Saturday, 30 August 2014

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Effect
Graeme Simsion
Text Publishing

Hard to believe it was two years ago that Don Tillman first came into our lives.  The Rosie Project was just what the reading public was looking for: funny, romantic, realistic, it was a book that had something for everyone.  While it followed the standard romantic comedy formula (and therefore, we could predict that Don would get the girl in the end), it deviated just enough from the familiar patterns for the book to be doing something new.  To make odious comparisons, it was Big Bang Theory meets The Forty Year old Virgin meets a Marian Keyes novel.  It was a bookseller's dream come true.  (Unless of course you ran out of stock.)

Two years on, that book is still going strong, but it is about to be joined by a new volume; The Rosie Effect is the story of what comes after our intrepid professor's happily ever after, and begins, like its predecessor, with a culinary mishap.

What is so loveable about Don's antics is that he is the most unreliable of narrators.  While the reader can plainly tell, for example, that Rosie is drinking orange juice instead of wine because she is pregnant, Don is baffled.  His bumbling gets him into trouble at times... say, at the children's playground or at dinner with someone who objects to the restaurant serving unsustainable seafood... but Don's moral compass is true, and once again, his innate selflessness makes him endearing despite his annoying tendencies.

Rosie has less spunk than in her previous appearance, but rightly so... she's under considerable pressure, trying to finish a PhD and a medical degree concurrently over the summer break, and she's just found out she's pregnant.  Add to this Don's unconventional approach to fatherhood; research.  Instead of showing his excitement for the arrival of BUD (Baby Under Development), Don begins to make himself an expert at all things pregnancy, from nutrition and exercise to the actual delivery of the baby.  This doesn't sit so well with Rosie, who wants to learn to be a good mother her own way.  Nor does it sit will with her that Don has invited his old buddy (and her thesis supervisor) Gene to stay with them, since Gene's wife Claudia has thrown him out for cheating.  And since Don and Rosie are living in New York, that means Gene's going to be spending a bit of time with them.  A lot actually.

Bizarrely, Don manages to finagle a rent-free living arrangement involving babysitting a rock star's beer fridge (strange, and yet somehow it works... but only in New York), which leads to the madcap fun associated with Don setting up his office in a bathroom, with the toilet as a desk chair, as well as the manufacturing of a soundproofed baby cradle with breathable air (imported, of course, from South Korea and modified by Don's father.)  He also gets himself appointed to a psychological study of the effects of the parent's gender in oxytocin levels of infants... allowing him to spend time with babies in preparation for his own child's arrival.

But as things get more complicated, in ways only Don could manage, it seems more and more likely that Don won't actually get to play father to Bud.  In fact, he's just not average enough.  As his relationship with Rosie grows more and more tenuous, Don begins to believe himself that he's not right for her, and he gets ready to let her go.

The strength of this book is in Don's journey.  For much of the novel's climax, I truly believed that Simsion was actually going to do it, have Don go through two books only to LOSE Rosie for good.  My heart was in my mouth.  The conclusion had tears in my eyes.  I never thought I would cry in a Don Tillman book, but there you go!  This is a much stronger book than The Rosie Project.  Simsion's writing is effortless, his humour is less laboured, and the Asperger's question is less pronounced, although once again it is swiftly dismissed in a conversation early in the book.  What this book does really well is identify just why life is a lot more complicated than it seems in romantic comedies.  Plus, it also reunites the reader with a beloved character.

I would have liked to have seen more of Rosie, but that's just me.

I gave this book five stars.

Friday, 29 August 2014

The King's Curse by Philippa Gregory

The King's Curse
Philippa Gregory
Simon and Schuster

So you may remember last week I had a liiiiiittle bit of a fan moment about my favourite historian/ writer, Philippa Gregory.

She seems to put out these huge, incredibly thoroughly researched novels at an astounding rate, and this year is no different (although I suppose the research would overlap a little).  2014 sees the final instalment in the Cousins War series, The King's Curse which neatly forms a narrative bridge between this series, and Gregory's earlier novels about the court of King Henry VIII.  Margaret Pole, the Countess of Salisbury, was the only daughter of George, Duke of Clarence (brother to Edward IV) and Isabel Neville and she lived her life in constant fear of being suspected of treason simply due to the fact that her maiden name was Plantagenet.  As a girl, she saw her brother imprisoned in the Tower of London for being a viable heir to the York lines of succession, and she saw him executed after many years of mistreatment and sorrow.  In the beginning of the novel, she is still a young woman, grateful to envelop her dangerous identity in that of a modest husband, the knight Sir Richard Pole.  She serves her cousin, the Queen Elizabeth (Elizabeth of York, The White Princess), as is Lady Governess to Arthur, Prince of Wales at Ludlow Castle.  She is present when the beautiful Infanta of Spain, Katherine of Aragon, is brought to England and married to Prince Arthur, and witnesses the union blossom to genuine affection.  This means she is also witness to the death of Prince Arthur at just seventeen, and the sorrow and determination of Katherine to fulfil her husband's deathbed wish-- to marry his brother and become Queen of England anyway.

Margaret interacts with all the major women from the series who are still alive at this point in the story.  She is at odds with The Red Queen, her godmother Margaret Beaufort, who is Henry Tudor's mother and an ally of Elizabeth of York.  But both of these women die early on in the plot of The King's Curse and so it is Margaret alone who will bear witness to the legacy of the Tudor era.  She bears the awful knowledge of the curse created by Elizabeth of York and her mother, to punish the murderers of the Princes in the Tower by denying them male heirs and ending their line with a virgin queen, as well as the dangerous knowledge of the truth in Arthur and Katherine's relationship... was it ever consummated?  Was it lawful?

Margaret is questioned again and again, and her fortunes depend on her answers.  After the death of her husband, Margaret is penniless and must divide her family, sending her oldest boys to be wards of a Plantagenet cousin, her middle boy Reginald to the Carthusian monks, and taking her younger two children with her to a nunnery.  They survive in this manner, in shame and poverty, but most importantly surviving, until such time as the king succeeds in marrying Katherine and making her Queen.  Margaret is called back to court.  It seems that the York curse is true, as Margaret witnesses countless tragic lying ins, the Queen losing many sons in the years.  And then, Mary is born, and Margaret Pole is appointed her governess.  With her loyalties and loves divided throughout the country, it becomes increasingly difficult for Margaret to serve the king, and her friends Mary and Katherine, and still keep her head off the chopping block.

This is a novel which, more than any other, depicts the paranoia and unpredictability of the Tudor Court, and seems almost to be a much more accessible account than Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall.  Margaret, while an unreliable narrator in some respects, is thoughtfully drawn as a devout and loyal woman, almost a lioness in her determination to do what is best by her family.  Her best is not always the same in definition as the readers, and her one defining sin is that of her pride.  Margaret is not content to stay low and safe; she must have what is due to her as a Plantagenet, despite not wanting to draw deadly attention to her name.  She has largely escaped depiction in popular culture, despite being a central (cleverly hidden) figure in a number of so-called conspiracies, if you believe the theories presented in this book.  In the television series The Tudors, Margaret Pole was an embittered woman, and her son Reginald a threat to the crown, constantly hunted by Henry's followers for his 'ambitions', but I have never seen her present in any other novels or films about the period.  Or at least not as a major, recognisable player.

The novel states, in the authorial notes, that Margaret Pole's claim to fame is that she was the oldest victim of the Tudor headman, being 67 at the time of her death.  She was executed without trial, and given a very short notification that she was to die.  Her execution was horribly botched, and it took several blows to behead her, whether by her flinching or by incompetence we do not know.  Unlike in the other Cousins War novels, this book actually takes the narration up to the point of the narrator being killed or dying, whereas in others, the novel has ended at a point where the lady in question could see a glimmer of hope, leaving her to die in the pages of a later novel.  This is an interesting way to mark the end of the novels.  One might almost suggest that it is unnecessary to follow this series with the early Tudor novels, and a reader might indeed skip the novels from the points of view of Henry's wives and go to The Queen's Fool and The Virgin's Lover to see if knowing more about the Plantagenets alters the perspective given on Mary and Elizabeth at all.  While I found it hard to sympathise with Margaret Pole herself, I did find this book giving me more insight into Mary, whose later tyranny has written her into the pages of history as some sort of madwoman.

The book is sombre in tone, and a little less magical than the novels about Jacquetta and the Elizabeths, and I would compare it more closely with The Red Queen which also featured a severely unsympathetic narrator, the king's mother Margaret Beaufort.  But its perspective was an important one, and it finished the series neatly and satisfactorily.  I can only wonder now what Gregory will write next... personally I would like to see a novel from the point of view of the Lady Katherine Huntly, the wife of the 'pretend' Richard of York, who was briefly glimpsed in The White Princess.

Three stars.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Rediscovering Philippa Gregory with The Kingmaker's Daughter and the White Princess

There have been a couple of writers I have come across who inspire me to write history.  Their work proves that history can be interesting, multi-faceted, and come alive on a page, and one of these is Philippa Gregory, whose female-led histories of Tudor and Plantagenet England have been best sellers for about twenty years now.  Her novel The Other Boleyn Girl is the foremost novel on Henry the Eighth, and gives a strong credibility in the minds of readers to one possible version of events in the Tudor period; that before Henry Tudor married Anne Boleyn, he bedded her sister Mary and fathered two children with her.  It has been adapted into a BBC miniseries as well as a major movie starring Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman.  Gregory's latest royals series centres around the women of the Cousins War (since come to be known as the Wars of the Roses) has been every bit as successful (if not more) than her novels about Tudor wives, and the first in the series, The White Queen (which followed the life of Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward the IV and mother of Elizabeth of York) was also adapted for television.  I have strong memories of reading The White Queen and being amazed by the depth of Gregory's insight into the complicated women of court.  More amazing still was her ability to switch gears, and then write about Margaret Beaufort (mother of Henry VII) in The Red Queen, particularly as the protagonist in this book is viewed with much ire in the previous novel.  By coming at history from many different perspectives, Gregory successfully recreates the map of allegiances that would really have been present at the time, from the points of view of the women who were silent players in court intrigue.

The third book in the series represents a chronological shift back in time-- to the court of Margaret d'Anjou and Henry the VI (The Sleeping King) who were of the House of Lancaster.  A portrait of this deeply unpopular queen is told not through her own eyes but through those of Jacquetta Woodville, a member of the Royal family of Burgundy, who married an English Lord for love after the death of her first husband.  Jacquetta was a great friend to Margaret d'Anjou, but would later marry her daughter Elizabeth (some say through witchcraft) to the son of the enemy, Edward the IV, the eldest son of the House of York.  Both Jacquetta and Margaret d'Anjou acknowledge the work of fate, and the great wheel of fortune which is constantly turning, advising the women they care for to not attempt to fight these turns but instead to show bravery in the face of them.  While I found it interesting that Jacquetta warranted a book, but not Margaret d'Anjou, as a writer, I understood the choice.  Whilst writing Elizabeth's story, Gregory stated that she was so taken with Jacquetta as a character, that she knew she would have to come back to her.  By telling Jacquetta's story, Gregory also introduced a little of the mysticism which surrounded the entire Rivers family-- at one point, Jacquetta Woodville is accused of witchcraft, and indeed in the next novel, the one I have just read, The Kingmaker's Daughter, Anne and Isabel Neville are certainly terrified of the supernatural advantage the Rivers women seem to have.  You may say, what place does magic have in history, and this is a fair point; but magic has played a major role in history, whether it was real or not.  The accusation of witchcraft was often made to support explanations of things which otherwise did have no explanation.  Some truly strange, and lucky (or unlucky) things did count as major events in the Wars of the Roses, and whether or not Jacquetta practised witchcraft, the people of England believed she did.  As Gregory seems to argue, she may have believed she had some influence in nature also.

This brings me to the book I have just read, and the one I am reading.  Life gets away from us sometimes.  While previously I have been quick to binge on Gregory's work, I have not read any instalments in the series for some time (although I have bought them when they are released).  The final book in the series was released this week, and I decided that I needed to catch up.  I dug out my copy of The Kingmaker's Daughter.  I did not expect it to be particularly good; in previous novels, Anne Neville has been cast as sickly, simpering, whinging, a hanger-on, a nobody.  While her father, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, earned his nickname The Kingmaker for his support and subsequent success in winning the crown for the House of York, Anne and her sister Isabel are constantly faced with their own mediocrity in the great courts of England.  They are lower in the ranks than beautiful Queen Elizabeth and her large pack of beautiful daughters.  Forced to compete for their father's love, they seem to sway between constant bickering and deep, loyal love for one another.  This portrait of Anne Neville, in her 'own words' is compelling in her accessibility to the reader; yes, Anne is often fearful, and she is frequently jealous or wishing herself in a different situation, but she is also faced with difficult decisions, and she does the best she can.  While it seems clear that Anne will never be a great heroine, the reader cannot help but feel for her, when she is little more than a pawn for her father's enemies to play with and then when she is a young woman in love, right through to when she is a devoted wife, and grieving mother, seemingly being lied to by the man she loves, Richard III.  Richard also is very different to the way history has seen him, particularly in the Tudor-funded plays of Shakespeare.  While many recognisable elements are there, such as Richard's failing arm, we also see that he is the loyal brother of Edward, the charming son of York, and the gallant lover of Anne Neville, his childhood friend, who is trying to be a fair ruler in a court that is influenced by the large Rivers family, despite it being a York kingdom officially.

The mystery of the Princes in the Tower is cast in a new light in this series, each of the major players seeming to have nothing to do with it.  While Gregory seems to have theories, she still leaves enough doubt for the intrigue to go on.  She leaves her reader wanting more, and this is a great skill.

I am back with the York/Woodvilles now, reading about Elizabeth of York, whose marriage to Henry Tudor (Henry VII) officially united the Lancaster and York houses, ending (theoretically) the wars.  Elizabeth I expected to be like her mother in many ways, but I am so far pleasantly surprised by a detailed description of the Princess's divided loyalties, between her husband (whom she does not particularly like, but has sworn fealty to) and her mother (whom she loves, but who lies to her constantly to stop Elizabeth from being implicated in plots that could have her and her son killed.)

I urge anyone who is interested in Tudor and Plantagenet history to check out these books, but also to spend some time getting familiar with Gregory's website, which features a family tree with pop ups explaining facts about each of the major players.

The final book, The King's Curse is published by Simon and Schuster.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Book Review: When the Night Comes by Favel Parrett

When the Night Comes
Favel Parrett

Hachette Books  

There is something very lovely about a book which talks in detail about food.  A book that describes the ritual of cooking and eating in a way that makes you taste things, and crave them. Favel Parrett's new book will make you wish for potatoes and custard and soup.

In the late 1980s, Isla and her mother and brother move to Tasmania.  Her mother is somewhat unhinged, that much is apparent, but the reason why is kept very close to the young narrator's chest.  They struggle for a time, living in a dark house and renting out the one good room.  They go to a Quaker school.  Finally, they get a home of their own.  And then some new friends come to town on a big red boat named the Nella Dan.

Bo is a Danish sailor on the Nella Dan, who works in the galleys as a cook.  The sea is in his blood; his father was often away from home on the very same boat and Bo remembers missing him for most of his childhood.  In Tasmania, Bo meets Isla and her family, and forms a relationship with them that makes him question his commitment to the sea.  But it is the relationship he forms with Isla; the impression that he leaves on her, which comes into question.

This is a quiet, glacial novel in the most charming of ways.  It consists of a number of short chapters, told alternately by Isla and Bo, documenting the important moments of 1986 and 1987.  Deceptively simple, the emotions of this book creep up on the reader; for example, when tragedy strikes the small Quaker school; when there is an accident on the boat; when Bo soaks Isla's leg in chamomile tea to extract cactus spines from it.  The scenes feel real, both those of childhood and on the boat.

My one gripe with the novel is that it gives the outward impression of being about great loss, and truly it isn't.  It's about the smaller losses, the series of hard knocks that each person must learn to live with and the litany of constantly closing doors which litter some childhoods.  Isla does not appear to truly feel any of the losses.  She registers being away from her father, losing her grandfather, the death of the boy at school, the departure of her favourite teacher and finally Bo's return to Denmark with a kind of quiet acceptance which seems to indicate that she has already indelibly inked them onto her heart, and will now be stoic about their leaving.  This says a lot about her character.

Not having read Parrett's previous novel, I find it difficult to make a comparison, but that would probably be of no use anyway.

This was a quick read, and a substantial one, and I did thoroughly enjoy it, but it was not what I expected.

I gave it three stars.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Man Booker 2014: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks 
David Mitchell
Sceptre Books
9780340921609 (Due to be released September 2nd 2014)

'One drowsy summer's day in 1984, teenage runaway Holly Sykes encounters a strange woman who offers a small kindness in exchange for 'asylum'.  Decades will pass before Holly understands exactly what sort of asylum the woman was seeking...'

So reads the blurb of David Mitchell's new novel, The Bone Clocks, a 500+ page story spanning decades, dimensions and genres.

When fifteen year old Holly Sykes first takes up her narrative in the first part of the novel, the reader is immediately drawn to her voice.  Naive and typically teenaged, Holly is at odds with her publican parents, who think that her romance with Vinnie (a car salesman a decade her senior) is a bad idea.  In the spirit of rebellion, and young love, Holly decides to leave home and move in with Vinnie, but is stupidly shocked to find that her so-called friend Stella is in bed with her boyfriend when she gets there.  So far, so cliched.  What saves this troubled teenage narrative from becoming boring is Mitchell's skill with words, and a grander sense that this moment in Holly's life, and in the story, seem important but will pale in comparison with what's to come.  Holly sets off in a fit of pique, unable to return home with her tail between her legs, and finds herself thirsty on the pier.  She spies a woman with a thermos and asks for a drink, and the woman, Esther Little, spares her a bit of tea in return for the promise of asylum, which Holly thinks is a little weird.  The moment seems insignificant, but again, this is the point.  From there on, Holly's life is a part of the Script, the mystical plan for life on Earth, played out alongside a vicious, atemporal war although she will only know it as the reader comes to know it, in drips and drabs.  And if this description is raising more questions than it answers, it is only because it's nearly impossible to discuss without giving too much away.  Suffice to say, however, that the novel subscribes to a philosophy in which certain people are able to live outside the limits of time, and aging.  In fact, there are two lots of people who can, the Horologists, who live, die, and then enter a new body as an old soul and the Anchorites, a carnivorous type who prolong their lives by decanting the souls of potentially atemporal humans and drinking them as Black Wine.  Broadly speaking, these are two types of psychosoterics, people who have broadened the capabilities of their minds to allow them to live on a higher plane of existence.  And this battle of good against evil, the oldest plot in the book, is the essential narrative of the story.

But it's more complicated than that, as you will see when you read it.  The novel is written in parts, each time told by a different narrator at a different point in time.  At first, each new narrator seems to have nothing to do with the previous sections, but Mitchell finds ingenious ways to make the narratives link up, and fill in the blanks in what the reader has been allowed to know.  For example, the second part of the novel follows a charismatic but immoral young man named Hugo Lamb, as he finishes a semester at university (where he sleeps with the love of a friend's life just for laughs and steals the priceless stamp collection of a retired brigadier) and then goes on holiday to Switzerland with some friends.  Hugo's voice, like Holly's before, is strong and compelling enough that the reader does not say 'Stuff this' and put the book down in sheer frustration.  In fact, you start to like the bastard, and feel complicit, and you even begin to feel a little sympathy for him when he meets, woos and subsequently falls for none other than Holly Sykes, now managing a bar for a lecherous drug-dealer.  Because Hugo becomes close to Holly, the reader learns that Holly's younger brother Jacko went missing the day that Holly ran away, and that she feels responsible because she had a daymare in which she saw it happening.  Hugo then makes an appointment to meet Holly and possibly make theirs a 'relationship' but never makes the appointment, because he is intercepted by and recruited into the order of Anchorites, who see his potential.  The novel continues in such a fashion, showing next a section from the point of view of Ed Bruebeck, who becomes Holly's partner and father of her child (and previously appeared as the boy from school who helps her when she runs away), Crispin Hershey, an author and rival of Hugo Lamb's school friend Richard Cheeseman, who meets Holly at a writers festival, where she had been talking about her book about the strange semi-psychic coincidences in her life, and Marinus, one of the highest of the Horologists, who finally explains the situation to Holly and the reader.  By this point, the novel has gone at least ten years into the future, but plausibly so, and without making any claims for technological advances which might be hard to live up to.  The ultimate battle is waged in these pages, and who wins and how is for Mr Mitchell to say, and not I.


And it's a big but.

The reason I don't think this wonderful novel is going to win the Man Booker this year is because of the final section of the novel.  There is a complete section of narrative which follows the fight in the Blind Cathar's Cathedral (I would say, the novel's climax) and not only does it spoil the satisfaction of the reader that the right people have won, and the characters you like are all happy or at least in situations that make sense, it completely changes the tone of the book.  In Sheep's Head, the final part of the book, we are now listening to Holly Sykes in her seventies as she recounts her days living in a part of Ireland which is in the Cordon, or a safe zone loaned by the Chinese in the wake of the collapse of major world powers, the internet etc.  She is virtually living in a war zone, which contrasts to the description of actual war zones in Iraq told years earlier by her partner Ed (a war correspondent).  Mitchell's tone is suddenly very environmentalist, and similar in a way to Atwood's Madaddam trilogy, which finished up last year.  It is well written, but it is totally irrelevant.  Too long for an epilogue, and too sad to be satisfying, the reader is left with the knowledge that Holly makes it through the final battle only to face something even worse, and that was really disappointing.

The other thing that occurred to me is that perhaps the basic premise of the novel, that of atemporal beings who are reborn, is mightily similar to Claire North's The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.

This was my first David Mitchell novel and I am hungry for more.  His style is funny, insightful and possesses a clarity of observation that translates beautifully into original prose.  I give this book four stars, taking one off only for the final section.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Small Screen Adaptation: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Anyone who has subscription television in Australia has probably found themselves watching trailers for the new series 'Outlander' at least once a day.  'Outlander' is based on a series of novels written by the American writer Diana Gabaldon which centre around a young woman from 1946 who stumbles through a rock formation and is transported to the Scottish Highlands in 1743, amidst the turmoil surrounding the legitimacy of the English King George's claim to the Scottish throne.  The young woman, Claire, is the wife of Frank Randall, the six times great-grandson of Jonathon 'Black Jack' Randall, an English corporal on patrol in Scotland.

In Australia, the first book in the Outlander series is called Cross Stitch, a title which doesn't make much sense at all.  It's an 800+ page tome, beginning with Claire and Frank on their honeymoon in Inverness (I think...), where Frank spends his time researching his ancestor, Black Jack, and Claire alternates between learning about the healing properties of local plants, being bored out of her mind, or enjoying the presence of her new husband.  It's important to note that Claire and Frank were married before the war, but were separated by duty during it, and are only just reunited for their honeymoon at the beginning of the book.  Claire was a nurse, and knows a lot about battlefield healing, which comes in handy when she travels back in time.

In the highlands, Claire is at first discovered by Black Jack Randall, who is the spitting image of Frank but is cruel and tries to rape her.  She is rescued by Dougal MacKenzie and his men, who claim her as a hostage.  Each side thinks Claire may be a spy for the other.  They take her back to their camp, where she first meets Jamie, a young man who has just returned from France.  Jamie has a wounded shoulder, which Claire tends to, earning a begrudging trust from the men.  She cements her right to travel with them by predicting an ambush by the English, allowing the group to pass through largely unscathed, although Jamie strains his injured shoulder, for which Claire chides him- this is a hallmark of their relationship for the rest of the book.

Claire is taken back to Castle Leoch, held by Dougal's brother Callum MacKenzie, who cannot lead battle because of his cripple legs.  Claire identifies his ailment as Toulouse-Latrec Syndrome, a malady which will not be named for another 150 years.  She is set up as a castle healer, and later taken out on a pilgrimmage to collect the local rents with Jamie and Dougal, and a lawyer named Ned.  In order to stop Claire, as an Englishwoman, being handed over to Randall and his soliders, Claire and Jamie are forced to wed one another, but Jamie surprises Claire by being a tender husband, albeit an old fashioned one.  From then on, their fates are bound to one another, and Claire's determination to go home is complicated by a growing love for Jamie and her guilt over having abandoned Frank, however unwillingly.  There are many other twists and turns along the way (there would have to be in 800+ pages) and the result is an exciting novel with much swordplay, a highly detestable villain, and many scenes of passion.  (In fact, I would say too many... we get it... they lust after each other.)  What saves the book from being a bodice ripper that you would buy at an airport is the immense effort that has gone into researching this book.  The historical period comes alive, and Gabaldon shows a clear understanding of the anachronisms between the 1700s, the 1940s and our own time.  Claire is a likable and consistent heroine with her own aims, who does not ALWAYS need to be rescued by men (although sometimes she does) and uses her ingenuity to get by in a time 200 years before her own birth.  While Claire does worry about the consequences her appearance in the past might have on the present, the book does not spend too much time worrying about the butterfly effect, which leaves the willing reader free to get caught up in the swashbuckling fun of the times.  This will most likely translate extremely well to television.

The book probably could have done with some more structural editing before the end, because in terms of traditional structure, there did seem to be a climax, a resolution, and then another narrative arc tacked on the end... it might have been better as two books, and it will be interesting to see how these arcs are handled in the series.

It is also interesting to think that the events of these novels happen only a generation before the events of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, but the time seems a lot more fraught with danger than Austen's novel leads us to think.

If you're looking for a great fun read, I do recommend Cross Stitch/ Outlander, and I will definitely be checking out the TV show when it starts this week.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Book Review: The Golden Age by Joan London

The Golden Age
Joan London

In the middle of Joan London's latest novel, Meyer Gold ironically wonders to himself if there is a poet living in the eponymous polio hospital in Leederville, never realising that there is in fact a poet, and it happens to be Meyer's son Frank (or Ferenc in his native Hungarian.)  Poetry becomes a central theme in the novel as it does in young Frank Gold's life; the quest for that illusive final line is a metaphor for a sort of quest for meaning in the life of a young person who has made his way by surviving horrors, first under the Nazis, where as a Jewish person he was forced to hide in the roof above the home of a moribund piano teacher and then in his new home of Perth, where he contracts polio and must learn to walk again.  The novel is not, as one might suspect, the harrowing journey to Frank's recovery from illness, but rather his life despite it and because of it.  His foray into The Golden Age hospital has ripple affects across his life and across the lives of those he meets.

This is not a novel which is heavy in plot; in fact were we to focus on the plot it would be a rather short book indeed.  The book begins with Frank stealing out of his room to go and look for Elsa, the object of his affections.  He then recounts a little of what Hungary was like for him, and the sense of purpose he found upon meeting a young poet named Sullivan in the infectious diseases branch of Royal Perth.  Sullivan is confined to an iron lung, but spends his time composing poetry for a collection which he calls On My Last Day on Earth.  He dies before it can ever be finished, and Frank, who was his pupil and scribe, takes up the gauntlet.  As a fellow sufferer, Frank notes that this is Sullivan's important work, whereas Sullivan's father (who is an outsider to the special world of the polio sufferer, an almost exclusive community of outsiders) believes that Sullivan's best work is what he wrote before he was sick, about the trivial pastimes of sailing and tennis.  This is the 50s, and the shame of having your son struck down with polio in his prime is never stated, but always felt.  It is felt also by Elsa, who was clearly the favourite of her parents, and treated to bicycles and tennis lessons.  Elsa is from a privileged sect of society, from what is now known as the Western Suburbs.  Ordinarily she never would have met Frank Gold, but when she contracts polio, she too is sliced out of the world.  They share a sensibility, a way of seeing the world, and become close quickly.

Of the other characters, the nurses, the parents, Elsa's mother who feels her place being usurped by her sister in law, who seems to have Elsa's father under her thumb, we see their lives as we see other planets orbiting the sun.  Their actions add colour and flavour to the narrative but there is no urgency in their journeys, and often-times there is no resolution... although it is satisfying when Elsa's mother Margaret finally stands up to her sister in law Nance.  But while the possibility of an affair between Meyer Gold and Sister Olive Penny is hinted at, nothing eventuates; while Ida Gold is invited to enter the upper classes because of her skilled piano playing, she refuses; and in a way, the outside world stays as it has always been.  It is Frank and Elsa who change; they change each other, and while their love cannot last outside The Golden Age, their friendship buoys them over the years.  In a way, it seems as if everything Frank does from that day is because of Elsa.

I gave this novel 3 and a 1/2 stars.