Review | A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson

GodinRuinsI had mixed feelings about Atkinson’s earlier novel Life After Life. I thought that concept behind the book — the ability to live one’s life over and over again until you get it right — was more compelling than the book itself. So when I received an advance reading copy of the companion novel A God in Ruins, I wasn’t quite that hyped up about it, and while I was going to give it a shot, I was at most cautiously optimistic.

A God in Ruins is about Teddy, the younger brother of Ursula, who in turn was the protagonist in Life After Life. Unlike Ursula, Teddy gets only one life to live, and we follow his journey from being a mischievous little boy to fighting in World War II as an RAF pilot, and finally to adjusting to life after the war.

I thought A God in Ruins was a much stronger book, though I also think that having it parallel Life After Life to some degree added to its strength. The poignancy of having only one life to live, set against the backdrop of World War II, is particularly heightened by our knowledge that having the chance to live one’s life over and over again isn’t quite tragedy-free either. The scenes about the war may be the most dramatic, but it’s Teddy’s life after the war that holds most resonance — his struggle to cope with going back to ordinary life and his strained relationship with his daughter.

There were some points where I felt bored reading the book, but other moments where scenes hold major emotional impact. I love the Adventures of Augustus stories about a little boy modelled after Teddy. The innocence and mischief in these tales are particularly resonant when contrasted with the hardness he needed to acquire for the war.

Despite the shifts back and forth in time, the story is fairly linear, with the exception of the final couple of chapters in the end. These chapters hearken to the mysticism of Life After Life, but in this case, I found they packed an emotional wallop for the reader. With these final few pages, Atkinson casts the rest of the novel in a new light, and heightens so much more the reality of war, of wasted potential, lives cut too short, and other lives that can feel too long.


Thank you to Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Scotland in Toronto, men in kilts and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander on screen

Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television

Outlander preview party at The Caledonian, Toronto. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

A Scottish-themed cocktail party on a weeknight — how could I resist? Throw in a special preview screening of the first episode of Outlander and an image of Jamie Fraser on the invitation practically commanding you to come — just see that smouldering gaze and outstretched hand! — well, yes, I’m there.

Also, well, men in kilts. Because kilts.


Why yes, there were men in kilts at the party. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

Outlander is based on the first book in a best selling series by Diana Gabaldon, and the TV adaptation premieres in Canada on Showcase Sundays at 10pm ET/PT, beginning August 24. The show begins at the end of World War II, when combat nurse Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) travels to Scotland to reconnect with her husband, professor and genealogy geek Frank (Tobias Menzies). While in Scotland, Claire is mysteriously transported two centuries back in time, and ends up falling in love with hot young warrior Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). Claire is torn, between two vastly different men and two vastly different lives.

Photographer: Ed Miller/Sony Pictures Television

Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall. Photograph by Ed Miller/Sony Pictures Television.

I’d heard this show touted as a “feminist Game of Thrones” and I’d also read several articles praising this show as a ground breaking feminist gesture. A science fiction/fantasy show aimed at women with a strong female protagonist is definitely something I support, and with Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek: The Next Generation) at the helm, this show was high on my list to check out.

I deliberately refrained from re-reading the book before the screening. From what I remember, I wasn’t a big fan of the book — I mostly thought Frank got a really raw deal, and I didn’t remember Claire being particularly strong or ground breaking. I wanted to give the TV show a chance, watch it with fresh eyes, and I’m glad I did.

The first episode is powerful, compelling television. I was hooked from the very first scene — after treating a soldier with a leg wound, Claire meets a crowd of men and women cheering and celebrating the end of the war. Claire doesn’t smile or cry in relief, or do any of the things I expected her to do. Instead, without changing her expression, she pulls out a bottle and takes a long drink. I had no idea what was going through her mind at that moment, and that was when I knew this show was going to be special. With all she’s seen, and all she’s gone through during the war, what is there to be said?

What makes a female protagonist strong? Examples range from Katniss Everdeen to Hermione Granger to Cersei Lannister, and I always love it when a female character breaks the “strong woman” mould and still manages to be kickass in her own way. In the case of Claire Randall, she mostly struck me as being real. Here is a woman who is skilled at a demanding career, yet who is haunted by the horrors she’s seen and by the need to settle down into a kind of domestic idyll. It’s a complex role, and kudos to Caitriona Balfe for bringing just the right mix of strength, vulnerability and humour to the role.

Frank and Claire. Photograph by Sony Pictures Television.

Tobias Menzies and Caitriona Balfe as Frank and Claire Randall. Photograph by Sony Pictures Television.

Claire is also wholly in charge of her own sexuality. In one scene, Frank leans in to kiss her and Claire grabs his head and pushes it down between her legs instead, and all I could think was, “You go, girl!” It seems odd that this feels new in 2014, but with so many TV shows and movies focusing on male sexuality, it is refreshing to see a woman on screen taking the lead. Sex is also key to the story — in a voiceover later on, Claire confesses that sex is how she and Frank reconnect.

Photographer: Sony Pictures Television

Catriona Balfe and Sam Heughan as Claire Randall and Jamie Fraser. Photograph by Sony Pictures Television.

I was pulling for Frank in the novel, and I love Tobias Menzies in the role. Many may remember him as Catelyn Stark’s brother in Game of Thrones (the man who shot several flaming arrows at his father’s barge and kept missing each time), but I mostly remember him as Brutus from HBO’s Rome. Here he portrays both the dashing yet adorably geeky Frank Randall and the brutish, violent Black Jack Randall, Frank’s ancestor in 1740s Scotland.

This episode as well made me realize why Claire and so many readers are in love with Jamie. Sam Heughan manages to be both smouldering and adorable in the role, and so intense in this episode that I’m hoping to see a bit more of his lighthearted side later on. There were quite a few Jamie Fraser fans in my audience: at one point, Jamie asks Claire, “Do you want me to pick you up and throw you over my shoulder?” To which a woman in the audience responded, “Yes!”

Inspired by Jamie Fraser, the lovely team at Showcase treated us party-goers to a fantastic Scottish-themed affair. There was whisky tasting at the back, where the bartender taught us how the taste of each whisky is influenced by its region of origin. It ranged from a light whisky that got its taste purely from the barrel in which it was kept (very spicy to my untrained tongue) and a peaty drink from an area with a craggy landscape, high winds and raging storms (tasted like smoke, again to my untrained tongue).

Whisky tasting station. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Television

Whisky tasting station. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

The food was amazing, featuring Scottish eggs (eggs in sausages), vegetarian haggis balls (I know, right? but it was yummy), shrimp on crostini, and a whole lot more that I can’t name, but all tasted really good.

Scottish eggs. Photography courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

Scottish eggs. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

It was great meeting up with Chatelaine Books Editor Laurie Grassi and Toronto book bloggers Christa, Michele and Liz.

Chatting with Laurie after the screening. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

Chatting with Laurie after the screening. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

Thanks to the organizers for a fantastic goodie bag, which came complete with a Pocket Jamie.

Swag bags. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

Swag bags. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

And of course, men in kilts.

Lindsey and I with the kilted men. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

Lindsey and I with the kilted men. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

Thank you to Showcase and Sony Pictures Television for a lovely evening. I was hooked by the first episode of Outlander, and I’ll definitely be following along.

Outlander airs on Showcase Sundays at 10pm ET/PT, beginning August 24. You can join the conversation on Twitter @showcasedotca and the hashtag #Outlander. See for more information.

Review | The Far Side of the Sky, Daniel Kalla

Kristallnacht. Crystal Night. Such a beautiful name for such a horrific event. Daniel Kalla’s The Far Side of the Sky begins right in the middle of this Nazi attack on Jews in Austria, and the pace never lets up. Surgeon Franz Adler is a secular Austrian Jew who just wants to stay under the radar. Unfortunately, as the “incriminating large red J” stamped on his passport proves, his very ancestry already puts him in the Nazi crosshairs, no matter what he does or doesn’t do.

So Franz takes his family (daughter Hannah and sister-in-law Esther) to Shanghai, a major refugee base for European Jews because visas aren’t required to enter. Thing is, Shanghai at that time was occupied by Japan, so it really wasn’t so much of an escape as it was a movement to a different atmosphere of fear. In Shanghai, Franz meets a Chinese-American nurse, Soon Yi “Sunny” Mah, who works with him at the Jewish refugee hospital and who is prevented from becoming a doctor only by her gender. Far Side is about people who want only to live a simple life, and yet are prevented from doing so by circumstances and their heritage. It’s tragic, yet made somewhat more bearable by their relationships with people around them.

A lot of books have been written about World War II and the years before and after it, yet most of the ones I’ve seen are about either the West or the East. Far Side stands out to me because it shows how Europe and Asia connected during this period, and how the situation in Asia was just as horrific as the one in Europe.

I love that Franz isn’t really a hero — all he wants to do is to live as normal a life as possible — and yet circumstances force him to do heroic things. I also love that both Franz and Sunny have complex backgrounds — Sunny, for example, is Chinese-American, so she faces discrimination both from the Japanese soldiers who look down on the Chinese and the Chinese who look down on those who aren’t full-blooded Chinese. In Franz’s case, his being a non-practicing Jew makes his troubles with the Nazis even more tragic; he is ostracized for a belief system to which he doesn’t even subscribe and for a race he has himself rejected.

The supporting characters are just as fascinating. The American Simon Lehrer, for example, is delightful, almost relentlessly cheerful and a welcome respite from the darkness of the material. Ernst Muhler, who wages war through his art, is a charismatic, engaging figure. Ernst is the most defiant, political figure in Franz’s community, and his fear at the realization of what he might have to sacrifice on a personal level makes him an absolutely sympathetic character. Like the victims whose unjust deaths he depicts in his art, I cheer Ernst on in his crusade; yet like Franz and other friends in Ernst’s life, I also want him to stop, and perhaps find some measure of happiness and peace.

In war, it’s far too easy to see different factions as either all good or all evil. So I love how Kalla portrays Hermann Schwartzmann and Colonel Kubota. A senior attache with the German High Commission, Hermann has no ill will towards Jews and even tries to befriend Franz. He chooses to compartmentalize, to not speak out against the Nazis so that he and his wife can have a stable life. I can understand why Franz finds Hermann’s silent complicity cowardly, even reprehensible, yet I can’t help but feel sorry for Hermann. Like Franz, Hermann also just wants to live as normal a life as possible; only difference is, Hermann is better placed to benefit from compliance. With Hermann, Kalla presents the other side of the story, the moral difficulties faced by non-Jew Germans and Austrians.

Colonel Kubota, head of the Japanese contingent in Shanghai, acts with honour and compassion. Kubota’s admiration of Ernst’s work and Ernst’s refusal to have Kubota own his art provides a kind of tension that I love. Kubota and Ernst are figures from opposite sides of two different wars, and their desire to connect or repel through art is just beautifully portrayed.

One thing I really did not like happened near the end, where Sunny does something that has a dramatic impact on a historical figure’s actions. In a novel that focuses on the struggle to live an ordinary life, that explores mundane human relationships to evince emotion, Sunny’s dramatic act rings false. It made me question, “Since this is based on history, and this character doesn’t exist in real life, then what really happened?” That part disconnected me from the story, which is a shame because of the major emotional impact already created by all the smaller scale heroic actions in the story.

Also, we are told several times that Franz’s daughter, Hannah, is handicapped. This is significant because Franz worries about how she’ll survive if he is killed or arrested. However, I see no symptoms from descriptions of Hannah herself and her actions, and so have to keep turning back to be reminded of the cerebral palsy that has other characters so worried. A small detail that shows Hannah’s “spastic weakness of left arm and leg” would have helped me picture her and better understand why Franz is especially concerned about how she would adjust in a foreign country.

Overall, Far Side is a wonderful, emotional book. Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction, romance, and David Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.