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

 

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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


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


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.


Read local!

ImageMy friend Kat will soon have her first novel The Night Has Teeth published by a new local publisher: Fierce Ink Press. As part of the process, they are running a crowdfunding campaign to support a limited edition print run.

Are you a fan of young adult novels? Love stories about werewolves and other monsters? Have a thing for books set in Paris? If you answered yes to any of the above, you need to check out The Night Has Teeth, and consider supporting the campaign.

 

The Night Has Teeth by Kat Kruger

There’s a darkness that lurks in the City of Light

Seventeen-year-old Connor Lewis is chased by a memory. On his first day of kindergarten he bit a boy hard enough to scar the kid for life. Since then he’s been a social outcast at a New York private school.

Through an unexpected turn of good fortune, he lands a scholarship to study in Paris, where everything starts to look up. On the first day he befriends two military brats, and he may finally get a taste of what it’s like to be a normal teenager.

It doesn’t last.

His host family — an alluring young tattoo artist and her moody, handsome boyfriend — inadvertently introduce him to the underworld of werewolves where there are two types: the born and the bitten. Those born to it take the form of elegant wolves, while the latter are cursed to transform into the half-man, half-beast creatures of horror movies. The bitten rarely survive. Unfortunately, Connor is on the wanted list of a four hundred-year-old bitten human who’s searching for both a cure and a means of wiping out werewolves for good.

Connor’s loyalties are tested as he becomes embroiled in a conflict where werewolves, mad science and teen angst collide.

Author Biography
Kat Kruger is a freelance writer and social media consultant with a degree in public relations from Mount Saint Vincent University. The Night Has Teeth is her first novel and won the 34th Atlantic Writing Competition. She splits her time between Toronto and Halifax with her husband.


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