The Plague – Kevin Chong

The Plague - Kevin ChongThere is much to admire in this book. First, it is set in Vancouver, particularly the city core, so much is familiar. Second, as is evident from the title, Vancouver experiences an infectious disease disaster but the storyline is novel. Rather than focus on the cause and search for a cure (vaccine), the story is about the aftermath of the plague: how do people cope? There are three distinct points-of-view for coping: a family doctor who experiences directly the expanding disease first hand, and two people who are trapped in Vancouver’s core when a quarantine is put in place: a newspaperman who can’t return to his home in the suburbs, and an American writer on a book tour. Explorations of their behaviours in the face of suffering and futility, together with the psychological stress of quarantine, makes this an excellent read – highly recommended.

 

Amy notes: in 2011, there was a riot in Vancouver after the Canucks lost the final game for the Stanley Cup. The downtown peninsula was closed off by the police; people who had watched the game at friends apartments unable to leave, for example. An inspiration for this downtown quarantine?

The Last Neanderthal – Claire Cameron

The Last Neanderthal - Claire CameronThis fascinating book has two story lines. The first, obvious from the title, is a Neanderthal woman known as Girl whose extended family is being decimated by disease and animal predation. The second is Rose, the modern day archeologist who is excavating a grave site in Europe containing two bodies, a Neanderthal woman and a Homo Sapiens. Neanderthal life is imagined as harsh with brutal struggles for survival, few verbal skills but sensitive senses for smells and heat. There are some striking parallels in the two stories that may be too contrived for some readers, but were satisfying to me. In the end, this is book about what it means to be human.

Speak No Evil – Uzodinma Iweala

Uzodinma IwealaThis remarkable book is about two young people in Washington DC. Niro is a 17-year-old African-American who is graduating from High School and then on to Harvard. But Niro has a painful secret – he is gay, a wicked abomination to his conservative Nigerian parents. Niro’s best friend is Meredith but she is unable to provide Niro with the help and support that he needs. Niro is emotionally lost and conflicted with heartbreaking self-loathing and his relationship with Meredith comes to a tragic ending: powerful storytelling.

Prussian Blue – Philip Kerr

Prussian Blue - Philip KerrKerr has written a number of novels about a German police detective, Bernie Gunther, and this is the best so far, in my view. Gunther is the epitome of the hard-boiled Philip Marlowe-like PI. The context of the BG plots is Nazi Germany; Prussian blue takes place in 1939. Gunther is a socialist and anyone not a member of the Nazi party will always be viewed with suspicion by Gunther’s superiors. Then add in the characteristic that Gunther is a Berliner, which makes him flippant, disrespectful, subversive, sarcastic – the list goes on! But he is a good cop in difficult times, and his deductive skills force the Nazi superiors to use him in difficult and sensitive investigations. The novel dwells on the existential crisis of investigating a murder in the Nazi context. This is mystery writing at its best.

The Shoe On The Roof – Will Ferguson

The Shoe On The Roof - Will FergusonA comic treatment of the neurobiology of behaviour. Thomas is a medical student who initially uses his knowledge of neurobiology for hook-ups with women. He then digresses to try and “cure” three delusional homeless men. Not surprisingly, much chaos ensues. This book has a very entertaining treatment of sanity versus madness, with a bit of magic reality at the end. Overall, a fun alternative for those readers stuck with too many angst-filled plots!

The Temptation of Forgiveness – Donna Leon

The Temptation of Forgiveness - Donna LeonThis is the 27th Leon novel set in Venice with Commissario Brunetti solving crimes, and each one is a joy to read. The key is context. Venice is a delightful setting, and the crimes, although serious, are not desperate (no blood spatter analysis, for example). The pace of the investigation is relatively relaxed (Brunetti only seems toward on one case at a time), and Brunetti has a normal happy home life (unlike so many conflicted and tortured detectives like  Harry Hole and Wallender). Finally, the women in this story, specifically Ms. Elletra and colleague Griffoni, are becoming increasingly important to the story and plot. Importantly, this story centres on moral ambiguities when characters do something wrong (illegal) but for the right reason. As an example of fine writing, this is a description of a Brunetti encounter with his hapless superior (page 253): “Brunetti applied psychic botox to his smile and nodded while turning his attention to Saint Antonio, patron saint of lost things and lost causes”.

Principles To Live By – David Adams Richards

Principles To Live By - David Adams Richards.jpgRichards has written a number of acclaimed, albeit angst-filled, novels set in the Miramichi region of New Brunswick. This brilliant story is more global, based in New Brunswick but including New York and the genocide in Rwanda. The core of the book is a dogged search for a missing boy by a near-retirement policeman. The quest for truth is confounded by lies, treachery and deceit with some conspiracy aspects as well. A politically complex (and often corrupt) world is outlined in convincing detail. The incredible intuition of the policeman is sometimes hard to believe, but the storytelling is vivid and compelling.