The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

The Time Machine I don’t often read science fiction, but when I do I usually find that I enjoy it. H.G. Wells’ 1895 novel, The Time Machine, is an early classic of the genre and I’m sorry it has taken me so long to decide to read it – especially as I’ve previously read and liked two of his other books, The Island of Dr Moreau and Ann Veronica (although the latter is not science fiction).

The Time Machine follows the adventures of a Victorian scientist known only as the Time Traveller who believes he has created a machine which can travel into the past and the future. After describing his invention to a group of friends and explaining how it works, he announces that he intends to use the machine to explore time. Assembling at a dinner party the following week, the gentlemen await the appearance of the Time Traveller – who arrives late, looking dirty and exhausted, and proceeds to narrate an incredible story.

The Time Traveller tells of his journey to the year 802,701, a world populated by the Eloi, a race of beautiful, innocent, childlike people who, far from being the advanced society he had expected, are leading surprisingly lazy, directionless lives and appear to be weaker and less intelligent than ourselves. Due to a change in language, he is unable to communicate with them to find out more about their way of life, although he does form a friendship of sorts with an Eloi woman whose name is Weena.

Later, the Time Traveller discovers that the Eloi are not the only inhabitants of this futuristic world; another race of human-like creatures live below ground, only coming to the surface at night. Known as the Morlocks, these creatures are brutish and savage but appear to be carrying out all the work and industry which enables the Eloi to live their simple lives of leisure on the land above. They also appear to have stolen the time machine, which means that unless the Time Traveller can find a way to retrieve it, he could be trapped in the future forever!

The Time Traveller comes up with several theories to explain what is happening in this futuristic world, but has to revise his opinion as more information comes to light. He speculates that the human race must have evolved at some point into two species, the rich and privileged becoming the Eloi and the working classes becoming the Morlocks. The Eloi, he thinks, have led such comfortable lives and faced so few challenges, that they have had no further need to grow and adapt:

“It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.”

I’ve always been intrigued by the possibilities of time travel and although I personally would be more interested in visiting the past than the future, I find it fascinating to see what people think the future will hold. Remembering when this novel was published, Wells’ vision of a future world has been developed from some of the issues which would have seemed relevant at the end of the 19th century, such as widening class divisions, theories of evolution and Darwinism. It’s a bleak and depressing view of the future – and if that really is what we have to look forward to, then imperfect as our current society may be, I’m very glad to be living in 2016!

While I enjoyed reading The Time Machine, I thought there could have been more to the story. I hadn’t realised it was such a short book (there are just over 100 pages in my edition, so it can easily be read in a few hours), and I would have liked it to have been a bit longer which would have allowed some of the ideas in the novel to be developed in more depth. Still, I’m pleased to have read such an important and influential science fiction novel and will think about reading more of Wells’ work at some point.

The Winter Crown by Elizabeth Chadwick

The Winter Crown This will be my last post this week, so I’m going to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas! I’ll be back before New Year to tell you about a Christmas-themed read and to share my list of favourite books of 2015, but first here are my thoughts on another recent read – no connection with Christmas, but at least it does have ‘winter’ in the title.

The Winter Crown is the second of Elizabeth Chadwick’s trilogy of novels following the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Chadwick uses the alternate spelling Alienor, as she says this is how the name would have been spelled at the time, so I have done the same throughout the rest of this post. The first book in the trilogy, The Summer Queen, covered Alienor’s early years and her marriage to King Louis VII of France. Now, in The Winter Crown, we move on to the next stage in Alienor’s life.

The novel opens in December 1154 when, having had her first marriage annulled, Alienor is crowned Queen of England alongside her second husband, Henry II. As Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, Alienor has brought Henry wealth, lands and influence – but he has made it clear that he has no plans to allow her to govern her own lands. What Henry wants is a wife who will concentrate on providing and raising children, who will turn a blind eye to his many mistresses and who will keep her opinions to herself. Alienor, though, has other ideas and a marriage that began with so much promise and a certain amount of chemistry, if not love, descends into a series of disappointments and disagreements.

The deterioration of Alienor’s relationship with the king forms a large part of the novel, but so do her relationships with her sons – Henry the ‘Young King’, Geoffrey, Duke of Britanny, and John, the youngest – and her daughters, Matilda, Alie (Alienor) and Joanna. The other son who I haven’t mentioned, of course, is Richard (the future Richard the Lionheart). Alienor makes no secret of the fact that Richard, the heir to her own lands of Aquitaine, is her favourite child, and he is the one whose character is developed most fully in this novel.

For the first half of the novel, Alienor seems to be involved in a constant cycle of pregnancies and births, but that doesn’t mean the story was boring at all. As well as the tensions that are building in Alienor and Henry’s marriage (which get worse when she learns of his new mistress, Rosamund de Clifford), a lot of time is also devoted to Henry’s feud with his chancellor, Thomas Becket. When Henry – against Alienor’s advice – makes Becket Archbishop of Canterbury, he finds that Becket now possesses power which could be used against him instead of for him. The second half of the novel is equally full of conflict, as Henry discovers that his sons are prepared to rise against him in rebellion – and Alienor is forced to take sides.

I have read a few different fictional portrayals of Alienor/Eleanor and I really like the way Elizabeth Chadwick has chosen to portray the character. The Alienor of The Winter Crown is a strong, intelligent woman, keen to play a role in the governance of Aquitaine and England, but restricted due to her gender and the reluctance of her husband to involve her in his decision-making. I was interested to read Chadwick’s author’s note at the end in which she explains why she disagrees with the popular description of Alienor as a powerful medieval woman.

There are plenty of other characters worth mentioning too. Chadwick’s novels often feature a strong female friendship and in this book we meet Isabel de Warenne, wife of William of Blois (son of the late King Stephen of England), who becomes a trusted friend of Alienor’s after being taken into her household. Isabel, and Henry II’s half-brother Hamelin, were two of my favourite characters in the novel: two people who are close to the King and Queen but who don’t always agree with their actions. And readers of Chadwick’s The Greatest Knight will be pleased to know that William Marshal also appears in this novel, as a young man who is brought into Alienor’s service to train her sons in fighting and swordplay. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of William in the next book.

I am thoroughly enjoying this trilogy so far and am looking forward to reading the final Alienor novel, The Autumn Throne, which should be available next year.

Thanks to Sourcebooks for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Master of Ballantrae My experiences with the work of Robert Louis Stevenson so far have been mixed. I liked Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, although knowing the basic plot beforehand spoiled it slightly; I gave up on Kidnapped halfway through (but would like to give it another chance); and while I did read Treasure Island as a child, it was an abridged version for children, and I have no idea what I would think of the book as an adult. I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Master of Ballantrae, then, but I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed it.

Published in 1889, The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale is set much earlier, opening in Scotland in 1745, just before the Jacobite Rising. When news of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s arrival in Scotland reaches the Duries of Durrisdeer and Ballantrae, the family must decide what to do. There is no question of Lord Durrisdeer himself joining the rebellion, but his two sons – James Durie (the Master of Ballantrae), his eldest son and heir, and Henry, his younger brother – are both keen to go. A coin is tossed and it is decided, to Henry’s disappointment, that the Master will join the Jacobites while Henry stays at home and remains loyal to King George. This way, the family titles and estates will be safe no matter which side wins.

As history tells us, the rising will fail – and it is not long before the Duries receive reports that James has been killed. Henry becomes heir in his brother’s place and, at his father’s urging, marries the Master’s grieving fiancée, Alison. These are difficult times for Henry: his neighbours see him as a traitor for not taking part in the rising, and he knows that his father and wife will never stop mourning for James, always the favourite son. But things are about to get a lot worse for Henry – it seems that the Master of Ballantrae is not dead after all and is about to come home to Durrisdeer to take his revenge.

The Master of Ballantrae has all the elements of a typical adventure story – duels, pirates, sea voyages, buried treasure – but it is also a fascinating psychological novel about the relationship between two very different brothers. James, the Master, is the charming, charismatic brother whom everyone seems to love, yet he is also devious, scheming and manipulative. Henry is his opposite – quiet, responsible and dutiful, but less glamorous and less popular. At first it seems that this is another Jekyll and Hyde story, with one character representing good and the other evil, but it soon becomes obvious that it is not as simple as this and Henry’s personality begins to change as his obsession with his brother starts to rule his life.

We get to know these two men from the perspective of Ephraim Mackellar, a family servant at Durrisdeer, but I couldn’t help thinking that Mackellar is not a very reliable narrator. It is clear from the start that he is loyal to Henry and his narration is definitely biased towards the younger brother, but whenever he spends time alone with the Master his opinion seems to change slightly and he is able to acknowledge that the elder brother also has some good points as well as bad.

Not all aspects of The Master of Ballantrae worked as well for me as others: the purely ‘adventure’ scenes, such as the encounters with pirate ships at sea and the treasure hunts in the American wilderness, became a bit tedious, especially whenever the narration switched away from Mackellar while another narrator took his place. But I loved the central storyline and the rivalry between the two brothers; I particularly loved the Master, who may have been the devilish brother, but was so much more interesting to read about than poor Henry! I will read more by Robert Louis Stevenson, though I’m not sure whether to move straight on to one of his other books, maybe The Black Arrow, or to try re-reading Treasure Island and Kidnapped first.

Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh

Flood of Fire Flood of Fire is the third and final part of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy and I think it’s probably my favourite of the three books. Set in India and China before and during the First Opium War, the trilogy follows the adventures of a group of people thrown together on board a former slaving ship called the Ibis.

This third novel pulls together threads from the first two and while it may be possible to still enjoy this book without having read the others, I would strongly recommend reading all three in order. While Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke took us through the build up to the conflict, describing the disputes over the trade of opium and the deterioration of relations between Britain and China, Flood of Fire covers the war itself.

The novel opens in 1839 and the first character we meet is Kesri Singh, brother of our old friend, Deeti. Kesri is a havildar (a rank equivalent to sergeant) in the Bengal Native Infantry, part of the East India Company, and through his storyline we are given some insights into army life and the contribution made by Indian regiments to Britain’s military victories in China. Next we are reunited with Zachary Reid, the American carpenter-turned-sailor who played a major part in Sea of Poppies but was absent from River of Smoke. In this book, Zachary begins an affair with his new employer, Mrs Burnham, before setting his sights on becoming a successful businessman.

We also rejoin Neel Rattan Halder, the former Raja of Raskhali, who is now living in Canton where he is able to use his skills as an interpreter to assist China’s war effort. Neel’s story is told mainly in the form of a journal and gives us a Chinese perspective of events. Finally, the widowed Shireen Modi is travelling to Hong Kong to visit the grave of her husband, Bahram, and to try to recover some of the money he lost when his cargo of opium was confiscated in River of Smoke. These are the four main characters in Flood of Fire, but other characters from the previous two novels also make appearances, including the French botanist Paulette Lambert; her childhood friend, Jodu; Bahram Modi’s illegitimate son, Ah Fatt (known as Freddie); and Baboo Nob Kissin, the Burnhams’ agent.

Before reading these books I knew nothing at all about the First Opium War, so this trilogy has provided a perfect introduction. Devoting three long novels to a relatively short period of history allows the author to go into a lot of depth, describing first the production of opium in India (Sea of Poppies), the merchants who transported the drug to China (River of Smoke) and finally, in Flood of Fire, the reasons why Britain went to war with China after the trading of opium was banned in Canton. The events of the war itself are given a lot of attention too, from descriptions of battles and strategies to the negotiations that would lead to the British acquisition of Hong Kong.

Although there were times when I felt too much time was being spent on one character and not enough on another, I did find all of their storylines compelling and interesting – with the exception of Zachary’s affair. It was obviously intended to add some comedy to the book, but it didn’t work for me at all and I didn’t think it fit the tone of the rest of the trilogy. Zachary is the character who changes the most over the course of the three novels – and not for the better; his transformation in Flood of Fire could be seen as an example of how greed and ambition can lead to corruption, and is written quite convincingly, but I still found it disappointing as he was such a likeable person at first. As for the other characters, some of their stories end in happiness and others in sadness or tragedy, but I was pleased that they were all given a proper resolution.

The book finishes with a very long list of sources, showing the amount of research which must have gone into the writing of the Ibis Trilogy. We are told that these sources were taken from the archives of Neel Rattan Halder (one of the characters in the story) and that Neel and his descendants have left behind more information which has not yet been used. This gave me hope that, although Flood of Fire is the last of this particular trilogy, it would be possible for Amitav Ghosh to continue the story by moving forward to another period of history. Whether he does or not, I am still happy to have had the opportunity to read these three wonderful novels!

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

My Antonia Between now and December 2016 I am participating in the Women’s Classic Literature Event hosted by the Classics Club. There are many classic female authors whose work I’m looking forward to reading, but I decided to begin with a book by Willa Cather. I read my first (and until now, my only) Cather novel more than five years ago; it was The Professor’s House and, although I did like her writing, I wasn’t very impressed. I suspected, though, that it just wasn’t the right book for me and that I would enjoy a different one more. My Ántonia, probably Cather’s most well-known and well-loved novel, seemed the obvious choice for a second attempt.

First published in 1918, My Ántonia is narrated by Jim Burden, a lawyer, who is looking back on his childhood and his relationship with Ántonia Shimerda. Orphaned at the age of ten, Jim leaves his home in Virginia to live with his grandparents on their farm in Nebraska. Jim travels to Nebraska on the same train as the Shimerdas, a family of Bohemian immigrants who are hoping to build a new life for themselves on the plains and who will become the Burdens’ closest neighbours. Ántonia is only a few years older than Jim and a friendship soon forms between the two of them.

I loved the first part of the book, showing the struggles faced by a family of immigrants trying to adapt to a new country and a new lifestyle (the Shimerdas are completely unprepared for the harshness of their first winter in Nebraska). Written in the beautiful prose I remembered from The Professor’s House, there are some wonderful, vivid descriptions of the landscape, the sod houses and rough dugouts in which the pioneer families live, the tall prairie grasses and the changing seasons.

Later in the novel, Jim’s grandparents decide they are growing too old to work on the land any longer and the family move to Black Hawk, their nearest town. It’s not long before Ántonia also comes to town, to work as a housekeeper, and she and Jim renew their friendship for a while – but due to differences in background, gender and education, their lives eventually take them in very different directions. Although Jim and Ántonia grow apart over the years, both characters continue to cherish their childhood memories and their shared experiences of life on the Nebraska plains.

While Ántonia is the title character, the whole story is seen through Jim’s eyes and there are long sections, particularly in the second half of the book, where Jim is discussing his time at university or his relationship with Lena Lingard (another immigrant girl) and Ántonia is barely mentioned. However, it is when Ántonia is on the page that the story comes alive and I think this is why I enjoyed the book more at the beginning than I did towards the end.

I’m glad I gave Willa Cather a second chance and I’m sure I’ll be reading more of her books in the future. If anyone else is considering reading Cather for the Women’s Classic Literature Event, I would definitely recommend starting with My Ántonia!

Beau Geste by P.C. Wren

Beau Geste When choosing what to read for Karen and Simon’s 1924 Club, I was pleased to find two unread books already on my shelf that were published in the required year: Precious Bane by Mary Webb and Beau Geste by Percival Christopher Wren. I do still want to read Precious Bane at some point (I’m curious to see what I think of it, having read some very mixed reviews), but I decided on Beau Geste instead as it sounded like a book I would be almost certain to enjoy.

Beau Geste is many things: an adventure novel set in North Africa; a tale of the French Foreign Legion; an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit. But if I was asked to describe it in one sentence, I would say that it’s a book for people who like puzzles.

It begins with a particularly fascinating and perplexing puzzle – the discovery by Major Henri de Beaujolais of a fort in the desert manned entirely by dead soldiers, their bodies strategically positioned around the walls and ramparts. Their commander is dead too, with a bayonet through his heart, a revolver in one hand and a letter in the other. Telling this story later to a friend, the Major is still trying to work out what could have happened at the fort and what the sequence of events could have been. His friend, however, is more interested in the contents of the letter in the dead officer’s hand: a letter which leads us to a second puzzle – the disappearance of a precious sapphire known as ‘the Blue Water’.

Before we can solve either of these two mysteries, we need to go back in time and meet the Geste brothers – Michael (nicknamed Beau because he is so good and honourable), his twin, Digby, and the youngest, John. The Gestes are orphans and live with their aunt, Lady Brandon, to whom the Blue Water belongs. All three brothers are present when the jewel disappears and all three decide to take the blame. One by one, they confess to the crime and run away to join the French Foreign Legion. Eventually they find themselves at the Fort of Zinderneuf in French North Africa, where Henri de Beaujolais stumbles upon the scenario described at the beginning of the book.

Most of the novel is narrated by John Geste and through his eyes we are given some fascinating insights into life in the Foreign Legion, where people from a mixture of backgrounds and nationalities live and work together. During their time in the Legion, John and his brothers form some lasting friendships but also witness treachery and betrayal as a group of their fellow soldiers begin to plan a mutiny. And this provides yet another puzzle, as John tries to decide who can and cannot be trusted, who knows about the mutiny and who does not.

This book was, obviously, published in 1924 and it does feel very dated now, particularly in its attitudes towards race and class (it’s definitely not what you could call politically correct). Many of the characters – for example, Hank and Buddy, two American cowboys who befriend the Geste brothers – feel like stereotypes or caricatures. It’s so much fun to read, though, that it’s easy enough to overlook any flaws; the only thing that did spoil the book slightly for me was a long section near the end which takes the story in a different direction – this didn’t really seem necessary and only delayed the resolution of the mystery.

1924-club I enjoyed Beau Geste as much as I expected to and was pleased to find that P.C. Wren wrote more books featuring some of the same characters. I’m looking forward to reading Beau Sabreur and Beau Ideal!

Oswald: Return of the King by Edoardo Albert

Oswald One of my favourite reads from the first half of this year was Edwin: High King of Britain, the first in Edoardo Albert’s Northumbrian Thrones trilogy which tells the stories of three seventh century kings. On a visit to the library a few weeks ago I was pleased to find a copy of the second book, Oswald: Return of the King – and I was delighted to discover that it was just as good as the first.

It’s not necessary to have read Edwin: High King of Britain before starting this book – the key events of the previous book are given in a summary at the beginning of this one – but those of you who did read Edwin may remember Oswald as the young boy who fled into exile with his family after his father, Æthelfrith, King of Northumbria, was killed in battle.

During the years of Edwin’s reign, Oswald remains in the northern kingdom of Dal Riata, living amongst the monks on the island of Iona, where he is converted to Christianity. When news of Edwin’s death reaches the island, Oswald is reluctant to take action; he has no real desire to claim the throne for himself and would prefer to stay on Iona and enter the monastery. Abbot Ségéne, however, has other ideas – he wants Oswald to become king so that he can spread the new religion to his people – and a sequence of events follows which will leave Oswald with little choice other than to return to Northumbria and regain his father’s throne.

Oswald’s story is as exciting and engrossing as Edwin’s was. If the title, Return of the King, has made you think of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, that’s not a coincidence: Tolkien is thought to have taken the historical Oswald as the inspiration for his fictional character, Aragorn. Edoardo Albert lists Tolkien as a favourite author and there is a definite influence here, though it would be difficult to say how much. This tale of treachery and betrayal, stolen thrones and warring kingdoms does sometimes feel like fantasy – but of course, it isn’t; Oswald was a real person and Albert’s novel is based on historical fact (except where some imagination was clearly needed to fill in the gaps).

Oswald himself is a fascinating character and I thought his internal struggle between his desire to become a monk and his duty to become king was very well written. I also loved the portrayal of his relationship with his younger brother, Oswiu, who is going to be the subject of the third book in the trilogy. The brothers have very different temperaments, and while the loyalty and love they have for each other is plain to see, there’s also a tension which is always there below the surface.

Other characters include friends such as the monk, Aidan, who brings Christianity to the island of Lindisfarne, and enemies such as Cadwallon, King of Gwynedd, and Penda, King of Mercia – and I was pleased to see the return of Coifi, the pagan priest whom we first met in Edwin: High King of Britain, now a lost and lonely character having had his faith in the old gods shaken. I should also mention Oswald’s wonderful pet raven, Bran, who seems to have a personality all of his own (I wasn’t aware until after finishing the book that there are stories associating the real Oswald with a raven).

Before reading this book I had very little knowledge of Oswald or this period of history, so I found it a very informative novel as well as an entertaining one. Albert includes a lot of useful additional material: there’s a map showing the various kingdoms that made up Britain in the year 635, a character list, a glossary of unfamiliar words and a pronunciation guide – which was very helpful as I would otherwise have had no idea how to pronounce a name like Rhieienmelth!

I’m now looking forward to the third book in the trilogy – and while I await its publication I think I would like to read The King in the North by Max Adams for a non-fiction view of Oswald.