I tried to read Books Burn Badly, by Manuel Rivas, and got about halfway, looking ahead for clues to where the mass of words was leading, but found it unreadable. BBB is a sort of epic treatment of life in Spain from the beginning of the civil war, in the 1930s, to god knows when. It is beautiful in its million parts, but the scenes and characters are so numerous and so dimly glimpsed through the smoke of the book pyre in the centre of Madrid, that I found it impossible to follow. This novel could be classified as “magic realism,” I suppose, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is, but where Marquez created an epic in which the magic and illusion of memory is intertwined with the real world of colonialism, war, social inequality, family pride, tradition, and modernism, while managing to keep the chronology and characters in order, Rivas creates an ever-shifting cloud of characters and time that cannot be penetrated. Only the futility of Franco’s book burnings and the unstoppable desire of the people for written works of imagination and information are the constant images to which one can cling. The prose style we call “stream of consciousness” is useful for taking the reader into the minds of characters and into their sense of time passing, but Rivas asks us to go along on his, the author’s, thought stream; his thoughts, unfortunately, are seemingly too hectic and unfocussed to allow any story to be told.
All right, I peeked ahead to some later chapters and found that things had become more focussed on one character, but now, although the story was interesting, the narrative had become slow and dull. I couldn’t wade through to the end. It’s too bad, because the subject matter is extremely interesting, especially now, when secrets of the civil war and the long, repressive years of the Franco regime are coming to light. It is a period that needs to be treated in fiction of a high quality, as this is, in its way. No doubt this literature will be written, and Books Burn Badly will be considered an important, likely seminal, work. In my opinion it is sadly flawed, but I think it is for Spanish readers, first, to make their judgement.
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Life of a Voyageur
- Hearth and Home: The tumultuous life of Mathieu Rouillard and Jeanne Guillet
- by Marcel Pronovost. Translated from the French by Eileen Reardon
Baico Publishing Inc., 2011
$25.00, 349 pages.
Genre: Historical Fiction
When Marcel Pronovost’s ancestor, Mathieu Rouillard, arrived in New France in 1661 after a three-month Atlantic crossing, he did not see the gold he had been told would be lying about on the ground, but he knew it could be made by those with strength, intelligence, a will to work hard and ambition. Mathieu had all of these qualities in abundance but he was up against two mighty foes: the unforgiving North American wilderness and the rapacious French colonial government with its systems of trade and feudal seigneurial land grants.
Mathieu and his wife Jeanne were two among a large number of Mr. Pronovost’s Trois Rivières, Quebec ancestors, whose lives and times he has spent many years researching. Intending at first to write a brief history to be distributed among his own family members, he found the huge catalogue of historical data he had collected made that project untenable and so decided to make it a novel in which he could condense the subject of his family’s habitant ancestors into a dramatic tale of one couple whose experience encompassed the best and worst that the new world had to offer. Hearth and Home: The tumultuous life of Mathieu Rouillard and Jeanne Guillet is the result and a lively, fact-filled, fast-paced account it is.
Jeanne is the eldest daughter of a prosperous carpenter who at first welcomes Mathieu, a strong reliable farmhand at the time, to the family (Mathieu has left his own back in La Rochelle, France), but regrets it later when he finds that the young suitor has told a small lie about having property in France and will not provide the financial support for his daughter he had hoped for. Indeed, Mathieu will never be rich, but will be in debt to lenders for the rest of his life, his ambitions being more than even his strong back can bear. The newlyweds love each other passionately, but even Jeanne will become sad and embittered as the years go on and she is left alone for months at times to care for children and harvest crops, while her husband leaves “hearth and home” to pursue his true vocation.
After clearing a strip of land on the Batiscan River, near Trois Rivières, and building a small cabin for Jeanne and planting some wheat, he turns to the business that has captured his imagination since his arrival. He will be a coureur de bois or voyageur, traveling by canoe on the rivers that lead to the north and west to trade with the aboriginal peoples cheap merchandise for valuable beaver pelts. (Pronovost uses the term “Savages” for the natives, as the colonists did.)
He loves the hard, adventurous life, but learns that the fur trade is not always profitable–rarely, in fact. Still, he keeps going on longer and longer trips while owing more and more to the merchants who have lent him the goods with which he trades. The payment he receives for the furs he brings back never seem enough to cover the cost of those goods.
Between his trading voyages and brief returns to the ever-affectionate Jeanne, there are battles with the Iroquois and the English. It is the Iroquois who, at first, are the principle enemy of the French. They are a constant menace to both French settlers and other aboriginal nations. Many forts are built and local men are called up to join militias, which are mostly successful at fighting off the raiders, but many lives are lost on both sides. The English forces to the south only enter this narrative late in the story when Mathieu and his friends are forced to smuggle furs to the English forts, where they can get a higher price. The politics and religion of the day are portrayed in all their greed and hypocrisy, although we do see how Jesuit priests did their best to keep the colonists from moral decay. The growing cynicism of the colonists is also shown as they realise how powerless they are against the same social forces that existed in the Old France that they left, in hope of greater freedom.
When Mathieu is in his fifties and feeling his age, his desire to see places further west takes him to the Mississippi River and a trip south to warmer temperatures and fertile land, where he dreams of bringing his wife and children to live more freely and comfortably. Here he sadly meets his end.
Mathieu Rouillard, 1638-1702, holds the dubious distinction of (perhaps) being the first white man to have died and been buried in what is now the State of Louisiana and what was, in 1702, a swampy outpost of the far reaches of New France. A tragic end to a truly tumultuous life.
This semi-fiction (most of the names are of persons living in that time) takes us quickly through the years between 1660 and 1702 with energy, passion and a lively style that engages one completely but raises, to my mind, more questions than it answers about the lives and times of the hardy and adventurous people of New France; the role of women, both colonist and aboriginal, is distinctly missing in the scheme of things.
Illustrations from the National Archives of Canada, maps and lists of names of aboriginal nations and historical characters are included. Eileen Reardon provides a translation from the French that matches the spirit of the original. I recommend this first novel as a charming and intriguing introduction to the period.
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- The Watchtower by Darke Conteur
An ebook, available at Amazon Kindle.
Our hero is Martin Cunningham, a jobless graduate (presumably an English major, since his résumé is turned down everywhere), who finds himself hired far too swiftly by the mysterious Terin Corporation. A world-weary but attractive receptionist leads him, almost against his will, from the spooky-castle- decorated reception area to his new boss, Jezryall. She has the look and sound of a classic female vampire – exotically beautiful, long black hair, clinging long red dress with black lace, a seductive voice with a slight Russian accent, an accent that will prove interesting later on. Everyone working at Terin seems to have supernatural powers, except, perhaps, the pale men in the mail room. We meet Jezryall’s assistants, Aslin, an old Scottish hippy type, who can shoot fire from his fingertips, Daniel, a shy dreadlocked tech nerd, who mixes computers and “dark magic” in a laboratory reminiscent of Frankenstein’s operating room. Barb, the receptionist, has her own powers of hyper-sensitive touch and time travel.
Martin is to be the PR liaison officer for this weird group, whose work it is to save the world from evil weird groups. Russians, for no given reason, are the baddies in this fiction. I admit, Vladimir Putin acts a bit like a zombie master, but whether that is Darke Conteur’s inspiration, we may never know. I have to assume that The Watchtower is, or metaphorically refers to, Jezryall’s office on the 29th floor, as the term is not (unless I missed it in the fast-paced action) used in the book.
The best scene, in my opinion, is the farcical, funny opening of the package that Martin has volunteered to carry up from the ground floor. What comes out is not only evil, but a born comedian. Darke Conteur his/herself, has a sense of absurd comedy that is rare in fiction these days. The adventure darkens, as the team goes on their search for evil zombie makers. Descriptions of gruesome deaths in the basement of the Russian embassy have a really chilling effect. Along the way, we meet Greek gods living in an old building in Hull (Canada, I assume, and a big clue as to the identity of Martin’s home town). Their presence here is confusing at first, but it seems that their ancient knowledge and powers live on for those who seek the truth.
I enjoyed reading this short novel, but its shortness makes it rather frustrating to read, too. It could be improved with more details and, since satire seems to be the driving force, more thoughtful commentary on places and characters, so that we can know what the book is “about.” As it is, it seems to be more of sketch of a novel, or even a novella, than a complete one.
Darke Conteur has written a witty and lively ebook that should please fans of paranormal fiction – especially those living in a certain northern capital, where the story is set; clues to its name are so obvious that I’m puzzled as to why it isn’t named (people there eat French fries with ketchup on buses). There is plenty of material for satire in such a place; I hope Darke Conteur will give us a more fully-realised novel in the future.
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The Obsidian Mask by Caroline Ludovici
Infinity Publishing, 2012
This exciting novel takes us from battles over water during the climate change in the Mesopotamia of 3000 BC to the desert region of present day Iraq. An archeological dig for clues to the identity of a warrior queen of that ancient time becomes the setting for an adventure-filled vacation for four young teens, who end up learning a few things about history and archeology and a lot about themselves and each other.
Natasha and her younger brother, Alex, are taken along by their mother , Julia, an epigraphist (an artist who makes detailed drawings of archeological finds—you learn a lot of new words in this book), to the supposed site of the ancient palace of the legendary Queen Sorrea. Leading the excavation is Marcello, an Italian archeologist who, coincidentally—or is it?, has brought his two children, Lorenzo and Gabriella. Natasha is disposed to dislike them, as she disliked Marcello when she met him at home, in London, wherehe showed too much attention to the recently divorced Julia.
Lorenzo (about sixteen) and Gabriella (about thirteen), are still grieving the loss of their mother, who died some time ago. Knowing this makes Natasha more sympathetic and the friendship among the four begins to grow warmer. Another friend who has captured Natasha’s heart is Yanni, a Polish student working as assistant to Marcello. He’s cute and charming and wise and . . . maybe a little old for Natasha, but they have years to get to know one another better.
For young readers interested in history, travel and science and who enjoy a good mystery, there is plenty in this tale to fire the imagination. We are given a gripping account, in a prologue, of Sorrea’s last stand against an invading army that wants her city’s water supply. Climate change has brought severe drought to Mesopotamia and Ashook is one of the few places that has a healthy reservoir (thanks to a brilliant engineer, who offers to share his knowledge with the other city, but is brutally rejected).
Sorrea dies, passing her powers to her young daughter Afsineh. The new queen has her mother’s body lain in a secret tomb and orders a death mask to be carved from the glassy, black volcanic rock called obsidian. Encrusted with precious gems, it is placed over the dead queen’s face and remains there for 5000 years, until Marcello and his team discover it. Even now, however, the palace is under siege. This time it is a gang of thieves who want the mask, though it has been placed in a bank for safekeeping.
What follows is a dangerous, suspenseful adventure for the four young people and a twist in the tale that changes their lives forever.
I enjoyed reading this young adult novel, in spite of my advanced years. The pace never slows, and yet, there is time for reflection on past lives and present relationships with all their complications.
I highly recommend the Obsidian Mask .