In the late 1700s, a young English soprano sets sail with her overprotectiv...more3/5. For this and other book reviews, check out EditorialEyes Book Blog. ~*~
In the late 1700s, a young English soprano sets sail with her overprotective mother to find fame and fortune on the Italian stage. And find them Anna Storace does with the company at La Scala Opera House. In Vienna Nocturne, by opera singer Vivien Shotwell, we follow "L'inglesina" from her carefree heights in Milan to Austria where great suffering, great love, and the incomparable Mozart await her under the watchful reign of Joseph II.
It's easy to throw on some "soothing" Mozart when we're reading or studying, or to think of Mozart's music as old-fashioned. But debut novelist Shotwell allows us to peek behind the curtain of one of the greatest moments in operatic history, giving us a keen reminder of the drama, personalities, and political intrigue at play as this music was being composed. Based on the real life of the celebrated soprano who originated the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro in 1786, Vienna Nocturne is about not just the passion in the music, but an illicit love affair between Anna and the married upstart composer Wolfgang Mozart.
This interesting premise allows us to delve into classical history, making us think about the music we listen to in a different way. The story follows Anna from her girlhood, as she shyly presents herself for singing lessons to the master castrato Rauzzini, then onward to Italy. The Italian style of opera reigned supreme across Europe, and Anna soon secures herself the spot of prima buffa, leading lady, playing the romantic lead—onstage and in the wings—with the charming rake Benucci. This setup takes up the first third of the book, and it is delightful to see Anna finding her courage and her place on the stage. Rauzzini is a wonderful character, and though his role is small, he is a formidable force in Anna's life. Once in Milan, her fumbling, girlish feelings for Benucci make the heart ache, and the world of La Scala and Salieri's opera, make for entertaining historical drama.
After this setup, the action move on to Vienna, and to Mozart. Shotwell's Mozart is charismatic, a wunderkind from an abusive past who is part schoolboy silliness and part maestro. Some of the most interesting passages in the book centre not on Mozart himself but on the talk surrounding him. A champion of German opera, he is constantly second in favour behind Salieri and Italian opera in general. His style is consider outrageous, with too much ornamentation. His ability to improvise and create variations on themes is mocked for being too complex, overwhelming the listener. And his masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro, is too long and too difficult to sing.
Also interesting is the court of Joseph II and the interactions between the various singers, composers, musicians, and hangers-on. You really get a feel for how much work goes into professional opera, how much passion is required—and how much the great prima buffos and buffas were the rock stars of their age. Unfortunately, the lush historical setting is never explored fully. Vienna in the 1700s should provide all sorts of rich detail, sumptuous visuals, exotic tastes and smells, but it feels like little more than set dressing, a quickly painted backdrop that never plays an active role in the book.
Too, the characters never come completely alive, feeling instead like somewhat wooden puppets enacting a play for us. Part of this has to do with pacing issues. Too much time is spent introducing us to Anna and Benucci before Mozart ever comes onto the scene. Major events, including a period of violence that affects the shape of Anna's life, takes place in matter of pages, and is too distanced from us in the prose to really affect the reader. Even as Anna's life takes a dark turn from its former frivolity, with her voice and therefore her entire identity threatened, there is no real emotional connection. The romance between Mozart and Anna feels more an afterthought. Neither character seems fully invested in the affair, which may be because the author is too tentative in taking charge of her real-life characters and their actions. Moral questions concerning Mozart's wife, whom Anna knows and likes, are never really explored. (For a similar premise that goes much deeper into philosophy and betrayal in an illicit Viennese affair, check out Freud's Mistress by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman.)
This distancing of narrative and emotion is frustrating, especially because the characters themselves are all caught up in stories of passion, within their own lives and in their music. Thankfully, Shotwell's talent for describing music shines. Her descriptions of commedia dell'arte, of the differences between the music played by Mozart versus less skilled musicians, and of the way music makes Anna feel, are a joy to read. A light, serviceable historical novel, Vienna Nocturne is at its best when it makes us think about how we experience classical music.(less)
2/5. For this and other reviews, check out EditorialEyes Book Blog. ~*~ In The Mad Scientist's Daughter, we are introduced to the titular daughter—the p...more2/5. For this and other reviews, check out EditorialEyes Book Blog. ~*~ In The Mad Scientist's Daughter, we are introduced to the titular daughter—the precocious and oft-moody Cat—and her tutor, Finn, who just happens to be the most lifelike robot ever created. As Cat grows up, her relationship with Finn changes in ways that challenge both her and societal norms.
The book is set in a not-too-distant future, after some unidentified troubles (which sound climate-related) have wiped out a good deal of the world's population. Scientists created robots, sentient but subservient machines that are human-shaped but not made to look like real humans otherwise. These robots helped make up the lack of workers before the human population rallied itself. Now the world is back on its feet, but sentient AIs are still around and they're raising questions of human and robot rights. Into this world comes Finn, a lifelike human replica who is intelligent and autonomous—mostly—and who is brought into Cat's home to be her father's "lab assistant." He is also the young girl's tutor, and she grows up with him as a constant presence. As she grows older, however, her feelings change, and she finds herself longing for Finn to be more than just a friend and tutor. As Cat moves on, goes to university, becomes an artist, and eventually marries a man she does not love, she and Finn engage in an illicit affair.
I wanted to so much to like this book. The premise is intriguing, a science-fiction romance promising a rich ground of ethical questions to explore: what makes a human? Does a lab-created sentience deserve the same rights as a human? Can a machine be a slave? Further, does a robot experience emotional growth and connection? Can a robot change with the people around it? How do religious groups react to AI?
Finn is the most fully realized character in the book, polite and restrained, forthright regarding what he is, yet capable of showing deep emotion—restrained emotion, but an impressive and believable range of it.
The writing is often lyrical, capturing the small wonder of a little girl catching fireflies, for example. Clarke writes artists well, describing Cat's artistic projects and the aesthetics of the world in an evocative way. The intelligent glass house that Cat's husband places her in is a beautiful metaphor that illustrates several of the book's themes. The romance, too, is intriguing. Can a human and sentient robot truly love one another? Is there a difference between the programming in a robot's circuits and in a human's mind that causes and sustains that kind of emotion?
Unfortunately, beautiful writing isn't enough to sustain the book. The Mad Scientist's Daughter fell short in its quest to answer these questions or do anything more than touch on its ambitious themes. We know people look down on robots or feel resentful of them for taking jobs away from "real" people, and we know there are robots rights groups, but the discussion never moves beyond these superficialities. We know that something massive and catastrophic has taken place on earth, and yet beyond the fact that it's too hot to go out during the day in the summer, this world that exists at some point in future is pretty much identical to our own. Cat sits in a cafe and sips lattes. She eats Japanese and Korean food. Does Japan still exist after a major global warming event? Have other geopolitical crises occurred and changed or wiped out other countries? After losing so much of the population, is it really feasible that cafes and lattes exist, and exist in exactly the same way they do now? No thought whatsoever has been put into world-building here, creating a frustratingly mundane and uninteresting view of the future. Everyone uses a "slate," which pretty much sounds like an iPad, to communicate. Everyone uses email and IM and the internet. No interesting technology, apart from Finn and his less-evolved robot cohorts, exists. It's almost as if we're looking at a serious novelization of the webcomic Questionable Content (which I quite enjoy), about a bunch of twentysomethings in a modern world that's just like ours except there are robots.
Certain elements have been added in to cause strife, but they're never explained and they don't really make sense. Apparently women's roles have been reduced, and Cat's mother who was a cyberneticist seems to have been forced to become a housewife. But Cat is encouraged to go to university and never seems in any way constrained or victimized. Have women been pushed back into this role to propagate and care for the species? It isn't clear in any way, and if this is the case, why isn't there far more discussion about gender roles? Cat's father has worked with other female scientists and we know that at least one of them has a child, so how does that fit in?
Cat is herself a frustrating character. I don't believe that you have to like and sympathize with a character, but Cat is just so deeply unlikeable. She uses Finn terribly. She uses her husband terribly. She is by turns moody, demanding, and greedy for no real reason. Because we are introduced to her when she is just a small child and are then skipped through several decades of her life, it's difficult to connect with her or understand her in a meaningful way. By trying to cover too much of Cat's life, we miss the chance to get to know who she really is, and we don't get to focus on more than moments here and there, separated by many years. It leaves the book feeling flat, rather than giving the author a chance to flesh out her main characters.
The author also doesn't take the opportunity to address a serious plot point: Finn does not change. He does not age. His thinking, it would seem, does not evolve without a software upgrade. He is exactly the same entity all through Cat's life—an entity that has known Cat since she was little more than a toddler. There's a serious creep factor there. If he were her father's friend or business associate but not a robot, and he began having sexual relations with a teenager that he remembers being barely out of diapers. . . ew. But that isn't explored here at all. The flipside, the Highlander effect as it were, is that Finn will theoretically continue to be his exact same, young-looking, unevolving self even when Cat is fifty, seventy-five, a hundred. What does that mean for Cat? For Finn?
I was so looking forward to this book, a story that promised to be a lush sci-fi romance, a book that could incorporate robots and romance, pose deep questions while also evoking deep emotions. Margaret Atwood's Oryx & Crake, Charles Wu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and Hannu Rajaniemi absolutely brilliant The Quantum Thief are all examples of great sci-fi that is fun while inspiring deep thought. The Mad Scientist's Daughter is ambitious but ultimately doesn't go the distance, delivering beautiful writing but failing due to weak characters, meandering plot, and poor world-building.
Let’s get this right out of the way: the English cover of Frauke Scheunemann’s P...more~*~ For this review and others, visit the EditorialEyes Blog. ~*~ 2 stars
Let’s get this right out of the way: the English cover of Frauke Scheunemann’s Puppy Love is the cutest freaking thing you will ever see. Featuring a tiny puppy staring out with the most soulful “I’m sorry I ate your favourite pair of shoes but you still love me, right?” expression, with a tagline proclaiming “Hercules is a dachshund...,” I could not help but pre-order myself a copy. This, coupled with House of Anansi’s “vote for your favourite puppy” contest on their blog, sealed the deal. Well done, Art and PR departments! Absolutely adorable.
The story is a straightforward chick-lit style romance about a woman named Caroline and her rotten boyfriend Thomas. The hook is that the first person narrative is from her brand new puppy’s perspective. Hercules, nee Carl-Leopold von Escherbach (and damned proud of it), was cast out of his castle because his purebred dachshund mom had a bit of a tumble with an unknown dog and the resulting litter can’t be certified purebred. Hercules has a mighty high opinion of himself, and no amount of threats from the other dogs in the pound, nor human amusement at his haughty demeanour, can bring him down a peg.
He’s saved from the bigger, meaner pound dogs when he is adopted by Caroline. His new owner is a bit of an emotional wreck who fixes violins with her business partner Daniel and naively believes that the philandering Thomas is on legitimate business trips and not cheating his brains out. Hercules and an aging tomcat, Mr. Beck, team up with a two-part plan: 1) to show Caroline Thomas’s true nature, and 2) to find her a suitable mate—no easy task when dachshund tastes don’t always match up with human ones.
And that’s really the extent of the story. Watching Hercules puppy his way through his new life is incredibly sweet as he comes to grips with leaving the castle, or brings home a man from the park who turns out to be an older homeless fellow and not a young suitor for Caroline. It’s difficult to get a real sense of characterization of any of the humans in the story because they’re all filtered through Hercules’ point of view. What is Caroline like, really? She seems nice but dippy. Her friend Nina is a bitch of a stuck-up witch. Thomas is no good. Caroline’s business partner Daniel is nice but nondescript, and the vet is a bit of a mystery too. There isn’t much more depth than this, which leaves all of the human characters feeling terribly clichéd and one-dimensional.
Hercules’s best moments are when he’s adorably messing up, for example thwarting a bank robbery that’s actually a scene being filmed for a movie, or when he’s absolutely indignant that he has to wear a cone after he’s had a tick removed from his ear. Predictable but cute. His interactions with the older, wiser Mr. Beck are some of the best moments in the book, but they’re also uneven. Hercules’s vocabulary is extensive, but he’s unfamiliar with certain basic elements of his environment. The balance between wordliness and naivete isn’t quite achieved properly, so buying into the “this is a dog’s point of view” isn’t always maintained.
The translation from German to English is the biggest issue with this book. Shelley Frisch has a PhD in German literature and has won awards for her scholarly translations (including biographies of Einstein, Kafka, and Nietzsche), but this is her first work of light fiction. And it really shows. The translation is stiff as a board and doesn’t sound at all true to the English ear, with clunky sentences abounding, like “I run back and forth in a fluster and end up back at Caroline’s head. She is now lying motionless next to her vomit” and “You can imagine how I’m kicking myself.” There’s no feel for dialogue or emotion at all. The story would have benefited deeply from someone “translating” the translation into contemporary, everyday English, which would lead to a much more engaging read.
The love story is difficult to follow, too, and I was never quite sure which romantic contender I was supposed to be rooting for. The vet? The business partner? The movie star (really)? The winner seemed to come out of nowhere to me, not at all who I was expecting. I’m not sure if this is a function of the original narrative being told through a puppy’s eyes or if it’s again because of the translation.
In the end, Puppy Love is a cute book to have on my shelf, and I’m still drawn to gaze tenderly at the cover. Lacking any sort of substance or unique style, however, Puppy Love doesn’t have enough to make it stand out as an interesting read.(less)