Sunday 29 March 2015

Ladies' Night

Finished March 28
Ladies' Night by Mary Kay Andrews

This novel follows Grace as she undergoes a major change in her life. As the book begins, Grace, an interior design blogger, has discovered her husband having sex with her assistant. She reacts in anger, driving her husband's expensive convertible into their pool.
She can't stay in the house with him and runs to her mother, who owns a dive bar, The Sandbox, with an apartment above. She soon finds that leaving her home may have been a tactical mistake, as her husband locks her out of her home, her blog, and her bank accounts.
She is assigned a misogynist judge who doesn't even want to listen to her side of things and assigns her to go to divorce therapy with a specific therapist.
At the therapist, Grace meets a few other women, and one man, who all reacted in anger to provocations by their partners. The therapist's behaviour seems odd to them, and when they go out for drinks to The Sandbox afterward to discuss their impressions, they decide to dig deeper into things to look at both the judge and the therapist more closely. The post-therapy sessions at the sandbox become a regular thing.
Grace, forced to start again, finds a small classic home near her mother's that the owner needs to clean up significantly after bad tenants. She also finds there a new friend in the guise of an abandoned dog that she takes on and names Sweetie.
She also connects with Wyatt, that man assigned to the same therapy group and one who has his own struggles with marriage breakup, and a young son who is sensitive to the emotions involved.
As Grace rebuilds her life both on a personal and a business level, she finds that she wants a simpler life and is willing to fight to take her chance at happiness.
I liked the characters here, each with their own issues and story, and most with some depth to their characterization.

Saturday 28 March 2015

We Are Not Ourselves

Finished March 27
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

This novel begins in 1951, with ten-year-old Eileen Tumulty living in a small apartment in Queens with her parents, and a lodger. Eileen's father was a laborer who had a certain role in the community of giving advice to other men, setting himself up in a local pub every afternoon. Eileen longs to escape this life and studies hard, going on to get her nursing degree, and eventually her masters in nursing. When she meets Ed Leary, a research scientist, she thinks he will go on to great things and give her the upscale life she longs for. But Ed has different values, and his way leads to a limited academic career.
The couple and their son Connell live in a three family house in Jackson Heights, with the owner and his family members occupying the other two units. Even as things improve financially, Eileen feels limited by her surroundings and dreams of a house in a more upscale neighbourhood. Connell is also studious, doing well in school and gaining a scholarship into a better school in the city. He has a couple of friends in the neighbourhood, but feels out of place, constantly searching for an identity of his own.
As Eileen realizes a move to a new home, Ed's difficult behaviour is uncovered to be a health issue, and everything changes for the family. As Ed's health diminishes, Eileen becomes more and more isolated, living her life in a rotation of work, duty, and sleep that leaves her unhappy and unfulfilled. Connell also struggles, unable to support his father in the way Eileen wants, and unable to see what his own future holds for him.
As this tale takes us through these characters lives, up to 2011, we see the struggles, the dreams, and the hearts of them. It is really about these people, looking into what drives them, what frustrates them and what they feel about their world.
I particularly liked Eileen's venture back to her old neighbourhood near the end of the novel, and her enlightenment as a result.

The Drop

Finished March 25
The Drop by Dennis Lehane, performed by Jim Frangione

This short novel is a mix of genres, all taking place within a small couple of neighbourhoods. Bob Saginowski, a bartender who lives alone in the house he grew up in, hears a noise as he is walking home from work one day. He follows the sounds to a trash can, finding a puppy, badly beaten and left for dead. Nadia Dunn, the woman whose trash can he found it in hears him and quizzes him on what he is doing. After some hesitation, Bob agrees to adopt the puppy and names him Rocco after the patron saint of bachelors, dogs, and the falsely accused among other things.
Bob works at a bar that used to be owned by his cousin Marv, something Marv is still very resentful of. The bar is now owned by Chechen mobsters, who sometimes use it as a money drop for other activities. Bob faithfully attends his local church, but never takes the sacrament. He has something he feels that he cannot be forgiven for.
When Bob is approached by a psychologically unbalanced man, Eric Deeds, who claims the dog belongs to him, Bob is forced to take action, He has developed a tentative friendship with Nadia around Rocco, and feels a hope for the future that he hasn't had in years, one he doesn't want to give up. He also feels a strong connection to the dog and is outraged at the thought of giving him back to the man who beat him.
Meanwhile the bar has become a target for thieves, hoping to hit the bar on a night that it has been chosen to be the drop. The case draws the interest of a cop who attends the same church as Bob and begins to wonder at Bob's reason for not taking the sacrament.
An interesting tale of a number of lonely people, all struggling to find a connection that will make them feel less alone, even if only for a short while.
Frangione provides just the right tone and voice for this story.

Wednesday 25 March 2015

The Buried Giant

Finished March 24
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

This novel is set sometime in medieval England, long after the Romans left, shortly after the time of King Arthur. A small hill warren community has an older couple living in it named Axl and Beatrice. The couple have recently had privileges revoked for reasons they don't understand. Their memories seem elusive, lost in the mist that often seeps over their home. They seem to remember that they should go find their son and determine to make the journey.
The first stop along the journey is a Saxon village where Beatrice wants to seek the advice of a wisewoman there, They also plan to spend the night as a fellow Briton, Master Ivor married a Saxon woman and lives there. When they arrive the village is in a state of great upset. A man has been killed and a youth has been kidnapped. A visiting warrior, Wistan, vows to find and rescue the lad and kill the monsters that took him.
This is a world where ogres, dragons, and other magical creatures are accepted and acknowledged as part of the world they live in, and where the couple find their journey leads them to places they didn't imagine they'd go, and brings back memories both good and bad, testing and strengthening their love as they go.
This is a magical tale with deeper meanings and a sense of timelessness to it. Well worth reading.

The Extraordinary Life of Lara Craft (not Croft)

Finished March 20
The Extraordinary Life of Lara Craft (not Croft) by Lola Salt

This send-up of chicklit is written by the duo Becky Wicks and Sarah Alderson under the pen name Lola Salt.
Lara, an attractive 24-year-old British woman, has recently been dumped by her boyfriend Carlos, a performer in the Cirque de Feteesh-Folie, Dumped for a contortionist. And then she is fired from her job with the circus.
Lara lives in a room in the apartment of her best friend Lucy. She hasn't got any money saved up, and is worried about the upcoming rent payment.
She has a date set up with a childhood friend Jamie that she hasn't seen in years. Her mother has told her that he does something in IT. She envisions him as a geek, but is pleasantly surprised when she meets him that evening. Unfortunately she both drinks too much and has a bad reaction to the food, which makes her evening memorable in an unpleasant way. Jamie does however refer her to a guy who runs a concierge company for a job.
The concierge job leads Lara to a wide variety of places around the world, from a California amateur filmmaker to an Australian cowboy to a Dubai prince, she meets a number of interesting people, makes a new friend or two, and finds that what she really wants isn't what she thought.
The writers made a couple of youtube videos of characters in the novel. One from California is shown here  and one from Bali here.
Humorous and surprising, this novel is a light-hearted read that will keep you amused throughout.

Thursday 19 March 2015

The Fates Will Find Their Way

Finished March 16
The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard

This novel is very unusual.
The unnamed narrator speaks for a group of men who all went to school together. When they were in high school a female student at the school, Nora, disappeared and no sign of her was ever found. Part of the novel tells of the effect this had on the boys, and the adults in their lives. The girls don't seem to really play into this narrative. There is one girl who hangs out with the boys that is mentioned in the beginning, one girl that never marries that get mentioned more for her sexy mother than herself, and there is Sissy, the younger sister of Nora, who reappears throughout the novel. The girls in high school barely get a mention, and the ones that end up as wives of these men don't even get named.
The narrator talks about "we" as the group of boys react, grow up, get married, have kids. He talks about some of the boys/men by name telling their particular stories.
You get a sense of their lives, the regular get-togethers of these guys, their group obsession with Nora and her fate, their lives moving on in ordinary mundane ways.
The other part of the book is about the boys'/mens' fantasies about what happened to Nora. Did she get lured away or did she leave on her own? Did she drive away with someone or go to the airport and fly away? Was she pregnant when she left or not? Did she marry? Where did she go? There are occasional "sightings" of her, some of them caught on camera, but the men can never agree if it is really her they saw.
I'm not sure what I really think of this book, as I find it is taking me some time to process. The nature of the narrative, the vagueness of the setting, the uncertainty of Nora's imagined life, make this a cross between everyman and an unnatural obsession with a girl they don't even know very well.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

The Nightingale

Finished March 17
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

This novel is set mostly in France during World War II, but as a memory of that time by a woman looking back from 1995. You aren't sure who the woman is until near the end of the book.
As the war begins Viann Mariac is living in the Loire valley with her husband Antoine and her daughter Sophie. When Antoine gets called to go off to war, Viann is upset. Her father had gone away to fight in World War One, and came back a changed man, no longer interested in being the father she and her younger sister needed. When her mother died shortly after, her father abandoned the two girls in this country house. Viann found her best friend Rachel, and Antoine, but Isabelle didn't settle and Viann was too caught up in her own life's issues to take care of her in the way she needed. Instead Isabelle was sent off to boarding school, bouncing from one school to another as her behaviour caused her to be sent away. And that is her situation as the war begins, once again sent home to Paris and her father from a boarding school. This time her father sends her to Viann again, but she is caught on the road during the mass exodus from the city, and struggles to reach the village in the Loire valley.
Isabelle's temperament doesn't suit her life of living in a quiet village doing what she is told, and the German occupation doesn't leave room for her outbursts without endangering Viann and Sophie. So when an opportunity to do something meaningful comes her way, Isabelle takes it, and Viann assumes she is doing something silly and impetuous once again.
As the war continues, both sisters find that circumstances throw them into the path of difficult decisions and risky actions, and as different as the two women are, they both resent the German presence strongly and hope for an end to the war that will let them live lives of happiness with those they care about.
I enjoy books of this time period, particularly those with strong female characters such as these. The plot was good and I liked the way the story was set up as a woman looking back on this time in her life.

The Paying Guests

Finished March 16
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, read by Juliet Stevenson

This historical fiction novel takes place over several months a few years after the end of World War I. Frances Wray lives with her mother in a large house in the Champion Hill neighbourhood of London. Frances' brothers were both killed in the war, and her father died more recently, leaving behind a little financial resources to support them. The two have decided to take in lodgers to get enough income to allow them to stay in the house.
Frances had a brief, but intense relationship with another woman that ended after the parents' of the two young women became aware of it. She has resigned herself to a life as a spinster, living with her mother.
However, once Mr. and Mrs. Barber move into the upstairs rooms in the Wray's house, Frances finds herself making a connection with Mrs. Barber, that renews her feelings of hope for happiness and love.
In this time period, relationships between two people of the same sex were definitely not acceptable, and Frances is well aware of the challenges facing her, especially after her parents' reaction to her earlier relationship, a reaction that caused her to retreat from that lover. She is a few years older now, and the war has made her more aware of the uncertainty of life, and she feels more willing to take such risks. Lilian Barber however, is of the lower clerk class, and has much more to lose through her relationship with Frances. Her married status is an additional barrier, and although she cares deeply for Frances, she is more uncertain of moving from a secret relationship to an open one.
This novel is definitely of its time, giving the reader a real sense of the lives of these characters within their social context.
I found the characters deeply interesting, particularly their development after a major event changes their lives forever, although I didn't particularly like Frances or Lilian.

Sunday 15 March 2015

How To Paint a Dead Man

Finished March 15
How To Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall

This novel has four interlinked characters who tell their stories in alternating chapters. Each story is told at a different point in time and all have some relation to the world of art.
In the chapters titled "The Mirror Crisis" Susan Caldicutt is mourning the accidental death of her twin brother. She has always felt connected to him and now she feels that part of herself is missing. In response, she has both retreated from those who care about her, and acted out in a way that will be devastating to those who care about her if they discover it. Susan works as an art curator at a small gallery in London, and is also an art photographer making a name for herself. Susan's story is the one that occurs in the most recent time period of the four.
The chapters titled "Translations from the Bottle Journals" tell the story of Giorgio, an Italian painter in the last months of his long life. Giorgio is most famous for his numerous paintings of groups of bottles, but they aren't his only painting subjects. Recently has been getting letters from a young British painter, Peter, who admires him. The letters tell of Peter's experiences as well, but do not include a return address, so Giorgio thinks about how he would respond to Peter. Giorgio has also been teaching art at the local school at the request of a teacher there. He has enjoyed his sessions with the students, and finds he makes connections with the students, particularly with one young girl with vision issues. Giorgio's story is the earliest story, taking place about 1965.
In chapters titled "The Fool on the Hill", a British middle-aged landscape painter, Peter Caldicutt, enjoys his rather bohemian rural life with his wife and two children. His children are now young adults, He is Susan's father, and the older version of the young artist who wrote to Giorgio. For years, Peter and his wife Lydia lived in poverty, struggling for a living, with Lydia working multiple jobs. Once Peter gained recognition, their lives became less precarious, but they still live in the rural village near the hills that inspire much of Peter's art. It is on one of these treks for inspiration that Peter becomes trapped and allows his mind to look back on his life, telling his story.
The chapters titled "The Divine Vision of Annette Tambroni" give us the story of the young woman Annette. Annette lives in a small Italian town, and is blind. Her family owns greenhouses where they raise flowers, and after her loss of sight became complete, she began to work in the local market, selling flowers from a small stand. She misses her school days, particularly the art classes from an aging local painter, Signor Giorgio. He thought she had talent, and encouraged her. Annette's mother is caught in depression, mourning Annette's father and performing odd pious acts. She has two brothers who still live at home, Maurizio who works in the greenhouses, and Tommaso who is still in school and thinking of winning bike races for Italy. Annette's goes regularly to the local cemetery to place flowers on her father's grave and also on the tomb of Signor Giorgio. She knows her flowers well, and has both a wisdom of the ages and an innocence of the world to her.
The book title is inspired by a guide written by an Italian artist Cennino d'Andrea Cennini, which is included at the end of the novel.
Characters are important here, but so also are the experiences of the senses. The reader is awakened to the experiences of each character's world in beautiful language.

The Snow Queen

Finished March 15, 2015
The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham

This novel is set in New York City and takes place over a 4 year period from just before the 2004 US elections to just before the 2008 US elections.
It follows a few related characters. Barrett is a middle-aged gay man who has just been dumped, and he isn't sure why. When he is walking home one night, he experiences a light in the sky that has a significant effect on him, but that he feels should lead to more. Barrett lives with his older brother Tyler and Tyler's girlfriend Beth. Beth is fighting cancer, and Tyler spends much of his time looking out for and after her. Barrett works in a small store that sells trendy merchandise, new and used, a store owned by his friend Liz. Liz started the store with Beth.
Despite his promising education, Barrett's life is one of the working poor. Tyler's role has been to look out for him, hence the living arrangements.
We see their relationship change over this period of time, and we also see their relationships with lovers change.
The morning after Barrett sees the light, Tyler awakens to a room whose open window has allowed snow to come in, and as he moves to close it, a piece of snow lodges in his eye. This and other references throughout relate this tale to the classic fairy tale of the snow queen.
This is a novel of relationships, of their changing nature, and of the serendipity of meetings that can lead to new relationships. An interesting novel.


Finished March 14
Frameshift by Robert J. Sawyer

This science fiction novel is focused on a couple. Pierre Tardivel is a Canadian geneticist now working at a lab in California. Pierre knows that his father had Huntington's disease, and that therefore his chances of having it are fifty-fifty. His girlfriend, Molly Bond, has the ability to read people's thoughts when they are close to her. Their relationship works well because Pierre still thinks in French, a language Molly doesn't know and doesn't try to learn.
Pierre can get insurance coverage at work, but only if he undergoes the genetic test that will tell him if he has Huntington's, something he is loath to do. But even if he has it, he will be covered. Pierre grows interested in Molly's gift and looks at her DNA to figure out what makes her different in this way.
Meanwhile Avi Meyer, a federal investigator, is working to find former Nazis, and his path coincides with Pierre's when an attempt is made on Pierre's life. Pierre also starts to look at whether this attempt was more than coincidental, and who else has been murdered in the area. His research takes him in down several paths, not all of them successful.
And, of course, strung against Pierre's avenues of research is the ever-debilitating disease within him, limiting his own ability to move, think, and live the life he wants.
This is a novel of science, but also one of ethics. An interesting look at DNA and its inner workings alongside mankind and our motivations.

Saturday 7 March 2015

The Romanov Cross

Finished March 7
The Romanov Cross by Robert Masello

This tale takes place on a small Alaskan island, St. Peter's Island, near the mainland village of Port Orlov. The island is rocky and treacherous and most people have avoided it since the small community of Russians who lived there died of the Spanish Flu in 1918.
But when a fishing craft drifts too near, and the lone survivor comes back with a carved wooden lid of a coffin, questions are raised.
Dr. Frank Slater is an epidemiologist who, in making a call in Afghanistan to try to save the life of a young girl, countermands orders and is dishonourably discharged from the army. But his sentence is stayed as he is tasked to put together a team to investigate the situation on St. Peter's Island and ensure there is no possibility of contagion from the graves there.
Slater uses Port Orlov as a staging base for his work, and the mayor there, a native woman, becomes involved after noting that the island is native territory. The small team encounters strange things there, and finds that they aren't the only ones present on the island, and the intruders may be risking more than they thought in trying to find a treasure they imagine to exist.
The story of what happened on the island has a long trail back, a trail that leads to the Russian royal family, to the always mysterious fate of the youngest daughter Anastasia, and to the legacy of the monk known as Rasputin.
This is a tale of greed, love, death, and tragedy, a tale with a long history, and a touch of the paranormal. A great read.

Friday 6 March 2015

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy

Finished March 6
The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce

This novel is a follow-up of a sort to the earlier book The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. In that novel, Harold undertook a journey to Queenie. This book reveals Queenie's story, her feelings for Harold, her relationship with him and how it developed over time. It also reveals her interactions with David, Harold's son, and her underlying feelings of guilt for hiding this relationship from Harold and how she felt she failed David.
Queenie is living in a hospice, dying from cancer, and we learn her story gradually, how she first came to Kingsbridge and worked at the brewery and met Harold, how she left there and where she went, how she came to live by the sea, and how she came to where she is now.
We meet the other patients at the hospice, Mr. Henderson, Barbara, The Pearly King, and Finty are particularly memorable. We meet the staff, mostly nuns who look after the patients there, seeing to their needs and making their final days more comfortable and helping them find small joys.
It is one of these nuns that Queenie meets and that spends time with her, urging her to tell her story in a letter to Harold. Queenie can't speak properly due to her cancer, and struggles to write with a pencil her story. Sister Mary Inconnue then transcribes it with her typewriter. She also seems to connect with Queenie more intimately than the other nuns, understanding her needs and helping her find the joy and comfort in her surroundings, taking notice of people and objects beyond her to ease her own pain, sadness, and discomfort.
This is a book reflecting on life, love, the connections between us all, and beauty in the world around us. The love song of Queenie isn't only for Harold, it is for herself, and for the world she experienced and imagined.