This Time

TT_CoverJoan Szechtman

Basset Books, 2009

343 Pages, Fiction

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

When the Portland Chapter of the Richard III Society decides to restore the 15th Century ruler’s good name and discredit the Shakespearean version, they do what any big-thinking historical society would do: travel back in time, kidnap the man himself and bring him into the present day to testify on his own behalf. Let me get one thing out of the way: when I first heard the premise for this book I did not think it could work, but it does.

Vast amounts of money and resources are put to work to revise a couple of seemingly historical footnotes and once Richard III arrives in the 21st Century we have a sentimental fish-out-of-water story where a lonely man struggles to rebuild a family. The book is most interesting when we see the world through Richard’s eyes. Questions aside, and there are many questions, we join the simple yet elegant King of England as he learns about everything from the Internet to formatting Excel spreadsheets. Most mesmerizing is Richard’s discovery and reaction to the Holocaust and the issue of prisoner treatment that suddenly emerged. With a prior reference to the 2004 Abu Ghraib prison debacle and Richard III’s own treatment of prisoners, not to mention the fact the he is a prisoner himself, this theme is explored briefly and then quickly set aside as the book becomes a romance story where Richard is conflicted between passion and 15th Century dogma.

And this is an example of what prevents this book from being great. Many times during the story, the author puts Richard in a situation that could be absolutely fascinating but we never learn what Richard thinks, or how he is reacting. I wanted to be inside the head of a 15th Century person who is seeing New York City for the first time. I wanted to know how utterly frightened Richard III was when he took his first airplane flight, and join him as he browsed the history section of his first modern bookstore. I wanted to experience his utter confusion and fascination when learning about the Internet.

These things are amazing to experience for the first time, even when you’ve grown up in THIS century but Richard accepts everything he sees at face value and never questions how something so damn big can get off the ground. When he’s at the airport, he even chooses to do a crossword puzzle instead of standing at the window watching the planes take off and land (on a side note: is it even possible for him to do a crossword puzzle, something that depends on one’s knowledge of trivia and popular culture?).

But the author has sacrificed these moments for the sake of moving the story along. The pace is very quick and I was able to finish the book in a couple of days. The writing is sound, the characters are good and Szechtman is a sentimentalist whose first novel has a lot of heart.

One last thing that must be addressed is the issue of time travel. This is not an uncommon devise and has been used in many books and films, with varying degrees of scientific explanation. The Back to the Future movies used a car powered by plutonium or lightening, traveling at 88 miles per hour, with a weird electrical do-dad called a flux capacitor, and a dial where you punched in your destination date and time. This worked. On the other hand, the Terminator movies sent men and machines through time with no explanation whatsoever. We are forced to accept that in the not-too-distant future, after most of the world has been destroyed by a nuclear holocaust, there exists one or more devises that allow for time travel. This also works and we accept it because all we want is explosions, car chases and enough ordinance to end the Iraq war, so we’re willing to accept this necessary malarkey about time travel.

This Time falls somewhere in the middle, and while adequate explanation is given to the time-travel devise called Q-Trip, the technological possibilities surrounding the machine open a gigantic scientific can of worms that cannot be ignored. If 21st Century scientists are able to pluck a person from his place in time and set them in confinement, as they do to Richard III, what is stopping them from abducting Hitler, or the 9-11 hijackers, or any of history’s most terrible villains?

The scientists are even able to send a camera back in time to record history to be watched on TV in this time. Imagine the historical mysteries that could be answered with this technology! We could learn how the pyramids were built, witness Moses parting the Red Sea and discover who really shot JFK! But this monumental scientific achievement is used for a very small purpose, to restore the reputation of an obscure King of England.

This Time does not address these possibilities, and it doesn’t need to because it merely sets the stage. This is a book that made me think, that got my imagination running, that generated new and fascinating ideas, and in doing so, exceeded my expectations in a way I never thought possible. Nice work, Joan, you pulled it off.

Strengths: strong writing, good pacing, interesting premise and likable characters

Opportunities: missed some opportunities to address what we take for granted to someone with no background, some scientific holes

Will appeal to: sentimentalists, history buffs, romance readers

This Time is available from AbeBooks and Atlas Books and will be available on amazon December 12th, 2009.

Visit Joan Szechtman’s website.

Reviewed by Mark McGinty, September 2009

3 Responses to This Time

  1. I hope you don’t mind my commenting on this excellent review, Mark, but I want to offer a bit of explanation as to why I didn’t address all of Richard’s “fish-out-of-water” reactions. My first drafts had more of Richard’s reactions to technology, but I found I had to trim the book in favor of the historical aspects which I found more interesting than Richard’s reaction to his first plane flight–a now deleted chapter in my junk pile–for example. But the main reason I abandoned about 30K words of the original draft was because Richard “told” me what to write and where to take it. It was as though he came to life for me, and I hope the ultimate result is that he comes to life to people who read the book.

    Interestingly, I didn’t see the book as a romance, even though there is a romantic element. In a way though, I have to agree with this assessment in that it is a romance between me as a writer and my subject. I find I’m quite passionate that people see the real Richard and not the fiction that the Tudors wanted us to see.

    And I’m absolutely thrilled that I made you think. IMO, that is the mark of a book worth reading. I hope others who read this book will think so too.

    Respectfully,

    Joan Szechtman

  2. shylove says:

    That perfect article. THANKS! You guys do a great blog, and have some great contests. Keep up the good work.

  3. Anne Gilbert says:

    I’ve read this book, and I though it ws quite good for a first novel. Like you, I had some trouble, to say the least, with the way Richard III adjusted to the modern world. I think he should have struggled a lot more with some issues, What would he think, for example, of something like same sex marriage? I wish I knew. The other weakness, which a writer friend of mine pointed out was, that (a) he tended to recover far too quickly from injuries, and (b), none of the other characters were as well developed. However, I really liked the novel on a lot of levels; I just think that it shows it’s a first novel.

    Finally, and only partly related to your review, what do you mean by a “sentimentalist”? I’ve never heard this expression being appled to reading tastes.
    Anne Gilbert

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