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Book Reviews

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Book Review: I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers

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A new literary thriller from the acclaimed author of Resistance. In I Saw a Man, journalist Caroline Marshall dies on assignment in Pakistan, leaving her husband, writer Michael Turner, widowed and grieving. To help his recovery, Michael moves house and befriends his neighbours Josh and Samantha Nelson and their two young daughters. But tragedy strikes Michael again. He must decide if the weight of his guilt and grief are going to anchor him to his present home or drive him away again.

The Vancouver Sun Book Club will be discussing the novel this fall but here’s a sneak peak on my reading of it.

Overall this is a fun, summer read. Great for fall, of course. The writing itself is fun in that it’s easy to read, a good page turner. The subject matter is darker. Michael is widowed and living next door to the Nelsons. He comes over to retrieve his screwdriver that he lent them the night before. The back door is open. This is odd because the wife Samantha is away and Josh and his two daughters don’t seem to be in the house. Michael enters the quiet family home and calls out but gets no reply. He hesitates then enters in search of his screwdriver. Readers don’t find out for a long time what’s happened to that screwdriver and Owen Sheers builds in a lot of good tension.

There’s also the background story of Michael and his wife Caroline Marshall. Caroline was a free-spirited female reporter who broke a few international stories and wasn’t adverse to dangerous assignments. Caroline had removed herself from field work and had settled down with Michael in a quaint cottage in Wales where she was doing some producer work until an assignment crossed her desk that she couldn’t refuse. Next thing Michael knows, she is off to Pakistan to report on the story of a Welsh boy who joined a terrorist group there.

Owen Sheers creates great tension in this background story. He brings Michael and Caroline together, almost like two moths to a flame. They are an unlikely couple who are pulled together by something unexplained and also both aware that something is going to pull them apart. How Caroline dies is also a secret that Owen Sheers keeps from his reader for much of the book.

The novel isn’t really plot driven in the way that thrillers are. Instead it’s intellectual and emotional. There’s emotional tension in each of the relationships. There are lies and betrayals that either create alliances or ruptures. And it’s the nature of love, loss and secrets that is at the heart of this book.

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I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers is published in Canada by Bond Street Books
Fiction $29.95
Buy on Amazon: I Saw a Man: A Novel
See Reviews on Goodreads

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Book Review: The Mystics of Mile End by Sigal Samuel

Four distinct voices tell the tale of one family’s attempt to transcend the Kabbalah Tree of Life. Each seeks enlightenment. Each failure has a lesson. This is a debut novel about faith, family and finding meaning from an accomplished writer, editor and playwright.

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The Mystics of Mile End is set in Montreal’s Mile End, a mashup of Hasidic Jew and hipster cultures. Brother and sister, Lev and Samara Meyer, are at a loss after the death of their mother. They seek refuge in their faith and retaliate against their father David’s denial of that faith. David, for his part, is uncertain about his own faith and seeks the meaning of life in self-destructive ways. He’s a professor of Jewish mysticism, yet not any more enlightened, and his research into the Kabbalah Tree of Life, discovered posthumously by Samara, might be the one thing that finally connects the family.

The Torah is the five books of Moses, so I thought that there would be five books in The Mystics of Mile End but there are only four: Lev, David, Samara and Mile End.

I guess Mile End really is a character in the book. But beyond a geographical place, it’s where Holocaust survivor Chaim Glassman lives (in silence) with his wife. It’s where Mr Katz is assembling lemons and wired-up tin cans in his giant oak tree, and where Lev’s star-gazing friend Alex falls in love with Samara and then learns his own lessons and break throughs.

The novel is about what happens when we search for signs instead of living, and when we are silent instead of talking. It’s a strong debut novel.

The Mystics of Mile End by Sigal Samuel
published by Freehand Books

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Book Review: Boo by Neil Smith

As part of the Vancouver Sun’s book club, I’ve been discussing Boo, a new novel by Neil Smith. It’s about Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple, a 13-year-old boy who narrates the book from the afterlife. The jacket blurb’s proclamation that this is “Lord of the Flies without pig slaughter and privation.” 
Read more: http://www.vancouversun.com/news/book+club+year+protagonist+quest+meaning/11151629/story.html#ixzz3fr3fwphy

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One of my favourite discussions was about the 1970s cultural references in the novel. Here’s what I said:

Until our conversation last week, I did not pick up on the fact that the book is set in the 1970s because there are so many hipster trends today that allude to that period. It’s obvious now, and so overt, that it’s embarrassing to admit that I glazed over this aspect of the novel. As I started compiling a list of the cultural references, I couldn’t stop so this is not an exhaustive list, just want sprang to mind.

First off, I loved the Napolean-Dynamite visual I got when reading about Boo or Johnny wearing the white and blue striped gym socks and sweat bands. That alone brought levity to the underlying story of two boys dead in a school shooting. The peace symbol and style of clothes really do set the story in the 70s for me but Town/Heaven is presented as Salvation Army so, again, I didn’t initially understand the setting to be the 1970s. My assumption then, since there are no computers or video games, is that Town’s culture is that of America in current day.

The clothes especially made me laugh and Boo’s criticism of the cashmere sweater and egotism of 13-year-old girls reminded me of that all-about-me phase. It’s funny, especially, if the 70s was the Me decade, to end up in town with generations of 13 year old Americans. You would not feel so unique, which is maybe why some townies identify as gommers, or portal seekers, or find other ways of segmenting themselves off.

The other prominent 70s references for me were the Hardy Boys references, especially the building named Frank and Joe, the music references, and I immediately thought of the do-good council as the Brady Bunch.

I wonder if there are no cars in Town because 13 year olds can’t drive, or if that’s a reference to the oil crisis? Likely the former. And I don’t know enough about the history of the periodic table but there’s obviously an interesting study of those elements and their function within the storytelling.

What I don’t recall are references to Star Wars. But Boo is certainly aware of the starscape and Zig only changes it on occasion. I wonder for people who saw the moon landing first hand, if it was underwhelming. It’s cool, but there’s nothing there. Was that a letdown and made people wonder about heaven? If you imagined the moon as this great place then saw its pocked surface, did you question what you’d imagined about heaven?

The mental health building, Johnny’s behaviour, and the sense of being in purgatory or sentenced to 50 years in town reminded me of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There were several places in the novel when I wondered who the crazy actually was.

You can read the full discussion among all the book club members here: http://www.vancouversun.com/entertainment/books/book+club+References+1970s+abound+afterlife+novel/11132081/story.html

Boo was a fascinating novel and an interesting philosophical experiment on what the afterlife holds for us.

Boo by Neil Smith
published by Knopf Canada

 

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Book Review: The Parrots by Filippo Bologna

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I discovered this book in the Rathmines Public Library, displayed in a section for nominees of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. It’s billed as a smart novel, and it unveils the aspirations, and vanity, of three unnamed authors competing for a prestigious, unnamed prize. I enjoyed the irony of that. For background, this is Italian Filippo Bologna’s second novel and the first was well regarded. Indeed he may be one, or all, of the characters in the book.

It’s important to note that the characters live in Rome and there’s a dark undertone to the competition and the vote rigging or schmoozing required by authors in order to win. And winning is important as it increases sales and can firmly establish an author. So how far is each willing to go?

The three men are The Beginner, The Writer and The Master. The Beginner is the hot, young thing. He’s good looking and loved by the critics. A win means instant fame. Neither the Master or Writer want to be beaten by the novice. Plus they both deem his novel unreadable. The Writer assumes he’s the sure win, but he is the most nervous of the lot. His last book wasn’t very good. He is onto The Second Wife already and needs to win to not be dumped by The Publisher as the lost could strip him of his fabricated identity and posh lifestyle. The Writer has everything to lose. For him the win is security.

As I mentioned, the dark satire throughout the novel is about how far each author is willing to go to win. The Master is the most disheartened. He’s stuck with a small press throughout his career and has never quite got the recognition he deserves. A win means money. Plus he now has prostate cancer. Will he lose his dignity and use his cancer diagnosis to get the sympathy vote or is he above it all?  The other two have their own twists of fate but I don’t want to spoil the read for you.

The novel is black, in a sullen artisty way. There’s a thread of humour throughout. And overall it was an enjoyable read. Not a page turner but I did want to see it through to the end. You’ll like this novel if you’re also a fan of The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq, caustic humour and insider look at fame in the art world, or The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, a satirical look at an English-language newspaper in Rome.

Oh, and what’s with the title, The Parrots? Well there is a rather nasty parrot that taunts the Beginner. Also there is a parrot at the end with the Writer. It’s unclear whether this is the same parrot or not. But as soon as I read the title and the opening scene with the parrot and the Beginner, I thought we were dealing with Flaubert’s Parrot, and surely there’s a connection. Here’s a snippet from Wikipedia on Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes:

One of the central themes of the novel is subjectivism. The novel provides three sequential chronologies of Flaubert’s life: the first is optimistic (citing his successes, conquests, etc.), the second is negative (citing the deaths of his friends/lovers, his failures, illnesses etc.) and the third compiles quotations written by Flaubert in his journal at various points in his life. The attempts to find the real Flaubert mirror the attempt to find his parrot, i.e. apparent futility.

The Parrots by Filippo Bologna
Published by Pushkin Press
View it on Amazon

Monday, June 08, 2015

Book Review: Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

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In December 2010 I read and reviewed Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie. I haven’t read all of Rushdie’s works but I have loved the ones I have, including Luka and the Fire of Life, which is the sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name…
And in the depths of the city, beyond an old zone of ruined buildings that looked like broken hearts, there lived a happy young fellow by the name of Haroun, the only child of the storyteller Rashid Khalifa, whose cheerfulness was famous throughout that unhappy metropolis, and whose never-ending stream of tall, short and winding tales had earned him not one but two nicknames. To his admirers he was Rashid the Ocean of Notions ...
to his jealous rivals he was the Shah of Blah.

In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Haroun is upset that his mother has run away with the weasly clerk from next door and his father, the famous storyteller, seems to have no more stories to tell. The latter being a result of the former. When Rashid, the most famous storyteller of the land, is called into service by a gangster politician, Haroun is beyond worried that his father’s dried up gift for gab is going to get them imprisoned.

A sleepless night in a peacock bed result in Haroun riding a mechanical bird right into a story war. He’s accompanied by a water genie, a floating gardener, some talking fish, the mechanical bird and a host of other magical creatures. Of course Haroun is the hero of this tale and is awarded a happy ending.

I bought this book in the ancient book market in Argeliers, France, while looking for a happy ending. The Shad of Blah certainly delivered a delightful holiday read. He knows how to spin a frown upside down.

If you liked Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, or any other quirky tale then give this one a go. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Book Review: The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg

79-year-old Martha Andersson dreams of escaping her care home and robbing a bank.

Well I was worried about taking this book cover through customs but Martha Andersson’s luck was on my side. This old bird is a spring chicken when it comes to planning the perfect crime. Martha and her cronies are fed up with budget cuts in their retirement home that have led to reductions in the amount of coffee they can have per day and the elimination of biscuits with their tea. It’s simply outrageous and, what is even more insulting, the prisons in Sweden look like luxury accommodation in comparison. Something must be done.

When the old foggies can’t get improvements at home, they form the League of Pensioners and rob an art gallery. It’s the perfect crime. Even the police and newspapers make that claim. But what these seniors want is time in prison so they turn themselves in and figure out a way to keep the ransom money, return the paintings and be the Robin Hoods of their day.

If you liked The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson or The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce then you’ll enjoy this funny heist.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Book Review: Barker by Wayne Tefs

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Harlan runs away with the circus, becomes a barker (the guy who calls in the crowds) and eventually ends up in bed with the knife-throwers’ wife. You can imagine where it goes from there. Harlan is one of those guys who is always on the run. He runs away to the circus. He runs away from the circus. He runs away to the army. He runs and runs but he can’t run away from the voices in his head.

This depression-era saga follows our man Harlan from prairie homestead with an SOB dad to the traveling circus and into the army. He’s almost fodder in the Pacific theatre but the war dries up and he finds himself in real estate. “I coulda been a contender,” comes to mind. Funny enough Harlan finds his way in the most unusual way.

This is the last book by Wayne Tefs, award-winning author of nine novels, a collection of short stories and two memoirs. I have always enjoyed his writing and he is one of the prairies noteworthy authors. I felt very sad reading this book and also very pleased to have a personal connection to him.

Barker by Wayne Tefs (published by Turnstone)

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

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A heart-breaking, yet uplifting, book about two teens who fall in love after meeting at a Cancer Kid Support Group. Maybe you’ve seen the movie or read the hype about this book, either way, it’s all the wonderful things said and none of the bad. Hazel’s cancer is stable but she has never been anything but terminal. The wait is on. A fellow support-group kid named Isaac is her companion when it comes to sighing and eye rolling during the support group sessions and one day Isaac brings his friend Augustus to the group. Augustus is missing a leg due to his cancer but is in all respects a heartthrob. Former basketball star, instant charmer and class clown, Augustus has it all and only eyes for Hazel from day 1. Admittedly he is staring because Hazel reminds him of an ex-girlfriend, or rather of a former girlfriend who passed away from her cancer.

It’s love in the cancer ward and, although author John Green has made up many of the medical aspects, he seems so spot on with teen malaise and irony that you might think he is still a teenager himself.  I found this book more funny than sad and it’s definitely raw as well as raucous. There are lots of big questions in this book and the story acts as a pleasant philosophical examination of living, loving and taking risks.


Amazon.ca: The Fault in Our Stars ,by Green, John ( 2013 ) Paperback

Monday, April 06, 2015

Book Review: The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy

imageA quaint love story, or rather unrequited love story. Rachel Joyce’s first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, is the story of a saintly pensioner who walks, in yachting shoes, across England to say goodbye to a friend from long ago who is in a hospice. This is the other side of the story. Miss Queenie Hennessy is the friend who is waiting for Harold Fry, and while she waits, she writes out her confession and goodbye to Harold.

And I mean, really, the woman is dying. You’d think the man could get on a train or bus. But no, he is walking and she is waiting. The time gives them space to build themselves up for the visit, I suppose.

Anyway this companion book, since it’s not really a sequel, is about the burden of guilt Queenie has been carrying since leaving Kingsbridge 20 years ago. The novel is her letter to Harold about her recollections of first seeing him, dancing to himself under falling snow, and then meeting in the canteen at the brewery. She mentions, often, that Harold always remarks to everyone that they first met in the stationery cupboard. Miss Queenie Hennessy, however, was balling her eyes out so perhaps she’d rather remember it as the canteen. No matter. The “where” is the least of her deathbed worries.

Instead it’s that she met, danced with, and became friends with Harold’s son and never said a word about it to Harold. More than that, Harold’s son David stole money from her, along with her love poems and egg whisk. The egg whisk being the most irritating item to go astray. She lent David books, let him sleep on her couch, gave him money and offered up friendly advice about staying in touch with his parents. But David was as troubled as he was troubling.

Despite Queenie’s efforts to befriend him, David lied to her, mocked her, and eventually disappeared. His sudden death put Queenie on the spot. She couldn’t confess. She couldn’t tell Harold about her involvement with David because she feared the betrayal would be too great. She ran away then, but now she’s determined to say the things she wished she’d said then.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is her declaration of love and her confession. If Harold Fry’s pace is slow, Rachel Joyce’s writing just clips along at a good measure, which makes this 300-pager feel like a zippy read.

imageThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize and longlisted for the Man Book Prize. Read them both, why not.

See Books by Rachel Joyce on Amazon.ca

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Book Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

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The Miniaturist: “There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed…” When the newly married Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam on a brisk autumn day in 1686 she is expecting to be warmly embraced into her husband’s household. Johannes Brandt is a wealthy merchant trader who is well respected, and Amsterdam is a glittery new start for Nella who comes from the country with a suitcase and her ancient, respected Oortman name. She soon discovers that her family name is likely the only reason she is there. Johannes’ sister Marin is a younger version of Downton Abbey‘s Dowager Countess, and she certainly runs the household, not a role Nella the new wife is going to assume.

Johannes is kind, but mostly away travellling, and his affections, when home are showered on his dogs, not Nella. The one gift he presents to her is a cabinet-sized replica of their home. Nella finds a miniaturist to furnish the rooms but, as cryptic package after package arrives, Nella’s wonderment shifts to eerie suspension. The miniatures of the household are exact replicas of the furniture and family members, and they are lovely at first. But then unrequested items like a small cradle arrive. It’s like the miniaturist knows the family’s deepest desires and secrets.

When Johannes’ favourite dog is killed and a long-time servant disappears, the artistry seems to turn to witchcraft. Nella is left wondering if the packages are benign predictions of the future or warnings of things to come. The whole experience is all the more alarming given that Nella is living in Amsterdam at a repressively pious time: puppets are banned, and even man-shaped gingerbread is forbidden. But false idols end up being the least of her concerns when Johannes is betrayed by a friend and arrested.

The Miniaturist is a beautifully written fairy tale with all the witchcraft and sugar plums you could possibly want. It’s beguiling. Fans of the Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern will enjoy this story. I think readers of historical fiction, Sarah Waters or Markus Zusak (The Book Thief) will like it too.

Or check out what readers say on Goodreads

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Book Review: A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett

This shocking and disturbing account of a journalist’s capture and torture in Somalia in 2008 was one of the most celebrated books of 2013, making the Globe 100 and hitting all the notable lists. A House in the Sky reads like a novel, which allows the reader to step away from the narrative a little bit and pretend that this is a fictionalization (you need this survival technique to make it through the book). The strength of the harrowing adventure is in the authors’ ability to slam the reader back into reality at just the right moment.

Here’s the general rundown: Amanda Lindhout grows up in Red Deer, moves to Calgary, works as a cocktail waitress and raises enough money to travel the world. She’s got the travel bug and moves quickly beyond the minor inconveniences of the backpacker lifestyle and into the major challenges of being a fledgling journalist in Iraq then Somalia. Her solo travels across Sudan, Syria and Pakistan do not prepare her for the full-blown war in Somalia or for the captivating power Osama Bin Laden will have on Somali militant groups. She’s not safe the second she lands and by day four she has been abducted along with a photojournalist from Australia. The two are held captive for 15 months, and Amanda is starved, raped, beaten and tortured. Initially the violence is moderate, a way to show who’s boss, but as the months drag on and the families refuse to pay the ransom demands, life gets much, much harder.

The journey is unimaginable. Amanda’s fortitude is amazing. And I never, ever want to read this kind of story again and think “well, they chose to go there.” The bigger question is “why the hell do people do this to each other?” The answer is money. And that is a very sad answer.

Amanda’s story is certainly about personal mistakes and wrong turns but it’s also a reminder that the stories we hear on the news about journalists who are captured, tortured and sometimes beheaded on camera are just one small fraction of the madness going on. There is a deeper story about survival and sacrifice, both for the captors and the captives.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Book Review: The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson

A hilarious novel about a South African woman who knows too much, twin brothers (one of whom knows too little) and the foibles of the sanitation department, nuclear weapons programs, the Mossad, the Chinese, and the Swedish royal family. Think Airplane meets National Lampoon meets The Butler.

The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden: A Novel by Jonas Jonasson was a delightful read over the holidays. It’s ridiculous in a believable way.

Book description: On June 14th, 2007, the King and Prime Minister of Sweden went missing from a gala banquet at the Royal Castle. Later it was said that both had fallen ill: the truth is different. The real story starts much earlier, in 1961, with the birth of Nombeko Mayeki in a shack in Soweto. Nombeko was fated to grow up fast and die early in her poverty-stricken township. But Nombeko takes a different path. She finds work as a housecleaner and eventually makes her way up to the position of chief advisor, at the helm of one of the world’s most secret projects.

The highlights are that Nombeko is super smart and is in a shitty position (literally) as an assistant in the sanitation department in South Africa. The idiot managers can’t count and she has powerful math skills. Through a series of events involving self defence and a pair of scissors she learns to read. I can’t reveal too much! She inherits a jacket lining full of diamonds and accidentally gets run over. She is found at fault and is basically sold into servitude to a drunk who’s in charge of South Africa’s nuclear program. He can count but barely. His father has paid off the university to get his son the engineering degree that’s landed him in this position. Nombeko saves the day and her own skin by helping him develope six nuclear missiles in the 1980s, then voluntarily dismantle them in 1994. Unfortunately the counting part means there is a seventh missile that only a few people know about, including Nombeko and the Israeli secret service. She masterminds a plan to escape to Sweden but a misdirected package of antelope meat turns out to be the seventh missile, which she manages to safeguard in Sweden for over 20 years, with the help of twin brothers, one of whom has a vendetta against the King of Sweden and the other who doesn’t exist since his father never declared his birth to the state. Honestly it’s all terrifically unbelievable but the writing is fantastically funny.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

2 Cookbooks, 2 Novels

Four books that I loved and haven’t had a chance to review:

Pucker by Gwendolyn Richards
Canada’s Julia Child brings citrus fans a melody of recipes from breakfasts to mains, drinks to sweets. It’s is tart and tangy with recipes like Lemon Bourbon Sours, grilled grapefruit, Citrus-Braised Pork Shoulder Tacos, and Lime Sugar Cookies. Yum yum yum. 


Dirty Apron Cookbook by David Robertson
Fans of this Vancouver-based restaurant and cooking school will recognize many of the recipes in this amazing cookbook that features 80 of the school’s time-tested signature dishes. The pulled pork is delish and I barely managed to take photos of the dish before we gobbled it up.


Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald
Spend a week with this stressed out mom and all will look well in your world. Mary Rose, aka Mister, is home alone for the week with her two young kids while her wife travels for work. It’s a mix of family drama, swimming class, personal reflection, parenting of aging parents and general stress management. My comments on this title for the Vancouver Sun Book Club are here and there are 4 weeks of book club discussions plus our chat with author Ann-Marie MacDonald.


All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
A delightful, and sad tale, about two young people whose paths cross during WWII. Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. He create miniatures of their neighbourhood so that Marie-Laure, who is blind, is able to navigate her way around. He also makes small puzzles for her and in one is a gift that she cannot reveal to anyone. In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. The love of this radio and its mechanics draw Werner into Hitler’s service. As the two are drawn from their homes, their lives intersect in a really lovely yet tragic way. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Book Review: Will Starling by Ian Weir

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Sweeney Todd meets Frankenstein in this romp through the underbelly of London, 1816, when grave-robbers are digging up bodies and selling them on the sly to anatomists and surgeons eager to understand to inner workings of the body and that fine line between the living and the dead.

Will Starling by Ian Weir opens with a macabre scene. The great, and godlike, Dionysus Atherton stands in a public square waiting for the hangman to do his business. “Dionysus Atherton consulted his timepiece, and made a note: the subject dropped at one minute past eight ... All movement finally ceased at 8:48, and death was pronounced at two minutes past nine.” Such are the interests of surgeons, or rather this surgeon in particular who is keen on chasing life to its outer reaches in hopes that science can pull back the subject from death’s icy grip. Once they cut down the body, can Dionysus Atherton secretly bring it back to life?

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley hasn’t yet written Frankenstein but resurrection is in the air.

Atherton, although a colourful figure, is not the protagonist, we leave that role to Will Starling, who works for a rival surgeon and is endowed with the gift of gab. What follows is “the reckoning of WM. Starling, Esq., a Foundling, concerning Monstrous Crimes and Infernal Aspirations, with Perpetrators Named and Shrouded Infamies disclosed to Light of Day, as set down by his Own Hand in this year 1816.”

Author Ian Weir, like in his debut novel, the acclaimed Daniel O’Thunder, deftly crafts a historical tale of twists and turns, with some pot boiler elements, and huge literary merit. This is a fun read for anyone who loves a good story, plus there’s some great slang and a few useful etymology points you can use at upcoming holiday parties.

Will Starling’s narrative reminds me a bit of Sherlock’s Dr. Watson, but Will is much more gossipy, into the ladies and not above boasting about himself and roasting his friends and family.

Published by Goose Lane Editions, Will Starling should be easy to find on all the “Must Read” tables in bookstores.

If you liked Cataract City by Craig Davidson, The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon or The Harem Midwife and The Midwife of Venice, then you’ll like this book too, especially since all these authors have lovingly provided jacket cover quotes. “Crackerjack novel ... no one else in Canada today writes like Ian Weir ... his characters are as engaging as the Artful Dodger or Fagin or Martin Chuzzlewit.”

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Book Review: The Long Way Home by Louise Penny

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Louise Penny is one of those mystery writers whose works I can’t put down. I would say her Inspector Gamache series is a Canadian version of the British detective drama Foyle’s War, but set in contemporary Quebec. Chief Inspector Gamache of Homicide for the Sûreté du Québec is on the far side of middle age, a solid man both in stature and personal fortitude, and he is good and kind. The series is the right mix of Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marpole and CSI.

I started reading the series with book #7, A Trick of Light and was hooked. The Beautiful Mystery was by far one of the most beautiful mysteries I’ve ever read. Each book in the series introduces readers to a tucked away corner of Quebec (sometimes a real place and often a fictionalized version of a real place) set in contrast to the tranquility of Three Pines, a small village outside of Montreal that is not on the map and without cell service. It’s the Miss Marpole component with quirky small-town characters who are a microcosm of the world at large but also who are living in a very special place, maybe even a magical place in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez kind of way.

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With The Beautiful Mystery, the location was the monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups, hidden deep in the wilderness of Quebec, where two dozen cloistered monks live in peace and prayer. Although they have taken a vow of silence, the monks are world-famous for their glorious chants. Gamache is called to the scene when the renowned choir director is murdered. The Vancouver International Writers Festival put on an amazing author event with Penny and Gregorian chanters recently so I was very excited to get a chance to attend this year’s author event.

Although there was no choir, Louise Penny was in fine spirits and instead of reading from her book, which of course would be a tricky feat if you didn’t want to reveal spoilers, she talked about herself, her writing process, how the Inspector Gamache series began, her first publishing contract, meeting her agent in a strange twist of fate and all the wonderful fans and “family” that have developed as a result of the books. It was like meeting a famous relative. She was lively and gracious and held the conversation without being full of herself. No wonder she can write a character like Gamache who is the embodiment of kindness and dignity.

One of the things I like about Louise Penny is the Acknowledgements come at the beginning of her book vs. tucked away at the end. It’s like how film credits used to appear in the opening sequence of a movie. Things that are meant to be read! She is very faltering of her agents, publishers and early readers, including the fine folks at Raincoast Books, where I used to work. It’s fun to see their names in print, especially when you know how much goes into making an author #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, or even getting on a bestseller list at all. (Of course, you need good writing, but it takes a village to bring the book up.)

As a former CBC radio host, Penny is incredibly well spoken. She has the gift of comedic timing and she takes pleasure in sharing her stories with fans. We were 700+ at the event in Vancouver, the last on what sounded like a loooong tour. Saving the best house for last? Anyway, she jokingly said she was taking “the long way home,” which is the title of book #10 in the series. 

After an absolutely riveting book #9, How the Light Gets In, Penny introduces us to the now retired, former Chief Inspector of Homicide, Armand Gamache, who is living in the small village of Three Pines. Has he found peace away from the front line of the police, away from the dead bodies, away from the corruption that forced him into retirement? Maybe.

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Gamache’s spirits are dampened but he’s not disheartened. He’s hurt physically but not beyond repair. The test of this comes when his neighbour Clara Morrow asks for help in finding her estranged husband Peter. The Morrows are well known Quebec artists but jealousy and fame has come between them. It’s a trial separation of one year, but Peter fails to return. He’s withdrawn $3000 from his bank account months ago and hasn’t been seen since. As much as Clara believes he’s missing because something is emotionally wrong, Gamache knows that it’s more likely physical.

In many ways this is a transition book. Our heralded Chief Inspector Gamache no longer holds that title. He’s been put out to pasture and that is always different than choosing to retire. What will happen to him? To the series? This book isn’t the answer to that, but we do get a crackerjack missing person’s mystery with all the tricky police work required to trace a person who doesn’t want to be found. Plus there’s the trials and tribulations of the art world, and the evocative rural Quebec settings. Plus the buttery croissants of the bakery in Tree Pines, which are worthy of mention because Penny makes me want to eat one every time she writes about them. Maybe the Gamache series is over and she’s going into food writing?

Or perhaps she’ll be a therapist. Each of the Inspector Gamache books present the discord in the apparent harmony. There’s a murder. There’s jealousy or rage. There’s double crossings. There’s hurt, both small crimes of the heart and big crimes against the law. And often it’s not about premeditated actions. Something breaks the silence. Or lots of small things break along the way. Given that Penny’s audience at the Vancouver International Writers Festival event last week were middle-aged, retirement-ready women and men, I think the book might be therapy for us. How do you not feel pushed into something? How do you value the gifts you have right under your nose vs. seeking solace elsewhere? How do you find creativity and inspiration when you’ve lost it? Whatever way you dice those tomatoes, the 10th books in the series, A Long Way Home, is good for many reasons.

And if you haven’t encountered the audio books, Ralph Cosham is a wonderful reader:
http://www.audible.com/series?asin=B006K1P8NC&mkwid=DSATitle&pmt=b&pkw=_inurl:asin%3D&source_code=GO1GB909GSH102413&gclid=CJTVpOq8z8ACFQ-DfgodmY4AVg

If you like following authors on Facebook, Louise Penny has a wonderful page:
https://www.facebook.com/louisepennyauthor

Thank you to Jamie Broadhurst and Dag Wagstaff at Raincoast Books for introducing me to Louise Penny and the Inspector Gamache series!