Monday, July 28, 2014

Landing Gear by Kate Pullinger

This is a really well written book based on an interesting historical event.  The book starts in 2010 during a period when European air travel is grounded due to ash being spewed from an Icelandic volcano.  Harriet lives in a London suburb near Heathrow - she is a radio newsreader who uses the opportunity to go back to her reporting routes and interview people stranded at Heathrow and those in nearby neighbourhoods who find the quiet eerie, being used to living under a heavily travelled flight path.  Harriet's husband, Michael, is in New York and unable to return home.  He is also unable to find a decent hotel room in New York so decides to take the train to Toronto to visit his first love.  Their son, Jack, left to his own devices finds himself getting in trouble with his friends by attending a wild party where the host dies under mysterious circumstances.

At the same time we also meet Yacub, a Pakistani migrant worker in Dubai who misses a transport home and is stuck without work or money in a labour camp, and Emily, a TV researcher in England who buries her father on the quiet day when no planes are flying overhead.  Her adoptive father's death prompts her to restart looking for her birth mother - something she had avoided out of respect for him.

The rest of the action takes place in 2012 when Yacub, trying to escape Pakistan yet again stows away in the landing gear of a London bound plane and falls on to Harriet's car in the parking lot of a supermarket.  Miraculously he survives and Harriet takes him in, at first hiding him from her family.  Emily witnesses the falling man and in fact records it from her apartment window.

Over time the connections between all five characters are revealed - and not in the way I initially expected which was an interesting twist.  I really liked all of the characters who are flawed but very human.  I also enjoyed the brief sections which took place in Toronto since the characters frequented familiar places like the Boulevard Cafe and Pho Hung.  I really recommend this book.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Girl You Left Behind by JoJo Moyes

Though some of the plot lines were rather far fetched, I still enjoyed this book.  It centres around a painting, "The Girl you Left Behind".  The painting was a portrait by the artist, Edouard Lefevre, of his wife Sophie.  It was painted just prior to World War I in Paris.  When war breaks out, Edouard is drafted and Sophie returns to her home town to help her sister, whose husband has also gone to war, run their deceased parents inn and tavern.  She also looks after her teenaged brother and her sister's small children.

The town has been occupied by the Germans who eventually commandeer the hotel, and Sophie, to prepare their nightly meals.  The new Kommandant takes a particular interest in the painting and its subject.  Desperate, she comes to trust him and offers up the painting, and herself, for a chance to see her husband one last time.  Branded a traitor by the townspeople she is ferried away in a German truck and we do not find out what happened to her until the end of the book.  Though she remains hopeful the Kommandant has arranged for her to see her husband, it seems more likely he is punishing her and sending her to a prison camp.

Almost a hundred years later Sophie's painting hangs in Liv Halston's home.  She is the widow of a young and promising architect who had purchased it for her for a pittance in Barcelona shortly before he died.  By chance she encounters Paul, a former police officer who now locates artwork stolen in wartime (primarily World War II) on behalf of the descendants of the original owners.  And of course, coincidentally, he has been hired by Lefevre's descendants to locate and recover "The Girl you Left Behind" now that they are aware it is very valuable.

Liv risks everything to hold on to the painting - both because of the emotional attachment to her husband and because the more she finds out about Sophie the more she relates to her.  Much of the book centres around Liv's efforts to prove she is the lawful owner of the painting and Paul's company's efforts (at first with his help and then without it) to show it belongs to the Lefevres.  As they unearth the history of the painting there are flashbacks to what happened to Sophie after she was loaded into that transport truck.  And people who knew her, or knew of her, tell their sides of the story.

The story comes to a very neat, though somewhat far fetched ending, but I still couldn't wait to find out more about Sophie's fate as the story unwound.  I really liked both Sophie and Liv, and can't help but think they would have liked each other, and was very drawn into their stories.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Summer at the lake by Erica James

This is one of the most entertaining books I've read in a long time - by no means classic literature, but a good intriguing read.  I think it was so enjoyable because the characters were flawed but really likeable.

The book starts when Floriana, a woman in her early thirties, gets a save the date card for her best friend Sebastian's wedding.  The problem is Floriana has not seen Seb in two years - ever since she accused his fiancee of cheating on him and then declared that she loved him as more than a friend.  He pulled away from her kiss and asked never to contact him again.  Then he makes the first move - sending this hand written note.

Floriana is so distracted by it that she steps out on the street without looking and is hit by a car that then leaves the scene.  The only witnesses to the scene are Adam, a property developer in his late 30s who has just purchased a house in the neighbourhood, and Esme, an eighty-two year old spinster who lives next door to the house Adam has just purchased.  At Esme's insistence, the two follow Floriana to the hospital to ensure she is okay which becomes just the start of a strong, though unlikely, friendship.

At first Adam, who is very serious and somewhat depressed due to a recent break up, does not know what to make of either Floriana, a free spirited, easy going tour guide in Oxford, or Esme, who he at first mistakenly believes to be just a bored busy body.  Over time he grows to respect both of them and they help him move on.  More importantly, when Sebastian insists Floriana attend his wedding at Lake Como Adam is invited as her plus one.  But the invitation is first proffered by Esme who anxious curious to return to Como where she went with her father as a teenager and fell in love for the first and only time with Marco, who as far as she knows followed his dream of becoming a priest.

Most of the interesting drama takes place in Como as Floriana must deal with her relationship with Sebastian, a verbal attack by his fiancee and her growing feelings for Adam, and all three search for Marco in the hopes that Esme will be able to see him one more time.  I don't want to give away the end as it is not necessarily predictable and it is worth the read to find out.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope

This is supposed to be a modern take on Jane Austen's classic novel.  Unfortunately it's been at least 25 years since I read the original so I cannot remember it well enough to compare.  However, I found that Trollope certainly captured the old fashioned formal language well.  And though the characters used modern amenities - iPods, sports cars, YouTube, etc. they still felt rather old fashioned to me.

The story centres on Elinor Dashwood - a serious, reliable architecture student who, when her father dies suddenly, is the self appointed caregiver for her flighty mother, Belle, her even flightier sister, Marianne, and her rebellious teenaged sister, Margaret.

When the father dies, the women are cast out of their home by the "evil" wife of their father's son from a prior marriage.  This is despite the fact that the women have lived in this ancestral home for their whole lives.  They are taken in by other sympathetic relatives because it appears only Elinor is capable of finding practical employ.

Both Marianne and Elinor appear to fall in love with the wrong man and we see how differently they cope with it.  There are a cast of entertaining characters in their new home - in particular the always affable, businessman John and his overbearing but kindhearted mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings.  Less likeable but equally entertaining are Lucy and Nancy, two gold digging god-daughters of Mrs. Jennings' late husband.  Lucy, in particular, gets in the way when she plans to marry Elinor's love interest, Edward.  Marianne instead falls for the handsome, but troublemaking John Willoughby though she is sought after by the reliable and caring Bill Brandon.

In the end all of the various threads are neatly woven together.  This is an entertaining, though not fantastic, read.  And much simpler than slogging through the original.

Monday, July 14, 2014

What I read on my vacation

All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner
I always eagerly await Weiner's new releases but I have to say this time I was disappointed.  It seemed like she was trying too hard to be accepted as a "serious writer" and thus strayed from her lighter, and in my view more entertaining, stories.

In this book, Allison Weiss is a woman in her mid-thirties who finds herself addicted to pain killers.  She started them after dental surgery and an injury, but due to pressures with her job, her marriage and her daughter keeps renewing them through different doctors and eventually ordering them illegally over the internet.  She finds they allow her to face financial pressures (she is suddenly the primary breadwinner when she was supposed to be a stay at home mom but her husband's journalism job is not that lucrative and a book deal he thought he had fell through while her blogging about the life of a mother has taken off), her father's Alzheimer's diagnosis and taking care of her mother who has always been dependent on him, and a hyper sensitive pre-schooler.

For a long time she is able to hide her problem from those around her but eventually mixing painkillers with wine catches up with her and she is "caught" by her daughter's kindergarten teacher.  When she is confronted by her husband he checks her into a rehab centre and we watch how she struggles with that - trying to differentiate herself from the other women in the program.

Eventually she gets clean, though there are consequences...

While there were some witty passages, I felt Weiner's trademark humour and fun reading was not as prominent as I like in her books.  I read her books to escape and this one was just a bit too serious for my taste, but not deep enough to qualify as great literature.  Weiner does write well and I guess if I hadn't chosen this expecting something lighter, I would have enjoyed the book more.

Nantucket Sisters by Nancy Thayer
Thayer did not disappoint me in delivering a great beach read that I could escape into while on vacation.

Maggie Drew and Emma Hudson meet in Nantucket the summer they are 5 years old and become inseparable summer friends though Emma's parents would prefer she hang out with "her own kind" rather that the daughter of the local seamstress.  Despite parental interference the friendship holds through their teenage years and early twenties, even when Emma falls in love with Maggie's older brother, Ben.

However, their friendship is tested when both become enchanted by the smooth Wall Street trader, Cameron Chadwick.  Even though there are ups and downs, in the end each of the girls gets the guy she was meant to be with, and their young daughters start a friendship that looks like it will last as many years.

After this book all I read on vacation were very inexpensive romance e-books which all followed the same pattern - girl meets boy, fights falling for boy, falls for him anyway and after several miscommunications and misunderstandings they get together in the end and everyone lives happily ever after.  None were worth mentioning by name but they served the purpose of keeping me entertained without having to concentrate too much while I was on vacation.