Monday, 30 September 2013

Oxford Double

Finished September 30
Oxford Double by Veronica Stallwood

I've read these completely out of order, but that is mostly okay. This is #9 in the series featuring writer Kate Ivory, and begins as Kate has come back to live in her own house after a short period of cohabitation with a man named George. Her mother Roz had lived in her house for the duration, but has now moved into her own home. Kate is on the plane returning from a short vacation in France and as she waits to get off, notices the man in front of her is wearing a wig and gloves. She is after all a person who notices things, part of her vocation as a writer.
No sooner has she arrived home than the new (to her) neighbours next door, the Fosters, invite her over for drinks later that evening. They are kind, but effusive, gossipy and bossy and Kate likes them but know she must set some limitations to keep her privacy. They also invite the neighbour on the other side of Kate, Jeremy Wells, a lecturer at an Oxford college. He seems nice enough, but a bit shy and Kate makes her escape as early as she can manage.
As she begins work on her new novel, she finds the Fosters noise somewhat distracting and resorts to earplugs and music on headphones during her work stints. As she comes out of her office one day, she is horrified and surprised to discover that the Fosters have been shot in what appears to be a contract killing. Kate's admittedly small knowledge of them doesn't see what such a thing should be, and when Jeremy comes to her looking for help in lying low, she isn't sure what to think.
Kate's natural curiosity drives her to find answers to her questions and it doesn't occur to her that she may be putting her own life in danger through her delving.
Not one of my favourites in this series, but a good story still.

The Interestings

Finished September 28
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, read by Jen Tullock

I started this as an audiobook, but had technical issues, and finished it with the hardcover. In the summer of 1974, six young people, three girls and three boys meet at summer camp. They come from different backgrounds, but their camp experience bonds them together for years to come. Julie (newly christened Jules at camp) Jacobson feels the outsider, at camp on scholarship, the only one from Long Island rather than New York City. Jules father died the previous spring and she has been caught up in her and her family's grief until her arrival at camp. Goodman and Ash Wolf are from a wealthy family and go to private school. Ash has become Jules best friend and is the pride of her parents, while Goodman messes up constantly and yet his good looks and charm seem to get him out of most of the situations he finds himself in.
Ethan Figman is also at camp on scholarship but he is already showing signs of becoming a gifted animator and will go on to an immensely successful career in animation. He also takes Jules under his wing and gives her confidence.
Jonah Bay is the only child of a successful folksinger, Susannah Bay who travels a lot and provides love but not a lot of structure in his life. Jonah has a secret already at his young age that will influence the rest of his life.
Cathy Kiplinger is a gifted dancer, but her voluptuous body is already showing signs of preventing her making a career of dance, and drawing boys like wasps. Cathy is showing signs as well of becoming a girl with large emotional needs.
With the backdrop of this summer the Nixon resignation, it almost seems like a world apart from reality, but all to soon everyone must go back to their everyday lives. But the friendships continue and the camp recurs until the end of high school. A few months before the last summer at camp, Goodman finds himself in a situation that he can't charm himself out of, and the group of six is stressed and diminished.
But the connections continue and Jules finds herself a career as a therapist, marrying a young man with his own issues to overcome. Ethan and Ash connect unexpectedly and have their successes and their sorrows. Goodman and Cathy's lives are changed irrevocably and Jonah is a lost soul, forever affected by his childhood secret.
Back in summer camp, these six coined the name the Interestings for themselves, and they are interesting characters, but this book also highlights the fact that being interesting is more common than one might think.
This is a story of lifelong friendships, and of lives lived. It is indeed interesting.

Band of Angels

Finished September 28
Band of Angels by Julia Gregson

This novel begins in Wales in the mid-1850s where Catherine Carreg was allowed to grow up freely, running around with the young son of the local drover Deio, riding horses and spending lots of time outdoors. But now she is growing up and her parents are restricting her to more ladylike activities, something she finds hard to adjust to. When a medical tragedy hits her family and Catherine is the only one on hand, she realizes how helpless she is and determines to overcome this lack of knowledge.
With the help of young Deio, Catherine makes it to London and gets accepted into training with Florence Nightingale. When the opportunity arises to volunteer to nurse in the Crimea, Catherine is eager to test her skills and help in any way she can.
Deio, a master at training horses, is also drawn to the Crimea, but has no idea of the reality of the conditions there and is in over his head.
Both young people can not forget each other despite their drives to prove themselves in the world, and they reconnect under horrific conditions.
Gregson did a lot of research for this book despite little historical material being available. The conditions of the hospitals and the lack of acceptance of the nurses is shown graphically. Gregson gives us a glimpse of the politics behind this first nursing endeavour, and disease, malnutrition, and lack of resources that were the reality.


Finished September 27
Bindweed by Janis Harrison

This mystery is part of a series featuring flower shop owner Bretta Solomon. Set in River City, Missouri this series is billed as gardening mysteries.
A young man with developmental disabilities, and who has lived on his own since his mother died is the first victim. Toby seems harmless, making spending money by working for a number of town merchants that his mother introduced him to before her death. Toby sweeps sidewalks, washes windows and does other small odd jobs. But someone considered him enough of a threat to kill him in a particularly nasty way. As Bretta thinks back on comments Toby made earlier in the day, and other shopkeepers tell her their thoughts, she starts to make connections between the missing plants in his mother's garden and Toby's death. When another victim is also killed in a particularly nasty case of poisoned bubble bath, Bretta worries that a recent unexplained gift of toiletries to her store may also be suspect.
Meanwhile at home, Bretta's father seems inordinately involved in the design of the house's bedrooms and seems to be spending a lot of time with the young woman proposing the work plan. Bretta can't help but wonder what the relationship is between her father and the young woman.
An interesting mystery series that I hadn't dipped into before.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Oxford Knot

Finished September 26
Oxford Knot by Veronica Stallwood

This is the second time I've read this book (the first was quite a few years ago) and I'd forgotten enough of the details to come to it fairly fresh.
This is part of the series featuring writer Kate Ivory, and here Kate is approached at the last minute to be part of an author tour. She is paired with historical bodice-ripper author Devlin Hayle, who provides lots of entertainment and a fair bit of worry. Devlin has many issues, and unrealistic expectations, causing embarrassment and evasive action.
Kate's librarian friend Andrew has been spending a lot of time at her house trying new recipes and assisting in the development of Kate's young neighbour Harley. Also assisting with Harley's education is Kate's friend Paul. The two men agree to look after her house, the animals and Harley while she is off on tour. But something terrible happens and Kate is forced to return home to deal with the unexpected tragedy and try to figure out why it happened.
With lots of intrigue, uncertainty and a fair bit of humour, Kate steps up to the challenges and faces her fans with equilibrium.

Front and Center

Finished September 25
Front and Center by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

This is the third book in the series featuring Wisconsin farm girl and athlete DJ Schwenk. Basketball season has begun and DJ knows she will be expected to take a leadership role on the team, but doesn't feel comfortable speaking up when others are watching. She also knows that a scholarship for basketball is the only way she will get to go to college given her family's financial circumstances.
Her old brother Win has taken an interest in her basketball and college issues after she helped him move forward in his life. But she doesn't like the pressure on her and isn't sure she is cut out for a top basketball school.
This novel is about self confidence, knowing who you are and being able to tell others, and being a role model. DJ likes flying under the radar, but that isn't possible for her right now, and she has to learn how to deal with attention and being the leader her skills naturally take her to. This is about friendship and growing up, about standing up for yourself and about not selling yourself short.

The Off Season

Finished September 24
The Off Season by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

This is the second novel in the series that began with Dairy Queen. This begins with the fall semester of DJ's junior year at school. She has made the football team, and after a brief interruption resumed her friendship with Amber. Brian Nelson seems interested in her for more than just her coaching skills, and things are going incredibly well.
And then they aren't. With injuries to both her and others in her family, relationship issues, and attention that she hadn't expected, DJ's world changes drastically. She has to deal with things she never thought of, and be an anchor to her family in their time of need.
DJ really grows here, realizing that she has qualities she hadn't thought she did, and her family and friends see a side of her they hadn't expected.
A great addition to the series.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Others of My Kind

Finished August 21
Others of My Kind by James Sallis

This short novel is enthralling, hard to put down. Jenny Rowan has led an unusual life. Kidnapped at the age of eight, held (often in a wooden box under her captor's bed) for two years, she then escaped and lived for months in a mall. Found and put into foster care, she made a new life for herself, as a successful news editor and now works at a small television station in Washington, D.C.
As the book starts, she is approached by a detective and asked to help if she can a young woman who has just been found, captive for some time, by a kidnapper.
As Jenny is drawn out of her hidden past by this young woman, and other people in need, she participates, but also observes. She can relate to this others and offer meaningful understanding and comfort, but she still stands apart. Jenny is an interesting character and the story is like no other I have read. Sallis has done it again.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Rose Under Fire

Finished September 18
Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wien

Rose Justice is a young American woman flying with the ATA during the later years of World War II. Her father ran a flight school in the US, and she had been flying from a young age. In the ATA she works with Maddie, a young woman we met in the book Code Name Verity. Rose is independent and enthusiastic and with an uncle high up in the War Ministry, she gets some opportunities others don't.
When she gets the chance to fly her uncle to Paris after the city was liberated, she jumps at it, and agrees to ferry a plane back to Britain afterward. But on her trip back, something goes wrong and she ends up captured and taken to Ravensbruck, one of the German's concentration camps.
While Rose is a fictional person, the story of Ravensbruck is not, and the author uses many historical sources to ensure that the story told her is accurate in its fact. This part of the story is difficult and one of the things that helps the reader through it is the knowledge that Rose does survive her experience. The author deliberately limits Rose's knowledge to that which a woman in her situation would be aware of, not giving the full experience of the atrocities of the camp. One other thing that helps the reader through this story is the amazing attitude of the camp victims, the fight they exhibit, the ways of working around the limitations and the cruelties and the risks they take to survive. The small daily rituals, and ways they have of buoying each other up and the small delights they find in their very limited lives.
Rose also writes poetry and the poems written during her time in Ravensbruck and shared with her fellow prisoners there evoke more than the text descriptions, putting the emotion into the experience.
A wonderful book that brings history alive.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Quantum of Tweed

Finished September 16
Quantum of Tweed: the man with the Nissan Micra by Conn Iggulden

This short novel is wonderfully humorous. Albert Rossi owns a menswear store in Eastcote, suburban London. Driving home one evening a man runs out in front of his car and Albert hits and kills him, a terrible accident. While out of his car checking on the victim, Albert is approached by someone else, unseen by him, who warns him off. And the farce begins.
Later that night when Albert receives a phone call from a mysterious caller who sounds like Stephen Hawking, he takes a step in a new career direction, that of hitman.
As Albert clumsily fumbles his way through his next couple of jobs, which he took to pull himself out of a bad financial situation, he discovers he may be in over his head. He knows his menswear, easily able to identify quality goods, but is unfamiliar with dealing with the tools of the assassin.
This is a lovely little novel of an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation.

The Guts

Finished September 15
The Guts by Roddy Doyle

This novel continues the story begun with his book The Commitments and continued in The Snapper and The Van which all featured the Rabbitte family. These books are commonly referred to as The Barrytown Trilogy. So now there are four. Jimmy Rabbitte was a main character in the first book and he is the focus of this novel. Now 47, Jimmy and his wife created a music company focused on older music, and then sold a large chunk of it to a partner Noeleen. As the book begins, Jimmy is meeting his dad, also Jimmy, in a pub for a drink, a common occurrence, except that this time Jimmy is breaking the news to his dad that he has bowel cancer. His dad is the first person Jimmy has told this news to.
This novel takes us through Jimmy's cancer journey, through his surgery and chemotherapy, but also through his relationships along the way. From his reconnection with two members of The Commitments, Outspan and Imelda, to his reconnection with his long-lost brother Les, we see Jimmy reach back to his past. We also see his interactions with his wife and kids, and his business partner. Music is a focus here too, with Jimmy's love of music, music the focus of his business, and a large outdoor multi-day music concert the venue for the final part of the story bringing everything together in an amazing way.
This book has a lot of humour as one expects from Doyle but also a wonderfully human story about a man dealing with the situation of facing his own vulnerability.
I've read a few books by Doyle, but not the entire Barrytown series, so must add those to my list now too.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Red Joan

Finished September 14
Red Joan by Jennie Rooney

This novel was inspired by the discovery of Melita Norwood as a Soviet spy in Cold War Britain years after her work as a spy, at the age of eighty-seven. Other than working at a similar job, the similaries between the real woman and Rooney's creation, Joan, are non-existent. Rooney took the idea of a female spy being discovered years later and wrote a most interesting story around it.
The book begins with MI5 showing up at Joan's door, and her past is gradually revealed through the questioning and her own private reflections during the five days of interrogation.
Joan is a young woman unsure of her own self, eager to be accepted, eager to be loved, and yet with an intelligent mind that won't succumb to illogic except under extreme emotion. Joan loves science, the research and this sense of discovery. She is drawn through friendship into communist meetings while at university, and while her questioning mind won't simply accept what she is told, she also has a sense of justice.
It is that sense of justice that drives her actions in terms of her spying activities, not her interest in the cause of communism.
This book is really two stories, the story of Joan's youth and her actions during her university days, World War II, and the start of the Cold War, and the story of her discovery decades later and how she reacts to that. She is a very interesting character. And I liked that Canada had a very small presence in the book as well.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Ancestors of Avalon

Finished September 8
Ancestors of Avalon by Diana L. Paxson

This novel was inspired by Marion Zimmer Bradley's series on Avalon, of which I read Mists of Avalon years ago and loved. I put this book on my list several years ago, and finally got around to reading it. It is a kind of prequel taking place many years before the Avalon books.
I read another book in this series by Paxson, Ravens of Avalon some time ago as well and enjoyed it. This novel begins with the fall of Atlantis and the destruction of several islands that made up the empire. The main characters are Tiriki and Micail, wife and husband, priestess and priest, princess and prince. As they arrange to leave their dying empire, events separate them and while they both survive, they are not together. There are several other strong characters here. Damisa is an acolyte that ends up with Tiriki. She is also a princess and her expectations of what her life will bring undergoes several changes as the book progresses. There are several other acolytes, priests and priestesses, sailors and princes that also survived, and the struggle to survive and move forward is what drives this story. Different groups have different expectations, some wanting to recreate what was lost, and others wanting to make a new way in the new country they have come to, learning how to live with the native peoples.
It was an interesting take on the Atlantis legend.

Between Here and April

Finished September 4
Between Here and April by Deborah Copaken Kogan

This novel begins with Elizabeth Burns having a reaction both physical and mental to the play Medea. Physically she collapses, fainting in the theatre; mentally she is struck by a memory of her best friend from Grade one, April. As the fainting spells continue, she sees a therapist and finds that the memory of April is worth investigating. April's story is a sad one, and Elizabeth connects with both the young girl she was once friends with, and the girl's mother Adele, who did the unthinkable in her struggle to deal with her own life. Elizabeth is frustrated with her life, struggling a career that sometimes feels meaningless, the loss of the adrenaline-filled reporting that she once did, the secret she has kept about what happened on her last war assignment, a husband who spends more time at work that with her and their daughters, his expectations of her, and meeting her daughters' emotional and physical needs.
The story of April and Adele leads her to examine her own feelings about her life, and what she needs to be content in her own skin. This is a story of society's expectations of women, the struggle to "have it all", and the difficulty of balancing both career and family while not ignoring one's own needs.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Apothecary's Daughter

Finished September 3
The Apothecary's Daughter by Julie Klassen

This historical novel is set in the early 1800s, mostly in Wiltshire, but also a bit in London. Lilly (Lillian) is the daughter of an apothecary in a small town in Wiltshire and recently turned eighteen. Her mother left the family unexpectedly and Lilly still watches the canal boats looking for her. Besides Lilly and her father is her younger brother Charlie, who has learning difficulties but is a kind and gentle boy. Lilly's best friend Mary works with her mother in their bakery. When Lilly's maternal aunt and uncle offer to bring her to London and introduce her to society, she jumps at the chance to see more of the world.
This novel is a tale of society of the time and what is frowned upon and what is lauded. It is also a tale of the apothecary world, of which I knew only the basics before this. It is also a bit of a romance between various characters, with the young people mingling and getting to know each other but being very careful about commitment. It definitely sets the novel in a particular historical period, and the characters are nuanced enough to provide an interesting story that isn't predictable.
I quite enjoyed it.

Monday, 2 September 2013

The Light in the Ruins

Finished September 2
The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian

This novel moves back and forth between 1943/44 and 1955. In 1943, the Rosati family had an estate and villa south of Florence near the village of Monte Volta. The oldest son Marco was serving in Sicily and Vittore was working at a museum in Florence. Marco's wife Francesca, his children Massimo and Alessia, the marchese and marchesa Antonio and Beatrice and the daughter Cristina were living at the Villa Chimera. The estate also houses a small group of Estruscan tombs, something the Nazis have taken an interest in. We see here how the Nazis exert more and more of a presence in Monte Volta and at the villa and the family's involvement with individual Germans.
In 1955, Francesca is found dead, a victim of a particularly gruesome murder. Serafina Bettini is one of the detectives assigned to the case. But Serafina has her own history in the hills near Monte Volta, and possibly with the villa as well. She was a partisan during the war and was badly injured near there just before the British arrival. As she searches for the murderer, who seems to be targeting the Rosatis, she also awakens her own memories of the war and the struggles so many had to survive.
This is a book of long memories, reprisals, forgiveness, and love. A story of a difficult time in Italy and the years following the war when so many had to find a new way to move forward and decide whether to make a new start or carry their grudges forward with them.
A page-turner that will take you inside the lives of the characters.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

The Needle in the Blood

Finished September 1
The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower

I picked up this book from the sale table at the bookstore because of the tag line "A powerful tale of sex, lies, and embroidery." I mean, how could I resist!
This is a historical romance set in the late 11th century beginning with the invasion of England by William of Normandy in 1066. Glytha is a young woman, originally from Wales, widowed and then a lay sisters in a nunnery, most recently lady in waiting to King Harold's mistress Edith Swan Neck.
When William's brother Odo takes it in his head to commission an embroidery chronicling the conquest, he gets his sister Agatha, now Sister Jean-Baptiste, to manage the project. One of her first tasks is finding embroiderers of sufficient skill to do the project and this search leads her to Glytha. Glytha has been forced to work she never would have envisioned herself doing, merely to survive, but she hesitates at working for the Normans until she discovers that it is Odo's project. Since she knows Odo is the king's brother and she knows he was present at Harold's death, she thinks she might have a chance of revenge if she joins the project.
However neither Odo nor Glytha could have predicted the sparks that fly between them, and how this attraction will affect both their lives. The two gradually reveal themselves and their histories to each other, growing in trust.
There is lots of sex and lies and the tag line suggests, and a fair bit of embroidery too. The embroidery in question here is what is now known as the Bayeux Tapestry. The interpretations of the tapestry and its imagery are both Bower's invention and drawn from historical research. While some of the characters, like William, Odo, and the Lanfranc are real historical figures, many are fictional. This is a tale of intrigue and politics, love and jealousy and an entertaining read.

Desperately Seeking Paradise

Finished August 27
Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim by Ziauddin Sardar

This memoir chronicles Sardar's journey to find his path as a Muslim, exploring different paths and the history behind them as he examines his own beliefs. It begins when he is a university student and continues through to 2004 when the book was first published. As he explores he also explains the different belief paths, where they came from, who espouses them now, and why he accepts or rejects them.
I learned a lot about Islam, about beliefs and histories, and about what Sardar sees as issues for today's Muslims. An eye-opening read.