Friday, 31 December 2021

Letters Across the Sea

Finished December 24 
Letters Across the Sea by Genevieve Graham

This historical fiction novel takes place from the early 1930s until after World War II and revolves around two characters. Molly Ryan is the daughter of a police officer in Toronto, and her best friend is a Jewish girl the same age, Hannah Dreyfus. Both have older brothers who play league baseball. As the 1930s brought increasing prejudice against Jews, Molly is dismayed to see this appear in her own neighbourhood and among people she knows. 
Molly has been working in a local grocery store to help her family, but as the Depression worsens, she loses that job, and struggles to find another. She also grows more determined to follow her heart by taking journalism classes with the aim of becoming a reporter someday. 
Hannah is involved with a young man, and as the racial prejudice grows the girls drift apart. Her brother Max also has a goal, to become a doctor. Quotas for Jews in the program mean that he doesn't get into the University of Toronto, but he does get into a medical school and, just as he is finishing the war starts, and he enlists as a medic. 
At first, he is stationed in North America, but as things escalate in Europe and the British want a presence in Hong Kong, some Canadian soldiers are sent there. They have little combat training and don't know the small group of islands well, and are sitting ducks when the Japanese attack with more force than predicted shortly after Pearl Harbor. 
As Max tries to protect his fellow soldiers, and struggles to survive himself, Molly tries to follow what is happening in the Far East, and bring attention to it in her role as a reporter. 
This is a story that highlights a lesser known part of WWII, and the Canadians that served there. It also brings to light the racial prejudice of the time, and how media influences what people think.
A very interesting read. 

Saturday, 25 December 2021

In Another Light

Finished December 22
In Another Light by A.J. Banner

This novel was one that turned out to be a real page turner for me. I read it in less than 2 days, and was totally caught up in the plot and the main character. Phoebe Glassman works as a mortuary cosmetologist in the funeral home that her husband used to co-own. Her husband Logan died in an accident and Phoebe has shut out most of the world since then. One of her newer coworkers, Mike Rivera, a former paramedic, warns her to avoid a body coming in later that day, but that only intrigues her. When she views the body, she is taken aback to find a woman who looks like a younger version of herself. Who is she, where did she come from, and why is she dead? are all questions Phoebe begins asking.
As she travels down that path and learns more about the woman, Pauline Steele, she also learns things she didn't know about her husband and other family members. Not sure whether she can trust her friends, or even herself, Phoebe finds herself in the grip of an absurd hope and making dangerous connections. 
Phoebe is an interesting character, smart and creative. She got sidetracked into her current job when she met her husband, from her former career as a sculptor, and she still secretly does some sculpting in her home studio. She hasn't changed anything in the house since her husband's death. Her father also died around the same time, and her mother is in the early stages of dementia, and living in a retirement home. 
Her new coworker Mike is also interesting, a man with a varied past, and who seems to be drawn to Phoebe. This is a story that gradually reveals the truth, and each revelation brings more questions. 

Dark Lies the Island

Finished December 19
Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry

This collection of short stories by the Irish writer Kevin Barry are all set in that country with the exception of the last one, Berlin Arkonaplatz. They are stories of everyday life, relationships, groups of friends, trials of fathering a teen daughter, new starts in life gone wrong, two ladies with ill intentions, a doctor past his prime, men in trouble with the law, mental health, and more.
They are stories where the characters are at the center, where the dialogue is key and real, and where the people are at moments in their life where things change for them, for good or for bad. 
These are stories of people who don't fit in, who don't feel comfortable in their own lives, who are looking for something else, something different. 
This is a book hard to put down and very worth the read. I liked them all for different reasons, and it is hard to choose a favourite, but it would likely be Fjord of Killary, for the descriptiveness of the scenes.

Kapo

Finished December 17
Kapo by Aleksandar Tišma, translated by Richard Williams, Afterword by David Rieff

This novel has a central character who is hiding his past. Lamian was born to Jewish parents, but baptised in an attempt to avoid prejudicial treatment. He went away from his small town to university in the city, and was drafted into the Yugoslav army. That was followed by his taking on another identity as he tried to return home, but he was captured by the Germans and sent to Auschwitz, where he survived by catering to the officers and becoming a kapo. He is haunted by a woman that he took advantage of, one of many that he provided with food and other "gifts" for sexual favours. It was only after his encounter with her that he realized that she was a Jew like him, but one labeled with the yellow star. Because he had assumed another identity, he was a secret Jew.
After the war, he came back to Yugoslavia, resumed his old name, and hid his WWII actions, becoming a government administrator. He now lives in the Bosnian town of Banja Luka, and lives a respectable quiet life. When he sees a name in the paper, one of the woman who he knew from the camp, he is haunted by the possibility of discovery. This is the story of how he reacted, how he got to where he is now, and his feelings around it all.
He has guilt, fear, and a desire to be both seen for himself, and to bury his own past. This is a very intense, brooding book, and is the third book in what is known as his Novi Sad trilogy. It is the saddest of the three, a tale of a man who is both a victim and a terrorizer. 
Despite its sad nature, it drew me in, wanting to see what happened to this man who was so conflicted and who had lived his life alone, damaged by his past.

Sunday, 19 December 2021

December Reviews for 15th Annual Canadian Book Challenge

 Sorry this is posted so late. I don't know how I missed doing it!



Dirty Work

Finished December 16
Dirty Work: My Gruelling, Glorious, Life-Changing Summer in the Wilderness by Anna Maxymiw

This memoir of a summer spent as a worker at a remote fishing resort in Northern Ontario is an reflective and open piece on a time that changed the author's perspective on herself and on how she moved forward. Anna grew up in the city, unlike most of the other members on the crew at the fishing lodge and she was working on her Master of Arts, while most of them were engaged in studies to do with the environment or tourism. She had come to the resort the year before as a guest with her family and really enjoyed her time there, so she had some idea of the environment she was entering into and the nature of the work. 
It was however a move outside her comfort zone, pushing her into the company of a group of other young people, none of whom she knew, in close quarters for several weeks. There is no place for privacy, no access to the internet, and little down time. If she wasn't working, she was resting from the very physical work she was doing, too tired to do much. She found herself forming the first real female friendships she had, and engaging with young men in ways she wasn't used to. 
She gained a nickname she didn't love, a realization that she was stronger than she had thought, and a better sense of who she was as a person. 
There were good times and bad ones, and things were tense at times, but her memoir makes it clear that this was an experience she was glad she'd undertaken. 

The Awakening

Finished December 12
The Awakening by Kate Chopin

This is a very languid read, and very much about the central character and her reactions to her situation. Edna Pontellier is a young woman, married to a Louisiana businessman somewhat older than them. They have two young sons, and have a domestic who looks after them. 
Edna is not a natural mother, and while she spends time with her children, she doesn't dote on them or worry over them. 
This is their first summer that she has spent on Grand Isle, a resort community not far from New Orleans. Her husband joins her on weekends as do most of the other husbands, and she spends the week with the other wives, her children, and one of the sons of the resort owner who is of a similar age to her. His name is Robert Lebrun, and Mr. Pontellier is aware of the attentions paid by him to his wife, but does not worry over it. Robert does this with a young woman every summer, and it is generally attention with mild flirting.
But this attention awakens something in Edna, and she reacts in an unexpected way. She grew up in Mississippi and Kentucky on her father's plantation and led a sheltered existence. This new experience has left her unsettled, longing for something else in her life, and dissatisfied with her luxurious lifestyle. As she ventures away from expected behaviours, her husband makes moves to save face, and reaches out to her, but she seems to not realize her situation.
This is a sad novel, one where I wished I could change the course of what I could see developing. 

Friday, 17 December 2021

The Night She Disappeared

Finished December 9
The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell

This story takes place in an English suburb. On a summer night over a year before the main story, a teenage couple Tallulah and Zach head out to a local pub for dinner. This is the first time the pair has been out since the birth of their baby Noah several months before. Tallulah lives with her mom and younger brother and attends a local college. Zach is working and saving money for their own home and a few months earlier, after a break in their relationship, moved in with Tallulah. Tallulah's mom, Kim is close to her daughter and hopes for a better relationship for her than the one she had with her children's father, who moved back with his own mother shortly after their son Ryan is born. 
But Tallulah and Zach don't return home. Zach's parents don't seem concerned, and seem to think the two felt parenthood too much and took off together. Kim knows Tallulah wouldn't abandon Noah, and tries to track their movements the night before, finding that they'd gone to the house of another young woman, Scarlett Jacques. 
Scarlett says they left when Tallulah felt ill, but no taxi firm has any record of a trip and there seems to be no trace of the two, even when police get involved. 
Fourteen months later, Sophie Beck moves into the headmaster's cottage at a local school, Maypole House, with her boyfriend Shaun, the new headmaster. Sophie writes cozy mysteries. At the back of the garden, she finds a sign on the fence saying Dig Here, and when she does, she finds something that leads her to Kim. Sophie wonders who has left the sign and whether it is targeted specifically for her, because of her novels. 
As we follow the timelines of Sophie and Kim in the now, and trace the events in Tallulah and Zach's lives leading up to that night they disappeared, we find things are not always as they seem, and that relationships are more complex than anyone close to the couple knew. 
Kim lives in both fear and hope, and Sophie finds that mysteries made real may change her life as well. 
A fascinating tale of love, control, and the things people are willing to do for both. 

Keep Saying Their Names

Finished December 8
Keep Saying Their Names by Simon Stranger, translated by Matt Bagguley

This Norwegian novel was a winner of the Norwegian Booksellers' Prize in 2018 and has a unique structure. It is set in 3 storylines, one modern day, one starting pre-World War II and following a character through his youth into adulthood and his actions during the war, and one starting a few years after the war around a family of Jewish Norwegians. It is structured alphabetically, with each chapter starting with a letter of the alphabet and having statements and discussion around words starting with that letter. I can't imagine how difficult this was to do in translation. This is the first book by this author to be translated into English.
The modern day part of the story features a writer unnamed, who is researching the Jewish family that they married into and what happened to them during the war, occasionally reaching back further, and reaching out to people they were connected with. In particular they are focused on the father of the Komissar family, who was killed in custody during the war. 
The one character, Henry Oliver Rinnan, gets followed from a difficult childhood in poverty, getting bullied and building a desire to be successful and show off that success to those who previously bullied them. This man has that drive to be lauded and to please those in authority, to be a leader, as his driving force. He has no ethics, no sincere feelings for others, even his wife and children, just that need. When the Germans invade in WWII, it is them he tries to please and thus he takes advantage of and betrays so many of his countrymen and women by becoming a double agent for the Nazis.
After the war, when Komissar's son Gerson and his wife move into the house used by Rinnan as a jail and torture chamber for resisters, the history of the house affects their marriage.
This is a story both intimate and national, going deep into people's lives, but also reflecting the history of the country. 

Monday, 6 December 2021

Northanger Abbey

Finished December 6 
Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

This book is part of a series of novels that are retellings of Jane Austen books known as The Austen Project. Here we have 17-year-old Catherine (Cat) Morland of the Piddle Valley in Dorset, accompanying neighbours Mr. and Mrs. Allen to Edinburgh for the Festival. She is excited to visit the city and take part in the various cultural events. Mr. Allen is an investor in cultural projects in London and evaluating the productions for potential. Mrs. Allen is both accompanying her husband, and shopping, and Cat is the recipient of some shopping largesse. 
They get invited to the Edinburgh Ball, and Cat is able to get a spot in a one-day session learning the various country dances. She is paired with local Henry Tilney, and finds herself falling for him. They also run into one of Mrs. Allen's old school friends, and her three daughters, one of whom, Bella, claims Cat for a friend. They also apparently know Cat's older brother James, as he went to school with their brother John. When the two young men also arrive, Cat finds herself torn between accompanying them and Bella on outings, and spending time with Henry and his sister Ellie. 
When General Tilney, Henry and Ellie's father invites her to their home at remote Northanger Abbey, Cat finds herself both excited and falling prey to her overactive imagination.
A fan of paranormal fantasy, and introduced to a Scottish writer of a series new to her, she finds herself imagining vampires, prisoners in old towers, and other such fantasies. 
This was an interesting modern-day take on the plot of Austen's novel, and a fun read. Including social media, texting, and modern cultural figures added another element to the plot. 
I'd read Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, another in the series and enjoyed it, and have enjoyed Val McDermid's novels as well, so was interested to see what she'd make of this challenge. 

Friday, 3 December 2021

The Blackhouse

Finished December 1
The Black House by Peter May


As always with May, I found so much more in this book than just the mystery. The main character here is Edinburgh detective Fin Macleod. Fin was born and grew up on the Isle of Lewis, one of the northernmost and remote parts of Scotland. Fin has been on leave for the past month after the death of his child Robbie. He is called in to be assigned a case, one that the computer system HOLMES has suggested him for. Earlier in the year, he had a case in Edinburgh that wasn't solved. Now a similar crime scene has turned up on Lewis, near where he grew up. 
The case takes Fin back to the island that he hasn't been to in years, since his maternal aunt died. It also takes him back to the people he knew then, the friends, the enemies, the people he loved and the people he hated. And it brings him back to the events that happened shortly before he left the island for university, ones that he still doesn't fully understand. 
Besides the very interesting character of Fin, this book acquainted me with the Isle of Lewis. The details of the landscape are drawn well by May, and provide a real sense of the island, as well as the lives lived there. There is also an event that happens annual that is specific to one village on the island and a small uninhabited island to the north. May relocates it slightly, but the event really happens and has its roots in antiquity. From at least the Iron Age, men from this village have been going each year to the small island and killing birds for food. They go for a couple of weeks, during nesting season and take birds of a specific age. The prepare the birds, plucking, burning off the pin feathers, and preserving them before bringing them home. The island is small and rocky, with precarious cliffs and only one landing spot for boats. There is an unmanned lighthouse with a small helipad, that is maintained a couple of times a year, and the island is otherwise protected by law. 
I found this particularly interesting, and after reading the passages in the book about this event, I found a video showing some of the real men who do this. It is fascinating. 
This book is dark and has much sadness in it, but it is also a book that brings people to the truth, and shows a community in all its complexity. A great read. This is the first book in a trilogy set around Lewis, and I look forward to reading the others.

Thursday, 2 December 2021

Caste

Finished November 30
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

I bought this book more than a year ago and have been slowly reading it for the past couple of weeks. It is a book that looks at the origins of the American caste system, and how it relates to two other caste systems, the centuries-old caste system of India, and the one that arose under the Nazis. I was aware that Nazi's had studied how America treated its non-white citizens, particularly those who descended from earlier slaves, but this book made the connections more clear about how they tried to implement some of the same concepts and how the American situation went beyond in what it dared to define for castes and for how it had evolved to be ingrained in the American culture.
In India, the lowest caste is that of the Dalit, often called Untouchables. Wilkerson, on her first visit to India and meeting Dalits was introduced as one of America's Untouchables, and after the initial surprise, she had to see the similarities. 
She often gives examples of her own and others experiences to illustrate the various norms in America that arose from the caste system there, and how it is still having its effect, despite the laws and regulations that purport to eliminate it. 
Released in the last year of Trump's presidency, it is a book that is very pertinent to what the country is going through now, a test of its democracy, an awakening of those in the lower castes to the inbededness of the beliefs that have tried to keep them in their place, below the dominant caste of white European-origin males, and how the actions we are seeing today are part of a struggle to keep the system from changing. . 
This book should be required reading in every American history and culture course, as it looks at the history of the culture in a way that has seldom been explained in such straightforward terms. Wilkerson gives homage to those researchers who came before her in this area, and talks about their work and how she discovered it and built upon it. 
There is so much I could say about this eye-opening book, but the best is for you to read it yourself.

Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Between, Georgia

Finished November 22
Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson

I've enjoyed other books by this author for their strong female characters, and this is another good one. The main character here, Nonny Flett, comes into the story literally at the beginning when she is born. Her birth mother is a young teenage who doesn't want the baby and is afraid of her own mother's wrath. She has run to a nearby woman who was a former nurse, Bernese Flett.
Bernese's two sisters, Stacia and Genny, lived next door. Genny was a nervous woman, given to compulsive behaviours. Stacia was a skilled ceramacist, who was born deaf and was losing her eyesight. When they heard the ruckus next door, they came running. Stacia assisted Bernese and claimed the child as her own. Bernese made sure the paperwork was done with a local lawyer, and Nonny grew up with Stacia as her mother. 
When, after a few years, her birth grandmother, Ona Crabtree discovered that she was born a Crabtree, a war of sorts started between the families. Nonny did some visits with Ona, but was raised by Stacia, and learned sign language, later making it her career. 
After Nonny's birth, the book jumps to her adult years as she is coming up to a court date for her divorce. She had loved her irresponsible, musician husband Jonno, but something had drawn apart that love, if not the physical attraction, and she is convinced that she will go through with the divorce.
But when a emergency happens back in her hometown of Between, she must rush to the side of those who need her, find her own truth, and choose her own path forward.
Nonny is an interesting woman, with attributes from both her birth family and her adopted one, and she has an inner strength when it comes to the people she truly cares for: her mother, her aunt, and her young cousin. This is a turning point in her life, when she must make her own choices and not have others make it for her. 
A very enjoyable read.