Wednesday 25 January 2023

The Toymakers, Robert Dinsdale

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The Toymakers opens with a young Cathy Wray pregnant and on the cusp of being forced to give up her baby when it arrives. Instead, she runs away to London and Papa Jack’s Emporium where she will find a job and a home. The Emporium is a magical place full of toys beyond the imagination. It opens with the first frost of the winter and closes with the appearance of snowdrops. What Cathy will do when it closes at the end of the season she doesn’t quite know, but something tells her she’ll be taken care of.

Papa Jack's sons, Emil and Kaspar, are both following in their father’s footsteps and spend their time creating new wonders for customers to enjoy. Emil’s toy soldiers are reliable sellers but he is unsatisfied, struggling to fashion the magic that Kaspar and Papa Jack are able to conjure. Despite Cathy being the constant throughout, it is really the relationship between Emil and Kaspar which is the main focus of the novel. They both fall for Cathy and predictably it is Kaspar she chooses, condemning Emil to a lifetime of watching his brother live the life he wants. The sibling rivalry never ceases, even when, or perhaps especially when, Kaspar leaves to fight in the First World War.

The war is described from a distance, through Kaspar’s letters which hide the reality of what he is experiencing. When he returns however, he is broken. It feels sensitively done, both the impact on those who went to fight, and those who stayed behind. The difficulty for Cathy and her daughter Martha, waiting for word from him, and the sense of betrayal when she realises he’s kept so much from her. The way their relationship is changed is thoughtfully written - their reunion does not heal the horrors of war but Cathy is loyal and patient as the years pass and her once animated husband remains a cold shell of his former self.

Papa Jack has also experienced unimaginable suffering, but through it learnt the power of toys to transport people of any age back to the innocence of childhood. The emporium he creates is a wonderland that visitors hold in their heart well into adulthood. It is richly imagined and all too easy to believe in the patchwork animals with more than a little life in them, the paper forest, and the cloud castle. Reading it allows a slice of magic out into the world. It is not all wonder and delight however, the realities of the outside world seep in, the conflicting brothers strain an already difficult financial time, and the walls of the Emporium are not immune to the bombs of the Blitz.

This is a fantastical book with a heavy dose of reality. Jealousy, discrimination, and financial ruin are all present. There is deep familial love running through but it is up against a barrage of difficulty. A fun read that can at times feel a little aimless, but at others will have you frantically turning the pages to find out what happens next.

Saturday 14 January 2023

The Panic Years, Nell Frizzell

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The Panic Years - often the period covering their 20s and 30s for many women where every decision made feels dominated by the question hanging over them - do you want to become a mother? Navigating this question is difficult in and of itself but has wider implications on a woman’s life. Often, they will get stuck in a job, not wanting to move to a new role where they’ll lose their accumulated maternity rights, put off retraining with the knowledge they might not be able to complete, or worry about spending too long building a career that it’s too late to get pregnant, yet needing to progress enough to make childcare affordable (why this pressure often falls solely on the mother is infuriating and baffling. Frizzell unpacks many of the social and political reasons why the burden of making decisions about parenthood so often falls on women).

Frizzell’s own panic years were exacerbated by becoming unexpectedly single in her late twenties. She knew she wanted a baby and that her mother had experienced a fairly early menopause. This inspires a flurry of activity both professionally and sexually. She writes with honesty about the complex feelings she experiences when close friends announce pregnancies and engagements, the feeling of it being a race, as though other people reaching these milestones somehow made it less likely that she would.

She explores the unhealthy obsession people have with others’ lives, the jealousy of seeing happy family photos online yet acknowledging that the reverse is also often true with young parents scrolling enviously through child-free holiday pictures. This culture of comparison and the curated, filtered life that we expose to the world serves no-one. In reaction to a lack of commitments tying them to one place, Frizzell and her partner Nick move to Berlin for a summer with another couple. She admits to posting online about the experience with some desire to cause jealousy in those that she is jealous of.

Her fear of exposing her desire for commitment and a child finally breaks and she begins to pressure an uncertain Nick about trying to get pregnant. It makes for uncomfortable reading at times but she makes the valid counterpoint that somebody else’s indecision should not force her to use contraceptive methods that are ultimately detrimental to her wellbeing. They do eventually decide to try to become pregnant and succeed quickly, but she admits that trying to bend Nick to her desires gave her time to test out her reasoning, to really be ready herself.

The visceral description of her multi-day labour does not shy away from the difficulty of it yet manages to be beautiful and empowering, When her baby finally arrives she is honest about the struggles of being a new mum, the exhaustion, isolation, and worry. This is the key to this book, Frizzell never hides the less than flattering sides of her experience, admitting to jealousies and spite. She tackles difficult topics such as how long it takes to like, let alone love, your offspring, how in the endless sleepless nights you wonder if you made the right decision. This honesty is useful not just for those who are considering embarking on the journey of parenthood, but also for those who have had these same feelings and felt ashamed. She validates the turmoil of emotions that so many struggle with daily.

In the book’s conclusion she examines the positives to come out of the panic years, the focus and drive it instills, yet admits to not being out the other side of it just yet. An interesting, emotional read that can be a comfort in acknowledging you’re not alone in the flux, or an enlightening revelation for those close to people going through it.

Friday 6 January 2023

Dragonfly in Amber, Diana Gabaldon

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Please note, this review contains some spoilers. The book is the second in a series so will also contain some spoilers for the first book.

Outlander ended with Jamie and Claire about to embark on a new life in Paris. It is a surprise, therefore, to find Claire at the beginning of the following book in Inverness in 1968. She is there with her grown-up daughter Brianna, Frank is dead, and she is struggling with the emotions of being back in a land that holds so many memories for her. We are not told what has happened in the intervening years, just that Claire believes Jamie to have died at Culloden and that Brianna knows nothing of him. When Brianna and Roger take Claire to the grave of Jack Randall, thinking it will be a nice surprise to see the final resting place of one of Frank’s more famous ancestors, her control unravels and the truth comes out.

We then jump back to 1744 and Claire and Jamie’s attempts to stop the uprising and save so many lives. Jamie becomes a trusted confidante of Charles Stuart and he struggles with the deception required, going against a cause he himself believes in and betraying those who trust him. Their cause may be noble but it is dangerous. Their guilt is not helped by the fact they don’t know if it’s even possible for them to change the course of events, and there are times when their actions seem as though they might make defeat more likely.

The other aspect of the future they’re concerned with is Frank’s existence. Claire still feels desperately that they can’t do anything that will risk his line of descent. Jamie struggles with her obvious care for another man, especially as it means denying himself revenge on his torturer. There are questions over what responsibility there is to protect an innocent man at the cost of allowing a villain to go unpunished. Later in the book Jamie admits that it wasn’t a sense of obligation which encouraged him to follow Claire’s request, but a desire for her to have someone who loves her to return to should the need arise. This offers a sense of their relationship and the deep love they have which surpasses their own individual needs.

Their relationship isn’t perfect however. There are moments of jealousy - they both receive unwanted attention at the Palace which makes the other uncomfortable, and have both been forced into sexual relations with others for different ends. They fight and they make up, both headstrong and fiery. The different times they were born in naturally throws up some differences in outlook but perhaps not as much as you might expect.

The toughest challenge, however, comes with the loss of their baby. Claire miscarries while Jamie is engaged in a dual with Jack Randall, causing a double blow to their relationship. She blames him for the loss, but she also blames herself. They have a period of separation during the aftermath but when they finally find themselves face to face Claire realises that part of the reason she doesn’t want to be near him is because it will force her to feel all the difficult emotions she has tried to hide from. Their shared grief is realistically written and painful to read. We know from the opening chapters that there is another child but that they won’t raise it together, making this loss all the more painful. 

The breadth of this book is quite remarkable. The structure, although disorienting to begin with, leaves you with many questions you’re eager for answers to. The final revelation will leave you desperate for more, even as someone who has watched the TV series and knows what’s coming next. Brianna naturally struggles to believe Claire’s story and there is much about their life with Frank which is left unsaid. New characters have been introduced, old ones reappear, while others bow out permanently. Gabaldon writes interesting characters designed to tug at your heartstrings. There are clear lines between the heroes and the villains with only the occasional concession to a softer side to otherwise despicable characters. I look forward to getting to know many of them better over the series. There is so much to get stuck into in this novel that it’s difficult to write a concise review, but needless to say it is an emotional read, and one which provides much anticipation for the next book.