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Good Literature for Children & Adults

The Mystery of Ireland's Eye by Shane Peacock & Flame and Ashes by Janet McNaughton


Each winter I spend time reading books for children and young adults, preparing for the coming summer so that I can, with confidence, personally recommend books to my young customers that I am sure they will enjoy reading.

I was very pleased to see that Shane Peacock’s book The Mystery of Ireland’s Eye has been re-issued. Written in 1999 The Mystery of Ireland’s Eye is the first in what became the Dylan Maples Adventure series. An ideal series of books for boys aged 10 to 13 or so. Ireland’s Eye is an island off the south coast of Newfoundland, settled in 1600s and now abandoned after the families were forced to move in 1965 when so many isolated communities were “re-settled” by the government.

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Dylan Maples is an only child, his parents an adventurous couple, a lawyer and a schoolteacher. Dylan is a typical young teenager, a hockey player, and a skateboarder. The family lives in an affluent Toronto neigbourhood and spends summers at their cottage north of the city. Dylan’s father is a keen swimmer and kayaker and, as the novel opens, he is beginning to plan a trip to Newfoundland, to a popular kayaking destination, Ireland’s Eye. Overhearing the plan, and captivated by the idea of visiting a Ghost town, Dylan decides he will prove to his father that he has the skills needed go along on this trip, which he does. And off they go, Mom and Dad, and Dylan heading into much more of an adventure than they could every have imagined.

The Mystery of Ireland’s Eye is a very suspenseful adventure, with plenty of thrilling challenges both on the water and at the hands of some very bad men. These men have nefarious reasons for being on Ireland’s Eye and the Maples family land right in the middle of serious trouble. Of course, all ends well and young readers can read on in the series as Dylan has many more adventures.

Flame and Ashes by Janet McNaughton is one of the Dear Canada series, novels about Canadian history seen through the eyes of girls and young women. This edition is The Great Fire Diary of Triffie Winsor in St. John’s Newfoundland, in 1892.

We meet Tryphena “Triffie” Winsor on an early summer day. She is one of three children, her parents affluent merchants in the city of St. John’s. Her younger brother, Alfie, is her best friend and companion and Sarah is a beloved sister and a well brought up young lady. Triffie herself is an imaginative girl, and one who finds it difficult to sit still and settle to a task. It is suggested that she keep a diary, and as Triffie herself is set on self-improvement she is excited at the idea of writing about her daily experiences. Her diary begins with the day-to-day life of the family at home, but when the Great Fire of 1892 destroys much of downtown St. John’s, including this family’s home and business premises.

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The Winsor family is wealthy compared to most, they have assets that allow them to reestablish their business, and to help others to rebuilt their lives after losing most everything they owned, as Triffie records it all in her diary.

I think this particular novel will appeal to girls of about 8 to 12 years old who enjoyed reading Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden. It is richly old fashioned in it’s language, and the events as described portray a fascinating time and place, and a way of life that is long gone.

The Gown by Jennifer Robson

Jennifer Robson’s new book The Gown is the perfect book to throw in your carry on for a week on the beach this winter!

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There is nothing like the hype over a royal wedding – my daughter’s generation watched Will and Kate, and more recently Harry and Meghan. I got up before dawn many years ago to watch the wedding of Charles and Diana, and my mother remembers the wedding of the woman who was to become Queen Elizabeth II marry Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten in 1947. When I mentioned to my mother that I was reading a book about the women who worked on Elizabeth’s wedding gown, she (who has little memory of past and present) said, “oh, all those little seed pearls”. A gown to remember indeed.

This novel is interesting, well written and not too demanding of intelligence or attention – just a good light read. We are reminded that this royal wedding took place just after the Second World War and things were still difficult in England. The war was long, many people suffered had loss and everyone is still finding rationing arduous.

Two of the seamstresses at Norman Hartwell’s dressmaking establishment are Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin. Ann is British, a young woman supporting herself as an embroiderer and Miriam is French, a survivor of the war, also an expert embroiderer who has found escape and employment in England. These two become friends and work together on the wedding gown that will be worn by the future Queen. Norman Hartwell had been designing and making clothes for the women of the royal family for many years, and everyone at the firm is thrilled that they have been selected to make the wedding gown, and all are sworn to secrecy.

In tandem with the story that takes place in the past, is a present day story involving a young woman, Heather Mackenzie, in Canada who is the granddaughter of Ann Hughes. After her grandmother’s death, a package is found containing embroidery pieces with the words “For Heather” on the box. There are also a few old photographs of Ann as a young woman.

Ann’s daughter, Heather’s mother, realizes she knows little of the past. She knew only that her mother came to Canada from England, and that she was a widow. Ann was a woman who never spoke of the past, a past that Heather now feels compelled to discover.

As you join Heather in her search, you will find yourself in another time, with young women who are making their own way, who suffered loss during a time of war and are finding ways of carrying on .The Gown is a story set in the world of our young mothers and grandmothers, one that sees dramatic change.

 

Fire in the Stars by Barbara Fradkin



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I enjoy spending time in Newfoundland – even if only vicariously by reading a book. Barbara Fradkin’s mystery series featuring Amanda Doucette begins with a novel set in Newfoundland – on the Great Northern Peninsula, Fire in the Stars.

Amanda Doucette has recently returned to Canada from Africa, were she was an international aid worker. She is still traumatized after surviving the horrific murder of villagers in Nigeria where she was working. One of her fellow aid workers who has returned home to Newfoundland, also struggling from his experience in Nigeria, has asked Amanda to come to Newfoundland, to join him on a camping trip with his young son. Amanda sees this as an opportunity that will help her continue to heal, to become again the strong and adventurous woman she once was, and to reunite with both Phil and Tyler in a happier, and safer, time and place.

It is early fall, when Amanda drives her motorcycle, with dog and dog carrier, from Ontario, taking the ferry to Port Aux Basques, stopping at the first Irving on the TCH for a full breakfast. It is a long drive to Grand Falls, and the home of her friend, Phil, his wife Sheri, and their young son, Tyler. When Amanda arrives she discovers that Phil and Tyler have packed up and left without her, and that Sheri is distraught, worried about her husband and son.

Corporal Chris Tymko, RCMP, Deer Lake, also a friend of Phil, is contacted and suggests that it is most likely that Phil and Tyler have headed up the Great Northern Peninsula as planned. Why they left without Amanda, and without a cell phone, no one understands, and they are all worried about father and son.

And, so the search begins. Asking in cafes and bars if anyone has seen a father and son, Amanda discovers they have indeed headed north and eventually to Croque – a remote harbour. Chris and Tyler have been seen in the village but their whereabouts is now unknown – they are most likely someplace north or south along the coast in an area of true wilderness.

Amanda discovers a place of wild beauty, spotty cell phone reception, changeable weather conditions and communities of mostly friendly, welcoming people who notice everything that is going on in their small harbours. Places, as Chris Tymko observes, where “everyone who doesn’t have six generations of ancestors buried in the local cemetery is new to the island”.

Amanda, putting her fear aside heads up the shore looking for Phil and Tyler. She discovers a shoreline with few places to land a boat, but many dangerous shoals. Once on shore she is faced with seemingly impassable dense forest. Forging ahead she follows what she thinks is a trail, perhaps the one that her friend has taken. Making discoveries along the way that test her physical and emotional strength, Amanda persists in her quest to find Phil, and especially to find Tyler.

 

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie

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The snow is flying, the grandchildren have gone home and you can take time to yourself, with a cup of tea or a glass of Christmas cheer. Curl up on the couch, in front of the fire, with a good book.

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie is a great choice for an escapist read, and perfect for this time of year.

The story begins three days before Christmas, in London, and we meet Stephen Farr as he arrives at the station platform, “large engines hissed superbly, throwing off clouds of steam into the cold raw air.”

And we are off! Into one of Agatha Christie’s most perfectly plotted mystery novels.

The aged Simeon Lee has called his family home for Christmas. One son and his wife, live in the house with Simeon. The others are far flung, and some have not seen their father for many years. They are all, more or less, apprehensive about coming home and having all of the family together for Christmas – as well they should be.

Simeon Lee may have become infirm but he is still a man who likes to be in control. He boasts to one and all that he has as many children conceived outside the bedcovers as within.

Alone in his room, Simeon Lee says, to himself, “I’m old, they say, and ill, but I’m not done for. Lots of life in the old dog yet. And there’s still some fun to be got out of life. Still some fun…..”. The stage is set.

If you think your family is a little dysfunctional, especially during the holidays, just read this book, and you will feel so much better! Any difficult dynamics in your family will pale in compassion to what goes on in the home of the Lee family.

All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy

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I’ve said before that one of the most wonderful things about being a bookseller is the discovery of new novels by writers I had not known before – as is the case with All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy. 

The novel begins with the words “In my childhood, I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman.” The story is told by that boy, Myshkin Chand Rozario, now a man in his 60s, as he recalls his childhood and the profound impact the disappearance of his mother had on him for all of his life.

His memories are triggered by the arrival of an envelope, from a long ago friend of his mother. An envelope he hesitates to open, “I am afraid of fresh pain” he writes. Myshkin has become a rather solitary man, often lost in his own thoughts, speaking only in his mind to those who are gone. He had a long career as a garden designer, an occupation that brought him satisfaction and peace. “If you wish to be happy for an hour, drink wine; if you wish to be happy for three days, get married. If you wish to be happy for eight days, kill your pig and eat it; but if you wish to be happy forever, become a gardener.”

Though the story is told by Myshkin, it is always his mother, Gayatri, who is at the centre. Gayatri was a cherished daughter who travelled with her father and was encouraged to develop her interest in art and creativity. Marriage happened as was expected, a child soon followed and for a time her artistic efforts were accepted by her husband. But, as he became more and more narrow minded and focused on politics he became more and more critical of her dancing, her art and her need for a creative life. When Walter Spies and Beryl de Zoete came into their lives Gayatri found them to be friends who understood her need for art – and was met with the strong disapproval of her husband. The young woman, stifled and desperately unhappy, bolted. Her desire to have her son with her never wavered but given a choice she chose her own life over any other.

Walter Spies was a painter, and his friend Beryl encouraged Gayatri to “put a smile and some red lipstick on. Think of tomorrow – which is always, always, a new day. That’s such a comfort.” For the first time Gayatri had friends of her own.

Myshkin is forever “a child abandoned without explanation, I had felt nothing but rage, misery, confusion.” But, now a man in his late 60s he is taking the time to re-examine his mother’s disappearance. As he attempts to understand why she had to leave he begins to come to terms with his own loss and perhaps, perhaps let some of it go and find peace.

Gayatri wrote letters to her son, from Bali where she chose to live with Walter and Beryl, and her husband allowed the boy to read and to respond to them. Through these letters, and the letters she wrote to a friend, we learn of Gayatri’s life in Bali. At first, though so sadly missing her son, Gayatri finds fulfillment in her art and her growing reputation as a painter. But, soon the Second World War brings changes to Bali, by 1942 the Japanese occupied the Dutch East Indies and life becomes much more difficult, especially for Walter Spies, who had been born in Germany.

We follow the journey of all of the characters in this novel, as they age, and Myshkin finds himself, in late middle age, reflecting that “there were fewer and fewer people who could share any memories with me, either about  people or about places.”

I found All the Lives We Never Lived a captivating novel, revealing the exotic culture of India and Bali during a time of great change.

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