Wednesday 30 August 2023

Evil in Emerald

Finished August 28
Evil in Emerald by A.M. Stuart

This is the third book in an historical mystery series and is set in Singapore in 1910. Harriet Gordon is a widow living with her brother, a minister and headmaster of a boy's school, and their ward Will, a schoolboy. She helps with the paperwork at the school, and brings in extra income by typing up reports and other documents for the local police. 
Her tennis partner has convinced her to join the Singapore Amateur Dramatic and Music Society (SADAMS) for their upcoming production The Pirates of Penzance. Also in SADAMS are a journalist, Griff Maddocks; a friend and doctor's wife, Louise Mackenzie; a local police constable, Ernest Greaves ; a woman who is rumoured to have been on stage in London, Alicia Sewell; and an insurance broker, Tony Dowling. The director of the society is Charles Lovett, a lawyer, whose wife Elspeth organizes most of the supporting functions, such as costumes, and whose daughter Eunice, helps out wherever needed.
When a body is found badly burned in a fire on SADAM's premises, Harriet becomes involved as both an assistant to the police, and as someone with knowledge of the victim. Her boss, Inspector Robert Curran is in charge of the case, and has made some enemies of some of the colonial planters, one of whom has a definite grudge against him. As Curran investigates, the case takes him to other cast members of SADAMS, as well as to a local planter and another businessman. 
But Curran is also finding that his personal life has him distracted. His long-time partner Li An, a woman from a powerful Kuala Lumpur family is being drawn back into that family; and someone who brings news of his own family in need of assistance appears on his doorstep. 
This is a novel with a lot going on with both Harriet and Curran, and I found myself not wanting to put the book down until I finished it. 
Definitely a series with promise! 

Out of the Dust

Finished August 26
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

This teen novel, a winner of the Newberry Award, is set in Oklahoma over the course of two years, 1934 and 1935. It is a story told in poetry, free verse, and grouped by season. Each poem in the seasonal sections also has a month noted to set it in time. 
Billie Jo Kelby lives with her parents on a farm outside of their small Oklahoma town, not far from the Texas border. Amarillo is only fifty miles south of them. Billie Jo has music in common with her mother. Her father's wedding gift to her mother was a piano, and although Billie Jo plays more modern music than her mother, she is a natural, often asked to perform in public. Another young musician that Bobbie Jo considers a rival is Mad Dog Craddock. He's been called by that name long enough that she doesn't even know what his real name is. 
As the book opens, Bobbie Jo has recently learned that her mother is pregnant and she hopes this baby will come for her parents, unlike many earlier ones. 
The drought has caused many to leave for the west, including her best friend Livie. They endure weeks without rain, and dust storms that can be fatal to those caught out in them. 
Luckily, Bobbie Jo's family has a good well, and her mother has grown apple trees that she takes great pride in. 
The poems that make up this book and tell the story of her life over the course of these two years, range in topic from the weather, to neighbours, to loss, to news events (like the Dionne quintuplets) to community events. But above all, they give us Bobbie Jo's inner life, her feelings about what is happening in her life, her struggles and her joys. 
A fantastic read. 

Monday 28 August 2023

The Forgotten Home Child

Finished August 25
The Forgotten Home Child by Genevieve Graham

This novel is structured as the story of a woman in her nineties, telling her story to her granddaughter and great grandson. The grandmother Winny was a British home child, brought to Canada through Barnardos. As the book opens she has just moved in with her granddaughter Chrissie and her great-grandson Jamie from a seniors home. Prior to that she had lived for years with her daughter Susan who died. One of the things that Winny brought with her was the small wooden trunk she brought with her from England, and that started the conversation that she gradually has with her family. 
Winny's family came to London from Ireland when she was young, and consisted of her, four younger brothers, and her parents. When her father died in an accident, her mother struggled, and Winny found herself unable to stay with the family when her mother took on another man. 
Struggling on the streets of London, she was befriended by Mary another girl her age and became part of a small group of children who resorted to theft to feed themselves. When the children are caught, Winny and Mary eventually find themselves in Barkingside Girls' Village, a Barnardo facility where the girls are taught useful skills so they can find gainful employment. While there, Winny befriended another young girl, Charlotte who had been left there by her mother until she could get her feet on the ground. The boys, Jack (Mary's brother), and brothers Edward and Colin were taken elsewhere and we discover what happened to them as the novel unfolds. 
Like many children in England at that time, they became one of the many sent overseas to Canada. Some children were welcomed into homes, but many were indentured servants and many of those led hard lives under sometimes abusive masters. 
Winny was made to feel ashamed of her origins as a home child, and thus never revealed this part of her past to her family until now. 
Graham has done a lot of research for this novel, and all of the experiences the children in her book have are real experiences that home children had. By personifying this experience, Graham brings history to life for her readers. 
I was totally caught up in the story, needing to know what happened to each of the children, and understand the repercussions of their experiences. 
An enlightening and entertaining read. 

The Mountains Sing

Finished August 24
The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

Covering nearly a century, this is a tale of one family, the Tran family, through multiple generations in Vietnam. Told by grandmother Dieu Lan who was born in 1920, and her granddaughter Huong, born in 1960, this story is also a history of Vietnam during the 20th century. Dieu Lan was a farmer, a teacher,  and finally a trader, the last a profession frowned upon by the government, but one that was more lucrative than her former teaching job. 
We see Dieu Lan's story as she relates it to Huong after they've survived the Vietnam War and Huong is struggling to understand her family as they all deal with the traumas they've undergone. 
The first is the time of Great Hunger, when the Tran's and their neighbours are dying due to lack of food. Two neighbours emerge from this time as close supporters from then on, Mrs. Tu, who takes on a role as a sort of honorary grandmother and housekeeper for the family; and Mr. Hai, who helps them find a source of food. Dieu Lan's father treated her as an equal to his song Cong and both her and Cong make good marriages. When she, Cong, and their father were taking a load of potatoes to market, they find themselves attacked by Japanese soldiers who have moved into their area, and her father is killed. 
Cong and Dieu Lan escape, but the event is a blow to the family, and soon after that the Vietnam forces that liberate them from the Japanese occupation engage in an act of Land Reform, and disgruntled peasants turn on all landowners, even those who treated their workers well, and landowners were driven from their homes and land, and, in many cases killed. Dieu Lan loses more family members during this time. 
Dieu Lan must find a way forward with her remaining family members. She had six children: Minh, born in 1938, who may have escaped with his life, but she loses contact with; Ngoc, born in 1940, and became a doctor, who goes on to marry Hoang and is the mother of Huong who also tells a large portion of the story of this book; Dat, born in 1941 and left his girlfriend Nhung to go to war against the Americans; Thuan, born in 1947, who also went to war; Hanh, born in 1948, who found a life in Saigon; and Sang, born in 1954 and who was still an infant as the family fled.
During the war, Huong was with her grandmother in Ha Noi, but they often fled to the nearby mountains during bombing attacks, sometimes for long periods. When they returned to the city, they had to rebuild and hope that the other family members who had left to either fight in the war or support those who were fighting will return home. Some do, but all suffer from trauma of different types. 
The author is a well-regarded poet and the writing here shows her skill with language and storytelling. 
I was totally captured by the story and the family members' stories, wanting to know how each one dealt with their issues and found a way forward. 
A book that was both enlightening and captivating. 

Before and Again

Finished August 21
Before and Again by Barbara Delinsky

This novel begins with a scene in the past that is life-changing. Taking her eyes from the road briefly to check her GPS as she drives her daughter to a playdate, Mackenzie Cooper misses a sign and ends up in a tragic car accident. 
The main storyline is nearly five years later, when Cooper, now living as Maggie Reid, is divorced and living in a resort town in Vermont. In her previous life, she was a successful sculptor. Now she is a makeup artist, working at a luxury spa. She has created a life where only a couple of people know about her past. She has a small rural home, and pets that she loves. We gradually see over the course of the book how she has created a new life for herself here, and has friends that truly support her as she does them. 
But things are suddenly getting shaken up, and Maggie must make choices. First her friend Grace's son Chris is arrested for hacking computers, and one of the victims is turning it into a media circus. Her friend Grace has reasons to be scared that go beyond her son's alleged crime.
Then she finds someone from her own past is involved in the new ownership of the spa, and her secrets may be in danger of being revealed. 
As we gradually get to see the people from her past and how they've struggled as well, this story becomes richer and more nuanced. 
This is a story of a woman struggling with grief and guilt, and trying to figure out how to move forward with her life, which she can't fully do without dealing with the past.
As usual with Delinsky, this novel explores relationships both with others and with oneself. 

Monday 21 August 2023

For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain

Finished August 18
For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain by Victoria MacKenzie

This short novel is about two real women, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. Both women were from well-to-do families in England and stories of and by them have survived beyond their lives, which ended in the 1400s. 
Julian was a name that was taken on by her once she became an anchoress, a woman who was sealed into a small room against one wall of a church. Her room had a window into the church, a window into a small room used by her maid who brought her food and other things she required, and took away waste products, and a high window to the outdoors. She lived in a time of hardship and disease and lived through more than one outbreak of plague. The first took all of her family except her and her mother and unmoored both of them for a while. She was able to get permission to learn how to read and write and eventually married and had a child. Sadly, the second plague took both her husband and child, and she moved back into her mother's home. During an illness of her own, she had what she called 'shewings,' where Jesus appeared to her and told her things and brought her comfort. This reinforced her natural interest in religion and led her to her choice to become an anchoress after her mother's death.  She had considered becoming a pilgrim or hermit, but was dissuaded by others due to her gender. As far as we know she never told anyone of the visions she'd had, but she did write of them and her papers were found years later.
Margery was married to a man she didn't love and had many children, but also great trouble during childbirth. During an illness after her first child was born, she had visions of Jesus and continued having similar visions during her life. She tried to communicate what she learned of these publicly by telling of her visions and weeping about what she had learned, but was criticized by many for this and was asked many questions by religious men trying to convict her of being a heretic. She sought counsel many places, including from Julian of Norwich, and travelled to Jerusalem later in her life. She couldn't read or write, but had a scribe write her story. 
This book is in three parts. The first is the longest and alternates the women's stories using their own voices as they tell us of their experiences and their search for meaning. The second part tells of their meeting, which they did on two subsequent days. The last part is the shortest and tells of Margery's careful keeping of Julian's story and how she planned to write her own.
There is also an epilogue that explains the facts about the women, how Margery's story came to be written down, and was the autobiography written in English; how both women's stories came to light, and the importance of these in terms of medieval literature. 
It is interesting how Mackenzie has combined these two lives, showing their differences and parallels and giving their voices life. 

The Dangerous Hour

Finished August 17
The Dangerous Hour by Marcia Muller

This is part of the Sharon McCone series, fairly far along, and she is celebrating a planned expansion for her agency when things start going bad. One of her agents in training is accused of stealing a client's credit card and purchasing items online with it. The client also files a complaint against the agency, meaning that Sharon's license could be in jeopardy. As she complies with investigators, she also researches old cases to see who might have a grudge against her and be capable of this kind of planned attack. 
Sharon is also mulling over a question her longtime partner Hy has posed to her.
This book has a fast-moving plot, with lots going on in terms of clues that Sharon and her investigators follow up on, both near and far. 
I also liked the storylines around helping people improve their circumstances through training and other social resources. 

Sunday 20 August 2023

A Death at Seascape House

Finished August 13
A Death at Seascape House (Jemima Jago Mystery, #1) by Emma Jameson

This is an intriguing mystery set in the Isles of Scilly off the Cornish coast in southwest England. It is part of a series featuring special collections librarian Jemima Jago. As the book opens, Jemima (Jem) has returned to the Isles to do a special project regarding a private collection of books on the island. Jem hasn't been to the Isles since she left after her grandmother's death when she was a teenager. That loss occurred shortly after another tragedy that we gradually learn about through the course of the novel. 
Jem is waiting to meet a friend at a pub, but her friend Pauley is late, and she subsequently engages in a new friendship with the bartender Micki. 
Pauley is also the owner of the large collection that Jem will be cataloguing, and has recently told Jem that one of the unique books in the collection has gone missing. When she finds out that the main suspect is Edith a woman who she hated back when she was a kid, she decides to go to Edith's house to try to recover the book. Instead she finds a crime scene, with Edith dead and the place ransacked. With the chief of police prejudiced against her, Jem must try to find the true culprit of the crime to clear her own name. 
As she encounters the locals, she must also deal with her own past there, and the tragedy that she was blamed for back then. 
I enjoyed the main character, as well as many of the supporting ones, from Micki and Pauley, to Jem's old boyfriend Rhys, and the new sergeant heading the local police force. 
This looks like it will be an interesting series. 

How to Hang a Witch

Finished August 9
How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather

This is a great teen novel. The author is a descendent of Cotton Mather, on of the players in the Salem witch trials and uses that historical event to bring a current issue to a new level.
Samantha Mather has just moved to Salem with her stepmother Vivian, following her father's illness and hospitalization. Her father had always refused to return to this town, and Samantha doesn't remember her grandmother, whose house she is now living in, at all. 
While she is welcomed by her nearest neighbour Mrs. Meriwether and her son, Jaxon, she is still unhappy about being so far from her dad, who will be transferred from the hospital in New York City to a nearby city soon. 
The following day, at her new high school, is even more difficult as she is made to feel very unwelcome by a group of teenagers who are direct descendents of the women who were burned as witches in the 1600s. Samantha herself is a direct descendent of Cotton Mather, who played a large role in the historical event. 
As Samantha finds odd things happening around her and to people in town, she learns that her grandmother Charlotte had been studying similar happenings around descendents of the various players in the witch trials before her own death. 
Assisted by a resident ghost in her home, Samantha digs deeper into research, using her grandmother's notes and trying to reach out to the girls who have made her feel unwelcome. 
The parallels between to the past and the present highlight similarities that related to modern day bullying and scapegoating and show that we haven't come as far as we think in society. 
Samantha's efforts show ways to deal with real life issues even though she exists in a world where magic, superstition, and ghosts are a reality. 
This was a really interesting read, and is the first in a series of books. 

If You Ask Me

Finished August 7
If You Ask Me by Libby Hubscher

Violet Covington is the writer of an advice column, Dear Sweetie in her local North Carolina newspaper. As the book opens, she is told that her column is up for syndication and she is a bit excited about this opportunity. She is good friends with her boss Kyra, whom she originally met at college, as well as her coworkers, Ashleigh and Tyler. She decides to go home early to prepare a celebratory dinner for her and her lawyer husband Sam, but gets an unpleasant surprise that rocks her sense of self and her plans, her husband in bed with another woman. 
After kicking him out, Violet goes through the normal stages of grief around such an experience and both does and says some things that she regrets later. Giving advice that is more open than anything she's written to date means that she gets a more prominent profile, especially after her real name is revealed and she must consider how to deal with both new opportunities and deal with blowback. 
Her more personal actions lead her to new relationships, including a professional encounter with a local firefighter, Dez, that turns personal. 
This is a story of a relationship that had issues long before the abrupt end, and how we don't always know what kinds of personal issues people are hiding from the world. 
I liked the inclusion of the letters and Dear Sweetie's replies that appeared here, showing some new ways of thinking about interpersonal relationships that I found hit the mark for me. 
I was rooting for Violet as she grew as a person here, and found this book hard to put down. 

Pride and Protest

Finished August 7
Pride and Protest by Nikki Payne

This is a modern day retelling of Pride and Prejudice with a few changes to certain elements of the plot and characters. A great read that is well written with lots of humour and a serious undertone.
The issue at the center of the story here is affordable housing.
Liza Bennett recently moved back in with her mother, grandmother and siblings after a rent increase made her own apartment unaffordable. Along with her mom are her older sister Jayne, who has her own very interesting past and a strength that comes from dealing with adversity; her brother Maurice who is passionate about both black rights and poverty issues; and her teenage sister LeDeya who is very into fashion and does her own Tiktok videos giving fashion and beauty advice; and Granny who loves to garden and gives practical advice.
Granny is the Mr. Bennett of this story and Maurice is the Mary, both adapted and yet recognizably not only the same characterization, but a deeper one as well. 
Darcy here is a guy named Dorsey. He is the middle child in his family, but recently lost his older brother and his parents in a car accident, so now only has a younger sister, Gigi. Dorsey and his siblings were all adopted from different cultures. Dorsey is from the Philippines, and into his native culture, but also has been thrust unexpectedly into a leadership role in the company his parents ran, with his heart more interesting in his mother's philanthropic foundation. 
Liza is a strong, smart woman with a degree who works as a DJ at a Washington, D.C. radio station and has been fighting against developers gentrifying her neighbourhood and driving out the lower income people who live there now. Netherfield is a new development project there and Dorsey's company is behind it. They have done some community events to present a friendlier aspect to themselves, but it is mostly lip service and Liza is all too ready to call them on it. 
As Liza and her family get to know Dorsey, his organization, and his friends, we see a greater depth to this adaptation than even was in the original story. The characters have more complexity and the backstories are bigger. 
This also has so many things I like about modern relationship fiction, including dealing with serious real-life issues, great banter, and strong sibling relationships. 
This is a fantastic read.

Together We Will Go

Finished August 6
Together We Will Go by J. Michael Straczynski

This is a road trip novel with a twist. Mark Antonelli is a man who has tried to make a living as a writer and has been unable to do so. After the last rejection, he decides to use his savings to buy a used tour bus and do a road trip from his home in Florida across the United States, picking up passengers as he goes along, and ending up in San Francisco where they will find a cliff at sunset and drive over. He place an ad online for a short period and gets numerous responses and then removes the ad in case someone tries to trace it. 
He hires a driver, Dylan, who is ex-military, and while he is aware of the plan, does not want to die himself, and won't be taking the final drive. Mark has set up a system on board the bus that people can log into and tell their stories. There is a cloud backup. This is part of the plan, The participants will sign a form giving the rights to their stories, and after the end of the trip the texts will be automatically put on to the public for greater understanding of how people struggle with different issues.
The story is told through these diary-like entries that people make, including some that are voice-to-text, and through emails and texts exchanged between the participants and with a few people not part of this trip. This means that we see both interactions between the characters as well as their pasts that led them to this choice, and their thoughts that they record. 
The characters that join the bus make their choice for a wide variety of reasons, from chronic pain, medical issues that they haven't been able to afford to resolve (because this is the U.S. where healthcare isn't a given), addictions, mental health issues, social issues like being ostracized and bullied, and guilt over past actions. All of the characters feel their issues are significant enough that they don't want to go on, they don't want to continue the struggle, and being aware of their thought processes is quite eye-opening. 
As they go along, they interact with the outside world, and sometimes that has consequences that they haven't prepared themselves for. 
This is a moving story with an unexpected ending. And yes, that cat on the cover does have a meaning.

A Sea of Troubles

Finished August 4
A Sea of Troubles by Donna Leon

This story takes place mostly in Pellestrina, with a helpful map at the front of the book giving the reader who is less familiar with Venice a sense of where it is in relation to the rest of the city. The community here is a close-knit one of clam fisherman, most of them having lived there for generations and when a boat explodes and two bodies are found on board, the police find it hard to learn anything about the men and the situation, beyond what they can see themselves. Inspector Brunetti is on the case and he, as he often does, asks the department secretary Signorina Elettra, what she can find out. 
She ends up going beyond her usual computer research and calling contacts and goes out to Pellestrina to visit a cousin, something she has done before, but this time putting herself in potential danger should anyone there connect her to the investigation. 
Brunetti finds himself worried about her in a more personal way than he is comfortable with and Paola, his wife, notice that as well. 
The bodies in the boat Squallus are a father and son, Guilio and Marco Bottin, Marco, and while Guilio seems to have an history of violence and disagreements, Marco is well liked. 
Because of the need to travel a distance by boat to the community, we see more of a boat pilot for the police, Montisi, and he plays an important role. Vianello is the detective assisting Brunetti and we also see him more fully in this story. 
This is a case that reaches into the past, but also is about families and small communities. 
Another important aspect of the story is the sea itself and how weather can change how it behaves so quickly and change outcomes. 
And, as always in Leon's books, there is food, both good and no so good. 
A great addition to the series. 
map provided

Friday 4 August 2023

A Flower is a Friend

Finished August 2
A Flower is a Friend by Frieda Wishinsky, illustrated by Karen Patkau

This picture book is both delightful and educational. Full page pictures of flowers also include creatures that have a relationship with that particular plant, whether it be pollinating, feeding, sheltering, or protecting it from other creatures who harm it. 
There is a simple story that goes along with text opposite each picture, telling the reader what flowers do, and then there is section of information about the creatures that interact with each flower explaining the role they play, and at the very back is a list of the flowers depicted, with their page number. 
This book can be used differently with different ages of children as they first enjoy the simple story and pictures and then move on to learning about nature and how flora and fauna interact with each other. 
The illustrations are very realistic and the reader can spend time looking at the details in each image. At the end of the main story is a double page spread that encourages the reader to spend time looking for the variety of creatures in the more panoramic image of a flower garden. 

A Very Merry Bromance

Finished August 3
A Very Merry Bromance by Lyssa Kay Adams

I really enjoy this series of couples romance novels. This fifth novel in the series picks up from an encounter at the wedding of the couple in book two. Country music star Colton Wheeler had instant chemistry with immigration lawyer Gretchen Winthrop, but she ghosted him after that. They've both been avoiding each other until Gretchen gets approached by her family to ask Wheeler to be their brand ambassador. Gretchen grew up very wealthy, in the family of a company that has made whiskey going back several generations. But it wasn't a happy upbringing and she is really only close to one member of the family, her Uncle Jack, who doesn't have any kids of his own. 
Gretchen has also been applying for a seat on the board of the charitable foundation that the family runs, and they are now offering that role to her. She has put most of the money she had accessible to her into her legal clinic, where she handles immigration cases. She is very busy and many of her clients don't have much financial resources to pay her, so she does a lot of pro bono work. 
Colton has never gotten over Gretchen and he takes the opportunity of her coming to him to negotiate for a few dates with her while he considers the offer. 
Watching the two spending time together doing seasonal activities is fun, and had me thinking about my own Christmas traditions. There are several references to Dickens' A Christmas Carol in the book that connect some of the themes of need and happiness, a nice touch.
There is also a lot of information on the music business and how it functions that was really interesting to learn. Some I was aware of, but there were complexities beyond what I had known.
This novel, as with many of the others in the series, has the main characters dealing with a past that they've managed to ignore for a long time, but that needs to be faced for them to fully move on with their lives. 
I could hardly put it down. 

Tuesday 1 August 2023

August Reviews for the 17th Annual Canadian Reading Challenge

 Here is where you post links to the REVIEWS of the books you finished in August.

It's always nice to see a comment too!