A Spell of Winter – Helen Dunmore

I read Helen Dunmore’s novel With Your Crooked Heart many years ago and I’ve been a fan ever since. Dunmore’s prose is like poetry, every sentence a perfect balance between beauty and truth. Winner of the 1996 Orange Prize, A Spell of Winter is the fourth novel I’ve read by her, and I have also read her collection of short stories, Ice Cream.

A Spell of Winter concerns the lives of Cathy and Rob, siblings who live in a crumbling manor house in England.  Their guardian is their maternal grandfather, “the man from nowhere”, and through Cathy’s eyes he is seen as stern and unsympathetic.

When A Spell of Winter begins Rob is nine and Cathy, our narrator, is seven. They are on their way, with Miss Gallagher, to visit their father in the sanatorium. It’s a traumatic visit – and also marks the last time the children will see their father alive.

The children’s lives are isolated and insular. Cathy remarks:

I look at the house, still and breathless in the frost. I have got what I wanted. A spell of winter hangs over it, and everyone has gone.

Perhaps it is isolation, perhaps it is abandonment, but eventually Cathy and Rob cross the line. Their story reminds me of another pair of British siblings who become lovers: Cathy and Christopher, protagonists of Carolyn Slaughter’s magnificent novel Relations (also published as The Story of the Weasel.) With a huge house to creep around in and no one to pay attention to them except Kate, their trusted servant, Cathy and Rob fall into a strange spell of their own.

A Spell of Winter has many of the gothic hallmarks: the gloomy dwelling, a sense of mystery, a distressed heroine. As long as Cathy and Rob are isolated, they manage to sustain their relationship. But like winter, it can’t last. Eventually, the real world seeps in in ways both expected and unexpected.

I loved A Spell of Winter. It’s not a ‘love’ story in the way Relations is. I wasn’t rooting for Cathy and Rob. I was rooting for Cathy. She is abandoned many times during her life, but her resilient nature, whether through necessity or tenacity, keeps her going.  The language is beautiful. And the story despite its dark subject matter, is brimming with the promise of spring.


Drowning Anna – Sue Mayfield

When Anna Goldsmith moves to Yorkshire from the south of England, she finds the transition difficult – that is until Hayley Parkin, the most popular girl at school, takes Anna under her wing. Sue Mayfield’s YA novel Drowning Anna unspools the story of Anna’s relationship with Hayley, which deteriorates almost as quickly as it began.

As Melanie explains:

Hayley Parkin goes off people. I don’t know why. Perhaps she gets bored with them. Perhaps she runs out of things to buy them. Perhaps she can’t stand competition. She doesn’t seem to need a reason. She drops people.

Drowning Anna combines third person narration with Melanie’s reflections and entries from Anna’s journal. From all these different points of view, we come to understand what has driven Anna to such a commit such a drastic act. Anna is a very relateable character. She’s smart, athletic, musical and attractive – but she’s also 14 when the story starts and given to bouts of self-doubt. Hayley Parkin is not the only thing wrong with her life: her teacher-mother is stressed out and moody, her doctor-father is never home; her older brother, Tom, is busy with his own life and doesn’t always live up to expectations – meaning there is extra pressure on Anna.

None of that explains, however, why Hayley decides to focus so much malevolent energy on Anna. She starts small by ignoring her, but it doesn’t take long for the harassment to extend to mimicking her accent (which, granted, means less in a Canadian context but having lived for a time in the UK, I understood this as a tool of torture), isolating Anna and actually physically hurting Anna.

Hayley, it seems, has a lot of charisma. The other students want to be in her orbit, but it feels sort of like, “keep your enemies closer.” We don’t ever get a clear understanding of why Hayley is so hateful, but it hardly matters. At the end of the day, Hayley will have to live with her choices.

Mayfield really captures the very particular cruelty of teenage girls. Anyone who has ever been bullied will see themselves in Anna Goldsmith.

The Returning – Christine Hinwood

I read a lot more Young Adult fiction.  I do it so that I can have conversations with students in my classroom. I read some YA because it sounds interesting to me. Recently, I volunteered to help review some books for the Dept of Education, books which have been selected for possible inclusion on the sanctioned reading list and thus destined for English classes in middle and high school. That’s how I came to read Christine Hinwood’s debut novel, The Returning.

The Returning, a Printz Award winner, is the story of how the aftermath of a domestic war between the Uplanders and Downlanders affects a disparate group of people including Cam Attling (a returned soldier), Pin (his younger sister), Graceful (Cam’s fiance) and Lord Gyaar (the man who saved Cam’s life). It’s alternate historical fiction – which reads like fantasy because the world is sort of, well, otherworldly. Is it the past? Future?

While not without its merits, Hinwood’s book didn’t appeal to me. The story is elliptical in nature, jumping around in time and place – never settling with one character long enough to allow the reader to really get to know them.

Cam is the only man from his village to return from the war and he’s having a difficult time adapting to life back on his father’s farm. Other villagers always want him to talk about what happened to their husbands and sons and brothers, but Cam just wants to forget. But it wasn’t just Cam’s war  – the world has changed for everyone. Da explains the war to Pin as a rock that has been:  “thrown and done, but the ripples do take longer to spread and flatten. That’s what this is, the ripples.”

I understand why Hinwood didn’t want to focus entirely on Cam – the war has affected many other people (including those from the winning side) – but I just couldn’t seem to keep everyone straight. Perhaps it was all the strange names: Diido, Hughar, Acton. Maybe it was the unusual way the characters spoke – although the writing was often quite beautiful. Maybe Hinwood was too ambitious, trying to capture the aftermath of war for too many players.

I just didn’t  feel like I truly knew any of the characters and so, for me, The Returning just didn’t have the emotional impact I had hoped it would

Jane – April Lindner

Although I read it almost 40 years ago (and, oh, it pains me to say that!) Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, the story of  Jane, an orphan who is mistreated by her awful cousins and finally finds love and a home at Thornfield Hall, the estate of the enigmatic and darkly handsome Edward Rochester, has stayed with me my entire life. I remember the specific feeling of satisfaction I had while reading it – my first ‘adult’ novel; but, more than that, I fell in love with Jane. I felt, in her, a kindred spirit –  a bookish, sensible and rather plain young woman – someone I could relate to.

I tell my writing students that  we tell the same stories over and over and our real job as writers is to find fresh and inventive ways to do that: to make the old new. Perhaps that explains the glut of sequels and prequels and little women turned zombie killers on the bookshelves these days. Despite my reservations about these books, I have to say that I have a few on my bookshelves; mostly these books are ones I hope I can pass on to my students.

April Lindner’s book Jane comes with the tagline “What if Jane Eyre fell in love with a rock star?” Lindner herself is a Jane Eyre fan and claims that as much as she “love[s] the Pride and Prejudice spin-offs … if I had to choose between Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, I’d be on Team Bronte.” She wondered why there wasn’t some sort of Jane Eyre redux and thought it might have to do with some of the complicating factors of the original: a crazy woman locked in an attic could hardly happen with today’s modern medicine.

Still, Lindner decided to see if she could finesse Jane’s story into the 21st century.  Sadly, I can’t say that she’s altogether successful.

Jane Moore has to leave her East Coast college after the death of her parents. The stocks they left her turn out to be worthless; her older siblings did marginally better, but she isn’t close to them. At all. In fact they are horrible. Unlike Bronte’s Jane, though, we aren’t given any real insight into why the family dynamics are so messed up. So, we just have to accept that Jane’s stiff-upper-lip is because of some deep-rooted childhood trauma. So, without a degree or money, Jane decides to become a nanny. Lucky girl, she gets to work for Nico Rathburn – über famous rock star guy. Seriously, if there is a bigger star on the planet, we don’t know who he is. Jane sort of knows who Rathburn is because her brother used to blare his music all the time, but Jane is above all that.

Off Jane goes to the Thornfield Park where she meets various employees of Rathburn’s and his five-year-old daughter, Maddy. She’s also warned to stay away from the third floor because, despite Nico’s wealth,  “the floorboards are old and rotting.”  Nico, when he finally shows up, is prickly and kinda hot. And despite the awkward conversation between them, it’s not long before Jane realizes she’s in love with Mr. Rathburn (yes, she still calls him that!)

Here’s where I started to giggle. We are expected to buy into this relationship – and yet I never believed any of it. All their conversations were extremely awkward and somehow inappropriate. I’m not just talking about the age difference (Jane is 19 or perhaps 20 and Rathburn has had one marriage, one child with another woman and scads – by his own admission – of liaisons with groupies and super models). He seems to have no problem revealing very personal details to Jane, almost from the moment he meets her. But he also has no problem fawning over a beautiful photographer, ostensibly to make Jane jealous. Really? Nico seems less tortured and more torturer.

There’s no emotional center to Lindner’s Jane. Ironically, the novel ends up being as glossy and superficial as the magazines Jane manages to avoid after she runs away from Nico and his dark secret. (Which also, really?)

If Jane manages to encourage a new generation of readers to pick up Bronte’s vastly superior novel, that will be an accomplishment. But I can’t imagine any fans of the original thinking this update has anything much to offer.


He’s After Me – Chris Higgins

When smart but plain Anna meets Jem in Chris Higgins’ novel He’s After Me, her life is falling apart. Her parents have recently separated, her mother has retreated from the world and her younger sister, Olivia, is suddenly dressing far too provocatively and hanging out with kids that Anna doesn’t particularly like.

Jem is, well, electrifying. “…his smile faded and our eyes held and that’s when it happened. A charge passed through me like an electric shock.”

The first person narration sweeps the reader along and allows us to see both Jem’s many charms and also Anna’s growing doubts about the intensity of  her first serious relationship. Her best friend Zoe sees it though. “He’s got inside your head, Anna! He controls you. Can’t you see it?” she says.

But Anna can’t – or won’t see it. As Jem leads her further and further away from the safety of her life, she takes risks and chances she would never have previously considered.

That might have been enough to drive this YA novel’s breakneck pace – but there’s more. Someone seems to be watching Anna and Jem.

And so love’s arrow finds its target.

And she’d seemed like such a sensible girl too, not the kind to lose her head over some bloke.

That’s love for you.

Anna is a likeable character. I found myself really turning the pages to find out what was going on – wavering between believing in Jem’s charms and wanting to scream at Anna for not seeing through them. The anonymous third person kept me guessing, too. So, in that respect – good little page turner.

But I didn’t like the ending much.

Evidence of Blood – Thomas H. Cook

Jackson Kinley, the protagonist of Evidence of Blood,  is a true-crime writer. His career has brought him close to unimaginable horrors: rapists and murderers and people who torture others for pleasure. Kinley (as he is most often called) seems somehow immune to these horrors. Perhaps it’s his IQ, which is reportedly off the charts. Perhaps it’s his own childhood – he was raised by his grandmother in backwater Sequoyah, Georgia. Whatever the reason, Kinley  is able to face the dark deeds of the world’s most reprehensible criminals without flinching.

His armor is breached, however, when he gets the call that his childhood friend, Ray Tindall, has been found dead. He returns to Sequoyah and learns that Ray was trying to uncover the truth about a murder which had occurred many years before.

Thomas H. Cook  – as those of you who are regular readers here already know – is my favourite mystery writer. True, I am not a mystery scholar by any stretch, but an accidental discovery of his book Breakheart Hill several years ago has turned me into a fan and I have read several of his books (and I am thrilled to know there are more waiting to be read.)

Cook is particularly adept at creating nuanced characters and Kinley is no exception. Kinley’s past is deeply rooted in Sequoyah, but even he is unaware of just how deep those roots go. He can’t help himself – he’s an investigator and the shocking death of his oldest (and perhaps only) friend, has him sifting through the past. Ray, it turns out, was looking into the mysterious disappearance of Ellie Dinker, a sixteen year old whose bloody dress was found on a tree branch in 1954. A man was sentenced to death for that crime and Ray was trying to prove his innocence.

Like all of Cook’s novels, the mystery will keep you guessing. I tried out several potential (and I thought entirely plausible) solutions and was still surprised at the end of the book. I like the way Cook writes; his are literary mysteries. I feel like the craft of writing is just as important to him as telling a cracking good story – which he does. You keep turning those pages.

As Kinley follows Ray’s paper trail, interviews the players who are still alive and recalls childhood memories, he slowly begins to understand the implication of Ray’s words to him at one of their final meetings: “It’s better to know, don’t you think, Kinley? No matter what the cost?”

If you like well-written  mysteries, you really can’t beat Cook.

Death Comes to Pemberley – P.D. James

Death Comes to Pemberley by famous British crime novelist P.D. James is fan fiction. That’s right: P.D. James borrowed characters and settings made famous by Jane Austen and wrote them into a new story which takes place six years after Elizabeth and Darcy marry. That’s essentially what fan fiction is; writers (albeit, generally amateur writers) find new ways to breathe life into familiar characters. Because James is a crime writer, she wrote a mystery (although a relatively tame one, even by my standards.)

Fan fiction is (according to Wikipedia) “is a broadly-defined term for fan labor  regarding stories about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creator. Works of fan fiction are rarely commissioned or authorized by the original work’s owner, creator, or publisher; also, they are almost never professionally published.”  I would have agreed with that definition except for all the fan fiction that has found its way into bookstores recently (Fifty Shades of Grey, for example, literally started its life as Twilight fanfiction; Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Android Karenina are two examples from Quirk Classics). Perhaps I am misinterpreting the definition of fan fiction, but to me when you borrow another writer’s characters and just give them a new plot – that’s fan fiction. Yes, even if it’s a parody. (Fan fiction writers write parodies all the time.)

But, hey, I’m a huge fan of fan fiction and so pointing it out isn’t meant as a criticism. Even Pulitzer Prize winning author, Michael Chabon understands the merits of derivative fiction. In his book of essays Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands he says:

 …all literature, highbrow or low, from the Aeineid onward, is fan fiction. That is why Harold Bloom’s  notion of the anxiety of influence has always rung so hollow to me. Through parody and pastiche, allusion and homage, retelling and reimagining the stories that were told before us and that we have come of age loving – amateurs – we proceed, seeking out the blank places in the map that our favorite writers, in their greatness and negligence, have left for us, hoping to pass on to our own readers – should we be lucky enough to find any – some of the pleasure that we ourselves have taken  in the stuff we love to get in on the game. All novels are sequels; influence is bliss.

No matter the source material, all literature, ultimately, has to stand on its own two feet. Readers needn’t be a fan of Austen – or even know who she is – to read Death Comes to Pemberley because in the opening chapter James fills us in on the backstory. Once readers have the lay of the land, they can jump into the mystery which for me was only so-so. I like Austen fine, although I wouldn’t say I am a huge fan. I love a good mystery. I don’t have any problem with dense, old-fashioned prose (really good fan fiction mimics the original author’s style and recreates characters that are recognizable to readers of the original work). But Death Comes to Pemberley was a big YAWN. Seriously: nothing happens.

Elizabeth and Darcy are madly in love – although they spend virtually no time together. Elizabeth is preparing for Pemberley’s yearly Lady Anne’s ball when her younger sister, Lydia, arrives screaming that her husband George Wickham has been murdered in Pemberley Wood. Wickham is a bad apple and has been a constant source of embarrassment for Darcy. When it turns out it’s not Wickham who is dead but another male who was traveling with him, Darcy isn’t sure Wickham actually committed the crime.

It’s not much to make a mystery meal out of, but James fills page after page with lengthy descriptions of relationships and manners and protocol and the moon on the woods and it was so S-L-O-W. If it hadn’t been our first book club pick (and by a new member, no less) I would have abandoned it, for sure. I kept plodding along, but for me, the original charm of the Elizabeth/Darcy relationship was absent and the rest of the book just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Reading, Writing and Leaving Home – Lynn Freed

Although I have never read any of Lynn Freed’s fiction, I was interested in her collection of essays, Reading, Writing and Leaving Home: Life on the Page because as a high school writing teacher I am always looking for writing advice to share with my students. You know, something like King’s “If you don’t time to read, you don’t have the time or tools to write.” While there aren’t necessarily any pithy quotes in this collection, it was an interesting book because Freed herself has had an interesting life.

Born and raised in South Africa, Freed’s parents were actors, and she grew up – the youngest of three girls – surrounded by books.

Most of the books in the house were kept in my parent’s study, a cosy room with leather chairs, teak bookshelves, leaded windows, and piles of scripts stacked around on the floor. It was there that my mother was to be found during the day, either timing scripts or drilling a new actor. And there that I was allowed to read whatever was available – mostly plays, but also opera libretti, the odd history, a few biographies, a selection of popular novels – as long as I didn’t interrupt.

Her writing career began when she wrote “ninety tedious pages” for an AFS scholarship application. The following year, when she actually landed in New York after having won the scholarship, she was told that the organization had put a two-page limit on the essay because of her entry. That story and those characters continued to swirl around in Freed’s head and eventually found their way into her novel. But none of it was easy.

The world I was writing about was the same world I had tackled for AFS, but now  could life it from the restraints of myth and detail and report and do with it anything I pleased. Or, at least, so I thought.

Freed writes about writing as I believe writing is: hard freakin’ work. Frustrating. Painstaking. A labour of love, sure, but it’ll kick your sorry ass.

…I would suggest that one should never overlook two essential elements in the development of the writer: long years of practice and a ruthless determination to succeed. Writers come to their material in different ways, but come they must if they are to succeed.

Even though this sounds like advice, Leaving Home isn’t actually a how-to book. The book chronicles Freed’s journey from girlhood to adulthood and covers everything from her relationship with her sisters to a trip back to the house she’d once called home – and all if it is fodder for her writing. If, as she claims, she has chosen truth over safety in her writing – I suspect her novels would be worth a look. I certainly enjoyed this collection of essays.