Friday, October 30, 2015

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.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Spoiler alert: Do not read this review unless you are already aware of the history of Wolf Hall. It has been brought to my notice that this review contains spoilers. Well, I'm sorry. It never occurred to me that this could be seen as a plot-oriented novel, in the least... nevertheless, you have been warned.

All of last week, I have been struggling with a review and disinterestedly reading bits of this novel. A creative block of sorts. I realized why this evening. There is no room for new in my mind since I read this most haunting account of the execution of Anne Boleyn. Wolf Hall was amazing. And Bring Up The Bodies makes a fitting sequel. Wolf Hall is about the tides of religious reform in Europe, and the separation of the English church. Here, the focus shifts to the immediate affairs of the court. But what happens in Bring Up The Bodies will have unalterable consequences across the realm for years to come.

Picture this: The year 1555. England has a new church, and a new queen. Anne Boleyn is finally at the throne. Katherine, the first wife of Henry VIII, is on her deathbed, and her daughter Mary is no longer the princess. But the King is still unhappy. Anne has not yet borne him a son to secure the Tudor line. Following a visit to the Seymours at Wolf Hall, a distraught Henry finds himself falling in love with little Jane.

Enter here, the infamous calculating genius of Thomas Cromwell, our unlikely hero and the King's right-hand-man. With the safety of the nation at stake, Cromwell cooks up a plan that ensures the eventual destruction of Anne Boleyn... 'As he eases a way through the sexual politics of the court, its miasma of gossip, he must negotiate a 'truth' that will satisfy Henry and secure his own career. But neither Cromwell nor Henry will emerge undamaged from the bloody theatre of Anne's final days.'

The first book in this trilogy went out of its way to shine a positive light on Cromwell. In Bring Up The Bodies, the light flickers. His character now casts beastly shadows reminiscent of the stark image historians have built of him - dangerous, ruthless, the man with the face of a killer. The power of this book lies in Cromwell's slipping grace, in how it shows a good man turn into the monster that he will forever be known as. In the months leading up to Anne's arrest, you watch Thomas Cromwell deceive and lie, driven by revenge towards those who wronged his old master, Cardinal Wolsey. He constructs an unshakeable case against the Queen he calls a serpent and seals his own fate as a villain.

He once thought it himself, that he might die with grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.


And yet, you cannot place the blame on one man. That is the beauty and the horror of Bring Up The Bodies. Cromwell is a puppet master pulling strings and slowly the fiction he spins becomes more real than the truth. There is little good in the world of Bring Up The Bodies, and no one to trust. It is a series of wrong choices, unthinking decisions, and bloated egos that lead up to the fall of the Boleyns, and pave the way to the undoing of the man orchestrating it.

Consider Anne. Coaxed into wooing Henry by her greedy family, wary of being cast aside like her sister, Anne is composed of strength and determination. But it is so hard to summon sympathy for someone so conniving and heartless. The woman rejoicing in the death of Katherine of Aragon. Anne of Wolf Hall was feisty and attractive. In Bring Up The Bodies, she seems old, burdened by the expectations of the King. But the fleeting pity she conjures in you is squashed. Still just as boastful, it is her very spirited coquetry that breaks Anne. After her arrest, Cromwell observes her crumble. He does not consider her guilty of the crime. To him, she suffers not because she has been caught, but because she has failed, lost Henry to another woman. Anne is dead to herself, he says. And Mantel writes about how Anne laughs during her final days, clutches her neck and jokes about being beheaded. Those moments leave you shaken. And her ending builds a lump in your throat.

Henry, though, is in no uncertain terms, excuse the bluntness, a pig. Mantel describes him as imposing, intelligent, handsome, jovial; he exemplifies the entitled brat, revelling in the luxury of having so many at the mercy of his whims. A god-fearing man, Henry never fails to invoke the holy name when it suits his cause. He is used to getting his way, a child who wants a toy and will tell all manner of lies to get it. Mantel brings out his hypocrisy in such funny moments as when Henry accidentally refers to Katherine as his 'first wife', and sheepishly takes it back - the reason for their divorce having been the fact that he did not consider the marriage real. But you see, Henry of the first book was this lost lamb. What he did to Katherine was scandalous, true, but Anne's fall makes him the devil who will go on to destroy every life he touches. The sinking realization is, he is only getting started.

Jane Seymour. There is so much and so little to say about her. The final book should display the fullest intrigue of the third queen, the one Henry VIII is supposed to have truly loved. Till then, I will let Mantel's enchanting writing speak for itself,

He asks Jane, 'Would you do anything you can, to ruin Anne Boleyn?' His tone implies no reproach; he's just interested. 

Jane considers: but only for a moment. 'No one need contrive at her ruin. No one is guilty of it. She ruined herself. You cannot do what Anne Boleyn did, and live to be old.'

He must study Jane, now, the expression on her downturned face. When Henry courted Anne she looked squarely at the world, her chin tilted upwards, her shallow-set eyes like pools of darkness against the glow of her skin. But one searching glance is enough for Jane, and then she casts he eyes down. Her expression is withdrawn, brooding. (...) French hood, gable hood, it is not enough. If Jane could veil her face completely, she would do it, and hide her calculations from the world.

What a solid second instalment. In case you haven't guessed it by now, I highly recommend these books. I cannot wait to read The Mirror and The Light, the end of Thomas Cromwell's tragic story, sadly yet to be published. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Ten Questions You Must Stop Asking Book Lovers

(Reposting with minor edits a post from early last year, because it really fits this week's Top Ten Tuesday prompt and because I love it.)

Excuse the generalization. The title could be misleading; I'm not talking about all book lovers here, but me. Which means it's perfectly fine if you aren't annoyed by these questions. But I do think some of you book bloggers and avid readers out there would agree with me on at least a few of these.

1. *Gawping at my bookshelf* But have you read all of these? These askers almost always relax with immense satisfaction when I say no.

Of course not. I have read about half of them and that is the point of owning books: I do not want to run out of reads. It is not as if I have only read three from the three hundred. Like Umberto Eco said, what is the point of stacking your shelves with only books that you have already read? (Not verbatim, naturally.)

2. Which is your all-time favourite book?

I don't really hate this question so much as find it difficult to answer. Um, my favourite horror is The Shining by Stephen King, my favourite romance is Possession by A. S. Byatt. If you catch me on a Wednesday, my favourite fantasy would be Discworld by Terry Pratchett, but Sundays generally see me raving about Harry Potter. So yeah, there is no single all time favourite book.

3. Why do you read?

Okay, tell me this: why do you breathe? Can you help it? Because you would die if you didn't? Right. That pretty much applies here too.

4. What is the point of fiction? / What do you gain from reading novels? / How can reading about imaginary things be useful?

These questions depress, infuriate and amuse me all at the same time. I could give you a hundred instances of fiction being pointy(?) and useful. But the fact is, you can come up with a hundred reasons to eat pizza too or start wearing hats, very logical reasons, but I will do either only if I want to - and no one is making you read fiction unless you want to. All I ask is, do not expect justifications or explanations from those of us who do and stop being so damn pompous about reading useful knowledge-providing non-fiction only.

5. How do you read so fast? Do you skip pages? 

Hey. How dare you accuse me of that. No, I don't skip pages. And I don't speed read either, so don't you go telling me how quality is more important than quantity. Yes, I have a lot of free time on my hands, and when I don't, I make time. No one gets to make me feel guilty about missing a few socializing sessions and other dull chores to finish a book. And after years spent reading, you don't have to aim to read fast - it just happens.

6. No, but seriously, how could you have finished ... in two days?

Fine. I skip pages. Whole chapters, when I am bored. Then I read the SparkNotes summary and scan the Goodreads reviews, rephrase them, throw in a couple of Priya-isms and voila! Review done. Pretending to love reading, skimming through books, all so I can write a book blog is super-rewarding. There. Happy?

7. (so this is more reviewer-centric rather than book-lover related) Are you scared of writing critical reviews? Why are all your reviews so safe and "politically correct"?

No, I just like to make the most of what I read. I am a book lover not a critic. And in all fairness, there is no such thing as a good or bad book, only a certain type of reader. When I don't like a book, I rarely spend precious time ranting about it, never without giving reasons. If I am required to write a review, instead of "Ugh, what a horribly mushy book", I would rather say, "I don't like it, but fans of heart wrenching sagas might." Sarcasm may slip in, but come on, nobody is perfect... at least I try.

8. What do you prefer: ebooks or physical books?

Am I the only one who finds this particular topic over-discussed?  Sure, I like the smell of a physical book and love libraries, but I also like carrying along a teenie device full of books that would have otherwise weighed a couple of kilos. I mean, I like reading. The stories matter. If Rowling publishes her next book only on like eggshells, that is where I'll read it. 

9. You read so much. Is that why you have glasses? / why you are tired all the time (because of no activity, apparently) / why you never call? / why you are such an introvert? / why you *insert unrelated "issue"*?

No, at least... I don't think so. No, I am pretty sure that is not the reason. Maybe I should not read so much, what do you thi...? Wait a minute, you cannot scare me into reading fewer books. What do you know about getting glasses or being an introvert, anyway!? The last I checked, you aren't exactly a doctor. Reading is not a problem, thank you.

10. Do you even have any other hobbies, besides reading?

Erm... Yes?


Written for IndiSpire, a nice little initiative by IndiBlogger, which I can rarely take part in because of the very specific theme of this blog.