Once again (2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009,2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I’ve kept track of what I read this year.

January

Life After Life (2014) by Kate Atkinson. Fiction, alternative history, read for bookgroup. Ursula Todd is continually born on a snowy night in England in 1910, and she continually dies, at various points in her childhood, teen years, adulthood, in various ways. Her lives’ intersections with World War II provide intriguing points for the reader to ponder. Well-written, spare in a certain way and yet rich in detail, nuance, significance. Although Ursula at times is almost conscious that she has lived this life or other lives, the philosophical implications are largely omitted from the story, which actually reads like a couple of novellas and a dozen or two short stories. I liked it a lot and recommend it.

The Drowning (2008/2015 English) by Camilla Lackberg. Crime fiction set in the small town of Fjällbacka, Sweden. Compelling (I read the book in two days) dark crime novel featuring Swedish couple Erica Falck, a writer who is now hugely pregnant with twins, and Patrick Hedstrom, her policeman husband. At the center of the mystery is Christian Thydell, who, with Erica’s help, has just published his first novel, The Mermaid, and whose life holds secrets — one of which is shared with his three childhood friends, Erik, Kenneth, and Magnus — that seem about to be revealed by an anonymous and threatening letter writer. I guessed the ending well before I read it, but I was never 100% sure.  Dark, not for those squeamish about harm done to children.

Speaking in Bones (2015) by Kathy Reichs, in the Tempe Brennan forensic anthropologist series, set in North Carolina. I enjoy these. In this one, a websleuth comes to Tempe to get her help with a missing person case that’s three years old, which leads to some treacherous hiking, introduction to a Catholic sect that performs exorcisms and emphasises the role of Satan, a new and interesting (and single) coworker cop in another county, and repercussions for some children with genetic physical and mental illnesses. Also in this story is her angst about Ryan’s marriage proposal and her relationship with her mother, who has cancer.

The Bostonians (1886) by Henry James, a novel (read for a bookgroup) set post-Civil War mainly in Boston, a bit in NYC, with the fight for women’s rights front and center. Verena Tarrant is a naive, generous, beautiful young woman with a gift for charming crowds as she speaks about women’s rights; Basil Ransom is a Mississippian of staunchly traditional values (e.g., he believes that women exist “simply to be provided for, practice the domestic virtues, and be charmingly grateful”), now struggling to make a living in New York. When he visits his somewhat stern cousin, Olive Chancellor, in Boston, he meets Verena and falls under the spell of her looks and voice, her “genial, graceful, ornamental cast.” The writing is typically Jamesian, with long, convoluted, lovely sentences, often slyly acerbic (for example, about Olive “mortally disliking” Miss Birdseye’s flat: “in a career in which she was constantly exposing herself to offense and laceration, her most poignant suffering came from the injury of her taste.” Similarly, “for the first time in her life, Olive Chancellor chose not to introduce two persons who met under her roof. She hated Europe, but she could be European if it were necessary”). The story moves a bit slowly, though, and in the end seems quite conventional, but perhaps its greatness lies in its observation and explication of the contradictory, muddled motives, assumptions, feelings, hopes and fears within each person and driving their relationships, which often prompt unanticipated, dismaying reactions and consequences, or even if anticipated, then unable to be overcome or redirected, whether due to the characters and personalities of the people involved, societal mores, or human nature itself.

The Drowned Boy (2013/2015) by Karin Fossum, in the Inspector Sejer series set in Norway. Konrad Sejer, who is having dizzy spells and considering visiting a doctor, and his sidekick Jacob Skarre, are called to a pond where a 16-month-old boy with Downs Syndrome has drowned. His father, Nicholai, is stunned and grief-stricken, but the inauthentic reactions of his mother, 19-year-old Carmen, get the attention of the police officers and cause them to look more closely at the case.  The book is about evenly divided between the Sejer’s life and police work and the boy’s parents’ life in the months after the death of their son; the plot is quite tidy and draws a few threads together. I read it in a day. As always, these books are understated and spare, well- (if somewhat slowly) paced.

Silent Creed (2015) by Alex Kava, in the Maggie O’Dell/Ryder Creed series.  FBI Agent Maggie O’Dell and K9 Search-and-Rescue dog handler Ryder Creed (along with his dog Bolo) are sent separately to the scene of a landslide in North Carolina, at the site of a top-secret federal biological research lab, at the same time as a Congressional hearing is going on concerning tests of biological agents on unsuspecting civilians and military personnel. Pretty much all plot and not much else.

In the Dark Places (2015) by Peter Robinson, crime fiction set in rural North Yorkshire, in the Alan Banks/Annie Cabot series. Always well-written and -paced, this story is darker than most, heavy on abattoirs and the slaughtering of animals. Winsome plays more of a role here, and Annie, though Banks’ musing on his romantic life (and of course selecting booze and music) takes up some space as well. Read it in two days.

Black Skies (2015) by Arnaldur Indriðason, crime fiction set in Iceland. Usually these involve Inspector Erlendur but he is away throughout this book and is only peripherally mentioned. This one focuses on his colleague, Sigurður Óli (Siggy), who is not nearly so introspective as Erlendur, as he tackles a case that begins with blackmail and ends in uncovering an international fraud ring. A parallel story concerns a deeply troubled man who was sexually abused as a child by his step-father. Dark indeed, yet told as always in a neutral, even way.

A Girl in Winter (1946) by Philip Larkin. Novel written by a poet, and quite poetic. It’s about Katherine Lind, a 22-year-old girl from Europe (we’re never told where) living in England during World War II, working in a library. The whole story takes up one winter day early in the war, in the first and last sections, and three weeks during the summer six years before, when she visited England for the first time, to stay with her pen pal Robin and his very English family (parents, sister Jane). Landscape is important in this book, both exterior and interior. The story is rather dark — not that anything awful happens but not much happy occurs, either. There’s a lot to think/talk about here, with Katherine’s sometimes suddenly shifting thoughts and impetuous actions, her constant thoughts about her own behaviour, her possible futures, the resignation she often seems to feel about it all.

The Crossing Places (2010) by Elly Griffiths, the first in a series featuring archaeologist Ruth Galloway, who lives in a small house on the edge of a saltmarsh (imaginary, apparently) in Norfolk England, near the North Sea. I envy her house. In this book, she meets and works with DCI Harry Nelson, who needs help with some cryptic letters he’s received about a girl who’s been missing for 10 years. We meet Ruth’s neighbours, colleagues at the college where she teaches and past colleagues from a dig in the saltmarsh, and an old boyfriend. Plotting and writing quite good, for the most part, but the location is what drew me to the book and kept me reading. My quibble (bit of a spoiler, though not of the crime plot per se) is that Ruth starts out the book an overweight, single, childless 40-year-old woman who knows her own mind, has some self-talk about her singleness and weight, and avoids her censorious Christian family, and she ends the book pregnant, suddenly understanding of her parents (“somehow,” when she held one child, “she found a way back to her own mother”), friendly with a glamourous woman who wants to give Ruth a makeover.  It’s all so pat and easy. Will she be thin and married in the next installment?

February

The Janus Stone (2011) by Elly Griffiths, second in a series featuring archaeologist Ruth Galloway, set in Norfolk, England. She and DCI Harry Nelson continue to negotiate their relationship, with Ruth now in the second trimester of her pregnancy, as the body and head of a small girl are discovered during the demolition of a mansion on an old street in Norwich– which had been first a family home, then a Catholic children’s home — to create condos. As Ruth is drawn into the case, someone begins to threaten her life. Bit of a police procedural, bit of a cozy.

The Keeper of Lost Causes (2011) by Jussi Adler-Olsen. First in the Dept. Q series, crime fiction set in and around Copenhagen, Denmark. Quite good, the writing, the plot, the character delineation. Carl Mørck is a homicide detective suffering PTSD after a shooting incident that left one fellow detective dead and another paralyzed and wanting to die. Carl’s boss recognises his worth as a crime solver but wants to contain and isolate his personality, so he promotes him to head a new department, Q, headquartered in the basement, with little staff or money and a mandate to solve certain cold cases. The first cold case concerns Danish parliamentarian Merete Lynggaard, missing five years ago and presumed dead. Her story and Carl’s are alternated. Carl’s new assistant, Assad, is a perfect foil for Carl. Similar to Jo Nesbø’s Norwegian Harry Hole series in style, tone, darkness, but not quite as gritty, gruesome, noir.

The House at Sea’s End (2011) by Elly Griffiths, third in the Ruth Galloway series, set in Norfolk, England. She’s had her baby (Kate) and is trying to figure out how to work, care for Kate, handle Nelson’s role in her life, etc., while meanwhile, she’s drawn into the discovery of six skeletons on a craggy beach at low tide, which we soon learn are German soldiers, killed in World War II. The case becomes Nelson’s when an old man, a Home Guard veteran, dies of unnatural causes.

A Room Full of Bones (2012) by Elly Griffiths, fourth in the Ruth Galloway series, set in Norfolk, England. Ruth’s (and baby Kate’s) relationship with Nelson changes, and DS Judy Johnson is given a bit of a bigger role in this plot, which concerns a curse associated with unrepatriated Aboriginal bones at a local museum, horse stables and trainers, and drugs smuggling.

A Dying Fall (2013) by Elly Griffiths, fifth in the Ruth Galloway series, this one set in Lytham and Blackpool, England. Ruth and DCI Nelson are both on vacation in the same place – quel surprise! Well, surprise for him, anyway. Ruth is there after a college mate dies in a suspicious fire after perhaps making a significant archaeological discovery, about which he’s sent her a letter which reaches her after his death. With her are her daughter Kate and their druid friend Cathbert. Nelson and Michelle have gone back to their hometown for two weeks of vacation with their mothers. Neo-Nazism, King Arthur legends, and academic shenanigans are the order of the day.

Little Black Lies (2015) by Sharon Bolton, crime fiction set in the Falkland Islands. Excellent, one of the best books I’ve read in a while. Bolton tells the story of six days — from 31 Oct to 5 November 1994 —  with quite a lot of backstory included, from the point of view of three people involved in intense relationships, three years after one of them has lost her two sons in an accident, and the contemporary events of two missing children. I learned a lot about the Falkland Islands and a bit about the 1982 war, but the story itself is the thing: gripping, pulling the reader into its setting, into its web of relationships and secrets, into its atmosphere of grief and guilt. Highly recommended.

The Outcast Dead (2014) by Elly Griffiths, sixth in the Ruth Galloway series, set in Norwich UK. While Ruth is helping to present archaeological facts about Victorian-era childminder “Mother Hook” — hung for killing the children in her care — on a TV show called Women Who Kill, she’s also helping DCI Nelson and DS Johnson investigate after one child is reported dead by his mother and another goes missing. Meanwhile, Ruth’s brother Simon comes for a visit with his boys, and Judy Johnson grapples with her marriage to Darren.

The Ghost Fields (2015) by Elly Griffiths, seventh in the Ruth Galloway series, set in Norwich UK, with a plot involving one local family, the Blackstocks, after a member of the family is found in a World War II plane dug up during construction for new homes. Ruth’s relationship with Frank (the American, back in England once again to narrate another TV episode), Nelson’s with Michelle, and David Clough’s with one of the Blackstock clan are all explored a bit. Not the best plot of the series so far.

The Hotel New Hampshire (1981) by John Irving. Novel (for bookgroup). Set in fictional Dairy, NH, at a midcoast Maine seaside area (1937, then 1946-1957), for seven years in post-war Vienna Austria (1957-1964), and finally in New York City and again in midcoast Maine, you wouldn’t think that this novel involving rape, prostitution, and bears , and narrated with an abundance of profanity, would be so funny, charming, sweet, and yet it manages to be. I liked it much better than Garp.

March

Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of An Acre, and the Making of An Edible Garden Oasis in the City (2013) by Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates. Non-fiction, for  permaculture discussion group. The book, which focuses most of its attention on edible perennials (and not annuals like corn, tomatoes, etc), is divided into four sections — Sleep, Creep, Leap, and Reap — offered essentially in chronological order from 2000, when Toensmeier and Bates first rented a farmhouse together and started to put into practice some of their gardening ideas, to 2012, after they had lived in their duplex house in urban Holyoke, MA (zone 6) for about 8 years. Toensmeier writes most of the book, with Bates offering a handful of sidebars throughout. There’s more memoir in the book than in most gardening books, but it’s not overdone, and the experimental, “let’s try it!” farming and gardening practice of the two men (and later, their wives) shines through. Full-colour photos (center of book) and design sketches (Appendix A) help the reader envision the property and its changes, and Appendix B is a good list for northern gardeners of edible perennials to consider.

The Absent One (2012) by Jussi Adler-Olsen, second in the Dept. Q series, crime fiction set in and around Copenhagen, Denmark. I didn’t like this one as well as the first in the series, because there is some animal torture and killing and a lot of blood lust hunting in it. The plot concerns six basically psychopathic boarding school students (5 men and a woman), now grown up and several in prestigious positions of wealth and power in the Denmark, who for years thrived on watching “A Clockwork Orange,” doing coke, having orgies, and then terrorizing and sometimes killing random people. Their past has come back to haunt them now. Detective Carl Mørck and his sidekick Assad have a new member of their team, Rose.

A Conspiracy of Faith (2013) by Jussi Adler-Olsen, third in the Dept. Q series, crime fiction set in and around Copenhagen, Denmark. Better than the second one, not as gruesome, though harm is done to children. Quite a complex crime plot; actually, there are two plots, unrelated, with the main one centering on a psychopathic, rather sadistic man, abused as a child, who makes money kidnapping children from large families involved in insular fundamentalist ‘Christian’ cults. There’s also growth in the Carl-Assad relationship as well as twists and turns in Rose’s character’s unfolding when her sister Yrsa comes to take her place for a while.

White Teeth (2000) by Zadie Smith. DNF. It took me 3 weeks to get to page 185 and then I gave up. I just never got into the story, about two men who met in World War II, Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal and Englishman Archie Jones, and their families in London. I looked at Wikipedia after I returned the book to the library and am glad I didn’t go any farther, as the plot seems to devolve. I found the part I read to be boring and tedious.

The Purity of Vengeance (2013) by Jussi Adler-Olsen, fourth in the Dept. Q series, crime fiction set in and around Copenhagen, Denmark.The best so far, in my opinion, the plot concerns the Purity Party of Denmark, which seeks to rid Denmark of all unworthy people — people of colour, immigrants, poor people, people deemed to have mental and physical deficiencies, and so on — and as part of its strategy to do so sterilizes women it considers wanton or wayward without their consent and aborts children carried by these mothers. At the center of the story are Curt Wad, a doctor who strongly believes in The Cause of Danish purity, and who performs these procedures and orchestrates the actions of others; and Nete Hermansen, a 1950s victim of The Cause.  The Purity Party, by that name, doesn’t seem to be actual, but forced sterilization in the Nordic countries was, and the island of Sprogø is also real: “between 1923 and 1959 … the island was used for containment of women deemed pathologically promiscuous, the main concern being unwanted pregnancies.”

The Silence of the Sea: A Thriller (2011) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, #6 in the Thóra Guðmundsdóttir series. Thóra is hired by the parents/grandparents of a family missing at sea on a celebrity yacht to help them file insurance claims and maintain custody of their youngest granddaughter, the only member of the family not on the ship. The story is told in chapters alternating Thora’s investigative work with the events that took place on the ship., and it is more of a thriller than a crime novel or mystery.

April

Someone To Watch Over Me : A Thriller (2013) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, in the Thóra Guðmundsdóttir series. Several storylines come together: a family is haunted after their prospective babysitter is killed in a hit-and-run; an on-air radio personality is hounded by accusing texts and phone calls; and Thóra is asked by a psychopath in a mental institution to overturn the conviction of a mentally disabled young man, found responsible for setting a fire that killed the other residents and a nightwatchman at the home for the severely disabled where he lived. Creepy in several ways. Took me a few weeks to read it, so I guess it wasn’t that enthralling to me, but the complex plots were well handled.

The Stranger (1942, 1988 edition Matthew Ward) by Albert Camus. Story of Meursault, a French man living in Algeria: his mother dies, he has a girlfriend (Marie), he gladly helps a male friend (Raymond) lure his own girlfriend back so he can abuse her further, then he shoots an Arab man on a beach because he (Meursault) is very hot. That’s the first part of the book, and the second covers his trial and imprisonment, neither of which seems to concern him overmuch (though  eventually he is sentenced to death). Meursault is very detached from his world, inert really except for his reactions to the sun and its glare (if he’s hot, watch out!). He seems uninterested in the suffering of others (people or dogs), lacking in empathy or compassion. In modern terms, he would fall to one side of the autism spectrum, not really able to understand the feelings or actions of others except by the most obvious clues, not because he inherently understands people (ex: “[The priest] was talking in an agitated, urgent voice. I could see that he was genuinely upset, so I listened more closely.”) It’s one thing to comment (as more than one reviewer has) “Even if we exist in a world devoid of meaning, why is it that our actions still bear so much weight?,” which seems a valid question in the context of this book, if the idea of existentialism pulls you; on the other hand, I think one can also wonder if, even in the absence of meaning, humans (and other animals) might naturally feel compassion for others, not because it’s construed to mean something, intellectually, but because we have imaginations and hearts, we know what fear, anger, longing, pain feels like. And on the third hand, Meursault is basically condemned for the crime not of killing another man but of not mourning his mother appropriately (having put her in a home, and then smoking and drinking coffee at her wake, and not crying at the burial — but, take into account, it was a very hot day!); because Meursault isn’t strongly affected by his mother’s death — he seemed to like her well enough in life, as he does his girlfriend, who wants more than that, in the form of declarations of love and preference — he is seen as inhuman in some way when perhaps he is just content. Romantic love, and grief when loved ones are gone, is a sign of attachment to others but not necessarily a sign of compassion; those feelings may be just as self-serving, self-focused, and pleasurable as the feelings one has when fulfilling primal urges, though we may ennoble the former. I don’t know what to make of the fact that so many things seem to occur at 2 p.m. in the book.

The Meursault Investigation (2013) by Kamel Daoud. This very short novel (like The Stranger) is a response to Camus’ The Stranger, set 1962 Algeria, after the French have left, written by the brother of the Arab that Meursault killed. Kind of genius. Very Girardian, very reminiscent of Conrad’s The Secret Sharer in the double/twin aspect. Definitely a must-read with Camus’ work.

My Name Is Mary Sutter (2010) by Robin Oliveira: Historical fiction/romance set in the first two or three years of the U.S. Civil War, with its heroine a 20-yr-old midwife, Mary Sutter, who wants to be a doctor (surgeon). I found it lightweight, clichéd, and clumsily written, for the most part, with some good scenes and thoughts, particularly Mary’s struggle making good choices. I’m going to go back and count how many times Mary’s unruly curls (could it be a clunky metaphor? her twin’s are described as “more easily tamed”) are mentioned, as I know it’s more than 50. And though she is described as somewhat of a mess in looks — features “far too coarse,” her chin sharp-angled, her body often sweaty and bloody, a bit ungainly, etc. — every man she meets falls for her. I did learn more about the Civil War, though not much more than I saw in Gone with the Wind, but the setting here is the Union: Albany NY, Manhattan, and then Washington DC and the bloody battlefields of Maryland and Virginia. I liked the bits with Sec. of State John Hay and Pres. Lincoln (and other historical figures) mulling the early days of the war, believing it would end in a few months, then constantly rotating military and political leaders in and out, hoping someone could end it. Dorothea Dix has a small role in the book, portrayed as a self-centered and self-aggrandizing control freak who doesn’t get her hands dirty.  Some might find the detailed descriptions of amputations or even difficult births too graphic, but that aspect seemed realistic and relevant to me.

Ashes to Dust:  A Thriller (2010) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, in the Thóra Guðmundsdóttir series. She takes the case of  Markús after three bodies and a head are found in his family’s former house on Iceland’s Heimaey Island, which was evacuated and covered in ash in 1973 when a volcano erupted nearby. Not long after she takes his case, his childhood friend Alda is found murdered at home, and Markús is a suspect in that crime as well. Not as compelling a read as some of her others but a good plot nonetheless.

May

Splinter the Silence (2015 by Val McDermid, in the Carol Jordan and Tony Hill series. I haven’t read McDermid in years because her books became too tense and agonizingly torturous for me, so I picked this one from the library’s ‘new books’ shelf with some trepidation. And I liked it. Of course a serial killer is front and center, and Carol and Tony have their serious personal issues (Carol’s in particular threaten to derail her and those around her), but the plot is interesting — a man is killing feminist women who speak publicly against men, in ways that look like suicide — and the complex mix of characters engaging and realistic.

My Name is Asher Lev (1972) by Chaim Potok. For bookgroup. Asher Lev is both a devout Ladover Hasid, living in Brooklyn in the 1950s, and an artistic prodigy “compulsively driven to render the world he sees and feels even when it leads him to blasphemy.” Asher is a child and teenager through most of the book, in conflict with his father, who travels the world to rescue Russian Jews and start Ladover (a made-up sect of Hasidism) yeshivos in many countries and who never understands his son’s unwillingness, as he sees it, to study and serve God in the way he (the father) sees fit. His mother, who loves them both, understands in part each of their passions, her husband’s for travel and salvation of Jews, her son’s for artistic expression of his feelings, though their conflict and their choices often leave her anxious, fearful, unsupported, caught in the middle of their tension between devotion to a moral calling and devotion to an aesthetic calling. Some themes explored: taboo, tradition, truth, honouring parents, family, what makes a satisfying life, individual vs. culture, religion, perception, imagination. Worth reading.

The Woman in Blue (2016) by Elly Griffiths, 8th in the Ruth Galloway series. This one, which includes very little archaeology (no digging and only a small bit of historical info), is set in Walsingham (Norfolk, England), the site of a religious shrine to Mary as well as a drug addiction center.  An old university friend of Ruth’s, Hilary, has become an Anglican priest (much to Ruth’s dismay) and is in town for a religious conference; she contacts Ruth because she is receiving nasty letters decrying women in ministerial positions. Even before she arrives, another woman, who has been getting treatment at the addiction center, is murdered on the church grounds, so Ruth’s and Inspector Harry Nelson’s paths cross once again. Clough, Tim, and Tanya are also featured, while Judy is home on maternity leave and Cathbad has only a minor role in the story.  So-so, not a favourite.

The Paris Wife (2011) by Paula McLain, a novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. Read for bookgroup. It’s the story of their almost-five years of marriage, most of it living in Paris, drinking heavily, meeting literary and other friends (Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, the Fitzgeralds, Gerald and Sara Murphy, Sherwood Anderson, Lincoln Steffens, etc), going to bullfights in Spain, him writing and her playing the piano, eventually having a baby (Bumby), eventually splitting up when Ernest falls for his second wife (of four), Pauline. Except for the time period (Paris in the jazz age)  and the people involved (pre-famous artsy people, either rich or bohemian or both), it a pedestrian story of a fairly ordinary, traditional marriage of a man who generally gets his own way and a woman who feels it’s her duty and pleasure to acquiesce to his needs and desires. Their suffering, even before the marriage begins to fall apart, is detailed.

Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart (2014) by Christopher Fowler, in the Peculiar Crimes Unit series. I haven’t read any others and I’m not sure why I started with this one, involving the digging up of recently buried bodies and the theft of the 7 ravens from the Tower of London. It’s well written, with quirky characters, but I got a bit lost in the all the convoluted plotting and occasional long lists of detail. By the end of the book, I had come back around but I can’t say I was really very engaged. If I read another, it will be for the characters.

Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening (2015) by Will Bonsall. Not a permaculture book per se, though he mentions it from time to time, but probably the best permaculture book I’ve read in the five or six years I’ve been studying it. Bonsall has an 84-acre farm in Unity, Maine, on which he raises (with very little rototilling) vegetables, fruits, permacrops, grains, pulses, oilseeds — and no animals at all. His writing is incisive, witty, clear, easy flowing, a pleasure to read. Topics covered include the vision of a garden without borders, composting, making mulch and green manures, soil and minerals, grassland management, propagating seeds, rocks and water, planting more efficiently (trellises, companion planting, new world vs. old world crops), chapters on crops (veggies, grains, pulses, oilseeds, permacrops), using the harvest by milling, baking, sprouting, freezing, fermenting, dehydrating, etc., and pests and diseases — usually the most boring (no pun intended) chapter in these books, this is one of the best in Bonsall’s.

June

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures in North America (2015) by Colin Woodard. Non-fiction, for bookgroup. A bit of a slog to get through unless you love history, but worth it to inspire thought and conversation about the various cultures that make up North America (the focus is mainly on the U.S. but also includes important insight into Canada and Mexico). The 11 regions are Yankeedom, New Netherland, El Norte, Left Coast, Far West, New France, Midlands, Greater Appalachia, Tidewater, Deep South, and First Nation. The American Revolution and the Civil War are discussed at length. One of Woodard’s conclusions is that the U.S. needs its central government to function cleanly, openly, and efficiently, because it’s one of the few things binding us together, since we don’t share ethnicity, religion, or near-universal consensus on fundamental political problems.

Stoner (1965) by John Williams. A sad little novel about a midwestern college professor of English, set at the end of the 1800s in Missouri. He marries a woman he hardly knows and over the years suffers a series of personal and professional disappointments; it’s the kind of book that makes the reader queasy all along because they can see it’s not going to go well for the protagonist. The blurb on the back of the book says that William Stoner emerges “as an unlikely existential hero,” and I guess by virtue of living through it somewhat stoically, he fulfills the existential part, but I’m not sure I could call him heroic.

The High Mountains of Portugal (2015) by Yann Martel. For a bookgroup. A novel in three parts, set mainly in Portugal, first in 1904, then in 1938, and finally about 50 years later. In the first section, Tomás borrows his rich uncle’s Renault to drive to the high mountains in search of a certain crucifix he’s read about in a priest’s diary; in the second, a more philosophical section, a Portuguese pathologist’s wife lectures him about the similarities of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries and the Christian gospel, and then he is visited in his office by a woman who wants him to look at a body; and in the third (which reminded me strongly of Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael), Peter, a Canadian Senator, leaves Canada for the high mountains of Portugal with his new companion, a chimpanzee named Odo. The stories are tied together, and many similar themes emerge from the three:  the pros and (mainly) cons of human civilisation and “the crowd;” men at the end of their ropes who need a respite from their workaday lives (and their jobs are prominently mentioned repeatedly); strong focus on fathers and sons, especially loss of sons; the idea of an “appointment with death” (a Christie title) and the role fate plays in our lives; lice, vermin, and bugs that eat living people and corpses; men and their sorrow, despair, grief; slavery/freedom; and so on. I had a lot of trouble getting in to it but it was pretty readable after the first section.

July

Orchestrated Death (1991) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, first in the Bill Slider crime series set in London. Slider is a middle-aged London cop, whose life is changed when a young violinist is murdered.

Death Watch  (1992) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, second in the Bill Slider crime series set in London.When the body of a womanizing traveling salesman, Dick Neal, is found in a compromising position in a blazing motel room, the team at first doesn’t know whether it’s murder or suicide.

Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World (2015) by Linda Hirshman. Part law casebook, part biography of O’Connor and Ginsburg, a comparison-contrast through their histories, work experiences, values, law decisions. Ginsburg comes out looking much more of a champion for women’s rights, but Hirshman tries to make the case that if O’Connor hadn’t been the political, non-idealistic, non-activist she was, it would have been harder for Ginsburg and other judges to be appointed at high levels. Interesting discussions of feminism (equality feminism vs. difference feminism), co-ed vs. single-gender higher education, Ginsburg’s drive to have gender cases treated the same as race cases are under the 14th Amendment, etc.

Death to Go (1993) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, third in the Bill Slider crime series set in London. The crime plot is complicated, involving some bigwigs, some low-lifes, a bunch of Chinese men, and a lot of people named Peter; and Slider’s love life is also complicated when he can’t find his way clear to leaving his wife Irene, though it’s soon pretty easy to predict how that will be resolved. Seemed a particularly large number of puns and amusing wordplay in this one.

Grave Music (1994) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, fourth in the Bill Slider crime series set in London. When conductor Sir Stefan Radek is murdered as he’s about to start rehearsal in a nearby church, Slider has a new case and a reason to talk with his (barely) ex-lover Joanna again.  I guessed the killer (and motive) long before the book ended but it was still enjoyable.

Treasure Island (1883) by Robert Louis Stevenson. For a bookgroup. Adventure novel, old-fashioned tale of murder and mayhem on a (n almost-) deserted island, with lots of greed, drunkenness, pirates, and immorality. From Wikipedia: “Treasure Island is traditionally considered a coming-of-age story, and is noted for its atmosphere, characters, and action. It is also noted as a wry commentary on the ambiguity of morality—as seen in Long John Silver—unusual for children’s literature.”

Killer Look (2016) by Linda Fairstein, crime fiction in the Alex Cooper-Mike Chapman series, set in New York City. I flew through it in a few hours. I don’t know why I like her books so much, but I do. Alex and Chapman are finally together (since the last book) but the trauma from her kidnapping is causing her to drink too much and to give more rein to her anger (and frustration with feeling sidelined from the case) than usual. The case involves a top fashion designer (Wolf Savage) who dies seemingly by suicide, with a bag over his head in a hotel room. Lots of fashion info in this one, plus quite a bit of the setting in the Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a favourite spot of Fairstein’s (she featured it in an earlier book as well) and mine. Her boss, the District Attorney Paul Battaglia, doesn’t fare well here.

August

Blood Lines (1996) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 5th in the Bill Slider crime series. A music critic and opera expert, Roger Greatrex, is murdered in the bathroom at the BBC studios just before a panel discussion show.  Could the killer be his old friend and panelist opponent, Sandy Palliser; Greatrex’s or Palliser’s wife, or Roger’s mistress; another panelist, an audience member, or a BBC staff member; or even a fellow cop?

Killing Time (1997) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 6th in the Bill Slider crime series. Within a day after gay cross-dresser Jay Paloma comes to Slider for protection after receiving threatening letters, he’s murdered in his house. I guessed this one fairly early on but the plot and writing is interesting enough that that doesn’t really matter. DS Jim Atherton is in the hospital throughout (after his injury in Blood Lines), and DS Hart, a cheeky, confident young black woman, is filling in for him as Slider’s sidekick. More complications ensue in the Irene-Bill-Joanna triangle. Lots of Cockney slang in this one, much more than the others to date.

Shallow Grave (1998) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 7th in the Bill Slider crime series. Jennifer Andrews’ body is found in a trench dug by her jealous husband, who was repairing a terrace on the grounds of the Old Rectory in West London. But did he kill her? Meanwhile, Bill and Irene work through some divorce issues, and DS Jim Atherton continues to heal from his wounding in book 5. Not much Cockney slang in this one, but a new Det Sup — Fred ‘the Syrup’ Porson — brings his own brand of linguistic comedy to the series: “Porson talked like Peter Sellers playing a trade-union representative doing his first ever television interview. He chucked words about like a man with no arms, apparently on the principle that a near miss was as good as a milestone” (or, as Atherton says, Porson’s language mangling is “just psychosemantic”).

Blood Sinister (1999) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 8th in the Bill Slider series. When the body of middle-aged radical journalist Phoebe Agnew is found, strangled and tied to her bed, Slider and Atherton (who is unraveling emotionally a bit) look at people from her past and present: college friends Josh Prentiss and his wife Noni, Josh’s brother Piers, Piers’ lover and Phoebe’s downstairs neighbour Peter Medmenham, and others. Slider’s lover Joanna gets a job offer that would require her living in Amsterdam permanently.

Gray Mountain (2014) by John Grisham, for bookgroup, a novel about the destruction, corruption, and greed of the coal mining industry, and about a few lawyers who are trying to find justice for those destroyed by coal mining and the ills it brings to a community. It’s the first John Grisham book I’ve read and it was more meaty, detailed, and factual than I expected. The story focuses on Samantha Kofer, who’s just lost her high-flying corporate law job in NYC in the downturn of 2008, and who accepts an internship position at a tiny office in (fictional) Brady, Virginia, in the heart of Appalachia, where Virginia, Kentucky, and West Virginia meet. Early on she learns never to drink the water in coal country — everyone drinks only bottled water, due to the coal sludge that pollutes the water sources. I lost interest halfway through and read a few other books, then came back to it and the last half flew and was much easier reading somehow than the first; I think my reluctance to read it stemmed from the knowledge that though this is fictional, the situation he describes is real, extremely disturbing and disheartening … and ongoing.

Gone Tomorrow (2001) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 9th in the Bill Slider series. The body of Unlucky Lenny Baxter turns up in a gated Shepherd’s Bush park. Baxter is a small-time dealer in stolen goods and drugs, but as the team investigates, they find his connection to a larger crime organisation, run by a vicious, ruthless boss. OK plot, not my favourite, and I’m tired of the Joanna-Bill romance. Atherton is still amusing, as are Porson’s language mix-ups.

Dear Departed (2004) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 10th in the Bill Slider series. Chattie Cornfeld is killed while jogging. Is is the Park Killer striking again, or someone nearer and dearer? I liked this one even though I guessed much of it about halfway through.

Boar Island (2016) by Nevada Barr. I stopped reading Barr’s Anna Pigeon series a few books back but decided to give this one a try and really enjoyed it, if that’s the right word. I read it in a day. It’s set in Maine’s Acadia National Park and nearby in Bar Harbor, places I know fairly well; the book gives a bit of a flavour of the place, though not as evocative as her western-setting books. The plot — or actually, two separate plots — are about as twisted as they come. Anna’s goddaughter, teenaged Elizabeth, is being viciously cyber-stalked by someone in Boulder, CO (where she and Anna both lvie),  so when Anna is asked to fill in for 3 weeks as ranger at Acadia, she, Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s mom Heath (a paraplegic in a wheelchair), and their “Aunt” Gwen (a pediatrician in her late 70s), all head to Boar’s Island, a tiny private island owned by a friend of Gwen’s, off of Mt. Desert (where Acadia NP is). Meanwhile, NPS ranger Denise Castle, stationed at Acadia, has learned something that will change her life.

The Sympathizer (2015) by Viet Thanh Nguyen. For bookgroup. Fiction, rooted in the Vietnam War and its aftermath. We learn early in the book that the unnamed half-French, half-Vietnamese narrator is a man of two minds, a communist sympathizer and spy whose political beliefs are at odds with his personal loyalties.  He has been embedded as a captain with the military government in South Vietnam, and when Saigon falls in April 1975, he flees the country along with the South Vietnamese army general and the general’s family, as well as his close friend Bon (a true South Vietnamese patriot), leaving their other close friend, communist agent Man, behind. The narrator, along with many other South Vietnamese, lives and works in California for a while, where the narrator is called upon to act in ways he’d rather not, before he leaves for a 3-month stint in the Philippines to shoot The Hamlet, a film about the war in Vietnam, thinking he can give his countrymen a voice if he’s part of the project.  He later returns to California, then decides to go with Bon back to Vietnam to continue the fight for freedom. It’s made clear from the start that his narration is actually a confession to someone — and because it’s a confession, the narrator not only tells us about events but examines his thoughts, reactions, feelings, memories, and judgments to and about these events, and about his own stance as a man of two minds.  Won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Extremely well written. To say it’s a story of war, loyalty,  and betrayal doesn’t capture half the depth of it. For some reason, the tone reminded me of the film Kind Hearts & Coronets.

September

A Banquet of Consequences (2015) by Elizabeth George, in the Lynley-Haver series. Gripping story of a grasping mother, Caroline Goldacre, and her two grown sons, Charlie and Will, and the lies and secrets held within a family, whose consequences for everyone — including Caroline’s husband Alistair; Will’s girlfriend, Lily; Clare, a well-known feminist author Caroline works for; and Rory, the author’s good friend and agent — are devastating. Detective Sargeant Havers is on her best behaviour, with a possible transfer to the hinterlands always a threat that Detective Superintendent Isabelle Ardery wields. Detective Inspector Lynley mediates on Havers’ behalf, for Havers to have more leeway so that she can do her best work, but Ardery is having no part of it. Lynley, meanwhile, is contemplating the future of his relationship with his zoo veterinarian girlfriend Daidre.

Game Over (2003) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 11th in the Bill Slider series. An environmental investigate journalist, Ed Stonax, recently dismissed in a sex scandal from the Department of Trade and Industry, is found murdered in his home. His distraught daughter Emily,  a journalist in New York City, comes over and begins to help the team uncover clues. Meanwhile, Slider is dodging bullets and other dangers that Trevor Bates (arrested in a previous case, now having escaped prison) is aiming his way in an escalating campaign of threats.  The puns and word play is fun.

Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) by Azar Nafisi, “a memoir in books,” for a bookgroup. Better than I expected, but still not a favourite. Nafisi, who grew up before the Revolution, when everyday life was much more liberal than it is now in Iran, is a professor of literature trying to instill in her regime-oppressed students, especially the girls, a love of literature and a respect for the power of their imaginations to help free them from their own prisons. The book moves from her small reading group of a handful of women, back in time to her university classes (mixed gender) and their studies of Nabokov’s Lolita, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (the trial of the book in her classroom was a favourite of many in my group), and few books each by Henry James and Jane Austen, back further in time to the (cursory) history of Iran, the Revolution and its changes, and her personal history living and going to college in America, then forward in time again to the small morning reading group. The book is centrally about how in literature, and in Iran, women are seen not as they are but only as figments of men’s imaginations and the focus of their desires. In exploring why we read fiction, the book also points to the prison we live in within our own experiences and point of view, and how fiction helps liberate us by giving us the opportunity to see through others’ eyes. Some themes: empathy vs. blindness/carelessness, imagination, integrity, dreams, banality and brutality (poshlost), identity (who names us?), ordinary life, freedom, absolutes vs. ambiguity.

Fell Purpose (2009) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 12th in the Bill Slider series.  Smart, beautiful, enigmatic, strictly parented Zellah Wilding is killed on Wormwood Scrubs, during the night of the fair. There is a selection of suspects, and the one you think probably did it, did. Not too much personal stuff about Bill and Joanna in this one, but there was a cringe-worthy, clichéd sentence near the start of the book about the feeling in a woman’s loins when she has borne a man a son. Gag.

October

Body Line (2011) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 13th in the Bill Slider series. One of the better mysteries in the series. Well-to-do doctor David Rogers is murdered at home, execution style, and his girlfriend narrowly escapes out a window. Neither the girlfriend nor the ex-wife nor any of his other women, and there are many, seems to know what sort of medicine Rogers practices or where he works, but he has a huge amount of cash lying around and a lavish lifestyle, not totally attributable to the monthly checks he receives from a Swiss company.

Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell. For bookgroup. A postmodern novel that nests six different but interlocking stories into a fairly coherent whole. The first is Adam Ewing’s Journal, written mostly aboard ship in the Pacific, around 1850; the second, composer Robert Frobisher’s letters to his lover from Belgium in 1931; the third, a manuscript about a young woman journalist who’s uncovered a high-level corporate coverup in California in 1975; the fourth, a movie (it turns out) about a 60-something-year-old man trapped in a nursing home around 1990 or 2000; the fifth, a holographic recording of an interview with a cloned woman in Asia who has discovered the secrets of the corpocracy in which she lives in the near future; and last, an oral story told by a tribesman about a life-changing few months in his life on the Big Island of Hawaii, in the far future, when a woman from another culture visits them. Major themes include reincarnation, rebirth, and recurrence of patterns in people, cultures, and throughout the history of civilisation; predation, the strong vs. the weak, cruelty and domination; imprisonment, subjugation, enslavement and escape; perception, doubt, and how to know what to believe, especially about historical events. Motifs include ascents and descents and smoke and clouds (obscurity). Lots of think about.

Kill My Darling (2011) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 14h in the Bill Slider series. Soon after Melanie Hunter goes missing, her body is found by a man walking his dog, and there is no shortage of suspects, including the convicted wife-murderer living in the basement apartment, her boyfriend, and her stepfather. Not much domestic life or word play in this one, Porson aside.

Blood Never Dies (2012) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 15h in the Bill Slider series. A man who looks too classy for the attic apartment in which he’s been murdered (in a bathtub) leads the team on a lengthy search just to learn his name.  Not much of the personal relationships between Slider and Joanna or Atherton and Emily. Held my interest.

The Weight of Winter (1991) by Cathie Pelletier. Re-read. I like her use of language and her stories set in fictional Mattagash, Maine. This novel is a sort of series of interlaced stories about various townspeople early one winter: Amy Jo Lawler, thinking about putting her mother, Sicily, in a nursing home; Lynn and Pike Gifford’s turbulent, violent marriage and its impact on their children; Mathilda Fennelson, in her early 100s and reflecting on emotional events in her past; Charlene & Davey and their sick daughter, Tanya; the local bar and its habitués; and others. The writing is humourous, often bittersweet, never sappy or mocking.

November

The Bubble Reputation (1993) by Cathie Pelletier. Re-read. “[B]ittersweet but affirmative novel about a quirky, crisis-ridden family in small-town northern Maine may remind readers of Anne Tyler’s work. Exploring the ways people tend to pair off and the ways they respond when these bonds are broken, she follows the course of lonely characters bereft of their mates …. Rosemary O’Neal, a 33-year-old teacher, falls apart when William, her live-in lover of eight years, commits suicide during a trip abroad. While Rosemary seeks solace in isolation, loved ones gradually intrude on her privacy. Among them are her sister, an oft-divorced neurotic; her uncle, an overweight and overwrought gay man; and her roommate from her college days, who is now choosing between husband and lover” (from Publisher’s Weekly) This family very much resembles Anne Tyler’s dysfunctional, chaotic families. The writing is poetic, funny, with much use of repetition in this novel to signify thoughts and events going round and round in Rosemary’s head. A wonderful record of a year of grieving.

Smoke & Mirrors (2015) by Elly Griffiths: I requested this from the library thinking it was part of the Ruth Galloway series but unfortunately, it’s not. It’s part of another series Griffiths writes, called Magic Men, set in Brighton, England, after World War II, featuring DI Edgar Stephens (and his team) and his magician friend Max Mephisto, who met in the war. In this one, Max is in town performing in a pantomime show, and two children have gone missing in snowy weather.  I didn’t like the book nearly as much as those in her other series. If you have an interest in post-war local theatre or in fairy tales, this might be for you.

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Science in Jazz Age New York (2010) by Deborah Blum. Interesting look at the development of forensic toxicology in the U.S., from about 1920 to 19365, an at the effect of Prohibition on alcohol deaths, the early aspects of consumer protections, and the jurisprudence of the time. Chapters are arranged in chronological order, each focusing on a poison (though other poisons are mentioned in most chapters) and on a poisoning story.

When Breath Becomes Air (2016) by Paul Kalanithi. Memoir. “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.” The first part of the book is Paul’s life before his diagnosis, the second is his life after. The writing is sometimes spare, sometimes poetic, but what makes this book memorable is how Paul grapples with his new reality, depicting painfully the seesaw between hope and fear, acceptance and despair, that accompanies a serious medical diagnosis. The central question of the book, and Paul’s life, is, what makes life meaningful? How does one live “when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present?”

December

When The Music’s Over (2016) by Peter Robinson, in the Alan Banks-Annie Cabot series. I didn’t like this one as much as usual. Plot involves two cases, one Annie’s investigating with Gerry, a young woman raped, thrown out of a van, and then battered to death, and the other Alan and Winsome are investigating, a fifty-year-old rape allegedly perpetrated by Danny Caxton, then a much-liked celebrity, now an old man.

Razor Girl (2016) by Carl Hiaasen, featuring ex-cop-now-restaurant-inspector Andrew Yancy, set in the Florida Keys.  The usual unlikely characters and convoluted plot, this one revolving around a made-for-TV redneck named Buck Nance, star of the hit series Bayou Brethren (think Duck Dynasty), and a crazed Buck-wanna-be criminal named Blister. Again, new next-door neighbors are planning a mansion that will encroach on Yancy’s natural view and the livelihood of the resident deer, so they must be stopped. Meanwhile, a dazzling redhead is ramming cars for money, pretending she’s lost control of the car while shaving her never-regions while driving. The mafia is involved, too.

Rules of Civility (2011) by Amor Towles.  Set in 1938 NYC among mainly the upper class bright young things, the novel follows Katey Kontent’s year from the time she and her roommate, Evey, meet wealthy Tinker Grey, on New Year’s Eve, through the changes in her life, and theirs, in the year following. At times a bit hard to follow — the author makes references to names or fleeting events from 100 pages previous, which rang a bell but which weren’t entirely clear to me without going back through the book to find the original mention — and I wasn’t sure I really understood Katey’s personality, but on the whole interesting and evocative of a time and place. Felt a bit like some of the later Woody Allen movies (Match Point, Cafe Society, etc).

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