The Night Has Teeth by Kat Kruger

NightHasTeeth_LowRes_1024x1024Connor Lewis, 17 years old and socially awkward, if off to Paris to study for a year on scholarship. He quickly makes two new friends, flirty and oddly attractive Madison and her boyfriend Josh. The couple seem constantly on the verge of breaking up, and sparks are flying between Connor and Madison. But what seems like it could be the set up for a typical YA romance becomes something altogether different.

We meet Connor’s host family: Amara, an attractive tattoo artist in her early twenties, and her broody boyfriend Arden. To say this is not your standard exchange student scenario would be a huge understatement. We flash back to his childhood, and discover he bit a boy, badly, on his first day of school, and has been an outcast ever since. Now in Paris, Connor discovers an underworld of werewolves: the born (who transform into majestic wolves)  and the bitten (the half-man, half-beast monsters we are more familiar with).

Throw in some beautiful people, the City of Light (and the dark tunnels beneath it), a creepy cemetery or two, and a novel scientific theory on the evolution of the werewolf, and you’ve got yourself a damn fine story.

“The night has teeth. The night has claws, and I have found them.” — Eyewitness account of the Wolf of Magdeburg, 1819

So if it isn’t your standard YA fantasy romance, what is it? It’s a part paranormal, part sci-fi, and all parts awesome werewolf story. I know, you are skeptical. So was I. Twilight kinda killed werewolves for anyone not a Twihard. (Dear God I just used one of their made up words.) But honestly, Kruger has told a fascinating story, which is of course just the set up for a larger story – this book is part 1 of the Madgeburg Trilogy (part 2 is due out this summer).

I thoroughly enjoyed The Night has Teeth, and recommend it highly. I will disclose a personal bias: Ms. Kruger is a friend of mine.  I read it months ago, and hesitated to post a review as it was hard to find the right voice to review a friend’s work. I wanted to convey how much I enjoyed it without gushing and coming across as fake. I hope I have accomplished that… and I hope you check it out the book and enjoy it too.

Paperback: 306 pages
Publisher: Fierce Ink Press (Sep 23 2012)
ISBN-10: 0988106701
ISBN-13: 978-0988106703


The Town That Died by Michael J Bird

town that diedOn December 6, 1917 the biggest man-made explosion before the nuclear bomb detonated in Halifax Harbour, destroying most of the town, killing more than 1900 people and injuring approximately 6000.

In one fiftieth of a second, the French ship vanished in a searing ball of flaming gases. With a thundering, staccato roar the blast waves from the exploding chemicals struck out at Halifax and Dartmouth with the violence of a hundred typhoons. The earth shook and the bed of the harbour split open…

When the sky emptied even then Hell was not yet finished with the stricken towns.

Bird’s book is a compelling mix of minute-by-minute events leading up to and immediately following the explosion, and first and second-hand accounts from survivors. He then wraps up the book with an account of the trial of the captains of the two colliding ships, the Imo  and the  Mont Blanc.

Bird follows a number of explosion survivors through the hours and days after the event, detailing the horrors they witnessed and the struggle to survive.

There is of course the well known and heroic tale of Vincent Coleman, telegraph operator. The immediate and generous response of the United States, with Boston and New York standing out as strong supporters.

And the lesser known tale of William King, presumed dead, his unconscious body taken to the morgue on Chebucto Road – where he awoke two days later. There is young Edith O’Connell, who lost her home and entire family, and 17 year old Lillian Atkins from Yarmouth, who miraculously survived the devastation at the Dominion Textile Company. These and so many more amazing and heartbreaking stories.

And then there are the other stories: the looting and profiteering. The crime. There are always those willing to take advantage of a city in peril.

Few thought Halifax harboured any would-be ghouls or vultures. The disaster showed how many. Men clambered over the bodies of the dead to get beer in the shattered breweries. Men taking advantage of the flight from the city because of the possibility of another explosion went into houses and shops and took whatever their thieving fingers could lay hold of.

With the 95th anniversary of the disaster this year, it seemed time for me to finally read this book in full, start to finish. I have owned it for years, but only ever treated it as a reference book, skimming through for facts or stories. As someone who knows the story well, I was unprepared for the power of Bird’s narrative.

Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Nimbus Publishing; illustrated edition (Jan 1 1995)
ISBN-10: 1551091267
ISBN-13: 978-1551091266


The Call of the Wild by Jack London

The-Call-of-The-WildBuck is snatched away from his easy life on a California ranch and thrown with little training or ceremony into the brutal life of a sled dog in the Canadian north. Here, he must learn to protect himself from cruel treatment by both men and other dogs, as he slowly ‘remembers’ his  ancestry as a wild beast. It is also here, in this harsh landscape, that he learns to love.

Before I write anything else, I need to say: I did not know this book was about a dog. That makes me sound so stupid. I mean, I knew there was a dog. There is a dog on the cover, even. I guess I just thought it was about a person and their dog. I was confused for the first few pages, then caught on to the fact that Buck was not human.

Aside from reading Black Beauty as a girl (and rereading it, multiple times) I generally don’t do books about animals. They just don’t appeal to me. I could possibly be tempted by a cat book, but even that sounds too cliché. I like my books to be about people, and more often than not, fictional people.

That now out of the way, I have to say I really enjoyed the book, despite and possibly more-so because of its perspective. This story could not have been told with a human protagonist. This is the other side of the North, and what humans have done there. Buck was there only to work and stay alive. He had no desire for gold or wealth, no longing for the comforts of the south. Setting the story around Buck allows the reader to see the north without human ambition getting in the way.

It was a short book, and an easy read. Still, it was beautiful. Poetic, even. Which was fabulous for a winter weekend where I was mostly confined to my couch with a head-cold.

But now I can’t help but think a little bit more would have been nice. More context. Where did the natives come from, and why did they attack three presumably innocent travellers? Why were the dogs traded so often – was this common practice, or bad luck? Plus numerous other small questions that came up while I was reading. Of course, the point may well have been that Buck did not know the context, and so the reader will not either?

A ‘dog-person’ may have a better perspective on this, but while I found Buck’s transformation fascinating, and hauntingly beautiful, I did not completely buy it. From content estate pet sleeping by the fire to wild dog roaming with the wolves in the span of a few years? Seems unlikely… but damn it makes a great story.

Paperback: 64 pages
Publisher: Dover Publications; First Edition edition (July 1, 1990)
ISBN-10: 0486264726
ISBN-13: 978-0486264721


The Book of Fires by Jane Borodale

The clock is ticking for 17-year-old Agnes Trussel. It is 1752, she is pregnant, unmarried and after stealing coins from an elderly neighbour has run away from her family in Sussex to the city of London. Her desperate search for work leads her to the home and workshop of one Mr. Blacklock, fireworks maker, where she asks for housekeeping work, and ends up as his apprentice.

Here she slowly gains the trust of the broody, heartbroken man as she assists him in his self-consuming quest to make the best fireworks London has ever seen. All the while, she is desperately scheming to either find a husband – fast – to end her pregnancy or to somehow give up her child without being discovered. Her days are numbered – a pregnancy can only be hidden for so long.

I had a hard time with this novel, as I am not a fan of many books with first person, present tense narrative (I am measuring the ingredients as we are discussing the chemistry *not an actual quote). Yet I was fascinated by the story – I love anything set in this time period, and it is so rare to have a novel set in the 18th century focusing on the darker side of human relations and social expectations. Borodale paints a wonderfully horrific picture of London in the 1750s with all its dirt, crime, poverty and disease.

The relationship between Anges and Mr. Blacklock had some very Jane Eyre/Mr. Rochester overtones. He is clearly enraptured – yet still longs for his dead wife. She has no idea that a man of his status, and so many years her senior could ever have feelings for her, and so sets her sights elsewhere. Their ending is perhaps more similar to another Bronte novel, if not in detail, certainly in its darkness.

Great story and touching romance. Very impressive first novel. I would like to read more from Jane Borodale.

Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics); Reprint edition (December 28, 2010)
ISBN-10: 014311848X
ASIN: B005B1IANM


The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon

Daughter to Aristotle, Pythias is intelligent, curious and stubbornly independent  also rather unfortunately, she is a girl – a condition which blocks her from the schools, books and debates she craves. Her privileged societal status means that her quirky and at times shocking interests (dissections! bird skeletons! swimming!) are tolerated by her family and those that surround them, though barely.

When the death of Alexander the Great results in her family’s exile, Pythias must help guide her ageing father in keeping them safe, fed and sheltered. There are many offering help: male and female, rich and poor, even the gods and goddesses. Pythias quickly discovers that her wit, beauty and female charms are both an asset to be wielded and a huge risk for all involved.

Always a fan of historical fiction, I greatly enjoyed reading The Sweet Girl. Yet I am somewhat embarrassed to admit I don’t really know if I properly understood what was happening at all times, what Lyon’s intent or message was. The writing style was … for lack of a better descriptor: dense. There were snippets of magical realism, yet as it wasn’t carried through the whole narrative it was a struggle to realize where the fantasy began and ended. I wasn’t 3/4 though the novel when I had already decided I was going to reread this in the next year or two, to fully grasp the meaning.

That may sound like a criticism (technically, yes it is) but I will say I look forward to rereading it. Pythias was a fascinating character. I have read very little from this period and there was much to absorb and learn of the culture and norms of the day.

Well worth a read, but be sure to allow yourself the time to take it all in.

Long-listed for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Random House Canada (Sep 18 2012)
ISBN-10: 0307359441
ISBN-13: 978-0307359445


A Good Man by Guy Vanderhaeghe

Wesley Case, born into a rich and privileged but ultimately broken home, is desperate to escape his past, but turns as both a soldier and a Mountie only increase his shame and his father’s fury. Now, Case has turned diplomat/spy, as the unofficial go between for the commanders of two Western frontier fortresses on the Canada-US border, where he falls in love with Ada Tarr, the wife of the town solicitor, and thus incurs the ire of Michael Dunne – a hired thug with his own dreams of winning Mrs. Tarr’s heart.

Set in 19th century Saskatchewan and North Dakota, A Good Man is the third novel in Vanderhaeghe’s I, a series of books linked not by character but by theme – the decline of the so-called Wild West and the early and uneasy relations between Canada and the US.

A Good Man has everything a good Western novel should: cowboys & Indians, the ‘noble’ Mountie (and a crew of not-so-noble as well),  soldiers, widows, thugs, and a touch of romance. Thankfully this time it is a romance I can get behind. While I loved Vanderhaeghe’s previous novels, The Englishman’s Boy and The Last Crossing, I found the ‘love’ story in the latter highly disappointing.  Less of a love story than a ‘girl is down on her luck so long she finally settles for the old man who has been badgering her to marry him since page 3’ kind of story. Wesley and Ada’s relationship was touching and Dunne’s obsession with her was an interesting mix of sympathetic and creepy.

But lest I make it seem that the best part of the novel was the romance, it must be noted that aside from Case & Dunne, the most intriguing character was the Sioux chief, Sitting Bull. The storyline begins not long after Sitting Bull’s victory at Little Bighorn, and everyone on either side of the border is living in fear of the Sioux. It has been many years since I studied Western History so whether Vanderhaeghe’s version of his character is accurate or not I am not equipped to say. He is depicted as a cunning adversary, commanding, intelligent, and political, and also as a family man, grieving the loss of his son and genuinely concerned for the health and safety of his family and his tribe.

This was the perfect sort of historical novel. I felt a simultaneous pride and shame for the history of my nation, but finished with a desire to know more and understand better. Well worth any reader’s time, I hope to see this novel turn up in a Canada Reads list sometime. It is just he sort of novel every Canadian should read.

Longlisted for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Hardcover: 480 pages
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart; 1st Edition edition (Sep 13 2011)
ISBN-10: 0771087403
ISBN-13: 978-0771087400

 


Kin by Leseley Crewe

When David and Annie first meet their new neighbour Lila they are children; it is 1935 in Cape Breton and they are among the only families in their home of Glace Bay not feeling the extreme crunch of the Depression. Too young to understand the disadvantages of her background they only know that she is different, and that they are drawn to her, and they immediately adopt the orphaned Lila as their ‘kin’ and begin a complex weave of relationships that Crewe follows from childhood to old age, in Round Island in 2011.

I am a Cape Bretoner, and a history buff. My grandparents and their siblings grew up on the island (granted – the other side of the island) in the same time period. Their day-to-day lives could have been very similar. I was very excited to see this book show up in my mailbox, and could not wait to read it.

I have never read Lesley Crewe before. I actually have one of her other novels, but it is in my ever-growing ‘to-be-read’ pile. So I had no idea what to expect. Still, if you’ll forgive the contradiction, this was not what I expected. I somehow thought it would be lighter, more of a feel-good, down-home romance-y story. The cover was pretty. The title suggests happy family connections. All of that was there, but there was more. Far from dark, Kin was still not a light easy read. Its characters were complex, the action unexpected.

Kin follows three generations of families through more than seven decades in and around industrial Cape Breton, and as far away as Halifax and Montreal. The cast of characters is long, but it is the first three – Annie, David and Lila that the plot centres around. I loved Annie through and through, as I expect I was supposed to. Even her frustrating choices were completely understandable. And I fell in love with Henry right along with her. Actually, much quicker than she did.  I won’t ruin the story for you, but I do want to say I was disappointed with how her story ended. (It seemed abrupt, and didn’t fit the rest of the story well. Perhaps that’s just me? I’d love to hear what other readers think.)

David and Lila were harder to deal with. I struggled to understand their relationship mostly because it was so believable; it’s the hopeless childhood love story we have all seen time and again in various forms: full of passion and chemistry but little substance, and if not given the chance to mature, doomed for failure. Numerous times I wanted to throw the book across the room as they made their heartbreaking decisions.

Kin did a fabulous job of capturing the ties of family and friendship in a small community, while also portraying how these ties can be limiting and destructive. It was engaging and at times humourous. If there is a criticism, I think it could have ended quicker – not earlier in time, but just with less detail. Near the end it felt like Crewe was desperate to wrap up all the little details, but I like to have at least a few open to my imagination. (I feel like I say this a lot. If I ever do get around to writing a book, someone kindly remind me of this and make sure I wrap it up efficiently.) Still, I greatly enjoyed the story and will be moving her other novels up in my ‘to-be-read’ list.

Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: Nimbus Publishing (Sep 4 2012)
ISBN-10: 1551099225
ISBN-13: 978-1551099224