04 March 2015

Library Limelights 78

Richard Flanagan. The Narrow Road to the Deep North. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.
Man Booker winner (2014). The "narrow road" is a railway the Japanese hastily want to build through the steaming rain forests of Thailand (Siam) during the Second World War. Prisoners of war, mainly Australians, are the forced labourers lacking proper tools, food, and medical aid. They die every day in the most squalid conditions. This is what "Bridge on the River Kwai" memorialized ― without the technicolour and without Alec Guinness. It's a graphic visit to humanity's hell. The novel's alternating episodes before, during, and after the war are a bit disconcerting at first.

But the book also dwells on one man's experiences before and after the war. Doctor Dorrigo Evans is a prime example of a life scarcely lived, although many of his POW associates exhibit the same symptoms post-war. The men are oh so real, but most are confused with unarticulated feelings. Does life follow a line or a circle? Not a particularly sympathetic character overall, in my view, Dorrigo is contrasted with Japanese officers who apparently never question the war machine. His appeal to women is never quite clear; his ultimate boredom, unsatisfactory marriage, and sense of loss and failure are depressing. In short, Narrow Road is highly insightful and educational but not a cheerful read.

One-liner: Virtue was vanity dressed up and waiting for applause. (41)

Major Nakamura:
He had been beaten all the time in the Japanese Army, and it had been his duty to beat other soldiers. Why, when he was training he had been knocked out twice, and once suffered a ruptured eardrum. He had been beaten with a baseball bat on his buttocks for showing 'insufficient enthusiasm' when washing his superior's underwear. He had been beaten senseless by three officers when, as a recruit, he had misheard an order. He had been made to stand-to all day on the parade ground, and when he had collapsed they had fallen on him for disobeying the order and beaten him unconscious. (238)

Constant POW beatings:
For an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only veracity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any god man worshipped, for it was the only true god. It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and the fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence. (221)

Visiting his brother:
Tom told him how he had the heart attack that felled him in the Kent Hotel, just as he was about to throw a bull's eye.
A bull's eye?
Had it in the bag, Tom said. Bloody embarrassing way to go, in a puddle of piss with a dart in your mitt. Would have preferred somewhere private, like the tomato patch. (303)

 Linwood Barclay. Never Look Away. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2010.
The prolific Barclay pulls off another of his middle-class-in-suburbia specialities where life goes horribly wrong for an average family. David Harwood is a journalist for a small-town newspaper, being thwarted by corporate malefactors during his investigation of a corruption story. His wife Jan suddenly disappears and the police treat him as a "person of interest." Dave is bewildered by a succession of inexplicable events, so much so that the reader wonders when the lunkhead will catch on. We are led into a subplot before the lightbulb pierces the gloom for poor, frantic Dave. Typical Barclay momentum speeds up in two streams with a dead body, identity fraud, and the kidnapping of his son. Haven't met a Barclay yet that doesn't live up to the thriller genre.

His newspaper:
"Please," I said. "I get what's going on. We like this new prison. We don't want to make waves. We act real nice and play down local opposition to this thing and we get to sell them the land they need to build."Something flickered in Madeline's eyes. Maybe she'd figure out Brian had told me. Fuck him."But this will end up biting us in the ass later, Madeline. Readers, they may not get it right away, but over time, they'll start figuring out that we don't care about news anymore, that we're just a press release delivery system, something that keeps the Target flyer from getting wet, a place where the mayor can see a picture of himself handing out a check to the Boy Scouts. We'll still carry car crashes and three-alarm fires and we'll do the annual pieces on the most popular Halloween costumes and what New Year's resolutions prominent locals are making, but we won't be a fucking newspaper. What's the point in doing all this if we don't care what we are anymore?"Madeline looked me in the eye and managed a rueful smile. "How are things, David? How's Jan?" (43)

The lower classes:
At last night's dinner at the Big Boy just off the interstate, he'd had his meal half eaten before she had her napkin unfolded and on her lap. He was shoveling it in like the restaurant was in flames, and he wanted his fill before his hair caught fire. (165)

Malcolm Mackay, The Sudden Arrival of Violence. UK: Mantle/Macmillan Publishers Limited, 2014.
The third and final book of his Glasgow underworld series demonstrates once again that this young author has more than made his bones in crime fiction. Whether Glasgow criminals interest you or not, the almost staccato writing style propels you forward into a whirlwind guessing game. It's a stand-alone book, but readers of the previous two (it helps) will recognize the leading characters. Organized gangs watch for takeover opportunities, at the same time forced to watch their own backs. Strategic planning to weaken a rival group is always on the table. Weary detective Fisher works day and night for his opportunity to take them all down.

After two murders, how much false evidence can the schemers plant with the police? Can one of their gunmen achieve his goal of leaving "the life" to disappear off their radar? His plan might work if they don't kill him first. But once snagged into the nefarious way of life, it's a lifetime contract with no escape clause. The insight into the thinking of these men (and the occasional woman) is amazing and compelling. Brilliantly plotted.

The muscle:
George doesn't live in fear of death. If you stay away from the killing, it tends to stay away from you. But he has beaten up a lot of people in his working life. Some who are just stupid enough to think revenge might be a good idea. He's had a couple of people come after him over the years. Looking to get even. Looking to show the people around them that they're still tough. It's a certain type of person you have to worry about. The pathetic junkies are no threat. They're living day to day. They have no concept of revenge for historical acts. It's small-time dealers, the wannabes. ... You beat up some little bastard who thinks he's a big tough gangster. He's humiliated, so he looks for revenge. Happened twice. Both times they tried to deliver the beating themselves. Forgetting that George is a professional. Beating is what he does. A second humiliations taught them to give up. (180)

The informant:
She's gone now. Sashaying out of the office. They didn't discuss numbers, but she accepted the offer. She put up a little token resistance at first, as good form dictates. But she took it. She was always going to take it. She won't get the money until after her meeting with Fisher. It's payment for telling Fisher what Jamieson wants him to hear, and she must know it. (236-237)

The hit man:
There's only one thing he knows how to do well. Kill people. He knows how to scout a target. Knows how to do the job. Knows how to get away. He's good at it. Spent years thinking about it, planning each job, learning every detail. His biggest challenge will be avoiding that career from now on. Making sure he doesn't weaken, and take a job somewhere. Wouldn't be hard. Every city has its own criminal industry. Every criminal industry needs talented gunmen. The pay is good, the work is easy, if you have the skill for it. Wouldn't be hard to meet the right people. Not if you know what you're looking for. (189)

24 February 2015

FEC Senior Love (a)

They walked slowly, the few steps from the front door to the corner. Slowly, because he was shuffling with his head down, watching for obstacles in the sidewalk. She was holding his arm with two hands for support. His support, not hers.

They stood and waited. Strands of her flyaway gray hair lifted in a breeze, not unattractively, as she fussed with him. He looked a bit anxious. Facing each other, she checked his shirt collar, his buttons, brushed his shoulders, her hands fluttering nervously. Then they clasped hands and waited some more.

The bus arrived, the door opened. He moved forward reaching for the hand rail. As his foot planted on the first step, wobbling a bit, she tugged slightly on his arm. Holding the rail, he turned halfway back and bent over to share a lingering kiss.


She watched intently as he paid his fare and groped his way to a seat. Through the window, he could see her, peering over his glasses with a nod and half-smile. She waved and blew more kisses as the driver pulled away. She watched the bus all the way down the street until it turned a corner. A suddenly solitary figure.
Lately meeting, recently moving in together. They may be old but new love is always young.

17 February 2015

Library Limelights 77

Michael Connelly. The Burning Room. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014.
Connelly always delivers! Business as usual for Harry Bosch who is still working the Open-Unsolved Unit in Los Angeles. The death of a gunshot victim re-opens a ten-year-old cold case. Little does Harry's team know it will lead them to Oklahoma and back. Or that a former city mayor had his fingers in some shady activity. Harry's new partner, Lucia Soto, is committed to a second case of twenty-year-old arson with his help, while he wonders if she will prove to be a good detective. The action builds well even as we know who the suspects are. It's the gathering of evidence that Harry does so well. He's feeling his age, expecting retirement soon, and missing female companionship. What does Connelly have in future mind for the popular cop?

One-liner: So he lit out, as they say in white-power circles, for open spaces and white faces.

Reviewing a cold case file:
If nothing else, Bosch was confident in himself as an investigator and believed he observed things others did not. He knew this was egotistical, but a healthy ego was a requirement of the job. You had to believe you were smarter, tougher, braver, and more resilient than the unknown person you were looking for. And working cold cases, you had to believe the same thing about the detectives who had worked the case before you. If you didn't, you were lost. It was this sense of the mission that he hoped he could impart to Soto in the final year of his career. (54)

One of the many car rides:
They stopped in West Covina for an early lunch of chili rice and then conversation tapered off as they made the second half of the drive. Bosch's thoughts drifted from the case to the dinner he'd had with Virginia Skinner the night before. The conversation had been good and interesting. The door to romance even cracked open―at least from Bosch's perspective―and it was exciting to think about where it might go. It wasn't just the prospect of being with someone again. Bosch had to admit that his chances at perhaps a final romance in his life were dwindling as time went by. (223)


George MacDonald Fraser. The General Danced at Dawn. 1970. UK: Fontana/Collins Harvill, 1988.
I'd never read any of Fraser's works before (e.g. the Flashman series), and what an unexpected delight, funny as all get out. Drawn from his own military experiences during the mid-twentieth century, Fraser tells tales of a fictitious, immensely entertaining highland regiment at various postings in Egypt and Edinburgh. This is humour at its very best, perfect for describing a battalion and a company largely composed of fierce wee Glasgow lads who excel at the footy and insulting each other. The pages are littered with Scots expressions and triumphs over calamitous behaviour. Characters such as the illiterate McAuslan (the regiment's filthy, walking catastrophe), Wee Wullie (the silent, occasionally sober giant), the pipe-sergeant (who disapproves of wild reels), and the court-martial president (happily learning a new vernacular) are hilarious; we get to know them well. It's great light reading that reaffirmed my inner Scot. I must have more.

Words: Idiomatic, so many, like quaich, cateran, puggled, tattie-bogle, heughing, or "he called me a shilpit wee nyaff, sir" (167); but they don't interrupt the narrative!

One-liner: You might as well talk to the wind that dried your first shirt. (95)

Friday nights:
This was part of the weekly ritual. We would take off our tunics, and the pipers would make preparatory whines, and the Colonel would perch on a table, swinging his game leg which the Japanese had broken for him on the railway, and would say:
"Now, gentlemen, as you know there is Highland dancing as performed when there are ladies present, and there is Highland dancing. We will have Highland dancing. In Valetta in '21 I saw a Strip the Willow performed in eighty-nine seconds, and an Eightsome reel in two minutes twenty-two seconds. These are our targets. All right, pipey." (80)

Later the same night:
"What's up, pipe-sarnt," the Colonel would say, "too slow for you?"
"Slow?" the pipe-sergeant would say. "Fine you know, sir, it's not too slow for me. It's a godless stramash is what it is, and shouldn't be allowed. Look at the unfortunate Mr. Cameron, the condition of him; he doesn't know whether it's Tuesday or breakfast." (82)

The sergeants' mess:
In the ante-room there was only the pipe-sergeant, perched in state at one end of the bar, and keeping a bright eye on the mess waiters to see that they kept their thumbs out of the glasses.
"Guest. Mr. MacNeill," announced Cuddy, and the pipey hopped off his stool and took over.
"Come away ben, Mr. MacNeill," he cried. "Isn't this the pleasure? You'll take a little of the creature? Of course, of course. Barman, where are you? Stand to your kit."
I surveyed the various brands of "the creature" on view behind the bar, and decided that the Colonel was right. You would never have seen the like in an officers' mess. There was the Talisker and Laphroaig and Islay Mist and Glenfiddich and Smith's Ten-year-old ― every Scotch whisky under the sun. How they managed it, in those arid post-war years, I didn't like to think. (129-30)

McAuslan:
He was short, pimply, revoltingly dirty, incredibly unseemly, and dense to a degree. Not that he didn't try; he was pathetically eager to please, but it was no good. His stupidity and uncleanliness were a sort of a gift, and combined with his handlessness made him a military disaster. (141)

McAuslan again:
Considering his illiteracy, his foul appearance, his habit of losing his possessions, and his inability to execute all but the simplest orders, Private McAuslan was remarkably seldom in trouble. ... as my platoon sergeant said, "He's just wan o' nature's blunders; he cannae help bein' horrible. It's a gift." (150)

07 February 2015

Library Limelights 76

Louise Penny. A Trick of the Light. UK: Sphere/Little, Brown Book Group, 2011.
Louise Penny writes what I call gentle mysteries. The main characters are observant, thoughtful, and frequently deliver a good punch line. Occasionally the thoughts floating through their heads is distracting. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Québec Sûreté is her popular leading man; Three Pines is the Eastern Townships village locale where many of the books are set. In this case a dead stranger is discovered in the garden of Clara Morrow who is being feted as a brilliant new artist. Clara's recognition has been a long time coming. No suspects at first, but it turns out the murdered woman had history with many of the players in the Québec cultural scene. Gamache and his right-hand man Beauvoir take charge of the investigation.

Penny skillfully weaves into her narrative the themes of chiaroscuro (hence the title), abandonment, and whether people can change. That includes some close attention to the tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous and a sensitive psychological profile of Beauvoir, still deeply affected by a prior police shootout. I did find a few things a bit too convenient ― it seems almost every suspect was once an aspiring artist, and the climax sees a conventional gathering of all concerned. No exciting chase or breathless action here; the murderer rather calmly confesses. Since this one, Penny has written three further books for a legion of fans.

Vernissage:
Very little was expected of an artist at a vernissage. If they were clothed and sober most curators considered themselves fortunate. Gamache stole a glance at Clara, looking panicked and disheveled in a tailored power suit that had experienced a recent failure. The skirt was slightly twisted and the collar was riding high as though she'd tried to scratch the middle of her back. (21)

Gamache comments:
"The only way was to stop drinking. But as I've found out in the last few days, for alcoholics stopping drinking is just the beginning. They have to change. Their perceptions, attitudes. And they have to clean up the mess they left behind. The alcoholic is like a tornado, roaring his way through the lives of others," Gamache quoted. (386)
Peter Robinson. Abattoir Blues. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2014.
Here's DCI Banks again (it's tempting to think of him familiarly as 'Banksy' which he dislikes and besides, he feels it properly belongs to the street artist) in a rather unusual crime story. The title, of course, is a broad hint but the revelations take a while. The seemingly mundane investigation of stolen farm equipment in North Yorkshire turns into a murder investigation. Banks proceeds cautiously; a witness who might tie the two events together is missing. As ever, Robinson keeps up with the very latest trends in both criminal activity and police work. I did find an odd editorial glitch (p. 229) where the name of a prime character is inexplicably transformed into a surname of no relevance whatsoever (just the once).

Team meetings reverberate with collaboration after daily interviews and the following of leads. But still the brains behind illegal operations elude them until mounting evidence and action send them out in different directions. Banks also observes the performance of his team members, with reservations about the rehabilitation of DI Annie Cabot ― is she too protective of a potential suspect? ― while DS Winsome tries to resist the kindred soul she meets, a man on the periphery of the first event. Another winner for Robinson and team Banks.

Word: quidditch ― an imaginary game coined by JK Rowling in a Harry Potter novel; my ignorance is showing! (102)

Two-liner: "Man plans. God laughs." (195)

Annie reflects:
It was rare that Annie felt sentimental about people she really didn't know, and maybe it was a sign that she was leaving behind some of the depression and cynicism that seemed to have invaded her mind since the shooting. That was a good thing; she hadn't liked the person she was turning into. Loneliness was turning her into a moody and sharp-tongued bitch. If she got much worse, she wouldn't be able to find anyone willing to put up with her, let alone love and cherish her. She just hoped that she didn't get so soft she couldn't see the hard truth when it was staring her in the face. Any good copper needs an ounce or two of scepticism, even cynicism. (71)

Banks reflects:
... As for his ex-wife Sandra, she had her new family and her new life. His job had lost her to him. These days, it seemed, it was the job or nothing.
Why did he seem to be letting everyone go? Why didn't he make more of an effort to keep in touch with his friends? Sometimes he felt he had nothing to say, nothing to add to the lively company of a boozy evening in the pub. It wasn't true, though; he always enjoyed himself when he made the effort; it had just got harder to make that effort. (219)


Malcolm Mackay. How A Gunman Says Goodbye. UK: Mantle/Macmillan Publishers Limited, 2013.
How does an author fully capture your attention, writing about basic scum like organized crime? Recent wunderkind in the tartan noir school, Malcolm Mackay hooked me with his first book in a trilogy on the underworld of Glasgow. His unique style is addictive; colleagues and reviewers are amazed at this young man who lives in the Outer Hebrides nowhere near inner city problems. We meet again a cast of characters from The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter as crime bosses and their hit men struggle to maintain their priorities in a covert world.

Once a criminal, always a criminal? Snared in their own devices, it becomes almost impossible to leave the game. One piece of business unleashes a chain reaction that races to the last page. The frustrated but relentless police adversary, DI Fisher, muses on his long career that ironically parallels that of the older gunman. It's difficult not to become absorbed in their lives and decisions, particularly Calum and Frank, men in the vortex. You can count on the third book here soon!

One-liner: Very few get to pick the door they leave by. (75)

Calum:
You have to believe that they're all out to get you, because they are. Be paranoid about everything and everyone. See a story in the papers that says the police aren't looking for anyone. Assume it's a lie. Assume that the story was written with you in mind. Takes a little bit of egomania to believe you're the centrepiece of other people's thoughts. How else to avoid detection? Paranoia works. (144)

Frank:
Jamieson's tapping the desk with his forefinger; he does that whenever he's thinking. Presumably does it when he's nervous too, although he usually makes a point of keeping his nerves to himself. He's looking at Frank, then sideways at Young.
"John, could you leave us for a few minutes."
Young doesn't say anything, but Frank can see out of the corner of his eye that he's already halfway to his feet. Young would have expected this. Jamieson doesn't want anyone else around when he makes the difficult speech about how much they've appreciated everything Frank's done for them. How much they'll miss having him around. If there's anything they can do for him, he need only ask. All the usual shit people tell you as they push you off a cliff. (199)

Fisher:

So little of what he does matters any more. You round up some moron with a gun who thinks he's a gangster, and you chuck him in jail for ten years. Within a fortnight three other morons have taken his place. You arrest the attention-seekers, the ones who think they're celebrities and live accordingly. All the while, the people who matter stay hidden away. Safe. Then you get the chance. The once-in-a-decade opportunity to bring down an entire organization that matters. This might just be it. (270)

01 February 2015

FEC Post-Festivus Ghosts

Meetings of the Inmates Committee (IC) are always subdued after the holidays and this is no exception. The previous meeting ― the Festivus planning meeting ― sucked away the collective energy. Ms Etoile preempted that meeting to deplore the alarming tendency of embracing the Black Friday of our neighbours to the south. Why are we appropriating an American extra-long weekend of Thanksgiving and college football day of killer shopping?! Shoppers actually get trampled! Undisguised, naked consumerism, she went on, face turning red with momentum. Lining up for hours for bargains with sneakily manipulated prices!

Warming up to theatrical proportions, WHY, she asks, are we getting more and more of this commercial pitch at the end of November! That is not the Canadian way! We have our very own Boxing Day and let us not forget it! Is it not sufficient to have ONE day of December craziness in a world where Christmas muzak starts in October?


This was before Mr. OC even had time to introduce the agenda. Luther was still trying to process "appropriating." The rest of us applauded in a rush of patriotic common sense because we support being Canadian. And partly to stop the flow before Ms E launched into karmic advice from her new Facebook friend the Dalai Lama. After threatening to resign if decorum was not observed ― always an effective ploy, no-one wants his job ― Mr. OC whacked his gavel and we settled down.

It is the IC's job to make Festivus at FEC a merry, harmonious season for all the lunatics residents. First of all, the common room must be decorated. Jiminy Crickets undertakes this task. He hides stores the decorations, lights, candles, baubles, and tinsel because in his mind he owns this annual creative display. So the IC had to ask him on metaphorical bended knee to bless us again with his decor of excellence. His proprietary feelings are such that once when a brash IC member tried to wangle the job away from him, mutual recriminations erupted and the decorations were held hostage. Last year he went blue everything, further depressing a number of the suicidal seasonally-sensitive.

The carol singalong concert went fairly well although the accompanist refused to return after last year's disaster. Ophelia said Susanna can probably bang out Hark the Herald Angels and a few other tunes on the piano. Susanna (not present) got volunteered. George made a fuss that 2% eggnog is not the real thing and let's not run out of it again. Volunteer bartender Thomas the Brave took that as personal criticism and had to be cajoled not to resign.

 Trevor (not present) was nominated to be MC, his attack of gout notwithstanding. He always does a marvellous "I Am a Modern Major General." All the usual in-house musical talent were given their traditional solo opportunities. Another near-contretemps when Gonzo frowned to say I'm not sitting through one more version of Diva Darlene's off-key Winter Wonderland. George bristled to retort (everyone knows his secret lust for Darlene), Ophelia eyerolled, Thomas snorted, Bella blinked, and Ms E yelled, "Now, now, darlings. Deep breath!"

Bella might have drained her discreet booze water bottle by that time because she wondered if the alleged gypsies (not present) might contribute some colour to the concert. She has inexplicably become attached to their presence, now more or less fixtures in Dominic's suite. Mr. OC easily blocked that line of thought with a thunderous lift of his eyebrows.

Today Ms Etoile righteously beams on behalf of the Performance Subcommittee's success. Ophelia wants to know who left the mouldy piece of pie in the communal kitchen's fridge and where did three of the plates go? "Check the gypsies!" roars Luther in good humour.

And so it goes. Gonzo the Treasurer reports that the donation baskets at various Festivus events yielded a lousy $31.19 for the IC petty cash. Gonzo remarks whoever put in the pennies is a miserable shite. Adding gloomily "$31.19 won't cover the rum." It must be winter. The IC of the Fading Entertainers Central (FEC) is not up to Oscar performance levels. Too many inmates residents keeping indoors, restless and quarrelsome. Next meeting: St. Patrick's Day and Easter plans. Groans.

Another feckless day in the life. 

23 January 2015

Library Limelights 75

Gillian Flynn. Dark Places. New York: Broadway Books/Random House, Inc., 2009
Flynn is probably best known for her Gone Girl, also recently a film, to great praise, although some have questioned how credible are parts of the tale. The same might apply to Dark Places since it is in the works as a film (hey, the book is always better ...!). But it's a mystery-lover's perfect stew with a wide choice of alternate killer scenarios. Much more to the fore than credibility is Flynn's incomparable portrayal of family members and the Kansas ambiance. The exceptional, seductive prose quickly inserts us into the hardscrabble lives of the Day family.

Libby Day is a now-grown but damaged child since most of her family was horrifically murdered one dark, wintry night. Her brother Ben was convicted. We follow Libby's quest for the truth as her narrative alternates with that of Ben and their mother Patty. The very imperfections of the characters bring them to visceral life. Every sentence conjures vivid images. Flynn has already soared into the top ranks of American crime writers. Her debut novel, Sharp Objects, was reviewed in Library Limelights back in January 2014.

Libby lunches with her trustee:
"But," continued Jim Jeffreys, "I think everyone would like to hear you're doing well."
"Awesome."
"What about college?" he chewed off a hunk of meat.
"No."
"What about we try to set you up in some sort of office job, filing and whatnot?"
"No." I folded in on myself, ignoring my meal, projecting glumness. That was another of my mom's words: glum. It meant having the blues in a way that annoyed other people. Having the blues aggressively.
"Well, why don't you take a week and do some thinking on it?" He was devouring his steak, his fork moving up and down briskly. Jim Jeffreys wanted to leave. Jim Jeffreys was done here. (9)

Patty:
She rinsed her hands, chapped, red and hard, and glanced at herself in the mirror, making sure her eyes weren't wet. She was thirty-two but looked a decade older. Her forehead was creased like a child's paper fan, and crow's feet rayed out from her eyes. Her red hair was shot with white, wiry threads, and she was unattractively thin, all bumps and points, like she'd swallowed a shelf's worth of hardware: hammers and mothballs and a few old bottles. She did not look like the kind of person you'd want to hug, and, in fact, her children never snuggled into her. (61)

Libby again:

When I was fourteen, I thought a lot about killing myself―it's a hobby today, but at age fourteen it was a vocation. On a September morning, just after school started, I'd gotten Diane's .44 Magnum and held it, baby-like, in my lap for hours. What an indulgence it would be, to just blow off my head, all my mean spirits disappearing with a gun blast, like blowing a seedy dandelion apart. But I thought about Diane, and her coming home to my small torso and a red wall, and I couldn't do it. It's probably why I was so hateful to her, she kept me from what I wanted the most. I just couldn't do it to her, though, so I made a bargain with myself: If I still feel this bad on February 1, I will kill myself. And it was just as bad on February 1, but again I made the bargain: If it's this bad May 1, I'll do it. And so on. I'm still here. (153)

Denise Mina. Garnet Hill. UK: Bantam Press, 1998.
I lucked into this paperback somewhere forgotten now. It won Mina the John Creasey Award for Best First Crime Novel back in the day (and she hasn't slowed down since). The book was just what I wanted, a submersion into the lives of Glasgow people managing to get by, people with an unquenchable spirit. Maureen O'Donnell is a mental illness survivor, seeking retribution for the victims of hidden crimes. The police are a little slow on the uptake, and her dysfunctional family headed by a mother known by her children as Drunk Winnie are no support. In her dangerous search for the single perpetrator, Maureen balances between panic and dignity, and not without humour.

A series of crimes only comes to light when a man is murdered in Maureen's own home. He's a married man with whom she's been having an affair. Maureen does not become a suspect, but clearly there's a different, yet unknown personal connection. The feisty young woman determines to unravel the mystery as inevitably we learn about her harrowing childhood experience. Her brother Liam and loyal friend Leslie, among others, provide some needed assistance. Wonderful characterization, an absorbing read.

Word: teuchter (246) ― a slightly derogatory but humourous lowland Scots term for a highland Scot.
One-liner: Siobhain sighed the deepest sigh Maureen had ever heard, like all the Mothers of Ireland breathing out at one time. (305)

Part of a police interview:
"Your mother said you had a psychiatrist," said McEwan.
"My mother drinks too much too often. She's in tune with the moon a lot of the time."
A hint of a smile floated across McEwan's face. "How would you know if you were having a breakdown?"
"I'm not having one, if that's what you meant. When depressives have a breakdown it's pretty obvious. We can't function or get ourselves out of the house. If I was having a breakdown you'd be able to tell."
McEwan looked at McMummb, who must have done a two-day course in psychology. He nodded his confirmation and McEwan turned back to her. McMummb sat back and blushed with delight at McEwan's deference. (50-51)

Drunk Winnie:
The school had found out that Winnie was an alki when the headmistress phone her about Liam's disruptive behaviour in class. Winnie staggered up to the school, told the school secretary she was a wanker and fell asleep in the waiting room. She couldn't be wakened. George had to come and get her, carrying her out of the school and into the car, still snoring her head off. The teachers stopped giving them a hard time after that, they looked on them pityingly and made allowances when they didn't do homework. It was insulting the way they spoke to them, as if their lives were pathetic and always would be, as if they couldn't help themselves. Maureen would rather have been treated as a bad child than a sad one. (96)

A victim:
Yvonne's hair was honey blonde, turning brown through lack of sun and cut into a short, manageable, hospital style. She was sitting in an orthopaedic armchair; cushions had been placed between her hips and the chair sides to stop her slipping over. A freshly puffed pillow in a transparent plastic cover lay in front of her on the table attachment. She was slumped over it, her hands in her lap. Her glassy blue eyes were half open, her cheek was resting on the plastic-covered pillow in the slick of warm saliva dribbling horizontally out of her mouth. She was forty at most. ... It was a long time since Yvonne had had an expression on her face. (283)

Iain Banks. Stonemouth. New York: Penguin Books LLC, 2012.
Not nice to admit, but I couldn't wait for this book to finish. In my increasing quest to understand the nuances of Scottish accents, words, and idioms, this looked like a good bet with a criminal element involved. Alas, I didn't read the fine print about "rite of passage" and so, ultimately, it was really centred on a summer of young love. Young love, the consequences, and much discussion in the aftermath; discussion often tedious from an old cynic's point of view. Stewart Gilmour had good reason to be wary of returning to visit his hometown near Aberdeen. Resolving old relationships and avoiding several thrashings keep him very busy. Language insight: 8 out of 10.

Words: numpty - "the slow kid who got jokes last or not at all and who always needed help with answers" (138)
winny - worry; fankle - a tangle impossible to untangle

Highland exercise:
Full-on Scottish country dancing like this is a sight and a sound to behold, and not for the faint-hearted. Aside from a few gentle dances like St. Bernard's Waltz – basically for the grans and grandads, so they can shuffle around the floor recalling past and limber glories while everybody else is at the bar – it's all fairly demented stuff, with rugby-sized-scrum packs of drunken people whirling around the room in progressively more fragmented rabbles trying to remember what the hell happens next.
The Gay Gordons is effectively choreographed chaos and an Eightsome Reel is a deranged marathon requiring a PhD in dance. Two hundred and fifty-six bars of dashing, reversing, turning, skipping, pas-de-basing, jump-stepping, successively-partner-swapping-until-you-get-back-to-the-one-you-started-with music is common, but the Eightsome properly lasts for four hundred and sixty-four bars, and no matter how fit you are at the start it's always awfully good to get to the end. (197)

Job description:
"Oh, I think about what I actually do," I tell her, "and Ferg's right: I point lights at big buildings. I'm an exterior decorator fussing over the phallic substitutes of rich boys. I window dress the grotesque status symbols of a kleptocratic worldwide plutocracy, the undeserving elite of the far-too-impressed-with-themselves über rich. It's exciting, it's rewarding, it's well paid and it takes me all over the world, and so long as I don't actually think about it I have a great time." (315)

19 January 2015

Lost and Found: A Tale of Two Cities


My mother's copy of a classic for a high school English course in the 1930s.
Port Arthur Collegiate Institute.