Across the Universe (2011) A Sci-Fi Thriller

Across the Universe is the first Sci-Fi thriller I’ve ever read. It’s also a YA novel and the first in a trilogy. Luckily it’s not the type of series beginning without a proper ending. There are open questions but the mystery is resolved, the perpetrator is caught.

Amy follows her parents on a mission to a planet that is three hundred years away from Earth. Her parents are part of a project crew needed to terraform Centauri-Earth. They have agreed to board the spaceship Godspeed and to be cyrogenically frozen. Three hundred years in the future they will be unfrozen. Amy didn’t have to follow her parents. They gave her a choice: she could stay with her grandparents and her boyfriend or travel to a new planet with her parents. Her love for her parents is stronger than anything else and she accepts to be frozen. The description of this is actually extremely well done. I could almost feel the ice in my veins.

Fifty years before they should land, someone brutally unplugs Amy. Luckily Elder, the future leader of Godspeed, Eldest’s heir, finds her in time. He’s fascinated by Amy, who is a redhead with translucent white skin and green eyes. Nobody looks like Amy on Godspeed. Everyone looks exactly the same: olive skin, dark eyes, brown hair, tall and strong. Eldest, the current leader, is far less thrilled. He’d like to open a hatch and throw Amy into space. He thinks that having someone on board who looks so different, who knows what it was like on earth, poses a huge threat to peace and stability on Godspeed.

Amy and Elder find out that Amy’s attempted murder probably was a mistake. Someone is targeting the crew of the project, which means Amy’s parents are in danger.

The plot is gripping enough but that wasn’t what I liked about this book. What I liked was the world Beth Revis created. The spaceship Godspeed is like a snow globe. I happen to love snow globes, those mini-worlds inside of glass bubbles filled with water. So naturally, I loved the setting. Godspeed has many layers and is like a replica of the earth. While there are no seasons, there’s still weather; they have rain and wind and they grow plants and have cattle.

For those who were born aboard Godspeed their environment poses no problem, but for Amy the ship is claustrophobic. She knows that the stars on the ship’s ceiling are fake. When they discover that there is a hidden window which allows to look out into space, things become dramatic. People are only docile and agreeing to work like slaves because they know nothing else. But once they would realize how vast the world is outside of the ship, things could change. We soon understand that Godspeed is not so much peaceful but totalitarian.

Amy and Elder try to find out who wants to kill the frozen crew members and they try to make sense of many inconsistencies. Someone, for example, has changed the books on Earth’s history. Facts are distorted and used to manipulate people.

I enjoyed this novel. I loved the setting, I thought the book had many thought-provoking elements, the plot was suspenseful, and Beth Revis has a knack for descriptions. There’s a love story but it’s not too romantic. The character’s are a bit flat and Amy thinks a few silly things, but I didn’t mind. I read this as highly entertaining guilty pleasure. Plus it’s an interesting genre mix that works really well. A bit like a locked room mystery set in space.

Anthony Trollope: The Warden (1855)

The Warden

Memory is a funny thing. For years I have been haunted by a sensual impression of a place. I remember being in England and walking along a row of houses. It’s a very peaceful, mild, warm autumn afternoon. The houses are part of a larger compound, overshadowed by a huge cathedral. I remember walking away from the cathedral close and coming to a small river that was flowing through the grassy meadow, on the same level as the soil. There were weeping willows and sheep. Walking around that place was like visiting a time long gone. These haunting images returned periodically. The light outside of my windows sometimes triggered the memory. It was always nice to go back in my mind, the only trouble was – I couldn’t remember where this had been. I’ve been in England many times, stayed there for a couple of months or weeks. I’ve visited many places and many cathedrals, but as much as I thought about it – I had no clue where I’d been on that warm autumn afternoon. Not until reading The Warden. The moment I opened the book and read the description of Barchester I knew – this is where I had been. But how could that be? Barchester doesn’t exist. Although I like to keep the introduction of a book until I’ve finished it, I had to read it to find out more. In the introduction I learned that Trollope based Barchester on Salisbury and Winchester. I immediately went online and looked up photos of Salisbury cathedral, the cathedral close and the meadows around and, yes, indeed, that’s where I’ve been some years ago. I found it pretty uncanny that Trollope was so capable at describing a place. I still don’t know why I forgot that the images were images of Salisbury. I’ve never frogotten a place like that. Maybe because it was so dreamlike?

I’ve meant to read Trollope for a while. Actually ever since I’ve read Guy’s (His Futile Preoccupations) and Brian’s (Babbling Books) reviews of his novels. Most of Trollope’s books are chunky but The Warden, the first in the Chronicles of Barsetshire, is a mere 180 pages.

According to the introduction, Henry James called The Warden “the history of an old man’s conscience”. That’s true, however, it’s only one of at least three major themes Trollope exlpores and which all contribute to make The Warden a highly worthwhile and interesting book and one of those you’d love to discuss with other people.

Septimus Harding is precentor and warden of an almshouse. With these positions come 800£ per year. In order to obtain this money Mr Harding doesn’t have to work a lot. As a precentor he’s in charge of the choir in the cathedral and as warden he’s the moral support of the twelve destitute men who are allowed to spend their last years in the almshouse. Since the almshouse was founded in the 15th century, the warden has received  more money every year because of the revenue of the land. The twelve men’s allowance however would have been still the same as in the 15th Century if Mr Harding hadn’t given them some of his own money.

At the time when this story takes place, numerous reformers are hunting down greedy clergymen, showing how they abuse of their power and enrich themselves at the expense of others. Dr Bold is just such a reformer. When he meets the warden and his daughter, with whom he falls in love, he learns about the founder’s will and instigates an investigation which leads him to the conclusion that Mr Harding receives money that is due to the almsmen. His inquiry quickly gets out of hand when the biggest newspaper publicly accuses the warden of greed and malpractice.

Mr Harding is an excessively private man. He’s weak but kind and good-hearted. Being dragged into the spotlight like this, accused and shamed, is more than he can bear. He never thought that he might be doing something wrong but once he starts to think about it, he’s not so sure that he wasn’t enriching himself at the expense of the twelve poor men. While he doesn’t want to fight the accusation, his son-in-law, archdeacon Dr Grantly and the bishop of Barchester, fight for him and soon both parties involve lawyers. The warden has another strong supporter in his daughter who begs Dr Bold to abandon the cause.

The three themes which are explored each center on another figure. Mr Harding has to examine his conscience. Will he stay warden if it has been proven that he’s legally entitled to his money or will his own conscience tell him to let go?

Mr Bold shows how good intentions at the wrong moment and without thinking about consequences can be fatal. Maybe Mr Harding gets too much money, but why make this a matter of public interest and involve the newspaper? Why does he disregard the peace and quiet that reigns at the almshouse? Neither Mr Harding nor the twelve men are wanting anything. They live together amicably but once Dr Bold tells the twelve men that they should get more money, peace is lost forever.

For contemporary readers it might be interesting to read about the role of the press and the journalist Tom Towers. Trollope was inspired by true stories and what he lets us experience is the beginning of the value of public opinion and the power of the press.

Trollope chose to show us the end of an era. The tone of the book is elegiac throughout. In the introduction Robin Gilmour makes an interesting point. The warden’s garden is a strong symbol of this dying of an era. At the beginning of the novel it’s lush, green and lovely. At the end:

The warden’s garden is a wretched wilderness, the drive and paths are covered with weeds, the flowerbeds are bare, and the unshorn lawn is now a mass of long damp grass and unwholesome moss.

I had a very strong reaction when I read how content Mr Harding was in the beginning and how quickly a lifetime of ease was destroyed. At the same time I had to agree with Bold. Not in this matter, but in general. Why would a clergyman be given so many riches, a huge house with gardens, and a large income without doing any work? Still, I was sad for Mr Harding who was threatened to lose everything he held dear, even though he might not have been entitled to have it.

What annoyed me about Mr Bold’s doing was that the man he attacked was a kind and generous man and – compared to other clergymen – a tiny fish.

Before ending this rather lengthy review, I’d like to say a few things about Trollope’s writing. I enjoyed the descriptions and I had to laugh out loud a few times when he characterized people, notably the archdeacon, using caricature and satire. I found many of his authorial intrusions interesting but there were too many for my taste. I had problems with the parodies of Carlyle and Dickens because they felt glued on and were not a part of the story. I didn’t mind that Trollope spoke to the reader directly but some of the more hidden intrusions were annoying.

I’m glad I read The Warden. It made me remember my stay at Salisbury and I loved the descriptions. I liked his choice of themes and think they are just as important today as they were then. I also think he’s a wonderful satirist. Will I read the next in the series? In all honesty – I’m not so sure. I can’t pretend I fully warmed to Trollope and although I’ve started a small Victorian literature reading project, I think I’ll move on to Elizabeth Gaskell and the Brontës.

If you’d like to read more reviews on Trollope visit Guy’s  (His Futile Preoccupations), Brian’s (Babbling Books) and Tony’s (Tony’s Reading List) blogs. Brian’s reading and reviewing The Barsetshire Chronicles (here’s his review of The Warden). Tony has reviewed both the Barchester and the Palliser novels – and some more and  Guy has written about many of the other novels.

 

Kate Rhodes: Crossbones Yard (2012)

Crossbones Yard

When I reviewed Nicci French’s third Frieda Klein novel two weeks ago, Alex (Thinking in Fragments) mentioned Kate Rhodes’ Alice Quentin series as being similar and just as good. Of course, I had to get the first in the series Crossbones Yard and read it right away. Reading a new author with a favourite one in mind is often an unfortunate thing, but not in this case. I noticed similarities – a well-described London setting – one protagonist is a psychoanalyst, the other a psychologist – they both work for the police – they both get in trouble – they both have family issues and loyal friends – the pacing is similar and so is the knack for a strong plot. The best news is—Kate Rhodes’ book is still different enough to be interesting. I think one reason is that Alice is at least ten years younger than Frieda. She sounds and feels younger. She goes clubbing and drinks too much on occasions. She’s a professional, but she’s working for a hospital, not for herself, like Frieda. The London described in Crossbones Yard is edgier, it also seems bigger, as Kate Rhodes mentions more neighbourhoods.

The novel opens with a prologue. A flashback: an abusive father, a child in hiding. At the beginning of the novel, Alice avoids taking the elevator to her office on the 24th floor. She’d rather jog. Although she’s a successful psychologist, she suffers from claustrophobia. She’s working at a hospital where she has her practice and helps the police. Not surprisingly then, DCI Burns comes to fetch her. He wants her to talk to a man who is in prison for murder but will be released soon. Burns wants Alice to assess how dangerous he really is. She finds him creepy but mentally challenged and doesn’t see him as a risk. Unfortunately, just after he’s been released, a young woman, who’s obviously been held captive, is brutally murdered. Her face and abdomen were carved. Alice finds her body when she goes jogging one evening. The woman’s been dumped on the former burial ground Crossbones Yard. Nowadays it’s just a wasteland and happens to be exactly where Alice goes for her evening runs.

It will not be the last body Alice finds. At the same time she receives threatening letters and Alice knows that whoever kills these women is after her as well.

The book is swarming with suspects and many of them are somehow linked to a couple of serial killers. The husband is already dead but his wife is still serving time and the new murders look strikingly like those they committed.

I really liked Crossbones Yard a great deal in spite of feeling let down by the ending. The red herrings were too obvious; instead of misleading me, they led me to discover the murderer a bit too early. Still, this is a promising beginning to a series and I’m looking forward to read the sequels. Alice is a strong character and her troubled family history adds to her complexity. Another aspect I liked is that the comments Alice makes on psychology and human behaviour are eve more pertinent than those coming from Frieda Klein. And the descriptions of London are fantastic.

Literature and War Readalong August 29 2014: Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden

Undertones of War

Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War is one of the most famous WWI memoirs. Blunden was a poet who enlisted at the age of twenty and took part in the battles at the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele. My edition, which is The University of Chicago Press edition, contains a number of his poems. It will be interesting to compare the accounts of the trenches with the poems inspired by the landscape.

Here are the first sentences

I was not anxious to go. An uncertain but unceasing disquiet had been upon me, and when, returning to the officers’ mess a Shoreham Camp one Sunday evening, I read the notice that I was under orders for France, I did not hide my feelings. Berry, a subaltern of my set, who was also named for the draft, might pipe to me “Hi, Blunden, we’re going out: have a drink.”; I could not dance. There was something about France in those days which looked to me, despite all journalistic enchanters, to be dangerous.

And  some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden (UK 1928) WWI, Memoir, 288 pages

In what is one of the finest autobiographies to come out of the First World War, the distinguished poet Edmund Blunden records his experiences as an infantry subaltern in France and Flanders. Blunden took part in the disastrous battles of the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele, describing the latter as ‘murder, not only to the troops, but to their singing faiths and hopes’. In his compassionate yet unsentimental prose, he tells of the heroism and despair found among the officers. Blunden’s poems show how he found hope in the natural landscape; the only thing that survives the terrible betrayal enacted in the Flanders fields.

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The discussion starts on Friday, 29 August 2014.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Helen Dunmore: The Lie (2014) Literature and War Readalong July 2014

The Lie

The Lie is not the first WWI novel Helen Dunmore has written. Nor is it her first book about war. While you certainly don’t have to read Zennor in Darkness, or The Siege, or her ghost story The Greatcoat, before you read The Lie, it’s interesting to see how she approaches war from different angles. The Lie is foremost about the aftermath of war. About the scarring, the wounds, in the souls, the bodies, the land.

The Lie is set after WWI in Cornwall. The narrator, Daniel, lives on a forlorn piece of land, overlooking the sea. He’s shell-shocked, but unlike so many other soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, who populate literature, he’s taciturn and withdrawn. Even people who know him, like his childhood friend Felicia, would not be able to tell what is going on inside of his head.

I’ve been quiet a long time, I know that. It happens. I go back in my mind. It’s not the same thing as remembering, because it has colour and smell and taste.

The land on which Daniel lives belongs to Mary Pascoe, an old woman, almost blind and frail, who lived outside of society, far from the town, all of her life. WhenDaniel returns from the war, she let’s him seek shelter on her land. When she becomes very ill and blind, Daniel takes care of her and moves into her cottage with her. She makes him promise not to fetch a doctor and to stay on her land once she’s dead.

He takes care of her until her last moment and buries her on her land. Daniel is an able gardener and can live of the land, whose soil is rich. There’s a goat and hens as well. When people start to inquire about Mary, he tell’s them she’s still alive.  The lie will be his undoing.

The story moves back and forth in time, is interwoven with flashbacks of his childhood during which he was friends with Frederick and Felicia, and flashbacks of the war.

I was green as grass. And there was first aid drill, which was like no first aid I ever saw in France. We had a dummy which kept still and didn’t scream, bleed, or stink of shit because its insides were falling out. They taught us to tie a tourniquet, and apply field dressings, and that gas lies in pockets close to the ground long after you think it’s cleared.

You’d think selfishness would be the stronger force, but it turns out that it’s not so. Tell a man to unwrap his puttees, take off his boots, dry each toe individually, examine his feet for sores and rub them all over with whale oil, and tell him if he doesn’t he’ll get trench foot which will cause his feet to go black and stink and maybe even have to cut off — well, you’d think he’d do it. But he doesn’t. He’s cold and wet and dead beat and all he wants is to get some kip. Tell him he’s responsible for the feet of the man next to him, and he does it.

Daniel fights on his own at first and later, with Frederick. Frederick and Felicia come from money, while Daniel is the son of a poor housekeeper. Frederick’s and Daniel’s friendship is tested often due to these class differences; it ultimately survives, because the attachment is so profound.

During the war the class difference almost splits them up, but their friendship survives even this test. It even survives death. We know from the beginning that Frederick is killed in France. We just don’t know how, but assume that Daniel must have witnessed it and feels guilty, as he’s haunted by his death. And by Frederick’s ghost. I thought it was strange that she chose to write another ghost story, right after The Greatcoat, but this isn’t a ghost story. I read the ghost as a symbol for how deeply rooted the trauma of war is.

All at once I know he’s going to come. The dead aren’t tied to one place. He’s as fearful as I am, more maybe. He knows what’s coming to him, and he can’t get away from it. Something’s gone wrong. Thing’s out to stop, once they’re finished, but this won’t stop. They say the war is over, but they are wrong. It went too deep for that. It opened up a crack in time, a crater maybe. Once you fall into it, you can’t get out again. The mud is too deep and it holds you.

Daniel isn’t the only one grieving. Felicia has lost her husband and her brother in the war. When they meet again for the first time, they are both wary. They have changed and are not sure  whether there is more than their connection with Frederick that brings them together, or if there is a possibility of friendship, even love.

The Lie is a poetical story. The flashbacks are so tightly woven into the progressing story that they become part of it. Nothing that Daniel does, doesn’t remind him of the war. When he repairs Felicia’s furnace, he’s transported back to the trenches. When he cultivates the land, and digs in the soil, he’s reminded of the mud in France.

The most beautiful parts are the descriptions of this forlorn country, covered in furze and bracken, smelling of salty sea air and the richness of its soil. But in spite of these beautiful passages, I found the novel and its tragic ending, extremely depressing. And I didn’t get why the lie had such tragic consequences.

 

Other reviews

TJ (My Book Strings)

Violet (Still Lufe With Books)

 

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The Lie is the seventh book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is the WWI memoir Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden. Discussion starts on Friday 29 August, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Nicci French: Waiting for Wednesday (2013)

Waiting for Wednesday

If you follow this blog you know I’m a fan of crime writing duo Nicci French. Having read the first two in the Frieda Klein series and spotting number four on the shelves of a local bookshop, I had to finally read Waiting for Wednesday. I really like this series, despite the fact that this is the weakest of the three. It’s an in-between book, a warm up for what will come next. That doesn’t mean it’s not gripping, it’s just that there are two plot-lines, which run parallel, and Frieda isn’t really part of the main plot, but investigating something else.

The book starts strong. Ruth Lennox, a middle-aged housewife with an untarnished reputation and a slightly perfectionist streak when it comes to housekeeping, is found brutally murdered. Her smallest daughter, Dora, finds her when she comes back from school. Why would anyone want to kill a perfect mother and wife, a model neighbour? Maybe she isn’t as exemplary as everyone believes? DCI Karlsson investigates this murder, unfortunately not with the help of psychotherapist Frieda Klein, but with another therapist, Hal Bradshaw,  who hates Frieda’s guts. Although Karlsson is told not to use Frieda’s help, he goes to see her anyway, as he senses the assigned therapist is pompous and useless.

Like in the other books of the series, Frieda’s private life takes a lot of space. Her last case with Karlsson has left her wounded and somewhat traumatized. I can’t reveal too much because that would spoil book number two. In any case, she’s not safe. Or will not always be safe and she knows that.

Her home is Frieda’s refuge. She loves her small house in London, but in this book she hardly ever has it to herself, as it’s invaded by friends and family and finally even by the family of the murdered woman because her niece, Chloë, is friends with the oldest boy.

While Karlsson and his team feverishly investigate the murder, Frieda’s rival, psychotherapist Hal Bradshaw, plays a dirty trick on her, trying to discredit her and some other therapists. A minor thing someone mentions in this charade, makes Frieda look for a girl who has gone missing a while ago. During her investigation, her path crosses with that of a journalist who has spent his whole life investigating the cases of missing girls.

It’s typical for Frieda that she puts herself at risk, so, once again, she makes a narrow escape – that’s not a spoiler as book 4 is already out and we know she’ll survive. Frieda’s love life has gained more importance as well, although her boyfriend Sandy lives in New York.

The book switches from the Ruth Lennox case to Frieda’s investigations and her life. Since Nicci French are excellent at what they do, the book felt seamless. It may not have been as gripping as the last, but it sure put me in the mood to grab the next one right away.

I would recommend this book if you like the series, but I’m not so sure how well it works when you haven’t read the first two. Starting with this one isn’t a good option as book two would be seriously spoilt.

Here’s Guy’s take on the novel.