Monday, 26 January 2009

Reflective Novel

Finished January 26
Time is a River by Mary Alice Monroe
This is a feel-good novel although the main character, Mia Landon, starts off facing some things she'd rather not. Mia is a breast cancer survivor and her sister has given her the gift of a retreat with other survivors at a fly fishing resort. She is inspired and uplifted by the experience and wanting to share it with her husband, rushes home, only to discover him with another woman.
Devastated, she runs back to the retreat, where the owner, Belle Carson, takes her in, offering her a cabin to stay in for a season while she gets herself together and figures out where she wants her life to go next.
Mia finds herself intrigued by the last occupant and owner of the cabin, Kate Watkins, Belle's grandmother and becomes interested in her and her life. Against Belle's wishes, she digs into Kate's story and, in doing so, finds her own story as well. She also gets to know the people of Watkins Mill, the nearest town, and finds friends.
Fly fishing provides a thread through the book and connects the various characters through time. This is a good story with an interesting theme.

Officially Quit Reading This Novel

Quit January 22

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

I tried, really I did, but I couldn't get interested in this one. I am 258 pages in and still not having any fun, so I decided to cut my losses.

The main character is a pornography actor/producer who has been badly burned in a car crash, including the loss of his penis. He is very depressed and reacts to assistance by hospital personnel in a hostile manner. He is befriended by an odd woman, who tells him they knew each other in previous times, beginning in the Middle Ages. She tells stories of their past and he reflects on his life. One of my colleagues tells me the medical information is very accurate.

I'm not sure why I didn't connect with this one, as it has been making best seller lists all over. As they say, each to his own, and I'm afraid that this isn't mine.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

A Child's Point of View

Finished January 23
When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale
This is the story of nine-year-old Lawrence and his family. When his mother Hannah believes her ex-husband is stalking her with ill intent, she drags Lawrence and his younger sister Jemima off to her old stomping ground of Rome from their home in London.
The entire story is told from Lawrence's point of view. Lawrence both annoys and placates young Jemima, observes his mother's old friends, and deals with his mother's changing feelings. I liked how Lawrence matched the people he met with animals that he felt suited them. He was also stuck on a book series, Hideous Histories, issues of which covered Petrifying Popes and Calamitous Caesars. He keeps giving little stories about the historic figures that he reads about and one finds that the often relate to issues around him. Lawrence also loves space and talks about the various facts he has learned about the universe.
Along for the trip is Lawrence's hamster, Herman, and he provides interesting lessons and distractions along the way. As I read, I began to realize that the problems that Lawrence and his family were fleeing didn't go away when they got to Rome, and Lawrence is just too young to be able to deal with them appropriately although he does try.
The one thing I thing I could had done without is the misspellings scattered throughout the text. I believe they are supposed to emphasize Lawrence's age, but I don't think that they added to the believability of the story, and I found them distracting.

Timely Nonfiction

Finished January 23
Snowstruck: In the Grip of Avalanches by Jill Fredston
I received this for Christmas in 2007 but hadn't yet got around to reading it. With the multitude of avalanches in the news this year, I thought it was timely.
Jill Fredston and her husband Doug Fesler codirect the Alaska Mountain Safety Center. They have made their careers on avalanche education and avalanche rescue. Using real world stories, Fredston makes the power of avalanches come alive. I was especially taken by her discussions around those who have been killed and injured by avalanches. Most were experienced backcountry users, some of whom who had taken classes on avoiding such situations. The danger is due to human nature. Part of it is around familiarity breeds, if not contempt, at least decreased vigilance. Because the victims were familiar with the terrain and enjoying the experience they disregarded warning signs. The other bit of human nature is peer pressure. If the others in your group say things are fine, you tend to go along. Fredston also talks about how the increased power of snowmobiles is now bringing less experienced uses into dangerous situations.
Throughout, she acknowledges that we all make mistakes and it is something we must constantly guard against. Her attitude is realistic and offers fascinating information. I thoroughly enjoyed it as well as learning a lot.

Monday, 12 January 2009

New York Mystery

Finished January 11
Murder 101 by Maggie Barbieri
This fast-moving mystery centers around Alison Bergeron, a literature professor at a small Catholic college in New York City. First Alison's old Volvo is stolen from the college parking lot. Then two NYPD homicide detectives show up to grill her. Her car has been found with the body of one of her students inside.
Alison is supported by her old school friend Max, yet still keeps getting into hot water. One of the detectives, Bobby Crawford, thinks she is an innocent victim, and tries to give her support when he can, but not even he can keep her out of trouble.
Alison comes across as smart, too-nice (especially to those who don't deserve it), and a bit of a klutz. I can relate!
This is the first in a series, and I'll have to hunt out the others.

Scottish Mystery

Finished January 11
White Nights by Ann Cleeves, read by Gordon Griffin
This great mystery, set in Shetland in midsummer starts in the present but the mystery originates in the past. The title refers to the time, midsummer, where the sun never sets. Some people find this unnerving and it may influence behaviour.
When a mysterious stranger makes a scene at a gallery event and then claims to not know who he is, the mystery comes to life. Detective Jimmy Perez, a Shetland native is at the art gallery and worries about the stranger. When he is later called to the discovery of a body hanging in a shed on the jetty near the gallery, things become more murky.
As Perez and his mainland boss investigate, they discover more than meets the eye in the small community where the events took place. Everyone in Biddista has their own worries, and when a second body is discovered things get very serious.
This is a great story and a great setting.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Teen Novel of interest to Adults

Finished January 8
Outside Beauty by Cynthia Kadohata
This story is told from the point of view of Shelby, a young teen. Shelby and her sisters, Marilyn, Lakey and Maddie all live with their mother. The girls all have different fathers, and their mother is always going out with different men. When their mother ends up in the hospital, the girls end up farmed out to their individual fathers and are heartbroken. They are eager to reunite and find a dramatic way to do so.
Shelby is the bookworm of the family, and observant of the people around her. As she describes her sisters and the fathers, you get a real sense of the personalities behind the exteriors. The girls are generally well-behaved and respectful, but there are limits to what they are willing to go along with. Shelby is insightful about the situations they end up in and manages to connect to her own father in a way that she didn't expect.
This is an interesting story, and one I will recommend.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Inner Thoughts

Finished January 5
Man in the Dark by Paul Auster
August Brill, a 72-year-old book critic, lies in the dark in his daughter's house and thinks. He thinks about his past, about his family, and makes up stories to keep himself from thinking about those things he doesn't want to think about, but can't help thinking about.
Besides the stories of his own life, he invents the story of Owen Brick, and man transported into another version of the world in which the United States is engaged in a civil war. Owen is given the job of killing the author of this version of the world so that the war may end, and struggles with the mission given to him.
This novel is like nothing else I've read. It concerns the life of a man who is sensitive yet not without his own destructive powers. I got a sense of the concern for others, as well as the inevitability of sorrow.
This is a wonderful little gem.

A Look at History

Finished January 5
The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner
This story follows a college student, Lauren Durough (known to her family as Lars), as she discovers the life of a young woman in Salem during the witch trials, and in doing so discovers something about herself as well.
Lauren is the only child of very wealthy parents, and makes small moves to show her independence from what she feels is expected of her. One of those moves is to take a job transcribing the diary of Mercy Hayworth, a young woman convicted of being a witch in Salem during the infamous witch trials. Her employer is Abigail Boyles, also a wealthy woman, who has known Mercy's story since she was a teenager, but never taken its lessons into her own life.
This is a fascinating look at a portion of history that is shameful, as well as looking at how we all judge others to some extent.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Teen Novel

Finished January 4
Shift by Jennifer Bradbury
Chris Collins decides to take the summer before college and bicycle from his home in West Virginia to the Pacific coast. He plans to go with his best friend Winston. Win is from a wealthy family, but has no real family life, unlike Chris.
The two young men work their way west, scamping (their name for camping that takes place anywhere except a campground). They meet interesting people, stay interesting places, and grow as people.
At one point, near their goal, Win deserts Chris and Chris never catches up with him. Chris is angry at first and then resigned and returns home to West Virginia and then to college in Atlanta. Win, however, never shows up, and Win's father tries to pressure Chris into giving him information about Win's whereabouts.
I found this story one that I really connected with, perhaps because I had a similar experience. When I was in my early twenties, I went on an adventurous trip with another woman, who I considered my best friend at the time. We had many interesting adventures and met interesting people, but we also split up at one point, when she decided to stay somewhere while I kept travelling. Like Chris, my trip was a life-changing one, but I'd forgotten some of those lessons, and it was nice to be reminded.

Saturday, 3 January 2009


Finished January 3
The Blue Cheer by Ed Lynskey
The main character in this thriller is Frank Johnson, a Virginia private investigator who has recently moved to a cabin in the woods in West Virginia, trying to make a break with his past. He is befriended by Old Man Maddox, a retired CIA man. Maddox and his paraplegic wife Jan are Frank's nearest neighbours, and live over the ridge from him. When Frank sees a Stinger rocket take down a drone one evening over the woods near him, he calls on Maddox to help investigate. Frank ends up targeted for injury and vandalism and the investigations of the two men lead them into further danger including murder. All the clues lead back to a group called the Blue Cheer, but the local authorities seem too eager to turn the other way. What with corrupt lawmakers, lots of drinking, and a love for bluegrass, this book takes the two into a world of open racism and unbridled hate.

Historical Fiction audiobook

Finished January 2
The Given Day by Dennis Lehane, performed by Michael Boatman
I've been listening to this for a while on my commute (it is 20 CDs!) and enjoying it thoroughly. It is definitely an emotiona read, causing me to feel sadness and rage at various points in the book. The novel follows a couple of characters with depth, with additional appearances by Babe Ruth throughout. The action takes place in 1918 and 1919, mostly in Boston, but also in Ohio and Tulsa, Oklahoma. One of the main characters is Danny Coughlin, a beat cop in Boston. Danny's father is a captain in the police force who has ambitions for Danny. Danny has always thought for himself, and becomes involved in the newly formed police union. Danny also becomes involved in an investigation into radical movements, including both unions and anarchists. Danny finds it difficult to conform to the opinions of his elders when he listens to the issues of the people he works and lives with.
Luther Laurence is a black man from Ohio. He moves to Tulsa with his girlfriend, who soon becomes his wife and makes some bad choices. Fleeing from Tulsa after a confrontation with a crime boss there, Luther ends up in Boston, working for the Coughlin family. Danny befriends him and Luther also form a friendship with the Coughlin's other servant Nora. Even in Boston, however, Luther cannot escape his past and he must deal with new dangers as well as work out how to make his way back to Tulsa, where his wife awaits their first child.
This novel is an epic one, covering events from the great flu epidemic, to the molasses flood, to the terrorist threat and labour unrest in Boston. One gets a great sense of the issues of the day and the feelings of the characters when faced with them. Throughout the book, the main characters keep their hope, despite all that befalls them, and it is that hope that really brings out the emotions I felt.
This is a wonderful book, and one that touches on current issues as well as those in the past.

Canadian Fiction

Finished January 2
The Outlander by Gil Adamson
I've had this one beside my bed for ages and have been reading it in small doses. The book follows the trail of a young widow, as she flees from her dead husband's brothers who want her for killing their brother. The action takes place in the early part of the twentieth century and the widow, Mary Boulton, flees across the prairies and into the Rockies. Mary is not well-educated despite being born well-off and never enjoyed an affectionate family life. Her marriage took her from an unhappy middle class life to an unhappy poverty-filled one and her flight now is one that also seeks a kind of happiness that she has never known. Benefiting from others' interest, Mary manages to survive in the mountains, and ends up in the southern Alberta town of Frank, where she is taken in by a preacher. Mary is a fascinating character, sympathetic and yet independent. She learns about community and happiness along her journey and I rooted for her the whole book.

Thriller by Canadian

Finished December 31
Invisible Armies by Jon Evans
This book was recommended to me over a year ago and I finally got around to reading it. It was a great read, and despite being long (almost 500 pages) I easily finished it in one day. Despite being written by a Canadian, none of the action takes place here. Ranging from India, to Paris, to London, to the United States, the action keeps this book moving.
Danielle Leaf is the main character and has spent her life trying to figure out who she wants to be. Most recently, she has been in India, first working for a tech firm and then working towards a certificate as a yoga instructor. Doing a favor for a friend, by bringing a passport to a young Indian woman in a remote part of the country, she gets caught up in something huge. Waylayed by official looking men, she has her passport and other possessions taken from her and is locked up in a small building. As she escapes, with the help of another prisoner, she begins to work with others to figure out what is behind the intrigue.
Never quite sure who to trust, or who to believe, Danielle is also not sure whether she wants to continue down this path. Reunited with the friend she did the favor for, she enters the world of computer hackers and discovers new possibilities. Action-packed, working toward a higher purpose, the book is a good read and kept me entertained.