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review 2018-01-11 22:24
The Outlander (Adamson)
The Outlander (Large Print 16pt) - Gil Adamson

Honestly, I can't imagine what Anansi Press was thinking, letting this first novel go out into the world with a title so similar to that of a pop-culture phenomenon. Otherwise, though, they have done well by Gil Adamson in both production and editing, and I'm very glad they published this interesting story.


Adamson deliberately distances us a bit from her characters. They are "the Reverend", "the Ridge Runner", the "Widow." The significance of "the widow" as the constant name for the protagonist -we don't get her real name until well into the book - is that it keeps at the top of our minds exactly what is always at the top of hers - that she has murdered her husband. And that same distancing relieves us of the responsibility of empathizing with her more than we want to, though you'd have to have a pretty black soul not to feel something by the end of her picaresque adventures through the Crows Nest Pass area in western Canada. The landscape is very definitely a character, and a cruel one, in this novel. It has its spectacularly climactic plot event in the Frank slide (a notorious 1903 landslide that wiped out a sizeable part of a mining town). I thoroughly enjoyed how well Adamson described it and wove it in to her story from several points of view.


The widow - Mary Boulton - is supported by a well-described set of supporting characters, one of whom, the reclusive Ridge Runner, becomes a romantic interest though not, thank goodness, in a conventionally sappy way that would have ruined everything we have come to know about both characters. I thought the inclusion of the Native characters was sufficiently nuanced and well-managed to meet the political correctness standards of our time, though Henry is a relatively minor character.


At the beginning of this novel, Mary is highly vulnerable, fumbling her way to survival and sometimes very nearly not making it. She is dependent on a series of saviours - an old lady (and her household), the Ridge Runner, Henry and his white wife Helen, and the Reverend Bonnycastle (working out his own demons of abuse in the rough mining town of Frank). But after she is finally caught by her slightly cartoonish Furies, a pair of red-headed giants (brothers of the ex-husband), Mary accomplishes her last escape from disaster without a saviour. This, I would say, is the principal emotional dynamic of the novel.


I did find this one a bit of a page-turner, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes period settings and interesting women's stories. I would warn off only those readers who have a strong need for emotional identification with a protagonist.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-12-22 03:53
The Birth of Venus (Dunant)
The Birth of Venus - Sarah Dunant

This is a not-bad coming-of-age story set in Florence during and after Savonarola's brief but ferocious anti-secular reign over the city. The protagonist is Alessandra, age 14, individualist and would-be artist, not at all happy about taking on the more traditional woman's role that her mother and elder sister are modelling for her. She barely has time to be intrigued by the young artist that is brought into their household (her father is a successful merchant) before Savonarola's opportunistic takeover begins and her marriage is hastily arranged with an older man who, it turns out, is the gay lover of her brother. Alessandra has a bad habit of wandering to unsafe places and into unsafe company (with the help of her Black maid Erila), and she eventually finds out that the young painter's secret is not - like her husband's - a sexual one, but an equally obsessive one with the human body as exposed through dissection. If I remember it correctly (and it has been some time since I finished), it was heavily implied that Michelangelo was one of the leading spirits of that scientific/secular movement. The young painter has a crisis of faith and she briefly "rescues" him into her husband's household and starts a sexual relationship with him, before things get more and more dangerous and everyone scatters to safer places. Her husband, who is actually a very attractive character, dies (I feared, given the hints being dropped, that he would be burned at the stake, but fortunately Dunant didn't go down that road); Alessandra ends up as a nun, and is allowed to practice her art and decorate the chapel; it was presumably well before she joined the convent that she acquired a body tattoo of a snake that shocks her fellow-nuns after her death (the framing story).

I'm not an expert on Renaissance Florence, but I thought the historical detail appeared to be researched and well-used; there were a few language slips that should have been caught by an editor (why do so many otherwise educated people have trouble with the difference between "flaunt' and "flout"?); and I acquiesce easily enough in an almost certainly historically inaccurate freedom of thought in a young female character. Dunant walks the line fairly successfully between what would have been historically accurate but difficult to read outright denunciation of the homosexual behaviour in the book and completely anachronistic acceptance of it.  She does this by characterizing Alessandra's outrage (which is considerable) as mostly caused by her husband's (and  her own family's) duplicity in not letting her know what she was walking into - especially the fact that her own brother is her rival. The description of Alessandra's wedding night is uncomfortable and fairly explicit without being outright ghastly.

This is not potboiler fiction; there is no enforced happy ending, and no use of the standard romance tropes. However, I found in it a lot of the cliche's of another genre, women's fiction in general. We must have our coming of age, our pregnancy and birth scenes described at length. There gets to be a certain sameness about all that, regardless of which historical era you set it in. Nonetheless, it was an amusing enough read, and I was at least engaged enough with Alessandra to be glad she finally had the opportunity to learn and express her art and raise her daughter quietly at a permissive and remote convent.

Recommended if you like women's fiction set in a vivid historical setting.

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review 2017-12-22 03:08
Away (Urquhart)
Away - Jane Urquhart

"The women of this family... were plagued by revenants. Men, landscapes, states of mind went away and came back again. There was always water involved, exaggerated youth or exaggerated age. Afterwards, there was absence."

From that excerpt from the opening page of "Away", you might be simply bemused at first. But, coming back to it after finishing this tale of multiple generations of Irish and Irish-Canadian women, it actually reveals itself to be remarkably precise and insightful.

There are three generations of women - Mary is the most remote in history, island-dweller in Ireland, who goes "away" in her mind early in her youth when she encounters the corpse of a young man washed up on her shores, and goes away again physically at the end of her life, long after she and her devoted husband make a home of sorts in the wilds of Ontario. Her daughter, Eileen, also ends up going away from reality, in a sort of dream of romance with a young man whose fate is bound up with the Fenian movement (the murder of D'Arcy McGee is one of the main historical events written in to this largely psychological novel, the others being massive flooding in Montreal, and the potato famine in Ireland).  Esther, Eileen's grand-daughter, is the third of the women who is in some fashion "away" (her last night upon the shores of the Great Lakes as her family home gives way to industrialization is the framing device of the book), and we are given to understand that she retells the entire story of her fore-mothers, not to any human audience.

This book really is all about water, and landscape, and men disappearing and reappearing in the lives of women, and women dissociating as they deal with the ills of the world. The writing is - I don't quite know how to describe it - it's light, and fluid, not at all like the staccato sound of Annie Proulx (whose "Shipping News" I recently read), but sharing with it a similar intense focus on physical detail that has undercurrents of symbolism.  I got wrapped up in the reading of it, though it seems to float on the surface of its turbulent plot, and I was not terribly emotionally involved. Rather, it was a pleasure in the reading itself that kept me in it, if that makes any sense at all.

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review 2017-12-22 02:47
Rather Be the Devil (Rankin)
Rather Be the Devil - Ian Rankin

Rankin is reliable for me. I enjoy his individualistic officers, and I rarely anticipate more than small parts of his plot unravellings. That said, there were so many evil-doers of various stripes in this novel that, though I followed the denouement as I was reading it, I couldn't if you paid me reconstruct for you now the interrelationships between a cold case murder of a woman in a hotel, the murder of a retired cop turned bouncer who was looking into the cold case, some nasty international goings-on (including a brutal Ukrainian money-launderer) and power politics in Edinburgh's gang underworld, featuring Rebus' nemesis, big Ger Cafferty, and Cafferty's heir-apparent.


Doesn't matter much. There is a curious and persistent echo between Rebus and Cafferty, both nominally retired, both pulling themselves back from the brink of possible annihilation (Rebus has a threatening shadow on his lung), both essentially and very much "not dead yet." With only a fraction of the multitude of evil-doers meeting anything like a just fate, this strange, stubborn survival is what passes for a hopeful ending in Rankin's dark, complicated Edinburgh.

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review 2017-12-01 16:53
The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton (Brodie)
The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton - Fawn M. Brodie

Given my usual taste for actors' biographies, you could be forgiven a momentary confusion. This is not a biography of that Richard Burton, but rather of Sir Richard Francis Burton, 19th-century explorer, adventurer, extraordinary linguist and translator, and decidedly an enigmatic character. The two things most closely associated with his name are his (unsuccessful) search for the source of the Nile, and his translation of The Arabian Nights, but that does not in the slightest suggest the extent of this man's experiences or of his overwhelming curiosity about the variety of human existence around the world. He had the good fortune to be born white, male, and of a class that allowed him to pursue that curiosity first under the auspices of the army and later either with the backing of scientific societies or as a diplomatic representative in various far-flung parts of the world. In this scholarly but not dry biography, first published in 1967 (and one of many biographies of Burton), Fawn Brodie is first a faithful chronicler, with reference to all the evidence that was left history by Isabel Burton, Burton's wife and first biographer, who provided great insights in her own work, but committed the all-too-common unforgivable Victorian sin of trying to control the narrative by destroying primary sources like journals after Burton's death. (Isabel, by the way, is an interesting enough figure to have been the subject of biographies in her own right, and I may follow up on that some day).


Brodie is, as I said, first of all a faithful chronicler, but she does venture into character analysis, most particularly in her first two and final chapters, though always adducing generous amounts of documentary evidence from the writings of Burton and his wife. She is interesting on the subject of Burton's relationship with his mother, for whom he seems to have emphasized and developed the rebellious, even immoral side of his nature, on the understanding that it attached her to him even more firmly. Brodie says much that is plausible about the nature and development of Burton's hunger for knowledge of all things exotic, a hunger that drove him to explore both forbidden places (Mecca) and the forbidden aspects of human life in general (he was absolutely fascinated by unusual sexual practices and genital mutilation). The biographer also notes that there was a shadow that hung over Burton's career from a fairly early stage, after he made a detailed report from India (lost, according to Brodie's notes) about a homosexual brothel; and she also records without being over-dramatic about it, his fairly close associations with a couple of notorious homosexuals such as Algernon Swinburne. All the evidence, both from his writings and the known facts of his life, suggest that Burton conducted his life entirely as a heterosexual, but Brodie does permit herself some small suggestion towards the end that twin anxieties about castration/impotence and homosexuality were drivers throughout his life and particularly in the last phase of his career where he was particularly taken up with the creation of "naughty books" (a phase that sorely taxed Isabel's more conventional sensibilities and caused her to take on the role of censor both before and after his death). Remembering that this biography was written in the 1960s, I'd be interested in comparing Brodie's take on Burton's sexuality with that of more recent scholars.


I have overemphasized the sexual element in this review, I find. If you are fascinated by the phenomenon of the beginnings of detailed sociological observation, it seems Burton is your man. If you are enthralled by explorers who persisted in the face of all sorts of nasty illness and bodily calamity (including a javelin right through both sides of the face), Burton's career is full of that kind of incident. And if the horrors of Victorian reputation-politics and internecine feuds between geographical adventurers appeal to you, then the Burton and Speke story - two entirely incompatible men who travelled together for hundreds of miles and each came out of it with a different story - is worth reading about.


I admit it: when I first picked up this volume, it was under the fleeting wrong impression that it was a biography of that other Richard Burton. But I am very glad indeed that, realizing my mistake upon scanning the back cover blurb, I said, "hmm, that might be interesting" and picked it up anyway. Because yes, it was very interesting, and I would recommend it.

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