Tag Archives: World War I

The Picky Girl Reviews The Bolter by Frances Osborne

25th February 2011

A good friend of mine, Ashlynn, has great taste in a lot of things, but we haven’t often given one another book recommendations. So I knew when she let me know a couple of weeks ago that she would be passing a book my way, it would be awesome. There are no words…. almost.

The Bolter: The story of the wild, beautiful, fearless Idina Sackville, descendant of one of England’s oldest families, who went off to Kenya in search of adventure and became known as the high priestess of the scandalous “Happy Valley Set.”

Totally sounds made up, right? Except it’s not. I have been on a nonfiction kick lately anyway, and one thing I have learned is truth really can be stranger than fiction. A lot stranger.

Idina Sackville is born to a woman who crosses lines and challenges the societal norms of her time. She divorces her husband, organizes activists, and generally raises hell. Idina is no different, though at first she appears to adhere to the expectations of a young, wealthy woman. She finds a handsome, independently-wealthy man and marries him. However, the world is on the brink of World War I, and love is expendable. Happiness becomes a momentary, fleeting emotion, and men on the front are willing and eager to seek that high wherever they may find it. Idina, a sensible young woman, goes about finding happiness on her own, and in the process, she loses her children and what is, to the author Frances Osborne believes, the love of her life.

Frances, the great-granddaughter or granddaughter (forgive me, I’m not good with lineage) is the teller of this fantastical tale. She may take some liberties; however, she uses primary sources often, even interviewing former friends of Idina who asked not to be named, and that which is not cited still feels very close to the truth.

Idina is enigmatic. Not classically beautiful, she exudes sex and the forbidden, attracting men half her age and then some into her intriguing lair. Clothes are designed for her. Newspapers follow her, yet Idina pays little attention. She runs headlong into relationship after relationship, seeking the one thing she has never been able to find again after Euan, her first husband – love, based on mutual respect, attraction, and emotion.

What she finds instead, is man after man who must be entertained in order not to stray. Amuse them, she does, throwing lurid parties, spoken about in hushed tones by neighbors or those unlucky enough not to be invited. Unfortunately for Idina, there are moments when she is unable to be the entertainer, such as when she becomes pregnant with her third husband’s child:

For all her nonchalance – photographs show her lolling on the lawn, a book balanced on her bump – the pregnant Idina’s life was full of, as the Kenyans called them, shauries (worried). However active she remained, when the baby arrived, shortly after Christmas, she would be forced to lie low for several weeks, leaving Joss unattended to. And Joss it had become clear, needed constant female attention. As long as he returned from his liasons, that was fine. But he might not.

Idina’s frank realizations of her husbands’ limitations and her willingness to “loan them out” in order to retain them was, to me, so sad. Her life, though fascinating, was tireless and unsettled. She loses husband after husband, meets her adult sons and loses them to the war in quick succession, and mourns the love she never truly got over, Euan. She wore a ring he gave her until the end of her life and always kept a photo of him in her bedroom, regardless of with whom she shared her bed.

The Bolter is a tantalizing account of not just a woman but also of a time period bookended by war, an era marked by loss and desperation. Osborne creates a world where that desperation is played out in drawing rooms and boudoirs, where each person is aware of the stakes but not necessarily prepared for the fallout.

Because every generation attempts to blame the fall of society on the next, I was honestly shocked by the goings on in Edwardian England, and if you are looking for nonfiction or just a really interesting read, I highly recommend you pick up The Bolter.

jenn aka picky girl aka a total square (at least compared to Lady Idina Sackville)


**Don’t forget today is Friday, and that means you are invited to participate in Friday Reads, which I talked about last week. You can join in the fun on Facebook, Twitter, or on the blog. Find out what others are reading and win some really cool prizes.

Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

20th September 2010

A few weeks ago, at the library, I saw a really interesting book cover: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld. I didn’t pick it up as I have been insanely busy, and my book bag was already overflowing. However, when I saw the Texas Book Festival site and got so excited about the author list, I knew I had to go back and pick up Leviathan as Scott Westerfeld will be in Austin in October! There are also other bloggers whose opinions I respect (like Amanda at The Zen Leaf) who rave about Westerfeld’s series, The Uglies.

Leviathan is set during World War I, and much of it is historically accurate. Westerfeld’s genius, though, is in changing how these events take place, and I was fascinated pretty much from page one. I’ve learned since reading this, the technique is called ‘steampunk.’* The major dividing line between the two sides is not simply political. Instead, the Germans, Austrians, and Russians are Clankers – they create and depend on huge metal, industrial machines to defend themselves. Alek, the son of the assassinated archduke, is thrust from a cush life with simple defense training in a mechanical Stormwalker into defending himself and several servants bound to protect him. Alek’s questionable lineage makes him a threat to the forces wanting to take the place of the archduke. Running from his own people, Alek is forced to look at life in a much different way, made unbelievably clear to him when he comes into contact with the outside world.

The British, not yet in the fight, believe themselves to be more enlightened. Termed the Darwinists, the British rely on new crossbred animals to defend themselves. Scientists look to animals to find strengths and abilities and then use these  to create super animals, such as the leviathan (have I mentioned my love affair with this word? I love it). Filled with hydrogen by other smaller working animals, the leviathan is an air ship, similar to a blimp. Deryn Sharp, a young woman whose father was obsessed with flight, is determined to be in the British Air Service. Young women are not allowed, however, and Deryn must disguise herself and prove she is capable enough to man the ship. When Leviathan comes under attack and crashes in Switzerland near Alek’s secret hiding place, both Alek and Deryn come face to face and forge an unlikely alliance, as the two sides with distinct ideologies (Clankers and Darwinists) are distrustful and skeptical of one another.

This story was fascinating to me: the Darwinist animals and their purposes were interesting (although the implications were somewhat troubling), but the descriptions of them were beautiful as well. The book is illustrated with beautiful work by Keith Thompson and though I loved the illustrations, Westerfeld’s words truly built these creatures in my mind. The mindset of the two sides was evident and understandable – the Darwinists are seen as intervening where they should not be, creating “beasties” for the sole purpose of exploitation. The Clankers are seen as wasteful and unimaginative. Both sides have excellent points, which I think will further be explored in the sequel.

Which brings me to: THE SEQUEL!! I didn’t know anything about this book when I picked it up and certainly didn’t realize there was a sequel, scheduled to appear in October, until I got to the end – a total cliffhanger. When I went in search of the sequel, I realized it wasn’t out yet and was more than a little miffed that Westerfeld would leave me in such a bind. In other words, I LOVED this book. It is an excellent, fun read, and I would recommend it to adults and children alike.

Last and not least, I loved the female roles in this book. Deryn is a feisty, spunky character with great dialogue and an inner drive that is admirable. Plus, she likes science. In fact, she gets totally wrapped up in it:

How old Darwin figured out how to weave new species from old, pulling out the tiny threads of life and tangling together under a microscope. How evolution had squeezed a copy of Deryn’s own life chain into every cell of her body. How umpteen different beasties made up the Leviathan – from microscopic hydrogen-farting bacteria in its belly to the great harnessed whale. How the airships creatures, like the rest of Nature, were always struggling amongst themselves in messy, snarling equilibrium.

Deryn makes no apologies for her preferences and passions, but she certainly gets a kick out of one of Leviathan’s passengers. Dr. Barlow, a female relative of Darwin, makes a surprise appearance on the airship, shocking Deryn, who thus far has only seen that a woman must hide her true identity to do what she loves. Dr. Barlow is stubborn and intelligent and a leader in her field. It was exciting to see such strong female characters, even if one is in disguise. I trust Westerfeld will address this further as the series moves along. Leviathan is an action novel, fun for all ages; pick it up, and watch for my review of Behemoth, the next book of the series.

*Steampunk is really quite fascinating, with origins in many familiar classics authors. I once wrote an essay on the marriage of science and fiction in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. The beginnings of the idea are there. Alternate history is really what it’s all about, but it’s also about the scientific discoveries during the late 19th century and early 20th century, which allowed writers, inventors, and artists to open their imaginations to a world previously unknown to them. Another aside: I heard on NPR this morning that Charles Babbage actually invented the first computer in the mid 1800s. Who knew? (If you did and think I’m really lame, please don’t tell me in comments. Thanks.) 🙂

Other reviews:

The Book Smugglers

The Zen Leaf