Tuesday, 27 September 2022

A Family For Christmas

Finished September 2
A Family for Christmas by Helen Scott Taylor

This novella follows a young engineer, Eve Scott, as she travels through the snowy British countryside to get to a job interview. The weather is intense, making driving difficult, and when a lamb appears on the road in front of her and she brakes, she ends up in the ditch. Luckily, sheep farmer Tom Millington is out looking for the lamb, his daughter's pet, and offers her a ride to his farm where she can wait for assistance. When Eve encounters young Polly she is charmed by the child and the child develops a quick attachment for her, wanting her to stay. Eve realizes that Polly's mother is no longer in the picture, and while she is attracted to Tom, she has a career she has worked hard to establish and wants to go further in. 
Eve rearranges her interview once she realizes that her car won't be pulled out in time, and ends up going back for Christmas as she has no other plans. 
An instant attraction, a rescue in a remote and dangerous circumstance, and a child's belief in miracles make this a cozy romance for the holiday season. 

Mary Coin

Finished August 31
Mary Coin by Marisa Silver

This novel was inspired by the cover picture. Taken by Dorothea Lange, and called Migrant Mother, the photograph of Florence Owens Thompson became famous and opened many doors for Lange. The author creates a fictional woman, Mary Coin, as the subject of this photo and the novel follows Mary from her childhood through her marriage, her travels in search of employment, up until the moment of the photograph. It also follows the photographer, here named Vera Dare Everett, as she too marries, has children, and tries to create her own career through her art. 
Staying relatively closely to the real facts of the women's lives, Silver brings them to life by letting us see inside their thoughts, their motivations, and their drive to live as they want, as they must. She tells the larger story of the Depression in America and the desperate search for jobs to feed oneself and one's family, from a uniquely female viewpoint.
Tying it all together is a man in the current day, an anthropology professor named Walker Dodge. Walker's specialty is the study of common people and their lives. He looks at diaries, official records, ephemera, and relics of their lives as he pieces together how they lived. Walker loses his father near the beginning of the book, and as he cleans out the house, he finds boxes of papers in the basement and begins to treat the situation as a case study from his own work perspective. His research leads him to these women, and that key connection point with its resulting fame.
She also looks at the aftermath, Vera's fame and further career, what happened to Mary and her children, and how that small connection became an important moment in both their lives. 
An amazing story of two women forging their lives during a difficult time, told with realism and compassion, and the serendipity of life and the chance meetings that change lives.  

The Vet's Daughter

Finished August 28
The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns, introduction by Kathryn Davis

This novel first came out in 1959, although Comyns started writing it in 1947. The title character, named Alice, is a teen as the story begins. As indicated, her father is a veterinarian, one who treats animals like objects and has no feelings for them. Her mother is unwell, and both of them live in fear of him. Alice tries to spare her mother so she can rest, and the two have quiet talks about her mother's childhood when alone in the evening. 
After the death of her mother, things become more difficult for Alice. A friendly and kindly housekeeper and a young veterinarian help mitigate her circumstances, but the woman that her father takes up with is a force against her. 
Alice retreats often to a world of fantasy, pulling on bits of her mother's memories of childhood in Scotland, and fairy tales helped along by an uncanny ability she discovers in herself. 
Alice finds her thoughts can take her away from her circumstances, but she is aware that others find it unnerving. 
This is an odd book, with a strange premise, but one that nevertheless had me enthralled from the beginning. Alice is a character that I empathized with and hoped would find a better situation than the one she is born into.

Monday, 5 September 2022

September Reviews for the 16th Annual Canadian Book Challenge

 Here is where you post links to the books that you finished in September this year. 

Add a comment either on the book, or on how the challenge is going for you. 

Tuesday, 23 August 2022

An Unkindness of Magicians

Finished August 15
An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard

I really enjoyed Kat Howard's Roses and Rot, and was eager to read this one. The opening scene of a magician performing an impressive bit of magic sets the scene and we gradually learn of the circumstances of this performance and the magician community that lives and operates in New York City. They call it the Unseen World and try to be as invisible as possible to the regular citizens of the city. 
The magician at the beginning is a woman named Sydney, and she has great powers, has come from a dark part of their world, and has strong feelings about the system that put her in the life she has lived until now. 
Sydney's story is gradually revealed, as are the stories of other magicians that she comes into contact with. For a few decades a system has been in place of pooling magic, but it has required sacrifices from all of the families part of the Unseen World and the dark nature of this has influenced many of them. Each House has its family, and the House itself has a consciousness and a power. Every once in a while there is a Turning where a House has made a challenge to take the place at the head of the community. One has been announced, and Sydney has answered an ad to be a champion for one of the Houses. In her case it is a new House, from a magician who has come from outside the Unseen World, but has been around for a few years. As the challenges escalate from proofs of magical ability to fights to the death, Sydney puts in place her own secret plan, one that will change the Unseen World completely. 
Sydney is a very interesting character, as is Laurent, the magician she becomes contracted to. The other champions have secrets, as do many of the heads of the Houses. Some of these are more evil than others, but all have consequences. 
I like the world that Howard has created here, and the depth of many of the key characters, which are complex and interesting. I'd love to see more of this world, but also of any others that she creates. 

Summer at Little Lava

Finished August 10
Summer at Little Lava: A Season at the Edge of the World by Charles Fergus

This memoir is of a summer spent in a remote, off-the-grid house on a farm on the west coast of Iceland. The author is still reeling from the sudden and violent death of his mother and hopes that this time will help the healing. No roads lead to the house, and to get to it you must cross a wetland that is flooded twice a day by the tide. It is surrounded by lava fields and has views of mountains, volcanoes, and the rugged coastline. 
Fergus goes in late May and, working with an Icelandic friend does repairs to the abandoned house, making it weatherproof and fitting it with the basics. He and the friend had gone in December to do a reconnaissance and see what would be needed. There is no heat other than the fires that they make, no electricity, and no running water. They use one of the cold pools in a cleft in the lava field as a fridge, and get some supplies locally from neighbours. 
Once his wife and son join him and they buy a used car, they spend the summer exploring the country nearby, including on a collapsible kayak that he brings to have time in the nearby ocean, are visited by relatives undergoing their own healing journey, and enjoy watching the animals and birds and noting the local plants and geology. 
The author's wife Nancy had done graduate work on the Icelandic sagas, they had visited the country a few times together and Nancy had gone again to study the language. It was she who had discovered this farm and they had already planned the visit before the loss of the author's mother. Nancy has also found references to the farm dating back to 1354 and there are the remains of other structures on the property. 
This is a personal memoir of his own emotional journey, but also beautiful descriptions of the land and its occupants. This is a book to savour. 

Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret

Finished August 4
Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret by Ondjaki, translated by Stephen Henighan

This historical fiction book is told from the point of view of a boy who lives in a village, Bishop's Beach, near Luanda, the capital of Angola. He lives with his cousins and grandmother and their maid Magdalena. Angola was once a Portuguese colony and now the Soviets are running the country and, their soldiers in the village are building a large Mausoleum for a former Angolan president. There are some houses, a bakery, a garbage dump, a gas station that doesn't actually sell gas, with a lovely beach that fisherman use as a base for their work.
Granma Agnette is the one that tells the children what to do, that protects them in thunderstorms, and that tucks them in at night. Granma Catarina, Agnette's sister, dresses in mourning, stays on the edge of things and provides comfort and support. 
The gas station, located in the middle of a traffic circle, is manned by Comrade Gas Jockey who sleeps most of the time. One of the neighbours who everyone calls Sea Foam, acts and talks in crazy ways, dressing oddly, keeping an animal rumoured to be an alligator in a shed in his yard, is regarded with an edge of fear and a fair bit of awe. The narrator's best friend is Pinduca, who goes by Pi, and due to Sea Foam, is nicknamed 3.14. They also sometimes hang out with a bookish girl the same age, Charlita. Charlita's father Senor Tuarles often threatens to have his wife bring his gun when things get tense, but never uses it.
One of the security soldiers at the construction site, known as blue ants in the village for their uniforms, is enamored of Granma Agnette and visits often. He often talks about his homeland and how cold it is there and asks Agnette to go back there with him. He greets every one with Gudafter-noon, no matter the time of day and thus they have nicknamed him Soviet Comrade Gudafterov Lately there are rumours that someone has heard him utter the word dynamite in his own language and that there are plans to explode the neighbourhood. He has mentioned that they will relocating everyone to nice new houses.
The kids decide that they must prevent this from happening and come up with a plan. Meanwhile Granma Agnette has been getting pain in her leg, and after a visit from one of her daughters, who works at the hospital and a specialist called Dr. Rafael KnockKnock (because he likes to say knock knock and rap on doors before he enters) decide that she must have a toe removed. After this, she is known as Granma Nineteen. 
The narrator travels to the hospital with her, and sees where she is going, and comes home to inform everyone else. They stop at the cemetery on the way to visit Granpa Mbinha's grave. 
This is a story of the wonders of childhood, the silliness and grand schemes. This is a story of families, of their closeness and support. And it is a story of community that even some outsiders recognize and respect. 
A great read.