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The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas

“A trail of tiny breadcrumbs led from the kitchen into the bedroom, as far as the spotless sheets where the old woman lay dead, her mouth open. Commissaire Adamsberg looked down at the crumbs in silence, pacing slowly to and fro. and wondering what kind of Tom Thumb – or what ogre in this case – might have dropped them there. He was in a small, dark, ground-floor apartment, with just three rooms, in the eighteenth arrondissement, in northern Paris.

“The old woman was lying in the bedroom. Her husband was in the dining room. He showed neither impatience nor emotion as he waited, just looked longingly at his newspaper, folded open at the page with crossword puzzle, which he didn’t dare try to solve while the police were there. He had told them his brie life story. He and his wife had met at work, in an insurance company: she was a secretary, he an accountant. They had married in their careless youth, not knowing it was destined to last fifty-nine years. Then his wife had died in the night. Heart attack, according to the local commissaire, who was ill in bed and had called on Adamsberg to replace him. Just do me a favour, it won’t take more than an hour, a routine morning call.”

“One more time, Adamsberg walked the trail of crumbs. The flat was impeccably kept: the armchairs had antimacassars, the Formica surfaces were gleaming, the windows were spotless and the dishes washed. He went over to the bread bin, which contained part of a baguette, and a large half-loaf, wrapped in a clean towel and hollowed out in the middle. He returned to the husband siting in his armchair, and pulled up another chair alongside.”

The two men talk about the breadcrumbs and Adamsberg tries to get at the explanation for a hollowed out loaf of bread. The husband, Julien Tuilot tells Adamsberg he will claim it was a mercy killing and that he will be back home in a couple of months. He even tells Adamsberg that he is cunning . The Commissaire replies “That’s very true, Monsieur Tuilot.”

If you have read any of the eight previous titles in this series you will know right away that Commissaire Adamsberg is far more cunning than Monsieur Tuilot.

Ghost Riders of OrdebedAnd, although the breadcrumb tale is intriguing the main case in this volume concerns another trail, the Chemin de Bonneval which dates back to before the First Crusade and was ridden by the Furious Army also known as Hellequin’s Horde. The Furious Army rides near Odebec and , when Adamsberg returns to his office he finds waiting outside a woman from Ordebec who has come to report a missing man, Michel Herbier. The woman’s name is Valentine Vendermot and she explains to Adamsberg that she has come to him on the recommendation of her priest. It takes him some time to establish Madame Vendermot’s concern as she makes it very clear that the missing man is of no personal concern to her and that he was, in fact, a horrible person. As it turns out, the woman’s concern is for her daughter who has foreseen the death of the missing man and some other men as well.

Enough said. The historical background about the Furious Army and Hellequin’s Horde, the Ghost Riders of the book’s title, makes for a marvellous sleuthing adventure and one that Adamsberg is especially suited to tackle.

There is another delightful subplot in the story which involves tracking down a petty criminal who has tied together the feet of a pigeon in the park near Adamsberg’s office building and that he brings home to nurse to recovery, a task which his recently discovered son in his twenties takes over with complete dedication. The intention is to use the string tied on the bird’s feet to track the miscreant who abused the bird and others in the park. This subplot is interwoven cleverly through the adventure in Ordebec.

One of Adamsberg’s team, Commandant Danglard, is a history buff and provides background on the Furious Army. He explains that when the army of Ghost Riders rides the Chemin de Bonneval it always carries “along living men men or women, who are heard shreiking and lamenting in suffering and flames. They’re the ones the witness recognizes.” Madame Vendermot’s daughter did just that.

As with all Adamsberg mysteries, there is a stellar cast of characters both in Paris and in Ordebec. Among the latter is a woman he meets on his first walk along the Chemin de Bonneval and who tells him straight off that he took his time getting there from the station. Her sharp wit and forthright speech continue throughout the novel. Her name is Léone (Léo) and Adamsberg ends up staying in her home because there really is no hotel. Léo has a dog named Fleg (short for flegmatic) who eats sugar cubes which will play a role in solving the Ordebec mysteries.

If you have not yet read an Adamsberg book I would highly recommend starting at the beginning which is The Three Evangelists from 2006 unless you are not perturbed about gaps in where things began. I have not read one that I did not enjoy immensely but Adamsberg is unusual and definitely a cerebral character as are some of his investigating officers so if you prefer another type of detective you could be disappointed.

There is a reference in this book to the butterfly effect which is part of chaos theory and I found this particularly interesting as it relates to crimes and mysteries and the solving of same. If you are interested you might want to take a look at Wikipedia here.

Vargas is an historian and archeologist by profession. In her note at the end of this book she writes”Many references to the story of Gauchelin, the priest of Bonneval who encountered Hellequin and his ghostly cavalcade, can be found on the internet. The ancient texts cited in this novel are taken from Claude Lecouteaux,  Fantômes et revenants au Moyen Age, Image editions, Paris, 1986.

The Freedom in American Songs:Stories by Kathleen Winter

Freedom in American SongsI thoroughly enjoyed this collection of stories although I had no idea what to expect. I had read Winters’ novel Annabel and admired it but expected this would be very different. The imagery that opens the first story, A Plume of White Smoke, really got my attention:

“Frost on the kitchen window sparkled against the darkness. The Hallorans’ porch light shone through crystal patterns. Marianne got up to put small junks in her stove. In her hands the birch sticks twined around each other like lovers’ limbs. When she lifted the damper and threw sticks in, they cried like live lobsters. How she loved her black stove with its deer and trees on its doors.”

From the contemplation of beauty to the violence of crying live lobsters to the love of an inanimate object in five short sentences. I was awake for the next paragraph and it was equally intriguing. Yet to come, of course, was the title story.

The first three stories are grouped in Part One:  The Marianne Stories. After A Plume of White Smoke in which the reader learns the fine points of firewood i.e. what are junks and what are splits and how are they made. Marianne thought “everyone had the same kind of wood” but that is not the case. In the second story, The Christmas Room, we learn that Marianne has been there now for two years and she is starting to see the universality in the inhabitants of the cove and to realize that one day she “would resume the life she had left in the city for this borrowed bit of cove life.” The third Marianne story, Every Waking Moment is set in St. John’s where Marianne finds a flyer in a shop on Duckworth Street advertising a Pentacostal meeting in the newly opened Rubicon Hotel on Sunday evenings in January and February. The flyer opens with the words: “TO HEAR; TO ENJOY: TO CONSIDER: TO RECEIVE:” and Marianne wanted that experience. “She could do without the living testimonials, but she was hungry for the rest, because all her searching through sacred teachings of the east and the west had led her to this street, and to this orange poster.” This was during the time she lived with Lloyd and before she went off to the cove to get some writing done. Lloyd didn’t like Marianne’s homemade altar with its Bible and candles and flowers but he worked at tolerating it. Her experience at the gathering is both comedic and cinematic. “Marianne was all in favour of breaking into song.” She was also worried about the “divide” in Lloyd: hence the title (Every Waking Moment) of the story. Check it out.

Part Two offers eleven more stories and begins with the title story. The Freedom in American Songs is about Jennifer and Kerry and Kerry’s high school friend Xavier Boland whom Kerry hasn’t seen in thirty-five years. Xavier reappears in Kerry’s life because Kerry is selling an antique gate and Xaier has come to look at it. Kerry introduces himself as Keith so as not to jog Xavier’s memory about their previous relationship which included singing songs such as Down By the Riverside and When I Grow Too Old to Dream. One of my favourite stories was Madame Poirer’s Dog in which the narrator describes her daughter-in-law as “a woman who tries to legislate who tells what to whom.”

Another personal favourite was Flyaway in which the narrator, aged seventy-six, is assigned an evacuee child named Gracie during the second world war. “Having a child in your house when you’re elderly is a most trying exercise. A child constantly wants a fairground of some sort, a game, a lollipop, some entertainment. I had never considered my days uneventful or oppressive until that child came into them, but when she sat there in her one skirt, the only skirt in her little sack, day after day, staring at my chairs and carpets and curtains with a pathetic face, I was at my wits’ end thinking of something to get her out of my way.” This narrator makes an interesting observation about cats: “They have nine lives, yes, but the lives are not consecutive. They have one life with you but eight other lives going on at the same time, about which you know nothing.” This story has an unexpected and thought-provoking ending.

Several of the stories, in fact, have unexpected endings. Anhinga leaves the narrator lost or caught in a mangove tree, Knives leaves a question regarding what a woman will do next, Handsome Devil leaves us wondering what choice we might make and Darlings’ Kingdom also leaves us pondering especially when the narrator reveals this: “My problem is that even when I know things are really bad, and I should take a stand, I often do not take a stand. There is something gullible about me, something dangerously passive and stupid.”

Winters’ characters are flawed, recognizeable and likeable, even some of the “bad” ones. You might enjoy trying to figure out what you would have done had you been in the situations described in these stories. Like many readers, I am challenged by short stories but these were a fast easy read with a quiet but compelling style.

43 Old Cemetery Road Series by Kate and Sarah Klise

On a friend’s recommendation, I read two of this series back to back and found them to be great fun. I have two more signed out of the local library now and look forward to learning where they will take the story. Much of the story is told through letters and notes from which the reader can deduce most of the information needed to understand the story. Other information comes through clippings from The Ghastly Times newspaper.

It begins with a letter from Ignatius B. Grumply (an author specializing in mysteries, mayhem & the macabre) to a real estate office in California. Mr. Grumply is searching for a “quiet place to rent this summer while I finish writing my next children’s book” which he has not yet started.

Dying to Meet You (1)In a return letter from a real estate agent, Anita Sale, Mr. Grumply receives a brochure showing six possible places which might interest him. One is the house at  43 Old Cemetery Road, a 32 1/2 room house in Ghastly, Illinois. (The Klise sisters were born in Peoria, Illinois.) You can see the house on the book cover to the left of these words.

Anita Sale tells Mr. Grumply that she would not recommend that particular house for him and she sends him some other recommendations.

Mr. Grumply particulary wants a house which will “sit at a comfortable distance from all schools, parks, and other places where children gather. I happen to write books for children. That doesn’t mean that I want to see or hear the little monsters when I am trying to work.”

Ms. Sale’s return letters do not get to Mr. Grumply in time and his agent signs a rental contract as he has been instructed to do by Mr. Grumply. And so, to make a long story shorter, Mr. Grumply goes to Ghastly and moves into the house at 43 Old Cemetery Road. It isn’t long before he sends a letter of complaint to Ms. Anita Sale in which he writes: “There is a serious problem with the house I’ve rented. A young boy is living on the third floor.” And then this: “Also, there is a cat in the house. I am highly allergic to cats. The cat must be removed, too.”

Ms. Sale responds by siting one of the clauses in the rental agreement:

“CLAUSE 102  (a): Seymour Hope will be allowed to remain at 43 Old Cemetery Road. Whoever rents the property will care for Seymour and his cat, Shadow, for the duration of the rental agreement, and return them both in healthy condition to Les and Diane Hope, if they so request.”

How will it all turn out? It’s great fun finding out.

The adventure continues in the second book, Over My Dead Body. Whose dead body you ask?

AOver My Dead Body (2) villain enters the picture in this book: a villain named Dick Tater who is the director of the International Movement for the Safety & Protection of Our Kids & Youth(IMSPOOKY) who has ordered an investigation into the safety of Seymour Hope.

On his weekly radio and television broadcast, Tater says “It’s a scam, a hoax, and an outrage! Thank goodness I’m on the case.” He claims that Grumply is forcing Seymour to draw pictures for a book which a ghost is helping him to write.

Things go from bad to worse and Mr. Grumply and Seymour are both taken away: Mr. Grumply to the Illinois Home for the Deranged and Seymour to the Ghastly Orphanage. Will they ever get out? If so, how?

The second book begins with a very good summary of what happened in Book One which would be very helpful to anyone who hadn’t realized there was a book before this one and even helps readers of Book One to recall quickly the details of what happened in Book Two. It is also fun to try and figure out whose dead body is being referred to in the title.

Book Three is called Till Death Do Us Bark and the barking it seems is done by a dog named Secret who follows Seymour home from the library.  Book Four is The Phantom of the Post Office and it has a new character whose name is Wy Fye who is a phantom expert and whose actual name is Wynonna Fye! I love the names in this book: it’s such fun to make up more of one’s own! The whole series addresses the roles of technology and of books and of writing good old fashioned letters.

Highly recommended for grannies and grandchildren who like mysteries, ghost stories, cats and old Victorian mansions.

The illustrator of this series is M. Sarah Klise, the author’s sister. To learn more about the sisters, go here. To check on the entire series go here.

 

 

Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder

“All my life I’ve been going somewhere, aimed toward a fixed point on the horizon that seems never to draw nearer. In the beginning, I chased it with abandon, with confidence, and somewhat later with frustration, and then with grief, and later yet with the clarity of an escape artist. It is far too late to stop, even if I run in my mind only, out of habit.

You do what you do until you’re done. You are who you are until you’re not.

My name is Aganetha Smart, and I am 104 years old.”

These words are from the Prologue which is full of wisdom and insights. It closes thus:

“There’s no starting this race over again. And still I run and I run, without rest, as if even now there is time and purpose and I will gain, at last – before my spool of silence unwinds – what I’ve yet to know.”

And so Aganetha’s story begins at the end for the reader. Having met her when she is 104 we go back to when she was 10. We meet her and her sister Fannie on a visit to the family plot in the graveyard where Fannie tells stories of the boys who are Aganetha’s half-brothers and of their mother Tilda. They speak of Robbie who is away at the war. Aganetha would like to know more about the boys Robbie writes about who suffer from foot rot. Fannie and Edith were born after Robbie. Edith has already married. After Edith, more babies died in childbirth. When the last brother,George, was born, Tilda died. Fannie and Edith were seven and six at the time. Robert Smart married the woman who would give birth to Aganetha before the next spring. The visit to the graveyard with Fannie  was a regular thing for Aganetha and it is a powerful connection for her with her family history as well as with Fannie herself who was almost a mother to Aganetha.

Memories of Fannie and home and her mother and father come back often to Aganetha in the nursing home and one day when a young man and a young woman come to visit to take her out for a stroll she does not at first recognize either of them but when the young woman touches her hand she is reminded of someone. “Fannie. Fannie is still so young, She’s stayed the same … she walks effortlessly across the undulations of my mind, hair loose, hips broad, apron bleached white.” And so Aganetha slips her hand into the hand of the young woman.

Inside the story of the young woman and the young man, Kaley and Max, who have come to pick Aganetha up and have something important to ask her, is the story of Aganetha herself. The young woman is a runner who wants something from Aganetha and as the story develops the reader becomes more and more interested in what the connection is between the old woman and the young one.

Girl RunnerAganetha was a runner;  she would run rather than walk. When George asked her how she did it she replied that it was easy. “Motion comes lightly to me. Maybe this is how others feel about calculations and equations, or about words, or about their feelings, about choices, about right and wrong. Maybe this is how my mother feels when she’s helping a woman bring a new baby into the world. Maybe this is how my father feels when he’s building one of his inventions.

What I make can’t be seen. It vanishes the instant its created. It can never be made just the same way again. How can I ever grow bored of it?”

Through Aganetha’s memories as she accompanies Kaley and Max, we experience her brothers’ participation in WWI, her family’s pain and grief due to the Spanish flu epidemic, her employment at Packer’s Meats and then in a candy factory (Rosebud Confectionary) owned by P.T. Pallister.  Mr. Pallister announced in the Toronto Daily Star that he would personally guarantee girl athletes would win gold for Canada in Amsterdam at the 1928 Olympic Games.  Aggie is invited to train on the grass track behind the confectionary.

And here Aggie’s story coincides with an interesting historical event which you can read about here. Aggie’s olympic experience differs from that of the actual Canadian women (check here  for a link to a photo of the 1928 Canadian relay team that won gold) who participated but it poses difficulties for her: “I do not know what to do with the love and admiration of strangers. I mistake it for something personal. I believe that it is I who am loved and admired, rather than the girl in the newspaper photos. I don’t understand, yet, that I’m not really that Aganetha.”

This novel is a satisfying summation of an entire life. There is a point at which Aggie wonders who will write her obituary because no one is left from her family to tell her story. No need to worry: her story is here in full and told with compassion. And there is also a mysterious side to that story: who are these people who have come to spirit Aggie away from the nursing home and why have they risked taking a 104 year old woman out and about when they so obviously have no experience caring for such a person?

Have you read Carrie Snyder’s second book, The Juliet Stories, which was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award? It was a wonderful read. I want to try her first book of stories now, Hair Hat: the title alone is full of promise! Happy Reading!

P.S. The mentions of Bathurst Street in Toronto and Sunnyside Amusement Park were tiny treats for me: so lovely when an author helps one revisit locations well known to her readers.

 

JacobTwo-Two Series by Mordecai Richler

From Wikipedia:

“Jacob Two-Two is the central character in a series of children’s books, Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1975), Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur (1987) and Jacob Two-Two’s First Spy Case (1995) written by Mordecai Richler, and Jacob Two-Two on the High Seas (2009) written by Cary Fagan.

Jacob is the youngest child of five and has to say things twice because people do not hear him the first time. Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang has twice been filmed, in 1978 and in 1999, the latter film starring Gary Busey. The titles by Mordecai Richler have inspired an animated TV series produced by Nelvana, and seen in Canada on YTV (English) and VRAK.TV (French), and in the United States on Qubo.

The character is said to have been inspired by Jacob Richler, the author’s youngest son. Every character in Jacob’s family has the same name as their counterpart in the real Richler family. However, despite the names, Richler stated that the characters were not based on his family.

In September 2009 Tundra Books, the publisher of the Jacob Two-Two series, released a new fourth book titled Jacob Two-Two on the High Seas. Mordecai Richler had always planned to write new adventures and had started a fourth book before he died in 2001. With the full support of the Richler family, the new book was written by Canadian author Cary Fagan. It is the prequel to the first three books with the family sailing back to Canada from England after Jacob’s father writes an important novel.”

Jacob Two-Two has his own website which is associated with the television series based on the books and it describes all the episodes in detail and lists and identifies the main characters along with a picture gallery and downloads which include printable colouring pages.

I had no idea there was such a wide Jacob Two-Two world.  I read the books because I thought I should be more familiar with them because they were written by a major Canadian author! What is more I read the first three all in one day and I was rewarded several times over by the sheer delight (much of which derives from the clever manipulation of language) and humour found in these adventures.

 

J Two-Two Meets the Hooded FangIn Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, we are introduced to Jacob: “He was two plus two plus two years old. He had two ears and two eyes and two arms and two feet and two shoes. He also had two older sisters, Emma and Marfa, and two older brothers, Daniel and Noah. ” He very much wanted to do things his older siblings did but things were getting better gradually. “Only two years ago, when he was a mere two times two years old, Jacob Two-Two didn’t even know what a day was, where yesterday had gone, and when tomorrow would come. Waking up one morning, he had asked his mother, “Is this tomorrow? Is this tomorrow?”

He got so upset one day when  “his brothers and sisters didn’t want him. His mother didn’t need him” that he went to find his father and asked to run an errand and when his father said he was too small, he burst into tears. So his father sent him to Mr. Cooper, the green grocer and told him to get two pounds of firm, red tomatoes. He was a little frightened but he set off for Mr. Cooper’s shop. His encounter with Mr. Cooper did not go well for a number of reasons. This is when Jacob meets the hooded fang and characters such as Louis Loser and Mr. Justice Rough and ends up going to children’s prison on a marshy island where the sun never shines. The warden was known as The Hooded Fang. The prison is very Dickensian but Jacob poses serious problems for the warden who concludes that Jacob is a stinker and was “brought up not to believe everything he reads” and who confused The Hooded Fang by not admitting his age always saying that he was two plus two years old and not answering his cell door unless The HF knocked two times!J Two-Two and the Dinosaur

In Jacob Two-Two Meets the Dinosaur, Jacob’s Aunt Good-For-You comes to care for the children while their parents went to Kenya for two week on safari. She took the children to the Museum of Fine Arts and Jacob learned about dinosaurs. I think this was my favourite of the trio because it includes Professor Wacko Kilowatt and Prime Minister Perry Pleaser who wanted “all the people to love him at least as much as he loved himself”. The prime minister had “three yes men and three yes women”.  “Yes people are highly recommended. It is the duty of yes people to say yes to everything you suggest, no matter how foolish. So when Perry Pleaser arrived at his office each morning and broke into his famous smile and sang out, “Don’t you think I’m absolutely, totally, one hundred percent wonderful?” Yes, would say the yes men, and the yes women would call out yes, too.” Early lessons in understanding politics perhaps?

J Two-Two's First Spy CaseIn Jacob Two-Two’s First Spy Case, Jacob attends school at Privilege House where the much-loved headmaster is replaced by Mr. I. M. Greedyguts who is, as his name implies, always stuffing food into his mouth. The students, as might be expected, do not get the same food that the headmaster is served. Their lunches are prepared by Perfectly Loathsome Leo Louse who lives with his mum: he two of them prepare meals that are guaranteed to be “tasteless, horrible, or downright disgusting.” The exciting part of this story is Jacob’s new neighbour, Mr. X Barnaby Dinglebat, Master Spy. He introduces himself this way:

“I am a world traveller. A man who has done many astounding things. I have had a bath in Turkey and eaten turkey in a city called Bath. I once gobbled a sandwich in the town of Rainy River and later waded in a rainy river in the Sandwich Islands. You are looking at a chap who once went out with a fair maiden called Florence in the city of Adelaide, and then kept company with another, called Adelaide, in the city of Florence. I have, in my time, gorged myself on Toulouse sausages in the Canary Islands and kept a canary in a city called Toulouse. Long ago, in my days as a struggling young man, I went hungry in the city of Hamburg,but, by Jove, I lived to eat hamburgers in Hungary,” he said, and then he handed Jacob Two-Two his card.”

Jacob Two-Two on the High SeasAnd this is just the beginning of Jacob and Barnaby’s adventure addressing and ending the injustices at Jacob’s school and using Barnaby’s skills as a spy including some superb disguises.

The fourth Jacob Two-Two book is my next read. It was written after Richler’s death in 2001 (see opening paragraphs above from Wikipedia). It is a prequel and goes back to the time before The Hooded Fang when Jacob’s family moves from England to Canada and travels in the SS Spring-a-Leak with Captain Sparkletooth. After my recent experience with the first three books I am really looking forward to this one!

Have you read any of these, maybe back in the seventies or eighties? Do take time to revisit them: you will find they have definitely stood the test of time with much to offer readers of all ages.  Happy reading!