Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Redemption of Galen Pike

Finished March 19
The Redemption of Galen Pike: Short Stories by Carys Davies

This new short story collection by British writer Carys Davies is a gem. A short book containing seventeen diverse stories, some of them merely a page long, surprises with insight and wit. The stories range in setting from rural Australia to Siberia to small-town Colorado to northern England. The time of the action changes from historical to modern.
Davies won the 2015 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, and it is easy to see why. Her writing is highly skilled, emotive, and insightful using no more words than needed to tell us the story. The stories are short but complex. The tales are ones that moved me. I never knew what the story would bring me, but I was always satisfied by the thought-provoking tale it told.
Highly recommended.

The Evening Chorus

Finished March 19
The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys

This novel has two different sections, each set ten years apart, in 1940 and 1950. Within each section are narratives by a number of people, each telling of their experience, thoughts, and feelings.
The first narrative is by James Hunter, a RAF officer whose plane was shot down, and who was captured by the Germans. He tells of his life in the POW camp, the other men that he interacts with, and the bird-watching that begins to distract him from his situation. The second narrative is by his young wife Rose, back in England. She lives alone in the cottage they bought on the edge of Ashdown Forest, with a dog she bought for company and protection. She fills her days by looking after her Victory garden and her chickens and her evening round as a warden looking for blackout infringements. The two haven't been married long and don't know each other well, and Rose is lonely. She lives near her parents, but doesn't like her mother, a very bossy woman.
The third narrative is by Rose again, but with the introduction of Enid, James' sister, who worked in London until her lodgings were bombed, and who comes to stay with Rose. The woman get along better than either had thought they would, with Enid finding Rose a comfort as she gets over her losses.
The fourth narrative is Enid, as she reflects on the relationship with Rose, and Rose as she looks at the situation as it develops, creating a rift between them.
The fifth is Rose again as she readjusts to her solitary life, and by Toby another RAF officer, who tells of his last flight.
We then move to the second part of the novel, ten years later. The first narrative is Enid visiting James at his remote bird observation station on the coast. She is worried about him, and finds the house he lives in spartan. The two are close, and she manages to get him to talk about the issues he struggles with. We then move to Enid back in London where she works as a paste-up artist for a magazine. She works hard and enjoys the challenges of the job. We also learn of her personal life, a life she has not shared with her brother.
We then move back to Rose, in her unhappy circumstances. She lives a life dictated by others, a life she hates but sees no escape from. She often wonders what her life would be like if different things had happened, if she had made different choices.
The last narrative is one of a German officer who has received a package and message from James. The letter from James causes the officer to look back at the war years and his experiences and feelings. He makes a commitment based on this letter and wishes things could be changed.
The last narrative is from James, as he watches the birds that have become so much more than a distraction for him.
I liked how each narrative had the title for a bird, insect, or animal that has a role in the action in that section. This connection to nature is important, and part of the overall story. I always enjoy reading Humphrey's books and learning new things as well as reading beautiful writing.

Born a Crime

Finished March 18
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

This memoir by the host of The Daily Show looks at his childhood in South Africa, from his birth, through his early adult years. It is well known that his mother was black South African and his father was a white Swiss man, working in South Africa. It becomes clear that his mother was a very independent woman, one who knew that she wanted more than what her place in society should have brought her. She worked hard, and got herself skills beyond most women of her background, and found a way to have a child on her terms.
Trevor was a child that didn't fit into any of society's categories in his country of birth. He watched, and listened, and learned, and he found a way to fit himself in to each situation he encountered. His life wasn't easy, and he didn't always make good choices, but he looks to his mother for instilling in him values, a work ethic, and an outlook on life that made him go out and find a life for himself. This is a book that opens us to a world most of us aren't familiar with, and that isn't shy about some of the more difficult things that Noah dealt with.

The Madwoman Upstairs

Finished March 18
The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

This novel imagines a young woman, Samantha Whipple, as the last remaining descendant of the Bronte family (from a sibling of the writers' father). Her father died tragically in a fire when she was only fifteen. She is now twenty and studying English Literature at Old College at Oxford University. She is surprised on being shown her lodgings, located in a room up five flights of stairs, at the top of a tower. She has to go all the way down to a washroom, and the room is dank, windowless, and with no source of heat. It had originally (in 1361) been used to quarantine victims of the plague.
Samantha is assigned a young, brilliant professor for her tutorials, Dr. James Timothy Orville III. Their first meeting doesn't go well, and Samantha is unexpectedly upset. She has always received high praise for her work, but Orville doesn't seem to think much of her writing skills.
She is also under pressure to meet a London lawyer about her father's estate, and while she delays that meeting as long as she can, she finds that she must find out what her father left her. When she does so, she finds herself reminded of a long ago gift from her dad, that sent her on a literary scavenger hunt following clues to the true present. Is this what she must do now? And if so, who is to be her guide? And what did her father mean when he told her years ago that she would inherit the Warnings of Experience?
As Samantha meets various other players, from Hans, a Swedish student who seems awfully interested in her; to John Booker, a Bronte scholar who believes her father was in possession of many valuable artifacts of the family, she tries to figure out who she can trust with the many questions she has.
Samantha is still hoping for a connection to her dead father, and trying to forge some sort of relationship with her mother, who left when she was young. She is suspicious of ulterior motives with those that offer friendship due to her family name. She is in a new environment, and feeling very much alone. As she gradually learns more about her father, and about herself, she must also find a way to move forward with her life for herself.
I found the connection to the Brontes interesting, and the way their novels and lives became part of the plot intriguing.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Finished March 15
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated from the French by Alison Anderson

This novel blew me away. I loved it and could barely put it down. Philosophical, funny, poignant, intelligent, and insightful all fit to describe it.
There are two people telling the story here. Paloma is a twelve-year-old girl, observant and smart. She doesn't really like her parents or older sister, feeling them to be superficial and not as smart as they think they are. She feels that life is absurd and doesn't want to go through her life dealing with that, so she plans to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday. As she looks toward this she decides to keep a journal where she records profound thoughts in the form of a Japanese poem, trying to have as many as possible. Why Japanese? Well, she admires Japanese culture and has chosen Japanese as her second language at school. As time passes, she also decides to keep a second journal looking for the beauty in things or people.
The second speaker is Renée Michel. Madame Michel is the concierge of the apartment building that Paloma and her family live in. There are eight apartments on six floors. Four floors have only one apartment on the whole floor, about 4000 square feet, and the other two floors have two each. Madame Michel has a taste for culture in books, films, thoughts, and food. But she knows the image that people commonly have of what a concierge is, and she tries to make her public persona fit this image. She has one friend, Manuela Lopes, who works as a cleaner for several of the apartment owners, an honest worker with a skill for pastry making among other things.
During the twenty-seven years that Madame Michel has worked there, the only changes to the ownership have been when one generation of a family passes the apartment down to the next. So, when one of the apartments is sold to someone new, this is a major event, for everyone.
The new owner is also smart and discerning and the dynamics of the major players change as they begin to see each other as they really are, and make connections.
This story is a wonderful one, yet hard to describe adequately. I loved it.

Vigilante

Finished March 12
Vigilante by Kady Cross

This teen novel deals with several difficult and related issues. The novel starts several months after a sex crime is committed at a party and a few months after the victim commits suicide. Hadley and her best friend Magda, juniors in high school, go to a party at the house of a classmate. Magda is interested in a popular boy that Hadley doesn't think that much of, but she humors her. The two girls go their own way at the party and Magda is drugged and raped by four of the boys, and pictures and video of the interaction are shared on social media. Magda and Hadley are both upset, and Magda is a much quieter girl following this horrible event. The boys don't get the punishment that they deserve and instead Magda is belittled, shamed, and harassed. When Magda kills herself, Hadley first is devastated, but then anger begins to grow, and an urge for revenge.
When an expected opportunity arises to embarrass one of the perpetrators, Hadley does it without really thinking. But then she begins to plan, and she soon finds that her urge to take revenge against the boys may be leading her in a direction she isn't entirely comfortable with.
Hadley has always been interested in martial arts, taking classes for years. When a local police officer asks for her help in running classes for teen girls to teach them how to protect themselves, Hadley is pleased. This is a way to ensure that other girls don't have to go through what Magda went through. But she finds that the classes offer her a way to help her to move on by letting her make new friends as well.
This story deals with a lot of very current issues related to teenagers and women today. It looks at the issue of justice, of power, and of the dangers of some actions. It also doesn't categorize all men as bad. There are several men in the novel that respect women in a way that the perpetrators of this crime do not. An interesting read.

Only Daughter

Finished March 11
Only Daughter by Anna Snoekstra

This suspense novel is set mostly in Canberra, Australia. A young woman is caught shoplifting and doesn't want to return home to face what she is running from. Instead, she remembers a news story that she saw a few years ago, and claims to be a different missing girl.
The story alternates between her life as she tries to fit into this family impersonating their daughter who has been missing for ten years, and the real girl ten years earlier as she reacts to weird things happening in her house.
Bec, in the past, feels like she is being watched, even in her own bedroom at night. She is scared of something in the garage, but she can't name it. She is a young teen with a crush on one of her coworkers, who can't wait to finish school and leave. She, too, shoplifts, but with a purpose that doesn't immediately become clear. She tries to confide in her best friend, but feels that she sounds like she is going mad.
The imposter, now pretending to be Bec, also feels wary. She is watching her step, trying to read cues from others to not give herself away. But she keeps getting the feeling that she is being watched, being followed. She tries to learn more about the missing Bec, but finds it difficult. And by digging deeper, she may be putting herself in danger, just like Bec.
This book is eerie and the truth of the story as we learn it is even freakier. A real edge of the seat read.

Noughts & Crosses

Finished March 9
Noughts & Crosses by Marjorie Blackman

This is the first book in a series for teens. The book is a story of our world, but shifted. Here it is blacks who dominate society (Crosses) and whites who were slaves only a couple of generations ago (Noughts), and are still the underprivileged class.
The novel opens with a rift between a privileged black woman, Jasmine, and her white housekeeper, Meggie. It then quickly moves a few years forward to a time when school desegregation is just beginning. Callum, the younger son of Meggie is one of the teens chosen to integrate into the high school. Sophy, younger daughter of Jasmine, also goes to the high school, and has maintained a surreptitious friendship with Callum over the years. Callum is a couple of years older than Sophy, but both lack awareness of the limitations of their social interaction.
While there is some movement on both sides to treat the whites more equitably, there is a large group of resistance at the power level, which includes Sophy's dad, who is a politician running to be the next prime minister. And the slow speed of change has some in the white community ready to take their actions from peaceful protest and change through policy to a more violent movement. Among these are Callum's father and older brother.
As the two young people try to stay friends and maintain their positive outlook, they find that society forces them into actions they hadn't contemplated, and drives them further from each other.
This is an interesting way to open discussions on social issues and race relations, and I look forward to seeing how the series develops.

Racing the Sun

Finished March 6
Racing the Sun by Karina Halle

This romance novel has Amber MacLean on what she fears is the last leg of her backpacking trip. She's coming into Positano along the Amalfi coast in Italy and not only has little money left, she has dipped into the funds that were to purchase her ticket home. She really doesn't want to go home, as she still feels she hasn't figured out what direction she wants to go in for her future. Her father is pressuring her to return home and get a job rather than looking for her passion.
She decides she is going to have to find a job, even if it is just to get enough money to get back home, and answers an ad she spots in a cafe. The job is to teach English to two Italian children, and she figures that with her English degree, it is something she can manage. When the interview takes her to the nearby island of Capri, she is enchanted by the beauty of the island.
The interview is odd, but goes well, and she settles in to her job, finding ways to gain the attention of the children and find a friend she can connect to. The children's older brother and guardian is a distraction though, and she finds that the rumors she hears about the family don't fit what she sees living with them.
This is a story of a young woman searching for a life that makes a difference. And of a man recovering from a tragedy while dealing with responsibility he wasn't ready for. It is a story of connections and of growing up. And one of love.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Educating Alice

Finished March 5
Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman by Alice Steinbach

This memoir follows the earlier book by Steinbach Without Reservations. Here she sets out to learn new things in different settings. By now she has quit her job at the Baltimore Sun, and is writing as a freelance journalist. She looks for things she wants to learn, and finds courses that fit her timeframe and needs. She includes her letters to her friend Naohiro that she met in her previous book and isn't shy about including her mistakes. She writes with the skill of a prize-winning journalist and observes the world around her with the eye of one too.
The book starts with her taking a cooking class at the Ritz Escoffier Cooking School in Paris. She has joined the class in Week Four, so has to quickly catch up her basic skills to those already schooled in them. Alice is a woman whose curiosity makes her open to meeting interesting people and having interesting conversations, and she finds herself befriending other students, the reception clerk at her hotel, and others.
The second educational experience is learning about traditional Japanese practices from dancing to origami to the geisha experience to woodblock printing. This is arranged through the Women's Association of Kyoto, and she is personally accompanied on each segment by one of their representatives, usually Michi Ogawa, a woman who had spent some time living in North America. Again, her curiosity balances with the politeness required in a different culture. Here though she faces the additional hurdle of not being able to read the signage as she moves around the city, which limits her solitary explorations. She enjoys some of the segments more than others, but learns something valuable from each one.
Her next experience is in Florence where she enrols in a class entitled Art in Florence at the British Institute there. The class involves many field trips to view the art around the city, and she also explores on her own, becoming fascinated with one street, and then one old church in particular. As she works on researching the history of a particular time in history, she also meets interesting people from a priest to a waitress. Her class is small, just herself and one other student, a Canadian woman, so the small group becomes friendly quickly and the two women explore outside of class as well.
The fourth experience has her exploring the world and writings of Jane Austen in Winchester, Hampshire, Dorset, Somerset, and Devon. Some of the exploring is on her own or arranged by contacts she has made, and others are through a class she takes at Exeter University. She enjoys the people she meets from the curator of Jane's house to the other students in her class. She enjoys watching the interactions between her fellow students, and is intrigued by the interest and passion in many for a woman writer long dead.
The next trip is a charter tour of Cuba organized for Vassar graduates. While not a Vassar alumni, Alice manages to get included in the tour and while she joins the tour for most days, she does her own thing some of the time, making friends with one of the other travelers and getting to know a few local Cubans in Havana. From food to music, dancing to social divisions, Alice learns about Cuban society and how the people deal with the economic hardships from being limited in their endeavors.
She next returns to France to tour a number of gardens in the Saint-Remy and Luberon areas. She originally planned to do this as part of a group tour, but when the tour was cancelled, she contacted the guide, and asked if she was available to do parts of the tour on a private basis. From meeting a woman on the train to Avignon, to connecting with her guide over their common interest in gardens, Alice finds friendly companions along the way. Getting access to private gardens that would otherwise be closed to public access, Alice thoroughly enjoys the variety and innovation in the gardens, and the hospitality of the many owners.
Her seventh excursion is to Prague where she attends a summer seminar on Czech literature and culture at Charles University. She gets there a little early for the course and finds a bookstore where the owner responds to her overture by recommending a book by a local author that she ends up loving. One of the courses she has signed up for is a creative writing workshop where the students critique each other's work. She participates, but finds that the format is not a comfortable one for her. She also finds herself creating a story around a few serendipitous experiences in the city.
Her last experience here is at a working sheep farm in Scotland, also a bed and breakfast, where she learns how to work with a herding dog and attends the annual dog trials event in Luss. She explores the local area on foot, and finds herself gradually making a connection with the dog as her host patiently takes her through the skills and challenges of herding sheep with a dog.
This book also includes a reader's guide which has some questions for discussion, and the last one asks what you would choose if making a list of subjects and locations for a similar learning experience. This has set me to thinking hard about this, and setting some loose plans for the future myself.

Boar Island

Finished March 1
Boar Island by Nevada Barr, read by Barbara Rosenblat

This is the latest in the Anna Pigeon mystery series, and is set in and around Acadia National Park in Maine. As the book begins, Anna's goddaughter Elizabeth, adopted daughter of her friend Heath Jarrod, is having a crisis. She is being attacked both directly and indirectly through social media, emails, and texts, in a very disturbing way.
As Elizabeth begins to disclose what has been happening in her life, Heath and Anna try to find out who is behind the attacks, but their efforts don't go far, and the local police don't seem to treat it as seriously as they think it warrants.
Anna has just been asked to take over the chief ranger role at Acadia on a temporary basis, and the women decide that Heath, Elizabeth, and Heath's aunt Gwen will also go to Maine, and stay with a friend of Heath's aunt who has a home in a partially restored lighthouse on an island.
Unfortunately, they discover fairly quickly that Elizabeth's stalker knows where they are and may have followed them to Maine.
This novel also has another story embedded in it, one of a ranger who feels wronged and resentful of the difficulties life has brought her and looks to not only find a new, better future, but also wants to take revenge on others as she moves on. Anna gets in the middle of this action without even realizing it, and finds herself in a very dangerous situation.
This is a story of families, of those who choose to direct the lives of others by taking matters into their own hands, and of those hiding from reality.

One for Sorrow

Finished February 28
One for Sorrow by Mary Downing Hahn

This children's novel is set in an unnamed American city, and starts in the fall of 1918. Annie Browne is a beloved only child, and her parents have recently moved to the community. As she begins school in September, another girl in her class immediately claims her as a friend. Unfortunately Elsie Schneider is a girl with low self-esteem, high jealousy, and little in the way of social skills. Annie is a friendly child and doesn't want to seem unthankful for the offer of friendship, but when Elsie insists on coming home with her, and makes threats towards here, Annie is horrified and frightened. She manages to find enough strength to approach the other girls in her glass on a day when Elsie is not there, and thus manages to find a group of girls that she finds more amenable, but the threat of Elsie never really goes away.
When the deadly Spanish influenza comes to town and school is closed, Annie and her group of friends enter into activities that they know their parents wouldn't approve of. When the disease begins to count some of their classmates as victims, things begin to go sadly wrong.
Annie finds herself haunted by the specter of a girl she knows she wasn't kind to, and finds that she can't control her own behaviour.
This is a ghost story that reeks of sadness and resentment. The ghost here is a girl who hasn't had an easy life, and didn't have the skills to overcome her situation. As the ghost takes out her fury on her victims, I feared for the future of poor Annie.

There Was an Old Woman

Finished February 27
There Was an Old Woman by Hallie Ephron

This suspense novel takes place in the fictional neighborhood of Higgs Point, across the East River and Long Island Sound from Manhattan. Sandra Ferrante, an elderly woman living in the neighborhood is taken out by ambulance, and tells her long-time neighbor Mina to let her daughter know and to "not let him in until I'm gone". Mina doesn't know what she means by that, but she calls Sandra's daughter Ginger to let her know. Ginger has been taking care of her mother when things happen for years, but this time she can't do it, and she calls on her younger sister Evie to do the job. Evie is an historian, working on the last stages of a big project, but she knows it's her turn. When she gets to her mother's house, she finds it so much worse than she imagined. Full of old newspapers and clutter, garbage rotting in bags, empty cat food cans even though her mother has no cats. She can't believe it and wonder how it got so bad so fast.
She starts work on the clean up and the neighbor, Mina, becomes a resource, a confidant, and a friend. Mina is pretty with it, but feeling pressure from her nephew to move to a home before the house gets too much for her. She doesn't want to leave, but when an accident befalls her, she finds things beyond her control.
Evie is used to putting pieces together to make sense of history, and her impulses kick in when things don't seem to match the story she's been given. As she begins to gather information and make a different story come to life, she finds that her efforts may be too late.
This is a story of corruption and greed, of elder abuse and the way we sometimes dismiss people without knowing their story. With interesting history, and characters that have depth, this is a hard book to put down.