book review, Uncategorized

Crape, Black, and Half-Mourning: A review of The Pigeon Pie Mystery by Julia Stuart

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.

“As a matter of interest, how mad should one’s hatter be?

Tapping the tips of his fingers together, Mr. Wildgoose considered the question. “You would expect some degree of madness, of course, sir. But we advise our customers to stay clear of the certifiable. They have a tendency to overcharge, and many struggle with the brims, sir. Just nicely mad, sir. That’s what you want. Just nicely mad.”

– The Pigeon Pie Mystery, Julia Stuart

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. Continue reading “Crape, Black, and Half-Mourning: A review of The Pigeon Pie Mystery by Julia Stuart”

book review

The fifth Mrs. Balanchine: A review of The Master’s Muse by Varley O’Connor

The kinetic world of ballet dancers and the artistic innovation of the 1950s American dance scene are the backdrop of The Master’s Muse, by Varley O’Connor. This novelization of real events is told through the first-person perspective of Tannaquil Le Clercq, prima ballerina of the nascent New York City Ballet, and the fifth wife of superstar choreographer George Balanchine. Tanaquil’s story is not just that of a ballerina, however; in 1956, during a European tour, Tanaquil contracted polio, which resulted in the paralysis of her lower body.

“Pain dilutes in the extension of time. Like ink in water it blackens, and then the water stays clear and the blackness whirls. Days come when it’s a single black thread swirling about. there it is. Hello. There you are.”

The kinetic world of ballet dancers and the artistic innovation of the 1950s American dance scene are the backdrop of The Master’s Muse, by Varley O’Connor. This novelization of real events is told through the first-person perspective of Tannaquil Le Clercq, prima ballerina of the nascent New York City Ballet, and the fifth wife of superstar choreographer George Balanchine. Tanaquil’s story is not just that of a ballerina, however; in 1956, during a European tour, Tanaquil contracted polio, which resulted in the paralysis of her lower body.

Tanny grew up in the school run by Balanchine, who noticed her prodigious talent early. She is the prototypical “Balanchine dancer,” the right sized head and long legs, the ability to travel and “eat space” on the stage, perfect technique and passion. At what point the artistic relationship turns into love is unclear but it does happen early; Tanny is already in love with Balanchine in her early twenties, when he was still married to his fourth wife, Maria Tallchief. Each of Balanchine’s wives was, at the time of marriage, his principal female dancer. She becomes the fifth Mrs. Balanchine when she is twenty-three and he is forty-eight.

Tanaquil Le Clerq and Jerome Robbins, photo by George Platt Lynes, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

But this is all prologue. The real story opens in Copenhagen, after Tanny and George have been married for several years, and Tanny is already noticing that George’s attention is wandering. Though the marriage is rocky, Tanny is at the peak of her physical and artistic career. She is stunningly beautiful, appearing on the cover of Vogue magazine, and she is sought after by choreographers who create dances for her. In Copenhagen, she thinks she is becoming a bit ill, feeling weak and seeing some swelling in her thigh, but she dances through the pain. The flu, she thinks, until she realises that she can’t move her legs. She was twenty-seven years old.

Continue reading “The fifth Mrs. Balanchine: A review of The Master’s Muse by Varley O’Connor”

book review, Cloud Atlas Readalong, fun stuff

Introducing the Cloud Atlas Readalong!

The Cloud Atlas Readalong with Dee at EditorialEyes

Click here for a complete list of Readalong posts.

It’s inevitable. When someone finds out you’re a book person, they will ask you that single, awful question: What’s your favourite book? How on earth can you answer a question like that? Narrow it down by genre, perhaps, or by the criteria that define “favourite”? Give a top-5 answer instead? Or just shrug and say “too many to count”?

Well, if I were pinned down and had to answer that question, I would have several strong contenders, including Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind, A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness, and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. And numbered among those is David Mitchell’s luminous, challenging, storytelling masterpiece Cloud Atlas. You may have heard the buzz about the Wachowskis’ movie adaptation of Cloud Atlas, premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival and opening in wide release on October 26th. In order to appreciate the film to its fullest, I’m going to re-read the stunning source novel, and I thought you might enjoy reading along and discussing with me.

The first installment will go live Tuesday, August 14th, and in it I’ll look at the first section, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” (first half). Each Tuesday we’ll look at the next section of Cloud Atlas, from “Adam Ewing” to “Sloosha’s Crossin'” and back again. The final section will take us to Tuesday, October 23rd, just in time for the movie…

Never read Cloud Atlas? Started but gave up because the language of the Pacific Journal section was too dense? Read it and want to read it again? Please join me in discussing Cloud Atlas.

Continue reading “Introducing the Cloud Atlas Readalong!”

book review

Extraordinary ordinariness: A review of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

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.

“He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passerby, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went. He had neglected so many things that he owed this small piece of generosity to Queenie and the past.”

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

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. Continue reading “Extraordinary ordinariness: A review of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce”

book review

Riding herself back together: a review of Gold by Chris Cleave

The discussion of the sport is fascinating, even if you have no interest in cycling. The intensity of the competition between Kate and Zoe drives the plot. Cleave excels at the human, the everyday, and this is where the book is at its strongest. Sophie and Tom are the brightest spots in Gold.

“After [the crash] there was an inquiry and they asked Zoe why she hadn’t stopped riding. She told them she must have been in shock. Really, she didn’t want anyone to see her face. She wanted to keep her helmet on, because its visor hid her eyes, and she needed to ride herself back together. If she could have kept on riding flat out, forever, then she would have.”

– Chris Cleave, Gold

Competition is happening on several different levels in Chris Cleave’s latest work, Gold, and it’s all intense. Determining which is the most important race to win might just require a photo finish. Gold is the story of Zoe and Kate, the top two female cyclists in Britain, and everything they share and fight for and fight over: Kate’s cyclist husband Jack, their daughter Sophie, coach Tom Voss, and dreams of winning gold in London 2012—their last Olympics, because of their age.

Cleave, who became a superstar upon publication of Little Bee, a sweeping story of a Nigerian refugee and the deep ties she shares with a British journalist, narrows his dramatic focus here: in the main plot, Kate and Zoe are competing for the single available spot to represent Britain in the Olympics. Kate is the more naturally gifted of the two but is also the more empathetic, more willing to give up what she wants for the good of everyone else. Zoe is driven by demons and is willing to do anything to win, including some fairly dirty off-track tactics to psych out her opponents.

The other central storyline revolves around Kate and Jack’s young daughter, Sophie. Eight years old, Sophie’s unwittingly been the cause of Kate’s lack of Olympic triumph. Continue reading “Riding herself back together: a review of Gold by Chris Cleave”

book review

The packaging shines, but can the story keep up? A review of Puppy Love by Frauke Scheunemann

Though the cover is adorable and the concept is cute, Puppy love by Frauke Scheunemann suffers from a clunky translation and muddled plot.lo“I lay my head on her lap. Of course I’ll stay with you, Caroline! Even though right now my sensitive dachshund nose is suffering quite a bit from your pungent smell. I hope it goes away.
– Puppy Love, by Frauke Scheunemann

Let’s get this right out of the way: the English cover of Frauke Scheunemann’s Puppy Love is the cutest freaking thing you will ever see. Featuring a tiny puppy staring out with the most soulful “I’m sorry I ate your favourite pair of shoes but you still love me, right?” expression, with a tagline proclaiming “Hercules is a dachshund…,” I could not help but pre-order myself a copy. This, coupled with House of Anansi’s “vote for your favourite puppy” contest on their blog, sealed the deal. Well done, Art and PR departments! Absolutely adorable.

The story is a straightforward chick-lit style romance about a woman named Caroline and her rotten boyfriend Thomas. The hook is that the first person narrative is from her brand new puppy’s perspective. Hercules, nee Carl-Leopold von Escherbach (and damned proud of it), was cast out of his castle because his purebred dachshund mom had a bit of a tumble with an unknown dog and the resulting litter can’t be certified purebred. Hercules has a mighty high opinion of himself, and no amount of threats from the other dogs in the pound, nor human amusement at his haughty demeanour, can bring him down a peg.

Continue reading “The packaging shines, but can the story keep up? A review of Puppy Love by Frauke Scheunemann”

book review

The smell of chai and sadness: a review of Everything was Good-bye by Gurjinder Basran

The writing is lush and elegant. Basran really is “one to watch,” as she was proclaimed by the Vancouver Sun. Her characterization is superb, and her descriptions of smells are particularly evocative.

 “If only. Those two words have gathered like ghosts. If only my father hadn’t died, if only my mother had had sons, if only Harj had stayed, if only I hadn’t met Liam, if only he could have loved me…Once, when I was lamenting Harj’s departure, my mother told me that ‘if only’ was the beginning of new dreams made of old things and that only God could reincarnate our hopes into such a reality.”

 Everything was Good-bye, Gurjinder Basran 

I first heard about Everything Was Good-bye through an invitation to join Penguin Canada and the Chatelaine Book Club for an evening with author Gurjinder Basran. Having a chance to hang out in the Penguin offices, sipping wine, chatting with other bloggers, and listening to Gurjinder read from the book and then answer questions was a not-to-be-missed experience, and I suggest you read the great recaps on Nicole About Town’s  and Just a Lil Lost’s blogs.

I’ve since read Everything was Good-bye, and my reading was informed by Basran’s discussion of how she came to write the book and her own life experiences—almost like reading the book club guide and then reading the novel. Set in the 1990s, Everything Was Good-bye is the story of Meena, a first-generation Punjabi-Canadian struggling to find her place within her family, her cultural community, and Canadian society in general. While it grew out of a journalling project and was inspired by Basran’s life in many ways, the book is a work of fiction (one that was an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award finalist and that won Mother Tongue Publishing’s Search for the Great BC Novel Contest).

As a teenager and the youngest of six daughters, Meena’s life is overshadowed by the choices her older sisters have made. She’s something of an outcast, more interested in wearing jeans than salwar suits, in lining up to get a Simple Minds record autographed than going to yet another friend of a friend’s wedding party. And yet she’s also an outsider at school because she looks “different” and adheres to a different set of family and social customs. It angers her family that she spends time with Liam, a white boy and outsider in his own right, an artistic kid from a difficult home who feels just as lost as Meena does.

Spanning the time from Meena’s broken but beautiful romance with Liam in her late teens to her heartbreaking marriage in her thirties, the book offers gracefully drawn sketches of Meena’s life, moments of tragedy and sadness that are inescapable because of her upbringing. Continue reading “The smell of chai and sadness: a review of Everything was Good-bye by Gurjinder Basran”