BBT’s Best Books of 2015: Historical Novels

In 2015, three novels of historical fiction stood out form the pack. Or should I say, the bookshelf. Their authors reimagined the loves and trials of prominent figures from the past. In each case, the reader gets to delve into the minds of the characters to find out what emotions and influences that set them on their paths. Warning: these books are so good, fiction may just become better than reality.

All TruAllTrueNotALieInIte Not a Lie in It by Alix Hawley blew me away. It examines the life and trials of Daniel Boone in a fresh, new light. So many gorgeous passages. Heart-stopping narration. Don’t want to take my word for it? Well, it won the 2015 Amazon.ca First Novel award in May. This fall, it was longlisted for the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize. Read my review, then check out the author’s blog for more info about her writing process and fun facts about Daniel Boone. Then, get your hands on the novel. If you get sad when you finish reading it, take solace in knowing that Hawley is working on the sequel as we speak.

 

MarriageofOppositesIf you’ve been following my blog, you may know that I love author Alice Hoffman‘s work. She delivers. Every. Time. It’s no surprise that her latest novel, The Marriage of Opposites, made my list of 2015’s best historical novels. It is the story of the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro and his family. Inspired by Latin American literature, this multi-generational story is laced with bursts of passion and shades of magic realism. Oh, and the ending? It’s perfect.

 

The mytholoVanessa_Cover_Onegy of Virginia Woolf has been the subject of several films and books over the years. Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar can be added to that list under the heading “inventive point of view”. The epistolary novel is made up primarily of fictional journal entries by Virginia’s older sister, Vanessa.  Under the suffocating shadow of her sister, Vanessa finds the strength to grow as an artist, a mother, and a lover. Reading her story through journals, letters, and postcards was an intimate, memorable experience. I read the book and wrote a review nearly a year ago, but still find myself thinking about the characters today.

What was your favourite historic novel of 2015?

BBT’s Best Books of 2015: Favorite YA Books

Molecules_CoverMy favorite YA novel of 2015—BY FAR—was We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen. It’s a story of two very different people—Stewart and Ashley—who must eventually join forces it they want to make their newly-meshed family work. The book’ll make you laugh out loud and sob aching sobs. I wrote a gushing review back in May claiming that with yet another great title under her belt, Susin Nielsen is quickly becoming the John Green of Canada. I still think that’s true. If you have young teens on your holiday gift list, grab this book (Full of feels!) for each of them. Girls and guys will like it. So will you!

Issues tackled: divorce, bullying, sexual harassment, homosexuality, mourning

 

Cover_AnnAngelAnother great YA read was an engaging collection of short stories about teenage secrets.  Things I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves was edited by Ann Angel—curator of fells, laughs, and ah-ha moments. These stories vary in style and genre, but each one shows us how the struggles of teens deeply impact their emotional lives. Read my review to learn about my three favourite stories. It’s a must-read collection for teens, teachers, and parents alike.

Issues tackled: hoarding, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted deseases, eating disorders, friendship

 

PROBE INTO MEMORY: Find Me by Laura van den Berg

Find Me CoverFind Me by Laura van den Berg
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 2015

“The sickness” hits the Unites States leaving its victims covered in silvery scabs, bereft of their memories, and fated with an unavoidable death. 19-year-old Joy finds herself swept away to an isolated hospital along with others who have been exposed to the fast-spreading disease. Here, Joy becomes intimate with a widower, endeared by orphaned twin boys, and distracted by the mysterious pilgrims who stand vigil outside the hospital.

Unlike other dystopian novels (i.e. Children of Men, World War Z), this story is not rife with action or a rush to find a cure. In fact, most of the scientific elements fizzle away on a back burner. The protagonist has a lot of time on her hands. She gets lost in the entanglements of her memories and her imaginings. Joy’s fears, doubts, and transient lifestyle make her the ideal, unreliable first-person narrator. You feel as vulnerable and as unknowing as Joy.

Van den Berg uses poetic phrases and gorgeous water imagery that lulls you. Her words leave you aimlessly drifting along and waiting for meaning along with Joy. The story can be summed up by one of Joy’s powerful lines:

“I feel like my life is a tent someone has folded up and carried away.”

Being an orphan, Joy never had a permanent home or family life. She drifted from place to place, always finding herself lost—her future a dark blur. The language sets the mood and helps you delve into the psyche of a lonely woman in an unravelling world.

The second part of the book meanders into a new direction, possibly leaving you confused or unsatisfied. Other characters materialize along the way, but never long enough to leave their imprint on you. Like the memories of the afflicted, the relationships Joy forms with others come and go too quickly. The final scene is fitting, but may leave you with more questions than answers.

I recommend this book for readers who appreciate the intricacies of language, but not to those who want a tight plot and a clear resolution at the end of the novel.

A WEIRD, FUNNY, AND HEART-RENDING JOURNEY: BOO by Neil Smith

Boo_CoverIt’s no secret that I adored Bang Crunch, a collection of short stories by Montreal-based writer Neil Smith. So, when I heard he was coming to the city for the Ottawa International Writers Festival, to read from his first novel Boo, I was ecstatic.

Then, I heard about the premise of his book. It’s narrated by 13-year-old Oliver Dalrymple who’s dead and hanging out in Heaven—a place called “Town” inhabited solely by dead, 13-year-old American kids—trying to find out who killed him. I got a bit leery. It sounded too much like The Lovely Bones, the overrated novel that once made my eyes bleed. Profusely. But, after hearing Smith read the first chapter of Boo and explaining the inspiration for his book, I decided to give the book a chance. Thank “Zig” (aka God according to Oliver) because it was awesome.

Oliver’s a pale (hence the nickname Boo), socially-awkward kid. He’s in Town, writing his thoughts and experiences in a manuscript for his still-living parents. Early on, he reveals, “I learned I was no good at small talk, perhaps because I do not know how to make small talk.” You see, he was a loner without any friends during his short time on Earth. He’s got an outrageous IQ that explains his eloquent language and obsession with the periodic table. Full disclosure: I fell in love with this quirky character in Chapter 1.

He becomes friends with maternal, heavyset Thelma, a cynical girl with dwarfism called Esther, and Johnny with a double-crown that “according to [Oliver’s] Grandmother, meant two separate spirits inhabited a person’s body.” Johnny, it turns out, was also killed at school alongside Oliver. Having friends is a new experience for Oliver. When making Johnny laugh for the first time, he thinks, “I am normally not this playful. Maybe Zig altered my personality to better suit my surroundings.” I loved watching Oliver learn to connect with other people. By the time the gang sets out to find out who killed the boys, I was 100% engaged on how the journey transforms Oliver.

The landmarks and the streets in Town are a nod to novels and characters we loved as kids and teenagers: the Meg Murray Infirmary, The Gene Forrester Jail, the Jerry Renault Park, and Boo Bradley Street. On top of that, there are endearing scenes in Boo that emulate the Children’s Literature.  It’s fitting, considering the characters are all thirteen-year-olds. But don’t be fooled; this book is laced with dark humour and themes intended for an adult audience. It looks at suicide, murder, mental illness, and loneliness in a new light.

I loved reading this book even though the dialogue, the knowledge, and behaviors of the kids felt too mature and stable at times. I kept expecting the narrative to unravel in true Lord of the Flies fashion. It didn’t. Not really. But, that was part of the book’s charm and the reason I’m still thinking about it today. If you love dark humour and are still a child at heart, I urge you to follow Oliver on his quest. With a box of tissues at the ready.

READING THE CLASSICS: Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd

farfrom_poster

I loved Tess of the d’Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy as a teenage girl. So why haven’t I read another of his books until now? Beats me. I enjoyed reading his novel Far From the Madding Crowd for the Reading the Classics Challenge in 2015, especially since my blogging buddy Naomi was reading it along with me! And just in time too, since the new movie adaptation starring Carey Mulligan and Matthias Schoenaerts hits theatres tomorrow.

***Contains spoilers.***

 

Five Highlights While Reading Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd

FarFrom_Cover25)  A strapping young sheep farmer—Gabriel Oak— helps a dark-haired, vain young milkmaid (sneaking peeks at herself in a mirror) ride a horse carriage past a gatekeeper. At first glance (not at the mirror, but at the first chapter), I was leery. This introduction is reminiscent of Harlequin romance novel, not a book penned the author of heart-rending, tragic Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I already feel like they will end up together, in the end. But, soon enough, I learned that…

4) …although Bathsheba (the blushing milkmaid) is somewhat vain and fickle, she also demonstrates confidence and assertiveness. She teases Oak by letting him hold (but not kiss) her hand and by not telling him her name (Can’t say that I blame her. I guess when your family name is Everdene, you tend to get a tragic first name. Re: Katniss.) Bathsheba even saves his life when he falls asleep in his smoke-filled hut! She’s a bit strange (re: weird horse riding habits) and runs the show.

She started growing on me.

3)  Later still, she becomes the mistress of a large farm in nearby Weatherbury. Although prone to making silly jokes (the fake valentine… GASP!) and bad decisions (Troy and his big… sword), I admired her strong will to govern her workers and her fierce desire not to marry her first suitors. One could say she was an early day feminist. Or rather, Hardy was an early day feminist writer.

The following bit of dialogue between Gabriel and Bathsheba may be my favorite in the whole novel:

[Gabriel:] “Do you like me, or do you respect me?”

[Bathsheba] “I don’t know — at least, I cannot tell you. It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”

I think these words, written by a man in 1874, speak volume, don’t you think?

FarFrom_Cover32) In true Hardy fashion, we encounter a tragic heroine: Fanny Robin. She’s a kind servant girl who missed her chance to marry sword-wielding Troy by going to the wrong church on her wedding day. She then becomes an abandoned woman who wastes away quickly in a workhouse. In the end, she’s a love-starved, deserted lover who dies, along with her baby, during childbirth.

Fanny is my favorite character. She is true of heart. Never fickle or vain. Our hearts hurt for her She is the antithesis of Bathsheba (who drove me nuts at times). She is perhaps a truer version of a 19th-century women.

1) The best part of this book is the lyrical language that describes the rural landscape and rustic lifestyle of England during this period. It reflects the moods and hardships of Hardy’s characters. The setting is alive, perhaps even a character, seemingly influencing the fate of others. Check out this passage from Chapter 2, and dare to tell me this doesn’t foreshadow the unfortunate demise of Oak’s flock of sheep:

“The instinctive act of humankind was to stand out and listen, and learn how the trees on the right and the trees on the left wailed or chanted to each other in the regular antiphonies of a cathedral choir; how hedges and other shapes to leeward then caught the note, lowering it to the tenderest sob; and how the hurrying gust then plunged into the south, to be heard no more.”

It’s no surprise that the descriptive language in this novel steals the show. Hardy was a poet, after all.

Check out Naomi’s review of Far From the Madding Crowd on her awesome book blog—Consumed by Ink.

Have you read the novel? If so, what did you like best? Please let me know if you go see the film. Tell me if it’s worth seeing in the cinema or waiting until it pops up on Netflix.

 

Imagine, Imagine, You Can Imagine: THIS IS SADIE by Sara O’Leary

 

ThSadie_Coveris is Sadie by Sara O’Leary
Illustrated by Julie Morstrad
Tundra Books, May 12 2015
Hardcover, 32 pages

“Sadie’s perfect day is spent with friends. Some of them live on her street, and some live in the pages of books.”

How I love this passage showcasing a little girl’s vivid imagination. It sums up the book This is Sadie by Sara O’Leary (author) and Julie Morstad (illustrator) perfectly. When these two ladies team up, they create gorgeous books for young and old alike. I was as charmed by this book as I was by the trio of “Henry Books” they dreamed up in the past.

We meet Sadie in her messy bedroom—a sweet girl among a scattering of toys and clothes. She’s drawn simply, surrounded by a white space full of possibilities.  The story flows from Sadie’s bedroom to the make-believe worlds of the books she inhabits: a deep ocean where she becomes a mermaid or a grassy jungle where she becomes a wild boy. The gorgeous illustrations of the fantasy worlds are painted in lush, muted greens and blues that give the books a vintage feel. The story then ebbs back to the simplicity of her bedroom. Portraying a child’s reality with small, simple illustrations in a negative space, and then contrasting it with busy, full-page illustrations representing her imagination, is not a new technique. We’ve seen it done often since Maurice Sendak wrote Where the Wild Things Are in the sixties. Perhaps too, the writing doesn’t have a clear focus. Still, it’s a beautiful book about the importance of creative play. Children and grown-ups will surely enjoy reading it together during story time.

To learn more about the “Henry Books,” check out Sara’s blog.

Check out Artist Julie Morstad on finding inspiration for her illustrations in Quill & Quire.

If you’re a parent or a teacher and plan to share this book with kids, you must get your hands on this free, online activity kit.

*I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.*

READING THE CLASSICS: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a MTo_Kill_Cover_1ockingbird. The only novel written by Harper Lee. Over the years, when I’ve asked people about their favourite novels, it came up. A lot. Most people studied To Kill a Mockingbird in high school. I did not. It wasn’t a book covered in any of my high school English courses. I had heard of it, but I was surely too busy reading all of John’s Irving book to read it. So, that book just… slipped away.

I somehow didn’t read it after devouring In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s by her childhood friend Truman Capote. I was a tad obsessed with him in my early twenties. When I watched Capote in 2004 (starring the extraordinary Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman and the perfectly-cast Catherine Keener as Nelle Harper Lee) I was reminded that To Kill a Mockingbird had slipped away and I had to tackle it. It took ten years, but I finally read it. Here is my January feature for Reading the Classics Challenge in 2015.

Five Highlights While Reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird::

To_Kill_Cover_35.  Lee nails the use of first-person point of view in this novel. Jean Louise “Scout” Finch narrates the story, and most scenes are told through her eyes as a young American girl in the early 30’s. Scout —a naïve child coming of age during a tumultuous time— shares her thoughts, feelings, and uncertainties with the reader. At times, the point of view shifts that of an older, more sensible narrator who is wiser thanks to hindsight and maturity.

4.  I love Scout, a tomboy full of piss and vinegar who stands her ground when faced with challenges. She’s clever, funny, and curious, so she gets into trouble. She gets thrown into an ugly adult world when her father represents an innocent, black man during a controversial trial. She grows up fast during the span of the novel and learns just how cruel humankind can be.

To_Kill_Cover_23.  This quote, by Miss Maudie (the snarky, loveable neighbour) is perfect: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” The mockingbird metaphor that resonates throughout the book reminds us how innocent people can be hurt (and forever changed) by the harm others.

2.  Atticus Finch might just be one of the most righteous, admirable fathers dreamed up in American fiction. He’s a lawyer who fights for justice at all cost and a father who lets his daughter be herself. He never flinched when making hard choices.

1.  Lee came up with a cleverly fabricated costume that helps protect Scout. I will never look at a slab of ham the same way again.

This year, I am challenging myself to read 12 “classic novels” as part of the #ReadingtheClassicsin2015 campaign. I’ll write one “classic” review per month in the form of a Top 5 Highlights list. Join me again next month when I discuss Bram Stoker’s Dracula.