Sunday, 10 December 2017

Love and Other Consolation Prizes

Finished December 5
Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford, read by Emily Woo Zeller

This historical novel takes us first to China, and then to Seattle in the early twentieth century. Both these are memories of Ernest Young's decades later, as one of his daughters, a reporter, digs into the past for stories on the upcoming world's fair of 1962. Ernest is living in a small apartment in Chinatown, with his ailing wife Grace living with his journalist daughter. She's been having memory issues, and outbursts, and it has been thought best to leave her there.
Ernest remembers his last moments with his mother and what happened to his baby sister. It was then his journey to the west began. First there was a days long walk with other young Chinese children and youths. Then a voyage by ship. Ernest remembers the other passengers, the spartan quarters and and a few of the men on the ship that they interacted with. He was lucky to survive.
The book then takes us to 1909, when Ernest has been a charitable case by a local female dogooder. When he finds enough courage to challenge her idea of his future, she changes her mind, and uses him as a fund-raising raffle prize. This throws him into a new world, one that is more freeing, but also limited. He is won by the madam of a high-class brothel, to the consternation of his dogooder. Other than the piano player, who lives elsewhere, Ernest is the only male in the house, and becomes an object of affection by the upstairs girls, and a companion to one of the servants near his own age, Fahn. He also connects with the madam's young daughter Maisie, and the three hang out together, explore portions of the town, and on one eventful evening go to the fair.
As Ernest looks back at this time in his life, he recognizes that he loved both girls, for different reasons, and in different ways, but, in the end, could only commit to one.
As the memories continue to come, and Ernest deals with the events of the present, Grace begins to improve and begins to share her own memories. Ernest has been trying to protect her, and the shared history that may not be what she really wants shared, but again, he finds that fate has taken things into her own hands.
This is a fascinating story, based on a newspaper article the author came across of a baby being auctioned off at the fair. Ford looked at other real historical events such as the drive for suffrage and against alcohol and other vices, and used them to tie the story together. I loved it.

The Greatcoat

Finished December 4
The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

This ghost story takes place in a Yorkshire town in 1952. Isabel Carey and her husband Philip have just moved there as Philip, a new doctor has joined the medical practice there. Isabel finds the rooms Philip rented stark and cold, and feels that the landlady, who lives upstairs, is watching her. Looking for extra blankets to help with the cold nights, Isabel discovers an old army greatcoat in an upper cupboard, and puts in on the bed. One night she hears knocking and sees a man's face at the window, which frightens her, but she gradually finds that she gains awareness of the man's identity and begins to discover that she has memories that belong to someone else.
As Isabel begins to interact with the man, Alec, she also becomes aware of who holds his ghost to this world, and why.
This is a story of connection beyond life, of lives unfulfilled, and of the tragedy of war.
Very engaging.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Fate of Flames

Finished December 3
The Fate of Flames by Sarah Raughley

This teen novel begins as an attack begins on New York City. The attack is by phantoms, creatures that take on all kinds of ghastly shapes and seem to have unearthly powers. Anywhere people live there is protection usually through some kind of electromagnetic field, and of course New York City is no exception. But there have been cases, where the protection suddenly fails and an attack begins unexpectedly, with many victims. The authorities don't understand why or how this happens. An organization called The Sect trains people to fight against these phantoms, and they have some success, but the real skill in fighting them is by a small group of young females called Effigies. Only four Effigies exist at any one time, and they usually take on their power in their teens and don't often live past their twenties. Maia and her twin sister June were huge fans of the Effigies, but there was a terrible accident and June and Maia's parents died in a fire. Maia now lives with her uncle Nathan, who works for the government in New York City. Maia is holding a secret. Just a day or two earlier, she had awakened in the night to feel a change coming over her. She is the newest Effigy, taking the place of the skilled and strong Natalya, a Russian woman with considerable power. Maia has no idea what to do as the attack begins, but feels that hiding with her classmates is not an option. She should be doing something. As she sees a young girl in peril, she goes to her aid, only to witness the arrival of another strong Effigy, Belle, to fight the phantom nearing them.
Maia realizes she is no match for the foes she is up against, and can't bring herself to tell her uncle that he may lose the one family member that he has left. As Maia is identified by the authorities in her new role, and taken for training, she is also exposed to a mysterious young man named Saul, who seems to be the source of the attacks.
This is the first in a trilogy of books that introduces a new fantastical foe in our world. The strong female characters will appeal to female readers, and there is an element of romance present as well. An interesting premise.

The Scribe of Siena

Finished November 29
The Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer

The book centers on neurosurgeon Beatrice Trovato. Beatrice's mother died given birth to her, along with her twin sister. She was raised by her brother Benjamin, who was 17 at the time. He did a fantastic job, and the two remained extremely close. Benjamin was an historian, but also a scientist, and he was researching the Black Death and why it took a greater toll on Siena than any other area in Italy. Beatrice was already planning to take some much needed vacation and visit him in Siena, when he died suddenly. She is determined to continue his research in honour of him. When she gets to Siena, she finds herself finding a place for herself there. When not buried in research, she explores the city and makes friends with a neighbouring family. When she comes across the diary of a painter who lived in the same time period as the outbreak of the Black Death, fresco artist Gabriele Accorsi, she is drawn to his words, and when she finds one of his paintings that contains an image of a woman with her own face, she is struck by the connection. As her immersion in the past becomes stronger, she finds herself suddenly transported to the Siena of 1347, and extremely grateful for the skills in language and history that she learned thanks to Benjamin.
As she makes a place for herself in this foreign world, she continues her brother's research as best she can, meeting some of the players in the books she's been studying. Meeting Gabriele Accorsi himself is almost more than she can believe, and as she finds a real life connection with this strong-willed but gentle man, she also finds that her life and actions are not always within her control.
For those who love time travel and romance, with a touch of intrigue, this book is a winner. Highly recommended for readers who loved The Outlander and Discovery of Witches. I could hardly put it down.
Like Discovery of Witches, the author knows her history and uses real life historical characters and events to bring the story to life.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

My Husband's Wife

Finished November 20
My Husband's Wife by Jane Corry

This suspense novel begins just after the honeymoon of Lily and Ed. The marriage offers Lily the chance to make a fresh start, but the honeymoon hasn't gone all that well, and the presence of Ed's ex-girlfriend in his life doesn't help. Lily is given the chance of a murder appeal case at her law firm, and she makes a connection with the defendant Joe despite herself. As the case eats up more and more of her time, the stress on her marriage increases.
Meanwhile, the neighbour across the hall begins to call on Lily and Ed for help in looking after her young daughter Carla. Carla is a smart girl, but English is not her first language, and she is a misfit at school. Her desires for things that her mother cannot afford don't help, and she is often an impediment when her mother's boyfriend Larry comes to call.
Ed is an aspiring artist, unfulfilled by his design job at work. He finds Carla a willing model and begins to sketch her whenever she comes over.
The conclusion of the legal case leads to a lot of emotion and changes in the lives of all the characters. Carla is uprooted yet again, and Lily's marriage undergoes more pressure.
The book then jumps more than a decade into the future, when Carla comes back into Lily and Ed's lives, and brings all the issues from the past up again. Ed is delighted and thinking that Carla's presence will bring a needed uplift to his artistic career, while Lily is wary,
This book has many secrets, revealed at various points in the novel, each having an effect on the characters. A book of surprises, yet not as compelling as others I've read.
I always find that in books where I can't connect to the characters, I don't enjoy the story as much, and that was the case here as well. Each character had a flaw of some sort that pushed me away.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

You Should Have Left

Finished November 15
You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann, translated from the German by Ross Benjamin

I picked up this short novel, intrigued by the title, but it turned out to be quite a surprise. The narrator of the story is a writer, struggling with a new play. He is beginning a vacation in the mountains with his wife Susanna, an actress, and their four-year-old daughter Esther. While away, he is also supposed to be working on his new play, and his agent Schmidt calls periodically to check in.
The characters in his new play and scenes that he is writing are here in the book too, and sometimes these characters seem to get placed into the settings that he finds himself in.
As the book progresses, the unnamed narrator seems to sense that the house they are renting has oddities to it, and as a reader, you aren't sure what is happening, whether the odd things that begin to become more and more prevalent are real, are imagined, a manifestation of a mental illness or some sort of psychological horror.
At one point, he begins to hear a voice telling him that he should have left this place, hence the book's title. A very captivating and unsettling read.

The Glass Universe

Finished November 13
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel, read by Cassandra Campbell

This fascinating look at the history of astronomy takes us from the late nineteenth century through to the mid-twentieth century. It is centered around the Harvard University and the women who worked and volunteered there, but also around the men who hired, worked with, promoted, supported, and cared about these women.
The first women at the observatory were family members of the male astronomers, many of whom took on volunteer roles as computers, interpreting the observations of the male astronomers. As photography advanced to allow the capture of the night skies, the role of women included observation of these photographs. The library of glass photography plates is the origin for the title of this book. Anna Palmer Draper, widow of one of the earliest photographers of the stars wanted to continue his life's work, and she donated money to the observatory to continue this work.
One of the earliest female employees was Williamina Fleming, a Scottish woman who had worked as a maid in the home of the director of the observatory, and who took on the role of curator of the glass plates of photographs of the stars. Fleming also observed these photographs and identified over three hundred variable stars (stars whose intensity changes in regular or irregular cycles) and ten novae. She was followed by women who were some of the first graduates of colleges such as Smith and Vassar and, later, by post-graduate students, research fellows, working astronomers, and professors.
Annie Jump Cannon, a college graduate, looked at the previous work and designed a classification system for the stars that is still used today. She and others made important breakthroughs in learning about the chemical make-up of stars and used features of starlight to measure distances in space.
Dr. Cecelia Helena Payne became the first female professor of astronomy at Harvard, and the first female department chair at the university.
Two directors, Edward Pickering who was director from 1877 to 1919, and Howard Shapley, director from 1922 to 1951 were key to valuing the work of these women, promoting them, supporting their work, and giving them credit for their achievements.
I learned so much about astronomy that I didn't know, thanks to Sobel's wonderful explanations of the various key discoveries. I also found the women very interesting. The book is about astronomy and the work these people did, the discoveries they made, and the contributions of their work worldwide. It is not about the personal lives of the various players, other than mentioning facts of children, spouses, and living arrangements. But for me, that was fine. Each of these women would merit a biography of their own as separate books. The reading of the book by Campbell was captivating, and I found even the appendices of the timeline, short biographies, and glossary worth listening to.
This was a story that needed to be told, and Sobel did a fantastic job.