book review

For the good of the community: a review of Season of the Rainbirds by Nadeem Aslam

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.

Season of the Rainbirds

“It was raining. Crickets sang. Darkness and silence pressed down on the huddled street; and for a brief confused moment Dr Sharif was unable to distinguish between the two. Then, filling his lungs with warm humid air, he shouted after Arshad Ali: ‘And make sure the chemist takes the injections out of a refrigerator!’ A child had recently contracted polio in spite of the fact that she had been vaccinated. The heat had denatured the vaccine.”

Season of the Rainbirds, Nadeem Aslam

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.

Continue reading “For the good of the community: a review of Season of the Rainbirds by Nadeem Aslam”

interview

“When we explore the past we are always inventing”: An interview with Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay at the Appel Salon, Toronto. Photo © Alex Hoffman.
Guy Gavriel Kay at the Appel Salon, Toronto. Photo © Alex Hoffman.
River of Stars

Guy Gavriel Kay has been writing epic stories for many years. From the high fantasy of The Fionavar Tapestry to magic-tinted analogous histories in Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, and The Sarantine Mosaic duology, Kay’s style weaves together sweeping narratives with poetic, pitch-perfect writing.

In his new book, River of Stars, now available from Penguin Canada, Kay returns to the land of Kitai, which he first introduced in Under Heaven. In a setting based on Song-Dynasty China, we meet the ambitious warrior Ren Daiyan, a second son who wants to win military glory and take back lands long lost to Kitai, and Lin Shan, a woman educated by her father in a way that only boys are allowed. Poet, songwriter, and thinker, Shan must navigate a society that wants her to be much less than what she is. As the face of Kitai shifts once more, as war looms and “barbarians” encroach, Daiyan and Shan move and are moved by the currents of history. . .

I have always been fascinated with the way you tell stories in worlds close to our own but a little removed: something like medieval Italy in Tigana, Moorish Spain in The Lions of al-Rassan—a world you revisited in the Sarantine Mosaic duologymedieval Provence in A Song for Arbonne. Can you talk a bit about how you choose time periods and geographies, and why you set your books in (historically accurate and meticulously researched) analogues rather than the actual historical places in our own world?

Huge, very good question. I’ve done speeches and essays on this, so a sound bite is hard! Certainly there is no rule or formula for “where I go” in a next book. So far (knock wood) I seem to always end up with a time and place that fascinate me. I do that “quarter turn to the fantastic” for many reasons (see “speeches and essays,” above!). One is that I am not happy about pretending I know the innermost thoughts and feelings of real people. I don’t like “piggybacking” on their fame (or even taking obscure people and allowing myself license from that obscurity). I find it creatively liberating and ethically empowering to work in the way I do. There’s a shared understanding with readers in this: that when we explore the past we are always inventing, to a degree. I also like how a slight shift to the fantastic allows me to sharpen the focus of the story towards those themes and elements I want the reader to experience most clearly, and I can even change things, keeping even those who know the history on their toes!

Art by Li Gon-lin.
Art by Li Gon-lin.

Continue reading ““When we explore the past we are always inventing”: An interview with Guy Gavriel Kay”

book review

Electric sheep and human love: a review of The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke

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

Mad scientist's daughter

“Finn danced better than Cat expected, and she realized, drunk though she was, that he was copying the movements of the people around him, combining them to create something new. This was always how Cat danced as well. He did it more efficiently.

The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, Cassandra Rose Clarke

I was talking not long ago about the phenomenon of book titles that describe the main female character in the context of her relationship with another person, usually male (The Aviator’s Wife, The Ambassador’s Daughter, and so forth). 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.

Continue reading “Electric sheep and human love: a review of The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke”

interview

“We all carry our history with us”: an interview with The Hungry Ghosts’ Shyam Selvadurai


The Hungry Ghosts

In The Hungry Ghosts, author Shyam Selvadurai follows the journey of Shivan, a half-Tamil half-Sinhalese Sri Lankan boy who escapes the violence of the Tamil uprisings—and the controlling influence of his formidable grandmother—by migrating with his mother and sister to Canada. But, as Shyam revealed when he sat down to chat with me, a life can’t just be restarted from scratch. The past always follows us. . .

I absolutely loved The Hungry Ghosts. It’s a book I just sank into, and felt so sad throughout so much of it. It’s beautifully written. I’m wondering about the six-year gap in writing between this book and your last, Swimming in the Monsoon Sea. Have you been working on this for six years, were you taking a break or waiting for inspiration to strike?

It took me forever to get it down. It took a long time to describe the Toronto that I wanted to write about, which is kind of the amorphous, inner rings of Scarborough, and to find the language to do that. My language isn’t really suited to doing that for some reason, so it took a long time to stretch it to encompass that milieu and that terrain. It’s hard. That area doesn’t have a central street. The point of it is that it’s amorphous, the point of it is that there’s no central orientation except, of course, the Bridlewood Mall [a central hub in the novel for Shivan’s mother and the displaced Sir Lankan community]. And that somehow, the details. . . I wanted to be able to capture it in the same sensual details I capture Sri Lanka.

And of course, all the Buddhist stuff took forever to work because I wanted to find a way to incorporate it in a more literary way, rather than just an add-on, a little exotic add-on. It’s of course based on the story of the naked Peréthi [hungry ghost], and I wanted to be able to incorporate that in a literary way.

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literary event

The Event: Guy Gavriel Kay at Toronto Reference Library’s Appel Salon

Guy Gavriel Kay. All photos in this blog © Alexander Hoffman.
Guy Gavriel Kay. All photos in this post © Alexander Hoffman.

A day that takes a quarter-turn to the fantastic…that’s how I would describe April 4th.

It took me a week to write about this event because I needed enough distance from it to say something more interesting than “Eeeeee!” We all have those particular authors, don’t we? The ones we’ve just discovered, or the ones we’ve loved all our lives, whose writing moves us, whose imminent new books make us tingle with glee and anticipation. I’ve had the privilege of meeting several authors from my own superstar pantheon, but I’d yet to have a chance to meet Guy Gavriel Kay, whom I have read and loved for more than fifteen years. With the release of his new book River of Stars, the Bram and Bluma Appel Salon series rectified that for me by presenting a wonderful evening with Mr. Kay and Chatelaine books editor Laurie Grassi.

With the exception (the exceptional exception, one might argue) of the high fantasy of the Fionavar Tapestry, Guy writes books that are deeply steeped in history and geography, writing in settings that are based on, but are not, in our world–settings similar to Moorish Spain, medieval Italy, and Viking invasions of Saxony. In his 2010 novel Under Heaven, we encounter the land of Kitai, based on China during the Tang Dynasty. In his new novel River of Stars, we are returned to Kitai some 400 years later. In conversation with Laurie Grassi, Guy discussed River, history and his not-quite-historical settings, what moves him to write, and–what else?–baseball.

Continue reading “The Event: Guy Gavriel Kay at Toronto Reference Library’s Appel Salon”

book review

The knock at the door: a review of Red Joan by Jennie Rooney

Red Joan by Jennie Rooney is nothing like what I expected, and it’s all the better for it. When I think of spy novels, James Bond springs to mind. Tense, generally unemotional settings, a main character who is thrust into dangerous situations in enemy locations, bullets flying and punches thrown. I wasn’t envisioning that exact scenario for Joan’s past, perhaps, but…

Red Joan

“Joan shakes her head as he speaks. She knows it is part of his charm, this ability to persuade people that they want to think like him, that they should see the world exactly as he sees it. ‘Don’t,’ she says. ‘I’m not at one of your rallies now. It’s not my fault my hands aren’t worn down by years at the Soviet coalface. I didn’t choose to be born in St. Albans but I don’t see why my loyalties should be any less legitimate than yours.’

Red Joan, Jennie Rooney

A widowed octogenarian lives alone in her home in England, mourning her lost husband, taking watercolour painting classes, enjoying being the mother of a successful lawyer. And then she gets the news she’s always dreaded would come. One of her comrades has just “died quietly” after being questioned by MI5, and when she hears a knock at the door, Joan Stanley knows her past as a Russian spy has caught up with her at last.

Red Joan by Jennie Rooney is nothing like what I expected, and it’s all the better for it. When I think of spy novels, James Bond springs to mind. Tense, generally unemotional settings, a main character who is thrust into dangerous situations in enemy locations, bullets flying and punches thrown. I wasn’t envisioning that exact scenario for Joan’s past, perhaps, but I was still surprised throughout by what her role in World War II was—and why. Repercussions echo through her life some fifty years later.

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interview

“A historian is a kind of traveller”: an interview with Eighty Days’ Matthew Goodman

Eighty Days

Matthew Goodman is a narrative historian. In his latest book, Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World, he takes readers into the late 19th century to follow two remarkable female journalists as they race against time—and each other—to complete the fastest journey around the globe ever undertaken. Along the way they see the world in new and different ways, and we get to glimpse what life, colonialism, and the dawning of a newly globalizing but still highly stratified world. He was kind of enough to sit down with me to discuss this superb book.

I’d like to thank you for taking the time to discuss your new book with me. It’s a fantastic read. There’s an immediacy to it that I really appreciated. So some basics. What led you to this project?

I’m very interested in narrative history, which is really the kind of writing I see myself doingtelling a true story, a historical story, and using some of the devices that are usually associated with fiction. I like the fact that it’s possible for a reader to pick up the book and flip to any given page and perhaps not even know if they were reading a history book or a novel. So I was looking around, I had done a book like that before and I was looking around for another topic to do, and I sort of knew who Nelly Bly was, but I wasn’t exactly sure who she was. I knew she was a journalist. I live in Brooklyn, in New York, and there used to be a Nellie Bly amusement park in New York, so I know her as the namesake of this amusement park. But I didn’t know much else about her.

I saw a reference to her and I investigated it. I knew I wanted to write about a female main character. It turned out that she was indeed a journalist, but not just any journalistthis really amazing journalist. A female journalist unlike any that New York had ever seen before. This was a time when most women were relegated to writing for the Women’s Page, writing about recipes and gossip and shopping and so forth. Nellie Bly was an undercover investigative reporter for the most widely read newspaper in New York who was willing to get herself committed to an insane asylum, to expose the conditions in the Blackwell Island Insane Asylum. It was really courageous, she didn’t know if she was going to get back out. It took all of Pulitzer’s doing to get her back out. So I was thrilled to discover her.

And then I discovered that in the fall of 1889 she undertook her most audacious adventure yet, which was to try to go around the world faster than anybody had ever done it before, to try to beat in real life the fictional mark of 80 days that Jules Verne had set. I just immediately thought “That’s the book!” I’m thinking Nellie Bly in Hong Kong! Nellie Bly on the Suez Canal! Then I discovered that Nellie Bly wasn’t only racing against the calendar or against a fictional character but that in fact there was this real life, rival female journalist who was racing in the other direction to beat Nellie Bly! I was just captivated by that, the idea of these two young female journalists racing each other around the world, one going east, one going west.

Nellie Bly and Eliabeth Bisland. Image originally appeared in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, reproduced in Eight Days, by Matthew Goodman.
Nellie Bly and Eliabeth Bisland. Image originally appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, reproduced in Eight Days, by Matthew Goodman.

Continue reading ““A historian is a kind of traveller”: an interview with Eighty Days’ Matthew Goodman”