A Scottish-Canadian Blethering On About Books

Notes and reflections - not really worthy to be called reviews - written at various times over a long life of eclectic reading.

The Gem Collector (Wodehouse)

The Gem Collector - P.G. Wodehouse

This was the quintessential airplane read - free in e-version, ephemeral and amusing, and just long enough to take one from one side of the continent to the other. It's relatively early Wodehouse. This is the version of a story published in the American literary magazine Ainslee's in 1909; it was republished - and possibly revised/expanded - as A Gentleman of Leisure (UK) or The Intrusion of Jummy (US) the following year. I would describe it as droll rather than flat-out funny in the way Wodehouse sometimes is in the Jeeves books a couple of decades later.

 

Jimmy is a jewel thief who has attained a British aristocratic title by inheritance, but plenty of other people in this book are also suppressing a less than pristine past, and the humour largely resides in the contrasts between the manners expected of certain nations (especially US/UK) and certain classes and the actual thoughts and actions of the principals. I couldn't tell you what exactly happens with the extravagant necklace of the title (tempting people to theft), but I'm pretty sure there must be a paste duplicate in there somewhere.

Skim (Tomaki)

Skim - Mariko Tamaki, Jillian Tamaki

It's unlikely I ever would have picked up a graphic novel, particularly a young adult one, had it not appeared on my "CBC 100 novels that make you proud to be Canadian" list. The experience of reading this was not unpleasurable, but it was enough to confirm for me that I don't really like this form of storytelling very much, mainly because I am decidedly more of a verbal than a graphic learner, and I find the process of hunting through a picture for clues about context to the spoken words considerably more laborious than my well-established abilities to interpret verbal clues.

 

So, all that said, I found Skim an interesting enough character to keep me with her to the end of her teenage angst story, and there was (if I recall my now very distant adolescence) a fairly raw and realistic portrayal of the hyperdramatic emotional state in which a very young woman spends her schooldays. I am not sure that my generation generally experienced the heavy level of depression and confusion (including exposure to peer suicide) depicted here; maybe I was just in a lucky place and time. And I know for a fact that I was oblivious to any same-sex sexual experimentation that may have been going on around me, in a way that clearly is not possible now - and I'm presuming that's a good thing in general. Skim's sources of confusion are manifold - she's a Goth who tries to use supernatural ritual to find answers; she's racialized (Asian), although that doesn't seem to have a front row impact in this particular story; she's attracted to a female teacher; she's finding her way through the minefield of different friendships as she finds herself in or out of sympathy with the way those friends think. It's not a phase of life I willingly revisit, but I'll admit the pictures - once I had made myself put the effort in to interpret them - did an effective job of portraying it, and the progress of the story generally made sense.

 

I don't think I'm a snob about graphic novels; I think reading them effectively is a skill I exercise only tolerably well, and that's probably why (along with the teen subject matter), even though I read and enjoyed this, I'm unlikely to seek out more of the same.

Deathworld (Harrison)

Deathworld - Harry Harrison

If ever you needed convincing that "classic" science fiction, as published in the various periodicals in the mid 20th-century, was a guy's game, you'd only need to read this. Even while it posits the need for a peaceful resolution on a planet where nature itself is rising up against the colonizers, the story revels in its endless battles. What's more, there's exactly one woman on the whole planet, it seems (her name is Meta) and though she's portrayed as being skilled and gutsy, there's no question of her having any sort of real agency (and while she's not as objectified and hypersexualized as, say, the women in Heinlein, she's certainly the product of a straight male imagination).

 

I would be more inclined to be generous and give a third star if the writing were not so irritatingly flawed. The sentence fragments and comma splices are not in any way artfully deployed; clearly they were just bad habits. It gets very wearing after a few chapters.

 

That said, the story was reasonably well spun out, and if it seemed a bit predictable that's doubtless because so many of these early stories have turned into tropes in the intervening half century. There was some attempt to be thoughtful about the notion of the relation of colonizers and their colonized environment (if you go in slashing, don't be surprised if you meet a hostile response).

 

I must admit I did chuckle at the occasional place where imagination stopped short of current reality (there seemed to be a certain tendency to turn the results of computer processing into paper, for instance!). But you can see that this story was based in the same excitement about space, and about associated technologies such as medical instruments, that informed the first round of Star Trek. I can completely understand that for the original and intended audience (men who were young in the 60s), there would be an enormous nostalgic pull in this novel.

SPOILER ALERT!

Money in the Morgue (Duffy, after Marsh)

Money in the Morgue - Stella Duffy, Ngaio Marsh

Reading posthumous completions of famous authors' unfinished mysteries is always a bit of a gamble, because the intrepid completers set themselves the exceedingly difficult task of replicating the very particular virtues (as well as, perhaps, a few much-excused quirks or even faults) of said famous author. In this case, I found myself somewhat disappointed, although you'll notice I still gave it three stars, which in my lexicon means "provided substantially more enjoyment than irritation".

 

Stella Duffy did not have a half-finished deathbed masterpiece to work with here, but rather an abandoned few chapters and associated notes for a novel started at least thirty years before Marsh's death. (This leads one to the rather obvious question of why it was abandoned, although one can only speculate). It is a wartime novel, where part of the mystery revolves, not very subtly, around treasonous activities in a remote (and apparently cave-riddled) part of New Zealand, where a military hospital and its associated morgue (in a cave) form the principal setting. Marsh's detective Alleyn is there, writing homesick letters to sidekick Fox and wife Troy, due to the national security issues, but ends up conveniently solving a local murder that becomes intertwined.

 

The plot's a bit sensationalist, which is only what we expect from Marsh, and the murder details are actually a little less gruesome and bizarre than in some of her work. The characters, including the Fox-substitute that Alleyn picks up, are not hugely well-developed, though one or two of them have private secrets. Lesbian attraction is a motivating factor for one character, and though it is hopeless and decried, I think there's some evidence that Duffy played down any nastiness that wasn't completely necessary to understand the plot. None of this was particularly bothersome and some entirely expected in a Marsh-mimicry.

 

My discomforts, such as they were, were actually with the writing, which was clunkier than Marsh's, and the unsuccessful attempt to introduce motifs and quotations from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" - they seemed terribly superimposed, whereas I always got the sense that the theatrical references in Marsh's own writing sprang spontaneously out of her own background in theatre.

 

There are three intertwined crimes in this story: one faked murder, one real domestic murder with mitigating circumstances, and one treasonous plot. We are clearly invited by Alleyn's musings, and explanations to pseudo-Fox at the end, to compare and contrast the outcomes for the individuals involved, and whether they are properly weighed and balanced. (Bear in mind that New Zealand still had the death penalty in the 40s). Was this rather ambiguous ending one of the reasons Marsh abandoned the project? As I say, we can only speculate.

 

I can't say I'm sorry that Duffy picked up the project and published it. It provided a few hours of harmless pleasure. However, to those who want to read Ngaio Marsh, read Ngaio March, not this.

The House of the Seven Gables (Hawthorne)

The House of the Seven Gables - Nathaniel Hawthorne

Somehow I missed this during my omnivorous reading of the 19th century gothic in my undergraduate years. I read it now from the point of view of someone who distinctly resembles fractious, unsightly Hepzibah far more than the idealized "little woman" Phoebe (though perhaps I have always been more a Hepzibah than a Phoebe). In any case, the emphasis on Hepzibah's incapabilities and infirmities, and her constant scowl, was the one truly uncomfortable note for me in this otherwise delightful excursion into Hawthorne's extravagant and oratorical chessboard of symbols and motifs. I'm aware that Hepzibah's offputting scowl, which does not at all represent her actual mood or actual morals, is the counterpart of the Judge's false and beaming smile, and both are equally insisted upon beyond any reasonable requirement for description so as to force the careless reader to consider what they actually represent. But I must admit, at the umpteenth reference to the ugly Hepzibah scowl, I was provoked into growling, "oh just give it a rest, already, Nathaniel!" Subtlety - not his forte.

 

Chapter 18 is extraordinary writing. I started reading it in a slightly irritated mood, because it seemed that the author was going to take a simplistic trope (the narrator doesn't realize that Judge Pyncheon is dead) and just make a chapter out of it without doing much. Instead, it becomes an absolute symphony of rhetorical, imaginative expansion of the would-haves and could-haves surrounding the mundane fact of a nasty man dead of congenital heart failure in a decaying old house.

 

I have a very small and select folder on my Kindle called, "read but keeping". In goes The House of Seven Gables.

The Ra Expeditions (Heyerdahl)

The Ra Expeditions - Thor Heyerdahl

Heyerdahl's an interesting character; it appears he's a true damn-the-torpedoes adventurer, but his nature, as expressed in his writing anyway, is actually quite contemplative, and when he is describing physical surroundings, he gives the impression of having not just an observer's eye, but a painter's one.

 

At the end of the day, it doesn't matter much to me whether his "diffusionist" theories (the notion that very early civilizations on separate continents did in fact affect each other because they were capable of high-seas travel) are fully credited or discredited by modern archaeological thought. The chapters of special pleading mentioning all sorts of similarities between the cultural practices and artifacts on both sides of the Atlantic, although interesting and to me (in the absence of the other half of the argument) fairly convincing, are not the reason I would go back to reread this volume. What I appreciated the most were his vivid, concrete word-pictures of life on the two reed boats (Ra and Ra II), being swamped under 30-ft high waves, or going swimming and encountering all sorts of sea-creatures, not to mention nasty oil pollution, or simply co-existing with more than half-a-dozen men with as many different cultural backgrounds - a deliberate choice - in a space where "cheek-by-jowl" would be a generous description.

 

I also enjoyed the chapters detailing the round-the-world researches into very secluded places where reed boats are still built and used, and then the arrangements that had to be made in order to turn the mad concept of a cross-ocean voyage on a "paper boat" into reality. I suspect that this part of the account may be pretty heavily sanitized, particularly as regards financing, about which we learn next to nothing. Practically all we learn is that between the voyages, Heyerdahl was relying on future book revenues to finance Ra II.

 

There is a curious imbalance in this volume: the initial, almost-successful Ra voyage takes up fully 90% or more of the text, and the second, completely successful voyage is confined to the very last few dozen pages. The answer is probably buried in publishing history, but I was unable to deduce anything solid from looking at the various multilingual Ra-related items in worldcat. The turnaround time between Ra and Ra II appears to have been too short for a full book on the first voyage to have been written and published, but it's entirely possible that, knowing that most of the details of the first would be applicable to the second, Heyerdahl chose not to repeat his level of on-board documentation the second time around. Can't really tell.

 

Anyway, recommended as a really well-composed piece of highly unusual travel writing, with an interesting assortment of oddities and incidents, and an underpinning of speculative archaeology that's quite interesting to the layperson, and possibly enough to spark a deeper interest in the field for some readers.

The Birth House (McKay)

The Birth House - Ami McKay

Given that this falls into a subgenre of literary women's fiction that I flippantly call the "gynecological novel", I enjoyed it far more than I expected to. A large part of that is due to the historical setting, around WW I, which gave both urgency and context to the fairly straightforward narrative of a young woman's apprenticeship in, and practice of, midwifery, chiefly in opposition to the men around her. This is largely a story of female friendship and mutual support, though I hasten to add that there are a few sympathetic male characters, notably Dora's brothers and her eventual lover. They have, however, a relatively small part to play in comparison with the three overwhelmingly negative males who create the tension in the story: the abusive Mr. Ketch, murderer of women and of Dora's reputation; Dora's feckless and increasingly controlling husband, Archer; and, of course, the obstetrical villain of the piece, Dr. Thomas.

As a woman who, if she had ever given birth, would have undoubtedly chosen to take advantage of medical science, pain relief, and the security of an institutional setting, I find myself in an odd position when asked to sympathize unstintingly with the older, less professional, in many cases highly unscientific practices and ideology of home birth and midwifery as presented here. To navigate this problem, I fall back on my knowledge of my own profound ignorance of the realities of childbearing, but also on the reassuring notion, which I devoutly hope is true, that the stark opposition of male and female, science and superstition, pharmaceuticals and plant remedies, is moderated in our own time by some mutual understanding, in a way that it was not in 1914-1918.

I said at the beginning that I'm not a fan of the gynecological novel in general. This one, fortunately for me, was character-driven rather than obsessed (as some are) with pain, blood and the fragility of life. I enjoyed Dora's gradual coming of age as a proto-feminist; near the end of the novel she travels far from her small Nova Scotia community to a foreign but friendly women's enclave in foreign but friendly Boston, where she associates with suffragists and lesbians (and her brother Charles) before returning to home base Scots Bay and her final defeat of the interloping Doctor Thomas.

The style is transparent and unexceptionable. I wouldn't characterize the novel as having a particularly vivid sense of place in comparison with some of the other east-coast Canadian novels I've read, nor is it particularly poetic in its description, but it was enough to carry the story and the characters. In enjoyed the introduction of the expected historical milestones - the Halifax explosion, the Armistice, the Spanish flu. All in all, a quick and painless read, without benefit of chloroform.

Gone Girl (Flynn)

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn

Following along in my great tradition of reading the trendiest books long after their trend is over, I finally got around to spending time with Nick and Amy Dunne. I was completely unspoiled, having paid no attention whatsoever to reviews of either the movie or the book.

Well, in a nutshell, I didn't mind it - it was cleverly done - but I wasn't particularly blown away. At first I found the style (especially the Amy-diary style) irritating, but then I realized that it was deliberate and under control. The fact that there was a twist mid-book came as no surprise whatsoever, and in fact the only (mild) surprise I felt was that the unreliable narrator-twist wasn't played one more time before the end (i.e. I was completely prepared to discover that Nick had engineered the whole thing, including the manufacture of supporting documents and a "suicide" by Amy).

I fully understand why some people found the ending irritating, but that's just a variation on the trope of "evil didn't die" that shows up at the end of horror films like "Carrie", I think. It's your last, parting shudder (it walks amongst us still). With two such horrible people as protagonists, you're not going to get a morally satisfying ending short of tossing them both off a cliff - which, frankly, I would have been delighted to do at several points during the proceedings.

Oh well. It's always worth making a bit of effort to pull oneself further inside the circle of common cultural references. It felt a bit like a much-procrastinated duty, but as duties go, it was not a particularly unpleasant one.

The Girl on the Balcony (Hussey)

The Girl on the Balcony: Olivia Hussey Finds Life After Romeo and Juliet - Olivia Hussey

I'm sorry to say that I came to this because, in connection with #metoo discussions, someone mentioned a nasty sexual assault on Olivia Hussey, taking place in the same house as the Manson murders only months afterwards. I'm also sorry to say that incident is indeed in this autobiography.

 

However, I have some very tender memories of the Hussey/Whiting/Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet, a film I saw (like so many of my generation) in my teens while studying the play, so I was very happy to read Olivia Hussey's stories about the making of that film, when she was herself a mere teenager. It seems she got along with Zeffirelli very well indeed, and had a little fling with her gorgeous co-star to boot.

 

For the remainder of her career, Hussey was (at least for me), one of those "I know that face" actresses; she had parts in any number of films and TV miniseries I am sure I have seen, but of which I have no very vivid recollection. It appears she struggled with anxiety and agoraphobia (she mentions it more in her stories about her youth, but she doesn't say she ever completely overcame it); that in itself is adequate explanation for why she never made that last breakthrough to the top echelon of movie stars. She appears, however, to have more or less made a go of it, right up until she was completely impoverished by a crooked manager (this is not libel - he was prosecuted).

 

She appears to have been attracted by highly extroverted and performative men: her 3 husbands were Dean Paul Martin (son of Dean Martin), a Japanese singer, and an American rock singer. The first two marriages fell apart within a few years, but the third has lasted several decades. She had a child from each marriage, and Alex, the son of the first marriage, is credited as co-author on this book. There's also quite a lot about the budding acting career of her daughter, India, from the third marriage, but very little about the middle son.

 

Hussey goes into considerable detail about her discipleship, formed early, of an Indian guru she called "Baba"; I seriously doubt that he was quite so unequivocally virtuous and wise as she portrays him, and I completely doubt all the little anecdotes she delights in of his predicting all the twists and turns of her life before they occurred. However, she does seem to have been a bit of a religious seeker, and he apparently gave her a fair bit of balance and calm, so it isn't kind to be too censorious. Her reliance on "Baba", however, seems symptomatic of another pattern throughout the book - Olivia doesn't seem to have done well, or even desired to do well, without a man to lean on. The organizing principle of the book, such as it is, is not her progression from professional role to professional role (indeed, she leaves some things out altogether, especially towards the end of her career - you would never know she's a voice-over artist, for instance) but from marriage to marriage. And of course it's her prerogative, but one often gets the sense that even her account of that progression leaves out a lot of (probably painful) detail. In her description of her relationship with Dean Paul Martin, for instance, she tells how they separated after only a few years, and divorced a few years later, but she makes it seem as though he might still have been interested in coming back to her when they were both a bit more mature. The name of Dorothy Hamill (the skater, and Dean Paul Martin's wife for a few years in the early 80s) is never mentioned, and neither is that marriage.

 

Hussey satisfies with some grace what she must know would be a major attraction of her account, namely stories about interactions with actors more famous than herself, such as Laurence Olivier, David Niven, Dean Martin (of course) and Bette Davis (apparently an absolute harridan in her late-life appearance in Death on the Nile). Hussey is not a mean-spirited chronicler; she seems quite self-aware about her own failings, and she does not complain over-much about the truly nasty financial ill luck that attended both her early childhood and her later years, though we can read into her stories about moving from place to place the strain that must have placed on her.

 

There is a section of about 3 dozen photographs, some colour, many of them family, but some from her roles; this section was very well hidden (no chapter heading) in the e-version of the book, and so came as a pleasant surprise at the end of the text. From it, we easily gather that the people around her have been the most important thing in Hussey's life, and also that she has remained into later years remarkably good-looking.

 

Recommended if you like anecdotal film memoirs of the 60s/70s.

Peter O'Toole: the Definitive Biography (Sellers)

Peter O'Toole : the definitive biography - Robert Sellers

Is this really "the definitive biography"? It's certainly the best in a very disappointing field since O'Toole's death. Notably absent amongst the people interviewed as original sources: any of O'Toole's surviving family, including ex-wife Sian Phillilps (mother of his two daughters) or ex-partner Karen Brown (mother of his late-life son). So this is definitely not the "authorized" biography, which can be a good or a bad thing. In this case, I think it has been detrimental to any real understanding of O'Toole's family life (Sian Phillips' autobiography is a useful corrective for the years when they were married).

 

I was dubious when I saw Robert Sellers to be the author, because he has also written books with such unpromising titles as "Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed" and "Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down: How One Generation of British Actors Changed the World". In other words, he gives every appearance of being one of those bloke-ish biographers who delight in chronicling promiscuity and drunkenness, as if they were something necessarily associated with great talent and in some way admirable. Mind you, to be fair, if you're going to write about Peter O'Toole, you're going to have to address both of those major factors in his life and career. But I was pleasantly surprised at the relative absence of celebratory adjectives about the alcoholism that most certainly contributed to O'Toole's dreadful health in the second part of the career (not to mention his very poor reputation amongst landlords and other property owners).

 

The sources for this book are chiefly gossipy minor players in the entertainment world, most of whom doubtless have dined out on their O'Toole stories for some time, so we must take into account the natural human tendencies to embellish and generalize. The other people involved in the best anecdotes are by and large gone from us, and can't issue any refutations (if indeed they would wish to). But in addition to O'Toole's mischief, drinking, and occasional completely thoughtless cruelty, I found that there was also a ring of truth - through repetition from different sources - in the accounts of his deep thoughtfulness about his craft, his extensive and intelligent reading, and a generosity that could be as extravagant as his narcissism. As I think I remarked in my review of "Hellraisers", O'Toole still comes off, like Burton, as someone you could see wanting to associate with, as opposed to some of the nastier drunks in his circle of contemporaries. (And lest anyone wonder, it does seem that he dabbled in drugs as well.)

 

Sellers puts to rest the old controversy of where O'Toole was born, Ireland or England, by digging up the actual birth certificate from Leeds. But he does also acknowledge throughout that O'Toole became Irish, almost by dint of wishing so very much to be Irish (he always claimed himself that he did not actually know one way or the other).

The book has a decent apparatus (index, bibliography, list of film and theatre credits), and there are citations at the end for most paragraphs, though since most of said citations are to "author's interview with X", there's really not much verification that can be done. Sellers also took the time to view the historical record in the form of TV talk show utterances (now much more available to us through youtube), and he relies relatively little on previous biographical work as far as I can see, although Sian Phillips is of course fairly heavily cited.

 

"Better than expected" doesn't seem like particularly high praise, but in fact I'm quite pleased to give this book a place on my shelves. Since O'Toole will unfortunately never continue his slim, whimsical, fascinating autobiographical efforts into the most riveting years of his career, we must rely on the more prosaic expressions (and perhaps more reliable memories?) of the people around him who may not have been his nearest and dearest, but for that very reason may have been reliable observers.

 

Recommended to fans of O'Toole and people who enjoy anecdotal biography about London and Hollywood in the mid to late 20th century.

Snap (Bauer)

Snap - Belinda Bauer

I do enjoy modern thrillers, so it's not completely unlikely that I would have read this without the Booker longlist nomination that caused me to push the "add to waitlist" button on my e-library account. And I've probably wasted too much mental energy since, wondering whether the odd halo cast by the Booker has subtly altered my expectations and in what direction.

 

I quite enjoyed this, but it had a few shortcomings that niggled at me during and after the reading. Chief amongst these was an unsupported motivation for the principal crime - a motivation referenced in the title, but really no motivation at all. I know people snap, but we got to know the villain so little that his snapping seemed not just out of character but out of the blue. The main character, Jack, was much more accessible, and in the main much more likeable, which helped somewhat to bridge over the rather distressing way he solved the problem of his mother's murderer towards the end of the book. However, I couldn't help feeling that the random vandalism and lashing out that was the nastier end of a generally nice young boy was planted more to make his violence at the end seem plausible than because it was consistent with his own back-story.

 

Marvel and Reynolds, the cops, are a nicely-balanced pair of caricatures with a good double act that provokes the occasional smile. I hope, if this is part of a series, that Rice, their female sidekick, gets a bit more to do than she did here: as a character, I felt she had promise.

 

I liked the deliberation of the initial chapters and the way the plot picked up in both pace and bizarre events towards the end. This is as it should be in a thriller. There was, however, no twist to speak of (the identity of the knife-maker was, I suppose, a bit of a reveal, though certainly one I saw coming). The only mildly unexpected thing at the end was that one of the cops suppressed some information that would have had grave consequences for young Jack.

 

Anyway, I'd recommend this for people who like thrillers anyway, but not for people who read prize literature nominees because of their literary qualities.

Obasan (Kogawa)

Obasan - Joy Kogawa

I knew of "Obasan" long before I read it; it wasn't compulsory reading in any of my high school or university courses (as it has since become, so I hear) but it was discussed, and unlike most novels its publication arguably had a material effect on society at large. It's generally acknowledged that Kogawa's 1981 imaginative depiction of the plight of Japanese and Japanese-Canadian internees in WWII and after was a contributing factor in the government's eventual (1988) apology and settlement, shamefully so many decades after the wrongs were done.

 

So it's an important novel, but was it an enjoyable read? My four stars, I must admit, are somewhat more respectful than enthusiastic. There are passages that are utterly riveting, particularly in the latter half once the characters have established themselves. I like the POV, that of a young girl, because it allows for quirky observation, and a softening (since children are resilient) of the trauma of dire material and emotional damage inflicted by the xenophobia and racist actions of the government. This does not mean that Naomi is not traumatized by the fracturing of her family, and the eventual death of both her parents. In fact, partly due to the cultural value of staying silent (referred to throughout the novel), she finds herself often in a world of inexplicable bad dreams. Naomi's silent victimhood, and that of her even more silent elderly female aunt, Obasan, is balanced by westernized and vocal Aunt Emily, whose talents for documentation and indignation bridge the gap between Naomi's remembered if rather uncomprehending childhood and her present, in which she finally finds out the fate of her missing mother. (If I say the word Nagasaki, it is probably a spoiler).

 

There is a lot of death in this novel - death of family, death of strangers, death of animals. It can get to be a bit much, and for me that was not totally balanced out by the lyricism and accuracy of the physical description, particularly that of the dry, strange province I grew up in, Alberta (actually felt it in my throat at moments). And since I come to this novel a full generation after the nation made its apologies and amends, I am not moved by the same outrage I probably would have felt as a young person in 1981 - yet still I was moved.

 

So, four stars. Read it, but not on a day when you are depressed, because although it is not a deliberately depressing novel - it is quite a bit more nuanced than that - the circumstances that gave rise to it, the mindless, careless depravity of our own society's treatment of the other, are profoundly depressing in themselves, and all too relevant today as well.

SPOILER ALERT!

Man Overboard (Jance)

Man Overboard: An Ali Reynolds Novel (Ali Reynolds Series) - J.A. Jance

J.A. Jance has a huge number of titles in her back catalogue, but this is the first one I've read. I'd characterize this as a pleasant, well-managed beach read. It has no intrusive romantic sub-plot (there are hints that the main character, Ali, and her husband had such a plot in the past, but this is book #12 in the series and their established relationship takes up little to no room in the narrative). In fact, two subsidiary characters in their company, computer nerd Stuart Ramey and up-and-comer investigator Cami, have centre stage until the last moment, when Ali mounts a rescue effort that, happily, doesn't even require her to fire her gun.

The plot of this novel turns on an implausible (I hope) premise: an Artificial Intelligence that develops its own moral compass and acts accordingly.  The world of AI is the new supernatural for most of us ordinary mortals, so I will cheerfully go along with it (just as I go along with witches in Macbeth) for the sake of the story.

Although the underlying theme of the story is a sobering one - intergenerational effects of suicides - there is nothing here either so gripping or so horrifying that it could spoil the novel's cheerful gallop towards the inevitable fate of the bad and the rescue and reward of the good. A pleasing pastime, falling in my mental classifications near to the series by J.D. Robb, though without the cloying romance aspects.

SPOILER ALERT!

Caedmon's Song (Robinson)

Caedmon's Song - Peter Robinson

According to his afterword, this non-Banks story from Peter Robinson, though published in 2003, was written in the late '80s (it's copyrighted 1990), and he made a conscious choice not to try to update it into the internet age. The 1980s setting is, in fact, one of its selling points for me; I have a curious nostalgia for the days when it was the norm to be unhooked from the rest of the world, and operating purely independently and often in the absence of definite information on any number of minor topics. It was actually possible not only to get lost, but to be lost to other people.

 

This is a two-stream narrative, both in the third person but very much focused on a single point of view, and both tracking a young woman. It becomes evident early on to an attentive reader that both streams are about the same person; what is unresolved until a little later is just how close in time the two narratives are, one detailing a horrifyingly traumatic sexual assault just barely short of murder by an established serial killer, and the other telling about the cascading ethical (and physical) horrors of seeking revenge. Unlike a detective novel, this one does not concern itself with the legal consequences of the three murders that the protagonist commits on that journey. In some ways, having found ourselves in her head all through the novel, that's a bit of relief. We get to decide for ourselves (or fail to decide) what justice might look like in the horrifyingly unjust world in which Kirsten first finds herself, and to which Martha and Sue eventually contribute. (The multiple names refer simply to successive disguises the woman takes on during her journey of revenge, not to multiple personalities in the "Sybil" sense, but certainly there is a resonance with that general notion of the traumatized fractured self).

 

I have seen mixed reactions to this novel on the review sites, partly attributable (of course) to that bane of series novelists, frustrated expectations, but partly with reasoned criticisms of what was in fact a first work, though not first published. Myself, I liked it very much, enough to give it my standard Robinson four stars. It already shows some of the strengths that make his mature work so compulsively readable: psychological complexity, a keen eye and ear for the details of the world, and a solid grasp of narrative progression and structure.

SPOILER ALERT!

Full Disclosure (McLachlin)

Full Disclosure: A Novel - Beverley McLachlin

This could have been just a novelty - a mystery novel written by an ex-Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. Excellence in the judicial sphere, though it implies a good mind and a decent command of language, doesn't necessarily presage excellence in fictional composition. But I thought this was much better than just a novelty, though it's clearly a first effort. There's a little bit of over-explaining.  The clues about the big reveal were far too numerous and a little too obvious. But the plot was well-managed on the whole, and there was just a little soupcon of ethical ambiguity at the end, which was a pleasant surprise. And, of course, the courtroom scenes were outstanding, with every psychological twist and turn fully understood and made clear, with its curious mix of deadly seriousness and lawyers' games.

If McLachlin felt inclined to self-reference, I only caught her at it once, and it was a funny sentence near the beginning: "The Arthur Erickson building that houses the Supreme Court of British Columbia  is light and airy, and there's a portrait of the chief justice of Canada on the wall (when she was young and looked good) to remind me that sometimes, occasionally, women do rule."

McLachlin made the interesting choice to locate her young defence attorney protagonist in Vancouver, and lurking not very far in the background is the still very sombre memory of Canada's worst mass murderer, Robert Pickton, who preyed on disenfranchised women, many of them indigenous, from the East End of that city. Though it was subtly signaled earlier on, I was still taken aback by the boldness with which the author made that horror personally relevant to Jilly, our heroine.

This is a very, very Canadian novel, from its description of Vancouver in sun and fog to its particular social and legal history to - dare I say it? - the genuine niceness of most of the main characters. I realized as I was reading that because of that Canadian feel, I was becoming unusually irritated by being confronted with spellings like "gray" and "splendor". A little thing, I know, and Simon & Schuster are an international firm, but once I noticed it I couldn't stop noticing it. It was like a small but noticeable distortion of McLachlin's voice. If she writes another - and I hope she will - I would be much happier if it were with a Canadian publisher or at least with one who will issue a Canadian/British edition.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (Johnston)

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams - Wayne Johnston

I've read a few Newfoundland novels lately, but this one, a fictionalized autobiography of Joey Smallwood, Newfoundland's first Premier, differs from the rest of them in that it is largely an urban novel, with most of the action set either in St. John's or in New York. Smallwood spent time working for the radical left-wing press in New York in his youth, and remained a socialist throughout his long political career, though his emphasis on economic development for Newfoundland meant that he controversially sided with large corporations (and foreign corporations at that) against unions in a number of major decisions. This novel is not, however, an economic or political history of Newfoundland, though elements of both are wryly scattered throughout, and the omnipresence of the historical view is very much felt through the interspersed writings of fictional historian, journalist and love interest [Sheilagh] Fielding - always known by her last name, just as she always addresses Smallwood as "Smallwood". And yes, as the title would suggest, not only are the larger dreams of the new province in Canada largely unrequited, but so too are the affections of Smallwood and Fielding, though it is hard, sometimes, to discern in which direction the unrequited feelings are flowing, both characters are so prickly, defensive and entirely caught up in their own worlds.

 

I'm not going to try to describe the way the plot winds in and out, incorporating major historical events in Smallwood's actual life like his trip on foot across the island, following the major railway line, recruiting union members; his harrowing trip as a journalist on a sealing voyage where a large part of the crew was stranded and frozen; his fraught political relationship with pre-Confederation Newfoundland politicians under the old system of colonial government from Britain; his shoestring existence in extreme poverty in New York. Nor was I particularly concerned to sort out fact from fiction in all of this. The more intriguing mystery was the characters, and how a couple of key (and likely fictional) events in their youth drove them through life. Those events involved written evidence, and the existence of written histories, and even a book of history as a possible instrument of homicide - OK, if you want more, you must read the book. And I really do think you should if you enjoy description that leaps off the page (strange, familiar, and strangely familiar settings), and characters who make you ache a bit even while they stubbornly withhold full understanding of their pain.

 

You don't need to know a lot about Newfoundland or its history to enjoy "Colony of Unrequited Dreams". You may find, however, that this fictional history about histories makes you want to know more of the truth. Heartily recommended.