A beautiful balance: A talk with Sandra Gulland at the Toronto Reference Library

Sandra Gulland, the author
I have A LOT of books. I’ve been collecting them since I was a little girl, and my parents’ attic can attest to the fact that I can never own too many books. And I remember while reading these books, many of which have become long time favourites, I would imagine meeting the author, but never thinking I would be able to. However, since pursuing a career in publishing, I have met more authors than I had ever thought possible. When you’re little you think of authors as these grand, untouchable beings that one never sees never mind talks to. My younger self was obviously very wrong. Authors are everywhere, especially in Toronto, and they make sure they can be found with book launches and events at various venues.

I read Sandra Gulland’s Josephine Bonaparte trilogy when I was sixteen years old (there are somewhat messy “This Book Belongs To” handwritten notes on the inside the covers of all three books), and thus my love of historical fiction was born, and I’ve never looked back. I have read A LOT  of historical fiction since then, but I have always remembered Sandra Gulland’s books fondly. I have also been obsessed with Josephine and Napoleon, reading their real love letters to each other and researching them for history papers in university. So you can imagine how thrilled I was to discover that Sandra was coming to the Toronto Reference Library to talk about her latest book The Shadow Queen.

the eh list author seriesThe event was a part of the Toronto Public Library’s author series The eh List in which throughout the year, the library has been showcasing the works of various Canadian authors, having them come and talk about their latest book. Last fall, I saw C.C. Humphreys, another long time favourite author of historical fiction, and I was very impressed with the whole evening. When I noticed Sandra Gulland was coming in 2014, I was ecstatic (living in the city does have its perks…sometimes). If you love Canadian literature and Canadian authors then you should definitely think about coming out to one of these events if you are in the Toronto area. They are well worth the effort—you get to know the author and you can get a favourite book signed.

Sandra’s talk was a great exposé of how she writes historical fiction and the careful blending of fact with fiction that happens. It is a difficult process writing historical fiction. You have to make your plot exciting even though your readers likely already know the ending to the story (unless they have been living under a rock or snoozed through every history class). This difficulty was something I was taught in my substantive and stylistic editing course, and it was nice to know that authors are also aware of the challenge they face and are able to approach it themselves. Of course, it also helps that Sandra was an editor in another life (a fact that served to increase my admiration of her, including the fact that she helped start the Editors’ Association of Canada [EAC]!).

Sandra GullandAll of those in attendance were also given an inside look at Sandra’s characters and just exactly how they develop. In addition to being true figures from history, Sandra also imbues them with certain characteristics from people she knows and loves. This was the case for The Shadow Queen, where her father’s quirky and loving mannerisms have been incorporated into two of her most cherished characters: Claudette’s brother and the playwright Corneille. This admission was truly touching. No wonder Sandra’s characters are able to lift themselves off the page and so easily dance into our lives full of vibrant energy: She knows them in the most intimate way possible, and it shows in her writing. We also learned another lovely fact about Sandra’s characters, a trait that has been consistent until now with the introduction of Claudette: All of Sandra’s characters had bad teeth. It was a known fact. Poor romanticized Josephine had terrible, terrible teeth in real life. Apparently this fact was very disconcerting for some readers. I don’t particularly remember being put off by it, but I was only sixteen at the time and memory of my reactions are vague. Although, I don’t know what all the fuss was about. The French also barely bathed back then, so how are rotting teeth much worse?

After these lovely anecdotes, Sandra read from The Shadow Queen. While I haven’t bought the book yet, I certainly have a desire to read it now. Not every author has the ability to capture an audience when speaking aloud, many excel only on the page, but Sandra certainly didn’t lack expression. When she spoke her characters were speaking through her. Claudette was young and excitable and Corneille was wise and artistically brilliant. I felt like I already knew them from the get-go, and I yearned to hear mind. If the objective was to entice her readers, Sandra certainly succeeded.

Following a brief Q&A period, Sandra also graciously signed books. One of the first in line, I had my worn Josephine B. trilogy and The Mistress of the Sun ready to be signed. This woman and author, who I had never imagined meeting, signed three of the most influential books in my life, and I can’t wait to read The Mistress of the Sun, which she signed with the words, “Sing Ye.” She said I would understand its significance after I read the book. It is safe to say, I am intrigued by this allusion.

signed book by Sandra Gulland

If you want to know more about Sandra Gulland, she has a beautifully detailed website, which talks about all her books and her sources.

Also, if you want to be able to attend the next eh List Author Series event, you can find all upcoming events on the Toronto Public Library website.




Honeyed русский whispers: A book review of The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

book cover of the winter palace by eva stachniak. image of a woman's golden dress

“Behind every great ruler lies a betrayal…”

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

There are so many myths and misguided perceptions of what the large land mass of eastern Europe consists of. From rumours of a single surviving Romanov to whispers of a Soviet resurgence, Russia is full of mystery…and deception—or at least that is how Eva Stachniak portrays the Russian imperial era in her book The Winter Palace.

With a love for anything and everything to do with Russia ever since my first Russian history course in university, I was naturally very excited to read this book. While it has taken me at least a year to do so since its original release date, I have finally had a chance to read Stachniak’s proclaimed masterpiece.

The book is narrated by Barbara—or Varvara, in Russian—, who is a the daughter of a Polish bookbinder working for the royal Russian family. It is after the death of both her parents that Varvara also comes into the employ of the Empress Elizabeth. Initially, Varvara is simply one of the many seamstresses set to work on Elizabeth’s extensive closet; however, one night, she is discovered by Elizabeth’s chancellor, Count Bestuzhev and under his tutelage, Varvara learns how to become the “eyes and ears” of the Winter Palace, for him and for the empress. Assigned to assist and spy on the Crown Prince Peter, Varvara is introduced to the art of deception and thrust into a world of luxury and debauchery, which is consistently masked by gold, glitter, and fine foods. The Winter Palace is also where Varvara meets the newly arrived Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, the Crown Prince’s betrothed. Varvara ends up befriending this German princess, now named Catherine, while Peter ignores his wife-to-be, more interested in playing at war.

Most readers, such as I, would already be aware of the outcome, knowing that Peter is an incompetent ruler and no match for Catherine’s intelligence and diplomatic skill. Therefore, no foreshadowing is necessary to know that Catherine the Great triumphs and takes the Russian throne for herself—a German immigrant now Empress of All the Russias. But while this is the result Stachniak’s novel leads up to, it is not the tale she has decided to tell. Instead, The Winter Palace is an exposé of the palace’s more sinister side, where there are always concealed intruders and easily bribed servants.

Stachniak outdoes herself in setting the scene with layers upon layers of marble, gold, and amber, building the Winter Palace up before the reader’s eyes with remarkable glittery detail. She also brings to life the wide array of foods consumed at the court, which inspired odd cravings, as I found myself lusting for honey-covered cucumbers, Catherine’s favourite snack.

However, while Varvara may be telling the story and Catherine may be strategically planning for ascension to the throne, Stachniak is unable to bring the same intensity she easily provides Empress Elizabeth with. No other character speaks and acts with the same spirit and vitality. Simultaneously, she inspires awe and repulsion, keeping the reader in suspense as Elizabeth moves between kindness and cruelty as easily as time passes from day to night.

Unfortunately, the more I became fascinated with Elizabeth, the less I was convinced by Varvara’s and Catherine’s characters. While Vavara narrates all that is happening, she is also hiding behind this detailing of acts of conspiracy and spying. There is little else to identify her with. Vavara’s secret alliance with Catherine as her confidante also falls short, as the same level of intimacy achieved in the conversations between Varvara and Elizabeth is not translated when she is in closeted conversations with Catherine.

Catherine is aloof and often, disappointingly so, fades into the background. I really would have liked to see more personality from both Varvara and Catherine, rather than having both of them so easily subsumed by Elizabeth’s more eccentric and compelling characterization. It was almost a pity to see her go.

Slow to begin and slow to end, The Winter Palace is a commitment the reader must want to make, as it is only in its middle that the story truly has the potential to grab you, as Varvara navigates her way through the dusty passages of the Winter Palace, listening, learning, and spinning stories to help or to hinder those she’s required to confide in.

Stachniak’s ends the first book of her Catherine the Great trilogy anti-climatically with few reassurances. As time progresses after Catherine’s coup, Varvara becomes disillusioned and unsure of her “friendship” with the new ruler; Catherine’s character remains just as impenetrable as before and this time, the reader is not alone in this deduction.

The Winter Palace, while not being what I had expected, was a delightful read that returned me to Russia in all her imperial glory. However, Stachniak didn’t just allow me to walk the grand halls of the Winter Palace for a second time, she married time and place together in perfect unity, making my memories a living portrait of eighteenth-century Россия, and with her sequel just a little over a week away from its official release date, I am intrigued to see where she will take Catherine’s story and her infamous reign next.

Russia 524

3 out of 5 book thumb’s up

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The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak, published in Canada by Doubleday, © 2012

Available at Random House of CanadaAmazonIndigo, and independent bookstores.

Stealing Hitler’s words: A review of The Book Thief

Cover image of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

“It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and it will become busier still.”

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

It is simple enough for me to say that I love most books, but there are few books that have also had the ability to dominate my emotions in such a way that they are torn from my inner core and put on full display, smeared across the pages. The Book Thief is one of those books. It is also one that I have been wishing to read for awhile now and now that I have, I am very glad that I did. While I’m late to the bandwagon, I think it is appropriate that I read it now; not only has a movie adaptation been released, but Markus Zusak, an already bestselling and well-known author, also won the annual Margaret Edwards Award this year for his contribution to young-adult literature in the US.

On that rewarding note, in The Book Thief, Markus Zusak tells his story in a fascinating combination of first- and third-person narration. The first-person narrator is Death personified, but not in the stereotypical fashion you would automatically imagine. No, Zusak’s perception of death is like that of meeting an old friend, which is very humanizing, almost comfortingly so. There is no figure cloaked in dark robes carrying a scythe, but rather he arrives as a source of solace for the numerous dead and dying during the war.

For a quick summary, although I’m sure everyone knows this by now, The Book Thief follows the life of a young German girl, Liesel Memminger, who is given into foster care by her mother for her own protection. It is on this journey to her new home that Liesel commits her first act of book thievery, on her way to becoming the infamous book thief. Death comes into contact with her for the first time here when her brother passes away in his sleep, and it is during her brother’s brief funeral that Liesel finds and takes The Grave Digger’s Handbook, accidentally left in the snow presumably by a young grave digger apprentice. It is upon this discovery that Liesel’s obsession with books and words is born, and under the guidance of her accordion-playing foster father, Hans Hubermann, she learns to read.

The narrative shifts between Liesel’s experiences occasionally interjected with Death’s own narration as he watches Liesel and collects the dead across Europe, revealing the turmoil occurring beyond Liesel’s everyday activities on Himmel Street. These activities range from stealing books from the mayor’s wife’s library to refusing requests for kisses from her best friend and partner in crime, Rudy Steiner. However, dangerous times come to Himmel Street when Max Vandenburg, a Jewish man in hiding, knocks on the Hubermann door, the result of a promise to the wife of a dead comrade after the First World War. As the war comes closer and bombs are fly overhead, Liesel’s world is both opened and closed, as she realizes the sheer force encapsulated in the words she has learned to read — words that can be used for good as well as for evil.

While the book starts out somewhat slowly, there is a lot to love about the craftsmanship behind Zusak’s writing, which is both elegant and moving. His decision to tell his story through Death’s eyes is ingenious. Immediately, the reader is forced to bear witness to Death’s sharp matter-of-fact statements on the rising number of dead and the Jewish “showers” while at the same time being lulled by the innocent play between Liesel and Rudy, as they exchange humorous endearments from “saukerl” to “saumensch.” Zusak also reveals the uncanny understanding and insight of a child that adults often overlook, such as the simple comment made by Rudy’s brother Kurt in regards to the fallen dominoes looking like dead bodies. Zusak captures this in each of his young characters, creating children with indomitable spirits that observe and fight back in their own way with the rest of the adult world.

The book is one of those tools Liesel uses to fight back with, and it is used as a motif throughout the novel, highlighting the power of words. In addition to using words for defiance, Liesel also uses them as a shelter for herself and others, especially when she reads to Max during his sickness or to the rest of Himmel Street while in the basement during the bomb raids. Significantly, Max also revitalizes the power of words for good, inscribing his story onto the painted-over pages of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which is just one example of the remarkable use of symbolism employed within The Book Thief.

While I wish to find fault with Death’s early spoiler in the novel, which forecasts Himmel Street’s heart-wrenching destruction, I cannot manage it. Death was made even more relateable with this addition of a human fallacy and I was no less enthralled by what I read despite knowing how it would end. I still followed each character’s timeline, almost desperately so, mentally exhausted by the emotional attachment I had developed for them. So true-to-life, these characters literally breath on the pages — Death’s preparation was not enough.

A poignant read that is devastatingly brilliant and absorbing from start to finish, Zusak reveals a World War II Germany that is rarely touched upon. And, just like Death, we, the readers, are haunted by these humans Zusak has introduced us to. Liesel, Rudy, Hans … they are the types of characters that resonate and are well worth carrying around long after the last page is turned.

I am haunted by humans quote from The Book Thief with Death and Liesel holding hands

5 out 5 book thumbs up

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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, published in Canada by Knopf, © 2005

Available at Random House of Canada, Amazon, Indigo, and independent bookstores.