Books Read 2016

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).

Books Read 2015

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

January

Strange Shores (2010/US 2014) by Arnaldur Indridason, in the Inspector Ernaldur series, set in Iceland. This one differs from others in the series because it isn’t a police novel; it’s the story of Ernaldur’s investigations into a missing person event from the past. Matthildur — a woman who lived in the town in which Ernaldur grew up — went missing during a blizzard, but her body was never found. As Ernaldur relentlessly questions the few people still alive who may know what happened, he also relives the day when he, his younger brother, and his father were lost in a blizzard, from which his brother never returned. The book is haunting, atmospheric, beautifully written. Not a traditional crime or suspense novel.

Borderlines (1990) by Archer Mayor, 2nd in the Joe Gunther series. This one is set in the fictional town of Gannett in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. The plot involves a back-to-nature cult that’s bought a lot of the real estate in town and runs the thriving restaurant, and a town divided for and against them.

Scent of Evil (1992) by Archer Mayor, 3rd in the Joe Gunther series. This one is set in Brattleboro, VT, where Lt. Gunther is based, and involves drugs, politics, wealth, and sex, an includes a high-speed chase, several shoot-outs, an unusual torturous death, and mistrust inside the police department. Good.

Objects of Desire: The Lives of Antiques and Those Who Pursue Them (1993) by Thatcher Freund. NF. Read for a bookgroup.  One of the more boring books I’ve read (and finished) in a long time. If you like the TV show “Antiques Roadshow,” you will probably like this; if not, not. The book weaves the stories of three main pieces of American furniture – an 1750s American blue blanket chest made in Connecticut, a 1750s Chippendale card table from Philadelphia, and an inlaid sofa table made in Salem MA, of the Federal period (around 1800) — with the stories of many American collectors, dealers, buyers, restorers, sellers, pickers, and auctioneers incuding Henry Ford, Henry Du Pont, Joseph Hirshhorn, Bill Stahl, Allan Breed, Wayne Pratt, Fred Giampietro, Israel, Albert & Harold Sack, George Samaha, twins Leslie and Leigh Keno, and others. Structured well and written serviceably (though a bit over-the-top in places) but the topic, items, and people are just uninteresting to me.

February

The Brothers K (1992) by David James Duncan, a novel about the Chance family, obsessed with baseball and religion (Seventh Day Adventist), headed by two strong parents, with four sons and two daughters coming of age in the 1960s. As many reviews say, it’s at times very funny and very moving. By turns a philosophical treatise, a page from Sporting News, a family confessional along the lines of Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, an epistolary novel, a travelogue of India, a Vietnam war memoir, etc., it’s a complex family saga fueled by pain, loss, eccentricity, and an all-embracing love.

Fruits of the Poisonous Tree (1993) by Archer Mayor, #5 in the Joe Gunther series. In this one, Joe’s longtime girlfriend and a town selectman, Gail Zigman, is raped, leading not only to pain and suffering for Gail and Joe but also to “a media frenzy due to her political prominence, his involvement in the case, and her refusal to hide behind a shroud of anonymity.” Set mainly in Brattleboro, but also in Thetford, where Joe’s mother and brother, Leo, live.

The Dark Root (1995) by Archer Mayor, #6 in the Joe Gunther series. The focus in this book is on rival Asian gangs, who are moving illegal aliens, guns, and drugs from New York and Boston to Montreal, and doing violent home invasions, money laundering, and protection rackets. Joe works with the Border Patrol, the FBI, and the Canadian Mounties chasing rival gangs from Brattleboro to Montreal to White River Junction & West Lebanon NH, which was interesting for me, as I know this area and could picture the (on-foot) chase scene quite well.

The Ragman’s Memory (1996) by Archer Mayor, #7 in the Joe Gunther series. Plot involves the discovery of the body of a troubled teenager from out of town, a planned convention center, political bribery and manoeuvering, a missing local activist, and a World War II vet with PTSD in a nursing home, who may have seen the killer.

A Spool of Blue Thread (2015) by Anne Tyler. A book spanning generations of the lives of Abby and Red Whitshank. Set in Baltimore, of course. Lovely, as always.

March

Bellows Falls (1997) by Archer Mayor, #8 in the Joe Gunther series.  Set in Brattleboro, Bellows Falls, and Burlington, with police forces from each town involved, the plot revolves around a controlling man who has created a network of drug sellers in various Vermont towns; he comes to the attention of the police here after he accuses a Bellows Falls policeman of having an affair with his wife, and then that policeman is found to have cocaine in his urine and in his house. One online reviewer of another book in the series describes it as “solid noir mystery” and “an offbeat New England tour guide, too;” next time I take the train through Bellows Falls, I will see it differently.

The Book Thief (2006) by Markus Zusak, for a bookgroup. I wasn’t excited to read it, knowing it was another book about World War II, and while it is set in Nazi Germany from 1939 to 1943, it’s a smaller, more personal novel than that. The tone – seemingly simplistic, but also self-consciously cryptic, or so it felt — was off-putting at the start but I quickly came to appreciate the narrator’s voice. The writing is moving, sometimes amusing, and elegantly understated, laconic, not dramatic, and simply factual at times, which makes it deeply stark and spare. I like that the novel employs the opposite of foreshadowing (often annoying in novels): future events are stated directly, not hinted at in or insinuated in some shadowy way meant to make the reader anxious. The plot centers on Leisel, a foster child of almost 10 when the story starts., who comes to live in a town outside of Munich with foster parents who are large-hearted, “good in a crisis,” and very poor.  I don’t want to give away any more of the story. I liked it a lot.

The New American Landscape: Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Gardening (2011), ed. by Thomas Christopher, with essays by Rick Darke, Eric Tonsmeier, Toby Hemenway, Doug Tallamy, Elaine Ingham, et al., on permaculture, natives vs. non-natives, managing soil health, waterwise gardens, green roofs, gardening for wildlife, meadow gardens, the Sustainable Sites Initiative, the sustainable edible garden, climate change gardening, and while system garden design. Uneven but useful. The chapters on soil (surprisingly), wildlife gardening, and the discussions among several essays on natives vs. exotics were most useful for me.

The Disposable Man (1998) by Archer Mayor, #9 in the Joe Gunther series. This started out as a police procedural, with the twist along the way that Gunther is being investigated for theft, but the second half was a Russian spy thriller. Set in Brattleboro, West Townshend, Middlebury, the Northern Kingdom, all in Vermont, and in Washington DC. I could have skipped it. I guess there really isn’t enough ordinary crime in Brattleboro — even imaginary crime — to inspire more than a few crime novels without having to resort to Chinese gangs and the Russian mafia.

Still Alice (2007) by Lisa Genova, about Alice Howland, PhD., a cognitive psychology and linguistics professor at Harvard, who, at age 50, starts noticing memory lapses (forgetting to do things and not realising she has forgotten, getting lost in a familiar place, etc.) and soon learns she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Told from her increasingly confused point-of-view, with her husband and 3 grown kids as the other major characters. A quick read, a powerful story.

Breaking Creed (2015) by Alex Kava, starting a new series, I think, featuring charismatic dog search-and-rescue trainer and handler (and ex-Marine) Ryder Creed, who lives with his dogs in Pensacola FL; but FBI agent Maggie O’Dell — the protagonist of anotehr of Kava’s series — also has a big role in this book. Lots of extremely well-trained dogs of all breeds in this book, as well as traumatised military vets, and drug-trafficking, child-trafficking, and torture with fire ants, spiders, and scorpions.

Occam’s Razor (1999) by Archer Mayor, #10 in the Joe Gunther series. Set mostly in Brattleboro, though also in Montpelier, and in Portland, ME, with focus on political wrangling, hazardous material dumping, and the murder of a man killed by a train on railroad tracks and of a drug-using woman stabbed in her own home. Gail and Joe are working out their relationship, too.

The Attack (2005) by Yasmina Khadra (aka Mohammed Moulessehoul), originally in French. The novel takes on the themes of integration and assimilation, identity, terrorism, tolerance, sacrifice, healing and killing, happiness and suffering as it tries to come to terms with what creates a suicide bomber. Central is Dr. Amin Jaafari, a Muslim from a Bedouin tribe who has moved up in life to become a wealthy Israeli, a professional (a surgeon) living in Tel Aviv. The novel raises many questions about conflict, terrorism, and how we identify ourselves (and how others identify us) but for me it fails to really provide any complex understanding as to why Amin’s wife becomes a suicide bomber. That may be what’s intended; there are theories floated by many characters in the novel, but she doesn’t really match any of them, and Amin’s blindness as to who she truly was may represent our own in some way.

April

All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr. Novel, for a bookgroup. Set mostly in France (also Germany, Russia) from 1934-1944, during World War II, following two stories, that of a blind girl, Marie-Laure, very interested in natural history and raised by her puzzle-making father, who is evacuated to her eccentric great-uncle’s house in Saint Malo, a walled French city attacked by the Germans in August 1944; and Werner Pfennig, an orphan boy who lives with his sister in a small orphanage near Essen, Germany, until he is chosen to attend the National Political Institutes of Education, an elite Reich school, where he excels in electronics. Many themes and motifs, including  mazes, birds, bees, the natural world generally, entropy, locks and keys, blindness and seeing, value derived from nature (coal from dead plants, diamonds from carbon), the past in the present, etc. A fast, readable book, but felt to me simplistic in terms of good and bad, heroes and villains.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (2014) by Atul Gawande. Non-fiction. Gawande, a surgeon, writes about aging, independence, assisted living and nursing homes, dying, conversations to have about dying and medical care, and death, including his father’s recent death. It’s a topic that interests me and his writing is compelling, except for the middle section about nursing homes, the rise of assisted living, and the various forms assisted living can take, which was dry. He’s best when talking about how doctors and patients avoid important discussions of desires, fears, and how voicing desires and fears helps people (patients, families, doctors) make good choices from among confusing medical options, especially when all of the options carry major and perhaps unknown risks and downsides. The PBS Frontline show with Gawande on this topic is excellent.

 May

The Paying Guests (2014) by Sarah Waters. Set in a genteel 1922 post-war suburb of London, Champion Hill, this novel centers on 26-year-old Francis Wray — whose voice and thoughts basically narrate the third-person story — and her mother, who own a house but have been left with little money to maintain it, and their paying guests, Lilian and Leonard Barber. Len works as a clerk in an insurance company and seems to leer at Francis a lot. His and Lilian’s marriage is tumultuous. An NPR review sets out the basic conflict: “Frances has it bad, and that’s not good. Normally she’s an intelligent, reliable, resourceful young woman, a companion to her widowed mother, keeper of the large house on Champion Hill in which the two of them rattle about, now that the men of the family have died. But then Frances falls in love, and the carefully wrought edifice of her life collapses in a heap of passion and catastrophe.” Very readable, but also quite predictable.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (2014) by Gabrielle Zevin. Funny, light novel about a curmudgeonly, widowed, young bookseller, who, through a series of events, has his life changed. Set on Alice Island, apparently off Massachusetts, the novel starts with a new publisher’s rep traveling  on a ferry to meet the bookseller, but soon we follow his life more than hers, until they come together again. I read this book in about 3 hours … quite light, yet surprisingly emotional at times.

Tucker Peak (2001) by Archer Mayor, in the Joe Gunther series. Southern Vermont ski resort has big problems, with protestors, drug dealers, embezzlers, etc.  I lost track of who the bad guys were, and why, part way through and never really got re-engaged.

I Remember You (2012) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (who writes a crime series featuring attorney Þóra Guðmundsdóttir ): Set in Iceland. Two plots alternate, chapter by relentless chapter, one involving three Rejkjavik twenty-somethings — a couple and their recently widowed female friend — who buy an abandoned house in the deserted and very remote fjord village of Hesteyri, reachable only by ferry in good weather, hoping to renovate it and use it as a B&B, and the other plot focusing on a psychologist who lives in the large fjord town of Isafjordur and whose 6-year-old son went missing two years previously.  The stories are complex and the reader glimpses how they might intertwine, but to tell anymore would be to give away too much. Ghost stories and plots with supernatural explanations don’t do much for me, though this one is well-written, certainly atmospheric, and held my interest most of the time. There are really no happy characters among the cast of dozens.

June

Bad Debts (1996/2013) by Peter Temple, the first in the Jack Irish series, set near Melbourne, Australia. Involves horse racing, gambling, government corruption, and basically men with guns and secrets to hide. I got lost with the large list of characters, the plot twists, and I had to look up some Australian terms and slang. The book was very put-downable – reading it over 2 weeks might be why I got so lost. I’ll try the next one and see if it’s more compelling.

Everything I Never Told You (2014) by Celeste Ng, a debut novel, set in the 1970s, about a family whose members struggle with secrets, silences and unspoken longings, regrets, betrayal, little cruelties, feeling different and outcast. The death of just-16-year-old daughter Lydia, who drowns in a nearby lake, is the focus of the plot which looks back to the parents’ first meeting as well as studying the contemporary events around her death.  Reminds me of an Anne Tyler novel, if her novels were set in a midwest college town and explored what being American and looking Chinese felt like. The book explores longing and loss in depth. 5th-grader Hannah — used to being ignored, noticer of everything — is my favourite character.

July

Of Love and Other Demons (1994) by Gabriel García Márquez, a short novel set in a South America seaport around 1750. Told from the point of view of others, the story is about 12-year-old Sierva Maria, “the only child of a decaying noble family,” raised mainly by the black slave women, who is bitten by a dog who has rabies. Although she never develops symptoms of rabies, she is outcast, feared, and treated as though possessed by a demon by the clergy and others. In essence a book about our terror and vicitimisation of “the other.”

A Stranger in Mayfair (2010) by Charles Finch. Amateur detective and wealthy MP Charles Lenox, newly married to Lady Jane, takes on the murder of a friend’s footman when asked; but then the friend and his wife tell him in no uncertain terms to lay off the case. Set in Victorian London. Not terribly exciting but an OK read.

The Sea Garden: A Novel (2014) by Marcia Willett. About a young artist, Jess, who, through coincidence, comes to live with a family that she learns is related to her own family. Set in contemporary England on the Devon coast, the book uses flashbacks — including repetition of paragraphs two or three times when characters are remembering or thinking about what we’ve already been told — to tell a story about family, friends, betrayal and forgiveness. A gentle read, with lots of adultery. Too many characters for me to follow well but I liked the pace and slice of life feeling of the book.

The Sniper’s Wife (2002) by Archor Mayor, #13 in the Joe Gunther series. This one focuses on Vermont detective Willy Kunkle, whose ex-wife has died, and takes place almost solely in NYC, but ends at the defunct naval prison in Portsmouth, NH. We learn more about Kunkle’s Manhattan childhood, his family now, and his time with the NYPD and in Vietnam, as well as about neighborhoods in NYC, particularly the Lower East Side and Washington Heights. Joe and Sam come to town when Willy is arrested in a random bust of an illegal club. Plot pretty straighforward: Willy suspects Mary’s death wasn’t suicide or an accidental overdose, as it seems, and delves into the case with the help of the law and outside it.

The Gatekeeper (2003) by Archer Mayor, #14 in the Joe Gunther series. The  Vermont Bureau of Investigation is pulled into the case of the hanging of a drug addict and a young woman’s drug overdose in Rutland, VT, by the governor in an election year, expected to stop the flow of heroin into the state. Before Joe can really get going on the case, agent Sammie Martens goes undercover in Holyoke, MA hoping to gain info to make the VBI valuable to the locals and the state police. The plot focuses on Sammie organising a drug ring with criminals in Rutland, and to a lesser extent on agent Lester Spinney’s suspicions about his own teenaged son’s drug use. Joe doesn’t have much to do with the crime cases, but he and his off-putting girlfriend Gail are in another bad place together as she shuts him out after her niece is killed trying to rob a convenience store for drug money. Set in Holyoke, MA, and Brattleboro, Springfield, and Rutland, VT. The ending is a bit anticlimactic but in a realistic way, which is nice for a change.

Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (2013) by Daniel James Brown. The phrase “epic quest” really told me all I needed to know — that’s one of the types of stories I like least — but I read it because it was a bookgroup choice. It’s mostly well-written and well-structured, though repetitive, but the main problem for me is how predictable it is. Not just the history — what’s going on in Germany then, the Dust Bowl and Depression in the U.S., the perceptions of the elite East vs. the rugged West, how the ultimate boat race turns out — which of course we know now, but the predictability throughout of the boys’ characters and actions. They are not only portrayed as thoroughly “good” but the author can’t seem to think of enough synonyms for “good”: loyal, perseverant, committed, humble, honorable, graceful, civil, “good men, one and all.” It’s a pleasant, nostalgic, readable book, with a lot for the novice to learn about rowing. I felt like I’d read a light novel when it was over, though admittedly with some darkness lurking around the edges. The most interesting aspect for me are the details about the propaganda-driven framing and filming of the Olympics.

A Fall of Marigolds (2014) by Susan Meissner, a romantic novel set in New York City 1911, 2001, and 2011, interweaving the stories of two young women, the main one about nurse Clara Wood, who worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company at the time of the fire in 1911, and the secondary one set in contemporary times, about Taryn, co-owner of a specialty fabric store, whose husband died in the North Tower in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Both stories are about Love, with a capital L, and how it motivates us; both stories, particularly Clara’s, quite romantic in the sense that she is all emotion and imagination for 99% of the story.  A light beach read, even though the plot is anchored by the twin tragedies.

Practical Permaculture for Home Landscapes, Your Community, and the Whole Earth (2015) by Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein. A good review of what I’ve mostly read in other permaculture books. Lovely photos. Emphasis on designing a permaculture garden, your own or a client’s. The chapter on soil was better than average on the topic. Read and discussed over a few months with a group.

The Wild Wisdom of Weeds (2014) by Katrina Blair, read for permaculture bookgroup. Blair writes first about her background and how she lives in and views the natural world, then devotes a chapter to each of “13 Essential Plants for Human Survival,” which are amaranth, chickweed, clover, dandelion, dock, grass, knotweed (polygonum aviculare), lambsquarter, mallow, mustard, plantain, purslane, and thistle. Food, medicinal, and beauty recipes are included. “The Earth’s Principal Rivers and Their Tributaries” on page 12 was one of my favourite parts of the book. She speaks a lot about seeing problems as resources and about creating abundance, and about the life force and “wild intelligence” of wild plants becoming part of us when we ingest them. Equal parts woo-woo with practical, useful information.

August

The Corsican Caper (2014) by Peter Mayle, a novel set in Marseilles and Corsica, mainly. Pretty bad. The plot and drawing of characters is incredibly simplistic. For example, when Sam decides to stand in for someone whom a brutal, murderous Russian has contracted to kill, Sam’s wife says, Well, OK, but be careful, and another character, whom Sam has just met, suggests that her beloved dog be part of the entrapment. Both of these reactions seems beyond belief to me, but on the other hand, the reader feels absolutely no sense of tension at all, so why should the characters?  The plot is that a rich Russian man wants the home of billionaire Francis Reboul and will stop at nothing to get it; meanwhile, Reboul’s friends plot (at many dinners, lunches, and other festive occasions) to outwit and entrap the Russian.  The only thing that kept me reading was the continuous descriptions of eating and drinking along the beautiful south of France. Mayle seems much better at non-fiction than fiction, based on having read this book and having seen his Year in Provenance.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (1994) by Laurie King, first in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. I almost put the book down after reading the contrived preface and prelude but read on because someone had recommend these books to me. In the end, I liked it well enough. The writing is good. The novel is set during WWI (1915 to 1919 in this case) in England as well as briefly in the middle east, mainly Palestine/Israel, and it is made up of a sort of caper, then a serious kidnapping case, and then a case that brings mortal danger to Holmes and Russell; I would have preferred one mystery but I accept that the author wanted the reader to see Mary Russell’s evolution as a sleuth as well as the evolution of Russell and Holmes’ relationship through these cases. I haven’t read any of the original Conan Doyle stories about Holmes, so perhaps many allusions were lost on me.

A Monstrous Regiment of Women (1995) by Laurie King, second in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. I guess I liked this better than the first one but it was still very put-downable. Lots of romantic thoughts by Mary about Holmes, which come to fruition of a sort in the end. At the crux of the story is Margery Childe, a charismatic spiritual leader of The New Temple of God, a sort of mystic suffragette group, in Whitechapel, London, which Mary is introduced to through her college friend Veronica Beaconsfield; several of Childe’s followers have died recently, leaving large sums of money in their Wills to The Temple.

A Letter of Mary (1996) by Laurie King, third in the Russell/Holmes series. This one involves an acquaintance of theirs, an amateur archaeologist,  who gives them a box and a manuscript she’s brought from Jerusalem and is soon after run down on a London street. Russell and Holmes (now married) both go undercover to investigate separate areas of inquiry.

The Moor (1998) by Laurie King, fourth in the Russell/Holmes series, this one set in Dartmoor in the southwest of England, where Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles was set.  The aged eccentric Rev. Baring-Gould has asked them to investigate an unexplained death on the moor and sightings of a ghost coach and dog. Again Russell and Holmes largely work independently on separate aspects of the investigation, with the bulk of the novel following Russell’s movements and thoughts.

That Distant Land (2004) by Wendell Berry, a book of 23 short stories about the people of Port William, KY, set from 1888 to 1986. Read for bookgroup. Excellent, lovely, moving, compassionate, funny stories about Tol and Minnie Proudfoot; Andy and Wheeler Catlett; Burley, Nathan, Hannah, and Thad Coulter; Elton Penn; Ben and Mat Feltner; Mart and Art Rowanberry; Danny Branch. Stories of hunting and tracking in the woods, tobacco harvesting, hog killing, whiskey drinking, the introduction of the Model A, dying and death, inheritance, going to the fair, selling livestock, parade floats, courting. Several predominant themes: mortality, getting lost and being found, memory, nostalgia for times past, forms of farming and technology, the farm vs. the city, small town life and community, what makes life worth living.

O Jerusalem (1999) by Laurie King, fifth in the Russell/Holmes series, this one set in Palestine/Israel, including in Jericho, Haifa, Jaffa, and Jerusalem, in 1919, as the British are starting to leave the area after the war. Holmes and Russell are disguised for 90% of the book as Bedouin men and are accompanied through the book by brothers Ali and Mahmoud Hazr. My least favourite, a bit of a slog through the Arabic speaking, the landscape descriptions, the tunnel description, the coffee prep ritual twice daily, etc.  Glad I read it, though, because the characters reappear in her next book, and also because it provides some detailed political history of this highly volatile part of the middle east.

Justice Hall (2002) by Laurie King, 6th in the Russell/Holmes series, set mostly at a British manor house, and briefly in Canada. Marsh Hughenfort (aka Mahmoud Hazr from the previous book), younger brother of the Duke of Beauville, has returned to England as dutiful heir after his brother’s death, along with his cousin Alistair (Ali Hazr), who seeks Holmes’ and Russell’s help to unearth another heir so Marsh can relinquish the heavy title and go back to Palestine. Much of the book concerns unraveling the mystery of what happened to young Gabriel Hughenfort, the late Duke’s only son, who was executed during the last days of the Great War.  I liked the setting, and descriptions of the over-the-top fancy dress party with ancient Egyptian theme, but the plot was weak and some of the characters (especially the women) felt caricaturish.

The Game (2004) by Laurie King, 7th in the Russell/Holmes series, this one set in British colonial India as Mycroft sends Holmes and Russell to look into the 3-year disappearance of Kimball O’Hara (“Kim” from the Rudyard Kipling novel). Again Russell has to disguise herself as a man, again she has to hunt animals (instead of bird hunting as in Justice Hall it’s wild boar hunting — or pig sticking — here), again she and Holmes are largely separated and doing independent investigations, again a very large house is as much character as it is setting. The book has several distinct settings of activity: a 2-week shipboard to start with, a road journey near Delhi on foot with magic show and costumes, a languid time spent in a huge home in Khanpur (in disguise and out of it), and time spent with British government operatives. The maharaja at the center of the plot is a cruel, manipulative, sociopath whose behaviour heightens the suspense.

The Sweet Dove Died (1978) by Barbara Pym: Read in a few hours, another wonderful novel of the subtlety of relationships and motivations by Pym. A middle-aged woman befriends a man of about her age and his nephew, preferring the attentions of the nephew, who lavishes her with attention until he first meets a girl his own age and then a boy of about his own age. Rivalry, envy, jealousy, narcissism (mirrors abound), selfishness, greed, fear of aging and appearing vulnerable, and other interesting emotions and behaviours fuel the superficially simple story.

September

Dear Life (2012) by Alice Munro, a collection of short stories plus a few snippets of memoir.  On the plus side, I like her unemphatic, sometimes plotless way of writing. I like the disorientation so many of her characters seem to feel. Some of her turns of phrase are genius. On the other hand, most of the stories in this collection feel like they were crafted for a creative writing class. Admittedly, they’re better than most of what you’d find in such a class, but there is a writerly feeling about them that gets in the way of the stories for me. They feel less like real life and more like a constructed ideal of stories about conflict, mistakes, regrets, vices, fatal flaws. Probably in a few years I will recall some snippets and wonder where I read them. “Gravel” and “In Sight of the Lake” were my two favourites.

The Locked Room (2005) by Laurie King, 8th in the Russell/Holmes series, this one set in prohibition-times San Francisco, as Russell (Holmes with her) spends a couple of weeks reacquainting herself with her old home in the city, her family’s lake house; meeting the son of her parents’ Chinese servants; remembering the 1906 earthquake and fires; trying to get to the bottom of three dreams that have troubled her recently; and in the course of investigations, enlisting the help of detective and writer Dashiell Hammett. If you have an interest in San Francisco in the early 1900s, you’ll find this book provides an intriguing combination of ambiance and facts.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884/1999 – Norton 3rd Critical Edition) by Mark Twain. For bookgroup. Funnier than I expected, quicker and easier to read than I expected with the regional language and dialect, but I still don’t understand how this is considered a major classic. It’s the story of a teenage boy, living in the rural mid-west/south (Missouri), who because of his age, upbringing, and circumstances is somewhat of an outsider to the culture, observing the culture through eyes that are at times naive but always sharp. Early on, Huck escapes his violent father by taking off on a raft down the Mississippi from Illinois through Kentucky and Arkansas. He’s accompanied by Jim, a runaway slave, and runs into some characters along the way, like the shysters “the Duke” and “the King,” and into the feuding Gragerfords and Shepherdsons, before eventually meeting up with Tom Sawyer again. The Mississippi River is also a character in the book.

The Language of Bees (2009) by Laurie King, 9th in the Russell/Holmes series. Set in England, in Sussex and London, and a little in Orkney, an island off Scotland near Scandinavia. Started off well, with much about bees and beekeeping that was interesting, but before too long, I lost interest in the plot. The crime story is centered on a religious cult figure and his book, Testimony, and one of his followers, Yolanda, a woman from Singapore who happens to be the wife of Holmes’ newly found (again) son, Damian Adler, a surrealist artist to whom drug addiction, violence, and mental health issues are no stranger. Holmes seemed completely out of character in this one, barely heard from and when he was, all mushy about his grown son and fondly reminiscent about Irene Adler, the boy’s mother. One long section of the book is taken up with Mary’s harrowing flight in a small plane from London to Orkney; of course, flight was a new thing, and not for the faint of heart (which great pains are taken to show that Mary is not) even without wind, rain, a hungover pilot, a time crunch, and lack of landing strips. The book doesn’t really end, just says “to be continued.” Unsure whether I will.

October

The God of the Hive (2010) ) by Laurie King, 10th in the Russell/Holmes series. I should have followed my instincts at the end of The Language of Bees. I tried to read this book, for six weeks, never choosing it over anything else to read, finally getting to about page 250 before giving up. I lost interest pretty early on, when a toddler becomes a central character and Mary suddenly devotes her life to protecting this child. That’s the last one in this series I’ll be reading.

Devil’s Bridge (2015) by Linda Fairstein, #17 in the Alexandra Cooper series, except Alex is only present in about half the book, before being kidnapped. NYPD detective, and now Alex’s lover, Mike Chapman narrates the rest of the book as he and fellow detective Mercer Wallace try to find her and figure out a motive for her disappearance, taking us to the Manhattan waterfront — including Liberty Island, and Fort Washington Park (with Jeffrey’s Hook lighthouse) at the George Washington Bridge in their search on land and sea. The switch in POV worked fine for me, though the reason for her kidnapping was slightly implausible to me.

November

The Nightingale (2015) by Kristin Hannah. (For a bookgroup.) Yet another novel set during WWII, this one centers on two estranged sisters, one single, willful, and living in Paris and the other settled with husband and daughter in the village of Carriveau. The best of this book is that it takes the reader almost day by day (or so it felt) through the daily grind and frequent horror of living in France from 1939 to the Nazi-occupation, starting in the summer of 1940, through the end of the war in 1945, and then 50 years into the future as one of the sisters, living in the U.S., is invited to a ceremony in France (present time occupies only a few brief chapters interspersed throughout the book). Women populate the book and the action; the men — other than a couple of Nazi officers, the sisters’ father in Paris, and a few French resisters — are absent, mostly off fighting, while the women are living on inadequate food, medicine, clothing, and heat rations; unwillingly billeting and feeding Nazis in their homes; burying friends and children; trying to find homes for orphaned Jewish children when their mothers are taken away; afraid to speak to or look at each other for fear of being turned in for some crime. The sense of how long it all dragged on, how hopeless it seemed when each month or so something more frightening, horrifying, disheartening, or debilitating happened, is driven home.  There is also quite a lot about running a Resistance escape route for downed Allied soldiers through the Pyrenees. Still, for some reason, I wasn’t really engaged in the story (I struggled to keep reading the book over three weeks) or the characters. I think it felt a bit predictable: good Nazi, bad Nazi; hiding places in barn and convent; simple comparison-contrast between the sisters’ personalities and actions, though of course both are depicted as heroines; melodrama rather than nuance at every turn. Even the sisters’ moral dilemmas and choices, and their feelings about their choices, which are played and replayed numerous times, feel hyped and fabricated. It’s mainly an adequately plotted linear story meant to demonstrate the strength of women in a crisis and to depict the hardship and terror of that time and place, diminished by a shallow romance and cliche characters, without the lyrical writing and complex themes of All the Light We Cannot See.

Thérèse Raquin (1867) by Émile Zola. A very dark psychological novel of utterly destructive violence, set in a dark, fetid corner of Paris. Thérèse Raquin is married to her cousin, the sickly, spoiled, self-absorbed Camille, by their selfish and possessive aunt, but even before this occurs, she has felt suffocated and repressed by cousin and aunt; the marriage brings things to a head, and when she feels her blood rising for Laurent, a thick-necked, lazy, calculating man, it’s not long before they are lovers. The book read like a morality play infested with an Edgar Allen Poe story of horror, irony, . As others have noted, the four temperaments hypothesis of the time is prominent: Thérèse is melancholic, Laurent is sanguine, Camille is phlegmatic, and Madame Raquin (the aunt) is choleric; motivation deriving from “blood” and “nerves” is repeatedly described. The central idea of the novel is that violence, once unleashed, destroys all.  Resentment (and its consequences) is another major theme, as well as imprisonment (claustrophobia, suffocation, paralysis), punishment (confession, guilt, revenge, hauntings), obsession. I grew weary of it about halfway through; the characters seemed unreal, simply stand-ins for psychological traits and reactions.

December

The Nature of the Beast (2015) by Louise Penny, 11th in the Inspector Gamache series, set in the village of Three Pines, Quebec, which can’t be found using a GPS. This book is based loosely on a true story, of Gerald Bull, a scientist and arms designer who created a massive missile launcher as part of the Babylon project. Gamache (now retired), Isabelle Lacoste, and Jean-Guy Beauvoir investigate after a young boy — who has found a huge gun in the woods and bursts into the bistro to tell everyone — is murdered. Elements of other stories are interwoven:  an American who fled to the town to escape serving in the Vietnam War, two strange Canadian intelligence service agents with secrets they won’t share, and, most interestingly to me, Gamache’s past service at the secret trial of a cruel killer — his role, as a citizen not associated with the case, to represent all Canadians and to hear, see, and absorb the horror of the crimes. The plot is complicated and though the ending made sense, it wasn’t very satisfying or elegant.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014) by Naomi Klein, non-fiction, for a group. We read this over about 10 weeks and eventually decided it wasn’t worth spending 2 hours per week discussing. There is really nothing substantially new here. If you are already someone who is aware of climate change and environmental politics, you may not know all the names (of people, corporate and non-profit entities), numbers (lots of them!), or the complicated relationships among “green” groups, politicians, and fossil fuel companies, and the anecdotes may be unfamiliar, but you will already know the gist of the book, which is that we are no where near doing anything as a planet about climate change, and our destructive ideologies and practices concerning energy usage, materialism, endless growth, etc., are already ruining the planet. If you are not into this stuff, or are a climate change skeptic, you will likely be turned off by what she says and how she says it. Her main suggestion for change is for all of us to become active locally, globally, in politics, in organizations, in big ways, collectively (not by simply turning off lights at home or using transportation less), to change policies, politics, culture, particularly in western, capitalist countries that use the most fossil fuel resources and emit the most greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, all in the name of progress, growth, jobs, military defense, and freedom. As I said, nothing new, and quite a slog through the weeds to get there.

 

Books Read 2014

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

January

Dark Mirror (2009) by Barry Maitland, in the Kolla-Brock series set in and near London. When PhD student Marion Summers has a seizure in the London Library and dies soon after, everyone is surprised to learn that she was poisoned with arsenic. But how, and why, and by whom? Kathy is the primary investigator in this case, with Brock as her sidekick. Maitland’s crime novels always include information about other topics (stamp collecting, Karl Marx, architecture, Islamists, genetic technology, alternative medicine, the Brixton riots, modern art, etc.; in this one it’s Dante Rossetti and the pre-Raphaelites. Setting varies in London from St. James Square to Rosslyn Court to Ealing to Notting Hill, with a quick trip to Prague.

Just One Evil Act (2013) by Elizabeth George, in the Lynley/Havers series. A long book (719 pp) that felt longer because of Havers’ dissembling actions throughout. Plot: Her close friend and neighbour Azhar’s 9-year-old daughter Hadiyyah is kidnapped by her mother, Angelina, and taken to Italy, and from that unfolds more kidnapping, deception, tabloid journalism, family hatred, and death. Set in London and Lucca, Tuscany, with the chief inspector Salvatore Lo Bianco playing an important role in the story. One thing that’s obvious in this book is that Lynley’s and Havers’ ideas of what constitutes helping a friend in trouble differ. Meanwhile, Havers is being investigated unofficially by a coworker who hates her, and Lynley is falling in love with the large animal vet (who plays roller derby) whom he met in Cornwall.

Gilead (2004) by Marilynne Robinson: Fictional autobiography of the Reverend John Ames, an older congregationalist pastor in small town Gilead, Iowa in the 1950s, dying of a heart condition and intent on leaving some words about his life to his 7-year-old son. Poetic. I  liked the way that he kept repeating scenes, re-remembering them, like seeing his wife for the first time in church. Loved the thoughts on baptism in particular, and the compassionate, humane sensibility of the book.

More Bitter Than Death (2010/2013) by Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff: Second in the psychotherapist Siri Bergmann series. Siri and Aina start a self-help group for a few abused women, one of whom has an ex-boyfriend arrested for a brutal murder, which was witnessed by the victim’s 5-year-old daughter. At the same time, Siri is counseling a married couple and having her own issues with her police boyfriend Markus. Good.

The Golden Compass (1995) by Philip Pullman, a fantasy novel of 11-year-old Lyra, an apparently orphaned and fierce, wild, and intuitive little girl who lives in a theological college and is cared for by the staff there. Soon, after hearing her uncle’s presentation to some at the college about the Aurora Borealis and “dust,” she is caught up in an adventure that takes her to the northmost parts of the Earth. Not really my kind of story but I like the idea of the daemons that all humans in her world have, an external animal manifestation of their spirits.

February

The Dinner (2009/2012) by Herman Koch, transl. from Dutch. A dark book about two couples whose sons have been involved in a heinous, gratuitous crime. The two couples come together over an expensive, pretentious dinner to talk about what to do. The narrator, Paul, is the father of one son, Michel, and quite an anithero, as his his wife, Claire. This is a book about scapegoating and how it can be justified by considering other people as “not entirely innocent,” “inhuman,” “subintelligent,” “a piece of trash,” “not civilized like we are.”

The Orphan Choir (2013) by Sophie Hannah. A very creepy novel about a mother,  Louise,  harassed by her neighbour’s loud music in the middle of the night, and who then begins to hear a boys’ choir singing; not coincidentally, her 7-year-old son is in a boys’ choir that requires he live away from home except for holidays. Louise thinks she has found some relief when she is drawn to buy a second home in Swallowfield, an upscale rural housing community an hour or two away. Set in Cambridge, England, and outside it.

The Map and the Territory (2013) by Michel Houellebecq: An amusing, layered postmodern novel about the life of Jed Martin, a contemporary French artist living in Paris, and about his few long- term relationships  — his father, his gallerist, his publicist — and his few other involvements, mainly with woman (particularly beautiful Michelin staffer Olga)  — and the equally friendless author Michel Houellebecq, to whom he is attracted as a friend. The themes of the book are multiple: labour and work (particularly William Morris’s ideas on design and craft, the architecture and organisation of factories and work buildings in general, the dignity and the identity of work); machines (notably cars and boilers); modernity (including celebrity as a concept, air travel and the heterotopias of airports and shopping areas, the ubiquity of information); sex (focus on prostitutes) and death (murder, euthanasia, suicide, funeral rites); and so on. I really enjoyed the book and read most of it in a day.

March

The Goldfinch (2013) by Donna Tartt. Almost 800-page novel, spanning almost 15 years, primarily set in New York City, with significant time in Las Vegas and Amsterdam as well.  Theo Decker is visiting a museum with his mother, to get out of the rain one morning, when the unthinkable happens, leaving him essentially a traumatised, desperate, guilt-ridden, 13-year-old orphan. I can’t describe the plot any better than Theo does, near the end: “And the painting, above his head, was the still point where it all hinged: dreams and signs, past and future, luck and fate. There wasn’t a single meaning. There were many meanings. It was a riddle expanding out and out and out.” Extremely well-written, complex, perhaps a little too narrative towards the end but in beautiful way. (Interestingly, heterotopias figure largely in this book, too: museums, city parks, airports, even most of Las Vegas … places people pass through.)

A Town Like Alice (1950) by Nevil Shute. A young English woman is among other women and children taken prisoner by the Japanese in Malaysia in WWII, and is forced to walk for six months essentially before settling down to grow rice in a small town for 3 years. A few years after her release, she inherits some money from an uncle she didn’t know and decides to use some to give back to the town that allowed the women to stay during the war. She also decides, on receiving some new information there, to find a man she met during the war, who was kind to her and the other women. At the same time, he is trying to find her. The last part of the book takes place in the outback of Australia. The story is told by her 70-year-old estate trustee, who loves and admires her.  The problem with this book is that it’s about 3 moral, conscientious, responsible, hard-working people who act with the best motives in all cases  and who get excellent results. There is no moral ambiguity at all, which makes it predictable and boring. The story is also more told than shown, so that even the dramatic circumstances comes across as rather flat.

April

Ripper (2013) by Isabel Allende: I was surprised how below-average a crime novel this was. Set in modern day San Francisco, it has an OK plot (though one figures out whodunit long before the end). But the characters, their relationships, and the dialogue read like a flailing young adult novel. The main characters are 16-year-old Amanda Jackson, the daughter of San Francisco’s deputy homicide chief, and her mother, Indiana, a gullible, curvy blonde holistic healer that every man desires. Other characters are an ex-NAVY Seal and his war-damaged Belgian Malinois , a well-born but no-longer-rich jealous playboy, an astrologer, a transvestite waiter, a biddable grandfather who is happy playing his granddaughter’s henchman, several misfit kids from around the world, and … you get the picture. Still, it could have worked, had the dialogue been less awkward and the plot not strain incredulity so much.

The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country (2012) by Peter Bane: Read for discussion group, meeting over several months. I found this book less helpful than many others for learning about and applying permaculture principles and practices. Bane is at once didactic (“you should” appears often) and oddly poetic and idealistic at times, once describing the garden as a lover that you take into your body and learn its signs of arousal, and suggesting that suburbanites (and others) embrace shared living, community labour and mealtimes, a farm stand in one’s front yard, and that we ask the neighbors not to spray biocides on their property (as this request is in line with best practices and “not controversial”). A few chapters are overtly political: sections on genetically modified crops, Monsanto, Big Pharma, the ethics of meat-eating, etc..  There is quite a lot of detail on plant propagation and grafting, seed starting and saving,  how to plant a tree, and the “garden farming pattern language” (of which there are 68 elements), which still mystifies me. I was also very confused by Chapter 11, Soil, which went into the Oxygen-Ethylene Cycle of aerobic and anaerobic plant nutrients in far too much depth. The diagrams and photos, almost all black and white, are unappealing. On the other hand, the four case studies included are detailed, personal, interesting and offer the only colour photos in the book; setting include the Colorado Rockies, Ontario, Harrisonburg VA, and Bloomington IN (his garden farm). His section on animals for the garden farm will be useful to someone considering this, and Chapter 4, Permaculture Principles, is a good overview. I particularly felt that the Living with Wildlife and Trees and Shrubs chapters were the most interesting. I skimmed the last 4 or 5 chapters, as they seemed to repeat what had already been said.

The Feminine Mystique (1963) by Betty Friedan: Read for a bookgroup and led to a great discussion of our own experiences as women coming of age in the U.S. between 1950 and the late 1980 or so. But the book itself was repetitive, over-the-top in some areas (fear of homosexuals, comparison for WWII concentration camps, etc.), not tightly edited, and a bit boring. Chapters on advertising, gender-based education, housewifery, Freud, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Margaret Mead (whom she really does not like), functionalism (the job of women was to adjust to the status quo so they would be happier), mothers who love too much and absorb their children’s personalities, etc. It felt all over the place to me. And in the end, I felt sort of cheated, as the only spheres Friedan presents as legitimate are wife and mother (she actually says “marriage and motherhood are an essential part of life”), house, and professional, serious career. If you’re a woman with no interest in any of these things, where does that leave you? She also has a strong preference for the future and potential, possibility, growth, and a strong dislike of the present moment, where, she says, schizophrenics reside. I found it all off-putting, though I appreciated learning some of the history of the women’s movement and of the culture in general.

May

Children of the Revolution (2014) by Peter Robinson in the DCI Alan Banks series. An eccentric former college professor is found dead on an abandoned railway line, with £5000 in his pocket. Banks, Annie, Winsome and Gerry Masterson investigate not only his former college colleagues and students but also a woman he went to school with 40 years before, now Lady Chalmers. As usual, a selection of Van Morrison, jazz and classical artists, and other pop music bands and singers are mentioned, as are various alcoholic beverages, in this police procedural cum cozy. The plot of this episode is only so-so.

Stormy Weather (1995) by Carl Hiassen: Another insane crime novel, sort of, set in southern Florida (Miami and the Keys) entirely during a hurricane. A couple on their honeymoon, a couple pulling an insurance scam. some corrupted housing inspectors, heir to an exotic animal farm, and the Skink all converge. A bit of one paragraph gives a flavour: “Max Lamb was unnerved by the wall of grinning skulls, but said nothing as he made his way down the hall to the shower. Augustine got on the telephone to sort out what had happened with his dead uncle’s Cape buffalo. Bonnie fixed a pot of coffee and took it to the guest room, where the governor was recovering from the animal dart.” Lots of violence and lots of fun.

Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter (2013) by Howard Mansfield: Nonfiction meditations of a theme, which is how do we dwell — and dwell well — in the modern world when we know that our homes can be destroyed in an instant by bombs or natural disaster? The book is divided into 3 sections: the first is about houses, homes, clutter, what makes a house a home; the second is about Word War II and the Vietnam War and the policy of “dehousing;” and the third is about “sheds,” of which all new England homes and buildings are a variation, according to the New Hampshire author.  Read it for a bookgroup, and most of the members found it disjointed, fragmented, disappointing after an interesting start; I liked it precisely for this, the loose connection of the parts of the book to the whole.

Where the Monsters Dwell (2011/2014) by Jørgen Brekke: Set mainly in modern day Trondheim, Norway, and a bit in Richmond, VA, this gristly crime novel introduces Trondheim police inspector Odd Singsaker (who, like Finnish police detective Kari Vaara in the series by James Thompson, has recently undergone surgery for a brain tumour) and Richmond homicide detective Felicia Stone; he remembers too little and she too much. They are investigating several murders that involve skin-flaying and beheading, and harken back to the 16th century, that seem related. I’d give it a B-. The writing and characters are OK but something is missing.

June

The Lowland (2013) by Jhumpa Lahiri. Starts with two brothers, 15 months apart in age — Udayan impulsive, Subhash dutiful — living in Calcutta in the 1960s, during a time of political upheaval. Soon, though, their own choices and consequent events separate them, and for most of the story we follow Sudhash, a scientist living in Rhode Island. This is a book about time, memory, how events in life line up to create a story, how the echo of a single action can reverberate for decades, for a lifetime, and over generations, and most of all, how it feels to live inside the yesterdays of our lives. I liked it more than I thought I would. Well-written, poetic in places.

The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach (2013) by Ben Falk. An especially important book for New England homesteaders, gardeners, and small-scale farmers. Falk’s Whole Systems Research Farm above the Mad River in central Vermont has a climate and topography similar to what many of us in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and parts of Massachusetts and New York experience. Falk goes into some depth concerning rice-growing, pond- and swale-making and earthworks in general, fertility harvesting (urine and humanure, cover cropping, scything, fungi), perennial crops, animals such as ducks and chickens, maintaining and harvesting a firewood crop, and resilient systems for emergencies. Many enlightening diagrams, appendices and photos. Recommended for permaculturists.

Vertigo 42 (2014) by Martha Grimes, in the Richard Jury series, with Sergeant Wiggins and Melrose Plant. A friend of a friend, Tom Williamson, believes his wife’s death from a fall seventeen years ago at their Devon country house was not an accident, and he asks Jury to investigate. In the course of his investigation, a 22-year-old murder is solved, and two more people are murdered, one from another fall. Very readable but not enough Melrose Plant for my taste, and the plot not as tight-feeling somehow as others; the ending was a bit of a let-down. The plot of the Hitchcock movie Vertigo is invoked several times.

Cockroaches (1998, English transl. 2014) by Jo Nesbo, second in the Harry Hole series, this one set entirely in Thailand. Took a long time for this to be translated to English, so it’s been published far out of order in the series. Harry is sent to cover up or screw up, or both, a murder investigation of a Norwegian ambassador found murdered in a brothel. It’s gruesome and harrowing, not my favourite of the series.

Skinny Dip (2004) by Carl Hiassen. One of the funniest of his books, featuring Mick Stranahan, set in Biscayne Bay, Miami, the Everglades. Chaz Perrone, a hapless “marine scientist” on the take, throw his wife, a former champion diver, overboard on an anniversary cruise, and from there his life takes a very bad turn. Hilarious.

July

Star Island (2010) by Carl Hiassen, featuring weed-whacking bodyguard Chemo and with an appearance by Skink. Bang Abbott is a celebrity paparazzo who tangles himself up with both Cherry Pie — celebrity singer and drug addict — and her much smarter and more grounded double, Ann DeLusia. Not one of his best but still a fun romp.

Bad Monkey (2013) by Carl Hiassen, set in Miami and the Bahamas. Two similar stories intersect: demoted police officer, now restaurant health inspector, Andrew Yancy bemoans and works to sabotage the oversized McMansion going up on the lot next to his, while in the Bahamas, fisherman (and bad money owner) Neville Stafford’s home has been sold out from under him by his sister to an American Medicaid fraudster cum developer, whose arm has turned up in the waters near Key West.  Bony sex-crazed voodoo practitioner Dragon Queen, hulking bodyguard Egg, obsessed ex-girlfriend and FBI fugitive Bonnie, and of course the bad monkey, Driggs, round out the cast of this amusing crime novel.

Basket Case (2002) by Carl Hiassen, set in south Florida and featuring obituary writer Jack Tagger, a 46-year-old man obsessed with dying young. He’s also a former rocker, so recognises the name James Bradley Stomarti (aka Jimmy Stoma, lead man of Jimmy and the Slut Puppies) in a police report. After interviewing Stoma’s wife, pop singer Cleo Rio, about his “diving accident”  in the Bahamas, and learning that the “autopsy” didn’t include any dissection of the body, he begins to have suspicions about the accidental nature of the death. Stoma’s sister, Janet, has similar concerns. Rounding out the cast are Jack’s editor, Emma; the newspaper’s aged owner and its editor; his best friend, sports writer Juan Rodriguez; and Jack’s former girlfriend’s daughter, Carla.  Some interesting allusions noted at Wikipedia.

Lucky You (1997) by Carl Hiassen. Imparts Hiassen’s usual environmental values, employing his usual zany cast of characters, while skewering racism and the white supremacy mindset. Set in fictional Grange, Florida (apparently based on the real town of Cassadaga), rampant with religious miracles like road-stain Jesus and a crying plastic Madonna statue, this very funny novel follows African-American vet assistant JoLayne Lucks, who has just won half of a $28 million lottery prize, with which she wants to buy a piece of wild land to preserve; journalist Tom Krome, sent there to interview her; white supremacist thugs Bode Gazzer and Chub — winners of the other half of the lottery prize — who beat up JoLayne and steal her ticket too (they are soon joined by Shiner, a young convenience store clerk enchanted with the ideas of power, guns, babes, etc.); Amber, a Hooters waitress in tiny orange shorts, whom all the rednecks fall for; Tom’s almost-ex-wife Mary Andrea, his married girlfriend Katie and her vengeful judge husband, and his burned-out editor at the paper, Sinclair; JoLayne’s ATF buddy and admirer, Moffitt; and some of the religious miracle workers.

Bones of the Lost (2013) by Kathy Reichs, in the Tempe Brennan series. Thankfully, almost no Brennan-Ryan interaction in this one, set mostly in the Charlotte, NC area, and also near Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Her main partner is homicide police detective Skinny Slidell. Tempe is asked to look at a likely hit-and-run victim, a teenaged girl, and quickly realises that her death was no accident. A check for Customs and Immigration of some old dog bones and a favour for her almost-ex, Pete, requiring her to analyze gun shot wounds to local nationals by a Marine in Afghanistan, all come together into one single, somewhat complex, coincidental and unbelievable plot. Fast reading but not her best (not her worst, either).

Black Lies, Red Blood (2014) by Kjell Eriksson, 5th in the Ann Lindell series set in Uppsala, Sweden. When Ann’s new boyfriend, journalist Anders Brant, takes off after a homeless man is found murdered, Ann fears the worst and busies herself with a cold case, that of a teenage girl who disappeared on her 16th birthday. Much more of Ann’s personal life (and lots of sex) in this one than in the others. There is a certain measured and philosophical way of speaking that most of the characters have that appeals to me in this series.

The Photograph (2003) by Penelope Lively, a novel for a book group. Quite a while after his wife, Kath, dies, Glyn comes upon a photograph that implicates her with another man, her sister Elaine’s husband Nick. Glyn’s obsession with learning more — about her involvement with Nick, about her possible involvement with other men, about Kath’s life, which he now realises he was quite unaware of — changes not only his own view of Kath but that of Elaine, Nick, their daughter Polly, and their friend and one-time business partner Oliver, who took the photo. None of the characters is likable; in fact, except Polly, all seem evasive, defensive, self-centered, manoeuvring, and ready to run at the slightest emotional provocation. Kath, who is the focus of everyone’s thoughts, in the end seems to have hardly been there at all.

The Coroner’s Lunch (2004) by Colin Cotterill, first in the Dr. Siri series, read for a bookgroup. Dr. Siri Paiboun is a reluctant coroner in the newly formed communist republic of Laos in 1976. He’s also a reluctant comrade to whom dead spirits appear with clues to their demise. In this novel, he investigates the suspicious death at a lady’s lunch of Senior Comrade Kham’s wife as well as the obvious murders of some Vietnamese. The book is wryly amusing, the plot so-so, and the insight into Indochina (particularly the politics, culture, and inter-relationships of the Laos, Thais, Hmongs, and Vietnamese) in this time period worthwhile.

A Dark & Twisted Tide (2014) by Sharon (SJ) Bolton, in the Lacey Flint series. Bolton’s books are imbued with a sense of place and this one doesn’t disappoint on that score, set primarily in southeast London on the Thames River near Deptford Creek. Lacey is not only living on a small riverboat but is working with the Metropolitan Police’s Marine Unit; she is out for a swim on the Thames (not recommended) when she finds the deteriorated body of a young woman wrapped in linen floating in the water, the first of several. The book’s plotting is fairly complex, with chapters about Lacey, her former boss Dana Tulloch, the killer (“the swimmer”), and each of the woman who dies in the river, as well as interactions between Lacey and would-be boyfriend Mark Joesbury (on an undercover mission) and with her new friends, Alex and Thessa, who live on Deptford Creek. The book is set so firmly on and in the water that I felt a bit soggy when I finished it. Quite good.

August

In Paradise (2014) by Peter Matthiessen. A novel (which reads like very prosaic non-fiction) set in the 1990s at a spiritual retreat at Auschwitz (in Poland). American academic and poet Clements Olin travels here to learn about his past, and meets others who are there for their own reasons: nuns, priests, a female academic from Israel, Poles, Norwegians, Germans, and a “brutish loudmouth named Earwig.” The Guardian review captures it well: “Feelings and opinions about the Holocaust turn out to be raw and unpredictable; everyone responds to the immediacy of the slaughter in ways they had not expected, and it becomes evident that, whatever the purpose of the retreat, reconciliation is not a likely outcome. The retreat does not just open them up; it dangles them over an abyss of evil that most cannot understand or process.”  What’s not even mentioned in the Guardian review is how much of the book is taken up with middle-aged Olin’s drooling over a young nun, which seemed silly and detracted from the book for me. The novel felt plodding; I expected a lot more. (Read for bookgroup.)

Sick Puppy (2000) by Carl Hiaasen. One of my favourites and a re-read. Amoral lobbyist Palmer Stoat comes to the attention of independently wealthy environmentalist Twilly Spree when he throws litter out his car window, and from that moment the die is cast. After a few of Spree’s pranks have no deterring effect on the heedless Stoat, Spree kidnaps his black labrador dog and pretty soon Stoat’s wife, Desi, comes along, too. Meanwhile the lobbying machinations of corrupt Florida governor Dick Artemus, one of his major contributors developer Robert Clapley (who has a Barbie fetish), Florida representative Willie Vasquez-Washington, and Stoat continue unabated, with Artemus eventually making the mistake of blackmailing ex-governor Clinton Tyree (Skink, Captain) into capturing Spree. The major action of the book begins and ends with a private canned hunt, where Stoat et al. go to shoot “wild” game animals trucked in from circuses, zoos, etc., for the purpose.

Regeneration (1992) by Pat Barker, first in the Regeneration trilogy about World War I.  Excellent. So many things to think about after reading this novel about a military psychiatrist/anthropologist, Williams Rivers, and the patients he’s treating for shell-shock at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland, including Siegfried Sassoon, a decorated soldier (and poet) who has written a published declaration disavowing the war, and Wilfred Owens, another poet and soldier.  Craiglockhart, Rivers, Sassoon, and Owens are all real people and their time at the hospital is the basis for the book.

The Eye in the Door (1993) by Pat Barker, the second in the Regeneration series. Focuses mostly on Lt. Billy Prior, though Rivers and to a lesser extent Sassoon are also in the book, as is Charles Manning, a married but bisexual military officer also under Rivers’ care. Homosexuality and pacifism are both targeted by the government and the public as social sins that must be dealt with by prosecution, persecution, imprisonment, and oppression. Prior, working for the Ministry of Munitions, investigates a childhood friend, Beattie, a pacifist in prison for plotting to kill Lloyd George. Eventually, as Prior represses parts of himself and events that have happened to him, his personality splits. Interesting but not quite as satisfying as the first book, in my opinion.

Death at the Château Bremont (2011) by Mary Lou Longworth, the first in the Verlaque and Bonnet mystery series. So-so novel set in Aix-en-Provence involving the death of Étienne de Bremont, who falls from a window. Later, elements of the Russian mafia and their trade in supermodels/prostitutes come into play, and throughout runs the story of Antoine Verlaque (the chief magistrate – i.e. detective — in Aix) and his former girlfriend, law professor Marine Bonnet, as well as ample commentary on food, wine, cigars, and the French countryside and customs. I enjoyed that last bit but not the romance, and the plot was thin. I actually don’t know, after finishing the book, who killed one of the victims, but I don’t really care. I may read another for the pleasant French immersion.

September

The Ghost Road (1995) by Pat Barker, the third in the Regeneration trilogy, set in Britain and France in WWI. This one focuses more than the others on actual battle, with Prior and Owen back in the war, and on Rivers’ experiences (remembered in his dreamy flu-induced state) some years ago with a tribe of thwarted headhunters on Eddystone Island in the South Seas. Some themes that emerge are healing of soul and body, sacrifice and community, societal taboos, the seeming need for war and killing of others to maintain the health of a society.

Terminal City (2014) by Linda Fairstein, in the Alex Cooper series, this one set entirely in New York City, almost entirely at Grand Central Station/Terminal. Disappointing read. Serious fans of New York City history, train history, and Grand Central Station history will find a lot of information here, but the crime novel aspect falls short and gets muddied both by the didactic history lessons and by discussion of international terrorism. The relationships among Alex, Mike, Mercer and the more ancillary characters are given less attention in this book than usual, as well.

October

To Dwell in Darkness (2014) by Deborah Crombie, in the Kincaid/James series. Kincaid has been transferred (as punishment, it seems) to the Camden borough of London and is investigating a fatal bombing in the St. Pancras International Station mall, in which a small group of ragtag Crossrail protestors is involved. Duncan calls on the help of both Melody and Doug (neither of whom works for him now) to help him identify the bomber/victim. I guessed the killer more than 100 pp before the end of the book but the plot wasn’t bad. The rest of the book focuses on the ordinary life-with-children-and-pets of Gemma (working on her own case, a rape and murder, with Melody … and yet home with the kids most of the time?) and Duncan, which gets a bit tiresome.

The Long Way Home (2014) by Louise Penny, an Inspector Gamache novel. Clara Morris is worried when her estranged husband, Peter, hasn’t returned after a year, as promised, and asks Gamache — now retired and living in Three Pines with his wife and dog — to help her find him. His son-in-law and second-in-command at the Sûreté, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and Clara’s best friend, Myrna Landers, come along too, as they trace Peter’s steps finally back to Canada. As all in the series, this is a book about the complexity of human relationships, the reality of deep psychic wounds and how they heal or don’t, and the power of love. Many who like the series didn’t like this book; I felt that while there is not as much focused action — and it’s not a crime novel per se — there is just as much mystery, humanity, and complexity of motivation as in her other books.

Murder in the Rue Dumas (2012) by M.L. Longworth, in the Verlaque and Bonnet series, set in Aix-en-Provence and in the Umbria region of Italy. When theology department doyen (dean) and art collector Georges Moutte is murdered after announcing at a party that he won’t retire as planned, suspicion focuses on the three professors hoping for his position (and the spacious house-for-life that goes with it) as well as on students vying for the prestigious Dumas Award, and soon, the net widens to include art collectors and sellers. The usual discussion of food, wine, and Verlaque’s and Bonnet’s relationship. The plot is so-so, as in the first book, with a strange bit in the middle introducing a character (Marcel Dubly) who doesn’t seem to have anything to do with this book. Despite investigations by Verlaque and others in the police force, these are more cozy than police procedural.

Euphoria (2014) by Lily King, a sort of historical fiction novel about four anthropologists: Margaret Mead (called Nell in the book), her second husband, Reo Fortune (Fen), and her third husband, Gregory Bateson (Andrew Bankson), as well as her close friend, mentor, and probable lover, Ruth Benedict (Helen Benjamin). Not only are the names changed, but the outcome of the story is drastically altered as well. The book focuses on a few months in New Guinea, during the intersection of Nell’s, Fen’s, and Bankson’s fevered time together among the Tam (the Tam were the Tchambuli/Chambri) and the Kiona (the Kiona were the Baining tribe). The book felt a bit light-weight and silly, though elements of the plot were intriguing, like their development of The Grid (based on Mead’s and Bateson’s theory of squares, developed at this time), a way of classifying all people as South/North/East/West types, later used by the Nazis; the descriptions of how Nell interacted with the native people (vs. the way the men did); and Bankson’s thoughts on the subjectivity of the observer.

Death in the Vines (2013) by M.L. Longworth, in the Verlaque and Bonnet series, set in Aix-en-Provence, in the L’Aubrac region, and near Narbonne. The plot, concerning two younger women who are raped (and die) and an older woman who is murdered, holds together better than in the previous two books. There was a glaring typo on page 126, though, with the name “Sophie” (who is not a character in the book) instead of “Marine.” Much of the plot involves vineyards and wineries, and of course enjoyment and discussion of food (including gargouillou at Michel Bras) is central as always.

November

Number9Dream (2001) by David Mitchell. Wikipedia says it’s “the search of 19-year-old Eiji Miyake for his father, whom he has never met. Told in the first person by Eiji, it is a coming of age/perception story that breaks convention by juxtaposing Eiji Miyake’s actual journey toward identity and understanding with his imaginative journey.” That gives you some idea, but it’s actually more complex than that. Besides the coming-of-age story, it’s also a story about grief and coming to terms with loss. There are elements of a gristly crime novel here, a nerdy romance, a post-modern fable, a family saga. The linear plot line is enhanced by a fantastic set of stories about a goat, a hen and a hominid; letters; journals of a Japanese submariner from World War II; a movie about a man who insists he is god; and a boatload of dreams. Characters include a pothead pizza delivery guy who does magic tricks, a witch, a video store owner, a classical piano player, several sadistic yazuka underworld figures, a wealthy playboy law student, a computer hacker, a wicked stepmother and stepsisters, Eiji’s daredevil sister Anju, and the city of Tokyo itself. Satisfying.

The Soul Catcher (2002) by Alex Kava in the FBI agent Maggie O’Dell series. I really like this series, whose books are hard to find locally. In this one, Maggie and her partner Tully are assigned to investigate the strangulation of a US Senator’s daughter near the FDR Memorial in Washington DC, as well as the mass suicide of several young men who are part of the Rev. Joseph Everett’s religious sect — of which Maggie’s estranged mother is also a member.

Nature Girl (2006) by Carl Hiaasen, another “caper drama satire” (as Wikipedia terms it) set in Florida. The Wikipedia plot summary nails it: “Honey Santana becomes irritated by telemarketers and invites … one to a phony real estate promotion – which she describes as an eco-tour – in the Ten Thousand Islands in order to teach him a lesson.” He arrives with his mistress, and they, Honey’s perverted ex-employer stalker, Honey’s son and her ex-husband, and “a young half-Seminole man named Sammy Tigertail and his very willing captive, Gillian, a sex-obsessed, warmhearted Florida State coed” all end up on one very small island. Not one of my favourites; really too over-the-top, even for Hiaasen, in terms of sex, drama, and character eccentricities.

Orphan Train (2013) by Christina Baker Kline: (Re-read for another bookgroup.) YA or adult novel about two orphans: Vivian, one who was on the National Orphan Train in 1929, from New York to Minnesota (and her life in Minnesota and later, as an aged woman, in Spruce Harbor, Maine), and Molly, a 17-year-old living in Spruce Harbor. The book is simple in plot and simply written, another gentle story told with humanity.

Flesh and Blood (2014) by Patricia Cornwell, 22nd in the Scarpetta series. A sniper seems to be efficiently taking out unrelated victims in New Jersey and Massachusetts, a Twitter message and odd items left in their yard imply a threat to Kay and her family,  and Lucy and Benton seem to be keeping secrets from Kay. (AND, the word “and” is used far too much in the dialogue, as always in this series.) This episode focuses more on Lucy and Benton and less on Marino and others in Kay’s life; it will help to have read some previous books in this series to understand the complexity of the plot twists. Kay notes (this book is first-person Kay again) several times that she has become more of an activist medical examiner, more angry with the violence in the world. Book ends in Florida with a cliffhanger.

December

An Officer and A Spy (2013) by Robert Harris. Novel about the Dreyfus Affair, in which Jewish soldier Alfred Dreyfus was wrongly accused of being a spy in turn-of the-19th-century France. The novel is told from the perspective of Georges Picquart, recently appointed chief of the head of the statistical division (counter-espionage) for the army, and is well-written, detailed, and just a bit boring. Still, I was glad to know more about this important event in history, when prejudices and other foibles of human nature (like loathing of being proved wrong and a desire to go along to get along) set and kept in motion grave injustices.

The Holistic Orchard: Trees, Fruits and Berries the Biological Way (2011) by Michael Phillips. I can cut to the chase and tell you to spray 100% pure neem oil on all your fruits and you’ve just learned half of what’s in the book. The rest is trying to convince us to orchard in a way that allows the shrubs, thickets and trees to ward off disease and insect damage by maintaining a healthy, natural plant ecosystem, plus there’s information on specific diseases and pests of each fruit, the best varieties of fruits to plant (especially if you live in northern New England, as Phillips does), and how and when to prune each of them. Permaculture principles are mentioned and are inherent in his suggestions.

Murder on the Île Sordou (2014) by M.L. Longworth, in the Verlaque and Bonnet Provençal mystery series. This one is set on the fictional island of Sourdou, 15 miles fro Marseille, at the opening of a new grand hotel. Guests besides Verlaque and Bonnet and Marine’s friend Sylvie include an American couple, a fading film star and his wife and stepson, a poet, and a Parisian couple. The murder doesn’t occur until at least halfway into the book; the focus as usual, maybe more than usual, is on food and drink and being French. The series is pleasant enough.

The Caller (2009) by Karin Fossum, 10th in the Inspector Sejer series, set in a small town in Norway, looks at the motivations for and consequences of a teen’s sinister pranks, wrought on strangers to cause havoc and insecurity. Some may find the book too emotionally wrenching (especially those who abhor harm to animals and children) but it’s also a serious and calm investigation of parenting, the complexity of human motivations, and diversity of behaviours in within one individual.

Books Read 2009 – Summary

Shamelessly copying Jessamyn, I’ve compiled stats for my 2009 reading:

number of books read 2009: 74
average read per month:  6
average read per week:  1.4
number read in worst month: 2 (January)
number read in best month:  11 (May)
percentage by male authors:  41%
percentage by female authors: 58%
(one was a compilation written by men and women)
fiction as percentage of total: 96%
crime fiction as percentage of fiction: 83%
non-fiction as percentage of total:  4%
percentage of total liked:  70%
percentage of total ambivalent:  20%
percentage of total disliked:  10%

Notes:

Non-fiction: I read more non-fiction than is reflected here:

(1) Instead of finishing most of the non-fiction titles, I read several chapters from each and will eventually return to finish some of the books. The months with low reading totals are probably months when I was selectively reading non-fiction titles.

(2) I read most of my non-fiction online, as essays and articles.

Crime Fiction: Most of my fiction reading this year has been crime fiction and the fiction that  wasn’t crime fiction was generally bookgroup reading.

2009 was a tough year — crime fiction is comfort reading for me, for a number of reasons:

(1) I read almost all series titles, so the main characters become familiar and sometimes beloved. Often they are depicted as having less-than-perfect lives and relationships, a healthy (or sometimes unhealthy) degree of self-doubt, and complex motivations. I like these people.

(2) There is an element of order and puzzle-solving in crime fiction that appeals to my desire to understand the workings of the human mind. Many of the novels I read this year include the killer’s pov, and from the killer’s pov, the murder is always rational and done for a reason. That awareness — that even seemingly irrational and insupportable actions stem from someone’s meaning-making apparatus and appear logical to that person — gives me insight, I think, into real people.

(3) Crime fiction is generally — though not always — predictable in its progression (build-up to murder, body found, investigation begun, witnesses interviewed, body #2 found, etc.), particularly in the series I like, which are police procedurals and forensic novels. Within that predictable formula, though, anything can happen, and I like both the predictability of the format and the unpredictability of the story.

(4) The dead in crime novels (those I tend to read, anyway) are often accorded high status and dignity and are given almost loving attention. That comforts me and reflects my own sensibility.

(5) Crime novels reflect the violence that lives in each of us, and that usually lies just under the surface of most communities. They feel real to me and bring me solace in a world that often seems fraudulently focused on the positive and in denial of what’s not.