Tuesday, 30 November 2021

The Basel Killings

Finished November 20 
The Basel Killings by Hansjörg Schneider

This is the fifth book in the series featuring Inspector Hunkeler, and the first to be translated into English. I think it is also the first series I've read that is set in Switzerland. Hunkeler is a divorced father, with his daughter grown up. He has a girlfriend who is a kindergarten teacher, and she is on a three month sabbatical, spending it in Paris. He misses her, and often spends his evening in a bar not far from his apartment. Besides his apartment in Basel, Hunkeler also has a farm in Alsace, across the nearby border in France. He spends a fair bit of time there, and has an arrangement with a nearby farmer and his wife who look after his place, including the chickens, when he isn't around. 
He's had a case of a murdered prostitute for a while and while he keeps going over the case files, he just can't seem to find a solution to it. 
As the story begins, he leaves the bar one evening to go home, but finds the sudden cold air outside triggers his need to pee, and rather than return to the bar, or go to the nearby billiards hall, where he also spends time, he elects to pee on the potted tree in the nearby courtyard of a bank. The courtyard also holds a bench and he notices an acquaintance sitting there, apparently asleep. He sits near him and begins a conversation, but when there is no reply, he looks closer and finds that the man is dead, murdered in fact, and after being ill from the shock, he calls the police.
Because he is acquainted with the dead man, he is not assigned the case, and in fact seems to be on the outs with the man assigned to it. 
Hunkeler is an interesting character, one who is well educated, intelligent, and knowledgeable, but also comfortable with less refined company, such as those in the bar he frequents. He knows some of the local immigrant community, and doesn't judge himself superior to them. 
He knows the rural police near Basel, as well as those in Alsace where he also lives. He walks a lot, thinking and observing as he does. He is a man who can make connections, who listens to people from all walks of life and accords what they tell him a measure of respect. It is all of this that makes him a good policeman. 
As he digs into the lives of both the prostitute and the man on the bench, he looks for connections, and trusts his instincts. I also learned some history that I hadn't been aware of before. The deliberate and planned work of the Swiss against the Romany through an organization called Kinder der Landstrasse (Children of the Road). It is very similar in nature to the actions here in Canada around residential schools, but goes even further, permanently separating children from their parents.
We don't see much of his girlfriend here, only glimpses, but we see into Hunkeler's personal life in other ways, and he is a very intriguing character.

Wednesday, 17 November 2021

Talking To Girls About Duran Duran

Finished November 17
Talking To Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man's Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut by Rob Sheffield

I was driving the other day, listening to the CBC, where on Q they were interviewing Nick Rhodes, due to the new Duran Duran album being released. I enjoyed the interview, and remembered a book that had been on my shelf  for far too long, this one. I went home and hunted it out and began to read it. 
The book is a memoir, mostly of Rob's life in the 1980s, told around music, which always played a big role in his life, even before it became linked to his career. 
The introduction explains the books title, and the last chapter is the last song by the group in the '80s, "All She Wants Is", but in between are many other songs by many other groups and individual singers, and many of them are ones I also know, from my own youth. 
I read this book by first watching the music video of each song and then reading the chapter, which was definitely a fun way to do it. Some of the songs are discussed in terms of how they came into or influenced the author's life, others are only mentioned in passing, with the chapter discussing the format, genre, or something else related to the song. But they were all interesting, and I really enjoyed both the music and the memoir.
A few of the later songs weren't familiar to me, and don't call to me now, but it was interesting to see how they played a role in the author's life. 
It made me think of the songs I loved growing up, which ones I made mix tapes of, played repeatedly, or bought. A fun look back to the '80s. 

The Siege Winter

Finished November 15
The Siege Winter by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman

Ariana Franklin was the pen name of Diana Norman who died before finishing this book. Samantha Norman is her daughter who completed the manuscript. 
This novel takes place in 12th-century England, when the Empress Matilda and King Stephen were battling for control of England. There are several groups of characters whose lives intersect at Kenniford Castle where Maud, who inherited the castle, as well as several other estates, is trying to save the estate and its people. 
As the novel opens she is forced by King Stephen to take an oath to him, and to marry John of Tewing, an odious man who has brought his mistress with him.
In the nearby fenlands, a group of mercenaries who have been joined by a sociopathic monk, come across a small red-headed girl named Em, abuse her and leave her for dead. Em survives and is nursed to health by another mercenary, Gwyl, an archer from Breton. Gwyl has been horrified by the acts of the mercenaries he previously travelled with, and agrees to take Em under his wing, disguise her as a boy named Penda, and train her in archery. Em has no memory of who she is and what happened to her, but Gwyl is afraid for her if her memory returns. 
The monk has unfinished business with both Gwyl and Em, and won't hesitate to come for them if her finds out where they are. 
The Empress Matilda is on the run from King Stephen and travelling through the winter storms with only two men looking for a place she can wait in safety while a more permanent refuge is prepared for her. 
I really enjoyed the depth of the characters here. Maud is an independently-minded woman, raised to be so by her father and his men, and she plots how she can regain her sovereignty over her holdings and her self. She is supported by several other women, relatives and servants, who are loyal to her, as well as her men. Em/Penda is a resilient and skilled girl, who thrives under Gwyl's tutelage and protection. I found myself rooting for both these female characters as they battled evil men and found support and respect from other men who were more honourable. 

Tuesday, 16 November 2021

Easy Crafts for the Insane

Finished November 12
Easy Crafts for the Insane: A Mostly Funny Memoir of Mental Illness and Making Things by Kelly Williams Brown

This memoir covers a few difficult years in the author's life. During this time she underwent several losses (divorce, breakup of relationship, loss of friendships, death of pets) and physical pain (breaking both arms and an ankle), not to mention mental illness. 
Kelly had been diagnosed and treated for depression at a very young age, and continued to battle this into her adult years, but during this time period, her treatments changed, and she had more severe and new mental challenges. 
All her life, one of her comforts has been crafting and throughout this book she includes several simple crafts for the reader, giving step by step instructions and, in some cases, direction to more information available online. 
She is very open about all her experiences during this time, both how she made bad decisions, and didn't always consider how her actions would affect those around her, not recognizing the pain she caused them at the time, and how they affected her in ways they didn't understand at the time either. 
Luckily, she was able to afford and get the help she needed, a privilege that she recognizes that not everyone going through similar challenges will have and she makes arguments for improving the access to mental health care.
This memoir definitely has elements of humour and the author is more than willing to laugh at herself and her experiences while still acknowledging the serious nature of what she went through.
Eye-opening and very engaging. 

Sunday, 14 November 2021

The Saddest Words

Finished November 9
The Saddest Words: William Faulkner's Civil War by Michael Gorra

I first read Faulkner in my university American Literature class, and have several of his novels on my shelves. This book looks at his books treatment of the civil war and its aftermath, and of his own personal statements on the same. Beyond that it looks deeply at the social history of the American South, and how the civil war is reflected in that history. 
It looks closely at several characters in his novels, and at how he portrays black characters, quite differently from other southern white authors, and we see how his books differed from the customary attitude about black people in the south. Some of these things in his novels were observations that he wasn't as comfortable saying publicly outside of fiction, and he still struggles with some of the prejudices of his peers. 
There is in-depth analysis of his writings, social commentary, historical comparisons between his fiction and the real events, and literary criticism. The book includes a chronology of his life, a list of his major works, and a brief history of his fictional Yoknapatawpha County. 
The title refers to references from the book, referring to the words "was" and "again", both references in this way by the author. 
I found this a fascinating insight into his books, and his environment. It seems especially apt during the social changes that we are going through now.

Tuesday, 9 November 2021

Autumn Brides

Finished November 4
Autumn Brides: A Year of Weddings Novella Collection by Kathryn Springer, Katie Ganshert, and Beth Vogt

This is a collection of three novellas, all Christian romance stories taking place in the fall. The novellas here are "A September Bride" by Kathryn Springer, "An October Bride" by Katie Ganshert, and "A November Bride" by Beth Vogt.
The first story features Annie Price, new manager of a bookstore in the small town of Red Leaf. Jesse Kent is a police officer in town and pulls her over for a couple of vehicle issues. He's recently been away and wasn't aware that his mother Lorna had hired someone to run the bookstore she owns. In that short time, Annie has made friends, joined a church and several community groups and started to find a home where she feels welcomed. This is something she's never had in her life before. But Jesse is suspicious by nature and wants to ensure that his mother hasn't acted rashly. As he and Annie get to know each other, things develop quickly.
The second story has Emma Tate, who has recently called off her engagement to Chase when her dad was diagnosed with cancer. The story opens with her parents taking a vacation and her looking after their cat Oscar. On her dad's desk, she disturbs his journal and something falls to floor, a bucket list. On it are several things, some crossed off, but one that isn't is walking her down the aisle. She is hit by a lot of feelings and when she gets back to her own house, she finds old friend Jake there. Jake's dad owns the local hardware store in their town, Mayfair, Wisconsin, and has come by to fix an issue with her plumbing. When she confesses what she's seen to him, he offers to be her groom in a staged wedding that her father will be there for. As the wedding plans and preparation continue and the two go on dates, Emma finds herself thinking of Jake in terms beyond a friend. Could this turn into a real romance for them?
The third story has Sadie McAllister in Colorado, who runs a business as a personal chef, making a week's worth of meals for her clients in their own homes and leaving them set for the following week. She loves her job and dreams of her own television show. As the story opens, she gets dumped by text by her boyfriend. Old friend Erik Davis is also an entrepreneur and he's just landed a big project. He calls Sadie to ask her to make a meal to celebrate with him, and during the meal, reminds her that they dated briefly in high school, and even kissed. Sadie puts him off when he suggests dating again, saying she doesn't want to ruin their friendship, but her best friend makes her change her mind and Erik's friend, a local pastor, has a conversation with him that gets him thinking about his relationship history and what he really wants. 
All three of these stories have interesting scenarios, but all three seemed rushed near the end, as if they were shortened to fit this collection. Things go from chaste dating to marriage very quickly, and feel like some of the plot is missing after the long buildup. 
All three stories include discussion questions.

Monday, 8 November 2021

The Last Days of New Paris

Finished November 2
The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville

This alternative history novel starts in 1950 in a Paris that doesn't resemble the one that really existed then, and then jumps back to earlier times to track how that Paris was created.
The premise here is that the energy created by the art and ideas of a group of surrealist artists was captured, and then misused as a bomb (the S-blast) in Paris creating destruction, but also giving life to creatures and animate forms originating in surrealist art. 
The creatures are taken from visual art and literature, and range from relatively benign to terrifying. These creatures were mainly acting against the German forces, and the Germans tried to create in a similar way, but also called on darker forces from below. 
The main character is a young man whose parents were killed in the first actions after the blast and who seems to be able to engage positively with some creatures, and follow clues to gain new weapons and use what now exists to continue the fight. But Paris has been sealed off from the world beyond, and he longs to leave to see a world more normal. As he tries to find a way out, he meets someone who seems to have come in, and who is trying to document Paris as it is now as a way of those not able to witness it for themselves to see it before the city is destroyed for good. 
There is a lot here about surrealism and the artists known for their work in this genre, and the notes at the end of the book help readers to understand some of the references in the text. There is also an afterword written by the author of how he came to write the book, which is also an interesting extension of the the alternative history. 
A book like no other I've ever read. 

Thursday, 4 November 2021

November Reviews for 15th Annual Canadian Reading Challenge

 Here is where you post links to the reviews for books you've read in November. Add a comment after adding your link if you like.