Ransom by David Malouf

Reminiscent of: Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

Summary: The Iliad begins with Achilles, the Greeks’ greatest strength, refusing to fight for them, for Agamemnon, who insulted him. But he is the only one who can defeat the Trojan prince Hector. One of the greatest stories of The Iliad is Achilles’ final vengeful slaughter of Hector, his darkest moments that follow, and King Priam’s daring un-kingly attempt to ransom his son’s body from the cruel Achilles. The unlikely meeting, of the aged father and the murderer of his son, in the middle of a Greek camp, at the centre of an unending war, makes a beautiful story of loss.

“If the last thing that happens to me is to be hunted down in the heart of my citadel, and dragged out by the feet, and shamelessly stripped and humiliated, so be it. But I do not want that to be the one sad image of me that endures in the minds of men. The image I mean to leave is a living one. Of something so new and unheard of that when men speak my name it will stand forever as proof of what I was. An act, in these terrible days, that even an old man can perform, that only an old man dare perform, of whom nothing now can be expected of noise and youthful swagger. Who can go humbly, as a father and as a man, to his son’s killer, and ask in the gods’ name, and in their sight, to be given back the body of his dead son. Lest the honour of all men be trampled in the dust.’’
My thoughts: So: did I mention I’ve been on kind of a Troy-high lately? I’m halfway through the Robert Fitzgerald translation of The Iliad and have been catching up on my Greek mythology; reading novels based on the Trojan war, because there’s no better way to learn stuff than through stories. Last week, I wrote about The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. It’s a book full of glamour and passion, but this book is the complete opposite. I’d read and appreciated Ransom by David Malouf before, but this reread has me inspired. This book is amazing. Brilliantly composed. 
The author adds character to the myth, life stories and feelings. We see Achilles in the ruthlessness that even he can’t comprehend. Angry and impulsive Achilles who leaves the war, then rejoins it to avenge his friend’s murder, kills Hector and mercilessly drags around his bones for days to follow. But he’s burning inside; even as the Myrmidons begin to resent their leader’s bold cruelty, we find him not cruel, but pitiful.
And then we see Priam, ransomed from slavery by his sister through Heracles, we meet his sons and daughters and Hecuba, his Queen. Ransom is about a King – a symbol – and about the man behind that image, a man who finally breaks through to do right by his son. In a time when all was left to the will of the Gods, we see the one man who took fate in his hands, a ruler who exercised his free will and set out to plead to his enemy, Priam who put his life in the hands of chance. Guided by Hermes, in a cart drawn by mules, belonging to a poor stranger, Priam sees the real Troy for the first time. 
And the story is also about the cart driver, a stranger who is hired to play the part of Priam’s herald for one journey, an old man whose views about the world make all the difference to Priam’s actions, an old man who witnesses in one night a great chunk of history and, throughout his life, even after the fall of Troy, retells it to a thousand disbelieving ears. His presence in this novella makes you wonder about stories and the true truth. It reminded me of Odysseus’s speech in The Song of Achilles about how there is no telling who earns immortal fame and whose glory is lost in time.
Masterfully written, Ransom by David Malouf is packed with wit and emotion. It’s 5/5, incredibly highly recommended.

In his own world a man spoke only to give shape to a decision he had come to, or to lay out an argument for or against. To offer thanks to one who had done well, or a reproof, either in anger or gentle regret, to one who had not. To pay a compliment whose decorative phrases, and appeals to vanity or family pride, were fixed and of ancient and approved form. Silence, not speech, was what was expressive. Power lay in containment. In keeping hidden, and therefore mysterious, one’s true intent. A child might prattle, till it learned better. Or women in the seclusion of their own apartments.

But out here, if you stopped to listen, everything prattled. It was a prattling world. Leaves as they tumbled in the breeze. Water as it went hopping over the stones and turned back on itself and hopped again. Cicadas that created such a long racketing shrillness, then suddenly cut out, so that you found yourself aware once again of silence. Except that it wasn’t silence at all, it was a low, continuous rustling and buzzing and humming, as if each thing’s presence was as much the sound it made as its shape, or the way it had, which was all its own, of moving or being still.

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.”

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

This is the sixth book I read for the Once Upon a Time challenge
This fabulous review by Delia made me want to get this book, and I’m glad I did. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker is a unique read. I’ve encountered jinnis (or genies and djinns) quite a few times in books, but never a golem like this one. The only other golems I remember reading of are those from the Discworld series; they have scrolls of instructions in their heads, fiery eyes, are huge, sexless and as you see, look somewhat like clay ogres. —>

Not in this book. The story of the Golem begins on a steamship off to New York. The Golem is a woman made out of clay by a corrupt rabbi who dabbles in dark magic, for a man who would be her husband and master. But on the ship, before the husband can do much other than introduce himself, he dies. Alone in New York city, the Golem, who has been built to be an obedient wife, to fulfill her master’s desires, finds herself swarmed by the wishes of every person on the ship. That is until, a rabbi who recognizes her for what she is, takes her in and teaches her to control her brutal strength and her need to serve others and survive without a master. Becoming her makeshift caretaker, the rabbi names her Chava, meaning life.

Meanwhile, in the neighbourhood of Little Syria, a tinsmith named Arbeely accidentally frees a jinni from a copper flask brought to him for repair. The Jinni has been trapped in the body of a man, an unnaturally handsome man with an iron cuff fixed on his wrist, with no memory of how he came to be in the flask and only the vaguest recollection of a wizard who may have, centuries ago, condemned him to this fate. Reluctantly adopting the name Ahmad, the Jinni begins to come to terms with his limiting existence and form. His ability to work with metal, shaping it to his desire with his bare hands leads him to make a deal with Arbeely, and by the time the close knit society of Little Syria meets Ahmad, he plays the role of a Bedouin apprentice taken on by the tinsmith.

The Golem and the Jinni meet by accident, and discover, instantly, each others’ true identities. After the initial fear and discomfort, a mixture of curiousity and loneliness brings them together and they become unlikely friends, exploring New York together, strangely free in the dead of the night. The book is the story of their friendship and how their opposing natures, the Jinni reckless and passionate, the Golem mature and prudent, strike an uncanny balance and helps them understand themselves better. Their conversations and inner struggles, the questions they raise and their almost inevitable arguments resonate with those of ordinary people. The character flaws that we all have are parts of their being, it is the Jinni’s nature to be selfish, and the Golem’s to be submissive, he doesn’t tolerate being tied down and she is afraid to break her careful boundaries.

“What are you?” he asked.
She said nothing, gave no indication she’d understood. 
He tried again: “You’re not human. You’re made of earth.”
At last she spoke. “And you’re made of fire,” she said.

The writing is beautiful, as are the concepts and the working of intriguing mythology into the story. The setting is perfect, late 19th century New York, a city full of strangers with incomprehensibly varying stories, alone in throngs, trying on identities, looking for their true selves and for some semblance of meaning to attach to the randomness of their lives. In this blend of historical fiction and fantasy, along with the adventures of the Golem and the Jinni, we experience seemingly simple lives – from a brazen young girl dealing with a pregnancy to Ice Cream Saleh, a homeless ice cream maker who sees the devil in people’s eyes.

The story is delicate, and slippery; there are many viewpoints and sometimes, it seems haphazard, overly detailed and as if scarcely enough thought went into it; but trudging on through each momentary drabness leads to a seamless conclusion that catches you by surprise. At the very beginning, I thought I could already predict the ending – halfway into the story, it seemed to be heading nowhere – three quarters in, I came close to calling it a bit convoluted – but by the end I was in love. The Golem and the Jinni is an absorbing fusion of ordinary and miraculous. It may not be for everybody, but it is worth a try, at least. 

The Great Mogul by Rajeev Jacob

When I got the review request, I was so fascinated by the description that I scurried off to Goodreads to go through the reviews. Except, to my irritation, I never found a Goodreads page. Having read the book now in one very exciting sitting, I am even more annoyed, because The Great Mogul by Rajeev Jacob is a unique read. I really wouldn’t want it to disappear among the hundreds of mostly mediocre books that the Indian publishing industry churns out every year. The Great Mogul is, in its own delightful and rather eccentric way, awesome. I admit, the book is hardly perfect, but it is well crafted and engaging.

Summary: The Great Mogul is a 900 carat diamond which was last
seen by jeweller Travenier in the hands of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in the
seventeenth century. There have been no sightings of it since then leading
historians to conclude that it has been either cut up, misplaced or lost
forever. The lives of the beautiful but much abused Khyrunissa, the thieving
but loyal Bhaichand and the murderous but love-lorn English mercenary David
Washerby are inextricably linked in this searing tale of love, greed, ambition
and betrayal.
Two young scholars delving into the role of mercenaries in eighteenth century Indian wars discover more than just pages out of history. Through the world of musty old archival records and clues hidden in a minor British poetess’ love lines, Irene and Jason find themselves chasing the elusive trail of The Great Mogul – one of the world’s largest and India’s greatest diamonds, the brilliance of which is matched only by the depths of mystery surrounding its current whereabouts. Along the way, they find out more about a dissolute English mercenary’s perilous and exciting quest to seek a great fortune. A journey that takes him across the length and breadth of  India and nearly leaves him dead.
My thoughts: The Great Mogul by Rajeev Jacob is a diamond in the rough (see what I did there?) There are goods and bads, but the goods definitely outnumber the bads. That being said, I do hope that the person in charge of the editing does a better job the next time.

What I liked: The blunt writing style is the first thing that caught my attention. The descriptions are vividly crude, though I actually enjoy the uncompromising honesty. The hunt for a diamond could have been grossly sensationalized, but this book is firmly realistic, with maybe just a dash of the necessary drama. I like the intermingling of the two periods; we learn what happened in David’s times and at the same time watch as Irene and Jason, the two young scholars, dig into history. While the past is undoubtedly thrilling, the present too is harrowing, in a different manner, of course. Research is not easy, and it would have seemed very unlikely for Irene and Jason to have found what they were looking for just by visiting a couple of libraries.
The characters are well drawn and the interactions are interesting. The author has managed what few can; every character has a distinctive voice; the otherwise third person narrative is interspersed by bits and pieces of story from almost each character’s point of view. The reader begins to care for them.
The language varies too, in that you can tell from the words if it is the woman talking or the slave or the foreigner. And most of all, what I love (love!) is Emily Bottleshaw’s poetry, and I’m not the biggest fan of poetry, so that is saying something.
Let me go back to the descriptions, the India of the old is so quaint. While present day imagery is funny and altogether relatable, as Irene and Jason travel around the dreaded streets of Delhi in a rickety rickshaw, the train travel and the roaming around in the rain on rented bikes with people staring; the past has an overpowering charm. It is also aptly gory back then, with the brutal killings and rapes. And strewn over the book are descriptions that really stand out; like, a dried up river resembling a shriveled snake skin: doesn’t that just make you smile and nod in agreement?

What I didn’t like: Here come the bads, which are, to be honest, just one big bad. Most of us tend to overlook our own mistakes, we just don’t notice them; I bet I’ve scattered a few along this review too. But isn’t that why we have editors? For starters, almost none of the quoted questions end in question marks. Then there’s this: I’m pretty sure the word “riff-raff” appears about half a dozen times; once, it makes a good description; but repeatedly using the same words is just distasteful. A single paragraph contains the word “trusted” in every line, and another the word “kind”; not cool. In some places, there are extra words that are entirely out of place, probably forgotten there after modifying the sentence, and some sentences start out okay, jumble up along the way and end up missing a key preposition or a pronoun. Which reminds me, for some reason the author often uses ‘it’ instead of ‘they’, I could quote a few amusing examples I jotted down but I don’t want to seem too fussy. Finally, the chapter titles are wholly superfluous. The difference between a badly written book and a badly edited book is obvious to the observant reader. The Great Mogul is certainly the latter, which makes the mistakes all the more frustrating.
Another thing I noticed is that the story progresses in short scenes and when the writer is seemingly at a loss for how to proceed, the scene abruptly and conveniently ends and a new chapter begins. It’s a style of writing I don’t mind in this instance, but unless intentional, the plotting needs work.

Conclusion? One thing is for sure, this is a book I’ll re-re-read. And I will watch out for more of the author’s works, hoping and praying that they are well edited! Meanwhile, you can grab your copy of The Great Mogul by Rajeev Jacob right here.

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

A little more than a year ago, I read this review of The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson on Vishy’s Blog. The review made it sound like the most fascinating book and if not anything else, it is certainly that.

It is difficult to write a summary for a book that winds so many stories together, but I’ll try. The book opens with the life-altering car crash of our narrator, once a hardcore porn-star and a junkie. He survives, but his body is almost irreparably burnt. While recovering in the burn ward of a hospital, alone and grotesque, the pain drives him to a point where the only relief is the idea of suicide. With the same suddenness with which the narrator describes his accident, he introduces us to the character central to his story: Marianne Engel, a beautiful apparent schizophrenic, a sculptress of gargoyles, who believes not only that she is seven hundred years old but that she’s our narrator’s true love. She insists that they were lovers in medieval Germany; he, a badly burnt mercenary; and she, a nun, who nursed him back to health. Tacky as it may sound, with little to do but suffer the extensive treatment for his injury, our narrator immerses himself into the tales of love and God that the strange Marianne tells him; intrigued by the accuracy and consistency of her delusions. Under the care of his physiotherapist, the cheerful Sayuri, and his doctor Nan Edwards, with the help of an unlikely friend, a shrink, and the increasingly mysterious Marianne Engel, our narrator’s condition slowly improves. When he is released from the hospital, the narrator moves in with Marianne, and realizes for the first time the true extent of her mania.

“If a man says that God is wise, the man is lying because
anything that is wise can become wiser. Anything that a man might say about God
is incorrect, even calling Him by the name of God. The best a man can do is to remain silent, because any time
he prates on about God, he is committing the sin of lying. The true master
knows that if he had a God he could understand, he would never hold Him to be

Now let me just say I like the book. Looking back on the 200-something pages, I can say with certainty that I’m glad I read them. You’ll find many reviews on Amazon, Goodreads or your favourite book-lovers’ haunt that describe just how charming, intelligently crafted, poetic, hauntingly beautiful the book is. I am intrigued by Davidson’s imagination. The historical life of Marianne, growing up as a scribe in the famed monastery of Engelthal, is a wonderful blend of languages, art and literature. The culinary delights that she prepares for the narrator in the present day are appropriately delightful. The tales Marianne narrates, of everyone from Vikings to proper Victorian ladies, are an added charm. As I said, I like the book; but I don’t quite love it. Though it had everything it needed to be properly splendid, the book just never fully held my attention.
I get the appeal for the book. The setting, the eerie writing, the mysticism, the switching timelines are reminiscent of writers like Patrick Sueskind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, A. S. Byatt. The narrator’s oddly modern cynicism and abrupt sense of humour, the way the narrator talks, reminds me, for some reason, of China Mieville, though the content of this book rarely resembles his. The writing style, however, seems far too forced, like the author is mimicking his favourite writers; almost like a child who reads Enid Blyton writing about mean, horrid grown-ups and children who say things like, “Goodness me!” Apart from the stories Marianne tells, which are truly nice, there is little story-telling; only disconnected scenes strung together to form a brittle ‘plot’. Few ‘chapters’, if they could be called that, are longer than a page. The theme of the book is, as is to be expected, redemption. But the part where the message of the book becomes most evident is rushed. Dante’s Inferno, the circles of Hell are woven into the story, but even that story line remains, though imperceptibly, rough at the edges. While the author spends a long time working out an intricate history for all characters, their minds are superficial at best. The sudden change in the narrator and his view of the world, his abrupt lack of skepticism, the complete wiping away of the effects of his past, though brought on by a doubtlessly tragic incident, are sketchy at best. Marianne, who has so much potential, comes dangerously close to becoming an empty silhouette of a character; just a stereotype. Sayuri is an interesting character, her story adds a welcomed dash of bubbling humanity to the book, but even the ending the author presents her seems little more than a tying up of loose ends. The doctor is another stereotype I’d rather not dwell on. My favourite character is Jack Meredith, ’nuff said.
Despite the lengthy criticism, I do think the book is worth reading. It is certainly rather unique. It’s not long, and though it sometimes loses momentum, if you like history, magical realism, dark fantasy, mythology, art, specifically grotesques, give The Gargoyle a chance.

I think the book fits The Historical Fiction Challenge better than it does the R.I.P. Challenge, though the latter is the one I originally read it ‘for’. 

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

My first Salman Rushdie novel. The fabulous writing has left
me in awe. The Enchantress of Florence is a book about storytelling and adventure and magic of the crude, unrestrained, undiluted kind; unlike
the magic you encounter in modern fantasy, this is wholly inexplicable.
A yellow-haired traveller shows up in Emperor Akbar’s court
in Fatehpur Sikri claiming to be the child of Akbar’s grandfather, Babar’s
exiled sister, Princess Qara Köz, Lady Black Eyes; known in Italy as
the Enchantress of Florence. As the traveller, who calls himself The Mughal of
Love, relates his mother’s tale, the narrative switches back and forth between
Akbar’s court in Hindustan and Renaissance Florence.
Rushdie takes characters out of history and blends them almost perfectly with the fiction he has created; Tansen in Sikri and Niccolo Machiavelli in Italy, among others; giving even the greats only as much attention as the story allows.
Despite being a bit rushed at times and slightly dull at others; despite bordering, sometimes, on pretentious; many stories in this book have left a huge impression on me.
The tale of Jodha, the aloof Queen that Akbar brought into existence through sheer passion; that of the painter who, quite literally, lost himself in
his artwork; the story of the Memory Palace, a woman, a vessel, whose
mind was erased to make room  for someone else’s story. I have always been fascinated by the Mughal history of India and having grown up on tales of Birbal and his antics in Akbar’s court, the book has brought back the fondest memories of my childhood. Akbar is just as I would have imagined him. Rushdie brings Sikri to life, right from the first scene, from the splendid descriptions of the shimmering golden waters of the palace lake. Florence, though, I am not so sure about. It may be because I have never been there, but the city isn’t quite as vivid. The journeys of Argalia, the story of the three friends from Florence, and of the lives of Qara Köz and her servant, however, are intriguing. 
Here are some of my favourite quotes (no spoilers) from the book:
~ ‘Imagine a pair of woman’s lips,’ Mogor whispered, ‘puckering for a kiss. That is the city of Florence, narrow at the edges, swelling at the centre, with the Arno flowing through between, parting the two lips, the upper and the lower. The city is an enchantress. When it kisses you, you are lost, whether you be commoner or king.’
~ ‘We find that we enjoy him and do not care, for the present, to unravel his mysteries. Maybe he has been a criminal, maybe even a murderer, we cannot say. What we know is that he has crossed the world to leave one story behind and to tell another, that the story he has brought us is his only baggage, and that his deepest desire is the same as poor vanished Dashwanth’s – that is, he wants to step into the tale he’s telling and begin a new life inside it. In short, he is a creator of fables, and a good afsanah never did anybody any real damage.’
~ Is it not a kind of infantilization of the self to give up one’s power of agency and believe that such power resided outside oneself rather than within? This was also his objection to God, that his existence deprived human beings of the right to form ethical structures by themselves. But magic was all around and would not be denied, and it would be a rash ruler who pooh-poohed it. Religion could be re-thought, re-examined, remade, perhaps even discarded; magic was impervious to such assaults.

Witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits or magic wand. Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough.

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco

It took me a very long time to complete this book. I wish it
hadn’t. I wished I’d just left it now and continued or restarted somewhere in
the indefinite future. Maybe then I would have appreciate the stunning ending,
despite the terribly rocky start. I borrowed it from the library and read it,
specifically for The Historical Fiction Challenge.

Summary: The book starts mysteriously, with a man waking from a coma quoting literary character. “What’s you name?” the doctor asks and Yambo, a rare book-dealer solemnly answers, “My name is Arthur Gordon Pym”, followed quickly by a puzzled, “Call me… Ishmael?” Yambo suffers from a strange type of memory loss, in that he remembers every book he has ever read (and he has read many) but could tell you nothing about his family, his wife and daughters, his parents and himself. Yambo determinedly sets off to his childhood home, somewhere in the hills between Milan and Turin, to retrieve his memories; using what he knows best, all the evidences of history: books, prints, songs, poetry. As it turns out, his grandfather is quite the collector.
Let us hop over to the Goodreads summary: “There, in the sprawling attic, he searches through boxes of
old newspapers, comics, records, photo albums, and adolescent diaries. And so
Yambo relives the story of his generation: Mussolini, Catholic education and
guilt, Josephine Baker, Flash Gordon, Fred Astaire. His memories run wild, and
the life racing before his eyes takes the form of a graphic novel. Yambo
struggles through the frames to capture one simple, innocent image: that of his
first love.”

“History is a blood-drenched enigma and the world an error.”

My thoughts: The concept, you have to agree, is amazing. It is a bit unstructured, why Yambo remembers what he remembers is a framework that could easily crumble. But the idea of books, newspapers, old photos and journals reviving your past is fantastically arguable and makes you ponder over the strangeness of memory and association. I am a complete pack-rat and I could still tell you with little certainty what emotions anything in my room would evoke if I lost my memory. Could you imagine that? Trying to remember your past by the objects that you lined it with. I certainly can’t, I’m not me because of those things, and for that; the book and its ending were satisfying. 
However, every ten pages, amazing alternated with horrible. I liked understanding the German poems, deciphering the Italian songs and gazing at the comical old ads and prints. I loved the rich descriptions of feelings and places and memory and fogs in the mind. Eco can really write, paint pictures that could only be described as glorious. However, the journey, the rummaging through old belongings lost its flavour after the first forty belongings. The plot was unruly, it utterly lacked design, was mindbogglingly slow paced and it took me a lot of patience to trudge through to the end. The book hardly moved forward for long patches of time and though Yambo’s thoughts about his condition and about the idea of his past were intriguing, engaging; I soon only wished he’d find something, already! The ending was
perfect, but I was already too tired to appreciate it. The moment I finished reading the last
line, I was glad that it was over; and what does that say about a book?

I still do want to read Baudolino, though. Umberto Eco is an undoubtedly great writer. 

Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier

I am not so unfamiliar with William Blake as to not know what the title of this book refers to. I picked it up at the book sale because I like the poem The Tyger. I haven’t read many of Blake’s works, though, which are quoted a lot in this book, nor do I know his history, so I paired this book with a heavy dose of Wikipedia to get the full effect. I do believe Chevalier has done her research well. I love the way she has blended all her carefully collected data subtly into the story, avoiding information dumps.
This is the story of Jem Kellaway, who has moved to London from Dorsetshire (still has the accent) with his family and the street-wise Londoner Maggie Butterfield. The children form a bond, while getting to know their curious neighbour Mr. Blake (that’s right, the then-quite-under-appreciated poet we’ve all heard of today.) Another major historic figure starring in this book is Philip Astley, the charming circus owner who offers Jem’s father a job as one of his carpenters. Set in Georgian London, in the final decade of the 18th Century, the book is, among other things, about growing up in an urban world, against the backdrop of a raging revolution. And this is what seems to inspire William Blake’s greatest work: which features prominently in this book, The Songs of Innocence and Experience. The book is tragic and touching and scary, deals with rape, murder and loss; like the poems, it’s about opposites, being neither here nor there, about what lies between Heaven and Hell and what it means to be human.
Tracy Chevalier is a good story-teller. She can you keep you thoroughly engaged with her spirited and quirky writing style, entangle you in minute details and realistic dialogue. Jem and Maggie are kids who have been through a lot more than kids should, who think of themselves as adults until they actually begin to grow up. Their relationship is perfect and they’re quite lovable. And then there’s Maisie, the sister who doesn’t act her age, who swoons over the handsome John Astley and naively loses her way. I really liked all the fictional characters, even Charlie and Dick Butterfield. Just when I thought they were getting too predictable, they’d do something that would surprise me and become all the more real. That being said, Mrs and Mr Blake, and the circus owners are too much like cardboard cutouts out of a history textbook. They are too one-dimensional and I almost wish the writer had fleshed them out more, even if that meant straying from fact.
The book was good, not life-altering-ly amazing. It had the potential to be something fantastic; in fact, it got very close to it, but I was disappointed when it didn’t quite end up there. The book dealt with a lot, but all the issues almost cluttered the book. Not every problem got the emotional attention it needed and to me, even at the end, the book seemed incomplete and almost shallow. I like Tracy’s writing style, and I would like to give her better known The Girl With the Pearl Earring a try. Burning Bright, though, I’d only recommend as a breezy, have-time-to-kill, need-a-distraction read.

Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Running With the Enemy by Lloyd Lofthouse

A red flare shot into the sky telling the Marines to return to the landing zone for departure.
Ethan trembled and shook himself as if he were a wet dog, then rolled over beside her instead of on top of her. She smelled the coppery scent of his blood. “Hell!” he said, and pushed her into a narrow space between clumps of bamboo. “After I cover you, stay here until we are gone. Why are you here? This is not where you live. You should be washing clothes at Luu’s where you will be safer.”

No one is ever safe anywhere, she thought, and then said, “Ethan?” The tears in her eyes blurred her vision. She reached for him, wanting him to take her away from this war, but he slipped out of her reach.
Summary: In this suspense thriller set during the Vietnam War, Victor Ortega is a rogue CIA agent, and he needs someone to blame for his crimes. Recon Marine Ethan Card is the perfect patsy. As a teen, Ethan ran with a Chicago street gang, and he has a criminal record. He also has a secret lover, Tuyen, who is half Vietnamese and half French.

Tuyen is a stunning, beautiful Viet Cong resistance fighter. 
Since she was a young child, Tuyen has lived under the control of her brutal, older, sexually abusive half-brother, Giap, a ruthless and powerful Viet Cong leader, who has forced her to kill Americans in battle or die if she refuses.
When Ethan discovers he is going to be court marshaled for weapons he did not sell to the Viet Cong and Tuyen will be arrested and end up in an infamous South Vietnamese prison, where she will be tortured and raped, he hijacks a U.S. Army helicopter and flees with Tuyen across Southeast Asia while struggling to prove his innocence.
Victor Ortega and Giap—working together with the support of an unwitting American general—will stop at nothing to catch the two, and the hunt is on.
The star-crossed lovers travel across Laos to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat; to Bangkok, Thailand, and then to Burma’s Golden Triangle where Ethan and Tuyen face a ruthless drug lord and his gang.
In the rainforests of Burma, Ethan also discovers Ortega and Giap have set in motion a massive assault on his Marine unit’s remote base in South Vietnam with the goal of killing the man he admires most, Colonel Edward Price, who is the only one who believes Ethan is innocent.
Ethan must risk everything to save Price and his fellow Marines. Will he succeed?
My thoughts: A fair warning: this book is not for the squeamish. There’s a lot of sex, violence and lot of swearing. All the gory details are bound to make anyone queasy, they are haunting and described vividly.

I liked Ethan Card, for the way he was neither all bad nor all good. At times, I was completely annoyed by him. The characters, Ethan included, were realistic. Sure, the villians were inexplicably mean and cruel but the protagonists weren’t all angels either. The relationship between Ethan and Tuyen seemed abrupt in the first fifty something pages, when so many things happened so quickly. But the relationship is dwelt on later, and it sort of grows into something believable: a desperate grasp at some sort of meaning or purpose in such a terrifying world. Two people falling in love, having an affair, running off together is just cheesy enough to ring true. The author relies majorly, according to me, on dialogue to take the story forward and is one of the few authors I have read who can write good dialogue. For Ortega, I found the characteristic way he talked to be a bit limited, and therefore, unrealistic; in contrast, Tuyen’s speech is written wonderfully.
The chapters and scenes are very short and the story is constantly spiralling off into something new. There are a lot of details, many minor characters to focus on, so I needed to pay attention closely while reading. It’s not a breezy read and wouldn’t be enjoyed when distracted. I liked the descriptions of the different locations, how there were little information dumps. But I notice far too many similes, to describe just about everything. I do know that a good metaphor is a sign of a good author, but after a while they seemed kind of silly, nothing was straightforward bad or big or loud.
The book was very fast and I could read it within a few days. It had me engaged completely from the very first chapter and I was certainly curious to see how things would turn out. The violence did turn me off a bit and I wish there was less of that. But, hey, you can’t exactly change the war. So which it was a little too much, I appreciated that it seemed realistic. The book wasn’t biased on any side of the war and the author has sort of left us to wonder about all the things he’s written, not really presenting us with one opinion but a swarm of them to choose from. It seems like he’s written what he really does know, and that is why, it is easy to ignore any flaws that come to mind: because, the book is honest. It isn’t just another action-packed, adventure, thriller but has something more to offer. And you rarely get to say that with a review copy, so I’m certainly glad I got the chance to read this. You can buy a copy of Running With the Enemy here.
I got an email a few days ago, and another, saying Running with the Enemy was awarded Runner Up in General Fiction at the 2013 Beach Book Festival and honorable mention general fiction at the 2013 New York Book Festival recently and I’ve to say I’m not surprised. Books about wars all seem to be almost the same and this one offers a new perspective of sorts. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s nice and I am sure many will love it.

If I had to give this a rating, which I suppose I do (this is a blog tour), it’d be somewhere between three and four stars.
I received this book in exchange for an honest review. For more reviews, view the Tour Schedule at the Virtual Authors Book Tours website.

This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson

“1828 – Brilliant young naval officer Robert FitzRoy is given the captaincy of HMS Beagle, surveying the wilds of Tierra del Fuego, aged just twenty-three. He takes a passenger: a young trainee cleric and amateur geologist named Charles Darwin. This is the story of a deep friendship between two men, and the twin obsessions that tore it apart, leading one to triumph and the other to disaster…”

The author could have ensured success for the book by making all about Darwin and The Origin of Species and it would have, indeed, sold. But as the book is about the expedition to Tierra del Fuego, the one that apparently changed the world, Captain FitzRoy is as much a hero (perhaps more) of the book as Charles Darwin. The expedition that seeded in Darwin’s mind the idea of natural selection, of an alternative way of the creation of life, also lead to disastrous consequences for FitzRoy, whose ambitions combined with a manic depression (a disorder that wasn’t even discovered back then, and was, hence misinterpreted by him as the voice of God) led to disastrous consequences for his career and life.

The book was beautiful, thrilling and tragic. The prominent underlying theme of the book, the shameful, outrageous and atrocious things that the British invaders did to the countries, which they decided it was their duty to “improve” gives the book its title. “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”: it is a line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which ironically, the sailors themselves seem to have read (going so far as to call a native Caliban and not realizing that they were Prospero, or likewise, in the wrong.) The fact that FitzRoy thought he could bring three savages to London, teach them and release them into the wild (hoping they would then spread the learnings) was ridiculous at best. But he did it, because he thought he was doing God’s work (he did later regret it, but the damage was already done by then.) But his behaviour  was also, and this is quite generous coming from a person who is from one of the supposedly primitive, savager-infested countries, in a way, justified. That, of course, doesn’t mean it wasn’t wrong, it was just not surprising that the sailors were disgusted by the uncivilized, un-London, cannibalistic customs of the Fuegians and considered they were doing the natives a favour by forcing Christianitiy upon them. It was bound to happen. We judge; whether we should or not. 
And it is this inevitability of historical fiction that makes it most impactful. You can’t say, “He shouldn’t have said that.” What he should have done is immaterial, the fact remains that he did it. What the book shows us is this: A long time ago, a brave, proud, smart young man made a mistake and was too stubborn to accept it – and here’s why. FitzRoy, who turns out to be the real tragic hero of the book (and not Darwin) was not stupid to have argued with his friend nor crazy to have believed that he was a sort of messenger of God. He was just… born at the wrong time. The book made me realize how lucky we are to have been born in a world where it isn’t outrageous to doubt or question something. We are lucky to experience both alternatives and get a choice: religion, rituals, creation of the world by some God (the story of Noah or Manu, here in India) versus science, evolution, natural selection. It is easy to choose a side. It is a lot more difficult to create a side as Darwin did, to create a whole new perspective thitherto unimaginable and while doing so, shatter an entire belief system. But it has to be the most difficult to accept a new side created by someone who doesn’t even know in their entirety the meaning and implications of what he’s claiming to be the ‘ultimate truths’. Reading the book, I realized that it was no wonder FitzRoy considered Darwin a blasphemous madman. I would have too, and I am not nearly as strong or ahead-of-the-times as FitzRoy appears to have been. I wonder how many pugnacious atheists of today would have pugnacious atheists back in the day when atheism wasn’t as accessible an option. The point I am trying to make is this: Darwin was unarguably brilliant, but so was FitzRoy, who was rather unfortunately completely overshadowed by his friend. With his daring command over HMS Beagle at the age of twenty-three (the way he handles the first storm they encounter goes to show a lot about him.), his unparalleled contributions to meteorology and weather forecasting, his attempts at compiling the natives’ language and his humble, guilty acceptance of his own failures go against any image that an uninformed or misguided modern reader would build of a man like Captain FitzRoy  that he was some random sailor who was silly enough to oppose a great inventor, scientist like Darwin. If only things were as black and white; had Robert FitzRoy really been silly, he would have lived a much happier life and died, satisfied, at a much later age.

As their debates turned solely religious in nature only after the voyage, it was a pleasure to read the long conversations between the two Englishmen during the journey. The fictional elements, in that the dialogue, the nicknames and the italicized thoughts of all the characters make the book, ironically, more real. The one-dimensionality (let’s assume that’s a word) that would have been possessed by a history guide or a non-fiction study of the voyage is absent. Instead of looking at people as anonymous props defining an era or a way of thought, the characters are fleshed out – and what great characters they are, from Darwin and FitzRoy, to Midshipman King, Sullivan, and even the supposedly reformed savages, York Minster and Jemmy Button. The book ends up being not about Darwin as we know him, but Philos, the geologist / philosopher, who suffers from severe seasickness, which can be cured only by positioning oneself horizontally, preferably on top of a table and later, the man who took his kids bug-hunting in his own yard. FitzRoy, the Captain, is characterized not just by his strength of mind and bravery, but by his prudish quintessentially English manners that make him mortally embarrassed by the topless, flirtatious native women and by being the first to try and compile a massive dictionary, if very rudimentary, of the natives’ language – in fact, by being the one sailor of this bunch who tried to communicate with the savages in their language (one word: Yammerschooner!)

And do I even have to mention the vivid descriptions of the most beautiful landscapes, the flora and fauna and the interesting conclusions both Darwin and FitzRoy drew from them?

It is an amazing book. Thompson has done something very few biographers manage: made details interesting, strangers personal and has managed, certainly, to engage me deeply in a sprawling history of just two lives.