Reviews: Books 61-70

Read: 70
To Go: 30

Book List:
61. The Dogs Are Eating Them Now — Graeme Smith
62. Some Great Idea — Edward Keenan
63. Maidenhead — Tamara Faith Bergen
64. The Lost Boy — Camilla Läckberg
65. The Stranger — Camilla Läckberg
66. The Demonologist — Andrew Pyper
67. Chesapeake Blue — Nora Roberts
68. American Ground — William Langewiesche
69. The Bare Plum of Winter Rain — Patrick Lane
70. Green Grass, Running Water — Thomas King

In order to try to catch up on my terribly delayed book reviews, I’m going to do mega posts of mini-reviews. Here are the reviews on books 61-70.

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Finished reading: September 22, 2013

The Dogs Are Eating Them Now is an account of the war in Afghanistan and how it went dangerously wrong. Graeme Smith, the Globe and Mail’s former correspondent in Afghanistan, details his time living in the country and reporting on topics like the corruption of law enforcement agents, the economics of the drug trade, and the mistreatment of prisoners.

The Afghanistan war isn’t exactly my wheelhouse, and I have to admit I probably wouldn’t have picked up The Dogs Are Eating Them Now if I hadn’t been interviewing Graeme Smith for the Ryersonian (you can read the Q&A here, if you’re interested). But I’m glad it wound up in my possession, because it was one of the best books I’ve read this year. (Regular readers of this blog know I say that a lot but I really mean it this time, and the Year In Review will reflect it.) The Dogs is a deeply personal narrative and though it’s at times brutally graphic and unflinching, Smith’s compassion and sensitivity shines through.

idea

Finished reading: September 28, 2013

Since 2010, Toronto’s headlines have been occupied with the outrageous personal problems and the government-cutting, anti-urbanist policies of Mayor Rob Ford. But the ongoing debates about Ford have obscured a larger narrative of Toronto’s ascending as a mature, global city. Edward Keenan looks at that narrative in relation to the city’s three post-amalgamation mayors (Mel Lastman, David Miller, and Rob Ford), and asks what role a mayor plays in a city’s temperament and self-confidence, and whether a terrible mayor can inadvertently improve the city by forcing its citizens to engage with their government.

Seemingly out of nowhere this year I developed an interest in reading about cities and urban planning, and Some Great Idea looked like the perfect place to start (especially since Edward Keenan is one of my favourite columnists). It lays out Toronto’s recent political history, and also delves into urban planning theory, explaining the policy choices that led to a populace angry and disillusioned enough to elect someone like Rob Ford. Of course, the suburb/downtown proper divide that Ford exploited has been amply chronicled, but Keenan digs into how that divide occurred in relation to the amalgamation of Toronto and the small cities that surrounded it. It’s a great read, and also an inadvertent example of how difficult it must be to write about Rob Ford: Some Great Idea is a pretty new book, but between the point in time it concluded on (November 2012, when Ford had been booted from office because he violated the MCIA) and the time I read it, a larger scandal than the conflict of interest ruling had already erupted: the crack saga. Just when you think nothing can get worse in the Ford mayoralty, it does.

MaidenHead

Finished reading: October 4, 2013

In Maidenhead, Myra, a naive and curious highschooler, takes a vacation to Key West with her fracturing family. There she meets Elijah, a Tanzanian musician twice her age, and he seduces her on a deserted beach. When she returns to meet with him days later, she’s shocked to learn he lives with Gayl, a disturbed and violent woman with an unusual power over him. When Myra returns to Canada her parents divorce and she falls into a crowd of pot-smoking intellectuals. Elijah and Gayl follow her north, and she walks willingly into their world of sex, violence, and mind-games.

I was thoroughly disturbed by Maidenhead, and months after finishing it I continue to feel disturbed. Having said that, though, Maidenhead engages in a really interesting discussion about race and class through the frightening games that Gayl and Elijah play with Myra. It also isn’t afraid to portray Myra’s sexual awakening as being far outside the realm of socially acceptable sexuality, through her obsession with violence in sex and in the porn she watches.

But I’m still deeply disturbed.

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Finished reading: October 12, 2013

On a late summer night Nathalie takes her young son and flees to the island of Gråskär, off the coast of Fjällbacka, with blood slippery on her hands. Meanwhile, Detective Patrik Hedstrom is returning from a lengthy sick leave, and his wife Erica Falck recovering from a car accident. Patrik barely steps foot in the police station before he catches a murder case: Mats Sverin, a man everyone liked but few understood, is found shot in the back of the head. What secrets was he hiding? And is it a coincidence that his childhood sweetheart, Nathalie, recently returned to their hometown?

If you recall, the first Camilla Läckberg book I read was The Drowning, the sixth book in the series and the one immediately preceding The Lost Boy. It left off on a cliffhanger, with Erica and Anna, both heavily pregnant, careening towards a car crash, and The Lost Boy picks up roughly (I’m guessing) a few weeks later at the funeral of Anna’s son, who didn’t survive the accident. It’s a terribly sobering opener, and one of Läckberg’s darkest plot twists, but grimly fitting for a book about three murdered sons. The Fjällbacka series is rarely lighthearted, and the crimes are often disturbing, but The Lost Boy is perhaps the most gruesome yet, with a final reveal that had me almost gagging (I mean this positively). The eighth book in the Fjällbacka series is out in Sweden but hasn’t been translated into English yet. I can’t wait until it is to see what mystery Patrik and Erica will investigate next.

TStranger

Finished reading: October 13, 2013

When a local woman is killed in a car accident, it seems particularly strange: her blood contains high levels of alcohol, but she rarely drank at all. The case sticks in Detective Patrik Hedstrom’s mind, marking the end of a quiet winter. At the same time, a popular reality show is being filmed in town, and as cameras follow the stars tempers start to flare. After a drunken party ends with the murder of a popular contestant, all eyes turn to the show’s cast and crew; could there be a murderer among them?

After finishing The Lost Boy over Thanksgiving weekend, I was desperate for more Camilla Läckberg books, and when I found The Stranger (formerly titled The Gallows Bird, the first case I’ve seen of a book’s name being changed post-publication) in a used bookstore I started it immediately. It’s a sharply plotted mystery with a pretty ghastly revelation about the murderers, and a strong focus on the personal lives of some of the characters. Although having just read the newest book in the series I knew Anna got away from her abusive ex-husband and found happiness, it’s nice to see her start to come into her own in The Stranger. The book also sees Patrik and Erica get married, and somehow managed to make me sympathize with a character I thought I would always find detestable.

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Finished reading: October 14, 2013

Professor David Ullman specializes in the literature of the demonic—namely, John Milton’s Paradise Lost—but he’s not a believer. One afternoon he receives a visitor to his campus office, a strikingly thin old woman who offers him an all-expenses-paid trip to Venice, to observe a “phenomenon” and give his professional opinion, in exchange for an extraordinary sum of money. David has his reservations but, needing a change in pace, accepts the trip and takes his daughter, Tess, with him. What he sees in Venice takes David on a journey from skeptic to true believer, and sends him across the country attempting to save Tess from the Unnamed—a demonic entity that has chosen him as its messenger.

The weird eye on the cover of The Demonologist had been catching my attention every time I saw it in Chapters, and on the Thanksgiving weekend I finally caved in and bought it while I was trolling used bookstores with my father. It was a smart choice: The Demonologist is an utterly creepy and compelling thriller, which kept me rooted in my seat, turning the pages all day. I don’t usually find myself susceptible to horror books, but The Demonologist managed to really freak me out. About a month later I lent the book to my friend Sahar, and she had similar thoughts. In the interest of fair warnings, if you plan to read The Demonologist read it in a well-lit room or during the day only; otherwise you may never sleep again. (Also: I rarely give Twitter recommendations, but if you’re on Twitter follow Andrew Pyper. He’s a delightful presence.)

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Finished reading: October 19, 2013

Seth Quinn spent his early years living in fear and squalor with his drug-addicted mother until he was taken into the Quinn household, growing up with his three older brothers who watched over him with love. Now a grown man returning from Europe a successful artist, Seth is settling into his family home on the Maryland Eastern Shore, with a few secrets to keep from the rest of the Quinns. As he gets used to St. Christopher’s slower rhythm, he finds a few things have changed in the small town—namely the presence of Dru Whitcomb Banks, the owner of a flower shop who’s fiercely independent and determined to succeed without her family’s extensive connections.

As much as I enjoyed the first three books in this quartet, Chesapeake Blue fell a little short for me. Mainly because Gloria, the series antagonist, resurfaces to wreak some havoc…or something. She’s a totally unbelievable villain because she’s so impotent and her threats are obviously empty, which makes Seth just seem embarrassingly stupid for allowing her to blackmail him. The Quinn family of course exerts their own form of justice in the end but to me it just seems pointless, because there was no real threat in the first place. But leave the floundering Gloria plot out of it, and Chesapeake Blue was a decent read.

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Finished reading: October 22, 2013

Days after 9/11, American journalist William Langewiesche had secured unrestricted, 24-hour access to the World Trade Centre site. American Ground is a tour of this largely unseen world, and the men and women who improvised the recovery effort day by day.

In the aftermath of 9/11, political rhetoric centred around a unity in the American people that made them strong enough to withstand an attack like the one on the twin towers. But William Langeweische argues that unity is not America’s strength, but its diversity of voices and opinions—which is certainly present at the Ground Zero site, among the unbuilders. Langeweische’s account of the unbuilding is surprisingly unemotional, and doesn’t shy away from the conflicts between the police officers, firemen and construction crews that bubbled up as they worked to find bodies and rid the site of rubble. For precisely this reason, it was a controversial book when it was published. It’s also what made it such a compelling story.

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Finished reading: November 3, 2013

The Bare Plum of Winter Rain is a collection of poetry from the award-winning Canadian poet Patrick Lane.

Let me tell you, it’s humbling to read a book of poetry, find that you really enjoy it, and then go to English class and have your professor and half your class dissect the poems and infer deeper meaning from them that you never would have noticed. That was my experience with Patrick Lane. I’m clearly not a poetry person, but I enjoyed most of the poems in The Bare Plum on the surface level. But I definitely don’t understand them. I’ve decided I’m okay with that.

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Finished reading: November 10, 2013

Green Grass Running Water involves the creation of a creation story, the asylum escape of four ancient Indians, and the comparatively realistic stories of Lionel and Letisha Red Dog, Charlie Looking Bear, Alberta Frank, and Eli Stands Alone.

Green Grass Running Water was another class novel, and I didn’t finish it before our prof lectured on it. So based on what I had heard, about this seemingly bizarre story of unconnected plots, I didn’t expect to like it nearly as much as I did. Green Grass is a super referential, outrageously funny story with complex characters and a damning critique of western treatment of aboriginal people. It’s definitely a little out there, but it should be required reading.

– Kelsey

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