Sunday, 17 June 2018

Cowboy Boots for Christmas

Finished June 16
Cowboy Boots for Christmas (Cowboy Not Included) by Carolyn Brown

Sometimes it's nice to just read an escape romance, and this fit the bill. This is the first in a series for the prolific romance author. The cowboy in question is Finn O'Donnell, former military sniper, and new ranch owner in the small town of Burnt Boot, Texas. He has refused a couple of offers recently to return to service, and he thinks the vehicles coming up his drive are a third try. But he is mistaken. as Callie Brewster, the woman who he was partnered with steps out of one of the vehicles. Callie was his spotter, and he hasn't seen her in a couple of years, having lost touch when he left the service.
Callie retuned home following the death of her sister, to care for and adopt her six year old nephew Martin. Recently, Martin witnessed a crime, and until the trial the authorities think he should make himself hard to find.
Finn agrees to take them in, knowing the capabilities of his former partner, but soon the house becomes home to other strays, both animals and people.
A story of compassion, mutual crushes, trust, and community, this is a definite feel-good read.

Confessions of a Funeral Director

Finished June 15
Confessions of a Funeral Director: How the Business of Death Saved My Life by Caleb Wilde

The author of this book started writing a blog about his experience as a sixth generation funeral director, and that led to this book. He is very open about his experiences, including his initial reluctance to join the family business, one that both of his parents grew up in. He discusses his crisis of faith, his ongoing uncertainty about his career, his moments of understanding and enlightenment, his respect for the people whose bodies he looks after, and their loved ones. He talks about his own family and the things he has learned from his father, both his grandfathers, and others. He includes deaths that affected him personally, as well as those for whom he only learned the stories as he carried out his services. Drawing on different experiences that he was part of, he showed how other people, other organizations, and religious bodies showed honour to those that died as well.
He took on graduate work on the subject of death, religion, and culture and thus was closely observing these experiences, thinking hard about them, and trying to learn more, and that all shows here.
One bit of writing that I shared with a friend going through her own loss touched me,
Nevertheless, death asks us to pause. It doesn't tell us what we need to do when we pause (there may be nothing to do at all), but it asks us to be in its presence. To site with it. Listen to it. To lay aside chronos and embrace kairos. [Kairos has to do with the quality of time, not with the passing of time] ... It's not a moment of weakness but of strength, and we need to be reminded to allow for these natural pauses in life. We will find that death sits at the heart of what it means to be human, and we mayjust find ourselves when we practice death Sabbath
I didn't always connect with everything he wrote, as much as did with this, but I always appreciated his thoughts and feelings around these issues.

Whisper

Finished June 9
Whisper by Lynette Noni

This teen novel is the first in a series. A woman, known as Jane Doe or Subject Six Eight Four, is being held in a secret facility underground. She has been told only that it is a government facility and that she needs to cooperate with the people working with her.
Her day is routine. Her locked cell is bare, she has no footware, and a basic dress to wear. She meets every day with a therapist, a physical trainer, and a doctor who performs tests on her. She says nothing to anyone. She sits silently with the therapist, does everything the personal trainer asks her to do, and endures the painful experiments in silent stoicism. She has been here for two and a half years, and is still not sure of anything except that they want her to speak, something she is determined not to do. Then one day, her routine is interrupted. After all her normal daily activities have ended, she is taken from her cell to an area of the complex she hasn't been before and she meets with the man in charge. He tells her that they are tired of waiting for something they don't believe will ever happen, and she will work with someone new for the next month, and if nothing comes of it, he implies that she will die.
The woman is surprised to find that her new interaction is with a young man close to her own age, a man who treats her kindly, who offers her comforts, who introduces her to other young people. Her silent stoicism is no longer the effective defense it has been.
When an unexpected situation impels her to speak, she finds that this opens new doors, new opportunities for her. But as things continue, she finds that these people know more about her than she has shared, and may not have been telling her the truth.
A great start to a new and interesting series.

Greeks Bearing Gifts

Finished June 5
Greeks Bearing Gifts by Philip Kerr

This is part of the series featuring Bernie Gunther, but the first one that I have read.
This story takes place in 1957, and begins in Munich, where Bernie has taken on a new identity as Christof Ganz, and is working as mortuary attendant in a hospital. When the body of a man killed due to an explosion of a war period bomb needs to be identified by one of the men injured in the same incident, Ganz must show the body to the man and one of the policemen in attendance recognizes him. As he gets drawn into a situation that he knows will create problems for him, he trusts his instincts and goes for help to a man he knows, who also has involvement with the blackmailer.
As a result Ganz gets recommended for a job as an insurance adjustor. His detective skills make the job a good fit for him, and he gets brought in to cover for another colleague in the insurance on a boat that was sunk in Greece.
As he meets with the man at the Athens office of the insurance company, and gets to know him, he also lets his instincts lead him to follow the man claiming the loss. The subsequent death of the man raises other issues, and he ends up working with a Greek police detective to try to find the killer behind this and other deaths.
The case takes him to local lawyers, accused war criminals, museum curators, a beautiful young woman, and an arm of the Israeli state.
This is a complex case, with a reach back into the war years, with Gunther/Ganz wanting to do the right thing to atone for his country's actions in the war, but also save his own skin.
I quite enjoyed it.

Lilac Girls

Finished June 1
Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

This book is based on real women in history. It is told around three women, with each of them taking turns in telling her story. One of them is the real-life New York socialite Caroline Ferriday. Caroline had worked as an actress, but by 1939 was acting as a liaison to the French consulate in New York City. Herta Oberheuser was also a real person, a young female German doctor who worked at Ravensbrück concentration camp. The third woman, Kasia Kuzmerick, along with her sister Zusanna, are based on real life women Nina Iwanska and her sister Krystyna, who were both operated on at the camp. The author did a lot of research, looking at letters, diaries, testimonies, and visiting the sites of the story. She includes an author's note that details her work, and where fiction varied from fact.
In the story, Caroline efforts are towards French people in the United States, and orphans homes in France. She tries to locate relatives of people who come into the consulate, and sends clothes, supplies, and money to the orphanages. She has a relationship with a well-known French actor, whose Jewish wife is still back in France, and after the war, when she finds out about a group of Polish women victimized by their Nazi jailors she takes on their case.
Kasia is a teenager in Lublin, Poland. Her older sister Zusanna is trained as a doctor, and their father is head of the postal office. Their mother is of German heritage, but that doesn't matter when Kasia and the other women of the family get caught up in a German sweep of the town and taken to Ravensbrück concentration camp for womn near Furstenberg. A number of the Polish women in her group were subjected to experipents related to sulfa, with doctors injecting their legs with bacteria and foreign agents. The became known as Rabbits, as they often hopped about on their good leg after the operations, and were experimental subjects, like rabbits had often been.
Herta came to Ravensbrück around the same time as the Polish women, and was the only female doctor at the camp. She was put on trial and imprisoned after the war, but was released early and went on to practice medicine afterwards.
As this novel tells the story from these three points of view, we see the motivations, and the blind spots for each of them. I love history and found this a fascinating story of an atrocity of war that I knew little about before.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Promise Not to Tell

Finished May 29
Promise Not to Tell by Jayne Ann Krentz, narrated by Susan Bennett

This thriller takes place in and around Seattle, with two main characters who have a shared traumatic past. Virginia Troy was only a young child when she survived a deliberate fire at a rural cult compound. Her mother died in the fire, and Virginia still has nightmares about that night, despite being raised by a loving grandmother. Cabot Sutter was a bit older than Virginia when he survived that fire, and he also lost his mother. His mother's family wanted nothing to do with him, and he was raised along with two other young male survivors by a man who had his own terrors from that night, Anson Salinas, the police detective that saved them. Anson and all three of the young men have now joined together in a detective agency, and they have reason to believe the cult leader Quinton Zane is still alive despite the boat fire that was supposed to have killed him.
Virginia has made a good life running her own art gallery, and recently made contact with a couple of older women who also survived that night. They were friends of her mothers, and one of them found her truth through painting. The pictures she painted of that night are dark and haunting, even disturbing, but also very good. Virginia has taken the paintings, but it is the last painting, sent to her just as the artist died in a very suspicious manner, that has made Virginia seek out Anson and his agency as people who won't dismiss her suspicions that Zane is still alive. She is correct, and as Cabot returned to the office as she was describing the situation, he is the one that works with her on the case. It doesn't hurt that there is a spark between them, and that they both understand the other's PTSD symptoms.
At the same time this is all happening, Xavier, a younger cousin in Cabot's estranged family approaches him out of curiousity and rebellion wanting to know more about this cousin his father and grandfather hated so much. At first Cabot doesn't want to deal with him, but Virginia and Anson convince him to give the young man a chance without blaming him for his family's actions.
The cult element is very interesting, showing the tactics and personal characteristics of a sociopath intent on his own interests. This is the second book in a series, and I haven't read the first, but had no issues with that.

Missing Mike

Finished May 27
Missing Mike by Shari Green

This children's novel centers on one 11-year-old girl, Cara Donovan, as she and her family deal with the threat of encroaching forest fires, evacuation, and worry. The town that Cara's family lives in, Pine Grove, is a fictional place that could, unfortunately stand in for many Canadian town which have been devasted by fire, but for me it brought to mind the terrible scenes from Fort McMurray and the evacuation of that community.
Cara, her older sister, Sloane, and their parents live in a town that is threatened by encroaching fires. They have an emergency kit, and their mother asks them to pack an overnight bag with essentials, just in case. Cara has been planning for a great summer, exploring on the new bike she got just as school let out, an early birthday present. As the book begins, she is out on a trail with her dog Mike. Mike is named after Mike Wazowski, a one-eyed monster from Disney movies. Mike is a dog that Cara chose two years ago, when she convinced her parents she was ready for a dog. Her parents steered her toward the cute puppies at the shelter, but Cara was drawn to Mike, an older dog, who shows the scars of past fights, include a tattered ear and the loss of an eye. And they've been practically inseparable since.
Mike still has nervous moments though, and it is one of these that causes him to disappear just when the Donovans have to evacuate. Cara is despondent, and the trip to the distant town they are evacuated to is a tense time, as the fire stays close for a long while, and others leaving need help along the way.
Cara tries to keep herself busy, spending time with Jewel, the foster daughter of their host family, and volunteering at the evacuation center. She quickly finds out how to fill out a form to let authorities know about her dog, but nothing really distracts her completely from her loss.
The desperation of the situation, while fleeing the fire is expressed well, and Cara's focus on her loved pet Mike is a constant.
The book is written in free verse, which adds an interesting flow to the story. And I loved that Cara was a crossword fanatic, mulling over word definitions and able to consider how a word might mean different things to different people. A big part of Cara's musings throughout the book are around the word "home" and how the word can mean sometime differnt to people given their experiences, personalities, and situations. A book that will get the reader thinking.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

It's Always the Husband

Finished May 25
It's Always the Husband by Michele Campbell, read by January LaVoy

This psychological suspense novel follows three college roommates from very different backgrounds. The girls meet at the beginning of their first year at Carlisle College in New Hampshire. Aubrey is a poor girl from Vegas who has made it to college on her marks. She is hoping to make the contacts to lead her to a life beyond the one she experienced up until now. Jenny is a local girl who has always had an eye towards her future, making the right connections, getting good grades, and planning ahead. Kate is the spoiled rich girl, whose daddy is one of the board members at the college and a major donor. Too bad that she no longer has a great relationship with her father.
As the girls go through their first year, they become friends despite their differences, hanging out together often enough that they become known as the Whipple triplets after the dorm that they live in. Aubrey hero worships Kate in a way that Jenny finds disturbing, and that and family issues lead to her grades slipping significantly. Kate becomes the campus party girl, indulging in alcohol, drugs, and sex at the expense of her courses. Jenny is still the go getter, getting a part-time job in the provost's office and finding herself agreeing to something that she should know better than to do, but that she believes will lead to a better future for herself.
As the year goes on and the antics grow wilder, including a ill-fated spring break trip, things culminate in a tense scene at an abandoned railway bridge in the woods, and someone dies. What really happened that night is hushed up and the girls go their separate ways. But twenty years later, Jenny is the town mayor married to a local boy, Aubrey is a new age yoga teacher married to a less than loyal doctor, and Kate is back in town as a result of her husband's father being caught in financial fraud. And this time around the girls aren't so friendly with each other. This is a story more psychological than action-based, and definitely a who-done-it question on a death that occurs in the present world. With lots of twists and turns, and plenty of motives, you won't be sure who to believe.

How to Find Love in a Book Shop

Finished May 25
How to Find Love in a Book Shop by Veronica Henry

This romantic novel has a touch of sadness to it as well. Emilia has returned to the small Cotswold town of Peasebrook that she grew up in as her father Julius is dying. She grew up in an apartment over the bookstore, Nightingale Books that he ran. Emilia must now decide what to do. She always intended to run the bookstore some day, but she'd thought that day was far ahead of her. She knows that a local developer, Ian Mendip has his eye on the property to gain enough parking for the high end condos he is building just behind, but she really wants to keep it open.
The bookstore employees are all eager to put their skills to work to bring new life to the store, her best friend puts her accounting skills to work to sort out the financial confusion that Julius left behind, and a new acquaintance offers valuable assistance in rethinking the interior of the shop to draw in new trade. But Emilia has a big learning curve and Ian Mendip doesn't want to take no for an answer.
I liked the various characters that came into the story, from the cooking teacher and her protege, to the nearby estate owners come garden shop operators, and the small music group. There are lots of subplots, interesting personalities and more than one burgeoning romance. The power of books to connect is shown as well. A feel good read.

Montrose County

Finished May 23
Montrose County by Bill Greenwood

This thriller follows more than one set of characters, and includes a past timeline for one of them. The chapter headings helpfully give place of action and timeline, and the author also uses quick phrases to link events together between characters. The first character we see is a woman, Sabrina Murdoch, waking from a recurring dream she has related to the past. It's just a glimpse, and we move on to another set of charcters, very far away.
These are a pair of Canadian soldiers working as a remote commando force. Mike Buffalo and Brad Hall have worked together before, and are a good team. They are one of several sniper teams tracking Islamic State fighters, and so far the most successful in terms of hits. The drones that work with these units are operated out of Nellis AFB in Nevada, managed by Lt. Col. Tony Benedetto. As they check in after their hit, they are informed that satellite phones, satellite GPS, and drone coverage will not be available for the next day or so due to an expected solar flare. They are also asked to check on the ground result of a hit on a building where some type of meeting seemed to be happening.
The two capable men make their way by maps and orienteering to the specified site, But there they find something bigger and more disturbing than they would ever have guessed, and circumstances mean they have to use all their creativity and skill to convey what they found back to base.
The next group of people we see are some well-meaning American, intent on doing right by those less lucky in their life situation. Unfortunately, they are a bit too trusting, and in this case, people with bad ulterior motives have taken advantage of their kind hearts. Similar situations play out with other components needed for the planned crime.
Back to the first character, Sabrina, who works in the titled Montrose County in Colorado as a deputy. She has worked there for a couple of years. She has the duty of driving a prisoner over the courthouse. On the way over, she encounters a truck slightly damaged by an encounter with wildlife, and is faced with a situation that she finds difficult to deal with. When she makes it to Ouray, she has a moment to chat with a county deputy that she has begun a relationship with, Rick Sanchez.
We gradually learn of Sabrina's interactions with the locals, including an older rancher named Del and his wife. Del understands her and some of her baggage, because he is a Vietnam vet. At one point, we have a flashback to several years earlier to an intense firefight that Sabrina was involved in while in Iraq and we understand the source of her anxiety and dreams.
As we follow the events with Buffalo and Halls and with Murdoch and others in her area, we gradually move closer to the time of the planned crime, and the suspense builds.
I really enjoyed this thriller, and the way the author gradually revealed the characters to us, giving us a real sense of who they were. The use of humour, creativity, and military detail all made this book a page turner for me. Highly recommended.

Monday, 21 May 2018

A Higher Loyalty

Finished May 21
A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey

I wanted to read this book to see what Comey felt behind the role he held, and this book met that expectation. Comey tracks his career journey from its beginnings, and goes into detail on some of the cases or situations that he dealt with. The details increase as we grow closer to the present, specifically regarding the Hillary Clinton email investigation, and Comey's dealings with Trump. Nothing actually surprised me, and I understood Comey's reasons for doing what he did.
Comey knows that nobody is perfect, including himself, and he does talk about a few actions that he is ashamed of, and details the struggles he had to make some decisions, including often asking for input from others or advice from people he trusted.
He outlines his ideas of what a good leader looks like, and what things a leader must keep in mind to remain a good leader. He talks about ethics, and his personal take on that and how it led him to the career he chose. He also talks about his lifelong goal of helping people, of righting wrongs and bringing those who betray others to justice. Through examples, he shows how he tries to give people chances to redeem themselves, to choose a different path, and how some choose it and others don't.
He talks about his wife, and the strong relationship they have, and how they've dealt with the struggles that life has brought them.
I enjoyed the book, and feel I understand the author better as well.

The Reverend Guppy's Aquarium

Finished May 15
The Reverend Guppy's Aquarium: From Joseph P Frisbie to Roy Jacuzzi, How Everyday Items Were Named for Extraordinary People by Philip Dodd

This book was inspired by the curiosity of the author as he tracked down the story of the origin of a wide variety of items to their namesakes. Some of these you may have been aware of, others are less well known. Included here are:
* The frisbee
* The saxophone and other musical instruments
* The jacuzzi
* The biro
* Mesmerism and the guillotine
* The leotard
* Oscars and Tonys
* The dahlia, the freesia, the bougainvillea, the fuchsia, and the magnolia
* The G-spot
* The sandwich
* The Mercedes
* The silhouette
* The foxtrot
* Mavericks
* and, of course, guppys
For some he finds dubious myths about origin, others are well documented. And the reader learns a number of other interesting things along the way.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Sun Dog

Finished May 13
Sun Dog by Deborah Kerbel, illustrated by Suzanne Del Rizzo

This picture book is about Juno, a young husky who lives with a family near the Arctic Circle. Juno finds the endless days of the summer make it hard to settle down to sleep, and one night, she leaves the house in search of playmates. She finds only that she feels lonely without her boy, and vulnerable to those creatures who look for food during this time. When she returns to her house and finds danger there as well, the big dog that Juno knows exists inside her comes alive as she raises an alarm.
This is a lovely story of the connection between Juno and her boy, but also of the high Arctic days, and the animals who call that part of the world their home.
The illustrator of this book uses polymer clay as one element of the illustrations and I loved the effect. She brings alive Juno's playfulness (I particularly liked the picture with the sock) and the beautiful environment Juno and her boy live in. The flowers look so real, I wanted to smell them!
A great book, especially for youngsters with their own special dog.

Sarah's Key

Finished May 13
Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

This read was for my upcoming book club meeting. It is a WWII story of a young girl, ten years old, who is awakened early one July morning in 1942 by pounding on her apartment door. She wakes her mother, and tells her. They family isn't that worried as Sarah's father has been sleeping in the cellar after rumours of police seizing men have become widespread. This morning, however the police order Sarah's mother to pack a bag and also tell Sarah they will be taking her. When Sarah enters her bedroom to get clothes, and wake her younger brother, only 4, he refuses to go.
The children had a deep cupboard they often played in and hid from their parents in fun. He goes in there and Sarah locks him in, promising to come back later.
As the police shepherd the two from the building, Sarah's mother screams for her father, and he joins them. They are part of a roundup of Jews in Paris, in which busloads are taken to the Vel' d'Hiv'.
Sixty years later, Julia Jarmond, an American woman reporter, who has lived in Paris for twenty-five years, and married a Parisian, is assigned to do a story on the sixtieth anniversary of this horrible event. Julie hadn't heard of it before, and as she does research, she is horrified.
When she discovers that her husband's family has a connection to the event, she is determined to find out about the family that used to live in the apartment her husband's grandparents lived in.
As we follow Sarah's story in 1942, we also follow Julia's investigation into the past.
This is a novel of a fictional family, set around a true event, and a terribly sad one. This particular raid was enacted by Frenchmen on Nazi orders, men who did not protest acting against their fellow citizens. This is a novel that was written to help enlighten the people of today about their past, and look toward a future of truth and acknowledgement.

The Grave's a Fine and Private Place

Finished May 11
The Grave's a Fine and Private Place by Alan Bradley, read by Jayne Entwhistle

This is the ninth book in the series featuring Flavia de Luce. Flavia, her sisters, and Dogger have left the family home to fill their days, their home being a sad place at present. Her oldest sister is put out by having to delay her marriage, and all three are unhappy at their aunt's insistence that they move to London. Dogger has suggested the village of Volesthorpe as a distraction, and as the book begins they are slowing being rowed on the river. Flavia has one hand over the side, skimming the water, when the hand catches on something. She imagines it to be a fish, but on examination it proves that her hand is caught in the mouth of a young man, a dead young man.
When she draws Dogger's attention to it, they head for shore, bringing the body with them. And Flavia is engaged in another mystery, a distraction indeed. Once on shore, Dogger assigns Ophelia and Daphne a task to keep them looking out at the river, as he and Flavia move the body to a grassy bank. When Dogger goes off in search of the police, Flavia looks for clues, and finds a few, naturally. As the police arrive, along with the vicar, the family retreats to the nearby inn for lunch. There, the two older sisters bolster themselves with a pint of Guinness and Flavia and Dogger make plans to investigate further.
There are other distractions here including a circus with an aggressive woman owner, and a group of rowdies, an inn landlady with a hidden poetry habit, and a famous actress in her golden years. Flavia befriends a young boy who has done some experimenting of his own, and butts heads with the local police officer.
The sisters grow closer here, something that is nice to see. Flavia also begins a much closer relationship with Dogger, who is more forthcoming about his own knowledge and connections. This book moves in a new direction, but an interesting one it is.

Reservoir 13

Finished May 9
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

This book was recommended to me by Ben McNally, and although it wasn't what I expected, I really enjoyed it. The novel takes place in a small town in rural England. One winter, a teenage girl on holiday with her parents goes missing. A search is mounted, but the girl is not found. But activities for the inhabitants of the town go on, more or less as they had done before. As the book follows a variety of people who live there, who arrive their after this event, and who leave for various reasons, we see the life of a town and its people. The small secrets, the kindnesses and resentments, the family dynamics. We see the cycle of nature, year after year, and the events large and small.
I loved how each year was a chapter, and that while some scenes of interaction were included, so were straightforward descriptions of what happened.
One example
The summer had been wet but in September the skies cleared and the mud in the lanes was baked into thick-edged ruts. There were springtails under the beech trees behind the Close, burrowing and feeding on the fragments of fallen leaves, and somewhere deep in the pile a male laid a ring of sperm. A blackbird's nest was blown from the elder tree at the entrance to the Hunter place, the mud mortar crumbled and the grasses scattered as chaff. Tony produced an arrangement of hops for the Harvest Festival display, and it was certainly striking but there were some who felt the pungent smell was out of place in a church. Jones's sister was seen at the post office, buying packaging paper and string, and this was understood as some kind of breakthrough. Irene sometimes told people that Jones's sister had been at her wedding, and had been the very life and soul. Such a shame, what happened, she would say. As though anyone actually knew. On Sunday in the evening Brian and Sally Fletcher at a meal together. Brian grilled lamb chops and boiled potatoes while Sally made a salad. It was a rule they had, to make sure they did this. For most of the week they kept different hours, and communicated through notes on the kitchen table. This suited them both. They had come to marriage late, and were each comfortable in their own company. But they'd decided they should always eat together on a Sunday night. I don't want to go forgetting what you look like, Brian had said. A meal, and a conversation, and then settling down together to watch whatever was on television. It was something about a murder, on the whole. At the allotments Ruth was seen working alone, pulling handfuls of beans down from the overloaded canes. The leaves were covered in blackfly but this late in the season she wasn't concerned. It was food for the ladybirds at least. She was letting the courgettes mature to marrows because even if no one really liked cooking them they did look good in baskets outside the shop. They made people think of harvest festivals, and that made tem come into the shop and spend money. The blackberries were thick on the brambles growing up around the greenhouse, and she thumbed a few into her mouth each time she went past. There had been words with the allotment committee about the brambles. The matter was not yet settled. Her phone beeped, and when she read the text a smile opened on her face that she found herself hiding behind a berry-stained hand. She sat on the bench for a moment, watching the shadows lengthen across the valley and feeling the warmth and thinking carefully about her reply. 
shows both the close observation and the narrative distance that occurs throughout the book. It is as though the narrator observes moments and strings them together in a loose connection by time. My enjoyment with this book grew as it progressed. The missing girl comes up each year as people still think about her and wonder what happened to her. But life here goes on, as it must.

The Seven Rules of Elvira Carr

Finished May 7
The Seven Rules of Elvira Carr by Frances Maynard

I loved this story of a young woman forced by circumstances to become more independent and engage with the world on her own terms. As the book opens, Elvira (Ellie) is twenty-seven. Her mother has raised her in a very protective way, allowing her only specific, controlled forays outside the house. As the book begins, Ellie's mother suffers a debilitating stroke, and Ellie calls an ambulance for her. Left alone in the house, Ellie tries to keep to her schedule, but must introduce new activities such as visiting her mother in the hospital.
Without her mother, she finds that she has more time to spare and begins to explore the world more. One of the people that helps her in this is her next-door neighbour Sylvia, a woman with grown children of her own. As Ellie learns new things, and tries new activities, she finds herself better than expected at some things. Perserverence helps her manage goals that she sets for herself, and new friends help her enlarge her life experiences.
It was wonderful to see Ellie grow, despite some setbacks, and gain confidence, even pride in some of the things she did. As she tries to follow the rules that she initially set for herself, she finds examples of these, and exceptions to them, and learns that she must carefully think about things before acting on them.

If You Knew Her

Finished May 5
If You Knew Her by Emily Elgar

This suspense novel follows three characters. The first one we see is Cassie Jensen, as she is out late in the evening on a road near her home. She sees headlights coming towards her, and recognizes them. She tries to move quickly to a wider spot in the road, but can't before the car is upon her. As the book continues, we move into the past with Cassie and see what led to this moment.
The second character we see is Alice, a nurse in a special intensive care unit at a hospital. Alice has been at the hospital a few years, and really enjoys her job. She feels close to those in her care, working to understand them, so she can give them her best. Alice is married, and although she and her husband have tried to have children, they have been disappointed. Alice is trying to come to terms with this and go along with the plan to adopt.
The third character we see is Frank. Frank is one of Alice's patients, and he has been on her ward for a few weeks. Frank is a man who has struggled with addiction, who has let his life pull him down, and who was looking to a difficult future when he suffered a major stroke. The doctor on the ward believes that Frank is in a Permanent Vegatative State, and should soon be moved on to long term care home. Alice disagrees. She thinks she has seen something in Frank's eyes, despite his lack of response to anything. Alice, and the other nurses, talk to Frank as if he is aware, telling him about their world, and sometimes about their secrets.
Frank has also found that he can hear remarkably well, tuning into other conversations that take place on the ward. When Cassie is admitted to the ward, he takes an interest as she is right across from him. As Frank observes who is visiting Cassie and how they behave, Alice is also noticing some things. But, unfortunately, Frank cannot communicate his worries, and Alice is distracted by her own issues.
This is a story of people who aren't what they seem to be on the surface, people who have inner lives with hidden worries, and hidden agendas. A fantastic read.

Don't I Know You?

Finished May 4
Don't I Know You? by Marni Jackson

This novel follows a woman, Rose McEwan from the age of seventeen to middle age. Rose keeps having encounters with famous people. As it begins the encounters seem to fit into her life in a normal way. The first encounter is when Rose takes a summer creative-writing course and John Updike (a young man at the time) is the instructor. A few years later, backpacking around Europe with her boyfriend, she encounters Joni Mitchell when camping in caves near a small Greek town. The encounters are generally pleasant ones, with the celebrities coming across as normal people. As the book moved forward though, the celebrities began to be doing things that you wouldn't expect them to do and meet up with other celebrities that seem unlikely.
As the book got stranger, I began to enjoy it less. Jackson certainly has an imagination, but I found myself unable to suspend disbelief after a certain point. It was also at this point that the plot disappeared for me.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Before We Were Yours

Finished May 3
Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

This novel is inspired by real events. The general historical story is true, but the characters in this book are not. However what happened to the historical characters here really happened to people and is a part of history that needs to be brought to light.
This novel has two timelines. One begins in 1939 and takes place mostly in Tennessee. It is the story of a poor family, who lived on a riverboat. Rill is the oldest child in the family and the narrator, and as her story begins, her mother Queenie is in labour. The labour is a difficult one, and the midwife says that it is beyond her skills. As Rill convinces her father Briney to take her mother to the hospital, she is left in charge of her younger siblings: Camellia, Fern, Lark, and her toddler brother Gabion. This family is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the children end up being taken from the boat under false pretences, and brought to an orphanage. Because most of this family is blond, they are more highly prized than some of their fellow victims.
As we see the terrible actions and conditions at the orphanage, and learn of the tactics involved, we understand and Rill, try as hard as she can, will not be able to keep her family together.
The true story of the society woman Georgia Tann, and her children's homes, which was supported by those in power for years, and had assistance from social agencies and lawmakers, is a terrible one. Hundreds of children were taken from their homes, and communities. Some were taken walking to school, some from their homes directly, but all were taken to group homes where they were abused, fed inadequately, and separated from their siblings. Many had loving parents that had no chance to recover their children against the powerful woman who had stolen them.
As Rill tries to fight for her siblings, and another young boy taken at the same time, she learns fear and distrust, and yearns for her river life.
In the present, another young woman, Avery Stafford, a lawyer and daughter of a senator in South Carolina, is home to support her father who is fighting a cancer diagnosis, and accusations of other types. Avery also takes the opportunity to visit her grandmother Judy, who has been placed in a secure care home as dementia gradually takes away her knowledge of the world around her. After a chance encounter with another nursing home resident, Avery begins to dig into both that woman's past and her own grandmother's to find out what connects the two.
This is a story that brings another sad historical experience to light, in a way that lets the reader experience the heartache and loss that these victims dealt with.
Highly recommended.

The Life She Was Given

Finished May 2
The Life She Was Given by Ellen Marie Wiseman

This historical fiction work has two timelines. The earlier one starts in the summer of 1931 at a horse farm in the state New York. Lilly Blackwood is nine years old, and is aching, as she often does, to leave her small attic room for the world beyond. Lilly has lived in this room all her life, being told that it is for her own protection, as others would attack and hurt or kill her if they saw her. She isn't allows to eat with her parents, and must abide by her mother's strict rules.
Her father has broken some of them. He has taught her to read, and he has supplied her with books besides the Bible that her mother has her study daily. Occasionaly he lets Lilly out to the attic room beside her own, to allow her to stretch her legs and walk more. But he has never let her go elsewhere in the house, and she only sees the horses the farm raises through her small barred window.
Her father has also given her a cat, one she has had since she was three. The cat is the only creature who gives her love and who touches her affectionately.
Now, Lilly has noticed a circus in the field beyond the barn, and wonders what lovely things they have. When her mother comes to her room one night after she has gone to bed, and insists that she dress nicely for a private trip to the circus, Lilly can't believe it. Lilly's father is away, but she is told that he is waiting at the circus.
But Lilly's world is about to change drastically, and as she gradually realizes that night, her mother has no intention of bringing her home again.
The second storyline begins in 1956, with a young woman named Julia. Julia Blackwood has left home after her father's death and an argument with her mother, but now finds that her mother has died as well, leaving her to inherit the property. As Julia moves back home, and begins to explore the house she grew up in, looking at rooms she wasn't allowed into, she also finds a lot of questions. What is the strange room in the attic about? Who is the strange girl in the clippings that her father has kept in his office?
As the storylines begin to converge, we discover a tale of terrible cruelty, of abuse and neglect, of secrets and lies. This is a story of terrible betrayal and of abuse in many forms. and of a woman learning to move beyond her past.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

The Midnight Line

Finished April 30
The Midnight Line by Lee Child, read by Dick Hill

The latest Jack Reacher novel has Reacher travelling on the first bus out, north to Wisconsin. At a rest stop, when Reacher takes a walk, he sees a West Point class ring in a pawn shop window. For reasons he can't entirely explain, he is drawn to track down the person who owned the ring. But not everyone wants to talk, so it often needs some persuasion to find the next link in the chain leading back to her, because the ring is so small, he knows that it is a her.
After a couple of people in the small town the pawn shop is in, the trail leads back to Rapid City, South Dakota, where Reacher finds that he isn't the only one interested in the local link in the chain. There are both local law enforcement, and a private investigator showing interest as well.
As Reacher moves on, to the wild and lonely hills of Wyoming, he finds both unexpected allies, and a much bigger problem than he anticipated.
As always, I enjoy Reacher for both his actions, the lively plot, and his inner thought processes. This is the first book where I've seen him make a serious mistake, and have inner questioning of his actions, and I found that very interesting.
I also like how Child takes on bigger societal issues, and the issues here are real. To me, this book had a similar feel to the twelfth book in the series, Nothing to Lose. As always, there is a woman who figures largely, and this one is a fascinating character. Loved it.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Clara Voyant

Finished April 28
Clara Voyant by Rachelle Delaney

This children's novel features middle school student Clara Costa. Clara is in her first year of middle school, and has just moved from living with her mom and grandmother near High Park, to an apartment with her mom in Kensington Village. Her grandmother, Elaine, has retired to Florida, and Clara misses her a lot. Her grandmother was a no-nonsense woman with lots of rules and strong opinions. Clara's mom, Gaby, had recently finished a college program in herbalism, and got a job managing a herbal remedies shop, that came with an upstairs apartment. Clara isn't sure about the new neighbourhood, and for sure doesn't believe in all the new age stuff her mom is into. She's also not keen on her mom's new friends who hold seances, and specialize in haunted real estate.
But there are some good things too. She has a new best friend named Maeve, so seems to like her mom's ideas, and is supportive of Clara's journalism goals. Clara has garnered a spot on the reporting team of the school paper, although she would definitely like a more challenging assignment than reporting on school clubs. And the guacamole at the restaurant across the street is the best ever.
When Clara gets assigned to write a new horoscope feature though, she isn't happy, nor is she thrilled with the new pen name that goes with it.
But as Clara diligently completes her assignment, she finds that she seems to be getting things right, and when she secretly takes on a investigative story, things get even more interesting.
This is a story about growing up, learning more about oneself, and discovering that change can come to people at any age. A fun read.

Less

Finished April 27
Less by Andrew Sean Greer

I picked up this novel when I saw it had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year. The novel follows Arthur Less, a man who is nearly fifty, and is wanting to avoid going to the wedding of his recent lover. Arthur had had a long term relationship with an older man, Robert Brownburn, that started when he was twenty-one. Brownburn was a famous poet, and he encouraged Arthur to write as well. Arthur has had some success, but nothing like Brownburn.
In the fifteen or so years since his breakup with Brownburn he'd lived alone, having a series of lovers, including a nine-year relationship with Freddy Pelu, the nephew of Carlos Pelu, a man he's always had a sort-of competition with. Arthur doesn't feel up to attending Freddy's wedding, but he knows that if he just doesn't go, there will be much talk.
Noticing an invitation in his email, he suddenly decides that he will accept all the invitations to speak, go to awards ceremonies, teach seminars, and take on overseas assignments that he can, so that he can legitamately say that he is out of the country.
As we follow Arthur from his home in San Francisco, to New York City, Mexico City, Turin, Berlin, Morocco (a legitimate vacation), India, and Japan, we watch him leave his comfort zone, and experience life in ways he hadn't expected he could. We also watch as he begins to realize things about himself.
This a book that has humour, insight, and a great story. Loved it.


Things To Do When It's Raining

Finished April 26
Things To Do When It's Raining by Marissa Stapley

This novel was inspired by the author's grandmother's history. It is a story that draws on some of the elements of her grandmother's life for inspiration, but it is not a story of her grandmother.
There are multiple storylines here. One is the story of Mae Summers, a young woman who has been living in New York City, and has recently discovered that her fiance was not the man he thought she was, and who feels guilt about not picking up on some of the clues to just what was happening. Nearly broke, and with no place to live, she decides to return to Alexandria Bay, the small upstate town she grew up in. Mae was raised by her maternal grandparents, after her parents died when she was a young child. Her grandparents ran an inn there.
Another storyline is that of Gabe Broadbent, also from Alexandria Bay. Gabe was raised by his father after his mother ran off, and his father had issues. Soon after Mae's parents died, her grandparents also took on Gabe's upbringing, although he still had regular contact with his dad.
A rift between Gabe and Mae's family, created by her grandparents' reaction to something has led Gabe to a new life elsewhere. Now that his marriage has ended, he is at loose ends. When he gets a call about his father's precarious health, he realizes that he can do his freelance graphic work anywhere, and he goes back upstate to see what is up with his dad.
Mae's grandparents are also undergoing some changes. A thoughtless slip by her grandmother has led to her grandfather leaving the inn and staying at a nearby motel. But her grandmother is keeping a secret, one that she really should tell, but that she is in denial about, waiting for confirmation on.
As these stories converge, and we see back into Mae's grandparents' story, and the story of both Mae's parents and Gabe's parents, we become more aware of the power of narratives.
The title is based on a list created by Mae's mother when she was a teenager, a list of things for guests of the inn to do when it is raining. The ideas from that are wide-ranging, and show the sense of fun her mother had.
This is a story of families, both blood and otherwise, and about the power of choice.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

McSweeney's 41

Finished April 24
McSweeney's 41 edited by Dave Eggers

The collection of writing here varies widely in nature and setting. Some focus on the characters, such as the first story River Camp, where we have two men, brothers-in-law with very different outlooks on life, who have agreed to take a trip together in the wilderness. Their guide is a real character, and the two men don't exactly get along. The reader sees how they react to a difficult situation, each in their own way.
Another story, American Tall Tale is based on the folk tale of Paul Bunyan, but definitely takes the plot in a direction I hadn't anticipated.
There is also nonfiction included here, such as A Land Rush in Iran, where the author takes a closer look at the changes to one neighbourhood in Tehran over time. Another nonfiction inclusion, What Happens After Sixteen Years in Prison, looks at two sisters convicted for a crime they didn't commit, facing a troubling future when they are finally freed.
Another character-focused story is The Wolf and the Wild, where a man sentenced to community service finds real satisfaction in one of his assignments, but finds that others involved in the project aren't really interested in his ideas.
Stay Where You Are involves a situation with a couple who are traveling and get taken into the forest by a gunman. We see inside their thoughts about the situation and about their crumbling relationship.
Some stories, like Afternoon Street, feel surreal, like we are inside the mind of someone mentally ill or under the influence of something.
The main character in Robot Sex is an advanced robot working an office job and dealing with loneliness.
The book ends with four stories, each by a different Australian Aboriginal author. I think I enjoyed these the most.

Monday, 23 April 2018

You're the Only One I Can Tell

Finished April 17
You're the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women's Friendships by Deborah Tannen, read by the author

This book continues to look at communication, as Tannen's previous books have, this time focusing on women's friendships. She looks at all types of friendships, from intimate to casual, similar in age to cross-generational, with other women and with men.
Mostly she focuses on friendships between women, but she also looks at those instances where women identified men as their closest friend and how those relationships were similar or dissimilar to those whose closest friendships were with women.
She looked at one on one friendship but also group friendship, and she looked at the nature of friendship, from those one can truly be oneself with, to those that required playing a certain role. In a few cases, she even looked at culture and how that affects friendships.
She has done a lot of research, but what I always enjoy about her books are the examples, where she actually looks at real life friendships up close.
Some things that I found fascinating was the fears that attach themselves to some friendship situations, that she describes as FOBLO (Fear of Being Left Out) and FOGKO (Fear of Getting Left Out) that can mean that we hide part of ourselves to fit in.
I don't have a lot of close friends, and I have old friends that I'm seldom in touch with, friends who've set limits on what kind of friendship they want from me (scaling back intimacy to the acquaintance level), and friends I can instantly pick up with after a long separation.
Interestingly, I've become both more careful in who I share some personal information with, and more open about some aspects of my life. And Tannen found all of these behaviours in her research. I really enjoyed learning more about the nature of friendship and about using that learning to look at my own relationships.

Friday, 20 April 2018

An Odyssey

Finished April 16
An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn

This memoir encompasses a few months in Mendelsohn's life, with forays into his life at earlier times, and reflections on this time later. Shortly before the spring semester when Daniel was going to be teaching an undergraduate seminar on The Odyssey, his father, eighty-one at the time, asked to sit in on the course. Daniel is a writer and a classics scholar. His father, had worked first for Grumman, an aerospace corporation, and then as a computer science professor, but he took pride in the fact that he had studied Latin as a young man.
His father travelled in from his home on Long Island weekly that spring to participate in the course, and shortly after, when Daniel was discussing the experience with one of his mentors, she suggested a cruise that was being offered that summer that traced the route of Odysseus' journey. When Daniel mentioned it to his father, his dad was enthusiastic, and so they went.
This book traces both the disussion of the book in the seminar and the corresponding personal conversations he had with his father, and the time on the cruise that corresponded to that part of the story. It also describes the author's feelings and experience around his father's illness and death soon after this trip.
This is a very personal memoir of a father-son relationship that had its difficulties, but also moments of great intimacy. My reading of the Odyssey occured more than thirty years ago, but this brought my enjoyment of that story back to me.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning

Finished April 11
The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter by Margareta Magnusson

So, your first question is probably, "what is death cleaning?" Death cleaning is something a person does, often when they are getting on in years, but sometimes at other stages of life. It is going through your possessions to reduce what you have to what you need and use. It is not about minimalism, but about use. And it is about doing this so that when your time comes, and the people you care about are dealing with the loss of you, they don't have to also deal with a mountain of stuff. It is about giving things away to people who need them, about being around to see them enjoy those things. It is about taking a hard look at your stuff and thinking about what you actually need or really enjoy having.
This short book has good advice, lots of humour, and a bit of philosophy. Magnusson is an artist, and as she says, used to having her creations leave her. She talks about her own experiences getting rid of people's possessions after they die, including with her mother and her husband. She acknowledges the difficulties that may arise, and suggests a variety of ways to deal with them.
Magnusson describes herself as somewhere between eighty and a hundred, and she's got experience that we can take advantage of. A practical book by someone who enjoys the experiences of life, rather than the accumulation of possessions.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Roughneck

Finished April 8
Roughneck by Jeff Lemire

This graphic novel is set in a small town in northern Ontario. Derek Ouelette was a major league hockey player, of the type commonly described as a goon. He is back in his home town after causing an injury in a move driven by anger in a game. Derek drinks too much, and lives a bit rough, and doesn't have a lot of friends. He still tends to erupt in violence when he gets angry.
But when his younger sister Beth also returns to town, he must change to accommodate her needs. Beth has left an abusive boyfriend, one who is also in the drug trade.
As Beth struggles to get past her addiction and move on to a new life, Derek must also change. We learn about their parents, and the influence that those parents had on them, both good and bad. As they now realize that they don't know much about their mother's family, they are interested in discovering more about her native background, particularly Beth.
This is a story of finding the support and strength to start again, to learn from mistakes and become a better person.
Lemire's books are always drawn with skill, and this is no exception. I loved the illustrations and how they added to the characterization.

Ben and the Scaredy-Dog

Finished April 8
Ben and the Scaredy-Dog by Sarah Ellis, Illustrated by Kim LaFave

This book is part of a series of picture books featuring the young boy Ben. Ben has two older siblings: a sister, Robin; and a brother, Joe. He is at first interested when he sees a new family moving in across the street, especially when he sees a child his own age. But when he sees their dog, he isn't as interested.
That is because Ben is afraid of dogs. He sees their big mouths and their teeth, and doesn't want to be around them. But the new family comes over to visit and brings the dog, Max, and then the new girl, Erv, invites Ben over to play with her Lotsablox.
Ben is worried about this because the dog will likely be loose inside the house, and Robin reassures him, giving him a phrase to say to himself when he feels fearful of the dog and tells him to think positive thoughts, "Big Brave Ben" is the phrase. He finds that the visit isn't as bad as he expects, because Max is afraid of the shiny floors and is sitting on a small rug. But when Erv has to go to another room for a bit, and Ben is alone with the dog, his fear returns, and he does as Robin suggested and thinks positive thoughts. When he things he hears the dog move behind him, he begins to hum. And when the dog comes closer, he finds it is a different experience than the one he feared. And he begins to find that Max isn't that scary after all.
I loved the drawings here. They really made the story come to life. And the story is a nice one, especially if you have a youngster who has some fears of dogs. This book could help.

The Bear and the Nightingale

Finished April 8
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

This book, the first in a trilogy, is set in northern Russia in the fourteenth century. Pyotr Vladimirovich is the boyar, lord, of the area, and he married a mysterious woman whose mother supposedly showed up in Moscow under strange circumstances, and married Ivan I of Moscow. Her name was Marina Ivanovna, and while she did not have her mother's powers, she was still a woman with a knowledge of magic. Marina and Pyotr have several children, including a girl, Olga, but as the book begins, Marina is pregnant with another girl, a girl who will have certain powers in the old magic, who she names Vasilisa, Vasya for short. Marina died following the birth, and her old nurse Dunya raised her and the other children, Sasha, Kolya, Olga and Alyosha. Dunya know the old tales, and told them often around the kitchen stove in the evenings.
Vasya grew to be a wild child, often with animals or in the nearby forest, gathering herbs. She sees and talks with the local spirits, both those of the house and stables, and those of nature. Vasya also finds that she has learnt the language of some animals, such as the horses. As the children grow, Pyotr decides to make a trip to Moscow, to sell, trade, take gifts to the rules, and find a husband for Olga. He takes along his two oldest sons, Sasha and Kolya.
They see many things and experience some unusual happenings. Sasha discovers a future for himself, and the Grand Prince has Pyotr take a woman for his new wife, along with choosing a husband for Olga. The new wife, Anna Ivanovna wished a different life for herself, and has a strong Christian faith. Shortly after, there is another addition to the household, the new priest, Father Konstantin Nikonovich, a painter of icons. He has been sent by the Metropolitan, the head of the church, and has also dreamed of a different life.
As the village grows more Christianized, the old magic is seen as evil by many, and the spirits grow weaker. And this change also has implications, both for the village and its people, and for Pyotr's family.
A fascinating tale with a fascinating setting. I loved the folktales woven into the story.

The Good Liar

Finished April 7
The Good Liar by Catherine McKenzie

This novel begins with a terrible event that took place in downtown Chicago. One of the main characters in the book, Cecily is going to meet her husband Tom at his work when the building he is working in has an explosion. Cecily comes out of the subway to witness the event. A photographer captures her image, and she ends up becoming the poster child for the horrible event. More than 500 people were killed in the explosion and its aftermath, and more than 2000 injured.
The book then moves to a time approaching a year later. Cecily is on the advisory board of the organization that disperses the money raised for victims of the tragedy. Another member of this board is Franny, a young woman who was adopted as an infant, but discovered her birth mother shortly before the explosion. Her birth mother was a good friend of Cecily, who worked for the same company as Tom.
Another person working in the building was a good friend of Cecily's, who was also the mother of two young girls. Cecily has two teenage children of her own, Cassie and Will, and has remained strong for them. As the anniversary approaches, the man who photographed Cecily, Teo, is now involved in making a documentary around the tragedy, focusing on some of the families, including Cecily's.
Meanwhile, another woman, Kate, is hundreds of miles away in Montreal, working as a nanny and trying to create a new life. Kate has been hiding her connection to the event in Chicago, and is dreading the media coverage of the anniversary.
Both women, Kate and Cecily, have secrets that they fear coming to light, as we gradually learn about them and what they are hiding, we learn that there are others with secrets as well.
This was a book I found hard to put down, and definitely recommended.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

He's Gone

Finished March 30
He's Gone by Deb Caletti

This novel begins with Dani Keller waking up on her houseboat in Seattle one morning to find her husband not there. At first she assumes that he went out for coffee and the paper, but as the day goes on, she begins to worry.
The night before, the couple had been to a work event for her husband's company. As he was one of the co-founders, Ian insisted on her dressing to a certain image he had, and her discomfort with the expectations placed on her and the social situation meant that she overmedicated herself and has hazy memories of the evening, especially towards the end.
As the police become involved, and Ian's daughters from his first marriage start to make accusations, Dani finds herself more and more worried about what happened that evening.
Did Ian come home with her? She thinks so, but can't remember specifics. They've been having some problems lately, and certainly weren't the loving couple people thought they were lately. Ian has been increasingly critical of Dani, and easier to anger, and Dani hasn't been happy.
This is a story that looks hard at a relationship, its origins, its growth, and its issues.

Smashed

Finished March 28
Smashed by Lisa Luedeke

This teen novel follows Katie Martin in her senior year of high school. She's a star on her field hockey team and hoping for a scholarship to be able to attend university. She's also dealing with a recently broken family.
After an argument between her parents, her father drives off, and never returns. Her mom is a nurse in nearby Portland, Maine, and working as many shifts as she can to make ends meet. The novel starts in the summer, and Katie is working as a swim instructor at the nearby lake in the mornings, and at the local ice cream place later in the day. Her best friend Cassie is away in Europe for the summer, and her other friend Matt is also busy working.
When the football star, Alec, from school shows up to work nearby and starts to show an interest in Katie, she isn't sure what to think. He seems a lot nicer than he was in school, and interested in what she has to say, but what is his real motive in doing her favours?
Katie resents that her mother is never home, often staying at her boyfriend's place in town rather than drive home late at night after work. Katie's little brother Will is a good kid, and he and Katie get along well, but her commitments mean that he spends a lot of time at his best friend's place.
In trying to escape her problems, Katie makes a few bad decisions and finds herself owing Alec and bigger favour than she is comfortable with, especially when the costs of that favour start coming due.
When school starts up, Katie throws herself into her practices, working hard to do well enough to get the attention of university coaches. But her struggles continue, as do her bad choices, and this time she may not be able to avoid the costs.
A novel that deals with a lot of teen issues, and a great first novel.

The Prisoner of Snowflake Falls

Finished March 28
The Prisoner of Snowflake Falls by John Lekich

This teen novel begins with 15-year-old Henry Holloway living in a treehouse as he tries to find a way to survive on his own while his Uncle Andy is in jail. Henry's mom wanted him to stay away from the life of crime his uncle led, but when she died and Henry moved into the boarding house his uncle ran, it was a bit more difficult.
He uncle's friends and boarders were also criminals and many of them took Henry under their wing, teaching him the skills they used in their crimes. Henry tried to stay clean, but living on his own has made that difficult.
His uncle believes he is staying with a family, and Henry doesn't want him to worry. Instead Henry enters the houses in the neighbourhood he lives in, taking only what he needs, and often doing some chores for the people that he sees need doing when he is in their houses.
When he is caught inside one of the houses, however, his story is blown, and he is sent before a judge. The Judge looks at the circumstances, and makes a recommendation that Henry go to a small town in northern Vancouver Island where he lives with a family, goes to school, has a job, and is expected to follow a set of rules.
The family is one that presents a few issues, the first being that Henry has to share a room with a precocious toddler Oscar. There is also a girl in the family, Charlotte, who is a bit of a know-it-all who tries to run his life.
He deflects the first overture of friendship that is put to him, but soon finds that may have been a bad move. As Henry gradually finds his place in this community and in the Henderson family home, he meets some interesting characters.
From the wealthy vision-challenged Harry Wingate, who Henry serves as a volunteer reader to, to the dog Popcorn who chases him as he delivers newspapers, there are situations that Henry has to find a way to deal with.
Just as he is comfortable in his new life, some people from his past show up, and things get more difficult again.

A Troublesome Boy

Finished March 28
A Troublesome Boy by Paul Vasey

This book follows the young Teddy Clemson as he is sent to a distant boarding school/reform school after a letter home about him being "troublesome." Teddy's parents have separated and his father isn't present in his life. Instead, his mother's new husband has been making the decisions about Teddy's future and, since he doesn't like Teddy, sending him away suits him well.
Teddy's new school is St. Ignatius Academy for Boys, knows as St. Iggy's. It is in northern Ontario, near the town of Belleview, and is run by Catholic priests and monks. When Teddy gets off the bus in Belleview, he is hungry and first heads to the diner he sees, where he is greeted in a friendly manner by Rita and Freddy. After his mean, he follows their directions to the school.
He is met by Father Stewart, the principal, who goes over a few things before having Brother Wilbur take him up to his dorm room. As the next few days pass, Teddy gets to know who the other teachers at the school are. They include Father Prince, a man who makes the boys nervous; Brother Joe, who sleeps outdoors most of the time and likes nature; and Father Sullivan, who seems to have quite a temper.
Teddy also gets to know the other boys, and becomes friends with another new boy, Tim Cooper, who has spent most of his life in foster care.
One gets the sense right away that this school isn't a happy place to be. When Teddy is shown a "time out room," a room with no lights or windows, a single straight chair and no handle on the inside of the door, he begins to understand the nature of the school. Even the boys who are not Catholic have to attend chapel in the mornings before breakfast, and their is a worse punishment room than the time out rooms, a place referred to as the dungeon.
The callous disrespect for basic human kindness, and the anger, violence, and abuse that many of the teachers perpetuate is one familiar to those of us who've read about residential schools.
The author, Vasey, survived a school similar to this one, and that experience served as an inspiration for this story.

Swimming to Elba

Finished March 27
Swimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone, translated by Antony Shugaar

This novel surprised me by being quite different from what I expected. It centers on Anna and Francesca, two barely teen girls in a poor area of Piombino, Italy, just across from Elba. The girls live on the Via Stalingrad in one of a group of apartment buildings.
The girls are just becoming aware of their sexuality and the power it brings. Anna lives with her mother, Sandra, who works outside the home and is a social activist; her father Alessio, who has lots of charm and is always looking for a way to make a fast buck; and her older brother Mattia, who works at the local ironworks and is a very good looking young man.
Francesca lives with her father Enrico, a man with a strong temper, a limited intellect, and a suspicious nature; and her mother Rosa, a meek woman who puts up with a lot.
Anna and Francesca are the prettiest and most popular girls in their age group, and Anna is often doted on by the older girls interested in her brother. She is aware of Francesca's difficult home life, but doesn't really know how to help.
As we see the girls through one summer and into the next school year, we see how the changes affecting their lives also brings change to their relationship.
Because of the environment and social class, this is different from other books I've read about girls this edge. Life is more difficult, and more uncertain for these girls.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper

Finished March 26
The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaera Patrick

This novel begins with Arthur Pepper, a widower in his sixties, finally tackling get rid of his late wife's personal effects a year after her death. As he goes through everything, he comes across a small heart shaped locked box that he doesn't remember having ever seen before. Arthur was a locksmith before he retired, so picking the lock is not a big deal for him. Inside the box he finds an old-fashioned gold bracelet with several charms on it and a heart-shaped clasp. He doesn't remember ever seeing his wife Miriam wearing the bracelet, but wonders at it and the charms. The charms are an elephant with a green gemstone, a tiger, a thimble, a painter's palette, a heart, a flower, and a ring. As he looks more closely at the elephant, wondering what the jewel is, he notices some markings on it. He manages to decipher the markings as a long number, and determines that it seems to be a phone number, one in India.
Acting on the spur of the moment, Arthur decides to call the number, and finds out from a man in India that Miriam lived there as a young woman, and that the elephant is indeed from there, and the gem is a real emerald. As he learns from the man some information about his wife's time in India, he begins to wonder what else he didn't know about his wife, and what significance and origin the other charms on the bracelet have.
As Arthur reaches out from his self-imposed routine, he finds out more about Bernadette, the neighbour who has been dropping off food, and helpful information since his wife's death. As he accepts some help from her, he also meets her son Nathan, and after a rocky start with the young man, finds more in him than he first guessed.
Arthur's daughter Lucy who lives nearby visits him from time to time, but she didn't attend Miriam's funeral, something that he has never understood. As we discover Lucy's reasons behind this event, and we learn more about her struggles, so does Arthur, and he begins a new and deeper relationship with his daughter. His son Dan hasn't been home in years after emigrating to Australia and starting a family there, and Arthur is sad about the lack of a real relationship with him as well.
This book shows that people are often more complex than we realize, and we often don't know as much as we think about even those closest to us. It also shows that loss of a partner doesn't mean that that one can't find new reasons to enjoy life.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Let's Get Lost

Finished March 25
Let's Get Lost by Adi Alsaid

This teen novel starts with a young woman, Leila, stopping at a small garage in Vicksburg to get her car, an old, red Plymouth Acclaim, tuned up before a major road trip. The mechanic is a young man about her own age, in his last year of high school. His name is Hudson. Hudson is a very skilled mechanic, who learned from his own father, and although not that experienced with girls, feels both drawn to Leila, and very comfortable with her. It would seem that she feels the same way, a connection neither can describe very well, but each feels. After the car is ready, the two continue the day together, despite Hudson having a major commitment the following morning.
As the two part, and Leila continues on her trip north to Alaska to see the Northern Lights, Leila takes Hudson's philosophical view to heart, and takes a less than direct route, open to new experiences.
The next person we see her connect with is a young homeless woman named Bree, who she picks up hitchhiking near Kansas City. Bree has a story of loss and rebellion, and is a major risk taker. When their escapades get them in trouble, Leila convinces Bree to reach out to those who care and reconnect. As Bree moves to the next stage of her life, Leila continues her roadtrip.
She almost literally runs into Elliot in Minneapolis, as he struggles with unexpected rejection, and Leila brings him insight into his situation, causing him to take more chances despite the possibilities of failure.
As Leila makes her way through British Columbia, she encounters Sonia, another lost soul, a young woman who's known love and loss, and struggles now with how to move on with respect for everyone she cares about. As their adventures take them back and forth across the border, they encounter some very interesting people, and each finds a way forward.
Leila's arrival at her destination finally brings her own story of loss to the reader. We see her connect with those around her, and know that she has people who care about her, even though she has lost a lot. We see her as she finds both what she was looking for, and less than that, and, returning home, learns that many of her instincts are very good ones indeed.
My niece, who read this after me, loved the book.

The Wolves of Winter

Finished March 23
The Wolves of Winter by Tyrell Johnson

This is book is set in the near future, in a world ravaged by war and disease. Lynn, short for Gwendolyn, lives in the woods in the Yukon with her mother, brother, uncle, and the son of her uncle's best friend. She is in her early twenties, and an accomplished outdoorswoman and bow hunter. Her father was a biologist, who had worked in Chicago for the federal government, but left shortly after the wars began. The family moved to Alaska, where her uncle lived, and as the wars grew worse, and then the deadly flu began to spread, they made plans to leave the town of Eagle for the wilderness. Before this could happen, Lynn's father died from the flu. She was sixteen. Her uncle Jeryl convinced her mom, a school librarian, to join him in their trek away from town, and they travelled to the wilderness of the Yukon forests with a few guns and ammunition, some farm animals, some seeds, and other supplies for survival.
They've found a spot near a river, and build a few log homes and a small garden, and have managed to survive with the help of a small garden, and hunting. There is another man, Conrad, who showed up a few years ago, and lives a few miles away, but his behaviour has created animosity, and he is only tolerated as a neighbour.
Shortly after the book begins, Lynn comes across another stranger, a man and a dog, while out hunting, and brings them back to her camp for a meal, and to get news. Jax is both a source of outside news, and a threat to the various members of the camp, and when it turns out that he has secrets that will put them in danger, the mundane, boring life that Lynn has been leading changes drastically.
As Jax and Lynn's group learn more about each other, they find that their lives have been linked before. A great adventure tale.