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Good Literature for Children & Adults

Lines On The Water – A Fisherman’s Life on the Miramichi by David Adams Richards

Centuries ago, when I was a child, we spent our summers at my grandparent’s farm near Sussex, New Brunswick. This was the farm where my mother grew up, the middle of eleven children! We were, at a very young age, allowed to go off for the day as long as we returned for supper. My brother and I would take a stick and a string and a hook, dig some worms from behind the pig pen (always fearing a pig would come out of their shed), and go down the hill behind the barn, and across the meadow to the brook. The brook was shallow and we could walk along it without getting lost. We fished along the way, catching brook trout with ease. We cleaned them, and took them back to our grandmother who rolled them in a bit of flour and fried them in butter on the woodstove – the stove was always going no matter how hot the day as there was no electricity on the farm until 1965. I know this sounds like I grew up in the dark ages – but I suspect that life was much the same on the farm before 1965 as it was in 1865.

Every once in a while I have pulled out a fishing rod at the cottage and dropped it in the water, but it never had the same appeal as fishing in a brook. After reading Helen Humphrey’s most recent book Machine Without Horses, about the real and imagined life of Megan Boyd, a salmon-fly dresser who lived and worked all of her life in a small village in Scotland, I decided to book a fly fishing lesson.

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A few weeks ago I spent an exhilarating and idyllic day on the Grand River, near Fergus, on a particular stretch of the river that is stocked with Brown Trout. The day I was there was one of great bird activity – hundreds of swallows swooping for bugs, Great Blue Herons and Osprey fishing for themselves, red winged blackbirds in abundance, and a lone oriole. There were a very few other fishermen, up and down stream, but no one except the Osprey caught any fish – and they very few. And, at least to me, it did not matter in the slightest. I learned how to tie my fishing lines together, and to tie the hook on to the line. I learned to cast overhead and from the side, learned some of the terminology, and best of all I had a day outdoors doing something that takes enough concentration to leave no room in your head for any thoughts other than to get that line where you want it to be. I was more than a little concerned that I’d be too uncoordinated to learn this, but apparently I was a natural. Once the rhythm of the cast is achieved it becomes both relaxing and controlled at the same time.

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Looking for books to read about fly-fishing I re-discovered Lines Upon the Water by David Adams Richards, published in 1998, it was re-issued as a Penguin Modern Classic last year. David Adams Richards grew up near the Miramichi River in New Brunswick, and he has fished this river, alone or with friends since he was very young. He writes, “Fishing even then could take me out of myself”, something as much as, or even more important than, the catching of the fish! This is a memoir about fishing, in a place returned to, all of his life, no matter how far from home he has lived. He writes about his family and his friends, many who are guides, and some of the people he has met on the river. Adams has fished in all kinds of weather, with success or not, it seems there is no place he’d rather be. Fisherman or not you will enjoy this story, both humorous and profound, of time spent in the outdoors and the friendship of men.

Anna of Kleve – The Princess in the Portrait – by Alison Weir

Each year in the early spring readers of historical fiction look forward to a new book in the Six Tudor Queens series from Alison Weir. Beginning with Katherine Of Aragon, The True Queen, and continuing with Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession, Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen, and now Anna of Kleve, The Princess in the Portrait.

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These are great big books, and have I read each of them in the early days of May each year in Newfoundland, when I have long days of uninterrupted reading. I may be looking out at eagles and icebergs but I am transported to Tudor England.

The earlier books in the series were about Queens I had already read about in books by other authors, but this Queen, Anna of Kleve, I knew nothing about and found her story a fascinating one - though far less dramatic and tragic than those who came before her.

Anna of Kleve was a European princess and her marriage to Henry VIII was arranged as an alliance between Kleve and England. A portrait was sent to Henry when he was shopping around for a 4th wife. Anna had long ago been promised to another, but a marriage to Henry was more politically advantageous. Though anxious about leaving her home and going to England Anna knew her duty was to her family and her country, and she found herself looking forward to marriage to a great King.

Anna becomes the wife of a man who has already had three difficult marriages; he is now an older man, and unwell, and they are not, it seems, physically attracted to each other. Henry may be hedging his bets, and Anna may or may not have any idea about sex and reproduction. In any case it is an odd marriage.

Of course, Alison Weir puts words into Anna’s mouth, and thoughts in her head, in order to create a story. And though the author has used original source material in her research she has also created as much fiction as fact.

Anna of Kleve is an interesting character and the time in which she lived is one of great change, as the alliances in Europe shift and religious observance in England is in flux, from Catholic observance to Protestant and back again. Henry VIII’s young children, one from each of his previous wives, are growing up and all develop a relationship with Anna who it seems is anxious to be a mother to them.

Fortunately for Anna, when her marriage to Henry ends she is not beheaded but simply put aside and continues to live as a “sister” to the King. And quite a nice life it is with her castles and properties and her many servants – but it is also a life in which she must be ever vigilant that she does not do or say anything that will cause her problems with the many factions that would be happy to see her removed.

I am always struck when reading Alison Weirs novels, that while writing historical fiction, she is able to make these women so contemporary in both their desires and their woes. In this case we see Anna, the discarded wife, attempting to make a life for herself while mourning the loss of her marriage.

Henry VIII dies in 1547, while Anna lives until 1557. In the decade after Henry’s death his son, Edward, becomes King, followed by Mary as Queen, with much political and religious upheaval.

Another series of historical fiction I have been reading this the past year is the series of mystery novels by CJ Sansom that take place at much the same time as the Tudor Queen novels and, of course, feature many of the same historical figures, with the addition of the fictional Master Shardlake.

 

 

Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper


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It is a Monday, my wash is on the line hanging between the fishing shed and the outhouse. From my kitchen windows I look out to the ocean and into the harbour. This was once a harbour where hundreds of people lived, the shore lined with fishing stages so close together the children ran from one to the other across the whole cove. Now it is a place where only six families live year round, the rest of us coming from away, or from nearby towns back to the houses where their parents once lived.

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There are many, many places like this in Newfoundland. And there are just as many like Little Running and Big Running, where Emma Hooper has set her novel Our Homesick Songs. Once both were busy communities where families supported themselves by fishing and related work. In the 1970s the few houses still occupied in Little Running were floated around the shore to Big Running.

People adjusted – not so very far from home. But by the 1990s it was clear that even the once busy harbour, and the fishery, was no longer able to support those who remained. The novel then moves seamlessly from 1969 to 1993, as we come to know the orphaned Murphy sisters, especially Martha, and the man she will marry, Aidan Connor, and then their children Finn who is 11, and Cora 15 years old. They live now in Big Running, and will be the last to remain after all of their neighbours leave, family by family, to find work elsewhere, many in Alberta.

Martha and Aidan know they must find work in the west as well, but they chose to do it alone, one going for several weeks, and the other staying home, and then the reverse. This means the children are always with one parent and still in the home they all love so much. What is not so good is that Aidan and Martha are not together, and without any other children in Big Running there is no longer a school. They are living in what has become a ghost town.

Finn and Cora each find different ways of coping with their situation – as do their parents. When the notice comes to advise the remaining residents that they must leave each member of this family has their own idea of how to prevent this from happening. And they each place themselves, and those they love in potentially dangerous situations.

I was immediately drawn into this story, with characters who felt very real, and a time and place into which I was emotionally drawn. This is a novel that is both absolutely straight forward and one that is sometimes slightly too “quirky” for my liking. About three quarters the way through I was becoming impatient with some of the less than believable events, but by then I was so committed to the characters that I had to keep with it. And, it is a book that became better and better as the story developed. I felt fear for the children, both of them in situations where they could so easily come to harm or perished. The demise of a once vibrant community becoming emptier and emptier was heartbreaking, as were the struggles of the parents trying to do the right thing for themselves and their children.

Young Finn is taught to play the accordion by Mrs. Callaghan, the only remaining resident in Little Running. He rows across to her home and she tells him stories, about the sailors and explorers from far off places who once sailed to Newfoundland, and some who stayed. It is Mrs. Callaghan who explains, “the only way, the best way, for them to remember home was through singing, through the songs and tunes they knew from home. When they were homesick, when they needed to remember where they were from, they could sing to see, to remember.” Singing and music is a big part of life in Newfoundland, the heritage from those long ago sailors and settlers from Ireland, and the British Isles, France, Spain and Portugal - it is in the blood here – and in the blood of those who have had to leave.

Emma Hooper is not only a novelist but also a musician, a Canadian living in Ireland. It may have been the music that drew her to this place, but time spent in Newfoundland led to write her most recent, and quite wonderful novel, Our Homesick Songs.

 

Ambitious City by Scott Thornley

Many, many years ago my husband and I lived on the Niagara escarpment, in an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere – at the bend in the road outside Caistorville. Not too far from Cayuga where some of the action in Scott Thornley’s second MacNeice mystery novel, Ambitious City, takes place.

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This time the city of Dundurn – a fictionalized version of Hamilton, Ontario – is at the centre of the story. The mayor has a plan to revitalize the waterfront and bring tourists to his city. I remember Hamilton as place that we drove past as quickly as possible – over the terrifying old Skyway Bridge, or sometimes on a windy day along the beach road.

It is not long before there is mention of Georgian Bay as MacNeice remembers happy times spent there with his wife, before her death. But for now we stay in the city, and the surrounding area, up onto the escarpment – and eventually to a house full of bikers that I feel I knew (less the bikers) so many years ago. 

The investigation begins when the mayor calls MacNeice to come look at a car that has been found in the harbour – a car with a body or two in the trunk. There is a team in the harbour working on the recovery of ships from the War of 1812 – part of the mayor’s plan to attract tourists – and this is the last thing he needs. These bodies, in the trunk of a 1935 Packard are not recent – but they are somebody. When more, more recent, bodies are discovered there is truly a need to investigate.

MacNeice is already more than busy after the murder of a young woman, a knife attack in a city park. The two investigations are progressing in tandem, and the team is stretched to work on both at the same time. Though MacNeice now has the help of a young computer whiz kid, Ryan, a sort of a nerdy male version of Donna Leon’s Elettra, who becomes a valuable member of the investigative team.

Both investigations are complicated, and dangerous. Sometimes the description of the conflict is a little too brutal for my tastes, but such a good book. Now, on to the 3rd in the series, Raw Bone

Read one of the MacNeice Mystery novels, and you’ll read them all. Then you can come to Books & Beer with Scott Thornley on Tuesday 10 September 2019 at Trestle Brewing and meet the author of this terrific mystery series.

The Limits of the World by Jennifer Acker


Sometimes while reading a novel you fall in love with the characters and wish the book would not end and leave you wondering, “what happened next?” This was the case for me with The Limits of the World by Jennifer Acker.

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This novel tells the story of a family, East Indian immigrants from Africa, living in the United States. There was not one of them that I did not come to care about. I have always been fascinated by stories about people who have left the country where they were born, to come to a new place looking for opportunity, or peace, and have made it home. These are people who have been displaced, but bring their culture with them – more or less – as they become part of the new world they have chosen, or come to by happenstance.

Many Asians went to British East Africa, originally as labourers to lay the railway. Many stayed on and became successful shopkeepers. But, during times of political unrest many left, most emigrating to Great Britain or the United States. The Chandaria family is divided between those who stayed, and those who left for opportunity in the United States.

The American Chandaria family consists of the father, Premchand, a doctor, his wife Urmila and their son, Sunil. The doctor has a busy medical practice, the mother a shop selling items imported from Africa, and Sunil studying at Harvard.

We soon learn that Urmila is dissatisfied with her life – and her husband and son. Sunil, now 30 years old, is struggling to complete his PhD thesis, while living with his girlfriend. Though he is away from his mother’s watchful eye he is very much conscious of her disapproval.

Before too long, we discover that there is another son, Bimal, raised in Nairobi by Urmila’s sister. Sunil has known this brother as a beloved cousin, but it is not until Bimal is in hospital, seriously injured, and all of the family is together, that the truth is revealed.

It seems that Sunil is most at the heart of this novel. We witness his struggles at Harvard, his love for Amy, his white, American, Jewish girlfriend, and his need for his parent’s love, approval, and acceptance. Amy truly loves Sunil, and they are determined to make their relationship work in spite of the fact that all of the parents wish their children had chosen a partner of their own kind.

As readers, the thoughts of the characters, and the things they do not say to each other are revealed to us. The words we wish they would say - the words that would heal a wound, or express forgiveness or understanding or love. But that is life, reflected in art, and I found this novel very much a story of what love brings to us all – regardless of creed or race. There is tragedy and joy – love and hate – mistakes and reconciliation. A truly wonderful book – The Limits of the World by Jennifer Acker.

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