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9780670068395Last May I was a basket case.  I was working too much and, when I wasn’t working, I was studying.  Occasionally I tried to sleep but I was so wired that I was getting by on four hours a night.

Into this mess came a ray of sunlight: Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay was published on May 10th.  For a few days, I put aside my other concerns (and text books) and just read.  It was wonderful.  So wonderful, in fact, that I picked it up again on Christmas Day and reread it.

Kay writes historical fantasy with a focus on the historical and only a light sprinkling of fantasy (very light here).  My favourite of his books are inspired by Moorish Spain (The Lions of Al-Rassan), medieval Provence (A Song for Arbonne) and Tang-dynasty China (Under Heaven).  In Children of Earth and Sky, he takes his inspiration from Renaissance-era Europe, specifically focusing on the trading powers of Venice (Seressa) and Dubrovnik (Dubrava) and their complicated relationship with one another and the Ottoman (Osmanli) empire to the east.

Kay is fascinated by stories about borderlands – places where different groups of people overlap, where cultures and religions are in conflict, where anything might happen.  In other books, those people have been emperors and kings, individuals with the power to change and destroy lives.  Perhaps the most noticeable change about Children of Earth and Sky when compared to Kay’s other books is the relative anonymity of his characters.  These are not kings or generals but even their actions have consequences for the lives of many.

At the heart of the book are five characters: Leonora, the disgraced daughter of a noble family who has been plucked from the religious order where her family had left her to act as a spy for Seressa in Dubrava; Pero, a young and talented artist who, like Leonora, is being sent east by Seressa to  spy (in his case on the Osmanli grand khalif); Danica, a fierce young woman seeking revenge for the father and elder brother killed and the younger brother abducted by the Osmanlis; Marin, the youngest and cleverest son of a wealthy Dubrava family; and Damaz, a member of the elite Osmanli fighting force known as the djanni.  Each of their lives changes in ways they could never have imagined – and they in turn change the world around them in ways both big and small.

Kay seems even more philosophical than usual in this book, which is fine by me.  He is at his most lyrical when musing on fate or the fragility of life:

You lived your life in intimate proximity to its sudden end.  Prayers were more intense because of this.  Help was needed, under sun, moons, stars – and some reason to hope for what might come after.

Laughter was also necessary, and found, in spite of – or because of – these close and terrible dangers.  Simple pleasures.  Music and dance, wine, ale, dice and cards.  Harvest’s end, the taste of berries on the bush, tricking the bees from a hive full of honey.  Warmth and play in a bed at night or in the straw of a bar.  Companionship.  Sometimes love.

There were reasons to fear in every season, however, in every place where men and women tried to shape and guard their lives.

Maybe because of this interest, his secondary characters seem more developed (and plentiful) than usual.  The faded Empress of Sarantium, who has lost her empire, her husband and her son but not her wits or strength.  The proud, doomed pirates of Senjan who, loyal to their ruler, march inland to fight against the Osmanlis and meet their fate bravely and on their own terms.  The farm girl whose life is enlivened for a year by the arrival of a tall, handsome boy, giving flight to dreams of a life with him rather than the short, dull neighbour whose farm adjoins hers.  The aging fighter who has spent half his life roaming the countryside, fighting the Osmanlis who took his home from him.  Great or small, their stories are richly told and, whether they appear for a few pages or a few chapters, these characters lived for me.

It is a beautifully-told story and, with its focus very much on human emotions rather than grand events, a poignant one.  I revisited it with pleasure this week and I know I’ll reread it with joy in years to come.

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crosstalkWhen I picked up Crosstalk by Connie Willis from the library last week, it was a leap of faith.  Willis is an author who I always think I should like but, in reality, I find most of her books incredibly frustrating.  Of the five I’d read, the only one I’d really loved was Doomsday Book and, to be fair, I really, really do love it and spend a significant portion of my time trying to push it on unsuspecting acquaintances.  My love for it almost makes up for how disappointing I’ve found most of her other books.  I’m still disgusted with the lazy mediocrity of Blackout and All Clear, books that felt so promising and delivered absolutely nothing.

But I remain hopeful. And this time I am happy to say that my optimism paid off: Crosstalk was delightful.

Set in the near future, we meet our heroine Briddey Flannigan just after her boyfriend of only a few weeks has proposed they undergo the very trendy EED procedure, which purportedly allows couples to feel one another’s emotions and use this as the basis for building deeper, more emotionally transparent relationships.  It is, her gushing coworkers remind her, a very big and very romantic gesture.  Only C.B., the office tech geek and communications skeptic, seems to think it is a bad idea.

All too quickly, Briddey finds herself undergoing the procedure.  But when she wakes up, it is not Trent, her boyfriend, whose emotions she can sense.  It’s C.B.  And more than that, she finds they have a telepathic link.  But soon it’s not just C.B.’s voice she hears in her head and, rather than a blessing, the ability to hear other people’s thoughts quickly comes to seem like a curse that could drive her mad.

There are a few trademark weaknesses in the story.  It is overlong, like many of Willis’ books.  Some of the plot twists are so clearly flagged beforehand that you almost become impatient waiting for the reveal.  And it gets a little too wrapped up towards the end in the imaginary structures created by each of the telepaths (there is in fact no need to invite a fellow telepath over to explore your imaginary garden when you are both physically standing in the same room.  Just saying).

But those are minor quibbles.  The most important thing about Crosstalk is that it is gloriously fun.  Fast-paced and full of delightful banter, it is a wonderful romantic comedy wrapped in a sci-fi plot.  The best of all possible combinations.

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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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faros-daughterI picked up Faro’s Daughter by Georgette Heyer last week, being in the mood for some Heyer but at the same time wanting a story I didn’t know inside and out (as I know so many of Heyer’s books).  I’d only read Faro’s Daughter once ten years ago and my memory of it was suitably vague so it seemed like a good enough choice.

I quickly realised there was in fact a very good reason I had never reread it: it isn’t very good.  In fact, it is probably the worst Heyer I’ve read.

Now, I love Heyer.  I love her historical details, I love her slang-filled dialogue, I love both her madcap and more sedate plots.  I love her but this book pushed the boundaries of my patience almost to the breaking point.

We begin with a typical enough Heyer hero: Max Ravenscar is a wealthy bachelor, fond of racing, gaming, and, to some extent, his extended family.  His young cousin Adrian has fallen in love with a most unsuitable young woman and Max is called upon by his aunt to protect her precious son from this Jezebel.  Deborah Grantham, the young woman in question, is several years older than Adrian, an experienced hostess at her aunt’s gaming house, and completely uninterested in the puppy-ish Adrian. But when Ravenscar insults and attempts to bribe her into rejecting Adrian, she becomes determined to…do inexplicable things for inexplicable reasons.  Basically, it becomes increasingly ridiculous and pointless from there.  Unfortunately, there is the very beginning of the book.

Events include: an attempted elopement and an actual one, several silly young people (male and female), a creepy man who has acquired Deborah’s aunt’s debts in an attempt to coerce Deborah into a romantic (this seems too polite a word, but let’s go with it) entanglement, a few physical fights, and, let us not forget the centrepiece of Deborah’s ridiculous and entirely off-the-wall plan, a kidnapping.

There aren’t a lot of saving graces here.  Usually Heyer could rescue a ridiculous plot with a few good characters and some sparkling dialogue.  That is all sadly lacking here.  There is carriage race between Ravenscar and one of the several odious men who lurk in the background throughout, but it happens off-stage and we only hear about it second-hand.  Still, that’s about as thrilling as the story gets.  She has some promising secondary characters but they never come up to scratch and as for our hero and heroine, well they are abysmal.  I can’t think of a less romantic Heyer pairing or a less interesting one.  Aside from their first meeting (in which they play cards for hours – Ravenscar wins, naturally), they do not exchange civil words until the final pages of the novel, when presumably Heyer realised this would be necessary in order for them to become engaged.

Faro’s Daughter was published in 1941, when one must suppose Heyer was exhausted by her efforts of the previous year (both The Spanish Bride and The Corinthian came out in 1940), busy working on a new mystery novel (Envious Casca – also published in 1941), and anxious about the war.  I hope Faro’s Daughter put food on the table and clothes on her family’s backs.  That’s about all the good I can say of it.

Understandably, this did not quench my need for some Heyer.  Back now to one of the old reliables, most likely Frederica or The Grand Sophy.  After the useless Deborah, I’m in need of a capable heroine.

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mrs-tim-gets-a-jobI had planned to read Chatterton Square by E.H. Young as my second book (following Hetty Dorval) for the 1947 Club.  I’d started and was enjoying it but, knowing it had already been more than capably reviewed by Simon this week, could not fight the voice in my head that suggested ‘wouldn’t the world be better served if you reread and finally reviewed Mrs Tim Gets a Job by D.E. Stevenson?’  Yes, I concluded, yes it would.  And so, on this very wet and stormy weekend, I settled down with my old friend Hester Christie, otherwise known as Mrs Tim.

The Mrs Tim books were inspired by D.E. Stevenson’s own diaries and experiences as an army wife and are written in a light-hearted, Provincial-Lady-esque style (E.M. Delafield’s diarist predates Mrs Tim by two years).  In earlier books, we saw Hester struggle with great good humour and resilience through pre-war regimental life with two small children and then through the anxious war years.  This volume opens in February 1946.  Peace has come to England but Hester’s family is once more scattered: husband Tim is stationed in Egypt with no hope of any extended leave, sixteen-year old son Bryan is off at school, and Hester is busy deciding on a boarding school for her daughter Betty.   When a friend declares that she has found Hester a job helping to manage a small country hotel in Scotland, Hester is properly horrified.  In the depressing period just after Tim left for Egypt, she had considered the idea but never seriously.  On the other hand, a life of solitude with little to do doesn’t hold much charm either:

I am in the mood when on forgets one’s blessing and counts one’s troubles, when nothing seems good and the world seems grey and drab.  I have a son, but he has gone away.  I have a husband, but I have not seen him for months.  It may be years before I see Tim, it certainly will be years before we can settle down to a reasonably peaceful life.  What is the use of being married when you can’t be together?  It is misery, no less.  All very well for Tony to say think of the future – I do think of it most of the time, but you can’t live on hope forever.  There are times – and this is one of them – when the savour goes out of life, when you lose heart, when you feel you can’t go on, when you would give everything you possess for one glimpse of the person you love…

So off she goes, ready for a new adventure.

The small hotel is the home and business of Erica Clutterbuck, a gruff-mannered middle-aged woman entirely uncomfortable with having guests in her family home.  Hester, as she soon learns, is there primarily to save Erica the horror of having to speak with the guests.  It is a task Hester is remarkably well suited for as she is an irresistibly sympathetic figure, at times to her despair.  Everywhere she goes people end up confiding in her and/or, having been misled by her slight appearance, taking a protective interest in her.  She handles it all with humour and excessive good grace but takes no real pleasure in dealing with the guests.  She does, however, find pleasure in a new friendship with Erica.

It is a simple novel, made up of little events rather than any sort of easily resolved narrative arc.  Hester gets to know the guests at the hotel and becomes involved in their affairs but also runs into old friends of her own.  Tony Morley surprises her by showing up at the hotel, a joyful reunion after six years without seeing each other.  A dashing middle-aged bachelor, he is as much enamoured of Hester as ever and she is just as oblivious as ever, so secure in her adoration of the far-away Tim.  There is also a madcap night of breaking and entering in Edinburgh with some young friends, new and old.

But the nicest reunions are with her children.  Betty, who comes to stay during a school holiday, strikes up a friendship with Erica Clutterbuck that is at first bewildering to Hester but then less so as she realises how similar the two are.  Bryan appears only briefly, having arranged to spend most of his break with friends, but the reunion between mother and son is lovely, even though it begins with rigid formality in front of strangers:

As I lead the way upstairs we are both completely silent, perhaps because there is nothing more to say.  For my part, I am already deeply regretting that cool welcome and wishing with all my heart that I had thrown my arms around his neck and hugged him – and be damned to Erica!

It is too late now, of course.  The deed is done.

We reach the third landing, and I open the door of the little room with sloping roof, which is to be Bryan’s room, and show him in.

‘It’s rather small,’ I begin, ‘but I dare say –‘

Suddenly I am seized in a bear’s embrace and almost strangled.  The strong young arms are hard as steel.  They go round me like a vice.  ‘Darling!’ cries Bryan.  ‘Oh,what a dear wee Mummy!  I’d forgotten you were so small.’

It’s a lovely, gentle book but without the saccharine sweetness of some of D.E. Stevenson’s other novels.  Hester has more bite in her than any of Stevenson’s other heroines, perhaps because she is based on the author herself?  Regardless, I love Hester’s flashes of pique and acerbic asides.  She is a hard worker, excellent friend, and devoted wife and mother, but she is always entirely human and I love that about her.

 ‘Hester!’ exclaims Grace in horrified tones.  ‘Why didn’t you come to lunch with me?’

‘Too tired,’ I murmur.  ‘Too fed up.  Besides, bread and cheese and coffee is a perfectly good meal.’

‘It’s letting down the flag,’ says Grace reproachfully.  ‘It’s back-sliding – that’s what it is.  I wouldn’t have thought it of you, Hester.  Think of the men who change for dinner every night on desert islands!’

‘I’ve never really believed in them,’ I reply, helping myself to another wedge of cheese.  ‘And anyhow, I’ve slid.’

The first book, Mrs Tim of the Regiment, was reprinted a few years ago and is still readily available but the later volumes (Mrs Tim Carries On, Mrs Tim Gets a Job, and Mrs Tim Flies Home) can be harder to find.  My inter-library loan system has proved invaluable in tracking them down for me over the years but I would dearly love to see them in print.  Perhaps Virago might show an interest one day?  Now that they are reprinting Angela Thirkell, anything seems possible.

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hetty-dorvalMy first choice for this week’s 1947 Club was a patriotic one: Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson.  It has the honour of being the only Canadian novel so far to be reissued by Persephone books and has sat unread on my bookshelf for a shamefully long time.

The novella begins with the arrival of a beautiful and alluring young woman, Hetty Dorval, into the small town of Lytton, British Columbia, where twelve-year old Frances “Frankie” Burnaby lives on a nearby ranch with her parents.  For Frankie, Hetty is exotic – as is any new arrival in a small town – and endlessly fascinating.  When Hetty befriends her, it seems both wonderful to be acknowledged by such a person and uncomfortable, as Frankie is upset by Hetty’s request that she keep their visits a secret from everyone, including her parents, lest the locals view that as an invitation to come visit her too.  “Under a novel spell of beauty and singing and the excitement of a charm that was new”, Frankie agrees to keep the secret though, inevitably, it comes out.  And then her parents share with her the reason she cannot continue to see Hetty:

He found it difficult, I could see, to explain to me about ‘a woman of no reputation’. (‘Oh,’ I thought, sitting still and discreet like a bird that is alarmed, ‘I know, like Nella that went to stay with that rancher, and that woman with the funny hair!’ – we children just naturally heard and knew these things) and I learned that Hetty was ‘a woman of no reputation’.  Father stopped short there.  Apparently he could have said more.  In my own mind, seeing Hetty’s pure profile and her gentle smile, I said to myself that Father couldn’t have believed these things if he had seen her himself.  But a sick surprised feeling told me it might be true.

Frankie turns into quite the traveller as she ages, going first to a small boarding school in Vancouver (where her dorm room has a view across Stanley Park, which would be absolutely lovely), before crossing the Atlantic to attend school in England, followed by some time in Paris.  Across the years and the different settings, she and Hetty Dorval run into each other time and again and with each meeting – and with each learned piece of gossip helping Frankie to compose Hetty’s tawdry romantic back-story – Frankie’s view of the woman moves farther and farther away from her childhood infatuation.  By the story’s climax, when the widowed Hetty has wrapped herself around a dear friend of Frankie’s, Frankie can only see the shallow, manipulative woman who manoeuvres all situations to her advantage and cares nothing for the feelings of anyone but herself – an attitude which leads Hetty’s devoted nanny, who has cared for her and stayed with her since childhood, to a passionate and shocking outburst.

It is a very readable book, though I could do without some of the early descriptive passages about the scenery around Lytton.  Apparently, these appeal to many other readers.  Perhaps those readers have not had to wade through quite as much second-rate CanLit as we patriotically-obliged natives, where overly described scenery that adds very little to the story is de rigueur?  Regardless, it is a minor quibble.  Hetty Dorval is charmingly subtle and elegantly structured.  A very worthy first choice for the 1947 Club!

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the-romanovsI started reading The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore yesterday afternoon and it is, as every single reviewer assured me, wonderful.  But, like all things Romanov-related, it is also rather overwhelming:

The Romanovs inhabit a world of family rivalry, imperial ambitions, lurid glamour, sexual excess and depraved sadism; this is a world where obscure strangers suddenly claim to be dead monarchs reborn, brides are poisoned, fathers torture their sons to death, sons kill fathers, wives murder husbands, a holy man, poisoned and shot, arises, apparently, from the dead, barbers and peasants ascend to supremacy, giants and freaks are collected, dwarfs are tossed, beheaded heads kissed, tongues torn out, flesh knouted off bodies, rectums impaled, children slaughters; here are fashion-mad nymphomaniacal empresses, lesbian ménages à trois, and an emperor who wrote the most erotic correspondence ever written by a head of state.  Yet this is also the empire built by flinty conquistadors and brilliant statesmen that conquered Siberia and Ukraine, took Berlin and Paris, and produced Pushkin, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky; a civilization of towering culture and exquisite beauty.

The sheer level of violence is extraordinary and the drama of the dynasty is completely absorbing.  I fell into the book for a few hours and emerged able to think of nothing else but the blood-thirsty early Romanovs and their supporters.

n33964With impalements by the dozen fresh in my mind, I decided something a little – a lot – gentler was needed before bed.  I wanted something that was all the things the Romanovs were not: peaceful, good-humoured and non-homicidal.  But I wasn’t quite ready to leave Russia so I turned to that most comforting of authors, Eva Ibbotson, and her first adult novel, A Countess Below Stairs.  Its fairy-tale like beginning was the perfect antidote:

In the fabled, glittering world that was St. Petersburg before the First World War there lived, in an ice-blue palace overlooking the river Neva, a family on whom the gods seemed to have lavished their gifts with an almost comical abundance.

It was back to The Romanovs this morning but, I suspect, it will be back to Ibbotson tonight.  A perfect balance.

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