Tuesday, 26 July 2016

The Senility of Vladimir P

Finished July 25
The Senility of Vladimir P by Michael Honig

This novel is set a few years in the future. Vladimir Putin is no longer the leader of Russia, but instead an old man suffering from senility and living in relative seclusion on a dacha near Moscow. The main character here is his nurse, Sheremetev. Sheremetev is a singular man, one who never concerned himself with politics, who never gave or received bribes, even when all around him were involved in such activity. This seemingly ethical stance was what caused him to be chosen for the position in which he is now employed.
As he gradually becomes aware of the corruption going on all around him, the state of the country that his charge has contributed in a large way to, and the effects of his seemingly ethical stance on his family, he begins to question his own motives.
The premise here is an interesting one, and the characters are well drawn. For me, the problem was that I didn't like any of them. And the behaviour of the characters just made me angry. It was so extreme as to be a farce and I guess with the state of the world today this book just came at the wrong time for me.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

The Ashes of London

Finished July 24
The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

This historical mystery novel begins with the great fire of London in early September 1666. King Charles II had regained the throne in 1660 following the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658, and Charles I's execution by beheading in 1649. The plague had appeared repeatedly in London, most recently in 1665, when the mortality rate reached one in five.
When Charles II gained the throne, most who had fought against the crown were pardoned, excepting those labelled the Regicides, those directly instrumental in the King's execution.
As the story begins, James Marwood has been drawn, along with many others, to St. Paul's as it burns in the fire. He notes a boy venturing dangerously close to the scene and seeming unsteady, and when he goes after him to save him from the fire, he discovers it is a young woman, and she escapes both the flames and him, taking his cape with her.
James' father was one of the men against the crown, although not a Regicide, and who is now slipping into dementia. James is trying to keep him housed and fed and out of trouble, and thus works at Whitehall for Joseph Williamson, who founded and published the London Gazette, as well as being a civil servant, under-secretary to Lord Arlington. Marwood worked for Williamson at Scotland Yard as a clerk.and general dogsbody. Because of his father's history, he gets drawn into events that may involve one of the men labelled Regicide, who is still at large.
The boy/woman is Catherine Lovett, now living with her aunt, uncle and cousin. Her father was a Regicide and is still uncaught. She hopes to find him again, but despairs of it. Her uncle has made a marriage arrangement for her, but she is not happy with his choice. Catherine spent a lot of time in her youth at the country home of another aunt and uncle who encouraged her interest in architecture and left her the estate when they died. Thus, while Catherine has property, she is of a time when women had few rights to behave according to their own wishes.
With the search for Catherine's father, the disorganized state of the city due to the fire, the bodies of seemingly murdered men found in suspicious circumstances, and both Catherine and James trying to protect themselves while looking for answers, this book has lots going on. Bringing elements of the real history of this time period with real figures made this book very interesting.

Destroyer Angel

Finished July 23
Destroyer Angel by Nevada Barr, read by Barbara Rosenblat

I've read a lot of the books in the Anna Pigeon series, and this is one of the more recent ones, #18 in the series. Here, Anna has joined her friend Heath, a paraplegic; Heath's teenage daughter Elizabeth, their dog Wylie; Leah, an inventor of camping equipment; and Leah's teen daughter Katie on a vacation that is also a trial of some of Leah's more recent creations, camping in a Minnesota forest.
One evening Anna takes a solo canoe excursion to enjoy some solitude, and while she is gone the camp site is invaded by four armed men who take the other campers hostage. They specifically name Leah and Katie, indicating they are looking for ransom for them. Anna is given enough warning to keep away, but she has no gear and no weapons and must resort to monitoring the situation as closely as she can while looking for opportunities to either facilitate an escape or disable the captors.
This is a story told over a few days, under conditions difficult for all involved. People get hurt, people are hungry, and there is constant worry over the possible killing of some of the hostages.
The details take up a lot of the story, details of the women's thoughts and reactions, of the environment and the obstacles to the forced trek across country to an airfield. There are advances and setbacks for Anna and the other women, and lots of suspense. An engrossing read.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Underground Airlines

Finished July 17
Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

This novel of is set in a United States with an alternate history. This is a United States that didn't go through a Civil War, where Abraham Lincoln was killed just a bit earlier than in our reality, where slavery still exists in some states.
Given the state of things in the U.S. today, this is a novel with a terrifying premise. Victor is a black man working as an undercover slave hunter for the U.S. Marshall Service, in their mandate to enforce the 1793 Fugitive Persons Law. Why would a black man take on such a job? Easy, Victor himself is an escaped slave, blackmailed into this role to maintain his own freedom from being returned to that life.
The Underground Airlines of the title is the modern name for the Underground Railroad, still trying to free people, move them north, and help some of them exit the country entirely, many to Canada. At the point of this novel, there are only four states that still have slavery, known as the Hard Four. Other slave states renounced slavery at various times, and for various reasons. There are rules around the products that come from the slave states. Some other states have enacted Clean Hands laws to keep such goods out of the hands of their citizens. Some countries won't trade with the U.S. because of their situation.
With this particular case, Victor finds himself less able to distance himself from what he is doing, caught up in his own memories of slavery, escape, and a life of looking over his shoulder. The file is messy and raises questions, and the reaction of his unseen handler back in Washington is not normal for their interaction on these cases.
Staying at the same hotel as Victor is a white woman and her black son. Victor also gets drawn into their story, and finds a connection he didn't expect.
Winters has built a world with a history, laws, international connections, and corruption that feels so possible it is scary. Black people's skin colour is classified with a numerical and textual chart. For instance the man Victor is searching for is classified as "late-summer honey, warm tone, #76". Slaves are tattooed on the back of their necks with the logos of their owning plantation corporations. I was completely caught up in the story, barely able to put it down. A wonderful, disturbing, and important read.

Still Mine

Finished July 15
Still Mine by Amy Stuart

This suspense novel is set in Blackmore, a small remote Canadian town built around a mine that closed after a fatal accident. Clare O'Dey drives into town in her old car, identified as an outsider immediately. She finds the motel closed and the diner staff warning her off, but she finds a way to stay.
Clare is there on a job for the mysterious Malcolm. Not long ago, a local girl, of a similar age to Clare, Shayna Fowles, disappeared, and Clare is trying to find out where she is. There is no shortage of suspects: Shayna's ex-husband Jared; the neighbour and local drug dealer, Charlie, who has a grudge against Shayna's father; Shayna's father himself, angry and struggling with a wife slipping into dementia; and the town doctor, Derek, who has tried to save Shayna from herself a few times.
With the motel closed, Clare rents a decrepit trailer on Charlie's property and insinuates herself into Shayna's world, befriending her friends, her parents, and her ex. While she's a stranger to town, Clare is no stranger to this world, and she is still running from her own past.
As we gradually come to know Clare's history and the town of Blackmore, we find ourselves less sure of the facts, and more sure that something, many things actually, aren't right.
This is a dark novel, with its undercurrent of poverty, drugs, and failed industry. But it is also a story for our times, a story of a world too many know well.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Broken Promise

Finished July 12
Broken Promise by Linwood Barclay

This book brings back characters from his previous book Never Look Away, and is the start of a new trilogy set in Promise Falls, in upstate New York. David Harwood is back in Promise Falls with his son Ethan, now 9, living with his parents until he gets a place of his own. Following the events from the previous book, David had moved to Boston to make a new start, but his job there required a lot of evening work, and he wasn't spending the time with Ethan that he wanted. So he left Boston to take a job back on the local paper, the Standard. Unfortunately for him, the paper decided to shut down, and now he has no job.
Ethan also seems to have trouble adjusting to his new situation and David is worried about some of his behaviour. As the book opens, a crisis is beginning for the extended family.
David visits his younger cousin Marla to drop off some food from his mother, and finds her with a baby. As he tries to figure out where the baby came from, he follows clues to a nearby home where the situation gets worse.
Local police detective Barry Duckworth is trying to follow his diet, and he almost welcomes the distraction of a call from the ex-mayor to come to the scene of a supposed crime. What he finds is disturbing and when more disturbing events follow, he starts to wonder if they are connected. Duckworth is a good, seasoned detective and his insight brings a lot to the situations unfolding in this novel. I liked him.
The ex-mayor Randall Finley is a real piece of work, but it is hard to tell whether he's a bad guy, or just a jerk. He definitely has bad attitudes towards women, and is not against collusion, bribery, and blackmail when it serves his own ends. He's an interesting character, but not a likeable one.
There is lots going on here, and the ending makes me want to go out and get the next book in the series.

Joy Comes in the Morning

Finished July 8
Joy Comes in the Morning by Jonathan Rosen

This novel is centered around a young woman, Deborah Green, a Reform rabbi in New York City. She wasn't raised in an observant household, and both her mother and sister aren't thrilled about her choice of profession. She has had relationships in the past, but nothing that lasted or really connected for her. A lot of her duties are to visit with people in hospitals and nursing homes.
She aims to help both the person in the home or hospital as well as their family. One such family is that of Henry Friedman. Henry has undergone a few health setbacks recently, resulting in a major change in his lifestyle, which he finds difficult to face.
It is in the hospital that Deborah meets his family. As she becomes closer to the various members of this family, she develops a more intimate relationship with them, but she also goes through a crisis of faith. She is a complex character, and shows both uncertainty and humour as she grows here.
This is a book steeped in the Jewish faith and I learned a lot about prayer and ritual that I wasn't aware of. It is also about living that faith in a real life where people aren't perfect, but where they all try to manage as best they can.
A very enjoyable, enlightening read.