02 December 2016

Library Limelights 120

Alafair Burke. The Ex. USA: HarperCollins, 2016.
Happy dance – to hook up with Alafair after years of absence. And what a potboiler this is. A man accused of shooting down three people in a park hires his ex-lover, lawyer Olivia Randall, to defend him. Jack Harris presents the most bizarre explanation for his innocence, but evidence is sorely lacking. One of the victims was the aggressive father of a young man who gunned down numerous bystanders in a previous mass killing; one of those victims was Jack's wife. Convicting Jack looks initially like a slam dunk for the prosecution. The story, and tension, unfold from Olivia's narration and her certainty that she knows Jack better than anyone. Until ... is it possible Jack has a dark side she never suspected?

Evidence piles up against Jack, including incontrovertible gunshot residue. Guilt over her shabby treatment of him in their past relationship is a recurring, twisting undercurrent for Olivia. She calls in favours and risks losing professional credence. The author has the facility of drawing the reader right into the middle of it. DNA wins out: she is the daughter of crime-writing master James Lee Burke. I've missed several Alafair novels in the past; time to stockpile for the future!

One-liners:
When white noise fills my room, I can be anywhere, which means I'm nowhere, which is the only way I can sleep. (9)
The lobby of her apartment building would be up to any discerning New Yorker's standards, even Charlotte's, with overstuffed furniture, gleaming white tables, and fresh flower arrangements the size of beach balls. (57)
I think being able to use one little four-letter word to convey a hundred different thoughts is pretty fucking creative. (96)

Convincing her partner:
"Don, I have a feeling."
"A feeling? Dear girl, you pick today of all days to suddenly have feelings?"
"Oh come on. I've heard you say a cop feels hinky. Or a new client feels like the real deal, truly innocent. This isn't just me believing in an old friend." I heard Don scoff at the choice of the word "friend," but I pressed on. "His side of the story is just too bizarre to be fabricated."
"Are you listening to the words that are coming out of your mouth? You're basically saying it sounds too much like a lie to be a lie. You need more than that kind of logic to vouch for a client." (38-9)

Her assistant:
Charlotte and Buckley were with me in the entryway when I let him in, but he didn't bother with introductions. "Are you trying to get us both fired? Don's been riding my ass all day, asking me where you are, making me promise to loop him in. I don't know what you're working on, or why Don's pissed, but I feel like one of those little kids caught in the middle of their parents' divorce."
Coming up for air, he registered the presence of a teenager and the small dog smelling his pant leg, and looked at me as if I'd led him into an Ebola outbreak. (70)

Self-examination:
On one side were my suspicions. I had been so convinced from the second Buckley called me that Jack had to be innocent. But what grounds did I have for my assumptions? On the other side was my guilt. This was Jack―good, honest, and decent. Who was I to suspect him of something so heinous?
And then there was a voice trying to reconcile the two sides. Maybe he was guilty. Maybe he was an angry, vengeful psychopath. But if he was, who had made him that way?
Me. I did that. (155-6)

Legal tactics:
When I walked into the courtroom, Scott Temple was already at a counsel table. He shot me a sideways glance as I crossed the bar, and then continued to look at his notes.
"Can we talk about why we're here?" I asked. I wished Don was here to ask the question, but he had texted me to say he was stuck in Judge Gregory's courtroom and might be a few minutes late.
"The way you talked to me before pulling me in here on a so-called Brady violation? The frog and the scorpion, Olivia. No more side deals."
Scott had always been one of my best resources at the DA's office. I may have resolved to continue working for Jack, but I did regret burning a friend on his behalf. (257)


Graham Hurley. Turnstone. UK: Orion Paperback, 2001.
A turnstone is one type of bird that DI Joe Faraday likes to watch on his time off, in the greater Portsmouth environs. Shared bird-watching with his deaf son J-J helped them communicate and learn from each other. But J-J is an adult now, in flight from home to Joe's profound dismay and worry. But Joe's work schedule keeps him searching for a missing man despite his superiors' disapproval. Meanwhile, his colleague and nemesis, Paul Winter, is up to his usual underhanded tricks, withholding police evidence and trying to force a murder witness into becoming a snitch.

Winter runs into drug-related activities, in his gleeful quest to control the lowlifes. Joe begins to uncover a sinister plot hatched during the Fastnet yacht race. Both detectives meet women who fascinate them. Juanita is a real piece of work while Ruth reminds Joe of his long-deceased wife. Portsmouth itself is a deeply embedded character; its natural beauty and man-made deterioration are equally compelling. A bit much of the bird and boating details for me but Hurley's novels are far too well-crafted to complain. Since this book, Hurley went on with the same police characters to create more, several of which I've eagerly consumed.

One-liners:
After their recent run-in, Faraday sensed at once that his uniformed boss was in the mood for building bridges. (162)
It was several minutes before Faraday realised that the small, ghost-like, Asian-looking woman who'd let them in was in fact Oomes's wife. (189)

Meeting with the boss:
" ... They think there might be a stress problem."
"Who with?"
"You." He frowned, peering hard at Faraday with his muddy little eyes. "Is there a stress problem?"
Faraday wondered where to start. Should he tell him about J-J? About the lad's fantasy affair with some French social worker? Should he tell him about the nights he lay in bed, listening to the lap-lap of the tide, trying to work out where the last two decades had gone? Should he describe the moments when he sometimes paused on the stairs, frozen by the memories behind one of Janna's photographs? Should he share the bewilderment and disgust he increasingly felt, tidying up the wreckage of other people's lives? Should he confess, just occasionally, to an anger so intense and so deeply rooted that he felt capable of murder himself? (53-4)

Always on the edge:
Getting out of the car, Winter smiled. These were the kinds of strokes he enjoyed pulling most, stepping outside the system, turning his back on the paperwork, running private informants, inching his way into the heart of the action without anyone – anyone – being any the wiser. Then, at a time of his choosing, he would cash in all that information, all those carefully harboured secrets, step into the spotlight and take the applause he so richly deserved. (58)

The big picture:
From here, the view of the harbour was uninterrupted. He loved this place, not simply the waterfront but the city itself. He loved its busyness and its blunt, unvarnished ways. He loved the rough pulse of life that pumped through the pubs and endless terraced streets. Portsmouth wasn't the city you'd choose for sparkling dinner parties or dainty conversation, and for those two blessings Faraday was eternally grateful. In a country which had largely sold its soul, it remained uncursed by money. (266)

Deborah Campbell. A Disappearance in Damascus. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2016.
This is not fiction. Subtitled A story of friendship and survival in the shadow of war, it's a graphic reminder that here in the first world we have no idea what desperation feels like. In 2007 Canadian investigative journalist Campbell had already spent years reporting on Middle East conflicts; her in-depth articles for major news magazines required periods of social immersion locally, sometimes undercover. Then in Syria, she sought interviews with Iraqi refugees from the post-Saddam Hussein chaos of warring militias; flooding Damascus, the only country that would accept them, they clearly portended the tidal wave to come toward Europe and the West. Ahlam, the independent, whirlwind facilitator in the Iraqi refugee community (among countless humanitarian tasks she undertook to help her people) was Campbell's "fixer" and interpreter. The two became close, so much time together witnessing the plight of overwhelmed people targeted for death if they returned to Iraq, under suspicion by Syrian authorities, desperate for employment or acceptance by another nation, endless examples of political-social-cultural clashes and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The general fear among Syrians was don't being your war to our country. (But we know what happened, right?) Ahlam was finally, inevitably arrested in 2008 on serious but false charges. Campbell and others became desperate to find her, try to get her released. Catch-22 ― enlisting assistance or intervention from NGOs could achieve the opposite: reinforce the lie that Ahlam was a spy, a traitor, an undesirable. And Campbell had to examine whether she herself, by being watched, had unwittingly endangered her friend. It's not possible to summarize the webs of bureaucracy, fear, deceit, stress, angst; I would have to quote the entire book. A powerful, must read: we owe it to ourselves to gain insight into today's Middle East:

About Ahlam:
She had been, when I knew her in Damascus, more alive than anyone I've ever known. (311)
She is one of those influential fixers and local experts, seldom visible despite their importance, who have done so much to show the world to itself. (325)
"Wherever you are, begin," she often said, quoting her father. "Begin and the rest will follow." (192)
That hard lump of grief, which she took out from time to time, usually alone, fired her public activity, her obsessive drive to solve problems that had no lasting solutions. (89)
Accusations that were laughable but extremely dangerous: rumours have an afterlife because rumour is soon treated as fact and becomes fact through repetition. (275)
[prison] "You can stay there for years," were his final words, "and nobody will know where you are." (283)

About Campbell:
The Middle East fashioned a century ago has become what the Ottoman Empire was before it: fragile, quaking, rife with rebellions. (104)
I could not have imagined that I was witnessing a final act―that this age-old tradition of pluralism would shortly disappear, adding millions of Syrians to the millions of Iraqis seeking refuge in the outside world. (189-90)
Only now was I coming to understand the sense of fatalism so common in the East, where most of what happens is determined by forces beyond one's control. (209)
The sense of powerlessness was humbling. It is how most of the world lives. (288)

Immersive journalism:
And so it begins. The paranoia. The fear. It spreads out in waves and infects everyone around you. It infects your mind, your thoughts. You begin to monitor your actions, your words, to see how the watcher might view them, and it is always the same way: with suspicion. You begin to regard others in the same paranoid fashion. Is that person asking me questions, so nonchalantly, seeking information on behalf of someone else? Am I replying appropriately, reacting in a way that could be construed as having nothing to hide? (187-8)

Uprooted young people:
They were all of an age when they should have been assuming the mantle of adulthood, learning a trade or cramming for university exams, looking around for a mate, but the war had frozen them in time. The society that raised them no longer existed; its values and expectations no longer made sense. (172)And:"They aren't being educated anymore, they see nothing but violence. They've become easy to brainwash and they are caught between Saudi Arabia and Iran." (215)

A veteran of the Gulf War:
I said something often said about the war: "This will end badly." He fixed me with an unblinking gaze, as if to compel me to remember, and answered: "This. Will. Never. End." (289)

21 November 2016

Library Limelights 119

Kati Hiekkapelto. Defenceless. UK: Orenda Books, 2015.
Perhaps a little diversion for fans of Scandinavian novelists: may we call Hiekkapelto a Baltic Noir writer? Anna Fekete is a senior police constable in what appears to be Helsinki. Of Hungarian origin, her family sought refuge in Finland during the Balkan wars. Anna's workload is already stressful when two seemingly unrelated deaths land on her plate while colleagues labour to stop an influx of the drug-dealing Black Cobra gang. We the readers are privy to who did what. I found it slow moving for some time, i.e. where are we going with this? ... endless unforthcoming interviews in the relevant neighbourhood, no answers to their burning questions.

The story does pick up when Anna finds a connection but it's extremely difficult to reconstruct what are actually three murders. The desperation and loneliness of political asylum seekers is well illustrated in young Sammy (defenceless) who would rather confess to a murder he didn't commit than be deported. Hungarian Gabriella, in the country legally as an au pair, accidentally runs over a man; as the investigation proceeds she inappropriately pesters Anna for friendship. Policeman colleague Esko is bitingly portrayed as a callous, racist, homophobic cop who conceals his own health issues. This is her second mystery novel; Hummingbird was her first. Definitely a promising addition to the world of crime writing.

One-liner: What remains of home when those who live there are gone? (266)

Morning:
The raid was scheduled for two-thirty that afternoon. By then the last remnants of his hangover would be gone and he would be back on form. He had to prepare, go through the sequence of events with Virkkunen and the team. ... They were in for a great day, the noose was tightening round the necks of these towel heads. You had to admit, the NBI really knew their stuff. And so did he. As he left, Esko glanced in the mirror. Jesus, I shouldn't have bothered, he thought as he locked the front door and felt his chest tighten again. (64)

Assisting the enquiries:
"Have you seen anything suspicious going on out in the yard?" 
"Nothing in particular. You sometimes see that rabble loitering in the car park." 
"Did anyone look foreign, do you think?" asked Anna. 
"You look foreign." 
"I don't mean me. I mean the hoodie boys." 
"I already told you I never saw their faces. Still, I thought they must have been foreign." 
"Why?" 
"They weren't speaking Finnish." 
"So you heard them talking. What language could it have been?" 
"How should I know? I only speak Finnish." 
"Do you have any children?" 
"Yes. Why?" 
"I just wondered whether they might have seen or heard something when they visited. Perhaps they could tell us what language those boys were speaking." 
"My children don't visit me. They both live down south and get on with their own lives. They're not interested in their mother's affairs." (88)

Her own loneliness:

At that moment Anna felt with chilling certainty that Ákos would never return to Finland and that she'd be left here all alone. It was a strange feeling, as she and Ákos hasn't been close for years. Anna had studied on the other side of the country and hadn't wanted anything to do with her alcoholic brother. Let him drink, she'd thought, let him ruin his life and his opportunities by himself. Once Anna had moved back north, where the family had settled after fleeing from Yugoslavia, they had become closer again. And though Anna reluctantly looked after some practical matters for her brother, they had become friends, more even. Ákos was the only person in the world who shared something with Anna, something that words could never describe. I can't bear the thought of losing Ákos too, she thought. She buried her face in a cushion, but the tears would not come. They hardened into a lump in her chest where years of unwept tears rattled against one another like stones. (245-6)

Rick Mofina. Whirlwind. USA: Harlequin, 2014.
Tornadoes hit a Texas city suburb and in the wake of the devastation, Jenna Cooper has lost her baby Caleb. Enter intern reporter Kate Page, hoping to secure a full-time job. Rather than hurt or killed in the storm, Caleb has been kidnapped by a scruffy young couple for a nefarious purpose. Eventually they are being hunted not only by Kate and the parents, but also by a parole officer, a vengeful ex-con, a Russian mobster, a desperate adoption agency, several police departments, and the FBI ... going madly off in all directions. It's not that exciting but does have its moments.

The pedestrian writing did not grab me, did not involve me in caring much about the characters. Maybe I should have noticed the Harlequin logo before I paid 25¢ for it (book sale). All the women have a background sob story. There's a lot of baby cooing. Motherhood idealized. The Russian is a stock cardboard figure. Cynical, hardhearted moi.

One-liner: "She's taken a few extra spoons of bitch in her coffee today." (272)

Storm aftermath:
"Please help me move this!" 
The panic in the woman's eyes telegraphed her agony―she was in the fight of her life. 
"Please!" 
Once more, Kate was being asked to cross a journalistic line. She was well aware that her job was to observe the news, not take part in it, but her conscience would not allow her to ignore another plea for help. She gripped her side of the wood, heaved and helped toss it aside. 
"CALEB!" 
The woman got on her knees, her hands and fingers were laced with blood as she tugged at scraps and hunks of metal, glass and wood while combing every opening in the ruins. 
"Is Caleb your child?" Kate asked. 
"He's my baby boy." (55-6)

Mafia business:
"How was your trip―from Canada, wasn't it?" 
"Uneventful," Gromov said. "Thank you for agreeing to help us. You were highly recommended." 
"So were you." Maddick offered the beginnings of a bitter smile. "I was advised rather strongly that I should help you." 
"Good. You have the information?" 
Maddick lifted the corner of the folded sports section of the newspaper, showing a glimpse of a large plain brown envelope. 
"Thank you." Gromov nodded to Yanna. "We brought you a box of your favorite chocolates." Yanna passed a small cardboard chocolate box to Maddick. He peeked inside. It held five thousand dollars in unmarked fifties and twenties. (247)

Peggy Blair. Umbrella Man. Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 2016.
Blair's newest Havana novel is a corker. Set in 2007, Inspector Ricardo Ramirez investigates two killings that lead to more. Top levels of police and security buzz with rumours of a pending assassination attempt on Raúl Castro who recently became el presidente. But the name and nationality of the suspect are unknown. Meanwhile Havana is hosting an international trade fair that draws secret agents from several countries. Ramirez is not always included in intelligence briefings ― butting his head too often on the bureaucratic no está autorizado ―but he hooks up with Slava the Russian, both of whom do not trust their bosses.

The action and twists keep coming as they also uncover an illicit plot running Colombian drugs in which Dr. Hector Apiro's girlfriend becomes entangled. Pay attention, because no-one can be sure who the bad guys are or whom they might be impersonating! Havana's sadly disintegrating infrastructure and poverty are aptly illustrated without understating the vitality of its citizens; like most, Ramirez seeks work-arounds to gain information and keep domestic life functioning. The political background is genuine and rich, effortlessly blending with Blair's many characters. A first-rate mystery on a wild ride that puts Blair into top crime-writing ranks.

One-liner: "In the past couple of months," the Captain said ruefully, "Russia's been warming up to Cuba faster than a hooker in the back seat of a police car." (23)

Deception:
"You'll be at the trade fair as part of the American delegation," the Captain had said. "I want you there when Castro gets his reward‒oops, now there's a Freudian slip," he grinned, " I mean award." 
But I don't know anything about cattle," Yaworsky protested. "Anyone who does is going to see that right away. Which one's the heifer, the female or the male? Hell if I know." 
"You don't have to know," the Captain said. "These days the cattle business is all bullshit and jacking off. Any good agent should have lots of experience with those." (36)

Paranoia:
Ramirez turned to the Ceperos' door. So they were CDR; that meant they listened to everything. The citizens watch groups were supposed to encourage the political and moral welfare of their neighbours by promoting the merits of communism but really their members were snitches. Thousands of dissidents arrested after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion were turned in because their names appeared on CDR watch lists. 
CDR leaders reported all counter-revolutionary behaviour to the authorities. This could amount to almost anything: someone with too-long hair, a neighbour complaining about the living conditions, a citizen joking about the Communist Party. Even talking to foreigners qualified as a reportable offence. ...
The only reason Apiro and I haven't been turned in, thought Ramirez, was because we are the authorities. (83)

Diplomacy:
Klopov pointed to the tray as he sat down again. "Please, try these. The cookies are delicious. The Mexicans call them wedding cakes, but they are actually a traditional Russian dessert." He smiled pleasantly and offered the plate to Ramirez. 
Ramirez took a cookie; Klopov another. 
"Before I rule anything out," said Ramirez, "I would like to know if anyone serving with the Russian Special Forces has been in Havana recently, if not officially, then perhaps on unofficial business. If so, it's always possible that his gun and ammunition were stolen." 
The diplomat popped the cookie in his mouth. "If it was official business, I can't tell you. And if it was unofficial business, no one would tell us." He smiled again. "You know what national security matters are like." 
Ramirez had the feeling that the only concrete information he would leave with was the Mexican name for the cookies. (96)

Confusion:
Apiro shuddered. Politics seemed to be a world of dangerously shifting alliances. Russians pretended to be Chechens; Special Forces pretended to be terrorists; men sworn to serve their countries committed murders and were hailed as heroes; countries that were engaged in post-Cold War conflict shared personnel. 
He had a feeling that the tattooed man who died on the Malecón had been caught in these cross-currents, that Russia and America were playing some kind of dangerous game. The idea flickered at the edge of his thoughts before he let it go. He was a man of science, not conjecture. (219-220)

12 November 2016

FEC Revolt

Mr. OC strides into the next IC meeting with his reddest face ever, bangs thunderously on the table for attention, and announces, " TAKEOVER! I have been dismissed from this position as head of the Inmates Committee (IC) and this meeting is hereby adjourned."


Dead silence.


Then a babbling chorus of:
"What?!"
"Say again!"
"WTF!!"
"What happened?"
"Who dismissed you?!"

"Ladies and gentlemen," Mr. OC employs a calming effect with his hands. "Upper Levels in the Chain of Command have made a decision to re-form this committee even though I was elected by the inmates residents. They are replacing me with their good friend Thomas the Brave. He nefariously convinced them that we are not progressive enough. Your services may no longer be required because Thomas will choose his own people."



Emotional control has all but exhausted the man who slumps into his chair.

There's no arguing with Upper Levels and everyone knows it. Thomas the Brave will become Thomas the Dread. Thomas has different ideas about how the IC will operate the social and entertainment events.
"He's a snake in the grass!" from Ms Etoile.
"This can't be!" from Luther.
Gonzo the Treasurer gathers his papers and stalks out after shouting, "Just let the bastards try to get their hands on our accounts!"

Apparently most of the committee members want to keep their volunteer jobs and keep Mr. OC, having become accustomed to his tantrums in a slightly affectionate way. Ophelia is close to fainting; she will have to hand over her key to the community kitchen. George keeps clearing his throat as if to speak. Bella has turned purple, gulping from her cocktail water bottle. Kitchen Assistant looks smug.

"Guys, guys ... we CAN fight this!" Ms Etoile. "Thomas will cancel all our faab-ulous plans. We can protest."
"What happened to elections and due process?!" Mr. OC sniffs, a defeated man.

"Man up, OC, it's not over yet! Who's with me?!" Ms E rises to strike a pose as she imagines Boadicea rallying the Celts against the Romans. Or – you know – at least Wonder Woman.

Voices rise in agreement just as Simon the manager slinks nervously into the meeting to confirm the bad news. "You no longer have planning authority; the new chairman wants new people."
"Good luck," mutters George.

Mr OC loses it. "This sucks, you management toady! You're in on this conspiracy. You've skimmed our petty cash and want all of it now! You and that walking skeleton Jiminy Crickets and Thomas the Predator!"
Bella wails in maudlin tears, "Our beautiful Thanksgiving plans ..."
Kitchen Assistant creeps quietly away.
"And there goes another guilty conspirator!"
Ophelia moans, "No more amazing hors d'oeuvres. No more gala concerts."

Heads turn as Gonzo crashes back into the room with an enormous sign. "It's not over," he says grimly.
"Darling Gonzo," says Ophelia, "your sign is in German."
"Ooops, it happens when I'm stressed. Rewind." He races away again.

Later.

Ms Etoile sits in the lobby with a sign. The sit-in has begun.


Another feckless day in the life ...  

20 October 2016

Library Limelights 118

Chris Carter. An Evil Mind. USA: Atria Books, 2014.
Another contender for the sadistic sweepstakes among crime authors. The book is the latest in a series (new to me) about Robert Hunter, an LAPD detective. This time, he is co-opted by the FBI to work with agent Courtney Taylor. They are to interview a captured serial killer in order to identify his many victims and locations of their bodies. Turns out the killer's real name is Lucien Folter, stunning Hunter who was his roommate at university; the two had been very close, both studying psychology. Folter has advance-planned every step of the interview. He bargains with the FBI to locate a still-living victim, meaning he will accompany the two agents on a field trip. You know bad things will happen.

This is not yer average psychopath here. Lucien's stated ambition for conducting a murderous twenty-year spree is that his meticulous diaries will provide the foundation for an invaluable reference work of pyschopathic behaviour. And he wants to force his old friend into impossible choices. Describing the suffering and torture inflicted on some victims can only be borne with a glazed speed-reading. I won't be looking for more Carter books. Guys, could we pleeease get off Silence of the Lambs and back to old-fashioned detective work?

Altruism?!
Hunter took a deep breath while trying to remember the details.
"The crazy possibility of someone becoming a killer for an altruistic purpose," he finally said. "Lucien argued how groundbreaking it would be for criminal-behavior psychology if a fully mentally capable individual went on a killing rampage, escalating his or her way through different levels of violence, and experimenting with different methods and fantasies, while at the same time taking comprehensive notes of everything, including feelings and psychological states of mind at the time and in the aftermath of each murder. Some sort of in-depth psychological study of the mind of a killer, written by the killer himself ... by choice.
"He believed that a notebook, or even a series of notebooks, filled with such true accounts would become an encylopedia of knowledge, a bible of sorts to criminal-behavior scientists." (191-2)

And he follows up from this ...
Lucien saw a muscle flex in Hunter's jaw, but still he continued.
"As I've said before," he continued, "under the right circumstances, anyone can become a killer. Even those who are supposed to protect and to serve." His dead stare could've frozen ice. "Remember, Robert, a murder is a murder. The reasons behind it have no relevance, whether it was justified revenge or a sadistic urge." He brought his face to less than an inch from the Plexiglas. "So one day, you still might become the same as me." (248-9)



Annie Proulx. Barkskins. USA: Thorndike Press (Gale large print), 2016.
Personally, I will grab anything Proulx writes, even if it's a telephone book. Epic and odyssey are pale words in the face of this oeuvre that roams across three centuries of "taming" and "civilizing" North America. Proulx's mastery of language and contemporary idiom was never more evident; her wit flares in the essence of each character. And that's six (or more) generations of various family members, some of whose legacies entail more respect or notoriety than others. The cast of characters descends from two men of the late 1600s ― Charles Duquet and René Sel ― bound to work for a New France seigneur. One family evolves as a lucrative logging and timber giant in Quebec, the Maritimes, New England, and farther west; the other, as Métis and indigenous, ultimately turns inward to the loss of its mobility and identity, its literal and figurative roots. As each family line explores alternatives, we get details of lumbering, fishing, sailing, and other trades and crafts. Their destinies ebb and flow with marriages, alliances, partnerships.

Destroying the magnificent forests for European markets, then to make room for burgeoning settlements, took place on an unprecedented scale. It pushed the fur trade farther and farther west and north; it affected the aboriginal livelihood in fishing and hunting; it fostered huge whitemen fortunes in resources and transportation development. Proulx has the gift for encapsulating the growth of the continent such that we can only gasp at the rapaciousness, at the same time feeling personal intimacy with a range of key (fictional but representative) players. The seeds of ecological awareness are planted fairly early upon deaf ears, thus the painfully slow-growing environmental consciousness. Two serviceable, but not entirely satisfactory, genealogy charts assist us with names and relationships. It would be no surprise if Barkskins begins to appear on award lists. Genius.

Words: ukases - edicts; from Russian
capric - goatlike
maenetic - this one eludes the usual dictionaries; either archaic or drill-down scientific term
champertous - sharing in proceeds of litigation by supporting one party
albedo - inner rind of citrus fruit; also used in meteorology & astronomy terminology

One-liners:
It was, they often told one another, like walking on a web of tightropes, but they swam in money as in a school of sardines. (179)
The Mi'kmaq had lost their spirit world to the missionaries' God. (570)
He was garrulous and obsequious, sprinkling yes sirs around as though casting handfuls of seed on new-raked soil. (431)
He fell onto the bed and she swarmed over him like ants on honeycomb. (474)

Two solitudes:
They stood opposed on the nature of the forest. To Mari it was a living entity, as vital as the waterways, filled with the gifts of medicine, food, shelter, tool material, which everyone discovered and remembered. One lived with it in harmony and gratitude. She believed the interminable chopping of every tree for the foolish purpose of "clearing the land" was bad. But that, thought René, was woman's talk. The forest was there, enormous and limitless. The task of men was to subdue its exuberance, to tame the land it grew on ― useless land until cleared and planted with wheat and potatoes. (74-5)

Foresters:
"We will stay here," said Duquet to Forgeron, "as the thieves have prepared a camp for us." He tried to speak calmly, but he was filled with a greater anger than he had ever experienced. After all the injustices he had suffered, after all he had done, crossing to the New World, escaping from Trépagny, learning the hard voyageur trade, working out a way to use the forest for his fortune, learning to read and write and cipher, traveling to China, all the business connections he had made, these Maine vermin had come to steal his timber. (182-3)

A priest writing to France:
Many of their tales tell of Women who marry Otters or Birds, or Men who change into Bears until it pleases them to become Men again. In the forests they speak to Toads and Beetles as acquaintances. Sometimes I feel it is they who are teaching me. ...
To them Trees are Persons. In vain I tell them that Trees are for the uses of Men to build Houses and Ships. In vain I tell them to give over so much hunting and make Gardens, grow Grains and Food Stuffs, to put order in their Days. They will have none of it. Therefore many French people call them lazy because they do not till the Earth. (202-3)

Cousins meet:
Bernard followed his nephew up on deck and saw Outger. He resembled Charles Duquet though he lacked his father's muscle mass and shrunken jaw. Limp yellow hair stuck out from under his tie wig, but the pale eyes had the piercing Duquet focus. He was thin and very white, obviously one who lived indoors. (302)

And agree to disagree:
Outger examined Bernard, displeased at what he saw ― a heavy, aging man, somewhat gimpy.
"Welkom, broeder," said Bernard. Outger pursed his lips.
"Please to remember, Bernard, that we are not brothers. My parents may have adopted you and the others, but we are, most emphatically, not blood brothers."
"I am in no danger of forgetting that. Yet we were ever closer to your father than you yourself."
He was surprised when Outger laughed. "Yes, yes. But that's hardly an enviable distinction. The man was a brute."
"He was also a very good businessman, to our mutual advantage ― yours as well as mine. A great pity for Duke and Sons when he vanished." (303)

James Duke catches up with family:
"But now he [Outger Duquet] is gone. His half-breed daughter lived in flagrant concubinage with an Indian in Outger's house on Penobscot Bay. They produced an army of Indian brats. They are quite unknown to us." (439)

Kuntaw dies:
The October air was sweet and every faint breath a pleasure. Wind stirred and he said, "Our wind reaching me here." A small cloud formed in the west. "Our small cloud coming to me." The hours passed and the small cloud formed a dark wall and approached. A drop fell, another, many, and Kuntaw said, "Our rain wetting my face." His people came near him, drawing him into their eyes, and he said, "Now ... what ..." The sun came out, the brilliant world sparkled, susurration, liquid flow, stems of striped grass what was it what was it the limber swish of a released branch. What, now what. Kuntaw opened his mouth, said nothing, and let the sunlight enter him. (765)

11 October 2016

Library Limelights 117

Michael Koryta. Those Who Wish Me Dead. USA: Little Brown and Company, 2014.
Everything anyone wants to know about mountain hiking and forest fires! Koryta's crackling prose leaves you as breathless as the real thing. Allison and Ethan live in the Montana Rockies where he teaches outdoor survival training to young teenagers: boot camp for bad boys. A federal marshal convinces Ethan to accept among his summer group a vulnerable witness to a murder. No-one except the boy Jace knows his real identity, having assumed the name Connor. He's being hunted by a pair of stone-cold villains who leave deadly consequences wherever they go. Connor has to adapt to his new persona as he learns the ways of nature.

But the killer Blackwell brothers are not far away as a forest fire begins to rage. The dialogue between the two men, and with their victims, reminds me of some oddly polite, stilted nineteenth-century language usage, such as in the TV series Deadwood ... increasing the fear they induce. Connor manages to team up with ex-firefighter Hannah to try to escape both the hunters and the inferno. Allison and Ethan don't fare as well at rescuing. The pace and characterization only falter a little when Ethan struggles with his own will to survive. Great straightforward suspense.

Word: wilder - (as in wilderness); someone led astray in an unfamiliar, frightening, and confusing place

One-liners:
Trouble might come for you when you showed fear, but trouble doubled-down when you lied about being afraid. (3)
Not a bad liar, Hannah, you are not bad at this at all, a damn fine dishonest woman when you need to be. (200)
It was the old test, his favourite training exercise, and his most familiar role: he was the wilder again. (278)

Connor, off the grid:
Montana was better than the safe houses, better than being surrounded by people who knew you were in danger. That just fed the fear. They'd thrown every distraction they could at him, from movies to music to video games, and none of them worked, because none of them could pull his mind away from those memories ...This was better. He hadn't believed it would be, because he'd be out here without anyone he knew, but he'd been wrong. Montana was better because it forced distraction. Video games and movies hadn't been able to claim his mind. Out here, the land demanded his mind leave the memories. He had to concentrate on the tasks of the moment. There were too many hard things to do for any other option.Connor Reynolds marched along the trail, and Jace Wilson rode secretly inside of him, and both of them were safe. (72-3)

Typical brother exchange:
" ... Young Jace is very smart. Very resourceful."
"And maybe very alone in the woods."
"Maybe."
"If they find him first, it's trouble."
"We find him first, it's easy."
"This is what we were promised from the beginning. So far, nothing has been easy."
"So it goes with some quests, brother. We must earn our reward today."
"How I treasure your bits of wisdom. Let me never say otherwise."
"I appreciate that." (170-1)

A friend in need:
"I need you to try," Allison whispered. She rested her face against the horse's neck, feeling his heat, remembering the way he had warned her of the arrival of the Blackwell brothers in the night. What if he hadn't, what if she'd not had a chance to at least grab the bear spray? He'd saved her once already, she realized, and she was asking more of him. She was afraid it would be more than he could give.
"I'm hurting too," she told the horse. And Lord, but it was true. (289)



S.J. Watson. Second Life. US: Harper/Collins, 2015.
Oh yes, this novel is just as stunning as her first one (where I didn'tgive it full due). Julia Wilding's grief over her sister Kate's unsolved murder leads her into a spiral of addiction she keeps hidden from her husband Hugh and son Connor. Only Kate's friend Anna seems able to understand, helping her seek Kate's killer online. It's Julia's narrative, compelling and frightening, as she self-medicates not with her former alcoholism but with the new cyber sex: Lukas becomes her clandestine lover but may not be whom he seems.

As suspicions and eventually threats torment her, Hugh thinks Julia is losing her grip on reality. Her self-justifications and self-delusions carry the reader on her slippery descent to desperation. She fears Lukas is playing a sinister game, she fears her marriage will disintegrate, she fears for Connor's life. Late revelations galvanize her to protect Connor and Anna at any cost. How can the suspense possibly end, we wonder, and can't stop reading. Watson has his fingers right on the pulse of human frailties as well as today's Internet dark side.

One-liner: Was that the moment my life slipped out of one track―recovery, stability, sobriety―and into another? (48)
All his pretense has gone, leaving in its place nothing but a heavy malevolence. (237)

Killing the pain:
Soon I will go home―back to my real life, back to Hugh and to Connor, back to Adrienne and Anna, back to life without my sister―but perhaps if I do this first it'll be different. The pain of her death will not have faded, but it will be blunted. I won't care quite so much that the person who took her life is still free. Instead I'll be thinking about this moment, when everything feels so alive and uncomplicated, when all my pain and sorrow have shrunk down, condensed and transformed to this one thing, this one need, this one desire. Me and him, him and me. If I sleep with him again there'll at least be one more brief moment when there's no past and no future and nothing else exists in the world except for us, and it will be a tiny moment of peace. (162-3)

Anticipation:
We talk some more, sip our drinks, but the evening is winding down. After another fifteen minutes of chat we hear a car pull up outside. A door slams, there's the pip-pip of the alarm, and a moment later footsteps up the path and the doorbell rings. I look over to Anna who says "He's early!" She looks electrified, like a little girl waiting for the postman to bring her birthday cards, and I feel a curious excitement too; I'm looking forward to meeting this person, this man who has given Anna such transparent, uncomplicated happiness. Who has helped her grieve for Kate and move on. (270)


Lillian Beckwith. A Proper Woman. UK: Dales Large Print Books, 1986.
A quick read at 268 pages, no mystery, no detectives, no manhunt. More like a time warp. Anna Matheson lives in a remote crofting community on a Scottish island, working the fields and animals with her brother Mata. Once as a child she briefly meets the itinerant Jimmy Pearl, who wanders freely, collecting and selling river mussel pearls. The early deaths of her parents oblige her to care for her young brother and lose her dream of becoming a school teacher. Anna's noticeable lack of suitors as she reaches her twenties is explained midway through the story. Everything changes when Mata brings home his city bride Jeannie who despises the circumscribed village life. Anna's ultimate choice is either a dreadful marriage or be homeless. Her husband Black Fergus McFee is a brute of a man. Anna's trials seem endless but fate intervenes, credible or not ― it's a story! ― yet highly evocative of Hebrides life in the 1930s in its ordained simplicity and connection to the land.

One-liners:
Her mind's eye formed a vivid picture of the nightly ritual: her father sitting at the kitchen table with the Gaelic Bible open in front of him, his head haloed by the lamplight as he read aloud the chosen chapters. (18)
"Are you telling me you do not like to see the sky ablaze with shimmering stars and the moon lit by silver as it rises above the black hills?" (44)

Jeannie disappoints:
"A bairn would settle her," they said. "What's Mata about that he has not given her a bairn yet? Is he not 'all correct,' as they say of the bulls here?"
Anna grinned weakly. "Right enough, a bairn would settle her," she agreed.
But as time went by it seemed to Anna that Jeannie, instead of showing a willingness to settle, grew more restless and peevish. With strained generosity she continued to attribute her sister-in-law's moods to the fact that she had now been married to Mata for more than two years and as yet she was showing no sign of pregnancy. A woman in such a situation must be troubled, thought Anna, whose view was that children were the desired fulfillment of marriage and could never come too soon. (63-4)

A proposal of sorts:
"Seeing my mother's gone, I'm thinking I could do with a woman about the house," he said. "Maybe you'll do me."
Anna's indignation flared. "And I am thinking there will be no shortage of women of your own kind to choose from," she flashed back at him.
"You'd do well to think about it," he advised, letting her outburst glance off him. Turning, he strode on.
"Never!" she cried, and heard in reply his jeering laughter borne to her on the night air. (97)


04 October 2016

Lost & Found: Flat Penny


See this? We don't have them in Canada any more. Too inconsequential; troublemakers.


Remember that? What we did as kids. That's pretty much what mine looked like. If I could find it. If I ever saved one of them.

That was good for at least a half day's adventure. Hiking to the railway track on a hot summer day and carefully placing the penny on a rail. Carefully, meaning you had to mark the spot somehow, remember the point.

Hide in the bushes until the train had gone by. Of course the penny was no longer on the rail and had often spun off on a mysterious trajectory. Great competition ensued to be first to find it.

Lost, but not exactly found. This house lacks a decent flat penny.

27 September 2016

Library Limelights 116

Stefan Ahnhem. Victim Without a Face. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2015.
Back to the blood and gore in Sweden, a first novel from an experienced screenwriter. Cop Fabian Risk has just moved back to his hometown of Helsingborg from Stockholm when his new colleagues face a meticulously clever psychopath who is, literally, engineering the deaths of all his childhood classmates. Worse, Fabian could become one of the victims, yet none of the police can penetrate the killer's disguise. We come to know individuals on the investigating team well, plus a few Danish counterparts across the Øresund ... and their many strained relationships, marital and workwise.

While the killer's technological stunts verge on the improbable, they don't overshadow the message of school bullying; Ahnhem uses the device of an anonymous diary to reinforce it. So many threads as the climax builds with unbearable suspense from scene to scene, it kept me up way too late at night. Decidedly, Ahnhem knows how to deliver heartstopping action and memorable characters. Will we see more of Fabian Risk? ... please!

One-liners:
The princess cake he had just eaten was sitting in his stomach like a ton of bricks, keeping all his feelings from coming out. (187)
She had made a few attempts to poke a hole in the silence, which was taking up all the air in the car like an expanding balloon. (535)

Impatient to interview a patient:
"Dunja Hougaard?" asked the attending physician. He looked at her without batting an eye.She nodded.
"When I say stop, it's over. Do not keep going. Okay?"
Dunja already disliked him, and she continued along the corridor without answering."I hope you acknowledge the massive exception I am making for you. The responsibility for this patient's life rests with me and no-one else," the doctor went on, taking a left into another corridor. "And I intend to fulfill that responsibility." He stopped at a door guarded by two uniformed officers, and fixed his eyes on Dunja. "I hope you understand the gravity of this situation and that I can count on you to spare my patient any unnecessary digressions during your questioning."
"I suggest you open the door before he gets Alzheimer's." (182)

Father-son heart to heart:
"Do you miss your friends from Stockholm? I understand if that's what you ―"
"What friends?"
"I don't know. The ones you used to play with?"
Theodor rolled his eyes.
"Or hang out with, or whatever you call it," Fabian went on, feeling like a blind man on a tightrope. "But you'll make new friends here. Well, maybe not right here. You'll have to leave this room and go out and ―"
"Are you done?"
Fabian nodded, realizing that he probably would have reacted just as Theodor did to a dad like him. He left the room and couldn't help feeling a certain amount of relief. (189)

Pain in the neck:

He smelled smoke and felt something get hotter and hotter. He turned around quickly, but he couldn't see anything that might explain the smell. Could he really be dreaming after all? Was he at home, asleep in his bed? The crackling sound was now right behind his ear, which suddenly stung with a terrible, sharp pain. Only then did he realize he was on fire. (272-3)


John Sandford. Deadline. New York: Berkley/Penguin Random House, 2014.
Another action-filled, often amusing crime novel with the irresistible Virgil Flowers. The fickle man has changed girlfriends from last I heard, which is neither here nor there. Doing a favour for his friend Johnson Johnson involves chasing a dog-theft ring in a hillbilly section of Minnesota. But Virgil then uncovers a meth lab and a well-established conspiracy of town worthies who are massively defrauding the county. When the murders begin, he calls in his allies Shrake and Jenkins to protect him while he systematically deconstructs the district school board one by one. One imagines his BCA (Bureau of Criminal Apprehension) boss, Lucas Davenport, shaking his head and rolling his eyes. The final scene of dog liberation is hilarious; the wording functions as well as an IMAX camera view. Sandford plays it all like the master he is.

One-liners:
"He said you looked like a hippie who's lost his faith, or a cowboy who's lost his horse." (133)
"Lucky for you that you talked me out of being an alcoholic, or we'd both be drunk in a ditch somewhere." (404)

Meeting the locals:
"What about these dogs? You find them yet?"
"Not yet," Johnson said. He was uncharacteristically grim. "Come on inside. I got a whole bunch of ol' boys and girls for you to talk to."
"We're having a meeting?"
"We're having a lynch mob," Johnson said. (11)

Virgil understands:
The current attorney general had already hinted that he was going to run for the governor's office, and between now and then, would not be averse to favorable publicity that portrayed him as a protector of the people, a defender of freedom, but also a sincere, heartfelt, and honest spokesman for the larger and richer special interests.
As it happened, the Buchanan County school district presented a perfect chance to protect the public: it largely voted Republican, so, since the AG was a Democrat, a vigorous prosecution wouldn't piss off anybody critical, and would generally show up the Republicans as the pack of thieving, money-gouging, scheming hyenas that all true-blue Americans knew them to be.
That was the general idea; the actual words would be repackaged into something much softer and much, much more hypocritical. (332-3)

Cool as they come:
Virgil walked around to the driver's side, tagged by the yellow dog. Virgil looked at the dog, and the dog looked at Virgil. The dog had golden eyes, and it looked past Virgil into the empty passenger side of the truck.
Virgil said, "All right," and waved his hand, and the dog hopped up onto the driver's seat, then crossed to the passenger seat and sat down. Virgil said to the dog, "With my lifestyle, I can't have a dog."
The dog nodded, and looked out through the windshield, ready to roll.
D. Wayne said from the backseat, "When I get you―"
"Shut the fuck up." And to the dog, "Really. I can't. I'll give you a lift back to Trippton."
The dog nodded again and smiled a dog smile.
Virgil said, "Really." (396)


Karin Fossum. Calling Out For You! London: The Harvill Press, 2005.
Here's the dependable author of the Inspector Konrad Sejer series, meticulously laying background before a crime occurs. Gundar, having lived all his fifty years in a Norwegian village, goes to India to find a bride. Happily, he finds and marries Poona. Sadly, Poona is viciously murdered near the village upon her arrival. It's up to Sejer and his sidekick Skarre to determine among the villagers who is withholding information, who might be lying, as they anxiously gossip among themselves. Sejer is expert at processing body language and words of witnesses, but even with a great capacity for compassion his own feelings are impossible to articulate.

Really, the story is all about reactions to the crime and how they can change the people interacting around it. In the end is the murder truly solved? The only conclusion reached is peace for Gundar and the post-op recovery of Sejer's beloved dog. The rest is a rather restless cliffhanger: Gundar's sister Marie is still in a coma, the accused murderer is going to trial without direct evidence, and a disturbed teenager is hunting Skarre. We make our own conclusions? A bit disappointing in that regard. "Calling out for you!" ...? The title's relevance escaped me.

One-liner: The mother was like a broom the way she swept potential obstacles away from her son's path so that he would slide effortlessly straight into the goal. (184)

Inside Sejer:
Sejer walked on. He never wasted much time thinking about his own affairs. However, deep inside this formal character was a huge appetite for people. Who they were, why they behaved as they did. Whenever he caught a guilty person and obtained a genuine confession he could close the case and file it. This time he was not so sure. Not only had the woman been killed, she had been beaten to a pulp. To kill was in itself extreme. To destroy a body afterwards was bestial. (73)

Press conference:
"Are we to understand, then, that you consider this a particularly brutal crime? In the context of Norwegian crime in general?"
Sejer looked over the crowded room. "I do not think it would be constructive to compare unrelated cases, in terms simply of brutality. Not least for the sake of the deceased. Nevertheless, I am willing to say that, yes, there is in this killing evidence of a degree of savagery which I have not had to witness at any time hitherto in my career as a policeman."
He could already see the headlines. Simultaneously, he thought of all the things he could have achieved during the hour the press conference lasted. (94)

Doubts:
"You're saying he's a psychopath."
"That's your term, not mine, and by the way that's a concept I have never quite got to grips with."
"So you're going to go on wearing him down until you get a confession?"
"I'm trying to the best of my abilities to get him to a place where he understands that he has to make a confession. In order to move on."
"What if you don't get it? Do we have enough to go to court with as it stands?"
"Probably not. And that worries me."
"How is it possible to smash someone up the way the killer did without leaving traces of himself?"
"It happens all the time." (229)