Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Winter Guest by Pam Jenoff

I decided to pick this up since I had enjoyed The Orphan's Tale, and I was not disappointed.  Again Jenoff tells a somewhat different Holocaust story which was inspired by real events.

Here we follow 18 year old identical twins, Helena and Ruth, who are caring for their 3 younger siblings after the death of their father and the institutionalization of their mother who is suffering from both cancer and some form of dementia.  Helena and Ruth are doing their best to keep the family together in a small town outside of Krakow during the Second World War.  At the start of the book the war has not really reached their town (though the food shortages have), but slowly their lives are more and more impacted by it.

Helena finds an American paratrooper who is stranded outside their village and as she nurses him back to health she falls in love with him.  She is also the "brave" sister who ventures to Krakow to visit their mother (and learns long buried secrets about her), witnessing the black market, the Polish underground and the liquidation of Krakow's Jewish quarter while she is there.  Ruth has always been the "pretty" and "maternal" sister so when she eventually discovers Helena has a man in her life she becomes very jealous.

This jealousy leads to a rift between the sisters which ultimately has catastrophic consequences for the family and the American soldier.  The book is ultimately interesting because of the relationships between Helena and Ruth, Helena and the soldier and both twins and the younger siblings.  It also shows how different personality traits become strengths in times of war.

While this was not the best book I've ever read, it was enjoyable and suspenseful such that I really wanted to finish it.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Demi-Gods by Eliza Robertson

This was a really weird book though not that long so I stuck it out until the end.  It starts in the 1950s when Willa's mother's new boyfriend brings his two sons to their Salt Spring Island summer home.  Actually the boyfriend is not so new - Willa's mother had an affair with him while her father was away at war.  They started to spend more time together once Willa's father left.

Willa's older sister Joan falls for the older son, Kenneth, which leaves nine year old Willa to pair off with eleven year old Patrick.  Patrick is a sociopath - he starts with burning moth wings under a magnifying glass, then beheads rabbits.  As they age, Patrick and Willa's encounters become more and more sexually charged, but always very bizarre.

While Willa actually only encounters Patrick about 6 times over the course of their lives, you can tell it impacts her relationships forever.  What is more odd is based on what you can tell, Patrick lived a fairly normal life when he was not with Willa.  It seemed they brought out the worst in each other.

The book moves over time through their encounters on Salt Spring Island and in San Diego where the boys reside with their mother most of the time.  Their last encounter is on a sailboat excursion which ends tragically (I won't reveal how).  While it is a typically weird encounter, at least Willa found her strength that time and had the upper hand.

All in all I wouldn't really recommend this book - it left me feeling a bit disgusted by human behaviour.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Orphan's Tale by Pam Jenoff

This book is based on an interesting premise and, in the author's note at the end of the book I see she took certain aspects from historical facts.

In 1994 Noa is a 16 year old Dutch girl who gets pregnant following a brief relationship with an occupying Nazi soldier.  When her shame is discovered her father sends her away.  On a train she meets a German woman who suggests, with her "Aryan" features she would be welcomed at a home for unwed mothers in Germany.  She goes there to give birth to a "child of the Reich".  But, when the baby is born, he has dark features and Not falls in love with him instantly.  However, the doctor and nurse in charge tear him from her arms and she never sees him again.  When she has nowhere to go she ends up working as a cleaner in a railway station nearby.

One evening Noa hears unusual sounds coming from a railroad car waiting on the tracks.  She sneaks over and finds a car full of Jewish babies who have been separated from their families, many are already dead from the cold and the others are obviously headed to concentration camps.  Without much thought she grabs one of the babies and runs away from him.  According to the author, this boxcar of "unknown children" really existed.

While running away Noa and the baby who she names Theo collapse in the snow and are rescued by the clown from a nearby circus and taken back to the circus.  The kindly head of the circus takes them in.  There Noa meets and eventually befriends Astrid, a Jewish woman who is hiding in plain sight at the circus.  She grew up the only daughter of a multi-generational Jewish circus family where she performed as an aerialist from a young age.  As a young woman she married a German man and moved with him to Berlin.  However as he rose in the Nazi party he was pressured into denouncing her and the marriage.

Cast out she returned to her home to find her family and all traces of the circus gone.  So she turns to a rival non-Jewish circus that wintered across from her family's winter grounds.  This kindly circus leader also takes her in, gives her a new name and a job and works hard to protect her from the Nazi regime.  According to the author, there were many multi-generational Jewish circuses in Europe prior to the war which were for the most part eliminated by the Nazis.  It is also the case that certain non-Jewish circuses were willing hide Jews.

The novel follows the story of Noa and Astrid who start out as bitter rivals and end up friends.  There are many twists and turns surrounding Astrid's relationship with a Russian clown, Noa's with the son of a local Nazi sympathizing mayor in France, and close calls and ultimate tragedies involving the Nazis.

The epilogue gives us an idea of where most of the characters ended up - some fates surprising and others unhappy but realistic.

While this is not high brow literature it was an interesting read and a new take on Holocaust literature.  I recommend it.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg

This is a somewhat rambling first person narrative about Andrea, a woman in her late thirties to early forties.  She is dissatisfied with her job, unsuccessful in finding love and disconnected from her family who is dealing with the tragedy of her terminally ill niece.

While she was a bit of a mess, the sections looking back in her past helped explain her - her father died of a heroin overdose when she was a teenager, after that her mother struggled financially, at one point hosting dinners to raise money where middle aged drug addicts came over to eat and pawed teenaged Andrea at the same time.  She dropped out of art school because she didn't think she could handle the constant rejection, but doesn't enjoy working in advertising.

At times the book was confusing as it moved back and forth in time and it sometimes took reading a few pages of a new chapter to figure out when it was set.  Characters also came and went in her life and I couldn't always tell what time period she was referring to.

All in all it wasn't a great book but it was an easy enough read about a screwed up life.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag

This is a short little book that was interesting and easy to read.  Originally written in 2013 in the Southern Indian language Kannada, it was only translated into English this year.  While this author has written eight works of fiction, this is the first that was translated.

Ghachar Ghochar is a nonsense word invented by the narrator's wife's family to mean something tangled beyond repair, a knot that can't be untied.  And it is an apt descriptor of the narrator's family (as an aside, we never learn his name as he describes the other members of his family in detail).

The narrator, his mother, father, sister and uncle lived in a lower class neighbourhood in Bangalore.  His father sold coffee and tea, working long days and barely making ends meet.  Despite this he managed to put his brother and both children through school.  When he loses his job because his company decides to reorganize he invests his retirement payment in his brother's business venture, a spice wholesaler.  The business takes off and the family moves from their tight quarters (the narrator's description of them is very vivid; I could really see the home, ants and all as he describes his mother's war against them).  In their new home there is a bedroom for everyone and more furniture than necessary.

Upon graduating from school the narrator is given a job with the family business - he gets a hefty salary every month, but there is nothing for him to do so he spends his time drinking coffee and reading newspapers.  When he eventually marries his wife is disappointed to learn his money is not really his own.

The narrator's father is also disillusioned with his brother's less than honest business dealings (there is a great scene when his company goons attend at the home of the sister's estranged husband to recover her jewelry).  The family walks on eggshells with the father, fearful he will write a will giving away his half of the family business to charity.

All in all this is a well written, at times humorous, always believable portrait of a family and, in particular, the impact sudden wealth can have on the family members.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Moving Kings by Joshua Cohen

The style of this book was a bit unusual - very long run on sentences and paragraphs, often like streams of consciousness, which were at times hard to follow.  Occasionally I had to backtrack to pick up the thread again.  But, given the chapters were written from the perspective of various characters, the format was actually quite realistic as doesn't everyone's mind wander in this way.

The novel starts from the perspective of David King, the owner and manager of King's Moving in the New York City area.  While David has built a large business, he seems a bit disreputable.  He has recently divorced his wife after she discovered his long time affair with his office manager, he is on barely speaking terms with his daughter who is herself a recovering addict, he hires a motley band of employees and his company's specialty is evicting delinquent tenants and mortgagors from their homes and repossessing their belongings.

David has hidden some money in Israel since a visit there many years earlier to a cousin and her family.  His cousin's son, Yoav, has just completed his compulsory army duty and is sent to work for David (illegally).  He struggles with the unstructured nature of civilian life, language, working with men of different origins and sensibilities and having to throw people out of their homes.  He is later joined by Uri, his partner in the army infantry who is clearly suffering from PTSD.  Entering peoples homes and evicting them brings back painful memories of their time in the "occupation forces".  As both men try to adjust, a violent encounter with a vengeful homeowner leads to tragedy for Yoav and Uri and sends David into hiding.

Though the writing style was sometimes hard to follow, I found the narrative gripping and the characters fascinating.  I liked how we saw things from the perspective of each of David, Yoav and Uri - all who had very distinct voices.  I recommend this book, but not when you're in the mood for a light read.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Just Like Family by Kate Hilton

I really wanted to read this book for two reasons:  first, I read Hilton's debut novel, The Hole in the Middle, and enjoyed it; and second, I really admire her.  Hilton is a lawyer turned novelist who has met with some success and her second novel did not disappoint.  Don't get me wrong, this isn't fine literature, but it is entertaining reading with interesting characters and a somewhat predictable plot line which doesn't detract from the overall experience.

I did like the twist in the lead character's life - Avery Graham started as a writer and then went to law school and became first a lawyer, then chief of staff to the Toronto mayor.  Most people in real life seem to take the opposite path.  I like how the story moves back and forth in time - the present day drama of life in the mayor's office gets interwoven with Avery's childhood, and wandering young adulthood as she comes to terms with her father's premature death and tries to figure out what to do with her life.

Avery is now juggling the demands of Peter, her "work husband" and the mayor who she has known (and had a crush on) since childhood.  It is clear to the reader and everyone else around her that he's an ass who has taken advantage of her devotion for years.  It takes some pretty dramatic revelations about him (which I will not spoil by sharing) for her to begin to see the truth.

She is also trying to figure out how to respond to the marriage proposal from her long time live in partner.  She loves Matt, but she had an early disastrous marriage to Hugh which seems to make her gun shy.  She is particularly guilty about how she ended things with Hugh and seems afraid to take the chance of hurting Matt in the same way.

We also see her interesting relationships with her mother, her two friends from high school (one who is now also her sister-in-law), other members of city council, representatives of special interest groups and her ex-husband.  But at its heart the book is about Avery and how she continuously struggles to find her place in the world.

An easy and worthwhile read.

Winter Solstice by Elin HIlderbrand

Hilderbrand is best known for her summer beach reads set on Nantucket.  However, she wrote a Christmas trilogy based on the Quinn family who run a small inn on the island.  Kelly, his second wife, three children from his first marriage, their mother and his son from his second marriage as well as various significant and insignificant others star in these books.  While I did not enjoy them as much as the summer books, apparently after the third was finished Hilderbrand's editor pushed for a fourth to wrap up the Quinn's story a little more neatly.  Personally I didn't think the fourth book was necessary, but if she was inspired to write it, I really liked that she also made it a sequel to one of her summer books, The Rumor.

The problem for me was The Rumor was one of my least favourite of her books - the characters just didn't grab me so I didn't feel wildly curious to hear more of their story.  So, in some ways, this book just felt a bit forced for me - an author trying to weave together more of a story for a bunch of characters whose stories had already been told.

So, I didn't end up loving this book - it was fine, just not particularly compelling.  While on social media many say they couldn't put it down and they cried through it, I just wasn't moved in the same way.  The outcomes for the characters seemed a bit too predictable - as if the author just wanted to please her fans.  Which is an admirable goal, good to keep your fans happy, it just didn't work for me.

Unless you were a particularly big fan of the Winter Street trilogy or The Rumor and you really want to spend more time with these characters, I wouldn't bother with this book.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Last Wave by Gillian Best

In general I enjoyed this book, though at times it was a bit slow and I had to put it down.  At its heart it is the story of a woman, Martha, and her family.

Martha lives in Dover, England and as a ten year old child accidentally falls into the sea.  While she is quickly rescued by a friend of her father's, it scares him so much he arranges for her to have swimming lessons - and there begins her love of the sea.  The narrative spans some sixty years and at all the difficult times in her life, Martha turns to the sea for strength and solace.

The narrative actually starts in 2014 with Martha's husband, John.  It quickly becomes apparent that she has passed away, but that he is suffering from advanced dementia and keeps forgetting that so sets out to the seaside to find her.

After this first chapter the narrative skips back and forth in time and perspective.  We learn of Martha's childhood, John's courtship and proposal, her dissatisfaction as a young mother of Iain and Harriet and eventually her cancer diagnosis and John's dementia.

Though she initially gives up swimming upon her marriage, when the children are young she decides that to save herself she needs to swim the channel.  She has one aborted attempt but then successfully crosses ten times.  On all the crossings John is there in her support boat.

Besides Martha's story, we also learn about Harriet who is disowned by her father upon announcing she is a lesbian and marrying a woman.  Harriet cannot forgive her father for that or her mother for failing to stand up to him.  However, unbeknownst to her, her wife Iris visits her mother every year with news of Harriet and their daughter, Myrtle.  When she turns 13 Myrtle decides to find her grandparents and learns of the cancer and dementia.  She reports back to Harriet who calls Iain who has moved to Australia and it is only then that there are efforts at reconciliation.

Though deprived of her grandparents for most of her life, Myrtle is a swimmer and quickly bonds with her grandmother.

Much of the book is quite sad - the rift between the family members, John's struggle with dementia (and its effect on Martha and the others around him) and Martha's cancer.  But the fascination with the sea, and its curative effects, is quite interesting.  The love between John and Martha, despite all the obstacles, is also very hopeful.

While the book was not fantastic, it was good and is worth reading.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Arrangement by Sarah Dunn

This is actually one of the best books I've read in a long time.  The characters were engaging, the dialogue witty and the storyline somehow both unusual yet believable.

Lucy and Owen are a married couple with a five-year old autistic son, Wyatt.  They have moved from Manhattan to the small town of Beekman in the Hudson Valley.  They traded in a cramped apartment for a large old house where they even keep chickens.  Owen continues to work a couple of towns over as a head hunter while Lucy cares for Wyatt and their home.  One night over drinks their friends tell them about a gay couple who have an open marriage and all four discuss the merits of it.  So Lucy and Owen decide to try it - they set out the rules of a 6 month arrangement that allows them to sleep with other people.

We spend most of the book learning the consequences for each of them, and their marriage, of this arrangement.  Owen finds a partner first, Izzy, whose ex-husband describes her as "five kinds of crazy" - and she is.  But somehow Owen can't extricate himself from the relationship.  When Lucy is certain Owen has started sleeping with someone else she discusses it with a friend who sets her up with Ben, a recently divorced man living in New York.  Lucy becomes attached to him and invents French classes which allow her to travel to New York weekly while Owen is in charge of Wyatt.

But not all of the book is about Lucy and Owen.  We also see a lot of Wyatt - his behaviour seems comical from an outsider's perspective yet you can certainly see the challenges he poses for his parents.  We also meet other townspeople - some of the mothers at the school like Claire, Susan Howard and Sunny Bang (Lucy's best friend who fixed her up with Ben).  There are also scenes with the town's resident billionaire, Gordon Allen, who is sick of his trashy fourth wife but can't figure out how to properly divorce her when, in a state of delusion, he never had her sign a prenup.  And now he wants not only to protect his fortune but to have primary custody of their son.  He leads the charge to get rid of Wyatt's kindergarten teacher, Mr. Lowell who has decided to become Mrs. Lowell.

Susan Howard, who is involved in an unhappy, sexless marriage of her own, leads the protests to have Mrs. Lowell reinstated.  She beseeches all the men in the town to wear dresses, with limited success.  This campaign culminates in the most humorous scene of the book - a ceremony where all the kids in the town bring their pets to the church to be blessed.  The mix of cats, dogs, chickens, goats and even a llama is wonderful.

In the epilogue which takes place about 15 months after the arrangement ends, we see what has happened to all of the characters.

I highly recommend this book; I couldn't put it down.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

Although I didn't realize it, this is actually a collection of inter-related short stories rather than a novel.  The protagonists in each of the stories is somehow related to characters in the other ones.  All of the characters live in (or come from) small towns in Illinois.  Many of them are of impoverished backgrounds; several of them were abused as children; all of them are very strange.

In the first story, Tommy used to own a dairy farm which burned down; he then worked as a janitor at the local school.  He befriended several of the children there and still visits Pete, a loner, who thinks his father was responsible for the fire and that Tommy is visiting him as punishment.  Tommy seems normal enough except that he thinks he saw God at the time of the fire.

Pete's sister, Lucy Barton, left the small town years ago and is now a successful writer - she is the main character in Strout's prior novel, My Name is Lucy Barton.  Lucy comes back to visit with Pete and their other sister in one of the stories and we learn more about their horrid upbringing.  The visit ends in Lucy's panic attack driven escape.

In two stories we also meet Lucy's cousins Abel and Dottie who were so poor growing up they used to eat from dumpsters.  Abel is now a successful businessman while Dottie runs a bed and breakfast.  Other townspeople we meet are the Nicely sisters, Patty and Linda.  "Fatty Patty" is a guidance counsellor at the local school where she is verbally abused by a student, none other than Lucy Barton's niece.  Her husband has died and she is secretly in love with an older married man, Charlie.  Charlie suffers from PTSD and cheats on his wife with a prostitute.  Linda is married to a rapist who seems to always get away with it.  Patty and Linda's mother, who left them when they were teenagers after having an affair with one of their teachers, struggles with dementia.  We also meet Patty's friend Angelina whose mother left for Italy to marry a much younger man after discovering her husband's marital infidelity.

As strange as all the characters are, they are very interesting so I enjoyed the book.  It was also an easy read since each story was fairly short so you could break it into small pieces.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Color of Our Sky by Amita Trasi

I really liked this book - though it was quite disturbing to realize how many girls in India may actually be experiencing what Mukta experiences in the novel.

In 1986 Mukta is a 10 year old girl living in a small village in India.  Her mother, grandmother and other female ancestors were all temple prostitutes - women from a lower caste who were required to "wed" a goddess rather than a man and make themselves available for any man in the community who wants their services.  Mukta's mother is trying desperately to avoid this fate for her daughter, but is dying of a mysterious illness and, no longer able to work, Mukta's grandmother agrees to sell her to a Madam so she can "fulfill her destiny".

After her first brutal experience Mukta is rescued by a kind elderly woman who convinces her son to take her away to his home in Mumbai.  There Mukta befriends his eight year old daughter Tara.  Though she is worked to the bone by Tara's mother, and lives as a lowly servant, Tara teaches her to read and introduces her to a better life.  This is not to last - Mukta is kidnapped and returned to a life of prostitution.

Meanwhile Tara and her father immigrate to Los Angeles, but neither forgets Mukta.  After her father's death in 2004, Tara returns to Mumbai to search for her.  The rest of the book alternates chapters between both girls' reminiscences about their past together, what happened to each of them in the intervening years and Tara's desperate search for Mukta.

The book gives great insight into India's caste system and how terrible traditions can be for certain lower caste women.  It also shows the tremendous gap between the rich and the poor.  But it also gives hope of how that gap can be bridged by friendships and caring people.

I strongly recommend this book.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Rome Affair by Karen Swan

By the time I got this book from the library, I couldn't remember where I heard about it.  While it wasn't fantastic, it was worth reading.

The story begins with a cryptic prologue set in Rome in 1989.  The characters involved are not even named - and it takes until almost the epilogue to figure out its meaning.  The rest of the book alternates scenes in Rome in 2017 with flashbacks to the life of an elderly Viscontessa, Elena.

In 2017 Elena hires Cesca to sort through all her family photos in order to write her biography.  Cesca is a former barrister who left England for Rome when something terrible happened to her - we only learn exactly what that was late in the narrative.  As a barrister trained to cross examine, she quickly realizes Elena is putting a happy gloss on her scandalous life.  In the chapters from Elena's past we see just how little of the truth she is actually sharing.

The chapters from the past are interesting - we get a glimpse into the life of a very wealthy American socialite who was married and divorced three times before she meets Vito, an Italian aristocrat, and her fourth husband.  He is madly in love with her, and she with him, until she meets his twin brother, Aurelio.  Though Elena and Aurelio fight their feelings eventually it drives a wedge between the brothers.  It also turns many of their Italian friends and family against Elena.  Part of Cesca's work involves unravelling exactly what happened between Elena, Vito and Aurelio.

There is also a side present day love story between Cesca and Nico which is a nice diversion from the other mystery.

Again, not a fantastic book but entertaining.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Goodnight from London by Jennifer Robson

This wasn't a fantastic novel, but it held my attention and was an easy read.  I found the story a bit too  predictable.  It did appear to be, however, a well researched account of both life for a female journalist in the all male environment of the 1940s and living in London during the Blitz.

Ruby Sutton was working as a magazine writer in New York City in 1940 when her boss asked if she was willing to be seconded to a weekly in London.  Despite reservations about getting a passport (we learn the reasons much later though they are hinted at throughout) she agrees to go.  First, she has no family connections keeping her in New York, and second, she realizes it will be very beneficial from a professional point of view.

After a difficult crossing she is met at the train station by a friend of her editor's, Captain Bennett.  It is clear from this first meeting that he will become her love interest though there are years of back and forth.  It is also fairly clear from his behaviour that he works as a British spy, but it takes Ruby a rather long time to figure that out.

Ruby is welcomed at the magazine by her editor Kaz and a photographer, Mary.  The other members of the team are a little more wary of her.  When she loses everything in a bombing one night she moves from a temporary rooming house to the home of Bennett's godmother, Vanessa, who becomes a surrogate mother.  She is also warmly welcomed by Vanessa's daughters.

The book describes Ruby's difficulties establishing herself in the "man's world"; how she and others must cope with the Blitz; the repercussions when the truth of her past is revealed; her relationship with Bennett and eventually the end of the war.

If you're looking for a reasonably interesting diversion, the book is fine, but it's not great literature.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Only Cafe by Linden MacIntyre

I really enjoyed this book, though I must confess I'm not sure I followed everything that happened in the story as it went back and forth in time and perspective.

Pierre Cormier is a refugee from Lebanon who did not speak about his past to either of his wives or the son of his first marriage, Cyril.  When he arrives in Canada he follows a priest to Cape Breton and there he graduates (late) from high school and marries his first wife.  He eventually becomes a high powered lawyer for a mining company in Toronto.  He leaves his first wife when Cyril is twelve and marries a woman many years his junior (only four years older than his son).

When Cyril is a teenager, Pierre becomes embroiled in a corporate scandal, is diagnosed with cancer and skulks off to his boat in Cape Breton planning to get out of the limelight for a while.  Instead his boat explodes and he disappears.  Five years later a bone fragment is found in the ocean and he is officially declared dead.

At the reading of the will Cyril, his mother and his father's second wife learn that instead of a funeral Pierre requested a roast at a bar he frequented anyone's knowledge, the Only Cafe.  He also sets out a guest list which includes Ari, an Israeli who he met at the bar who may or may not have known his father in Lebanon.  Curious Cyril visits the bar and meets Ari, hoping he will shed light on his father's past.  Instead he seems to fall into a bigger mystery.

Through Cyril's digging (both to learn about his father and as a journalism intern looking into terrorism) and alternating chapters from Pierre's perspective (as he writes about his past on the boat) we learn of how Pierre was involved in the civil war in Lebanon, including what role he played in the slaughter at Sabra and Shatila.  We are also given clues about how Ari may have been involved, though Ari denies it all (at least until the end, though even then it is never clear whether his "confessions" were truthful or smoke screens).  We also learn about Pierre's last days on the boat and are left wondering whether he is actually dead, if so, whether he took his own life and whether Ari somehow played a role.  Finally we learn a bit about the work scandal Pierre was involved in and why it hit him so hard given his past.

There are also a few interesting side characters - Aggie, Cyril's mother, Lois, Pierre's second wife, Cyril's colleagues, Suzanne and Nader, and an ex-soldier suffering from PTSD who befriends Pierre while he is out on his boat.

I recommend reading this book despite some of the confusion I still suffer from (which I think may be intentional on the author's part).  I was also concerned it would turn into a political piece given the author's journalism background, but I did not find the political spin significant enough to detract from the story-telling.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Accusation by Bandi

This is a fascinating collection of short stories.  It was smuggled out of North Korea and is apparently the first fiction work from North Korea written by someone who is still living under the repressive regime.  The author, not surprisingly, used a pseudonym.

Each short story paints a horrifying picture of the oppression ordinary people in North Korea abide.  Their every move is under surveillance - both overt and covert.  Their present and futures are wholly dictated by the actions (or even perceived actions) of their ancestors.  They suffer from acute hunger. They are forced to suffer even further if any event involving the leader makes its way to their small villages - in one story they are held prisoner in a crowded train station so the tracks can be kept clear for the leader's arrival; in another they must join rallies and celebrations in his honour (even with a toddler who is terrified of the monstrous propaganda posters); and in yet another they are forced to gather flowers in muddy hills to ensure there are sufficient flowers to place on memorials following the death of one leader.  The stories span life under all three generations of this dictatorial regime.

The author also shows the tremendous lengths which the regime goes to in order to brainwash its citizens into believing their lives are superior to those in any other country.  Clearly if the author writes so tellingly, these efforts have failed with him and undoubtedly countless others.

While the writing is at times a little unusual, the book is worth reading just for its historical and political value.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

My Weekend Reads

I read three books over the long weekend, but would really only recommend the last one...

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

This is a fairly standard refugee story except that we never know what country the protagonists begin in and the London and California they land in are somewhat futuristic.  I suppose at its heart this is a love story which shows us the limits of what a relationship can endure.  Saeed and Nadia meet when they are both night students in their unnamed homeland.  Though she is covered from head to toe in black robes, in fact this is a bit of a disguise - intended to keep men away from her as she lives her life independent of her family (and thus estranged from them).  Saeed is really the more gentle and conservative one - he prays regularly and insists on "waiting until marriage".

When war takes its toll on the couple they pay smugglers to help them out of the country.  But all of the smuggling is described as a series of hidden doors which must be found and opened in order to land in a better life on the other side.  Through these doors Saeed and Nadia first land on an idyllic Greek island, but they are not able to stay there for long.

They exit another door and wake up as squatters in a home in London.  This is a futuristic imaginary London where illegal immigrants from all over the world have taken over huge swaths of London - living in mansions and fighting the government which tries to smoke the illegals out by turning off the water and electricity.  In London Saeed has trouble fitting in with the mostly Nigerian families living in the mansion and turns to religion and others from his homeland to try to fit in.  Nadia on the other hand becomes emboldened and politically active - carving a leadership role for herself amongst the Nigerian elder women.

Eventually the couple is forced to go through one further door and ends up in Marin county, California.  They live as squatters in a tent city which has sprouted up in the county.  Again Saeed is drawn further into his community while Nadia drifts further away.  It is in the United States where we see how the couple ultimately fares.

One further note - interspersed with the main story are these bizarre chapters which deal with unidentified people all over the world.  We just get a little snippet of their lives.  I read somewhere the author intends these to show how life goes on for everyone else.  I just found them distracting.

Over all the book was a little too weird for me.  I prefer refugee stories that make it easier to relate to the characters and their surroundings.

The People we Hate at the Wedding by Grant Ginder

This was another book where I just couldn't sympathize with (or really like) any of the characters.  Paul and Alice are siblings living in the US (Philadelphia and LA respectively).  They grew up in suburban Chicago with their mother, Donna, and their now deceased father who was Donna's second husband.  Their half-sister, Eloise, was fathered by Donna's first husband who was a wealthy Frenchman.  So Paul and Alice envy the more glamorous life that Eloise lived while with her father (and with his money).  And now Eloise is getting married in London and the clan must travel there for the festivities.

Alice is happy to go to the wedding despite the resentments she harbours over both Eloise's perceived better life and how Eloise treated her when she had a hard time several years earlier (in case you read the book I won't get into the details so as not to spoil it).  She also tries to convince her married boss who she's having an affair with to come with her.  Of course, he isn't interested.  But she has to spend more energy convincing Paul to come.  He hasn't spoken to his other since shortly after his father's death due to his perception that his mother cut his father out of her life much too abruptly.  In fact, his mother had her reasons which are eventually revealed to both the reader and Paul.  Paul brings his partner with him - and he may be the least likeable character in a cast of not very likeable folks.  He is mean to Paul and only agrees to come to London because he has plans to force Paul into a threesome with a friend in London.

Much angst and hilarity ensues when the family finally gets together.  I will admit there were a few very funny scenes, but they didn't really save the book for me.  We see all kinds of interactions between Eloise and her half siblings, Paul and his odious partner, Alice and her married lover (over the phone since he didn't come) and Donna and her ex-husband.  In the end many misunderstandings are resolved.  And if I have to pick characters I thought helped rather than hurt the relationships it would be Eloise and her fiancé.

I wouldn't really waste my time on this book.

Miss You by Kate Eberlen

In contrast to the other two books, I did really enjoy this one.  The title leads one to believe it is about two people who meet and then miss each other emotionally.  In fact it is about two people who meet and then literally miss each other time and time again as their lives intersect without their knowledge.

Tess and Gus meet in passing when they are travelling in Italy as teenagers.  Tess is there with her best friend, Doll, before she intends to go to college in the fall.  Gus is there with his family as they try to recover from the tragic death of his older brother the previous Christmas.  They meet in a church and exchange glances, later on a bridge where Gus takes Tess and Doll's picture and then briefly when Gus is in line for gelato and Tess suggests he try another place instead.  They then return to England to lead their separate lives.

Gus head to medical school as planned where he befriends Nash who has coincidentally moved into the room in residence which was originally supposed to be Tess's.  Tess never makes it college because her mother has developed ovarian cancer and is dying quickly and Tess must take care of her 5 year old sister, Hope.

For sixteen years Gus and Tess lead their separate lives.  We follow them through love affairs, marriage (in Gus' case), broken engagements (in Tess's) and raising children (Gus, his own, and Tess, her sister).  On numerous occasions they just miss each other or even spot each other without knowing who the other is.  Finally 16 years later they are able to speak to each other again in Italy and they learn how often they missed each other.

I don't think it would help to describe in more detail the separate lives Gus and Tess lived - but they were shared with many flawed but extremely likeable characters - all of the bit players were fascinating.

I definitely recommend this one - not that it's deep literature or anything, but it's a really enjoyable read.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Identicals by Elin Hilderbrand

Elin is one of my favourite summer authors and this book was one of her best yet, in my view.  Of course, you should not expect high literature, just light summer beach romance reading.  I probably liked this one the best as, unlike her other novels which take place only on Nantucket, this one took place on Martha's Vineyard too.  Given my greater familiarity with the Vineyard, I enjoyed picturing where the events were taking place.

As the name suggests this book is about identical twins Tabitha and Harper.  When the girls were 17 their parents divorced and a game of rock paper scissors determined which daughter would live with which parent.  Tabitha ended up on Nantucket and still lives there with her mother and daughter.  She is running a store showcasing her mother's designs and it is doing terribly.  To make matters worse her 16 year old daughter is getting into terrible trouble at school.

Harper lives on the Vineyard with her ailing father, having an affair with a married man, dating another more suitable man and working a dead end job, having made a mess of a more respectable one.

Tabitha and Harper have not spoken for use when fate intervenes and they decide to temporarily switch islands - and try to solve each others problems.  The story of their love lives, attempts to help each other, their relationship with their parents and Tabitha's daughter, as well as a few humorous cases of mistaken identity make for light, fun summer reading.

The One-Hundred Year House by Rebecca Makkai

This book was fascinating, though at times a bit hard to follow, largely because the story is told in reverse chronological order (reminiscent of Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book).  This novel starts in 1999 when Doug, an unemployed writer supposedly working on turning his doctoral dissertation into a publishable work, moves with his wife Zee into the coach house on Zee's mother's property.  Years ago the main house was a colony for visiting artists, including Edwin Parfitt, the poet whose life Doug is chronicling.  Zee is a Marxist poet teaching at a local college (outside Chicago) and plotting the demise of an elderly colleague hoping to create a vacancy for Doug.

All kinds of strange characters emerge - Zee's mother Grace and her eccentric second husband Doug who is obsessed with preparing for the end of the world on Y2K; Doug's unemployed son and his crazy wife who are invited to share the coach house with Zee and Doug; and the elderly colleague who Zee tries to frame but in a strange twist befriends.  The house itself which is rumoured to be haunted by Zee's great grandmother, its original inhabitant, also becomes a character.

Doug is anxious to dig into the archives of the artist colony which he believes are housed in the attic of the main house.  Grace stonewalls him so he schemes with a friend to sneak in while the members of the household are otherwise engaged.  Through his scheming and drunken confessions by Grace, he discovers secrets about his mother-in-law that he can't share with his wife.

The next section of the novel jumps back in time to the 1950s when Grace is banished by her wealthy Canadian family to live in the house with her abusive husband as her punishment for marrying him.  In this section we learn more about the secrets which Grace is trying so desperately to hide from Doug.  We also get a glimpse of how Grace was somewhat supportive of the artist colony but was made the "bad guy" by her family in moving there and forcing it to shut down.

The third section of the book takes place in 1929 when the artist colony is still functioning but Grace's father wants it shut down.  He visits with a very young Grace in tow and becomes the victim of a conspiracy to blackmail him into keeping the colony open - evidence of which Doug finds in the first portion of the book - and which now starts to make sense.  We are also introduced to characters who play a role in the first and second parts of the book - given this history we gain a better understanding of their roles in later years.

The "prologue" of the book which is in fact the last section takes us back to Zee's haunting great grandmother and we discover why she may have felt so unsettled in the house as to haunt its attic forevermore.

I know this review sounds confusing, but I don't want to give too much away - there are still some puzzles in my own mind and if I find some time I may try reading the book again - perhaps even from back to front.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

I was of course drawn to this book by the title - if I ever write another book I hope to think of something that catches the eye so effectively.  However, the title does not oversell - as soon as I started the book I was captivated by the characters and had trouble putting it down.

Nikki is a modern daughter of Sikh immigrants to London from the Punjab.  She has disappointed her deceased father by dropping out of law school and horrified her widowed mother by moving from home to live over and work in a pub in central London.  When Nikki's older sister sends her to Southall, a suburban Sikh enclave, to post an ad for a husband on the temple bulletin board an advertisement for a creative writing teacher catches her eye.

Kulwinder Kaur is in charge of women's programming at the Sikh temple.  She has managed to negotiate funding for a writing class for women which has led to the posting Nikki finds.  With no other applicants she takes a chance on Nikki as she doesn't want to lose the funding.  What she doesn't tell Nikki is who she has rounded up to take the class - Punjabi widows who do not know how to read and write and do not speak English.  However, they have lots of time on their hands and thus are happy to try out the class.

Despite her initial frustrations (and because she doesn't want to admit to her mother she has quit something else) she sticks with the class.  But the women aren't really interested in literacy - they want to tell stories.  So they begin to tell stories which Nikki and one of the literate widows transcribe - and all of the stories are explicit erotica.  Much to her surprise, there is much more to these widows than their highly sheltered and regimented lives would suggest and she befriends and empowers them.

There are many side stories which keep the action interesting.  First, Nikki meets Jason who seems to be a perfect Punjabi match for her, but harbours secrets which she must work around.  Then, Kulwinder's daughter has died in mysterious circumstances which all the characters gossip about and eventually try to sort through.  Next is Nikki's sister's search for the perfect mate as well as the truth behind Nikki's father's final hours.

All in all this book was a great and different read.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

I found this book really gripping - and found out at the end in the Author's Note that several of the characters were based on real people which made the story all the more interesting.

In 1947 Charlie St. Clair is an unmarried 19 year old American girl en route to Switzerland with her mother to receive an illegal abortion.  Her upper class parents have convinced her she is a whore who must take care of the "Little Problem".  But Charlie has other ideas.  Reeling from the suicide of her brother after his wartime experiences she is desperate to find her French cousin, Rose, who was her best friend in childhood but who nobody has heard from since 1943.

Charlie breaks away from her mother in Southampton and finds herself on the doorstep of Eve Gardiner who is the last government employee who wrote a report about the search for Rose when she was reported missing.  Eve is an angry old drunk with misshapen hands who greets Charlie with a loaded gun.  After Charlie pleads her case she allows her to stay on her sofa provided she is gone by the morning.  Charlie falls asleep and is awakened by Finn, a Scottish ex-con, ex-soldier who is now working as Eve's "hands" since she cannot do a lot with her own.  Finn convinces Charlie to stay with promises Eve will not even remember her threats from the prior night.  She does, and shares her story with Finn too.

Eventually the unlikely trio set out to France to find Rose.  In alternating chapters we go back to the first world war where we discover that Eve was in fact a British spy posted in France - part of the Alice Network.  The Alice Network was named for its leader who was code named Alice (but went by Lili) and became one of Eve's best friends.  While Eve is entirely fictional, Alice and the Alice Network actually existed in World War I, becoming one of the most successful spy networks of that war.

Through these alternating chapters we hear of Eve's horrific story and how she went from being a spy to an angry drunk.  We also learn why she has an ulterior motive in joining Charlie's search for Rose - she has her own search to conduct in order to deal with some demons from her past.  Finn also struggles with PTSD from his wartime experiences.  As such, the trio bond and become close despite their immense differences.

In the end we learn with Charlie what has happened to Rose and we hear the end of Eve's wartime story.  Though all the characters are damaged, they are likeable and therefore I found their version of a happy ending quite satisfying.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Our Little Racket by Angelica Baker

I didn't love this book at first, but by the end I really wanted to find out what happened.  Bob D'Amico was a self made man, the CEO of an investment bank, living in luxury with his wife, daughter and twin sons in Greenwich, Connecticut.  Bob's life begins to unravel when his bank is forced into bankruptcy and he is accused of illegal acts which contributed to the company's downfall.

The interesting twist in this book is that the story is told entirely from the perspective of five women who were impacted by Bob's behaviour:  his wife, Isabel; his daughter, Madison; Isabel's friend Mina; Madison's friend, Amanda and the family nanny, Lily.

Isabel came from an established, moneyed WASP family.  Her parents, now dead, never really approved of her marriage or her husband's showy life.  Isabel vacillates between support for Bob and disgust at his behaviour.  She is shunned by her former "friends" and spends countless hours with her father's advisors trying to figure out how he'd have extricated himself from a similar mess.

Madison spends the most time with Bob following his downfall as she tries hard to understand his job so she can defend him.  She is also shunned by some former friends and adopted by new ones who seem to want to use her to obtain information about her father.  Her relationship with Amanda is particularly strained as Amanda's father is a financial columnist who has never liked Bob and now spends his time writing scathing articles about him.  Madison's life is further complicated by the demands of being a typical teenager, albeit in atypical circumstances, and having her first boyfriend.

Lily has been with the family for years in a job which was supposed to be just a stepping stone to something better.  She feels fiercely loyal to the children and is highly critical of how both parents are taking care of their needs in a time of crisis.  She is also under pressure from her boyfriend, who is an aspiring journalist, to use her inside position to tell "the story".

The action all comes to head at a fundraiser about a year after the bank's initial downfall when the family makes its first foray back into Greenwich society.  It is an interesting, though not entirely unpredictable, result when all of the parties come together in one place and Bob is confronted by former employees and friends.

The very last chapter was an epilogue that jumped ahead several years.  It was an interesting synopsis of where everyone ended up and I would have liked a little more detail.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Party by Robyn Harding

This book expertly illustrates how "trying to fit in" and "having it all" can go terribly wrong.  Jeff and Kim Sanders plan a small sweet 16 sleepover for their daughter Hannah.  Kim, who is extremely controlling and prides herself on her mothering, reads the riot act about alcohol, drugs and boys - then has a glass of wine and an Ambient and hears nothing else before Hannah awakes her in tears, blood on her hands.

Jeff  is extremely unhappy in his marriage because he feels Kim is treating him like one of the children after a transgression about a year before.  Behind Kim's back he buys Hannah and her friends a bottle of champagne to share at the party.

Hannah is trying desperately to get in with the popular girls, Lauren and Ronni.  So will do anything to impress them - including asking her other less popular friends to make sure they act like mature "mean girls" too.

Not unexpectedly things get out of control at the party and Ronni is severely injured.  Her single mother is angry and wants to blame someone so sues Jeff and Kim for three million dollars - money they would only have if they liquidate every asset they accumulated in building the comfortable life they so cherish.

The remainder of the book deals with the aftermath of the party and the lawsuit.  It brings to light secrets of many of the people involved and shows the tensions between family members, friends and even co-workers.  I particularly liked the ending which seemed to show growth on the part of the parents, but that Hannah, who during the lawsuit was actually more mature than the adults involved, was still vulnerable to peer pressure.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Secrets in Summer by Nancy Thayer

I know summer has arrived when I get to read the newest novels by my favourite beach read authors. Nancy Thayer's newest was not her best, but I still enjoyed returning to Nantucket for a summer of beaches, secrets, love and flings.

Darcy Cotterill is a 30 year old children's librarian living in her late grandmother's house on Nantucket.  She had a difficult childhood - abandoned by her father and transferred from one flaky relative to another as her mother pursued a string of men.  Eventually at age 10 she ended up with her paternal grandmother Penny in the house in Nantucket where she first felt a sense of security and was able to fully indulge her love of books.

In her early twenties, just shy of completing her degree in library science, Darcy married Boyz, a handsome high flying real estate agent who, together with his close and boisterous family, swept her off her feet.  It wasn't long before Boyz and Darcy realized they were completely incompatible and Boyz left her for Autumn, an older woman with a daughter, Willow.

Darcy is out in her garden one summer when she learns that Boyz, Autumn and Willow have rented the home behind her for the summer.

In the remainder of the book we read about the complex relationship Darcy develops with 14 year old Willow, her elderly summer neighbour and her grandson, the neighbour on the other side whose husband has an affair with Autumn and Darcy's lawyer turned carpenter boyfriend, Nash.  Though it is called the summer of secrets, none of the narrative is terribly surprising.  But that's what makes it a relaxing poolside read.

Blue Trust by Stevie Cameron

This is an old book which I happened to come across and decided it looked interesting.  It tells the rather tragic story of Bruce and Lynne Verchere.  While it is written in a rather sensationalistic journalism style, the story is for the most part compelling.  At times I felt it got bogged down in name dropping and I lost track of who people were, but then the index at the end came in handy for looking back at when a person was first introduced.

Bruce Verchere was a "brilliant" tax lawyer in the late 1980s.  I put the brilliant in quotations as I think many might argue his clever tax planning strategies were too clever and crossed the line.  He formed a law firm in Montreal and tried very hard to get rich and to fit in with the well-to-do Westmount crowd.  His wife was the one who really made the money though.  She was a software expert ahead of her time, particularly for a woman.  And aided by a relationship she nurtured with IBM she developed and sold law firm management software.  Eventually she was able to sell the company for the kind of money Bruce needed to fuel his extravagant lifestyle.

Where Lynne was not so smart, was in trusting her husband's assurances that he was moving her money around for tax and estate planning purposes.  In fact he was robbing her blind - to fuel his relationships with other women and to sate his appetite for the finer things in life (homes, planes, yachts...).  Everything came to head when he fell in love with the daughter of his famous client, Arthur Hailey.  Hailey didn't approve of the relationship as he feared Verchere was after his fortune too, but his daughter was in love and eventually became pregnant with twins.

At this time Verchere's wife clued into the money situation and threatened serious legal consequences unless Bruce left his mistress and returned to her.  He did - abandoning Diane with no money of her own and pregnant with twins.  Verchere wasn't able to last long with his wife and shot himself in the head on the day the twins were born.

This is an interesting story of greed, deception, naiveté and other human failings and how they can get in the way.  It wasn't a fantastic book, more like a long newspaper article, but it had its moments.

Monday, June 5, 2017

War of the Wives by Tamar Cohen

When I returned the last book I read, Dying for Christmas, I didn't have any other books on hand and one by the same author was available so I decided to pick it up.  You should note that the "Tammy" Cohen who wrote Dying for Christmas, is the same person as "Tamar" Cohen who wrote War of the Wives.  In fact I enjoyed this book much more.  While it had the same unexpected plot twists, it was not nearly as dark which is more my style.

Selina has been married to Simon Busfield for 28 years; they have three children, Felix, Flora and Josh.  While Simon spends half his time traveling, Selina keeps busy running her family's lives, decorating her home, exercising and doing charity work.  It is only when she is advised in the middle of the night that Simon has been found drowned in the Thames that she discovers her whole marriage was a sham.  Lottie shows up at his funeral, with her daughter Sadie in tow, claiming to have been married to Simon for 17 years.  Sadie is his daughter.  It turns out that rather than traveling on business half his life, Simon was instead spending it with his other family.

The remainder of the book deals with how the women cope with the enormous betrayal and re-examine their lives in light of the new information.  Interestingly they turn to each other at times - as in fact the other woman is the only one who can fully understand how she feels.  We also see how the children cope with the news of their new half siblings - some better than others.  And we slowly learn of the other secrets Simon had - affairs, money problems, shady business dealings and blackmail.  Finally the mystery of his death is also solved.

I don't want to give away any more of the plot, but I really liked this book.  It is well written, well paced and the characters are fascinating.  I recommend this one over her other book if you are only choosing to read one.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Dying for Christmas by Tammy Cohen

Though this book is not my usual style, it came highly recommended by an acquaintance so I decided to give it a try.  It is a psychological thriller, or maybe best described as a character study.  It reminded me most of Gone Girl the way all my assumptions were turned around in the second half.  In some ways I thought it was better written as the twists were even more unpredictable.  That being said, it should not surprise you that my review will be brief so I do not ruin the suspense for anyone who decides to read this.

The story revolves around Jessica Gould who is kidnapped by Dominic Lacey on Christmas Eve.  Dominic intends to keep her prisoner for the twelve days of Christmas and gives her one bizarre gift after another every day.  The gifts give us insight into Dominic's dark past - in fact it is almost a lesson in how to make and detect a psychopath.  However, Jessica is so weird (she hears voices, seemingly blacks out and forgets large parts of her days...) that it was hard for me to develop as much sympathy for her as I probably should have.

The action alternates between Dominic and Jessica's story and that of Kim, the police officer assigned to the missing person's case when Jessica's family reports her mysterious disappearance.  Kim is struggling with her own issues as she tries to advance in the force at the expense of her marriage and family.  I found these interludes a welcome break from the dark descriptions of what occurred in Dominic's "prison".  It is through Kim that we also learn more about Jessica's boyfriends, parents, brothers and nieces and nephews.  These characters give us more insight into her and her past and show why she was likely somewhat vulnerable to Dominic's charms.

By the end we get a clear picture of all of the characters and what transpired in the days leading up to the kidnapping - and it was all believable though very surprising.  I wouldn't read this unless you have the stomach for some rather dark descriptive passages.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

I, Who Did Not Die by Zahed Haftling and Najah Aboud with Meredith May

This is the true story of two men: Zahed, a child soldier in the Iranian army and Najah, a conscript in the Iraqi army.  The men first meet when Najah is injured in attack by the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war.  Zahed, a medic, is ordered to recover any Iranians injured or killed in the operation and to shoot any live Iraqis.  He comes across Najah and points his gun at him.  Unable to communicate in Farsi, Najah tries to plead for his life in Arabic.  The only word Zahed understands is "Muslim".  Najah is trying to convey that he is a fellow Muslim and to have mercy.  He then shows Zahed his Koran in which he has placed a photo of his fiancée and their son.  Zahed is moved by the picture and puts down his gun.  His mercy does not stop there - he risks his own life in an effort to save Najah's.  Eventually he has no choice but to turn Najah over to the authorities where he becomes a prisoner of war - for 17 years.  Toward the end of the war, Zahed is also captured by the Iraqis and becomes a prisoner for just over 2 years.  Both men are ultimately released as part of prisoner exchanges long after the war ends.  Struggling to survive in their own countries, they each take separate paths and end up refugee claimants in Vancouver.  Somewhat miraculously they meet in the waiting room of a mental health institute for victims of torture.  Zahed himself is a patient as in a state of despair he has tried to kill himself; Najah is there with his father who is struggling with adjusting to a new life.  Here Najah is able to finally repay Zahed by helping him find his footing in Canada.

The book alternates chapters from the perspective of each of the men.  It starts before the war and tells of the abusive family that Zahed tries to escape by joining the army and the relatively successful middle class life Najah lives running a falafel restaurant.  We then hear of their experiences as soldiers, their finding and losing love and their ill treatment as prisoners.  It really paints a picture of a pointless war with significant suffering on both sides.  And it shows how even in these horrific circumstances some level of humanity survives.

While it was sometimes hard to read the details of torture suffered by both men, this was ultimately a really fascinating read.  And has an ending that is stranger than fiction.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Hope has Two Daughters by Monia Mazigh

Monia Mazigh is better known for her tireless efforts to gain the release of her husband, Maher Arar, who was deported to Syria where he was tortured and held without charge.  However, she is an accomplished woman in her own right - she has a Ph.D. in finance from McGill and, prior to this book, published both a memoir and another novel.

According to the author, Hope has Two Daughters, is not autobiographical but is drawn on some of her childhood memories of growing up in Tunisia.  In alternating chapters the book moves back and forth in time from 1984 where we learn of Nadia's experiences during the bread and cous cous riots at that time to 2010 where we follow her daughter Lila on her trip back to her mother's homeland to learn Arabic.  There she becomes caught up in the start of Arab Spring.

Nadia led a sheltered, lower middle class life until her friend Neila fell in love with Manour, a poor law student caught up in the activism of the time.  For organizing a protest against the government by dock workers, Manour is sentenced to 7 years in prison.  This leads Nadia to question her life and the way her parents just accept their fate, whether they like it or not.

Lila, who grew up very comfortable in Ottawa with her Tunisian mother and Canadian father, is similarly awakened when trouble breaks out in Tunisia while she is there, learning Arabic and living with Neila and Manour.

This is an interesting story of how even the most sheltered women are impacted by living under dictatorship, and how even their small contributions can help bring about change.  While that sounds somewhat hopeful, the less optimistic aspect of the book is how in some ways there was little change at all between the 1984 and 2010 riots - and the implication that the more recent riots may also have less impact than their participants wish.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

At first I had a hard time getting into this book; by the end I had a hard time putting it down.  The novel starts in 1988 in a small mountain community in rural China, not far from the border with Myanmar.  Li-Yan is the youngest child and only daughter of poor tea farmers; her mother is the local midwife.  It is assumed Li-Yan will follow in her mother's footsteps.  Instead she shows a real talent for learning and is encouraged by the local school teacher (a city man sent to the countryside as part of the cultural revolution) to further her education; perhaps even one day earning a spot in a university.

The community Li-Yan lives in is part of a small minority in China - they are governed by centuries old traditions and superstitions; some of which seem unnecessarily harsh.  But her mother is a strong character who encourages both her education and her connection with ancient tea trees which were passed down on the female side of her family.  

With her mother's help Li-Yan gives birth to a child out of wedlock and leaves her on the steps of an orphanage in a nearby town (when tradition would have required the women to kill the baby).  The baby girl is adopted by an American couple and moves to California.  After the adoption the novel follows both mother and daughter.

Li-Yan eventually becomes a skilled tea trader; while her daughter searches for clues behind a cake of tea that was left with her at the orphanage door.

I don't want to give away any more than that about the ending because I encourage you to read the book.  The end is satisfying if perhaps a bit predictable.  I really liked Li-Yan's character as well as her mother, husband and mother-in-law.  This is worth the early struggle to get to the end.  Though I will caution that sometimes the descriptions of the tea business and the history of tea were a bit tedious and I needed to skim those parts.  It didn't take away from my overall enjoyment of the novel.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

White Elephant by Catherine Cooper

I struggled through this book because I thought I would gain further insight into the screwed up characters - but it wasn't really worth it in the end.

Ann and Richard and their 13 year old son Tor have moved from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone so Richard can fulfil his lifelong dream of using his medical degree to help those less fortunate.  But Sierra Leone is on the brink of civil war making it rather dangerous and life has not worked out well for any of them.  Richard doesn't get along with his partner - a medical school colleague who he had planned to join for years, but who doesn't take him seriously since he himself is African and views Richard as an outsider trying to impose his western views about female circumcision, herbalists and other local traditions.

Ann seems to be suffering from environmental illnesses which she believes are brought on by mould in their damp house (which was also a problem for her in Nova Scotia).  But Richard believes she is faking.  She is also trying to come to terms with the affair her husband had just before their departure from Nova Scotia and is angry all the time.  She is also trying to avoid the CRA who wish to conduct an audit - and she is hiding this from Richard who is less in tune with their financial situation back home.

Tor is very unhappy to be in Africa and thus exceeding rebellious, particularly against his father who, in fairness, is rather cruel to him.  Ann is sometimes overly protective and at other times also cruel to him.  He has trouble making friends as he is white and therefore so different thus is only able to hang out with a local troublemaker.  He goes on a hunger strike to express his opposition which makes him even more miserable.

The jacket of the book says we will discover why they left home and can't go back but that is revealed fairly early on and I kept hoping for more, but there wasn't really more.

The only sort of interesting piece was the comparison of the Christian missionary practices to the local superstitions - though both parties were suspicious of each other, they actually were not so different.

I wouldn't really bother with this book.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Forty Autumns by Nina Willner

I loved this book - especially because it put such a human face on the history I learned on a recent trip to Berlin.

The author's mother, Hanna, escaped the repressive regime in East Germany when she was 20 years old.  In doing so she left behind her parents, grandparents and 8 siblings.  Following the reunification of Germany, the author painstakingly researched her family history to learn about what life was like from the end of World War II until the families were reunited in the late 1980s.  Herself a retired army intelligence officer with an expertise in the former Soviet Union, Willner adeptly weaves historical context into the family's story.

While this is obviously a story of the terrible effects of living in a totalitarian dictatorship, it also shows the incredible strength of family which all members draw upon to survive.  The author's grandmother drilled into her children that they must always stick together; that the family needed its own wall to keep spies and suspicions out and to create a safe space for airing ones real views.  The bonds she created were so strong that Hanna's youngest sister Heidi, who was born after her escape and only met her once when at age five she and her mother were granted a pass to visit Hanna in West Germany, looked up to Hanna and tried to emulate her courage until they were able to meet again.  This was even true when Heidi's daughter was selected to represent East Germany in sports and Heidi was forced to cut off all direct communication with Hanna in order to protect her daughter's position.

While Heidi's grandmother's strength of character held the family together, I also empathized with her grandfather who tried so hard to get along within the Communist regime but at times could not help himself from expressing his true feelings (he was a well educated teacher and headmaster), much to his personal disadvantage.

One interesting story that stuck out for me was when the author's brother was backpacking across Europe during college and, with a friend who held a diplomatic passport, was able to wander into East Germany and contact the family.  The large extended family gathered together immediately and welcomed him into their midst for two days.  Unfortunately his grandmother had passed away only months before.  Interestingly, before she died she predicted that Heidi and Hanna would one day be reunited.  When they finally were, they both felt her presence with them.

All in all this was a great story of one family, but also an important lesson in broader history.  I learned a lot about the East German regime that was unfamiliar to me.  And it made me appreciate even more the immense task it was to reunify the country.  I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in history and/or family.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutsukake

Overall I liked this book, but at times it was a bit slow.  The novel was set in post-War Tokyo when General MacArthur and the US occupation forces were attempting to bring order and democracy to Japan.

The stories of several people are intertwined.  The main characters include Aya and her father, Japanese Canadians who elected to return to Japan following internment in the interior of BC, rather than starting over again east of the Rockies.  Aya is sent to middle school where she is mocked for her unfamiliar past and strangely accented Japanese.  Aya is told to sit next to Fumi, a tough talking girl who initially only makes fun of her.  We quickly learn that Fumi is hiding her own pain - her sister, Sumi, has disappeared into Tokyo's red light district and Fumi wants to get her back.  Fumi enlists Aya to write an English letter to General MacArthur begging his assistance in bringing her sister home.

The letter is intercepted by Matt, a Japanese American working as a translator for the occupation forces.  He and his colleagues translate the hundreds of letters sent by ordinary Japanese citizens to MacArthur - asking for assistance or merely sending their good wishes for the holidays or his birthday.  Matt feels badly for Fumi and, rather than delivering the letter, tries to find Sumi, at times with the assistance of Nancy, a Japanese American typist who works with him and who was stranded in Japan during the war as she had returned to care for an ailing relative.

The other person involved in translations is Fumi and Aya's teacher, Kondo.  To make extra money he translates letters in "Love Letter Alley" where Japanese women try to send letters to their GI boyfriends or to understand the letters they have received.  At one point Sumi comes to him for a translation of her own, but only later does Kondo learn the connection with his student.

I found the premise of the book as well as the glimpse of post-War Tokyo interesting and original.  At times the narrative dragged a bit so it's not like I was always dying to see what would happen next, but overall the book was well written and reasonably interesting.

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Book that Matters Most by Ann Hood

I really enjoyed this book - it was part mystery, part character study and part book club.  The premise of the book and the reason for the title is that the main character, Ava, joins a new book club.  She has just split from her husband who left her for another woman and has only half paid attention to the instructions for the book club chaired by her good friend.  Thus when she arrives to the first meeting, really hoping to make some friends and fill her time, she is surprised to discover she must provide her book suggestion for the group.  And the theme is the book that has mattered most to you in your life.  Not at all prepared for the question, Ava blurts out the name of a book that helped her during a difficult year of her childhood (her younger sister died falling out of a tree and a year later her mother committed suicide).

The problem is that as members of the book club search for the book they have trouble finding it.  So Ava blurts out that the author has agreed to speak to the club.  The only problem is that both the author and the book's publisher seem to have disappeared.  Ava's search for them leads to her further examining that horrible year in her childhood - including interacting with the now retired police officer who investigated the case.

Interwoven with this story is that of the story of Ava's daughter, Maggie.  Maggie is a twenty year old who has been in trouble with drugs, alcohol and boys since she was a young teenager.  Her parents think she is better and have sent her to Florence for an art history program.  Shortly after starting the program she follows a boy to Paris and gets in deeper with the wrong man and drug addiction.  All this time she hides where she is from her parents by posting on social media about her fabricated adventures in art school.  Ava is worried but it takes a considerable amount of time before she learns where Maggie really is.

Ava eventually decides to travel to Paris where she finds answers to Maggie's whereabouts as well as further clarification about her past.  I felt I should have guessed the ending a little earlier than I did, but I didn't so I won't share it here.  Suffice it to say I found it fascinating the way loose ends were tied together.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Break by Katherena Vermette

This is another one of those books about the indigenous experience that should be required reading for all Canadians.  It is not a historical book as many are, but is set in present day Winnipeg - in the seedier parts of the North End.  Most of the characters are members of the Metis community.

The strength of this book is in its characters - predominantly female, all remarkably resilient.  The chapters are written from a multitude of different perspectives which, by the end of the book, illuminate what happened on one fateful night.  The story starts with Stella - in the middle of the night she looks out her window and sees what she believes to be is a young girl getting raped in the snow.  She calls the police to alert them to the trouble - they take hours to arrive and assume she is exaggerating or mistaken and has only seen petty gang violence.

But as the story progresses we see what happened in the lead up to this event from the perspective of Stella's family, friends and the young police officer investigating.

The strength of the characters begins at the top with Flora, known as Kookom, the matriarch of the family.  At various times all of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren turn to her for comfort and support.  The other perspectives we see are her daughter, Cheryl, who is an artist trying to survive her split from her husband and the death of her sister (and Stella's mother).  She turns to alcohol, but also family and friends.

Cheryl has two daughters.  Lou is a social worker with two children whose long time boyfriend has just returned "home to the bush".  She tries hard to be tough and professional but even she breaks down in the face of the events surrounding the assault which Stella witnessed.  Paulina is her younger, softer, sister who has one daughter and is in a new relationship with a man who she desperately wants to trust.  Stella is their cousin.

We also hear from Cheryl's best friend, Rita, Paulina's daughter, Emily, the Metis police officer and Phoenix, a homeless teenager who has just been released from a youth detention centre.  By the end we understand the relationships between the characters, both in their pasts and in the present.  It's interesting that the only male who narrates a chapter is the police officer - and even he draws his strength from his mother.  If this sounds complicated it's partly because I don't want to give too much away.  I can tell you it is aided by a family tree at the front of the book which I referred to regularly.

I really recommend this book - to show how strength of character and family bonds, particularly between women, can help people cope with and survive terrible tragedy - and you are left with the hope that they will thrive rather than just survive.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

This was a really interesting book about poverty, race, gender, sexual abuse and relationships.  The book is told from the perspective of a young woman looking back on her life after she is fired from her job (this is revealed in the prologue so is not a spoiler).  Now that I look back on the 450 page book, I'm not even sure we ever learned the narrator's name - this may have been the point as she never seemed to develop and independent personality, but rather lived in the shadows of others.

The narrator, whose mother is black and father is white, meets Tracey, whose mother is white and father is black, when they are children living in low income housing in London in the 1970s or 80s.  Both are registered for dance classes at a local church, but only Tracey shows any talent.  That doesn't really seem to bother the narrator as much as you would expect - and neither does the fact that Tracey is for the most part a mean spirited liar and not much of a friend.  Though we are given the chance to sympathize with Tracey somewhat when we see how difficult her childhood is - particularly her relationship with her drug dealing father who is in and out of prison.

The book travels back and forth in time - we know early on that Tracey and the narrator had a falling out when they were in their early 20s, and the back and forth chapters eventually show us what happened.  We also see the narrator's experience with high school (while Tracey is allowed to go to dance school, the narrator's activist and educated mother makes her pursue a more academic course); university (where she studies media and has her first relationship - with a man who also keeps her firmly in his shadow); her first job working for YTV and finally her job as an assistant to Aimee, an Australian pop sensation.  Aimee is a self-absorbed, rich woman who thinks she can change the world with her money and reputation.  She takes advantage of all those around her, including the narrator, in order to achieve her ends.  Her special project is building a school for girls in Gambia and she travels there several times with her entourage in tow.

While Aimee's intentions are good, she pays no attention to the problems she has created by working with a dictatorial government, bettering girls at the expense of boys, ignoring cultural conventions and becoming personally involved with a teacher much her junior.  The narrator and others are left to deal with the aftermath of Aimee's whirlwind visits.  There we see the narrator develop relationships with the local people as well as others on Aimee's team.  It is one of these relationships that ultimately leads to her firing.

In addition to the main story there were some interesting side stories.  I particularly liked the story of the narrator's mother and how she put herself through university, worked as an activist and eventually made her way into municipal and federal politics.  She was a strong role model - though she also put the narrator, as well as her partners, in the shadows so did not help the narrator in developing her own personality.  I also found the story of how the poor people in the Gambia became vulnerable to Muslim radicalization due to their poverty, lack of education and lack of options.

All in all this was an interesting book, but really because of all the interesting characters and less so because of the narrative.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

It's hard to know where to begin in reviewing such a complex novel.  I'll start with the simple:  in past years I have been disappointed by the Giller winners; this was a very satisfying exception.  I loved the book.  It is, however, very dense, almost an epic, and it took me quite a while to read it.  I found I couldn't read for long stretches (until the very end where I really wanted to know what happened) and that sometimes meant I forgot small but crucial facts that had previously happened.  So I had to go back and search for them.  I was glad I was not reading on an e-reader.

The book starts in Vancouver in 1989.  Marie is 10 years old and her father has just left his marriage, returned to Hong Kong and killed himself (I'm not giving anything away - this was revealed in the first paragraph).  Shortly after, Ai-Ming, a young woman who has fled China following her involvement in the Tiananmen Square massacre, arrives on Marie's doorstep and is given a temporary home by Marie and her mother.

Ai-Ming befriends Marie and begins to tell her the history of her family.  It begins when Marie's father is a child and his mother and aunt are singers in teahouses just as Mao is coming to power.

The story then follows Chinese history as seen through the eyes of Ai-Ming's father, Sparrow, his cousin Zhuli and their friend Kai.  We are also introduced to many other of Sparrow's friends and relatives.  Sparrow is a brilliant composer, his cousin a violinist and Kai a pianist.  All are successful at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in the 1960s - until Mao's forces decide they are too "rightist" for his society and they are forced to make enormous changes in their lives.

There are vivid descriptions of life under Mao - from work camps to raids in the cities to forced work reassignments and punishment of children for the "sins" of their fathers.  While individuals attempt to remain loyal to their friends and family members, the pressure to survive almost makes that impossible.

The book also travels from Shanghai to remote villages in China and ultimately to Beijing where Sparrow's family is swept up in the 1989 demonstrations.  As Ai-Ming's family's story slowly unfolds we eventually learn her connection to Marie's family and come to understand why she has sought shelter with them.

But Ai-Ming eventually also moves on and Marie, as an adult, is left to search for the ending on her own - eventually travelling to Shanghai and meeting some of the "actors" in Ai-Ming's story and piecing together what led to her father's suicide.

Throughout the book, there is also constant reference to an allegorical "Book of Records" - I found that part a little hard to understand other than it was meant to be a representation of the lives of Ai-Ming and Marie's family members searching the world for each other and ultimately where they are meant to be in their own lives.  I did like how it wove the narrative together as various characters searched for and found chapters and used copies of the book to deliver secret messages to each other.

All in all I really enjoyed this book - just don't expect it to be a quick or light read.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

This was a fantastic first novel about the "American Dream" and how it can go terribly wrong.  The main characters are Jendi and Nene, immigrants to New York City from Cameroon.  Jendi arrived on a visitor's visa and overstayed his welcome - he is working with a lawyer of questionable morals and skill to make an asylum claim.  Nene is studying at a local community college and dreams of becoming a pharmacist.

For a while things look good for the couple - Jendi gets a job as a chauffeur for a Wall Street executive, Clark Edwards.  He is paid more money than he has ever received driving Clark, his wife Cindy and their sons Vince and Mighty.  Nene even makes extra money by spending the summer with Cindy in the Hamptons working as an assistant housekeeper.

The problem with the dream is that Clark works at Lehmann Brothers, which eventually implodes.  The book examines how this business failure destroyed so many lives, both directly and indirectly.  Not only is Clark affected by the closure, but his stress and overwork has a terrible impact on his wife and sons.  And it results in job loss for Jendi, and Clark's secretary and others who must now struggle to find work in a recessionary economy.  Jendi is not even able to return to work as a cab driver as there is more demand for driving jobs than there are cabs on the roads.

So Jendi and Nene have to figure out how to go forward with less money and an uncertain immigration status.  The American dream they had strived for their whole lives does not turn out at all as expected.  And terrible things happen to both their family and the Edwards family, whose fates have become intertwined more than one would expect from and employer-employee relationship.

I don't want to give away the ending - I will just say it is not your typical happy immigration story.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Today Will be Different by Maria Semple

At first I found this book a little bit weird, but after the first few chapters I was hooked - or at least hooked enough to be quite curious about what the protagonist, Eleanor Flood, was hiding.

Eleanor wakes up one morning and decides it's time to become a better version of herself - so she dresses well, does her hear and make up and vows to be more attentive to her son and husband.  She also resigns herself to keep a lunch date with a friend who she doesn't really like.

But everything is thrown into turmoil when her son feigns sickness to spend the day with her, her husband is has mysteriously told his office he was on vacation, but not his family and her lunch date is not with her long time friend but with a person from her past who dredges up painful memories in front of her son.

The rest of the book deals with Eleanor's efforts to find out what's up with her husband as well as alternating chapters which tell us the difficulties of Eleanor's childhood and the trauma she has been trying to hide from her son (and herself).

The writing style is very odd - first person perspective from a weird character, but in the end I did enjoy the story and sympathized with Eleanor's issues.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

This is the best book I have read in a long time.  The "mothers" in the title has many layered meanings.  First, it refers to the female elders of a church just outside San Diego which is frequented by the three main characters and their families.  But it also refers to seventeen year old Nadia Turner's mother who has just committed suicide when the story begins.  And it refers to her best friend, Aubrey's, mother who neglected her and turned a blind eye when she was the target of abuse by her mother's boyfriend.  It could also refer to Aubrey's older sister who takes her in when she finally leaves her abusive childhood behind and, who extends her care to Nadia when she is desperately in need of mothering.  It could also refer to Luke Sheppard's mother.  Luke, the pastor's son, is Nadia's hidden boyfriend when she is 17 and his mother's meddling arguably impacted both of their lives forever.  Finally, it can refer to Nadia and Aubrey themselves who have complicated relationships with motherhood as they age.

At 17, Luke and Nadia's relationship, and choices they make, lead to a secret that haunts everyone into adulthood.  The book follows Nadia, Luke and Aubrey through college and adulthood as their relationships with each other change and the secrets they've all kept begin to unravel.

The book is mostly written from Nadia's perspective, but there are occasional passages from the perspective of the church mothers which advance the narrative through the years and provide us with information that Nadia couldn't know.

I don't want to give much more information as it could spoil the secrets, but this is a fascinating look into complex relationships, particularly those between mothers and their children.  I highly recommend it.  The writing style is unique, but easy to read.  The characters are flawed but very human.  I was taken in right from the start.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Serial Monogamy by Kate Taylor

It seems every book I read lately shifts back and forth in time and place.  This one is no different.

The main storyline is about Sharon, a wife and mother of twin girls who is also a successful romance novelist.  Her comfortable life is shattered when first her husband leaves her for a graduate student and then she is diagnosed with breast cancer.

While she is recovering from chemotherapy, she is offered a job writing a serial fiction piece for a local newspaper.  She decides to write about the young mistress of Charles Dickens.  So most of the story alternates between present day Toronto where Sharon struggles with her failing marriage and her serious illness and Victorian England where we learn about Dickens from the perspective of his much younger lover.  However, there are also other interludes - a few chapters which look at the perspective of Dickens' wife, two longer pieces that are adaptations of the Persian The Thousand and One Nights, and some which I found particularly interesting and ultimately surprising from the perspective of Shay, a Canadian graduate student living in London and studying Dickens' wife.  The epilogue is also from the perspective of the graduate student with whom Sharon's husband has his affair.

I found it really interesting how I had to keep changing mindsets to follow the different storylines.  At first I shied away from the book because I didn't like the sound of the historical sections, but I ended up finding them quite compelling.  However, the present day chapters were the most touching to me.

In all I quite enjoyed this book.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

This was a really interesting depiction of two families whose lives become intertwined one fateful day.  Fix, a Los Angeles police officer, and his wife, Beverly, throw a christening party for their second daughter, Franny.  Bert Cousins, a deputy district attorney, married father of four with one on the way, shows up as an uninvited guest.  When he first lays eyes on Beverly, he wants her immediately.  They get together, move to Virginia with Beverly and Fix's two daughters and change the lives of both families forever.

In particular, Bert's four children spend part of the summer in Virginia with Beverly's daughters and the six children are essentially left unsupervised.  Ultimately tragedy strikes one of the children which affects their lives, and the lives of their four parents, forever.

This book also travels back and forth in time - we see Franny as an adult looking after Fix as he suffers cancer in old age.  We see the relationship she and her sister have had over time with Bert's four children and his ex-wife.  Franny had told the story of her family to a novelist with whom she was involved and eventually the story makes its way to the big screen and we see how Fix reacts to seeing it with his daughter on his 83rd birthday.  There are also chapters dealing with what happened to all of the children in the intervening years.

It's hard to summarize much more without giving away key parts of the story - but if you like books about complex family relationships, that are part humorous and part sad, you will enjoy this book.

The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa

This was a different take on the Holocaust story - some of it quite familiar and usual; other parts more  imaginative.

The book follows the lives of two girls whose paths cross once one is already elderly.  The first is Hannah Rosenthal.  She is a Jewish girl living in a privileged family in Berlin, until 1939.  When the Nazis take over, and place more and more restrictions on Jews, her family uses all available resources to get visas to leave.  Eventually Hannah, her father, her pregnant mother and her best friend Leo and his father get visas to Cuba and passage on the infamous SS St. Louis.  Hannah and her mother get the "right kind of visa" and are allowed to disembark in Havana.  Her father, Leo and his father are turned back to Europe, with predictable results.

The second girl we meet is Anna.  She lives with only her mother as her father was killed on 9/11, before knowing Anna had even been conceived.  She lives with the shadow of his death and her mother's depression - talking every night to the only photo of her father that she keeps by her bed.  Anna's mother is roused from despair when the pair get a letter from Hannah.  It turns out she is the aunt who raised Anna's father in Havana.  The pair travel to Havana and there learn more about the lives of Hannah, her brother (Anna's grandfather) and Anna's father.  We also learn how Hannah's father came to have the midtown Manhattan apartment which Anna and her mother now reside in.

The story travels back and forth in time and place - from Berlin to New York, from 1939 to 2011, from on board the very luxurious St. Louis, to Cuba both before and after the communist revolution.

The book was interesting - you couldn't help but admire Hannah's immense spirit in the face of a life time of tragedies.  As I said at the beginning some of the Holocaust parts were rather predictable, but the connections to Cuba and 9/11 were imaginative and kept me focused.