Tuesday 23 August 2022

An Unkindness of Magicians

Finished August 15
An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard

I really enjoyed Kat Howard's Roses and Rot, and was eager to read this one. The opening scene of a magician performing an impressive bit of magic sets the scene and we gradually learn of the circumstances of this performance and the magician community that lives and operates in New York City. They call it the Unseen World and try to be as invisible as possible to the regular citizens of the city. 
The magician at the beginning is a woman named Sydney, and she has great powers, has come from a dark part of their world, and has strong feelings about the system that put her in the life she has lived until now. 
Sydney's story is gradually revealed, as are the stories of other magicians that she comes into contact with. For a few decades a system has been in place of pooling magic, but it has required sacrifices from all of the families part of the Unseen World and the dark nature of this has influenced many of them. Each House has its family, and the House itself has a consciousness and a power. Every once in a while there is a Turning where a House has made a challenge to take the place at the head of the community. One has been announced, and Sydney has answered an ad to be a champion for one of the Houses. In her case it is a new House, from a magician who has come from outside the Unseen World, but has been around for a few years. As the challenges escalate from proofs of magical ability to fights to the death, Sydney puts in place her own secret plan, one that will change the Unseen World completely. 
Sydney is a very interesting character, as is Laurent, the magician she becomes contracted to. The other champions have secrets, as do many of the heads of the Houses. Some of these are more evil than others, but all have consequences. 
I like the world that Howard has created here, and the depth of many of the key characters, which are complex and interesting. I'd love to see more of this world, but also of any others that she creates. 

Summer at Little Lava

Finished August 10
Summer at Little Lava: A Season at the Edge of the World by Charles Fergus

This memoir is of a summer spent in a remote, off-the-grid house on a farm on the west coast of Iceland. The author is still reeling from the sudden and violent death of his mother and hopes that this time will help the healing. No roads lead to the house, and to get to it you must cross a wetland that is flooded twice a day by the tide. It is surrounded by lava fields and has views of mountains, volcanoes, and the rugged coastline. 
Fergus goes in late May and, working with an Icelandic friend does repairs to the abandoned house, making it weatherproof and fitting it with the basics. He and the friend had gone in December to do a reconnaissance and see what would be needed. There is no heat other than the fires that they make, no electricity, and no running water. They use one of the cold pools in a cleft in the lava field as a fridge, and get some supplies locally from neighbours. 
Once his wife and son join him and they buy a used car, they spend the summer exploring the country nearby, including on a collapsible kayak that he brings to have time in the nearby ocean, are visited by relatives undergoing their own healing journey, and enjoy watching the animals and birds and noting the local plants and geology. 
The author's wife Nancy had done graduate work on the Icelandic sagas, they had visited the country a few times together and Nancy had gone again to study the language. It was she who had discovered this farm and they had already planned the visit before the loss of the author's mother. Nancy has also found references to the farm dating back to 1354 and there are the remains of other structures on the property. 
This is a personal memoir of his own emotional journey, but also beautiful descriptions of the land and its occupants. This is a book to savour. 

Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret

Finished August 4
Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret by Ondjaki, translated by Stephen Henighan

This historical fiction book is told from the point of view of a boy who lives in a village, Bishop's Beach, near Luanda, the capital of Angola. He lives with his cousins and grandmother and their maid Magdalena. Angola was once a Portuguese colony and now the Soviets are running the country and, their soldiers in the village are building a large Mausoleum for a former Angolan president. There are some houses, a bakery, a garbage dump, a gas station that doesn't actually sell gas, with a lovely beach that fisherman use as a base for their work.
Granma Agnette is the one that tells the children what to do, that protects them in thunderstorms, and that tucks them in at night. Granma Catarina, Agnette's sister, dresses in mourning, stays on the edge of things and provides comfort and support. 
The gas station, located in the middle of a traffic circle, is manned by Comrade Gas Jockey who sleeps most of the time. One of the neighbours who everyone calls Sea Foam, acts and talks in crazy ways, dressing oddly, keeping an animal rumoured to be an alligator in a shed in his yard, is regarded with an edge of fear and a fair bit of awe. The narrator's best friend is Pinduca, who goes by Pi, and due to Sea Foam, is nicknamed 3.14. They also sometimes hang out with a bookish girl the same age, Charlita. Charlita's father Senor Tuarles often threatens to have his wife bring his gun when things get tense, but never uses it.
One of the security soldiers at the construction site, known as blue ants in the village for their uniforms, is enamored of Granma Agnette and visits often. He often talks about his homeland and how cold it is there and asks Agnette to go back there with him. He greets every one with Gudafter-noon, no matter the time of day and thus they have nicknamed him Soviet Comrade Gudafterov Lately there are rumours that someone has heard him utter the word dynamite in his own language and that there are plans to explode the neighbourhood. He has mentioned that they will relocating everyone to nice new houses.
The kids decide that they must prevent this from happening and come up with a plan. Meanwhile Granma Agnette has been getting pain in her leg, and after a visit from one of her daughters, who works at the hospital and a specialist called Dr. Rafael KnockKnock (because he likes to say knock knock and rap on doors before he enters) decide that she must have a toe removed. After this, she is known as Granma Nineteen. 
The narrator travels to the hospital with her, and sees where she is going, and comes home to inform everyone else. They stop at the cemetery on the way to visit Granpa Mbinha's grave. 
This is a story of the wonders of childhood, the silliness and grand schemes. This is a story of families, of their closeness and support. And it is a story of community that even some outsiders recognize and respect. 
A great read. 

Tomb Song

Finished July 29
Tomb Song by Julián Herbert, translated by Christina MacSweeney

This novel, a debut novel from this Mexican author, is a tale told in first person by a narrator by the same first name as the author. It moves back and forth in time, between the present, the narrator's childhood and other earlier times in his life. 
Julián's mother Guadalupe, was a prostitute, although she tried to shield her children from much exposure to this life. To escape debt, they moved often, and each of the four children has a different father. In the present Guadalupe is in hospital, near death, and he finds himself resurrecting memories from his past, grappling with his own identity, and dealing with anxieties around being a writer. 
This is a book about the margins of Mexican society, along with the darker issues of sex, drugs, violence, and poverty. Julián is also about to be a father himself, and this adds to his feelings. He talks not only of his life, but also of strange dreams that he has had. 
This is not an easy read, or a happy one, but it is one that is well written and has the feel of experience in his in the author's knowledge of his subject matter. A very original work. 

Sunday 21 August 2022

The Lost and Found Bookshop

Finished July 22
The Lost and Found Bookshop by Susan Wiggs

This novel has both mystery and romance, plus a little history. Natalie Harper grew up with her mother and grandfather in an apartment above a bookshop in San Francisco. She didn't have a lot of contact with her father, but didn't feel that she really missed anything. 
Now she has a career in a California winery and a handsome boyfriend. As the book opens Natalie is made aware of her coworkers true feelings regarding her despite her excellent work, and finds herself disappointed that her mother hasn't come to celebrate her recent work success. 
But as she soon discovers, her mother intended to be there, and in one tragic incident, she has lost both her mother and her boyfriend. Additionally, Natalie now has the responsibility of the bookstore on her shoulders, and she finds her grandfather's memory issues more advanced than she imagined. 
Natalie throws herself into the bookstore, analyzing the debt her mother had incurred, the state of the historic building that houses both the bookstore and her childhood home, and the challenges of promotion and marketing books when people have migrated to more online purchasing. 
As she travels down this road of discovery and hopes for a miracle, she finds the contractor, Peach Gallagher, her mother arranged to meet more helpful and skilled than she could hope.Peach's young daughter Dorothy is also a big fan of both the store and Natalie's grandfather. 
It is Dorothy who is able to bring about a miracle of connecting Natalie with Trevor Dashwood, one of the hottest new children's authors who proves himself very supportive of both the shop and Natalie.
I really enjoyed seeing Natalie's character grow as she dealt with all these issues and learned the value that her skills are in this circumstance. Natalie also finds herself less isolated in the city, with connections and real friendship building her personal life into one more satisfying as well. Other key characters, like Peach, Dorothy, and her grandfather also go through changes during this time. This is a novel that has some tense moments, but ultimately brings a feeling of comfort. A novel with a lot going on, but one that never has you losing the main thread. 
Great read. 

Where Have You Been Bobby Marr?

Finished July 15
Where Have You Been Bobby Marr? Friend, Felon, Hero by Morris Dalla Costa

This biography is of a man who underwent many challenge, mental and physical trauma, PTSD, bad choices, incarceration, and personal loss. Bobby Marr was born in 1948 in London, Ontario, the second child of his parents. His father was a veteran of World War II, and a hard worker, trying a variety of types of work in an effort to support his family. His search for work soon took the family to Texas and the children grew up there. Bobby was good with his hands, liked cars, and was a confident young man. When the Vietnam War began, he thought about his options, leaning towards heading to Canada. But his father, having served his own country during war, pressued Bobby to do his. 
Bobby trained as a medic, and lasted longer than many of his fellow soldiers in Vietnam, but was eventually wounded badly enough to be sent home. It was then that his life began to really go in a bad direction. The support for returning veterans from Vietnam wasn't there as it had been in other wars. Media had brought pictures of some of the atrocities done there to those at home and that turned many against the veterans. The war was an unpopular one to begin with, and that didn't help. The government support was also lacking, both in financial support being given in a timely way and in the lack of mental health support that was badly needed. As Bobby made choices on his gut and feelings, these choices weren't always in his best interests. 
Bobby is a man that cares about his fellow man, particularly those less well off. His time as a medic showed his caring impulse, as did his actions while incarcerated as he tried to help not only himself, but others caught in a system that was not set up to rehabilitate the inmates, but to wear them down. 
This book starts with some of the bigger events in his life and then moves back to his roots, telling of his family situation and his childhood, and continuing from there. His life story is well told, with compassion and real interest, and while for me it was a slow start, once I got further in, it really gripped me. 
Bobby's story is one of many of men of his generation, and serves as enlightening about the mistakes society has made in the past. 

Saturday 20 August 2022

Death on a Winter Stroll

Finished July 6
Death on a Winter Stroll by Francine Mathews

This mystery novel is part of the series featuring Nantucket police chief Merry Folger. Winter Stroll is a tradition on Nantucket and this is the first time it is happening since the pandemic began. Merry knows that the island depends on tourism economically and desperately needs that for the small businesses to survive, but she also wants to keep the community safe amid all the activity.
There is a production team on the island filming a television series at the less populated end of the island, as well as lots of tourist and former residents back for the winter event. Among the former residents is the family of the current Secretary of State, including her stepson Ansel. The famous actor starring in the TV series has brought his young adult daughter Winter along, and a chance meeting between the two has them joining forces when disturbing events cause upheaval in both their worlds. 
Ansel has a secondary purpose on the island that no one else in the family knows, reuniting with his estranged mother, Blythe Fitzpatrick. He wasn't told the truth about her absence in his life and is learning about her and trying to build a relationship. 
As Merry tries to manage the crimes that impact both the production and the government official, she uses her lifelong knowledge of the island and its residents to make connections. 
I liked many of the characters, including both the series characters such as Merry, and the ones appearing first in this novel, such as Ansel, Winter, and Blythe. They are well drawn and have depth. 
I definitely plan to look for more in the series. 

Cat in the Dark

Finished July 2
Cat in the Dark by Shirley Rousseau Murphy

This is a small town mystery book, part of the Joe Grey series. Joe Grey is one of the main cat characters, with the other being Dulcie. They are not ordinary cats, but have higher intelligence and can talk with humans. Only their owners know this about them, and they take care to hide it when others are around. This is the fourth book in the series, and they've already solved a couple of mysteries in town, leaving anonymous messages for the local sheriff. 
As this book opens, in the course of night prowling they come across a cat they haven't seen before and observe him letting someone into a closed business. They also discover this strange cat is named Azrael and has the same ability that they have. They don't want to draw attention to this feature, so think hard about how to stop the crimes without revealing that some cats exist that have extra abilities.
Joe Grey lives with Clyde Damon, a man who loves restoring old cars and has recently bought a small apartment building that he is renovating. Clyde has hired his girlfriend Charlie Getz to do some of the work on the building, as she is very handy, running her own cleaning and repair business. Charlie employs Mavity Flowers to do some of the cleaning work. 
Dulcie lives with librarian Wilma Getz, Charlie's aunt, and spends a lot of time at the library, although the current director of the library, Freda, doesn't like it. 
There are a number of other residents of the town involved in the story as well as visiting family of Mavity. Her brother Greeley and his daughter Dora along with Dora's husband Ralph have come to visit as the do once a year or so. 
There are several storylines in this small town novel, and one can see opportunities for more books. Joe Grey and Dulcie are interesting characters with characteristics of both people and cats. This is the first book I've read of this series and it was an interesting read.  

Monday 15 August 2022

Sea Wife

Finished June 28
Sea Wife by Amity Gaige

This fascinating novel reads like a memoir. The narrator is mostly Juliet Partlow, but sometimes her husband Michael through the pages of the ship's log he kept. The couple have a marriage that has become shaky. Michael doesn't enjoy his job anymore and finds himself dreaming about the years he spent on a sailboat with his father, who has since passed away. 
As the book starts Juliet is in a bad mental state, spending most of her time when the children aren't home sitting in her husband's closet. You know that something has happened, but not what exactly. 
As the story reaches back a few months to Michael talking Juliet into taking a leave from work, buying a sailboat, and sailing as a family, you see into his mind, and how he was unhappy with his life, but very much in love with his wife and afraid for his marriage. Their children are young, Sybil is seven and George is under three. Michael thinks Juliet is depressed and that the adventure would be good for her. Juliet is worried about failing in yet another area of life. But she finally agrees. 
As the voyage goes, we see Juliet gain confidence and the two grow closer. The kids are also confident and daring and learning so much. This is a story of hope, of renewal, and of rebuilding a relationship. Until the unthinkable happens. It tests Juliet in ways she doesn't think she's ready for, and now in the aftermath she finds herself depending on someone else again, in this case her mother. 
This is a book where I grew to love the characters, this family that was willing to try something that seemed crazy to others. Their personalities are shown through their behaviour as well as the adults thoughts. I had a hard time putting this one down. It was so good. 

Another Thing to Fall

Finished June 23
Another Thing to Fall by Laura Lippman

This is the tenth book in the series featuring Baltimore PI Tess Monaghan. I've read one of the earlier books in the series as well. 
Here Tess unknowingly rows into the set of a television pilot being filmed in the city, and finds herself being asked to do security for the production company, specifically for the female lead Selene Waites. Recently a local man was found dead in his home surrounded by photos of the actor. She is reluctant, but agrees if they also find a position for Tess' boyfriend Crow's ward Lloyd Jupiter. Crow has been trying to get Lloyd to find a job, but he hasn't lasted at anything and he is better occupied than not. 
Tess finds that Selene isn't as ditzy as she makes herself out to be, and when she is outfoxed by the actor, she brings in her best friend Whitney so that they can cover her for all hours. 
During this time however, someone has been found murdered at the production company offices, and Tess finds her interest sparked. As she begins to dig into the background of the people in the company, she finds a lot more than meets the eye. 
This introduced me to some industry lingo and processes I didn't know and has an interesting plotline. 
Tess is a character I like, as is Whitney. A fast and engrossing read. 

The American Roommate Experiment

Finished June 15
The American Roommate Experiment by Elena Armas

This novel is the second in the Spanish Love Deception series, but the first that I've read. I like that we got pieces from both viewpoints here, and the reader can see how the characters begin to converge emotionally. 
Rosie Graham has just quit her job to tackle writing full-time. She has saved some money and figures she has enough for a year or so to focus on her writing. She has a published novel that was well received. She hasn't told many people about this risky move yet, just her best friend Lina and her ex-boss Aaron. But writer's block has hit her hard, and she has barely written a thing. Then there is a issue at her apartment and she has to vacate while things get fixed. She has keys to Lina's place and figures she won't mind as she is out of the country for a while on a trip. 
When she arrives at Lina's she is soon unnerved by someone else entering the apartment and discovers that Lina has already let her cousin Lucas take her place for a while. Rosie has been secretly checking Lucas out on his Instagram account and learning about him. So meeting him in person is a pleasant shock, but one that leaves her unbalanced. 
Lucas is going through some personal issues that take a while to be revealed. He is a competitive surfer who has traveled the world and now is taking a break to figure out his future. He is surprised by Rosie's presence, but welcomes her and they soon work out a way to share the place for the short while that Rosie needs to stay. 
There are lots of little side stories that come up, such as issues with Rosie's father and brother, the issues with Rosie's place and the contractor who is responsible for the repairs, among others.
Lucas spends his days doing touristy things, while Rosie tries to write, and then usually makes a first-class dinner for them. So a man who's sexy, Spanish, and a good cook is a big draw. 
When he discovers Rosie's writer's block, he comes up with a plan to get those juices flowing again.
I liked Rosie's quiet independence, and how the situation of being dependent on someone else causes her to be off balance. Her relationships with her father and brother are close, but we don't see any depth of character for them here. 
We get glimpses of Lucas' family too, an outspoken cousin, his grandmother who he is very close to, and his lovable dog who he misses. So we see his personal side in a good light. 
The book moves quickly, and the tension is there right from the beginning, giving the reader a good idea of which way things are going. 
A fun read. 

Every Summer After

Finished June 8
Every Summer After by Carley Fortune

Set mostly in Barry's Bay, Ontario, this novel is centered around Percy (Persephone) Fraser. After having some social issues at school, Percy's parents bought a cottage in Barry's Bay, thinking it would do her good to have her away from the city for the summer and many weekends. 
They spent six years going there, and from the start Percy was befriended by the two boys who lived next door, Sam and Charlie Florek. Sam is Percy's age, a quiet, smart, and observant boy. Charlie is a couple years older, always with a group of friends and also popular with the girls, much more social than his brother. They live with their mom, who runs a local popular restaurant. 
Something happened at the end of that six years to the growing relationship between Sam and Percy, and because it was also the year that Percy's parents sold the cottage, she has never been back, and the rift has never been resolved. 
The story begins ten years after that, when Charlie lets Percy know that their mother has died and invites her to the funeral service. Percy must take her guilt and her fear and face Sam again. But what will she say? And will words make a difference? 
While the story starts in the present, it quickly moves back to the beginning of Percy's time at Barry's Bay, and of the beginning of her relationship with the Florek brothers. We see them grow up, with all the teenage angst, the stilted communication when it comes to feelings, and the friendships that grew along with them. 
Fortune brings these characters to life, and you can sense their insecurities and their fears as they take on adulthood. The reunion years later has lots of loaded emotions and years that neither of them shares with each other that they must catch up on. A book full of feeling. 

Animal Person

Finished June 6
Animal Person: Stories by Alexander MacLeod

This collection of stories focus on the behaviours that people exhibit when put into positions that are dark, startling, or threatening. The link back to our basic animal instincts is made real in these eight stories. 
Lagomorph goes deep into a person's connection to the family pet rabbit Gunther, going back to how he was acquired up to the circumstances of one particular day.
The Dead Want is the story of an untimely death of a young woman and the cousin that she was close to, from his point of view. As the family gets the news and must travel to the place where she is, we see how he goes over memories of their relationship, and then deals with the situation as a young adult, caught between family and other ties.
What Exactly Do You Think You're Looking At? is the story of a man who tries to create a connection by borrowing other people's luggage, looking through the contents and making up stories about the person it belongs to and the things he finds. Until the day that something doesn't go the way he expects it to.
Everything Underneath tells the story of a boy and his sister, close in age. They are snorkeling for the first time, and moving away from shore, together, yet apart. He is reminded of another incident recently where the two of them did something together that ended with an injury, and suddenly the link between the two events becomes clear and urgent. 
The Entertainer is a story that caught me immediately. It is told from several points of view. One of them is a young piano teacher, seeing her best student freeze during a performance, another is the student themselves, caught between conflicting parental pride in their accomplishments and a feeling of disconnectedness with the music and their hands. The third is a man in the audience, there with his wife, who is also struggling with a form of disconnectedness. As they come together, something happens that is beautiful. 
The Ninth Concession has a boy looking back on an incident with him and a friend that changed their relationship, that was as he thinks, the beginning of the end. He thinks about the differences between himself and his friend, the financial differences, the social differences, the experiential differences, and a difference that he hadn't been aware of until it became real.
Once Removed is a story about a young couple who have a planned visit to a great-aunt of his who lives in the same city. With the day's heat and humidity, she, Amy, suddenly feels no longer up to the long bus rides to get their with their small child, but he insists, as they'd promised to come and he knew his relative would have prepared. On the trip over, she reflects on how she felt, and why. The visit includes the elements that she expected, the meal and conversation, and photo, but also an unexpected element, a task for the aunt's friend. This opens Amy's eyes to new thoughts about the aunt and a connection that she hadn't expected. 
The Closing Date is about a connection between a family and a man at a motel. The family is waiting for the closing date on their new home, and for the moving truck with their possessions to arrive. The man has a plumbing van. The child's friendliness, and a need for professional help complete the connection. It isn't until late that they discover the unsettling truth.
McLeod is an excellent writer that makes his characters and situations real as if they were happening to people you know. A great collection.

Friday 5 August 2022

Underwater to Get Out of the Rain

Finished June 3
Underwater to Get Out of The Rain: A Love Affair with the Sea by Trevor Norton

This memoir covers Norton's life as a marine biologist, particularly his site research, as well as the history of marine biology as a whole as he looks back at his predecessors and talks about the young researchers he has worked with. Norton was born in the U.K. and did most of his work while affiliated with universities there. His work studying ocean life necessitated travelling to many places around the world and diving into the water to explore and observe. He obviously loves his job, in particular the variety of creatures he has seen and their behaviour. 
I loved learning about this part of science, and finding out about so many creatures that I wasn't familiar with. He made no secret of the some the dangers inherent in diving, including ones in specific locales. He talks about the health of the ecosystems, how politics and economics have their effect, and about local feelings about research, tourism, and other ocean related activities. 
Norton's writing flows and this book was an entertaining read, with humour in spots. 
There are also small drawing scattered throughout the book, which add to the context of the writing, and they are done by the author's wife, Win Norton.

Rules of the Game

Finished May 29 
Rules of the Game by Lori Wilde

This book is the second book in a series of novels set in Stardust, Texas. Jodi Carlyle was jilted at the altar a year ago. She's been making progress in therapy, and with her sister's wedding just a few weeks away, she knows she must get her anxiety regarding weddings under control. Her assignment is to attend a wedding. 
But of course Jodi decides to go all out, and makes plans to crash one of the swankiest wedding in nearby Dallas. She is nearly caught, but Jake Coronnado, the new hitter for the Dallas Gunslinger's baseball team rescues her from a tricky situation. She gives Jake a false name and doesn't pretend that their wild night is anything but a fling. What she doesn't know is that Jake has stepped in as best man at her sister's wedding and they are going to be spending a lot of time together.
A case of strong attraction, both characters getting over events in their past, and small town connections, this romance has lots of plot as well. Jodi runs a popular BandB with each room a different railroad car, and I found that interesting too. The Carlyle family is close, and the existence of a special object with deeper meaning and perhaps even a tendency to foretell the future brings an added element to the story that is carried through the series. 
A fun and light read, with many interesting characters.