Category Archives: Reviews

Maharanis: The Lives and Times of Three Generations of Indian Princesses

Written by Lucy Moore

Published by Penguin UK (2004)

Review by Rosemary Johnson

 

Jit asked Indira why she looked so sad. If she was about to be married, he said, she ‘should be over the moon’.

‘I’m miserable because I’m getting married,’ she replied.

‘Well, why don’t you marry me?’ came Jit’s response.

The year is 1911 and the location the Dehli ‘durbar’ to celebrate the coronation of King George V. Jit (or Jitendra) is the second son of the easy-going, westernised Maharaja of Cooch Behar, a small province in north east India.  Indira is the only daughter of the Sayajirao Gaekwad, Maharaja of Baroda, who has just insulted King George by bowing once, instead of three times – and turning his back on him – when paying homage at the durbar ceremony.  Although otherwise liberal and forward-looking, Sayajirao and his wife, Chimnabai, have arranged for seventeen year old Indira to be married to the rich, thirty-five year old Maharaja Madhavrao Scindia of Gwalior, in full knowledge that she would be his second wife and live her life behind the purdah curtain, in the zenana.

So far, so Bollywood.  But this is history, not chicklit. Shenanigan followed shenanigan, the lovers egged on by Jit’s mother, Sunity Devi, friend of the British Royal Family and daily celebrity fodder for the British newspapers.  The Indian princely families could not resist the high life in Europe: gambling, horse racing, balls, cricket, polo, motor cars and alcohol – particularly alcohol.  Jit would die of alcoholism, together with his own and Indira’s brothers.

Lucy Moore’s Maharanis: The Lives and Times of Three Generations of Indian Princesses recounts the lives of three generations of princesses in Baroda and Cooch Behar.  One of the strengths is Lucy’s full descriptions of life in purdah.  When Chimnabai, then aged fourteen, arrived in Baroda as a bride, her carriage was curtained, so she saw nothing and nobody saw her.  Zenana women never saw the outside of the buildings in which they lived. They watched, intently, everything that went on in the palace, but their lives inevitably gravitated inward, taken up with squabbles amongst themselves. However, without giving away any spoilers, Indira would never suffer purdah, although her daughter, Ayesha, chose partially to enter the zenana when she became the third wife of Jai, Maharaja of Jaipur – because she was madly in love with him.

This book covers the period in which Indians challenged British rule.  All the princes supported independence, but without appreciating the extent to which Nehru, Gandhi and the Socialist-inclined Congress Party, which, at various times, courted the USSR, were opposed the existence of Indian aristocracy.  With the zenana becoming a thing of the past, Ayesha, a gutsy lady, becomes involved in politics, vigorously opposing Indira Gandhi, with whom she had been at school.

The writing style is occasionally rambling and occasionally difficult to follow, perhaps because we are unaccustomed to Indian names and places, but Maharanis is a well-researched and honest account of an emotional period of history.

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Rosemary Johnson has contributed to FictionAtWorkThe Short Humour SiteMslexiaLinnet’s WingsCafeLit, and Radgepacket.  Her work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element.  Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War.

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The Essex Serpent

Written by Sarah Perry

Review by E H Young

 

Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent is one of those darkly ominous historical novels that proves quite difficult to define; it’s not quite fantasy, but is nonetheless imbued with a sense of magic and dark whimsy.

I picked it up (as is my wont) entirely because of the cover. And a fitting cover it is too: at first glance all I saw was an attractive William Morris design, and didn’t notice the serpent winding sinuously through ornate leaves. That’s a good parallel to the book itself; the fictional Essex Serpent is as elusive as the one on the cover, wending its way through the minds of the characters and making itself known through strange, portentous events in many ways more frightening than any physical beast with snapping beak and leathery wings could be.

But it’s not clearly a gothic novel or a horror story either. The prose is beautiful and rich. It especially comes to life when Perry describes the Essex countryside: each page is full of the natural beauty of a region it is clear the author knows well. Though the protagonist might not approve of such a description, the way in which Perry describes the natural phenomena around which so much of the novel revolves—the Fata Morgana, the loamy undergrowth of English forests—is nothing short of magical.

Just as elusive and wonderful are the relationships between the characters. Their development does not progress in expected ways and none are neat and tidy enough for the book to be classified as a love story—unless, perhaps, one expands ones definition of ‘love’ outside the traditional sense of the word. The women, too, are an especial highlight of the book: there are wives and mothers but at no point is any woman in The Essex Serpent reduced to such a role. All, Stella especially, prove to have untold depths, often as strange as any natural phenomenon. Their stories, especially those of Cora and Stella, tangentially connected by their shared—though different—love for William, interweave to form the toothsome fabric of a deep, layered story.

Overall, The Essex Serpent is an esoteric, whimsical text that joins the ranks of generations of Victorian and Gothic novels from Doyle to Shelley, at the same time as it defies the very traditions these books have set down.

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E H Young is a writer and bookblogger from Southern California currently living in Edinburgh.

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Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen: The Story of Elizabeth of York

Written by Samantha Wilcoxson

Published by CreateSpace

Review by Charlie Britten

4quills

 

Elizabeth of York, daughter of Yorkist Edward IV of England, was married to Henry VIII, a Lancastrian, in 1486, as a peace-offering, following the Wars of the Roses.  The Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen (published August 2015) chronicles Elizabeth’s life, from six years old until her death aged thirty-seven, after having borne Henry eight children, five of whom predeceased her, including the last, baby Katherine Tutor, to whom Elizabeth had given birth nine days previously.  Elizabeth lived in turbulent times.  She grew up amidst constant internecine war, battles, hostage-taking, rebellions and political executions – the stuff of Shakespeare’s history plays – and King Henry, whose claim to the throne was tenuous, was under constant threat of insurrection.  Her mother, Elizabeth Woodville, whom she called ‘Lady Mother’, was a social climber and the canniest political schemer of her age; she carried on plotting for the Yorkists long after her daughter had become queen, until she was sent away to Bermondsey Abbey – and even that didn’t stop her.  Elizabeth of York’s brothers were the Princes in the Tower, murdered – allegedly – by King Richard III, although, according to Wilcoxson, Elizabeth had a brief fling with Richard prior to her marriage and never could believe in Richard’s guilt.  (I suspect the author herself of being a Richard III-er.)  So, lots and lots of conflict here, and great potential for a sensational blockbuster.

This, however, was not Samantha Wilcoxson’s style.  The Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen is a biography, not a novel and not Hollywood fodder.  Wilcoxson did her research well in that she managed to get under the skin of the age, how people thought and behaved, particularly women.  The fifteenth century was an overtly religious age, a Catholic age.  Wilcoxson never demurred from showing us how Elizabeth, her ladies and her sisters, prayed in every situation, kneeling before an altar in church, before they took any practical action, even as a substitute for practical action.  The author enters into the expectations of fifteenth century women, having Elizabeth’s sister, Cecily, say, in so many words, that she wanted to know who she was to marry and could Henry please let her know.  Elizabeth has to make some compromises, the biggest concerning her simple-minded cousin being a prisoner in the Tower.  Wilcoxson shows Elizabeth, who was known not to be interested in politics, to be ladylike in an old fashioned sense, a devoted wife and mother.

Wilcoxson does not attempt to write the dialogue in Tudor English; if she had, the book would have been very difficult to read, although she might have thrown we readers a passing contemporary word or phrase.  Instead, she wrote the whole biography in modern idiomatic American English, including Merriam-Webster spellings and words such as ‘fall’ and ‘normalcy’ (ouch!).  ‘Autumn’ and ‘normality’ would have been much more appropriate for the biography of an English queen. 

My other issue is Wilcoxon’s unusual perspective on child development.  Whereas one appreciates that children behaved and thought differently in the fifteenth century, Elizabeth’s appreciation of the political situation at the age of six is not believable, nor is her recourse to prayer at that age, whatever may have been written by chroniclers and other primary sources This misunderstanding manifested itself throughout the book, in three year old’s Arthur’s regal bearing during his investiture as Prince of Wales, for instance.

Overall, however, I recommend this biography, of an important, but overlooked, character in English history. 

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Charlie Britten has contributed to FictionAtWorkThe Short Humour SiteMslexiaLinnet’s WingsCafeLit, and Radgepacket.  She writes because she loves doing it and belongs to two British online writing communities.

All Charlie’s work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element.  Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War.

Charlie Britten lives in southern England with her husband and cat.  In real life, she is an IT lecturer at a college of further education.

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Sudden Death

Written by Álvaro Enrigue

Translated by Natasha Wimmer
Published by Riverbed Books

Review by Cynthia C. Scott

5 quills
 
 
 
Novelist Álvaro Enrigue returns with his fifth novel Sudden Death in a new English translation by Natasha Wimmer. Published in Spain in 2013, it won the 31st Herralde Novel Prize for its monumental yet intimate examinations about the cultural and political revolutions that swept through Europe and the New World during the Counter-Reformation. Considered among a distinguished list of Mexican writers that include Enrique Vila-Matas, Javier Marías, Juan Villoro, and Roberto Bolaño, Enrigue was awarded the Joaquín Mortiz Prize for his 1996 debut novel La muerte de un instalador, which was also named one of the key novels in Mexico in the twenty-first century. His novels, which also include Hipotermia and Vidas perpediculares, are experimental treatises on the disjointed, unreliable nature of narrative. Sudden Death follows in that same vein.
 
Sudden Death features a dizzying cast of historical figures that includes Caravaggio, Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, Hernán Cortéz and his Mayan translator and lover Malitzen (La Malinche), Galileo, and many others. However it’s central conceit revolves around a tennis match between the Lombard artist and the poet and how its outcome will change the course of history. While that might seem a bit hyperbolic, it cannot be overstated that Caravaggio, whose monumental works include The Martyrdom of St. Matthew and The Calling of St. Matthew, did revolutionize painting, giving birth to modern art with his bold use of light and naturalism, and bridging the Mannerism and the Baroque movements in Europe. Yet Caravaggio’s scandalous and often violent personal life (he fled Italy in 1606 after being sentenced to death for killing a young man) and his visionary work are fitting analogies for the cultural and political upheavals unfolding during the Counter-Reformation.
 
The Caravaggio and de Quevedo we meet are crude and sexually adventurous men whose creative energies move off the pages and the canvasses into their personal lives. Caravaggio is still a struggling artist who makes a living by playing tennis matches for bets and commissioned artwork for Cardinal Francesco Del Monte and banking heir Vincenzo Giustiniani. De Quevedo’s friend the Duke of Osuna, who shares the poet’s readiness for “insatiable urges,” was the catalyst for their flight to Italy after the Duke’s three separate scandalous trials. There, in Rome, both artists engage in a battle of tennis, wits, and sexual tension. Watching and betting on the matches are another circle of players which include two of Caravagggio’s lovers, Galileo and Mary Magdalene––a prostitute model who is featured in Martha and Mary Magdalene––as well as back alley drunkards, gamblers, and louts. Enrigue describes the scenes with an eye for satire. “He recognized them: [Mary Magdalene’s breasts] were, of course, the most defiant pair of tits in the history of art.”
 
The match itself would be compelling and absurdly funny on its own, but Enrigue ties the fates of the two men to the larger world canvas. The tennis ball they use during the matches is made out of the hair shorn from the severed head of Anne Boleyn, one of four of “the most luxurious sporting equipment of the Renaissance.” A scapular de Quevedo wears under his clothes was woven from the hairs of the last Aztec emperor who was tortured and ordered executed by Cortéz during his brutal conquest of the Americas. Through this and other objet d’art Enrigue is able to spin his tale outward in sketches, segments, and excerpts from other works, crossing both time and space to introduce historical characters and the political, cultural, and religious movements that shaped the modern world. 
 
Aside from Caravaggio and de Quevedo, Cortéz and Malitzen, whose schemes lead to the destruction of the Aztec empire, the bishop who uses Thomas More’s satirical novel Utopia as a guide to build New Spain, and Francesco Maria del Monte who would become Pope Pius IV form the other compelling tales in the novel. In the middle of it all is the author himself, acting as literary curator archiving Boleyn’s balls, Caravaggio’s art, sixteenth century Spanish dictionaries on the rules and nomenclature of tennis, and other historical objects that breathe life into the past. As the novel progresses, collecting more characters, artifacts, and memories, Enrigue returns to the tennis match to balance out his many diversions. 
 
Natasha Wimmer, who translated Bolaño’s work, does an excellent job in retaining the playfulness in Enrigue’s prose, creating in English a lament that never fails to illuminate the author’s intent: 
 
The rest of infinite America still had no inkling that over the next two hundred years, dozens of thousand-year old cultures that had flourished in isolation, without contamination or means of defense, would inexorably be trashed. Not that it matters: nothing matters. Species are extinguished, children leave home, friends turn up with impossible girlfriends, cultures disappear, languages are one day no longer spoken; those who survive convince themselves that they were the most fit.
 
It would be easy to reduce Sudden Death to a story about the destruction that precedes the rise and collapse of empires and cultures, but the novel is much more than that. Its real purpose is to question narratives, both historical and fictional. As Enrigue writes with an air of resignation and uncertainty, “I don’t know what this book is about. I know that as I wrote it I was angry because the bad guys always win.” In the end, he concludes that “[t]he honest thing is to relay my doubts and let the conversation move one step forward: the readers may know better.” And that is where the heart of the novel rests: its trust in readers.
 
As an historical novel, Sudden Death is a deeply ruminative and wickedly absurd examination of art and history that deserves your attention. It will leave you wondering about narrative, the stories we choose to tell, and how they shape our understanding of the modern world. 
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Cynthia C. Scott is a freelance writer whose fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in Hakai Magazine, Graze Magazine, Flyleaf Journal, eFiction, Rain Taxi, Bright Lights Film Journal, Strange Horizon, and others. She’s a lifelong resident of the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Destiny’s Rebel

Written by Philip Davies

Published by Books to Treasure 

Review by Charlie Britten

4quills

It’s ten days before her eighteenth birthday and her Coronation as Queen of Anestra and Kat (officially Princess Katelin) is dreading a life of royal duties.  Kat’s parents having been killed in battle when she was small, the country is currently ruled by regents, her Uncle Ethabos and Aunt Sirika, whom annoy Kat to distraction.  When her aunt attempts one last attempt to break her (in other words, to bring her into line) Kat helps herself to one last adventure, by scaling down the wall from her bedroom, escaping from the palace and buying a sea passage on The Oyster Shell.  Captured by slavers, she is taken to the land of Lasseny, but the crew of The Oyster Shell, who promised her safe passage when they accepted her fare, buy her back in the slave market.

Lasseny is not a nice place to be, its residents ground down by punitive taxes levied to keep the evil Duke of Lasseny and his son, Count Bassilius (who thinks he’s going to marry Kat), in luxury.  Kat, however, is with new friends: Armus, a cleric; Hedger, a mercenary; Sigzay, a female mercenary, barbarian and Hedger’s girlfriend.  On a quest for missing segments of the Anestran Crown, said to be in the possession of the Duke, Kat and her companions become aware of fighters and armaments being mobilised in readiness for an imminent attack on Anestra.  They set off on a long trek on foot back home, not only to warn the Anestran Court of the coming Lassenite assault, but because Kat knows, in her heart, that she must return and be resigned to her fate.  Then comes the twist, which I did not anticipate at all.

Published in September 2015, this is Philip Davies’s first novel, available in paperback only.  Targeted at the young adult market, Destiny’s Rebel, like many others in the fantasy genre, is set in a fictitious world and a broadly medieval setting, in which royals live in castles and fighters do battle with bows and arrows, bolts and battering rams.  There are no fantasy animals, though, or magic forces, just humans.

What is significant is the modern role of women: both Kat and Sigzay fight alongside men, and appear to have no obvious domestic roles.  Sigzay, however, is jealous of Kat in a bitchy way, which makes her vulnerable, thereby gaining her the reader’s sympathy.  Sigzay is a particularly well-drawn character.  Kat is a likeable gutsy girl, who wins the reader’s confidence within the first few pages, although she has her flaws, which make realistically, and endearingly, teenage.  

A gently Christian novel, Destiny’s Rebel evokes the Biblical story of Jonah, who, not wanting to go to Nineveh where God had sent him, ended up in the whale.  The Anestrans worship the gentle good goddess whom they call ‘The Divine’, to whom they owe a distinctively Christian duty of love and obedience, while Lasseny is presided over by the evil devil Ilbassi Note that ‘The Divine’ is a woman.

A thoroughly readable first novel by Philip Davies, a page-turner, but thought-provoking.  Hope the young adults enjoy as much as I, an older adult, did.

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Charlie Britten has contributed to  Every Day FictionMslexiaLinnet’s WingsCafeLit, and Radgepacket. She has also written a couple of book reviews for Copperfield Review. She writes because she loves doing it.

All Charlie’s work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element.  Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War. Charlie lives in southern England with her husband and cat. In real life, she is an IT lecturer at a college of further education. Charlie’s blog: http://charliebritten.wordpress.com/.

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All the Light We Cannot See

Written by Anthony Doerr

Published by Scribner

Reviewed by Yushin Jeng

5 quills

 

Written in two distinct points of time, 1944 and 1934, Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See starts at the beginning of the ending. The date is August 7, 1944, and the end of World War II is near. Saint-Malo, a walled city at the northern tip of France, is to be the grounds for Nazi Germany’s last stand for control over France. As the bombs are falling and the world, it seems, is about to explode, Doerr jerks us back to the safety of 1934 like yanking back a teetering glass before it tumbles over the edge of the table.

From 1934 onwards, we watch the two main characters Marie-Laure and Werner grow up in two different worlds where the Nazi regime is slowly taking hold. Marie-Laure is a blind girl who lives in Paris with her loving father, the locksmith of the Museum of Natural History. Her life is quaint, peaceful, filled with vibrancy, and follows a steady, reliable schedule. For Marie-Laure, the Germans bring war and fear and blood. As the threat of war looms ever closer, she and her father are forced to flee the soon-to-be-occupied Paris for Saint-Malo, burdened by a stone that may or may not be the most valuable (but cursed) diamond in the world.

Werner is a small boy growing up in an orphanage in Zollverein, a poor, soot-covered mining town in Germany. An intelligent and curious boy, Werner’s mind is sparked by the magic of radios. For Werner, the Nazis offer a future out of the suffocating town he grew up in and into a promising future of glory and riches and scientific achievements. Werner heads off to Hitler Youth where he is favored for his talent with radios, and is eventually sent to war to track down enemy radio transmissions across Eastern Europe until he is ultimately led to Saint-Malo where his and Marie-Laure’s paths will cross.

Doerr writes the story during the years leading up to 1944 and during the days following the bombing of Saint-Malo in 1944 until the times merge together. He masterfully builds anticipation at one point before leaping back into the other, keeping the reader eager to read on to find out what happens. Doerr’s other works take on a lyrical cadence and manifest his affinity for nature; All the Light We Cannot See is no exception. His prose is brimming with imagery that bursts with poetic description. He describes the coastline through the imagination of a blind girl, writing that she “imagines the beach stretching off in either direction, ringing the promontory, embracing the outer islands, the whole filigreed tracery of the Breton coastline with its wild capes and crumbling batteries and vine-choked ruins.” Many of the other scenes that are depicted in the book are similarly of the imagination, so the tone of the book takes on an almost dreamlike quality.

Doerr writes All the Light We Cannot See as historical fiction, employing the commonly cited time period of World War II to show examples of humanity at its worst. Rather than focusing specifically on discrimination towards Jews (though he does touch on that) as it typically done, he utilizes the war to show the injustices of the world. How is it, he seems to be saying, that people who do the right thing are so often punished? How is it that acts of justice and goodness so frequently go unacknowledged and unseen? How is it that bad things happen to good people? And how can people find the strength to do the right thing when it is so much easier and safer to do the wrong thing with everyone else? Dealing with questions of morality, this book is for the readers wondering how humans manage to carry on with their lives when so much evil corrupts the rare purity in the world. It is also for the readers who wish to read about characters who find the strength in themselves and the goodness in the world that provide the reasons to do the right thing.

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Yushin Jeng was born in Taiwan and lives in Athens, Ohio where she is a student at Ohio University.

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