Monday, December 2, 2019

The Sweetness of Forgetting by Kristin Harmel

While at times a little far fetched, I was really sucked into this wonderful story.

Hope is in her mid-thirties, recently divorced, running her family's near bankrupt bakery and trying her best to raise an angry 12 year old, Annie.  She has also lost her mother to cancer and her beloved grandmother, Mamie, is slipping away into Alzheimer's.

In a moment of lucidity Mamie realizes that if she does not reveal the secrets of her past to her granddaughter they will be lost forever.  So she sends Hope to Paris with a list of her family members to find out what happened to them.

In Paris Hope discovers Mamie has been living a lie - though for the best of reasons.  The interesting story is how Hope tracks down what happened to Mamie's family as well as a long ago lover.

In her quest she is helped by her daughter, who becomes more supportive as she learns more of her family's past, and Gavin, a friend who would like to be more if Hope can only open up her heart again.  She is also aided by Jewish organizations in Paris and the US, Muslims in Paris, as well as an unlikely Muslim Albanian family.  Her ex-husband and ex-boyfriend (and unfriendly banker) are less supportive.  With time she also realizes that the fairy tales her grandmother has been telling her for her whole life contain more truths about her past than she realized.

While some of the story is sad - as Mamie has lost so much time, some of it is very hopeful.  Mamie is able to teach Hope and Annie about the power of love, even after decades apart.  And she also comes to appreciate the family bakery legacy more than she ever had.

Kasztner's Train: the True Story of Rezso Kasztner, Unknown Hero of the Holocaust by Anna Porter

I picked up this somewhat older book at a book sale, and confess it was a little too academic for my liking (I struggle when reading any book for pleasure that has a multitude of footnotes).

Despite that I got sucked into the story and finished the book even though at the start I doubted that I would.  It helped when I realized it didn't really matter if I precisely remembered who each and every character was as constantly checking the index for that started to drive me a bit crazy.

Kasztner was a Jewish lawyer and journalist living in Budapest at the time of the Nazi invasion of Hungary.  In 1944 he somehow managed to meet Eichmann and other senior Nazi officers and negotiated a deal to allow over 1600 Jews to escape to Switzerland rather than being shipped to Auschwitz.  In other dealing he also may have saved about 40,000 other Jews already living in camps.

The book goes through these negotiations and all the characters involved in painstaking detail.  We get insights into other Jewish community leaders, those who supported Kasztner and those who didn't, various Nazi officers, and Jewish leaders in Switzerland, Turkey, Palestine and the US.  Kasztner struggled both during and after the war to get the support of these other leaders - many of whom were just in denial about the gravity of the Nazi action in Hungary.

After the war Kasztner settled in Israel where he was accused of selling his soul to the devil.  His reputation in tatters he was eventually murdered.

While his tactics may have been questionable there is no doubt several thousand people and their descendants owe their lives to Kasztner.  In addition to knowing nothing about him before reading this book, I also learned far more than I ever did about the Nazi action against Jews in Hungary.

Love Lives Here by Amanda Jetté Knox

This is a very interesting autobiography of a woman's family life - and how she becomes a successful social activist in order to support her family.

Amanda lived a fairly unstable life - she never knew her biological father, she was bullied mercilessly at school and she struggled with alcoholism as a young teenager.  As a result she grew up never feeling like she really belonged.  However, when she married the love of her life at age 20 and had three children she thought she had found the stability she craved.

When only 1, her middle child who she thought of as a boy came out as transgender.  While this was entirely new territory for her, she supported her fully and fought in every way she knew how to find the support her daughter needed.  Her spouse and other two children were also supportive, but her spouse continued to be very unhappy.

Less than a year later her spouse also came out as transgender.  For a long time Amanda thought this might be more than she could handle, especially when she was unable to find positive role models for a marriage surviving transitioning.  However with time she realized how much happier her spouse was now that she was no longer hiding her true self - and that ultimately led to a stronger, happier marriage.

This is a great story of the power of love and acceptance - especially in the face of external criticism.

Friday, November 22, 2019

3 Novels and an Autobiography

The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall

This book was different than what I usually read, and at times a bit slow, but I enjoyed it.  It is set in the years 1950 to 1970 and follows the lives of two couples whose lives end up being extremely intertwined.

Charles comes from a wealthy but cold Boston family.  His father is an academic who assumes he will go to Harvard and then also become a professor.  But Charles surprises his stringently atheist father by deciding instead to become a Presbyterian minister.  Charles falls in love at first sight with Lily who he runs into at the Harvard Library.  Lily's lived a difficult life - an only child, her parents were killed in a car accident when she was a teenager.  Though she was taken in by loving aunts and uncles, it has killed any belief she has in God.  She is quite clear about that with Charles, but they end up together anyway.

James, who was raised by a drunk and abusive father, gets an unexpected gift from an uncle in Ireland which allows him to go to the University of Chicago.  There he also decides to go into the Ministry - more as a way to create social change than for his steadfast belief in God.  He also falls in love at first sight with Nan when she comes to play piano at his college.  She comes from a well to do Southern family - her father was also a minister.

James and Charles are hired as co-pastors of a Presbyterian church in New York City and the remainder of the book follows the lives of the two couples.  While the men work well together and like each other, Lily and Nan have trouble relating to each other.  This is exacerbated when Lily, who never really wanted to have children, gives birth to twins, and Nan, who desperately wants them is unable to conceive.  All of them are also challenged when one of the twins is diagnosed with autism at a time when the medical profession knew little about it and did even less for it.

In short this book is about love, faith, friendship, and parenthood.  Not a lot of action but still interesting.

All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg

This is another book that is really more about characters than action.  In this case, the patriarch Victor suffers a heart attack and is on his deathbed.  His daughter Alex rushes to New Orleans more to learn why her mother, Barbra, has stuck with this abusive, criminal man for so long, than to mourn her father.  Gary, who actually lives in New Orleans is in Los Angeles when his father takes ill and can't bring himself to return.  Gary's wife Twyla seems unwilling to leave Victor's bedside.

The book largely takes place over the course of one day (except really for the prologue and the epilogue).  Through Alex, Barbra, Twyla and Gary we learn about the distant and not so distant past and see why each of the characters has reacted to Victor's illness in the way they have.  Some of the secrets are quite surprising so I don't want to share them here.

I liked how all of the characters were very complex - not necessarily likeable but relatable.  It could at times be a bit of a slow read too.

Window on the Bay by Debbie Macomber

This was really just a beach read which I ordered at the beginning of summer but didn't make its way to me until long past beach season.

The story centres around Jenna and Maureen, divorced women who have been friends since college.  Jenna has recently become an empty nester and is at loose ends when she and Maureen decide to plan a long postponed trip to Paris.  But in the meantime they are both dipping their toes in the dating pool, with little success, when they find love in unexpected places.

Not very surprising or story, and no deeper meaning, but a good escape.

Me by Elton John

This is a fantastic autobiography by Elton John.  He does not credit a ghost writer so I guess he wrote it on his own and it's incredibly well written.  I was literally laughing out loud at some of his turns of phrase.  And, let's face it he's had a fascinating life so what's not to like about reading about it.

He goes through his shy and somewhat difficult childhood (his parents both had bad tempers and he was constantly hiding in his room), his early efforts as a singer, his chance meeting with Bernie Taupin that changed both of their lives, through to stardom, drug and alcohol addiction, rehab, founding the AIDS foundation, love, marriage and fatherhood.  It also revealed his recent struggle with prostate cancer which had not been previously publicized.

He of course shares details of his friendships with John Lennon, Rod Stewart, George Michael, Freddy Mercury, Gianni Versace and Princess Diana.  He also describes meetings with the Queen, the Queen Mother, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley and a host of other marquis names.  But he spends just as much time talking about how his life was affected by a  young boy with hemophilia who contracted AIDS or a toddler he took to in a Russian orphanage.

Though he does criticize some people, he never comes off as mean spirited.  And he seems grateful for all his fame and fortune.  He definitely knows he's lucky to have avoided AIDS.  And it explains why he has yet to retire.

I really enjoyed reading this book.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

another slew of fall books

The books keep coming in more quickly than I can record my thoughts.  But there were a couple I really enjoyed in this group.

Cilka's Journey by Heather Morris
This is a second novel by the author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz and I would say I have similar criticisms of this book.  While the story is engaging, it seems to almost romanticize very difficult circumstances.

In this book we follow Cilka, who was in fact a minor character in the other book (and we do hear some passing news of the other characters from that book in this one).  She was taken to Auschwitz at age 16 and there installed as the mistress of two Nazi guards.  She was also put in charge of the barracks where women who were about to be gassed were placed for the night.  From Cilka's perspective she just did what she needed to survive.  But to the Russian liberators she was a collaborator so she was sentenced to 15 years in the Gulag in Siberia.

Taken to Siberia in the middle of winter and subjected to harsh labour she must again learn to survive - which again involves sleeping with brutal guards.  She also tries desperately to hide her past from the women in her bunk as she does not think they will understand why she did what she did to survive Auschwitz.

She gets a break when she is taken under the wing of a kind Russian doctor who supports her training as a nurse.  Through this relationship, and others in the camp, she learns to trust again and even manages to find love.  While the book does describe horrific things that happen both to Cilka and others, for me it all wrapped up a little too neatly.  That being said it's still an interesting read - you just have to suspend your disbelief a bit.

What Happens in Paradise by Elin Hilderbrand
This is a sequel to Hilderbrand's Winter in Paradise which came out last year (a third book is in the works for next year).  While you could theoretically read this book as a standalone, I wouldn't as I don't think you'd get nearly as much out of it.

The book is pure escapism, though I will say Hilderbrand has branched even further into the mystery/thriller genre (from her more familiar romance).  In the first book Irene Steele and her sons Cash and Baker discover following the death of their husband/father in a helicopter accident off the island of St. John that he was living a second life there.  He had a girlfriend (who died in the accident) and a twelve year old daughter.  After learning a little about that second life, Irene, Cash and Baker return to their lives in the US.  But they are contacted by the FBI and told that now they suspect the helicopter crash was in fact a murder.

So at loose ends for various reasons all three return to St. John.  Irene takes on a job as second mate on her husband's daughter's step grandfather's fishing boat (yes you read that complexity correctly).  There an unlikely romance begins to blossom.  Baker and Cash are both in love with Ayers (the best friend of their father's girlfriend) though she is back together with her old flame.  (One of my favourite parts is how this boyfriend calls Baker and Cash Banker and Money).

So the book explores these twisted romance stories all the while trying to figure out what happened in the helicopter crash.  And it ends with the FBI taking Irene's homes away - leading us all to want to read the next instalment to find out why.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Anyone who read this blog regularly will know I read a lot, and I like a lot of books by many different authors.  But when I dive into a book by a true master there's no comparison.  Atwood's writing style just blows me away.

As you likely know this is the long awaited sequel to The Handmaid's Tale.  For decades readers were asking Atwood how Gilead, the dystopian society in which The Handmaid's Tale is set, came to an end.  It is clear from that book that the society did not survive, but the book doesn't explain what happened.  This book answers that question.  And if I have to criticize it at all I would say that maybe Atwood tried too hard to give readers what she expected they wanted to hear.  As a reader it's hard to criticize that too strongly as of course it tells the story I wanted to hear too.

While the initial book was written from the perspective of the Handmaid, Offred, this one is told in three voices.  The first is Aunt Lydia with who we are very familiar from the first book.  She was one of the women who were allowed a certain degree of power within a very limited sphere - that is they terrorized (ostensibly trained) the handmaids.  While initially we saw Aunt Lydia only through Offred's eyes, now we get inside her head - and realize she is much more complex than we initially believed.

The second perspective is that of a young girl who was raised by foster parents within Gilead (having been taken from her birth parents who were deemed unworthy).  She is now being groomed to marry - really the only option for a girl of her standing.  She does not want to marry and turns to Aunt Lydia for assistance.

The third perspective is that of a young girl who was raised in Canada.  She learns that her past is more complex than she believed and that it involved a connection to Gilead.  Having learned in school about the evils of that society, she gets involved in trying to sabotage it.

I don't really want to tell you much more about this book as it would take away the joy of reading it.  And despite the heavy topic it is so well written I knocked it off in a little over a day - I couldn't put it down.

A must read.

The Billionaire Murders by Kevin Donovan
This is an expose by a Toronto Star reported on the shocking and as yet unsolved murders of Barry and Honey Sherman (he the chairman of a major generic pharmaceutical company; she a socialite and philanthropist).

Donovan carefully goes through everything he can find about the investigation - interviewing the police, going to court to get documents unsealed, interviewing the private investigators hired by the Sherman family to conduct their own investigation and talking to numerous friends, colleagues and family members.

It is also a critique of the police investigation which initially seemed to waste time on the conclusion that this was a murder suicide which was hard to reconcile with the crime scene.

In the end Donovan tells a story that suggests numerous possible assailants - in his view it could only have been an insider who was extremely familiar with the Shermans' habits and schedules on the days surrounding the murder.  Based on his analysis I can't say I have a very strong feeling about who the murderer was though I do have some suspicions about more than one person.

Donovan also delves into the lives of the Shermans which was fairly interesting on its own.  It will be fascinating to see how his theories hold up if and when there are actually arrests in this case.

Take it Back by Kia Abdullah
I don't remember where I heard about this book, but I'm sure happy I did - it was really fantastic.

The basic premise of the story is that, Jodie Wolfe, a 16 year old Caucasian girl with facial deformities accuses 4 Muslim classmates of gang rape.  The boys are handsome, well liked and come from hardworking immigrant families.  Much of the narrative deals with the investigation and trial into Jodie's accusations.  And I must say I really wasn't sure who to believe until the very end.  The characters are so well developed they are all credible or not credible to the same degree.

But there is much more to this book - Jodie enlists Zara, a Muslim lawyer at a rape crisis centre, to shepherd her case through the legal system.  Zara has problems of her own having left a prominent job as a Barrister, walked away from an arranged marriage and become estranged from her father immediately prior to his death.  This leads her to depression and drug use.  Her taking on a case against members of her community also leads to tremendous tension with her family and other community members.  So the examination of race relations in London as well as the pressures put on young immigrant women to live in two rather different worlds is also at the forefront of the story.

I really liked the writing style and the story sucked me in from the start.  The characters were also so interesting as they were multi-faceted and I went from liking to disliking them - often in the span of the same chapter.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Autumn Reading List

While I've been too busy to post lately, it hasn't stopped me from reading.  So here's some brief reviews of the books I've read over the past few weeks.

The Summer Guests by Mary Alice Monroe
This was recommended as a good beach read, but I didn't enjoy it as much as some of the other escape reading that I do.  The premise was that when a hurricane hit southern Florida and South Carolina several guests made their way to a horse farm in North Carolina.  That was the start of the problem for me - there was way too much discussion of horses and riding and horse competitions...I suppose if you're interested in horses or even better riding competitions you would get more out of that part than I did.

Besides the horse racing there were the expected relationship stories.  We learned about the owners of the horse farm, Grace and Charles.  Charles was a famous rider until he was injured and is now afraid to get on a horse.  His wife Grace is equally nervous about him riding again which leads to some tension.  Their daughter Moira shows up with a truck full of rescue dogs.  Grace's friend Gerda who is a horse breeder shows up with her daughter Elise who is also friends with Moira.  There is a lot of tension between mother and daughter as Gerda is pushing Elise to follow the Olympic dream she was forced to give up when injured.  The weirdest part of the book is when Gerda meets a horse that she believes is the reincarnation of the horse she had to put down following that injury.  A famous equestrian shows up as the boyfriend of one of Grace's friends, Hannah.  But he dumps her for someone else at the house.  Finally Cara who has an island home on the outer banks eventually shows up after trying to protect her house from the storm.

Most of the visitors don't know each other before they arrive - they only have the hosts in common.  So relationships develop - both new ones and existing ones.  They are interesting enough but for me did not make up for all the horse talk.  I wouldn't recommend this unless you're into horse.

Searching fo Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok
Although a bit of a mystery, which is not a genre I usually gravitate towards, the interesting family dynamic made this book worth it to me.

It starts with Sylvie, the beautiful and successful elder daughter of the Lee family, flying from the US to the Netherlands for one last visit with her dying grandmother.  Then she disappears.  Her younger sister Amy is devastated and wants to look for her, but has to first find out more of the time before she was born.  She is too young to remember how her immigrant parents were too poor to care for Sylvie and sent her to be raised by her grandmother in the Netherlands.  Her grandmother was living with other relatives at the time and while Sylvie is doted on by the husband, the wife treats her quite inconsistently.

Then in alternating chapters we learn of Sylvie's return to the Netherlands - the rekindling of relationships with her grandmother and the son of the people she grew up with (and with whom she was friends at the time) - and Amy's trip to stay with these same people to try to solve the story behind her sister's disappearance.

The truth was not immediately obvious which made me want to keep reading.  In addition the characters were nuanced and sympathetic (even the woman who treated Sylvie poorly had a sympathetic story).  This also shed light on the difficult choices immigrants need to make in order to provide the lives they want for their children.

I definitely recommend this book.

From Scratch: a Memoir of Love, Sicily and Finding Home by Tembi Locke
This was a fantastic memoir.  Tembi was an exchange student in Florence when she ran into Saro and it was love at first sight.  Saro was a chef from Sicily several years older than Tembi and his family disapproved of his relationship with a younger, Black, American actress - to the extent that his parents refuse to attend their wedding (though an aunt and uncle defy his father and represent the family).

Tembi and Saro relocate to Los Angeles where they both have successful careers, make many friends and adopt a baby girl.  Saro is also welcomed into Tembi's large and boisterous family.

Unfortunately when their daughter is only 6 or 7 Saro is diagnosed with terminal cancer and most of the book is written through the lens of Tembi's extraordinary grief during his illness and following his death.  The small bit of good that comes out of his diagnosis is that Saro's parents and sister finally travel to LA to visit.  There they are overwhelmed with the love he shares with Tembi's family and their anger starts to crumble.

The summer following Saro's death, Tembi and her daughter travel to Sicily to stay with his now widowed mother and to spread his ashes on the island in accordance with Saro's wishes.  Day by day and eventually summer by summer Tembi bonds with her mother-in-law, at the start over their shared loss, but eventually the bond becomes broader.

While Tembi's story is sad, it also shows her strength and resilience as well as her ability to forgive.  While the human story is enough, the descriptions of Sicily - its physical beauty and its people - are also enthralling.

The Song of the Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning
This is in some ways a typical Holocaust novel, but it does have a twist.  The narrative switches back in forth in time - from the World War II era to the present day.  In the present day, Alexandra is shocked to hear her grandmother beg her grandfather's forgiveness while he's on his deathbed in her Australian home.  For her perspective they've always had a perfect marriage.  Since her job in London is offering her a temporary post in Shanghai (and she has just broken up with her boyfriend there) she decides to accept the opportunity so she can delve into her grandparents' past.  All she knows is they spent some time during the War in Shanghai and later adopted a Chinese baby (her now deceased mother).

With Alexandra we learn that Remy and her parents fled to Shanghai from Austria after one of her brothers was shot on Kristallnacht and the other was taken into custody.  There her mother falls into a severe depression and her father, a doctor, works tirelessly with the city's poor population which is struggling under the Japanese occupation.  They befriend the Chinese family who live across the hall from them.  The father practices traditional Chinese medicine and is able to help Remy's mother.  Remy becomes best friends with the daughter and idolizes the older son.  Remy also befriends a girl on the boat from Austria who becomes orphaned when her mother dies in childbirth on the ship.  The family would like to take her in but she is forced to live in rather squalid conditions under the guardianship of her disinterested uncle.  We do know fairly early on that this girl ends up in Australia - still friends with Remy.

The chapters go on to reveal the truth about Remy's youth and Alexandra's parents and grandparents. The book also contains very vivid descriptions of Shanghai during the Japanese occupation and in the present.  I quite enjoyed this one.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
This is the first book I can recall reading that takes place in civil war torn Syria.  Nuri is a beekeeper and his wife, Afra, is an artist.  They live a very comfortable life with their son and extended families in Aleppo.  But when civil war strikes the unthinkable happens - they lose their son.  The shock blinds Afra, but despite the difficulty of her travelling Nuri insists they flee their war torn homeland to join his cousin in the UK.

Nuri and Afra embark on a dangerous journey through Turkey, by boat to Greece and then by land through France and eventually the UK.  They end up in a rooming house for immigrants in London while they go through the refugee claims process.  There we see the difficult time refugees from many countries have in establishing themselves anew.

The story is interesting - and the insights into Nuri's psyche are fascinating - some of the turns took me by surprise but were very believable.  Some of the other characters in the rooming house add colour to the narrative.

All in all I enjoyed this book too.

The Empress of Idaho by Todd Babiak
This is a fascinating novel that deals with an issue rarely touched upon in literature - the sexual exploitation of a teenaged boy by his much older female neighbour.

Adam lives with his mother in the poor part of town.  His father left when he was a child and his older brother has left to play college football.  Adam is 14 and about to become a starter on his high school's football team even though he's only a sophomore.  He's also doing well in school, works a part time job at a gas station with his good friend Simon and is dating Phoebe, a girl from a wealthy established family.  Everyone believes he has what it takes to go even further than his brother.

Adam's life is upended when his next door neighbour brings home a new wife, Beatrice.  Beatrice becomes overly interested in Adam and finds ways to be alone with him and essentially sexually assault him.  Adam is a teenaged boy - he's torn between his physical interest in Beatrice and the need to lie to everyone in his life.  To make matters worse Beatrice sucks Adam's mother into a shady real estate deal - encouraging her to quit her steady job in order to get rich quick.

Over the course of the summer Beatrice's past starts to catch up with her and Adam, his mother, Beatrice's husband and others get caught in the complicated web.

The main story is interesting though disturbing.  There are also side stories of note - in particular that of Simon who comes from a very wealthy but conservative African family.  He is one of the few people of colour in the town and is "accused" of being gay causing his parents to kick him out of their home.  The support Adam musters for Simon, despite being in such a troubled state of his own, shows a really nice aspect of teenaged friendship.

This is a great book but not one for those easily disturbed by stories of sexual exploitation.

The Guest Book by Sarah Blake
This is an interesting story about a very privileged New York based banking family.  It is also a multi generational story which switches back and forth from about 1935 to the present day (when the newest generation doesn't have quite the resources of their forebears).

In 1935 Kitty and Ogden Milton seem to have it all - money, looks, perfect children and enviable love for each other.  But tragedy befalls them one day - and it hits Kitty particularly hard.  In an effort to make her feel better Ogden buys her an island in Maine.  That island comes to define multiple generations of the family.  In fact, in present day the story revolves around one granddaughter, who is desperately trying to prevent her cousins from selling the island since they can no longer afford to keep it.

Much of the drama is revealed as this granddaughter, a historian, tries to figure out some of her family's secrets (some of which are revealed in the guest book).  We learn of Ogden's possible business dealings with the Nazis, his hiring of a Jewish man, Len, who earns the respect of Ogden and one of his daughters but the scorn of everyone else.  There is also a story about a decision Kitty makes during the war which haunts her throughout her lifetime.  And there is a mysterious visit to the island by Len's friend, Reg, who is always the only black man in the room and is again at the island.  All of these people end up playing an important part in the Milton family history.

I don't want to give too much of the story away as part of the fun is how it all weaves together very nicely.  The book is well written, though perhaps a tad longer than it needs to be, and the story is interesting.  The characters are also well rounded and relatable.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
This book is at times laugh out loud funny and at times rather sad, but it is really just a very realistic and detailed character study.  Queenie is a Jamaican British 25 year old living in London and trying to figure out her life.  She has just broken up with her long term white boyfriend (they are actually on a break) and she makes some seriously bad decisions about men who she uses to fill the void.

Her job at a national newspaper is also in jeopardy as she spends too much time trying to sort out her personal life and makes yet another bad relationship decision there.  Really her biggest problem is trusting the wrong people.

With time and the support of her family and friends we are left with the feeling that Queenie's self esteem will improve and she will learn how to rely on herself rather than men to measure her worth in the world.

I enjoyed the story and the added benefit of the reinforcement of the power of female friendships.

Queen Bee by Dorothea Benton Frank
I saw this recommended somewhere, but all I will say about it is that it was so boring I gave up when I was about 1/4 of the way through.  Maybe I was missing something that others saw, but I wasn't willing to give it any more time to figure that out.

The Cactus by Sarah Haywood
I really enjoyed this book - it sort of reminded me of Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine or The Kiss Quotient where the heroine fell somewhere on the autism spectrum and you got to see life and relationships through her eyes.  In this book Susan lives a very orderly life and emotions don't fit into the equation.  She has even been involved with a man for years where theirs is more of a business relationship - they go on dates, they have sex, but they have no emotions or long term goals.

Unfortunately careful planning is not always enough.  First, Susan finds herself pregnant.  Then her mother dies and leaves her unemployed brother with a life estate in her house that Susan had hoped to sell to be able to afford a bigger flat for when the baby is born.

So Susan must figure out how to fight the will - and along the way she needs help from her upstairs neighbour who becomes a friend and, even less likely, her brother's best friend.  She also has to work out an arrangement with her baby's father that satisfies two parties who never wanted an emotional entanglement.  And finally she learns some long buried secrets about her past.  All of this is handled with surprising grace and humour by a person who is much more comfortable with well established routines.

This was an easy and enjoyable read.

Friday, September 6, 2019

The Wedding Party by Jasmine Guillory

This is Guillory's third romantic comedy and it is just as enjoyable as the other two.  Her writing is extremely entertaining - I love both the characters and the situations she creates.  I also really like how, though the books aren't strictly speaking a series, they bring together the same characters.  That being said, it is by no means necessary to read them in order (though it perhaps adds to the experience to do so).

In this book Maddie and Theo are both close friends of Alexa's and are asked to be in her wedding party where they will be forced to spend a lot of time together.  The problem is that when they first met they took a fairly instant dislike to each other (in part because of some misread signals).  Of course, since this is a romantic comedy, after a party at Alexa's they have a one night stand.

And after the one night stand they can't stop thinking about each other.  So they make a deal to continue to hook up just until the wedding - and to not tell Alexa who they feel will become too invested in a relationship which they don't see lasting.

Not surprisingly they develop feelings for each other ... and have to work out how to deal with that.  This was a fun book and I'm always a sucker for a happy ending.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Mostly I found this book terribly sad - the characters had so many missed opportunities and miscommunications which made their lives more difficult and lonely than they should have been.

Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in rural Ireland.  Marianne comes from a wealthy family, but is socially inept at school.  Connell's mother works as a maid for Marianne's family, but he is outgoing and popular at school.  As teenagers they become friends and eventually lovers, but they hide it from everyone.  Connell is afraid he will be ostracized if the truth comes out so he even invites someone else to the school dance which causes a rift with Marianne.

Both Connell and Marianne move to Dublin for college and remain on again off again friends and lovers.  Though they experiment with other partners they never really find happiness or the easy relationship they have with each other.  But misunderstandings continue to tear them apart.

While I sympathized with both characters, I constantly felt like shaking them so they could just talk honestly with each other.  However, I suspect in fact their inability to do so was quite realistic.

I recommend this book if you like studies in character and relationships - there is not really much action.

The Islanders by Meg Mitchell Moore

I read this book because reviews said it was for those who like books by Courtney Sullivan and Elin Hilderbrand - and both authors are ones I enjoy.  This book didn't disappoint.

It deals with three strangers who are spending a summer on Block Island in Rhode Island.  Joy and her daughter Maggie are full time residents, Lu and her young boys are there for the summer living at the expense of their wealthy in-laws who summer there every year, and Anthony Puckett has run away to the island after making a mistake that has derailed his successful writing career.

As it's a small island it is no surprise that the paths of these three strangers cross.  And all three of them are harbouring secrets which eventually come out and impact their relationships with each other and those around them.  I don't want to give away too much so I'll just say that the story develops well and the characters are both interesting and sympathetic while still being realistic.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Winemaker's Wife by Kristin Harmel

All the sudden there seem to be a lot of books about France during World War II and this is another.  This one is very recent - it even made reference to the spring fire at Notre Dame Cathedral.

I quite enjoyed this book - and while I had figured out some of the surprises at the end, there were just enough plot tricks to make me doubt whether my guesses were going to prove correct.

Like many historical fiction books, this one goes back and forth in time.  In the present day we follow  41 year old Liv.  She is still reeling from her divorce when her 99 year old grandmother shows up on her doorstep in New York and flies her to her home in Paris.  There she promises she wants to reveal long buried family secrets - however, she is too emotional to do so in a systematic way.  Instead she takes Liv to Reims in champagne country, and introduces her to a young lawyer, Julian, who together with her grandmother slowly reveals the past.

The historical scenes all take place in champagne country during World War II.  There, a young somewhat immature woman, Ines, leaves the home of her best friend Edith to marry the owner of a vineyard, Michel.  At the vineyard Michel and Ines are joined by the master winemaker, Theo, and his wife, Celine.  While all of them feel threatened by the German invasion, it is Celine who stands to lose the most as she has a Jewish father.

Ines feels belittled by her husband, Celine and Michel and as a result makes some very stupid, and ultimately dangerous, choices which haunt her.  I don't want to give too much away - but the story involves both French resistance and collaboration, infidelity, jealousy...

As you might expect, the two stories eventually come together quite elegantly.  If you like this kind of book, this one is well written, with multi-dimensional characters, and worth the read.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Mid-Summer Reading List

The library has been very cooperative in making books available for me this summer...

America's Reluctant Prince: the Life of John F. Kennedy Jr. by Steven Gillon
This was a very interesting biography of JFK Jr. that was published on the anniversary of his death in a small plane crash.

The author was very up to the task for two reasons.  First, he is an accomplished historian, with a specialty in modern American history, so he really knows a lot about the eras he's writing about.  Second, he was friends with JFK Jr. for many years - they first met when Gillon was his TA at Brown and continued to see each other regularly over the years, particularly to play squash.  While Gillon readily admits he was in JFK's "outer circle" rather than a very close friend, he still was able to include many personal anecdotes which added to the narrative.

The book covered the entire span of JFK Jr.'s lifetime so there was a lot about his father's presidency and assassination - though from the lens of how it impacted his son.  Neither of the parents came off looking perfect, though they were very humanized.  Jackie, in particular, was often described as very controlling - of her children, the secret service charged with protecting her children, etc.  We also learn of JFK Jr's positive relationship with Aristotle Onassis and how he was negatively impacted by his death as well as the deaths of his father and uncle.

It was also interesting to read about JFK Jr.'s relationship with other famous Kennedy's including his uncles Robert and Teddy as well as their children.  While he was also quite friendly with some of the children of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Jean Kennedy Smith, his closest relationship was with Anthony Radziwill, the son of Jackie's sister.  In his last few months he was very upset by Anthony's decline due to cancer.

While I enjoyed the personal parts of the book, there was a lot of focus on JFK's efforts to build George Magazine, as well as the relationships he had through the magazine.  While I understand the importance of this to telling the story of his life, to me it was less interesting.

Finally, I thought the author's insights into JFK's failing (potentially at least from the author's point of view) marriage and why he was a risk taker were very interesting and may partially explain why he was piloting a plane through the Martha's Vineyard fog when he was not certified to fly with instruments alone.

All in all a really interesting read.

Before we Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
This fiction novel is loosely based on historical events - where the director of a Memphis adoption agency stole poor children from their parents and sold them to wealthy families all over the US.

This book goes back and forth in time, and while you know that the stories will end up tied together, it is not so immediately obvious as to render the book too predictable.

In the past, Rill Foss is the oldest of five children living on a Mississippi shanty boat.  While they are poor, they seem to be happy and for the most part their parents are doing their best.  When their mother goes into labour with twins, and a local midwife is unable to deliver, the parents are forced to go to the hospital.  Rill is left in charge and does her best to keep things together but eventually the children are seized by child welfare authorities.  They are led to believe they will be taken to their parents but are quick to learn the awful truth.

The children are put in an orphanage where they are physically and mentally abused as well as put on display for potential adoptive parents.  Rill works hard to keep her family together and in alternate chapters we learn what she is capable of - and what she is not.

The present day chapters deal with Avery Stafford.  She is a young attorney from a wealthy family, engaged to be married to a long time family friend who is equally wealthy.  She returns to her home in South Carolina to be groomed to take over her ill father's place in Congress.  While there she visits a nursing home and is intrigued by photos which one of the resident has on display - of several women who remind her of her grandmother.  She tries to get information about it from her grandmother - but she is suffering from dementia and only utters some words and names which make no sense.  So Avery does some detective work of her own to figure out what's going on.  And in finding out more about her past, she makes some decisions which also affect her future.

The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren
This book was just pure enjoyable fluff.  Olive Torres, who has always considered herself the unlucky twin, is maid of honour at her twin sister's wedding.  Because she is allergic to seafood she does not partake in the seafood buffet which gives everyone at the wedding severe food poisoning.  The only other person who has not eaten the tainted food is her sworn enemy, the groom's older brother, Ethan.

As luck would have it they are forced to take the honeymoon of their siblings which is non-cancellable.  Not terribly surprising things happen when they are forced to spend a week together in Hawaiian paradise - but many of the scenes (such as when the meet both Olive's boss and Ethan's ex) are very humorous.

Not at all great literature but fun if you're in the mood.

Surfside Sisters by Nancy Thayer
I usually try to read one Nantucket based Thayer book every summer and this one didn't disappoint.  Her books are all fairly similar but well written with interesting characters.

This one details the lives of two island based friends - Keely and Isabelle.  While they were inseparable growing up, they did come from different backgrounds.  Keely was an only child of working class parents while Isabelle's father was a very successful lawyer so Isabelle lived a much more adventurous life.  Both girls dreamed of being writers - and Keely also pined after Isabelle's older brother Sebastian.

As the girls grew, jealousies over careers and men interfered with their friendship.  This tells the story of their time together, apart and slowly coming back together.

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Bali Kaur Jaswal
While I didn't enjoy this as much as Jaswal's prior novel, Erotic Tales for Punjabi Widows, which was more humorous, I did still enjoy the story.

In this book, the mother of three British born Punjabi girls leaves them a deathbed wish - travel to India together the following summer to make a pilgrimage which she describes for them, and scatter her ashes.

The three girls set out together despite all of their differences - the eldest is a straight laced school principal, the middle daughter is an out of work actress who is plagued by a recent Youtube scandal, and the youngest has just entered into an arranged marriage and is living in Australia with her husband and interfering mother in law.

As the sisters spend time together, they learn each other's secrets which pulls them closer together - surely accomplishing what their mother intended.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

My Summer Reading List (so far...)

Summer of '69 by Elin Hilderbrand
Every summer I try to read Hilderbrand's new release and this year was no exception.  I certainly enjoyed this one, and it was somewhat more complex than some of her books, but I don't think it was the best.  I found some of her efforts to include current events from that summer were a bit forced (e.g. the character based in Martha's Vineyard just happens to work at the hotel where Ted Kennedy stays that fateful summer and meets the woman who eventually dies when his car plunges into the water).

The story revolves around one family who has always spent the summer at their grandmother's home on Nantucket.  This year is different - only 13 year old Jessie and her mother make the trip.  Her older brother has been drafted and is serving in Vietnam, her oldest sister is pregnant with twins and staying in Boston with her husband and the other sister, the family rebel, has decided to summer on Martha's Vineyard instead. Jessie's dad (and step dad of all the other siblings) stays at home to work and only comes out on the odd weekend.

Jessie thinks her time will be boring but she discovers a boy a few years older than her, the son of the family's caretaker, is living in a small house on the property.  She develops a crush on him and spends time with him when not forced to take tennis lessons at her grandmother's club.  She has brushes with anti-semitism and sexual harassment while at the tennis club which are life lessons for her.

Eventually her eldest sister believes her husband is having an affair, gets caught kissing his brother and is kicked out of her home so ends up on the island where she eats and mopes.  This sister's husband conveniently works as a scientist for NASA and is involved in the moon landing so that world event can be woven into the narrative.

The sister in Martha's Vineyard is disillusioned by the Kennedy event and the reactions to her having a black boyfriend so she makes her way to Nantucket too.  And Jessie's dad shows up once convinced his wife is not drinking excessively as she worries about her son.  Only the brother in Vietnam doesn't arrive.

The biggest revelation for Jessie are secrets from her family's past and present which she discovers both through careful observation and her mother's stories.  I won't ruin those for you though I did figure them out faster than Jessie did.

An easy summer read if not great literature.

Here's Looking at You by Mhairi McFarlane
This was a fun romantic comedy.  Anna Alessi is a thirty something history professor whose life is quite satisfactory, except that she is looking for love.  She tries online dating and seems to only attract weirdos.  She is also still traumatized from the bullying she suffered in high school when she was many pounds heavier, still used her original more ethnic name and really didn't fit in.

When a high school reunion is scheduled Anna's friend convinces her she should go to put her high school demons behind her.  While there she encounters the main perpetrator of her high school humiliation, James, who is still as good looking as he always was and has no idea who she is.

Then, coincidentally shortly after James shows up at her workplace to work on a project.  Against her better judgment she slowly becomes his friend - without revealing who she is.  The resulting encounters are both funny and at times sad.  There are also side stories about her relationships with James' friend from high school - a serial womanizer who tries his luck with Anna - and another professor who seems harmless but has some troubling quirks as well.  Moreover James is working through his failed marriage.

Quite entertaining though mindless reading.  Perfect for summer.

One Day in December by Josie Silver
This is yet another one of my summer romance genre reads.  Laurie is on a bus one day in December when she makes eye contact with a man at a bus stop and instantly falls in love.  She tries unsuccessfully to find him, and when she has all but given up he appears at her doorstep.  As the boyfriend of her best friend and roommate, Sarah.  Laurie never admits to Sarah that Jack (the boyfriend) is also the man from the bus as Sarah is very serious about him.

The book covers the next ten years of their lives - Sarah and Jack stay together, Laurie marries someone else, never sure if Jack remembers who she really is, and Laurie and Jack have repeated awkward encounters.

It's not a very believable story, but it is entertaining.

99 Percent Mineby Sally Thorne
Darcy Barrett has only really loved one man, Tom Valeska, who was a childhood neighbour and her twin brother Jamie's best friend.  Because of the relationship with her brother, Darcy has never acted on her feelings for Tom and has spent many years travelling from place to place and avoiding any sort of commitment.

When Darcy's grandmother dies and leaves her old cottage to the twins, they agree it must be renovated and sold - and Tom is the only man for the job.  Since Jamie is employed and Darcy is not she stays in the cottage to oversee the renovations and of course sparks fly with Tom.  Tom also tries to lead Darcy back to her true path as a photographer.

The relationship and the narrative are fairly predictable, but still interesting.  I didn't like it as much as The Hating Game (review below).

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne
Lucy and Joshua are both assistants at a publishing firm and are forced to work in the same office, but unfortunately they hate each other - or so they think.  They also seem to be polar opposites - Joshua is uptight, organized and meticulous, but maintains his distance from other employees (he even wears his shirts in a regular rotation).  Lucy is quirky, sparkly, popular with her colleagues and very agreeable to their demands.

At a work event Lucy becomes very sick and Joshua is forced to take her home and nurses her back to health - even inviting his doctor brother to make a house call.  There she overhears the pressure on Joshua to attend his brother's wedding which he clearly does not want to do.  So she agrees to go as his date.  There the truth of their feelings for each other finally emerges and the book ends as one might expect.

The Summer of Sunshine and Margot by Susan Mallery
Sunshine and Margot are fraternal twins who come from a long line of women who are unlucky in love.  Margot is an etiquette coach who is hired to coach an aging movie star, Bianca, who has a history of over the top behaviour, on proper manners for the wife of a diplomat as she is engaged to marry one.  For reasons that are not really obvious, though are convenient, she must move into Bianca's house to do the training.  There she spends more and more time with Bianca's academic, serious, and intensely private son - with predictable results.

Sunshine has never really found her calling and is working as a live in nanny for a widower and his 8 year old son while she goes to college at the relatively advanced age of 30.  Again the development of her relationship with her employer is not surprising.

I liked the characters in this book and it was an easy fun read but something you can definitely miss unless you're in the mood for fluff.

My Ex-Best Friend's Wedding by Wendy Wax
The easy reading books have been coming from the library fast and furiously this summer and this is another one of them - although the focus on this book is more on familial relationships and platonic friendship than romance.

Kendra was a teenage mother who moved to the Outer Banks with her newborn after she left her fiancé at the alter and her father wanted to take the baby away and give her up for adoption.  There Kendra raised her daughter, posing as a widow.  Fast forward many years and her daughter, Lauren, is a successful author who is engaged to be married.  She returns to town from New York to scout out potential wedding venues and to see "the dress" - a family wedding dress that has passed to various members for their weddings.

Lauren is somewhat reluctant to return as she must contend with Bree, her former best friend.  The two had a falling out when Bree refused to go to New York after college, as she had promised, and instead stayed home and married Lauren's ex-boyfriend.  Bree is angry as she feels the book that made Lauren's career is based on an idea that the two had developed together.

Laughter and tears ensue when the two former best friends are reunited, Bree's marriage is suffering as is Lauren's career and Lauren's supposedly dead father shows up on her doorstep.

An entertaining read - I enjoyed the characters and it was nice to see romance on the back burner for a change.

The Last Book Party by Karen Dukess
This was a short and fairly interesting book.  It primarily takes place in the summer of 1987 when Eve Rosen, an aspiring writer, quits her job as a low level assistant at a publishing company.  Instead she joins her family in their Cape Cod home.  There she has always mingled with her parents' professional friends but this year she somehow scores an invitation to a party at the home of two local authors where she mingles with more artsy folk.

She has a brief dalliance with their son but is then hired to work for the father.  Star struck by working for this somewhat has been writer a personal relationship develops between them.  But at an annual end of summer book party, where everyone dresses as the character from a book, Eve discovers that her secrets are not the biggest ones plaguing this family.

All of the characters in this book are quite interesting - especially Eve, her employer and his wife, and another author who is about to make it big based on a book with a somewhat questionable origin.  Eve has to figure out how to deal with all of the secrets and what it will take to make her really fit in with this artistic crowd by writing a book of her own.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner

I have read and enjoyed pretty much everything Weiner has written, but in my view this was her very best - she seems to be at the top of her game.

This book tells the story of several generations of women though it centres on two sisters - Jo and Bethie Kaufman - who grow up in suburban Detroit in the 50s.  Jo is a tomboy who can never quite meet her mother's expectations for a daughter though she bonds with her father over baseball.  Bethie is the perfect "girly girl" who her mother holds out as an example.  But nothing is as simple as it seems in suburban Detroit.

Jo struggles with her sexual orientation while Bethie suffers a trauma which "turns the good girl bad".  It is Jo who ends up adhering to social norms at the time, becoming a wife and mother in Connecticut, while Bethie leads a more alternative lifestyle.  Neither is truly happy.

I don't want to give too much more away, but it is fascinating to read about these two sisters and through them to learn a lot of the history of feminism, sexual violence, sexual orientation, and even race relations.  I saw the author speak last night and she felt a key message is how difficult it is for women to achieve happiness - whether they conform or not.  And looking at Jo's daughters a generation later, the message is not much more hopeful.

I highly recommend this book.

The Bride Test by Helen Hoang

This is the second novel I've read by Hoang (the first was The Kiss Quotient).  Both are romantic comedies where one of the parties has autism.  In this case, Khai (who is the cousin of one of the main characters in the prior novel) has autism and he believes it means that he is incapable of feelings, including grief and love.  His mother thinks otherwise and travels to her native Vietnam to find him a wife.  There she finds Esme, who as a mixed race single mother who never knew her father has never really felt like she fit in or was "good enough".

Khai's mother convinces her to travel to California and live with Khai to try to get him to marry her - not as a trick, Khai is aware of the plan just expects to be resistant to it.

On these facts a fairly normal rom/com ensues.  Both parties fall for the other; both believe the other could never fall for them...etc.  And then of course there is a happy ever after.

As an aside, while it added some dimension to recognize the characters from the prior novel, it is by no means necessary to read it first.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

The Daughter's Tale by Armando Lucas Correa

In 2015, an elderly French Catholic woman, Elise Duval, is approached in New York City by a mother and her daughter who have come from Cuba bearing letters belonging to her.  Faced with these letters Elise is forced to look back on a past which she has buried for almost 70 years.

The narrative then moves back in time to pre-War Berlin where Amanda Sternberg and her husband Julius have their lives disrupted by the arrival of the Nazis.  Amanda was operating a bookstore handed down by her father - the Nazis arrive and burn all the books so she turns to taking care of her two daughters, Viera and Lina.  Julius is a respected cardiologist who is dragged away to a concentration camp and not seen again.  His final act for his family is to impose on the father of a former patient, who is now a Nazi officer to save his family.  He secures passage to Cuba for his two daughters where they are to meet up with Amanda's brother who previously immigrated there.  Unable to get passage for Amanda, he arranges for her to be sheltered in the home of a widow of one of her father's best friends, in Haute-Vienne, a small village in southern France.

When Amanda arrives at the docks to see her children off, she makes the impulsive decision to send only the elder Viera.  She lives with the guilt of this decision for the rest of her life.  Amanda and Lina are temporarily safe living with Claire and her daughter Danielle in France.  But they are eventually betrayed and sent to an internment camp.  There Amanda makes further difficult and dangerous decisions in order to help Lina escape.

Then follows the story of Lina's struggle to survive when the Nazis come down hard on the small town.

I'd say this is a fairly typical Holocaust book, but I did find it interesting and well written.

A Nantucket Wedding by Nancy Thayer

Thayer is one of my favourite summertime authors.  Like most of her novels, this one is set on the island of Nantucket.  I wouldn't say it was my favourite of her books, but I did enjoy it.

The story revolves around Alison, a woman who has been widowed from the love of her life for several years, and to her surprise falls in love with David, also a widower.  They have decided to marry and Alison uses the opportunity to bring together her adult daughters - who have never been particularly close - their families and David's two children and their families.

Thus begins a fairly typical story of the relationships between siblings, step siblings and spouses.  Everyone is suffering from some sort of disappointment in their marriages or professional careers and take some time on the island to work through the issues.

None of the events are particularly dramatic or surprising, but the relationships are interesting enough to sustain the narrative.

A Dangerous Act of Kindness by LP Fergusson

I chose this book because the online library platform, Overdrive, was making it available to anyone without a waiting list.  It was worth reading though was somewhat longer than it needed to be.

The novel tells the story of a British widow, Millie, who discovers an injured German pilot, Lukas, whose plane has crashed near her farm during World War II.  As he has landed during a terrible snow storm, and she knows he will be killed by locals if discovered, she makes the dangerous decision to take him in and hide him.

During the course of the storm they discover that despite being on opposite sides of the war they have a lot in common - her husband died by suicide, as did his father - and both of them were the ones to discover the deaths.  They also fall in love (perhaps a tad too predictable).

When the storm ends Lukas must leave the safety of Millie's home and is eventually captured.  He goes to great lengths to avoid confessing her involvement in his rescue.  Despite that a local rogue police officer suspects her treason and harangues her relentlessly despite orders from superiors to leave her be (think Javert's hunt for Jean Valjean).

The story follows what happens to Millie and Lukas through the course of the war and several years after.  While it was interesting I did think it could have been wrapped up more succinctly.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Any Known Blood by Lawrence Hill

This book was a pleasant surprise that I stumbled upon at the bookstore.  It is an early book by Lawrence Hill (1997).  Like his other books it deals with blacks in North America and, in particular, slavery.

This book tells the story of 5 generations of Langston Cane's.  While it travels back and forth in time, it is really told from the perspective of Langston Cane V who is an out of work writer that decides to delve into his family's history.  The search takes him from his home in Oakville Ontario to Baltimore where both his grandfather and great grandfather served as pastors in a local church.  There he meets up with his aunt Mill who has been estranged from his father for decades.  She provides him with boxes of documents that help him in his search.

In particular we learn of his great great grandfather's escape from slavery into Canada, his building a family in Oakville, his need to leave in a hurry and his joining John Brown in his attack on Harper's Ferry.

We also learn about his great grandfather's return to Baltimore and how he becomes a minister as well as his grandfather's courtship, wartime experiences, marriage and return to Oakville.  Finally we learn about his father's study to become a doctor and experiences with racism in Canada.

Most of the narrative is revealed in reverse chronological order which from my perspective made it all the more interesting to piece together.

I enjoyed both the story and the characters that the author developed so well.  I really recommend this  book.

Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy by Kevin Kwan

I had nothing else to read so I decided to dig into this trilogy.  While it is light and at times funny, the books are not as easy to breeze through as I expected.  First, they are longer and denser than most rom coms.  Second, there are just so many characters to keep straight!  The first and third books have a family tree at the beginning, but not all of the characters are family members so it's harder to keep track of them.  I found it most frustrating in the first book - then I figured out it doesn't really matter who some of the characters are.  For example, Nick's mother, Eleanor has a whole host of friends and it's not really that important to keep track of them.

There are several key players - Nick, a Singapore heir to his family's huge fortune, and his girlfriend, Rachel, who was brought to the US from China by her single mother when she was an infant, are the central couple.  In the first book Nick brings Rachel to Singapore to meet his family - unfortunately he doesn't prepare her at all for the family's extreme wealth and, more importantly, their expectations for him (which do not include marrying a "nobody").

Nick's parents and his three cousins, Alastair, Astrid and Eddie also have key storylines - all of which carry through to the subsequent books.  While Alastair and Astrid are somewhat spoiled, at heart they were likeable.  Eddie was awful - so much so that perhaps the author took his caricature to an extreme.

The other unfortunate factor is that I liked the third book the best.  But you really couldn't understand it well if you didn't make your way through the first two.  So it's a package deal to get to the best one.

I enjoyed these books, but they aren't great literature and they probably take more effort than stories of these nature really warrant.  But there were some very funny lines - my favourite is when Eleanor is asking Nick very personal questions and he objects to the intrusion - she says "Why are you being shy, I watched your nanny change your diapers!"

If you have the time and the interest these books are okay, but it's easier to just watch the movie.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Beirut Hellfire Society by Rawi Hage

Like Immigrant, Montana, this book was also a bit weird but I enjoyed it much more.  Pavlov is a 20 something son of a Christian undertaker in Beirut during the civil war in the 70s.  He has grown up assisting his father and his two uncles with funerals and even lives in an apartment that overlooks a busy funeral route so he is familiar with death.

When his father dies he is approached to carry on work his father did - cremating deceased outcasts of society - homosexuals, athiests and other outcasts.  Through his involvement in these activities we get a clear view of the impact of civil war on Beirut society - and in particular the Christians.  The descriptions of war were very detailed and compelling.  I could often feel Pavlov's fear.  It was also interesting to see war through his eyes - he knew how bad things were by the age of the people being buried.

Now Pavlov was odd - his relationship with dogs was stronger than his relationship with his family members.  And his grief over their demise seemed more impactful than his grief over losing his parents.  But despite being odd, he was interesting and I recommend reading this one.

Immigrant, Montana by Amitava Kumar

I can't describe this book in any other way that to say it was really strange.  I persevered because I was curious about what would happen, but I wouldn't say I really liked the book.

It tells the story of Kailash, an immigrant from India who is a graduate student in New York City.  He is trying desperately to fit in and, in particular, to find a girlfriend.  So we learn a lot about his sexual desires and exploits as well as his success, and lack thereof, with various women.  In some ways he seems naive, in others just a bit obsessive.

There is also a bit of information about his past and his family in India as well as one of his professors and his political leanings.  You can tell Kailash is trying hard to adhere to the political views of others in order to fit in, but I never really got a sense of what he believed in.  He seemed very wishy-washy in his efforts to be accepted.

In all I wouldn't really recommend this book although it did get good reviews so others apparently liked it.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

I had been wanting to read this for a while, but the waiting list at the library was really long.  It ended up being worth the wait.  The book is well written and Obama has a really interesting life.  She comes from very humble beginnings and it was fascinating to read what it was like to grow up on the south side of Chicago in the 60s and 70s.  Her hard work, perseverance and positive attitude - allowing her to get to Princeton, Harvard and stellar employment opportunities were impressive to read about.  Her admiration for her parents and her older brother, as well as her grandparents, also shone through.

From a personal perspective, Obama is exactly my age and followed the undergrad, law school, big law firm path that I did.  She was smart enough to figure out it wasn't for her in fewer years than it took me to come to the same realization!

Her descriptions of meeting and marrying her husband, having children, her husband's political career (and her hesitation about it) as well as her time in the White House were equally interesting.  I also couldn't help being impressed by the causes she took up when she had the platform of First Lady.

All in all this was a fascinating and well written autobiography.  If you like that kind of book, it's certainly worth it.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Huntress by Kate Quinn

The Huntress refers to an infamous female Nazi who was known for her brutal killing of unarmed Jews and Poles, particularly children.  Following World War II, the Huntress becomes the hunted.

The book is written from the perspective of three different characters - in alternating chapters.  First, Ian Graham, a British war correspondent turned Nazi hunter.  He has a particular interest in the Huntress and he believe she may have been involved in the murder of someone close to him.

Second we have Nina.  Born and raised in Siberia, and terrified of the cold lake and her drunken father, she escapes to join the Soviet army.  There she becomes a navigator who is part of an all female flying squadron.  She finds peace in the air and with the sisterhood she embraces there.  But when she finds herself across enemy lines she too must escape the Huntress.  As one of the few people to survive her, Nina is also driven to find her.

Finally, seventeen year old Jordan is growing up in post-war Boston.  She is determined to become a photographer, like her heroes who photographed the second world war and the Spanish Civil War.  However, her rather conservative father steers her toward marriage and taking over the family antique shop.  Everything changes for Jordan when her father (who is a widower) brings home a new wife.  Jordan is suspicious of her and delving into her past becomes an obsession.

Over the course of the book we see how these three disparate characters cross paths and we learn where the Huntress has been hiding.

While much of the plot was predictable, and the characters were a bit unidimensional, it wasn't a bad read.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Such a Lonely, Lovely Road by Kagiso Lesego Molope

I really can't recall where I heard about this book, but I'm definitely glad I did.  At its heart it was a love story, but there was really so much more to it.

Kabelo is a young boy living in a South African township.  His parents, a successful doctor and his shop owner wife, dream of him becoming a doctor, working with his father and marrying the perfect woman in a festive township wedding.  The only problem is Kabelo is gay - and he is terribly afraid of coming out.

At the end of high school he becomes very close with his neighbourhood friend, Sediba, which confirms his long held suspicion that he is gay and further strengthens his resolve to escape the township by studying medicine in Cape Town.  While there he meets Rodney, a white student who is also gay, and through him meets others and has his first sexual encounters.  They are all quick, impersonal and in secret.  When the partying life overwhelms him, Kabelo transfers to Durban and tries to lose himself in his work.

He's distracted from that plan when Sediba re-enters his life and they develop and enviable relationship - except that Kabelo is still unwilling to come out to his parents and others in the township which leads to tension.

The remainder of the book deals with how Kabelo comes to terms with his sexuality, particularly in relation to his parents and Sediba.  All of this is set against the backdrop of post-Apartheid South Africa, township life, race relations and the emergence of AIDS in the community.

I really enjoyed this book - the characters were all warm and very human.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Full Disclosure by Beverley McLachlin

This is the first foray into fiction by former Chief Justice of Canada, Beverley McLachlin.  While you could tell the book was written by an amateur fiction writer, it was still a readable and intriguing mystery/courtroom drama.  I will say I was able to predict most of what would take place, but that didn't really take away from the reading experience.

The narrative centres around Jilly Truitt, a youngish criminal defence lawyer who is trying to make a name and career for herself.  She is particularly driven to win cases against her former mentor, Crown prosecutor, Cy Kenge.

Jilly brings her own baggage to the table - she was raised in a series of foster homes and struggled with addiction at one time.  She also has a hard time committing to romantic relationships.  Both her legal and personal skills are tested when the wealthy Vincent Trussardi is accused of murdering his wife and only wants Jilly as his lawyer.

She takes on the case even though everyone warns her it was a loser - and she spends countless hours interviewing witnesses and getting more and more confused about the facts.  She also feels threatened but can't figure out who the source of the threat is.  As the case unfolds she learns not only about Trussardi and his family, but about herself.

I don't want to give away more than I have, but if you like mysteries and courtroom dramas, this one is worth a try.  It's a very easy read.

Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart

While not quite as gripping as the last book I read, I really enjoyed this one too.  It's nice to be on a bit of a roll.

This is the story of Barry Cohen, he is a multimillionaire hedge fund manager whose life is beginning to implode.  His son is diagnosed with severe autism, his beautiful and intelligent wife is so immersed in their son she has little time for him, and his business is losing money and rumours of an SEC investigation are swirling about.  So what does the narcissistic Cohen do?  He hops on a series of Greyhound buses to travel from his home in Manhattan to seek out his college sweetheart in El Paso, Texas.

Cohen is so clueless about how the real world works that his travels and the encounters he has with his travelling companions are nothing short of hilarious.  In Baltimore he meets a young drug dealer who he dreams of setting up in business.  Further along he meets a young black woman who he thinks he could befriend, but instead sleeps with her before she returns to her life.  He then arrives at the Chicago home of an employee who he fired hoping to get a loan to fund his further travels (in a fit of "independence" he threw out his phone and tore up his Amex Black card).  That request goes about as well as a more insightful person would have expected.  He does eventually make it to visit first his ex's parents and then his ex and her young son - but they seem to remember better than he does why the relationship didn't work in the first place.  Cohen's ramblings and obsessions inevitably lead to speculation that he is somewhere on the autism spectrum himself.

In interspersed chapters we see how Cohen's wife Seema is dealing with both his absence and their son.  First she begins an affair with a neighbour.  Then she decides to admit to her parents that her son has autism.  The latter works out better for her than the former.

Eventually Cohen is forced to return home and deal with the mess he left behind.  I liked the ending - it seemed to flow naturally from the narrative.  And quirky Cohen, despite his egocentrism, was a character I really enjoyed getting to know.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Finally a book I absolutely loved! It's been a long time since I read one that I had trouble putting down.

Apparently the author has written several non-fiction books about nature and that comes through in the writing - her descriptions of the North Carolina swamp flora and fauna are very detailed - sometimes a little too detailed for my liking, but that didn't detract from the main story for me.

Kya Clark was abandoned by her mother at age six and over the next few years her much older siblings and her drunken father also leave.  So she learns to fend for herself in a rotting shack with little money and no education.  She went to school for one day in her life, but the prejudiced townspeople looked down on the "swamp girl" so she never went back.  Instead she makes a living selling oysters to a local black man who runs a gas station and small store.  For a long time he and his wife are the only friends she has - and the only ones who look out for her.

Later she spends time with Tate - a slightly older boy who was a friend of one of her brothers.  He teaches her how to read and eventually they fall in love.  But he leaves for college and doesn't return when promised.  This just cements her view that loved ones always abandon you.  So she takes up with a local football hero, Chase, who is also a few years older than her.  He also eventually leaves her.

But with the skills she learned from Tate, and her immense knowledge of her surroundings, she manages to survive on her own.

The story of Kya's coming of age is interspersed with a murder investigation and trial.  Chase is found dead at the base of a water tower and the sheriff immediately points the finger at Kya.  The trial is so suspenseful that I really didn't figure out what would happen until it did (which is rare for me).  And the end of the novel was even more surprising.

I highly recommend this one!  The writing is lyrical, the characters are charming and the suspense is intriguing.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Two books I couldn't finish

I very rarely put down a book and this month I gave up on two.  Perhaps I'm just getting less patient with age.  While I can't justify writing a thorough review for a book I haven't read, I just thought I'd mention them.  

Twin Studies by Keith Maillard

This is a long (500 page) book and I struggled through about half of it before I decided I really didn't care about the characters enough to continue reading.  In short, it's about an identical twin, Dr. Erica Bauer, who studies twins.  She is approached by a pre-teen pair of fraternal twins who strongly believe they are in fact identical and want her confirmation.  

So the book is about those twins, friends of theirs who are also twins, Erica and her twin and the mother of the twins.  All of their lives become intertwined in really weird ways.  But honestly I had no desire to work through another 250 pages to see how it all ended.

All the Lives we Never Lived by Anuradha Roy

I waited on the library waiting list a long time to get this book as I usually really like books set in India.  However this one just moved too slowly for me.  According the the book's synopsis we are supposed to hear about Myshkin's quest to find out what happened to his mother who abandoned the family when he was a young boy.  But I made it more than a third of the way through and, while Myshkin as an old man has told us that his mother left with an "Englishman" who was really German, his reminiscences didn't yet get to that day.  I admit I'm sort of curious about what happened, but not enough so to slog through more of this book.

Me For You by Lolly Winston

I found this book interesting because it was written predominantly from a male perspective - in my experience this kind of story is more often told from the perspective of a woman.

Rudy, who is 54, wakes up one morning to find his wife has died in her sleep.  They were very happily married and Rudy is devastated.  He is also feeling guilty as he didn't hear her struggle in the night and was unable to revive her when he woke.

Rudy was previously downsized from his professional job and was working part time as a piano player at Nordstrom's.  There he has developed a friendship with Bella, a Hungarian woman who sells watches.  She is in the course of divorcing her drunken husband and is also no stranger to personal tragedy.

The couple slowly develops a relationship.  But the book does not revolve around only that.  We also learn of Rudy's depression and see how he copes with that (including through a brief hospitalization). Rudy's daughter who is also having marital problems, and his granddaughter, are also characters in the book.  Finally, when a former co-worker confesses to murdering Rudy's wife, we see how he has to deal with the police investigation surrounding that.

There are several chapters which go back in time and we see Rudy's marriage, and Bella's, from their perspectives.   This nicely rounds out the present day material.

An interesting book, though certainly not the best I've ever read.

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

This is a romantic comedy with a twist - it is modelled on one of my favourite guilty pleasure movies, Pretty Woman.

Stella Lane is a brilliant econometrician whose mother is pressuring her to get married and have babies.  The problem - Stella is on the autism spectrum disorder and struggles in intimate relationships.  Her past sexual experiences were very unsatisfying for her.  So, being the logical economist that she is, she decides to hire a professional escort to teach her.  She figures practice with sex will make her perform better.

She lucks out when she hires Michael.  He's a Vietnamese/Swedish tailor who is struggling to pay his debts after his father, a con artist, abandons the family and his mother is diagnosed with cancer.  So even though he really likes Stella, he can't afford to say no to her offer to pay him to be her "practice boyfriend".   He has no desire for a serious relationship as he's afraid he'll turn out to be like his father (especially since Stella has lots of money that she's willing to share).

As would be expected in any good romantic comedy, both parties develop feelings and fight them.  But some great scenes ensue - especially when Stella meets Michael's large family and when he runs into former clients in some awkward places.

I think this is a really well written and fun book if you like this genre.

North of Dawn by Nuruddin Farah

This was a very interesting book about a Somali family living in Oslo, Norway.  Mugdi was a native of Somalia who was working abroad as a diplomat when Somalia essentially imploded.  He and his wife, Gacalo, became legal immigrants in Oslo and live a secular life of relative affluence.

Their daughter is living in Geneva, pregnant with the child of her estranged partner.  But it is their son who caused the most drama - he died committing a terror attack in Somalia.  As his father had disowned him when he became a fundamentalist, his mother feels guilty and offers to take care of his widow and her children from a prior relationship.  So the mother, daughter and son travel to Oslo.

Once in Oslo, the widow, perhaps out of fear, becomes more and more religious - even remarrying an abusive imam who ends up in prison.  But her children, especially her son, instead struggle to assimilate, with the assistance of their step-grandparents.

I enjoyed reading about the immigrant experience in Norway, which I'm sure can be compared to the immigrant experience in Canada.  It was also interesting to see how very different people were painted with the same brush just because of their place of origin (again a common experience for immigrants, I imagine).  I did find some of the parts harder to understand - in particular the references to the Norwegian classic, Giants of the Earth, which deals with the Norwegian immigration experience in the US.

Overall this was an interesting and different book.

More Than Words by Jill Santopolo

This book was part romance, part family drama/mystery. It was an easy read and I found it enjoyable. Nina Gregory was a devoted, well behaved daughter who, following the early death of her mother, was raised by her father, the wealthy owner of the Gregory hotel chain.

When Nina's father dies of cancer she learns secrets from his past that cause her to reconsider her life choices. In particular she sees her fiancé, an old family friend in a completely new light.  The nature of her relationship with her boss, Rafael, also changes.

It was interesting to see how Nina coped with seeing her father in a different light when she didn't even have the benefit of confronting him about her findings.  I also liked the support she got from her fiancé's mother, even at unexpected times.  Perhaps the most sad part was her unresolved grief about her mother's untimely death.

Not destined to be a classic, but still worth the time.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

A Month's Worth of Books

While I've been too busy to post, I'm never too busy to read, so here are brief reviews of the books I've read over the last month or so.

Bride and Groom by Alisa Ganieva
This book is very different than anything I've read before. First, it's translated from the Russian and is by a modern Russian author rather than a classic like Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy. In addition, the characters are from an ethnic minority in Russia.

The main characters are Patya and Marat, twenty-somethings who have been working in Moscow and return to their homes in rural Dagestan. There, both are under pressure from their conservative parents to marry.

Marat is a human rights lawyer in Moscow - he is working on a case involving the death of a high profile human rights activist.  While he has little time or patience for his parents' religion, he seems to have accepted that his mother has booked a hall for his wedding and all he must do is find a bride.  This leads to several humorous meetings with potential brides.

Patya's choices are even more constrained since she is female.  At 25 her parents think her window to marry is closing and she must find a groom at once.  She is also fixed up with potential grooms by her parents, but one is more frightening than humorous.  He is a Muslim activist who essentially believes she already agreed to marry him since they engaged in an email exchange while she was in Moscow.  When she meets him in person she realizes he is far less suitable than she'd thought but he continues to stalk her.

In addition to the personal, the book deals with the political - fundamentalist Muslims and their activism against Russian mainstream rule, infighting between Muslim groups, the limited future for women within that society as well as a side story about petty criminals.

While it was a bit difficult to follow the language in the book, I ended up getting through it.  I wouldn't say I loved it but I wasn't sorry I tried something new.

The Wife by Meg Wolizter
I decided to read this since I enjoyed the movie version with Glenn Close, and the book did not disappoint.

The narrative centres on Joan Castleman whose husband Joseph has just won a prestigious award (Nobel-light) for his literature.  It starts on the plane to Helsinki where the award will be granted - and when Joan decides it is time to leave her husband once and for all.

The book goes back and forth from the present day in Helsinki to Smith College where Joan was a student and met Joseph who was an instructor.  He leaves his wife and child for Joan and together they nurture his writing career and their three now grown children.

Joseph is far from an ideal husband - he has a history of affairs and is obsessed with becoming a successful novelist.  Joan is a long suffering wife who seems to have devoted her life to her husband's career. though she showed promise as a writer when she was a student, at the time she was led to believe a woman could never succeed as a fiction writer.

For those who have not seen the movie or read the book I will not give away how Joan's decision to leave the marriage resolves itself, but I would recommend the book (or the movie) as it is an interesting story about marriage and in particular the role of women in a traditional one.

The Gown by Jennifer Robson
This was an interesting historical fiction - indirectly covering the impact of World War II from a very different perspective.  The historical chapters take place in post-War London where Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin work as embroiderers in a famous London fashion house.  Ann lives with her sister-in-law following the death of her brother in the war.  Miriam is a Jewish immigrant from France who is trying to move on after losing her whole family.  The two women are part of the team that is tasked with making the wedding gown for then Princess Elizabeth.

The modern day chapters take place in Canada and later London, where Ann's granddaughter is left with a box of lace and is trying to piece together the parts of her grandmother's life which she never talked about.

While sometimes there was a bit more detail about wedding gowns than I needed, the relationships between Ann and Miriam, the men they meet as young girls and Ann's granddaughter and those she meets from her grandmother's past are very interesting.

This is an easy read - not stellar but enjoyable enough.

The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff
I have read other historical fictions by Jenoff and this one was much the same.  In 1946 Grace Healey wanders into Grand Central Station in New York and finds a suitcase under a bench.  She opens it only to find photographs of several women.  For reasons that are not really well explained though are convenient to the narrative, she takes the photos with her and tries to piece together who they are.

She eventually discovers the suitcase belonged to Eleanor Trigg, the leader of an all female underground spy network based out of London.  So at this point the narrative switches back and forth between Grace's detective work, Eleanor's activities in London and the activities of "her girls" in France during the War.

While I found the book easy enough to read, at times I felt the narrative was a bit too contrived - the pieces fit together a little too neatly.  But I did enjoy it - especially if you like World War II historical novels, this could be of interest to you.

Homes by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah and Winnie Yeung
This is the biography of a teenaged refugee to Canada from Syria.  Young was one of his teachers who helped him get the book written and published.  Born in Iraq, Abu Bakr and his large family flee to Syria when war breaks out in Iraq.  They originally settle in Homs where his father builds a successful bakery.  His early time in Syria is a happy childhood surrounded by siblings, cousins and friends.  But it is not long before the violence of Syria's civil war shatters his innocent existence.

Abu Bakr gives an honest account of the emotional and physical toll the war takes on innocent civilians as well as the strain of trying to make a refugee claim.  For such a young person, he effectively tells a story that the world really needs to hear.

At times the author's youth and inexperience was obvious in the writing, but the story is so important, and undoubtedly so representative of what's happening to millions of others, that it's definitely worth the read.

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

This is another book I conquered for my library reading challenge.  One of the topics was to read a book you tried once before but couldn't get through.  That was a bit difficult for me because I rarely allow myself to give up.  In fact, The Red Tent was the only book I could even think of.

So, I made it through this time, but I still don't know what all the fuss is about.  I really can't understand why this book was a runaway bestseller.  While the premise is interesting - retell the story of the Old Testament mothers from the perspective of the women, in particular Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah - I often just found myself bored.  It was also sometimes a bit difficult to keep all the characters straight - I knew their names from the Bible, of course, but I couldn't always remember what Dinah had told us about them which would have been helpful at times.

Given this book is old and well known, I don't feel the need to give a long drawn out review, I just thought I'd share my unpopular view that I just don't get why this book was so popular.

Two Very Different Autobiographies

For my library reading challenge I had to read both a book by an author with a disability as well as a book from a list of books by indigenous authors.  So I chose the following two autobiographies.  I was not a big fan of the first, but quite enjoyed the second.

My Brief History by Stephen Hawking

This is a memoir written by the renowned scientist, Stephen Hawking.  He covered his childhood, teenage and college years and early marriage, before he was diagnosed with ALS.  The latter part of the book is after his diagnosis and talks a bit about how his disability impacted his life.

While the details of his life were interesting, he focused a bit too much on the science for my liking.  I realize it was a hugely important part of his life, it just wasn't what I was interested in.  And he got quite technical - so I skimmed over those parts.
I wouldn't really recommend this unless you don't mind a memoir that's heavy on physics.

A Two-Spirit Journey: The Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojibwa-Cree Elder by Ma-Nee Chacaby

I had never heard of Chacaby, but I was intrigued by the book's synopsis.  Chacaby's early life was spent in a very remote Ojibwa community.  Early on she didn't even know her parents - she was raised by a supportive grandmother who taught her many Cree spiritual and cultural traditions.  When her mother appeared on the scene with a step father, he passed on many Ojibwa bush survival skills.  But these were the positive aspects of her childhood - the community was plagued by alcoholism which made her mother abusive and led to her sexual assault by numerous different adults. In her teen years she herself became an alcoholic.  

While she was a teenager Chacaby's mother forced her into a marriage with a much older man.  He was extremely physically abusive so at age 20 she took her two young children and fled to Thunder Bay.  There she was also subjected to abuse and racism, even finding herself homeless for a time.  But eventually she found the support she needed to become sober (though some of her more upsetting stories were the men in AA who preyed upon the women in AA leading to more abuse).

Once sober she trained and worked as an alcoholism counsellor while raising her children and, after a second marriage, came out as a lesbian.  She describes two long term same sex relationships as well as raising foster children in addition to her own.  She also deals with the impact of losing her eyesight.  Her triumph came with being asked to lead the Thunder Bay gay pride parade in 2013.

I found this to be an incredible story of strength and resilience - she overcame nearly impossible odds.  It is also a lesson on how much further Canada still needs to go in reconciliation with our Indigenous population.