Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Bellewether by Kearsley

Bellewether / Susanna Kearsley
Toronto: Simon & Schuster Canada, c2018.
414 p.

I loved this book! I received a copy  from the publisher shortly before the release last week, and settled in to read the whole book that night. Couldn't put it down. 

I love Kearsley's mix of history and romance and hauntings -- this book is one of the best of her most recent titles, for me, as it covers an area of history that I personally enjoy: it's set in 1759 during the war between France & England in North America. It takes place in Long Island, where the Wilde family (made up of father and grown children) must board two French officers who have been captured by the English. One of these officers, Jean-Phillippe de Sabran, is much more respectful of the Wilde family than the other officer, and his interest in their lives grows to include the woman of the house, daughter Lydia. 

Meanwhile, in the story's contemporary setting, Charley Van Hoek comes to Long Island to be the new curator of the Wilde House Museum. Charley has family history in the area, including an estranged grandmother who is a big name in the local Daughters of the American Revolution group. Charley must adapt to her job, her connections to the community, and figure out just what is going on at the Wilde House - because she doesn't believe in ghosts. Not really. But the legend of the doomed love affair of Lydia Wilde has been passed down for generations, and spooky things do happen...

The story is enriched by Kearsley's ability to sketch characters quickly, but with depth and interest. The romance in the past was more vivid than the current day one, for me, but I enjoyed both storylines. I really do like the New France era, and there was a lot of detail about the politics and daily life of that time, thanks to Jean-Phillippe. The house/museum itself is a lovely character, well drawn and described in both eras; I would visit it if it really existed. I also liked how the family relationships in both eras were important to the story; it's nice to see those kind of ties instead of an isolated main character who seems to exist independently.

I can't say too much as I don't want to give away the unfolding of the plot and the joy of discovery while reading this, but I did think this was a great addition to Kearsley's novels, and certainly one that I will reread. The pacing, characters and setting all worked together wonderfully. If you are looking for a non-racy romance, a great historical setting, and a solid plot (with ghosts!), you must try it. 

11th Annual CanBook Challenge: May Roundup

Friday, April 13, 2018

Threads: the Delicate Life of John Craske

Threads: the Delicate Life of John Craske / Julia Blackburn
London: Jonathan Cape, c2015.
352 p.

I heard about this book in the bibliography of a craft book I was studying, and thought it sounded intriguing enough to track down via Interlibrary Loan. It delivered, though not in the way I was first expecting.

It is a delicate biography, mostly because it isn't one at all. The author decides to write about this intriguing character, John Craske (b1887, d1943) but finds that there isn't all that much to discover. The book is about more than Craske himself; it's also about her search for him -- the places she goes to do her research, the people she encounters along the way, related to Craske or not, and her own life story is inextricably linked to the narrative, as her husband dies during the course of her writing this book.

It is fascinating and absorbing reading. 

John Craske himself, the backbone of the book, was an English fisherman from Norfolk who suffered from an undiagnosed disease (they think now it may have been some kind of diabetes). He would fall into long periods of invalidism, in which he seemed not to be in the world at all. His wife encouraged him to paint in order to engage with the world, and feel as if he was on the open seas again, which he missed. Visitors noted that all the surfaces of their house were covered with paintings propped up, and even painted right onto the doors and windowsills. When John became too ill to be able to paint, his wife set him onto embroidery, which he could do from his bed. 

His embroideries were fresh and unique; he used his painting techniques to make embroidered images of the seascapes he loved. As a stitcher myself  I could see how these were unusual for the time, being freeform and individual. He uses his wools and threads to indicate wind, waves, grasses, and more; the movement in his stitching is extraordinary. He was working on a huge panel depicting Dunkirk when he died, leaving only a square of the sky undone. 

Blackburn examines not only his life history and the ways in which he turned to painting and then embroidery, but also what happened to his works after he'd died, and the ways in which his reputation was both made and forgotten. Integral to his brief popularity were the writers Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland, who discovered him in his small village, and championed his art after that -- partly out of admiration and partly out of a feeling that he and his wife really needed some financial support. 

Blackburn also visits a couple of small regional museums and institutions that hold a few of Craske's remaining works, finding them poorly stored, not exhibited, or shown a lot of care. They seem to treat them as the output of a local artisan, not worth too much attention. I hope that this book can at least inspire those places to preserve Craske's work for the future, as they are original. 

The book as a whole feels wild and windy, with a lot of open spaces to think and ponder. One of the things John Craske said about being out on the ocean in a small boat was that it made you feel like a small bit of the world; this book's wide-ranging interest and narrative structure also makes you, the reader, feel like one small point in a huge tapestry of life. This was a wonderful, rambling discovery.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Paper Teeth & Bad Endings: Two Canadian Shorts

I recently read two debut collections of short stories, back to back. This wasn't intentional, but although they are not brand new books, they were new to my library and both looked appealing. And I did enjoy them, to different degrees. Here are a few thoughts on both.

Paper Teeth / Lauralyn Chow
Edmonton: NeWest Press, c2016.
240 p.

A collection of connected family stories circling around the Lees, a Canadian-Chinese family living in Edmonton, through the 60s and 70s, this has warmth and humour. The narrator is usually the younger daughter, although some of the stories come from different perspectives.

The book is arranged in sections named after menu items on a Chinese Canadian restaurant menu, and most of them do focus on the kind of domestic, interpersonal issues represented by food and the way it plays into identity.

I found it really absorbing reading; Chow has a unique story to tell, even with the reliance on the kind of family stories we might expect to see in short fiction. Her characters develop more complexity as you read, and see them in different situations and at different ages.

 Her narrative style is also quite fascinating -- she has a habit of adding in parenthetical afterthoughts or commentary, often ironic and/or funny, often a judgement made by an older narrator/writer. It's very entertaining, and I found that particular habit intriguing. I really liked this book. There was good writing and lots of great imagery, as well as things happening -- not just vague or open ended stories about emotional exploration of the self.

Bad Endings / Carleigh Baker
Vancouver: Anvil Press, c2017.
168 p.

This collection has been getting quite a bit more attention than the first, and it is a solid book. My personal preference was for Paper Teeth, as many of the stories in Bad Endings sounded vaguely familiar, similar to much contemporary Canadian short fiction, at least to me.

There were a couple of stories which really stood out for me, especially the one which inspired this beautiful cover art. In that story, there are vivid descriptions of wild rivers, salmon, hard work -- it's active and energetic.

But generally this collection felt MFAish, and not the ideal one for me. Many of the stories featured young people in some kind of life transition. There was drudgery, uncertainty, a bit of squalor, and frequent trailings off into a kind of ending. This may be more resonant for and reflective of millennial life at this moment; perhaps younger readers will engage more wholly with this collection. I admired her writing ability and the lack of academic navel gazing in this book, but it didn't catch me entirely.


How about you? Have you read any good short story collections lately? Anything you would recommend?

Sunday, April 01, 2018

The Grave's A Fine & Private Place

The Grave's a Fine and Private Place / Alan Bradley
Toronto: Doubleday Canada, c2018.
384 p.

I'm a Flavia de Luce fan, so I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of this book. After the last volume in this series, ending with a terrible family tragedy, I really wasn't sure where he was going to take the story. It seemed like the previous book was a natural conclusion -- how would he carry on? 

Fortunately, Bradley has found a path forward so that we won't lack for Flavia in future. I thought that this book was stronger than the last few and shows an opening up of Flavia's world which bodes well. The title was well chosen -- from the poem by Marvell, "The grave's a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace". In this episode, Flavia's fascination with the grave is tempered by a realization that her family relationships are really important. And there is a thawing of the frosty affections between she and her sisters. 

As this book opens, Flavia and her sisters are rather reluctantly on a river journey, alongside their loyal family retainer, Dogger. They are feeling bored and forced into this familial excursion, until Flavia, trailing her hand in the water, hooks what she thinks might be a large fish, but typically for her, turns out to be a dead body.

Flavia springs into detective mode, and explores the leads in the small riverside village they are now halted in. She finds that there are many secrets and red herrings to pursue, until her cleverness almost does her in entirely. When her sister comes to her rescue, Flavia sees a new relationship unfold that will keep all of them at Buckshaw Manor after all, and financially stable as well. 

The joys of this series are almost entirely due to Flavia and her internal life; in this volume there is more to explore, as her connection to her siblings and to Dogger suddenly become warmer and more respectful. It feels like Flavia is beginning to emerge from the resounding isolation of the earlier books, and to find her role in her family and the wider world. Despite all of the tragedy in her family history, there is a new development on the horizon that should keep her going, and hopefully this series going as well. 

The writing in this book is finer and more nuanced as well, and seeing different angles to all the characters is rewarding. I am finding more to like about each of them, and the only problem now is waiting for the next volume. Highly recommended. 

11th Annual CanBook Challenge: April Roundup

Friday, March 30, 2018

The Broken Girls

The Broken Girls / Simone St James 
New York: Berkley Books, c2018.
326 p.

I just finished this new novel by Simone St James; I had to read it in two parts, since I put it down the first night when it was just getting too scary for bedtime reading, at least for me! 

I've read all of her novels, and always anticipate the arrival of a new one. This one is different from the previous five -- it's the same atmospheric writing, but mixes the expected Gothic ghost story with a contemporary police drama. It works really, really well. I think this may be the book that introduces her to a wider reading public. It's fascinating, tightly plotted, features a heroine who doesn't do stupid things to advance the story, has great characters in both timelines, and it just doesn't want you to look away. 

Set in Vermont, at Idlewild Hall, a boarding school for so-called troubled girls, it jumps between 1950 and a group of four roommates, and 2014, when journalist Fiona Sheridan finds out the long derelict school is being restored.

Fiona is fixated on the school in her own right; twenty years before, her older sister was found murdered, left on the deserted school playing fields. She can't let it go, and has started following old leads and investigating the now under-construction site. It's complicated by the fact that her new boyfriend Jamie, a younger man, is also on the local police force and doesn't feel comfortable with her digging up dirt about his father and grandfather's investigations into old cases, even her own family's case. 

Meanwhile we get to know the four girls in 1950: Sonia, CeCe, Roberta and Katie, all sent to Idlewild for varied reasons that they eventually disclose to one another. The traumas in their pasts haunt them -- literally. There is a legend that Mary Hand has always haunted the school, and in their turns, all of Idlewild's students see or hear her. She knows what your innermost terror is, and when you see her, that's what she shows you or says to you. It's a truly terrifying moment when Katie encounters Mary Hand when  locked into solitary detention. But beyond the ghost, the girls are tied to the future by their own cold case, when one of them goes missing. 

St James is able to portray the ghost story almost prosaically -- it feels like something you might hear of in real life, those whispered stories of ghostly encounters. It feels like this is a real experience which nobody wants but nobody really questions either. The ghost story carries forward into Fiona's own life as well, and plays a large part in the conclusion of both storylines. The mixture of journalistic investigation, police work, and ghostly revelation is perfectly blended. 

The story all makes sense, both plot-wise and emotionally. I found it a breath-holding, nail-biting read, one in which I couldn't see what was coming next. It's a change for St. James, being set in Vermont and in a contemporary time frame rather than the 20s England I've come to associate with her books. But if you are looking for a compelling and suspenseful boarding school/murder mystery/ghost story, this is most definitely it. 


Recommended Reading:

For more spooky school stories, I'd suggest Marika Cobbold's Drowning Rose, another story of a group of schoolgirls with a secret in their past, or Carol Goodman's The Lake of Dead Languages for added convoluted relationships.