Monthly Archives: May 2016

Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain

circlingthesunFrom being down and out in to Elizabethan England with Christopher Marlowe, I travelled via my next book pick to experience the life of a wealthy white colonizer and a trailblazing woman in early 20th century Africa. Circling the Sun is the story of Beryl Markham, the first woman (and second person) to fly across the Atlantic from east to west. She was the daughter of a white farmer in Kenya, a highly skilled racehorse trainer at a time when that was largely a men-only career, and a society woman with several high-profile affairs as well as three marriages. And most of this was before she started to fly planes.

Beryl Markham certainly lived an interesting life — the book only covers her life up to her early thirties, and she lived into her eighties. And she inhabited an interesting world in interesting times. Also, Paula McLain is good at vividly recreating a woman’s life in times past and drawing the reader in, as she did in The Paris Wife. So this was an intriguing book that I read quite quickly. Beryl is not always a likable protagonist, but she was, to me, always engaging. I cared about what happened to her even when I didn’t like the choices she made. And, as is nearly always the case with well-written stories about women’s lives in decades or centuries past, I found myself struck by how limited her choices were, how difficult it was even for a relatively wealthy, privileged woman blessed with intelligence and a strong will, to carve out anything remotely like an independent life for herself.

What’s missing from Circling the Sun is both infuriating and also absolutely appropriate. The book vividly paints the world of expatriate English people living our their lives in the African colonies, amusing themselves with everything from jungle safaris to casual infidelity, but never investigates the strangeness of the fact that all their wealth and ease (and even their hardship, as when farmers like Beryl’s father fail to make their farms pay) is built on theft. The mere idea that you can move into a land where someone else is living, exploit that land’s resources for your own benefit, and make the native population serve you, is, on the face of it, preposterous. Hopefully it seems preposterous to most of us today. But for people living in Beryl Markham’s time, it was simply the way the world worked (albeit a world that was going to end far sooner than most of them realized). The politics and power struggles in the background of the book are about which group of white people are going to control which piece of Africa; the native population is never treated serious as owners and masters of the land, as they had been before European conquest and would be again within a couple of decades.

It’s jarring to a modern reader that nobody in the book ever reflects or comments upon this, but I also think it’s absolutely right, because the lives of people like Beryl Markham and the others she associated with (including Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton, probably better known to most reader than Beryl herself) were made possible by never thinking about the ridiculous immorality of the project they were all engaged in. As a child, she spent a lot of time in the nearby native village (I don’t know whether this is historically accurate or a detail invented by McLain, as I hadn’t read anything by or about Markham before), and it particularly close to one boy near her own age. When both Beryl and the African boy are adolescents, she makes a brief sexual advance towards him, to which he succinctly responds, “Do you want to get me killed?”

Later, that same African friend, Ruta — now grown, married and with a family — becomes Beryl’s most trusted retainer, but there’s never any question that he is a servant, not an equal. That disparity between black and white underpins the entire world that makes Beryl’s story possible, and it’s entirely believable that a woman like Markham, iconoclastic as she was in so many areas, would be entirely conventional and accepting of that system that benefitted her so much. 

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This Marlowe, by Michelle Butler Hallett

thismarloweThere’s pleasure and pain in reading well-written historical fiction. The pleasure is in time-travelling to the past, and the better the writer does her job, the more thoroughly the reader is immersed in the sights, smells, tastes and sounds of a vanished world. On this score, Michelle Butler Hallett’s This Marlowe is a huge success, transporting the reader to an Elizabeth England rife with blood, grit, plague and fleas. Everything from descriptions to dialogue — Butler Hallett has recreated the dialogue in Elizabeth English that somehow manages to sound both authentic and immediate — tells us that we are in a place and time far from our own, among people who love and hate and bleed as we do, yet whose motivations are driven by values and beliefs we can’t fully appreciate.

The pain in reading good historical fiction is in already knowing how the story ends. If a writer creates imaginary characters to people the world of the past she gives herself some leeway, though there will still be historical events to navigate around. But a writer who chooses, as Butler Hallett has done here, to bring to life a real historical figure like Kit Marlowe, has to work within the limitations of what actually happened to that character. This novel opens in 1593, and if you know your Elizabeth dramatists, you know that Marlowe died in 1593. So no matter how invested you get in his character, his story, his tangled relationships with those around him as a lover, a writer, a friend, a spy … you know Marlowe’s not getting out of this novel alive. There will be no happily-ever-after for Christopher Marlowe, and four hundred years later, we’re all going to be reading and watching Shakespeare’s plays, while only the drama geeks will remember Marlowe.

Here, too, the novel succeeds brilliantly, because the real trick — the hardest trick, I think — is to make readers care so much about the character that we want to bend history; we want the story to end differently from how we know it has to end. I read through this book quickly, fully immersed in Marlowe’s world even when I didn’t fully understand the political intrigue that swirled around, but always wishing it were possible to write a different ending. It isn’t. But for a writer to be able to awaken that hope is a great gift.

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The High Mountains of Portugal, by Yann Martel

highmountainsIn the highly misleading Author’s Note at the beginning of his most popular novel, Life of Pi, Martel tells the reader that when he went to India, he was working on a novel set in Portugal in 1939, but abandoned it because he couldn’t make it work. If any of that is true, it’s possible that might have been the germ of the book that became The High Mountains of Portugal, although only the shortest of its three novellas is set in Portugal in 1939 (and barely that; it occurs over the night and into the morning of New Year’s Eve, 1938-39). The first story is set in Portugal in 1904, and the last begins in Canada and continues in the US before coming to rest in Portugal in the early 1980s.

This three disparate stories are very different, but are linked in several ways. All three stories feature a male protagonist who has suffered a shattering personal loss, and all three meditate on grief and how it changes us. All three take place in or feature characters from the same village in a remote rural corner of Portugal. And all three feature chimpanzees, in one way or another, though only in the third is an actual live chimp a major character in the story.

First, let’s get the chimp issue out of the way: people who know me know that I am horrified by monkeys. Not scared of them exactly, just — creeped out. Something about them being both so like and so unlike us (the very thing that fascinates the characters in Martel’s book) makes them creepy to me. I have now read three very good books — this one as well as Sara Gruen’s Ape House and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves — which feature our primate cousins in leading roles, and I can’t say I ever find it less creepy to read about them. In this book, I kept thinking that all the companionship and all the insight into how animals live in the moment, that the main character derives from his chimp companion, could have been derived just as well from a good dog, without the disturbing “is he one of us or isn’t he?” reflection that inevitably accompanies any introduction of the non-human primates into a story. So, ick. Loved the book; hated the chimp.

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Mistborn: The Final Empire, by Brandon Sanderson

mistbornIt’s always nice to discover a new fantasy series, and I had high hopes for Mistborn after hearing it recommended by a few people whose taste I trust. It fell into the liked-it-but-didn’t-love-it category. The pages started turning faster as I got near the end and became more engaged in the story.

The set-up here has all the standard fantasy tropes: an empire ruled by an evil overlord, with a downtrodden underclass and a cruel upper class. A small group of rebels with access to mysterious powers decides to take down the overlord, under the leadership of a charismatic bad boy and his newest recruit, a scrappy orphan girl who’s been oppressed her whole life but has now discovered the latent power within her.

The one thing that’s really original here is the system of magic used by the Mistborn. Allomancy is almost more science-fiction than fantasy; Allomancers swallow and internally “burn” small amounts of different metals to power different abilities. Tin enhances your senses; pewter increases your strength, etc., etc. This was an intriguing take on magical abilities.

Along the way there are predictable conflicts with a few unexpected twists and turns. What kept me from being completely caught up in the story was the Sanderson’s extremely pedestrian style of writing. The best way I can explain it is to say that Sanderson writes fantasy in the same way Ken Follett writes historical fiction: certainly not badly, but with a style so resolutely un-literary and flat that there’s no real pleasure to be taken in the language, and no great subtlety to the characterization. People are pretty much what they appear to be, and the story tells you that, in exactly as many words as it takes.

This isn’t by any means a bad thing, and for some readers, who prefer fewer literary flourishes, it will be a point in Sanderson’s favour. For myself, I like a fantasy world where the language itself draws me in and entices me, as it does with Guy Gavriel Kay’s or Robin Hobb’s books, but I certainly didn’t dislike Mistborn. I will probably finish the trilogy eventually, but there are several books ahead of it on my to-read list and I don’t mind waiting.

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Home Sweet Anywhere, by Lynne Martin

homesweetanywhereHome Sweet Anywhere is a memoir about a couple, Lynne and Tim, who get together later in life after a brief romance years earlier. When Tim has been through a divorce and Lynne’s husband has died, they fall in love all over again — but discover that the last thing they both want is to settle down to a quiet retirement. Though they both have adult children and grandchildren they love, they’re not ready to stay close to home — they both love travel. So rather than buying a retirement home, they sell everything they can, put the rest into storage, and hit the road, spending weeks or months at a time renting apartments in whatever country takes their fancy.

Obviously Lynne and Tim’s plan only works for retirees who have two things that not all elderly people are blessed with — a healthy retirement savings fund, and good health. Assuming those two things, this is a wish-fulfillment fantasy for a lot of us would-be gypsies who look forward to travelling more in our golden years. While I wouldn’t enjoy their solution of having no permanent home to stash my stuff and come back to — I hope to always have our house in the centre of St. John’s as a home base — it’s not hard to indulge in my own fantasies while I read about Lynne and Tim’s Dublin apartment or their Portuguese beach house.

I’ve seen this book criticized because of Lynne Martin’s everyday, somewhat bloggy prose (the book deal grew out of an article which in turn grew out of the blog she kept while on the road). It is fair to point out that as travel writers go, Lynne Martin is no Bill Bryson and no Elizabeth Gilbert either — but she doesn’t have any pretentions to that kind of literary travel writing. She’s a fairly ordinary (though well-off) traveller telling a pretty straightforward story — how she and her husband made this unconventional retirement plan work for them, what they saw, what they liked and didn’t like, with a few tips on what others might want to do it they are interested in the same kind of adventure. The fact that the book has succeeded as well as it has is not a testament to any brilliant narrative skills on Martin’s part — she makes it clear she lays no claim to those — but rather to the fact that her story touches a chord with so many of us who would like to do at least some version of what she and Tim have done with their retirement years.

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Cupids, NaGeira, and Easton, by Paul Butler

butlerbooksThese are three separate books, not a series or anything (in fact, they can’t really take place in the same fictional universe, since the events of Sheila Na’Geira’s life as narrated in Easton seem to contradict what happens in NaGeira, so they are clearly distinct stories). But I read them all in fairly quick succession over the last couple of weeks, which is why I’m reviewing them together. They are all set in the early 1600s, focusing on historical and/or legendary characters who have cast long shadows over Newfoundland’s early history — the colonizer John Guy, the pirate Peter Easton, and the Irish “princess” Sheila Na’Geira. Butler’s writing is vivid, fluent, and filled with wonderful period detail, bringing these historical names and legends to life in a series of revealing snapshots.

I say “snapshot” because each of these is a short book, dealing with only a narrow slice in a very broad life. NaGeira has the broadest scope, telling the story of the legendary Sheila’s early life from the perspective of the elderly Sheila, but even then, it’s only a glimpse into the life of a woman who, if she really lived, must have had a hugely varied and fascinating life that spanned decades in both the Old World and the New. Cupidis less about John Guy’s founding of the Cuper’s Cove colony and more about a single harrowing incident in which he tries to raise funds back in England to continue the venture — and even in that incident, it’s a young man named Bartholemew and his accomplice Helen who steal the story right out from under John Guy. Peter Easton is a significant and chilling presence in the novel Easton, but the main character is his prisoner George Dawson, a naval officer at first charmed and then horrified by what he learns about the smooth, urbane pirate captain.

The overall effect of reading these three short novels close together (which I chose to do because I am thinking about writing a story set in this time period, in which some of these historical figures will appear as minor characters) is of walking along a street at night, looking into the lit windows of houses. These bright windows frame a brief glimpse of the lives people live inside these rooms — a glimpse that’s all the more tantalizing because we know so much more lies beyond. Butler is a master of creating these vivid, fascinating windows into the lives of people we have known for so long only as names. I thoroughly enjoyed all three books.

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The Bone Clocks

boneclocksThe Bone Clocks is similar to Cloud Atlas, the only other David Mitchell book I’ve read (this is the other David Mitchell, the serious novelist, not the comedian whose books I have also read and enjoyed!) in that it’s a huge, sprawling, complicated book with a complex structure, multiple narrators, and things you won’t understand till later in the book. In the case of The Bone Clocks the unifying element that ties the different stories together is the life of Holly Sykes, who we first meet as a 15-year-old runaway in 1980s Britain. Holly is a great, cheeky, first-person narrator, and it’s a bit jarring in the second section of the book to switch to the completely different (and much less engaging) voice of a wealthy, amoral, possibly sociopathic university student several years later. But his story intersects with Holly’s, and so do the stories of all the characters we meet throughout the book’s span of more than sixty years.

Also intersecting with the lives of Holly Sykes, Hugo Lamb, Ed Brubeck, and Crispin Hershey, is a whole other layer — call it magic realism, paranormal, or full-blown fantasy — that weaves through the highly realistic narrative. Holly’s been hearing “voices” since she was a little girl, but doesn’t realize that she is standing at the crossroads of an invisible battle between two groups of beyond-human people — the Atemporals, who are born over and over into different human bodies with the same consciousness, and the Anchorites, who also use human bodies for their immortal lives, but in a different and more predatory way (I think. This part was confusing).

Personally, although I certainly don’t mind a healthy dose of fantasy, I found that the realistic elements of this book worked far better than the fantasy elements. The glimpses of paranormal activity were a fascinating motif that kept weaving in and out and made me curious, but ultimately, I didn’t find that part of the story paid off well enough to be worth the mystery. What I loved were the perspectives and voices of the main characters, and the richly realized detail of each section as it took us through different strata of (mostly British) life in different eras. Whether it was Holly’s punk-rock teenage rebellion in the 80s, Ed’s harrowing experiences as a war correspondent in the early-2000s Middle East, or Crispin’s acerbic observations of life among the literati, the stories (with the possible exception of Hugo’s) were always enjoyable and insightful. As for the final section of the book, set in a dystopian not-too-distant-and-all-too-plausible future, it was heartrending precisely because it was so believable. Holly Sykes is only a few years younger than I am, and it was hard to read that last section and avoid the fear that my old age might be lived out in a world not unlike the one she inhabits, as an eighty-year-old woman struggling to bring up two orphans in a lawless, post-climate-change-disaster corner of Ireland.

Without the fantasy elements that have woven through the story, the book would be robbed of any of the “sweet” elements in what’s ultimately a bittersweet resolution. Even so, the aspects of The Bone Clocks that will linger with me will not be the shadowy battles between immortals but the very mortal lives of the characters Mitchell so expertly depicts.

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