Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Young Adult Challenge

I was so tempted by this challenge when I first saw it, and then swithered rather over undertaking another. After a further week's deliberation I thought, why not? Twelve YA books in the course of 2008? I read at least one a month so I'd be reading and posting about them anyway. And the two other challenges I'm doing don't run the whole year. So, here goes (in no particular order):
1. Frances Hardinge, Verdigris Deep*
Garth Nix, Shade's Children*
3. Madeleine L'Engle, An Acceptable Time*
4. Julia Golding, Cat Among the Pigeons
5. John Wilson, The Alchemist's Dream
6. Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian
7. Catherine Fisher, Incarceron
8. Amanda Hemingway, The Poisoned Crown*
9. William Nicholson, Seeker
10. Patricia McKillip, Winter Rose

11. Adele Geras, Voyage

12. Patricia C. Wrede, Sorcery and Cecelia

  • Stephen Hunt, Court of the Air*
  • Angie Sage, Magyk
  • Kate Thompson, The New Policeman
  • Sherman Alexie, Flight
  • Charles de Lint, Little (Grrl) Lost
  • Geraldine McCaughrean, The White Darkness
I shall quite possibly have finished the first book by midnight on January 1st!

* these are books that I already have

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Latitudes of Melt by Joan Clark

“Though Aurora rarely spoke of her origins, Tom thought that by filling her wander books with talismanic bits and pieces, she might be celebrating the miracle of having been rescued from the ice.”

Thus a young husband watching his wife record her wanderings around their lighthouse home at Cape Race in Newfoundland. And Aurora’s origins are truly miraculous: in 1912 she was found floating on a piece of ice off the Newfoundland coast, and rescued by two fishermen, who learn on reaching shore of the sinking of the Titanic. Her details are posted at the White Star Office but, unclaimed, she is taken into the family of Francis St Croix and his wife. Aurora is a quiet baby with one blue eye and one brown and white hair. The other local children consider her a changeling, not least because before she has even started school she has ordered a bear from the family home.

Aurora’s story unfolds, told partly in her voice. We learn of her marriage, the arrival of her two children (named Nancy Rose and Stanley Joseph after local shipwrecks), and her need for solitude which leads her to escape from her family from time to time to wander around her old family home. We see her children grow up and start their own wanderings, Nancy to England and Stan to Italy, and their marriages. Finally, Aurora’s grand-daughter, Sheila, makes her own journey to learn of Aurora’s origins and the ill-fated Titanic voyage. Meanwhile the ageing Aurora has again been drawn back to the sea and coast of her childhood, where she creates and tends a fairy garden and watches the stars.

Ice is always a player in these wanderings, a threatening presence. Stan, aware of it throughout his childhood, chooses to make ice his life’s work. There are some lyrical passages about the sight and sound of ice and even the smell of it. Another constant is the folklore of Newfoundland: even though Nancy rejects the story of her mother’s rescue from the ice, she becomes a folklorist, and records the beliefs and crafts of the local people.

The unifying thread, though, is that of wandering. Throughout we are aware of the passage of ships backwards and forwards, the passage of the ice. Stan’s trip to Antarctica reminds of the lines of latitude and longitude, imagined lines on the globe, while the story of Marconi’s message sent from Cornwall to Newfoundland is another imaginary line inscribed on the ocean. Meanwhile, the detailing of family comings and goings, often through letters, create further series of lines, Cape Race to St John’s, to Trepassey, to England, to Ireland . . . while weaving through all the comings and goings, backwards and forwards, is that dotted line of Aurora’s footsteps across the peninsula where she spends all her life.

This is a book of considerable beauty. It spans 80 years effortlessly, the timelines crossing – wanderings again – without confusion: we always know exactly where we are because, lyrical though it may be, it is nonetheless firmly rooted in the everyday, and the lives of the Newfoundlanders whose story it tells. It’s made an excellent start, for me, to the Canadian Book Challenge.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Second Honeymoon and Hester's Story

Second Honeymoon by Joanna Trollope: I feel that Trollope’s books are becoming less memorable. My favourite of her early books, The Choir, was insightful, witty and original, set in the claustrophobia of a cathedral close with pleasing echoes, I thought, of her more famous ancestor and Barchester Towers. Since then her focus on the family has become narrower, the outside world seems to impinge less, and there are times when the pain endured by her characters can seem simply self-indulgent. Second Honeymoon is about the empty next syndrome, an affliction I can recall quite readily, but there were occasions when I wanted to tell Edie, the mother of the story, to pull herself together. Useless, of course, and several of her family tell her exactly that, but it takes time and distraction to effect a cure. My husband dragged me off to the dog rescue kennels two months after the younger son left, whereas Edie returns to acting, “mothers” a surrogate son, battles with her husband as all her children drift back to seek the comforts of home and, eventually, recovers.

This book holds the attention, the story is well and straightforwardly told -- Trollope knows her stuff. But although I’d expect to find it easy to empathise with the people she writes, since she concentrates on older women now, I miss the freshness and originality of the earlier works.

Hester’s Story by Adele Geras was altogether a different matter. Geras is a consummate storyteller and you are instantly caught up in the story. One of the joys reading her books is the child characters: here, I loved the recalcitrant young Hester, trapped in a family she regards as inimical, and later the sulky Alison, daughter of the elegant but ageing Claudia. Alison was in fact my favourite, the person whose story I was delighted to pick up every time the focus returned to her.

The story of young Hester, and her struggles and success as a ballerina, runs in parallel to the events of the present day, where she is organising the tenth Wychwood Festival at her home; a new ballet is to be performed and choreographer and dancers arrive to prepare. The day they arrive, the now-elderly Hester learns of the death of the great love of her life, an event which, although “offstage”, has repercussions for not only Hester and her household, but the whole company. Alison, who has reluctantly accompanied her mother, initially observes resentfully from the sidelines, but gradually finds herself welcomed by the dancers and, more importantly, by the Wychwood household. Hester and her housekeeper, Ruby, meanwhile, struggle to cope with the news of Adam’s death, and the memories and grief it evokes. Christmas, too, brings memories to be faced.

Geras has a remarkable capacity to create a slightly genteel and secure world, then pitching in a domestic disaster and letting her characters play it out. Jane Austen is sometimes criticised for the narrowness of her focus, but she created a fine tradition of English writing, which affords much pleasure. It’s a genre which could be collectively subtitled “All Well That Ends Well” (better, I think, than “domestic comedy”, a term debased by its association with television), and provides a necessary restorative in a world where the News is frequently too ghastly to contemplate. Geras, and Trollope at her best, offer excellent fare for these occasions.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Recent reading - fantasy

Darkland by Liz Williams: I was slightly worried that I wouldn't like this, since I had read an earlier book by the same author, which I thought promising, but ultimately hard work - however this proved to be a good, swift read. It's set in a future where humans have travelled to other planets and undergone both intentional and accidental genetic modification. In Darkland such modifications are both secret and extreme, and Vali Halldottir, an agent of a matriarchal organisation called the Skald, is sent to investigate. She is, I'd have to say, rather good at getting caught, but her mission eventually takes her to the planet Mhondile, where she is surprised to learn that infants are sent into the forest to fend for themselves until they reach puberty, and the relationship of the inhabitants with the planet's wildlife is perhaps rather unusual.

Vali is a strong character, as are the other women in the novel. Her one-time lover Frey is rather more opaque, perhaps appropriately as he is genetically quite alien, but I found his motivation for his actions a little inadequate. Nonetheless the book addresses notions of how far it may be permissable to genetically manipulate future humans, and who has the right to make such decisions. We aren't so very far from human/animal chimerae these days, and these are important questions.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

The Glassy Sea by Marian Engel

Cross-posted from Outmoded Authors

Despite a dreadful cover and excruciating blurb, this short novel is wonderful and I am delighted that this challenge encouraged me to read it. Consisting largely of a letter from a middle-aged woman to her Bishop, it tells the story of Rita from her rural childhood, through her transformation into an Anglican nun, Sister Mary Pelagia, her gentle "eviction" out of the order and into marriage and motherhood, and her eventual breakdown. As she re-reads the letter, written the previous summer, she begins to regain a sense of equilibrium about the past, and to review and reaffirm her decision about the future.

The writing is down-to-earth, almost chatty, even when considering matters of life and death, but there is a seriousness of tone, and earnestness, that tells us that the protagonist, while capable of efficiency and practicality, is in essence a dreamer, a lover of solitude. As a youngest child, we find she learnt her solitude early, along with an introspection her family find hard to deal with:
I liked it in church , too, because . . . I thought I understood Jesus. I didn't understand any of the other people I had read about because they did unheard of things like get caught in lobster pots or vanish down rabbit holes, or were orphans, but there was He, born in a barn, child of a man who worked with his hands (and my father, too, would have walked miles in winter to be honest and pay his taxes) and a woman who obviously worked her fingers to the bone. And, like me, He asked a lot of questions. I was always asking questions.
When Rita is taken ill at university, and sent home to recuperate, she takes lessons from a retired Anglican clergyman, Mr Laidlaw, who introduces her to a community of nuns. Because the Anglican church can find no practical role for them, the Eglantines live a largely contemplative existence and Rita is drawn, despite immense parental opposition, to join them. And for ten years she is happy:
William Morris would indeed have been pleased with the Eglantines and I can't think God himself wasn't, at that time. I have read, since, books and stories by women who have dropped the veils of the Sisters of St Joseph, of the Ursulines - indeed, there must be dozens of them. But none of them seems to have found the earthly paradise I found for a while in Eglantine House, in London, Ont., as we call it, the heart of your diocese.
Unfortunately for Rita, the Eglantines are an ageing community and, although she spends a time as its acting head, her Sister Superior decides that she is young enough to build a new life for herself and ejects her kindly but firmly into the arms of her friend Maggie, to help care for her children. Filled with grief at the loss of the community, she inevitably meets a young lawyer - in fact, they have met before, in high school, where Rita considers Asher Bowen the most beautiful man she has ever seen - and recognises in him some of her seriousness and religious fervour. Continuing the separation of each stage of her life, Ash renames her Peggy, they choose a church to attend together and are quickly married:
I was empty. I handed my void to him. He told me what to wear, what to do; when he knew me better, he told me what I felt. He filled my mind, my thoughts, my body. He sat beside me in church. During sacraments his face gleamed pale and fanatic; he had an intensity I had never seen in any Eglantine but Mary Elzevir. I loved him very much indeed.
When she gives birth to a hydrocephalic child, the young couple are devastated. While Ash gradually withdraws, Rita becomes obsessive, dedicating herself to her child's welfare and survival. A "dreadful thing" occurs when Ash purchases the house of Rita's much hated (and child abusing) Uncle Eddie, as a summer cottage. For Rita, who has learnt detachment painfully during her parents' rejection, the return to her childhood home, the intrusion of the "messiness" of her country family, is too much.

With the death of her child, Rita's disintegration into alcoholism, breakdown and divorce is rapid, but she eventually redeems herself through contemplation. She considers that her life has gone wrong when she is required to be Martha rather than Mary yet, as she finally begins to achieve an inner peace, she allows herself to be persuaded that she will return to Eglantine House to re-establish and lead the order. She has learnt the difference between detachment and hiding, the need for balance between Mary and Martha, even the necessity of uncertainty. At the end, still debating with herself about the rightness of her decision, she says: "Enough. Enough. I've made my choice. I shall learn how to live with it."

Despite its brevity, this is a thoughtful book. It was first published in 1978, a time when there was rather more turmoil about woman's role in society, and this is considered at some length here, but it goes deeper, too, to a consideration what it is required for anyone to play their role. In the course of the book the Eglantines too have developed, and will play a greater role than that which they had formerly been allowed; they will no longer be a contemplative order, yet the need for a spiritual dimension to their work is still recognised and permitted time. To me this book provides a powerful affirmation of the need for spirituality, whatever the creed, and I find it already influencing my response to my next book for the challenge, which considers the role of women at an earlier period.

Friday, 19 October 2007

This week's books

Some forced inactivity has allowed quite a bit of uninterrupted reading this week, and some self-indulgence over the actual choice of books. At the beginning of the week, I finished Dissolution by C.J. Samson. This is a detective story set in 1537, the period before the wholesale closure of the monasteries. The protagonist is Matthew Shardlake, commissioner of the Vicar General Thomas Cromwell, who has been sent to the monastery of Scarnsea on the Kent coast, to investigate a grisly death and an act of desecration. Inconsistencies may have been found in the monastic accounts and the previous investigator has been beheaded. A mad Carthusian, a black physician and a lovesick assistant all frustrate Shardlake's attempts to find the murderer. The story unfolds at a pace which allows time for atmospheric description and some historical background, while a note at the end questions the received wisdom that the monasteries were so corrupt that dissolution was the only answer. Shardlake is convincingly drawn, with attitudes and values that ring true for the historical period, his physical frailty lending credence to his feelings of isolation, while his thoughtful unravelling of the strands of the mystery engages the sympathy of the reader. Compared to the historical mystery I wrote about recently, this book wears its research lightly, yet without leaving unanswered questions.

Diamond Dust
by Peter Lovesey is a relatively quick and straightforward read and, perhaps, given its subject matter, oddly unengaging. Peter Diamond, a brusque and middle-aged detective, head of the murder squad in Bath, has featured in a series of books by Lovesey, solving mysteries in a matter-of-fact way and usually worrying his superiors with his forthright approach. The book opens with the successful conviction of a member of a crime family for the murder of his prostitute girlfriend. Shortly afterwards, Diamond is called to the scene of a shooting to discover that his wife is the victim of what looks like a professional hit. Despite his grief, and dissatisfie
d with the official investigation - the officer in charge is, inevitably, hidebound and unimaginative - he sets about conducting his own investigation. Unfortunately, Diamond's grief is not something that the reader has much experience of - it's described, but not felt. Even the usual empathy triggers - the hungry cat waiting for attention, the inadequate meals - don't really have the necessary effect and at the end, when the murderer is uncovered, it is more a case of tidying up loose ends than the catharsis it should be.

by Terry Pratchett - well, I expected this to be an absorbing read and indeed, most of it went by in one sleepless night. The world seems to divide into those who are amused by Pratchett and those who aren't and, obviously, I am in the former camp. His later books unswervingly tackle big issues with a deliciously dark humour, and this one is no exception, even though it is one of the Discworld books aimed at a younger audience. Tiffany Aching is a trainee witch who inadvertently catches the attention of the Wintersmith. It's not easy for a personificat
ion of nature to fall in love and, while the Wintersmith struggles with the question of what it is to be a man, Tiffany wavers between her conviction that she must put a stop to it all and her sneaking pleasure in being showered with ice roses and snowflakes. The senior witches, including the wonderful story-weaver Miss Treason, the redoutable Granny Weatherwax and the irrepressible Nanny Ogg, watch events unfold and occasionally try to nudge things in the right direction, abetted and hindered by earnest witches-in-training, various animals and most of all, the Wee Free Men. Pratchett's great talent, I think, is to make his Discworld characters completely relevant to today's world - whether they are zombies, witches, nightwatchmen or trolls, they apply their talents or limitations in a truly human fashion. The stories they tell themselves may seem archaic to us (most are, after all, Discworld variants of our fairytales) but the characters conform to predictable patterns and follow the well-worn paths to disaster or success as we all do. And as with his adult books Pratchett doesn't flinch from the fact of death - he sees "the skull beneath the skin" and takes much pleasure in detailing its myths and rituals. And in my new role as chicken-herd, I very much enjoyed the appearance of the chickens!

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Unread books meme

Couldn't resist this and I don't have much time this week, but it focused my attention on a number of books I really ought to get round to reading. Mostly the rather serious stuff, which is difficult to tackle when life is making demands, and is too demanding itself to cope with in the gentler periods, when all one wants to do in unwind. It came via Pages turned.
These are the top 106 books most often marked as “unread” by LibraryThing’s users (as of today). Bold what you have read, italicise that you started but couldn’t finish, and strike through what you couldn’t stand. Add an asterisk* to those you’ve read more than once. Underline those on your to-read list. (Only I don't seem to be able to underline or strike-through, so I've added a note).
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: good start, I really liked this
Anna Karenina
Crime and punishment: but I did finish The Idiot
One hundred years of solitude
Wuthering Heights
The Silmarillion: it's unreadable, isn't it?
Life of Pi: a novel
The name of the rose*
Don Quixote: absolutely no intention of ever trying to read this
Moby Dick: ditto
Madame Bovary
The Odyssey
Pride and Prejudice*
Jane Eyre*
A Tale of Two Cities
The Brothers Karamazov: one Dostoevsky was enough, thank you
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
War and Peace
Vanity Fair
The Time Traveller’s Wife: thought I would love it, surprised when I didn't
The Iliad
The Blind Assassin: back on the TBR pile
The Kite Runner
Mrs. Dalloway
Great Expectations*

American Gods* (one of my favourite books)
A heartbreaking work of staggering genius
Atlas shrugged
Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books
Memoirs of a Geisha
Quicksilver: TBR
Wicked: the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
The Canterbury Tales: I've read quite a few of the stories

A portrait of the artist as a young man
Love in the time of cholera
Brave new world*
The Fountainhead
Foucault’s pendulum*
The Count of Monte Cristo
A clockwork orange: hated, won't read again
Anansi boys: wonderful book
The once and future king* (there ought to be lots of asterisks, I've read it so many times!)
The grapes of wrath
The Poisonwood Bible : a novel
Angels & demons (not if it was the last book in the world...)
The inferno*
The satanic verses: this is probably a TBR, didn't read it at the time because the library wouldn't stock it
Sense and sensibility*
The picture of Dorian Gray*
Mansfield Park*
One flew over the cuckoo’s nest
To the lighthouse
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Oliver Twist
Gulliver’s travels
Les misérables: had to read it in French at school, it was pretty miserable
The corrections
The amazing adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The curious incident of the dog in the night-time*
The prince
The sound and the fury
Angela’s ashes: a memoir
The god of small things
A people’s history of the United States : 1492-present (no, but I've read a lot of British history!)
Cryptonomicon: this is another TBR
A confederacy of dunces
A short history of nearly everything
The unbearable lightness of being
The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots & Leaves: I've got Chicago MOS on my bookshelf, who needs cheap imitations?
The mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake: another book I have to go back to
Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed
Cloud Atlas: I really liked his previous books, I was disappointed not to be engrossed, but may still finish it
The Confusion
Northanger Abbey*
The Catcher in the Rye
On the Road: husband loves it, I hate it
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Freakonomics : a Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : an Inquiry into Values
The Aeneid
Watership Down*
Gravity’s Rainbow: it's way down the TBR pile
The Hobbit*
In cold blood : a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences
White teeth
Treasure Island
David Copperfield
The three musketeers

Friday, 12 October 2007

Canada from the outside 2

Fort of the Bear by Stella Gibbons begins in London in the early 1920s. The hero, Auberon Vernay, is quickly established as an outsider, a man who has maintained his family links with Germany despite the war, and who is described by a friend as being more typical of a German nobleman than an English one, for his love of philosophy and Nature. Vernay’s loathing for the industrialised world leads him to uproot his wife and daughter, along with six of his tenants, on a trip to north-western Canada. His wife, Cristina, only agrees with the utmost reluctance: “she felt a sense of dreary irritation: all that packing, all that arranging, all those farewells, all that missing of theatres and parties and Ballet – all to be gone through yet again.” She will go for eighteen months; the family estate and home are handed over to the Earl’s brother for the duration of their visit, and the expedition to an old trading post built not by the Hudson’s Bay Company, but by a free trapper, begins. They are to be accompanied for the first six months, to Vernay’s unvoiced displeasure, by Cristina’s friend, Cyril Marlowe. The two men, though ostensibly friends, are in apparent opposition from the start: Vernay has not fought in the war, and has no interest in hunting and shooting; Cyril’s first question on hearing about the Fort has been “is there anything to shoot?” Vernay is withdrawn, dissatisfied with his life and responsibilities, Cyril is a butterfly, an engaging companion to Cristina, and affectionate honorary uncle to her daughter Swanhild, while Vernay has little interest and affection for the child. Cyril, indeed, seems a natural partner for Cristina, sharing her interests and her pleasures, though it is clear that her husband loves her deeply

At first, all is well. The valley in which the Fort is set is a paradise, the Fort itself is made habitable again. Cristina drifts through the late summer with her daughter, only gradually becoming aware of a sense of oppression: She felt dwarfed . . . by the immensity of this land…for the first time she was also aware, in the vast uninhabited landscape, of something that seemed hostile.” Not only does Cristina become increasingly unhappy, her life changes as the only other woman in the party, whom she has formerly treated as a servant, struggles to manage in the harsh conditions, so that Cristina feels she must help with everyday tasks. Cyril, meanwhile, comes to realise that Vernay means never to return to England.

Fort of the Bear, written in the 1950s, is essentially a good, old-fashioned melodrama. It has none of the lightness of touch of some of the author’s other work (notably Cold Comfort Farm). Vernay’s weltschmerz is part of the German Romanticism he clings to, and the peace he at first finds in the wilderness is an uneasy one; only old Shepherd is in any way at one with the land, yet he yearns for his sheep flock at home. Once things begin to go wrong, there is an inexorable quality about it.

In both The Tenderness of Wolves, about which I wrote in my last post, and Fort of the Bear, the wilderness is a character in its own right. And in both, written by non-Canadians, it is essentially Other, inimical to the settler. In Penney’s book the North is inhabited by wolves and madmen, in Gibbons’ it is characterised, despite its beauty, by indifference, cold, and a sense of threat. Native characters are, predictably, depicted as more in tune with their surroundings, but they cause both writers trouble, and are unconvincing to say the least. Gibbons introduces an “Eskimo” where there simply shouldn’t be one, but I found it slightly easier to forgive her infelicities, since she was writing out of an earlier tradition, and is the more assured writer. In tune with these earlier traditions – going back to Robert Service et al – both writers introduce a Wendigo character. This cannibalistic monster from Native myth is represented by the giant bear who never dies in Fort of the Bear and Half-Man in The Tenderness of Wolves. Both, too, evoke madness induced by the North in characters who attempt unsuccessfully to “go native”, Vernay and Stewart. Unable to become part of the wilderness, these men are ultimately destroyed by it. Canadian literature has largely moved on from writing about this entirely oppositional wilderness, as in Marian Engel’s Bear or Aritha van Herk’s No Fixed Address, and my next post about a book will be on a very different view of the North, written by a Newfoundlander: Latitudes of Melt, by Joan Clark.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Canada from the outside

I thought I would handle my next two books together since I know that one of the authors has never visited Canada, and I rather doubt whether the other did. Stef Penney researched her book, set in 1867, in the British Library – a pretty good place to choose, since it has extensive holdings on Canada. Stella Gibbons wrote Fort of the Bear in the 50s, though it is set soon after the First World War. So we have two books by British authors, both with period settings, about the pioneer experience in the Canadian wilderness. A warning here, I am going to discuss both books in some detail, so there will be plot spoilers from the outset; please don’t read on if you don’t want to know what happens. The Gibbons book will be the subject of my next post.

There was much to enjoy in The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney, though I was conscious throughout of looking for inaccuracies. I suspect that much of the detail has come from those remarkable women, Catharine Parr Traill and Susannah Moodie, although since, disgracefully, I have read neither except in extract, I can’t be sure. The plot is roughly as follows: a man is murdered and, immediately afterwards, a young man goes missing. His mother, Mrs Ross, discovers the dead man and, after some delay while investigations get underway, sets out to look for her son. The investigators McKinley, the factor from Fort Edgar, his assistant Donald Moody, and the “half-breed”, Jacob, are men from the Hudson’s Bay Company (in this, I assume Penney is correct; there was no police force in Canada at the time and the HBC might reasonably be called in to investigate the death of a trapper, although the dead man, Laurent Jammet, is not one of their employees, but a free trapper.) As we learn about the dead man and his circumstances other characters begin to emerge: Mr Knox, the local magistrate, and his family who have already been visited by tragedy when, years earlier, his nieces set out for a walk and never return. Sturrock, a tracker employed to find the missing girls arrives in the village, looking for a bone artefact that had been in Jammet’s possession.

While I found the unfolding of two separate threads of romance between characters appealing and sympathetically written, I began to find a number of problems with the book. The first was the multiplicity of voices. While only one, Mrs Ross, speaks directly to us, we find suddenly find ourselves with privileged insight into the mind and thoughts of others. While I am happy with books from multiple viewpoints, I found it clumsy in this instance, perhaps even more so because the entire book is told in the narrative present. Why is Mrs Ross’s story told directly? We become aware that all of the characters seem to feel degrees of alienation, and perhaps in many instances this is what brought them to Canada. We are also told a little of Mrs Ross’s history: she has been a mental patient in an asylum in Scotland and, in fact, seems only to have left to marry and emigrate. Why? This is hardly a typical experience and it is hard to see what it contributes to the story beyond making her mysterious. Does it make her narration unreliable, even though hers is the only direct voice? Why did Angus Ross subsequently – and inexplicably to her – reject his wife? Mrs Ross herself seems to be aware of the precariousness of her son’s situation as a murder suspect, so that she sets out to follow him (to what end, exactly, is unclear, and she admits herself that she has delayed out of fear before leaving); however, despite the fact that she is forced to admit Francis’ sexuality to herself, she voices no firm fears on that account, yet homosexuality was a capital offence in Canada at the time.

The artefact which exercises Sturrock’s concern is a similar problem. A minor quibble is that we are told he took it to “museums in Toronto and Chicago”, but the Royal Ontario Museum didn’t open until 1912. What concerns me more is the suggestion that Sturrock is interested in the piece of bone because it might contain evidence of Native writing, and possibly of treaties. I don’t believe that such an item would have been accorded much importance even by someone whose thinking was well ahead of its time. Treaties with the First Nations weren’t taken terribly seriously by the British, then or more recently. The “Indian” Kahon’wes drifts into the story and out again. The bone tablet is lost. It wasn’t why Jammet was killed anyway. He was killed for the furs. Why? His murderers already knew where they were. A missing girl is found. What happened to her sister? We will never know.

As I said at the outset, I enjoyed the book, despite loose ends and inconsistencies. What I have realised, in the course of writing about it, is that I am unlikely to re-read it, or to recommend it wholeheartedly. I still think it entirely possible to base a book entirely on research in libraries, but you need to steep yourself in the subject over a long period to pull it off convincingly.

I can’t find much evidence that The Tenderness of Wolves is being read in Canada. Just as well, really.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Canadian Book Challenge

(cross-posted from Cat Musings)

In case you haven't been challenged enough lately, here's another to add to your compulsive need to push yourself to your limit:
The Canadian Book Challenge.

The rules are simple: read 13 Canadian books (books by Canadians and/or about Canadians) before next Canada Day (That's July 1st for you non-Canadians in the audience). Make sure to blog about each one!

I shouldn't take on anything else, really, but this doesn't have to be completed until Canada Day, so it gives me lots of time, even allowing for a 13-book challenge. It's going to be too difficult (well, expensive, I spend too much on Amazon Canada already) to manage a theme, as you can only get the "big" authors here in the UK, so I thought I would start with seven books between now and Christmas that were easy to come by:

Joan Clark, Latitudes of Melt
Mary Lawson, The Other Side of the Bridge
Marian Engel, Sarah Bastard's Notebook
Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake
Janice Kulyk Keefer, The Green Library
Douglas Coupland, The Gum Thief
Alice Munro, The View from Castle Rock

Then I'll move on to things that are more of a challenge to get in the New Year. As Ontario is rather over-represented here, I should be looking for books from the North-West Territories and Nunavut, I guess. Suggestions will be welcomed!

Monday, 8 October 2007

Canadian literature meme

Just copy and paste into your own blog, then highlight in red those you've read, highlight in blue authors you've read just not that particular book, and leave the rest black.

There are a lot of titles in black, but I hope that this will prompt me to concentrate on some Can lit for a while! There are some authors here, like Atwood, Shields and Davies, where I've read most of their work, and some omissions, but many of these authors are very hard to get in the UK.

Newfoundland and Labrador

Cassie Brown- Death On The Ice (Non-fiction)
Lisa Moore- Open (Short Stories)
Lisa Moore- Alligator
Wayne Johnston- Colony of Unrequited Dreams
Al Pittman- Down By Jim Long’s Stage (Children’s poems)
Al Pittman- West Moon (play)
Harold Horwood- White Eskimo
Harold Horwood- Bartlett The Great Explorer (Non-fiction)
Michael Crummey- River Thieves
E. J. Pratt- Complete Poems (Poetry)
Mary Dalton- Merrybegot (Poetry)
Dillon Wallace- The Lure of The Labrador Wild
Kevin Major- Eh? To Zed (Children’s book)
Ted Russell- The Holdin’ Ground (play)
Percy Janes- House of Hate
Bud Davidge and Ian Wallace (Illustrator)- The Mummer’s Song (Children’s Book)
E. Annie Proulx- The Shipping News
Claire Mowat- Outport People (Non-fiction)
Jim Defede- The Day The World Came To Town (Non-fiction)
Donna Morrissey- Kit’s Law
Ken Babstock- Airstream Land Yacht (Poetry)
Bernice Morgan- Random Passage
Joan Clark- An Audience of Chairs
Earl B. Pilgrim- The Ghost of Ellen Dower
Dale Jarvis- Haunted Shores: True Ghost Stories of Newfoundland and Labrador
Paul Butler- Easton
Edward Riche- Rare Birds
Kenneth J. Harvey- The Town That Forgot How To Breathe

Prince Edward Island
Lucy Maud Montgomery- Anne of Green Gables
Stompin’ Tom and Brenda Jones (Illustrator)- The Hockey Song (Children’s Book)
David Helwig- Saltsea
Michael Hennessey- The Betrayer
J. J. Steinfeld- Would You Hide Me? (Short Stories)
Anne Compton- Processional (Poetry)
Milton Acorn- I Shout Love and Other Poems (Poetry)

Nova Scotia
Frank Parker Day- Rockbound
Alistair MacLeod- Island (Short Stories)
Alistair MacLeod- No Great Mischief
George Elliott Clarke- Whylah Falls (Poetry)
Anne Simpson- Loop (Poetry)
Alden Nolan- The Best Of (Poetry)
Hugh MacLennan- The Watch That Ends The Night
Thomas Chandler Haliburton- The Clockmaker
Ernest Buckler- The Mountain and the Valley
Ann-Marie MacDonald- Fall On Your Knees
Linden MacIntyre- Causeway (Non-fiction)
Brad Kessler- Birds In Fall
Ami McKay- The Birth House

New Brunswick
David Adams Richards- Mercy Among The Children
Charles G. D. Roberts- The Collected Poems (Poetry)
T. G. Roberts- The Red Feathers
Donna Allard- Minago Streets (Poetry)
Linda Hall- Black Ice
Antonine Maillet- Pelagie: The Return To Acadie
Elisabeth Harvor- Fortress Of Chairs

Mordecai Richler- Barney’s Version
Gabrielle Roy- The Tin Flute
Roch Carrier- The Hockey Sweater (Children’s Book)
Markoosie- Harpoon of the Hunter
Michel Tremblay- The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant
Michel Tremblay- Forever Yours Marie-Lou (Play)
Saul Bellow- Humboldt’s Gift
Hubert Acquin- Next Episode
Heather O’Neill- Lullabies For Little Criminals
Gaetan Soucy- The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond Of Matches
Leonard Cohen- Beautiful Losers
Leonard Cohen- Let Us Compare Mythologies (Poetry)
Jacques Poulin- Volkswagen Blues
Yves Theriault- Agaguk
Frances Brooke- The History of Emily Montague
Nicole Brossard- Museum of Bone and Water
Anne Hebert- Kamouraska
Mairuth Sarsfield- No Crystal Stair
Naomi Klein- No Logo (Non-fiction)
Irving Layton- Dance With Desire (Poems)
Stuart McLean- Stories From The Vinyl Café (Short Stories)
Yann Martel- Life of Pi
Romeo Dallaire- Shake Hands With The Devil (Non-fiction)
Gordon Korman- Island: Shipwreck (Young Adult)
Monique Proulx- The Heart Is An Involuntary Muscle
Willa Cather- Shadows On The Rock

Margaret Atwood- Handmaid’s Tale
Robertson Davies- Fifth Business
Stephen Leacock- Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (Short Stories)
Alice Munro- Who Do You Think You Are? (Short Stories)
Timothy Findley- The Wars
Jane Urquhart- The Stone Carvers
Barbara Gowdy- White Bone
Joan Barfoot- Luck
Dennis Lee- Alligator Pie (Children’s Poems)
Robert Munsch- The Paperbag Princess (Children’s Book)
Michael Ondaatje- In The Skin Of A Lion
Rohinton Mistry- A Fine Balance
Al Purdy- Beyond Remembering (Poetry)
Farley Mowat- Never Cry Wolf
Marian Engel- Bear
Joseph Boyden- Three Day Road
Charles de Lint- Moonlight and Vines
Thomas King- Green Grass, Running Water
Austin Clarke- The Polished Hoe
Mary Lawson- Crow Lake
Matt Cohen- Elizabeth and After
Jon McCrae- In Flanders Fields (Poem)
Christian Bok- Eunoia (poetry)
Phoebe Gilman- Something From Nothing (Children’s Book)
Richard B. Wright- Clara Callan
M. G. Vassanji- The In-Between World of Vikram Lall
Vincent Lam- Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures (Short stories)
Barbara Reid- Two By Two (Children’s Book)
David Bezmozgis- Natasha and Other Stories (Short Stories)
Morley Callaghan- More Joy In Heaven
Helen Humphries- Afterimage
Gordon Downie- Coke Machine Glow (Poetry)
Anne Michaels- Fugitive Pieces
Frances Itani- Deafening

Margaret Laurence- A Bird In The House (Short Stories)
Margaret Laurence- A Jest of God
Carol Shields- The Stone Diaries
Bill Richardson- Bachelor Brothers’ Bed and Breakfast
Miriam Toews- A Complicated Kindness
Tomson Highway- The Rez Sisters (Play)
David Bergen- The Time In Between

Tim Lilburn- Kill-Site (Poetry)
Guy Vanderhaeghe- The Last Crossing
Guy Gavriel Kay- The Summer Tree
Sinclair Ross- As For Me and My House
W. O. Mitchell- Who Has Seen The Wind
Rudy Wiebe- The Temptations of Big Bear
Dianne Warren- Serpent In The Night Sky (play)
Sharon Butala- Lilac Moon (Non-fiction)
Paul Hiebert- Sarah Binks

Will Ferguson- Why I Hate Canadians (Nonfiction)
Earle Birney- One Muddy Hand (Poetry)
Thomas Wharton- Salamander
W. P. Kinsella- Shoeless Joe
Robert Kroetsch- The Studhorse Man
Katherine Govier- Three Views of Crystal Water
Christopher Wiseman- In John Updike’s Room (Poetry)
Anita Rau Badami- Can You Hear The Nightbird Call?

British Columbia
Douglas Coupland- Generation X
Timothy Taylor- Stanley Park
Kenneth Oppel- Silverwing (Young Adult)
bpNichol- The Martyrology (Poetry)
Susan Musgrave- What The Small Day Cannot Hold (Poetry)
Michael Turner- Hard Core Logo
Joy Kogawa- Obasan
P.K. Page- Planet Earth (Poetry)
Anosh Irani- The Song of Kahunsha
Wayson Choy- The Jade Peony
John Gould- Kilter (Short stories)
Sheila Watson- The Double Hook
Eden Robinson- Monkey Beach
Gayla Reid- To Be There With You (Short stories)
Margaret Craven- I Heard The Owl Call My Name
Audrey Thomas- Coming Down From Wa
Kevin Chong- Baroque-a-Nova

Robert Service- The Best Of (Poetry)
Pierre Berton- The National Dream (Non-fiction)
Al Pope- Bad Latitudes
Dick North- The Mad Trapper of Rat River (Non-fiction)
Ted Harrison- Children of the Yukon (Children’s Book)
Pj Johnson- Rhymes of the Raven Lady (Poetry)
Jack London- Call of the Wild

Northwest Territories
Mackay Jenkins- Bloody Falls of the Coppermine (nonfiction)
Richard Van Camp- Lesser Blessed
Robert Alexie- Pale Indian
Rene Fumoleau- Here I Sit (Poetry)
Steve Zipp- Yellowknife
Elizabeth Hay- Late Nights On Air
James Raffan- Emperor of The North (Non-fiction)

Michael Kusugak- Hide and Sneak (Children’s book)
Michael Kusugak- Curse of the Shaman (Young Adult)
James Houston- The White Dawn
Kevin Patterson- Consumption
Tom Lowenstein (translator)/ Knud Rasmussen (compiled by)- Eskimo Poems (Poetry)
Pierre Berton- The Arctic Grail (nonfiction)
John Bennett and Susan Rowley (Editors and compilers) Uqalurait: An Oral History of Nunavut (Non-fiction)
Kenn Harper- Give Me My Father’s Body (Non-fiction)
Eric Wilson- The Inuk Mountie Adventure (Young Adult)
Robert Ruby- Unknown Shore (Non-fiction)
Jan Brett- Three Snow Bears (Children's Book)

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Recent reading - crime and fantasy

The Mark of a Murderer by Susannah Gregory: I haven't read any of this series before and this is a recent example. I found it slow to start with - to borrow a description from Patternings, I wondered if it was too sub-Cadfael. However, it got better as it went on, with a plot that turned on the rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge over a possible endowment by the Archbishop of Canterbury. I found the final chapter, in which the monastic detectives reviewed the evidence, rather heavy-going, and fear that such an exegesis may be characteristic of final chapters of the whole series: a satisfying conceit for the author, but perhaps too much for the reader? The research on 14th-century Cambridge, and scholastic and monastic life, seemed pretty convincing, though it suggests that monks were a pretty libidinous lot in those days. I shall look out for more of the Bartholomew books in the library, no doubt.

Bloodhounds by Peter Lovesey: I enjoyed this for its Bath setting and, though less so, for its crusty detective. It was the second I'd read in the series, and I was pleased to come across it in the charity shop at a point when my reading pile wasn't to hand! I wasn't quite convinced by the murderer - perhaps not a prominent enough character in the rest of the book.

The Innkeeper's Song by Peter S. Beagle: as expected, this was a real pleasure. The story of a deadly battle between magicians is told from multiple viewpoints, and the reliability of the narrators appears to vary considerably, adding to the pleasure. The fox, unreliable in both his narration and his ability to stay away from chickens, was my favourite.

Recursion by Tony Ballantyne: I found this rather a struggle. Another book told from multiple viewpoints, with a broken timeline. It's set across three centuries, with the events of previous centuries informing the last. It often failed to inform me, however, and I spent a large part of the book wondering where it was all going and whether I had missed something. Too many people who weren't people but were constructs, and my reading became inattentive. adding to the confusion. Even so, I had successfully followed the plot, and the end made sense. I'm rather out of practice at "hard" science fiction, I may have been wallowing too much in fantasy for my own good!

September's Books

  • Dear Pup by Diana Pullein-Thompson
  • The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney
  • The Bronski House by Philip Marsden
  • The Innkeeper's Song by Peter S. Beagle
  • Brotherly Love by Elizabeth Pewsey
  • Bloodhounds by Peter Lovesey
  • Witch's Honour by Jan Siegel
  • Meetings with Remarkable Trees by Thomas Pakenham
  • Resisting Novels by Lennard J Davis
  • Dragon Master by Chris Bunch
  • The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead (Outmoded Authors Challenge)
  • The Man of Property by John Galsworthy (Outmoded Authors Challenge)
  • The Mark of a Murderer by Susanna Gregory
  • Recursion by Tony Ballantyne

Ongoing reading: