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

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.

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)

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)

"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.


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.

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)

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)

"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)

09 June 2016

Library Limelights 110

Tahar Ben Jelloun. This Blinding Absence of Light. New York: The New Press, 2002.
Maybe I'm a masochist. A recent author mentioned this book regarding Morocco and it turned out to be the excruciatingly pitiful story of eighteen years incarcerated in a secret underground desert jail for political prisoners. Ben Jelloun fictionalized his interviews with a real-life survivor into an award-winning first-person account. You bet, I skimmed over much of it. Deprived of light, hunched in cells too cramped to stand up in, ravaged by deadly insects and disease, fed the vilest food and water, the prisoners existed in their own filth. Some strove to reach an out-of-body, transcendent state. A bare handful had survived by the time (1991) an international campaign to release them was successful. Their damaged bodies and brains were scarcely human.

It is shockingly beyond all sensibility and comprehension what we are capable of doing to our fellow man. Rotting bodies and unhinged minds. Abu Ghraib, Bang Kwang, Tadmor, San Quentin, Lubyanka, Devil's Island ... Guantanamo? ... and so many more hell-holes, historic or current, designed to dehumanize their populations. This was the worst. Yet we can't always ignore the dark side.

Quote: "I'm going to die without ever seeing the sun or light again." (158)

To reach his mouth:
I am sitting with my back and head against the wall. My right arm is immobilized. It sticks to the wall as if glued there. I must slowly pry it loose and raise it to my mouth. Easy to say, extremely hard to do. I focus all my attention on my arm. My entire body is in this arm. I am an arm sitting on the floor, and I must push with all my strength to get up. Staring at the arm, I can forget the bitter taste in my mouth and even reduce the pain in my joints to faint twinges. I hear the pain echoing. I can feel it moving away, but not disappearing. I bend my head down to bring it closer to my hand. I feel the bile rising until it nearly chokes me. I lean back quickly, whacking my skull against the wall. Holding my head still, I change tactics: my hand will come to my mouth, not vice versa. It takes hours. I use my other arm for support. I am bathed in sweat. Drops fall on my hand. What is most important is not to move, or think about anything but lifting that arm. (48-9)

Jack Harvey (actually Ian Rankin). Witch Hunt. (1993) UK: Orion Paperback, 2000.
An early Rankin, no Rebus. The copy I read was an older version which did not say Ian Rankin on the front. MI5 "intelligence technician" Michael Barclay joins forces with Special Branch detectives Greenleaf and Doyle to find and stop a notorious female assassin. They don't know if or which political figure she will target during an international summit in London. Barclay's boss Joyce Parry brings a retired operative into the mix: Dominic Elder clearly has some mysterious history with the cunning assassin he calls Witch. The quest to locate Witch before disaster strikes seems hopeless. Elder is an unlikely hunter, scarred as he is in more ways than one. A sweet side story develops between Barclay and a newbie French officer.

The story is a bit slow on the takeoff ― some initial confusion on my part in trying to follow who is connected to which section of British spies and police. Interesting to realize how far technology has advanced since the 1990s (walkie-talkies and fax machines) for criminal apprehension. Never mind the vintage, it's an all-engrossing Rankin thriller.

One-liners: You made up a joke, told it to someone in a pub, and three months later while on holiday in Ecuador some native told the joke back to you. (23)

Barclay muses:
These days there was no black and white: everyone spied on everyone else. This was no revelation, it had always been the case, but it was more open now. More open and more closed. Spy satellites were toys only the very rich and the very paranoid could play with. The spying community had grown larger, all-encompassing, bit it had also grown smaller, forming itself into an elite. All change.He'd actually used the word 'paranoid' in one of his selection board interviews. A calculated risk. If the service didn't want to think of itself as paranoid, it would have to recruit those who suspected it of paranoia. Well, he'd passed the exams and the tests and the interviews. (21)

The patronizing partner:
"So how was France then?" Greenleaf was smiling. Some might have called it a grimace. 
Doyle smiled too: with pleasure. "Mag-ni-fique, John. Just mag-ni-fique. Here ..." He reached into a carrier bag. "Have a bottle of beer. I've another 199 of them in the garage at home." 
Greenleaf accepted the small green bottle. "Thanks," he said. "I'll savour it." 
"You do that, John. That's one franc's worth of best Alsace lager in there. Four-point-nine alcohol, so take it slow, eh?" And Doyle gave Greenleaf a big wink. 
I don't really hate him, Greenleaf thought suddenly. He's smarmy all right, but I wonder how seriously he takes himself. Maybe the whole thing is just him sending himself up. I don't really hate him. It's just gentle loathing. (99)

Elder gets the vibe:
He could almost smell her, almost taste her behind the seaside flavours and aromas. She had been here. And not long enough ago for her taint to have left the place. Was she still here? He didn't think so. But if the hunt started to close in on her, she might just come back. A safe port in a storm. This had been her first lair on arriving in England. It would have meaning and resonance for her. Wounded, she might come crawling back. It would do no harm for Elder to learn the ground, her home-ground. So he walked, stopping to talk with people. (176)

Karin Slaughter. Pretty Girls. USA: William Morrow / HarperCollins, 2015.
Slaughter has out-bizarre'd all her peers (and she's right up there with the bestsellers) with an outrageous psycho killer. Pretty Girls is a beautifully-rendered, compassionate story of a family tragedy ― combined with the most repellent, bloodcurdling scenes. Sisters Claire and Lydia end their estrangement after the death of Claire's husband Paul. Paul had horrifying secrets they learn about, one by one. Together, trying not to panic, they intend to eliminate the threat facing their remaining family. Law enforcement is not trustworthy. Will they unravel the mystery before a killer catches up with them?

But oh, the contrast: inserting shock value takes away from the author's great moments of describing a grieving but lively family. Are we going to call this Southern Noir? Atlanta Noir? I feel this loyalty to Slaughter because I met her at an OLA convention years ago when she was flogging her first book. She steadily proved herself a better and better novelist; she excels in both plots and characters. Let me just say that she can hold her own among top crime writers without the graphic brutality. Although I like the best of the noir genre I question again why, why ― this apparent writers' competition for the most twisted, lurid perpetrator (I really pick 'em, don't I?).

A particularly beautiful woman is a source of terror. (frontispiece; quote from Carl Jung)
"Optimism is a sliver of glass in your heart." (28)

Soon, the guests:
Claire wiped away her tears. She tried to logic down the panic. January was next year. The wake was right now. Claire didn't have to be told how to throw a get-together. The caterers would've arrived an hour ago. The wine and liquor had been delivered this morning. As Claire had gotten dressed for the funeral, the gardeners were already out in the yard with their leaf blowers. The pool had been cleaned yesterday evening while the tables and chairs were being unloaded. There were two bartenders and six servers. Black-eyed pea cakes with shrimp., Zucchini and corn fritters. Coriander-spiced beef fritters. Burgundy beet risotto tarts. Lemon-spiced chicken with dilled cucumbers. Pigs in a blanket with mustard, which Claire always threw in as a joke but was invariably the first thing the caterers ran out of because everyone loved tiny hot dogs. (42-3)

Out of the blue:
Her cell phone chirped in the other room. 
Rick knew better than to ask her to ignore the phone when Dee was away. 
She told him, "Keep going without me. I'll catch up." 
Lydia picked her way past the dogs and a pile of laundry as she made her way into the kitchen. Her purse was in a chair. She dug around in the bag for several seconds before spotting her phone on the counter. There was a new text. 
"She all right?" Rick was standing in the doorway. 
"She probably forgot her book again." Lydia swiped her thumb across the screen. There was a text from a blocked number. The message listed an unfamiliar address in Dunwoody. 
Rick asked, "What's wrong?" 
Lydia stared at the address, wondering if the text was sent by mistake. She ran a small business. She didn't have the luxury of clocking out. Her voice mail at work gave her cell phone number. The work number was on the side of her van alongside a photo of a giant yellow Lab that reminded her of the dog her father had rescued after Julia was gone. 
"Liddie?" Rick said. "Who is it?" 
"It's Claire," Lydia said, because she felt it with every ounce of her being. "My sister needs me." (112-3)

24 May 2016

Library Limelights 109

Robert Wilson. Stealing People. UK: Orion Books, 2015.
Most complicated Charles Boxer novel yet. A series of kidnappings in London, six children of mega-rich families, each a different nationality, is executed in a tightly coordinated manner. Because they happen almost all at the same time, it's clear that a large number of personnel are involved. Various levels of investigation are swiftly put in place by police, kidnap specialists, MI5, MI6, international intelligence agencies, and ... the parents. Mercy Danquah is in charge of the police operation that seems an overwhelming job. Strong personalities clash over procedure and the tension can't get any higher while everyone waits for ransom demands, but the kidnappers have mysterious motives. Boxer and his daughter Amy (thankfully acting mature this time) are drawn into it through a missing person request from the enigmatic young Siobhan.

Two more kidnappings close to home add harrowing confusion as Mercy and Boxer work the cases from different angles, suspecting conspiracy of a military nature. Dead bodies are strewn in their wake. Challenging ― I had to keep flipping back and forth to keep track of so many characters. Wilson makes his salient angry point about the deception of the Gulf War and its profiteering private contractors. We never see the kidnap victims interacting until the very end; seems like a missed opportunity, unusual for Wilson, but of course would have substantially increased the page count. Clearly more to come with Boxer.

Word: anodyne (adjective) ― moderating, medicating

One-liners: The kid looked like trouble on stilts. (27)

Fight for emotional control:
Silence from Mercy as anger and fear battled away. She got to the car, dropped her head on to the steering wheel. She was not prone to tears, never cried in her professional life, whatever the horrors of the case. Her job demanded a cool head at all times. But in this situation she couldn't help herself: professionalism went out the window, the tears flowed as her imagination ran riot with images of Marcus's bloodied face. She had to grip the wheel and remind herself of the basics of kidnap negotiation. The mind game. The power of the unseen. (70)

Mind over matter?
Boxer lowered himself to the floor, which was covered with overlapping carpets, and studied the perfect calm of the face in front of him. 
He'd been a long time waiting for this moment and was surprised to find that the anger he'd readily summoned in London was now more difficult to come by. The distance from the turmoil of modern life, the presence of time and space, the cleanliness of the mountain air, the tranquillity of the room and the meditative serenity of the man before him were not conducive to extreme emotions. (344)

Rosemary Sullivan. Stalin's Daughter. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2015.
A lonngggg wait for this extremely popular biography. As if I hadn't consumed enough hardship and suffering in Child 44! At 600+ pages Sullivan indeed covers "the extraordinary and tumultuous life of Svetlana Alliluyeva" from hundreds of documents, interviews, and published sources. What can one say about someone who grew up in the dense shadow of Joseph Djugashvili aka Stalin, a paranoid monster, the Russian vozhd who murdered countless more people than Hitler ever did? An isolated child whose father was distant and rough, whose mother committed suicide? A woman whose life was characterized by restlessness and loneliness? Her own birth family was decimated by executions or sentencing to the gulags.

I thought I could slip and slide through this, picking just the sections I wanted to read. But couldn't help myself, the entire book went by thanks to Sullivan's compassionate and compelling rendition that quotes so many who knew Svetlana. Rare photographs enhance. She was very attractive, usually outspoken, intellectually strong but emotionally needy. A great variety of friends over her lifetime admired her down-to-earth kindness and occasionally suffered her volatile temper. She sought, unsuccessfully in multiple marriages, a man who would stay the course. Abandonment issues, so very sad.

Word: tropism ― a one-directional biological response to external stimulus

Olga slowly came to realize that Svetlana was "essentially an orphan." (109)
Ordinarily, suicide was looked on as treason against the collective. (156)
"Svetlana was doomed to carry the cross of her origin for the rest of her life." (223)

Visiting "papaschka" as a married woman:
When she and her father were alone, it was difficult to find subjects to talk about, other than the food they were eating or the botanical details of nearby plants. She was careful not to talk about people, in case she might mistakenly say something about someone that might arouse her father's suspicions. She never knew what to say or, more important, what not to say. It was easiest when she read to him. 
Dejected by the whole ordeal, Svetlana returned to Moscow after three weeks, but as soon as she was back in the Kremlin apartment with her son Joseph, she felt she was again trapped inside a sarcophagus. She grew desperate. Given her psychological history, Svetlana did not know how to be alone. Alone, she felt totally exposed. She thought she would be safe if only she could entwine her life with another, but then, once she had achieved this, she would feel suffocated, a pattern that would take her decades to break, if she ever succeeded. (136)

The Zhadanov marriage:
It was not possible for either her or her husband to go into the dark interior spaces where the fear and anger raged. It was not possible to engage real emotions in these families where nothing was said. Did she and Yuri discuss his father, her father, what was happening in the world beyond their walls? That seems impossible. Was what she called an "inborn lack of emotion" simply an inability to speak truthfully? And yet it was also true that in orthodox Bolshevik circles, certain kinds of emotion were seen as weakness or self-indulgence. (167-8)

John Verdon. Let the Devil Sleep. New York: Crown Publishers/Random, 2012.
Retired detective Dave Gurney is emerging from the trauma of being shot (Shut Your Eyes Tight), needing to prove to himself that his mental faculties are still intact, although most of the time he's gloomier than ever. He meets young Kim whose thesis research on a cold case of serial murders brings her an offer from the fictional equivalent of Fox News. The media had dubbed the unknown killer as the Good Shepherd. Dave agrees to be Kim's consultant but soon dramatically differs from the accepted police theory of the time ― and no-one believes him. Even worse, the killer is returning to terrorize the original families. And he may be invading Dave's home life.

Although Dave's celebrated cop instincts come to the fore again, he recognizes that his emotional life is in a dead-end fog. One wonders how he maintains any relationships at all but wife Madeleine and son Kyle are supportive. IMO the author was not all that successful in portraying Dave's gradual opening up to normal feelings. The lesser characters are well done, and here's a welcome move: Jack Hardwick, Dave's former colleague of the impossibly rude, irreverent attitude, turns from nemesis to ally. Sort of. Some of the television interviews with "expert" talking heads are wickedly on point. Lots of life left in Dave yet.

Meese seemed to be riding an emotional horse that was getting away from him. (123)
"Anger doesn't hurt as much as guilt." (359)

Find the root:
A therapist had told him long ago, "Whenever you're disturbed, try to identify the fear beneath the disturbance. The root is always fear, and unless we face it, we tend to act badly." Now, taking a cool step back, Gurney asked himself what he was afraid of. The question occupied him for most of the remaining trip home. The clearest answer he could come up with was also the most embarrassing. 
He was afraid of being wrong. (49)

No flies on Dave:
A long silence fell between them. Gurney's mind felt empty, unfocused, uneasy. 
"It's kind of chilly down here," said Kyle. "You want to come back up to the house?" 
"Yeah. I'll be up in a minute." 
"So ... you never finished saying what it is about the Good Shepherd case that's getting to you. You seem to be the only person who has a problem with it." 
"Maybe that's the problem." 
"That's way too Zen for me." 
Gurney uttered a sharp, one-syllable laugh. "The problem is a gaping lack of critical thinking. The who goddamn thing is too neatly packaged, too simple, and way too useful to too many people. It hasn't been challenged, argued, tested, ripped, and kicked, because too many experts in too many positions of power and influence like it the way it is―a textbook crime spree by a textbook psycho." (183)

Kim's media education:
Gurney took the opportunity to ask casually, "Will the new murders boost your ratings?" 
Getz flashed another grin. "You want the truth? The ratings will shoot through the roof. We'll run news specials, Second Amendment debates, maybe even a spin-off series. Remember the project I offered you? In the Absence of Justice―a hard-nosed review of unsolved cases? That could be a hot one. That's still very much on the table, Detective. The Orphans of Murder could have real legs. A franchise. Media alchemy." 
Kim's hands were balled into fists. "That's so ... so ugly." 
"You know what it is, sweetheart? It's human nature." 
Her eyes blazed. "It sounds to me like ugliness and greed." 
"Right. Like I said, human nature." 
"That's not human nature! That's trash!" 
"Let me tell you something. The human animal is just another primate. Maybe even the ugliest and stupidest one. That's the real truth. And I'm a realist. I didn't create the fucking zoo. I just make a living in it. You know what I do? I feed the animals." (389) 

13 May 2016

That bloody churchmen

When we discuss health matters lately by email (facial wrinkles, whole grains, yoga, and the like) which is all the time, my friend began highly recommending churchmen. As we do not normally discuss our spiritual preferences, I let it slide. But it was getting kind of creepy. Was she born again without telling me? Was she going all cult-y? Yoga talk is about as close as we get to organized religion.

My friend does not review her email before sending. She was recommending curcumin. My friend does not know how to turn off her auto-correct.

Curcumin was better known to me as turmeric. A rather exotic spice popular in Asian foods. This amazing, natural anti-inflammatory was going to soothe my free radicals, whatever they are. Those online health rags boast exciting, neurotrophic-boosting antioxidant.

Now ... I've been through all the cosmetic and food and health fads with my friend. The miracles of red wine, vitamin E oil, kale, vitamin imbalances, naturopathic remedies, Feldenkrais, aquafaba, you name it. It took ages to self-diagnose her allergy to red wine. The last marvel was swathing coconut oil on your face, your hands, your body, your frying pan. I was the walking embodiment of intensive sunscreen aroma, spreading the joy everywhere I walked. Until the pervasive smell was making me heave. How many grease-stained pillowcases did I have to throw out. It was some time before I could face my beloved Thai green curry again.

So. The turmeric. Instead of buying a tiny, expensive, fancy container, I opted for like a one-pound bag at my dollar department store for the same price. The thrill of a bargain. The optimism. Simply sprinkle a teaspoon on your salad, your stir fry, your frozen dinner. If a teaspoon helps, why not a tablespoon? Maximizing my disease prevention.

No-one tells you it's yellow peril if you drop so much as a grain of powder anywhere other than on its food destination. A grain here, a grain there. No-one tells you that turmeric is non-erasable. On the counter, the utensils, the dishes, the tea towel, my shirt, my hands, the (white) floor. My face, after consumption. Yellow. Not my favourite colour. Bright, blinding yellow that defies every scrubbing; epic fail of industrial strength cleanser. Here is my kitchen:


Van Gogh would have loved it. I'm going to sell the remaining fifteen and a half ounces to a graffiti artist.