Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Arrivals by Meg Mitchell Moore

While not action packed, this novel is an interesting study in the dynamics of grown up children and their parents.

Ginny and William are empty nesters living in Vermont when one summer all of their adult children, as well as their two young grandchildren descend upon them.

Their eldest, Lillian brings her three year old child and her newborn as she has just found out her husband cheated on her.  While Ginny and William are doting grandparents, and are concerned about their daughter even though she hasn't confided in them about her husband's infidelity, they do struggle with the noise and disorder that accompanies the visitors.  And they constantly try to find out how long they plan to stay - with no success.  For her part, Lillian is trying - she misses her husband though has not forgiven him and won't agree to see him (or to let him see the children).  Over the course of the book you see how she works through this - with the help of a childhood friend and the local priest.

Next Ginny and William's son, Stephen, and his pregnant wife Jane show up.  There is much tension between Ginny and Jane - Ginny can't quite relate to her daughter-in-law who is a workaholic and the primary breadwinner in the family.  Stephen is afraid to admit that it is he who will stay home with the baby.  The tension is exacerbated when Jane is ordered to stay in bed for the remainder of her pregnancy - not even able to return to her New York home.

Finally, the youngest daughter Rachel shows up - she has broken up with her live-in boyfriend, suffered a miscarriage and is floundering in her job.  Ginny clearly wants to mother her baby - she is better suited to caring for a woman who needs her than a woman like Jane.

The whole book just follows the lives of these people through the course of this one summer when they're all living on top of each other.

I recommend this if you like books heavy on family dynamics.

Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce

This book sounded promising from the description, but I really couldn't get into it.  I think the main problem was I didn't like the protagonist - she seemed naive, reckless or maybe just plain stupid.

Set in London in 1940, Emmy Lake is working as a receptionist and volunteering as a a telephone operator for the Auxiliary Fire Service to do her bit for the war.  However, she dreams of being a war correspondent like the women who reported on the Spanish Civil War.  So when she sees an ad for a job with the London Evening Chronicle she jumps at the opportunity without fully investigating the nature of the work.  Rather that reporting, she is hired as a typist for a flailing women's magazine's elderly advice columnist.

Though she tries, Emmy becomes frustrated in the job almost immediately because Mrs. Bird refuses to respond to any letters containing "Unpleasantness", which she has defined rather broadly.  When Emmy is unable to convince her to reconsider, she takes the reckless path of answering "Unpleasant" letters herself, though forging Mrs. Bird's signature.  Not only does she reply privately but she sneaks a couple into the magazine, naively hoping Mrs. Bird will never find out.  What really happens is not particularly surprising...though there is an attempt to make Emmy's disciplinary meeting a comedy of errors.

There are several other side stories - Emmy's broken engagement and new relationship with her colleague's brother as well as her relationship with her roommate who strongly advises Emmy against answering these letters.  Emmy's bad judgment doesn't stop her from lecturing her roommate's fiancé about the unnecessary risks she thinks he's taking as a firefighter.  At least his risks save people from burning buildings!

All in all I wouldn't really recommend this one.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Us Against You by Fredrik Backman

This is a sequel to the popular book, Beartown, and as with that book there is not much I can include in this review as I don't want to give too much away.

The action picks up shortly after the events in Beartown (with the exception of the epilogue of that book which gave us insight several years into the future).  As a result of the key player of the Beartown hockey team having been accused of rape, the team is in danger of falling apart as most of the key players have moved to play for the rival Hed team.  The Beartown general manager, Peter, is left to try to save the team.

He is given some unlikely help (though it's hard to even tell if it's help at all that he's receiving) from a local city councillor who seems to be working for all sides in a complicated effort to further his political career.  As part of the rebuilding effort, Peter is given a female coach, Elizabeth Zackell, who is a great hockey player but not much of a people person.  She must also face the prejudices of the town given her gender.  Three key players on the proposed team are mostly familiar from the first book - Amat, the small and young but fast player who spoke out against the accused rapist; Benji, the former best friend of the accused rapist who did not take his side and continues to hide his gender identity; and Bobo, a strong enforcer but not great skater who defended Amat in a fight against those who supported the accused rapist thus cementing their friendship.  Added to that is Vidar, who is the younger half brother of a local gang member who has just served time in juvenile detention.

The book also reintroduces other characters we have met before - Maya, the rape victim and Peter's daughter as well as Peter's wife and son; Amat and Bobo's mothers as well as Bobo's father; Benji's mother and 4 sisters; Maya's best friend Ana; the old woman who runs the local bar as well as the regulars at the bar.  It takes reading the whole book to decide who the "good guys" and the "bad guys" are in this one which is part of what makes it such an engaging read.

Like the past book, the chapters and small sections within chapters are written from dozens of perspectives - sometimes it even takes a short re-read to figure out who is narrating at any given time.  This is another writing technique that makes the book hard to get into at first but hard to put down once you do as you really want to figure out how all the perspectives fit together.

If you liked Beartown, I recommend this for you. And though you could read it as a standalone, I think it's much better if you've read the first one.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Other People's Houses by Abbi Waxman

After reading the heavy Washington Black, this book was a good "palate cleanser".  Light and humorous but still a worthwhile read.  The book is written from the perspective of several neighbours  though the primary narrator is the mother who drives the carpool for all of them, Frances.  Frances is the frazzled stay at home mother to three children, a 14 year old daughter who has just turned into a typical eye-rolling, moody teenager, a 10 year old easy going son and a 4 year old daughter.  Frances' marriage is somewhat staid and boring, but very solid.

One morning Frances walks into her neighbour Anne's house to find her in the midst of oral sex with a man who is definitely not Anne's husband.  Frances resolves to keep it to herself, but is unable to do so when Anne's husband, Charlie, finds out about the affair and throws her out of the house.  Charlie is devastated though still in love with his wife and struggles to deal with his children who are 6 and 10.

The other interesting families on the block are Frances' cousin, her wife and their 6 year old son.  They are struggling with whether or not to have another child.  The carpool is rounded out by Bill's 4 year old son.  Bill's wife mysteriously disappeared several months ago and none of the nosey neighbours know why.

The book is essentially the fallout of Anne's affair and the impact it has on the whole carpool.  The interactions are very funny yet believable.  This is no great work of literature but it's a fun read.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Most years I read the Giller prize winner and, often, I am very disappointed.  In the odd year I don't even bother as I can tell from the description the book won't be for me.  But not this year - Washington Black was a fantastic book and Edugyan was highly deserving of the prize.  I will say I also enjoyed her previous winning novel, Half-Blood Blues, but I think this one was better.

When the action begins Washington Black is an eleven year old slave on a Barbados sugar plantation.  The ownership of the plantation has recently changed hands and the slaves are treated very cruelly.  Washington keeps his head down and tries to survive with the protection of Big Kit, an adult female slave.  Early on she suggests suicide might be a better alternative for them and paints for Washington a beautiful picture of how it will lead to freedom.  However, when another slave attempts suicide he is severely punished and Big Kit abandons that plan.

One night Big Kit and Wash are asked to serve a meal in the big house.  There Wash is singled out by the plantation owner's eccentric brother, Titch, who is an abolitionist and a scientist.  Wash is sent to live with Titch and to aid in his scientific experiments - which for the most part revolve around crafting a hot air balloon with the capacity to cross an ocean.  Wash is fearful of living with Titch, but for the most part is treated well.

However, one night a man dies in circumstances that place Wash under suspicion and Titch decides to risk his family's wrath by helping Wash to escape the island.  They travel in Titch's not fully perfected hot air balloon and make a crash landing on a cargo ship which carries them to the eastern US.  There they run from a bounty hunter who has been charged with finding Wash, dead or alive.  Ultimately with the assistance of the underground railroad they make their way to the Canadian Arctic where Titch's father, who he thought was dead, is conducting his own research.  There Titch ultimately abandons Wash who spends the rest of his life trying to recover from that.

Though ostensibly free, Wash lives in constant fear for his life as he believes the bounty hunter is after him even years after slavery was abolished in Barbados.  He travels to Atlantic Canada where he becomes the assistant to another scientist, and the lover to his daughter.  Together they travel to London where they are setting up an aquarium and take trips to the Netherlands and Morocco to try to resolve what has happened to Titch.

Part adventure story, part study in human relationships and very much a treatise on the ills of slavery and discrimination, this is a fantastic book.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

While this book is styled as a novel, in fact it is based on the war time experiences of Holocaust survivor, Lale Sokolov.  The author met him by chance in Australia and the two developed a friendship through which Morris learned his story and turned it into first a screenplay then a novel.

Lale was a teenaged boy in Slovakia when he was shipped to Auschwitz.  From the start we see he is very resourceful, but even he is no match for typhus.  Early in his stay he is left for dead but fished out of the dead body cart by the other boys he has befriended in his bunk.  This is his first stroke of luck.  He is then taken under the wing of an older French man who teaches him his trade of tattooing incoming prisoners.  This, and his command of multiple languages, allows him both a vocation and access to a private room (which was unheard of for a Jewish prisoner) and greater rations.

One day he meets Gita whose arm he must tattoo.  On that first meeting he falls for her and vows to survive the camp and marry her.  With this goal in mind he protects her, first by taking up a smuggling trade with non-prisoner workers in the camp which gets him access to food and vital medicines which save Gita, among others, from typhus.  He then uses his connections to get her a safer indoor job.

Over time he manages to win her heart and we see a great love story develop in unbearable and unlikely circumstances.  Just before the camp is liberated Gita is marched away with other women prisoners - it is only then she shouts her last name to Lale.  Prior to that she had refused to share any details of her prior life.

When the Russians eventually liberate Auschwitz Lale escapes and, using the wile he has continuously displayed, he manages to find Gita and the two are eventually married as planned.  After some time in Russian occupied Slovakia they eventually emigrate to the west and end up in Australia.

Lale and Gita kept their story secret for decades - in part because they feared they would be branded as collaborators.  It was only after Gita's death that Lale opened up to the author.

In addition to an afterward by the author which tells of her relationship with Lale, there is another by Lale and Gita's son which is also interesting.

The book is not long and, despite its heavy topic, is fairly easy to read.  I recommend it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Captain's Daughter by Meg Mitchell Moore

Because I enjoyed Moore's The Admissions, I decided to go back and read some of her older work.  The first one I tried was The Captain's Daughter which I found very enjoyable.  Like The Admissions it primarily deals with family relationships as well as what happens when past secrets come to life.

Eliza Barnes is now wealthy, country club woman living in suburban Boston with her husband and two daughters.  However, before she "married up" she was the daughter of a widowed lobsterman in small town Maine.  When her father is injured on his lobster skiff she travels to Maine to check on him and discovers he's more ill than she thought - causing her to spend more of her summer with her father.

While in Maine she also reconnects with her first love - who has remained in Maine and now works as a lobsterman too.  Through their discussions we learn of past secrets that Eliza has been hiding.  Meanwhile, Eliza's husband is struggling on his own - having left his architecture firm to go out on his own he's trying desperately to impress one of his mother's wealthy friends with the design of her massive holiday home.  And she is very difficult to please.  With his wife away he turns to his mother for help which has some humorous moments since she's a bit of a drunk.  We also learn Eliza's husband has a couple of secrets of his own.

In Maine Eliza also meets up with a pregnant teenager, Mary, who is in an abusive relationship and struggling with what to do.  As Eliza attempts to help her she also questions whether she did the right thing all those years ago when she fled Maine.

I don't want to give away more of the story - but we learn a lot about what happened in Eliza's past, including her relationship with her parents and her first love.  Eliza also learns her parents' marriage may not have been quite as sound as she thought.  And we see how Eliza's husband is also struggling with the relationship he had with his absent father and how that is impacting his relationships now.  There is also an interesting dynamic between Eliza and her mother-in-law which resolves in a somewhat unexpected way.

All in all I recommend this book to anyone who likes to read about family relationships.  It's well written, believable and develops a handful of very interesting characters.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

True Compass by Edward M Kennedy

I picked this up for nothing at a used book sale and ended up really enjoying it.  It's written by Kennedy shortly after he is diagnosed with the brain cancer that ultimately kills him.  The disease causes him to reflect on his family, his career in politics and life in general.

Kennedy thanks several people for helping him write so I have no idea how much he actually wrote, but I will say it's extremely well written.  I expected to have to skim over the more mundane political aspects, but even those were written in an accessible way that kept me interested.

Of course the most interesting parts to me were his stories of his family - particularly his older brothers John and Bobby and his parents.  Kennedy was 14 years younger than John, who was also his godfather, and clearly idolized him.  However when John was assassinated Teddy held it together for his parents and for Bobby who became very depressed.  It was only after Bobby was also assassinated that Teddy completely fell apart.  He doesn't go into detail but hints at alcoholism and his first marriage fell apart.

He was clearly revived by his second wife who really was the love of his life.  He also seems to have thrived on being a father, step-father and uncle, taking an active role in the lives of John and Bobby's children as well as those of his sisters.

His biggest personal life story was that of the accident in Chappaquiddick - he doesn't gloss over it but he doesn't provide a lot of insight either.  Only that the was depressed, drunk and exhausted - as well as injured after the accident - which he uses to explain if not excuse his behaviour.  He vehemently denies having been in a relationship with the young woman who was killed.

Portions of the book really resonate in today's political climate.  He talks about he judicial appointment process which, in his view, was not politicized until Nixon's times.  It's probably best for him that he didn't live to see what it has become today.  He also campaigned and governed with more grace than one sees today.

All in all an interesting book about one of the most influential political families of our times.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

A whole fall's worth of books...

I've been really busy lately so haven't had time to blog about everything I've read in the past couple of months.  Of course I always have time to read so I've read a lot, but you'll have to bear with me if my reviews are somewhat more brief than usual - I want to get something down before I completely forget the books, but the details are not as clear as they once were...

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler
I often find Tyler's books a little odd, but I have to say this one was even weirder than usual.  The story follows the life of Willa Drake, who in her old age is a bit strange herself.  As a child Willa survived the disappearance of her mentally unstable and abusive mother mostly because of her calm father who she described as Gandhi.  She marries her college sweetheart before graduation (to follow him to California so he can pursue his dreams) and raises two sons before she returns to college.  Her first husband is killed in a road rage accident when the boys are teenagers and she eventually remarries and moves to Arizona where she is bored as her husband spends most of his waking hours on the golf course.

When she receives a call that her son's ex-girlfriend has been accidentally shot she relocates to Baltimore to look after the girlfriend and her young daughter, Cheryl.  Her son left them in the lurch and she really has no relationship to them, but she happily becomes the grandmother Cheryl seems to crave.  Despite her son's incredulous objections, and her husband's regular queries, she stays with them for weeks, becoming a fixture amongst the quirky blue collar neighbours.  Spending time with the neighbourhood elderly doctor, various hooligans and Denise and Cheryl causes her to revisit her relationship with her actual family.

Though the characters were kind of interesting I just couldn't get past the weirdness of why Willa answered the call to go to Baltimore in the first place and then why she got sucked into staying with a "fake family".

The Admissions by Meg Mitchell Moore
Unlike Clock Dance, I really did enjoy this book and it should be a must read for anybody whose child is partaking in the stressful college admissions process.  The Hawthorne family seems to have it all.  Father Gabe is a successful executive in an advertising company, and his wife Nora is a successful realtor.  They are raising three daughters - 17 year old Angela who has great grades and significant extra-curricular involvement, but is under pressure to follow in her father's footsteps and attend Harvard; Cecily the easy going 10 year old who is passionate about Irish dancing, but also feels the pressure of a pending competition; and the pampered baby Maya who despite her mother's hovering has not yet learned to read.

Although everything looks great on the surface we learn early on that Gabe and Nora are keeping significant secrets about their pasts from each other.  And Gabe's secret in particular also has serious implications for Angela's college application.  I don't want to give much away because the nature of the secrets isn't revealed until toward the end, but it is really worth reading through to find out (I was able to guess in part, but not wholly).

All in all this is a great tale of family dynamics and how things can fall apart at the seams when everyone is under pressure to succeed in the modern world.

The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee
I also really enjoyed this book about the intertwined lives of three American born women living in Hong Kong's expatriate community.

Margaret is married to a high powered business man and is the mother of three children.  Hillary is married to a successful young lawyer and desperately wants children but has been unable to conceive so is spending time with a boy from an orphanage apparently "on a trial basis".  Both Margaret and Hillary's husbands spend more time working than with their families.  Mercy is a young, single childless graduate of Columbia who has been unable to find a satisfying job in the US so essentially moves to Hong Kong to find herself.

The women's lives all intersect when Margaret hires Mercy to look after her children and she accompanies the family on a trip to Seoul where tragedy strikes.  Both Margaret and Mercy have a hard time coping with the fallout.  Coincidentally one of the people Mercy turns to is Hillary's husband (who is an acquaintance of Margaret and her husband).  Oddly, when Mercy is impregnated by Hillary's husband it somehow brings all three women closer together and bonds Mercy with her mother who arrives from New York.

Though this is set in modern times the women are somewhat old fashioned in their identities being tied up in their husbands and children, but nonetheless this is an interesting story of friendship, family and loss.

Vi by Kim Thuy
Like Thuy's prior books, Vi, is a relatively short tale of refugees.  When Vi is a young girl, her mother brings her and her 3 brothers by boat from Saigon to escape civil war.  They leave behind Vi's spoiled "man child" of a father to fend for himself when he is unable to tear himself away from his past.  The family eventually makes its way to Quebec where they must re-establish themselves.  Against her family's wishes Vi moves to Montreal to study translation and law.

Later she returns to Vietnam as part of a Canadian delegation advising on legal reform.  There Vi revisits people from her past and becomes a bit of an adventurer after years of trying to be the dutiful daughter.

Despite the somewhat heavy subject matter, this is a fairly easy and interesting read.  Though in translation from the original French, the language flows beautifully and is almost poetic in style.

After the Fire by Lauren Belfer
This was another enjoyable book that was a Holocaust book with a twist.  I've read so much Holocaust literature that I'm always pleasantly surprised when I find something that tackles it a different way.

At the end of World War II, an American soldier, Henry Sachs, takes a souvenir from a seemingly deserted mansion in Germany - an old music manuscript.  He mistakenly kills a young girl who tries to stop him which haunts him for the rest of his life.  Though he had big dreams before the war he instead moves to Buffalo with one of his fellow soldiers to work in the family's shoe business.  There he has a large house where he eventually lives with his sister and niece, Susanna.

In 2010, Susanna has been the victim of a violent attack in New York City which eventually leads to the end of her marriage.  Shortly after Henry dies and Susanna finds the manuscript amongst her uncle's belongings.  She realizes it may have value and takes it to be appraised by two experts - a devout Christian widower with a young daughter from small town USA and a brash Jewish man in NYC.  Both men are fascinated by Susanna as well as the manuscript.

The story of Susanna's quest to uncover the origins and value of the manuscript is interwoven with that of Sara.  In 1783, in Berlin, Sara is the daughter of wealthy Jewish aristocrats who studies music with Bach's son.  The much older man is somewhat infatuated with Sara and gives her a manuscript of his father's as a wedding present.  Sara and her husband are mortified by the manuscript as it spews anti-Semitic hatred.  Over the years, Sara who is childless carefully guards the manuscript to prevent it becoming public and eventually passes it on to a cherished niece for safekeeping.  Through the chapters focusing on Sara and her family we eventually learn how the manuscript ended up in the mansion where Henry finds it.

Throughout Susanna learns not only about the manuscript, but about herself.  I really enjoyed this book - the characters were well developed, the historical information was fascinating and it was well written and easy to read.

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain
AS a companion piece to her first novel, The Paris Wife, this novel tells the fictionalized story of Ernest Hemingway's third wife, Martha Gellhorn. (The Paris Wife told the story of his first wife).

Gellhorn was a reporter who in 1937 defied expectations and travelled to Madrid to cover the Spanish Civil War. In reality she became one of the most respected war correspondents of the 20th century.  In Madrid Gellhorn meets and becomes infatuated with Hemingway who at the time is married to his second wife.  Eventually they get together and make Cuba their home.

While in Cuba Hemingway's career completely takes off with the publication of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Despite her love for him Gellhorn struggles with living in his shadow and frequently runs off to cover conflicts in other countries, leaving him to his writing and his struggles with alcohol and depression.  Their relationship is passionate but volatile.  Gellhorn also becomes close with Hemingway's three sons - the first from his first marriage and two from his second.  She is particularly concerned when his eldest son goes to war during the second world war.

Eventually Gellhorn decides she can no longer live the volatile life and must pursue her own career.  By then Hemingway has already identified wife number 4 though Gellhorn becomes the only of his wives who leaves him.

I didn't enjoy this as much as The Paris Wife, perhaps because the style and story were a bit repetitive of it.  But, it's not a bad work if you're interested in Hemingway, Gellhorn or the lives of writers.

The Girl who Smiled Beads by Clementine Wamariya
This is the true story of Rwandan refugee Clementine Wamariya and her family.  Clementine was a young girl when civil war broke out in Rwanda.  One day, to the sound of gunfire and rioting, 7 year old Clementine and her 15 year old sister, Claire are pushed out the door by their grandmother and told to run.

Thus begins their lives as refugees where they wander from camp to camp eventually living in 7 African countries trying to seek safety.  Their lives are difficult though there are good moments interspersed.  Claire falls in love with and marries one of the aid workers.  Though the marriage falls apart due to his abuse, she first has three children and Clementine dotes on them - particularly the eldest born when they were on the run and almost completely cared for by the younger sister.  Clementine also has brief moments of happiness with her brother-in-law's extended family before their lives are also shattered by war.

At age 12, Clementine and Claire are given asylum in the US and move to the Chicago area.  During the week Clementine lives with a suburban white family who live in complete luxury compared to what she's used to.  But she's adaptable and begins to fit in despite her unfamiliar surroundings.  Clementine and Claire have no idea if anyone else in their family is alive.  But in 2006 the girls are featured on Oprah who has orchestrated a surprise reunion with their family - everyone but a brother has survived.  However, Clementine's parents and younger siblings are strangers to her now and she has to adapt to that as well as her new surroundings.

This is a fascinating story of the far reaching, long lasting effects of the Rwandan civil war as well as the unrest in other African nations.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
Of all the books I'm reviewing today this was probably the most difficult to slog through - but I was curious enough to see what happens to do the work.  Overall the book was a bit weird and I'm not sure it was worth the effort in the end.

Just after World War II Nathan who is 14 and his 16 year old sister, Rachel are left in war damaged London when their parents say they are going abroad for their father's job.  They are left in the care of a mysterious man named Moth, who Nathan suspects is a criminal.  They are shuffled off to boarding school but when that doesn't really work out for Nathan he ends up living in his family home with Moth.

The house is visited by many people who also seem to be involved in nefarious activities.  In particular, Nathan becomes involved in making mysterious deliveries on the Thames with a former boxer known as the Darter.  The Darter also brings a string of different women into the house who intrigue Nathan.

Nathan also becomes sexually involved with a girl through illicit trysts in empty houses which they access through the girl's real estate agent brother.

About a dozen years later Nathan's mother reappears, without his father, and there is some suggestion she may have been part of the British Intelligence together with Moth and the Darter.  She moves to a small town where Nathan visits her and befriends and older farmer.  As an adult Nathan buys the cottage owned by this farmer's widowed wife and works to piece together his childhood.  It culminates in a revealing visit to the Darter.

I won't say anymore - as I said, the end was interesting but it was hard work to get there.

The Only Story by Julian Barnes
This was another book that revolved around a bunch of strange characters.  In the early 1960s 19 year old Paul is home from college for the summer and is urged by his mother to join a tennis club.  There he plays doubles with Susan, a married woman twice his age who has two grown daughters.  Susan and Paul have an affair and Paul spends countless hours in Susan's home - even when her alcoholic husband is there.  Paul's parents and other members of the community strongly disapprove - Paul and Susan are even kicked out of the tennis club.

Paul also has at least one violent encounter with Susan's husband who doesn't quite buy into the ruse that Paul is just a family friend.  However, when Paul sees evidence of the abuse Susan is suffering at the hands of her husband, he convinces her to leave and they move to an apartment in London.  There he studies law and tells others she is his landlady - though it puts a damper on his having a relationship with any more appropriate women.

Faced with the financial realities of living on their own, as well as social isolation, Susan falls into alcoholism.  Paul eventually needs to share the burden of her care with her daughters.  Much of the rest of the book describes how their once promising, if unconventional, relationship unravels.

When We Found Home by Susan Mallery
This was a much lighter read than any of the books previously described, but I found it fun and enjoyable.  Alberto Carlesso, an old widower whose womanizing son left three children from different mothers tries to bring them all together to form a family.  He has already raised Malcolm, who is about 30, since he was twelve years old and his dying mother introduced him to his father and grandfather.  While his father wanted nothing to do with him, his grandfather embraced him and gave him increasing responsibility in the family business.

Next Alberto tracks down 12 year old Keira who is living in foster care after her mother died of a drug overdose.  While she is materially pampered she is deathly afraid of being abandoned again - Alberto tries but is too old to really provide comfort and Malcolm who has no experience with children comes off as gruff.

Finally, 26 year old Callie is found.  She's been lying low after being released from prison due to a robbery committed when she fell in with the wrong guy as a teenager.  She is skeptical and afraid she will be rejected when Malcolm and Alberto, as well as their business partners, find out the truth.  But she quickly bonds with Keira.

Side stories involve Malcolm's fledgling relationship with Delaney and Callie's with Malcolm's business partner and friend.

It's fluff but it was good fluff.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
While this book got great reviews, I wouldn't bother.  I kept thinking more would happen and it really didn't.  Frances is a university student in Dublin who is trying to pursue a career in writing on the side.  Her best friend and former lover is Bobbi, who Frances regards as both more beautiful and more poised.  When doing a poetry performance they catch the eye of Melissa who is an older successful photographer who decides she wants to do a piece on the girls.

She welcomes them into her home where they also meet her husband Nick, an actor.  Quite predictably Frances embarks on an extra-marital affair with Nick.  This obviously ruins her relationship with Melissa and strains her relationship with Bobbi as well.

The rest of the book just deals with these intertwined relationships as well as Frances' relationship with her mother and her deadbeat father.

A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua
This book was kind of interesting and has just become more topical with talk in the US about eliminating the right to citizenship for babies born in the US to non-citizen parents.

Scarlett Chen was a factory worker in China when she began an affair with her married boss Yeung.  When she becomes pregnant and an ultrasound suggests the baby is a boy, Yeung, who only has daughters, spirits her off to the US to have the baby.  There she is essentially kept prisoner in a home for Chinese mothers who have come to the US for the same reason.

In the US she finds out the baby is actually a girl, but Yeung doesn't know that and she fears he will try to steal the baby.  When she gets the chance she steals a van and escapes.  Daisy, a teenaged pregnant mother who also was being kept against her will, joins her.  They move to Chinatown in San Francisco in an effort to hide.  There they have their babies and form a rather unconventional family.

We learn about their efforts to survive, Daisy's struggle to find her boyfriend, Scarlett's struggle to avoid hers and how all the characters eventually come together in the end.

Friday, August 17, 2018

The Perfect Couple by Elin Hilderbrand

Summer always brings the latest  Nantucket based Hilderbrand beach read and this one did not disappoint - of course you have to know not to expect a deep literary experience but an engaging, fun escape.

In this book a family has gathered at their summer home, Summerland, for the wedding of their younger son Benji to his fiancee Celeste.  The wedding has been carefully orchestrated by Benji's mother, Greer, as though she generally respects tradition she knows she has far greater resources than the bride's family.  Celeste's father sells suits at the King of Prussia Mall and her mother works in the gift shop of the Crayola factory.  The wedding has been expedited because Celeste's mother is suffering from Stage 4 breast cancer.

On the morning of the wedding, however, Celeste wakes up to a tragedy when she finds the body of her maid of honour, Merritt, floating in the ocean just in front of Summerland.  Nantucket Chief of Police, Ed Kapenash (who we've met in other Hilderbrand books) and Massachusetts state police officer, Nick "the Greek" are brought in to investigate.

Through the course of interviews as well as flashbacks we find out that everyone except the fine upstanding groom is harbouring some sort of secret.  This makes the investigation a bit tricky - the officers must decide if any of those with a secret is also covering up a murder.  There are some twists and turns but it is fairly easy to predict what happened.  However that doesn't detract from the enjoyment of the book.

The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Impossible became Possible...on Schindler's List by Leon Leyson

While this memoir was written in a somewhat amateur style, the story was very compelling.  Leon Leyson who died in 2013 was one of the youngest people who survived the Holocaust by being on "Schindler's List".  His father who had worked in Schindler's factory from early in the war managed to save his wife and three of their children, including Leon, by asking Schindler to give them work and put them on his list.

But this was not before harrowing experiences in the Krakow Ghetto and the Plazcow concentration camp, including the separation from two other brothers who were not so lucky.

Leon apparently buried his memories for many years after immigrating to America and studying to become a successful school teacher despite having had his education interrupted by the Nazis at age 10.  Eventually he felt the need to speak and educate about his experiences and told his story, without notes, to countless groups in schools, community centres and elsewhere.  The book is essentially this story written down.

It was fascinating to read about Schindler from another angle and to see the enormous difference that one person with courage could make.  I also found Leyson's account of how he was haunted by the death of his older brothers for a lifetime particularly moving.

While some might view this as just another Holocaust memoir, I still believe it was worth the read as the story was told in such a personal and detailed fashion by someone who was just a child when the war began.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Run, Hide, Repeat: A Memoir of a Fugitive Childhood by Pauline Daikin

This is a fascinating memoir by CBC reporter Pauline Daikin.  As a child Daikin's parents were divorced.  She, her younger brother, Ted and her mother repeatedly moved (from Vancouver, to Winnipeg, to St. John) suddenly and without telling their family and friends.  They always went to the same place as a family friend, a minister named Stan.  Daikin was alienated from her father and the subject of a bitter custody dispute.  Though Pauline and Ted knew their family was different, whenever they asked their mother why she told them she would explain when they were older.

When Pauline was 23, her mother and Stan explained to her that all this time they had been on the run from organized crime.  They advised that her father had been heavily involved and that Stan and her mother were thought to be informants and thus at risk.  They also warn her against getting close to her father and various other former friends who had mob connections.  Finally they tell her she is under constant surveillance by a group trying to protect her from the mob.  She is warned not to share the story with anyone as it could put her and her mother at risk.

With a keen reporter's eye and research skills Pauline works to sort out her past, the present and what to do with her future given these revelations.  She must closely examine her relationship with her mother and Stan (who has been a father figure) in order to move forward.

I couldn't wait to get to the end to sort out the mystery with the author and I was not disappointed with her account of how the story unfolded.  She has proven herself to be not only a skilled researcher and writer, but also a resilient person.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Two more books

I'm not sure if these two books really weren't great or if I'm just suffering from fatigue because all my library books seem to have come in at once...

Orphan #8 by Kim van Alkemade
I ordered this book because I had enjoyed Bachelor Girl by the same author.  While there were many similarities, I didn't like this one quite as much.  This book is also set in the New York area and is based on historical facts.  Like in the other book there is also a focus on "working women" ahead of their time and gay people who are forced to hide their true selves (here it was women rather than men).

When the book begins Rachel Rabinowitz is a 4 year old "handful" living in the Lower East Side with her parents and older brother Sam.  Tragedy befalls the family and Sam and Rachel are put into an orphanage.  Because she is younger she must go to the Jewish Infants House.  There she has the misfortune of connecting with Dr. Mildred Solomon who conducts experiments using radiation on Rachel and some of the other children.

Years later Rachel is working as a nurse in a Jewish seniors home and Dr. Solomon, who is dying of cancer, is tasked with caring for her.  This causes long repressed memories to resurface - and pushes Rachel to research exactly what happened to her as a child.

The book then goes back and forth as we slowly learn about Rachel's time in the Infants House, her eventual move to the orphanage for older children where she is reunited with Sam, her unsuccessful attempt to reconnect with her father as well as some more fortunate breaks along the way which lead to her becoming a nurse.  We also gain insight into her relationship with another woman whose identity is kept a surprise for most of the book (though it wasn't that hard to figure it out).

While the story was reasonably interesting, it wasn't fantastic.  If you like historical fiction set in New York, or have an interest in early medical research, you might quite like this book.

The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard
This is another historical fiction - it gives us a behind the scenes glimpse at some of the people involved in the Manhattan Project during World War II.  June Walker, an 18 year old girl from a small town in Tennessee is being bused to a job in a city that doesn't officially exist, Oak Ridge, Tennessee. She is somewhat aware of the project as her drunken grandfather was evicted from his farm in order to make room for the development - but she has no idea of the scope of it until she follows her sister to get a job.

After passing extensive security reviews June is given a job like hundreds of other girls - watching certain dials and making sure the needle stays at the right place.  None of the girls know that they are essentially operating a small piece of a spectrometer being used to try to enrich uranium for the nuclear bomb.

In addition to June we meet Sam Cantor, a Jewish physicist originally from New York and now a professor at Berkeley who was brought into consult on the project.  He knows all too well what is going on at Oak Ridge, and against security protocols, shares some of this information with June when they begin an affair.  Sam has grave doubts about what is being done.

We also meet June's roommate Cici who is there to find a rich husband and escape her sharecropper routes.  And she doesn't care who she destroys in the process - eventually even turning against June.

Finally we are introduced to Joe, an African American construction worker who is there to try to earn more money to support his family back in Alabama.  Through Joe we see how segregation and discrimination are alive and well despite the enormous contributions of the African Americans.

With the eventual bombing of Hiroshima everyone in Oak Ridge learns what they've been doing - and react to it in all kinds of ways.

The book was an interesting look at history though not fantastic.  I did enjoy the chapters at the end which briefly summarize where everyone ended up years later.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

This novel is loosely based on the life of Laura Bush.  Alice Blackwell is the First Lady of the United States; her husband, Charlie, having won his first term as President in one of the closest elections ever in 2000.  The first chapter and the end of the book describe Alice's time as First Lady - and in particular the differences in her political views from those of her husband.

However, the more interesting middle of the book tells us about Alice's childhood, young adulthood, courtship, marriage and motherhood.  She was born into a middle class family in a small town in Wisconsin.  Her father was a bank manager and her mother a homemaker.  Her paternal grandmother, having been widowed at a young age, lives with the family and is an enormous influence on young Alice.  In particular it is she who introduces her to books and nurtures her love of reading.  The grandmother is a true character and one of my favourites in the book - she also supports Alice through a tragedy that occurs when she is 17 and which haunts and shapes her entire life.  While I won't give away what happens, part of this tragedy is based on actual events in Laura Bush's life.

Alice moves to Milwaukee and studies first to be a teacher and then a librarian.  She has a true gift for working with young children.  But when she meets Charlie she is swept off her feet and they marry within 6 months.  An only child she is somewhat overwhelmed by Charlie's large family - his parents and three older brothers and their spouses and children (again based on the Bush family).  She is also intimidated by their wealth and political influence - his father had been a governor, his brother is a congressman.

Charlie is the pampered drifter in the family - shortly after his marriage he makes an unsuccessful run for congress.  After losing, and turning 40, he sort of works for his family's meat business, but mostly drinks and has fun.  A crisis in their marriage leads to him finding religion.  And then he also buys the Milwaukee baseball team of which he becomes the general manager (sound familiar?).  It is after finding some success here that he successfully runs for Governor and then President.

Alice's adult relationships with Charlie's family, her childhood friend, Dena, the long time maid of Charlie's family as well as her family and her sister-in-law, Jade, are also interesting.  Though of course the most interesting and realistic relationship portrayed is her marriage.

I found this book to be well written, interesting and not too political despite its subjects.  I recommend it.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Every Note Played by Lisa Genova

Although I didn't find this quite as disturbing as Still Alice it was still an extremely moving account of a man's deterioration due to ALS.

Richard was an accomplished concert pianist; his ex-wife, Karina, a talented jazz pianist in her own right who essentially gave up her musical career to nurture Richard's.  At the start of the book Richard has just received his diagnosis which, most tragically for a concert pianist, begins in his left arm which slowly becomes paralyzed.  Before his right arm can follow, he masters a concerto specifically written for the left hand only.  But despite his desperate wishes, shortly after he loses the use of his left hand too.

Despite a team of dedicated home caregivers, as the disease progresses Richard is unable to live on his own and the best option seems to be moving back in with Karina.  While Karina becomes his full time caregiver they are able to slowly work through their past resentments and come to some sort of understanding while they still can.  Richard is also able to repair his relationship with his college aged daughter and his older brothers.

As in all her books, Genova provides chilling details about what it must be like to come into the grips a terrible, debilitating and ultimately fatal disease.  She expertly conveys Richard's sense of being trapped in his own failing body.

While hard to read at times, I did find the book an interesting read.

Friday, July 27, 2018

And another five books down...

Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander

I had read a previous book by Englander and didn't really like it so was not going to bother with this one until it was recommended by a friend.  And I did enjoy this one even though political novels are not my favourite.  Despite the heavy topic it was well written and fast paced which made it easy to read.  It did not have the same density of prose that often turns me off this kind of book.

The book follows several characters and goes back and forth in time so reads a bit like a mystery.  As such I will try not to give too much away here.  One of the first characters we meet is a nameless prisoner stuck in a cell in southern Israel.  He fears the only one who knows he's even there is the "General", the controversial leader of Israel who is clearly meant to be Ariel Sharon though I do not think he is ever called by his name.  Unbeknownst to the prisoner the General is in an irreversible coma, so the prisoner still writes regular letters to the General pleading his release.  The letters are delivered by the young guard assigned to watch the prisoner - his mother was the General's personal secretary and he is a bit of a screw up so she gets him this job in order to put his life on track.

Other characters we meet are a young Palestinian man in Berlin who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a Canadian businessman as well as an American waitress in Paris of Italian descent who enters into a romantic relationship with one of her customers.  However some of my favourite chapters are from the perspective of the General as he lies in a coma and "reminisces" about his past which was central to the history of the state of Israel.

You really need to read the book to find out how these characters relate to each other and to see who has the titular dinner at the centre of the earth.  In doing so you learn not only about the characters but a lot about the history of Israel and, in particular, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Forever Summer by Jamie Brenner

This is another easy read but enjoyable book by Jamie Brenner.  While there is no depth and complexity to her writing, she develops likeable characters who have interesting secrets to reveal.  This book centres around Marin Bishop, a woman about to turn thirty who is engaged to a well-liked wealthy man and is working her dream job at a high profile Manhattan law firm.  She is an only child who has always strived to earn her lawyer father's praise and admiration.  But one day she makes a personal choice that leaves her without a job or her fiancé.  As she is trying to sort that out she is contacted by a younger woman who claims to be her half sister.  On a whim she travels with this supposed half sister to Provincetown to meet her supposed paternal grandmother.  While there she learns of the secrets that have impacted her life.

In addition to Marin the book has a lot of interesting characters including her parents, her half-sister and her hippy mother, her grandmother and her same sex wife as well various Cape Cod neighbours and friends.  This was basically a "feel good" book that left you liking everyone despite their flaws and believing all could be well enough in the end, even if there was some tragedy along the way.

Love and Other Words and Roomies by Christina Lauren

As an interesting aside, Christina Lauren is actually the pen name of two women who write quasi romance novels as a team.  In Love and Other Words Macy, a medical resident, is settling into an easy not terribly passionate relationship with an older man when she runs into her first love, Elliot.  Elliot had been her neighbour at her weekend home when she was a child.  They first bonded over their love of reading (and words) and then, as teenagers, fell in love.  All fell apart when they were 17 and in chapters which alternate past and present we learn why.  We also find out whether they can make a go of it 11 years later.

In Roomies, Holland Bakker has spent six months essentially stalking a musician who plays in the subway.  On the night she finally learns his name is Cal, he rescues her from a subway attacker but disappears before speaking to her when she is whisked away in an ambulance.  When she discovers he fled because he was in the US illegally she uses family connections to get him a job on a hot Broadway musical.  But in order for him to stay in the US she also offers to marry him.  And, not surprisingly, while living this marriage of convenience they discover they have actual feelings for each other.

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

It took me a little while to get into this book, but when I did I really enjoyed it.  In addition to telling the stories of the characters it gave really good insight into the development of the feminist movement over the decades.

When the book starts Greer Kadetsky is a shy college freshman at her last choice college.  She is angry with her less than interested parents who messed up her financial aid application denying her the place she earned at Princeton.  She is also in love with her high school boyfriend, Cory, who did make his way to Princeton.  They were originally thrown together as the best readers in their grade, but eventually a real relationship developed.

An early defining moment for Greer is when she is sexually assaulted by a college boy who goes on to assault others.  When he is brought up for disciplinary action he is given a slap on the wrist and allowed to stay at school.  Shortly after she attends a speech by Faith Frank, a 63 year old pillar in the fight for women's rights.  Frank gives her advice about how to deal with the assault situation and gives Greer her card.  After graduation while searching for meaningful work in New York Greer contacts Frank and is given a job working at her foundation.

The book follows Greer's rise through the organization and beyond - and explores her continuing relationships with Frank, her co-workers, Cory, her parents and her college best friend.  In some chapters we see action from the perspective of Frank, Cory, the roommate and even Frank's mysterious financial backer.  And as the action moves through the decades (and sometimes into the past) we see how the feminist movement shifted over time.

I highly recommend this book.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Three more recent reads

The Boy on the Beach: My Family's Escape from Syria and Our Hope of a New Home by Time Kurdi

A photograph of a young boy, Alan Kurdi, dead on the beach in Turkey after the small craft his family was on in a desperate attempt to escape to Europe capsized, galvanized the world around the ever growing Syrian refugee crisis, at least temporarily.  But for Canadian, Tima Kurdi, this photograph was far more personal.  Alan was her young nephew - in fact she had purchased the clothes he was wearing in the photo the only time she saw him on a visit to Turkey.  Even more devastating, Alan's mother and brother also drowned and Alan's father, Tima's brother was devastated and broken by the loss.

In an effort to keep the refugee crisis at the forefront of global discussion, Kurdi wrote this book to tell the personal story of her family, though it obviously parallels the plight of thousands of other Syrian families.  She starts with their happy upbringing in Syria, then tells how various branches of the family were forced to flee as the civil war started then worsened.  Kurdi herself had married and left for Canada before the war began though she returned for visits as often as she could.

What is striking about this story is how ordinary Kurdi's family was before tragedy struck.  It really left you feeling this could happen to anyone.  It was also another illustration of the bureaucracy behind Canada's refugee approach (similar to other books I have read recently).  And while things seemed to improve temporarily after Alan's picture went viral, it is questionable whether the enthusiasm has carried over the years.

While this was not necessarily the best written book, I found the story compelling nonetheless.

Bachelor Girl by Kim van Alkemade

This was a really interesting novel based loosely on historical characters.  Jacob Ruppert was the actual owner of the New York Yankees in the early twentieth century.  When he died in 1939 he left a large bequest to an unknown actress, Helen Winthrope.  This fact inspired the author to imagine the events that led to the bequest.  Though she used Winthrope and Ruppert in her story, her acknowledgements clearly state that the rest of the narrative and characters (other than obvious ones like Babe Ruth) are pure fiction.

The story alternates perspectives between Helen, a young actress living with her widowed mother and brother, who is out of work due to health reasons which are eventually revealed, and Albert, Ruppert's handsome and unwed personal secretary.  Early on we learn he is gay, which at the time was something kept very secret.  Helen is offered a job managing a theatre that Ruppert buys and she and Albert develop a close friendship.  The story follows this friendship as well as Ruppert's  business dealings and his relationship with Helen and Albert, over the course of several years leading up to Ruppert's death.  It is only upon his death that the reason for his interest in Helen is revealed.

Precious Cargo:  My year Driving the Kids on School Buss 3077 by Craig Davidson

I wouldn't really recommend this book though if you are interested it was short and therefore wasn't a big time commitment.  The author was a bit of a loser as he hit his early 30s.  He had one successful book of short stories prior to that and hoped to make his living as a writer but the next novel he tried bombed.  He was unable to get any job other than driving a school bus of special needs students.  The book describes his year on the job and the relationships he built with the kids - the positive outcome is that it gave him some perspective on his own life.  The negative is I was left with the feeling he only took the job so he would have something to write a book about.  It seemed a bit exploitative though maybe that was just my cynical interpretation.  the factual account is interspersed with bits of an unpublished novel based on the kids on the bus.  After a while I just skipped these bits - they weren't terribly interesting.  The only other positive was that some of the kids were very funny and Davidson's recounting of some of their lines was entertaining.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Two Books by Jamie Brenner

I had never read anything by this author, but the first one caught my eye and when I finished it I had no other books on hand so I ordered the second and enjoyed it just as much.  They were both well written, light, had engaging characters and were just a pleasurable easy read.

The Husband Hour
Lauren Adelman marries her high school sweetheart, Rory Kincaid, just as he is breaking into the NHL.  As he plays for the LA Kings she moves across the country after completing college in DC, essentially putting her dreams of a journalism career on hold for him.  After a couple of years in the NHL Rory surprises everyone and enlists in the US Army where he is killed by an IED in Iraq.  After his death Lauren sequesters herself in her grandparents' summer home on the Jersey Shore where she lives alone and works in a diner - trying to keep herself busy to keep the memories at bay.

Almost five summers later her parents decide she should move on, and for personal reasons that are not originally revealed to Lauren, so they move in with her at the beach house, bringing along her sister and her six year old son.  Lauren and her sister Stephanie have had a troubled relationship since shortly before her nephew's birth and they are not happy to be forced together.

Lauren is also troubled by the arrival of Matt Brio, a documentary film maker who is making a film about Rory - and in particular the impacts of concussions sustained in the NHL on his behaviour in the year or so leading up to his death.  Worn down, Lauren agrees to give him one hour of her time to make sure the world sees Rory the way she did.

This hour stretches into several meetings where we learn more about Lauren's past and her relationship with Rory.  There are several surprises which I did not see coming, but which kept the narrative interesting.  By coming to terms with the past, Lauren finally seems ready to contemplate a future.

The Wedding Sisters
Though similar in style, I found this book somewhat more humorous.  There were a lot of entertaining characters!

Merle Becker is a middle aged woman in New York who is thrilled to learn her eldest daughter, Meg, is engaged to a wealthy man from a prominent political family.  She wants to plan and throw her daughter the wedding of her dreams - without financial input from her in-laws.  The problem is within mere weeks her two younger daughters become engaged, also to wealthy men whose families have high expectations for the type of weddings they should have.  And Merle and her husband cannot afford to throw three lavish weddings in the same year - especially since her husband is having issues at work that make their financial situation even more precarious.

So, with a little bit of pressure from the gossip media that begins to take an interest in the family, they decide to throw a triple wedding.  This might be financially viable but creates an organizational circus.

To add to Merle's stress, her elderly mother begins to have psychological issues and is forced to move in with the family.

As the narrative moves toward the wedding we get great insights into all three daughters, their fiancés, their in-laws, Merle and her husband, Merle's mother and a few other characters along the way.  I wouldn't say everyone lived happily ever after, but the book did come to a satisfying conclusion.

Friday, July 6, 2018

A dozen books all at once!

So I get most books by putting my name on the waiting list at the library which means I sometimes go for a few weeks without getting anything.  But then when it rains, it really pours!  I got 12 books in the span of a month.  I made my way through them before I had to return them, but I must admit they became a bit of a blur.  So I'll just give a brief review of each one based on the best of my recollection (in no particular order).

The Leavers by Lisa Ko
I quite enjoyed this book about the experiences of undocumented immigrants to the US.  The story centres around Deming Guo.  When he is eleven, his mother who is an undocumented immigrant from China goes to her job at a nail salon and never returns.  He is left with his mother's boyfriend, his sister and her son (who is also his best friend).  The sister decides she is unable to care for him so puts him in foster care where he is eventually taken in and adopted by a white couple, professors from a small town in upstate New York.  They change his name to something more American sounding and though they pay lip service to his Chinese heritage, they try to turn him into a child more like his white, small town peers.

The story moves back and forth to tell us about how Deming's mother came to the US, her pregnancy and child birth, Deming's early childhood with his grandfather back in China, Deming's return to the US and life in the Bronx and eventually what happened to Deming's mother.  Though Deming loses touch with everyone in the Bronx he is eventually reconnected with the boy who was his childhood friend and who puts him in touch with his mother and uncle.  Through them, while floundering at college and a music career, he returns to China and tracks down his mother.  The story explores the impact this has on both his birth mother and his adoptive parents.

I recommend this book for a good read about the immigrant experience.  It's also a timely exploration of the impact that enforcing laws against undocumented immigrants has on their American born children.

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
This is a non-fiction Holocaust story and though I have read many of them, this one was different enough to really hold my attention.  It is written by a granddaughter of a survivor about her family.  The Kurc family live in Radom Poland at the breakout of World War II.  The parents and their five adult children along with several in laws and one granddaughter are very well off for Polish Jews which helps to a point, but they must still figure out how to survive the Nazis.  And they were lucky as they did all survive in various ways - and though they survived separately for the most part they are somewhat miraculously reunited following the War.  We get an inside look at life in ghettos, in Russian work camps, in the Polish underground and army, in hiding disguised as non-Jews, in a friendly convent, in Palestine, Poland, France, Italy, Portugal and even Brazil.  What the family members all have in common is a strong will to survive and to be reunited.  This is a fascinating and very well written account.

Forgiveness a Gift from my Grandparents by Mark Sakamoto
This is another autobiographical account of World War II, but from a very different perspective.  Mark Sakamoto's paternal grandparents were Japanese Canadians living in Vancouver at the time of the war.  Like all of their community they were swept up by the anti-Japanese government actions of the time.  They were not sent to internment camps, instead opting to be slave labour on sugar beet farms in Alberta so that the large extended family could stay near each other.  Sakamoto's grandmother was an incredibly strong woman who gave birth to two children while working as a a labourer.  After the war the family had nothing but the $25 compensation they were paid by the government (the community centre which housed the belongings of the community had burned to the ground).  They were also no longer welcome in BC so moved to small town Alberta where they started again.

Sakamoto's maternal grandfather was from a tiny community in the Magdalen Islands.  In part to escape an abusive childhood he enlisted in the army and was shipped overseas.  In December 1941 he was captured by the Japanese and taken as a prisoner of war.  He spent the rest of the war living in hellish conditions - tortured, starved, and watching his fellow soldiers and friends die one by one.  At the end of the war he was broken but not defeated.  He returned to Canada where he married, moved to Alberta and started a family.

When Sakamoto's parents met and later wed they were terrified about how their respective parents would react, given their wartime histories.  But remarkably they not only tolerated each other, but his paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather became friends.  And his grandparents proved to be very important to Sakamoto when his mother's mental illness and alcoholism tore the marriage apart and took a toll on the children, particularly the author who was the eldest.

I recommend this book for an interesting look at the impacts of war, racism, alcoholism and mental health on a family - and how forgiveness can still be had in these dire circumstances.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
I've been told this will be the book of the year for book clubs and it is immediately obvious why.  It is a frank look at racism in the Southern US - and how even the most established of families could not escape its horrific reach.  Roy and Celestial are newlyweds living in Atlanta.  Roy is a successful business executive who has overcome an impoverished though happy childhood to go to university and establish a career.  Celestial comes from a more middle class background and is an emerging artist.  A year into their marriage they return to Roy's home town for a visit and while staying at a hotel Roy is wrongly accused of a crime and sentenced to 12 years in prison.  The beginning of the book deals with Roy's life in prison - where he meets an unlikely person from his past - and Celestial's attempts to cope on her own but eventual turn to her childhood neighbour and friend, Andre.  When Roy is released from prison earlier than expected the three must figure out how to go forward.  This truly is a story of a marriage and how parties struggle to make it work against terrible odds.  But as I said above it is also an examination of issues of race and class and the failures of the judicial system.

The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman
A duplex in Brooklyn in the 1940s is shared by two brothers, their wives and their families.  The family upstairs has only sons while the family downstairs has only daughters.  The wives, sisters by marriage only, are also best of friends.  On the night of a terrible blizzard in 1947 the women give birth to new babies on the same night - at home and attended by a midwife since they could not get to the hospital and the doctor could not get to their home.  On that night the women make a decision that has repercussions for the rest of their lives - and results in the eventual fracturing of their relationship.  Written in alternating chapters from the perspective of several different characters (husbands, wives and children) this book is an interesting look at years of family dynamics.

An Unsuitable Match by Joanna Trollope
Like many of Trollope's novels this one deals with older adults.  Here, Rose, a 64 year old divorced grandmother (whose husband left him for a younger woman after a lengthy affair) finds love again with a boy she knew as a teenager.  Tyler had been living in California for many years and was now a widower.  Relatively shortly into their relationship Tyler proposes and Rose accepts, though we sense she is not as enthusiastic as he is.  Her grown children are even less enthusiastic and try desperately to talk her out of it - even enlisting Tyler's children to support the cause.  Many somewhat humorous events ensue before we learn what Rose ultimately decides to do.  While the focus is on the older couple, there are also interesting side stories about the children and their varied relationships.

All We Leave Behind: a Reporter's Journey into the Lives of Others by Carol Off
The main problem I had with this book is somewhat superficial.  Because Off is a well-known Canadian radio personality I could hear her voice in my head as I read the book - and I'm not really a huge fan of her voice.  That being said, I otherwise enjoyed the story.  Off was embedded with Canadian soldiers reporting in Afghanistan in 2002.  There she met a local man with a story to tell - his story formed the basis for her documentary about powerful Afghan warlords.  Unbeknownst to Off this was a dangerous move for her source who was hounded by one warlord, eventually needing to flee to Pakistan.  Off worked hard to bring him and his family who she became close to to Canada as refugees.  The bureaucratic process she encountered was far more difficult than she ever imagined.  In addition to hearing about the refugee process I was very intrigued by the story of Afghan women - her source's wife and daughters.  They spent years becoming educated despite terrible oppression against women by the Taliban (and even earlier by conservative family members).  If you don't have the voice problem I recommend you read this book.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
First I have to say that the descriptive passages about life in Alaska were mesmerizing.  While they did not make me want to move to small town Alaska in the winter, I could practically feel the cold and see the beauty through Hannah's prose.

Lenora is 13 when her father, a troubled Vietnam vet, is given a piece of property in Kaneq, Alaska by his war buddy who didn't make it.  The family packs up and moves to literally the middle of nowhere.  It is summer but all the townspeople immediately descend upon them to start preparing for the harsh winter when the town is entirely self-sufficient depending on food they have harvested and preserved for winter, wood they have chopped for light and heat, etc.  Lenora constantly catalogues the ways a person can die in Alaska.

Unfortunately the family is ill prepared despite the efforts of their neighbours and, more troubling, Lenora's father's symptoms of PTSD - nightmares, paranoia and violence are exacerbated by the long hours of winter darkness.  Notwithstanding this, for several years they manage to limp along - Lenora is particularly helped by her close relationship with Matthew, the only other boy her age in the one-room school.  Together they make plans to go to University.  Unfortunately Matthew is the son of one of her father's perceived enemies (since he has money and is trying to bring modernizing improvements to the town).  This leads to disastrous circumstances for Matthew, Lenora and her mother.  The latter two must eventually return to Seattle and stay away for several years.

It is only at the end that Lenora returns to her beloved Alaska and we see how her life unfolds there.

I am Nobody by Greg Gilhooly
I don't usually like to write reviews of books when I know the author (and I went to law school with Gilhooly), but I really think this book deserves public praise.  Gilhooly was a victim of sexual abuse by a hockey coach, Graham James, for a period of years when he was a teenager.  He hid the information from everyone for decades while he struggled to "get on with his life".  He eventually came forward, but James has never admitted his crimes against Gilhooly nor been tried or convicted for them (though he has served time for his crimes against several other hockey players).

Gilhooly's book is an incredibly well written and raw account of the abuse, but even more chilling, the horrific impact those years of abuse had, and continue to have on his life.  Though he went to Princeton and U of T law school and had a seemingly successful legal career he describes years of self-sabotage through alcohol abuse, excessive eating and purposely failing in important exams or work requirements when he felt he didn't deserve the success.

What Gilhooly's tremendous success "despite himself" shows is how intelligent and strong he must be to achieve as much as he did while carrying this burden.  In addition to giving us insight into what that was like his perspective on the criminal justice system as both lawyer and victim is unique and insightful.

Congratulations to the author on writing a book that must have been very difficult to do on a personal level but which is an important story for others to hear.

Still Me by Jojo Moyes
This is the third book in the series that started with Me Before You and was continued in After You.  In this book, which is entertaining enough but nothing special, Louisa Clark moves to New York to take on a job as personal assistant to the younger second wife of a wealthy Upper East Side businessman.  While her employer pretends to be her friend, when trouble hits she is less supportive than Louisa expects (though frankly that's just her naiveté getting in the way).  We also hear more about her relationship with Sam, the paramedic she falls for in the second book, and the difficulties that ensue from their long distance relationship.  This book could be read as a standalone but it helped to know the pasts of the other characters that wander in and out of the story.  If you've read the other two books you might want to catch up on this one, otherwise it's probably not worth it.

The Boat People by Sharon Bala
Given the ongoing refugee crisis in the world, this novel, based on real events is very timely.  And, like Forgiveness described above, it shows that Canadians should not be smug about how we treat newcomers to this country.  The story centres around Mahindan, who with his six year old son lands on the shores of Vancouver Island in a rusty cargo ship carrying 500 refugees from war torn Sri Lanka.  The refugees are met at the ship and immediately incarcerated, awaiting a seemingly endless number of refugee hearings.  Mahindan is sent to a men's facility and separated from his son who is sent to stay with a woman refugee claimant who he barely knows (sound familiar?).

The story then alternates between telling us what happens to Mahindan and his son in Canada as well as the events in Sri Lanka that led to Mahindan being on that ship at all.  We also get two other perspectives.  The first is that of Priya who is a second generation Sri Lankan Canadian and an articling student.  She thinks she wants to be a corporate lawyer, but get dragged into this case by the firm's immigration lawyer.  The more she gets to know Mahindan, the more she learns about her father's past and the tension between him and his brother and how it has its roots in the Sri Lankan civil war.  She also becomes rather hooked on immigration law.  The second other perspective is that of Grace, a third generation Japanese-Canadian who is a politically appointed immigration adjudicator hearing some of these claims.  She is appointed by a national security conscious Minister who thinks she will be hard nosed and ensure no terrorists get into the country.  She struggles with that view as well as the view of her mother who, as she slips into dementia, spends more time dwelling on her family's past during World War II (a similar story to that described in Forgiveness).

I really enjoyed this book and, though it is fiction, I think it is very educational about how Canada treats refugee claimants.

All We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffin
I actually enjoyed this book more than I expected.  Nina Browning came from humble beginnings but is married to a wealthy, Nashville establishment businessman, Kirk.  Nina spends her time on charity events that her husband approves of and with other high society women.  But her marriage is not as happy lately.  Their son Finch excels in his fancy private school and has just been accepted at Princeton.  I really wanted to like Finch, but Giffin does a good job at keeping you guessing whether he is truly a good person like his mother or just a good con artist like his father.

Tom is the single father of Lyla.  He's a carpenter who lives "on the wrong side of the tracks" in Nashville, but Lyla has earned a scholarship to the same fancy private school that Finch attends.  One night Lyla, who has a crush on Finch, gets drunk and passes out.  While passed out she has her picture taken in a compromising position and Finch sends it to his friends.  Word gets out and Finch must face a disciplinary hearing at school which puts his Princeton acceptance at risk.

The remainder of the book is told from the perspectives of Nina, Tom and Lyla.  We eventually find out what actually happened the night of the party and who really is to blame for the compromising photo.  We also see Nina's marriage crumble further as well as gain insights into her past which explain why she is so concerned about Finch's behaviour and so sympathetic to Lyla.  We also see Tom deal with his failed marriage and the chip on his shoulder that he has carried around since working at a fancy golf club as a teenager.  And we see Nina and Tom bond over the experience and Lyla really grow from it.

I recommend this easy to read book that deals with some timely and difficult subjects.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble

Someone recommended I read this book because it is set in South Korea and I am traveling there in a few months.  The book definitely provided some historical context in the first section - in particular about the ruling monarchs in the 18th century.  And it provided some modern day information about Seoul in the second part which may prove helpful.  But overall the book was very strange.

The first half was written from the perspective of the "Red Queen" - however at the time she narrates she has been dead for 2000 years.  In this way the author reconstructs portions of her actual diaries through a modern lens.  I guess it's sort of an interesting idea, but to me it just comes off as weird.  The Red Queen is five years old when she is chosen as the wife of the Crown Prince who is the same age.  As children they are friends, but by age 15 or so they must consummate the marriage and things go downhill from there.  They lose their first son and neither wholly recovers.  In fact, the Crown Prince is quite mad - the long dead queen believes in the modern era he would have been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic.  He has many mistresses, becomes quite violent, struggles against his father and eventually dies an early, violent death.

Their second son survives and the Queen devotes her remaining years to ensuring his legacy - fighting with many relatives of her dead husband in order to do so.  She does live a long life (and apparently even longer after life).

The second part of the book is written from the perspective of spirits who overlook the modern day scientist who the Red Queen has chosen to carry on her legacy.  Before she travels to Seoul for a conference she mysteriously receives the Queen's diaries which suck her in and cause her to search out the palaces and other places she wrote about.  The story also covers two relationships she makes along the way - with a Korean ex-pat who she meets when there is a mix up with their luggage and with a famous Dutch scientist who she has a 3 day affair with.  While I enjoyed reading about her sightseeing in Seoul, on the whole the story was a little bit too odd.

In the final section the author writes herself into the story - she meets the scientist who passes on the Red Queen's story for her to share with the world.

Unless you have a particular interest in Korean history (or stories written from the perspective of spirits), I don't recommend this book.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Sons and Soldiers by Bruce Henderson

I don't normally read a lot of non-fiction, but the premise of this one caught my eye.  It is the previously untold story of a group of Jewish boys who escaped Nazi Germany in the mid to late 1930s and became interrogators for the US army during World War II.  They were referred to as the "Ritchie Boys" for the name of the camp where they did their training.

Though there were close to 2000 of them, the book primarily followed the stories of 6, beginning with their pre-Nazi family lives, through the Nazi rise to power and Kristallnacht then their eventual escapes to the US.  Some came alone, sponsored by relatives already living in the US or as part of orphan rescue missions.  Others were lucky enough to have escaped with their families.  All of them felt the call to do what they could to eradicate Nazism after seeing the terrible toll it took on their country.  Though most were initially turned down by the army as "enemy aliens", eventually they were able to prove their loyalty to their adopted country and were fast tracked to citizenship.  Moreover their command of the language and understanding of the German way of life and psyche made them ideal intelligence officers.

Statistics suggest that 36% of all combat intelligence gathered by the US army in the European theatre came from German-language interrogations conducted by the Ritchie Boys.  The book goes on to illustrate many of the ways in which they participated in the war, at great danger to themselves, especially if the Germans found out they were Jews.  At least two of the Ritchie Boys were executed by a German officer who found out they were Jews.

After the Germans were defeated many of the Ritchie Boys looked for family members that they'd left behind - some were lucky to find relatives who had survived the concentration camps or in hiding; most were not so lucky.

My main criticism with the book was that it was sometimes hard to follow.  It jumped from story to story without elegant transitions.  I also often forgot the back story when I got to a new section about one or the other of the main characters.  It might have been easier if I were reading a physical book rather than an e-book as I could have more easily flipped back and forth.  The book was obviously very well researched and sometimes read like a textbook which made parts dry.  That being said, overall I enjoyed reading about an angle of the war of which I had no prior knowledge.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Everybody's Son by Thrity Umrigar

In 1991 nine year old Anton, who is mixed race, was left in his sweltering apartment in the "projects" for a week while his mother went out seeking crack.  She intended to return but was raped and imprisoned by her dealer in payment of her debts.  Eventually, after subsisting on whatever crumbs he could find in the apartment Anton throws a chair at a window and escapes from the broken window.  He cuts his leg and the trail of blood leads a local policeman to find him and turn him over to child services.

David Coleman, a prominent lawyer and son of a retired state senator, and his wife Delores have lost their only son who was killed in a car accident on the night of his prom.  David hopes to restore some of the light to Delores' eyes by fostering a child and Anton is placed with them.

David is so happy to have a bright young boy to nurture that he takes advantage of his position and connections to get a longer sentence for Anton's mother than she would normally have received.  In the two and a half years that she is in prison David works to educate Anton - both academically and on how to behave given his new station in life.  Though Anton is treated well and comfortable with the Colemans he counts the days until he can return to his mother - and he refuses to call David and Delores Mom and Dad though they want him to.

When Anton's mother's prison term is nearing an end David is unwilling to return Anton to his former life and again manipulates everyone around him so that Anton's mother gives up her parental rights allowing the Coleman's to adopt him.  While he has the help of his best friend in this endeavour, neither Delores nor Anton have any idea what he has done.

The book then skips ahead 10 years to 9/11 when Anton is in college and falls in love with a radical black woman.  At one point in anger she tells him she can't tell if he's the blackest white man she's ever met or the whitest black man.  This dilemma haunts Anton throughout the book as he is thrust by David into a life at Harvard (as a legacy), Harvard law, as a lawyer and attorney general and eventually running to replace David as governor.

During the run for governor Anton is finally contacted again by his birth mother and the secrets of his past are revealed.  The last chapters address how Anton, his birth mother and his adoptive parents all struggle with this.

I have left out a lot of the detail of the middle of the book dealing with Anton's life (there are sections in 2001, 2012 and 2016), but it all is interesting in leading us to the man Anton grew to become both because of and despite his adoption.

I enjoyed this book - and many of the themes are very topical.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Room on Rue Amelie by Kristin Harmel

This was yet another in a string of what seems like many books lately that deal with the Holocaust from the perspective of people in France (both Jewish and non-Jewish).  I liked it, but I wouldn't say I loved it.  I did enjoy the structure in that there was a prologue set in the early 2000s which introduces two of the characters without specifying who they are.  So throughout the wartime narrative they are always in the back of your head as you try to piece together who was going to survive (I did guess, I didn't think it was that hard to).

Ruby is a young American who falls for a Parisian man on the eve of World War II.  Against her parents' wishes she marries him and follows him to France, staying in Paris even after the war breaks out.  Through her husband she becomes involved in the French underground - in particular she becomes part of the escape route for Allied pilots who are shot down over France.

She is also neighbours with a Jewish family and befriends the young daughter, Charlotte.  So we get some insight into how Jews were treated through Charlotte and her family.

Finally, we are introduced to Thomas, a British pilot.  We also get to see the war through his eyes.

Because getting into more detail would give the story away, I'll stop here.  The only real enjoyment is the suspense aspect so I don't want to ruin that.

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton

I have to say I liked this book more than I expected to.  If you follow this blog regularly you will know I don't read a lot of non-fiction and, when I do, it is almost never political.  But I have always admired Hillary Clinton, and someone gave me her book, so I gave it a try.  And I was very pleasantly surprised.  While of course it deals with many political issues (the US electoral process, the current state of America, Russian interference in US politics, etc.), the book is largely a very personal account.

Clinton gives us insight into what she was thinking and feeling during the 2016 election campaign and, in particular, after her crushing (and surprising loss).  She is very analytical in her thinking, yet enough emotion comes through to make her very relatable, at least to me.  I love how she dealt not only with the obvious politics of the situation, but also had chapters on her relationships with her parents, her husband, her daughter and various advisors and friends.

She also took a very evidence based approach to trying to decipher what went wrong - something that seems to be generally lacking in the political arena these days.  And she didn't hesitate to take blame for her own actions - she clearly feels tremendously bad for letting her supporters, and women in general, down.

I came away from the book with even more admiration for Clinton than I had when I started.  This must have been a very difficult, though likely cathartic, book to write.  It also made me wish I could have her over for dinner - the conversation would undoubtedly be fascinating.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Bear Town by Fredrik Backman

It's funny, when I read the back of this book I assumed it took place in Canada.  And I'm apparently not the only one who thought so.  It was only when I saw that it was in translation that I took a closer look and found out it was actually set in Sweden.  Apparently the quintessential Canadian story is also a Swedish one.

Bear Town is a small, dying town in the forests of Sweden.  They have cold dark winters, dwindling employment and not much to get excited about other than the local junior hockey team which looks like it may make its way to the finals in the capital.  This hasn't happened in years and everyone is hopeful a successful team will encourage the council to put a hockey school in the town, bringing with it much growth in all sectors.

What I really loved about this book is how many perspectives were covered - the star player, Kevin, and his uptight, distant, rich parents; the GM, Peter, his wife Kira, daughter Maya, and son Leo; the coach of the junior team, David; the older coach of the senior team, Sune; the other hockey players, Benji, Bobo, Amat, Lyt...; Maya's best friend, Ana; the team sponsors, President, and fans.  At the start it was a bit hard to keep them straight, but by the end I feel I knew them all.

On the day the junior team wins the semi-finals, Kevin commits a terrible act against Maya and the townspeople are all divided in how to approach it.  No one is left untouched and while some of the reactions are totally predictable, others surprised me.  I ended up particularly sensitive to Kevin's best friend, Benji, who was also hiding big secrets of his own.  I also liked the ending which gave a snapshot of where the kids ended up 10 years later.

I can't really say much more without getting into the complexities of the story in too much detail, but I definitely recommend this book.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

I wasn't sure about picking up this book since I often don't like the popular, talked about, choices.  I also couldn't get into the author's earlier bestseller.  But I enjoyed this one.  The main character is Anna - when we first meet her she is a pre-teen living in Depression era New York with her father, a union worker/gangster, mother, a former dancer with the Ziegfield Follies, and her severely disabled younger sister.

Anna loves spending time with her father, but as she ages and he gets deeper involved in the gangster world, he stops taking her on his "business meetings" and they grow apart.  But not before she meets Dexter Styles, a smooth talking, high ranking mobster who owns several nightclubs (among other things).

When Anna is a teenager her father disappears without a word, leaving Anna and the rest of her family to struggle along.  For Anna war becomes an opportunity when she gets a job that would normally be closed to women in the New York Naval Yards.  She first works in a factory measuring parts then takes on the unlikely job of diving to repair boats - a job she is very good at.

When she is working she meets Dexter Styles again and realizes he may hold the keys to her father's disappearance.  The remainder of the book deals with their relationship, her father's story and other dramatic turns in Anna's life.  I don't want to give any more away, because the book is worth a read to hear Anna's story.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Brother by David Chariandy

This was a really wonderful little book.  Set in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough it tells the story of brothers Michael and Francis, sons of immigrants from Trinidad.  They are raised by a single mother in low income housing crowded with immigrants primarily from the Caribbean, South Asia and Africa.  Their mother works several low paying jobs just to keep them housed and fed, and always encourages them not to squander their chance by ignoring their education.

Despite her best efforts, Francis, the older of the brothers while dreaming of a future in music is confronted with the prejudices and low expectations that face him because of the colour of his skin.  This results in bursts of anger which are exacerbated by a neighbourhood shooting and a police crackdown that follows it.

Some of the action takes place in this one hot summer.  The rest takes place ten years later when the younger brother's teenaged girlfriend returns to the suburb and tries to get him and his mother to confront the past.

The book is well written, engaging and tells a very moving and real story.  I highly recommend it.