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)