15 September 2016

Library Limelights 115

Ahdaf Soueif. The Map of Love. UK: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1999.
Someone ‒ who? ‒ recommended this novel and what a quiet tour de force it is in the "family saga" genre! Anna Winterbourne's story takes place in pre-First World War Egypt; that of Amal Hanim and and her cousin Isabel Parkman is 100 years later, just before the recent millennium. Their lives intersect as the cousins are mesmerized by Anna's journals and letters, long buried in an old trunk. Anna marries into a notable (fictional) Cairo family to the dismay of her English peers who occupy and oversee the beleaguered country as Ottoman influence fades. The love of her life is the brother of her friend Layla, Sharif Basha al-Barudi who mingles with every real historical figure of the era and behind-the-scenes politics. His personality is not lost on the generations that follow. Meanwhile in "real" time, Isabel has fallen in love with Amal's brother, the acclaimed symphony conductor, Omar Ghamrawi.

The dual love stories unfold in intriguing segments, beautifully integrated from different perspectives — the novel's construction and development is a marvel. This is Egypt as we would rarely see or hear of it, a struggling nation brimming with vitality and affection and amazing detail of ordinary life. A plain pedigree chart and a glossary assist the reader with relationships and terminology. The Map of Love was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (1999); the author is a well-known journalist and political commentator living in London and Cairo.

One-liners:
[Anna] And imperceptibly, a conviction must have grown in my mind that if a creature of such little significance as myself can be said to have a destiny, that destiny bore, somehow, a connection to Egypt. (101)
[Amal] Across a century and across two continents, this trunk has found me. (104)
[Sharif] British brains and Arab hands is Cromer's recipe for Egypt. (262)

Amal:
I had not even known that Isabel existed. And now here she is, in Cairo. And in love ― although she has not said so ― with my brother. When we sit and talk on my balcony we are ― if I let myself be fanciful ― soothing the wounds of our ancestors. But I still want the story. I empty the trunk , carefully, slowly, item by item, and there, among the tissue paper, the fabrics, the glass, is a small blue book. (104)

Isabel goes to the home village with Amal:
She throws back the linen sheet and sits up in Layla al-Ghamrawi's big brass four-poster. Through the fine gauze of the mosquito netting she can see, on the wall, facing her, the portrait of Sharif Basha al-Baroudi. Now she can make it out only dimly, but she has studied it well. From the heavy gilt frame he looks down at her, the fez set squarely above the high forehead, the eyebrows broad and black, almost meeting above the straight nose. The thick moustache covers the upper lip; the lower lip is firm in a strong, square chin. And all the arrogance of the face is perfectly focused in the eyes: proud, aloof and yet, if you look carefully, sad also. ... And it is in that face, more than in the face of his father out in the hall, that Isabel sees Omar el-Ghamrawi. (178)

Sharif:
"Problems? What problems? Every problem has a solution." 
Zeinab Hanim sits back, her eyes still wide and fixed on her son. 
"She — you know her. I am thinking of Lady Anna." 
"Lady Anna? The Englishwoman?" 
He nods, watching her. 
She lowers her eyes and lets out a long breath. When she lifts them to his they are full of concern. "You don't have enough problems already?" 
"I told you." 
"She is English." 
"I know." 
"And she is the one you want?" 
"It would seem so." He smiles. (279)

Layla:

Could we have lived our lives ignoring politics? The Occupation determined the crops that the fallah planted, it stood in the face of every industrial project, it prevented us from establishing our own financial institutions, it hampered our wishes for education,it censored what could be published, it deprived us of a voice in the Ottoman parliament, it dictated what jobs our men could hold and it held back the emancipation of our women. It put each one of us in the position of a minor and forbade us to grow up. And with every year that passed we saw our place in the train of modern nations receding, the distance we would have to make up growing ever longer and more difficult. It sowed distrust amid our people and pushed the best among them either to fanatical actions or to despair. (472)

John Sandford. The Devil's Code. NY: GP Putnam's Sons, 2000.
Prolific Sandford ... another great character from his pen: Kidd (known only by his surname) is an artist, a burglar, and a computer hacker. Yes, quite a skill set. When his colleague Jack is killed in a suspicious scenario, his sister Lane asks Kidd to investigate. Kidd's sometime partner-in-crime, crackerjack thief LuEllen, decides to hang with them. Immediately they are plunged into a whirlwind of internet and corporate conspiracies. Their reliable clandestine fellow hacker Bobby is almost arrested in the blame for a global DoS attack on government systems and Kidd too is being hunted even as he closes in on the killers. It's all believable. Depend on Sandford to provide non-stop excitement and smart dialogue.

Word: azimuth - a horizontal angle of incredibly precise measurement that I don't need to know about.

One-liners:
LuEllen was unimpressed by pain; her own or anyone else's. (69)
Paranoia is good for you, if you're a crook; but it doesn't make life any easier. (86)
CNN had a story, but like a lot of CNN stuff, most of it seems to have been garbled by a mentally challenged paranoiac. (111)

LuEllen's recent resumé:
"I've been working pretty hard. I did a hundred and seventy thousand in Miami a couple of months ago, scared myself brainless."  
"Come close?"
"Not to getting caught, but the people ... bunch of peckerwood meth manufacturers. If they'd figured me out, they would've cut me up with a chainsaw, and I shit you not." (69)

Killing Time:
An hour out of Washington, with nothing to do, I got out the tarot deck and did a couple of spreads. LuEllen watched with mixed skepticism and nervousness, and finally said, "Well?" 
"Just bullshit," I said. "Confusion." 
"Let me cut the deck." I gave the deck a light shuffle, and let her cut it. She cut out the devil card. The devil represents a force of evil, but not usually from the outside, not a standard bad guy. The devil is usually inside. He sits on top of you, controlling you, without your even being aware of it. 
"That's bad," she said. "I can tell by your face." (102)

Modern times:
Once upon a time, agency operatives could tap any phone call or radio transmission in the world; they could put Mao Tse-tung's private words on the president's desk an hour after the Maximum Leader spoke them in to his office phone; they could provide real-time intercepts to the special ops people in the military. 
No more. The world was rife with unbreakable codes—any good university math department could whip one up in a matter of days. Just as bad, the most critical diplomatic and military traffic had come out of the air and gone underground, into fiber-optic cable. Even if a special forces team managed to get at a cable, messages were routinely encoded with ultrastrong encryption routines. 
The NSA was going deaf. And the word was, they didn't know what to do about it. They'd become a bin full of aging bureaucrats worried about their jobs, and sinning further and further out of the Washington intelligence center. (104)

Zoë Ferraris. City of Veils. NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2010.
My reading often veers to an Arab-centric world because I find its many cultures fascinating, because we should know more about Islam and its diverse manifestations, and because the literature is not that abundant here: grab it when you can. Ferraris makes an even more complex mystery than her previous Night of the Miraj (Finding Nouf in some editions) and proves her authentic knowledge of religious and social life in Saudi Arabia. The most difficult ― and for us, the least comprehensible ― are the fundamentalist restrictions on men and women from developing healthy relationships. Nayir, the desert guide, and Katya, the medical forensic assistant, are still trying to sort out their feelings for each other, Nayir being a pious Muslim and Katya rather more liberal in attitude. Awkward and stilted describes most of their interactions.

The two are involved again in a Jeddah police case being investigated by inspector Osama. To her gratification, Osama begins to rely on Katya's help with witness interviews. In this way, the author scrutinizes daily practices and problems in several households; sometimes seen through the eyes of Miriam, a western woman, whose husband has suspiciously disappeared after the murder of a young Saudi woman. Stolen Quranic documents generate some scholarly discussion. The scariest sandstorm ever! Entertaining, educational and highly recommended.

Word: hierophantic - interpreting religious rites and mysteries

One-liners:
"There's an old Islamic saying," he went on, "that heaven is crowded with beggars, and hell is overflowing with women." (13)
She had come to Saudi expecting―half hoping, half fearing―that the intensity of this country would finally turn him off, but in fact his affection for it had only grown stronger. (15)
Yes, Katya can have her "friend" over for dinner, but she won't be allowed to see him. (127)

Airport Customs and Immigration:
Getting into line for what promised to be an interminable wait, Miriam adjusted her attire―a floor-length cloak, a headscarf to cover her hair, and a burqa,[*] a rectangular piece of black fabric to cover her face. The burqa fastened at the back of her head with a simple piece of Velcro, but somehow hers never stayed on. ... Some women wore their gear with innate ease. They swanned through the streets, happily at rhythm with the swing of their fabric, swishing along. ... 

And then there are the women like me, Miriam thought, the ones who seemed to get stuck in their cloaks like like plastic dolls in Saran Wrap on a hot summer day. Always fussing and adjusting, yanking, tripping, catching their headscarves before they could slide to the ground. (17)
 
* [In Saudi Arabia, unlike most Moslem countries, the burqa is the headpiece, not the entire body cloak.]

Miriam's impertinent questions:
"So I thought there wasn't really any dating in this country," she said. 
He looked at her then. "It's improper, yes. But some people do it." 
"Just not you." 
"It's improper." He was beginning to feel foolish. How could he explain? 
"So when can you see her?" she asked. 
"We work together, sometimes." 
"But you said you weren't with the police." 
"She asks for my help sometimes." (251)

Away from it all:
The mountains seemed to cut out half the sky. Because of these mountains, Saudi was mostly desert. They kept the monsoon rains from reaching the rest of the country. They always felt like a gateway one had to pass to reach the true goal: the wide, barren, unforgiving Empty Quarter. 
... At a roadside market he stocked up on food and water. The vendor had a camel-driven sesame oil press, and Nayir went to greet the beast, but it made an ugly gurgling noise in the back of its throat, and he backed away. After performing his ablutions in the parking lot with a bottle of water and kneeling by the side of his car to pray, he ate a quick meal of canned fava beans and set off. 
Only when he began to see the camel-crossing signs did his heart open in his chest, his worries left, and his body seemed to start breathing again. (314-5)

05 September 2016

Library Limelights 114

Emma Beddington. We'll Always Have Paris. UK: Macmillan, 2016.
Emma, Emma, Emma! My favourite-ever blogger! Her first book, my eagerly awaited long-distance package arriving via Scotland and Holland. I'm one of her countless fans who feel as if we know her, but new personal details are disclosed here. The crazy self-disparaging humour of her blog (BelgianWaffling) carries over perfectly to an autobiographical account of her long obsession with trying and failing to be French. For reasons related to her blog, I expected the book to be about cake. French pastry, that is. Well, that's in it too. Blogging became her outlet for expressing what she cannot speak ― and this is a woman who writes for The Guardian!

But the real story follows her struggles to adapt and adjust her goal as husband and children enter her life. Is her wish to be French really a painful search for independence? ... Trite fare? Not from English-born Emma who admits along the way that she has "a bottomless well of Britishness, stewing like tea in a WI urn." Her yearning is sprinkled with bits of French literature classics, even as she notes numerous unpleasant realities of living in the City of Light. Turns out that concierges and landlords and shopkeepers and people on the street terrify her. In the most hilarious way. Olivier, the love of her life, is a caring, all-forgiving man, steadfast through her yo-yo phases of self-discovery. Eventually choosing a home in Brussels is a compromise, not a failure.

Words: veronal - the brand name for an old barbiturate
oxytocin - a hormone related to human reproduction and bonding
rumspringa - a rite of passage in Amish/Mennonite communities when youngsters have freedom to explore something of the world and relationships with each other, finally being expected to choose staying with the church or not.

One-liners:
If only I had given birth to puppies instead of children, perhaps everything would have been different, I think, a little sourly. (311)
On some level, I suppose I think that Belgium will be like France with training wheels, and Brussels like Paris for the psychically feeble, but it becomes very obvious to me very soon after we move in that I am wrong. (231)

The Parisian apartment:
In our block the promiscuity of collective living is less a conduit for immorality than a resented source of constant conflict. Everyone wants peace and no-one can have it, so we peck at each other mechanically like battery chickens. As the new chickens on the block, we draw a considerable amount of the available ire.
First, we mark ourselves out as undesirables by having children. Next, unforgivably, we get the lift wrong. I know this because a smartly dressed middle-aged couple knock on our door, brimming with outrage, to tell us so. Apparently, by failing to close the creaky concertina door correctly, we have blocked the lift on our floor. Finding the lift incriminatingly stuck here, this couple have identified us as the culprits.
"IT IS NOT ACCEPTABLE," says the man, putting his face, which has become puce, close to mine. He is wearing a dark red paisley scarf tucked into a fine dark tweed jacket and he smells of deliciously expensive aftershave. Probably Guerlaine, I think, and start wondering what it is, but my reverie is interrupted by his wife, who looms over his shoulder in patent heels, a short, tight Catherine Deneuve-style skirt and a cloud of disapproval to add "SO inconsiderate!" (82-3)

Everyone's a critic:
Outside our handsome building full of people who hate us is all of Paris, gorgeous dreamy Paris, the city of all my childhood dreams. Unfortunately everyone there seems to hate us too.
Perhaps hate is too strong; it's more that they find us tremendously irritating. My mere existence seems to be an affront to much of Paris, which is a serious blow to my belief that I am a French person trapped in an Englishwoman's body, just waiting for the opportunity to emerge, ice cool, uncompromising and unapologetic. 
Day after day, walking to the shops and the market, I am subjected to a surprising – to me at least, used to the blanket indifference of London – barrage of criticism. I thought the social contract of capital cities (you leave me alone, I leave you alone) was the same everywhere in Europe, but it appears I was wrong. Strangers, passers-by, stop to tell me I am walking too slowly or in the wrong place, that my toddler needs to stop shouting or that his sticky fingers have no place on that shop window. The baby attracts a particular brand of ire, which is mainly directed at how he is dressed. Why, women ask me, incensed, is he not wearing a hat (it is May and 20◦C)? Where are his socks (he has probably taken them off and dropped them)? Why have I not brought a blanket (see above, May, 20◦C)? (101-2)


Deidre S. Laiken. Death Among Strangers. USA: Landmark/Macmillan (large print), 1987.
George is a divorced cop in small-town upstate New York, obsessively devoted to his job and ambivalent about his new relationship with Elizabeth. The vicious murder of a young girl absorbs him while Elizabeth secretly dallies with Gary, a magnetic, itinerant photographer. She comes to realize there are depths to her own nature that scare her, although all the characters appear to stumble with their own feelings, let alone the ability to express them. Seeing (as opposed to looking at) another person as they really are is a recurrent element, along with the complexities of parent-child trust. The vague and dubious abnormal psychology left me impassive.

One-liners:
"A photographer is like a thief―only people don't miss the things he steals." (227)
She hoped that after a while he would become part of her past, melting silently into her gallery of old lovers. (252)

Elizabeth reflects:
He had been here, at the door. That meant he remembered where she lived. Perhaps she would see him again. But of course that was no longer important. She went into the bathroom to splash cold water on her face and touch up her lipstick. A futile gesture, but she was too nervous to do anything else.
Looking into the bathroom mirror, she almost expected to see another face staring at her. This has got to stop, she thought. Perhaps all this talk about death and danger, and the very real possibility that a murderer was in the vicinity, was creating her discomfort. Who wouldn't be frightened? (79)

Can numb be hungry?
There were times when Gary felt the intensity of his obsession with photography. At other times he felt only the numbness and the hunger to stretch the limits of his vision. Danger fueled his art. Walking the thin line between the possible and the unthinkable excited him. Gary believed risks were necessary. There was nothing safe about the worlds he wanted to explore, nothing ordinary in the forbidden portraits he longed to create. (112)

Another kind of danger:
He was more aware now than ever that he did not have the protection of his uniform. This place, these people were out of his jurisdiction. He was putting his career on the line for a girl he didn't know.
By the time George reached the third floor, he felt the familiar fear. He had experienced it first as a young cop walking a beat. It had returned that rainy night when he had approached what he thought was a disabled car by the side of the highway; it was the same fear that had surfaced as he dragged the body of the murdered girl from behind the gravedigger's shed.
Then he felt the rush―an equal mixture of terror and excitement. (213)

William Trevor. Felicia's Journey. Toronto: Vintage Books/Random House, 1994.
This is a small literary gem of a "thriller," a prize-winning novel for the author. His descriptions of working-class Irish and English life are evocative and resonating. Teenaged, pregnant Felicia leaves Ireland to find, in England, the boy Johnny who abandoned her. With only the slightest of information at hand, she searches factory towns to find him, meeting colourful characters on her mission. One of them, Miss Calligary, is a door-to-door evangelist who wants to assist. Another who befriends her is Mr. Hilditch, who keeps his secret fantasy life to himself.

It's not an uncommon tale ― the plight of an innocent "abroad" ― but the milieu through which Felicia moves and which Hilditch inhabits is populated with finely-drawn human beings, people on the lower end of the social scale. Anxiety over her failing quest, hampered by the overly solicitous Hilditch, brings memories of home increasingly to her mind. A little depressing, ultimately. Atom Egoyan made an equally praised movie (1998) based on the book with minor story alterations.

One-liner: Listening, not saying much herself, Felicia feels that all of it is more like a dream than reality: she has never in her life met people like this before, nor even known that such people exist. (88)

At home:
Her father would be on the way back from Heverin's with the Irish Press, her brothers' heavy morning footsteps just beginning. In the bedroom she left behind, the jigsaw pieces would be scattered on the bedclothes and on the floor, the few the old woman managed to interlock fallen apart, the jigsaw tray slipped down between the bed and the wall. In a moment there would be the bedpan, her father having to heave the old woman on his own. (32)

On the streets:
As they walk, Lena talks a lot. Stale as old cabbage, a prison social worker is; another one's called Miss Rubbish. She was lucky, this time, with her cell-mate. "Wants me to go in with her when she gets out, Phyllsie does. Some type of dodge she has with the benefit. I wouldn't go in with no one, Felicia, I give it to her honest. Now I've found the boy I ain't looking for nothing else. Me and George stick together, Felicia, know what I mean? I wouldn't want nothing dodgy there, not with young George. Don't know the meaning of it, the boy don't." (105)

Rescued:
"You said you couldn't face them, dear. You said it to me several times in the car. I'm nervous for you, dear."
"I have to go."
"You weren't at all well in the car. I thought I'd have to send for assistance the way you were in the hall. You can't set out on a journey in that condition, dear."
"I shouldn't have done it."
"What's done's done, dear. No one ever got rich on regrets. What about the bright side, eh? For as long as you want it, Felicia, there's a welcome at Number Three. You have your own little room now. The sensible thing would be if we took it day by day." (148)


27 August 2016

Library Limelights 113

~~ Some of the following are abbreviated due to travelling or poor choices in grab-and-run ~~

S.J. Watson. Before I Go to Sleep. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2011.
Imagine waking up every morning in a strange bed with a stranger beside you in unfamiliar surroundings. Christine, a middle-aged woman, has lost her memory of the past twenty years in a rare type of amnesia case. Each day her life begins again as a blank slate. Husband Ben is lovingly diligent in taking care of her. Psychologist Dr. Nash suggests writing her daily experiences in a journal as a way to inform herself and possibly trigger some missing pieces. The tension becomes unbearable as she has odd flashbacks, realizing someone must be lying to her about the accident that caused the amnesia.


And I've totally lost my notes about (what I think are) appropriate little quotes. This entire four-book post is about reading in the midst of travelling, my only excuse. Sorry: because as a random choice this book was a pleasant surprise in the writing and construct. It was Watson's first novel an author to watch!

Claire Douglas. The Sisters. UK: HarperCollins, 2015.
A random choice again. First impression was that the two leading ladies were acting more like teenagers than 30-somethings, but the mystery and psychological suspense are nevertheless there. Abigail (Abi), suffering guilt and grief, lost her identical twin Lucy in a car accident. She meets Beatrice (Bea) who quickly becomes a good friend; Bea is also a twin. The story is told from Abi's first-person perspective, but we also get third-person glimpses of Bea's inner thoughts. As Abi falls for Bea's handsome twin brother and the plot matures, the reader cannot tell which woman suffers from paranoia or delusion; the sense of some underlying evil is well played out. Ambivalent feelings rage back and forth with each odd, inexplicable events occurring in the house they share.

One-liner: It never crossed my mind that I would reach thirty and Lucy would not. (200)

Family comfort:
She hesitates and I can tell that there is a lot more she wants to say, but my mother has always been a great believer in thinking before speaking. Instead she says how wonderful it is that I've found a friend, that I'm beginning to settle in Bath. Then she reminds me, as she always does, that I need to keep seeing Janice, that I mustn't forget to take my antidepressants, that I have to do all I can to make sure I don't end up in that place again she lowers her voice when she says this last bit, in case the neighbours can hear through the walls that her daughter has been in a mental institution. (30)

Stigmatized?
The room swims and, with a sickening thud of clarity, I'm aware that I can't trust my oldest friend. That I'm forever going to be tied with the mental illness tag, that I'm never going to be believed because Abi's a sandwich short of a picnic, she's been in a mental facility, didn't you know? How can you believe anything she says? She's paranoid, delusional. It's as if I'm in a nightmare, where I'm trying to explain myself, trying to tell everyone that I'm perfectly sane, that it was a stupid mistake, a one-off, I'm not dangerous, I'm not a nutter, but no sound comes out of my mouth. (225)

Nancy Bush. The Killing Game. USA: Zebra/Kensington Publishing Corp., 2016.
A young widow, a family business, a psycho killer with a complicated plan ... looked interesting, coming from a prolific writer I'm unfamiliar with (later learning she is Lisa Jackson's sister). Andrea (Andi) Wren is at odds with her late husband's family and business partners. Threatened with notes that play on birds' names (oh, please), she hires handsome ex-cop Luke as her bodyguard. They can't tell if the warnings are personal or business-related, but women are dying.

Andrea's (and every other female character's) dependence on a man to the rescue quickly became tiresome. How dare they ... a bodice-ripper in disguise as "suspense" and "page turner" ... fluttering stomachs and heavy breathing. I must learn to discern and differentiate among the cover blurbs despite the accolades from well-known crime writers! Firmly put on hold until my travels were finished, then a weary push to the (reading) finish line. Bad me, only skimming bits here and there, wanting it to be over.

Prelude:
He hung up and let his mind wander back to Andi Wren, a wandering that was becoming more and more frequent. The last thing he wanted was a romantic entanglement. He'd been trying to extricate himself from Iris for months and had determined he was bad at breakups. And every new relationship had a breakup waiting for it; Taylor Swift sure had that one right. (249)

Predictable:
She took a step backward, needing space, when his arm reached for her and he dragged her back to him. Her breasts were a hairbreadth from his chest. She had to angle her face to meet his hungry gaze.
His hands ran up her arms to her shoulders, his grip tight. She could feel he was struggling, but then, with a sigh, his lips captured hers again. Her hands were limp at her sides as his mouth ravaged hers. She sighed in complete abandonment, her knees trembling. She wanted to make love to him until they were both exhausted. (280)

James Oswald. The Hangman's Song. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2014.
Since I've given up trying to find Craig Russell's Glasgow books in Canada, happiness was discovering that Oswald ("the next Ian Rankin") has this Edinburgh character, Inspector Anthony McLean. Happiness quickly segued into disappointment: this is no Rankin, no Rebus, and it was unfair to compare, raising my expectations! McLean and his detective cohorts lack empathy in moi, although the author presents promising political police infighting. There are far too many unclear references to previous events (presumably prior books in the series), rather a "bugger's muddle" as one character said in another context. Woe, when the story behind multiple suicide hangings degenerates into something implausible like Ghostbusters. Too bad.

One-liner: The acting superintendent pushed his chair back from the desk and stood up, obviously finding it hard to make a decision whilst sat on his arse. (427)

No peer love for McLean:
Brooks scowled, which just made the rolls of flesh on his face wobble. "Why are you still here, McLean?"
The question took him by surprise. McLean looked around the canteen, then hefted his booty. "A man's got to eat. You of all people should know that. Sir."
The scowl deepened, folds of skin rippling across Brooks' damp, ruddy forehead. "Don't get cocky with me. You know damn well what I mean."
"I do? Come on then. Say it out loud. Everyone's been dropping enough hints to start a war. About time someone said it to my face."
"You don't need to do this job, man. Way I heard it you inherited big time when your grandmother died. So why are you still here? Why don't you fuck off to the country or something? Let us get on with our jobs." (249)

Strange force at work:
On the outside she is carefree, confident, happy even. But the spirit can see through to her core. The spirit knows the secrets of her heart. The failure, the fear, the darkness that has dogged her all her days. The spirit sees her true nature, and through it I know her too.The world is so much brighter when the spirit enters me. People glow with an inner fire, and everything is pin sharp. I know no doubt when he is with me; anything is possible. I work my way through the crowd, chatting occasionally, charming people, laughing. It's so easy. (348)

22 August 2016

FEC: Meet and Greet

On today's agenda, after Mr. Obsessive-Compulsive (OC) calls the inmates committee (IC) to order: the upcoming Meet and Greet for recent incoming residents. Building Manager Simon-the perennial-nervous-wreck is present on sufferance: authorization of furniture rearrangement for any event is his mandate. Luanna is the newest member of the IC.

"Wine and cheese de rigueur, of course," Mr. OC says, ticking the item off his sheet.
"How about mimosas and warm hors d'oeuvres?" pipes up Ophelia, as dictator leader of the Kitchen subcommittee.
Mr. OC fixes her with his steeliest eyeball and speaks through gritted teeth. "Mimosas indeed, dear Ophelia. Why would we consider such an extravagant expenditure?"
Ophelia is not one to be intimidated. "Because, darling," she replies triumphantly, "Glory Overdole! She's coming! She's moving in with us! We need to show some class!"

Her announcement is met with exploding signs of interest.
Bella: [GASP!]
George: "OMG we will need to wear jackets! And ties?!"
Simon: "Our very own home-grown celebrity!"
Bella bolts from the room to spread the news.
Luther wakes up and says: "Class my ass."
Ms Etoile: "She must be broke if she's moving here."
Luanna: "Who?"
Gonzo: "Why? Why would she choose here? Maybe she's dying!"
Sheila: "Don't be sour, Ms E."
Kitchen assistant: "Who says she will even attend our little soirée?!"
Ophelia: "She's not dying, she's in the middle of another movie."
Sheila: "She won't want a fuss, no special attention."

Ms E: "Are you kidding, sweetheart? Remember when Sterling Catheter moved here? He wanted the entire lobby re-designed to suit his star status ... starry ideas of celebrity privilege! Are we supposed to kiss "

Mr. OC vigorously bangs his gavel to no avail. Simon slumps below table level: this turmoil isn't happening. Ophelia's eyes sparkle with bacon-wrapped canapés and mini croquettes. Luanna looks mystified; she hasn't been to films since Peter Sellers died.
Luther: "Just what we need, another prima donna," glaring at Ms E.
George: "Green-eyed spite gets us everywhere."
All: "Shut up, George."
Simon: "O.M.G."
Sheila: "Let's do it, you dicks."
Luanna: "Who?"

Mouthy Monica bursts wildly into the meeting: "Is it true?? Overdole?!"
Ophelia: "I hear she already redecorated her whole apartment!"
Ms E: "There ya go, Luther. That's just the beginning."
Bella creeps back in: "I'll make my famous pinwheel paté!"
Kitchen assistant: "Thomas the Brave will do the bar for sure."
Sheila: "Gotta dryclean my cocktail dress."
Mouthy Monica: "PARTTYYYY!!"

Mr. OC flings his gavel down and in a perfectly executed movement departs the meeting, his imposing chin in the air and his best Wagnerian hum rumbling from the depths of disapproval.

Gonzo: "Expenditure for classy hors d'oeuvres approved. Meeting adjourned."

Another feckless day in the life ...

11 August 2016

Library Limelights 112

Charles McCarry. The Mulberry Bush. USA: The Mysterious Press/Grove Publishers, 2015.
Incomprehensible. A tale of spies so convoluted I can barely attempt to describe it. A young man, the first-person narrator, becomes a very successful counter-terrorist after joining "Headquarters," an euphemism for the CIA or an even more obscure agency. We never learn his name but these spies are accustomed to multiple aliases and it doesn't affect the story. He secretly plans to turn the tables on his superiors in revenge for his father's disgrace in the same service. Meeting (falling in love with) a gorgeous Argentinian porteňa with an equal vengeance motive assists his opportunity. Or does it?

The back story of his father's fall from grace takes a fair amount of time with no action and little dialogue. Probably I went sleepily off the rails there as I failed to grasp the significance ... increasing my DUH? moments. The intricacies of today's espionage "tradecraft" are mind-boggling. I love locale. You know I love locale. There's some of that in this. But 100% challenging for even the most advanced spy-thriller fan.

Word: anthropoid = (adj.) human-like in form

One-liners:
What man had devised, man could circumvent. (34)
Washington was full of people who made good money for achieving results that could not be measured and that they couldn't talk about. (35)
Not for the first or the last time, I wondered where this overwhelming love for a man I hardly knew until our last hour together had come from and how it had become the driving force in my life. (84)

Joining HQ:
A wave of anxiety broke over me. I saw myself signing the contract, smelled the ink, heard the scratch of the pen. Good God, what had I done in the grip of exaltation? I didn't really know. Had I signed up with Headquarters, as I had believed, and thereby hammered the first nail into the coffin I planned to build for it, or had I walked into a trap from which I could never escape?

His boss, Amzi:
The first words out of his mouth were, "Are we any the wiser?" 
He pointed at me. "You first." 
I said, "Not me." 
"Any change in your gut?" 
"No. But I say again, Boris isn't stupid enough to give us reason to doubt his good faith at the very outset of this operation. It's not gold, but it's genuine dross." 
Amzi said, "I'm staggered by your eloquence. Tom?" 
"I second the eloquence." 
"So what to do?" 
Tom remained silent. I followed his example. Amzi looked from face to face. He said, "You're here to help with the thinking. So help." (160)


Nelson DeMille. The Panther. USA: Vision, 2012.
Almost 800 pages; this what they mean by BLOCKBUSTER. At least four different U.S. intelligence services are involved including the Anti-Terrorist Task Force with our hero John Corey of the glib and satirical remarks relating the events. Luckily we don't have to live with him as wife Kate (of the CIA) does. They are both chosen for a mission to capture Al-Qaeda's "the Panther" in Yemen, where two-thirds of the story takes place circa 2004. Where, you ask? Well, it's on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Fabled land of Noah's ark in the heart of Islam but a very troubled area with extremely complicated, divided loyalties. And oil. Regional rebels fight the official but corrupt government, the army scarcely works, the Bedouin tribes are more allied with the Saudis, Americans are not wanted (but they have an embassy in the capital, Sana'a), and fundamentalist Al-Qaeda is moving in.

For anyone interested in the Middle East, this is rich in history and politics, reading like a travelogue. It also exposes serious duplicity on several levels in the fight against terrorism. The intensity is balanced by Corey's non-P.C. humour, often funny but just as often racist. It's meant to convey a certain American/western mentality that paints all Arabs with one brush. So, mixed feelings in this reader. Working in a team of five agents, Corey and Kate are planted as reluctant bait, aware that jihadists are not the only threat they may face. Spies and diplomats can invent intricate rationales for betrayal. Brilliance from DeMille.

One-liners:
Tom and I did a good, firm handshake, and Kate got a hug, which in a Federal building is sexual assault. (114)
But we'd already been lied to, and lies are like cockroaches―if you see one, there are more. (188)
Today being Sunday, and thinking about Noah, Shem, Sana'a, and all that, I asked, "After God sent the Flood to cleanse the earth of the sinful and the wicked, do you think he was pissed off that the people who repopulated the earth got it so wrong?" (226)
I myself display impressively bad judgment on occasion, but I always temper that with acts of irrational risk taking. (238)
In this world, getting caught in a lie meant you needed a bigger and better lie, or at least a nice gift for the guy who caught you in a lie. (479-80)
The desert at night has a stark beauty, an otherworldly feeling that somehow changes your mood and your perception of reality. (539)

ATTF:
So the first Federally funded Anti-Terrorist Task Force was formed here in New York, made up of ten FBI agents and ten NYPD detectives. Now we have a lot more people than that. Also, we've added a few CIA officers, plus people from other Federal and State law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The actual number is classified, and if someone asks me how many people work here, I say, "About half." 
The New York Anti-Terrorist Task Force worked well, and prior to September 11, 2001, there were about thirty-five other anti-terrorist task forces across the country. Now, post 9/11, there are over a hundred nationwide. A sign of the times. (19)


Enemies and friends:
Buck continued, "Al Qaeda in Yemen, like us in Yemen, are small in numbers. They have perhaps four or five hundred hard-core members. But they also have thousands of sympathizers and active supporters, including, as I said, inside the PSO, and also inside the army, the police, and probably the government." 
I inquired, "How many sympathizers and supporters do we have in Yemen?" 
"Two," replied Buck. "The lady who runs the craft shop and the man who cuts my hair―and I'm not sure about him." 
Good one, Buck. (188-9)

Meeting embassy personnel:
Well, Colonel Kent reminded me a little of the general in Dr. Strangelove, but I didn't want to share this thought with Ed Peters. I mean, I had no idea what the interpersonal relationships were here, or who thought who was a loon, or who was jockeying for position. As I said, everyone here seemed a little nuts to me, and my short-term goal was to get out of this embassy, find The Panther, whack him, and go home. (295)

Håkan Nesser. Hour of the Wolf. USA: Pantheon Books (1999, translation 2012).
A Scandinavian noir author previously unknown to me, whose novel is an example of how one sinister thing leads to another after an accidental life-changing event. At first we don't know who the man is who kills a teenager while drunk driving and leaves the scene. But someone saw him and knows him. And blackmails him. More deaths follow, including the son of the chief inspector (always thus italicized) Van Veeteren of the police force in fictitious Maarden, Sweden. Half a dozen detectives doggedly work at unravelling connections in an apparently hopeless case. Thankfully, no particularly twisted psyche or gore here. The hour of the wolf is just before dawn, the awaking from bad dreams.

Right from the opening scene, all dialogue seems stiff. The characters (mainly police) had little real-life warmth for me, despite peeks into their personal lives and bits of humour. Clearly they have collaborated before in Nesser's novels without context or exposition here. Plenty of mental agonizing goes on but it barely resonates. The original, elusive criminal suddenly finds a great love relationship, begging plausibility why the woman was attracted to a man so unrevealingly wooden. The prose is fairly pedestrian and I doubt it's due to the translation. I'll likely not look for Nesser again.

One-liner: A Van Gogh reproduction hung on one wall, suggesting a lack of interest in art. (241)

Romance:
"Why did you marry him in the first place?" 
"I don't know." 
"Marry me instead." 
It slipped out before he could stop himself, but he realized immediately that he actually meant it. 
"Wow," she said, and burst out laughing. "We've been together a couple of times, and at long last you ask me to marry you. Shouldn't we go home and have a bite to eat first, as we'd planned to do?" 
He thought it over. 
"I suppose so," he said. "Yes, you're right. (31)

Death of his son:
"I don't have the strength to talk about it anymore," said Van Veeteren. "I can't see the point of wrapping it up in a mass of words. Forgive me if I say nothing. I'm very grateful that you are here. Eternally grateful." 
"I know," said Ulrike Fremdli. "No, it's not about words. It's not about you and me at all. Shall we go back to bed for a while?" 
"I wish it were me instead." 
"It's futile, thinking like that." 
"I know. Futility is the playing field of desire." 
He emptied his cup and followed her into the bedroom. (70-1)

A day in the life:
The sun seemed to be surprised, almost embarrassed at having to display itself in all its somewhat faded nudity. Van Veeteren phone Ulrike Fremdli at work, was informed that she would be finished by lunchtime, and suggested a car trip to the seaside. They hadn't seen the sea for quite some time. She accepted straightaway: he could hear from her voice that she was both surprised and pleased, and he reminded himself that he loved her. Then he reminded her as well. 
The living must look after one another, he thought. The worst possible outcome is to die without having lived. (200)

06 August 2016

Lost & Found: Freckles


Stillman's Freckle Cream

OMG, teenage saviour. Pasted on my face every night clogging my pores. But it worked!

So amazing to make your acquaintance again. How are you, Stillman's, after all this time? Selling big in southeast Asia, I hear. But not welcome in first world countries ... what is this rumour about mercury levels? Dear Stillman of honoured memory, should I be worried?

Freckles and spots are universal. So is vanity.
We are all sisters.
Maybe the odd brother too.


#childhoodagoniesandrepercussions

Oh for heavens' sake, I thought I posted this in June!!

26 July 2016

Library Limelights 111

René Knight. Disclaimer. USA: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015.
Novels based on real people will have a disclaimer that "any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental" to avoid potential libel. Catherine finds a stray novel with a red line through the disclaimer and reads it out of mild curiosity. Before long she is horrified to self-identify as the "fictional" star of twenty-year-old events she had kept hidden from everyone. Who is the mysterious author exposing her secret? Damning photographs begin to circulate and the book won't go away. Paranoid Catherine keeps baffled husband Robert in the dark far too long.

Then there's crafty old Stephen, consulting his dead wife, who learns to manipulate social media. The perspective switches between him and Catherine, occasionally Robert, until we don't know where deception lies. We feel someone is going to die, but who ― psychological suspense at its best. The back story unfolds piece by piece, to wrap itself almost full circle. Gold star for a first novel from this author.

One-liners:
Sanctimonious twit is his judgment on himself. (168)
He knew the truth when he saw it and she respects that―it's not something many people are capable of: denial is so much easier. (364)

Stephen's mask:
It was the mother who opened the door. It was teatime, but she had the chain across. It wasn't midnight, for goodness sake, it was teatime. It was broad daylight. And I was smiling at her. I wouldn't be smiling if I meant them any harm. 
"Good afternoon, I'm so sorry to bother you." Pause for emphasis. To demonstrate I really was sorry. "I'm trying to get in touch with an old friend. Catherine Ravenscroft. She used to live here, I believe ..." Blink. Refresh smile. "I popped a birthday present through the door a few weeks ago but haven't heard anything and ... well, that's not like her." 
"They moved," she said. Not returning my smile even slightly. 
"Aah, that explains it. It's been a while since I've seen her and the family. I wonder ..." Pause again. Don't want to appear pushy. "Do you have an address for her?" Another blink. I am old, frail. And it's cold out here. Be kind to me. 
She shook her head. 
"No," and then she began to close the door. The bloody cheek of it. (77)

The secret revealed:
Robert's hands are shaking. He holds one up and looks at the jittering fingers in surprise, as if he is holding up a specimen of something he has never seen before. Whatever he is about to read has happened. There is nothing he can do about it, and yet it holds a power over him, as if by reading it, it will happen all over again just because he is there to see it this time. He reads on, like a teenager desperate to get to the sexy bits. (182)

Catherine's mask:
Her mother hasn't said anything, but does she know? Does she remember? Tears come at the thought that her mother knows but doesn't judge her. She blinks them away so she can pull down the mask she must wear to get through the day. It fits her well, no one would know it was there, and she has even got used to the way it inhibits her breathing. By the time she gets off the bus she is in her stride, marching along the stretch of road toward work like a confident woman on her way to a busy day in the office, not noticing anyone she passes. (246-7)


Zoë Ferraris. The Night of the Mi'raj. UK: Little, Brown, 2008.
The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a 21st century anomaly where men wear white and women wear black and never the twain shall meet except to make babies. Women are confined to home unless they have access to an "escort" (father, husband, brother, son) who will drive them to visit a friend or to shopping malls. "Religious police" stalk city streets watching for clothing misdemeanours and behaviour infractions. The general repression of natural social instincts and inter-gender communication is so effective/painful you could weep at the restrictions for love and sex. All this in a climate where killer temperatures force everyone to live year-round inside air-conditioned homes, offices, and cars.

Author Ferraris has captured the essence of this society ― mind you, its upper class society. But the only lower class in the kingdom are immigrant labourers and domestics who do not figure in this story. Nouf, a young daughter in a wealthy, respected family disappears only to be found dead in the desert. Two individuals on the family's periphery are unsatisfied with the official verdict as an accident. Niryan is a friend, an expert desert guide, willing to help the girl's brother discover the truth. Katya is fiancée to a family member, a rare woman working as a biology lab technician. Despite the crippling limitations of custom and tradition they manage to uncover the truth in a complex, absorbing tale. Published as Finding Nouf in the USA.

One-liner: In theory, Nayir should take the whole thing to the police, to the judges or the mosque and the men in charge of law, but since the examiner's office had already closed the case – decided, in fact, that there was no case to close – then what hope did he have of stirring up justice from a system so easily corrupted by the rich? (322)

Guest in the men's sitting room:
Of course Nouf had passions, they just didn't know what those were. He felt no empathy for brothers who had only the vaguest, most superficial impression of their sisters. Certainly, women had other concerns. They lived in a different manner, in other parts of the house. He imagined that their lives barely intersected except during meals, holidays, excursions. But there was no taboo against talking to a sister. A sister, he imagined, should be the most comforting of woman – an accessible female with whom one could speak openly, who could explain sensitive things where others might shy from trying. Nayir had no siblings, but he had longed for a sister his entire life. (37)

First impressions:
She had to admit that before meeting Nayir, she'd been intrigued by Othman's description of him – pure and noble, a romantic Bedouin figure. He'd turned out to be such an ayatollah. He hadn't been able to speak to her without blushing, he wouldn't meet her eyes, and he had fainted when he saw Nouf's body, as if he'd been exposed to the face of the devil himself. Nayir was just the sort of man who stopped women on the street to complain that they weren't wearing gloves, or that he could see too much of a face through a burqa. (147)

Face to face (almost):
"I'll talk to him," Nayir said. "That's what you want, isn't it?" 
She turned to face him, and he quickly averted his gaze. "Yes, if you can. But more than that ..." She faced the window again. "I'd like to know that you're still in this." 
He hesitated. "I want to know what happened to her. And I think so does Othman, whether he feels that way now or not." 
She seemed relieved, or grateful, and she uncrossed her arms. "Then will you come with me right now? This is important. I need your expertise." 
He hesitated again. 
"Tracking," she said, as if that explained it. 
After a pause, he nodded. "Just give me time for morning prayers." (231)

Lars Kepler. Stalker. (2014) Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2016.
In Kepler's world, Sweden is a hotbed of the most bizarre murderous minds; it's the main characters and detection process that hold us glued to the page. Stalker is the fifth in a series where detective Joona Linna plays a prominent part. From hiding out to protect his family, Joona returns to Stockholm a sick and injured man as a serial killer eludes policewoman Margot and her colleagues. Consulting psychiatrist Erik (The Hypnotist) finds similarities in an old case that convicted Rocky, who is still locked up in an institution. In fact, Erik has history with Rocky, not all of which he shared with the justice system at the time. Joona's friendship with Erik irrevocably draws him into the hunt.

Margot rarely knows what Joona and Erik are up to in their separate investigation, especially their reliance on Rocky's questionable memory. Without a doubt this novel has the most dramatic manhunt I've ever read, reading way past the midnight hours! It's almost inconceivable how so many characters survive so much physical battering (blood-curdling noir alert). Also, the revelation of the underlying psychosis seems so improbable ― but who am I to say? Ultimately, dramatic consequences for Joona. I feel the next sequel unfolding already in the hands of this co-author team.

One-liner: Right now her fate is floating like a razor blade on still waters. (8)

Outdoors:
Now Madeleine is walking along next to her mother, talking and keeping an eye on the path even though she knows her mum doesn't need help. 
Her mother walks with one foot nudging the edge of the grass, so she can feel the plants against her leg and at the same time listen to the stick tapping the path. 
A compressor starts to rumble outside the Royal Library, and powerful drills begin digging at the asphalt with rapid metallic thuds. The noise means her mother loses her bearings and Madeleine takes hold of her arm. (124)

Interview:
"He was utterly ruthless," she says in a toneless voice. 
"So I understand," Erik replies. "But he still doesn't deserve to be convicted of a murder he didn't commit." 
Olivia's greying hair falls over her forehead and she blows it away. 
"Will anything bad happen to me if I lied to the police before?" 
"Only if you lied under oath in a court." 
"Of course," she says, and her thin mouth quivers nervously. 
They sit on the steps. Olivia looks down at her trainers, picks something off her jeans and clears her throat. 
"I was a different person then, and I don't want to get mixed up in anything," she says quietly. "But it's true, I did know him back then." 
"He says you can give him an alibi." 
"I can," she admits, and swallows hard. (243)

A riddle:
"The r-rich need it, the p-poor already have it, but you fear it more than death," Nestor whispers. 
"I'm a bit too tired for riddles, Nestor." 
... 
Erik falls asleep, and in his dreams little Madeleine is standing by his bed, blowing on his face and whispering the answer to Nestor's riddle. 
"Nothing," she whispers, blowing on him. "The rich need ... nothing, the poor have nothing ... And you fear nothing more than death." (378-9)