29 September 2015

Library Limelights 92

John MacKay. The Road Dance. Edinburgh: Luath Press Limited, 2002.
A love story. Of such simple hearts sometimes classic tragedy unfolds. Set in an unsophisticated village in the outer Hebrides on the eve of the First World War, two romantic teenagers dream of togetherness and America. Until the night of the customary road dance to see the local boys off to war. Events that follow are inevitably dictated by ingrained religious and social practices. MacKay gives an expert, and exquisitely nuanced, description of Highland life just over one hundred years ago. They could be your ancestors or mine.

Face away from the Lord and you face blackness even in sunlight. (10)
Many a Hebridean roof beam had grown on the banks of the St Lawrence. (125)
The Skipper felt a depth of sadness he had little known in his long life, a life throughout which sorrow had always been a breath away. (147)

A photograph from the warfront:
The sepia print was on a stiff cardboard postcard.There he stood uniformed, upright and somehow different. There was a solemnity about him that she did not recognise. Some might have thought it was pride, but she knew he did not want to be where he was wearing what he was. His tunic was buttoned to the neck and she worried that it might chafe him. She had never seen him wear a kilt and the plain khaki apron over the one he wore in the picture took the life out of it. He held his cap in one hand, the other resting on the back of a stout, wooden chair. His mouth was set firm and his hair combed tight. She'd known him those few days as a man who could bring the world to life through his words and laughter, a man whose wavy hair was tossed by the wind. The photograph did not show such a man, but it was unmistakeably his features and she knew she would treasure it and keep it with her to feel closer to him. (74-5)

David Bell. Never Come Back. New York: New American Library/Penguin Group, 2013.
A mystery that provides little rush of suspense, the novel is well-crafted in prosaic language. Working grad student Elizabeth Hampton finds her way to the heart of a troubling secret revealed by her mother's sinister death. To her horror, her Down Syndrome brother Ronnie is suspected although no-one has an obvious motive. Then her mother's will adds another surprise, although it took until about page 200 for the zinger to appear. More psychological drama than thriller, Never Come Back explores the hidden dangers in a small cast of family relationships; it's safe to say that Bell has proven himself in the ranks of crime writers (not his first mystery).

Allowing herself to talk:
"Are you being sarcastic?" he asked.
"No." I drank more of the beer, almost finishing it. Too fast. I suppressed a burp and patted my chest. "Well, get ready for an awkward transition. My mother was murdered," I said.
It felt like the first confession of a long recovery. Something had pivoted in my life. I had gone from being a person who read about families affected by violent crime in the newspaper to being a member of such a family. I no longer needed to understand such things from the outside. I needed to process it from the inside. (63)

"You said your lock was splintered and your apartment ransacked?" Post asked. "You saw your mother's house the other night. There's a difference there, right?"
I didn't answer, but I understood. My attempt to make a connection between the two events, to stretch a link so far between two dissimilar events, made me seem amateurish and desperate. I wanted Mom's death to make more sense than it did, but I couldn't. And neither could Detective Post. (115)

The security guard:
Beth looked at Edgar. "Nice job. You're pretty smart."
"I try. I'm taking the exam next week to get into the police academy."
"Too bad," Beth said. "I hate cops."
"Me too," Edgar said. "If I get in, they're going to make me shave my goatee." (352)

Kate Atkinson. A God in Ruins. Bond Street Books/Random House Canada, 2015.
To my shame, I did not finish this book. Therefore I hesitated even to put it on on my index of books. With all due respect, Ms A, I simply could not hack the constant shifting of time frames mid-scene. My admittedly linear mind was too impatient with all the fragmentation. I think I gave it a good go but ultimately I don't care about Teddy Todd's life in so many pieces. My fail, not yours, because I do admire your previous books. Can I say? ― I long for the return of Jackson Brodie!

Nevertheless, among the wonderful prose, can't escape the One-Liners:
She wasn't sure she'd ever seen a baby, let alone held one, and imagined it would be like getting a cat, or, at worst, a puppy. (43)
Nothing can be kept, he thought, everything ran through one's fingers like sand or water. (118)
Her father seemed so old-fashioned, but he must have been like new once. (132)

Christopher Hitchens. Mortality. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2012.
The famous writer, speaker, and public person died in December 2011 from esophageal cancer. Deprived of his voice in the end, his pen never stopped. This slim volume contains personal thoughts and feelings ("I don't have a body, I am a body") of the new world he entered upon diagnosis. None of it includes self-pity. The articulate atheist 'speaks' of medicine, procedures, treatments, and inappropriate social reactions. His wit and incisive writing are missed ever since.

A book full of quotes:
One almost develops an elitism about the uniqueness of one's own personal disorder. (39)
I'm not fighting or battling cancer—it's fighting me. (89)
This alien can't want anything; if it kills me it dies but it seems very single-minded and set in purpose. (85)
It's probably a merciful thing that pain is impossible to describe from memory. (67)

21 September 2015

Words 8


New one to me. Noun. Verb.

One evening Peter was wandering the fourth floor hallway of the apartment complex, knocking on doors. His live-in partner Shirley watched him, slumped by the elevators. I greeted him as I passed.

"He's sundowning," she said. Doors were popping open.

"Why are you knocking on doors, Peter?" Shirley asked for the benefit of the audience.

"I'm trying to find out what's going on," Peter said mildly.

Sundowning is a subset behaviour of confusion, anxiety, or belligerence in people with dementia, occurring at a certain time of day, usually evening. Wandering may be part of it.

The coinage elicits mixed feelings. Whereas one could say what the symptoms mean, i.e. "late day worsening," sundowning is a gentle word, quite apt. 

But it also carries that connotation of approaching end ... not simply the end of the day but the increasing loss of familiarity in a loved one. And naturally, the closure of life itself.

I visualize Harry Chapin "All my life's a circle, sunrise and sundown ...".

Like cancer and depression, dementia affects almost every family in some way.

"Seems like I've been here before, can't remember when ...". Music has power.


09 September 2015

Library Limelights 91

Robert Rotenberg. Strangle Hold. New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 2013.
In my opinion Rotenberg's style has become more comfortable since I last read him. At first I thought my Canadian-author-loyalty was going to be strained again; a scene with the Polish crime scene tech has awkward ethnic-type dialogue. But his courtroom drama is superb with the necessary tension and suspense. One annoyance: after seeing a dozen typos, mostly missing or misplaced prepositions, I gave up counting.

Toronto Detective Ari Greene finds himself in a conflict of interest, to put it mildly. The murder of his married girlfriend Jennifer puts him squarely in the suspect spotlight; luckily he knows an interesting, proficient lawyer. Somehow the author failed to convince me that it had been a serious love affair for both Ari and Jennifer. Leading the investigation is Ari's friend and colleague Daniel Kennicot, a cop with reservations about Greene's guilt. Awotwe Amankwah the journalist, Angela Kreitinger the Crown prosecutor, and the bereaved husband are well-done characters.

Senior moment:
"Dad," Greene said, leaning on the rake he was using on his father's lawn, "she's twenty-five years younger than you."
Greene's father was staring at the backside of his latest girlfriend, a larger-than-life Russian bombshell named Klavdiya, as she strutted up the concrete steps to his little bungalow. He snapped his head toward Ari. "Twenty-three and a half," he said. "And you won't let me drive at night. She drives at night." (72)
The candidate for mayor:
How was Hap going to feel about me, his prize student, if he finds out I'm the one? Greene wondered.
"So far Kennicott's drawn a blank," he said, choosing his words carefully. At least it wasn't a lie.
"Keep me in the loop," Charlton said. "The sooner we get an arrest, the better." He took a final drag then stuck the end of the cigar under the running water. It hissed and sputtered until it went out. He tossed the butt out the window. "So much for taking back the litter from the streets." He chuckled. (129-30) 

Video evidence:
He looked at her walking. Swinging her backpack. How many times had he watched her stroll out of view along the bleak, deserted sidewalk? Then turning off the DVD when she was out of the frame.
But this morning, he paused it at the last image of her in view. This is enough, he told himself. One more second and she's gone. Ari, she's gone.
He put the remote down and lay back on the couch. This way madness lies, he thought. He rubbed his face and closed his eyes. He forced himself to think of the trial. How well everything had gone in court yesterday. How close this other nightmare in his life was to being over. (321-1)

James Lee Burke. Creole Belle. New York: Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster, Inc. 2012.
Despite the continuing mayhem, I had to see if Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel survive another epic battle against the forces of evil pervading the backwaters of Louisiana. Grimly fascinating and clearly addictive. I care about these characters and their feelings and their families. The two men defy giant oil corporation interests who dismiss responsibility for the toxic spill destroying the ecological balance of the Gulf and the Mississippi delta. Well-trained thugs are sicced on our heroes. Good thing Clete is a one-man wrecking machine. But Dave and Clete have trouble identifying the local bad guys in the mix as the plot twists and turns; they also have a bad habit of confronting their suspects, ignoring the warnings from Sheriff Helen. Furthermore, their two daughters are caught up in some diabolical threads.

Dave (or is it Burke?) broods more on moralizing about life and death with each book. He rues the poverty level in his state, so dependent on the oil and gas economy where the very few get very rich. His recovery from the drama of the last book, The GlassRainbow, only increases his sensitivity to an alternate universe. His musings balance out the physical carnage ― a few macabre elements are not for the squeamish. Still, it's hard to put down a book racing to a breathless climax. Dave, what's next?!

One-liner: "Don't rent space in your head to bad people." (305)

Dave to himself:
She could not have been over seventeen. What kind of human could do something like that to a young woman? Unfortunately, I knew the answer. There were misogynistic sadists in our midst, in greater numbers than most people could guess at. And how did they get there? Answer: Our system often gives them a free pass. (81-2)

Sheriff to Dave:
"You're supposed to be on the desk and off duty at noon," she said. "You're supposed to go home and take a nap and throw pinecones in the bayou. Obviously that's not what you have in mind. You prefer stirring up the wrong people in New Orleans and going to Lafayette and eating a load of buckshot." 
"I didn't plan any of this. What do you want me to say?" 
"I advise you to say nothing." I sighed and raised my hands and dropped them in my lap."I think it's time to put you back on full-time status, bwana," she said. She narrowed one eye, "it's the only way I can keep your umbilical cord stapled to the corner of my desk." (158-9)

Dave again:
What is most remarkable about many of those who have great wealth is the basic assumption on which they predicate their lives: They believe that others have the same insatiable desire for money that they have, and that others will do anything for it. Inside their culture, manners and morality and money not only begin with the same letter of the alphabet but are indistinguishable. The marble floors and the spiral staircases owned by the very rich and the chandeliers that ring with light in their entranceways usually have little to do with physical comfort. These things are iconic and votive in nature and, ultimately, a vulgarized tribute to a deity who is arguably an extension of themselves. (473)

Quoting a quote:
William Faulkner was once asked what he thought of Christianity. He replied, in effect, that it was a fine religion and perhaps we should try it sometime. (568)

Robert Harris. The Fear Index. 2011. UK: AudioGO Ltd. [large print edition]. 2012.
Computer nerds and financial players are gonna love this. I didn't. It's something different from this author I admire. Leading his chapters with quotes from Darwin to emphasize human emotions, he spins a tale about a brilliant physicist who built a super computer, equivalent to the scientific goal of creating artificial intelligence. The VIXAL-4 is then employed by a hedge fund company to make them tons of money. However, the creator of this powerful machine, Alex Hoffman, is being impersonated and stalked with murderous intent.

Hoffman is not a sympathetic character initially; he's a one-track mind uninterested in wealth or his fellow man. His partner Hugo Quarry takes up the public relations slack. I didn't mention Hoffman's wife Gabrielle who has perfected an odd art form. No disrespect to Harris who is in complete charge of his subject and the suspense thereof, but stock market statistics and Large Hadron Collider physics are over my head. Oh ... and yes, the FEar Index is a real thing.

One-liner: Suddenly he experienced yet another long-forgotten sensation: the delicious, childish pain of self-pity. (41)

The investors' meeting:
Hoffman stared at the tablecloth and let the discussion flow around him. He was remembering now why he didn't like the rich: their self-pity. Persecution was the common ground of their conversation, like sport or the weather was for everyone else. He despised them."I despise you," he said, but nobody paid him any attention, so engrossed were they in the inequities of higher-rate taxation and the inherent criminality of all employees. And then he thought: perhaps I have become one of them; is that why I am so paranoid? He examined his palms under the table, and then the backs of his hands, as if he half-expected to find himself sprouting fur. (170)

Quarry does his best:
He felt as if he had been smiling solidly for about fifteen hours that day already. His face ached with bonhomie. As soon as Leclerc had his back to him, he treated himself to a scowl. (200)

28 August 2015

Library Limelights 90

Robert Wilson. The Hidden Assassins. London: HarperCollins, 2006.
Not an easy read: this is the mother of all intricate plots, based on international terrorism. Wilson was known to me for his exciting West Africa series; this one is also in a series featuring homicide Inspector Jefe Javier Falcón. After a deadly bomb explodes in Seville, Spanish police and intelligence agencies work feverishly to uncover the impending, even greater threat behind it. The aftermath trail, or many trails, plunge into a maze of politics, commerce, and ideology — a brain fitness test for grownups. Therein, some of the best analysis of the Arab mindset I have ever read. Don't get me wrong: the book is not a polemic; the story (the chase) is fascinating as well as timely. Pure credibility.

The appointed judge for the case soon undergoes a dramatic transformation, throwing the investigators temporarily off-kilter, none more so than Falcón who has Moroccan family connections. His ex-wife and his sister are well-drawn peripheral players. Intuitive and conscientious at his job, Falcón pushes his way through internecine rivalries and extremist sympathizers. A more subtle theme illustrates the nature of illusion and denial versus reality and truth. Wilson clearly knows Spain like the back of his hand, and understands the subcultures that manipulate us and the radical groups ‒ of different stripes ‒ that surface to terrorize us. When are "terrorists" ... "freedom fighters"? A very informative, entertaining, amazing novel.

One-liner (from a cynical hooker):
Men always assumed their brains were silent rather than grinding away like sabotaged machinery. (27)

Disaster aftermath:
Falcón sprinted through the hospital. People were running, but there was no panic, no shouting. They had been training for the moment. Orderlies were sprinting with empty trolleys. Nurses ran with boxes of saline. Plasma was on the move. Falcón slammed through endless double doors until he hit the main street and the wall of sound: a cacaphony of sirens as ambulances swung out into the street. ...
At the crossroads bloodstained people stumbled about on their own or were being carried, or walked toward the hospital with handkerchiefs, tissues and kitchen roll held to their foreheads, ears and cheeks. These were the superficially wounded victims, the ones sliced by flying glass and metal, the ones some distance from the epicentre, who would never make it into the top flight of disaster statistics but who might lose the sight in one eye, or their hearing from perforated eardrums, bear facial scars for the rest of their lives, lose the use of a finger or a hand, never walk again without a limp. (48-9)

Bombing victim:
He was desperate. Desperate for revenge. He'd only ever heard tales of the monstrousness of this horrific emotion. He had not been prepared for the way it found every crevice of his body. His organs screamed for it. His bones howled with it. His joints ground with it. His blood seethed with it. It was so intolerable he had to get it out of himself. (380)

Falcón sat back in his chair. He didn't like this intelligence work. Suddenly everything was moving around him at an alarming pace, with great urgency, but in reaction to electronic nods and winks. He could see how people could go mad in this world, where reality came in the form of "information" from "sources," and agents were told to go to hotels and wait for "instructions." It was all too disembodied for his liking. He never thought he'd hear himself say it, but he preferred his world where there was a corpse, pathology, forensics, evidence and face-to-face dialogue. (435)

James Lee Burke. The Glass Rainbow. New York: Pocket Star/Simon & Schuster, 2010.
Evil stalks the steamy bayous of Louisiana and who better to describe the brooding atmosphere than Burke. Iberia parish sheriff's detective Dave Robicheaux is having fatalistic portents of death while his loyal sidekick Clete Purcel seems bent on self-destruction. One might think the entire state is populated with violent psychotics, some fresh out of prison, some hidden beneath cultivated veneers. Investigating the murders of two young girls, Dave finds no obvious motive but runs into tenuous connections from "po' white trash" to the top of the social order.

Only Burke can immerse and submerge us in a rich world where nature alternatively glows and rages, where human temperament is always on the edge of the storm. The forces of good grow weary fighting moral corruption. Will Dave succumb to despair or live on into another book? His daughter Alafair, an incipient author, represents a better vision of life, untouched by the deceptive, shifting shadows. Not the lightest touch in the genre but a thoughtful, complicated story for a rainy night.

Word: coolerate; idiomatic dialect - to cool off. Works for me!

One-liner: "Their kind wouldn't spit in my mouth if I was dying of thirst in the Sahara." (299)

Colours of stained glass:
"You go to a lot of meetings?"
"Sometimes. Why?"
"I've heard that when alcoholics quit drinking, they develop obsessions that work as a substitute for booze. That's why they go to meetings. No matter how crazy these ideas are, they stay high as a kite on them so they don't have to drink again."
"I was admiring your stained glass."
"It came from a Scottish temple or something." (83)

After an argument with Clete:
"Lighten up, Streak. It's only rock and roll." His eyes were still lit with an alcoholic glaze, his throat ticked in two places by his razor, his cheeks bladed with color.
I gave it up, in the way you give up something with such an enormous sense of sadness rushing through you that it leaves no room for any other emotion. "What are we going to do, Clete?"
"About what?"
"We all end up in the same place. Some sooner than others. What the hell. We're both standing on third base," he said. (194)

Dave pleads:
"Don't undo a brave and noble deed, Miss Jewel. Don't rob yourself of your own virtue."
I saw her lips form a bitter line; she looked like a person making a choice between two evils and deciding upon the one that hurt her the most, as though her self-injury brought with it a degree of forgiveness. "I got to do my wash," she said.
"Those girls are going to haunt you," I said. "In your sleep. In a crowd. At Mass. In a movie theater. Across the table from you at McDonald's. The dead carry a special kind of passport, and they go anywhere they want." (429-30)

John Verdon. Shut Your Mouth Tight. Crown Publishers/Random House, 2011.
I liked Verdon's hero, retired detective Dave Gurney, in his previous and slightly unusual Thinkof a Number but the further I went into this one made me unhappy. First of all, the crimes – starting with a bride beheaded on her wedding day – and the sadistic scenario behind them became just too bizarre for belief. Made me think the author was stretching for shock value. Secondly, while still exercising his vaunted analytic skills, Dave loses some confidence in his own abilities and domestically acts like an inarticulate dork. Then again, his wife Madeleine is equally poor at communicating, with too many arch smiles and cryptic comments.
link: http://anotherfamdamily.blogspot.com/
"Troubled young women" is one way of describing the subject of this book. Dave takes over where the police left off, reluctantly working with boorish cop Jack Hardwick. Then he's set up for blackmail as part of a sick plot. I persevered to the depressing end, rather doubting I will look for Verdon's next novel. No question he is a good writer with interesting psychological insights. But really (I've mentioned this before), is there a competition for the strangest, most outlandish crime framework?

Word(s): condign reparation - a term meaning punishment should be precisely commensurate with the crime committed. (427)

Hardwick summarized:
"He was the initial officer on the case. The chief investigator. I found him rude, obscene, cynical, jabbing people with the sharp end of a stick whenever he could. Horrible. But almost always right. This may not make much sense to you, but I understand dreadful people like Jack Hardwick. I even trust them. So here we are, Detective Gurney." (43)

Even the simplest of questions—should he continue weighing alternatives, or return to bed and try to empty his mind, or busy himself physically—had become ensnared in a mental process that conjured an objection to every conclusion. Even the idea of taking an ibuprofen for his aching sciatic nerve met with an unwillingness to go into the bedroom to get the bottle.
He stared out at the asparagus ferns, motionless in the dead morning calm. He felt disconnected, as though his customary attachments to the world had broken. (405)  

21 August 2015

Lost & Found: a guest book

A "Guest Book" from university days, that followed me from Winnipeg to Thunder Bay to Toronto. 

Bought for fun when my brother and I shared an apartment and a car to get back and forth. 
Who on earth were some of these drunks people?
Do people still do guest books?
Selected abstruse comments, their meaning obscured by the beer scotch years.

In Winnipeg:
"I am the still turning point in the Anglican crisis."
"There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn."
"Garbage à la pointe arretée et pivotée, vive l'existence."
"Friend of the turning point."
" ♫ Life presents a dismal picture ..."

In Thunder Bay (much illegible script):
"Who hid my bottle?"
"Wider sidewalks please."
"Phone those buggers, B - my coat!"
"Great boola boola time!"

In Toronto:
"From i phelta thi."
"More beer."
"Have you got five dollars?"
" ♪ Life presents a dismal picture ..."
"I just don't know if I'm impressed or not."

And hidden in the middle, this:

♫ Those were the days my friend, we thought they'd never end ... ♪

07 August 2015

Library Limelights 89

Daniel Silva. The Heist. New York: HarperCollins, 2014.
Superspy Gabriel Allon is on another mission, this time to recover a stolen, priceless Caravaggio painting. Rigging an intricate trap for the unknown thief includes the support of Italian, British, and Israeli intelligence services, along with his friend Keller from Corsica. And a "civilian" must be co-opted to make the dangerous plan work. Now about to become the head of Israel's intelligence agency, Gabriel also has a lovely wife, Chiara (expecting twins), who herself is no stranger to international intrigue. The chain of villainy reaches up to the thinly-disguised ruler who is destroying Syria; Silva does not spare the pen for the brutal dictatorship.

Mind-stretching as some of the manoeuvres might be, the plot sails along among the art world of fabulous European cities. Steal a famous artwork to find a stolen masterpiece ― that should work, right? Silva's interspersed humour is irresistible. Art lovers will appreciate the details of Gabriel's other life as a restorer of old masters' paintings. Other notable aspects are the complex banking systems employed by fraud artistes. Silva knows how to keep you captive in pure escapism.

One-Liner: He sat with his knees together and his hands folded in his lap, as though he were waiting on the platform of a country rail station. (258)

Gathering accomplices:
"Far be it for me to complain," said Gabriel, shaking Isherwood's hand, "but your secretary left me on hold for nearly ten minutes before finally putting me through to you."
"Consider yourself lucky."
"When are you going to fire her, Julian?"
"I can't."
"Why not?"
"It's possible I'm still in love with her."
"She's abusive."
"I know," Isherwood smiled. "If only we were sleeping together. Then it would be perfect." (132-3)

The old man:
Narkiss Street lay still and silent beneath their feet, but in the distance came the faint rush of evening traffic along King George. Shamron lowered himself unsteadily into one of the chairs and motioned for Gabriel to sit in the other. Then he removed a packet of Turkish cigarettes and, with enormous concentration, extracted one. Gabriel looked at Shamron's hands, the hands that had nearly squeezed the life out of Adolf Eichmann on a street corner in northern Buenos Aires. It was one of the reasons Shamron had been given the assignment: the unusual size and power of his hands. Now they were liver-spotted and covered with abrasions. Gabriel looked away as they fumbled with the old Zippo lighter. (232)

A Geneva moment:
Bittel slipped on a pair of wraparound dark glasses, which lent a mantis-like quality to his features. He drove well but cautiously, as though he had contraband in the trunk and was trying to avoid contact with the authorities.
"As you might expect," he said after a moment, "your confession has provided hours of interesting listening for our officers and senior ministers."
"It wasn't a confession."
"How would you describe it?"
"I gave you a thorough debriefing about my activities on Swiss soil," said Gabriel. "In exchange, you agreed not to throw me in prison for the rest of my life." (152)

Robert Harris. An Officer and a Spy. [large print] Thorndike Press/Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.
Always a pleasure to find something new from the author of Fatherland, Enigma, Archangel, The Ghost Writer, and more. Here we have a novel reconstructing the events of The Dreyfus Affair ‒ about which I had only the slightest notion beforehand ‒ so it was tempting to Google it at tense moments. But resist I did. The names and basic events in the story are historical; their personal lives and dialogue are Harris's inventions. The fusing creates high drama of "the trial of the century" in the language, manners, and context of Gay Nineties Paris.

Alfred Dreyfus was a junior army officer in France, court-martialed for espionage in 1894. The evidence convicting him was false, and the army concealed its mistake by concocting a major cover-up. Dreyfus spent solitary years in the most inhumane conditions on Devil's Island. Twelve years later he was exonerated thanks to the efforts of Colonel Georges Picquart (the story's narrator) and other allies, including Emile Zola who wrote the iconic public "J'accuse" letter to the French government. Bravo, Robert Harris!

Much to my startlement, Part Two opens with "The Sousse Military Club looks out from behind a screen of dusty palms across an unpaved square, past a modern customs shed to the sea." Sousse, Tunisia, was the site of a brazen, deadly terrorist attack in June this year. Before that, the town was hardly a figure on the world stage except for its marvellous UNESCO World Heritage walled medina. Having spent four days there in 2012, I felt one of those nervous frissons on reading that first sentence. The French army sent Picquart there to shut him up; his "exile" was temporary.

One-liners: "Like Adam, I appear to have been expelled from the garden for an excess of curiosity." (368)
His strange sea-green eyes hold mine, and for a fractional instant I glimpse the shadow, like a fin in the water, of his dull malevolence, and then he nods and moves away. (668)

Picquart's social status:
Bachelors of forty are society's stray cats. We are taken in by households and fed and made a fuss of; in return we are expected to provide amusement, submit with good grace to occasionally intrusive affection ("So when are you going to get married, eh, Georges?"), and always agree to make up the numbers at dinner, however short the notice. (95)

A colleague:
Gribelin is an enigma to me: the epitome of the servile bureaucrat; an animated corpse. He could be any age between forty and sixty and is as thin as a wraith of black smoke, the only colour he wears. Mostly he closets himself alone upstairs in his archive; on the rare occasions he does appear he creeps along close to the wall, dark and silent as a shadow. I could imagine him slipping around the edge of a closed door, or sliding beneath it. (158)

Arranging a secret meeting:
As I seal the envelope, I reflect how easily I am slipping into the clichés of the spying world. It alarms me. I trust no-one. How long before I am raving like Sandherr about degenerates and foreigners? It is a déformation professionelle: all spymasters must go mad in the end. (159)

A former colleague:
Henry is very much at home. We take a table in the corner and he orders a cognac. For want of a better idea I do the same. "Leave us the bottle," Henry tells the waiter. He offers me a cigarette. I refuse. He lights one for himself and suddenly I realise that an odd part of me has actually missed the old devil, just as one occasionally grows fond of something familiar and even ugly. Henry is the army, in a way that I [...] will never be. When soldiers break ranks and want to run away on the battlefield, it is the Henrys of this world who can persuade them to come back and keep fighting. (375)

All keep their backs to me except for Henry, who enters loudly, banging the door, and nods as he passes.
"You have a good colour, Colonel," he says cheerfully. "It must be all that African sunshine!"
"And yours must be all that cognac."
He roars with laughter and goes to sit with the others. (530)

28 July 2015

Library Limelights 88

Peggy Blair. Hungry Ghosts. Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

How does she do it? ... weaving parallels between Cuba and native reservations in Canada ... often subtle, sometimes surprising? The novel is really two stories. Ricardo Ramirez of the Havana Major Crimes Unit and Charlie Pike of the Rideau Regional Police Force — whom you will remember if you read Blair's The Poisoned Pawn when they collaborated — are each pursuing his own case. The sub-theme of murdered aboriginal women could not be more current. Beyond that, I'm in awe of Blair's informative knowledge of Ojibwa culture and their modern issues (some readers will recognize the similarity to Grassy Narrows Reserve). At the same time, we witness the constant privations of daily living in shabby, impoverished Havana. 

Ramirez is dealing with murdered women whose identities have been disguised. Visited by ghosts of the dead (not too intrusively; they don't speak), he solves some daring vandalism as well as finding a killer. No less compelling is Pike's hunt through the native society he had left years ago. Complicated and clever. Ramirez and Pike do not personally communicate until the last pages. Hungry Ghosts is more than a crime novel, it's a cultural journey. Read it, mystery fans: just read it!

One-liner: "Sometimes I feel like I'm one broken-down truck and a dead dog away from being a country-and-western song." (140)

Hungry ghosts in Cuba:
They drove past a camello. It was on its way in from the countryside, spewing clouds of black exhaust. The buses were made of old bus parts, wagons, and recycled train compartments welded together, the centre portion raised in a hump. They were hot and uncomfortable, and crammed with hundreds of passengers.
Ramirez looked in his side-view mirror at the dead woman. The glass was stained with rust, discoloured from salt air. His cracked rearview mirror had disappeared a week or two earlier, no doubt recycled by the same thief who had discovered that Ramirez's car doors no longer locked. It was almost easier to travel to China than to find a replacement for a Chinese car.
Degrees of impossibility, thought Ramirez. Like the dead woman sitting in the back seat, looking out the window, and the dead man he'd found in the washroom admiring himself. They were impossible too. And yet they seemed so real. (55)

The same youngster who stowed Charlie Pike's baggage clambered into the pilot's seat. It made Pike uncomfortable knowing that the tiny plane would be flown by someone not much older than his battered luggage. But he was uncomfortable flying at the best of times. His father's clan‒the Pikes–came from the water, not the air. Pike was Wolf Clan by his Mohawk mother. Wolves weren't supposed to fly either. (58)

Pike's ghost:
Now his mother wandered, Pike believed, severed from everything important to her. But her soul had been stripped from her bones long before the cancer took her, when Canadian bureaucrats had decided a full-blooded Mohawk woman was white because of the race of a man she'd once married.
"I talked to the clan mothers at Oka. That's where her mother was born. They said the band councils don't represent the Haudenosaunee, only white man's laws. They told me I could put her ashes in The Pines, where the Haudenosaunee used to bury their dead. That's where she is now." (159)

A river runs through the reserve:
"There's mercury in the drinking water?" Jones said. "Oh my God, she's been drinking gallons of tea every day." (323) 

Paula Hawkins. The Girl on the Train. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2014.
How many people go through life clothed in lies, fooling other people and themselves? Just about everyone, judging by the main characters in this fast-moving, fascinating bestseller. Three women and two men: are any of them what they seem? Having inappropriately injected herself into the lives of two different couples, Rachel feels compelled to reconstruct one of her alcoholic blackouts — it might help solve a crime. But her blundering behaviour has no credibility with anyone, including the police. Her ex-husband and his new wife are tired of her harassment, her obsession with losing his love. Their neighbours have been secretly observed by Rachel from a distance; when they enter the picture she begins to realize the folly of her perfect fantasy.

Brilliantly constructed, the narrative passes between Rachel and Megan and Anna. It's unclear who is the unstable one. Or all three? Each struggles with who I am not. As layers of lies and revisionism peel away, anger and fear surge among them. The men in the story are seen only through their eyes. Hawkins has created a masterpiece of self-revelation and suspense.

.. the job itself is utterly beneath me, but then I seem to have become beneath me over the past year or two. (251)
I didn't want him to leave his wife; I just wanted him to want to leave her. (286)

All those plans I had ‒ photography courses and cookery classes ‒ when it comes down to it, they feel a bit pointless, as if I'm playing at real life instead of actually living it. I need to find something that I must do, something undeniable. I can't do this, I can't just be a wife. I don't understand how anyone does it ‒ there is literally nothing to do but wait. Wait for a man to come home and love you. Either that, or look around for something to distract you. (31)

Maybe it was then. Maybe that was the moment when things started to go wrong, the moment when I imagined us no longer as a couple, but a family; and after that, once I had that picture in my head, just the two of us could never be enough. (58)

I don't remember when I started believing it could be more, that we should be more, that we were right for each other. But the moment I did, I could feel him start to pull away. (286)

Sometimes I wonder if I've done or said terrible things, and I can't remember. And if ... if someone tells me something I've done, it doesn't even feel like me. It doesn't feel like it was me who was doing that thing. And it's so hard to feel responsible for something you don't remember. So I never feel bad enough. I feel bad, but the thing that I've done ‒ it's removed from me. It's like it doesn't belong to me. (190)

"Let's not get the police involved unless we really need to."
I think we really do need to. I can't stop thinking about that smile she gave us, that sneer. It was almost triumphant. We need to get away from here. We need to get away from her. (143)