Under Budapest by Ailsa Kay
Goose Lane 2013
Fiction; Historical Fiction
For decades Hungary endured Soviet-imposed communism and the internment or executions of political activists and anyone else who dared to speak up. Rumour created an extensive underground tunnel and prison system beneath Budapest, and even though proof of its existence has never been found, the legend lives on. It is these tunnels that link the dual narratives in Under Budapest, connecting the stories of Tibor, an academic who specialises in Hungarian history, and his mother, Agnes, a Hungarian who fled the revolution of 1956 for the safety of Canada, with the mysterious disappearance of Agnes’ teenaged sister, Zsofi, during the Soviet retaliation all those years ago.
In 2010, a young Canadian-Hungarian man, Janos Hagy, navigates Budapest’s streets with his less intelligent friend, Csaba, preying on begging gypsies, scoring dope and looking for a party. What Janos finds instead is nothing short of an end to all his scheming dreams.
In Toronto, Tibor tries to shake himself out of the funk he found himself in after the break-up of his affair with a married woman, Rafaela, by accepting a place as speaker at a conference in Budapest. When his mother, Agnes, hears of his new travel plans, she decides to go too. In her old age, this could be the last chance she has of finding out what happened to her sister Zsofi in 1956, after the last time she saw ever saw her. Having just met another Hungarian immigrant who claims she escaped the underground prison tunnels with Tsofia and another woman, with the help of a guard, Agnes now has reason to hope that her sister survived the revolution.
Instead of finding distraction from his relationship blues, Tibor finds a decapitated head on Gellert Hill, and having overheard the voices of the murderers, finds himself becoming implicated in the crime. And instead of finding her sister, Agnes finds a way to put the demons of the past to rest, including her own guilt over leaving her sister with Agnes’ lover and fiancé, Gyula, a student leader in the revolution who excels at the art of lying.
Their stories weave together and culminate in the mythologised underground tunnels, for beneath Budapest lies all Hungary’s secrets, it seems: all the things – and people – that it wants to keep hidden away, buried beneath layers of forgotten history.
Long before the revolution of October 1956, the rumours were that the Soviets were tunnelling. Their tunnels spread with the speed of rhizomes, under the surface of Budapest. The rumours spread the same way, sprouting and multiplying, their source untraceable.
When the revolutionaries stormed the Communist Party Headquarters in Koztarsasag Ter on October 30, they found half-cooked palascinta – far more than would be required to feed the number of prisoners found in the building’s cellar prisons. Frantic, searchers fanned out into every dank hallway, looking for secret doors, knocking index knuckles on walls that looked solid, testing for hollow. There were so few prisoners in the building. Where were the hundreds who’d vanished? Someone had heard shouting from below. Someone else had heard a number: one hundred and forty prisoners. Where were they? They had no food, no water. Time was running out. [p.55]
It was interesting – and, I think, reassuring – to read that Ailsa Kay, a Canadian, fell in love with Budapest when she lived there several years ago, because reading this book gives me little urge to visit the country. Kay’s Budapest is a bleak, grotty place, free of its Soviet reins but still in survival mode, a place of corrupt police and suspicion, of wild parties late at night in abandoned apartment buildings where the wealthy once lived but are which now ready to be torn down – if only the government had the money to tear them down. From the opening chapter, in which Janos and Csaba encounter a frail gypsy man and a young gypsy boy in a cold and wet underpass and Csaba proceeds to kick and punch the man to death, we get a vivid and heart-breaking look into the underbelly of this city. It is a scene that sets the tone and atmosphere for the entire novel, making the murder Tibor witnesses almost ordinary in this context.
And it does all tie together. In this city, with its powerful criminal underworld and its derelict, abandoned neighbourhoods, the sense of threat and danger lurks around every corner. When Agnes goes out on her own to try and find the tunnel exits she learned about from the woman who said she escaped with Agnes’s sister, she gets caught up in a march, a large group of black-clad fascists – people who consider themselves to be true Magyars, or ethnic Hungarians – calling for “Hungary for Hungarians”. 2010 was the year of the election that saw Jobbik gain a surprising footing in parliament. Their name means “very right” and “the best” and their campaign carried explicit anti-Roma (gypsy) and anti-Semitic sentiments; they are closely linked to the Magyar Garda – the group of marchers Agnes runs into in the novel, who are quasi-military. Csaba, the violent youth who kills a homeless Roma, likes to think he is one of them. Hungary is fast becoming openly racist and anti-Semitic, which creates an atmosphere that puts Agnes in mind of WWII – she calls the marchers the “Arrow Cross”, which was a Nazi group set up by the German Nazis in the 40s. With such open hostility towards Others, it is no wonder that the Budapest of Kay’s novel is brimming with tension, suspicion, fear, mistrust and outright danger. It is also winter, and far from the days of sunshine and warmth.
For a relatively short novel, Kay manages to achieve a great deal. Her characters have unique and distinctive voices, each transporting you to a different mindset as much as a different place in the story. Janos, staying with his grandmother on this trip to Budapest, is a self-styled schemer and fancies himself something of an entrepreneur-in-the-making, an ideas man. He’s bright enough to have ideas and to see a bit farther than his scary friend Csaba, but not so bright that he can’t see when he’s being played. Tibor is a more subtle character, a man whose always cast himself in his friend Daniel’s larger shadow – perhaps this is what prompted him to pursue an affair with Daniel’s wife. He’s an ordinary man, a man you would call “good” and yet, when he finds himself the sole witness to a crime, he is reluctant to go to the police or give peace-of-mind to the victim’s family. He is impatient and embarrassed by his mother, but he is loving and loyal. Yes, an ordinary man, someone easy to relate to precisely because he has such everyday flaws.
Agnes is a woman who has refused to share her own knowledge, experience and insights of Hungary with her son, which, he thinks, is maybe what led him to specialise in Hungarian history. But her silence carries the weight of guilt and self-recrimination; her memories are painful ones. She’s a level-headed woman, brave enough to flee Hungary while her sister and fiancé were brave enough to stay and fight for their country – two different kinds of bravery that weren’t compatible with each other. When we go back in time to those heady days of revolution in 1956 and watch it play out, the Budapest of the past isn’t all that different from the one we get to know in 2010 – the time in-between seems to vanish. They are markedly different, and the nostalgia permeates Agnes’s scenes in the present, but perhaps because these European countries ruled by the Soviets were in effect stuck in a time warp, with minimal progress, the intervening years have no presence.
“Get my suitcase. You cannot go to the National Police. Why should you? Did you ask to be a witness?”
“Did you know this boy? He’s probably a drug dealer. An addict. A waste. And now he’s dead, okay? Why do you have to risk your life? No, Tibor. It’s time to go. And don’t talk to anyone. Don’t speak to anyone.”
“Mom. It’s not 1956.”
“Yes, it is.” She turns on him. “It is. It is always 1956. People do terrible things. You think they won’t, but they do. They spy and they lie, and they will tie a man by his ankles and they will light him on fire and they will watch as he burns. They will watch. Why don’t you listen to me, Tibor? You never listen to me.” [pp.132-3]
While Under Budapest may seem like a criminal thriller of a novel, it has no tidy ending, no tying up of loose ends or an arrested mob boss at the end. It isn’t a story about crime so much as a story about people, humans caught in the trap of their memories, in their own madness, in their own lies and guilt and pain. It is a story of human flaws as much as it is a story of moving beyond them to do an act of good. It is a story about the past and how it has a tight hold on Hungary’s present, no matter how far away the people emigrate. It is a story of the mysteries beneath Budapest, secrets that the people hold onto out of hope as much as fear, because when your loved one goes missing, is arrested and vanishes, it’s better to believe they are locked up under Budapest than dead and discarded.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.
Missed yours? Leave me a link and I’ll add it.
I had got into a bit of a routine, posting these on Fridays, but I’m pretty terrible at keeping up with that sort of thing, so here we are on a Wednesday! These are the books I’ve added to my home library since the last SAG post:
Bone & Bread by Saleema Nawaz – Fiction.
“Beena and Sadhana are sisters who share a bond that could only have been shaped by the most unusual of childhoods – and by shared tragedy. Orphaned as teenagers, they have grown up under the exasperated watch of their Sikh uncle, who runs a bagel shop in Montreal”s Hasidic community of Mile End. Together, they try to make sense of the rich, confusing brew of values, rituals, and beliefs that form their inheritance. Yet as they grow towards adulthood, their paths begin to diverge. Beena catches the attention of one of the “bagel boys” and finds herself pregnant at sixteen, while Sadhana drives herself to perfectionism and anorexia. When we first meet the adult Beena, she is grappling with a fresh grief: Sadhana has died suddenly and strangely, her body lying undiscovered for a week before anyone realizes what has happened. Beena is left with a burden of guilt and an unsettled feeling about the circumstances of her sister”s death, which she sets about to uncover. Her search stirs memories and opens wounds, threatening to undo the safe, orderly existence she has painstakingly created for herself and her son.”
The Hypnotist’s Love Story by Liane Moriarty – Fiction.
Received for review from the publisher. “Hypnotherapist Ellen is fascinated by what makes people tick. So when she falls in love with Patrick, the fact that he has a stalker doesn’t faze her in the slightest. If anything it intrigues her, and the more she hears about Saskia, the more she wants to meet this woman. But what Ellen doesn’t know is that they’ve already met …Saskia has been posing as one of Ellen’s clients. Unable to let go of the life she so abruptly lost, she wants to know everything about the woman who took her place. And the further she inches her way into Ellen’s world, the more trouble she stirs up. Ellen’s love story is about to take an unexpected turn. But it’s not only Saskia who doesn’t know where to stop: Ellen also has to ask herself what lines she’s prepared to cross to get the happy ending she’s always wanted.”
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey – Fiction.
I’ve been eyeing this recently – keep seeing it on people’s blogs – but once I heard how much Jennifer (The Relentless Reader) loved it, I just had to get it. “Alaska, the 1920s. Jack and Mabel have staked everything on a fresh start in a remote homestead, but the wilderness is a stark place, and Mabel is haunted by the baby she lost many years before. When a little girl appears mysteriously on their land, each is filled with wonder, but also foreboding: is she what she seems, and can they find room in their hearts for her? Written with the clarity and vividness of the Russian fairy tale from which it takes its inspiration, The Snow Child is an instant classic.”
Beyond the Shadows by Brent Weeks – Fantasy.
I read the first book in this trilogy several years ago and liked it enough to get the second one, but I haven’t felt any urge to read it. Still, when I saw my neighbour throwing out a bunch of books and this one, book 3, was in the box, I took it so that when I did get around to reading book 2, I’d have the third ready on hand too. “Logan Gyre is king of Cenaria, a country under siege, with a threadbare army and little hope. He has one chance – a desperate gamble, but one that could destroy his kingdom. In the north, the new Godking has a plan. If it comes to fruition, no one will have the power to stop him. Kylar Stern has no choice. To save his friends – and perhaps his enemies – he must accomplish the impossible: assassinate a goddess. Beyond the Shadows is the action-packed conclusion to the Night Angel Trilogy.”
The Karmic Connection by Libby Mercer – Romance; Chick-lit.
E-book from Amazon. I really liked Mercer’s previous book, Unmasking Maya, so I’m looking forward to reading this recent release. “What is the universe up to? Guilty of nothing more than working too much – or so they say – Adam Stowe is dumped at a ‘wellness center’ in the middle of nowhere by a couple of concerned colleagues. When he meets Lorraine, the beautiful and bewitching yoga instructor, his spirits start to lift, but once he discovers what a flighty fruitcake she is, they drop back down to subterranean levels. For Lorraine Jameson, Luna Wellness Center was a beacon of solace when her life was falling apart, and she can’t stand the way Adam’s toxic energy is poisoning the peace. He embodies everything negative about the life she discarded eighteen months ago. Despite being fiercely attracted to the arrogant man, she’s determined not to let Adam Stowe anywhere near her heart. Adam and Lorraine couldn’t be more unsuitable as a potential couple… so why is the universe so dead set on uniting these two?”
I’ve Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella – Fiction; Chick-lit.
Sent directly to Tassie – had to wait a year or so for this paperback edition to come out! I’ve had it on pre-order for about that long, and decided I could wait a few months more to read it. “A couple of glasses of bubbly with the girls and Poppy’s life has gone into meltdown. Not only has she lost her engagement ring, but in the panic that followed, she’s lost her phone too. When she spots an abandoned phone in a bin it seems it was meant to be. Finders Keepers! Except the phone’s owner, elusive businessman Sam Roxton, doesn’t agree. He wants his phone back, and doesn’t appreciate Poppy reading all his messages and wading into his personal life. Can things get any more tangled?”
Before I Die by Jenny Downham – YA Fiction.
Also titled Now is Good. I’ve seen this around – well, the US edition anyway – for a while but I wasn’t terribly interested in reading it until hearing what Stacey (Pretty Books) had to say about it recently. “Tessa has just a few months to live. Fighting back against hospital visits, endless tests, drugs with excruciating side-effects, Tessa compiles a list. It’s her To Do Before I Die list. And number one is sex. Released from the constraints of ‘normal’ life, Tessa tastes new experiences to make her feel alive while her failing body struggles to keep up. Tessa’s feelings, her relationships with her father and brother, her estranged mother, her best friend, her new boyfriend, all are painfully crystallized in the precious weeks before Tessa’s time finally runs out. Before I Die is a brilliantly-crafted novel, heartbreaking yet astonishingly life-affirming. It will take you to the very edge.”
The End of the Good Life: How the Financial Crisis Threatens a Lost Generation – And What We Can Do About It by Riva Froymovich – Non-Fiction: Economics, History.
This seemed quite pertinent, since I’m of this generation. “Generation Y faces the bleakest economic landscape in modern history. The recent spikes in unemployment and debt, alongside a drop in marriage, home-buying, and childbearing rates, will have long-term consequences for a group that had no hand in creating the financial crisis. For these young adults, the American Dream is moving farther out of reach. Worse still, leaders aren’t doing anything about it. Drawing on a wide range of reportage and interviews from across the United States, Europe, Asia, and Latin America, Riva Froymovich gives voice to those struggling in this new economy and explains the harm of shortsighted government policies — including initiatives to curb the national debt and key social programs. Through policy suggestions that focus on social enterprise and investment in economic growth, as well as inspiring stories from young entrepreneurs carving out their own way, End of The Good Life presents a deeply relevant read for Millennials, their baby boomer parents, and anyone who cares about the survival of this nation’s most important tenet: the opportunity to get ahead.”
Moby-Dick (or, The Whale) by Herman Melville – Classics.
After reading a couple of books set in the South Pacific, one of which links in Melville and his desertion in the Tahiti islands as well as this book, I finally felt like reading Moby-Dick – something I’ve never been interested in doing before. It’s always been one classic work that hasn’t appealed to me, but now it does. Lord knows when I’ll have time to read it though!
There’s a Wocket in My Pocket! by Dr Seuss – Picture Book; Children’s.
I picked this up for a dollar at the recent Children’s Pillage in the Village, a big sale of second-hand kids’ stuff. I didn’t really read much of Dr Seuss when I was a kid – hardly any, truth be told – and I’m enjoying these little silly books as much as the kids are!
Malarky by Anakana Schofield – Fiction.
“Our Woman will not be sunk by what life’s about to serve her. She’s caught her son doing unmentionable things out by the barn. She’s been accosted by Red the Twit, who claims to have done things with Our Woman’s husband that could frankly have gone without mentioning. And now her son’s gone and joined the army, and Our Woman has found a young fella to do unmentionable things with herself, just so she might understand it all… Malarky is the story of an Irish mother forced to look grief in the eye, and of a wife come face-to-face with the mad agony of longing. Comic, moving, eccentric, and spare, Anakana Schofield’s debut novel introduces a brilliant new voice in contemporary fiction.”
Miss Buncle’s Book by DE Stevenson – Classics.
Sent directly to Tassie, my mum read this is one sitting (as she does!) and loved it, but was rather annoyed by the American spelling in such a British book. If you have the money, which I don’t, you might want to get the Persephone edition – it won’t have a cover like this (their covers are plain grey), but it won’t have been altered either. I only recently learnt of this book, first published in 1936, via a recent Top Ten Tuesday list on someone’s blog. It’s the first in a series. “Who Knew One Book Could Cause So Much Chaos? Barbara Bunde is in a bind. Times are harsh, and Barbara’s bank account has seen better days. Maybe she could sell a novel … if she knew any stories. Stumped for ideas, Barbara draws inspiration from her fellow residents of Silverstream, the little English village she knows inside and out. To her surprise, the novel is a smash. It’s a good thing she wrote under a pseudonym, because the folks of Silverstream are in an uproar. But what really turns Miss Bunde’s world around is this: what happens to the characters in her book starts happening to their real-life counterparts. Does life really imitate art? A beloved author who has sold more than seven million books, DE Stevenson is at her best with Miss Buncle’s Book, crafting a highly original and charming tale about what happens when people see themselves through someone else’s eyes.”
Parallel by Lauren Miller
Scholastic UK 2013
YA Science Fiction; Speculative Fiction
This mind-twisting story about a young woman who’s suddenly and abruptly ripped from her life to live a parallel, and very different, one, is a mature, intelligent, and engaging debut novel dealing with second chances.
Abby Barnes is a girl with a plan. For years now her goal has been to attend Northwestern University’s journalism program after high school, and works on the school paper and is a member of the cross-country team. But on the first day of grade twelve, in 2008, she has to pick a new elective after the “History of Music” is cancelled. Shuddering at the idea of “Principles of Astronomy” she picks “Drama Methods” and somehow, to her utter shock, ends up landing the lead in the school play. A casting director attends the opening performance, there to see her nephew, and invites Abby to audition for an upcoming Hollywood movie, Everyday Assassins. Originally told the film would be shot over the summer, leaving her plenty of time to get to Northwestern before classes start in September 2009.
This new plan backfires when the film is held back again and again by script rewrites, and Abby ends up living in LA for far longer than she had anticipated, pushing back her university studies and career goals to see out her contract. But on the night before her eighteenth birthday, Abby goes to bed feeling a tremor – hardly unusual for LA. The unusual things start the next morning, when she wakes up to find herself not in her shabby-chic hotel room, but in a dorm room at Yale University in Connecticut.
With no idea how she got there or what’s going on – a situation made worse by the fact that everyone, including her perky roommate Marissa, seems to know all about her and has memories of her from the past weeks that she lacks – Abby does what she always does: she calls her best friend, Caitlin. Caitlin, whose mother was a model and her father is a scientist, is also studying at Yale, her life-long dream, in the physics department – Caitlin has to be the most fashionable and beautiful science student anyone’s ever seen. She’s going out with their other mutual best friend from school, Tyler: that at least hasn’t changed.
Caitlin has different memories of how Abby ended up at Yale, too, but she’s open to Abby’s new version of events and takes Abby to see a professor who has his own theories about what might be going on. Dr Gustav Mann is a Nobel Prize winner who used to teach at Yale; he recognises Abby because in the world she now finds herself in, he taught her “Principles of Astronomy” class the year before – a class she took because, in this parallel world, an earthquake the night before school started knocked out the power and made her late for school, so that by the time she learned she had to pick a new elective, “Drama Methods” was full.
Dr Mann explains his theory about parallel worlds, and that the earthquake they felt a year and a day ago was no earthquake at all, but two parallel worlds colliding and becoming entangled. Abby learns that her parallel is a year and a day behind her, and that any new directions or choices her parallel makes will alter her present reality, so that she can’t know from one day to the next what will change, or even where she’ll wake up. And her own memories of her parallel’s life are also a year and a day behind, so that there is a big year-long gap in her memory, a gap no one else has. She has retained her memories of her other life, and has no control over her new one. Or does she?
As Abby and her parallel self navigate their lives at different ends of a spectrum, they both focus on different boys: Abby meets Michael through her roommate at Yale, while her parallel meets “Astronomy Boy”, Josh, in her Principles of Astronomy class. But Abby has no real memories of Josh and no idea what happened between them; she only has her own memories, and the new ones she’s making with Michael. As she tries to take charge of her parallel life and fix the perceived damage her parallel self – someone she continues to think of as a different person entirely – makes in the past, Abby has to face a new reality, new consequences of bad decisions, and decide what she really wants for herself.
I must say that this book took me on a bit of a mental roller-coaster ride. My feelings and impressions changed quite a bit over the course of the story, though when I got to the last page and the wonderful ending – which, silly me, I hadn’t seen coming at all – I closed the book with a “Wow.” I love that kind of experience.
For the most part, I absolutely loved this. From the opening pages, it drew me in with its smart, funny, opinionated heroine. Lauren Miller writes with intelligence and an astute eye, and has created a very interesting, creative, sophisticated story that is deeply refreshing and much more mature than most of the YA I’ve read in recent years. It all comes together so beautifully, and I loved watching Abby grow and mature and really settle into her own skin. Having her parallel, younger self make crappy decisions or change her plans in ways that are unpleasant to Abby, forces her to reassess her priorities and realise some hard truths about herself.
I must admit, though, that I had a hard time following the physics of the premise, though. While the conversation Abby and Caitlin have with Dr Mann in which he explains his theory – the theory that Abby is now living out in truth – was well written and easy to follow, it only raised more questions for me and left me confused. I never quite managed to wrap my head around it. I’m a visual learner, I like maps and diagrams and other visual guides, and felt the need of one here. I also struggled with understanding properly where Abby really was, whether she was in a different, parallel universe while her own went on without her, or…? I mean, even when Dr Mann explains it, I don’t quite follow it – I can’t picture it, and if I can’t picture it, I’m lost. It did my head in, trying to understand it in a way that works for my brain. I was missing the “key”, that little bit of information, that single sentence that would make it all click into place for me. As a writer, there’s no reasonable way Miller could get every reader’s “key” into that scene, or the book, and I appreciate the sensible explanation we do get. It just didn’t make sense to me, and parts of it just confused the hell out of me. There were times, in the middle of the story, where I felt extremely frustrated and struggled to stay calm. Then it would seem straight-forward, for a bit, and I would think I got it, but that never lasted. By the end, I had to reconcile myself to not fully understanding the concept, but not letting that ruin the story for me.
I do have to quibble the premise that sees Dr Mann teaching at Abby’s high school – with Caitlin the science nerd handy, did we really need Dr Mann in parallel-Abby’s school? Caitlin tells Abby that he had taught at Yale but lost his tenured position when he published his controversial theory on parallel worlds. This pulled me up short because as far as I understood, the whole point of tenure is so that academics and researchers could publish work that might be controversial, or attack some big corporation, and be protected. Otherwise, they’d all be muffled and censored. So I’m not sure that that made any sense at all, though I was reading an uncorrected proof.
While reading this was a lot like having the hiccups – little bumps in the narrative that made my brain tighten in confusion – where the story was particularly strong was in the writing, the character of Abby herself (or two selves, as the case may be), and the strength of the male characters, Josh and Michael. Caitlin was a little bit bizarre as the gorgeous, well-dressed science geek with dyslexia, but beneath that exterior description she was a very warm, caring, real person. It was just hard at times to look past appearances. But Abby, Josh and Michael were much more subtle, and lived and breathed on the page. I loved how it all came together, the surprises and twists that felt so right, and how, along with Abby, Josh goes from being a stranger to someone you want to love (I never really liked Michael all that much, or trusted him or felt that comfortable with him. There was just something slightly off about him, which adds to the tension as the story progresses).
I love how this story came together, how all the strands become tangled and then, suddenly, smooth out into that “wow” moment at the end. It was just plain awesome. I loved Abby (both of them), for her flaws and her strengths and her convincing, engaging narrative voice. I loved Caitlin and Tyler and, when I got to know him better, Josh. I loved the premise, even if I didn’t fully understand it (and oh how I wish I did, because it makes my brain hurt, not being able to fully grasp something!). I love Miller’s writing style, the humour and the maturity and how she made me really care. Even though I was a bit lost in the middle, there was so much to love, and for all those reasons and more I highly recommend this. No doubt, you’ll have no problem following the collision of parallel worlds and can come back and help explain it to me!
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book.
“I enjoyed the novel mostly though I wasn’t a fan of the waffling. I thought the ending was a bit too neat and too smug, if that makes sense, but that didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the novel as a whole. Recommended.” Bibliophilic Monologues
“I was actually really taken with this book. It’s not high literature or grand adventure, but it’s a good story about high school and college, about the choices that we make, and how the repercussions of those choices may stick with us far longer than we anticipated. It’s friendship and jealousy and angst and first love. It’s about what happens when we let go and
let God let parallel universes show us that despite their very different outcomes, we are essentially the same person.” As the Crowe Flies (And Reads)
“This is a great YA book about parallel universes, falling in love, discovering your true self, and realizing what matters the most in life. There’s not much more I can say without spoiling, so I’ll stop here- but trust me. You want this book.” Lovin’ Los Libros
“This one had lots of twists and I like a book with twists but I also wished that some questions that I had were answered. What I mainly loved about this book what learning about Abby’s alternate lives and the alternate worlds the other stuff was just okay. I recommend this book is you are looking for something different and love some science fiction.” Book Fixation
Missed yours? Leave me a link and I’ll add it.
Mutiny on the Bounty by John Boyne
Anchor Canada 2010 (2009)
John Jacob Turnstile is fourteen and one of many boys living with the formidable Mr Lewis in Portsmouth, spending his days picking pockets and his nights in the upstairs rooms with the other pretty boys, doing things with wealthy men that give him nightmares. Still, it’s his life and has no plans to leave it, until the day that choice is taken out of his hands and made for him. Caught lifting a French gentleman’s pocket watch, he is taken before the magistrate and sentenced to twelve months gaol time. A last-second reprieve from the same French gentleman, Mr Zéla, sees him instead aboard the HMS Bounty just before it leaves, to serve as ship boy and servant to the captain, William Bligh.
Nursing vague plans of escaping somewhere along the voyage – because Mr Lewis will be far from forgiving when he turns up in Portsmouth again – Turnstile settles into life on board the ship, a whole new experience for the lad. He learns that because it’s a smaller kind of ship, it has no real captain, and Captain Bligh, as he is called, is really only a lieutenant, and this is something of a sore spot with him. But Bligh nursed Turnstile through his three days of seasickness and for that alone, he has Turnstile’s adoration and gratitude. While he manages to eventually befriend or at least come to an understanding with the ship’s crew, Turnstile is leery of the Master’s Mate and third-in-command, Fletcher Christian, and one of the other officers, a pimply boy not much older than Turnstile called Mr Heywood. There are tensions and outright arguments between the captain and his second-in-command, the ship’s Master, Mr Fryer, an older, cautious and experienced man who is the voice of reason the captain is too often disdainful of.
The Bounty is on an important mission, one the captain takes very seriously: to reach Tahiti to acquire breadfruit seedlings, take them to the British colonies in the West Indies to be planted there so as to provide cheap and plentiful food for their slaves. It is December 1787 when they set out from Portsmouth, and it takes them nearly a year to arrive at Otaheite – what we call Tahiti – where they stay for six months, cultivating seedlings and transplanting them into the pots they brought. This island is a paradise for the crew, who take full advantage of a relaxed discipline to spend their new abundance of free time – when not working on the transplanting – with the pretty and sexually free women of the island. Even Turnstile finds a girl to fall in love with. The only man who has no interest in this leisure activity is Captain Bligh, who remains faithful to his wife Betsy.
It is only when it is time to leave Tahiti that the real trouble begins, starting with three men deserting and a list turning up naming other sailors – and officers – along with the deserters. But Bligh and Fryer don’t see the list for what it really is: a list of men the writer believed would stand against the captain in a mutiny. For that is exactly what happens, a mutiny on one of King George’s ships, and one of the Bounty‘s launch’s – a small boat merely twenty-three feet long – is put into the water with the captain and only eighteen loyal men inside, and one small locked box of food that would, under normal circumstances, barely last a day.
Set adrift in the South Pacific, their chances of survival are dismal at best. The one thing they have to their advantage is William Bligh himself: he began his naval career as a highly skilled mapmaker and carries it all in his head still, plus they have a compass. Now they have to ration and find hospitable islands to look for food and water, dodging cannibal natives as they go. If they can make it to Timor, a Dutch settlement, they have a chance, but it takes 48 days to reach it and not everyone makes it alive.
Through it all, John Jacob Turnstile, the Captain’s servant and loyal companion, narrates events from his own distinct and unique perspective, with his frank opinions and saucy cheek, creating an engaging and highly readable story out of one of the most famous and well-documented mutinies in British history.
This is a modern take on an old piece of history, and having now read it I am mildly curious about the original, William Bligh’s own take on what happened. There is also Caroline Alexander’s The Bounty, which focuses on the court martial of the ten mutineers captured some years later. I can’t make a comparison between John Boyne’s interpretation of events and William Bligh’s, though of course he used it as a source, but Boyne skilfully brought the voyage and the characters to life through the voice of John Jacob Turnstile.
Turnstile – nicknamed “Turnip” by the crew – has the cheek and sass of a low-born petty thief from Portsmouth, nicely balanced with his own, largely under-educated intelligence and an honourable character. The realities of his life with Mr Lewis fill out his background and add extra depth to his character, as well as propelling him forward as a protagonist who is, in effect, a minor side character to a story much bigger than him. This is Boyne’s success and achievement: using a character like Turnstile, who has no direct impact on events but is an eye-witness to them, is a useful device in a story like this, but the challenge is in making him an interesting character in his own right, a character who is more than a pair of watchful eyes and perked-up ears, a character you care about and want a bright future for. Turnstile is just such a character, and without the strength of his voice, this would be a rather dull story.
It is certainly a long one, at nearly five hundred pages, and quite detailed. It has realism, a great deal of it, and is clearly well-researched. The details ring true and using a narrator who is new to life onboard a ship means we learn alongside Turnstile: we are in the same position of ignorance as he is. Reading this so soon after another book set in the South Pacific, Henderson’s Spear (though in a different time period), I learned a lot about the islands and their peoples as well as British colonial interests there.
There were a couple of inconsistencies that disrupted the flow of the narrative – for me at least. One was the age at which Turnstile entered Mr Lewis’s establishment: at first he says he was five when he went to live with Mr Lewis, then later he’s suddenly nine when the washerwoman who let him sleep on her floor sells him to Mr Lewis (page 113); later he retells the story as Mr Lewis finding him when he’s five, living on the streets (403-4). The other inconsistency was about Mr Samuel, the ship’s clerk: when Turnstile first tells us the names of the men who join the captain in the launch, he includes Mr Samuel (page 337); he’s mentioned again on page 405 as being with those loyal to the captain. Later, in discussion with Mr Hall, the cook, they both share their negative opinions about Mr Samuel and express their lack of surprise that he joined the mutineers (page 449). But when the Captain takes ship back to England, he takes with him Turnstile and Mr Samuel (p.472). It’s not a big detail, but they’re such clear inconsistencies and they always serve to jolt me out of a story and make me second-guess what I read previously.
Without destroying Turnstile’s admiration for Captain Bligh, Boyne manages to clearly convey the captain’s flaws, especially in telling the story of Captain Cook’s death in Hawaii (as an Australian, we learn about Cook like Americans learn about Columbus; I’d always seen, in reenactments, and heard of his death as one by spears; here he is overwhelmed and stabbed). Bligh’s temperament and flaws, as well as his positive points which are admirable, are subtly captured, and through Bligh we get the persuasive opinions of the time. By the time we get Bligh’s version of Captain Cook’s death and the reasons behind it, which is not so subtle but still probably quite accurate for the era, we’ve already got a pretty good opinion of the man.
“You, sir?” I asked, wide-eyed. “You went to retrieve the stolen boat?”
“Aye, in a way. And had they surrendered it peacefully there would have been fewer consequences. But as we approached the bay it became clear that there was no peace in store for us. The natives were dotted along the tops of the cliffs, adopting war-like stances and wearing the type of garb they felt would protect them from our cutlasses and muskets. They were prepared for battle, that was clear to us all.”
“But why, Captain?” I asked him. “Had they turned against you?”
“I believe so,” he replied. “At first all had been well, but they did not recognize our right to their land or their produce. They were becoming belligerent about it. We had no choice but to show our strength.”
“What rights, sir?” I asked, confused.
“Our rights as emissaries of the king, Turnstile,” he said, staring at me as if I was the worst kind of fool. “Isn’t that clear? They wanted us to leave them in peace. Savages! Ordering Englishmen away!”
“From their land.”
“You’re missing the point,” he insisted, as if the idea was a quite simple one. “It was no longer their land when we arrived. We claimed it.” [p.451]
I’m sure Bligh’s opinions on the matter were standard, but I have to wonder whether Turnstile would have been so astute or “modern” in his own ideas on the matter.
Overall, despite the length of the novel which was really longer than I would have liked to spend on board the Bounty, and despite the sometimes plodding pace, this was a story that kept me reading. Being unfamiliar with the story, it wasn’t immediately apparent who – which officer or sailor, that is – was behind the mutiny, though once things started happening on the island it became clear. Still, reading about how it all came about was surprisingly engrossing, and their forty-eight days of dogged survival and near-death in the launch was the best part of all, in terms of engrossing reading. I know, it sounds cruel that their suffering gave me the most enjoyment, but it really was the most gripping part of the story, precisely because the stakes were so high, the ending so uncertain (yes, even though you know they make it back because Bligh writes his own version, but you’re never sure who else makes it back or what they go through in the process). Boyne’s Mutiny on the Bounty is well worth reading, for the story, for the education, for the history, and it’s clear why this story has continued to live on in our cultural heritage and imagination.
“It had all the elements to the sort of novel I really like: adventure, history, and humour. The author’s storytelling reminds me a bit of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series and I really loved those books. And though this book is just shy of 500 pages, it took me just a few days to read it – it was that compelling. I highly recommend it!” BookBound
“Turnstile is a wonderfully engaging character. His dialogue is witty, sharp and humorous. He is wise beyond his years in certain ways and yet naive in other matters. His documentation of the ship’s crew, their personalities and what may have led to the mutiny are a fresh look at a known story. Knowing the history of the Bounty did in no way detract from the reading of Boyne’s book. Boyne is a consummate story teller and The Mutiny on the Bounty is a heck of a tale.” A Bookworm’s World
“Mr. Boyne has a smooth, enticing writing style that flows while providing excellent attention to detail to entertain the reader with new characterizations of the well known characters of this true tale. From the first page to the last the reader is captivated along for an adventure on the high seas. I found this book difficult to put down and read it over two days.” Barbara Martin
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A while ago I posted a recipe for Pumpkin Choc Chip Muffins from a magazine, Taste of Home: Fall Baking (2012), and made mention to the fact that I bought the mag for the cover recipe, which was absolutely delicious. I also promised to share it with you at some point. I started making it today and when I got to the point of rolling out the dough, I remembered my promise and got out the camera (again, you’ll have to excuse the poor photography – minimal natural lighting in my kitchen) so I’d have some pics to go along with the recipe. So here you are, a dessert-like bread that I’ve made more than half-a-dozen times by this point, and for good reason.
And if you’re easily intimidated about making bread, don’t be put off: this is a very easy recipe, and I’ve included my tips in square brackets to help. (Note that I haven’t typed this out exactly as it is in the mag. Also note that “Tb” means “tablespoon” and “tsp” means “teaspoon”.)
CRANBERRY SWIRL BREAD
3 cups bread flour [or plain flour, but I recommend bread flour]
1/3 cup sugar
3 tsp instant yeast
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup milk
1/3 cup butter
1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries [be very generous with this measurement! I probably use an extra half-cup some days]
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup water
1 Tb butter
1 Tb lemon juice
1/2 chopped walnuts, optional [I never add these, seems unnecessary to me!]
2 Tb plain flour
2 Tb sugar
1 Tb cold butter, chopped, plus 1 Tb butter, melted
Making the Dough:
In a large mixing bowl, combine the sifted flour with the sugar, yeast and salt.
In a saucepan, mix the water, milk and butter together and heat until the butter has melted. [Check that it's not too hot - if it's too hot it will kill the yeast, but not warm enough and the yeast won't activate.]
Add to the dry ingredients and mix together, then knead until smooth and elastic. I use a stand mixer and bread hook for this. [If you need to add more flour because it's too sticky, do so, but I find that 3 cups of flour to the liquid ingredients is a perfect ratio.]
Put dough in a greased bowl and place in a warm, draught-free spot; cover with a tea-towel and let rise. Depending on the season etc., this could take some time, but allow for at least an hour. It should double in size.
Making the Filling:
While the dough is rising, combine the cranberries, sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook for about 15 minutes, until berries pop. Stir now and then, squashing the berries with the flat of a wooden spoon. Sauce will thicken and reduce.
Take off the heat and stir in the butter and lemon juice. Put to one side to cool until you’re ready to use it.
Making the Topping:
In a small bowl, combine the flour and sugar and add the chopped chilled butter. Rub in with your fingertips until combined [it will look more like streusel topping than the usual breadcrumb analogy]. Set aside until you’re ready to use it.
Preparing the Loaf:
Punch the dough down. Turn onto a lightly floured surface and, with a rolling pin, roll out into a 20 inch x 10 inch rectangle (50cm x 25cm). [This doesn't have to be exact - I never measure it - but it should be really big!]
Spread the filling over the sheet of dough, leaving a gap at the edges. Roll up evenly along the long side into a firm log shape. With the sealed edge on the bottom, shape into a zig-zag and place inside your baking-paper-lined loaf tin.
Melt the butter and brush over the top of the bread, then sprinkle liberally with the topping. [Note: I now wait until the bread rises for the second time before doing this, as the topping goes down the sides rather than staying on top.] Cover with a tea-towel and put in a warm place to rise again (about 30 mins). This photo shows the bread after the 2nd rising, with topping:
Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF and ensure your oven rack is in the middle for even baking.
Bake bread for 35-45 minutes or until browned and cooked through. Place on a wire cooling rack and leave in the tin for about five minutes, then remove from the tin and the baking paper so it doesn’t sweat.
[Note: I haven't yet mastered the exact cooking time for this recipe in my oven, and tend to over-bake a bit; I once found it under-cooked and doughy in the middle and so have been erring on the side of slightly over-cooked ever since - which just means it's a bit too brown on the outside, but still soft and moist on the inside. Nothing more frustrating than going through all this trouble and effort only to find it hasn't cooked properly!]
Store in an airtight container or plastic bread bag for 2-3 days. Best eaten on the day it’s made. Can also be frozen: slice first then put in an airtight plastic bag, will keep for a few months – but you probably won’t have any left-overs to freeze!
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Henderson’s Spear by Ronald Wright
Vintage Canada 2002 (2001)
Fiction; Historical Fiction
Brilliantly bringing together two stories of travel, adventure and family secrets that bring our heroine and her ancestor to the South Pacific Islands, Ronald Wright delivers a truly believable tale told in two distinct voices that will hold your interest right to the end.
Olivia’s world has narrowed to the inside of the Arue Women’s Prison on the South Pacific island of Tahiti. It is 1990, and her search for her father, a pilot who went missing in action during the Korean War, has brought her here, to a place she believes he travelled to after deserting, but her voyage led to the discovery of a drowned girl in the ocean and now she and the three people who were on the yacht with her are being held under suspicion of murder.
Olivia spends her time working on a long letter to her daughter and only child, a woman she’s never met as she gave her up for adoption when she had her as a teenager. This unknown daughter has finally reached out to Olivia, who replies by telling her everything: about her childhood and how she came to have a baby so young, about the girl’s father, about her father’s disappearance and her mother’s certainty that he would return. And she includes transcribed pages from the secret diary of a long-gone relative, Frank Henderson.
Henderson was not a direct ancestor – his only child died during the second world war – but he was an uncle of sorts and Olivia’s family lived in his house, which still displays random objects from the previous century and Henderson’s travels. Above the fireplace mantel was a ceremonial spear, the length of two men, made from a single piece of polished wood. Olivia and her sister Lottie grew up being told by their mother that Frank Henderson had acquired it in Africa, during a disastrous military mission that lost him an eye. But when, after their mother’s death, Olivia uncovers Henderson’s papers, she learns the true story of the spear, and what happened when Henderson was a young lieutenant on a royal naval ship along with two grandsons of Queen Victoria, sailing through the South Pacific.
Henderson’s account and Olivia’s own story converge to an enlightening truth that will link them together in a new and surprising way.
I’d never read anything by Ronald Wright before and I didn’t quite know what to expect, but even had I known what a great writer he was I still would have been deeply impressed by this book. The character of Frank Henderson was actually modelled on Wright’s own ancestor, a cousin, of the same name, especially his account of being captured by the Sofas in 1897, but the rest is all fiction. [Edit: Actually I have read one of his books before, how could I have forgotten? It was What is America? A Short History of the New World Order and it was AWESOME!]
The chapters that Henderson wrote in the late 1890s, as a kind of security against his suspicion that someone might seek to make him “disappear” for what he knows about the queen’s grandson and heir, were told in Henderson’s distinct voice, noticeably different from Olivia’s and with the inflections and phrasing familiar to the period in which he lived, and yet they never jarred with Olivia’s. Somehow Wright achieved that most sought-after skill: creating two clear, strong voices, one female the other male, speaking from two different time periods, which manage to complement and work together rather than butting heads or alienating the reader. It was one of the elements of the novel that most impressed me.
Olivia is not a woman I have much in common with, and yet I found her sympathetic, interesting, and I cared about her greatly. She grew up in England, always aware of how drastically different to her beautiful older sister, Lottie, she looked, and suffering from a bit of a complex because of it. Which may go part way to explaining how she was seduced by an older man. Later she moved to Canada and worked in Montreal’s film industry, then relocated to Vancouver where she now lives and directs documentaries. This is how she meets a professor from the university, a married older man whom she has an affair with. She tells all this to her daughter, whom she’s never met. Her need to find out what happened to her father was entirely believable and understandable, and the mystery – never overplayed – becomes more and more interesting the farther you get into the story.
Olivia and Henderson are two very different people, and their stories are not told in chronological order, but you won’t have any difficulty in keeping track. Henderson recounts first his more recent mission to Africa, in which he was captured by the Sofas and was only saved from being killed by them in front of their leader by falling asleep; and then he goes back farther in time to the HMS Bacchante, which sailed with the royal navy from 1879 to 1882 with the two princes on board. The ships tour the eastern coastline of South America and South Africa, then eventually make their way to the South Pacific Islands, where the heart of the matter lies. All three stories – Henderson’s, Olivia’s father’s, and Olivia’s own – converge there, and connect.
The islands of Tahiti and its neighbours are brought vividly to life in these pages, and you learn a lot about the tribes that in habit them as well. The contrast between Olivia’s more contemporary trip (1990 is not that long ago!) and Henderson’s 19th century one is clearly apparent. Tahiti does not come across as an island paradise in Olivia’s account; instead it seems an unfriendly place where everyone bemoans how much it’s changed in the last twenty years – something they say every year. Olivia’s troubles with the authorities there rob the islands of their appearance of relaxation and peacefulness, of well-off white people indulging themselves at the expense of the locals. This is not that place. But even in Henderson’s account, these islands are dangerous territories (this is complemented by another book I read after this one, John Boyne’s Mutiny on the Bounty). Politics and an on-going colonialism play a big part, and both Henderson and Olivia shed light, in different ways, on conditions there – Henderson recounts something that a Mr Thurston, a kind of translator for the king of Fiji, says to them:
“Justice for the Fijians is of greater consequence than cotton growing. Or even empire building.” He shot a fraught look at [princes] Eddy and George. “I hope Mother England will remember that. God help us if she doesn’t. The Fijian is the finest friend you can ever make – and the fiercest, most tenacious foe. You don’t want another New Zealand on your hands. Ten million pounds wasted in campaigns, hundreds of settlers slaughtered, half the Maori race destroyed, and no hope of lasting peace except by destroying the rest. Or, at the eleventh hour, admitting them to government. Which is what they should have done from the start.” [p.250]
Seeing the passage of time wrought on the islands brings them into stark relief; as Olivia observes:
This high wilderness had been a no man’s land in ancient times, avoided by the Marquesan tribes except when they swarmed up here to make war in clearings strewn with bones and broken weapons. Again it struck me how Balkanized these islands had become, as if the history of whole continents had had to be repeated here in miniature. The people might know themselves to be descended from a single fleet, yet still they divided and fought – as in human enmity must always fill the space allowed it, whether an island or a world. [pp.318-9]
The Bacchante also travels to the colony of Australia, first, to Melbourne and Hobart. I loved reading the small part about hunting Tasmanian Tigers in Tasmania [pages 198-201] – so close upon the heels of reading Into That Forest by Louis Nowra, too – because it’s where I’m from and really brought the story “home” so to speak. The other thing I’ll note, for myself more than anything, is how Olivia’s discussions with her professor, whom she refers to as “Bob”, about the classic novel Moby Dick, makes me want to read that book for the first time in my life. I’ve never felt any interest in reading Melville’s epic tome before, but Bob has made it sound so interesting!
Wright’s story is cleverly structured, thoughtfully and skilfully told, and quite beautiful to read. It did not feel like I was reading a novel; rather, Olivia could have been someone I learned about in a well-made Canadian documentary (and seriously, Canada excels at documentary film-making), Henderson a person who comes to life within the pages of a true memoir. Yet none of this realism takes away from the tension and thrill of discovery as the pieces come together. Weaving together the secrets of both family and state, this story of love, loss, and the mistakes we make – and their consequences – is highly readable, beautifully told and deeply moving.
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