Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Redemption of Galen Pike

Finished March 19
The Redemption of Galen Pike: Short Stories by Carys Davies

This new short story collection by British writer Carys Davies is a gem. A short book containing seventeen diverse stories, some of them merely a page long, surprises with insight and wit. The stories range in setting from rural Australia to Siberia to small-town Colorado to northern England. The time of the action changes from historical to modern.
Davies won the 2015 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, and it is easy to see why. Her writing is highly skilled, emotive, and insightful using no more words than needed to tell us the story. The stories are short but complex. The tales are ones that moved me. I never knew what the story would bring me, but I was always satisfied by the thought-provoking tale it told.
Highly recommended.

The Evening Chorus

Finished March 19
The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys

This novel has two different sections, each set ten years apart, in 1940 and 1950. Within each section are narratives by a number of people, each telling of their experience, thoughts, and feelings.
The first narrative is by James Hunter, a RAF officer whose plane was shot down, and who was captured by the Germans. He tells of his life in the POW camp, the other men that he interacts with, and the bird-watching that begins to distract him from his situation. The second narrative is by his young wife Rose, back in England. She lives alone in the cottage they bought on the edge of Ashdown Forest, with a dog she bought for company and protection. She fills her days by looking after her Victory garden and her chickens and her evening round as a warden looking for blackout infringements. The two haven't been married long and don't know each other well, and Rose is lonely. She lives near her parents, but doesn't like her mother, a very bossy woman.
The third narrative is by Rose again, but with the introduction of Enid, James' sister, who worked in London until her lodgings were bombed, and who comes to stay with Rose. The woman get along better than either had thought they would, with Enid finding Rose a comfort as she gets over her losses.
The fourth narrative is Enid, as she reflects on the relationship with Rose, and Rose as she looks at the situation as it develops, creating a rift between them.
The fifth is Rose again as she readjusts to her solitary life, and by Toby another RAF officer, who tells of his last flight.
We then move to the second part of the novel, ten years later. The first narrative is Enid visiting James at his remote bird observation station on the coast. She is worried about him, and finds the house he lives in spartan. The two are close, and she manages to get him to talk about the issues he struggles with. We then move to Enid back in London where she works as a paste-up artist for a magazine. She works hard and enjoys the challenges of the job. We also learn of her personal life, a life she has not shared with her brother.
We then move back to Rose, in her unhappy circumstances. She lives a life dictated by others, a life she hates but sees no escape from. She often wonders what her life would be like if different things had happened, if she had made different choices.
The last narrative is one of a German officer who has received a package and message from James. The letter from James causes the officer to look back at the war years and his experiences and feelings. He makes a commitment based on this letter and wishes things could be changed.
The last narrative is from James, as he watches the birds that have become so much more than a distraction for him.
I liked how each narrative had the title for a bird, insect, or animal that has a role in the action in that section. This connection to nature is important, and part of the overall story. I always enjoy reading Humphrey's books and learning new things as well as reading beautiful writing.

Born a Crime

Finished March 18
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

This memoir by the host of The Daily Show looks at his childhood in South Africa, from his birth, through his early adult years. It is well known that his mother was black South African and his father was a white Swiss man, working in South Africa. It becomes clear that his mother was a very independent woman, one who knew that she wanted more than what her place in society should have brought her. She worked hard, and got herself skills beyond most women of her background, and found a way to have a child on her terms.
Trevor was a child that didn't fit into any of society's categories in his country of birth. He watched, and listened, and learned, and he found a way to fit himself in to each situation he encountered. His life wasn't easy, and he didn't always make good choices, but he looks to his mother for instilling in him values, a work ethic, and an outlook on life that made him go out and find a life for himself. This is a book that opens us to a world most of us aren't familiar with, and that isn't shy about some of the more difficult things that Noah dealt with.

The Madwoman Upstairs

Finished March 18
The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

This novel imagines a young woman, Samantha Whipple, as the last remaining descendant of the Bronte family (from a sibling of the writers' father). Her father died tragically in a fire when she was only fifteen. She is now twenty and studying English Literature at Old College at Oxford University. She is surprised on being shown her lodgings, located in a room up five flights of stairs, at the top of a tower. She has to go all the way down to a washroom, and the room is dank, windowless, and with no source of heat. It had originally (in 1361) been used to quarantine victims of the plague.
Samantha is assigned a young, brilliant professor for her tutorials, Dr. James Timothy Orville III. Their first meeting doesn't go well, and Samantha is unexpectedly upset. She has always received high praise for her work, but Orville doesn't seem to think much of her writing skills.
She is also under pressure to meet a London lawyer about her father's estate, and while she delays that meeting as long as she can, she finds that she must find out what her father left her. When she does so, she finds herself reminded of a long ago gift from her dad, that sent her on a literary scavenger hunt following clues to the true present. Is this what she must do now? And if so, who is to be her guide? And what did her father mean when he told her years ago that she would inherit the Warnings of Experience?
As Samantha meets various other players, from Hans, a Swedish student who seems awfully interested in her; to John Booker, a Bronte scholar who believes her father was in possession of many valuable artifacts of the family, she tries to figure out who she can trust with the many questions she has.
Samantha is still hoping for a connection to her dead father, and trying to forge some sort of relationship with her mother, who left when she was young. She is suspicious of ulterior motives with those that offer friendship due to her family name. She is in a new environment, and feeling very much alone. As she gradually learns more about her father, and about herself, she must also find a way to move forward with her life for herself.
I found the connection to the Brontes interesting, and the way their novels and lives became part of the plot intriguing.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Finished March 15
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated from the French by Alison Anderson

This novel blew me away. I loved it and could barely put it down. Philosophical, funny, poignant, intelligent, and insightful all fit to describe it.
There are two people telling the story here. Paloma is a twelve-year-old girl, observant and smart. She doesn't really like her parents or older sister, feeling them to be superficial and not as smart as they think they are. She feels that life is absurd and doesn't want to go through her life dealing with that, so she plans to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday. As she looks toward this she decides to keep a journal where she records profound thoughts in the form of a Japanese poem, trying to have as many as possible. Why Japanese? Well, she admires Japanese culture and has chosen Japanese as her second language at school. As time passes, she also decides to keep a second journal looking for the beauty in things or people.
The second speaker is Renée Michel. Madame Michel is the concierge of the apartment building that Paloma and her family live in. There are eight apartments on six floors. Four floors have only one apartment on the whole floor, about 4000 square feet, and the other two floors have two each. Madame Michel has a taste for culture in books, films, thoughts, and food. But she knows the image that people commonly have of what a concierge is, and she tries to make her public persona fit this image. She has one friend, Manuela Lopes, who works as a cleaner for several of the apartment owners, an honest worker with a skill for pastry making among other things.
During the twenty-seven years that Madame Michel has worked there, the only changes to the ownership have been when one generation of a family passes the apartment down to the next. So, when one of the apartments is sold to someone new, this is a major event, for everyone.
The new owner is also smart and discerning and the dynamics of the major players change as they begin to see each other as they really are, and make connections.
This story is a wonderful one, yet hard to describe adequately. I loved it.

Vigilante

Finished March 12
Vigilante by Kady Cross

This teen novel deals with several difficult and related issues. The novel starts several months after a sex crime is committed at a party and a few months after the victim commits suicide. Hadley and her best friend Magda, juniors in high school, go to a party at the house of a classmate. Magda is interested in a popular boy that Hadley doesn't think that much of, but she humors her. The two girls go their own way at the party and Magda is drugged and raped by four of the boys, and pictures and video of the interaction are shared on social media. Magda and Hadley are both upset, and Magda is a much quieter girl following this horrible event. The boys don't get the punishment that they deserve and instead Magda is belittled, shamed, and harassed. When Magda kills herself, Hadley first is devastated, but then anger begins to grow, and an urge for revenge.
When an expected opportunity arises to embarrass one of the perpetrators, Hadley does it without really thinking. But then she begins to plan, and she soon finds that her urge to take revenge against the boys may be leading her in a direction she isn't entirely comfortable with.
Hadley has always been interested in martial arts, taking classes for years. When a local police officer asks for her help in running classes for teen girls to teach them how to protect themselves, Hadley is pleased. This is a way to ensure that other girls don't have to go through what Magda went through. But she finds that the classes offer her a way to help her to move on by letting her make new friends as well.
This story deals with a lot of very current issues related to teenagers and women today. It looks at the issue of justice, of power, and of the dangers of some actions. It also doesn't categorize all men as bad. There are several men in the novel that respect women in a way that the perpetrators of this crime do not. An interesting read.

Only Daughter

Finished March 11
Only Daughter by Anna Snoekstra

This suspense novel is set mostly in Canberra, Australia. A young woman is caught shoplifting and doesn't want to return home to face what she is running from. Instead, she remembers a news story that she saw a few years ago, and claims to be a different missing girl.
The story alternates between her life as she tries to fit into this family impersonating their daughter who has been missing for ten years, and the real girl ten years earlier as she reacts to weird things happening in her house.
Bec, in the past, feels like she is being watched, even in her own bedroom at night. She is scared of something in the garage, but she can't name it. She is a young teen with a crush on one of her coworkers, who can't wait to finish school and leave. She, too, shoplifts, but with a purpose that doesn't immediately become clear. She tries to confide in her best friend, but feels that she sounds like she is going mad.
The imposter, now pretending to be Bec, also feels wary. She is watching her step, trying to read cues from others to not give herself away. But she keeps getting the feeling that she is being watched, being followed. She tries to learn more about the missing Bec, but finds it difficult. And by digging deeper, she may be putting herself in danger, just like Bec.
This book is eerie and the truth of the story as we learn it is even freakier. A real edge of the seat read.