Review | Sleeping in the Ground (Inspector Banks 24), Peter Robinson

34409094A wedding ends in tragedy when an unknown sharpshooter opens fire. The investigation reveals the culprit early on — a retired dentist whose body is found with the weapon — but further evidence reveals the possibility that the dentist himself was as much a victim as the wedding party.

Sleeping in the Ground is a wonderful slow burn of a character-driven mystery. The sudden violence of the crime is in sharp contrast with the killer’s meticulous planning, and as the investigation progresses, Detective Superintendent Banks and his team realize the motivation may lie deep within the past.

I love the way Peter Robinson peels back the many layers of Banks’ investigation. Sleeping in the Ground has the feel of a classic mystery, where nuanced conversations and thoughtful examination of evidence are the keys to solving crime. Early in the novel, Banks dryly observes that following a paper trail to the murderer is far less sexy than a high speed car chase and violent shootout. This mystery does have its climactic action scene, but the overall feel is certainly much more subdued, though nowhere near as dry as simply following a paper trail. I love the interviews with people involved with the wedding, and the people being approached for clues to the gunman’s identity. Robinson does such a fantastic job creating complex characters, and even a thrift store employee who appears in a single chapter is memorably real.

The series characters are also a major reason this book is so good. I felt for Banks as I read of him dealing with his grief over the death of his first love, and dealing with what he discovers about the real reason she left him. I enjoyed the light-hearted banter in the subplot about DI Annie Cabott’s father crashing with Banks while he looks for a new place. I especially love the professional rivalry between DI Annie and the psychologist profiler (and Banks’ old flame) Jenny Fuller — many books and shows set this up as a debate between hard evidence and soft skills, but Annie defies stereotype by being very intuitive and empathetic herself. Her discomfort with having to take Jenny’s ideas into consideration is purportedly because she feels psychological profiling is superfluous or perhaps just needs more time to get used to the ‘new girl,’ but Robinson does a great job of suggesting at a deeper insecurity that makes Annie so uncomfortable.

Overall, Sleeping in the Ground is a wonderfully nuanced, patient mystery that begs to be savoured.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | A Legacy of Spies, John Le Carre

34496624I watched the Evening with George Smiley event at the movie theatre, where John Le Carre spoke to an auditorium in England about his history with his beloved character. In his talk, Le Carre spoke about the time of Smiley, the era Le Carre himself was in the British Secret Service, with a sort of nostalgic wistfulness. It wasn’t that spies were much nicer back then — Le Carre’s novels are rife with corruption and double dealing — but there was a simplicity to their work that Le Carre imagines is very different from spy work today.

This nostalgia comes through clearly in Le Carre’s latest novel A Legacy of Spies. The story takes place in the present day, with Smiley’s colleague Peter Guillam being investigated by the Service for Operation Windfall, which took place years ago and resulted in the death of a fellow agent Alec Leamas. Legacy of Spies is a treat for Le Carre fans, combining Guillam’s memories of espionage with his present-day battle of minds with the investigators’ pointed questioning. I love the cat-and-mouse game of the present day, with Guillam being forced to take the investigators to the old safe house and Smiley’s old files, but using cunning and double speak to keep them from digging too deep.

More than that, as a big fan of the Gary Oldman version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I absolutely loved seeing Smiley, Haydon, Prideaux, Bland and Alleline together again, and in full scheming mode. As in the movies, the value of human life is secondary to that of the actual mission, and I loved the idea of a retired spy like Guillam being called to account for actions in his distant past. One of the characters calls Guillam a foot soldier, simply following Smiley’s orders, and wonders if that should exculpate him from responsibility in the wrongs the team committed. From the complex emotions that come through in Guillam’s memories of the events, the answer seems to be a clear no.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book and tickets to the Evening with George Smiley movie event in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Bellevue Square, Michael Redhill

33595663I was once tagged on a Facebook photo of an event I did not remember at all. After a moment, I realized that the friend who tagged me made a mistake, and the woman she thought was me was someone else completely. The woman’s features were somewhat obscured by sunglasses, but the resemblance otherwise was enough to confuse even me for a moment. I’ve had people before tell me they’ve seen my doppelganger around, but I’ve always dismissed those as exaggeration. The Facebook photo was the closest experience I’ve ever had of seeing a possible doppelganger for myself, and it was disquieting.

So I was immediately hooked by the premise of Michael Redhill’s Giller Prize-nominated book Bellevue Square. A bookseller named Jean learns from customers that she has a doppelganger walking around in Bellevue Square, Kensington Market. Kensington Market in Toronto is a vibrant neighbourhood, with lots of small shops and people from different walks of life. I can imagine the goldmine it provides to a novelist’s mind, and Redhill does a great job in bringing the neighbourhood to life. I enjoyed reading about familiar streets and landmarks, and imagine that the people Jean encounters in her investigation are people I may have passed on the street.

From the premise, I imagined an Andrew Pyper-esque supernatural twist on the doppelganger’s identity, but Redhill takes the story in a completely unexpected (for me) direction. What begins as a straightforward enough mystery reveals itself to be an exploration of obsession and mental illness, and just as I think I finally understand what’s happening, Redhill throws in a scene that makes me question the validity of the scientific explanation. Bellevue Square is mystery, horror, medical drama and existentialism all in one, with some fourth-wall-breaking references to the author himself thrown in. I don’t think I completely understand what was going on, nor, to be honest, was it quite trippy enough to completely blow my mind, but I thought Redhill did a good job.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Four Tendencies, Gretchen Rubin

According to Gretchen Rubin, we all fit into one of four tendencies: Upholder, Obliger, Questioner and Rebel. You may take the quiz on her website to find out your tendency, and in the nutshell, the four tendencies are as follows:

FourTendenciesJacketBasedGraph

Some readers have commented that this categorization is reductive, and even Rubin herself admits that people often exhibit traits of more than one tendency (see: the overlap in the Venn diagram above). I don’t quite have that issue. I took the quiz when it first came out with Better than Before, I took it again with this book, and I’m very firmly an Obliger. Even when I read the various chapters, I recognized myself most strongly in the Obliger section. Which is probably why, while part of me questions the validity of the framework (a lot of it feels self-fulfilling, e.g. you answer X therefore you are an Obliger and you are an Obliger because all other Obligers answered X, and I wonder how the quiz was constructed and people grouped before these categories even existed), for the most part, I pretty much take the framework at face value.

33607642It’s fairly logical, and I like that the framework is pretty non-judgemental — it’s not that one tendency is better or worse than the others, it’s that we need a different approach to motivate people of various tendencies. The Obliger is pretty much the Hufflepuff of the four tendencies (we do stuff for other people, but struggle to do stuff for ourselves), so it’s a relief that this framework recognizes that any tendency has just as good a chance as any other at succeeding in various careers and leadership positions.

The book goes into some good tactics to deal with people with a different tendency than yours. For example, if you’re a manager of a Questioner, you need to give them a logical explanation for the tasks you assign. If you’re the spouse of a Rebel, you need to give them the freedom (or the illusion?) that the decisions they’re making are because they want to, and not because you told them to. There’s also a really good section on Obliger rebellion, where Obligers get fed up with doing things for others and then just stop without warning. I also like the insight that we often see our loved ones as extensions of ourselves, and so we treat our obligations to them the same way we treat our obligations to ourselves.

The book itself feels a bit thin, and a lot of the content felt repetitive. Once you get a grasp of the differences between the tendencies, a lot of what she advises feels like common sense, and not worth going into detail for over 250 pages. As an example, if you’re an Obliger and respond best to external motivations, it seems obvious that you need to create external accountability (e.g. workout buddy, mid-point deadlines enforced by your manager).

I also felt that while the book dealt in-depth with how to motivate and deal with people of other tendencies, it doesn’t at all tackle how we can manage our own behaviour given our own tendency. Rubin will likely say this is my Obliger self coming through, but I couldn’t help wondering — the chapter on Questioners explains all the ways in which we can provide endless logical explanations to make Questioners do what we want/need them to do, but that puts all the onus on the people the Questioner interacts with and none on the Questioner themself. How can a Questioner manage their own desire for rational explanations and make themselves just go to work when their manager or spouse no longer has time to justify the task? Similarly, how do Upholders manage their own behaviour so that they don’t seem self-righteous when loved ones don’t meet obligations as easily as they do?

The chapter on Obligers advises them to create artificial deadlines and people to call them out on missing their obligations, but nothing about managing their emotional need to please people. To address Obliger burnout, Rubin recommends coming up with a conflicting obligation that must be met (e.g. I can’t work overtime on X project because my family needs me home for dinner. So my family’s needs trump my boss’s needs), which may be effective, but may also simply turn Obliger burnout in another direction. I think a section on self-care and realizing the importance of your obligation to yourself is just as important.

I like the Four Tendencies framework in general. I just wish this book delved a bit deeper into how we can manage ourselves and our own tendency to work and live more smoothly with people of other tendencies.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng

34273236Celeste Ng is fantastic at nuanced family drama and in Little Fires Everywhere, she gives us a rather intimate glimpse into the lives of two very different families over the course of a summer. First is Elena Richardson and her children, the youngest of whom, Isabelle, burns down the family home in the very first line of the novel. Elena has a second house that she rents out to Mia Warren, an artist and single mother who moves in with her teenage daughter Pearl.

In the Richardsons, Pearl finds the stable, traditional family life she’s always longed for, and in Mia Warren, Isabelle finds the free-thinking open-minded mother figure she’s always wanted. A misunderstanding involving Pearl and the Richardson children leads to a rift between the families, and a custody battle over an adopted Chinese-American baby puts Elena and Mia on opposing sides.

Little Fires Everywhere is such a complex, emotional book that questions what we consider to be family. The custody battle was the crux on which many issues about biology versus stability, and the many different ways we can love, were openly explored, but the same themes were echoed in the Warrens and Richardsons’ stories, as well as in Mia’s past. Ng manages to weave her various storylines together, and while I wasn’t completely satisfied by the ending (I wished for happier closures for some of the storyline), I was satisfied by the story overall. Ng’s characters were well fleshed out, and whatever we felt for their actions, they felt real.

The custody battle is a good example of this complexity. I felt the narrative wanted us to side with the birth mother, particularly as her lawyer waxed eloquent about the adoption essentially divorcing the child from her Chinese heritage. But while I felt for the birth mother and acknowledge her genuine regret at leaving her baby behind at a fire station, I felt even more strongly for the adoptive mother, who clearly also loved the baby and was being raked over the coals in the courtroom for not reading enough good Chinese stories. I think part of me felt the birth mother’s ‘mistake’ (leaving her baby behind because she couldn’t afford milk and diapers) was far more serious than Mia and the lawyer made out, and I’m not fully satisfied with how this storyline turns out, but I like the emotional complexity with which Ng presented this storyline, and how she made it resonate with the Warrens and Richardsons’ stories as well.

Far from its explosive opening sentence, Little Fires Everywhere is a slow burn of a novel, teasing apart layers of its characters’ lives and weaving them together. If you liked the simmering tension and sensitivity of Ng’s earlier book Everything I Never Told You, you should definitely check out Little Fires Everywhere.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Toronto Book of the Dead, Adam Bunch

32978831It’s fitting that the foreword to The Toronto Book of the Dead is written by Shawn Micallef, as anyone familiar with Micallef’s books and Toronto Star column can attest to his absolute love of Toronto and its stories. Adam Bunch shares a similar glee at nerding out over Toronto’s history, in this book, a history of stories related to death.

Stories include: the horrific botching of Toronto’s first execution (the city had no professional executioner, so a fellow prisoner volunteered for the deed); the mysterious fate of Peggy Pompadour, an escaped slave, and her family (check out artist Camille Turner’s work for a deeper dive into this story); the refusal of French colonizers for their dead to be honoured with Indigenous burial rites; and many more.

The cover is fantastic, and to be honest, made me expect a collection of horror stories, somewhat of a haunted Toronto walk led by horror writer Andrew Pyper. The reality is a bit more fact-based, a lot more dry and a lot less scary. Bunch is a good writer and clearly very much interested in his subject matter. It’s a great book for history buffs, Toronto buffs, and tourism professionals looking for a quirky tale to keep in their back pocket for tourists. Or perhaps horror writers looking for inspiration for their next Toronto-themed novel?

The stories themselves are fairly introductory; the book’s strength is in breadth rather than depth. History buffs will likely learn little new about people and time periods they’ve already studied, but they may be entertained by the range of other stories covered. Reading the book feels somewhat like taking a tour of Toronto, with a very knowledgeable tour guide who knows the more somber parts of the city’s past.

This book wasn’t quite for me, though that’s likely more because of my own expectations than the quality of the book itself. I can imagine myself nerding out over this book years ago, when I was fairly new to Toronto and eager to devour all knowledge about the city, or when I was a university student and just generally nerding out about all things historical. So I can imagine it appealing to other readers; it just didn’t quite hold my interest.

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Thank you to Dundurn Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Shoe on the Roof, Will Ferguson

35619568The Shoe of the Roof is a thought-provoking read about faith and the thin line between madness and reality. It begins with med student Thomas Rosanoff’s plan to win back his girlfriend. His girlfriend’s brother Sebastian is confined to a psychiatric institution because he believes he is the son of God, and Thomas decides that if he cures Sebastian, his girlfriend will fall back in love with him.

 

How does one go about convincing someone that he isn’t actually Jesus? Thomas’ hypothesis is that if he introduces Sebastian to two other men who claim to be Jesus, they will sort out among themselves that three Jesuses can’t exist all at once, and so at least two of them will have to cure themselves of their delusion.

It makes an odd kind of sense, and as I learn from one of the characters in the book, there’s precedence for this kind of cure, as it worked in the past for two women who both believed they were the Virgin Mary (the older one eventually acquiesced to the younger one’s claim). However, things don’t quite go as planned, and Thomas ends up with all three men claiming to be Jesus — Sebastian, a screaming patient named Eli and a homeless man who did street magic — living in his apartment. Things escalate further when Thomas’ father, a psychiatrist who conducted psychiatric experiments on Thomas as a child, gets involved with a much more heavy-handed approach at a cure.

The title is taken from an anecdote cited in the book, where a person claims to have had an out of body experience, and mentions seeing a shoe on the roof, which doctors realize wasn’t at all visible from the vantage point of their physical body. It is this interplay of faith and reality that makes Shoe on the Roof so powerful a read. We know none of the three men claiming to be Jesus actually are Jesus, but that doesn’t automatically mean they should all be dismissed as madmen. The ethics of Thomas’ experiment are questionable, but it’s nothing compared to the cruelty of his father’s cure.

Thomas’ approach is to reason with all three men, for example, arguing that Eli couldn’t be Jesus because he was born in Connecticut, which wasn’t at all mentioned in the Bible. (The way the three men prove him wrong on this is probably the funniest part of the novel.) It’s an approach that in turn allows us to hear the men’s perspectives, and why they’re convinced that they are Jesus. I admit that my Catholic background played some part in my reading of this book, as a part of me wondered if any of the men (likely the street magician) would end up being, if not Jesus himself, at least a Jesus figure who opens Thomas’ eyes to the possibility of faith.

While this didn’t quite happen, I think Ferguson’s more secular take actually formed a much more compelling argument than I had expected. It’s not so much that their belief in their being Jesus is harmless as that it is actually harm reducing. There’s a heartbreaking moment where one of the men observes that without this delusion, the others would be left with nothing to live for. Ultimately, we almost want them to have the freedom to hold on to this delusion, if indeed their madness is so much more compelling than their reality.

This becomes especially true with Thomas’ father comes on board, and deploys torture techniques (starvation, sleep deprivation, videos with disturbing content on loop) to get the three men to recant their claim. His assertion that behaviour will lead to belief has merit, but his methods are seriously messed up, and these chapters are actually difficult to read as I wanted nothing more than for Thomas to break the men free.

The flashbacks about Thomas’ childhood are equally disturbing, and I can’t believe his father wasn’t arrested for how he treated his child. There’s a memory that teases at the edges of Thomas’ mind, of a piece of choral music that he feels is linked to his mother but isn’t quite sure how. The moment where he learns the truth is utterly heartbreaking.

Overall, this is a powerful and compelling book that forces you to reconsider what madness is, and how a insidious a ‘cure’ can be.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.