A Sea of Sorrows

I wouldn’t say this book is bad, but it’s more or less unrelenting misery right from the word go.

A Sea of Sorrows: The Typhus Epidemic Diary of Johanna Leary, Ireland to Canada East, 1847, Norah McClintock, 2012.

johanna leary

I mean, look at the title, right? Anyway, Norah McClintock actually just passed away in February, and wrote a number of YA mystery/thrillers, like a sort of updated Caroline B. Cooney. (Remember those? Flight #116 Is Down gave me so many nightmares.) This is her only historical fiction book, and while like I said it isn’t bad, it’s definitely not her forte. Now, we can do a Compare-n-Contrast to the truly dreadful So Far From Home by Barry Denenberg, which has the same basic concept—poor Irish girl flees Irish potato famine, finds the New World isn’t all it’s cracked up to be—but thankfully features no weirdly written-out Irish phonetic accents and a minimal reliance on Irish folklore.

I may be the first person to read my library’s copy of this book. It’s in pristine condition.

After the very first line starting off with “fairies and pookas and banshees,” I was deeply afraid we were in for another terrible Funetik Aksent type thing, but we’re OK. Except for the fact that there’s a typo literally on the first page—“bother” for “brother.” Sigh. Anyway, Johanna is on her way to Dublin and then Liverpool and then to Canada in order to leave Ireland, where they’re all starving to death—they being her parents, her older brother Michael, and infant brother Patrick. Her father’s brother Liam is already there, somewhere in what is now Ontario, and although they haven’t heard from him in almost a year, they’re confident he’ll be happy to see them again.

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The Great Plague

I was somewhat disappointed in this one—I’ve so enjoyed most of the My Story books I’ve read so far, but this one left me cold. Which is too bad, considering that “novels about the Plague” is usually a genre I really like! Is that a weird thing to say? I don’t know, I enjoyed Year of Wonders and The Doomsday Book so very much that they’ve ruined me for anything else.

The Great Plague: A London Girl’s Diary, 1665-1666, Pamela Oldfield, 2012.


So I don’t start out sounding like I completely hated it, there were some very nice aspects to this book! Alice, our heroine, is a reasonably well-off girl living with her aunt and father in London, along with her little dog and their maidservant. Alice does grow up and mature during the book—kicking and screaming all the way, which is pretty darn realistic. Oldfield isn’t tempted to make Alice more mature or brave than she needs to be, and it doesn’t come across as false or over-done.

The problem, of course, is that stories about the plague are very, very well-trodden territory, and generally follow a very predictable pattern: rumours about a dangerous disease fly, some people flee to the country but most scoff and hope it’s nothing, before long people are getting sick and dying in the streets, and then it’s too late and the plague has overtaken the city. Unsurprisingly, this is exactly what happens here—rumours are flying that the plague has come to the city, and Alice’s father wants to send her to their family in the country, thinking she’ll be safer there. But she doesn’t want to go be with her cousins, whom she doesn’t like, so they just all stay in the city and worry and go on with their normal lives—going on excursions and going to church and having singing lessons and so on.

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No Safe Harbour

I cannot BELIEVE it has taken me this long to get to this book! This is legit an excellent book, and not “excellent for 12-year-olds” but an actual good book in its very own right. Please read it.


No Safe Harbour: The Halifax Explosion Diary of Charlotte Blackburn, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1917, Julia Lawson, 2006.

Now this is special in a few ways—first of all, today, December sixth, is the 99th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, which is why I chose today to run this book! If you’re not familiar with it, go read my article that ran on The Toast about it a few years back. Secondly, this is my one hundredth book review and I wanted to pick a book I really loved. Thirdly, when I did my Master’s degree my focus was the First World War in the Maritimes, so I did tons and tons of reading about the Explosion, so this book has a lot of meaning for me. What a great day for a great book!

One of the things I love about this book is that like so many Dear Canada books, it absolutely does not have a particularly happy ending. (This isn’t really a spoiler, the Explosion happens like a third of the way into the book and it’s in the damn title, so there.) Charlotte doesn’t miraculously come through the disaster with all of her family intact, but it’s not at all contrived or tearjerky. And secondly—the diary format works amazingly well here. Last week I reviewed a rebooted Dear America on the San Francisco earthquake, which on the surface had a lot of similarities to this one—young woman in an urban area faces family difficulties that are thrown into explicit focus after a major disaster strikes her city, and drama follows it. But while A City Tossed and Broken seemed to focus on the drama, No Safe Harbour is allllllll about how the Explosion has made such an enormous impact on everyone’s life that it’s impossible to discard. Now let’s learn.

Charlotte, who is twelve, is just-barely-the-youngest of five kids—her eldest brother Luke is fighting in France, her next-up sister Edith finished with school and working, bratty teenage sister Ruth in high school, and Charlotte’s slightly-elder twin brother, Duncan. Her father is a dock worker in Halifax, and they live quite happily, although not wealthily, in the north end of Halifax.

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A City Tossed and Broken

Now, it’s no secret that I think the Dear America reboots are nowhere near the same quality as the original flavour—even though the original series was plenty flawed on its own. The new ones have tried to cram in so much drama and excitement to compete with everything else on the market that they ended up losing the charm of the originals, which was “slice of life history with relatable details about every day set during interesting periods or events.” They don’t need over-involved plots and manufactured drama! Generally the drama of the historical event or period is plenty without shoehorning in lots of other crap! Anyway, this is one of if not the worst offender in that regard. These reboots also tend to dump the more realistic diary format in favour of a thrilling story, but that doesn’t read well in the format. Yeah, there’s a few nods here and there, but these would be mostly just as good stories with a traditional novel format. So that’s where I sit on the reboots: fine stories, but a poor match for the format.

A City Tossed and Broken: The Diary of Minnie Bonner, San Francisco, California, 1906, Judy Blundell, 2013.

minnie bonner.jpg

(If you are a longtime reader, Judy Blundell is the same author of the truly dreadful Brides of Wildcat County series, so that should tell you exactly where we’re headed.)

Anyway, this story bears a lot of similarities to a Dear Canada book, so we’ll discuss them in tandem with that one coming next week. Natural disasters and dark family secrets is a pretty potent combination, but it falls flat here, which is majorly disappointing.

Minnie Bonner, our surly protagonist, is the daughter of a long-suffering mother and gambling father in Pennsylvania. Her mother has just arranged for Minnie to begin as a lady’s maid to a wealthy family, since her own family is about to lose their tavern (due to Mr. Bonner’s gambling problem—thanks, Dad! What a peach you must be!). Even from the very first entry it’s very clear this story is not a good fit for the diary format, with long strings of dialogue and long paragraphs. It doesn’t ring anywhere close to realistic! OK, I’m done complaining. (That’s a lie.)

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Graves of Ice

I’ve had this blog for two years and I haven’t even touched a book out of this series yet! What’s wrong with me? (I was convinced these books are boring, that’s what.)

Graves Of Ice: The Lost Franklin Expedition, George Chambers, The Northwest Passage, 1845¸John Wilson, 2014.

george chambers.jpg

Side note: if you can get through this whole review without getting Stan Rogers’ Northwest Passage stuck in your head, you’re a better person than I am. I spent two days reading this book and fully ¾ of that time I spent trying to remember the words to the world’s most mournful song after The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which coincidentally is also about shipwrecks.

Anyway, I have been avoiding the I Am Canada series because I was convinced they were boring, but this one was not! And to be honest the only reason I picked it is because it’s actually already out of date. The two ships involved, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror have been located in the Arctic (the Terror just this year!), exactly where Inuit hunters had been telling the idiot white people to go and look for them. (This is true, by the way.) So while the expedition was lost in the sense that everyone died, the remains of their ships and many of the crew members have been located. So now I suppose it’s the “doomed” Franklin Expedition? Is that better?

Also I have to note here as well that I feel like Terror is a horrible name for a ship bound to be on an expedition to a terrifying land where there’s every chance that everyone will die. I wouldn’t get on it.

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Survival in the Storm

This is a genuinely Special Case for Dear America, and I won’t critique it any more than is absolutely necessary.

Survival in the Storm: The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards, Dalhart, Texas, 1935, Katelan Janke, 2002.


So, the author of this book was a 15-year-old girl who won the Dear America writing contest, therefore living out my dream in reality. This is why I won’t really criticize the writing or any of it too much, because: 15, and it’s not necessary to pick too much at the efforts of a (very talented) teenager. Katelan herself grew up in Dalhart, and based it on local stories and local lore, which I have zero problems with and turns out to be a really sweet way to do things.

This is one of the DA books that isn’t surrounding any one specific event, and there’s no overarching plot involved other than the ongoing Depression and Dust Bowl, which is fine. I tend to enjoy these books more than the ones that are detailing some important event anyway. Grace is twelve and lives with her parents and her younger sister on their farm in Dalhart, but things have been particularly difficult for the family ever since the drought began and they’re having a hard time making ends meet. Mostly, Grace bitches about the dust and how it just never stops—I like a lot of the details in here, like how they have to knead bread in a drawer because the dust blowing through the kitchen will get into their bread otherwise. She thinks her sister doesn’t do enough work around the house, and her mother is sort of permanently at the frustrated end of things (obviously), so Grace spends most of her leisure time playing with her best friend Helen.

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Washington Avalanche, 1910

I don’t know what to say about this other than, dear God, don’t read it, and don’t pay the twelve cents I paid for it, either.

Washington Avalanche 1910, Cameron Dokey, 2000.

washington avalanche

Fine. I’ll say something else. Dear God, don’t read it. This is one of those abysmal books that tried (in vain) to interest youth in an exciting historical occurrence (namely, the titular avalanche in 1910). But unfortunately while Dear America/Canada did this tolerably well (most of the time), this fails egregiously on a number of levels. It can’t decide whether it wants to be a romance, a history teacher, or an intrigue/thriller, and it is terrible at each one. Also, the main characters are deeply awful people, and not in a “Wow, what an interesting and flawed protagonist!” type way, but a “Why am I supposed to like these people and their problems?” type way.

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Louisiana Hurricane, 1860

Even as a teenager I remember thinking this book was overwrought and stupid. Let’s see how it holds up. [Spoiler alert: Not well!]

Book: Louisiana Hurricane, 1860, Kathleen Duey, 2000.


Madelaine LeBlanc is the wealthy daughter of a wealthy man in Louisiana in 1860 (which I’m sure was abundantly clear from the title), but she’s discontented because she’s Deep and Introspective. She’s at a party with all the other wealthy people in Baton Rouge, but she just can’t bring herself to dance, since she’s too worried about impending war. Oh, wait, I remember why I liked this book so much—costume porn. Madelaine’s mother is wearing a “dramatic emerald silk gown with its cream-colored collar and cuffs of velvet applique.” Oh my.

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