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 fiancĂ©, 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 fiancĂ©'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.