Olaf Olafsson’s The Sacrament

    Release Date:  December 3, 2019 / Support your local indie book store and snag a copy here!

A good book, this.  Spare and haunting as Scandinavian works often are, suspenseful and mysterious, a bleak, cerebral look at the darker sides of otherwise decent human beings.  And still I couldn’t help wishing for an even better book – because I think it could have been.  Perhaps it is just that – a “look at” rather than a “look into”.  Motivations are pretty apparent, but something was missing or in the way of understanding the “who” of the characters.

Sister Johanna is sent by Cardinal Raffin to Iceland to investigate allegations against Father August Frans, headmaster of a Catholic school there.  Initially we don’t know what the allegations are, but one is tempted to make an educated guess, of course.  Other than speaking Icelandic, Sister seems an unlikely choice for this assignment, but Cardinal Raffin has knowledge that he holds against her and it soon becomes apparent that this is not meant to be, must not be, a serious investigation.  No one really wants to get at the truth, to have it known.

While the book moves back and forth in time providing background, I still felt that something, some piece or pieces were missing, and I found the chronology somewhat confusing at times, though easy enough to resolve.  Maybe just me and my soggy synapses.  Of course, it’s a rare book that ticks all the boxes, and in spite of all that and the painfully guarded characters, this book is a worthwhile read.  As usual, the driver for me is that I had to know.  So will you, and when all is said and done, you might find yourself conflicted about what you know.  You’ll know the who and the why right enough, but trust me, not just anyone would do….that.  Hmmm, a book that drives you to find out and then leaves you mulling its outcome.  Now, you see, that sort of quandary, that sort of something to think about, can go on the plus side for Mr. Olafsson’s book.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by HarperCollins Publishers / Ecco via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb

Will World War II ever cease to fascinate us?  I certainly hope not, nor should it for, clearly, we’re abysmally slow learners.  With The Bastard Brigade, Sam Kean brings us yet another story – the Allied efforts to prevent Hitler and his Nazi scientists from developing an atomic weapon.  Or, uh, ahem, at least, to keep them from developing one before we did.  Germany’s Uranium Club versus the Manhattan Project of the US.  Of course, this is not a new story, but, as told by Mr Kean, it is both chilling and oddly charming.  I swear!  Now how the hell did he pull that off?  Like a man with a keen sense of the absurd who knows exactly what he’s doing, that’s how.

First of all, Mr. Kean is a scientist, and a brief course in rudimentary nuclear physics comes with the price of admission, illustrated nicely, thank you very much, in a way that an eighth grader could understand.  Enriched uranium?  Hey, guess what?  I know what that terms mean now, and it was absolutely painless.  Heavy water?  Got that one, too.  In 1940, the Vemork Hydroelectric Plant on an icy, desolate plateau 100 miles west of Oslo, Norway, was the only producer of heavy water in the world, and Hitler’s crew put in their order for hundreds of pounds of the heretofore seldom-sold stuff in January of that year.  (My heart nearly burst with joy when Mr. Kean describes the Vemork officials as being in a state of “flabbergastation” over Germany’s order, and it is my fervent hope that’s actually a word because the Lord knows we need it, but perhaps Mr. Kean was only being tongue in cheek.  He’s more than capable of that, and thank you very much, Mr. Kean.)  Anyway I was “flabbergastated” to learn that it took two dangerous commando raids to remove the existing heavy water supply before the Nazis could get it.  Geez, who knew?  Now there’s a “knowledge knugget” for you, and we have only scratched the surface.

Oddball characters and anecdotes abound, such as Moe Berg, professional baseball player and multi-lingual Princeton man –  first and most unlikely atomic espionage agent.  Madame Curie’s daughter Irene and her husband Frederic Joliot.  The rocky start of the OSS, forerunner of the CIA.  Joseph Kennedy, Jr., eldest Kennedy son, brother of JFK.  Wasn’t he shot down in WWII or his plane crashed – or something?  It exploded, actually, in a bizarre mission constructed from fear of an atomic Germany.  Kennedy, Jr. volunteered, and every plane after his that made the same attempt was lost as well.  I must make myself stop talking about this book.  Loved it, loved it, loved it, and I’m just your average grumpy ol’ she-bear.  If you’re a WWII devotee, a science geek, sports fan, second hand adrenaline junkie, any sort of history buff, weaponry aficionado………..just name a niche.  Cross stitch?  Well, hey, OK then, even if there’s nothing for your particular niche, you’ll still love this book.  Betcha.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Little, Brown and Company via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Olivia Hawker’s One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow

We’ve all been told that you never get a second chance to make a good first impression, and this book has that going on with a title that should live forever.  First line is good, too.  A killer – literally.  “I was leading the cows to the milking shed when my pa shot Mr. Webber.”  Nothing, not one thing could have stood between me and this book after that glorious beginning.  The Heavens opened, and the angels sang.  However……….oh, hold my hand, please, while I confess.  Further reading betrayed me, and I found myself determined to dislike this one, to find fault.  Melodramatic, a book in search of a direction, hyper-indulgent descriptive language, sentences that rambled on forever.  In other words, I was peevish and digging it.  Continued to read, though, maybe just to see how bad it could be, but author Olivia Hawker continued as well.  Stitch by stitch, she built a gorgeous tapestry of a book – this very book – and my gnarly old heart had to relent.  I gave it up to her work, and the angels sang once more.

Ms. Hawker says she wanted to write about death, however the book she wrote (perhaps inevitably so) is about life and the living – the eternal cycle, the hopeful over and over of all living things.  Just to set the scene for you, it’s 1876 in the Wyoming territories, and the Webber and Bemis families have adjoining homesteads twenty miles away from Paintrock, the nearest town.  No other neighbors, and there is bad blood between the two families.  Death?  It was never far away in those days.  You will fret and worry and care.  Maybe you’ll find a little fault, too, but it’s been a long time since a book earned my respect as this one did.  Worked for it.  Imagine that.  High praise, and enough said.  Readers, expect to be rewarded.

This title flew into bookstores back in October so shop your local indie bookstore for a copy.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Lake Union Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Red River Girl: The Life and Death of Tina Fontaine

True crime?  Yes, I suppose so, but closer to reportage than sensationalism.  With the murder of Tina Fontaine, BBC journalist Joanna Jolly takes on a disturbing subject:  the numbers of raped, murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada.  Folks outside of Canada may be oblivious, but the problem is such that Justin Trudeau, upon becoming Prime Minister, promised and implemented an initiative to focus on the issue.  And in truth, victim-blaming obscures the problem, for, you see, many indigenous women who come to cities such as Vancouver and Winnipeg (where Fontaine’s death occurred) become involved in drugs and the sex trade – risky, vulnerable lives, low priority lives that, unfortunately, are too easily dismissed.

Tina Fontaine was only fifteen years old, looked much younger, and had been reared on a First Nations reserve by an aunt who loved her.  Like many teenagers, she wanted to spread her wings a bit and came to Winnipeg in hopes of establishing a relationship with her mother.  Her mother, however, was nowhere to be found, but Tina stayed anyway and was soon on the streets.  For about a month.  Then somebody killed her.  Dumped her in the Red River.  Wrapped in a floral duvet cover.  That’s a jarring note, isn’t it?  A duvet cover.  I don’t have a duvet cover or a duvet to cover for that matter, but someone did.  Probably Tina’s killer.  Probably a psychopath.  With a duvet cover.  Strange.

Of course, Richard Cormier, her accused killer, is strange – a cagey, articulate man with a taste for very young women and a thing for Tina that he can’t stop talking about.  He supports himself and supplies his meth habit by stealing scrap metal, copper wiring and bicycles.  Living rough, looking stringy.  And, if you listen closely, you may hear the jingle jangle of loose screws as he walks by.  But did he kill Tina?  Winnipeg homicide detective John O’Donovan doggedly pursues Cormier, even setting up an elaborate and costly “Mr. Big” sting operation, but he can only build a circumstantial case against the suspect.  If you’re not familiar with the term, “Mr. Big” is an investigative ploy that actually originated in Canada.  It’s been banned in some countries as entrapment, and is restricted even in Canada, but O’Donovan’s version reads like a novel, and the case becomes a cause.  Is there justice for Tina?  For any of these women?  Well, you know how it is.  You know what they say.  It’s complicated.  But you can read and we can hope.

Shop your local indie bookstore for this one, Joanna Jolly’s compelling non-fiction debut.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Penguin Random House Canada / Viking via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

If It’s Halloween It Must Be . . . Ghost Virus by Graham Masterton!

I’d never heard of Graham Masterton, but he looks so avuncular.  After reading the book, I took another look.  No, it’s in the eyebrows, I’m sure, those dark, heavy, menacing eyebrows.

This book was published a couple of years ago, so I don’t know if it’s still available, but it popped up rather mysteriously on my e-reader, and so what’s a reader to do.  I began to read.  A young Pakistani girl is summoning up the courage to ”burn off her face” with sulfuric acid.  Oh, my stars and garters, she does.  Goriest thing I’ve ever read.  Enough to make a toad go pale and hop off seeking the comfort of religion, alcohol or drugs.  Folks, it is bad and gets worse.

The police, DC Jerry Pardoe and DS Jamila Patel, begin investigating this as a possible crime of honor, a so-called honor killing for bringing shame on the family.  Now that sounded really interesting so I read on.  Turns out it’s not honor at all.  It’s coats……..and jackets and sweaters.  Promise.  Coats and jackets and sweaters.  Eventually dresses join the fray.  Hats and shoes, you’ll be relieved to know, do not, but I’m not sure about underwear.

Yes, my fellow readers, it starts with second-hand clothing and soon spreads to the suburban closets of Tooting, a district of London.  Garments are possessed and seeking bodies.  Bands of hooded overcoats roam the streets attacking innocent passers-by, ripping off heads and limbs, strewing guts, organs and spinal columns willy-nilly.  Watch your step on those slippery sidewalks.

Surely there’s an award for the goriest book with the silliest concept.  The highly coveted Bucket of Blood?  Who wants a Hugo when you can have the Flay, Splay and Spray?  Well, here’s your hands-down winner.  I mean, this book drips.  And it’s coats, clothing!  What next?  Cannabilism?  Hmm, maybe.  Wouldn’t want to leave that out.

The Tooting police have no clue how to handle this, but, eventually, they arrive at a weapon, and it’s inspired.  I won’t say what it is, but it has a motor, and you may have one in your garage to cut up fallen trees and take down limbs.  It’s very noisy, too.  So an entire hard-faced squadron marches forth carrying these……noisy things.  And then there’s Tooting.  Now I don’t know how this is pronounced in the UK, but, here, in print, it reads as, well . . . Tooting.  And adolescent humor abounds, though, perhaps, unintentionally.  Officers going after the coats are told to make this the “Tooting Chainsaw Massacre”.  (Oops, there you go, spoiler alert.)  And there’s this suggested headline:  TOOTING POLICE LOSE THEIR MARBLES.  I tell you what.  Some of us never grow up, and I shamelessly admit I was hoping for something like “Tooting PD, ma’am, here about that smell you reported.”  Sadly, that was a missed opportunity.

Now Mr. Masterton is a prolific author of horror and crime novels (excessively prolific), and, really, even here, he tells his story pretty well, but this is whacked.  The man dreamed up killer coats and sweaters smearing intestines, kidneys, lungs and uteruses (uteri?) up walls and across streets.  Then there’s Tooting.  Seriously?  It’s a technicolor extravaganza going for broke.  Man, what a magnificent set of cojones he must have, and, unlike the characters in his book, he gets to keep them.  Here’s to ya, Mr. Masterton.

If this is your thing (and really, why shouldn’t it be?), you can scare up a copy at your local indie bookstore.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Head of Zeus via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Good Morning, Monster: Five Heroic Journeys to Recovery

Retired Canadian psychotherapist Catherine Gildiner subtitles her good work of non-fiction Five Heroic Journeys to Recovery and recounts the inspirational stories of five former patients whom she considers heroes for their lives of struggle, their hard work in therapy and their willingness to share.  All have given permission to use their experiences, but, even so, their stories are told in such a way as to retain their anonymity – Laura, Peter, Danny, Alana and Madeline.  Psychotherapy itself is long process, comes with pitfalls and is not for sissies, but these five are here to speak.

When she was a child, Madeline’s mother greeted her each morning with “Good morning, monster.”  And not as a term of endearment, you see.  Madeline thought that’s what she was.  Danny and his family were victims of Canadian government policy regarding indigenous people.  Alana and her younger sister were reared by their brilliant father who wrangled custody away from their mother.  Custody of two tiny girls was given to a monster.  These stories are told in narrative fashion taken from clinical notes, but they are not clinical.  Rather, they are deeply engrossing and heartbreakingly human.  And, for me, they were terrifying.  Horrifying abuses; none reported.  Monsters and victims, and we have no idea.  Look around.  Look around.  Say Good Morning.

As this Halloween week begins, Good Morning, Monster reminds us that the horrors are all too real.  No word on an official US release date, but the Canadian printing is available for purchase on-line at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Penguin Random House Canada / Viking via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage

It’s 1928 and, in Britain, women of property now have the vote thanks to brave and tireless women like Mattie Simpkin.  Even so, Mattie stays in contact with her suffragette sisters, continues to lecture on her experiences and for the right of all women to vote.  She also carries a small club of polished ash in her handbag and lives in a charming old house called the Mousehole with her friend and assistant Florrie Lee, known as The Flea.  When they engage a sixteen-year-old housemaid named Ida, Mattie begins to see just how limited ordinary young women of the day actually are.  With Ida as the first member and reluctant recruit, Mattie begins a club for girls and young women – outdoor activities, exercise, sleuthing games, debate and adventures.  Mattie believes in living life with brio, and it all goes swimmingly, as they say.  Until, that is, Mattie, always a confident woman, becomes a bit over-involved, puts a foot wrong, steps in something smelly, and it all goes to hell.  But keep your eye on the wickedly intelligent Miss Simpkin.  This good woman has a sure instinct for steering the right course, and she will find her way.

Tell you what.  I think I was in the mood for (or maybe in need of) a case of the Brits.  Steadying, bracing, what is it?  Don’t know about you, but I can only go so long without ‘em, and Ms. Evans book is so very, very……well, it’s as British as a cup of tea and a biscuit.  Characters, time and place, humor – loved all of it, and there’s an interesting political timeliness as well.  Topping, spot on, jolly good, righty-o and all that.  This one will put you right as rain.

Available now, so shop your local indie bookstore.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by HarperCollins Publishers / Harper Perennial via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.