Holiday Reading 6: The Signature of All Things (Elizabeth Gilbert)

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (2013)

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (2013)

I haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love.  That’s Elizabeth’s Gilbert’s most famous work – a New York Times bestseller and occasionally the subject of mockery since the Julia Roberts film-adaption.  Despite this, I somehow went into The Signature of All Things knowing very little about Gilbert and her writing. Now I know – she’s a talented lady. 

On the back cover, The Signature of All Things is described as a ‘big story’. That’s certainly appropriate, given the plot spans about a century (from the late 1700s onwards) and takes us across the world – to England, the US, Tahiti and Holland.  It follows the life of Alma Whittaker, the daughter of Henry Whittaker – a botanist and self-made millionaire who saw what he wanted in life and took it, regardless of what anyone else had to say about it.  At first glance, it seems Alma was born with the world at her feet, inheriting her father’s botanical empire along with his passion for discovery.  The Signature of All Things is the story of her life as she struggles to makes sense of herself a woman of science, in a world that is teetering on the brink of the modern age.

I have to say, I really enjoyed this book.  First and foremost, Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing is wonderful – clear, evocative and effortless.  Some historical novels read in a way that is somewhat stiff.  As a reader, you can sense the effort that the writer is expending to sound true to the time and it distracts you.  Gilbert’s story opens in the year 1800, and from the first page, I knew this was a story I could fall into.  She writes clearly and authentically, inviting us into Alma’s world as though we’re already familiar with it. The landscape is rich, and visual (appropriate for a book that centres on exploration of the natural world) – from the sweeping grounds of the Whittaker’s Pennsylvania estate, to the rolling waves of the Pacific and the black sand beaches of Tahiti.  Basically, she seems like an awesome writer.

Alma herself is an intriguing heroine, certainly different from the usual fare.  She is described as a tall, strong, slightly wild-looking young woman who is clever, curious and capable of questioning her world and the views and values that guide it.  She’s deeply independent but human at the same time, longing for love, sex, affection and friendship.  In fact, Alma’s sexuality features very prominently in the story – something that I found interesting  given mainstream literature rarely reminds us that women (including women from the 1800s) are interested in sex, beyond consummating the love of their life. Alma lives in a time where science, philosophy and religion are still tangled together in the way people understand the world and how it operates, and we see the seeds of ideas that define the way we understand it today.

Amongst all this praise, I should mention that The Signature of All Things is a very lengthy novel, being more or less an account of Alma’s very lengthy life.  There was no single narrative arc to follow and the plot was extremely intricate – dealing with characters who are significant in different phases of Alma’s life.  It wasn’t boring to read, but I wasn’t compelled even to plough through it in a hurry.

Anyway, if you have time for a series of lazy afternoons – this one’s elaborate and imaginative and definitely worth your while!

Holiday Reading 5: This House is Haunted

This House is Haunted by John Boyne (2013)

This House is Haunted by John Boyne (2013)

It is time, once again, for a summer book review. I’m excited – and you should be too. Whoa, I’m rhyming! That’s impressive.

Unlike my dazzling introductions, This House is Haunted is not a laugh. It comes to us from John Boyne, the author of the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. If you read The Boy on the Striped Pyjamas and swore never again – don’t worry. You won’t need tissues for this one, but you may need to keep the lights on.

After the untimely death of her father, Eliza Caine impulsively leaves her home in London to fill the position of governess at Gaudlin Hall. Upon her arrival, Eliza meets her young charges, Isabella and Eustace. Mysteriously, the children seem to be the only ones living in the house – there’s no sign of their parents, or any other adults. As Eliza settles in, she is attacked by a malign presence, and it becomes clear that she is not welcome.

Well, it has been too long since I read a nice, gothic horror story!  Reading This House is Haunted was a somewhat nostalgic experience.  It transported me back to the days of high school English, when I regularly explored haunted castles by candlelight, alongside a plucky, yet soberly clad heroine. Figuratively, of course.

Admittedly, that’s all warm and fuzzy. As I was perusing Goodreads, I noticed many reviewers complaining that This House is Haunted is unoriginal. That might be a fair call. If you’ve read any gothic fiction (hard to avoid these days) you’ll find there is nothing earth shattering about the plot, nothing shocking about the twists and turns. But in many ways, the familiarity of the story was one of the reasons that I enjoyed it. Boyne chose to explore the rich (albeit well-worn) world of dark Victorian streets, fog-dampened moors, cobweb infested manor houses and creepy children. His writing is smooth, skilful and atmospheric and from the moment you see the title, you know what you’re signing up for. Personally, I can respect that.

The only thing that really bugged me about this book, was the same thing that usually bugs me in horror stories. That is, the heroine and her blatant disregard for sense and reason. Boyne wrote Eliza as a particularly plain, responsible sort of girl – perhaps trying not to funnel her into a glamorous stereotype. However, the ‘plain’, sensible heroine we see so often, generally manages to secure a handsome love interest and almost never demonstrates any sort of sense in her decision-making. Upon finding out that a homicidal ghost is haunting your new home, you do not resolve to get a good night’s rest and deal with it. Angry spirits are not a mere inconvenience to be dealt with and ignored on a daily basis.

Last mentions: I found this story only mildly scary. Hard-core horror lovers may be left unsatisfied, wusses will be thrilled. You can also expect a typically open horror story ending.

All in all, This House is Haunted is a fun, quick read from a talented author. Set it aside for the next dark and stormy night.

The Best Young Adult Novels

My best of young adult list for Ricochet Magazine!


Since Twilight (and the various paranormal romance novels it spawned), many readers seem all too eager to dismiss young adult fiction as silly.  Frivolous.  Unintelligent.  God forbid, embarrassing.  As a great lover of YA (and an ex-teenager), I think those snobs people couldn’t be more wrong.

To be specific, young adult fiction refers to novels that are marketed at 12 to 17 year olds.  The genre has enticed streams of reluctant readers into the world of books – which is always a wonderful thing.  And for those of us who never needed encouragement, young adult stories played a pivotal role as we navigated the terrific angst of teenage-hood.

But teens aren’t the only ones lapping YA up. Did you know that 55% of young adult fiction is purchased by readers over 18 years of age? That’s some cold, hard proof there is no shame in cracking open one of these…

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