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”

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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.

Continue reading “The knock at the door: a review of Red Joan by Jennie Rooney”

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

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

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To experience the art: A review of Girl Reading by Katie Ward

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.

“I look through your notes again and they seem so delicate, dropped leaves. I like the unfinished poems best because it feels as though you have been interrupted momentarily, called away to make a decision about the horses or the baking, will be back shortly to shine them up.”

– Girl Reading, Katie Ward

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.

The Annunciation and Two Saints by Simone Martini. Image from en.wikipedia.org

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. Continue reading “To experience the art: A review of Girl Reading by Katie Ward”

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

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

Murder, Mayhem, and Father Christmas: A review of I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, by Alan Bradley

We always get a wonderful cast in every Flavia book, be they murderous philatelists, puppeteers, gypsies, or, as is the case here, ciné folk. In Shadows, Buckshaw is being rented out by a film crew, including a famous director, actors, and their coterie.

 

“I had half a mind to march upstairs to my laboratory, fetch down the jar of cyanide, seize this boob’s nose, tilt his head back, pour the stuff down his throat, and hang the consequences.

Fortunately, good breeding kept me from doing so.”

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Alan Bradley

Even if you haven’t read them, you’ve probably heard about the Flavia de Luce mysteries, which all started with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Set in the rural English town of Bishop’s Lacey in the 1950s, Alan Bradley’s world is a wonderfully charming place to sink into. And his protagonist, the eleven-year-old Flavia, is one of the best amateur detectives in recent literature. Young Flavia is a chemistry nut—with a special interest in poisons—and when she’s not contemplating the delightful properties of cyanide or lacing her older sister’s lipstick with an extract made from poison ivy, she’s zipping around Bishop’s Lacy on her trusty bicycle (whose name, incidentally, is Gladys) and finding her way into the hearts of murder investigations.

A review of a Flavia book really has to be about two things: the self-contained story within the book, and its place in the overall series, specifically how it forwards the overarching stories and mysteries of the de Luce household. Continue reading “Murder, Mayhem, and Father Christmas: A review of I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, by Alan Bradley”