Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Pink Chimneys by Ardeana Hamlin

Pink Chimneys could well be the quintessential “Maine” historic novel in that it describes life in the Bangor region in the early 1800s when the city was being developed as a primary port for shipping and other businesses. Originally released in 1987, Islandport Press has released the 30th-anniversary edition of Pink Chimneys with a new forward by the author, who states:

“I don’t know what has given Pink Chimneys its longevity, but I believe readers find in the story something that moves them, that makes them care about Maude, Fanny and Elizabeth…..Something in the story stirs in readers a sense of historical place, particularly as it concerns women and the Bangor region. Perhaps the story reveals to them how history flows around, away from, and toward us in a never-ending stream, inundating us whether we know it or not, in an aura of the past.”

Pink Chimneys is a timeless novel that is engrossing to read.

If Pink Chimneys were to be written today, it might well be considered a “feminist” novel in that all the main characters (Maude, Fanny and Elizabeth) are strong (or become strong) in the face of adversity living in the man’s world of the time. Maude, the only living child of a doctor, takes up midwifery (most babies were delivered by a midwife at the time) and is non-judgemental when it comes to rendering her services, even attending to the birth of illegitimate children.

Fanny, rather than turn to a life of prostitution when she finds herself pregnant by the man she loves, but who soon ships out leaving her destitute, allows herself to be a kept woman of a wealthy man, Joshua Stetson, who has plans to open a high-class brothel in Bangor (Pink Chimneys), setting Fanny up as the manager. She soon discovers she has good business sense and uses her money to invest in merchandising and property. Elizabeth, who is left without family and home when her aunt Mercy dies and the farm is sold, goes to Bangor (and catches the eye of Abner Giddings, the ship’s widower captain) to eventually become the in-house seamstress at Pink Chimneys.

The storyline is sprinkled with descriptive images of farms along the Penobscot as well as city life in Bangor with its large stately homes on Broadway as well as the seedy underside of the city in the waterfront area called Joppa. The real strength of the book (and likely its enduring appeal) lies in the story’s turns as well as its likeable characters and their abilities to endure and cope with life’s adversities and the consequences of the choices they have made. However, Pink Chimneys is not a hard, gritty novel, nor is it a romance novel either. Ms Hamlin manages to craft a good story, firmly based in history without resorting to detailed descriptions of what goes on up on the second floor at Pink Chimneys. Nor does she resort to affected wordings of love and romance. In doing so, she has written a timeless novel that was entertaining to read.

Currently, there are two sequels to Pink Chimneys: Abbott’s Reach (2011) and The Havener Sisters (2015), both from Islandport Press.
Pink Chimney house image by Patmcalex (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Pink Chimneys by Ardeana Hamlin will be released in Spring 2017.
Islandport Press

This article has been Digiproved © 2017 James Fisher
Acknowledgements: Ardeana Hamlin, Islandport Press
Some Rights Reserved  

Art Love Forgery by Carolyn Morgan

Newfoundlander Carolyn Morgan has published her first novel, Art Love Forgery (2016, Flanker Press) and fans of historical fiction and romance will certainly appreciate this fine book. It is based on a singular incident in nineteenth-century colonial Newfoundland history when Polish artist (and convicted forger) Alexander Pindikowsky was tasked with beautifying some of St. John’s most important buildings, including Government House, home to the colony’s Lieutenant Governor. Under armed guard, he works enthusiastically at his art which still can be viewed today (see image below).

Fans of historical fiction and romance will certainly appreciate this engaging, fast-paced novel.

It is while he is working there that Alexander encounters Ellen Dormody, a parlour maid. Ellen is entranced by the mysterious stranger with an even stranger accent (he pronounces her name “Alen”). Alexander, in turn, is taken by Ellen’s beauty and grace, as well as her interest in his work. Soon, with the help of his compassionate guard Kielly, the two are able to meet clandestinely for brief moments. Alexander wants to propose marriage, but not while he is incarcerated. Upon his release, he soon proposes, and they are wed, much to Ellen’s mother’s chagrin.

Ballroom ceiling, Government House

In time, Alexander realises that to do real work, to become famous, he needs to be in New York City where building after building is being erected as the city grows by leaps and bounds at the turn of the century. He goes on ahead, leaving Ellen and their young daughter Johanna behind while he gets himself established. Months later, Ellen still has not heard anything from her husband and she becomes worried for his safety (for he often works at great heights on scaffolding). Deciding she must act, she turns to her friend Sister Mary Angela at the Presentation Convent:

As soon as the door closed behind them, Sister Mary Angela looked at Ellen carefully. “You have something big on your mind, I think. Now, out with it. It won’t do you any good to keep it bottled up, you know.”
Ellen tried to keep her voice from quavering. “I haven’t heard from Alexander since he left almost four months ago. No one else knows. I told Mother that I’ve been receiving letters all along. I’ve become really good at making up the news from New York. I’m an expert on a place I’ve never been. I don’t understand what’s happened. I’m afraid he’s sick or hurt. You know when he’s creating his frescoes he has to work high up on scaffolding, and I’m afraid he’s injured or worse. I can’t stand not knowing any more. You have to help me. I love him so much.” It all came out in a rush, and now Ellen couldn’t keep back her tears. Sister Mary Angela wrapped her arms around her and patted her back, trying to soothe her.
“Enough now, my dear, dry your eyes and blow your nose,” she said, handing her a clean cotton handkerchief that she had pulled out of the pocket hidden in her robe. “I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation for why you haven’t heard from Alexander.”
“Everyone thinks he’s deserted me,” Ellen wailed. “They think he just married me because he wanted to look respectable after his prison sentence and that he was just biding his time, waiting for a chance to leave me and Johanna.” Her tears started flowing again.
“You’re wrong, you know, not everyone feels that way. No one who ever saw the two of you together could deny his love for you. And he’s besotted over Johanna. There must be some reason why his letters haven’t arrived. Maybe they’ll all come in a bunch.”
“Even if they do, it’s not enough. Not anymore. I’ve been like someone in a trance, looking after the baby and blocking out everything and everyone. Johanna and I must go to him. I have to find him, and that’s where I need your help. You have connections through the archdioceses in New York. When Alexander left he said he was going to try for work at the churches and convents. Would you make inquiries for me? If I knew where he last worked, I’m sure I could find him. I have enough money saved for passage to New York. Johanna and I need to be on the next ship going there. We need to be a family again. I will not wait any more.”

A well-written and engaging novel that was inspired by real historical people and events, Art Love Forgery will keep you turning pages as it moves briskly through the lives of the two lovers and their small St. John’s community.

Art Love Forgery by Carolyn Morgan
Flanker Press


Carolyn Morgan was born in St. John’s and has lived in the city most of her life. While she was teaching English at a local high school, her story “The Collector” was published in Canadian Living magazine (October 2001). Carolyn is a visual artist as well as a writer and teacher. Her interest in art and history inspired her to write Art Love Forgery, her first published novel.

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Desperation: The Queen of Swansea by Gary Collins

Master storyteller and prolific author Gary Collins hails from Newfoundland and his previous book, Left to Die concerned the tragic death of 78 seal hunters on an ice floe in 1914. For his eleventh book Desperation: The Queen of Swansea (2016, Flanker Press), Mr Collins has gone back to the year 1867 to interpret another tragic maritime event, the shipwreck of the brig Queen of Swansea on Gull Island and the eventual death of all crew and passengers, either aboard ship or on the barrenness of lonely Gull Island bereft of anything slightly edible or drinkable. Months later, the frozen bodies were discovered, some showing evidence of cannibalism.

“I loved this book; I could find no fault with it…Mr. Collins is clearly at the top of his storytelling game.”

Research for Desperation

I asked Mr. Collins about the type and extent of research he put into Desperation since the action sequences during the storms at sea were of the “you are there” vividness. I found myself figuratively holding my breath as I read the storm sequences; only letting out my breath when the chapter ended. His response was enlightening.

“The research for this one was a bit trying given the age of the event. Despite all the articles written about it – some of them written just days after the disaster was discovered, and still available to the searcher – I found accurate info was difficult to obtain. Also, the stories conflicted each other. I read everything available to me. I went to museums and read old newspaper accounts. I researched, again and again, weather accounts of that time frame – it was amazing what I found. The storms I tried to describe actually happened!”

Desperation starts off with the author enlisting the help of a relative to take a trip out to Gull Island so he could see for himself just where the wreck of the Queen occurred. He comments:

“The best aid for me was the trip out to the Gull Island. I could not write about it without going out there. I always try to get a ‘feel’ for my work. Tossed about on the sea below that ‘Dragon Rock’ did wonders for my imaginative journey back to that night of terror. I have a book of Nautical Terms which is well used. Trying to put myself aboard a Brigantine upon a sea in full spate took some effort. While I was writing the manuscript I went to sea in an open boat several times. When I write about the ocean I feel the endless, timeless, magnetism and the sweet mystery of it.”

One can readily sense Mr. Collin’s passion and dedication to writing so that the graphic realism of a storm at sea, as well as the desperate sufferings of the survivors atop the barren ground of Gull Island, is so distinct that it translates into some fascinating reading. There is a particularly interesting side trip into Newfoundland history in chapter 8. It succinctly relates the story of one William Epps (“Bill”) Cormack, who in 1822 became the first European to traverse the island. Along the way, he recorded everything: flora and fauna, minerals, timber resources. From Wikipedia:

“From his exploration, Cormack prepared an account of his travels, which was first published in England in 1824. Other versions of his travels were published in 1828 and 1856. He describes the interior with an accuracy no subsequent traveller has matched; his Narrative is the undisputed classic of Newfoundland travel. His botanical observations were the most important since those of Sir Joseph Banks in 1766. His account of the mineralogy and geology of the interior were important for the exploration by Joseph Beete Jukes in 1840.”

This side trip is relevant to the story since the Queen was on her way from St. John’s to load copper ore extracted from a fledgeling mine located in Tilt Cove. Newfoundland was no longer a coastal stopover for the cod fishermen, the British colony was moving on to utilizing its abundant natural resources, thanks in large part to the explorations of Bill Cormack.

Conclusion

I loved this book; I could find no fault with it, no low points, no extraneous material and certainly, no boring passages or ramblings. Mr. Collins is clearly at the top of his storytelling game. Also, I was pleased to see the term “Inspired by True Events” on the cover. As Mr. Collins mentioned, there was little accurate information to be found about this account, and of course, there were no survivors. Much if not all of the dialogue had to be invented as well as the backstories of the crew and passengers, making this what I call “fictionalized history” (as opposed to historical fiction in which a story occurs at a particular time in history). If you like your history straight up, recounting only the available recorded facts, then Mr. Collins’ books may not be for you, and in this case, there is not much to relate since the historical evidence is scanty. (It is not even known where all the bodies were buried.) However, I am comfortable with it as long as I know upfront that this is the approach the author is going to take.  Desperation: The Queen of Swansea is a true-life tragic story, exceptionally told by “the story man” of Newfoundland. Highly recommended for those that enjoy reading about maritime and nautical history.

Desperation: The Queen of Swansea won the 2017 “The Very Best!” Book Award for Historical Fiction.

Desperation: The Queen of Swansea by Gary Collins
Flanker Press

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Prisoner of Warren by Andreas Oertel

World War II Internment Camp B70, better known as Ripples Internment Camp is a little-known part of New Brunswick (and Atlantic Canada) history. Located near the mining town of Minto, the camp existed from 1940-45. Little of it exists today; a concrete structure that supported a wooden water tower is the only permanent part of the camp still there. There is a walking trail through the area where the camp existed, and the Minto town hall hosts a museum containing hundreds of camp artefacts.

“How could I sleep over here with a war prisoner right over there? All he had to do was stay awake long enough for us to fall asleep, and then he could kill us all – one at a time.”

When thirteen-year-old Warren Webb’s dad decides to hire Ripples prisoner-of-war Martin Keller to help out on their New Brunswick farm, Warren thinks that his father must be crazy to invite a Nazi into the house. To make matters worse, he is going to sleep in the same room as Warren! Who invites a Nazi to sleep under their roof? Warren and his friend Tom cook up a plan to kill Martin in his sleep:

Martin’s snoring continued.
So far, so good.
I picked up my pillow and stood.
His snoring guided me to his head. When I sensed I was near his bed, I began lifting the pillow with both hands, ready to press it over his face.
Suddenly, his snoring stopped. I froze.

Of course, Warren soon gives up on the idea of smothering Martin and thinks of other ways to kill the “enemy”. Eventually, working along with Martin in digging a septic pit, he comes to see Martin in a different light.

I found Prisoner of Warren to be humorous at first (did you get the title’s pun?), as Warren’s half-baked schemes to do away with Martin are cooked up. Soon, though, after an altercation with some local bullies, Martin and Warren join forces out of necessity and then truly bond as Martin teaches Warren how to sprint more effectively so he can perform his best at the upcoming provincial track meet. However, the bullies have other plans to extract retribution for their earlier humiliation at Warren’s hands, and that’s when the story really gets intense and you’ll soon be turning the pages at a fervent rate.
Written primarily for middle graders, Prison of Warren is thoroughly enjoyable and very wholesome reading for all ages.


Andreas Oertel was born in Germany but lived most of his life in Canada. He’s travelled all over the world and had a hundred different jobs — everything from rickshaw driver to health inspector — but his favourite occupation is writing.

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A Splendid Boy by Melanie Martin

Since it has been one hundred years since the Battle of the Somme in WWI, there have been numerous books produced, both fiction and non-fiction that deal with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and its heavy involvement in the Great War. A Splendid Boy (2016, Flanker Press) by Melanie Martin is a fine example of the type of historical fiction Flanker Press produces.

Synopsis

A Splendid War is about an adolescent love between a merchant’s daughter (Emma Tavenor) and a poor fisherman’s son (Daniel Beresford) that is torn apart by not only Emma’s father’s disapproval (with which he punishes Daniel’s father who is heavily in debt to him) but by the war, which Daniel uses as an excuse to make a clean break from Emma, for he has promised Mr. Tavenor to cease his association with Emma in return for absolving his father of his debts. Of course, Emma knows nothing of this, and once she finds out that Daniel has enlisted with some friends (but not knowing why he did so), is off to St. John’s in pursuit, hoping to try to convince him to stay. Missing him in St. John’s, she then tries to track him down overseas.

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A Well-researched Story

The book is exceptional for its depictions of the hardships of war in both Gallipoli and in Northern France for the Battle of the Somme. Ms. Martin has certainly researched this aspect of the war extensively to which she credits Frank Gogos, a member of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment advisory council, even making travels to England, France, Belgium and Turkey to visit various sites. Also significant is the spotlighting of the work that the women of the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) performed. Members of the VAD were typically upper-class women wanting to do their part for the war effort. They assisted nurses and often sat with dying soldiers, writing and reading letters for them and such. Emma, in an effort to track down Daniel volunteers for this service and even asks to get posted nearer the front so she can find Daniel, if he is still alive. Ms. Martin is especially adept at conveying the thoughts of a battle-hardened Daniel:

Daniel didn’t think anything could beat the horrors at Gallipoli. He’d never believed such a level of misery existed until they’d arrived at the Western Front. Hundreds died every day…eventually the dead would fade from living memory, but what was happening here on this land couldn’t easily be forgotten. One hundred years from now, the land would still bear the scars from the atrocities committed here, but would anyone remember the men who fought here?

In 1981, Daniel (as the last remaining soldier of the “first 500”) is invited to attend the 65th anniversary of the battle. He is taken on a tour of the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial in France. He needs no tour guide or map; the topography is indelibly etched in his mind. The memorial park ensures that the men who fought will be remembered.

Conclusion

The majority of this book is taken up by the events of WWI, both in Gallipoli and in Northern France, and it is book-ended by events occurring in 1981, leading up to the reunion in France. Their love story, while engaging, is secondary to the action. In fact, once the war is over, we really don’t know that much more about Daniel and Emma or how they spent the intervening 65 years.

I highly recommend the book solely for the realistic descriptions of Daniel’s and Emma’s overseas ordeals in WWI.

A Splendid Boy by Melanie Martin
Flanker Press

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Found Far and Wide by Kevin Major

Governor General Award-winning author Kevin Major has written a sweeping historical saga of under 300 pages; one that is easily worthy of two or three times that many. Found Far and Wide (2016, Breakwater Books) tells the story of Sam Kennedy from the outport village of Harbour Main where he lives with his father and sister (his mother died when he was very young) and his life’s adventures when he decides to strike out on his own, more or less to escape the tenuous life of a fisherman that his father has managed to eke out.

A Four Part Saga

Found Far and Wide consists of four parts, each one a different stage in young Sam Kennedy’s life; each part has a major historical event that Sam finds himself as a participant in. Part I finds Sam in the seal hunt aboard Abram Kean’s ship in the Newfoundland Sealing Disaster of 1914 (see Left to Die by Gary Collins). In Part II, Sam joins the Newfoundland Regiment and is heavily involved in the unsuccessful Gallipoli Campaign of the Great War. It is here that Johnny, a Labrador boy, shows Sam a picture of his girl who will haunt Sam from now on. Part III and Sam is working the high steel, building the skyscrapers of New York City along with other Newfoundlanders, Mohawks from Quebec and Americans. As it is during the time of Prohibition and Sam is off work due to a small rib injury he sustained in a fall, he hooks up with a rum-runner, making more money than he ever has before. Part IV finds Sam back in Newfoundland working for the Grenfell Mission and crosses paths with Italian Air Force General Italo Balbo (and his fleet of 24 water planes on a stop-over in Cartwright) and Charles Lindbergh (from whom he receives a punch in the head).

Stark, Yet Detailed

Found Far and Wide has a certain indefinable starkness to it, yet it is not devoid of details when it comes to describing the war in the Dardanelles, or how riveting steel beams is accomplished dozens of stories above ground, or what life in New York City was like in Prohibition days. However, it is this starkness that gives this book it’s ‘feel’ and at the same time mirrors Sam’s life as a poor fisherman in Harbour Main, as a killer of seals on the ice floes, a killer of Turks in the mud and filth of Gallipoli, or balancing on a steel beam high above New York. Usually devoid of money or any worldly possessions, the only time Sam has real money is from his rum-running:

Sam sat back, folded his arms, a drink in his hand and a smile across his face wider than any that had been there in months. There was big money to be made, and when he had enough he had big plans to set in motion.

Happiness, Sam believes, will be his when he meets up with Emma (Johnny’s girl) and surely she will marry him. This storyline takes up part IV of the book.

Conclusion

Overall, this was a great historical fiction read. Historical fiction has the value-added benefit of educating as well as entertaining, and Mr. Major has performed a masterful job of embedding Sam Kennedy in places and events that are certainly plausible for an adventurous young man living in the early days of the 20th century. My only knock against the story is that it is not entirely clear why Sam waits so long to look up Emma after returning from the war. Perhaps he wasn’t ready to return to Newfoundland yet? Also, it would have been advantageous to have a little more of Emma’s story fleshed out before she makes an actual appearance in Part IV. What were her thoughts at the time about Johnny’s heroic death in a war halfway around the world? Might she have been more open to Sam’s attention had he not waited? These are questions the reader is left to answer based on what we know about Emma years later. As I mentioned at the outset, Found Far and Wide could easily have been much longer and still would be a great read. Mr. Major has left us wanting more, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

*Please note if you choose to purchase this book through Amazon using the link below I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. If you cannot see the Amazon ad below (if you are using an ad blocker, for instance) here is the link: https://amzn.to/2RriSrq Thanks!

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The Glory Wind & Rain Shadow by Valerie Sherrard

Miramichi’s resident young people’s author Valerie Sherrard has had many of her books shortlisted and awarded in various categories, and these two novels are no exception. The Glory Wind (2010, Fitzhenry & Whiteside) aside from being on several shortlists, was the winner of the 2011 Geoffrey Bilson Historical Fiction for Young People Award as well as Winner of the 2011 Ann Connor Brimer Award.

Rain Shadow (2014, Fitzhenry and Whiteside) is, at this writing, on no less than four shortlists: three for 2016 and one from 2015. You know you are in for some good reading with Ms. Sherrard’s books! I am reviewing these middle-grade reader books together since they both take place in the fictional town of Junction, Manitoba in the mid 1940s, and Rain Shadow compliments some of the story lines in The Glory Wind, so for the most emotional impact, The Glory Wind should be read first, but this is by no means a requirement.

The Glory Wind

The town of Junction, Manitoba in the post WWII years is not a very exciting place to live for young Luke Haliwell. That is, until he happens upon the spunky, curly-haired Gracie playing in his field. Her and her mother Raeline had just moved in to the old Sharpe place. They soon become fast summer friends and the friendship continues on into school, where Gracie is instantly popular with the other girls. Then, a confluence of circumstances serve to bring Gracie’s and her mother’s world crashing down. Now, Luke is conflicted as to do what he knows is right, yet stay loyal to his friendship with Gracie and his budding love for her.

“I am sometimes drawn to open-ended stories because they are closer to real life than those which wrap things up tidily at the end. I find the characters and themes remain with you from stories that leave you with unanswered questions. I know that is not a popular approach for some readers, but I have to be true to the voice of each story.”

Valerie Sherrard

Told through the voice of Luke, we get a mature young person’s view of his family, his friends, his new emotions for Gracie and dealing with controversy. There are underlying themes of acceptance and tolerance, social stigmas, plus some great characters, such as Carmella Tait who serve as an emotional anchor, or touchstone for Luke and Gracie. While some may see the ending as a little disappointing (I know I did), but the more I thought about it, the more I was able to see the message behind it. It certainly left in me a need for closure (see “A Few Words From the Author” below), and I found it in Rain Shadow. So there is another good reason for reading both books together!

Rain Shadow

Junction, Manitoba a couple of years after the events of The Glory Wind is not much of a changed place. It is the late 1940’s and we see the world through a very different set of eyes: that of Bethany Anderson, a physically and mentally challenged twelve-year-old girl. Her perspective is special and Ms. Sherrard excels at relating Bethany’s perception or interpretation of things that she hears adults, particularly her mother, say: “Sometimes a small thing I did wrong was the last straw. (That is not a straw for drinking. It is a kind of straw that gets put on a camels when children disobey.)”

Bethany’s mother is not that tolerant of her limitations, and is proudest of her other daughter Mira who is fourteen and very popular at school. Bethany’s father is the stable, grounded adult in this story (and Carmella Tait and Luke Haliwell are back as well) and always builds Bethany up, telling her that she can become whatever she wants. “Bethany, I think you might surprise a few folks someday” he prophetically tells her.

Tragedy visits Junction in the form of the dreadful disease of Polio (the vaccine not having been discovered yet). This leads to various conflicts, for both the afflicted and their caregivers and survivors. Several times I was moved to tears, both happy and sad, as Bethany relates her ever-changing world to us, and grows ever stronger herself with proper support and encouragement.

A Few Words From the Author

With the author, Miramichi 2016

I asked Ms. Sherrard if, after writing The Glory Wind, she felt a need to revisit Junction Manitoba. I professed to her that I felt the need (via the character Luke) for some type of closure. She kindly took some time out of her busy schedule to respond:

 The Glory Wind  is the kind of story where there really can never be closure, at least not with respect to what happened to Gracie. It is not uncommon for situations and circumstances to occur where we never have an answer or real understanding of what exactly happened, or why. In that sense, there is nothing in Rain Shadow that offers clarity – although revisiting some of the characters from The Glory Wind in the companion story (not a sequel) may be of some value to readers who know the characters in both stories.

I am sometimes drawn to open-ended stories because they are closer to real life than those which wrap things up tidily at the end. I find the characters and themes remain with you from stories that leave you with unanswered questions. I know that is not a popular approach for some readers, but I have to be true to the voice of each story.

It had never been my intention to write a second story set in Junction and I was actually quite surprised when Bethany’s character began to take form and I realized I had more to tell about the residents of this fictional location.

Of the 25 books I have had published thus far, I have felt the closest connections with the characters and events in these two novels.

Conclusion

I find Valerie Sherrard’s books are written just as much for adults as for mature young readers (male or female). The stories are engrossing and well-conceived. There is also a certain wholesomeness to them that makes them all that more enjoyable and satisfying to read. More importantly, her books contain important life lessons, which, sadly, a lot of adult fiction lacks. I highly recommend reading both books; I am sure you or your middle-grade reader will not be disappointed.


This article has been Digiproved © 2016 James FisherSome Rights Reserved  

This Marlowe by Michelle Butler Hallett

“Treachery and treason, there’s always an excuse for it.” – Mark Knopfler

Queen Elizabeth I

Such is the world of This Marlowe (Goose Lane Editions 2016) by Michelle Butler Haslett. The time: Elizabethan England in 1593. The Reformation is passed, but protestant England cannot relax, fearful that Catholics will try to take the throne after Elizabeth dies (or is assassinated), since she has no successor. Due to this fact, the Queen keeps trusted advisers close to her whose role is to gather intelligence as they fear for the Queen’s life at every turn. Kit Marlowe is an agent working under the direction of Sir Robert Cecil. Sir Robert’s rival is the Earl of Essex, and there no love lost between them, despite having grown up together in the same house. It is an environment of distrust all around as old allegiances are questioned, as well as one’s faith. While Kit is recuperating from a life-threatening case of pneumonia at the country estate of Sir Thomas Walsingham, a web of treacheries is unfolding in London. Essex’s reach is not short, and soon Kit knows he must return to London to do what he can to save his imprisoned friend Thomas Kyd and face up to his past wrongs, all the while trying to stay loyal to Queen and country (or appearing to do so).

“My best agent, this Marlowe, or just my favourite?”

Sir Robert Cecil

Historically Based Novel

Ms. Butler Hallett has ingeniously mined English history to put all these characters in plausible situations and has created some very realistic dialogue to flesh out the story. For example, Christopher Marlowe was an Elizabethan playwright who, upon his mysterious death was superseded by Shakespeare. Thomas Kyd was also a playwright and contemporary of Marlowe, even having shared a room at one point. It is from countless details such as these that a well-crafted story materializes. So well crafted that, aside from the dialogues, this could well be a history book. The dialogues, which can get quite fervent at times, particularly those between Marlowe and Walsingham and those between Kyd and his Examiner Izaak Pinder while in Bridewell prison are very moving and thrilling to read.

She also excels when describing the filth of London, its streets, its slums, its prisons.  Such a squalid place makes an excellent backdrop for creating an atmosphere of dread and mistrust, not only for the cast of the novel but for the reader too.

Conclusion

This is a masterful work of historical fiction, beginning with the cover (look close to see the eyes and ears embroidered on Queen Elizabeth’s robe) to the printed pages. The text (in particular the conversations) may deter some readers at first; it is very much like a Shakespearean style of English but once you get used to this type of approach, you’ll be able to follow the story, which assuredly has all the intrigue of a modern spy thriller.

This Marlowe was the co-winner in the fiction category for a “Very Best” award of 2016!

*Please note if you choose to purchase the book through Amazon using the link below I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks!

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Algonquin Quest Series Books One and Two by Rick Revelle

Kingston (Ontario) area author Rick Revelle has authored two books now in his Algonquin Quest series, I am Algonquin (2013, Dundurn Press) and Algonquin Spring (2015, Dundurn Press). While they are in the Young Adult (YA) genre, they are very mature in tone, and I was totally engrossed in them. In fact, by the middle of Book One, I was greatly anticipating Book Two which I had waiting on the shelf. I don’t recall ever reading such exciting Aboriginal action scenes since The Last of the Mohicans, which says a lot since James Fenimore Cooper is one of my favourite authors.

These novels mix the straightforward storytelling of C.S. Forester’s Hornblower saga with the historical accuracy of Patrick O’Brian’s Captain Aubrey novels.

I am Algonquin

It is the fourteenth century in what is now Ontario and we are introduced to Mahingan, an Algonquin warrior living the traditional Algonquin way of life. The author himself is a member of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation and he has rigorously researched the way First Nations lived and fought in those pre-contact times. In fact, in a recent interview with the author, The Kingston Whig Standard stated: “He [the author] figures that, for every chapter, he spent five hours poring through archives or talking with experts about the minutiae of life back in the 1300s, when the books are set.” Indeed, as you read the books, there is a very realistic feel to the scenes and a sense of just how Aboriginal people lived so close to the land, dealt with seasonal changes as well as ever-present danger to their existence as a nation.The warrior Mahingan states in Book One: “We were constantly struggling to have enough to eat and always battling the elements to stay warm or dry. Add the constant threat of our enemies and it was a life of never-ending vigilance.”

That pretty much sets the tone for the book. The Algonquin have winter and summer camps they need to move between. The Algonquins are semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, unlike their friends the Hurons who grow the Three Sisters (corn, beans and squash) and live in a permanent encampment. Their search for food sometimes takes them into enemy (Iroquois) territory so they are constantly on the lookout. There are lighter moments, however, such as a lacrosse game between the Nippissing and the Algonquins as well as a cross-country footrace that leads to a peace pact between the Algonquins and Nippissing (whose enemy are also the Iroquois). A great forest fire leads to the necessary evacuation of Mahingan’s people to a small island. Here they appear defenceless to the Iroquois and this leads to the climactic battle resulting in the events that carry over into Algonquin Spring.

Algonquin Spring

Book Two takes place six years after the events that occurred at the end of Book One. If I thought I am Algonquin was good, Algonquin Spring was twice as good from the action and adventure perspective. While all our Algonquin friends are back in this book, the focus is not so much on Mahingan and his people as it is on expanding the book’s scope to other First Nations people living to the east of present-day Ontario. As such, the Innu (Quebec-Labrador area),  Maliseet (or Malicite, St.John River valley) and Mi’kmaq (Atlantic provinces, Gaspe Peninsula) and Beothuk (Newfoundland) all make an appearance. Even the Vikings show up to get the action rolling in chapter one. It is truly ingenious how Mr Revelle gets all these diverse groups to converge towards the climax when these allies of the Algonquins meet up with their enemy, the Iroquois, who have teamed up with their allies, the Stadaconas and the Hochelagans.

Conclusion

I have deliberately refrained from telling too much about the main characters and the story lines as I don’t want to create any ‘spoilers’ for the reader and ruin the sheer fun of reading these books. I mentioned The Last of the Mohicans in the introduction, but these novels also remind me of the straightforward storytelling of C.S. Forester’s Hornblower saga mixed with the historical accuracy of Patrick O’Brian’s Captain Aubrey novels. You will definitely learn a lot about Aboriginal life from reading the Algonquin Quest novels. Everything from making traditional medicine, to how they made their weapons, how they conducted warfare to how they used every part of an animal they killed. Some may find the details of their lifestyle a little too graphic, but they are included for veracity, not mere shock value.

These two books will be enjoyed by a YA reader as well as those of us who enjoy a well-told story with plenty of adventure and fast-paced action. I highly recommend these novels, and you can get both bundled (as Kindle eBooks) from Amazon.ca for a great price. Print editions are also available.

I am Algonquin
Algonquin Spring
Dundurn Press


This article has been Digiproved © 2015-2017 James FisherSome Rights Reserved  

Grist by Linda Little

Back in High School English class, we had to read Margaret Laurence’s A Jest of God, which I did enjoy reading, although looking back it might have been too mature a book for teenagers to study in depth. At any rate, any book with a strong and overburdened female living back in the late 1800s/early 1900s is fated to be compared with her beleaguered Manawaka heroines. So it goes with Grist (2014, Roseway Publishing) by Linda Little which tells the story of Penelope McCabe, a single schoolteacher who marries a miller, only to find out that Ewan MacLaughlin is not the man he appears to be: “I married Ewan MacLaughlin of my own free will…As time would tell, Ewan was not a kind man.”

Synopsis

Penelope, who, at age 30 is happy with her life as a school teacher (‘settled in snugly’), is introduced to the miller Ewan MacLaughlin by his younger brother, the Reverend Robert MacLaughlin with whom Penelope is boarding. Shy and awkward, Ewan reminds her of her own father, and soon she finds herself the attention of Ewan’s affections. Ewan tells her: “A woman has her business at home. A woman must have sense.” To which Penelope muses:

He did not want the young and pretty. He wanted me. What more did I need to know? For all my supposed sensible-headedness, it was this vanity that sealed my fate.

Ewan has found the strong, stable woman he wants for a wife and they soon wed, the year being 1875. Penelope is enthralled by the home Ewan has built, and by his plans to build a new mill at Gunn Brook. Ewan himself is a self-taught engineer and his mill is designed to be run easily and productively. Ewan is hoping that Penelope produces sons for him to work in the mill and carry on the trade after he is gone. Unfortunately, Penelope remains barren for several years, but finally has a child, a daughter. Due to Ewan’s keen engineering skills, other mill owners around the provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are soon employing him to improve their operations, which Ewan obliging does, to Penelope’s chagrin. It is due to these extended absences that Penelope out of necessity becomes proficient at operating the mill, although it is no place for a respectable woman in that day and age.

“My whole life was the same: untenable, yet unavoidable.” – Penelope

Penelope and Ewan

As mentioned previously, Penelope is a strong female protagonist, along the lines of James Fennimore Cooper’s female characters: educated and strong willed for their time (often stronger emotionally than some of the male characters), but just this side of being considered feminists. Penelope is being gracious when she says of Ewan that he is not a ‘kind’ man (despite his earnest bedtime prayers and overly strict Christian beliefs): he forbids conversation at the table and considers her a ‘lazy’ woman because she does not rise at the first light of dawn as he does. While he is never physically abusive to her, he lacks in any type of demonstrative love, other than what is necessary to produce that vital first son.

In Chapter Five, we discover more of Ewan’s background, and by doing so, we get to understand him more as a man, yet it does not excuse his maltreatment of Penelope over the years. The chapters dealing with Penelope are told in the first person (in actuality to her granddaughter), the chapters about Ewan are in the third person, since Penelope does not really know Ewan’s history until much later in the book.

Conclusion

I really enjoyed reading this book; more than I thought I would in fact. There are several reasons for saying this: first, the historical setting of a small town backwater in Nova Scotia (although it could be set in any place in Canada with a grain mill), secondly for the way the story is told. It jumps right into the brief courtship of Ewan and Penelope, then gets right into the marriage, so we are swept along with Penelope as she experiences all the changes in her life. As well, we get to see Ewan’s side of things, so much so that we do not totally dislike him (as Penelope herself does not) but neither do we side with him 100% as we are compelled to do with Penelope.

The author, Linda Little tells an epic story within 230 pages, and for this she is to be commended. It could easily have encompassed many more pages, but she was able to pare it down to a swift-moving yet engrossing read that tells a complete story without getting wallowed down in details. I especially appreciated the detailed explanations about the parts of a mill and the requirements to have them all work in harmony; it makes one appreciate the genius of Ewan MacLaughlin all the more so. I looked up the term “grist’ in Wikipedia and this was part of the explanation: “A miller ground whatever grain was brought to him, and charged a portion of the final product for the service.” All of the main characters in Grist pay a heavy portion of their lives to exist and remain strong despite what life has ground out for them. I will say that Grist is a great Canadian novel, and not to be overlooked nor quickly forgotten.

Grist by Linda Little
Roseway Publishing

This article has been Digiproved © 2015-2017 James FisherSome Rights Reserved  

Formac’s Fiction Treasures Series

This week I received two novels in the Formac Fiction Treasure series: Under Sealed Orders by H.A. Cody and A Changed Heart by May Agnes Fleming.

Formac’s site explains the need for reprinting these all-but-forgotten classics from Canada’s past:

Though little known today, from 1860 to 1940 Canadian novelists from the Maritime provinces were writing highly successful books which were widely read in Canada, the US, and Britain. Although today only Lucy Maud Montgomery is remembered and read, there were several dozen writers who enjoyed the same level of success and renown.

In 2001, Canadian literature specialist Gwen Davies and Formac publisher James Lorimer set out to republish books by these largely forgotten Maritime authors. Readers can now discover 35 of their novels, all reprinted in Formac’s Fiction Treasures series.  As Gwen Davies notes,

The Formac Fiction Treasures series is aimed at offering contemporary readers access to books that were successful, often huge best-sellers in their time, but which are now little known and often hard to find.”

As I write this, I am enjoying Under Sealed Orders, a book published in 1917 and much in the style of Anne of Green Gables: lots of kind-hearted people, a few unscrupulous ones, and a mystery thrown in to keep you guessing up to the end. I look forward to reading more of the books in this series.

This article has been Digiproved © 2015 James FisherSome Rights Reserved  

Oatcakes and Courage by Joyce Grant-Smith

Oatcakes and Courage (2013, Quattro) by Joyce Grant-Smith was the 2013 co-winner of the Ken Klonsky Novella Contest. It’s 125 pages are filled with the tense, realistic story of a small ship (the Hector) of Scottish migrants bound for Pictou, Nova Scotia in 1773.

Synopsis

Among the passengers is Anne Grant, who is escaping a marriage arranged by her father to a man she does not love or is even attracted to. In fact, she is repelled by the man. Aiding her in her escape is Ian MacLeod, Anne’s life-long friend who has already booked passage for himself on the Hector in order to start a new life in Canada. Anne pleads with Ian to take her along on the passage, and Ian, seeing her determination, and feeling sorry her plight if she stays, reluctantly agrees. Under cover of darkness, they leave their homes to make the long walk to Ullapool, where the Hector is at anchor. Along the way, they are pursued by the ‘thin rider’ a mysterious man on horseback presumably sent by Anne’s father to track her down and get her married. Avoiding him, they manage to secure passage for Anne, who poses as Ian’s newlywed wife.

A Novella That Should Have Been a Novel?

This novella really excels at describing the close, inadequate and practically inhumane living conditions for the passengers aboard the Hector:

Anne pressed her way through the many bodies to her bunk.The ever-present stench of sweat and fear and human effluent hung heavily in the cramped space.

They are packed in to maximize the most monetary gain for the ship’s owner. Many prefer to live and sleep on deck, avoiding the horrid conditions below. Of course, situations like this breed disease and dysentery and smallpox outbreaks occur, affecting the young ones the most. Soon, Anne is pressed into helping other destitute wives and mothers care for their children. There are many deaths along the way to make matters worse. The narratives and dialogues during this time kept me riveted to the story. The terrible conditions on board the Hector (which turns out to be a leaky, rotten ship) and a sudden storm that blows the ship off course keep the realism of the migrant’s plight to the fore and you will find yourself relieved when, along with the passengers, land is finally sighted.

Disappointingly, this novella feels like only half a story. So much of the novella is spent at sea, that it would have been nice to see what happens when the immigrants reach terra firma. For instance, did the ‘thin rider’ give up in his pursuance of Anne, or did he follow her to the New World? Perhaps a sequel is in the works? One can only hope so.

At any rate, a well-told story and Joyce Grant-Smith is a Canadian writer to watch.

 

This article has been Digiproved © 2015 James FisherSome Rights Reserved  

Three Million Acres of Flame by Valerie Sherrard

Three Million Acres of Flame (2007, Dundurn Press) is a historical novel by Miramichi author Valerie Sherrard. It tells the story of young Skye Haverill and her family and friends against the backdrop of the Great Miramichi Fire of 1825, one of the largest forest fires ever recorded in North American history.

Synopsis

Fourteen year old Skye Haverill and her family are living near Newcastle, on the north side of the Miramichi River when, on October 7th, a large forest fire advances on the community overtaking homes, livestock and humans as the extremely dry conditions that summer assist in the rapid spread of the fire. The only escape is to the Miramichi River itself, a natural fire barrier protecting Chatham (on the south side of the river) from being devastated as well. The survivors are taken across the river by the kind folks of Chatham who take them into their homes and supply them with clothing and other necessities, since most only escaped with their clothes on their back that day. The story follows the Haverill family and their friends as they are taken in by complete strangers in Chatham, try to rebuild their lives and find love ones that are still missing, and all the while dealing with losses, both material and physical.

An Educational and Enjoyable Read

Recently, in the Western provinces of Canada there have been many wildfires destroying not only forests, but displacing residents and damaging property. The difference between the threat of fire today and back in 1825 is one of communication. Today, fires can be tracked, fought by planes in the sky and trained firefighters on the ground. Back in 1825, the only way to spread news was by word of mouth, or a messenger on horseback travelling from one isolated community to the next over poor roads. There was no telephone, telegraph or radio available to warn others of an impending disaster. Hence, the fire was upon them almost before they realized it. Ms. Sherrard (who is primarily writes Young Adult novels) recreates in words what it must have been like to experience the fear of fire, the flight to the river and the horrible aftermath: the charred ruins of homes, bodies of animals and livestock, and sadly, loved ones and fellow townsfolk:

“Everywhere, hacking coughs and laboured breathing could be heard, together with the sizzling, snapping sounds of the dying fire. Skye choked as she breathed in the soot and acrid odour that was impossible to escape. The overpowering smells of burnt wood and flesh sickened her and, like many others, she found herself retching, although her stomach had nothing to yield.”

While this book may be catalogued as a “young adult” novel, it is mature enough in voice to be enjoyed by an adult reader. Ms. Sherrard’s vivid descriptions of the scenes of the aftermath are just graphic enough (and not merely included for shock value} so that we can understand what it must have been like to be there. However, balanced against the hardships is the seemingly unlimited generosity of the Chatham townspeople who took the survivors in and cared for their needs for as long as necessary until word was spread to other communities and the larger cities of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and PEI who readily responded to the call for assistance.

Conclusion

Perhaps because of the early time period, there is not a lot of printed material on this event in Canadian history. Ms. Sherrard has performed a great service in writing this book, and she includes a very informative, fact-filled author’s note at the end of the story. Overall, a book with a realistic story (like “Little House on the Prairie” with a little bit of “Anne of Green Gables”) set against a tragic natural disaster in Canada’s past.

This article has been Digiproved © 2015 James FisherSome Rights Reserved