Book Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis


Author: Connie Willis
Title: Doomsday Book
Narrator: Jenny Sterlin
Publication Info: Recorded Books, Inc., 2000 (Originally published in 1993)
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

I first read Doomsday Book 16 years ago and it immediately became one of my favorite books and lead me to several other Willis’ novels. This novel begins in Oxford in 2054 where history students use time travel technology to observe the past.  Willis has written several loosely-connected novels and short stories using this same premise.

In this novel, undergraduate Kivrin Engle desires to study the Middle Ages, even though the time travel net has never been used to travel that far back in the past.  The leader of the Medieval Studies department is eager to make a splash by permitting Kivrin to go the the 14th century, and even bypasses some of the standard safety protocols. Kivrin’s advisor and mentor, Mr. Dunworthy, is frustrated by Medieval’s carelessness and deeply worried about what dangers Kivrin may face in the time of cuthroats and Black Death.

The stage is set for Something to Go Wrong, with the twist being that an outbreak of deadly influenza strikes Oxford, with the city placed under quarantine.  The engineer who ran the time travel net for Kivrin’s drop into the past is one of the first to fall ill, thus making it impossible to retrieve Kivrin.  Mr. Dunworthy ends up helping his friend Dr. Mary Ahrens care for the sick, and also watching Mary’s visiting nephew Colin, with whom he forms a paternal relationship.

Meanwhile, in the 14th century, Kivrin has also been stricken with influenza. In a state of delirium, she is brought to the home of a village near Oxford to the home of a minor noble family, and nursed back to health. Some of the best scenes illustrating “the past is a different country” involve Kivrin initially having trouble communicating with her hosts, despite her studies and a translator implanted in her head.  Kivrin also has a recorder imbedded in her hand, cleverly allowing her to look like she’s praying when recording her thoughts, and many passages of the novel are in the form of her journal entries.

Once Kivrin recovers from her illness, she forms a bond with the children of the household, the playful 5-year-old Agnes, and the more serious Rosemund, who at the age of 12 is already promised in marriage to a much older man.  Kivrin essentially becames a caretaker for the children, aiding the overtaxed Lady Eliwys, while being an object of scorn and suscpicion for Eliwys’ mother-in-law Lady Imeyne. It is rare to have a female protagonist in time travel stories, often for the practical reason that for most of history the life of women was severely restricted and dangerous.  But through Kivrin’s point of view, the reader gets an (admitedly fictional) look into the overlooked women’s domestic sphere of the Middle Ages.

Another key character in the medieval storyline is Father Roche.  The poor and uneducated priest is mocked by Lady Imeyne, but nevertheless is devout to God and the community.  Kivrin forms a strong relationship with Father Roche as well, and despite her own lack of faith, recognizes Roche as a good person. Father Roche by turn, sees Kivrin as an angel, and while literally not true, it’s easy to see why her sudden appearance and seemingly magical skills would be interpreted as such from his worldview.

There are a couple of other twists in the plot, that I won’t spoil here, although I will not that the source of the 21st century influenza outbreak is a genius plot device.  By and large, things don’t turn out well for most of the characters in both storylines.  And since Willis is excellent at developing the characters and their relationships, Doomsday Book is a heartbreaking novel.  Nevertheless, it is also uplifting, because it emphasizes love in the relationships (Kivrin and Father Roche, Mr. Dunworthy and Colin, and others) among people who are neither related nor romantically involved, which is surprisingly uncommon in fiction.

Doomsday Book is not a flawless novel and others have pointed out its anachronisms and the many coincidences in the plot that are just too neat and tidy.  I think what’s good about the book outweighs these problems for the most part. One distracting problem with this book is that Willis envisioned a future with the technology for time travel and implanting translators and recorders in the body, but she did not anticipate mobile telephones (even though they already existed at the time this novel was published).  Instead, people in the future Oxford story use video phones, a device that is found in a lot of futuristic fiction of the 20th century (see 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and Until the End of the World for prominent examples).  This would just be a small quirk, but so much of the novel relies on characters needing to find a phone and not being able to reach others by phone that it becomes laughable at times.

Overall, this is a terrific book in the time travel genre and one with a lot of humanity and heart. And a future without mobile phones really doesn’t sound all that bad.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

TV Review: Broadchurch (2017)


Title: Broadchurch
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 3
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

I recently watched the third and final series of the the British program Broadchurch.  I watched the first two series a few years ago back before I started writing reviews of tv series so I’ll sum up my thoughts on them first.  Series 1 focuses on the murder of an 11-year boy in a small, coastal town of England and the effect that the murder and mystery has on that town. It’s visually striking, well-acted, and takes the time to explore the feelings of grief, anger, and suspicion among the characters.  The second series focuses on the trial of the murderer intercut with the investigation of an unrelated cold case.  This series veered into being too silly and contrived and paled in comparison to the first series.

I really enjoy the work of the actors Olivia Colman and David Tennant as the detectives Ellie Miller and Alec Hardy.  They play ordinary, rumpled people with complicated lives, not at all the typical glamorous television detective.  I love the interplay between them and how amidst the bickering they develop mutual respect and friendship.  The rest of the cast are made up of talented British actors, and a large number of them have been involved in Doctor Who (as has the creator and writer of Broadchurch, Chris Chibnall, who is now the showrunner for Doctor Who).

The third series takes place a few years after series 2, with the focus set on the rape of a middle-aged woman named Trish (Julie Hesmondhalgh).  The explores her personal trauma as well as effect the crime has on Trish’s family, friends, and the townspeople in general.  The first episode is a very stark portrait of Trish being taken into the rape crisis response system.  Beth Latimer (Jodie Whittaker) – the mother of the murdered Danny from the first two series – returns, now working as a Sexual Assault Response Association counselor assigned to work with Trish.

While Beth works to channel her grief into helping crime victims, her estranged husband Mark (Andrew Buchan) can’t let go of Danny’s murder and becomes increasingly unstable. Meanwhile, the men in Trish’s life, even those she’s tangentially associated with her all seem to have secrets and lies, and histories of bad behavior.  Ellie and Alec soon have a long list of suspects as they find toxic masculinity and rape culture at every corner of this small town.  The whole series is best summed up by Alec when he says “What’s bothering me about this case is that it’s making me ashamed to be a man.” Even when the actual rapist is identified, you’re left feeling concerned that there are so many scuzzy men walking free in this town.

Series 3 is a definite improvement over Series 2, although it falls a bit short of Series 1.  It’s good in how it takes the time to respectfully and realistically depict a rape case.  The show feels even more bleak this series, not that you’d consider a show about a murdered child to have much humor, but it did have more light moments than this series.  On the downside I think the mystery part got a little too contrived with a half-dozen suspects all having done something nasty and creepy related to Trish.  It’s weird too that everyone seems to know one another and get together for soccer games or flashlight marches, but don’t seem to know one another at other times. Overall though, this is a well-acted – if harrowing – procedural drama.

Book Review: My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand


Author: Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows
Title: My Lady Jane
Narrator: Katherine Kellgren
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2016)
Summary/Review:

This work of historical fiction flat-out revels in the fact that it is completely made up.  This version of the story of Lady Jane Grey, a.k.a. the Nine Day Queen, has the boy King Edward being manipulated and slowly poisoned by his adviser Lord Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Edward designates his favorite cousin Jane to be his heir and has her married to Dudley’s son Guildford.

So far, similar to reality, but sillier.  In this alternate history, some people are Effians, that is having the ability to change into an animal.  Swiftly, Jane inherits the throne when Edward is declared dead, and then she and Guildford are forced to flee when Mary in turn claims the throne.  Jane, Guildford, and Edward (spoiler: he’s not dead) all have adventures, discover new powers, and meet interesting people along the way to a happier ending than reality.  The book is riotously funny both in the dialogue and the authors asides.  The audio book is excellently performed by Katherine Kellgren.

Recommended booksThe Princess Bride by William Goldman, The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain and The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White
Rating: ****

City Stories #3 – Such Fools We Are


City Stories is a semi-regular feature where I write short expository pieces and vignettes inspired by cities I’ve lived in and visited in various places of the world. In previous stories we visited Brooklyn and Derry.  Today we walk through Virginia Woolf’s London. 

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.  Clarissa Dalloway’s familiarity with her route to the flower shop meant that she could perambulate Westminster while remembering her youth in the countryside, and pondering her choice of husband.  For a pair of Americans who majored in English literature, however, we need a plan.  To plot our route, I defer to Susan who read all of Virginia Woolf’s novels and has an additional graduate degree in English. She spends our flight from Logan to Heathrow highlighting passages from Mrs. Dalloway and charting a course on a map of London.

On our first full day in London in January 2004, we attempt to recreate the route that Clarissa followed eighty years and six months earlier.  On our way to the residential area of Westminster where the Dalloways lived we pass the Houses of Parliament and a statue of Oliver Cromwell.  Filled with the indignant rage of my Irish ancestry, I shake my fist at Cromwell, only to notice the closed circuit camera pointed right at me.  I was now on the the United Kingdom’s list of dangerous people for threatening a statue of one of their leaders.  But as we continue along we saw a large group protesting the war in Iraq holding pointed signs accusing Parliament of being “BABY KILLERS,” so maybe I’m low on that list.

We find the home suspected to be Woolf’s inspiration for the Dalloway’s house in a quiet residential area near the home once occupied by T.E. Lawrence.  From there we set off on our walk, not to find flowers, but the delights of London.  As the leaden circles of Big Ben’s chime dissolve in the air, we prepared to cross Victoria Street. Susan informs me that at this point Clarissa thought “Such fools we are!” while crossing the street and so we should as well. But as we start to cross a motor scooter zips by and nearly runs Susan over.  That would be a foolish way to go.

Smiling after not being flattened by a motor scooter on Victoria Street.

Safely across Victoria Street we divert from Mrs. Dalloway’s route and into Westminster Abbey. Over time this church has accrued so much statuary and memorial plaques as to become something of an unofficial English Hall of Fame and Museum. The area around Geoffrey Chaucer’s grave is known as Poets’ Corner where there are burials and monumental plaques for over 100 English writers. An egregious absence from Poets’ Corner is Virginia Woolf.

After examining every nook and cranny of the Abbey, we emerge outdoors and enter into St. James Park. There is no airplane skywriting over the park but it is a quiet respite with “the slow-swimming happy ducks; the pouched birds waddling” in the Lake. Additional birds cavorting around the lake include pigeons, geese, and most exotic to Americans, coots.  Unlike other water birds, coots do not have webbed feet but instead have long toes with lobes of skin.  A bird that’s completely out of place in London is the pelican, but the lake is also home to a flock of pelicans descended from those donated by a 17th-century Russian ambassador.  One pelican has its back to the government offices, just like Hugh Whitbread whom Clarissa meets in the park.  So we decide this pelican’s name is Hugh and carry on.

We march up Whitehall past the Cenotaph and Horse Guards.  No backfiring cars startle us, but we once again diverge from Clarissa Dalloway’s route and make our way to Trafalgar Square. We visit the cheery crypt of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields where we enjoy a delicious late lunch. Above, in the nave of St. Martins-in-the-Fields, we listen to a soprano and counter-tenor rehearse for that night’s performance.

In Trafalgar Square, we pick up on the route of Peter Walsh, Clarissa’s old friend and potential suitor. Here Peter pondered “strangeness of standing alone, alive, unknown, at half-past eleven.”  It is much later in the day for us and as we were also unknown we join the crowds of tourists clambering up the Nelson monument to visit the cuddly lions.  We help a fellow American up behind us, but then she promptly falls on her face.  Luckily there are no injuries.  Nearby a pair of young women sit looking at the South Africa house because they say it’s helping with their homesickness.  The South Africans are traveling across Europe, visiting 11 cities in 12 days with a focus on dancing at the top nightclubs in every city.  No wonder they look exhausted.

We notice a bird of prey with a tether on its leg circling overhead and an the absence of Trafalgar Square’s famed pigeons and wonder if the two our connected.  We see two men wearing vests that read Heritage Guardians and approach them with our questions.

“Excuse me, what kind of bird is that?”

“It’s an ‘arris ‘awk.”

“Does it keep the pigeon population down?”

“The ‘awk keeps the pigeon population moving. It’s the boys with the shovels on Sunday morning that keep the pigeon population down.” He makes his meaning clear by using his hands to make the international gesture for braining a pigeon with a shovel.

Susan remembers that Peter Walsh looked up to a statue of Gordon, an historical figure he’d worshipped, but we can’t find the statue anywhere. We return to the Heritage Guards with another question.

“Do you know where the Statue of Gordon is?”

“Gordon of Khartoum?” replies one with a mix of surprise and confusion.

“No, not a cartoon!” says Susan with greater confusion. Clearing up the difference between cartoon and Khartoum, they have further questions.

“Does he ride a horse?” asks one.

“Does he wear a fez?” asks the other.

We don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  One of the guards thinks that the statue was moved from Trafalgar Square just after the Second World War, and directs us to the Embankment by the Thames.

“There’s a statue there, might as well be ‘im!”

Susan has an Ahab-like obsession to stand under the Gordon statue like Peter Walsh and leads us down Northumberland Avenue to a park along the Embankment.  There are in fact two statues in this park, but the problem is that they’re behind a fence and the gates are locked.  After trying to find a way into the park or verify the statues’ identity from afar, we realize that the sun is setting and our stroll should come to an end.*

We determine the nearest Tube station for a line that will take us to meet up with our host Sarah is across the Thames at Waterloo Station.  We bounce across the Hungerford Footbridge to the tune of “Take Five.” At the far end of the bridge a blonde woman busks on her saxophone.

For there she was.


* NOTE: With the help of Google Streetview, I’ve been able to locate the Charles George Gordon Statue in a park on the Victoria Embankment just one block up the Thames from where we were looking.  Not only that, but the park has no enclosure so we totally could’ve stood under the Gordon statue.  Other Woolfheads, take note!

Book Review: Warlock by Andrew Cartmel


AuthorAndrew Cartmel
TitleWarlock
Publication Info: London Bridge (1995)
Previously read by the same author: Through Time: An Unauthorised and Unofficial History of Doctor Who
Summary/Review:

Andrew Cartmel was the final script editor on the original run of Doctor Who on tv from 1987-1989, and is known for allegedly having a master plan for the Doctor’s story that would be revealed over time.  Interestingly, he never wrote a screenplay for a Doctor Who tv  screenplay, so it is in books that one gets to see how he’d tell a Doctor Who story.  And this one’s a doozy.

The Seventh Doctor is living in a cottage near Canterbury with Ace and Benny, using the cottage to carry out research while sending his companions on missions. Benny goes undercover with a top secret drug enforcement agency (called IDEA) in New York to find out about a mysterious new street drug called warlock, while Ace becomes involved in a pair of animal rights activists working to undermine animal testing at a nearby research facility.

What’s stands out about this book is that the Doctor is hardly involved in the story at all, and it can also go chapters at a time without checking in with Ace or Benny.  Full plotlines are carried out by the characters Cartmel invented for the story including the NYPD detective Creed, IDEA agents, the lab researchers conducting experiments, and a couple named Vincent and Justine who have psychic powers (and were introduced in an earlier Cartmel novel).  It’s a tightly-plotted crime drama with just hints of science fiction/fantasy underpinning.  There doesn’t even seem to be an extraterrestrial element unless you consider, …. well I won’t give away the ending, but readers will probably figure it out well before then.

The strangest thing about this book is that a reader with little to no knowledge of Doctor Who could pick it up and read it as a solid, standalone novel.  And it’s a strange book which includes things such as human consciousness entering animals, a woman suddenly forced into prostitution and just as quickly rescued, the complete destruction of Canterbury cathedral, and a couple sneaking into Buckingham Palace to have sex, and these are all relatively minor plot points.  Whatever you’re expecting from a Doctor Who story, this novel will defy expectations.

Rating: ***1/2

Previously Reviewed:

Book Review: One Hot Summer by Rosemary Ashton


Author: Rosemary Ashton
TitleOne Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli, and the Great Stink of 1858
Narrator:  Corrie James
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

This historical work recounts the summer of 1858 in Great Britain, specifically London, during a time defined by unprecedented hot temperatures that exacerbated the foul stench of the polluted River Thames.  The Great Stink, as it became known, motivated political action in Houses of Parliament and at the municipal level to clean up the river.  Ashton’s work also focuses on the outcomes of other legislation that year such as the legalization of divorce, new regulations for credentialing medical practitioners, and changes in the treatment of the mentally ill.

The core of this book though focuses on the lives of three major figures of the era with alliterative names: Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, and Benjamin Disraeli.  In 1858, Darwin became aware that another scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had also devised a theory of natural selection, prompting Darwin to stop dragging his feet and begin to write and publish On the Origin of Species.  Dickens, meanwhile, is in the midst of nasty split with his wife due to an affair, while also falling out with fellow writer Thackery.  Disraeli is in the best position to address the Great Stink and uses his power to push through the Thames Purification Act, as well as working on other legislation such as no longer requiring Jewish MPs to swear by a Christian God.

The book is a snapshot of a single period, but it feels like a jumble that lacks a coherent theme.  And the stories of the three main protagonist by necessity venture far into their lives well before and after 1858.  A lot of the text reads as being gossipy, yet delivered very dryly.

Recommended books:

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson


Author:Bill Bryson
TitleThe Road to Little Dribbling
Narrator: Nathan Osgood
Publication Info: New York : Random House Audio, 2016.
Previously Read by the Same Author: A Short History of Nearly Everything, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, Notes from a Small Island, In a Sunburned Country, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, The Mother Tongue, The Lost Continent, Neither Here nor There, At Home: A Short History of Private Life,
Made in America, and One Summer: America, 1927
Summary/Review:

This is a follow-up to Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island with Bryson officially becoming a citizen of the UK to once again travel from end to end of the island nation.  This time he follows “The Bryson Line,” the longest distance between any two points on the British mainland without crossing open water. The book is full of Bryson’s awe of the natural beauty and cultural history of Britain, mixed with a sad nostalgia for what made Britain great when he first arrived decades go in the era before austerity.  Bryson fills his travel narrative with arcane, yet fascinating, facts about the places he visits as well as his crankier moments when he encounters poor service or obnoxious people.   Bryson fans will enjoy another humorous and erudite addition to his oeuvre, although new readers should probably seek out an earlier book as an entryway.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Silent Traveller: A Chinese Artist in Lakeland by Chiang Yee


Author: Chiang Yee
TitleThe Silent Traveller: A Chinese Artist in Lakeland
Publication Info: London, Country Life; New York, Transatlantic Arts [1949] (first published in 1937)
Other Books Read By Same Author: The Silent Traveller in London, The Silent Traveller in San Francisco, The Silent Traveller in Boston, and The Silent Traveller in Dublin.
Summary/Review:

Long ago I discovered the travel books of Chiang Yee, a Chinese-born writer who left China in the 1930s and over the next several decades published his observations of visits to various places in Europe and the Americas.  Unlike the typical travel writer who is an adventurous go-getter, Chiang quietly observes and reflects in his writing, poetry, paintings, and calligraphy (hence, “Silent Traveller”).  This is the first of his travel narratives based on a two-week visit to the English Lake District in 1936.  He’s more opinionated here than I recall in other books, comparing the Lake District scenery unfavorably to China. His writing style hasn’t developed yet either, as this reads more like a daily journal than a composed travel narrative.  But there are flashes of humor and warmth that are Chiang’s trademarks, as well as disconcerting glimpses of the political situation in Europe and Asia at that time that would explode into the Second World War.
Favorite Passages:

“…I am a man of curious temperament who prefers on most occasions to be dumb.  When I was obliged to talk I found my tongue grow curling and painful.  None of my friends realised my predicament, for I made efforts to talk easily in case they would drop their friendship with me altogether.  It is a selfish trait in my character which I try to master.  Whenever I walk or travel I am generally silent; I like to observe the scenery closely, and sometimes I lose all consciousness of myself in it.  At such times there is no room in my mind for the external trimmings of history or romance.”

“My friend was surprised and a little shocked to see so many pieces of land enclosed and marked ‘Private,” protesting that in China we should never find the public forbidden a free employment of scenery.  I acquiesced, and admitted that it seemed money could buy even Nature!”

“We reached the landing-stage at Bowness only to find a long queue of people waiting for the boat; it was at least a quarter of an hour before our turn came.  In the meanwhile I watched these holiday-makers with great interest, hurrying, scurrying, everyone in haste and eagerness.  I remind myself that never could such a scene be found in China; in the busy West it seems that even merry-making has to be done in haste nowadays!”

Rating: ***

Song of the Week: “Possessed” by Eagulls


People who know me well know how I feel about The Eagles.

But this song is by the homophonic band spelled Eagulls from Leeds, England.  The post-punk band’s track “Possessed” is reminiscent of mid-80s Pixies rather than mid-70s klassik rawk, which is a good thing.

 

What are you listening to this week?  Let me know in the comments.