Friday 29 March 2013

The Edge of Nowhere

Finished March 29
The Edge of Nowhere by Elizabeth George

I've long been a fan of Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley series, and now she has started writing for teens. This book is the first in a new series. The main character here is Becca King, aka Hannah Armstrong. Becca has an unusual ability to be able to hear other's thoughts. They come to her a bit disjointed, in snatches, and can overwhelm her, especially if she is around too many people at once. She has a device she can wear that help block these. Becca's mom Laurel doesn't always make the best choice when it comes to men, and her current husband, Jeff, is a prime example. Jeff, knowing of Hannah's ability, has used her to assist him in activity that isn't on the up and up. When she learns something about Jeff from his thoughts, she and her mother go on the run, hence the new name.
But Laurel's plan for Becca gets a glitch, and Becca must find a way to survive and stay safe before her mother can come back for her. When a boy in her class is hurt, Becca is first on the scene and finds herself in panic mode. Will her actions put her in danger? Where is her mother? What happened to Derric? Why is Jenn so angry? and many more questions as the young people try to sort out issues in their lives and their feelings.
Set on remote Whidbey Island in Washington State, you get a real sense of the setting, and George is good at brining her characters to life. The ending is what tells me there are more books to come, and I'll be looking forward to them.

Wednesday 27 March 2013

Word From New France

Finished March 26
Word from New France: the selected letters of Marie de l'Incarnation translated and edited by Joyce Marshall

This collection of letters includes a helpful opening section of background and history, giving us a brief biography of Marie, and the historical context of her life. She grew up in a middle class family and felt an early draw to a religious life, but her father insisted on her marriage. Her husband died early in their marriage, leaving her with an infant son. She was determined to wait until he was old enough to understand before she entered a religious life though she was continually drawn to it, and finally when he was twelve she entered the convent of the Ursuline nuns. It was a difficult decision, but she stuck with it, and her son eventually followed her into this life.
Early on she had a dream or vision that led her to be one of the first nuns to come to Canada, on a mission to education young girls. The letters selected here are either to people in religious orders back in France, or to her son. They are well-written and full of imagery and not dry at all despite their calls to God's glory. They include much history of the colony of New France, of the interactions with the natives, and of the struggles for leadership.
An interesting and unique view of Canada's early history.

Wish You Were Here

Finished March 26
Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift, read by John Lee

This is a nice slow novel, with lots of character development and description. Jack Luxton grew up in a farming family in Devon. His one escape was a vacation two summers in a row at a caravan park that his mother took him and his younger brother to. The Luxton's had owned Jeb Farm for generations, and ran it as a dairy farm.
In the present Jack and his wife Ellie run a caravan park on the Isle of Wight, and Jack has just received word from the military that his younger brother Tom, who he hasn't seen or heard from in years, has been killed in Iraq.
As Jack reacts to this news, goes to the repatriation and then the funeral back in Devon and returns home to Ellie, you see Jack and Ellie struggle with the past that has brought them to where they are now, and gradually learn what that past consists of. You see the tragedies that befell them, the leavetakings, the impetus for the decision to leave Devon, the intractability of Jack on certain issues and the leader Ellie on most things. This novel is about how people survive, about the toil that takes on them and the relationships they have with others. It is about change in England as people leave the farms and the farms become "country homes" for those from the city. About the life changes that this brings.
The language of the novel takes you on, slowly, sometimes almost excruciatingly slowly, but it just keeps carrying you forward, uncovering the past as it goes.
A wonderful read.

Saturday 23 March 2013

Original Letters from India

Finished March 23
Original Letters from India by Eliza Fay

This collection of letters dates from the late 1700s, and describes two visits to India by Eliza Fay, her return to England from the first visit, and her trip to America from the second visit. She later returned to India and died there in 1816.
The first voyage took more than a year and involved many trials. Her husband, a Barrister, was going out to India to practice, and she accompanied him. They left England in the spring of 1779 and went over to France by ship and overland across France to Italy. This despite the fact that England and France were at war at the time. From Italy they travelled by ship to Alexandria and then on to Cairo. The situation in Egypt was not a good one, and they lost some of their belongings due to the unrest.
From here they sailed to Calicut, where the local Governor, Hyder Ali, took them and other Europeans prisoner. They were imprisoned there for three months, and with assistance from others managed to get off to Cochin, but had lost all their belongings save those they had concealed on their persons. From there, they went first to Madras, and then on to Calcutta.
In Calcutta Mr. Fay was admitted to the Bar and began to do business with the courts while Eliza made friends in society. Mr. Fay, however proved a bad judge of things and made some bad choices professionally and personally and by 1782 the couple formally separated. Eliza stayed with a friend until she made her way back to England later that year.
She returned to India in 1794, and set up a millinery business, but had setbacks and ended up leaving again, by 1795. The book ends with her arrival in New York City, with no record of her subsequent experiences there, her trip back to England, or her final return to Calcutta.
As a record of the times it is very interesting, to see the dangers of travel, the interactions of society, and the politics of the times. Included in this edition, is the original preface from 1817, the introductory notes from the 1925 edition by E.M Forster, which give historical context and commentary, and the new introduction by Simon Winchester which added positively to the reading experience.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Heartbreak Hotel

Finished March 18
Heartbreak Hotel by Deborah Moggach

This amusing novel is in the same style as her previous novel These Foolish Things (read before I started blogging), later made into the popular movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Here we have aging actor Russell "Buffy" Buffery, who is unhappy with the direction his London neighbourhood seems to be going on, taking a chance on the impulse to move to Wales. Why Wales? Well, an old friend of his has died and left him her bed and breakfast house in Knockton, and he decides to try running it himself. He comes up with the idea to  add on a variety of courses to appeal to city folk, as package deals.
Buffy is a fascinating old charmer, who has had three wives (one now dead) and 5 children (by four different women, only two of them his wives). He has decent relationships with all his kids and his stepdaughter, and they all make appearances of some sort here.
Along the way we meet a variety of people all either looking for some sort of change in their life, or who have had change thrust upon them. As various courses attract them to Knockton, they find different sorts of change than they had been looking for, but mostly very satisfactory ones. From postmen to writers, makeup artists to bankers, we meet an interesting group of characters.
A humourous, upbeat novel that will have you laughing out loud, touched, and definitely entertained.

Monday 18 March 2013

Rounding the Mark

Finished March 17
Rounding the Mark by Andrea Camilleri, translated by Stephen Sartarelli

The seventh book in the series featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano is a definite winner. It had me hooked from the beginning, when Salvo expressed his unhappiness with the state of police ethics over the outcome of the G8 inquiry (about Genoa in 2001) and wanted to resign. With the police activities around the G20 in Toronto more recently, I could definitely relate.
When Salvo goes for his morning swim, he encounters a dead body, one that has been dead for some time, and exerts himself to tow it to shore. Bothered by the official lack of interest, he and his men begin an unofficial investigation into the man's identity and origin. Later, when assisting a local immigration officer on a minor matter, Salvo is present at the landing of a ship of refugees and sees a small boy try to take off. He manages to catch him and return him to the family group he belongs to, but is bothered by the incident. When he has a later encounter involving the boy, he resolves to figure out what is going on, and finds himself in a case involving the trafficking of minors. With alternating despair and humour, this novel shows a caring man, trying to make a difference in whatever way he can. Very satisfying.

Saturday 16 March 2013

A Mountain of Crumbs

Finished March 16
A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova

This memoir covers Elena Gorokhova's first twenty-four years, spent in Leningrad, and her family's history. There is a short epilogue about the present. Elena was the second daughter of her mother, with two older half-sisters, one on each side of the family. The oldest, the one on her father's side, is seldom mentioned here. Elena's mother is a strong personality and she had a strong influence on Elena's life and choices. She was a doctor, working near the front in the Russian-Finnish war and again during part of the Second World War. She was born and raised in central Russia, moving to Leningrad upon her marriage to Elena's father. Elena's sister Marina defied their mother and became an actress, and Elena was given strong guidance to go into a practical occupation like that of her mother. But Elena also has a strong personality, and was taken by the idea of learning English, and was able to go down a road that gave her different opportunities. She was able to study English through university and had the opportunity to interact with foreign students. This led to her leaving and moving to the United States.
Her story is told in a very open way, including detail about her environment and her feelings throughout. An enlightening look at life in middle-class Russia in the 1960s and 1970s. I found her story fascinating, loving the detail about all aspects of her life, her relationships with family and friends, and her own ambivalence about her mother country.
The title comes from a story from her mother's childhood, during the famine, when her grandmother appeased her young uncle cries of hunger by breaking his bread into crumbs and telling him he had "a mountain of crumbs" rather than a single slice of bread.

Friday 15 March 2013

Speaking from Among the Bones

Finished March 15
Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley, read by Jayne Entwistle

This is the fifth in the series featuring Flavia De Luce, the 12-year-old girl who keeps stumbling across crimes. Besides being an avid chemist with a passion for poisons, and her own lab, Flavia is always wanting to know more about her mother, who died when off exploring when Flavia was very young. Here she does learn a bit more about her, and about herself too.
Her older sister Ophelia is about to make her official debut as church organist, and Flavia has been tasked with accompanying her to the church for practice. When Ophelia complains about a deficiency with one of the organ pipes, Flavia is introduced to a behind-the-scenes world of the church she didn't know existed. Returning to investigate later, she comes upon the scene where workers are beginning to disinter the bones of the local saint, Saint Tancred, who has been buried there for 500 years. But unfortunately, another body is found in the tomb chamber, and Flavia is off to discover just who is behind it and why.
Her search leads her to another estate in a nearby village, to the home of one of the choir members, and back to the church again and again.
As the ancestral home that Flavia and her family is threatened due to financial circumstances, Flavia must also begin to face losing the life she is used to. We see more depth from her family members, with Ophelia moving on with her own life, and Daphne beginning to show more sisterly feelings.
Definitely a worthy continuation of this wonderful series.

The Twilight Prisoner

Finished March 15
The Twilight Prisoner by Katherine Marsh

This is the sequel to The Night Tourist, and again the main character is Jack Perdu. Jack finds that even though he is back in the living world, he can still see ghosts, but try as he might he can't find Euri. He decides to move on and try for Cora, a girl in his Latin class that he really likes. He finally gets up the nerve to ask her out and tries to make an impression on her, but finds that things don't go as planned. He is stuck in the underworld again and this time he's involved Cora. Will Euri help them find a way out, and will the guards find them?
Lots going on, with some unrequited love thrown in. Euri finds a way to move forward here, as does Jack, but things aren't easy when you are facing up to things you don't want to happen.

The Smell of the Night

Finished March 15
The Smell of the Night by Andrea Camilleri

This is the sixth book in the series featuring Inspector Montalbano. Here, there are a bunch of upset people in town because they invested their money with a man named Gargano who has disappeared along with their money. It came to Montalbano's attention when one upset elderly man took an employee of Gargano's hostage. As usual, there are things that bother him about what people say and do and that leads him to recheck information and find the truth. The title comes from a description of the one witness that everyone else dismissed, as he describes his way of telling time.
On the personal side, he is worried about his relationship with his girlfriend Livia, and has a violent reaction to the loss of one of his two places that he goes to think.

Wednesday 13 March 2013


Finished March 13
Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

This teen novel is the first in a trilogy. It features Grace, a teenage girl who is obsessed with a wolf, a wolf she remembers from an incident in her childhood. The wolf is Sam, a young man who was bitten by wolves when he was only eight, and since then has changed into a wolf whenever the cold weather sets in, changing back into a human for the summer months. He, too, is obsessed, obsessed with Grace.
Of course that is the core of this paranormal romance, but there are other stories too. There is Olivia, one of Grace's best friend, an avid photographer, also fascinated by the wolves. There is Jack, an angry young man, whose behaviour takes him into danger and desperation. There is Isabel, Jack's sister, who wants to save her brother, but doesn't really like him. And there is the rest of Jack's pack, a mixed group with different pasts, who each have differently reactions to the situation their nature has put them in.
Some good storylines, and many of the characters have interesting complexities. A nice addition to this genre.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Queen of Hearts

Finished March 11
Queen of Hearts by Martha Brooks

This teen novel is set in rural Manitoba in 1941-42. Marie Claire Côté is fifteen and living with her parents and younger sister and brother near St. Felix. Her wandering uncle Gérard comes to visit as he has often in the past, but this time he stays longer. He isn't well, and finally is diagnosed with tuberculosis. There is a sanatorium on the other side of the valley from the Côté farm, and Gérard goes there. His pet name for Marie Claire is Queen of Hearts and the two have a special closeness. Even though she is told not to, she sneaks away to visit her uncle.
When her younger brother Luc gets a bad cold and their hired man leaves, Marie Claire is drafted into helping out, working hard either with her father out on the land or with her mother in the kitchen. She becomes lethargic as well, and when her brother takes a turn for the worse, all three children are found to have tuberculosis and go into the sanatorium. Marie Claire takes it hard, at first rebuffing the offered friendship of her roommate Signy, a girl slightly older than her. But then she finds that the sanatorium is its own world, and begins to form relationships.
This is an interesting novel of a certain time in our history, and one gets a sense of the world Marie Claire lives in.

Monday 11 March 2013

The Avalon Ladies Scrapbooking Society

Finished March 10
The Avalon Ladies Scrapbooking Society by Darien Gee

This light novel is set in the Illinois town of Avalon. There are many characters here, but the core group includes Bettie, the founder of the Society and an avid scrapbook pusher; Isabel, still mourning her husband Bill, who left her for a younger woman and then died in an accident; Ava, the younger woman Bill loved and had a child, Max, with, struggling to make a living; Yvonne, a female plumber who has left her controlling family, but still mourns her severed relationship with longtime love Sam; Frances, who loves her three sons and husband Reed, but still longs for a daughter through a Chinese adoption; and Connie, whose early losses affect her ability to commit to relationships.
With the scrapbooking loosely connecting all these characters and more, there are many stories here, of love, of loss, of community. An upbeat novel.

Saturday 9 March 2013

The Orchardist

Finished March 8
The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin, read by Mark Bramhall

I loved this book. It is set in the early part of the twentieth century, in rural Washington state. A man named William Talmadge lives at the orchard that he, his mother and his sister came to when he was a child. His mother died and his sister disappeared, and he has made a lonely existence for himself. His only real contacts are a local healer named Caroline Middey, a few years older than him, and a group of native men who stop at the orchard on their horse trading trips, one of whom, Clee, Talmadge becomes especially close to.
One day, when he is selling his fruit in town, a couple of young girls, heavily pregnant and apparently vagrant, steal some of his apples. Later, the same girls show up at his orchard, and his compassion for them moves him to help them. When the man they are fleeing follows, a tragedy ensues, and leads to years of changed lives as Talmadge feels the need to protect all the victims.
This is a story told in a slow, languid fashion, gradually unfolding before the reader. It is rich in description and details and uses wonderful language to evoke the time and circumstances of all the characters. Because I was listening to the audiobook, I had to see out the physical book later to share some of these wonderful passages. The reader, Mark Bramhall, does an amazing job of storytelling using slow speaking, pauses, and other means to bring the story to vibrant life.

Here are some examples of the writing:

About his sister:
"The girl setting off, to be caught by something she did not anticipate. What else could have happened, really? The only thing worse, perhaps, than knowing for certain that she was abducted was not knowing. That was the sad truth.  And Talmadge lived in that uncertainty, he had made his home in it, and there was no possibility of him resting--truly resting--ever again."
"She just kept walking. Nobody came after her. She walked until she could not hear the men behind her anymore, and the forest mended in silence behind her. They would wonder about her, they would even search for her, and they would hate her for it. But she had no choice. She could feel the old familiar feeling, waiting under the canopy of trees. It had fit her like a glove, and she was certain in her soul she had been there before. She had had to escape her own fate."
"And that was the point of children, thought Caroline Middey: to bind us to the earth and to the present, to distract us from death. A distraction dressed as a blessing: but dressed so well, and so truly, that it became a blessing. Or maybe it was the other way around: a blessing first, before a distraction. Caroline Middey scrutinized the point; did not know if the distinction was important. (All distinctions are important.) But she did not think any more about it because at her back, suddenly, the child woke from her nap, and she rose at once to go to her."
and this:
"He was struck, as he was always stuck, by the horses' simultaneous ugliness and beauty. Different shapes, heights, colors: cream-colored, black, brown, yellow horses, horses with dappled rumps, with stockings; some white horses with pink snouts and blue eyes; tall horses, with muscular necks; others short, stunted, dwarfed-looking. All weighing around a quarter ton, some just over. He had seen these herds for years, and yet when they came through the trees he was always surprised by them. They were dirty, unkempt, stinking; overall unpredictable. Perhaps what made them so impressive was their undandledness. They had encountered no human up there in the mountains where they were captured. The men had gone up there, to the places where the horses lived, and dragged them--the horses--down to the plateaus and lowlands, and as a result the horses held the deepest grudge; they tore this way and that, tossing their heads, breathing rancid horse breath out of their rancid horse lungs. This is how he imagined it, as a boy lying awake at night, unable to sleep because of their presence in the field. He did not understand what they were. What do you mean, what are they? his mother had said. They are horses, Talmadge. But they were unknowable, both singly and as a herd. Even now it was difficult to look away from them."
I could go on and on, but hopefully you see what I mean by these. Definitely on my list of favourites for the year.

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Radio Shangri-La

Finished March 5
Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth by Lisa Napoli

This memoir tells of Napoli's experience consulting with a small radio station in Bhutan, how she got there, the experiences she had in Bhutan, and the relationships she developed as a result. She developed an ongoing love for the small country, and has returned there several times since her initial consulting trip. This is a story of her life, and what led her to this experience, but it is more than that. It is also a story of Bhutan as it  tackles change, much of it radical, as a country. Measuring its success with Gross National Happiness instead of the more common GDP, Bhutan sets itself apart even as it accepts technology, media, and tourism into the country. It is interesting to see the effect of change on its inhabitants and their experience with culture shock as they travel beyond its borders. The experience changed Napoli's outlook on life, and she talks about this change in attitude as well.
A very interesting memoir, and I learned a lot about Bhutan as well.

Sunday 3 March 2013

Bow Grip

Finished March 3
Bow Grip by Ivan E. Coyote

This is the first book I've read by this author, but I really enjoyed it, could hardly put it down. Joey is a man in his forties, a mechanic who runs his own small shop in Drumheller. A little more than a year ago, Joey's wife of a little more than five years left him for a woman. Joey's mom and friends are worried that he is keeping to himself too much and not moving on. His mom wants him to find a hobby or something. So when someone comes along and offers to buy the car that's been sitting in front of his shop, in exchange for a cello, he figures why not, that'll be his new hobby. And so the story really gets going.
As Joey makes a trip into Calgary to take his wife her last belongings and follow up on another worry he has, he finds himself making new friends, learning new things about himself, and getting on with his life. Joey is a man who doesn't talk much in the normal way of things, keeping a lot to himself, and he has been spending a lot of time lately alone with his dog. He has grown lonely without becoming truly aware of it. As he interacts with new people and begins to come out of himself more, he finds himself a new man.
A very upbeat story, with interesting characters that I'd like to know more about.

Deep Leadership

Finished March 3
Deep Leadership: essential insights from high-risk environments by Dr. Joe MacInnis

I'm always interested in ways to improve my leadership skills, and that is what this book is all about. MacInnis is a medical doctor and scientist who has specialized in undersea situations. He has done numerous dives, been in deep water submarines and worked in arctic sea exploration. He has spent time writing policy, working with government and doing research, working with a variety of specialists including astronauts. He speaks on leadership and has been awarded the Order of Canada.
This book takes his years of research into leadership and draws it all together. While the experiences he draws from involve high-risk situations, the qualities he notes can be applied to many leadership circumstances.
The traits he believes are important to good leadership are given in short chapters, with an example (or more) in action, and reflections on that quality. They are: cool competence; powerful presentations; physical robustness; hot-zone humour; mental resilience; strategic imagination; high-empathy communication; blood trust; fierce ingenuity; team genius; resolute courage; and warrior's honour. As he says, this isn't a definitive list, it's just his list, and he encourages the reader to create their own. One comment in his summary stood out for me though, "I'm not sure that leadership is driven primarily by intelligence. I believe it's driven mostly by empathy and enthusiasm. Empathy for the team, the task, and the technology, and a sustained enthusiasm for whatever it takes to get the job done."
As he talks about working towards better leadership skills, he emphasizes the following: making the commitment [to improving skills]; commanding the language [of good writing]; building a library [of leadership insights]; finding mentors [throughout your career]; seeking opportunities [for leadership]; and transforming your character [through learning and evolution].
Leadership is not easy to define, and has many different forms, but it is never something you finish achieving. It is always a work in progress.
This book will definitely become part of my leadership library.

Tea and Books Challenge

Dare I really add another reading challenge to my year. Answer: yes, afraid so.

I heard right from the source (Book Garden) about this challenge, and since I love both tea and books, decided I must join the Tea & Books Reading Challenge.

Here is how it works:

You may pick both fiction and non fiction books! Short story collections, anthologies or collected works in one volume are now allowed! Re-reads are also ok (though preferably you should read one of those unread tomes that have been collecting dust on your shelves)!
Last year you had to read 700+ pages but she reduced this to 650+ for 2013.
And as a little incentive - books with more than 1.200 pages will count for two books (so theoretically you can read four such super-chunksters to reach the Sencha Connoisseur level)!
Last but not least - no large print editions of a book, please!

Here are the levels to strive for:
2 Books - Chamomile Lover
4 Books - Berry Tea Devotee
6 Books - Earl Grey Aficionado
8 or more Books - Sencha Connoisseur

I felt tempted to only go for the 4 book level, but I really don't like Berry Tea, so decided to up it to the 6 book level (am definitely a fan of Earl Grey, particularly Creamy Earl Grey, which I had post-breakfast today). Also, since crossovers with other challenges are allowed, I can also use these books toward my Chunkster Challenge