Monday, October 31, 2016

May Sinclair's Uncanny Stories

Uncanny Stories / May Sinclair
Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 2006, c1923.
216 p.

This collection of 8 stories by one of England's best known female writers pre-Virginia Woolf was ... interesting. The stories are all spooky, dealing with the psychic, spiritual, and Freudian-influenced world. 

They are uncanny, weird in the traditional sense. None are terrifying or creepy, so to speak, but they do delve into repressed feelings, psychic connections, and the endlessness of the afterlife. 

Some stories are stronger than others, as usual in any collection. I liked "The Intercessor", a fairly straightforward story of a haunting, and a man who is unwittingly pulled into the troubled family which both caused and is suffering the effects of the lonely child ghost that he can sense, and is yet unafraid of. I felt that this was the most 'spooky' story in the lot, but was also quite tender.

"The Token", about a man whose wife returns from the grave to determine whether he ever loved her, and "The Victim", in which a jealous man who works as a chauffeur for a country squire murders him grotesquely, are both strong as well. They are brief and have no extraneous existential or philosophical angst to detract from the storyline. 

A few of the others, notably "The Finding of the Absolute" and "The Flaw in the Crystal" are much more arcane and intellectual, which also makes them a little dull and theoretical rather than robustly human.

As a whole, though, Sinclair's stories are fascinating for their early feminism and modernist approach to the Uncanny. She is frank about sexuality and Freudian motivators for crimes and/or hauntings; she places women at the centre of many of her stories. I found the introduction, by Paul March-Russell, illuminating in its explanation of Sinclair's involvement in the Modernist movement and her impetus to write -- she was left to support her mother and six brothers after her father drank himself to death (this sounds like a fairy-tale trope to me!). She published over 40 books -- novels, stories, essays, book reviews (including one in which she invented the literary term "stream of consciousness")

I always leave introductions and forewords til last, after I've read a book on its own merits, and in this case, I strongly recommend doing so, as the introduction does delve into the details of the stories. So if you don't like spoilers, especially with stories like this, read them for yourself first, then turn to the intro for some commentary and context. 


Further Reading:

If you like classic spooky tales told from a woman's perspective, you might like any of the other collections by women in this Wordsworth series, Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural, like Edith Nesbit, Elizabeth Gaskell, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Atherton, Vernon Lee, and more.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Motion of Puppets

The Motion of Puppets / Keith Donohue
New York: Picador, c2016.
260 p.

It's RIP season, and what better choice for this time of year than creepy puppets? It's my favourite kind of spooky reading.

In this entry into the very specific creepy puppets genre, Kay Harper and her new husband Theo are living in Quebec City while Theo tries to finish writing a book and Kay works in a theatre troupe.

Kay is mesmerized by a toy shop she passes on the way to work, which is never open and looks dusty and abandoned, though there is a tiny wooden mannequin in a bell jar that she can't stop looking at. One day, as she's gazing in, "ever so slightly, the wooden man in the bell jar turned his head to watch her, but she never saw him move, for she had hurried away, late again."

That's the first indication we have that something very unnerving is going on. Then late one night, Kay feels as if she's being followed on her way home, and tries the toy shop door, which is mysteriously open. But she never comes out. As one character says sagely, "Never enter a toy shop after midnight."

Theo is distraught, trying to find her but of course, police investigators look at him as the prime suspect, and no-one will ever think of her being abducted by puppet makers and turned into a marionette.

Kay, meanwhile, is adapting uneasily to her new life as a puppet in the back room of the shop, alongside many other uncannily life-like puppets who can all move and talk from midnight to daylight. They begin to form puppet alliances. Kay remembers her previous life and is sure Theo will come to rescue her even while everyone else tells her to forget and adjust to life as it is now. The only way out of this life is if someone comes for you, and leads you out...but who would think to do so?

Theo makes alliances of his own, first with a dwarf who worked for the same theatre that Kay did, then with a professor of classics once back in New York at his university. The three of them figure things out - long story - and make a plan to invade a barn in the backwoods of New York where the travelling puppet theatre has landed for the winter.

Now, if I had realized that this story was based on / inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, I may have been better prepared for the trajectory. As it is, I was let down and disappointed by the conclusion. There was no resolution, no positive sense of restoration or of love conquering all or any of those kinds of things. All the build-up, and then the story just deflated. I was not expecting the final pages at all.

The story wasn't all that creepy, really, even with some grotesquerie. I would easily suggest this to an older teen reader, as the story isn't overly complex or difficult. Previous books I've read in this area, such as Joanne Owens' The Puppet Master (published as a children's book) were denser and more developed.

So while it's a good fit for this time of year, this was just an okay read for me. I want a little more resolution in my puppet tales, a bit more overcoming-all-odds-and-ending-of-the-nightmare kind of thing. Maybe next year!


Further Reading:

Either of the creepy puppet books I've previously read for the RIP Challenge in the past would be a good next pick, from The Puppet Master to Laura Amy Schlitz' Splendors & Glooms.

And if what you're looking for is a dark tale of toy shops and female leads, incorporating some terrifying puppets, you can't go wrong with Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Sleeping Giants

Sleeping Giants / Sylvain Neuvel
New York: Del Rey, c2016.
304 p.

Young Rose Franklin falls through a hole in the forest floor as she rides her bike home. She's found nestled in the palm of a giant metal hand. What is it? How did it get there? Who is responsible for its long-buried presence? These questions haunt the novel.

Seventeen years later, Rose Franklin is now an accomplished physicist (her name perhaps a nod to scientist Rosalind Franklin, denied her Nobel for the discovery of the structure of DNA?). Rose is part of the search to discover from whom, when, and how these giant metal body parts arrived on earth. When all the parts are found and assembled, they form a body, a robot of sorts which Rose's team then has to figure out. Is it a weapon? A vessel or a ship? A sentinel of peace? Nobody really knows... yet.

The story is told through the formats of interviews, memos, letters and so on -- a modern epistolary novel that is fast moving, inventive and quite cinematic (it has already been optioned for film). It's the first of a projected trilogy, but it doesn't leave the reader hanging. The conclusion is harrowing, exciting, thrillerish, and completes the storyline that has been uncertain in this novel, even while leaving space for a sequel.

It's a mix of science fiction, apocalyptic tale and a political thriller. It's like X-Files with scientists running the show, aided & restricted by the military. It is also about the bigger question: if there is something out there, something far more advanced than humanity, what do they want from us? And where does it leave us, and all our human cultural past?

Part two, Waking Gods, should be published next year, and will hopefully continue exploring these more philosophical questions along with the entertaining action and suspense. This was a very quick read, but one that I thought was rather clever and had a fresh narrative style.

Friday, October 28, 2016

An Air That Kills

Soho's Ebook Cover
An Air That Kills / Margaret Millar
New York: Soho Press, 2016, c1957.
112 p.

Many people may know by now that I adore Margaret Millar's writing. I've collected what I could of her titles -- they were very hard to find, until now.

I was thrilled to see, a couple of months ago, that Soho Press (based in NY) was republishing all of her work in a collected set. How exciting! I immediately put all of the available volumes on order, and am eagerly awaiting the chance to order the final volume. They are being released in a staggered timeline -- about every two months.

The first volume is already available, and in fact my copy is already at bedside; it's the collection of her best known work, of which I've previously read two (including her stunning The Beast in View -- if you only read one of her works, it has to be that one). They are also releasing each work separately as an ebook with these retro covers if you prefer that format. But I couldn't resist the set: when you've bought them all, look what happens!

Anyhow, I decided to start with An Air That Kills, as it has the unusual setting of Toronto and northwards to Georgian Bay. Unusual for her, because although she was born and raised in the Kitchener Waterloo region, she and her husband Kenneth Millar (better known as mystery writer Ross Macdonald) lived much of their life in Santa Barbara, and she set most of her books in California.

The basic story is this: Ron Galloway is heading up to his Georgian Bay lodge for a fishing trip with his close friends, Harry, Ralph, Bill and Joe . He never makes it. Ron's wife Esther is suspicious, Harry's wife Thelma is involved more closely than we first know, and his disappearance is "solved" halfway through the book. But that is only the beginning of the search for the "why" of this story.

Like most of Millar's stories, it's a book that twists and turns, that makes you think it is about one thing which turns out to be something altogether different in the end. She is brilliant at plotting, depending heavily on psychology and character in her stories. And she is a sly writer, throwing in phrases and words that capture someone effortlessly.

For example, a lawyer in one chapter can't understand the inclination for generosity or understanding in his client. As he leaves her house:
He walked stiffly down the broad stone steps of the veranda and crossed the driveway to his car with ponderous dignity, like a penguin crossing an Antarctic waste, never missing the warm places of the world because he did not know they existed.
Volume 1 of the Collected Works
She also takes time to describe minor characters in such a way that they stick in your head and make you wonder about their stories as well. In this book, there is a young Mennonite girl on the way to school who finds a crucial piece of evidence for the investigation of Ron Galloway's disappearance. She has no idea about that, though, and just admires her find.
Aggie was a quiet child of eleven. She behaved decorously at school and obediently at home, and no one ever suspected what an adventurous spirit lurked behind her brown braids and black bonnet, or what itchy feet were buckled inside her canvas galoshes.
Her character is sketched out so thoroughly in just a few paragraphs that I haven't stopped thinking about her, or about her teacher Miss Barabou, who informs the police. 
Miss Barabou sat in the back of the Buick alone, holding herself stiff and resistant to the feeling of adventure that was growing inside her with every turn of the road and every glance at the Constable's face half visible in the rear-view mirror. He's really quite a nice man. Humorous too. Betty said she heard he's a widower, all his children are grown and he lives by himself. He needs a haircut.
This mystery involves friends, betrayals, class divisions, affairs, secrets, and perceptions shifting over and over. It's classic Millar, full of both insights and misdirections. She draws the characters fully, and gives an insular small-town feeling to a Toronto is which everyone knows everything (or will) - which is so important to the story. I will not give anything away except to say these characters are alive and you will be captivated by their motivations and secrets. And if you know Ontario at all, the geography is just an added bonus to read about and recognize.

Can't wait to read the next two stories in this volume now!

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Bachelor Girl's Guide to Murder

The Bachelor Girl's Guide to Murder / Rachel McMillan
Toronto: Harvest House, c2016.
222 p.

"In 1910 Toronto, while other bachelor girls perfect their domestic skills and find husbands, two friends perfect their sleuthing skills and find a murderer."

I think this publisher's blurb really says it all. It summarizes just what it is about this novel that makes it so much fun to read.

Merinda and Jem are roommates in 1910 Toronto, which is unusual enough. But Merinda is also obsessed with Sherlock Holmes (her spiritual doppelganger) and starts advertising herself as a detective. Jem gets pulled along, as Merinda's Watson, as they start investigating how and why young Irish women are dying across the city.  

Of course, being young women, they are limited as to where they can go and what they can do -- so they become masters of disguise (one of the funniest scenes is when poor Jem is dressed as a man and supposed to be staking out a theatre, and runs into a journalist). They also develop partnerships with said journalist, Ray DeLuca, as well as police constable Jasper Forth, who have to fight their own prejudices in the face of Merinda and Jem's fortitude and competency. 

The tone of this novel is light; it's a bit campy, a bit ahistorical, but completely enjoyable. Toronto is a great setting for this series, as its very straightlaced reputation is a nice contrast with the underbelly, the hidden criminal life which Jem and Merinda find themselves investigating. I think this series has legs - the characters have lots of room for growth, the storylines hold a multitude of possibilities, and the crimes are nefarious but not gory. This is a campy cozy, if there is such a thing. And it is delightful. I look forward to reading the next entry in the series, A Lesson in Love and Murder


Further Reading:

Anyone who likes Victorian/Edwardian era Toronto & mysteries told with a light hand will surely enjoy Maureen Jennings' Murdoch Mysteries -- and of course the immensely popular tv series based on these books.

Janet Kellough's Thaddeus Lewis mysteries are set a little further back, in the 1840s/50s, but also explore Toronto and beyond in early Ontario. They also feature an unusual detective -- a saddlebag preacher.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

One or the Other by McFetridge

One or the Other / John McFetridge
Toronto: ECW Press, c2016
396 p.

I love this series by John McFetridge, featuring Eddie Dougherty. Eddie is a great character, changing and growing from the first book to this one, in which he is about to (maybe) get a promotion and (most likely) settle down with his girlfriend whom we met in book two.

The setting of these books -- Montreal in the 70s -- is fantastic.  I really enjoy his descriptions of downtown and many of the outlying areas, such as the South Shore neighbourhood where Eddie's parents live, for example. The physical setting is a big part of these books and really makes them redolent of this particular place and time. This one takes place leading up to the 1976 Olympics, and the Games, as well as the extensive police presence there, do play a part and also allow commentary on more social issues.

In this novel, Eddie faces a terrible case; two teens were murdered on the Jacques Cartier bridge and then thrown over into the river. (Horrifyingly, in the author notes, he states that this is loosely based on a real case). The case has gone cool, let's say -- not exactly cold, but not a big priority. It's assumed it was suicide. But Eddie's instincts tell him it wasn't. (spoiler alert: Eddie is right). 

Eddie is dealing with a lot. He's desperate for a promotion to Detective but he's starting to think that's it's not going to happen. Office politics, French/English tensions, and a new cop on the team who's a bit of a flashy player make him think that that route is slowly closing for him. He begins to think about working as a desk cop for the remainder of his career, and is slowly coming to terms with the idea. 

Meanwhile, his girlfriend is ready to find herself a steady job as a teacher, which means more changes for them. Eddie is maturing, and thinking about settling down, both into his career and into his relationship. This is reflected and contrasted with both his parents' relationship, and hers. The family dynamics between parents, partners, and siblings are a strong thread in the story, and are really integral to understanding Eddie and his police work.

He also has to learn to work with a female detective from another French police department on the South Shore. She faces many of the same work issues as he does, so they unexpectedly bond and work very well together tracking down the facts of this case, even after being warned off it a bit. Their process was really interesting, and added a new aspect to Eddie's character.

I thought this was a more slowly paced, character driven story than some other mysteries. However, the crime itself is well plotted and really quite heart-wrenching at times. I like the characters and the setting is so convincingly drawn. Montreal really shines in this series. I recommend it.


Further Reading:

Another Montreal series that uses the city as almost a character is John Farrow's Emile Cinq-Mars series, though it's a bit grittier. It is heavily dependent on the main character, an old-fashioned cop, to drive the story as well.

If you like exploring cities through fiction you might also like McFetridge's other series based in Toronto the good. 

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.