Review: Gods of Howl Mountain – Taylor Brown

2017:96
4.5 of 5 stars
Published in 2018

Thanks to NetGalley for an advanced copy of this book.

We are in the mountains of North Carolina in the 1950s, just after the Korean war. Rory has come home from the war and is working for a family that controls the local booze industry, bootleggers. He lives with his grandmother who has a lot of secrets. His Gran’s also a local healer, some say a witch. Rory falls for a woman who’s associated with a local spiritual church and his grandmother disapproves. This may or may not be related to a secret she’s keeping about Rory’s mother who has been in an asylum for years. That isn’t really the gist of the plot, though, That’s concerned with the life of a bootlegger who happens to be a disabled war veteran. He’s learned to live by the seat of his pants and he doesn’t back down. Ever. We know more about his life as well, through Granny’s POV, a woman who fiercely loves and defends her own.

I really enjoyed the book. The writing is fantastic, with the characters each having their own distinctive voice. I really became absorbed into the story every time I picked it up. My only niggle would be a bit too much detailed description at times but that’s probably only because I was impatient to get back to the story.

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Review: Minds of Winter – Ed O’Loughlin

2017:92
2.5 of 5 stars
Published in 2017

It starts with Sir John Franklin whose expedition to find the Arctic Northwest Passage ended in tragedy, with the deaths of him and all his crew aboard two ships. All of the gear he had with the expedition was also lost. It ends with a Greenwich chronometer, a navigational aid, found in London 150+ years later. This really happened and nobody can explain how it turned up there.

Over the century and a half, there were various men and expeditions in the Arctic and Antarctic with some stalwart explorers trying to conquer both poles of the earth. In present day, Fay Morgan, grieving for her recently deceased mother,  is in Inuvik trying to track down connections to her grandfather who also had connections to the polar explorers. She meets Nelson whose brother has been missing and who may have committed suicide, a brother who was tracing histories of the polar explorers and looking into the mystery of the chronometer. As they sift through his papers, we are told more details about the various expeditions over the years. It doesn’t really solve the mystery of the chronometer but it does keep popping up.

It’s a big book with lots of characters. Some of them keep reappearing but mostly they come and go as their era/period is done. There are a great many stories of the expeditions and the explorers, real and fictional. The individual stories lead you through the decades of exploration and adventure, interspersed with Fay and Nelson’s ongoing investigations. The ending is a bit ambiguous and you end up scratching your head over what’s true or real and what isn’t. As always with a book that covers so many years, I felt the stories in the first half of the book are better crafted than the last few with much more interesting characters. Fay and Nelson are only the links between them and aren’t particularly interesting themselves.

This is on the shortlist for this year’s Giller prize though didn’t win.

Review: Church of Marvels – Leslie Parry

2017:91
4 of 5 stars
Published 2015

At the turn of the 20th century in New York City, four people who live on the outer edges of society find their lives entangled. Sylvain spends his nights shoveling out outhouses and finds a newborn baby girl in one of them. He decides to keep the baby himself instead of taking her to an orphanage. Alphie finds herself committed to a women’s insane asylum, possibly by her vile mother-in-law. She meets a beautiful woman who does not speak but who has some extraordinary abilities and  may know how to get them out. Odile and her twin were raised in the environment of a stage show but their mother has died and her sister has disappeared.

The lives of these people will intertwine as Odile finds a vague clue to her sister’s whereabouts and heads to Manhattan to see if she can find her. The story jumps between the points of view of Sylvain, Odile and Alphie. It’s a pretty grim side of New York that we’re shown. Seedy side shows, illegal bare knuckle fights, horrendous insane asylums (you couldn’t call them anything like a “mental health facility”!), opium dens, liars, chancers, hustlers, poverty, addiction, prostitution. Yet there are glimmers of kindness and hope. Due to Odile’s hunt for her sister, Belle, all their lives will cross and converge and move forward into the future.

Really liked this book. The characters are all distinct and colourful and the descriptions of the underbelly of New York in that time period feel very real.

Rewarding Reading – Awards and a Foray into Historical Fiction

For American movies, we have the Oscar awards for the best films and the Emmy Awards for television. In Canada, there’s the Canadian Screen Awards that also covers Canadian television.  In the U.K, they have the BAFTA awards and in France, a movie can win the César.

Music wins Grammy awards in the USA and  Junos in Canada, the unimaginatively named Brit awards in the UK.

Books have awards as well. Each year, there are various award prizes that shave the nominees down to a long list and then a short list before awarding a winner. There are a lot of different prizes. A LOT. Even the “big” prizes are plentiful. There are local and regional prizes all over the place but the best known national and international competitions are:

Nobel Prize (International)
Pulitzer Prize (America, various media and literary categories)
Man Booker Prize (Fiction, published in the UK, also an International prize, translated from any language to English)

Other well known awards are:

Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (Fiction, by women, published in the UK in English)
Scotiabank Giller Prize (Fiction, Canada)
The Walter Scott Prize (Historical fiction, UK, Ireland, Commonwealth)
The RBC Taylor prize (Canada, non-fiction)
National Book Awards (America, various categories)
The Edgar Allen Poe award (mystery)
The Governor General’s Literary Award (various categories, Canada only)
Irish Book Awards (Fiction, Ireland, various categories)
Hugo (Science Fiction/Fantasy, International) and Nebula (same, but for the USA)

Those are the ones I’m most familiar with. Wikipedia has quite a long list of competitions here, from all over the world. There are several dozen awards for debut novels which is something every new writer would love to win.  Most or all of these award cash prizes and they are all prestigious.

I follow the Bookers, the Gillers and glance in at the Governor General’s awards and the Irish Book awards. I will obviously back any Canadian writers in the Booker prize which is open to any book published in the UK in English. The next two (Giller and GG) are Canadian awards and I am a fan of some Irish writers. One thing I like about these various awards is their long list of nominees. If I want to try something by an author new to me, I can spend hours perusing the lists of current and past years’ awards looking at book descriptions. I have found some excellent books in this manner.

I planned to write here about the Historical Fiction book awards, from the Walter Scott prize, but it’s already gotten away from me! Historical fiction is probably my top favourite reading category. I love history and always have. I was lucky to have a very good history teacher in junior high school who made it really interesting.

For historical fiction, I’m not referring to the so-called “bodice ripper” books, the historical romances with a standard issue story, full of cliches and turgid euphemisms for the “act” and various body parts. I’m referring to stories that take place anywhere from 50 to hundreds of years ago. It may depict real historical figures or it may not and there may be romance involved but this isn’t always the case. I don’t mind a romance, if it’s written well, with good characters, plausible plot points and the occasional spicy scene. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is a perfect example of how to do it.

Unfortunately, it’s not straightforward finding the past long lists at their website.  You have to spend time going through the news archives for announcements rather than having the past winners and lists easily accessible. Thank heavens for Wikipedia!

Another favourite HF author of mine is Sharon Kay Penman who has written about various British and Welsh periods in the past. She has a trio of books on the last Welsh kings and princes during the 13th century, the conflict between King Edward 1 and Wales. She has a series on the Plantagenets and on the Wars of the Roses and has also written some medieval mysteries which are quite good. One of those was a finalist for an Edgar award, too.

The first of hers that I ever read was When Christ and His Saints Slept. This tells the story of the English civil war between King Stephen and Queen Matilda who was the mother of the man who would be Henry II, the first of the Plantagenet kings. What a great book! Her The Sunne in Splendour, her first novel, about the end of the Wars of the Roses, focusing on Richard III is also one of my favourites as are the ones she wrote on Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. She’s very good at including the point of view of various women in her medieval novels, recognizing that they were strong and had much to contribute even though history tends to push the accomplishments and contributions of women to the background.

I’m not sure I have a favourite era for historical fiction though I do tend to lean towards books set in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland for location. I’m not sure of the strict definition of what is included in historical fiction, but lately I’ve counted anything written from the 1970s backwards.  If a book is written now and is about a period of time 40+ years ago, that sounds perfectly reasonable to me. If I read a book that was actually written *in* the 1970s or 1920s or in the 19th century, I don’t count it as HF because it was current fiction when it was written. So if I read Dickens, or Jane Austen, I’d classify the novel as “classic fiction” instead or just fiction, depending on what I thought at the time.

As always, an award winning book doesn’t always appeal to me. Sometimes I feel it’s over-hyped but one book that cleaned up a lot of awards last year was Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeliene Thien. It’s historic fiction taking place in China during the cultural revolution, following three students and their families up to the Tianamen Square confrontations in 1989. It won the Giller and Governor-General and was shortlisted for the Booker., Bailey’s Women’s prize and a few others. That’s most definitely one book that deserved the awards it won. My Goodreads review is here though I don’t think my review does it justice.  I’ve spent so much of my reading on the UK past, that it was fascinating to read something from a much more exotic country. Pachinko was also very good and delved into the story of a Korean family that moved to Japan in the early 20th century. It was a bestseller though I don’t think it won any major awards.

Next month, the Scotiabank Giller prize will be awarded in a ceremony in Toronto. I’ve already read one of the shortlisted books, Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill (my review) and have just started I am a Truck by Michelle Winters. I’ve also got Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin to read before the announcement. I have a feeling that none of these three will win. Transit seems to be more of a deep, full-of-themes type novel and that often swings the jury. For me, often, books like that have more theme exploration than actual story and are too slow and philosophical for my taste.

But that’s the beauty of reading. Everyone can find something that appeals to them.

As I like to say: Keep calm and read more books!

Review: Practical Magic – Alice Hoffman

2017:83
5 of 5 stars
Published in 2017

In the book Practical Magic, we met middle aged unmarried  sisters, Franny and Jet Owens who are witches from a centuries-long line of Owens witches. The Rules of Magic takes a step back into their history and tells their story right up to about where Practical Magic starts (I think, I haven’t read it but I plan to, now!)

It is New York and the year is 1960. JFK is about to be elected and the civil rights movement is underway. Life is changing for the Owens siblings, too. Sussanah Owens sets out a long list of rules for her three children to follow, knowing they are all special and knowing it will get them in trouble. She’s pretty much just holding off the inevitable. She knows, because she’s been there.

Franny and Jet and their brother Vincent spend the summer in Massachussetts with their Aunt Isabel who acquaints them with the Owens family curse. You cannot fall in love or tragedy will follow. As magic becomes a bigger part of their lives, they test the curse and find out the hard way how it has to be for them as we follow them all through the turbulent 60s for the bulk of the book and then over the next 25 years to where Practical Magic starts.

I really like Alice Hoffman’s books.  This book had a great feel for the decade of the 60s where the main story takes place, and a wonderful way to bring the reader to the heart of magic with details and descriptions that made it all feel real. The characters are all shown to be complex and relatable. The scene shifts between New York, small town Massachussetts and California.  The story is about finding out who you are and accepting that when your family is cursed, it’s probably better not to tempt fate. It’s also about love because what is life without it? Maybe the two are incompatible. Or maybe they are if you’re an Owens with imagination.

Thanks to Netgalley for a review copy.

Review: The Skin of a Lion – Michael Ondaatje

2017:80
2.5 of 5 stars
Published 1987

I’m not sure what I can say about this book. As far as the prose goes, it’s written beautifully, very lyrical. The plot is a bit loose and felt a bit disconnected for me. It more or less follows Patrick Lewis through much of his life, hopping from childhood to various parts of his adult life, the things he did and the things that happened to him. There didn’t seem to be a lot to connect each section, as far as Patrick’s motivations at times.

It starts with the building of an aquaduct in Toronto in the 1920s. The workers are mainly immigrants. Several nuns stumble onto the unfinished bridge and one falls off, to be rescued by one of the immigrants. Each of the two characters do appear in the book later on but one seems to be only a support character and the identity of the other isn’t revealed for some time. They do have connections to Patrick Lewis who gets involved in other industrial projects that build the city including tunnels under the lake.

He also gets obsessed with finding a missing millionaire, finds love and affection a couple of times and some of his actions seem to happen for no discernable reason that was obvious to me. But I don’t always pick up on these things and if the story isn’t pulling me in, I tend to skim at times. It didn’t really feel like a story with a beginning, middle and end as such. Apparently, a few of the secondary characters are also in Ondaatje’s The English Patient. I read that a long time ago so I don’t remember aside from one name that sounds familiar.

Don’t take my low-ish rating too much to heart. It might be that I wasn’t in the right mindset to read this. I can appreciate the prose and the flow but it didn’t feel like a “story” to me.

Review: Fall On Your Knees – Anne-Marie MacDonald

2017: 77
5 of 5 stars
Published 1996

This is one of my all time favourite books and I was due a re-read. In this year’s CanadianContent (on Goodreads) Bingo Challenge, one of the squares was to read your favourite book. Perfect opportunity!

Fall On Your Knees is the story of the Piper family, a nice, long, chunky book covering several generations of a family and mostof the early the 20th century in and around New Waterford and Sydney, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. It starts with Lebanese immigrant Materia who marries Cape Breton native James when she was a young teen, progresses through their four daughters, beautiful and talented Kathleen, Mercedes the mother figure, Lily, the disabled and much loved baby of the family and wild Frances and reaches the next generation. Themes touched on include war, incest, racism, prostitution, family secrets, abuse.  Did I mention family secrets? There are an awful lot of them. That makes the book sound awfully grim, doesn’t it? And yet the characters are so well written and the writing itself so superb that I found it hard to put down. Anne-Marie MacDonald is from Cape Breton so she knows the culture and the people very well.

This is a debut novel and made quite a splash at the time, at least , winning the Governor General’s award. Ann-Marie MacDonald hasn’t written very many full length novels but they are all very well worth reading. (The Way the Crow Flies (my second favourite of hers), Adult Onset) She tends to focus on plays and has a few novellas as well. She acts and has been a CBC presenter on The Life and Times.

This is my second last book to read to complete my Bingo Challenge, as well.