Saturday, March 24, 2012

Review: The Mirror

If you are a fan of time travel fiction, you must pick up The Mirror by Marlys Millhiser.  This novel features one of the most unique storylines I have encountered in a long time.

Readers meet Shay, a 20-year-old blonde living in Boulder, Col., on the eve of her wedding in 1978. Her parents would like to dissuade her from this decision, but she won't budge. As her grandmother enters her bedroom, she sees the young girl trying on her bridal veil and modeling it in front of an antique mirror. The family is shocked when Grandma Bran, mute for decades due to a stroke, cries out, "Corbin!" a and drops to the floor.

Shay doesn't have time to wonder: she herself also falls to the floor — only to awaken in what looks like the same room, but can't possibly be. The people are different, the furniture is different, she is different. The veil, however, is the same, and so is the mirror.

Shay has not just traveled in time, but wound up in the body of Grandma Bran on the eve of her wedding to Corbin Strock in 1900. She knows it's the mirror that caused this (and the evidence is fascinating and irrefutable), and she focuses on how to get back to her own time and body before her 20-year-old grandmother, Brandy, weds a man her family has never heard mentioned.

At first, I was impatient. The story seemed to remain too long with Shay as Brandy, and I wondered how the other time-traveler was doing at the same time. However, I decided to trust Millhiser, and I am glad I did. It was an amazing story, a time travel tale different than any other I had yet to read.

Imagine living in someone else's body, knowing what was going to happen — kind of. There is enough mystery in any life, no matter how well you think you know someone (especially your parents or grandparents). You might wish you had paid closer attention to family lore. You might wish these family members had revealed their secrets so you'd understand better the life you found yourself living.

There is danger and folly in knowing the future. Are you causing your family to live the life they were intended to live, or one you have created because it already happened? Worse, what if they don't listen? Even worse than that, what if they do listen and think you insane?

A person from the future living in the past may be confused, but at least she has an inkling as to what will happen next. How about the woman of 1900 suddenly thrust into the world of 1978, with disco, sexual revolution, sports cars, processed food and science? Add the fact that you're surrounded by "family" totally unknown to you who think you're mentally unstable, and you'll have Brandy's life in the body of her granddaughter (that harbors a surprise of its own).

The storyline was intriguing, unpredictable, entertaining, compelling and educational. Shay was confident that she knew what was on the horizon, but it's amazing how many times she was surprised by what happened in her life.

The characters were delightful. I worried about both Shay and Brandy, both out of their elements and in danger of being "helped" by those who loved them the most. Boulder was as much a character as Shay and Brandy — as was the insidious, manipulative mirror.

In the end, Millhiser's novel was brilliant, innovative and thought-provoking. (It also made me want to return to Colorado.) I am glad I trusted this author, and I strongly suggest readers give this book a chance. You'll be glad you did.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Review: A Town Like Alice

A Town Like Alice is a classic, well-received when it was published in 1950. Neville Shute created a one-of-a-kind novel that spanned decades and continents.

Which it did — just not as I had expected. It is a product of its time, and while parts of it transcend time, others are stuck firmly in it.

A Town Like Alice begins in the early years of the twentieth century. The elderly Scotsman Mr. Mcfadden asks his solicitor to help him execute his last will and testament to give his money and possessions to his only living relatives upon his death: first, to his married sister; then, if she pre-deceases him, his nephew upon his majority at 21 — and, if fate is unkind, his niece, whose legacy will be tended by the solicitors until she turns 35 (because young, unmarried women cannot manage that much money without protection from a solicitor or a husband).

Noel, the solicitor, thinks nothing of it again until after World War II, upon the death of the client. Noel must locate his next-of-kin — who, due to age and the global war, it turns out to be Jean Paget, his niece (and last in line for the uncle's fortune). The legacy is enough to allow her to live comfortably without working at a job, which Jean appreciates.

Her first decision: build a well in a small Malayan town.

She and her family had lived in Malaya for most of Jean's formative years and all had become fluent in the native language and culture. Jean and her brother had returned to Malaya before the war, and neither were unscarred when the Japanese invaded and occupied the island. Jean was among a group of British women who were taken prisoner by the Japanese and forced to walk to their camp — which never materialized, so they walked between prison camps all over the country for more than a year. During this time, Jean met an Australian prisoner who risked everything to take care of her and her kinswomen (and the children who walked with them). When the Australian is caught in his thievery, Jean's last image of him haunts her for years, and makes her reluctant to speak of her experiences as a prisoner. However, she and her fellow prisoners soon found a home: a small village where they farmed until the war was over and they were released.  It was in this village Jean intended to build the well.

Upon returning to the village, she discovers one can go home again — especially if it's the home of the heart. The East calls her, and she follows that call.

The book has three sections: during the War, after the War, and what happens after Jean constructs "a gift by women, for women."

Frankly, the book seemed tedious in some places. Shute was an aeronautical engineer who is in love with detail, and every detail is affectionately reviewed in minutiae. I can only handle Jean "filing away information" for future use a few times before I wish to remind the author that her noticing it is enough for readers to get the hint that it's an important detail.  It's worth it in the end, but it's not always easy to remember that.

Secondly, the book is a product of its time. The racial slurs are used casually and the sexism is blatant. Jean's brother would have received unfettered control of the principle by the time he was 21, but Jean has to wait until she's 35 because she's a woman? Please. The fact that the women POWs were able to come up with a solution where the men could not is understated, and the irony that a woman who can affect that much change and still not be in charge of her own legacy is absurd. Also understated is the fact that the most "developed" towns are the ones that kill more women than the less-developed and spoiled. The references to the primitive nature of the native dwellers was insulting. Don't even start me on the racism of the Australian Outback of the 1940s (which continues to this day), even if it's expressed a little differently than looking into their seamed, dark skin and making sure they have their own ice cream parlor.

You know, maybe the "understated" parts of the story just didn't warrant the same attention for the author as the "better" stuff. He highlighted the things he knew or that fascinated him, so I will have to guess that smart women and indigenous people didn't.

In the end, it was a fantastic snapshot of life in the early part of the last century. I was surprised that the afterward noted  the storyline of the English women marching around Malaya was fiction — because it was Dutch women in Sumatra who suffered that terrible fate, and the author took the story from a woman who survived it. The language and characters seemed authentic and the story was rather empowering for women, in the end, I think. Plus, the character of Noel was sweet and charming in his own way.

Speaking of characters: if Jean started one more successful business, I was going to choke her. But I liked her: very innovative and brave. Then again, if you lived through a POW camp in Asia, I bet starting your own shoe production company in the middle of the Australian Outback would be easy. And Joe: my heart just broke when he went to England looking for Jean and she wasn't there. Apparently Bryan Brown played him in a 1981 TV adaptation of the book, and I can see that.

I recommend the book, if you can see past its flaws. If you can't, stop reading immediately because they will continue to be insurmountable.

What did you think: outdated or a reminder of the strength of the human spirit?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Review: The Innocents

The Great War was a huge game-changer. Modern warfare changed the landscape, literally: many of the terms in our current lexicon are thanks to the war, which we have the great misfortune of knowing now was the "first" world war.

It was unimaginable.

The Innocents goes a long way into making modern readers understand the horrors of this particular war.

Identical twins Iris and Dorthea had a difficult life. Their mother died at their birth, their father died during their childhood — so they were essentially "raised" by their (much) older brother in the opulent wealth of Eastern √©lite at the turn of the twentieth century. In his defense, he didn't really quite understand what it took to do that. Any mistakes were made out of ignorance, more so than intentional neglect.

Despite their privilege and opportunity, the women came to life when taking action during adversity. First, it was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, which was considered one of the worst disasters of New York City until the unfathomable horror that occurred early in the next century. Soon, their beloved France was deep in war, and America was poised on the brink. These women again wanted to make a difference, and the American Red Cross sent them to the French front to work as nurses. Never were they more focused than in the field hospital where, as les anges, they spoke quietly to the men who lived long enough to make it to their care, wiping fear and blood from soldiers' brows.

Even in the midst of war, they never totally escape their contemporaries, however, encountering acquaintances, not to mention at least one fighter pilot who could tell the difference between identical twins. In the madness of war, their lives were forever changed.

Author Caroline Seebohm's characters are recognizable, but not familiar. She may introduce the efficient hospital administrator, but there is no one quite like the efficient and calm Sister. Fighter pilots are never quite like Harry, a hero of Harvard's football field and hockey rink who took risks in the air much like he did on the ice.  Maurice starts out totally unassuming, but there's something about him that catches the attention of readers (and a certain identical twin). The rich, the vapid, the completely clueless Americans file past with names recognized in history and literature, adding credence to the twins' understanding of their life before the front.

Seebohm captures beautifully the horror and darkness of the Great War, the degradation of spirit as the days continue and the unimaginable unfolds before them. Each chapter has a date and location on it, so readers know where they are in history and watch the war — and life beyond the war — progress.

This is a worthy novel to join the genre that captures the loss of innocence the Great War brought about. Thanks to BBC dramas of this time period making their way across the pond, I hope more readers will seek Seebohm's bold and unflinching novel. It is worthy of their time.