Sunday, 26 June 2011

The Cruellest Month by Louise Penny

The third of Penny’s Inspector Gamache books, we’re back in Three Pines with another murder and the simultaneous playing out of the story that’s overshadowed Armand Gamache’s working life from the start of the series. Things were looking tense by the end of the previous book, so we know that poor old Gamache is probably in for a bumpy ride.

First, though, and somewhat rashly, readers of the earlier books might think, the inhabitants of Three Pines set off for the old Hadley house to exorcise its ghosts. They’ve got a visiting medium and they think holding a séance will be a good idea. It’s not, of course, because one of their number winds up dead, apparently frightened to death. Inspector Gamache doesn’t mind too much when he’s sent for, because he’s got fond of the village, and he looks forward to a welcome at the B&B run by Gabri and Olivier, where the food is good and the fires are always burning (well, Easter in Quebec is on the chilly side). With him he brings his assiduous sidekick Jean Guy Beauvoir (a man you can be assured will be well-turned out and wearing impractical shoes) and the rest of his team – which includes, again, the thoroughly unlikeable Yvette Nichol. Of course, we’re quite pleased to see her back, really, because we know there’s unfinished business there.

The Cruellest Month is as atmospheric as its predecessors, and of course, we’re as attached to the village as Gamache is by now. We might think it’s a rather dangerous place to live, and wonder how the residents continue to feel positively about their lives being continually disrupted by violent death, but we want to be there with them. (Well, they’ve got a good bookshop, for a start, and a resident award-winning poet!) The regular characters continue to grow, too, so that we feel we’re getting to know them better – Clara and Peter, who don’t always get everything right, are still working on their marriage. The alarming Ruth is still insulting everyone and getting away with it. And Penny’s writing, just a touch uncertain in the first book is, by the third, deft and assured. I like this series a lot.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Flourish by Heather Spears

This rather interesting venture into the world of fictionalised historical reconstruction, somewhat reminiscent of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, is sadly out-of-print, although secondhand copies can be found on the usual sites. Unlike Kate Summerscales’ book, though, it doesn’t seek to reproduce the investigation, but the events leading up to the murder of Charlotte Spears in the small Scottish town of Kirkfieldbank, near Lanark. In the nineteenth century small-town Scotland was prim in the extreme and on her arrival from Glasgow to keep house for her aunt and uncle, Charlotte quickly finds herself the object of her neighbour’s scrutiny. A young woman of determination and independence of spirit, she nonetheless sets herself up as a music teacher and appointed to take charge of the kirk choir (the detail on the modern, “scientific” approach to music teaching, and its use of tonic solfa, is fascinating). Before long she catches the attention of a young local minister, in whom she quickly recognises a kindred spirit, but she’s also subjected to the attentions of a much less amenable man, the decidedly oily Mr Weir, a member of her choir. And then Charlotte’s cousin Willy comes home from Glasgow to convalesce from a fever, and she, alone in the house while her uncle and aunt attend their draper’s shop, must nurse him during his recovery.

There is a tremendous immediacy to The Flourish, reinforced by the knowledge that
The events in this story are true. The characters all lived. My task as storyteller has been to provide motives, particulars and narrative continuity, always and necessarily convinced that the parts I have imagined are true as well.
The author, Heather Spears, is Charlotte’s great niece, a Canadian poet whose love of language is evident in her handling of nineteenth-century Scottish idiom, which she wields with startling flair. Words which might be unfamiliar to the reader fall naturally into context and become, I suspect, self-evident (and a quick online search will anyway provide the answer to any problematic expressions) while the minutiae of daily life provide an ground bass above which the over-arching story flows:
Charlotte took her early walk in all weathers. The ways still hung with tawdry bits of ribbon over the dykes and among the hedges. Helen’s red sateen had been found not to be fast; when they came to pull it down, the doorstep and some of the roses were spotted from it, which looked very odd. Margaret Tennant scrubbed the porch, and Maddie gathered the affected petals up as they fell, for a pot pourri.
Willy fails to recover, his fevers “returning and returning”. With Charlotte’s murder foreshadowed from the start, there begins to be a dreadful inexorability to the pace, a strong contrast with the lack of event which mainly characterises her everyday life. While she washes the bedlinen and teaches her pupils, moving quietly about the house and village, we know that Charlotte is doomed, that no choices she can make can prevent her terrible end.  Even so, you can’t help hoping for some way out. An unforgettable book.

Friday, 24 June 2011

CanLit again - Annabel and The Bishop's Man

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

This is a thoughtful and often lyrical investigation into what it means to grow up different from other children. It’s 1968 in Labrador, and Jacinta, at home and surrounded by her female friends, gives birth to a baby who has both male and female characteristics. But only the baby’s parents and a close friend, Thomasina, know it, so it’s straightforward enough for Treadway, the baby’s father, to decide that he’ll be raised as a boy. Wayne grows into a solitary child, close to his mother, but generally comfortable enough with his father, and all is quiet enough until Wayne reaches puberty.

I enjoyed this novel which is, in many ways, as sparse as its Labrador setting. At the end I felt that, if you were prepared to suspend disbelief (and I usually am, as a reader, happy to take a work very much on its own terms) it works well as a study of loneliness: I’m not sure that it really said much about gender ambiguity, except that it makes it difficult to find friends, something we could probably have guessed. Perhaps it’s too delicate, and a few more rough edges in the writing might have made it more immediate, made you care more deeply about the characters. Your heart should be in your mouth at Wayne’s plight, but instead you just drift through, pausing only momentarily to wonder at this or that. When I finished the book I found I was left with a sense of wistfulness and an overall feeling that my emotions had had too easy a ride for the subject matter.

The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre

Another slightly anomalous read. This time it was mainly because I quite disliked the main character, the rather prissy Father Duncan MacAskill but, that apart, I was impressed by this 2009 Giller Prize winner. It’s no spoiler to say that the plot turns on the difficult subject of child sexual abuse, and as I read I found myself thinking a good deal on the questions raised: on the church’s attitude to it and failures to address it, on the nature of victimhood, and on religious vocation.
"The night before things started to become unstuck, I actually spent a good hour taking stock of my general situation and concluded that, all things considered, I was in pretty good shape. I was approaching the age of fifty, a psychological threshold only slightly less daunting than death, and found myself not much changed from forty or even thirty. If anything, I was healthier. The last decade of the century, and of the millennium, was shaping up to be less stressful than the eighth — which had been defined by certain events in Central America — and the ninth, burdened as it was by scandals here at home."
Father MacAskill quickly finds the complacency of the opening pages to be misplaced as, not long after he moves to his first actual parish, a young boy he befriends there kills himself. As a result, MacAskill finds himself facing his own demons as well as those of the church he’s served so assiduously. His time as, in essence, inquisitor for the Bishop he admires, the period he spent in Honduras, his childhood in Cape Breton, all carry their attendant pain that he’s avoided dealing with until now.

Despite my dislike of MacAskill’s prissiness, this is muscular writing, born of a tradition of novel writing which I associate with men of a certain generation (Robertson Davies comes to mind). It’s firmly rooted, with an introspection and clarity that roots it in the real world, even when it deals with evasions and avoidances of the truth. The Bishop’s Man does what Annabel fails to: it’s a challenging and serious book, painful at times, but it’s one I’ll be glad to return to. 

Monday, 20 June 2011

Troll Fell and Troll Mill by Katherine Langrish

Troll Fell is the first of a trilogy by Katherine Langrish who blogs at the fabulous Seven Miles of Steel Thistles. So it's no surprise to find it full of familiar tropes and characters, but I love the new directions in which these are taken. On one level this is conventional fairy story, on another it's immediate and relevant to a modern-day audience.

When his father dies, Peer Ulfsson is sad and lonely, but preparing to make the best of things by moving in with family friends and continuing his training as a woodcarver. So he's appalled when a hideously brutish uncle turns up at the funeral and claims him as kin. Peer is taken back to his uncle's mill on the edge of Troll Fell, where he's neglected and mistreated. But at least he has his dog Loki with him, and he does manage to make new friends - with young Hilde, a neighbour, and with the Nis, the household bogart, who is equally neglected (and we all know from fairytales that that's not a good idea!). The Nis is sly and mistrusting, and often sulky, but at least he's a source of information about what's going on outside the mill. It's important information, as it turns out, because the trolls who live under the Fell are expecting to celebrate a wedding between their prince and the daughter of the king of Dovre Fell, an event of great significance and one which will have enormous repercussions for Peer and Hilde.

Troll Mill picks up the story some time later, and I don't want to say too much about the plot, except that new characters are introduced while old ones return in a deliciously scary and atmospheric story. Along with Hilde I agonised for Kersten and Bjørn, and I thought the troll baby was tremendous! Peer and Hilde are both struggling with the pangs of growing up and undergoing all sorts of feelings which will be familiar to a young audience. The action is fast-moving though, and these are books which would be wonderful to read to a younger child -- scary, but not oppressively so, exciting and funny, and with the true fairytale emphasis on the resourcefulness of its young heroes. An adult reader, meanwhile, can appreciate the deft interweaving of the elements of the folk tales on which Langrish draws, and the light touch she brings to the exploration of the feelings of her main characters. There are some superb writers working with this traditional material these days - what makes Langrish stand out, I think, is that her love for it shines out of her writing and lends a wonderful freshness and authority.

The trilogy continues with Troll Blood, which I haven't had a chance to read yet. The first two, however, I read as part of the Once Upon a Time V Challenge. I'm not going to do a wrap-up post for the Challenge because, although I read several books, I just didn't have time to write about them here (and, in one case, I didn't feel all that much inclined!). I did enjoy the challenge all the same, so thanks to Carl for hosting it. Oh, and I read them both on my Kindle. And, I should add, I enjoyed Troll Fell so much that I downloaded Troll Mill straight away!

Thursday, 2 June 2011

The Great White Bear by Kieran Mulvaney

The Great White Bear is a natural history of the that iconic Arctic animal, the polar bear. It makes fascinating reading – I wanted to quote so much from it, my copy is full of highlighted passages that I want to make everyone in the world read, because the polar bear in peak form is a muscle-bound miracle of evolution with a four-and-a-half inch layer of blubber, black skin and translucent hair that works so efficiently that, far from struggling to keep warm, the bear actually has to stay cool. It can smell a seal for miles, has been known to leap on the back of a beluga whale, and spends four months under the snow to rear its young.

Kieran Mulvaney has written for, amongst others, New Scientist, BBC Wildlife and Greenpeace, lived for seven years in Alaska and brings a lifetime’s interest and understanding to his subject. His book covers all aspects of the bear’s life (including the answer to the hoary question about why they don’t live in the Antarctic) from evolution and physiology to its future. Most important of all, though of little practical interest to most bears, is the unequal relationship with man, and Mulvaney demonstrates beyond question just how unequal that is: despite its being admirably equipped to kill, encounters between bears and humans are much more likely to result in the bear’s death. And bears are still hunted, of course, both legitimately by indigenous peoples, and illegally, even in Russia where hunting has been banned for longest.

In this accessible and readable book, Mulvaney combines history, mythology and science with his own first-hand travels and experience of “bear tourism” with Canadian polar bears in Churchill,  and an attempt to offer a deeper understanding of the bear’s experience as he describes its life through the course of the Arctic year. Thus it’s rather reminiscent of Kingdom of the Ice Bear, the hugely successful television series which followed a family of bears, and readers in search of “hard” science may be surprised at the degree of intimacy the approach offers. There’s no lack of solid information, though, and Mulvaney examines and presents it thoughtfully. I felt enriched as I read, intellectually and emotionally.

The final chapter is a consideration of the threat of global warming on the Arctic, an environment extremely susceptible to change as the sea ice declines, taking with it the algae that drives the Arctic Ocean’s complex ecology. While migrant species may benefit, at least in the short term from these changes,  the species which are dependent on the ice for breeding are already under threat, in the case of the polar bear doubly so, since the seals which are its prey are its companions in ice-dependency. We’ve all seen the film of a polar bear swimming in an ocean bereft of ice, and realised that the creature is almost certainly doomed to swim until it drowns – and indeed, the book’s US cover image is of a swimming bear (I’m not sure why the UK publisher decided to go with a less effective image). It may be as little as twenty years before the ice fails to replace in winter what has been lost in summer and our descendants will only know the polar bear on film, or as a sad creature in a zoo with concrete beneath its paws. We have evidence that the bears are already showing signs of decline both in size and numbers, and it’s more than time that the polar bear was declared an endangered species (rather than “threatened”, its current status), so that its welfare must be take into consideration and its habitat protected. Mulvaney’s book is timely and essential.

Note: The Great White Bear is published in the UK as Ice Bear: A Natural and Unnatural History of the Polar Bear. This review refers to the US version, which came from NetGalley. You can learn more about polar bears from Polar Bears International and both they and The Great White Bear have Facebook pages. Not a Canadian book as such, but one with extensive Canadian subject matter, I'm counting this book towards the 4th Canadian Book Challenge.