Recent reading

My thanks to Christchurch City Libraries on many fronts:  firstly, for providing so many good books to read; secondly, for providing catalogue blurbs on the books I’m listing, which saves me having to summarise each book’s plot; and thirdly, for providing BiblioCommons to allow me to track what I’ve read! 🙂

January 2015

3 Jan:  Fourth of July Creek – Smith Henderson.  Set in the mountains, valleys and close-knit communities of rural Montana in the early 1980s, this book presents a dark, powerful debut novel about a young social worker called Pete, who struggles to hold together the lives of the most dysfunctional inhabitants of the town of Tenmile, as his own life begins to fall apart.

9 Jan:  The Other Hand – Chris Cleave.  A war zone on an African beach may not be the best place to heal a wounded marriage. This sounds almost like a Nigerian proverb sprouted by Little Bee, the heroine in this involving novel, The Other Hand. Sarah’s the editor of a magazine that she’s outgrown. She’s mother to Charlie, a boy who won’t wear anything but a Batman costume. She’s wife to Andrew, who’s battling demons and depression. She’s mistress to Lawrence, the habit she cannot break, hence the wounded marriage. She’s also a lifesaver. The missing finger on her left hand is testament to that. It was sacrificed one horrific day on Ibeno Beach, Nigeria, in exchange for Little Bee’s life. Two years later, the African girl appears in her Surrey backyard, holding Andrew’s tattered driver’s licence on the day of his funeral. Is she a ghost? It’s the unfolding of events that make this story so brilliant. Little Bee’s observations of the English are hilarious and wise in equal parts. This is a novel of great drama and humour that links the domestic, sometimes frivolous life of the modern UK with the plight of its asylum seekers.

11 Jan:  Missing You – Harlan Coben.  From #1 New York Times bestselling author Harlan Coben, a heart-pounding thriller about the ties we have to our past and the lies that bind us together. It’s a profile, like all the others on the online dating site. But as NYPD Detective Kat Donovan focuses on the accompanying picture, she feels her whole world explode, as emotions she’s ignored for decades come crashing down on her. Staring back at her is her ex-fiance; Jeff, the man who shattered her heart-and who she hasn’t seen in 18 years. Kat feels a spark, wondering if this might be the moment when past tragedies recede and a new world opens up to her. But when she reaches out to the man in the profile, her reawakened hope quickly darkens into suspicion and then terror as an unspeakable conspiracy comes to light, in which monsters prey upon the most vulnerable. As the body count mounts and Kat’s hope for a second chance with Jeff grows more and more elusive, she is consumed by an investigation that challenges her feelings about everyone she ever loved – her former fiance, her mother, and even her father, whose cruel murder so long ago has never been fully explained. With lives on the line, including her own, Kat must venture deeper into the darkness than she ever has before, and discover if she has the strength to survive what she finds there.

12 Jan:  Reconstructing Amelia – Kimberly McCreight.  Kate is in the middle of the biggest meeting of her career when she gets the telephone call from Grace Hall, her daughter’s exclusive private school in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Amelia has been suspended, effective immediately, and Kate must come get her daughter now. But Kate’s stress over leaving work quickly turns to panic when she arrives at the school and finds it surrounded by police officers, fire trucks, and an ambulance. By then it’s already too late for Amelia. And for Kate. An academic overachiever despondent over getting caught cheating has jumped to her death. At least that is the story Grace Hall tells Kate. And clouded as she is by her guilt and grief, it is the one she forces herself to believe. Until she gets an anonymous text: She didn’t jump. The novel is about secret first loves, old friendships, and an all-girls’ club steeped in tradition. But, most of all, it’s the story of how far a mother will go to vindicate the memory of a daughter whose life she couldn’t save.

15 Jan:  An Untamed State – Roxane Gay.  Mireille Duval Jameson is a rich and self-assured Haitian woman who is kidnapped by a gang of heavily armed men. Held captive by a man who calls himself the Commander, Mireille must endure his torment until her unwilling father pays up.

18 Jan:  The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Cafe – Alexander McCall Smith.  Even the arrival of her baby can’t hold Mma Makutsi back from success in the workplace, and so no sooner than she becomes a full partner in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – in spite of Mma Ramotswe’s belated claims that she is only ‘an assistant full partner’ – she also launches a new enterprise of her own: the Handsome Man’s De Luxe Cafe. Grace Makutsi is a lady with a business plan, but who could predict temperamental chefs, drunken waiters and more? Luckily, help is at hand, from the only person in Gaborone more gently determined than Mma Makutsi:   Mma Ramotswe, of course.

19 Jan:  Still Life with Breadcrumbs – Anna Quindlen.  Still Life with Bread Crumbs begins with an imagined gunshot and ends with a new tin roof. Between the two is a wry and knowing portrait of Rebecca Winter, a photographer whose work made her an unlikely heroine for many women. Her career is now descendent, her bank balance shaky, and she has fled the city for the middle of nowhere. There, she discovers, in a tree stand with a roofer named Jim Bates, that what she sees through a camera lens is not all there is to life. Brilliantly written, powerfully observed, Still Life with Bread Crumbs is a deeply moving and often very funny story of love unexpected, and a stunningly crafted journey into the life of a woman, her heart, her mind, her days, as she discovers that life is a story with many levels, a story that is longer and more exciting than she ever imagined.

22 Jan:  The Scatter Here is Too Great – Bilal Tanweer.  Comrade Sukhansaz, an old communist poet, is harassed on a bus full of college students minutes before the blast. A young man, Sadeq, has a dead-end job snatching cars from people who have defaulted on their bank loans, while his girlfriend spins tales for her young brother to conceal her own heartbreak.

22 Jan:  Trains and Lovers – Alexander McCall Smith.  In the words of Alexander McCall Smith: ‘You feel the rocking of the train, you hear the sound of its wheels on the rails; you are in the world rather than suspended somewhere above it. And sometimes there are conversations to be had, which is what the overarching story in this collection is all about. It is a simple device: people brought together entertain one another with tales of what happened to them on trains. It takes place on a journey I frequently make myself and know well, the journey between Edinburgh and London. It is best read on a train, preferably that one.’

26 Jan:  Every Last One – Anna Quindlen.  Mary Beth Latham is first and foremost a mother, whose three teenaged children come first, before her career as a landscape gardener, or even her life as the wife of a doctor. Caring for her family and preserving their everyday life is paramount. And so, when one of her sons, Max, becomes depressed, Mary Beth becomes focused on him, and is blindsided by a shocking act of violence.

29 Jan:  The Spy Mistress – Jennifer Chiaraveni.  Pledging her loyalty to the North at the risk of her life when her native Virginia secedes, Quaker-educated aristocrat Elizabeth Van Lew uses her innate skills for gathering military intelligence to help construct the Richmond underground and orchestrate escapes from the infamous Confederate Libby Prison.

February 2015:

1 Feb:  The Last Bride – Beverly Lewis.  Set in Amish country’s beloved fictional Hickory Hollow, Tessie Miller, the youngest of her Old Order parents’ five daughters, followed her heart, and the unthinkable has happened. Will she find a reason for hope, in spite of her desperate plight?

4 Feb:  That Night – Chevy Stevens.  Toni Murphy was eighteen when she and her boyfriend, Ryan, were wrongly convicted of the murder of her younger sister. Now she is thirty-four and back in her hometown, working every day to forge and adjust to a new life on the outside. She’s doing everything in her power to avoid violating her parole and going back to prison. But nothing is making that easy not Ryan, who is convinced he can figure out the truth; not her mother, who clearly doubts Toni’s innocence; and certainly not the group of women who made Toni’s life miserable in high school and may have darker secrets than anyone realizes. Before Toni can truly move on, she must risk everything to find out the truth and clear her name.

8 Feb:  The Dressmaker – Kate Alcock.   A spirited woman survives the sinking of the Titanic only to find herself embroiled in the tumultuous aftermath of that great tragedy. Tess is one of the last people to escape into a lifeboat. When an enterprising reporter turns her employer, Lady Duff Gordon, into an object of scorn, Tess is torn between loyalty and the truth.

10 Feb:  Children of the Revolution – Peter Robinson.  A disgraced college lecturer is found murdered with 5,000 pounds in his pocket on a disused railway line near his home. Since being dismissed from his job for sexual misconduct four years previously, he has been living a poverty-stricken and hermit-like existence in this isolated spot. The suspects range from several individuals at the college where he used to teach to a woman who knew the victim back in the early ’70s at Essex University, then a hotbed of political activism. When Banks receives a warning to step away from the case, he realises there is much more to the mystery than meets the eye for there are plenty more skeletons to come out of the closet.

22 Feb:  The Town that Drowned – Riel Nason.  Living with a weird brother in a small town can be tough enough. Having a spectacular fall through the ice at a skating party and nearly drowning are grounds for embarrassment. But having a vision and narrating it to the assembled crowd solidifies your status as an outcast. What Ruby Carson saw during that fateful day was her entire town, buildings and people floating underwater. Then an orange-tipped surveyor stake turns up in a farmer’s field. Another is found in the cemetery. A man with surveying equipment is spotted eating lunch near Pokiok Falls. The residents of Haverton soon discover that a massive dam is being constructed and that most of their homes will be swallowed by the rising water. Suspicions mount, tempers flare, and secrets are revealed. As the town prepares for its own demise, 14-year-old Ruby Carson sees it all from a front-row seat. Set in the 1960s, The Town That Drowned evokes the awkwardness of childhood, the thrill of first love, and the importance of having a place to call home. Award-winning writer Riel Nason’s keen insights into human nature and the depth of human attachment to place make this novel ripple in an amber tension of light and shadow.

25 Feb:  Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party – Alexander McCall Smith.  His loving wife Betty plans a trip to Ireland for his 40th birthday and almost immediately things go wrong: the seats in economy class on the plane are too small; Irish bathroom furniture is not as commodious as he’d have liked. And all the time Fatty must put up with the unthinking cruelty of strangers. In an hilarious and touching portrayal of a kindly and misunderstood soul, McCall Smith has created yet another memorable character who will become an instant favourite to his many fans.

27 Feb:  Seconds Away – Harlan Coben.  Having ended the Edgar Award-nominated Shelter with a jaw-dropping cliffhanger, Coben picks up Mickey’s story right where it left off in this suspenseful new adventure. Mickey and his loyal new friends, sharp-witted Ema and adorably charming Spoon, once again find themselves in over their heads on the hunt for missing pieces to a puzzle they have yet to understand. As the mystery surrounding Mickey’s dad’s death unfolds, he soon learns that they may be in more danger than they could have ever imagined.

March 2015:

1 Mar:  It’s the Little Things – Erica James.  Dan and Sally Oliver and their friend Chloe Hennessey are lucky to be alive. Three years on, after surviving one of the world’s biggest natural disasters – the Boxing Day tsunami – their lives have changed dramatically. Dan and Sally are now parents. Dan is enjoying being a stay-at-home father taking care of their young son, and Sally is the bread winner and loves her job as a partner in a Manchester law firm. The arrangement has so far worked well, but when Dan starts to question whether Sally has got her priorities right, the cracks in their marriage begin to appear. Dan and Sally have everything Chloe wishes for in life – a happy marriage and a beautiful child. Dumped by her long term boyfriend just weeks after the tsunami, she’s been on a mission ever since to find the perfect father for the child she craves. When she meets Seth Hawthorne, she thinks she may have hit the jackpot. But is Seth the man she thinks he is? A life can change in a heartbeat but IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS is not simply about the moments when everything changes, but also a moving, compelling and inspiring story of how we lead our lives in the days and years that follow.

3 Mar:  The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy – Rachel Joyce.  When Queenie Hennessy discovers that Harold Fry is walking the length of England to save her, and all she has to do is wait, she is shocked. Her note to him had explained she was dying from cancer. How can she wait? A new volunteer at the hospice suggests that Queenie should write again; only this time she must tell Harold the truth.

4 Mar:  Everywhere We Went:  England’s Barmy Army – Ben Dirs.  Boxing Day, Melbourne 2010: a packed house of over 80,000 sits down to watch the crucial fourth Test unfold. Three days later, only 12,000 remain – and it’s just the Barmy Army, celebrating as England retain the Ashes. They run through their full repertoire of songs, cheering on England’s success. Meanwhile, the England players salute those who have made the effort to be there, spending thousands of pounds to support their side, inspiring them to another great victory. What was it like to be there? How did it come to pass that thousands gathered together? Who is the trumpeter? Who came up with the songs? What else do the Barmy Army get up to when the cricket finishes? This book answers all those questions, and many more, providing a brilliant and hilarious insight to life on tour with the Barmy Army. For those who were there, it will bring back a flood of memories. For those who weren’t, this book will show you what you missed, and why you need to join in next time to have the time of your life.

10 Mar:  The Soloist:  A Lost Dream, An Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music – Steve Lopez.  The true story of Nathaniel Ayers, a musician who becomes schizophrenic and homeless, and his friendship with Steve Lopez, the Los Angeles columnist who discovers and writes about him in the newspaper.

13 Mar:  Hello from the Gillespies – Monica McInerney.  For more than thirty years, Angela Gillespie has sent friends and family around the world an end-of-the-year letter titled ‘Hello from the Gillespies’. It’s always been cheery and full of good news. This year, Angela surprises herself she tells the truth. The Gillespies are far from the perfect family that Angela has made them out to be. Her husband is coping poorly with retirement. Her 32-year-old twins are having career meltdowns. Her third daughter, badly in debt, can’t stop crying. And her ten-year-old son spends more time talking to his imaginary friend than to real ones. Without Angela, the family would fall apart. But when Angela is taken from them in a most unexpected manner, the Gillespies pull together and pull themselves together in wonderfully surprising ways.

13 Mar:  All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr.  The epic new novel, set during WW2, from Sunday Times Short Story Prize-winner Anthony Doerr. Marie-Laure has been blind since the age of six. Her father builds a perfect miniature of their Paris neighbourhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. But when the Nazis invade, father and daughter flee with a dangerous secret. Werner is a German orphan, destined to labour in the same mine that claimed his father’s life, until he discovers a knack for engineering. His talent wins him a place at a brutal military academy, but his way out of obscurity is built on suffering. At the same time, far away in a walled city by the sea, an old man discovers new worlds without ever setting foot outside his home. But all around him, impending danger closes in. Doerr’s combination of soaring imagination and meticulous observation is electric. As Europe is engulfed by war and lives collide unpredictably, ‘All The Light We Cannot See’ is a captivating and devastating elegy for innocence.

19 Mar:  Educating Alice – Alice Greenup.  A footloose city slicker who couldn’t tell a bull from a cow was hardly the ideal candidate to answer an ad for a governess on a Mackay cattle station. But Alice Greenup was game for anything, until she was bowled over by a handsome young jackeroo with a devastating smile. Alice gave up her city life to embrace the bush and all that came with it: horses, cattle, the obsession with rain, and the correct way to wear a hat. Determined to make their own future, they gambled their dreams on a vast property called ‘Jumma’. It was a huge risk but they were on their way. But one morning they almost lost it all. And what followed would test their love to the limit.

April 2015:

9 April:  Essentialism:  The Disciplined Pursuit of Less 8– Greg McKeown.  Discusses a systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so you can make the highest possible contribution towards the things that really matter.

12 April:  We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler.  Coming of age in middle America, eighteen-year-old Rosemary evaluates how her entire youth was defined by the presence and forced removal of an endearing chimpanzee who was secretly regarded as a family member and who Rosemary loved as a sister.

12 April:  Broken – Tamar Cohen.  Best friends tell you everything; about their kitchen renovation; about their little girl’s schooling. How one of them is leaving the other for a younger model. Best friends don’t tell lies. They don’t take up residence on your couch for weeks. They don’t call lawyers. They don’t make you choose sides. Best friends don’t keep secrets about their past. They don’t put you in danger. Best friends don’t always stay best friends.

13 April:  Common Threads:  Stories from the Quilt (DVD – 2009).  In the early 1980s, a mysterious disease suddenly started killing young gay men in American cities. It wasn’t until Rock Hudson’s death in 1985 that the rest of the country began to take notice. “Common threads” tells the powerful story of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic in the US – the first ominous warning signs and the government’s failure to respond, to the vibrant protest movement that was born as a result. Starting with five life-stories chosen from the thousands memorialized in the NAMES Project AIDS Quilt – the Olympic athlete ; the recovering drug addict ; the conservative naval commander ; the gay street activist ; and the 11 year old suburban boy with haemophilia – the filmmakers skilfully weave intimate memories with contemporary news footage to tell a moving story of love, loss, anger and healing.

27 April:  Acquarium – David Vann.  “I was going to be an ichthyologist when I grew up. I was going to live in Australia or Indonesia or Belize or the Red Sea and spend most of my day submerged in that same warm water. A fishtank stretching thousands of miles. The problem with the aquarium was that we couldn’t join them.” Twelve-year-old Caitlin lives alone with her mother in subsidised housing next to an airport in Seattle. Each day, while she waits to be picked up after school, Caitlin visits the local aquarium to study the fish. Gazing at the creatures within the watery depths, Caitlin accesses a shimmering universe beyond her own. When she befriends an old man at the tanks one day, who seems as enamoured of the fish as she, Caitlin cracks open a dark family secret and propels her once-blissful relationship with her mother towards a precipice of terrifying consequence.In crystalline and graceful prose, Aquarium takes us into the heart of a brave young girl whose longing for love and capacity for forgiveness transform the damaged people around her. Relentless and heartbreaking, primal and redemptive, Aquarium is a transporting story from one of the best writers working today.

30 April:  Lost & Found – Brooke Davis.  Millie Bird is a seven-year-old girl who always wears red wellington boots to match her red, curly hair. But one day, Millie’s mum leaves her alone beneath the Ginormous Women’s underwear rack in a department store, and doesn’t come back.

May 2015:

2 May:  No White Flowers, Please – Elaine Blick.  The Roaring Twenties was the era of the flappers, those bright young things who cut their hair and raised their hemlines. But for Rhoda Pritchard, growing up in a mining town in the North Island of New Zealand, life wasn’t easy. On her 11th birthday, Rhoda and her younger brothers and sisters stood by their mother’s grave. The strong-smelling white flowers surrounding the coffin ever afterwards became the smell of death to Rhoda. But she was a girl who loved life, and from an early age learned a simple way to survive. This helped her through every setback and disappointment, especially when she and the other children were sent to England without their father, accompanied only by an unmarried aunt. In the new and unfamiliar English environment, Rhoda faces every challenge with courage. Though set in the 1920s, this heart-warming story will resonate with readers today who admire a character with grit and determination.

3 May:  The Killing Season – Mason Cross.  “The first thing you should know about me is that my name is not Carter Blake. That name no more belongs to me than the hotel room I was occupying when the call came in”. When Caleb Wardell, the infamous ‘Chicago Sniper’, escapes from death row two weeks before his execution, the FBI calls on the services of Carter Blake, a man with certain specialised talents whose skills lie in finding those who don’t want to be found. A man to whom Wardell is no stranger. Along with Elaine Banner, an ambitious special agent juggling life as a single mother with her increasingly high-flying career, Blake must track Wardell down as he cuts a swathe across America, apparently killing at random. But Blake and Banner soon find themselves sidelined from the case. And as they try desperately to second guess a man who kills purely for the thrill of it, they uncover a hornets’ nest of lies and corruption. Now Blake must break the rules and go head to head with the FBI if he is to stop Wardell and expose a deadly conspiracy that will rock the country.

4 May:  Smut:  Two Unseemly Stories – Alan Bennett.  This title includes unexpected tales from the master of short fiction. “The Shielding of Mrs Forbes” – Graham Forbes is a disappointment to his mother who thinks that if he must have a wife, he should have done better. And her own husband would be better if she were mourning him than living with him. But this is Alan Bennett, so no matter the importance of keeping up appearances, what is happening in the bedroom (and in lots of other places too) is altogether more startling, perhaps shocking, and ultimately much more honest to people’s predilections. “The Greening of Mrs Donaldson” – Mrs Donaldson is a conventional middle-class woman beached on the shores of widowhood after a marriage that had been much like many others: happy to begin with, then satisfactory and finally dull. But when she decides to take in two lodgers (a young, broke couple) passions that she never knew existed are aroused, and her mundane life becomes much more stimulating.

4 May:  Sacred Hearts Sarah Dunant.  1570 in the Italian city of Ferrara, and the convent of Santa Caterina is filled with noble women who are married to Christ because many cannot find husbands outside. Enter sixteen-year-old Serafina, ripped by her family from an illicit love affair, howling with rage and hormones and determined to escape. While on the other side of the great walls, counter-reformation forces in the Church are pushing for change, inside, Serafina’s spirit and defiance ignite a fire that threatens to engulf the whole convent. SACRED HEARTS is a novel about power, creativity and passion – both of the body and of the soul. Hidden history brought alive by a wonderful storyteller, renowned for her Italian Renaissance novels.

9 May:  An Unexpected Grace – Kristin Von Kreisler.  Struggling to make sense of a traumatic office shooting, Lila Elliot finds an unexpected bond with an abused golden retriever she is recruited to care for during her recuperation from her injuries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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