Monday, 25 August 2014

Summer Holiday Special: The Last Good Day by Gail Bowen

published 2004





I swam back towards the raft that floated a hundred metres away. My stroke was the tried and trustworthy Australian crawl. Flutter-kicking forward, my arms cutting through the sparkle of foam on the waves, my gaze turning from the bright sunlight to the iridescent shimmer beneath the surface, I felt myself moving towards strength.




There were perhaps 80 people at the Canada Day party. No one appeared to be in charge of seating arrangements, yet as the first rocket spiralled into the sky and rained down its shower of fiery starts, my kids and I found ourselves alone with the Falconer Shreve families in what was, indisputably, the choicest location on the beach...

As always, the fireworks were over too soon. The last star arced across the sky, the last lovely parabola of light faded, and the night was suddenly dark and cheerless. For a beat, we stood uncertainly, breathing in air wisped with smoke and pungent with bug spray. Then people began to fold blankets, collapse chairs, and say their goodbyes.



observations: Canada Day is July 1st, so this is set at the other end of the summer from the UK’s August Bank Holiday today, but still there is a fellow feeling.

I love the Gail Bowen books: they are crime stories featuring Joanne Kilbourn, who lives in Regina in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan (I was astonished to read that the population of the city is 180,000 – I’d assumed from these books that it was a bustling provincial metropolis like Calgary or Vancouver). For this entry, the 9th, she is spending the summer on a lake 70 kilometres away, and Bowen does a great job of creating the world of a summer community – in this case, a very upmarket spot where a group of wealthy successful lawyers has built an enclave. But all is not perfect, someone dies, and someone else is missing, so Joanne has to investigate.

This is more like a straight novel than a crime story, with its searching look at marriages, careers, and the loss of idealism: in some elements it resembles that classic 1980s film The Big Chill – not to mention the Don Henley song Boys of Summer (‘summer is for bad boys’ one character says). There is a marvellous atmosphere of regret and nostalgia, with the obvious metaphor of the summer being like life – ‘The lake was full of fish. The paint on the Muskoka chairs was crayon bright; the paddles, sticky with fresh varnish, were on their hooks in the boathouse; and the board games and croquet sets still had all their pieces…Anything was possible.’

It’s always soothing to be with Joanne, a really great character, like someone you know, telling you details of her life – there’s always plenty about what everyone ate and wore. She’s always going on about her children, again just like someone you know who finds her own offspring totally adorable and delightful, but doesn’t quite manage to put that over – hers always seem too good to be true, especially the artistically-talented adopted daughter Taylor.

The ending had me shouting out ‘no’ – it wasn’t shocking, in that there was a terrible inevitability about it, but I was greatly affected by it, and anyone who has read this series from the beginning would feel the same way I think.

The b/w photo is of a girl and a bear (!) at Henderson Lake in Alberta, from the Galt Museum and Archives.

The Canada Day fireworks picture is a Wikimedia Commons photo by Skeezix1000.



16 comments:

  1. Oh, Moira, you've nailed this one! I think Bowen writes so well about families, relationships, histories and how we are all linked, if I can put it that way. And yes, there are mysteries, too. Like you, I love spending time with Joanne Kilbourn, and this time out was no exception.

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    1. Thank you Margot.. Yes, I enjoy these books so much, and the fact that I'm a bit behind in the series means I've just got more good things to look forward to. And more of Joanne's excellent family life.

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  2. Moira, I have not read any of Gail Bowen's novels but from your review I can somewhat picture the setting in Saskatchewan. I have read reviews of her novels as well as an interview with the author on Bill Selnes' blog. I still haven't got around to reading her books.

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    1. I think Bill is a big fan, because she's close to home for him. I'm a big fan partly because I like reading about a Canadian life a long way geographically from mine. I do recommend them Prashant, if you ever see one pick it up... I know how you like reading about other cultures, so right up your street!

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  3. I have read one book by Gail Bowen, which I enjoyed. But I haven't had a chance to read more of her works, as "too many books, too little time." I'll also add "too many good readers' blogs," too, which I must visit continually!

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    1. I know what you mean Kathy - this series I will (however behind I am) keep looking out for. But there are other series where I liked one that I read, but just feel I cannot add another new author to my list, cannot commit to reading all their books....

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  4. Moira: You describe the appeal of the Joanne Kilbourn series very well.

    I have appreciated how Joanne has aged during the series and is now retired but still solving mysteries. Gail has effectively integrated the changes in Joanne's life into the plots.

    I hope you get to meet Gail some day. You would find her an interesting person and fun to talk to about books and life.

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    1. What a lovely idea Bill! After reading this one, I did go and look at some of the posts on Ms Bowen and her books on your own blog, and I very much enjoyed your comprehensive coverage of her, including Q and As. You have encouraged me to make sure it's not such a long gap before I read the next one....

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  5. Confession: I'm Canadian, but not familiar with this author. Thanks for this post. I'll have to look her books up for sure. -Lara of TBCW

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    1. Hi Lara - if you get the chance do at least try one of Bowen's books - they are an easy read, but full of interesting issues and descriptions of life. I wish they were better known in Europe.

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  6. I have only read the excerpt and skimmed the rest including comments because I keep learning more about the series than I want to know from posts about her books. The problem with starting at the beginning of a long series. I wish I could get to this one by next Canada Day but I won't.

    Interesting about the size of Saskatchewan. That makes it about as big as the metropolitan area I am in... spread over a couple of cities. Lovely fireworks image. School has started this week here.

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    1. Well, it's a good way to learn about Canada, including relative sizes... When we lived in Seattle, school started after Labor Day, but you obviously don't wait for that where you are! In England it's the beginning of September, but I think it's earlier in other parts of the UK.

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  7. what about Anthony Bidulka, writer about great/eccentric detective, Russell quant? He goes all over the place/
    And there is R.J. Harlick, fantastic describer of environmental and cultural aspects of each region.

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    1. Will make a note of those two writers - thanks Kathy.

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  8. I've been reading a few Canadian authors lately, but no females. Hangs head in shame......I don't think Bowen will be the one to break this duck, maybe Robin Spano instead.

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    1. Gail Bowen is SOOO good, I know they aren't really your kind of book, but I'd still recommend her. Now I have to go and look up Robin Spano.

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