Half-Blood Blues

By the time I finally picked up a copy of Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan’s novel already had quite a reputation going for it, the result of having won Canada’s Giller prize and having been a short-listed candidate for Britain’s Booker Prize.  I am happy to report that this story of three black jazz musicians, who find themselves trapped in Paris when Hitler’s Nazis overrun the city, largely lives up to that reputation – except for maybe a quibble or two I will mention later.
Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones have known each other forever.  The two grew up together in Baltimore where they honed their musical talents to so a high level – Sid on base and Chip on drums – that they would become popular in Berlin as the core of a jazz band they called the Hot-Time Swingers.  But they really hit the big time when they add trumpeter Hieronymous Falk to the mix.  Hiero, a mixed-race German, is so special a talent that he catches the attention of one Louis Armstrong – who invites the band to join him in Paris to cut a record.
The tough decision to shut things down in Berlin is made easy for the band when Hitler labels jazz as “degenerate music” and bans public performances of it.  When the Hot Swingers, including its German members, realize that more than their mere livelihood is at stake, the scramble is on to find papers good enough to get them across the border and on their way to Paris.  Little do they know it, but Hitler’s army is not all that far behind them.
Sid Griffiths, the book’s narrator, tells this intriguing story from the perspective of just over fifty years in the future.  Sid and Chip are old men living in 1992 Baltimore with plans to attend the imminent Berlin debut of a documentary film honoring the now legendary jazz trumpeter Hiero Falk.  Hiero, caught in a Nazi roundup of “undesirables,” has not been heard from since the day of his arrest and is presumed to have died in a Nazi death camp.  The mystery surrounding his arrest, details of which only Sid knows, have turned Hiero into the kind of musical legend that only dying young can do for a musician. 
Esi Edugyan
But Sid knows the whole story, and even though the truth is still eating at his soul, he does not really expect, or want, to go public with it.  Surprise, surprise, Sid.
Esi Edugyan has Sid speak in the vernacular of jazz musicians of the thirties.  While this initially slows the reader down, once the speech pattern becomes familiar, this technique gives Half-Blood Blues a feeling of authenticity it otherwise would not have had.  This does, however, bring me to my first “quibble.”  When Sid is thinking out loud for the reader, he sounds nothing like he does in conversation with his friends – even in 1992 – and that is sometimes a little jarring to the reader’s ear.
 But more importantly, the book’s ending does not quite measure up to the hugely dramatic build-up leading to it.  Perhaps unrealistically, I was hoping for more.  I did, however, still very much enjoy this one, and I suspect that I will be thinking about it for a good while, so if you like WWII history from a civilian point-of-view, you will likely love Half-Blood Blues.  Esi Edugyan is most certainly a talent to be watched.

The Headmaster’s Wager

Almost exactly five years ago, I was introduced to Victor Lam’s writing through his short story collection, Bloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures.  That twelve-story collection, featuring four Canadian medical students in various combinations, reads very much like a novel in itself.  Now, however, Lam has written a very different book, The Headmaster’s Wager, a remarkable family saga that officially marks his transition from short story writer to novelist.  (Vincent Lam is also an emergency room doctor and a University of Toronto lecturer.)
In the novel, Lam uses his own family history as inspiration to explore the experiences of Vietnam’s Chinese expatriate community over the course of recent Vietnamese history.  The reader will, through the eyes of Headmaster Percival Chen, live through the 1940 Japanese invasion of Vietnam, the French colonial period, and the long war against the United States that would split the country in two.  Percival will also know firsthand the Japanese occupation of China, his home country, and will feel the pain of responsibility for what his only son endures there during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Percival Chen is owner and headmaster of the Percival Chen English Academy housed in his former family home in Cholon, a largely Chinese-populated section of Saigon.  Percival, now divorced, lives above the school with his only son where a staff of servants attends to their daily needs.  Percival’s father earned the family fortune in the lucrative rice trade, but due to the vagaries of war (and the suggestion of a close friend), Percival now dedicates himself to qualifying students for translation jobs with the American government and military.  His is the most respected English-language school in the country, and it easily supports the headmaster’s reckless lifestyle.
Dr. Vincent Lam
Percival Chen is a gambling man.  Little bets, big bets, bets that might cost him his business or his life; it is all the same to him.  A man of large appetites, he is well known at the city’s high-stakes mahjong tables and to the high-end prostitutes introduced by Mrs. Ling.  Despite his recklessness, the school thrives, but Percival would never admit even to himself that his success is largely due to the connections of a teacher who is also his best friend, Mr. Mak.  Mr. Mak is an organizer, a Vietnamese with the business contacts, government contacts, and contacts within the structure of the Vietnamese secret police to ensure the success of the Percival Chen English Academy.  And he uses those contacts to make good things happen.
Finally, hardly realizing it, Percival makes the biggest wager of his life.  Win or lose, his family’s survival now depends on one final spin of the wheel by the headmaster.
The Headmaster’s Wager is a memorable debut novel, a piece of historical fiction within which the reader will become completely immersed.  Like Percival Chen, pity him, or despise him, this story of the love between a father and his son will not soon be forgotten. 
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

The Beautiful Mystery

The Beautiful Mystery, Louise Penny’s eighth “Chief Inspector Gamache” novel, is a throwback of sorts.  A monk has been murdered in an intentionally isolated monastery located in the remote forests surrounding Quebec.  No outsiders have ever been allowed inside the monastery, but now authorities have to be called in so that the murderer can be identified and charged with his crime.  But, although Penny uses the classic mystery set-up of a closed environment with a clearly defined set of suspects – one of whom has to have committed the murder – she also includes enough side-plots, flashbacks, and deeply developed characters to make it all seem fresh.

Because of Gilbert’s support for Thomas Beckett, the Gilbertines were forced to flee England for Canada shortly after Beckett’s politically inspired murder in the cathedral at Canterbury.  The two dozen Gilbertine monks now living in Quebec’s Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups monastery have so successfully hidden themselves, that, until very recently, the world believed they had ceased to exist centuries earlier.  There they live a self-sustaining life of near silence while spending much of each day striving to sing the most perfect versions of the ancient Gregorian chants around which they anchor their lives. 
However, it is not all peace and tranquility within the walls of the monastery.  The solitude of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups has been shattered by the discovery of the choir director’s body.  The dead man has had his head bashed in, and now it is up to Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir to identify his murderer. 
Louise Penny

As fascinating as all of this is, fans of the series will expect to learn more about how Gamache and Beauvoir are coping with the aftermath of the botched police mission that left Beauvoir near death and both men emotionally scarred by what they witnessed.  Penny obliges by giving the failed hostage rescue attempt a central role in The Beautiful Mystery.  As the book opens, Gamache still believes he failed his men by allowing them to walk into an ambush, and Beauvoir struggles to cope with an addiction to painkillers that could cost him his job.  That Beauvoir is also secretly dating Annie, Gamache’s daughter, adds an interesting plot twist that turns the relationship of the men in a new direction. 

Also making an appearance in this one is Gamache’s old nemesis, Superintendent Inspector Fancouer, a man whom Gamache has good reason to both despise and to fear.  When Fancouer joins the two detectives at the monastery, and Gamache learns why he is really there, he comes perilously close to committing a murder of his own.
A combination of well developed characters, intriguing atmosphere, revealing side plots, and many of the elements of a classic whodunit, The Beautiful Mystery is certain to please existing Louise Penny fans. At the same time, it will introduce her to a multitude of new readers who will, I’m sure, want to go back and read the earlier Inspector Gamache books.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

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Canada

The first two sentences of Richard Ford’s Canada are, I suspect, destined to be among the most quoted of 2012.  Even so, I cannot resist using them here, too, because they are the perfect opening for the book:
            “First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed.  Then about the murders, which happened later.”
 
These words are spoken by 65-year-old Dell Parsons, the book’s narrator, as he considers the fifteen-year old boy he was in 1960 just before his parents made the stupid decision that would almost destroy him and Berner, his twin sister.  The Parsons had been transferred to Montana by the U.S. Air Force, but now Dell’s father is a civilian, and having decided that Great Falls is a good place to raise his family, Bev Parsons is struggling to find a job that will allow him to do that.  To young Dell, nothing is more important than the fast-approaching start of his freshman year in the town’s public high school.  Up to now, the twins have been encouraged not to develop ties to the places they pass through with the Air Force, so Dell is eager to transform Great Falls into the hometown he has never known.
But when Dell’s parents are arrested for a North Dakota bank robbery, his hopes of finally settling down and making long term friends are destroyed before he can even set foot in his new school.  Dell and Berner are surprised to find themselves, at least temporarily, forgotten by the legal system that has both their parents locked tight in the city jail.  After Berner, the worldly twin, strikes out on her own, his mother’s only friend agrees to deliver Dell to her brother in the remote prairies of Saskatchewan in order to keep him from falling into the hands of Montana juvenile authorities.
Richard Ford
There, still a very naïve child at fifteen, Dell falls under the control and influence of two men who will further destroy his sense of who he is.  Charlie Quarters, the Leonard Hotel’s strange, half-breed hunting guide into whose charge Dell is delivered, will use him as an extra pair of hands.  Arthur Remlinger, an American hiding out in Canada for reasons of his own, is the hotel’s owner.  Unfortunately for Dell, Remlinger, a sociopath of sorts, will never be the father figure he needs so badly, and will, instead, almost finish the job of destroying his life.
Canada is a character-driven novel with the plot of a crime thriller, a literary novel that will keep the reader turning pages.  Throughout his narrative, Dell Parsons gives intriguing little hints that all is not as it seems and that he should have figured things out sooner than he did.  Ford’s characters are so well developed that even their most bizarre actions are believable in the context of who the reader knows them to be.  With perhaps one exception (Charlie Quarters), there are no black and white characters in Canada.  Each has a distinct set of strengths, weaknesses, and motivations that allows them to be sucked into whatever happens around them.
Canada is about borders – literal ones and symbolic ones – and what they really mean.  The lesson for Dell Parsons is that once some borders are crossed, they are crossed forever.  There is no going back.

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The Canadian Book Challenge – Year 6

Want to join us?…click here

I don’t have a real good history when it comes to completing book challenges, but this is one I’ve watched from afar for a while now- so after skipping the last few years, I thought I would give it another shot.  Canadian fiction has long been a favorite of mine, and John “stretches” the rules a bit to include books set in Canada (not just those written by Canadian authors), something that should help me to get my hands on the number of qualifiers I need to read in the next twelve months to get my thirteen books read before July 1, 2013.

I’m going to start out by cheating a bit because I just finished Richard Ford’s great new novel a couple of days ago, a book actually titled Canada, and I plan to post my review on Monday or Tuesday.  I’m going to count that one, of which about 2/3 is set in the remote prairies of Saskatchewan, as my first book in the challenge.

John is a real advocate for Canadian lit and he puts a whole lot of effort into making his challenges go smoothly for everyone involved.  The number of participants has grown just about every year, so I don’t see how he does it anymore.  If you’re up for a new challenge, take a look.  Just follow the link under that great picture.

Border Songs

I lost count of how many times the novel Confederacy of Dunces popped into my head as I read Jim Lynch’s Border Songs, but I do not mean anything even remotely negative about Border Songs when I say that. Lynch’s new novel has a certain Confederacy of Dunces vibe about it that will appeal to fans of that memorable John Kennedy Toole novel of almost thirty years ago – and that is a good thing.

Unusual physical specimens, big men generally perceived by their friends and families to be of the hapless misfit variety, anchor both novels. And as Toole did for his Dunces hero, Lynch surrounds Brandon Vanderkool with quirky characters and plops the lot of them into a unique part of the country – two countries, actually – a little rural community living on both sides of the Washington/British Columbia border.

Brandon Vanderkool, six foot eight and so dyslexic that he speaks parts of his sentences backward in times of stress, is a loner whose father pushes him from the family’s small dairy farm into a job with the U.S. Border Patrol. Suddenly, Brandon is responsible for protecting the very border along which he has spent his entire life and, to everyone’s surprise, he turns out to be a natural. As a passionate bird watcher, he is so finely attuned to the comings and goings of the local bird population that he almost unconsciously senses when something is out of place. That sense of place allows Brandon to become one of the stars of the Border Patrol, a one-man wrecking crew when it comes to stopping illegal aliens and pot from crossing the border from the Canadian side. Brandon’s duties with the Border Patrol, though, bring him into daily contact with people he has known all his life, many of whom who still ridicule him out of habit and find it difficult to accept his new position of authority despite all his success.

Border Songs is a character driven novel and Jim Lynch has populated his little international community with some good ones. Brandon’s father, Norm, whose dairy herd is desperately ill, is shocked and even a little embarrassed by all the attention Brandon is getting around town. Norm, by nature a dreamer and a worrier, is also terrified at how rapidly Brandon’s good-natured mother is losing her memory. Madeline Rousseau, to whom Brandon still imagines he has a special bond, grew up within sight of Brandon’s house but on the Canadian side of the ditch separating the two countries. Now, though, she works for a major pot smuggler and she and Brandon are on different sides of the border in more than one sense.

Madeline’s father, a retired professor, stays busy these days yelling anti-American slogans across the ditch at Norm and trying to replicate great inventions of the past by meticulously recreating the original step-by-step research of the actual inventors. Then there is Sophie, the newly arrived masseuse and gossip collector who video tapes interviews with willing customers and seems to be the only person on either side of the border who has the big picture.
Border Songs is a comic look at life on an international border, in this case, a border that is nothing more than a drainage ditch serving the two countries it divides. It is a clear reminder that, while borders are important and necessary, their effects are sometimes absurd, especially when seen through the eyes of those who live so near them.

Rated at: 4.0

Life of Pi

I must be almost the last person in North America to read Yann Martel’s unforgettable tale, “Life of Pi.” Consider that there are now over 1900 reviews of the book on Amazon despite the fact that only a tiny percentage of a book’s readers will ever take the time to do that, or that 16,095 members of Library Thing own it, making “Life of Pi” the 21st most popular book there. Well, I can finally tell everyone that it was worth the wait.

Yann Martel has written an inspiring story about the defining event in one man’s life, an event that 16-year-old Pi Patel miraculously survives when so many others around him do not, something that shapes the rest of his life. It does not hurt, of course, that the story involves a shipwreck, a 450-pound Bengal tiger, one small lifeboat drifting the vast Pacific Ocean, cannibalism, and a mysterious island in the middle of nowhere.

Until his mid-teens, Pi Patel is raised in remote Pondicherry, India, where he and his brother are lucky enough to live on the grounds of the zoo managed by his father. Pi’s father, though, becomes disillusioned with the Indian government of the mid-seventies and decides to move the family to Canada. The Patel family leaves India on the same freighter carrying a large number of zoo animals destined for new homes of their own in North American zoos. Plans for man and animal alike, however, change one day just before dawn when Pi realizes that the ship is rapidly sinking.

Suddenly the ship is gone and Pi finds himself sharing a 26-foot lifeboat with a severely injured zebra, a female orangutan elder, a manic hyena and, most importantly, a tiger so large that he alone fills half the boat’s limited space. Animals do what animals do, especially when faced with starvation, and only Pi and the tiger he calls Richard Parker are still around when the boat reaches land 227 days later.

Yann Martel mixes realism and magic to just the right degree, allowing his readers to suspend their disbelief to the degree that everything that happens seems possible – and then he throws readers the kind of curve ball that will leave them standing at the plate with bats on shoulders, an alternate version of his entire story. Each reader will have to choose for himself the version he believes to have happened, a choice that will tell much about the reader himself. I cannot imagine a more perfect choice for book club discussion than “Life of Pi.”

If you are one of the few yet to read “Life of Pi,” you have quite an experience ahead of you.

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Inside

What is it like for a man who expected to die in prison to suddenly find himself back on the outside after fourteen years served for a murder that DNA testing now proves was not his doing? Will he be able to control his rage, the same rage that he learned to depend on in prison for his very survival, so that he does not commit a crime of violence that returns him to lockup? Can he tolerate the leeches, including his wife, who are so eager to help him spend the false-imprisonment settlement he will soon collect from the Canadian government?

In his novel, Inside, Kenneth J. Harvey places himself in the mind of just such a character, Myrden (a man whose first name is never revealed), and does it so effectively that many of those questions are answered. Harvey, in fact, tells Myrden’s story largely through the man’s own thought processes, a technique that leaves the reader standing squarely in Myrden’s shoes, seeing life through his eyes, and feeling all of his emotions and frustrations. The book, in fact, is almost completely written in sentence fragments of less than five words and reading it is like listening to Myrden think out loud.

Myrden is the first to admit that he was not exactly an innocent man when he was sent to prison for murder. At times he is not completely sure, despite the new DNA evidence, that he did not commit the crime and wonders if the real mistake is that he is being released. But he is grateful for the large settlement he receives from the government and is eager to use it to better the lives of his daughter and his granddaughter, Caroline, the true love of his life.

Sadly, Myrden, a man who has learned the trick of depending only upon himself for survival, finds it near impossible to relate to a wife who seems only to care about the cash windfall headed their way, his old crowd, or the poverty that surrounds them all. Wanting nothing more than to be left alone, he is forced instead to deal with the newspaper reporters who hound him for a quote and old friends who see him as a local celebrity with cash to blow. His immersion into the hard world from which he had been snatched and imprisoned, a world in which he is surrounded by reckless people with little to lose, the only world he has ever known, is inevitable despite his best intentions.

Myrden is a man who wants nothing more than to make life a little easier for those he loves, his way of making up for past mistakes before it is too late. He has some small successes but, when others begin to interfere with his larger goals, he has to decide how far he is willing to go to put things right and whether or not he is prepared to suffer the consequences.

Inside explores a world that, thankfully, few of Harvey’s readers will have experienced firsthand. It is a brutal place filled with people who have lost all hope that things will ever be better for them and their families, a place dominated by addictions and those willing to do most anything to feed them, a world in which second chances do not often turn out well. This is not a pretty novel but it is well worth the effort.

Rated at: 4.0

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Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants is another of those novels that I somehow managed to miss reading when it was at its peak of popularity, this time by well over two years. But I’m here to tell you that, in the case of Water for Elephants, it is definitely better late than never.

Even in Depression-era America, Jacob Jankowski is doing pretty well for himself. He is a Cornell-trained veterinarian who only needs to sit for his final exams to make it official. He thinks he is in love but his lack of experience with the ladies means that he is more likely to be in lust than in love. For him, life is still pretty good.

But things change sometimes when one least expects it, and for Jacob change comes in the form of a tragic traffic accident that claims the lives of both his parents. As bad as that is, it gets even worse when he learns that he has also been left destitute because his parents mortgaged everything to pay his Cornell tuition, and Jacob finds that he cannot sit still even long enough to finish his exams. Wanting to get away from it all, he hops the first freight train that comes along, avoids getting thrown back onto the tracks, and soon enough finds himself a member of Benzini Brothers traveling circus.

Sara Gruen lets Jacob tell his own story by alternating the first person narrative of ninety-something-year-old Jacob, now living in a nursing home, with the voice of twenty-three-year-old Jacob as he experiences his summer with the Benzini Brothers. And what a story it is because the Benzini Brothers circus is not exactly The Ringling Brothers show and only circus owner, Uncle Al, tries to pretend that it is. Everything about the Benzini Brothers is second rate: the ragged animals in the zoo’s menagerie are badly treated and lucky to eat once a day, the roustabouts and other workers are not paid consistently, the freaks are usually fakes or not all that freakish in the first place, and the girly show performer has been known to take paying customers after show hours.

Jacob manages to catch on permanently with the show even with his incomplete veterinarian credentials and all goes relatively well until he falls in love with two ladies: Rosie, the elephant who joins the circus after he does, and Marlena, the beautiful young equestrian performer unfortunately married to the sadistic August, a man who beats both Marlena and Rosie.

Gruen paints an unforgettable picture of life in a small-time Depression-era circus, an environment filled with filth, underfed animals and humans, cruelty, alcohol abuse, varying degrees of crime, lust, and callousness. Jacob, appalled at what he sees and what he learns about August, Marlena and Uncle Al, fights to maintain his sense of decency in a world he never knew existed, but his love for a married woman and his guilt at not doing more to defend Rosie from the beatings she suffers at the hands of August has him doubting himself.

Surprisingly, as intriguing as the young Jacob’s story is, the nursing home predicament that the older Jacob finds himself in is an equally touching one. The audio version of Water for Elephants (10 CDs and 11 ½ hours long) is read by David LeDoux, as the young Jacob Jankowski and John Randolph Jones, who turns in an absolutely brilliant performance as Jacob, the old man. Frankly, both of the worlds created by Gruen are somewhat horrifying and both will linger in my memory for a long time.

Water for Elephants is, however, a tiny bit blemished by its unlikely ending even though it is the kind of fairy tale ending that I personally would have wished for Mr. Jankowski. Some things, though, are just too good to be true – or to ring true in a novel even as good as this one.

Rated at: 4.5

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Yellowknife

Canada’s Northwest Territory has always seemed a little unreal to me and, consequently, my imagination allowed me to create my own version of a larger-than-life world there, one populated by some of the hardiest people on the face of the Earth who found their way that far north for lots of bizarre and personal reasons. You know what I mean – a world something like the stereotypical version of what life was like in the American West in the 1870’s when residents were either gunslingers or people who were afraid of gunslingers, with not much in between.

Then along comes a novel like Steve Zipp’s Yellowknife and I start to wonder if what I figured was a farfetched distortion of what life up that way was like might only be off by a matter of degree. Zipp’s fictional Yellowknife is filled with the kind of people I imagined would be there, people who have been drawn to the remoteness of the Canadian North for reasons of their own and who relish living in an environment that scares most of the rest of us to death.

Some come to Zipp’s Yellowknife looking for the easy money they imagine to be there. Others come because they are fed up with people and big city life and imagine that immersing themselves in Mother Nature will ease their spirit. A few come because they need to get lost for a time or because they want to reinvent themselves among people who don’t much care about where they started from. Some, of course, have lived there for generations and can only chuckle and shake their heads at what they observe.

Yellowknife, much like the early novels of John Irving, is not the kind of book that a reviewer can ruin for its readers by revealing a key spoiler or two. There is just too much going on, too many stories being told as the characters come and go, interacting with each other and recombining in ways that are sometimes simultaneously surreal and brutally realistic. Zipp’s characters embody the deepest secrets, dreams, fears and plain old weirdness that the rest of us manage to keep hidden from everyone but possibly ourselves.

There’s a dog-food-loving, self-made private detective who calls himself Dan Diamond and who learned everything he knows about sleuthing from watching bad television. There’s the guy with a secret entrance cut into one of the walls of his home that opens directly into a mine tunnel from which he seems to illegally gather enough gold to support himself and his wife. There’s a government environmentalist so infatuated by mosquitoes that he allows them to feast on him during his field research and who discovers a snow white species of mosquito no one but him has ever seen. There’s the government-employed computer geek who can’t be fired because he’s so good at hacking into the system and erasing all records of his dismissal, and who just might have saved the world with the Y2K-solution virus he unleashed in late 1999. And that’s just the short list.

My favorite sections of the book, though, involve places as much as characters. Zipp’s description of the colony of misfits who live on the grounds of the town dump and mine it for the treasures they need to survive in the town’s warmer months is great fun. And the winter festival during which so many of the townspeople hope to turn a profit by selling something to their fellow citizens is a reminder that, despite it’s location, life in Yellowknife may not, deep down, be all that different from life in any small town. But best of all is when Zipp places his characters deep in the Artic wilderness and, ready or not, they are on their own and it is literally sink or swim.

Yellowknife is one heck of a ride and I disembarked still not quite sure what was exaggerated truth and what was pure fantasy. But maybe that’s the point. For readers like me, who have never seen the Northwest Territory, the mystery surrounding it remains intact, and that’s what just might get me up there one of these days.

Rated at: 4.0

Bones to Ashes

Bones to Ashes is the tenth novel in the Temperance Brennan series but it is my first experience with the character and its creator, Kathy Reichs. As usual, when I jump into a series for the first time somewhere after its midpoint I have to wonder if my reading experience would have been different, maybe even a better one, if I had started the series at the beginning. At the least, I would have a better feel for whether or not the series is holding up nicely or is on the decline, something I still wonder about after having finished Bones to Ashes.

For those as uninitiated in the Reichs books as I was, Tempe Brennan is an American forensic anthropologist who splits her working days between North Carolina and Montreal, where she works for the province of Quebec to identify bodies, bones, causes of death, and those responsible for the murders she helps investigate. Along the way she has had a romance with Canadian Detective Andrew Ryan although, by this tenth book, that relationship has largely been replaced by the professional one they need to maintain as they continue to work cases together. Tempe also has an eccentric sister, Harry, whom she loves dearly but prefers to take in small doses (I agree with her).

Not long after receiving a skeleton from New Brunswick, Tempe manages to convince herself that the bones may very well belong to a childhood friend of hers, Evangeline Landry, a young girl who, with no explanation, was suddenly whisked back to Canada and out of Tempe’s life when the two were teenagers. At the same time that she is trying to unlock the skeleton’s secrets, Tempe is working with Ryan and others to identify the killers of several young women who have been abducted over a period of years.

Tempe’s desire to learn what happened to her long lost friend turns her investigation into something personal and, when she and Harry decide to visit Evangeline’s sister, they attract enough attention to place their own lives in danger.

For American readers, the fact that Bones to Ashes is set in Canada is both strength and weakness. On the one hand, Reichs portrays life in a part of Canada that few readers will have been much exposed to beforehand and her Acadian settings, characters and atmosphere are intriguing. On the other, the multitude of dead bodies and missing girls all have unusual French names, making it difficult to keep their individual stories clear from chapter to chapter. This inherent confusion makes it difficult for the reader to get emotionally involved in what has happened to any of these young women and they become almost indistinguishable from one another in the reader’s mind, something not helped by the sparse prose that Reichs often uses.

But Reichs does something that many series writers do not do for their main characters; she takes time to delve into their past histories so that new readers have at least a basic understanding of the characters and how they got to be the people they are. And, of course, the forensic science on display is probably the book’s strong suit since Kathy Reichs is herself a one of the better known forensic anthropologists in the world.

Bones to Ashes is an interesting book, especially for those drawn to the series because of the science that it features, but it is not an especially strong novel, suffering from a poor juggling of its multiple plotlines and its failure to make the crime victims into real and sympathetic characters. I am not sure that I want to read book eleven in the series, but I am curious enough now to go back and read the first one because I suspect it is better than Bone to Ashes.

Rated at: 2.5

Consumption

Kevin Patterson’s Consumption is my third book in the 2nd Canadian Book Challenge. Patterson, who spent some time in northern Canada working as a doctor, vividly portrayed a world I’ve often wondered about, but of which I knew very little, so I really lost myself in this one.

In almost whiplash fashion, Canada’s Inuit people were yanked from the traditional lifestyle they had lived for centuries into what should have been for them an easier life in the small Artic communities they had only visited in the past. In a scant three generations (Patterson’s book covers the 1950s to the 1990s), these people went from living “on the land” to watching their young people leave the Artic entirely in order to seek a lifestyle scarcely heard of by their grandparents. That such a rapid change was almost certain to be a destructive one does not lessen the impact of Patterson’s story of the Inuit as they move from a difficult, but successful, lifestyle to one of poverty and confusion, and on to a generation of children with material and cultural desires that can no longer be satisfied in the Artic.

Patterson tells the Inuit story largely through the eyes of Victoria Robinson, an Inuit woman who, when she developed tuberculosis at ten years of age, was taken from her parents and sent to Montreal for treatment. By the time that she was returned to her parents as a teenager, they were no longer living “on the land” and had moved to the small Artic town of Rankin Inlet. Victoria, now an educated young woman with some knowledge of the world, felt like an outsider when she was reunited with her family. She knew that she was different, and so did they. Her marriage to a Kablunauk, a white man, seemed inevitable to her parents, and the experiences of her bi-racial children reflect all of the pressures and desires confronted by young people who must abandon their own culture in order to have better lives than the one experienced by their grandparents and parents.

Consumption is a complex, multi-generational family saga filled with numerous characters, each of which contributes to fleshing out the world that Kevin Patterson has created. Patterson does not limit himself to a single point of view, including among his characters several Kablunauk who have come to the Rankin Inlet settlement for reasons of their own, some looking for adventure, some hoping to profit financially from what they find there, and others determined to accomplish some good by working to make the lives of the locals better.

Interspersed among the book’s chapters are short medical science essays attributed to Keith Balthazar, the town doctor who splits his time between Rankin Inlet and his apartment in New York. Readers might be tempted to skim, or even to skip, these essays but, by doing so, would miss many details and subtleties associated with the overall story. Like each of Patterson’s characters, the essays add bits and pieces of detail that help make Consumption into the moving novel that it is. It is near impossible for most readers to imagine the loneliness and isolation of the 1960s Artic settlements. Patterson not only makes it possible for us to imagine it, he achieves it in the most effective manner there is, by adding layer upon layer of detail and emotion until the reader comes to feel completely comfortable with the environment described and the people who live in it.

This is a remarkable first novel.

Rated at: 5.0

The Cellist of Sarajevo

This is my second book in the 2nd Canadian Book Challenge, qualifying because although it is set in Europe, the book was written by a Canadian author. Steven Galloway is a new author to me, exactly what I was hoping to find by taking part in this challenge, and he is one I’ll be keeping an eye on for a long time.

It is simply hard to imagine daily life in Sarajevo during the fighting there between Serb and Yugoslav soldiers, a time when anyone was considered a legitimate target for the daily sniper and mortar fire that targeted the city. But Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo makes it a little easier to understand what it must have been like for those who did not escape before it was too late for them to get out.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is based on a real event that occurred in Sarajevo in 1992 after twenty-two of its citizens were killed in a brutal mortar attack while standing in line for bread. Vedran Smailovic, a professional musician, decided to honor those who died that day by playing his cello for twenty-two consecutive days at the site of the massacre, one day in honor of each of those who died.

Galloway uses that act of immense courage as the centerpiece of his story, a story he tells through the eyes of four people who never actually meet on the dangerous streets of the city. In addition to the cellist, there are alternating segments about a female sniper named Arrow and two men who must negotiate the dangerous bridges and intersections of Sarajevo in order to find the food and water necessary for their survival.

The young sniper, a former university student who shed her given name and christened herself Arrow when she began her new life as a sniper, is assigned the near-impossible task of protecting the cellist from enemy sniper fire during his daily street performance. She is a soldier with a conscience, so determined that she will target only enemy combatants that she eventually places her own life in jeopardy by refusing to kill a civilian she is ordered to shoot.

Kenan, father of two young children, makes a regular trek to the local brewery in order to gather the water supply that his wife and children so desperately need for their survival. It is not a short walk and he knows that one of the snipers hidden in the hills that surround the city could choose him as a random target at any moment. But he returns to the brewery every few days.

Dagnan is a baker who has to make his way across the city each day to get to his job, where he is paid in the bread that he helps to bake, bread upon which he depends for his survival and for its use as a currency he can barter for his other needs. Dagnan, who managed to convince his wife and son to leave the city before the siege made it impossible for others to escape, has cut himself from everyone he knew before the war, something he comes to regret.

The Cellist of Sarajevo explores what happens to people when they are faced with the possibility of sudden death on a daily basis, when their government can do very little to protect or help them, when their days have to be spent in search of the things they need to stay alive for another week. Will they be able to retain their humanity and charitable instincts to help those in worse shape, or who are weaker than themselves, or will they allow their society to become one of every man for himself? What are they willing to do to keep themselves and their families alive?

Steven Galloway has written a book that will leave his readers wondering exactly that about themselves.

Rated at: 5.0

No Great Mischief


This is my first book for John Mutford’s Second Canadian Book Challenge, a challenge that I undertook hoping to discover some new authors and books I might have otherwise missed. This first one makes me glad that I signed up.

The MacDonald clan may have arrived in Cape Breton more than two centuries ago but their hearts are still firmly anchored in the Scotland from which they came. Their family history has been so religiously passed from one generation to the next that Calum MacDonald, who brought his family to Canada in 1779, seems as alive to its members as the brother or cousin sitting next to them at the dinner table.


For more than two hundred years the MacDonalds have made their livings with their hands and their backs, working as farmers, lumberjacks, lighthouse caretakers, and uranium miners, never afraid to take on the toughest or most dangerous jobs available to them. But no matter how difficult life at times got for some of them, the family always took care of its own and none of them ever forgot that they were part of the MacDonald clan. Their family loyalty was a fierce one and it was never questioned.

No Great Mischief is largely told in flashback form by its narrator, Alexander MacDonald, a successful orthodontist who as the book begins is in Toronto checking on his alcoholic brother, Calum, who seems to be slowly drinking himself to death. Alexander’s visits to Toronto involve sharing old memories with his brother and leaving a little cash and alcohol behind to help Calum make it through the rest of his week. How Calum has reached his dreadful condition is a long, sad story but it is only one part of the MacDonald family saga.

No Great Mischief is a combination of historical fiction and family saga and it is a bit unusual in the sense that it focuses only on the MacDonalds who originally came to Canada and on those living there at the moment, with very little being told of the generations connecting them. But what a story it is because Alistair MacLeod has filled it with characters and incidents that will be long remembered by his readers.


The present day MacDonalds are held together by the narrator’s grandparents, two grandfathers and a grandmother, three people who despite their differences share a deep and loving respect for each other. The grandfathers could hardly be more different, one being an earthy man who loves his beer and his wife, the other living alone with his books and historical research. It is these three who get the next two generations of MacDonalds through the tragedy of sudden death that comes their way over the decades.

The MacDonalds are not a family that will be easily forgotten but the highlight of the book is perhaps MacLeod’s vivid recreation of life in the uranium mining camps of the 1960s. That unique, dangerous and insulated little world was a revelation to me, one of those places I am happy to have visited in a book and missed in the real world.

But for one flaw, I would have rated this book higher than the 4.0 rating I settled on – some of the long conversations between the narrator and his twin sister have a staged quality to them. They are packed with so much historical detail, and read more as recitation than conversation, that the reader cannot help but feel a distracting switch in tone. Luckily, this does not happen often and can be easily enough overlooked.

Rated at: 4.0