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Normans and Murders ….

As part of my 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, I recently completed two books of two wholly different genres and different times – the only common theme: It’s all about the English….

I begin in a chronological manner, though I read them in reverse order

Wine of Violence by Priscilla Royal: Set in 1270, more than 200 years after Normans have conquered the Saxon England, tensions between the two groups still run deep. On the East Anglian cost, the Priory of Tyndal, sits amidst this uneasy peace and prepares itself to receive the extremely new, extremely young and extremely inexperienced Eleanor of Wynethope as the new Prioress. The fact that she has obtained this position as reward for staying loyal to King Henry III is not lost on the young Prioress, but she is determined to succeed and use all her intellect and her learnings from her aunt, the Prioress of Amesbury. However as she starts to realize that the Priory is not only in dire financial straits but is also severely mismanaged and duties are given not basis skills but rather per the need of teaching “humility” to its denizen.  Before she is able to resolve the strained circumstances of the Priory, the place is rocked by two brutal murders and an attempt at a third. Together with the help of sub infirmarian Sister Anne and the newly inducted Brother Thomas who is the confessor of the Sisters of the Priory and Ralf, the King’s Coroner, Eleanor of Wynethope, must quickly track down the murder before an innocent man is hung for a crime he never committed.

Now for the book….let me not hold back and shout it out loud – I am DISAPPOINTED!!! The book is set in one of my favorite eras and culture (Catholic Culture) and it’s a murder mystery… had potential to be such an amazing tale! But it fails and that too miserably. The book is flat, the mystery is flat and everything is clichéd. Let’s begin with the characterization, young Eleanor of Wynethope is witty, calm and has complete confidence. She is completely unperturbed on seeing a viciously murdered body and does not bat an eyelid when the second murder happens or she meets a wild man in the middle of nowhere all alone. No doubt there were woman who had nerves of steel and who knew whats and hows of sex, but a 20-year-old, who had spent all her life save one year in a convent, should know so much about it makes one wonder on the plausibility of the tale. She is always telling people that they will not be punished for being honest and that is the only thing she ever says of any result through 200+ pages. The only human thing is her feelings for Brother Thomas which are anything but holy, but then she wisely summarizes that love of all kind elevates a person to be better. The problem with Eleanor of Wynethope is that she is quite a likeable character in 21st century, but somehow to endow her with the foresight and liberality of understanding of this century and replace it 13th century is just too much to digest. While I know there were very strong and powerful women in medieval Europe, the kind of worldly understanding and ability that Eleanor of Wynethope displays, would have earned her a place on the stake in 1300s. Then let’s get to Brother Thomas – somebody explain to me why was he needed? The illegitimate son of an Earl, he was caught in a compromising position with his best friend. He was then jailed and only released by an unknown benefactor on the condition that he becomes a tonsured monk who will work per the dictates of this benefactor. He is then sent to Tyndal to find out why such a fertile priory is bleeding in finances and who was stealing all the funds – which he never discovers because he is chasing the elusive Brother John with green eyes and has non holy feelings as well. Through the book we are aware that Brother Thomas admires Eleanor of Wynethope but only he has given up on women!!! I mean what? The good brother is constantly confused about his sexuality and that is all that one comes across through the book. He is introduced as a highly intelligent person with acute mental powers who had in past worked as an informative, but where these powers were during the 200 pages, one wonders!

Then the plot – oh! Lord!! The good is so good and the bad is so bad and our world can only be black or white. Just because the sub prior does not like Eleanor of Wynethope, he has to be the villain. The fact that a man who had ruled the Priory single-handedly for many years may dislike being usurped by a woman half his age is enough for the author to make him the true denizen of hell; a natural feeling of jealousy which is far more human and often the case in many such circumstances is not enough!(Spoiler Alert)  No! We have to endow him with all the seven deadly sins – wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony!! One is not enough to paint him black, let’s do it in seven different layers! Could there be a blacker character? And what is the plot – superfluous sex and violence. Complete sensationalism and nothing more. That too sensationalism of the worst kind! The book seems to be written because I think the author just wanted to write a book! There is no other reason for it. The characters are unreal, there is no plot and if there is something called a flat storyline, then this must 10 feet under and still digging!

This I know has to be one of my most caustic reviews and I know I am in no place to judge anyone’s talent, especially considering that Ms. Royal has published this and several more works, while I struggle to still find a foothold; however as a reader I can say that it’s a shame that such promise was laid to waste.

I need to quickly read a Susana Gregory or a CJ Sansome to restore my equilibrium and faith in the genre of medieval mysteries!!!

P.S. I will review The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas for the next post, considering this vitriolic was long enough!

And Now For Some More Inspirations….

I have been planning to write this for a while, but there have been so many things to write about lately, this kind of got late, but I guess better late than never. This month’s The Classic Club Meme was provided by Ruth and is again one of those questions, that one has to write about those –

Which character from classic literature is most important or influential to you and why? Or which character do you most despise and why?

I could somehow never really despise a fictional character, maybe because I knew they were fictitious and my hope was and is that art here is stranger than reality and mankind is capable of far more goodness than despicable actions. Though to quote Jane Austen, “The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.” But one cannot help but hope that good will triumph over evil and therefore I always remember characters who inspire me more than the ones I find despicable.

I know I have talked about this in the past and that too several times, but one cannot help but talk about this again and again, because the character is such. No character has had a more significant or profound impact on me than Atticus Finch. When Ms. Lee wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird”, she knew what she was writing about; for here was a character who was actually asked to stand up for the values that he professed – honor, integrity, truth, equality, and justice.  There are so many times when in our lives we stand at those crossroads, where there are really two paths – one that is simple and easier to take and the other which has more hardships that one can count, but it is also the path that defines who you are. Atticus Finch is a beacon of light and inspiration for all us who have or will be at such junctures; if you don’t speak up when you should and do not act to what you profess , well then you are not what you are who you think you are! And like I said before Mr. Finch taught at a very young age and Thank God, I learnt this lesson early, that unless I can look myself in the eye, nothing is worth it!

But when you read so much, there are other characters who stand tall and inspire you and while I can write a whole 100 page of them, neither time nor cyber space memory will allow me such liberties, so U restrict myself to only three –

Mrs. March, Jo March and Beth March – Yes I know they are three characters and no they are not “the three” but I club them in one category because they are progeny of one book, the seminal bible of all independent young women Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”.  To begin with Mrs. March, who I think is often overlooked among the glamour or aura or squabbling of her four daughters.  We forget that here is a gentlewoman who is no longer in the comfortable circumstances she was originally born or married to, yet she tries her best to single handedly bring up four,  albeit difficult daughters, manage a household with diminishing funds, and yet instil joy and faith among all. It requires a lot of courage, what I call quiet courage to face the world everyday alone bravely. She is first single mother of modern literature and by far the most intelligent, kind and strongest of them all. Jo March I think almost all of us relate to while growing up, fierce in temper, independent of thought, extremely intelligent and emotional to the T….she is as human as one can get. Most importantly, in the lines of Jane Austin’s Elizabeth Bennett, she refuses to marry for the sake of convenience and though Laurie is much better candidate than Mr. Collins, the logic is the same – marriage for equality and companionship and most importantly love and not for material or other escapist gains. Call me idealistic, call me foolish (in the light of recent events, trust me foolishness is a strong emotion I feel these days!) however marriage should be because of love and for no other reason. Jo March, in the lines of Elizabeth Bennett and Emma Woodhouse, stands as one of the first feminist of modern literature. Beth March I realize I bore much more affinity to as I grew older and re-read “Little Women” and though I cannot profess to 1/10th of her goodness, nor do I have her gentleness, shyness or lack of character flaws, I do find a lot of joy in the simple domesticity of lives, where there is such joy in doing things for others that your own self does not matter.

Larry from The Razor’s Edge is yet another character who inspires me; he convinces me that there is more to life than acquiring a house, a car and a million dollars. While money is important and necessary in today’s life, one cannot be a slave to it and one has to find one’s identity and belief to really enjoy  and find meaning in life and that no money, no wealth can provide as was evident with Isabel’s meaningless wealth and her uncle’s lonely death.

The one final character who inspires precisely because, like all human beings I struggle to achieve and become a better individual and at times even succumb to the softer options is Andrew Manson from The Citadel by A.J. Cronin .  The book starts off with an idealistic Dr. Andrew Manson who is eager to help the people of small Scottish mining town and is sensitive enough to understand their wretched conditions and wants to elevate them. His research and subsequent success takes him away from his original plans of helping the less fortunate and follow a life of luxury and only a tragedy makes him realize what is truly more important. He returns to his plans of helping others and overlook the immediate selfish gains. This struggle to leave behind softer options for a greater good and its ultimate triumph is something that makes me go on day after day when all things that are more lucrative in short terms is also mundane and mind numbing and temporary and drives focus on what is truly important.


A Stormy Night Adventure!

It was late in the day and I had not yet decided the book I was going to read for The Classic Club Readathon 2014. I had specifically declined all social engagement and had cooked enough food to last the entire weekend on Friday, so I could devote January 4th for the Readathon. I had piled up enough coffee/tea/wine and nuts to see me through the day and I was all set – except for the book. I just could not decide on what book to read! I wavered between re-reading Daphne Du Maurer‘s “Rebecca” which I had not re-read in a long time. I also mulled over reading Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities” and Wilkie Collin’s “The Moonstone” or I could try something new like Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” or Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Other Side of Paradise”. While I wavered and thought and re-read the synopsis of all the books and discarded one in favor of the other, only to return to the original again, Fate or God or could be both, I think disgusted with my indecision, decided to take matter in their own hand and raged such a storm that all wires went down and the valley where I stay was plunged in darkness. Inquires reveled that we would be stuck in this powerless/internet less world for next couple of hours to come! Oh! Joy!

Considering the situations, Du Maurer, Chopin and Fitzgerald were out as they were all in my Kindle and the battery was low and would not last me through the night. I could go for Dicken’s  but the print was too small for reading in candle light and I have enough Myopia to last me a lifetime without tempting it more. So it was Wilkie Collin’s “The Moonstone”. As I hovered at my bookshelf to draw out the Volume in a la Lady with a Lamp style, I noticed a slim volume, right next to “The Moonstone”. I drew it out and realized it was H. Rider Haggard’s “King Solmon’s Mines”. Now shocking as this may sound, I had not read this book. I had read “She” by Ridder Haggard and I had read “The Lost World” by Author Conan Doyle, and Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness” but I somehow had missed reading the very first of the lost settlement writing. The original Africa adventure tale! So without further debate, I settled down to read this much neglected and overlooked book, discarding all the original thought through options! Ah! Such is life – man proposes and God/Fate disposes!

Anyway, enough philosophy, here goes the tale of reading the tale –

Allan Quatermain, a nearing 60 Elephant hunter is the narrator of the tale and he describes of an adventure that began about 18 months ago when aboard a ship that was sailing to Durban, he met Sir Henry Curtis and Captain John Good. They are in a quest to find Sir Curtis’s brother, who was last seen by Allan Quatermain couple of months ago, heading for the mysterious mountains across the desert in search of the fabled Solmon’s diamond mine. It was said that no man survived the journey and no one returned alive from the mountain. Sir Curtis and Captain Good solicit Allan Quatermain’s expertise in the journey; along the way a Zulu named Umbopa who though acts as a servant and general man Friday joins their journey. It is clear that Umbopa has some mysterious questof his own that he seeks to fulfill through this journey.  Travelling through the desert and after various adventures and desperate condition, they reach the Kukanaland; through some glib talking and the magic of modern science including the set of false teeth and use of a gun, the three white men convince the Kukanaland people of being godly creatures from “the stars”. Kukuanaland though extremely organized and well maintained is ruled by the cruel King Twala with the help of the witch Gogool. Twala gained the throne after murdering his brother and running out his brother’s widow and young son out of Kukuanaland into desert where they both are presumed death. After many blood shedding ceremonies which were apparently in honor of the “white men from the stars”, Umbopa reveals his identity and order is restored in Kukuanaland by killing of Tawala. The original three then continue their quest for the mines and the consequences there off forms the climax of the story.

Needless to say this is one thrilling adventure tale, more so when read through a stormy dark night, especially when cut of s from modern civilized amenity like electricity and internet. However, taking away the ‘atmospheric’ element of the story, there is no getting away from the fact that this is wonderful yarn. I am not generally in favor of hunting Treasure Islandy tales, but this book is so much more than that. To say the King Solmon’s Mines is an adventure tale, is over simplification of the worst kind.

Though written in simple direct everyday language (it is the everyday language of 1880s), the tale grips the reader by the collar and does not let go, with its turbulent highs and lows. There is enough humor to break the tension and it is woven through the tale in such finesse that its breaks the tension just when the reader is about to bite off his fingers (by now you have chewed through your nails!) with some laugh out loud moments. It also raises some very interesting questions that have more than a shade of political and social commentary in it. For instances, right at the beginning Allan Quatermain describing himself, asks “What is a gentleman?” and then debates through this question in some way or form through the tale. Then when talking about African, he writes the word “nigger” and then scratches it out saying that he will never use such a term to describe African race. There is also the question of equality when Allan Quatermain upbraids Umbopa for use of imprudent speech when talking to Sir Curtis and Umbopa replies that how does Allan Quatermain know that Umbopa is not of equal rank as Sir Curtis in his own land and may be enen a superior? Though there is stereotypical barbarism of the Africa in the blood rites and cruelty displayed by Tawala and Googol, it far limited and written from the 19th century perspective hardly any commentary is passed on the superiority of the Europeans over Africans. In fact, there is much to admire that comes through Ridder’s description of the level of organization of Kukanaland Army or the noble conduct of many of its inhabitants. He even includes an inter-racial romance between Foulata a girl from Kukuanaland and Captain Good; but is candid enough to question how it will survive in a conservative 19th century England society, though he is full of admiration for Foulata. There is enough questions raised on the relationship between Europeans and Africans at economic, political and social levels and goes beyond the pale of the standard cliche of superior white race showing civilization to backward communities.

As a predecessor to many such tales and adventure stories, I cannot help but say, it rightly stands out the original masterpiece. I am just very sorry to have read this so late in my life!

Ring in the New…..

It’s the 1st of January and a brand new day of a brand new year! Like every year, this day today holds out so much promise of life and all that we wish to seek! So in the way of seeking new adventures,  I thought instead of doing resolutions of what I shall and most likely shall not end up doing this year, I would rather map out some reading projects for the year, inspired by my two blogy mentors/inspiration/guides Stefanie and Jane. (I don’t think either one of them signed up for it, but I kind of adopted and relegated them to that role!)

Prior to reading about their reading projects, (which I followed quite closely) I was always hesitant and uncomfortable with a reading plan – planning somehow meant work! Could have been a Project Manager hangover where I work through MS Projects and Project Plans through the day or it could have been a hangover from my undergrad days where a systematized reading of English Literature, almost killed my love for fiction and literature! (Hence I ran away to do a Masters and pursue a Ph.D in International Politics!) Needless to say I was not a project reader.

New Year is however about new adventure and so I take a leap into a new challenge and sally forth bravely with the following reading projects –

  1. 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge – I have already gone yada yada about this project in my earlier post and I think I will spare you the tedium of re-reading about it all over again
  2. A Century of Books – This is completely Jane’s idea; I have been mulling over it for some time and some encouragement from Jane and a coincidence of ideas about the time period we both were contemplating, made this kind of like a prophetic  thing to take up! I mean this was like faith – here I was thinking about doing a Century of Books effective 1850-1949 and an hour later I turn on my laptop and Jane had written about the same thing! The rules are simple and extremely flexible – read a book published for that year with a different author and then you naturally post about it. So basis each year of the Century, one book and one author and one related post over a period of 2 years! 2016 should see me significantly more well-read!
  3. Books on History – I am not quite sure when and how did this happen; but until a couple of years ago I used to read History as voraciously as literature and was even contemplating doing a second Masters in History. Then all of a sudden I stopped – no idea why! But now is as good as a time to take this up and I plan to read at least a minimum of 12 history books this year – one book every month; not restricting myself to geography/country/politics!
  4. Poetry – I AM NOT A POETRY PERSON!!! I often get many astonished glances that a person who reads practically any written word should not like poetry; but somehow I never quite managed to gather my liking for rhymes and sonnets, except perhaps Emily Dickinson and Robert Browning! But new adventures means trying to develop new tastes and trying new things and Stefanie has shared some lovely works on Poetry – so poetry it is; but only 4 volumes in no order or preference. Will come to that later if and when I develop a taste, until then 4 volumes for 2014; what and who will I read, I still have to decipher!

That’s the agenda for 2014 – I promise to do a review of this plan on June 01 2014 and then December 31st 2014!

To end, it is always important to plunge right in after deciding on the plan of attack; I end this blog with poem by Lord Tennyson. I believe this one is quite famous. In fact a non-poetry person like me also knew it, but I love the theme, the optimism and the concept so here goes – Happy New Year and best wishes of all the good things life has to offer, hope they all come true in 2014!

In Memoriam,

by Lord Alfred Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

The flying cloud, the frosty light:

The year is dying in the night;

Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,

Ring, happy bells, across the snow:

The year is going, let him go;

Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind

For those that here we see no more;

Ring out the feud of rich and poor,

Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,

And ancient forms of party strife;

Ring in the nobler modes of life,

With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

The faithless coldness of the times;

Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes

But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,

The civic slander and the spite;

Ring in the love of truth and right,

Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;

Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;

Ring out the thousand wars of old,

Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,

The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

Ring out the darkness of the land,

Ring in the Christ that is to be.

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