Tag Archives: Margaret Elphinstone

March Reading Round-Up & April Preview

March Books

March wasn’t a particularly busy reading month but I did read some really good books and ones that were quite different from each other too. I think my favourite book this month has been The Search by Geoff Dyer as I got really drawn into it.

Books from March are:
The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
The Search by Geoff Dyer
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I also published a review of The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins which I read back in November last year.

I’m really happy with my blogging this month as I feel like I am finally getting the hang of it and being a little more consistent in putting up reviews soon after I’ve read a book. It’s taken me a while to get to this stage and I find that I am enjoying it more and more. I started a new Wish List page where I aim to put links to reviews that have inspired me to read something that I hadn’t heard of or just hadn’t fancied before. So far I have Life After Life by Kate Atkinson on there which I will hopefully get my hands on soon!

April Books

I’m really looking forward to what’s in store in April as I have embarked upon something a little different by reading several books by Evelyn Waugh all in one month. I started reading Scoop yesterday which I’m already finding very funny, and after that I’ll be reading Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust. Another of Waugh’s books, The Loved One was recommended to me by Fleur Fisher of the Fleur Fisher in her world books blog – I don’t have a copy but I’m planning to borrow one from my local library and add it to my list. If I have time, I may even re-read Brideshead Revisited! I might try and catch up on a few Waugh films too – I’ve seen the 2008 film version of Brideshead Revisited but didn’t rate it highly and I’ve heard the TV series with Jeremy Irons from the ’80s is far superior so I’ll see if I can find that. The film version of A Handful of Dust has also been recommended to me so I’ll try and track that down, as well as watching Bright Young Things after I have read Vile Bodies (the book on which the film was based).

Finally, I have also looked out Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck to re-read as I was reminded of it so much when reading The Cone-Gatherers and fancied reading it again. So I have a busy month ahead of me and potentially 6 books to get through – looking forward to it!

Advertisements

5 Comments

Filed under Literary musings

Book Review: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child

I first heard about this book in 2012 when there seemed to be a lot of hype about it, and I remember it being recommended to me by a friend. It was at one point a suggestion for the book club I am part of but was put aside in favour of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I had forgotten about it for a while and then I saw it sitting on the bookshelves of a friend who kindly let me borrow it.

The book is set in the 1920s, when Mabel and Jack have moved to Alaska to start a new life after their child is stillborn. They are struggling to cope with the wilderness; Jack spends his days trying to get the land ready for crops and Mabel is struggling to cope with the overwhelming sadness that her childlessness brings. One night after the snow has started to fall, it is as if some magical spell comes over them and they run around outside playing in the snow, and build a little child made of snow. The next morning, the snow child is gone, as are the mittens and scarf they had used to decorate it, and they start to see glimpses of a little girl running around the wilderness and leaving footprints in the snow. This sparks an upturn in Mabel and Jack’s lives and they become friends with some fellow farmers, get help on the farm and Esther a close friend for Mabel, but one who is much more grounded and doesn’t at first believe Mabel when she talks of the snow child they have made.

The Snow Child was a bit of a slow starter for me. I wasn’t sure of the writing style and initially it struck me as a little unsophisticated, jumping straight into Mabel’s inner turmoil without much explanation or time for the reader to settle in. I put it aside for a week or so while I read The Sea Road and after going back to it I started to enjoy it a lot more. I think it helped that snow started to fall in Edinburgh that week so I was more than content to read a wintry tale.

The plot of The Snow Child takes its inspiration from a Russian fairytale about an elderly, childless couple who build a child in the snow, who brightens their lives for a little while but disappears when they do not offer a reward to a fox who has saved their little snow child from getting lost. Mabel becomes a little obsessed with this tale, and uses it as an interpretation of Faina’s odd behaviour, as she disappears in the spring and returns in the winter, and becomes feverish if she becomes too warm. I found Mabel a little frustrating at times, she was prone to dwell on the negative things in her life and is constantly questioning their decision to move to Alaska and I think doesn’t quite appreciate the amount of work that Jack will have to do to get their land to a state that they live off of. Her character does develop quite a lot through the novel, in part due to Faina’s influence on their lives, but I would argue more so as a result of her friendship with Esther, her neighbour. I loved Esther, in fact she may have been one of my favourite characters in the novel and her down to earth and practical manner was refreshing in comparison to Mabel.

There were some aspects to the book that I really loved. Faina’s life sounded magical, and I enjoyed the story of Faina and how she would roam about in the wilderness, living off of the land and being a bit of a free spirit. To be honest I think when I was a child I would have liked to do much the same thing! Although I think I was more of a summer baby… Jack and Mabel are always trying to tie her down though, saying she cannot live like a ‘woodland sprite’ all of her life and I think I resented the way they tried to tie her down just as she treats their attempts to comfort her with suspicion.

I found the story a little predictable at times, but the descriptions of the landscape could be very evocative and I did feel drawn into the story and setting, feeling the cold and the harsh reality of living somewhere like Alaska. Without giving too much away I would have preferred either this to be more of a fairytale as I felt this lay at times in a bit of an awkward middle-ground between fantasy and reality. I think I was just craving something more magical because it was snowy outside though so it could just be me!

It was an enjoyable and charming book and nice to curl up with on a cold night. There have been LOADS of reviews for this book – here are a few from some book blogs I like:

Lucybird’s Book Blog
Bibliomouse
Heavenali
Bundleofbooks

4 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews

Book Review: The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone (A Re-Reading)

The Sea Road

A few weeks ago, we had our annual staff conference at Canongate Books and one of our assignments was to pick a ‘Gem from the Vault’ – this was loosely described as a book from Canongate’s backlist that you love and want to remind people about. I poured over my bookshelves, looking at the spines for that little red door emblem, or the older one, a big C, at the bottom of all the Canongate titles I own.

I stumbled upon The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone and decided that it would be my Gem and set about re-reading it. I first read it at university, in fact, I think it may have been one of the first novels I actually studied there. I was lucky enough to have Margaret Elphinstone as a lecturer in Creative Writing, and there was something so exciting to be reading a book written by someone I had actually met and was being taught by. So interesting to listen to what she was saying and to read her book simultaneously, looking out for all of the techniques and narrative styles that she discussed.

The Sea Road is the story of a real life woman, Gudrid Thorbjornardóttir, whose tale had been told as part of The Vinland Sagas, Icelandic sagas describing the exploration of the Americas in the 10th century by the Norse people. What Elphinstone does is give voice to Gudrid and to tell her tale in a way that draws you into her history and brings an ancient story to life.

The tale begins in Rome, where a young Icelandic monk has been asked by a cardinal to transcribe Gudrid’s tale to shed some light on her experiences with ghosts and spirituality. The tale that follows covers so much more than that, beginning with Gudrid’s childhood in Iceland where she was raised by Halldis, the local apothecary, to her travels to Greenland and Vinland, with her first husband Thorstein and then her second husband Karlsefni.

I love the narrative of this book, as Gudrid tells her story to Agnar, it feels like she is talking to you, the reader, as well. The story of her life is never straightforward and is often invaded by thoughts about the present, or even events that happened long after the ones she is speaking about. It is really interesting to see how on looking back at a life, it is difficult to think of events a linear way. Events split by many years can seem more related than those that happened on consecutive days, and it is always hard to look back at a specific objectively time without everything that has come after seeping in and declaring its presence. It’s almost as if time (to humans at least) is not linear; it is a web of moments in a life, not minutes or days.

The story is magical, and weaves in supernatural forces, as well as covering Gudrid’s conversion to Christianity. The ghosts of the past and the gods that she used to worship haunt her though, and one of the most affecting passages in the book is at the death of her first husband, Thorstein, when Gudrid battles with the ghosts of lost souls. I loved this supernatural element to the book and it gave a sense of perspective to the seclusion that the people felt in their exploration of new lands and their need for gods to guide them and bless them on the seas and the land.

Agnar talks to Gudrid but we never hear his voice except in the preface and epilogue; it is not his story that is important as we hear Gudrid’s replies to him. She is the central character, the one who needs a voice. What is interesting about her tale is that sometimes there are things that she can’t say, the italicised passages that we get in the book seem like the voice of the gods (or a god), looking down on all that is happening and giving us a seemingly objective view. Our memory of our lives is never comprehensive and sometimes we need a helping hand to fill in the gaps.

I remember when I read The Sea Road all those years ago at the beginning of uni that I was drawn into this tale. I always loved stories to do with Vikings and this one transported me to a similar place, of sea travellers and settlers, living off the land and trading with people from all over. It almost recalled the inquisitiveness of primary school days, when history feels new as you haven’t discovered it before and its foreignness is all quite exciting. I really enjoyed reading this book again and I would love to read more of Elphinstone’s books. I’ve been directed towards Voyageurs as my next port of call – duly added to the wish list!

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews