Discussion: In Translation

When it comes to reading classics by Russian, French, and Spanish authors, I hum and haw a lot over translations. I ask fans of a work, particularly those who have read more than one translation, what they think. I read reviews, I try to compare passages and construct pro-con lists. I am the Queen of Translation Indecisiveness, anxious that I’ll make the wrong choice and it will take away from the experience of reading the book. I’m in the midst of one of these decisions right now, after committing to read Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace as part of a group led by Rachel and Hadeer on Goodreads (join us if you’re interested, it’ll be fun!) and thought I would share a little bit about what I look for in a translation and how I go about choosing one, and open it up to the book blogging community to share how they select a translation.

Admittedly I haven’t read many translated classics yet, but I’ve read a few and there are others on my near-future tbr. There are three criteria that go into my selection process:

1. It must be unabridged
Abridged versions of books don’t appeal to me at all. I understand the reasoning behind them, and for someone who may have difficulty, or not be interested in, making it through a thousand page book, or for introducing a younger audience to the classics, I can see the appeal, but abridged books are not for me. Period. Personally, I want to experience the novel close to the way in which an author intended it to be read, and with abridgments I worry that I would miss something vital or enjoyable about the text.

2. Too much modernity is a turn-off
My first attempt to read a translation didn’t go so well. I picked up the new Julie Rose translation of Les Miserables mostly for its shelf appeal. It was a hardcover edition of Les Mis, big and beautiful, but when I tried to actually read it, I found the use of modern language jarring. After fifty pages I gave up and switched to the Signet Classics edition, translated by Fahnestock/MacAfee. I’ve never looked back! As a lover of history, and as someone who isn’t put off by dense prose, the older translations were a better fit for me. I learned that, for me, modern prose doesn’t make the text easier to read, it just serves to jerk me out of the story.

3. Remains true to the spirit of the original novel
It doesn’t have to be a literal word for word translation, but the intent and the original spirit of the work must be kept intact. For example, a work that removed or made massive changes to a scene or to dialogue because the translator thought they knew better than the author would not appeal to me. This is definitely a tough one since I can’t read the original language to tell how faithful the translation is to the author’s style, plot, and characters. Generally I read reviews of a translation to see how readers and critics think it compares, both to other translations of the work and to the original text.

Of course, there are also practical considerations. I don’t currently have an eReader, or device that I can comfortably read on, so I’m limited to translations that are still in print. If it’s a massive physical book (over 1,000 pages) will I be reading it at home where the size/weight doesn’t matter? Or does it have to be portable, so I can read on the subway?

How about you? When you read classics or work by foreign authors in translation, how do you go about deciding which translation to choose? Do you compare versions directly before making a decision? Do you rely on reading reviews or comparisons of translations? Do you reach out to friends/the book blogging community to ask their opinions and suggestions on translated works? What are your criteria for selecting a translation?

And since there are a few French and Russian classics I’d like to read in the next few years, do you have a favourite translation of either War and Peace, The Count of Monte Cristo, and/or Eugene Onegin that you would recommend?

T5W: The Middle Was Best

After a few weeks off (and a lovely whirlwind vacation to New York City where I ate some fantastic food and saw some wonderful shows), I’m back with another Top 5 Wednesday! This week’s topic: Second Book is Best. While I’ve tried to stick to series where the second book was my favourite, I’ve tweaked the definition slightly for one choice, selecting a book that is the third in a (currently) five book series.

Top Five Wednesday is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Want to join in the fun? Check out the goodreads group!

TheDreamThieves1. The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater (Book 2 of The Raven Cycle)
I enjoyed Stiefvater’s first book in this world, The Raven Boys, but it’s The Dream Thieves where the series really gets going. Part of the reason for this is that The Dream Thieves is Ronan Lynch’s story. For the first time, the reader gets a vision of what makes Ronan tick and the stew of feelings and fears that lie under his rough exterior. Although there’s a vein of magic running through the books courtesy of the quest to find Glendower, ley lines, and Blue’s psychic family, it’s not until the very end of The Raven Cycle where Ronan’s abilities are first mentioned, and The Dream Thieves is where they come into focus. This second book in the quartet deepens the story and reveals more about each of the characters. I really enjoyed The Raven Boys, but I devoured The Dream Thieves and this is the book where I knew I would re-read this series until the day I die.

2198112. The Virtu by Sarah Monette (Book 2 of The Doctrine of Labyrinths series)
Like The Raven Cycle, Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths books take a bit to get going. To begin with, one of the two P.O.V. characters spends half of the first book quite literally insane! I love the whole series, but The Virtu is a better written book. The plot seems to wander a little less and since Felix Harrowgate is sane(r) in this volume, the sometimes antagonistic and complicated relationship between Felix and his half-brother Mildmay makes for a more interesting read. The reader also gets a lot more of Mildmay’s inner thoughts in this book and he is one of my favourite characters period, so I loved spending more time in his distinctive voice. Monette is a master of worldbuilding, and having established Melusine in the first book, she’s able to expand on and deepen the reader’s knowledge of this fantasy world. It all makes for a captivating second volume. You could definitely make an arguement for the third book, which is also fabulous and offers both a strong female P.O.V. and a heartbreaking plot, but the fourth book, while still worth reading and a worthy conclusion, is less interesting than the previous volumes.

2r7nc603. Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo (Book 2 of The Grisha Trilogy)
The Grisha Trilogy is a perfect example of The Second Book Is Best because it’s the only book in this trilogy that I gave a full five stars to on Goodreads! It’s often difficult with a fantasy series because there is so much worldbuilding that has to occur to set up an interesting and believable setting for a series. Bardugo’s first book in the series suffers a little from this set up, but Siege and Storm kicks into gear and also features the introduction of my favourite character in the series, Nikolai. Nikolai’s swagger and wit instantly grabbed me, and I’m not alone – he’s a fan favourite for a reason! While I was actually fairly pleased with the way the series I ended (I know that’s a fairly unpopular opinion), I also didn’t find the final book of the trilogy as gripping as Siege and Storm, so this series naturally deserves a place on this week’s T5W.

63079644. A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin (Book 3 of A Song of Ice and Fire)
Although not the second book in the series, A Storm of Swords is smack dab in the middle of the five books currently published of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. It’s the finest book in the series so far, and includes THAT scene which makes people hurl their books against the wall. Although it’s a long read, coming in at over 1,000 pages in paperback, I found it the most gripping, as it contains plotlines with most of the major characters we know and love (compared to AFFC and ADWD, which divides point of views by geography) and some truly phenomenal plot twists and climaxes. This was the book I couldn’t wait to see adapted on screen, and although I have some (many) issues with Game of Thrones, like many book fans, I enjoyed the true initiation of show fans to Martin’s world and brutality when the Red Wedding appeared onscreen.

cityofblades5. City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett (Book 2 of The Divine Cities Trilogy)
I didn’t expect to love this book as much as I did. The first book, City of Stairs, featured one of my favourite female characters in literature, Shara Komayd, as the protagonist. This glasses-wearing, tea drinking, petite woman of colour torn between her love of history and mythology and her occupation as a spy won me over quickly. When I heard that the second book would feature this beloved character in only a minor role, I was skeptical. Instead, Jackson Bennett gave us Turyin Mulaghesh, a disabled, middle-aged, WoC General who swears like it’s going out of style for a protagonist, and a plot that was even better developed than the first book. City of Blades cemented this series as one of my favourites of all-time. I wasn’t as enchanted by the third book in the series, City of Miracles, which focused on a protagonist who couldn’t carry the story as well, but it was still an interesting read and a wonderful series.

What are some of your favourite middle books in a series?

T5W: Books That Aren’t Set In The Western World

This week’s Top Five Wednesday is one that I have been looking forward to – Talk about books that are set outside of the Western World (so outside of North America and Western Europe) or if they are SFF, books that aren’t inspired by those places (so no medieval setting fantasy!)

Admittedly a lot of the fantasy, YA, and historical fiction I read is set in North America or Western Europe, but I’ve been making an an effort to read more diversely (and would love recommendations if there are books with diverse settings you think I should check out!) recently. In fact, some a few of the best books I’ve read this year are set outside of these places! For this week’s countdown, I’ve stuck to books that are very clearly inspired by or set in places outside of North America and Western Europe, not books that don’t seem to be inspired by anywhere in particular.

Top Five Wednesday is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Want to join in the fun? Check out the goodreads group!

Pachinko1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (Japan/South Korea)
Setting and history figure heavily into this multigenerational family saga, which takes place between 1910 and the late 1980s. Lee’s novel follows four generations of an ethnic Korean family living in Korea under Japanese rule and then in Japan itself. It’s a beautifully written book that doesn’t shy away from depicting the discrimination and hardship that Koreans living in Japan during this period, who were seen as foreign residents and shut out of many traditional occupations, faced. Knowing as little as I did about this time and place before I picked up Pachinko, the opportunity to learn about this period in history was part of the appeal for me. I was not disappointed. Lee has a wonderful ability to make history come alive on the page, and the details of a myriad of twentieth century Korean and Japanese settings are richly rendered in elegant but simple prose. What I really love about Pachinko though is how realistic its characters are. Although they make mistakes, most of them are hardworking people trying to make good, and it’s incredibly moving to be taken on a journey through their successes and failures. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys historical fiction!

15q8eaf2. The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden (Russia)
Rarely am I hooked by a novel as quickly as I was by Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale. This gorgeous debut, a medieval Russian folktale/fairytale about the winter king and a brave and wild maiden absolutely enchanted me. Arden writes with lyrical prose and uses imagery to richly recreate the world of medieval Russia with all of its magic. It’s a style of writing that appeals to the senses, and you can almost feel the residual warmth of the giant oven on which the family sleeps and the cold foreboding of the nearby woods as winter approaches. As someone who enjoys mythology and folktales, I love the way that she brings the spirits, from the meek domovoi and the steady vazila to the more mercurial rusalka, to life. Additionally, this book contains a new favourite character of mine in Vasya, a free-spirit who is happier riding a horse or playing in the forest than she is performing needlework. Watching her grow from an impulsive child to an honest, compassionate, and bold young woman, is a joy as a reader and I look forward to returning to medieval Rus’ and to Vasya’s story when the sequel arrives early next year!

5yghvd3. The Dreamblood Duology by N.K. Jemisin (Fantasy inspired by Ancient Egypt)
As much as I loved The Fifth Season and Obelisk Gate, my favourite N.K. Jemisin books so far belong to this lesser known duology. Set in the desert city-state of Gujaareh, loosely based on Ancient Egypt, the plot deals with Gatherers, who are Priests of the dream-goddess. Gatherers maintain order in this peaceful city by harvesting the dreams of citizens, healing the injured, and guiding the dreamers into the afterlife… whether they’re ready to die or not. When Ehiru, the most famous of the city’s Gatherers, is sent to harvest the dreams of a diplomatic envoy, he finds himself drawn into a conspiracy that threatens to drag the dreaming city into war. Fantasy that is based on a non-Western setting is still uncommon, and I have an interest in mythology, so I loved this unique duology. If you’ve never read anything by Jemisin before, she’s one of the best worldbuilders around and writes beautifully, so this series is worth checking out.

251507984. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See (China)
This was my first Lisa See novel and I cannot wait to read more of her books! The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane tells the story of Li-yan, an Akha ethnic minority girl in Yunnan, China and her family, who align their lives around the farming of tea. The arrival of a stranger in a jeep (the first automobile anyone in the village has ever seen) it marks the entrance of the modern world into the lives of the Akha, and Li-yan begins to reject the superstitions and rules that have shaped her existence. Setting is a huge part of Lisa See’s work of historical fiction, and she describes the Chinese ethnic minority, the Akha, with care and in rich detail. Again, this was a place and time in history that I knew nothing about before reading this book, but I found it an engaging read and I rooted for Li-yan through her joys and her hardships.

271906135. And I Darken by Kiersten White (The Ottoman Empire)
Set in the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey and beyond), this gender-swapped YA alternate history of Vlad the Impaler sees Lada Dragwlya and her younger brother Radu held as pawns by the Ottoman courts. While Radu begins to adapt to their new setting, Lada despises the Ottomans and bides her time, planning her vengeance for the day when she can return to Wallachia and claim her birthright. Part of the appeal of this duology for me was the fact that I’d never seen anything quite like it before, including the setting. Sure enough, I enjoyed the first volume in this series and will be reading the second part later this month.

Have you read any of these books? Do you have any recommendations for me on books set outside the western world that I should read? Let me know in the comments!

The Mid Year Freak Out – Book Tag

The lovely Steph over at Lost Purple Quill tagged me in this book tag, which looked like a great way to review the highlights of my reading so far this year. Thanks Steph! I’m not going to tag anyone because I know this one has been making the rounds and I haven’t kept up with who has already been tagged, but if you want to do this, please consider yourself tagged!

1. The Best Book You’ve Read So Far In 2017
PachinkoI could choose a couple of books here, but I’m going to go with Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. I fell in love with this moving tale of a multi-generational Korean family living in Japan between 1910 and the 1980s. The prose is eloquent yet clear, the characters are incredibly likable, and I loved learning about this period and place in history that I knew so little about. Pachinko was recommended to me by Rachel @ Pace Amore Libri (thank you Rachel!) and was a monthly pick for a bookclub we’re both in, and I couldn’t be more thankful. This is one book that I would recommend to just about everyone!

2. Your Favourite Sequel This Year
AConjuringOfLightMy other five-star read so far this year is V.E. Schwab’s A Conjuring of Light, the final book in her Shades of Magic trilogy. Like any final book in a series, A Conjuring of Light was a book I both couldn’t wait to get my hands on and read with anxiety that it wouldn’t live up to expectations, or that the plot wouldn’t wrap-up in a satisfactory way. I shouldn’t have worried – A Conjuring of Light was everything I hoped it would be and more, although bidding goodbye to the characters I so loved was difficult.

3. A New Release That You Haven’t Read But Really Want To
29283884
I’ve been looking forward to Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue since a friend gushed about it a few months back. Fortunately it’s in transit to me from my local library, so I’ll be able to read it later this month!

 

4. Most Anticipated Release For The Second Half Of The Year
25528808Another one that I’ve heard rave advance reviews of is E.K. Johnston’s That Inevitable Victorian Thing, which will be published on October 3, 2017! I was already excited about reading this book before I read anything by Johnston. Now that I’ve read and loved Exit, Pursued by a Bear, I cannot wait to get my hands on this one!

5. Your Biggest Disappointment
There are a few books that all turned out to be disappointments for me, mostly for the same reason: they had great concepts and gorgeous covers, but the execution didn’t live up to the promise of the material. Those books are:


->  Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst – This was a textbook example of great concept, poor execution for me. The author switches genders of the typical prince-princess story to give readers a lesbian couple, but plays every other trope straight for a very conventional story. The book also lacks almost any world-building, so it’s fun at the surface level but cracks start to show as soon as you look at it with a closer eye.
-> Everfair by Nisi Shawl – I admired the ingenuity that went into this alternate history/steampunk Belgian Congo novel, but it’s a debut novel and it showed. Everfair reads more like a series of vignettes than a novel with a plot, and often skips over action scenes with important moments happening off the pages of the book. It also never grabbed me emotionally.
-> The Love Interest by Cale Dietrich – It wasn’t a bad book. I gave it 2.5 stars and even enjoyed reading it since it was a short enough read that I didn’t feel like I had wasted my time, but the world wasn’t thought through and the author didn’t seem to know whether it wanted to be a unique YA dystopia or a pure satire. This lack of direction meant the execution was sometimes sloppy.

6. Biggest Surprise Of The Year
SwingTime
Swing Time was the first Zadie Smith novel I’d ever read, a book I picked up mostly because of the dance theme I’d read was a big part of the novel. I think that’s a bit misleading, dance doesn’t play nearly as heavily into Swing Time as I expected, but I still REALLY enjoyed the book, rating it a solid four stars. This was a very pleasant surprise because after requesting the book from my library I read some goodreads reviews, even from people who enjoyed the book, that didn’t recommend it as the best choice for a Zadie Smith newbie and I had started to second-guess my decision. Fortunately, Swing Time worked for me, and I hope to read more from Zadie Smith in the future.

7. Favourite New To You Or Debut Author
15q8eafOne of my favourite books of the year to date is Katherine Arden’s exquisite and evocative historical fantasy The Bear and the Nightingale. It was a hell of a debut, with prose that hooked me from the very first page and characters I fell in love with, especially Vasilisa, a protagonist who is wild and brave but also compassionate towards others. This book made a fan out of me. I will happily read anything else Katherine Arden releases into the world… especially the planned sequel (set for release in early 2018)!

8. Your New Fictional Crush
30319086I don’t know that I really have one? But I think the closest would be James from M.L. Rio’s If We Were Villains. James was one of my favourite characters in the novel. He’s studious, constantly looking through his books, and works hard to earn his success. He’s a terrific actor, who usually plays princes and heroic roles, and he’s well liked by his friends. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s also described as handsome, although from a biased source (his closest friend Oliver). I also have a giant girl crush on Irene from Genevieve Cogman’s The Invisible Library. A competent librarian spy who uses precise grammar and practical quick-thinking to complete her missions? Sign me up!

9. New Favourite Character


A toss-up between Breq/Justice of Toren in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series and Vasya in Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale. Breq is an enigmatic presence initially, brusque and determined to complete her mission of vengeance, but always fascinating and resourceful. A music-loving millenia old spaceship AI inhabiting the body of a single human “ancillary”, in Ancillary Sword, she’s diverted somewhat from her vengeance and relishes trying to help out the victims of inequality on one planet and challenging the presiding ideas about class and what is respectable. Arden’s Vasya is introduced as a child, but even as a girl she’s singular among her family because she can see the household spirits and interact with them. Free-spirited and bold, Vanya is also kind, trying to help those around her and obviously caring deeply for her family and her siblings. Caught between doing what is expected of her as a woman and doing what’s right, she’s a new favourite character of mine.

10. A Book That Made You Cry
30319086Well, although A Conjuring of Light certainly made me tear up, as did Pachinko and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, and the end of City of Miracles, the only book so far this year to make my I Actually Cried shelf on Goodreads is M.L. Rio’s If We Were Villains. I suspected I would enjoy the book, but I really didn’t expect the novel to be as moving as it was! Even when I could guess where the plot was going, I cared about the characters enough that the narrative still tugged at my heartstrings, and I loved the ambiguous ending.

11. A Book That Made You Happy

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers. The best way to describe these books, particularly the first of the Wayfarers series, is that they are Hufflepuff books. They’re books that are comfortable and cozy, without ever feeling manipulative or overly fluffy. They’re books about people being nice to one another and how you choose your family and protect them. Although they both have somewhat rushed and overly neatly tied up endings, I loved reading both books and they definitely made me happy.

12. Your Favourite Book To Movie Adaptation That You’ve Seen This Year
elle-hidden-figures-margot-lee-shetterlyI can’t judge on a comparison level since I don’t think there are any where I’ve both read the book and seen the movie this year. I haven’t read the book, but I saw the Hidden Figures movie about female African-American mathematicians employed at NASA, who play integral roles in launching the program’s first space missions. The movie was fabulous! It made me smile and I loved all of the leading characters. I’m not much of a non-fiction reader, so I don’t know if I’ll ever read the book, but I enjoyed this immensely.

13. Favourite Book Post That You’ve Published This Year
I was pretty proud of the books I ultimately came up with for the T5W topic ‘Books For Your Hogwarts House’. I selected books that seemed quintessentially Ravenclaw to me, and my choices seemed to go over well!

14. The Most Beautiful Book You Bought Or Received This Year
AConjuringOfLightIt has to be A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab! I adore the covers on this series, and this beautiful hardcover is no exception. The online bookstore was selling signed editions for only fifty cents more than an unsigned edition, so my copy is signed by the author too!

 

15. What Are Some Books That You Need To Read By The End Of The Year

So so many! Some Rachel recs are definitely on this list – especially East of Eden by John Steinbeck, and Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. I also REALLY need to start reading Robin Hobbs’ series, so I think those are the top of my list!

T5W: Books Without Romance

Alright, I’ll admit it. This topic was harder than I thought it would be. Top Five Wednesday this week challenged us to come up with five books with almost no romance in them and yes, if you’re not choosing all children’s books, it’s difficult. I’ve tried to go for books that have as little romance in them as possible, and definitely not books where romance is a major or even a significant minor plot point.

Here are my choices:

11925514Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
A rare example of YA where romance is not a major part of the book, Code Name Verity is centered around female friendship instead. Set during World War II, the novel tells the story of Maddie and Queenie, young British women who undertake a secret mission behind enemy lines in occupied France. Framed as Queenie’s written confession to her friend as she is being tortured by the Gestapo, Code Name Verity is not short on love, but it is short on romance. This is a book about friendship and bravery in extraordinary circumstances, and I’m so glad that romance plays such a minor role in the book because it’s not needed. The true love here is between this pair of friends who would do anything for each other and, in fact, are forced to.

2657To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
One of a slim list of books I read for school that I actually thought deserved to be read in schools, To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of a trial in a sleepy Southern town. I don’t remember there being romance in this book, and if there was it certainly wasn’t prominent enough to overshadow the importance of the book, which sheds light on themes of racism and justice. There are several wonderful relationships portrayed in this novel, from Scout and the family’s relationship with Calpurnia to the father-daughter relationship between Jean-Louise Finch and her moral father, Atticus. The lack of romance is certainly helped by the fact that protagonist Scout is a child, but I think romance would only have diverted from this book anyway and I’m glad it exists in the form it does.

7937843Room by Emma Donoghue
A natural choice for this topic, Room is told from a five-year-old boy’s point of view. To Jack, the one room he lives in is his entire world and he has never known otherwise. To Ma, the room is her prison, the place where she has been held captive by Old Nick for seven years. Room is a story about a mother’s love and I admired the way Ma keeps Jack active, educates him, and engages in play with him as though their existence is normal. One of the interesting things about choosing a child narrator is that it eases some of the blunt horror of the situation. The reader knows that when Ma shuts Jack in the wardrobe to protect him from Old Nick’s visits, that she is being raped by her captor, but Jack doesn’t. Emerging from such circumstances in the later half of the book, and beginning the painful process of dealing with that’s happened to her, romance is the last thing on Ma, or anyone’s, mind.

76620Watership Down by Richard Adams
Watership Down, Richard Adams’ classic tale of a band of English rabbits fleeing the intrusion of man and the certain destruction of their home, was a childhood favourite of mine. The lack of romance here stems mostly from the fact that while the beloved main rabbit characters, including Hazel, Fiver, and Bigwig, do take on some human qualities and have a mythology, they are very much still rabbits. This means that they view women (does) mostly in terms of breeding potential rather than romantically. In a story about humans it would be offensive, but in a story about rabbits who are trying to ensure the survival of their band, procreation would be the chief concern. It’s a mindset that doesn’t lead to any romance, but I don’t remember thinking that the story suffered for it.

25488299The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd
As someone who had a lengthy “horse phase” when I was a girl, it was only natural that I would love this quick read about a girl in a WWII children’s hospital who sees winged horses in the mirrors of the building. When she discovers that an injured Pegasus has arrived in a secret garden, Emmaline performs tasks for the Horse Lord, collecting a rainbow of items to shield the injured horse from evil until the Pegasus has recovered. It’s a children’s book, but one that is so charming it will enchant adults and children alike (especially those who love horses). Of course a lack of romantic subplots is more common in Children’s Lit, but even though it’s short, the protagonist is a child, and there’s a charm and magic to this book, it deals with weighty enough background issues of illness, loss, and the World Wars, that it doesn’t always feel like a children’s book.

Top Five Wednesday is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Want to join in the fun? Check out the goodreads group!

What are some of your favourite books without romance in them?

Great Canadian Reads

Designed by FreepikToday my beloved Canada celebrates the big 1-5-0, marking the sesquicentennial (yes, I just wanted to use that word) anniversary of Canadian Confederation. Along with poutine, butter tarts, basketball, insulin, and the zipper, Canada has given the word some wonderful books and what better way to celebrate than with a shoutout to some of the Canadian books and authors I love the most.

I must admit, I haven’t always had an appreciation for Canadian authors. While pursuing an English degree I dreaded the obligatory Can Lit course and bought into the stereotype that all fiction by Canadian authors was rural-set literary fiction that mostly made parallels between the landscape and a character’s mental state. Like all stereotypes there is some truth in this, but there are also fabulous Canadian authors whose books I have devoured. I am so grateful and proud to be Canadian, and to celebrate my country’s one hundred and fiftieth birthday, here’s my list of books by Canadian authors, both popular and lesser known, worth reading.

(Note: Margaret Atwood is not on this list because, shame of all shames, I have never read any of her works! Rest assured that I fully intend to give Atwood a try by the end of the year.)

26878853Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Most Canadian girls have had their imaginations captured by L.M. Montgomery’s plucky redhead at one point in their lives or another.  The 1908 book tells the story of Anne Shirley, an eleven-year-old orphan who is mistakenly sent to Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, a middle-aged brother and sister who need a boy to help out on their Prince Edward Island farm. Anne wins over shy, sweet Matthew and the more practical Marilla though, and the rest of the seven book series sees Anne making her way through school and the town, becoming a school teacher, and beginning a family of her own. Intelligent, short-tempered, and wildly imaginative, Anne Shirley made a huge impression on me as a girl, and Anne of Green Gables has been adapted into multiple TV shows, plays, and musicals. Anne is the obvious choice when I think of Canadian books I love, but the enduring popularity of this character is a sign that I’m far from alone.

25528801Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston
I recently read this fabulous YA contemporary book loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and was blown away. Set in small-town Ontario, it follows Hermione Winters, the co-captain of her high school cheerleading team, who has everything going for her… until someone slips something into her drink at the summer cheer camp and she blacks out. The story deals with the lead up to, and aftermath of, the rape, as Hermione figures out how to move on from here. Although the book unflinchingly deals with serious topics, including date rape drugs, sexual assault, teen pregnancy, and abortion, Hermione has an excellent support system in place to help her through and the story is more one about a victim who takes back power and does so in her own time. Author E.K. Johnston is from Stratford, Ontario, home of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. This was my first book of hers, but I can’t wait to work my way through the rest of her books!

1597493Airborn by Kenneth Oppel
Admittedly it’s been probably 10 years since I read this book, as part of an undergrad Children’s Literature course, but I remember really enjoying it. The book follows Matt Cruse, a cabin boy on a massive airship that sails above the ocean ferrying wealthy passengers back and forth. A dying balloonist tells him of  fantastic, impossible creatures he has seen flying through the clouds and Matt dismisses the story as the ravings of a dying man, but when the man’s granddaughter Kate appears on the airship a year later, he is swept into her quest to prove the story is true. Author Kenneth Oppel was born in British Colombia, and has also lived on the opposite coast of Canada in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and in Newfoundland. He currently lives in Toronto, Ontario.

26409580The Scorpion Rules and The Swan Riders by Erin Bow
I have a healthy amount of skepticism when it comes to YA dystopian fiction. Following The Hunger Games a whole slew of it was published and there are some real gems in there, but there are also some not so great books. Erin Bow’s Prisoners of Peace duology is one of the gems. Taking an interesting and plausible background (wars over resources, particularly water rights, between nations), she crafts a future ruled over by an AI, where countries each submit an heir under the age of eighteen who are held as hostages for good behaviour. If a nation declares war, their heir dies. I loved the first book, and adored the second, which has a larger role for Bow’s snarky AI character, who delivers some of the best lines in the book. Erin Bow is an American-born Canadian author, who lives in Kitchener, Ontario.

6698199The Agency series by Y.S. Lee
A friend introduced me to this lesser known genre-crossing series, which begins with A Spy in the House, and I really loved it. A Victorian era set YA mystery series, the books feature protagonist Mary Quinn, a young orphan and thief. Mary becomes a student at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, a cover for an all-female investigative unit called The Agency, which excels at deploying female spies, reasoning that women can infiltrate without ever being suspected. Seventeen-year-old Mary’s first assignment is to pose as a lady’s companion and infiltrate a rich merchant’s home in hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. The books have some truly wonderful banter, particularly between Mary and James Easton, a dashing young engineer, and Mary is an intelligent feisty heroine. Y.S. Lee was born in Singapore and raised in Vancouver and Toronto. She now lives in Kingston, Ontario.

6218281The Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley
I don’t read a lot of mysteries, but I certainly appreciated the originality of the first book in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and have been meaning to read further in the series. Set in the 1950s, aspiring chemist young Flavia de Luce is delighted and appalled when murder comes to Buckshaw and takes it upon herself to find the culprit. Flavia is a precocious, somewhat morbid child detective unlike most protagonists I’ve encountered, and the chemistry angle adds something new to the mystery genre. Alan Bradley was raised in Cobourg, Ontario, and taught at the University of Saskatchewan, although he now lives on the Isle of Man.

7937843Room by Emma Donoghue
Room was one of those books where I avoided the hype because I just didn’t think it would be my kind of book. Well, I was wrong. I finally read it for a book club last year and was blown away. Donoghue seems to know instinctively exactly where to switch gears. At first she explores the limited one room world of her five-year-old first person narrator Jack and his Ma. From an adult perspective we can marvel at Ma’s ability to create a structured life and to educate her son, as well as her endless creativity in coming up with new games and ways to keep Jack active, but just when this starts to grate the second half of the book veers off in an entirely different direction. It’s masterfully written and absolutely lives up to the hype. Emma Donoghue is an Irish-born author who has lived in London, Ontario since 1998.

ioj8xtStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven was something entirely new to me, a soft post-apocalyptic novel that deals not with the immediate aftermath of the end of the world as we know it in bloody in-fighting fashion (ala The Walking Dead), but with the longer term impact of a plague that has wiped out most of civilization. Moving back and forth in time between the time before the plague, its rapid spread, and fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as The Travelling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains, the novel is beautifully written as it shifts between the perspectives of several characters who are all connected: the actor who died onstage during a production of King Lear the night the world dissolved, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, the actor’s oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, who was a child actress in the production of King Lear. I really can’t say enough about this quiet, moving book (which is partially set in Toronto!). Emily St. John Mandel was born and raised in British Columbia, and lived previously in Toronto and in Montreal. She now lives in New York City.

70287The Josephine Bonaparte series by Sandra Gulland
Sandra Gulland’s Josephine B trilogy really hooked me. It’s my favourite kind of historical fiction, the kind that seems to be well-researched, with a compelling protagonist, and strong prose. Based on the life of Josephine Bonaparte, Napoleon’s wife, the story is told through epistolary format as letters/diary entries. It’s not a format that always works, but I thought it fit this series well. Sandra Gulland is an American-Canadian, who was born in Miami, Florida, but immigrated to Canada in the 1970s. She now spends half the year in Ontario and the other half in Mexico.

TheChosenMaiden1The Chosen Maiden by Eva Stachniak
My interest in Nijinsky following the National Ballet of Canada’s stunning production of John Neumeier’s ballet means that I have a certain bias towards the subject matter, but I think even those unfamiliar with Nijinsky will enjoy this well-researched book. The Chosen Maiden is sweeping account of the life and accomplishments of ballet dancer and choreographer Bronislava (Bronia) Nijinska, the sister to legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, who was known as “Le Dieu de la Danse” (The God of the Dance). Set between 1894 and 1939 and told from Bronislava’s perspective, the novel explores themes of art and modernity as Bronia sees beyond her rigid classical training and strives to be a great artist, dancing and creating bold new works. As I suspected when I picked up the book, Eva Stachniak (who was born in Poland) lives in Toronto, Ontario and is also a fan of the National Ballet of Canada.

16138688The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
As you can tell from the last three books on this list, Canadian authors write some great historical fiction! Set in Belle Époque Paris, The Painted Girls takes inspiration from the real-life model for Degas’s Little Dancer Aged Fourteen and a notorious criminal trial of the era. After the sudden death of their father, the van Goethem sisters Marie and Antoinette seem faced with imminent eviction. With few options available for work, Marie joins the Paris Opéra, where for a scant seventy francs a month, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet, while her older sister descends lower and lower in society, and must make the choice between a life of honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde. I really enjoyed reading The Painted Girls and learning more about this period in French history. Born and raised in Niagara Falls, Cathy Marie Buchanan now lives in Toronto, Ontario.

Have you read any of these books? Who are your favourite Canadian authors?

I hope all of my Canadian readers have a very Happy Canada Day long weekend!

Top Ten Tuesday: Favourite Dads in Literature

In May I paid tribute to my mom with a list of my favourite fictional mothers, so it seemed only fair that this week I count down my top ten favourite fictional fathers/father figures. When it comes to fiction, it can be difficult to find positive father figures. In fact, I could probably create an entire list of awful fathers (and three-quarters of them would be from Lost!), which is all the more reason to celebrate those positive fathers who make an impression. Want to join in the fun? Head on over to Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and Bookish.

242801. Jean Valjean (Les Miserables)
As a huge fan of both the book and the musical, how could I not place Jean Valjean at the top of this list? The ultimate in adopted fathers, Valjean keeps his promise to Fantine, retrieving her daughter Cosette, who has been treated as a servant, from the Thénardiers and raising Cosette as his own. Despite the looming threat of Javert, Jean Valjean ensures that Cosette wants for nothing. The love in this father-daughter relationship is incredibly moving. Cosette and Valjean are so lacking in love that when they are brought together the bond is that much stronger between them. He thinks the world of his daughter, and she of him. When Cosette worries that her father is eating the poor brown bread, she insists that she will eat what he does, knowing that he will not let her do so and will accept the white bread for her sake. When Valjean learns that his daughter has a young man who loves her and intends to fight on the barricades he is initially relieved that the man (Marius) will certainly die, but feels such guilt that he goes to the barricades and rescues the young man, carrying Marius on his back through the sewers to safety for Cosette’s sake. If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is!

“When he saw Cosette, when he had taken possession of her, carried her off, and delivered her, he felt his heart moved within him.
All the passion and affection within him awoke, and rushed towards that child. He approached the bed, where she lay sleeping, and trembled with joy. He suffered all the pangs of a mother, and he knew not what it meant; for that great and singular movement of a heart which begins to love is a very obscure and a very sweet thing.
Poor old man, with a perfectly new heart!”

26572. Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird)
Through the book and the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch has made such an impression as a positive role model and father that he can be found on just about every list of great fictional fathers. Controversy about the recent sequel aside, Atticus deserves this place of honour. He is a model of fairness and justice, encouraging daughter Scout to see things from the perspective of others, and defending the cause of social outcasts.

“Atticus, he was real nice.”
“Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

j6n48z3. Arthur Weasley (Harry Potter)
Like his wife Molly, Arthur is a wonderful parent not just to his red-headed brood, but also to the orphaned Harry. Admittedly it has been a long time since I read Harry Potter, but I remember Arthur as being the kind of man who believes in the equality of muggles and magical folk, who may not be ambitious but he is good, and who cares deeply about the wellbeing of his family. The Weasleys may be poor, but they are rich in love with parents like Molly and Arthur on their side.

Pachinko4. Isak (Pachinko)
Above all, what I loved about Pachinko was its characters. This fabulous multi-generational novel about a Korean family through the twentieth century has characters who are real, who work hard, and who are generally good people. Isak is one such character. A young and sickly, missionary, he encounters the pregnant Sunja at her mother’s boarding house and decides it is his destiny to give this young unmarried woman’s child a name. He marries Sunja and brings her with him to Japan, raising her first son Noa as his own, as well as their biological child, Noa’s younger half-brother Mozasu. Although he endures hardship, including the discrimination that Koreans living in Japan face, poverty, and even torture and unjust imprisonment, Isak is a kind husband and father who tries to do right by his family and his faith.

alittlelife5. Harold (A Little Life)
One of the things that prevents A Little Life from being the bleakest book on the planet (don’t get me wrong, it is definitely still DARK, but there is some light in the darkness) is Jude St. Francis’ support system, and Harold Stein, the Harvard law school professor who officially adopts an adult Jude as his son, is a big part of that. Having lost his biological son Jacob to sickness in childhood, Harold tries to make Jude feel like he is Harold’s son and selflessly takes the troubled Jude’s sorrows into his life. And if your heart hasn’t already been broken earlier in this 700-page novel, the final letter written by Harold will definitely do it.

134966. Ned Stark (A Song of Ice and Fire)
It goes without saying that Eddard Stark, in following his principles and honour, does not always make the best decisions, but he obviously cares deeply for his family and children. I loved the glimpses we see throughout the first book of Ned’s regard for his wife and children. He never admonishes tomboy Arya or expects her to act more like a lady (likely because she reminds him of his deceased sister), even hiring a swordsman to instruct Arya in the basics of how to use her sword Needle. Although the reader doesn’t see as much of Ned with his other children, his love for them is always clear.

“She had never loved him so much as she did in that instant.”

162830147. Bob Cratchit (A Christmas Carol)
Surprisingly A Christmas Carol is the only Dickens this English major has read, but it’s an interesting book and involves, of course, an excellent father in Bob Cratchit. Although they are a very poor family, as Cratchit, the clerk at Scrooge’s moneylending firm, is overworked and underpaid, they are kind and respectable. Cratchit clearly loves sickly son Tiny Tim and for the rest of his family and works hard to ensure his family’s survival.

81331908. Matthew Cuthburt (Anne of Green Gables)
His sister Marilla is a fair but sometimes sharp-tongued woman, who sometimes finds herself in conflict with imaginative Anne Shirley, the girl they accidentally received from the orphanage instead of a boy to help with the farm, but shy kindly Matthew takes a liking to Anne from the start. While Marilla serves as the stern parental figure, Matthew spoils Anne and serves as a sympathetic ear and a “kindred spirit”. Noticing that Anne is dressed more plainly than her friends, he buys a dress in the new fashion with puffed sleeves as a Christmas present for Anne, which brings her to tears of joy. This father figure bond with Anne has stuck with me all of these years and still comes to mind when I think of positive father-daughter bonds.

“That’s a Christmas present for you, Anne,” said Matthew shyly. “Why–why–Anne, don’t you like it? Well now–well now.”
For Anne’s eyes had suddenly filled with tears.
“Like it! Oh, Matthew!” Anne laid the dress over a chair and clasped her hands. “Matthew, it’s perfectly exquisite. Oh, I can never thank you enough. Look at those sleeves! Oh, it seems to me this must be a happy dream.”

15q8eaf9. Pyotr (The Bear and the Nightingale)
A recent favourite of mine was The Bear and the Nightingale. Like Pachinko, this was a book I loved because the characters are so vividly rendered and likable. The story centers around Pyotr Vladimirovich’s daughter, Vasilisa who is compassionate but also wild and brave, with something of the supernatural about her. Despite the fact that the novel is set in medieval Russia, Pyotr obviously loves and admires his family, especially his daughter, who reminds him of his deceased wife. Although he invites strife by bringing home a highborn woman as a new bride (who turns out to be very devout and spooked by the northern household spirits, which she believes to be devils) this is obviously not Pyotr’s intent and he tries to do the best he can for his children.

1118107010. The King (The Balloon Tree)
The Balloon Tree was my favourite picture book as a child and it remains a favourite today. The beautifully rendered artwork, the fantasy story about a princess and a kingdom that she saves, and that fairytale balloon tree sent my imagination soaring. In the story, the King leaves for a tournament, telling his beloved daughter Princess Leora “If anything goes wrong, release a bunch of balloons from the castle tower. Wherever I am, I will see them and come home right away.” Leora’s evil uncle wants to become king though and the first thing he does is pop every balloon in the kingdom. It’s up to Leora to find one remaining balloon to save her kingdom. Of course she does, plants it, and a beautiful tree full of balloons grows, releasing enough balloons to warn the King and bring him back in time.

Have you read any of these books? Who are your favourite literary fathers or father-figures?

T5W: Books for Your Hogwarts House

Ravenclaw_Crest_1 (1)
Or yet in wise old Ravenclaw,
If you’ve a ready mind,
Where those of wit and learning,
Will always find their kind.

This week’s Top 5 Wednesday topic is Books For Your Hogwarts House and yes, you guessed it, this Librarian is a proud Ravenclaw! Like many book bloggers I suspect, I have always loved books and learning. I pursued first an undergraduate degree in English, and then a graduate degree in library and information science, and I value and admire creativity and intelligence in others.

This winter my parents and I visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter for the first time. Before we went, all of us took the house percentage quizzes and it turns out we’re a family of Ravenclaws (except for my brother, a Slytherin)!

Without further ado, here are the five books I think represent Ravenclaw well:

JonathanStrange1. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
When I began to consider books that represent Ravenclaw, Susanna Clarke’s historical fantasy about English magic during the Napoleonic Wars immediately came to mind. Although magical history and theory is studied, practical magic is believed to be long dead, until the reclusive Mr. Norrell reveals his ability. He becomes a celebrity overnight, and takes on a student in another practicing magician, the young and dashing Jonathan Strange, but their differences in style strain the partnership.

Why should Ravenclaws read it?
Obviously the subject matter, the history and revival of English magic, is a perfect fit for the intellectually curious Ravenclaw, and readers will enjoy Jonathan Strange’s somewhat unconventional uses of magic. The author’s wit has been compared to Jane Austen, and this well-researched novel even includes footnotes about the history of magic and texts for further study!

1226382. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde is surely synonymous with the word wit by now, and for good reason! My favourite work of his has to be the brilliant comedic play, The Importance of Being Earnest, which satirizes Victorian ways. Featuring mistaken identities, double lives, and a misplaced handbag, this popular farce is well worth a read.

Why should Ravenclaws read it?
Although the play is over a century old, it still manages to be funny and the infamous scene with the muffins always makes me laugh. Wilde’s works are perfect for the Ravenclaw reader who values “wit beyond measure” as man’s greatest treasure.

162993. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Although I enjoy a good mystery, I have to admit that I’m one of those people who rarely puts it all together before the end. Because of this, I have immense respect for anyone who can write an engaging mystery, and Agatha Christie is the master of this genre. I haven’t read many of her books yet, but I found And Then There Were None, a story where ten strangers summoned as weekend guests to a private island begin to be killed off until there is no one left, incredibly atmospheric and clever.

Why should Ravenclaws read it?
Christie shows ingenuity in bringing all of the characters’ deaths in line with the ten little soldiers poem. The way in which she paints a psychological portrait of each of these people with a dark secret and the way she keeps the reader guessing until the very end with red herrings and plot twists is brilliant to read and sure to draw admiration from the Ravenclaw reader.

ioj8xt4. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven is one of my favourite books. It’s perhaps a more controversial Ravenclaw choice, but I love the central theme in this soft post-apocalyptic novel, “because survival is insufficient”. I feel like it’s a very Ravenclaw concept, this idea that civilization and life is more than just getting by and surviving, there has to be a preservation of art and knowledge and a purpose to existence. This is demonstrated in the ways in which the characters carry on after the world as they know it ends. Kristen joins the travelling symphony as an actress, performing Shakespeare with its enduring appeal, to survivors of the pandemic. Clark opens the museum of civilization at the airport to preserve the way of life before and hold objects that no longer have any practical use, like high heels and a motorcycle, and a minor character begins printing a newspaper.

Why should Ravenclaws read it?
Station Eleven features culture and creativity and preservation of knowledge, told through beautiful prose in a story that is completely unique in setting the action during the pandemic, in its first days, and then fifteen years, entirely skipping the early days following the end of the world and the mayhem and brutality to tell a story about the new culture that begins to emerge and hope for the future.

2983175. Sandman by Neil Gaiman
(Art by Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III)
I was a little stuck on exactly which Neil Gaiman book belongs on this list, but ultimately went for his critically acclaimed Sandman graphic novels. For me, Sandman (and Neil Gaiman in general) represent that wildly imaginative, original, and eccentric part of Ravenclaw, much like Luna Lovegood. The Sandman comics are stories about stories. They’re not always linear, they’re not always easy to understand, but they’re always incredibly creative and interesting. The stories focus on Morpheus, the anthropomorphic personification of dreams, one of seven Endless, along with Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium–who was once Delight–and Destruction, and blend history, mythology, and horror.

Why should Ravenclaws read it?
The Sandman comics are unlike anything I’ve ever read before, and in that way represent the eccentricity and uniqueness of this house. Neil Gaiman’s brain is a fountain of original thought, which is perhaps at peak weirdness in Sandman. The series won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but it’s definitely worth checking out for the sheer imagination and creativity of the work.

Which Hogwarts house would you be in? And which books do you think represent your house?