The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penny

The Tenderness of Wolves

Quercus| 2006|450 p|2.5* rounded up to 3* on Goodreads

The Tenderness of Wolves was first published 2006 when it won the both the Costa First Novel Award and the Costa Book of the Year. It has been on my TBR shelves since May 2007 when I first heard about it and thought it sounded fantastic. And yet it has sat on my shelves ever since, mainly because it’s in such a small font. And then at the beginning of March I included it in my S and T post of TBRs and encouraged by the comments  began to read it.

Stef Penney is a screenwriter and the author of three novels: The Tenderness of Wolves, The Invisible Ones (2011), and Under a Pole Star (2016, winner of the 2017 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize). She has also written extensively for radio, including adaptations of Moby Dick, The Worst Journey in the World, and, mostly recently, a third instalment of Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise series.

It’s set in Canada in 1867 beginning in a small place called Dove River on the north shore of Georgian Bay, narrated in part by Mrs Ross in the first person present tense (*see at the end of the post) and also occasionally in the third person past tense. Mr and Mrs Ross were the first people to settle in Dove River – the name she gave to it. Other people came later and settled near the river mouth.

It begins dramatically as she describes the last time she saw the French-Canadian trapper, Laurent Jammet alive ‘he was in Scott’s store with a dead wolf over his shoulder‘. He was the Ross’s closest neighbour and the next time she saw him was in his cabin, lying dead on his bed, his throat cut and he had been scalped. Francis, the Ross’s adopted teenage son is missing and is immediately suspected of being the murderer. But Mrs Ross is convinced of his innocence. With no police force as such it is the Hudson Bay Company (the Company) employees and the local magistrate, Andrew Knox who lead the investigation. William Parker a half Indian tracker is also a suspect and is taken into custody. But Knox isn’t convinced Parker is guilty and releases him. Parker and Mrs Ross then set off to follow her son’s tracks into the wilderness.

That’s it in a nutshell, but it is much much more complicated than this. There’s a large cast of characters and at first I found it confusing, unsure of their identity and how they interacted. In fact some of them are just minor characters that don’t feature in the main plot, which is a problem when you’re trying to sort out who is important.

Following Mrs Ross and Parker are the Company employees, Donald Moody and Jacob, another half Indian. Then there is Thomas Sturrock, who says he had business with Jammet who had agreed to sell him something. He describes himself as a lawyer and an archaeologist by inclination and the object he is looking for is a bone tablet inscribed with strange markings that could be some sort of writing. Sturrock was also involved in the search for two young girls who years earlier had disappeared from their home presumed to have been abducted by Indians. Added into the mix are Susannah and Maria Knox, Andrew’s teenage daughters, a group of religious Norwegian settlers, and the employees of the Company, some of them very strange, in an isolated outpost deep in the wilderness.

This is one of the most difficult books to summarise in a coherent way and without giving away too many spoilers.

The plot moves very slowly, switching between locations and characters as very little progress is made in the search for the murderer. I found it frustrating. I never quite acclimatised myself to the use of the present tense which kept distracting me from the story. But when the pace picked up nearer to the end of the book I was keen to find out what happened – and by that time I had worked out who all the characters were. But I was left with a few questions – I really would have liked to know more about the relevance and meaning of the bone or ivory tablet, for example.

Overall, despite my criticism of this book, I did enjoy it and the descriptions of the landscape and climate set it in geographic context, but it just took so long to read particularly with so many sub-plots to hold in my head! I think some of the sub-plots that don’t contribute much to the story could easily have been developed into books in their own right. And the ending seemed so abrupt. I’m not sure I want to read any more of Stef Penney’s books.

* I want to analyse why I find the use of the present tense a problem as I hardly notice it in some books but in others such as this one I find it so irritating that it clouds my judgement. Perhaps it will help if I write my thoughts in a separate post … *


My Friday Post: The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

Book Beginnings Button

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

I am at the stage where I just don’t know what to read next – there are so many books I want to read but I keep picking one up, putting it down, picking up yet more books not sure which one is the right one for me right now.

But yesterday I wrote about some of my TBRs including The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney and as three of my blogging friends, Cath, Sandra and Leah all said how much they had enjoyed it, I’m going to start reading it today.

The Tenderness of Wolves


The last time I saw Laurent Jammet, he was in Scott’s store with a dead wolf over his shoulder.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice. These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56

I have brought a knife in my pocket, which I am now holding, rather more tightly than is necessary. It’s not really that I think for a moment the murderer would come back – for what? – but I creep on, one hand on the cabin wall, until I can listen by the window for sounds within.


Canada, 1867. A young murder suspect flees across the snowy wilderness. Tracking him is what passes for the law in this frontier land: trappers, sheriffs, traders and the suspect’s own mother, desperate to clear his name. As the party pushes further from civilisation, hidden purposes and old obsessions are revealed. One is seeking long-lost daughters; another a fortune in stolen furs; yet another is chasing rumours of a lost Native American culture. But where survival depends on cooperation, their fragile truce cannot afford to be broken, nor their overriding purpose – to find justice for a murdered man – forgotten.

A – Z of TBRs: S and T

I’m now up to S and T in my A – Z of TBRs, a series of posts in which I take a fresh look at some of my TBRs to inspire me to read more of them, or maybe to decide not to bother reading them after all.



– is for The Stranger House by Reginald Hilla book I’ve had a mere two years. I bought this because I love Hill’s books.

It’s a stand-alone book, a psychological thriller – no Dalziel and Pasco in this book. It’s set in Cumbria in a fictitious valley, Skaddale and village, Illthwaite, where the Stranger House offers refuge to travellers – people like Australian, Samantha Flood and Miguel Madero, a Spanish historian. The two of whom uncover intertwining tales of murder, betrayal and love. There are dark mysteries at the heart of this ancient place.

[Miguel] entered the Seminary in Seville at the age of twenty-three at the same time as nineteen-year-old Sam Flood entered Melbourne University, both convinced they knew exactly what they were doing and where the paths of their lives were leading them.

And yet neither yet understanding that a particular path is not a prospectus and that it may, in the instant it takes for a word to be spoken or a finger-hold to be lost, slip right off your map and lead you somewhere unimagined in all your certainties.

In the cases of Sam Flood and Miguel Madero this place was situated far to the north. (page 22)


S – is also for Slipstream: A Memoir by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1923 – 2014), the author of the Cazalet Chronicles. I’ve been meaning to read this for so long – it’s been on my shelves for 11 years, would you believe! It was published in 2002 when she was seventy nine.

This quotation comes from the final chapter of the book:

For the last two years while I have been writing this, I have been getting noticeably older. Getting old is a classic slipstream situation. It’s rather like that game Grandmother’s footsteps. I stand at the end of a lawn with my back to a row of the trappings of old age whose object is to reach me before I turn round and send them back to their row. One or two of these have caught me during the last five years: I have neither the health or the energy that once I had. In these respects I am not as young as I feel. Arthritis is dispiriting because it is both painful and incurable, and it takes time to become reconciled to it. I can’t – like my friend Penelope Lively – garden any more and that is for both of us a privation.

But on the plus side,  I am able to go on writing, I can sew and cook and have friends to stay and above all I can read. I continue to go to my women’s group; I can still learn. One of the good things about living longer is that we have more time to learn how to be old. It is clear to me now that inside the conspiracy of silence about age – because of the negative aspects of the condition – there is the possibility of art; that is to say that it can be made into something worth trying to do well, a challenge, an adventure. I don’t want to live with any sort of retirement, with nostalgia and regret wrapped round me like a wet blanket. I want to live enquiringly, with curiosity and interest for the rest of my life. (page 476)

T– is for The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, a book I’ve had for three years. She is probably best known for her children’s books – the Moomin stories. I haven’t read those or any of her books for adults. But a few years ago I kept seeing her name cropping up on book blogs and thought I would like her books. This one is set in winter in a Swedish hamlet. A strange young woman fakes a break-in at the house of Anna Aemelin, an elderly artist, to persuade her that she needs companionship.

Her parents had lived long lives and never allowed anyone to cut trees in their woods. They’d been rich as trolls when they died. And the woods were still untouchable. Little by little they had grown almost impenetrable and stood like a wall behind the house; the ‘rabbit house’, they called it in the village. It was a grey wood villa with elaborate carved window frames in white, as grey-white as the tall backdrop of snow-drenched forest. The building actually resembled a large, crouched rabbit – the square front teeth of the white veranda curtains, the silly bay windows under eyebrows of snow, the vigilant ears of the chimneys. All the windows were dark. The path up the hill had not been shovelled.

That’s where she lives. Mats and I will live there too. But I have to wait. I need to think carefully before I give this Anna Aemelin an important place in my life. (pages 30-1)

T is also for The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney, another book I’ve had for 11 years! It was the 2006 Costa Book of the Year.looking at it now I think one of the reasons I haven’t read it yet is that it appears to be written in a mix of the present and past tenses.

Set in 1867 in Canada, on the isolated settlement of Dove River a man has been brutally murdered, a woman finds his body and her seventeen-year-old son has disappeared. She has to clear his name, heading north into the forest and the desolate landscape that lies beyond it …

In this extract Thomas Sturrock is listening to a conversation between two men when he just has to ask them who they are discussing – is it a trader?

‘A Frenchie trader in Dove River was murdered. I don’t know if there’s more than one such there.’

‘I don’t think there is. You didn’t hear a name by any chance?’

‘Not that I remember off the top of my head – something French, is all I recall.’

‘The name of my acquaintance is Laurent Jammet’.

The man’s eyes light up with pleasure. ‘Well I’m sorry, I truly am, but I think that was the name that was mentioned.’

Sturrock falls uncharacteristically silent. He has had to deal with many shocks in his long career, and his mind is already working out the repercussions of this news. Tragic, obviously for Jammet. Worrying, at the least for him. For there is unfinished business there that he has been very keen to conclude, awaiting only the financial means to do so. Now that Jammet is dead, the business must be concluded as soon as possible, or the chance may slip out of his reach for good. (pages 34-5)

What do you think? Do you fancy any of them? Would you ditch any of them?