Saturday 28 April 2012

Sing You Home

Finished April 28
Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult

This novel features Zoe, a musician and music therapist who has been trying for years to have a baby, with no success and much heartbreak. When her marriage ends, Zoe finds comfort and support from her mother and her new best friend Vanessa, but finds herself wanting more and hoping for a new chance to make a family.
Max was upset to leave Zoe, but finds a new beginning with his brother and sister-in-law and their church, but finds lingering feelings for Zoe.
Vanessa wants a friend and Zoe and her hit it off amazingly well, but will their friendship last through the new difficulties they face together?
Music is a theme here, for connection, for healing, for communication, and the author provides a soundtrack available on the book's website.
There is, as with all Picoult's books, an issue, more than one here, and she has the reader guessing as the plot twists and turns to keep you guessing how things will turn out right until the end.

Promise Me This

Finished April 27
Promise Me This by Cathy Gohlke

In the early twentieth century, Owen Allen is determined to make a new life for himself and his younger sister Annie, away from the influence of their Aunt Eleanor. Eleanor is a woman so immersed in unhappiness she cannot bear others' good fortune, particularly her niece and nephew. Owen places Annie in a boarding school as he goes to America ahead of her to find a life with his late father's brother. Before he leaves he encounters young Michael, an orphan struggling against mistreatment and poverty and offers him kindness and income.
Michael is struck by Owen's attitude and drawn to him to the point where he follows Owen onto the ship, the Titanic, stowing away until Owen discovers him.
But a tragedy occurs and Michael is the only one of the two to make it to America. He is determined to fulfill Owen's legacy and bring Annie over to join the family, and the two begin to correspond. Annie's life is difficult and when the First World War begins, she finds herself forced to distance herself from those she loves to protect them. But Michael is determined to find her, even if it means risking his own life.
This is a tale of love, faith, and forgiveness that resonates. We see Annie and Michael grow up and discover their strengths and find faith to keep going.
With love, adventure, and troubled characters, this story will keep you turning the pages.

Amsterdam Stories

Finished April 26
Amsterdam Stories by Nescio, selected and translated by Damion Searls

This is the first English translation of these works. Nescio (the pen name of Jan Hendrik Frederick Grönlöh (1882 - 1961)) was not prolific nor very successful until later in his writing career, but his work is now considered by some to be the best prose ever written in the Dutch language. Nescio is Latin for "I don't know."
I picked up an early copy of this collection and found it very interesting. The stories appear in chronological order of when they were written (not published) and range from 1909 to 1942. They include his major works and a selection of shorter stories, all in one slim volume.
The stories are reminiscent of youth, some of them written of the time of struggle to find one's way, and some looking back on that time. They have a flavour of loss and regret and yet are not emotional. The characters seem to be in their own world, removed from the events in the world around them.

Had a Good Time

Finished April 24
Had a Good Time: stories from American postcards by Robert Olen Butler

This collection of short stories by Pulitzer Prize winning author Butler was inspired by early 20th century postcards that Butler collected. The collection begins with a newspaper article from August 7, 1910 on the subject of picture postcards. Each story also ends with a newspaper article from August 7, 1910 that has some subject link to the preceding story, sometimes very tenuous. I found these most interesting as there was no explanation of them in the book, so I was left to my own devices in interpreting their inclusion.
Each story begins with the front and back of the original postcard, and the message on it written out (in case one has difficulty reading the original). The stories come out of the postcards, and they are wonderfully imagined. Butler is a master of character and these stories show how a simple idea can inspire.
A great collection that will leave you wanting more.

Sunday 22 April 2012

The Language of Flowers

Finished April 22
The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Victoria Jones, the main character here, was abandoned as an infant and spent her young life in foster care and group homes. Her last foster home, when she was nine still haunts here, and it was there she learned the language of flowers.
Victoria has reached the age of 18 and is emancipated, but doesn't know how to begin her life on her own. She plants a small garden in a park and her talent is recognized by a local florist who offers her work. As Victoria grows more secure in her skills with flowers, she also finds herself drawn to the past, unsure if she can find peace with what she left behind.
This is a love story, a story of independence, a story of families, and of course a story of the language of flowers. I'd long been aware that flowers had meanings, but hadn't taken the time to investigate them. The author includes a listing of flower language at the end that is an interesting beginning. Diffenbaugh was inspired to write this novel by her own experiences as a foster mother.
As a person with two adopted siblings, I found that side of it interesting too.
Great read.

Saturday 21 April 2012

The Uninvited Guests

Finished April 21
The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones

Wow, a great book, but totally unexpected (like the guests).
Its starts off as a drawing room comedy as the man of the house, resented by his stepchildren, goes off to try to obtain funding to save the house from creditors.
After he is gone things begin to happen. The day is Emerald's 20th birthday and the family and small staff prepare for a party as two out of town guests are expected. Much cleaning, cooking, etc is done.
When the guests arrive, so too do others, the apparent survivors of a terrible railway accident. They are disheveled and wanting assistance. The family bundles them into a room and ignores them for a time, but as the evening goes on, they become more insistent and can't be confined.
Another uninvited guest shows up that appears to be higher class, but he insinuates himself into the party and instigates unpleasant happenings.
A tale set in the early twentieth century, of class and manners that defies description. The host family is unusual and grows more so as the book goes on. With interesting characters and a remarkable plot, this is another success for Sadie Jones.

Another Reading Challenge: European

I just heard about this European Reading Challenge, and since I always finish Europe early in the Global Reading Challenge, I knew I had to sign up.

The gist: The idea is to read books by European authors or books set in European countries (no matter where the author comes from). The books can be anything – novels, short stories, memoirs, travel guides, cookbooks, biography, poetry, or any other genre. You can participate at different levels, but each book must be by a different author and set in a different country – it's supposed to be a tour. (See note about the UK, below)

What counts as "Europe"? For this challenge, we will use the list of 50 sovereign states that fall (at least partially) within the geographic territory of the continent of Europe and/or enjoy membership in international European organizations such as the Council of Europe. This list includes the obvious (the UK, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy), the really huge Russia, the tiny Vatican City, and the mixed bag of Baltic, Balkan, and former Soviet states.

Note: Technically, the United Kingdom is one country that includes England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.  So one book from any one of these four should count as your one book for that one country. I'm not going to be a stickler about it because challenges should be about fun not about rules.

Here is the list, in alphabetical order: Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Macedonia, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and Vatican City.


Five Star (Deluxe Entourage): Read at least five books by different European authors or books set in different European countries.

Four Star (Honeymooner): Read four qualifying books.

Three Star (Business Traveler): Read three qualifying books.

Two Star (Adventurer): Read two qualifying books.

One Star (Pensione Weekender): Read just one qualifying book.

Alternate Arrangements

Agritourisimo: For foodie readers – read a selected number (your choice) of food-related books written by European authors or about European food, cooking, restaurants, culinary traditions, farming, winemaking, etc. Again, each book must be by a different author and set in a different country.

Youth Hostel: For participants under 18 only – read a selected number of books (your choice), by European authors or set in a country of Europe. (Adults reading YA books still participate as adults, not in this sub-category).

Culture Vulture: For those obsessed with prize-winners – read a selected number of books (your choice) that won a major literary prize in its original country. Any of the following literary prizes would count, but there may be others: Anton Wildgans (Austria), Magnesia Litera (Czech Republic), Finlandia (Finland), Le Grand Prix du Roman (France), German Book Prize (Germany), Balint Balassi Memorial Sword (Hungary), Icelandic Literary Prize (Iceland), Bagutta (Italy), Batty Weber (Luxembourg), Norwegian Critics (Norway), NIKE (Poland), Camões (Portugal), Russian Booker (Russia), Prešeren (Slovakia), Premio Planeta de Novela (Spain), August (Sweden), Swiss Book Prize (Switzerland), Sedat Simavi (Turkey), Shevchenko National (Ukraine), Booker (United Kingdom).


So, I'm going to go for the Five Star, and count from the beginning of the year.

So so far, I have read the following books set in Europe (I'm not including children's books here) :

1. A Dublin Student Doctor (Ireland)
2. The Midwife of Venice (Italy)
3. I am Half-Sick of Shadows (UK)
4. Bad Boy (UK again) [Repeat country so doesn't count]
5. Trap for Cinderella (France)
6. Redbreast (Norway)
7. A Dirty Death (UK again) [Repeat country so doesn't count]
8. The Lucky Child (Greece)
9. The Englishman's Daughter (France again) [Repeat country so doesn't count]
10. The Wild Rose (UK again) [Repeat country so doesn't count]
11. Midnight in Austenland (UK again) [Repeat country so doesn't count]
12. An Altered Light (Denmark)

So taking out the repeat countries, I'm already at seven!

Friday 20 April 2012

An Altered Light

Finished April 20
An Altered Light by Jens Christian Grøndahl, translated from the Danish by Anne Born

This is a lovely novel about the changes in a middle-aged woman's life. Irene Beckman is 58, a successful family lawyer, married to a successful banker. She has two grown children, a lovely house in a good area of town, and has kept her looks well.
However things have been growing more distant between her husband and her, and clues lead to another woman. When he announces that he is leaving her, she retreats into solitude, reflecting on her past, their relationship, and her dreams. Irene's mother is undergoing surgery and unexpectedly reveals information about Irene's father that changes her world further.
The two events change Irene's perception of herself and how she got there. She must first find her own history before she can move forward.
This novel shows how events can change lives, how decisions can move someone in a new direction, and how those affect relationships, between parents and children, husbands and wives, and those we barely know. A fascinating book into one woman's life.

Heart of a Killer

Finished April 18
Heart of a Killer by David Rosenfelt, read by Tadd Morgan

Jamie Wagner is a young lawyer working at a large law firm. He plugs away at the contract law he is working on, but isn't inspired and know he isn't going anywhere there.
When he gets assigned a pro bono case and goes to meet his client, a woman incarcerated for killing her husband seven years earlier, his life changes. Sheryl Harrison is the client and her fourteen-year-old daughter Karen has been diagnosed with a congenital heart condition that will end her young life soon if she doesn't get a new heart. She has a rare blood type and that makes the chances of a donor less likely. Sheryl is a perfect match and wants to find a way to give her daughter her heart.
Jamie knows they have little chance of getting a favourable ruling, but he begins the process anyway and soon finds his case all over the news. He also talks to some people about the murder Sheryl is in for and finds that there are some who don't think she did it, despite her confession. He decides their best chance is to get her out on parole and works on finding more evidence about the murder case before her upcoming parole hearing.
There is also a terrorist plot happening here, with someone threatening large scale disasters unless they get large sums of money. With some shows of power, they've got everyone from the FBI to Homeland Security looking for them.
Little does Jamie know it, but the two cases are related.
With lots of action, suspense and plot twists, this book is fast-paced. Some of the computer stuff had me needing to suspend disbelief, but otherwise an interesting book.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

The Vanishers

Finished April 17
The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits
This was a very odd novel. The main character Julia Severn is a student at a college for psychics. She has been chosen to be a stenographer for one of the professors Madame Ackermann, writing down her psychic experiences. But there develops antigonism between her and the professor when her powers seem to be growing stronger, while the professor's wane.  Julia is also still struggling with her mother's suicide which occurred when she was an infant.
When Madame Ackermann seems to have launched a psychic attack on Julia, causing her to develop a variety of ailments, Julia takes a leave of absence and takes a NYC job modeling rugs. But others come to Julia, offering a cure in exchange for use of her talents. As Julia takes the cure, she also examines her psychic experiences, ponders her issues with her mother, and learns about her relationships with others from those women she meets in psychic experiences, to her father.
A detached sort of book, even though the reader sees things through Julia's eyes, I always felt a step removed from her as a character. As Julia struggles with her emotions around her mother and deals with her father's emotional barricades, she also feels both vulnerable and powerful. This is a very hard novel to describe.

Sunday 15 April 2012

An American Spy

Finished April 15
An American Spy by Olen Steinhauer
I've read this spy novel series from the beginning, and keep getting impressed by how good they are. Starting with The Tourist, and continuing with The Nearest Exit, this series takes us into a secret department of the CIA and the world of Milo Weaver.
In this novel, Milo is recovering from his wounds and searching for a new job, but his old boss has revenge on his mind and wants to involve Milo. The Chinese intelligence officer that blew up Milo's old department is still looking for a traitor of his own. Milo's father wants him to take over his United Nations operation. It would seem that Milo is under attack from many sides and just wants to make a life with his family.
We see things from Milo's point of view, the Chinese general, Xin Zhu, Milo's sister Alexandra, and Milo's old boss Alan, as well as a few other minor characters.
With lots going on, and twists and turning in an evolving plot, the different points of view add to the story as we encounter them, bringing more detail and a fuller sense of what is happening. Great plot, I could hardly put it down once I started it.

Behind the Beautiful Fovevers

Finished April 12
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, read by Sunil Malhotra.
This nonfiction book is a tale of the lives of the residents of a Mumbai slum, Annawadi, located near the Mumbai airport and near luxury hotels. Boo was inspired to tell about life in the slums after marrying a man from India. She picked Annawadi because of its size, one small enough to go around and talk to all the residents. Her research took three years and the lives of many of the residents change significantly during that time. We see the struggle to survive, the daily living conditions, the jealousies and rivalries, the corruption both between residents and at police and government levels. Money equals prosperity and everyone is trying to get ahead, and get a better life. Some use substances that help them escape from their lives, and some take it out on their families. Boo spends a lot of time here describing two families. 
One is a Muslim family, where the father has health issues that force the oldest boy, Abdul into the role of family provider. The situation also forces the mother into a less subservient role that is typical of Muslim women. The family recycles garbage, paying other garbage collectors by weight for their gatherings. When a fight with a neighbour women results in drastic actions by the women, the family's creep upward is stalled and reversed. 
The other Hindi family also has a strong women at the head, Asha. Asha sets her sights on politics, with the first step gaining the status of slumlord for Annawadi. She curries favors, accepts and pays bribes, settles disputes and makes enough to send her daughter to college. 
An ongoing story that brings the existence of the lowest class in India to light and shows how the system doesn't work for them, and how they are viewed by those above. 
Fascinating and heartrending.

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Crush. Candy. Corpse

Finished April 9
Crush. Candy. Corpse. by Sylvia McNicoll
This novel goes back and forth between the life of young Sunny as she completes her required 40 volunteer hours at a local nursing home, and the court scene where she is accused of manslaughter.
Sunny didn't want to volunteer at the nursing home, but the other volunteer options were gone and she had always felt close to her grandmother, so she figured she could handle it.
She finds herself on a ward with patients with memory issues, many with Alzheimer's. She finds herself drawn to the patients, looking for ways to improve their quality of life, wanting to make them smile. She buys them small gifts from her own pocket. She also finds herself drawn to a young man, Cole, who comes to visit his grandmother. Torn between her attraction to geeky Cole, and the bad boy Donovan she is currently seeing, she delays choosing between the two.
When her last visit to the nursing home occurs at the same time as a tragedy and she is accused of a connection to the death of a nursing home resident, she finds herself looking to her family and friends for support.
The book moves back and forth between witnesses in the courtroom and Sunny's experiences at the nursing home in a way that shows the reader different sides to a story.

City of Fallen Angels

Finished April 9
City of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare
And the saga continues. Returning from a seemingly successful trip to Idris, Clary is adjusting to her new life. She is learning the skills of a Shadowhunter, adjusting to her mother's new relationship, and beginning a relationship of her own, with Jace. But Jace seems to be a little less interested in her than she expected, and what's with the dead baby in the news.
Meanwhile Simon is also adjusting to his new life as a vampire, and trying to figure out how to tell his family. He is also being followed, but he isn't sure why or by who.
There is lots going on here, and the bad guys aren't vanquished yet. Less huge battles in this one, and more personal issues and smaller interactions.
A new character is introduced that looks like he may stay around for a while, and others reappear. Once again, plot leaves us hanging and waiting for the next in the series.

Saturday 7 April 2012

Wild Thing

Finished April 7
Wild Thing by Josh Bazell
I loved Bazell's first book, Beat the Reaper, and was looking forward to the continuing saga of Pietro Brnwa, former hitman and now doctor in the witness protection program. Here, under the name Lionel Azimuth, he starts the novel working as a doctor on a cruise ship, an unhappy existence. Then he gets asked by a reclusive billionaire to go to a remote lake in the Boundary Waters area between Minnesota and Manitoba to see if the rumours of a legendary water creature are true. His job is to protect Violet Hurst, a paleontologist also on the trip. Violet is a character to love, outspoken and self-assured. Azimuth is drawn to her, but remembers what happened to his last girlfriend and is less than eager to get involved with someone.
He is also a bit nervous around water, given his recent experiences in the previous novel. But he is also tired of constantly looking over his shoulder, wondering when someone will have found his trail again.
The story of the water creature is an interesting one, with lots of things going on, some interesting characters making an appearance, and constant surprises.
But Bazell offers more. Following the novel action is an article by Violet on global warming and the possibility tipping point. Then following that, is a section on Bazell's sources for everything going on here, from politics to the environment, science to pop culture. Bazell is a man with varied interests and strong curiosity along with high intelligence and that comes out here.
Yes, a great thriller, but so, so much more.

Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms

Finished April 6
Horten's Miraculous Mechanism's by Lissa Evans
This children's novel is set in England. When 10-year Stuart's family moves back to the town his father grew up in, just at the start of summer vacation, Stuart looks for ways to amuse himself. When he discovers his father's uncle was a magician and went missing years ago, he is intrigued and wants to know more about the man. Trying to hide from the triplets next door, April, May and June, Stuart looks for ways to learn more about his great uncle, and is surprised when magical things start to happen to him.
Stuart's father is a bit absent-minded and his mother just wants him to be happy, so his escapades as not too hard to manage with them. He has bigger trouble avoiding the menacing Jeannie and her sidekick and figuring out where he needs to go next.
A novel with mystery, adventure and magic, this will capture the young reader.
Note that it was longlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize in the UK for 2011.

Friday 6 April 2012

Life Is But a Dream

Finished April 5
Life Is But a Dream by Brian James
This teen novel is told from the point of view of 15-year-old Sabrina. She has alway had a good imagination, and until recently her parents encouraged her use of imagination and creativity. Her best friend has also been drawing away from Sabrina's stories and pictures, in favour of an interest in the opposite sex. But an incident at school, coming to light to the reader as the novel progresses, has resulted in Sabrina being sent for treatment in a youth mental health facility. Sabrina struggles with the sense of losing herself to become "normal", and yet also feels scared when faced with the real world.
When she encounters another troubled teen, Alec, she feels drawn to him, and becomes involved emotionally. As the two grow closer, Sabrina relies on Alec to support her dreams, while Alec doesn't entirely understand the issues Sabrina is facing.
This is an interesting novel around mental illness, society's attitudes, but mostly the internal struggle of a person dealing with their own illness. A wonderfully immersive novel of a troubling experience.

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Midnight in Austenland

Finished April 4
Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale
Loved this followup to Austenland. A fun read with a strong female main character, and a bit of romance.
Charlotte is recently divorced and struggling with how to move her life forward. After an argument with her 13-year-old daughter, she digs out a list she made when she was that age about life goals. One of the easy ones still unachieved on the list is to read Jane Austen, so she does and she loves the world created within Austen's books. Wanting a holiday for herself when her ex has the two kids, she finds out about Austenland and decides that is is perfect.
Once there, Charlotte tries to immerse herself in the world, to escape her issues in real life. But her propensity for problem-solving comes to the fore and she finds herself involved is solving a crime and discovering the perpetrators.
Charlotte is a successful woman, with a growing business, two loving children, and an ex-husband who most definitely did not deserve her. She has no problem with confidence in her work life, but finds herself second-guessing her personal life all the time. It takes this situation, and a few helpful friends, to help her gain the confidence she should have personally as well.
Thoroughly enjoyable.

The Shoeless Kid

Finished April 2
The Shoeless Kid by Marcelle Dubé
This mystery is set in the town of Mendenhall, Manitoba, located between Winnipeg and Brandon. Kate Williams has come to town as the new police chief, but things aren't going that well. Deputy Chief McKell had pretty much expected to get the job and his attitude isn't making her job easy. There seems to be resentment across the board in the police department. While Kate is struggling with this, she is also brought a new case by one of the young officers, Trepalli. While their only witness is a homeless man, it looks like there may be a missing child. Kate is haunted by a missing child case she was involved in decades before when she was a rookie cop. She is afraid of this type of case and super-sensitive to screwing it up. There are also the upcoming police games, which Mendenhall is hosting and Kate seems to be the only one in her force participating in.
With lots going on, things not always what they seem, and interesting background stories, this mystery will keep you glued to the pages until the end. Always nice to add new Canadian mystery authors too.

Sunday 1 April 2012

Emerald City

Finished March 31
Emerald City by Alicia K Leppert
This novel, set in Seattle, tells the story of a young woman, Olivia, who is struggling with depression. Her mother died recently, and the hard life the two had after the desertion of Olivia's father has had its toll. Olivia exists, barely, moving through the routine of her life as a waitress and her small studio apartment. Even her friends have deserted her. When she thinks she has hit a low, she finds that someone does care and she has been helped. As she moves forward, she must find the strength within herself to ask for help, find new friends and possibly new love. The young man who has come into her life, Jude, is a bit of a cipher. Olivia finds herself trying to figure him out and once she does, the two together have to figure out the next step in their lives, together or apart.
A love story, a story of redemption, and hope, this is also one with a touch of the other.
Olivia has more backbone than she has given herself credit for, and her honesty with herself and her situation help a lot to keep her moving in a positive direction.

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar

Finished March 30
A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson
This novel moves back and forth between 1923 Kashgar and the Silk Road and the present day in England. In 1923 Evangeline has signed up as a missionary for the group Missionary Order of the Steadfast Face, along with her sister Elizabeth. They are led by Millicent, a forthright woman. Eva has brought her bicycle with her and hopes to write a book about her experiences. Elizabeth is an avid photographer and has brought her camera, but is often lost in a dreamy world of her own. When the small group of women encounter a girl in childbirth they try to help and end up being accused of a crime. Eva is asked to take care of the infant, and grows attached to her. But there is unrest in the area, and the women's position grows increasingly precarious. Eva must find the strength to survive and adjust to the new environment. Her bicycle has given her some independence and she is reluctant to leave it behind.
In the present day, a young man from Yemen, in England illegally is targeted after being seen drawing intricate pictures of birds on a wall. He leaves his home and in his wanderings encounters Frieda, a young woman working to understand young people from a variety of emerging nations. Frieda is going through change in her personal life and when she finds herself in charge of the personal possessions of a woman who has died, she struggles to make sense of them and find the connection between her and the woman, Irene.
I loved the bird theme that came through the novel and the sense of other. A wonderful read that takes you to another world.