His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet [Review]

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

bloodyproject.jpgHis Bloody Project: Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae is great. Let’s start with that. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this work of fiction (yes, it’s fiction, but I had to double check after the first couple of pages) tells the story of a bloody triple-murder in a remote farming community in Scotland in 1869 as told through witness testimony, medical examiner’s reports, trial transcripts, and the confessions of Macrae himself.

We know at the beginning of the book that Macrae is imprisoned for the crime, and that he doesn’t seem too bothered by that fact, but as the story goes on, we learn more about Macrae’s possible motivations and the events leading up the crime. The waters are muddied as we hear more from other sources about Macrae’s actions and character.

The book succeeds most in creating a vivid and atmospheric world. It’s less of a thriller than a character study as told through the various documents pertaining to the case, and explores some of the fundamental elements of the criminal justice system that we still ask ourselves today. Under what circumstances is a crime understandable or explainable? How does your upbringing impact your choices as an adult? At what age should we be held accountable as an adult? Are humans inherently good or evil?

I think that the best books don’t really answer these questions. They present a story to the reader in such a way as to ask the reader to consider it for themselves, and by the end of the novel, to either have a better understanding of their views, or to walk away from the book ready to admit that they aren’t entirely sure.

I really enjoyed reading this book. Criminology has always interested me, and the details of the crime didn’t bother me too much. If you have a weak stomach, you might want to skim over those parts, but I think the violence does add something to the story. We spend a lot of time with Macrae before we hear any real details about the crime, so when it is discussed, the brutality only serves to make the plot and the character development more rich. I found that although there were a few parts that lagged, by the time I realized that I wasn’t as engaged, the next section was only a few pages away and the story would transition to another document type or point of view.

While the book is quite literary (in my mind, it is, whatever that means…), I think it’s one of the more genre-focused books I’ve noticed on the Man Booker lists. The first half of this reads more like historical fiction (which the Man Booker judges seem to like more than say, science fiction) but there’s also a detective story thread that runs throughout, making it more fast-paced than your average work of straight-up literary fiction. I really appreciated reading something different for this prize.

I’m always curious about how other readers approach awards. I pay the most attention to the Man Booker Prize, from the time the longlist gets announced to the winner. I also tend to keep track of who wins the National Book Award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and sometimes the Pulitzer. Part of this is surely because I’m a librarian and avid reader, and so this sort of news is my jam, but I always buy a copy of the Man Booker winner if I don’t already have it, and I’ve been working my way (very slowly) through the Pulitzer winners since 1990. I don’t think award-winners are better than other books in so many ways – I think for me it’s just a point of interest and a desire to have my own opinion about the “big” books.


The Wonder by Emma Donoghue [Review]

I received a copy of The Wonder in exchange for an honest review by the publisher.

I sit here wondering what the last Donoghue I read was. I read Room shortly after it was published in 2010. Goodreads tells me that I never made it Frog Music, so I think it would have been Astray, a collection of short stories based on historical events published in 2012. At the time, I would have been reading for a Canadian award committee, and I believe it did make it to the shortlist that year. I wonder these things, because for some reason, I forgot that Emma Donoghue can write one hell of a story.

The Wonder is the story of Lib Wright, an English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale who is brought to Ireland to watch over 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell. Since her last birthday 4 months previous, Anna and her family swear she hasn’t eaten any food, and instead is subsisting on “manna from heaven”. A local committee wants to test the veracity of her claims by having a respected nurse either confirm or deny a miracle.wonder.jpg

Once I had finished reading the story, I noticed that not a whole lot had actually happened. There was a resolution to the plot, and there were some anxious moments throughout, but what Donoghue does so well is get into her characters and develops her narrative through them. Anna is a fully-formed devout child who, for all her conviction, sees the world as any child would. Lib struggles at times to reconcile her training with what she’s observing and feeling first-hand. The story is really about the relationship between these two characters and how the influence and change the other.

What I enjoyed more than this relationship was the setting and the feeling of Ireland a hundred-plus years ago. Donoghue captures all of the superstition, religious fervor, and political history of a people in her small town personalities. The potato famine, the relationship to England, and the continuing power of the Church are all there, but it never felt heavy-handed to me.

The story is based on the phenomenon of “fasting girls”, a largely Victorian phase, but with roots hundreds of years previously. Young girls would claim to go months or years without eating anything, and they quickly became local celebrities. I didn’t know much about the topic prior to reading this novel, but have since poked around and read about some of the most famous cases from the period. This BBC article about Sarah Jacobs was great, though hold off if you want to read the novel spoiler-free.

Overall I liked this book. The writing was phenomenal, and Donoghue really manages to capture a time and place through her characters in a way that doesn’t bog down the pacing or plot of the story. I’m glad that it wasn’t any longer, as there were already a few parts that dragged a little bit for me, but that’s a minor grievance. This would make a great book club selection, or a cozy weekend read as we move through fall and into winter.


The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from my life by John Le Carré [Review]

*I received The Pigeon Tunnel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life – John le Carré (CNW Group/Penguin Random House Canada Limited)

I have a confession to make before we really get into this. The only Le Carré I have read is The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. And I liked it, I really did, but spy novels aren’t really my thing. I love spy movies, and non-fiction books, but I’m by no means an expert on Le Carré.

Luckily for me, this is a memoir, told like a short story collection. This isn’t a chronological retelling of a life, but rather a collection of recollections that shed light on a fascinating life and a history of Cold War politics and espionage. It’s an incredible story as a whole, and I had to remind myself throughout the book that this wasn’t fiction, and more amazingly, the story of a single life, lived large.

Le Carré humbly presents his stories with a real sense of historical perspective, and is open and honest about what he’s willing to share, and what he will take to his grave. He’s a master story-teller who remains tight-lipped and conscious that his words could have consequences, and this grounding only serves to make the book all the more compelling.

I think I valued this book the most as a bridge between Le Carré the author, and Le Carré the former spy. His books have been, and continue to be, successful because they read as plausible, gripping stories that I think we all assume have some grain of truth to them. The fun is always trying to sort out how close the reality the fiction might be, especially as we’re armed with the knowledge of Le Carré’s former career. This collection taunts us with tidbits of real-life encounters with major Cold War players, and is full of secretive meetings and exchanges that can only serve to fuel our desperate desire to know the truth, once and for all. Le Carré keeps us engaged and invested by never really giving us a clear answer, and so we read on.

As a librarian, I try to classify books. I don’t mean by Dewey number or shelf location as you might think, but when I finish a book, I put it on a shelf in my brain about who I might recommend that book to. There’s a book for every reader, after all. When I tried to do this with The Pigeon Tunnel, I was happy to note how many readers would enjoy it. If you like Le Carré and his novels, this book is for you. If you’re interested in a history of espionage, this book is for you. If you want to learn more about the Cold War and its global implications, this book is for you. If you love a well-written and thoughtful memoir, this book is for you. If you like short stories, this book is for you.

Recommended Reading:

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre

Nutshell by Ian McEwan [Review]

*I received a copy of Nutshell from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Here goes.

nutshellIan McEwan is one of my favourite authors. Last year I made plans to read his entire back list, but bailed quickly because I didn’t want to run out of stories to read. Atonement is perfection, and last year I really enjoyed The Children Act, so I was thrilled to see another new release this year.

Nutshell tells the story of Trudy, who has left her husband for his brother, and now, from her marital home, is plotting to get everything she ever wanted. But someone is watching and listening to every detail of her plans – her unborn child, 9 months in the womb. The narration is astute and mannered, and McEwan commits wholeheartedly to the POV which I really appreciated.

The thing that struck me most about this book was the quality of the writing. McEwan never disappoints, but I noticed how good the writing was on every single page to the point of distraction. The novel is quite short, and every word packs such a punch and every metaphor really lands and makes you think. Because the narration is so unique, McEwan is really able to investigate the choices people make and the consequences of those decisions in a really profound and new way.

I am writing this review nearly a month after reading the book, and I’m trying to remember how it ends. Turns out, it doesn’t really matter. I do remember wanting to hear what happens next while reading the book, and turning the (digital) pages at quite a pace, but in hindsight what really stands out is the writing. Nutshell was incredible and proves that McEwan continues to write outstanding stories that speak to us.