Review: Caleb’s Crossing

Geraldine Brooks historical novel, Caleb’s Crossing, tells the story of Calvinist pioneers who  came to settle Martha’s Vineyard in the latter part of the 1600 century. Pristine land was acquired through unfair negotiations with the native people who had no idea of the white man’s concept of ownership. Then came the imposition of their Puritan views and religion which eventually led to the genocide of the  Wampanoag tribe. It is also the story of Bethia Mayfield, the Calvinist minister’s daughter, who must fight to satisfy her quest for knowledge—education for women being taboo in the Puritan scheme of things. She befriends Caleb, the chieftain’s son,because he is native, is considered undeserving of education. But the English back in the old country want to assert their Judeo-Christian compassion by helping to fund the schooling of Indian children. Caleb’s brilliance becomes apparent and he is chosen to cross the river to the mainland to further his learning. He quickly outshines the non-native students in all subjects, but by doing so he must forsake his own native religion. There is also a price  to be paid to cross over to the other side?
A fascinating read but for the abrupt ending where fifty years of Bethia’s life are told in just a few pages. Quite disappointing when her earlier life was told in such detail.

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Canadian Fiction Reading List

End of year tidying up! I’ve compiled a few lists of books I’ve read. Nothing worse than buying a book only to realize a few pages later that I’ve already read it (different cover, same story). This list covers authors who are either Canadian or have Canadian content. Most are historical fiction.

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Review: By all Men’s Judgment by Brad Cotton

This is an American-western story of bank robbers in the 1920’s. An elderly lady on her death bed asks a young newspaper reporter, Nathaniel, to write her story while her granddaughter Madeline listens by her side. The grandmother has kept her story secret for seven decades and is now ready to tell it, but insists on using fake names. She describes Joe Tilley’s life of crime in the early 1920’s with his partner Buck. The two go on a bank robbing spree with a young girl as a side-kick, and their criminal exploits seem to be unstoppable–at first.
Meanwhile, Nathaniel and Madeline form some kind of friendship where they try to find clues that will validate the story which at times appears a little far-fetched.  A twist is revealed at the very end of the story–although more astute readers will pick up the clues before that.
The framework of the story flips flops between modern times when the story is being told, and the wild-west times of the actual story. A very entertaining read, but I would’ve liked to see more involvement between the modern characters.

 

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Review: All the Light We Cannot see

Anthony Doerr’s historical novel, All the Light We Cannot See, tells the story of Marie-Laure, a blind girl who lives in Paris with her father on the eve of WWII, and Werner Pfennig, a German orphan boy who has a passion for technology. The two live miles apart and are on opposite sides of the war but they share an internal conflict: how to remain true to yourself amidst the terror and indignity of war. Werner’s small stature makes him a misfit and an easy target for the Nazi youths trained to destroy anyone showing signs of weakness. His keenness to see the scientific connections to all things and his creativity are the keys to his survival. It is Marie-Laure’s love of books that will enable her to discover the inner courage that will help her transcend her handicap. Their sense of justice and adherence to morality (the light we cannot see) will guide them through the ugliness of war.

The story starts in 1944 and spans about 80 years with short chapters that go back and forth between Werner and Marie-Laure’s POV—though not always in a chronological order. The writing is well crafted and at times lyrical, but a few scenes could’ve been eliminated without harming the plot at all. A must read!

 

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Review: The Sight of the Stars by Belva Plain

Belva Plain’s novel, The Sight of the Stars, takes place in a small Texas town in the early 1900’s.Young and determined to make his own way in life, Adam Arnring gets off the train and within a few hours has landed as a job as manager of a run down store owned by a no-nonsense widow. Through hard work and lots of creativity, Adam transforms the store into a flourishing establishment. Along comes the owner’s daughter, the aloof Emma, and he is mesmerized.
This is a family story that spans a few generations and encompasses the classical emotions of love, betrayal, envy, compassion, and intolerance. Time is seen as the dominant force through out the novel erasing past worries and pain. There is an urgency to put things right before it’s too late.
  ‘Time hurries by. New  green leaves sprout; a season has passed when they brown and fall; all of a sudden, it is another year.’
The time span of the novel and the number of different characters who come in with each new generation make it difficult as a reader to become intimate with any of them–some disappear and are vaguely referred to further on in the story. An interesting historical read.

 

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Review: When the Lions Sleeps by Wilbur Smith

 When the Lion Feeds, Wilbur Smith ‘s first book in his Courtney series, takes place in South Africa during the times of the Zulu wars. The story is based on Sean Courtney’s journey from his family’s farm which he leaves to his alcoholic twin brother Gary and his pregnant young wife.  He strikes it rich in the Witwatersand Gold Rush only to lose everything to a  conniving competitor. His next venture is living in the wilderness hunting elephants for their ivory–a part of his life where he suffers the most emotionally.
The issues in this book don’t make this an easy read: the senseless killing of elephants, the massacre and enslavement (referred to as ‘servants’) of the Zulu people, the belittled role of women–but it is, after all, a historic presentation of the growth of Africa.
The novel ends on a sad note, but apparently picks up with the reunion with his twin brother in the next book. A good read for those who have an interest in Africa’s history,  but a caution of graphic violence to lovers of animals.

 

 

 

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Review: The Towers of Tuscany by Carol M. Cram

Carol M. Cram’s historical novel, The Towers of Tuscany, immerses her readers in an engrossing account of Italy’s medieval period in the 14th century. The main character, Sophia, is a talented painter who defies the rules of the land by disguising herself as a man in order to live out her artistic passion. Painting is taboo for women but she refuses to relinquish her dream. Besides the abundance of historical detail, the reader is privy to great description about the art of painting of the times.

Sophia’s way of thinking has been nurtured by her beloved father’s controlling nature, and she constantly refers to his teachings throughout the novel. Being under her father’s thumb has blocked her from emotional growth and she repeatedly takes decisions that have a negative impact on her and those around her. There is no character arc for Sophia—she remains stunted within the boundaries of her art.

As a reader I felt pretty jolted with the last part of the novel where the time period jumps a few hundred years and a brand new character is introduced.

 

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Review: The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy

In Sarah McCoy’s novel, The Baker’s Daughter, you’ll find lots of historical data about the daily lives and fears of German women living during. You’ll also get an insight in how to operate a bakery when flour and sugar are almost nonexistent and only doled out by Nazi operators. Women are a commodity controlled by Nazi dogma and the fear of being punished by the ruling military. Elsie is a young girl working in her father’s bakery when an SS officer twice her age invites her to a Nazi party. A young Jewish boy comes to her rescue when another officer tries to assault her. Her sister Hazel is proud to support the Nazi regime by producing Aryan babies for the program. Her life takes an abrupt turn when one of her children is considered not worthy.

The story switches POV back and forth with Elsie in WW2 Germany, and then to Reba 60 years later in America. The more modern story deals with Reba’s concerns about her boyfriend and her job as a journalist. This type of writing device is difficult to pull off when the reader bonds with one character and not the other—as was my case.

 

Regardless of the structural difficulties, this is a poignant look at women’s roles in wartime Germany. The pastry recipes in the back of the novel are an added bonus.

 

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Review: Songs of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon deals with the African-American world of the early 1960’s. Milkman Dead is the first black baby to be born in Mercy Hospital. Pampered by the women in his family and his father, a slum landlord who thinks only of his wealth, he leaves home at 32 to find a buried treasure believed to belong to his grandfather. Instead, he finds himself immersed in a quest for self-discovery as he uncovers the secrets of his family history.

The story touches on several themes, the central one being racism and how it’s damage can continue to affect generations to come. The inequality existing between men and women is also a major theme. Wild and unusual behaviour in men is considered almost heroic while the same behaviour in women is seen as weak and abnormal.

 

The characters are well portrayed although I found Guitar too alienated from reality to be likeable—perhaps to present racism as being denatured no matter what side it sits on. I found the ending a little too quick and perhaps unfair, but that also could have something to do with the gratuitous violence associated with the main theme.

 

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