Monthly Archives: April 2019

Tombland, by C.J. Sansom

tomblandIt’s been an amazing journey through seven novels with Matthew Shardlake, the Tudor lawyer who is also my favourite detective in historical fiction since Brother Cadfael. I’ve read all six of the previous books, although I’ve just realized in looking back that I didn’t write reviews of all of them, which is often the case with books in a series. However, Tombland may well turn out to be the final Shardlake novel, so it’s worth its own review.

Shardlake started the series back in Dissolution as an ardent Protestant reformer working for Thomas Cromwell. The “dissolution” of that title was Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries after his break with Rome, and after Shardlake is sent to help with closing down one particular monastery (and, of course, solve a mystery while he’s there), he emerges with his faith shaken, no longer sure what he believes.

After several years of adventures, the older Shardlake (he’s 47 and white-haired in Tombland) is still unsure what he believes about God and the church, but he’s learned to be extremely wary of men in power. Old King Henry is dead, as is Queen Catherine Parr, whom Shardlake served with great devotion. Now he works for the Lady Elizabeth, who nobody imagines will be the future queen, during the short reign of her brother Edward VI. Shardlake goes to Norfolk on a commission for Elizabeth, investigating a distant relative of hers who has been accused of murdering his wife. While there, he becomes caught up in a massive peasant revolt and finds himself, once again, questioning his loyalties at the same time as he solves the mystery.

Shardlake is forever an outsider — physically disabled, mentally brilliant; poised between social classes as a lawyer risen to “gentleman” status from humble roots; a man deeply devoted to his friends but without love or a family of his own. All of those qualities are at their keenest in Tombland, throughout the vividly described weeks when he is half-prisoner, half-supporter in the rebel camp outside Norwich. (For readers who, like me, love a good Afterword at the end of a historical novel explaining the background, there’s a meaty 50-page essay discussing the revolt in great detail at the end of Tombland).

But also, at the end of Tombland, there’s Shardlake — once again alone, to some degree, and poised as always between worlds, a skeptic in a world of fervent believers. Before this book came out, the extremely private C.J. Sansom revealed that he has terminal cancer, which has led most readers to suspect that this will likely be the last Shardlake book. While Sansom is not the type of writer and Shardlake not the type of character to leave everything tied up neatly with a bow at the end, Tombland’s bittersweet ending leaves the reader with a little hope for Shardlake’s later years, as well as enough interesting loose ends that, if the author should be granted a few more years and another book, there’s always more mysteries to be solved.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical, Fiction -- mystery

The Kingdom of Copper, by S.A. Chakraborty

kingdomofcopperI can’t say much about this second volume of Chakraborty’s Daevabad trilogy without rehashing things I said last year when I read and raved about the first volume, City of Brass, except to say that this book does just what you hope a sequel will do: pick up the threads left hanging at the end of Book One, weave them into a new and exciting tapestry, turn everyone’s world upside down, and leave you breathless, waiting for the next volume.

Nahri, the main character we met at the beginning of City of Brass, has come a long way from the street-wise urchin of that book, living in the human city of Cairo and believing herself to be human, unaware of a whole other world parallel to the human one. Now she is a princess in Daevabad, the magical city of the djinn, the city’s most respected healer and last (known) survivor of the powerful daeva family that once ruled the city. The troubled prince who once befriended her, Ali, is now in exile outside the city, even more troubled by strange new powers. And as for Dara, the powerful, ancient daeva who first introduced Nahri to the world of the djinn and served as her protector and guide — well, after dying (not for the first time!) at the end of City of Brass, his story isn’t exactly over either, and contains stranger twists than we might have imagined.

This story barrels forward to an inevitable clash of several different opposing forces, each with their own agendas for the future of Daevabad, and frankly, I’m not sure I can wait another year (or more) for the sequel. In a world where you can’t always tell easily who are the “good guys” and “bad guys,” because everyone has their own cause and the author elicits both sympathy for all the characters, and revulsion at what they’re often willing to do to achieve their goals, what a “happy ending” for this series might look like is impossible to predict. This is the fantasy series I’ve loved most in recent years and I will be thrilled to see what happens in the conclusion.

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Juliet’s Answer, by Glenn Dixon

julietsanswerIt’s kind of unusual, for my reading habits at least, to read a memoir by a man about wandering around the world, trying to find himself, and straightening out his love life. I read a lot of those kinds of books by women, and Glenn Dixon’s Juliet’s Answer, while it’s no Eat, Pray, Love, definitely fits into the genre.

To be fair, Dixon doesn’t exactly wander the globe. He goes to Verona, Italy, and volunteers with the group of people who answer the thousands of letters that arrive yearly from people around the world writing about their broken hearts and hopes to the fictional Juliet of Shakespeare’s play. Dixon neatly sketches the entire Romeo-and-Juliet-centric tourist industry of Verona, and the gently good-hearted people who take on the task of dealing with Juliet’s mailbag. His stated reason for going is to deepen his own knowledge of a play he’s been teaching at the high school level for many years; his deeper reason is to untangle the threads of his own messy love life.

There are really three stories here, woven together: Dixon’s two trips to Verona, his experiences teaching Romeo and Juliet to ninth-grades back in Canada, and his unhappy long-term relationship with a woman he’s been “just friends” with since college. The Verona story is a nice piece of travel writing. The teacher story is a nice, not too idealized, look at the ways in which teaching a 400+ year old story can intersect with the lives of 21st century teenagers. I could definitely relate to this part after 20+ years teaching Shakespeare. (I say Dixon’s story is “not too idealized” — there’s obviously some editing for dramatic effect in the classroom scenes, and I almost laughed out loud at the touching scene where he and his class are reading the very last scene of the play on the very last day of school — what, they’ve spent all this time reading Romeo and Juliet and there’s no unit test, no final exam, not even a final project to complete? No assessment whatsoever?)

The narrator’s own love story ranges from “endearingly awkward” to “slightly cringeworthy” — it’s obvious that he is completely inept either at understanding the feelings of this woman he’s been in love with for decades, or at expressing his own feelings, and it’s hard not to wonder what her side of the story sounds like. However, while it doesn’t have a happy ending in the most obvious sense, there is an important message here about not being too tied to the romantic ideal of “one true love” — which guarantees that Dixon’s story has a less tragic ending than Juliet’s.

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Filed under Canadian author, Nonfiction -- memoir

Welcome to the G**D**n Ice Cube, by Blair Braverman

icecubeLike a lot of people who love both dogs and Twitter, I became a fan of Blair Braverman and her dog team long before they ran this year’s Iditarod, through Blair’s great online storytelling about her wonderful dogs. Given how much I enjoy her writing when it’s broken up into 280-character bites, it’s surprising I waited as long as I did to read her memoir. A few bad reviews on Goodreads put me off a bit, but I realize after reading it that the people who gave it bad reviews were expecting a different kind of book.

That’s understandable: if you know Braverman as a musher, and you can see that there’s a dog team on the cover of the book, you might expect it to be largely a book about mushing and dog teams. But while there are certainly references to mushing and to sled dogs, this is a young woman’s coming-of-age memoir, set against the backdrop of several trips to the far north in Norway and in Alaska.

Blair Braverman always felt drawn to the Arctic, and sought it out from the time she went to Norway as an exchange student in high school. She went back later, for a year at a “folk school” learning to handle a dog team, and yet again to spend some time with people she got to know during that year at the folk school. In between, along with getting a college degree (not in the Arctic), she spent two summers working with an off-season dog team on an Alaskan glacier (the “G-D ice cube” of the title).

All of these trips were about her effort to discover herself and her place in the world, which she always knew was going to involve cold weather, snow, and probably sled dogs — but they’re also about a young woman’s attempts to navigate a male-dominated world. None of her encounters is harrowing, just disturbing — ranging from the father of her student-exchange host family who makes her feel uncomfortable in a way that’s hard to define, to a first boyfriend who’s demanding and pushy and unwilling to accept that their relationship is over. Finding the ability to set her own boundaries and stand up for herself as a woman in a man’s world is as important to this memoir as anything Braverman learned about surviving in the far north or running a dog team. You don’t have to go to the ends of the earth to find yourself — but if you do, it might just make a great memoir.

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My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante

Layout 1I’ve heard people raving about these books for years (My Brilliant Friend is the first of four novels) so finally decided to check the first one out. The books tell the story of two young women growing up in a poor neighbourhood in 1950s Naples. Elena, the first person narrator, is both fascinated and a little scared of the tough and fearless Lena, who becomes both her best friend and her rival.

The neighbourhood in which the girls grow up is portrayed in starkly unsentimental terms: it is a harsh world, full of violence. The novel follows the two girls from age six to sixteen, when they stand on the brink of womanhood. Elena’s path out of the neighbourhood will be through education; Lena, the more intelligent of the two but unable to get further education, is married to a neighbour at sixteen.

While I recognize that the book is well-written, the two main characters didn’t engage me enough to want to read three more books about them. (I did pick up a copy of the last book and flip to the end to see how the saga ends). I don’t know if this is partly a factor of reading a novel in translation — I often find novels translated into English feel a little flat and distant to me, the language less immediate and vivid than it would be if I were able to read it in the author’s own language. That’s probably a shortcoming in me as a reader, but it does make it impossible for me to evaluate if I would have cared more about these characters if I’d been able to read Italian. Plenty of English speaking readers love these novels, though, so it might just be that these are not the books for me.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical

A Land as God Made it, by James Horn

landasgodmadeitI read this as part of my research for the trilogy I’m writing, and much like Savage Kingdom and Pocohantas, it gives a good overview of the Jamestown, Virginia colonial experiment, which nearly ended in disaster many times. Like many recent accounts of English colonization in North America, this book is unsparing about the colonists’ attitude towards the native population and very much aware of the exploitative nature of English settlement, and the indigenous people are portrayed with greater understanding and sympathy than might have been the case in an earlier story about the “birth of America.” Good,

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Fascism: A Warning, by Madeleine Albright

fascismIf anybody is qualified to talk about twentieth-century fascism, it’s Madeleine Albright, both from the perspective of her personal life experience and from her professional experience. As a child growing up in Czechoslovakia, her family had to leave their home country twice because of dictators — first during the Nazi takeover, because of her father’s ties to the previous Czech government (the family was also Jewish, but converted to Catholicism during the war; Albright and her siblings were raised not knowing about their Jewish heritage). Then, after returning to postwar Czechoslovakia from the UK, they moved to the US after the Communist takeover of their country.

Later, of course, Albright famously became the U.S.’s first woman Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton. Working in that key role in the turbulent world of the 1990s, she witnessed first-hand the fall of the Soviet Communist system and the regimes that have risen to replace it. She’s had the ideal life experience to be able to analyze how the fascist dictatorships of the 1930s and the aftermath of the Second World War led to the world we see today, where the rising tide of right-wing populism threatens a new wave of fascism.

Albright analyzes many different twentieth and early twenty-first century totalitarian movements to see what their roots are and what they have in common. One thing that surprised me is that she doesn’t give a particularly specific ideological definition of what she means by fascism. Beginning in the 1920s and 30s, she explores the standard fascist dictators of the era — Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco — but in many cases lumps Stalin’s rule of the USSR into the same category, despite the differing ideological roots. Later, she does the same with the Kim dynasty in North Korea, so clearly her definition of fascism has more to do with totalitarian dictatorship rather than with whether a government is on the left or on the right of the political spectrum.

Naturally, she has some warning notes to sound about some of the populist movements today that show tendencies towards totalitarianism, and it would be great if her warnings could be heeded.

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Malinche, by Laura Esquivel

malincheThis book was such a disappointment because it had such a fascinating premise and it was about a character I really wanted to learn about, but something in the way it was written just kept me from getting absorbed in it the way I hoped to be.

It’s the story of Mallinalli, the indigenous woman who acted as translator for Cortez and was key to helping him overthrow the Aztec empire. She was also Cortez’s — lover? sex slave? not sure — so of course there’s a lot of rich ground there for exploring Mallinalli’s motivations, her relationship with Cortez and with the Aztecs. However, Esquivel’s style of writing kept me so distant from Mallinalli and her thoughts and feelings that I never felt I really understood what was going on or why she acted as she did. Very disappointing for something that had so much potential originally.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical

A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit

fieldguideThis collection of essays is one I would not have picked up if it hadn’t been selected for an online book club I’m in, and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it. Solnit, who is obviously a brilliant writer, structures each of these essays around the idea of “getting lost,” both literally and metaphorically. There is some gorgeous writing here and some moments that made me stop and reflect, but there were also large stretches where she kind of lost me and I wasn’t entirely sure what she was getting at. I usually love personal essay/memoir collections, and there were moments when I loved this, but there were also places where her ideas about “getting lost” were just too obscure for me and I guess I  — got lost, a little bit, in the book itself? 

Maybe that was intentional.

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Filed under Nonfiction -- memoir

The Silk Roads, by Peter Frankopan

thesilkroadsThis non-fiction book promised a really interesting perspective on history that we don’t often get, and although it only partly delivered (in my opinion) I still learned about it. It’s a retelling of the history of human civilization from the perspective of what was happening in the countries along the old “silk roads” trade routes, mostly through Central Asia and what we in the west call the “Middle East.” There’s an attempt here to shift away from the Eurocentric view of history that we so often get taught as the official story, and while it’s only partly successful it’s very much worth doing.

The earlier sections of the book make a strong case for exploring the importance of the Middle East and Central Asia as the cradle of civilization and the nexus of trade. The history of religion is of course important here too — the roots of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism are all explored from the perspective of their impact on the cultures of the countries where they originated and other parts of the world with which they interacted. The story of the rise of Islam, its spread throughout the region, and the blossoming of Islamic culture during Europe’s so-called “dark” ages, is particularly well-told, and an important corrective for people today who are historically ignorant enough to believe that Western, Christian civilization is automatically and always superior and more developed.

A lot of the world, even of Asia, still gets left out here — there are only passing references to what was happening in China and India, and virtually no reference to Japan or most of the rest of the “Far East.” Still, for the focus this book has it’s really interesting — until we get to the “modern” era, particularly from the 19th century onwards (but even beginning a bit before that). As Western civilization industrializes and begins colonizing, the focus shifts — we are still learning the story of what happened in Central Asia and the Middle East, but we are now learning it almost entirely through the lens of how it was seen and acted upon by Europeans and Americans, which I found jarring. It’s as if the author decided to  move away from using primary sources written by and about people in the countries under discussion, and began exploring them through Western eyes, which made the last part of the book much less interesting to me than the first part.

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