Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Woman with a Secret by Sophie Hannah (2014)

I should have stopped when I realized this book was compared to Gone Girl, which I stopped reading, and The Girl on the Train, which I finished, but felt very disconcerted being in this woman's mind. Once again, I did not want to be in Nicki Clements' mind, who had a hard childhood and became a constant liar. She gets pulled in as a suspect the murder of vicious columnist Damon Blundy because she avoids the road check by his house after the murder, though she has never met the man. She has her secrets - online affairs and more - but loves her family - husband and two kids. Very disconcerting to be in her mind. But much of the book is about the other characters surrounding the Blundy murder, so I did want to find out who finally killed him in that bizarre manner. I found myself agreeing with one colorful character's eccentric explanation of relationships. I liked the Detective Simon Waterhouse and his wife Officer Charlie Zeiler, so I may try something else in their series, but not for a while. 

In the olden days - 15-20 years ago or so - communication between people would have been depicted with letters and phone calls. In today's world, it is emails and Twitter comments. What didn't work in the audio book was hearing all the headers to these. If I was reading, I would jump over those, maybe note the date and time, and get to the message. In audio, they read it all and it was hard to focus on the conversation.

(The US version of this book came out in 2015). 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Blood and Circuses by Kerry Greenwood (1994)

No. 6 in the delightful Phryne Fisher series. It starts with the murder of a circus performer - a hermaphrodite Mr. Christopher - Chris/Cross or Christine. (Christine Christopher? Really?). Phryne gets involved as her half gypsy friend Alan Ray and his carny friends come to her to figure out why Farrell's Circus is having a long spate of bad luck. To figure this out, she has to become part of the circus. Phryne challenges her self (as does the author of her character we find out in the post-book interview) to do without her elegant surroundings, servants, money and status. She is bored, so enjoys the excitement of learning a new skill - standing up on a moving horse, being kept up by the centrifugal force at a certain speed around the circus ring. Greenwood herself has learned this skill and used it deftly in her narrative.

It was fun learning about the circus - the hierarchies, the friendships, how this motley crew manage to live together for extended periods of time. A reminder that dwarfs and other "freaks" had few career alternatives. This book seemed relevant in the current transgender conversation. One of the policemen keeps saying that is was good that "it" was killed, and his boss keeps correcting him.

The plot is complex as usual, but brings together all the disparate pieces in the end. There are a couple of gangs in Melbourne, that the police hope won't get as bad as in Chicago. (Sometimes when I finish listening to a book and don't feel like going on to another immediately, I will start re-listening to the book from the beginning, picking up on clues that were there. On the second listen I realized the gang piece was much more important to the plot than I originally realized.) There's Lizard Elsie who curses up a storm, but takes care of constable Tommy Harris. Harris is fairly new to the fore, his boss is a good cop, but a bit rough around the edges, Jack Robinson continues to be an excellent detective inspector, not jumping to conclusions and accepting Phryne's help.

The circus has it's problems. Half of it as been bought out by this nasty guy Jones and it is struggling for survival. The clowns are a sad pair of brothers, one with a serious depression problem. Molly the horse trainer is in despair at the loss of her love - Mr. Christopher, the carnies or carnival folks have their own issues. They are considered below the circus folks and set up their own camp, but they need each other. The carnival provides entertainment for the circus audience after the main show, and the circus provides the audience for the carnival.

Phryne has to act submissive and even tolerate the groping of Mr. Jones, though she does manage to "accidentally" kick him in the shins. She strains her fit body to learn these new tricks on the back of a horse, wears garish second hand clothes, but finds herself lonely and missing the status and recognition she usually gets. She can't go to her carny friend Alan. The only ones friendly to her are Dulcie, a juggler and Bruno the bear. One of the clowns seems interested and she finds her way to him. In the end she solves the mystery, but lands in the hands of Jones, where things get very dicey, but of course her friends in the police and carnival come to her rescue.

(Longer review that this book would warrant, but I was on vacation and had time to jot things down. No guarantees on spellings of character names, but don't have time to hunt down a physical copy of the book. Just saw this on Facebook's Best Book Quotes: "Never make fun of someone if they mispronounce a word. It means they learned it by reading." I'm the opposite in this case, don't know how it is spelled, just writing what I heard.)

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (2015)

I was not really ready to read another World War II book so soon after Follett's Winter of the World, but that is what came to me from Iskape Audio Books, so I went with it and was glad, as it just filled in more of my understanding of the war, this time set in France, which Follett did not touch.

I never thought about the fact that France was invaded by Germany at the very beginning, so when things get bad for the French people, I kept thinking - Oh no, there are years to go in this war, it will only get worse. I do not understand the mentality of invaders, especially in what I would call the modern age. How can you take food and supplies from the locals to the point of starving them - who supposedly will be your subjects eventually - don't you want them to be productive citizens of your empire? And the killing and imprisoning - beyond my comprehension.

The story focuses on two sisters - Isabelle and Vianne. Their father returns from WWI very changed, and when their mother dies, he sends them off to live with strangers. Vianne falls in love, marries Antoine, and lives in the family home out in the countryside. Isabelle is rebellious and ends up thrown out of various boarding schools. She is in Paris with her father when the Germans invade in 1940, but he sends her to stay with Vianne. She can't abide doing nothing, especially when a German officer moves in with them, so she starts working with the resistance and ends up helping British and American pilots to escape France over the Pyrenees into Spain. Follett mentions this too, one of his main characters gets saved this way. Thus Isabelle is known as the Nightingale.

We see a lot of characters around each of the women and how each of them copes with the war, including the concept that not all the Germans were all bad. Some did try to help the locals. Another term - French resistance - became clearer, and I can put it together with the resistance I read about in All the Light We Cannot See. It was a lot of people doing little things to resist the Germans. I am glad of this affirmation of spirit.

Hannah does not pull her punches in her books about the realities of war and other difficult situations. She really shows the deprivations felt by the French, the food rationing, the arrests, the demonization of Jews and their destruction. The scenes at the concentration camp were the hardest to get through, but I know that is the way things were. We just have to remember that the Russians were just as bad, both killing millions, and destroying the health and lives of many, many more. 

A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny (2006)

The second in the Three Pines mysteries with Inspector Armand Gamache was as good as the first. I love this small town with caring, loving people, but they each have their secrets too. This time it is CC de Poitiers who dies, electrocuted at the  town curling match on the lake. She had recently purchased the Hadley place, full of negative energy from the first mystery solved by Gamache. She is the author of a mixed spirituality book, appears well off, has a colorless husband Richard and an overweight daughter. We meet many of the people from the first book - Clara and Peter, a couple of artists, the gay couple that owns the bistro and rooming house, three elderly women who are good friends, and Ruth, the grumpy old lady, who writes amazing poetry about life and death. Plus there is the death of a seemingly unconnected homeless woman in Montreal.

Gamache is a caring inspector with an understanding of people, that helps him solve cases. His side-kick is less understanding, but is learning. There is a local detective that seems to be doing a good job, but the unsympathetic detective Nicole from the last book reappears, assigned by Gamache's superiors. She claims to have changed, but is somehow connected with the Arno case, for which some would like to see Gamache pay. We get a bit more insight into her life, but this storyline is to be continued.

Another interesting factor in this book is the deep winter cold and snow in this small Canadian town, someplace south of Montreal. I was trying to remember the coldest I have been - the cross-country ski/meditation retreat in Vermont one winter, where it got to be -20, and one winter down in Logan, Ohio, where I was out cutting down my Christmas tree in way below 0 temperatures. These people seemed well prepared for the deep winter.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay (2006)

Picked this up because it had old books on the cover. Rosemary loses her mother back in Tasmania, and her aunt pays her way to New York to find a better life. I know New York is where my parents came to after the war, and of course there are lots of opportunities in a big city, but it seems strange to send an 18 year old girl to a big, scary place full of strangers without anyone to look after her. Though as we see in the story - there will be good and bad people everywhere.

Rosemary had worked in her aunt's bookstore, so she wandered into one of those big used bookstores in New York that are probably quite rare nowadays. (I am afraid it has been months now since I read the book, so this will be very cursory.) She befriends the strange cast of characters that works in the bookstore, and I kept wondering how it could support so many employees. This was not your bustling Barnes & Noble type store, but more like an antiquarian book store. There was a restorer of old books upstairs that I liked. Anyway, she makes a life, gets a small apartment, I think it was unheated, makes a few friends. A secret manuscript of Melville comes up in the mix that disrupts the balance in the store.  In the end, I didn't really enjoy the book that much, though I usually love anything set in the world of books.

Winter of the World by Ken Follett (2012)

It's been a while since I listened to the first part of this Century Trilogy - Fall of the Giants - about World War I. It gave me a greater sense of WWI than I ever had before, and now Follett does the same with World War II. Of course he can't cover it all, but through engaging characters in the US, Britain, Germany, Russia and Spain, I learned a lot. Follett not only puts his characters at various critical events, he spends plenty of time on their personal lives, loves, disappointments, and through this we also see various social issues of the day. The book covers the years 1933 to 1949 - so pre-war to post-war.

I don't remember the first book in enough detail, but I think all the main characters are descendants from the characters in the first book. The book starts out in Germany, where we see how Hitler came to power - through legal elections, where he promised jobs, but also through intimidation with his unofficial army of "brownshirts" who closed down the free press and the other parties. I know there is this thought that Germans should have resisted him more, but in listening to this story, I am not sure how they could. And the scary part is, there are so many parallel's to the current presidential run by Donald Trump. I was not aware that Nazism was also popular in Britain and the U.S., that businessmen and the upper class thought for a while that Hitler was good for Germany. (I'm probably going to misspell some of the names, as I listened to the book and am not going to look up the correct spellings.)

My favorite character was Carla Ulrich, the daughter of Maude, who was from England and her family disowned her when she married Walter, from Germany, who is a social democratic representative in the government when the story starts. Carla is bright, wants to be a doctor, but is only allowed to become a nurse, she helps a Jewish family, discovers that the Nazis are killing disabled citizens, and loves Verner Frank, the brother of her best friend Frieda.

Many of the other characters start out in Buffalo, NY, where they are enjoying parties and tennis, and yachting, though conversations start turning to Europe. Daisy Peshkov is the daughter of Olga (old money) and Lev, who was her chauffeur - and who escaped from Russia when he got into trouble. Lev has a mistress with whom he has another family - son Greg Peshkov, a handsome, charming guy that is gifted a black actress for a week by his father when he is 15, studies physics and gets to participate on the Manhattan Project.

Woody Dewar is the son of Gus Dewar, a senator, so he travels in high governmental circles. He falls in love at 15 with the 18 year old Joanne, and it takes a while before she takes him seriously. He has a brother Chuck who he visits at Pearl Harbor on that fateful day. When I re-listened to bits from the beginning of this long book, I kept seeing references to his enjoying photography, so his direction at the end is not so surprising.

Lev Peshkov left a brother in Russia - Gregori, who is now in the leadership of the Soviet army and his son Volodya is an important character to let us see the thinking and actions of the Soviets. He is with the intelligence, so we see how he sets up spies, some normal people who just realize that Nazism has to be defeated. The surprising thing that kept coming up was the Russian ineptitude, because of some absurd orders from Stalin himself, but also that he put people in high positions based on their loyalty, not skills. We saw this in Spain, in not listening to their own scientists who realized the Americans were making a weapon from the atomic research, and in various war tactics. Also their ruthlessness, which I've heard about from the Latvian experience, and books like The Women in Amber.

My other favorite character was Lloyd Williams, son of Ethel, who used to be a house maid, but was now a member of the parliament. Lloyd grows up in a labor party family (there was a lot about coal miner strikes in the first book), studies in Cambridge or Oxford, but goes off to fight Nazis in Spain, get disillusioned. In between he falls in love with Daisy, who goes and marries a pompous upper class guy.

Though Follett didn't dwell on the Holocaust, as that has been covered in plenty of other books, he does show the Jewish situation and has characters witness a mass shooting and incineration of innocents. I got a sense of the politics in each of the countries, when they realized they have to get involved in the war. I am interested in understanding the current Labor Party in England more. There were all sorts of other things from the war that I now understand better. Of course I had heard the term "Berlin air lift," but didn't have the slightest idea what that meant. As a child I wondered how there could be a free western Berlin in the middle of communist East Germany, but never thought through how that might have come about. The one question I did not get answered was which part of Berlin did Carla and her family live in, did they end up on East Berlin? Maybe I have to read the next book to find out, but it is a long read, and I need to read some shorter books first.