book review

Romantic improvisation: a review of Vienna Nocturne by Vivien Shotwell

Violent political realities in Sierra Leone and their lasting physical and psychological traumas form the backdrop of Michael Wuitchik’s gritty debut My Heart is not My Own. neck.

Vienna Nocturne

“Anna had seen many virtuosi play. Wolfgang Mozart surpassed them all. He exhaled, and so many breathing notes unfurled from his unhesitating hands. He played as she had always wished to sing—how she imagined she might sing if she were not so excitable and striving, but selfless and assured, bound to music alone.

– Vienna Nocturne, Vivien Shotwell

In the late 1700s, a young English soprano sets sail with her overprotective mother to find fame and fortune on the Italian stage. And find them Anna Storace does with the company at La Scala Opera House. In Vienna Nocturne, by opera singer Vivien Shotwell, we follow “L’inglesina” from her carefree heights in Milan to Austria where great suffering, great love, and the incomparable Mozart await her under the watchful reign of Joseph II.

It’s easy to throw on some “soothing” Mozart when we’re reading or studying, or to think of Mozart’s music as old-fashioned. But debut novelist Shotwell allows us to peek behind the curtain of one of the greatest moments in operatic history, giving us a keen reminder of the drama, personalities, and political intrigue at play as this music was being composed. Based on the real life of the celebrated soprano who originated the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro in 1786, Vienna Nocturne is about not just the passion in the music, but an illicit love affair between Anna and the married upstart composer Wolfgang Mozart.

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book review

They’re Watching: a review of The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

What can you say about a girl with a hole through her middle, or a boy with bees living in his stomach? Or immortal pigeons and impossible creatures? They’re pretty peculiar. In Hollow City, Ransom Riggs’ sequel to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Jacob Portman also calls them his friends. Jacob is Peculiar too.

The Panopticon

“It’s why nobody kept me. Except Teresa and she got murdered, and whose fault was that? The therapist said it wasnae mine, but I could have checked on her, I could have made her come through for lunch. I could have knocked on the door after her client left and asked her if she wanted a cup of tea. . .
The experiment know.
They dinnae know this, though: I’d die before I’d pick on someone. I would. You dinnae bully people, ever, ’cause all bullies are cowards.”

– The Panopticon, Jenni Fagan

Anais Hendricks, 15 years old, covered in blood, and coming down off a trip she can’t remember, is accused of attacking a police officer and leaving her in a coma. If the officer dies, Anais will be in worse trouble still. She’s been moved through dozens of foster homes, and the one touch of stability she’s had ended when her adoptive mother Teresa was found murdered, possibly by one of her own johns. So Anais is off to the Panopticon, a home for juvenile offenders, and those with nowhere else to go, designed so that its inhabitants can be seen everywhere by its guards. The kids who call it home may be referred to as “clients” by the staff, but they’re clients who can be monitored at all times.

And Anais knows all about monitoring: she believes she was grown in a petri dish by a shadowy group called “the experiment.” They watch her every move, and they’re closing in on her. Just when she thinks she can breathe someone she trusts warns her about the experiment—or is that just a hallucination? What about the stone winged cat perched above the Panopticon? Was it really foretold by the monk at the insane asylum who claims to have met Anais’s birth mother? There’s a lot going on in this pulsing, ferocious narrative, driven by the forcefully independent voice of Anais.

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book review

A review of The Dead in their Vaulted Arches (Flavia de Luce #6) by Alan Bradley

Flavia’s had a hell of a year, finding murdered bodies everywhere from her own garden to the church crypt. She’s met ageing philatelists, ciné folk, fortune tellers, puppeteers, and a flora-archaeologist, all while dealing with being the youngest sister in a family whose mother disappeared when Flavia was only a baby.

Vaulted Arches

“She stuck out a pale hand and touched each of them in turn on the forearm.
As she turned her head Flavia-wards, she gave me 
such a glare!
Feely had the knack of being able to screw one side of her face into a witchlike horror while keeping the other as sweet and demure as any maiden from Tennyson. It was, perhaps, the one thing I envied her.”

– The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, Alan Bradley

The Dead in their Vaulted Arches is a tough book to review without giving too much away. Book five, Speaking from Among the Bones, ended with a major cliffhanger, and this book picks up with a serious plot reveal. Forgive my vagueness, then: I don’t want to ruin the emotional impact for you with spoilers. Within the first chapter, I gasped several times in surprise. In the sixth installment of the wonderfully entertaining Flavia de Luce mysteries by Alan Bradley, our heroine Flavia is now nearly twelve. She’s had a hell of a year, finding murdered bodies everywhere from her own garden to the church crypt. She’s met ageing philatelists, ciné folk, fortune tellers, puppeteers, and a flora-archaeologist, all while dealing with being the youngest sister in a family whose mother disappeared when Flavia was only a baby.

Old questions are going to be answered in this book, but there’s still plenty of juicy mystery. Who is the young man who gives Flavia a garbled message and then winds up dead beneath the train? Why is Winston Churchill there, and what is his cryptic message to Flavia about? Just what were the elder de Luces up to during World War II? And what do pheasant sandwiches have to do with it all?

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blog tour, book review

Penguin Canada’s Daily Delights: a review of In Falling Snow by Mary-Rose MacColl

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Part of Penguin Canada’s Daily December Delights!

In Falling Snow

“When I came into the ward later in the morning on my way to reception, another was in the boy’s bed. I saw Miss Ivens on her way back to the theatre. I asked her what had happened and she said the end had been peaceful. ‘Sometimes that’s all you can do,’ she said. She must have read the sadness in my face. ‘It’s enough,’ she said. ‘Sometimes you can’t even given them that. And that’s the hardest of all.’

– In Falling Snow, Mary-Rose MacColl

An elderly Australian woman receives an invitation that brings memories flooding back from a time in her life she has tried hard to forget. She imagines being a young woman, in a field hospital in France, watching in wonder the first snowfall she has ever seen. That wonder suffuses the starker landscape of a France at war, of young men dying and strong women doing all they can to save them. Mary-Rose MacColl’s North American debut In Falling Snow is a beautiful World War I tale and a thoughtful meditation on the slippery nature of memory, as well as the roles of women in family, friendship, work, and war across the 20th century.

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blog tour, book review

Blog Tour: a review of My Heart is Not My Own by Michael Wuitchik

Violent political realities in Sierra Leone and their lasting physical and psychological traumas form the backdrop of Michael Wuitchik’s gritty debut My Heart is not My Own. My Heart is not My Ownneck.

“‘What you nem?’ she asks. It’s more of a command than a question. Her tone reminds me of the child soldiers during the war: pushy, demanding attention. Many of the bush wives, unwanted in their home villages, ended up here in Freetown as prostitutes. The young men had AK-47s to trade for motorbikes—the girls had nothing but themselves.

– My Heart is not My Own, Michael Wuitchik

Violent political realities in Sierra Leone and their lasting physical and psychological traumas form the backdrop of Michael Wuitchik’s gritty debut My Heart is not My Own. Once an emergency doctor working in wartorn areas, Dr. John Rourke has never fully recovered from his experiences in Freetown. Now a respected psychologist in Vancouver, he and his wife Nadia, a Croatian refugee, live in an uneasy present, agreeing never to address the horrors they have each seen. But the arrival of a mysterious package—and the news that Nadia is pregnant with their first child—forces John to face his past.

The parcel in question contains the diary of a Sierra Leonan nurse named Mariama Lahai, whom John worked with. Though John was forced to evacuate the night the rebels took control of Freetown, he has never forgiven himself for abandoning Mariama and their doctor friend Momodu Camara, another Sierra Leonan. In Mariama’s diary, he discovers what happened to her in the months after his departure. The subject matter of the novel, seen mostly through these diary entries, is intensely difficult. This fictionalized account of very real brutality doesn’t shy away from rape, mutilation, torture, and murder during the 10-year-long civil war in Sierra Leone.

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book review

Never to be told: a review of Seven for a Secret by Lyndsay Faye

In Lyndsay Faye’s Seven for a Secret, it is 1840s New York City, where crime, social tensions, and playing-for-keeps politics form a potent, sometimes deadly milieu. And whodunit? is never an easy question in this twisty, brilliantly plotted world.Seven for a Secret

“Whimpering, Varker looked up at Val and made a timid effort to pull his hand free.
We heard a grind of loose bone, followed by a tiny shriek. My throat constricted.
My brother is a dangerous man.
‘I haven’t been paying attention,’ Val remarked in a conversational manner. ‘Damned if there wasn’t something else on my mind. So tell me—what play were you aiming to make with that snapper, drawing it like a heathen without a fair warning?'”

– Seven for a Secret, Lyndsay Faye

In Lyndsay Faye’s Seven for a Secret, it is 1840s New York City, where crime, social tensions, and playing-for-keeps politics form a potent, sometimes deadly milieu. Floods of Irish immigrants are arriving daily to escape the potato famine; people die of starvation with regularity, and there isn’t enough work to go around. Excitement, danger, and various illegalities are the norm, and Timothy Wilde, copper star of the newly minted New York Police Department, is doing his best to figure out whodunit. But whodunit? is never an easy question in this twisty, brilliantly plotted world.

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book review

The glare of celebrity: a review of The Cuckoo’s Calling by JK Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith

 

cuckoo's calling

“Somé picked up his mint tea. ‘Why do women do it? Cuckoo, too. . . she wasn’t stupid—actually, she was razor sharp—so what did she see in Evan Duffield? I’ll tell you,’ he said without pausing for an answer. ‘It’s that wounded-poet crap, that soul-pain shit, that too-much-of-a-tortured-genius-to-wash bollocks. Brush your teeth, you little bastard. You’re not fucking Byron.'”

The Cuckoo’s Calling, JK Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith

Well, we all know the secret of Robert Galbraith and his debut novel The Cuckoo’s Calling. Galbraith, of course, is the pseudonym of JK Rowling. (If you somehow missed the story, check out this article in the New York Times.) Unfortunately, I would likely not have heard about this book if its provenance hadn’t been revealed, but I wish I’d read it unhindered by the knowledge of who its author is. It’s impossible to read without bring a boatload of expectations and assumptions to the table. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read my beloved Harry Potter books, and yet I absolutely despised Rowling’s adult debut A Casual Vacancy. How, then, to read a mystery that was published with the specific intent of enjoying critical reviews and audience response without being associated with the Rowling powerhouse?

Fortunately, The Cuckoo’s Calling returns to Rowling’s greatest strength: compelling narrative. Rowling is a master storyteller, and in this contemporary murder mystery there’s plenty of story to go around. Private investigator Cormoran Strike is physically imposing, mentally sharp, and socially a bit gruff. His girlfriend has left him (again), he’s sleeping in his office, and he’s in pain due to the leg he lost as a Military Policeman in Afghanistan. Not to mention he can barely pay his bills, including the salary of bright, eager temp secretary Robin Ellacott. When John Bristow, an old school chum, turns up with a case, Cormoran can hardly say no, especially because Bristow is prepared to overpay him grandly. Bristow’s adopted sister, ultra-famous supermodel Lula Landry, has apparently committed suicide, but Bristow is convinced she was murdered.

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