Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Gritty City Lit, Canadian Version

Invisible Dead /Sam Wiebe
Toronto: RandomHouse, c2016
320 p.

A gritty, noir novel, the first in a series to feature Dave Wakeland, a 29yr old ex-cop, now PI who is only truly interested in dead cases. (actually his age is the only really unbelievable thing in this story; he seems much older). Set in Vancouver, it features many local sites and many local references -- Dave is working a case trying to uncover the truth behind the disappearance of Chelsea Loam, a sex worker who vanished 11 years previously. Her foster mother is dying and wants to find some closure before she passes.

Dave's search takes him into the shady life of drug dealers, sex workers, biker gangs and more. He has violent encounters that he somehow manages to survive, and faces up to some truly nasty people. He's laconic but dedicated to truth -- the classic noir detective.

This novel takes on some big issues: missing and murdered Aboriginal women, violence in the sex trade, gang warfare, and the involvement of the rich and respectable in all of these things. It's a bit more gritty than my usual fare, but I thought it was well done, and could see it as a tv series -- it moves quickly, with a devious plot, and has some great characters, from Dave himself to his love interest (an old school friend with addiction issues of her own), his business partner, and some of the people he gets involved in through his investigations. It's well structured, and the writing flows, keeping you flipping those pages quickly. While it's not really my own favourite thing, it's a great example of noir Vancouver, and will most certainly appeal to readers of classic noir or modern Canadian crime.

Open Season / Peter Kirby
Montreal: Linda Leith, c2015
360 p.

Set across the country, in Montreal, this mystery features Inspector Luc Vanier in a race to uncover the truth about two cases, which of course have links he is unaware of.

Both of these threads are fascinating; in the first, Guatemalan journalist Sophia is kidnapped right off the streets of Old Montreal. In the second, a young Ukrainian woman, Katya, thinks she's found work as a nanny in Canada only to discover that she's fallen into a human trafficking ring.

Both of these cases expose a lot about Canada's responses to these kind of social issues, and how our legal system fails victims of trafficking, and those seeking asylum (especially women). Both RCMP and lawyers come in for some criticisms here.

Overall I did find this book interesting, in the themes that Kirby is exploring. But unfortunately, I found Vanier himself really unlikeable. He breaks all the rules in his quest to find the bad guys and punish them -- and I really agree that the bad guys need it, but to go about it so far outside the rule of law just makes Vanier a bad guy as well, for me. He's like someone pretending to be a tough guy, whose character I just can't believe. So I don't think I'll be investigating any Vanier mysteries in future.

Also, this book could be a great contender for the Bad Sex Award for a scene between Vanier and his coroner girlfriend. Eye-rolling at the unnecessarily descriptive & gratuitous outdoor sex scene!

Others who like gritty mysteries may enjoy this one, but it just wasn't for me.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Ausma Zehanat Khan's Language of Secrets

The Language of Secrets by Ausma Zehanat Khan
New York: Minotaur, c2016.
329 p.

Inspector Esa Khattak works for a Community Policing Unit, acting as a liaison between the police and minority communities in Ontario.  But there is a murder, of an old friend of Khattak's, Mohsin Dar, and suddenly the community he is investigating is his own.

He also receives a call from the (fictitious) Canadian intelligence agency INSET, who need him to understand that Mohsin was working for them, infiltrating a terrorist cell to feed them information. His death might have been political, or it might have been personal.

Khattak sends his partner, Rachel Getty (a solid, hockey playing, clever, reliable woman) undercover into the mosque led by suspect Hassan Ashkouri. There are a variety of characters at the mosque, both Muslim born and converts, and Rachel begins to see the tensions between them all. Things get even stickier when Khattak's sister Ruksh suddenly gets engaged to Ashkouri.

Another element of the story lies in Mohsin and Esa's love of Islamic poetry; many of the clues and hints are found within the lines of the poems that are included in the book. I found the inclusion of this literature fascinating, but it does mean the narrative slows a little unless you just skip over the poetry -- in which case you'll also miss a few clues. But even having read them all, I was still surprised by the conclusion.

This book faces up to issues of terrorism, of women's rights, of minority experiences of many kinds. There's also the question of family loyalty, or the loyalty one has to old friends or your wider community. The writing is smooth, and the characters are interesting and have complex back stories. Khan also seems to have a real grasp on the political infighting between law enforcement agencies and how it affects the application of justice. I thought this was an illuminating, solid mystery that tackles timely themes in an honest and thoughtful way. 

You can read a brief excerpt & hear Ausma Zehanat Khan being interviewed on Q here.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Stars and Laments: Mysteries of East Coast Canada

Fire in the Stars / Barbara Fradkin
Toronto: Dundurn, c2016.
324 p.

Amanda Doucette, recently returned from Nigeria where she experienced trauma as an aid worker caught up in violence, is supposed to meeting up with a friend and fellow survivor in Newfoundland. A camping trip together will be restful, restorative, he says.

But when she gets to Newfoundland, he is not there to meet her. Amanda hops on her motorbike, hooks up her dog trailer, and heads off for his place -- only to find his wife Sheri alone there, suspicious and angry. Phil has already left for a camping trip, taking their son Tyler with him.

Feeling a bit worried herself (and unwelcome at his home) she heads off in the general direction that they were planning on going, hoping to track him down. She partners up with Chris Tymko, an RCMP officer from out west now stationed in Newfoundland, who believes her when she says something is wrong. Together they follow up on rumours, sightings, and eventually murders. There is a social conscience in this book too; one of the threads has to do with illegal foreign workers on a fishing trawler who are trying to escape their servitude, while another is Amanda and Phil's PTSD and how it's affecting their lives. 

It's a straightforward mystery, with a strong setting, and a strong character setting up a new series. There were a couple of things that I didn't like personally; Amanda's dog Kaylee travels with her in a motorbike dog trailer & she's a big part of the story. Unfortunately I'm not much for pets and mystery stories together like this. One more little quibble for me; Chris Tymko is a Western Canadian of Ukrainian descent, and at one point relates that his grandparents came from "the Ukraine". A Ukrainian would not say "the" in this case. It's actually quite a contentious issue -- the country is Ukraine, not "the" region of anywhere else.

But apart from my very individual taste, this is a rapidly moving and easily read mystery that keeps you guessing and evokes a definite sense of place.

Lament for Bonnie / Anne Emery
Toronto: ECW Press, c2016
332 p.

Set in Cape Breton, this is a book full of music, and family, and the way the past can rise up and disrupt the present.

Twelve year old Bonnie MacDonald -- the youngest member of her family's famous Clan Donnie highland band, and a step-dancer -- has disappeared after a family party. Nobody has seen a thing, and as the days go on, they all begin to suspect the worst.

Bonnie's disappearance highlights the fractures in this family, between spouses, cousins, generations. As RCMP officer Pierre Maguire (from Montreal, which he left hoping for kinder, gentler work) investigates, the threads of the mystery tangle so tightly the reader is suspecting everyone at once.

Except for the other children, of course. And Emery has created some great characters here; the children are children -- realistic, thoughtful, trying to interpret what they are seeing and hearing. Bonnie's cousin Normie, visiting for the summer, has visions she's not sure what to do with, but connects deeply with her great-grandmother who is also gifted with the sight.

While the conclusion gets a bit over the top and melodramatic for my sensibility, it was at least not horrific. This family is a complicated and interesting one, and the Cape Breton setting with all of its Highland ancestry shines brightly.

If you're looking to take a trip to the East Coast in the company of some mysterious circumstances and strong female leads, either one of these may provide you with the means to do so.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mewed

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mewed / Alan Bradley
Toronto: Doubleday, c2016.
400 p.

Flavia, back at Buckshaw Manor after being rather unceremoniously ejected from the Toronto Finishing School she was at in her last book...Gladys, Dogger, her sisters, Antigone & Inspector Hewitt... what more could she ask? 

Perhaps that her father isn't hospitalized with pneumonia when she arrives home to a rather lacklustre greeting. Perhaps that she could go and see him instead of getting put off constantly. And perhaps that their family could have a nice Christmas together instead of having so much difficulty relating to one another, while Flavia runs around trying to solve the very odd murder she has of course run across once again.

In this volume, Flavia is running an errand for the vicar's wife and encounters a dead body hanging upside down in an isolated country cottage. Is it something occult? Is it a strange health craze gone wrong? Flavia must sort through many suspects and investigate the chemical clues to come to a conclusion. As usual, her science is top-notch but her ability to read people's relationships is a bit shakier. She is surprised by people even though the reader has begun to suspect things a bit earlier on...

If you've been following this series, you'll want to immediately pick up this latest addition to the story. It's powerful, melancholy, and Flavia is really coming into her own as she slowly begins to age, just a bit. Her understanding of the world is growing, and a huge responsibility is about to fall on her shoulders; we start to believe that she is up to it by the end of this book.

If you haven't read the series yet, do begin! This one can be read alone but will most certainly be enriched by having read the earlier books to add to the backstory. I'm always eager to read more about Flavia and this book was a very satisfying addition to her story.


Further Reading:

If you like this book, I strongly recommend going back to the beginning and making sure you read all of the books in this series to really understand Flavia and her surroundings.

Deanna Raybourne's Veronica Speedwell series makes me think of Flavia might be as a grownup -- even if it is set a generation back in the Victorian era. Veronica is a lady adventuress who conceivably could have been acquainted with Flavia's intrepid Aunt or even her mother Harriet.

Nancy Springer's Enola Holmes series, on the other hand, features another very clever girl detective -- 14 yr old Enola Holmes -- but is directed at younger readers. It's full of Sherlockian and Victorian sleuthing so a little less modern than Flavia but with another youthful protagonist dealing with women's roles in the world.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Fortunate Brother

The Fortunate Brother / Donna Morrissey
Toronto: Penguin Canada, c2016.
260 p.

This is the third in a trilogy about the Now family -- but I haven't read the first two. I didn't realize at first that this was a part three; there is nothing that requires you to have read the first two (Sylvanus Now & What They Wanted) This works perfectly as a standalone read.

And what a read it was! The Now family is in a state. Elder brother Chris died suddenly in an accident far away at his job in the Alberta oilsands. His sister Sylvie was there and feels a lot of guilt about it, though it wasn't in any way her fault. Youngest brother Kyle is the centre of the book, as his confused emotions and understandings form the viewpoint of this tale. 

He is still living at home with his parents, Sylvanus (who has turned to drink to face his grief) and stoic mother Addie, who discovers that she has breast cancer but only announces it immediately before going for treatment. Into this fraught family comes another problem: an abused woman has turned to Addie, and soon after, her violent husband is found murdered basically at their door, well, at the end of their dock anyhow.

Morrissey ties together the mystery itself -- a classic, replete with police, red herrings, suspects right in the Now family, and hidden motives among other locals -- with the literary focus on character development and fine writing. Her Newfoundland is clearly evoked in speech patterns and expressions, while not being too heavily laded with dialect; you simply get the feel for these characters through the descriptions of both people and settings.  

While there are a lot of grim issues covered in the book, they're approached with an unsentimental eye. There is an honesty to the reactions of all the Nows to the loss of their son and brother, and a realism in their suffering. The story holds unexpected revelations, fear, and grief, but also a lightness, an eye for humour and/or irony as well. The conclusion really gathers the threads together and leaves the reader satisfied with the plot resolution, but also feeling hopeful for this family's future, with the sense that they've weathered this storm together. 

This was a quick read, one that kept me flipping pages to see what was going to happen, while also engaging my sympathies for the characters. I haven't read many of Morrissey's books so far, but this one was a very good one to encounter, one which I really enjoyed. Recommended. 

Monday, October 03, 2016

York's Naturalist

The Naturalist / Alissa York
Toronto: RandomHouse Canada, c2016.
304 p.

The appeal of Alissa York's writing for me is rooted in her ability to evoke a setting, to describe flora and fauna so that you can feel it in all your senses, whether that's in urban Toronto, as in her last book Fauna, or in this book in which she takes us to the shores of the Amazon in 1867 with a naturalist expedition.

There are rivers, jungles that close around you, spiny fish that can injure, birdsound, heat, sun, stars, breezes over a hammock, and a night darkness so profound you can see nothing at all. And that's just a start.

Opening in Philadelphia, the book introduces us to naturalist Walter Ash, and his new wife Iris. They are planning to travel back to the Amazon on a journey to gather specimens for their dream of a exhibit back home. York really draws out the fact that most of these 19th century naturalists were specimen collectors, killing many animals rather than being conservation minded. It is quite horrifying at times!

Fate intervenes, however, and it turns out that Walter's son Paul must leave his museum job to accompany Iris and her companion, a young Quaker woman, Rachel, in the expedition which Iris is determined to carry out. 

It's particularly difficult for Paul, as he was brought back to Philadelphia as a young boy by his father when his mother died -- and her family is still waiting for him to return. They welcome him immediately, but he must struggle with his memories and his long-buried resentments at his father, as he dreams in the presence of his aunt and niece & nephew. 

Iris, an artist, spends her time drawing specimens but seems essentially unaffected by her new and wondrous surroundings. Rachel, on the other hand, takes to it immediately. She opens up and is truly present in what they are doing, in where they are located. She's fascinated by the landscape, the animal life, and the people she meets. She and Paul have a bit of a connection, but it's not a mawkish, romantic one -- she has her own journey to take.

The characters are interesting in this novel, but the real focus in on the sciencey bits. The information on the habits and practices of scientific collectors in this era, the descriptions of the wildlife, the Latin names, and so on, are really important to this book. If you like this kind of thing you'll find this novel a great reading experience. If you need something fast-moving with lots of character drama, this probably won't be so engaging. I personally love it, and found this book a good read, although I do think her last book, Fauna, felt more organic and a little bit more accessible with its contemporary urban setting.

But if you like historical novels that are a bit dreamy, very sensory and full of science, I recommend this one.


Further Reading:

Andrea Barrett's Voyage of the Narwhal follows another 19th C. expedition, but this time to the other ends of the earth -- to the Arctic. It has the same historical document feel in its style, though, and also relies heavily on beautiful writing and lots of scientific content. There are women featured in the storyline, and homebase is in Philadelphia too!

Saturday, October 01, 2016

The Hunter & The Wild Girl

The Hunter and the Wild Girl / Pauline Holdstock
Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, c2015
340 p.

This is a beautifully told, fable-like novel of 19th c. France that I came across by chance and really loved. BuriedInPrint reviewed it last fall, and suggested that it really fits into the theme of RIP reading. Although that hadn't first occurred to me, it really does so -- there is a thread that runs through this tale which resonates with the kind of stories told in the dark of night.

The hunter of the title is Peyre Rouff, who, after a terrible hunting accident, lives alone, focusing on his taxidermy skills. He doesn't want to talk to anyone from the village, and they feel much the same. 

The wild girl is a feral child who roams the forest but is seen on a foray to steal food from the village. Chased by the townspeople, she leaps off a cliff into a gorge, disappearing into the river far below.

But she emerges on the other side, unknown to all but Peyre, as she finds his stronghold. He tries to tame her, enclose her, thinking he's helping; but the urge to be free wars with the need for human connection. The relationship changes them both, and opens a road forward for Peyre to return to human society after many years of self-imposed isolation.

It's a very quiet, still story. It feels like an old-fashioned and quite French narrative; isolated settlements of people who don't like change or difference, tragedies, families identified by their occupational roles and so forth. But it's also lovely despite the bleakness. The writing is soothingly even whether describing daily mundane activity or great tragedy. There really is a sense of fairy tale wildness in it, with nature imposing its implacable will on human society. And there is also an element of wildness in that very human society; how does an individual find their place in a community that doesn't easily accept anything out of the ordinary? 

Holdstock has written a complex and archetypal story that should appeal to many readers, but especially to those who like a twisty, slow-paced, very character oriented story. It rewards close reading, and is perfect for a dark autumnal evening.