Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Five Novels I read on winter break

Two-Gun and Sun by June Hutton

This is another author I met at the Vancouver Jewish Book Festival and decided to read her book.  It was very well researched - there was a tremendous amount of detail about life in a small mining town in 1922 and the descriptions were very vivid.  However, I found that the flow made this book take longer to read than it should have - for some reason it just didn't really grab me.

The premise of the story is interesting - Lila, a young, single woman arrives in a frontier mining town to try to resurrect her dead uncle's newspaper.  In order to do so she must hire the only man capable of helping her revive the press - a Chinese printer from the forbidden settlement of Lousetown.  Although, or perhaps because, he is "forbidden" she is immediately captivated by him and spends so much time with him that rumours spread rapidly through the town.

The other man she spends time with is the titular character, Two-Gun Cohen, who was an actual gangster in that era.  He is crass, loud, lying, and cheating.  But he agrees to invest in Lila's newspaper and introduce her to Sun Yat-sen who is scheduled to come to town to drum up support for changes in China amongst the community's Chinese members.  Of course, because he is lying and cheating the introduction is never made and the money he invests is stolen.  Nonetheless, Lila makes a go of the first edition of the newspaper and then must decide whether to carry on or move on to the next adventure.

I did like Lila's character - she was bold, and open minded when faced with a town full of bigoted men.  She was not afraid to speak, or write, her mind - sometimes at her peril.  But despite this, as I said, at times the narrative dragged which made this not as an enjoyable read as it could have been.

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

June Hutton was in good company this vacation as I found Geraldine Brooks' latest novel was a bit draggy too.  I certainly didn't enjoy it as much as her earlier works.

This book is also a fictionalized account of historical figures (taking it on faith for now that the biblical figures she writes about did in fact exist).  In particular, she examines the life of King David - with all its warts.  It is written from the perspective of his prophet, Natan (frankly I can't remember if he's actually in the bible or a figment of Brooks' imagination).  It flips back and forth from the present when Natan is asked to write a definitive account of David's life to the past episodes in the King's life, beginning with the less than auspicious circumstances surrounding his birth.  When Natan was not present for the events he describes, he relies on fictionalized interviews with David's mother, brother and first wife.

Again this is an incredibly well researched book - which must have involved a great deal of bible study to portray the period so vividly.  And Brooks does not try at all to white wash David's behaviour - while she shows his strength in battle and his love for his family, he also shows his insatiable sexual appetite, his inappropriate relationships (with Yonatan and Batsheva) and his tremendous ego.

But, in the end, the life of David just didn't really interest me that much and I had trouble getting through the book (though I did persist).  Given how much I enjoyed past works, this one was a disappointment.

The Winter Stroll by Elin Hilderbrand

This is a sequel to Hilderbrand's Winter Street, which was released last winter.  It continues to delve into the lives of a Nantucket family - Kelley and his ex-wives Mitzi (who left him last Christmas for the man who had played Santa at their hotel for decades), Margaret (the mother of his three oldest children), and the kids (Patrick who is in jail now for insider trading, his wife Jennifer who dulls the pain with oxy and Ativan, Kevin and Isabelle who have just had a baby for whose christening the family is gathered, Ava who is having trouble choosing between two men and Bart who last Christmas was kidnapped in Afghanistan and is still missing).

This is classic Hilderbrand easy reading and was a perfect antidote to the first two books which were hard to get through.  Though it lacked the depth and the research, and is probably less well written, I could read it in a day and it was a good escape without too much effort.

The Golden Son by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

This is the second novel by the writer of The Lost Daughter.  It is a great study in family dynamic and the impact of breaking away from tradition.

Anil is the eldest son of a respected farming family in a small town in India.  His father and grandfather, significant landowners, served as the arbiter of community disputes and it is expected that Anil will follow in their footsteps - and marry a woman of his parents' choosing.  But Anil's father also plants the seed that he should become a doctor and that is the path Anil chooses.  It eventually takes him to a residency in a large hospital in Dallas where he must contend with the culture shock of both American competitiveness and Southern racism.

Anil experiments with dating a white, Southern woman which starts to unravel when her family meets him.  He also longs for a girl from home who is unacceptable both because she is lower class and because she has run away from a failed marriage.

The narrative wanders back and forth from Dallas to India (where we follow the disastrous marriage of Anil's first love) and we eventually see how Anil is able to pursue his dreams while satisfying those of his family.

The Hole in the Middle by Kate Hilton

Somebody recommended this to me because it is also the first novel written by a former lawyer.  It was classic "chick lit" but quite enjoyable and well written.

It delves into the life of Sophie - she is an almost 40 working mother of two boys who is barely holding everything together.  She is busy at work, and working for an idiot of a boss, she is also struggling to keep on top of her sons - one who is biting everyone at daycare and never manages to get there on time and the other who is in a school demanding her to volunteer and she just doesn't have the time.  She is also concerned about her husband's relationship with his female business partner.

The book also goes back in time to Sophie's life in college where she meets and falls in love with Will.  Will is back in town and she is struggling with how to deal with that since he broke her heart.  At the time she also met the elderly Lilian (Will's great aunt and their landlady).  She is a fantastic character who remains in Sophie's life - offering her both wisdom and humour.

Some of the descriptive passages at work made me cringe as they were so believable - how often did I sit in meetings chaired by morons who think they know everything and want to railroad everyone into implementing their stupid ideas!  Sophie's angst about her failing juggling act was also very relatable.  While Lilian tried to explain "the hole in the middle" of the title, I'm not really sure I did get that analogy.

There is also a twist at the end which caught me by surprise and I am rarely surprised so that was a bonus.

All in all an enjoyable, easy read and I hope Hilton decides to write another.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay

I can best describe this book as weird.  It's well written, and the characters are interesting, but not much happens even though it takes place over the span of about 5 years.  I shouldn't say not much happens - I guess friends are made, people (and dogs) die and there is a fair bit of travel between New York and Ontario cottage country.  But it all sort of plods along so I didn't feel like much was happening - and then all the sudden a couple of years would pass.

The story centres on Jim, who is about 11 at the start of the book.  He is traveling by car to the family's summer cottage in Ontario with his Canadian mother and American father.  During the car ride Jim wants to know the worst thing his parents ever did - both concoct a scenario but you know you will eventually discover much worse things.  And you also know something is weighing on Jim - and though he never really talks about it eventually you can piece together what happened.

The writing style is also weird though it works.  Perspective can change mid-paragraph - from Jim to his mother, to Lulu, his mother's childhood friend who re-enters her wife, much to the chagrin of Jim's father who already lost his second wife to another woman.

Though not much happens, clearly the point of the book is the relationships - between Jim and his mother, Jim's half brother, Blake, and their mother (who keeps him in the dark about a very important piece of his history which may account for why their connection is somewhat tenuous), between Jim's two parents (this is his mother's second marriage and his father's third - and they both seem to have bad luck in marriages), between Jim, his mother and Lulu, between Lulu and her brother Guy...and the list goes on.

The book also examines the lasting impact parental mistakes can have on their children, especially the rift that is created when a parent prefers (or is perceived to prefer) one child over another.  This happens with Lulu and her brother, Jim and Blake, and Jim's father and his mysterious brother who Jim's mother is dying to meet but only gets to at the very end of the book.  While Jim's mother also says her father clearly preferred her while her mother favoured her brother, she does not seem to continue to suffer as a result - maybe suggesting this balance helped.

I was intrigued enough to keep reading the book, but I wouldn't say I loved it.  I certainly preferred Hay's earlier works.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Only by Blood by Renate Krakauer

This book was a wonderful surprise!  I only heard about it because I met the author at a reception at the Vancouver Jewish Book Festival.  She gave me a synopsis and it sounded like my kind of book so I picked it up right away.  And I was not disappointed.  Krakauer writes clearly and compellingly and, though this is her first novel, her dialogue and descriptive passages are very well crafted.  Though in some way the style is similar, shifting perspectives and time periods in alternating chapters, there is no comparison to the last first novel I reviewed, Matrons and Madams.  Here I never lost track of who the characters were or what had happened in their lives.

The novel spans over sixty years.  It begins in Warsaw in 2005 with Mania who is caring for her aging mother Krystyna.  Mania was an only child who believed her father was killed in the war.  Her mother protected her from poverty in violence during the war and in the post-war communist era.  It then moves back in time to Roza, a woman who escapes a ghetto in Galicia with her infant daughter and leaves her for protection with another Polish woman, Irena.  The story moves back and forth between these two perspectives and when on her deathbed Krystyna asks Mania to "find them and make it right" we know that her search will somehow result in weaving the two stories together.  While I did guess fairly early on how that would happen, the book did not feel unduly predictable.

I was still enthralled by Mania's search for her mother's estranged sisters who she believes hold the key to "finding them".  I was also always interested in Roza and her husband and infant's struggle to survive during the war, immigration to Canada and desperate efforts to raise their daughter as a true Canadian, and while doing so completely shielding her from her traumatic past.  Many of the characters were very sympathetic as well.  Of course I could sympathize with Mania and Rosa, but I also loved their husbands, Witold and Marek, Krystyna's elderly uncle Feliks and Irena.  I felt less sympathy for Roza's daughter, Helen, who seemed somewhat ungrateful for her parents' sacrifices, but I suppose it was understandable given they never shared their stories with her.

While this was yet another Holocaust story, it was interesting to read about a lesser known ghetto and part of Poland (Galicia which was later given to Ukraine by the Soviets).  I obviously knew the suffering was widespread, but this was just a slightly different angle.  It also dealt with the suffering imposed on the Poles in this part of the world - I felt it was even handed in showing that suffering while also showing their complicity in the Nazi campaign against the Jews.

All in all, I really recommend this book - the author is to be commended for an impressive first novel.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Matrons and Madams by Sharon Johnston

Even before I read it, I sort of figured that Johnston found a publisher for her first novel because she's the Governor General's wife.  And after reading it, I'm certain that's the case.  Don't get me wrong, she has an interesting story to tell, but I didn't think the writing was fantastic (though not terrible either).

Apparently the story is loosely based on that of Johnston's grandmother (I think the Matron in the title, rather than the Madam).  The story spans about 20 years from just before World War I until the mid-thirties.  It focuses on two main characters.  Clara Durling, a nurse, is widowed when her husband dies in the war.  Shortly after that her son dies of influenza.  Needing a fresh start she and her daughter Ivy immigrate to Canada where, on the recommendation of a Canadian doctor she worked with during the war, Clara becomes the new superintendent of the Lethbridge Hospital.

Lily is a teacher born in Nova Scotia to an unwed mother who was shipped to Canada by her embarrassed relations.  Just before Lily's birth, her mother falls in love with and marries a pharmacist who Lily adores and who treats her as his own daughter.  After teacher's college Lily weds a miner and they immigrate to Lethbridge for his job.  Lily is unable to find a steady teaching job and when she falls upon hard times she decides to run a brothel to support herself and her young son, Teddy.

The book jacket talks about how the two women collaborate to establish the first venereal disease clinic in Alberta, and they do, but really this is a small part of the book.  Far more time is spent on the women and their love relationships as well as their relationship to each other.  I liked some of the male characters, especially the doctor, Barnaby, who was wounded in the war so must abandon surgery for psychiatry.  I found Lily's husband Ed a bit hard to take - he was an immature, hothead.  Johnston explains why in his back story but I still had a hard time sympathizing with him.

I probably had the most trouble with Clara.  Her character was not consistently developed in my view.  She could be compassionate at times (like when she befriends an unwed mother on the ship from England to Canada), but also rude and downright dictatorial in dealing not only with her employees, but also her daughter.  I get that she had a hard life but the sorrow did not seem to explain the inconsistent behaviour.  I also found her relationship with the mayor downright strange.

My other criticism of the writing is that there were too many coincidences.  I know Canada may have been small at the time, but I still found it far-fetched how often the paths of various characters crossed.  Along the same lines there were too many minor characters mentioned by name and then not developed sufficiently to be memorable so I often had to flip back to remind myself who was who.  Finally, I think Johnston tried to fit too many incidents into the book so that lots happened but not a lot of the events were described in depth.  I might have preferred fewer, well developed occurrences.

Despite the above criticisms, the book was an easy read and was fairly entertaining.  It also examined an era in Canadian history that I didn't know a lot about so that was interesting.  So I wouldn't say you should avoid this book.  But I would say Johnston is probably lucky to have connections which helped her get published.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Henna House by Nomi Eve

It's been a while since I read a book that I didn't want to put down - and this was finally one.  Henna House is a historical fiction about the Jewish community in Yemen.  It takes place primarily in the 1920s and 1930s though it ends with the mass immigration of the community to Israel shortly following its founding (Operation Magic Carpet) and there is an epilogue of sorts that tells you what happened to the major characters in later years.

The narrative is from the perspective of Adela Damari.  As a young girl her father is ill and her parents seek to find a fiancĂ© for her because, if she is orphaned before she is married, the law permits the government to take her from her mother and place her with a Muslim family.  Adela hopes to be engaged to her neighbour, Binyamin, but he is already promised to another girl.  She is almost engaged to several others, but bad fates befall them, making it hard to find her a mate.  She is saved when her uncle and cousin arrive and she is promised to her cousin, Asaf.

Adela is a free spirit who does not get along with her mother and her many brothers.  Though she is greatly loved by her father, her aunt and some of her sisters-in-law.  She and Asaf play at being husband and wife until, at about age 10, he and his father again leave town.  Her mother gets the marriage promise annulled for abandonment, but that means Adela must find another potential groom.  So she is promised as a second wife to a man old enough to be her grandfather.

When she is at her lowest, another cousin, Hani, enters her life.  Hani is like the sister she never had - they share secrets and adventures.  Hani and her mother also introduce Adela into the mysterious world of henna.  For years Adela is happy in the embrace of her new family and manages to evade an early marriage to an old man.  But, as predicted, her parents die when she is about 14 and her aunt and uncle must whisk her away to Aden, which at the time is under British rule, to again avoid the Orphan's Law.  I don't want to give away too much - though in some ways it is predictable - but in Aden Adela meets up with many from her past including Binyamin and Asaf.  And she is betrayed by those closest to her.

In the end the surviving members of Adela's family make the trek to Israel as part of the mass immigration from Yemen.  And her independent spirit helps her to forge a new life there.

The book is interesting not just for the story itself, but for the insight it gives into the lives of Yemeni Jews at the time.  The author clearly researched the life and the art of henna thoroughly and manages to be educational and very entertaining.  I strongly recommend this book and intend to seek out the author's previous work.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer

Despite the odd sounding name and subject matter, this book was actually quite funny.  It's written from the perspective of Sasha, the son of a famous mathematician, Rachaela, who passes away.  It is rumoured that she solved a major math problem on her death bed and dozens of mathematicians gather at the shiva to try to find her solution (or recreate it).  The interactions between Sasha, his father, uncle, cousin, adoptive sister and the eccentric mathematicians are very humorous.

Interspersed with the description of the shiva, are excerpts from Rachaela's memoirs which tell of her difficult childhood in Siberia then her defection to the USA.  We also hear how Sasha and his father were able to escape the Soviet Union several years later and how Rachaela was reunited with her brother who had been separated from the family as an infant and survived World War II by climbing out of a pit where many Jews had been shot.

The novel is written by Sasha years following the death and we also get to see how he really blossomed emotionally following the death of his overbearing mother.  Though they were close, she really defined his life and he was able to move on once she was out of the picture.

Not the most fantastic book ever, but an entertaining read.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

Although I had been putting it off, I decided to finally read last year's Giller Prize winner because I was invited to see the author speak last weekend.  First, let me tell you, if you have an opportunity to see Michaels speak, you should jump on it.  He was an extremely entertaining story teller - more interesting in person than his book.

I had been avoiding reading the book at first when I found out it was about the inventor of the theremin because I didn't even know what a theremin was (for some reason I assumed it was some sort of obscure element - I have no idea why since elements aren't really invented).  In fact, the theremin is a very early form of electronic instrument which is played by moving your hands through electrical fields that surround it.  There was a demonstration of the theremin at the talk - it sounded rather squeaky and awful (more like a special effects machine than a musical instrument).  However I understand in the hands of certain masters it can sound quite wonderful.

The book itself is about the inventor, Lev Termen, and his unrequited love of one of these master players, Clara.  It is a fictional account interspersed with factual aspects.  The narrator, Termen is a Russian scientist who experiments with gadgets, especially vacuum tubes, from a very young age.  He happens upon the theremin which brings him notoriety in his own country (even meeting Lenin at one point).  The Russian government decides to send him around Europe and eventually to the US to show off and sell his theremin but also to spy for the Soviets.

The book is written as a letter from Termen to Clara when he is on the boat returning to the Soviet Union and in the years following that.  But it looks back on his early years in Russia, his time in the US and forward to his return to the Soviet Union.  In the US Termen is first given a hero's welcome - he lives at the Plaza Hotel and performs for all of the financial elite.  He invents further gadgets (like a security system for Alcatraz) and uses the relationships he builds to obtain information for the Soviet government.  He also meets Clara - a violinist many years younger than him who becomes one of the best theremin players of all time.  As we only hear Termen's point of view it is hard to tell whether his strong feelings for her are ever reciprocated but it seemed not to me.

With the arrival of the Depression Termen falls on hard financial times - he owes all sorts of money and is unable to sell his inventions.  Alcatraz even asks for a return of its advance as they are not happy with his system.  He also runs into visa issues and his handlers recommend marriage.  When Clara will not marry him, he marries another woman but ends up leaving her in the middle of the night just as he abandoned his first wife (it is a little unclear whether he actually divorced anyone before he married others).  When he hits rock bottom, he is "kidnapped" and returns to the Soviet Union.  Again because we only have the narrator's perspective it is unclear how unhappy he is about this (he doesn't seem that troubled about leaving his second wife though he clearly pines after Clara).

In the Soviet Union, things only get worse.  He becomes entrapped in Stalin's gulag spending time in Siberia then years in a prison for scientists where he is forced to invent gadgets that further the Soviet agenda.

I liked this book but I didn't love it.  I have read several first person narrated books lately and I'm growing a bit tired of the rather narrow perspective this affords.  Especially after hearing Michaels speak about it, I understand why he chose to tell this story from the perspective of one rather unreliable narrator (Termen was both naive at times and a liar).  However, I might have preferred to get a broader view of what was happening in Termen's life.  That being said, I still think the book is worth reading.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

One book I recommend and one I really do not

We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

I really found this book strange and though I struggled through it because I was sucked in (sort of like watching a traffic accident), in the end I was sorry I bothered.  First of all, though a description of the book I saw today tells you the narrator Rosemary's "sister" was a chimpanzee I did not know that until about 1/3 of the way into the book.  On the jacket the book is described as Rosemary's "coming of age" story and the impact on it of the disappearance of her sister and brother.

The book is written in the first person from Rosemary's perspective as an adult - and while I did not figure out the secret of her sister, I was confused about her from the start (for example, I could not tell if she was older or younger than Rosemary).  When it is finally revealed I think I was supposed to have figured it out - but the author was not good enough to make it clear through hints.  When I finally was hit over the head with the sister's nature I understood just how strange everyone in Rosemary's family really was - her father the psychologist who instituted the experiment and as an adult was basically a drunk, her mother who fell into severe depression after her "daughter" was given over to a lab and her brother who left home as a teenager and lived on the run from the FBI for conducting terrorist acts against animal researchers.  We also see how the experiment completely screwed up Rosemary's ability to make friends with humans as she had learned to many animal behaviours.

I also did not really understand what role the new crazy friend Rosemary makes as an adult played though she was constantly resurfacing in the present day narrative.  And by the end the book was really just a shameless rant about animal welfare.  Which is fine if that's what you set out to read, but not really entertaining as a novel.

Overall I really do not recommend this book.  There are far better coming of age tales out there and if you want to read about animal welfare, just do that.

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

After reading the above book, it was such a relief to move on to this very entertaining story.  This is a historical fiction loosely based on the life of the French Impressionist painter, Camille Pissarro, and his parents.  It is particularly focused on his fascinating mother, Rachel.

The story starts in 1807 on the then Dutch island of St. Thomas (now a U.S. Virgin Island).  Rachel is born to relatively wealthy merchants on the island.  Her father escaped Santo Domingo when there was unrest there, much like his namesake Moses, in a wicker basket carried by a servant.  Moses and his wife lost a son and Rachel felt she never received the love she should have from her very proper mother.  On the other hand her father doted on her, teaching her skills reserved only for boys at the time.  This helped her but also made her too headstrong for her own good at times.  Rachel is devoted to their made Adele and her daughter Jestine though her mother does not think she should be friends with black natives of the island.  We later learn there is far more behind her mother's feelings toward Adele and Jestine.

When he falls upon hard times, to save his business, Moses arranges for Rachel to wed an older widower, Isaac, and she becomes the mother of his three children.  She also enters into a life long friendship with their servant, Rosalie.  Rachel gives birth to 6 more children then Isaac dies as a young man.  His much younger nephew comes to the island from Paris to take over the business.  Frederic becomes the love of Rachel's life though because he is much younger and considered a relative they are shunned for years by the Island's small Jewish community.

Rachel and Frederic have several more children, including Camille.  Once Camille is older several of the chapters are written from his perspective rather than Rachel's as he struggles with his desire to become a painter when his parents want him to adopt a more conservative, commercial lifestyle.  Then the narrative takes us to Paris where Camille and his parents end up at times.

This is a fascinating look at the struggles between parent and child, between individual and community, rich and poor, master and servant, black and white.  It also examines internal struggles, particularly of Rachel and Camille.  While I liked Hoffman's The Dovekeepers, this was shorter and more manageable.  I really recommend this one.

Monday, October 19, 2015

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh

First of all, I love the title.  Taken from the song "You are my Sunshine", this book clearly looks at how "taking someone's sunshine away" can transform not only that person but everyone around.

The story takes place in Baton Rouge in the late 1980s and early 1990's when the narrator, who is telling his story many years later, is a young teenager.  As young boys will, he worships Lindy, the girl who lives across the street to the point of stalking her.  All of this seems like an innocent crush until the day in 1989 when is raped and her parents and the police come knocking on the door and identify the narrator as one of the suspects.  Given he does not even really know what the word rape means at the time everyone loses interest in him as a suspect until his mother finds a box of the memorabilia about Lindy that he has stashed under his bed.  Though she doesn't share the information with anyone other than his father, the fact that his mother could suspect him weighs on him.

The narrator makes another bad mistake - he tells everyone at school what happened to Lindy over the summer and she stops talking to him for a year.  He spends the year changing his identity based on what he thinks she will like and thus losing many of his friends and prior interests.

The story also explores the other suspects in the crime - a 20 year old neighbour who has been up to no good since finishing high school, the adopted son of some truly creepy neighbours who doesn't seem to have any friends, and the most disturbing of all, this boy's adoptive father who is apparently a psychiatrist, but spends most of his time stalking a stray dog, taking pornographic pictures of his neighbours and abusing his wife, son and a string of foster children that come in and out of his house.

While the main storyline is this rape and the impact it has on the whole neighbourhood, the book also deals with the narrator's reaction to his parents' divorce, another tragedy that hits his family and his experimentation with girls, alcohol and drugs.  There are also some interesting asides about life in Baton Rouge (especially how the heat affects it), and the impact of Hurricane Katrina, which directly hit only New Orleans, on that community.

By the end the mystery of the rape is solved by him (though apparently not the police) and we see how his life has turned out.  We also see that Lindy eventually manages to move on though is obviously forever changed.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

This book was very sad in parts, but I still enjoyed the very realistic story of the lives of an indentured servant and the slaves on a Virginia tobacco plantation at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Seven year old Lavinia is orphaned aboard the ship her family travels on to escape Ireland for the United States.  Torn away from her brother, she is taken on as a servant by the captain of the ship who gives her to his illegitimate slave daughter to train.  Completely traumatized at first, Lavinia does not speak and is unable to hold down food but is slowly nursed to health by the house slaves who she eventually adopts as her Mama, Papa and siblings.  While young and naive, her relationship with the slaves is easy and familial.  But as she ages she begins to see how she must sit separately from them in Church and witnesses their abuse at the hands of a cruel manager and the captain's son.

When the captain dies, his wife who is already addicted to opium, descends into madness and is taken to Williamsburg with her sister and brother-in-law.  Because she is attached to Lavinia, she accompanies them, befriends their daughter Meg and is taught lessons, both academic and how to act as a "white lady".  All the time she pines for her black family.  At age 20 she finally returns to the plantation - but in a different capacity, as the lady of the "big house".  Her husband forces her to keep her distance from her black family, but when she is shattered by secrets about her husband, they prove their loyalty to her.  And Lavinia must decide where her loyalties lie.

I do not want to give the ending away, because this is a really well written, enjoyable book and I recommend you read it on your own.  There are some fabulous characters - particularly Mama and Papa, Belle, Meg and Lavinia herself.  For the most part the white men are not as sympathetic though Will Stephens is the exception.

Monday, September 28, 2015

This is Happy by Camilla Gibb

For a while there I thought I'd lost interest in reading, but I think I just hadn't happened upon the right book - because I raced through this one in a couple of days.

The book is a memoir by Canadian author, Camilla Gibb.  I had read one of her novels years ago (Sweetness in the Belly) and now that I have seen her struggles up close I would like to read more.

Gibb was born to English parents who emigrated to Canada when she and her brother we small children.  Her father suffered from mental illness and alcoholism which led to the breakdown of the marriage and a generally unhappy childhood for Gibb.  She did describe two happy years when her mother had a younger partner, Ara, an Armenian actor.  This relationship breaks up for reasons that are never disclosed to Gibb (despite her attempts at finding out from both of them when she is an adult).  Though life was difficult for Gibb, it was worse for her brother who was sent to live with his father in dire conditions for a lengthy period - he eventually escapes to drugs which creates a life long addiction problem.

Gibb is also unlucky in love - left by several men at a young age or just meeting the wrong guy at the wrong time.  She studies anthropology at Oxford and the stress and isolation there lead to her own mental illness diagnosis.  As part of her field studies she spends time living with a traditional family in Ethiopia and there she does fine without any anti-depressants but struggles again when back at Oxford so finally returns to Canada.  As an aside, her descriptions of life in the women's section of a family home in a small village in Ethiopia were fascinating - and obviously provided significant content for Sweetness in the Belly).

She is helped in her writing career by a stranger she meets in a park who gives her $6000 with no strings attached so she can leave her more stable career and begin to write.  I thought this was an interesting piece fortune for a woman who so frequently met with misfortune.

The meat of Gibb's story is her almost 10 year marriage to Anna which ends when Gibb is pregnant with a daughter they decided to conceive together.  This also leads Gibb to the depths of despair though she abandons thoughts of suicide for the baby she carries.  We then see how, once the baby is born, she rebuilds her family.  She develops a better relationship with her mother (who she now understands better as a single mother herself) and step-father, an on again off again relationship with her brother and a family she makes on her own with a woman who begins as her nanny but who, together with her husband and eventual baby, become more like family and other friends she meets along the way.  It is with this group that she finally comes to the title realization that "this is happy".

Monday, August 24, 2015

Three Minutes in Poland by Glenn Kurtz

Someone lent me this book and I'm so glad they did because it was fascinating and I had not otherwise heard of it.

This is a true story - in 2009 while searching through old movies in his parents' den, Kurtz came across a home movie shot by his grandfather while touring Europe in the summer of 1938.  His grandparents were fairly well off immigrant Jews now living in Brooklyn and they sailed to Europe for a vacation with three friends.  They visited London, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Switzerland, but what really caught Kurtz's eye was three minutes of film from a visit to a town in their native Poland.  Since this was taken just a year before the Nazi invasion of Poland, he realizes this is probably one of the very few surviving records of a lost community.  So he sets out to try and locate where the film was taken and whether any of the many people who wander through the frames can be identified and have survived.  His grandparents have both passed away and his father cannot help so he has little to go on - though his aunt finds several postcards and letters sent to her at summer camp that year which help him build the itinerary.

He first seeks the help of the US Holocaust Museum to restore and then catalogue the film.  He hits many dead ends in identifying the film (in fact, he first believes it's his grandmother's home town then discover it was in fact his grandfather's).  His first big breakthrough is when a woman sees the film on the Holocaust Museum website and recognizes her grandfather, as a boy of 13, jumping in front of the camera.  Now 86 and living in Florida, Maurice Chandler and his family reach out to Kurtz and together they piece together fragments of the lost history.

Maurice recognizes some of the faces, puts Kurtz in touch with a handful of other survivors from the town, or their descendants and shares both memories of his happy childhood and the horrors of surviving the war (and being the sole survivor from his family).  Kurtz travels throughout the US, Canada, Israel, England and Poland to meet with other survivors and build as comprehensive list as possible of the people in the movie and their fates.

Parts of the book can be a bit dry - details on the film is restored; some of the lists he reads and creates.  And at times it can be hard to keep track of all the players (it might have been helpful if he'd appended his lists at the back of the book as a reference).   There are the many people in the movie (some of whom survived and anglicized their names so are referred to in more than one way) as well as their descendants, the Polish and American researchers who assist Kurtz and his many friends and family members.

But overall this is really fascinating and a tremendous tribute to a community that was virtually eliminated.  It's no wonder this three minutes of film now runs in a continuous loop at the Auschwitz museum documenting pre-World War II Jewish life in Poland.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Two Quick Reads

Who Do You Love by Jennifer Weiner

After last year's disappointing release, this was back to the Jennifer Weiner that I know and love.  Her books aren't deep or full or meaningful symbolism, but they are easy to read, funny and always contain great characters.

This book centres on Rachel and Andy.  They first meet when eight year old Rachel, who has a congenital heart disorder, is hospitalized yet again and while recovering wanders into the emergency room where she meets Andy, also eight, alone and suffering from a broken arm.  The two cannot be more different - Rachel is Jewish, upper middle class and doted upon by her parents who fear for her health.  She is also close to her Nana (Weiner almost always has a wonderfully strong grandmother figure).  Andy is the son of a single white mother whose father was black.  He is often neglected by his mother, he never knew his father, and his mother cut her off from her parents.  He does have a wonderful role model, Mr. Sills, a local handyman who takes him under his wing and keeps him out of trouble in his rough neighbourhood.  The two children bond as Rachel tells Andy a story and gives him one of her many stuffed animals.

About 8 years later the two meet again while working on a Habitat for Humanity style building project.  They both remember each other well (Andy admits having saved the stuffed animal) and, despite obstacles, they fall in love.  They maintain a long distance relationship until graduating high school when they meet again briefly (aided by Rachel's nana).  In college their differences cause them to part.

The rest of the book deals with their separate lives - Rachel becomes a social worker while Andy is an olympic runner.  And with their long lasting feelings for each other that just don't seem to survive in the real world.  And though they each have other relationships, you know that eventually they'll find their way back to each other.

A thoroughly enjoyable summer escape.

Inside the O'Briens by Lisa Genova

This is essentially the Huntington's Disease version of Still Alice.  Joe O'Brien is a Boston police officer in his early forties when he is diagnosed with Huntington's Disease.  The book deals with the impact of this terrible disease on him and on his four adult children who struggle with whether or not to get tested for the gene and the implications of that decision.

The book is primarily written from the points of view of Joe and his youngest daughter, Katie, who is a yoga instructor and involved in a very new relationship.  We see her struggle with whether she even wants to get tested.

This is an eye opening description of a terrible disease.  But it is not all dark.  Genova also illustrates the power of family bonds and how the family members can help each other through the tough times. There are even some humorous parts - like where Katie speculates that her Irish Catholic father may get over the fact that her boyfriend is a black Baptist but will struggle mightily with his affinity for the Yankees.

I found the book a little depressing though not quite as bad a Still Alice.  It's not a bad read though not so great that I would run out and get unless you're just looking for something easy to read.

Monday, August 17, 2015

My Secret Sister by Helen Edwards and Jenny Lee Smith

This is an interesting story of two English twins who were separated at birth and find each other about 50 years later.

One daughter, Jenny, is given up for adoption at about 6 weeks old; the other, Helen, is kept by her birth mother.  The early chapters alternate between the sisters as they tell the story of their childhood and growing up.  While Jenny is adopted by a loving family who dote on her, Helen's childhood with her neglectful, narcissistic mother and abusive father is horrific.  Not that Jenny doesn't suffer, her beloved adoptive father dies when she is young and she only finds out she is adopted when an angry cousin blurts it out.  Her mother refuses to talk about it even after she hears.

This is nothing, however, compared to Helen's life.  She is never touched unless she is being beaten, she is treated like a servant by her parents and though she has many friends and does well in school whenever she gets too comfortable she is uprooted by her parents.  She does have a loving grandmother and extended family but she is taken away from them too - and in the end learns they have been complicit in covering up the true story of her birth.

What is fascinating is the many coincidences in the girls' lives - they both suffer from fainting spells as teenagers, they both have many childhood illnesses and they both long for a sibling.  They probably cross paths at least twice too - once as children when Helen is playing on the beach near Jenny's summer cottage; another time as adults when Jenny has back surgery and Helen is the nurse to her surgeon.  They also share a remarkable strength of character.

Later in the book we learn how Jenny searched for her sister and eventually found her - Helen had absolutely no idea she had a sister.  We then see how they piece together their shared past from discussions with cousins who remember a little from childhood (by then the adults who knew the truth were all dead), DNA tests and countless searches through medical and adoption records.

While not necessarily a literary masterpiece this is certainly an entertaining weekend's read.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

I can't remember where I heard about this book, but I'm certainly glad I discovered it.  The book is a fascinating study of family relationships and particularly how the past of the parents shape their dreams for their children.  It also shows how we often really know very little about the people we think we know best.

The story starts with the disappearance of 16 year old Lydia.  She is the middle child of a Chinese-American father and a southern white woman - and she is clearly their favourite.  The father is a professor at a small college in Ohio and the family is one of very few non-white families in this small town in the 1970s.  When Lydia's body is found at the bottom of a lake, the family struggles to figure out what happened.

The narrative shifts perspective and time fairly frequently.  We see the years and days leading up to Lydia's disappearance through her eyes, those of her parents, her older brother, Nathan, and her younger sister, Hannah.  Though the children clearly saw the pressure the parents put on Lydia - her mother wanted her to be a doctor, thus fulfilling her childhood dreams which were abandoned when she fell in love and had children; while her father wanted her to be popular and to fit in, something he was never able to accomplish as the only non-white, working class child at an exclusive private school.

Lydia tried very hard to please her parents and eventually struggled under the weight of that burden though it was an encounter with her friend Jack, the neighbourhood bad boy, that leads her to try to conquer her fears and choose her own future which ends badly in the local lake.  Nathan suspects Jack is involved in Lydia's death and in the end we see that Jack is harbouring secrets, though very different ones than Nathan suspects.  Through most of the book I felt very sad for this family - everyone trying so hard but not quite getting it - but in the very last chapter I felt maybe the parents had learned from what happened and might be able to redeem both their relationship and that with their remaining children.

I really recommend this book if you like to look at family relationships, parental pressure, how the past influences present behaviour and even racism in the US in the 1950s through 1970s.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Safekeeping by Jessamyn Hope

I bought this book because I know relatives of the author and I thought I should support her first novel.  And I'm really glad I decided to do that because the book was very enjoyable - well written with an intriguing storyline.

The thread that ties the story is that of an expensive, hand made brooch apparently made by a Jewish jeweller in the the 1300s and passed down from generation to generation until we find it in 1994 in the hands of a young drunk from New York who is recovering from the death of his grandfather.  He arrives at a Kibbutz in Israel determined to give it to the one woman, Dagmar, who is grandfather felt was worthy of it - his only problem is finding Dagmar.

But the real story is about the people we meet on the Kibbutz.  First there is Adam - he feels very guilty as he had stolen the brooch to pawn it and pay off his drug debts right before his grandfather, who raised him, dies of a heart attack while holding the empty box the brooch was taken from as well as a goodbye letter from Dagmar written 50 years earlier.  We see his guilt as he struggles with addiction, the role he played in his grandfather's death and the terrible things he did to recover the brooch (we only learn the full extent of those in the epilogue).  On the Kibbutz he befriends Ulya, an immigrant from Belarus who only pretended to be Jewish to escape her homeland and dreams of moving to Manhattan.  She initially pretends to love Adam so he will take her to the US; later she is obsessed with stealing the brooch to finance her future with the Arab labourer she is really in love with.

Ulya is roommates with Claudette, an French Canadian with OCD who was raised in a convent and is trying desperately to escape her past and her obsessions.  She becomes the only friend of Ziva - a strong willed elderly woman who founded the Kibbutz prior to the founding of the State of Israel and is fighting desperately for it to retain its socialist ideals.  Ziva is perhaps the most interesting character; we hear of her brave departure from Germany, her early days in Palestine, her relationship with Dov, her best friend who becomes her husband and her love of Franz who she sets free so she can pursue her Zionist dreams.

In addition to learning about the lives of all of these interesting characters, we hear of the history of the brooch (though with gaps when if falls into the hands of young men who are too self absorbed at times to listen to its tale) and see the history of Israel through the eyes of its earliest pioneers.

All in all this was a great read.  My only disappointment was with the epilogue - I would have liked a bit more closure on what happened to the characters, but I guess it's not a bad thing to keep me thinking about them...

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Green Road by Anne Enright

I think this is the last of the Ireland based books that I decided to read in anticipation of my trip there (this one took a while to get from the library so I ended up reading it after the trip).  The good thing about reading it later is a lot of the geographical descriptions were now of familiar places so I could visualize them better.

I didn't love the book, but it got better as it went on.  It starts in Ireland when Rosalyn Madigan is a mother of four teenaged and young adult children.  We get a glimpse of her depressive behaviour when her eldest son, Dan, announces that he is to become a priest and she takes to her bed for days.  This part is reasonably interesting.

The book then fast forwards eleven years and we see that in fact Dan is not a priest but is living and working in New York - and spending tremendous energy denying his sexual orientation.  This chapter which deals with the New York AIDS scene in the early nineties, as well as the next one which follows Dan's brother Emmet as he partakes in African humanitarian work, are not nearly as interesting as the later chapters where the family returns to Ireland.  Enright's strength lies in her descriptions of Ireland as well as her capturing of the complicated family dynamic - which really works best when the family is all back together again one Christmas.

The relationship the siblings have with each other, and more importantly their mother, is at the heart of this book.  I'm glad I read the whole thing but I almost put it down while I was trying to force myself through the New York section which had so may characters that were hard to keep track of and not sufficiently developed to remember who was who.  But how the children turned out as adults - and the impact their mother's personality had on them is interesting - particularly when they fear something has happened to their mother and must pull together to save her.

I only recommend this book if you have time and patience and an interest in complicated family dynamics.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

What I read on my summer vacation

As regular followers know, I tend to read lighter fare during the summer.  So I will do brief reviews of what I have read over the last few weeks, but for the most part they are not sufficiently deep or complicated to warrant a detailed analysis.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I have deliberately avoided reading this book as I never find books hyped as heavily as this one was deserve that hype.  But I had nothing to read, and this was lying around the house, so I gave it a try.  I will say, I didn't hate it (unlike, for example, The Goldfinch).  At times I was kept on the edge of my seat trying to figure out what had happened, which was of course the author's intent.  I also found the characters interesting, if generally distasteful.  I can't really say much more without giving away the plot, and don't bother reading the book if you know the ending as the suspense was by far the best aspect.  But I will say after anxiously awaiting the ending I was disappointed in it - I think it was probably the right ending given the personalities of the main characters, but that didn't make it any more satisfying.  I suppose I wanted to see justice done as much as all the characters in the book seem to want, but like with them, my wish was not granted.

In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

Like many women my age, I eagerly anticipated Judy Blume's newest adult novel, having been an avid fan since picking up Are You There God, It's Me Margaret in fourth grade.  And the book did not disappoint - no, it wasn't high level literature fit for discussions in university English classes but it was an entertaining read.  The narrative primarily takes place over the course of a year in the 1950s in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  In that year (this part is factual) three planes crashed in Elizabeth while trying to land at Newark airport.  Many lives were lost both on the airplanes and on the ground.  Blume grew up in Elizabeth and lived through this time period so now returns to it to examine the impact it had on the people living there.  Her main character is teenaged Miri who lives with her mother, grandmother and uncle having been born to her mother out of wedlock.  So in addition to seeing how the plane crashes impact Miri we see her struggle with learning who her father is (and meeting him for the first time), her relationship with her best friend (who is so badly scarred by the plane crashes that she develops anorexia), her first love (with an Irish Catholic boy living in an orphanage who is not her grandmother's first choice) and how she reacts when new loves enter the lives of all the other adults living in her home.  At first I was confused by the multitude of characters, but then I got used to why Blume was introducing them (they tended to be somehow involved with the three planes if they were not major players in Miri's life) and I found it easier to follow.  She also did a masterful job at eventually weaving together the lives of seemingly unrelated players.  In sum, I recommend reading this book, particularly if you are fond of Blume's writing.  As an aside, I love the title - derived from the standard airline of safety video - "in the unlikely event of..."

The Rumor by Elin Hilderbrand

Like with Blume, I anxiously await Elin Hildebrand's new summer releases.  They are generally set in Nantucket and are perfect light summer reading fare.  I have to admit I was a bit disappointed with this one.  In fairness, Hilderbrand wrote it while being treated for breast cancer (and is also a young mother) which is incredibly impressive so I have to give her credit for that.  The premise of the book is how rumours spread in a small town and the damage they can bring to people's lives.  Although, in the end it was actual behaviour rather than rumoured ones that got most of these characters in trouble.  The action centres around Madeline King and her husband Trevor, their son, their friends, Grace and Eddie Pancik and their teenaged twin daughters, Eddie's sister, and a landscape architect working on Grace's property.  There are also assorted other friends or acquaintances who wander in and out of the narrative.  The chapters are written from the perspective of several different characters though it is not hard to follow as this is clearly laid out.  The rumours have Madeline having an affair with Eddie (though the reader knows from the start that this is not the case) but in fact it is Grace who gets into relationship troubles and Eddie who gets into financial and legal troubles.  At the same time the various teenagers get into relationship troubles of their own.  The stories were interesting enough but none of the characters really grabbed me - I didn't really find myself caring who ended up with whom and where.  If you have nothing else to read on a summer's day, this isn't terrible but it isn't great either.  Some of her earlier books would make a better choice.

The Guest Cottage and An Island Christmas by Nancy Thayer

Thayer is another Nantucket writer who writes Nantucket based beach reads.  The Guest Cottage was an entertaining romance with likeable characters.  Her books all follow the same basic formula - woman meets man, they try to resist each other for various reasons and then they realize they belong together (usually a welcomed pregnancy is also involved).  If you're expecting unpredictable her books aren't for you, but if you want sympathetic characters who get the happy ending they deserve, you won't be disappointed.  In this novel, by a series of misunderstandings two different families end up renting out the same beach house for the same summer.  The first is Sophie and her 15 year old son Jonah and 8 year old daughter Lacey.  Sophie's husband has just announced he wants a divorce so he can marry another woman and Sophie decides to use money inherited from an eccentric aunt to take this vacation and figure out what to do.  The second family is Trevor and his four year old son Leo.  Trevor's wife has recently died of a drug overdose and his son is developing peculiar behaviours so he decides to take him on vacation to help him heal.  That puts Sophie and Trevor in the same house together and given what I said above you can figure out what eventually happens.  Though predictable there are some great scenes with the children as well as an elderly man who lives on an adjacent property.  Not a bad way to spend a few summer hours.  Because I enjoyed the escapism of this book, when I needed to download something else for a plane ride I picked up Thayer's Christmas novel, An Island Christmas.  It wasn't as good as the other book but it was okay.  It dealt with the story of two very different daughters who return to Nantucket to spend Christmas with their parents and to celebrate the wedding of the younger daughter.  Again as might be expected the mother doesn't like her daughter's choice of fiance and wants her to marry a high school boyfriend but in the end discovers that her daughter has in fact made the right choice.  There were some very amusing scenes when the mother latches on to a cat to channel her maternal instincts and when the father gets repeatedly injured trying to keep up with his son-in-law to be.  So not a great book but served as a good distraction on an airplane.

The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard

This is the only book I read which doesn't fit into the category of easy summer reading - though it wasn't a difficult book to read.  This is the story of young Aron, a child trying to survive in the Warsaw Ghetto.  He is a bit of a no good street urchin prior to the war and during the war his smuggling skills and questionable connections do serve to keep him alive.  He eventually ends up living in Janusz Korcak's orphanage and the book fictionalizes the final days of this famous doctor and the children under his care.  The book is written from Aron's perspective so has a very stream of consciousness style which I suppose is intended to represent his youth.  Frankly I didn't like the style that much - while I understand what the author was trying to do, it just came off as poorly written.  Like the book My Mother's Secret, maybe if this book had been hyped as aimed at young adults I would not have been so disappointed.  I thought the story had so much potential, and the book did get good reviews, but I just found it shallow.  There was so much opportunity to explore the impact of the war on a misfit child like this and I just don't think the author got there.  Perhaps a good book to give a young adult reader a different perspective on the Holocaust but otherwise I'm not sure I'd bother.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker

This is not a new book, but it was recently recommended to me and it was really interesting.  First, it was translated from the German and it still reads beautifully, almost like poetry, which I often find is hard to do in a translation - so kudos both to the author and the translator.

I don't want to give away too much of the plot as the whole premise of the book is watching the past unfold together with the main character.  But here's what I can say:  Julia Win's father disappears on the morning after her graduation from law school without explanation which is totally out of character for him.  He does wake her to tell her he was headed to Boston for a business trip (he was a NY lawyer), and he does go to the airport but he does not fly to Boston.  Instead he is eventually traced to Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Bangkok when the trail goes cold.  His passport was found near the Bangkok airport and investigators speculate he may have been murdered or in some sort of accident while trying to leave Bangkok.

Four years later (with little explanation for why four years pass), Julia's mother gives her some of her father's personal effects and in them Julia finds an unsent letter to a woman named Mi Mi in her father's native Burma.  Julia's mother admits she knows nothing about her husband's first 20 years in Burma, despite desperate pleas for information.  The letter appears to be to an old lover and Julia decides to track her down in an effort to find her father.

And this is where the mystery begins.  She travels to Burma, marvelling in and suffering from its primitive state, and at a somewhat dirty tea shop is approached by U Ba, an older man who claims he knows her father and his story.  Though she is skeptical that he is a scam artist who had been fed information by her hotel she decides to listen to him.  Over a few days he paints the picture of her father's past - and the reader is transported 50 years earlier to colonial Burma to learn what happened to him, who Mi Mi was, how Julia's father ended up in the US and what eventually happened to him. I don't want to give any of that away as the careful telling of that story is what makes this book so interesting.  I wouldn't say it's the most suspenseful story I've ever read but it certainly takes some interesting twists and turns.

I definitely recommend this book.  It is different and, as I said before, beautifully written.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Underground in Berlin by Marie Jalowicz Simon

This is a fascinating memoir of a young Jewish girl who survived World War II by going underground in the heart of Berlin.  It is based on the tapes she made for her son while in her seventies, describing her childhood before the war and then the war years based solely on her memories.  The book reads much like a transcript which occasionally makes it hard to follow - I found it particularly difficult to keep track of the many people who came and went.  Sometimes I just gave up on trying to remember how a person Marie spoke about had previously played a role in her life - and sometimes she later reminded the reader and sometimes she didn't.  Despite that, I recommend reading the book as it is a first hand account of the war years from a perspective you don't often see (since many of her fellow hidden Jews did not survive).

Marie was born into an upper middle class Jewish family in Berlin.  She was educated and received her high school diploma just as the war was beginning.  Her mother died before the war and her father in 1942.  After that she was on her own, working in forced labour for Siemens, and one day decided merely to remove her Jewish star and hide out - but this was not hiding in the sense of Anne Frank, she moved from place to place and carried on from day to day using a false identity given to her by a family friend.  So in some ways she was hidden in plain view.  It is hard to determine whether she survived due to her naivetĂ© or her wile; luck or good planning, or some combination of all of these traits.

She was certainly helped by a number of non-Jews:  the aforementioned woman who gave her the identity card.  Marie had a complicated relationship with this woman who made her feel beholden to her, but clearly did provide both refuge and food.  Marie also resented the woman, believing she had merely taken over her family's holiday home - it was only in 1994, after the other woman's death, that she discovered it had in fact been sold to her by Marie's father.  A Chinese man who offered to marry her in an effort to get her safely to Shanghai; a Bulgarian man who also did so and, for a time, was able to protect her in Bulgaria but she eventually was returned to Berlin; a Dutch foreign worker in Berlin who lived with her for many years as a tenant of an old woman who had Nazi sympathies but nonetheless put up with Marie; a family of circus artists who took her in for a time as well as their Communist friends; the superintendent of the building where she lived with the Dutch man; and others.

After the war, Marie stayed in Berlin - she still considered Germany her home and never judged people merely for being German since so many had helped her survive.  This is the story as she told it to her son after 50 years of silence.  It is definitely worth reading to see a whole new perspective on this terrible time.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Crime Seen by Kate Lines

This is not my usual type of book but I heard the author interviewed on the radio and I thought it sounded interesting.  For the most part it was, though as a police officer, the author said in the acknowledgments she had trouble writing more than "just the facts" and at times it was a littler dry as a result.  But, I was able to skim over those parts and still enjoy the book.

Kate Lines was an early member of the Ontario Provincial Police - when she was first interviewed for the job she met officers who said women had no business being on the force, but nonetheless she was hired and moved through the ranks.

She started in traffic patrol, then moved to undercover, but her career really took off when she was selected to be only the second police officer in Canada to be trained by the FBI in criminal profiling (the first was an RCMP officer with whom she worked closely throughout her career).  She details her very interesting training session in the US as part of a group of international students.  Her instructors were fascinating FBI agents, many of whom she stayed in touch with after and consulted on difficult cases.

Armed with these profiling skills she consulted on some of Canada's most notorious crimes, including the Paul Bernardo case.  Not wanting to make the book about glorifying criminals she focuses on the victims and their families and does a nice job of making them very human.  She was clearly respected by them as must have received a lot of cooperation in writing the book.

She glosses over it, but does mention a struggle with post traumatic stress syndrome which caused her to step back from profiling at one time.  Eventually she retired from the force and now is a licensed private investigator and consults with business, police forces and even TV shows.

A fairly easy read about a woman's success in a historically non-traditional role for women - hopefully she will continue to inspire more to follow in her footsteps.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Cold Sea Stories by Pawet Huelle

I'm not sure where to start on reviewing this book, because I'm still not sure I understood all of the stories.  I chose this book because I will be visiting Poland later in the year and I wanted to read something by a contemporary Polish author.  This short story collection was well reviewed and is by an award winning Polish author who has been translated into many languages.

There were parts of the stories I loved - taking place largely in Gdansk and the surrounding countryside, they provided insight into what it was like to live behind the Iron Curtain, and in Poland during the break from Communism.  In an afterward there is an interview with the author who explains that the story The Bicycle Express was largely autobiographical - it details a few days in the life of a teenager who delivers leaflets by bicycle from the Gdansk shipyard where an uprising is taking place to other factories around the city.  Perhaps my favourite story was Franz Carl Weber - it tells of a grown man's first visit to Zurich after travel restrictions are lifted.  His father, part of the intelligentsia who was tortured during the Communist regime, had traveled to Zurich and brought the narrator and his brother a train set from the Swiss store Franz Carl Weber.  Playing with this train set, and studying the store's catalogue, were some of the narrator's happiest memories.  In Zurich he is delighted to visit the store but because times have changed is disappointed to find few train sets.

The stories Mimesis and First Summer also taught me a bit about the Mennonite Community from around Gdansk which was all but wiped out by the Nazis due to its pacifism - and what remained was destroyed by the Communists.

The problem I had with the stories is that whenever I was finally getting interested in the characters and their stories, the narrative turned to magical realism.  For example, in Franz Carl Weber the author details how as a child at night he went into the fields and rode imaginary trains.  These flights of fancy are just not my style and, while I'm sure they were symbolic in ways that escaped me, I would have preferred the narrative stripped of the fantasy.

Despite this flaw, I enjoyed the stories and am glad to have read a bit about Polish culture past and present.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Another weekend, another two books

I read these books quickly, and there were some similarities between the books.  Both are set in the past:  Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry in 1890s New York City; and At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen in 1940s Scotland.  Both revolve around trouble women:  Odile Church, a performer in a Coney Island sideshow whose mother has just died in a fire and who is search for her sister, Belle, who has fled to Manhattan; and Madeleine Hyde, who is trapped in an unhappy marriage and forced by her husband to travel the ocean during war time to search for the Loch Ness monster.  Both have an overbearing mother-in-law who did not want their sons to marry the wives they did marry, Alphie's in Church of Marvels and Madeleine's in At the Water's Edge.  And both deal with issues of sexual preference and identity - I will not reveal the details of this in either book as that aspect is part of the suspense that needs to unfold naturally.  And both are well written and easy to read - though with more characters and changing perspectives I found Church of Marvels a bit harder to follow.

Church of Marvels really deals with three separate stories - and the fun is figuring out how they all come together.  I discussed Odile and her sister Belle above.  There is also Sylvan, a night-soiler who cleans out Manhattan privies.  One night when doing so he finds a baby - and his mystery is finding out who the baby belongs to and why she was discarded.  Finally there is Alphie, who wakes up in an asylum and, having been hit on the head, cannot remember why or how she got there.  Her mystery is figuring that out and, more importantly, how to escape.  I really do not want to reveal much more about the stories as there were a lot of surprises - many completely unexpected and I'm usually pretty good at figuring out the clues.  But this was a good read and an interesting insight into the lower classes in 1890s New York.

In At the Water's Edge, Maddie's husband, Ellis, is unable to enlist due to colour blindness - for this and his drunken rants against his father, he has alienated his parents.  In order to regain their favour he and his best friend convince Maddie they must go to Scotland to find the Loch Ness monster, a task which Ellis' father had failed to accomplish despite desperate efforts.  Maddie is uncomfortable crossing the ocean in wartime, but a traditional wife, with no independent means, she has no choice but to follow her husband.  When she arrives in Scotland, at first she tries to assist in the monster hunt, but eventually Ellis and his friend exclude her more and more often.  So she befriends the staff at the inn where they are staying (which angers her husband who does not think she should fraternize with the help).  Through these friendships she learns more about herself and her marriage - and figures out where the monsters truly reside.  As usual Gruen has written a well-researched but easily accessible historical fiction.

I recommend both of these books, though if you only have time for one, I would choose At the Water's Edge; it is better written.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

I enjoyed this book but somehow I still found it a bit unimaginative.  The story of a southern white woman who takes up the abolitionist cause, as well as her personal slave who she struggles to free, just seemed like one that I had read before - though I hadn't already read this particular book.  Of course, until I read the author's notes at the end, I did not know how much of this story was based in fact - which in retrospect made the story more interesting.

The story is based upon the life of Sarah Grimke, a woman born into a slave owning family in Charleston who, together with her younger sister, Angelina, forsake the life they are born into and move north to become the first women to speak out in favour of abolition.  Because of the constraints put on her life, Sarah, who had wanted first to become a lawyer then a Quaker minister, becomes a vocal feminist as well.  This causes some rift within the mainstream abolitionist movement who feel it detracts from their main goal.  While Kidd includes these factual aspects of the Grimke sisters' lives, she flushes out the details, in particular, giving voice to one of the Grimke slaves, Handful.

The story starts on Sarah's eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten year old Handful to be her personal maid (Handful is even "wrapped" in purple bows for the occasion).  Uncomfortable with this from the start, she uses a book written by her father, a judge, to draft a document granting Handful her freedom, but it is ripped up by her parents who say she must respect their way of life.  Despite that she vows to Handful's mother to find a way to grant Handful her freedom - and starts by secretly teaching her how to read.

The book alternates chapters between Sarah and Handful and carries us into their adult lives.  Along the way we witness discrimination against women - Sarah's father and brothers mock her desire to be a lawyer and her mother pushes her to find a husband though she proves very unlucky with men.  But we witness even greater cruelty to slaves and even free blacks like the boyfriend of Handful's mother who tries to organize and insurrection (and is also based on an actual person).

And throughout we witness Sarah's struggle to find a way to keep her vow to free Handful - but she must work against her parents and later her sister and it is not easy to accomplish even when she has the money to "buy" her back from her mother just so she can set her free.

In the end we are given some glimmer of hope that slavery will come to an end, but see why discrimination will continue for decades - as even the staunch abolitionists do not have equality as a goal.

Monday, June 1, 2015

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

The only word that jumps to mind to describe this book is haunting.  The characters were so real, and at times so sad, that I cannot get them out of my head.

The book jacket describes it as a story of four college roommates who move from Boston to New York and their lives as adults.  There is Malcolm - a wealthy, eventually very successful architect who is kind and generous but seemingly indecisive and unable to live up to his parents' expectations.  JB is an artist - he is black, gay and very angry which can lead him to be mean - and though successful, at times he is dragged down by addiction and falling in with the wrong crowd.  Willem is an actor who becomes an international success despite a hard upbringing as the son of a ranch hand and his wife who have lost two children before he is born and thus have trouble bonding with Willem and his older brother who has cerebral palsy.  But the story is really about Jude - he is handsome but disabled and scarred.  Over the course of the book we, and his friends to a certain extent, learn about the horrifying childhood which lead to both these physical scars and, more devastatingly, emotional scars that he is ultimately unable to live with.

Though Jude finds love from his friends, and especially from Harold and Julia, a law professor and his wife who literally adopt him, he never feels like he deserves it.  And despite desperate pleas from those who love him, he is unable to seek help because he thinks his physical and mental afflictions are his due because of the life he lived as a child.

While Jude is the centre - Willem and Harold were probably my favourite characters.  They tried so hard and so desperately to get Jude to see himself as they saw him - smart, a talented litigator, funny, loving and deserving of love.  Their devotion, sincerity and loyalty in the face of tremendous opposition were incredible.

There are other minor characters who were notable too - Andy, an orthopedist who first meets Jude when he is a resident and who becomes his primary and only doctor, as well as his friend, and is one of the only people who has seen Jude's physical scars (and learned a bit about them).  Richard, another artist, who sells Jude an apartment but uses living in the same building as an excuse to unobtrusively watch over him.  And Lucien a crusty lawyer in private practice who woos Jude from his government job and helps him become a major success as a litigator in a top notch firm.

The book occasionally changes perspectives - from Jude, to Willem and Harold primarily, although at times to others such as JB.  It sometimes took a page or two to re-orient but I thought that just made the book more interesting.  The writing was fluid and there were parts which took me completely by surprise.  It made reading a book of over 700 pages easy and enjoyable.  I highly recommend this though warn you it might be hard to get Jude, Harold and Willem out of your head.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Mountain Story by Lori Lansens

This is not the type of book I usually read but it got good reviews so I thought I would give it a try.  I'm not sorry I did - though it's hardly deep and meaningful, it was a good, suspenseful story with quirky but likeable characters.  And it was well written.

The tagline for the book is Five days.  Four lost hikers. Three survivors.  And that really is what it is all about - and I was unable to definitively guess who would not survive until it actually happened.  The book is written in the form of a letter from Wolf to his college aged son, telling him the story of what happened those five days in the mountain when he was 18 years old.  So I was pretty sure Wolf survived - though at times I did even wonder whether the book would take an unexpected turn that this was a dream or something and it was Wolf who didn't survive.

Wolf is an 18 year old misfit - his mother died when he was young (we learn the tragic circumstances well into the book); his father is in prison for killing two people while driving drunk (this part is revealed early on); he lives in a trailer park with his father's sister and various of her children and grandchildren; and his best/only friend has been in an accident (again we only learn the details later in the book).  So Wolf ascends the cable car in a mountain outside Palm Springs to kill himself.  Instead, he meets up with Nola, Bridget and Vonn Devine (grandmother, her daughter and granddaughter).  Bridget panics when attacked by a swarm of bees and runs off - the others at her heels.  And they all fall down and cliff and get lost.  Most of the book details how they survive (or not in one case that I will not reveal) the five days lost on a desert mountain.

But, there are flashbacks into Wolf's life which are also very interesting.  We learn less about the past of the Devines though we do get some colour about them too.

In all this was an easy and entertaining read - somewhat disturbing at times but a good suspense story with some character development thrown in for good measure.

Monday, May 25, 2015

A History of Loneliness by John Boyne

I loved this book.  I wanted to read it because of my upcoming trip to Ireland - I'm reading as much as I can that is set there.  But what I really loved was the character development.

Odran Yates is a priest - he became one when his mother had a revelation of his calling while watching the Late Late Show one evening after she has become fervently religious following the tragic deaths of her husband and youngest son.  Odran never questions his mother and, when he arrives at the seminary, feels as if he has indeed landed where he belongs.  His "cellmate" is Tom Cardle, the tenth child of an abusive father who has forced him to become a priest.  He is not suited to it and eventually that becomes his downfall as he is implicated in numerous crimes.

Odran, meanwhile, suffers abuse and guilt in his later years just for being a priest and being tarnished by the reprehensible behaviour of other priests like Cardle and the blatant cover up of the scandal by the Church that the author clearly states runs all the way up the chain to the Pope.  I came away mostly feeling sorry for Odran - I don't think he purposely covered up the pedophelia, I think he was just hopelessly naive and believed others were as good as him, and as good at suppressing their natural urges (which he does but for a few lapses).  This is despite the direct impact of these crimes on both him as a boy and on other members of his family.

The book wanders seamlessly back and forth through time - from the present day, to his childhood, to his time at the seminary in Ireland and later in Rome, from the job he liked best hidden away in a Catholic school library to his time working in a parish.  We see his relationships with his parents, sister, nephews and Tom Cardle as well as how he is at times manipulated by people with power within the Church.

In sum, this is a fantastic character study and a great narrative about an explosive topic for the Catholic church.  I found it particularly gratifying to read it the weekend the population of Ireland voted in favour of permitting gay marriage.  How far the country has come from the time when Odran was a new priest and people on a train were fighting over who should give up their seat for him.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

This is a non-fiction book about life in a Mumbai slum which reads like a well written novel.  It was fascinating to get insight into the lives of the incredibly poor members of Mumbai society and to watch their day to day struggle to survive against poverty, corruption, discrimination, religious tensions and the tremendous wealth which they only get to glimpse from afar.  Kudos to the author who spent months with these people who are so busy struggling to survive they do not really have time to sit around and open up about their lives to a complete stranger.  But nonetheless, open up they eventually did.

The narrative takes place primarily in the Mumbai slum known as Annawadi.  It lies right on the outskirts of Mumbai's international airport and the story begins in 2008 when India has been booming so the airport and related hotels have been growing and the threat of the airport overtaking the slum looms large. I love the title because the "beautiful forevers" is taken from a billboard on the side of the highway leading from the airport into the city.  We get to see what actually happens behind the beautiful forevers.

The main character is a teenaged boy named Abdul.  He lives in a makeshift home with his parents and several siblings.  He earns money for the family buying garbage from scavengers, sorting it and reselling it to recyclers.  Unfortunately he, together with his father and older sister, are accused of causing a neighbour woman to commit suicide by setting herself on fire.  Though he is charged as a juvenile which improves his fate, his little business never really recovers.  It is also not helped by the global recession which lowers the price recyclers are willing to pay or the terrorist attacks in Mumbai which reduce tourism and thus the amount of garbage that the airport district generates.

Besides Abdul's colourful family, we meet Asha, a local woman who is trying to capitalize on the abundant corruption of local officials to become the slum overseer.  She in fact gets ahead by sleeping with whoever can give her what she wants in return - government officials, police, etc.  One of the most heartbreaking characters is Asha's daughter - she is trying desperately to graduate from a third rate college to become a teacher, in fact teaching slum children at a school which her mother  established to obtain government and charitable funds (though her mother would be happy just to collect the money and not bother with the teaching).  Instead, being a dutiful daughter, she is dragged into her mothers schemes.

We also meet several scavengers, thieves and others - many of whom fund the only ways out are sniffing wite-out or drinking rat poison.

The book ends with the trial of Abdul and his family members.  While that eventually turns out okay, one can't help but wonder whether it really changes their fate.

A fascinating read but very depressing - though on a positive note it does clearly illustrate human resilience in the most dire of circumstances.

Monday, May 11, 2015

A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett

This is a true story of Amanda Lindhout's abduction and 460 day imprisonment by Somali rebels when she makes an ill fated trip to that country.  I found it very well written, though quite graphic at times, and seemed to be a quite honest account of what happened.  Lindhout did not shy away from her guilt about going into the war torn country in the first place and the difficulties it caused for her family as well as her travelling companion, former lover and fellow captive, Nigel Brennan.  Apparently Brennan's book about the ordeal is not quite so sympathetic to Lindhout.

The book starts with Amanda's childhood in Sylvan Lake, Alberta.  She lives in a home with her mother, two brothers and her mother's abusive boyfriend.  Her father has recently come out and lives in a comparatively stable home in Red Deer with his partner.  To escape the troubles at home, Amanda hordes National Geographic magazines and dreams of escape.

She moves to Calgary at 19 with a boyfriend and makes money as a cocktail waitress which funds their first trip - backpacking through South America.  Eventually this relationship ends and she falls into a pattern of working several months to finance her travels and then traveling - to Asia, Central America and beyond.

As she becomes more experienced she travels alone and to more and more dangerous locations, especially for an unaccompanied woman.  She goes to Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East.  The tales of her travels are fascinating and at times humorous.  I was particularly amused by her description of the difficulties of renting a hotel room in Bangladesh when you are a woman without her husband or father.  On her travels she meets both journalists and photo journalists and becomes enamoured with the idea of being able to finance her travels in this way.  She even works for a time as the Baghdad reporter for an Iranian state television station.  She is not particularly successful in this line of work and feels that she needs to get to less competitive places to really make her mark.

So she decides to try her luck in Somalia.  She invites Nigel, who she had previously been involved with (he was married at the time which she did not know) but they had drifted apart.  She half expects him to say no but he comes along.

On their third day in the country they are abducted.  The remainder of the book details her experience - which is horrific.  She is starved, beaten, raped, humiliated, sick, separated from Nigel for the most part.  She receives far worse treatment just for being a woman.  She also gives a terrific account of their one unsuccessful attempt at escape - for which she is disproportionately blamed.  However, she also gives us glimpses of humanity - a neighbour who helps her escape, a woman at a mosque who risks her life in an effort to keep the kidnappers from recapturing her, and even some of the young captors.

There are also some details about the efforts by both the government and her family to obtain her release; complicated by the fact that Canada does not pay ransoms and her family has no money.  She only learns later of all the people who helped contribute to her rescue.

Definitely a worthwhile read, but not for the faint of heart - some of the descriptions of Amanda's rape and torture are very graphic.

The Night Stages by Jane Urquhart

I struggled to get through this books at times, but there were parts I liked enough to keep on going and I'm not sorry I read it though it would not be the first book I recommend you pick up.  Essentially the book tells three stories - and moves back and forth between them.

We start with Tam, an English woman who has been living in Ireland since just after World War II and is now fleeing an affair she had there.  She is flying from Dublin to New York and, after stopping in Gander to refuel, is grounded by fog.  As she sits in the waiting room she reflects on her past - a privileged childhood, a hasty marriage at a young age, flying planes during the War, another relationship with a childhood friend (and servant's son) which takes her to Ireland, and then finally the ill-fated extra marital affair with Niall.

As she reminisces she also studies a large mural that covers the walls in the airport lounge.  The second story we hear is that of the artist.  He reflects on his past and we learn how the various characters in the mural came into being.  Frankly, I was bored by this part of the book and didn't really think it added much to the main narrative.  Though maybe I just missed some deeper meaning.

Finally we learn about Niall's childhood and in particular his difficult relationship with his younger brother Kieran who he has lost touch with and has been searching for.  The story of Niall's, and especially Kieran's, childhood was for me the most interesting part of the book.  They grew up in a small town in Ireland.  When their mother dies tragically, Kieran is taken in by a widowed countrywoman and lives a very different life from his brother.  Unbeknownst to each other they both train for a rigorous bicycle race and become fierce competitors - for the title and the same woman.  The book ends with us finding out what caused the rift between the brothers.

As I said, parts of this were very slow and in my view unnecessary, but other parts were quite exciting.  I was very drawn into the bike race and the sibling rivalry it unleashed.  Because I have a trip planned to Ireland, I also enjoyed the detailed descriptions of the Irish countryside.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Three recent reads

I've been reading quickly lately and not getting a chance to post my reviews, so here are my three most recent reads:

Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult

I don't usually read much by Picoult as I find her novels somewhat formulaic but I needed something to read and this was lying around the house so I decided to give it a try.  It wasn't bad, though it did follow her typical formula - family issues, complicated, public and controversial court case to resolve some of these otherwise private issues, resolution (and not being sure until the end whether the resolution would cause happiness or despair).  This one was even more blatant in its attempt to pull at the heartstrings in that it included a CD of original music (lyrics by Picoult).  Each chapter was supposed to be accompanied by one track to enhance the mood/enjoyment.  That was too much for me - the CD remains in its sealed envelope.

The story centres around Zoe Baxter, a music therapist, who is now about 40.  She and her husband have been trying for years to have a child but, despite multiple expensive rounds of IVF treatment have been unsuccessful.  Eventually her husband can no longer stand the relentless pursuit of a child and leaves Zoe.  He moves back into his brother's basement (where he has been before) and drowns his sorrow in alcohol (he was a recovering alcoholic throughout his marriage).  His brother and sister-in-law eventually introduce him to their evangelical pastor who helps him find comfort in Jesus rather than the bottle.  But this leads to no end of grief for Zoe.

Zoe, in the meantime, finds love with an unlikely partner - a woman.  Because Zoe can no longer have children (medical issues you can read about) she seeks permission to have her leftover frozen embryos implanted in her partner.  This does not sit well with her ex-husband's newfound right wing Christian travelling companions.  So they fund his fight for "custody" of the embryos so he can give them to his brother and sister-in-law to be raised in a "proper" family.  Thus the high profile court case ensues.

I will not tell you how the drama ultimately unfolds in case one day you too are looking for something to read - but all the loose ends are tied up in an epilogue that takes place a few years later.  Though the story is somewhat predictable and many of the characters are more caricatures, there are some nice parts dealing with Zoe's relationship with her mother and her new partner as well as her ex-husband's relationship with his sister-in-law.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Hannah is another popular author whose books are sometimes a bit formulaic, but I really liked this one.  It focuses on the role some regular French women played during World War II.  And, given the grave subject, the ending was really sad - and well done.  Though certain passages took place in the present, the author did a really good job of keeping secret who survived the war and who did not (at least I was not able to figure it out though I had a couple of theories).

Vianne Mauriac is a 28 year old mother of one daughter in 1939 when her husband Antoine heads to the front.  Though she does not believe the Nazis will invade France, they do and, in fact, she is forced to host a German captain in her home in occupied France.  Vianne's 18 year old sister Isabelle has always been a rebellious girl and she uses this energy and drive to join the French resistance to the German occupation and the French collaborating government.

The book follows the sisters through the war years - showing how each helped fight the Nazis in their own way.  Though Isabelle was the overt risk taker, Vianne risked her life and that of her daughter to help first her best friend who was Jewish and then other Jewish children.

I really enjoyed seeing this side of the war as so much is written about the role of men, or what took place in ghettos and concentration camps.  This showed what happened from the perspective of ordinary Frenchwomen - while these women were probably not representative of many who either did nothing or even aided the Nazis, it was still interesting to see the impact that the women who tried to help could have.

Though sad and a heavy topic, this is an easy read as it is well written.

Then and Always, by Dani Atkins

This was another sad book though completely different than The Nightingale, and frankly a little bit weird.  It is about Rachel Wiltshire who is injured in a freak accident as she celebrates her high school graduation with her friends.  They are sitting in a restaurant and a car comes through the windshield injuring Rachel and killing her friend Jimmy who risked his life to save her - or so she thinks.

Five years later, Rachel returns to her home town for her best friend's wedding.  Her life has not turned out as she expected - rather than going to university, after a lengthy recovery from her accident she has moved from her hometown, become a secretary, lives in a shabby apartment over a laundromat and her father is dying from cancer.  The night before the wedding she suffers another terrible accident, banging her head, and wakes up to discover a completely different life.

In the life she wakes up to - Jimmy is not dead, her father does not have cancer, she is a journalist in London and she is engaged to her high school sweetheart, Matt.  In other words, she has the life she dreamed of having in high school.

The book tracks these two parallel lives and the reader (through Rachel who thinks she has some weird form of amnesia) is left trying to figure out what her real life is.  This is only revealed in the last few pages and is predictable in retrospect but not really something I had figured out.  Truthfully, I couldn't figure out what was going on.

I read this book quickly because I got so into it and was intrigued to find out what happened, but I'm not sure I would say it was a great book or that I would highly recommend it.  Maybe if you're looking for a way to pass a rainy afternoon or a long plane ride.  It doesn't take a lot of energy.