Wednesday, June 29, 2016

More summer reading

The Paris Key - Juliet Blackwell

As a girl, Genevieve Martin spent the happiest summer of her life in Paris, learning the delicate art of locksmithing at her uncles' side.  But since then, living back in the States, she has become more private, more subdued.  She has been an observer of life rather than an active participant, holding herself back from those around her, including her soon-to-be ex-husband.

Paris never really left Genevieve and, as her marriage crumbles, she finds herself faced with an incredible opportunity: to return to the magical city of her youth to take over her late uncle's shop.  But as she absorbs all that Parisian culture has to offer, she realizes that the city also holds secrets about her family that could change her forever, and that locked doors can protect you or imprison you, depending on which side of them you stand.

** An easy summer read that will stay with you about as long as it takes to read it.  The only thing sticking in my mind several weeks after reading it is the number of times the term "groin vault," or its derivatives, was used.  It probably wasn't even that many times, but if you remember it afterwards, it was probably still too many.

The Longest Night - Andria Williams

In 1959, Nat Collier moves with her husband, Paul, and their two young daughters to Idaho Falls, a remote military town.  An Army Specialist, Paul is stationed there to help oversee one of the country's first nuclear reactors - an assignment that seems full of opportunity.

Then, on his rounds, Paul discovers that the reactor is compromised, placing his family and the entire community in danger.  Worse, his superiors set out to cover up the problem rather than fix it. Paul can't bring himself to tell Nat the truth, but his lies only widen a growing gulf between them.

Lonely and restless, Nat is having trouble adjusting to their new life.  She struggles to fit into her role as a housewife and longs for a real friend.  When she meets a rancher, Esrom, she finds herself drawn to him, comforted by his kindness and company.  But as rumors spread, the secrets between Nat and Paul build and threaten to reach a breaking point.

Based on a true story of the only fatal nuclear accident to occur in America, The Longest Night is a deeply moving novel that explores the intricate makeup of a marriage, the shifting nature of trust, and the ways we try to protect the ones we love.

** The most interesting part of this story was the part about the nuclear incident, mostly because I have been to Idaho Falls several times and have driven past the nuclear plant and had never heard about the accident.  I am not sure if the author knows much about Mormons, or just knew there were Mormons in Idaho and therefore made Esrom, the love interest, a Mormon.  A interesting-enough read about an interesting time in American history.

We are the Ants - Shaun David Hutchinson

There are a few things Henry Denton knows, and a few things he doesn't.

Henry knows that his mom is struggling to keep the family together, and coping by chain-smoking cigarettes.  He knows that his older brother is a college dropout with a pregnant girlfriend.  He knows that he is slowly losing his grandmother to Alzheimer's.  And he knows that his boyfriend committed suicide last year.

What Henry doesn't know is why the aliens chose to abduct him when he was thirteen, and he doesn't know they they continue to steal him from his bed and take him aboard their ship.  He doesn't know why the world is going to end or why the aliens have offered him the opportunity to avert the impending disaster by pressing a big red button.

But they have.  And they've only given him 144 days to make up his mind.

The question is whether Henry thinks the world is worth saving.  That is, until he meets Diego Vega, an artist with a secret past who forces Henry to question his beliefs, his place in the universe, and whether any of it really matters.  But before Henry can save the world, he's got to figure out how to save himself, and the aliens haven't given him a button for that.

** I am not very particular about what I read, but I tend to go for the same types of things (what Bryce describes as "any book with a house on a prairie on the cover").  I have been trying to make myself get one book that I would not normally choose each time I go to the library.  This was my "not my usual" choice this time.  It is categorized as juvenile lit, but I wouldn't want my juveniles reading it.  The characters are well-written. The alien side story is just that, a random side story.  I imagine that somewhere there are teenagers experiencing life similarly to the characters in this story, but the constant casual sex and drug use is not exactly what I enjoy reading about nor a picture of adolescence I want my children to emulate. It was a good visualization of the hell that an LGBTQ teenager might go through daily though, or just a reminder that the teenage years can be hard for anyone to navigate.

Once We Were Brothers - by Ronald H. Balson

Elliot Rosenzweig, a respected civic leader and wealthy philanthropist, is attending a fund-raiser when he is suddenly accosted by Ben Solomon and accused of being a former Nazi SS officer named Otto Piatek, the Butcher of Zamosc.  Although the charges are denounced, his accuser is convinced he is right and engages attorney Catherine Lockhart to bring Rosenzweig to justice. Solomon reveals that the true Piatek was abandoned as a child and raised by Solomon's own family, only to betray them during the Nazi occupation.  But has Solomon accused the right man?

Once We Were Brothers is the compelling tale of two boys and a family who fight to survive in war-torn Poland, and a young love that struggles to endure the unspeakable cruelty of the Holocaust.  Two lives, two worlds, and sixty years converge in an explosive race to redemption that makes for a moving and powerful tale of love, survival, and ultimately the triumph of the human spirit.

** My favorite of my library grabs for that week. I happened to read it the same week as the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. There was also a story in the news about a Nazi guard who had just been convicted of war crimes.  So it was a timely read, if nothing else.  Fortunately there was something else to recommend it. The story is engaging and the characters are interesting.  You actually care about what happens to them.  Instead of just telling Ben's story in the past, the author tells the story by having Ben recount it to his attorney.  This was the only aspect of the book that I did not like. It seemed very contrived and it was awkward to break in the middle of the story of Ben's childhood because the attorney "has a meeting" or "needs to call it a night" or "it's time for a snack" or whatever reasons were used to break up the story.  I wish the WWII parts of the story had just been told without the storytelling gimic.  I am not explaining that very well, so probably none of that makes sense unless you read the book.

The Bachelor Girl's Guide to Murder (Herringford & Watts Mysteries) - Rachel McMillan

In 1910 Toronto, most bachelor girls are perfecting their domestic skills and finding husbands.

But Merinda Herringford and Jem Watts have never been ordinary.  As the two detectives launch their business, the deaths of young Irish women lead them deep into the mire of the city's underbelly.

While searching for answers, donning disguises, and sneaking around where no proper ladies would ever go, they pair with Jasper Forth, a police constable, and Ray DeLuca, a reporter in whom Jem takes a more than professional interest.  Merinda could well become Toronto's premier consulting detective, and Jem may just find a way to put her bachelor girlhood behind her forever - if they can stay alive long enough to do so.

** A fun take on a Sherlock Holmes and Watson story, except the two main characters are women. A quick read, nothing graphic or unsavory (at least not that I remember a couple weeks later!).  I will read the next one in the series.

The Revolving Door of Life (A 44 Scotland Street novel) - by Alexander McCall Smith

Things are looking up for seven-year-old Bertie Pollock.  The arrival of his spirited grandmother and the absence of his meddlesome mother - who is currently running a bookclub in a Bedouin harem (don't ask) - bring unforeseen blessings: no psychotherapy, no Italian lessons, and no yoga classes.  Meanwhile, surprises await Scotland Street's grown-ups.  Matthew makes a discovery that could be a major windfall for his family.  Pat learns a secret about her father's fiancee.  And the Duke of Johannesburg finds himself in sudden need of an explanation - and an escape route - when accosted by a determined guest at a soiree.

From the cunning schemes of the Association of Scottish Nudists to the myriad expressive possibilities of the word "aye," Alexander McCall Smith guides us through the risks and rewards of friendship, love, and family with his usual inimitable wit and irresistible charm.

** I like anything McCall Smith writes.  Quick reads with familiar characters, full of observations about what makes people people. The Scotland Street novels always make me feel ignorant about art and literature and philosophy, but that is my fault and not the story's. Each Scotland Street book ends with a poem.  I particularly enjoyed this one as I read this story at about the same time as the shootings at the night club in Orlando:

"The remarkable thing about love
Is that it is freely available,
Is as plentiful as oxygen,
Is as joyous as a burn in spate,
And need never run out.
And yet, for all its plenitude,
We ration it so strictly and forget
Its curative properties, its subtle
Ability to make the soul-injured
Whole-again, to make the lonely
Somehow assured that their solitude
Will not last forever; its promise
That if we open our heart
It is joy and resolution
That will march in triumphant
Through he gates we create . . .

 . . . Love cannot solve
Every human problem, but it makes
A start on a solution."

A Doubter's Almanac - by Ethan Canin

Milo Andret is born with an unusual mind.  A lonely child growing up in the woods of northern Michigan in the 1950s, he gives little thought to his own talent.  But with his acceptance at U.C. Berkeley he soon realizes  the extent, and the risks, of his singular gifts.  California in the seventies is a seduction, opening Milo's eyes to the allure of both ambition and indulgence.  The research he begins there will make him a legend; the woman he meets there - and the rival he meets alongside her - will haunt him for the rest of his life.  For Milo's brilliance is entwined with a dark need that soon grows to threaten his work, his family, even his existence.

Spanning seven decades as it moves from California to Princeton to the Midwest to New York, A Doubter's Almanac tells the story of a family as it explores the way ambition lives alongside destructiveness, obsession alongside torment, love alongside grief.  It is a story of how the flame of genius both lights and scorches every generation it touches.  Graced by stunning prose and brilliant storytelling, A Doubter's Almanac is a surprising, suspenseful, and deeply moving novel, a major work by a writer who has been hailed as "the most mature and accomplished novelist of his generation."

** I am conflicted about this book. It is well-written.  The characters are complex and believable, although not generally very likable.  The main character is a math genius and there is a lot of math in this novel.  Math which I did not understand at all.  It doesn't effect your understanding of the story, however.  There is a lot of drug use in the story, with descriptions of its effects.  Not having much interest in drug use, I didn't find this theme all that interesting.  This is one of those stories about people that seems like it could be about real people, but also makes you a little depressed thinking about how screwed up people are.  The story did indeed span seven decades, and took about that long to read.

She Poured Out Her Heart - by Jean Thompson

Tracing the complicated friendship of two very different women who meet in college, She Poured Out Her Heart is a novel of remarkable psychological suspense, crafted by National Book Award finalist Jean Thompson.

The night that Jane and Bonnie meet on a college campus sets them on paths forever entwined.  Bonnie, the wild and experimental one, always up for anything, has spent the past two decades bouncing between ill-fated relationships, while Jane's seemingly perfect life, all but materialized out of a fantasy.  But these appearances contradict the quiet, inescapable doubt Jane feels about her life.  One night, in the middle of her own Christmas party, she steps outside into the snow, removes her clothing and shoes, and lies down in the backyard.  When she is discovered, nothing is the same for anyone.  As Jane begins to have visions and retreat into a private inner world, Bonnie finds herself drawn inevitably into an affair with Jane's husband.

Thompson's mystery of complex emotion begets a novel about desire and the nature of love - who we love, how we're loved, and, most important, how we reach urgently and always for a higher love, regardless of our circumstances.  She Poured Out Her Heart is a finely wrought, haunting story of female friendship and deception, and the distance in between.

** I wouldn't call this a mystery and I must have missed the psychological suspense.  Sex scenes aren't my thing, and there were plenty to skip over. Any book that centers on an "inevitable" affair is not likely to be a favorite of mine. I am not really a fan of stories that seem to want us to feel bad for the poor people that can only find love with someone who happens to already be married.  I understand that affairs are nothing new or rare, I just don't particularly enjoy reading about them.

A Handful of Dust - by Evelyn Waugh

After seven years of marriage, the beautiful Lady Brenda Last has grown bored with life at Hetton Abbey, the Gothic mansion that is the pride and joy of her husband, Tony. She drifts into an affair with the shallow socialist John Beaver and forsakes Tony for the Belgravia set.  In a novel that combines tragedy, comedy, and savage irony, Evelyn Waugh indelibly captures the irresponsible mood of the "crazy and sterile generation" between the wars.

** This book was a gift from a book-loving friend.  I am glad I looked up the author before I started reading.  The cover design made me think the book was contemporary fiction, but it was actually copyrighted in 1934.  I also didn't realize that Evelyn is a man. :-)  Since he seems to have been a prolific author, I am somewhat surprised that I haven't heard of Mr. Waugh before - or, at least, I don't remember if I have.  This book makes a lot more sense, and is probably a lot more enjoyable, if you have read some of the turn of the century British novelists or books from this time period.  Since it is almost satire, it is probably just confusing if you read it without any context.  Fortunately, I spent a whole college course reading tragic British novels so I enjoyed this one.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Summer Reading 2016

The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe - Alexander McCall Smith

   The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency often helps people find things they have lost.  But they have never had to help a client find herself - until now, in this latest installment ofAlexander McCall Smith's best-selling and beloved series.
   A kindhearted brother and sister have taken in a woman known only as "Mrs." - a woman with no memory of her name or of how she came to Botswana.  And so it's up to Precious Ramotswe and her new co-director, Grace Makutsi, to discover the woman's identity.
   Meanwhile, motherhood proves to be no obstacle to Mma Makutsi's professional success.  As she settles into her role as partner at the agency, she also launches a new enterprise of her own: the Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe, a restaurant for Gaborone's most fashionable diners.  But even Miss 97 Per Cent isn't fully prepared for the temperamental chefs, drunken waiters, and other challenges that come with running one's own business.  Help may come from an unexpected source, if only Mma Makutsi can swallow her pride and ask.
   And next door to the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is all too familiar with the difficult decisions of business owners.  He is finally forced to make a tough choice, one that will bring major changes to both Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency - at that will require all of Mma Ramotswe's finesse and patience to sort out.
   With sympathy and indefatigable good humor, Mma Ramotswe and her friends see one another through these major changes and discover along the way what true friendship really means.

**** I think I have read all of McCall Smith's books.  Each one is like a chat with an old friend.  Familiar characters and slightly-mysterious mysteries make for quick reads that are always entertaining.

The Year of the Runaways - Sunjeen Sahota
   Three young men, and one unforgettable woman, come together in a journey from India to England, where they hope to begin something new - to support their families; to build their futures; to show their worth; to escape the past.  They have almost no idea what awaits them.
   In a dilapidated shared house in Sheffield, Tarlochan, a former rickshaw driver, will say nothing about his life in Bihar.  Avtar and Randeep are middle-class boys whose families are slowly sinking into financial ruin, bound together by Avtar's secret.  Randeep, in turn, has a visa wife across town, whose cupboards are full of her husband's clothes in case the immigration agents surprise her with a visit.
   She is Narinder, and her story is the most surprising of them all.
    The Year of the Runaways unfolds over the course of one shattering year in which the destinities of these four characters become irreversibly entwined, a year in which they are forced to rely on one another in ways they never could have foreseen, and in which their hopes of breaking free of the past are decimated by the punishing realities of immigrant life.

**** I am not very familiar with Indian culture, so I am sure that many of the cultural references in this book went over my head.  I don't know any Indian slang or vocab, so there are quite a few words and phrases that I did not understand.  Given the context, I suspect many of them are swear words - but I wouldn't know.  (There is some crude language I could understand, however.) It is hard to understand how the Indian caste system can continue in present times, but I think you can find unofficial caste systems everywhere.  Reading this novel certainly gave me a better appreciation for what people are willing to do for a chance at a better life.  Whether people are going from India to England or Mexico to the United States, I think the stories are similar.

The Things We Keep - Sally Hepworth

   Anna Forster is only thirty-eight years old, but her mind is slowly slipping away from her.  Armed only with her keen with and sharp-eyed determination, she knows that her family is doing what they believe to be best when they take her to Rosalind House, an assisted-living facility.  But Anna has a secret: She does not plan on staying.  She also knows that there's just one other resident who is her age: Luke.  What she does not expect is the love that blossoms between her and Luke even as she resists her new life.  As her disease steals more and more of her memory, Anna fights to hold on to what she knows, including her relationship with Luke.
   Eve Bennett, suddenly thrust into the role of single mother to her bright and vivacious seven-year-old daughter, finds herself putting her culinary training to use at Rosalind House. When she meets Anna and Luke, she is moved by the bond the pair has forged.  But when a tragic incident leads Anna's and Luke's families to separate them, Eve finds herself questioning what she is willing to risk to help them.  Eve has her own secrets and desperate circumstances that raise the stakes even higher.

**** An ok summer read, but not one I will buy to keep on my bookshelf.  We barely get to know anything about Anna before she is just seen as a dementia patient and we don't know anything about Luke outside of his disease.  Once the players are established, the book moves along predictably and the 'surprises' are not very surprising.  I thought Still Alice was a more interesting read on the topic of early-onset Alzheimer's.

Moon Over Manifest - Clare Vanderpool

   Abilene Tucker feels abandoned.  Her father has put her on a train, sending her off to live with an old friend for the summer while he works a railroad job.  Armed only with a few possessions and her list of universals, Abilene jumps off the train in Manifest, Kansas, aiming to learn about the boy her father once was.
   Having heard stories about Manifest, Abilene is disappointed to find that it's just a worn-out old town.  But her disappointment quickly turns to excitement when she discovers a hidden cigar box full of mementos, including some old letters that mention a spy known as the Rattler.  These mysterious letters send Abilene and her new friends, Lettie and Ruthanne, on an honest-to-goodness spy hunt, even thought they are warned to "Leave Well Enough Alone."
   Abilene throws all caution aside when she heads down the mysterious Path to Perdition to pay a debt to the reclusive Miss Sadie, a diviner who only tells stories from the past.  It seems that Manifest's history is full of colorful and shadowy characters- and long-held secrets.  And as those secrets are laid bare one by one, Abilene begins to weave her own story in to the fabric of the town.

**** Categorized as juvenile lit, this novel is a fast read.  Jumping back and forth between the stories of 1918 Manifest and 1936 Manifest got a little confusing at times, but maybe just because I was reading late at night.  The characters are well-developed and sympathetic and reading about life in Manifest made me wish my kids were growing up in a small town.