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

 


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


The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston

Joey Smallwood is poor, and insignificant, a dreamer and frequently a failure – perhaps the least likely person to rise to fame and glory – and yet that’s what he does. Presented as both fiction and biography, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams tells the story of the first half of Smallwood’s life. The true star of the novel though is not Smallwood at all, but Sheilagh Feilding, his long-time friend and the love of his life, an alcoholic journalist whose diary excerpts make up half of the narration of the story.

As Fielding and Smallwood grow together and apart, doomed lovers and professional opponents, the history of Newfoundland plays out in the backdrop. Smallwood covers a disastrous seal hunt for the local paper, and walks across the province (then colony) to unionize the rail workers. Later, he becomes a champion for confederation, leading Newfoundland to join Canada in 1949 and becoming the province’s first premier.

Smallwood is a frustrating character, and difficult to like. From all I have read, this was equally true of the man as it is of the character. Whether his actions were to the benefit of Newfoundland, or pursued for his own selfish purposes, is still debatable today. It is perhaps this frustration with his character that makes Fielding stand out so well.

Whether or not you have been to Newfoundland or know anything of its history, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams provides a thorough introduction to the land and the people. True, it threatens from time to time to fall into cliché, but then you are reminded that while fiction, the story is heavily based on historical facts and characters. The novel’s central ‘mystery’ was not much of a mystery at all, but while it could have been stronger, it did not take away from my enjoyment of the story.

Paperback: 592 pages
Publisher: Anchor (May 2, 2000)
ISBN-10: 0385495439
ISBN-13: 978-0385495431


The Valley of the Horses by Jean M Auel

Banished by the Clan, Ayla strikes out on her own, looking to find a mate of her own kind, one of “the Others” (Cro-Magnon man) to accept her into his family. When still alone after months of travel, Ayla settles in a cave near the river, thus beginning an astonishing series of first discoveries for mankind: domesticating animals, riding horses, building a horse cart, starting fire with flint, end more. And when you think nothing can top her ingenuity, she discovers an extremely handsome and well endowed young man. Go Ayla.

Having enjoyed but not been blown away by Clan of the Cave Bear, I had high hopes for improvement with book 2 in the Earth’s Children  series. It started well. I was actually really enjoying the first half of the book. Yes, you are required to suspend belief somewhat, to think that Ayla is so smart that she discovers just about everything. But I could do that. It is supposed to be representative, to show the reader how early man may have discovered such technologies. You don’t have to take it literally.

Then there was Jondolar. It was clear with the double plot line that Ayla and Jondolar were bound to meet at some point, and while I wanted it to happen, I think my biggest problem was that I really didn’t like him much. Too perfect. Too arrogant yet annoyingly and unbelievably self-conscious.

And then there was the sex. I was briefly taken in by their mind-blowing sex. Briefly. There is such a thing as too mind-blowing. This was impossibly good, and poorly written at that. If I want a bodice-ripper, I know where to find one. Auel should have stuck with her strengths – meticulously researched historical fiction.

Hardcover: 512 pages
Publisher: Crown (Nov 27 2001)
ISBN-10: 0609610988
ISBN-13: 978-0609610985


Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James

 “It was generally agreed by the female residents of Meryton that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet of Longbourn had been fortunate in the disposal in marriage of four of their five daughters.”

Six years after the fortunate marriages of Jane & Lizzie Bennet, younger sister Lydia arrives in a flurry at the doors of Pemberley, exclaiming “Wickham’s dead. Denny has shot him!” And with that, we are swept back into the world of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice.

As soon as I heard about this book I knew I had to read it. I couldn’t explain why. I typically don’t like mystery novels. I am not much of a Jane Austen fan. Sequels written years later by different authors generally seem in bad taste. And yet, I was drawn to it like to a train wreck. All I could think was while it might be bad – and even very bad – it was fascinating, and had so much potential. This was not to be another Austen romance. The Darcy’s were dealing with a murder.

It was fun, to a certain degree. James recreated the world exceptionally well, and many of the characters too. She wrote Elizabeth very well, but I was disappointed at the choice to turn her into a sensible married lady. Lydia was spot on and just as frustrating as in the original. Darcy was sadly less convincing. His dialogue felt forced. His inner monologue even moreso.

What was fun, then? Revisiting the characters. The letter of “condolence” from Mr. Collins. A token appearance from Lady Catherine de Bourgh, with her offering:

“I have never approved of protracted dying. It is an affectation in the aristocracy; in the lower classes it is merely an excuse for avoiding work.”

The history buff in me loved the details of the investigation – or lack thereof – as conducted in 1803. The court proceedings were enlightening, and the musings of Darcy and Henry Alveston (Georgiana Darcy’s dashing young beau) on necessary judicial reforms, amusing.

As for an overall verdict: If you are a mystery or Austen fan, by all means, you will almost definitely love it. If not, read it for fun. Don’t expect a lot more.

Hardcover: 304 pages

Publisher: Knopf Canada; First Edition edition (Dec 6 2011)

ISBN-10: 0307362035

ISBN-13: 978-0307362032