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My Bookshelf 15 - The last half dozen: From Seriousness to Unbelievability



Mason Cooley once said, “Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are.”  My last half dozen books took me to eastern Canada, England, Ireland, Australia, and Panama. That’s a lot of cheap travelling!

 

In this batch, there are a couple of social studies, a couple of fun who-dun-its, and a couple of historical fiction.


I hope you find something to your liking.


In the order they were read:



The Damages - Let’s start right away with some warnings. There is nothing light or funny about this book. It dwells heavily on the topic of sexual abuse. It’s uncomfortable and provocative.    The Damages is told in two equal parts in the first person by Ros or Rosalind, whom you might not like very much at any point.  The first half occurs during the huge ice storm in 1998 in Ontario, Canada, in a fictitious town and university.  Ros is a first year student who is trying to define herself as one of the cool crowd. Ros' roommate goes missing during several days when the university is shut down and the students spend much of their time partying.  This half of the book is a portrayal of partying and graphic sexual talk and behaviour and innuendo and of the confusion of sexual boundaries in the 1990's. The second part of the book focuses on Ros over 20 years later. She has come to learn that her husband Lukas has been accused of sexual assault which forces her to evaluate and confront her values, her thoughts, her decisions, her behaviours, her upbringing,  her own past – and her husband and her relationship and her parenting. The Damages is a well-written, fast read.  It raises many uncomfortable issues regarding society’s changing view of sexual assault (and women) from the 1990’s to now,  sexual consent, the lies we might tell others and ourselves when we try to protect ourselves,  what we learn from our upbringing and culture, how we  might evaluate our decisions from years past and how we come to grips with those decisions, how life events hinder our development, and how we move on in the future. And it is certainly a helpful reminder to always live with integrity and honesty, be a good person in all ways, be considerate, and be yourself. There is a lot to this book if you choose to dive in. But, remember, it’s serious material with topics that might not be for you. Rating: 4/5



Knife Skills For Beginners - Orland Murrin is a perfect person to write a book interspersing cooking with murder as he's written six cookbooks and has had family in law enforcement. Knife Skills For Beginners is a nice, light reprieve from more serious reading, even if it does involve a murder, some violence, a mystery, and a touch of thriller – all quite unbelievable but engaging. Paul Delamare is a chef who steps in at the last minute  to teach a cooking class in the posh Belgravia neighbourhood of London, England, when his best friend Christian, a popular, much-celebrated and dashing chef, has to withdraw due to an injury.  Paul’s students are an eclectic mixture  of eight rather pretentious persons, all with different motives for attending the class.  As with any good crime novel, a dead body soon surfaces, and Paul is the primary suspect. Paul is in a race with time to prove his innocence – and to identify the real killer. Is it one of the quirky students -  maybe the sophisticated Lady Brash or her daughter Harriet or the very presentable De’Lyse, or the sullen Stephen or . . . . . even the owner of the school, Rose, has a somewhat questionable past. Knife Skills for Beginners is unique in that it intersperses crime fiction with lots of cooking techniques and terms and even with recipes (especially one for chocolate bark that I know I’ll be trying). And I can just visualize the Chester Square Cookery School and the mansions  (and pretensions) of Belgravia. Knife Skills for Beginners is fast and easy and compelling for a couple  of days of reading, especially if you like cooking, crime, and London, England. The characters are interesting (and somewhat predictable for a crime novel), and there’s a nice bit of sarcasm and mystery and twists and turns to keep you engaged. It’s like an old-time television show or a game of Clue. Rating: 3/5



Sisters of Belfast - There are a lot of serious themes in this book, including  the issue of the thousands of mothers and babies who were placed in mother and baby homes in Ireland and of the children who died and were placed in unmarked graves.  Other themes include religious faith and dedication, questioning what we believe, and the issue of family bonds. Aelish and Isabel are twin sisters who lose their home and parents when their house is bombed in World War II in Belfast, Ireland. They are placed in an orphanage operated by the Catholic Sisters of Bethlehem, adjacent to a home for unwed mothers and their children. Aelish is accepting and believing, even eventually joining the Sisters of Bethlehem, while Isabel is questioning and resistant and disruptive, leaving the orphanage as a young teenager. They lose contact for several years until Aelish is called to Pouch Cove, Newfoundland, where Isabel has become seriously ill and having to care for her own twins.  The rest of the novel unwinds Aelish’s and Isabel’s  individual stories as they seek to make sense of their lives, learn about each other and about themselves, and figure out lessons of truth and love and forgiveness well into old age. There’s trauma after trauma in this book, and there is much food for thought about what we think (or what we are taught to believe) is correct.  It’s about discovering who we, and others, really are. Often what we see is not what lies underneath. The prologue  starts in 1941 and jumps to Aelish, as an old woman in 2016, as she reminisces about her life. The story is then told in the third person of Aelish and Isabel but also of some of the Sisters of Bethlehem, alternating in short chapters and dates, so you need to read carefully;  and there are a lot of forewarnings before some ‘secrets’ are revealed.  I did enjoy the eloquent writing style and especially the many metaphors. Linger awhile with the title when you’ve finished . Rating - 3.5/5



Everyone On This Train Is A Suspect - If you read the precursor to this book, Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone, and if you liked it, you will certainly like Everyone On This Train Is A Suspect. Author Benjamin Stevenson has a unique style in which he narrates about writing the story while talking directly to the reader. You very soon start to mistake main character Ernest Cunningham with author Benjamin Stevenson. Ernest Cunningham, after his somewhat ‘flukey’ success in writing his first novel which is Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone receives a substantial advance to write a second novel, but he is experiencing extreme writer’s block. He is ‘sort of’ invited to a writer’s conference which is held on a train, The Ghan, which travels between Adelaide and Darwin, Australia.  He hopes to find inspiration for his next book. Attending the conference are several accomplished authors, a forensic science writer, a blockbuster writer, a legal thriller writer, a literary writer, and a psychological suspense writer, as well as Ernest’s girlfriend and agent.  Of course, before long, one of them is discovered deceased, giving Ernest fuel for his next book.  Now, each of the authors, including Ernest, knows how to solve a murder (and how to commit one) and each sets out to investigate, or cover themselves, in their own way. There are lots of characters in this book.  You might want to keep paper and a pen handy to keep track of the characters, the plot, and the many hints that Ernest gives the reader about who just might be the killer. This is a unique book. It is witty, complex, and smart. Of course, being written by a comedian, even the death (or deaths) aren’t that gruesome. It’s a real who-dun-it and just a fun read. And,of course, it is not believable. Rating: 3.5/5



The Whispers - Amongst the truths in this book,  there are graphic scenes of child abuse and pregnancy miscarriage and infidelity. Four women live on suburban, well-to-do  Harlow Street (it could be any city): emergency room doctor Rebecca who wants a child so badly but has had many failed pregnancies;  stay at home mom Blair who appears on the surface to be a contented super-mom;  professional businesswomen Whitney who puts on the appearance that everything in her life is perfect; and elderly Mara, an immigrant from Portugal who knows more about life, and the social life of the street, than she lets on. The books carries us through several days when Whitney’s eldest child is lying unresponsive in hospital after having, apparently, fallen from an upper floor window. This forces each woman to re-evaluate their lives, their marriages, their decisions, their friendships, their values, and even the role they might or might not have played in the child’s accident. The premise behind the story is that most 40-something-year-old women do evaluate their lives and the decisions they made regarding relationships and family and careers;  there is  often a huge struggle to find a balance emotionally, intellectually, and physically between careers and child-raising; we all have secrets (even if they are little) about who we are versus how we present to the world – and the hidden fears and loneliness;  and the underlying  competition amongst friends and judgement for the hard decisions that have been made. And there's the ‘whispers’ – that little nagging sense, or whisper, amongst friends or to ourselves,  that something might not be right in the neighbourhood or with ourselves.  But hopefully, the issues are not to the extent portrayed in this story. This book is a fast read,  but be prepared that if you dive in, it’s not  light,  and you might not like any of the characters that much. It was a little sad and dark for me. Rating: 3.5/5



The Great Divide - It’s the early 1900’s, and workers from around the world are flocking to Panama to work on what was being billed as  “the greatest feat of engineering”, what we now know as The Panama Canal connecting the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic Ocean. The United States, under then President Roosevelt, pushed for the canal to be built in order to

enhance it's standing and power on the world stage.  The Canal allowed for quick and cheap transport of goods and military supplies and equipment if needed. Yes, the Canal was an engineering marvel and provided employment throughout the United States,  Central America, and the Caribbean, and eventually was an economic boost to Panama. But there were costs, not just financial, but human, in the construction. Christina Henriquez nicely portrays how the Panama Canal changed the face of Panama,  for good and bad.  While some agreed with the building of the canal and what it offered to Panama, people were displaced from their homes, American quarters were established, the old way of life was threatened, families were disrupted over disagreements about foreign intervention, there was illness and death, and there was racial and class prejudice. Christina Henriquez introduces many characters (some we meet only briefly) throughout the book to show these many different layers, so to speak. Ada Bunting is a 16 year old who left her home in Barbados as a stowaway on a ship to seek employment in Panama. She is hired by John Oswald to care for his ailing wife. John Oswald is a scientist who is in Panama to eradicate malaria. And there is Francisco, a local fisherman,  who resents the fact that his son Omar chose to work on the canal. Christina Henriquez, through her presentation of so many characters, shows how so many diverse people  from fishermen to doctors were  affected  (good or bad) by such a huge building project and how their lives all cross paths at some point because of the canal. This book really encouraged me to do some research about the Panama Canal, and there is much information on line.  It’s worth checking out, and this book is worth reading.  It’s not an exciting read but it is eloquent and held my interest. Rating: 4/5


And that's my last half dozen. My order of preference: 1) The Great Divide 2) The Damages 3) Sisters of Belfast 4) The Whispers 5) Everyone on This Train Is A Suspect and 6) Knife Skills for Beginners. (Yes, I'm a pretty serious lady.)


Enjoy your reading.



 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 


 

 


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