Author: Shay Shortt

Canada Reads Along 2018: Precious Cargo

Cover image for Precious Cargo by Craig Davidsonby Craig Davidson

ISBN 978-0-345-81051-9

Failure carries weight. Nobody tells you this. Cinderblocks stacked on your chest and piled atop your skull; you develop a persistent slump, your shoulders round in defeat. People can sense it. They avoid you as if you’ve got scabies.”

In the summer of 2008, Craig Davidson was broke and unemployed, a struggling writer who felt he had blown his one chance at success. After being rejected for a lunch monitor position, a flyer landed in his mailbox advertising school bus driver jobs—no experience necessary! By simple chance, the route closest to home was a mini-bus that transported five students with various disabilities to their middle and high schools. Over the course of the school year, the kids on the bus unwound Davidson’s sense of failure, and soon helped him begin writing again. Precious Cargo is his account of that year on the bus, and what he learned along the way.

Precious Cargo is divided into four sections by the seasons of the school year, beginning with Craig’s hiring and training, and progressing through to the following June. Interspersed with these main sections are chapters from an unpublished novel called The Seekers. It wasn’t immediately clear to me what was going on with these excerpts, which are not explained, but I soon realized that Davidson had cast the kids from his bus as heroes in an adventure novel about time travel. Over the course of the book, as we get to know the five kids, it becomes evident that they are largely geeky and creative, enjoying science fiction and fantasy, and making up their own stories as well. I wondered if Davidson had shared his invention with them, or involved them in it, but this is never touched on.

The portrayals of the five kids who rode Davidson’s bus are a bit uneven. Jake, a teenager with Cerebral Palsy who loves science fiction, and wants to be a writer, by far receives the most attention and detail, followed by Oliver, a dramatic character who has Fragile X syndrome. Vincent and Gavin (who is non-verbal) fall in between, and Nadja receives very little attention at all. I had wondered if this is might have been at the request or the kids or their families, but that turned out not to be the case. When this was brought up during the Canada Reads debates, defender Greg Johnson raised it with the author, who admitted that he connected more with some of the kids, and that the book reflects that. I think this was one thing that always felt awkward to me as I was reading the book; Davidson was an adult in a position of responsibility with these kids, but he clearly had favourites.

If some of the kids were barely sketched in, others are very closely described. I was left wondering how Jake and his family felt about the intimate portrayal of their situation. Davidson states that he told the kids and their families that he was a writer, but we never hear from them directly. In Jake’s case in particular, enough identifying details are provided that, although a pseudonym is used in the book, the family is easily identifiable with the most cursory internet search. Davidson very much centered himself and his journey in this account of his year on the bus, and I hope that it has not been at the expense of his subjects. While he seems to have genuine feeling for the kids, he also falls into common tropes, like referring to Jake as being “trapped inside his own diminishing body.”

Precious Cargo was defended in this year’s Canada Reads debates by tornado chaser Greg Johnson. In his opening arguments, Johnson lauded the book for opening his eyes on a personal level—this year’s theme is One Book to Open Your Eyes—and for using humour to tackle difficult issues. Certainly, its tone is different from the other books selected for this year’s competition. In his final rebuttal, he pointed out that this is the first time that a book about disabilities has been selected in the seventeen years of Canada Reads. However, it is a book that is told from an outside perspective.

The discussion of Precious Cargo on Day Two centered on whether or not the characters were fully realized. Although many of the panelists enjoyed the book, they also felt unable to connect with many of the kids other than Jake. Jully Black said that Jake’s father, Calvin, reminded her of her own mother, who cares for Jully’s sister who has a disability. Tahmoh Penikett also argued that while Precious Cargo was humourous and heart-warming, it does not deal with the most pressing issues that are facing humanity today, such as climate change, war, and radicalization. This led into a heated and sometimes chaotic debate about the darkness of American War, and the role of hopefulness and humour in delivering a message.

When it came time to vote, Greg Johnson and Jully Black voted against American War, while Tahmoh Penikett and Mozhdah Jamalzadah cast their ballots against Precious Cargo. Jeanne Beker was the sole vote for The Marrow Thieves, and was called on to cast the tie-breaking vote between American War and Precious Cargo. Surprisingly, given her vehement arguments against the darkness and despair of American War in the course of the Day Two debates, she chose to eliminate Precious Cargo from Canada Reads 2018. Asked to elucidate her decision in the Q&A after the show, Beker explained that as much as she enjoyed Precious Cargo, she didn’t feel that it had the gravitas to compete with the other books, and that it felt more lightweight than the others. She did not feel it was the book that most adult Canadians needed to open their eyes.

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Catch up with yesterday’s recap of the elimination of The Boat People by Sharon Bala. Or tune in to the Canada Reads debates on CBC.

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Canada Reads Along 2018: The Boat People

Cover image for The Boat People by Sharon Balaby Sharon Bala

ISBN 978-0-385-54229-6

Certain people felt too rooted, too comfortable. They took it for granted that they deserved to be here more than us. Entitlement closed their hearts.”

Widower Mahindan leaves civil war-torn Sri Lanka dreaming of a new life in Canada for his young son, Sellian, who has already lost his mother and so much else to the conflict between the ruling Sinhalese and the separatist Tamil Tigers. Desperate to escape, Mahindan takes passage for them on an ancient, converted cargo boat, which will smuggle hundreds of refugees across the ocean to the west coast of Canada. But when they land, what awaits them is not a new life, but imprisonment, while Canadian authorities struggle to process the massive influx of refugee claimants, and the public debates whether the boat people should be allowed in at all. His fate, and the fate of his son, will lie in the hands of the Canadian lawyers and adjudicators, each of whom has a story of their own.

I got off to a bit of a rough start with The Boat People, which opens in the midst of an action sequence that lacks any context, and then turns out to be a dream. Fortunately, this passage was relatively short, and the meat of the book proved to be more rewarding than this doubly trite opening. Once I was able to settle into the Sharon Bala’s writing style—which rejects any use of quotation marks or other indications of dialogue, requiring close attention to who is saying what, and whether something is an internal or external monologue—I was drawn into the three main characters, whose personalities and histories ultimately drive the story.

The plot centers on Mahindan, Priya, and Grace, who represent three sides of the immigration question. For his part, Mahindan doesn’t understand the delay in processing his claim. Who would sell everything and spend months in a decrepit boat, leaving behind everything they have ever loved and known, if they didn’t fear for their lives at home? But the government is concerned that terrorists—former Tamil Tigers—may have concealed themselves among the refugees, and the discovery of a cache of unclaimed identity documents aboard the boat only raises further questions. Like everyone, Mahindan has a past in Sri Lanka, a complicated history tied up in civil war, and survival, and through flashbacks, Bala slowly reveals how he finally came to the point of fleeing, and what he had to do to get himself and his son onto that boat. She skillfully builds the character, drawing the reader to empathize with him even as she reveals his complexity.

Disconnected from her heritage, law student Priya Rajasekaran has no interest in immigration law, and resents having to spend her internship defending the refugees just because she is of Tamil descent herself. She barely understands the language, and was discouraged by her parents from getting involved in any cultural group that might mix her up in Tamil politics. But as her internship progresses, she is drawn into the lives of the refugees, and forced to consider anew her own family’s history. Were they really any more deserving of a new life than anyone on the boat, simply because they arrived sooner, while legitimate channels of escape were still open to Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority? And what doesn’t she know about the long, quiet feud between her father and her uncle that was only bridged by her mother’s death? Through Priya, we see the perspective of a second-generation Canadian forced to consider her place in the country she was born into.

Lastly, we have Grace Nakamura, a complex and sometimes infuriating character who has spent her career working for the government in the transportation department. Having recently admitted to her boss that she was bored and burnt out, the Minister of Public Safety granted her a three year appointment as a refugee adjudicator. With no training or background in immigration law, Grace is in over her head, and under intense political pressure from her former boss, but she has to learn to swim quickly when five hundred new cases land on the docket. A third generation Japanese-Canadian, Grace is largely disconnected from her Japanese roots, but as her mother descends into dementia, she lives more and more in the past, becoming obsessed with the Japanese internment, and the loss of their homes and livelihoods in Vancouver. Grace wishes to continue ignoring this past, as her family has always done, but her fourth generation, thoroughly Canadianized teenage twin daughters engage in this journey with their grandmother.

I think the major problem for many readers with The Boat People will be the ending. After spending months in detention, and failing repeatedly to win parole while his case is decided, Mahindan finally goes to the hearing that will decide his fate. He has been separated from his young son for months, as the case drags through the immigration court, and Sellian has been living with white strangers who do not even speak his language. But Sharon Bala makes the choice to leave the ending open, forcing the reader to face the many possibilities. We know how we hope it will go, and we know how we fear it will go, and the open ending forces the reader to confront the idea that Canada can be both the country of refuge we hope for, and the place of rejection and insularity that we fear.

The Boat People was defended in this year’s Canada Reads competition by singer and television host Mozhdah Jamalzadah, herself a refugee who came to Canada at the age of five. The theme for this year’s competition is “One Book to Open Your Eyes,” and in her opening argument, Jamalzadah highlighted the fact that the world is currently in the midst of the worst refugee crisis in history, a line of argument that Clara Hughes successfully used back in 2016 to shepherd The Illegal by Lawrence Hill to victory. Jamalzadah argued that Bala’s novel transforms the refugee crisis into more than numbers on the news, provides a human face, and encourages us to open our doors to fellow human beings who have lost everything.

Host Ali Hassan addressed one question to each book on the opening day of debates, and The Boat People was first up for discussion. He asked the panelists to discuss whether the narrative effectively showed the humanity of refugees and encouraged the reader to see them differently, as Jamalzadah had argued in her opening. Jeanne Beker, defender of Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto, raised the dissatisfying ending. Jully Black, defender of The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, was put off by the multiple characters and narratives that the story followed. Greg Johnson, defender of Precious Cargo by Craig Davidson, also took issue with the open ended conclusion of the book. Tahmoh Penikett, defender of American War by Omar El Akkad, spoke only positively, citing the multiple relatable perspectives that would help connect the book with many different readers.

When it came time to vote, The Marrow Thieves, Precious Cargo, and American War each received one vote against, from Mozhdah Jamalzadah, Tahmoh Penikett, and Jeanne Beker, respectively. All the panelists cited the decision as being very difficult, and only Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto received no votes against it on the first day. Both Craig Johnson and Jully Black voted against The Boat People, making it the first book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2018.

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You can follow the Canada Reads debates on CBC. Find out how to tune in.

Little Women/The Other Alcott

Cover image for Little Women by Louisa May AlcottLouisa May Alcott / Elise Hooper

ISBN 9780451529305 / 9780062645340

“Don’t laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragic romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrifices of youth, health, ambition, love itself, make the faded faces beautiful in God’s sight. Even the sad, sour sisters should be kindly dealt with, because they have missed the sweetest part of life, if for no other reason.”

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March live in Civil War era Boston with their mother, Marmee. Their father is away at war, and the two older girls have gone to work to support the family. Beth stays home to keep house, while little Amy is still at school. Little Women is a quiet, domestic coming of age novel that follows four very different sisters as they grow up and find their place in the world. Together they befriend their wealthy but lonely neighbour, Theodore Laurence, and his grandfather, weather sickness and loss, and face difficult choices about marriage and family in the aftermath of the war.

Cover image for The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper I first tried to read Little Women when I was about eleven years old, after receiving a boxset as a gift. I found it exceedingly boring, and put it aside after only a few chapters. I next picked it up when I was about thirteen, and utterly devoured it. Along with many a previous reader, I was charmed by Jo, vexed by Amy, and felt cheated by Laurie’s disposition at the end of the novel. After attending a reading of The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper at Brick & Mortar Books in January, I decided that is was well past time to revisit this classic.

What struck me most on this third reading was how condescending and moralizing Little Women is. It is full of asides, lectures, and reprimands that bog down the delicate characterizations and loving depiction of a family. Knowing more about the history of the novel, this is now less surprising. Alcott was induced to write the books by her publisher, who saw an untapped market for clean literature for young women. Alcott herself was not precisely a traditional woman; she was an unmarried career woman who supported her parents and siblings with her craft. And it was precisely this responsibility to care for her dependents that persuaded her to accept her publisher’s offer, and to publish not one but two installments of Little Women, and then two later sequels. In short, Alcott knew that she was pandering, but she had a family to support, so she wrote what her publisher wanted. The subtext of the book is more complicated than that, of course, but the bad taste remains.

One of May Alcott's original illustrations for the first edition of Little Women, 1868While the lecturing tone of the book is now decidedly unappealing, I was as drawn to the characters as ever. The focus is on the interactions and interplay between the sisters, though their neighbour Theodore Laurence of course plays an important role. The March sisters have a pleasingly realistic air, likely helped by their basis in Alcott’s own family. It is this fact that Elise Hooper draws on in her historical novel, The Other Alcott. The story follows Louisa’s youngest sister, May, who lives under the shadow of her fame as the inspiration for the much-hated Amy March. May aspired to be an artist, and illustrated the first edition of Little Women. But while her sister’s novel was a critical success, May’s illustrations were panned.

If Jo is the rough but shining favourite of Little Women, then The Other Alcott tries to imagine what it would be like to be the youngest sister of the person who penned this fictionalized version of herself. Hooper’s Louisa is prickly and temperamental, using her position as the family breadwinner as a right to exercise control over those she supports. Yet she has mixed feelings about her success with such pandering material, and little patience for her fans. May’s dreams of being an artist are constantly subordinated to her family responsibilities, and with little idea of how to support herself as an artist, she labours under a heavy weight of obligation to her wealthy sister. That weight is especially burdensome when the character of Amy March in Little Women reveals all too clearly how May thinks her sister must see her.

The Other Alcott follows May into Europe’s art scene at a fascinating period when the Impressionists were beginning to rock the French art establishment with their radical ideas. Women were finding ways to study art, despite prevailing ideas about the indecency of such an endeavour. So in addition to a difficult and well-drawn family tension, the novel also has a great historical backdrop to work with. Hooper occasionally inserts her historical research about the Alcotts or May’s artistic contemporaries in a way that is less than fluid, but it seems to be a stumble born mostly of enthusiasm for her subject. However, it is all this information that helps the novel form such an intriguing counterpoint to Little Women, adding context, and taking the part of the most maligned sister. And May’s own life is more interesting than anything Louisa imagined for Amy.

Mansfield Park

Cover image for Mansfield Park by Jane Austen by Jane Austen

ISBN 9780141439808

“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.” 

Following her mother’s imprudent marriage, Fanny Price is taken from an impoverished situation in Portsmouth, and raised at the estate of Mansfield Park by her mother’s sisters, and her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram. There is she is brought up alongside, but always somewhat separate from, her cousins Maria and Julia, and their much older brothers, Tom and Edmund. Quietly in love with her cousin Edmund, the sensible younger son, Fanny watches with dismay as two new arrivals to the neighbourhood threaten to upend the peace and comfort of Mansfield. Siblings Henry and Mary Crawford have come to live with their sister, Mrs. Grant, bringing with them London ways and flirtations. Edmund is very much taken with Mary, and jealousy over Henry opens a rift between the Bertram sisters. With little influence in the family, or even confidence to speak her mind, Fanny can only watch as the Crawfords threaten to unravel all their domestic felicity, and perhaps even ruin some reputations in the process.

I first encountered the work of Jane Austen when I was about seventeen or eighteen, beginning with Pride and Prejudice. I promptly read through her entire oeuvre in short order. I remember being charmed by the incisive way Austen describes each character, sometimes rendering a sharp portrait in only a few strokes. She was a striking observer of human nature. Since then, I’ve reread both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility multiple times, but this year, for the first time, I’m revisiting works like Emma, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park.

Mansfield Park is a most peculiar read when approached from a modern perspective. The protagonist is Fanny Price, a timid and retiring heroine who is decided in her principles, but rarely dares to speak her mind. The driving point of the novel is whether or not Fanny will marry her cousin Edmund, the younger son of Sir Thomas, who is destined to enter the clergy. While unremarkable for the period, the cousin loving is undoubtedly a bit squicky for the modern reader. Though Fanny and Edmund are well-suited to one another in character and temperament, it can be hard to root for them romantically. And the more taken in by Mary Crawford the supposedly sensible Edmund becomes, the less deserving of the steadfast protagonist he appears.

Much of the plot also does not translate well, and reflects poorly on the characters in the process. In the first half of the novel, Sir Thomas is called away to attend to his estates in Antigua, and the action revolves around the imprudence of his children while he is away. Tom’s friend Mr. Yates comes to visit, and together they hatch a plan to put on a private theatrical. Edmund and Fanny are the only conscientious objectors to this scheme, and in this the reader is expected to concur with them whole-heartedly. Whereas nowadays the theatre is regarded as an object of high culture, in the Regency period, the theatre was still a very lowly and disreputable position.

To the modern eye, Fanny and Edmund thus look rather like prudish killjoys when they make their objections. Edmund is eventually drawn into the plot when his brother proposes inviting a neighbour in to fill a vacant role in the play. Horrified by the idea of such public exposure of an ill-advised private scheme, Edmund condescends to take the role so as to prevent such an evil, leaving Fanny the only non-participant among the young people. However, her qualms are soon borne out in the characters of her cousins. The romantic plot of the play deepens the rift between Maria and Julia, and their jealousy over Henry, and threatens to expose Maria’s fecklessness to her rather oblivious fiancé, an engagement which was formed before Henry entered on the scene. Acting together also puts Edmund very much more under the power of Mary Crawford.

If all this sounds critical of the novel, it is not meant as such. Mansfield Park is a novel of the period in which it was written, and cannot and should not be expected to conform to modern practices and ideas. If anything, a great part of the interest of Austen’s work lies in the way it illustrates how much the same and yet how much different our times are. The characters are people we recognize and know, and human nature is much the same as ever, but the mores and traditions that shape their actions are intriguingly different. I do not have a strong recollection of my first impressions of Mansfield Park—clearly it was a not a favourite as I did not feel compelled to reread it until now—but it has amply repaid revisitation.

Binti: The Night Masquerade

Cover image for The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okoraforby Nnedi Okorafor

ISBN 978-0-7653-9312-8

Binti was change, she was revolution, she was heroism.”

In the third volume of her novella trilogy, Nnedi Okorafor continues the story of Binti, who has returned home to Earth after her first year of study at the galaxy’s premier institution of higher education, Oomza Uni. While the homecoming and reckoning with her family and her heritage was difficult, Binti is now faced with an even larger conflict. The peace between the Meduse and the Khoush is tentative, bound to break at any moment, and the Himba may be caught in the middle. Still struggling to control the zinariya biotechnology that she unlocked in Home, and suffering from the side effects, Binti may nevertheless be called to put her skills as a master harmonizer to work on one of the oldest feuds in the galaxy.

As evidenced by the summary above, the plot of this novella relies heavily on the action and world-building of previous installments—reading out of order is not advised. While Binti and Home have a logical separation, The Night Masquerade reads as a continuation of Home, but on an expanded thematic scale. In Home, Binti was forced to confront the rift that she made when she left her family and abandoned their traditions to attend Oomza Uni. She also had to do some grappling with her identity as a Himba woman, and with how her father’s heritage figured into that. The Night Masquerade expands to consider the conflict between cultures, and Binti’s place within the wider society she has entered, and indeed within the galaxy itself.

In the first volume, Binti describes her people, saying “we Himba don’t travel. We stay put. Our ancestral land is life; move away from it and you diminish.” By this third installment, it becomes evident how much Binti has grown from her experience at Oomza Uni, rather than diminished. First she connects with the Meduse, and we see how that changes her, helping her to understand anger, and realize how difficult it is to contend with. She grapples with her father’s roots among the Enyi Zinariya, learning to see them as they see themselves, rather than as the savage Desert People she has been taught to regard them as. And she makes other, new connections in The Night Masquerade. Her journey has been an expansive one that grapples with identity and belonging on many levels.

In my review of Binti in 2016, I wrote that the plot relied “heavily on a mysterious, ancient device called an edan, which serves multiple functions with little explanation.” The edan has since diminished significantly in importance to the story, but in The Night Masquerade, its origin and purpose are finally revealed, filling out the universe’s backstory. Indeed, since this is the last contracted Binti story, many things are being wrapped up and concluded. There remains ample space for Okorafor to expand on Binti’s universe, but readers will be left with a satisfying stopping place.

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Also by Nnedi Okorafor:

Who Fears Death 

The Cruel Prince

Cover image for The Cruel Prince by Holly Black by Holly Black

ISBN 978-0-316-31027-7

What they don’t realize is this: Yes, they frighten me, but I have always been scared, since the day I got here. I was raised by the man who murdered my parents, reared in a land of monsters. I live with that fear, let it settle into my bones, and ignore it. If I didn’t pretend not to be scared, I would hide under my owl-down coverlets in Madoc’s estate forever. I would lie there and scream until there was nothing left of me. I refuse to do that. I will not do that.”

Seventeen-year-old Jude and her twin sister, Taryn, are mortals who have lived in Faerie since they were children, raised by the Faerie general who murdered their parents in order to retrieve his daughter, their half-sister Vivi. Despite this violent beginning, Jude longs to find her place in the High Court of King Eldred, and dreams of knighthood and acceptance. However, many of the high fey will never see a mortal as anything more than a servant, to be used and discarded at will. Worst among these is Prince Cardan, youngest of the High King’s sons, who seems to have a special hatred for Jude, and the way she had been raised as if she were part of the Gentry. When the High King announces that he will abdicate his throne, and pass the Blood Crown to one of his six children, Jude is caught up in political intrigues and violent betrayals, and is quickly reminded why the Faerie Court is no place for humans.

The Cruel Prince follows three sisters trying to find their place in the world(s). Though she is the only one who has magic, Vivi longs to return to the human world where she was raised. Jude and Taryn, though they know that Faerie is designed to dazzle mortals, are nevertheless enchanted with it, and dream of finding a way to make it their place forever, rather than somewhere that they live at the grace of the man who killed their parents. Taryn hopes to make a marriage that will secure her a place at court, while Jude hopes to use her talent with a blade win a post in one of the great houses. Each in turn is faced with the question of what price they will pay in order to get what they want.

Through the character of Jude, and her development, Holly Black examines what we are capable of, and how far we will go to get what we want. Jude dreams of being a knight, and wants to declare herself a candidate for selection as such by one of the great houses during the summer tournament. But her adopted father, Madoc, a redcap with violence as his very essence, does not believe that Jude has what it takes to be a knight, despite her skill with a blade. With the obvious and honourable path closed to her, Jude accepts a different bargain, one that reveals an even darker side of the High Court, and reminds Jude why Faerie is a dangerous place for mortals, especially at a time when power is about to change hands.

Though she knows the ways of Faerie, and has been trained as a warrior by the general himself, Jude is at a constant disadvantage. She has no magic of her own, and must constantly be wary of the magic around her. She must wear rowan berries to ward off compulsion, turn her stockings inside out to avoid being led astray, and salt all her food to prevent ensorcellment. She must rely on her wits, and her merely mortal strength to face down those who would put her in her place. And Prince Cardan and his friends seem bent on demonstrating that however at home she feels in Faerie, however well she think she knows the rules, she will always be a mere mortal. It is this very weakness, and her determination not to give into it that makes Jude a compelling narrator.

The Cruel Prince is a twisty and intricately plotted fantasy that takes us deep inside the High Court of Faerie. Holy Black knows just how to hit my expectations enough to keep me satisfied, while simultaneously subverting them enough to keep me intrigued. I am already eagerly awaiting the release of The Wicked King in 2019.

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Also by Holly Black:

The Darkest Part of the Forest

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown 

The Iron Trial 

Death in the Air

Cover image for Death in the Air by Kate Winkler Dawsonby Kate Winkler Dawson

ISBN 978-0-316-50686-1

The fuel was cheap, effective, and crucial—it was the only major source of domestic heating in the city at that time. But the smoke could be suffocating, and the sulphur dioxide released into the air was deadly. It triggered acid rain strong enough to bend iron, erode statues, poison land, and contaminate waterways—the pollution could destroy lungs and cause cancer. But still the coal burned.

On December 5, 1952, a thick fog descended on London. This was nothing unusual for the British capital in winter, but as the fog bank up to seven hundred feet thick settled over the city, and then refused to budge for five days, the event become something more than the average peasouper. Transportation ground to a halt, schools and businesses closed, and people huddled up at home in front of their coal fires. Britain was still recovering from the war, and high-quality coal was at a premium, so most people were burning dirty, inefficient “nutty slack,” or coal dust, which was cheaply available and encouraged by the government. As the fires burned, and more and more air pollution was trapped in the fog, Londoners began to wheeze, and then they began to die by the hundreds. By the time the fog lifted, more than four thousand would be dead. But in the months that followed the tragedy, as the official opposition pushed for an inquiry in Parliament, the headlines were grabbed instead by the lurid details of a serial killer that had been living among them. Four bodies had been found in the abandoned apartment of one John Reginald Christie of 10 Rillington Place in Notting Hill, and two more women were buried in the garden. So while Londoners cried out for justice for the murders of the six women, they were missing the fact that as many as twelve thousand of their fellow citizens had died during or after the Great Smog.

Fog is an indelible feature of British life, much tied up in the very image of London, as evidenced by the epigraphs Dawson includes at the beginning of each chapter. From Robert Louis Stevenson to T.S. Eliot, and Arthur Conan Doyle to Charles Dickens, famous writers described and referenced London’s fogs, and were even charmed by them. The French impressionist painter Claude Monet said that London would not be a beautiful city without them. But romanticized as the image has been, smoky fog made London dirty and dangerous, and the government contributed to the problem. By selling the best coal overseas to help rebuild the post-war economy, and encouraging Londoners to burn dirty nutty slack, the problem was worsened. Nor did the city’s new diesel buses, forty coal-fired power plants, or 200 steam powered locomotives help the situation. Transportation continued to try to run throughout the event, with limited success, and there was no warning system in place to tell vulnerable people to stay indoors, or discourage people from operating cars, or otherwise contributing to the disaster. Dawson clearly sketches out the tragedy, and the many ways in which the government contributed to it, and then tried to deny and cover it up. The press meanwhile, was too distracted by crime stories to pay much attention.

Death in the Air has been compared to The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, and certainly the structure is similar. But it was quite different in one important respect; the fog has little or nothing to do with the murders, while the Chicago World’s Fair was actively used as a hunting ground and cover for the murders committed there. Christie had killed two women and buried them in his garden long before the Great Smog, and none of his victims were killed during the event. The author speculates that being cooped up for his wife for days during the fog might have nudged Christie towards killing her in mid-December 1952, but this is about the extent of the connection between the two events, as well as the fact that both left strangled victims behind. Rather, Dawson seems to be drawing on the fact that while the serial killer is still (in)famous, the Great Smog, though it killed many more people, is much less remembered, despite eventually ushering in some of the first clean air regulations.

Nevertheless, Dawson balances well between the Great Smog and its aftermath, and the murders and the subsequent trial. I was engaged by both stories, though they didn’t quite gel, continuing to move along on parallel tracks. Dawson also employs some secondary characters, including a policeman who patrolled during the smog, and a young girl whose father died during the event, forever altering the lives of her family. I particularly wanted to hear more from Rosemary Sargent about her experiences and recollections, and felt that Dawson could have used her to better effect. The tremendous number of deaths tells one part of the tale, but Rosemary helps to personalize the fall out of such an event.

Death in the Air is a story with plenty of contemporary relevance. As Dawson points out, four thousand people now die from the effects of smog every day in China. This little remembered English tragedy is being repeated on a daily basis in the fastest growing industrial nation in the world, with no sign of slowing. And the vagaries of the Christie case, including his bizarre confession to having been responsible for two murders a neighbour was convicted of, and executed for, several years earlier, raise the spectre of injustice, and the finality of the death penalty in the face of fallible human judgement. In short, while the two stories do not work perfectly together, I was fascinated by this book nevertheless.

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You might also like Tinseltown by William J. Mann

Beneath the Sugar Sky (Wayward Children #3)

Cover image for Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuireby Seanan McGuire

ISBN 978-0-7653-9358-6

“For others, the lure of a world where they fit is too great to escape, and they will spend the rest of their lives rattling at windows and peering at locks, trying to find the way home. Trying to find the one perfect door that can take them there, despite everything, despite the unlikeliness of it all.”

When Rini lands in the duck pond behind Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, she is looking for her mother, Sumi. But Sumi was murdered three years earlier, and never found the door back to her Nonsense world to defeat the Queen of Cakes, marry her candy corn farmer, and live happily ever after with their daughter. Rini shouldn’t even exist, and now reality is beginning to catch up with her as she starts to fade away. Quests are strictly forbidden at the school, but can Sumi’s friends really allow her daughter to have never been born?

Beneath the Sugar Sky marks the third installment in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series. The books do not need to be read strictly in order, but the author recommends reading Every Heart a Doorway before this volume. Down Among the Sticks and Bones, being a prequel, can really be read before or after the first book. But since the plot of this novel hinges on a murder that took place in book one, and continues with some characters from that volume, beginning there is suggested.

While Every Heart a Doorway was about the aftermath of returning from a portal world, Beneath the Sugar Sky is a true portal fantasy that involves examining what happens to the worlds the children leave behind when they are pulled back to Earth. When Sumi ceases to exist, the Queen of Cakes is never defeated, and her prophecy goes unfulfilled. This third installment allows us to visit not one but two of the portal realms described in the first book, including Nancy’s Halls of the Dead, and Sumi’s Nonsense world, Confection. The latter is particularly interesting since most of the protagonists themselves visited Logical worlds, and struggle with the rules of a Nonsense realm like Confection.

The adventurers are Kade and Christopher, who will be familiar from Every Heart a Doorway, and Nadya and Cora, who are both girls who visited water worlds. Together, they set out with Rini for the Halls of the Dead, to find out where Sumi’s spirit went when she was murdered, and if there is any way to return her to her world so that Rini will still be born. The central perspective belongs to Cora, who was a mermaid in the world she visited, a world where the size of her body made her a strong swimmer, protected from the cold water, and not the object of mockery from her school mates. Body image forms a central issue for this volume.

In reading this installment of the Wayward Children, I was unexpectedly captured by Confection, though I’m more inherently curious about darker worlds like The Moors, and the Halls of the Dead. But the idea of a somewhat internally consistent Nonsense world was really good fun, and McGuire used it to great advantage. For example, no matter how far apart they are, nowhere in Confection is more than a day’s journey from anywhere else, and McGuire is able to use this to keep the novella-length plot tight. Her prose is as beautiful as ever, and I just let myself roll with the absurdity of the adventure, including a visit to the Oven, the heart of Confection. This universe has developed nicely throughout the series, and while this was the last guaranteed volume, I am hopeful that we might yet be able to look forward to more adventures.

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