Yiddish for Pirates, by Gary Barwin

yiddishI wanted to love this book a lot more than I did, especially since it was the only book anyone gave me for Christmas and I got not one but two copies of it. It’s crazy, inventive, witty and definitely a novel for anyone who loves playing with words — but in the end, I think all the wordplay and some of the narrative tricks kept me a little distanced from really getting involved with the characters.

It’s the story of Aaron, a talking (really talking, not just mimicking) parrot, who narrates the story of Moishe, the Jewish boy on whose shoulder he perches. Moishe embarks on a series of adventures and misadventures in fiftenth-century Spain, on the high seas, and in the New World, where he sails with Columbus. There’s a lot of humour to their adventures as narrated by the wisecracking Aaron who sprinkles his story liberally with Yiddish word and phrases, anachronisms, and puns in several languages. But there’s also a darkness that follows Moishe and all his travelling companions, Jews expelled from Spain under the shadow of the Inquisition.

The book is incredibly inventive and a delight for those who love wordplay, but after Moishe and Aaron left Spain and travelled to the New World I found the story less compelling than when they were back in Spain. Also, I found that using the parrot as narrator kept me distanced from the human characters, so that I never got quite as involved in Moishe’s story as I’d hoped to. The book certainly is brilliantly written and truly unique, but it wasn’t my most engrossing read of the year so far.

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How the Scots Invented the Modern World, by Arthur Herman

scotsinventedIt’s funny how I came to read this book over the Christmas holidays. I’d heard about the book years ago when it first came out and always thought it sounded interesting and I might read it someday (I also thought it was by the same guy who wrote How the Irish Saved Civilization, for obvious reasons of title parallelism, but it’s not)However, I never did get around to buying or borrowing a copy. During the Christmas holidays we were painting our upstairs hall and I moved a bookcase that hadn’t been moved in years. From out of the back of the bookcase fell a few books that had been shoved in there behind others, and one was a pristine, apparently unread copy of How the Scots Invented the Modern World. Obviously, at some point I did buy this book, or someone loaned or gave it to me, and then I promptly forgot that I had it.

Anyway, it was timely as I was looking for something to read just then, so I spent much of my holidays reading about the Scottish Enlightenment and a number of Scottish philosophers, inventors, entrepreneurs and educators who shaped the Western world far beyond the borders of Scotland, from the early 18th century onwards. Fascinating dip into history and an enjoyable read.

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Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford

goldenhillGolden Hill is a beautifully written, absolutely engaging, wonderful historical novel set in New York in the autumn of 1746. A young man named Richard Smith arrives in town with a note from an English bank authorizing him to withdraw from a New York financial house more money than anyone has on hand in the colony at that point. Smith has to wait in New York for three months until his bank note can be honoured — and, for reasons of his own, he has to keep his purpose, and what he intends to do with the money, entirely to himself while he waits.

This is not easy, in a town of just 7000 people where everyone is intensely interested in everyone’s business, and political tensions divide the colonists into various camps. Everyone has a theory about what Smith is up to, and the author manages the difficult trick of making Smith the point-of-view character in a novel with third-person limited point of view, without ever fully revealing everything Smith knows or plans.

Things spin out of control rapidly: Smith makes friends and enemies, falls in love, gets arrested not once but twice, fights a duel, is accused of spying, and generally disturbs everything around him. He learns a great deal himself during the process, and one of the joys  of the book is watching how much Francis Spufford allows us to see of Smith’s inner self without ever giving away all his secrets.

The other joys are the wonderful, detailed evocation of colonial New York thirty years before the Revolution, every tiny detail vivid and believable, and a lively narrative voice that would sound nearly at home among the writers of Smith’s own day, yet is completely accessible to the modern reader.

I don’t want to spoil this wonderful novel, but every review you ever read of Golden Hill will tell you there’s a big twist at the end. I’ll say that I didn’t like the twist at all. My reaction to the ending was so strong it might have ruined my enjoyment of this book, except the book is just too wonderful to be ruined, so in my head I had to mentally edit the ending to something I could live with. But lots of other people absolutely love how it ended, so your mileage may vary. If you love historical fiction, do read Golden Hill. You might, like me, be frustrated in the end, but I don’t think you’ll be sorry.

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The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel

threesistersKatherine Govier’s latest historical novel sweeps across the Canadian Rockies and the twentieth century, beginning with an ill-fated expedition out of Gateway, Alberta in 1911. A hundred years later, the purchase of the titular hotel, now run-down and neglected, drives a family to explore a tangled web of hidden stories that go right back to that 1911 journey.

This is a wonderfully evocative novel that explores a piece of Canadian history I didn’t know much about. It’s peopled with larger-than-life, vivid characters who are present in these early years of our Western provinces and National Parks. I found it difficult to adjust to the fact that early in the novel the reader is wrenched away from a point of view character to whom I, at least, had become quite attached — I kept wanting to get back to her perspective, and it took some time to accept that, like the rest of the novel’s characters, there were mysteries I would never get to solve and stories I would never definitively learn the end of. 

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Top Ten Books of 2016

Watch the video above to hear me talk about my favourite books of the year, find out about my upcoming book-related podcast, and throw your name in for a chance to win one of my favourite books of 2016. There’s a little more analysis in the post below:

It’s list-making time again! In 2016 I read (give or take a few I may have forgotten to record, and not including some re-reads of old favourites) 69 books. For a little breakdown into further categories, those 70 books included:

Fiction: 50
Non-fiction: 20

Books by women: 41
Books by men: 29

So my innate prejudices are still holding, but I am making some effort to redress the balance (not nearly enough non-fiction this year, though).

70 is a low-number reading year for me — I usually read over 80 — but, in addition to the fact that I spent some time re-reading an old favourite series, my new reading was slowed a few times this year by books or series I got bogged down in and read very slowly. Sometimes this was because, while the subject matter was interesting and well-written, the style of the book was just a long, slow read (Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton took me much of the summer to get through). In one case it was a six-book series that was fascinating and wonderful but so richly layered and densely written that I couldn’t race through it (Dorothy  Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles). In only one case it was due to books that I just couldn’t get into but persisted with anyway (the first two of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. I gave the first book of the series a kind of “OK, I guess” review here, slogged through the second, but finally gave up on the third, realizing I didn’t actually care that much how things turned out for the characters).

The video above gives a little more detail about each of my Top Ten choices, which are:

10. Hamilton: The Revolution, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter
9. The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson
8. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
7. The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell
6. Children of Earth and Sky, by Guy Gavriel Kay
5. Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen
4. Hungry Heart, by Jennifer Weiner
3. Checkmate (and the rest of the series!), by Dorothy Dunnet
2. The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue
1. The Opposite of Everyone, by Joshilyn Jackson

Interesting point (true of several past years): my reading list shows a definite bias towards books by women, but my best-of list is often, as this year, evenly balanced between male and female writers. I think this is because “novels by women” are so much my default reading, that I tend to pick them up without being too critical — I’ll read novels by women based on a single recommendation or just an attractive cover. With male writers I’m far less willing to take chances, so a man’s book has to either be very highly recommended, or by an author I already know and trust well — thus the fewer books by male authors I read, have a higher probability of being books I’ll really like (Brandon Sanderson very much the exception here as it turns out). Of course, I don’t analyze all this consciously while I’m buying and reading; I do it unconsciously and analyze it after the fact. That’s what the blog is for.

 

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The Memory of Us, by Camille di Maio

memoryofusThe Memory of Us is a historical novel loosely inspired by the Beatles’ song Eleanor Rigby. Beginning in late 1930s Liverpool, the novel tells the story of Julianne Westcott and Kyle McCarthy, divided by religion and social class but united by love. Their star-crossed romance unfolds over several decades as Kyle’s vocation to become  a Catholic priest, and Julianne’s family’s desire for her to make a socially advantageous marriage to a wealthy man, clash with the obvious attraction between the two. Then war intervenes and takes both their lives in a direction no-one — including this reader — expects.

I found the characters and their love story compelling, believable and (sometimes) sad. The historical setting was a bit more uneven for me. I know the author is a devout Catholic and I feel that her knowledge of chuch culture, even in another country and era, rang true. However, she’s also a modern American woman, and often the voice that comes through — whether it’s Julianne’s voice as a first-person narrator, or the voices of various characters in dialogue — sounds more like a modern American voice than like an Englishwoman of the 1930s. Dialogue in historical fiction is very hard to do correctly; all of us writers who attempt to travel to the past struggle with it. Though I felt the dialogue was the weakest point in The Memory of Us, it didn’t stop me from reading the novel in a couple of sittings and getting very immersed in the characters and their story. I’m expecting more historical fiction from Camille DiMaio in future and I will definitely be checking out her other work.

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The Witches of New York, by Ami McKay

witchesWhen I think about witches in history and historical fiction, I think, of course, of the Salem witch trials, and of women of that era in both Europe and the New World accused of witchcraft — often for nothing more sinister than living alone, or having a working knowledge of herbal medicine. Ami McKay’s new novel takes us into witches in a different world — 1890s New York City, where women’s ancient knowledge intersects with the fascination for spiritualism in late 19th-century New York to produce a trio of memorable women, the titular witches of New York.

Adelaide is a medium who passes on messages from the dead; she shares a storefront and living quarters with Eleanor, who practices traditional “witch” knowledge handed down from her mother. Into their lives, in response to a newspaper ad, comes young Beatrice, new to the city and looking for adventure, who turns out to have the abilit to see dead people. Together the three women face prejudice and misunderstanding and try to forge out a tiny space for witches in a rapidly modernizing world. 

I categorized this book both as historical fiction but also as fantasy, since it has elements that I would describe as a sort of urban fantasy — that is, the “witchcraft” elements of the story are real within the world of the story, so inexplicable and mysterious things do occur, and are not explained away rationally. This requires the reader to suspend disbelief, entering into the world of the story’s characters and believing what they believe.

All three women are engaging, well-drawn characters (Adelaide has been previously introduced to us under another name, Moth, as a young girl in McKay’s novel The Virgin Cure). They are survivors, strong and indomitable in world that wants to force women into a more compliant mold. Characters and setting are the strengths of this story — the plot, I thought, stumbled in a few places, perhaps because there are many characters in addition to the three witches and many plot threads, some of which seemed to me to be resolved a little too easily and others left dangling without any resolution at all. In spite of these dropped threads, the overall tapestry of this story was rich and enjoyable.

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