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?

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.

KILLING ME SOFTLY WITH JOKES: Bream Gives Me the Hiccups by Jesse Eisenberg

Bream Gives Me the Hiccups by Jesse Eisenberg
Grove Press, 256 pages
Release date: September 8, 2015

BreamHiccupsCoverYou may remember Jesse Eisenberg’s breakout performance in the riveting 2005 film The Squid and the Whale. Or, perhaps his more popular role in The Social Network that landed him on the Best Actor nominee list in 2011. He’s clearly a talented actor who can deliver smart dialogue on cue. It’s no surprise that Eisenberg also has an inclination for creative writing pursuits. He’s published short stories in respected literary magazines (The New Yorker, McSweeney’s). Sounds like he could whip up a promising collection of short stories, right? That’s what I thought when I received my galley of Bream Gives Me the Hiccups (it hits American and Canadian bookstores on September 8th). I must admit, what he produced disappointed me.

The first story “Restaurant Reviews from a Privileged Nine-Year-Old” is a stellar narrative featuring a series of poignant vignettes written by a precocious boy with a believable, aching voice. Our insightful narrator shares moments of clarity like, “lies are for adults who are sad in their lives.” He comes to such realizations by spending a lot of time with his newly-divorced mother in restaurants. When his mother lies to him and to others, she “doesn’t just say things she doesn’t mean, she says the opposite of the things she does mean.” He’s a witness. He’s an accomplice. He’s a victim. He’s just a child who wants to be loved. I could’ve read an entire book comprised of such vignettes.

Unfortunately, the remaining stories do not measure up to that first one. Sure, Eisenberg alludes to historical events—like the Bosnian Genocide—and laces each page with acerbic humor. He’s clearly intelligent and funny. He’s also trying very hard to make the reader realize that he’s clever. And hip. And the master of satire. It becomes exasperating. The rest of the stories are nearly all delivered in dialogue forms. The narratives become redundant, so the appeal and the oomph are lost along the way. At one point, they deteriorate into a series of jokes with smart-alecky punch lines. Need I go on?

Perhaps the stories he will write in years to come will have more balance and depth. Perhaps I’m simply not the right audience (40-year-old mom) for Eisenberg’s style. So for now, I’ll just stick to watching Jesse Eisenberg on the big screen instead of cracking open his books.

*** Thank you to Grove Press for sending me a galley of this novel in exchange for an honest review.***

On Needing a Teeny Tiny Break

BedroomBookshelf
Sometimes, you just have to keep those little piles of too-read books from accumulating in corners and crooks of your home. Books that were gifted. Books that you bought on a whim. Books you put aside, but desperately want to crack open. Books that were on inter-library-loan waiting lists for months. And months. And months. And are finally here. All. At. Once.

Lately, you need to read with abandon without sticky notes at the ready. Read without writing book reviews. Just because. You need to escape. Go on a reading binge. And binge, binge, binge. Just for a bit. For a couple of weeks.

Then, you’ll have your fill and miss writing reviews. Resurface. Refreshed. And be at the ready for those to-be-published  galleys needing to be reviewed in August. All will be well. But for now, you’ll catch up. Chillax. After all, it’s summer.

A VIP READING EXPERIENCE: Welcome to the Circus by Rhonda Douglas

Circus_Cover Welcome to the Circus by Rhonda Douglas Freehand Books May 2015, 196 pages 

Reading Rhonda Douglas’ collection of short stories Welcome to the Circus is a VIP experience at a series a of intimate performances: the live fantasy shows in the family-run Porn Emporium, the execution of a famous exotic dancer during WWI, and the confessional of anger-prone God. Sharp, dark humour livened up the dialogue. Lush, poetic phrases dotted the narrative. Always was I surprised by the strange and alluring stories crafted by Douglas.

The standouts? My favorite was “Cancer Oratio” whose different vignettes take the form of a musical composition while the characters come to terms with the fate of their dying friend. And, despite being distracted by several typos in the French text, I loved “Nous and René Levesque”, the story that landed Douglas on 2014 CBC Short Story Prize longlist. It’s a fresh take on different point of views concerning a possible “séparation” of Quebec in years gone by. Although every story is unique in topic and form, each has a lot of heart and memorable characters. I look forward to reading other original, weird, and fiercely smart stories from this author.

*I’d like to thank Freehand Books for sending me a copy of this book.*

FUNNY AND HEARTFELT: We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen

Molecules_CoverWe Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen May 12th 2015 by Tundra Books

Susin Nielsen strikes gold once again with her new YA novel We Are All Made of Molecules. Much like her previously published books, Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom (reviewed by bellsiebooks) and The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen (reviewed by Consumed by Ink), copies of this new book are sure to sell like hot cakes. Molecules will make the Best of 2015 lists everywhere. Mark. My. Words.

When we first meet 13-year-old Stewart, we realize right away that he is different and gifted. He has an endearing—though totally geeky—way of explaining how he and his father have been coping after the death of his mother. He explains that his family “had been like an equilateral triangle. Mom was the base that held up the whole structure. When we lost her, the other two sides just collapsed in on each other.” We learn that father and son have had a tough time since she died. Stewart views this period as the time his father “was Sad Dad twenty-four-seven, and [he] was Sad Stewart twenty-four-seven, and together [they] were Sad Squared, and it was just a big black hole of sadness.” After such a heartfelt, adorable declaration, it was impossible for me not to like and root for Stewart when I found out his life was about to change. He and his father move in with his new girlfriend, Caroline. The new girlfriend’s daughter—a fourteen-year-old, popular drama queen named Ashley—makes the move difficult from the start.

Stewart’s new stepsister isn’t happy about her new living arrangements. She’s still angry and ashamed about her parents’ divorce. On top of that, she’s paranoid that her friends and classmates “would love the fact that [her] so-called life was built on one gigantic lie.” That lie: her father came out of the closet. He’s gay, and that doesn’t sit well with Ashley. Nor does the idea of having a “midget-egghead-freakazoid” move into her home. Ashley is teenage angst personified. She is self-centered and hypercritical. She blows up at the tiniest annoyance or provocation. At school, she is obsessed with looking her best and maintaining her it-girl status. She’ll step on anyone’s toes to ensure that things go her way. So, when Stewart transfers to her school and shows up in Ashley’s English class wearing a smiley-face tie, I enjoyed reading about her squirm.

This story follows a familiar, predictable arc: two people with clashing personalities must eventually join forces to overcome the narrative’s main problem or obstacle. Still, Nielson has a fresh take on this much-used storyline. The author’s use of first person point-of-view brings Stewart and Ashley’s emotions to the forefront. Their voices are so different and believable. The author touches a lot of issues: bullying, homophobia, blended families, death, and mourning. She managed to do so without being preachy or talking down to her young, smart audience. I giggled and *nearly* cried along the way.

I think this is a touching, fun, and important book. It’s ideal for mature middle grade kids and young high school teens aged 12 to 15. Then again, I think any YA-loving teen or adults with enjoy this fast-paced book. With yet another great title under her belt, Susin Nielsen is quickly becoming the John Green of Canada.

Here are two other bloggers’ glowing reviews of the novel:

Darren at ShinraAlpha claims it’s a “book with some serious heart.”

Stephie at The Book Wars contends that “Nielsen is simply a great Canadian writer.”

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

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.