Monday 29 May 2017

Life on the Ground Floor

Finished May 29
Life on the Ground Floor: Letters from the Edge of Emergency Medicine by James Maskalyk

This memoir is organized in a very interesting way. Maskalyk goes alphabetically through the letters of the alphabet, with each chapter on a topic starting with a letter. There are a couple of chapters where he combines two letters for his topic. So the subtitle doesn't mean what I thought it did, which was letters from one person to another.
Maskalyk works in emergency medicine at St. Mike's hospital in Toronto, and sometimes on the trauma team. He also teaches emergency medicine at the University of Toronto, and he works as an advisor, teacher, and consultant in emergency medicine in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
This memoir of his work in this field moves between his work at St. Mike's, his work in Ethiopia, and his offtime with his grandfather in northern Alberta, near where a lot of my family came from and some still live.
The interesting comparison of a rural area of Canada, with a very urban area of Canada, and an urban area of Africa is one that emphasizes both things in common and differences. The hospital he works at in Ethiopia struggles to get the staff, equipment, and drugs necessary to treat patients properly. The patients struggle to pay for what they need. The families are a big part of the caregiving due to staff shortages, and lack of experience. In Canada, St. Mike's is right downtown, with all the difficult situations that that environment brings: drugs, violence, homeless, and mental illness. But they have staff that are well-trained, the most up-to-date equipment, and easy access to the necessary medications.
With his grandfather in rural Alberta, medical care is available, but not necessarily coordinated. At one point, he reviews his grandfather's medications and eliminates ones that don't give enough benefit for the side effects, or aren't needed. At another he accompanies him to the loca doctor, and explains his grandfather's condition and the risks he faces, becoming an advocate for the right treatment at the right time. I loved the closeness between these two men, and the way they dealt with real life issues.
Maskalyk is a man who cares deeply, who wants to make a difference in the world for the good, and who lives a life that sometimes is a lonely one.
Highly recommended.

One Perfect Lie

Finished May 24
One Perfect Lie by Lisa Scottoline, read by George Newbern

This suspense novel takes some time to let the reader into what is truly going on. It starts as Chris Brennan is starting as a teacher and coach at a high school in small town Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia. We know that Chris is not who or what he says he is, but we don't know what his real identity is, and we don't find out for a while.
He is interested in a particular group of high school boys, those on the baseball team. He is looking for one that he can get close to, and influence in some way. He has his eye on three particular boys, and those three boys we learn more about, primarily through their mothers.
Raz is the son of Susan Sematov, an executive at the nearby outlet mall. Raz's father died recently and it has affected his normally easygoing and outgoing personality. Susan is worried about him, and his future. They were all hoping that he's be drafted by a good college for his pitching expertise.
Jordan has just made the varsity baseball team after working hard over the summer to improve his skills. His mother Heather Larkin has raised him on her own, working hard at the local country club. But the new ownership is changing the way she feels about her job, and she regrets not being able to go to any of Jordan's games. She worries about the effect some of his friends have, especially those that come from wealthy backgrounds. Evan is one of those kids. His dad bought him a new BMW that cost more than Heather made in the last year, and he seems to throw around his money recklessly. He's always on his phone, and is a boy that likes to party. His mother Mindy Kostis is worried about him and about her marriage. She'd caught her husband cheating before and they'd started fresh after therapy, but he's acting odd again, and she's scared it's starting again. She's afraid that Evan has grown secretive too, and she wonders what he's up to. She's determined not to use alcohol as a coping mechanism like she did during her earlier marital crisis.
As a reader, I wondered what effect Chris would have on these boys, and I didn't like some of his methods to find out more about them.
This is a novel of secrets, of people pretending to be something they aren't, and about families and their ways of communicating with each other. It's about learning to look for the good in people and doing the right thing regardless of what others might want you to do.
I enjoyed it.

Monday 22 May 2017

The Pier Falls and Other Stories

Finished May 22
The Pier Falls and Other Stories by Mark Haddon

This collection of nine stories takes the reader to many places.
The title story tells in slow motion of the collapse of a pier at an English seaside resort, from the beginnings of the final structural failure to the cleanup months later. We see the victims and the emotions.
The Island, the second story, is one of a fairytale world, a story by a naive young woman of a fantasy that turns into a nightmare.
Bunny, the third story is set in a house on a London estate where two misfits in society connect with each other in a meaningful way.
Wodwo, the fourth story, is of a family consisting of an older couple, the three children, the children's spouses, and two of the grandchildren, coming together for Christmas where they get an unexpected visitor, whose presence precipitates a crisis that has lasting effects. It follows one of the children through the next year.
The Gun tells the story of a man looking back on an incident from his childhood that was a turning point for him, as he is at another turning point in his life.
The Woodpecker and the Wolf takes us to science fiction where we are on a small colony experiencing the emotions, physical effects, and behavioural changes that her and her companions undergo when they are so far from earth and trying to deal with unexpected problems that arise.
Breathe is another story of family, one where a woman returns to her childhood home after years away, finding that things are not as she expected, and trying to make things right, but learning that the person who needs help is not who she thinks it is.
The Boys Who Left Home to Learn Fear tells of a team of men travelling through jungle to try to determine what happened to a previous team of men who haven't returned as expected.
The Weir is the story of a lonely man, recently separated from his wife who finds himself risking his life to try to save someone unexpectedly and then finding that nothing turns out as he expected.
All of these stories have strong emotions, things said and things unsaid. Not all of them have satisfying conclusions, but they all make you stop and consider.

Home Leave

Finished May 18
Home Leave by Brittani Sonnenberg

This novel begins in a small town in Mississippi, with a very different speaker, a house. As the house tells us its history looking back on it with longing and regret, it also tells us the story of the family who lived in it, and the book continues the story of one of the daughters of the house Elise, as she leaves, marries a man who works and lives in different places in the world, has children of her own, and those children and her try to define home for themselves.
Elise left home when her mother didn't believe the terrible truth she finally had the courage to confess. At first she found religion, and sang in a Christian group as well as tried to spread the word of her church. But as she grew older, she found a man who she connected with and married him, soon becoming a seasoned ex-pat in a world she hadn't imagined as a girl.
We also see the background of Chris, the man Elise married, and the farming life he ran from. As the couple and their two daughters, Leah and Sophie, continually adjust to life in different cities and countries, it is when a tragic loss occurs that they find themselves redefining their lives and looking for more meaning and connection.

A Girl Named Digit

Finished May 16
A Girl Named Digit by Annabel Monaghan

This teen novel features Farrah Higgins, nicknamed Digit for her interest and skills in math. After encountering a difficult social situation at school, Digit has attended a high school in a new area of town where only the teachers and administration are aware of her skills, and she hides them from her peers to fit in. She is also seeing a therapist to help her manage her tendency towards obsessive-compulsiveness. Now in senior year, she hangs out with a group of girls she has been friends with the first year of high school. One day when they are watching a popular show together, she notices a series of numbers at the bottom of the screen, When she sees a different set of numbers the following week, and a third set the week after that, she can't keep herself from trying to analyze some sort of meaning from them. She finds them to be a reverse Fibonacci followed by a 911. She tries to figure out various meanings from the 911, One of them is the election of JFK as president on November 9th. At school the next day, her teacher tells them about an airport bombing at JFK airport.
Sure that she is on to something, Digit races home to tell her dad, who is a math professor at UCLA. He discounts the connection, but is willing to take her to the local FBI to make a report.
Digit gets frustrated when they don't take her seriously there, and decides to do a little sleuthing of her own, but she isn't prepared for the danger she puts herself in, and must find someone to help her.
Her second trip to the FBI is more dramatic, and she gets assigned a minder, but she finds herself distracted by the young FBI agent, and they find themselves running from dangerous men more than once as they work toward the people behind the terrorist scheme.
I really liked the character in the book as she discovers that being herself is a lot easier than hiding who she really is, and she finds that she has only looked at the surface of many of the people around her as well. Both a thriller and a coming of age novel, I found this a fun read.

A Bed of Scorpions

Finished May 14
A Bed of Scorpions by Judith Flanders

This is the second book in the series featuring book editor Samantha Clair. I've already read the first A Murder of Magpies, and the third A Cast of Vultures and thoroughly enjoyed them. This one has Samantha meeting her old friend, former lover, and art dealer Aidan Merriam for a long standing lunch date. Aidan has just found his business partner dead, an apparent suicide, but isn't sure whether something else isn't going on. He knows of Samantha's relationship with a police officer, and hopes for her help. Samantha is also on an arts committee about grants, where she has to make a presentation, and she is trying to connect with other segments of the arts world that have more experience with grant funding than she does. When Samantha calls her mother to confer, she learns that her mother is also Aidan's lawyer, making the case a true family affair.
Another plot line takes place in her office, where her highly competent Goth assistant has been offered a job elsewhere and Samantha plots for a way to keep her on board.
Samantha has a good eye for detail, that being one of her skills that make her a great editor, and this means that she can spot things that a casual observer wouldn't catch. This also means that as she gets closer to the truth about Aidan's partner's death, she also becomes a threat to someone with more to lose.
This is an interesting story about greed, jealousy, and men that don't take women seriously. A great read, with lots of humour.

Friday 19 May 2017

Tender Wings of Desire

Finished May 13
Tender Wings of Desire by Colonel Sanders

I heard about this book through a news article, and I found that it was free to download through amazon. I downloaded and found it a quick read.
First, the cover has little to do with the plot. The time setting of the story is not given, but the main character Madeline, rides a horse as she escapes her parent's home on the eve of her wedding, and has packed only a few simple dresses. She does end up in a small coastal village, where she works in a tavern, and meets a sailor named Harland Sanders, who is American. He does have white blond hair, and dark framed glasses.
Madeline did not enamor me to her, as in the first sentence of the book I found that she detested embroidery, something I love to do. She also wasn't good at any of the other things young ladies of her social class and time were expected to be good at, didn't want to fulfill her parent's expectations of a good marriage to a man of status (or get married at all really), and instead of telling anyone, ran away without a plan or much in the way of money.
Her brother was sympathetic to her situation and seemed like he would have supported her if she had stood up for herself. What she apparently wanted was an education, but she did not end up having that wish fulfilled.
When she, working as a waitress and maid in the tavern, meets the sailor Harland, she is attracted to him, but partly because he is a common man. She doesn't interact with the inhabitants of the village apart from the very few who work at the tavern, and her rooms there seem better than most working class accommodation would have been.
It was also surprising to me that Madeline would choose to give herself to Harland before marriage, given that KFC started in the American south and this book is set more than a hundred years earlier (something I surmised from the lack of automobiles).
The writing was okay, but several plot points slip. For example, when she arrived at the tavern, she tied her horse to a post out front, and then we hear nothing about the horse until the final pages of the novella. The conversations are lacklustre, and none of the characters, other than perhaps the tavern worker who hires Madeline, Caoimhe, is that interesting.
I would say "don't bother," unless you really just want to say you've read it.

Tuesday 16 May 2017

There Is No Good Card For This

Finished May 7
There Is No Good Card For This: What to Say and Do When Life is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love by Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell, illustrated by Emily McDowell

I was attracted to this book partly because I love Emily McDowell's line of Empathy Cards, and partly because scary, awful, and unfair things are happening to people I love and I always struggle trying to find a way to show I care and am glad to do what I can to help, but don't really know what to say or do. This book does help.
The book has three sections: Laying Some Groundwork; The Three Touchstones of Showing Up; and Just Help Me Not Be a Disaster.
They start with the acknowledgement that we all know empathy and compassion are good things and that we want to be helpful friends, but that we are not perfect and we're never going to be. It is important to start with your own mindset. Aligning your actions with your intentions puts you in a better place, making you more able to reach out. They share their own stories of bad things that happened, and things that people said and did, from both sides: the person bad things happened to, and the person who wanted to help people bad things happened to. This insight and the research they've put into this help with the core message in this book which is trust. They look at what the barriers are for us in doing the right thing, and explore how to surmount them.
The three touchstones of part two are kindness, listening, and small gestures. They use examples of what to do and say, and what not to do and say, and show why we often mix them up. Sometimes it is about trying to connect when we should be just listening. Sometimes it is about showing kindness and not worrying about finding the "perfect" thing to say or do. The show the difference between compassion and pity and why it is so important not to go to pity. They also emphasize that even if you have been through something similar, this is not you, and they won't feel exactly the same way that you do, so don't assume they will. This means never using that line "I know how you feel," in any of its disguises. You don't. Instead, listen to them, but don't press them to talk if they aren't ready or willing to. Just show that you are there willing to listen if and when they are ready. Don't obligate them to respond to you if they aren't ready. Make sure they know that. For all of these three things in part two, they give good examples and show situations with possible actions.
The third part goes into more detail about what we might say, and why not to, and suggests things to say instead. They give some cheat sheets for different situations. Remember that it isn't about you. It's about them.
A great book, and so useful.

Sunday 7 May 2017


Finished May 4
Fractured by Catherine McKenzie, performed by Teri Clark, Scott Merriman, Amy McFadden, and James Foster

Suspenseful, this novel begins just as Julie and Daniel Prentice and their young twins move into their new home in Cincinnati. They've left Tacoma after having issues with a stalker, Heather, following Julie's first novel, The Murder Game, written under her maiden name, Julie Apple. Like the author, Julie went to law school in Montreal, at McGill University, and her novel is based on some of her law school experiences. Julie works off her stress by running, and as she returns from her first run, she meets her neighbour from across the street, John Dunbar, and his teenage son, Chris.
The novel goes back and forth from this time, and the months that follow, to a time nearly a year later after some sort of accident has occurred. The story is told by John Dunbar in the time after the accident, and by alternating voices of Julie and John in the months preceding.
Julie had friends in Tacoma, including a close friend she ran with, but somehow she seems to get off on a bad first start in her new city.
She works at home, writing her next novel while Daniel is at work and the kids at school. She and John sometimes run together, but his wife Hanna, a lawyer, seems to feel threatened by the relationship. There is a homeowners group on their street, started and organized by Cindy Sutton, a woman with definite ideas. Cindy organizes monthly get-togethers, and mans a website, and regular newsletters. At the first party the Prentices attend, at Cindy's house, they learn of the no alcohol rule, and witness her tyrannical and blaming nature. After that, Julie can apparently do no right in Cindy's books, and Cindy keeps making rules to shut Julie out.
With Julie feeling more and more ostracized, the tension in the neighbourhood is high, and, because as the reader you know something happens, the suspense as it leads up to the "accident" is high.
This is a story of inclusion and exclusion, of how it feels when you don't belong, and of the frustrations of that. It is also a tale of guilt and remorse, as characters look back on their actions with "what ifs".

Blue Lightning

Finished May 1
Blue Lightning by Ann Cleeves

This mystery featuring Jimmy Perez of the Shetland police, takes place on Jimmy's home island of Fair Isle. Jimmy is visiting his parents with his fiance Fran. It is her introduction both to the island and to his parents. The weather is gearing up for a storm as they arrive, and the flight in is a bumpy one.
A lighthouse station at the north end of the island has automated and been renovated into a field centre for studying birds and plants. The head of station is Angela, with her husband Maurice doing most of the administrative work. Angela's assistant is Ben, and the cook and housekeeper for the centre is Jane. This is not a busy time for bird watchers, but there are four staying at the centre as this novel begins, two men and a married couple. Maurice's youngest daughter from his first marriage, Poppy, is also there.
Jimmy's parents have planned a party celebrating his engagement, and booked the field centre with Jane catering as the venue. The party goes well, but when a woman is found dead at the field centre the next morning, and the storm has hit in earnest, Jimmy finds himself investigating alone, something he isn't entirely comfortable with. It seems like the suspects are limited to those at the centre itself, but Angela's past behaviour and competitiveness have Jimmy looking into many motivations to make sense of the crime. When a second body is found, he knows that the killer is desperate and he must move quickly to prevent further deaths.
This is the fourth book in the series and seeing Jimmy back in his home island is interesting. I like both him and Fran as characters, and found the island fascinating.