Niccolo Rising, by Dorothy Dunnett

niccoloSo I’ve plunged into Dorothy Dunnett’s other historical fiction series, after getting completely absorbed in her Lymond Chronicles last year. This series, The House of Niccolo, is set more than a century earlier than Lymond’s Scottish adventures. It begins in mid-fifteenth-century Bruges, where the titular Niccolo (not yet called Niccolo) is an apprentice in a dye-shop. He seems innocent, happy-go-lucky, perhaps a bit simple-minded. But as the scenes unfold, it becomes clear to the reader that there’s a lot more to young Nicholas than meets the eye. Not only is he brilliant, he may also be a schemer — less the hapless victim of events that he appears to be, and more the mastermind behind them.

Exactly what Nicholas is, and what game he’s playing, is not fully revealed even at the end of the novel. In reading this book my expectations were shaped by the Lymond books. In the first of that series, A Game of Kings, the reader is also, initially, deceived about the main character. Lymond appears to be the villain of the piece, and is seen that way by most of the characters: his heroism is only gradually revealed, and not till the end of the novel is it made clear exactly what he’s been doing and what his motivations are, at which point we see a lot of his earlier actions in a different light.

Knowing that  Dorothy Dunnett was a writer who packed her scenes densely with detail, gave little away, and expected her readers to be smart and follow closely, I wasn’t as lost and confused with Niccolo Rising as I was with the first Lymond book. I trusted that by the end, all would be revealed and my misunderstandings would be cleared up. But Niccolo Rising is a less self-contained novel than A Game of Kings; Dunnett fans tell me that when she wrote this one she was well aware that she was at the beginning of a long series, and left many secrets to be gradually uncovered in the next seven books. 

So if I need to read all eight books to understand what I need to know about Nicholas/Niccolo, so be it. In the company of a writer as skilful as Dunnett, who can make the past come so vividly to life you could swear she was a time-traveller, I plan to settle in and enjoy the ride.

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Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson

anotherbrooklynThis is a short and lovely book about four young African-American girls growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Woodson is best known for a verse memoir (Brown Girl Dreaming) because, although Another Brooklyn is written in prose, it’s very poetic prose. The writing has not only the beautiful and thoughtful word choices, but also the terse and spare structure of poetry. There’s a lot less exposition here than in a traditional novel: it’s almost as if we are being given glimpses or vignettes into the life of main character August, her three closest girlfriends, and her family, but it’s up to the reader to imagine the connective tissue that links those scenes together.

August’s father brings her and her brother to Brooklyn from Tennessee as children, in the wake of a family tragedy that leaves them motherless. The story is bracketed by loss: as the novel opens, present-day August meets with her remaining family after her father’s death, and memory takes her back to the childhood loss of her mother. Along the way, there are other losses. The loss of innocence as children turn into teenagers and young girls become aware of predatory men all around them. The loss of hope in neighbourhoods left blasted by “white flight” and blighted by drugs and poverty. The loss of friendships that were supposed to be lifelong. All this loss makes Another Brooklyn at times a difficult book to read, but it’s a beautifully written and haunting one.

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A Long Way Home, by Saroo Brierly

longwayhomeSaroo Brierly’s story recently came out as a movie called Lion, which I haven’t seen, but on hearing about it I wanted to read the book. It’s a simple and yet amazing story of a poor boy from India who got separated from his home and family at age five by the simple act of getting on the wrong train. Finding himself in a big city with no idea how to find his way home, Saroo ended up first in an orphanage, then in Australia, adopted by a couple there.

Though he adapted well to his new home and new life, Saroo never ceased to be curious about home. But not even knowing for sure the name of the town he came from, his family name, or many other details, he had no idea how to begin looking. Until, when he was a young man, the internet came along.

The story of how Saroo used Google Earth to match pictures of places with his memories from more than twenty years earlier is incredible and heartwarming. This really is one of those stories of survival that’s so unbelievable, it has to be true, because you couldn’t make it up.

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Teaching Eliza, by Riana Everly

teachingelizaSo I’m more or less of a Jane Austen fan, but I’m not that kind of hardcore Jane Austen fan who doesn’t appreciate other writers playing around with Austen’s material. My favourite riffs on Pride and Prejudice in recent years have been Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which I thought was genuinely fun and original; the novel Longbourn which I thought was a wonderful behind-the-scenes imagining of the unseen life of servants in the novel, and the YouTube series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a modern re-imagining with which I fell passionately in love.

A rabbit-hole I had not fallen into, until first-time author Riana Everly (with whom I am somewhat internet-acquainted) released Teaching Eliza, is the world of Austen fan-fiction in which myriad authors re-imagine Austen’s stories. Some of these re-imaginings include mash-ups with other stories, as in this novel, where Pride and Prejudice meets Pygmalion/My Fair Lady, with surprisingly enjoyable results.

When you think about it, the idea’s not so far-fetched. (Indeed, if you inhabit the subculture of Austen fanfic, it’s not far-fetched at all — it’s apparently such an obvious combination that two books with different approaches to the same basic idea came out this fall). The tension in both stories grows out of the attraction between an arrogant man who considers himself superior, and a strong-willed young woman whose natural intelligence and wit compensate for the shortcomings of her background. In Teaching Eliza, Everly imagines Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy much as they are in Pride and Prejudice, but with the added My Fair Lady twist that Darcy is also a professor of linguistics who considers himself an expert on regional accents and gives private elocution lessons to those who wish to rise in society without their accents betraying them. Elizabeth, offered the chance of a London season, wishes to refine her country accent so she will be accepted into London society. She and Darcy strike a bargain that appears mutually agreeable — but will, of course, bring them into close enough proximity to strike sparks!

Teaching Eliza is true both to the spirit of Pride and Prejudice and My Fair Lady, blending both stories well while adding some original elements (including some character pairings that are more satisfying than Austen’s originals, if perhaps not as completely true to the time period). It’s also a witty and enjoyable Regency romance in its own right, and shows off the talents of a debut writer with tremendous potential. If you’re looking for a historical romance that’s sharp, well-written, and pays homage to two great works while still offering something fresh and new, pick up a copy of Teaching Eliza.

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Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green

tatwdA new John Green book is always going to be a treat for me, as well as for the teenaged reader in my house, because we’re big John Green fans. Turtles All the Way Down, coming five years after his blockbuster hit The Fault in Our Stars and carrying all the weight of expectations that accompanies the next release after a huge bestseller. It does not disappoint.

Turtles is told from the point of view of Asa Holmes, a 16-year-old girl who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder (as does the author himself). It’s rare to see a depiction of mental illness, especially an anxiety disorder, as raw, unsparing, and honest-feeling as this one. Asa feels like a prisoner of her own thoughts, unable to escape them and wondering who she even is if her mind is invaded by thoughts she doesn’t want and can’t control. Everything else in her life — her relationship with her loving but worried mom, her friendship with best friend Daisy, and her attempts to solve a mystery surrounded a cute guy who might be a possible boyfriend — is pushed to the side and subverted by anxious thoughts that Asa can’t escape.

This novel is hard to read at times, just like it’s hard to live inside a brain that seems determined to sabotage itself. But the novel is also often funny, always insightful, and ultimately hopeful and life-affirming — though it’s not a hope cheaply bought. Both John Green and Asa Holmes are realistic about the fact that narratives of mental illness are not simple “I was sick and then I got better” stories. Reality is harder and sometimes uglier — but it’s beautiful, too.  And so is this book.

(Btw, for those who like podcasts, you can hear a great discussion between me and my daughter Emma, who is an insightful and incisive 17-year-old reader, on this episode of my Shelf Esteem book podcast where we discuss this and other YA novels we’ve read lately).

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Where I Live Now, by Sharon Butala

whereiliveSharon Butala is an award-winning Canadian writer, but I’d never read  her work before randomly picking up a copy of Where I Live Now. For some reason, although I enjoyed this book, it took me forever to finish it — I kept picking it up, reading a bit, then getting into a different book and coming back to this one later. It’s a memoir of her life on a Saskatchewan ranch with her rancher husband, his death, and her attempt to make a new life for herself away from the ranch where she’d lived for thirty years. There’s some good material in here about marriage, change, grief and again, but I think where Butala’s writing really shines is when writing about the natural landscape, which she obviously loves and describes with great care and tenderness. While this may not have been a book that compelled me to devour it quickly, it was one that rewarded my many visits back to dip into its rich, descriptive detail.

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Realms of Glory, by Catherine Fox

realmsofgloryA lot of what I might say about this book has already been said in my review/rave of the first volume in this trilogy, Acts and Omissions, and its sequel Unseen Things Aboveso you should check those out. Some of the things I mentioned in that first review — the intrusive omniscient narrator, the minutiae of life in a Church of England cathedral community — will put some readers off, but I love everything about these books (despite my extreme non-Anglicanness). Having read the first two volumes in 2015, I was following Catherine Fox’s blog as she posted the chapters of Realms of Glory week by week on her blog last year.

While the two earlier volumes were also self-published in this way before appearing as complete books, there was something uniquely appropriate about the fact that Realms of Glory  was the book I got to read in installations, in the much the same way nineteenth-century novelists serialized their stories in the papers of the time (Fox consciously casts herself as a modern-day Trollope). While the first two books did make occasional reference to events happening in the wider world that paralleled the fictional world of the story, Realms of Glory is the volume of the trilogy in which outside events seemed to have the most impact on the clergy and people of Lindchester. For people of certain ages, interests, and political affiliations, 2016 was a year of one body blow after another, and as the chapters of this novel unfolded on Fox’s blog, she addressed each celebrity death, each terrorist attack, the Brexit vote, the US election outcome, in real time as it happened, her characters reacting just as so many of us did to these events.

Having watched the story unfold week by week on the author’s blog, I looked forward to reading it all at once in book form, and was delighted when Fox’s publisher approached me to ask would I like a free copy of the book in return for an honest review. Needless to say I snapped up that offer, and took the opportunity to re-read the whole trilogy back to back.

As good as these books were reading them individually, reading all three together is a better, more complete experience. I originally felt that the first book, Acts and Omissions, had the tightest and most compelling plot of the three, but reading them all together I can see how the plot arcs and character development stretch over all three books and how beautifully many things are resolved (while some, as in real life, must be left without a satisfying resolution — yet even this is well handled). Yes, the reread of Realms of Glory did make me feel a bit like I was reliving the worst of 2016 over again — but coloured by Fox’s relentless insistence on mercy, grace, and redemption even in the darkest of times. “Love love love,” one character texts when he thinks the plane he’s on may crash, and the recipient of the text reflects that it would be hard to top that as a final message. Through the terrorist attacks and the horrible elections and the bigotry and the petty church politics and the dying celebrities of our youth: Love love love.  Divine and human love. What else do we have?

As I said in my original review of Acts and Omissions, you don’t have to understand the inner workings of an Anglican cathedral to appreciate these books (though I’m sure if you do, there are layers of nuance, especially of Fox’s wickedly funny humour, that you will appreciate better). If that’s not your world, you can regard these as the colourful details of setting that introduce you, as good books should, to a world outside your own. What is universal is the human condition, so richly detailed in these books. Especially if you are a person of faith who loves stories of grace and redemption yet finds most “Christian fiction” to be too squeaky-clean and insipid — you should try Catherine Fox’s books. And if you do, I hope you’ll love this trilogy as much as I do.

In my review of Unseen Things Above I expressed my fervent hope that Fox would not limit herself to a trilogy but would keep coming back to the rich world of Lindchester she has created in these novels, as I think there are enough great characters and plots here to sustain many, many books. However, Realms of Glory is quite clearly written as a final volume, with several characters’ storylines brought to a decisive point where the author wants to leave them. While I still think there’s more than enough material in Lindchester for, say, a follow-up trilogy in a few years, I’ll also be interested to read whatever she writes next.

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