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The Looking Glass: A Novel

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This was rather an enjoyable read. It follows the life of an orphan-turned-domestic servant in early 20th century Normandy, and touches on the lives of four other women who are connected to her through a male character. Throughout the novel the author weaves in exquisite descriptive detail of setting and domestic life (she almost makes ironing sound enjoyable). On the downside, I found the structure of the book didn't quite work, and there was some crude language near the end that was jarring and didn't fit the rest of the novel. Overall, a quiet, moody work.
The Shooting Party

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This short novel takes place in 24 hours in October 1913 before and during a shooting party at the Oxfordshire country house of Sir Randolph Nettlby. From the opening paragraph, you know that something bad is going to happen, but a something that will be forgotten a year later when their world is shattered by the Great War. The reader experiences the events of the day by following many characters, both aristocratic and service class.Colgate is a fabulous writer--subtle, observant, witty, stylish. And she's writing about my favourite historical period--Edwardian England. Do I have to tell you I loved this book? I held back from giving it a full five stars because for my tastes there was a little too much detail about the actual shooting (or shall I say, needless slaughter of hundreds of pheasants, and yes, that's a metaphor for the war). Recommended for: readers who love the Edwardian era, fans of Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, although fans of the later should take note that this is only one day in the life, and there is no Maggie Smith character making hilarious comments. It also has a less fluffy tone than Downton Abbey. Note: The 2007 Penguin Modern Classics edition has an excellent 24 page introduction by Julian Fellowes. He was inspired by the 1980s film version of [The Shooting Party] to create Gosford Park, which further inspired him to create Downton Abbey.
The Book of Small

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How is it fair that a renowned painter can also be a gifted writer? Carr wrote this memoir of her early childhood when she was in her early 70s, so historical veracity is not the point of this delightful book. Carr was born in Victoria, BC, into a community that is often called "more English than the English," and many of her vignettes tell of people forging their idea of a civilized life in the western wilderness. The Book of Small is a collection of snapshots of British Colonial life through the eyes of a small girl, in fact, the "Small" of the title is Carr's nickname as the youngest daughter. Some of the stories are told in first person, and some in third, with Small as the main character. My favourite part was when Small dresses up a starfish in doll's clothes and then forgets it in a cupboard.The Book of Small has been compared to the writings of Lucy Maud Montgomery and Beatrix Potter, although this is not a children's book. She does capture that world of late-Victorian childhood where one minute she's sitting on a stiff chair drinking tea in a dark parlour, and the next she's squeezing through brambles and mud to get to her own Secret Garden.Victoria is one of my all-time favourite cities, and I know it well, so it was fascinating to read what the city was like before the imposing Empress Hotel, when cows roamed the streets and Cook St was the garbage dump. I enjoyed how the city itself is a character in this novel.Recommended for: Anyone looking for a amusing yet detailed look at domestic British Colonial life. Also anyone who is interested in the history of Victoria.
The Beginning of Spring

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It is 1913, and Frank Reid is an Englishman who was born and raised in Moscow, and now runs his family's printing business. His English wife has suddenly up and left him and he is left to raise their three children. He also has to negotiate the capricious business and social world of per-revolutionary Russia. Fitzgerald is an amazing writer in both her gift at crafting beautiful sentences, capturing bits of humour, and in creating an astounding world. How does an Englishwoman writing in the 1980s know this level of detail about Russian life at the beginning of the century? This is my first encounter with her, but I own a few others and want to read them right away. The Beginning of Spring is one of those books that require reading between the lines to figure out what is going on, and where it often feels like there is a bit missing that the reader must puzzle out. But for the reader who enjoys that type of reading experience, it's a rewarding novel. And this is what historical fiction should look like. Recommended for: readers who love rich detail, gorgeous writing, and nuance in their novels. Not recommended for those who like a straight-forward story with no complexity.
The Beautiful Room Is Empty: A Novel

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The semi-autobiographical novel of a young man in Detroit and Chicago in the 1950s and 60s, and who is gay . . . couldn't sound less interesting, unless they made it a baseball or football story. I really didn't think I'd find the interest to finish it until I got to the paragraph on page 19 where the narrator talks about how he wishes he lived in the "lurid decadence of nineteenth-century Europe, with its mauve glasses and moth-eaten velvets . . . " and said "I felt nausea whenever I faced America's frumpy cuteness." Suddenly, the book had promise--he didn't like his world any more than I do.. . . And this just showed me how good writing can make an otherwise distasteful and boring book come to life. It was a quick, compelling read. For my tastes, there were too many scenes of cruising and sex in public bathrooms, but otherwise it was enjoyable. I'm glad I read it and will definitely read Edmund White again.
The Forest Lover

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The Forest Lover is a fictionalized biography of painter Emily Carr (1871-1945) that focuses on her life from around 1905 through 1930 (and which covers her two most productive periods). Born and raised in Victoria, British Columbia, Carr struggles against her restrictive, repressed, and very English upbringing to become a free-spirited eclectic and lover of both nature and indigenous art. She makes several trips to the remote areas of the BC coast to paint totem poles, which she realizes are quickly disappearing as they rot into the rainforest or are taken to museums.Susan Vreeland is an author who has fabulous ideas for books, but who fails to deliver. Being a serious fan of Vermeer, I was excited to read The Girl in Hyacinth Blue; however, I was very disappointed with the novel and had to force myself to finish it. My hopes weren’t as high then when I picked up The Passion of Artemisia, but I thought the combination of woman artist and 17th century Italy held promise. The reality was a fairly boring, mundane piece of historical fiction. When she came out with The Forest Lover, her third novel, the subject of Emily Carr and the setting of the West Coast intrigued me, despite being burned by Vreeland before. In the end, The Forest Lover isn’t as bad as I feared it would be. It’s very slow starting, and doesn’t really get going until past the 100 page mark when Carr travels to France to study oils and learn to paint in the Fauvist style. From that point it was an okay read with a few gripping moments and the occasional interesting character.What I liked: The settings (Victoria, the wilds of BC, Vancouver & France), and I appreciate that the publisher printed a map on the inside cover. The character of New Zealand painter Frances Hodgkins was interesting, wise, and felt natural, although later I was disappointed to learn that there is no evidence the two women met. Also, I see from reviews that many readers weren’t familiar with Emily Carr and were happy for the introduction—so if this novel brings new viewer’s to Carr’s art, well, that’s a good thing.What I didn’t like: I studied Vreeland’s writing to try and figure out why I dislike it so intensely. On the sentence-by-sentence level, she’s perfectly competent and occasionally turns a pretty phrase. I think her biggest fault is in her storytelling. It’s almost never engaging. Her characters are often stereotypical (Indigenous = spiritual and pure, White people & missionaries = greedy, mean and unsympathetic) and her dialogue sounds unnatural and stilted. Overall, I find that she’s an uptight writer who plays it safe because that’s all she knows. There are a couple of sentences in the novel where a character challenges Carr on misappropriation of First Nations culture, and Carr dismisses them with just a few words—just as Vreeland dismisses any challenging aspects of Carr’s life, or for that matter, any depth, nuance, or complexity at all.Part way through I was so annoyed by the narrative voice that I pulled out the one book I have that Emily Carr wrote. As I expected, Carr’s own voice was very different—and she’s a much stronger, more interesting writer. I should have just read Carr herself, and forgotten about Vreeland.Recommended for: Vreeland fans and readers who like her homogeneous style of historical fiction. If you want to learn more about Emily Carr, she’s a far superior writer, so just go read one of her many books instead.
The Best Laid Plans

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Crusty, intelligent, and opinionated Angus agrees to have his name put on the ballot in an election that he has no chance in winning, and that's just the way he wants it. He lives in a riding that always votes for the other guys, the incumbent is the most popular finance minister ever, and expected to become Prime Minister of Canada one day. But then scandal hits, and Angus finds himself elected to office. With no desire for re-election, and no desire for a political career, Angus can be that politician who actually does the right thing rather than being a politician. The Best Laid Plans won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour and the 2011 CBC Canada Reads competition (the theme that year was the most important book of the past decade). It took me a while to get into it but once I got to around page 30, I started to enjoy it. I don't find the humour especially funny, and some of the writing makes me cringe, and it's predictable . . . but many parts are clever, and while the humour isn't laugh out loud, it does make me smile. It's not difficult to read, yet I'm learning about how my country ticks. And best of all . . . I kept looking for opportunities to pick it up, and when was reading and needed to put it down, I'd think "one more chapter." Recommended for: Well, as I said, it won CBC Canada Reads, so that means it's a must-read for all Canadians, obviously. I'm trying to think if someone who doesn't live in Canada would get anything out of it, and I'm not sure. Maybe; probably not.
The Bronte Myth

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The blurb on the back cover praises [The Bronte Myth] as "a brilliant combination of biography, literary criticism, and history." I suppose, but I was expecting it to be a bit more engaging. Most of the book is about Charlotte Bronte, and I studied her at uni, so a lot of it was a repeat for me. Also, there was almost nothing about Ann. Overall though, throughout the book there was enough of interest to keep me reading. One thing that stood out for me was that Miller never presents her thesis on what she thinks the "Bronte Myth" actually is . . . there is just this sentence in the "Preface & Acknowledgements" section that says "...the two most famous Bronte novels have become established not just as literary classics but as what might be called modern myths . . . " and then rambles off in several directions. (Someone needs to tell the author that the preface & acknowledgement section is often skipped.) So it's up to the reader to identify the Bronte Myth, or as the book progressed, many different myths. This book is a must-read for Bronte scholars and anyone studying the Brontes at school. For mere Bronte fans, there's a lot of academic minutia to wade through to get to the interesting bits. At this point in my life I give this 3 stars. If I was using it for university, especially if I was interested in the cultural repercussions of the Brontes, I would rate it higher.
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