Thursday, November 22, 2012

Review of "I'll See You In My Dreams"

I'll See You in My Dreams: An Arthur Beauchamp NovelI'll See You in My Dreams: An Arthur Beauchamp Novel by William Deverell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every new Arthur Beauchamp mystery seems even funnier than the last, which is saying something. The self-deprecating humour, legal puzzles, human conundrums, urban and rural settings and the characters created by William Deverell never fail to satisfy. This book, in particular, deals with some very dark Canadian history and corrupt characters, circa 1962, mostly.

The structure of the book, intersperses a "biography" of the gangly, Roman-nosed lawyer from the beginning of his career, referencing other books in the series (very clever) and then unspools a plot which moves between the 60's and present day. Deverell is a terrific writer who happens to specialize in erudite, witty, page-flapping mysteries with a social conscience. It takes a pro to make those diverse elements sing in a pitch-perfect way and that's why his fans are legion.

The tidbits offered up to depict Vancouver of the early 60's era are another delight to encounter: the Cecil Hotel, the poet Newlove (John, like the fictional Beauchamp, a brilliant, tormented fellow fond of libations), the tasty and affordable Green and Orange Door restaurants,the Marco Polo, Isy's, the old West End and the view while walking over the Burrard Street Bridge. Likewise, the depiction of rural"Garibaldi Island" and its denizens, classic Gulf Island caricatures, lovingly created, down to the perennially late ferry boat, the transsexual Queen of Prince George, never fails to elicit guffaws. Warn your bedmate if you read at night. It's either a benign West Coast quake or a new Arthur Beauchamp novel underway.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review of The Taste of Ashes by Sheila Peters

The Taste of AshesThe Taste of Ashes by Sheila Peters
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a thoughtful and well-written novel which will challenge those in 'comfortable pews' as well as those readers who try to avoid reading about genocide (in this case, Guatemala) or those who have set ideas about Catholic priests. This is to name just three good reasons to read this challenging book. The central characters are not having easy lives: Isabel is a recovering alcoholic in her late forties, living in a small northern Canadian town. She is a lonely woman who has made many poor choices in male companionship while under the influence and who has difficult relationships with two of her three adult children. Her daughter Janna is bright, hardworking and just as stubborn as her mother but she has managed to escape the town where her mother's drunken, lustful escapades brought down more than her fair share of shame amongst her peers. There are two brothers with different fathers, one increasingly remote and disapproving and the other, wonderfully developed, the emotional and sensible pillar of the family, who provides stability for them all. His Gitxan family roots are exemplified by his behaviour and leadership.
One character observed that Isabel was "fierce for her children" for all her lapses and failings. She struggles to pay her mortgage, working as the assistant manager of a discount clothing store for $12.50/hour. She finds solace in gardening though, descriptions of which illuminate the darkness of the story in much the same way as bulbs planted in late fall restore the faith of northern gardeners when they emerge to announce another spring.

Isabel tucked the (peony)root into the ground. Before she covered it, she said a prayer for Janna, a prayer to overcome anger. Isabel had felt it in herself when she hugged Janna at her college graduation last spring. She'd felt it in her daughter, the way her pretty face pinched in resistance and her body became an awkward stick that Isabel wanted to shake. She covered the root and prayed that Janna would grow soft, would send out tender shoots, and that she would come home.

Alvaro is the Catholic priest who has lost his faith, his calling and who is suffering terribly from post-traumatic stress. Alvaro endured torture in Guatemala and encountered its manifestations daily while working to reunite families, even if some of the members were bones in a mass grave. There are many more characters, all masterfully created 3-D people, great, reprehensible or merely meddling, with devastating results to show for it. They are characters that linger in my mind, each one fully developed. This is not a book to rush through but to think and feel and hope through and the author's skill is such that one is forced to confront one's own prejudices and easy judgments.

The author, Sheila Peters, has done a substantial amount of research with human rights workers in Guatemala, with Catholic priests and lay persons, and with trauma counselors in Canada. By tackling the sacred and the profane, the best and worst behaviours of humanity, she has offered us an ambitious first novel of great depth and complexity with memorable characters that will linger a long while after the ending, which is just exactly right for the story.The Taste of Ashes

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Monday, November 19, 2012

Review of The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

Light Between Oceans by M L StedmanLight Between Oceans by M L Stedman by M. L. Stedman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was recommended to me by a friend, an avid reader who thought that since I lived on a Canadian lightstation, a new Australian book set on a station there would be of interest. Also, that it was a very, very good read. Well, what a pair of understatements.
This is a stunning first novel set in post-World War I Western Australia, well south of Perth. The Janus Rock Lightstation is strategically located between the Great Southern Ocean and the Indian Ocean, a place where the warm and cold currents collide and ships traversing the shipping lanes recognize its five second flash as entering or leaving the realm of the Australian continent.Urgent messages to and from the lightstation and the ships are infrequent but Morse code is used by all parties. Part of the lightkeeper's duties are to note the names of the ships passing by, time and date, and to log all such information.

Stedman's descriptions of lighthouse duties, of the island, the tower itself and the house provided, the supply boat which stopped by every three months and the mental strain suffered by a widowed lightkeeper are apt and accurate. She writes beautifully.

To this well-named island, comes battle-scarred Tom Sherbourne, a relief keeper and war hero, looking for a place to be still and solid.

At the kitchen window, the flame of the oil lamp wavered occasionally. The wind continued its ancient vendetta against the windows, accompanied by the liquid thunder of waves. Tom tingled at the knowledge that he was the only one to hear any of it: the only living man for the better part of a hundred miles in any direction. He thought of the gulls nestled into their wiry homes on the cliffs, the fish hovering stilly in the safety of the reefs, protected by the icy water. Every creature needed its place of refuge.
And to this sad, good man's life while on shore leave comes Isabel, a cheerful, pretty young woman who amazes him with her wit and her audacity, especially so because she has set her sights on him, of all people. Tom is advised by the supply boat's captain never to underestimate the importance of the right wife on the Lights, advice as sound in the early 1900's as it is in this century.

Then to their idyllic and adventurous island life comes more grief, in the form of two miscarriages and a stillborn child, and just the two of them out there alone, coping with the physical and emotional reality.

But then, then a rowboat adrift lands on one of their island beaches, a boat with a dead man and a very much alive baby girl.
What to do? By then the reader is mesmerized,watching Tom and Isabel succumb to their choices, making decisions that will undo them both but the skill with which the author sets the pacing of the novel, the slow unspooling of the days and the shocking jolts of tension, is guaranteed to undo the reader-- unless the reader has a heart of stone.

I'd like to add that the cover is lovely and the endpapers are simply wonderful-- early lighthouse logbook pages with graceful, copperplate penmanship, noting the wind direction and force, the barometric pressure and temperature, and remarks as to passing ships and special task performed.

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