Archive for the ‘Eowyn Ivey’ Category

Well, we’ve reached the end of a year I would rather not repeat.  But, despite its challenges, it did hold some amazing moments.  I had the chance to travel widely and experience things I’d been dreaming of for years, and, best of all, I became an aunt.  There is nothing so hopeful as welcoming a new life into a family and it was a very cheering way to see out the year.

It wasn’t a spectacular reading year for me (too many comfort reads and too little quality during the first half of the year, certainly) but there were still plenty of stellar titles to choose from.  Here are the ten that really stood out:

10. For the Glory (2016) – Duncan Hamilton
This excellent biography of Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner and Christian missionary who was immortalised in Chariots of Fire, was the first book I read in 2017 and remained one of my favourites.  Hamilton, a sports journalist, is a clear and thorough biographer, and does full justice to a fascinating and inspiring life.

9. Browsings (2015) – Michael Dirda
An enthusiastic and eclectic collection of pieces Dirda wrote about the books he loves, his immense love of used book stores (and hours spent therein), and other things sure to delight passionate readers.

8. The Bear and the Nightingale (2017) – Katherine Arden
Sweltering in a Tuscan summer, I read this beautiful fantasy novel and escaped to the cool world of medieval Russia, a place where magic and fairy tales all come to life in the most suspenseful way.  I adored it, quickly read the sequel which came out this month, and am already eager for the final book in the trilogy (which is being released in August).

7. Felicity – Stands By (1928) – Richmal Crompton
About as far from great literature as you can get, these humorous stories about the adventures of sixteen-year old Felicity brightened up a relatively difficult point in my life.  They are bubbly and fun and a welcome reminder that Crompton could be both those things (and not just the author of needlessly repetitive and melodramatic family tales).

6. The Way of Wanderlust (2015) – Don George
In a year full of both travel and travel reading, this collection of Don George’s writing was a wonderful inspiration.

5. The Snow Child (2012) – Eowyn Ivey
Ivey’s second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, was one of my favourite books of 2016.  This year, I finally picked up her first novel and found it just as wonderful and captivating.  Inspired the story of the Snow Maiden, Ivey weaves a magical story of a struggling, childless couple living in the Alaskan wilderness and their love for the girl who appears from nowhere one wintery day.  It is beautifully told and shockingly perfect for a first novel.

4. The Coast of Bohemia (1950) – Edith Pargeter
A travelogue about a 1948 trip to Czechoslovakia by a woman best known for writing mystery novels (under her pen name of Ellis Peters) might not appeal to everyone but for me this book was wonderful.  Pargeter’s love of all things Czech makes her a passionate observer of the customs and places she sees.  I loved seeing the country and its people through her eyes and getting to experience a time long past through her excellent record of it.

3. Last Hope Island (2017) – Lynne Olson
An extraordinarily entertaining and enlightening look at the contributions made to the Allied war effort by the occupied countries whose governments and monarchs were living in exile in London.  It is packed full of facts, interesting characters, and devastatingly caustic quotes about de Gaulle (naturellement, everyone hates de Gaulle).  After Felicity – Stands By, this was the most enjoyable reading experience I had all year.

2. The Marches (2016) – Rory Stewart
I started reading this because I knew it was about Stewart’s journeys on foot around the English-Scottish border as he attempted to make sense of the centuries old divide between the two countries ahead of the Scottish independence vote – a fascinating project I was keen to learn more about.  But Stewart takes that journey and weaves into it the story of his own extraordinary (Scottish) father.  The result is a very wonderful and affectionate love letter that left me deeply moved.

1. Moon Tiger (1987) – Penelope Lively
I finally read Lively’s Booker prize winner and it is a masterpiece.  Technically dazzling, Lively plays with her favourite themes of love, history, and, above all, memory as septuagenarian Claudia lies on her deathbed and looks back on her life.  If I could write, this would be how I’d want to do it.  As I can’t, this is exactly what I want to read – again and again and again.

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2016 was an entirely adequate year for me.  I earned my first professional designation after three years of hard work and study, went on some great trips (though, having stayed in North America all year, I really did miss my usual visit to Europe), and, the crucial difference from 2015, none of my loved ones died or seriously injured themselves.  Well done us!

And, of course, there were lots of books.  Here are the best of the best:

books-310. The Lark (1922) – E. Nesbit
This charming story of two young women and their attempts to support themselves is featuring on a lot of “Best of” lists this year and rightly so. And the best news is that it will be reprinted and easily available as of March 2017, thanks to Scott!

9. More Was Lost (1946) – Eleanor Perényi
An interesting and entertaining memoir about life in Central Europe in the late 1930s from a young American woman married to a Hungarian nobleman.

8. Classic German Baking (2016) – Luisa Weiss
Simply put, this is the cookbook I have been longing for all my life. The Christmas chapter alone – heck, just the recipe for Basler Brunsli cookies – would have been enough to earn it a spot on this list. As it is, the other chapters are equally wonderful.

books-27. Lassoing the Sun (2016) – Mark Woods
I feel rather guilty that I didn’t get around to writing about this wonderful book. A journalist based in Florida, Woods set out to spend a year visiting twelve of America’s national parks. Not the necessarily most beautiful or the most popular ones, but “each symbolizing a different issue facing the national parks in the next hundred years.”  A fascinating project, but not the heart of what the year evolved into, as Woods’ mother passed away after a short and fierce illness.  His travels are tied up with his mourning for his mother, his lifelong memories of visiting the parks with his family, and the urge to share that same sense of wonder and discovery with his own daughter.  Really very wonderful and touching.

6. The House by the Dvina (1984) – Eugenie Fraser
This memoir of Fraser’s childhood in Russia (before, during and immediately after the Revolution) is richly and wonderfully told, taking you deep into a close-knit family and a vanished world. It feels very Slightly Foxed-esque and I can only hope it’s on their radar for possible reissue.

5. Terms and Conditions (2016) – Ysenda Maxtone Graham
Speaking of Slightly Foxed, this wonderful history of girls’ boarding schools is one of the most amusing and original books I’ve read in years.

books-14. Saturday’s Child (1914) – Kathleen Thompson Norris
I first read this novel in 2015 and loved it then too but I think it made an even bigger impact on rereading. The perfect dose of both commiseration and inspiration at a time when I was feeling overwhelmed and indulging, like the heroine, in a bit too much “woe is me”-ing and not enough productive action. It’s deeply reassuring to know that a hundred years ago young working women felt exactly the same way I do in 2016.

3. Children of Earth and Sky (2016) – Guy Gavriel Kay
The newest release from the master of historical fantasy, I loved this so much I read it twice this year.

2. To the Bright Edge of the World (2016) – Eowyn Ivey
A magical, enthralling tale of an 1880s expedition into the remote Alaskan wilderness. Beautifully told and deeply satisfying to read, I keep pressing everyone I know to try it.

new-i-was-a-stranger-bunkerbooks1. I Was a Stranger (1977) – General Sir John Hackett
In a year when the world was doing its best to show how cruel and petty man can be, this memoir of the courage and friendship showed by a Dutch family in occupied Holland to the British officer they hid reminded me that, even in the worst of times, kindness, trust, and love can still flourish.  A real gem that I am entirely indebted to Slightly Foxed for reissuing.

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to-the-bright-edge-of-the-worldIt has been a long time since I have been as wholly consumed by a book as I was by To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey when I read it earlier this year.  It felt like kismet, to find a book so beautifully written, so wonderfully imagined and so, so perfectly tailored to my interests.  I do not think you could have pried it out of my hands when I was reading it and yet I read so slowly, so carefully, not wanting to miss a detail and desperately wanting to prolong the experience.

The book tells the story of Colonel Allen Forrester and his wife, Sophie.  Newly married, the two are separated when Allen is charged with leading a small expedition into a wild, unmapped region of Alaska in the winter of 1885.  Sophie, originally keen to join her husband on this great adventure, instead finds herself confined to the stultifying military barracks in Vancouver, Washington, pregnant with a long-for child.

Separated, the two keep diaries with an eye to sharing them once reunited.  It is through these journals that we learn their story, supplemented by a few letters between them, the writings of other members of Allen’s expedition, and the contemporary correspondence between Walt Forrester, Allen’s great-nephew, and a young Alaskan museum curator to whom he is sending all the documents.  Yes, it is my favourite of all literary techniques: the epistolary novel.  And rarely have I seen it used to better effect.

Allen quickly finds himself in a completely foreign world as he journeys up the Wolverine River Valley with his men (the same setting used in Ivey’s debut novel, The Snow Child).  Their expedition is poorly planned and badly provisioned so they are forced to rely on the help of those they encounter: a few white men but mostly native communities.  And even as he finds himself stunned by the harsh magnificence of the places he travels through, Allen finds himself deeply unsettled by the stories he hears and the things he sees in this unbelievable land: beasts who turn into men, a woman eternally shrouded by fog, and a man who sleeps in trees, perched like a raven.  As starvation and illness take hold, the wild world seems firmly in control and Allen and his men powerless to resist long enough to ever get home.

Sophie, meanwhile, faces a struggle of her own back in Vancouver, feeling alone without any news of her husband and ill-suited to the gossipy socialising of the other army wives.  She retreats into herself and into her new hobby: photography.  Already a keen naturalist, she finds herself trying to capture the living world even as, far away, her husband finds himself in daily conflict with it.

I hardly know where to start in my list of what makes this book so extraordinarily satisfying.  Part of it is certainly that it is a tale of the North.  There aren’t a lot of those anymore (I’m not sure there ever have been in American lit, though the North is a CanLit obsession) and there certainly aren’t many with this level of thoughtfulness or cultural detail.  Ivey weaves in First Nation tales beautifully and even the eeriest among them are comfortingly familiar to the stories I’ve heard since childhood.  Through these stories, she keeps reality suspended in the most magical way.

But without Sophie and Allen the book would just be a beautiful shell.  They are its heart.  They are both strong and intelligent people, capable of demanding our respect, but, having found one another, are touchingly vulnerable in their joy at having someone else to love so completely.  The separation is a burden to them both, perhaps especially to Allen, who, having married late in life, is delighted by the thought of becoming a father but heartsick knowing he will not be returning before the birth.  But Sophie is isolated in a way that Allen, facing daily peril, is not and her quieter, inner struggle is no less powerful.

Oh, writing this has made me remember how much I love this book.  I want to read it all over again.  It is an adventure story, a haunting suspense story, and a quiet, steadfast love story.  It is, in short, everything you could want in a novel.  I cannot recommend it highly enough and you can be certain it will appear on my list of favourite reads at the end of the year.

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