Saturday, 30 May 2020

Under a Silent Moon

Finished May 24
Under a Silent Moon by Elizabeth Haynes

This is the first book in a series featuring DCI Louisa Smith. The author is police intelligence analyst and she brings that viewpoint to the book, using various pieces of documentation to show the casework that is happening here, which brought a really interesting and novel aspect to the book.
The case here is Louisa's first as the commanding officer, and she is determined to do it right. She is disappointed in the DI assigned to her team, a man that she has a past with and who doesn't always act in the most professional manner. One of the key players on her team is Jason, the analyst who is the one that puts together the various bits and pieces of information to show patterns and timelines. He is Canadian which was of natural interest to me, but his nationality isn't a big part of the story. Louisa's team is made up of a number of interesting people, and we get only glimpses of most of them. I look forward to more books in the series showing them in more depth.
The case here is of a young woman found murdered in her home. She was working on a horse farm and lived in a cottage on the grounds. Her employer discovered her body and called the police. There are a lot of things going on around this young woman, who led a very open sexual life, with multiple partners and a good deal of experimentation. Many of her past and present lovers are looked at here, including the artist daughter of her employer. One of her employers is also involved in organized crime and has been the subject of many an investigation but never convicted. He is an obvious suspect as well, but the team is also keeping an eye out for evidence to do with his broader activities.
Another woman died the same night as the murder, seemingly in an act of suicide, with her car found upside down in a quarry nearby. She lived with her husband just across the road from the farm, and early in the case the team is able to make a connection to the young woman.
I really enjoyed seeing this case unfold, the mistakes that were made, the way that Louisa wasn't jumping at the obvious but trusting her instincts that more was happening here. A good read.

When Stars Are Scattered

Finished May 23
When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

This children's graphic novel for older kids tells the story of Omar and his younger brother Hassan. The two are refugees from Somalia. Omar was with his father in the fields of their farm when some men came to talk to his father and he saw his father killed. He knew his mother was coming with the lunch for them, and ran to meet her. She had Hassan with her, and she left the two, telling them to go home and she would come back for them. But she never did. One of their older female neighbours took the two young boys with the rest of the people fleeing the village, and the boys eventually made it to the refugee camp in Kenya that they are living in as the book begins.
They were both malnourished and ill, but have recovered. They live in a hut across from the hut of an older woman, Futuma, who has been assigned to be their foster mother. Hassan is developmentally disabled in an undefined way. He is a mostly cheerful and friendly boy, who has had occasional seizures, and who only speaks one word: Hooyo. It is not until near the end of the book that you understand the significance of this one word.
Omar is very protective of his brother, who can be the target of others, and here he gradually finds himself able to leave Hassan with Fatuma during the day and go to school with his friends. He hopes at first to return to his farm, and eventually sets his sights on a different, more possible future. The support of his best friend, Fatuma, teachers, and social workers help him to find a way forward and a new life for himself.
This is a good book to show the realities of life in a refugee camp and the barriers that must be overcome to make it out of the camp to a more hopeful future.

How to Pronounce Knife

Finished May 20
How to Pronounce Knife by  Souvankham Thammavongsa

This collection of stories encompasses many voices from children to older adults, men and women, all Laotian immigrants finding they way in their world.
The author is a winner of the O. Henry Prize and her writing is stunning. I picked up to get a taste of her writing for a book discussion I was doing and couldn't put it down.
These are voices not heard often enough, voices of those who move through our community unseen, voices who are overlooked, dismissed, denigrated, and ignored.
The people in these stories come here because their home country is in chaos, and though they work hard, they don't find themselves accepted in the dominant culture of our country. From worm pickers to factory workers, children making friends to adults in relationships, they are set apart, mostly through the choices of others.
An amazing collection. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 21 May 2020

The Tender Bar

Finished May 15
The Tender Bar: a Memoir by J.R. Moehringer

This is a captivating book of a boy turning into a man. JR spent most of his growing up years in Manhasset, New York on Long Island. His mother moved back into his grandparents' home when he was very young escaping domestic abuse. She struggled to move out, and finally followed a sister out to Arizona and made a life for herself and JR there. She sent him back to New York every summer though.
His mother's brother, his Uncle Charlie worked in a nearby bar, and took JR under his wing, taking him on outings to the beach, to baseball games, and other excursions along with Charlie's friends, many of whom also worked in the bar. JR grew up listening to these men's stories and watching them and trying to be someone they liked.
Once he got to be drinking age, he had his first drink in the bar, and it became even more central in his life.
I loved the characters here, the various idiosyncrasies that each one has and how JR makes them come alive. Colt, with his voice like Yogi Bear's. Joey D, large, manic, and his way of talking into his breast pocket. Bobo, a handsome blond with a lovable black mutt of a dog. Their boss, Steve, who owned the bar and gave everyone nicknames that stuck whether they liked them or not. Fuckembabe, the porter, whose speech was almost unintelligible except for that one line. Bob the Cop with his seriousness.
We see JR grow up, go to university, fall in love, try various jobs before falling into the journalism career he loves, and come to terms with the issues in his life, from his phantom of a father, to his class awareness, to the role alcohol played in his life.
A fantastic read.

Sorrow Road

Finished May 15
Sorrow Road by Julia Keller

This is the second book I've read in this series set in the mountains of West Virginia featuring prosecuting attorney Belfa Elkins. There are several stories going on here, one reaching far into the past.
In the 1930s, three boys took a ride in car that ended in tragedy. The incident was covered up, but never forgotten by them.
In the present day, a young woman visits her father in a memory care home, trying to get him to take responsibility for the pain and suffering he inflicted on her and her brother when they were young, becoming frustrated at his lack of reaction, but never giving up. Another woman, a childhood classmate of Belfa, has been visiting her father in the same home, and growing more concerned with his agitation. When he dies, she asks for Bell's help in looking into his death.
Bell's daughter Carla has been living with roommates in the city, but calls her and tells her she is coming home, the next day. Bell knows that somethings up, but she treads carefully in questioning her about it, and Carla already has a job interview lined up.
Bell is also considering her boyfriend and where she wants the relationship to go.
With so much going on, and winter storms creating dangerous roads, this book grabbed me and didn't let go.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

A Long Way Back

Finished May 6
A Long Way Back by J. Everett Prewitt

This Vietnam War novel takes a bit of a different look at things. A young married black man, Anthony Edwards, a reporter for the Washington Post, is sent to Vietnam during the war for a short period to get a few stories. Just after Anthony arrives, he sees something that grabs his attention: a small group of black soldiers, coming in from the field on a helicopter. One is badly injured and the rest look like they've been through hell. He wants to know their story, but finds himself stymied at every turn. He was lucky enough to have the foresight to take a photo of them, and this helps him work towards the story. While he is in Vietnam, he gets permission to be embedded with a group of soldiers on a mission, something recommended to him by another, more seasoned, reporter. This experience is a harrowing one, and something that changes him forever.
His wife can tell from his letters that something has changed for him, and when he returns home, he finds himself behaving in ways that he isn't comfortable with, nor is his wife. As he reaches out for help to old friends who've also been overseas, he also finds himself drawn back to the story of the black soldiers that he saw and finds renewed enthusiasm for following up the leads that he has, especially as someone is sending him more clues for this secretive story.
This is a novel of war, of the effects on me, of the way that those in power can take retribution on those without power, and on race. As we get to know the various black soldiers that make up this hidden story, we find men who come from a variety of backgrounds, and who have a variety of ways of dealing with what they encounter. This is a disturbing story, but also one of men working towards a common goal, both in the war, and on home ground.

Machiavelli

Finished April 20
Machiavelli: The Art of Teaching People What to Fear by Patrick Boucheron, translated by Willard Wood

This is a close look at Machiavelli's life and writings. It's split into six sections covering different periods of his life, with each section having five chapters.
The introduction starts with a quote from Trump, one that could have been written by Machiavelli. It was a statement made in March 2016 "Real power is -- I don't even want to use the word -- fear." It definitely relates to both men. It speaks to the fact that we really don't know how to feel and think about Machiavelli. This book stays in that uncomfortable zone of thought. It is a deep analysis of the man and his writing, some drawn from a series of talks on French public radio about using Machiavelli to sharpen our understanding of our own times. It shows how people can be so worried about a pending threat that they don't realize that it has already happened.
Youth - this section begins by setting the context for Machiavelli's life, a time period of great upheaval. Those times we are drawn to reading him are also times like these, which should alert us to that in our time. It also talks about how his name became associated with the practice of violence and tyranny, one that he didn't actually profess, but that his worst opponents assigned to him. One of the works he drew on here was a diary kept by Machiavelli's father, showing that the house owned thirty books (an extravagance at that time) and valued education. One of the books was Lucretius, and Machiavelli read it and transcribed it, a very humanist book
A Time for Action - This section talks about the influence of Savonarola's rise and fall, Machiavelli's first government role, first secretary to the second chancery. He created a team of young men that would stay with him for nearly fifteen years. It also marked the beginning of his travels away from Florence to observe what happened elsewhere, and allow him to compare. It also had him writing: dispatches, reports, and diplomatic letters, forming a base for his later work. It is said that this time and place in history invented diplomacy, so it was a valuable experience. It also brings us to the beginning of his exile when the Medicis were reinstalled as rulers and he was implicated in a conspiracy.
After Disaster - His first writings from exile are covered here, where he spent time conversing with the men of his community and his evenings reading. The Prince is looked at, with his intentions to "write something useful for discerning minds," and his determination to look at the truth of the way government worked. He wasn't describing good government, but more the government that he had observed and these are principalities, not republics, an important distinction. He talks here about self-preservation, what a ruler needs to know how to do to stay in control. He ends this famous work by calling on patriotism to deliver Italy from barbarians, the French, but also this is a cry to be noticed, to be brought out of exile.
Politics of Writing - The Prince gained some attention, but the Pope warned the Medicis against him, so he turned to theatre successfully. In the plays, he used the same themes as his previous work, but added humour and variability to them. This section also talks more about his personal life, his marriage and family and draws from personal letters written to his wife and his friends. His work also ventured beyond the diplomatic language of the time to include idiom and street language.
Republic of Disagreements - This section ventures into his orations, beginning with those on the Roman republic. They can be seen as a counterbalance to the Prince in that he acknowledges the role of the voice of the people. He notes that although the general populace is ignorant, it is capable of truth, and they don't want to be dominated. One of the points he makes is that which damages the public spirit "to make a law and not observe it, particularly when it is not observed by the person who devised it." This section also looks at his work Art of War, and the role of military force and his arguments against the dependence on mercenaries. It also reveals his idea of peace as violence in abeyance, useful for its vagueness of threat. Here, this book also tackles the common line "the end justifies the means" as being associated with Machiavelli. He never wrote such a line, and it doesn't fit with his philosophy. For him "The end will always occur too late to justify the means of an action. To govern is to act blindly within the indeterminacy of the times."
Never Too Late - The final section of the book begins with the death of Lorenzo de' Medici at the age of twenty-seven, and the ascendency of his cousin Giulio, who provided more opportunity for Machiavelli, beginning with  a commission to write a history of Florence. When Giulio became Pope Clement VII, Machiavelli had more opportunities, including diplomatic missions and travel. This takes us to the capture of Rome in May 1527 and the topple of the Medici reign, but now that the republic was restored, Machiavelli's services were not wanted, and he died soon after. But the body of work he created survived and was interpreted in various ways by various parties. Boucheron points out the Machiavelli often comes up when a storm is threatening. His quarrel "is rekindled every time a Caesar subjects Europe anew to servitude and war." We may not have reached that point, but the truth of Machiavelli's words are worth considering.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Unwanted

Finished May 3
Unwanted by Kristina Ohlsson, translated by Sarah Death

This is the first book in a series featuring civilian investigative analyst Fredrika Bergman and police inspector Alex Recht. Fredrika is a recent addition to the force and because she approaches cases in a different way, and because she is a woman, she recognizes that her opinions are not always valued and respected, but during this case, you see that change.
Alex has a reputation for solving cases, but he's been lucky too, and this case has its failures, which he must recognize and figure out how to learn from.
As the book opens, a young girl travelling with her mother on a train is kidnapped. The mother is distracted, and the opportunity is there for the girl to be taken when a number of things happen. The team works hard to follow the few leads they have, sometimes on their own, but very soon after the child is found in the north part of the country dead, and the word "unwanted" is written on her forehead. The mother clearly wanted the child, so what is the significance of this word. And is there any significance to the placement of the child.
When there are other deaths, the police realize that they may have been focusing on the wrong things and a wider look at the case is taken.
I liked the various police characters and their development over the course of the book (well, there was one guy I didn't like much as he seemed very self-centered) and I liked the way the case was described.

A Dance Like Flame

Finished April 28
A Dance Like Flame by Tammy Blackwell

This steampunk romance is set in an undefined time that seems to be Victorian and is the first in the Of Magic & Machines series. The central character, Lady Elizabeth Warner (Bits to her friends and family) is being sent off to Scotland to an arranged marriage. Unmarried at 26, she feels that she is a burden to her family. When the train she is on is delayed, and then attacked, she helps to defend another woman, and ends up in the city of Corrigan, a faerie city walled off from the rest of Britain. There she finds herself under the care of Ezra Nash, a man skilled with both traditional and magical healing. She also finds herself companion to his younger sister who has been confined to a wheelchair.
Bits is a woman that doesn't conform to the standards of her society. She is not dainty, blonde, or simpering. She is large, red-haired, buxom, and more interested in metalwork than dancing. She brings her own secrets to the story, defying the norms of the roles society has defined.
This book has quite a few interesting characters on both the good and bad sides. Besides human and fey there are also other creatures, such as dragons.
Lots going on, and I liked how the characters pushed back against what was expected of them in so many ways. 

Saturday, 16 May 2020

The Stranger in the Woods

Finished April 26
The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel

I liked this book a lot more than I thought I would. I read it for a book club for work that never ended up happening, but am glad I did.
In 1986, twenty-year-old Christopher Knight drove his truck deep into the woods of rural Maine, got out of it and started walking. He hadn't quit his job installing security systems. He hadn't said anything to his family, or worried about the fact that one of his brothers had co-signed for his truck not that long ago. He still can't explain what exactly was going through his mind. Twenty-seven years later, perseverance by a local police officer working to solve a long series of break-ins and minor thefts in the area, caught him red-handed stealing from a camp.
As the story broke, across the country journalist Michael Finkel became very interested in the story, wrote Knight while he was in jail, and then flew out and had multiple meetings with him, trying to uncover his story and make some effort at understanding this unusual man.
Finkel is a good writer, and has done a lot of research into hermits, and into this particular one. He visited the site of Knight's camp in the woods several times, and talked to many of the people in the area, both those that were victims of his thefts and those that were not.
Finkel's effort to get into Knight's head and truly understand why he went into the woods and stayed there, how he managed to survive even through extreme cold, and his effect on the community that he lived near is insightful and fascinating.
Highly recommend.

Afterlife

Finished April 25
Afterlife by Julia Alvarez

This novel follows Antonia Vega, a retired college professor as she still mourns the loss of her husband Sam a year after his death, and is drawn into the immigration issues and love life of the illegal Mexican farmhand working for her neighbour. Antonia is still feeling at loose ends without her husband, and although her three sisters, Mona, Izzy, and Tilly, contact her regularly, and she values their close relationship, she doesn't feel like getting involved in new things. Antonia and her sisters immigrated to the United States with their parents when they were young children, and because she speaks Spanish she gets drawn into the issues next door.
She has volunteered with the immigrant community in the past, but has really pulled into a more solitary existence since the death of her husband, and is only gradually drawn out as the situation lands on her doorstep of the young farmhand's pregnant girlfriend.
To add to the upheaval in her life, Izzy, her oldest sister, always a bit flighty, has seemed to become more impulsive lately and goes missing enroute to a sisterly meetup. As the sisters try to track her down, and deal with what they might find at the end of their search, Antonia finds that there are still things in life that need her attention despite her grief.

Soul of the Desert

Finished April 21
Soul of the Desert by Maria Schneider

This book is set in the 1970s and 80s, with Rand, a young Harlem hoodlum trying to protect his little brother Bo from the life he is caught up in. When chance throws Christina, an ambitious young Latino woman and her coworker into his clutches, he negotiates a way out for Bo.
Christina takes Bo back to New Mexico where she grew up, and places him on the ranch with her parents as his caregivers.
Bo hopes that Rand will eventually be able to join him there, as Rand and Christina work out a clandestine way to keep in touch while trying to minimize the possibility that Bo will be found by the rival gangs back East.
But the drug trade reaches everywhere and it soon shows up in the school that Bo now goes to, and during his high school years he becomes involved in a way he never would have anticipated, and that his new family has reservations about.
This is a tale of a young boy trying for a fresh start, but having to overcome culture shock, prejudice, and a completely new enviroment.
It grew on me as I got further into it.

Nothing Left to Mend

Finished April 16
Nothing Left to Mend by Matt R. Weaver

This rural noir novel features Glenn Dempster, the new police chief of a mill town, Verton, Pennsylvania. The union has been locked out of the mill for months, with increasing violence between the substitute workers and the desperate union men. Glenn is respected by him men, but not liked, and he only just barely won the vote against one of his own men for chief, but taking on the corruption of the previous chief as an issue. His marriage is in difficulty, and as the book opens, he is living in a small apartment in an extremely ill-kept building. His wife is using their young daughter, Heather as a pawn between them and Heather is just trying to keep her head down, both at home, and at school where she stands alone, with her father hated by both union blue collar and the white collar workers. Glenn's wife's father is the mayor and he has no love for Glenn, with his actions causing many of the issues in Glenn's marriage.
There is a lot of small town stuff going on here, with everyone putting their nose in everyone else's business and one café a no-man's ground for workers to eat and meet.
As the factory owners finally allow the union back to work, an explosion in the blast furnace reignites the issues between the sides, and has Glenn's team trying to find out what lies behind some of the actions.
Glenn is a loner, a local boy that just wants to do right and earn a living. He's smart but not always lucky, and he begins to wonder if he really has a future in this town.
I quite enjoyed this book and liked how the characters evolved over the course of the book, including young Heather.

Navigate Your Stars

Finished April 9
Navigate Your Stars by Jesmyn Ward, illustrated by Gina Triplett

This speech was given by author Jesmyn Ward and the Tulane University 2018 commencement, and speaks to the rewards of hard work and perseverance, and the value of respect. She describes her own challenges and those of her family, and was an inspiration to those that attended.
It has now been released as a short book and illustrated beautifully by Triplett to make this book a great keepsake for any graduate.

The Walnut Tree

Finished April 6
The Walnut Tree by Charles Todd

This short novel is set during World War One, when a titled young woman eludes her uncle and guardian's oversight to become a nurse and serve near the front. She is inspired by her experience returning to England after being stranded in Paris at the start of the war and making her own way to the coast and a ship home. Seeing the action fighting, the injured, and the men involved makes her reluctant to just sit at home.
Elspeth is a smart and resourceful young woman, and has the support of her male cousins, which helps her cause. She is torn between feelings for her best friend's brother, a young French man now involved in the fighting, and an old friend from Scotland that she meets once again during her initial escape home.
With suspense, drama, and romance, this novel has a lot going for it. This is part of the Bess Crawford series, but Bess plays only a minor role in the story as a fellow nurse and housemate to Elspeth.

Dangerous Waters

Finished April 3
Dangerous Waters by Anne Allen

Jeanne Le Page has returned to Guernsey after more than a decade away. She left shortly after her parents were killed and she was injured when she was twelve. Her memories of that night haven't returned, but the sight of the port from the ferry makes her nauseous. She lived with her aunt in England and went to university there and has been working as a freelance journalist since then. But a few months ago her grandmother passed away, and Jeanne must deal with the estate, including her grandmother's house.
She is met by her parents' good friends and stays with them for a couple of days until she feels that she can stay in the house while she goes through the contents, and decides what needs to be done in terms of repairs. She connects with old schoolfriends and other young people her age, and begins to consider staying in Guernsey for good. There is a young man very interested in starting a relationship with her, but she isn't sure, and since she is coming off a recent breakup, she is taking it slowly.
As her memory starts to return and she talks to the police who still have an open investigation on the deaths of her parents, and the attack on her, she starts be in danger again.
I liked Jeanne and I liked the descriptions of Guernsey and the house that she inherited. The plot was interesting too, with a few twists and turns.
A good read.