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Good Literature for Children & Adults

Sympathy for the Devil by William Shaw

 

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Sympathy for the Devil is the most recent book in William Shaw’s Breen & Tozer Investigation series. But, a word of warning – don’t start reading Sympathy for the Devil if you want to get anything else done in the next day or two.

If you have not read the earlier books in the Breen & Tozer series you could start with the first She’s Leaving Home – or if you don’t mind reading out of order I think this book stands on it’s own and reading the earlier ones after will just fill in the details for you.

Sympathy for the Devil, sub-titled Summer of Love, Summer of Death, begins with the death of Brian Jones. Many will know he was once a member of the Rolling Stones, and there was much speculation about the cause of his death by drowning in his own pool in 1969. There was, and are, all sorts of conspiracy theories about whether or not his death was accident or murder.

William Shaw is writing about a time when my generation was young – thin, and even if we didn’t know it, beautiful. These are the days of swinging London – discotheques and clubs, rock concerts and ‘free love’, Twiggy, Mary Quant setting the style we all imitated.

 

 Mary Quant & the Rolling Stones

Mary Quant & the Rolling Stones

Looking for images of the time I did a little research and laughed to discover that I am truly an antique, as there is an exhibit opening at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on 6 April 2019, “Introducing Mary Quant”.  “Inventive, opinionated and commercially minded, Mary Quant was the most iconic fashion designer of the 1960s. A design and retail pioneer, she popularised super-high hemlines and other irreverent looks that were critical to the development of the 'Swinging Sixties' scene. Our fashion collections include examples of her famous designs from across the 1960s and 1970s.”

 

People my age remember that time – if we haven’t forgotten it – but William Shaw was not yet a teenager, and I wondered why he chose to write about this time and how he knew it so well. I sent him an email, to which he replied, “ I wasn’t a teenager but I was the youngest of four, so my oldest sister was born in 49 and the next in 51 which put them into the Helen Tozer bracket. It’s always an advantage having older sisters.” He well remembered the hairstyles and clothing his sisters wore and their activities as teenagers in the late 1960s. 

 

This was a time of great change in London, but Cathal ‘Paddy” Breen, eight years older than his girlfriend, Helen Tozer, is considered a square – though she is just the right age to be part of it and embraces her freedom.

The story begins with an introduction to Julie Teenager – a prostitute who poses as a spoiled teenager - attractive to a sort of man I cannot even imagine. When Julie is murdered, and Breen begins to investigate he enters a world with which he is completely unfamiliar. Julie was no ‘ordinary’ prostitute, nor were her clients. There is a tangled web of espionage – or not. Some of the good guys might be bad guys, and some of the bad ones maybe not so much. Woven into this storyline is the day to day life of Paddy and Helen, and their friends who are more or less part of the young swinging London scene – though two of the women are pregnant and close to giving birth. I was happy to see, in this novel, the deepening love between Paddy and Helen, even as she tries to preserve her own independence and identity. No one in 1969 wanted to end up a housewife like their own mother, and Helen had worked hard to establish a career in the police force.

William Shaw is now writing two series, The Breen & Tozer Investigation series, and another series featuring Detective Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi, that takes place in much our own time. I have just read the most recent in both series and do not hesitate to recommend them. I feel that William Shaw has hit his stride. He knows his characters well, he knows how they are likely to behave while still leaving room for surprises.

 

 

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

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The most recent novel by Anne Tyler, her 21st, Clock Dance opens in 1967 with a young Willa, age 11. We meet her father, Melvin, and her 6-year-old sister, Elaine. Willa’s mother, Alice, is not at home. She has left for a moment, or a night or a few days – or forever. Her family does not know. They do know that Alice is a difficult woman who resents her husband’s calm ways, and is harsh with her daughters. They however all love her; she is after all their wife and mother.

Then it is 1977 and Willa is in her second to last year at college and is flying home to visit her family, with boyfriend, Derek, in tow. Derek is from California, handsome and confident. He is about to graduate, and plans to make Willa his wife and return with her to California.

Then it is 1997 and Willa and Derek are living in California, married for many years and the parents of two sons, Ian and Sean. Derek makes a good living, Willa keeps house and looks after her husband and the boys.

I must say at this point I was wondering how committed I was to this novel. Anne Tyler is a decade older than I am, and I’ve been reading her books all of my adult life, some of them favourites, all of them worth reading. But these chapters, jumping forward a decade or two at a time were only somewhat interesting, and made me wonder about this new novel.

Until, Part II, 2017. We meet Willa again, married but with a second husband, Peter. The boys are grown and away from home, seldom in touch with their mother. Elaine rarely contacts her older sister. Willa’s life is that of a privileged woman putting in time.   

Then a phone call - from the neighbour of a young woman, Denise, who was until recently living with Willa’s son, Sean, in Baltimore. Denise has been shot in the leg, and her nine-year-old daughter needs someone to look after her while her mother is in the hospital. Though the child, Cheryl, is not Sean’s daughter Willa feels she must help, so she and her husband fly to Baltimore. Willa hopes to see Sean while she is there.

Neither of Willa’s sons are in permanent relationships, and neither have produced the grandchildren Willa yearns for. But, here is an unlikely chance to care for a child, even a child who at first seems so unattractive – and lives in a lower class neigbourhood so different to anyplace Willa has ever lived. But, she is needed. She and Peter settle into Denise’s guest room, and take on responsibility fro Cheryl. Cheryl though is a very competent little girl, far more capable in some ways than her live-and-let-live mother.

Willa, of course, remembers so clearly what her life was life at that age. Cheryl says to Willa, “I’m way more grown-up than I seem.” And, Willa knew exactly what she meant. She had felt that way during her own childhood; she’d felt like a “watchful, wary adult housed in a little girl’s body. And yet nowadays, paradoxically, it often seemed to her that from behind her adult face a child about eleven years old was still gazing out at the world.”  And there is the beauty of this novel. Anne Tyler sees into the core of each of her characters and shows us all who we are, and what we could be, or who we might have become – if only.

This time spent in Baltimore with Denise and Cheryl, the actions taken by Willa’s husband, Peter, and her son, Sean force Willa to observe her own life more closely. She remembers her childhood, her first marriage and thinks about where she is now, a woman past middle age but a woman who could still make a change – big or little – and spend the rest of her life differently, or not.

Dissolution by C.J. Sansom

Talking books with a friend this past spring, I spoke of reading Alison Weir’s most recent novel about Jane Seymour, when my friend and her husband both told me how much they enjoyed reading a series of books by C.J. Sansom set in the same time period.

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The first in the series is titled Dissolution. I knew when the Dissolution took place during the reign of King Henry VIII – but I thought I would look up the definition of the word. I found that the word dissolution means closure, disbanding, termination, ending, suspension, and also that the word dissolute means degenerate, depraved, immoral, debauched, self-indulgent and dissipated. Which just about sums up this time in the history of Great Britain and its monarch.

I found this novel began exactly where the last Alison Weir novel left off, in 1537, with the death of Queen Jane, “who had died of childbed fever two weeks before”.

I meet, for the first time, Master Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer in the courts of England, and a Commissioner of Lord Cromwell, Vicar General of King Henry VIII. Cromwell is at the centre of a powerful political network, and has called in Shardlake to investigate the murder of another commissioner, Robin Singleton, who had been sent to a large monastery, Scarnsea, to secure their dissolution. Singleton had been be-headed in the kitchen and all are suspect.

Shardlake is accompanied by his protégé Mark Poer, the two men arriving in the late fall, at a dark and dismal place, unwelcome. As the investigation begins, Shardlake, very much the teacher, shares with his pupil, something he was taught many years earlier by his own teacher, “In any investigation, what are the most relevant circumstances? None,” he would bark in reply. “All the circumstances are relevant, everything must be examined from every angle!” 

And so this complicated and thoroughly captivating story begins. This is the work of an author holding a Ph.D. in history, who was also a solicitor before becoming a novelist. He uses language, playfully trusting that his readers are intelligent, and might have the Shorter Oxford close at hand. We read words we somehow know and others we delight in discovering.

The time period in which this novel is set is one of great turmoil in England. Henry has declared himself head of the church – the pope is out – and the monasteries and the citizens are in for a big change. Any word spoken against the King, as the head of the church, or against Cromwell and the reformation is considered treasonous and the penalty is death. But, it is not so easy to erase the past, and long held beliefs. Even Shardlake, as he investigates, sees more and more clearly that though there was certainly corruption in the past that should be eliminated, perhaps the reformation is only creating a different sort of corruption.

Though the story takes place almost 500 years ago so many of the concerns are not so different than those of the present day – concerns about changes in society, increases in taxes and, of course, who will clear the snow.

In many ways I found the investigation and the discovery of the criminals, almost secondary to the fascinating world of England in 1537 and the lives of the people of that time.

I certainly enjoyed reading about the fictional Matthew Shardlake, an intelligent and complicated man who understands his reactions to others are often coloured by his own likes or dislikes, and that his personal beliefs and prejudices may often cloud his ability to see the truth clearly. At the conclusion of this investigation Shardlake returns to his home in London – ready for the next installment, as am I! 

 

A Cold Case in Amsterdam by Anja de Jager

 

Amsterdam is a city with more tourists some days than citizens. A city of canals, tall houses, cheese shops, markets selling everything from fabric to herrings. A walkable city, a city of art galleries and museums and canal bridges to lean on and watch the boats go by.

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A Cold Case in Amsterdam is the second in a series by Anja de Jager and a book I enjoyed almost as much as a visit to one of my favourite cities. We meet Lotte Meerman who has just been cleared by doctors to return to work as a police inspector. Some of her colleagues are not so sure, having enjoyed their independence in her absence. But Lotte is ready to be back and her first case is not long is coming. A young man, Frank Stapel, a workman, has fallen to his death from the seventh floor of a new building. An accident? Or not? His widow, Tessa, is distraught and Lotte finds herself fiercely protective of this needy young woman. 

The parallel story involves the past, and the stories of a man who was a child during the Second World War. The stories he has told, over and over again, to his daughter, Francine, a prosecuting attorney, involve his experiences during the war.

Sometimes, reading books set during the Second World War, one would think that there were only resistance fighters and that no one collaborated with the Nazis during the war. But, obviously that cannot be so. Not everyone was in the resistance and not everyone had a Jew hiding in the attic – there must have been many who gave information that would make this time easier for themselves or their families. Not so hard to understand, perhaps. But, seldom admitted.

When it is discovered that Frank Stapel has a bag of bones hidden in a train station locker, the possibility that his death was not an accident becomes more likely. When it is discovered that not all the bones are those of a long dead Second World War victim, but that some are more recent, the case becomes even more complicated.

To make things more difficult for Lotte one of the builders who Frank Stapel worked for is someone Lotte knew when she was only a girl. Their shared history is one of horror and survival, and their past becomes a compelling part of the present day story.

As happens in a mystery series, we come to know Lotte more with this second novel. She is a woman who keeps her pain to herself, does not talk about it, or share it, though she has found a way to immerse herself in her work and make a life for herself.  A Cold Case in Amsterdam takes us further into the life and career of Lotte Meerman – and fortunately, for readers who enjoy this series, there is already a third in the series, Death on the Canal, to carry on with!

 

Up From Freedom by Wayne Grady

 

Just over three years ago Wayne Grady read from the stage at the Charles W. Stockey Centre from his first novel Emancipation Day. Emancipation Day told the story of a young sailor, Jack, a man who is “black” but so white skinned that he “passes for white”. Jack is in the Canadian Navy, stationed in St. John’s, Newfoundland during the Second World War. He marries a local girl and brings her back to Ontario where they raise a family together, Jack never disclosing his racial heritage. This novel was inspired by Wayne Grady’s own father and very much based on his life and the lives of his ancestors and descendants.

When Wayne Grady made the discovery that his heritage was not Irish but Black American he says his first thought was, “My father’s family – my family – was not from Ireland; we were from Africa. We were – we are – African Canadians. My second thought was: I have a book.” And now he has another.

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Wayne Grady’s new novel Up From Freedom delves further into the past, as the author researched the earlier history of his family back to the days of slavery in the United States. Once again, the expression “truth is stranger than fiction” was in my thoughts as I read.

Up From Freedom is an exceptional novel, and one that I expect will be widely read both in Canada and the United States, and around the world. The novel begins in 1848, as we meet Virgil Moody, and the woman he lives with, a former slave Annie, and her son, Lucas. To Virgil they are his family. He left his home, a plantation in Georgia some years earlier, because he was opposed to the idea of owning slaves. He lived in New Orleans for a time, and now lives with Annie and her son on an out of the way farm in Texas. They live in relative peace until tragedy comes, leaving Annie dead and Lucas missing. Virgil sets out on a quest to find the boy he considers his own son.

Moody’s journey will take him into the homes of Quakers, men and women who shelter slaves and help them move on to a chance at safety further north. For Moody this is not only a physical journey, but also one that is emotional and intellectual. When he meets another former slave Tamsey and her family he is drawn to them as he was to Annie and Lucas, and knows he needs to bring them to safety. Not able to do so before the arrest of Tamsey’s son, they are all forced to stay for a time in Indiana while the young man, and his wife, are brought to trial.

One of the most disturbing, but brilliantly written, passages in the novel is the speech made by the prosecuting lawyer, and the most exhilarating passage is the testimony of Tamsey.

Wayne Grady is a mature writer, the author of several works of non-fiction, and one of Canada’s top literary translators. Up From Freedom brings all of his skill as a writer to the page, and his story is one you will not forget. The afterword tells us that, once again, this novel was inspired by the lives of his ancestors, and their place in the history of the United States and Canada.

 

 

 

 

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