book review

The haggis did it: a review of Eleven Pipers Piping by C.C. Benison

Murder doesn’t take a holiday in C.C. Benison’s Father Christmas Mysteries. In Eleven Pipers Piping, the second in his new series, Father Tom Christmas just can’t seem to find the “quiet” part of a quiet country life.
Tom, a widowed vicar, is still settling into Thornford Regis, his home for the past ten months. He’s moved himself and his young daughter Miranda to the tiny village in the wake of his wife’s unsolved murder in order to get them away from violence.

Eleven Pipers Piping

“Dear Mum,
Something dreadful has happened—much, MUCH worse than my troubles with the Yorkshire pudding.”

Eleven Pipers Piping, C.C. Benison

Murder doesn’t take a holiday in C.C. Benison’s Father Christmas Mysteries. In Eleven Pipers Piping, the second in his new series, Father Tom Christmas just can’t seem to find the “quiet” part of a quiet country life.

Tom, a widowed vicar, is still settling into Thornford Regis, his home for the past ten months. He’s moved himself and his young daughter Miranda to the tiny village in the wake of his wife’s unsolved murder in order to get them away from violence. But death seems to find them. In the first installment, Twelve Drummers Drumming, a young woman was found dead and stuffed inside a Japanese taiko drum. This time around, Father Tom has been asked to officiate at the annual Robbie Burns’ Night dinner.

And he’s not terribly pleased about it. While he doesn’t want to alienate any of the influential townsfolk, he also really, really hates haggis and bagpipe music. Still, off he goes, only to be snowed in with half of the titular pipe band, the family who owns the inn, and a mysterious stranger (of course!). But all does not end well for this particular feast, for Will Moir, the hotel’s proprietor and member of the pipe band, turns up in his tower study dead—poisoned, to be specific.

Continue reading “The haggis did it: a review of Eleven Pipers Piping by C.C. Benison”

book review

Is that a tiger in your lifeboat or are you just happy to see me? Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, is a classic, blockbuster, prize-winning, internationally renowned book that came out a decade ago. So why am I reviewing it? To answer the question “Should I read this book?”

“The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?”

Life of Pi, Yann Martel

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, is a classic, blockbuster, prize-winning, internationally renowned book that came out a decade ago. So why am I reviewing it? To answer the question “Should I read this book?”

I, like a few other souls out there, had not read this book when it first came out. This was for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that the longer I went without reading it, the firmer I had an idea of what the book “was” in my mind. I’d heard enough people, mostly those who didn’t like it, say things like “oh, the entire thing is about some kid and a talking tiger in a rowboat.” Sounded boring, and pretentious, and capital-w Writerly to me, so I took a pass. But with the upcoming film release (which I review here), coupled with the fact that I quite liked Martel’s Beatrice & Virgil, I decided this summer that it was time to give Life of Pi a try.

Continue reading “Is that a tiger in your lifeboat or are you just happy to see me? Life of Pi, by Yann Martel”

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

Got a sloth on her back: a review of Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Beukes does a good job of presenting us with a world just a little bit different from our own, with vastly different consequences. No one knows for sure why, in the 1990s, animal familiars started seeking out dangerous criminals, who become known as aposymbiots, or “zoos.”

“The skyline is in crisp focus, the city graded in rusts and coppers by the sinking sun that has streaked the wispy clouds the colour of blood. It’s the dust in the air that makes the Highveld sunsets so spectacular…the carbon-dioxide choke of the traffic. Who says bad things can’t be beautiful?”

“I settle on skinny jeans and a surprisingly tasteful black strappy top I borrow from one of the prostitutes on the third floor….when I say borrow, I mean rent. She assures me it’s clean. For thirty bucks, I’m dubious, but it passes the sniff test, so fuck it.”
– Zoo City, Lauren Beukes

In present-day Johannesburg, a new kind of segregation is taking place: regular, law-abiding citizens are kept safe from the criminals, who have all been animalled.

That’s the premise of Lauren Beukes’ brilliantly conceived Zoo City. For reasons no one quite understands, when someone commits a heinous crime (it has to involve murder, it seems), their guilt manifests in the appearance of an animal companion. The human and animal share a link, and the human also derives a special power, or shavi, from this connection. Animals can range from butterflies to tapirs, penguins to panthers. Our main character, the feisty Zinzi December, has been animalled for a few years now because of her role in the death of her beloved brother. Her animal, Sloth, hangs from ropes in her squatter’s tenement when he isn’t draped around her neck, trying to keep her out of trouble.

An ex-journalist and ex–drug addict, Zinzi is out of prison and trying to pay off her substantial debts through various not-always-legal means. For starters, she and Sloth use Zinzi’s shavi, a gift for finding lost things. Zinzi can see psychic threads that connect people to their lost objects, and for a small fee she will crawl down into sewers to retrieve lost rings. But the real money is in the job she loathes: writing scripts for e-mail 419 scams, and occasionally acting the part of the rescued Nigerian princess or savvy South African business partner when the poor suckers being scammed out of their life savings show up in Johannesburg. When Zinzi is hired by a reclusive music mogul to find the missing twin sister in his youthful pop group sensation iJusi, she finds herself thrust back into her shiny, celebrity- and drug-centred old life while she also explores the criminal underbelly of her new world, and it isn’t entirely clear which part is worse, or more dangerous. Continue reading “Got a sloth on her back: a review of Zoo City by Lauren Beukes”

book review

The Ashes That Are Left Behind: A review of Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch is part documentary, part high-seas adventure, and part book of horrors. Inspired by the historical figure Charles Jamrach and by real events, Birch crafts an exploration of 19th-century England, the workings of a whaling ship, and the very question of what humanity is.

“Three years and come back a man, come back changed. See the strange places I itch to see. See the sea. Could you ever get sick of the sight of the sea?”

Jamrach’s Menagerie, Carol Birch

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch is part documentary, part high-seas adventure, and part book of horrors. Inspired by the historical figure Charles Jamrach, who was an exotic animals dealer in the 19th century, and by real events (the escape of a Bengal tiger who picked up a small boy and carried him in its mouth; the wreck of the whaleship Essex and the crew’s subsequent descent into cannibalism as a means of survival), Birch crafts an exploration of 19th-century England, the workings of a whaling ship, and the very question of what humanity is.

depiction of the real life meeting of the boy and Jamrach's bengal tiger. Photo from http://www.deepsea.force9.co.uk/london.html

Told by Jaffy Brown as he looks back at the events that shaped his life, the tale begins in the filth of Bermondsey, England. The narrator as a small, fatherless child roams the sewers in search of pennies, living with the stench and the gnawing hunger of deep poverty. At age 8, relocated to Ratcliffe Highway in London, Jaffy comes face to face with the first major event that will change him: an encounter with a runaway tiger from the exotic animal menagerie run by Mr. Jamrach. Fearless, and with a deeply intuitive and calm relationship with animals, Jaffy walks right up to the tiger, who is “like the Sun himself came down and walked on earth,” (p. 10) and pets the creature’s nose. He is utterly guileless and not particularly aware of any danger he is in from this large, wild cat, who knocks Jaffy over and carries him in his mouth down the Highway. He is rescued by Jamrach, who is amazed at Jaffy’s fearlessness and manner around animals and gives him a job as a yard-boy in his menagerie. Continue reading “The Ashes That Are Left Behind: A review of Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch”

book review

Midsummer nightmare: A review of The Great Night, by Chris Adrian

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.

She raised her arms, and shrugged her shoulders, and opened her mouth as if to laugh, but didn’t laugh. The difference, she decided, was that now there was something to be done. Hell would be raised, and Oberon would come or not, but at least there would be no more idle tears.

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. Continue reading “Midsummer nightmare: A review of The Great Night, by Chris Adrian”

book review

In your own backyard: A review of Natural Order, by Brian Francis

Natural Order by Brian Francis is a sadness is worth sinking into, a nuanced and multilayered exploration of loss, of aging, of the sins we commit against those we love the most, and of human failings in all their multifarious abundance.

But, as she pointed out, she’d done more damage to herself. She created a world that left her utterly alone.

Let’s get this out of the way at the beginning of the review: Natural Order by Brian Francis is really sad. Its sadness is worth sinking into, however; it’s a nuanced and multilayered exploration of loss, of aging, of the sins we commit against those we love the most, and of human failings in all their multifarious abundance.

Told from the perspective of octogenarian Joyce Sparks, the story unfolds almost exclusively in the small, single-industry town of Balsden, Ontario. Joyce is in a nursing home, commentating tartly on her fellow ‘inmates,’ the staff, and her surroundings. Her voice is one of the most authentic I’ve read in a long time—she’s a snappish, sharp old woman, more brittle than frail. Both her son and her husband are dead, and she doesn’t seem to have any friends. The only person who visits her is a young gay man who volunteers at the home and calls forth some of Joyce’s reminiscences. She could be my own grandmother when she refers to “the Filipina nurse” or the woman across the table who dribbles food down her front at each meal. She’s weak physically, bright mentally, but crippled by the guilt she’s been dragging around with her for most of her adult life. Continue reading “In your own backyard: A review of Natural Order, by Brian Francis”