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Tag: romance

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.

The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan

“The passing years had not diminished Asmat’s beauty. Time had painted some grey in her hair and etched a few lines on her face. But it was the same dear face, the same trusting eyes. She had been brave, giving him strength at night when they lay beside each other in silence, darkness closing around them, and during the day when he was home working or reading and she passed by, her anklets chiming, her ghagra murmuring on the floor. Islamic law allowed four wives, but with Asmat, Ghias had found deep, abiding peace. There was no need to even look at another woman or think of taking another wife. She was everything to him.”
I love novels which open with a birth, for what better way to start a story? The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan begins with a small family fleeing from Persia to seek refuge in India. On their way, Asmat gives birth to a baby girl. Ghias Beg, the father, already burdened by three children, decides to give up the baby. He abandons her under a tree but fate brings the baby back to her parents. A delicate child with azure eyes, they call her Mehr-un-nisa. Sun among Women.
Eight years in the future, Mehrunnisa is a sprightly kid, with a sharp mind and a keen interest in the world around her. Her father’s favourite, she is stubbornly independent. Ghias has earned a position of respect in Emperor Akbar‘s court, in Mughal India. Today he is invited with his family to the Royal Palace for the first wedding of young Prince Salim. Little Mehrunnisa is smitten by the prince. When Empress Ruqayya takes a liking to her and commands her to visit the palace regularly, Mehrunnisa fantasises of a possible future with Salim. But before their love can fully blossom, Mehrunnisa is married off to a common soldier. And so begins a lifelong struggle with destiny for Salim and Mehrunnisa – better known to us as the fourth Mughal Emperor Jahangir and his influential Empress Nur Jahan.
Though the first in a trilogy, this novel works as a standalone. Indu Sundaresan has beautifully fleshed out the legendary romance, doing justice to the people and the magic of the late 15th to early 16th century India. She has left no stone unturned in bringing to life Emperor Akbar’s court, with his celebrated aura, his many wives and their struggles for the spotlight, his patronage for the arts, his big heart and bigger ambition. Salim is a spoilt prince. He starts out a drunkard and a rebel, coaxed by Akbar’s ill-wishers. But over the course of the story, he sobers down to the best version of himself. History tells us that, like Akbar, the fourth Mughal ruler too achieved admirable feats. Sundaresan shows us how.
Mehrunnisa is not without her faults. It would be foolish to expect her to stand as some ideal of feminine empowerment. But she possesses great passion and drive. A large portion of her attraction to Prince Salim has to do with the power that being his wife would grant her. She is grounded in reality, uses her beauty to woo him; then, unconditionally, immorally, supports him through his mistakes. Circumstance requires her to be wily and she is. But later, Sundaresan ensures that we see why Salim loves Mehrunnisa, beyond the looks. What starts out as a Cinderella story progresses into a bonding of minds.
Sadly, the book seems to have been marketed as just a romance, when there is a lot more to it. It is about Salim’s transformation from a lazy brat to a good leader – Merhunnisa’s from an idle dreamer to a woman who works to get what she wants. They journey on independently until their paths cross once again. More than half the book is devoted to sieges, wars and the conflicts of inheritance between Akbar and his sons. Sundaresan muses on the social and religious demands of the times, the tongues of corruption in the court, the increasing threat of the British colonizers. There is drama, oh yes, but the book is not what people love to scoff at and label “chick-lit,” as the cover blurb implies. 
To anyone not already familiar with the cast of this story, though, the names will be confusing. Right in the middle of the book, Sundaresan begins to refer to Salim as Jahangir, the title he adopts. A shortened family tree at the start of the book tells that Salim’s son Khurram is actually the future Emperor Shah Jahan. And Mehrunnisa’s niece, the one engaged to young Shah Jahan is none other than Mumtaz, for whom he erected the Taj Mahal. Only at the very end of the book are we explicitly told that Mehrunnisa is Nur Jahan. A nice trick, I suppose. Sundaresan’s research is evident in her attention to historical detail. But I wish she had stuck to one set of names.
That aside, what a lovely book. Swift, engrossing and richly atmospheric, The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan gives a neat glimpse into one of the most fascinating periods of Indian history. 

Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt (the movie)

Summary: Roland Mitchell is an American scholar, out of place in the British academic world. He is studying the life of the Victorian poet laureate, Randolph Henry Ash, when he happens upon two letters addressed to an unknown woman, whom Roland suspects to be a minor supposedly lesbian poetess, Christabel LaMotte. Roland begins to suspect a love affair between the two, that if discovered would change the way the world sees both the poets forever. Stealing the letters, Roland enlists the help of Maud Bailey, a fellow literary scholar and distant relative of Christabel LaMotte, to uncover the truth. Together, they become obsessed with the poets’ stories, even as they try to keep their research a secret from rival scholars. Possession is a tragic but ultimately hopeful tale.
My thoughts: Possession by Antonia S Byatt is one of my favourite love stories. The movie is different from the book in many ways, the most conspicuous being this whole new and jumpy version of Roland Mitchell in the form of an unavoidably American Aaron Eckhart. This adaptation only grazed the surface of what the story has to offer, and yet, I did like it.
Why? Two words, Jeremy Northam, previously known to me as a rather nice-looking Thomas More on The Tudors. He makes a wonderfully solemn Randolph Henry Ash and Jennifer Ehle is an unbridled beauty with a right-out-of-a-painting look. They are a perfect portrait of the two poets, who get much more ‘screen time’ here than in the book. In the film, you catch Ash and LaMotte impatiently awaiting the other’s letters, staring at each other with that tinge of a smile, making the sort of passionate love that cannot be contained in pages. Neil LaBute has created for them a vivid world that even Byatt did not manage to fully build with her prose. When Randolph Henry Ash talks with that rich voice of his, you want to stop and listen, and the Christabel LaMotte of the movie makes it hard for you to look away from the screen. They awaken the romantic in you. You want them to live happily ever after, which makes it so much harder when they don’t.
One of Ash and LaMotte’s very first meetings,
“It surprises me, Madam, that a lady, who lives as quietly as you do, would be aware of my modest success.”
“Oh, I am very aware the papers herald you weekly. It is you, however, who surprise me.”
“And why is that?”
“Judging from your work, I’m surprised you would even acknowledge my existence. Or any woman’s, for that matter, since you show us such small regard on the page.”
“You’ve cut me, Madam.”
“I’m sorry. I only meant to scratch.”
The same cannot be said for Maud and Roland, even though the tension between them is palpable. In the book, Maud is a woman who has been trapped by her own beauty, who has cocooned herself in an attempt to fight men’s need to possess her. Roland’s struggle is to free her from the uncanny figurative bell jar, that curiously features on the cover of the book. In the movie, it is often difficult to make out what, if anything, lies beyond Paltrow’s stony composure. Maud and Roland’s on-screen relationship leaves something to be desired. But Possession is more than the two pairs of lovers. It is about the precarious nature of all relationships, about the time it takes for one to collapse and the destruction even momentary happiness leaves in its wake. It is about unrequited passions and unsaid promises, and one of its best played characters is that of Christabel’s old lover, Blanche.
The movie is nowhere near subtle. It is a satirical look at the literary world with its grotesquely one-sided cast of academicians. They all fight for recognition, poring over dead writers’ lives with a voyeuristic greed and no concern for privacy or emotion. A character I really missed from the book was Leonara Stern, the feminist scholar, who is the living embodiment of wishful conclusions. Often enough to cause alarm, the drama threatens to become a mawkish display that does seem odd in this century, and yet, suited to a world of past-diggers. It begs to be made fun of. In the movie, unlike the book, it is unclear whether the farce is intentional. 
Possession must have been a difficult book to adapt. So much of its beauty and intellect lies in its linguistic nuances. The film is a really good effort, with moments I want to watch over and over, scenes I am so glad I now have visuals for. But to me it was just a three star adaptation of a five star book. Go for it if you have read the book or if you like romance of every kind. Or you can simply watch it, like me, for a swoonful of Victorian charm.

Gut gegen Nordwind / Love Virtually by Daniel Glattauer

Write to me Emmi. Writing is like kissing, but without lips. Writing is kissing with the mind.
It begins by chance: Emma Rothner, a married woman, accidentally writes a couple of emails to Leo Leike. Being polite, he replies, and Emmi writes back. A few brief exchanges are all it takes to spark a mutual interest in each other, and soon Emmi and Leo are sharing their innermost secrets and longings. (No, it’s nothing like You’ve Got Mail.)
The greatest comfort of the virtual world is the chance to spin yourself constant convenient fictions: an email acquaintance, a Twitter friend, a blogger crush. Emmi and Leo’s emails perfectly capture the fun of every online relationship. In the beginning, they are cutely unselfconscious. The initial exchanges are teasing and flirty, both trying to outsmart the other while projecting a tailored image of themselves, not altogether disconnected from the truth, but still only a silhouette of their real self.
Soon, piece by piece, Leo fashions out a fantasy-Emmi from her letters, while Emmi makes wild guesses about the kind of man Leo Leike is from the kind of words he writes. Their letters get increasingly charming and funny. An affair plays out only through email, completely eliminating the physical and yet, has this wonderful simmering sensuality. Even so, as their feelings grow, the casual becomes exhausting. They can’t get enough of each other. It begins to take a toll on their lives. Long emails every couple of days turn into short one-liners every few hours, goodnight kisses and wake-up ‘calls.’ Each tries to fill up the blanks in his life with a seemingly perfect alternative.

Emmi, married Emmi with her husband and her children, begins to act like an infatuated teenager even as Leo Leike conjures up in his penpal a beautiful woman of his dreams to reassemble his recently broken heart. Conversations for the sake of conversations start to spring up, and you wonder when it will appear, the fateful “when shall we meet?” But the story catches you by surprise. Emmi’s escapism takes on a whole new level when she tries to set Leo up with her best friend. It is finally time to ask the question – what do they mean to each other? Where do they go from here?
I don’t have much to say about this book other than that I am fascinated by its somewhat easy profundity. The interesting thing was that I did not particularly identify with either Emmi or Leo, but I did imagine what I would say and do in their shoes and this revealed to me new uncharted sides to myself. The writer in me was wildly inspired by most of their exchanges. The ending was remarkable, I choose not to read the sequel.
I saw a nice review of this book over at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, and the book has been on my mind since then. I picked up Gut Gegen Nordwind as one of my usual frantic attempts to stay in touch with German, but halfway through the book I found myself so completely enchanted, I decided to read the English version as well. The German original works slightly better, because: 

1. The letters Emmi and Leo write each other which sound perfectly normal in German are a tad bit too formal in English.

2. The original title and appearance, as Caroline also mentions on her blog, are much more suitable for the content. The English title and cover seem too young-adult or chicklit, so much so that the book could not only disappoint the younger readers it attracts, but keep away a lot of people – like me – who may love it. The title gives the impression that it is a romance, which in the strictest sense, it is not – it is a book about… people. Simply that.

I’d recommend Love Virtually by Daniel Glattauer to anyone who has experienced inexplicable attachment to something fictional, someone virtual, and above all, to anyone who likes to write.

Favourite excerpt:

In what we call “real life”- you’re forever having to tailor your emotions to the circumstances, you go easy on the people you love, you slip into your hundred little daily roles, you juggle, you balance, you weigh things up so as not to jeopardize the entire structure, because you yourself have a stake in it.

But with you, dear Leo, I’m not afraid to be spontaneous, or true to my inner self. I don’t need to think about what I can tell you and what I can’t. I just witter on blithely. It does me so much good!!! And that’s all down to you, Leo. That’s why you’ve become so essential to me: you take me just as I am. Sometimes you rein me in, sometimes you ignore things, sometimes you take things the wrong way. But your patience, the fact that you stick with me, shows me that I can be who I am.

Someone out there likes the Emmi who makes no effort to be a good person, who plays up the weaknesses that would otherwise be suppressed. He’s interested in Emmi as she really is; he likes her precisely because she’s aware that there’s so much of herself she cannot reveal to others, this bundle of moods, this harbour of self-doubt, this jumble of contradictions.

Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt

It is two weeks into February and the blog desperately needs to be fed. It also happens to be Valentine’s Day, so I’m going to seize the moment and write a post about one of my favourite literary love stories. I have never been much fond of the romance novel. I like subtle romance weaved into fiction of other genres more than books solely dedicated to it.
But sifting through my old posts last night, I realized I have tried reading and ended up loving quite a few romances, well, quite a few by my standards. Possession by A.S. Byatt is a book I loved but never wrote about on my blog. It is a book that I believe would appeal to people who, like me, don’t usually read love stories. (In all honesty, I don’t know what justice this haphazard review does to the book, it’s been so long since I properly read it, but to sum up my thoughts – read the book, it’s worth your time.)

They say that women change: ’tis so: but you
Are ever-constant in your changefulness,
Like that still thread of falling river, one
From source to last embrace in the still pool
Ever-renewed and ever-moving on
From first to last a myriad water-drops
And you—I love you for it—are the force
That moves and holds the form. 

— R. H. ASH, Ask to Embla, XIII

I think I read Possession two years ago and every part of me knows I’ll appreciate it so much more today. I read some of my favourite sections of the book yesterday, and they sufficed to make me swoon and want to gush about it. If I had to describe this book in one word, I’d call it dazzling. 

Possession is the story of two literary academicians uncovering a secret affair between a couple of Victorian poets. Byatt has woven an intricate love story between the poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, which gradually unfolds through surviving letters, allusions in their works to each other, and the undying memories of times spent together. Meanwhile, in the present, we see the cold distant Maud Bailey immersed in a fairytale romance that brings her closer to her fellow scholar, Roland Mitchell.

The book has a lot to say about identity, by looking at the intangible self in a relationship. LaMotte is like the moth forever in a jar, forever helplessly owned by circumstance, and beautiful Maud fights every instinct to let her guard down, almost throttled by the fear of becoming someone’s possession. For Ash who may perhaps have failed his lover, Roland finds redemption. On the surface, Possession is a tragic romance, but in its glinting moments, it is a wise and hopeful rumination on relationships. The book is about more than the lovers; etching a quiet romance between a poet and his art, the academician and his scholarship, and a delicate love affair between the past and the present.

They took to silence. They touched each other without comment and without progression. A hand on a hand, a clothed arm, resting on an arm. An ankle overlapping an ankle, as they sat on a beach, and not removed. One night they fell asleep, side by side… He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase.

The style of this book is breathtaking and the pages ooze literary charm. Byatt is smart and she knows how to trap the reader in her magic. A word I find apt for her writing is thick, for being laden with meaning, perhaps. Possession is not a book you can read at one go, you have to slowly swim through it, there are moments when it’s almost a struggle and yet mysteriously, not a word seems superfluous.
R.H. Ash: We can be quiet together, and pretend – since it is only the beginning – that we have all the time in the world.”
C. LaMotte: And every day we shall have less. And then none.”
R. H. Ash: Would you rather, therefore, have had nothing at all?”
C. LaMotte: No. This is where I have always been coming to. Since my time began. And when I go away from here, this will be the mid-point, to which everything ran, before, and from which everything will run. But now, my love, we are here, we are now, and those other times are running elsewhere.”

Which is one love story you think everyone must read? And if you’ve read this book, I’d love to know what you make of it. Happy Valentine’s Day, and of course, happy reading!

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

I’d say I don’t remember the last time I read a young-adult book, only I do. Just the other day: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. I liked it, maybe a little more than I’d expected, enough to read in one sitting. So I read a book by an author who so often gets mentioned in the same breath as John Green. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell is another YA book that comes highly recommended. And this, I loved!
Summary: (from Amazon) Eleanor is the new girl in town, and she’s never felt more alone. All mismatched clothes, mad red hair and chaotic home life, she couldn’t stick out more if she tried. Then she takes the seat on the bus next to Park. Quiet, careful and, in Eleanor’s eyes, impossibly cool, Park’s worked out that flying under the radar is the best way to get by. Slowly, steadily, through late-night conversations and an ever-growing stack of mix tapes, Eleanor and Park fall in love. Set over the course of one school year in 1986, this is the story of two star-crossed misfits: smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.
Rating: 3.5/5 – I only do ratings when the review is kind of a rant, and doesn’t really make it clear just how exactly much I liked the book.

Bono met his wife in high school, Park says. 
So did Jerry Lee Lewis, Eleanor answers. 
I’m not kidding, he says
You should be, she says, we’re 16. 
What about Romeo and Juliet? 
Shallow, confused, then dead. 
I love you, Park says. 
Wherefore art thou, Eleanor answers. 
I’m not kidding, he says. 
You should be.

My thoughts: The story is so cheesy. I know: it’s got two misfits falling in love over a bunch of 80’s songs, which they can’t help quoting from every three seconds. There’s a lot of gooey dialogue that made me roll my eyes for being just so… teen. Of course, my teenage years were some of the most ridiculous times of my life, where I did and said the craziest things and had high school smack me in the face a lot, so there were times when I felt the characters in the book just needed to grow up, already. All their immaturities and insecurities are frustrating and maudlin. But then that’s the point, Eleanor & Park captures exactly what it is to be a teenager. Illogical and overloaded on touchy-feelies; even the smart kid sometimes thinks the stupidest things, the usually no-nonsense girl acts all silly around the boy she likes, even the biggest bully can abruptly turn nice. Anyone who asks for explanations has forgotten what it’s like to be sixteen. 
Eleanor’s real problems – her creepy step-dad, her abused careless mother, her must-wear-mens’-clothes poverty – and Park’s troubles with his dad, who finds him too girly, are frequently taken somewhat casually. But it was this subtlety that I actually liked, the writer has this almost lighthearted way of dealing with and writing about big issues. I mean all the concerns stared me right in face. But I felt like Eleanor was doing the best she could when she sneaked out to meet Park in the middle of the night risking so much, because if it’s ever justified to do something shallow, it’s when you’re a smitten sixteen-year old. I didn’t expect Park to understand Eleanor’s broken family or realize the extent of her troubles, because to him family meant something simpler; he had parents who were completely in love with other. Making rash decisions, not giving every action a thought is what kept them innocent teenagers, and Rowell lets them live in their little bubble, if only for a while. This makes their breakthrough moments even sweeter. A well written book manages to be dead serious without monologues of philosophizing. I think Rowell pulls it off.
The sentences are crisp, the dialogue snippy and the narration flits between Park and Eleanor. There are times when the point of view changes thrice on the same page, which is distracting and a little lazy, not much effort goes into seamlessly moving from scene to scene. Rowell does have an eye for detail and is a good describer, but she is awfully repetitive. (Red hair, red hair, freckles, big, Eleanor = not conventionally pretty.) It’s a YA novel and probably couldn’t resist its few typical gimmicks. Basically, I suppose it’s no great work of literature (although, what is?, really) but it’s a charming book. Worth a shot, at least.
A couple of favourite quotes (descriptions) that aren’t snappy chit chat:
When Eleanor was a little girl, she’d thought her mom looked like a queen, like the star of some fairy tale. Not a princess – princesses are just pretty. Eleanor’s mother was beautiful. She was tall and stately, with broad shoulders and an elegant waist. All of her bones seemed more purposeful than other people’s. Like they weren’t just there to hold her up, they were there to make a point.
Eleanor looked a lot like her. But not enough.
Eleanor looked like her mother through a fish tank. Rounder and softer. Slurred. Where her mother was statuesque, Eleanor was heavy. Where her mother was finely drawn, Eleanor was smudged.

(Eleanor, on herself)
But Park didn’t have any luck – or status – to spare on that dumb redhead. He had just enough to keep himself out of trouble. And he knew it was crappy, but he was kind of grateful that people like that girl existed. Because people like Steve and Mikey and Tina existed, too, and they needed to be fed. If it wasn’t that redhead, it was going to be somebody else. And if it wasn’t somebody else, it was going to be Park.


(Park, initially, on being nice to Eleanor)

P.S. Here’s a link to John Green’s review of Eleanor & Park. Interesting, huh? Do you read any author reviews of books? I only trust recommendations that I find on Neil Gaiman’s blog.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (which, incidentally, J. K. Rowling loved) is a re-imagining of the Trojan war from the point of view of Patroclus, whose minor appearance in the Iliad has the greatest consequences. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about stop reading when I say, “Spoiler!”)
Overall impression: I’d rate this book a 3.5 / 5. It’s an engaging read, recommended to those interested in Greek or Trojan mythology. That being said, there are countless interpretations of the Iliad, and it may be unfair to expect it to do something that hasn’t been done before. It’s not a retelling. It rarely strays from the original, but will be a good introduction to the myth. 

Summary: As a young boy, Patroclus is one of the princes present at the time when the beautiful Helen chooses to marry the red-haired Menelaus. Along with the other warrior men, Patroclus takes the oath, proposed by Odysseus, to honour Helen’s choice and defend her husband against anyone who’d take her from him. All princes present are enviably handsome, powerful and gifted, while Patroclus is a little boy, feeble, unpromising and a disappointment to his father. One day, at the age of eight, Patroclus accidentally kills a boy who bullies him, and confesses. His father, infuriated by his un-princely humbleness, exiles him to Pythia, a small country ruled by King Peleus. Peleus’s son, sired from the sea-nymph goddess Thetis, is prophecized to be Aristos Achaion, the best of the Greeks. Achilles.
Ignoring all the boys who fight for his attention, Achilles chooses Patroclus as his companion. Their friendship blossoms into love. Even Achilles’s mother finds Patroclus unworthy of her son, and they struggle against all odds to be together. During their apprenticeship with Chiron, king of the Centaurs, news arrives of Queen Helen’s abduction from Sparta and Agamemnon’s appeal to sail to Troy to rescue her. Achilles, unable to trick his fate, and Patroclus, bound by his vow, are recruited to join the Greeks. With the prophecy hanging over their heads, certain that Achilles would die in the war, after the death of Hector, the Myrmidons, commanded by Achilles, set off for Troy.

What I didn’t like: Flitting tenses are annoying, but that’s just me. Patroclus’s narration is often maudlin and he seems infatuated with Achilles and absurdly unaware of his own potential, until the moment it’s revealed to us (surprise!) that Patroclus is the best of the Myrmidons. Patroclus’s descriptions of Achilles are garish and repetitive, and the love scenes are sometimes laughably awkward. At some of the key moments, the purple prose strives to invoke a reaction and we lose the profound simplicity such scenes demand.


What I liked: The Song of Achilles is aptly titled and looks at Achilles in all his glory and terror with an unbiased honesty, that only a lover can show. The story and the point of view turns the hero or the villain, as he’s bound to be either extreme in most interpretations of the myth, into a person. The characters of this book are charmingly fleshed out, my favourites are Odysseus, Thetis and Briseis. The floweriness of Patroclus’s descriptions doesn’t extend to the dialogue, which has a good flow and gives each character his distinct voice.
The all encompassing quality of this book makes it special. It strings together countless stories of all the men of Greece and Ilium and all the Olympian gods, capturing the essence of an epic. It’s clear that a lot of research went into this book, and that makes the absence of information dumps all the better. 

(SPOILER!) From the very first page, beginning with Patroclus’s first person narration, I wondered what would happen after he died. It would be weird if the narrative just stopped after Hector killed Patroclus and the book ended with Hector still alive. No book about Achilles would skip his final revenge. And a shift in point of view so close to the end would be too jarring. So what Miller’s done is use a risky literary device and let the unburied spirit of Patroclus shadow the rest of the war, invisibly watching Achilles’s death and the fall of Troy. It sounds hard to pull off, and seems too contrived at first, but the ghost-narration is wonderfully executed and the book ends on an impossibly happy note. (end of SPOILER)
Favourite conversations:


(a young Achilles, full of hope, in spite of his godly destiny)
“Name one hero who was happy.” 
I considered. Heracles went mad and killed his family; Theseus lost his bride and father; Jason’s children and new wife were murdered by his old; Bellerophon killed the Chimera but was crippled by the fall from Pegasus’ back.
“You can’t.” He was sitting up now, leaning forward. 
“I can’t.” 
“I know. They never let you be famous AND happy.” He lifted an eyebrow. “I’ll tell you a secret.” 
“Tell me.” I loved it when he was like this. 
“I’m going to be the first.”


(Chiron, on the futility of war)
Chiron had said once that nations were the most foolish of mortal inventions. “No man is worth more than another, wherever he is from.”  
“But what if he is your friend?” Achilles had asked him, feet kicked up on the wall of the rose-quartz cave. “Or your brother?  Should you treat him the same as a stranger?”  
“You ask a question that philosophers argue over,” Chiron had said. “He is worth more to you, perhaps. But the stranger is someone else’s friend and brother. So which life is more important?”
We had been silent. We were fourteen, and these things were too hard for us. Now that we are twenty-seven, they still feel too hard.


(Odysseus and Pyrrhus on the randomness of glory)
Odysseus inclines his head. “True. But fame is a strange thing. Some men gain glory after they die, while others fade. What is admired in one generation is abhorred in another.” He spread his broad hands. “We cannot say who will survive the holocaust of memory. Who knows?” He smiles. “Perhaps one day even I will be famous. Perhaps more famous than you.”
“I doubt it.”
Odysseus shrugs. “We cannot say. We are men only, a brief flare of the torch. Those to come may raise us or lower us as they please.”

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.

Butterfly Season by Natasha Ahmed

This
is going to be long, because this book has really made me think; which is
saying something, because it was barely a hundred pages long. I’ll sum up my
review, for those of you who don’t wish to scroll all the way down for the
conclusion: it’s a good book, if you’re South Asian, you will find it
inspiring, strong and relatable. If not, it will provide a frank and
non-exoticized look at a culture that is subjected to all kinds of stereotyping. Not
to mention, it’s quirky, cute and you’ll have fun reading it. Not convinced yet? Well, you might
have to read the whole review, after all.
Summary
(from Goodreads:) On her first holiday in six years, Rumi is expecting to relax
and unwind. But when she is set up by her long-time friend, she doesn’t shy
away from the possibilities. Ahad, a charming, independent, self-made man,
captures her imagination, drawing her away from her disapproving sister,
Juveria. Faced with sizzling chemistry and a meeting of the minds, Ahad and
Rumi find themselves deep in a relationship that moves forward with growing
intensity. But as her desire for the self-assured Ahad grows, Rumi struggles
with a decision that will impact the rest of her life.
Confronted
by her scandalized sister, a forbidding uncle and a society that frowns on
pre-marital intimacy, Rumi has to decide whether to shed her middle-class
sensibilities, turning her back on her family, or return to her secluded
existence as an unmarried woman in Pakistan. We follow Rumi from rainy London
to a sweltering Karachi, as she tries to take control of her own destiny.
My
thoughts:
All right, grievances first: I’d call this an illustration of the
don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover motto, I have to say, for a book with some
truly mesmerizing moments, the cover could have been better. I thought the book
was too short, I would have liked more development of the characters, I’d
have given them a little more time to fall for each other, and even more
time to stay ‘fallen’ until the conflicts arose. Here’s hoping Ahmed’s next
book is longer. At the risk of sounding nit-picky, the book could have
been edited better: spelling mistakes, a few awkward constructions, words like wry, languorous, elegant repeated far too often for my taste.
Now
to the goods, and there were so many. It’s common knowledge that I don’t like
the kind of formulaic romance that is churned out with astonishing regularity today. Anyway, I have read at least a few love stories and the one
thing that’s consistently bothered me about a typical read of the genre is that
there’s little else but sizzling romance. That is not the case with Natasha
Ahmed’s Butterfly Season. The story is honest, and while you can predict the way
it’ll turn, you’re still invested in the journey.
The
conflict of the book is well tackled. Sex before marriage being a taboo,
letting your family decide whom you end up with, having kids being your sole
focus, not getting a choice in the most basic decisions of your life –
these are not uncommon even today here in India and I have no doubt the prejudice
exists in the rest of South Asia, Pakistan, the Middle East. But the book does
something I didn’t expect from the author’s initial e-mail, it never sounds
preachy, nor like a rebellious angst filled complaint. Hell, you find Rumi
passionately defending Karachi till the very end, if that doesn’t sound fair, I
don’t know what will.
The
author gives a scenario, an example: a typical desi Pakistani girl from a
fairly conservative family falls for a considerably open minded and experienced
Pakistani man settled in London. After dating for a while, she has to decide
whether she would sleep with him, and she surprises herself with her choice.
When the time comes to define the relationship, she finds herself parroting
everything that’s been hammered into her growing up, lessons of right and wrong. These are philosophies which sound reasonable enough until actually put to
test. Is she orthodox and irrational, or does he really not have good ‘values’
only because he wants to take their relationship a step further than she’s used
to? You’d be surprised by how many people I know would side with Rumi’s family,
and there’d be a considerable lot that’d say, “It is wrong that it’s a taboo,
but why do something you know society is not going to like!?” The people who
care about you would never adjust for you. That is just out of the question.
Then,
surprisingly, the book delves even deeper into the issue. Rumi doesn’t want to
sever ties with her family; she loves her kid sister, even though Juveria’s is being unfair. She tries to make it work until circumstances turn to the very
worst and making a choice becomes inevitable, no matter the consequences. And
while the premise of this may sound ridiculous to the westerners or the more liberal people here, a “So what? Big deal!” kind of issue, the story
isn’t only about these taboos. It’s about finding yourself, learning to love yourself
and accepting people for what they are. It’s about not meddling in others’ lives or considering it your right, about being less skeptical of change and finding
the strength to be different, and if need be, facing the challenges it might
bring up. Geography only changes the type of problem, not the crux.


The
book has character. It’s about two people who get along really well and fall in
love. And we read about more than just her fluttering heart and his firm hands
or something. Ahmed plays out Ahad and Rumi’s conversations for you, from their
families and jobs to their tastes in music, books. They feel like real people
instead of stock characters. And they feel modern, not in the sense of
unorthodox (that would kind of beat the purpose of the book) but in that there
is little melodrama. A fight feels like a fight, not a whole production.

But
the thing I love the most about this book is the atmosphere. The writing feels
alive with a love for the characters’ roots. I have a thing for Urdu, having always been fascinated by my father’s self taught fluency in it. I like the little mentions of culture in the book, the bits of
Urdu and even the very English English – like when Ahad says his Cockney accent
and the inevitable dropping of h’s and t’s made his mother teach him Urdu. I
like all the pop culture references – be it the Junoon-Vital Signs debate or
the bad Corleone impression. And I love the song that Ahmed has, for the most part, based the title on. As far as I understand, it is about dealing with separation from your mother and I suppose, your motherland. The butterfly motifs and the fluttering butterflies in Rumi’s stomach as she fell in love fit wonderfully together as the title of the book. I found a set of lyrics translated
here, but the author has provided a compact glossary at the end of the book, anyway. I can’t say I’d heard the song before, but it’s beautiful. You should listen to it too, just to
get in the mood, before you go buy the book!
Butterfly Season by Natasha Ahmed has been published by Indireads, as part of a wide range of romance novellas for South Asian readers everywhere. Natasha Ahmed is a pen name. In real life, Natasha is a graphic designer, a businesswoman and occasionally writes art and book reviews for publications within Pakistan. Butterfly Season is her debut book and for a first effort, it is lovely. You can visit the author’s website for more about the book.

Love and Lokpal by Pooja Wanpal

After a very unwanted two-week break from blogging, this week will be flooded with reviews. Some time last week, this book finally arrived on my doorstep (there were some issues, I live in an annoyingly inconspicuous neighbourhood, that no one ever finds.) I finished Love and Lokpal in one swift sitting, and if not anything else, it certainly made for a well spent afternoon! Love and Lokpal by Pooja Wanpal has a pretty self-explanatory title. That’s just what the book is about: it is a college romance with the whole frenzied Lokpal Bill movement as its backdrop.


Summary: Shlok Kulkarni, an architect by day and an Assassin’s creed
junkie by night is being bombarded with eligible girls by his matchmaking mama.
In a bid to escape her and maybe check out a few hot girls while he’s at it,
Shlok flees to Delhi, where a massive protest for the Lokpal Bill has been
building up. Kaveri Gokhale has been searching for a cause her whole
life. When the winds of the Lokpal blow through the country, she eagerly catches
the next train to Delhi to witness history. When Shlok runs into Kaveri at Jantar Mantar, the sparks are
undeniable. As their relationship blossoms, Kaveri discovers a dark secret that
leaves her devastated… and endangers the fate of billion others. Will
Shlok and Kaveri’s love wither or will it withstand the uncertainties of the
corrupt politics? Can love truly conquer all ideologies?

My thoughts: I have mixed views about this one. The one question I ask myself when I am on the fence about a book is if it has a point. When it comes to Love and Lokpal; for all the minor irritants, the book is hardly pointless.

What I liked: You know how some books have like a wide, epic-sy scope? This book has the exact opposite, and that is a good thing. Having our heroine fight for an apparently huge, inspiring cause while still bristling over boyfriend troubles has an incredibly homey feel to it. The story sticks, mostly, to the every day reality of a young Indian. The characters are lovable stereotypes and the situations they’re put in are quite easy to imagine and relate to, from the college politics and twenty-something colleagues with their crazy boss, to a typical mother trying to trick her son into an arranged marriage. The relationship between Shlok and his sister has a cozy, personal quality that suggests some (welcomed) borrowing from reality, as do the college friendships. 


If the writing weren’t as funny, I have to say, the book would have been dull. The language is at once mature and quirky, the descriptions are vivid and detailed. The protest in Delhi is described with much fervour and it has that ounce of dramatic passion that characterizes Kaveri. You can tell the author has done her research, without there being any unwanted information dumps. The love story itself is sweet and never overly mushy. And the point of the book? The answer to the question posed on the back cover, “Can love truly conquer all ideologies?” That’s something I’d rather not spoil; except perhaps to say that the story concludes on a nicely re-conciliatory note rather than pushing any sort of agenda. 

What I didn’t like: The biggest problem I have with the book is that it just doesn’t manage to fully explore any of the issues it so promisingly brings forth. It is just too short a story, wrapped up much too quickly, before it even has a chance to really begin! As a consequence, the relationships between many of those admittedly nice characters haven’t been allowed to flesh out either. Carrying the story a little further, and stretching out the beginning would have made the plot a lot smoother, the ending a lot less abrupt. There are few editorial errors, but the tenses frequently go kind of wonky and the switching narratives seem a bit repetitive and unnecessary – I think the book could have worked just as well with a single third person perspective.


Overall, if you were a part of or religiously followed the whole Lokpal protest movement business (which is more than I can say for myself), you would find heaps to relate to. If you like cutesy college romances, this one is perfect. For me, the fact that Love and Lokpal by Pooja Wanpal reads like a debut is a teeny bit of a problem. She should write another book, and I have a feeling I’d like the next one more.