Friday 26 August 2016

Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton

Little Black Lies
Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton
I read this book in a day. I got home from work and sat down on the sofa with a cup of tea and this book to pass time before dinner. When I finally looked up and away from the page, the sun was rising.

Every sentence was perfect.

The book is set in the Falkland Islands, twelve years after the war with Argentina. It’s a very small community surrounded by a beautiful but dangerous landscape, so when a child goes missing, everyone assumes it must have been a terrible tragedy. But then another child goes missing, and then another. Suddenly an accident doesn’t seem so likely. The town slowly descend into mass hysteria with everyone trying to help or find someone to blame. Even Catrin Quinn, the island recluse, ends up involved in the searches.

Catrin wasn’t always a recluse. She used to have a happy life: a husband, two lively sons, and a best friend. Catrin and Rachel have been best friends since childhood. Whenever one would go, the other would follow. They were more like sisters than friends. Until the day Rachel accidentally killed both of Catrin sons in a horrible accident. Now Catrin bears only a passing resemblance to her old vivacious and compassionate self. All she feels nowadays is hate and anger and a terrible hunger for revenge.

Living in the small and remote community, Catrin can never escape seeing her former best friend. She sees her in the local dinner laughing and holding her third son. She sees Rachel’s other three sons playing in their backyard, alone and vulnerable…

To say that this book is a page turner is an understatement. Bolton is a master when creating suspense. There was never a good stopping point in this book, and it just kept getting better and better. If you like mysteries and suspense, this is the book for you.

Eating Dirt

Eating Dirt
Eating Dirt
By Charlotte Gill

Imagine a life of dirty, tough work out in the backcountry.  Imagine that the wilderness is home for eight months of the year and that you can’t have a proper shower or get any real privacy during this time.  Then imagine that this is the life you choose for yourself.

This is Charlotte Gill’s reality and in Eating Dirt, she details the gritty life of the tree planter – a life she has led for 20 years.  Although most tree planters only last a couple of seasons, Charlotte Gill and others return to tree planting for years on end.

Despite being Gill’s career, she questions the efficacy of planting trees to repopulate a thousand-year-old forest.  Describing the intricacies of the old growth ecosystem, she is heartily aware that filling the space with saplings will not return the landscape to its former glory.  Gill paints a vivid picture of the forest environment that begins in the bacterial life of the soil and spans to the top of the majestic canopy.  Microscopic life, insects, rodents, birds, large mammals, predators and prey make the forest their home but also create the forest; their very existence carves the forest into the environment they require.

As such, we are but intruders in the forest.  Humans have used wood to build our cities, castles, boats and furniture since time immemorial.  We have used wood to keep warm and dry for millennia.  But we have used it far beyond our means to maintain it.  Gill describes how many parts of the world were cleared of forest hundreds of years ago, leaving the landscape inalterably changed

The Middle East, for example, was once covered with forest.  The cedar forests of Lebanon were essential to many civilizations, such as Babylon and Phoenicia.  But once these forests were decimated, the soil eroded and created the desert that we know today.

Gill notes that North America is the final bastion of great forest which we cut down with impunity, all the while “hiding” the clear cuts away from major highways and tourist attractions.  Many have protested, and many of us continue to visit old growth sites like Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island and the Redwoods in California, perhaps searching for a lost heritage.

Whatever we may think of logging practices, wood usage and the attempt to repopulate our forests, Eating Dirt is a fascinating read.

Monday 22 August 2016

The Buried Giant

The Buried Giant
The Buried Giant
The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro, is a fantasy novel that covers the journey of Axl and Beatrice, a couple who set off on a journey to find their son, who they have not seen for some time, and actually do not remember very well. As the story moves along with their journey, we discover that there are in fact a lot of things that Axl and Beatrice, and other characters they meet, do not remember. There is a mysterious mist hanging over their post Arthurian England that has caused the inhabitants to lose memories. We feel part of the mist covered tale as the writing penetrates the scenes and the foggy remembrances of Beatrice and Axl.
Along their journey they meet an Arthurian knight, a warrior and a strange boy, all of whom are on a quest to slay a dragon that has supposedly caused the mist that sucks away the memories. As their paths cross and separate, it is sometimes difficult to tell who is on whose side, who can be trusted, and who is up to what. Many side characters that Beatrice and Axl encounter lead them astray and into danger, and even those who appear to lead them to safety may not be whom they at first appear. This all helps to give the feeling of lethargy and mystery that comes with the mist.
This is the first of Ishiguro’s books that I have read, his most famous being The Remains of the Day, and I must say it was an enjoyable read. The writing puts you right in the feelings of the characters, you feel like all is not as it appears and you wonder what is real and what is not, as do the characters. I had an ominous feeling about what the return of the memories would do to Axl and Beatrice, did they need to remember everything, what was it they were really forgetting? 
The Buried Giant will appeal to readers who want to immerse themselves in alternate worlds as well as readers interested in the process of memory and how memories affect our lives.

Wednesday 17 August 2016

All My Puny Sorrows

Miriam Toews has this way of writing lines that are so beautiful that sometimes I have to close her books for a moment just to marvel at them. All My Puny Sorrows is a book that is full of such moments; alternating equally between being eloquently wise, wickedly funny and jaggedly heartbreaking.

In every one of her novels Toews balances on the delicate line between tragedy and comedy. That is what makes her novels so real and relatable, a big salad bowl full of happy and sad ingredients. Often the relationships the novels explore are relationships within families and Toews’s portrayal never comes across false. The sadness doesn’t come across as melodrama, the happiness isn’t forced.

All My Puny Sorrows is the story of a family- two sisters and their parents cocooned in a small Mennonite community in Manitoba. Elf is the loud, romantic non-conformist who blatantly rejects the church with her piano playing. Yoli is clearly in awe of her older sister, who she watches carefully and with clear adoration. Thirty or so years later, Elf is a world-famous pianist with a devoted live-in partner, while Yoli is divorced, unemployed and raising two teenagers alone. Despite that, Elf has a tendency toward increasingly violent attempted suicides. After Elf’s latest in a series of life-long suicide attempts, Yoli attempts to help save her sister and fights against her own resentment and pain.

It isn’t an easy read.  The honest examination of a family coping with a suicidal relative is heavy, painful stuff. Still, Yoli is a resourceful, funny character and the warmth of Toews’ writing style and the deep connection between the sisters kept me reading even through the darker moments. Not only that, but I loved every character including the minor ones – texts to Yoli from her teens were a comedic highlight. The novel should be grim, but it’s not- I finished it feeling genuinely uplifted. That’s life, it reminded me, all the good and bad, the hilarious and absolutely terrible. And beyond it all, what we’re left with are the people who love us and for however long they can, they help us get through.


By Mary Roach

While there are plenty of books that cover the political and human impacts of war, we rarely see and examination of more unusual aspects of maintaining a military force.  Grunt by Mary Roach isn’t about new guns and tanks, drones and missiles. This is the kind of stuff that most people don’t even think about: what kind of fabric uniforms are made from, what sleeping arrangements are like on submarines, and if there is such thing as shark repellant (probably not, but they tried).

This is Mary Roach’s stock in trade: the weirder aspects of everyday life (and death).  In previous books, she’s interviewed experts on such wide ranging topics as the digestive system, the human soul, how dead bodies are dealt with, and how people are preparing to go to Mars. 

Grunt is nothing if not consistent with her previous work.  Mary Roach’s style is very engaging: she can discuss the dullest of topics and still keep me interested.  She’s prepared to cover really unusual topics, she takes her subjects seriously, she’s witty, and she always has an eye out for the human aspects of her topic. This means that she’s always ready to try out whatever experiments being discussed: in previous books she attended séances, used a space toilet (a task that requires a video targeting system to get the aim right), and shared a special moment with her husband in an ultrasound machine. In Grunt, she engages in a high-pressure training exercise for military medics, goes into live warzones, and smell-tests potential stink bomb candidates. 

If I have any complaint about Mary Roach’s writing it’s that very often she will skim past a topic that would make a great book in its own right.  She might drop in a footnote to point out some weird fact about a researcher or a scientist.  It’s interesting.  It’s often so interesting that you wish that was what was being covered instead. It’s nice that she includes a bibliography.  The problem is the references are a lot more stuffy and formal than her much more relaxed prose.

While Grunt is her most recent work, I highly recommend any of Mary Roach’s previous books as well.  You’ll learn things that you never knew you wanted to know.