Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel

Ayla, a five-year old Cro-Magnon girl is the sole survivor of an earthquake that  destroys her family’s camp – leaving her homeless, orphaned, and nearing starvation. Only discovery by a band of Neanderthal nomads who call themselves “the Clan” saves her life, when at the urging of Iza, their medicine woman, they adopt her as one of their own. But of course Ayla is not like the Clan, and the differences, both physical and cognitive, will have devastating consequences.

Having heard of the Clan of the Cave Bear series from many friends over the years, I always intended to read the books but only got around to it in the last year, having heard a sixth book was being published. I love historical fiction – well researched, meticulous historical fiction – and in that regard Clan of the Cave Bear did not disappoint. While more recent archaeological evidence suggests the portrayal of the Clan may not be entirely accurate (they may in fact have been able to speak, for example) this was discovered after the original publication in 1980.

While I greatly enjoyed reading it and have gone on to read books 2 and 3, with plans to finish the series, I also did not love it as so many do. Perhaps, as so often happens, it was ruined a bit by years and years of people telling me it was the best book ever. That’s hard to live up to.

I found the violence and mating descriptions overly repetitive, to the point that they were almost embarrassing to read.They just didn’t seem to fit, as if forced into the narrative somewhat. It’s hard to explain; any readers out there agree with me? I also have very little time for any theory of genetic memory, so the idea of the Clan having a shared, prehistoric memory turned me off a little. I can stretch my imagination quite far if you can convince me even a little bit that something is possible. If I believe it is impossible, you are out of luck.

Still, as someone who loves history, and was recently fascinated by the chance to visit prehistoric hominid sites in Africa, I was thrilled to find a novel that focused on pre-homo-sapien humans, and treated them as people, not animals, not merely half-humans.

If you love a historical saga as much as I do, you really should check this out. And if you are a biology grad who is sticky about genetics, just glaze over the shared memory bit, and remember that it is fiction, after all.

Mass Market Paperback: 544 pages
Publisher: Bantam; Reprint edition (Nov 1 1984)
ISBN-10: 0553250426
ISBN-13: 978-0553250428


Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

Working as a governess to teach and raise the spoiled rich children of England’s upper class, Agnes Grey discovers what it means to be invisible. Unappreciated and unacknowledged by those she works for and among, she struggles to hold onto her morals and her sense of self.

Her father’s dreams and impractical business plans slowly lead her family to financial ruin, so at the age of nineteen, Agnes begs to be allowed to take a position as a governess and earn her own keep. Filled with dreams of inspiring young minds and earning the love and devotion of the children entrusted to her, she soon discovers that her lack of social status leads to a lonely and empty life among the higher class families who employ her.

The novel is highly autobiographical, and at least one incident was later admitted by Charlotte Brontë as taken directly from Anne’s experiences as a governess.

As a huge fan of the work of the other Brontë sisters, most notably Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, I had hoped another Brontë novel would prove as darkly gothic as the others – in this I was disappointed. Had I done any advance research, I may have discovered that Agnes Grey was described by the critic George Moore as having “all the qualities of Jane Austen.” I am not an Austen fan. I could have been warned.

While there is nothing specifically wrong with Agnes Grey, it is a classic example of the moralising Victorian novel, and as such while well written and interesting (enough that I read it on one sitting), it was not particularly exciting (I read it while flying, and had nothing else to distract me).

Paperback: 248 pages

First Published: Thomas Cautlby Newby, December 1847

Current Edition: Oxford University Press, USA

ISBN-10: 0192834789

ISBN-13: 978-0192834782

The Divine Ryans by Wayne Johnston

Coming of age is difficult for anyone, but more especially so for Draper Doyle Ryan, whose recently deceased father keeps appearing in the house, yard, and local hockey rink, and whose family has produced such an overwhelming number of priests, nuns and martyrs that he can never escape their watchful and disapproving eyes.

Draper Doyle (always referred to by two names, much to his chagrin) just wants to play hockey and attend school like a normal boy, but instead he must learn to sing, dance and box like a good Catholic orphan (half-orphan, to be precise). As he and his family struggle to make sense of his father’s mysterious death, he grows closer to his strange (funny!) and reclusive uncle Reg and learns the key to controlling the overbearing Aunt Phil.

This is the second of Johnston’s books that I have read, and while the characters were of his typical humourous and engaging style, there was no real build or hook to the story itself. I was more than halfway through the novel before I could really pinpoint the central plotline, and when I left it in the office over a long weekend, I felt no pull to get back to it four days later, and if it wasn’t on my TBR list and due back at the library I could easily have forgotten to get back to it.

Still, when all is said and done I think it is safe to say I haven’t laughed at a book so much since reading Gordon Korman as a child. Truly entertaining.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

 “Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.”

It is the early 19th Century in England, and sadly for a country one renowned for its magicians, magic has all but disappeared. Modern magicians may read and write about magic but no one actually practices it anymore, and worse, no one knows why or how this happened. But a change is coming.

“Two magicians shall appear in England…
The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me;
The first shall be governed by thieves and murderers; the second shall conspire at his own destruction;
The first shall bury his heart in a dark wood beneath the snow, yet still feel its ache;
The second shall see his dearest possession in his enemy’s hand…”

Enter Mr. Norrell: Stodgy, peculiar and paranoid, and determined to singlehandedly restore magic to England. He has been collecting rare books of magic for years, and believes he has reached the point in his studies that he is ready to make his mark. In hist first public feat, Mr. Norrell raises a young woman from the dead and soon finds himself recruited by cabinet to assist in fighting and winning the Napoleonic wars.

“It has been remarked (by a lady infinitely cleverer than the present author) how kindly disposed the world in general feels to young people who either die or marry. Imagine then the interest that surrounded Miss Wintertowne! No young lady ever had such advantages before: for she died upon the Tuesday, was raised to life in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and was married upon the Thursday; which some people thought too much excitement for one week.”

But the arrogant Mr. Norrell is not prepared for what happens next. He is not the only magician in England. Enter Mr. Strange. A rich young gentleman in search of a hobby, Jonathan Strange decides to take up magic – and he has far more natural talent for it than the learned Mr. Norrell could ever hope for. Thus begins a competition that will change English magic forever.

“Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange.
Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never could.”

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is one of many magical novels to hit the shelves in the past decade, but in my opinion, it is among the best. At more than 800 pages, it is not for the faint of heart, but if fantasy is your thing, those 800 pages will fly by in a blur of spells, resurrections and faerie visits. Clarke’s humour is infectious, her characters are witty and amusing. This is one magical tome that is definitely worth the investment of your time.

Hardcover: 800 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (September 8, 2004)
ISBN-10: 1582344167
ISBN-13: 978-1582344164