Thursday 28 March 2019


Finished March 26
Bina by Anakana Schofield

This novel is unlike anything I've ever read. I loved the writing and the character right from the stary, and I could barely put it down. I've already talked it up to one of my co-workers.
Bina is the narrator of this tale, writing her thoughts, her warnings, her remarkings on bits of paper she finds around her house, such as the back of receipts. She is talking to the reader, and makes that clear a few times by what she writes. The book is divided into titles sections, some quite short and others very long. The first one, a short one is Warnings and the first page of that makes clear that that is indeed what this is meant to be. The second page of this section has Bina introducing herself, and one of the first things she makes clear is her name. It is pronounced Bye-na, not Bee-na.
This information is followed by an address to the reader
I don't know who you are, or the state of your life. But if you've come all this way here to listen to me, your life will undoubtedly get worse. I'm here to warn you, not to reassure you
Bina repeats herself a lot, wanting to make clear the message that she is trying to get across to the reader, yet still trying not to implicate herself in anything she shouldn't.
As her story gradually becomes more clear, you begin to understand what she has been accused of, and what she has actually done.
I liked her. She is feisty and wants to make sure others don't make the same mistakes she made. She is looking back, recognizing where she made a wrong move, and regretting some of the things she did. Bina is a nice woman, a woman that genuinely cares about people, and that is both her strength and her weakness. She knows that she has been taken advantage of, but isn't sure what she should have done to get out of it, only how she could have not got into it in the first place.
This is a story of people. People like Bina, who care about other people, and people like Eddie, who don't. Bina is a survivor, but one who struggles greatly.
The book has footnotes that are helpful in providing additional explanation, with some reaching back to a previous book by the author that I haven't read, but am now intrigued to.
Her first two warnings are about letting in men into your life. One comes via a ditch, and one comes via a door, and neither one led to good times for Bina.
So that is what the next two sections of the book are Ditch and Door. When Bina needs to think, or escape a situation, her refuge is her bed, or in the Irish language, Leaba, thus the name of the next section. She prepares herself well when she enters her bed, as she is not doing this for the first time in her life. As she herself writes,
When I go to bed, I really go to bed. Alone. All alone. There's no one invited in. There's no one to invite in. The first time I went to bed I didn't get back up for two months. This time I haven't counted. 
The last section, a long one, is Remarkings, and again she is clear about this. She writes
My name is still Bina and these are my remarkings.
Remarkings are different from warnings.
But you will find warnings within the remarkings
If you are careful enough to notice them.
And if you don't, I can't help you.
It's how it has to be.
As you can perhaps tell from the quotes above, the book has bits written in free verse, a nice way to place the words that makes them even more meaningful. Sometimes Bina refers to herself by name as if she is talking about someone else. Other times she talks in first person. There is a lot of beautiful wordplay going on here, and I loved it. I can hear her voice in my head, and I'm listening.

Lying in Wait

Finished March 19
Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent

This psychological suspense novel starts with a crime, the murder of a young woman, but only gradually reveals the motive as we get deeper and deeper into the book. The viewpoint alternates between a few characters. Lydia Fitzsimons is a middle aged woman, who I understood had issues right from the start. She seems a bit detached from the people around her, in her own little world. But she's definitely not stupid, as some of her choices show.
Laurence is her only son, and as the book begins, he is in high school. He's a young man who doesn't fit in well with his peers, and has no real friends. He's overweight, and can be both perceptive and disingenuous. When he does finally make a friend, he chooses someone who is also unpopular, but for very different reasons.
Karen Doyle is a woman raised in very different circumstances. Her family didn't have much, but she was close to her older sister Annie, the rebellious one in the family, and knew her parents cared about her, even if they weren't demonstrative about it.
The two families are drawn together, because the woman that either Lydia or her husband Andrew killed (you're never really quite sure whose action was the final one) was Karen's sister Annie.
As the story develops and time passes, we see the characters in different ways, and I changed how I felt about them as the story unfolded.
An interesting read.

Wednesday 27 March 2019

The Woman in the Window

Finished March 18
The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn, read by Ann Marie Lee

This psychological suspense novel had a couple of mysteries going on, one that I guessed fairly early on, and one that surprised me. The main character, the one whose head we are inside, is Anna Fox. She is a woman in her late thirties, a child psychologist, who has undergone some kind of trauma that has caused her to be agoraphobic. This is the first mystery.
Anna lives in a large 4 story house in Harlem. On the ground floor is the entrance, the kitchen and living room, and a small bathroom, painted red. One floor up is her husband's study and her own office, and a storage closet, along with another bathroom. The next floor up has the master bedroom suite, and the top floor has her daughter's bedroom and a spare room. Anna also has a tenant in the basement, David, who's been there a couple of months. The idea to get a tenant came from her psychiatrist, who suggested she give a reduced rent for someone who could help out with small repairs, errands etc.
Anna talks to her estranged husband Ed and young daughter Olivia regularly. She gets groceries including a lot of red wine delivered, and her psychiatrist and physical therapist visit her at home. The remainder of her day is spent online, where she participates in a forus for agoraphobics, ands plays chess, and looking out the windows at the neighbours she can see, and watching noir movies.
Anna uses her camera to zoom in on her neighbour's activities and uses the internet to do some research on them, to find out background information. She really has no other contact with the outside world.
A change occurs when she gets new neighbours in the house across the small park next to her house. The Russells move in and she sees the husband and teenage son on moving day as she looks out. Soon after the son, Ethan, visits with a candle, a gift from his mom, and Anna surprises herself by letting him in and having a nice visit with him. Is it because she misses the previous contact she had with children in her job, because she misses her own daughter? Who knows.
When another chance encounter due to outside actions cause her to meet the woman of the house, she finds she likes her quite a bit, and feels the possibility of a friendship beginning. A second visit by the woman only deepens this feeling.
When she sees a terrible thing happening to the woman in the house across the way, she wants to help. She calls the police, and tries to do more. But the police doubt her story, and her alcoholism, the pills that her doctor has prescribed her for her situation, and her situation have the reader questioning her as well.
How confused is she? What has she seen, and what has she imagined? This is the second mystery. Anna's own questioning and some of her behaviours are erratic and unreliable. She is a well-meaning woman still recovering from a trauma that also has an element of guilt to it. She's been stuck in her house for nearly a year, and the isolation isn't helping.
I liked Anna, and I worried for her, and I wanted her to be okay. The story was well-developed and had its surprising moments, and I enjoyed that as well.

Sunday 24 March 2019

Hum If You Don't Know the Words

Finished March 16
Hum If You Don't Know the Words by Bianca Marais

This novel is set in 1976 and 1977 in Johannesburg, South Africa. There are two main characters that you have narrating the plot. One is a nine year old white English girl, and the other is a middle-aged black woman with a college education.
It gets off to a slow start, but I was soon fully engaged. I'd left this read for my book club until the last minute, but it was no problem reading the whole book in one day.
Robin Conrad is the nine year old child. Her parents have an English background, and her father is a mine supervisor. She is left out of the play activities of the other children in her neighbourhood as they are all of Dutch background. She is also a bit of a tomboy, and would rather play with boys than girls, which the boys definitely want no part of. Robin has a twin sister, Cat, that one only gradually discovers the truth about. This was an interesting aspect of the book and of Robin's character.
When a tragedy befalls Robin's parents, she goes to live with her aunt Edith, who is a flight attendant, and often away for long periods. This obviously won't work well with being responsible for a small child, and it is some time before Edith finds a solution, and she doesn't find it on her own.
Beauty Mbali is a teacher in the Orange Free State. Her husband worked in the mine, but died of work-related disease. She has two sons who live with her, Khwezi who is 13, and Luxolo who is 15. She also has a daughter, Momsa who is 17, and who she has sent to live with her brother in Soweto so that she can go to high school. As the book begins, she has received a letter from her brother saying that her daughter is in danger, and she travels to Johannesburg to see what is happening. But she arrives on the day that black students are holding a peaceful march relating to their curriculum, and the police respond with force. Momsa is missing, and Beauty can't find her. She must stay to search for her, and the best way to do that is to get a job as a servant.
It is this way that the two stories come together.
I liked the diverse characters shown here: Edith, who travels internationally; some of Edith's male friends who are gay; Robin's Dutch neighbours; Robin's parents' black maid, Mable; Edith's neighbours, the Goldman family, who are Jewish; and the caretaker in Edith's apartment building, who is coloured.
As we see Robin work through her grief, and her guilt, and look to do the right thing in her own mind, we also see how the various people around her deal with their life situations.
I really enjoyed this read, and the touches of humour that came through despite the serious plot. My book club members mostly enjoyed these aspects as well.

The Ruin

Finished March 14
The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan

This novel, set in Galway, Ireland is a real page-turner. It is the first in a new series featuring detective Cormac Reilly. The book starts with an event from 1993. Cormac is a young policeman, sent out to respond to what he believes is a domestic incident. He has trouble finding the house, and when he gets there finds a teen girl and a young boy and their dead mother. The radio in his car is broken, and the house has no telephone, so Cormac takes the two children to town to the hospital. He tries to follow up on the case, but isn't given any encouragement by his superiors.
Now, it is twenty years later, and Cormac, recently part of a special ops team, is back in Galway with his partner Emma. The move is partially for Emma's job, but also because Cormac could see that they were going to disband his unit and figured it was a good time to leave. But once back, he is frozen out by most of his colleagues, and put on cold cases.
Meanwhile, a young intern, Aisling, discovers she is pregnant. She knows it is the wrong time to have a baby, that she will lose her chance to become a surgeon if she does. So when she returns home from her hospital shift and lets her boyfriend Jack know about her condition, she also shares the difficulties, which causes him to take time to think as well. When she finds him still gone when she wakes, she isn't sure what to think. Has he taken the news harder than she thought? But then, two police arrive at her door and let her know that they found his body in the river, a suspected suicide.
With everything else going on in her life, this is too much of a shock for Aisling. She's is numb, and not thinking clearly. But there is someone else on the scene who is thinking clearly, and acting on those thoughts. It is Jack's sister Maude, a woman who hasn't been in his life for the last twenty years. And Maude doesn't believe that Jack's death was suicide. And the police aren't interested in her theories.
Cormac becomes involved in the case, when he is asked to look again at the death of the woman he found twenty years ago, Maude and Jack's mother. Did she really die by her own hand as the police thought, or was someone else involved. As Cormac digs into the old case, he finds himself finding that outside influences have effects on investigations, both past and present, and he must make difficult choices.
This is a great series introduction, and I definitely want to read more about Cormac and his colleagues.


Finished March 8
Ties by Domenico Starnone, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri

Separated into three parts, this short novel tells the story of a marriage, not a happy one. The first part is from 1974, twelve years into the marriage, and is letters from the wife to the husband. He has left the family for another woman, and she doesn't understand why, and is angry and frustrated. She is also in desperate financial straits, unable to make rent and provide for the children's needs. Her letters show her emotional state and her situation.
The second part is in the present and the husband and wife leave their apartment for a holiday by the beach. They're arranged for the grown children to stop by and look after the cat. But when they return the door is jammed against something and they find their apartment disturbed and in cleaning it up and picking things up, they are each reminded of the past.
The third part is from the children's point of view, both back during the separation and now and we see how their parents marriage affected them.
This novel is poignant, and fascinating. Once I got into it, I could barely put it down.

The Sunshine Sisters

Finished March 5
The Sunshine Sisters by Jane Green

This novel follows three sisters, Nell, Meredith, and Lizzy, all daughters of the actress Ronnie Sunshine. Ronnie wasn't a great mother, she was too much focused on being the center of the attention herself. She wasn't patient, or a good listener, or any of the things her daughters wanted her to be for them. But now she is nearing the end of her life, and she looks back with regret on the time wasted, the things she didn't do for her daughters.
The action starts there, but then skips back to 1981, when she is pregnant with her youngest daughter, Lizzy. We see various vignettes like this from the past, for each of her daughters.
Before the children were grown, she'd divorced, and her ex remarried, and the girls weren't part of his new life. They grew apart from each other, each with their own issues. We see them in their lives. Nell as the manager of a small truck farm, not far from where she went to high school, in Connecticut. Lizzy in New York City, making a name for herself as a chef. Meredith overseas, plugging away at a job, without the confidence to realize her own worth.
As their stories unfold, and as they come back together at their mother's insistence, they find each other again, and find themselves as well. An interesting look at three women, with the same mother but very different outlooks.

The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted

Finished March 2
The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted and Other Small Acts of Liberation by Elizabeth Berg

This was a fun read. Stories that shows small acts of liberation by a variety of female characters. The title story is definitely a fun read, and there's another related one, where the same character doesn't eat anything that she really wants to.
There are stories of relationships, aging, loss, friendship, and many other moments that I could definitely relate to. The women here are generally middle-aged. Some are married, some are not. The stories had me laughing out loud at shared experiences, feeling umbrage on behalf of the behaviour of other characters towards these women, and generally enjoying it all.
I always enjoy Berg's books, and this one has a lot to offer.


Finished March 1
Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most by Steven Johnson

I really enjoyed the insights from this book and posted a couple of excerpts to friends as I was reading. He gave great examples of decision making, both personal and societal. His first societal example is the decision to bury Collect Pond, a source of fresh water, in New York City in the early nineteenth century. There was another option put forward, but the short-sightedness about the city's growth ultimately resulted in the bad decision. Johnson talks about how, although we often see ourselves today as looking at the short-term, we actually are able to make better long-term decisions today than we were then.
Johnson's first personal example of long-term decision making is also from the nineteenth century, and consists of a list found in Darwin's notebooks, on two facing pages in two columns, with one column listing reasons to marry and the other reasons not to. We know that he did marry six months later, so we know the decision he reached, which his also wrote at the bottom of the second page.
This idea of listing pros and cons is a much-used tool in making decisions. I've certainly used in in my own life at several instances. What Darwin's example doesn't show is the weight he gave each point in the list, the argument for which Benjamin Franklin gave in a eighteenth-century letter to Joseph Priestley about a decision he was making at the time. Franklin called this Moral or Prudential Algebra.
We have more tools available to us now, and we usually term these types of decisions deliberative decision making. The systems we use today are engineered to keep us from falling into preconceived assumptions.
A societal decision that is more present day that Johnson comes back to repeatedly through the book is the decision by the U.S. Government to go into the compound in Pakistan where they suspected Osama bin Laden was hiding. Johnson gradually shows all the different elements of information and decision making tools that were used in this case, how they were calculated and guarded against failure, and looked beyond the attack itself into outcomes and how they would manage different scenarios of those.
As he shows, these complex decisions have been shown to have several qualities: they involve multiple variables; they require full-spectrum analysis; they force us to predict the future; they involve varied levels of uncertainty; they often involve conflicting objectives; they harbor undiscovered options; they are prone to System 1 failings; and they are vulnerable to failures of collective intelligence.
This last point is important to understand. By definition, groups bring a wider set of perspectives and knowledge to the decision making process. But they are also vulnerable to their own set of failings: collective biases and distortions due to social dynamics. There are a number of tools designed to overcome such vulnerabilities.
Techniques such as making a full-spectrum map of all the variables and potential paths available; predictions about where those paths might lead, and weighing the various possible outcomes against the objectives. Johnson devotes a chapter to each of these three elements of decision making.
He then has two chapters: one on large social decisions, such as battling climate change, and one on personal decision making, such as those facing the characters in George Eliot's Middlemarch.
Literature, and real life both are used in many examples in the book, and this use of examples really worked for me in understanding the decision making process better.
I highly recommend this book.

Wednesday 6 March 2019

This Could Hurt

Finished February 25
This Could Hurt by Jillian Medoff

This novel is set around the Human Resources department of a company, Ellery Consumer Research.The head of the HR department is Rosa Guerrero, a woman who leads with compassion. Other department members include Leo Smalls, a benefits vice president who is devoted to Rosa, and who has very little in his life outside of his job; Rob Hirsch, a middle-aged married father of two who is increasingly unenthused with the jobs he has before him; Lucy Bender, a single woman looking for her passion and a chance to prove herself; Kenny Verville, a senior manager who considers Ellery a stepping stone to a better future.
Lucy is also Rob's "work wife" and the two are close allies. Kenny's wife has a more high-powered job than he does and is very competitive. Rob would love to be able to afford to buy a home for his family, but money is a big worry for him.
As the book begins, Rosa encounters some health issues and some of the staff try to rally around to cover for her and manage her communications with others in the organization.
The book has organizational charts placed at intervals through the book that show the relationships and the reader can see how things change. The book ends with organizational charts going into the future, showing how various characters go on in the future on a professional level.
Anyone who has worked in a midsize or bigger organization will be able to recognize some of the dynamics here, and the work environment.
We see the various characters change, and adapt to new circumstances. I really enjoyed this read.

Sometimes I Lie

Finished February 22
Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney

This is an interesting book.Amber Reynolds is in hospital after a car accident. But at first she doesn't know that. To others she appears to be in a coma, but in reality she slips in and out of awareness. As she gradually learns why she is there from the people around her, and begins to remember the missing days of her memory, we also learn about her childhood, and about her present day life.
We learn about her job gradually, and about her relationship with her sister and her parents. But as the books title says, sometimes she lies. But of course she isn't the only one who lies, and so, as the reader, one isn't sure how much to believe, or who to believe.
As you gradually learn about what really happened, sorting out what is true from what isn't, you also find your mind influenced by information that you assume.
This was a very interesting thriller, with a very intriguing ending.

Night of Miracles

Finished February 20
Night of Miracles by Elizabeth Berg, read by the author

This novel features a few characters that live in a small town in Missouri called Mason. Lucille has lived in Mason all her life, and is in her eighties. Her mind is still keen, and she holds strong to her values. She never married, but has a young woman in her life, Maddy, that she treats as a daughter, and whose young daughter Nola considers her a grandmother. Lucille has been teaching baking classes, but they've been getting more popular, and she is looking to take on an assistant. She has also recently made friends with her new neighbours, Jason and Abby, a couple with a young son, Lincoln. As Abby faces some health issues, Lucille spends time with Lincoln, making a new friend.
Iris Winters is new to town, leaving Boston after the breakup of her marriage, a decision she still revisits. She befriends her neighbour Tiny, who runs a local taxi business. Tiny is a large man with a big heart, and he begins to ask Iris's advice on his love life.
At the local diner, Polly's Henhouse, one of the waitresses, Monica, is beginning to take steps outside her comfort zone after the recent death of her much-loved mother. She's long had a crush on one of her regulars, and begins to consider how to make a move to indicate her interest.
As we get inside the heads of Lucille, Iris, Monica, and Tiny, we see the importance of relationships and communication. All the lives of these people are intertwined and as they grow closer, they also overcome barriers.
This is a story of love, of loss, of friendship, and of new beginnings. I really enjoyed it. And the baking made my mouth water.