Book Review: Timeline by Michael Crichton

I first read this as a tattered library copy, almost ten years ago, when I was still in college.Even back then, I could see why the paperback was dog-eared and well thumbed through, its spine full of creases. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, but for many years, I was unable to find it in local bookstores since it’s not a new title, and reprints are harder to find. I was overjoyed when by chance, I found a copy at Book Xcess recently (I was going to the checkout counter and almost missed it).

Timeline is classic Crichton – clever, suspenseful and thrilling – and once you get going, it’s extremely hard to put down. If you love medieval European history and an action packed narrative involving people from the future being thrown into the past, then Timeline will keep you glued to its pages, and then some.

Synopsis 

A vacationing couple driving through the Arizona desert discover a wandering old man, who seems lost and incoherent. They bring him in to a local hospital, where it is discovered that he is an employee of a quantum tech company called ITC. However, he quickly succumbs to abnormalities in his blood vessels, and dies. On his body are detailed sketches of what look like floor plans for a monastery.

In southwest France, archaeology professor Edward Johnston heads a group of young archaeologists, studying the 14th-century towns of Castelgard and La Roque, under funding from the ITC. After an interview with a local reporter, the Professor, suspecting ITC of undermining their operations, travels to New Mexico to confront its CEO, Robert Doniger. During his absence, the professor’s students uncover disturbing artefacts in a sealed chamber at their excavation site – including a message from the professor supposedly written on a 600-year-old parchment, as well as his eyeglasses.

Four of the students – Andre, Chris, Kate and David – fly to ITC HQ to search for answers. There, they are informed that ITC has developed a quantum technology that allows for time travel, and that they need the group’s help to extricate the Professor, who is somehow stuck in the 14th century after travelling back there with a machine. 3 of them, Andre, Chris and Kate, return to the past with two guides, while David remains behind. Things quickly go awry once they arrive, with one of their guides being beheaded by a knight, and the other escaping back to the present, only for the grenade he pulled to detonate once he returned to ITC, destroying the laboratory. While the present day team scramble to repair the machines so the group will be able to come back home, Andre, Chris and Kate have less than 36 hours to find the professor before their batteries run out and they are trapped forever –  all while navigating a brutal time period where violence and power rule, and the slightest wrong move might mean death.

Verdict 

Like many of Crichton’s novels,Timeline is nicely paced and action packed; keeping the reader enthralled as to what comes next. Crichton’s novels usually follow a ‘formula’ – the stories typically start off by introducing a problem, or by highlighting that something has gone wrong. We see this in novels like Micro, which opens with people getting killed under mysterious circumstances (we later find out that they’re actually killer bots), and Jurassic Park, where an employee of InGen is brought with serious injuries from Lo Sa Raptor (we later find out = dinosaurs). Similarly, the lost and not-of-sound-mind employee the couple find in the desert sets the story up that not everything is going smoothly, and a shit storm is brewing.

Next, we’re introduced to the cast of characters. Like my favourite author Stephen King, Crichton’s protagonists often fall into a category, but instead of authors and writers (which King likes), they’re usually scientists and those in academia – but with athletic prowess (how else are they going to survive all the physical shit that’s going to be thrown at them?). I remember reading Micro and going ‘wow that’s convenient, that they’ve got all these characters that have just the right skill for a particular situation’. Timeline is no exception – but perhaps it is necessary to ensure that the characters have a higher fighting chance. (Imagine dropping me into the medieval era – the first thing I’d do is lose my glasses, and then stumble around blind, then get eviscerated by a noble. Probably).

There’s Andre, a researcher who is obsessed with the medieval era, and who (conveniently) knows how to joust, fight with a sword and a longbow, and speaks the local languages of the era. It seems he is made for medieval times – and jumps right into the fighting, with no hesitation of killing those who seek to harm them whatsoever. Kate, the architecture expert, is able to utilise her knowledge of the buildings to look for secret passages in the castle, helping the group to narrowly escape pursuit several times. She also has great reflexes and climbing prowess, enabling her to escape from dangerous situations. Chris, the comic relief, has the greatest character development, from a somewhat weak and whiny pretty boy to discovering a streak of bravery that lets him stay alive and also help his friends.

I really like how Timeline tries to make things seem more believable by incorporating aspects that most novelists would not think about. For example, I hate the fact that some books (and films) just drop their characters in the middle of another era and all the characters can speak the same language. Worse still, you have movies like Memoirs of a Geisha, where the actors are non-Japanese, and they all speak English in bad accents, lol. In Timeline, the predominant language used is Middle English, which is very different from the modern English we use today (reading the novel actually prompted me to go look up videos on Youtube), as well as languages like Occitan and Latin. To overcome this, the group have earpieces that automatically translate whatever is being said to modern English. But this doesn’t overcome the fact that some of the group are unable to speak in the language of that era, which proves to be a challenge when interacting with the medieval people they come across.

An interesting theme that is raised in the book is the accuracy of what is portrayed in history. What we know today of medieval times is largely based on what we have unearthed, in writing or records, but there is no sure way of capturing the way medieval people lived exactly, because so little of this history survived. Like the bones of dinosaurs, we’re able to guess as to how they probably looked like, but not how they behaved. Similarly, buildings and castles provide a very brief glimpse into medieval times, and we have certain records of things – but at the end of the day, where there is no concrete record, everything is mere speculation and subjectivity. The characters discover this when they time travel.

All in all, Timeline is a great science fiction-cum-action novel. If you love fast paced, action packed science fiction novels, and you like Michael Crichton’s works like Andromeda Strain, Micro, Jurassic Park and Sphere, Timeline provides a solid 8.5/10.

 

Book Review: The Lady Of The Rivers by Philippa Gregory

Most tales in history tell the stories of men, who ride to wars for gospel, glory and gold, or scheme and plot against their political rivals. Little is said of the women who lived in these times, except as ‘commodities’ – pawns to be married off to cement alliances, bring wealth into a family, or treated as baby-making machines. But historians and storytellers often forget that women are individuals of their own, with hopes, dreams, wants and desires beyond what has been laid out for them by men and people in positions of power. And even in misogynistic societies that try to control and suppress women even as they fear them, there are brave women who dare forge paths for themselves, grasping their fate in their hands to change their own fortunes.

It is for this reason that I enjoy reading Philippa Gregory‘s novels and her rich descriptions of events and life in medieval Britain. Gregory’s characters are colourful, passionate, and while we can only speculate to the person’s nature based on what happened in history, her highly romanticised and embellished accounts breathe life into them. In any case, I think it’s a great way to introduce lay readers to these extraordinary people, often female, who are otherwise forgotten as mere footnotes in history.

While most of us would know prominent figures such as Anne Boleyn or Margaret Tudor, (thanks to popular portrayal in modern media), there isn’t much about Jacquetta St Pol, despite her being a lady of importance in the court of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou during the Wars of the Roses.

Gregory’s Lady of the Rivers shines some light into this often overlooked figure.

Synopsis

Young Jacquetta is a lady of a noble Luxembourg household, whose family claims ancestry from the water goddess Melusina. She befriends Joan of Arc, held prisoner by her uncle, and who was later burned as a witch by English troops. This early encounter teaches Jacquetta the fate that awaits a woman who tries to overstep her role in a world of men. Even so, Jacquetta is gifted by the Sight, and is determined to make her own way in the world.

Three years later, Jacquetta marries John, the Duke of Bedford, who seeks to use her otherworldly ‘gifts’ to discover the secrets of alchemy. After his death, Jacquetta is left a wealthy widow. She falls in love with her husband’s squire, Richard Woodville – an honourable man, but poor. They get married in secret, much to the displeasure of the King, and are exiled from court after paying a heavy fine. Jacquetta gives birth to their first child, Elizabeth Woodville. Little do they know the future in store for her.

The couple is eventually forgiven and allowed back to court, where they rise in favour with the ruling house of Lancaster. Jacquetta and Richard Woodville are allies to Henry VI and his French bride Margaret of Anjou, Jacquetta’s kinswoman, but the royal couple become increasingly unpopular. No thanks to favouritism and the lavish of titles and land to select nobles, rivalry between the houses of Lancaster and York come to a head. Margaret of Anjou falls pregnant with the heir to the throne, although it is heavily implied that the baby was fathered by the court favourite Duke of Somerset. To make things worse, the king falls into a coma, and civil war breaks out. Jacquetta, her husband and their allies are now forced to navigate a dangerous minefield as the country descends into chaos.

Verdict 

The Lady of the Rivers is signature Gregory, woven around a central female character full of fiery passion and a refusal to go quietly into the night. Gregory’s protagonists are never shrinking violets, but actively working behind the scenes to secure their future and ensure the survival of their families and loved ones. As a character, Jacquetta seems to crave a quiet life surrounded by her husband and her children, but cannot resist a higher calling and is torn between her sense of loyalty for her household and doing what is right for the country. Jacquetta’s foresight does not give her much relief, as even though it is told as if she has the power to foresee certain events or what may come to pass, she is often powerless in doing anything to stop or change what is to come.

As usual, actual events in history are used as the basis for much of the novel, and it was a good entry point for me to find out more about the Plantagenets, the 300-year dynasty that came before the Tudors. Truth is stranger than fiction, and these historical accounts are juicier than Game of Thrones : there’s murder, treason, adultery, betrayal, war and savagery, kinsmen turning on kinsmen.

Gregory’s works often feel rushed at the ending, and this was no exception, ending almost abruptly – but all in all, The Lady of the Rivers was a solid read. I’d recommend picking one up if you’re interested to expand your knowledge on British medieval history (as well as her other works), although they shouldn’t be used as factual basis.

Score: 7/10

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Little Giraffe Book Club @ Batu 11 Cheras, Selangor

We tend to picture libraries as tranquil, cosy sanctuaries – so the last place you’d expect to find one is in an old kampung house in the middle of a Chinese village. Opened in late 2017, the Little Giraffe Book Club at Batu 11 Cheras is anything but your average ‘library’. Formerly a dilapidated home, the space was given a new lease of life by curator Lee Soon Yong and a group of passionate architecture students, who envisioned a communal space that would also benefit the community.

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Originally, the Little Giraffe Book Club was a community initiative started by a group of kindergarten teachers with the aim of educating children in the village. Back then, the library was housed in a mobile container. Seeing the need for a proper place and with support from the locals, Lee, a former architecture student who grew up in the village, embarked on the project after returning from his studies in Taiwan.

Much of the building’s old exterior has been retained – from the pink and green wooden panels to the traditional windows and grates, zinc roofing and shaded veranda. Like many village homes, the compound is not gated, and there are benches and seats for visitors to rest on.

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The interior has been remodeled into a library-cum-cafe space, with open, lofty ceilings. One side of the space also features floor to ceiling windows, so the result is a bright, cheerful space with plenty of sunshine to filter in.

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The library corner, which sits on an elevated section, carries a large selection of children’s books in various languages. The layout of wooden shelves and steps makes it more fun and interactive for the children, who sit cross legged on the floor to read their books or play with toys. To be frank, this is the noisiest ‘library’ I’ve been in – but I’m sure it works well for the kids, because most of them learn through stimulation and play.

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So why a giraffe? Lee says it’s because children like animals, and a giraffe is far sighted – just like their vision to improve the community through educating the next generation. “You can’t force adults to read, but you can encourage reading habits from a young age,” Lee explains.

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The space is not only a library – it also runs as a cafe, which is how they support the book club. Their specialty is rojak – (for the non-Malaysians reading this, it’s a type of salad. But definitely not the healthy kind lol), since one of the people running the place is the son of the couple who run the famous Rojak Wan stall in TTDI! I never used to like rojak until I had Rojak Wan’s – the beautiful combination of fresh fruits and veggies, tossed in a thick shrimp paste sauce and topped with crunchy crackers, fried Chinese crullers and ground nuts – is simply divine.

Aside from rojak, they offer coffee and simple fare such as burgers and rice dishes. Expect a long wait if the place is crowded, however.

Due to the zinc roofing and its lack of air conditioning, the space can get very warm in the afternoons. It’s best to come in the mornings or evenings, and if you have an off day on the weekday, come then to avoid the weekend crowds.

LITTLE GIRAFFE BOOK CLUB

114, Jalan 15, Batu 11 Cheras, Selangor

Opening hours: Wednesday to Sunday, 1pm to 10pm

facebook.com/littlegiraffebookclub