Sunday 30 September 2012

Lucretia and the Kroons

Finished September 30
Lucretia and the Kroons by Victor Lavalle

This novella is a surreal story of Lucretia, a 12-year-old girl who is a late bloomer. Her mom tries to have a birthday party for her, but it doesn't go well and Lucretia decides to save the cake until her best friend Sunny is home. Sunny has been in the hospital getting cancer treatment.
It is a couple months before Sunny comes home, and the day of the delayed birthday celebrations arrives. Lucretia's mother goes out to lunch with Lucretia's older brother Louis, and Sunny is expected soon. Instead,  someone from the apartment two floors up leaves something of Sunny's on Lucretia's fire escape, and Lucretia is led on an adventure through the upstairs apartment and into a world similar but different than her own. Up to this point, I thought of this as a children's book, but it quickly becomes more of a horror story. There are elements here of fantasy, and we find mental illness plays a role as well. There is a sequel to this coming out soon that continues Lucretia's story.

Saturday 29 September 2012

The Summer Book

Finished September 29
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal

This classic is a collection of vignettes illustrating summer months spent on an island in the Finnish archipelago. Jansson spent a great deal of her life on such an island, so knew it well. Here we have Sophia, a young girl spending the summer on the island with her grandmother and her father. The point of view moves seamlessly between Sophia and her grandmother, changing back and forth often and in a way that flows. The grandmother is ageing and her body doesn't always allow her to do what she wishes. Sometimes she gets cranky, but her love for Sophia shows. Sophia is impetuous and eager, but also emotional and sentimental. Her emotions are not checked and we see her anger, frustration, and eagerness. She seems to have boundless energy.
These glimpses reveal all the aspects of summer, from visitors to storms, lazy days to short jaunts. Sophia's father is a shadowy figure, present in the background only in all except the storm vignette where he plays a larger role. The two females are co-conspirators and entertain and look after each other. A lovely little book, timeless and full of nature.

Daddy Love

Finished September 29
Daddy Love by Joyce Carol Oates

Dinah and her husband Whit have an exuberant 5-year-old son, Robbie. One day, as Dinah and Robbie are leaving a mall, Dinah is attacked and Robbie is taken from her. She struggles to follow, but is run over by the kidnapper's van, and left for dead. Dinah survives, but is left with debilitating injuries, and the police fail to find Robbie.
The novel has sections from both Dinah and Whit's points of view, but also tells us the continuing tale of Robbie and his abductor, from their points of view. Using threats, punishment and reward, Daddy Love aka Preacher aka Chester Cash gains control over Robbie, passing him off as his own son. Oates shows us just how he manages this on the impressionable, intelligent, young boy. The reader sees the process and understands it, even as they are screaming 'no' inside, rooting for Robbie to make his escape.
Two things stood out for me. One was the first few chapters, which repeated the kidnapping scene, each with different details and focus. This really struck me, as I could see how Diana would be going over and over it in her head, examining it for clues, holding onto memories. The second was the ending, showing the irreversible damage done to Robbie.
This book really shows what an amazing writer Oates is. A disturbing, enlightening, and highly original novel.

Friday 28 September 2012

Shadow on the Mountain

Finished September 28
Shadow on the Mountain by Margi Preus

This is an historical novel aimed at children, set in occupied Norway during World War II. The main character Espen is 14 when the novel begins and starts out delivering underground newspapers. He then becomes a courier and later a spy. Espen is based on the real life Erling Storrusten.
Most of the story is from Espen's point of view, but some chapters are also from the point of view of another young man, Aksel, who joins the German side and some chapters are from Espen's little sister Ingrid.
The history is interesting, and Preus has done her research here. I would have liked more story as I felt it ended a bit abruptly and before the end of the war. I grew to care about Espen as Preus really gave him depth. The reader gets a real feel for the conditions the Norwegian people lived under and the German power they were up against. Being on home terrain gave them a real advantage, but as some of them joined the German side, that wasn't as effective as it might have been. Despite the odds, the Norwegian people became a real burr in the side of the Germans, and this book shows the ways in which that happened. From subtle refusal to comply to sabotage, the people mounted an effective resistance to their occupiers.
This book particularly interests me as part of my heritage is Norwegian.

Wednesday 26 September 2012

The Lost Girls

Finished September 26
The Lost Girls: three friends, four continents, one unconventional detour around the world by Jennifer Baggett, Holly C Corbett, and Amanda Pressner

I was attracted to this book because it brought back memories of my own youthful travels, but once reading it, I found more differences than similarities.
The three women who wrote this book took months to plan their trip (which was really trips as they returned to New York at least once each during their travels), they preplanned a lot of it, their travels took them to South America, Asia, New Zealand, and Australia. The thing that made the biggest difference between their experience and mine was when they travelled. They took their laptop, blogged about their travels, Skyped with people back home and generally kept in pretty good touch with everyone, including a few get-togethers with friends and family along the way.
While the book didn't share the same experiences as I had, it did awaken memories of my trip and that made it worth the read.

My trip was in 1985 when I was 22. I started off with a good friend, but our goals changed along the way and just over four months in, we split up and travelled independently. We didn't do much in the way of planning and were off just a few short weeks after we came up with the idea. Keeping in touch meant letters and postcards, and finding public phones. In many places, that meant finding the post office, and because of time differences that meant that my phone calls home weren't always that convenient for my parents. When I set off for Turkey alone and didn't phone home for a month, my parents were a tad on the worried side. But it was a great experience, I met a lot of great people, some of whom I'm still friends with. One became a boyfriend a bit later, for a while. What I also got was the travel bug, and I still love travelling. I think leaving your country when you are young and experiencing other cultures gives you an appreciation of your own nation and an understanding of differences. Something everyone should experience. My trip ended abruptly when I broke my foot in Frankfurt, but those nine months will always be one of the best experiences of my life.

Tuesday 25 September 2012

And When She Was Good

Finished September 24
And When She Was Good by Laura Lippman, read by Linda Emond

The narrator of this novel is Heloise, nee Helen, a woman who has built a life for herself and her son, a life that is now in jeopardy. Heloise is a high-class madam, running a service near Washington, D.C. with some very well-placed men as clients. Heloise has a silent partner, a man who one controlled her life completely, a man who is now in prison serving a life-sentence. A man who is dangerous to cross. And Heloise has crossed him, but he doesn't realize it yet. With little formal education, Heloise isn't sure she can create a new life for herself that will keep her at the standards she has become accustomed to, if she manages to live at all. With suspense, good pacing, and an interesting story, this novel kept me interested right until the end.
A very entertaining novel.

Winter Journal

Finished September 17
Winter Journal by Paul Auster, read by the author

A month before his sixty-fourth birthday Auster began writing this memoir. It isn't your standard memoir giving experience over time, but more stream of consciousness. Auster moves from memories of the origins of scars on his body, to the women he's loved, to places he has lived, among many other streams. He speaks from the heart, and his experiences are interesting. His stories show the how much he has thought about his experiences, connected different things that have happened in his life and learned from them.
He is honest enough about his experiences that he doesn't always portray himself in the best light, but he also doesn't try to apologize for that. He just describes his actions and his emotions and makes you feel part of it. I loved the way things wandered, from one type of memory to another. I think listening to him read it only added to the experience in a very positive way. A great writer, a great storyteller, and a great read.

Sunday 16 September 2012

Sarah Thornhill

Finished September 16
Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville

Every novel I read by Kate Grenville confirms her as a wonderful writer. Sarah Thornhill's story begins as a child, the youngest child of William Thornhill. William came to Australia as a convict, but worked hard and became a landowner, with a nice house on the Hawkesbury River. Sarah isn't a demure girl, but one who rides horses, loves spending time outdoors, and asks questions when she wants to know things. She is close to her oldest brother Will, and his friend Jack Langland. Jack is someone Sarah has had strong feelings for since she was a child, and intends to marry one day. Jack appears to have strong feelings for her as well. But  Sarah's father has a secret, and when Sarah makes her intentions known, this secret is revealed to Jack with devastating results.
Bereft by the loss of Jack, Sarah finds herself a new life, but when the past returns years later, she must face her family's history.
A novel of race, family, and Australian history, this is a tale that shows the best and the worst. Sarah is a young woman with a strong will and a strong sense of self. Her story shows her character growth.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Finished September 16
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

I've been reading this novel slowly, trying to prolong it as I was enjoying it so much. Harold Fry is a retired salesman for a brewery. He lives a quiet life with his wife Maureen, until one day he receives a letter from a former colleague, Queenie Hennessy. The letter indicates that Queenie is dying of cancer, and Harold isn't sure how to respond. He finally writes a quick note, shoves it in an envelope, and walks out to the postbox. But inexplicably, he doesn't stop there, deciding to go to the next one, and then the next one, and he just keeps walking. He finally realizes that he is walking to Queenie, across most of Britain, a task he is woefully unprepared for. He keeps calling and sending postcards to Maureen, telling her of his progress, and meets a variety of characters, most of whom assist him in his journey. Maureen, at home, also goes through a change as she deals with her husband's unexpected pilgrimage, looking at her own life and the things she has done and said.
Ultimately, it is a story of their marriage, their struggles and the gulf that has grown between them and the events that are now an opportunity for them to bridge that gulf.
The writing is wonderful. We get a sense of Harold's past as we see his mother "She was young, with a peony-bud mouth and a husband who had seemed a good idea before the war and a bad one after it." We see how he learned at a young age "to appear absent even when present".
As he finds himself walking, he finds he is both revisiting his past and really noticing the world around him. He muses "maybe you saw even more that the land when you got out of the car and used your feet." Harold has more revelations as his journey continues. "He saw that when a person becomes estranged from the things they know, and is a passerby, strange things take on a new significance."
A story of a man's life, his struggle to do the right things, to say the right things, coming from a past where he wasn't taught how to do any of it. This is an amazing book, well worth the read.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail

Finished September 12
I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail illustrated by Ramsingh Urveti, design by Jonathan Yamakami

A lovely book, with black and white illustrations, deceptively simple, but with depth, this book illustrates the poem of the title, which originated in 17th century England. The poem is trick verse, which gives different meanings depending on how it is read. One way of reading makes perfect sense, and the other leads to fantastic images. This particular version uses those different readings to inspire the illustrations, with the design of the book leading you forward with the poem. Besides the illustrations, the book also incorporates cuts in and on the edge of pages, giving you glimpses of the next page and the next line of poetry.
This is an enchanting book that offers more the more you look. It would appear to children as well as adults.

Forgotten Highways

Finished September 11
Forgotten Highways: wilderness journeys down the historic trails of the Canadian Rockies by Nicky Brink and Stephen R Bown

This fascinating book details one summer in the lives of the authors who were inspired by history to hike five mountain trails first found by four early explorers.
Two of the treks were inspired by the explorations of David Thompson. The first was Howse Pass, one of the easier passes, abandoned due to rival tribes rivalries for trade. The second was Athabasca Pass, the pass Thompson found after, but too difficult for railways or roads.
The next hike was inspired by Hudson's Bay's George Simpson, another difficult pass found when searching for a pass accessible for more of the year than Athabasca was.
The fourth hike was found based on the explorations of John Palliser as he searched for a route north of the United States that would support a road and railway as part of the effort to claim the territory for the United Kingdom. This hike encompasses three passes, the Elk, the South Kananaskis, and the North Kananaskis.
The last hike was one found by one of the early female explorers, Mary Schäffer, and is Maligne Pass the route to Maligne Lake, one of the most beautiful lakes in Jasper National Park. 
I spent of number of childhood vacations in the mountains, although only camping and doing day hikes. They will always be a cherished part of my younger years and close to my heart. This book brings those experiences back to me vicariously. The authors are not professional hikers, but those who do it for the love of their surroundings and that comes across clearly in this book.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

The Expats

Finished September 11
The Expats by Chris Pavone, read by Mozhan Marno

This book has thriller moments, but it is more psychological overall. Kate Moore is a CIA agent who began desk work around the birth of her second child. Then she thought she was tired of it all, and when her husband proposed moving to Luxembourg for his job, she decided to become a stay-at-home mom. She immerses herself in her children's lives and tries to get comfortable in the large expat community in the small country she now calls home. But her husband is spending more time at work and is very secretive about his job. Another American expat who has befriended her has Kate suspicious of her, and she begins to wonder if her job is really something she can ever put in the past.
Kate begins to think and investigate and what she finds only increases her unease and suspicions.
This book is told in bits and pieces, looking back at various points of the life Kate lived in Luxembourg and the decisions she made there. 18 months later, she and her family are living in Paris, still expats, but more relaxed in their lives, until a sudden encounter has Kate rethinking all those months and questioning the story she thought she had unearthed then.
A great story, with interesting twists and turns. Kate is a complex character, and you see how she comes to terms with her life as the story progresses.

Sunday 9 September 2012

When I Was a Child I Read Books

Finished September 8
When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

This collection of essays by the writer Marilynne Robinson shows her dedication to detail, with constant references to facts over opinions and evidence of an amazing breadth of knowledge. Robinson shows her grasp of history, politics, religion, and literature in this volume. She has criticism for the failure of education in current society and how that leads to the current political and economic situation. She shows how many who tout themselves as religious don't actually follow the deeper tenets of the Bible. Throughout she backs her statements up with facts, using quotations and citations to make her points.
This is a book to read slowly and thoughtfully, to ponder, to reflect on. To enjoy.

Friday 7 September 2012

A Room Swept White

Finished September 7
A Room Swept White by Sophie Hannah

This is a novel with psychological twists and turns that will keep you glued to your chair. The focus is women who have been accused of murdering either their own children or children they have been minding. The main characters is Fliss Benson a television producer, a lower rung producer at her firm until something happens that causes her to be in charge of a documentary already partially done. At first she is reluctant to take on the job, feeling manipulated and wary of her own past, but soon finds that her zeal for truth and attention to detail make her the perfect person to take on the project.
The police are also on the case following the murder of a woman acquitted on retrial of her children's murders. There are divisions within the police ranks, some very interesting personalities both in the police and in the other characters, and stories with no easy answers.
Fliss develops from a mousy woman with no sense of her own worth into a confident woman driven by her zeal for truth. A great read.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Where the River Runs

Finished September 5
Where the River Runs by Patti Callahan Henry

Apparently I gave this book to my mother a while back (although I have no memory of that) and while I am visiting she suggested I read it. It is set mostly in South Carolina Lowcountry, and the main character, Meridy Dresden, grew up in this area. A tragedy happened at a graduation party the summer after Meridy's senior year and her parents sent her away to her grandparents for the summer. She went on to university as planned, and met a wonderful man, got married and had a son. She now lives in Atlanta.
Her visits home have been brief and limited to visiting relatives. When she returns to talk to her old family housekeeper about the Gullah culture for a curriculum she is writing for her son's private school, she finds that there are issues from that night years ago that she hasn't dealt with. She is horrified to find that the community is pressuring an old friend to cough up the money to rebuild the Keeper's Cottage that was destroyed by fire that night. She knows that he doesn't bear the responsibility for its destruction and is determined to help raise the money in another way.
In her efforts to do this, she is forced to face the past and admit to her own role that night, finally grieve for the friend that she lost and reconnect with the self that she buried years before. Along the way, she finds that she has tried so hard to be the perfect wife and earn the love her husband has given her, that she hasn't been herself, and isn't sure who that is anymore. I think this is something many women can relate to and is at the heart of this novel. A very interesting read.

Sunday 2 September 2012

The Orphan Master's Son

Finished September 2
The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

This novel follows Pak Jun Do, a boy raised in an orphanage in North Korea, by a father that showed no favouritism, but gave him the story of a lost mother, a singer. Jun Do moves into work as a tunnel soldier, trained to fight in the dark. That role leads him to be chosen to be a kidnapper, stealing people from coastal areas on command by the powers in Pyongyang. The changing demands, and the loyalty tests involved illustrate the uncertainty of life in this country. Jun Do has no family, but is trained by those he works with to change as the demands change, to become what they want him to be. Finally, in the ultimate loyalty test, he becomes one of the country's most exalted military leaders, reporting directly to Dear Leader and stepping into the life of Commander Ga.He lives in Ga's house, works at his job, and lives with his family. He falls in love with Commander Ga's wife and finally learns to true meaning of love. As he does, another story runs parallel, that of an unnamed interrogator who also learns the same lesson as he does his questioning.
This is a story of a country unimaginable to most of us, with characters who lead lives so constricted and dictated that they become merely survival.
While this is a novel, it leads to questions about life in North Korea and about the control and beliefs that are the nature of the lives lived there. Difficult to read at times, brutal, yet with hope, this is a novel that will stick with you.

Saturday 1 September 2012

The Little Village School

Finished August 30
The Little Village School by Gervase Phinn

This is the first novel in a new series set in Barton-in-the-Dale. The village school has had an inspection recently and the report is pretty bad. Parents already had some complaints, but now some are taking their children out of the school in favour of a school in another villlage. When they advertise for a new head teacher, the pickings are slim, but one candidate stands out. Elizabeth Devine has been head teacher of a big inner city school and while some wonder why she would come to a smaller school, most are just hopeful. She has big changes in mind for Barton. Elizabeth settles in over the summer, making over a cottage nearby and beginning work on making the school more welcoming. Her manner is one that earns her the love of her students and the respect of her staff. She has parents and staff working together in a positive way. Facing challenges head-on, and using diplomacy and her professional knowledge, Elizabeth makes Barton-in-the-Dale her home and the village school one to be proud of.
A feel-good novel of village life, with all sorts of characters to enliven the plot, this gentle read will have readers clamouring for the next book in the series.

I am Forbidden

Finished August 28
I am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits

This novel draws from the life of the author. Markovits was raised in the Satmar tradition, an ultra-conservative Jewish sect. She left it at the age of nineteen to avoid an arranged marriage and went on to further education, eventually earning a doctorate.
The novel follows three characters and begins in Transylvania, Romania near the end of World War II. Josef, a young Jewish boy, survives the murder of his family and is taken in by the family's Gentile maid, passed off as her own child. Another Jewish family is killed rushing to meet the Rebbe they believed would save them, leaving a young daughter, Mila. Josef helps Mila reach the Jewish community her father wanted her to go to, and she is raised by a family there, but never forgets Josef. Years later, Mila's story leads to Josef being taken back into the Jewish fold and sent to a religious life in the new world. Mila and her adopted family flee to Paris.
Mila grows close to her adopted sister Atara, just a year younger than her, but while Mila feels compelled to be a good Jewish woman and to one day reunite with her murdered family, Atara is full of questions, questions she is told it is not her place to ask. As these three characters' lives converge and separate we see how the question of faith becomes central to their relationships, and ultimately leads them to join together at one final crisis point.
I learned a lot about this Jewish sect, and about Romanian Jews, that I didn't know before. I found the characters interesting and would have liked to have more of Atara's story.