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

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Review: The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was heartbreaking and frustrating and so incredibly engaging. But really, what was I thinking, reading a novel about a women who loses three babies before deciding to “keep” the one that literally floats into her life?
While I easily empathized with the characters, I still struggled with the choices they made. We’ve all dealt with loss, it doesn’t turn you into a kidnapper. I don’t like the idea of an infertile woman as some hysterical, amoral creature who will justify anything to have a child.
Yet, the whole setting led up to making you accept it. There they are, on an island in the middle of the ocean. No one to see, no one to know. Perhaps more importantly, no one to share their struggles and lend support. A woman who lost both brothers in the war, and a man struggling with the guilt of surviving the same war. You can’t help but think “you know, in that situation, maybe I’d have done the same.”
But the fallout. I expected the standard “well meaning couple does terrible thing, learns lesson, everyone lives mostly happily ever after.” I did not expect the gut-wrenching consequences. I did not expect to be up at midnight, desperately reading, tears streaming down my face, hoping everything would be alright in the end. It so rarely is after someone has done a terrible thing.
That’s all I’m going to say. Any more will spoil it. Highly recommended.

Wait – one more thing. I didn’t realize it when I bought the book, but the back-story to the novel is the first World War, and its aftermath. Set in Australia, it is a different take on the war than usual – very similar, but different stories and battles emphasized. Made ever more poignant this year, this week, as it is the 100th anniversary of the start of the war.

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Review: The Onion Girl

The Onion Girl
The Onion Girl by Charles de Lint
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hmm.
When I read a fantasy novel, I tend to either obsess over it and the whole series love it or dismiss it entirely. I rarely have an in-between reaction.
When this book started, I thought I was having the latter reaction. I just didn’t buy in right away. To me, fantasy should be completely detached from the real world. That’s why I like it. This was different. The characters live in the real world (albeit in a fictional city) but know that a parallel fantasy world exists. Some visit it, some cannot.
That was pushing my acceptance level.
Where de Lint won me over, however, was with his characters. I liked them. I wanted to know more about them. I kept reading about this world I wasn’t sure I believed in so I could be sure they were OK. And before I knew it, I had bought in. So much so that I am already reading the next book.
I wouldn’t rate it as a full-blown obsession yet, but it could happen.

Note: content heavily features reminiscence of childhood sexual abuse.

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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 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

sherlockI bought a copy of this years ago in the bargain bin. My husband had read many if not all of the Sherlock books in his early teens and really enjoyed them. I always intended to read them. But I am really not much of a mystery novel reader. I used to be. As a child I devoured read Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, Encyclopedia Brown, etc., etc., but this obsession died somewhere in my teens and I never got back to it.

The real reason I put this book on my TBR list was all the rave reviews of the British TV series, Sherlock. I wanted to watch it. But I wanted to have read at least some of the original material first. Well… I failed. While visiting my husband in early February (we were temporarily living in different cities) we were searching for something to watch on Netflix and decided to check out Sherlock. Before the weekend was over we’d watched the whole series.

First of all, the series is excellent. If you haven’t already, you must watch it. And it is on Netflix, could it be any easier? Second, you don’t need to have read the stories to watch, and watching doesn’t ruin the stories. Yes there is additional context if you already know the characters, but the stories have been adapted and modernized and while there are similarities and parallels, they are different. (The characters have been extremely well adapted, with the possible exception that the original Sherlock while reserved was not quite as anti-social as the new TV Sherlock. Based entirely on my newfound ‘expertise.’)

I must admit I am a mystery fan again. There were many surprises from Sherlock’s adventures. First: he never utters the words “Elementary, my dear Watson.” I kept waiting for it. It didn’t happen.. Second: he used/abused both opium and cocaine. How very Victorian of him. Third (and this also came from the TV series) he is far younger than I expected. I don’t think an exact age is given, but early-to-mid-thirties is implied. I always thought he was middle-aged or older.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the stories is that unlike many detective  novels which slowly reveal clues allowing the reader to work alongside the detective, Doyle leaves his readers pretty nearly as in the dark as his hapless clients and Inspector-Detectives. When Holmes puts it all together at the end, the nuances are revealed and you are stunned and amazed along with Watson and Scotland Yard. Occasionally annoying, I still think I like this better than the traditional detective novel, as frequently I  guess the conclusion long before the detective, making me wonder what makes him/her so special in the first place. (Lest I sound like I am bragging, this is a complaint I hear often from other readers. I don’t think it makes me special either.)

The most notable of the stories, in my opinion, was the last: The Adventure of the Copper Beeches. I find it hard to say exactly why, but this more than any of the others really pulled me in, creeped me out, and kept me guessing. It is worth mentioning that while Holmes always solves the case, the result is not always a happy ending. Sometimes he is late, sometimes there is nothing to be done to fix things. He does “save” the lady in question in this instance, but as with many real life mysteries, it leaves you with an unsettled, “how could someone do that to someone else” feeling. (Also worth noting, but not why it was my favourite: my Nova Scotia hometown gets a very brief mention in this story.)

Whether you choose to read Sherlock from beginning to end as I have, or want to pick away at a story from time to time, you really can’t get a better mystery story than a Sherlock Holmes adventure. Classics are classics for a reason, after all.

Format: Kobo Edition (eBook)
Published: July 29, 2009, Library of Alexandria
ISBN-10: 1613104693
ISBN-13: 9781613104699
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was originally published in the United Kingdom 1892 by George Newnes, and was 307 pages long.

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

annabelWayne is growing up with a secret that he doesn’t fully understand, and secrets are hard to keep in small, remote towns where everyone knows your business. A baby is born in Labrador in 1968, a baby who by all appearances is both boy and girl at once. A quick decision is made, the child is christened as Wayne, and despite the concoction of pills and hormones he is treated with, something is never quite right.

As a confused young child, he doesn’t understand why his likes and desires – preferring synchronized swimming to hockey, or playing ‘house’ with a neighbour’s daughter instead of building a fort – aren’t the same as his friends, and are embarrassing to his father.  He is raised as a boy in a man’s world, but has no interest in his father’s life of hunting and trapping. Like all teenagers, and yet many times more problematic, he struggles to make friends, to fit in.

Wayne’s mother is never happy with her husband’s decision to raise the child as a boy. She loves her son, yet mourns her daughter. Her friend, the midwife and only other person to know truth about Wayne, secretly christens the child Annabel, in memory of the daughter she lost years before. Kathleen Winter has done an incredible job with the creation of Wayne/Annabel, in drawing the reader in to feel his angst, pain and gender confusion. His is such a heartbreaking story, but not without its own beauty and sense of hope.

This novel was mesmerizing. I wasn’t sold on it based on the book jacket or marketing summaries. Having read “Middlesex” (Jeffrey Eugenides) a few years back I guess I thought a novel about a hermaphrodite was already done, nothing to get excited over. I’m embarrassed to say it sat on my shelf unread for almost two years. But consistently, I heard rave reviews from people whose opinions on books I take very seriously. I knew I had to read it, and so finally did.

I have joined the ranks of the rave reviewers. This book was excellent.

Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: House of Anansi Press Inc.; 1st Edition edition (May 31 2010)
ISBN-10: 0887842364
ISBN-13: 978-0887842368

The Night Has Teeth by Kat Kruger

NightHasTeeth_LowRes_1024x1024Connor Lewis, 17 years old and socially awkward, if off to Paris to study for a year on scholarship. He quickly makes two new friends, flirty and oddly attractive Madison and her boyfriend Josh. The couple seem constantly on the verge of breaking up, and sparks are flying between Connor and Madison. But what seems like it could be the set up for a typical YA romance becomes something altogether different.

We meet Connor’s host family: Amara, an attractive tattoo artist in her early twenties, and her broody boyfriend Arden. To say this is not your standard exchange student scenario would be a huge understatement. We flash back to his childhood, and discover he bit a boy, badly, on his first day of school, and has been an outcast ever since. Now in Paris, Connor discovers an underworld of werewolves: the born (who transform into majestic wolves)  and the bitten (the half-man, half-beast monsters we are more familiar with).

Throw in some beautiful people, the City of Light (and the dark tunnels beneath it), a creepy cemetery or two, and a novel scientific theory on the evolution of the werewolf, and you’ve got yourself a damn fine story.

“The night has teeth. The night has claws, and I have found them.” — Eyewitness account of the Wolf of Magdeburg, 1819

So if it isn’t your standard YA fantasy romance, what is it? It’s a part paranormal, part sci-fi, and all parts awesome werewolf story. I know, you are skeptical. So was I. Twilight kinda killed werewolves for anyone not a Twihard. (Dear God I just used one of their made up words.) But honestly, Kruger has told a fascinating story, which is of course just the set up for a larger story – this book is part 1 of the Madgeburg Trilogy (part 2 is due out this summer).

I thoroughly enjoyed The Night has Teeth, and recommend it highly. I will disclose a personal bias: Ms. Kruger is a friend of mine.  I read it months ago, and hesitated to post a review as it was hard to find the right voice to review a friend’s work. I wanted to convey how much I enjoyed it without gushing and coming across as fake. I hope I have accomplished that… and I hope you check it out the book and enjoy it too.

Paperback: 306 pages
Publisher: Fierce Ink Press (Sep 23 2012)
ISBN-10: 0988106701
ISBN-13: 978-0988106703