Review: Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin

Minds of WinterAuthor: Ed O’Loughlin
Title: Minds of Winter
Format/Source: ebook/Netgalley
Published: 7 March 2017
Publisher: Quercus
Length: 496 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Why I Read: Browsing NetGalley, cover + topic caught my attention
Rating: ★★★½
GoodReads | Indigo | Wordery

 

I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Fay Morgan and Nelson Nilsson have each arrived in Inuvik, Canada, about 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Both are in search of answers about a family member: Nelson for his estranged older brother, and Fay for her vanished grandfather. Driving Fay into town from the airport on a freezing January night, Nelson reveals a folder left behind by his brother. An image catches Fay’s eye: a clock she has seen before. Soon Fay and Nelson realize that their relatives have an extraordinary and historic connection — a secret share in one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of polar expedition. This is the riddle of the “Arnold 294” chronometer, which reappeared in Britain more than a hundred years after it was lost in the Arctic with the ships and men of Sir John Franklin’s Northwest Passage expedition. The secret history of this elusive timepiece, Fay and Nelson will discover, ties them and their families to a journey that echoes across two centuries.

At 500 pages long, Minds of Winter dwarfs the kind of books I usually prefer to read. Had I known that, I might not have requested it. Still, I wanted to give it a go because of the focus on Arctic exploration. I hadn’t read any fiction about the Franklin expedition. Knowledge of the disastrous undertaking stuck in my mind from a video I watched a few times throughout grade school and from the recent discoveries of Franklin’s ships. Minds of Winter is far more the story of lost explorers than it is of Fay and Nelson. Their story serves as a framing device. Nelson and Fay piece together documents gathered by Nelson’s missing brother, connecting mysteries and the lives of various historical figures.

Characters who actually existed include Francis Crozier, Roald Amundsen, Jack London, and “the Mad Trapper of Rat River”, whose true identity remains unknown today. The years in which each chapter takes place range from 1841 to 1957 (plus 2009 for Nelson and Fay’s storyline). Many of the characters I had a passing familiarity with. One character I didn’t know turned out to be a strong thread throughout. The beginning of the book had me constantly looking things up on Wikipedia to discern fact from fiction (more so I was just confirming things that I suspected were ‘real’). Apparently there are some notable deviations from known fact, but none that I could recognize. That doesn’t really matter anyway. This is historical fiction; let’s have some fun. Either way, the story is based in quite a lot of fact. O’Loughlin did his research, as his acknowledgements confirm.

Fun fact: Of all the fact-based storytelling in this novel, I assumed that the chronometer had to be a contrivance, as it just fit so neatly into the plot. I was shocked (and pretty amused) to learn that the chronometer is real and that the 2009 Guardian article about it that appears in the book is also real. You can read that article here.  Kudos to O’Loughlin for tying so many elements of history together.

The story finally comes together in the epilogue. That’s pushing it for me (I would have liked things to start making sense earlier). The stories didn’t come together in the way I anticipated. However, the epilogue pleased me so much that I forgave the later half of the book, which I thought dragged on a bit. When I rated the book on Goodreads, I was sure I would calm down after a couple hours and go back to whining about how long the book was. That’s why I gave it three stars instead of a euphoric four. Yet that good feeling remains a week later, and so thankfully I can give three and half stars on my own blog. Some readers won’t like the ending, if not because it doesn’t hand out easy answers, then perhaps because it’s too blunt in its message.

The Bottom Line:

Minds of Winter may not satisfy those who want to uncover secrets about Franklin’s voyage, but it will likely satisfy those who love tales of Arctic exploration or hefty historical novels.

Further Reading:

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Two Fiction Reads to Borrow from the Library

Neverhome by Laird Hunt

NeverhomeShe calls herself Ash, but that’s not her real name. She is a farmer’s faithful wife, but she has left her husband to don the uniform of a Union soldier in the Civil War. NEVERHOME tells the harrowing story of Ash Thompson during the battle for the South. Through bloodshed and hysteria and heartbreak, she becomes a hero, a folk legend, a madwoman and a traitor to the American cause. Laird Hunt’s dazzling new novel throws a light on the adventurous women who chose to fight instead of stay behind. It is also a mystery story: why did Ash leave and her husband stay? Why can she not return? What will she have to go through to make it back home?

 

  • I added this book to my TBR after reading Shannon @ River City Reading’s review back in August 2014. She quoted the first line – “I was strong “I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic”. That opener was enough to capture my interest.
  • I enjoyed the prose. Ash’s manner actually felt kind of soothing, as opposed to a distracting dialect. Early example:
    • “There was an old lady outside Ketering fetched me up a drink of water from her well, took a long look at me as she handed it tome, and told me I needed to watch my step. No one else outside that lady saw what I was. I slept just exactly like a pine plank on that walk. I sent Bartholomew my first letter from Dayton. I sent him about the same one from Cincinnati. I wrote that I missed him fierce. I wrote that I was fierce happy too” (3).
  • The basic nature of the story line (woman disguised as man so she can fight for the Union in the Civil War, in place of her husband) kept me intrigued. The story lost steam for me when Ash became separated from her troop. I kept reading because I liked the mood, but that was a situational feeling – I might have dropped the book if I had read it at a different time. The conclusion was sadder than I anticipated.
    • By the end, I realized that I had been following an unreliable narrator. I dislike such narrators. Instead of understanding their reliability as a story telling technique, I just feel like I trusted someone and they abused that trust, haha. Ash reminded me a bit of the protagonist from Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The Uncommon ReaderWhen her corgis stray into a mobile library parked near Buckingham Palace, the Queen feels duty-bound to borrow a book. Discovering the joy of reading widely (from J. R. Ackerley, Jean Genet, and Ivy Compton-Burnett to the classics) and intelligently, she finds that her view of the world changes dramatically. Abetted in her newfound obsession by Norman, a young man from the royal kitchens, the Queen comes to question the prescribed order of the world and loses patience with the routines of her role as monarch. Her new passion for reading initially alarms the palace staff and soon leads to surprising and very funny consequences for the country at large.

 

  • I read this cute novella one afternoon during my family’s winter holiday.
  • The Uncommon Reader had been on my TBR for a very long time, though I don’t remember how I discovered it. I wanted to read it because it sounded like a sweet story celebrating reading. That’s exactly what I got.
  • The story eventually shifts to focus on writing. I understand the relationship between reading and writing, but I thought the story was going to focus solely on reading. The Queen ‘evolves’ from reading to writing, leading to a humorous and abrupt (though fitting) conclusion.
  • A few clues scattered throughout, mostly in reference to relatives, indicate that this Queen is our Queen Elizabeth II.

I borrowed both of these titles from the library. Though I enjoyed them both fine enough, I wouldn’t call them must buys. But if you spot them at your library – know they are solid reads for a quiet afternoon. Have you read any ‘library recommendation’ books recently? 
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