Author: Lynn Thomson

Mozart's Starling Book Cover Mozart's Starling
Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Little, Brown and Company
In Store Now!

In her prelude to Mozart’s Starling, Lyanda Lynn Haupt writes, “Common, invasive, aggressive, reviled. Starlings don’t just lie beneath our notice, the sentiment runs, they are actually undeserving of our notice.”

If you love birds but hate starlings, you are not alone. From the day a handful were introduced from England to New York’s Central Park about 130 years ago, until today when millions of starlings have spread over North America, they have become nearly universally detested.

And yet, if you look closely at a starling, at one individual bird, you will see how beautiful it is. Its feathers shine iridescent in the sun, purple, green, glossy black. And if you’re patient and lucky, you may hear it mimic another bird species, or a car siren, or even you.

Starlings are true mimics, meaning they can learn to make the sounds they hear around them, which brings us to how Mozart ended up with one as a pet. The story goes that one day he was walking down the street in Vienna when he heard a familiar melody, a melody from a song he had not yet made public. Intrigued, he followed the sound to a shop and a caged starling who was singing his own musical phrase. He bought the bird and took it home.

When Haupt, a nature writer, was looking for a topic for a new book, she remembered this story and wondered if it was true. Several of her other books are about human interaction with birds, so she thought the Mozart story might be a place to start. Indeed it was.

Haupt then decided that if she was going to begin to understand the relationship Mozart had with his bird, she was going to have to live with a starling, too.

This book will forever change the way you look at starlings.

This book will change forever the way you look at starlings. The stories Haupt tells about her bird, Carmen, are charming, hilarious, poignant. Haupt describes her family’s life with its starling as an endless challenge but one worth the effort and considerable mess.

She extrapolates from her own experiences to what it may have been like for Mozart. She researches the period of his life when he lived with his starling, and goes to Vienna to see for herself the house the Mozarts were living in. We learn about Mozart’s relationships with his father, siblings, wife, and children. We hear about his extraordinary genius and his strangely-shaped ears. Most of us know something about this very famous composer (and some of you, no doubt, know a great deal), but everything in this particular story has a bird at the core of it. That’s a different way of looking at a life.

Haupt also tries to solve the puzzle of how Mozart’s starling knew that little piece of music that hadn’t yet been performed, something that has kept scholars busy for ages.

I found the Mozart chapters interesting and I was moved to dig up some old CDs to listen to, but I loved the stories of Haupt’s own bird.

Her family raises Carmen from a chick. She’s helpless and small when they bring her home but it doesn’t take long before she’s an integral part of the family.

The first sound Carmen decides to mimic is that of the wine stopper coming out of a bottle. As soon as Haupt starts moving a wine glass from the cupboard, Carmen makes the sound. She also learns the coffee grinder. And I won’t ruin anything for you by describing Carmen’s relationship with the family’s cat. Carmen is a riot.

The deeper beauty of the book, though, comes when Haupt writes about the intersection of art and nature, and how we as creative beings can understand ourselves better through our relationships with the wild. She asks us to listen to “the song just beneath our typical hearing, the murmuration that calls the tiniest neurons of our brains into flight….to paint, draw, dance, compose…to open the windows…to be rained upon. To listen with changed ears and sing back what we hear.”

Nutshell Book Cover Nutshell
Ian McEwan
In Store Now!

I imagine that when Ian McEwan sits down to write a new novel, he says to himself, “What corner of human morality should I examine this time?” Then he creates a couple of characters, everyday people we might meet at a dinner party or in the school playground, sets them in a situation, and proceeds to eviscerate them. He’s a master at this and every line counts; every sentence brings us closer to understanding who these people are and what they’re up against.

As I’ve come to expect from Ian McEwan, Nutshell delivers one little punch after another, page after page.

In his new book, Nutshell, McEwan has chosen a foetus as his narrator. If you have ever wondered what a foetus is thinking, here is your answer. It is clever, it is craving knowledge and experience, love and, above all, freedom. This particular foetus is horrified by what is happening in the lives of its parents. As it riffs on that and on its perceived state of the world as learned through podcasts and radio shows its mother listens to, it comes to understand where it’s headed.

I won’t say a word about the characters or plot because, as I’ve said, every sentence counts in McEwan, and I don’t want to give anything away. Telling you even the sex of the foetus, will detract from your experience of a sensuous bit of writing.

As I’ve come to expect from Ian McEwan, Nutshell delivers one little punch after another, page after page. It is a witty, running commentary of a novel, one of his finest.

ian mcewan author photoIan McEwan is the bestselling author of fifteen previous books, including the novels Sweet Tooth; Solar, winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize; On Chesil Beach; Saturday;Atonement, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the W. H. Smith Literary Award; The Comfort of Strangers and Black Dogs, both short-listed for the Booker Prize; Amsterdam, winner of the Booker Prize; and The Child in Time, winner of the Whitbread Award; as well as the story collections First Love, Last Rites, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, and In Between the Sheets.

By Gaslight Book Cover By Gaslight
Steven Price
In Store Now!

By Gaslight by Steven Price is a big book, over 700 pages, but don’t let that put you off. I’ve read lots of big books, and maybe you have, too, so you know what it’s like to pick one up and open its cover for the first time. There’s nothing in the world like opening a BIG book, reading those first few pages, and having that delicious tingling feeling that this is going to be a good one, and maybe it’s time to cancel those dinners and movie nights for the next week or two. You’re going to be somewhere else.

In this case, the book is set around the world – Chicago, South Africa, the battlefields of the Civil War, on board passenger ships – but mostly in London. This is Victorian London, Dickens’ London of murky taverns and fog-enshrouded walkways leading to sketchy rendezvous. It is so well described that you’ll feel you’ve lived it, complete with horrible smells and endless meals of nothing but meat.

The setting is a character in the book, but the real characters and their stories are the reason to keep reading. By Gaslight tells a fictional tale of William Pinkerton, son of the man who started the Pinkerton detective agency, and Edward Shade, a man who haunts William’s father. William has decided to follow a lead and go to London to find Shade and discover the secret to his father’s life-long torment. First, he has to find Charlotte, who sent him the lead, but when he finally comes close to her, she jumps off a bridge into the Thames. Why would she do that? Who is she, anyway, and what is her relationship with Shade? And who are these strange people who keep popping up: this Adam Foole, his alleged daughter, and his friend, a giant?

This is Victorian London, Dickens’ London of murky taverns and fog-enshrouded walkways leading to sketchy rendezvous.

Read on! It’s a big story that goes back and forth in time, between continents, between characters, between love and hate and everything in between. Price is an award-winning poet. He knows how to write a sentence, and now we know that he can also write a story.

steven price authorSteve Price is the author of two award-winning poetry books, Anatomy of Keys (2006), winner of the Gerald Lampert Award, and Omens in the Year of the Ox (2012), winner of the ReLit Award. His first novel, Into That Darkness, was published by Thomas Allen to acclaim in 2011. He lives in Victoria, B.C.