Tom Bedlam, George Hagen

Tom Bedlam was published about six years ago and I never see it anywhere any more which I think is a real shame because I absolutely loved it, so I decided to review it.  I read it the year that I studied the Development of the Novel module at university and it was fascinating to read this modern celebration of that journey.  Although Hagen is obviously a fan of Dickens, Tom Bedlam is also reminiscent of Tobias Smollett and Henry Fielding.  This book is full of the bizarre and the incredible; there are foundlings, coincidences, ragamuffins, impostors, cross-dressers, theatre troupes, child labour, orphans and lots and lots of smog.

Tom Bedlam starts out as a fatherless waif in a factory, with his pious mother but as the opening line of the novel announces, iIt is quite possible that Emily Bedlam was simply a very good woman, but to her son, Tom, she appeared insane'.  The two of them trudge through their poverty-stricken life, hindered by the occasional reappearances of Tom's scoundrel father Bill Bedlam, wannabe actor and frequent conman.  The first half of the novel is a real mix of Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby with Tom as the put-upon urchin trying to make his way in the world.  The action focuses on London, Scotland and the countryside.  There are lots of brilliant Dickensian names such as Arthur Pigeon, the Limpkin family, Sissy Grimes with the most hilarious one of all naturally belonging to the hero - Tom O'Bedlam is the traditional name for a madman.  There is a delicious cast of characters to be enjoyed here with many of the tropes of Victorian literature being deployed but with a real creative energy.  I enjoyed Hagen's previous novel, The Laments, but this one is terrific.

Top Ten Tuesday - Top Ten Heroes Who Made Me Swoon

I felt that given that I chose my Top Ten Fictional Heroines, it was about time to address the gender imbalance.  This week The Broke and Bookish are taking as their theme, 'The Top Ten Characters who X', leaving each blogger to come up with their own.  I decided to consider the romantic heroes in fiction, or more accurately the characters who I just had a gigantic crush on while I was reading.  Or even after I'd finished.  As a teenager watching Dawson's Creek, I developed my eternal adoration for Joshua Jackson (and seriously, who would ever pick Dawson?) but I am trying to steer clear of bias from television and film adaptations and just remember which heroes really stood out on the page.

1) John of Gaunt, Katherine Swynford, Katherine, The Scandalous Duchess

This one feels like cheating because he actually did exist and my favourite 'version' of him comes from the biography Alison Weir wrote of him.  Still, the fact that he was Duke of Lancaster did have a partial influence over my decision to pick Lancaster for my teacher training in 2010 so I felt that the list would feel empty without him.  Not only was John of Gaunt the Greatest King England Never Had, but he also had a long-term relationship with his daughters' governess which resulted in four children, the Tudor dynasty and their own ultimate marriage.  Scandalous?  Yes.  Swoonworthy?  Definitely.

2) Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

Even without having been played by Gregory Peck, Atticus Finch is an amazing human being.  Committed single father, humanist and passionate crusader for justice, he is the man who battles against the racism of Maycomb by sitting quietly outside the jailhouse and reading a book to prevent Tom Robinson from being lynched.  He never loses his temper, he never loses hope and he never loses sight of what is right.  The part when he is walking out of the court and everybody in the upper balcony stands up to honour him gives me goosebumps just on the page.  To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the finest novels ever written and Atticus is its hero.

3) Captain Wentworth, Persuasion

So.  I love Pride and Prejudice.  I really do.  I just never quite swooned over Darcy.  Possibly because I first read him when I was nine and conscientiously objecting to the idea of romantic relationships.  Other people object to his arrogance (and he is arrogant) but for me it is more that he belongs to Elizabeth.  Captain Wentworth on the other hand is something else.  He is the Man Who Waited, he is the Good Man, the True Gentleman amongst all the artifice of the baronetcy.  It is a trope of fiction to have a constant female, pining after her lost love.  I loved that Austen could write a constant man, that Wentworth could have been a man scorned and angry but that he could still love Anne enough to forgive her and win her back.

Burial Rites, Hannah Kent

Scandinavian crime fiction has been rather popular over the past few years.  Understatement.  However, despite taking Iceland as its setting, Burial Rites takes things from a rather original angle.  Not only is this novel written by an Australian who spent a year in Iceland as part of an exchange program, but rather than simply featuring a woman in an amazing jumper tackling a crime scene, we have instead a piece of startling and incredibly evocative historical fiction about the last woman to be executed in Iceland back in 1829.  To add to Hannah Kent's achievements, this is her first novel.  As she admits herself, she set herself no easy task but Burial Rites is a remarkable book and one the most haunting reads that I have come across in a long time.  A kind of female Dead Man Walking, the novel attempts to shed light on the life of Agnes Magnusdottir, a thirty-four year-old maidservant who was charged with the murder of her employer and his friend, along with two accomplices.  As Kent explains in the afterword, this was a true crime that has entered the folklore of Iceland much as Ned Kelly entered Australia's national heritage.

Kent has clearly done her research, her narrative is interspersed with epigraphs in the form of documents relating to the trial as the government officials negotiate the details of Agnes' execution.  The most bewildering fact of the case to the modern eye is that after sentencing, Agnes was given over into the custody of the family who owned one of the farms she had grown up at.  Burial Rites charts the winter that Agnes spent in their company while she waited for death, her own personal Green Mile as she worked with them and lived among them, and all the while the story of what happened that dark night at Illugastadir gradually unfurls.  The rhythm and routine of farm life continues but by Agnes' very presence, life for the family will never be the same again.

Capital punishment is a subject that fascinates; death itself is unknowable and the idea of it at an appointed hour is disturbing.  From the opening lines, we hear Agnes' struggle to understand her fate.  They said I must die.  They said that I stole breath from men , and now they must steal mine.  It is an arresting beginning and sets the tone for our walk with Agnes.  The idea of the murderess is another concept that enthralls our culture, the image of the black widow spider who devours her mate, the femme fatale who drives men to dark deeds.  Even in the modern day it is seen as more unnatural for a woman to commit a violent act than for a man.  Agnes is too old, too beautiful and too clever for anybody to make excuses for her.  From the very outset, the reader knows that she is doomed.

Follies Past, Melanie Kerr

I was sent a copy of this by Petticoat Press in exchange for an honest review.  It took nearly a month to arrive and when it finally did, it was accompanied with an apology from the Canadian postal service which made me laugh.  I have mentioned on more than one occasion that I am a bit of an Austen fan.  This book serves as a prequel to Pride and Prejudice and came with a host of favourable reviews so I was intrigued to see if this was going to be a lovely Longbourn or a dreadful Death Comes to Pemberley.  Only a week or so ago, I read Val McDermid's Northanger Abbey and really enjoyed it, I think that the secret to writing well in the Austen-verse is to look at the stories from a fresh perspective.  Although there was much to praise in Kerr's book, I am not entirely sure that she did.

Kerr looks at the life of the people in Mr Darcy's circle before they ever encountered the good folk of Meryton.  Caroline Bingley is trying to 'increase her family's intimacy' with the name of Darcy, Lady Catherine is preparing the rectory for her new curate, Georgiana is fretting about coming out in society and predictably, Mr Wickham is plotting something nefarious.  What impressed me from the very beginning was how well Kerr was able to maintain her use of authentic language.  While PD James' novel was very bumpy in that regard, Kerr's prose is always elegant and even.

This novel sets out to tell the story behind Georgiana's intended elopement, the dark story behind Mr Darcy's letter to Miss Elizabeth.  I have seen that story done in so many different ways.  In Mr Darcy's Diary, he had raped Georgiana and she was left wondering whether or not she was pregnant.  In more modern portrayals, Bride and Prejudice had Wickham date 'Georgie' and abandon her while pregnant, necessitating a hasty abortion.  Lost in Austen cast Georgiana as the aggressor with Wickham too honourable to shame her through the truth.  The Lizzie Bennet Diaries had him be her swim coach who allowed Darcy to pay him off to abandon her.  Longbourn suggested something very sinister about Wickham's predilection for fifteen year-old girls as he attempted to seduce the Bennet family scullery maid.  Follies Past keeps to a rather more decorous view of Regency life but still has its own perspective on What Happened Last Summer.

The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion

I avoided this book for a while, I even looked at the free Kindle Sample and decided that I was not going to like it ... I only caved when I saw how widely it had been recommended and that it was down to 99p as a Daily Deal.  Not for the first time, I admit that I was completely mistaken.  This book is fantastic, it is a brilliant feel-good romantic comedy that is genuinely hilarious.  I really hope that when the inevitable cinematic adaptation hits the big screen that they manage to capture the wit and fun that made this book such a joy to read.  The unlikely hero is Don Tilman, a middle-aged professor of genetics who has never been on a second date.  However, the first line of the novel announces, he " may have found a solution to the wife problem."

Early on in the novel, Don gives a talk on Asperger's syndrome and while he responds in confusion when a friend asks if any of the symptoms seemed familiar, it is fairly clear that Don has himself some issues.  Since his neighbour Daphne went into long-term care, Don has only two friends in the world, his colleague Gene and Gene's psychologist wife Claudia.  Although the two of them have tried to help Gene find love, their approach has been based on the 'traditional dating paradigm, which [Don] had previously abandoned on the basis that the probability of success did not justify the effort and negative experiences'.  Don has a far grander plan; a sixteen page questionnaire to filter out the unsuitable candidates.

With the rise of online-dating, The Rosie Project is a very timely satire on our increasingly algorithm-based quest for love.  Don's questionnaire weeds out those who are overweight, the smokers, the STD sufferers, the sports fans, the drinkers, the creationists and of course - those who are unpunctual.  Enter Rosie.  Aside from problems with STDs and BMI, she fits almost every one of these.  Still, given the title, the direction of this novel may seem inevitable.  Still, what we have is a glorious celebration of all that is completely unpredictable about the mysteries of human attraction.

Saturday Poem - Jabberwocky

I have always liked this poem even though I found Alice in Wonderland rather disturbing, despite being nonsense, I think you can still picture what is happening.


'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two!  One, two!  And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

Lewis Carroll

I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith

I found a World Book Day copy of I Capture The Castle and since my own one is somewhere in my parents' attic (and may or may not have been destroyed by their builder), I was delighted with my discovery.  However.  Under the terms of World Book Day, one pledges to pass the book on after reading it.  To make things clear: I Do Not Give Away Books.  I will read and reread and I will purchase other copies as presents for friends and family but I give none away.  Leaving I Capture The Castle in a bus stop in Edinburgh felt like abandoning a friend.  I kept glancing back at it as I walked away and I did not see anybody pick it up.  If anyone did - bus stop, bridge, Edinburgh - take care of it.  Love it well.  It has had a long trip and it is a fantastic book.  I have realised again why I loathe giving them away.

I Capture the Castle is a Book to Treasure.  It has one of my favourite ever narrators, the bewitching Cassandra Mortmain.  Middle child in an eccentric, poverty-stricken family, the seventeen year-old Cassandra has left school and is practising her speed-writing by telling us all about her family.  From the very first line, 'I write this sitting in the kitchen sink', we are plunged directly into her world.  Cassandra is with us every step, her voice is distinctive and consistent - she is timid, she is observant, she is naive, she is clumsy, she is honest - she is a teenage girl who is teetering on the brink of self-knowledge.  The local vicar describes her as a mix of 'Jane Eyre and Becky Sharp, a thoroughly dangerous girl'; Cassandra is teetering on the brink of self-knowledge, having to face up to her own desires and the realities of her situation.  Like most people, I first met Cassandra Mortmain when I was a teenager.  Ten years on (crumbs!), I have read far more fiction from that era and can appreciate I Capture the Castle not just as a wistful look-back at adolescence but also at the pre-war era.  Dodie Smith wrote this while in exile in America, she felt that she had missed out on something through escaping the Blitz and I Capture the Castle encompasses her homesickness and is a terribly British sort of story.

Cassandra's father is a celebrated author who has not written anything in over a decade.  After a serious misunderstanding during Cassandra's childhood which landed him in prison, Mortmain moved the entire family to Godsend Castle where he promptly succumbed to writer's block.  Since then, the family has lost a mother and gained their naturist former artist's model stepmother Topaz.  Cassandra's younger brother is happy with his school work but her older sister Rose has reached a state of extreme desperation about their state of poverty.  With no measurable income and an ever-decreasing amount of saleable furniture, the family is struggling even to feed themselves.  When kindly local librarian Miss Marcy gently suggests that they economise by cutting the wages of their late housekeeper's son Stephen, Cassandra cringes as she realises that they had never considered paying Stephen anything.  Not that he minded.  Things begin to look up though one evening when their American landlord Simon and his brother Neil get their car stuck in the lane ...