Sunday, 13 May 2018

Sun Dog

Finished May 13
Sun Dog by Deborah Kerbel, illustrated by Suzanne Del Rizzo

This picture book is about Juno, a young husky who lives with a family near the Arctic Circle. Juno finds the endless days of the summer make it hard to settle down to sleep, and one night, she leaves the house in search of playmates. She finds only that she feels lonely without her boy, and vulnerable to those creatures who look for food during this time. When she returns to her house and finds danger there as well, the big dog that Juno knows exists inside her comes alive as she raises an alarm.
This is a lovely story of the connection between Juno and her boy, but also of the high Arctic days, and the animals who call that part of the world their home.
The illustrator of this book uses polymer clay as one element of the illustrations and I loved the effect. She brings alive Juno's playfulness (I particularly liked the picture with the sock) and the beautiful environment Juno and her boy live in. The flowers look so real, I wanted to smell them!
A great book, especially for youngsters with their own special dog.

Sarah's Key

Finished May 13
Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

This read was for my upcoming book club meeting. It is a WWII story of a young girl, ten years old, who is awakened early one July morning in 1942 by pounding on her apartment door. She wakes her mother, and tells her. They family isn't that worried as Sarah's father has been sleeping in the cellar after rumours of police seizing men have become widespread. This morning, however the police order Sarah's mother to pack a bag and also tell Sarah they will be taking her. When Sarah enters her bedroom to get clothes, and wake her younger brother, only 4, he refuses to go.
The children had a deep cupboard they often played in and hid from their parents in fun. He goes in there and Sarah locks him in, promising to come back later.
As the police shepherd the two from the building, Sarah's mother screams for her father, and he joins them. They are part of a roundup of Jews in Paris, in which busloads are taken to the Vel' d'Hiv'.
Sixty years later, Julia Jarmond, an American woman reporter, who has lived in Paris for twenty-five years, and married a Parisian, is assigned to do a story on the sixtieth anniversary of this horrible event. Julie hadn't heard of it before, and as she does research, she is horrified.
When she discovers that her husband's family has a connection to the event, she is determined to find out about the family that used to live in the apartment her husband's grandparents lived in.
As we follow Sarah's story in 1942, we also follow Julia's investigation into the past.
This is a novel of a fictional family, set around a true event, and a terribly sad one. This particular raid was enacted by Frenchmen on Nazi orders, men who did not protest acting against their fellow citizens. This is a novel that was written to help enlighten the people of today about their past, and look toward a future of truth and acknowledgement.

The Grave's a Fine and Private Place

Finished May 11
The Grave's a Fine and Private Place by Alan Bradley, read by Jayne Entwhistle

This is the ninth book in the series featuring Flavia de Luce. Flavia, her sisters, and Dogger have left the family home to fill their days, their home being a sad place at present. Her oldest sister is put out by having to delay her marriage, and all three are unhappy at their aunt's insistence that they move to London. Dogger has suggested the village of Volesthorpe as a distraction, and as the book begins they are slowing being rowed on the river. Flavia has one hand over the side, skimming the water, when the hand catches on something. She imagines it to be a fish, but on examination it proves that her hand is caught in the mouth of a young man, a dead young man.
When she draws Dogger's attention to it, they head for shore, bringing the body with them. And Flavia is engaged in another mystery, a distraction indeed. Once on shore, Dogger assigns Ophelia and Daphne a task to keep them looking out at the river, as he and Flavia move the body to a grassy bank. When Dogger goes off in search of the police, Flavia looks for clues, and finds a few, naturally. As the police arrive, along with the vicar, the family retreats to the nearby inn for lunch. There, the two older sisters bolster themselves with a pint of Guinness and Flavia and Dogger make plans to investigate further.
There are other distractions here including a circus with an aggressive woman owner, and a group of rowdies, an inn landlady with a hidden poetry habit, and a famous actress in her golden years. Flavia befriends a young boy who has done some experimenting of his own, and butts heads with the local police officer.
The sisters grow closer here, something that is nice to see. Flavia also begins a much closer relationship with Dogger, who is more forthcoming about his own knowledge and connections. This book moves in a new direction, but an interesting one it is.

Reservoir 13

Finished May 9
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

This book was recommended to me by Ben McNally, and although it wasn't what I expected, I really enjoyed it. The novel takes place in a small town in rural England. One winter, a teenage girl on holiday with her parents goes missing. A search is mounted, but the girl is not found. But activities for the inhabitants of the town go on, more or less as they had done before. As the book follows a variety of people who live there, who arrive their after this event, and who leave for various reasons, we see the life of a town and its people. The small secrets, the kindnesses and resentments, the family dynamics. We see the cycle of nature, year after year, and the events large and small.
I loved how each year was a chapter, and that while some scenes of interaction were included, so were straightforward descriptions of what happened.
One example
The summer had been wet but in September the skies cleared and the mud in the lanes was baked into thick-edged ruts. There were springtails under the beech trees behind the Close, burrowing and feeding on the fragments of fallen leaves, and somewhere deep in the pile a male laid a ring of sperm. A blackbird's nest was blown from the elder tree at the entrance to the Hunter place, the mud mortar crumbled and the grasses scattered as chaff. Tony produced an arrangement of hops for the Harvest Festival display, and it was certainly striking but there were some who felt the pungent smell was out of place in a church. Jones's sister was seen at the post office, buying packaging paper and string, and this was understood as some kind of breakthrough. Irene sometimes told people that Jones's sister had been at her wedding, and had been the very life and soul. Such a shame, what happened, she would say. As though anyone actually knew. On Sunday in the evening Brian and Sally Fletcher at a meal together. Brian grilled lamb chops and boiled potatoes while Sally made a salad. It was a rule they had, to make sure they did this. For most of the week they kept different hours, and communicated through notes on the kitchen table. This suited them both. They had come to marriage late, and were each comfortable in their own company. But they'd decided they should always eat together on a Sunday night. I don't want to go forgetting what you look like, Brian had said. A meal, and a conversation, and then settling down together to watch whatever was on television. It was something about a murder, on the whole. At the allotments Ruth was seen working alone, pulling handfuls of beans down from the overloaded canes. The leaves were covered in blackfly but this late in the season she wasn't concerned. It was food for the ladybirds at least. She was letting the courgettes mature to marrows because even if no one really liked cooking them they did look good in baskets outside the shop. They made people think of harvest festivals, and that made tem come into the shop and spend money. The blackberries were thick on the brambles growing up around the greenhouse, and she thumbed a few into her mouth each time she went past. There had been words with the allotment committee about the brambles. The matter was not yet settled. Her phone beeped, and when she read the text a smile opened on her face that she found herself hiding behind a berry-stained hand. She sat on the bench for a moment, watching the shadows lengthen across the valley and feeling the warmth and thinking carefully about her reply. 
shows both the close observation and the narrative distance that occurs throughout the book. It is as though the narrator observes moments and strings them together in a loose connection by time. My enjoyment with this book grew as it progressed. The missing girl comes up each year as people still think about her and wonder what happened to her. But life here goes on, as it must.

The Seven Rules of Elvira Carr

Finished May 7
The Seven Rules of Elvira Carr by Frances Maynard

I loved this story of a young woman forced by circumstances to become more independent and engage with the world on her own terms. As the book opens, Elvira (Ellie) is twenty-seven. Her mother has raised her in a very protective way, allowing her only specific, controlled forays outside the house. As the book begins, Ellie's mother suffers a debilitating stroke, and Ellie calls an ambulance for her. Left alone in the house, Ellie tries to keep to her schedule, but must introduce new activities such as visiting her mother in the hospital.
Without her mother, she finds that she has more time to spare and begins to explore the world more. One of the people that helps her in this is her next-door neighbour Sylvia, a woman with grown children of her own. As Ellie learns new things, and tries new activities, she finds herself better than expected at some things. Perserverence helps her manage goals that she sets for herself, and new friends help her enlarge her life experiences.
It was wonderful to see Ellie grow, despite some setbacks, and gain confidence, even pride in some of the things she did. As she tries to follow the rules that she initially set for herself, she finds examples of these, and exceptions to them, and learns that she must carefully think about things before acting on them.

If You Knew Her

Finished May 5
If You Knew Her by Emily Elgar

This suspense novel follows three characters. The first one we see is Cassie Jensen, as she is out late in the evening on a road near her home. She sees headlights coming towards her, and recognizes them. She tries to move quickly to a wider spot in the road, but can't before the car is upon her. As the book continues, we move into the past with Cassie and see what led to this moment.
The second character we see is Alice, a nurse in a special intensive care unit at a hospital. Alice has been at the hospital a few years, and really enjoys her job. She feels close to those in her care, working to understand them, so she can give them her best. Alice is married, and although she and her husband have tried to have children, they have been disappointed. Alice is trying to come to terms with this and go along with the plan to adopt.
The third character we see is Frank. Frank is one of Alice's patients, and he has been on her ward for a few weeks. Frank is a man who has struggled with addiction, who has let his life pull him down, and who was looking to a difficult future when he suffered a major stroke. The doctor on the ward believes that Frank is in a Permanent Vegatative State, and should soon be moved on to long term care home. Alice disagrees. She thinks she has seen something in Frank's eyes, despite his lack of response to anything. Alice, and the other nurses, talk to Frank as if he is aware, telling him about their world, and sometimes about their secrets.
Frank has also found that he can hear remarkably well, tuning into other conversations that take place on the ward. When Cassie is admitted to the ward, he takes an interest as she is right across from him. As Frank observes who is visiting Cassie and how they behave, Alice is also noticing some things. But, unfortunately, Frank cannot communicate his worries, and Alice is distracted by her own issues.
This is a story of people who aren't what they seem to be on the surface, people who have inner lives with hidden worries, and hidden agendas. A fantastic read.

Don't I Know You?

Finished May 4
Don't I Know You? by Marni Jackson

This novel follows a woman, Rose McEwan from the age of seventeen to middle age. Rose keeps having encounters with famous people. As it begins the encounters seem to fit into her life in a normal way. The first encounter is when Rose takes a summer creative-writing course and John Updike (a young man at the time) is the instructor. A few years later, backpacking around Europe with her boyfriend, she encounters Joni Mitchell when camping in caves near a small Greek town. The encounters are generally pleasant ones, with the celebrities coming across as normal people. As the book moved forward though, the celebrities began to be doing things that you wouldn't expect them to do and meet up with other celebrities that seem unlikely.
As the book got stranger, I began to enjoy it less. Jackson certainly has an imagination, but I found myself unable to suspend disbelief after a certain point. It was also at this point that the plot disappeared for me.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Before We Were Yours

Finished May 3
Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

This novel is inspired by real events. The general historical story is true, but the characters in this book are not. However what happened to the historical characters here really happened to people and is a part of history that needs to be brought to light.
This novel has two timelines. One begins in 1939 and takes place mostly in Tennessee. It is the story of a poor family, who lived on a riverboat. Rill is the oldest child in the family and the narrator, and as her story begins, her mother Queenie is in labour. The labour is a difficult one, and the midwife says that it is beyond her skills. As Rill convinces her father Briney to take her mother to the hospital, she is left in charge of her younger siblings: Camellia, Fern, Lark, and her toddler brother Gabion. This family is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the children end up being taken from the boat under false pretences, and brought to an orphanage. Because most of this family is blond, they are more highly prized than some of their fellow victims.
As we see the terrible actions and conditions at the orphanage, and learn of the tactics involved, we understand and Rill, try as hard as she can, will not be able to keep her family together.
The true story of the society woman Georgia Tann, and her children's homes, which was supported by those in power for years, and had assistance from social agencies and lawmakers, is a terrible one. Hundreds of children were taken from their homes, and communities. Some were taken walking to school, some from their homes directly, but all were taken to group homes where they were abused, fed inadequately, and separated from their siblings. Many had loving parents that had no chance to recover their children against the powerful woman who had stolen them.
As Rill tries to fight for her siblings, and another young boy taken at the same time, she learns fear and distrust, and yearns for her river life.
In the present, another young woman, Avery Stafford, a lawyer and daughter of a senator in South Carolina, is home to support her father who is fighting a cancer diagnosis, and accusations of other types. Avery also takes the opportunity to visit her grandmother Judy, who has been placed in a secure care home as dementia gradually takes away her knowledge of the world around her. After a chance encounter with another nursing home resident, Avery begins to dig into both that woman's past and her own grandmother's to find out what connects the two.
This is a story that brings another sad historical experience to light, in a way that lets the reader experience the heartache and loss that these victims dealt with.
Highly recommended.

The Life She Was Given

Finished May 2
The Life She Was Given by Ellen Marie Wiseman

This historical fiction work has two timelines. The earlier one starts in the summer of 1931 at a horse farm in the state New York. Lilly Blackwood is nine years old, and is aching, as she often does, to leave her small attic room for the world beyond. Lilly has lived in this room all her life, being told that it is for her own protection, as others would attack and hurt or kill her if they saw her. She isn't allows to eat with her parents, and must abide by her mother's strict rules.
Her father has broken some of them. He has taught her to read, and he has supplied her with books besides the Bible that her mother has her study daily. Occasionaly he lets Lilly out to the attic room beside her own, to allow her to stretch her legs and walk more. But he has never let her go elsewhere in the house, and she only sees the horses the farm raises through her small barred window.
Her father has also given her a cat, one she has had since she was three. The cat is the only creature who gives her love and who touches her affectionately.
Now, Lilly has noticed a circus in the field beyond the barn, and wonders what lovely things they have. When her mother comes to her room one night after she has gone to bed, and insists that she dress nicely for a private trip to the circus, Lilly can't believe it. Lilly's father is away, but she is told that he is waiting at the circus.
But Lilly's world is about to change drastically, and as she gradually realizes that night, her mother has no intention of bringing her home again.
The second storyline begins in 1956, with a young woman named Julia. Julia Blackwood has left home after her father's death and an argument with her mother, but now finds that her mother has died as well, leaving her to inherit the property. As Julia moves back home, and begins to explore the house she grew up in, looking at rooms she wasn't allowed into, she also finds a lot of questions. What is the strange room in the attic about? Who is the strange girl in the clippings that her father has kept in his office?
As the storylines begin to converge, we discover a tale of terrible cruelty, of abuse and neglect, of secrets and lies. This is a story of terrible betrayal and of abuse in many forms. and of a woman learning to move beyond her past.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

The Midnight Line

Finished April 30
The Midnight Line by Lee Child, read by Dick Hill

The latest Jack Reacher novel has Reacher travelling on the first bus out, north to Wisconsin. At a rest stop, when Reacher takes a walk, he sees a West Point class ring in a pawn shop window. For reasons he can't entirely explain, he is drawn to track down the person who owned the ring. But not everyone wants to talk, so it often needs some persuasion to find the next link in the chain leading back to her, because the ring is so small, he knows that it is a her.
After a couple of people in the small town the pawn shop is in, the trail leads back to Rapid City, South Dakota, where Reacher finds that he isn't the only one interested in the local link in the chain. There are both local law enforcement, and a private investigator showing interest as well.
As Reacher moves on, to the wild and lonely hills of Wyoming, he finds both unexpected allies, and a much bigger problem than he anticipated.
As always, I enjoy Reacher for both his actions, the lively plot, and his inner thought processes. This is the first book where I've seen him make a serious mistake, and have inner questioning of his actions, and I found that very interesting.
I also like how Child takes on bigger societal issues, and the issues here are real. To me, this book had a similar feel to the twelfth book in the series, Nothing to Lose. As always, there is a woman who figures largely, and this one is a fascinating character. Loved it.