster the more desperately I ran. (21)

The end?
"Bye, Judah."
"'Bye'? What do you mean, 'bye."
"Whatever you want."
"What I want is for you to stop acting like a goddamn drama queen and move into my flat. I love you, Lo!"
The words hit me like a slap. I stopped in the doorway, feeling the weight of my tiredness like something physical around my neck, pulling me down.
Hands in pale latex, the sound of a laugh ..."Lo?" Judah said uncertainly.
"I can't do this," I said, my face to the hallway. I was not sure what I was talking aboutI can't leave; I can't stay; I can't have this conversation, this life, this everything. "I justI have to go." (33)

Searching for a phantom:
"N-no ... there's no-one on the sailing crew who could fit that description," Ulla said slowly. "On the staff there is also Eva, but she is too old. Have you spoken to the kitchen staff?"
"Never mind." I was beginning to despair. This was starting to feel like a recurrent nightmare, interviewing person after person after person, while all the while the memory of the dark-haired girl began to dissolve and shimmer, slipping through my fingers like water. The more faces I saw, each corresponding slightly but not completely to my memory, the harder I was finding it to hold on to the image in my head. (120)

Antonin Varenne. Bed of Nails (2009). USA: MacLehose Press/Quercus, 2014.
The French are not often like you and me or the rest of the world. Which is to say this particular writer, at any rate, is so far from the usual formulas of police novels that his main character is in and out of an alternate universe. Lt. Guérin of the Paris police suicides investigations convinces himself that a rash of recent suicides are all related. "Everything is connected" is his motto; coincidence is not in his lexicon. He also concludes "the world of men" is a bed of nails. Guérin is a pariah among his colleagues, regarded as a lunatic, except by his loyal sidekick, Lambert. One of those suicides was an American for whom an old friend, John Nichols, is called to identify the body. Nichols is also not a stock character: a graduate psychologist, he prefers living rough and alone deep in a French forest.

Getting into the style and content takes some perseverance but rewards await. Nichols' dead friend died in distasteful circumstances ― Alan had been a heroin junkie who made money with fakir acts, torturing himself. Nichols is sad and puzzled by Alan's action, then finds more to the story. Inevitably he joins up with Guérin who is also committed to exposing some of his corrupt colleagues. Lambert worries about his boss overthinking everything, that the mental energy will burn up his brain. It's an extremely mixed bag ― shadowy background presences, sinister CIA practices, an ex-con camping in a city park, and a psychology thesis, not to mention Guérin's abominable parrot named Churchill. For something completely different ...

The old men, cloth caps pulled down over their heads, their outlines as angular as the twisted arms of sundials, projected onto the steps shadows of a timeless rural existence. (15)
Alan's absence, even though it seemed unreal, was revealing a presence whose weight he had not yet measured. (37)
"Unemployment, brother, is the mother of vice." (132)
He had been hurtling along like a scalded cat, only to get there an hour early. (181)

Lambert sighed deeply. The American was even nuttier than his boss. (174)

Musings on the job:
Being nice wasn't a quality required in this building. Indeed, one had to admit in the end that it was of little use. Any niceness you had, you got rid of as fast as possible, feeling a bit ashamed, like losing your virginity to some broken-down hooker. Lambert wondered if the boss―forty-two years old, thirteen of them in the job―was perhaps making this unnatural exception in his case only. Another reason, he told himself, not to act like a dickhead. Guérin was certainly capable of the opposite.
[NP]Trainee officer Lambert, who sometimes pursued his thought to its exact limits, wondered whether the boss wasn't in fact using him as a sort of lifebelt, a refuge for his feelings. When he lost himself in these hypothetical ramblings, generally after a few beers, the image of the dog and its master came back every time. In the end, it summed up their relationship pretty clearly. For the humble, humiliation is the first step toward recognition. (5)

Guérin's theory dissolves:
Everything was falling apart, the elements were becoming atomized. The yellow raincoat had got bigger, or else Guérin had shrunk. Churchill was sulking as he slipped into depression. The apartment had become a mausoleum to the memory of his mother, watched over by a neurotic parrot. There were no more temper tantrums or cackles, only silence. Guérin had lost the thread. He simply saw a parallel between his own condition and that of the world: they were both chaotic, no need to imagine any conspiracy, just a complex mass alternating between hazardous free will and anarchic disintegration. In that steaming cauldron, anything might make sense. (136)

Bunker, the ex-con:
The fashions, gestures, colors, and shapes around him meant absolutely nothing to him. He was from a completely different age: twenty-five years too late. He thought: I kept my regrets warm, I built walls thicker than a prison's. I was a coward. I just didn't face them, and I thought I'd got rid of them. And then along comes this kid with his rotten backpack and his pal who sticks needles in himself ... (182)

Camilla Grebe. The Ice Beneath Her. USA: Ballantine Books, 2016.
Here's a perfectly crafted Scandinavian (Swedish) noir suspense novel. A gruesome murder is discovered in a wealthy suburban house but the homeowner has disappeared. Narration shifts between Emma the solitary introvert, Peter the police detective, and psychologist Hanne, his once-lover. Emma's secret affair with the CEO of a fashion retail conglomerate meets unforeseen problems when she wants more from Jesper. Peter is wrestling with his personal responsibilities and feelings when Hanne comes to consult in the investigation. Hanne herself is existentially burdened with the onset of dementia and a loveless marriage.

Revealing too much about the story would give away critical plot development. But the characters are defined by past life events and their unarticulated feelings. Themes of abandonment by mothers and lovers, and men who fear commitment, recur. Emma's narcissistic, alcoholic mother and Hanne's controlling husband among other minor players are catalysts for propelling the action. Grebe is in top form, right up there with masters of the genre.

It's as if my value is in some way dependent on him wanting me more than I want him–or at least wanting me as much. (33)
I always thought it strange that he didn't want his name on the door, but he said he preferred anonymity. (74)
These days, I have difficulty finding meaning in what I do. (6)
The thought of the mother of my child fighting a life-threatening disease left me completely unmoved. (254)
My intellect, my memory, is disintegrating, fragmenting into small, elusive crumbs that no longer join into any meaningful whole. (40)
If you don't stay up to speed on cultural life, you'll end up embarrassed and silent at our dinner parties. (44)

I like to imagine memory as a web, and my web has holes in it here and there that will grown and multiply over time. As if someone used a cigarette to burn holes into my web at random. So far, I can compensate for them, hide them from the people around me. But eventually the disease will eat up the web, until only thin threads hold together whatever pieces remain.
Sometimes I wonder what I'll be left with then. I mean, a person consists of their accumulated experiences, thoughts, and memories. If those are gone―who am I? Someone else? Something else? (115-6)

Half full or half empty?
But most of all I think about how I felt when I was with her. How marvelously wide open, vulnerable, and light I became.Like a feather.Who says it can't be like that again? Who decided it can't happen?Life is about loss, my mother used to say when she stood smoking under the fan. Loss of the innocence we're all born with, of the people we love, of our health and our physical abilities, and ultimately―of course―the loss of our own lives. 
As usual, she was right. (283)

27 May 2017

Library Limelights 133

Minette Walters. Fox Evil. UK: Chivers Press (large print), 2002.
Admired for her psychological suspense mysteries, Walters has produced a dozen over the years. We meet the vicious character called Fox Evil right at the beginning to know that he is the creepy villain scaring women, children, and grown men behind the scenes. The scenes take place mainly on one Boxing Day when his solicitor Mark spends Christmas with lonely widower James Lockyer-Fox. James desperately wants to meet his unknown granddaughter Nancy who became an adopted baby. A group of travellers that morning take up belligerent residence in a wood bordering James' Shenstead Manor. Rumours persist about the death of James' wife.

All of it combines to bring old family grudges to a head, inexplicable personal attacks, and neighbours' secrets being exposed. On immersion in the tale one might guess that the elusive and anonymous Fox Evil is not the obvious suspect. But we are left in the dark about Nancy's biological parents until Walters neatly ties up multiple loose threads. Strong on dialogue, less on action, a little too much allegory about the fox destroying his victims ... although we are in fox hunting country which adds another minor dimension. The coincidence with the two Fox names is for the reader to judge.

It was her view that there was room for only one mother in a person's life, and it was an unnecessary complication to add the emotional baggage of a second. (19)
They had been given every advantage in life, and had failed spectacularly to build on them. (77)
She was an envious woman who enjoyed a grievance. (149)

What would a good soldier do?
He jabbed a finger at her. "What do you do then ... assuming you have a conscience and you don't want to shoot the wrong person?"
"Resign your commission," Nancy said bluntly. "Become a pacifist. Desert. All you do by listening to enemy propaganda is compromise your morale and the morale of your troops. It's bog-standard tactics." She jabbed a finger back at him to stress the words. "Propaganda is a powerful weapon. Every tyrant in history has demonstrated that." (147-8)

In-law shoots from the hip:
She listened to the nasal breathing at the other end as the girl struggled to calm herself. When Belinda spoke again, her voice was brittle. "That's the pot calling the kettle black, wouldn't you say? Since when have you made us feel welcome? We flog over once a month for the same ridiculous ritual. Chicken casserole in dishwater because your time's too precious to cook properly ... character assassination of Jack's dad ... invective against the man at Shenstead Manor ..." She drew a rasping breath. "Jack's even more hacked off with it than I am, bearing in mind he adores his dad and we both have to get up at six every morning to keep the business afloat at this end. Poor old Dick's dead on his feet by nine o'clock because he's doing the same thing ... while you sit there stuffing your face and slagging people off ... and the rest of us are too damn knackered earning your bloody golfing fees to tell you what a bitch you are." (179-80)

That sixth sense:
They both knew they were too close. She saw it in the flash of awareness that sparked in his eyes. He saw it in the way her finger hovered within inches of his mouth. She dropped her hand. "Don't even think about it," she said, baring her teeth in a fox-like smile. "I've enough bloody trouble with my sergeant without adding the family lawyer to my list of difficulties. You weren't supposed to be here, Mr. Ankerton. I came to speak to James."
Mark raised his palms in a gesture of surrender, jealousy spent. "It's your fault, Smith. You shouldn't wear such provocative clothes."
She gave a sputter of laughter. "I specifically dressed butch."
"I know," he murmured, putting the mugs on a tray, "and my imagination's in overdrive. I keep wondering about all the softness that's underneath the armour plating." (261-2)

Tayeb Salih. Season of Migration to the North. UK: Heinneman, 1969.
A classic of modern Arab literature, the time is set in post-First World War Sudan, Egypt and London. Salih uses an anti-hero, Mustafa Sa'eed, in a deft portrayal of the crushing colonial effect on one man. An educated African Arab proving himself as an equal in London, seat of power, Mustafa finds his own ambivalent emotions too heavy to bear. He becomes a deliberate, cunning seducer of women, until one woman calls his bluff. Later, switching to a quiet life farming along the Nile seems just as unsatisfactory. The story's narrator, whose name we don't know, is fascinated by this stranger come to live in their village, and slowly pieces together Mustafa's life, including his trial for murder. Around them, the villagers continue their ages-old agricultural practices as progress and bureaucracy encroach.

The villagers are a lively group, hard working and hard drinking at times, but destined for tragedy that they blame on Mustafa. One would expect religion to permeate such an atmosphere, accustomed as we are to more recent fiction about Muslim life. But no, very little. Female circumcision is mentioned in a bawdy conversation; occasionally they remember to request Allah's forgiveness for passing sins. Sometimes it is Mustafa speaking, sometimes the narrator. "North" is used both geographically and figuratively. This is a brief novel for both the intellect and the heart, beautifully written.

I want to take my rightful share of life by force, I want to give lavishly, I want love to flow from my heart, to ripen and bear fruit. (4)
I was not alarmed for I felt that satanic warmth under my diaphragm, and when I feel it I know that I am in full command of the situation. (32)
Yes, I now know that in the rough wisdom that issues from the mouths of simple people lies our whole hope of salvation. (32)

In her eyes I was a symbol of all her hankerings. I am South that yearns for the North and the ice. (24)

In a nutshell:
I heard Mansour say to Richard, "You transmitted to us the disease of your capitalist economy. What did you give us except for a handful of capitalist companies that drew off our blood and still do?" Richard said to him, "All this shows that you cannot manage to live without us. You used to complain about colonialism and when we left you created the legend of neo-colonialism. It seems clear that our presence, in an open or undercover form, is as indispensable to you as air and water." They were not angry: they said such things to each other as they laughed, a stone's throw from the Equator, with a bottomless historical chasm separating the two of them. (47-8)

Denise Mina. The Dead Hour. UK: Charwood/Bantam (large print), 2007.
Feisty Paddy Meehan, girl reporter, is at it again. She's a full-time employee of Scottish Daily News, working the mostly dreary graveyard shift in Glasgow, chasing police calls. She's still overweight and still feeding her low grade depression. And once again she inadvertently embroils herself in a nasty murder investigation. She is the only witness to the murderer's face. Bent cops, comic cops, dodgy newsmen, and ex-boyfriend Sean all get in her way at times while she tries to vindicate her part in the developing situation. Meanwhile, the cokehead sister of the slain woman is sniffing her way to certain destruction if she's not found in time. Paddy nervously debates which policeman she can trust, even the one she fancies with a passion.

Some of Paddy's fascination with her same-name lowlife doppelganger wears off. It's prime Mina, taking us through the worlds of working class Glasgow and competitive journalism where budget cuts have everyone on edge. Her characters are always memorable in lively prose. The Dead Hour is the second in a three-book series about Paddy (see my review of the first, The Field of Blood, at https://anotherfamdamily.blogspot.ca/2017/04/library-limelights-130.html). A few unresolved dangling ends have surely been left to the third book.

She found herself a foot in the wrong direction to meet anyone's eye, her own lonely heart alone in the universe, a beat out of step with everyone else. (3)
The old soaks used Kevin as a measure to justify their own drinking: if they got as bad as him they'd stop, but no one ever was as bad as him. (335)

Paddy stepped into the hallway, into the warmth and the homely smell of toast and strong tea. The holy-water font inside Mimi's door was large enough for a small chapel: a Disney-ish Our Lady gazing lovingly down at a fat baby Jesus who was holding a pink oyster shell full of holy water. Paddy dipped two fingers of her right hand and dabbed her head, her breastbone and both shoulders as she crossed the threshold. It was an old habit she couldn't shake. She had no faith but she knew the gesture soothed her mother's fears about her. Every time she did it she felt like a hypocrite, but a hypocrite with a calm mother. (22)

Pink slips:
Paddy looked at Farquharson's closed office door and suddenly understood the air of shock and horror in the room. The board were making changes. Farquharson had been in the job for four long years so it wasn't because he wasn't fit for the job: they were making changes because the paper wasn't making money. Any one of them could go next.
"Who's coming in?" she asked. "Do we know yet?"
"A bastard from London."
"How do you know he's a bastard?"
"Because he's from London." (125)

The self-pity train:
As she walked along the corridors following the signs, she passed the Oncology ward and remembered when her friend Dr Pete had been in here, when he looked at her with a steady fearless eye and told her he was dying. She missed him. She missed Terry Patterson. When she thought about it, she missed every fucking person she'd ever known and wished it was some other time than now. She wished she was on day shift. She wished her father had a job and her mother was over the menopause and last night hadn't happened and she hadn't shagged George fucking Burns. She wished Mary Ann wasn't a religious maniac and Sean was still her boyfriend. She wished she was thin. (285)

Nathan Dylan Goodwin. The Missing Man. UK: Self-published,* 2017.
Goodwin's mysteries are well-crafted to appeal to a broad fan base, not only family historians. But for the latter, what could be better than curling up with Goodwin and Morton Farrier? One is the creature of the other: Morton has become well established as a fictional forensic genealogist in England.[1] And his biggest personal brick wall has been his "lost" American biological father the missing man. His mother never knew her father withheld letters from her erstwhile lover, letters that Morton uncovered long after the fact (in the previous The Spyglass File). He found them both curious and troubling. But now he has enough clues for some serious research and interviews. His good-natured bride, Juliette, agrees to spend their honeymoon in Massachusetts.

Each new document Morton finds only deepens the mystery about his father Jack and his father. Hoping that some of the older generation will still be alive, he moves from one resource location to another in the Cape Cod area. Alternating perspective is a device Goodwin has used before to great effect; here, Morton's activities contrast with those of his father forty years earlier. It's a deft suspense-builder. Beginning with a devastating house fire, ending at an airport, The Missing Man is a novella, a quick read. It's one you won't want to interrupt and will wish it would continue. No worries; I'm sure Goodwin has further Morton Farrier adventures up his sleeve or in his hard drive as we speak. The books are available at various Amazon sites; links on the author's website nathandylangoodwin.com.

The shocked gasp of her neighbours and the stricken cries of the firefighters on the lawn were lost to the appalling cacophony of metal, brick, wood and glass crumbling together, crescendo-ing into the night sky. (1)
"I'm afraid you're not listed here as family." (59)
It might have happened to someone at some point, but not to his grandparents in Boston in 1946. (36)
He studied her features, wanting to absorb every detail, knowing that it would likely be the one and only time that he would ever see her. (61)

[1] For example see reviews: https://brendadougallmerriman.blogspot.ca/2015/10/book-america-ground.html and https://brendadougallmerriman.blogspot.ca/2016/10/book-spyglass-file.html.

22 May 2017

FEC: Insurrection

A glum Mr OC enters the meeting room, glum because terrace and roof gardening is on the agenda. It has taken years to order the gardens to his the Inmate Committee's satisfaction ... years of keeping out yappy dogs, hyperkinetic kiddies, and midnight drunks for the pleasure of working small plots, peaceful afternoon sunbathing, pleasant sunset get-togethers, impromptu barbecues. The IC can tell from his face it's bad news.

"Here's the latest, my dear fellows," he says, brandishing some papers. "Thomas the Brave Bastard deeply resents his failure to hijack our IC and against all odds ingratiated himself with Upper Levels of Command. Now he's convinced them ..."
Summoning his best operatic breath and timing, he continued, "Thomas the Bastard is now in charge of gardens. And he's going to build a greenhouse on our roof to replace everything!"

Did the impossible just happen? Every member is stunned speechless. Their beloved gardens in the sky.

"To continue ..." Mr OC sighs. "Everything goes. We can throw out our waiting list for small-plot gardens, no more outdoor green oasis." He lays his head down on the table.
"Justification?" Gonzo the treasurer manages to croak.
The heavy head lifts a fraction. "Ecology .. solar .. organic .. whatever .. he just sold a bill of goods about providing residents with free vegetables year round. It's all the urban rage now, 21st century technology."
"Oh dear lord ..." murmurs Ophelia.
"Call the city! He can't do this!"
"OC, are you okay?"

George slammed his fist down, "What's next? A cow and a flock of sheep? Free milk and meat?!"
"We could have chickens," Bella whispers, "eggs."
"Shut your face you half-wit!"
Ms Etoile found her voice and cried, "Free veggies, my ass! What's the cost of putting up a great jeezly plastic tent?! All the necessary equipment? And who's the expert going to run this horticultural enterprise?"
OC: "Guess who."
Bella slinks off to commune with the House of Smirnoff.
"Technology costs a lot of money," snarled Gonzo.
Mr. OC raises his weary head and says with a wry smile they've never seen before,

"BUT ..."

" ... one thing. It's all dependent on the City Engineer's report."
Thoughts tumble about. Gears are meshing. Ideas gestating.

Luanna bursts out, "We can tell the Engineer what Thomas the Bastard won't!"
Several excited yeas.
"The cracked flooring blocks ..."
"The rotting membrane under the blocks ..."
"The leaks in apartment ceilings below ..."
"Thomas the manager has no qualifications  ..."

Smiles of satisfaction glow as plans are made. 
It's not over till it's over.

Another feckless day in the life ...

14 May 2017

Library Limelights 132

Lisa Scottoline. Lady Killer. UK: Charnwood Large Print, 2008.
Ah - for a needed change of pace, like old-fashioned wise-cracking detectives. Scottoline works, to a degree. Mary Di Nunzio is a lawyer in Benny Rosato's small firm; Mary's clients are largely from her own Italian background in Philadelphia. When Trish, a disliked former schoolmate, comes to her for help and then goes missing, sympathetic Mary is sucked into a puzzling story of abuse and threats. Trish's three "girl" pals (dubbed the Mean Girls by Mary) are the opposite of helpful and in fact become increasingly annoying to this reader. Hey, but it's all part of the great ethnic neighbourhood roots that stick together right or wrong.

Mary ignores the police and hunts alone for the missing or possibly kidnapped woman. She has a secret history dating from high school, hence personal motivation. Or guilt. A dead body turns up the 'hood has its undesirables. Mary's job is on the line. As light reading, it flows well and has many fun moments but the Italian schtick is very heavy.

"Thank God you bitches woke me up to tell me what I'm doing wrong." (149)
The dining room was full, too, even though it was usually reserved for Christmas, Easter, or another occasion when something really good had happened to Jesus Christ. (405)

Two-liner: "I don't have a favorite food. Food is my favorite." (222)

Getting to know:
"What did you say?" Anthony leaned over his menu. "You like Latin food?"
"No, forget it."
"I cook very good Cuban. I learned it in South Beach from a Cuban friend."
"I feel inferior, with no Cuban friends. I know people from Jersey, however."
Anthony laughed. "I even went to Havana with him. What a city. Very wild."
"I'm sure. I saw The Godfather."
"I memorized The Godfather. I even read the book"
"That's hardcore." Mary smiled. What's your favourite line?"
"'Leave the gun, take the cannoli.'"
"Good one. Mine's 'Fredo, you broke my heart.'" Mary smiled again. She was buzzed. Anthony was fun. Gay men were always fun. She wished suddenly that all men were gay. (121)

When going to work is a drag:
It was barely dawn but Mary was awake, showered, and dressed to match her mood, in a black dress with black pumps. Her makeup was light because she didn't take the time to do it right; her hair fell unprofessionally to her shoulders because she didn't bother to blow it dry. Her eyes had turned red from falling asleep in her contacts, and her face was puffy from the wine. In short, she'd remain single for another day. (219)

Mother knows best:
She watched, mystified, as her mother rose slowly and touched her father on the arm, saying, "Come, Mariano."
"Wha'?" her father asked, looking up in confusion until he received the Let's-Leave-These-Kids-Alone message her mother was telecommunicating via her magical eyes. Mary tried not to laugh. Her mother had a varied repertoire of eye messages, and the bestsellers were: Don't-Eat-With-Your-Fingers, Leave-That-Piece-For-Your-Father, and I'll-Never-Trust-That-German-Pope. (364-5)

Cate Holahan. The Widower's Wife. USA: Crooked Lane Books, 2016.
Wife goes missing from a cruise ship? A great scenario for describing a life insurance investigator's unrelenting enquiries. Ana is the wife; Tom is the husband; Sophia is their little girl. Agent Ryan Monahan suspects suicide, in which case the insurance company will not pay out. Sophia is the beneficiary. Tom insists it was an accident and a superficial police report agrees with him. I was admiring the cleverness of Holahan juxtaposing Ryan's narrative with Ana's in retrospect, leading up to the incident itself.

My admiration flatlined as new facts are uncovered ... all totally predictable as mysteries go. Is it so easy to pull the wool over Ryan's eyes, a former cop? And Holahan stumbles over credibility issues as she winds it up. Neither Ana nor Tom, almost bankrupt in their affluent lifestyle, are warm or intriguing figures. No surprises here: chalk up a disappointment from a promising beginning.

One-liners: 16 fingertips.
People suffering the loss of an immediate family member sometimes lacked focus, as though their loved one's death trapped them between this life and the next, unable to be present in either. (4)
I understood that for type-A men, losing a job was akin to the death of a loved one. (26)
I pushed off my cap and shook out my hair, trying to look like a swimsuit model, trying to make my husband want me. (27)

Stalemates happen:
"Speak of the devil," Jake muttered. He slunk back as his boss stormed over. She flashed a fake, hospitality smile that belied the venom in her voice. "Is there a problem?"
"Not yet." Ryan faced her. "I need to see a tape of the private bar for the night of August eighteenth."
The woman frowned at her employees. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Ryan tilted his head to the side. Did she really plan to play this game with him? "I think you do. And I don't think a restaurant wants to impede any investigation into a missing person."
The manager's hands hit her hips. She leaned on her back leg and gave him a disdainful look. "Who are you, again?"
"I'm investigating Ana Bacon's disappearance."
"Oh. We're always happy to help the police." Her voice dripped with sarcasm. "May I see your badge?"
The satisfied smile in her eyes told Ryan that she knew he wasn't a real cop. (112)

Injury memory:
Ryan took a long sip of tea and tried to shake his guilt. "I don't miss meth-heads damn near shooting my balls off."
A pained look pinched his partner's face. She set down the sandwich. "I should have gone with you. I'm sorry."
"It was the post office."
"Yeah. I'm quicker on the trigger than you, though."
Ryan rubbed his thigh. The talk of that day intensified the constant throb in the muscle.
"You need to factor crazy into your statistical models," she smiled to soften the criticism. "You think people are rational. We're all just balls of emotion, justifying rash decisions." (125)

Stuart M. Kaminsky. The Dead Don't Lie. USA: Wheeler Publishing (large print), 2008.
Wise-crackers I got, this time. Gentle wisecracking. Veteran Chicago cop Abe Lieberman features in many of the author's books, along with his partner Bill Hanrahan. Or Rabbi and Father Murph as they call each other. Wife Bess carefully monitors Abe's carbohydrate intake. The slaying of a prominent doctor in the Turkish community is just the start of a multiple homicide trail for Abe serious criminals here. Bill is preoccupied with his middle-aged wife giving birth while he is expected to investigate a shooting involving inept but relentless amateurs.

New characters flood the pages at a rapid clip that never lets up: the doctor's stunning widow; the Turkish informant called the Camel; the Portuguese mugger; Abe's non-maternal daughter; Abe's brother Maish; Bill's sinister father-in-law; Terrill the cook; Clark the janitor; Nathanson the loudmouth; and that's not all. The key players are the manic pastry chef; a pair of naive but soulless boxers; and a desperately nervous messenger in the Chinese underworld. Never a dull moment, pure entertainment. Clearly Kaminsky deserves his legions of fans. One quibble: sorry to say he is an "off of" writer.

Word: puissantly - well I never thought of using it as an adverb; well done!

Abe wished he had a cheese danish or, yes, a doughnut, a good, big, fat cop doughnut. (121)
How do you dress when you may have to shoot a man? (151)
Peanuts were on the forbidden list, but what the hell, thought Paddles, almost everything was and you only died once. (271)

A long delivery:
"She looks fine," Vargas agreed. "You, on the other hand, look like dreck."
"Dreck means shit," said Hanrahan.
"Check the mirror. I've got to go. Another baby has decided to greet the fluorescent glare of a delivery room. Congratulations. Beautiful baby."
"Thanks, Benny."
Benny smiled and said, "You can call me Dr. Vargas. Go home and get some sleep." (51)

Instantly projecting the future:
A flashlight beam hit their faces.
The cop would bring them in, bring in the men they had mugged to look at them, bring them down, count them out. They might lie their way out with a good lawyer. They had always worn masks. But lawyers cost money. They could always turn to Paddles who might or might not cover them, but the newspapers would put them on page three and the television stations would put them on the six o'clock news, and that would end their careers.
"Let me give you a hand," the man behind the flashlight said. (71)

Counting carbos:
"I'd like a slice of Terrill's apple pie," said Abe. "What kind of kugel you got today?"
"Raisin, brown sugar," said Maish.
"I'd like some of that too and I'd like to start with an omelet with grilled onions, an order of hash browns, and two onion bagels toasted with a schmear of cream cheese."
"You would like?" said Maish.
"I would. What am I going to get?"
"Egg white omelet with onions. One more cup of coffee, half decaf, and, let's live a little, a slice of Terrill's mashed sweet potato side." (97)

Wanting to kill the messenger:
"He's been found. Dead. Want to know where?"
"No, I want to guess, Nestor. Then you can surprise me with the answer when I get it wrong three or four times."
"You are tired," said Nestor.
"I am tired. I'm irritable. I'm sorry."
He was found on the lawn in front of the apartment building where he lived," said Nestor. "You want to know who found him?"
"No," said Bill. "I prefer complete ignorance." (244)

04 May 2017

Library Limelights 131

David Baldacci. The Last Mile. USA: Hachette Book Group, Inc./Grand Central Publishing, 2016.
Another very successful, popular author whose thrillers I've enjoyed in the past ― especially the Will Robie series. This one had a strangely flat and mechanical effect among the characters, possibly because the last few books I read were so vivid. Amos Decker is on an FBI team that agrees to take a second look at Melvin Mars' wrongful conviction for killing his parents. Mars was just released from a Texas prison, saved from execution, thanks to the confession of another man. Baldacci is anything but subtle in emphasizing prison brutality. Turns out Mars hardly knew a thing about his secretive parents whose hidden past is slowly, painfully brought to light. Most of the characters, aside from Mars, appear emotionless so it's hard to connect with them. And the real, unknown killer is alive and stalking them.

Decker is not a warm or sympathetic character; a head injury in his own traumatic past has given him hyperthymesia (perfect memory recall) but it also limits his social skills. It does indeed qualify him well for detective work. The bizarrely twisted tale ultimately revolves around an old conspiracy of former high school friends. But each time a significant new lead occurs to Decker or the team, any astute reader will be one step ahead. Three quarters of the way through, a one-time odd shift in narrative doesn't sit well. I have to say, all in all, the credibility in the byzantine plot as well as in its running investigation is somewhat strained ... not Baldacci at his best.

Texas killed you dead whether you took it brave or not. (6)
He could either live in the past or he could venture out and see if he was capable of having a future. (55)
"The only toilet I had growing up was the one at school." (396)

The team brainstorms:
"So if he came into town on an empty tank and wallet and left it with an empty tank and wallet, how'd he get all the way to Abilene without running out of gas? And on top of that he had to drive all the way out to the Marses' house to kill them. That's nearly two gallons right there. So tell me, how is that all possible?" 
Davenport and Jamison exchanged a quick glance.Bogart cleared his throat and said, "It's not. Which means he was either lying or mistaken." 
Decker said, "I don't buy it that he was mistaken. He was too specific on the details. It was just a small point that was overlooked when the cover story was put together." 
"Whoa," said Milligan. "Where do you get a cover story?" 
"Someone had to put it together." 
"That is a huge and, in my mind, unjustified leap of logic." 
"Well, I guess that's just the difference between my mind and yours." 
Milligan screwed up his face at this comment and picked up his coffee. (126-7)

Digging for memories:
"But you might know more than you think," said Bogart. 
She looked up and suddenly registered on Mars. "When I said 'colored' just now, I didn't mean any disrespect. Just the term we used back then. Should've said African American, or black. I'm sorry, young man." 
"That's okay," said Mars. 
"It was just different back then," mumbled Ryan. "Just different." 
"But maybe you can answer some of our questions," prompted Decker. 
"I'm old. I don't remember much. It was a long time ago. I...I just want to be left alone." Ryan looked back down at her Bible, her finger moving along the words, her mouth opening as she silently read them. (313-4)

Arnaldur Indridason. Black Skies. 2009. UK: Harvill Secker, 2012.
Sigurdur Óli, detective in Reykjavik, does a favour for his friend Patrekur that spirals out of his control into a murder. Óli's colleague Finnur is suspicious about the involvement and wants him off the case. They know who did the killing but can't prove it. Blackmail seems to have no connection to banking fraud, but the two policemen plod dutifully through the slightest of leads. Repeated interviews with various witnesses and suspects become ... boring. Sorry, but this novel (and Óli) lack the warmth of the cop Erlendur featured in Indridason's earlier Voices ― with even less excitement, I might add. Manipulation of money markets, offshore accounts, greedy young Type-As ... all coming across in stilted dialogue ... and it's not the translation doing it.

The pace here is glacial, little in the way of mystery to challenge the brain. Once again, parental neglect/abuse is a sub-current. Óli's encounters with the pathetic Andrés seem like gratuitous filler, drawing us in with a bizarre teaser that evaporates like fog. Óli himself does not move me: he is self-satisfied and morally rigid, although when his girlfriend dumps him, he does begin to question whether he is really as inflexible as his snobbish mother. His growing concern about Andrés seems superficial. Ultimately only one simple mystery is solved near the limp ending. Disappointing.

"It's all about having fun with strangers," Hermann chimed in, apparently revived by the beer. (15)
The bastard may have been old and bent but he still had the power to fill him with fear, with the terror that came crawling out of its hiding place to claw at his heart. (39)
"All these guys own off-roaders: the smaller their dicks, the bigger their cars." (131)

Date night:
"You're not big on sympathy, are you?" Bergthóra said. 
"What do you mean?" Sigurdur Óli demanded. 
They were interrupted by the friendly middle-aged waiter who brought over the bottle of red wine, and after showing Sigurdur Óli the label, poured some wine into his glass. Sigurdur Óli watched him. 
"You've already uncorked the bottle?" 
The waiter did not understand the question. 
"You're supposed to do it in front of me," Sigurdur Óli said. "How do I know how long ago this bottle was opened or what you've been doing with it behind the scenes?" 
The waiter looked at him in surprise. "I've only just opened it," he mumbled apologetically.
"Well, you're supposed to uncork it here at the table, not in some back room." 
"I'll fetch another bottle." The waiter hurried away. 
"He's doing his best," Bergthóra objected. 
"He's an amateur," Sigurdur Óli said dismissively. "We pay a lot to eat here and they're supposed to know what they're doing." (51)

A fly in his ointment:
"Patrekur admitted to having gone to see you, so it's on record – that you knew about the case but failed to report it. I'll be writing a report later and intend to send it to Internal Affairs. You can expect to hear from them." 
"Why are you doing this, Finnur?" asked Sigurdur Óli. 
"I'm surprised you have the nerve to continue with this case," Finnur replied. "You're far too closely involved, and if you don't see sense, I'll have to deal with the situation myself. I'm in charge of this inquiry; it's not your little game." 
"Are you sure you can afford to threaten me?" said Sigurdur Óli. 
"Your position is not looking good, Siggi. You're compromising this inquiry by turning it into a private vendetta. I call the shots and you should do as I say." (125)

The homeless and unfortunates:
His usual attitude was that these people were responsible for their own plight. He did his job and once he left the office for the day it was over – he had done his duty and there was no need to think about work again until he returned to the station. Some of the other officers who worked on difficult cases let it get to them, especially new recruits and old-timers, but he regarded emotional involvement as an obstacle to performing one's role. He had often been criticised for his cynicism and detachment but this meant nothing to him. (189-90)

Keija Parssinen. The Ruins of Us. USA: Harper Perennial/HarperCollins, 2012.
It's fiction, but the life is real. Rosalie March was born in Saudi Arabia where daddy, as an oil man, ensconced his family in an ex-pat compound; she lived her first thirteen years there, fully absorbing her environment. After daddy returned the family to his native Texas, the beautiful Rosalie became a fierce, independent woman, often wistfully recalling her childhood. Meeting wealthy university student Abdullah Baylani was karma. Despite both families' opposition, they married and settled happily in a Persian Gulf town of the Kingdom, wildly in love. Twenty-seven years and two kids later, Rosalie is an accepted, model Arab wife, "surrendering to culture and religion"; her natural temperament no longer evident. Ironically, Abdullah misses what first attracted him; he takes a young second wife!

Rosalie's devastation at this archaic turn, in a rapidly modernizing but restrictive society, somersaults from rage to self-pity and back. And thus the whole family is badly affected, especially sixteen-year-old son Faisal who struggles with his half-American heritage. The story alternately reflects their feelings. Family friend Dan is also examining his own lonely life. The intimidating influence of al-Saud (the royal family) and the mutwa ready to pounce on any infraction cause the wealthy to make calculated but temporary getaways from the Kingdom. The essence of life and business are vividly portrayed in a family facing divisive crisis. Parssinen draws from experience, inviting us on an immersive cultural journey.

He'd forgotten the energy it took to be in love. (98)
The al-Saud served themselves first, and then their people, and there was no room for criticism, no matter how hushed or private it seemed. (192)
Their pity and sympathy for Rosalie was like a flower the women of the family had tended. (305)

In school, the Koran had felt different to him, a heavy book read by paper-skinned, onion-hearted old men. But in Ibrahim's hands it came alive, the words strung together in musical verses that made Faisal's heart expand and contract with a force that felt like love. (86)

The admission:
He'd been married to another woman for two years. Her next question no longer mattered. She smoothed down her skirt and walked toward the door. That question was why, but after two years, it was too late to ask why. Instead, she grabbed a jade bookend from the shelf, turned and heaved it toward him. He moved easily out of the way, which only further infuriated her. 
"Pig!" she shouted. Then, more quietly, "You've ruined us." 
Upstairs in her bathroom, she locked the door and then lay down on the thick, cream-colored rug that Abdullah insisted they use because it reminded him of his mother. Rosalie turned her cheek to one side and waited till she no longer felt like vomiting. This took two days. (12)

Madness had lately afflicted his family. Rosalie was a corpse one minute and a banshee the next. Faisal was an enigma, with his furtive movements, his shadowy friends, his bizarre declamations. He created secrets that he guarded with militancy. Even Mariam was in trouble. They had received so many letters at home regarding her behavior at school that Abdullah couldn't keep track of her misdeeds―removing her veil on the playground, skipping class to read smuggled books in the library, passing out EQUAL RIGHTS FOR WOMEN NOW bumper stickers to her classmates. His once-sweet daughter was becoming a revolutionary. (89)

Abdullah's paradox:

He watched his daughter talking. People never said she looked like Rosalie, since their coloring was so different. But he saw it, in her broad mouth and deep-set eyes. Could he have done something to make things different? How could he even have begun to explain to Rosalie that, even though she'd become exactly what his country demanded her to be, it wasn't what he wanted her to become, and now he no longer loved her as he once had? Or maybe it had nothing to do with Saudi Arabia or with the money. Maybe it was just that people changed over time and love vanished without warning, without mercy. (99-100)