Monday, February 20, 2017

Two by Simone St James

When you aren't feeling all too great on a long weekend and can't really take advantage of all the time to do active things, what do you turn to? Well, that's what happened to me this weekend, and I always turn to some enjoyable comfort reads. 

So I have two books by a favourite author, Simone St James, to share with you. I've read all of her work now, and always anticipate more. You can see my earlier thoughts on The Haunting of Maddy Clare, or An Inquiry into Love and Death (still my favourite) or  Silence for the Dead. Or you can see what I thought of these two romantic, gothic, supernaturalish reads!

The Other Side of Midnight / Simone St James
New York: NAL, c2015.
318 p.

This one is a bit different from her other work: while there is a paranormal aspect, instead of a haunting we have a couple of spiritualists who can talk to the dead. 

It's set, as usual, in the 20s. This is London between the wars, when belief in spiritualism and the longing to reconnect with the many lost lives is strong. Ellie Winter gave up her practice as a spiritualist alongside her mother after an incident; however, her former rival Gloria Sutter has just been murdered at a seance and had left instructions for Ellie to find her. 

So Ellie is drawn back into the thick of things, with Gloria's brother pushing her from one side and paranormal investigator James Hawley pushing from the other. The mystery turns out to be just as much connected to the political everyday as it is supernatural. But Ellie both finds her feet as the gifted psychic she is, and finds a solid romance too, through this exercise. 

St James writes a thoroughly believable London, with description of places and feelings and social norms strongly drawn. I just wanted Ellie to succeed and be happy, and so was very satisfied with the conclusion of this novel. Once again, entertaining and page-turning reading.

Lost Among the Living / Simone St James
New York: NAL, c2016.
337 p.

It's 1921, and Jo Manders, having lost her husband Alex as MIA in WWI, needs to find a living. She ends up as a paid companion to Alex's Aunt Dottie. 

And Dottie's life is no bed of roses. When they arrive at her country home, Jo finds that there are mysteries, both real and paranormal, to contend with. Not to mention that Dottie's husband and son are both problematic - rude, withdrawn, disagreeable.

With a sense of ghosts lurking, and paranormal experiences that Jo seems to accept naturally, this is a creepy tale indeed. Alex's cousin Georgina, always considered slightly off, committed suicide at a young age, and she haunts the premises (quite literally). The mystery element and the romance element are both strong, and slightly reminiscent of DuMaurier's Rebecca.

That said, Jo is not my favourite heroine so far, and so I found that I didn't engage as deeply in her story. I found there to be quite a few coincidences & strange choices on her behalf, so didn't love this story as much as the other St. James I've read. Of course, that still means that this was a very good read, and a perfect choice for comfort reading nonetheless! The mystery is indeed very mysterious, and only reveals itself slowly, keeping the reader guessing. And the atmosphere is perfectly 20's, English, ghost story. Well worth checking out.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem / Sarit Yishai-Levi; translated from the Hebrew by Anthony Berris.
New York: Thomas Dunne, c2016.
374 p.

Amongst all my Canadian reads lately, I'm still reading some stories of other places. I'd heard this one talked about a bit online, and then it came in at my library and looked like just the thing for me. 

Somehow, I'd missed everything about it except that it was about a family of women in Jerusalem. And that turned out to be a great thing, because the story was a real surprise for me. I began reading about the Ermosa family; the matriarch Mercada, her favourite son Gabriel who falls out of favour by falling in love with an Ashkenazi, his punishment of a quick marriage to the lowly Rosa (an orphan and house cleaner) and then the succeeding lives of their children and grandchildren. It's a big, long, interwoven, historical, dramatic family saga which strongly reminds me of Latin American literature. 

When I began reading, I didn't twig to the family's name right away. On the first page, they use Spanish phrases (actually Ladino, which I comprehended shortly) and eating Spanish food and I was very confused. Then it became clear; this is a Sephardic family, who had come to Palestine from Spain long before the Mandate, and lived through all the upheaval that brought Israel into statehood. 

I knew next to nothing about either of these things, except for the basic history that is generally taught. So I found this book very illuminating about the state of life in Palestine and Israel. I found that there was a great deal of conflict between Sephardi and Ashkenazi, which I hadn't realized before. It made me sad; even in a state being created for the Jewish people there were still divisions about who was the better Jew. But it seems like this happens everywhere, to every country. 

Anyhow, the book was a bit of a lengthy read as there are many characters. It follows four generations of this family, with the lynch-pin being Rosa and Gabriel's oldest daughter, Luna. She outshines her sisters by her force of personality (though her sisters are much nicer people), and she is the centre of the world to the narrator, her daughter Gabriela, despite their rocky relationship. As we learn about her in the title drop:

   Luna talked about clothes as if they were precious objects, each dress a diamond, every skirt a pearl. Her love for clothes infected everyone who came in to the shop, and there wasn't a customer who left empty-handed. 
   The shop employed several seamstresses who made the clothes according to patterns that appeared in Burda magazine, and Luna would devour the magazine voraciously, studying it for hours on end. She spent all her wages on clothes, she purchased from the shop, and was always dressed at the height of fashion, accessorized to the most minute detail. The polish on her fingernails matched that on her toenails, which matched her lipstick, which in turn matched her dress, shoes and handbag. As she dressed, she blossomed.
   Luna grew more beautiful from day to day, and her beauty was renowned throughout Jerusalem. "The beauty queen," they called her, "the beauty queen of Jerusalem." And she , who was aware of her beauty and understood the looks of the men who were unable to tear their eyes from her, shamelessly exploited it. It accorded her an advantage and power, and she felt she could conquer the world. 

I love this excerpt because it captures both Luna's self-absorbed character, and her status in the community. And because I, like Luna, have also spent hours poring over my own Burda magazines. 

I found this a fascinating read for all it had to teach me about a culture I knew little about. And because the connection of the women around Luna was compelling. Luna herself was prickly, unlikeable, but had her own secrets. Her daughter was also not a favourite character for me, having many of the same characteristics. But Luna's sisters and mother all really caught me. The story follows their female relationships as well as their disparate romances, and reveals their opinions, whether active or dismissive, on politics.

There are some flaws with this novel; the first written by a journalist, it does have its share of dry reportage moments. And it can feel a bit melodramatic from time to time. But if you are prepared for a family saga which highlights life in Jerusalem via a Latin American feel, with some flashes of magical realism along with some gritty realism as well, you might find that you also really enjoy it. 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Evening Chorus

Evening Chorus / Helen Humpreys
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2015.
304 p.

Now this is quite a different kind of war story. It's quieter, slower-paced, and more about three people's lives and how the war creates a 'before & after' for them, how it changes the trajectory of their lives. 

James is an English soldier, who is in a German POW camp. He survives the tedium and control, and random acts of violence, over five years by watching a family of Redstarts (birds) just outside the camp. His interest in birds and in logging his findings draws the attention of the Kommandant, who has a similar interest. Humphreys was inspired by the story of John Buxton, a birder with a similar war experience, but James is a clearly fictional character. She also used real life anecdotes a couple of more times in the book, in both of the women's stories.

The women: James' young wife Rose, who married him in a rush as he was heading off to war. She is now drawn into an affair with another RAF officer, as she really has no strong feeling for James. This will shape the rest of her life. And Enid, James' sister -- a tough and independent Londoner who loses her home, job, and lover in a bomb raid, and comes to live with Rose. The two women clash both in their approach to life in general, and in their attachment to James. But they eventually come to a livable compromise and even form a bit of an unexpected friendship. 

And then James comes home. How do the three re-engage in everyday life after such a momentous experience? That is the key to this book. Humphreys doesn't examine the daily horrors of war so much as the effects on its survivors. 

It's a very quiet and still book despite the context of war. The writing is finely polished, with every phrase considered. The emotion in the story is often described rather than shown; the British habit of reserve is reflected in this choice.  And the quiet sense of storytelling reaches into the conclusion, as well; I didn't feel that there was a big resolution, nobody suddenly solved everything and became proactive. Rather, they all just kept drifting along in the direction their actions had shifted them in. Even when those are relatively positive, ie: James writes a seminal book on Redstart behaviour, the characters don't seem all that excited by life anymore.

I thought it was beautifully written, with nature's strength and beauty highlighted. But I did find that the bird metaphors sometimes leaned toward being a little bit obvious. And in the end, the quiet and measured pace of the book felt a bit dry to me. I wanted a little more of something, anything, to happen. 

So while I admire Humphreys' skill at taking a WWII story in a much different direction than found usually in this genre, I still prefer her earlier Coventry, for its more active protagonist and sense of immersion in the war years. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Bird's Eye View

Bird's Eye View / Elinor Florence
Toronto: Dundurn, c2014.
384 p.

This is an unusual war novel: it features Rose Joliffe, a young Canadian girl from Saskatchewan who goes to England to join the war effort, before Canadian women could join our own country's armed forces.

She ends up working for the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as an aerial photographic interpreter -- she examines photographs of the landscape of Europe taken by pilots, aiming to notice anything unusual. Of course she discovers that she's really good at interpreting the sometimes mystifying images that her group of women receive, but I guess that's why she's the heroine ;)

Rose has gumption; she goes to England, she faces the devastation and daily fear of war in a way that those in Saskatchewan were not -- even if there was also an air base in her hometown, at which English pilots were trained. So perhaps her family was closer to war than some others. 

I thought this book was well-researched, giving a new perspective on wartime and women's roles. Rose was a good protagonist; interesting, involved, determined. She does get a little lonely in England, though, and falls into an affair with a married man who is clearly (to the reader) a complete cad. I didn't feel the affair subplot added much to the story, other than length. Rose's journey to find her role in wartime was plenty of plot, and was powerful. 

If you're looking for a straightforward historical novel, one which provides a new vantage point on the ways that women were involved in WWII, try out this read. I particularly liked the descriptions of Saskatchewan and of Rose's homesickness -- I thought that these were captured very well and added a new angle to stories of war. Rose's actual job as an aerial photographic interpreter is also really fascinating, and fits in with her background and experiences. I enjoyed learning details about this occupation and how it was used during wartime. 

The feel of the story reminds me of a tv show I'm watching now, the rather soap opera-ish "The Halcyon" on BBC -- mostly for the young woman who is a main character in that show, also set in the early years of WWII, who joins the women's voluntary service. She also resembles the cover model of this book, strangely enough!

I enjoyed this novel, learning new elements of war work that I hadn't known of previously, and also discovering a great new character who was daring and inquisitive. It's nice to see another side of women's work in these years.


Further Reading:

For another tale of Canadian women in wartime, also connected with flying (but told in a saucier tone) try Jeanette Lynes' The Factory Voice. Set entirely in Ontario, this read about factory workers building planes in Northern Ontario is snappy and strongly female-oriented as well.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Black Apple

Black Apple / Joan Crate
Toronto: Simon &; Schuster, c2016.
336 p.

This novel, set in the 40s & 50s, is written with good intent: to shine a light on the residential school system in Canadian history. It features a young Cree girl being torn from her family and placed in a school run by nuns, with the kinds of terrible things happening that we've all heard about now.

I thought it was an okay read -- certainly one with strong and timely content. However, I found the writing to be a little bit surface oriented, where there was great opportunity to go a little deeper and show the inner life of these characters fully.

Sinopaki aka Rose Marie is taken to residential school at a young age, and feels bereft of her family, who are so far away that she can't see them often, even for holidays. She begins to form an attachment to Mother Grace, and finds that she has a skill for academics. Despite the fact that Mother Grace manipulates her family and Rose Marie's own opportunities according to what she sees as "best", Rose Marie still has a strong connection to Grace even after leaving the convent. This saintly nun doing her best in the face of corruption among priests and church managment seems a little facile; she seems excused from any residential school wrongdoing altogether. I'm not sure I could believe that Grace's long service and exhaustion are a reason for her not to be responsible for what happens at the school she's running.

After Rose Marie's long years at the residential school she feels assimilated into the white culture around her; she get a job in a nearby town rather than return to her family. However, even here she faces racism and violence. But this last section of the book really comes off as a bit hokey and romance novelish, as she meets a nice man at the boarding house who protects her from other not-nice men even as he introduces her to her first sexual experience. And then Rose Marie has an awakening and realizes she must return to her family to understand herself. 

The story seemed a bit YAish, with limited complexity or examination of really dark themes. And the romance thread just didn't work for me. I thought the writing was capable, though both stark and overdone simultaneously in a few instances. I think that Lise, a reviewer on Goodreads, captured my feeling about this book when she says " I love Joan Crate's poetry, but find her fiction very thin. She wrote with an agenda, and therefore her heart doesn't speak."

I wanted to love this book; I ended up liking it but having quite a few hesitancies about the way the story turned out. And the title, while referring to the town that the school is in, has unpleasant connotations for me as well. So not a hit for this reader. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Cover Designs! #10

It's been almost a year since my last Cover Designs post. But when I saw the dress on the cover of The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel, I knew I had to post about it! What is Cover Designs? It's when I see a dress on the cover of a book and try to match up a pattern and fabric to recreate that dress in real life.

This is a classic fit & flare dress, and there were many close possibilities to choose from. But after much pondering, I've selected New Look 6143.

Made from a red crepe or even a fine boucle, this dress would match the cover nicely, with View B's mid-length sleeve, but no overlay. The skirt on the cover dress looks pleated, rather than gathered, and that is reflected in this pattern also.

Maybe it could be made with this japanese cotton:

Or this viyella (cotton-wool blend):

And accessorized with these rugged mountain-friendly brogues

 and this green bangle

And of course this rugged suitcase to carry it all with you.

Tell me, would you wear this on your next mountain escape? 


I wore something slightly similar on my own last trip to Canmore, the inspiration for the town of Gateway in this novel. But the pattern wasn't quite right, with a gathered skirt instead of pleats, and my sleeves weren't quite long enough. Also, it wasn't red ;)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel

The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel / Katherine Govier
Toronto: HarperAvenue, c2016
475 p.

This is a lengthy family saga full of great Canadiana -- the Rocky Mountains, American fossil hunters, generations of families descended from wilderness guides and such, the history of the Canadian Parks System, Ottawa bureaucrats, winter storms that people are lost in -- what else might be added?

If you love family stories over three generations, if you love books in which the setting becomes a character, if you have the strange predilection that I do for books featuring three sisters, then I suggest you give this one a try.

It begins in Gateway, Alberta, in 1911 (and Gateway is strangely reminiscent of Canmore, as a mountain town with a view of the Three Sisters, iconic mountain peaks that I've seen myself).

Gateway is a town that's rough and rules itself, and the government's meddling while turning the landscape into a national park isn't much appreciated by the independent souls who live there. This set of characters eventually interacts with the story of two civil servants charged with the paperwork to kick off the Parks System. The two threads don't mesh all that well, though; jumping back to dreary office life in Ottawa feels a bit dull after reading about mountain exploration, blizzards and disappearances in Alberta.

Actually, the book is structured in four parts, focusing on past -- Herbie's story, and a section focused on the Ottawa parks people (which could have been condensed significantly, I think) -- and present, in which Herbie's 3 granddaughters are called back to Gateway by their elderly parents after said parents decided it was a brilliant idea to buy the old hotel and restore it with their daughters' help. 

I loved the setting and the scientific element of the fossil expedition, in particular; I love sciencey content in my fiction!  Many of the characters of that era were really engaging. I felt less fond of the current day story, as redoing an old building with your parents and adult siblings just isn't as wildly fascinating as riding off into the uncharted mountains and facing down nature. I also thought the segments about the Parks staff were interesting (the long-suffering secretary was wonderful) but could have made another whole novel instead of being too much with us in this one.

But if you'd like to read a book about the wilds of Alberta in 1911 and onward, this is a great choice. Lots of history and research in this story, and a setting that is evocative and beautiful.  

**If you're interested, you can listen to a brief interview about this book which Katherine Govier gave on The Next Chapter a year ago.