17 November 2017

Crime Fiction Heaven

Never heard of it till this year. Where have I been?! If it hadn't take place in Toronto would I still be lost in the darkness? I'm a little overdue at posting this.

The ultimate conference for lovers of crime fiction. A candy store of mystery. Over 700 authors, largely North American but many other countries represented. Louise Penny and Christopher Brookmyre (the latter recently "discovered" by moi, LL142) were among the extra-special guests.

Kathy Reichs, mid-panel; Lindsay Barclay far right

The panoply of program events was dizzying and so difficult to choose which to attend, who to see. Like Ian Hamilton! Sarah Paretsky! William Deverell! Robert Rotenberg! Ruth Ware! Ann Cleeves! Laurie R. King! Peter McGarvey! Rick Mofina! Lawrence Block! Charles Todd! Okay Brenda, dial it down.

Talks, panels, interviews, signings, booksbooksbooks, books. Globe and Mail reviewer Margaret Cannon was there.

Something for every fan British cosies, legal/courtroom drama, foreign locales, espionage, medical or science or technology thrillers, tough detectives, funny detectives, forensic-heavy, spooky, historical, wartime — you name it.

Scandinavian and Scottish Noir were under-represented, but who would notice? So many established authors to uncover or new ones to discover. I saw .. almost touched some of my faves .. Alafair Burke, Kathy Reichs, Linwood Barclay.

Alafair Burke, third from left

New authors to try: Terry Hayes; Yrsa Sigurdardottir; Alexandra Sokoloff; and some freebies Ross Pennie; Ed Lin; Leighton Gage. Appearing soon (within reason) on the pages of The Famdamily.


Karin Slaughter! And that man of my Edinburgh dreams, Ian Rankin himself! Why not this year, Ian? Why? Ian, why would you go to Florida when you could have come to Toronto? Whywhywhy, she moans.


13 November 2017

Library Limelights 146

Jussi Adler-Olsen. The Alphabet House. 2007. (large print) USA: Thorndike Press, 2014.
Peculiar, bewildering, and not for everyone. This is so far from Adler-Olsen's popular series featuring Copenhagen cop Carl Mørck, I find myself repetitively asking Why? Why is a Danish author writing of two Englishmen who spent WWII in Germany in the most horrific circumstances? Bryan and James are young Brit pilots shot down while on photo reconnaissance, ultimately incarcerated in a German mental hospital. By chance they are able to assume valid German identities. Several of their fellow inmates are also simulating madness. The graphic details of their behaviour, treatment, and torture ‒ so gruesome, they must be real ‒ made me begin skimming large passages hoping it would change or else abandon the novel. Mimicking becomes madness. No doubt about it, background research must have consumed countless time. Prolonged story short: Bryan escaped.

To my surprise, it did change. To Bryan's life over twenty-five years later. He's feeling guilt over the unknown fate of his buddy. Off he goes to Germany to find James' story ― James who is alive and known as Gerhart. The three other former malingerers are keeping him, sedated and nearly mindless, without knowing who he really is. With the narrative POV changing from one character to another, the story is full of murky feelings and mental struggles. Can anyone adequately describe what a seriously mentally disturbed man thinks or feels? Even with tense sequences of stalking and murder, the motives and feelings of Bryan and James become more and more confusing by the page. The plot has some holes but they are overshadowed by the persisting pain. Why on earth did the author tackle such a plot? I've no answer to that; read at your own peril.

All his mental states were churned up like mud, leaving him in a chronic state of anxiety and melancholy. (143)
His blubbering and whining were to no avail as the staff pulled him out of the bed. (159)
For the sake of finally avenging all these atrocities, he could easily wait a bit longer. (490)
In their eyes he now belonged to a part of the past best left unspoken. (572)
Petra had finally lost her hold on Gerhart's and her own life. (600)
The old man's face had turned completely colorless with fury and he was frothing at the mouth. (612)

Electroshock fear:
Bryan was afraid of how such a treatment might affect him. Pictures he had been clinging to in his head slowly disappeared. The idea of seeing his girlfriend again, of being able to talk to James, or of simply going for a walk unescorted in the gray drizzle outside ― everything was blunted and reduced. His memory played tricks on him, so that one day he could recall a forgotten childhood experience in a Dover side street and the next day he couldn't even remember what he looked like. 
Escape plans fizzled out even before they were thought through. (120)

Encountering Petra the nurse:
"I'm sorry!" he said. She was startled to hear his English. For a couple of seconds he stopped breathing and his pulse almost disappeared. The blood drained from his face, leaving his skin pallid. He swallowed a number of times in order to stave off a sudden feeling of nausea. 
She was different, but her troubled face was painfully unchanged. It was precisely the small, fine characteristics and movements that never changed. The hard life that had apparently worn her out and turned her into an ordinary middle-aged woman had not been able to remove these, in spite of everything. 
What an incredible coincidence. Cold shivers ran down his spine. The past became all too present as a totality of repressed impressions was reconstructed with unbelievable precision. Suddenly he could even remember her voice. (456)

By now it was many hours since Gerhart had last had his pills. So much time had never elapsed before. A couple of minutes previously, while he was down on all fours, being pistol-whipped on the kitchen floor and staring at the small white things scattered under the kitchen table, the main sensation he'd felt was one of astonishment. 
It was as if the room had grown longer than usual, and he had to keep on swallowing the saliva that had begun flowing unhindered. The sensation of his body growing and shrinking made him giddy. Andrea's steps sounded like the tramping of an ox. All the words came to him as if through a megaphone. 
As the old man began to count, Gerhart felt defiance finally taking hold of him. The man's face was in his way. It brought shadow into the room and coaxed disgust up to the surface. He smelled sourish and the stubble around his beard gave him a slovenly appearance. (611-2)

Karin Slaughter. Faithless. Large print. USA: Random House, 2005. 

In the series featuring Dr Sara Linton and police chief Jeffery Tolliver, this book is midway: as they contemplate re-marrying. Small town residents and rural Georgia are horrified by the discovery of a missing teenage girl buried in a wooden box in the woods. Abigail did not suffocate, she died from a forced ingestion of cyanide. Her extended family, operators of a successful organic farm with many transient labourers, is clean-living and pious. Naturally, secrets and surprises await. Sara has her own suspicions about the redheaded family leader.

Detective Lena Adams unexpectedly feels a bond with an abused wife who's on the periphery of the murder case. Apart from her job, Lena is a basket case of repressed, inarticulate emotions about her boyfriend Ethan and his negative influence on her. A harrowing climax saves the life of another young girl even though Lena faces a stand-off. Sara finally stops nagging Jeffery (thank you). Slaughter doesn't miss a beat, always on form. But sad to say she's an "off of" writer.

The baby on her hip was at least two, with a set of lungs on him that rattled the windows. (93)
He had a Bible in his other hand, and he raised it into the air like a torch, shining the way to enlightenment. (136)
"Just because you're sitting in the henhouse, that don't make you a chicken." (382)
This was the only time in his life that his father's miserable habits had actually benefited Jeffery instead of kicking him in the ass. (472-3)

Truth hurts:
The cop in her knew she should arrest him. The woman in her knew he was bad. The realist knew that one day he would kill her. Some unnamed place deep inside of Lena resisted these thoughts, and she found herself being the worst kind of coward. She was the woman throwing rocks at the police cruiser. She was the neighbor with the knife. She was the idiot kid clinging to her abuser. She was the one with tears deep inside her throat, choking on what he made her swallow. (45-6)

Same old, same old?
"Of course I know what it means," he insisted, his body feeling slack all of a sudden, like he couldn't take one more thing. How many times had they done this? How many arguments had they had in this same kitchen, both of them pushed to the edge? Jeffery was always the one who brought them back, always the one to apologize, to make things better. He had been doing this all his life, from smoothing down his mother's drunken tempers to stepping in front of his father's fists. As a cop, he put himself in people's business every day, absorbing their pain and their rage, their apprehension and fear. He couldn't keep doing it. There had to be a time in his life when he got some peace. (256-7)

Evasive witnesses:
"I don't recall blaming anybody." 
She shook her head as she turned around. "I know what you're thinking, Chief Tolliver." 
"I doubt―" 
"Paul said you'd be this way. Outsiders never understand. We've come to accept that. I don't know why I tried." She pressed her lips together, her resolve strengthened by anger. "You may not agree with my beliefs, but I am a mother. One of my daughters is dead and the other is missing. I know something is wrong. I know that Rebecca would never be so selfish as to leave me at a time like this unless she felt she had to." 
Jeffery thought she was answering his earlier question without admitting it to herself. He tried to be even more careful this time. "Why would she have to?" (327)

Tanya Talaga. Seven Fallen Feathers. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2017.
Non-fiction. This is Ontario's True North. This is how our Native population exists at home and away from home. For high school and higher education, most northwestern Native families in our province have to send their children away to board, often with strangers, in a highly unfamiliar urban environment. The teenagers come from very small, tightly-bound communities (despite their lack of decent facilities) where one hundred years of cruel residential schooling have made profound scars on their parents and earlier generations. Lonely, homesick kids trying to adjust to "bright lights, big city" ‒ experiencing local insults, racial slurs, threats, assaults ‒ feeling like aliens, meeting each other for booze or drugs as consolation.

Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School (DFC) in Thunder Bay opened in 2000 to address their educational needs. But the support system is not wide enough, not deep enough, to guarantee safety of the students. Some DFC students have died in "undetermined" circumstances. The bodies of seven Native youths (at the time of publication) have been pulled from the Neebing-McIntyre floodway. Beyond the young losses, adult Natives have met suspicious deaths. Police and government authorities from municipal to federal are accused of indifference and neglect.

Despite the call from Nishnawbi Aski Nation and significant other groups, the pleas, reviews, reports, commissions, recommendations, etc have pretty much come to naught. Lack of funding to address the situation is appalling. The lack of justice and equality is worse. The entire Indian Act (1870) as an unconscionable, racist failure has to go. There is no justification for our fellow human beings having to live in the most primitive of conditions.

There was a time when I was proud to say, "I'm from Thunder Bay." It's more than seven fallen feathers. It's more than just Thunder Bay. Generations of us white folks have just accepted that's the way it is ― if we were even conscious of it. I wonder what my old school friends think of this, the ones from Kenora, Redditt, Sioux Lookout, Fort Frances, Rainy River, Red Lake, Ear Falls. While we enjoyed the comforts of an elite boarding school, we had not the slightest awareness of other youngsters existing miserably, bullied, stripped of basic respect and dignity in residential schools, not so far away from us.

What have we done and when will we undo it?! The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in 2016 ordered the Canadian government in one regard to make it right ―to make it legally and financially possible for Native children to be treated the same as any other Canadian child. Jurisdictional wrangling continues; reviews of the police continue.

Talaga factually exposes the racism, the ignorance, the heartbreak, the bureaucratic inefficiencies, how residential school trauma haunts any teenager who must go away for further education. Every Canadian should read this book.

Trudeau is sympathetic, but Fiddler knows that he will never truly grasp the enormity of the issues his people live through every single day. (51)
Some days the pain was unbearable and his head would pound with the weight of remembrance. (53)
For many Indigenous families, keeping young First Nations students safe from harm means keeping them out of Thunder Bay. (267-8)
[From the DFC guidebook for students] "Look confident, walk with your head up as if you know where you are going. The appearance of being lost or being anxious may render you vulnerable to unwanted attention."

Part of the residential school legacy:
What the statistics don't tell you is how some of the older children would form their own abusive circles, preying on the younger, more vulnerable kids. The abuse suffered at the hands of adult supervisors took its toll on the students. They became further disengaged from the classroom, angry, and in need of someone to take their rage out on. For some of the kids, the younger children were easy victims. 
This is the life Chanie ran from. (80)

Re Chanie Wenjack's inquest:
She knew there were only four recommendations but they were something. 
The most important one for her was the establishment of proper schools on every single reserve. This way kids would never have to leave their community. 
"When I heard about the kids in Thunder Bay, I could feel them running, of being scared," Pearl says. 
She understood their anguish. Their deep loneliness for home. Their confusion living in a big city so unlike where they were from and communicating in a language not their own. 
"When I am alone at home, I think about my brother. The drive to go home was so strong. I don't want his death to be in vain," she says. "As a residential school survivor, you can feel it all over again, what these students felt. Yes, you can feel it." (89-90)

PM Harper's residential school apology 2008:
As Alvin listened quietly to Harper's speech, he thought about the children of the Nishnawbi Aski Nation and the situation they were in right now. Most of them didn't have any clean water to drink or to bathe in. Many lived in houses without plumbing or proper heating. Fires were constantly claiming the lives of NAN kids because they lived in poorly constructed tinderbox houses that used homemade wood stoves to heat the rooms. Alvin thought about the abject poverty most of his people lived in and the addictions they suffered in the hopes of making all their misery go away. (240)

The irony:
And yet still the inequities rage. Northern First Nations families are faced with the horrific choice of either sending their children to high school in a community that cannot guarantee their safety, or keeping them at home and hoping distance education will be enough. Families are still being told ‒ more than twenty years after the last residential school was shut down ‒ that they must surrender their children for them to gain an education. Handing over the reins to Indigenous education authorities such as the NNEC without giving them the proper funding tools is another form of colonial control and racism. (267)

NAN lawyer, 2016 inquest:
The truth is none of the kids were safe by the river but it wasn't because they were drinking, Falconer argued. They weren't safe because Canadian society set them up for failure as human beings. "We didn't have space for them in our world and we didn't make space for them in theirs," he said. Without schools they couldn't be educated in their world, so they had to leave to come here, said Falconer. "They died of flat neglect." (282)

04 November 2017

Library Limelights 145

Camilla Lackberg. The Preacher. 2004. UK: HarperCollins, 2011.
Nice young cop Patrik Hedström in Fjällbacka, Sweden, is in charge of a murder enquiry, the girl's body found lying on top of two skeletons. So three murders. The small town police team is aghast and inexperienced. The prolific, repugnant Hult family is eventually under suspicion; it takes a while to sort out their family tree with various generations, brothers, cousins and so on. To makes matter worse, another girl goes missing which means time is of the essence to find her. Nevertheless many days go by while some of the cops merely goof around — attempts at humour to leaven the mix — and Patrik tries to pay more attention to his very pregnant wife Erica.

Can't help seeing the blurb on the front cover and in my opinion the cosiness was forced and the horror was fake. None of it sat right with me — the superficial personalities of the distasteful suspects, the meandering trails the cops follow, the DNA evidence. Suppressed rage seems to be a common factor among assorted unappealing characters. Erica's trials with unwanted house guests are occasion for a bit of action missing elsewhere; developing the dispute with her sister Anna and Anna's fate might have aroused more interest. True suspense is lacking in the mundane prose. Despite some mercifully non-detailed (but creepy) scenes of the kidnapped girls, this is not classic Scandinavian noir, more like Scandinavian-lite. Granted, it was a difficult case for the police to solve but I could hardly wait for it to be over.

Through the open window he could smell the rain in his nostrils. (60)
Certain duties demanded more of him than he could humanly bear. (77)
He had barely opened his mouth when she was already heaping scorn on him in her mind. (147)
Even when you had a lousy hand you had to play the cards you were dealt. (226)
"Every time we made love it was like dying and being reborn." (351)

Just say No, eh?!
"What a belly on you! Have you got twins in there or what?"
She really hated hearing people comment on her body that way, but she'd already begun to realize that pregnancy seemed to give everyone a free pass to make comments on your shape and touch your belly ‒ it was altogether too familiar. Complete strangers had even come up and started pawing at her stomach. Erica was just waiting for the obligatory patting to begin, and within seconds Conny was running his hands over her swollen stomach.
"Oh, what a little football star you have in there. Obviously a boy with all that kicking. Come here, Kids, feel this!" (28-9)

"How pleasant this is, don't you think?"
Solveig dipped a pastry in her coffee and peered at Laine, who said nothing.
Solveig went on, "It's hard to believe that one of us lives in a manor house and the other in a crappy shack. Yet here we sit like two old friends. Am I right, Laine?"
Laine closed her eyes and hoped that the humiliation would be soon over. Until next time. She knotted her hands under the table and reminded herself why she subjected herself to this torment, time after time. (197)

Joseph Kanon. Istanbul Passage. 2012. USA: Washington Square Press/Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2013.
Here's a Cold War espionage novel written by a master; no dull moment. Leon Bauer works in Istanbul, at times acting as courier for Tommy King in the U.S. consulate, unaware of the true nature or potential consequences of these "favours." The iconic city is full of political intrigue after WWII, the Turks seeking a balancing act in their international status. Leon's wife Anna was active in smuggling Jews to Palestine but now lies hospitalized, her mind lost to the world. Suddenly, Leon's latest errand backfires into murder; he finds himself stranded as the guardian of a wanted man and, known only to himself, the subject of a police hunt. The murder of U.S. embassy official (read: intelligence officer) Frank heightens the tension as Leon scrambles to verify his own network of resources.

Even Leon's dalliance with Frank's wife is fraught with guessing at the shifting alliances around him. Emniyet, the secret para-military police, suspiciously watch him. The history of some sordid Romanian and Russian actions during the war is but one influence on his decisions. What I like best ― it may take some mental adjustment ― is the narrative being all from Leon's perspective and absolutely spot on with the urgency of fleeting thoughts flicking through, and digesting, a catalogue of constantly updated information. Rich in Istanbul imagery and moral dilemmas, Istanbul Passages ranks with the best of spy tales in plot and style.

"He never thought he could have something like this, a girl in a room, waiting for him." (30)
They were going to make it, hanging like bats in the dark. (331)
You couldn't fight the next war until you'd lied about the last one. (381)

An old friend:
"I didn't know you were still in touch with the comrades. Anna said you'd left the Party."
"Old ties, only. It's a serious matter. They have to use every channel."
"And not the police."
"Georg looked away, watching the dog.
"What, Georg?" Leon said, then pointed to the trees. "Nobody's listening. Or is that why we came here? So we could talk. They asked you to approach me. Why?"
"You were a ‒ business associate."
"Of Tommy's? We weren't in business together."
"An acquaintance then. Maybe you have an idea why he was shot. Maybe he told you something. A man who's drinking with him the night before. You understand, they have to ask." (78-9)

The Romanian:
He turned. "Is that what you're asking? What's on my hands?" He held one out. "Not so clean. Are yours? In this business?" He lowered his hand. "Do you know how easy it can be? Something you never thought you could do. Easy. Later, it's harder. People forget, but you live with it, whatever you did." He turned. "We penetrated their military intelligence. That's all that should matter to you now. You want to put me on trial with Antonescu? For what? The Guard? The camps? All of it my fault. Maybe even the war. My fault too." He stopped. "Nobody cares about that anymore. Not them, not you. It's in the past." He looked up. "Except your Romanian friend maybe. So eager to tell you things. Maybe he'd like to tell someone else. A Romanian will sell anything. Maybe me." (84-5)

On the stair landing, stopping to catch his breath, he felt he could hear an actual ticking. How long? He looked up the steps. Think for a minute. Down the corridor a police photographer was probably still taking pictures. A crime scene. And the man who could link him to it waiting in his office. First deal with him. Then what? The car in Űskűdar. Alexei on the ferry to Haydarpaşa. The mountain road. But all that seemed impossible now, the drive endless, exposed. Something else. Think. People make mistakes when they're running. He tried to slow his breathing. (270)

"We don't think we're a bridge. We think we're the center. The world used to spread out from here, in every direction. For years. But then it began to shrink. Piece by piece, then all at once. And now there's only us. Turkey. So we have to keep that." (350-1)

Daniel Silva. House of Spies. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2017.
In great contrast to the above, bold Israeli spymaster Gabriel Allon's method for catching ISIS leader Saladin is by patiently weaving an intricate trap. It's Silva's trademark style. Gabriel's measured plan over a period of months perforce includes input from French, British, and American agencies. Many of his colleagues, including Mikhail, Natalie, and the semi-Corsican Christopher Keller, go undercover in the elaborate ruse for making contact with a middle man. And that man, Jean-Luc Martel, is a celebrity in France, hiding his drug trafficking behind legitimate enterprises. Even his mistress Olivia is unaware of his hidden schemes.

The plot moves slowly but inexorably to climactic action in Morocco. A certain amount of suspending disbelief is necessary. The expense involved to set up the entrapment is in the scores of millions, supposedly funded by an earlier theft from the Syrian leader's secret offshore bank account. Silva unveils a slew of characters who are treated in depth, and one must remember the true identity of some beneath their disguises. The pace made me impatient for more action yet it's an entertaining, complex, devious journey.

"Your career has been a series of disasters interspersed with the occasional calamity." (105)
And so he built an army of streetwise killers, mainly Moroccans and Algerians, and unleashed them on his rivals. (141)
He was big and bluff, with a face like an Easter Island statue and a baritone voice that rattled the beams in the old house's vaulted entrance hall. (314)

"So," said Seymour finally, "how does it feel to be a member of the club?"
"Our chapter of the club isn't as grand as yours," said Gabriel, glancing around the magnificent office. "Not as old."
"Wasn't it Moses who dispatched a team of agents to spy out the land of Canaan?"
"History's first intelligence failure," said Gabriel. "Imagine how things might have turned out for the Jewish people if Moses had chosen another plot of land."
"And now that plot of land is yours to protect."
"Which explains why my hair is growing grayer by the day. ..." (97-8)

No touching:
In fact, Herr Müller liked looking at Olivia more than her paintings. He was not alone. Her looks were a professional asset, but on occasion they were a distraction and a waste of time. Rich men―and some not so rich―made appointments at the gallery just to spend a few minutes in her presence. Some screwed up the nerve to proposition her. Others fled without ever making their true intentions known. She had learned long ago how to project an air of unavailability. While technically single, she was JLM's girl. Everyone in France knew it. It might as well have been stamped on her forehead. (228)

"Fifty percent!" Martel waved his hand dismissively. "Madness."
"It is my final offer. If you wish to remain my distributor, I suggest you take it."
It was not Mohammad Bakkar's final offer, not even close. Martel knew this, and so did Bakkar himself. This was Morocco, after all. Passing the bread at dinner was a negotiation.
And on it went for several more minutes, as fifty shrank to forty-five and then forty and finally, with an exasperated glance toward the heavens, thirty. And all the while Mikhail was watching the man who was watching him. (400-1)

26 October 2017

Library Limelights 144

Peter James. Dead Simple. 2005. UK: Pan Books/Macmillan, 2011.
A stag night prank spins out of control: the groom-to-be, Michael, lies underground in a coffin, lord knows where, all contact lost. Brrrr ... our attention is engaged. The lovely bride-to-be Ashley is frantic; Michael's business partner Mark is distraught. Detective Superintendent Roy Grace of the Sussex police is reluctantly drawn into the missing person investigation by his friend DS Glenn Brannon. Grace is suffering peer ridicule over consulting a mystic on a previous case and the mysterious disappearance of his wife Sandy still haunts him. Suspense becomes almost unbearable as the cops work 24/7 to locate Michael; how long can someone like that survive?

But buried alive is not the only creepy aspect to this story. Grace and Brannon suspect someone is lying about events behind the search. Who among Michael's circle is not who they seem? Will a walkie-talkie save Michael? Culminating in a long, breathless car chase that seems written for a movie script, credibility is stretched regarding a new villain and an evil woman. James is new to me — another green light on the waiting list.

His friend looked like a laboratory experiment. (40)
The best predators were the most patient ones. (82)
It looked like an infant had texted them, not a grown man. (386)

Routine gave you structure. Structure gave you perspective. And perspective gave you a horizon. (50)

"Roy, what I know is that you are an intelligent man. I know that you've studied the paranormal and that you believe. I've seen the books in your office, and I respect any police officer who can think out of the box. But we have a duty to the community. Whatever goes on behind our closed doors is one thing. The image we present to the public is another." 
[annoying, uncooperative font change] "The public believe, Alison. There was a survey taken in 1925 of the number of scientists who believed in God. It was forty-three per cent. They did that same survey again in 1998, and guess what? It was still forty-three per cent. The only shift was that there were fewer biologists who believed, but more mathematicians and physicists. There was another survey, only last year, of people who had had some kind of paranormal experience. It was ninety per cent!" He leaned forwards. "Ninety per cent!" (64-5)

Mark had never forgotten a wildlife documentary he'd seen on television, filmed in a bat cave in South America. Some tiny micro-organism fed on the bat guano on the floor of the cave; a maggot ate the micro-organism; a beetle ate the maggot; a spider ate the beetle; then a bat ate the spider. It was a perfect food chain. The bat was smart, all it had to do was shit and wait. (82-3)

" ... They were killed in a traffic accident on Tuesday night." 
"And you walk in here with your big swinging dicks, looking for some poor sodding landlord to blame for plying them with drink?" 
"I didn't say that," Grace replied. "No, I'm not. I'm looking for this lad who was with them." He pointed at Michael's photograph. 
The landlord shook his head. "Not in here," he said. 
"Looking up at the walls, Branson asked, "Do you have CCTV?" 
"That meant to be a joke? Like I have money to buy fancy security gizmos? You know the CCTV I use?" He pointed at his own eyes. "These. They come free when you're born. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a barrel to change." 
Neither of them bothered to reply. (157-8)

Grace was tiring of it ‒ but did not know what to do about it. What if he found someone? Fell in love with a woman, big time? And then Sandy turned up? What then? 
He knew in his mind that she wasn't ever going to turn up, but there was a part of his heart that refused to go there, as if it was stuck like some old-fashioned record needle, in an eternal groove. Once or twice every year, when he was low, he would go to a medium, trying to make contact with her, or at least try to prise out some clue about what might have happened to her. But Sandy remained elusive, a photographic negative that lay forever black and featureless in the hypo fluid of the developing tray. (210) 

Graham Hurley. Touching Distance. UK: Orion Books, 2013.
Hurley just gets better and better, if possible. Jimmy Suttle, our Devon detective, faces the worst scenario of his career — several sniper killings have panicked the media and the public. Each death involves intense scrutiny of the victim and his associates. The pressure is on Sutton and his partner Luke Golding from their bosses, Houghton and Nandy, although the entire Devon police force is at work on it. Possibly the three separate investigations have a mutual link but the plot becomes very complicated with disrupted marriages and vengeful motives.

Meanwhile, trouble seems to be the middle name of Lizzie, Suttle's estranged wife. She's found an ex-army captain as a source for explosive press coverage that would ensure her re-entry to journalism. She's also willing to transfer her affections to this Rob who, among a large cast of well-outlined characters, seems the one stiff exception. On the other hand, details of the Afghan war effects on British soldiers are memorably vivid. "Touching distance" applies to relationships as well as the critical climax. Perfect Hurley; more to come.

"Knock too often on hell's door and one day it's gonna open." (183)
"The thing had got out of hand and she was binning the marriage for matey down the road." (259)
The big mistake, he said finally, was believing that doctors knew best. (278)

Granny rant:
"You don't like being a grandmother?" 
"I don't appreciate being taken for granted." 
"Is that what I do?" 
"Yes, if you want the truth. One day it might occur to you that I've got a life too. Most days Grace is no problem. I'm lucky to have her. I'm lucky to have the pair of you. But if I was that desperate for company, I'd never have given up the job. I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but some days, especially lately, I can see this thing ... this little arrangement of ours ... going on forever. That's not what I want. And neither should you." 
"What are you telling me?" 
"I'm telling you to decide on who you really want to be. We can't have it all, Lizzie. Sometimes we can't even have most of it. You have to compromise. And that way you might start getting the most out of motherhood." (29-30)

The best of friends:
After the darkness and silence of his first and only winter in the cottage with Lizzie, sharing the place with Lenahan had been a lifesaver. The man cooked like an angel. He was an unending source of stories, all of them framed to capture the madness of the world around him. Lenahan, on his own admission, had a cheerful pessimism about the human condition that had been coloured by postings to the far corners of the planet, but nothing, it seemed, could shake his faith that the journey ‒ wherever it led ‒ was still worthwhile. You had a duty to squeeze laughter out of chaos, to salve life's wounds as best you could, and to recognise that certain battles were best left unfought. In this respect, Suttle had often thought, he'd led a cop's life. He'd seen the worst. Yet he soldiered on. (59-60)

Doomed to repeat ...:
The Americans' key mistake, he said, had been to conflate al-Qaeda with the Taliban. The two elements were chalk and cheese. The Taliban had little time for a bunch of well-financed Arabs bent on world jihad and absolutely no interest in bringing America to its knees. They simply wanted to impose a certain way of life on their own country. And they didn't welcome interference from a coalition army determined to stop them. 
"But we stayed." This from Lizzie. 
"We did. A lot of our guys went off to Iraq for a while, but that didn't work out either so back they came." 
"To take on the Taliban?" 
"Sure. And the corruption. And all the tribal unhappiness. And the poppy. And the infrastructure ‒ which mostly didn't exist. You're talking about a country that had been at war for forty years. Things were just going backwards. And in so many respects I'm afraid they still are." (127-8)

Val McDermid. The Skeleton Road. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2014.
More war politics, rather surprising from McDermid. Skeletal remains of a murder on an Edinburgh rooftop become a cold case landing on the desk of DCI Karen Pirie. Two bureaucrats in The Hague offices of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia are tasked with finding a leak that enabled a freelance killer to assassinate individual Serbs in their relocated hiding places. The Balkan Wars are still very much alive in some quarters. Both investigations find common ground in Oxford professor Maggie Blake who lived in Dubrovnik during the seige. Blake's lover Mitja Petrovic had been a general in the Croatian army, coming to live with her in England in the aftermath; he has since abruptly disappeared.

Maggie is a well-established figure in the world of geopolitics, acclaimed for her teaching and publications. But she finds it difficult to write about her personal experiences in the Balkans, so heavily twined with the love of her life. Increasing circumstances make others question how well she really knew Petrovic despite the pain of losing him — her part of the narration reflects her loyalty. Pirie the cop has her own personal problems as she hunts for the skeleton's killer. This is classic McDermid using the complicated history of the Balkans as slightly different territory.

"I don't know how long it takes to turn into a skeleton, but I'm guessing it would be a few years?" (11)
"All you get from an eye for an eye is a lot of people stumbling around in the dark." (252)
How can ethnic cleansing make any sense when the people you are cleansing are the same as you under the skin? (291)

Maggie took a step away from Tessa, letting her friend's hand fall from her shoulder. "I love that you think so much of me you have to come up with some noble theory to explain why my lover walked out on me." She looked around the room, taking in the dancers, the talkers, the drinkers. The vista of the people who loved and respected [her] had no hope of chasing the sorrow away. "Whatever I was to him, Tessa, it wasn't home. That's why he left. Mitja just went home." (26-7)

Everyone thinks themselves unique when they fall in love. The truth is, we all lose ourselves in the same way. Whether it takes hours or days or weeks, we all find ourselves in a place of wonder and urgency, where we believe nobody has ever been before to quite the same degree. If everyone felt like this, our script goes, the world would come to a grinding, grinning halt. (173)

Humanity's flaws:
Karen desperately wanted to ask about Petrovic, but she forced herself to stay silent. "A wee bit different from Fife," she said. 
Maggie gave a wry smile. "Yes and no. The extreme sectarianism that infects parts of Scottish civil society isn't so very different from the religious hatreds that divide communities in the Balkans." 
"You mean Rangers and Celtics? Protestant against Catholic?" 
"Exactly. As in the Balkans, what they have in common is that all sides share the same mix of ethnicity. It's as if they have to be twice as fierce in their hatred of what they perceive as "difference" so they can establish the right of their own position. It's madness. And it's gone on for centuries. But finally, with this generation, there seems to be a sliver of hope for change." 
"In Scotland?" 
"I don't know about Scotland. I mean in the Balkans. And it's thanks to the internet." (186)

18 October 2017

Lost and Found: Meat Loaf

Not exactly lost ... let's say revived. Last year a concert by slimmed-down drama master Meat Loaf himself.

This year, those rip-roaring rock n' roll songs from the 80s found again. Was it a good idea to make a stage musical from Bat Out Of Hell? Why not?? That was on composer Jim Steinman's mind before the bestselling album ever hit the airwaves.

A slim story indeed, inexplicably set in a dystopian future, but same old thrill, powered by exciting sets and exceptional singers perfect for the songs. Rock on, Meat and Steinman!!

06 October 2017

Library Limelights 143

Lee Child. Night School. USA: Random House Large Print 2016.
Set in 1997, Child's familiar protagonist Jack Reacher is commandeered along with two strategic CIA and FBI agents to pursue a vague international threat based on information from their spy in Hamburg, Germany. Their boss is ultimately the National Security Agency, represented by Dr. Marian Sinclair. The absence of now-ubiquitous cell phones is notable. Someone is selling something unknown but important ‒ for one hundred million dollars. Someone is buying, but who? Mysterious messengers are relaying between the two at secret meetings. The good guys must find one of the meetings, identify the seller, and track down his expensive item. Illicit trade in military hardware is one guess; keeping the whole mess quiet is critical.

Reacher brings his right-hand woman Sgt. Neagley on board. Eventually they all converge in Germany where they convince local police chief Griezman, consulate officials, and U.S. army resources to assist. Little do they know the alt-right has its own agenda. By stealth and luck, the suspect eludes them time after time. Reacher's instincts usually lead them perfectly in an otherwise hopeless-looking situation. Including getting it on with Sinclair in his spare time. No attention is given to the buyer end of it, sketched only as cartoon-ish, Arab-like figures. Plenty of army lore here. It's typical Child with terse, stripped-down prose; all those incomplete sentences.

Her lips moved against his and she said, "Is this a good idea?" (241)
The folder held mimeographed copies of typewritten pages, all held together with brass fasteners gone dull with age. (393)
He was staring blankly at the far horizon, with wide-open tragedy in his eyes. (466)

Difficult elimination:
"You're a real ray of sunshine, you know that?"
"Your theory says at the same time the messenger will also be moving. Toward the same destination."
"We don't know what name he'll be using or where he'll be coming from. Or what passport he'll be using. Pakistani, possibly. Or British. Or French. Too many variables. We looked back two days before the first rendezvous, and there were five hundred plausible contenders through the Hamburg airport alone. We can't tell one from the other on paper. We wouldn't know who to watch."
"Drink more coffee," Reacher said. "That usually fixes things up." (86)

Prevaricating or not:
"Did she ask you to do that?"
"I suggested it myself. I told him I would run the print. That was all. Why did I choose those particular words?"
"Subconscious wiggle room."
"Doesn't feel good."
"Would going to prison feel better?"
"He's a homicide cop with a fingerprint. What am I supposed to do?"
"What did you think you were doing?"
"I guess I was figuring I would tell him if it's negative, and if it's positive, maybe I would stall. That way everyone's a winner, and I don't break the law." (229-30)

Watching the watchers:
" ... His orders came through flagged red."
"What does that mean?"
"It used to mean organized crime, but now it means terrorism. The guy wasn't clear whether it was supposed to be an old red or a new red. There's some confusion at the moment. But I think it was a new red, because they were also watching an apartment near Reacher's hotel. Earlier in the day. There was supposed to be a Saudi guy coming out. But it didn't happen. I checked the city records and there's an apartment in that building with three Saudis and an Iranian. All young men. I think this is some kind of Middle East thing." (287)

Lorine McGinnis Schulze. Death Finds a Way. Canada: http://LorineSchulze.com, 2016.
Fictional genealogists acting as crime detectives are an expanding group and Janie Riley is one. Created by prolific blogger and genealogist Schulze, Janie runs into suspicious behaviour during her family research week at Salt Lake City's renowned Family History Library. When her new friend at the library, Clarissa, collapses, she convinces herself murder is involved. Various odd or scruffy figures are glimpsed slinking around the microfilm cabinets; Janie is experiencing a few accidents that could be deliberately planned. Her tenacity in pursuing some clues brings an ally, PI Dan Mulroney, but also personal danger. Her spouse Steven yo-yos between support for Janie's new cause and exasperation at her hyperactive imagination. Naturally, a genealogical research trail is part of the procedure to prove inheritance skulduggery.

A genealogist is perhaps not the best reviewer for such a book; a genealogist can predict the events and results presented here. Speaking for myself, there's little suspense. The demanding rigours of family history writing are not the same as the novelist's genre and the transition does not guarantee success because most of us are pedestrian writers. Repetitive routine and conventional devices ― putting on makeup, daily meals described, examining oneself in a mirror ― do not particularly enhance or flesh out the characters. Too much exposition about them is uncomfortably forced; using their own words and actions is preferable for personality revelation. Janie and Steven seem not fully-fashioned enough yet to feel a warm connection with them.

The library research and computer technology are on firm ground, where Schulze knows her stuff. The slim plot has merit but the back story of Irish Katie seems oh-so-familiar if not stereotyped. Some good editing would have caught inconsistent dialogue construction (and removed annoying capitalizations). Now that she has her feet wet in a debut novel, Schulze may be finding her own style. I for one await promising developments in A Grave Secret, Janie's next adventure.

"He was always threatening to kill himself and take us with him." (37)
Female ancestors could be challenging to track down. (42)
For a brief moment she felt this level of spying on her part was wrong. (81)
"Your degree in Psychology doesn't make you an expert in human behavior!" (98)
"Maybe it's time you stopped being a Crusader for justice." (99)

Steven was stirring, waking slowly from sleep as she pulled on comfy black cotton capris, a soft olive green tee and open toed wedge sandals. A hint of makeup came next, just a little khaki green powder lining the upper edge of her eyes, black mascara, sheer lip gloss and a dollop of light rose blusher. She sat on the edge of the bed and patted her husband's leg gently. "Sweetie, I'm almost ready for breakfast. Are you getting up?"
Steven yawned. "Lord it must be early. What time is it?" He groaned when he heard her answer. "Who gets up that early?" Unlike Janie, Steven was not a morning person. But he was a good sport most of the time. "Okay give me ten minutes to shower and get dressed." (42)

Hunting a suspect:
As the driver made his way to the address she gave him, Janie took the opportunity to go over what she planned to say and do. Soon she was standing outside the doors of Jones Landscaping. A deep breath to steady her nerves and she was inside. A bottle blonde woman in her 30s sat at a gray metal desk. The smell of nail polish filled the air and Janie realized the woman was painting her long nails in a bubble gum pink color. As Janie drew closer to the desk she saw the nameplate on her desk that read Linda Thompson. Pausing in the middle of a swipe with the nail polish applicator, the receptionist looked up. "Hello, can I help you?" (64)

Paul Coelho. The Alchemist. 1988. USA: HarperOne, 25th Anniversary Edition, 2014.
This modern classic is apparently something important that I'd missed. Because it has camels and desert, I was urged to read it. Andalusian shepherd boy seeks mythical treasure at the Egyptian pyramids ... it's the journey, you know, not the destination. Featuring a philosophical-theological mashup. Philosopher's Stone ‒ Elixir of Life ‒ Emerald Tablet ‒ Master Work ‒ the Tradition ‒ Personal Legend ‒ Language of the World ‒ Soul of the World. That's about it. Philistine, linear thinking has destroyed my ability to distinguish the finer subtleties of mysticism.

Bons mots?
"The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon." (35)
He had never even wept in front of his own sheep. (42)
Sometimes, there's just no way to hold back the river. (61)
"If I have to fight, it will be just as good a day to die as any other." (87)
The world speaks many languages, the boy thought. (89)
He sat on a stone and allowed himself to become hypnotized by the horizon. (102)
"Each day in itself, brings with it an eternity." (106)

Advice on saddling up:
"Tomorrow, sell your camel and buy a horse. Camels are traitorous: they walk thousands of paces and never seem to tire. Then suddenly, they kneel and die. But horses tire bit by bit. You always know how much you can ask of them, and when it is that they are about to die." (119-20)

Anders de la Motte. The Silenced. 2015. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2017.
Otherwise titled Ultimatum (e.g. by Simon & Schuster), it's a deeply satisfying crime mystery. As a followup to his MemoRandom, the author presents less of a wild west atmosphere and more warmth in his characters. Detective Julia Gabrielsson is a winner; so is Atif Kassab, one of the villains. Julia is saddled with civilian assistant Amante, a political appointee of dubious merit. She and her boss are relatively low on the police hierarchy that stretches into uppermost government ranks. There are dead bodies to be sure, but the greatest puzzle is to find who pulls the strings to hide them. Manipulators and the unwittingly manipulated.

Policeman David Sarac is so shattered by past violence he is locked away in an asylum. He is such a jittery, mental wreck I wished he would disappear. Then he did. The opening pieces are brilliantly done, alternating the play of two different scenes. Several more characters surface from the previous novel; although this is apparently stand-alone, reading MemoRandom first would definitely help. One thing: the translator loves the word ahold. As in we must get ahold of so-and-so, meaning communicate with. It feels so wrong to me; get hold of sounds right. But the Oxford Dictionary says ahold is an adverb so who am I to disagree. I'm left to highly anticipate what comes next from de la Motte.

He could feel his face automatically delivering the right expression as his wife went on talking. (55)
An apprehended cop killer would trump any toes she was supposed to have stepped on. (271)
He imagined her and Natalie, hand in hand beneath the desert sky as night fell slowly, releasing the stars. (381)

Phoenix. The bird that catches fire, dies in the flames, and is then reborn out of its own ashes with shimmering new plumage.
The name couldn't be more inappropriate. No one in the prison was transformed into a better version of himself and emerging as a new, well-adapted individual with sparkling new feathers, ready to be embraced by society. The majority would end up back behind bars within a couple of years, for crimes just as bad as the first time around.
Maybe that was the cycle of repetition that the name hinted at? A sort of ironic wink: We all know how this is going to turn out, don't we? (87)

Home fires:
"How was your meeting with John?"
He kissed his wife on the cheek, put his briefcase down, and shrugged his jacket off before replying.
"'Fine'?" That's a nice, detailed description." His father-in-law had loosened his tie, his shirtsleeves were rolled up, and he had one of Stenberg's whiskey glasses in his hand. "Sit down, Jesper."
Karl-Erik gestured toward a free chair, and Stenberg stood still for a moment. He was being offered a seat at his own table, by a man who was drinking his whiskey. Marvellous. (156)

"You know how this sounds, don't you? A conspiracy inside the police force, mysterious security companies, bodies disappearing. You just need a few men in dark raincoats watching your apartment and you can get the tinfoil out and start making yourself a hat."
Amante's cryptic smile was back.
"That was the old days. Why follow someone when all you have to do is keep an eye on their cell phones? We use official police phones and SIM cards; we use the wireless network at headquarters whenever the software needs updating. Sneaking in an invisible app that would regularly pinpoint our whereabouts can hardly be that difficult. At least, not for someone with the sort of contacts we're talking about."
Julia held her hands out as if to say that she wasn't about to argue. (174)