Monthly Archives: August 2013

Deluded Your Sailors, by Michelle Butler Hallett

Layout 1Deluded Your Sailors is a rich, complex novel that packs a lot of story into a relatively short book — too much, perhaps, for some readers, but there’s fascinating material here. The novel tells two stories — one set in the present (sort of), the other in the early 1700s. The present-day story is set in a recognizable Newfoundland in 2009, except for the fact that Newfoundland is not a province of Canada but an independent republic. The main character here is Nichole Wright, a writer, sexual abuse survivor and bulemic whose struggle to free herself from the past runs through the modern-day plot, in which she is hired to write a play celebrating 250 years of settlement in a Newfoundland outport called Port au Mal. Nichole is only one of a large cast of characters we meet in this contemporary story, each with his or her own rich backstory. It turns out (I learned from reading another review) that several of these characters also appear in Hallett’s earlier novel, Sky Waves, which I haven’t read but now wish I had, as I often wanted to know more about these people. 

The modern-day story, fascinating as it is, is only a framing device for the historical story that takes up the larger central section of the novel. Here’s where the novel may require a little more work than many readers are willing to put in, since Hallett has chosen to tell a truly fascinating story through vignettes that move backwards and forwards in time and are told in the voices of several different narrators. Because of this, it takes awhile to piece together whose story is actually being told here, which runs the risk of some readers becoming confused and not engaging with the story. And it’s a story worth engaging with. The main character in the 1700s is, like Nichole Wright, a victim of childhood sexual abuse — a young girl on the streets of Bristol, England, disguised as a boy, kidnapped and carried on board ship by an unscrupulous sailor. Being disguised as a boy does nothing to prevent Kit from being repeatedly raped by the sailor, but it’s a disguise she clings to as she becomes, variously, cabin boy, shipwreck survivor, spy, and then captain of her own ship. 

Though I appreciated the scope of what Hallett was attempting by telling the historical story through different voices and different types of documents, I couldn’t help wishing that Kit’s story had been told as a more straightforward narrative, either in first-person or third-person, so that the focus could have been clearly on that one fascinating tale, rather than on the stories of the numerous peripheral characters. Having a large cast of interesting secondary characters may work better in the modern sections of the novel, but in the historical story, where language and setting already pose some barriers to comprehension, I couldn’t help feeling that the way in which the story was told distanced the reader a little. The reservations I had about the book may simply come down to a case of the writer trying to pack too much into the book — especially when you add to the modern-day story an immortal character who introduces an element of magic realism to the otherwise highly realistic story, creating a semi-living link between the past and present storylines. While I’m all in favour of authors making readers work a little, there’s a delicate balance to be struck there. I couldn’t help feeling in this case that in a novel of just under 300 pages, an ambitious and highly skilled writer was allowing her own literary virtuosity to distract a little from her strong characters and compelling story. 

This isn’t a quibble that every reader will share: some will enjoy the complexity of language and style as an integral part of this rich reading experience. While I might have preferred a more straightforward storytelling style in the historical portion of the novel, I was drawn into Kit Finn’s vivid world, as real and resonant as Nichole Wright’s twenty-first century Newfoundland, and found both characters sympathetic and engaging. I wish the book had been longer, with more space to develop and explore these two main characters, the worlds in which they live and the many intriguing people whose lives touch theirs.


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

Lookaway, Lookaway, by Wilton Barnhardt

lookawayI have a complex relationship with Wilton Barnhardt. (As a reader, I mean; it’s not like I’m his stalker or anything). I’ve already written on this blog about his first novel, Emma Who Saved My Life (1989), one of my favourite novels of all time. I had a different but equally intense relationship with his second novel, Gospel (1993), the book that should have gotten all the hype that went to The DaVinci Code. Then his third novel, Show World, came out in 1999 and I didn’t read it. The blurb didn’t grab me and I didn’t want my opinion of a favourite author tarnished by a book I didn’t enjoy. I figured I’d wait for his next book.

Then FOURTEEN YEARS went by. After the internet happened I occasionally googled Wilton Barnhardt and found that he was teaching writing courses, but didn’t seem to be producing any new novels. I was afraid he’d just given up.

It had been awhile since I’d googled his name, and I tried it just a couple of weeks ago only to find that he had an entirely new novel — the saga of a Southern family — coming out this very month. This time it didn’t matter whether the blurb sounded interesting or not; I downloaded it as soon as it was available.

And I have … mixed feelings. There were certainly very enjoyable moments in Lookaway, Lookaway, but I doubt it’ll make my Top 10 Best Books list this year, which is too bad given how long I’ve waited for a new book from an author I loved so much.

Lookaway, Lookaway, is indeed the saga of an American Southern family, full of threadbare wealth and ferociously maintained social position. The novel has three sections: Scandal Averted (set in 2003), Scandal Regained (set in 2007-2008), and Scandal Redux (2012). Which “scandal” is referred to never becomes quite clear — numerous things happen that could bring shame upon the family name, but the plot never really converges around a single incident and its consequences.

I thought it was going to. Early in the long middle section of the book something genuinely shocking happens, something that seems to connect logically with the 2003 event described in the book’s first section (thus justifying why that section is there at all). It seems like the rest of the book will be about how each character is affected by the ramifications of that Genuinely Shocking Eventand it is shocking enough and yet in-character enough that it could be the engine that drives the rest of the book. But then … it’s not. We jump on to another character’s point of view, another set of problems, and the earlier Shocking Event, while not forgotten, recedes into the background, its consequences (or indeed its motivations) never fully explored.

The real problem with this novel is the multiple points of view. I love multiple points of view, but they’re hard to do well and I don’t think they’re handled as well as they should be here. Only one character, as far as I can recall, ever gets a second turn at being the main character after their viewpoint chapter has passed, which means that Barnhardt sets characters up in interesting situations and then we only see the outcome of those situations through the perspectives of other characters, not those directly involved. Some of the characters are more interesting and easy to relate to than others — always a problem with multiple points of view — but none of them has the kind of power and appeal of characters like Gil and Emma in Emma, or Lucy and Patrick in Gospel. 

It might work a bit better to think of these as linked short stories rather than a novel, but that undercuts even further the device of organizing the novel around  a “scandal” the implications of which are never fully explored. I have to say that while there were certainly great moments in this book — Gaston, the arrogant alcoholic bestselling Southern author, stands out as a favourite — overall, it was a disappointment, and the ending was particularly disappointing. Also, while there are sparkling, insightful and funny moments here, there are also incidences of strangely sloppy writing — like the narration occasionally slipping into present tense from the usual past tense for no discernable reason.

It’s been 20 years since the release of Gospel and I’m still waiting for the next great Wilton Barnhardt novel. I wanted to badly to love this book, and I wouldn’t tell anyone not to read it. You might have a lot of fun with it, especially if you like dysfunctional families, because this one has it all. But I would suggest you don’t go into the novel with expectations as high as mine were.

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Peter the Great: His Life and World, by Robert K. Massie

peterthegreatThis book took me forever to finish. I bought it as my beach book last summer (my definition of “beach book” is a little different from most people’s: instead of looking for fun, light reading I look for big books that will last all summer, aren’t so compelling that I’ll be tempted to rush ahead and finish them between beach trips, and come in cheap paperbacks so I don’t mind getting water or sand on them (unlike an e-book). Peter the Great went to pools, lakesides and beaches all over Newfoundland with me last summer and even made a trip to the beach in Nova Scotia before coming home to languish on a shelf until this summer.

It’s not that it’s not as well-written and well-researched as Massie’s Catherine the Great, which I finished fairly quickly and painlessly last year, and the subject matter is just as interesting. But for some reason I found this one slow going — I think it’s that more of Peter’s reign was spent fighting wars with various neighbouring countries and I find war less interesting to read about than domestic affairs, so I kept getting bogged down. But it is, as always with Massie, a superb work of readable, popular history if you want to know more about the Russian monarchs.


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The Painted Girls, by Cathy Buchanan

cdn-final-coverThis is the best work of historical fiction I’ve read this year, and that’s saying something, since historical fiction is my favourite genre to read. Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls tells the story of Marie and Antoinette van Goethem, two young girls in Paris in the late 1870s/early 1880s (there is a third sister, Charlotte, but Marie and Antoinette are the point of view characters). I didn’t realize till I finished the book that these were actually real people: Marie was one of the young ballet dancers who served as a model for artist Edgar Degas and because she was immortalized in art, we know a very little bit about her real life. The rest is fleshed out here in fiction, bringing a woman who exists only in a man’s artwork to life as her own person — much the same way Tracy Chevalier did in Girl with a Pearl Earring, though for my money The Painted Girls is a far more rich and compelling novel.

The three van Goethem sisters grow up in rented rooms in Paris, barely able to pay the rent. Their father is dead; their mother is a laundress and an alcoholic. All three girls aspire to the ballet and are enrolled in the Opera ballet school. Antoinette flunks out and goes on to be an extra in a play about laundresses, then an actual laundress, and also lover of a young man accused of murder. Marie and Charlotte show more promise and both progress to dancing on the Opera stage. But dancing doesn’t pay enough to cover the rent: Marie moonlights as Degas’ model and also by working in a bakery. She’s often too tired to perform well and is encouraged to rely on the solution most ballet girls turn to: a wealthy patron. These men, the abonnes, are able to lift some of the grinding burden of poverty, but the possibilities for sexual exploitation are, of course, endless.

Meanwhile, Antoinette has always been the protector of her younger sisters, taking on the maternal role that her own mother is unable to fill. But as her romance with Emile consumes more of her time and energy, the bond between the sisters, the one reliable element in the van Goethem sisters’ lives, is strained to the breaking point.

This is a compelling story about young girls trying to survive in a world where, as in many times and places in history, the odds are stacked against a woman being able to support herself and her loved ones. It’s also a powerful story about the relationship between sisters. Most important, it’s a masterful piece of historical fiction because it immerses the reader completely in an unfamiliar time and place. Every time I opened the book (well, opened the e-book, you know) I felt like I was in nineteenth-century Paris: the characters’ narrative voices combined with every detail of the setting to make that world so real and vivid it was like taking a vacation to the past. Which is exactly what reading a historical novel should be like.


Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical

The Universe Versus Alex Woods, by Gavin Extence

universeThis is one of those books I’d never have heard of if not for the Book Buzz phenomenon of there being a huge display of copies at my local Chapters. I’m so glad I did see it, because I thoroughly enjoyed this quirky coming-of-age tale.

It starts with a great hook. Seventeen-year-old Alex is stopped at the channel border crossing from France back into his home country of England, driving a car with a glove compartment full of marijuana and a dead man’s ashes in an urn on the front seat. The official questioning him thinks Alex is not paying attention to the seriousness of the situation, but that’s actually because Alex is about to have a seizure. As he’s being taken away for questioning, Alex tells the reader that what he really wants is to tell the story of how he got into that situation in his own way, going back to the beginning – the beginning being when he was struck by a meteorite at age ten. And so the story unfolds.

Alex is a great first-person narrator with a compelling voice. The story of his life from age ten to age seventeen is about chance, friendship, love, life, death and all the big stuff, but it always stays very real and immediate because of the warm and believable storytelling. Alex is a little bit remeniscent of first person narrators in books such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime or Come, Thou Tortoise — not because he shares the cognitive limitations of those narrators but because as a young person he sees the world in some very specific ways that make him both very perceptive and at the same time very blind to other things. I found this a wonderful, engaging story which I read quickly and thoroughly enjoyed.

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Lola and the Boy Next Door, by Stephanie Perkins

lolaThis is another young-adult romance by the author of Anna and the French Kiss, and much of what I said about that book applies to this one too. Smart, fun, well-written, content maybe a little more “adult” than the parents of some young teens may expect, though there’s certainly nothing explicit. Lola is a very appealing character — a girl with a strong sense of fun and individuality who likes to design funky costumes to wear to school. Lola is close to her two gay dads but embarrassed by her biological mom, who makes occasional incursions into their family life. Lola’s generally a good kid, but her dads are worried that she’s only 17 and dating 22-year-old Max, a would-be rock star. Lola is convinced that Max is the love of her life — until Cricket, the guy she had a crush on a few years earlier, moves back into the house his family owns right next door to Lola.

Despite some romance cliches this is a fresh, fun and highly readable book, though not as memorable as Anna and the French Kiss. Readers who enjoyed the earlier book will be entertained to see the two main characters of that novel appear as minor characters in this one, and will certainly find it worth spending time with another likable, funny, utterly believable Stephanie Perkins heroine.

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Blood and Beauty, by Sarah Dunant

blood-and-beautyMy review of Philippa Gregory’s The White Princess may have been unfairly affected by the fact that I read Sarah Dunant’s Blood and Beauty right afterwards, because Blood and Beauty is a much better book in the same category — historical fiction about real famous people. I’ve been a huge fan of Dunant’s historical novels for years but in the past she has generally written about fictional characters in real historical settings, sometimes bringing in historical figures as minor characters but never making kings and queens the stars of the show as writers like Gregory tend to do. The beautifully crafted Blood and Beauty is a departure from that pattern, featuring those Renaissance headline grabbers (and stars of a recent miniseries, although I haven’t seen it and it has no connection with Dunant’s book): the Borgias.

This isn’t an era I know a whole lot about so I can’t judge Dunant’s accuracy but she certainly makes turn-of-the-sixteenth-century Rome feel believable, and the Borgias, despite their larger-than-life exploits and reputation, emerge as real, flesh-and-blood characters. One thing I especially liked is how she tackles something that’s sometimes difficult for a modern writer and a modern reader to appreciate: how in this era of what we now view (and some then viewed) as rampant corruption within the church, the very same people responsible for the corruption could also be sincerely devout. Yes, there’s cynicism, starting from the papal politics on the very first page as Rodrigo Borgia manipulates himself onto the papal throne, but there’s also real faith and love for God and the church. You begin to see how a man like Rodrigo Borgia could see his political machinations, up to and including the murder of enemies, as part of his devotion to the glory of God and the Catholic church. The reader doesn’t necessarily find herself approving of everything the Borgias do, exactly — though Lucrezia is a very sympathetic character, almost an innocent in a very guilty world — but Dunant brings us inside their heads enough that we understand their motives.

As I neared the end of this book I began thinking it was impossible to wrap up everyone’s lives and storylines in the pages remaining — and sure enough, the novel ends mid-Borgia-career, with a sequel promised. I’ll be waiting. Though a history book can tell you what happened to all the Borgias, only a great writer can make you feel like you’ve experienced it along with them.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical