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2013 Evergreen Award Nominees

By 49thShelf
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The Evergreen Award program was introduced in 2005 to give adult library patrons the opportunity to vote for a work of Canadian fiction or non-fiction that they have liked the most.
Indian Horse

Indian Horse

also available: Paperback Paperback
tagged : literary

"An unforgettable work of art." -- National Post

"Richard Wagamese's writing is exceptional not only for its sensitivity but for a warmth that extends beyond the page. With a finely calibrated hand, he explores heritage, identity, nature, salvation, and gratitude in works that quietly celebrate storytelling's vitality and power to transcend." -- Georgia Straight

Saul Indian Horse is dying. Tucked away in a hospice high above the clash and clang of a big city, he embarks on a marvellous journey of …

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In the 1960s, Kamal Al-Solaylee’s father was one of the wealthiest property owners in Aden, in the south of Yemen, but when the country shrugged off its colonial roots, his properties were confiscated, and the family was forced to leave. The family moved first to Beirut, which suddenly became one of the most dangerous places in the world, then Cairo. After a few peaceful years, even the safe haven of Cairo struggled under a new wave of Islamic extremism that culminated with the assassination o …

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Tell It to the Trees

Tell It to the Trees

also available: Paperback
tagged : literary

One freezing winter morning a dead body is found in the backyard of the Dharma family’s house. It’s the body of Anu Krishnan.
For Anu, a writer seeking a secluded retreat from the city, the Dharmas’ “back-house” in the sleepy mountain town of Merrit’s Point was the ideal spot to take a year off and begin writing. She had found the Dharmas’ rental through a happy coincidence. A friend from university who had kept tabs on everyone in their graduating year – including the quiet …

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One of the searchers spotted two ravens yanking at something and walked over to investigate. I watched as he squatted and peered down at the ground, raised his arm and waved the others over. They had found her.
The birds, they told us later, were tugging at her red and gold earring that was glinting up at them. We also heard she’d taken her jacket off even though it was thirty below that night. Sounds like a crazy thing to do, but I know it’s true. It’s what happens before you die from hypothermia, the blood vessels near the surface of your skin suddenly dilate making you think you are on fire and so you tear off your clothes to cool down. It’s quite a paradox really: the body starts to feel too hot before it dies of cold.
But by that time your brain is hallucinating, creating images of longed-for warmth, making you believe all kinds of weird things. I think it would be right to assume she died happy, believing she was in the tropics, warm as toast.
She was lying not too far from our door, past the spot where in a few months, when all the snow has melted, five rose bushes with bright pink flowers and giant thorns will mark the boundary between our land and old Mrs. Cooper’s. Several years ago, before she went off to live with her son in Vancouver, Mrs. Cooper sold her house to some developers who planned to turn it into a set of holiday homes, but it hasn’t happened yet. It’s shuttered and falling apart and I know ghosts live in it. I used to like hanging out in that whispering house, but some of the dumb boys from school discovered it and decided it was the perfect place to drink beer, smoke pot and giggle like fools and ruined it for me.
“Why on earth did she have to go out in such horrible weather?” my stepmother Suman asked for the nth time since the discovery of the body. She was stationed at the dining room window which provides almost as good a view as the one Hem and I had from the living room.
“Didn’t she know how dangerous cold can be? Hanh? Do you know why she did such a thing?”
She looked stricken. That’s the word for it, the exact one. As if a giant hand had smacked the joy out of her. Not that she’s a very cheerful person to begin with, but for a while this summer she’d gone back to being the way she was when she first came to Merrit’s Point—young and happy. I almost feel sorry for her.
I shook my head. “We were asleep, Mama,” I said gently, again. “I’ve no idea why she had to go out. If I was awake maybe I could have stopped her.”
Beside me Hem pushed his small, warm body closer. I hugged him hard. Hemant is my half-brother, Suman’s son, but entirely mine. I love him more than anything and anybody, more even than air and water and food, and just a bit more than Papa.
Out there things were winding down, the searchers loading the wrapped body onto a stretcher. We watched them carry it carefully to the waiting ambulance. An ambulance seemed kind of pointless since she was already dead, but people always hope for the best. Not me. I know that disaster lurks around every corner.The ambulance churned away in a spray of snow and
beside me Hem began to sob.
“Stop crying, you wuss,” I whispered, poking his cheek with my finger. He worries me sometimes. He is too much like Suman—no backbone, all emotion and weak. I have to make sure he doesn’t remain that way. For now, though, I can take it—he is only seven years old after all.
“I’m scared,” Hemant said. “I wish Akka was here.”
“Well she isn’t, is she?” I said, even though I too miss our grandmother. She’s in the hospital and not coming home. She’s too old and too sick.
“What will happen now?” Hem whispered.
“Nothing. They’ll take her to the morgue and a doctor will sign a certificate saying she’s dead, then Papa will notify her family. That’s all.” For the first time it occurred to me that she also had family. Just like us. A mother and brother and two nephews and a sister-in-law and cousins and aunts and uncles and maybe a grandma like Akka.
“What if they ask us questions?” Hem’s breath made a patch of mist on the windowpane.
 “What if they do? We were asleep, how are we supposed to know what happened, you noodle? Now stop crying all over me, I’m here, nothing will happen to you.”
He pressed closer to me, wrapped both his arms around my waist and held me tight. I love the smell of him—milky and sweet. I am not a sentimental sort of girl, but with Hem I turn into everything I do not wish to be. “Will you always be here with me, Vashi?” He gazed up at me with his big brown eyes that unfortunately always remind me of Suman. Like a puppy begging for love, for approval, soft and silly.
“Of course, where else would I be?”
“When you’re grown up also?”
“Well, I do plan to go away to university, Hem. But that isn’t for five whole years.”
“What if I feel like talking to someone when you’re away at university?” Hem asked anxiously.
“You’ll be a big boy by then—you won’t need me around so much,” I said.
“But I might still feel like talking to someone, then what?”
“You can always call me.”
“If you aren’t there?”
I knelt and wrapped my arms around him. “Talk to Tree, that’ll help, won’t it?” I felt his heart jumping against mine, in sync—thump-thump-thump—almost one.
“Tree will always be here, Hem. It’s ours and it will never tell on us.”
I am Varsha Dharma, granddaughter of Mr. J.K. Dharma, late, and his wife Bhagirathi otherwise known as Akka. Daughter of Vikram and Harini (or Helen as my mother preferred to be called—she liked disguises). Stepdaughter to Suman, and sister to Hemant.
I am thirteen years old, almost fourteen. I love reading. I love my family. I prefer to have no friends. I plan to go to university. When I grow up I will be a lawyer. Maybe a writer. A scientist even. I can be anything I set my mind to be. I am super smart. Even Miss Frederick the English teacher who takes us for art as well and who is not fond of me concedes I am precocious beyond my years. She and the other teachers also feel I have an attitude issue—of course I do—and anger issues, according to reports they send to Papa citing complaints from the town mothers and their stupid children.
“Gene problem,” Akka says. “Like your father and his father. I am telling you, Varsha, learn to control that temper. Don’t turn into your Papa. Don’t turn bad like him.”
And I come from a long line of dead people. I know everyone in this world does, but our family tree is knotty with folk who died in odd ways, almost all of them on my grandfather’s side of the family.
“We all die quietly in our own beds of old age or boredom,” Akka claims. “But Mr. J.K. Dharma’s people— ho, you won’t believe how some of them died. I tell you, enough to fill a book!” Then she counts off her favourite deaths on her fingers. “First there was your grandfather’s oldest cousin Ranjini the Raving Beauty, she who got bitten by a rabid dog before her wedding, didn’t tell anyone, showed up at the marriage hall in all her finery, foaming at the mouth, had a seizure, fell into the sacred fire and terrified the groom so thoroughly that he ran out of there and never got married. And since he was an only son, his parents died without grandchildren, calling down curses on the head of Ranjini the Raving Beauty.
“Then there was that other cousin on your grandfather’s side again—the one who finished a satisfying and forbidden dinner of mutton biryani at the military hotel in the Muslim area of the town in which he lived, was crossing the road to finish things off with a betel leaf stuffed with sugar beads and betel nut shavings and a touch of opium, when he stepped right into an open manhole and drowned in filth. And your grandfather Mr. J.K. Dharma, small man with a big ego, froze into a pillar of ice right outside our front door when he was forty-seven years old. He forgot his keys, came home really late, really drunk one winter night, couldn’t wake me and turned into an ice sculpture. He deserved what he got, the drunken lout. He brought me nothing but tears.”
He was too young to die, Akka adds quickly of her frozen husband. But I can tell she’s not sorry about it. He was a blot on the family name.
Last but not least is my own traitor mother Harini, who called herself Helen and hated living here with me and Papa and Akka, so she just took off without explanation one fine morning.
I don’t think Papa has forgiven my mother for leaving him even after all these years. She was a bad wife and a wicked mother, he said after she was gone. She deserved her death.
You were a bad husband,” Akka shouted at him.
“She didn’t deserve the misery you brought her and she certainly didn’t deserve her death.” She held me close to her and glared at Papa, who looked like he wanted to hit her the way he did my mother and sometimes me too when I am naughty.
My father controlled himself then, but he had torn up all of my mother’s photographs and burned them in the fireplace. He told me I was to forget her absolutely. I was never to talk about her. Ever. She was a traitor. She had abandoned us. She was a bad wife and a wicked mother. She was an Unmentionable. We’ve not forgiven her, Papa and me.
But it’s hard to forget. And she refused to leave me. She was everywhere in the house. I would wake up at night sometimes, sure she was sitting in a corner of my room—a loud and strong and beautiful ghost. I tried to hate her but I couldn’t. I wanted to reach out and hold her tight, I wanted to rub my face against her belly, and kiss her and feel her softness. And then I’d remember that she’d left me without a backward glance, and the rage would come rushing in. I’d push her away. Not needed here, she is not. Go away monster mother, leave us alone, I’d yell, we’ve found somebody else to love, a new mother who will always be here, for as long as ever.
 “It was your father’s temper that chased your poor mother away,” Akka said once. “And if he doesn’t watch out, your stepmother might leave as well.” She paused for a bit and then added, “Poor thing. Poor thing. She must be cursing the gods for bringing her here to this Jehannum.”
I always became anxious when Akka talked like this about Suman running away. When Suman first came here, she tried so hard to fit into the space my real mother left behind, but failed every single time. That made Papa mad. And that made me worry—what if she too went away like Akka said she might. Would she take us with her? Or would she leave us behind with Papa? What if she left me and took only Hemant? After all, he is her son, I’m nothing more than her stepdaughter. Then I’d tell myself she would never do such a thing: she loves me. She is mine. Papa brought her for me all the way from India. I am grateful to her for giving me my brother and for keeping the house clean and for cooking yummy food. I try hard to make sure she has no reason to leave—I am good as gold, I help her with chores, and I hug her every morning and at night before bed. I try, I do try to make her feel loved. It is my job to tie her to me tight so that she will never ever leave.
So that’s it—our family—Akka, Papa, me, Hemant, and Suman—three generations of us, crammed together, typical Indian-style, in a small house built by my grandfather on five acres of land on the edge of a rotten little town called Merrit’s Point. It’s in the middle of nowhere and is full of gossips and bores and kids with snotty names like Celia and Mason. If land in our town is cheap now, Akka says that when Grandfather bought it about forty-five years ago it cost less than a handful of dirt. He was dead before I was born and Akka says she has no idea why he moved all the way up here into this back of beyond. He didn’t even leave a record of his thoughts—I know because I looked everywhere—just a few words scratched with purple ink in an empty little notebook: “This is all mine. Silence at last.—J.K. Dharma.” What was he claiming? I asked Akka. But she couldn’t tell me.
“Who knows, and why should I care?” she said. She never wanted to speak of him anyway, the frozen husband who’d robbed her of her happiness. So I have to imagine it. I imagine him living in a crowded place in India—I haven’t been there yet, but I read in one of Papa’s books that there are millions and millions of people there. Maybe Grandfather was tired of all those people. Maybe it didn’t matter to him that he was in a place where hardly anybody else wanted to live unless they had to—like the people in town who came here to mine copper and then to work in the lumber mill. I think what mattered was that he owned this piece of the earth, paid for by him with his first savings, and when he opened a window he could hear the wind instead of a thousand chattering voices, he could see the starry sky instead of dust, and all around him his eyes landed only on quiet mountains and giant trees standing in silent clusters, bearing in their wooden hearts the secrets of all the creatures that live here.
 “We are cursed,” Akka wailed. “We are cursed with the family we have, and the family we have lost, we are cursed because we have to live in this town. We are cursed because we are who we are.”
“If you hate it so much, why did you come here?”
I demanded. Sometimes my grandmother confuses me with her contradictions. She loves my father, but she blames him for my mother leaving. She is fiercely protective about our family and hates “prying eyes,” as she calls them, but she says my grandfather was a demon and my Papa is one too. She shoots a fist up in the direction of the sky. “It’s their fault, those fancy-dress monkeys up there, those gods your silly father loves so much these days! They’re blind and deaf all of them.”
But even though Akka says these things about Papa and Grandfather, it is only in private, to me or to Suman. She’d never let our family down in public. Neither would I or Hem or Papa. Tight as a fist, we are, and as hard if you get in our way. Suman is the only weakness, the little finger, but Papa and I knew right away we’d have to hold her hard in our grasp. That way she wouldn’t have a chance to do anything silly.
That’s how we were until Anu Krishnan moved into our lives. Then everything changed.

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The Deception of Livvy Higgs

The Deception of Livvy Higgs

also available: Hardcover

For two traumatic days, Livvy Higgs is besieged by a series of small heart attacks while the ghost of her younger self leads her back through a past devastated by lies and secrets. The story opens in Halifax in 2009, travels back to the French Shore of Newfoundland during the mid-thirties and the heyday of the Maritime shipping industry, makes its way to wartorn Halifax during the battle of the Atlantic in World War II, then leaps ahead to the bedside of the elder Livvy.

Caught between a trouble …

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The Little Shadows

The Little Shadows

also available: Paperback
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Here is the eagerly anticipated new novel from a brilliant writer whose last book, Good to a Fault, was shortlisted for the prestigious Giller Prize and won the Commonwealth Prize for Canada and the Caribbean.
The Little Shadows revolves around three sisters in the world of vaudeville before and during the First World War. We follow the lives of all three in turn: Aurora, the eldest and most beautiful, who is sixteen when the book opens; thoughtful Clover, a year younger; and the youngest siste …

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Gentry Fox was the shortest man Clover had ever seen, shorter than she was by far. As if someone had pressed down on the head of a normal man, but some time ago, so he’d had time to get used to it.
He had to look up, even at Bella, which he did with a sideways glint. ‘What—have—we—here?’ he asked, his voice both gravelled and silky.
The girls stood in a line, not sure whether to proceed. He waved a hand, beckoning them to the stage, and they went stiffly down the raked aisle, not entirely sure of their footing in the thicker darkness of the auditorium. Mama patted Clover, who moved aside to let her through. She took two steps and stopped, perhaps afraid, Clover thought. But no. She had paused only to make a better entrance. Mr. Fox looked up, inquiring, when she did not speak—then, looking again, gave Mama a very warm, familiar smile. He laughed and bowed, and bowed again, coming forward as he bent and rose and bent.
‘Oh, my dear sir, you may recall that I have had the distinct pleasure of making your acquaintance before,’ Mama said to the little bowing man. Bowing now herself.
‘But of course, of course I recall,’ Mr. Fox said, murmuring and mincing. ‘With the greatest, my dear Flora, the greatest of pleasure.’ Pleasure, pleasure. They were nodding dolls, bowing and re-bowing. Clover felt Aurora pull her close, then slide an arm behind to pull Bella into place.
‘And these?’
‘Oh, these! My dear Mr. Fox! You see before you—my daughters.’ Dark eyes gleamed in his dark rumpled face, turning from one girl to the next. His squashed neck was supple. Inspecting Aurora. Then Clover, Bella. And back to Mama.
‘They are jewels,’ he said with great simplicity. ‘They sing? They dance?’
‘They do!’ Mama clapped her hands because he was so clever.
‘May we?’
‘Will you? Will they? Johnny Drawbank! Clear those hands away, if you will. Lights!’
This was a much bigger stage, a much bigger theatre. Not a jewel box like the Empress; the floorboards not as clean beneath the dirty chairs, and the stage not clean either. Deep, though, and high—four long curtain-legs before the backdrop. Clover thought doing it in one here would be a pleasure, because the stage bowed outwards and left an acre of room in front of the great red curtain (its ragged bottom draggling on the boards, gold bobble-trim gappy and dimmed).
Work-lights shone on the piano, and on the stage. As Mama and the girls climbed the moveable gangplank over the orchestra pit, on came the footlights, the gas flaring gently, and the stage became welcoming. ‘We’ll start with an old song,’ Mama said, twinkling down at Mr. Fox. ‘After the Ball,’ she murmured to the girls, and sat herself at the piano gracefully. Her little hands raised themselves over the keys, and paused, and then were off, playing with unusual care and a rippling dash—the conservatory glass, the palms, the tinkling waltz heard from a distance . . . They told the sentimental story plain, the way she had taught them, not as a tired tale but as if this were their Uncle Chum explaining his bachelor life to them. None of the girls could remember meeting him, but they all had affection for him, from this imaginary memory. It made Clover believe that Mama must have a soft spot for Chum too, after all.
‘. . . oh, Uncle, please.
Why are you single; why live alone?
Have you no babies; have you no home?
I had a sweetheart, years, years ago;
Where she is now, pet, you will soon know.
List to the story, I’ll tell it all,
I believed her faithless, after the ball . . .’
Watching the girl he loved being kissed, standing empty-hearted with two glasses of punch in his hands . . . How plaintive the old man became, and what a small, stupid thing to ruin someone’s life: ‘he was her brother! ’ Then they were into the chorus again, waltzing in place to prove they could do it in one:
 ‘After the ball is over, after the break of dawn—
After the dancers’ leaving; after the stars are gone;
Many a heart is aching, if you could read them all;
Many the hopes that have vanished
After the ball.
Mama ended with a fading chord, well in keeping with the natural delivery of the song, and left a dainty hand poised in air for a moment as the girls bowed. Then she twirled on the piano stool, face out to the audience, to Gentry Fox. He rose from his seat in the front row with a hearty ‘Bravo!’ clapping his hands delightedly.
Coming forward to the stage, he stretched out a hand to Mama as if he could reach hers, which not even a tall man could have, and she reached down to him without moving from the stool.
‘Lovely, lovely girls! Lovely to hear that old song again, so freshly rendered! And how well I recall you, my dear Flora—at the Hippodrome, was it not?—with that little number.’
‘Oh, Gentry, a hundred years ago,’ Mama said, blushing and bobbing. Bella laughed too, to see her so pleased. Clover looked at Mr. Fox with attention: a living clue to Mama’s old life. But beside her she could feel Aurora waiting, tense, and her own confidence drained away. ‘Now you must let me give you some lunch,’ Gentry said, taking out a card case. ‘Hand my card to the girl at the Grandon Hotel, they do a royal tea there . . . and thank you for warming an old man’s heart. You are visiting in the neighbourhood? With family?’
Mama got up from the piano, her face fallen into a polite parody of her earlier happiness. ‘You have no work for my girls, then, Gentry?’ she asked—her voice sad, but her face remaining cheerful.
‘My dear Flora, they are young and charming, and I am inundated with acts. Between you and me and your eighteen best friends, this is a poor place I find myself. We have only seven on the bill—all but continuous, you know—three shows a day, a hardscrabble life.’
‘But what a training ground!’ Mama said lightly—still working, still arguing, however her words might be disguised as chat.
 ‘But such delicately reared girls, my dear Flora, could not be expected to— And my bill is full for this and several weeks to come.’
‘But I see you lack a closer,’ Mama said. Her last effort.
‘Oh, as to that, I use the pictures as a closer. Nothing beats a very old pictograph for encouraging an audience’s hearts for home.’
‘I bet we could chase them better, if we’re so bad!’ Bella called over the footlights at him, laughing at her own audacity.
Clover pinched her quickly, but Gentry laughed too, darting a sharp look at Bella’s cheeky, lively face. But he still held out the calling card. Lunch, not life.
‘Well, thank you, Gentry, for seeing us. It was a piece of old times to find you here,’ Flora said, folding her music as if they hadn’t a care in the world, as if they were, in fact, visiting family and perfectly easy. As if they hadn’t spent twenty-three dollars on train fare.
She and Aurora looked at each other, and she lifted her chin and smiled.
‘Off we go, then,’ she said. ‘But perhaps we had better return to our friends for luncheon, thank you all the same.’
Aurora lighted down on the first step, lifting her skirt delicately over her tight-laced new boot. The second step, the second boot (and above it, a stretch of smooth white stocking). The third step, the fourth.
‘But, Mama,’ she said, smiling into Gentry’s upturned face. ‘I think I’d like some tea.’
He held out his hand with the card again, and she took it, and then his arm, for help in navigating the last steps.
‘Thank you, Mr. Fox,’ Aurora said. She stopped to pull on her elegant mauve kid gloves. ‘And will you come with us? My sisters and I would love to hear how you and Mama come to know each other so well; how you come to be in this theatre, and what wonders you are working in this out-of-the-way place—we see your dodgers all over town!’
Gentry blinked, but resisted, even though her eyes were so clear, their colour shifting from blue to green, a dark line around the iris. Beautiful, yes. The curve of her clear warm cheek and jaw ran enticingly into the hidden reaches of the neck, under that glossy pile of bright, ruly-unruly hair.
‘Alas, no, I shall be engaged all afternoon with wretched business,’ he told her sadly.
Aurora gave him a beautiful smile, exchanged his arm for her sister’s, and walked up the raked aisle. The tiny waist of her jacket remained steady; below it the skirt swayed, its length tantalizing along the ground in an eddy of dust. The youngest one, the filly, hopped off the last step and sparkled at him, then dashed after the elder two. ‘Look at her, the darling! All legs and heels and promise,’ he said to Flora, before he could check himself. ‘But I am sentimentalizing. Time to retire to the country!’
Flora took the steps without assistance, pulling on her own gloves, her music in its leather case beneath her arm, and at the bottom, bowed to Gentry. He looked at her soft face, brown curls at her brow. Still pretty as paint, even softened into middle age. A loving heart, if a silly one. She stepped down onto the floor, not wanting to tower above him more than she could help—for his sake as well as her own. A stroke of luck to have found him here. It could not be wasted.
‘Gentry,’ she said, then drew in a breath. ‘I wonder—I’ve done my best with my dear girls, but they need polish, of course. I wonder if you would consider taking them on for a few weeks, for nothing—well, or for just the usual travelling expenses, alone—to gain experience, to be introduced to the profession.’
She had caught his attention. Either his pockets were to let, or his native stinginess was stirring. How much this would cost her, coming and going, she thought she knew.
‘I’m sure we could go farther afield and find paid work, but it’s you, the association with someone of your calibre—oh! I know very well how much good you did me, all those years ago, and I wish that same good for my girls. Can you find it in your heart to blame me?’  ‘The thing is, Flora,’ he said, not unkindly, ‘your dainty girls are too refined for this place—it would be cruel. They are not—’ ‘They are. I promise you. They are better by far than I.’ Her urgency led her to put a hand on his arm. A small hand in a black cloth glove, it vanished on his black sleeve.
‘Gentry, for old times’ sake—I beg you.’
After a moment, he bowed one last time. ‘Madam, that plea is impossible to refuse. Not today. But bring them here at nine tomorrow, and I will see what can be done.’
She found it hard to look at him, after putting herself so low before him, but busied herself with her music case.
He gestured towards it: ‘Have you a lobby photograph for the girls there?’ He saw from her face that they had none. ‘After your lunch go to Leroy’s Studio on 8th Avenue. They will not overcharge you.’ As Flora went up the aisle, he called after her. ‘What happened to your schoolmaster?’
‘Oh—’ She shrugged and almost smiled. ‘Oh, he died.’ She nodded, and went through the bright doorway.

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The Western Light

The Western Light

A Novel
also available: eBook
tagged : literary

The Western Light, the prequel to the international bestselling The Wives of Bath, is Susan Swan's long-awaited return to the life of the beloved narrator Mary "Mouse" Bradford. Mouse's world is constrained by a number of factors: her mother is dead, her father -- the admired country doctor -- is emotionally distant, her housekeeper Sal is prejudiced and narrow, and her grandmother and aunt, Big Louie and Little Louie, the only life-affirming presences in her life, live in another city.

Enter Gen …

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The Winter Palace

The Winter Palace

also available: Paperback
tagged : historical

Behind every great ruler lies a betrayal. Eva Stachniak's novel sweeps readers into the passionate, intimate, and treacherous world of Catherine the Great, revealing Russia's greatest matriarch from her earliest days in court, where the most valuable currency was the secrets of nobility and the most dangerous weapon to wield was ambition.
Two young women, caught in the landscape of shifting allegiances, navigate the treacherous waters of palace intrigue. Barbara is a servant who will become on …

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I could have warned her when she arrived in Russia, this petty German princess from Zerbst, a town no bigger than St. Petersburg’s Summer Garden, this frail girl who would become Catherine.
This court is a new world to you, I could have said to her, a slippery ground. Do not be deceived by tender looks and flattering words, promises of splendor and triumph. This place is where hopes shrivel and die. This is where dreams turn to ashes.
She has charmed you already, our Empress. With her simplicity, the gentle touch of her hand, the tears she dried from her eyes at her first sight of you. With the vivacity of her speech and gestures, her brisk impatience with etiquette. How kind and frank Empress Elizabeth Petrovna is, you have said. Others have, too. Many others. But frankness can be a mask, a disguise, as her predecessor has learned far too late.
Three years ago our bewitching Empress was but a maiden princess at the court of Ivan VI, the baby Emperor, and his Regent Mother. There had been a fiance lost to smallpox, there had been other prospects derailed by political intrigues until everyone believed that, at thirty- two and without a husband, the youngest daughter of Peter the Great had missed her chance at the throne. They all thought Elizabeth Petrovna flippant and flighty then, entangled in the intricacies of her dancing steps and the cut of her ball dresses— all but a handful who kept their eyes opened wide, who gambled on the power of her father’s blood.
The French call her “Elizabeth the Merciful.” For the day before she stole the throne of Russia from Ivan VI, she swore on the icon of St. Nicholas the Maker of Miracles that no one under her rule would ever be put to death. True to her word, on the day of the coup, she stopped the Palace Guards from slashing Ivan’s infant throat. She plucked the wailing baby Emperor from his crib and kissed his rosy cheeks before she handed him back to his mother and packed them both off to live in prison.
She likes when we repeat that no head has been cut off since the day she took power but forbids us to mention the tongues and ears. Or the backs torn to meaty shreds by the knout. Or the prisoners nailed to a board and thrown into a freezing river. Mercy, too, knows how to deceive.
Here in the Russian court, I could have warned the pretty newcomer from Zerbst, life is a game and every player is cheating. Everyone watches everyone else. There is no room in this palace where you can be truly alone. Behind these walls there are corridors, a whole maze of them. For those who know, secret passages allow access where none is suspected. Panels open, bookcases move, sounds travel through hidden pipes. Every word you say may be repeated and used against you. Every friend you trust may betray you.
Your trunks will be searched. Double bottoms and hollowed books will not hold their secrets for long. Your letters will be copied before they are sent on their way. When your servant complains that an intimate piece of your clothing is missing, it may be because your scent is preserved in a corked bottle for the time when a hound is sent to sniff out your presence.
Keep your hands on your pockets. Learn the art of deception. When you are questioned, even in jest, even in passing, you have mere seconds to hide your thoughts, to split your soul and conceal what you do not want known. The eyes and ears of an inquisitor have no equals.
Listen to me.
I know.
The one you do not suspect is the most dangerous of spies.
As soon as she seized the throne of Russia, Empress Elizabeth made no secret of her resolve to rule alone, without a royal husband. Since she would have no children to succeed her, she sent for her sister’s orphaned son, Karl Peter Ulrich, the Duke of Holstein. When the young Duke was brought to her, lanky and bone- thin, his eyes bloodshot with exhaustion after the long journey, she pressed him to her heaving bosom. “The blood of the Romanovs,” she announced, as he stiffened in her arms. “The grandson of Peter the Great.” She presided over his conversion to the Orthodox faith, renamed him Peter Fyodorovich, and made him the Crown Prince. He was fourteen years old.
She didn’t ask him if he wished to live with her. She didn’t ask him if he wanted to rule Russia one day. Now, right after his fifteenth birthday, she didn’t ask him if he wanted a bride.
Princess Sophie Fredrika Auguste Anhalt- Zerbst. It was her portrait that arrived first, and I recall the grand moment of its unveiling. Portraits of this kind are not meant to render a likeness, but to entice. “Her?” I heard Chancellor Bestuzhev say when the Empress mentioned Sophie for the first time. “But why her?” The Chancellor mentioned the need of crafty ties, and hedging one’s bets. Europe required a careful balance of power, he cautioned. The Prussians were growing too strong as it was. “Your Highness should consider a Saxon princess.”
The Empress stifled a yawn.
“I’ve not decided anything yet,” Elizabeth told him. Her nephew Peter was sitting at her feet, his long white fingers turning the turquoise ring around, as if he were tightening a screw.
In the weeks that followed I heard Sophie’s father referred to as a prince of quite exceptional imbecility, a Prussian general not able to control his foolhardy wife for whom the shabby Court of Brunswick had become the measure of all grandeur. The Anhalt- Zerbsts were well connected but poor, shamelessly clamoring for Empress Elizabeth’s attention, reminding her that she once almost married one of them, this tenuous link to Russia their only real hope of attaining significance.
When a footman parted the red velvet curtain, we saw a portrait of a slim and graceful figure standing by the mantel, a girl of fourteen, summoned from her studies. We saw the pale- green bodice of her gown, the dainty hands folded on her stomach. Whatever rumors may have reached us, Princess Sophie was not a cripple. No childhood illness had deformed her spine. There was an air of lightness around her; she seemed on the verge of breaking into a cheerful dance. Her chin was pointed, her lips small but shapely. Not quite pretty but fresh and playful, like a kitten watching a ball of yarn unfurl. The painter made sure we would not miss the exquisite pallor of her complexion, the softness of her eyes, the blue flecks of her pupils so striking a contrast to her raven- black hair. Nor could we overlook her ardent will to please.
Murmurs, hesitant and vague, filled the room. Courtiers’ words mumbled and slurred so praise could still be retracted, blame turned into a veiled compliment. The art of deception, I thought, the eyespots on a butterfly’s wing flickering for a lifesaving second. Grasshoppers that change their color with the seasons to match the fading leaves. The grand gentlemen and ladies of the court were still looking at the portrait, but I knew there was something far more important to watch. The face of the Empress of Russia taking her first measure of this princess child who, if she willed it, would become her nephew’s bride. The face I had learned to read.

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On the eve of a secret military operation, an assassin’s bullet strikes U.S. President Seth Jerrison. He is rushed to hospital, where surgeons struggle to save his life. At the same hospital, Canadian researcher Dr. Ranjip Singh is experimenting with a device that can erase traumatic memories. Then a terrorist bomb detonates. In the operating room, the president suffers cardiac arrest. He has a near-death experience—but the memories that flash through Jerrison’s mind are not his memories.  …

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