Wednesday 28 February 2018

The Marriage Pact

Finished February 19
The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond

This novel takes a look at a young couple from the man's point of view. Jake and Alice have been a couple for a while but only recently married. Jake is a therapist who really cares about his clients, doing lots of research into the issues that he sees them up against. After returning from his honeymoon, he finds that his partners have decided that he should start offering marital counselling, and he begins looking at marriage in detail.
Alice is a lawyer, but her first career was as a musician, and that is still a big part of her life. When she recently played a big role in a major case, the client, Finnegan, wanted to personal thank the people who worked on the case, and on the spur of the moment, almost as a joke, Alice invited him to their upcoming wedding. The gift that Finnegan and his wife gave was a membership to a group that helped couples stay married. Optimistically, Jake and Alice accept the gift, but soon find that the Pact is much more than they expected it to be. And not necessarily in a good way.
At first things look okay, but then there is a punishment meted out, and Jake begins to be wary. But leaving the Pact isn't apparently an option, so Alice and Jake have to look at things more seriously. Can their marriage survive this? Can they?
A story with surprises, lots of scary moments, and main characters that definitely develop as the book progresses. A good read.

Things We Lost in the Fire

Finished February 18
Things We Lost in the Fire: stories by Mariana Enriquez, translated by Megan McDowell

This collection of short stories is well varied and often surprising. Set in Argentina for the most part, these stories include many situations. The first is told by a woman living in a nice house in a bad part of town. She's used to the neighborhood and knows what to do to stay safe, but an encounter with a young homeless boy affects her in ways she didn't expect. Another is a strange unsettling experience of a teenage girl in an old inn. A third tells of a series of experiences over several years when a young woman tries to escape her life with substance abuse. A fourth tells of a brother and sister who befriend a young girl only to be drawn into an eerie experience with a boarded up house in the neighborhood. The next is the story of a tour guide who gets obsessed with a long-dead criminal featured on his tour. The next is one that I know I've read before, perhaps in a magazine or anthology. It features a young woman in an unhappy marriage who goes with her husband to visit her family in a town near the border to Brazil. The next is told by a young girl who finds herself drawn to a schoolmate who seems to be having troubles. This is follows by a story of a young woman's obsession with a human skull she's found. The next is a young couple who move into a house they got surprisingly cheap, but the woman finds herself scared of things she can't explain. The next story has a female lawyer finalizing her evidence for a court case against police who seem to be killing vulnerable young men by throwing them in the polluted river. The next story is told by a young woman about her ex-boyfriend who seems to be retreating from life. The last, and title story, is of a group of women who burn themselves to draw attention to the issue of domestic abuse.
I found myself haunted by these stories, wanting to know more, and yet also, not wanting to know.

Small Things

Finished February 16
Small Things by Mel Tregonning, with consultation by Shaun Tan, and an afterword by Barbara Coloroso

This graphic picture book just blew me away. Done in shades of sepia, this book uses a comic format, but has no words. It follows a child through his days at school and at home as he deals with feeling alone, anxious, and sad.
The child tries, but as attempts to fit in or meet expectations fall short, they grow angry, have trouble sleeping, distance themself from others, and loses their sense of themselves. But the book also shows ways of dealing with these feelings, of realizing that they aren't the only one who feels this way, and finding ways to connect with others.
The drawings are amazing, showing the child's emotions clearly. The way the drawings show the loss of self are brilliant and relatable.
I absolutely loved this book and will be recommending it. The publisher information indicates a targeted age range of 8-12, but it can definitely be for adults as well.
The Australian author died before the publication of the book, so sadly we won't see more of her wonderful work.


Finished February 14
Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd, performed by Derek Jacobl

The novel moves back and forth between the early 1700s, where Nicholas Dyer, assistant to Sir Christopher Wren is tasked with building six churches in London, many of the rebuilt following the Great Fire, and the 1980s, where the London detective Nicholas Hawksmoor is investigating a series of uncanny murders on the premises of old churches. Hawksmoor struggles to make sense of the murders, and of the lack of any clues as to the identity of the perpetrator.
He finds himself drawn back in history and in the idea of religion in his search for motive. This is a story of character and of atmosphere. We learn a lot about Dyer, about his childhood, the loss of his family, and of his struggle to survive following that. We learn of his lifelong feeling of being apart, a man who builds churches, but doesn't have faith, or at least not for what one would expect. His nature is mephitic and his churches all have a dark secret at their center.
As the book moves back and forth, I often found myself unsure which time period I was in at any given time, and this is part of the book's nature. As Hawksmoor delves into the murders, he finds the world around him less distinct, and only the elements that don't belong to his time seem real, the tramps, the urchin children playing in the streets, and the historic buildings.
I felt the historic time strongly, with more of my senses, as Ackroyd used the details of history to bring this time to life. Dyer's words are of his time, and yet they flowed for me, seeming a bit formal but not unnatural. His wording sometimes took me a moment to understand the meaning as the words were less familiar, or used in ways different than today.
I read this book to follow the David Bowie book club promoted through his son, and this was the quickest copy I could get hold of. I have now bought a physical book version, which I will read to savour the story and words, to stop and think about what is going on, and to appreciate good writing.

Saturday 17 February 2018

Girls in Trucks

Finished February 10
Girls in Trucks by Katie Crouch

This novel follows Sarah Walters, as she grows into a teenager in South Carolina, and then finds her way to college in the North and a life in New York City. Sarah is a Camellia Society debutante because her mother was a Camellia Society debutante. Sarah forms friendships with three other girls in her year, first as they learn ballroom dancing and then as they come out as debutantes. Only one of these friendships is what Sarah considers close, but she finds that despite not talking for long periods of time, these are friendships for life.
In her high school summers, she and her friend Charlotte hang out with local boys who drive trucks, go to the beach, and have fun. Sarah's older sister Eloise is at Yale, making life-changing decisions. When Sarah picks her college, she also goes north, to a small college. Some chapters in the book, such as North, her first description of college are written in third person, talking about Sarah as "the girl" yet describing her thoughts and reactions to her new environment. Others are very much first person as Sarah talks about her life.
After college when she moves to New York City with her friend Charlotte, we see her relationships with other women and with men, but less about her work. This is a personal story, and there are often jumps between time periods, as we find ourselves reading about a later time in her life.
An interesting read.


Finished February 7
Flo by Kyo Maclear, pictures by Jay Fleck

This picture book features Flo, a small panda bear, and, as we are told on the first page of the story, the littlest in her family. Flo is also definitely one that marches to her own tune, and the story goes through her imaginary adventures, her love of music, and other things that show us her personality.
She is the one the others wait for, and when we see the weekly schedule, we see how many activities are on the agenda for the pandas. And we also see how Flo stops to take in the world around her, and interact with it.
When something goes wrong with the activity the others are doing though, they find that Flo's different way of thinking can be quite helpful. And the next day, they all try things her way.
A fun book about how it is okay to be different.

Tuesday 6 February 2018

Here So Far Away

Finished February 4
Here So Far Away by Hadley Dyer

This teen novel is set in the early 1990s in a small town in the Maritimes. The teller of the story is George Warren (her first name is Frances, but no one calls her that) who is just about to start her senior year of high school as the book begins. George hangs out with a small group of kids her age, one of whom has just moved away as the book begins. This leaves George, who is a tomboy; her best friend Lisa who is hoping to be chosen to run the play that the seniors put on every year; Nat, who seems a bit shy; and Bill, who, as the only remaining boy in the group, offers a grounding touch.
Lisa's boyfriend is good friends with a boy who has had a crush on George for years, but who she really isn't interested in.
At home George's life is going through an upheaval as her father Paul is on leave from the RCMP after getting his foot amputated due to diabetes and an injury. He's not dealing with it as well as she expected, given his reputation as "The Sergeant". George's younger brother Matthew is a geek with the constitution of a sheltered Victorian girl, fainting at even the thought of blood. George's mother is a rock in the family, but she doesn't put up with too much either, and has moved into the guest room as Paul has started smoking in their bedroom. With her dad's injury, her mother takes over his Honda, and George gets to drive her mother's car, a 1975 Lincoln Continental Town Car that the family calls Abe. George has a job maintaining a historic lighthouse that was moved off the coast to a field near their town, and with the family's financial situation tight right now, she finds herself taking a job as housekeeper to and sometimes caretaker of an old farmer, Rupert.
A new Constable has come to the area to cover the gap that Paul's leave has created, and Frances finds herself drawn to him in ways that are definitely not acceptable.
This is a story of growing up, of first love, of regrets and healing. I loved the characters here, and found myself touched by George's experiences. A great read!

What the Night Sings

Finished February 2
What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper

This novel has drawings scattered throughout, which really add to the book. Each section covers a different time period, with the book starting in April 1945 as the Bergen Belsen concentration camp is liberated. The speaker is a sixteen-year-old girl named Gerta Rausch. This camp was not her first camp, but she has survived. We see how she and other gradually begin to realize their situation, and start on the road to their future.
The next section jumps back to 1935 and covers several years, from Gerta and her father in Koln where he was a musician, through their move to Wurzburg, Gerta's growing into her teens, and suddenly being wrenched away from all that to the camps, along with her father. We see how music has been at the center of Gerta's life, and how it is music that has played a large role in her survival within the camps.
The book also follows Gerta into the future as she finds a new start in another country.
Good for teens, this novel gets inside the head of a young person who must come to terms with many difficult changes in her life, and learn many things to discover who she feels she is as she moves into adulthood.

The Lying Game

Finished January 31
The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

This suspense novel is centered around 4 women. Part of the story is told in flashback of the time they met at boarding school and the few months that they spent together there that bonded them for life. The story is told by one of the girls, Isa Wilde. Isa was sent to boarding school then for the first time in her life. Her mother was in bad health and her father decided that sending both her and her younger brother away would be easier for them and him. But it wasn't. On the train on the way to the school, Isa met first the two girls Kate and Thea, who already were going to the school, and then on the platform, Fatima. Kate boarded only during the week, living nearby on the weekends with her father and stepbrother, the art teacher for the school, and a famous painter. Thea's home life is vague but obviously an unhappy one. Fatima's parents are both doctors, who went to Pakistan for the year to work for an NGO. It is her first time at boarding school as well.
Fatima and Isa are put together in a room, near the room that the other two girls share. Thea and Kate already have a sort of game they play where they see how far they can take a lie, and without even trying the other two fit in to this game.
With the girls going to Kate's house most weekends, they grow even closer, and more separate from the other students. But when something terrible happens, and they agree to keep the secret together, they create the bond that lasts.
Now, years later, when Isa gets a text that says merely "I need you" she knows that it is Kate, and she knows that she must go. Isa is living with her boyfriend and infant daughter, and is on maternity leave from her government job. She knows that Thea and Fatima will also have received a text, and will make their way back to Kate as well. She hasn't seen any of them in years, some for longer than others. With the trip back to Kate's home, the village, and the school, come old memories, both good and bad.
This is a story filled with foreboding, where you feel constantly on edge, wondering what will be revealed next. A great read.


Finished January 29
Elmet by Fiona Mozley

This novel was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, and I can see why. Set in Yorkshire, this story around an unusual family is one of innocence, violence, and class struggle. The narrator, Daniel, is a boy, then teen, living with his older sister Cathy, and their father. They had lived with their grandmother for their early years, but when she died, they waited for their father to come, and he took them to the forest where their mother grew up, and built a home for them there.
Their father was a big man, a man whose presence alone could make others back down. He made his living by fighting other men, for money. He had been an enforcer in his younger days, but he is at heart a gentle man, one whose size dictated his life. Cathy takes after him to a certain extent. She doesn't like being indoors, and will drive herself hard to show that she is physically capable of doing something that requires skill and effort. Daniel loves both his father and Cathy, and is the more domestic of them. He gardens and cooks, does laundry and reads books. He enjoys the outdoors and isn't uncomfortable with the outdoor tasks, but he enjoys the sessions being tutored by a woman down the road, which Cathy does not.
Things are going well, until, suddenly they are not. A local landowner comes to tell them that they are living on land that belongs to him, and can't go on living there unless he gets something in return. And when the family begins talking to others in the area, they find workers and tenants who are also being treated badly by the small group of local landowners. And a plan begins to come together.
The story is told in Daniel's voice, interspersed by a later Daniel, alone and moving slowly north, following a trail he isn't even sure exists.
This is a story I had trouble getting out of my head. I needed to know what happened to bring Daniel to this later point, and to know the outcome of his trek.

Monday 5 February 2018

The Finest Supermarket in Kabul

Finished January 26
The Finest Supermarket in Kabul by Ele Pawelski

This novel is based around a real event of a bombing. There are three sections to the story, each with a different speaker. The first section is by a young Afghan man, Merza, who has recently been elected to the Wolesi Jirga, Afghanistan's National Assembly. After much delay, it looks like the Assembly is going to meet and Merza is excited, but also nervous. His family is not supportive of his political role, with his father wanting him to join the construction firm that he runs. Merza's sister is one of the few close to him that does support him. Merza is out and about on this day, meeting with an advisor and running errands. He plans to visit the supermarket as one of his stops.
The second speaker is Alec, an American journalist. Alec has spent the last three months embedded with the US army on the front lines in Helmand Province, and wants a change of perspective. His editor, Eric, hasn't sanctioned this move, but Alec thinks he can come up with a story to persuade Eric to allow it. He makes contact with other journalists, explores a little on his own, sets up a possible interview with a young teen he meets, and is among the first journalists on the scene after the bombing.
The third speaker is Elyssa, a Canadian lawyer who is on assignment in Kabul with the UN to train female judges and assist them in forming a national organization. She's been in Kabul a few months, and thinks that things are going well. She moved from a hotel to a small but secure guesthouse a couple of months ago after a hotel bombing. She socializes with many of the NGO workers, and has recently been getting close to one of them, Nate. On this day, she has a few things to do, including go to the UN compound to use the gym there, pick up some dessert to bring to a dinner she's going to that evening, and stop at a supermarket for a few things.
As we see each of these people go about their day, leading up to their visits to the supermarket and the encounters they have with locals and foreigners, we see how quickly normal activities can lead to tragedy and a new way of looking at the world around them.