Sunday 21 February 2021

The Deadly Hours

Finished February 21
The Deadly Hours: An Anthology by Susanna Kearsley, C.S. Harris, Anna Lee Huber, and Christine Trent

This linked set of novellas has in common a pocket watch, one cursed from its origin in gold stolen from a church in Cartagena.
We first encounter the watch in 1733 along the Spanish coast when a fierce storm forces several ships to take shelter in a small coastal town. At the local inn, there are several players in international affairs. One has been sent to kill someone and others are on a mission to protect the same man. This first tale is by Susanna Kearsley and features her character Mary MacPherson along with her Jacobite husband Hugh. The watch is owned by Valcour, a pirate who took part in the acts in Cartagena. 
The second tale is set in the 1830s in Edinburgh and is told by Anna Lee Huber. It features her character Lady Darby and the watch seems to be linked with a number of deaths in the city, and is brought to Lady Darby's attention by a man who reappears several times in her life, the criminal leader Bonnie Brock Kincaid. She and her husband Gage track the rumours about the watch to try to save the city from the threat.
The third tale is set in London in the 1870s and is told by Christine Trent. This tale features her character the Victorian undertaker Violet Harper and her American photographer husband Samuel. Violet has been hired by a recently distinguished peer to gather his deceased relatives from wherever they are currently interred and bring them together in a new tomb. In one of the graves she opens, she finds a curious object, and it seems to bring trouble to the rich neighbourhood of her client.
The fourth and last tale is told by C.S. Harris and takes place in 1944 in a small town near Dover. The local leader of the Home Guard, and watch collector is found dead under suspicious circumstances and only one item seems to be missing from his home. When more victims are found, suspicion ranges to several foreigners living locally. The main characters here are a female historian and an MI5 agent.
I enjoyed the strong female characters in this book, and it was my first introduction to the characters in the stories. I also liked how the authors worked together to link the story of the watch over time. 

Midnight Cab

Finished February 18
Midnight Cab by James W. Nichol

This gripping mystery suspense novel has at its center a young man looking for his roots. Walker Devereux was found when he was three years old. He was holding on to a wire fence at the side of a country road in French River. His mother had told me to wait there for her, but she never returned.
Walker was adopted into a welcoming family and grew up loved. He's not looking for a new family, but he does wonder about his past. Now, in 1995, he is nineteen and he figures he can begin to look into any clues he has. At the agency who handled his adoption, he is given a photograph and a letter that were found in his pocket back then. They provide a couple of clues and he decided to go to Toronto to track them down.
In Toronto, he finds a small apartment to rent, and a job driving a taxi. He also finds himself attracted to the night dispatcher at the taxi company, Krista Papadopoulos, a woman a few years older than him, who uses either crutches or a wheelchair to get around. She begins to help him with his research.
Interspersed with Walker's story are short sections about a boy named Bobby. Bobby is bad news. He isn't right in the head, and he uses violence when his words fail him. He also has some kind of sexual issue that is never really clear, but that becomes part of a pattern for him. 
We know that Bobby's story will link up in some way with Walker's, but we don't know how. As the two plotlines slowly come together, the plot takes us from Toronto to Fort Erie, to French River, and to Jamaica. Walker is a smart guy and he trusts his instinct, but sometimes it gets him into trouble. There is menace here, following him and showing itself through acts of violence and destruction. 
I found the story gripping, wanting to know what Walker wanted to know, and wanting Bobby to get caught and stopped. 

Saturday 20 February 2021

Tell Me Everything

Finished February 17 
Tell Me Everything by Cambria Brockman

This novel has three timelines. One of them is the narrator, Malin's freshman year at college. Another is her senior year at college. The third one is several years earlier, when she's a child at home in Texas with her family. 
Malin is going to college far from home, at Hawthorne College in small town Maine. She's requested a single room, and she doesn't have a friend network back home. In a way, she is looking to remake herself. On her first day, at an orientation session, she is befriended by an English girl Gemma, a theatre major, and brought into a group of friends that includes Gemma's roommate, Ruby, an art history major and soccer player. Gemma is extremely outgoing, but needing a lot of validation. Ruby also seems to have something in her past that she's hiding. 
The group also includes three guys: John, the son of an investment banker, but estranged from his father, who seems calculating and manipulative; Max, John's cousin, a pre-med student, close to his family and a guy who is watchful and caring; and Khalid, a prince from Abu Dhabi who is a bit of a playboy, but friendly and approachable. 
In freshman year, they're all finding their feet, tentatively choosing friends and setting themselves up for the next few years at college. By senior year, the six are living in a house owned by Khalid's family, and although they are all in different disciplines (Malin is in pre-law), they are also getting ready for life beyond college. Malin is also a watchful person, and she has concerns about both Gemma and John, and knows things about other people that they either don't realize that she knows, or that they've told her in confidence. 
Back in the earliest timeline in Texas, we see how Malin's parents are concerned about her older brother Levi, who seems to be exhibiting some dangerous behaviours. This timeline only emerges occasionally, and often with jumps of years, so we only see a few specific, yet important moments. 
It is only toward the end of the book that we see the full extent of Malin's story and what brought her to leave Texas and look for a fresh start. 
This is a book that has disturbing moments, and others that are quite prosaic as the plot slowly gets revealed. You know some crisis is coming, but it approaches very slowly. 

Friday 19 February 2021

Rules for Visiting

Finished February 16 
Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane

This novel intrigued me from the descriptions and I borrowed it from my local library. The narrator of the story is May Attaway, a forty-something landscaper who lives with her father in the house she grew up in and works as a university gardener at the local university there in Anneville, PA. Some time ago, she ordered a cutting from the Fortingall Yew, a famous tree in Scotland that is believed to be at least three thousand years old. The UK Forestry Commission had announced the plan to offer cuttings, and she jumped at it. More recently someone has written a poem about the yew that grew from the cutting she took, and the poem won an award. The university has decided to give her some extra time off in honour of this and she has decided to use some of that time to visit friends. Two of the friends she decides to visit are from high school and two are from college.
The first friend lives in Connecticut and she flies to see her. Lindy is married and has three daughters, and May spends a few days with her and her family. The second friend is Vanessa, who is also married with one child. Vanessa has been married only a couple of years, but has two young stepsons. 
The third friend is Neera who lives in New York City and and has one child. May discovers when she gets there that Neera is in the early stages of ending her marriage. The situation is more awkward because May introduced her to her husband Adam.
The last friend is Rose, and Rose is also a landscape architect. May had not entered this program directly from college, so she is a few years older than Rose. Rose lives in London England and has a job creating attractive vegetable gardens for her clients. Personally, I found this visit the most interesting, and the friendship the most sharing, perhaps because Rose isn't married either.
From each visit, May takes something from her friends' homes, that represents something for her. I found this intriguing. Also, for the last three years, her father, who is in his eighties, has been leaving her copies of information on trees, for consideration as a memorial after he has died. The ones that he leaves for her during the novel's timeline are included her at the beginning of chapters, along with her thoughts on each.
We also gradually see how May's life has got to where it is. We find out what happened to her mother, and see her relationship with her father in its complexity. May's journeys also bring her out of her routine, and get her trying different things. She engages more with her neighbours and coworkers, takes the first step towards a possible romantic relationship, and more fully engages in life. 
One of the things May travels with is an older edition of Emily Post, and she tries to follow the Rules for Visiting enclosed therein. These rules are included near the end of the novel. 
I really enjoyed this book, for its thoughts on friendship, for its quirkiness and for its character May.


Finished February 14 
Breathless: An American Girl in Paris by Nancy K. Miller

This memoir is by a professor of women's studies looking back on her early adult years as she tried to follow a dream inspired by movies set in Paris. For her, this time was a time of experimentation, of rebellion against her parents' expectations, and a time of trying to figure her life out.
She began relationships with men, sometimes inappropriate ones. She taught and went to school, she wrote and read, she listened to music and learned about food. She explored her sexuality and tried to figure out what she wanted in a partner.
Not all her choices were good ones, but she threw herself into these things she tried, and made an attempt to look at them objectively. 
The time is the late 60s and early 70s, and she was not alone in her explorations. She met, became friends with, and had relationships with other expat Americans, some of whom she kept in touch with for years. She lived in a variety of housing situations, and visited other European places on occasion.
She is half a generation older than me, and some things she did I can't relate to at all, especially as we have quite different backgrounds. 
She grew up in a secular Jewish family who had a reputation to uphold, and friends in Paris. This gave her access to the life of real Parisians, but she also spent a lot of time with other students her own age, both Jewish and otherwise. 
It was an interesting read.

Thursday 18 February 2021

The Lost Love Song

Finished February 13
The Lost Love Song by Minnie Darke

This book has a lot going on, with a couple of main characters, and several minor characters that move the plot along. Most of the book takes place in Australia, but there are important elements in England, Canada, and the United States. The book opens in Melbourne with the beginning of a relationship. Diana, a young but already famous concert pianist initiates a relationship with a tech nerd Arie. The plot quickly jumps ahead several years, where these two have a spark that has lasted and they've bought a home together and Arie has a successful web design company with his best friend Richard. Diana is about to leave on another worldwide tour, and Aria tries to pin Diana down on setting a date to marry. They've been engaged for years, but something always seems to keep them from making that final commitment. Diana expresses herself through music and she starts a new song to try to find her own answer to this question. After a performance in Singapore, she sits down in her hotel and continues her exploration. The next morning she gets on a flight to France, one that never arrives.
Arie is heartbroken, as is Diana's mother. And so many other people that lose someone in this tragedy. But someone else in the hotel heard that song Diana was working on, and the song has its own storyline now, moving around the world from one musician to another. It brings other relationships to new levels, and is a positive influence everywhere it spreads. 
Meanwhile in England, Australian Evie is on a multiyear trip away, trying different things, exploring different places, and mostly working to pay for rent and food. She also writes poems, but has never tried to publish them until she is inspired by a contest. She takes her poetry notebooks along with her, and they are beginning to be a major part of her luggage. When she finally makes the decision to return home to Australia, she makes her first task to reclaim her car, stuffed with all her worldly possessions and reevaluate what is important among them before choosing her next adventure. She's tired of the life she's been living overseas and longs for a more meaningful life with someone by her side that truly cares for her. 
This is a romance, but it is also a bigger novel than that. It is definitely a feel good book despite its early tragedy. I was easily caught up in the characters' lives, caring about what happened to each of them. 

Sunday 14 February 2021

The Secret Life of Violet Grant

Finished February 12
The Secret Life of Violet Grant by Beatriz Williams

This is part of a trilogy with each book focusing on a different sister in the Schuyler family. I've read them in reverse order, but that didn't really pose an issue. 
This book is about Vivian Schuyler, a young woman newly graduated from college (Bryn Mawr) and with a job as a fact checker at a New York magazine called The Metropolitan. The year is 1964, and as the book opens Vivian has a notice of a parcel to pickup, and only a few minutes before the post office closes for the weekend. At the post office she meets a young surgical intern, who not only helps her maneuver the bureaucracy, but also helps her by carrying the large parcel to her apartment. 
The parcel has been forwarded and was originally addressed to a Violet Schuyler at her parents' address. It contains a large locked suitcase belonging to said Violet. Vivian has never heard of a Violet in her family and begins digging into the past. The contents of the suitcase provide some interesting clues, and one of her aunts proves to be helpful, as does an older cousin.
She soon finds that Violet was her father's sister, a bit of a rebel, who went off to London to work as a scientist in 1911. She apparently married the professor in charge of the lab that she worked for, and followed him to a new position in Berlin. At the beginning of the First World War, her husband was found murdered, and she had disappeared, presumably the perpetrator. 
As Vivian uses all her wiles and contacts to find out more about her aunt, she also must deal with an increasingly complex romantic entanglement with the young doctor.
Vivian is quite the character, an intelligent and beautiful young woman with a charming manner that she knows how to use to her best advantage. 
We also see Violet's story, a young intelligent beautiful woman as well, but unaware of her charms, and quite naive. She is easily taken advantage of by her supervising professor, and drawn into a marriage that it a sham of convenience for her husband and of limited advantage to her. She concentrates on her science, and is brought into the world of other prominent European scientists, Max Planck, Albert Einstein, and Lise Meitner. With this group, she finds support and intellectual stimulation as well as a social circle that she feels comfortable in. 
I found both storylines quite interesting, and Vivian quite a charismatic and entertaining character. She is a dogged researcher, following every clue she has. I could hardly put the book down, it captured me so completely.


Finished February 10
Uncharted: A Couple's Epic Empty-Nest Adventure Sailing From One Life to Another by Kim Brown Seely

This memoir is told by a woman in her forties. In 2009, her husband convinced her that they should buy a sailboat that had been repossessed by a bank and was therefore a pretty good deal. They's talked about buying a sailboat, but this 54 foot Moody needed work and was in Rhode Island while they lived in Seattle, and thus would need to be moved across the country. They bought it and her husband Jeff, who had some sailing experience in his youth worked to get Kim and their two tween and teen sons competent sailors. While this book is about one specific sailing trip they took when their youngest left for college, it is also about the experience of having one's children move into adulthood by leaving, and about the way the relationship between a couple changes over time.
Partway through this particular trip, the couple's sons join them for a week, flying in to meet them by float plane. The whole family then docks the boat, locks it up and goes back home, with their older son heading back to his internship in San Francisco, and the couple flying east with their youngest to take him to college in northern New York State. 
There were definitely things that were foreign to me, besides sailing. I can't imagine my parents escorting me to university, or there being so much crying about me setting off on my own adult adventure, but maybe mine hid it well. I found the sailing well described, so that even a complete novice like me could understand, but not full of technical stuff that would bore the reader. 
It was the trip that fascinated me, leaving Seattle, and soon sailing into Canada, along the edge of Vancouver Island and the mainland, and up the Inside Passage to the Great Bear Rainforest. 
There are four pages of maps in the front of the book that show their journey, and they are better marked than other such books that I've read in terms of naming waterways and islands, but there were still a few that were named in the text, but not indicated on the maps. This is a pet peeve of mine. 
The journey was full of wonder at the nature and people that they encountered, and Seely really gave a sense of the feeling and ambience of the days. 
Also fun was that there was a lot of references to music, as they used an iPod for background, company, and mood. 
Seely is an award-winning journalist and the quality of the writing here shows that. I really enjoyed this book, and its setting was of great interest to me. 

Tuesday 9 February 2021

Twenty-One Wishes

Finished February 9 
Twenty-One Wishes by Debbie Macomber

This volume is actually two books, the novel Twenty Wishes, and the novella The Twenty-First Wish. At the center of Twenty Wishes is Anne-Marie Roche, the owner of Blossom Street Books, in Seattle. Twenty Wishes is the fifth book in the series set on Blossom Street. The Twenty-First Wish is number 5.5 in the series but I found that the actions here came after those of the sixth book, Summer on Blossom Street, which I read a while ago. 
Anne-Marie is still recovering from the loss of her husband a year earlier. They had been estranged due to Anne-Marie's desire to have a child, something she'd agreed not to have when they married, but then had a change of mind about. They were starting to reconcile when her husband died suddenly. She has formed a small group with three other women who are widows. Elise has recently reconnected with her husband Maverick, only for him to be diagnosed with cancer. Lillie and Barbie are a mother and daughter who both lost their husbands when their plane went down on a business trip. Barbie was very close to her husband, and she and their college-age twin sons are finally beginning to move forward. Lillie didn't have a great marriage, but she pretended not to be aware of her husband's infidelity. On their Valentines Day get-together, the women decide to make lists of twenty wishes that they have for themselves, not necessarily with a definite plan, but as a way to move forward. 
We see them slowly develop these wishes, and each move forward in different ways. The story concentrates most on Anne-Marie, with Lillie and Barbie also having a fair bit of plot line. Elise is a more minor character here. 
The Twenty-First Wish is a development based on some of Anne-Marie's results to her wishes, and is definitely her story. 
I always enjoy the light romance, with some life decisions happening in Macomber's novels. And there is knitting involved again as a part of the plot, but no knitting patterns are included here. 

Sunday 7 February 2021

Improper Cross-Stitch

Finished February 6 
Improper Cross-Stitch: 35+ Properly Naughty Patterns by Haley Pierson-Cox

This fun cross-stitch design book is one I had meant to look at for some time. I had at one time had temporary access to an ebook, but it was just a sample and so I put it aside until I could get hold of the actual book. All the projects in here are small ones, and most could be done in a weekend.
The introduction gives some insight into the reason for the book and how it came to be that I found interesting. Then, the first two sections are preparation for beginners. One describes the tools used in doing crossstitch and the other gives the basics of the craft. Less useful to me as I've been doing it for quite a while, but both very well done with good pictures.
The designs are categorized into three sections: Hipster Snark; Ironically Domestic; and Talk Nerdy to Me. As you can tell from these topics, there's a lot of fun going on here. Hipster Snark includes ten patterns, with my favourite one being "Sweet Campfire Dreams", although I really liked the negative text "Nope" too. Ironically Domestic includes twelve patterns, and here my favourites are "I'll Cut You" and "Armed and Creative". Talk Nerdy to Me has ten patterns, and I really liked the "Princess Not in Need of Rescue" and "Grammar Police".
Because these patterns have a text element to them, the book also includes three complete alphabets for you to customize and even create your own designs. They are a sans-serif alphabet, a script alphabet, and a line alphabet. 
There is a section on finishing and framing that gives tips for those who want to do this final part themselves. And of course, along with that idea of DIY, there is a section on designing your own custom patterns with some good advice for creating your own simple designs.
This book is actually a lot better than I thought it might be, with only a few having profanity, and a lot of sly humour. The designs are fun and with the additional advising chapters, easy to customize for your own preferences. 

Once Upon a River

Finished February 5
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

This is a lovely story with some elements of fantasy. It takes place along a river that is both the Thames River in England and not. There are several characters and several storylines that come together.
As the story begins it is Midwinter and in the village of Radcot was an inn called The Swan. Every inn has its specialty and this one was known for its storytelling. The landlady of the inn was Margot Ockwell and the inn had been run by the women of her family for generations. Her married name was Margot Bliss, but the inn always used the old name to keep the tradition. Margot was married to a man who was a storyteller, and who had come to the inn one night from further up the river. His name was Joe. They had numerous daughters, all married and left home and a son Jonathan, who was still not grown and would always live at the inn, being a bit slow and delicate.
On this midwinter night, a figure with a monstrous looking face stumbled in carrying what appeared to be a large doll. They came around him as he dropped and realized that his face was injured and they sent someone for Rita Sunday, the midwife and healer that lived nearby. It was only after some time that they realized the thing they thought was a doll was a young girl, and that she seemed to be dead. 
They laid her carefully in the other room and Rita arrived and did her work on the man, checking him for other injuries and mending him as best she could. There were certain signs on his body that she announced indicated that he was a photographer. A card in his pocket confirmed this. Rita then went to look at the child and while she agreed that the child was dead, something kept her by her side, and then suddenly, the child was no longer dead. At this seeming miracle, she took the child in to the main room of the inn to warm. Shortly thereafter the inn closed for the night and Rita stayed to look after the two patients. 
As word spread of this event through those that had been there, Rita continued to puzzle over the situation, something she would do for many months going forward. 
There were two families that heard of the child that had been found. The Vaughans, who lived in a nearby manor house and were wealthy had their two year old daughter kidnapped two years before, and she would now be about the same age as this child. Mrs. Vaughan has been heartbroken, aching for her child and not engaging with anyone as she had before. As soon as she hears, she rushes to the inn and claims the child upon sight. 
The Armstrongs are a large farming family with an interesting history. Mr Armstrong is a black man who was supported in starting his life as an adult by his own white father. Mrs. Armstrong is a woman with a unique talent for seeing people as they truly are. Their oldest son has been a trial and they recently learned that he was a father and it would seem that this child could be his daughter. 
Another woman Lily also swears that she knows the child, as her younger sister Anne. But the woman has issues and doesn't seem to understand the impossibility of her claim, and she appears to have no desire to take the child herself. 
As the recovered photographer, Henry Daunt, and Rita join forces to look into the matter further and the story continues with interesting sidenotes over the next several months.
As this story developed, and we could see into the feelings of many of the characters, I began to care about their individual lives and stories, wanting things to work out for each one. It was all related to the storytelling in some ways too, as this story is itself. It felt like the kind of tale you'd hear around the fire in past days.
I liked the way that things converged and appreciated the epilogue that took us into the future a ways to see what happened in the near term to the various people. 
A great read.


Finished February 4
Snow by John Banville

This is the first book in a series, that is also related to another series by the author that he published under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. Here, the main character is a detective inspector with the Garda, the Irish police, and the time is late in 1957. The book begins just a few days before Christmas.
At the manor house Ballyglass, near the village of , in the county of Wexford, a priest is murdered one night. His is discovered by the woman of the house who often wanders in the night, and with the local officer under the weather, DI John Strafford is called in. Like the house owners, Strafford is Protestant, but the priest is Catholic as are most of the people who live in the area. 
The woman of the house, the second wife of the owner, Mr. Osborne is unreliable and often medicated. Osborne and his two teenage children all claim to be sound sleepers who heard nothing. The staff in the house live out, and there seems to be no forced entry. As Strafford delves in the lives of these people, and into the past of the priest, he must also look at his own life and his lack of direction, as well as deal with the power of the church, which is strong in this country. The church, it's history of coverups and abuse have a major role in this story, as they do in reality in many stories. 
The weather plays a role in the book as well, as one can guess from the title. Strafford is woefully unprepared, having only shoes and a thin coat, and he is often borrowing pieces of clothing, offered or not to venture out into the snowy landscape. The weather also affects the actions of others, from the priest staying over at the Osborne's due to the weather, to the delay in assistance arriving.
There are interesting elements of sexuality that also come up several times in the book. 
As always Banville's writing is wonderful, and this story develops slowly, with a few red herrings thrown in for the reader to consider, and a few clues that seem to lie dormant before being followed.
Strafford is an interesting character, who seems to have trouble focusing, and doesn't seem to take notes during his interviews and so loses track of what he knows. It will be interesting to see how he develops in future books.

Nowhere Is a Place

Finished February 2 
Nowhere Is a Place by Bernice L. McFadden

This is a book about a journey. There is a journey in a physical sense as the two main characters, Sherry and her mother Dumpling drive from her mother's home to a family reunion several states away. There is a journey into the past as Dumpling tells the story of their family and Sherry enlarges on that story, bringing it to life with new details and depth. And there is a journey of the relationship between these two women, who hadn't been close in a long time, perhaps not since Sherry was a young child, and how the story of the past laid bare the incident that came between them and gave new closeness to them, even more than Dumpling has with her other children.
This story goes back into the 19th century, with Dumpling's great grandmother, a young indigenous girl abducted from her home, separated from her siblings, and sold into slavery. We see how she gradually came to terms with her new reality, and started a family, with many losses along the way. And we follow one of her daughter's who becomes Dumpling's grandmother and starts again after the Civil War, and how her family also has loss and trouble. And then we see how Dumpling also has had to deal with issues outside of her control. And Sherry is the one bringing all these stories to life, as she also drives her mother across the country and along the way visits with a variety of people from her own past, people that helped make her the woman she is today. 
This is a book about telling our stories, even the difficult ones. And how doing that allows us to move forward into happiness and a more hopeful future. 

The Other Me

Finished January 31
The Other Me by Saskia Sarginson

This book has three timelines in it. One follows two German brothers as Nazi power is on the rise and they get enveloped into the German army, one more enthusiastically than the other.
Another timeline follows Klaudia in the mid-1980s as she struggles to keep her home and school life separate. Her father is strict and very religious and doesn't say much about his German background. Her parents met in Wales when her dad was a POW there and her mom a teenager. There is no contact with her mother's side of the family. Klaudia and her mother are close and her mother encourages her to practice her passion, dancing, even though they can't afford lessons and her father would never permit it anyway. Her father has had various low level jobs and currently works as a custodian at her school, something that would impact how Klaudia was treated by other students if it became common knowledge. 
The third timeline is the mid 1990s. Klaudia has gone away to university and reinvented herself. She has dropped out of the university her parents think she is still going to, uses a different name, Eliza, with everyone she knows and is taking dance lessons. She has even gained a boyfriend. But when a family emergency brings her home again, she doesn't know if she can tell her friends the truth, and when she learns more about her parents' past, it seems there are more secrets for her to keep. 
This was an interesting story, driven by the author's own recent revelations about her past, making her wonder "what if". I liked Klaudia/Eliza and her mother and the one brother of the two German men. But the other one inspired more complex emotions in me. I both didn't like him, and sympathized with him. 

Tuesday 2 February 2021

February Reviews for the 14th Annual Canadian Reading Challenge

 Use the link below to add reviews that you read during February 2021 for the 14th Annual Canadian Reading Challenge.