Monthly Archives: October 2009

Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant

sacredheartsI’ve read Sarah Dunant’s two previous novels about women in the Italian Renaissance — The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan.  Both are good novels, but I found Sacred Hearts brilliant, my favourite of the three by far.

This could be because it’s set in a world that’s always fascinated me: a convent.  In medieval and renaissance times, convents were a lot of things — a dumping ground for unwanted or unmarriageable women; a prison for women who didn’t want to be there, but also a haven where at least some women could experience the freedom to exercise skills (artistic, administrative, or other) that they would have no scope for in the outside world.

Both aspects of convent life are clearly presented in Sacred Hearts, the story of an unwilling teenager, Serafina, sent to the convent after she disgraces herself by falling in love with her music master.  Serafina longs for freedom, a chance to escape and run away with her beloved, but as she slowly and reluctantly becomes part of convent life she becomes much more than a reluctant novice — she becomes a pawn in power games that are being played out within the convent, reflecting even greater power struggles in the world beyond.

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The Winterhouse, by Robin McGrath

WinterhouseThe Winterhouse is a jewel of a historical novel, focusing on two rarely-explored threads of Newfoundland heritage. One concerns the Jewish presence in Newfoundland, the other the tradition in some outport communities of spending the harsh winter months in a “tilt” or “winterhouse” in the woods, protected from the more severe weather by the ocean.

These two threads come together in a small, quiet and intensely personal story. It’s the tale of Rosehanna Quint, a teenage girl abandoned after her mother’s death and her father’s hasty remarriage.  Her father, who is the merchant’s agent in their small community, turns over management of the merchant’s store to a newly-arrived European stranger.

The slowly-growing relationship between the quiet, reserved, but resilient Rosehanna and the man she calls “the mister” turns from a chilly marriage of convenience to something much more like friendship when the busy months of summer end and they find themselves in the enforced idleness and closeness of the winterhouses.

This budding relationship forms the plot of this novel — a simple and understated story in which every word and glance takes on significance.  The sense of time and place is so vividly created you can almost smell every smell.  McGrath is a powerful and evocative writer, and this novel deserves to be widely read by everyone who enjoys historical fiction, especially those who like Newfoundland history and want to explore some of the lesser-known corners of our past.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical, Newfoundland author

A Few Kinds of Wrong, by Tina Chaulk

afkowBefore I even review this book, I want to tell you about a great contest with a chance to win the book. Go to author Tina Chaulk’s website to find out all about it and enter the contest!

I read this book back when it was a manuscript, and it’s been exciting to see it come to fruition.  It’s a contemporary, down-to-earth story about Jennifer Collins, a young woman who works as a mechanic in the garage her father once owned.  Jennifer’s always been a daddy’s girl, and when her dad dies unexpectedly, her world falls apart.  Her relationship with her mom has always been a little more complicated, and in the aftermath of Jennifer’s complicated grief, she and her mom find themselves farther apart rather than closer together.  As for Jennifer’s relationship with her husband Jamie, that falls apart completely as Jennifer retreats further and further into a private world of loss. The only person she’s comfortable with is her grandmother, confined to a nursing home in the last stages of dementia.  Jennifer finds Nan’s room a refuge, because Nan is so often lost in the past and it’s as if the whole last painful year hasn’t happened.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general, Newfoundland author

Quaker Summer, by Lisa Samson

quakersummerI’ve read and reviewed a couple of previous books by Lisa Samson and stand by my conviction that she is one of the best, freshest voices in Christian women’s fiction today.  Quaker Summer is probably my favourite of her books so far. It combines the strong characterization of a novel like The Passion of Mary-Margaret with the concern for Christian social justice found in the book Justice in the Burbs, which Samson co-authored with her husband.

Heather Curridge is the wife of a wealthy doctor and the mother of a sweet and precocious fifteen-year-old boy. Though she loves her husband and son, Heather’s life is empty as she has no career and no strong interests of her own — even her spiritual life and her connection to her church is waning.  She fills her days by compulsively spending her husband’s money on more additions to, and toys for, their luxurious suburban home, and on volunteer duties at her son’s school that have begun to seem petty and pointless.

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Filed under Fiction -- inspirational

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

magiciansIt’s impossible to talk about Lev Grossman’s The Magicians without referencing both Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia (seriously, go look for a review of the book that doesn’t mention either of those two fantasy classics).  But I doubt Grossman would mind, because the parallels are obviously intentional.  Grossman’s main character, Quentin Coldwater, is a brilliant but unhappy New York teenager who grew up reading a series of books about English children who find their way into a magical land called Fillory — an obvious Narnia parallel (though there are echoes here of other children’s fantasy classics, right down to Alice in Wonderland).  Preparing to leave high school for university, Quentin finds himself transported instead to a top-secret school for magicians.

But Brakebills is very far from being an upstate-New-York version of Hogwarts.  Magic is hard work and sometimes boring rather than being charming or picturesque, and the darkly sinister undercurrent of this story comes not from an evil Dark Lord but from the teenage and young-adult magicians themselves, who have all the hangups and personality disorders of unhappy young people everywhere — but who also have the ability to use magic.

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The Day the School Blew Up and Camporee of Doom, by Seth Pierce

daytheschoolblewupWhen I was growing up, Seventh-day Adventist kids’ books were characterized by a kind of didactic earnestness.  Bad deeds were punished, good deeds were rewarded, and lessons were always learned.  Adults and other authority figures were always right and trustworthy.

Times have changed.  Seth Pierce’s new series, The Misadventures of Peter Paul Pappenfuss, features a ten-year-old hero — or perhaps anti-hero — who is not likely to feature in any of Uncle Arthur’s bedtime stories (except maybe as the bad kid who gets his come-uppance in the end).  But Peter Paul is not really a bad kid — he’s a mischievous, troublesome, and painfully honest kid with a good heart.  He’s sometimes bored in school or in church (his dad’s the pastor); he doesn’t like selling chocolate bars to raise money to go to Pathfinder Camporee, and even when he tries to do the right thing, trouble seems to ensue.

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Filed under Children's, Fiction -- inspirational

It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian, by Samir Selmanovic

allaboutgodFirst up: great title! Or rather, great subtitle. In a world where many people are exploring connections between different religions while others entrench themselves ever more firmly in their “unique” beliefs, many readers will be curious to know what a “Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian” might have to say about God.

Selmanovic comes by at least three of his religious descriptors honestly: he was born to a secular, non-practicing Muslim family and raised in the aggressively atheist communist worldview of the former Yugoslavia.  As a young man he converted to Christianity – much to his family’s dismay – then moved to the U.S. and spent much of his working career as a Seventh-day Adventist pastor.  He currently lives in New York City, where he works with an interfaith community called Faith House Manhattan.

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Filed under Nonfiction -- general