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I’m making my way back to book blogging by linking to my review of Empires of the Indus on the Lonely Planet website. Do read!

Hiatus

It’s been a while — longer than it should have been. I initially thought, when starting this blog, that I’d write a little something about every book I read this year. Sometime in April, that began to seem unfeasible. Work — a lot of it — has gotten in the way. I’m not complaining, because too much work is something to be thankful for if you work freelance as I do.

Then, in late April, I said goodbye to Papa, my grandfather, who died peacefully after an illness. He’s together with Grana again now, after she decided to overtake him in going “upstairs” last October. But we, down here, are orphaned.

None of this seems to explain why one didn’t write blog posts, but somehow, it was easier to just read and not write. I read a lot — have discovered Barbara Vine’s and Jill Paton Walsh’s crime fiction, read a delightfully post-modern novel translated from the Hindi with the unlikely title The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules, been wildly amused by the scandale of Colette’s Claudine novels, finished up with Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy, and quite a lot more. I might write about some of these. Or I might not. Anyway, I’m back. And I did miss book-blogging.

There is nothing, I say, quite like a Wicked Man. Capital letters and all. And nobody writes them quite the way Georgette Heyer does. I don’t mean evil men, true villains; what I’m talking about here are the Regency bad boys, the ones who do everything they ought not to do by the social codes of the day but have a certain unshakable morality, alternative though it may be. Perhaps it’s just Heyer’s settings, several hundred years away from us, that give them their dash and excitement, the thrill of men who are dangerous and bold. To be sure, a Wicked Man is so much more delectable on a horse, with a sword, and wearing a powdered wig… even the foppish fashions of Heyer’s period romances, presented in loving detail, never make her heros seem anything but all male.

And it’s with those very fashions that she introduces her Wicked Man in These Old Shades. Justin, the Duke of Avon strolls along one evening in Paris, wearing a costume of incredible magnificence. We have just enough time to digest the fact that he is no ordinary passerby when he, and we, are thrown off balance by a red-headed urchin who races out of the shadows. The boy, Leon, is running from his brother, who follows soon after. The Duke looks into Leon’s face, observes his brother for an instant, and decides that he will buy the boy, “body and soul,” for a diamond pin.

The boy is introduced into the Duke’s household as his page; he goes everywhere with the Duke, who he plainly worships, for having rescued him from the sordidity of the existence he had living with his brother. All is not quite as it seems, and a few weeks exposes the truth — Leon the page is actually Leonie, a girl dressed as a boy. But that isn’t the only mystery about Leonie, and nothing will escape the Duke’s sharp eyes and long memory…

This is one of the first Heyers I ever read and I still enjoy it tremendously. It has a plot that is insanely dramatic and has more than a few sharp twists, but it is, ultimately, a search for justice and cannot but drag you in and make you cheer lustily for the side of the right. The book’s hero may not have the purest of histories (with a nickname like “Satanas” this is no surprise), but when he seeks out vengeance, it is much more for somebody weaker than it is for himself.  And if, by the end, he isn’t convinced of his own worthiness, we definitely are. Justin, Duke of Avon, is indeed one of Heyer’s most swoon-inspiring Wicked Men. Just as Leonie, the urchin turned beauty, is an intriguing, brave, and proud heroine, and also one of Heyer’s naughtiest creations.

Still, Justin and Leonie aside, I do think one reason I love this book is because of the supporting cast. Justin’s friend, the kind Hugh Devenant, almost as antithesis to Justin’s Satanas persona; his sister, the vain and silly, but tender-hearted Lady Fanny; his brother-in-law, pompous Edward Marling, who nonetheless has the capacity to be charmed; his brother,  the reckless, handsome, courageous Rupert; his neighbours, who aren’t on speaking terms with him, the Merivales; the wise old priest who has known Leonie since her childhood; Heyer writes them all in most lovingly, and gives them things to say that are charming, funny, delightful, memorable and even occasionally insightful. Even the fringe characters are memorable; for my part, I always grin when I recall Lady Fanny’s maid, Rachel, and her cry of “Lawks!” when she first realizes Leonie is a girl dressed in boy’s clothes. And Heyer’s chief villain here is, in some ways, her most dastardly.

Heyer chooses not to go into any detail on Leonie’s past and her life before the Duke buys her, and this is perhaps the only real stumbling-block. The book loses a certain emotional power by completely omitting any deep discussion of what Leonie may have faced, though it does, in passing, mention these “horrors.” Still, there is something to be said for the fact that we, as readers, and every character that encounters Leonie and loves her, all end up wanting to protect her and hoping that the villain gets his comeuppance. There may be an outward frivolity to the conversation, but these are all people who not only love Leonie but also are outraged by what her life has been made into by villainy before the Duke rescues her. Social justice this isn’t, but, to be fair, that’s never the point of a Georgette Heyer novel.

What this is, is a bit of highly pleasurable nonsense. Everybody larger than life and twice as wonderful — or evil — but with enough good storytelling to make it into a good book. Heyer shows us that a romance needn’t be stupid or boring or predictable; it can actually be full of wit and a grand amusement.

One of the great joys of unravelling the skeins of history, I think, is definitely the process of linking causes with effects and understanding how something that happened several centuries ago led, however indirectly, to something that happened today. Alternate universes with “might have been” scenarios based on one change in the history we know are always fascinating.  To think of how different Indian history would have been is a little intimidating; but without the British and the Portuguese landing in India in search of spices, would I have been an English-speaking, baptized but lapsed Catholic, fond of bebinca and the architecture of colonial Bombay? And would any of us ever have sat down to eat a humble aloo parantha?

John Keay’s history of the Spice Route starts us on the trail of “might have been”, asking and answering questions about how the spice trade changed the history of the world. Drawing on maps, ship’s logs, travelogues, histories, and other documents, he pieces together this long and complex story, starting from more than a thousand years before Christ and continuing until the late eighteenth century, when spices finally became commonplace; as Keay says, the end of the mystery has finally come in our time, when we can pick those once-rare commodities off supermarket shelves. Lost the mystery may be, but his narrative remains alive to it, of what these strange, exotic substances were, where they came from, and how they travelled the world.

Keay sets out the background to his narrative with the Banda Islands of Indonesia, whence came nutmeg and mace, two of the rarest of spices. These islands he compares, quite directly, to paradise; an untouched Garden of Eden in his writing. But, we are aware, if this is the Garden of Eden, there must be a fall. The entire book leads up to the history of how that fall came about, when the Dutch laid the islands waste and spilled blood savagely all over them, in their quest to control the trade routes.

It starts out quietly enough, with Keay painstakingly taking us through piecemeal, fragmented accounts of trade routes so early that they are only sketchily mapped out and no particular names are associated with them. We know only the Egyptians and the Phoenicians, the Romans and the Greeks. Perhaps the only specificity here is Pliny, who comes in for a good deal of witty snark from Keay.

But as the marked routes extend and start to link continents to each other, Keay gives us a taste of the violence of greed, as it focuses on controlling the trade and rivalries start to come up, and other concerns, such as those of religion and its dissemination, come into play. The Portuguese in Kerala, under Vasco Da Gama, are particularly brutal. And slowly, as the trade routes of the world are mapped out and discovered, as continents are rounded, oceans crossed, and the very globe itself circumnavigated, the famous names appear on Keay’s pages — Columbus, Magellan, Alberquerque… until the power finally shifts to the hands of the British and Dutch East Indian Companies.

Nobody could accuse this book of not being scholarly enough; it is erudite, precise in its wit, and highly readable, but never self-indulgent. Presenting its reconstructed history lucidly and intelligently is its paramount aim. Its points of view are simultaneously cultural, sociological, economic, and historical, approaches that it perfectly balances, while always retaining some measure of lyrical fascination with the spices themselves.  But this is a dense book, which is why it is hard to summarize Keay’s narrative; each page, if not each paragraph, brings forth a new name and a new voyage of discovery, a new account of some spice and a new route attempted. It is not, therefore, a fast read; I must have taken three weeks over it.

Still, it was three weeks very well spent. To understand in some measure exactly how the world changed because of the yen for bits of dried vegetable matter and how globalization and its discontents are not entirely new to humanity, you could do no better than this engaging history.

I’m usually quite thrilled by detective novels set in academia. Something about dons and scholars and professors bumping each other off and stealing each other’s work and nursing grudges against each other, while holding forth on philosophy, literature, social sciences, and so on, pleases me to my bloodthirsty, pretentious core. A hit is a very palpable hit (witness my intense love for Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night); a miss, like this novel by Nicholas Blake, makes me downright gloomy.

To be fair, it has quite a serviceable plot. Blake’s detective, Nigel Strangeways, is staying at Cabot University near Boston (a thinly disguised Harvard), where he has become acquainted with the Ahlberg brothers, Chester of the business school, Mark of English literature, and Josiah of classics; Charles Reilly, an Irish poet; and Sukie Tate, Mark’s student and fiancée. Then, Josiah disappears and Strangeways ends up investigating his murder, assisting the police. Josiah wasn’t well-liked, not even by his brothers, so there are several suspects, including Sukie’s brother John, who was forced to drop his classical studies for a year after accusing Josiah of stealing his work. But something just doesn’t work for Blake here; everything seems tired and bit hackneyed, none of the characters are engaging, and the conversation is truly dull. Eventually, after Strangeways enjoys a strange gratuitous sexual interlude that comes completely out of left field, the book climaxes in an ill-advised chase and attack scene that fails to be at all exciting. But you know, by then, I honestly didn’t care. Very disappointing. I’m hoping that this one was a poor piece of work only because it was one of the last two Blake wrote.

Another Ruth Rendell beach read from last week, and it was a very good one. This sees Inspector Wexford on his home ground in Kingsmarkham, where Sergeant Caleb Martin is shot dead during a bank robbery. Then, six months later, a ghastly tragedy unfolds — at isolated Tancred House, home of novelist Davina Flory,  five bullets murder Flory, her husband, and her daughter, spilling blood everywhere. Only Daisy, Davina’s 17-year-old grand-daughter, survives injured, but her memories of the massacre are far from clear. Wexford is convinced that the two cases are linked, but how could they possibly be? And as he tries to get to the bottom of the Tancred House massacre, he finds himself also trying to cope with estrangement from his beloved daughter, Sheila; he disapproves of her engagement to pompous novelist Augustine Casey and this angers her.

There are a large number of characters and Rendell, as usual, throws us a few red herrings, though it must be admitted that after a point, these are weak and transparent. This wasn’t, in all honesty, a difficult murderer to guess; I had part of the solution figured out fairly soon. But it is, in terms of psychologically believable character behaviour, a very fine book. Rendell sets up a world in which a particular sort of morality prevails, motivating her characters to act the way they do. This is verging on a sort of social commentary, though to say that would be to agree that Rendell’s dark vision is our reality; I’m not convinced it is, though it is a plausible organic whole. Particularly fascinating is the insight into Wexford’s own family relationships, as we are reminded that even policemen, who must objectively enforce the law, are not free of their own particular quirks and biases.

Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter‘s prose creates an appropriately brooding, creepy atmosphere around Tancred House, mostly because of Rendell’s descriptions of the thick woods that form part of the estate. The woods and their trees are with us right through the book, mute witnesses to much of importance in this tale, their shadows perhaps inspiring much of it. Rendell is, in some sense, indicting the society she’s created, and it’s not pleasant to watch as it reveals itself deserving of that indictment. Reading this, I was terribly, terribly chilled.

I must admit it; I’m madly envious of Ruth Rendell. Not because she’s a best-selling and critically acclaimed author, not because she’s a Member of Parliament, not even because she’s a good buddy of P.D. James. My envy is rather directed at one of her skills as a writer; I just wish I could come up with great titles the way she does. This is one talent I most definitely lack; witness my boring “booktitle-author” post headings here. Rendell, on the other hand — I haven’t read much of her work and was not overly thrilled by what I did, but there is no doubt that if ever there was an author whose very titles dragged you into their world and intrigued the pants off you, it is her. The Copper Peacocks, Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter, A Guilty Thing Surprised, A New Lease of Death, Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, and my favourite, Shake Hands Forever, from the lovely poem by Drayton — they’ve all got irresistable titles. I love the aforementioned P. D. James, but I’m afraid nobody could ever say that The Black Tower or Original Sin had inspired titles.

Of course, all of this is just leading up to saying that The Speaker of Mandarin has a marvellous title. Which isn’t to say it isn’t a good book, but this particular good book definitely begins with its title — exotic and strange and demanding you pull it off the shelf. As it does suggest, this is a book with a Chinese connection. Rendell’s detective, Inspector Reg Wexford, starts out the book  touring parts of China along with a persistent local guide, and, during the tour, encounters a large tour group of people who have spent six weeks crossing Eurasia by rail. Definitely cause for some stress, even for train-lovers. Things aren’t going that well; Wexford is being followed round by a mysterious old Chinese woman with bound feet, and then, on a river cruise, one of the local men on the boat falls overboard and drowns. Still, it’s not until some months later, and back in Britain, that murder comes into the picture — one of the people on the tour is shot in the head, and Wexford is in charge of the police investigation.

I may not be very fond of Rendell’s psychological thrillers, acclaimed as they are, but I do like her detective stories, and this one manifests some of her best skills. She’s adept at working with plots that hinge on coincidental connections and intuitive unravelling of them and does a truly excellent job of throwing in an appropriate red herring at just the right time. I’m not entirely sure Rendell plays fair on giving us enough information to figure out the solution, but she does give us enough to tantalize and keep us guessing. It’s a clever plot for certain, not an easy one to get to the bottom of.

This is a book that starts out slowly and needs some patience, with Wexford wandering through China, before going on to the core murder investigation. But, not only is China very important to the plot, Rendell also does a fine job of evoking the tourist experience of a strange country. Half of the time Wexford spent in China, I desperately wanted to travel there; the rest of the time, I decided it was just too odd! In the end, it turned out that more hinged on that title phrase than I could have imagined.

It’s testimony enough to Rendell’s skills at play in the Wexford novels to say that after reading this, I decided I had to get hold of some of the others in the series. However, I also decided I didn’t want to get into drinking green tea. Puzzled? Read the book. I’m not telling.