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

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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

 


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 Free World by David Bezmozgis

It’s 1978. The Krasnanskys, Soviet-Jewish refugees from Latvia, are stuck in Rome. Samuil, the patriarch, is suffering from arthritis and the effects of war wounds and tuberculosis. He has been denied entry to Canada, and the family is in limbo. As they wait for a reprieve (or worse) they must adjust their expectations and adapt to life as refugees in Italy.

At the heart of the novel is a clash of cultures. When I picked the book up, I expected this to be a clash between Soviet and Italian lifestyles, but instead the real conflict was between the Soviet-Jewish family members – some (well, one) loyal to the Communist Party, others staunchly Zionist, and the rest rejecting either form of orthodoxy and really just wanting to get to Canada.

Alternating between three narrators and multiple locations and periods in history, David Bezmozgis’ The Free World is an intriguing look at one family’s history, and the effect of world history on their path.  While I enjoyed the changing narrators and looking back at each of their lives, flashback upon flashback (and sometimes, a flashback within a flashback) made for confusing reading. Slow yourself down. Flip back a few pages to make sure you know who is speaking and what year it is. Know your Soviet history (or keep Wikipedia handy if you don’t.) The story is fantastic, and worth the extra effort.

Note: I received a review copy of this novel from HarperCollins last fall, when I was struggling to read all Giller short-listed books before the award ceremony. I did not reach that goal, and then put the book aside to finish my 2011 TBR list. I was pleased to finally get back to it in January.

Hardcover, 384 pages

HarperCollins Canada; $32.99

ISBN: 9781443403993

 ISBN10: 1443403997

2011 Governor General’s Literary Awards Finalist – Fiction. Shortlisted for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize.


The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

Eleven year old Mynah is alone on a ship travelling from Colombo to London, where he will reunite with his mother. Assigned to take his meals at the “cat’s table,” with a motley collection of eccentric and socially unimportant passengers, Mynah prepares for a long, dreary 21 day voyage – but what he gets is a life changing adventure.

The Cat’s Table has been described in numerous reviews as Ondaatje’s most approachable and accessible novel yet. Unlike his previous, heavier material (I can only compare towhat I have read:  Anil’s Ghost and The English Patient) The Cat’s Table flows easily and can be read quickly. But take my advice: don’t read it too quickly. Through Mynah, we see the complex and confusing world of adults through a child’s eyes, as he deciphers the desires, motivations and relationships around him. There is a lot more going on here than you initially see (you are reading Ondaatje, remember), and you will want to pay close attention.

In the second half of the book, the story is told more and more by Mynah as an adult – as Michael, a now successful novelist living in Canada and reflecting on his youth, and how the journey affected his life in ways he could never have imagined as a child.

While the story closely resembles that of Ondaatje himself, he insists it is not autobiographical, but simply using events from his life as a basis for a story.

Put this one on your Christmas wish list. A truly entertaining read.

Shortlisted for the 2011 ScotiaBank Giller Prize.

Hardcover: 288 pages

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart (Aug 30 2011)

ISBN-10: 0771068646

ISBN-13: 978-0771068645

 


The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Charlie and Eli Sisters are brothers, assassins for hire and on the way to California to kill prospector Hermann Kermit Warm. Eli, our narrator, wants this to be his last job and dreams of settling down, opening a trading post, and if he can lose a little weight, maybe even falling in love.

The Sisters Brothers is a Western novel, and yet then again, it isn’t. It has all the classic ingredients of a Western, most notably the odyssey, the divey-taverns, the prostitutes and the old-timey language, but it has more. At times humourous, at times poetic, and brutal throughout. It is a novel of contradictions. The brothers are remarkably different and don’t seem to like each other much, yet have an intense and loyal bond to one another. Horses die in fires and have injured eyes gouged out with spoons – yet are loved and treated tenderly. It’s written as historical fiction, yet without feeling any need for historical (or scientific) accuracy.

Their journey from Oregon City to California as narrated by Eli is frequently out of chronological order, and interspersed with his philosophical musings and longings for a simpler life – but it works. The Sisters Brothers was a highly enjoyable read: shocking, amusing and thoughtful. Strongly recommended.

Hardcover: 336 pages

Publisher: Ecco; Reprint edition (April 26, 2011)

ISBN-10: 0062041266

ISBN-13: 978-0062041265

* Short listed for the 2011 Giller Prize.


Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay

It was like reading two books in one: Hay introduces us to the group of lost souls staffing CBC Radio Yellowknife in 1975 – then sends four of them on an epic trek through the barrens, changing their lives forever.

Most everyone has a time they recall – fondly or not – when their life changed. It may have been a job, a trip, a semester in college, but the friends made and lost, the experiences gathered meant you could never look at life the same again. This is the story Hay is telling. Two young women, Dido and Gwen, learn the ins and outs of radio, over a year in the Canadian north. But they learn about much more than radio.

Most striking about this novel is the contrasting of the characters to their natural environment. I’ve always been a sucker for books that do this well (hence my love for Barbara Kingsolver). Late Nights on Air tells the stories of these women, and their coworkers, against a backdrop of change in the north, with the MacKenzie Pipeline hearings bring controversy and conflict to their community, pitting economic growth and advancement against tradition and environmental protection. The pipeline is not part of the story, yet the controversy affects all of the characters, in different ways.

And then the story within the story: Gwen’s obsession with the story of John Hornby, the canoe trip through the barrens, retracing the explorer’s steps, visiting the cabin where he and his companions died. The trip tests all four would-be explorers physical and mental limitations, proving their mettle, bringing glimpses of happiness to otherwise lonely characters, yet ending in tragedy.

Overall, this was a book I found hard to put down. All characters charmed me – either by being charming, or so curmudgeonly I was charmed despite myself. There was layer upon layer of detail: radio’s struggle against television, a young woman’s journey to find herself, the history of exploration in the north, the conflict between advancement and tradition in the north, and on and on. Brilliantly done. My only complaint is there was perhaps an overuse of foreshadowing. I felt like Hay was hitting me over the head with the fact that “something bad” was going to happen, to that point that when it did it was almost anti-climactic.

Still, well worth a read. Also, makes me want to revisit Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens, as I kept having flashbacks to grade six English class.

Paperback: 376 pages

Publisher: Emblem Editions; 1st Trade edition (April 1 2008)

ISBN-10: 0771040199

ISBN-13: 978-0771040191

 

 *Winner of the Giller Prize in 2007.