14 October 2019

The Warlow Experiment / Alix Nathan

This book's basic premise: A wealthy horticulturalist devises an experiment in which a man will remain in a suite of exquisitely-appointed underground rooms for 7 years, never seeing or speaking to another human being. His every need regarding food, laundry, wood and coal, etc. will be attended to. He will have a collection of books as well as an organ at his disposal. He will write down his thoughts in the journals provided. At the end of the experiment, he will receive £50 annually for the rest of his life.

What this novel is actually about: A rich asocial dude treats a human being like one of his beloved plants, and everyone involved in the project is obsessed by sex, and then everything goes to hell.

I borrowed this e-book from the Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec.

rating: **

7 October 2019

Tidelands / Philippa Gregory

Abandoned by her husband in a place that's neither land nor sea, Alinor depends on her skills as a midwife, her knowledge of plants and herbs, and her resourcefulness to survive along with her two children. Inevitably in these troubled times of the English Civil War, rumours circulate about her among her neighbours: how she was responsible for her sister-in-law's death in childbirth; how she cast an impotency spell on her husband; how her children are faerie-born; how much she dreads deep water... Such talk intensifies when, seemingly overnight, she's able to purchase a boat, her son becomes part of the wealthiest household in the area, and her daughter is betrothed to the only son of a rich farmer. Surely, such good fortune can only come to a witch! Alinor does have secrets to hide — her own, and those of the Catholic priest whose life she saved.

I loved all the details of the humble, everyday existence, the ordinary tasks and the work that Alinor had to carry out to survive and to feed herself and her children. However, I rolled my eyes many times as her naivety and at the frankly stupid decisions she and other characters took, making their lives far more complicated by their own fault. I suppose I was the naive one for expecting people who had grown up in such circumstances to have more common sense and to be more realistic... I confess that I skimmed those sections that dealt with the politics of the time, and that I skipped the king's trial entirely. The "romance" aspect of this novel felt very contrived. As for the ending, it was frankly confusing. I'm giving this book three stars only because of all the interesting, well-researched domestic details.

I borrowed this e-book from the Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec.

rating: ***

30 September 2019

The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories / Martin Edwards (ed.)

What better way to add a gentle thrill to the familiarity and comfort of our end-of-year festivities than with a collection of Christmas-themed crime stories that can be enjoyed between more intense bouts of holiday activity?

This collection of short fiction from the Golden Age of the genre explores now-familiar tropes from a variety of points of view and features a good diversity of sleuths, both amateur and professional. Country houses, multiple suspects and misdirection all make their expected appearance, although there are a few surprises in store even for crime connoisseurs. While I enjoyed the stories overall, I found this selection rather uneven, with only three truly standing out from the lot ("Blind Man's Hood" by Carter Dickson, "Sister Bessie or Your Old Leech" by Cyril Hare, and "Crime at Lark Cottage" by John Bingham) thanks to an interesting twist.

I was provided with a free electronic copy of this book through NetGalley by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, in exchange for an honest review.

rating: ***

23 September 2019

Little / Edward Carey

In this fantastical fictional autobiography of the founder of London's famous Madame Tussauds wax museum, Marie (nicknamed Little) recounts how she found and lost her father, how she first met the rather strange Doctor Curtius, from whom she learned the art of wax modeling, how she moved to Paris with him, how she came to be Madame Elisabeth's teacher and live at Versailles (in a cupboard) for several years, how she fell in love, how her talents were called upon during the Revolution, how she cast the heads of many famous and infamous people whether before or after their death, how she was imprisoned then freed, how she at last had a family, how she left half that family behind to start afresh in London, and how she opened her museum and prospered. Along the way, Marie illustrates her narrative with wonderful drawings (made by the author himself).

As I started to read this novel, it made me think of Dieu et nous seuls pouvons, the absolutely amazing book by Michel Folco which tells how an abandoned baby boy originated a famous dynasty of public executioners. Both infuse reality with a finely calibrated dose of oddity and a gallery of unforgettable characters.

Edward Carey filled in the gaps in the known lives of historical characters in such an original way that at first it's a bit bewildering, but once I gave in to it, I absolutely loved this novel — most of all Marie herself who, although exploited in so many ways throughout her life, feels very little self-pity even in the worst situations. She behaves with a quiet dignity that shows true inner strength. Little is definitely one of my favourite novels of the year.

I borrowed this e-book from the Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec.

rating: *****

16 September 2019

Snap Shot / Marilyn Todd

from the publisher's site:

1895, London

Taking risqué photographs is the only way Julia McAllister can retain her independence as a young widow in London.
But one by one, her models are dying — and now she is being framed for their murders.
The relentless Inspector Collingwood is on the case and Julia knows he’s watching her every move.
With young women still dying, and her own life on the line, Julia must unmask the real killer before it is too late…
Can Julia clear her name? Will Collingwood believe her?
Or will the dark secrets of her past come back to haunt her…?

This is anything but the typical historical novel set during Victoria's reign. Julia McAllister defies all expectations of what a "proper lady" should be; she's opinionated, vocal, forthright, sensual, and definitely has agency over her own life. The brisk repartee between herself and Inspector Collingwood and Bug, the street urchin who insinuates himself into the role of her assistant, were a delight. I appreciated how the author exposes, in various ways, the vulnerable position of women in society at the time. Although I found that the minor storylines unnecessarily muddied the plot and that the conclusion was rather rushed, the psychology behind the crimes felt credible. I look forward to reading the second book in this series.

[I received an electronic copy of this novel from the publisher, Sapere Books, in exchange for my honest opinion.]

rating: ***

9 September 2019

The Corset / Laura Purcell

Two women trapped by society meet in prison: wealthy Dorothea Truelove, whose father disapproves of her "good works" with female prisoners and wants to marry her off, and sixteen-year-old seamstress Ruth Butterham, who is awaiting trial for murder.

Dorothy listen incredulously at Ruth's astonishing claim that she can channel her emotions into her stitches, and that she's therefore to blame for the deaths of her baby sister and her father, her mother's blindness, one of her old schoolmates' lingering disease... and most recently the illness that killed her mistress. But surely, each of these events can be rationally explained away?

Ruth is convinced that she can influence the lives of those around her through her sewing; indeed, the corsets she makes become both a source of strength for herself and a means of revenge towards others. Dorothy swears by phrenology, which asserts that it's possible to know people's true character by the bumps on their heads, and wants to conduct an experiment by measuring Ruth's skull. Both women's beliefs will be put to the test.

As she did in The Silent Companions, Laura Purcell explores female madness from an unusual perspective. I love how she provides "natural" and "supernatural" explanations, leaving the reader to vacillate between them as the novel progresses. There's an insidiousness about the narrative, constantly giving rise to doubts about who can be trusted, and there always seems to be something else going on just out of reach or sight... And oh, that conclusion!

I purchased this book online.

Rating: ***

2 September 2019

The Long Call / Ann Cleeves

DI Matthew Venn is convinced that there's a link between the fatal stabbing of a man found on a beach and the disappearance of a woman from the Woodyard, a local community and day centre. His suspicions seem to be confirmed when another woman goes missing during a shopping trip with her father; surely, the fact that both have Down's syndrome isn't a mere coincidence. More and more clues point in the direction of the Woodyard, and Venn may be headed for a conflict of interest, since the centre is run by his own husband...

How refreshing to read about a detective who, although emotionally damaged, is a happily married gay man, solid, reliable, relatively well adjusted (save for periods of low confidence and barely contained anger at minor annoyances), with no obvious addictive behaviour on display! I also liked that we're shown people with disabilities portrayed as individuals, with their own at times contradictory personalities, having conversations, interacting with their families and the community, instead of serving as mere passive props.

As always, Ann Cleeves sets her story firmly in a very specific locale — here the North Devon coast — and introduces us to an extensive cast of characters. While her reliance on dialogue allows us to get intimately acquainted with them, it can tend to overshadow the plot's action scenes, which appear somewhat stilted. Although I enjoyed the major part of the novel, I found the conclusion a bit rushed, vague, and ultimately unsatisfactory. Still, I think this novel, the first in a new series, will please Cleeves fans.

I was provided with a free electronic copy of this book through NetGalley by the publisher, Pan Macmillan [link], in exchange for an honest review.

rating: ***

26 August 2019

Regarde les lumières mon amour / Annie Ernaux

Comment qualifier ce livre? Essai ou compte-rendu d'investigation, ou autre chose encore? Quoi qu'il en soit, Annie Ernaux y note les observations diverses et variées provoquées par ses visites à un immense hypermarché qui s'étend sur 2 étages, relié à un centre commercial, situé près de Paris. Ses commentaires, souvent justes, ne résultent pas d'une analyse en profondeur. L'auteure se pose plutôt en spectatrice du comportement humain dans une microsphère dont elle a parfaitement conscience de faire partie. Il est évident qu'elle se sent à la fois attirée et repoussée par ce cocon isolé; d'ailleurs, elle semble prendre un malin plaisir aux petits gestes de contestation — posés par elle-même ou par d'autres — contre les manœuvres visant à nous manipuler. Elle en perçoit toutes les contradictions : l'espace d'un moment, on y fait partie d'une communauté distincte, mais nous n'y sommes que des corps consommateurs, des vides qu'il faut remplir. Un très court volume qui divertit tout en suscitant la réflexion.

J'ai emprunté ce livre électronique à mon réseau de bibliothèques local.

Cote : ****

19 August 2019

A Shadowed Livery / Charlie Garratt

from the publisher's site:

Warwickshire, England, 1938

While Hitler and Chamberlain are preparing to sign the Munich agreement, the murderer of a Jewish shopkeeper is being hanged in Birmingham. After witnessing the execution, Inspector James Given, who brought the killer to justice, is surprised to find he has been taken off the investigation to pursue something completely different.
Grovestock House, owned by the wealthy Barleigh family has witnessed a triple death.
With the terrible events neatly written off as a murder and a double suicide, Given is supposed to tidy up a few loose ends with the help of local constable, John Sawyer.
But Given is sure there is more to the case than meets the eye.
What dark secrets were the Barleigh family hiding? Could there be another killer involved?
And how will Given react when he is forced to confront the ghosts of his past…?

This dialogue-driven crime novel includes traditional elements of old-fashioned crime fiction — a stately home complete with servants, a large cast of suspects, a long list of possible motives, family secrets — but features a detective who will be familiar to modern-day readers: an alcoholic with a hair-trigger temper, a problematic love life, and a difficult relationship with his father. The historical context, which drives James Given to hide his Jewish heritage, adds a welcome layer of complexity to the story. The author deftly shows how the horrors of WWI still impact society, and foreshadows the even more terrible events still to come. Although crime and mystery buffs may guess at least part of the riddle behind the deaths at Grovestock House, they'll certainly be entertained.

[I received an electronic copy of this novel from the publisher, Sapere Books [link], in exchange for my honest opinion.]

rating: ***

12 August 2019

Library and Archives Canada podcast

I was surprised and delighted to recently discover while browsing iTunes that Library and Archives Canada has a podcast. LAC is a historical depository that consists of books, maps, photographs, paintings, films, audio and video recordings, sheet music, newspapers, and countless other holdings.

Two of my favourites among the episodes I've listened to thus far are #27: Hiding in Plain Sight: the Métis Nation and #45: Mr. Lowy's Room of Wonder.