Thursday 25 October 2018

Too Young to Escape

Finished October 19
Too Young to Escape: A Vietnamese Girl Waits to be Reunited with Her Family by Van Ho and Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

This children's book tells the story of Van Ho, beginning in May 1981. Van woke up at her usual time of 5:00 a.m. one morning, noticing that most of her family wasn't there. Her mother and older sisters often rose early to get a start on their work, but her older brother Tuan wasn't there either. Only herself and her grandmother Bà Ngoại were there. She closed her eyes again as her grandmother rose, and got up when she left their sleeping quarters. Van had some breathing issues, and took a bitter medicine in the mornings to clear her lungs and help with her breathing. After washing, she went down to the level where her aunt and uncle, owners of the house they lived in, slept and quietly took their slippers in, placing them by the bed, for them when they awoke. Then she continued down to the main floor, where she began her task of spinning fiber for rice bags. She continued as her grandmother returned from the market and began cooking breakfast. As it grew light and she heard the movement of her aunt and uncle in the room above her, she stopped and made a trip to the outhouse, coming in to wash her hands and eat her breakfast. She wrapped the remainder of her portion in a ragged dishtowel and put it in her backpack for school. Then she went back down and dusted the main room, then left for school. Van was 4 years old.
As she soon discovered, her mother and siblings had left in the night, heading by boat for Canada, where Van's father and oldest sister had already found haven as refugees.
Van lived in Ho Chi Minh City for another nearly four years as she waited for her family to send for her. She adjusted, made a friend, and enjoyed the packages that came from Canada for the household. She missed her family, but was young enough, she found them harder to remember as the months went by. When she finally was sent for, she and her grandmother had the proper documents and were able to fly to Toronto to meet up with the rest of the family. But even that was quite an adventure.
This story brings to life the situations and circumstances that the Vietnam refugees fled, and creates some understanding for young readers of the difficulties faced by them.
The day to day reality of life in Vietnam for Van and her grandmother are shown in detail, and the photos included here allow the reader to connect with the young girl.
I remember welcoming Vietnamese refugees in my community years before this time, and still have a small gift that one young girl gave to me as I helped her adjust to her new life, so this story really hit home for me.

Cat Flap

Finished October 18
Cat Flap by Alan S. Cowell

I picked up this book at the library, as I was intrigued by the premise. Dolores Tremayne, a successful IT business executive is the breadwinner in her family. She travels a lot for work, and her husband Gerald is a writer that has one published book. He is supposed to be working on a sequel, the second in a planned trilogy, but he hasn't been feeling motivated, and has slipped back into some of his habits from before he met Dolores, when she was a university student. They have two young daughters, in grade school and a housecat named X.
Dolores has just left for a multi-destination business trip, with the first stop in Germany. Just before she left, X jumped into her arms and the two stared at each other, and somehow, a piece of Dolores' consciousness has been left in the cat. That is not to say that Dolores has much influence in what the cat does, but she does witness what the cat witnesses, and that includes many of the things that Gerald does, unbeknownst to Dolores before now.
As the days go by, Dolores tries to influence the cat's actions to both find out more, and to get Dolores to return home sooner than planned. Dolores, meanwhile, has a couple of weird experiences where thoughts and connections come into her head seemingly from nowhere.
The book culminates in a scene bringing most of the characters together in a in a dramatic climax.
It was a fun book, with elements of suspense and humour.

The Unquiet Dead (Reread)

Finished October 15
The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan

I read this first back in 2016, but it was the choice for my book club this month, so I reread it, and thoroughly enjoyed it the second time, seeing additional themes around mothers, female sexuality, and friendship. I've since read two following books in the series and am pleased that they still deal with complex issues, and that the characters continue to develop.


Finished October 7
Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

This novel has a number of conflicts in it, taking place in England during the time that Richard I, the Lionhearted was returning from the Crusades. His brother Prince John has been ruling in his absence, and has a plot to continue to rule. Ivanhoe was one of the knights travelling with Richard, and distinguished himself while away.
As the novel begins, a Saxon lord, Cedric, and his ward Rowena are visiting by a Norman lord who lives nearby. The Norman lord is Brian de Bois-Guilbert, a member of the Knights Templar. Cedric knows he must play host, but does not enjoy this task of hosting Normans, hoping for a future Saxon king by wedding Rowena to another strong Saxon lord Athelstane. Cedric has banished his son Wilfred for wanting to marry Rowena himself. Wilfred had been given the manor of Ivanhoe by Richard I, but while both were away at the crusades, John gave it to Reginald Front-de-Boeuf, another Norman.
There is much wearing of disguises in the book as people pretend to be other than who they are. There is also intrigue as the Normans ambush and capture Cedris, Rowena, Isaac the Jew, his daughter Rebecca, and others in order to further their own ambitions.
We also have the hero Locksley, also known as Robin Hood, with his men, who are called upon to help rescue the captured.
There is jousting, hand combat, Jews, Christian monks, and many others who take roles in the many divides in the book.
I appreciated the character list at the beginning, which also told you the disguises the characters took, so you had a better sense of what was happening.

Sunday 21 October 2018

The Middleman

Finished October 5
The Middleman by Olen Steinhauer

This thriller revolves around a man, Martin Bishop, who wants to create peaceful change. His hope for change is common to many of us today, who see big corporations wielding too much power, and see the wealth gap growing. Bishop's followers are mostly young people, stuck in dead-end jobs and seeing no promising future.
The book opens with one of them, Kevin Moore, ex-military, living in San Francisco. One day he receives a cryptic message that he has been waiting for. He dumps his wallet and phone, and walks away from life, waiting at a pre-arranged spot to be picked up. He is one of hundreds of people going through similar actions that day and on the coming few days.
Bishop's movement is called the Massive Brigade, and while some think of them as peaceful as Martin makes them out to be, using the threat of violence to make change, rather than violence itself. But others think of them as terrorists, and, when the group takes responsibility for a series of violent acts, acts that Kevin is made part of, it seems that the question has been answered.
Rachel Proulx of the FBI has been following Martin for years, and believes she understands him to a large extent, and these actions surprise her. Another FBI agent, is assigned to her group, and seems to not always be doing what Rachel expects him to do. When she finds him responsible for an event she did not condone, she starts to ask questions.
But Rachel is sidelined and attacked, and it will be many months before she and others start to ask questions again. This time, will anybody listen to them?

Hell's Princess

Finished October 2
Hell's Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men by Harold Schechter

This biography looks at a woman serial killer who operated in small town Indiana in the early twentieth century. Born in 1859 a small town near Trondheim, Norway, she was known in her early life as Brynhild Paulsdatter Størset. She followed her older sister Nellie to Chicago around 1880, soon adopted a new American name, Bella Peterson. Bella took a job as a laundress and sewer, and began looking for a husband. From the beginning she was more interested in material goods than companionship. Her first husband, whom she married in 1884, was Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson, a night watchman for one of the large department stores. She seemed to have a maternal instinct, taking an interest in children who were orphaned or otherwise underprivileged. After trying, unsuccessfully, to take custody of one of her sister's children, she adopted an infant in 1891. It is unclear whether the children that followed this one were her own or also adopted.
They managed to invest and make enough to move out to a middle class suburb, but it was an investment in the Yukon Mining & Trading Company, a scam, that caused them to lose much of their hope for the future. Soon after this a fire in their home resulted in another loss, although this time the loss was insured. Mads was a member of an association that provided him with a life insurance policy, and on the day that a new policy took effect (a single day of overlap) Mads died from an apparent illness at home.
After receiving the insurance money, Bella moved to La Porte, Indiana and bought a house and attached farmland. It was this property that Bella used to attract her victims. First among them was a former boarder, Peter Gunness, whom she married in early 1902.
In December of that year, Peter died from a head wound, seemingly from an object falling from a shelf, but some neighbours were suspicious. Soon after Bella began advertising in the Norwegian newspapers read by many immigrants from that country in the U.S. She had correspondences with several men, that indicated partnership and/or matrimony. and many men came to visit, disappearing with no one seeing them leave. Bella's oldest daughter also was said to have left suddenly, to go to a college in California, but none of her friends heard from her.
It was only with the suspicions of two brothers who tracked their third, missing brother's trail, that Bella came to be looked at. Right around then, a terrible fire took her home in the middle of the night, and it was some time before the authorities were able to find the remains of all who had been in the house. As they also began to dig up suspicious looking areas around the property, they found the remains of many bodies, and her notoriety began to form.
A fascinating and scary tale of one woman's greed and daring that took many lives.

Monday 15 October 2018

News of Our Loved Ones

Finished October 1
News of Our Loved Ones by Abigail DeWitt

This novel looks at one French family and how key moments changed the stories that they would live. The family lives in Normandy, in a village that was occupied by the Nazis in World War II. Some of them will stay in the village, some will go to Paris, and some even further away.
The story moves around in time, moving backwards and forwards and focusing on different people as they meet significant moments in their lives.
From a young girl's crush on a boy she sees from her window, to a doctor's visit, to a hobby of painting, to a walk along a Paris street, each character has moment where their story turned and became a different story.
This is a story of family, of the stories that make a shared history, of how a small moment can affect a life. I really enjoyed it.

Where the Wild Cherries Grow

Finished September 29
Where the Wild Cherries Grow by Laura Madeleine

This light novel takes place in two time periods, 1919 and 1969.
In 1919, Emeline Vane, a young woman, is still grieving the loss of all but her youngest brother, Timothy, in the war, and the deaths of her parents. Her father had left the house that they lived in on the coast of England, but no money. Her uncle has agreed to pay for the schooling of her young brother, but is insisting that the house be sold. Emeline is in a state of grief in which she is barely surviving. She is not eating, and for her the house represents the last bit of their family life.
When her uncle arranges for her to be sent away to a rest home in Switzerland, she seizes a moment in the train station in Paris and runs away.
She has no money, and no destination. She only knows that she doesn't want to be shut away for her own good.
In the later time period, Timothy's daughter is seizing a time when her father is very ill in hospital to seek to declare her long missing aunt dead, so that she can sell the estate to a developer. Because of the rush she is in, she goes to the lawyers who have been looking after the estate for all these years, a small firm, where a new lawyer, Bill Perch, is given the task as his first case. Bill goes to the house and finds information there that shows Emeline's state of mind, but there is something about her and the situation that makes him want to do the job right and try to find her if she is still alive.
As Bill follows in Emeline's path, we see him grow into a determined young man, as we see Emeline find a new future for herself that is not so very far from where she left.
A story around grief, love, and faith that hooked me and kept me reading.

La Femme De Gilles

Finished September 28
La Femme De Gilles by Madeleine Bourdouxhe, introduction by Elisa Albert, translated and with an afterword by Faith Evans

This short novel by a young Belgian writer, was first published in France in 1937, and with World War II soon upon the country, her work became largely overlooked. The story is set in a rural area of Belgium, and follows Elisa, a young mother, as she finds that her husband is having an affair.
Her reaction is the story.
Elisa lives near her family, and visits them often, but doesn't have a confiding relationship with them, and shares her pain with no one. She observes her husband and his distracted nature and watches him. She even follows him on one occasion when he leaves the house in the evening, Elisa has two young children and is pregnant with her third. In her time and place, leaving her marriage is not really an option that she considers. Instead, she tries to either redirect her husband's attentions, or wait out this betrayal. She hides her pain, and amazingly even offers comfort to her husband.
This is a story of obsession, of a woman burying her feelings as she tries to hang onto her world.
A poignant story.