Small Change Trilogy (Farthing, Ha’Penny, and Half a Crown), by Jo Walton

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So often lately my book reviews have included the words “This book took me a really long time to get into.” Although I’ve read some good books lately, it’s been awhile (at least since Christmas break when I read The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street) since I’ve had that wonderful experience of picking up a book that I could hardly bring myself to put down because I was immediately so absorbed in it. That happened to me this past weekend when I started Farthing by Jo Walton on Saturday night, and had finished all three books of the trilogy by the time I went to bed Tuesday.

Farthing starts off like a typical English country house murder mystery, set in 1949 among the upper class family and visitors at a stately Hampshire home called Farthing. But the reader quickly realizes (or would, if she hadn’t been tipped off by any review or cover blurb of this book you’re ever going to read, so this isn’t a spoiler) that this is not 1949 as we know it. This is an alternate-history timeline, a 1949 in which Britain has not fought Hitler and the Nazis to defeat but rather sealed the Battle of Britain with a 1941 peace treaty. Now, in the 1949 of this story, Britain is on friendly terms with the Third Reich, which now governs all of continental Europe. Churchill has been pushed out of power by the “Farthing Set,” an influential group of politicians centred around this very country house where the murder of a prominent lord has occurred.

In this version of postwar Britain, fascists are your friends, and your friends may well be fascists. Jews in England, while they aren’t being sent off to death camps as they are on the Continent, are subject to much more overt and blatant racism than in the 1949 we’re familiar with — which becomes apparent when we realize that one of the key suspects in the Farthing murder is Jewish. Meanwhile, Inspector Carmichael, who comes to investigate the Farthing murder, has his own reasons for wanting to keep his private life out of the public eye, since Jews aren’t the only people who find it more prudent to keep a low profile under this regime.

The murder mystery is solved in Farthing, but its repercussions continue to echo through the two sequels. Ha’penny and Half a Crown are not mysteries in the same sense that Farthing is; though each book starts with an act of violence, the later two books are more like thrillers or political intrigue. Each book introduces us to a new cast of characters, though Inspector Carmichael and those closest to him remain at the centre of every story. As events in this alternative Britain (and the world around it) unfold from 1949 to 1960, we’re treated to a chilling and cautionary tale of how people who pride themselves on their freedom can surrender it, bit by bit, hardly even noticing it’s gone until it’s too late.

There are a few plot holes here, particularly in the last book which has so much plot to tie up in a short time, but given the scope of the story I thought the resolution was mostly successful, and I never stopped turning pages, wanting to know how each individual novel’s story would be resolved but also to know where the overarching story would lead — could Britain be saved from turning into a totalitarian dictatorship?

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The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton

theminiaturistI started reading this highly-acclaimed historical debut novel several weeks ago, but found it slow to get into and let it languish for awhile as I was reading other things. When I came back to it a few days ago I quickly found that the story picked up interest and I raced through to the end. While the setting — a merchant’s home in late seventeenth-century Amsterdam — was meticulously researched and beautifully depicted, and the plot definitely picked up in the second part of the book, I never did feel deeply emotionally engaged with the characters. The set-up should be great, and the story sometimes is — Nella, a naive eighteen-year-old country girl, comes to Amsterdam as the wife of a much older man in a household full of people guarding secrets, and of course you want to know what will happen. Why is her husband so cold? What is her sister-in-law hiding? Why does a mysterious maker of miniatures keep sending her dollhouse furniture that is just a little too weirdly accurate a reflection of what’s going on in Nella’s house?

The novel is very well-executed, but it wasn’t as engaging to me as it could have been and I’m not entirely sure why. Some reviews have read have suggested that Nella suffers from a complaint common to heroines of historical novels: being written as if she were a twenty-first century feminist dressed in seventeenth-century gowns, and there may be some truth to that. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed visiting the world of Amsterdam as it was recreated in this novel, but wished I had been more emotionally caught up in the story.

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All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

allthelightI’d heard quite a bit of buzz about this book before I picked it up, but not so much that I actually knew what it was about. After a bit of a slow start I got quite drawn into it and found it hard to put down. It tells three stories, two of which are really compelling (I could have lived without the third). Against the backdrop of the German occupation of France in the Second World War, we meet two intriguing young people. Werner, an orphaned German boy, grows up in a children’s home with his sister Jutta as his only close companion. His fascination with, and skill at, tinkering with electronics (especially radios) gives him a role to step into when war comes. At the same time, Marie-Laure, blind from early childhood, grows up in Paris with her father, a museum locksmith, who may or may not have been given an unbelievably valuable diamond with a curse on it to guard when the advance of the German army forces them to flee Paris.

It’s inevitable that Marie-Laure’s path and Werner’s cross, though where and how is hard to predict. As Werner’s story unfolds, we see the chilling reality of young boys being shaped into killers under the Third Reich’s ruthless philosophy; in Marie-Laure’s chapters we experience the fear of living in an occupied country and the desperate courage of the French Resistance. In between, we get occasional chapters from the perspective of a German officer who is hunting for the precious diamond that Marie-Laure’s father may or may not have smuggled out of Paris — these are the chapters I could probably have done without, although they do provide some tension and suspense near the end of the story.

This was a beautifully written, occasionally haunting novel that offered me two new perspectives on the well-known story of the Second World War. While I didn’t find the ending as ultimately satisfying as I had hoped, the journey there was more than worth it.

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Call the Midwife, by Jennifer Worth

callthemidwifeLike many readers, I came to Jennifer Worth’s memoir via the fabulous TV series based upon it. I’m happy to report that the book is as engaging and interesting as the series. It’s interesting to see how incidents described in the memoir were used as inspiration for episodes of the TV show, but there are added layers of spiritual depth to the story of a secular young nurse who goes to live among an order of nuns who work as midwives in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood in London’s East End. The reader gets a vivid sense of the work involved in midwifery, the conditions in that place and time, and most important, the love and commitment this diverse group of women brought to their work. It’s well worth a read — and don’t miss the TV show!

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The Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan

valleyofamazementThis novel tells the story of Violet, a girl raised in Shanghai in the early 20th century. Violet’s American mother, Lucretia, runs a high-class courtesan house; Violet has never met her father, and is devastated to find out that he is Chinese and she is of mixed race. Violet’s life journey is full of unexpected twists and turns, leading the reader through various strata of Chinese life in the first decades of the last century, including the intricate and intimate world of the courtesan houses (which, yes, are brothels — but so much more, as it’s not simply a matter of paying for sex but of engaging in elaborate courtship rituals which are all part of the game). More than three-quarters of the way through the book, the narrator breaks from Violet’s first-person narration to bring us another narrator — Violet’s mother Lucretia, whose store goes back to the US in the 1890s as we learn what brought her to Shanghai in the first place.

There’s no shortage of eventful plot twists here, and Violet is herself an engaging character. Despite this, the story occasionally dragged for me — it took me quite awhile to get caught up in the story, and I thought there were many places where there was too much “telling” — lots of events synopsized in narrative rather than vivid scenes (though the scenes, when they do occur, are vivid and well drawn). There is a wealth of well-rendered historical and cultural detail here (and some graphic scenes — after all, much of the story does take place among courtesans, so be prepared for that if you read it!) I’m by no means sorry I read it; it was an interesting journey, but I sometimes wished it had been a little more fast-paced.

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The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, by Susan Jane Gilman

icecreamqueenLike so many readers, I have loved Susan Jane Gilman’s non-fiction, and I was every bit as thrilled, if not more so, with her first novel. This is exactly the kind of historical fiction I love to read — a story that plunges you into the world of the past, bringing the reader to a very specific time and place and letting it all unfold through the eyes of an unforgettable character.  That character, Lillian Dunkle, narrates the novel when she’s in her seventies, an American icon under fire, but her story stretches back to the early years of the twentieth century when she was born with a different name in a different country.

Lillian — or Malka, as she was when her family came to America in 1913 — lived through the most hardscrabble New York Jewish immigrant experience imaginable, until a freak accident set her life on a different path. That path included a different immigrant community — Italian Catholics who took her in and raised her as almost, but not quite, one of their own. From them, she learns the secrets of making Italian ices and gelato, and as young Lillian’s turbulent, eventful life unfolds, so does the history of ice cream — and the history of America, with which ice cream travels hand in hand.

Lillian is not always a likable narrator. By the time the novel opens, she has enjoyed decades of fame and fortune with her beloved husband Bert as the inventor, owner and public face of Dunkle’s Ice Cream. But in her seventies she is widowed, drinking too much, compulsively shopping, indicted for tax evasion and under attack. As she narrates her story in first person, Lillian is by no means always admirable, but she is a character I was able to completely inhabit and see the world through her eyes. This was the first book I finished reading in 2015 and I recommend it very highly to lovers of historical fiction.

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Best Books of 2014

Some years I do something fancy like make a year-end book review video or do some kind of quiz where you can win free books if you guess my top ten book list. Last year I did both. This year … meh, I’m not so creative. It’s been a good year for reading, though. My top ten list was hard to construct, because there were eight books that were definite, gotta-make-the-list favourites, and then another six or so, any of which could have taken those last two Top Ten spots. As always, the ordering is a bit arbitrary, though I do feel pretty solid about the #1 book.

I read and reviewed 77 books this year, which is a little on the low side for me. I put this down to the fact that I actually read more than 77 — I was a judge for a local literary contest which involved reading every work of fiction published in Newfoundland in 2012 and 2013, and out of those, I mostly only posted reviews of the ones I really loved. I figured trashing the ones I didn’t like as much would be an abuse of my judgely position, and in some cases, once I got halfway through a book and knew it wasn’t going onto my shortlist, I skimmed the last half.

Interestingly, even though I really loved some of the books I read for that contest, none of them made my Top Ten of the Year list, though one book by a local author (published later than the cutoff for this contest) is definitely on there.

My 77 books broke down to 57 fiction and 20 non-fiction. 54 books were written by women and 23 by men. Those proportions are a little more skewed than usual; I usually read a little more non-fiction and a few more books by men than I did this year.

My Top Ten list contains three books by Canadian writers, two by British writers, and five by American writers. I suspect if I went back and checked, that would be representative of the books I read as a whole, if you discount the skew caused by contest judging.

I didn’t do a specific count on e-books versus paper but I do know that the VAST majority — probably about 60 of the 77 books? — were e-books as opposed to traditional paper books.

And now, without further ado … the list!

10. Between Gods, by Alison Pick. As I said, there were a lot of good books that could have gone in this slot, but I picked this one because I usually read a lot of great memoirs, and this year, this was the one memoir that really stood out and lingered with me long after I read it. Read my full review here.

9. Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle. Out of the many excellent novels that could have grabbed the ninth-place spot, I picked this one because I’ve been thinking about it ever since I read it. A very thought-provoking read from a writer who, until now, has mainly penned unforgettable song lyrics. Read my full review here.

8. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman. I’ve loved Neil Gaiman as a cultural icon for years but this is the first book of his that I can honestly say I was entranced by. A fairytale about childhood, for grownups. Read my full review here.

7. Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell. For me, Fangirl was this year’s The Fault in Our Stars: a smart, funny, articulate, insightful young-adult romance. But with less cancer and more fanfiction. Read my full review here.

6. The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters. Simply fabulous, evocative, powerful historical fiction set in post-WWI London. Read my full review here.

5. We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart. A great, gripping, twisty, gut-wrenching young adult novel. If you start to feel like the narrator might be a little unreliable, remember, you’re the one who opened a book clearly titled We Were Liars. Read my full review here.

4. Fool’s Assassin, by Robin Hobb. Wonderful start to a new trilogy by one of my favourite fantasy authors. Would I rather have beloved characters from the previous trilogies left to grow old in peace, or see them immersed in scary new adventures? Read my full review here.

3. Lila, by Marilynne Robison. Once again, Robinson takes us back to the small-town world she explored so deeply in Gilead and Home, now seen through the eyes of a different character. Wonderfully written and deeply thought-provoking. Read my full review here.

2. Sweetland, by Michael Crummey. Absorbing, powerful, breathtaking — there aren’t enough adjectives to praise Crummey’s masterful epic about the last man on a Newfoundland island abandoned by the modern world. Read my full review here.

1. Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue. I always love Donoghue, but not since Slammerkin has she produced a masterpiece like this madcap journey through the underside of late nineteenth-century San Francisco. This novel, based on accounts of a real-life crime, is the kind of historical fiction that’s as close as you’ll ever get to time travel. Read my full review here.

I would love to know what your favourite books of 2014 were. Share some in the comments!!

 

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