Wednesday 17 August 2016

Under the Wide and Starry Sky

Finished August 13
Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan, read by Kirsten Potter

This fictional biography is based on the lives of Fanny van de Grift Osbourne and Robert Louis Stevenson. As the book begins Fanny has taken a ship to Europe with her children, ostensibly for her and her teenage daughter Belle to study art, but the real reason was to get away from her husband who was openly cheating on her. Fanny had married young and impetuously and while she still admires many qualities of her husband, she cannot live with his weaknesses.
In Europe, she is still a woman unsure of herself, and her uncertainties show in her interactions with men, obviously looking for confirmation of her attractiveness, as well as her rebelliousness, shown in one way as she openly smokes in an age where women did not do so. Fanny is an unconventional woman, and it may be this that draws the interest of Stevenson to her. He was a decade younger than her, and a bit of a rebel himself, choosing to be a writer rather than the lawyer he was trained to be or the engineer his family had hoped he would be.
Their relationship goes through much drama as Fanny first rebuffs him, then accepts him, then returns to her husband to try to make the marriage work, then finds herself no better off and looks to Louis for support again.
Louis has had health issues since he was a child, and while he has periods where he is well, he has relapses where he is near death. Fanny often takes on the role of nurse to him during these periods, where she can be selfless in her care for him, but she is also a woman highly sensitive to the opinions and judgments of others. She is very emotional and nonconformist, and very capable, but also a woman who worries about her own worth in the eyes of others.
I found this book very interesting, particularly in terms of the life of Stevenson, whom I knew very little about personally prior to this. I had recently read a book, To Travel Hopefully, that references Stevenson's journey from his book Travels with a Donkey, which had intrigued me to buy that book, currently waiting on my shelf to be read.
This novel goes beyond that experience of Stevenson and follows him and Fanny through their lives as they eventually marry, as Stevenson writes the books that made him famous, and as they search for an environment that will be beneficial to Stevenson's health. They were an unconventional couple who did many things that were extraordinary for their times. This book brings them to life, in all their complexity, and draws this reader beyond to search out the books that related to the different times in their lives.
Stevenson wrote the poem that was drawn on for the title of this novel:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
A poem well known for the last two lines, but whose origins and meaning are entwined with Fanny and Louis' relationship.

Harriet Beamer Takes the Bus

Finished August 11
Harriet Beamer Takes the Bus by Joyce Magnin

Harriet Beamer was expecting her son Henry and his wife Prudence just before Christmas, and while preparing the house she fell and hurt her leg. Insisting that she wasn't badly hurt against her daughter-in-law's worries, Harriet agreed to move out to California from her home in Pennsylvania if she had truly broken something. And so the motivation for the plot of the novel is set.
As she is doing the final preparations to give her house up to the new owners and hand over her belongings to the mover, Harriet is suddenly struck by the realization that she has never really been anywhere. Her late husband Max wasn't a big traveller and so they only did an annual trip to the Jersey shore each summer, and she hasn't gone anywhere since his death fifteen years ago. As she packs up her large collection of salt and pepper shakers, she sees that they have all been given to her by others who travelled to these places. And so, she sends her aging, beloved dog Humphrey out to her son by plane and decides to travel west her own way, using local buses and trains as much as possible to see the country.
Henry, more than Prudence, worries about her travelling alone in such a way, but her friend Martha is supportive. As she wanders west, seeing the sights, purchasing more salt and pepper shakers and sending them ahead, and making new acquaintances, Harriet gains confidence, knowledge and rich experiences. She documents her trip in her journal, writing to her late husband there, and relying on a higher power to take her where she needs to go.
This is a novel of faith, of adventure, and of independence. Harriet is a real character, and I enjoyed her moments of discovery, her quiet calmness in adversity, and her sense of adventure.

Tuesday 9 August 2016

The Corners of the Globe

Finished August 7
The Corners of the Globe by Robert Goddard

This is the second book in the The Wide World series, following The Ways of the World. The book opens with James "Max" Maxted in the Orkney Isles of Scotland on a mission that few men could accomplish. If he achieves his objective, it is still only the beginning of a trek back to conveying the information to men he knows will do something productive with it.
In a world of espionage and double agents, Max is unsure who he can trust, and who he can't. He is sure of a very few people.
Max's real goal is to find out why his father Henry died, and the trail leads him back to Paris following a name first given to him by a silent man. As the name comes up again and again, he knows it means something important. His friend Sam also faces threatening circumstances in Paris as some think he knows more than he does. As he tries to work out how to protect himself against the coming threat, he also gathers information to pass on to Max.
Max is an amateur in a game of professionals, and this works both for and against him. His naivety gets him in trouble, but his recklessness also saves him and others. A thriller with lots of intrigue, this book ends in a cliffhanger, pushing us toward the third book in the series.

Monday 8 August 2016

Red Stone

Finished August 2
Red Stone by Gabriele Goldstone

This children's novel draws on history, telling the story of a young girl and her family who lived as landowning farmers in the Ukraine during the 1930s, drawing on the real life of the author's mother. Katya is the oldest child in the family and as the book begins she has recently turned ten and it is the spring of 1929. Her aunt Helena married a Bolshevik within the last year and has come to visit, but Katya's father isn't diplomatic in his dislike of the new regime. The story of Katya and her family continues over the next two years and the regime tightens restrictions against religious beliefs, land ownership, and culture. The red stone of the title is a piece of stone from the base of the windmill on the farm that Katya's family owns. It is a symbol to her of security and strength.
As Katya, her mother, and her siblings are forced to a labour camp in Siberia, she finds that strength in herself and the stone is a reminder of her roots.
This is a story of sadness and destruction, but one based on real history. Some of my own family members experienced similar trials. I would encourage those whose children read this to discuss the book and the history to give context and answer questions that will arise.

Tuesday 2 August 2016

Far From True

Finished August 1
Far From True by Linwood Barclay

This novel follows another one I read recently, Broken Promise, with many of the same characters, along with some new ones, and continuing plot lines. One of the central characters here is Cal Weaver, also featured in Barclay's book A Tap on the Window. Cal is working as a private investigator here, and he gets involved in a couple of plot lines. One new one is the death of a man who has some secrets his daughter wasn't aware of, and the other is the continuing plot line of Sam, a young mother whose ex is in jail and whose in-laws blame her.
One of the themes of a recurring number related to crimes in the community continues here as well, getting more intense. The head of security from the local college is a more central character here as he gains depth.
Local ex-mayor Randall Finley is still vying for another chance at leading the community, but definitely lacks social graces, putting his foot into it even as he tries to become more appealing. And detective Barry Duckworth is still trying to find time to put in on two murders, which he believes are related.
There is so much going on here that it is hard to keep track of, but still very entertaining. Many characters are appealing and I found myself hoping they would come through this unscathed. A page-turning read.

Monday 1 August 2016

The Ways of the World

Finished July 31
The Ways of the World by Robert Goddard

This novel is the first in The Wide World trilogy. Set in 1919, shortly after the end of World War I, the book occurs mostly in Paris, where the world's nations are engaged in the Paris Peace Conference. One of the British delegation is Henry Maxted, a diplomat who has served in countries from Japan to Brazil to Russia. Henry's youngest son, James (known to most of his friends as Max) has recently come home after being in a POW camp for the last half of the war. Max has plans with a mechanic friend of his to start a flying school and Henry has agreed to let him use some of the family's estate for the location.
When Henry dies suddenly under suspicious circumstances, the authorities seem quick to deem it an accident. But Henry's widow sends both her sons to Paris to learn more details and bring their father's body home, knowing the personalities of both and relying on Max's sense of duty to his father to delve into the real story around the death.
This story has a lot going on, with the uncertainty of the political landscape at this historical point, spies, double agents, sexual liaisons, and other strong relationships. Max is young, smart, and determined, but he doesn't always consider the risks of his actions. Besides lots of plot twists, there are also a lot of interesting characters. From Russian monarchists to Arabic cat burglars, Brazilian rubber planters to American fixers. I liked Sam, the mechanic, the best, but even he had his weaknesses. The book ends with a new venture, leading us into the second book in the trilogy.

Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box

Finished July 26
Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box by Jonarno Lawson, paper cuts by Alec Dempster

This book of poetry was one I heard of by word of mouth and ordered from my favourite bookstore. I later found that it was designated as a children's book, but I think it is good for all ages. 
The paper cuts that illustrate it are black and white and very appealing and are inspired by Mexican fandango music, which is full of riddles. To me this adds an additional layer to the poetry. 
The poems use rhyme and rhythm to enchant, but many also use classic folk tales and fables as a basis for the subject, something that again adds an additional layer to the poems. 
I found these poems demanded to be read aloud to gain the full effect, and some of them turned out to be real tongue twisters, adding to the fun.