Tuesday 26 July 2016

The Senility of Vladimir P

Finished July 25
The Senility of Vladimir P by Michael Honig

This novel is set a few years in the future. Vladimir Putin is no longer the leader of Russia, but instead an old man suffering from senility and living in relative seclusion on a dacha near Moscow. The main character here is his nurse, Sheremetev. Sheremetev is a singular man, one who never concerned himself with politics, who never gave or received bribes, even when all around him were involved in such activity. This seemingly ethical stance was what caused him to be chosen for the position in which he is now employed.
As he gradually becomes aware of the corruption going on all around him, the state of the country that his charge has contributed in a large way to, and the effects of his seemingly ethical stance on his family, he begins to question his own motives.
The premise here is an interesting one, and the characters are well drawn. For me, the problem was that I didn't like any of them. And the behaviour of the characters just made me angry. It was so extreme as to be a farce and I guess with the state of the world today this book just came at the wrong time for me.

Sunday 24 July 2016

The Ashes of London

Finished July 24
The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

This historical mystery novel begins with the great fire of London in early September 1666. King Charles II had regained the throne in 1660 following the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658, and Charles I's execution by beheading in 1649. The plague had appeared repeatedly in London, most recently in 1665, when the mortality rate reached one in five.
When Charles II gained the throne, most who had fought against the crown were pardoned, excepting those labelled the Regicides, those directly instrumental in the King's execution.
As the story begins, James Marwood has been drawn, along with many others, to St. Paul's as it burns in the fire. He notes a boy venturing dangerously close to the scene and seeming unsteady, and when he goes after him to save him from the fire, he discovers it is a young woman, and she escapes both the flames and him, taking his cape with her.
James' father was one of the men against the crown, although not a Regicide, and who is now slipping into dementia. James is trying to keep him housed and fed and out of trouble, and thus works at Whitehall for Joseph Williamson, who founded and published the London Gazette, as well as being a civil servant, under-secretary to Lord Arlington. Marwood worked for Williamson at Scotland Yard as a clerk.and general dogsbody. Because of his father's history, he gets drawn into events that may involve one of the men labelled Regicide, who is still at large.
The boy/woman is Catherine Lovett, now living with her aunt, uncle and cousin. Her father was a Regicide and is still uncaught. She hopes to find him again, but despairs of it. Her uncle has made a marriage arrangement for her, but she is not happy with his choice. Catherine spent a lot of time in her youth at the country home of another aunt and uncle who encouraged her interest in architecture and left her the estate when they died. Thus, while Catherine has property, she is of a time when women had few rights to behave according to their own wishes.
With the search for Catherine's father, the disorganized state of the city due to the fire, the bodies of seemingly murdered men found in suspicious circumstances, and both Catherine and James trying to protect themselves while looking for answers, this book has lots going on. Bringing elements of the real history of this time period with real figures made this book very interesting.

Destroyer Angel

Finished July 23
Destroyer Angel by Nevada Barr, read by Barbara Rosenblat

I've read a lot of the books in the Anna Pigeon series, and this is one of the more recent ones, #18 in the series. Here, Anna has joined her friend Heath, a paraplegic; Heath's teenage daughter Elizabeth, their dog Wylie; Leah, an inventor of camping equipment; and Leah's teen daughter Katie on a vacation that is also a trial of some of Leah's more recent creations, camping in a Minnesota forest.
One evening Anna takes a solo canoe excursion to enjoy some solitude, and while she is gone the camp site is invaded by four armed men who take the other campers hostage. They specifically name Leah and Katie, indicating they are looking for ransom for them. Anna is given enough warning to keep away, but she has no gear and no weapons and must resort to monitoring the situation as closely as she can while looking for opportunities to either facilitate an escape or disable the captors.
This is a story told over a few days, under conditions difficult for all involved. People get hurt, people are hungry, and there is constant worry over the possible killing of some of the hostages.
The details take up a lot of the story, details of the women's thoughts and reactions, of the environment and the obstacles to the forced trek across country to an airfield. There are advances and setbacks for Anna and the other women, and lots of suspense. An engrossing read.

Tuesday 19 July 2016

Underground Airlines

Finished July 17
Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

This novel of is set in a United States with an alternate history. This is a United States that didn't go through a Civil War, where Abraham Lincoln was killed just a bit earlier than in our reality, where slavery still exists in some states.
Given the state of things in the U.S. today, this is a novel with a terrifying premise. Victor is a black man working as an undercover slave hunter for the U.S. Marshall Service, in their mandate to enforce the 1793 Fugitive Persons Law. Why would a black man take on such a job? Easy, Victor himself is an escaped slave, blackmailed into this role to maintain his own freedom from being returned to that life.
The Underground Airlines of the title is the modern name for the Underground Railroad, still trying to free people, move them north, and help some of them exit the country entirely, many to Canada. At the point of this novel, there are only four states that still have slavery, known as the Hard Four. Other slave states renounced slavery at various times, and for various reasons. There are rules around the products that come from the slave states. Some other states have enacted Clean Hands laws to keep such goods out of the hands of their citizens. Some countries won't trade with the U.S. because of their situation.
With this particular case, Victor finds himself less able to distance himself from what he is doing, caught up in his own memories of slavery, escape, and a life of looking over his shoulder. The file is messy and raises questions, and the reaction of his unseen handler back in Washington is not normal for their interaction on these cases.
Staying at the same hotel as Victor is a white woman and her black son. Victor also gets drawn into their story, and finds a connection he didn't expect.
Winters has built a world with a history, laws, international connections, and corruption that feels so possible it is scary. Black people's skin colour is classified with a numerical and textual chart. For instance the man Victor is searching for is classified as "late-summer honey, warm tone, #76". Slaves are tattooed on the back of their necks with the logos of their owning plantation corporations. I was completely caught up in the story, barely able to put it down. A wonderful, disturbing, and important read.

Still Mine

Finished July 15
Still Mine by Amy Stuart

This suspense novel is set in Blackmore, a small remote Canadian town built around a mine that closed after a fatal accident. Clare O'Dey drives into town in her old car, identified as an outsider immediately. She finds the motel closed and the diner staff warning her off, but she finds a way to stay.
Clare is there on a job for the mysterious Malcolm. Not long ago, a local girl, of a similar age to Clare, Shayna Fowles, disappeared, and Clare is trying to find out where she is. There is no shortage of suspects: Shayna's ex-husband Jared; the neighbour and local drug dealer, Charlie, who has a grudge against Shayna's father; Shayna's father himself, angry and struggling with a wife slipping into dementia; and the town doctor, Derek, who has tried to save Shayna from herself a few times.
With the motel closed, Clare rents a decrepit trailer on Charlie's property and insinuates herself into Shayna's world, befriending her friends, her parents, and her ex. While she's a stranger to town, Clare is no stranger to this world, and she is still running from her own past.
As we gradually come to know Clare's history and the town of Blackmore, we find ourselves less sure of the facts, and more sure that something, many things actually, aren't right.
This is a dark novel, with its undercurrent of poverty, drugs, and failed industry. But it is also a story for our times, a story of a world too many know well.

Wednesday 13 July 2016

Broken Promise

Finished July 12
Broken Promise by Linwood Barclay

This book brings back characters from his previous book Never Look Away, and is the start of a new trilogy set in Promise Falls, in upstate New York. David Harwood is back in Promise Falls with his son Ethan, now 9, living with his parents until he gets a place of his own. Following the events from the previous book, David had moved to Boston to make a new start, but his job there required a lot of evening work, and he wasn't spending the time with Ethan that he wanted. So he left Boston to take a job back on the local paper, the Standard. Unfortunately for him, the paper decided to shut down, and now he has no job.
Ethan also seems to have trouble adjusting to his new situation and David is worried about some of his behaviour. As the book opens, a crisis is beginning for the extended family.
David visits his younger cousin Marla to drop off some food from his mother, and finds her with a baby. As he tries to figure out where the baby came from, he follows clues to a nearby home where the situation gets worse.
Local police detective Barry Duckworth is trying to follow his diet, and he almost welcomes the distraction of a call from the ex-mayor to come to the scene of a supposed crime. What he finds is disturbing and when more disturbing events follow, he starts to wonder if they are connected. Duckworth is a good, seasoned detective and his insight brings a lot to the situations unfolding in this novel. I liked him.
The ex-mayor Randall Finley is a real piece of work, but it is hard to tell whether he's a bad guy, or just a jerk. He definitely has bad attitudes towards women, and is not against collusion, bribery, and blackmail when it serves his own ends. He's an interesting character, but not a likeable one.
There is lots going on here, and the ending makes me want to go out and get the next book in the series.

Joy Comes in the Morning

Finished July 8
Joy Comes in the Morning by Jonathan Rosen

This novel is centered around a young woman, Deborah Green, a Reform rabbi in New York City. She wasn't raised in an observant household, and both her mother and sister aren't thrilled about her choice of profession. She has had relationships in the past, but nothing that lasted or really connected for her. A lot of her duties are to visit with people in hospitals and nursing homes.
She aims to help both the person in the home or hospital as well as their family. One such family is that of Henry Friedman. Henry has undergone a few health setbacks recently, resulting in a major change in his lifestyle, which he finds difficult to face.
It is in the hospital that Deborah meets his family. As she becomes closer to the various members of this family, she develops a more intimate relationship with them, but she also goes through a crisis of faith. She is a complex character, and shows both uncertainty and humour as she grows here.
This is a book steeped in the Jewish faith and I learned a lot about prayer and ritual that I wasn't aware of. It is also about living that faith in a real life where people aren't perfect, but where they all try to manage as best they can.
A very enjoyable, enlightening read.

Thursday 7 July 2016

The Other Typist

Finished July 7
The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell, read by Gretchen Mol

This story is set over the course of a year beginning in 1923, by a woman looking back at that year and the events that changed her life. Rose was left at an orphanage by her mother for reasons that Rose doesn't ever really forgive her for. Rose is a quiet, obedient girl and does well for herself, getting an education at a good school and becoming a typist. As the story of the year begins, we see her working as a typist at a police precinct in New York City, living at a boardinghouse, where she shares a room with another girl. She is polite with her fellow typists, but has no friends, no social life, and lives a drab existence. As the pressure to make more arrests related to Prohibition laws grows, a new typist is hired, and Odalie walks into the precinct and into Rose's life. Odalie is attractive, dresses well, and seems to have an external source of money. She gradually becomes a major influence to Rose, as Rose finds herself drawn more and more to this woman who seems to see in Rose something that Rose didn't even see in herself. As Rose's behaviour changes along with her increased exposure to Odalie, Rose does things that she never would have considered doing before and finds herself in a situation that confuses and angers her.
This is a story of influence, of the dark side of friendship. Rose is impressionable and lonely and a perfect target for someone like Odalie. Disturbing and mesmerizing, this story will have you responding to the situation as you anticipate the coming plot developments.

Lost Among the Living

Finished July 3
Lost Among the Living by Simone St. James

This historical fiction novel is set in 1921, with the central character of Jo Manders. Jo's husband Alex, a pilot with the RAF disappeared when his plane crashed in 1918 over German-held territory. His body has never been found and he didn't turn up in any POW camps or hospitals at the end of the war. Jo is in limbo, not able to receive a widow's pension as he hasn't been officially declared dead. With little money and no remaining hope, Jo agrees to a position as paid companion to Alex's aunt Dottie. She and Dottie have been travelling on the Continent as Dottie buys up art at low prices. Now they are heading back to Dottie's country home.
The main reason that Jo needs money is to pay for the costs of the mental institution that her mother now lives in. Jo never knew her father and her mother's capacity to remain living in the world deteriorated as Jo grew up, finally necessitating the move to her current home. Jo worked as a typist before marrying and, as she gradually becomes to know Alex's past through his family, she understands that there is much she didn't know about him.
There are two mysterious deaths surrounding the stately home, one of an unknown man in the woods, and one of the young daughter of Jo's employer. What really happened the day they both died, and who knew the truth.
Jo, having lived with her mother's illness, is more open to alternate expectations than many would be, and she follows the clues she finds to learn the truth.
This is a ghost story, and a story of betrayal and secrets. It is also a story of hope. As with her previous books, I enjoyed the read.

Monday 4 July 2016

Everyone Brave is Forgiven

Finished July 2
Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

This historical novel starts with the declaration of war in 1939 by England. Mary North leaves her finishing girl in Switzerland to rush back to England, where her first stop is the War Office where she volunteers. She is initially a bit disappointed to find out she's been posted to teach elementary students. In her first week, they are evacuated to the countryside, but a young black boy, whose American father is playing in a minstrel show in London connects with her and, despite being separated, the two maintain a connection. Mary finds within herself a previously unrecognized impulse to fight for those who can't fight for themselves and connects with education department administrator Tom Shaw to fight for a chance to continue teaching.
As Tom relents and offers her a position to teach the children who have been either sent back from evacuation or whose parents have brought them back, she finds a new path for herself. She and Tom also connect in a more personal way.
Tom is also struggling with his role. He doesn't want to fight, but after his roommate Alistair signs up, he feels guilt for not doing so as well. When Alistair, home on leave, meets Mary, there is a spark, and though they both fight the attraction, it is there nonetheless.
As Mary continues to find a way to make a difference in the war at home, Alistair finds himself in Malta, leading a team of soldiers to survive and work with the locals despite German blockades and bombardments.
This is a riveting tale that had me glued to my seat as I read. A story of friendship, of personal development, of social change. It shows the less humane side of behaviour in England during the war years.
Cleave drew from his own family history during the same time period, with his grandparents' real lives informing the lives of his characters. A great read.

The Excellent Lombards

Finished July 1
The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton

This novel is narrated by Mary Frances Lombard, As the book begins, she is eleven years old, her brother William is twelve and they are helping their father with haying on the farm. Her father and a cousin Sherwood co-own the farm along with a great-aunt.
Mary Frances is passionate about the farm and wanting to stay there farming when she grows up. She is intimidated by Aunt May Hill, who lives on her own floor of the main house, doesn't talk a lot, but is very handing at repairing things. As Mary Frances grows up, you see her relationships change with her earnest, hardworking father Jim, her librarian mother Nellie, her younger cousin Amanda, her brother William, and all the rest of the people in her life, family and others.
She and William have christened the two houses on the farm Velta and Volta, and are aware the partnership is a relationship that can be fraught at times.
Sherwood's father owned the farm, but when it became necessary, Jim came and worked hard and stayed and was thus rewarded for his loyalty and hard work, but it created a resentment. Aunt May Hill owns the right of way to the barn, an important piece, and while she has no children, she does have a nephew Philip, who also develops a closer relationship with the farm.
As Mary Frances watches the changes in interests, in the way the future might develop, she reacts in ways not always logical.
This is a story of people making a living off the land, but realizing there is a wider world out there, and finding their own way to live in it.
As always, Hamilton is a wonderful writer, giving us access to a character in a way that feels like we really know her.

Sunday 3 July 2016

10th Canadian Book Challenge Commitment

I am once again joining this challenge, which is hosted here. I've been doing this challenge for several years, and really appreciate John for hosting such a great challenge. He does a great summary list of books read by participants, both at the half-way mark and at the end, so if you are looking for books, these are great resources. Here's a link to the end of last year's challenge.

I once again plan to read at least the 13 required books for the challenge and, given it is the 10th year, will set the goal of reading a book from every province and territory (either author lives there or book is set there).
Let the Canuck reading begin!

9th Canadian Challenge Wrap-Up

The 9th Canadian Book Challenge ran from July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016. I read 30 books for this challenge and covered 1 territory and 7 provinces: Yukon, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Quebec, Ontario, B.C. and Manitoba, in terms of settings.

Here's the link to the guy who hosts the challenge. 9th Canadian Book Challenge

1. The Whisper of Legends by Barbara Fradkin. Finished July 3 [Set in Yukon]
2. The Birthday Lunch by Joan Clark. Finished July 5 (Set in New Brunswick)
3. The Road is How by Trevor Herriot. Finished August 6 (Set in Saskatchewan)
4. Uncertain Soldier by Karen Bass. Finished August 8 (Set in Alberta)
5. The Eye of the Day by Dennison Smith. Finished August 31 (Set in Vermont, Mexico, Germany, Cuba, Alberta, and Italy)
6. Astray by Emma Donoghue. Finished September 17 (set in various areas)
7. The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny. Finished October 4 (set in Quebec)
8. Cat Person by Seo Kim. Finished October 24 (no specified setting)
9. Happy City by Charles Montgomery. Finished November 1 (no setting)
10. Safe as Houses by Susan Glickman. Finished November 15 (Set in Toronto)
11. Strange Things by Margaret Atwood. Finished November 29 (no setting, but theme of Canadian north)
12. Calls Across the Pacific by Zoe S. Roy. Finished November 30 (set in China, Maine, and a very little in Canada)
13. Once Upon a Line by Wallace Edwards. Finished December 5 (no setting)
14. Up the Creek by Nicholas Oldman. Finished December 5 (no setting)
15. Götz and Meyer by David Albahari. Finished December 26 (Set in Serbia)
16. Light Years by Caroline Woodward. Finished January 2 (Set in BC)
17. The Thundermaker by Alan Syliboy. Finished January 30 (setting not named)
18. Hungry for Math by Kari-Lynn Winters + Lori Sherritt-Fleming + Peggy Collins. Finished January 31 (no setting)
19. Prisoner of Warren by Andreas Oertel. Finished January 31 (set in New Brunswick)
20. The Northern Queen by Kelly Evans. Finished March 3 (set in England, Denmark, and Norway)
21. Drink Dirt Eat Stone by Kyle Fleishman. Finished March 6 (set in Manitoba, B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Afghanistan)
22. This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki. Finished March 9 (Set in cottage country)
23. Tell Everyone by Alfred Hermida. Finished March 19. (No setting)
24. The Hill by Karen Bass. Finished April 1 (Alberta)
25. Heir to the Sky by Amanda Sun. Finished April 3 (Another world)
26. Satisfying Clicking Sound by Jason Guriel. Finished April 22 (No setting)
27. The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan. Finished April 24 (Toronto and Bosnia)
28. Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese. Finished April 26 (Mostly Ontario)
29. Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel. Finished April 30 (various places)
30. The Language of Secrets by Ausma Zehanat Khan. Finished June 12 (Ontario)


Finished June 30
Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett

This work of fiction speaks from the point of view of a young woman living on the outskirts of an Irish coastal village. It is told in loosely related segments of a personal, internal monologue.
Some are long, some less than a page. Whether she is thinking about tomato puree, the interaction between her and her landlady, a party she is planning, or wondering about what she has forgotten, the writing is lyrical and emotive. The scenes of her life spring to life for the reader.
A couple of examples:
Oh, Tomato Puree! When at last you occur to me it is as something profuse, fresh, and erupting. Alas, when I open the door and read for you you, the chill light comes on and shows you crumpled, cold, and, despite being well within your sell-by-date, in dire need of coaxing. 
Such domestic fluttering is always interpreted as a cue, to move a little further in and set their bag of things upon a chair. I can hear it all from the kitchen; I almost always end up in the kitchen. Looking at the dishes and the knives in the plate rack, then down at the worktop, listening. Listening. In the kitchen, near the sink, some aspect of me is waning, and I cannot pin down exactly why. I feel utterly flimsy, yet I don't look in the mirror, nothing like that; I just stand for a moment, my back to the door and my tapering hands side by side on the worktop, pressing down. Pressing down with the concentrated effort of trying to give myself a little more density. I go to the doorway. I go to the window. I go to the entrance and push closed the top half of the door.And then I move across to the fireplace; sometimes I put both hands flat against the oak beam, and then I turn, and then I finally turn. 
Some sentences made me stop reading for a bit to think about the image or sense invoked. Ones like "The smell of me like a young mouth to a compound fence." for instance. I thought about how to interpret that, what it might mean.
There is humour, pain, uncertainty, longing, simple enjoyment, and disgruntlement. I read this short book a lot slower than normal because of savouring the words, stopping to think about her phrasing, and not wanting to have it come to an end.