Saturday 23 November 2019

Dark at the Crossing

Finished November 20 
Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman, read by Vikas Adam

This story takes place over a short time period.
A young man, Haris Abadi, an Iraqi-American has come to Turkey to cross into Syria to help the rebels. Haris has a lot of baggage from his previous experience working as a translator for American troops in Iraq. His close relationship with one soldier in particular is one that he keeps coming back to in his head. As a translator, he didn't always agree with the methods used by the Americans, and sometimes felt he didn't belong anywhere. He already had his American citizenship before working as a translator and was trying to make a better life for his sister. Once he felt that she had moved on, he was at loose ends, and felt drawn back to this area of the world.
When he is robbed when trusting someone to help him across the border, he is taken in by another young man Amir, a Syrian working as a researcher. Amir is married to Daphne and came to Turkey when Daphne was badly hurt in an explosion in their home. Their marriage is troubled, and Daphne longs to return to look for what she has lost.
As the plans evolve to have Haris accompany Daphne into Syria, he begins to look harder at his own motives and what he wants to accomplish.
This is a difficult book, one where things aren't black and white. But it is thought-provoking.

Miss Blaine's Prefect and the Golden Samovar

Finished November 16
Miss Blaine's Prefect and the Golden Samovar by Olga Wojtas

I have to say that this book was a disappointing read. It was chosen for a book club kit on a whim as the main character's name was similar to mine and she was a librarian. Blurbs compared it to the works of Jasper Fforde, which I've enjoyed.
My book club read it, and we were universally disappointed. The main character, Shona was not likeable, and her backstory was missing. So we didn't understand how she came to time travel, nor why, nor what her role back in modern-day Scotland was. There was a lot of reference to the book The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as a book that was anathema to Shona and Miss Blaine, but no real details of why.
Shona is on a mission in 19th-century Russia, but she doesn't know the details of the mission, nor does she know exactly what year it is. She may have been able to learn by listening more closely to the people she meets, but instead tries to use clues from various practices and inventions to narrow down the time period. There is a note at the end that says there are clues in the book that one can follow to find out the year, but frankly none of us in my book club could be bothered.
We didn't find the purported humour that was supposed to be present in the book either. Most of us were annoyed by the superior attitude that Shona showed, particularly as she didn't measure up in her actions. She seemed rather full of herself.
The book seems to indicate that it is the first of a series, but I'm not interested in reading more in this line.
On the positive side, it was a quick and easy read and we all finished the whole book. One of our members commented on the translation issues that Shona had when speaking Russian and using various phrases that didn't translate to mean what she wanted, and felt this was an insight into the nature of language and idioms.

The Dandelion Years

Finished November 11
The Dandelion Years by Erica James

Saskia has grown up in a house with three men: her father and her two grandfathers. When she was very young, her mother and grandmothers were killed in a car accident, and one of her grandfathers proposed this as a way of living. It has worked well. One of her grandfathers has taken on the cooking, one does the shopping and gardening. Her father manages the used bookstore in town. But now Saskia is an adult, beginning her own career as a book restorer and there is change on the horizon.
Her father reconnects with a woman he dated secretly a few years ago and her grandfathers are aging. Saskia discovers a book hidden inside another book when inventorying an estate collection, a diary dating from the Second World War by someone who worked at Bletchley Park. It intrigues her and she reads it avidly, alerting the young man who inherited the collection, who also becomes intrigued by the life history of the man who acted as a father to him.
A story of romance, loss, and connections.

Golden Age

Finished November 5
Golden Age by Jane Smiley, read by Lorelei King

This is the third book in a trilogy. I read the second one Early Warning a while back. This novel opens in 1987 and takes us up to the present.
The books follow the Langdon family. Here we see twin brothers Michael and Richie, who take very different paths in their lives, separate and come back together, and separate again. Their relationship is very complicated. Their lives involve politics and high finance, fraud and betrayal. Their sister Janet is distant, dealing with her own baggage and finds solace in horses and solitude.
The youngest generation from the family line still on the Iowa farm chooses different paths away. Two of them go into the military, serving in Iraq, and dealing with the effects of that experience. The daughter, Felicity, focuses on the environment and worries about health and sustainability.
I was completely drawn into the character's lives, reacting strongly to the betrayals suffered and the pain felt. This, along with the earlier books, is a story of America over generations, one that is as complex as the lives of the characters. We see their world evolve and priorities change, and we see how they react and how they connect.
A wonderful read.

Thursday 21 November 2019

Great Granny Webster

Finished November 4
Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

This short novel was shortlisted for the Booker, losing out the Paul Scott's Staying On. Philip Larkin cast the deciding vote, calling the book too autobiographical. The author herself remarked years later that it was "probably too true".
The narrator of the story is a girl and then a young woman, who was sent to stay with her great grandmother for the healthfulness of sea air as she recovered from an operation and the diagnosis of anaemia. Great Granny Webster is a severe woman, who sat in a hard chair most of the day doing nothing. There were car drives along the seafront with the window slightly opened, and occasional ventures to the library for the purpose of getting the girl books, but otherwise they never left the house. She was a well-trained girl, who tried to get along, and so she did what was expected of her: sat quietly, ate what she was served, read while sitting with her older relative, and hoped that this period of her life would soon be over.
She goes on to talk a bit about the experience with her father's sister Lavinia, a woman who lived for her own enjoyment, but enjoyed the support of many who knew her. A woman who was deeply lonely. And she learned more about her grandmother, a woman who lived in her own world, and has been put into a mental institution years before. The narrator's father died in the war, and she remembers only a bit about him. She talks to one of his best friends of his impressions of her family, and begins to learn a bit more about them.
This is an intensely felt novel, a novel of family and class, and how there is often a difference between how we see ourselves and how we are seen by others.
Blackwood was from an aristocratic family and was married to the poet Robert Lowell, for who she was often a muse.

Easy to Follow Guide to Needle Felting

Finished October 28
Easy to Follow Guide to Needle Felting: A Quick Starter Guide from Corina's Curious Creations by Corina Hogan

This very short guide has lots of images to help you follow the information. It explains the various tools, the raw material, the accessory material that can be used as a structural base for this type of craft, decorative elements you may want to use, and techniques.
It also has tips for different situations and a few images of finished work the author has created.

Going After Cacciato

Finished October 27
Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien

This is a classic Vietnam war novel, winning the National Book Award for Fiction in 1979. I've had it on my shelf for quite a while and finally determined to read it this year. I'm not usually a big fan of magic realism, but this book really made it work for me.
The narrator here is Paul Berlin, a young man in good physical condition and with little life experience, like many of the young men that fought in this war. Cacciato always seemed a little removed from the others, almost a kid, but placid, not a whiner. As the book begins, he has walked away from his unit heading west, saying that he'd had enough of the war and he was walking to Paris. The idea is outlandish, and yet somehow appealing. It is eight thousand and six hundred miles. The guy in charge, Lieutenant Corson determines that a group of men closest to Cacciato will follow and bring him back, including the Lieutenant himself. But he's not really the leader here.
The personalities of the men come alive: Doc Peret, the medic for the unit and the leader for much of time; Stink Harris, the giggler who goes off with all guns blazing; Eddie Lazzutti, an indistinct figure; Oscar Johnson the black man who claims to be from Detroit, but seems like he is from Maine; the Lieutenant, who often seems lose, unsure, and unwell; and Harold Murphy, the voice of reason.
We also see the men that have already either died or been injured and sent back either home or to mend for a while. Guys like Billy Boy Watkins who died of fright his first day in battle, Frenchie Tucker who was shot; Bernie Lynn and Lieutenant Sidney Martin who died in tunnels; all of which we are told on the first page, although we learn more of their stories as the book unfolds. And others whose stories get told later: Ready Mix, Rudy Chassler, Pederson, Vaught, Ben Nystrom, and Buff.
There is also a young Vietnamese girl Sarkin Aung Wan, who was traveling away from Saigon with her elderly aunts, hoping to escape the war. She has knowledge and skills that help them, and she too wants to go to Paris, but not for Cacciato, for herself. She wants to make a new home.
Interspersed with the tale of the chase are Paul's reminiscences of his early days in the war, of the men who are no longer with them, of his vigil overnight in a watchtower near the ocean.
What is real and what isn't? Where are these men? What do they see? What is their purpose?
An utterly fascinating tale.

Tuesday 5 November 2019

Prairie People

Finished October 26
Prairie People: A Celebration of My Homeland by Robert Collins

This is a collection of observations, conversations, research, and interviews with Canadians either from, or living in the three prairie provinces.
I came across this book clearing out the books from my in-laws house, and grabbed it to read, since I am, after all, from the prairies myself.
It was an interesting collection of people's outlooks, feelings, memories, and more. Collins has grouped them topically to make this collection.
There are tales about the prairie and its effect on those who live there, good memories and bad, lots of variety of farming stories, stories of towns and cities, food and religion, oil and politics, loneliness and community. 
There is the outlook of those who came from the prairies but no longer live there, and there is a look to the future.
This book was more than a decade old when I came across it, but much is still relevant and all of it interesting.

Friday 1 November 2019

13th Canadian Book Challenge November Roundup

Post the reviews from the books that you read this month here. I'm away for a few days, so the reading stats in the sidebar won't be updated until next week.

Have fun as always.