Review: New York: The Novel by Edward Rutherford

new york“Oh Lord, we thank Thee for this thy gift of lobster Newburg. And grant us also, if it be Thy will, control of the Hudson Ohio Railroad.’
‘But we ain’t wanting control of the Hudson Ohio,” Sean softly objected.
‘True,’ said Gabriel Love, ‘but the Almighty doesn’t need to know that yet.”
Edward Rutherfurd, New York

New York. City of Lights. City of Dreams. The Big Apple. I have always been fascinated by this city, and cannot wait to visit someday. Always a draw to young people from the Maritime provinces looking for employment and/or adventure, my grandparents lived there before they were married. My father’s aunt stayed, spending her adult life there. Because of this, I am even more interested in the city’s history than its present day glitz & glamour (though I will happily take that in as well).

Having absolutely loved Rutherford’s book about London, I was excited to see this one released, and couldn’t wait to read it. it begins with New Amsterdam in 1664, when the city is little more than a trading village at the tip of the island of Manhattan. We meet the VanDyke family, soon to be bonded with the Masters family (English), as well as other important Dutch families like the Roosevelts and Stuyvesants. As with his other novels, Rutherford follows families through history to tell the story of the city, though in this one the focus is primarily on the Masters family, who are among the original English merchants and old Dutch money, and over time become kings of Wall Street. All other characters are somehow linked to them – their slaves, followed by their servants. Their friends and neighbours and classmates.

Overall I really like this approach to novelizing the history of a city or region, though somehow this wasn’t quite as engaging as the story of London. About a third of the book is devoted to the American Revolution – which frankly just isn’t that interesting in comparison to the rest. Yes of course it was important. But it is 10 years of the whole 350 covered by the novel. In my opinion, it was too much. But otherwise there was so much to learn or remember. The history of this iconic city, from the founding of the boroughs to the revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Slavery and the Underground Railroad. The Irish famines and the Irish gangs. Harlem, and Spanish Harlem. The crash of ’29, and the dot.com boom. So much history in one city. The Triangle Factory fire in 1911 and the terrorist attacks in 2001.

A good, if not great read, and definitely worth the time of anyone who enjoys historical fiction or has a fascination with this city.

Publisher: Anchor Canada (Sept. 21 2010)
Paperback: 880 pages
ISBN-10: 0385664273
ISBN-13: 978-0385664271

Review: The Skystone

The Skystone
The Skystone by Jack Whyte

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a new (well, relatively – 1990s) take on the Aurthurian legend, Jack Whyte looks not at King Arthur himself, but who came before him. How did Camelot come to be in the first place? What world events allowed the fabled kingdom to be created?

Set in the dying days of the Roman Empire, Roman general Caius Britannicus and his friend Publius Varrus, an ex-soldier and blacksmith, combine forces, resources and families to found a colony. Here they strive to protect their loved ones and their way of live from the barbarian invasions they know will be coming. The end of the Roman Empire is the end of the world as they know it. Their ultimate goal is to stop Britain from falling into barbarism, to uphold loyalty, discipline and honour in their small pocket of the island.

This novel was a great start to another epic retelling of the Arthurian saga. I can’t wait to see where this series goes. There is a little too much military history/strategy for me to give it a full five stars, but the characters are well developed and the attention to detail is phenomenal. I even love the “sciency” bits where Varrus tries to work out the origin and identity of the mysterious Skystone.

“Magic, after all, is no more than the product of knowledge others don’t share.” 

I keep guessing at which characters will morph into traditional Arthurian roles, but I think I am likely way off. Too early for that yet. Clearly, Excalibur will be smelted from the Skystone. But I must say that if the Lady of the Lake is reduced to a mere statue, I will be disappointed.

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The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

secret keeperI chose a lot of “not-my-typical-books” for this past year’s Christmas list. I wanted to read new things, new styles. I wanted to read books while they were still new and people were talking about them. Half of my list was just released or about to be released fiction. I have read about half of the books I received as gifts, and thus far I am glad I made the choices I did.

I had seen Kate Morton’s name often, in the bookstores or online, but always passed her by. There is something a little too quaint about the book covers and titles that makes me presume she is writing for the blue-haired set. I fully realize that this is a ridiculous assumption, and that you should never judge a book by its cover (or title). Yada, yada, yada. But we all do it, in one way or another. Unless you have limitless time on your hands, how else do you skim through a book display, or even more daunting, the search results from Chapters or Amazon?

So I very near did not pick this novel, based on the cover. But something in the description caught me:

During a party at the family farm in the English countryside, sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson has escaped to her childhood tree house and is dreaming of the future. She spies a stranger coming up the road and sees her mother speak to him. Before the afternoon is over, Laurel will witness a shocking crime that challenges everything she knows about her family and especially her mother, Dorothy. 

Now, fifty years later, Laurel is a successful and well-regarded actress, living in London. She returns to the family farm for Dorothy’s ninetieth birthday and finds herself overwhelmed by questions she has not thought about for decades. From pre-WWII England through the Blitz, to the fifties and beyond, discover the secret history of three strangers from vastly different worlds—Dorothy, Vivien, and Jimmy—who meet by chance in wartime London and whose lives are forever entwined.

So here we have historical fiction, wartime London, family secrets, and a mystery. Of course I wanted to read this book.

For the most part, it did not disappoint. The narrative flashes between times and viewpoints. We read about the past through the eyes of Dorothy, Vivien, and Jimmy, and the present (and her childhood) from Laurel. Only occasionally does this jumping around become overwhelming or confusing – it is generally quite smoothly done. The real story is in the pre-war and war years however, which almost made me wish there was noo back and forth at all. The chapters devoted to Laurel and her siblings seemed superfluous. We did not need to know half as much about them as Morton revealed. They were not necessary to the story at all, other than as proof of where Dorothy’s life went. That, and of course someone had to be narrating the whole thing, discovering the secrets.

“Gerry?’ Laurel had to strain to hear thought the noise on the other end of the line. ‘Gerry? Where are you?’

‘London. A phone booth on Fleet Street.’

‘The city still has working phone booths?’

‘It would appear so. Unless this is the Tardis, in which case I’m in serious trouble.” 

[So they were occasionally amusing. I still stand by “superfluous.”]

As with any mystery, there was one main and a few minor “twists” to the plot that made the story what it was. With the exception of one, I guessed them all long before they were revealed. Usually this would lose a book major points, but strangely it did not affect my enjoyment of the novel. Rather than reading in anticipation of the big reveal, I read with a mix of impatience and apprehension, wondering how the characters would react when they figured out what I already knew.

“It was unsettling, Laurel thought, suppressing a shiver, how quickly a person’s presence could be erased, how easily civilization gave way to wilderness.”

So in summary, I would say as a story, it was quite good. As historical fiction, for the WWII era, also worth a read. But if you are in it for the mystery, it is not a nail biter. I will read more from Kate Morton. I truly enjoyed (most of) her characters and her ability to engage the reader.

Hardcover: 496 pages
Publisher: Atria Books; First Edition (October 16, 2012)
ISBN-10: 9781439152805
ISBN-13: 978-1439152805

The Book of Fires by Jane Borodale

The clock is ticking for 17-year-old Agnes Trussel. It is 1752, she is pregnant, unmarried and after stealing coins from an elderly neighbour has run away from her family in Sussex to the city of London. Her desperate search for work leads her to the home and workshop of one Mr. Blacklock, fireworks maker, where she asks for housekeeping work, and ends up as his apprentice.

Here she slowly gains the trust of the broody, heartbroken man as she assists him in his self-consuming quest to make the best fireworks London has ever seen. All the while, she is desperately scheming to either find a husband – fast – to end her pregnancy or to somehow give up her child without being discovered. Her days are numbered – a pregnancy can only be hidden for so long.

I had a hard time with this novel, as I am not a fan of many books with first person, present tense narrative (I am measuring the ingredients as we are discussing the chemistry *not an actual quote). Yet I was fascinated by the story – I love anything set in this time period, and it is so rare to have a novel set in the 18th century focusing on the darker side of human relations and social expectations. Borodale paints a wonderfully horrific picture of London in the 1750s with all its dirt, crime, poverty and disease.

The relationship between Anges and Mr. Blacklock had some very Jane Eyre/Mr. Rochester overtones. He is clearly enraptured – yet still longs for his dead wife. She has no idea that a man of his status, and so many years her senior could ever have feelings for her, and so sets her sights elsewhere. Their ending is perhaps more similar to another Bronte novel, if not in detail, certainly in its darkness.

Great story and touching romance. Very impressive first novel. I would like to read more from Jane Borodale.

Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics); Reprint edition (December 28, 2010)
ISBN-10: 014311848X
ASIN: B005B1IANM

The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon

Daughter to Aristotle, Pythias is intelligent, curious and stubbornly independent  also rather unfortunately, she is a girl – a condition which blocks her from the schools, books and debates she craves. Her privileged societal status means that her quirky and at times shocking interests (dissections! bird skeletons! swimming!) are tolerated by her family and those that surround them, though barely.

When the death of Alexander the Great results in her family’s exile, Pythias must help guide her ageing father in keeping them safe, fed and sheltered. There are many offering help: male and female, rich and poor, even the gods and goddesses. Pythias quickly discovers that her wit, beauty and female charms are both an asset to be wielded and a huge risk for all involved.

Always a fan of historical fiction, I greatly enjoyed reading The Sweet Girl. Yet I am somewhat embarrassed to admit I don’t really know if I properly understood what was happening at all times, what Lyon’s intent or message was. The writing style was … for lack of a better descriptor: dense. There were snippets of magical realism, yet as it wasn’t carried through the whole narrative it was a struggle to realize where the fantasy began and ended. I wasn’t 3/4 though the novel when I had already decided I was going to reread this in the next year or two, to fully grasp the meaning.

That may sound like a criticism (technically, yes it is) but I will say I look forward to rereading it. Pythias was a fascinating character. I have read very little from this period and there was much to absorb and learn of the culture and norms of the day.

Well worth a read, but be sure to allow yourself the time to take it all in.

Long-listed for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Random House Canada (Sep 18 2012)
ISBN-10: 0307359441
ISBN-13: 978-0307359445

A Good Man by Guy Vanderhaeghe

Wesley Case, born into a rich and privileged but ultimately broken home, is desperate to escape his past, but turns as both a soldier and a Mountie only increase his shame and his father’s fury. Now, Case has turned diplomat/spy, as the unofficial go between for the commanders of two Western frontier fortresses on the Canada-US border, where he falls in love with Ada Tarr, the wife of the town solicitor, and thus incurs the ire of Michael Dunne – a hired thug with his own dreams of winning Mrs. Tarr’s heart.

Set in 19th century Saskatchewan and North Dakota, A Good Man is the third novel in Vanderhaeghe’s I, a series of books linked not by character but by theme – the decline of the so-called Wild West and the early and uneasy relations between Canada and the US.

A Good Man has everything a good Western novel should: cowboys & Indians, the ‘noble’ Mountie (and a crew of not-so-noble as well),  soldiers, widows, thugs, and a touch of romance. Thankfully this time it is a romance I can get behind. While I loved Vanderhaeghe’s previous novels, The Englishman’s Boy and The Last Crossing, I found the ‘love’ story in the latter highly disappointing.  Less of a love story than a ‘girl is down on her luck so long she finally settles for the old man who has been badgering her to marry him since page 3’ kind of story. Wesley and Ada’s relationship was touching and Dunne’s obsession with her was an interesting mix of sympathetic and creepy.

But lest I make it seem that the best part of the novel was the romance, it must be noted that aside from Case & Dunne, the most intriguing character was the Sioux chief, Sitting Bull. The storyline begins not long after Sitting Bull’s victory at Little Bighorn, and everyone on either side of the border is living in fear of the Sioux. It has been many years since I studied Western History so whether Vanderhaeghe’s version of his character is accurate or not I am not equipped to say. He is depicted as a cunning adversary, commanding, intelligent, and political, and also as a family man, grieving the loss of his son and genuinely concerned for the health and safety of his family and his tribe.

This was the perfect sort of historical novel. I felt a simultaneous pride and shame for the history of my nation, but finished with a desire to know more and understand better. Well worth any reader’s time, I hope to see this novel turn up in a Canada Reads list sometime. It is just he sort of novel every Canadian should read.

Longlisted for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Hardcover: 480 pages
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart; 1st Edition edition (Sep 13 2011)
ISBN-10: 0771087403
ISBN-13: 978-0771087400

 

This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel

Twin brothers Victor and Konrad Frankenstein are inseparable, and together with friends Elizabeth and Henry embark on numerous adventures – real and imaginary. Their happy youth ends quickly one day as Konrad falls extremely ill, and in desperation, Victor turns to alchemy, and the forbidden library discovered in their ancient family home, to find a cure for his brother.

Having watched the play and read another retelling of the Frankenstein story last October, I could not resist revisiting the characters again.  I’m also a sucker for stories involving alchemy or magic, so why not? It was the perfect read for a short airplane ride.

Oppel’s novel is set earlier in Victor’s life, and introduces a twin brother to the narrative. The imminent death of his twin provides the perfect explanation for young Victor’s descent into the world of alchemy and other (future) questionable scientific endeavors. We also see his passion (perhaps misguided) as well as hints of the arrogance and selfishness that lead to his ruin. Great precursor’s to Mary Shelley’s character, without hitting you over the head with obvious links.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the sense of adventure in the story, its translation into young adult material,  and the budding romance/unrequited love story between Victor and Elizabeth, I wasn’t completely sold on Oppel’s take on the story and characters. Having lived through these experiences with alchemy, and the at times drastic results of their experimenting, I am not convinced that this young Frankenstein would go on to create the monster now so well associated with his name.

Of course, Oppel is not done. I did not know it when I was reading, but This Dark Endeavor is part one of a planned trilogy. There is still much left to read before the doctor’s demise.

Note: I don’t like to label books as “for boys” or “for girls” as I have always read books recommended for both. And yet, if you allow me to remove the quotation marks: this would be a great book for young boys. Yes there is some romance, but it is not a focus, and not overdone. It is filled with adventure and written from the perspective of a 15-year-old boy. Of course, I believe most girls will enjoy it as well.

Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (May 22, 2012)
ISBN-10: 1442403160
ISBN-13: 978-1442403161