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”

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”

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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book review

Flying in his shadow: a review of The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin

A proliferation of books has been published lately with titles like “The X’s Wife” or “The X’s Daughter.” These titles tend to irritate me a bit, as they define the main female character in terms of a relation to a man in her life. But in The Aviator’s Wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and mother of the missing Lindbergh Baby, defines herself continually by the role she plays in other people’s lives, never on her own terms.

The Aviator's Wife

“Were we women always destined to appear as we were not, as long as we were standing next to our husbands? I’d gone from college to the cockpit without a chance to decide who I was on my own, but so far, I was only grateful to Charles for saving me from that decision, for giving me direction when I had none. Even so, I suspected there were parts of me Charles didn’t understand; depths to my character he had no interest in discovering.

– The Aviator’s Wife, Melanie Benjamin

A proliferation of books has been published lately with titles like “The X’s Wife” or “The X’s Daughter” (take a look at this great article on The Millions). These titles tend to irritate me a bit, as they define the main female character (very rarely is it a son or father or husband) in terms of a relation to a man in her life. But in a book like The Aviator’s Wife, this strategy is a sound one. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and mother of the missing Lindbergh Baby, defines herself continually by the role she plays in other people’s lives, never on her own terms.

We first meet Anne and her vivacious older sister Elisabeth on the train to Mexico, where their father has been dispatched as the US ambassador. Anne is just about finished her degree at Smith, where all the Morrow girls go—even though she wanted to go to Vassar. Elisabeth is the beautiful one, younger sister Constance is still a child, yet to be slotted into a defined role, and Anne is the shy one, the unwavering one. She blends into the shadows and allows her life to be dictated by her family. . .and then she meets the most famous man in the world. The young Colonel Lindbergh is a media sensation, fresh from his flight across the Atlantic, and is visiting the Morrows for the holidays. Everyone assumes a romance will bloom between him and Elisabeth but in fact Anne catches his eye. He invites her for a solo flight and something awakens in her. It seems like true romance is in the air as he proposes, asking her to be his co-pilot.

Anne and Charles Lindbergh. Photo credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Anne and Charles Lindbergh. Photo credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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book review

A few of her favourite things: a review of Mrs Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn

Sometimes, it’s not easy being the Queen of England. In William Kuhn’s Mrs Queen Takes the Train, set in the days before the latest jubilee and the 2012 Olympics, Her Majesty Elizabeth II finds herself growing a bit sad, fearing that she has grown obsolete.

Mrs Queen

“‘That’s only one hour and ten minutes from now,’ said The Queen, pointing at the figures with the pencil stub. ‘Tell the driver I shall be attending. Let him know, please.’

This was a bit too much, as far as the guard was concerned, but he gave her a nod of his head and relished what he’d tell the driver. . . . ‘Old lady in the last carriage keeping tabs on you. Gave her a timetable. Try and keep it on time, will you?'”

– Mrs Queen Takes the Train, William Kuhn

Sometimes, it’s not easy being the Queen of England. In William Kuhn’s Mrs Queen Takes the Train, set “several years ago,” Her Majesty Elizabeth II finds herself growing a bit sad. She fears that she has grown obsolete; she can’t quite get the knack of the computer and the Prime Minister is threatening to shut down the Royal Train because it’s an expensive relic. She wonders if she, too, is an expensive relic. Although she does find yoga quite relaxing, she is still vexed by how much her life is influenced by public opinion, which turned so bitter toward her after Diana’s death, and by the Government’s penny-pinching.

Feeling out of sorts she pops down to the Mews without a coat to check on her favourite horse, and while there a thoughtful stablehand lends her a hoodie to stay warm. The Queen discovers that with the hood up, she’s rather unrecognizable. And just like that, she decides to slip away from Buckingham Palace, first to pick up a bit of cheese and then to Scotland, where her decommissioned yacht Britannia is moored. Continue reading “A few of her favourite things: a review of Mrs Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn”

book review

Cards, fans, and overthrowing a monarchy: a review of The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann

As the 18th century draws to a close, violent revolution has overtaken France and America. A quieter revolution, not as bloody but no less grim, is in the works in Sweden. From the gambling dens to the docks, the ateliers to the court of King Gustav, change is afoot, and it’s being nudged along by several key players.

Stockholm Octavo

“‘Madam Uzanne, I am of the belief that this geometry can create anything you can imagine. Anything,’ he repeated. ‘In short, you may build an edifice of your choosing, a palace or a prison.’

The Uzanne smiled at him in such a way that the casual observer might think that a passionate love affair was imminent. ‘I plan to make one of each.'”

– The Stockholm Octavo, Karen Engelmann

As the 18th century draws to a close, violent revolution has overtaken France and America. A quieter revolution, not as bloody but no less grim, is in the works in Sweden. From the gambling dens to the docks, the ateliers to the court of King Gustav, change is afoot, and it’s being nudged along by several key players.

An aristocratic, powerful woman known to all as the Uzanne wants Gustav deposed and his brother, Duke Karl, elevated to the throne. The apothicaire Johanna Grey will change her history, her name, and perhaps even her morals to avoid marriage to a violent older man. The seer and card sharp Mrs. Sparrow wishes to change the dire future she has foreseen for the monarchy. And sekretaire Emil Larsson, our wily and self-involved main narrator, just wants a life that provides him with a roof over his head, a game of cards, and the occasional shipment of confiscated goods through his job at the office of customs and excise.

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book review

Borrowing from the emptiness: a review of The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Remembrance and forgetting guide the multilayered narratives of Tan Twan Eng’s Book-prize-nominated The Garden of Evening Mists. So important are they that they’re personified as statues of twin goddesses within the titular Japanese-style garden that is found high in the mountains of Malaya.

Garden of Evening Mists

“The first stone in my life had been set down years ago, when I had heard of Aritomo’s garden. Everything that had happened since then had brought me to this place in the mountains, this moment in time. Instead of consoling me, this knowledge left me fearful of where my life would lead.

I began to speak.

– The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng

Remembrance and forgetting guide the multilayered narratives of Tan Twan Eng’s luminous, Booker Prize nominated The Garden of Evening Mists. So important are they that they’re personified as statues of twin goddesses within the titular Japanese-style garden that is found high in the mountains of Malaya. Teoh Yun Ling, a senior judge retiring from the Malaysian bench, is caught between different periods of her life, of remembering and forgetting.

Yun Ling has kept the reason for her retirement, and her subsequent return to the Cameron Highlands, secret from all but a few people: she has been diagnosed with aphasia, which means she will slowly lose her memories and her ability to process the meaning of words at all. Terrified but determined, she flees to the tea estate that once belonged to Aritomo Nakamura, a Japanese expatriate fabled for being the disgraced gardener of the Japanese emperor. This is not the first time she has made this journey. When she was 19, she and her sister Yun Hong were captured by the Japanese. The more attractive Yun Hong was pressed into service as a “comfort girl” for the soldiers. Ironically, her only escape came in the form of daydreams about Japanese gardens, an art form she fell in love with when the family visited Japan years earlier.

Continue reading “Borrowing from the emptiness: a review of The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng”