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3.9 out of 5 stars
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3.9 out of 5 stars
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VINE VOICEon 13 November 2003
What if Dorothy from “The Wizard Of Oz” really existed, Uncle Henry was a predatory paedophile, and Aunty Em and the dreadful Miss Gulch were the same person? That’s basically the main plot of this superficially bizarre, but very heartfelt post-modern take on the Oz legend.
But if it sounds like one of those dreary comical rewrites where everything is subverted just for laughs, then I’ve done it an injustice. “Was” purports to be the story of the real Dorothy, who meets L Frank Baum, who goes on to write the story of the life she should have had – the Oz books themselves.
It’s also the story of the making of “The Wizard Of Oz” movie, Judy Garland’s family strife mirroring the real Dorothy’s, and dying AIDS patient Jonathan’s obsession with them both. Everything is linked across the hundred-year span of the novel, and the end is also the beginning. But the result, a swirling mass of parallel lives across the centuries, comes across like a literary cyclone itself.
That said, this isn’t a particularly literary novel. I found it very easy to read, but to really appreciate it you need to appreciate either the film or the Oz books themselves. This isn’t a happy book, and there is little let-up from the misery. There are certainly no happy endings in the conventional sense. In a way, the characters are just swept away at the end of the novel, but when you get that far, this kind of seems fitting.
Unfortunately, this book seems to go in and out of print regularly, so snap it up whilst you still can!
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on 25 February 2001
Geoff Ryman has weaved a wonderful web of fact and fiction to produce a seductive take on L. Frank Baum's classic 'The Wizard of Oz'. The novel contains vivid descriptions of nineteenth century American life; snippets of Judy Garland's biography, and a colorful psychological drama involving a terminally ill young man. The story skips back and forth over eras and characters, echoing the relationships between the main characters. This is one of the best examples of this form of story telling I have come across - the web, though complex at times, is clearly developed for the reader and does not become confusing. A knowledge of Baum's characters is helpful preparation for reading this book. Finally, whilst 'Was' is steeped in fact and some solid true to modern life fiction, I felt that its more fanciful elements will thrill some readers but may be too resonant of the Oz story for others.
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on 23 June 1999
It is rare to encounter a book that so successfully combines so many themes into such a thought-provoking whole. The Wizard of Oz provides a framework for many lives, separated by time and space, yet entangled by their connections to the magical story of Oz. From an unhappy childhood in the Wild West of Kansas, to a early death by AIDS in contemporary USA, by way of a showbusiness upbringing in an early Hollywood, this story has no simple, happy lives, yet provides a breath-taking and stimulating vision of life.
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on 10 March 2006
As someone who aspires to write, this book is something I could readily die with as my greatest work.
This is a must read for anyone who loves Kurt Vonnegut or Douglas Coupland.
Geoff Ryman is best know for science fiction and steps out of this genre for Was which utilises his imaginative skills in a way that will leave you wondering why he is not a household name - how I wish he would give up science fiction.
I have recommended this book to half a dozen of my friends and all of them have said how much they loved it.
Please buy it - it warrants iconic status
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on 22 June 2016
I loved this book. What if Dorothy had been a real girl in real circumstances, on the surface similar, but not nearly so idyllic as the character's. Combine this idea with the story of the creation of Oz itself in book and in film - blurring fact and fiction to the point where sometimes it becomes impossible to tell the two apart (because isn't that what Oz is all about?) - this meta-take on the cultural legacy of L. Frank Baum, Dorothy and Oz is a beautiful story beautifully told with a clear love for the idea of Oz and the collective imaginations that keep it alive.
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on 13 September 2005
I don't usually like novels that try to tell several stories at once, but I did enjoy this. However, it was unnecessarily padded out - there are whole swathes of the book that could simply be discarded. The story of Dorothy's childhood in Kansas was moving and sad. Less succesful was the tale of Jonathan, the dying actor obsessed by Oz. The characters are well drawn, but this does rather add to the general bleakness of the book. I did not find the end at all uplifting, as it was clearly meant to be; I found it muddled, confusing, and something of a disappointment. The author's explanation of the roots of the story in reality was also unnecessary. Overall, an interesting and enjoyable read, but not a real masterpiece.
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First of all, don't be deterred by the science fiction tag on this novel. I personally hate SF and fantasy as genres, but this book isn't remotely SF.

"Was" tells three stories. Firstly we read about a young girl named Dorothy, living in Kansas in the 1870s, and who turns out to be the inspiration for the character of Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz". Secondly, there's a short section about Judy Garland making the film we all know. Finally, we meet Jonathan, an AIDS patient obsessed with the film and the story behind it. Of the three the story of the "real" Dorothy is a triumph, and painfully sad. The section about the film is extremely brief, almost a case of if you blink you'll miss it. Finally, the Jonathan story is less effective than the Dorothy parts, and becomes a little messy at the end in my opinion, but is still powerful. The novel flits between the three storylines, not exactly alternating from chapter to chapter in a cycle, but the chapter headings make it clear which character is being covered within.

All in all I found "Was" hugely enjoyable, and I'll definitely look out for more books by Geoff Ryman. Having previously read the stunning "253" I now know he's definitely an author to watch.
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on 19 May 2012
Orphaned Dorothy Gael is raised by her Aunt and Uncle in a bleak Kansas farmhouse of the 1870s. Her unhappy life is filled with thankless chores, society visits with Aunty Em, the long trek to school, and the unwanted attentions of Uncle Henry. Only substitute teacher Frank offers any hope of salvation, through the power of imagination. Interwoven with Dorothy's story is that of young Frances Gumm, later to become Judy Garland immortalising Dorothy in glorious technicolour, as well as that of a young man called Jonathan who becomes obsessed with Dorothy as his own life slips away.

This novel is at its strongest when focusing on the past, the land of Was. The bulk of the story is that of Dorothy Gael, although her Aunt, Emma Branscomb/Gulch is an equally interesting character, and watching her story emerge is perhaps just as fascinating. Although the period and lifestyle is bleak, Ryman paints their grey life in colour with lots of detail and humanity, and the Wizard of Oz parallels are woven into the narrative quite skilfully, and not at all heavy-handed. The sections relating to Frances Gumm and later the filming of the Wizard of Oz movie are also actually quite poignant, up to and including the point where an aged and institutionalised Dorothy watches the film for the first time.

I was not quite convinced that the outer framework of Jonathan's story really came together in the same way as the other strands. As he dug out further historical detail about Dorothy and her place in the Kansas landscape I felt this could have been woven in more subtly, and his own character's inclusion at all seemed something of a cliche. Luckily, this does not completely overshadow the power of the story which precedes it, although I do feel it dilutes it somewhat. What does work is Ryman's demonstration of the passage of time and the developments that can occur within a lifetime; and perhaps more importantly, how easy, important, or maybe even necessary it might be to mythologise a life.

Having read 'Was' twice so far, and gleaning different things from it on each occasion, I look forward to reading it again in the future, to see what else I might have missed!
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on 19 May 2012
I've taken a few days to mull this book over. I loved the premise for the book as it takes you on a journey of discovery and at times the fiction and factual side of the story become blurred and you're not sure which is truth and which is fiction. I think most of us will at some point have seen The Wizard of Oz and this book expands on the story rather well.

As it says above the book is written in three parts and has three stories that are interlinked. We are introduced to the real Dorothy and her family (fictionary characters) who Frank Baum based Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz on for the purpose of this story. Frank Baum is real and we are introduced to other real people namely Judy Garland through her make up assistant Millie. Finally we have Jonathan the gay male actor dying of AIDS who is on a journey of discovery and wants to find out the truth behind the fiction. The three stories are linked all the way through the book and the part based on Frank Baum and the real characters plays a very minor part to the story as a whole. The story about Dorothy forms the greatest part and to me was the most interesting really.

I really sympathised with Dorothy at the start of the story and felt for her. Her life living with her Uncle and Aunty was at times very hard but was a reflection I feel of life during the late 1800's for a lot of people. It is quite a dark story and what happens to Dorothy while she lives with her Uncle and Aunty has far reaching effects on how she turns out as an Adult.

I liked the way that characters out of the Dorothy part formed part of the Jonathan story and linked the book together as one rather than completely separate stories.

I will read more books by this Author and felt the book was quite well written on the whole but that perhaps some of it could have been left out.
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on 12 July 1999
This novel combines several threads at once: the cruel and harsh real life story of Dorothy, whose only friend is uncovered in a chance meeting with L.Frank Baum. I t also deals with what became of her, as a mad old lady. It deals with the brittle life of Frances Gumm, better known as Judy Garland. It also covers the coming together of all of these lives in the life of a PWA actor who has played his best role as the scarecrow, and his psychiatrist, a life-long Judy hag.
It's a fascinating conceit, and Ryman intertwines it well, but ultimately I wanted to know much more about the true Dorothy and see less fancy footwork on the plot threads. Read it, then re-watch 'The wizard of Oz' or look over a Garland biog for the best effect; however, at the end of the day, I'd rather read Armistead Maupin's 'Maybe the Moon'.
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