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Good Literature for Children & Adults

A Shimmer of Hummingbirds by Steve Burrows

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A Shimmer of Hummingbirds by Steve Burrows is the 4th installment in his Birder Murder Mystery series. I read it the last week of May in Parry Sound, a week of extreme heat, and I felt just as over heated as Chief Inspector Domenic Jejeune who was searching for birds in Columbia. He was also searching for the truth about the circumstances of his bothers experience there some time earlier.

Domenic’s brother, Damien, is presently a fugitive, sought by the Columbian government after the deaths of several indigenous people who had been exposed to disease by a tourist, a birdwatcher, apparently taken into their territory by Damien Jejeune. Domenic would like to believe that his brother was not at fault, but it is entirely possible that he is.

Domenic has joined a tour himself, hoping to see some of the rare species of birds in Columbia, especially the many varieties of hummingbirds. Also on the tour is an old friend from Canada, Traz, who knows the brothers well.

Meanwhile, back in Saltmarsh, while Jejeune is on holiday, an old colleague of his is taking his place at the North Norfolk Constabulary. Detective Chief Inspector Marvin Laraby. Laraby worked with Jejeune in London on a very high profile kidnapping and murder case, the one that made Jejeune’s reputation. There was no love lost between these two men when the case was concluded, and nothing has changed since to make things any better. Laraby seems to fit right in, with Danny Maik working alongside, and a chummy relationship developing with a female officer. Laraby is enjoying his time in Saltmarsh.

The case currently being investigated involves the murder of a woman who was part of an investment group. She had been an accountant and was managing the money of several local members of the aristocracy who had plans to invest in drone technology to be used in re-forestation. After her death it seems that each one of the investors had a strong motive for wanting her done away with, and figuring out who was the culprit is not an easy task.

The novel seamlessly weaves it’s way from Jejeune in Columbia, to his partner, Lindy, at home in North Norfolk and the investigation being led by Laraby in Saltmarsh.

Steve Burrows once again does an excellent job of writing a suspenseful murder mystery while exploring the lives of his characters. I was struck by a conversation early in the novel. “It breaks your heart a little bit at a time, doesn’t it, this job?” said Salter sadly. “It can,” said Danny Maik quietly, “if you let it.” Danny finds escape in Motown music and a protective layer that traps so much inside, while Jejeune escapes to the birds. In this novel we discover more about Domenic Jejeune’s past, and see a deepening bond between Domenic and Lindy, separated by such a distance, when both are in danger from unknown perpetrators.

As always, Steve Burrows gives us another great read, and on to the next!

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Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

 

It has been 6 long years since Michael Ondaatje’s last book, The Cat’s Table, was published. A good long time, and now Warlight. Another perfect book.

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The novel takes place in the years immediately following the Second World War, mostly in the city of London, England. After the depravation and horror of war, the shortages of essentials, the fear of bombings, the destruction of neigbourhoods, the post war years bring only a very gradual return to normal.

It is 1945, and siblings Nathaniel, 14, and Rachel, 16, live with their parents, in London.  They are told that their parents are going to Singapore for a year, for work, and the children will be attending boarding school, a family friend will live in their home, and care for the children during school holidays. And so the story begins.

Fourteen and sixteen year-olds were considered much more capable of looking after themselves in 1945 that they are now. And certainly both Rachel and Nathaniel do not have what would now be considered suitable adult supervision. The man chosen by their mother, Rose, to care for them is a wonderful character, with a circle of fascinating and eccentric friends. One, the Darter, takes Nathaniel on the river ferrying various illegal cargoes, still much as it was during the war, as they “passed industrial buildings, their lights muted, faint as stars, as if we were in a time capsule of the war years when blackouts and curfews were in effect, when there was only warlight and only blind barges were allowed to move along this stretch of river”.

It is Nathaniel who is at the centre of this story, and it is his memories of this time, and the years before and after, that matter most. We all have memories of moments in our lives, memories that are often different than those of others who were there at the same time. It is sometimes difficult for us to know how accurate our memory is, how coloured it may be by our age and experience, how we may have misunderstood the reality of a particular time, how different it may be for each person who experienced the same event. For Nathaniel, it becomes a life long obsession.

He attempts to discover more about his parents, his research an effort to understand their behavior, to comprehend how they could have left their children. Of course, there was no Google, no Facebook, just rooms with documents and few people to answer his questions. Though Nathaniel remembers those who peopled his teenage years, they are almost lost “in that ravine of childhood”.

Both Nathaniel and Rachel are, forever, profoundly affected by these few years and what they experienced. Nathaniel and his mother so alike in preferring privacy and solitude, while Rachel attempts to put it all aside in her own way.

This is a novel full of wonderful characters, The Moth, and the Darter, and a man who, when only a boy, fell off the roof while thatching Nathaniel’s grandparents home, and who resurfaces time and again, telling Rose, “The important thing is I need to teach you to protect those you love.” It is a story of a time past, brought to life.

Sometimes it seems there are too few writers with the intelligence, sensitivity and ability to write a book that is a both a compelling story, written with language that is simply so wonderful to read – a perfect book. Warlight has is it.

 

Salt Lane by William Shaw

 

 

1995. A tragic fire. So begins the mystery novel Salt Lane by William Shaw.

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Fast forward, twenty some years, to Julian Keen, his wife Lulu, and their son Teo, in London, England. A woman appears at the door, claiming to be Julian’s mother, Hillary Keen. Julian had been told, by the aunt and uncle who raised him, that his mother had died years before. This woman is obviously someone who has experienced a hard life of addiction and homelessness. Is she Julian’s mother or is she not? Julian wants to believe that she is – Lulu does not.

Meanwhile, Detective Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi, recently transferred from the London Metropolitan Police to the Kent coast, is investigating the discovery of a woman’s body in a drainage ditch.

If you read The Birdwatcher by William Shaw, released last year, you will have met Alex Cupidi. That book appeared to me to be a stand alone novel – you’ll know why if you’ve read it – so I was very pleased to find that it was not. Alex and her daughter, Zoe, now live in a remote bit of Dungeness, prime territory for bird watching, which Zoe has taken to with passion. Zoe at fifteen years old is at that awkward age between childhood and adulthood – attempting to find her own way in the world and causing her mother endless worry. Of course, Cupidi’s job does not help – she tries to be home for dinner and to make some sort of a family life for herself and her daughter but it is not always possible if she is to do her job.

The body in the drainage ditch is thought to be that of Hillary Keen – but since Hillary was in London only the night before, and this body has been in the water for some time, that is impossible. So, who is the woman who showed up at Julian Keen’s door – and who is the woman in the ditch? The investigation into her murder takes us back to the 1980s and Greenham Common and long ago relationships.

William Shaw does a good job of writing about time and place, and if you are of a certain (older) generation you will recognize the names of singers and events that you may have long forgotten. He uses devices, such as surveying a characters bookshelves – books from Allende to Joanna Trollope - to give us a sense of who a character is that is so simple but so astute. He includes interesting bits about the geography and history of the region giving us some sense of where his novels take place. 

The next body is found in a farm sewage tank – an awful discovery and the beginning of an investigation into illegal migrant workers. An investigation that turns very nasty and puts everyone involved in extreme danger.

Salt Lane gives mystery readers all the goods  – detectives whose personal and professional lives are interesting – murder victims that have more history to them than is at first apparent – continuing development of the main characters, moving them all along to a place that the next installment can continue. In Salt Lane it is especially Cupidi’s relationship with those she works with, and with her mother and her daughter that are most well developed and perceptive.

I discovered the novels of William Shaw last year, and read The Birdwatcher, and then a trilogy set in 1960s London featuring Detectives Tozer and Breen. There is now a fourth book in that series in my “to read” pile. And, you’ll find a very satisfying connection between that series and Salt Lane. These are both terrific series - I can say “read one and you’ll read them all” and feel entirely confident that you will agree.

 

 

Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy

There is a blurb by Ann Patchett on the cover of Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy, it reads “Smart and thrilling and impossible to put down.” I could not agree more.

Do Not Become Alarmed is a difficult book to write about, as it is a novel that is best read without any knowledge of what is to come. Even though I knew I like Maile Meloy’s writing I was a little uncertain about reading a book that says it is about missing children. Somehow I can read murder mystery after murder mystery without losing sleep over the poor victims. For me murder mystery novels are like opera, simply an entertainment. But, a contemporary literary novel that involves children separated from their parents and at peril kept me awake at night.

The story begins innocently enough with two well to do American families going on a Christmas vacation cruise, Liv and Benjamin, and their two children, Penny, eleven years old, and Sebastian, eight years old. And, Nora and Raymond, and their children, Marcus, also eleven, and June who is six.  Liv and Nora are cousins, as close as sisters, and all expect his cruise to simply be a fun family vacation – happy kids, happy parents, all is good.

There are few children on the cruise, a trip from the United States with stops in Central America, Mexico and through the Panama Canal, but there is an Argentinian family, Gunther and Camila, and their fourteen-year-old daughter, Isabel, and their son, sixteen year old, Hector.

By the time they reach Central America, after a few days of chilling out on the ship they are all ready for an expedition on shore. The men head off golfing and the women and children take a trip expected to involve a zip line.  A problem with the car belonging to the tour guide means they end up at a beach for the afternoon – and things then go terribly wrong.

In tandem to the story of the three families is another, secondary story line. It is that of a young child, Noemi, from Ecuador who is being taken by her uncle to join her parents in New York. For Noemi it is a dangerous journey, for this child who has none of the privileges of the other children.

Once the children have gone missing from their parents the story alternates between what is happening to the children, and what the parents are experiencing. You can imagine their shock, their concern, their panic, and all of the “what if” scenarios.  Relationships are at risk, yet they need each other more than ever.

And, this of course is the modern world – Internet, Facebook, Twitter, Google all play a part in the search and in the publicity that surrounds the situation. Even in Central America, in a country rife with the corruption of the drug trade, how can six children disappear? And these are not stupid children. One is medically fragile, but they are children with resources, they know they are in danger, and they know they need to contact their parents and attempt to escape.

From the very first words I was captivated by this novel, this writer. After the first few chapters I was absolutely committed, but did wonder if I could recommend this book to anyone with children – or if it would just be too tough to read. And, it is tough, but it is so good! It questions our assumptions about life, about marriage, parenthood, commitment, and how little the importance of anything else when compared to the safety of your children. Not only your own children, but other children, many, many of whom live in dangerous places and are at risk of all sorts of terrible experiences.

 

 

 

 

Black Skies and The Shadow Killer by Arnaldur Indridason

Arnaldur Indridason is a well-known Icelandic author of murder mysteries set in present day Reykjavik.

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Black Skies is the most recent in the Detective Erlendur series though in this installment Erlendur himself is away. This book was written in 2009, but it is the most recent to be translated into English. The action this time primarily involves Sigurdur Oli, Erlendur’s colleague and friend. Oli is an interesting character, and this novel reveals information about his childhood, his troubled marriage and his many prejudices and irritations. And, his tendency to leap before he thinks, often resulting in very dangerous situations. We also meet again a character from an earlier novel, Andres, a middle aged man, an alcoholic, whose own desperate childhood has left him irreparably damaged.

Black Skies involves a case of murder, of course. The victim is a woman who enjoyed frequent casual sex, but discovers that some of her partners are not as willing to be as open about these activities as she is. Woven into the story is the booming Icelandic economy prior to it’s crash in 2008. Business is flourishing and some are making a lot of money – but many are simply over extended financially.

There is always lots of interesting information about Icelandic culture in Indridason’s novels – in this one there is the high incidence of alcoholism and the popular drink Brennivin. And the debt collectors – a veritable army of thugs who break knee caps on demand. There is a legal system that passes such lenient custodial sentences that no matter how often the police make an arrest those who are convicted are often free in very short order – resulting in a society where many citizens take matters into their own hands, meeting out their own justice – or vengeance.

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Indridason is now also writing a new series set in Reykjavik during the Second World War, a series that begins with The Shadow District and now continues with The Shadow Killer.

The Shadow Killer opens with the story of a commercial traveller, Eyvindur, purveyor of furniture and shoe polish, as well as Dutch tableware. He is not a particularly successful salesman, unlike his acquaintance, Felix. When one of these men is found shot dead, execution style, in his flat shortly after returning from a sales trip, the investigation begins.

We then meet Thorson, an Icelandic-Canadian seconded to the American Police Corps as an interpreter. And, Flovent, the Icelandic detective. As they are being introduced to each other, I am confused, because I know they worked together in the first novel in this series, which I read last spring, until I realize that Indridason is not writing these books in chronological order, and that the story in this novel takes place earlier than the first. It is 1941, “just before the American troops are scheduled to relieve the British garrison and take over responsibility for the defence of Iceland.”

Iceland was of both Allied and Nazi interest strategically, but it was also of interest to the Nazis, as some believed Iceland was the source of the pure Germanic-Nordic race ever since Viking times.

The death of the salesman is a confusion, and it is soon discovered that there has been a mistake in identity. There are a number of suspects and a storyline that involves the ‘Situation’ of Icelandic girls and women becoming involved with American and British soldiers. 

Whether it is present day Reykjavik or the city under the shadow of the Second World War Indridason’s novels are superb.

 

 

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