Friday 31 October 2014

Drowning Anna

Finished October 31
Drowning Anna by Sue Mayfield

This teen novel tells the story of Anna from two directions. One is the view of her friend Melanie, looking back at the events since Anna came to her high school more than two years ago. The other is Anna's own words through her diary entries, as read and reacted to by her parents when they sit by her in the hospital as she fights for her life.
Anna's family moved to this unnamed Yorkshire town from London in Year Nine, and is immediately befriended by Hayley Parkin, an attractive and popular girl in the school. Anna herself is smart, good at sports and friendly and she becomes friends with Hayley quickly. But when Hayley inexplicably dumps Anna and begins to use her as a target in a systemic campaign of subtle bullying, Anna can't understand what is happening.
She grows closer to Melanie, but even Melanie is under the influence of Hayley and it isn't until Anna's reaction grows desperate that those around her can see the true nature of Hayley's cruel actions.
This is the second book I've read recently that has high school female bullying as a theme, and both feature attractive, popular girls as the instigators of the bullying, girls that continue their behaviour over many months, unable to move on from their resentment of their target. This book shows the way that bully's use their reputation and position to hide their behaviour from the adults around them and get their peers to join in with their behaviour.
This book is intense and eye-opening, and will open the door to discussions around this very real issue in our society.

The Pillars of the Earth

Finished October 31
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

This is the first in a trilogy. I've had it on my shelf for a while, tried it once years ago and couldn't get into it, so took it on a recent vacation for an airplane read. Started it on my trip home and got through more than half and have been carrying it around reading bits until I finally finished it today.
I enjoyed it and I think my recent read of The Plantagenets helped as I was better grounded in the history around the story this time. The story begins in 1123, with a young man being hanged, and a young pregnant woman cursing the men responsible, and goes until 1174, when King Henry performed penance for the death of Thomas Becket.
After the initial scene the action jumps ahead a few years to follow a mason, Tom Builder, as he loses a project, and makes some bad choices, bringing him to abject poverty before he finds a new position in the the town of Kingsbridge where the priory needs repair.
The prior at Kingsbridge, Prior Philip is young for his position, but came to the church young when his parents were both killed. Both he and his brother Francis were taken in by the church and Francis became a priest, while Philip became a monk.
The local earl is a widower and his daughter, Aliena, is a girl of independent spirit, with ideas of her own about governance and marriage. Her refusal of the marriage arranged by her father sets in motion a strong resentment by her jilted fiance, one that he will carry with him his entire life.
All these characters come together in Kingsbridge as the priory is rebuilt, and the rivalries at the religious level, the local governance level, and the royal level have their effects on the town and its development. The characters' lives intertwine and we see them make good choices and bad ones as they face the many challenges that life and their enemies throw at them.
An interesting look at a more human level of history, told through imagined characters set in real historical events.

Just the Way You Are

Finished October 29
Just the Way You Are by Christina Dodd, performed by Natalie Ross

This is the first book in a trilogy.
It starts with 16-year-old Hope standing outside her home in Texas with her sisters and brother, listening as the leaders of her father's church discuss her parents' death, their supposed criminal actions, and what will happen to her family now.
It then jumps ahead seven years to Hope's life in Boston, barely getting by, working at an answering service and studying hard at college. Her aim is to get a computer science degree, get a well-paying job and earn the money to find the siblings that she was so abruptly and unkindly separated from all those years ago in Texas.
Wealthy businessman Zacharaiah (Zack) givens is successful, but technologically challenges and his secretary has set him up with the answering service Hope works for (Madame Nancy's), and his butler Griswald has set him up to easily access the service from home as well. When Zack has a particularly unpleasant wrapup to a business takeover deal, his best friend challenges him to be nice to others for a particular length of time.
So when Zack calls in to get his messages and is mistaken for his butler by Hope, he goes along with it and finds himself wanting to be nice to her, in fact fantasizing about her as a result of her pleasant husky voice. As Hope enters his life, he finds her attitude refreshing, as she treats him as she would treat anyone, not deferring to his status or wealth as she is unaware of who he really is.
Zack has always got everything he wanted and so when he finds he wants Hope, he believes that he will get her, but his confidence has become arrogance, and Hope's discovery of his real identity may put his conquest in jeopardy.
Both characters have trust issues. Zack was betrayed by a supposed friend when he was younger and now assumes that everyone he meets wants something from him due to his wealth and success. Hope was betrayed by people she thought were her family's friends, and separated from her siblings against her will, all in the name of money, and she distrusts anyone with money.
This book has some very steamy and graphic sex scenes, and there were moments when I felt his character verged on too in control at the cost of Hope's wishes, but she does find her own voice here and the characters are evenly matched by the end.

Tuesday 28 October 2014

That Night

Finished October 28
That Night by Chevy Stevens

I've enjoyed Chevy's other books, which were loosely related to each other. This one is a departure, still set on Vancouver Island, this time mostly in Campbell River.
The story moves between time from early 2012 when Toni Murphy is getting out of jail on parole, 1996 when she is in her last year in high school and struggling with bullying at school and a combative relationship with her mother, and 1998 when she goes to jail after her murder conviction. We learn early that Toni and her boyfriend Ryan were convicted of murdering Toni's younger sister Nicole, but that they didn't do it.
Toni doesn't know what happened that night, but she does know that the girls who bullied her in school lied about that night and about her on the witness stand.
We see Toni adjust gradually to her life in jail and finally learn a way to go forward with her life. We see her struggles in life during that last year in high school and the events that led up to her sister's death. We see her difficult relationship with her parents, particularly with her mother. And we see how she finds that her past won't let her go until she finds a way to find the truth about what really happened that night.
The struggles that Toni has as she first encounters bullying at school are difficult to read, especially when people believe her tormentors rather than her. And her relationship with her mother starts as a typical teenage rebellion with a mother who worries about her and wants to guide her, but deteriorates as the chasm between them grows along with a lack of trust. It is Toni's relationship with her boyfriend that provides her with stability in life, and yet seems to be a focus for both her mother and the bullies.
A great story of how things can get out of control, how relationships can change, how one's reputation can make a difference, and how difficult it can be growing up.

Sunday 26 October 2014


Finished October 26
Infidel: My Life by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

I've had this sitting on my shelf for a while, and finally chose it to read recently. Ayaan tells the story of her life from her birth to the time of this book's publication. Her story is open and unapologetic. She acknowledges her actions and her mindset at different points in her life.
Her story is a wonderful example of the power of education to enlighten. Ayaan was always eager to learn, from her early questions about Allah and the Quran, to her later appetite for history, philosophy, and political theory.
She was the oldest daughter of a second wife of a man powerful in his own clan and country, and was brought up with the knowledge and culture of clans at the center of her life. As she and her family moved around, the influence of religion in her life grew stronger, and her grandmother forced her and her younger sister to submit to one of the most heinous of cultural rites, female circumcision. Within her culture, this was seen as the correct way for females to be.
Because of her father's role in rebellion against the Somalian government, she and her family lived in a variety of countries, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, as well as her native Somalia, and she was exposed to ways of life other than those of her family.
The insistence by her father to have her submit to an arranged marriage against her will, to a man she didn't know brought her to Europe, and her own independent spirit led her to seize the opportunity to escape her planned life for one of her own choosing.
Her life in the Netherlands brought her the education she so desired, and that caused her to examine the ideas that she had been taught and look at them with reason rather than faith. Once acts of Muslim terrorism and the increase in extremist Islam grew, she also found the voice to speak out against the way Islam treated women, and the way the word of the Quran was taken without any acknowledge of the world's progress in terms of knowledge and human rights.
Ayaan is a woman who has come a long way from her roots, a woman who has taken the opportunities that life has given her and grabbed them, and who speaks reasonably and openly about the injustices that she sees in the world.
This is a very enlightening autobiography.

Saturday 18 October 2014

Made That Way

Finished October 16
Made That Way by Susan Ketchen

This teen novel is a sequel to a book that I haven't yet read called Born That Way. The main character in both books is Sylvia.
Sylvia is 14 and as the book begins is awaiting the delivery of her own horse, sent to her by her grandfather in Saskatchewan. The stable owner where Sylvia has been doing her riding is a woman named Kansas and Kansas has some particular ideas about horses and their behaviour that Sylvia's new horse doesn't always meet.
Sylvia has Turner Syndrome and her health issues related to this are a big part of the story.
Sylvia is also obsessed with unicorns, dreaming of one, and associating her new horse and sometimes even herself with a unicorn.
Sylvia's mother is sometimes a bit intense, and her father controlling, but overall they seem to pay attention to her concerns. She feels a bit of an outcast at school and looks for ways to find a niche for herself there. Her cousins Taylor and Stephanie are both older than her, and Taylor and Sylvia end up getting hurt in an accident.that changes Taylor's life significantly.
Lots going on here. This book will appeal to those girls interested in horses, but also give insight into a different outlook due to Sylvia's condition.

Just Send Me Word

Finished October 11
Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag by Orlando Figes

This book is based on a collection of letters between Svetlana Ivanova and Lev Mishchenko over many years and interviews with them and others. The couple donated their private archives to Memorial, a human rights research charity in Moscow, and Figes became aware of it shortly thereafter. The letters span the time from July 12, 1946 to November 23, 1954. There are 647 letters from Lev and 599 from Svetlana. Most of these letters were not sent through official channels and so were not written with censors in mind, although they did use some code in case the letters fell into unfriendly hands.
The two met in September 1935 in the Physics faculty at Moscow University where both were students. Svetlana's father Aleksandr Alekseevich was also a physicist and graduate of the University, then working as deputy director of the Resin Research Institute. Her mother Anastasia Erofeevna was a Russian-language teacher at the Moscow Institute of the Economy.
Lev's mother Valentina Aleekseevna was a teacher and his father Gleb Fedorovich Mishchenko studied physics at Moscow University and then studied to be an engineer at the Railway Institute. He was a professor at Kiev University. Lev's parents moved to Beryozovo, Siberia to escape the Bolshevik revolution, but it found them both there and they died there after imprisonment and torture. Lev was raised by his grandmother, his Aunt Katya, and his mother's aunt Elizaveta Konstantinovna. He was also supported by his father's close friends and later by his Aunt Olga.
In June 1941, Lev had just passed his final exams and was readying himself to go on to study cosmic rays, when the war started. He was put in charge of a supply unit, but found that the front lines were in chaos and was captured by the Germans on October 3rd. Taken to a prisoner of war camp, Lev refused to spy for the Germans when pressured although he did work as a translator. He attempted to escape once and was recaptured, but during the final days of the war, when on a death march, he managed to escape with a fellow prisoner. The two were discovered by US troops and he was asked to emigrate given his physics education, but refused, wanting to go back to Moscow and hopefully Svetlana.
It is at this point that things got much worse for him. The Soviets treated all returning POWs as prisoners and collaborators, holding them in bad conditions, questioning them repeatedly trying to force confessions, and eventually tricked Lev into signing something they only read part of to him that had him admitting his guilt. On November 19, 1945, he was sentenced to death, which was commuted to ten years in labour camps.
He arrived in Pechora in March 1946, and was assigned to the Pechora wood combine, where he was able to get assigned to a drying unit, then a sawmill, and finally the power station, mostly due to his engineering and science knowledge. Svetlana, meanwhile, was working on rubber, in a job that had her with access to state secrets. This made her relationship with Lev very risky to her.
However the two not only wrote each other continuously, but Svetlana travelled to Pechora and made secret visits into the camp to see Lev. Their loyalty to each other was strong and enduring and they confided their feelings to each other without reservation.
Even after Lev was freed, they didn't marry at first due to his status as a freed prisoner. He even found job prospects difficult. But on September 17, 1955, there was an amnesty for Soviet servicemen who had collaborated with the Germans, which meant they could finally be together and lead a more normal life.
This is a moving story and also illustrative of both live in the labour camps and the general restrictions of life in Moscow as well. Figes has done a good job of pulling information together from the letters, interviews and other sources to make this narrative coherent.

Friday 17 October 2014

Tomorrow City

Finished October 9
Tomorrow City by Kirk Kjeldsen

This novel follows the young man Brendan as he is caught up in a crime that he made the bad choice to be involved in when he was desperate for money for his fledgling business, a bakery. Things go horribly wrong and more than one man is left dead. Brendan feels hunted and desperate, and sells his business and flees.
Years later he is running a successful small bakery in Shanghai under another identity, John Davis, has a wife Li and small daughter Xiaodan and enjoys a quiet simple life. Then his fellow criminals reappear in his life forcing him to take part in another desperate crime, and threatening his family if he doesn't go along with them.
The resulting chaos will change his life again and his choices will save his life but also haunt him forever.
An interesting plot.

The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms

Finished October 7
The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms: How One Man Scorched the Twentieth Century but Didn't Mean To by Ian Thornton

This epic tale follows the life of Johan Thoms, as told by the son of a man that he told it to years later. Johan was born in the village of Argona, near Sarajevo. He was injured as a child and afterward taken on as a protege by Count Kaunitz, the man whose estate he was injured on. Johan developed a love for chess during his time recovering and showed an ability to converse with those from all backgrounds. He went on to study at the University of Sarajevo and here developed a close relationship with the Count, a strong friendship with the son of the American Ambassador, as well as a deep love affair with a visiting American woman, Lorelei Ribeiro. The Count was able to arrange for his to get  work, and he ends up through a series of circumstances being assigned as the chauffeur for Franz Ferdinand and his wife as they visit the city. Distracted by thoughts of Lorelei, Johan takes a wrong turn, and Franz Ferdinand and his wife are killed. Johan feels the weight of immense guilt and flees blindly, gradually heading west.
It is Johan's deep belief that he is responsible for all the destruction of World War I and the subsequent historical deaths that followed. It is this deep belief that drives his life and separates him from his love.
Johan finds a travelling companion in a young boy, Cicero, that he befriends in a hospital and the two of them travel on to Italy, and then further, staying for a long time in a small seaside village in Portugal and starting a chess club for youngsters called the Young Hooligans. Later their travels take them to Cadiz, and then to England, and eventually back to Argona.
Throughout the story, Johan finds himself looked after kindly by nurses many times and he sees them as angels in his life.
This story is complex and often sad, but also moving and startling at times. The writing is wonderful. Here is an example from when young Johan tells his father that he has determined that he is an atheist and his father describes his view of religion. "It's like a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat which isn't there, but still finding the thing."
Well worth reading.

Saturday 11 October 2014

Andrew's Brain

Finished October 4
Andrew's Brain by E.L. Doctorow

This novel is written in a series of therapy sessions. In these sessions, Andrew tells his story, sometimes referring to himself in third person and sometimes in first person. The story is told of Andrew's marriages, and how each ended. We see his troubled relationship with his young daughter Willa and his radical solution to dealing with it. We see him accused of being a walking disaster to those nearest to him and then we see why he might be seen in this way.
This novel reveals Andrew's story gradually and we see the sadness of his life.This is a complex novel that made me want to turn back as I learned things about him and reread some previous sections of the book.
Andrew's situation is one that is only partially of his own making, but we see a sense of righteousness in him that is often his downfall.
As always, Doctorow's writing is amazing and this book is one that will stay with you.

The Weird Sisters

Finished October 3
The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

This novel follows the three Andreas sisters: Rosalind (Rose), Bianca (Bean), and Cordelia (Cordy). Their father is a Shakespearean scholar and professor at the college in Branwell, Ohio. The women are all in their late twenties or early thirties and they are all at turning points in their life. Rose has been the daughter who did what was expected of her. She got her Ph.D. and became a professor of mathematics at a college close to home. She has recently become engaged and is in the planning stages of her wedding. Her fiance Jonathan is doing a visiting professorship at Oxford and is urging her to join him, but she feels the need to be home and support the rest of her family, particularly her mother who has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. Bianca always had her eyes on the big city and making it there, and she made a beeline for New York. She's been working there as an office manager, but has recently lost her job and has financial issues that have caused her to question her life, and go home to regroup. Cordy has been a wanderer, moving around the country, picking up odd jobs and doing what she feels she has to to find a meal and a bed when she needs them. She has just realized that she is pregnant and doesn't know what she wants to do about it, but realizes that the life she is living is not sustainable for her anymore.
Rose keeps trying to take charge and organize everyone else, but she is scared to take risks and go beyond her comfort zone in her own life, and this summer will push her to stop being the tender of her family and make a life for herself. Bean is forced to find a job and evaluate her own motivations as she deals with her financial responsibilities and the bad decisions she has made. Cordy also must find a job to support herself, and look inward to find her own strengths instead of running from life.
This is a coming of age story for these sisters, but also made me think about fears, motivations, and taking chances in life. I really liked the way the whole family used quotations from Shakespeare as a kind of language with each other to question, comfort, and challenge each other as they found a new way of relating to each other.