Friday, 20 April 2018

An Odyssey

Finished April 16
An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn

This memoir encompasses a few months in Mendelsohn's life, with forays into his life at earlier times, and reflections on this time later. Shortly before the spring semester when Daniel was going to be teaching an undergraduate seminar on The Odyssey, his father, eighty-one at the time, asked to sit in on the course. Daniel is a writer and a classics scholar. His father, had worked first for Grumman, an aerospace corporation, and then as a computer science professor, but he took pride in the fact that he had studied Latin as a young man.
His father travelled in from his home on Long Island weekly that spring to participate in the course, and shortly after, when Daniel was discussing the experience with one of his mentors, she suggested a cruise that was being offered that summer that traced the route of Odysseus' journey. When Daniel mentioned it to his father, his dad was enthusiastic, and so they went.
This book traces both the disussion of the book in the seminar and the corresponding personal conversations he had with his father, and the time on the cruise that corresponded to that part of the story. It also describes the author's feelings and experience around his father's illness and death soon after this trip.
This is a very personal memoir of a father-son relationship that had its difficulties, but also moments of great intimacy. My reading of the Odyssey occured more than thirty years ago, but this brought my enjoyment of that story back to me.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning

Finished April 11
The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter by Margareta Magnusson

So, your first question is probably, "what is death cleaning?" Death cleaning is something a person does, often when they are getting on in years, but sometimes at other stages of life. It is going through your possessions to reduce what you have to what you need and use. It is not about minimalism, but about use. And it is about doing this so that when your time comes, and the people you care about are dealing with the loss of you, they don't have to also deal with a mountain of stuff. It is about giving things away to people who need them, about being around to see them enjoy those things. It is about taking a hard look at your stuff and thinking about what you actually need or really enjoy having.
This short book has good advice, lots of humour, and a bit of philosophy. Magnusson is an artist, and as she says, used to having her creations leave her. She talks about her own experiences getting rid of people's possessions after they die, including with her mother and her husband. She acknowledges the difficulties that may arise, and suggests a variety of ways to deal with them.
Magnusson describes herself as somewhere between eighty and a hundred, and she's got experience that we can take advantage of. A practical book by someone who enjoys the experiences of life, rather than the accumulation of possessions.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Roughneck

Finished April 8
Roughneck by Jeff Lemire

This graphic novel is set in a small town in northern Ontario. Derek Ouelette was a major league hockey player, of the type commonly described as a goon. He is back in his home town after causing an injury in a move driven by anger in a game. Derek drinks too much, and lives a bit rough, and doesn't have a lot of friends. He still tends to erupt in violence when he gets angry.
But when his younger sister Beth also returns to town, he must change to accommodate her needs. Beth has left an abusive boyfriend, one who is also in the drug trade.
As Beth struggles to get past her addiction and move on to a new life, Derek must also change. We learn about their parents, and the influence that those parents had on them, both good and bad. As they now realize that they don't know much about their mother's family, they are interested in discovering more about her native background, particularly Beth.
This is a story of finding the support and strength to start again, to learn from mistakes and become a better person.
Lemire's books are always drawn with skill, and this is no exception. I loved the illustrations and how they added to the characterization.

Ben and the Scaredy-Dog

Finished April 8
Ben and the Scaredy-Dog by Sarah Ellis, Illustrated by Kim LaFave

This book is part of a series of picture books featuring the young boy Ben. Ben has two older siblings: a sister, Robin; and a brother, Joe. He is at first interested when he sees a new family moving in across the street, especially when he sees a child his own age. But when he sees their dog, he isn't as interested.
That is because Ben is afraid of dogs. He sees their big mouths and their teeth, and doesn't want to be around them. But the new family comes over to visit and brings the dog, Max, and then the new girl, Erv, invites Ben over to play with her Lotsablox.
Ben is worried about this because the dog will likely be loose inside the house, and Robin reassures him, giving him a phrase to say to himself when he feels fearful of the dog and tells him to think positive thoughts, "Big Brave Ben" is the phrase. He finds that the visit isn't as bad as he expects, because Max is afraid of the shiny floors and is sitting on a small rug. But when Erv has to go to another room for a bit, and Ben is alone with the dog, his fear returns, and he does as Robin suggested and thinks positive thoughts. When he things he hears the dog move behind him, he begins to hum. And when the dog comes closer, he finds it is a different experience than the one he feared. And he begins to find that Max isn't that scary after all.
I loved the drawings here. They really made the story come to life. And the story is a nice one, especially if you have a youngster who has some fears of dogs. This book could help.

The Bear and the Nightingale

Finished April 8
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

This book, the first in a trilogy, is set in northern Russia in the fourteenth century. Pyotr Vladimirovich is the boyar, lord, of the area, and he married a mysterious woman whose mother supposedly showed up in Moscow under strange circumstances, and married Ivan I of Moscow. Her name was Marina Ivanovna, and while she did not have her mother's powers, she was still a woman with a knowledge of magic. Marina and Pyotr have several children, including a girl, Olga, but as the book begins, Marina is pregnant with another girl, a girl who will have certain powers in the old magic, who she names Vasilisa, Vasya for short. Marina died following the birth, and her old nurse Dunya raised her and the other children, Sasha, Kolya, Olga and Alyosha. Dunya know the old tales, and told them often around the kitchen stove in the evenings.
Vasya grew to be a wild child, often with animals or in the nearby forest, gathering herbs. She sees and talks with the local spirits, both those of the house and stables, and those of nature. Vasya also finds that she has learnt the language of some animals, such as the horses. As the children grow, Pyotr decides to make a trip to Moscow, to sell, trade, take gifts to the rules, and find a husband for Olga. He takes along his two oldest sons, Sasha and Kolya.
They see many things and experience some unusual happenings. Sasha discovers a future for himself, and the Grand Prince has Pyotr take a woman for his new wife, along with choosing a husband for Olga. The new wife, Anna Ivanovna wished a different life for herself, and has a strong Christian faith. Shortly after, there is another addition to the household, the new priest, Father Konstantin Nikonovich, a painter of icons. He has been sent by the Metropolitan, the head of the church, and has also dreamed of a different life.
As the village grows more Christianized, the old magic is seen as evil by many, and the spirits grow weaker. And this change also has implications, both for the village and its people, and for Pyotr's family.
A fascinating tale with a fascinating setting. I loved the folktales woven into the story.

The Good Liar

Finished April 7
The Good Liar by Catherine McKenzie

This novel begins with a terrible event that took place in downtown Chicago. One of the main characters in the book, Cecily is going to meet her husband Tom at his work when the building he is working in has an explosion. Cecily comes out of the subway to witness the event. A photographer captures her image, and she ends up becoming the poster child for the horrible event. More than 500 people were killed in the explosion and its aftermath, and more than 2000 injured.
The book then moves to a time approaching a year later. Cecily is on the advisory board of the organization that disperses the money raised for victims of the tragedy. Another member of this board is Franny, a young woman who was adopted as an infant, but discovered her birth mother shortly before the explosion. Her birth mother was a good friend of Cecily, who worked for the same company as Tom.
Another person working in the building was a good friend of Cecily's, who was also the mother of two young girls. Cecily has two teenage children of her own, Cassie and Will, and has remained strong for them. As the anniversary approaches, the man who photographed Cecily, Teo, is now involved in making a documentary around the tragedy, focusing on some of the families, including Cecily's.
Meanwhile, another woman, Kate, is hundreds of miles away in Montreal, working as a nanny and trying to create a new life. Kate has been hiding her connection to the event in Chicago, and is dreading the media coverage of the anniversary.
Both women, Kate and Cecily, have secrets that they fear coming to light, as we gradually learn about them and what they are hiding, we learn that there are others with secrets as well.
This was a book I found hard to put down, and definitely recommended.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

He's Gone

Finished March 30
He's Gone by Deb Caletti

This novel begins with Dani Keller waking up on her houseboat in Seattle one morning to find her husband not there. At first she assumes that he went out for coffee and the paper, but as the day goes on, she begins to worry.
The night before, the couple had been to a work event for her husband's company. As he was one of the co-founders, Ian insisted on her dressing to a certain image he had, and her discomfort with the expectations placed on her and the social situation meant that she overmedicated herself and has hazy memories of the evening, especially towards the end.
As the police become involved, and Ian's daughters from his first marriage start to make accusations, Dani finds herself more and more worried about what happened that evening.
Did Ian come home with her? She thinks so, but can't remember specifics. They've been having some problems lately, and certainly weren't the loving couple people thought they were lately. Ian has been increasingly critical of Dani, and easier to anger, and Dani hasn't been happy.
This is a story that looks hard at a relationship, its origins, its growth, and its issues.

Smashed

Finished March 28
Smashed by Lisa Luedeke

This teen novel follows Katie Martin in her senior year of high school. She's a star on her field hockey team and hoping for a scholarship to be able to attend university. She's also dealing with a recently broken family.
After an argument between her parents, her father drives off, and never returns. Her mom is a nurse in nearby Portland, Maine, and working as many shifts as she can to make ends meet. The novel starts in the summer, and Katie is working as a swim instructor at the nearby lake in the mornings, and at the local ice cream place later in the day. Her best friend Cassie is away in Europe for the summer, and her other friend Matt is also busy working.
When the football star, Alec, from school shows up to work nearby and starts to show an interest in Katie, she isn't sure what to think. He seems a lot nicer than he was in school, and interested in what she has to say, but what is his real motive in doing her favours?
Katie resents that her mother is never home, often staying at her boyfriend's place in town rather than drive home late at night after work. Katie's little brother Will is a good kid, and he and Katie get along well, but her commitments mean that he spends a lot of time at his best friend's place.
In trying to escape her problems, Katie makes a few bad decisions and finds herself owing Alec and bigger favour than she is comfortable with, especially when the costs of that favour start coming due.
When school starts up, Katie throws herself into her practices, working hard to do well enough to get the attention of university coaches. But her struggles continue, as do her bad choices, and this time she may not be able to avoid the costs.
A novel that deals with a lot of teen issues, and a great first novel.

The Prisoner of Snowflake Falls

Finished March 28
The Prisoner of Snowflake Falls by John Lekich

This teen novel begins with 15-year-old Henry Holloway living in a treehouse as he tries to find a way to survive on his own while his Uncle Andy is in jail. Henry's mom wanted him to stay away from the life of crime his uncle led, but when she died and Henry moved into the boarding house his uncle ran, it was a bit more difficult.
He uncle's friends and boarders were also criminals and many of them took Henry under their wing, teaching him the skills they used in their crimes. Henry tried to stay clean, but living on his own has made that difficult.
His uncle believes he is staying with a family, and Henry doesn't want him to worry. Instead Henry enters the houses in the neighbourhood he lives in, taking only what he needs, and often doing some chores for the people that he sees need doing when he is in their houses.
When he is caught inside one of the houses, however, his story is blown, and he is sent before a judge. The Judge looks at the circumstances, and makes a recommendation that Henry go to a small town in northern Vancouver Island where he lives with a family, goes to school, has a job, and is expected to follow a set of rules.
The family is one that presents a few issues, the first being that Henry has to share a room with a precocious toddler Oscar. There is also a girl in the family, Charlotte, who is a bit of a know-it-all who tries to run his life.
He deflects the first overture of friendship that is put to him, but soon finds that may have been a bad move. As Henry gradually finds his place in this community and in the Henderson family home, he meets some interesting characters.
From the wealthy vision-challenged Harry Wingate, who Henry serves as a volunteer reader to, to the dog Popcorn who chases him as he delivers newspapers, there are situations that Henry has to find a way to deal with.
Just as he is comfortable in his new life, some people from his past show up, and things get more difficult again.

A Troublesome Boy

Finished March 28
A Troublesome Boy by Paul Vasey

This book follows the young Teddy Clemson as he is sent to a distant boarding school/reform school after a letter home about him being "troublesome." Teddy's parents have separated and his father isn't present in his life. Instead, his mother's new husband has been making the decisions about Teddy's future and, since he doesn't like Teddy, sending him away suits him well.
Teddy's new school is St. Ignatius Academy for Boys, knows as St. Iggy's. It is in northern Ontario, near the town of Belleview, and is run by Catholic priests and monks. When Teddy gets off the bus in Belleview, he is hungry and first heads to the diner he sees, where he is greeted in a friendly manner by Rita and Freddy. After his mean, he follows their directions to the school.
He is met by Father Stewart, the principal, who goes over a few things before having Brother Wilbur take him up to his dorm room. As the next few days pass, Teddy gets to know who the other teachers at the school are. They include Father Prince, a man who makes the boys nervous; Brother Joe, who sleeps outdoors most of the time and likes nature; and Father Sullivan, who seems to have quite a temper.
Teddy also gets to know the other boys, and becomes friends with another new boy, Tim Cooper, who has spent most of his life in foster care.
One gets the sense right away that this school isn't a happy place to be. When Teddy is shown a "time out room," a room with no lights or windows, a single straight chair and no handle on the inside of the door, he begins to understand the nature of the school. Even the boys who are not Catholic have to attend chapel in the mornings before breakfast, and their is a worse punishment room than the time out rooms, a place referred to as the dungeon.
The callous disrespect for basic human kindness, and the anger, violence, and abuse that many of the teachers perpetuate is one familiar to those of us who've read about residential schools.
The author, Vasey, survived a school similar to this one, and that experience served as an inspiration for this story.

Swimming to Elba

Finished March 27
Swimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone, translated by Antony Shugaar

This novel surprised me by being quite different from what I expected. It centers on Anna and Francesca, two barely teen girls in a poor area of Piombino, Italy, just across from Elba. The girls live on the Via Stalingrad in one of a group of apartment buildings.
The girls are just becoming aware of their sexuality and the power it brings. Anna lives with her mother, Sandra, who works outside the home and is a social activist; her father Alessio, who has lots of charm and is always looking for a way to make a fast buck; and her older brother Mattia, who works at the local ironworks and is a very good looking young man.
Francesca lives with her father Enrico, a man with a strong temper, a limited intellect, and a suspicious nature; and her mother Rosa, a meek woman who puts up with a lot.
Anna and Francesca are the prettiest and most popular girls in their age group, and Anna is often doted on by the older girls interested in her brother. She is aware of Francesca's difficult home life, but doesn't really know how to help.
As we see the girls through one summer and into the next school year, we see how the changes affecting their lives also brings change to their relationship.
Because of the environment and social class, this is different from other books I've read about girls this edge. Life is more difficult, and more uncertain for these girls.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper

Finished March 26
The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaera Patrick

This novel begins with Arthur Pepper, a widower in his sixties, finally tackling get rid of his late wife's personal effects a year after her death. As he goes through everything, he comes across a small heart shaped locked box that he doesn't remember having ever seen before. Arthur was a locksmith before he retired, so picking the lock is not a big deal for him. Inside the box he finds an old-fashioned gold bracelet with several charms on it and a heart-shaped clasp. He doesn't remember ever seeing his wife Miriam wearing the bracelet, but wonders at it and the charms. The charms are an elephant with a green gemstone, a tiger, a thimble, a painter's palette, a heart, a flower, and a ring. As he looks more closely at the elephant, wondering what the jewel is, he notices some markings on it. He manages to decipher the markings as a long number, and determines that it seems to be a phone number, one in India.
Acting on the spur of the moment, Arthur decides to call the number, and finds out from a man in India that Miriam lived there as a young woman, and that the elephant is indeed from there, and the gem is a real emerald. As he learns from the man some information about his wife's time in India, he begins to wonder what else he didn't know about his wife, and what significance and origin the other charms on the bracelet have.
As Arthur reaches out from his self-imposed routine, he finds out more about Bernadette, the neighbour who has been dropping off food, and helpful information since his wife's death. As he accepts some help from her, he also meets her son Nathan, and after a rocky start with the young man, finds more in him than he first guessed.
Arthur's daughter Lucy who lives nearby visits him from time to time, but she didn't attend Miriam's funeral, something that he has never understood. As we discover Lucy's reasons behind this event, and we learn more about her struggles, so does Arthur, and he begins a new and deeper relationship with his daughter. His son Dan hasn't been home in years after emigrating to Australia and starting a family there, and Arthur is sad about the lack of a real relationship with him as well.
This book shows that people are often more complex than we realize, and we often don't know as much as we think about even those closest to us. It also shows that loss of a partner doesn't mean that that one can't find new reasons to enjoy life.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Let's Get Lost

Finished March 25
Let's Get Lost by Adi Alsaid

This teen novel starts with a young woman, Leila, stopping at a small garage in Vicksburg to get her car, an old, red Plymouth Acclaim, tuned up before a major road trip. The mechanic is a young man about her own age, in his last year of high school. His name is Hudson. Hudson is a very skilled mechanic, who learned from his own father, and although not that experienced with girls, feels both drawn to Leila, and very comfortable with her. It would seem that she feels the same way, a connection neither can describe very well, but each feels. After the car is ready, the two continue the day together, despite Hudson having a major commitment the following morning.
As the two part, and Leila continues on her trip north to Alaska to see the Northern Lights, Leila takes Hudson's philosophical view to heart, and takes a less than direct route, open to new experiences.
The next person we see her connect with is a young homeless woman named Bree, who she picks up hitchhiking near Kansas City. Bree has a story of loss and rebellion, and is a major risk taker. When their escapades get them in trouble, Leila convinces Bree to reach out to those who care and reconnect. As Bree moves to the next stage of her life, Leila continues her roadtrip.
She almost literally runs into Elliot in Minneapolis, as he struggles with unexpected rejection, and Leila brings him insight into his situation, causing him to take more chances despite the possibilities of failure.
As Leila makes her way through British Columbia, she encounters Sonia, another lost soul, a young woman who's known love and loss, and struggles now with how to move on with respect for everyone she cares about. As their adventures take them back and forth across the border, they encounter some very interesting people, and each finds a way forward.
Leila's arrival at her destination finally brings her own story of loss to the reader. We see her connect with those around her, and know that she has people who care about her, even though she has lost a lot. We see her as she finds both what she was looking for, and less than that, and, returning home, learns that many of her instincts are very good ones indeed.
My niece, who read this after me, loved the book.

The Wolves of Winter

Finished March 23
The Wolves of Winter by Tyrell Johnson

This is book is set in the near future, in a world ravaged by war and disease. Lynn, short for Gwendolyn, lives in the woods in the Yukon with her mother, brother, uncle, and the son of her uncle's best friend. She is in her early twenties, and an accomplished outdoorswoman and bow hunter. Her father was a biologist, who had worked in Chicago for the federal government, but left shortly after the wars began. The family moved to Alaska, where her uncle lived, and as the wars grew worse, and then the deadly flu began to spread, they made plans to leave the town of Eagle for the wilderness. Before this could happen, Lynn's father died from the flu. She was sixteen. Her uncle Jeryl convinced her mom, a school librarian, to join him in their trek away from town, and they travelled to the wilderness of the Yukon forests with a few guns and ammunition, some farm animals, some seeds, and other supplies for survival.
They've found a spot near a river, and build a few log homes and a small garden, and have managed to survive with the help of a small garden, and hunting. There is another man, Conrad, who showed up a few years ago, and lives a few miles away, but his behaviour has created animosity, and he is only tolerated as a neighbour.
Shortly after the book begins, Lynn comes across another stranger, a man and a dog, while out hunting, and brings them back to her camp for a meal, and to get news. Jax is both a source of outside news, and a threat to the various members of the camp, and when it turns out that he has secrets that will put them in danger, the mundane, boring life that Lynn has been leading changes drastically.
As Jax and Lynn's group learn more about each other, they find that their lives have been linked before. A great adventure tale.

Shrewed

Finished March 23
Shrewed: A Wry and Closely Observed Look at the Lives of Women and Girls by Elizabeth Renzetti

This collection of sixteen essays covers feminism, advice, and Renzetti's personal experiences. Some of the essay titles are intriguing such as "Tales for Young Witches." Others are instantly relatable, such as "The Voice in Your Head is an Asshole." On the personal side, Renzetti includes a letter to her daughter, a letter to her son, and an essay about her mom, among others. The final essay here is what she would say were she asked to give a commencement address at her school.
There is so much here to love that it is hard to know where to start. Here's a couple of quotes from the essays to give a taste of them.
"Loneliness is a public health crisis."
"At the Museum of American History, the Woolworths lunch counter, site of the Greensboro protest sit-in, stands across the hall from the wagon that delivered the suffragette newspaper The Woman's Daily."
This book made me laugh, it made me sad, and it made me angry. I encourage everyone to read it.

Beyond the Blue Moon

Finished March 20
Beyond the Blue Moon (1 of  3) by Simon R. Green, adapted for Graphic Audio by Timothy Lynch, directed by Terence Aselford

I've never listened to a Graphic Audio before and wasn't sure what to expect, but I really enjoyed it. The acting and the sounds brought the story to life, as if it were a movie. I haven't read this series, and this is the fourth book in the Forest Kingdom Saga, but I found that the characters and settings were described in such a way that I didn't feel that I needed to have read the previous books.
Hawk and Fisher are a team of guards in the kingdom of Haven. They are honest and determined, and have many skills and work well as a team as they know each other so well.
But as we quickly find out, their life in Haven has been a temporary escape from their home in the Forest Kingdom, and when a messenger arrives to tell them of King Harald's death by means unknown, they know they must return and discover who is behind his death. The couple has been hiding behind their identities as Hawk and Fisher, and are reluctant to reveal their true selves, so the messenger agrees to keep their secret as they do the work they have become very good at.
This is a rollicking adventure story, with love, class struggles, rampant crime, and a fair bit of violence, but with Hawk and Fisher on the side of good, it is a very enjoyable read.
I will definitely be interested in more graphic audio books!

Wash On!

Finished March 15
Wash On! by Michèle Marineau, illustrated by Manon Gauthier, translated by Erin Woods

This lovely tale of a young girl who finds the magical power of words while taking a bath, will delight all young readers. Petronilla insists on saying "Wash on," instead of "Wash off," when her mother gives her a bath, and the color of the washcloth transfers to her cheek. As Petronilla continues to insist on washing on, the colors of everything she touches transfer to other objects, and the phenomenon spreads to other people. As the colors transfer, it becomes difficult to distinguish between objects, and things get very messy.
The fun of imagining such a thing happening is enhanced by the illustrations showing color moving to other objects and the confusion it causes.
A fun book.