Monthly Archives: September 2008

The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett

The Uncommon Reader is a short book — almost a novella — by a well-known British writer whose works I’ve never read before (although apparently he wrote the screenplay for The Madness of King George, a movie I liked a lot).  I probably never would have stumbled across it if my Aunt Bernice hadn’t read it, loved it, and given me a copy for my birthday.  It’s a wonderful, witty little book about a subject dear to my heart — reading.

The Uncommon Reader is about the Queen of England — our present Queen, Elizabeth II, in the present day.  In pursuit of a runaway corgi, the Queen discovers a mobile library van parked near the palace kitchens and checks out a book.  Gradually, she becomes a book addict — a bit of a compulsive overreader, in fact.  Her staff is distressed to find Her Majesty always with her nose in a book during official engagements, but the Queen’s new love of the written word gradually shapes and changes her as a person, and her view of her role in the country and the world.

The book is really funny, in a dry satiric way, as it pokes fun at the monarchy and the bureaucracy surrounding it, but it also has some thoughtful and insightful points to make about reading, writing, and how they can change us.  Reading this won’t take you long, and it’s well worth the time. Books generally are — as even the Queen discovers.

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Filed under Fiction -- general

The Sealed Letter, by Emma Donoghue

It’s nice, when the Giller longlist comes out, to find a few books you genuinely like on there — or, a few books you haven’t read yet but know you will like.  Such was my reaction on seeing Emma Donoghue’s latest make the list.  I loved her earlier historical novel, Slammerkin, and while I didn’t love Life Mask quite as much, I certainly found it engaging, so I looked forward to picking up The Sealed Letter.

I absolutely devoured this book. It was a genuine could-not-put-down.  This is some of the best historical fiction — or best fiction of any kind — that I’ve read in a long time.

There are several types of historical fiction, and here on Compulsive Overreader I often promote the “epic” kind — the Margaret George/Sharon Kay Penman/Philippa Gregory genre of big blockbusters based on big stories — the lives of kings, queens and the like.  But another excellent path for the historical fiction writer to take is to tell a “small” story — whether completely fictional or, as in the case of Emma Donoghue’s novels, fictionalized versions of real events — that captures, like a snapshot, the essence of a time and place.

The Sealed Letter is a snapshot of middle-class life in Victorian England, and specifically, of the process of getting a divorce in that era.  Divorce laws had just been liberalized, though they were still draconian by our standards; a woman whose husband petitioned for divorce had a bleak future ahead, with no hope for an income, status in society, or any access to her children.  Such is the fate that awaits Helen Codrington, one of the main characters in this novel.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical

Bathsheba, by Tracy Morgan

Since I write novels about Bible women that are published by a Seventh-day Adventist press and sold in Adventist Book Centres, this new release (from the “other” SDA press, Pacific Press) caused some confusion at my local campmeeting ABC this summer.  My friend Alice who was running the ABC told me that people kept coming in, picking it up and saying, “Oh, you’ve got Trudy’s new book! Wonderful!”

Well, no.  This is indeed a Biblical novel by an Adventist author with a similar name to mine, but I didn’t write it.  I did, however, read it.  There’s a lot to explore in the story of Bathsheba — not just the famous bathing-on-the-roof scene and its consequences, but the later years of David’s reign, and Bathsheba’s determination to have her son Solomon ascend his father’s throne.  Wonderful material, and I can recognize in the later chatpers of Bathsheba much of what I tried to do in Esther: A Story of Courage — to bring to life the cloistered and competitive atmosphere of a harem, to capture the fear and power-struggles that occur in the dying years of a powerful king’s reign.

Morgan has great material to work with, and she does some interesting things with it.  I do have some quibbles with the novel: the author often tells when she should show, and I wasn’t impressed with her handling of dialogue.  Dialogue is tricky at the best of times, trickier in historical novels, and I know I’m relentlessly critical of dialogue that doesn’t work well (and I myself have been criticized for using overly modern-sounding dialogue in historical stories).  Well, I hate to be critical, but nothing pulls me out of a story faster than dialogue that doesn’t sound believable, and I had that experience several times with Bathsheba. 

That said, there’s a lot to enjoy in this book, and it does bring to life a Biblical woman whose story is intriguing and not explored as much as some others.  If you enjoy Biblical fiction, you should check this one out.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical, Fiction -- inspirational

The Memoirs of Cleopatra, by Margaret George

After working my way through that vast Colleen McCullough Masters of Rome series that I reviewed last month, I still didn’t feel like I had quite enough of that world, especially the Antony and Cleopatra story. So I went back to reread a novel I’d enjoyed some years ago, Margaret George’s The Memoirs of Cleopatra. When I first read it, while I liked it, I didn’t feel like I knew much about the period in which it was set and some things flew right over my head.  Now, after HBO and Colleen McCullough have completed my education on the Roman world, I found myself enjoying this novel even more with a better appreciation for its context.

Margaret George has long been right up there with Sharon Kay Penman as one of my favourite writers of historical fiction — the people who really do it right. And after reading Colleen McCullough all summer, enjoying what I learned from her but also struggling with her flaws as a storyteller, diving into a Margaret George version of the same story was liking diving into a cool pond on a hot day.  I found myself immediately engrossed and emotionally involved, and thought “Ahhhh … yessss…this is how it’s done.”

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Filed under Fiction -- historical

The Way of Women, by Lauraine Snelling

The Way of Women is another of those books of Christian women’s fiction (not a romance in this case) that I occasionally pick up in hopes of a light and spiritually refreshing read.  Sometimes it works out really well, other times, not so much.  This wasn’t a bad book, but it was one of the “not so much” times as it left no real emotional impact on me despite dealing with some very emotional topics.

This novel deals with the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens in Washington State.  The “women” of the title are a group of women who meet while trying to find out the fate of family and loved ones who were up on the mountain at the time of the eruption. There’s plenty of interesting insight into a volcanic eruption and its aftermath here, as well as plenty of pathos.  (And the occasional short chapters told from the point of view of the mountain itself might come across as poetic to some readers, but they didn’t work for me).  The information was interesting, but for some reason the pathos didn’t touch me, and I found myself not caring about the outcome of these stories as much as I should have.  If you happen to be interested in that particular historic event or that area, you might find this a good read, but for me, it never connected emotionally — the characters never leapt off the page to become real people about whom I cared.

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Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse (and others), by Lee Goldberg

If you really love a TV series and just can’t get enough of it, the next best thing is a good series of spin-off novels.  Of course, spin-off novels could be terrible, but if they’re written by a really good writer who knows both the show and his genre inside-out, the novels could actually be better than some episodes of the TV series.

Enter the Monk novels, by mystery writer Lee Goldberg.

I don’t think these novels would work as stand-alones if you weren’t already a fan of the series.  Goldberg (writing in the first-person voice of Mr. Monk’s long-suffering assistant, Natalie) does a good job of sketching Mr. Monk’s quirks and oddities as well as his genius, but it’s all based on the assumption that the reader has already seen Tony Shalhoub’s unforgettable performance in the role and that that image will be firmly fixed in your head as you read.

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Filed under Fiction -- mystery