Monthly Archives: November 2017

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.


Filed under Fiction -- historical

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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Filed under Fiction -- general

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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Filed under Nonfiction -- memoir

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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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical

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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Filed under Fiction -- general, Young Adult

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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Filed under Canadian author, Nonfiction -- memoir