Thursday 29 October 2020

The Glass Hotel


The Glass Hotel
The Glass Hotel

By Emily St. John Mandel

Vincent grows up in the fictional village of Caiette, just across the water from Port Hardy on northern Vancouver Island.  Her tiny town has no road and is accessible only by water taxi. Her unusual name (for a girl) was given to her by her mother, a big fan of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. The Pacific Ocean is an integral part of life in Caiette and looms large in Vincent’s mind, especially after her mother drowns.

Cut to Vincent’s life at age seventeen when her half-brother, Paul, shows up at her doorstep.  Vincent lives in a dismal apartment with roommate Melissa on the downtown eastside.  But Vincent shows herself to be self-sufficient and strong, determined to find her own way in life while Paul, perpetually down on his luck and addicted to heroin, can’t even hold down a job.

We then meet a slightly older Vincent who has taken a job at the Hotel Caiette.  This luxury inn has been established alongside her old stomping grounds, attracting rich tourists looking for a forest-and-ocean retreat while never really having to leave the glass-walled interior.  It’s here that she meets Jonathan Alkaitis, and her life takes another distinct turn.

Vincent soon becomes Alkaitis’s “wife”, or plays the role of his wife in a luxurious “fairy tale” life based in New York.  Alkaitis is an investment banker with an eclectic group of investors. Life at the peak of affluence is explored in detail, along with the aftermath.  When disaster strikes during the 2008 financial downturn, the dire consequences of Alkaitis’s hubris impact many of those intimately involved with him.

But Vincent, as always, quickly manages to redefine her life and finds herself returning to the ocean.

Vincent is a constant throughout this engrossing story, but Emily St. John Mandel delves deeply into many other lives.  Jonathan Alkaitis, his staff and investors, Paul and even some of the staff at the Hotel Caiette make up the cast of characters.  From the steel and glass opulence of New York to the grey-green beauty of a B.C. rainforest that skirts the ocean, Mandel’s depictions are deeply believable and moving.

Like her previous novel, Station Eleven, The Glass Hotel is well worth reading.

Friday 16 October 2020

Children of Ash and Elm

 Children of Ash and Elm

by Neil Price

I’m a gamer.  I play lots of video games, and one of my favourite series is Assassin’s Creed, a long and convoluted series of stories that are set in various historical time periods and places.  The games are meticulously researched: they go to great lengths to seek out the most recent scholarship on the people and places covered in a given game.  Previous games have covered medieval Rome, Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, Revolutionary America, Paris, and Industrial Age London.  Next up is the Viking Era, so I figured I’d try to learn a bit more which brought me to Children of Ash and Elm.

Vikings are most famous for being raiders.  Our popular images are of long ships filled with men wearing horned helmets wreaking havoc across northern Europe, pillaging their way through the villages of the Middle Ages. And yes, this is partly accurate: Vikings did raid.  They did kidnap people into slavery. Where they went, bloodshed followed. 

Children of Ash and Elm by Neil Price argues that they were so much more than that.  There is a tendency to write them off as a simplistic people, but they lived in a time of change.  Christianity was being imported into the north, so they were in a confusing transition between the old Norse gods and the new faith. Men and women both fought and farmed, trying to keep their families alive and fed in a challenging environment.

Children breaks the usual routine of many history books by not telling the Viking’s story in a strict historical timeline.  Rather than going chronologically from 800 to 1000 AD, Price starts with describing the people as they were: the social structures, the family life, what kind of clothes they wore., as well as what they believed, and how they interacted with the rest of the world.  Even in the 900s they had access to luxuries from as far away as China, and they travelled themselves far south, all the way to what is now Istanbul, Turkey.

Part of my ancestry is Icelandic, so reading this book was interesting on an intellectual level, but also painted a picture of my long distant family history, going back a thousand years. Neil Price’s years of experience as an archaeologist and professor devoted to Vikings and Nordic history really comes through and he brings the Viking People to life, reminding us that behind every myth and legend is a real culture, full of the same nuances, the same wants and needs, as we have today.  




by Charlotte McConaghy

In a world robbed of rainforests and birdsong, ornithologist Franny Stone embarks to track the final migration of the Arctic terns, known for their unmatched resilience as the birds with the longest migration period – and also as the last birds on Earth. Prepared for the harsh venture to the northernmost part of the globe, Franny seeks out a fishing vessel to take her on her journey, promising that with the terns they will find an abundant, and increasingly rare, supply of herring.  She somehow finds her place within the jigsaw crew onboard the Saghani, led by an ill-tempered captain who begrudgingly allows Franny to tag along, despite her lack of sea legs and know-how. What the crew does not know is that upon arrival at the Arctic, Franny plans to die, this trip being her swan song to a life coloured by loss. As Migrations progresses, readers learn how Franny came to track the terns, inspired by her absent environmentalist husband and seeking to fill the void left in childhood, when Franny’s mother disappeared.  

Charlotte McConaghy’s Migrations drew me in immediately with its vivid description of a world without wildlife. McConaghy paints this world as a shell of what it used to be, all but barren, and this is in turn reflected in her characters. This book asks difficult questions, challenging the reader to consider what a world without wildlife looks like – and beyond this, questioning how far someone might go to preserve even a whisper of how life once was. Each character, even those who make only a minor appearance, is illustrated with a depth often emerging from their own form of loss. At the same time, this is a story of survivors, of resilience: from the unyielding terns, to the enigmatic Captain Ennis Malone, to Franny herself, and offers a fulfilling read to anyone looking to experience the full spectrum of emotion through one written work. This book is heart-wrenching, evocative and exquisitely written: both a love letter and a goodbye.