Saturday, 19 April 2014

In the Orchard, The Swallows

Finished April 18
In the Orchard, The Swallows by Peter Hobbs

This short novel is intense and poetic. In northern Pakistan, the young son of the owner of a pomegranate orchard, sees a girl his age when he is taking the fruit to the local village market and offers her a choice fruit. Thus a friendship begins. When an opportunity arises as a result of a neighbour's wedding celebration, the boy brings the girl to see the beauty of the orchard, and the two fall asleep. Their relationship is discovered by her father, a powerful government representative, and the boy is seized, tortured and imprisoned without trial.
Fifteen years later, the released young man, physically fragile, makes his way home, and is discovered, and taken in by a kind man who lives near the village. As he recovers, he returns to the orchard again and again, revealing his story, discovering the fate of his family and the orchard he loved, and learning of the kindness and violence of his fellow man.
The writing in this book is beautiful, the story intense and moving. This is a book to savour and think about, and read again.

The Poisoned Pawn

Finished April 18
The Poisoned Pawn by Peggy Blair

This mystery novel's plot moves back and forth between Ottawa and Cuba, but the series is around Inspector Ramirez, a Cuban policeman. Definitely page-turning, I read this book in one sitting.
A Canadian woman whose has made a pivotal decision in her life falls fatally ill on the flight returning from her Cuban vacation. Her husband, a Canadian policeman, is held up in Cuba, and doesn't make it home until after her death.
Back in Cuba, a body is found that has Inspector Ramirez curious. Some of the circumstances seem to indicate a tie to Santeria, but it takes some time to identify the victim and lead the team in the right direction. Ramirez has the ability, or the misfortune, to see ghosts. Ever since he began working homicide, the ghosts of his victims follow him, giving clues to their fate until he uncovers the truth. One of his good friends is the plastic surgeon and pathologist Hector Apiro, a dwarf with insight and intellectual abilities that often help point Ramirez in the right direction on a case.
Now, Ramirez is pulled away from this case and given unprecedented permission to travel to Canada to bring back a priest who is suspected of ties to child sexual abuse. After he leaves, leaving the young detective Espinoza in charge of the case and headway is made. But also back in Cuba two more women die in suspicious circumstances and with one of them also being Canadian, the Canadian government is considering a travel advisory. Can Ramirez and his team bring enough information together to prevent this from happening?
There are lots of things going on in this mystery, from the larger issue of Catholic Church involvement in sanctioned pedophelia to domestic strife. We see the realities of life for ordinary Cuban people just trying to live in a simple healthy way, and the temptations of the underground economy and corruption. Ramirez is an interesting man, thoughtful and observant, ethical and yet also pragmatic. A man who cares about his family, his friends, and his country. I look forward to learning more about him.

Friday, 18 April 2014

The 8.55 to Baghdad

Finished April 17
The 8.55 to Baghdad by Andrew Eames

Andrew Eames is a travel journalist and he was in the ancient city of Aleppo in Syria when he discovered a side of Agatha Christie that he hadn't previously been aware of. As he learned more of her life in the Middle East, he decided  to retrace the 1928 trip she took on her own to Baghdad, and beyond, the trip that completely changed her life. It was on this trip she met Max, who became her second husband and led her to spend many winters in this part of the world as she accompanied him on his archeological digs.
Eames travels the route of the Orient Express, the Taurus Express and on, exploring not only Christie's life, but the history of the train routes, train stations, and of each of the places he goes through. Of course he also talks about the people he meets along the way, whether those travelling along with him, or those he interacted with when off the train visiting the locations along the route.
He begins this journey in Sunningdale, England, the wealthy community Agatha lived in with her first husband Archie. He arrived at Victoria Station in London and boarded the first stage of the VSOE (Venice Simplon Orient Express) which uses restored Pullman coaches and then switched to a bus for the trip across the Channel. Once across, he was once again in luxury, this time in restored Wagon-Lits coaches, which took him on to Venice.
Not spending much time in Venice, he took a regional express to Trieste, where he did take time to explore this port city with a very interesting history. From there he took the Drava to Ljubljana, Slovenia, where he took a sidetrip from Ljubljana to Lake Bohinj, where Christie vacationed in 1967 and talking to a journalist who interviewed her then. He then took the Mimara from Ljubljana to Zagreb, Croatia. There he visited the Archeological Museum, observed the people, and met with a local historian to better understand the complex history of the former Yugoslavia and its resultant nations. He then took a train on to Belgrade, where he again made time to learn more about the Balkan situation, even arranging a meeting with the Crown Prince.
Eames then crossed into Bulgaria, but felt a need to take a break from cities, so took a sidetrip to the Black Sea, exploring the route of the original Orient Express. Following the first World War, the route was changed to the south to avoid German-speaking countries. The original train route ended in Ruse, Bulgaria, where the tracks ended (to be completed six years later), took a local train to the coastal resort of Varna and switched to a sea voyage on to Constantinople across the Black Sea. Eames travelled to Ruse, where he explored the Railway Museum, to Varna, on to the Golden Sands resort on the Black Sea and then inland to Veliko Turnovo [which I have also visited] and then back to Sofia to catch the sleeper to Istanbul. In Istanbul, he managed to stay in Christie's usual room at the Pera Palas hotel and explored the city for a few days.
He then took a train on to Konya, stayed a few days, and then took the day train on to Adana.to join back up with the Taurus Express. This took him into Syria and on to Aleppo, where he again stayed in the Baron Hotel where Christie stayed when in town. He then continued on to Damascus on the sleeper train. From here following on Christie's 1928 route was only possible by joining a group tour by bus, which he did. This took him to Baghdad, but also on to the archeological sites of Samarra, Nimrud (where Christie spent many seasons), Nineveh (where Christie first worked together with her husband Max), and Ur (where the two met in 1929).
It was only a few short months later that the Iraq war started, so this story is also catches a unique moment in history for Iraq. The author takes time to try to find out what he can about the places he goes, talking to locals, trying to make connections, and showing the historical background. It is no surprise that this book won the British Guild of Travel Writers' Narrative Travel Book of the Year Award in 2004. It is a great, thought-provoking, informative read that also entertains.

A Conspiracy of Alchemists

Finished April 14
A Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwarz

This is the first steampunk novel I think I've read, but it is historical fiction and has a paranormal romance in it as well. The year is 1903, and air traffic consists mostly of helium dirigibles. Elle Chance is likely the only female pilot of one, and she takes what charter work she can to get enough money to keep her ship, Water Lily, in good condition. So when Patrice, someone she has done work for before, asks her to come to Paris to transport something back to England, she agrees readily.
But when the item he entrusts to her is stolen and she is nearly kidnapped, and she discovers the real nature of what she is transporting, she realizes the danger she is now in. Back in England, more things have gone wrong and her father is now endangered as well. The influential Viscount Greychester has taken a strong interest in her safety, but what is his real purpose?
For the world that Elle lives in is divided into Light and Shadow. On the Shadow side are the Nightwalkers (vampires) with their partners the Alchemists trying to increase the influence of Shadow. On the Light side are other creatures including Warlocks like Marsh trying to keep the world in balance.
One of the controlling factors is an influential female known as The Oracle, and Elle's mother played this role until her death when Elle was a child. There are many on both sides who believe Elle is destined to take her mother's place, but what levels will they stoop to to make her fulfill such a role?
This is a book with a lot going on. One is the struggle between Light and Shadow, which is not a pure fight between good evil, but more complex. Another is the ambitious and adventurous Elle, with her strong family feelings and naivety in love. And then there is Marsh, who is the youngest on the Council of Warlocks, but also imbued with a strong sense of right and wrong, and an increasingly strong regard for Elle.
A good story, that is obviously the first in a series. Interesting characters with some complexity. Very enjoyable read.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Hope Deferred

Finished April 13
Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives compiled and edited by Peter Orner and Annie Holmes

This collection of narratives includes experiences of a wide variety of people: black and white, male and female, urban and rural, from a variety of economic and educational backgrounds, aged from 14 to 63. What all of them have in common is the destruction of their lives. These are people who lost everything, many of them were tortured, many lost people close to them, and most are still struggling to find their way forward. Some are still in Zimbabwe, some are exiles. They have seen Zimbabwe change from a country with a good economy, a country known as the breadbasket of Africa to a country that imports almost everything its people need, with 90% unemployment and a valueless currency.
But most of them still have hope. Hope that their country can recover, hope that they can return, hope that their families can better their situation, hope for a Zimbabwe they can be proud of.
Many of the experiences recounted here are difficult to read, especially those involving torture, but I am glad that someone took the time to go and find these people and interview them and tell their stories, so that we can all hear them and know that these lives exist alongside our own.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Hole in the Middle

Finished April 12
The Hole in the Middle by Kate Hilton

This novel is a story of a woman, Sophie Whelan, in her late thirties with two young children. Her boss is an idiot. Her workload is increasing by the day, her husband seems more interested in his business partner than he is in her, and her children are a handful. So when a man from her past calls her, she can't help but wonder why things didn't work out between them.
Sophie is the head of communications for a children's hospital, and she is faced with many challenges at work. Her assistant does little to assist her, some of her employees need more supervision than someone at their level should need, and her boss dumps other department work on her and sets her near impossible deadlines for projects. Her youngest son has yet another ear infection, her late pickups threaten his spot in the daycare, her older son may not be getting the range of experiences she wants for him, and she worries about the amount of television they boys watch. She usually seems to be the one picking the kids up when they're sick, getting up in the night, and dealing with doctors, because her husband's Jesse has deadlines at work, but she worries about her own work deadlines. She hasn't been to book club in months, she hates the family yoga sessions her mother has talked her into, and she feels she is not there when her best friend Zoe needs her to be.
She's beginning to feel that her life has gotten away from her and in trying to have both a family and a career, she somehow has ended up with a life she no longer enjoys. Is she a bad mother, is she a bad manager, is she not looking after herself as she should? Everything seems to be coming together to make her take a hard look at her life.
Besides the story, there were two things I really liked about this book, and maybe that speaks to my love of tests and analysis. The first is Sophie's numerical way of deciding whether to do something or not which she calls Requirement Of Action Rating (ROAR). Her formula reads DPA + GF + NBLG - AS = ROAR. DPA stands for Desire to Perform Activity. GF stands for Guilt Factor associated with not doing it. NBLG stands for the Need to Behave Like a Grown-up. AS stands for Allowable Selfishness. I thought this was a very interesting way of looking at things, and made a lot of sense. The other bit I really liked was her friend Zoe's theory of romantic archetypes, which I won't go into here, but found really interesting.
I'll definitely be looking for more from Hilton as I really enjoyed her writing. Her prose flowed nicely, the plot was good, and I liked her characters.

The Accident

Finished April 11
The Accident by Chris Pavone, read by Mozhan Marno

This thriller has a couple of the main characters from Pavone's earlier book The Expats, Kate and Hayden is more minor roles in this new novel. Isabel Reed is a New York literary agent, and recently a manuscript was delivered to her office that seems to have potentially huge prospects. The title of the manuscript is The Accident and the author is listed as Anonymous. The story it tells is the unauthorized memoir of Charlie Wolfe, head of an international media organization, and a man who now has his eye on a political career. The book would cause that hope to die, and raise serious questions about Charlie's company. The reader is exposed gradually to the contents of this biography by other people reading the manuscript. Another source of information about its contents is the extraordinary length someone is going to to ensure the book doesn't get published. It is Hayden who takes the lead on that endeavour, first in Europe tailing the supposed author, and then in the United States once the biography reaches Isabel. Hayden is a Berlin CIA operative, but this case is black ops, completely off the books, and we gradually understand why. Hayden will stop at nothing to prevent publication, and that includes murder. As people with possession or knowledge of the manuscript are followed and eliminated the race to see the real story on Wolfe come out grows ever more precarious.
Isabel suspects who the author really is, but the man she is thinking of is dead. Or is he? We also occasionally see the real author and realize his role in the story and his motivations. He has made a lot of plans to get this story out, but will they be enough?
This novel also gives an inside look at the publishing industry with literary agents, editors, publishers, and even a subsidiary rights agent playing roles. The depth of the characters here add real substance to the book, and give us insight into the story as it develops.
A read that is hard to put down.