05 March 2017

Library Limelights 128

Ian Rankin. Blood Hunt. (1995) UK: Orion Paperback, 2002, 2012.
Wowser ... Rebus fans would hardly believe this is the same author. Gordon Reeve is an ex-SAS Brit commando teaching survival courses in Scotland. He has a penchant for reading Nietzsche. His journalist brother James dies mysteriously in La Jolla, California so Gordon unhesitatingly goes to probe why. A rogue employee of a huge chemical company hired a private investigation firm to help cover up damning product information. People are being killed to protect agribusiness secrets ― people who want to speak the truth. The combined resources of powerful companies are more than intimidating but a determined Reeve pits his ingenuity to connect the dots in his brother's last movements.

Not only that, an erstwhile SAS colleague appears in the mix. Jay was a fellow commando during the Falklands War, serving with Reeve on an expendable two-man mission. Their mutual hostility culminates in a manhunt for Reeve; their showdown on the Isle of Uist brings a breathtaking climax. The frequent action is very detailed and sometimes gory as befits specialized military training. Rankin wrote the book more than twenty years ago, yet the story's undercurrents still haunt us with BSE (mad cow disease) and GMOs (genetically modified foods).

He'd been taught well in Special Forces, taught lessons for a lifetime; and as old Nietszche said, if you remained a pupil, you served your teacher badly. (88)
"Well, the good old British public has another inalienable right: the right not to know, not to worry." (120)
The freeway system around Los Angeles was like a joke God was playing on the human brain. (296)

Wake up & smell the print:
She grabbed the newspaper and opened it to a full-page advertisement, placed by C-World Chemicals. "Don't bother reading it," she said, "it'll put you back to sleep. It's just one of those feelgood ads big corporations make up when they want to spend some money." 
Reeve glanced at the ad. "Or when their consciences are bothering them?" 
Fliss wrinkled her nose. "Grow up. Those people don't have consciences. They've had them surgically removed to make room for the cash-flow implants." She tapped the paper. "But as long as Co-World and companies like them are throwing money at advertising departments, publishers will love them, and the publishers will see to it that their editors never print anything that might upset Sugar Daddy. That's all I'm saying." 
"Thanks for the warning." (124-5)

Reeve's nickname, "the Philosopher":
He could feel defences inside him, barricades he'd hastily erected. They tottered for a moment, but held. He thought of Bakunin and Wagner again, side by side on the barricades of Dresden. The anarchist Bakunin, and Wagner – the friend of Nietzsche. Nietzsche: the self-proclaimed "first amoralist." When necessary, when events dictated, they had fought alongside one another. The anarchists would call that proof of the theory of mutual aid. They would say it repudiated Nietzsche's own theory, that the will to power was everything. Opposites reconciled, yes, but momentarily. (302)

Discoveries to haunt him:
That evening he ate at a roadside diner, his waitress not believing him when he asked for soup, a salad and some orange juice. 
"That all you want, sweetheart?" 
"That's all." 
Even then, he wondered about additives in the juice, chemicals in the soup stock, residues in the salad vegetables. He wondered if he'd ever enjoy a meal again. (326-7)

Peter C. Newman. Hostages to Fortune, The United Empire Loyalists and the Making of Canada. Toronto: Simon & Schuster Canada, 2016.
In the panoply of books on the United Empire Loyalists, one might say Newman's contribution is akin to a Historica Canada Heritage Minute. Covering ground familiar to Loyalist descendants, the veteran storyteller hangs his centrepiece on the extended Jarvis family of Connecticut, New Brunswick, and Upper Canada. Peter C. Newman is not an academic historian, he is a "popular" historian. His treatments of history are frequently infused with dramatic and verbose flourishes; this one lacks the footnote references of a more academic historian, relying largely on other authors as sources. Yet he succeeds again, in my opinion ... in a lightweight way.

How will Loyalist family researchers view his new book? Newman includes little on Aboriginal resettlement apart from the oft-told Brant family references. And curiously, in a very large bibliography, how could merely one of Gavin Watt's books be present? Newman is successful because as a good storyteller he knows how to stir sentiment and appreciation for his subject. He gets the job done, the tale told, in an easily digestible manner to capture popular imagination.

A few one-liners:
As a young man of nineteen in1775, all Stephen Jarvis desired was to marry his love, the tempting, tempestuous Amelia. (13)
The Loyalists meshed British traditions with American republicanism and were forced to live with this unholy contradiction between authority and liberty wherever they settled. (18)
Against all odds, the lacklustre American army eventually turned itself into a stormy river of determined men―proving that fighting for a cause, rather than defending the rights of an aristocracy, will always win the day. (69)
Having been evicted by political dictate from a society in ascendancy where they had enjoyed a certain standing, they now found themselves pushed to the margins, relegated to the vagrant status of refugees. (173)

Newman's take:
The firestorm of change ignited by the Revolutionary War was profound and unnatural. There was no middle ground. Either you were a daring revolutionary thug or a gutless bottle-washer for the foppish King of England. Both caricatures were accurate. (41)

And what does this really mean?
Canadians, then as now, were marked by an ability to endure―to survive a lousy climate and worse politicians. That ability to hang on with minimum complaints has always been our burden. Concentrating too much on survival too often deterred the application of imagination and creativity. It robbed the national will of following those intuitive leaps that allow individuals to reach for originality that creates a buzz. (172)

Joseph O'Neill. The Dog. USA: Pantheon Books/Random House, 2014.
An odd book: semi-existential crisis of an unnamed narrator who doesn't like his given name and goes by "X" among friends and colleagues. The man flees a claustrophobic relationship with Jenn in New York to take an opportunistic job in Dubai―a city always under construction. In between vignettes of daily managing the wealthy Batros family conglomerate, he ruminates on the downward spiral of his life with Jenn. In fact he habitually over-thinks much of the trivial minutiae of his life in streams of verbal diarrhea. Sometimes it's amusing; sometimes it's boring. No mystery here, really. The disappearance of a fellow scuba diver merely serves to broaden an outsider's paranoia in a restrictive world. This all takes place within the very recent past.

Borrowing the book was aimed at seeing a different viewpoint of living abroad. Ex-pat life in Dubai is predictably close-quarters and rather luxurious for the professional class. The only other ex-pat class is the huge pool of third world-imported manual and domestic labour, segregated and indigently paid. At times cynical or suspicious in his artificial surroundings, "X" veers from one tangent to another trying to be fair in his dealings. Who knows how accurate his approaching fate is? The book has its charms; among them, O'Neill is the winner of the longest sentence competition time and again (see examples below).

Words: timeous = timely. oneiric = dream-like

I had very few lamps in my luxury rental and very few items of furniture, and what with the long shadows and the darkness it was as if I had contrived to place us in one of those grim, I want to say Swedish, movies my poor parents often co-watched, duplicating in the arrangement of their respective chairs the arrangement of silence, gloom, and human separateness offered by the television. (23)
Normally I'm tolerant of my lot, but sometimes I am gloomy and cannot bear it and I question the rationality and desirability of personally sticking around for a further (all things being equal) three or four decades, and I find it calming that I have no dependents of any kind and am always at liberty to hang myself. (82)
They're a family of messenger shooters and cat kickers, the Batroses. (148)

Dubai vs. Mother Earth:
The city could not have more resembled a fata morgana―and that was the whole idea. If I might psychologize, the reliance on the mirage/wonder equation, which of course has an etymological basis, is not just a marketing ploy; it is a secret revenge on the mirage itself, and only one facet of the Dubaian counterattack on the natural. The crimes of nature against man, in this part of the world, are not restricted to the immemorial mockery of the visual sense. The slightest effort of reflection must yield an awareness of the suffering and lowliness that these barren and desolate sands have without cease inflicted on their human inhabitants, and it cannot be a surprise, now that the shoe is on the other foot, that the transformation of this place is characterized by attempts at domination directed not only against the heat and dust, but as is evident from the natives' somewhat irrational hostility to solar energy and their unusual dedication to the artificial settlement of marine areas, against the very sun and the very sea. This is what happens when you fuck with people for a long time. They fuck with you back. (77-8)

Typical X reactions:
"A man fell down from the building into the water," Ali explains. 
"What?" I say. "Fell down? When?" 
"Before I arrived. Maybe half an hour before. They were getting him out of the water." 
"What do you mean, getting him out? He died?" 
"I believe he was dead," Ali reports. He says, "He jumped. It happens a lot. Every week it happens. Every week, always one or two of the men jump from the buildings." 
I saw the jumper from my apartment. The dropping thing I saw out of the corner of my eye at lunchtime―that was the jumper. Or was not. I did not really catch sight of that which was dropping. I glimpsed, I should say I think I glimpsed, a shadow-like movement, and whatever it was was gone as soon as I turned to look. It could have been anything. It could have been a bird; it could have been something inanimate. That cannot be ruled out. Nor can it be ruled out that it was nothing. Nothing can be ruled out. (147)

Jenn's meltdown:
Later still, in tears, she said, "You can't do this to me. I want a baby―you give me a baby! You owe me. You owe me my baby!" At some other point she said, "You can't back out now. It's not right. What am I supposed to do? Start dating? Find someone else? I'm thirty-five years old!" She made further statements, including the statement that I was the murderer of our marriage. She said, "OK, look, just give me the sperm. I'll have the baby myself. I'll take care of the baby. I don't need you. I can do this. I'm strong." And, "I'm going to be a laughingstock." And, "You wait until I'm having fertility treatment, and then you quit? Oh, boy. It's like you've done this on purpose. Is that it? I'm right, aren't I? You've done this on purpose." And, "My God. You're a monster. A monster. A narcissistic psychopath. My God. That's it. That explains everything." (167-8)

24 February 2017

Library Limelights 127

Dennis Lehane. Prayers for Rain. USA: HarperCollins, 1999.
Here's a certain kind of comfort reading with Lehane's PI Patrick Kenzie, in the great tradition of Travis McGee, Virgil Flowers, Spenser, and so on. Lehane knows how to balance wicked plots with humour. Kenzie is narrating. First he solves a straightforward request from Karen Nichols to stop someone stalking her. Months later Kenzie feels obligated to investigate her suicide ― death by gravity the incident is sometimes called by the cops ― with the help of his foul-mouthed sidekick Bubba Rogowski; eventually his estranged partner Angie Gennaro joins them. The characters are comforting, the premise is not. Comforting, if you like strong-arm tactics with black humour.

Karen's background leads them to a psychiatrist and uncovers a series of planned harassment. A bit of Boston mafia crops up along with the unsurprising but creative dysfunctional family associations. Trying to determine the motive and identity of a criminal mind goes into murky territory whereby Kenzie gets beat up and shot up, apparently typical procedure for him. I'm not totally convinced about the entire scheme but as I said, it's both fun with the sleuths and bloody in the action, an easy enough read.

Being at the top of the police department's shit list was not where I'd planned to be at this point of my life. (14)
The office was done up in some kind of Laura Ashley meets the Spanish Inquisition decor. (184)
Where have you gone, Burt Lancaster, and why'd you take most of the cool shit with you? (285)

She's in:
She looked over at me. "How serious was Stevie?" 
"As the plague," I said. "He'll kill us both." I jerked a thumb at Bubba. 
"Him first." 
Bubba snorted. 
Angie stared at both of us for a long time and her face gradually softened. 
"Well, I don't have a job anymore. Which means I probably can't afford this apartment much longer. Can't hold onto a boyfriend, and I don't like pets. So, I guess you two morons are all I got." 
"Stop it," Bubba said. "I'm getting all choked up and shit." 
She dropped off the counter. "All right, who's driving me to a safe phone?" (285)

The cranberry bog:
The stand of trees seemed to whisper. They seemed to groan.Stay away, they said. Stay away. 
"He knew I'd find this place eventually. Maybe not as quickly as I did, but eventually." 
"So, he's gotta move. He's gotta move fast. Whatever he's planning, it's either about to happen, or it's already in motion."

She reached out and her palm found my lower back. 
"Patrick, don't let him in your head. He wants that." 
I stared at the trees, then the shed, then the bloody, misting bog."Too late," I said. (420)

Time for action:
He smiled. Angie smiled. I smiled. In the still of the bog and the dark of the night, I had the feeling it was the last time any of us would smile for a while. 
"All right," Bubba said. "It's all three of us, then. Just remember, the only sin in combat is hesitation. So don't fucking hesitate." (434)

John Sandford. Escape Clause. USA: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2016.
Virgil's back, more of the same genre as above but a touch more Carl Hiassen-ish. The craziness begins with the kidnapping of Minneapolis Zoo tigers, a species at risk of extinction. Then there's Bill, the part-time priest frolicking in the ol' swimming hole. Most of the kidnappers manage to fumble their jobs here and there, earning sudden (and un-funny) bizarre death from their leader. Using rare animal parts for questionable "organic" medical nostrums plays a significant part in the story. Masterminding the tiger capture is a Xanax-stoned sociopath beholden to a wealthy Chinese immigrant. Having to deviate from his original plan, he fails to hide the bodies well.

The plot careens along with Virgil's frustration, driving from one medical examiner to another, always one step and one murder behind. Meanwhile his girlfriend Frankie's sister Sparkle sets off a small storm in a local canning factory, investigating the employment of illegals. As a result, a collaborating worker and Frankie both end up in the hospital. Typical engaging Virgil; typical inventive Sandford.

One-liners: TV cameras liked him and he liked them back. (31)
After several friendly conversations, each recognized the innate criminality in the other, and an arrangement was made. (67-8)

Touching on the theological:
"Is this relationship with Sparkle ... a long-term thing?" Virgil asked. 
"No, no, it isn't. I've spent time with her the last two summers, but of course the other nine months I'm celibate and she doesn't put up with that." 
"That seems very strange to me," Virgil said. 
"It seems fairly strange to me, too, but I find both sides of the equation to be rewarding," Bill said. "Of course, I may go to hell." 
"No offense, but I don't think the Church gets to decide who goes to hell," Virgil said. 
"I'm not offended," Bill said cheerfully. "I fact, I agree. Don't tell the Church I said that." (17)

Accuracy of details:
"Why would you think anyone would wrap a cut with a hanky?" 
"Well ... to stop the bleeding." 
"But why with a hanky? Who do you know who carries a hanky?" Virgil asked. 
"It's just an expression, Virgil," Sawyer said. 
"You know who wraps wounds with a hanky? Virgil asked. "People on TV. Somebody gets cut on TV, they've got a hanky. In real life, no hanky. You need a different expression: wrapping the wound with toilet paper. Or Dunkin' Donuts napkins. Something more intelligent than a hanky." 
"Right. I'll put it on top of my list of things to do," Sawyer said. "Get new expression." (78-9)

"That sonofabitch." Her eyes grew wider and her face turned red. "You know what he does for a living?" 
"I think so ..." 
"If he's allowed to keep doing that, he'll kill off every bear in the state and in Wisconsin and the Dakotas, too. For their gallbladders! So some Chinese assholes can make a medicine that doesn't even work! People get all weepy about rhinoceroses, and they should, but who's crying for the black bear, that's what I want to know! Who's crying for the black bear?" (105)

More than one pickle:
Sparkle didn't answer, but stepped away, turned, and walked along the backside of the large stainless steel tanks. She was the only one back there, and she slipped through the factory, taking pictures of women sorting cucumbers before they went into a huge vat; other women pulling cucumbers off a moving track into separate bins to be seared, sliced, or discarded; a woman monitoring a machine that dumped brine into the jars. 
The place smelled like a huge wet cucumber, Sparkle thought, and so did she, after twenty minutes in the building. (226)

Lisa Gardner. The Next Accident. USA: A Bantam Book, 2001.
Ya gotta give Gardner due credit ― she spins complicated plots that sneak up on you, suspending disbelief sometimes. In this case, FBI hotshot Quincy Pierce is bedevilled by a fiendishly clever but unknown psychopath who is out to destroy the agent's entire family. And partially succeeds. Quincy hires Oregon PI Rainie Conner, with whom he has personal and professional history, to undertake a separate investigation into the car accident that killed his daughter Mandy. The novel's introduction gives us overt clues to the accident in unfortunately melodramatic tones. Here and later, Gardner can't resist adding some bodice-ripper scenes.

Flipping around from Portland to Washington and New York, Rainie makes some progress and keeps tabs on Quincy who is close to meltdown. Although they are "meant" for each other, but push each other away, their own banal ruminations (who am I, really?) give little insight into the relationship stand-off. The perpetrator, a true homme fatal, is a master of disguise; he cons Quincy's ex-wife to her death ― not the only murder that happens. This book was one of my "fillers" while awaiting more from TPL but it scored on merit. After an unpromising start it becomes more absorbing, hard to put down for the next twist to come.

Some nights he jerked awake, his heart hammering in his chest, with the frantic need to call Kimberly and make sure she was okay, that he still had one daughter left. (73)
He was standing in front of the empty refrigerator with the look of a man who'd opened it many times before and still kept expecting something different. (193)

Is he this trite?
Time had given Quincy regrets. It has also taught him honesty. He understood now that he no longer did what he did to save the world. He worked as an agent for the same reason people worked as accountants and lawyers and corporate clerks. Because he was good at it. Because he liked the challenge. Because when the job was done right, he felt good about himself. 
He had not been the husband he had wanted to be. He had not been the father he had hoped to be. Last year, however, he'd connected three mass murders that local officials had thought were one-off crimes. 
He was a damn good agent. And year by year, he was working on becoming a better person. (48-9)

Recalling the shooting range:
"I did it, I did it. I did it! Daddy, I did it!" 
And her father said, "Don't ever throw down your firearm like that! It could go off and hit someone. First put on the safety, then set down the gun and step away from the firing line. Remember, you must treat your pistol responsibly." 
She had been deflated. Maybe even tears flooded her eyes. She didn't remember anymore. She just recalled the curious change that came over her father's face. He looked at her crestfallen expression and perhaps he finally heard his own words, because his features suddenly shifted. 
He said quietly, "You know what, Kimmy? That was great shooting. You did a wonderful job. And sometimes ... sometimes your father is a real ass." 
She had never heard her father call himself an ass before. She was pretty sure that was one of the words she was never supposed to repeat. And she liked that. That made it special. Their first real father-daughter moment. She could shoot a gun. And sometimes Daddy was a real ass. (104-5)

Night recce:
"I can do fences," Rainie assured him. "Dobermans have me a little more concerned." 
"No dogs, I drove by earlier." 
"No dogs? What kind of self-respecting salvage-yard owner doesn't have a dog?" 
"The kind who's been turned in to the humane society twice and could no longer afford the cruelty-toward-animal fines. Now he has a security company that drives around in hourly intervals. You see headlights, duck." 
"Cool," Rainie said and started whistling "We're off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz." 
Five minutes later, they'd scaled the eight-foot-high fence and were making their way through the final resting place for thousands of cars. (149-50)

16 February 2017

Happiness is a bookstand ...

So I had to obtain a new bookstand for reading in bed. Which is where I read. You understand, for perfect comfort the book has to be at a certain level and angle. I have the backup cushions, the heating pad, the adjustable reading light, pencil & paper, water, any current medications, a few macadamia nuts ... at least enough nourishment to spend a week there if need be.

The old well-balanced bookstand was wooden, giving a certain confident stability. Placed just so on my lap was ideal. But one of the pegs for holding pages had give up the struggle to hold anything. Poor little peg went missing in the general midden. Then the ledge holding the book began to cave in ... delicate carpentry is not my forte.

Thank you, o excellent companion for years of service. I regret I did not photograph you before going to the recycling room.

The new bookstand ...
Well, first, the search. I could get a new one same as the old one. But such a fundamental, necessary item was sure to have been improved upon over the intervening years, right? Most models on offer seem to assume you want to put your tablet or laptop on it. Such engineering requirements do not accommodate a hefty book with special doohickeys to hold the pages in place. This stage took a lot of online squinting and deliberating. Because your average bookstore does not think to carry such an item.
The choice was made. New bookstand arrives. It is plastic which I already knew.

Feeling warily suspicious because plastic, I hesitate to unwrap it for several hours until the need to relax and read became urgent. It is encased in enough vacuum-wrapped clear plastic to cover the building I live in. Hard plastic. Ruin my scissors trying to release it, fearing a misplaced stab might damage the object itself.

But out it came, all in one piece, unblemished. No bits to sort out, insert, screw in, or stick on. Feather light. Clever page-holder that doesn't slip. Adjustable for choice of inclined angle. With the weight of a book on it, no wobble.

07 February 2017

Library Limelights 126

Camilla Grebe & Åsa Träff. More Bitter Than Death. 2010. UK: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2013.
Thoroughly absorbing! A murder witnessed by a child sets the first scene for what preceded and came after it. Clinical psychologists Siri and Aina are leading a small group of women in a self-help project; all victims of violence, they share their feelings in the hope of avoiding or reducing a lasting trauma. Each violated woman's experience is different, including Siri herself who survived a would-be killer. The individuals are well-drawn, even those peripheral to some of the women's stories. Events that follow the group's initial meetings are swift and surprising. Siri's boundless capacity for empathy with her clients contrasts sharply with her fear of intimacy in her private life.
Without melodrama or obvious clues, the plot moves smoothly through permutations of who the killer could be. There's literally a lot of sweat beading on foreheads. At some point the reader will come to understand the interspersed child reports. And the women will understand that abuse and violence are not their fault or their destiny. Siri's devoted lover Markus offsets the brutality of other men; we want her to wake up and smell the coffee. Her separate clients Mia and Patrik are in a domestic impasse a bit hard on the credibility, but then who are we to know what goes on in a shrink's office? Watching with great anticipation for more from this sister duo!

I'm a psychologist who's supposed to help other people take control of their lives, but I can't let go of my own past. (161-2)
"Love messes you up." (277)
I think about how love isn't always a beautiful, light feeling; sometimes it's a vicious beast: eternally on the prowl, always hungry, lurking at the edge of our existence, ready to take us down. (333)

Resolve, again:
"I care about you, too," I say. And it's not a lie. Because I do care about him, a lot. I just can't handle this suffocating togetherness between the two of us all the time.
"Thanks," he mumbles, and yawns.
And yet again I wonder: Thanks for what? For letting you be close to me? For letting you come inside me? Thanks because I haven't asked you to leave yet?
Outside there's the thunder of the waves as they break against the rocks, rhythmic, like his pulse.
I have to try.
For the hundredth time I promise myself that I will try to be the normal woman he wants, that he deserves. (51)

Bottom line:
As if he can hear what I am thinking, Vijay continues, "It's not as simple as you might think. The definition of violence against women is not clear-cut. It's not just about physical abuse in the home but about threats, psychological abuse, extreme control, underage marriage, conscious underfeeding of girls, checking their hymens. You know."
"So is there a common denominator?" Aina asks.
Vijay nods, runs his hand over the black stubble on his chin, which is becoming increasingly flecked with grey as the years go by. "Power," he says. "Power and control. That's always what it comes down to in the end." (119)

The lion:
"My own mother thought her boyfriend was ... more important than me."
"Oh, honey." Sirrka rubs her knees and shakes her head so that her thin red hair leaves her skinny shoulders for a moment. "Didn't you know that that was ... wrong? It's unnatural to do that to a child."
"Is it?" Sofie asks, looking at Sirrka. "Maybe the abuse is natural."
"What do you mean?" Sirrka looks genuinely confused.
"I mean ... I usually think it's like with the lion," Sofie says, her voice cracking.
"The lion?" Aina asks.
"Yeah, you know, when a male lion meets a new lioness, he always kills her young, because they belong to another male. I think that's probably pretty common. I'm not his, so he rejects me, you know? It's ... nature." (171)

Yasmina Khadra. The Attack. 2005. UK: First Anchor Books, 2007.
I likely wasn't quite ready for this after The Black Widow and still feeling shades of A Disappearance in Damascus. Living in Middle East countries with constant expectation of terrorism defies our senses but it behooves us to try understanding. A naturalized Israeli citizen of Bedouin origin, Amin Jaamar is a distinguished surgeon at a Tel Aviv hospital. His career path amidst a Jewish majority was and is beset with racial ostracism and indignities despite his secular, apolitical life. In their work, he and his colleagues are familiar with the devastating physical effects of terrorist attacks. Then a suicide bomber rips apart his life; the perpetrator was his own wife Sihem.

Stunned and disoriented by the evidence, Amin can only condemn his failure as a husband to notice any signs of her conversion to mujahideen. He feels bound to seek answers to his anguished Why? Now, the intolerance he daily lived with feels insignificant compared to the contempt lashed at him by fellow Arabs as he tries to reconstruct his wife's movements to destruction, to find the people who mentored her. Intifada militants lecture and denounce him for ignoring his roots. Bloody but undaunted, he eventually reaches Jenin, a Palestinian city in the West Bank and the area of his own tribal origins, where he is reunited with remaining family. Taking place at the time of the Second Intifada, the story is beautifully, beautifully written. Read it and weep. But read it.

I take my face in my hands and groan and groan until finally I begin shouting like a man possessed into the deafening roar of the waves. (52)
My tears may well have drowned a little of my sorrow, but my rage is still there, like a tumour buried deep inside me, or like a monster of the abyss, crouched in the darkness of its lair, waiting for the right moment to rise to the surface and terrify the world. (88)
"Every Jew in Palestine is a bit of an Arab, and no Arab in Israel can deny that he's a little Jewish." (242)
Our whole family history comes back to me at a gallop, as magnificent as a troop of mounted warriors on parade. (244)

But how do I put out these red-hot embers I've got burning holes in my guts? How can I look at myself in a mirror and not cover my face, with my self-esteem in shreds and this doubt that's still here, subverting my grief, despite what I know to be true? Ever since Captain Moshe released me to my own devices, I can't close my eyes without finding myself face-to-face with Sihem's smile. (125)

"You need a shrink, not a sheikh. Those people don't have to account to you for anything."
"They killed my wife."
"Sihem killed herself," Kim says softly, as though she's about to wake up my demons. "She knew what she was doing; she'd chosen her destiny. It's not the same thing."
Kim's words exasperate me. (143-4)

"I don't like the way you talk to me."
"There's a vast number of things you don't like, Doctor, but in my opinion, that fact does not exempt you from anything at all. I don't know who had charge of your education but of one thing I'm certain: You went to the wrong school. Furthermore, nothing authorizes you to put on this air of outrage or to place yourself above ordinary mortals―not your social success, and not your wife's brave deed, which, by the way, doesn't raise you a whit in our esteem. To me, you're nothing but a poor orphan, without faith and without salvation, wandering around like a sleepwalker in broad daylight. Even if you could walk on water, you couldn't erase the insult you represent. For the real bastard isn't the man who doesn't know his father; it's the man who doesn't know his tradition." (149-50)

Sihem's truth:
"She didn't hold a grudge against you for prizing so highly the honors you were showered with, but that wasn't the happiness she wanted to see in you; she found it a little indecent, a bit incongruous. It was as if you were firing up a barbecue in a burned-out yard. You saw only the barbecue; she saw the rest, the desolation all around, spoiling all delight. It wasn't your fault; all the same, she couldn't bear sharing your blindness anymore." (227)

Martin Edwards. The Coffin Trail. 2004. UK: Magna Large Print Books, 2005.
Back in cosy old England for a change. A cosy valley in the Lakes District where everyone cosily knows each other but no-one wants to talk about a seven-year-old murder. So cosy, nothing happens ― those back cover blurbs can be misleading! Daniel and Miranda spontaneously buy a dilapidated, secluded cottage to start their life together, abandoning their urban personae. Brackdale village is in hiking country, perhaps notable only for the natural feature called the Sacrifice Stone, where a woman's mutilated body had been found. Daniel's police father and his partner Hannah never found enough evidence to arrest anyone; the village believes the slightly autistic lad Barrie did it, but he too had died the same night.

Policewoman Hannah revives the original evidence in a cold case review, to no avail. We meet the reticent locals as Daniel endlessly speculates about who really dunnit. At a somnolent pace. Then finally something happens. Over three-quarters in, another body turns up. A lot of breast-beating if onlys. Half-baked mythology, amateur dream construction, clichéd relationships ... compelling, not! With its embedded English sentiment and phraseology, best for those who live in that green and pleasant land. And who uses the word dungarees any more?!

For too long he'd played the sober academic, weighing evidence with cool scholarship before proceeding to a measured judgement. (19)
A mere clearing of the throat could express a gamut of emotions and a reproving cough sufficed where others would rant and swear. (57)

Her former boss:
Hannah remembered wild conjectures jumping in her brain like fire crackers. She knew better than to voice her ideas. Ben Kind was a Puritan amongst detectives, addicted to facts and scathing about enthusiasts who got off on theories. Speculation was a dangerous self-indulgence in his book, draining an investigation of time and resources, leeching all the energy out of it. No one ever solved a crime by guesswork. You might as well hire a psychic or peer into a crystal ball. (180-1)

Daniel meets Hannah:
"I don't suppose everyone we speak to will be quite so positive."
"But if it helps the truth to come out ..."
"Daniel," she interrupted. "Just be clear about this. One thing you learn in my job is that the truth is usually the last thing people want to emerge. Guilty or innocent, it doesn't matter. Everyone has something to hide."
For a moment he thought she was about to say something else, but instead she stood up and brushed droplets of rain from her coat. "I'd better go." (248-9)

Pessimistic friend:
"Thanks for the kind invitation," Daniel said. "And I'd be glad to offer the occasional article, if it helps. But I don't think I'll be coming back to Oxford yet awhile."
"Your social calendar is already crammed?"
"What I like about this place is that I don't have a social calendar any more."
"It'll end in tears," Theo murmured. "You do realise that, don't you? The world treats escapists roughly, Daniel. They learn that in truth, they cannot escape themselves." (367)

31 January 2017

Library Limelights 125

Leif GW Persson. Bäckström, He Who Kills the Dragon. 2008. USA: Vintage/Random House, 2015.
Meet Backstrom, the total reprobate no police chief wants on his force an obliviously racist, misogynistic, hypocritical, mendacious, obnoxious, narcissistic fantasy artist. But the author cleverly handles him as a tool reflecting the varied personalities of his long-suffering police colleagues. Backstrom heads a murder investigation that branches madly in all directions. His strategy is to put everyone on his team to work while he goofs off for three hearty meals a day in spite of the diet his doctor ordered. At meetings, he issues orders, smiling beatifically at everyone while mentally berating each in turn. In fact, all his inner thoughts about other people are derogatory even as they fantasize about killing him. Backstrom has nothing good to say about anyone but himself.

The murder victim was a harmless elderly drunk eking out his pension ("your standard pisshead" in police parlance). Who could possibly want to kill such an innocuous old man? Then the neighbours are interviewed, his alcoholic friends remember a few things, and the man's past begins to surface. Not before Backstrom no stranger himself to drinking has aggravated every official in the hierarchy above and below him, especially since at least half the extended team members are immigrants to Sweden. It's a complex mystery and amusing if you like your comedy on the black side. Some of it is offensive. If Backstrom is right, the police force is run by lunatics and only he can tie together several recent cases; only he can "kill the dragon" that flummoxes his superiors.

It wasn't exactly the sharpest team he had led in his twenty-five years in violent crime. (21)
Toivonen had been Swedish wrestling champion on several occasions, Greco-Roman as well as freestyle, and he could easily have broken every bone in Backstrom's body without even taking his hands out of his pockets. (121)
Alm must look like a perfect bird feeder if you were a woodpecker, he thought. (248)

Initial team meeting:
Then they had started throwing ideas around. Or one single idea that Backstrom, just to be on the safe side, threw out there all on his own.
"Well, then," Backstrom said, since the others for once seemed to have the good manners to keep their mouths shut and let him start.
"One pisshead has been murdered by another pisshead. If there's anyone here who has any other suggestion, now's the time to pipe up," he went on, leaning forward and resting his elbows heavily on the table, glowering at his colleagues.
No one seemed to have any objections, to judge by the unanimous head shaking.
"Good," Backstrom said. "That's enough suggestions." (32)

Hangover shopping for the new food regime:
Evidently he must have stopped and done some shopping somewhere, because he was carrying a bag full of bottles of mineral water and a plastic pack containing a mass of mysterious vegetables.
What the fuck is this? Backstrom thought, holding up the pack. Those little red things must be tomatoes. He recognized them, and he had even eaten one or two when he was a lad. All that green stuff must be lettuce? But all the other stuff? A mass of weird black and brown balls of varying sizes. Hare shit? Elk shit? And something that mostly looked like maggots but which must be something else, since they didn't wriggle when he prodded them.
What the fuck is going on? Backstrom wondered as he headed toward the shower, dropping his clothes on the floor as he went. (37)

Mentally polling his team:
Just as the meeting was due to start, the head of the crime unit in Solna, Superintendent Toivonen, walked into the room. He nodded to the others with a grim glare before sitting down at the back of the room.
Nine people, one of whom is a proper police officer, Backstrom thought. Apart from him, one purebred bastard Finn, one idiot Lapppractically a bastard Finnone Chilean, one Russian, one pretty little darkie, one attack dyke, one retarded folk dancer, and dear old Lars Woodentop Alm, seriously mentally handicapped since birth. Where the fuck is this force heading? he thought. (96)

Rescue after being attacked:
Then he opened the door and let them in, and went and sat on the sofa with a strong drink. He poured another, just to be on the safe side. Where the hell is this force heading? he wondered. Here he was, in mortal danger for at least a quarter of an hour, until eventually he single-handedly managed to restore order and harmony around him. The best his employers could offer him was evidently five snotty-nosed kids who showed up when it was all done and dusted. Two women, two Negroes, and one poor sod who was evidently only a mulatto and probably got bullied by his colleagues. What the hell is happening to the Swedish police? Backstrom thought. (276)

Ian Rankin. Strip Jack. UK: Orion Books, 1992.
An oldie but goodie (of course!) ... an overlooked early Inspector John Rebus gem. Twenty-five years ago Rebus was a bit livelier and less pessimistic about his fellow man. Also, imminently about to share living quarters with his doctor lover, Patience Aitken. The wife of Gregor Jack MP has been murdered so naturally Rebus spends all his waking hours on it, having developed a certain empathy for the public figure. His superiors like a vagrant confessor as the killer, but Rebus strikes out on his own investigative path, believing someone unknown is trying to smear and destroy the MP.

Jack's marriage had hidden depths. Turns out the wife was part of a hard-partying group of friends close-knit since childhood. One of them killed his wife. One of them hates her own husband. One of them is having a secret affair with another one. Or two. Why was Gregor Jack caught in a raid on an Edinburgh brothel? It's always sheer pleasure following Rebus' adventures and his colleagues' reactions.

Words: (with allowance made for Scots usage)
moggies - mixed-breed cats
haar - a cold sea fog
verrucas - plantar warts

He didn't make waves exactly, but by Christ he splashed like hell. (9)
He had a voice like a peat bog and eyes that gleamed like crystal. (21)
In religion, he might be more Pessimisterian than Presbyterian, but in some things John Rebus still clung to faith. (78)
Watson looked like a kindly uncle suddenly tiring of a precocious nephew. (104)

Moving in?
But the flat itself was what interested Rebus. It was like a shelter, like a children's encampment. You could stand in either of the front bedrooms and stare up out of the window to where feet and legs moved along the pavement above you. People seldom looked down. Rebus, whose own flat was on the second floor of a Marchmont tenement, enjoyed this new perspective. While other men his age were moving out of the city and into bungalows, Rebus found a sort of amused thrill from walking downstairs to the front door instead of walking up. More than novelty, it was a reversal, a major shift, and his life felt full of promise as a result.
Patience, too, was full of promise. She was keen for him to move more of his things in, to 'make himself at home'. And she had given him a key. (27)

A wild ride:
" ... So I'm enjoying my lucky break. That's all I'm doing."
It was not quite all Tom Pond was doing. He was also crossing the Forth Road Bridge doing something in excess of one hundred miles an hour. Rebus daren't look at the speedo.
"After all," Pond had explained, "it's not every day I can go breaking the speed limit with a policemen in the car to explain it away if we get stopped." And he laughed. Rebus didn't. Rebus didn't say much after they hit the ton.
Tom Pond owned a forty-grand Italian racing job that looked like a kit-car and sounded like a lawnmower. The last time Rebus had been this close to ground level, he'd just slipped on some ice outside his flat.
"I've got three habits, Inspector: fast cars, fast women, and slow horses." And he laughed again.
"If you don't slow down, son," Rebus yelled above the engine's whine, "I'm going to have to book you for speeding myself!"
Pond looked hurt, but eased back on the accelerator. And after all, he was doing them all a favour, wasn't he? (204-5)

Dog eat dog:
"It sounds plausible," said Lauderdale. Rebus raised half an eyebrow: having Lauderdale's support was a bit like locking yourself in with a starved alsatian ...
"What about Mr Glass?" asked Watson.
"Well, sir," said Lauderdale, shifting a little in his seat, "psychiatric reports don't show him to be the most stable individual. He lives in a sort of fantasy world, you might say."
"You mean he made it up?"
"Very probably."
"Which brings us back to Mr Steele. I think we'd better have him in for a word, hadn't we. Did you say you brought him in yesterday, John?"
"That's right, sir. I thought we might give the boot of his car a once-over. But Mr Lauderdale seemed convinced by Steele's story and let him go."
The look on Lauderdale's face would remain long in Rebus's memory. Man bites alsatian. (247

Daniel Silva. The Black Widow. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2016.
Silva's popular novels feature the Israeli superspy, Gabriel Allon. This time he carefully orchestrates a black widow infiltration of an ISIS network; such women are committed to killing infidels, even suicide bombing, because their husbands or boyfriends were killed for the cause. French Jew Dr Natalie Mizrahi is recruited to become Dr Leila Hadawi, Palestinian convert to ISIS. It's a long, circuitous way to achieve a new identity and the goal, with scenes typically moving back and forth from Europe to the Middle East over months of time. Mizrahi's dangerous mission to learn ISIS plans is not successful enough to stop a massive terrorist attack on Washington DC. Actually, the attack is a huge fail by intelligence agencies of several countries. Coincidentally, both Mizrahi and the arch-villain called Saladin survive all the disaster.

Silva does not let us forget that Israel is on the front line of defence when it comes to Middle East warfare. He dextrously takes us through the politics of international spying and guerilla tactics with his usual attention to detail. His personification of ISIS recalls the prophecy of a victorious caliphate when two great armies meet in Dabiq (Syria). Descriptions of ISIS and its "capital," Raqqa, seem authentic and current. But I found the book in want of tightening up; losing some pretentiously repetitive slogans and mission statements would have been preferable. A few holes in sequence had me asking myself "huh? how did he/she know/find that?" Ultimately Gabriel takes his designated place as head of Israel's intelligence service, a plan that's been unfolding over the last few novels.

There is no worse feeling for a professional spy than to be told something by an officer from another service that he should have already known himself. (95)
An assassin had been placed in charge of Israel's intelligence service. (509)

"I am a soldier of Allah, but a great admirer of Winston Churchill. And it was Winston Churchill who said that in wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." (463)
Na'eem Square, once beloved by Raqqa's children, was now filled with severed heads, not stone but human. They stared mournfully down from the spikes of an iron fence, Syrian soldiers, Kurdish fighters, traitors, saboteurs, former hostages. (269)

The current nemesis:
Navot remained in his office long after Mikhail had taken his leave. The desk was empty except for his leather-bound executive notepad, on which he had scrawled a single word. Saladin ... only a man of great self-esteem would grant himself a code name like that, only a man of great ambition. The real Saladin had united the Muslim world under the Ayyubid dynasty and recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders. Perhaps this new Saladin was similarly inclined. For his coming-out party he had flattened a Jewish target in the middle of Paris, thus attacking two countries, two civilizations, at the same time. Surely, thought Navot, the success of the attack had only whetted his lust for infidel blood. It was only a matter of time before he struck again. (39)

The courage begins:
"Why am I here?"
"First, we have lunch. Then we talk."
"And if I want to leave?"
"You leave."
"And if I stay?"
"I can promise you only one thing, Natalie. Your life will never be the same."
"And if the roles were reversed? What would you do?"
"I'd probably tell you to find someone else."
"Well," she said. "How can I possibly turn down an offer like that? Shall we eat? I'm absolutely famished." (133)

Lying in wait:
Qassam was now beholden to a man of far greater ambitions. He did not know the man's real name, only his nom de guerre. He was the one from Iraq, the one they called Saladin.
Not surprisingly, Qassam's journey had begun in cyberspace, where, his identity carefully shielded, he had indulged in his unquenchable appetite for the blood and bombs of jihadist pornan appetite he had developed during the American occupation of Iraq, when he was still at university. One evening, after a miserable day at work and a nightmarish commute home, he had knocked on the cyberdoor of an ISIS recruiter and inquired about traveling to Syria to become a fighter. The ISIS recruiter had made inquiries of his own and had convinced Qassam to remain in suburban Washington. (357-8)

25 January 2017

FEC Peace

A shaky status quo reached after the Inmates Committee (IC) revolt. Replacing the duly-elected members of the IC did not happen. The unlikely alliance of Mr. OC and Ms Etoile and their vociferous supporters brought the FEC Upper Levels of Command to their knees. Or so one would conclude from Ms E's frequent, flagrant broadcasting in her throatiest stage voice.

"We won because I," Ms E trumpets, "accused them of human rights violations. We have an ombudsman for that, don't you know? And my journalist pal on the daily tabloid was all set to expose Upper Levels' unfair practices. That kind of publicity would destroy FEC! So of course they backed down."

"No. I beg to differ," Mr. OC is quick to interrupt. "We won because I threatened to go to landlord-tenant court. That lovely little articling law student prepared a brief for us, all set to prove our point. We would've nailed them."
Ophelia murmurs, "She was so cute you wanted to nail her."
Gonzo, smugly: "No more Thomas the Brave Bastard sticking his fingers in our petty cash or anywhere else."

Luther whips out a hat that says Make FEC Great Again to a round of polite applause.
Ms Etoile, briskly: "Good hat. Now, agenda! Agenda, please!"
Bella, puzzled: "I don't get it."
Sheila, wearily: "Am I taking minutes again?"
Luanna, wispily: "What time is this meeting over?"
George, rudely: "Pass the Timbits."
Ophelia, apologetically: "I would have made butter tarts if I'd had more notice."

A new meeting takes shape. A new Kitchen Assistant must be appointed. Ophelia nominates young Sam, hunkiest man in FEC, also demanding a new stove for the communal kitchen ... no-one wants to hear more about the Tupperware-melting episode and the Fire Chief's blistering lecture. Gonzo wants accounting software. George wants beer and wine during the IC meetings (Bella's face lights up). Luanna wants to watch television.

Meanwhile, Upper Levels are keeping very quiet about rumours of recently discovered discrepancies in Thomas the Brave's creative accounting methods for the Communal Piano Fund.

Having defeated the Forces of Darkness Upper Levels, Mr OC is lost in contemplation of a slightly more ornate chair upon which to preside at meetings. Perhaps a tiny bit elevated, the better to emphasize the IC his victory. What else is petty cash good for.

Another feckless day in the life ...

17 January 2017

Library Limelights 124

Douglas Smith. Rasputin: faith, power, and the twilight of the Romanovs. USA: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.
What can I possibly say about the most exhaustive work yet on this most charismatic, often adored but mostly reviled figure in the old tsarist regime? Smith had access to a host of archives in Russia unavailable to a throng of previous biographers. His measured reporting and analysis of each event (personal or political), particularly from 1905 when Rasputin first met the imperial couple to 1916 when he died, are beyond reproach. Familiar with many stories, I do confess picking and choosing my chapters in this epic tome. What becomes very clear is the obstinacy of Nicholas II and especially of Alexandra that protected Rasputin in the face of dissent from so many different levels of society. There is no question he unwittingly played a large part in the downfall of the royal family and the empire.

Smith was able to piece together Rasputin's younger life before becoming an on-again, off-again resident of St. Petersburg and regular visitor to the royal palaces. The man first became revered as one of the peripatetic Siberian "holy fools" and groups of acolytes began to surround him, both peasant and privileged. As his influence grew, so did the jealousy and accusations: (among others) that he took advantage of women (to put it mildly) and that he was a khlyst. The word refers to a Christian sect said to indulge in unholy practices. Whatever, it takes 700 pages to get a feel for, if not understand, the enabling ambiance of the times; in Russian circles of power, gossip and rumour were astonishingly rampant, self-servingly embroidered, and swallowed whole in each iteration. Rasputin was painted in many contradictory terms. The conspirators who ended his life in a bloody confrontation led by Prince Felix Yusupov were likely almost as affected by hysteria as Rasputin's supporters. It seems that Rasputin's holiness fought with, but inevitably succumbed, to his celebrity.
Choosing a few sample passages is near impossible.

Portrait 1914 by T. Krarup in Smith's book; original was destroyed.

Once he had crawled inside my head, Rasputin refused to leave me alone. (5)
Alexandra remained blind to the reality of the situation up until the end. (580)
"When Rasputin entered my study I was shocked by the repulsive expression of his eyes, deep-set and close to each other, small, gray in color." (259)

One of the assassins:
The Felix Yusupov that is described in his memoirs is a caricature of the vain and spoiled aristocrat for whom everything is permitted, nothing is to be taken too seriously, and the entire world and all the things (and people) in it have been created for his own use and enjoyment. Nothing held his attention for long, and Felix's life amounted to a search for intense experiences and thrill-seeking that began with cross-dressing and eventually ended in murder. (185)

The early path:
Life as a pilgrim was hard. Rasputin walked thirty miles a day in all kinds of weather. He begged for alms or worked at odd jobs to earn a few kopecks. He was often set upon by brigands and chased by murderers. The Devil forever tempted him with "unholy desires." Rasputin humiliated himself to test his resolve. He would force himself to go without food or water for days, for six months he wandered without changing his underclothes or touching his body, for three years he traveled across Russia in fetters. In age-old Christian fashion, this mortification of the flesh brought him closer to the spirit of Christ. With time Rasputin gave up his metal chains for "the chains of love." He learned to read the Gospels, to contemplate their meaning, and to find God in all things, especially in the beauty of the Russian landscape. ...
Wonder at the beauty of nature. Conviction of the Devil's presence in the world around us. Struggle with the demands of the body. Disregard for money and material things. Awe at the power of love. Asceticism and unusual religious practices combined with an independent spirit. In these passages Rasputin revealed the themes that would dominate his life. (23)

Alexandra's words:
She was becoming increasingly irritated by Nicholas' weakness and sent him hectoring letters demanding that he "bang on the table" and act like a tsar, for "Russia loves to feel the whip." She passed on Rasputin's advice that he be strong and stand up to the ministers ... She ordered her husband to be "a man" and confessed that "its harder keeping you firm than [enduring] the hatred of others wh. leaves me cold." In exasperation she cried, "How I wish I could pour my will into your veins!" But she could not. The monarchy, as Alexandra saw it, was threatened chiefly by her husband's lack of will. In Rasputin, Alexandra had hoped to find the strength to support Nicholas and his reign. Her belief in Rasputin never wavered, but her hope for the success of his mission to guide Nicholas was fading. (582)

Brent Ghelfi. Shadow of the Wolf. USA: Picador/Henry Holt and Company, 2008.
Speaking of Russia ... Almost catapulting out of a comic strip, scarred and battered Alexei Volkovoy is a one-man wrecking crew. Generally known as Volk (wolf), his skills are employed by a variety of ruthless power-seekers inside or outside today's Kremlin. Controlling oil is power. Russia is still dealing with Chechen terrorists but the vicious attacks are mutual. The novel begins with an explosion in Moscow and continues with more dead bodies. Tough guy Volk, who provides the narrative, begins to find his conscience as he works out the very tangled skeins of greed, betrayal, and horror. Volk lost a foot and part of his leg in a previous book; this time he does not want to lose his Chechen lover Valya.

The cast of characters is longer than your arm. Two Americans are only bit players. References to Putin and deep-rooted corruption at top levels of Russian administration are totally convincing. But cultural warfare, abductions, torture ... the resulting violence is not for the faint. Nevertheless, kudos to an American author who knows every nuance of the necessary background political and geographical. The details are impressive; the writing is excellent and not without strategically placed bits of alleviating humour.

Putin has earned a reputation for being everywhere at once, straddling the ocean, filling the sky, just like Stalin. (48)
To me the differences between American politicians are insignificant, and mostly rhetorical; damn near everyone of them voted to bomb Iraq until the sand turned to glass, all the while condemning Russia for invading Chechnya. (83)
When the institutionalized rigidity of Soviet life vanished suddenly, as if a chunk of the country had fallen off the earth, we had no frame of reference. (183)

The local cop shop:
The station is falling apart for want of repairs it won't get anytime soon. Its white walls are trimmed in green paint cracked like a dried lake bed. The boiler downstairs gasps and thunks, fighting a holding action against Moscow's January freeze. Condensation drips from the overhead pipes, and more moisture wicks from the corners of the ceiling, where radiating brown stains that look like tree rings mark the advance and retreat of past incursions. (116)

Walk with me:
He leads the way out and we cross the bridge to chug along the embankment on the edge of the Moscow River, the big man huffing like a steam engine, his bodyguards trailing some distance behind us like freight cars. The cold and wind turn his face red, but he seems happier to be outside.
"In a hundred years we'll kill each other for different reasons," he says. "But only one kind of world politics matters right now. Petropolitics. The pipes are the asshole of the oil and gas world. Shut them down, how long you think everything else keeps going? And just wait until the crazies in Iran start aiming suicide boats at Persian Gulf tankers."
He stops just before we reach Red Square. One of his men rushes toward us with a cup. Maxim pops off the lid, slugs half the boiling brew inside, and loudly smacks his lips. (172)

In the Caucasus mountains:
"This is a generational problem, Volk," he says on the exhale. "Just like what we have in Afghanistan and Iraq. That kid back there will never know anything except how to fight and how to hate. Unless something changes soon, neither will his children. And they won't even understand why."
I remember thinking something similar in Masha's flat. How long ago was that? Four days I think. Maybe five. The hours in the Lubyanka hole warped my sense of time. ...
"This isn't new," I say. "The highlanders haven't known anything except fighting for a thousand years."
But even as I say the words I know I've evaded the point. The children of the Chechen wars are refugees in their own land. They represent the beginning of a new cycle, not a continuation of what began long ago. A downward spiral that won't end until something catastrophic disrupts it. (248-9)

Arnaldur Indridadson. Voices. 2003. UK: Vintage/Random House, 2010.
We're in Iceland and it's just about Christmas time. Detective Erlendur is on the case of a murdered hotel doorman, a man no-one knew well. In fact the cop decides to book a room and stay in the hotel, to the consternation of the mostly unhelpful staff. Erlendur doesn't like to admit going home is lonely, or that a traumatic childhood memory plagues him just as the slain victim did. While Erlendur grapples with suspicious hotel guests and vinyl record collectors, his attention keeps drifting to his sad daughter Eva Lind. Erlendur's colleague Elinborg fumes about the trial of a father who might have abused his child. Slowly the victim's hidden past comes to light through old acquaintances.

Boy soprano choirs evoke the book's title. Boys growing up without a father's attention, or too much attention, play a part throughout the story line. Sibling relationships also factor in. The police characters are eminently likeable although appearing a bit thick at times ... a reader can see one of the revelations coming from a mile away. Middle-aged Erlandur actually asks a woman for a date (a bit scary considering the man's favourite meal is to boil some smoked lamb). There's something rather homey and comfortable about all this, if one can say that about a crime novel.

The main course every Christmas was a Swedish-style leg of pork, which she kept outside on the balcony to marinate for twelve days, and tended it just as carefully as if it had been the baby Jesus in swaddling clothes. (27-8)
Halldóra was the woman he married a whole generation before, then divorced and whose hatred he earned for doing so. (75)

A confession of sorts:
In twenty-three years he had been faithful to his wife. Two or three times in all those years he'd perhaps had the chance to kiss another woman, but nothing like this had ever happened to him before.
"I lost the plot completely," he told Erlendur. "Part of me wanted to run home and forget the whole thing. Part of me wanted to go with the woman."
"I bet I know which part that was," said Erlendur. (97)

"A wolf in his voice?" Erlendur said. "I'm not too well up on ..."
"It's an idiom for when your voice breaks. What happens is that the vocal chords stretch in puberty, but you go on using your voice in the same way and it shifts an octave lower. The result isn't pretty, you sort of yodel downwards. This is what ruins all boys' choirs. He could have had another two or three years, but Gudlaugur matured early. His hormones started working prematurely and produced the most tragic night of his life." (136-7)

Unsolicited advice:
"What's new with you?" Marion asked, puffing on the cigarillo.
"Nothing," Erlendur said.
"Does Christmas annoy you?"
"I've never understood this Christmas business," Erlendur said vaguely as he peered into the kitchen, on the lookout for the chef's hat.
"No," Marion said. "Too much cheer and joy, I would imagine. Why don't you get yourself a girlfriend? You're not that old. There are plenty of women who could take a fancy to an old fart like you." (186)