Genre: Adult

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{Review} Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

November 5, 2014 Review 2 ★★★★★

{Review} Station Eleven by Emily St. John MandelStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Published by HarperCollins on September 9, 2014
Genres: Adult, Contemporary, Science Fiction
Pages: 352
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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An audacious, darkly glittering novel about art, fame and ambition set in the eerie days of civilization's collapse, from the author of three highly acclaimed previous novels.

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time-from the actor's early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theatre troupe known as the Travelling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains-this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor's first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame and the beauty of the world as we know it.

I recently picked this up for an assignment on Canadian literature. I’d read numerous positive reviews – from JamieHannahKaren, and Blair – so I was really looking forward to this book. While literary science fiction is not a favorite genre of mine, the dazzling reviews were enough to sway me. Station Eleven is about a lethal flu epidemic that plagues our world and the ensuing aftermath. The narrative focuses on several characters each related, in some way, to a famous Hollywood actor who dies onstage during a production of “King Lear” in the opening pages. In an interview with the New York Times, Mandel said, “I wanted to write a love letter to the modern world, and a way to write about all these things we take for granted was to write about their absence.” I was pleasantly surprised by this insightful look into our world, our culture, and our humanity.

Part of what made this book so rich for me was how well Mandel developed a response to what exactly happens when 99% of the world’s population dies from an influenza epidemic. It’s about resilience, of the body, of the mind, and of the heart. I loved the multiple narratives in this book because it demonstrates so well how many different reactions are possible. A recurrent theme is that survival is not enough, and while Mandel writes characters who embody this concept, there are others who aren’t as mentally resilient.

These characters, though – they’re insanely realistic. I LOVE THEM. I ached for them. Their stories felt so tragic but so beautifully expressed. However, I don’t think there’s any way to explain these characters or their plots without ruining it all. Part of the enchantment of this book is the suspense: you don’t know how everything links together, and it seems to take forever to figure it out, but you do eventually.

The narrative has a wonderful sense of self-consciousness. You always have a sense of where you are currently in the timeline of the novel (which is long). I love this passage, which really exemplifies what I’m trying to describe:

“standing on a stool on his wondrously functional pre-Libya legs, the bullet that would sever his spinal cord still twenty-five years away but already approaching: a woman giving birth to a child who will someday pull the trigger on a gun, a designer sketching the weapon or its precursor, a dictator making a decision that will spark in the fullness of time into the conflagration that Frank will go overseas to cover for Reuters, the pieces of a pattern drifting closer together.”

We jump around from the moment the epidemic was unfolding and 20+ years after it happened, as well as a few memories from way before the epidemic. It really conveys a sense of shock when you go from completely normal – like our current world – to complete devastation and craziness. Super, super scary. I love when Mandel described the world 20+ years out, though, because it was so interesting to compare people who’s attitudes and experiences are so similar to mine, to a generation who grows up without any of the “modern conveniences” we are accustomed to (i.e. electricity, plumbing, gasoline, Internet).

For me, this book ticked every box: while the pacing is slower, it’s elegant and unique, and the characters and plot are expressed beautifully. Mandel is a wonderful storyteller. Her writing demonstrates that she put a lot of thought into the story, and it is completely controlled. That is the mark of an extremely talented writer; she knows everything but isn’t overhanded by revealing it all at once. If you enjoy books with interesting characters and emotional narratives, this one’s for you.

Collected Quotations

“‘It’s like the corporate world’s full of ghosts. And actually, let me revise that, my parents are in academia so I’ve had front-row seats for that horror show, I know academia’s no different, so maybe a fairer way of putting this would be to say that adulthood’s full of ghosts. . . . I’m talking about these people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed. Do you know what I mean? They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped. Dan’s like that. . . . You probably encounter people like him all the time. High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.'”

“Hell is the absence of the people you long for.”

“Something I’ve been thinking about, which will sound harsh and I’m sorry: you said you’d always be my friend but you’re not, actually, are you? I’ve only realized that recently. You don’t have any interest in my life. This is going to seem bitter but I don’t mean it that way, V., I’m just stating a fact here: you’ll only ever call me if I call you first. Have you noticed that? If I call and leave a message you’ll call me back, but you will never call me first. And I think that’s kind of a horrible thing, V., when you’re supposed to be someone’s friend. I always come to you. You always say you’re my friend but you’ll never come to me and I think I have to stop listening to your words, V., and take stock instead in your actions. My friend C. thinks my expectations of friendship are too high but I don’t think he’s right.”

“Survival is insufficient.”

5 Stars

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{Review} The Woefield Poultry Collective by Susan Juby

September 8, 2014 Review 0 ★★★★

{Review} The Woefield Poultry Collective by Susan JubyThe Woefield Poultry Collective by Susan Juby
Published by HarperCollins on March 8, 2011
Genres: Adult, Contemporary
Pages: 336
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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Woefield Farm is a sprawling thirty acres of scrub land, complete with dilapidated buildings and one half-sheared, lonely sheep named Bertie. It's "run" - in the loosest possible sense of the word - by Prudence Burns, an energetic, well-intentioned 20-something New Yorker full of back-to-the-land ideals, but without an iota of related skills or experience. Prudence, who inherited the farm from her uncle, soon discovers that the bank is about to foreclose on the property, which means that she has to turn things around, fast. But fear not! She'll be assisted by Earl, a spry 70-something, banjo-playing foreman, with a distrust of newfangled ideas and a substantial family secret; Seth, the alcoholic, celebrity-blogging guy-next-door, who hasn't left the house since a scandal with his high-school drama teacher; and Sara Spratt, a highly organized eleven-year-old looking for a home for her prize-winning chickens, including one particularly randy fellow soon to be christened Alec Baldwin.
Some Brief Thoughts

Oh, man. THIS BOOK. I don’t even know how to begin to explain it. First things first, the best thing about this book is the characters. Their special brand of hilarity reminds me a little bit of The Big Bang Theory – like, hilarious, but they’re not trying to be funny. They aren’t “nerds” like the show, instead they are a crazy cast of misfits… there is Earl, an old guy with his eye on retirement, who is a farmhand with basically no farming skills. There’s Seth, who is an irritating, sloppy blogger who is incredibly self-centered and conceited – but as he is forced to work on the farm, his character development is truly amazing. I was rooting for him in the end, which is NOT something I thought I’d be saying when I first opened the book! There’s Sara, who is also annoying, but in a much more endearing way; she only wants the best for her prize-winning chickens and is determined to get it from the folks at Woefield. And finally, Prudence… so sweet, hard-working, and determined, she’s a city girl and a “retired” writer who wants to make it on a farm. She reminded me so much of myself – her ideals, not necessarily her personality – and it was hilarious to see her try to make it all work.

Which is, essentially, the whole kit and caboodle of this book. Prudence wants to make the farm into a utopian land that is sustainable and profitable, but all she has for help are Earl, Seth, and Sara… which leave something to be desired. Each of these characters is prone to hair-brained ideas, and the best part is seeing how they turn out. You just never know, and I can honestly say EVERY “solution” had me busting my gut and shaking my head in wonderment.

Part of that is the animals – Woefield is pretty pathetic, especially at first, and all they have for animals are Bertie the sheep and Sara’s chickens. But holy cow, do they ever get up to some crazy shenanigans with these animals. You would think it would be pretty easy to take care of one sheep, but Earl and Seth show that is not the case….

There’s also a hunky guy, which in my opinion never hurts. BUT my favourite thing about this hunky guy is that, while I was rooting for him and Prudence to get together, HIS role, from his perspective, was about saving the animals at Woefield. (He’s a vet… even better.) He’s concerned about Bertie the sheep, not Prudence – and I love that he’s not playing her white knight.

Other things I loved: the farm life (I love farms), the fact that it’s in Canada, the grumpy characters yet the way they’re totally endearing, and the constant laughing out loud. I can’t even begin to describe the humour. I’ve tried to include some of the funniest quotes I could pull below, but I don’t know if just a few lines will accurately convey the situation. It is one of the funniest books I can ever remember reading, and if you are in need of something light, fun, and wholly entertaining, this should definitely be next on your list!

A few notes: This book was published in the US under the title Home to Woefield. Also, both Earl and Seth like to swear a lot, so this book is definitely at least a PG-13.

Collected Quotations

“My heart kind of hurt when I looked at her. Not because I was in love, but because I could tell from looking at her that she didn’t hate herself. Not only didn’t she seem to hate herself, she barely seemed to think about herself. How fucking glorious must that be?”

“It’s been a pretty tough day,” he said. “No sense making it worse with a salad.”

“The old man kept going about how he could never keep her home, how she loved to roam. He said she should have been a sheep in the foothills of Scotland. Now if that wasn’t a load of shit I don’t know what is. I’ll tell you why that sheep roamed. The fences around here was held up with goddamn binder twine and half-assed prayers. That’s why.”

“I think Prudence is one of the busiest people who ever lived. Probably only God and Jesus and the devil are more busy than Prudence.”

4 Stars

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{Review} I Shall Be Near To You by Erin Lindsay McCabe

September 2, 2014 Review 0 ★★★★½

{Review} I Shall Be Near To You by Erin Lindsay McCabeI Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe
Published by Crown Publishing Group on January 28, 2014
Genres: Adult, Historical Fiction, Romance
Pages: 336
Format: Hardcover
Source: Author
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An extraordinary novel about a strong-willed woman who disguises herself as a man in order to fight beside her husband, inspired by the letters of a remarkable female soldier who fought in the Civil War. 

Rosetta doesn't want her new husband Jeremiah to enlist, but he joins up, hoping to make enough money that they'll be able to afford their own farm someday. Though she's always worked by her father’s side as the son he never had, now that Rosetta is a wife she's told her place is inside with the other women. But Rosetta decides her true place is with Jeremiah, no matter what that means, and to be with him she cuts off her hair, hems an old pair of his pants, and signs up as a Union soldier.   With the army desperate for recruits, Rosetta has no trouble volunteering, although she faces an incredulous husband. She drills with the men, proves she can be as good a soldier as anyone, and deals with the tension as her husband comes to grips with having a fighting wife. Rosetta's strong will clashes with Jeremiah's while their marriage is tested by broken conventions, constant danger, and war, and she fears discovery of her secret even as they fight for their future, and for their lives.

Inspired by more than 250 documented accounts of the women who fought in the Civil War while disguised as men, I Shall Be Near To You is the intimate story, in Rosetta’s powerful and gorgeous voice, of the drama of marriage, one woman’s amazing exploits, and the tender love story that can unfold when two partners face life’s challenges side by side.From the Hardcover edition.

Disclosure:I received this book for free from Author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Cover Talk

love it! I think you can tell that it is historical fiction, if not historical romance, from the cover. It’s an actual photograph of a disguised female Civil War soldier. You can’t see in the photo, but the spine also makes use of an old map, and is absolutely gorgeous. The book releases today in paperback, and while the cover has a different feel to it, I still love it (especially the blue dress!).

My Expectations

I first heard of this book through Cassie’s Just Read This feature. Being interested in gender issues, feminism and history I thought the book would definitely hold my interest! Then I read Hannah’s review and I just knew I had to read it! When the author, Erin Lindsay McCabe (who, I must say, is absolutely lovely!), contacted me and asked if I’d like to review her book, I jumped at the chance.

My Thoughts

Wow. As longtime readers know, I’m not actually a huuuge fan of historical romances (really, romances in general, unless they avoid many of the genre’s tropes).  I am, however, a big historical fiction fan, and I Shall Be Near To You is definitely one of my new favourites. I just know I’ll be recommending it to everyone that I can (and I’m already on a mission to get Katy to read it, hehe!).

At the start of I Shall Be Near To You the Civil War has broken out, and Rosetta has just married the love of her life, Jeremiah. Much to her dismay, Jeremiah sees it as his duty to enlist in the army along with his friends just weeks after their wedding. Not one to adhere to gender roles (she does hard labour on her father’s farm, and has no interest in mending shirts and doing dishes), Rosetta sets out to join Jeremiah at the forefront, fashioning herself a new identity as Ross, and hoping that once the war is over, the two of them can purchase their own farm and start a new life together. Along the way, Rosetta and Jeremiah’s relationship is strengthened and tested, as they inch closer and closer to the violence of the battlefield.

You can definitely tell that McCabe did extensive research for this book! The little details that are sewn into the narrative, and the richness of the story attest to this. The beautiful writing, engaging cast of characters (Will was my favourite!), and setting make the story come alive before you on the page. It was a book that I could read slowly (as I prefer to do), so as to absorb every detail, but it also stayed with me after I had shut the book for the night. I went about my day wondering where Rosetta and Jeremiah were in their journey, if they would be safe, and what would become of their group of friends! The history, their romance, and the thrilling situation enthralled me, and had me feeling sad as I came to the end of their story. Without giving away any spoilers, I cried a good deal!

One thing I especially loved in the book was Rosetta’s experiences with other women in the army. There are three instances where she witnesses, or interacts with other women. It was really interesting to see a spectrum of women’s experiences during this time! I also think the fact that Rosetta’s experience was based on the experiences of real women who disguised themselves and joined the army during this era really brought to life the story. While it isn’t non-fiction, you are reading an imagined, but informed, experience that these women might have lived through, which is truly fascinating and harrowing! I got chills just reading about the real women at the end of the book that inspired the story!

As I said before, I can’t help feeling like I want to recommend this book to EVERY single person who is interested in adult fiction, historical fiction and/or romance. Even if these aren’t your usual genres, I’d urge you to try this book (and what better time, than now, as the paperback releases today!). I am sitting on pins and needles just thinking about what McCabe could write about next! Whatever it is, I know that I’ll definitely be picking up a copy, and losing myself in her enchanting words!

Join the Convo!

Have you read I SHALL BE NEAR TO YOU? If so, what did you think? If not, is it on your TBR list? Do you like stories about women subverting gender roles? What other stories are there of women being directly involved in the front lines of war? Is the Civil War a time in history that you like reading about? If not, what is? 

4.5 Stars

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{Review} Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

August 27, 2014 Review 0 ★★★

{Review} Outlander by Diana GabaldonOutlander by Diana Gabaldon
Series: Outlander #1
Published by Bantam Dell on June 2, 1992
Genres: Adult, Historical Fiction, Romance
Pages: 850
Format: Paperback
Source: Gift
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Claire Randall is leading a double life. She has a husband in one century, and a lover in another...

In 1945, Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon - when she innocently touches a boulder in one of the ancient stone circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach - an "outlander" - in a Scotland torn by war and raiding border clans in the year of our Lord... 1743.

Hurled back in time by forces she cannot understand, Claire's destiny in soon inextricably intertwined with Clan MacKenzie and the forbidden Castle Leoch. She is catapulted without warning into the intrigues of lairds and spies that may threaten her life... and shatter her heart. For here, James Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior, shows her a passion so fierce and a love so absolute that Claire becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire... and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.

My Expectations

Outlander is a book I have known about for so long I can’t even remember when I first heard of it. I have had Outlander in the back of my mind for years as a book I thought I would like. I love Scotland and especially the highlands, and since that is the main setting of this book I was immediately endeared to it. When my aunt offered to lend me her copies of the series, I was so excited to dive into these massive books – especially with the TV series starting soon!

My Thoughts

Well. Frankly, I was disappointed. Unfortunately, there was so much in this book that didn’t work for me (spoilers ahead!):

1. The Rape
The book starts with an “almost” rape scene, and it just keeps going from there. Gabaldon frequently uses rape to indicate the “bad guys”, which I find problematic. It’s also completely excessive: reading about rape constantly and with such explicit detail left me with an icky feeling throughout my entire reading experience. I understand and enjoy historical accuracy but Gabaldon’s use of rape just felt superfluous. (This article from Bibliodaze talks about the issue intelligently with Game of Thrones and Outlander as examples.) In particular, there was one rape incident at the end of the book that I felt was extremely overdone; leaving the book with that fresh in my mind was not a pleasant experience.

2. The Beating
Again, I appreciate that Gabaldon was trying to be historically accurate (at least I assume that’s what she was doing…), but her use of beating hurt my stomach. There is one violent scene that I felt was sexist and repulsive. One of my favourite characters was the offender in this scenario, and I never really got over it. To make matters worse, several characters continue to bring up corporal punishment as a discussion point throughout the rest of the book – even laughing about it at times – and each time, it just brought my memory back to that one horrible scene.

3. The Adultery
In general I don’t like books that involve cheating because it’s not something I’m morally comfortable with. In Outlander, I was able to get past it to a certain extent because the little we see of Claire and Frank’s relationship at the beginning of the book did not feel convincing to me. That being said, I never felt like Claire made a conscious choice and I was frustrated with the way she handled her two relationships.

4. The Romance
This is mostly my fault, but I had NO idea that the Outlander series is a romance series, until I got to all the sex. I’m not a prude (and I have read romance novels before!), but I just felt that it was WAY over-the-top. I really enjoyed Claire and Jamie’s romance, but I didn’t like how explicit Gabaldon was with her frequent sex scenes. I also find it frustrating (after doing a little research) that apparently Gabaldon refuses to call this series a romance.

5. The Writing
For me, I felt 50/50 on this – while I loved Gabaldon’s writing in parts, and felt that her knack for description and humour was completely on point, at other times it felt very blah. I would read passages, then think that a whole five pages had been useless in terms of plot advancement, characterization, etc. While I don’t think this is a reason to not read the book – especially since Gabaldon has some real gems in Outlander – her writing style didn’t make the reading experience particularly pleasurable for me. I think if I had loved her writing more, some of my other issues with the book would have been more easily overlooked.

While I certainly have some complaints, I also really did love some things about Outlander. Here’s what I did like:

1. The Setting
As I said before, I love the Scottish highlands. I visited about a year ago, in June 2013, and it was the best trip I have ever been on. There’s something that I find so appealing – the climate, the landscape, the culture… in general, it’s almost a guarantee that if something involves the Scottish highlands, I will love it.

2. The Characters
Claire I found a bit annoying, stupid, and frustrating at times, but I loved her all the same and her difficult journey through time is fascinating. She really weathers it admirably considering how difficult such an experience would be. But Jamie is the real charmer of this book, and he’s what really drew me in. There’s not much to dislike about him, and I can’t imagine a better hero of such an epic story.

3. The Premise
Time travel is something that has always fascinated me, and some of my favourite books (My Name Is Memory by Ann Brashares, Pilgrim by Timothy Findley, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson) involve time travel in one way or another. It’s interesting to consider the moral, ethical, and of course, practical implications of time travel, and I love to see how different authors explore this difficult topic. No exception here – Gabaldon’s theory of time travel was completely absorbing!

All in all, this was not an immediate favourite; the bad outweighed the good for me. I’m not sure if I’ll be picking up book two. For one thing, the synopsis of Dragonfly in Amber sounds so different from Outlander that it has me intrigued (but also wary in other ways). I think I will return to the Outlander series, but after a long break. As for the TV show, I’m definitely going to give it a try – I can see Outlander working so well in a visual form and perhaps some of my issues with the book will be alleviated in cinematic form.

Collected Quotes

“For where all love is, the speaking is unnecessary. It is all. It is undying. And it is enough.”

Join the Convo!

Have you read Outlander? Is it on your TBR list? What did you think about the beating, the rape, and the adultery? Did you love the premise but ended up being disappointed by the content, like me? How did the second book compare to the first, if you have read both? Please leave your thoughts below… I really want to discuss this one as I’m still conflicted!

3 Stars

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{Review} The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

August 22, 2014 Review 3 ★★★★★

{Review} The Thirteenth Tale by Diane SetterfieldThe Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Published by Anchor Canada on June 18, 2013
Genres: Adult, Contemporary, Historical Fiction
Pages: 416
Format: Paperback
Source: Gift
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Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to her apartment above her father's antiquarian bookshop. On her steps she finds a letter. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain's most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history. The request takes Margaret by surprise - she doesn't know the author, nor has she read any of Miss Winter's dozens of novels.

Late one night, while pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter's personal story, Margaret begins to read her father's rare copy of Miss Winter's Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.

As Vida Winter unfolds her story, she shares with Margaret the dark family secrets that she has long kept hidden as she remembers her days at Angelfield, the now burnt-out estate that was her childhood home. Margaret carefully records Miss Winter's account and finds herself more and more deeply immersed in the strange and troubling story. In the end, both women have to confront their pasts and the weight of family secrets. As well as the ghosts that haunt them still.

My Expectations

I distinctly remember one of my high school friends, Chelsea, telling me that I had to read this book, and another friend vehemently echoed her. Why I didn’t immediately jump on the bandwagon is beyond me, and I can’t believe it’s been approximately five years since that initial recommendation. At any rate, this was an impulse pick at the bookstore that my father kindly got for me.

My Thoughts

My initial reaction to this book was that it reminded me a lot of Kate Morton. I have been a fan of her work for years, though I haven’t reviewed any here, and she has a way of writing mysteries that is thrilling and all-consuming. The Thirteenth Tale is much the same; Setterfield sets up a historical mystery early on and continually weaves separate threads of the story.

I absolutely love this kind of historical fiction with a mystery element. I adore historical fiction, but even more than that, I love deep, dark family secrets. (I’m not sure why… my family has none that I know of!) The Thirteenth Tale is about two women, Margaret Lea and Vida Winter, and both have a dark, twisty past that makes for riveting reading. There are twins: multiple sets of twins. There are ghosts. There is a wicked governess. There are sadistic, mentally deranged parents. It is something out of a Gothic novel; more to the point, The Thirteenth Tale is almost entirely convincing as a Gothic novel itself.

I wish I could take more about the plot because THIS BOOK IS EVERYTHING I WANT IN A BOOK but I truly believe this is best read without too much given away. I don’t think you should know more than the back cover will tell you. So I have to leave it there.

Not only is Setterfield’s grasp on the conventions of mystery telling above par, she also has a knack for getting at the root of human emotion. She captures brilliantly the essence of our feelings and her characters are always relatable, I think perhaps because she describes human emotion as something that is unique, yet at the same time is equally raw and present for each of us. I particularly love the following passage, in which the doctor comforts Margaret during a difficult moment:

“‘I know,’ he said, ‘I know.’ He didn’t know, of course. Not really. And yet that was what he said and I was soothed to hear it. For I knew what he meant. We all have our sorrows, and although the exact delineaments, the weight and the dimensions of grief are different for everyone, the colour of grief is common to us all. ‘I know,’ he said, because he was human, and therefore, in a way, he did.”

I’m such a sucker for these dark emotional reads that this kind of writing is an instant hit with me. That being said, I don’t know how anyone could not appreciate the simplicity and care with which Setterfield is able to draw away the pretensions we, as a culture, use to hide our emotions.

The historical element and Setterfield’s beautiful writing already made The Thirteenth Tale an instant favourite for me, but the fact that it appeals to avid readers in a major way made it even better. You may remember that I love books on books. It’s just something that has always appealed to me. Margaret Lea is a voracious bookworm, and the way Setterfield writes about Margaret’s love for writing is instantly relatable. Check out some of my favourite quotations I’ve included at the bottom of the post to see what I mean.

While I did love Margaret – especially because she is such a passionate reader – my favourite character by far was Aurelius Love. Margaret befriends him fairly early on in the book and he becomes a part of the central mystery/storyline in a really interesting way. He is jovial and friendly, and reminded me of the kind uncle who’s always helping you out. (Though I believe he is Margaret’s age.) It is hard to pinpoint exactly why Aurelius is so likable but I think his tragic involvement in the mystery has a lot to do with it.

Finally, a note about the conclusion: Setterfield brings it full circle, and I didn’t notice how exquisitely she does this until I thought about the book at length. At the beginning of the book Margaret says that she prefers fulfilling endings that are closed and leave little doubt behind, whereas her father values uncertainty:

“Contemporary literature is a world I know little of. My father had taken me to task on this topic many times during our daily talks about books. He reads as much as I do, but more widely, and I have great respect for his opinions. He has described in precise, measured words the beautiful desolation he feels at the close of novels where the message is that there is no end to human suffering, only endurance. He has spoken of endings that are muted, but which echo longer in the memory than louder, more explosive denouements. He has explained why it is that ambiguity touches his heart more nearly than the death and marriage style of finish that I prefer.”

This book ends both ways. I’m like Margaret’s father, and as I read that last sentence – “And that is all.” – I almost didn’t want to continue. Ambiguity is something I love in endings. Setterfield also includes a short “Post Scriptum,” however, that answers questions that were left hanging. It fulfills both parts of me as a reader: I’m left with some ambiguity, but all my questions about random characters and plot points were addressed.

I highly, highly recommend this, especially if you are a fan of historical fiction. This is a new favourite for me and one that I can see myself rereading and rereading in years to come.

Collected Quotations

“How long did I sit on the stairs after reading the letter? I don’t know. For I was spellbound. There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic. When I at last woke up to myself, I could only guess what had been going on in the darkness of my unconsciousness.”

“Contemporary literature is a world I know little of. My father had taken me to task on this topic many times during our daily talks about books. He reads as much as I do, but more widely, and I have great respect for his opinions. He has described in precise, measured words the beautiful desolation he feels at the close of novels where the message is that there is no end to human suffering, only endurance. He has spoken of endings that are muted, but which echo longer in the memory than louder, more explosive denouements. He has explained why it is that ambiguity touches his heart more nearly than the death and marriage style of finish that I prefer.”

“All children mythologise their birth. It is a universal trait. You want to know someone? Heart, mind and soul? Ask him to tell you about when he was born. What you get won’t be the truth: it will be a story. And nothing is more telling than a story.”

“I have always been a reader; I have read at every stage of my life and there has never been a time when reading was not my greatest joy. And yet I cannot pretend that the reading I have done in my adult years matches in its impact on my soul the reading I did as a child. I still believe in stories. I still forget myself when I am in the middle of a good book. Yet it is not the same. Books are for me, it must be said, the most important thing; what I cannot forget is that there was a time when they were at once more banal and more essential than that. When I was a child books were everything. And so there is in me, always, a nostalgic yearning for the lost pleasure of books. It is not a yearning that one ever expects to be fulfilled.”

“All morning I struggled with the sensation of stray wisps of one world seeping through the cracks of another. Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes – characters even – caught in the fibres of your clothes, and when you open the new book they are still with you.”

“I am human. Like all humans, I do not remember my birth. By the time we wake up to ourselves, we are little children, and our advent is something that happened an eternity ago, at the beginning of time. We live like latecomers at the theatre: we must catch up as best we can, divining the beginning from the shape of later events. How many times have I gone back to the border of memory and peered into the darkness beyond? But it is not only memories that hover on the border there. There are all sorts of phantasmagoria that inhabit that realm. The nightmares of a lonely child. Fairytales appropriated by a mind hungry for story. The fantasies of an imaginative little girl anxious to explain to herself the inexplicable. Whatever story I may have discovered on the frontier of forgetting, I do not pretend to myself that it is the truth.”

“I opened a window, climbed out into the whiteness and walked across the snow. All the grief I had kept at bay for years by means of books and bookcases approached me now. On a bench sheltered by a tall hedge of yew I abandoned myself to a sorrow that was wide and deep as the snow itself, and as untainted. . . . Mostly, and most terribly, I cried for myself. My grief was that of the infant, newly severed from her other half; of the child bent over an old tin, making sudden, shocking sense of a few pieces of paper; and of a grown woman, sitting crying on a bench in the hallucinatory light and silence of the snow.”

“People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in the ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic.”

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Have you read The Thirteenth Tale? What did you think? Did you love the bookish references as much as I did? Who was your favourite character? If you have read The Thirteenth Tale, do you have any recommendations for similar books? I would love something else like this!

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