book review

On the surface: a review of Emancipation Day by Wayne Grady

Windsor, Ontario, may not seem like an obvious setting for a novel, but in Wayne Grady’s fiction debut Emancipation Day, tensions simmer beneath the surface, and things are not always what they seem. Jack Lewis is one of three children born to a working class black family. But Jack is born different—his skin is white.

Emancipation Day

“It felt safe, but it was dangerous for Jack in this house. He was pretty sure Peter and his mother didn’t know anything about his family, but he couldn’t be certain. Peter probably wouldn’t rat on him if he did know, but he couldn’t be sure of that either. The Barnses were white and they were rich, and he didn’t really understand such people, didn’t know what they were capable of, how fiercely they would protect one of their own. Coming to Peter’s house, talking to Peter’s mother, even calling her Della, was like putting his hand  on a hot stove to see how long he could stand the heat.”

Emancipation Day, Wayne Grady

Windsor, Ontario, may not seem like an obvious setting for a novel, but in Wayne Grady’s fiction debut Emancipation Day, tensions simmer beneath the surface, and things are not always what they seem. Jack Lewis is one of three children born to a working class black family. But Jack is born different—his skin is white. Not albino, but to all appearances caucasian. And growing up in the 1930s and 40s across the border from Detroit, this doesn’t make for an easy situation for anyone involved.

Race, family, and identity form the central tensions of the novel, each pulling at and playing with one another. Jack rejects his blackness and, in doing so, his family, passing for white as much as possible. A talented trombone player, he joins the Windsor All-Whites (who are) while rejecting the jazz music that’s rising in popularity particularly among black musicians and music lovers. When he joins the Navy during World War II, he is transferred to Newfoundland and sees the opportunity to distance himself from his family and community entirely. And when he meets, woos, and eventually marries Vivian Fanshawe, he doesn’t inform his new wife and her family of his own heritage.

Continue reading “On the surface: a review of Emancipation Day by Wayne Grady”

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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.

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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 TiganaA 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

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

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

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.

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