Thursday 27 May 2021

If I Didn't Know Better

Finished May 23
If I Didn't Know Better by Barbara Freethy

This is the 9th book in the Calloways series, all around a large extended family. Here, the story is focused on Mia Calloway, a young art curator, who has just left her job at a museum after an ill-fated romance ended. Mia's favourite aunt, Carly, has died recently and Mia volunteers to go to the town of Angel's Bay, where her aunt lived and clear out her house. Her aunt lived an adventurous life, travelling a lot, having lots of short relationships, and being creative. Mia had spent time visiting when she was younger and regrets not seeing her aunt more recently. 
Carly had a guesthouse out back of her place, and let people stay there for free, mainly artists who would leave her a picture in payment for the stay. Many were going through difficult periods in their lives and needed some time to focus and think things through before moving on.
The house next door has recently been rented to Jeremy Holt, who is both recovering from injuries received during his military career and determining what his future holds, and getting to know his eight-year-old daughter Ashlyn, whose mother recently died in a violent robbery, and who Jeremy wasn't aware of until authorities contacted him as next of kin. Ashlyn is traumatized by the loss of her mother, and is mostly non-verbal and withdrawn. She is in therapy, but seems drawn to Mia from the start.
As Mia deals with the contents of the home and guesthouse of her aunt, she finds many paintings, some from the artists who stayed in the guesthouse, some her aunt painted herself, and gets an idea for an exhibit at the local gallery.
Both Mia and Jeremy are at turning points in their lives, deciding on what they will do next professionally, and finding new ways forward personally. 
The romance starts quickly, with both drawn to each other immediately and not thinking beyond the summer at first, and other things happen quickly here too.
There is a mystery surrounding the paintings, and background on both main characters, with enough to hold the reader's interest. I did find some of the dialogue awkward, and things worked out a little too easily for me here, but it was a quick read.

Crazy Stupid Bromance

Finished May 22
Crazy Stupid Bromance by Lyssa Kay Adams

I've really been enjoying this Nashville-based series. Here, Noah Logan who was introduced in the second book in the series, a tech security expert, is one of the main characters. We learn his back story, and how the loss of his father took him in a direction that was negative at first, but ended up propelling him into his successful career. 
The other main character, Alexis Carlisle, owner of the cat cafe ToeBeans, was mentioned in the first book and had a bigger role in the second book. Here, we also learn her backstory and how growing up the only child of a single mother gave her confidence and an independent spirit, but also made her long for family. Here, she is reconnected with her father's side of the family in an unusual, but meaningful way, and is pushed to take a risk in her romantic life. It was also interesting to see some of the ways her life had changed as a result of the revelations of the previous book. 
As usual, Noah is give a romance book by the members of the Bromance Book Club that they think will give him insight into his current situation and show him how to respect both his friendship with Alexis and his growing feelings for her. 
Again, I liked seeing more of these characters that we had peeks of before, giving us a fuller view of their characters and what brought them to this stage in their lives. I also enjoyed Alexis' cat Beefcake. 
I'll definitely be looking for the next book in the series, due out this summer.

Wednesday 26 May 2021

How a Woman Becomes a Lake

Finished May 20
How a Woman Becomes a Lake by Marjorie Celona

This novel about a woman who disappears on New Year's Day, and the subsequent ramifications of that disappearance is haunting. Vera Gusev had gone out that morning with her dog, to walk by the lake. But something different happened. She used the phone in one of the parking lots there to call the police, saying that she'd found a boy, lost. Then she cried out and left the phone. 
This story begins with the police officer, Lewis, as he finds her car, engine running and doors open, and her dog, but no sign of her. 
A man, Leo, and his two young sons, Jesse, ten, and Dmitri, six, also went to the lake that morning. Leo wanted to write resolutions on paper and make boats to set off on the lake. Leo and his wife Evelina had recently separated, and Leo has taken the boys for this outing this morning. Evelina is worried about how long they've been gone and has called around considering accidents and other such reasons. 
Last night Vera and her husband Denny had an argument, and Denny had gone to see the fireworks alone and then drunk too much. When he awakens to an empty house, he doesn't worry right away, not knowing for sure exactly when his wife left on her outing, but is uneasy about her absence and regretful of their fight. Things haven't been going well lately and he is worried about their relationship, but loves her.
As we learn more about these characters, their motivations, and their worries, we see how their lives intersect, and how they deal with this situation in different ways. We gradually learn what really happened that day, and what the long-term implications are.
I found Vera's viewpoint very interesting, in a cosmic way. This is a story of random encounters that changed people's lives. 

Tuesday 25 May 2021

The Last Stargazers

Finished May 18
The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy's Vanishing Explorers by Emily Levesque

This is a fascinating look at the modern history of astronomy and the different ways astronomers examine the universe. The author, Emily Levesque is an astronomer and included here are her own experiences.
The first chapter includes her first experience at an observatory telescope, an opportunity related to her summer project in her sophomore year at MIT. This project launched her career interest in red supergiants, and the science of dying stars. Here we learn of the practicalities of how observing is done, how these large telescopes are managed and see into the personal side of this career.
The second chapter looks at the technical side of things, explaining what the prime focus is, and how time on the telescopes is assigned. It also looks at some of this wild experiences that people have had when things don't go as expected. 
The third chapter looks at how things like weather affect observing time, starting with a windy night that meant that Emily wasn't able to take advantage of the clear skies on offer. It also talks about the access to observatories, which are located in remote, high altitude locations, with no lighting. (In most cases, even using the car headlights when driving at night is not allowed.) She also discusses the different kind of data that you might be gathering for later analysis. Reading this chapter made me wonder how astronomers are working during Covid with the limitations on travel.
The fourth chapter looks at other reasons that your time on the telescope might be lost. From natural disasters such as volcanoes and earthquakes, to fires, insects, and animals. Animals also sometimes add to the adventure, from bears and skunks to tarantulas and scorpions.
The fifth chapter looks at things like rules in the areas near telescope locations that limit certain activities to lessen interference, from lack of WiFi and cellphone reception to limitations on fuel for vehicles. It also looks at some physical failures, when telescopes have collapsed. A few months after this book was published, the Arecibo telescope collapsed. She also discusses other physical failures and injuries to staff.
The sixth chapter looks at other obstacles to observing from sex, age, and race to groups arguing against the building of observatories or access, including environmentalists and hunters to land rights activists. She looks at some legal cases, and some where listening and collaboration resolved the issues. 
The seventh chapter introduces the VLA (Very Large Array) telescopes and how they work. These are radio telescopes and they work in groups, which can even include other VLA telescopes in other parts of the world for certain projects. And of course they operate even during the day, since they don't need darkness for their data gathering. I learned that while weather doesn't affect them as much, things like birds can be issue. 
The eighth chapter introduces telescopes that are brought to higher levels of the atmosphere in planes and can therefore see things that our atmosphere filters out. The telescope is mounted in it's own compartment on a giant ball bearing. This ensures that it remains steady and that a door can be opened during flight to have the telescope open to the sky. She describes some of the limitations and safety issues this brings and talks about other higher atmosphere telescopes, both in aircraft and those launched by balloon. 
The ninth chapter talks about special observations, such as eclipses including the lunar and solar ones we often hear about as well as ones by smaller objects such as asteroids. This chapter also details some of the access issues that occur when timing becomes a big part of the observing data.
The tenth chapter introducing the subject of gravitational waves and how they are observed. It also introduces another kind of observatory, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and its unique design and features. 
Chapter eleven looks at supernovae and the importance of confirming observations, and chapter twelve looks at how the automation and remote control of some observing has begun, eliminating the need to travel and observe on site. Chapter thirteen goes even further down this road, showing how computer controlled telescopes optimize observing time by scheduling jobs efficiently and prioritizing observing based on its nature and relationship to other jobs in the queue. 
A lovely addition to this book is a reading group guide at the back with some suggested discussion questions. 
This book was written in a very accessible narrative style that makes this science understandable to the average reader. A fantastic read.

Tuesday 18 May 2021

Practical Magic

Finished May 16
Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

This tale takes us through the lives of two sisters from their childhood through their late thirties. Gillian and Sally Owens were orphaned as children and came to live with their aunts, women that lived in a house built by an earlier generation of Owens woman, Maria. The house had certain strange things about it, and around it, and the aunts were known by the townsfolk, particularly the women, to have certain abilities around herbs and tonics, particularly when it came to love. The visits from the town women generally came at twilight, when it was easier to go unnoticed in the shadows. 
Sally and Gillian were sent to their attic bedroom when visitors came, but they almost always snuck down the back stairs and listened and watched. Sally was more practically minded and she cooked for the household, even at a young age, but the two girls knew things most girls didn't.
Both longed for a more normal life, where they had friends and weren't shunned and feared. Gillian ran away at the first chance she had as a young woman, and never stopped running. Sally stayed for a time, and started her own family with two daughters, Antonia and Kylie, but when tragedy strikes Sally slips into grief and then heads out to start a life elsewhere. 
Sally ends up on Long Island and finds a job as a secretary in a school, and makes a more normal life, bringing up her daughters with guidelines and expectations, and hosting birthday parties and checking homework. 
As Antonia becomes a teenager, she becomes more rebellious, dressing in black and tormenting her sister, but nothing out of the realm of normal. But then Gillian returns to their lives, and she brings a big problem with her. Sally helps her, and the two women hope for the best, but things aren't right, and as Kylie also hits her teenage years shortly after Gillian arrives, and shares a room with her aunt, she finds that she can see things about people and about feelings that give her insight, but also burden her. As things come to a head, and Gillian's past threatens to catch up with her, the aunts are called upon to help, and the family finds that some things will bind them together forever.
I liked the four main characters, the two sets of sisters, and as we got to know the aunts a bit at the end, they grew more interesting as well. I read this book quickly, drawn in by the plot and caring about what happened to them, and whether the evil that had come into their lives would be more than they could overcome. 

Monday 17 May 2021

Perfect Little Children

Finished May 15
Perfect Little Children by Sophie Hannah

Beth hasn't seen her former best friend in twelve years and she isn't sure what prompted the interest now, but when her son has a football game near her friend's house, she decides to take a look. She has no intention of approaching her. But as Beth is sitting in her car outside the house, she sees a vehicle arrive. Flora is driving, but when she gets out, paying more attention to the phone call she is on than anything else, something seems off. And when Ben sees her usher two children out of the vehicle, children with the same names and at the same ages as the children Flora and her husband had twelve years ago, Beth is stunned. She doesn't know what to think. But she can't let it go.
Beth's husband Dominic humours her at first, but becomes irritated when she won't give up, despite being given plausible answers. 
Beth is still bothered by the breakup of the friendship, seemingly for social reasons, but as she thinks about it more and more, she wonders if there wasn't more to Flora's behaviour even back then. The reader gradually learns of the circumstances around the rift, and has similar misgivings to Beth. 
This is a book of psychological suspense, one that is hard to put down. 
I really liked the character of Beth's daughter Zan, and her confidence and intelligence. She plays an important role here, and the relationship between her and Beth is a good one, despite some typical drama. 

Party of Two

Finished May 14
Party of Two by Jasmine Guillory

This lighthearted romance novel features lawyer Olivia Monroe, who has just moved back to her home state of California to start a law firm with her college friend Ellie Spencer. Olivia grew up in the Bay Area, but Ellie is settled with her family in L.A., so that's where Olivia is. For the first few days, until her stuff arrives with the movers, Olivia is staying in a hotel, and when she arrives she wants a cold Martini and fresh French fries, so she heads to the bar. 
She gets into a conversation with a man there, who is staying in the hotel due to a water issue in his neighbourhood. Only later does she realize that the man is Max Powell, a senator for California. When she runs into him again and he remembers her and their conversation and makes overtures towards her, she can't deny that there is chemistry there. But with a new law firm to get off the ground, Olivia doesn't have time to invest in a relationship she thinks.
This is a story of two people, neither of whom is actively seeking a relationship, connecting through serendipitous circumstances. It is a story of race (she's black, he's white), and politics. It is a story of balancing privacy and a public position. 
A fun read, with characters that are engaging and feel real. 

Two White Queens and The One-Eyed Jack

Finished May 12 
Two White Queens and The One-Eyed Jack by Heidi Von Palleske

This book is a winner. It takes you into the world of four young people, following their lives from the age of six to their early twenties. Gareth and Johnny are best friends, up for any adventure. When Gareth climbs a tree successfully, Johnny is urged to tackle it after him, climbing higher and higher, but he falls, and is hurt. The fall results in the loss of one of Johnny's eyes. Gareth struggles with the guilt he feels of urging Johnny on. The boys remain friends, but for a long while, there is distance between them that wasn't there before. Interestingly, the incident results in another revelation, the fact that Gareth's older brother Tristan is blind in one eye. As Gareth's family deals with this, and numerous doctor visits are kept, Gareth has a random encounter with two young girls in a waiting room.
These two girls are twin sister, Blanca and Clara, albinos who live with their grandfather in a very dysfunctional family. Their mother, Faye, is living in a mental institution and they go to see her from time to time. The also spend time at the home of their uncle and his family. They are bullied at school, and subjected to strict rules at home, but they find refuge in the home of their downstairs neighbour, Esther Perlman, a refugee from World War II, who was the only one in her family to escape the Nazis. Esther teaches them art and manners, and they begin to plan a way out of their situation, by taking advantage of their uniqueness instead of feeling lesser because of it. These are strong-willed girls and their intense connection with each other is their strength.
Johnny's mother Hilda, is another European immigrant, in her case running from a life that she didn't want to face. But she remembers a figure from her childhood and thinks about how he may be able to help her son. As she reconnects with Siegfried, she also finds that her relationship with her husband, already unravelling, grows even more frayed. 
As Johnny grows up, he grows tired of being the "junior" of his father and reclaims his name as Jack, and finds himself using photography as a type of replacement for his partial loss of vision. It is not until they are teenagers that the young people encounter each other again. But this time, they spend more time with each other and are influenced by each other's experiences. 
This book takes us into the past, dealing with loss and shame and the impulse to forget. But it also looks into the future, with the hope these young people have of starting anew, reinventing themselves and finding new purpose. The book's final scene is a fabulous metaphor for new beginnings. 

Double-Running or Back Stitch

Finished May 6
Double-Running or Back Stitch by Louisa F. Pesel

This book was one my mom sent me, an embroidery instruction book meant for school use from 1931. Except for a couple of photographs of historical embroidery at the front of the book, all of the pictures are in black and white. There are detailed instructions, and many charts that show how to do the rows from the samplers that are included here.
The Preface was great, and I loved the last paragraph:
There is another aspect which is not always realized in this work done by the counted thread, and that is its value in regard to health. The work needs sufficient concentration to keep the mind occupied without undue strain, and I have proved by experience with my pupils the worth of this. After a short time spent in working at a design, very often the obvious weariness following a long day in school or office will disappear. In these days of rush and hurry, I believe half an hour each day spent in embroidery of this type would act as a real tonic, and, in addition, workers would have the satisfaction of knowing that they were helping to establish once more in this country the old designs made and worked by their ancestors many years ago. 
This was a great find, and I really enjoyed going through it. It will stay on my shelves as a potential resource for future work. 

Monday 10 May 2021

Worth the Weight

Finished May 4 
Worth the Weight by Mara Jacobs

This is the first book in a romance series that is now up to eight novels. They take place in the Copper Country area of Michigan. The main character here is Lizzie Hampton. Lizzie grew up in this area, but left years ago for college and then made a career in PR, now running her own agency representing sports figures and celebrities. She is good at what she does, but her personal life is not such a success. She hasn't had a serious romantic relationship, and in fact, her last relationship was in high school. 
But a few years ago Lizzie met someone she thinks she might find a future with and so she made a plan. A plan that involved her losing a ton of weight and getting her body into shape again. It also involved her getting comfortable with that body, especially in an intimate situation.
Her body shows its past, and Lizzie isn't sure that she can deal with that, so she decides to hunt down her old high school boyfriend and test her newfound body out on him. After all, he always wanted her, but she held out back then. 
Finn Robbins still lives in her old hometown, and he's divorced, but as Lizzie soon discovers when she renews their relationship, he came out of the marriage with two children. He is also facing challenges with the medical condition with one of his kids and his life has revolved around them and doing what he needs to get his daughter the help she needs. 
Lizzie's organizing and PR skills kick in and before she knows it, she's more deeply involved with this family than she ever planned or expected. Along with her two best friends, Katie and Alison, she makes her plan reality, but has to figure out if her plans have changed. 
A fun read, with a sympathetic and relatable heroine. 

The Finders

Finished May 2 
The Finders by Jeffrey B. Burton

This mystery story is centered around dog handler Mason (Mace) Reid. He lives in the suburbs of Chicago and owns several dogs that he has trained as cadaver dogs. He subcontracts to the police as the main part of his work, but also runs some dog training classes. 
The story has two preludes. One is of a woman being kidnapped, and the other is of a police officer and her partner responding to a call from a concerned neighbour that results in a case of carbon monoxide poisoning and a puppy that has survived against all odds.
Jumping forward, Mace has taken on the dog and trained her, now named Viro, as a cadaver dog. But she seems to have extraordinary senses around her work and her very first case leads to an unfortunate incident and the discovery of a kidnapper. 
But there is an even darker criminal associated with this case in a loose way, and he has taken a personal dislike to Mace that leads to entrapment and murders.
I liked the character Mace, with his real love for his four dogs. He is living close the edge financially and needs his work to make ends meets for him and his dogs. He is divorced and just starting to get interested in a new relationship, so when he meets a police officer that also has an interest in Viro, he begins to have hope for a future. The officer, Kippy, isn't ready for a relationship, but she is interested in Viro's abilities and in the case that seems to have Mace as a target. She is an intelligent and driven officer, putting in the extra work. 
This book is the first in a new series featuring Mace and his dogs. I look forward to seeing more of some of the police officers that appeared here as well. 

Sunday 2 May 2021

May Reviews for the 14th Annual Canadian Reading Challenge

Two more months to go for this challenge. How are you doing. I've done more Canadian books this year than I did last, but still have so many I want to read.

Use the linky to add links to the reviews for books read in May. Please link to the review itself. 

Saturday 1 May 2021

Girl A

Finished April 30
Girl A by Abigail Dean

This was a novel that I couldn't stop reading. Girl A, real name Alexandra or Lex, is at a women's prison in England as the book opens, called there to meet with prison authorities. Her birth mother was incarcerated there and has named Lex, her oldest daughter as the executor of her will. Lex must decide whether she wants to take on this burden.
Lex now lives in New York City and travels all over the world for her job in corporate acquisitions. She loves the work and is good at it. She hasn't seen her siblings in years. One isn't even aware of his birth family. 
The book gradually reveals what happened to this family and the children who were traumatized by their experience. There were four boys and three girls in the family. They lived in a small town in a house remote from others. The abuse started with control and slowly, so slowly escalated to some of them being chained in their rooms. Girl A was the one who escaped, the one who brought help that freed the others. She was the one that led to them all starting with other families. 
Now she must talk to them all to get them to agree on what happens to what their mother left behind. The house they were held captive in, and a small amount of money. 
Lex and Edie have an idea to repurpose the house to give it a new and better meaning. But can she convince the others? 
This is a book that reveals its story gradually, with chapters for each child that Lex meets with, labelled with their assigned letter and their real name. There are some missing and we find out why. Each one has a story, some worse than others. This is a story of love gone wrong, of psychological and physical abuse, and of recovery. Lex got lucky with the couple that took her in, and with the psychologist, Doctor Kay, who was assigned to her. She doesn't like to look back, but she must now. 
Her oldest brother is getting married soon too, and that event also lurks on the horizon. Will she go? How will she react to that. 
This is a story masterfully told. So well done.

Read Men Knit

Finished April 29
Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson

This romance book is centered around two twenty-year-somethings that have known each other since childhood, but face a major loss in their lives by coming together. Jesse Strong is the youngest of four adopted brothers, held together by the strength of their mother and their shared family. With their mother, known to all the neighbourhood as Mama Joy, suddenly passes away, he must join his brothers in figuring out what is next. 
They grew up in an apartment above the knitting store run by Mama Joy, and were all taught to knit at a young age, finding comfort and discipline in the act of creativity. The oldest brother, Damien, has launched his career as a financial analyst in the world of investment and keeps his old bedroom mainly as a closet for his upstyle wardrobe. The next two brothers, real half-brothers, Lucas and Noah, have just begun their careers, Lucas as a firefighter and Noah in the world of dance. The apartment is still a base for them even though they don't spend all their nights there. Jesse hasn't settled yet, either in his career choice or in his personal life. He is a bit of a player, and hasn't stayed in any one job too long.
One mainstay in the knitting store has been Kerry Fuller. Kerry has been working part-time in the store, as the only employee for years and even though she has now finished her degree in children's counselling and art therapy and works part-time at the community centre, she finds it hard to leave the knitting store. 
As Jesse fights to keep the store open and viable and keep the home they have above it, the brothers rely on Kerry to help them learn what they need to know to give the store a fresh start with the ideas that Jesse brings to it. Will this major life event mark a change in Jesse's life for the better, and what will Kerry's future bring her?
This is a story of love and loss, of learning and growing, of finding common ground and families coming together through adversity. The only thing missing for me was a knitting pattern. This book cried out for one to be included. There is humour and sadness, but an overall sense of hope for the future, for the main characters, and the community as a whole. 

The Healing

Finished April 27
The Healing by Lynda Faye Schmidt

This novel draws from the author's real life experiences, featuring the fictional character Cate Henderson, starting just as she's leaving her abusive husband and starting a new life. She leaves Calgary and stays for a few months in her daughter's home on Vancouver Island while her daughter and son-in-law are overseas. While there, she focuses on her own mental and physical health and finds herself drawn to a man visiting family. While Cate cares strongly about all three of her children, they are now adults and have their own lives. Celeste is settled in B.C. with her husband. Dana is still living a life of exploration and adventure, and Taylor is starting university. 
The new man in Cate's life has her moving to parts of the world she never considered before, and adds another adult child to her life. 
This is a book that explores mental health challenges, physical health challenges, and the risks and rewards of new relationships and new places to live. It is the story of a woman starting a new period of her life, focusing on her own health and her own needs for really the first time in her life.
That is not to say that she doesn't respond to the needs of her children, but that she achieves a balance to her life that she hasn't had before.
This is a novel of hope.