Thursday, January 19, 2017

Five-Star Books Read in 2016

As usual, I make no claim to any kind of objectivity or even consistency in applying a five-star rating -  it's a perplexing combination of the actual book, my mood, the timing and whatever else I'm reading at the same time. I try really hard not to feel 'obligated' to give a top rating - by the opinions of other readers or anything else - but this year I feel like maybe I could have been a little freer with the five-star appraisal, especially when looking over some of the four-stars. Whatever. Here they are.

Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love by Anne Whiston-Donaldson: On an ordinary September day, twelve-year-old Jack is swept away in a freak neighborhood flood. His parents and younger sister are left to wrestle with the awful questions: How could God let this happen? And, Can we ever be happy again? They each fall into the abyss of grief in different ways. And in the days and months to come, they each find their faltering way toward peace.
In Rare Bird, Anna Whiston-Donaldson unfolds a mother’s story of loss that leads, in time, to enduring hope. “Anna’s storytelling,” says Glennon Doyle Melton, “is raw and real and intense and funny.”
With this unforgettable account of a family’s love and longing, Anna will draw you deeper into a divine goodness that keeps us—beyond all earthly circumstances—safe. This is a book about facing impossible circumstances and wanting to turn back the clock. It is about the flicker of hope in realizing that in times of heartbreak, God is closer than your own skin. It is about discovering that you’re braver than you think.

Obviously I didn't LIKE reading this. But I also don't give five stars to any book by someone who's lost someone - I will give them my heartfelt sympathy, but grief doesn't make your book amazing. This book is amazing. She says you can't get an A in grieving (which coincides with my own indefensible sense that some people do grieve better than others) but I think she does. She captures her son's exceptional sweetness, but she doesn't idealize him beyond belief. She takes comfort in her faith and in signs and wonders without losing all skepticism. She's a devout Christian who cusses colourfully. I wish she's never had to write this book, obviously, but I'm so grateful I got to read it. (Was anyone else pissed off at the neighbours? I was so pissed off at the neighbours. Every day she has to watch the kids who played by the river while her son was drowning, and she gets chastised for not being NICE enough to them? Really? Clearly I am not as charitable and forgiving). 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: For readers of Atul Gawande, Andrew Solomon, and Anne Lamott, a profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir by a young neurosurgeon faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis who attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living?  
At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor making a living treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. Just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air, which features a Foreword by Dr. Abraham Verghese and an Epilogue by Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy, chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a young neurosurgeon at Stanford, guiding patients toward a deeper understanding of death and illness, and finally into a patient and a new father to a baby girl, confronting his own mortality. 
What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir. 
Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

This book may have been amazing to me chiefly because if I had terminal metastasized cancer I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be up to writing a limerick, let alone putting together an insightful, gracious book devoid of self-pity and containing a wealth of wisdom, kindness and humour. Paul Kalanithi was definitely a type-A personality and had a surgeon's ego - "Let's see, to which field of study should I turn my prodigious intellect in order to solve the mysteries of life and death as efficiently as possible?" - and he was hugely intelligent and ambitious. I just find his determination to keep striving towards a good life and a good death in the face of an overwhelmingly disheartening and unlikely catastrophe very compelling.

Step Aside, Pops: A Hark, a Vagrant! Collection by Kate Beaton: The sequel to the hit comic collection Hark! a Vagrant, which appeared on best of lists from TimeNPR and USA Today; spent five months on the New York Times bestseller list; and won Harvey, Ignatz, and Doug Wright awards.
Cartoonist Kate Beaton returns with all-new sidesplitting comics that showcase her irreverent love of history, pop culture, and literature. Collected from her wildly popular website, readers will guffaw over “Strong Female Characters,” the wicked yet chivalrous Black Prince, “Straw Feminists in the Closet,” and a disgruntled Heathcliff. Delight in what the internet has long known—Beaton’s humour is as sharp and dangerous as a velocipedestrienne, so watch out!

Oh my god, oh my god, where has Kate Beaton been all my life? Well, she's been right there for a good part of it, being incandescently funny (in ways like this, for example) I was just too dense to discover her comic genius until this book practically had to fall off a shelf on my head. Like Emily Dickinson, Beaton tells the truth but tells it slant. The humour is sharp and whip-smart and often twisted. The words and pictures compliment each other perfectly. I bought this book or her first one for practically everyone I knew for Christmas. 

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow: The world is at peace, said the Utterances. And really, if the odd princess has a hard day, is that too much to ask?
Greta is a duchess and crown princess—and a hostage to peace. This is how the game is played: if you want to rule, you must give one of your children as a hostage. Go to war and your hostage dies.
Greta will be free if she can survive until her eighteenth birthday. Until then she lives in the Precepture school with the daughters and sons of the world’s leaders. Like them, she is taught to obey the machines that control their lives. Like them, she is prepared to die with dignity, if she must. But everything changes when a new hostage arrives. Elián is a boy who refuses to play by the rules, a boy who defies everything Greta has ever been taught. And he opens Greta’s eyes to the brutality of the system they live under—and to her own power.
As Greta and Elián watch their nations tip closer to war, Greta becomes a target in a new kind of game. A game that will end up killing them both—unless she can find a way to break all the rules.

Erin Bow wrote Plain Kate, one of my very favourite books ever, even though it was terribly sad. Then she wrote Sorrow's Knot, which was also very good and possibly even sadder. When I saw the synopsis for this book, I had to keep double-checking whether it was, in fact, the same author, since the Modest-Proposal-adjacent plot device sounded like such a departure. Of course, while the subject matter has gone all future-y rather than past-ish like the other two books, the constants remain the same - heartachingly beautiful writing, wonderful, strong, fiercely intelligent, striving characters and thought-provoking exploration of issues. Erin Bow is a clear-eyed, fearless storyteller, and nothing here exactly follows the expected path. I can't wait for the next in the series. 

Louise Beeston is being haunted.
Louise has no reason left to stay in the city. She can't see her son, Joseph, who is away at boarding school, where he performs in a prestigious boys' choir. Her troublesome neighbor has begun blasting choral music at all hours of the night—and to make matters worse, she's the only one who can hear it.
Hoping to find some peace, Louise convinces her husband, Stuart, to buy them a country house in an idyllic, sun-dappled gated community called Swallowfield. But it seems that the haunting melodies of the choir have followed her there. Could it be that her city neighbor has trailed her to Swallowfield, just to play an elaborate, malicious prank? Is there really a ghostly chorus playing outside her door? And why won't they stop? Growing desperate, she begins to worry about her mental health.
Against the pleas and growing disquiet of her husband, Louise starts to suspect that this sinister choir is not only real but a warning. But of what? And how can it be, when no one else can hear it?
In The Orphan Choir, Sophie Hannah brings us along on a darkly suspenseful investigation of obsession, loss, and the malevolent forces that threaten to break apart a loving family.

I read this in the midst of a run where I disagreed with everybody on Goodreads about every book I had read lately, and it was no different, except for my eminently sensible friend Sarah (HI SARAH). I don't think I've ever seen a better illustration of the term 'psychological suspense'. Louise's twin aggravations - the neighbour who blasts loud music at night and the school choir that is co-opting her young son's entire childhood - are so sharply portrayed that I could feel my blood pressure rising. A fine balance is maintained between a suspicion of paranoia and the belief that terrible forces actually are at work, and the resolution was perfect and devastating.

A Tangle of Gold (The Colours of Madeleine #3) by Jaclyn Moriarty: His visit turned out to be ridiculously brief. Madeleine and Elliot barely talked before word came that he and his father would be bundled back to Cello. On the train platform, Elliot didn’t snap out of the distant fog he seemed to be in. And Madeleine’s nose bled—again!—just as she tried to say good-bye. Now she’s mortified, heartbroken, lost—and completely cut off from Cello.
Cello, meanwhile, is in crisis. Princess Ko’s deception of her people has emerged and the Kingdom is outraged. Authorities have placed the Princess under arrest and ordered her execution. Color storms are rampant, more violent than ever. And nobody has heard the Cello Wind blowing in months.
But Madeleine can’t let go of Cello. It gave her a tantalizing glimpse of the magic she’s always wanted—and maybe it’s the key to the person she is meant to become. She also can’t let go of Elliot, who, unbeknownst to her, is being held captive by a dangerous branch of Hostiles.
What will it take to put these two on a collision course to save the Kingdom of Cello, and maybe to save each other?
For fans of Lev Grossman and Deborah Harkness, this funny, suspenseful, and totally original fantasy comes to its brilliantly colorful conclusion.

I've written about the many-authored many-sistered Moriarty family before, not that I can find the post now. They're Australian, which not that many years ago would have meant that I would have been even less likely to stumble across A Corner of White, and I don't even want to think about the lifetime in which I didn't get to read these books. I've been a dismal re-reader for most of my life - there's always so many more books to get to it's hard to make myself go back - but I've started forcing myself to take the time, especially to reread the previous two books when the last one in a trilogy comes out. This is one of my all-time favourite trilogies, and this conclusion was completely audacious and assured and satisfying and wonderful. There is so much in this series to love, from Cambridge and the way science and philosophy and magic are all braided together so matter-of-factly, to Cello and its magical, dangerous colours. The world-building is so amazing that every wondrous new thing that's introduced is a jaw-dropping surprise and yet simultaneously seems absolutely inarguably right. I've heard the same complaints about A Tangle of Gold that I've heard about the third book in Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy (which I also adored): that some hitherto-unintroduced matter was "suddenly" brought in. This complaint baffles me - is the whole point of a concluding book in a trilogy not to synthesize and build on the stories of the foregoing books while bringing in additional information to draw the whole thing to a magnificent conclusion? This was everything I wanted from this story and more. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Four-Star Books Read in 2016: Short Stories and Fiction

Short Stories:

In the Mean Time by Paul Tremblay: This collection by Paul G. Tremblay (author of The Little Sleep and No Sleep Till Wonderland) features fifteen stories of fear and paranoia, stories of apocalypses both societal and personal, and stories of longing and coping.

I am terrible at taking properly detailed notes about short story collections, but this has one (Feeding the Machine) I remember vividly (mentioned in this blog post) for personal reasons, as well as the fact that it's a really well-written story. There's also one about a girl with two heads (where the other head keeps changing into historical figures) that is bloody brilliant. Overall my impression was that this was a fantastic collection. 

The End of the World: Stories of the Apocalypse edited by Martin H. Greenberg: Before The Road by Cormac McCarthy brought apocalyptic fiction into the mainstream, there was science fiction. No longer relegated to the fringes of literature, this explosive collection of the world’s best apocalyptic writers brings the inventors of alien invasions, devastating meteors, doomsday scenarios, and all-out nuclear war back to the bookstores with a bang.
The best writers of the early 1900s were the first to flood New York with tidal waves, destroy Illinois with alien invaders, paralyze Washington with meteors, and lay waste to the Midwest with nuclear fallout. Now collected for the first time ever in one apocalyptic volume are those early doomsday writers and their contemporaries, including Neil Gaiman, Orson Scott Card, Lucius Shepard, Robert Sheckley, Norman Spinrad, Arthur C. Clarke, William F. Nolan, Poul Anderson, Fredric Brown, Lester del Rey, and more. Relive these childhood classics or discover them here for the first time. Each story details the eerie political, social, and environmental destruction of our world.

We all know I never turn up my nose at yet another anthology of stories about the end of the world. All the reviews seem to indicate that the ebook of this was a hot mess as far as editing went - I honestly don't remember if I read it as an ebook or not. The Store of the Worlds by Robert Sheckley was a reread for me, but it's fucking fantastic, so I'm cool with that. 

Bark: Stories by Lorrie Moore: In these eight masterful stories, Lorrie Moore, in a perfect blend of craft and bewitched spirit, explores the passage of time, and summons up its inevitable sorrows and hilarious pitfalls to reveal her own exquisite, singular wisdom.
In "Debarking," a newly divorced man tries to keep his wits about him as the United States prepares to invade Iraq, and against this ominous moment, we see-in all its irresistible hilarity and darkness-the perils of divorce and what can follow in its wake…In "Foes," a political argument goes grotesquely awry as the events of 9/11 unexpectedly manifest at a fund-raising dinner in Georgetown…In "The Juniper Tree," a teacher, visited by the ghost of her recently deceased friend, is forced to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in a kind of nightmare reunion…And in "Wings," we watch the unraveling of two once-hopeful musicians who neither held fast to their dreams nor struck out along other paths as Moore deftly depicts the intricacies of dead ends and the workings of regret…
Gimlet-eyed social observation, the public and private absurdities of American life, dramatic irony, and enduring half-cracked love wend their way through each of these narratives in a heartrending mash-up of the tragic and the laugh-out-loud-the hallmark of Lorrie Moore-land.

Lorrie Moore is one of the few authors who write non-genre short stories that I will read eagerly rather than dutifully. I often find that short stories that are just about, you know, life and people and eating salad and stuff are too amorphous and squishy to get a handle on - it's better for me if you have a zombie or vampire or catastrophic extinction level event structure to hang stuff on. But Lorrie Moore writes about dating after divorce (oh my god, I just wanted to throat-punch this woman and her spoiled suckhole of a son SO BADLY) and vacationing to avoid divorce (losing all your clothes and having to wear ill-fitting resort-gift-shop-wear while trying to seduce your husband so he won't leave you? Ninth circle of hell) and being married for a long time and NOT getting divorced, and it's all so poignant and riveting and perfect - even the salad eating. I love her. I worship her. I'd love to see what she could do with a few zombies or maybe a shape-shifter.

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015 edited by John Joseph Adams: Science fiction and fantasy enjoy a long literary tradition, stretching from Mary Shelley, H. G. Wells, and Jules Verne to Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, and William Gibson. In The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy award-winning editor John Joseph Adams delivers a diverse and vibrant collection of stories published in the previous year. Featuring writers with deep science fiction and fantasy backgrounds, along with those who are infusing traditional fiction with speculative elements, these stories uphold a longstanding tradition in both genres—looking at the world and asking, What if . . . ? 
The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015 includes 
Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman, Karen Russell
T. C. Boyle, Sofia Samatar, Jo Walton, Cat Rambo
Daniel H. Wilson, Seanan McGuire, Jess Row
and others
 JOE HILL, guest editor, is the New York Times best-selling author of the novels Heart-Shaped BoxHorns, and NOS4A2 and the short story collection 20th Century Ghosts. He is also the writer of the comic book series Locke & Key. 
JOHN JOSEPH ADAMS, series editor, is the best-selling editor of more than two dozen anthologies, including Brave New Worlds, Wastelands, and The Living Dead. He is also the editor and publisher of the digital magazines Lightspeed and Nightmare and is a producer of Wired’s podcast The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. 

I bought this because Susan Palwick, a kickass fantasy writer and all-around splendid human being who lets me follow her on Facebook and likes my posts every now and then just to give me a special little thrill, had a story in it, but the whole collection was really good. In 'Help Me Follow My Sister Into the Land of the Dead' by Carmen Maria Machado, a woman crowdfunds her trip into the underworld to look for her sister - like, like, WOW. That was pretty much worth the price of admission right there. Seanan McGuire's story 'Each to Each', which I've read so many times now I've lost track of where I first read it, is here also, and it's mind-blowing. Susan Palwick's story was everything I expected - intelligent and kind and sad. Really recommend this collection. 

Lightspeed Magazine, June 2014: Women Destroy Science Fiction! Special Issue edited by Christie Yant: It could be said that women invented science fiction; after all, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is considered by many to be the first science fiction novel. Yet some readers seem to have this funny idea that women don’t, or can’t, write science fiction. Some have even gone so far as to accuse women of destroying science fiction with their girl cooties. So to help prove how silly that notion is, LIGHTSPEED's June 2014 issue is a Women Destroy Science Fiction! special issue and has a guest editor at the helm.
The issue features original fiction by Seanan McGuire, Charlie Jane Anders, N.K. Jemisin, Carrie Vaughn, Maria Dahvana Headley, Amal El-Mohtar, and many more. All together there's more than 180,000 words of material, including: 11 original short stories, 15 original flash fiction stories, 4 short story reprints and a novella reprint, 7 nonfiction articles, and 28 personal essays by women about their experiences reading and writing science fiction.

McGuire's story is in this one too - actually, though, you can read it right here, and you should. Like, now. I'll wait. Well? Is it not august and resplendent? 
If you haven't followed the shit-show in the sci-fi world that's been developing over the past few years, whereby some disgruntled male writers have decided that social justice warriors (I love how that's a negative term) are ruining science fiction by daring to write about things like emotions and relationships and various things that make humanity human, the title of this issue won't make sense. That doesn't really matter - it's still a great issue full of great stories by female writers. 

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang: Ted Chiang's first published story, "Tower of Babylon," won the Nebula Award in 1990. Subsequent stories have won the Asimov's SF Magazine reader poll, a second Nebula Award, the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and the Sidewise Award for alternate history. He won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1992. Story for story, he is the most honored young writer in modern SF.
Now, collected here for the first time are all seven of this extraordinary writer's stories so far-plus an eighth story written especially for this volume.
What if men built a tower from Earth to Heaven-and broke through to Heaven's other side? What if we discovered that the fundamentals of mathematics were arbitrary and inconsistent? What if there were a science of naming things that calls life into being from inanimate matter? What if exposure to an alien language forever changed our perception of time? What if all the beliefs of fundamentalist Christianity were literally true, and the sight of sinners being swallowed into fiery pits were a routine event on city streets? These are the kinds of outrageous questions posed by the stories of Ted Chiang. Stories of your life . . . and others.

Jesus, this book. So I read 'The Story of Your Life' in an anthology some time ago. Then I read it again. Some time passed and I read it yet again - forwards and backwards. Then I learned that it was being made into a movie, so I read it again and then bought Chiang's collection so I could force a bunch of people I know to read it also, mainly because I was pretty sure the movie was going to suck. Turns out the movie didn't suck, but the first person I lent the collection to is really enjoying it. As it turns out, that story, as much as it broke my brain, was probably the most accessible one in the collection. Chiang likes math. He speaks math like a language and then builds complex stories around math. Math and me? Not so much on the best of speaking terms. The stories dealing with religious concepts are also very cerebral, but I found most of the stories here challenging and very beautiful and I can see going back to all of them repeatedly and finding a little more in them every time. 


Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe: THINGS FALL APART tells two overlapping, intertwining stories, both of which center around Okonkwo, a “strong man” of an Ibo village in Nigeria. The first of these stories traces Okonkwo's fall from grace with the tribal world in which he lives, and in its classical purity of line and economical beauty it provides us with a powerful fable about the immemorial conflict between the individual and society. 
The second story, which is as modern as the first is ancient, and which elevates the book to a tragic plane, concerns the clash of cultures and the destruction of Okonkwo's world through the arrival of aggressive, proselytizing European missionaries. These twin dramas are perfectly harmonized, and they are modulated by an awareness capable of encompassing at once the life of nature, human history, and the mysterious compulsions of the soul. THINGS FALL APART is the most illuminating and permanent monument we have to the modern African experience as seen from within. 

I'd been meaning to read this for years - a classic, referencing one of my favourite poems. Profoundly sad and moving and laced with an incredible feeling of inevitability and despair. There is a particular kind of sadness from observing a character who, although flawed, tries so hard to do everything right and maintain his integrity, to little avail. 

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides: It’s the early 1980s. In American colleges, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead - charismatic loner and college Darwinist - suddenly turns up in a seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old friend Mitchell Grammaticus - who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange - resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.
Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they have learned. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology laboratory on Cape Cod, but can’t escape the secret responsible for Leonard’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.
Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce? With devastating wit and an abiding understanding of and affection for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides revives the motivating energies of the novel, while creating a story so contemporary and fresh that it reads like the intimate journal of our own lives.

Four stars, for the literal "I really liked it" rating, not because I thought it was all that good. Compared to Middlesex, which was so rich and dense and subtle, this was kind of a sophomoric train wreck - someone in my book club opined that it read like a book he had started much earlier and then dug out to finish, and this struck me as exactly right. The scenes from graduate school, particularly about reading Derrida and Barthes and feeling terribly clever about interrogating social conventions, were amusing because they were so recognizable, but that's as far as it went - nothing very profound came out of them. Some of the elements of the marriage plot were discernible and interesting, but the book as a whole never managed to maintain any kind of structure or continuity about it, just random references and representations. I still really enjoyed reading it, but it seemed unfinished.

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald: At first The Emigrants appears simply to document the lives of four Jewish émigrés in the twentieth century. But gradually, as Sebald's precise, almost dreamlike prose begins to draw their stories, the four narrations merge into one overwhelming evocation of exile and loss.
Written with a bone-dry sense of humour and a fascination with the oddness of existence The Emigrants is highly original in its heady mix of fact, memory and fiction and photographs.

I would suggest going to Goodreads and reading some of the reviews - I don't feel equal to enumerating the virtues of this remarkable book.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce: Harold Fry is convinced that he must deliver a letter to an old friend in order to save her, meeting various characters along the way and reminiscing about the events of his past and people he has known, as he tries to find peace and acceptance.
Recently retired, sweet, emotionally numb Harold Fry is jolted out of his passivity by a letter from Queenie Hennessy, an old friend, who he hasn't heard from in twenty years. She has written to say she is in hospice and wanted to say goodbye. Leaving his tense, bitter wife Maureen to her chores, Harold intends a quick walk to the corner mailbox to post his reply but instead, inspired by a chance encounter, he becomes convinced he must deliver his message in person to Queenie--who is 600 miles away--because as long as he keeps walking, Harold believes that Queenie will not die. 
So without hiking boots, rain gear, map or cell phone, one of the most endearing characters in current fiction begins his unlikely pilgrimage across the English countryside. Along the way, strangers stir up memories--flashbacks, often painful, from when his marriage was filled with promise and then not, of his inadequacy as a father, and of his shortcomings as a husband. 
Ironically, his wife Maureen, shocked by her husband's sudden absence, begins to long for his presence. Is it possible for Harold and Maureen to bridge the distance between them? And will Queenie be alive to see Harold arrive at her door?

I wasn't caught right at the beginning. It seemed a little glib, and everyone Harold met was just SO unusual and quirky it was too pat. I got over it, though. It's a quiet story, but a good one.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper: I've gone. I've never seen the water, so I've gone there. I will try to remember to come back.
Etta's greatest unfulfilled wish, living in the rolling farmland of Saskatchewan, is to see the sea. And so, at the age of eighty-two she gets up very early one morning, takes a rifle, some chocolate, and her best boots, and begins walking the 2,000 miles to water. 
Meanwhile her husband Otto waits patiently at home, left only with his memories. Their neighbour Russell remembers too, but differently - and he still loves Etta as much as he did more than fifty years ago, before she married Otto.

Apparently this was the year for fictional old people going spontaneously walkabout. I'm not sure I really got this one - above all, what the heck was the deal with Owen? but I still enjoyed it.

The Boy Who Could See Demons by Carolyn Jess-Cooke: "I first met my demon the morning that Mum said Dad had gone." 
Alex Connolly is ten years old, likes onions on toast, and can balance on the back legs of his chair for fourteen minutes. His best friend is a 9000-year-old demon called Ruen. When his depressive mother attempts suicide yet again, Alex meets child psychiatrist Anya. Still bearing the scars of her own daughter's battle with schizophrenia, Anya fears for Alex's mental health and attempts to convince him that Ruen doesn't exist. But as she runs out of medical proof for many of Alex's claims, she is faced with a question: does Alex suffer from schizophrenia, or can he really see demons?

When you read a lot of books, it's rare and special to come across something different - not capital-D Different, like some books try to be, just not quite the same. This doesn't quite fit in with anything else I've read, and I appreciated that. Not that the 'psychological or supernatural' thing isn't done - I've referenced it two or three times in these posts alone - but not quite like this. There's some beautiful drawing of the relationship between mothers and children here, and I think some psychological stuff related to living in Belfast. Apparently there is vast confusion created by the fact that the U.S. and U.K. versions of the book had different endings, which I think was dumb. I can still smell the onions on toast. 

And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass: Kit Noonan’s life is stalled: unemployed, twins to help support, a mortgage to pay—and a frustrated wife, who is certain that more than anything else, Kit needs to solve the mystery of his father’s identity. He begins with a visit to his former stepfather, Jasper, a take-no-prisoners Vermont outdoorsman. But it is another person who has kept the secret: Lucinda Burns, wife of a revered senior statesman and mother of Malachy (the journalist who died of AIDS in Glass’s first novel, Three Junes). She and her husband are the only ones who know the full story of an accident whose repercussions spread even further when Jasper introduces Lucinda to Kit. Immersing readers in a panorama that stretches from Vermont to the tip of Cape Cod, Glass weaves together the lives of Kit, Jasper, Lucinda and ultimately, Fenno McLeod, the beloved protagonist of Three Junes (now in his sixties). An unforgettable novel about the youthful choices that steer our destinies, the necessity of forgiveness, and the surprisingly mutable meaning of family.

I got this out of the library and let it sit for weeks, and then picked it up to remind myself what it was about, read the first paragraph and pretty much didn't look up again until seven hours or so had passed and the book was done. It wasn't perfect - there was one sort of deus ex machina death that pissed me off and a couple of sentences that jarred me right out of the narrative - but the flaws actually just highlighted to me how much I loved the rest of it. She has that ability to create a whole sprawling world and a wide-ranging cast of fully-realized characters and somehow keep it precariously connected. Not all of the characters are sympathetic, but they all seem like someone I might have met once. The questions of faith, and how much of their parents' secrets children are entitled to, and what is forgivable and not - they're all addressed but not answered, because how could they be? I was totally absorbed in a book, right when I really needed to be.

The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney: Every family has its problems. But even among the most troubled, the Plumb family stands out as spectacularly dysfunctional. Years of simmering tensions finally reach a breaking point on an unseasonably cold afternoon in New York City as Melody, Beatrice, and Jack Plumb gather to confront their charismatic and reckless older brother, Leo, freshly released from rehab. Months earlier, an inebriated Leo got behind the wheel of a car with a nineteen-year-old waitress as his passenger. The ensuing accident has endangered the Plumbs joint trust fund, “The Nest,” which they are months away from finally receiving. Meant by their deceased father to be a modest mid-life supplement, the Plumb siblings have watched The Nest’s value soar along with the stock market and have been counting on the money to solve a number of self-inflicted problems. 
Melody, a wife and mother in an upscale suburb, has an unwieldy mortgage and looming college tuition for her twin teenage daughters. Jack, an antiques dealer, has secretly borrowed against the beach cottage he shares with his husband, Walker, to keep his store open. And Bea, a once-promising short-story writer, just can’t seem to finish her overdue novel. Can Leo rescue his siblings and, by extension, the people they love? Or will everyone need to reimagine the future they’ve envisioned? Brought together as never before, Leo, Melody, Jack, and Beatrice must grapple with old resentments, present-day truths, and the significant emotional and financial toll of the accident, as well as finally acknowledge the choices they have made in their own lives.
This is a story about the power of family, the possibilities of friendship, the ways we depend upon one another and the ways we let one another down. In this tender, entertaining, and deftly written debut, Sweeney brings a remarkable cast of characters to life to illuminate what money does to relationships, what happens to our ambitions over the course of time, and the fraught yet unbreakable ties we share with those we love.

I kept vowing not to buy this just because of its heartbreakingly beautiful cover, and then I was in Indigo buying baby things and a very tall, very enthusiastic bookseller thrust it into my hands and I was basically helpless. Then I felt immediate trepidation about actually reading it, because do I actually LIKE books about dysfunctional families? I just pruned my Netflix queue ruthlessly on the basis of being weary of watching shows, however well-written and -acted, about people being horrible to each other.
Then I read it. All of it. Today, because I'm home from a week-end away and exhausted from driving and sleeping crappy broken hotel sleep. And I really liked it. I found almost all of the characters sympathetic to some degree - not because they were likable, but precisely because they weren't. They're not horrible, mostly, but they're not all that good, either, and I can relate to that. I loved how peripheral characters were fleshed out and nuanced as lovingly as primary characters. The writing wasn't show-offy, but it was very readable and very deft when outlining each character's flaws, foibles and personal mythologies.
Curiously, I found Amy Poehler's review - which the tall enthusiastic bookstore employee pointed to excitedly - kind of off-putting. Calling the Plumb family's dysfunction "juicy" puts a gleeful, gossipy, voyeuristic spin on it that I didn't find in the book at all. I found the obsessive worrying about money really sad, especially when it was because of an intense desire to create a safe, beautiful home which is something that none of the Plumb children really had, and the idea that someone would have to keep a secret about growing debt from their partner made me feel literally nauseous. I liked the review (I can't remember whose it was now) that said the book kept "its blade sharp and its heart open". The lens on the characters was unpitying, but in the end the gaze was mostly kind and somewhat forgiving. (Not so much for Leo. Leo was just kind of a dick.)

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty: Alice Love is twenty-nine, crazy about her husband, and pregnant with her first child.
So imagine Alice’s surprise when she comes to on the floor of a gym and is whisked off to the hospital where she discovers the honeymoon is truly over — she’s getting divorced, she has three kids and she’s actually 39 years old. Alice must reconstruct the events of a lost decade, and find out whether it’s possible to reconstruct her life at the same time. She has to figure out why her sister hardly talks to her, and how is it that she’s become one of those super skinny moms with really expensive clothes. 
Ultimately, Alice must discover whether forgetting is a blessing or a curse, and whether it’s possible to start over.

Did not break my streak of reading Liane Moriarty books and finding them invariably charming, readable, engaging and unexpectedly thought-provoking (Truly Madly Guilty did that, as it turns out). Her style seems effortless and is so enjoyable.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: Following a scalding row with her mother, fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes slams the door on her old life. But Holly is no typical teenage runaway: a sensitive child once contacted by voices she knew only as “the radio people,” Holly is a lightning rod for psychic phenomena. Now, as she wanders deeper into the English countryside, visions and coincidences reorder her reality until they assume the aura of a nightmare brought to life.
For Holly has caught the attention of a cabal of dangerous mystics—and their enemies. But her lost weekend is merely the prelude to a shocking disappearance that leaves her family irrevocably scarred. This unsolved mystery will echo through every decade of Holly’s life, affecting all the people Holly loves—even the ones who are not yet born.
A Cambridge scholarship boy grooming himself for wealth and influence, a conflicted father who feels alive only while reporting from occupied Iraq, a middle-aged writer mourning his exile from the bestseller list—all have a part to play in this surreal, invisible war on the margins of our world. From the medieval Swiss Alps to the nineteenth-century Australian bush, from a hotel in Shanghai to a Manhattan townhouse in the near future, their stories come together in moments of everyday grace and extraordinary wonder.

Some of this was wonderfully cheesy and some of it was just wonderful. I remember one reviewer saying something about David Mitchell seeming to be just having a wonderful time writing (I think it was about Cloud Atlas), and I completely feel that here. This has the same sprawling, prodigiously imaginative, joyous creative energy as C.A., and I was just as pulled in, although for quite a while it seems impossible to keep all the narrative threads and concepts straight. The plot veers like Mr. Toad's wild ride from bittersweet family struggles and fragile loves stories to Marvel-worthy battles involving psychoprojectiles, souls egressing out of foreheads and gnostic serpents. Great fun.

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley: On a foggy summer night, eleven people--ten privileged, one down-on-his-luck painter--depart Martha's Vineyard headed for New York. Sixteen minutes later, the unthinkable happens: the passengers disappear into the ocean. The only survivors are Scott Burroughs--the painter--and a four-year-old boy, who is now the last remaining member of a wealthy and powerful media mogul's family. 
With chapters weaving between the aftermath of the tragedy and the backstories of the passengers and crew members--including a Wall Street titan and his wife, a Texan-born party boy just in from London, a young woman questioning her path in life, and a career pilot--the mystery surrounding the crash heightens. As the passengers' intrigues unravel, odd coincidences point to a conspiracy: Was it merely dumb chance that so many influential people perished? Or was something far more sinister at work? Events soon threaten to spiral out of control in an escalating storm of media outrage and accusations--all while the reader draws closer and closer to uncovering the truth.
The fragile relationship between Scott and the young boy glows at the heart of this novel, raising questions of fate, human nature, and the inextricable ties that bind us together.

I'm not sure exactly how to review this. It's kind of a mystery and kind of a meandering philosophical novel. It goes fairly skillfully between the big, dramatic, world-shaking event and the daily minutiae of the characters' lives. For such a cinematic set-up, the characterization is richer than I would have expected. I didn't read it breathlessly, but I looked forward to picking it up again every day.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Four-Star Books Read in 2016: Mystery

Strong Poison (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries #6) by Dorothy Sayers: Mystery novelist Harriet Vane knew all about poisons, and when her fiancé died in the manner prescribed in one of her books, a jury of her peers had a hangman's noose in mind. But Lord Peter Wimsey was determined to find her innocent as determined as he was to make her his wife.

I don't generally read cozy mysteries, drawing room mysteries, or old-fashioned mysteries - I like my murders modern and I get frustrated reading about casual sexism even though I know denial isn't the answer. But I've had a vague notion that I should read Dorothy Sayers for some time, and this was recommended to me by my friend Maggie (HI MAGGIE!) and I'm really glad I read it. It's so well-written, and I loved the leisurely pace and attention to detail given to the woman investigating on Lord Peter's behalf (I've forgotten her name). I often think murders would be much easier to solve these days if more people still rented out rooms in their houses - it seems much the best way to crack a case.

The Reckoning by Jane Casey: Described by The Irish Times as "a well-crafted mystery," The Reckoning sees Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan hunting the killer who tortured two paedophiles to death.
To the public, a killer who targets paedophiles is a hero. And even the police don't regard the murders as a priority. Maeve Kerrigan is shocked by the violence inflicted during these kills – the victims were made to suffer. She believes no-one should be allowed to take the law into their own hands. However, as this serial killer's violence begins to escalate, she is forced to decide how far she's prepared to go to ensure justice is served.

Really like this series. The main character is flawed but not a complete wreck like many series protagonists, and there seems to be room for her to grow and evolve. Good depiction of relationships, interesting plot. 

The Wrath of Angels (Charlie Parker #11) by John Connolly: In the depths of the Maine woods, the wreckage of an aeroplane is discovered. There are no bodies, and no such plane has ever been reported missing, but men both good and evil have been seeking it for a long, long time. What the wreckage conceals is more important than money: it is power. Hidden in the plane is a list of names, a record of those who have struck a deal with the Devil. Now a battle is about to commence between those who want the list to remain secret and those who believe that it represents a crucial weapon in the struggle against the forces of darkness.
The race to secure the prize draws in private detective Charlie Parker, a man who knows more than most about the nature of the terrible evil that seeks to impose itself on the world, and who fears that his own name may be on the list. It lures others too: a beautiful, scarred woman with a taste for killing; a silent child who remembers his own death; and the serial killer known as the Collector, who sees in the list new lambs for his slaughter.
But as the rival forces descend upon this northern state, the woods prepare to meet them, for the forest depths hide other secrets.
Someone has survived the crash.
Some thing has survived the crash.
And it is waiting.

This is a detective series unlike almost any other. It's magical realism more than fantasy or horror, and I always like fiction that is grounded in reality and yet allows for the possibility of extreme weirdness. 

The Wolf in Winter (Charlie Parker #12) by John Connolly: The next pulse-pounding thriller in John Connolly's internationally bestselling Charlie Parker series.
The community of Prosperous, Maine has always thrived when others have suffered. Its inhabitants are wealthy, its children’s future secure. It shuns outsiders. It guards its own. And at the heart of Prosperous lie the ruins of an ancient church, transported stone by stone from England centuries earlier by the founders of the town…
But the death of a homeless man and the disappearance of his daughter draw the haunted, lethal private investigator Charlie Parker to Prosperous. Parker is a dangerous man, driven by compassion, by rage, and by the desire for vengeance. In him the town and its protectors sense a threat graver than any they have faced in their long history, and in the comfortable, sheltered inhabitants of a small Maine town, Parker will encounter his most vicious opponents yet.
Charlie Parker has been marked to die so that Prosperous may survive.
Prosperous, and the secret that it hides beneath its ruins…

Riffs compellingly on the ancient concept of sacrifice for godly beneficence. I felt really bad for the wolf. 

The Secret Place by Tana French: The photo on the card shows a boy who was found murdered, a year ago, on the grounds of a girls’ boarding school in the leafy suburbs of Dublin. The caption says, I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.
Detective Stephen Moran has been waiting for his chance to get a foot in the door of Dublin’s Murder Squad—and one morning, sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey brings him this photo. The Secret Place, a board where the girls at St. Kilda’s School can pin up their secrets anonymously, is normally a mishmash of gossip and covert cruelty, but today someone has used it to reignite the stalled investigation into the murder of handsome, popular Chris Harper. Stephen joins forces with the abrasive Detective Antoinette Conway to find out who and why.
But everything they discover leads them back to Holly’s close-knit group of friends and their fierce enemies, a rival clique—and to the tangled web of relationships that bound all the girls to Chris Harper. Every step in their direction turns up the pressure. Antoinette Conway is already suspicious of Stephen’s links to the Mackey family. St. Kilda’s will go a long way to keep murder outside their walls. Holly’s father, Detective Frank Mackey, is circling, ready to pounce if any of the new evidence points toward his daughter. And the private underworld of teenage girls can be more mysterious and more dangerous than either of the detectives imagined.

This is another series that lets weirdness leak in. I loved how adolescent female friendships and politics were captured, the intensity and terror and depth of feeling. The detectives are always fully realized characters as well. Her books are often wrenchingly sad, but worth it. 

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike #1) by Robert Galbraith: The Cuckoo's Calling is a 2013 crime fiction novel by J. K. Rowling, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.
A brilliant mystery in a classic vein: Detective Cormoran Strike investigates a supermodel's suicide.
After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office.
Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.
You may think you know detectives, but you've never met one quite like Strike. You may think you know about the wealthy and famous, but you've never seen them under an investigation like this.

Considering that Harry Potter relied, in my opinion, much more on narrative energy than great writing, it's nice to see that Rowling does, in fact, have some really solid writing chops. This is an interesting mystery but it's also a really great novel without the mystery, with deft characterization, keen insights on class differences, and sly humour. It went ever-so-slightly into overly-complicated explanations of the crime near the end, but I was easily able to forgive that. I will definitely continue following the series.

The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison: Near an isolated mansion lies a beautiful garden.
In this garden grow luscious flowers, shady trees…and a collection of precious “butterflies”—young women who have been kidnapped and intricately tattooed to resemble their namesakes. Overseeing it all is the Gardener, a brutal, twisted man obsessed with capturing and preserving his lovely specimens.
When the garden is discovered, a survivor is brought in for questioning. FBI agents Victor Hanoverian and Brandon Eddison are tasked with piecing together one of the most stomach-churning cases of their careers. But the girl, known only as Maya, proves to be a puzzle herself.
As her story twists and turns, slowly shedding light on life in the Butterfly Garden, Maya reveals old grudges, new saviors, and horrific tales of a man who’d go to any length to hold beauty captive. But the more she shares, the more the agents have to wonder what she’s still hiding.

I signed up for a free trial of Kindle Unlimited and in general found that the books on offer were dreck. This was a notable exception, featuring a very different kidnapping victim. Maya is an uncommonly self-possessed and resourceful character, and I found the entire story captivating, from the events before her captivity to the aftermath. 

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner: Mid-December, and Cambridgeshire is blanketed with snow. Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw tries to sleep after yet another soul-destroying Internet date – the low murmuring of her police radio her only solace.
Over the airwaves come reports of a missing woman – door ajar, keys and phone left behind, a spatter of blood on the kitchen floor. Manon knows the first 72 hours are critical: you find her, or you look for a body. And as soon as she sees a picture of Edith Hind, a Cambridge post-graduate from a well-connected family, she knows this case will be big.
Is Edith alive or dead? Was her ‘complex love life’ at the heart of her disappearance, as a senior officer tells the increasingly hungry press? And when a body is found, is it the end or only the beginning?

I was perfectly satisfied with the mystery I read just before this one, but this is really a cut above - the writing style isn't overly laboured, but the characters are so much more fully realized, and the story is about relationships and introspection more than it is about crime. Very good.

Redemption Road by John Hart: Now after five years, John Hart is back with a stunning literary thriller.
A boy with a gun waits for the man who killed his mother.
A troubled detective confronts her past in the aftermath of a brutal shooting.
After thirteen years in prison, a good cop walks free. But for how long?
And deep in the forest, on the altar of an abandoned church, the unthinkable has just happened…
This is a town on the brink. This is a road with no mercy.
After five years, John Hart returns with Redemption Road, his most powerful story yet.

There are times when characters who are self-destructive are kind of annoying, because it reads as purposeful martyrdom without an honest cause. That's not the case here, although many characters are near or at rock-bottom. I felt completely submerged in this world - the sense of place, the deep familial and political connections, the conflict between tradition and one's sense of self. I haven't hit a disappointing John Hart read yet (there's a good reason he's one of those authors who gets to have his name in larger font than the title), and this was as dramatic, absorbing and affecting as the others. 

A Climate of Fear by Fred Vargas: A woman is found murdered in her bathtub, and the murder has been made to look like a suicide. But a strange symbol found at the crime scene leads the local police to call Commissaire Adamsberg and his team. When the symbol is found near the body of a second disguised suicide, a pattern begins to emerge: both victims were part of a disastrous expedition to Iceland over ten years ago where a group of tourists found themselves trapped on a deserted island for two weeks, surrounded by a thick, impenetrable fog rumored to be summoned by an ancient local demon. Two of them didn't make it back alive. But how are the deaths linked to the secretive Association for the Study of the Writings of Maximilien Robespierre? And what does the mysterious symbol signify?

Okay, after what I said about the last Louise Penny book, it is almost unconscionable of me to give this such a high review, because it was nearly every bit as bad for being completely ridiculous as a police procedural and had all the same issues with a near-psychic mystic figure policeman as a protagonist and tending more towards philosophical investigations and spiritual events bordering on the supernatural than to a straightforward crime novel. And yet? I still adored it. I dunno. Maybe it's because they're French? No, wait, so is Gamache. I stand unrepentant. 

All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda: Like the spellbinding psychological suspense in The Girl on the Train and Luckiest Girl Alive, Megan Miranda’s novel is a nail-biting, breathtaking story about the disappearances of two young women—a decade apart—told in reverse.
It’s been ten years since Nicolette Farrell left her rural hometown after her best friend, Corinne, disappeared from Cooley Ridge without a trace. Back again to tie up loose ends and care for her ailing father, Nic is soon plunged into a shocking drama that reawakens Corinne’s case and breaks open old wounds long since stitched.
The decade-old investigation focused on Nic, her brother Daniel, boyfriend Tyler, and Corinne’s boyfriend Jackson. Since then, only Nic has left Cooley Ridge. Daniel and his wife, Laura, are expecting a baby; Jackson works at the town bar; and Tyler is dating Annaleise Carter, Nic’s younger neighbor and the group’s alibi the night Corinne disappeared. Then, within days of Nic’s return, Annaleise goes missing.
Told backwards—Day 15 to Day 1—from the time Annaleise goes missing, Nic works to unravel the truth about her younger neighbor’s disappearance, revealing shocking truths about her friends, her family, and what really happened to Corinne that night ten years ago.
Like nothing you’ve ever read before, All the Missing Girls delivers in all the right ways. With twists and turns that lead down dark alleys and dead ends, you may think you’re walking a familiar path, but then Megan Miranda turns it all upside down and inside out and leaves us wondering just how far we would be willing to go to protect those we love.

Good characterization and interesting narrative technique, telling the story backwards. 

The Shut Eye by Belinda Bauer: Five footprints are the only sign that Daniel Buck was ever here.
And now they are all his mother has left.
Every day, Anna Buck guards the little prints in the cement. Polishing them to a shine. Keeping them safe. Spiralling towards insanity.
When a psychic offers hope, Anna grasps it. Who wouldn't? Maybe he can tell her what happened to her son...
But is this man what he claims to be? Is he a visionary? A shut eye? Or a cruel fake, preying on the vulnerable?
Or is he something far, far worse?

I had a total Baader-Meinhof experience with this title - I'd never been aware of the expression shut eye referring to fortune telling before, and right after I read this I came across a tv series with the same name on the same subject. Interestingly, this falls in line with the other books on this list where the mystery is twisted up with supernatural elements, even though this isn't the norm with Belinda Bauer's work. The reader has no clue until the very end whether we are in fact dealing with the supernatural or the psychological. I wouldn't say I love this quite as much as her Exmoor Trilogy, but I still really liked it.

Humber Boy B by Ruth Dugdall: A child is killed after falling from the Humber Bridge. Despite fleeing the scene, two young brothers are found guilty and sent to prison. Upon their release they are granted one privilege only, their anonymity. Probation officer Cate Austin is responsible for Humber Boy B’s reintegration into society. But the general public’s anger is steadily growing, and those around her are wondering if the secret of his identity is one he actually deserves to keep. Cate’s loyalty is challenged when she begins to discover the truth of the crime. She must ask herself if a child is capable of premeditated murder—or if there is a greater evil at play.

Really good illustration of the effects of crime on those left behind, and how those who commit crimes are so often not evil, but only caught up in circumstances beyond their control. The description of Humber Boy B's childhood is heartbreaking - the whole story is,  really. I jumped into this series in the middle, but I think I'll probably continue it.