Wednesday 29 May 2024

Night Watch

Finished May 28
Night Watch by Jayne Anne Phillips

This historical fiction novel jumps around in time a little during the late 1800s. The book has five parts, with the first and third parts taking place in 1874 and the second and fourth parts taking place in 1864. There is also an epilogue that is set in 1883. 
The point of view changes between a few of the characters but is always clearly stated at the beginning of a chapter. The chapter sometimes has a month and year to set it more specifically within the time of that part of the book. The chapter headings are descriptive, telling us of events that take place, or people that are introduced within that chapter. I liked that the chapters were relatively short, and moved you through the book in a natural flow. 
The main character in the book is ConaLee, a thirteen-year-old girl as the book opens in 1874. She is travelling from her home in the high West Virginia mountain area with her mother to an asylum, taken there by the man that has been in their life for the last few years, one who insists that they call him Papa. ConaLee knows that the relationship between her mother and this man is one of control and abuse, but she doesn't understand the hold that he has on her. ConaLee has watched her mother go from an active loving woman who taught her to read and showed her the stars in the sky to one who lies in bed and doesn't speak. ConaLee's mother has had other children from Papa, all without names. The toddler, who ConaLee calls Little Chap has been taken under her own wing and mothered by her. She reads him stories, cuddles him, feeds him, and acts like a mother would. Her mother has recently given birth to twins, a girl and a boy, that ConaLee served as midwife to.  
In a cabin higher on the mountain, above the one that ConaLee and her mother share is one lived in by Dearbhla an older woman that trades in salves and tonics that she makes from the wild plants near her. Dearbhla was midwife to Little Chap, but has been banned from their home for many months now. ConaLee has met her secretly from time to time, to get advice and medicine, but Dearbhla has the vision to know what has been happening with this small family. 
We learn that ConaLee's father, her mother's husband left to fight for the Union in the Civil War, but never returned, and stopped writing home ten years earlier. He has an occasional voice in the earlier time setting, as The Sharpshooter. 
Dearbhla also has a voice in the book, as does a young boy who lives and works at the asylum, known as Weed. We also learn from the 1864 time what ConaLee's mother Eliza went through and why Papa has the control he has. We hear from Dr. Story, the man in charge of the asylum, and from the mysterious O'Shea, the Night Watch of the title, who is calm and watchful man. 
I really enjoyed seeing the story gradually unfold, understanding what connections were between characters, and seeing explanations for events uncovered later in the story. This is a book about love, risk, and the illusion of control. A fascinating read that was hard to put down. One gets a sense of the landscape of the places, both constant and those travelled through. 

Tuesday 28 May 2024

The Iron Knight

Finished May 28
The Iron Knight by Julie Kagawa

I started this series years ago, but got sidetracked at some point. This is the last full novel in the series, with another book that I haven't yet read that has three short novellas that are between the four main books in the series. Here Ash, the Winter Knight has renounced his claim to the Winter throne, leaving his mother Mab, and going in search of how to become human so that he can join Meghan, the Iron Queen as her supporter and protector, as well as lover. He starts off with his rival and friend Robin Goodfellow, also known as Puck, a faerie from the Summer kingdom. Along the way the gather other companions and guides including Grimalkin, the cat. 
He must journey along the River of Dreams to the End of the World, and there he must go through the Testing Grounds to gain his soul and become human. Along the way, there are many trials, that he and his companions must endure. 
This is the story of a quest for something that brings unexpected knowledge and challenges. Ash learns that along with gaining a soul as a human, he must also learn weakness of the flesh, conscience, and mortality. Being human is not what he thought is would be, and he must face the question of whether this is really what he wants. 
I liked Ash, and found the companions interesting and surprising in their own ways. This is a series that is well thought out and feels satisfying. 

Goodnight Stranger

Finished May 26
Goodnight Stranger by Miciah Bay Gault

This tale is set mostly on Wolf Island, a fictional island near Martha's Vineyard. The main character Lydia Moore is 29 and feeling like she is stuck, unable to have a fulfilling life. She went to college for almost one term, but returned home due to her mother's illness. She has stayed in the family home, with her twin brother Lucas, who has extreme anxiety. She works seasonally in the information booth near the ferry dock. She likes to look at those exiting the ferry and classify them as tourist, visitor, or resident. One day she notices someone who doesn't fit, and makes eye contact with him. She feels compelled to meet him and soon he has found his way into her life.
Lucas is sure this man, Cole Anthony, is the reincarnation of their dead sibling, Baby B (real name Colin), who died when they were infants. If he hadn't, they would be triplets. Lydia isn't convinced despite things that he does or knows about them. She is determined to find his real identity to save herself from what she feels is a man taking over her life. 
Along the way, she finds help from an unlikely new friend, and perhaps a way to break out of the rut her life was in before. She also gets to know some of her fellow islanders and things about the island that are new to her. 
This is a story with a dark tone, as Lydia feels menaced by this man she has met. Sometimes it feels like things are eerie and haunting, and sometimes just uneasy. I liked how Lydia was able to find strength within herself to continue her search for the truth. 
A story that is hard to put down.  

Monday 27 May 2024

Executor

Finished May 24
Executor by Louise Carson

This novel is a mystery novel with a literary and social justice slant. Peter Forrest, a York University professor and poet, finds that one of his mentors, the poet Eleanor Brandon, has died, and named him her literary executor. Peter and Eleanor had a personal relationship at one point, after his failed first marriage, but it didn't last, and Peter is now happily married and plans to travel to China in the coming days to finalize the adoption of their third child from that country. 
Eleanor's death, despite her illness, was not a natural one, and there is some question about whether it is suicide or murder, and Peter is on the suspect list. 
As Peter goes through her papers, he finds that many of her more recent poems reflect her social activism on behalf of Chinese dissidents. On his trip to China to pick up young Annie, he finds several things suspicious. First, young Annie doesn't look like the photo they received of her. Then, he finds his visit to her orphanage raising questions about the staff there. On an outing with her, he is approached by a Chinese man who passes him some information. 
As he maneuvers the security of both Chinese and Canadian government workers, he keeps his eyes and ears open for more things that seem suspicious. 
Despite Peter's intention to stick to only the literary side of Eleanor's legacy, he finds it entangled with her social activism and impossible to separate from it. 
Now, his worry is who might be behind her death and whether he and his family are in danger. 
This was a book that drew in aspects of international diplomacy and several issues that have been raised around China with a more personal story. 
A quick and interesting read. 

The Winter Station

Finished January 23
The Winter Station by Jody Shields

This historical novel is set in 1910 in the city of Kharbin. Kharbin was a major railway outpost in northern China that was under Russian-rule at the time. The main character in this novel is Baron von Budberg, a man who grew up in St. Petersburg and was educated as a doctor. He traveled to Manchuria in 1904 to serve as a medic in the imperial army, and then found himself in the new city of Kharbin. Kharbin was established in Manchuria in 1898 by order of the Russian czar. The Baron was appointed medical commissioner for the city by the general in charge, General Khorvat. 
As the book opens, the Baron is investigating a report of bodies discovered outside the train station. The man saw the bodies taken away in a cart, but the bodies weren't taken to the nearby hospital, nor reported to him by the men who took them. This begins the story of a plague coming to the city that winter. The Baron learns that the bodies were of Chinese men, which raises other questions, like whether the Chinese authorities had ordered the removal of the bodies and what rank the men were. 
The man who informed the Baron of the incident is Andreev, a man known as a government informer, who also traded on the black market. 
The Baron is also a man who exists between the two worlds of Russian and Chinese people. He is married to a much younger Chinese woman, Li Ju, who had been a servant before they formed a relationship. He has made the effort to learn Chinese, and can understand enough to translate. He is also taking calligraphy classes from a master in the art. 
As the existence of a transmissible disease that is almost always fatal become more and more evident, the community, and the Baron himself, find themselves torn between sides in many arenas. There is traditional Chinese medicine versus Western medical science, distrust between the two communities, and the widespread hiding of bodies to avoid being ostracized which hinders the ability to fully understand the spread. The Baron sometimes finds himself at odds with others in his profession, in particular a newly arrived Western-educated Dr. Wu Lien-teh, who is put in charge by the Chinese, but who speaks neither Mandarin nor Russian, and who conducts the hospital meetings in English, the language that he speaks and that most of the other doctors understand. 
He finds one ally among his peers, a French doctor names Messonier, with whom he has a regular meeting centered around a shared love and interest in tea. 
We see the doctors arguing about the disease, what it is, and how to treat and protect others from it. The Baron is an advocate for masks and disinfectant, practices which after some discussion get adopted. 
The Baron has great depth of character here, we see his compassion, and his observation skills. We also see how his ties to the community from different contacts, from Andreev, to a Chinese dwarf, give him additional information on the situation. We also see how the competitive nature of some doctors keep them from working well as a whole. 
This novel is a slow-moving one, similar to the two Chinese practices that the Baron has taken on, calligraphy, and tea. As we see both his work life and his personal life, we get drawn into the story ourselves.  

Saturday 25 May 2024

The Invisible Library

Finished May 21
The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

This book starts a series, and is a fantasy book with an interesting, for me at least, focus. The library of the title is a place that exists between worlds, as a kind of gateway. It takes up a lot of space, and has multiple rooms, all filled with shelves of books, with nooks where computers exist, for looking things up, writing reports, communicating with others, etc. That's pretty interesting as a construct for me. The idea of nearly endless books is fascinating. The library collects books from different worlds to strengthen the connection with those worlds. The senior librarians determine what books to collect and send junior librarians, like the central character here, Irene, out to get them. 
The worlds are different versions of our world. Sometimes only slightly different, sometimes vastly different. The library tries to keep things in balance. Too much technology can result in a tightly ordered world with no creativity. Too much magic can result in a world of chaos. The world that Irene and the trainee that is assigned to her, a man named Kai, is leaning towards chaos. 
We get a sense of what can happen as Irene finished up a case as the book opens, using her skills and her knowledge of the special Library language to control things. This glimpse is intriguing. 
They arrive in an alternate London through a gate inside an office in the British Library. The book they are seeking is rare and, when they arrive, has already been stolen by someone. The person, a vampire in this case, that bought it recently was killed. They soon discover that they are not the only ones seeking the book, a book of tales by Grimm, and that one of those is a fae. 
The mix of magic and reality is done well, and some of the elements of attack are unexpected, consisting of creatures that we normally don't think of as in the context they appear in, or that fit the context by attack in unexpected ways. 
There is also the idea of dragons as creatures on the side of good. The dragons are on the side of order not magic, and have their own abilities in doing this. There is also an element of peer rivalry between Irene and another librarian, which influences the plotline. 
A book that had me engrossed and amused at the same time. I liked the touches of humour that existed within the book, and the underlying tensions between some characters that were attracted to each other. All together a fun read. 

Thursday 23 May 2024

The Stand-In

Finished May 19
The Stand-In by Lily Chu

This delightful novel has a lot going on, and I stayed up too late a few nights because I had trouble putting it down. The central character, Gracie Reed, is an only child struggling to pay for her mother's nursing home. She knows her mother's progression into dementia means that she will need more care and a better atmosphere, but she can't afford the home she is waitlisted on. 
Aside from that, she is also dealing with a toxic work atmosphere, where her pleasant and agreeable manner have her fending off increasingly forward advances from her boss Todd. It has got to the point where she has called in sick to work to meet with a lawyer about it. After the meeting with the lawyer, she stopped at one of her favourite coffee shops for a pick-me-up before heading home. At the coffee shop, she is photographed by an aggressive man who the store manager kicked out afterwards. 
She finds that her picture has been put online as that of Wei Fangli, a Chinese movie star. When Fangli approaches her with an interesting proposition, she is taken aback. Fangli wants her to be seen as Fangli for the next couple of months, while Fangli and her co-star Sam Yao star in a live theatre production in the city. Gracie would do all the non-theatre events and outings to let Fangli focus only on her work. She asks for some time to think about it, but the money is tempting. 
The next day she finds her mind is made up for her as Todd has seen the photograph and accuses her of calling in sick fraudulently and fires her. Gracie's best friend Anjali is upset that Gracie hadn't told her how bad Todd was, and understands that she needs a job, but thinks the deal with Fangli is a bad one. 
As Gracie begins her role as Fangli, she must deal with learning details about the star and her work, practicing mimicking the way she moves, and coming up with responses to expected media questions. On the plus side, she now has access to an incredible wardrobe, high-end cosmetics and skin-care, and is staying in a really nice hotel suite. She also deals with Fangli's assistant Mei, who does most of the training required.
Dealing with Sam Yao, who will be accompanying her on almost all her outings is more complex. They get off to a bad start, but gradually work out some ground rules that determine how they can get along. 
I liked the Toronto setting, with some of the details of the city coming into the story. I also really liked Gracie and could relate to her personality and her people-pleasing nature. It was also really fun to see the clothes and other luxurious things that entered her life from her viewpoint of awe and pleasure. I also liked the serious side of dealing with dementia. 
The other plotline was Gracie's love for list making, especially to-do lists. She has tried a few apps, and paper tools, but hasn't had any that really clicked for her. She decides to take the time she has to work on designing her own app, and some of the hints along the way looked really interesting. I also like lists, and haven't found an app that clicked, so enjoyed seeing this plot develop. 
The romance was nicely done, with a touch of enemies to friends to lovers, and a slow burn. A very enjoyable read.