Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett: A review

In an unnamed host country, somewhere in South America, a birthday party is taking place at the home of the vice-president. It is a party in honor of a wealthy and successful Japanese businessman, who the host country's government hopes will make a sizable investment in that country.

The Japanese businessman is an opera fan; one might even say an opera nut. In order to flatter and please him, the host country has brought in a world famous opera singer, Roxane Coss, to entertain at his party.

Many people from the diplomatic community are present at the party, but one guest is missing: the country's president. The president's great passion is not opera but soap opera. He is enthralled by a particular soap opera that is on television daily and then has a nighttime episode on Tuesday that provides a roundup of the whole week's story, and he stayed home on the night of the party to watch his beloved soap opera.

Nevertheless, the party proceeds successfully. Roxane Coss sings her arias to great acclaim, including one especially beloved by the honoree. As she finishes her last song, the lights go out in the house and a band of terrorists who have entered the house through the air conditioning ducts burst into the room and take all the partygoers hostage.

The terrorists' plan is already a failure, though, from the outset. Their plan had been to kidnap the president who they believed would be at the party. They would then force him to have certain people released from the country's notorious prisons. Without their intended hostage, they determine to hold the male guests and the famous soprano, while they release the rest of the women and children who were in the house.

A Red Cross representative comes to the house to try to negotiate a settlement, but neither the terrorists nor the government seem interested in any kind of good faith negotiation. Instead, the terrorists and their hostages settle into a kind of routine. As the weeks pass and the stalemate continues, they grow more familiar with each other, alliances and friendships form across lines, and, most unexpectedly, some fall in love.

The standoff continues for months and finally the Red Cross representative warns the "Generals" in charge of the terrorists that no progress is being made on the negotiations and that things will end badly for them. He urges them to surrender. Still they are unwilling to give up their demands or their hostages.

I found Ann Patchett's writing to be utterly compelling and beautiful. Like the soprano she writes about, she shows great range, filling her story with flashes of unexpected brutality and terror, followed by long stretches of incipient ennui as the hostages and their keepers settle into a boring daily routine, and finally bits of humor, as well as subtle insights into the nature of desire and longing and the growth of love.  

Moreover, the characters are superbly drawn. The premier cast includes Mr. Hosokawa, the Japanese businessman, and the world-class soprano Roxane Coss, and Hosokawa's interpreter, the polyglot Gen (pronounce with a hard G) and a female terrorist aptly named Carmen. There are many languages represented by the guests and Gen is kept constantly busy interpreting and helping them communicate, but, in time, they learn to communicate almost without language, through the music, the games they play (chess and soccer), and French cuisine.

But, in addition to the four main characters, all the other terrorists and hostages are also beautifully described. They become real human beings for us and we long for them to be able to continue in the happy state which they achieve after a few weeks of their enforced intimacy. Throughout the book, however, we have a sense of dread that things will not end well for these people and, indeed, they do not. 

The only thing that I did not love about this book was the epilog. It was most unexpected and seemed a lamentably inappropriate conclusion for the story that had gone before. In spite of that ending, I still found the story amazing.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Tiger Swallowtail with blueberry blossoms

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Poetry Sunday: Lines Written in Early Spring

Spring may be the season which most appeals to poets. They've certainly had a lot to say about it in many different ways.

Surely one of the poets most associated with poems about spring is William Wordsworth and one of his most famous poems on the subject is this one. It finds the poet in a pleasant woodland grove, enjoying the birds' songs and the spring flowers, but all this beauty prompts somber thoughts of what a mess humans have made of things. It was written in April 1798, but it might have been written today.
Lines Written in Early Spring
by William Wordsworth
I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.
To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.
Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.
The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.
The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.
If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?

Saturday, March 25, 2017

This week in birds - #249

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

It's spring and there is new life everywhere, like this fuzzy young American Bittern, hidden among the weeds and waiting for its parent to return with a meal.


On Friday, the State Department granted the pipeline giant TransCanada a permit for construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, a reversal of Obama administration policy. When President Barack Obama rejected the project in late 2015, he said it would undermine American leadership in curbing reliance on carbon fuels. 


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in January listed the rusty-patched bumblebee as endangered, citing population declines caused by the loss of habitat, disease, pesticide use, and climate change. But before the protections took effect, the listing was frozen by the new administration in Washington. This week, stung by a lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the administration reversed course and listed the bee as an endangered species.


A virtual earthquake occurred in the world of the dinosaur family tree this week. A graduate student at the University of Cambridge has rewritten the family tree, moving some species from one branch to another, as a part of his project to attain his Ph.D. His theory is supported by his supervisors and co-authors and by a prodigious database he constructed of dinosaur anatomical features. Of course, many scientists disagree with him and the debate is on!


The Night Parrot is an Australian species that was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in Queensland four years ago. Now, adding another twist to the mysterious history of the species, a Night Parrot has been photographed in arid Western Australia. It's the first verified sighting of the bird in that area in 100 years.


A little-known branch of the federal government charged with getting rid of unwanted and invasive pests killed 2.7 million animals in 2016, the agency's annual report shows. The Wildlife Services wing of the U.S. Department of Agriculture is called on to kill species considered a threat or nuisance to people or their livelihoods, including trapping wolves in northern Minnesota in areas where livestock or pets have been attacked. The kill list includes Red-winged Blackbirds, bobcats, Northern Cardinals(!!!), coyotes, feral chickens, raccoons, Rock Doves, and feral pigs among its many species. Personally, I fail to see how cardinals, or indeed many of these species, could ever be considered such pests that they require killing.

"Pest? Who, me?"


The author of the very first bird field guide I ever owned, The Golden Guide to Birds, died this week. That guide was one of the least of Chandler Robbins' achievements. He was an eminent ornithologist with a heartfelt love of birds and his research played a pivotal role in our understanding of birds' life cycles.


Of course, ornithologists are always looking for ways to better understand birds, and a new paper suggests a change to a very basic stratagem for studying them; namely, how we count how many birds are actually out there. 


"The Web of Life" blog discusses some of the unexpected relationships that introduced species can develop.


A tree census in San Francisco has discovered that the city has 20,000 more trees than was previously thought.


Keas are a New Zealand parrot species with a playful nature. It turns out that they have a particular call which invites other Keas to play. 


The "Arctic Sea Ice" blog reports that the maximum sea ice extent for the season was reached two weeks ago and it is the lowest maximum on record.


In spite of late winter snowfalls, fourteen of New Jersey's counties remain under a drought warning and four others are under a drought watch.


Birds benefit from flocking together, even when they are not the same species. Many eyes looking out for predators and for food provide significant benefits. It is not surprising, then, that China's endangered Crested Ibises flock together with more numerous species like egrets.


Congress has overturned a regulation implemented by President Obama near the end of his term. That regulation prevented big game hunting in Alaskan national wildlife refuges. Overturning it means that hunters will now be able to bait, trap, and shoot from the air such animals as wolves and grizzly bears. 


For migratory birds, breeding grounds are where the action is, but a new study by University of Guelph biologists is among the first to suggest that the number of songbirds breeding during spring and summer depends mostly on what happens at their wintering grounds. Not surprisingly, a successful winter often leads to a successful spring and summer. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

The North Water by Ian McGuire: A review

It is 1859. British whalers still make the annual journey into the North Water, the Arctic, in search of the giant mammals, but the industry itself is dying, killed off mostly by the discovery of the uses of petroleum.

The whaler Volunteer prepares for its trip to the dangerous realm of ice. Among the last of the crew hired for the voyage is Patrick Sumner, a former army surgeon just back from serving in India where he was disgraced and cashiered out of the army. 

With no resources to fall back on and no prospects on land, Sumner seeks the job as ship's surgeon. He hopes that the icy cold of the north will be an antidote to the memories of disgrace in the unbearable heat of India.

One could be forgiven here for seeing Sumner as a kind of Ishmael, Melville's survivor from Moby Dick. I am probably one of the only college freshmen ever to actually enjoy reading and analyzing that classic in my first year English class. In fact, it is one reason why I chose to read The North Water.  I had seen its comparisons to Moby Dick and also to Conrad's Lord Jim. Very like Jim, Patrick Sumner hides a shameful secret from his past and hopes for redemption. Instead, he finds a maelstrom of bloody savagery populated by brutal, cruel men who seem barely human.

Least human of all is the monstrous Henry Drax, one of the harpooners. He brutalizes and kills without remorse, both animals and humans. He is a devil incarnate with no redeeming qualities. McGuire describes him and his murderous activities in great detail. He is at the center of the action on the ill-fated Volunteer.

At some point, I completely lost count of all the atrocities committed on this northern voyage. We have the wholesale relentless slaughter of whales and seals and bears. We have men being bludgeoned by bricks and whalebones, producing "a fine spray of blood," a recurring phrase in this book. Two Eskimo hunters are stabbed to death as they sleep. An oarsman's arm is ripped off by a polar bear, creating another spray of blood. But the first inkling that Sumner and his shipmates have of the evil among them on the ship is the brutal sodomizing and subsequent murder of a young cabin boy.

Drax points the finger for the murder to the ship's carpenter, but Sumner, on examining the body and examining the carpenter is convinced that Drax is lying and eventually convinces the captain of the clues which make it impossible for the carpenter to be the killer. Drax is finally unmasked as the killer himself by a suppurating wound on his arm that is found to contain a human tooth. A tooth pulled loose from the cabin boy as he was fighting for his life.

Drax is put in chains, but the reader suspects that those chains will not be able to hold him.

As the Volunteer reaches its destination among the icebergs, we already know that this is an ill-starred journey and we are aware that there is an insurance scam afoot. In league with the ship's owner, the captain has a plan to scuttle the ship and be rescued by another ship that is in the area, thereby collecting a bountiful insurance payoff. What could possibly go wrong?

I generally try to avoid such raw, bloody tales as this. It's the main reason I've never read Cormac McCarthy, but having now survived this one, perhaps I should give old Cormac a chance. Also, I try not to read books that have abuse of children and animals as a part of their story. This one has both. Still, I cannot deny that this is a powerfully told tale. McGuire seems to be a natural storyteller and he keeps his plot moving at a rapid pace. The world that he has imagined here is altogether believable, although it is not a pleasant world and he sees life as nasty, brutish, and short, with a constant fear of violent death. One can understand why the book made many lists as one of "the best of 2016."  

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Transit by Rachel Cusk: A review

I feel hypnotized by Rachel Cusk's method of storytelling. We sit down with our friend, Rachel, or Faye as she is known in the book, and she proceeds to tell us the story of her interactions and conversations with any number of people who have crossed paths with her. Thus, we get to eavesdrop on her conversations with two of her friends, with fellow writers at a book festival, with her Eastern European builders, an ex-lover, her hair stylist, one of her students, etc. All of these conversations focus on the other person, with Faye as the listener, the confidante, counsellor, or confessor. Nothing much happens here and yet the reader is utterly transfixed by the unfolding tale.

We met Faye in Outline, the first book of this planned trilogy. She is a writer and teacher. She is recently divorced and semi-broke. In this book, she has just moved to London with her two young sons and has bought a run-down ex-council property in a good neighborhood, and now she is trying to renovate it. (That's where the Eastern European builders come in.)

Her apartment is upstairs in the building. Downstairs, in the basement apartment live an elderly, almost feral couple, with their elderly dog. They are appalled by the noise of the remodeling effort and are constantly banging on the ceiling of their apartment with a broom to protest, or else they are rushing up the stairs and banging on Faye's apartment door to complain in person.

The noise and squalor of remodeling seem almost to be a reflection of Faye's own life, an existence that is in transition, as she tries to find her way and make a new life for herself and her sons. 

As we move from one conversation to the next throughout this narrative, it becomes clear that much of what Faye is listening to is the sound of human loneliness. We feel the loneliness of the person whose story Faye is narrating and also Faye's own melancholia as she searches for meaning.

Faye moves from person to person in the narrative much like a bee moves from flower to flower, and the result is a cross-pollination of truths as told by all these different speakers. In the end, perhaps the amalgamation of all those stories will give the listener a clearer picture as to the way forward.

At the end of this narrative, we feel that Faye really is on the cusp of some major transition in her life. We'll have to wait for the third volume in the trilogy to find out if our instinct is correct and just what that transition might be.

Rachel Cusk is a very clever and talented writer. Her method of writing seems so straightforward and effortless and yet I am sure that she worked very hard to present that impression. She obviously has a well-thought-out plan for this trilogy. I look forward to seeing where that plan will lead us in the third book.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Backyard Nature Wednesday: 'Old Blush'

I love antique roses. I've grown many of them over the years. They are tough customers, able to stand up to the vagaries of weather and changing climates, flourishing in many types of soil, and not demanding the ministrations of a gardener. They are, in fact, virtually care free once they are established. Now, that's the kind of plant I like in my garden!

One of my personal favorites among the antique roses is 'Old Blush.' It is one of the most common of the old roses and this is verified by its many common names. Names like Common Monthly, Common Blush China, Old Pink Daily, Old Pink Monthly, and Parsons Pink China. 

'Old Blush' is a semi-double hybrid of an old China rose and it has been cultivated for more than 200 years. It has medium, semi-double lilac pink flowers that are borne in loose clusters. They flush to a darker pink in the sun, so the blossoms often appear two-toned. The blooms are followed by large orange hips (if the gardener is not a dead-header) that are also decorative. 

My 'Old Blush' in full bloom today.

This rose blooms steadily from earliest spring until first frost - and if there is no frost, it just keeps on blooming. It's not a good candidate for a cut flower because each of the softly perfumed blossoms don't last long. They drop quickly to make room for their successors. The bush that they grow on is full and upright and can become quite rangy if the gardener is not diligent with the pruning shears. It has neat, healthy foliage, and, in fact, the plant itself is inordinately free of disease and pests of any kind. I've had my specimen for more than ten years and I can attest that it is extremely hardy and indifferent to my neglect.

'Old Blush' grows easily in zones 6 through 9. If you have a spot for it in your garden and are interested in a care free rose, I can highly recommend it.


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The bee garden

Planning your spring garden? Spare some thought for the pollinators. Here are some plants that you can include in your garden to help them. Even if your garden is only a few pots on a patio, consider planting a few of these plants. The bees and butterflies will thank you.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Rules of Prey by John Sandford: A review

Rules of Prey was the first in what has become a very long-running series featuring Minneapolis police detective Lucas Davenport. It was first published in 1989.

The series was recently recommended to me by someone very familiar with my addiction to reading mystery series. Recommendations by this person usually work out well for me so I decided to give it a try.

In the beginning, I had my doubts about this particular suggestion. Lucas Davenport seemed like a bit of a jerk, and I wasn't at all sure I could warm up to him. Plus, the story involved a torturer/rapist/serial murderer of women - not really what I prefer to read about. But as I kept reading, gradually, I became rather engrossed by the plot and interested to see how the writer was going to bring it all together. By the end, I still thought Lucas Davenport was a jerk and I was bothered by some of the writing, but, on the whole, the story overcame those objections.

The serial killer is known as the maddog (one word) and he has the Twin Cities in a state of suspense, wondering where he will strike next. Each of his kills follows a distinctive method, and, after a while, it emerges that each of his victims is a particular type - dark hair, same body type, etc. He is careful to leave no clues and no possibility of DNA at the scenes of the murders, but, with each body, he leaves a note, a note that lists one of his "rules." For example: "Never have a motive"; "Never carry a weapon after it has been used"; "Never follow a discernible pattern." He seems quite mad but intelligent.

(Parenthetically, this was one of the writer's tics that really started to annoy me. He reminded us at every instance of our meeting his maddog that he was intelligent. Moreover, he lays it on pretty thick about Lucas Davenport's intelligence at every opportunity. AND, he assures us that, although Davenport sleeps around quite a bit, he's really only interested in "intelligent" women! In fact, intelligent seems to be one of Sandford's favorite words. Maybe he needs a thesaurus.) 

Anyway, enter Lucas Davenport. He's independently wealthy, thanks to the fact that he designs very successful games in his spare time. He wears expensive Italian suits and drives a Porsche. He's a former hockey player who loves Emily Dickinson's poetry. He's a gambler and he's willing to bend the rules if it will help him achieve his idea of justice. He has killed five men in the line of duty as a cop.

While the rest of the police force follows a plan in trying to track down the serial killer, Davenport is special. He's given the leniency to follow his own rules as long as they bring results, and nobody seems to ask any embarrassing questions about just how he achieves his aims.

This book is adeptly plotted and, once it gets going, it moves along at fast pace. My only real criticisms of it are the aforementioned writer's tics, plus the unrelieved dark and violent nature of the story. I don't know if all the books in the series are like this, but if they are, I probably won't last long in reading them. But I'm prepared to give it another chance. First books in a series are not always indicative of what is to come. This one I would give three-and-a-half stars. Oh, what the heck - I'll be generous and give it four. 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Poetry Sunday: Love After Love

We lost poet Derek Walcott last week. He was from Saint Lucia in the West Indies. His poetry won him much acclaim and many awards through the years. Most notably, he was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. 

His masterpiece is said to be a book-length poem called Omeros that was published to much critical praise in 1990. It is loosely based on the work of Homer and some of his major characters from The Iliad.

Many of his poems are quite long. In looking for a shorter one to feature here, I found "Love After Love," which I quite like. It seems to say to me that we can lose ourselves when we rely on others to verify our existence. We can too easily forget the only person who is with us throughout our lives. We forget and neglect our own selves. Walcott urges us to "Give back your heart to itself," and to "Feast on your life."  

Love After Love 

by Derek Walcott

The time will come 
when, with elation 
you will greet yourself arriving 
at your own door, in your own mirror 
and each will smile at the other's welcome, 

and say, sit here. Eat. 
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart 
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you 

all your life, whom you ignored 
for another, who knows you by heart. 
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, 

the photographs, the desperate notes, 
peel your own image from the mirror. 
Sit. Feast on your life. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

This week in birds - #248

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

Male Northern Cardinals are busily singing to establish and defend their nesting territories while females incubate their eggs.


Scientists are decrying the decision by the current president to overturn the rule against using lead ammunition in national wildlife refuges. The ban against such ammunition has been instrumental in protecting Bald Eagles and other raptors at the top of the food chain that dine on animals killed and left in the wild by hunters. The raptors ingest the bullets along with the meat of the animal. The results of lead poisoning are devastating. 


The first accurate climate model ever was established 50 years. The scientists' groundbreaking paper was published in 1967. Now their science can finally be robustly evaluated, and they got almost everything exactly right.


The first wolf pack to make its home in California in nearly a century is missing and scientists are searching for clues as to what has become of them. The two adults and five pups known as the Shasta Pack have not been seen since May 2016.


Birds that have flexible nesting requirements are more likely to be able to make a home for themselves in the suburbs. Birds that have very strict needs for their nesting sites and construction are less likely to be able to make a go of it there.


"The Prairie Ecologist" discusses one of the burning issues of conservation land management: Should we manage for the rare species or for species diversity? 


The emphasis in helping the Monarch butterfly make a comeback has been on trying to protect existing stands of milkweed and get gardeners and homeowners to plant more of the stuff to give the butterflies places to lay their eggs and to give their caterpillars the sustenance they require. But the adult butterflies need nectar, also, and a new study indicates that part of the problem is that there are not sufficient nectar plants available.


When there is plenty of food available, Galapagos Penguins will continue to feed their chicks long after they have left the nest. 


Another previously unknown frog species has been discovered in northern Vietnam. It is a frog that resembles a stone in appearance and it is called the Stone Leaf-litter frog. It represents just a bit of the unknown biodiversity from the imperiled forests of Southeast Asia. 

The Stone Leaf-litter Frog. Isn't he adorable? (Photo by Jodi Rowley.)


In the UK, a man has been found guilty of unlawfully collecting and killing specimens of one of Britain’s rarest butterflies, the large blue. He was seen wielding a butterfly net at a nature reserve in Gloucestershire and when challenged by a volunteer there, he claimed he was interested in parasitic wasps and orchids. Police later raided his home in Cadbury Heath, near Bristol, and found dead, mounted butterflies in about 30 trays, including two large blues. 


In the mid-twentieth century, Peregrine Falcons were facing almost certain extinction. But then came Rachel Carson and increased awareness of the damage that we were inflicting on the environment with some of the poisons we were using. Environmental laws were passed and falcons and other endangered birds started a comeback. Today, the adaptable Peregrine has found a home in urban settings, where it rules the skies from high-rise buildings that resemble the mountain cliffs of its traditional home.  


"The Rattling Crow" documents intelligent behavior by Carrion Crows. They pick up mussels, fly high over rocks, and drop the mussels on the rocks to break them open and make them easier to eat. 


Cyprus is the jaws of death for birds on migration. Annually, millions of birds are killed by poachers as they make the dangerous journey. In the fall of 2016 alone, it is estimated that 2.3 million birds were killed there. 


The proposed federal budget would cease the cleanup of toxic hotspots around the Great Lakes. The budget allocates $0 to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which restores polluted land and water leftover from manufacturing, lumber, and mining industries. The project has been a boon to bird and other wildlife populations in the areas affected. 


The kingsnake's preferred prey is other snakes. It eats other things as well, but snakes make up the largest portion of its diet. It kills its prey by constriction, wrapping its coils around its victim and squeezing so hard that it triggers cardiac arrest.


Spiders are our friends and they are working as hard as they can to keep the ecosystem in balance. In pursuit of that goal, they eat twice as much animal prey (mostly insects) as humans do each year. A team of Swiss and Swedish scientists has calculated that they eat as much as 400 to 800 million tons of prey in a year. Without their aid, it's fair to say we would be inundated in insects.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - March 2017

Spring begins officially next Monday, but it's actually been with us here in zone 9a for a while now, and throughout the garden, the blooms are multiplying. 

Another amaryllis has opened up this week.

On the patio table, the pot of pansies and violas still provides some color.

The coral honeysuckle has begun its bloom.

This oxalis is a pernicious weed that grows throughout my garden, including in my lawn (such as it is). But it is such a pretty weed that I can't really get too mad at it. Anyway, it goes away once the weather heats up. 

Its cousin, the domesticated purple oxalis, grows in several beds around the garden as well. On purpose. 

In the herb garden, comfrey is beginning to bloom.

I love the pretty little blooms of chives and they look good and taste good in salads, as well.

Cinnamon basil.

Pineapple sage.

Near the herbs, the tomatoes are in bloom and some already have tiny fruits.

The little tazetta daffodils are still blooming, a bit the worse for wear for being buffeted by recent rainstorms.

Carolina jessamine is on its third - or is it fourth? - flush of blooms.

The 'Peggy Martin' rose that lives on the side of the garden shed is in full bloom.

One cluster of blooms from the old polyantha rose makes a perfect little nosegay.

Not to be outdone, 'Old Blush' is blooming, too.

Most of my Knockout roses came down with rose rosette disease and had to be destroyed. Some of my other roses were affected as well, but this pink Knockout is a survivor.

The yellow cestrum that looked dead in January is blooming now.

The Salvia gregii is beginning to bloom, too.

And the heucera 'Coral Bells' continues to bloom in its bed under the red oak tree. 

In the backyard, the redbud is in full bloom and very soon now will be in full leaf.

It's an exciting time in the garden here on the cusp of spring. Plants are still waking up from winter. Some that I thought I had lost to our January freeze are proving more resilient than I had believed. Every day brings new surprises!

I hope your garden has only good surprises for you. Thank you for taking the time to visit my garden and thank you to Carol of May Dreams Gardens for hosting us. 

Happy Bloom Day! 

Broken Harbor by Tana French: A review

Okay, I think I'm beginning to get it. Tana French's psychological thrillers all feature damaged characters at their core. Their haunting, unforgettable stories are revealed to the reader slowly, tantalizingly. At the beginning of the books, things seem to move at a glacial pace as we get our footing. Then, all of a sudden, we are hurled into warp speed and struggling to keep our bearings as French plays mind games with us and toys with our expectations. Delicious!

There's another thing that is becoming clear about French's method as well. Each book, after In the Woods, has a different detective at its center, but, in each case, we have met that detective before, usually in the previous book. Broken Harbor has Michael "Scorcher" Kennedy as its narrator and main character, but I had to read the publisher's synopsis of the book to be reminded that Scorcher appeared as a colleague of Undercover Detective Frank Mackey in the last book, Faithful Place. Frankly, I couldn't remember him, but I don't think I'll be forgetting him soon after this book.

Scorcher and his partner, rookie Richie Curran, are assigned to investigate a particularly vicious, brutal crime. In the middle of the night in a subdivision called Brianstown, the picture-perfect middle-class Spain family has been attacked, leaving the young daughter (Emma) and son (Jack) and the father (Pat) dead and the mother (Jenny) barely clinging to life. Arriving at the house, the detectives find a blood soaked scene in the kitchen where the bodies of the parents were found. Otherwise, the house is in perfect order, clean, neat, everything in place. There is one curious thing; throughout the house, there are unexplained holes in the walls, as if something or someone had punched through them.

As the investigation begins, we see all the usual elements of a police procedural: the wrenching autopsies, the forensics team picking up and analyzing clues, the interminable interrogations of suspects and witnesses. But wait! There's more! It becomes a full-on psychological thriller as Scorcher and his team delve into the minds of the perfect family gone wrong.

The family had bought their home in the Irish seaside community of 250 new homes built just for families like them, young, affluent, middle-class, growing. But the community turned out to be built on dreams and nothing much else. After a few years, the shoddily built houses began to have myriad problems, and then the housing boom and the economy went bust and Brianstown became nothing but a half-built ghost town that was nothing like what its builders had promised.

Then, the father in the perfect family lost his job and couldn't find another and their world began its final collapse.   

On a parallel track of the story, we learn that when Scorcher Kennedy was growing up, he and his family used to spend two weeks each summer in the area now called Brianstown - except then it was called Broken Harbor. It was the place where his family, especially his mother, was the happiest. But one summer, his mother walked into the sea there and took her own life. After that, the youngest child, a daughter named Dina, lost her tenuous grip on reality and descended into madness. When we meet her all these years later, Scorcher ("Mikey" as she calls him) and his other sister struggle to care for their youngest sibling and keep her out of an institution. 

It begins to be clear that this novel isn't as much about murder as it is about the fragile human mind and the things that can cause it to go off the rails and slip into deep waters, perhaps irretrievably.  

Meanwhile, the investigation of the murder goes on and it leads the detectives in different directions. First, the evidence points towards one suspect and then another, but it's not clear what either person would have had to gain by murder, especially the murder of children. After a while, the two detectives begin to diverge in their opinions about who committed the murders and Scorcher struggles to keep his investigation on track. I was right there with them, confused all the way, right up until the end.

Tana French seems to have perfected her technique in telling these Dublin Murder Squad stories: Start slowly, sometimes excruciatingly slowly, and patiently lay out all the groundwork for the tale, then move right on to full page-turner mode and keep the reader guessing all the way. She executes that technique flawlessly in Broken Harbor. It's hard to see how she could get any better.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars