Amid the excitement surrounding the release of George R.R. Martin’s newest bo...more~*~ For this review and others, visit the EditorialEyes Blog. ~*~ 5 out of 5
Amid the excitement surrounding the release of George R.R. Martin’s newest book, A Dance with Dragons, I also heard a common complaint: Martin, many of his truest fans contend, takes far too long between installments, leaving readers hanging for years at a time.
Michael Ondaatje, one of Canada’s literary superstars, doesn’t seem to garner the same complaint, despite breaks of five to eight years between titles. His admirers await his books with patient anticipation. In return, Ondaatje crafts works such as The Cat’s Table, one of those rare literary achievements that combines page-turning storytelling with perfectly shaped prose. Each word and each scene has been chosen with care, and the book comes together in a harmony of ideas, memories, and narratives.
I say narratives because The Cat’s Table encompasses many stories: in its seemingly straightforward telling of a boy’s 21 days on a ship bound from Sri Lanka to England, its deeply complex characters offer glimpses of chance encounters and intermingled lives. The book is a palimpsest, the story of an 11-year-old boy named Michael, told by his older self who happens to be a well-known writer, written by Michael Ondaatje, who includes a disclaimer that while he took a similar trip as a boy, this work is purely fictional. These three Michaels intersect with one another in a memory play seen through the lens of the ship. The language and reflections are mature: this is the understanding only an adult can bring when he looks back at himself years later, trying to come to grips with how the smallest of actions can ripple through many lives over many years.
The titular Cat’s Table is the opposite of the Captain’s Table, the least prestigious spot in the dining room. The characters who gather around it pass through young Michael’s shipbound existence, from his two contemporaries who raise hell with him all over the ship to the adults at the table, including Mr. Mazappa, the piano teacher with two names, Mr. Hastie, the keeper of the kennels, and Miss Lesqueti, the shrinking wallflower who is more than she appears to be. Michael’s beautiful older cousin Emily moves in and out of the narrative as well, a member of the upper decks and upper classes who finds herself pulled into the swirling activity below. You get the sense that an entire novel could be devoted to any one of these subsidiary characters, even though they figure in only small ways in Michael’s story.
Without ever belabouring a description, Ondaatje fills the reader’s world with the sights, sounds, and smells of the ship and the ports it slips through. He also inverts the idea of the ship as a closed-off setting. This ain’t no bottle episode. The ship is a wonderland with myriad decks and enough forbidden places to keep a gang of three boys busy for weeks. It is peopled by ailing millionaires, live pigeons, unseen violinists, and the prisoner, a mysterious figure whose close-guarded nightly walks become a focal point for the boys, giving their days structure and their imaginations fodder. And there is always the sense that there is more to see, more to hear and overhear, than anything Michael and his friends can comprehend. The boys end up everywhere from the captain’s quarters to the deepest bowels of the ship, discovering hidden gardens with hidden poisons, exploring port towns, and hiding in lifeboats to intrude ever so gently upon the people passing by.
In Michael’s world, the adults and the upper classes float along without changing or effecting change. They play bridge and vie to be toasted by one another at the Captain’s Table, but they also miss the excitement happening all around them. They’re thrilled by a mind reader while the boys see how that mind reader accomplishes his supposed magic. They miss entirely the nighttime passage through the Suez Canal, while the boys see everything, make fleeting contact through waves and shouts with the people on land, and witness their passage out of the East and into the West, out of their old world and into something new.
Memory and time are as fluid as the ocean the ship traverses, a moment in childhood with momentum but no fixed address. The narrative is overall a linear one, starting at the beginning of the journey, ending when the Oronsay arrives in England, but this is also a collection of stories. As the older Michael reflects on a particular character, events jump forward in time, following that character’s interaction with Michael throughout the years before looping back to pick up where we left off on the ship. We arrive at the end of the book a little wiser, a little changed, just as the characters at the Cat’s Table are.
Without falling into the triteness of a typical coming-of-age story, The Cat’s Table offers a refined, note-perfect journey of how three weeks can alter the course of lives. And it’s some damned good storytelling too. I genuinely cared for these people and their misadventures, and when it was time to depart for other shores, I was left hoping that I would run into them again.(less)
This is not exactly a novel. Not exactly fiction, not exactly autobiography,...more~*~ For this review and others, visit the EditorialEyes Blog. ~*~ 5 out of 5
This is not exactly a novel. Not exactly fiction, not exactly autobiography, not exactly allegory. Ragnarök: The End of the Gods, A.S. Byatt’s reweaving of the Norse cycle of myths is, for such a short book, epic. Ragnarök is part of the Canongate Myth Series, which since 1999 has published retellings of famous myths by accomplished authors the world over (you might recognize Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad or Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ from the list of Canongate titles).
Ragnarök loosely tells the story of the thin child, an otherwise unnamed waif who is a loose representation of Byatt in her childhood, sent to the English countryside during World War II. She finds herself surrounded by flora and fauna that differs greatly from her city world, and she finds a book about the Norse gods, written by a meticulous German scholar, that opens up her imaginative playground and, indeed, her world view. We follow her as she traipses, book-bag in one hand and gas-mask in the other, through fields of flowers and dreamscapes of great Norse battles, puzzling out what she believes to be true about the world around her.
As this isn’t a traditional novel but rather a retelling of a myth cycle, there is no plot to speak of. And yet the book is dense. Not unlike Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, we are given a younger avatar of the author, are seeing the world through that younger self’s eyes, and yet are being given analysis in a very adult voice. This isn’t told in the singsong tones of a ten-year-old narrator; this is Byatt-as-Storyteller narrating what the thin child thought and how she was changed by the war and the countryside and the book of myths. As the thin child delves further into the myth cycle, we get to see the myths retold. What linear narration there is belongs to the stories of the gods, beginning with the creation of the gods’ world to the creation of this world from the body of the dead giant Ymir to the inexorable destruction of it all. Byatt tells of the coming of the Frost Giants, the gods’ world Asgard and the rainbow bridge Bifröst, the pursuits of all the gods, the inevitable capture and imprisonment of Loki and his children, and finally, finally of the destruction: Ragnarök.
Byatt adopts a slightly archaic tone that is perfect for the subject matter: she sounds like she is telling myths and legends without ever sounding pretentious. This artifice is the most natural way of telling stories of one-eyed Odin and the trickster Loki, Loki’s monstrous children and dead warriors fighting forever in Valhalla and the beautiful, doomed Baldur who must fall at the hands of his fellow gods. Throughout we have the thin child’s narrative—not framing the myths so much as interweaving with them—comparing these Norse myths to the Christian myths she taught in school and church, deciding that both are stories and that she doesn’t “believe” with faith in either story cycle. The thin child loves that the “proper” ending for these myths is truly the end: unrelenting, undifferentiated darkness. The gods destroy themselves and the world, and there is no promise of rebirth, no Christian resurrection, and in this she finds awful beauty. The thin child ponders the meanings of the war going on around her, what might seem like a possible end of days for herself and her country, through the lens of her myths. In a true bit of loveliness, these myths that become all important to the thin child have been catalogued, translated, and analyzed by a “careful German editor,” a voice from the country that is attacking the thin child’s home, a voice that is nothing like the propaganda she hears elsewhere.
Loveliness abounds in this book. Byatt’s love of words, love of shaping the story, gets full play here. As the gods create their world by naming things so too does Byatt. The thin child “liked seeing, learning, and naming things. Daisies. Day’s eyes, she learned with a frisson of pleasure…vetches and lady’s bedstraw, forgetmenots and speedwells, foxgloves, viper’s bugloss, cow parsley, deadly nightshade (wreathed in the hedges), willowherb and cranesbill, hairy bitter-cress, docks (good for wounds and stings), celan-dines, campions and ragged robin.” Likewise within the telling of the myths themselves, we are given sentences to sink into such as, “Filter-feeding sponges sucked at the thicket of stipes; sea-anemones clung to the clinging weed, and opened and closed their fringed fleshy mouths. Horn-coated, clawed creatures, shrimp and spiny lobster, brittle-stars and featherstars supped.” I can get happily lost in this ocean of lovely language. Byatt creates and recreates worlds for the thin child and for her readers to dive into, just as the gods create the world from the body of Ymir.
Byatt uses the myths to discuss obliquely problems of the modern world. For example, she considers the fact that our world was built from the skull—in the mind, as it were—of Ymir, and that the sun and moon are pursued across the sky each day by howling, snapping wolves. A cosmological tale to explain the movement of the heavenly bodies across the sky, certainly, but Byatt also draws upon the idea of wolves in the mind, forever causing anxiety, unrelenting in their vicious, violent pursuit. Likewise, the World-Tree, Ygdrassil, and the Sea-Tree, Rándrasill, described in such loving, interconnected detail, make for beautiful metaphors of our own planet’s ecology; their destruction speaks to the ecological havoc being wrought by us upon our world. And in the end, the gods’ own nature brings about their doom. Their inability to stop being destructive, their inability to break free of the story they have shaped for themselves, means that the always inevitable (ineluctable, as Byatt says) ending, the Ragnarök they all knew was coming, cannot but come. Byatt is not directly pointing and saying “See, humans? You are in the same position!” She is not smug or knowing, and yet there are parallels to be drawn from these stories that are apt for our times.
For those who are new to Byatt, this is a great first read: packed full of ideas and beautiful language, but accessible and not arduously long. For Byatt fans, Ragnarök offers a chance to peek into the author’s mind. It reads both like a prequel and a summation of her body of writing, her interests, and some of her major themes. As the thin child explores questions of religion, particularly the Judeo-Christian cosmogony as juxtaposed against the Norse, you can see where the roots of Byatt’s interest in the Fabian Society and the Theosophical Society may have begun. In reading, as a child, about the great, female, serpent Jörmungandr who wraps herself around the earth, perhaps the adult Byatt found the creative spark to write Christabel LaMotte in Possession, whose works focused on Melusina, the half-serpent fairy, the good mother/bad serpent archetype.
Dense and bright, full of wonder and the wistfulness of passing time, Ragnarök is a myth cycle for the modern era. When I finished I turned to the beginning and read it again, to spend a bit more time with the thin child, and with mottled Hel and mourning Frigg, sly Fenris and brawny Thor, and their universe, which seems as though it will go on forever—their universe, which is always informed by the understanding that the end of the gods, Ragnarök, must one day come.(less)
Something is gloriously, tragically amiss in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park...more~*~ For this review and others, visit the EditorialEyes Blog. ~*~ 4 out of 5
Something is gloriously, tragically amiss in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. In fact, to mix my Shakespeare quotes, something wicked this way comes. It’s also something strange and chaotic and deeply human.
In Chris Adrian’s The Great Night, the faerie court of Titania and Oberon are celebrating another Midsummer Night, many moons after the events of Shakespeare’s play—though “celebrating” is not exactly the right word. After the cancer death of their changeling son, Titania has spurned Oberon, who has subsequently disappeared, and her unchecked grief rules the night. Unable to manage or even comprehend her sadness fully, Titania does the unthinkable: she removes the magic that binds the trickster Puck to the royal will, unleashing him upon the court, the park, and eventually the city. Into this world wander three heartbroken humans whose own histories are rife with the kind of tragedy Titania is languishing in, as well as the requisite rude mechanicals (in this case five homeless people who want to put on a musical version of Soylent Green to bring to light a Swiftian cannibalistic conspiracy they believe the mayor is perpetrating).
All of which is to say, a lot is going on here. This book is billed as a reimagining of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which isn’t quite right. This is far closer to a sequel or at least a jumping-off point.Unlike the merry mayhem of Shakespeare’s beloved comedy, The Great Night is, above all else, a tragedy. The book uses the well-known faerie characters to spin tales of heartbreak, tracing the pasts of each of the five main actors (Will, Molly, and Henry the humans, Titania, and to a lesser extent the rude mechanicals), showing us their origins, their intersections, and, ultimately, their fates. Much remains mysterious at first, which makes this a real page-turner. You want to know what’s happened to these lovely, broken people, and what will happen to them if Puck wins the night.
As it turns out, Puck is not that, well, puckish creature you remember from outdoor summer stagings of the play. He is an ancient menace, deeply powerful—perhaps unstoppable. Kept in check for millennia by Oberon’s magic, he is out for vengeance, for reasons both straightforward and mysterious until the end. Adrian delivers him as a palpably dangerous villain and the terror he inspires in the faerie court creates jittery suspense for the present-day part of the narrative. His promise to Titania, “I will eat you last,” gave me shivers.
Just as splendid is Adrian’s Titania as the weeping queen, the bewildered mother, and the battle-hardened commander marching to war. Her tragedy is at once immediate and distant. She finds herself mired in the horrors of the contemporary world: a child lost to leukemia whom modern medicine could not save, a husband who has left her, possibly for good. Both concepts—disease/death and loss of love—are foreign to her, and one of the best parts of the story (in fact, what started out as its own standalone story, “The Tiny Feast,”) show Titania and Oberon fretting over their adopted boy as he slowly fades away from them. At one point, as the chemo begins to work, Oberon praises the doctors by saying “you have poisoned him well!” The modern world is as strange and mystical to the faeries are their world is to us, and each side’s inability to deal with the other’s mystery makes for excellent reading.
The human aspects of the story are as important as the chaotic faerie framework. Each of the three singular characters comes from a very different background, but each intersects with the others in wonderful and unexpected ways. Their stories and their heartbreaks twin with the faerie tragedy unfolding incomprehensibly around them, and their reactions to the magic and to each other are wonderful: Molly with the suicide of her boyfriend and her almost cultlike upbringing; Will and his destructive relationship with a strange woman in a strange house; and Henry, whose boyfriend has left him, who cannot remember his childhood because he was abducted for several years, and whose mother is possibly more damaging to him than the abduction was.
The group of homeless fares less well: they feel dropped into the story because there must be rude mechanicals, and their lunatic quest and conspiracy theory don’t hold up as well. They are less well developed than the rest of the characters, and while they, too, have suffered sadness, it feels sketched out and at times more of a caricature. A nodding glance toward the Bottom-the-ass part of the play, in which Titania is temporarily enchanted to fall in love the homeless’ leader, Huff, and make his musical better, feels rushed through.
Indeed, at times it feels like Adrian is trying to do too much, which is perhaps not surprising, given the number of characters and plots and intrigues going on here. And until the very end, no one sub-plot or character is given precedence over the other, which means the story is at times hard to pinpoint. A weakness, but also part of the point: the faerie court is chaos incarnate, and the book reflects this precarious, Pisa-style layering of stories tilting dangerously against each other. The visual descriptions, however, are stunning, and work to anchor us within the surreal world of the park. Adrian also does some subtle work with coincidences, echoing the uncanniness of the faerie court: a character named Peaches followed by a scene where Titania demands a peach; repetition of first names here and there; and genuine intersections where characters have met one another, or almost met them, outside of this night.
This phantasmagorical, often sad, often funny, very scary tale is a mind-full. While it stumbles at times in pacing and characterization, its heaps of tragic, magical, surreal narrative are definitely worth spending a great night (or three) with.(less)
From humble beginnings emerges a remarkable journey (or two) in Rachel Joyce’s Man Booker longlisted debut novel.The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry opens with an ordinary couple, living a nondescript life in their quiet English home. Harold and Maureen are in their 60s and have been married for 47 years. They keep themselves to themselves, making uncomfortable small talk with the next door neighbour and otherwise going about life in an unremarkable way.
Then one day, Harold receives a letter from a former co-worker named Queenie Hennessy who is writing to say goodbye because she has cancer and is dying. Harold is knocked off-kilter: he hasn’t spoken to Queenie in 20 years. When he goes to mail his response, he feels it’s not enough. After a random encounter with a girl who works in a garage, Harold comes to a decision, or a realization, that is somewhat startling for him: if he keeps walking, and believes that Queenie will be waiting for him at the end of that walk, then Queenie will keep living. He calls her hospice and asks them to pass along the message that he will be walking to her, from Kingsbridge in the south to Berwick-upon-Tweed in the north, over 500 miles. She must keep living as long as he keeps walking, he insists, and off he goes.
The premise is simple, and a bit illogical, and the protagonist is fully aware that his journey doesn’t make rational sense. His wife can’t understand what he’s doing at first, and as the story unfolds we see that Harold and Maureen don’t understand a lot about each other anymore. As Harold walks, he fills his time with remembrances of memories he has cherished, avoided, and repressed. Maureen, finding herself just as alone at home, all but abandoned and without any real support, remembers too. Harold has no map, no compass, no proper shoes, no food or water. He’s forgotten his mobile at home. And yet, he believes. It’s not a religious belief, and indeed Harold isn’t a religious fellow. His is a journey of a different kind of faith, reflected in the way he phrases his missions “I am walking so Queenie must live.” That quite little “must” encapsulates the whole pilgrimage.
The prose is straightforward in the best possible way: Joyce is a storyteller and doesn’t get bogged down with too-clever or heavy-handed writing. I had a chance to meet her, and she spoke about how carefully she planned out Harold’s walk, knowing exactly where Harold was every day of his journey. This comes across in the splendid details about where Harold stops and what he sees. it sets the tone for the books deep authenticity of her characters, plot, and underscoring emotions. She also teases out the mystery of what happened twenty years ago. I was always curious to discover what happened, and genuinely surprised by the final reveal.
Joyce does an excellent job of creating lonely, fully realized characters. As Harold walks, we learn more about him, almost as he is learning more about himself–and about others. At first, Harold doesn’t talk much to anyone, and hasn’t done throughout his life. He had a terrible childhood, which has caused him to fold in on himself, blocking out life and love. He and Maureen have avoided the neighbours, the office Christmas parties, and over the last twenty years each other. And yet Harold finds himself being helped in a moment of need, or sharing a table with someone who starts to talk to him. The chapter headings are charming: “Harold and the Hotel Guests”; Maureen and the Publicist.” Suggestive of children’s stories, there is a childlike, innocent quality to the narrative. In one of my favourite early encounters (“Harold and the Silver-Haired Gentleman”), a dapper businessman whom Harold feels a bit intimidated by shares a teacake with him, listens to Harold’s story about walking to Queenie, and opens up about a deeply personal problem. And Harold realizes how deceiving appearances can be. This gentleman carries just as much pain, however different it might be from his own, as he and Maureen do.
Maureen undergoes as much of a transformation as Harold does. She starts off not quite as a villain but certainly as a formidable woman who does not share any sort of emotional connection with Harold. As she goes about her day-to-day life she comes to understand how much she misses him, not just since he left but for the past twenty years. At first, there’s no one to mutter to about how she’s the one doing all the bedmaking and laundry; then she thinks about how they stopped laughing together, how she blames him for the problems with David, how she stopped gardening. All the little things that make a marriage and a life. The small changes in her demeanour and attitude add up, and her stationary journey is as important as Harold’s one-foot-in-front-of-the other journey.
The story is at its best when the focus is on these small realizations and encounters, when it’s just Harold or Maureen and their remembrances, or Harold’s encounters with strangers along his path and Maureen’s new friendship with the next-door neighbour. Harold is somewhat derailed in the latter third of the book as his story spreads and a variety of people decide to join him. As Harold is derailed, the narrative is somewhat put off course too, threatening to become a bit preachy and a bit too much of a parable about the perils of groupthink. Still, it’s interesting how well Harold gets along with the individuals he meets along the way and how difficult things become when a number of people form a group with accompanying goals and hierarchies.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is about the little things, About Harold accepting the kindness of strangers, and learning what sheep sound like in the night, and not carrying quite so much baggage (physical and otherwise) in order to reach the end of his pilgrimage (a word that he never uses himself). There’s an almost Zenlike quality to his approach. He’s a lovely, shy, broken, healing man. It’s about rediscovering the love that was always there, and about friendship old and new. This book is a bit sentimental, and that’s not a bad thing. Though woven with pain and sadness from the past, it’s a hopeful narrative, filled with a gentle positivity about life in the face of difficulties great and small. There were a few moments throughout where I found myself genuinely teary, and I don’t tend to cry when I read. This story offers a deep, authentic emotional resonance.
Rachel Joyce referred to her surprise at seeing her “little boat” of a book in bestseller lists with “big cruise ships” like Jeffrey Archer. Harold Fry deserves the recognition it’s receiving. It’s a beautiful read, and one that I will certainly reread as the years go by.(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.
The Maharaja is dead, the doctor has driven his bicycle into the Thames, and the pigeon pie might be poisoned. It's all just a day in the life of the characters in Julia Stuart's sly, crisply quirky The Pigeon Pie Mystery.
The year is 1898. Daughter of an English noblewoman and an Indian Maharaja, Princess Alexandrina (nicknamed "Mink" at a young age because of her penchant for sleeping amongst her mother's furs) finds herself without any option but to take up Her Royal Highness's offer of a grace-and-favour warrant to live at Hampton Court Palace. Her father died in scandal and financial ruin, which has caused her fiancé to flee from the taint of impropriety. The palace is home to a number of nobles who no longer have the means to support themselves, but who have curried favour with the Queen.
Her new living quarters are free of charge though not free of intrigue, headaches, meddlesome housekeepers, and murder. As she settles into her new home with her only remaining servant Pooki, the maid who all but raised her after the death of Mink's mother, she is introduced to the zany cast of characters who live in and around the palace. And life is busy, from verbal sparring with Dr. Henderson, who is deeply competitive with the homeopath from East Molesey and deeply attracted to the Princess, to having luncheons with the Ladies Beatrice, Bessington, and Monfort Bebb, to shopping for the latest fashions in spite of her inability to pay the bills.
It's all fun and games and discussion of exactly which hats and what fabrics to wear in mourning and half-mourning and for how long, based on status and relation to the deceased, until someone else turns up dead: General Bagshot, who is, of course, the most reviled resident of Hampton Court Palace. When it comes to light that he was poisoned, the most likely suspect is Pooki, who baked the pigeon pie the general ate before his death.
But Mink is determined to discover who the real culprit is. The married general's sexual advances toward both nobles (including Mink) and servants, and his numerous complaints and antagonisms of residents and palace employees alike mean the trail of suspects is long, and as Mink uses her intellect and wiles to investigate each person, she comes across a host of other secrets as well.
This book is far from a straight-ahead murder mystery, however, and indeed the first third of it is taken up by the story of Mink's financial downfall and entertaining tangents into the lives and histories of the characters. These include the Maharaja and the girl who came to clean the boots and the knives, and Pooki's abandonment in England after acting as a travelling nanny from India. We learn the stories of Mink's trio of new friends (and the ways in which they criticize each other and the world around them in brittle and oh so British ways), and of the Keeper of the Maze, of the American paleontologist visiting the Bagshots, of Lady Monfort Bebb's experiences as a hostage during the First Afghan War, and of the travails of Mrs. Boots, the put-upon housekeeper of the palace (whose protestations that she's not one for gossip are rather suspect).
Stuart paints a large, lavish picture of fin-de-siècle British life. Hampton Court Palace, in all of its grandeur and its flaws, comes alive, as do the streams of lower-class tourists who visit it, causing no end of grief for the residents. The clothing, the language, and the rigid manners and social rules of the time are all on display here. The somewhat omniscient point of view allows Stuart to wink at the reader as she shows the ladies' horror at the crude American's lack of manners. The day after the ladies are horrified that Cornelius B. Pilgrim brings his hat and cane into luncheon with him, he visits Mink: "After thanking him for coming at such short notice, she spotted Pooki's look of confusion as she closed the door. The Princess immediately saw the reason. He had failed to bring in with him his hat and cane as English etiquette dictated on a brief visit to a mere acquaintance, having left them in the hall as if he were a friend about to stay for luncheon" (p. 176). This is never precious or overly knowing, but it does allow us a rich glance into a totally different social norm.
The characters are well written and three-dimensional. I particularly loved Pooki, her superstitious practicality, her devotion to Mink even as she talks back and disagrees more than the average maid would, and the genuine humanity of her certainty and fear that she will be hanged for the murder. The everyday issues of palace life are authentic and fun to read, from the woes of the Keeper of the Maze, whose job it is to shout directions down to people lost in the palace's hedge maze, to Dr. Henderson's experiences being measured at the tailor.
This does, however, lead to something I found a bit irritating, the tendency to tell all of this background in the narration, rather than letting it come out through dialogue, in the characters' own words and voices. As a shortcut every so often, I don't mind this, but as a consistently used device I found it distracting.
The titular mystery is far more a reason to let us spend time with these characters in this setting than necessarily to figure out who done it. There's no real fear that justice won't win the day, and the mystery often takes a back seat to all of the goings-on. How you react to this will greatly impact how much you enjoy the book. If you're looking for more traditional detective fiction, with a lot of suspense and page-turning twists and turns, this might not be the read for you. If you want to spend time in 1898 and enjoy the ladies' horror that American women wear their diamonds in the morning, then you'll be right at home. The slower pacing and careful attention to weaving historical detail into an authentic story rules the day here. And I genuinely didn't know until the very end the solution to the puzzle, both the who and the how.
The Pigeon Pie Mystery is rather like the maze at Hampton Court Palace. It's a slow stroll along wending pathways, a thoroughly charming, funny, and affecting set of interweaving stories and fascinating settings. If the very sequel-ready ending does indeed lead to a series of Mink & Pooki books, I will happily read them all. (less)
3/5. This and other reviews at EditorialEyes Book Blog ~*~ Seven women in seven different eras contemplate reading and art in Katie Ward’s ambitious deb...more3/5. This and other reviews at EditorialEyes Book Blog ~*~ Seven women in seven different eras contemplate reading and art in Katie Ward’s ambitious debut novel Girl Reading. Each section introduces a new story, a new set of characters and circumstances, and a new work of art that was inspired by and includes the likeness of a girl or woman reading. In doing so, Ward gets to create rich stories in different time periods while discussing the nature of art and the role of reading in women’s lives.
While called a novel, this is, in fact, much closer to a set of seven themed short stories or very short novellas. They range in place, time, and context, while maintaining a similarity of tone throughout. First is Italian master Simone Maritni using an orphaned girl as his model of Mary in his Annunciation in 1333; next a deaf woman named Esther works as a maid in the household of Dutch artist Pieter Janssens Elinga in 1668; third, a celebrated female portraitist paints a likeness of a dead poetess for her grieving lover, a Lady in British society who has fallen into despair in 1775. Next, we come to a set of twins who have chosen very different lives, one as a famous spiritual medium and one as the wife of a photographer in London in 1864; then, a girl in 1916 on the cusp of womanhood falls in love with an older artist, and finds herself embroiled in all of the adult issues and entanglements around her; and sixth is a determined young woman, who works for a British MP, has high career aspirations and a terrible boyfriend. Her picture is taken and posted on Flickr in 2008.
Each of these stories stands pretty well alone, and could be read as a short story and a meditation on art or gender roles or history. They touch upon similar themes, in particular the difficult roles women have had to play, the way they have so often been preyed upon throughout history, and the reserves of inner strength individual women can and must tap into. Most of the main characters find themselves in untenable situations that they simply must deal with and live through, from being an orphan at the whim of powerful men in Renaissance Italy to a grieving noblewoman shunned by society for being gay, to an empowered present-day woman still at the mercy of her boss and her loutish boyfriend.
The stories are ever so slightly unified by the seventh story. Set in 2060, people spend most of their times in an augmented reality called “mesh” and are no longer able to access real, physical art. An engineer named Sincerity Yabuki is showing off her invention, Sibil, a mesh simulation that shows users the stories behind works of art—in particular, six works of art that each feature a female reading. But Sincerity has a secret when it comes to Sibil, and her story calls up questions about the nature of art, of reality, and of living in an increasingly cyber-connected world.
Ward does a number of things well. Her writing style is confident and nuanced, and it’s hard to believe this project is her first book. She easily brings us to the end of one story, erases the etch-a-sketch, and deftly delivers us into a whole new world of characters and contexts. The settings are meticulously researched and constructed. Her worlds quickly engross you. Her leading ladies are accessible and sympathetic, and are never clichéd. Several stories in particular stood out for me: I was brokenhearted for Esther in “Pieter Janssens Elinga” and for Lady Maria in “Angelica Kaufmann.” The unfairness of their situations and the total lack of control they have to do anything but put one foot in front of the other—Esther far better than Maria—are beautifully written. Likewise, I was entranced by the twin sisters of “Featherstone Of Picadilly,” of their arguments about what makes a fulfilling life for a woman, and for the ultimate dilemma the two share.
I found my interest waning in the more contemporary tales, in particular Gwen’s story in “Unknown” and Jeannine’s story in “Immaterialism.” Jeannine was terribly frustrating: while I didn’t want to read about a super woman, necessarily, the story’s focus on clothing, boys, bars, babies, and working at the beck and call of powerful men in order to further her own career felt disappointing. Surely there is more to say about the modern female experience than these things? Surely we’ve come further than poor Laura Agnelli in 1333, all but given to Martini by the priest and with no say in the matter?
I was also disappointed by the heavily eurocentric bias of the overall book. With the opportunity to look at women’s roles, the nature of art, and the importance of stories and literacy, setting the first six stories in Europe, and mostly, in fact, in England, seems like such a waste to me, and feeds into the usual Western ideas of “great art” and “master artists” being only from Europe. Sure, Serenity Yabuki is of some sort of Asian background, but the world depicted in 2060 has become globalized and the focus isn’t about a particular history but about gathering together the other six stories. I would have loved to see stories from Japan or China or India, from the Tuareg or the Assinboine or the Aztec. Art doesn’t just happen in Europe.
And perhaps this is a small pet peeve, but throughout there are no quotation marks. None. I absolutely despise this convention if it occurs for no good reason. Lack of quotation marks if the entire narrative is being told campfire- or confessional-style by a character is fine. (Junot Diaz is a good example of someone who uses lack-of-quotation-marks well.) Here, there doesn’t seem to be any reason whatsoever for it, and they’re sorely missed. Dialogue is often confusing because it’s impossible to tell who is speaking, or when speech stops and narrative picks back up again. This was a really poor style choice, and unfortunately smacks of pretension.
This is a funny book for me to have read this month. I picked it up quite by accident, having stumbled across the title and immediately falling in love with the premise. I’m currently eyeball-deep in an in-depth readalong of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, a series of six deeply disparate and yet subtly, intricately interwoven stories. Ward’s writing seems influenced by Mitchell’s style (he does similar things in his also brilliant Ghostwritten), but the lack of connection beyond a sort of overall theme of “reading” and “art” and “women” keeps this book from being truly great. It’s ambitious, but it’s not really a grand, sweeping novel. It’s a set of well-written short stories, not the epic that I imagine it was meant to be.
But give Katie Ward time. In spite of my criticisms, this is an impressive debut novel, with great settings and characters, and big ideas at play. I look forward to reading her second book, whenever that may be.(less)
What’s a freelance writer who is a bit short on cash to do when his brot...more4/5. For this and other book reviews, please visit EditorialEyes Book Blog. ~*~
What’s a freelance writer who is a bit short on cash to do when his brother bails on their customary joint gift for Grandma’s birthday? If you’re Iain Reid, you follow said brother’s advice and give your grandmother a gift uniquely suited to you: time. The Truth about Luck is Reid’s memoir of the week he and his grandma took a staycation together. It’s an unassuming premise that unfolds into a quiet, funny, and insightful book.
Reid offers to take his 90-year-old grandmother on vacation for a week to celebrate her birthday. He doesn’t mention that due to cashflow issues, the vacation is going to take place in his apartment in Kingston, a couple of hours away from her home in Ottawa. Grandma doesn’t mind, though. In fact, she tells him that all her friends simply couldn’t believe he was doing such a nice thing for her. Reid’s guilt and neuroses that he can’t show Grandma a better time are overwhelmed by her relentless optimism and genuine pleasure at spending time with her grandson. They roadtrip together from Ottawa and over the course of the week go out for dinner, enjoying reading on rainy afternoons, take a ferry out to Wolfe Island, and find their conversation flowing more and more freely.
That’s it, really, as far as action goes. Reid’s style is sweetly self-deprecating, poking gentle fun at himself in a way that’s never grating. Pointing out his various fears (what if she doesn’t have a good time? What if she doesn’t like his place? Why doesn’t he have more food for her in his home? Most of all, what on earth will they talk about for that length of time?!), he allows Grandma to be the star throughout his narrative. She takes her time in all things, moving slowly, eating daintily. She enjoys a good meal out. And she is the biggest non-complainer I’ve ever come across. She’s genuinely delighted by every small kindness, every opportunity. Even as Reid frets that he hasn’t enough activities to do with her, she’s pleased to curl up in a chair and just read for a few hours—she never has time to do that at home. Grandma’s attitude is a thing of beauty.
At the beginning, Reid is a bit apprehensive about the upcoming trip. He hasn’t spent this much one-on-one time with his grandmother, ever. Reid and his grandma have known each other all his life, of course, but they have a relationship that is probably familiar to many readers: they are sort of strangers as adults, familiar with each other only in the context of child/elderly relative. Although they don’t go very far geographically, theirs is a shared trip towards a closer relationship, getting reacquainted in a way that deepens their respect and affection for one another. There are silences at the beginning; Reid wonders after a bit of sherry filched from his parents’ places loosens the flow of conversation if he can just keep Grandma a bit tipsy for the whole trip. As they spend more time together, though, they begin to tell stories and to really talk to one another. This is one of the books major themes: the importance of shared stories and memories. The stories go both ways, with Iain sharing tales of his childhood that Grandma didn’t know, and Grandma telling him about her fascinating life story, including as a nurse in the war, and how she met his grandfather. Grandma apologizes for talking so much, but Iain is delighted to listen to her. Seeing the quantity and quality of their discussions improve as they get used to one another’s presence is a wonderful path to follow along with.
Reid’s portrayal of grandma is incredibly human. She lives and breathes on the page, a wholly real person who is never reduced to a cliché. She is frail and forgetful at times. She loves cheese. She is never the “wise old elder” stereotype, even though she certainly has wisdom to share. As they talk and discover how much they have in common (as well as the many ways their worldviews and life experience have rendered their outlooks very different), themes of loneliness, and the difference between being lonely and being alone, emerge. Perhaps my favourite motif throughout is the idea of “treating” yourself or your loved one. Grandma says this regularly, and it’s not just a throwaway phrase: when she goes to the mall on a weekday morning for a breakfast out, she is giving herself a treat, and when she insists on paying for dinner with Iain, she is giving a treat to him. It’s just a lovely concept, to accept small favours and kindness with a little extra grace and gratitude.
This is a lovely read, a quiet story where not a lot happens, and that’s okay. I lost my grandma not too long ago, and this book made me miss her keenly. I was lucky to have her into my late twenties, equally lucky to have a good relationship with her. She used to love telling me stories about her years as a teenager living in Toronto, and when I visited her in her small town, I would show her photos of the Distillery District or tell her about walking down Yonge Street where she once walked. It was pleasure to spend a week with Iain Reid and his grandma, to think about my grandma, to ruminate on the importance of telling stories and sharing memories.(less)
If you haven't binge-watched Orange is the New Black on Netflix (I...moreAudiobook review: 4/5. For this and other reviews, visit EditorialEyes Book Blog. ~*~
If you haven't binge-watched Orange is the New Black on Netflix (I watched all 13 episodes in a day and a half), you've probably at least heard about it. Part of the show's draw is that it's based on real life events. Piper Kerman's memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison documents the thirteen months Kerman spent in a federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut. Narrated by Cassandra Campbell, the audiobook is a fascinating and surprisingly touching look at life behind bars.
From a good home, well off and with not a lot to worry about, Kerman indulged her rebellious streak after college when she fell into a relationship with a glamorous older woman. Nora, it turned out, was a drug dealer working for a West African kingpin, and Kerman enjoyed the money, notoriety, and hint of danger the relationship afforded her, especially when Nora took the younger woman with her around the world. When Nora asked Kerman to transport a briefcase full of money across an international border, Kerman did it. . . but then got out, leaving Nora and her globe-trotting life behind. Or so she thought.
Years later, after successfully establishing a career and falling in love with her best friend Larry, Kerman was shocked to find that she was being charged with money laundering and drug trafficking. Based on drug conspiracy laws, the smallness of her role in the operation didn't matter: she was being charged the same as everyone else in Nora's ring as the feds went after the West African kingpin in charge. For six years, Kerman endured the vagaries of the legal system, her case being changed and put on hold numerous times. At last, after pleading guilty, Kerman self-surrendered for a fifteen-month sentence at Danbury, a minimum security federal prison.
This memoir is fascinating, taking us in a sensitive and thoughtful way to a place most of Kerman's readers will likely (hopefully) never have to see. She isn't shy about what a fish out of water she was at Danbury in terms of socioeconomic background, education, and aesthetics: the guards are inclined to treat her well because she's an educated, blonde, blue-eyed woman. But the first thing that struck me upon her arrival was how every inmate she encountered asked her if she was okay. This isn't a cutthroat journey through Oz but a community of women forced together who take care of each other as best they can. Yes, there's a hierarchy and internal rules Kerman must learn, but she is taken in and shown great kindness as well. And thus begins her months isolated from society, paying her debts for a ten-year-old mistake.
Kerman never says or even implies that she shouldn't have paid for what she did, but she takes the opportunity to shine a spotlight on the absurdities of the American judicial system, both for herself and for the women she's imprisoned with. Many of them are in prison due to Mandatory Minimums sentencing. Many, like her, have been lost in the maze of the legal system for years. Many are not dangerous, have been separated from family, are unable to gain education or job skills of any sort while at Danbury. Kerman is scathing about the way the system works—or doesn't—without getting preachy, dry, or self-important. She simply tells her story and the stories of the women she got to know, and allows the reader to draw conclusions from there. A particularly interesting subplot about Martha Stewart's trial and subsequent incarceration provides further insight: about how women are prosecuted regardless of celebrity, and about how different Martha will nonetheless be treated because of that celebrity status.
Kerman also showcases a wide range of human reaction and interaction in this book, from ego-tripping, power-abusing guards to hands-tied, NIMBYish authorities, to the women themselves, who show such heart and who take care of their own. Kerman is loaned all of the necessities she'll need when she first arrives and doesn't yet have her commissary money available (another bureaucratic issue), and returns the favour multiple times with new inmates. She ruminates on the people who are in Danbury for years, or who go "down the hill" to maximum security. And perhaps most interestingly, she shares tidbits of how you make the days go by, quite literally how you do your time—the forbidden but thriving practice of prison cooking (Kerman's speciality is Prison Cheesecake), who gets to sit where during movie nights, how rooms are assigned, which prisoner beautician to visit, and the many indignities suffered, including the strip search before and after visiting hours.
If, like me, you saw the show before reading the book, you'll notice major differences. You can see incidents in the book that provide inspiration for whole plot arcs in the show, but where the TV version is sensationalized in many ways, the book feels much more personal. Lockdowns and menacing shiv fights make for great viewing, but the desperate attempts to be granted a furlough to see a dying relative and the knowledge that it's hopeless, that because of Kerman's own mistakes and the way the system works, she'll likely never see that person again. . . that's real drama. I also appreciated the lessons Kerman learned. The book suffers a bit from its abrupt ending. As a memoir only about the lead up to and time in prison, we don't get to see how the rest of Kerman's life is affected, if she stays in touch with any of her prison friends, what's happened to any of them, and so on.
The audiobook narration works extremely well with this kind of intimate, first-person memoir. Cassandra Campbell reads beautifully, infusing her narrative with wry humour and self-deprecation, but also with gratitude and warmth. This really feels like sitting with an old friend and hearing all about her harrowing year in prison. Campbell also does great accents, bringing to life the Brooklyn and Hispanic and Russian voices of the supporting cast. Campbell's moving moments of epiphany strengthen the narrative, as Piper realizes that these are the people she was hurting with her careless, high-flying, drug-money-fuelled lifestyle, and her understanding that unlike so many of these women, she has a safety net and a life that will help her stay on the straight and narrow upon her release. A compelling listen, I particularly recommend this book as an audiobook.(less)