Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin. McClelland and Stewart, 1988.
The Gallows Bird by Camila Lackberg. HarperCollins, 2011.
The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan. HarperCollins, 2009.
Faithful Place by Tana French. Thorndike Press, 2010.
Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker. HarperCollins, 2008.
Wow, I’ve really gotten behind on book review posts. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading, not at all. Summer is a perfect time for settling into a good book, and I’ve read five since posting last. Here are a few words about each of them.
Volkswagen Blues is a road novel, a story about an unlikely pair of travelling companions who set out in a Volkswagen van and journey from the Gaspé to San Francisco. The van belongs to Jack Waterman, the pen name of a writer with writer’s block who has decided to head out in search of his long-lost brother Théo. He picks up a hitchhicker, a young Métis woman who is nicknamed “La Grande Sauterelle” (because of her long, grasshopper-like legs) and her cat, Chop Suey. Their trip is leisurely and companionable and along the way their discussions range over literature, the history of the French exploration of North America, and the invasion of native lands by immigrants. They stop over in nearby Ivy Lea, Toronto, Detroit and other cities, and follow the historic Oregon Trail before finally succeeding in locating Théo. I especially enjoyed their travels through the west when they follow Gregory M. Franzwa’s guide, The Oregon Trail Revisited, still readily available.
Volkswagen Blues was first published in French in 1984 and translated for English readers in 1988. It was nominated for the Governor General’s Award in 1984 and was one of the 5 novels in the 2005 edition of Canada Reads, where it was championed by author Roch Carrier (the winner that year was Rockbound by Frank Parker Day).
I was disappointed with The Gallows Bird. According to the book jacket, Lackberg is “a top-class Scandinavian writer” and “probably the hottest female writer in Sweden at the moment!” but I couldn’t rate this book as any better than average. The characters are likeable but rather shallowly developed and unengaging. The story was interesting, but in the end fell apart for me as too unlikely to be believable. Worst of all, the Swedish setting receives little attention and the story could be set anywhere. I really missed any feeling of exploring another country. Perhaps I just chose one of Lackberg’s poorer outings, but I was underwhelmed.
Tana French is another well-regarded writer, a “New York Times Bestselling Author!” according to the book cover. I did prefer this book to The Gallows Bird. Set in Dublin, it follows undercover policeman Frank Mackey as he returns to his old neighbourhood and long-estranged family and investigates the death of a young woman, the girl he once planned to elope with. There is more depth of both character and setting in French’s book than in The Gallows Bird, and the twists of the story keep it interesting. Still, I was a turned off by the rather worn ‘drunken, abusive Irish father/ useless mother’ theme which is beaten to death here. On this subject, it would be difficult to improve on Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and this book doesn’t come close.
The title of The Day the Falls Stood Still refers to an event that took place in March of 1848 when a huge ice jam formed in the upper Niagara River and blocked off the flow of water to Niagara Falls for a day. It’s a bit deceptive as a title, because the book is actually set at a later date, and covers the period of the First World War and after. The privileged life of teenager Bess Heath is suddenly thrown into disarray when her father loses his well-paid job and the family is plunged into poverty. The story follows Bess as she seeks to cope with her new circumstances and falls in love with a ‘common’ boy that her family disapproves of, young Tom Cole. Tom comes from a family of rivermen, men who have made a living from and risked their lives on the Niagara River. Tom and Bess set out to make a life together but their lives are further disrupted by the intrusion of WW I, and Tom returns from the War in Europe scarred by the events he witnessed. Bess is a plucky heroine who persists bravely throughout her trials.
When I was growing up, Niagara Falls was a favorite picnic destination for summer outings and I enjoyed reading descriptions of the river, the gorge and the whirlpool, and the daredevils who challenged the river. The story also details the development of hydroelectric projects on the river and their consequences, and historical characters such as Sir Adam Beck make an appearance. Tom is forward-looking in his concern for how the hydroelectric developments will impact the river. The ever present conflict between environmental protection and economic survival are well represented in Tom’s ambivalence toward accepting a job with the construction projects that brings his beliefs into conflict with his need to make a living. The Day the Falls Stood Still is a interesting and enjoyable read and recommended for anyone interested in the region.
Bruno, Chief of Police was my favorite of the three mystery/thrillers listed here. Bruno is the lone policeman in the small French village of St. Denis. Not a lot happens there, and he likes it that way. As a former soldier who saw action in Bosnia, he is happy to enjoy a quiet life. Like a good cozy mystery, this story includes plenty of homey details about life in St. Denis and the residents who live there. Bruno’s own home that he rebuilt himself and his favorite foods and wines are all covered. Bruno, the town’s most eligible bachelor also has several love interests. However, when an Algerian immigrant is found brutally murdered, Bruno has a complex mystery to solve. The historical background and modern implications of French and Algerian relations are nicely developed in the storylines and lift the book onto a more serious plane. I’m looking forward to reading a Bruno sequel, The Dark Vineyard.