The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay

You know what’s really fun about reviewing books – getting to read them before anyone else. Ami McKay’s The Virgin Cure is officially released today, but I was lucky enough to score a copy a few weeks ago, and read it in advance. I am not generally one to gush, but I really, really liked this book.

Set in the slums of New York City at the turn of the 19th century, The Virgin Cure tells the story of twelve year old Moth, who dreams of riches, mansions and exotic pets, desperate to leave behind her dreary life, only to be sold into servitude by her mother. She escapes the home of her new brutal mistress, and is ‘rescued’ by Miss Emmett and her girls into a life of prostitution. When inspected for cleanliness and virginity at her new brother home, Moth first meets Dr. Sadie, the physician who records and narrates her tale.

Dr. Sadie is based on the life of McKay’s great great grandmother (I think I have the correct number of ‘great’s here), one of the first female physicians in New York City, who dedicated her life to serving the destitute women and children of the slums in and around Chrystie Street.

“I am Moth, a girl from the lowest part of Chrystie Street, born to a slum-house mystic and the man who broke her heart.”

Moth and Dr. Sadie are remarkably different but equally intriguing characters. McKay skillfully recreates New York life in the late 1800s, thrilling the reader with unique tidbits of information from the doctor, but yet making the world so alive that you hardly realize you are reading historical fiction. Filled with thieves, gypsies, circus performers, prostitutes and representatives from the highest and lowest edges of society, the Virgin Cure has a little something for everyone. I enjoyed this novel even more than McKay’s first novel, best-selling The Birth House.

McKay will be at Chapters in Bayers Lake tonight at 7pm for a reading and book signing. Get yourself out there if you can. You won’t regret it.

Also, check out her new Tumblr page, Pear Tree Planchette, filled with images which help bring Moth’s world to life.

Hardcover: 368 pages

Publisher: Knopf Canada (Oct 25 2011)

ISBN-10: 0676979564

ISBN-13: 978-0676979565

Note: This review copy was not supplied but the publisher, but purchased in a silent auction at a fundraiser.



Book Review and Giveaway: The Nymph and the Lamp

Author: Thomas H. Raddall
318 pages
Publisher: Nimbus Publishing
ISBN-10: 1551095769
ISBN-13: 978-1551095769

It is only fitting that I follow up my review of Jane Eyre with another longtime favourite, known to some as “Jane Eyre’s conservative Canadian cousin.”

The Nymph and the Lamp was written by Halifax writer T.H. Raddall and originally published in 1950, becoming one of Canada’s most popular novels in its day. The story begins in Halifax, but is set predominantly on Sable Island, known in the novel as Marina.

Isabel Jardine, the heroine of Raddall’s novel is an orphan, in her mid to late twenties, working as a secretary in the Marconi Depot in Halifax. She lives alone in a rundown boarding house at the end of Barrington Street. Not particularly pretty and already viewed as an old maid, Isabel has long ago stopped waiting for romance. She meets Matthew Carney, the Operator in Charge of the Marconi Station on Marina, when he makes a rare shore visit. Overcome with surprise when Carney asks her to dinner, Isabel says yes, despite not being particularly attracted to him, and his reputation as a bit of an oddball.

A little false advertising, but I do love this cover. Yes this is a scene in the book, but a minor one.

Through a bizarre series of events, including being accosted by a drunken neighbour, disgraced and thrown out of her boarding house, Isabel agrees to marry Carney after only three days, and travels with him to begin a new and lonely life on Marina. Enter radio operators Skane and Sergeant, and the other inhabitants of Sable Island in the 1920s: the live-saving station workers and their families. And of course, a love triangle. Two love triangles, to be precise.

Now, I have always been a sucker for historical fiction, and more particularly so when it is a local story. Behind the love story, the novel is full of interesting tidbits about the history of Sable Island, the shipwrecks, the horses, the Marconi wireless system, and Halifax during and just after World War I. There is even an excursion to the fishing outports of Newfoundland. I have read and reread this book many times, and love it more every time.

I don’t want to say much about the outcome of the story, except it does have a few remarkable similarities to the Bronte novel, despite being a very different story overall, and definitely not a feminist tale. But really, I want you to read this one for yourself. And to make that happen, I am making this post into my first giveaway on Leave a comment below telling me about your favourite historical fiction novel. One lucky reader will be randomly selected to win a copy of the 2006 edition of The Nymph and the Lamp, from Nimbus Publishing. Good luck.

* Contest open to readers in Canada and the USA only, and open until April 30, 2011 at 11:59:59 Atlantic Time.

Jane Eyre: book & film review

Author: Charlotte Brontë

Genre: Gothic Horror

Publisher: Smith, Elder & Co., Cornhill

Publication Date: October 1847

What can be said about Jane Eyre that has not already been said by someone far more clever and better read than myself? I feel foolish even trying to review this classic, but that’s what this space is for, and that is why you are here reading, so here I go.

Jayne Eyre was written by Charlotte Brontë, originally published in 1847 as a five-part serial under the name Currier Bell, because of course, ladies just were not published in those days. (Notably, her sisters also published famous books that year: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë/Ellis Bell, and Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë/Acton Bell – see the pattern here?)

The Brontë’s do dark and brooding better than any author I have read. Honestly, Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester make Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy look like a ray of sunshine. But back to the story:

Jane Eyre is an orphan. The story opens with her being “cared for” by her aunt, who considers her a burden and whose family never accept her. After a chilling scene where Jane is locked in an upper bedroom and nearly frightened to death, her aunt ships her off to Lowood, a boarding school run by a minister who believes the best way to raise proper Christian girls is a combination of a starvation diet and public humiliation. Jane makes her first ever friend, who later dies in her arms (typhus? consumption? I don’t remember).

Things improve somewhat at Lowood over the years as staff changes, and after she finishes schooling, Jane stays on as a teacher before accepting a position as governess at Thornfield. Enter Mr. Rochester: brooding, mysterious, and burdened with secrets. Rochester is accustomed to people being intimidated by his dark moods and outbursts, and is intrigued by Jane who has no fear of him. This being a Victorian novel, they of course fall in love, and plan to marry – but fate and the secrets of Rochester’s past intervene. Rather than stay at Thornfield  to be Rochester’s mistress, Jane leaves, penniless and alone, nearly starves to death but is eventually saved by the Rivers family, who take her in, feed her, and set her up with a job. In a “twist” typical of novels of the period, the Rivers’ turn out to be her cousins, and they all share in an inheritance when a long-lost uncle dies. The stage seems set for a not-unhappy ending, but the tale of Mr. Rochester is not yet over…

Jane Eyre is one of my all-time favourite heroine’s. Often, my favourite books involve people I can’t like (Wuthering Heights, anyone?) but Jane is a character you cannot help but root for. She suffers, yet remains strong. Falls in love, but will not debase herself. She is honest and true to herself always.

This past Saturday, after a long day of packing and cleaning the house, I headed to the Oxford theatre to watch the latest film adaptation of Jane Eyre (starring Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) and Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds)  and directed by Cary Fukunaga). I was skeptical, as always with a book adapted to film, but must say I enjoyed the film and will probably purchase it to watch again (and again). The novel is split into three parts. Almost like acts in a play: her early life, her time at Thornfield , and her time with the Rivers family. The storyline at Thornfield  is by far the most interesting and best written section of the book, and it is naturally what the film focuses on, treating the other aspects of the narrative as mere introductions and conclusions to what is otherwise a love story. (There were many years between my first reading of the story and rereading it last year. I honestly had forgotten all about her aunt and the Rivers family – remembering only a sad childhood, a school, Thornfield  and Rochester… and something that happened after she ran away from Thornfield .)

Jane did not lie. She would not have told this man he was not handsome.

The film captures the dark, gothic aspects of the novel very well. I went to the theatre alone – on a whim, needing a break from work – and sitting in the dark balcony of the Oxford as unknown creatures prowled the halls of Thornfield , I found myself wishing I had brought a friend. Rochester and Jane were well cast – though Rochester was a bit too handsome to be believable. He was not supposed to be a handsome character, but that would just not be acceptable on film. And of course, Dame Judi Dench is splendid as Mrs. Fairfax, the widowed housekeeper at Thornfield  – though almost wasted in such a small role.

If I can say one more thing about Jane Eyre it is this: unlike many novels of its time, it is far more than a romance. It’s classified by Wikipedia as “Gothic Horror” which I love, but I think describing it as horror is a stretch. Thriller, maybe. While the title character may be female, it is not a book written for women as is so often presumed. My husband got a few odd looks while reading it on a military base in the middle of the Balkans a few years back, but he thoroughly enjoyed it, and he’s a harsher book critic than I will ever be (if only because in his mind, nothing will ever be as good as The Lord of the Rings).

Comfort Reading: An unplanned review

So much for one book per week. My ambitious new year’s resolution hadn’t counted on the combination of a stomach flu + packing up my entire house + another bleepin’ stomach flu. I stressed over missing the first week, then just decided to let go. I will make up for it with a few double-review weeks. I promise. (not to mention the fact that two of my previous reviews have been for trilogies. I knew I should have banked those reviews for unexpected downtime!)

But let’s move on, to a review of a trilogy of books I did not expect to include here. Part of the stress involved in not feeling well while trying to coordinate a move and a major renovation meant that even when I did have downtime, I did not want to read. Correction: I didn’t want to read anything in my current to-be-read pile. I am halfway through Moby Dick, and Alexander MacLeod’s “Light Lifting.” But couldn’t pick up either.

Saturday night, exhausted and cranky, I decided it was time for a comfort read, and I took myself to the top shelf of the bookcase in the spare room, where I keep all the books I like to go back to in times of stress. My choice that night: Emily of New Moon – which of course led to reading Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest.

Author: L.M. Montgomery
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
Date: 1923/1925/1927
ISBN-10: 0770427715
ISBN-13: 978-0770427719

Now, if you aren’t an L.M. Montgomery fan, based solely on an overexposure to Anne Shirley (who I adore, but I can still understand the sentiment) don’t be quick to judge Emily. Any fan of Montgomery’s work I talk to will eventually admit that Emily is her most interesting heroine, and I would argue that this trilogy is her most well-written series.

Emily is an orphan, living a beautiful PEI farmhouse house with two older women (and an elder cousin as well). She longs to be a famous writer. But her similarity to Anne ends there. Emily is so much more real. She knows herself better. She knows her heart better.  She does not compromise. She makes some very bad choices and actually has to live with the consequences (everything in the Anne books just turns out so peachy-keen all the time).

And the secondary characters are fantastic. Mr. Carpenter, the alcoholic schoolteacher, prone to abusive tirades but loved nonetheless. Dean Priest, lame, hunchbacked and bitter – borderline pedophilic (is that a word?). There are references and descriptions of death and scandal that would never have been touched in Avonlea – even a shocking reference to domestic violence that I had never picked up on until this most recent read-through.

“People were never right in saying I was Anne. But in some respects, they will be right if they write me down as Emily.” ~ L.M. Montgomery

The Emily books will take you away to the magical innocent world that only Montgomery can create, but then shake you up every now and then, as if to remind you that Montgomery’s life was no picnic. Montgomery was copying her early journals while writing Emily, and the events of her own life strongly influenced the plot.

In summary – completely worth reading, even if you aren’t an Anne Shirley fan. There’s a definite touch of that style, but a far more readable series.

Note: There is an Emily of New Moon TV series. I am not a fan.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Paperback: 406 pages

Publisher: Scribner; Reprint edition (September 29, 2010)

ISBN-10: 1439169012

ISBN-13: 978-1439169018

I might as well admit before I start that I have a bit of a thing for cemeteries. If that makes me weird, well it isn’t the only thing that does. There was a small cemetery just around the bend from the house I grew up in, and as a child I would often wander over to look around, read the headstones, and wonder about the people lying below while I munched on the blueberries growing above. I wasn’t living in Halifax long before I discovered the magic that is the Old Burying Ground, and have spent many an afternoon strolling through.

As such, it should be no surprise that I was so taken in by a book that centres in and near London’s famous Highgate Cemetery. (Side note: This past fall my aunt Alice loaned me the non-fiction book  Necropolis: London and Its Dead and thus I was  primed on the history and significance of London’s burial grounds. You never know when such knowledge might come in handy.)

Her Fearful Symmetry begins with the death of Elspeth Noblin. Elspeth has been estranged from her twin sister Edie for more than 20 years, and has no other family living. She leaves her flat (with its view of and back entrance to Highgate Cemetery), her money and all of her belongings to the twin daughters of her twin sister – with one caveat: they must live in the flat together for one year before they can inherit it, and their parents may not set foot in the flat during this time.

The 21-year-old but maddeningly infantile twins, Julie and Valentina, move from Chicago to London to take over the flat, and while there meet and befriend their aunt’s former lover and downstairs neighbour, Robert and their  obsessive-compulsive, agoraphobic upstairs neighbour Martin. Oh, and Aunt Elspeth, who though dead is still inhabiting her old flat.

A bit nutty? Perhaps. But fascinating. The twins interactions with the new city, their new friends, their aunt and each other reveal much about themselves, their upbringing and the trouble between their mother and her sister. In fact, it was the relationship between both sets of sisters that most fascinated me. There was co-dependence and manipulation, but also a deep attachment, love and life-long connection.

I don’t have a twin, but I do have a sister only a year older than me, who I went through twelve years of school with, shared a room, shared the same group of friends, shared apartments till I was twenty (and still share my house whenever D is away, which is often). We share a name for Pete’s sake – same name, two different languages. On top of this, I have a younger sister, my mom had NINE sisters and my dad has six.  So needless to say, the interaction of sisters in fiction and film is of great interest to me, and I get very annoyed when it is done poorly. This was done well. Which is not to say they belong in an after-school special, or were at all like Tash & I. They were rather awful really. But it was still so believable.

If there was anything about the novel I didn’t like it was the development Elspeth’s character. Or the lack of development. By the end of the book you come to realize she is cruel and manipulating, but there is no gradual revelation of this. She is presented as quiet and studious in the beginning, and then with one comment, Robert mentions her controlling nature, and it seems everything she does from that point onward is from a completely different character.

Still, I really enjoyed the novel. It gave me chills. It made me sad. It made me angry. It flirted with cliché a few times, but always pulled up in time. The characters were hopelessly and endearingly flawed, each in their own way. It played with the paranormal and our belief of how death works – but only a little. And perhaps the best part: it was completely different from her last novel, which I also loved, The Time Traveller’s Wife. I want to recommend it to everyone – well I do recommend it to everyone – but I feel I need to tell you that no one else I have talked to who read it or tried to read it has enjoyed it. Might just be more evidence for my strange literary tastes.

Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Publisher: Faber and Faber (Mar 3 2005)
Pages: 272
ISBN-10: 0571224113
ISBN-13: 978-0571224111

Never Let Me Go is set in England in the late 1990s and is narrated by Kathy. Kathy has been working as a carer for more than 11 years, an unusually long time, but her term will be ending soon.

Kathy looks after organ donors, and her patients do exceptionally well, for repeat donors. Yes, repeat donors. The first clue that there is something odd about the book comes early on, when you realize Kathy’s patients are only allowed to stop donating when they ‘complete,’ which the reader soon begins to realize means ‘die.’

Because of her success as a carer, Kathy has been allowed to choose some of the patients she cares for and has chosen to work with old friends Tommy and Ruth. This leads to stories from her days at Hailsham. Hailsham at first appears a prestigious boarding school, but again it becomes apparent things aren’t normal here either. None of the students seem to have parents. Teachers are referred to as ‘guardians.’ Students know almost nothing about the outside world.

As Kathy reminisces about her days as a student and deals with the present, it becomes chillingly clear what status she, Tommy and Ruth hold in society and exactly what kind of school Hailsham was.

I had heard this book was a bit slow, but I was gripped from the first few paragraphs. I do have a but of a love affair with dystopian fiction, so it was perhaps a given that I would enjoy the book, but I didn’t expect to love it the way I did. A fantastic story. Well told. If I gave stars, this would get five of them.

When I finished the novel I rushed out to rent the new film, staring Carey Mulligan, Kiera Knightly and Andrew Garfield. Also very good, but lacks a lot of the back story. Read the novel first.

Barney’s Version: the film

Date night last night. D and I went to the movies, and though it wasn’t his first choice, he graciously agreed to watch Barney’s Version with me. The fact that it is playing at The Oxford (best theatre ever) helped a lot.

I really enjoyed the film. I mean, I have a long list of things I can’t believe they did to such a fabulous book, but long story short: it was a good but not excellent film, Paul Giamatti was fantastic–the perfect Barney, Minnie Driver was hilariously over the top, and Dustin Hoffman was hilarious as his Dad (I didn’t expect to like that choice). I recommend you go see it. I also recommend you bring tissue. I’m not usually a crier when it comes to movies, though a sad book kills me. Maybe because I’d just finished reading it? Or maybe I’m getting softer with age.

Just bear in mind: He lived in Paris in his 20’s, not Rome. Everything the film says happened in New York should have happened in Toronto. And Solange (the actress who is reduced to a sad stereotype) was a much deeper character and a great friend to Barney.