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Tag: mystery

The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons

Synopsis: Two men find themselves on the banks of the river Seine one late night in Paris. Both are contemplating suicide, when they cross paths. One, Henry James, is a writer who has often faced depression and whose moderate success in writing has added to his melancholy. The second is an Englishman, who has realised that he may be fictional… Sherlock Holmes.

Neither succeeds in their goal of suicide as a mystery takes the unlikely pair to America – to find the real reason behind the supposed suicide of Clover Adams, the wife of one Henry Adams, historian and a friend of Henry James. This leads them to a maze of secrets and scandals within the high society. From Henry Adams and John Hey to a young Theodore Roosevelt, the narrative is rich with characters plucked out of history’s pages.

Even as James reluctantly allows Holmes to research his group of friends, he discovers that something sinister is brewing inside the mind of Sherlock Holmes – something that makes him question his very existence.
My Thoughts: The book is a bag of tricks. It aims to thrill, please, shock, astonish, but above all… it aims to puzzle. It wants you to scratch your head and wonder… in that sense alone, it is a successful mystery. The puzzle, though, of “How did Clover Adams die?” is the least important bit of the book. As is the case with, “Why is Sherlock Holmes in America?” The biggest mystery of the book that will have you scratching your chins is… “Is Sherlock Holmes fictional?” Wait, did I just say that? Is it possible then that Holmes is real? The book will turn the definition of “real” on its head. If all goes well, you’ll find yourself chuckling at the existential meta-fiction Simmons has spun.
In what is perhaps the best and most self-aware conversation I have read in years, writer Henry James and a certain other literary figure chat about authors “losing” their characters and fiction taking on a life of its own even as it is being written. Simmons makes you understand what makes fiction so compelling and how stories are a blend of events woven together – so that they never start or end but are constantly rewritten from different contexts. He also presents the idea of an author playing god, and suffering the consequences of that self-granted sense of entitlement to play with people’s stories.

“But we’re God to the world and characters we create, James. And we plot against them all the time. We kill them off, maul and scare them, make them lose their hopes and dearest loves. We conspire against our characters daily… Don’t you see, James? You and I are only minor characters in this story about the Great Detective. Our little lives and endings mean nothing to the God-Writer, whoever the sonofabitch might be.”


I’ve not read many Sherlock Holmes spin-offs to compare and contrast; but I appreciate the point of view that is not as stifled as Watson’s. James makes a refreshingly different foil to the detective. He packs more emotional insight into the story than any original Sherlock Holmes narrative. He is also not fond of the Sherlock Holmes stories – this addition compels Simmons to build a wonderful bridge between fantasy and reality.

Holmes tells us his versions of Watson’s writings (the idea being that Watson likes to tidy up the narrative, remove inconsistencies and unpalatable oddities making the stories far more simpler than the original cases solved by them.) It’s the stories of Sherlock Holmes taken a notch darker; delicious, if anything. There is a point in the story when James and Holmes sit crouched in a dark corner of a graveyard, each ruminating in his own way on death and personal loss, that sent chills down my spine.

We go into great depth about what makes America tick and James’s national identity crisis. We look at James’s minor literary successes and major literary plans, and watch through Simmons’s lens as he plans to write The Turn of the Screw, a standout moment for me as that is literally the only novel I have read by James. This book functions as a kind of skewed biography of Henry James; I don’t know how much was real but I do want to know more. The narrator appears often in first person, offering his view on the writing and nature of the book. He is cocky and seems to be having a great time telling the story – I wonder if that is Simmons himself, thoroughly enjoying his writing of the book.

America was a nation that refused to grow up. It was a perpetual baby, a vast, pink, fleshy toddler, now in possession of some terrible weapons it did not know how to hold properly, much less use properly.

A promising mystery, historical drama and a damn well written book… pick it up!
Finally, a review for the R.I.P. Challenge, just in the nick of time. Might even write one more before the end of the month! 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is one of the creepiest stories I have read in a long time. This is my first read for the R.I.P. XII event. I’m alone in the house writing this review, and writing this review is scaring me. Yes, it’s that kind of book. 

The book begins with a creepy mansion at the edge of town. It’s the Blackwood House and it is inhabited by two sisters and their deranged uncle. The Blackwood sisters, Merricat and Connie, have a secret. Six years before the events of the story, the Blackwood family sat down for dinner one night and died of arsenic poisoning. Not only did Connie survive the incident, but waited till everyone was dead, cleaned the utensils, called the police and confessed to the crime. Her younger sister Merricat, who had been punished and sent to her room, also survived, as did Uncle Julian, who lost his mind.

Six years later, Connie has been acquitted of the crime, but refuses to leave the Blackwood House for fear of the townsfolk. The town always hated the Blackwoods for their wealth before, and now wish the sisters would just vacate. Merricat goes to the town to buy groceries every week and gets teased all the way back. They shout at her, point and laugh, even as she thinks of all the ways she would make them shut up, if she could.
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom… Everyone else in my family is dead.
This is how the book begins. It seems as though the loss of their family has affected both the sisters quite differently. While in Connie’s case, the result is complete forced seclusion from people, Merricat, who seems otherwise normal, has a stunted growth. Extreme superstitions keep her from doing the most basic things, like cooking and gardening. She is fiercely protective of her sister Connie and still thinks like the twelve-year-old she was when her family died. The story takes an unexpected turn when a cousin arrives, Charles Blackwood, who promises to show Connie the outside world, and threatens to interrupt Merricat’s neatly arranged life. Little by little, she reveals the mystery surrounding the deaths.
The writing is richly atmospheric, very true to the gothic style. There is a lot going on in the story, it is strewn with details which demand attention, analysis, interpretation; the language then is a distraction, but what a beautiful one. It plays with your senses and the imagery alone can send shivers down your spine. I had to read sections of the book again to fully grasp what was going on, sections which seemed like intriguing descriptions until a reread revealed them to hold so much more. What adds to the gothic aura of the novella is the recurring theme of loneliness, fear of being outcast, the exclusion from the normal, the small-minded Salem-trial-like persecution of those who are “different.” The story makes you wonder, what came first – the fear or the monster?
The book is about a madness that stems out of shared trauma. There is a very feminine, possessive, almost motherly quality to the sisters’ insanity. The two “get” each other, it’s almost as if they are two faces of the same person. The bond shared by Merricat and Connie is unnatural for their age, but very sisterly and impossible to break. Charles Blackwood almost manages to get between the sisters, but even he can never take Merricat’s place in Connie’s heart. Together they make a deadly pair, each supporting and aggravating the others’ faults; until you can’t tell apart victim from perpetrator. 
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is like a ghost story turned inside out. Think of a conventional haunted house. Two kids venture into the grounds, a test of their wits, and encounter unspeakable horrors. We learn the history of the house in flashback. This book does the exact opposite. It completely dismantles your standard introduction-action-climax-resolution structure. The book ends on its climax, that highest most intense point in the story, whereas the resolution has already happened somewhere in the beginning… the “who” done it is one of the first things you discover. It’s hard to explain, but amazing to experience. The ending is quite satisfactory, with neither twist nor cliffhanger, yet you read the last line and realize, the story has just begun.

Buy this book on Amazon! 

The Coral Thief by Rebecca Stott

I have been awfully out of touch with all things literary, even the latest Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling release whizzed past my notice. Anyway, here is a long overdue book review. I stumbled upon this book at my new library (best birthday gift ever, by the way.) The Coral Thief by Rebecca Stott is an odd book, but one that is right up my alley.
Setting: Paris, July 1815, Wellington has defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Daniel Connor is a young Englishman, a medical student on his way to Paris to study anatomy under the guidance of Georges Cuvier. He carries with him rare corals and important documents. On the train he meets a strange woman. Lucienne is a follower of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, with shocking views on evolution and species. The next morning, Connor wakes up to find Lucienne gone and his precious specimens missing. In Paris, he enlists the help of Inspector Jagot, a fiendish ex-thief, who convinces Connor to stay away from the dangerous woman. But Lucienne reaches out to Connor himself, with a proposition, that he help her in return for the stolen possessions. Soon Connor finds himself caught up in an uncanny jewel heist and an even stranger tangle of revolutionary ideas and political upheavals.

The Coral Thief is not without its flaws – a naive guileless narrator, characters who aren’t active agents but simply let the story happen to them, frequent purple prose. But they cease to matter in the light of Stott’s meticulous research and attention to historical detail. A romantic thriller, a scientific mystery, categorize it however you may, this book is an ode to an atmosphere abuzz with change and discovery, and the tumultuous history of Paris.

Deeply woven into the consciousness of its time, the story has a “slice of history” feel. The Coral Thief begins with a quote by Charles Darwin from his voyage of the Beagle. An obvious choice for a book that explores the fresh sprouts of a young theory of evolution. Even as Professor Cuvier disregards the doubters, Connor is drawn to the study of molluscs and tiny organisms and the possibility of an alternate version to his Biblical truth.

‘Imagine an arm,’ Ramon said, slightly drunk, stretching out his own arm. ‘According to the priests, human history starts out with Adam and Eve in the garden up here on the shoulder and reaches down to the tip of the finger – the present – where you are now. Here’s Herodotus near the shoulder and here’s Napoleon down towards the end of the index finger. But the real truth is that all human history can be contained on a single fingernail. All of this, all of this from the shoulder down to the fingernail here, is pre-human history. So now you have to look for Herodotus and Napoleon with a microscope. And us, well, where are we in all of that abyss of time and where is now? Time doesn’t stop for us. La marche.’


I had overheard fragments of conversation about transformism in the coffeehouses and taverns of Edinburgh, where the medical students talked politics. But Erasmus Darwin was mostly ridiculed by the students in Edinburgh; there was a whole set of jokes about whether we had descended from cabbages or oysters. (…) But Fin’s friends talked openly about transformism, and rationally, not speculatively, or apologetically, but as if the hypothesis were beyond question. They – the heretics and infidels – now fascinated me. 

The atmosphere is charged with radical new beliefs and questions and Stott has captured this energy on paper. The politics of Lamarck’s theory of species transformation, the “dethroning” of man as one of the characters aptly puts it, its interpretation as a shift of power from the royals to the masses, is most intriguing. The book makes it plenty clear that politics was of no interest to Lamarck, whose curiosity only rested in science. But a thought cannot be contained in a bubble, and The Coral Thief shows us this and other waves of consequence that stirred the sentiments of the Parisians.

The book neither criticizes nor picks sides and Connor’s perspective of an alarmed outsider works rather well, as you are led through glimpses of the reign of terror, of Bastille and finally Napoleon’s abdication, the resilience of a city swarmed with foreign troupes, a shocked city that still whispers of Napoleon’s return. Stott’s lyrical writing amplifies the drama, certainly, but it is not maudlin.

Connor’s story is interspersed with fleeting moments from Napoleon’s point of view that in my view it could have done without. Without giving away the plot, I must add, the mystery itself is not entirely stable in its construction either. But these are minor grievances in a magical whole. If you are a stickler for well researched stories and like history, all things French, thought provoking fiction (not a good old carefree airport read) and don’t mind the occasional clumsy narrator, do pick up The Coral Thief by Rebecca Stott.

Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

This review is part of the R.I.P X  Challenge. Visit The Estella Society to learn more.

Bill Hodges was once a detective, one of the finest of the city. Now retired, he is a fat lonely TV-addict going over his mistakes and contemplating suicide. That is, until, Bill receives a goading letter from the perpetrator in his greatest unsolved mystery – the Mercedes Killer. Brady Hartsfield, also known as Mr Mercedes, was responsible for spree killing eight innocent people when he drove into a queue outside a job fair in a massive stolen Mercedes. Today, he is not happy that his glory days are over. Taken by another urge to kill, Brady plans to taunt the ex-cop into killing himself. But what the letter really does is jump start a dead investigation. This time, Brady may not get away so easily.

“Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage. The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.”

Mr Mercedes is a very basic mystery. The killer’s perspective is introduced early into the book, the crime is long over, the clues are in place, it is up to Bill to figure out what we know. Mr Mercedes will guarantee you a swift exciting afternoon. And I love this grown up Stephen King who has so many master works under his belt, he can  go back to the basic. And nail it. I am reminded of something King said about Rowling’s pseudonym, “What a pleasure, what a blessed relief, to write in anonymity, just for the joy of it.” 


He may not be anonymous, rather the opposite, but perhaps it is the comfort of knowing he will be read and criticized either way, same old, that gives his writing an honesty. Every line in the book tells you he is enjoying himself. Maybe his books just don’t fall prey to editing as frequently now that he is so established. So the book is full of classic Stephen King tricks. Name-dropping taken to a whole new level. He hurls jabs and praises at every crime show you have ever seen, from Dexter and The Wire to NCIS and Bones; I cannot imagine how many legal department people must run around to get Stephen King permissions. At one point, someone mentions the scary ass clown living in the sewer from that TV movie – that’s right, one of King’s myriad pop culture references is to himself.

Stereotypes abound the novel. The serial killer is an ice-cream man, because “everybody loves the ice-cream man.” The fat ex-cop sits on his La-Z-Boy every day, and every day puts a gun in his mouth wanting to off himself. As he gets his life back together, he loses weight, and as he becomes slimmer and more attractive, he starts to believe more in himself. I don’t think Stephen King has a problem with fat people. He simply knows how the world thinks, and this sort of stuff resonates, if reluctantly, even with our “ever-ready to prickle in offended indignation” sensibilities. Peter Straub once said that he has a ‘connoisseur’s appreciation of fear.’ Well, Stephen King similarly understands stereotypes, he appreciates their existence so to say, and manipulates them delightfully.

[Edit: adding important afterthoughts] Stephen King usually writes about alcoholics, murderers and crazy fans. The woman who owns the Mercedes the killer used is one of the best characters in this book. This harmless ‘good citizen’ has to deal with her unwitting involvement in a crime of such great proportions. She is an example of the lengths normal people could go to convince themselves that “such things don’t happen to them,” that the thing they hit on the road that rainy night was just a dog, nothing else, of course. One of the coolest things in this book is the cop describing how desperately people all want to cling on to the comfort of normalcy.

Another thing that King hits the nail on the head with here is humour – dark sly humour. He makes you chuckle with one-liner-musings, sure, but also with these misplaced comedic situations, like someone accidentally poisoning the wrong victim. Jokes that make you wish you hadn’t laughed.

“Hodges has read there are wells in Iceland so deep you can drop a stone down them and never hear the splash. He thinks some human souls are like that. Things like bum fighting are only halfway down such wells.”

A trillion pop culture references, dramatised clichés and forced resolutions make up this story – but what an enjoyable ride it is! Some may call it lazy, cocky even. But some sixty books and a dozen awards into his career, this man has earned his cocky. I realize this review may across as a defence, but it is more than that. I have consistently found it impossible not to fall in love with everything Stephen King writes, and here is why. Even in his smuggest writing, you see a simple yet rare dedication to the craft. Some of his books work and some just don’t – this rests somewhere on a fence. But you can see he loves to write and that, to me, makes even his basic cosy mystery far different from a formulaic success on a best seller list.

In a word, Mr Mercedes is cool. I cannot wait to see what its sequel has to offer.

Musings on Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, the thirst for meaning and the recipe for a good novel

This review contains no spoilers, nothing you won’t find out in
the first fifty pages or so.

Why I read the book: I have read The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana before and I
thought it was an amazing idea with the perfect conclusion and terribly dragging
middle. Recently I stumbled upon a comment 
Viktoria left on an old
blog 
post of mine, saying that Foucault’s Pendulum was her favourite Eco
and a much-needed antidote after she pulled through The Da Vinci Code. Too
intriguing a description to ignore.

About the book: Foucault’s Pendulum is a novel by Italian
writer Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver. Eco spent eight years writing
the book and the years of research is evident in every word.

One of the genres dominating the book world for the past decade
has been thrillers involving secret societies. Foucault’s Pendulum has been
called “the thinking man’s The Da Vinci Code”, as both books no doubt
deal with the same theme, but in remarkably different ways. Foucault’s Pendulum
can be seen as a sort of parody and analysis of our gullibility and constant search
for meaning.

When I read this interview, I delighted in a joke Eco made upon being asked if The Da Vinci
Code was a bizarre little off-shoot of Foucault’s Pendulum, saying he had read
it, but-

“The author, Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault’s
Pendulum! I invented him. He shares my characters’ fascinations – the world
conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the Knights
Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that everything is connected. I
suspect Dan Brown might not even exist.”

Summary: Picture
a quaint Italian bar in Milan. 1970s. Casaubon, a scholar researching the
Knights Templar, meets Jacopo Belbo, a failed writer who has turned to
publishing. Belbo and his cabalist friend Diottalevi are editors at a vanity
press. Casaubon joins the firm as an expert on the history of secret occult
societies.

Bored of reading scholarly manuscripts on far-fetched conspiracy
theories, one day, the three editors decide to invent their own conspiracy. As
a joke. They call it “the Plan.” It is a hoax that connects the
medieval Knights Templar with other occult groups throughout history and
promises existence of a lost treasure. According to the fake Plan, the key to
this treasure lies at a point in a museum in Paris, the place where the
Foucault Pendulum is housed. What starts out as a game becomes all too real
when existing secret groups begin to believe the Plan, going to desperate
measures to track the treasure.

In the present day, where the book opens, Belbo has gone missing
and our narrator Casaubon is in hiding, fearing for his very life…

THEMES Foucault’s Pendulum is more than critique
on history and culture. In the guise of a parody on society, the novel presents
each of our struggles for identity, for purpose. The book talks about that
concept in history and philosophy of the ultimate quest, the true knowledge,
the lost treasure, you name it. It is the idea that has travelled all over the
world and throughout all time, the idea that has always been present. This
concept, the book shows, is what forms secret societies and occult and
religious orders, whether in reality or in the mass imaginations.

The novel dissects conspiracy theories and categorizes them as not
social phenomena but personal ones. The thirst for an all-encompassing answer
is unquenchable, and every individual’s desperation to satisfy an unending
curiosity, an end which is by definition out of reach, is what makes one human.

Most books that revolve around religious cults and secret
societies like the Knights of the Temple use a small twist on the canon and
give an alternate version of history. Admittedly, I have only read a few such
books, other than the Robert Langdon series I remember The Rule of Four by Ian
Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. But what these generally do is weave a legendary
puzzle or prophecy into a modern-day murder mystery or theft and have
anthropologists and semiologists study clues and scriptures to find
solutions.

Most books about conspiracy buffs are books for conspiracy buffs. Because these books become willing participants of the crazy
conspiring instead of questioning its existence. Foucault’s Pendulum does the
latter, its focus lies in discovering the psychological root of secret
societies and occult theories rather than piecing together another hypothesis through scraps of historical evidence. And what better way to
engage in an introspection of the psyche than to take worldly
sceptics and make you watch them transition into reluctant, and soon demented,
believers.

TECHNIQUE (Plot, Characters, Writing Style) I have noticed lately that I get somewhat
Literature-student about certain aspects of fiction. So I have separated my
rants into sections that the weary reader can skip if not interested.

Characters: As I said, this is book about people. Eco
uses great technique to bring out the many facets of his characters. Take for
instance Jacopo Belbo. He is the kind of man I would be instantly attracted to.
He is witty and on the whole, lost in his own erratic world. At Pilade’s, the
bar where the Casaubon meets him, Belbo is the sort that sits in a corner and
judges people. He makes snide jokes with a straight face, does not appear to be
bothered if no one finds them funny. He has opinions, lots of them. Firm and
fixed. He puts on an air of nonchalance, but is in fact very particular and
selective about making his views known. Belbo can be exasperating, often is,
and though he makes a cool sceptic, he lacks any real strength. When he falls
in love, he appears kind of bumbling, under her spell. And yet, in spite or
partly because of his awkward but frequently self-aggrandizing ways, he is a man I would find
charming. I got through
half the book before I realized I had no idea how he looked, I wondered if Eco
had even bothered to describe his appearance, and I didn’t care.

But you don’t only see Belbo through the narrator’s lens.
Interspersed through the narrative are his own writings. These reveal a curious
detail about human behaviour that most of us ignore when reading books – that
you cannot really know a character, unless you have been inside his mind. That any story with only one narrator is essentially incomplete or misleading. In
today’s writing world, multiple points of view or shifting points of view are frowned upon as taking the easy way out. I disagree, and this book
illustrates why. Whereas to the narrator Belbo seems harmlessly frivolous and
whimsical, his self-indulgent pompous raving makes him sound grossly
delusional. And this revelation tells you a little something about Casaubon
too, his point of view becomes clearer when in contrast with another. And
you begin to question his reliability as the narrator. That is an intriguing
approach to character-building, I think.

The women, on the other hand, are something of a problem for me.
I kept expecting more out of Belbo’s muse and recurring lover Lorena Pellegrini
and she failed to capture me till the very end. In a book that has so much to do
with 
personae it is a let-down to find this maudlin a symbol of seductive
womanly wisdom. A quasi-reincarnation of the goddess of love Sophie, Lorenza
is beautiful and decadent, but she never transcends the stereotype. The gorgeous untameable woman supposedly has a discerning intellect, and she does seem to know it but never quite manages to show it. 
You are told over and over that she is the ultimate muse, both “the saint and the prostitute,” but really, Lorenza is just a flimsy paper doll of a character. 

Style: Eco’s writing is vastly exaggerated to mock the pseudo-intellectuality typical of the scholarly world. It is laden with allusions and symbols, reminiscent of The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie. The esoteric
lushness of the prose is not for everybody. However the book avoids sounding pretentious and redeems itself with witty quips on
things each of us can relate to. I read
 this wonderful book review today, which talks about the “good
bits” in books. The reviewer says, “they’re moments of fiction with
the observational acuity, the immediate formal rightness, of a successful joke.
They generate a feeling of surprised recognition by illuminating things we’ve
noticed but never noticed ourselves noticing.” Foucault’s Pendulum is full
of these, which contribute to making more fluid an otherwise
trudging writing style. To illustrate my point, I give you an excerpt from
the point of view of Casaubon – 
That day, I began to be incredulous. Or, rather, I regretted
having been credulous. I regretted having allowed myself to be borne away by a
passion of the mind. Such is credulity.
Not that the incredulous person doesn’t believe in anything. It’s
just that he doesn’t believe in everything. Or he believes in one thing at a
time. He believes a second thing only if it somehow follows from the first
thing. He is nearsighted and methodical, avoiding wide horizons. If two things
don’t fit, but you believe both of them, thinking that somewhere, hidden, there
must be a third thing that connects them, that’s credulity.
Incredulity doesn’t kill curiosity; it encourages it. Though
distrustful of logical chains of ideas, I loved the polyphony of ideas. As long
as you don’t believe in them, the collision of two ideas – both false – can
create a pleasing interval, a kind of diabolus in musica. I had no respect for
some ideas people were willing to stake their lives on, but two or three ideas
that I did not respect might still make a nice melody. Or have a good beat, and
if it was jazz, all the better.



“You live on the surface,” Lia told me years later. “You sometimes seem profound, but it’s only because you piece a lot of surfaces together to create the impression of depth, solidity. That solidity would collapse if you tried to stand it up.”


“Are you saying I’m superficial?”


“No,” she answered. “What others call profundity is only a tesseract, a four-dimensional cube. You walk in one side and come out another, and you’re in their universe, which can’t coexist with yours.”
Plot: Now here lies my greatest issue with the
book. It is not so much a complaint as a question, to you – what would you say is the right
recipe for a good work of fiction? For me,
to be honest, this book made a far greater read than something of the likes of
Dan Brown’s novels – which, I admit, I had thoroughly enjoyed.
Foucault’s Pendulum has a warped ending, that
is all the more disappointing after a tense build up. But I deem books with
absurd plot twists or snail-speed stories, which provide personality and rich
writing, still more worthy of my time than swift but well crafted plots that
allow little space for detailing or self-reflection. But I understand and
appreciate the attraction of either.

I would be a fool to say Foucault’s Pendulum is a better work of
fiction than its quick thrilling contemporaries. It isn’t. Eco is undoubtedly an
erudite thinker and deserving of all his critical and popular acclaim. But, in
my humble opinion, he is not a good storyteller. It wouldn’t wholly surprise me
if people whose tastes usually match mine find The Da Vinci Code better than
Foucault’s Pendulum. Because unlike Eco, Brown has nailed that trick of writing
that makes you stay up late into the night, eyes glued to the book, both
unable to put it down and unwilling to finish it and end the ride. And
storytelling is not easy.

There were multiple times reading this novel when I began to lose
my way in the maze of symbolism and heaving philosophy, and had to put the
book down and rest my eyes and mind. I don’t think it was
simply clunky translation that made me do this. There were pages and pages of
dialogue and description that made me crave for action. I was also aware
throughout that there was much more to glean from the book than one
read would let me. 
All these factors took away some of the sheer abandon and
enjoyment only good fiction can provide. Reading this book felt, at times, like
a chore. In the end, it was worth it, but I wouldn’t lie and say the experience
could not have been better. Perfection to me would be an author who has both, the
storytelling techniques of a thriller writer and the sagacious attention to
detail of a scholar – any suggestions?

According to Eco every detail he has included is crucial to understanding his work. But still fresh in my memory are long
winded monologues, chunks of description, lists of data that made me wish he had had a stricter editor. And it is no
surprise that this was true of the other book I read by Eco
. I really like
Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, but the staunch philosophizing makes it a
tough book to love. 

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The cover of The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is just as elusive and curious as the plot. The book explores loss, identity, psychology and manipulation. It’s a story about a pair of twins, two people who are at once the very same and poles apart. It is an analysis of death and tragedy irreversibly altering the lives of those left behind. It’s a meta-literary approach to storytelling. Basically, it is one hell of a book.

Summary: Our narrator, Margaret Lea, is commissioned to write a biography of ageing writer Miss Vida Winter, possibly the most famous author alive, whose whole identity and life story are a mystery to her readers.
Vida Winter shares with Margaret the dark family secrets that she has long kept hidden, from her days at Angelfield, the now burnt-out estate that was her childhood home. Today, Angelfield House stands abandoned and forgotten. It was once the imposing home of the March family – fascinating, manipulative Isabelle, Charlie her brutal and dangerous brother, and the wild, untamed twins, Emmeline and Adeline.
 Margaret carefully records Miss Winter’s account and finds herself deeply immersed in the troubling story, even as Vida Winter’s revelations about her fears bring Margaret dangerously close to the ghosts of her own past.
My thoughts: Diane Setterfield has masterfully breathed life into her characters. Sad, tired Margaret, curiously cheerful Aurelius, cynical secretive Miss Winter and the Rebecca-esque characters we never really meet – from Isabelle to Margaret’s sister: these are people I’ll never forget. Setterfield’s writing captures the pain and almost uncontrollable attachment in blood relationships, the unbreakable ties between siblings and the inevitable disappointments that go hand in hand with family. 
In her 2006 debut novel, Diane Setterfield has effortlessly recreated a Victorian gothic mood and the book reads like a homage to favourite classics, which it references – Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, Wuthering Heights. In its wit, the writing resembles that of Austen and the bleakness is reminiscent of Dickens. All her insight and quips about writing and story, through the exotic voice of Vida Winter, make you question Setterfield’s first-timer status.
My gripe is not with lovers of the truth but with truth herself. What succor, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story? What good is truth, at midnight, in the dark, when the wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney? When the lightning strikes shadows on the bedroom wall and the rain taps at the window with its long fingernails? No. 
When fear and cold make a statue of you in your bed, don’t expect hard-boned and fleshless truth to come running to your aid. What you need are the plump comforts of a story. The soothing, rocking safety of a lie.

The book is about the ghosts of memory; about prisons that you build around yourself with lies and half truths, fear, diffidence and secrecy; about the illusion of safety you cling on to, when freedom appears to be too big a loss of control. It’s about overcoming these and setting yourself free, and in many ways, despite all the horrors of the lives of Margaret and Vida Winter, the book gives hope.
But of course, it’s the meticulous detail and the gripping suspense that make this book worth your time. I read it in a day today: after a month of struggling through one supposed thriller, this book grabbed my attention on the first page and didn’t let go till the last. It had the very same effect on me as Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, but the tension here is even more icy, the resolution more surprising. If you like a good bit of guesswork and uncanny twists of plot, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield will be a fairly satisfying read.
It has put me in the perfect mood, if a little late, for the R.I.P. Challenge. If there’s one thing I enjoy about these book blogger challenges it’s not knowing which book I’ll stumble into next. Any horror, mystery recommendations?

Inferno by Dan Brown

I finally completed this book that I’ve been reading, off and on, since the very beginning of this month. I’d decided to read this as part of the R.I.P. challenge. I do hope I manage to read more books for the challenge, God knows I want to.
Summary: Robert Langdon wakes up in a hospital in Italy with no idea how he got there, his memory a blank. All he remembers are nightmarish visions of a silver-haired woman, beak nosed plague masks, people dying in bloody pools of red and a message, Seek and ye shall find. Stitched into his jacket is sealed canister with a label that warns against a ‘bio-hazard.’ When the hospital is attacked by an unknown assassin, Langdon escapes, assisted by the mysterious young doctor, Sienna Brooks. The mystery only deepens when she informs Robert that he arrived disoriented and repeating the words “very sorry.”

Meanwhile, on a ship in the middle of nowhere, a powerful secret agent watches a tape that his client, now dead, asked to be broadcast worldwide, the next day. The tape shows an underground cavern and recording of the client quoting Dante’s Inferno, warning the viewer of an oncoming plague that would cleanse the world.
These are the new Dark Ages.
Centuries ago, Europe was in the depths of its own misery—the population huddled, starving, mired in sin and hopelessness. They were as a congested forest, suffocated by deadwood, awaiting God’s lightning strike—the spark that would finally ignite the fire that would rage across the land and clear the deadwood, once again bringing sunshine to the healthy roots.
Culling is God’s Natural Order.
Ask yourself, What followed the Black Death?
We all know the answer.
The Renaissance.
Rebirth.
It has always been this way. Death is followed by birth.
To reach Paradise, man must pass through Inferno.

Langdon fails to rid himself of his amnesia, steadily growing more confused as he is chased not only by the assassin but also a team of soldiers. With the help of Sienna, desperate to find some answers, he retraces his steps in Italy to find the secret cavern and stop the promised inferno.
What I didn’t like: My problem with Dan Brown now is this: four books later, Robert Langdon is painfully unchanged. Down to the silly Mickey Mouse watch. The good thing about writing a thriller series is you get to work on character development without having to worry about the lag in pace that it may cause. But Brown doesn’t use his past three books to any advantage. Langdon is still uncannily dumbfounded every time something out of the ordinary happens to him. He is far too trusting for someone who has consistently been caught off guard with secrets and betrayals.
What I liked: Other than that, the book was surprisingly non-formulaic. Perhaps it was all the literary intrigue or the lush descriptions of architecture and culture that made this book especially attractive to me, or maybe it was simply the conspicuous lack of religious conspiracies and secret societies. The premise, of course, was unfailingly ridiculous and quintessentially Dan Brown – but the book avoided many of his usual tropes and cop outs. The story started out detailed and slow and gained speed as it progressed, delivering towards the end some genius twists of plot that arranged themselves into a neat resolution. This was an altogether entertaining thriller.
I loved Angels and Demons. I don’t remember if I finished The Last Symbol, which isn’t a very promising sign. Inferno was a few days well spent. But I’ve had more than enough of Robert Langdon now. I don’t see myself reading another Dan Brown, whenever he writes the next.

What are your expectations from a mystery series? Any favourites? My favourite is still the Cooper & Fry series by Stephen Booth. But recommendations are always welcome. And what do you make of Dan Brown’s writing?

The Jewel of Seven Stars by Bram Stoker

Reminiscent of: The Gold Bug by Edgar Allan Poe, The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh
We learn of great things by little experiences. The history of ages is but an indefinite repetition of the history of hours. The record of a soul is but a multiple of the story of a moment. The Recording Angel writes in the Great Book in no rainbow tints; his pen is dipped in no colours but light and darkness. For the eye of infinite wisdom there is no need of shading. All things, all thoughts, all emotions, all experiences, all doubts and hopes and fears, all intentions, all wishes seen down to the lower strata of their concrete and multitudinous elements, are finally resolved into direct opposites.
Summary: Malcolm Ross, a young barrister, is summoned by his lady friend Margaret Trelawney, when someone attempts to murder her father. Mr. Trelawney is an Egyptologist, and his house is filled with curios, from gruesome sarcophagi and mummies to ornate trinkets. 
The sudden attack on Mr. Trelawney, who is now unconscious, has left Margaret wholly distraught. Oddly, as if he has been aware of the danger all along, Mr. Trelawney has left his daughter a letter, instructing her not to move any items in his room,with an order that there always be at least one man and woman watching him at all times, night or day. On the first night, a second attack is made on Mr. Trelawney, right under the noses of the watchers, including Ross, are found discovered in a deep seemingly drug induced slumber. 
Through the course of the book unfolds the story of Egyptian Queen Tera, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Margaret, and her dream of resurrecting in a future world, more suited to a powerful woman like her. Now, fifty thousands years later, Queen Tera has been set free. It is apparent that she wants to return to her own embalmed body, which rests unsurprisingly in a sarcophagus in Mr. Trelawney’s house. The question is: how much does Mr. Trelawney know and what is he hiding?
My thoughts: I was very curious to read another book by Bram Stoker,  needless to say, I love Dracula. The Jewel of Seven Stars is a curious intriguing book. But it suffers from the pesky The Casual Vacancy syndrome, and is underrated, because, well – it’s not Dracula.
Of course it isn’t Dracula, but you can see it’s the same writer. The switching of perspectives is smooth, we slip easily into two long stories – one by an old explorer when he first unearthed Queen Tera’s tomb and the other by Mr. Trelawney’s friend about their journeys through Egypt. Malcolm Ross’s first person narration resembles Jonathan Harker’s in its deep detailed descriptions. But I love how we have a very biased view of the story, partial to the admirable Margaret Trelawney whom the lawyer never doubts. We see every character through the almost self-deprecating eyes of Ross, who gives so little away about himself – we only know of his intellect and experience through the others’ easy confidence in him. Stoker is good with characters in Dracula, and this is no less.
Another truly enchanting quality of the book is its mood. The atmosphere is rich with suspense and mythical exoticness. The glimpses into the old unfamiliar culture are evident not only through the travels to Egypt but in that antique quality possessed by the Trelawneys’ house and lives.
The book questions belief and experimentation, questions science and skeptics, and contrasts the knowledge of the Old and New worlds. It also has a very feministic quality, and Margaret Trelawney is a remarkable character, comparable with Mina, if in nothing other than her strength.
What the book lacks is perhaps a coherent structure. The plot is confusing, its pace inconsistent. It almost feels as if not enough work went into it. And then there’s the ending – abrupt, bizarre, surprising and actually effective. I don’t think Stoker ever intended for Margaret’s ‘connection’ with Queen Tera to be a secret – but even with only thirty pages left in the book, we find it hard to imagine what might happen next and when the ending does come it leaves us aghast – in a good way, if that’s possible. Think: every Stephen King ending, it’s so simple, you wouldn’t have dreamt a whole book would built up to that. Now I prefer such an ending to an unexpected unlikely twist. But I can see how others wouldn’t. Apparently: Stoker was forced to rewrite his disturbing, depressing ending to make it more appealing to the masses. (I wish he hadn’t fallen for that.) 
My copy had both endings. The first shocked me, so I tried the next. But: the alternate ending is mind-numbingly sappy, a fairy tale wrap-up so enormously disappointing, it spoils the overall effect of the book – like a delicious dessert with a bad after-taste, which makes you wish you hadn’t eaten that thing in the first place.
Would I recommend this book? Yes, if you know what to expect. It’s not outright horror, more a mix of dark fantasy, adventure and mystery. It’s also not Dracula. If you do decide to read this, though, I’d suggest making sure you read the first ending, the one that Stoker originally intended. What you want is the 1903 version, which you can find here.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

I wondered how many people there were in the world who suffered, and continued to suffer, because they could not break out from their own web of shyness and reserve, and in their blindness and folly built up a great distorted wall in front of them that hid the truth.

You know, I’d decided to stay away from horror and the resolve seems to have lasted barely two months and about twelve books. I suppose Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier isn’t horror in the strictest sense, it’s a mystery and a romance; but it is ruthless, daring, packed with haunting emotion and brutally honest; which makes it everything I wished to avoid about horror and am glad I didn’t.

Summary: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” This is definitely one of the most iconic book beginnings ever. Right from the very first words, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier maintains an engrossing style. The book begins with our narrator giving us glimpses of her life in the present in a hotel, with her husband, and nostalgic memories of another life, in a place called Manderley that she dares not mention to her husband. Then our unnamed narrator takes us back to when she first met her husband, Maxim de Winter, in Monte Carlo.

When they first meet, the narrator is a naive twenty one year old orphan working as a lady’s maid for the insufferable Mrs. Van Hopper. Maxim de Winter is a handsome middle aged gentleman who is known for his fabulous house, Manderley, and the fact that his wife drowned a year ago. Both find escape from their lives in each other’s company, and when it’s time for the narrator to leave to New York with her gossipy employer, Maxim de Winter proposes to her and offers her to accompany him to Manderley.

‘A little while ago you talked about an invention,’ he said, ‘some scheme for capturing a memory. You would like, you told me, at a chosen moment to live the past again. I’m afraid I think rather differently from you. All memories are bitter, and I prefer to ignore them. Something happened a year ago that altered my whole life, and I want to forget every phase in my existence up to that time. (…) You have blotted out the past for me, you know, far more effectively that all the bright lights of Monte Carlo.’

But in Manderley, which is scenic and mesmerizing, things aren’t as easy as the new Mrs. de Winter supposed. She can see her husband is happy at home, but he’s also distant, and prone to the oddest mood swings. And as she soon begins to discover, the house and its people and relations are still stuck in the past. The the shadow of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca, looms over the narrator, stifling her, making her an intruder on her own life. Wherever she goes, it’s Rebecca this, Rebecca that, “she was the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen.” Their neighbours, the narrator feels, compare her with Rebecca and she falls short. Rebecca’s old lady’s maid, Mrs. Danvers hates the narrator for trying to replace her mistress, and tries to sabotage her relationship with Manderley at every turn. The gossip torments our uneducated, untrained, innocent narrator and the expectations bog her down.

And in the midst of it all, there’s the mystery of Rebecca’s death. As if an accomplished sailor drowning in her own boat wasn’t odd enough, the narrator finds Mrs. Danvers and a strange man in Rebecca’s old room, Maxim pales at even the barest mention of his first wife, a crazy guy called Ben living in the cottage where Rebecca spent her many nights has freaky things to say about her, and as the narrator tries to piece together the tragedy of Manderley, she wonders if Maxim would ever love her as he loved Rebecca.

My thoughts: The narration is evocative, urgent, authentic. The descriptions are vivid, richly suspenseful. But for me, it’s the construction of the book, the falling in to place like a puzzle of the story, the timelines, the little technical details like never revealing the narrator’s name, and never actually showing us Rebecca, we see not even a picture, only the impression she’s left on those alive and what the narrator makes of it, the truth revealed is all the more shocking hence. I love the writer for showing us just enough to help us guess the truth on our own. At the end it’s not a story we’ve been told, it’s something we’ve experienced – and that lends it its intellectual charm.

For the first time in a long time, I wrote about the book first in my diary and am now typing it out. I’ve written three pages of notes. I’ve written how I love the brooding aristocratic Maxim and his relationships, especially with his sister and his ever carefully calm and composed exterior. It occurs to me how you can never guess the torment inside anybody, no matter how well you think you know them. Poring over my notes, I realize I could never fit them into a conventional review; the scenes that stand clear in my memory; how Mrs. Danvers tried to coax the narrator into taking her life, how the narrator burnt the page of the book of poems with Rebecca’s writing on it, how she seethed at the thought of Rebecca calling her husband Max and how even at the end the narrator never did end up calling him that, how she never fit in, accidentally saying Mrs. de Winter was dead when she answered the phone, how she never second guessed her judgments nor doubted her self image. It’s a coming of age story; a story of her youth through the voice of her aged wisdom. At twenty one, I find Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier perfect in some places and mysteriously irrelevant in others, the book is terrible in so many ways, but it also makes me just a little hopeful.

They are not brave, the days when we are twenty-one. They are full of little cowardices, little fears without foundation, and one is so easily bruised, so swiftly wounded, one falls to the first barbed word. Today, wrapped in the complacent armour of approaching middle age, the infinitesimal pricks of day by day brush one but lightly and are soon forgotten, but then – how a careless word would linger, becoming a fiery stigma, and how a look, a glance over a shoulder, branded themselves as things eternal.

A few weeks ago I told someone I don’t like Romantic books. It was in reference to Frankenstein, which isn’t my favourite book at all. That being said, that was a generalization that I would like to take back. From now on, when someone says gothic romance, I’ll think of Rebecca and be happy, and sad. What a book. The funny thing is, I’m already reading the book again as I type this and it is still just as engaging. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you to read this book. If you have, tell me, did you like it?

I might say that we have paid for freedom. But I have had enough melodrama in this life, and would willingly give my five senses if they could ensure us our present peace and security. Happiness is not a possession to be prized, it is a quality of thought, a state of mind of course we have on moments of depression; but there are other moments too, when time, unmeasured by the clock, runs on into eternity.

Love Kills by Ismita Tandon

Summary: (from AmazonYou won’t live a boring life if you’re named after a whisky (more or less). Meet Johnny Will, named thus by an alcoholic father who died under mysterious circumstances. Johnny is the founder of Thy Will – a de-addiction centre for the rich and the famous that uses very questionable methods – and the fiancé of Mira Kermani, daughter of the richest man in town.
The beautiful, young Mira dies of an overdose of morphine. Officer Ray is convinced that Johnny is the killer. Johnny’s assistant Sera, who secretly loves him, and his half-brother Zac are working hard to protect him from the officer. Or are they? Could Aunt Adele’s hunger for what was rightfully her son’s inheritance have driven her to murder? Or is the murderer an unhappy patient?  From the author of the disturbing and controversial Jacob Hills, an unputdownable story of crime and passion in the hill-station town of Monele.
My thoughts: I read this book in one sitting, and how could I have not, when it is so engaging? The author has not fallen into the usual whodunit trap, where the convoluted characters and contrived storylines strive to keep us utterly confused, but in the process fail to sound real. Love Kills has a realistic plot, and because it is so believable, and the characters so gray, the story affects us like few others. From Johnny Wills and his malicious aunt Adele to the totally smitten Sera and Officer Ray who is irrationally convinced of Johnny’s guilt – each person has his own faults – we find ourselves siding with no one and realize soon enough how everyone, no matter how well we know them, has secrets that are better off hidden. While it’s difficult to guess who the killer is, and the author expertly keeps us on our toes, scanning for clues; it’s even more difficult to figure out who the good guy is or if there is one.
Johnny’s de-addiction center is reminiscent of the harrowing Stephen King short story, Quitters, Inc. Love Kills by Ismita Tandon drives home the idea that sometimes we don’t know what’s best for ourselves, sometimes we need to be slapped across the face to be brought to our senses. Inversely, though, however convinced we may be that we’re helping someone, it’s often best to stay put, and let people run their own lives. Guilt, resentment, obsession, misplaced concern; the story makes us question the simple feelings that could easily multiply into unrepentant cruelty. Admittedly, parts of the story are a little over-dramatized but that’s to be expected, from a scandalous theme.
The authors uses her setting well, and the hill-station town of Monele is inextricably woven into the characters’ life stories. Even in a couple of hundred pages, the book manages to have a large scope. In a sense, the novel is generation-spanning, and shows us how deeply family and the social-cage influence a child, and how our passions and failings affect not only those around us, but go on to seal the fate of the generations yet to come. 
The book reads like one written by a seasoned writer. Those who’ve read Ismita Tandon’s previous books are surely familiar with her atypical style and Love Kills is that style at its best. The writing is pithy, and funny and strewn throughout the book are the most wonderful poems. Which brings me to the author’s amazingly frequent, tongue-in-cheek references to herself, in the garb of Officer Ray’s poetic persona a.k.a ‘A Lesser Known Poet.’ 
The myriad points of view, each chapter a first person narration by one of the characters, do initially seem jarring. As do the tenses: the story is narrated in the present tense, but there are moments when the flitting timelines prove somewhat hard to follow. But what the many viewpoints provide, is a chance to see each individual closely. Besides, the viewpoints bring us the chapter-title illustrations, and you know what, why settle for a description when we could have an actual picture? —>
Here are some of my favourite quotes from the story:
The whole world wants to raise a family, no matter where their own life is headed. Buy a fancy cradle, tiny clothes, expensive toys, paint the nursery and potty train, it’s all fine, but what are they going to teach the kid when their own head is so full of fears and lies? How easy it is to make a baby and then screw up with its head! Passing on the confusion and chaos to the child, till the new seed is infected by the old.
.
“It can’t be! She would have told me. We were very close,” he said with the crumbling confidence of a man who had reared a child with love and affection only to lose her to an unforeseen enemy, adulthood.
.
That is how the world lives, in charades of loving families, no one acknowledging that all is not well and never will be. A beautiful patchwork of lies is what we create to fit in.
.
‘Why wash our dirty linen in public?’ She spoke with utmost dignity, the ravages of time and  alcohol had not dimmed her sense of society and social stigma.
I wondered then whether she too was to blame – this silently suffering wife who has witnessed it all, fearing for her husband’s reputation.
Let these snippets convince you not to dismiss Love Kills by Ismita Tandon as just another mystery. Grab your copy on Amazon!