A Noise Downstairs by Linwood Barclay

In his latest thriller, Linwood Barclay, has fashioned a protagonist who, until he stops to help a friend from work, has been leading a blameless ordinary life. He’s a college professor, not at Yale or Harvard; but still a responsible and good position. Then one night  on his way home he stops his car to help a colleague and it all goes south. His fellow professor, a known lady killer, has actually killed two women by slitting their throats. Our protagonist Paul Davis catches him trying to dispose of their bodies.

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His friend has already murdered twice and comes for Paul with the shovel he has to bury the women. Eight months later, where the novel really begins, Paul Davis is alive but in recovery from the blow to the head. He has suffered a possible brain injury and is dealing with the aftermath of the vicious attack. Nightmares plague him and although his therapist Anna White, is helpful, he has not been able to return to work.

Then he starts to hear a typewriter at night when he and his wife and asleep. His colleague had made his female victims write apologies on a typewriter before he murder them. His wife has given him an old Underwood as a gift, something for his “think tank” aka den. Odd events keep turning up and Paul is driven to create bizarre theories to explain them. At last he doubts his own sanity.

More than this, would give away the plot which has plenty of twists, turns, and red herrings. After all, that’s what makes a thriller, well, thrilling. A Noise Downstairs provides the great entertainment, I’ve come to expect from Linwood Barclay, a New York Times bestselling Canadian author.

The Saturday Night Ghost Club

This is Craig Davidson’s fourth book. The other three include Rust and Bone, Cataract City and his real memoir Precious Cargo. He’s a great author and best of all, he’s Canadian.

 

The Saturday Night Ghost Club is a gentle novel, part coming-of-age, part shattered life, and part haunting memoir. It explores memory and how each time an event is recalled, it changes.

Jake Breaker is a neurosurgeon. He understands the fragility of the brain and how mysterious its workings are. The summer he was twelve, Jake made a true friend and learned about his eccentric Uncle Cal. His uncle runs the Occultorium, a spiritual business full of cheap trinkets, real antiquities, and plain strange paraphernalia. Even as a kid, he knows that Uncle Cal isn’t quite “right.”

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Jake’s recounting of his twelfth summer, the summer of The Saturday Night Ghost Club, is full of suspense. There is Billy, his new friend, and Dove, Billy’s sister, dangerous and verging on true beauty. They get into scrapes, put themselves in jeopardy, and hang out with Uncle Calvin.

The Saturday Night Ghost Club is set in 1980s Niagara Falls, nicknamed Cataract City. Uncle Cal takes the Club on nocturnal journeys to its haunted locations and reveals the legend or story associated with each one. Jake finally confesses to their night time pursuits to his parents and his mother is horrified.

This novel isn’t long, a bare 248 pages but it’s 248 pages to enjoy. If you hurry, you can read it before Hallowe’en.

 

 

The Casual Vacancy – J.K. Rowling

The old saw, you can`t judge a book by its cover, is proved by The Casual Vacancy. The cover is a garish red and yellow, the title, white script with a big X in the middle. The only thing going for it is J. K. Rowling. I was so put off I didn`t pick the book up until now. It was published in 2012 so it`s been out for six years.

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Pagford, England is the setting for J. K. Rowling`s first novel for adults. There is an ancient abbey, an idyllic park, and a nearby river. It is a place for people of means and of aspirations, a British microcosm. Pagford looks peaceful and attractive but under that facade, a cauldron of racial tension, suspicion, and class arrogance roils. It comes to a head when Barry Fairweather, beloved member of the Parish Council, dies suddenly of an undiagnosed aneurysm. His seat is vacant, the casual vacancy, and the local political rivalry is set in motion. Wives are set against husbands, teenagers experiment with danger, and it doesn`t end well.

There is intrigue and deceit everywhere. Characters from all walks of life play a role…

I`m sorry I waited so long to read The Casual Vacancy; it`s a good read, a bit of a page turner. I think J. K.`s publishers dropped the ball (to use a cliche) when they designed the cover. They owe her an apology…

Educated by Tara Westover

Educated is Tara Westover`s memoir of family control and ignorance and an awakening as she seeks answers and knowledge. This was a book recommended to me by a friend and neither the title or the recommendation suggested the kind of horror and abuse that Tara Westover and her family suffered.

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The Westovers are a Mormon family whose fanatic father has re-tooled the religion into his private cult. He selects snippets from the Bible or the Book of Mormon and dictates to his family how they will act and what contact with the outside world they can make. His twisted beliefs come from feelings of deep paranoia. He is sure that the government, educational institutions, and health care are in a conspiracy to harm him and his family.

In her memoir, Tara Westover, tries to patch together a childhood of fear and abuse and fierce love. Her memories are confused and like all of us, some recollections might have planted themselves as memories because other family members have recounted them so often. Nonetheless, her life story is compelling and appalling.

The rules her father makes have no logic. Dairy products are taboo, a year`s supply of food they preserve themselves, must be stockpiled so when some government Armageddon descends, they can hide in the Idaho hills and survive until the crisis passes. To this end, Tara`s father insists his wife become a midwife and healer. It makes them more self-reliant. Tara is her mother`s assistant when she isn`t helping with the family scrap business. Her father and brothers work at this except when they are trucking. The work is dangerous, hard, and performed without concern for even minimal safety standards.

Horrific injuries have to be endured and her mother struggles to provide healing. Burns, brain injuries, deep wounds seldom receive medical attention and if they do, the patient is taken home long before a proper recovery is realized.

From this chaotic, illogical environment, Tara Westover, a young woman with no formal schooling, no birth certificate, and a strange mixture of fears and beliefs, studies for and gets the marks on the ACT exam which assesses students on high school curriculum and their readiness for college. Tara is admitted to Brigham Young University of the strength of her results; she has never heard of the Holocaust, of the American Civil Rights Movement, yet somehow her hard work and quick brain make up for these omissions. She is invited to Harvard and to Cambridge in England.

Tara Westover`s story makes compelling reading. You are drawn along with the kind of urgency that a thriller or horror novel might demand. The best part of this memoir, is that there is a resolution of sorts and that against all odds, Tara has prevailed.

October- Library Month in Canada

Years and years ago, my mother would take us to the library on our weekly visits to town. We lived on a farm and got into town on a Saturday.

The library was in the old Prospect School House which had been purchased in 1951 and in 1953 opened for the express purpose of housing the library. No heating or insulation. Volunteers handed out books in gloved hands and the lack of windows, insulation, etc. were eventually looked after by money raised from bake sales and local fund raising.

Kudos to those long gone volunteers. The building may have been dingy, stale, and dark but to me it was magic. With your library card, you could wander up and down the narrow alleys between the high shelves and find a treasure to read. The Black Stallion Series, The Black Panther Series, Tarzan and John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The Mark of Zorro and so  many others that I can’t remember. This was an era without tv, one where electricity had only recently reached our farm, and the internet wasn’t even a fantasy. There was no need; the books were there and free.

Even if money had been no object, there was no bookstore in my small town. I can’t remember when I first visited a retail book shop; for a while I did buy a lot of books. When I realized I wasn’t re-reading them, I depended more and more on our local library, now part of a library system which affords me more and more choices.

Libraries have evolved. They provide many services other than the magic I found. They still provide books, magazines, e-books, newspapers (mostly on line). There is the use of computers for no charge, exam invigilation, a quiet place to study or read, a meeting place, a supplier of programs for toddlers, kids, teens, adults and seniors; all of these services are free or reasonably priced. The library is a community treasure.

Today funding comes from provincial grants, our local town council, and the municipality. Although, they are as generous as they can be, the library can always use funds. Many things are done to close the gap between the funding that keeps the library services intact (barely) and the fund-raising that tries to make budgeting slightly easier.

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This picture is typical of library supporters. They dress up, they apply for local grants, they try different schemes to fund raise.

Libraries are one of our most important resources and Canadian Library Month recognizes this.

Visit your local library! You’ll be surprised at what is on offer.

We Are Not Ourselves – Matthew Thomas

From this end of my life (thank you, Stephen King), We Are Not Ourselves, resonated. Everyone, immigrant, young wife, new husband, three generations has high hopes and works hard, and yet fate intervenes.

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Eileen Tumulty looks after her drinking Irish parents, who are not just sampling the odd cocktail. They are full-on alcoholic and as dysfunctional as that implies. At last, Eileen meets Ed Leary, a research scientist. He seems like her dream man and the one who can provide her with a cosmopolitan existence she craves. Eileen wants better for herself, socially, economically, intellectually. Ed Leary could make it happen, yet once they are married he is obstinate in his refusal to seek higher-profile, better paid jobs. No matter how hard she tries, encouraging or demanding, Ed stands firm and continues in his research position, although he could be promoted or could seek a place at a more prestigious college.

Eileen takes matters into her own hands and searches out the house that might take them where she wants to be; out of her immigrant neighbourhood and into a more socially prominent area. Ed is still unhappy about a move, and Connell, their son, who has his own issues at school, agrees to move to keep his mother happy. It’s really more than they can afford. The move seems doomed.

Ed refuses to let professionals renovate and repair their new house for it is, indeed, a fixer-upper, needing a lot of attention. The new neighbours aren’t running to knock on the door and make their acquaintance. Eileen is a nurse and successful in her own career but she always wonders if she’d make a better lawyer or maybe a politician. Ed gets more stubborn and more eccentric.

The new house doesn’t give Eileen what she’s always wanted – a better life. More and darker problems arise and the novel examines how unfulfilled dreams and love intersect. How fate laughs at our expectations and plans, throwing them into disarray just for the fun of it.

Eileen has scant fun, Ed has less, and their son Connell struggles with adolescence and a family falling apart. Although, this is a bleak story in some ways, it was well worth the read and kept me totally engaged. The only disappointment was the ending but no spoilers, I’ll let you decide for yourself.

Asperger’s Children by Edith Sheffer

Asperger’s Children traces as the subtitle says, The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna.

Today one in sixty-eight children is diagnosed with autism. The term was introduced in 1911 by Eugene Bleuler, a Swiss psychiatrist but the “father” of autism was Hans Asperger, a Nazi psychiatrist from Vienna. Austria initially embraced the Third Reich and its goal of transforming human behaviour. Some people would be transformed and others eliminated.

The Final Solution and resulting Holocaust are well known. What isn’t nearly as well known is the program to euthanize children who wouldn’t be useful to the Nazi machine. The disabled, the paralyzed, the slow thinkers, the bed wetters, the harelips, the epileptics, the ineducable, the unable to work were all categories of children to get rid of. They had to connect to the “collective” of National Socialism. If they weren’t useful to the regime in some way, it was deemed best to remove their burden on society.

Aperger’s Children is Edith Sheffers’ history of autism and how it was a creation of Dr. Hans Asperger to describe children who had trouble making eye contact, making friends, and with social contact. Before the Nazis came to Vienna, he worked with children he called autistic pychopaths and tried to help them. As Austria was absorbed into the Nazi expansion, he was drawn in to the euthanasia for “useless” (my term) children. Reputable Jewish psychiatrists left Vienna, as did others who felt threatened. Asperger stayed and over the war years, he published and refined his defintion and diagnosis of autism. In the beginning, he seemed more humane and involved in trying to help children. Besides the obvious categories listed above, rebellious children, those who defied parents, or were viewed as an expense were referred to him and others like him. Arbitrarily. children as old as 16 were evaluated as salvageable or sent to Pavilion 17 in Spiegelgrund, a clinic for problem youth. Many children entered Pavilion 17 healthy and left in a death cart. Some were subjected to medical experiments; all were mistreated, even tortured.

Dr. Hans Asperger was a part of this killing program. He didn’t directly administer needles or perform experimental surgeries but he did diagnose and send children to Pavilion 17. He was well aware of their fate and as the war progressed, he tailored his papers and lectures to reflect Nazi policies more and more. One thing he never did was join the Nazi party although he did join several organizations affiliated with it. He was a Catholic and these two things saved him when the Allies arrived.

Only three of the doctors involved in the death program in Spiegelgrund were prosecuted for their part in euthanizing children. They received short sentences they didn’t fully serve. Other doctors, nurses and workers had a similar fate and after the war were back working in children’s clinics.

Dr. Hans Asperger continused as a psychiatrist and held several chairs and leading positions at universities. He didn’t pursue his autism work but went on to different interests. It was in 1981, that Lorna Wing, a leading British psychiatrist, discovered his 1944 thesis and from it came the description and designation of Asperger’s syndrome. She was fascinated by his patients’ symptoms and how they were related to Gemut (a German term referring to an individual’s connection to the collective, almost like a soul, and very much the social aspect of a person.)

In the 1990’s the autism idea took off. The diagnosis could be low-functioning, medium-functioning, or high functioning. The scary thing is that the diagnosis began with Asperger’s work in Nazi Vienna. It wasn’t well-documented, the number of patients he examined was low, and his research flimsy. Yet, today, children are treated using his ideas of what may be wrong with them.

This was a difficult post to write. The work at Spiegelgrund was so horrifying and Asperger ended up with his name attached to the condition he used to send children to their deaths. Asperger’s Children is a difficult book to read; I could only handle a chapter at a time. It is an important book, though, and one that is well worth biting your lip and getting through.

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