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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Kindle Quest #2

Still slogging along on my attempt to read 100 of the paper books already lying around here before succumbing to the lure of an e-reader on which I can load up a whole bunch of new purchases. I thought I'd posted the second set from last spring but I see not. Here goes with my spring reading, and maybe the summer's as well if there's room.

9. Beautiful Lie the Dead – Barbara Fradkin. 8th in the Inspector Green series. A bone-chillingly cold book set mainly in Ottawa and Montreal. It begins with a blizzard and almost every scene invokes the inimitable dangers of a Canadian winter both urban and bush. There are several narrators in successive scenes in the early chapters, something that can be annoying or confusing in less deft hands than Barbara’s. As with most in this series, family is the heart of the tale for both good – Inspector Green’s solid home life – and ill – the secret-burdened people scarred by their relationships to the woman lost in the initial blizzard. My best book of the week, and possibly the month.

10. Negative Image – Vicki Delaney. 4th in the Constable Molly Smith books. Set in fictional Trafalgar, BC, it has a cast worthy of a small town, including several sets of overlapping law enforcement personnel from different agencies. Score cards might be in order. The mix of narrators occasionally left me confused for several sentences as to whose head I was in. The villain wasn’t an equal match for all the investigators and could have been uncovered much sooner if all the cops hadn’t been distracted by their personal lives.

11. She Felt No Pain – Lou Allin. 2nd in the Constable Holly Martin series. Set in a fictional small town along the south shore of Vancouver Island, it follows Holly (mostly) through a series of small-town crimes and further clues to the disappearance of her mother. The setting and atmosphere were well done.

12. The Shetland Bus – David Howarth. Non-fiction account of his WW2 stint building and coordinating the British-Norwegian fishing-boat program that supplied materiel and instructors to Norway during the German Occupation. Inspiring what men can do when they simply acknowledge their fears and get on with what needs to be done. After all the reading I’ve done on Norway during the invasion/occupation – starting with that Grade Five book ‘Snow Treasure’ – I SO want to go to Norway and see that area for myself.

13. Dragonsdawn – Anne McCaffery. A re-read, but I got the previous read from the library and this one I own. I love filling in the bits of half-forgotten history on this favourite fantasy world.

14. Posted to Death – Dean James. On opening this book (purchased second-hand) I found I’d read it before and thought then, as now, that a vampire who takes pills so he can act like a normal person is really not changing the dimension of a mystery novel for me. So I quit and put this book into the ‘to good homes’ box by the front door. But it’s done. One more I can check off the Kindle Quest count.

15. Bones Gather No Moss – John Sherwood. Clearly forgettable, as I’ve forgotten it already. It didn’t annoy me enough to stop part way through. That, I’d remember.

16. Miss Melville’s Revenge – Evelyn E. Smith. An oldie but an irreverent goodie. I know next to nothing about this series but enjoyed the fast pace, tight pov, and the un-aware characters among whom Miss Melville moves.

17. The Withdrawing Room – Charlotte McLeod. A very early entry in the famous series, with layers of visually engaging images and surprising revelations in many of the characters’ lives, not merely in the one or two central to the murder. That sense of a whole cast of real people, rather than a few stars surrounded by what might as well be cardboard trees, is one of the ways this older series stands out.

18. The Night Inside: A Vampire Thriller – Nancy Baker (1993, Penguin Canada).  Older but interesting look at a vampire coming out of a 90-year sleep and getting mixed up with a young woman from modern-day Toronto. Well written and engaging despite some very graphic (to me) sexual violence. Too bad the next two books in this series are out of print. I found the second at a used book store but the third may elude me until/unless they’re re-released in e-book format.

19. The Water Rat of Wanchai - Ian Hamilton (2011, House of Anansi). This debut novel introduces Ava Lee, a Chinese Canadian forensic accountant who specializes in cash recovery where the sums are large and prosecution chancy because of international legal variance. While nobody cracks open a book about a forensic accountant looking for a thrill a minute, there are thrills to be had, especially toward the end. First, however, there's a lot of front-loaded back story about Ava to page through, and a fair bit of sitting by while she talks on the phone or checks into hotels.  The book is over 400 pages in trade paper, and feels it. The read would have seemed shorter if the heroine was more engaged with the world around her but she struck me as very detached even in the midst of violence. It's very cerebral for a thriller - lots of thinking and not much emotional engagement. Not to say I won't at least open the next one, as I'm a sucker for a travelogue, especially one that hits places where the tourists don't go, like Guyana.

20. The Grub ‘n Stakers Pinch a Poke – Alisa Craig. In this farcical mystery from the 1980’s, a community-theatre group stages a play based on the Robert Service poem about Dangerous Dan McGrew. Wacky eccentrics, romantic rivalries, and absurd attempts at murder and other mayhem make this a delightful light read to fill a summer afternoon.

21. One Careless Moment – Dave Hugelschaffer. (Cormorant Press)  This second in the Porter Cassels series sees the wildfire-fighting Albertan on loan to Montana. The opening chapters are a thorough and sometimes terrifying introduction to the behavior, dangers, and means of fighting a forest fire in rugged terrain. Porter soon finds evidence of arson and his investigation must navigate not only the highly hazardous fire environment but the equally unpredictable local tensions between residents, developers and squatters. The mystery was a page-turner, the insight into firefighting fascinating to anyone who lives, as I do, on the edge of similar terrain that is always at risk from fire. One thing that bugged me was the use of first-person present tense. It was done, no doubt, to bring immediacy to the narrator’s experiences during the fire and other dangerous situations, but I found it distracting. A good read nonetheless, and I will look for other books by this author.

22. Midnight Special - Larry Karp.  Third in his music-box collector series. This is first-person narration done as well: as if I were catching up on recent events over coffee with an old friend. Only as much back story as is needed at any point to orient me to a new character or situation, A steady, albeit descriptive, pace through each action scene. Fascinating tidbits about music boxes and automata sprinkled throughout.  I’m not too keen on the uni-dimensional sidekick or the reasons for Our Hero’s kindness to burglars, but maybe they would make more sense to me if I’d read the earlier books. The climax was a ‘Papa Poirot’ scene in which the suspects and other players were all gathered together to share their bits of the puzzle before the solution was revealed.

23. The Etruscan Chimera – Lynn Hamilton.  An earlier entry into her Lara McClintock series, this novel visits Paris (and environs) and Italy. Enjoyable, with lots of the expected fascinating facts about Etruscan history, pottery and so on. Way too complex, though, and I’m still not sure if the ‘Poirot’ ending (only in a tomb!) really made sense in light of all the killing and pot-passing. But it was a pleasantly erudite way to spend a few hours, and I’m sorry there won’t be more from this author.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

From Bronte to Bosworth

Kate Bosworth, that is. The lead actress in the surf movie "Blue Crush." Or more particularly her character, Anne Marie Chadwick, a Hawaiian girl from the wrong side of the island who lives to surf but pays the rent for herself and her little sister by working as a hotel maid and teaching tourists to surf.

Struggling for money was something with which the Bronte sisters were more than familiar. What, after all, were their life choices pre-1850 except servitude as governesses, deepening poverty if they stayed home as unmarried women, or marriage to any man likely to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table? Yet all three of the surviving Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, escaped their cheerless existence by exercising their imaginations and their intelligence, writing novels and poetry. 

 From left to right: 
Anne, Emily, and Charlotte
This picture of the three Bronte sisters was painted by Branwell Bronte. He had painted himself into the picture, but painted himself out later. There is still an outline of his form in the pillar.

Occupying my thoughts today are the overlaps and divergences between Charlotte's novel and Emily's, and the persistence of their themes into the present day.

In 'Jane Eyre', Charlotte Bronte wrote of the life of a governess and schoolteacher. She wrote what she knew - a harsh girls' school and harsher religious teachings, followed by teaching and governess jobs - but added to Jane a spirit of independence and pride that the girl's upbringing, unlike Charlotte's, would not have fostered. Add in a yearning to travel, to see the world beyond the confines of either the school or the secluded manor at which she is governess, and you have the seeds of a modern young woman's dreams, albeit without much opportunity to fulfill them (except by a good marriage).

Emily Bronte wrote of a young woman more at home on the wild moors than in polite company, and endowed her with a fond father who let her run wild in ways that sheltered, slightly fragile Emily (with two older sisters already dead of illnesses in childhood) could never have pursued. Catherine Earnshaw wants nothing that is not available within a few miles around her home.

Emily and Charlotte's mother died young, leaving her surviving children with only the vaguest memories of her. Jane Eyre and Catherine Earnshaw lost their mothers at an early age.  Jane finds her way as Charlotte did, pouring out her intellect and spirit on other people's children. Emily's heroines have no such solace; they are bereft of mother-love almost at birth and brought up surrounded by men, much as Emily was, living at home with her father and brother while her more resilient sisters were out earning their bread.

The heroes - or perhaps the male leads is a better term, to avoid arguments over whether Edgar or Heathcliff is the more heroic in "Wuthering Heights" - are similar: masterful men capable of schooling their horses and their women, neither capable of seeing the world through anyone else's eyes. Where Mr. Rochester is softened by Jane, Heathcliff is hardened by Catherine. One is saved by love, the other damned by it.

Breaking no new scholarly ground here, the choices their heroines make 'for love' are a marked point of divergence. Jane Eyre falls in love with Mr. Rochester because he values her mind and her conversation. Although she leaves him rather than compromise her moral values, she comes back to him as his equal, not as a servant to be elevated by marriage. Catherine loves Heathcliff with a passion beyond reason, based on physical chemistry and certainly not for his intellectual attainments or his respect for hers. She marries Linton not for love but for lack of alternatives, and soon withers, leaving behind her own motherless daughter to the same narrow life in the same small space.

Divergent choices: Charlotte's heroine crying out  to be valued as a thinking individual and unwilling to settle for less than a full partnership in marriage, Emily's heroine caught up in passions too strong for her untutored rational side and coming to a tragic end that has enduring tragic consequences for the rest of her family.

(Might I insert here a plaint about the movies made of those novels? While the recent Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of Wuthering Heights makes better sense of the psychology of the characters than did the torrid 1970's version I first saw in a cinema, there is still not much effort to explore the social or cultural themes underpinning the novel. It is presented as a tragic love story with a faintly optimistic ending. All the Jane Eyre adaptations I've seen, and they have been many, have focused too exclusively on the relationship aspects, overlooking or minimizing the social conditions of Jane's - Charlotte's - upbringing/education and especially failing to explore her expressed desire for equality in life and love. She is presented always as a woman of her time and station, only slightly more outspoken than normal for those circumstances. When will we see a truly human Jane Eyre?)

And so down the century-and-a-bit to Anne Marie Chadwick, bikini-wearing surfer girl in "Blue Crush". 

What, you may well ask, links her to the Bronte sisters' heroines? 

Mothers dying in childbed, or being absent early in their children's lives from other causes, were not uncommon occurrences in the 1800's. That is not the case in today's England, with improved maternal health and health care generally. 

Nor in Hawaii, where Anne Marie and her younger sister are nonetheless motherless, their mother having gone off with some man to California with apparently no intention of returning to take up her parental responsibilities again. Anne Marie, having left school early, is working at a menial job to keep food on the table for her little sister, trying to keep her sister in school and out of trouble. 

Our surfer girl has a chance to carve out her own life if she overcomes her fears and manages to win a surfing competition that will lead to sponsorships, self-respect, and financial freedom. But a handsome man is offering her a vision of a life of ease. In modern movie romance, 'Mr. Rochester' is represented by a pro football player who hires our heroine to teach him to surf. He soon is buying her clothes and encouraging her to spend his money in the luxurious hotel suite she was employed to clean until a few days earlier. The other football players all have kept women with them, women whose clear goal is to lure as much money, jewelery and physical enhancements out of their companions as possible before moving on to another free-spending athlete. 

While this modern Rochester does not hint that he himself will take Anne Marie away from her life of drudgery and poverty at the end of his Hawaiian vacation, we would have to be living under rocks not to see that she could have an easy life if she abandoned her sister's upbringing and her surfing aspirations to cash in on the succession of rich athletes and other male guests at the resorts.  

Jane Eyre's moral test was whether to become Rochester's mistress instead of his wife, and Cathy's challenge is to change the life she inherited from her passionate but unwise mother. Anne Marie's great moral test is whether she will repeat her mother's life choice of running out on her family responsibility and, equally important, turn her back on her own goals in favour of an easy escape from her present poverty. Will she be a Catherine or a Jane?

The night before that surfing competition, she faces the truth of what she wants in her life: enough money to pay the bills, her mother to come home, her sister to grow up without any disasters, and to win the surfing competition for herself. The only one of those her Mr. Rochester can provide is money, and that, by the nature of their relationship, is a temporary fix. Winning the surfing competition will provide two out of the four and increase her sister's chances of breaking out of the family pattern in her turn. She leaves him and goes home to prepare for the competition.

As Jane Eyre is rewarded for her virtue and high principles by gaining not only an inherited fortune of her own but an equal love with Mr. Rochester at the end of the novel, so, at the end of the movie, do we see Anne Marie rewarded. She overcomes her own fears to give the best athletic performance of which she is capable, earning her a sponsorship and the promise of not only income but support for continued training. Her other reward, very like Jane's, is to be treated as an equal by her modern-day Rochester, as a fellow athlete with a career of her own rather than as the servant girl he can (however temporarily) lift from her poverty. 

As Jane Eyre ended on the happy note of her marriage to and children with the man she loved - the ultimate reward for women in Charlotte Bronte's time just as Catherine Earnshaw's fate was the ultimate punishment for women who dared to love both deeply and unwisely - so Anne Marie Chadwick's movie tale ends on the happy modern note of rising career promise, improved income potential, and a future that includes her Mr. Rochester as a boyfriend who will understand the demands of her career and support her efforts.

And this, at bottom, is why Jane Eyre is still being read, taught, and re-visioned in books and movies for young women more than 150 years after Charlotte Bronte wrote it. We women may have come a long way, baby, but we still struggle with the need to be independent, to find our own financial security and to balance our career advancement with our relationship needs.

What does Wuthering Heights tell the modern woman? That's a story for another day, and I'm not sure I can think of a movie that makes a parallel.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Once more with The Witch

Once more with The Witch of Babylon - now going into print in 17 countries around the world!

Interview with DJ McIntosh

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Witch of Babylon - a thrilling ride for archaeology/art history buffs

You know you’re in good hands with an author when, half a page into the prologue, you are bewitched to the point you forget what century you’re in.  The return to the book’s current reality half a page later was a brutal but effective wrench; it assured my intense interest throughout the remaining 320 pages.

But enough about the writing.

‘The Witch of Babylon’ is at once a complex art-history mystery centered on biblical scholarship, a breath-stealing thriller set in the early months of the Iraq invasion, and an intellectual exploration of links between Mesopotamian myths and European alchemical processes. Not to mention the archaeological lore and torch-lit journeys into subterranean realms. Oh, and a personal journey of growth by a spoiled young art broker after the death of the older brother who has always shielded him from consequences.

This is a square-on hard stare at the murky world of antiquities looting and trading as well as a disturbing return to the early, chaotic weeks and months of the Iraq invasion. Add a soupcon of travelogue over the streets of New York City and various parts of the Middle East, and there is much to enjoy about this book.  For those who like extras (ie me) there's a map, a short historical note at the beginning and more historical information sections at the back for those who want to go deeper into the arcane subject matter.

My ARC was sent by the author, D.J. McIintosh (after my bugging her for three years to be allowed to read the full manuscript). When it arrived I read the whole book in a sprint, with only meal breaks, and will now read it again more slowly, to savour the unfolding story.

‘The Witch of Babylon’ was short-listed for a Debut Dagger in 2007 and won an Arthur Ellis award for Best Unpublished Crime Novel in 2008. It is being released by Penguin Canada in June 2011 and (at last count) has sold rights in 15 languages around the world.  
 ‘Witch’ is the first book of The Babylon Trilogy.  I can't wait for the next.   

D.J. McIntosh
ISBN 978-0-14-317572-8
Penguin Canada
June 2011

Those Who Fight Monsters: Tales of Paranormal Detectives

An anthology can be a tricky assemblage. A strong theme can result in stories of a similarity that wears on the reader, while a weak theme leaves disconnects from one story to the next, gaps that allow the reader's attention to leave the book entirely. Editor Justin Gustainis found a good balance with 'Those Who Fight Monsters.' All stories have a monster (or more than one) and a detective, yet each stands alone in respect to characters and plot.

The detectives cover the gamut from hard-boiled PI's giving - and getting - low blows on the mean streets to intellectuals expounding on crime in refined quiet rooms. Sleuths include the demon-fighting soccer mom trying to shepherd her daughter safely past demon-snares as well as the normal risks of adolescence, the disgruntled Security sorcerer who battles bureaucracy as well as beasts, and other detectives both amateur and professional.  

The paranormal elements are equally varied. In addition to the usual vampires and werewolves, there are demons of compelling variety and more than one style of shape-shifter. Snakes, ugh.  Fairy-tale creatures such as gnomes and fairies also appear. The detective isn't necessarily chasing a monster, nor is the monster always the villain. The settings are mostly urban, mostly modern, with an overlay (or underbelly) of fantasy elements. 

One reservation about this collection was that some authors presumed a familiarity with their series work and left me faintly lost at first, while others seemed to be trying to fit several novels' worth of back story into the opening paragraphs and slowed the pace accordingly.  Apart from that disparity, the collection was a joy to read and introduced me to several paranormal/mystery crossover authors I'd not heard of previously but will certainly follow up now. 

All in all, these fourteen stories provide plenty of meat for both the detective-story aficionado and those fascinated by paranormal fiction. And, if you've ever pondered the fictional detective as a reflection of archetypes, Gustainis' introductory essay is a treat.  

(This review was previously published on DorothyL and on

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Grandmother of the Limberlost

'A Girl of the Limberlost' by Gene Stratton-Porter was first published in 1909. My Scottish-Canadian grandmother, Grace, was awarded a copy at her one-room schoolhouse sometime in the following decade, a copy inscribed to her personally. It was not the only book awarded to her during her schooldays for 'First in Class', but this one, which she treasured and re-read throughout her life. was found in her personal trunk after she died at the age of 92. What could be a more ideal book for entering the world of my grandmother's reading?

Thanks to my local library, I've now finished reading a hardcover copy of this novel in 2011, 102 years after its publication. (Aside: I wonder if e-books published today will still be readable, not by humans, but by the technology available in 2111)

'Limberlost' is a sequel to 'Freckles', about which I knew nothing beyond the title. Project Gutenberg and Wikipedia inform me that the title character is an orphan who finds employment and his life's passion in the flora and fauna of the Limberlost Swamp.
Freckles is a grown man and moved away by the time 'A Girl of the Limberlost' opens, but has left his lore and his moth cages in the swamp for the use of Limberlost's heroine, Elnora.

The story of 'Limberlost' opens with Elnora starting high school at the town nearest her farm. She has largely brought herself up to this point while her widowed, embittered mother begrudged every mouthful of food and item of clothing. Her patience and sweetness have endeared her to the neighbours, and will do the same to everyone she goes on to meet in this new, wider world.

Scrambling over and around obstacles thrown up by her mother and an uncaring world, she turns her hard-won knowledge of the swamp's flora and fauna into enough money to pay her tuition and clothing at high school, and dreams of attending college. She has inherited from her dead father a keen sense of music and trains herself into a accomplished violinist. Eventually, beloved by everyone including her much-softened mother, she finds a True Love of her own and (after a few more obstacles thrown up by another mean-spirited woman) lives happily ever after.

Although she seems a bit too perfectly adorable and virtuous for my modern sensibilities, Elnora clearly made a strong impression on my grandmother. But what exactly this novel tells about my grandmother is not clear. Grace gave her only daughter the middle name of Eleanor, not Elnora, likely because - especially in the wake of anti-European sentiment following the first world war - her conservative farming family wasn't accepting of any name that sounded 'foreign'  (long story short: immigrants were exempted from The Conscription Act that lost many Canadian families their sons in the final year of WW1). Did Grace identify with Elnora's fascination with moths and butterflies? Her familiarity with daily farm chores that also took up much of young Grace's day? Her struggle to get dresses similar to those of the other girls at school, or to overcome unreasonable parental demands in order to carve out her own life and identity? A family legacy of bitter women visiting tribulations on their daughters? I don't know enough about Grace's early life to hazard a guess.

Maybe, on later readings, Grace identified more with Elnora's mother. Mrs. Comstock was deeply disappointed to learn the true character of the man she had married. On my few childhood visits to my grandparents' farm, I don't remember open hostility between them (although my mother assures me it was a constant feature of her childhood) but I also don't remember them speaking to each other beyond the most necessary words. Certainly there was no laughter or affection between them or from them to their children. In that sense, Grace had recreated the dynamic between Mrs. Comstock and Elnora. I wonder if she regretted that bitter relationship even while she felt helpless to change it. Maybe, in her last re-reading of 'Limberlost', she was clinging to the hope that, like Mrs. Comstock, she too would live to experience a reconciliation and renewal of mother-daughter affection.

Maybe I'm drawing too many inferences from too little evidence.

'Limberlost' is in essence a moral tale where behaving well is eventually rewarded, where admitting (if only to yourself) your faults and making such amends as you can is a good thing, where taking the high road instead of stooping to malicious or self-serving behaviors makes you a better person. I can't tell if Grace tried to carry those moral lessons forward in her adult life. If so, her efforts were not rewarded by a True Love and a happily-ever-after, unless you count the simple enjoyment of life she found after her husband died and she moved into a small house in town for her final decades. 'A Girl of the Limberlost' was one of the very few non-household possessions she took with her from the farm.

In the interests of further research, I read 'The Magic Garden' written by the same author near the end of her career and posthumously published. In this one, the heroine is again a lonely isolated girl who yearns for love. Her mother is as cold, rejecting, and neglectful as Elnora's mother, although as rich, vain, and attention seeking as the eventually-humbled Edith in 'Limberlost'. Our girl's father is not dead and eventually, through her (misguided) bravery comes to know and love his little girl. She makes every effort to grow up to be a worthy woman (exactly how is rather glossed over) and she, like Elnora, finds True Love and lives happily ever after. Was the author working out her own issues with all these mean-spirited women who neglected or emotionally abused their daughters? Or merely revisiting a literary trope proven to engage female readers and sell books?

One moral of this much shorter tale is that divorce can be very hard on the children involved. That particular marital resolution was likely not much seen in the author's social circle prior to the 1920's, and even less so in a tiny farming community in mid-northern Saskatchewan. I suspect my grandmother, if she ever did read this book - published after she was already a wife and mother isolated on a farm with an uncaring husband - might have thought longingly of those possibilities.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Reading my Grandmother - the Fairy Glen Library

When you start asking questions about your family history, all kinds of fascinating facts come forward. Such as…

There was a library in the tiny hamlet of Fairy Glen, though not when my grandmother was a girl. She had left home before it was established in my great-grandmother’s living room, around 1928. One of my uncles described it to me as shelves against the end wall, maybe 12 feet long by 8 feet high, crammed with fiction – mostly westerns – and non-fiction. The library even had a name: Aurora Borealis. 

(My library looks pretty much the same... more board feet of shelving... but all the books in it belong to us, and we just call it the 'living room')

The sign-out record at Aurora Borealis was a ledger with columns labeled by hand:  title/date/person taking/date returned. In a community of less than 200 people, that was sufficient. The librarian - even when she was not your own grandmother - knew not only you, but your mother, father, siblings, and extended family. She not only knew your phone number (if you had one) and your class at the only school, but she would likely see you at least once a week in company with your parents, teachers, friends, and other people who would frown alarmingly (if they did nothing worse) to find you had abused the privilege of using the library. 

My uncle made a few phone calls and traced the movements of the library: beginning at his grandmother's house around the time the railroad and grain elevators came to Fairy Glen, it moved to Mrs. Ronning, who also had the post office. After World War 2, Mrs. Ronning's boys came home to a dearth of local jobs and she moved away with them, sending the post office to a neighbour, Red Glover, and the library to the schoolhouse, which had been expanded well beyond its one room by then due to an influx of families forced off their farms during the Great Depression. Sad to say, when the Fairy Glen school was amalgamated into the Melfort school unit, the building and contents were essentially abandoned. After some incidents of vandalism, a former teacher rescued a few boxes of books, the last remnants of a pioneer initiative that encouraged reading and the acquisition of knowledge in that isolated farming community for several decades.

My first concrete link to my Scottish-Canadian grandmother’s reading habits has also turned up: my mother remembers that her mother was awarded a book while she attended that original one-room schoolhouse. She read it many times and kept it in her private trunk all her long, long life. The book was Gene Stratton Porter’s Girl of the Limberlost.

This book has been in print since 1909, and my local library (Alexander Calhoun Branch, Calgary Public Library) sent me over a copy within two days of my requesting it. I LOVE my local library!

My uncle remembers my grandmother had 4-5 girls books inscribed with ‘for First in Class’, and suggested I look for ‘Girls of the True Blue’. This book was one of around 300 written or co-written by L.T. Meade in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s (she died in 1914). 

Sadly, this particular title is not available either at my library or on Project Gutenberg. Doubly sad because, as an Irish-born author, L.T. Meade could well have been on my English grandmother’s childhood reading list as well.Gutenberg has numerous titles available, though, so until I get more specific information, I can taste-test the books and get the flavour of both my grandmothers' girlhood reading options.

This weekend, though, I will open 'A Girl of the Limberlost' and experience for the first time a book that I know was a vital part of my Fairy Glen grandmother’s reading life. One small connection is made.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Reading My Grandmothers - Library history

A smidge of library history for you:

The first library at Melfort, Saskatchewan to which my Scottish-Canadian grandmother would have had access was opened in 1928, by which time she was 24 years old, married, with two babies. Even if she hadn't had babies and farm work to contend with, Melfort was 26 km from Fairy Glen (where her school was), and even further from her farm.

Current Melfort librarian Penny Markland wrote me about that first library:

Rules about the use of the library were rather more stringent than they are today.  Members were to have no more than 1 book at a time for no longer than 2 weeks.  Those with overdue books were strictly dealt with, being expelled from library membership after the 3rd offense!   In 1932 the librarian’s salary was $120.00 per year.  $51.84 was spent on books that year.   I don’t think children were necessarily allowed in the library back then, although I’m not totally sure.
Isn't that last bit fascinating - and scary - when we consider how many children nowadays learn to love books and become lifetime readers because of free storytimes at the local library?

Not that the library looked like a particularly child-friendly place anyway. It was on the second floor of the post office, though, so at least it was centrally located for anyone who did get into town once a week from the surrounding countryside and villages.

This is the new library:

It has all the services we take for granted nowadays: not only books and magazines but computers with Internet access, storytimes, kids' crafts, book clubs, classes for all ages, general interest programs and specialty guest speakers.

The one thing that hasn't changed, I bet, is that the librarians still do their darnedest to encourage children to explore the boundless worlds between the covers of books.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Reading My Grandmothers

Part One:

I don't actually know what my grandmothers read when they were girls, or adults. If I saw either of them more than a handful of times in my life, I don't remember. We were, and are, a peripatetic family with scant overlaps between geography and generation. To help me understand the influences that shaped my grandmothers, I want to read books that they might have read, see words and learn stories that might have helped shape them as my childhood reading shaped me.. But figuring out what those books are could be difficult.

Although I've sought out some 'early' books for children, such as E. Nesbit and Lucy Maude Montgomery, I'm not at all sure I've covered anything either of my grandmothers would have read. My godmother, the youngest daughter of my English grandmother, sent me my first copies of Little Women, Five Little Peppers, and Heidi, though, so maybe I have, without realizing it, joined a century-long chain of women related by both blood and books. But how would I know?

What books did they learn first to read? To what books did they turn for escape? What information do I have as a starting point?

One grandmother died when I was a child, not quite before I learned to read but long before I began to wonder what other people were reading. She was born in 1892 in England; in middle age, after World War 2, she immigrated to Canada, living mainly in small towns around the Prairies and eventually dying in northern Alberta. When I was around ten years old, she came to visit for several weeks; I felt I knew her after that but she died not many months later. It was impractical to take me along to her funeral, half a country away. Any books among her deathbed possessions were dispersed.

My other grandmother, born in 1904, lived well into my adulthood but I hardly knew her. Most of her life was spent in the same farmhouse, only a few miles from the land on which her father settled a farm. As a farm wife looking after a large family, garden and livestock, she likely had little time for reading. During our rare visits I never saw her with a book in her hands. The only ones I ever found in her house were mainstream novels from the 1950's, left behind from my mother's adolescence. Not that reading Pearl S. Buck wasn't a gateway to a wider world, but it did not leave any connections to that grandmother.

My grandmothers' childhood reading was unlikely to have covered all the same books, or maybe any at all, due to geography and patterns of human settlement.

My English grandmother attended a school in Hammersmith, which by then was functionally part of the city of London, England. Her immediate environs had been continuously settled for hundreds of years and contained any number of well-staffed schools for both boys and girls, many purpose-built of stone and brick construction, as well as lending libraries, bookstores, and a substantially literate population.

My Scottish-Canadian grandmother went to a new-built one-room schoolhouse, isolated on the prairies near Melfort, Saskatchewan. Melfort at the time had a population of around five hundred people, including a fair number of older settlers whose literacy was limited to the signing of their name. The school would have had maybe twenty students. Her first teacher was a Mr. John Houston. Although I cannot say with any certainty that he never expanded his pupils' reading opportunities beyond the provided textbooks, it is unlikely he was well versed in the current state of literature for girls.

 This question needs more exploration. When I have some likely titles in hand, or possibly just some concrete information from the surviving children of those deceased grandmothers, I'll post on this subject again.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Kindle Quest Report #1

Ah, the Kindle Quest.... I was hinting madly pre-holidays that a Kindle or other e-reader would be a good gift, but a landslide off Mount To-Be-Read (hereinafter referred to as 'Mt TBR') put paid to my argument that I had NOTHING to read over the winter and was completely dependent on the library's willingness to line me up books via internet holds, the indie bookstore's willingness to order any books I emailed or phoned them about, and my spouse's willingness to stop by the library and/or bookstore one or more times a week.  All those good reasons wiped out in a mini-avalanche of new and second-hand paperbacks and hardcovers collected over the past 10 years (since we moved into this house). Sigh. No e-reader under my tree, in my stocking, or wrapped in birthday paper a scant two weeks later.

 I made a deal with myself: if I read or otherwise appropriately dispose of 100 'dead-tree' books from Mt. TBR by next December, I'll buy myself an e-reader, whichever one by then includes the most features that I think I'll actually use and the fewest useless ones.

'Dispose of' in this context means 'to make disposition for', whether that includes reading and finishing and finding a place for the book in the permanent collection, or finishing and passing along to a friend, relation, seniors' centre or used-bookstore, or starting, not finishing, and passing along.

It's mid-January and I'm up to 8 books. If I can keep up this pace, I might make the end-posts. But it's easy to sit around indoors in winter, hanging by the fire with a teapot and a lap-cat, reading for hours or days. We'll see what happens when the weather warms up.

To keep me honest, here's my current list:

1. The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins.  4.5 out of 5. Brisk, competent writing, clarity of the adolescent character's psychology and voice, and a dystopian world constructed in the fewest possible words yet more vivid than many of the worlds in bloated SF/Fantasy series. Well worth the buzz.

2. Court of the Air - Peter S. Beagle. 3.5 of 5. Competent writing and good imagery in this early example of urban fantasy. Seems a bit dated now, especially in regards to the young people's sexual practices, but demonstrates some serious thought about the lives of the gods that is often lacking in modern urban fantasy of the Cuisinart sub-genre (toss in some vampires and werewolves, a few forgotten gods behaving badly, whirl up with some hot chilis and a mango, and call it the latest in paranormal romance/mystery/YA smoothi.... er, novels)

3. A Cast-off Coven - Juliette Blackwell. DNF, despite being a new, autographed copy of a paranormal mystery, with a really cute cover. This is the second in the Lily Ivory series and there's a lot I would like to like: vintage clothing, ghosts, hot men and good friends. But although I finished the first book it didn't completely engage me and the second even less so. Life is short, so this book went to my daughter for a second opinion and may pass through several hands before it finds a loving home.

4. The Blue Hackle - Lillian Stewart Carl. 3. This traditional mystery was won in a draw and gratefully accepted just before the self-imposed Kindle-Quest deadline for new entries. This is the final book in the Jean Fairbairn series and the first to cross my path. Lovely Scottish setting, fully human secondary characters, nobody too perfect or too stupid to live. As the finale, it was surely wrapping up threads and relationships from earlier in the series but I did not find any gaps in the story although some curiosity about previous episodes.

5. The Forever War - Joe Haldeman. 4.95 out of 5. A SF classic that is breathtaking in its crisp writing, sure characterization, and headlong rush through time and space. And that's all before factoring in the serious science elements. It may end up being my single most enjoyed book of 2011.

6. And On The Surface Die - Lou Allin. 3. This traditional mystery features RCMP Corporal Holly Martin on the southwest corner of Vancouver Island.  Canada's Caribbean is home to glorious natural beauty and a wide mix of natural inhabitants but this book examines  less welcomed incomers too: lumber companies, real estate developers, meth dealers and the hapless victims of all of them. Great sense of place.

7. Murder on a Girls' Night Out - Anne George. 2.5 out of 5.  I can see why this series was popular: eccentric middle-aged women and their family members getting into trouble by poking around where they don't belong. It was a light, fun, cosy read but nothing made it stand out for me at this point in my reading life.

8. Captain Bolton's Corpse -    J.G. Jeffreys.  2.5. Mildly entertaining older novel of a crusty London investigator crawling through 18th-century port sewers both actual and metaphorical. The deliberately dated language and dialects took a bit of getting used to. Kind of a 'Moonfleet' for adults.

Averaging one book every two days would put me over the 100-book line by late summer, but it won't last. For one thing, there are new books coming into the house all the time, via the library and book stores and review copies and prize draws. Some of those are like Godiva chocolates: you simply HAVE to devour them while they're fresh. So it will be a challenge.


Saturday, January 15, 2011

Finally Finding the Attenbury Emeralds

It's been a while since I had leisure to post anything here, and now I'm cheating a bit by copying part of a reviewlet on The Attenbury Emeralds by Jill Paton Walsh that I originally sent to that quintessence of classical mystery lists, DorothyL.

'The Attenbury Emeralds' by Jill Paton Walsh got opened last night. It was open way, wa-ay too late.
This is novel is an interesting read on several levels. The writing rarely rises to the elegant prose of the original Sayers but Lord Peter does occasionally talk some irresistable piffle. The characters of Lord Peter and Bunter are much as they were, and the references to snippets of the original history are much appreciated. In Lady Diana's shenanigans we have a plausible 'first contact' between Lord Peter and Dian de Momery's ilk. The telling of tales within a tale is also from the Sayers canon although she used it in short fiction, not (that I recall offhand) in a novel.
The inevitable comparisons out of the way, what really kept me reading was the unfolding history of the titular jewels. This is no simple story of jewel theft and recovery, but a series of crimes and other problems that, over decades (from Peter as a young man to Peter with a teenaged son) all involve the same main stone.
Having arrived - well past page 50 - at the present day in story-time, I was desolated to discover my bedtime was already long past and I had to close the book for the night.  The next night I picked up, stayed up way too late, and came to an event unlookedfor, so potentially devastating to the characters that I gently closed the book. I stayed away from it for several days until I had digested the immense changes that would result.

These characters, especially Lord Peter and Harriet but also the Duchess and Bunter, have been with me since my teens. Much as I admire Jill Paton Walsh's feat in continuing one of the most famed love stories in detective fiction, I hope she resists any pressure to write another book with them. I am ready to walk away and leave them to lead their own lives, secure in the knowledge that they are in a good place together despite all that has gone before. 

Herewith, in closing, a book trailer in which the author discusses the how and why of writing The Attenbury Emeralds (but does not answer my concern above).