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17 August 2014

Library Limelights 64

Andrew Pyper. The Guardians. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2011.
The paranormal is not my cuppa, something I should have remembered from reading Pyper's Killing Circle. There's no question the author is very good at this genre; his grasp of the psychological effects on witnesses in the story is excellent. It's a mystery tale as well ― boyhood friends return to small-town Ontario for a funeral only to face their mutual past secrets. Then a woman disappears and history seems to repeat itself. If Trevor, Randy, and Carl help the police, they will have to reveal old crimes. But they discover the first crime was even before their time. The story is structured between the present-day and Trevor's re-creating a diary of the past.

Object of boyhood fear:
The Thurman house was no different in its construction than any of other squat, no-nonsense residences it shared Caledonia Street with, two rows of Ontario re-brick built at the last cebntury's turn for the towns first doctors, solicitors and engineers. So why did it stand out for us? What made it the one and only haunted house in Grimshaw for our generation? Its emptiness was part of the answer. Houses can be in poor repair, ugly and overgrown, but this makes them merely sad, not the imagined domicile of phantoms. Vacancy is an unnatural state for a still-habitable home, a sign of disease or threat, like a pretty girl standing alone at a dance. (91)

Trevor struggles with Parkinson's:
It's my legs ― kicking and side-swinging worse than at any other point since my arrival in Grimshaw ― that seem to know I'm going to Sarah's before I do. I must now appear, as one of my doctors said I would eventually, as a "top-heavy drunk," leaving my shoe prints on dew-sodden lawns. You'd think, in my condition, presenting myself before a woman I like would be a bad idea. But the thing is, I don't have time to wait for good ideas anymore. (306)

Mark Billingham. From the Dead. Toronto: McArthur & Company, 2010.
Despite the publisher's blurbs, I find DI Thomas Thorne is not as engaging as, say, Rebus (Rankin) or Banks (Robinson). Meaning I didn't enjoy this as much as Billingham's Rush of Blood which is not in the Thorne series. Nevertheless, From the Dead is an unusual crime story. New information re-opens an old case when the convict Donna is released from prison. Was the wrong man killed? Her intended victim is alive and mocking police efforts in England and Spain. Tracing the actual victim's identity looks hopeless. To complicate matters, her daughter disappears. Donna hires would-be private eye Anna Carpenter to help her.

Anna latches onto DI Thorne to his chagrin but with the blessing of his superiors, Brigstocke and Jesmond. We see how this new association affects Thorne's bumpy relationship with girlfriend Louise. The policeman is mentally suffering over the jury's acquittal of a dangerous felon in a prior case; Thorne's evidence had not been strong enough for a conviction. He agonizes about unsolved cases of missing and/or assaulted women. But it's as if he does more observing than detecting. Donna triggers the climax, not unexpectedly, but Billingham provides a great anti-climactic ending.

Anna makes a career decision:
Her father did not often lose his temper, and seeing him looking so lost, so genuinely confused, when Anna announced that she had thrown in her job at the bank had been hugely upsetting. She felt ashamed just thinking about it; prickling with sweat and as close to tears as he had been when she'd told him.
"What are we supposed to think, your mum and me?"
Her mother had slowly risen from her seat as soon as Anna had begun saying her piece, but had made no response. She had just stared, red-faced and breathing noisily, as thought she were trying her very best not to march across the carpet and slap her daughter. (32)

"Have fun with young Miss Marple," Brigstocke said.
Thorne took his tea and sandwiches and swore loudly enough to provoke disgusted looks from the elderly couple across the aisle when Anna told him there was no change from his tenner. He sugared his tea and lowered his voice and said, "So, what the hell was all that about back there?"
"All what?"
"I told you not to say anything."
"Come on, I couldn't just sit there like a plank," Anna said. "It would have looked really strange."
"I don't care how it would have looked. I was there to question a potentially crucial witness and you were there to observe, that's all. I did not want you chipping in."
"I thought we made a good team."
"We're not any sort of team," Thorne said.
"Whatever." (67)

05 August 2014

Library Limelights 63

Mo Hayder. Wolf. Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2014.
Beware, this book has some scary characters who will creep you out. The psychological torture within is not to everyone's taste and I wouldn't recommend it except for the most diehard crime readers. Hayder has a reputation for shocking her fans. That said, this story of a home invasion is superbly developed, fraught with dread. We meet series character police detective Jack Caffery of past books. He is on a separate mission of his own and part of the suspense is when ― or whether ― his search will dovetail with the main story, with help of a dog called Bear. The Walking Man is another repeat character; he serves as a foil to Caffery's internal anxiety.

The family caught in a nightmare trap had only a peripheral involvement in murders of fifteen years ago. Who could be orchestrating their current plight? Potential motives slowly unfold. Are the criminals really who they appear to be? The truth may lie somewhere in their transforming thoughts. If there's a plan, it begins to disintegrate in unpredictable ways. The more we learn, the more Hayder finely balances our sympathy and antipathy among the players. And perhaps Caffery finally resolves his personal quest. If you want the challenge of mind-messing, go for it!

The parallel universe?
Matilda stares at him. All their lives Oliver has been the one with the answers. Whatever the question, he always has an answer. Except now.
She looks around herself, completely bewildered. The kitchen ‒ the place she feels most at home ‒ is a different landscape. Yes, she hung those candy-stripe curtains. She chose the pink range kettle to match. She stocked the painted shelves. There's a jar at the back no-one would ever notice, its lid open to release the smell of cinnamon. All of this is familiar. Yet somehow they've crossed into a different reality.
A door bangs overhead and there's the noise of scuffling on the staircase. Again Matilda strains to lift the table with her back. It gives a tiny way but the effort is too much. She squats, panting. "Oliver? What do we do?" (65-66)

Looking for clues:
"Thank you." The colonel shakes his hand. "Thank you and goodbye. You can find your own way out, I take it."
He turns, using his stick, and makes his awkward, limping way back to the house. His shoulders are hunched, his head lowered, as if it's a fight to hold it up under the force of gravity.
Bear watches him go, her head on one side. Caffrey says nothing. Doesn't move for a while, because he's thinking that it's always the same when he meets older people, all he sees is their fragility. All he can picture in his head is his mother ‒ and wonder where she is, what she is doing. Whether she's alive. And if she is, whether she has ever got over loving Ewan and being left with the other child Jack. The one that, given the choice, she'd have preferred to lose.
"Come on," he tells Bear, when the sound of the slamming door has echoed across the lawn. "Let's go have a look in those trees." (174)

James Lee Burke. Feast Day of Fools. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.
Burke is widely acknowledged as a brilliant American author of any genre; it's difficult to describe such illuminating prose. Atmosphere broods over all: here are not the author's familiar Louisiana bayous, but the border country of Texas, never more beautifully painted. The human landscape is something else, a stark contrast ― lost innocents, bankrupt souls, and corrupt predators. Some seek redemption, some seek victims. One might get the idea that the state is populated with nothing but sociopaths. All the major characters are haunted by their pasts. Sheriff Hackberry Holland patrols his county with the grim mettle and instincts of a survivor. His deputy Pam Tibbs provides down-to-earth counterpoint to Holland's unbending principles.

The Feast of Fools was a mediaeval annual church liturgy that became subjected to perverse abuse whereby unthinking adherents would go wild in self-indulgent excess, fully expecting their sins to be forgiven the following day. Forgiveness is seldom sought here; the story is about murders, not so much about who did them but will they be caught. Strange outlaw Jack Collins has appeared before in Burke's Texas novels. Holland also has to deal with Krill the mestizo, Sholokoff the arms dealer, Cody the delusional preacher, Riser the doomed FBI agent, and "La Magdalena" with her own warrior past. The combination of fascinating (often chilling) characters and suspense had me reading way past my bedtime. Feast Day exemplifies Burke at his best.

Samples of environmental consciousness:
• ... the air was dense and sparkling with humidity, coating every surface in sight, clinging to the skin like damp cotton, as though the sunrise were a source not of light but ignition. (93)
• Danny Boy watched the figure draw nearer, the toes of his boots cracking through the shell of baked clay along the streambed, the sky behind him a royal purple, the mesquite and pi┼łon trees on the hillsides alive with birds that only minutes ago had been sleeping. (118)
• The thunder rolling through the hills, the smell of the ozone, the cold tannic odor of the rain and dust, the branches of the mesquite and scrub oak bending almost to the ground all seemed like the pages of a book flipping before his eyes, defining the world and his role in it in a way he had never thought possible. (148)
• The sand in the streambeds was white, the rocky sides of the declivities as sharp as knives, the land rustling with desert greenery and tables with slabs of sedimentary rock that looked like the marbled backs of albino whales. (353)
• The road through the hills was narrow and rock-strewn and dusty, the wind as hot as a blowtorch, smelling of creosote and alkali and dry stone under the layer of blue-black clouds that gave no rain.(428)

One-liner: Jack decided there was nothing wrong with Mexico that a half-dozen hydrogen bombs and a lot of topsoil couldn't cure. (411)

Hackberry Holland had come to believe that age was a separate country you did not try to explain to younger people, primarily because they had already made up their minds about it and any lessons you learned from your life were not the kind many people were interested in hearing about. If age brought gifts, he didn't know what they were. It had brought him neither wisdom nor peace of mind. His level of desire was the same, the lust of his youth glowing hot among the ashes each morning he woke. He could say with a degree of satisfaction that he didn't suffer fools and drove from his company anyone who tried to waste his time, but otherwise his dreams and his waking day were defined by the same values and frame of reference that came with his birthright. (23)

Voice of authority:
"Sheriff, who do you think runs this country?"
"You tell me."
"Lyndon was put into office by Brown and Root. Lyndon is moldering in the grave, but Brown and Root merged with Halliburton and is still alive and well. You think our current president is going to rescind their contracts at almost every United States military base in the world?"
"I wouldn't know."
"Temple Dowling stood up from his chair and removed a strand of cat hair from his sleeve. "My father said you were never a listener." (81-2)

30 July 2014

Words 7

Some to abhor, some to perhaps adopt.

debankify OMG, coming from my very own bank! A pathetic touch of straining too hard for Z-gen customers? I don't even want to know what they have in mind.
victimology As in Nesbo's Cockroaches but becoming common all over the place now. Seems to reduce real pain to an all-inclusive label, a pedantic study.
signalized On a construction site, a sign to warn of a traffic intersection ahead. An intersection with signal lights. What happened to standard English? MUST we ADJECTIVIZE everything?!

rhisomatic ― Recognizable language root here, rhizome actually meaning root, quite botanical. A very fine word indeed. My family surname Jurikas that translates into English as root could use the much more musical variation of Rhizome. Thank you.
Gardy-Loo!! ― Let's resurrect this! From those fun-loving Edinburgh high-rises of yore. I might be addicted to "Today's Scots Word" on Facebook's Scottish Genealogy.
● butterscotchness ― Made that up myself. Sometimes it's okay to invent nouns. Contemplating perfect ice cream on a hot day.
vernissage ― As in Koch's Summer House with Swimming Pool; a semi-archaic word for the reception to preview an art gallery's new exhibition. Koch liked it so much he employed it several times (but then he's European).

Johari window In Galbraith's The Cuckoo's Calling, a character dismisses this self-awareness exercise, a crowd-sourcing kind of technique choosing adjectives to describe your personality. Oh really?
● gravamen ― Lescroart used it in its appropriate legal context, in The Ophelia Cut, as the most important or substantial part of a charge against an accused person.
alveolar ― to do with pronunciation of certain consonants, but its noun is even more interesting. Alveolus can refer to the socket a tooth sits in, or other small anatomical hollows or pits.
homophily ― support of homosexual rights, and,
heterophily ― support of heterosexual rights; neither of which made the Oxford Online Dictionary last time I looked (shame, Oxford!). 

23 July 2014

Library Limelights 62

John Lescroart. The Ophelia Cut. Atria Paperback/Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2013.
Courtroom drama fans: For those who follow Lescroart's dramatic novels, the familiar characters are back ― Dismas Hardy, Moses Maguire, Abe Glitsky, Gina Roake, and company ― and they are as engaging as ever. A few allusions to a highly secret prior incident involving the crew are intriguingly tossed out but never explained (they took place in a previous book but for the life of me I can't figure out which one, possibly Lescroart's 2009 A Plague of Secrets). Here, Hardy takes on his most difficult legal case ever. Backroom politics in San Francisco and questionable ethics play into it, not unusual in Hardy's world. For the reader, it's a credible, realistic world.

Without giving away the surprises ― Moses' gorgeous daughter Brittany is the catalyst for a murder of far-reaching consequences. The police department, the district attorney's office, and several families are all hit by the fallout, not to mention jeopardizing a man in the federal witness protection program. Which of several possible motives is the strongest for committing the crime? How representative of her generation is Brittany? Lescroart's plots usually reflect issues in today's news. No trial detail escapes Hardy's attention but the outcome for his client looks hopeless. He keeps us guessing until the shock ending. My only quibble is the rather nebulous, unconvincing epilogue.

Word: gravamen (375)

Glitsky gets reprimanded:
"Lieutenant." Her repetition of his rank struck him as ominous. As recently as this morning, he had rarely been anything but Abe. She went on. "I really don't feel that now is the appropriate time to air this matter completely. In the past several hours, I have learned several allegations ― unsubstantiated, to be sure, but bothersome nonetheless ― regarding your relationships with Mr. Hardy, Mr. Farrell, and some other members of their law firm, which, I must say in a police officer, are at best unusual. I was hoping that tomorrow you and I could set aside a little time to discuss these matters privately and determine to what extent you will still have my confidence as a department head. Am I making myself clear?" (215)

Hardy tries alternate theories on his investigator:
"Maybe he stole one of his friend's girlfriends. Maybe he sold dope on the side and stiffed his supplier. Maybe he had a jealous gay lover. Maybe he ran over some crazy lady's cat. The dude was a rapist. He had roofies, right? So there were probably other victims. What about if one of them killed him? Did he have any family?"... Hardy heard a heavy breath over the line. "Am I getting desperate?" he asked."Sounds a little like it to me.""Can you give me twenty hours?""I'll give you all the time you want. But I feel like I'm wasting your money, and I hate that.""If that feeling gets too bad, you don't have to take the money.""Good one, Diz.""I know," Hardy said. "I'm a laugh riot." (273)

Sean Slater. Snakes and Ladders. London, UK: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2012.
First reaction: the second book about homicide detective Jacob Striker is more polished than the first. Second reaction: a series of small inconsistencies (Valium readily available over the counter?) and improbable climaxes became irritating. The cryptic thoughts of the supposed perpetrator, a wacko who calls himself The Adder, are interspersed throughout the story and I began to wonder if some authors today are simply trying to out-psycho each other.

The discovery of a murder or two, and subsequent investigations, take a turn into a different underlying crime of unimaginable scale. Current news topics, such as privacy laws and identity theft, come into play. Slater sets a good pace here and I was finding it a good read. For about two-thirds of the book. Winding up in slightly clumsy melodrama, it never explains why Striker himself had become a target. His enigmatic relationship with cop-partner Felicia remains unresolved. The third book in the series (The Guilty) has been published and Slater has plans for at least three more.

Typical Jacob and Felicia sparring:
She gave him an uncertain look, like she wasn't sure which way to take the conversation. In the end, she kept quiet. The passenger window was still fogged up, so she took a moment to power the window down and up. When it remained fogged, she wiped away the condensation with her hand. Afterwards, she turned in her seat and met his stare once more. She spoke softly."Maybe you should see Larisa one more time."Striker groaned. "Oh Jesus, not you, too. Leave it be, Feleesh.""I'm just saying―""You're always just saying something. Serious. Just let it go for once, will ya? Let this one ride."Felicia's eyes narrowed at the comment, and for a moment she looked ready for a fight. She tucked her long dark hair back over her ear and her mouth opened like she was ready to say more.Striker looked away from her. He was in no mood for small talk or bullshit. And in even less of a mood for arguing. (48-49)

Psycho's secret agenda:
The DVD began playing and the screen came to life.
On it was the woman cop. Standing in the laneway. Watching the big detective move slowly up the stairs. She was beautiful ‒ the Adder could see that in his analytical, separated way ‒ with her long brown hair draping down the caramel skin of her neck. She was in her prime, no doubt, bursting with beauty and energy and radiance. Like a star going supernova.The Adder watched her, standing there, completely unaware of the hidden threat. Then the bullets came. (315)

18 July 2014

Library Limelights 61

Jo Nesbo. Cockroaches. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2013.
I believe this is the last Nesbo to receive a belated English translation; originally published in Norway in 1998, chronologically it is the second novel in the popular Harry Hole series (following The Bat.) Now yours truly can say she has read every one of them. Since Nesbo may have laid Harry to rest, Cockroaches is like a bonus to the detective's often-electrifying career. Norway's ambassador to Thailand is murdered in embarrassing circumstances and instant cover-up is the first diplomatic reaction. Harry gets chosen as a token presence in the investigation―his previous assignment in Australia seems to qualify him for a complicated task. With a mighty effort, he sobers up and flies to Bangkok.

We know Harry's no token and won't stay discreetly in the background as his political superiors instructed. Once on the ground there, he works with the Thai police, meeting a mixture of Norway's ex-pats. What kind of criminal activity instigated the murder? There are plenty of motivations to choose from. An abduction and more killings ensue. Each new revelation points in a different direction as we catch glimpses of city life where crime and corruption seem rampant and alien. Some scenes trigger flashbacks for Harry ― suffering the loss of innocence. He and his new police acquaintance, Liz Crumley, face an adrenalin-thumping climax. It's deliciously complicated. As is Harry, of course.

One- Two-liner: Harry was reminded of an old friend who used to chuckle the same way. He had buried him in Sydney, but he paid Harry regular visits at night. (270)

The diplomatic corps:
"His career ended in a cul-de-sac. He came from some job in Defence, but at some time there were a couple too many 'buts' by his name."
"Haven't you heard the way Ministry people talk about one another? 'He's a good diplomat, but he drinks, but he likes women too much' and so on. What comes after the 'buts' is a lot more important than what comes before; it determines how far you can get in the department. That's why there are so many sanctimonious mediocrities at the top." (103)

Illegal entry:

He had heard something. That is, he had heard a thousand things, but one sound among the thousand did not belong to the now familiar cacaphony from the streets. And it came from the hall. It was a well-lubricated click. Oil and metal. When the draught told him that someone had opened the door, he thought of Sunthorn, until it struck him that the person who had just entered was trying to be as quiet as possible. Harry held his breath while his brain whirred through his sound archives at a furious pace. A sound expert in Australia had told him that the membrane in your ear can hear the difference in pressure between a million different frequencies. And this had not been the sound of a doorknob being turned but a recently oiled gun being cocked. (228-9)

Denise Mina. Still Midnight. Toronto: McArthur & Company, 2009.
Trial run here. I'd been looking for another Tartan Noir writer (take a leading bow, Ian Rankin). It took a while to warm up to this book, mainly because the pair of criminals we meet right off the bat are incredibly wretched, inept, incompetent goofballs. There's a fair amount of Glaswegian vernacular to surmount as well. Detectives Morrow and Bannerman are not exactly loveable at first, either, but with a little perseverance they all grow on you. A kidnapping/ransom plan goes awry although the arms-length instigator and the police are not aware of it. The hapless intermediary duo has to contend with the wrong victim, an accidental shooting, and a dead body. Several threads skillfully come together as the plot boils up and it's hard to stop reading.

Bannerman is chosen to lead the investigation to the deep resentment of his rival, Alex Morrow, who bests him at every opportunity she can. Her character is thorny and abrasive; she avoids going home to an unpleasant, undefined domestic life. We witness various interactions with an immigrant Muslim family, not a major theme but so well portrayed. The narrative switches between Morrow, the two goofballs, the victim, and the affected family members. Our questions about character mysteries are eventually resolved. The odd love fantasy one young man creates is a master touch from the author. Now I know why Mina is called "the grand dame of Scottish crime fiction."

Morrow muses on police interrogation:
Family myths and fables were more than conscious fibs; they were a form of self-protection, conversational habits, beliefs too embedded to challenge: she loves me, we are happy, he will change. But there was always a tic. It amazed Alex, the craven need of people to tell the truth. During questioning, when inconsistencies started to show in a story, people often broke down, sobbed with the desire to be honest, as if getting caught lying was the very worst that could happen. She'd seen men carving fingernails into the palms of their hands, breaking the skin to relieve the pressure to tell. ... She'd never again trust anyone who began a sentence, "Honestly," or, "To tell the truth." These were flags raised high above a statement, drawing the casual viewer's attention; here be dragons. (36)

The Anwar family:
Omar saw his father looking at his spoiled, lucky children, sensed his bewilderment, his disappointment. They expected new clothes and cars and bedrooms of their own, they wanted shoes and food and holidays and iPods. Sadiqa wanted books and new clothes all the time because she was getting fatter. They didn't want to pray in the night, they didn't want to walk anywhere, they didn't want to work shifts in the smelly wee shop with Johnny Landry telling the same stories over and over about his time in the army. They were private school kids and thought it was humiliating to sit behind a counter, taking shit from alkis and shoplifters and racist fuckwits out in their slippers looking for bottles of ginger and teabags. (219)

Pat dreams:
She was making a face in the picture, puffing up her cheekbones and pouting a little, not tarty, just sweet. Pat reached out to pick up a copy and felt the rough texture of the paper kiss his fingertips, smelled the hot fat as sweet, the daylight glinting on the greasy wall as a sparkle. That she existed made the tawdry present bearable. He folded the paper and tucked it under his arm, smiling, as happy as if it was her arm, and went over to the counter, ordered two egg and bacon rolls and two cans of ginger, handing over the money to the beautifully hungover fat man behind the counter. (147)

13 July 2014

Lost and Found: An Icon

This iconic design, still used by maple syrup producers everywhere, was created by Dick Marvin, illustrator extraordinaire in his own right. 

The Marvins were the other half of our MerriMar Maple Syrup business in the 1980s.

Our sugar shack near Moffat, Ontario, was used as a basis for the drawing, although we did not have horses!

The "candy kitchen" was the scene of temperature-exacting production of maple butter and maple sugar candies.

RIP, MerriMar.

08 July 2014

Library Limelights 60

Mark Billingham. Rush of Blood. London, UK: Little, Brown, 2012.
It's possibly the first Billingham novel I've read (after all, my Limelights don't go back very far) but won't be the last. Here is the mystery lover's example of a can't-put-it-down book. The author sets it up perfectly: three English couples meet on a Florida vacation and share good times. They decide to expand the friendship after returning home, still faintly haunted by a peripheral, unsolved crime that occurred during their holiday. Could one of them have been the perpetrator? The six characters are unveiled in their own words and through each others' eyes; sexual tensions among them are ever so subtle. Then the same type of crime occurs in the U.K. A novice British policewoman looks for connections while a veteran Sarasota detective agonizes with the first victim's family.

The author is a master of pacing and scene switching. Intertwining the detective work of two different countries is a great device. Someone, or maybe several suspects, are lying to the police. Billingham faultlessly builds the suspense, keeping the reader compulsively guessing. Inserting the occasional thoughts of the perpetrator adds tantalizing insight without revealing identity. In the end, do we comprehend the meaning of "balance" in the motivation?

The first goodbye:
There are hugs between the three women, and between the women and men. Barry and Dave shake hands, then are pulled into an embrace by Ed, who tells them they need to relax and get in touch with their feminine sides.
"Or latent homosexuality," he says, winking at Dave.
They start to separate, then, as the goodnights drag on, they drift back together and talk briefly about plans for the following day. There is some suggestion of seeing each other the next morning, grabbing a final hour or so by the pool, though nothing definite is arranged. Each couple has a hire car to return and some are planning to set off for Tampa airport earlier than others, but there is general agreement that they will all see each other in the departure lounge before the flight home.
"Definitely," Angie says. "Don't forget we need to swap those email addresses." (119)

The confident perp muses:
I know they talk to each other, police force to police force or whatever, and these days, with the internet and everything, the connection was likely to get made very bloody quickly.
I'm not denying I was lucky because I was stupidly lucky. The people I needed to behave in particular ways behaved in exactly the ways I thought they would, said the right thing. Said the wrong thing. Of course, luckiest of all, there'd been so many of us out there enjoying the Florida sunshine to begin with. Let's hear it for the crappy British weather. (283-4)

Miriam Toews. All My Puny Sorrows. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2014.
This book shot to the top of Maclean's bestseller list a moment after it was published. I anticipate a new Toews books so much I'm almost afraid to begin reading because I know it will end and I don't want it to. It's obvious I am not the only one who is captivated by Toews' ability to suck you immediately into a world that is half-comedy, half-tragedy, resonating truly everywhere in the details. Yolandi (Yoli) and Elfrieda (Elf) are the Von Riesen sisters; one is musically gifted; the other is the narrator. This is basically about family relationships, a family that typically only Toews can bring to life, a flawed family you want to wrap in your arms. The scenes shift between Winnipeg and Toronto.

Toews draws on her Mennonite heritage, familiar from her previous books, although I'd say there's a harder edge here. In their childhood, "the alpha Mennonite" who comes calling does not deflect the free-spirited sisters from their irreverent ways. Readers who have depression in their family will feel the weight of Elf's struggles with suicide; some of it will break your heart. And yet, cobbling together support and comfort, Yoli's reminiscences (and their wayward mother) often verge on the hysterically funny. Bizarre, bitter-sweet, and very much alive ... Toews' expressive command of her characters is superb.

The elders come to call because Elf wants to go to university:
Public enemy number one for these men was a girl with a book.
She'll get ideas, said one of them to my father in our living room, to which he had no response but to nod in agreement and look longingly towards the kitchen where my mother was staked out snapping her dish towel at houseflies and pounding baby veal into schnitzel. I sat silently beside my father on the itchy davenport absorbing their "perfume of contempt" as my mother described it. I heard my mother call my name. I went into the kitchen and found her sitting on the counter, swinging her legs and chugging apple juice straight from the plastic jug. (12-13)

Elf casually mentioned that while she was in Europe she might as well go to Russia to explore her roots and my father almost stopped breathing. You will not! he said. Yeah, I might, said Elf. Why not?
My grandparents originally came from a tiny Mennonite village in Siberia in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik revolution. Terrible things happened to them there in the land of blood. Any hint of the place, the slightest mention of anything Russian, and my parents would start clawing the air. (18)

My mother says ah, okay, but still ... I wonder about you carrying that sorrow around with you, where it came from ... and I finally understood what she needs to hear and that she's talking about not just me but Elf too and I tell her that my sorrow was not created by her, that my childhood was a joyful thing, an island in the sun, that her mothering is impeccable, that she is not to blame. (146)

Considering options to help her sister:
I closed my eyes and tried to think. What is love? How do I love her? I was gripping the steering wheel the way my father used to, like he was towing a newly discovered planet behind him, one that held the secrets to the universe. (152)

Elf plays Mary in the children's church nativity pageant:
Elf was well aware of her responsibilities, of being demure and tender and mild even though she'd been unconventionally impregnated by an invisible force and was now expected to raise the Messiah and all on a carpenter's salary. I was six. I was supposed to be a shepherd, relegated to some back row where all us younger kids would stand with dishtowels on our heads or angel wings gaffed to our backs. (299)