Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart

Liz Crane lives a solitary (if not lonely life) on what remains of her family’s Southern Ontario fruit farm; she spends her days as an en entomologist studying monarch butterfly migrations, and the rest f her time haunted by family catastrophes: the long ago disappearance of her Uncle Stanley, and the more recent death of her cousin Mandy while serving in Afghanistan with the Canadian Army.

Liz reproaches herself for not understanding her cousin better, for not sympathizing with her destructive and consuming affair with a married senior officer. She has isolated herself in the house they once shared, reading her cousin’s poetry books and reliving long forgotten memories. The process brings much more back to her, including her uncle’s disappearance, the strained family relationships, and her own first love – the son of migrant farm workers.

The crux of the novel is the reason for her uncle’s disappearing, and while I won’t reveal what it was, I will say that I had guessed it early on, which took much of the anticipation out of the reading. Yet I still very much enjoyed the book. The characters were well crafted, their actions and motives believable. I also (much to the chagrin of my book club friends) have a thing for novels about biologists, novels in which the author seems to share my fascination for how society mirrors nature, how human relations are not always so different from their animal counterparts.

I did find – as someone who would have had little patience for Mandy’s love-life myself – that this subplot was least interesting to me, and at times felt forced. I was far more interested in the family history, the past loves and losses, and of course – the butterflies. Yet Urquhart brought this around in the end in a satisfying if perhaps implausible way. The romance that sounded hopeless and desperate may have been so, but it also had its own beauty and passion.

Sanctuary Line is a reflection on migration: human, and insect. Read it for a touching story, for interesting use of metaphor, but do not look for a happy ending.

Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart; First edition (August 31, 2010)
ISBN-10: 0771086466
ISBN-13: 978-0771086465

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The Emperor of Paris by CS Richardson

Is it fate or circumstance that brings two lovers together? Romantics would argue the first, the more pragmatic like me, the second. The Emperor of Paris makes the pragmatic romantic, weaving magic into the story of the decades-long sequence of events which brings two unlikely characters together. This novel is much more than just a love story. It is a love letter – to Paris, to books and to circumstance.

Perhaps the most beautiful line I’ve read in years was the simple sentence which ended the novel. “Tell me how we came to this,” Isabeau says to Octavio. And suddenly you want to start all over again at page one, to rediscover how the disfigured daughter of an esteemed Paris fashion designer comes to fall in love with the illiterate book-loving baker.

Told in two times, the story alternates between the present, as Octavio rushes home to his burning bakery, and the past, filled with charming and melancholy characters whose actions contribute to bringing the lovers together.

The Emperor of Paris is a novel to be savoured. Read it slowly. Appreciate the words, the personalities and the images created. This is wonderful writing.

I feel like I ought to say more, but it doesn’t feel right to say too much. The book is quiet and unassuming. It is beautiful. You need to read it for yourself.

 Long-listed for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Hardcover: 288 pages

Publisher: Doubleday Canada (Aug 14 2012)

ISBN-10: 0385670907

ISBN-13: 978-0385670906

 

*** On a side note – I’m back! My apologies for taking a month to update my supposedly weekly blog. All I can say is life got a little crazy for a time, and something had to give. As this blog is neither family nor work, it was temporarily de-prioritized. All is well, just had a lot of things to sort out, including an upcoming move. I will do my best to make up for the missed weeks with some double postings over the next while. ***


The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches by Gaétan Soucy

Two brothers live on a remote estate with their father, cut off completely from the outside world. All they know they have learned from him, their bizarre perceptions of outside life being derived entirely from the collection of ‘dictionaries’ in the library. They have no toys, they have no friends. When their father suddenly dies, they are forced to leave their home, to face the world they hardly knew existed. Their innocence is quickly stripped away.

“I couldn’t decide what sex she was just by looking at her, whether she was a blessed virgin or a slut or et cetera, because of my lack of experience and so forth, and because dictionaries can’t explain everything, because, you have to believe me, I know my limits.”

It is impossible to describe this novel in any detail without ruining the story, which makes reviewing it somewhat difficult. To say it has ‘twists’ is to severely understate the matter. What I can say is that in The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches, Soucy has created a fascinatingly gothic fairy tale. It is dark. It is creepy. I was horrified, and yet I was touched by the characters and their tragedies.

“We had to take the universe in hand, my brother and I, for one morning just before dawn papa gave up the ghost without a by-your-leave. His mortal remains strained from an anguish of which only the bark remained, his decrees so suddenly turned to dust — everything was lying in state in the bedroom upstairs from which just the day before papa had controlled everything. We needed orders, my brother and I, so as not to crumble into little pieces, they were our mortar. Without papa we didn’t know how to do anything. On our own we could scarcely hesitate, exist, fear, suffer.”

While it is a short book, it is not an easy read. The narrator speaks in a dense, old-fashioned and just plain odd voice that will force you to slow down, consider and absorb each word. And even then, you will constantly discover that everything you thought you understood was wrong. So very wrong.

Have I confused you yet? There is no other way. I refuse to spoil the story. You will have to read it yourself. This is easily one of my favourite books off all time, but if you are new to this blog I will warn you – I love a dark story.

Paperback: 138 pages

Publisher: Anansi (Sep 1 2000)

ISBN-10: 0887846556

ISBN-13: 978-0887846557

The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches was the first novel published in Quebec to be nominated for France’s Prix Renaudot.


This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel

Twin brothers Victor and Konrad Frankenstein are inseparable, and together with friends Elizabeth and Henry embark on numerous adventures – real and imaginary. Their happy youth ends quickly one day as Konrad falls extremely ill, and in desperation, Victor turns to alchemy, and the forbidden library discovered in their ancient family home, to find a cure for his brother.

Having watched the play and read another retelling of the Frankenstein story last October, I could not resist revisiting the characters again.  I’m also a sucker for stories involving alchemy or magic, so why not? It was the perfect read for a short airplane ride.

Oppel’s novel is set earlier in Victor’s life, and introduces a twin brother to the narrative. The imminent death of his twin provides the perfect explanation for young Victor’s descent into the world of alchemy and other (future) questionable scientific endeavors. We also see his passion (perhaps misguided) as well as hints of the arrogance and selfishness that lead to his ruin. Great precursor’s to Mary Shelley’s character, without hitting you over the head with obvious links.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the sense of adventure in the story, its translation into young adult material,  and the budding romance/unrequited love story between Victor and Elizabeth, I wasn’t completely sold on Oppel’s take on the story and characters. Having lived through these experiences with alchemy, and the at times drastic results of their experimenting, I am not convinced that this young Frankenstein would go on to create the monster now so well associated with his name.

Of course, Oppel is not done. I did not know it when I was reading, but This Dark Endeavor is part one of a planned trilogy. There is still much left to read before the doctor’s demise.

Note: I don’t like to label books as “for boys” or “for girls” as I have always read books recommended for both. And yet, if you allow me to remove the quotation marks: this would be a great book for young boys. Yes there is some romance, but it is not a focus, and not overdone. It is filled with adventure and written from the perspective of a 15-year-old boy. Of course, I believe most girls will enjoy it as well.

Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (May 22, 2012)
ISBN-10: 1442403160
ISBN-13: 978-1442403161


All of My Friends are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman

There are 249 superheroes living in Toronto, but Tom is not one of them. His friends are, and so is his wife: the Perfectionist. On the night of their wedding, her jealous ex-lover Hypno hypnotizes her into believing that Tom is invisible, breaking both of their hearts.

All of My Friends are Superheros was easily the sweetest, saddest, funniest and most romantic book I have read in ages. It somehow manages to pull of being fantastical while still brutally honest, giving a view into the human psyche that no non-fiction essay could accomplish.

Join Tom and his amazing assortment of superhero friends in the wackiest tale of true love ever imagined. I believe this is one I will read again and again.

Thanks to Ang for the recommendation!

Paperback: 112 pages
Publisher: COACH HOUSE BOOKS; 1 edition (Oct 16 2003)
ISBN-10: 1552451305
ISBN-13: 978-1552451304


Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood

ImageFar from a financial self-help, in fact hardly about money at all, Atwood’s Payback looks at the concept of debt, and how various debts have been viewed culturally since the beginning of time. She looks at debts of  honour, service, friendship and money. She looks at the moral issues, debts to society, and the concept of debt as a sin. And she explores the consequences of not paying a debt, and the idea of justified revenge.

I have had this book on my shelf for years. The idea of it fascinated me. But I kept passing it by in favour of whatever new and trendy novel came my way. I have said it many times – non-fiction is not my thing. It just doesn’t capture me the way a story does. This one did. Yes, I had to get past the first 0 pages or so, and let myself adjust to the pace.

The great part was – I was still reading Margaret Atwood. This was no boring academic essay. Drawing on examples from myth and literature, ranging from  Eumenides to Doctor Faustus to A Christmas Carol, Atwood makes you rethink the very idea of debt. It may not have been the main objective, but she will also make you reconsider charging another pair of shoes to your credit card as well.

Paperback: 280 pages
Publisher: House of Anansi Press; Second Impression edition (October 7, 2008)
ISBN-10: 0887848001
ISBN-13: 978-0887848001


Insurgent by Veronica Roth

ImageTris is back. To be precise, she is right where we left her at the end of Divergent. On a train, with her brother and her boyfriend, escaping the carnage of the attack on the Abegnation and the death of her parents.

To quickly flash back to Divergent, the story takes place in a burned out, near-future, dystopian Chicago, where society is divided into five factions: Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). Each faction serves a specific purpose in keeping the society going. One of my problems with Divergent was that while on its own the story was interesting, I found the societal structure hard to buy into. Why and how would anyone decide to live that way? Well, in Insurgent, we begin to find the answers to that, and in the process learn much more about the societal outcasts: the factionless.

Insurgent keeps up the relentless action pace of its predecessor. I was frequently breathless just trying to keep up with Tris and Four and all the new characters we meet. (Note: there are a lot of new characters; keeping up was sometimes difficult.) The relationship between Tris and Four heats up considerably. From time to time I wondered if Roth had forgotten she was writing a YA novel. I loved this of course, as I think given the realities of life, the lack of sex in YA novels is foolish.

Speaking of foolish… um, Tris? Sometimes I wanted to throttle her. She is our divergent heroine, with a better perspective on what is happening around her than anyone. But sometimes (often) she is still a naive and rash sixteen year old girl who makes stupid choices and needs to be rescued a few too many times. One more rescue and I’m not sure she could even be considered the heroine anymore. Seriously, Tris. Shape up.

Things I loved about Insurgent include: the already mentioned fast pace; the lack of brooding & introspective bullsh*t that frequently takes over such novels; and the fact that the romance sizzled without any introduction of a love triangle (so overdone). Oh – and the almost unbelievable revelations in the last chapters that leave me incredibly anxious for book three. I am such a sucker for trilogies. Me and the rest of the YA reading world.

Hardcover: 496 pages
Publisher: Katherine Tegen (May 1, 2012)
ISBN-10: 0062024043
ISBN-13: 978-0062024046