Sunday, 4 March 2018

Where's Bunny?

Finished February 28
Where's Bunny by Theo Heras, illustrations by Renné Benoit

This picture book is a bedtime book for the very young. The baby pictured on the cover with help from his big sister goes through the steps in a bedtime ritual. They begin with cleaning up their toys, then have a bath, dry off, and brush their teeth. This is followed by putting on cozy pajamas, a storytime, and a goodnight kiss and hug.
At various points in the book, the question "Where's bunny?" is asked, and each time this is asked, there is an opportunity to look for the bunny in the drawing on that page. Most children have a stuffy of some kind that is a favourite bedtime pal, and this let's that be part of the ritual as well.
There is a bedtime checklist in the front of the book that reinforces the routine the children go through in the book, and a teeth cleaning checklist in the back of the book.
Bedtime books are a great way to introduce routine to children, and make getting ready for bed a pleasant time. The drawings here show happy and content children at each point in the routine to help with this message. I really think the drawings are so cute. I also liked that the book showed diversity without being about diversity.
This book is a great choice for little ones.

Don't Tempt Me

Finished February 25
Don't Tempt Me by Lori Foster

This romance also has a little bit of mystery and a bit of danger to add to the interest.
Honor Brown has recently bought her first house and the book begins with her and her best friend Lexie moving her stuff into the house. As they arrive, they draw the attention of the next-door neighbours, who Honor hadn't seen when she'd bought the house, or did the clean-up and minor repairs prior to moving in. They consist of Jason Guthrie, a wood craftsman, his older divorced brother Hogan and Hogan's teenage son Colt. Hogan and Colt are living with Jason while Hogan finds a job and gets back on his feet.
Honor has family, but isn't close to any of them except her grandfather, who raised her. She is a very private person and doesn't like to share her problems with people. She just works hard and gets on with things. Lexie has been friends with her since they were kids, and knows her situation and her bent towards not sharing information.
Jason is drawn to Honor, but wonders at her odd hours away from the house, and her resistance to any help others might offer.
To add to the mix are a couple of other young single male neighbours, one directly across from Honor who runs a martial arts studio, and the other the local sheriff, only a year into his first term. The neighbourhood is one that is only beginning to recover from it's crime-ridden past, and all the men worry about a young woman living alone there. The house that Honor lives in sat empty for years before she purchased it.
With the reader only learning about Honor's life gradually, and with not only Honor's romance with Jason, but also Lexie's love life, there is lots going on here. The messages are positive, about good neighbours making a community, and how accepting help sometimes is the best way forward. 

A Vicarage in the Blitz

Finished February 22
A Vicarage in the Blitz: The Wartime Letters of Molly Rich 1940-1944 will illustrations by Anthea Craigmyle

This collection of letters was written to Otto a refugee from Austria, who came to live at the vicarage in Chiswick with Molly and her family in early 1939. A little more than a year after arriving, Otto, like many young men from Germany and Austria was interned as an enemy alien. At first Otto was interned in England, but then in Australia, and finally back in England again. Eventually, he was released an joined first the Pioneer Corps, and then the Army and fought in the war.
To Molly, he was like another son, and she corresponded with him in that manner. She tried to keep him focused on the future in a positive way, and used what means she could to find out where he was and advocate for him.
Otto saved the letters and it was only in 1974, after Molly's death that he mentioned them to Anthea, Molly's youngest child. The letters numbered over 600, most of them typed. Only some of them are included in this book. Molly was aware of the censorship of letters during the war and tried to avoid including anything that might cause an issue in that regard, telling Otto of goings on in the household, with friends and neighbours, and general news. As a vicar's wife, Molly was very involved in her community, and housed a number of other war refugees, both domestic and foreign, during the war. She worked for a variety of charitable causes, kept a victory garden, did fire-watching, and worried about her children who were either away at boarding school, or evacuated to the country where Molly's mother lived.
The letters are chatty, with lots of everyday information, war worries, and concern for Otto's wellbeing.
The book includes photographs, a map of Chiswick, and a list of the various people mentioned in the letters, with a little about them, along with wonderful drawings by Anthea related to the letters' content. At the back of the book are two appendices, the first listing incidents in Chiswick caused by enemy actions. The second is a timeline of the war, with events that affected Molly and her family.
Anthea enlisted a friend with editing experience to go through the letters and help decide what to include in this book. Other than correcting spelling, the letters are unaltered.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The Marriage Pact

Finished February 19
The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond

This novel takes a look at a young couple from the man's point of view. Jake and Alice have been a couple for a while but only recently married. Jake is a therapist who really cares about his clients, doing lots of research into the issues that he sees them up against. After returning from his honeymoon, he finds that his partners have decided that he should start offering marital counselling, and he begins looking at marriage in detail.
Alice is a lawyer, but her first career was as a musician, and that is still a big part of her life. When she recently played a big role in a major case, the client, Finnegan, wanted to personal thank the people who worked on the case, and on the spur of the moment, almost as a joke, Alice invited him to their upcoming wedding. The gift that Finnegan and his wife gave was a membership to a group that helped couples stay married. Optimistically, Jake and Alice accept the gift, but soon find that the Pact is much more than they expected it to be. And not necessarily in a good way.
At first things look okay, but then there is a punishment meted out, and Jake begins to be wary. But leaving the Pact isn't apparently an option, so Alice and Jake have to look at things more seriously. Can their marriage survive this? Can they?
A story with surprises, lots of scary moments, and main characters that definitely develop as the book progresses. A good read.

Things We Lost in the Fire

Finished February 18
Things We Lost in the Fire: stories by Mariana Enriquez, translated by Megan McDowell

This collection of short stories is well varied and often surprising. Set in Argentina for the most part, these stories include many situations. The first is told by a woman living in a nice house in a bad part of town. She's used to the neighborhood and knows what to do to stay safe, but an encounter with a young homeless boy affects her in ways she didn't expect. Another is a strange unsettling experience of a teenage girl in an old inn. A third tells of a series of experiences over several years when a young woman tries to escape her life with substance abuse. A fourth tells of a brother and sister who befriend a young girl only to be drawn into an eerie experience with a boarded up house in the neighborhood. The next is the story of a tour guide who gets obsessed with a long-dead criminal featured on his tour. The next is one that I know I've read before, perhaps in a magazine or anthology. It features a young woman in an unhappy marriage who goes with her husband to visit her family in a town near the border to Brazil. The next is told by a young girl who finds herself drawn to a schoolmate who seems to be having troubles. This is follows by a story of a young woman's obsession with a human skull she's found. The next is a young couple who move into a house they got surprisingly cheap, but the woman finds herself scared of things she can't explain. The next story has a female lawyer finalizing her evidence for a court case against police who seem to be killing vulnerable young men by throwing them in the polluted river. The next story is told by a young woman about her ex-boyfriend who seems to be retreating from life. The last, and title story, is of a group of women who burn themselves to draw attention to the issue of domestic abuse.
I found myself haunted by these stories, wanting to know more, and yet also, not wanting to know.

Small Things

Finished February 16
Small Things by Mel Tregonning, with consultation by Shaun Tan, and an afterword by Barbara Coloroso

This graphic picture book just blew me away. Done in shades of sepia, this book uses a comic format, but has no words. It follows a child through his days at school and at home as he deals with feeling alone, anxious, and sad.
The child tries, but as attempts to fit in or meet expectations fall short, they grow angry, have trouble sleeping, distance themself from others, and loses their sense of themselves. But the book also shows ways of dealing with these feelings, of realizing that they aren't the only one who feels this way, and finding ways to connect with others.
The drawings are amazing, showing the child's emotions clearly. The way the drawings show the loss of self are brilliant and relatable.
I absolutely loved this book and will be recommending it. The publisher information indicates a targeted age range of 8-12, but it can definitely be for adults as well.
The Australian author died before the publication of the book, so sadly we won't see more of her wonderful work.


Finished February 14
Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd, performed by Derek Jacobl

The novel moves back and forth between the early 1700s, where Nicholas Dyer, assistant to Sir Christopher Wren is tasked with building six churches in London, many of the rebuilt following the Great Fire, and the 1980s, where the London detective Nicholas Hawksmoor is investigating a series of uncanny murders on the premises of old churches. Hawksmoor struggles to make sense of the murders, and of the lack of any clues as to the identity of the perpetrator.
He finds himself drawn back in history and in the idea of religion in his search for motive. This is a story of character and of atmosphere. We learn a lot about Dyer, about his childhood, the loss of his family, and of his struggle to survive following that. We learn of his lifelong feeling of being apart, a man who builds churches, but doesn't have faith, or at least not for what one would expect. His nature is mephitic and his churches all have a dark secret at their center.
As the book moves back and forth, I often found myself unsure which time period I was in at any given time, and this is part of the book's nature. As Hawksmoor delves into the murders, he finds the world around him less distinct, and only the elements that don't belong to his time seem real, the tramps, the urchin children playing in the streets, and the historic buildings.
I felt the historic time strongly, with more of my senses, as Ackroyd used the details of history to bring this time to life. Dyer's words are of his time, and yet they flowed for me, seeming a bit formal but not unnatural. His wording sometimes took me a moment to understand the meaning as the words were less familiar, or used in ways different than today.
I read this book to follow the David Bowie book club promoted through his son, and this was the quickest copy I could get hold of. I have now bought a physical book version, which I will read to savour the story and words, to stop and think about what is going on, and to appreciate good writing.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Girls in Trucks

Finished February 10
Girls in Trucks by Katie Crouch

This novel follows Sarah Walters, as she grows into a teenager in South Carolina, and then finds her way to college in the North and a life in New York City. Sarah is a Camellia Society debutante because her mother was a Camellia Society debutante. Sarah forms friendships with three other girls in her year, first as they learn ballroom dancing and then as they come out as debutantes. Only one of these friendships is what Sarah considers close, but she finds that despite not talking for long periods of time, these are friendships for life.
In her high school summers, she and her friend Charlotte hang out with local boys who drive trucks, go to the beach, and have fun. Sarah's older sister Eloise is at Yale, making life-changing decisions. When Sarah picks her college, she also goes north, to a small college. Some chapters in the book, such as North, her first description of college are written in third person, talking about Sarah as "the girl" yet describing her thoughts and reactions to her new environment. Others are very much first person as Sarah talks about her life.
After college when she moves to New York City with her friend Charlotte, we see her relationships with other women and with men, but less about her work. This is a personal story, and there are often jumps between time periods, as we find ourselves reading about a later time in her life.
An interesting read.


Finished February 7
Flo by Kyo Maclear, pictures by Jay Fleck

This picture book features Flo, a small panda bear, and, as we are told on the first page of the story, the littlest in her family. Flo is also definitely one that marches to her own tune, and the story goes through her imaginary adventures, her love of music, and other things that show us her personality.
She is the one the others wait for, and when we see the weekly schedule, we see how many activities are on the agenda for the pandas. And we also see how Flo stops to take in the world around her, and interact with it.
When something goes wrong with the activity the others are doing though, they find that Flo's different way of thinking can be quite helpful. And the next day, they all try things her way.
A fun book about how it is okay to be different.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Here So Far Away

Finished February 4
Here So Far Away by Hadley Dyer

This teen novel is set in the early 1990s in a small town in the Maritimes. The teller of the story is George Warren (her first name is Frances, but no one calls her that) who is just about to start her senior year of high school as the book begins. George hangs out with a small group of kids her age, one of whom has just moved away as the book begins. This leaves George, who is a tomboy; her best friend Lisa who is hoping to be chosen to run the play that the seniors put on every year; Nat, who seems a bit shy; and Bill, who, as the only remaining boy in the group, offers a grounding touch.
Lisa's boyfriend is good friends with a boy who has had a crush on George for years, but who she really isn't interested in.
At home George's life is going through an upheaval as her father Paul is on leave from the RCMP after getting his foot amputated due to diabetes and an injury. He's not dealing with it as well as she expected, given his reputation as "The Sergeant". George's younger brother Matthew is a geek with the constitution of a sheltered Victorian girl, fainting at even the thought of blood. George's mother is a rock in the family, but she doesn't put up with too much either, and has moved into the guest room as Paul has started smoking in their bedroom. With her dad's injury, her mother takes over his Honda, and George gets to drive her mother's car, a 1975 Lincoln Continental Town Car that the family calls Abe. George has a job maintaining a historic lighthouse that was moved off the coast to a field near their town, and with the family's financial situation tight right now, she finds herself taking a job as housekeeper to and sometimes caretaker of an old farmer, Rupert.
A new Constable has come to the area to cover the gap that Paul's leave has created, and Frances finds herself drawn to him in ways that are definitely not acceptable.
This is a story of growing up, of first love, of regrets and healing. I loved the characters here, and found myself touched by George's experiences. A great read!

What the Night Sings

Finished February 2
What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper

This novel has drawings scattered throughout, which really add to the book. Each section covers a different time period, with the book starting in April 1945 as the Bergen Belsen concentration camp is liberated. The speaker is a sixteen-year-old girl named Gerta Rausch. This camp was not her first camp, but she has survived. We see how she and other gradually begin to realize their situation, and start on the road to their future.
The next section jumps back to 1935 and covers several years, from Gerta and her father in Koln where he was a musician, through their move to Wurzburg, Gerta's growing into her teens, and suddenly being wrenched away from all that to the camps, along with her father. We see how music has been at the center of Gerta's life, and how it is music that has played a large role in her survival within the camps.
The book also follows Gerta into the future as she finds a new start in another country.
Good for teens, this novel gets inside the head of a young person who must come to terms with many difficult changes in her life, and learn many things to discover who she feels she is as she moves into adulthood.

The Lying Game

Finished January 31
The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

This suspense novel is centered around 4 women. Part of the story is told in flashback of the time they met at boarding school and the few months that they spent together there that bonded them for life. The story is told by one of the girls, Isa Wilde. Isa was sent to boarding school then for the first time in her life. Her mother was in bad health and her father decided that sending both her and her younger brother away would be easier for them and him. But it wasn't. On the train on the way to the school, Isa met first the two girls Kate and Thea, who already were going to the school, and then on the platform, Fatima. Kate boarded only during the week, living nearby on the weekends with her father and stepbrother, the art teacher for the school, and a famous painter. Thea's home life is vague but obviously an unhappy one. Fatima's parents are both doctors, who went to Pakistan for the year to work for an NGO. It is her first time at boarding school as well.
Fatima and Isa are put together in a room, near the room that the other two girls share. Thea and Kate already have a sort of game they play where they see how far they can take a lie, and without even trying the other two fit in to this game.
With the girls going to Kate's house most weekends, they grow even closer, and more separate from the other students. But when something terrible happens, and they agree to keep the secret together, they create the bond that lasts.
Now, years later, when Isa gets a text that says merely "I need you" she knows that it is Kate, and she knows that she must go. Isa is living with her boyfriend and infant daughter, and is on maternity leave from her government job. She knows that Thea and Fatima will also have received a text, and will make their way back to Kate as well. She hasn't seen any of them in years, some for longer than others. With the trip back to Kate's home, the village, and the school, come old memories, both good and bad.
This is a story filled with foreboding, where you feel constantly on edge, wondering what will be revealed next. A great read.


Finished January 29
Elmet by Fiona Mozley

This novel was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, and I can see why. Set in Yorkshire, this story around an unusual family is one of innocence, violence, and class struggle. The narrator, Daniel, is a boy, then teen, living with his older sister Cathy, and their father. They had lived with their grandmother for their early years, but when she died, they waited for their father to come, and he took them to the forest where their mother grew up, and built a home for them there.
Their father was a big man, a man whose presence alone could make others back down. He made his living by fighting other men, for money. He had been an enforcer in his younger days, but he is at heart a gentle man, one whose size dictated his life. Cathy takes after him to a certain extent. She doesn't like being indoors, and will drive herself hard to show that she is physically capable of doing something that requires skill and effort. Daniel loves both his father and Cathy, and is the more domestic of them. He gardens and cooks, does laundry and reads books. He enjoys the outdoors and isn't uncomfortable with the outdoor tasks, but he enjoys the sessions being tutored by a woman down the road, which Cathy does not.
Things are going well, until, suddenly they are not. A local landowner comes to tell them that they are living on land that belongs to him, and can't go on living there unless he gets something in return. And when the family begins talking to others in the area, they find workers and tenants who are also being treated badly by the small group of local landowners. And a plan begins to come together.
The story is told in Daniel's voice, interspersed by a later Daniel, alone and moving slowly north, following a trail he isn't even sure exists.
This is a story I had trouble getting out of my head. I needed to know what happened to bring Daniel to this later point, and to know the outcome of his trek.

Monday, 5 February 2018

The Finest Supermarket in Kabul

Finished January 26
The Finest Supermarket in Kabul by Ele Pawelski

This novel is based around a real event of a bombing. There are three sections to the story, each with a different speaker. The first section is by a young Afghan man, Merza, who has recently been elected to the Wolesi Jirga, Afghanistan's National Assembly. After much delay, it looks like the Assembly is going to meet and Merza is excited, but also nervous. His family is not supportive of his political role, with his father wanting him to join the construction firm that he runs. Merza's sister is one of the few close to him that does support him. Merza is out and about on this day, meeting with an advisor and running errands. He plans to visit the supermarket as one of his stops.
The second speaker is Alec, an American journalist. Alec has spent the last three months embedded with the US army on the front lines in Helmand Province, and wants a change of perspective. His editor, Eric, hasn't sanctioned this move, but Alec thinks he can come up with a story to persuade Eric to allow it. He makes contact with other journalists, explores a little on his own, sets up a possible interview with a young teen he meets, and is among the first journalists on the scene after the bombing.
The third speaker is Elyssa, a Canadian lawyer who is on assignment in Kabul with the UN to train female judges and assist them in forming a national organization. She's been in Kabul a few months, and thinks that things are going well. She moved from a hotel to a small but secure guesthouse a couple of months ago after a hotel bombing. She socializes with many of the NGO workers, and has recently been getting close to one of them, Nate. On this day, she has a few things to do, including go to the UN compound to use the gym there, pick up some dessert to bring to a dinner she's going to that evening, and stop at a supermarket for a few things.
As we see each of these people go about their day, leading up to their visits to the supermarket and the encounters they have with locals and foreigners, we see how quickly normal activities can lead to tragedy and a new way of looking at the world around them.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Old Bones

Finished January 25
Old Bones by Gwen Molnar

This novel is part of a teen mystery series facing Casey Templeton, a young man with a good head on his shoulders. Casey's dad was with the RCMP, and as the youngest of three brothers, Casey is an independent kid. After his dad retired, they moved to Richford, a small town in Alberta, and his dad became mayor of the town soon after. Casey and his dad, now that they are spending more time together have been forging a deeper relationship. One example of this is how Casey thinks through problems and explains his thought process to others.
As the book begins, Casey's class is on an overnight field to Drumheller to visit the Tyrrell museum and experience archeological work. Casey and his best friend Mike, find parts of a tooth, but Casey ends up sunburnt from being a bit too interested to take the precautions he should have. Later that night at the motel, Casey overhears a conversation, but is forced to wait some time to report it.
As Casey is offered the opportunity to take a summer job at the Tyrrell to follow up, he also becomes better friends with Mandy, a girl he already knew through their parents' friendship. The pair go on a couple adventures together and end up in danger.
I liked Casey, and how he used the tools his father taught him to keep his head in the various situations he encounters. I also liked how relationships grew through the novel.
A good read.

My Twentieth Century Evening and Other Small Breakthroughs

Finished January 24
My Twentieth Century Evening and Other Small Breakthroughs: The Nobel Lecture by Kazuo Ishiguro

This lecture looks back at his life, and his moments of change. He discusses the start of his writing career, a writing course he took over the winter of 1979-80, and how it was the first time he articulated his images of his homeland to others. Putting them down on paper was necessary to him at the time to prevent himself losing them. He discusses his presence in England and the influence that move had on his life. He talks about reading Proust and suddenly seeing a different way of moving a story forward, and later, how a Tom Waits song provided the insight into what was missing in the novel he was writing at the time. There are other examples here of writing breakthroughs for him.
He looks at how small these private movements sometimes seem, even though they are not, and how we have to be open to recognizing them.
He goes on to articulate what he would like see in the literature of the future, and of the important role he hopes it will play in the world.
A small volume, but full of insight and hope.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

The Second Winter

Finished January 20
The Second Winter by Craig Larsen

This historic novel begins with a woman, Angela, in 1969 who has just visited East Berlin. She has visited an aunt she hasn't seen in years, since before the wall went up, and brought some things back with her. One of them is a picture, taken by her father who died in the war. The picture is of a young woman and a name on the back says Polina. In a later section we see how the separation came to be between Angela and her East German family members.
We see the young Polina in Poland, with her family and her good friend Julian, and we see the war begin for them, and the family get separated.
But the bulk of this story is told over the winter of 1941-42 in Denmark. The first section her follows Frederik, a farmhand in Jutland. We see how he lives under the occupation, and how he and his two young adult children must work very hard and long to survive. We see the risks they take, and we see the desperation in the actions Frederik takes. The next story during this time is that of Hermann, Angela's father, a wartime photographer for the Germans. And we see his connection to Polina and how he came to have the things that Angela has been given.
Other sections from this time cover the experiences of other characters, Frederik's daughter Amalia, his son Oskar, other members of the rural community they live in, and the family that Frederik is estranged from. We see how Polina is connected to Frederik.
This is a story of people connected through small accidents of fate that through them together, of what people will do to survive and keep their families alive during times of war.
A fascinating tale.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Last Place You Look

Finished January 18
The Last Place You Look by Kristen Lepionka, read by Allyson Ryan

This suspense novel is the first in a series featuring private detective Roxane Weary. Roxane is in bad shape as the book begins, still not really recovered from her father's death. Her dad was a police officer who was killed on duty. He was a gruff man, who drank too much and criticized a lot. Roxane doesn't really have fond memories of him, but his death has hit her hard, and she's been drinking too much too often. When one of her brothers refers someone to her to find a person who's been missing for more than a decade, she takes it only because she really needs the money.
But as she begins to research the case of the missing Sarah Cook, she finds other women in the area who've gone missing. The woman who hired her has a tight deadline, as her brother, Brad Stockton, is on death row for killing Sarah's parents and his date of death has been set for just a couple months away. Brad is black, and Sarah was white, so there is a possible racial element to this case as well.
The police in the suburban community near Columbus, Ohio, where Sarah and her parents lived actively dissuade Roxane from looking further into these disappearances, which really pisses her off.
I loved the character Roxane, as she's really interesting. She's smart, with great instincts for the work she does, but definitely has some problems on the personal side. She's made some questionable choices of partners (she's bisexual) and she resents her oldest brother as a goody-goody. She also thinks her mother put up with too much from her father. But she has definitely feelings for all her family members.
She also cares about the people she gets close to as a result of this case, as well as the victims. She puts herself in danger to try to help them, and she definitely has her share of bad luck. I look forward to reading more books featuring her.

Mr. Miracle

Finished January 17
Mr. Miracle by Debbie Macomber

This short novel set in Tacoma, Washington, has Harry Mills, an angel come to earth for the first time to help someone through some issues and bring two people together. Even though he has studied for this assignment, he is not truly prepared for some of the feelings that he will be having as he takes a human role. He also doesn't understand all the cultural references that come up in the interactions he has with people. He is mentored by another angel Celeste, a female one with much more experience. She is kind, helpful, and understanding when he makes mistakes. She encourages him to think about what he is feeling and come up with his own solutions. She also uses questions to lead him in the right direction when he is feeling out of his element, and guides him back to his assignment when he finds himself distracted by other humans with issues.
This is also about a young woman, Addie Folsom, who has returned home after leaving in rebellion a few years earlier. She is ready to start again, and has enrolled at the local college. She moves back in with her mom, her father having died recently. She had planned on spending Christmas with her mother, but her mother had already made plans with a friend, another widow who lives next door. When she was young, Addie had a crush on Erich, her brother's best friend, and the son of the widow next door, but he'd only teased her and belittled her. She isn't inclined to be friendly with him now.
But when Erich falls and is hurt and with only his mother to look after him, it jeopardises the vacation plans, so Addie steps in and agrees to help.
This light holiday romance, with a touch of magic, is an easy read that will put you in a good mood.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Wandering Home

Finished January 16
Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America's Most Hopeful Landscape by Bill McKibben

This memoir covers a short period in the the author's life, a couple of weeks one summer where he walked from his home in Vermont (very near one of Robert Frost's homes) to a previous home in the New York state Adirondacks.
Along the way, he walks some of the time alone, and some of the time with friends from the area. He writes about the landscape he is moving through, the weather, the environmental issues, the social issues, the history of these places, and his own connections, memories, and impressions of these places.
There is a map at the front, showing his path for this trip. The people he visits and travels with include other authors, other environmentalists, historians, farmers, gardeners, vintners, beekeepers, river rafters, and historians. All the them have connections to the last themselves, and are in touch with nature and its wonder.
A book to savour, and one that makes you both hopeful and eager to go out and explore nature yourself.

A Stranger in the House

Finished January 14
A Stranger in the House by Shari Lapena

I had read the author's earlier book, The Couple Next Door, and so picked up this one from the New Book shelf at work. Once again we have unreliable narrators. As the book opens Tom Krupp gets home one evening, a bit later than normal with unknown issues on his mind. His front door is unlocked, and dinner preparations are underway, but there is no sign of his wife Karen. He is at first annoyed, and then increasingly worried as he finds first her cellphone and then her purse still in the house. He calls the friends he knows of, and only when he doesn't know what else to do, the police.
Meanwhile, the reader is aware of a woman driving wildly through an unfamiliar part of town, panicking to get away from someone or something, before crashing into a tree.
And so, a police officer arrives at Tom's house to let him know his wife's car was in an accident and to have him come see if the driver was her.
Karen has no memory of the accident or anything else that evening. She doesn't remember why she left the house, or what happened afterward. The doctor says her memory will likely return, but it may not. The police are suspicious of her amnesia, especially after they find an unidentified dead man shot near where her car came from.
Tom begins to wonder a bit about Karen as well, realizing he knows little of her life before he met her. He feels uneasy. He knows that he's hidden things about his life from her, and so is aware she may have done the same.
Their across the street neighbours, Brigid and Tom, have been friendly. Brigid has made a special effort to be friends with Karen. But Tom and Brigid have a history that neither of their spouses is aware of. Brigid sits at home crocheting most of the time, watching their house from her front window. We wonder what has she really seen? This book has more questions like this, as the plot progresses. We gradually learn little bits of information, but even those may be unreliable. Bob is barely a character, really just a prop for Brigid.
To me, the characters in this book seemed either creepily evil or stupidly gullible. I didn't like any of them really. But the plot is a page-turner.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Hotel Tito

Finished January 10
The Hotel Tito by Ivana Bodrožić, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać

This novel closely follows the author's real life experiences. It follows an unnamed young girl for several years, beginning in 1991 when she is 9 years old and is sent from her home town of Vukovar to the seaside with her older brother. Their mother later joins them there. She doesn't really understand what's going on at first, but gradually realizes that her father has gone missing defending the town. As the two children and their mother go to Zagreb to wait for word of her father, they are housed in a former political school along with many other war refugees. Some have fathers who break through and arrive in Zagreb. Some learn that their fathers have died. But many are in the limbo that faces her family. Her mother and her brother fight for housing, for recognition, and the girl gets older, becomes a bit of a rebel, engaging in riskier behaviour along with other kids her age. The book takes us to her high school years, where she is forced to live in a boarding house as their is no high school near where the political school is located.
This is about how the war affected her, but we see the effect on the society around her as well. The feelings of those Croatians not directly affected by the events of Vukovar.
Interestingly, I visited Vukovar myself in 2010, after the town had begun to be resettled. It was still showing the signs of the war at that time.

The picture about is just one scene showing nature taking over the damaged buildings of the town.
There were many signs of death and of life coming back.

A Whole Life

Finished January 8
A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, translated by Charlotte Collins

This short novel the man Andreas Egger from childhood through his life. Andreas came to the village in the Austrian alps in 1902 as a small boy. His mother was dying and sent him to live with his uncle Hubert Kranzstocker, who only took him in reluctantly. One of the regular beatings from his uncle resulted in a badly broken leg that didn't set properly. He was a quiet boy, who worked hard. When he turned eighteen and finally rebelled from his uncle's punishments, he left the farm and began to pick up work from others around the village. He grew up to be a strong man, mostly silent, but honest and dependable. The story of his life takes us through happiness and sorrow, war and peace, love and loss.  The mountains he lives among play a big role in his life. This is a story of a man who accepted what life brought him, but took opportunities as they came. He's a man that one can empathize with. An everyman of a sort.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Say My Name

Finished January 7
Say My Name by Allegra Huston

This novel takes us into the life of Eve, a forty-eight year old woman. Eve is married to Larry, with a grown son, Allen. Some time ago, Larry moved into the spare room, soon after being enlightened about his life. The marriage has never been a close one. Eve obstensibly has a career as a garden designer, but she really treats it more as a hobby. On most weekends she travels around secondhand shops buying items for her friend Deborah's antique shop. As the book begins, she has spied a musical instrument in a case in a shop in the north end of New York City. Despite the bad condition of the instrument, she cannot help herself.
Later, when she goes downtown to the library to research its origins, she encounters Robert the college roommate of her brother Bill, and his son Micajah, a musician. She is surprised when Micajah flirts with her, and even more surprised when he follows up with an email asking to meet.
The next meeting ignites something in Eve that she has never felt before, not even in the early days of her marriage, and she finds herself struggling not to continue the relationship.
When Larry makes an unexpected choice, Eve finds herself surprised and must start to figure out what she really wants. Eve has always been scared of taking risks, but now she finds herself freed to try new things.
This is a novel of passion, and novel of self-renewal.

We Should All Be Feminists

Finished January 5
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This short book came out of a TED talk Adichie gave. Adichie uses her own experiences both in Nigeria and elsewhere to show how the way men and women are treated is still not fair for women. She gives examples from her life and from the experiences of others and shows that the attitudes stem from the way we are taught beginning as young children. For things to change, we must not only bring up girls differently, but also boys. We need to reexamine how the things we do as a matter of habit keep these differences alive. She shows how just being aware can help move us further down the road. She gives examples of how men can question other men's actions to change things, to bring that awareness to others.
This is a book that everyone should read, and I also recommend her TED talk.

Fin & Lady

Finished January 4
Fin & Lady by Cathleen Schine, read by Anne Twomey

This enchanting novel tells the story of young Fin Hadley and his older half-sister Lady. As the book begins Fin is eleven years old and has just lost his mother to cancer. He has already lost his father and both his maternal grandparents. Now Lady comes into his life as his guardian and companion. Fin had met Lady when he was five, after their father had taken Fin and his mother Lydia on a trip to Europe to hunt down the elusive Lady. They had finally found her on Capri, and Fin was enchanted by her at the time, and on the boat trip back to the U.S.
Now Fin and his collie dog Gus go to New York City with Lady to live. At first they live in her late mother's apartment which is well-managed by the black housekeeper Mabel. Mabel is the grounding influence in the home, especially when they move to a newly renovated brownstone in Greenwich Village.
Fin discovers that Lady is well-meaning, but not necessarily dependable in an everyday way. She is a bit of a misfit and a rebel, even for the early '60s when this story begins. Fin soon discovers that he has another guardian, a financial one, represented by the young Tyler, a lawyer for Fin and Lady's father's law firm. He manages Fin's inheritance including the farm and cows that were his grandparents'. Tyler also has a history with Lady that Fin doesn't learn of right away. What he does learn is that Lady has the ability to enchant, and not just Fin. Lady seems to draw people to her, and she has many suitors. In a moment of togetherness, Lady assigns Fin the job of finding her a husband among these many, and set a deadline a year away.
We soon see there are three men who seem closer to success in terms of suitors, and Lady seems to rotate from one to another as time goes on. They are Tyler, the long-term suitor; Jack, the younger man, a sportsman who gets off to a bad start with Fin; and Biffy, a Hungarian emigrant and World War II survivor. Biffy is the favourite of Fin, and we even get to meet his eccentric mother, who is a darling.
As the years go by, and the deadline for Fin's task gets moved further out, he finds a life in the city. He befriends an older girl Phoebe, who lives across the street; attends a non-traditional school; explores museums, galleries, parks, and becomes a baseball fan of the Mets. During these years, Lady lives a life in limbo, not really advancing, just treading water. It is a pleasant life, but Fin can see that Lady isn't truly happy.
When, in a moment he regrets, Fin tells her what he truly thinks, Lady sets off on a new adventure. She ends up in Capri again, and the story changes. Lady changes, and Fin sees how. When even more change begins to come into their lives, Fin knows that he needs help, and his true friends come through.
This is a story of two siblings, who become friends. A fairy-tale type story with an ending both unexpected and inevitable. I loved it.

Smarter Faster Better

Finished January 4
Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

I loved this book just as much as his previous The Power of Habit. Here, Duhigg looks at productivity. As Duhigg describes in his introduction, this book began with him asking a prolific author he admired, Atul Gawande, about his productivity. When he learned that Atul was busy with his family, Duhigg realized that he hadn't taken time off in months, and that there was a lot he could learn about productivity. Thus came the germ of the idea for this book. As usual, Duhigg interviewed people in many professions and successful project teams. He was looking for concepts that repeated across these diverse groups. He found eight ideas and a powerful principle that connected them.
That principle is one of making choices in certain ways. He shows how many of us have spent too much time looking at the tools of productivity, gadgets and apps and systems, rather than drawing lessons from these tools.
The chapters here examine each of those eight ideas in succession, starting with motivation. Duhigg looked a medical cases of people who had lost their motivation, at behavioural studies looking at the role of having choice, and at the way our society has changed from one where the majority of people reported to a supervisor to one where more people have the ability to make their own choices about setting goals, prioritizing activities, and choosing projects. This led him to look at the skill of self-motivation, something the military refers to as a bias to action.
The second chapter looks at teams, from study teams at universities to more goal oriented school teams such as case competition teams and work teams at organizations like Google. One study showed the importance of group norms in a team's success. Another found a correlation between psychological safety in a team and the team's success. Productivity is about how teams work rather than who is one them.
The third chapter looks at focus. Duhigg looks at instances where failure to pay attention, to remain focused while still being aware of the larger situation, caused larger failures, including fatal ones. He shows how reliance on technology, such as automated functions, GPS navigation, and . He points out the dangers of cognitive tunneling, where one becomes overly focused on one thing, even as other things are going on around them. Another study looked at why some people stay calm and focused in a tense situation and others don't. Another looked at the role of mental models, and the way some people tell stories to themselves about the way the world around us works. Both these things help when something is out of place or doesn't look right. The dangers of information overload can cause confusion and irrational actions. Too much information coming at once can make one unsure what to focus on.
The fourth chapter looks at goal setting. In one example Duhigg looks at the need for cognitive closure, and how a high need for closure can create negative situations. It creates a need to be decisive and act in a confident manner, and can lead to premature decision-making. He looks at the rise in the use of SMART goals in the workplace. The use of this type of goal setting is useful, but if those setting goals get too focused on the tool and lose sight of whether the goal described was meaningful, meeting goals isn't productive. He looks at stretch goals and how they can lead to new ways of thinking about problems and processes. Combining SMART goals and stretch goals can take the positives of both.
The fifth chapter looks at managing others. Duhigg looks at a number of factors: respect, trust, listening, and acknowledging expertise. One study looked at corporate culture in companies. They found five types of corporate culture: star model; engineering model, bureaucratic model, autocratic model, and commitment model. They found commitment model firms were the most successful overall. This was due to the sense of trust that developed. Distribution of authority means that more people feel they can make a difference, and thus they care more. Empowerment leads to commitment.
The sixth chapter looks at decision making, from analyzing the decisions of a tournament winning poker player to looking at a study that aimed to make everyday people better at forecasting the future. Duhigg looks at how experience makes us better at forecasting, and how varied experiences increase our success. He describes how experiencing and knowing about failure increases our success as well.
The seventh chapter looks at innovation, from the team creating the Disney movie Frozen to the making of West Side Story. Duhigg looks at a study of the tactic of taking proven ideas from other settings and combining them in new ways. It's about making the creative process welcome in your environment.
The last of the eight ideas is that of absorbing data. In our world today, there is a plethora of information, but to turn that information into useful knowledge is the key. Because of the vast amounts of data available to us now, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the data and not take it and use it to our advantage. Duhigg looks at information blindness, a study of debt collection teams' success rates, a school that started thinking about the data they collected and putting it together in different ways, and the teaching of a engineering decision process to struggling students. He also looked at a study showing the importance of frames as context, and thus the importance of being able to reframe a question to look at it differently.
I loved the use of real life situations to show these ideas and how they are important for success. I also loved the appendix provided that showed how to use these ideas in my own life to increase my productivity. A great read.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

The Adventures of Slim and Howdy

Finished January 3
The Adventures of Slim and Howdy by Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn with Bill Fitzhugh

This humorous modern western is a hoot to read. I pulled out this one when I realized that I hadn't read a single western last year. Instead of wandering gunslingers we have wandering musicians, not that they can't handle a gun when it becomes necessary. The two men Slim and Howdy meet by chance at a used car lot in eastern Texas. They don't have much money, but they have imagination and the ability to turn life experiences into songs. Howdy is heading away from Louisiana with his well-used truck, a saddle in the back and his guitar in the front. Slim is driving an ailing car and needs enough money to get to his nearby destination. The used car lot owner, Red is trying to bargain them against each other, so they decide to team up. They sell Slim's car, decide to share the ownership of the truck and split the money from the car sale.
On to Slim's destination, which is the home of the man who has stolen his guitar. Howdy's quick actions come in handy, and the retrieval is successful, but they've created an enemy and now have a couple of followers.
As their tale leads them down to Fort Worth, and then on to Del Rio, they find themselves in dicey situations from crooked card sharks to jealous ex-boyfriends. The characters are fun, the songwriting even more fun, and the adventures never stop.
Written by the real-life music duo Brooks and Dunn, and a helpful novelist, this book is a great read. I loved it and would love to follow Slim and Howdy on their future adventures.

No One Is Here Except All of Us

Finished January 3
No One Is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel

This novel feels so different from to me from the typical first person narratives. The speaker, Lena is a preteen girl in Zalischik, a small Jewish village in northern Romania. The year is 1939. The prologue sets the beginning scene for us. The villagers know of the impending war threatening them, of the pogroms, the hatred, but feel apart from it. The story begins on a Friday, late in the day. A storm has begun. At the evening service, the healer shows the newspaper from a few weeks earlier declaring war and calling for the extermination of Jews. The prayers begin and then a small silver airplane passes over once, then twice. The villagers clutch each other in worry, as an explosion goes off in the nearby mountains. The prayers continue, and the villagers wait. In the morning they go to the river, and find many fish in the raised waters, and then as the waters recede other objects: teapots, part of a piano, clothing, bowls, a doll, and a woman. And the woman is alive. The villagers take her in, feed her and warm her and question her. What happened they ask, and in her stilted statements find the terrorizing actions of soldiers, the escape of the river. She is now their stranger.
Lena speaks of this moment as a hinge, where all the past has led to this moment, a hinge between past and future. The past is described quickly, their village the haven from the last pogrom for this small batch of people. They talk and talk about what to do. Lena and the stranger declare the need to start over. They understand each other. The stranger says, "When there is nothing left to do and there is nowhere else to go, the world begins again." Lena clarifies, "No one exists but us and God? Everything is still to come?" And the answer is affirmative.
The village begins a new world, alone. They regroup, rearrange themselves. Some choose new partners, some choose new families. and life goes on, but in a way they define as they go, The stranger takes steps to ensure the cutoff from the outside world is complete. Life continues in a new way for days, months, years.
Until at some point the external world intrudes, and they know that this intrusion will not be the last. And Lena flees the village, hoping to find her young husband, taken by the intruders, and save her young children from the threats in the world outside.
The writing is lyrical, with a feel of magic realism to it. The situation is both one we know and one we don't know. The future is uncertain. This is a book I read slowly, savouring the writing, uncertain that I wanted to know what was coming. Highly recommended.

Monday, 1 January 2018

David Bowie Book Club

I saw this article
David Bowie's Son Starts Book Club
and couldn't resist

So I followed him on twitter and here is the first book.
Duncan Jones starts David Bowie book club

It sound interesting and I look forward to some fascinating reading.

TBR Challenge 2018

As everyone who knows me knows, I have way too many unread books at my house, so this challenge is right up my alley

The idea is to choose 12 books that have been on your shelves a long time (along with 2 alternates in case the going gets really tough) and read them this year.

So here's my list.
1. The Portable Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker
2. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
3. Men and Dogs by Katie Crouch
4. Four Fields by Tim Dee
5. Pieces of My Mind by Frank Kermode
6. The Confidant by Helene Gremillon
7. Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien
8. Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
9. The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna Van Praag
10. Due Considerations by John Updike
11. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
12. The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson

1. Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon
2. A Princess of Roumania by Paul Park

It should be fun and interesting!

European Reading Challenge 2018

I always enjoy this challenge.
European Reading Challenge 2018

The rules are pretty straightforward:
THE GIST: The idea is to read books by European authors or books set in European countries (no matter where the author comes from). The books can be anything – novels, short stories, memoirs, travel guides, cookbooks, biography, poetry, or any other genre. You can participate at different levels, but each book must be by a different author and set in a different country – it's supposed to be a tour. (See note about the UK, below)

WHAT COUNTS AS "EUROPE"?: We stick with the same list of 50 sovereign states that fall (at least partially) within the geographic territory of the continent of Europe and/or enjoy membership in international European organizations such as the Council of Europe. This list includes the obvious (the UK, France, Germany, and Italy), the really huge Russia, the tiny Vatican City, and the mixed bag of Baltic, Balkan, and former Soviet states.

THE LIST: Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Macedonia, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and Vatican City.

NOTE: Even after Brexit, the United Kingdom is still one country, in Europe, that includes England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. So one book from any one of these four counts as your one book for the United Kingdom. I'm not going to be a stickler about it because challenges should be about fun not about rules. However, when it comes to winning the Jet Setter prize, only one book from one of the UK countries will count.

As usual, I will be going for the 5 Star Reading level
FIVE STAR (DELUXE ENTOURAGE): Read at least five books by different European authors or books set in different European countries.

PopSugar Reading Challenge 2018

This reading challenge came into my radar recently and looks interesting.
Here's the post.

I'm intrigued and will naturally do the advanced 10 as well as the main 40. There's lots of potential here, and since one of the prompts is to do a prompt from one of the previous 3 years, I may get into them a bit too.
Naturally, I will be keeping track on my reading challenge page.