I’m always drawn to tales of difficult families. These multilayered relationships can encompass so much love, pain, and betrayal. Poet Nina Berkhout sI’m always drawn to tales of difficult families. These multilayered relationships can encompass so much love, pain, and betrayal. Poet Nina Berkhout seeks to explore the nuances of family, beauty, and expectation in her debut novel The Gallery of Lost Species. Constance Walker, a failed actress from France, and her artist/custodian/collector husband Henry struggle to raise their two daughters in the face of their own disappointments. As youngest child Edith grows up, she discovers that love may not be any more real than unicorns, no matter how hard she tries to find either. Using the motif of the unicorn and the quest of cryptozoology to frame a story of addiction, failed dreams, and tested familial bonds, Berkhout has rich material to work with.
Berkhout’s main characters are stellar. Her portrayal of the beautiful, fading Constance is at once rich and uncomfortable. Con’s heartbreaks are so palpable, her behaviour deeply frustrating. She inflicts her own failures into her daughters’ very identities, lavishing too much destructive attention on eldest daughter Vivienne while neglecting Edith. Each sister secretly longs for what the other has. Edith is deeply aware of her own faults. How can she not be, when she’s constantly compared to her stunning older sister? Viv is a child beauty pageant queen, thin and graceful, while Edith is chubby and plain. Viv is an artist while Edith doesn’t believe she has any talent to speak of. Constance pours thousands of dollars into dance classes and stage costumes for Viv; Edith picks through garbage with their dad looking for treasures. Both daughters are given a lifestyle—heavily influenced by their parents’ baggage—they don’t want. As Viv increasingly rejects pageantry and turns to drugs and alcohol, Edith accepts moldy books and broken down furniture from her dad, too sympathetic to protest. Yet no matter how much Edith feels she pales compared to her self-destructive sister, wherever Viv goes, Edith yearns to follow. Her life is incomplete when she can’t react against her foil.
On a family vacation in Lake Louise, Edith spots the movement of an impossible animal in the distance and her dad confirms her suspicions through his binoculars: it’s a unicorn. On the same day, Edith sights something else: a geology student named Liam who will further complicate the already fraught relationship between the sisters. Her immediate infatuation with Liam (who is in turn smitten with Viv), her devotion to her sister, her disappointment in her parents, and her belief in the unicorn will push Edith through her formative years. She will always seek the illusive, be it a mythical being, her capricious sister, or a kind of happiness she doesn’t know how to achieve.
Berkhout’s language is beautiful as she draws the world around Edith, and we’re given some temporary relief from all the heartbreak in Edith’s relationship with Henry, doting father and failed artist. We get the sense that his relationship with his demanding wife is uneasy at best, but he tries always to instill wonder in his daughters, whether he’s promising an eventual trip to northern Canada to “paint the gold” they’ll find in the skies or giving the girls a tour through the National Gallery of Canada. “Henry and I were like bookends,” Berkhout writes. “We were allied in our pact to create little asylums where we could—antique shops and museums being the perfect places to evade Con and Viv’s feuds. And like bookends, we reinforced the pulpy novellas that made up our family library, preventing the unit from toppling over.” While the imagery sometimes overreaches (“My mother and sister’s bond ruptured into a million fragments like a pile of shattered glass at a bus shelter,” for example) Berkhout’s evocation of place is marvelous, particularly the nature vacations taken in Edith’s youth and the rarefied world of the National Gallery where Edith later works. The descriptions of the hierarchy of docents, gallery staff, and scholars is fascinating, and the real-life art installation The Child’s Dream, a unicorn created by Damien Hirst, anchors the adult Edith’s story expertly.
Unfortunately, that poet’s sensibility is also one of the book’s failings. It tries to cover too much story in too little space, feeling at times incomplete. Told in the first person, the narrator’s voice never really feels like a thirteen-year-old girl trying to come to grips with big, difficult issues. Her eye is too astute, her understanding too quick and adult. And the voice is steadily adult from age 13 to twentysomething, without any naivete or childishness to lose. This narrative style would fit better in retrospect, an already grown Edith looking back at the mistakes of her teenage years. Because of this displaced feeling, the book’s temporal setting is also off. Until its midpoint I was certain I was reading something in the 70s, the distance and and slightly antique cast to the words quite Wonder Years. The sudden appearance of an SUV surprised me. Cell phones are then mentioned a couple of times, and Viv receives an iMac for her birthday, placing the book’s span from the late 90s to the late 2000s. But there is no pop cultural or technological context. No computers or internet in the first half, no MySpace or MP3s or watching Friends or the Disney Channel. Sheltered though Edith is, it’s unbelievable that she would be so removed from the world she inhabits. When a twenty-year-old Edith tries to seduce Liam, he snaps “Stop it, Edith. This doesn’t become you.” I can’t imagine any twentysomething man in the 2008 reacting like this. The poetic stageiness paints a beautiful picture but creates a sense of unreality that I don’t think the author means.
A nuanced exploration of a family falling apart and a sister who wants to stay lost, this is not quite the novel it aspires to be. There’s more story to tell than is presented here, and more can be done with its weighty themes. Though it is at times unmoored and not always realistic, the emotion is nevertheless genuine. The Gallery of Lost Species, which addresses the slippery nature of beauty, is itself a frustrating but beautiful read....more
What if one of the most powerful men in the world had a secret, scandalous pa2/5. For this and other reviews, please visit EditorialEyes Book Blog. ~*~
What if one of the most powerful men in the world had a secret, scandalous past? And what if that man could be brought down by a single manuscript? Literary agent Isabel Reed and editor Jeff Fielder are about to find out—and they could pay with their lives—in Chris Pavone’s thriller The Accident. Set in the publishing world, The Accident goes from the slush pile to a Bourne Identity–style chase through New York. But are the stakes really that high?
An anonymous author has a mysterious and apparently nonfiction manuscript delivered to a literary agent. The agent can’t put the scathing exposé about worldwide media mogul Charlie Wolf down. She pitches it to a receptive editor: the book discusses an accident (of course) that was covered up, among other, far-reaching allegations. People with a copy of the damning manuscript start dying. Isabel’s assistant, Jeff’s publisher, a fact-checker, a spurned subrights director with an eye to pitching the book in Hollywood. . . they’re all targets. Isabel and Jeff find themselves dumping cell phones, hopping in and out of subways, and hightailing it to the country—with the manuscript intact. They want to rush it to publication if it’s really true. And they have a surprising connection to the anonymous author.
If this book had been set in the 80s or 90s, it would have been more absorbing. Keeping the paper copy safe, secret copies being made, high speed chases, and gripping scenes set in Europe as an ex-CIA operative tracks down the author while his colleagues hunt for Isabel, makes for a quick, entertaining read. But the premise doesn’t work in a post-Wikileaks world. The author doesn’t have financial motivation, caring about the truth and not a big payoff. So the fact that the internet plays no part in his grand plans to expose Wolf is nonsensical. The lack of any sort of electronic copying of the manuscript, that it’s delivered on paper at all rather than as an email or even on a USB memory stick, to be immediately disseminated to the public, or to a rival news organization, is tone deaf and thoughtless. There is simply no plausible reason for the high body count and the desperate necessity of the bad guys to get the extant paper copies back. The entire point of the book falls apart.
The adverb-happy, heavily descriptive writing also detracts. While a noir pastiche could work for this kind of thriller, it’s laid on too thick: “Isabel walks past the cashier and around the fast-food counter, the stench of nitrates laying siege to her nostrils, hot dogs rotating on their bed of steel rods. The bathroom is incomprehensibly large,” Pavone writes, filling in his narrative with so much unnecessary detail. Or “The coffee machine hisses and sputters the final drops, big plops falling into the tempered glass. Isabel glances at the contraption’s clock, changing from 5:48 to 5:49, in the corner of the neatly organized counter, a study in right angles of brushed stainless steel.”
The glimpses into the behind-the-scenes world of publishing are well done and quite realistic. Because of the Dan Brown-style cliffhangers and relentless pursuit of the main characters, as well as the interesting excerpts from the sought-after manuscript, this book is a quick read. Had it been set in a pre-internet era and trimmed of its lavishly descriptive tendencies, it might have made for a better read.
When she opens her eyes into the glaring light of a hospital room, Emma Burke has no idea wh3/5. This and other reviews at EditorialEyes Book Blog.
When she opens her eyes into the glaring light of a hospital room, Emma Burke has no idea where she is—or even who she is. And it’s only after intensive therapy and visits from her doting husband Declan that she begins to understand that she is a wife who has been through an ordeal too terrible to describe. But in MD Waters’s future dystopian debut Archetype, nothing is as it seems. This pageturner blends the amnesiac suspense of SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep with the fertility-challenged future patriarchy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and a dash of Philip K. Dick’s ”We Can Remember it For you Wholesale” (the basis of the Total Recall films).
How well it manages to do so is the question. Emma is plagued with nightmares (or are they memories? Visions?) of a life that doesn’t fit the picture Declan paints for her—especially of another man she seems to have intense feelings for and a revolution in which she is a warrior. She lives in a society where too much genetic modification has caused a plague of infertility and a shortage of women in general, where girls are brought up in facilities that train them to be wives. America is in the throes of a Man in the High Castle–like war, and security cameras are pushing 1984 levels of intrusiveness. There’s a lot going on in Emma’s life, not the least of which is how she can figure out who she is, if she doesn’t remember who she used to be (and if the memories she does have don’t fit the life she sees before her).
The writing is what makes this fast-paced thriller. Through Emma’s innocent eyes (and for some reason, her inability to use contractions in sentences even though everyone around her uses them), we are able to explore the world she is mired in: the subservience of the women, the advanced nature of the biological sciences. The descriptions are vivid, and Emma’s limited point of view allows Waters to reveal the plot in tantalizing fragments. As Emma runs up against the boundaries carefully set around her by Declan and the scientist overseeing her recovery, Dr. Travista, she uncovers inconsistencies in their story. And she has a voice in her head, whom she refers to as Her, that is trying to push its own agenda. Is Emma some kind of revolutionary? And who is the strange man she is in love in this alternate life she can only remember in snatches?
While it’s clear that Declan is not all he seems, I appreciate the nuances of his love for Emma, even when that love is controlling. He’s never reduced to a one-note villain, and Emma’s complex, at times tragic feelings for him, which are complicated by the man in her dreams, are compelling. This mysterious dream man Noah is less interesting, and her dream best friend Foster isn’t a fully conceived character. The glimpses of her brutally oppressive past are some of the most interesting moments in the book, but they take a backseat to the male characters and her immediate predicament.
What is jarring here is the tone the book goes for. Emma’s voice is strong and well crafted, but with its emotional, first person present tense, very me-centric point of view, its dystopian elements, and its well-defined love triangle, this book feels extremely Young Adult. And yet Emma is 26, and she has a lot of sex with her husband throughout the book. That sex, too, is problematic. This is a woman who is told she has been brutally attacked, and who falls in love with a man who is manipulating her into his bed, and not enough time is spent exploring these knotty issues. The focus instead is on how tough it is to decide between two equally hot, equally dangerous guys. And because Emma’s point of view is so limited, we don’t get much plot beyond her immediate dilemma of who she is and what she should do next. Everything is about her, leaving the plot feeling a bit shallow. This book is reaching for a crossover audience but missing the mark: YA readers will find it absorbing because it reads like YA, but that voice, and the fact that the plot is singular and unbranching, with less time spent on worldbuilding and more on the love triangle, means this book won’t resonate as well with readers of adult thrillers or sci-fi.
Despite my issues with it, though, it’s a quick, enjoyable read that urges you on to just one more chapter, and then another. Waters does interesting things with old speculative tropes. The big reveal of Emma’s true identity isn’t that surprising, and yet, the book uses its old themes in new ways, creating a fast-paced, action-packed thriller that also poses some interesting questions about the nature of memory and the soul. Just as it’s an experiment in crossover fiction, this book is also an experiment in serial-like publication. Archetype ends on a truly excellent cliffhanger that will leave you needing more, and you only have to wait six months: its sequel Prototype will publish in July 2014.
While this isn’t as inventive and breathtaking as the advance buzz made me imagine, and while the tone was far more coming of age than hard science fiction or gritty dystopian survival, Archetype is nonetheless highly readable—and I’m most curious to see if some of my issues will be resolved when Prototype completes the story arc. ...more
In the late 1700s, a young English soprano sets sail with her overprotectiv3/5. 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....more
San Francisco, 1876: During an unbearable heat wave and a dangerous outbrea3.5/5. For this and other reviews, please visit EditorialEyes Book Blog.
San Francisco, 1876: During an unbearable heat wave and a dangerous outbreak of smallpox, Blanche Beunon bends over to unlace her boots and bullets fly over her head, killing her new friend Jenny Bonnet almost instantly. Blanche is sure her lover and his best friend are behind it, that the bullets were meant for her. Jenny, a prototypical coucher surfer who makes her living catching frogs for restaurants and has done jail time for her habit of wearing men’s clothing, was simply in the wrong place. But can it be more than that? From the notorious House of Mirrors where Blanche dances to Chinatown where she and her lover live, Frog Music draws a picture both bright and bleak of post–Gold Rush San Francsico and brings to life a real unsolved murder.
Blanche, a former Parisian circus performer, pays the bills as a celebrated burlesque dancer and sometime-prostitute, and has saved enough money to buy the rooming house in Chinatown in which she and her lover Arthur live. Arthur and his friend Ernest live la vie boheme, which for them mostly means living off and freely spending Blanche’s earnings. Everything changes when the trouser-wearing frog girl Jenny accidentally drives her high-wheeler bicycle into Blanche. She follows the dancer home and asks some guileless but uncomfortable questions that cause a series of tragic events to unfold. In particular, Blanche realizes how little she knows about the “farm” where she pays to have her and Arthur’s one-year-old son P’tit fostered. The narrative jumps back and forth between the murder and its aftermath and Jenny and Blanche’s burgeoning relationship and the havoc caused by the reintroduction of the baby into Blanche, Arthur, and Ernest’s carefree lifestyle.
The present tense narration puts the reader directly into the action. This immediacy makes us remember that these aren’t just characters, but living, breathing people. I love this kind of historical fiction. Donoghue has meticulous research skills and an immense imagination. She gives us a huge, intricately woven tapestry: San Francisco is as much a character as a setting here. From restaurants and saloons to bawdy houses to parks, everything is created in vivid detail. We can see the the little yellow flags hanging outside doors, feel the horror that smallpox resides within. The stifling heat wave, the brimming xenophobia, the glorious multiculturalism, and the expansive freedom our post-Prussian-war main characters feel in America makes for a delicious reading experience. And the mystery of who shot Jenny, and whether the killer had meant to aim for her or for Blanche, is satisfyingly convoluted. Many different characters have means and motive, and the fact that Jenny’s death is already inevitable tinges even the fun and intimate scenes with tragedy.
Blanche is a fascinating heroine, a woman in the 19th century who genuinely loves sex and is entirely comfortable with her sexuality. She’s fashionable, shrewd with money, and not maternal. Her fight for her baby is far more a matter of will and a sense of duty than love or instinct. This is a refreshing take on motherhood and womanhood. Too, Blanche’s emotional journey is engrossing: from blithe ignorance and meek submission, letting Arthur call the shots even though she is the breadwinner, toward a fuller sense of self-worth. The best moments of the novel come when she is interacting with the boisterous Jenny. Though Blanche makes her living as a burlesque dancer and prostitute, she is in many ways the upright, buttoned-down straight woman to Jenny’s quite literally free-wheeling, jolly, criminal life.
As charming as the high-wheeling, cross-dressing frog hunter is, because we only see her through Blanche’s point of view, and only in the flashback scenes, there is something of a detachment that occurs. Jenny never comes as alive as I wanted her to, remaining closer to a caricature as Blanche realizes how little she knows about her new, dead friend. The mystery of Jenny’s back story is compelling, and way she and Blanche connect so deeply and yet at the same time almost not at all, makes for the best kind of readerly frustration: you want more for these women than history has allowed them to have.
Frustrating in a less appealing way is the choppiness of the chronology. There is no real need to jump back and forth so much. The reliance on flashbacks rather than a straightforward timeline took me out of the narrative somewhat, rather than compelling me forward, and made it difficult to see Arthur and Ernest as the villains of the piece. It strains credulity somewhat that Blanche lived so closely with them for nine years, only to be turned on so quickly and fiercely. And because Donoghue incorporates so many historical, well-researched characters, at times the facts seem almost too crammed in, as though the ghost of each person gets to make a quick cameo in this fictionalization of their story.
Frog Music is nevertheless well worth the read for its lush historical detail, seedy glimpses into San Francisco’s underbelly, and twisty, turny, totally plausible explanation for who killed the real life frog catcher Jenny Bonnet. Blanche and Jenny, caught up in their tragedy, will stay with you long after you finish reading their story....more
~*~ Violent political realities in Sierra Leone and their lasting physical and psyc3/5. This and other reviews can be found at EditorialEyes Book Blog.
~*~ Violent political realities in Sierra Leone and their lasting physical and psychological traumas form the backdrop of Michael Wuitchik's gritty debut My Heart is not My Own. Once an emergency doctor working in wartorn areas, Dr. John Rourke has never fully recovered from his experiences in Freetown. Now a respected psychologist in Vancouver, he and his wife Nadia, a Croatian refugee, live in an uneasy present, agreeing never to address the horrors they have each seen. But the arrival of a mysterious package—and the news that Nadia is pregnant with their first child—forces John to face his past.
The parcel in question contains the diary of a Sierra Leonan nurse named Mariama Lahai, whom John worked with. Though John was forced to evacuate the night the rebels took control of Freetown, he has never forgiven himself for abandoning Mariama and their doctor friend Momodu Camara, another Sierra Leonan. In Mariama's diary, he discovers what happened to her in the months after his departure. The subject matter of the novel, seen mostly through these diary entries, is intensely difficult. This fictionalized account of very real brutality doesn't shy away from rape, mutilation, torture, and murder during the 10-year-long civil war in Sierra Leone.
John returned to Canada with a mask entrusted to his care by Momodu, and psychological trauma, including inability to sleep and strange numbness in his hand. Now, immediately after the arrival of the diary, an anonymous caller phones him to say "The mask want to come home. It is time." His wife urges him to go back to Sierra Leone, return the mask, and find out what really happened to Mariama and Momodu.
Part One, which introduces us to John as a troubled psychologist, is fairly flat, with little action or engagement with the characters. The search for Mariama and Momodu that begins in Part Two is where the novel takes off. The depictions of West Africa are lush and authentic, taking time to find the beauty in fields of elephant grass or the smells from a cooking pot. The ease with which John slips into the Mende dialect quietly shows how much of his heart he has invested in this country. In Freetown, John hires cab driver Mohamed A. Lee to help get him where he needs to go, and to play detective with him as they search for Mariama. Mohamed is a vibrant character with secrets of his own, and he steals every scene he's in.
While John and Mohamed chase ghosts across the country, they are in turn pursued by a mysterious car. We're given more of Mariama's diary and learn about the atrocities she has lived through, and the novel shows tantalizing glimpses at the secret societies and their medicines that are traditional part of the culture here. Descriptions of Sandei and Poro rituals and the role the mask plays are fascinating. While this is a violent read, violence isn't the only thing going on here: women are brutalized and oppressed throughout, yet we also see the other side of the coin, the strength women draw from each other and the societies they form. A real sense of magic is woven into the novel through the power of the mask and of the Kamajor hunter society encountered by both Mariama in the past and John in the present. This reminded me a bit of what Guy Gavriel Kay told me: " I want to erase that complacency, add to reader immersion by showing the world as my characters understood it." This approach works extremely well in this novel.
At times the writing and especially the dialogue is quite stilted. Dialogue is at its best when the Sierra Leonans are speaking. Wuitchik has a strong ear for this dialect but he doesn't fare as well with his Canadians, who speak in formalized sentences that don't feel authentic in a contemporary setting. The plot is most compelling in Mariama's voice in her diary entries. And some characters come more to life than others. John is a flat, uninteresting conduit for exposition, relaying factual information and backstory and asking the questions the audience wants to ask without ever really moving beyond two-dimensional. Mariama is angelically good and patient and forgiving, and Nadia, who could be an interesting character with her own demons and a quiet jealousy of this woman from her husband's past is left mostly on the sidelines.
The plot, too, is uneven. There are moments of excellence: seeing what has happened to Mariama in the decade since John left, for example, subtly shows that even when we take our exit, life goes on without us, and people figure out how to get by no matter the circumstances. Scenes with John and Mohamed negotiating for information in a diamond shop or careening along dirt roads brim with excitement and authenticity, while some subplots falter and are outright unnecessary. Several serious coincidences are needed to move the plot forward, and major revelations are obvious to the reader while John is strangely oblivious. The big issue of female circumcision is both focused on and danced around, and feels like it's there because it's an important topic that should be there, rather than because it is part of the story being told.
The tone of the novel is incredibly earnest, veering too far at times into lecture mode. Wuitchik, who has worked as a doctor in Sierra Leone, clearly wants western readers to know what happened in Sierra Leone, and the extent of the horror that humans inflicted upon each other. "Short sleeves or long?" the rebels ask their victims before hacking arms off at the elbow or the wrist with a machete. Women are repeatedly gang-raped, and those who choose to become "bush wives" in order to survive their abductions are then rejected by their villages after the war. Babies starve to death or are literally thrown away. These are facts we either rarely hear about in the news in Canada or frequently turn away from. Too often, though, this book forgets that it is meant to tell a story and doesn't offer any real emotional connection, instead becoming a pulpit, the kind of thing you "should" read because its subject matter is important. Books like Lawrence Hill's Book of Negroes, Camilla Gibb's Sweetness in the Belly, and Joseph Boyden's The Orenda also deal with difficult, violent, chaotic history but they never lose the thread of the story they tell or compromise characterization. The history these books set out to share with their readers is all the more vivid and compelling for the emphasis placed on good storytelling. I wonder, actually, if the intent of this book might not have been better captured through non-fiction than through a novel.
That said, there are moments of insight and beauty throughout, for example the parallels John's First Nations colleague Bonnie draws between this mask and the ones used by some Haida groups. The juxtaposition of the mask as art, something that John has kept hanging on his wall, and as living artefact used in ceremony is striking. And the violence endured in Freetown is written about graphically but respectfully. It never feels exploitative but rather authentic—and devastating. "I am in hell and tears put out no fires there," Mariama writes. Though it suffers from unevenness, My Heart is not My Own is an informative and heartbreaking first book, one that sheds light on a part of the world that is often ignored or misunderstood in the west. ...more
5/5. For this and other book reviews, visit EditorialEyes Book Blog. ~*~ In Lyndsay Faye's Seven for a Secret, it is 1840s New York City, where crime, s5/5. For this and other book reviews, visit EditorialEyes Book Blog. ~*~ In Lyndsay Faye's Seven for a Secret, it is 1840s New York City, where crime, social tensions, and playing-for-keeps politics form a potent, sometimes deadly milieu. Floods of Irish immigrants are arriving daily to escape the potato famine; people die of starvation with regularity, and there isn't enough work to go around. Excitement, danger, and various illegalities are the norm, and Timothy Wilde, copper star of the newly minted New York Police Department, is doing his best to figure out whodunit. But whodunit? is never an easy question in this twisty, brilliantly plotted world.
Seven is the sequel to Faye's Gods of Gotham, which introduced us to Tim, a barman who lost his job and a good deal of his looks in the Great New York City Fire in 1845; his larger-than-life brother Valentine, drug addict and pillar of the Democratic Party; and the formation of the copper star force (hence the modern-day term "cops"), set up by the Party to patrol the streets and stop violent crime before it starts (and I highly recommend that if you haven't read Gotham, you start the series there). In this outing, set six months later, Tim is still on special duty: Police Chief George Washington Matsell has noted Tim's knack for figuring things out and taken him off the usual rounds. Tim is tasked with the novel job of detecting who committed crimes after the fact rather than being a beat cop who tries to stop crimes before or as they happen. So it's perhaps no surprise that when Lucy Adams, a free black woman, comes home to discover that her young son and her sister have been kidnapped by slave catchers, she goes to Tim for help. But this incident is only the gateway to a much deeper, murkier mystery involving Lucy Adams' family. When a murder is layered atop the kidnappings, abolitionist Tim must work within the confines of the Party and the police force, and alongside the free black members of the New York Committee of Vigilance to help Lucy's family and figure out just who the villains of the tale really are.
Faye has penned an incredibly detailed world here, bringing 1840s New York to life in a way that makes you feel as though you are walking down those cobbled streets yourself. The neighbourhood of Five Points, the mansions on Fifth Avenue, and the filthy hovels where poor chimney sweeps sleep all play a role, along with brothels, rich Democrat abodes, and the Halls of Justice where Tim works—colloquially called The Tombs.
The book revels in the evocation of the city in all its glory and grit, and is exactingly researched, from the dialogue (including the use of "flash," the slang dialect used by the lower classes—and criminals) and setting, to historical facts and contexts. This is no small feat. For example, using the Democratic Party's manipulation of Irish immigrants for votes and the tension this fostered between the Irish and the black populations of New York not just as a backdrop but as part of the plot takes a lot of skill. Yet with all the density of description, politics, period language, the book is never dull, nor boastful of its research. It all comes together to provide a complete, real world for a compelling murder mystery. Like Gotham before it, I was kept guessing throughout the book, never quite sure who the real villain would be.
Oh, there are many villains to choose from. The central plot is set in motion when two free black citizens of New York aresnatched to be sold as "runaways" in the south. Abolition and slavery loom large. Tim is told to keep his abolitionism quiet for the good of his job, and the indignities of entrenched racism appear throughout. White Tim can't ride in a hansom cab with his black friend Julius Carpenter. George Higgins, the head of the Committee of Vigilance, is a better speculator on the stock market than anyone else in the city, and yet he has to do all his business through a white intermediary who takes a third of all his profits. Black citizens cannot testify in a court of law. And this only touches on the cruelty and violence that form the larger picture. Slave catchers, crooked cops, and politicians who want the upper hand at all costs close in on Lucy Adams' family, and her secrets.
What really draws such a tour de force together is the superb characterization. Every character is realistic and nuanced. Older brother Valentine is as fierce in his love for Tim—a love that Tim himself has trouble believing—as he is in his quest for intoxicants and political power. The brothers' complicated history forms much of the backbone of the book, and of Tim's own world view. He keeps a running tally of Val's vices:
"Narcotics, alcohol, bribery, violence, whoring, gambling, theft, cheating, extortion, sodomy, spying, and forgery," I spat back. "A nice even dozen now." "Oh." He smiled, teeth gleaming. "Nacky system you've got there. Add lying, I'd no intention of ever telling you."
Tim himself has a brilliantly strong narrative voice. Every sentence of the book is infused with the way Tim speaks and thinks, and he is always entertaining, even when grumbling (which is often). He also does a good job of reminding the old reader and introducing the new to what happened in Gotham. No storyline is dropped between the two: major characters who went through major trauma in book one are still present and still dealing with the aftermath these six months later. In particular Tim's friendships with Bird Daly and Mercy Underhill continue in this book and play a part in the mystery at hand.
Seven for a Secret is historical fiction and mystery writing at its finest. Strong characters, great detail, and a plot that both keeps you guessing and feeds into sweeping historical concerns makes for a serious page turner...and will leave you with a hankering for a third installment....more
What can you say about a girl with a hole through her middle, or a boy with bees l4/5. This and other reviews posted at EditorialEyes Book Reviews.
What can you say about a girl with a hole through her middle, or a boy with bees living in his stomach? Or immortal pigeons and impossible creatures? They’re pretty peculiar. In Hollow City, Ransom Riggs’s sequel to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Jacob Portman also calls them his friends. Jacob is Peculiar too. His particular talent is for seeing the monsters, particularly wights and hollowgast, that stalk the Peculiar children for unknown but undoubtedly sinister reasons. And when last we left them, they were on the run from their time loop haven in 1940 after rescuing their ymbryne, or bird-shapeshifting protector, Miss Peregrine from evil hollow clutches.
And the fact that Jacob is from our present, trapped in the wartorn British 1940 countryside, is the least of his worries. The hollowgast are on the Peculiar Children’s trail, and Miss Peregrine is injured and unable to escape her bird form. Worse, the other Peculiar havens have been destroyed, their ymbrynes kidnapped. If this seems like a lot to catch up on, it is: you don’t want to pick up Hollow City without having read the first volume of Miss Peregrine adventures.
But once you’re caught up, Hollow City is a worthy second installment. Dropping directly into the action without a breather, we find the children having just rescued Miss Peregrine and rowing their way from their destroyed island to Mainland England. The gast have infiltrated the German army and are after the children in submarines and planes. The children’s flight takes them from a hidden Peculiar menagerie to a Gyspy camp to the heart of London and their only hope of saving Miss Peregrine before she’s trapped in bird form forever.
Like its predecessor, the immediate draw of Hollow City is Riggs’s use of very strange antique photographs he’s culled from flea markets and estate sales. These creepy (one shows a girl floating off the ground, another a child with a mouth on the back of her head) and atmospheric (dead horses strewn along a country road, trees growing from a skull-shaped island) images served as Riggss’ guide for shaping his story. He had the photos first, and he wrote the story from them. The book is positively peppered with pictures, and they are very much a part of the story, adding to the tone and narrative. While the story could stand alone without them, it would be the poorer for it. You’ll want to read this book to see what visual the next page brings. The writing is cinematic in description and scope. This series will easily be adapted into movies (it’s already been optioned by Tim Burton).
In this one, Riggs wisely weeds out a few Peculiar characters for the flight to London. By concentrating on a smaller number of them, the children are given a chance to stand on their own and escape one-dimensional characterization. Free from their safe, familiar time loop and the watchful eye of their ymbryne in human form, the children have a chance to show fear and bravery, as well as their advanced age (most of them are pushing a hundred, though they still look and mostly act like children). They’re able to grow, and so are the hollowgast, whose powers and motivations become clearer and scarier in this volume.
The weak note is Jacob, whose thoughts and dialogue are often too stiff and adult. Jacob is meant to be a teenaged boy from our present, but he comes across as stilted and not quite real. While this formal voice works well for the children, who have been living in 1940 for decades, it feels false in Jacob And we never get as clear a picture of him as we do of the people surrounding him. This stiltedness sometimes extends to the shape the story takes, as well. Because the story is formed around existing strange pictures, plot points at times feel artificial, taking the story to a place it might not organically have gone if such a photograph didn’t exist and Riggs didn’t want to include it.
Even so this is a highly readable book, and it’s a heck of a lot of fun. Harrowing chases over sea and land, new discoveries about Peculiar people, animals, mythology, geography, and history, and the urgency of finding a way to save Miss Peregrine make for a breathless pace. The Peculiar plight is combined with a World War II setting, upping the danger factor the children find themselves in. New characters are interesting and move the plot forward, and it’s exciting read about the children using their Peculiar powers to get out of suspenseful scrapes. And the book itself, with its layout and paper and footers and chapter dividers, is a thing of beauty. (Avoid the ebook. I read the first installment on my Kindle, and it loses a lot of its inherent creepiness when it’s not a beautifully crafted object.)
While this book tends toward the artificial and at times slightly awkward because of its incorporation of preexisting photographs, it’s nevertheless a highly worthwhile strange, escapist read. Its world is well imagined, its circumstances dire. Like the first book, this one ends on a big cliffhanger. I didn’t see the ending coming at all, and I can’t wait to find out what happens next....more
A small village in 1980s Pakistan might seem to be a quie3/5. For this and other book reviews, interviews, and more, visit EditorialEyes Book Blog. ~*~
A small village in 1980s Pakistan might seem to be a quiet setting, but much is going on beneath the surface in Nadeem Aslam’s Season of the Rainbirds, even before several major events rock the community. First, a well-known and corrupt judge is murdered, and then a sack of letters that went missing in a train crash nineteen years previously suddenly reappears. What is in the letters, and what buried secrets might they reveal? Who murdered the judge? And when great political disaster threatens to strike, what are the local repercussions? As we follow a host of townsfolk and several visitors over the next few days, the life, religious concerns, and culture of this tiny Pakistani village unfold in vivid detail.
Nadeem Aslam’s first novel is less a gripping tale of suspense and mystery than it is a week in the life of an isolated village that’s been shaken up by unforeseen events. With a dramatis personae of two dozen characters, Aslam brings to life the daily comings and goings, the feelings and events and societal beliefs that make a life. Maulana Hafeez, a devout cleric, tries to help the predominantly Muslim population. Deputy Commissioner Azhar is trying to find out who murdered the judge. Both men are largely interested in keeping the peace, though often in very different ways and for different reasons.
As we move through the days, we are introduced to other storylines. Mujeeb Ali is a local landowner, not to mention a politicking, bullying, murderous thug. He may be responsible for the death of Kalsum’s son. Kalsum’s sister Suraya, meanwhile is visiting from Canada, where her husband is trying to divorce her according to Canadian rules but keep both her and the new woman he wants to marry according to Muslim laws allowing for more than one wife. This troubles Maulana Hafeez, who tries to stress that multiple wives are only allowed under certain circumstances, but who is equally troubled because he believes Suraya cannot be allowed to leave her husband.
Nabi the barber and Zafri the butcher are an excellent source of local gossip. Yusuf Rao is a lawyer and one-time political activist who backed the wrong party nineteen years ago. Though he claims that that life is behind him now, we see glimpses of the violence and intimidation that occurred then, the voters “swayed,” the votes miscounted. Saif Aziz is a journalist who arrives in town to cover the reappearance of the letters, but who feels his own political past coming to haunt him.
The prose is exquisite throughout, illustrating mundane but beautiful everyday moments: the sudden clarity brought about by a near-sighted man who tries on glasses for the first time, for example. Descriptions are a frequent joy throughout: “She stood at the window, looking out. Her hair she had tied with a ribbon and in her ears she wore tiny gold roses. In the trees and under the eaves of the silent houses clusters of sparrows were huddled together, their feathers fluffed into soft masses as they waited for the rain to clear.” With ease and grace, Aslam has brought this village to startlingly real life, creating for the reader its sounds, its smells, the contrasts of the heavy days before the rainy season starts with the eventual coming of the rain.
We get a good sense of who the main characters are as well, though some don’t move beyond character sketches. Azhar and Maulana Hafeez are interesting, flawed, and very real people. The maulana genuinely wants to keep his flock on the right path, saying “My privilege is simply to warn people of the dangers of straying on to the wrong path, I don’t have the authority or the means of preventing them from doing so”–although he is certainly always at hand with a verse from the Qu’ran to explain why owning a television set is evil.
One of his greatest concerns, and indeed a conflict that draws itself throughout the book, is Azhar’s affair with a Christian woman named Elizabeth. They are unmarried but live together, somewhat defiantly so in 1980s Pakistan, causing a huge problem for the community. Azhar possesses a large amount of power, so he cannot simply be shunned or shamed into “correct” behaviour; Maulana Hafeez wants to try to persuade him gently to the right path while the villagers grow more agitated, seeing the affair as a threat to the greater community.
This idea of putting the needs of the community before individual needs may seem strange to a western reader in 2013. That Azhar’s affair is more than just something the villagers disagree with for religious reasons, that they view it as a personal offense and as a threat, is challenging. Similarly jarring is the casualness with which people who don’t fit in are beaten, or the torturous interrogation methods applied to Judge Anwar’s murderer. Women are shuttered into incredibly limited roles in a way that I found difficult to read about, but because the story is told from the whole village’s point of view, it is told unflinchingly and unapologetically. This makes for a fascinating but troubling read.
The lack of forward momentum or any real narrative structure outside the progression of days is frustrating, however. With so many characters, it is difficult really to get a sense of who Mr. Kasmi is, what Gul-Kalam is like, how Asgri is truly feeling. And the set-up, that a sack of missing letters and a judge’s murder throws a town into chaos, is misleading. This isn’t a mystery. The killer is caught halfway through the book and the murder is barely mentioned again; the letters don’t show up until about the hundredth page and also barely appear in the narrative. There is unrest as people wonder what might be in these letters that would have been sent around the time of the last contentious election, but we see very little of what is in them and what the fallout truly is. The letters feel like a bit of a red herring.
With so many people and so many daily tales, the novel also feels, and perhaps must feel, unfinished. Almost no storylines are tied up, or even given any real direction. We are parachuted in and extracted again eleven days later, with more questions than answers. But perhaps we’re a little wiser for having felt the rhythms of a life not our own, for seeing and beginning to understand the motivations of people like Maulana Hafeez. And for the lovely writing alone, this book is worth the read....more
In a fantastical medieval kingdom, an extraordinary girl aspires to more than a stra3/5. For this and other reviews, visit EditorialEyes Book Blog.
In a fantastical medieval kingdom, an extraordinary girl aspires to more than a strategic marriage and many babies. Daughter of the king's most trusted advisor, Aoife (pronounced "Ee-fah") is drawn to maps. From an early age she notices things like the geometry of spiderwebs, the planes and angles that make up the world around her. She becomes apprentice to the kingdom's mapmaker and then succeeds him, with the help of her father and of Wyl, crown prince of the realm and childhood friend. While mapping the river that forms one of the kingdom's borders, Aoife crosses to the other side and discovers a settlement unlike any she has ever known before: a people, a way of life, and a mythology that are truly magical.
But her discovery, and the rumours she brings back of great wealth guarded by a dragon, sparks a war. She follows Wyl , who wants more than just friendship from her, on his quest to find the dragon, while insidious younger prince Raef accelerates hostilities. Aoife finds herself with a burgeoning allegiance to the people across the river, known as Guardians. Soon her life is torn in two and she must begin again, leaving behind her family, her children, and her kingdom.
For all that I found charming and original in this book, I was also frustrated throughout.Where it succeeds most is in its mythos. The mythology of the Guardians is beautifully crafted. Their rituals and philosophy and indeed their whole way of life are all fascinating, and discovering them through Aoife's eyes makes them accessible. Each story of Egnis the dragon, Ingot the dwarf, and Azul the orphan is beautiful and the way these tales echo through the real world captivates. Domingue writes tantalizing glimpses of the dragon and her realm, and Aoife's path to reach the dragon is one of magic--both within the story and in terms of storytelling.
Description is rich, and social commentary is never preachy. The book makes beautiful arguments about how different points of view can cast situations in different ways. The Guardians live in a communist Utopia, while the kingdom seeks to gain wealth and land. The Guardians accept any orphan, actual or metaphorical, into their community and expect nothing in return. "The Guardians saw linkages, not lines," Aoife tells us. These linkages allow Aoife and the Guardians to traverse vast distances in no time, and to offer empathy where the people of the kingdom would seek only gain. Brilliant, the break between the two halves of Aoife's life allows for a linkage between these two worlds for both Aoife and the narrative. Her struggle to accept all that she has left behind adds depth to her character. Indeed, she is a fleshed out, wonderfully human, sometimes difficult to like character, and she is one of the best parts of the book.
Most other characters, unfortunately, are diminished to character sketches or two-dimensional character types. Of course Wyl is the goodhearted but weak-willed prince, and Raef is immediately identifiable as the villain. Aoife's second love, the Guardian Leit (pronounced "Light") is good in spite of something terrible he has suffered and still bares the burden of. Their daughter is, of course, a prodigy, more magical and powerful than anyone has ever seen before, veering dangerously close to "Chosen One" tropes. Aoife's brother Ciaran has no discernible personality at all, so it's difficult to feel any emotion when she loses or finds him.
This loss of more fully realized characterization seems to happen for two reasons: the book's style and its length. The Mapmaker's War is a memoir of sorts, framed as Aoife-the-elderly telling herself her own life's story. Very unfortunately, this means the author wrote the book in the second person, and without quotation marks for any dialogue: "A fantastic tale you must know, said he. We'll see, you said. So it's story-time for you, said he. Raef shouted, Enter." While this does add an air of exoticism to the tale, it also serves to distance the reader rather than connect us to Aoife. Because she is an old woman admonishing herself for past mistakes and glossing over details she doesn't deem important, so much of this magical story is lost to us. We see almost nothing of characters not immediately interacting with Aoife, and most of them appear only in passing. Worse, we see almost none of the titular war, which should be a huge part of the plot. And because she is telling us her entire life story, from very small girlhood into her elderly years, so much is raced over that there isn't any real plot or build-up to a climax. Things happen, time marches on. It's hard to become engaged in the events at hand.
Second, this book should have been at least a hundred pages longer. So much is barely touched on that I wanted to know more about. This isn't just a case of "draw your own conclusions." Big gaps in the plot, especially with regard to the war, feel totally unfinished. As a minor quibble, I also felt a bit ripped off at the lack of maps in a book about a mapmaker. There are lovely simple drawings that appear throughout to illuminate the text, but there are no maps. It seems like a missed opportunity.
Still, Aoife is a strong, troubled, interesting female lead, and the book has interesting things to say about gender, motivation, and love. The magic is quite real when it appears through the obfuscating second person narrative and strained, formal voice. Had it been given more room to unfold, and had it been told in a first person, this book could have been brilliant. As it is, it's an interesting, frustrating read infused with intense moments of pain and beauty....more