Monday, September 29, 2014

Inferno by Dan Brown

I finally completed this book that I've been reading, off and on, since the very beginning of this month. I'd decided to read this as part of the R.I.P. challenge. I do hope I manage to read more books for the challenge, God knows I want to.

Summary: Robert Langdon wakes up in a hospital in Italy with no idea how he got there, his memory a blank. All he remembers are nightmarish visions of a silver-haired woman, beak nosed plague masks, people dying in bloody pools of red and a message, Seek and ye shall find. Stitched into his jacket is sealed canister with a label that warns against a 'bio-hazard.' When the hospital is attacked by an unknown assassin, Langdon escapes, assisted by the mysterious young doctor, Sienna Brooks. The mystery only deepens when she informs Robert that he arrived disoriented and repeating the words "very sorry."

Meanwhile, on a ship in the middle of nowhere, a powerful secret agent watches a tape that his client, now dead, asked to be broadcast worldwide, the next day. The tape shows an underground cavern and recording of the client quoting Dante's Inferno, warning the viewer of an oncoming plague that would cleanse the world.

These are the new Dark Ages.
Centuries ago, Europe was in the depths of its own misery—the population huddled, starving, mired in sin and hopelessness. They were as a congested forest, suffocated by deadwood, awaiting God’s lightning strike—the spark that would finally ignite the fire that would rage across the land and clear the deadwood, once again bringing sunshine to the healthy roots.
Culling is God’s Natural Order.
Ask yourself, What followed the Black Death?
We all know the answer.
The Renaissance.
Rebirth.
It has always been this way. Death is followed by birth.
To reach Paradise, man must pass through Inferno.

Langdon fails to rid himself of his amnesia, steadily growing more confused as he is chased not only by the assassin but also a team of soldiers. With the help of Sienna, desperate to find some answers, he retraces his steps in Italy to find the secret cavern and stop the promised inferno.

What I didn't like: My problem with Dan Brown now is this: four books later, Robert Langdon is painfully unchanged. Down to the silly Mickey Mouse watch. The good thing about writing a thriller series is you get to work on character development without having to worry about the lag in pace that it may cause. But Brown doesn't use his past three books to any advantage. Langdon is still uncannily dumbfounded every time something out of the ordinary happens to him. He is far too trusting for someone who has consistently been caught off guard with secrets and betrayals.

What I liked: Other than that, the book was surprisingly non-formulaic. Perhaps it was all the literary intrigue or the lush descriptions of architecture and culture that made this book especially attractive to me, or maybe it was simply the conspicuous lack of religious conspiracies and secret societies. The premise, of course, was unfailingly ridiculous and quintessentially Dan Brown - but the book avoided many of his usual tropes and cop outs. The story started out detailed and slow and gained speed as it progressed, delivering towards the end some genius twists of plot that arranged themselves into a neat resolution. This was an altogether entertaining thriller.

I loved Angels and Demons. I don't remember if I finished The Last Symbol, which isn't a very promising sign. Inferno was a few days well spent. But I've had more than enough of Robert Langdon now. I don't see myself reading another Dan Brown, whenever he writes the next.

What are your expectations from a mystery series? Any favourites? My favourite is still the Cooper & Fry series by Stephen Booth. But recommendations are always welcome. And what do you make of Dan Brown's writing?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

August Heat by W.F. Harvey

The story, August Heat by W.F. Harvey, can be read online here. It stands on a jagged border separating horror from philosophy. Its mood is simple and alluring. This story is better listened to than read. Here is a twelve minute audio version of the story.


An artist paints a picture of a man condemned to death, and later comes across that man from his sketch chiselling away at a gravestone with the artist's name on it. Imagine that moment of clarity when an optical illusion begins to make sense, that click in your head when you see the black lamp cuddled between the two white faces. August Heat is about that shift in perspective when a skeptic turns into a believer, a man man accepts his insanity. It is about two men whose fates clash and for whom it becomes impossible to fight destiny.

It is only natural that my first read for the R.I.P. Challenge is a short story, considering how awfully full my schedule is these days. But this short story is layered, can be dug deep into and employs masterful literary technique. Listen to it and tell me what you think!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

On changing tastes and unfinished reads

I was halfway into a book called The Game by an author I was thrilled to find in my university library: A.S. Byatt, when it suddenly struck me how awfully pretentious the writing was. I realized I was struggling with every line and at one point I just went, "Oh, shut up." Both the female leads were too self involved and it was infested with the silliest plot lines and the lewdest "symbols": basically, it was a yawn. So I stopped reading it. With so little time on my hands, I can't afford to stick to my finish-every-book rule. It was a stupid rule, anyway.

What has shocked me is that, in retrospect, all her books, at least her short story collections, sound just like The Game. Possession, I still like. But The Children's Book had similar characters and it is unthinkable now that I loved it. I have also been reading a book on Norse mythology, and I now feel her book Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, a child's perspective on the Norse apocalypse, was almost idiotically overdone.

But I suppose it is only natural. Fourteen year old me was an Ayn Rand fanatic, and while I no longer relate to that self, I do love that I went through that obsessive phase in my life. It played a part, certainly, in making me who I am today. So my point is this: somewhere on this blog, there is a rave review of Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt. Is it wrong of me to keep it as it is or do I edit all my reviews with my changing tastes?

Friday, September 5, 2014

On My Favourite Teacher in Fiction (...and my first published story!)

It's Teachers' Day here in India and my blog is threatening to go into a slump. So here's an impromptu bit about my favourite fictional teacher.

A few months ago a bunch of teachers voted Dumbledore their favourite teacher in fiction, and it made me wonder why. We never really knew him as a teacher in the strictest classroom sense. Dumbledore made a great mentor, but I think for a man of his strength, he could have dealt with Riddle better. If I had to choose from the Wizarding world, my vote would be with Remus Lupin. He encouraged every student to participate in class, made his classes interesting, clearly loved his subject and quit when it made sense to. Plus, he believed encounters with Dementors = getting bars of chocolate, and only that is enough to make him the coolest teacher at Hogwarts.

The Boggart in the Wardrobe: I hate this movie for cutting out so many great plot lines, but they made this well.

Now to the real point of this post: tooting my own horn. Way back in July (or was it even before that?) I finally dared to submit a short story to a couple of online magazines. Drum-roll, please... It was bought by a quarterly ezine called NewMyths.com and, here comes the good part - it is out now!
Here's wishing you hop on over to the site and read my story, The Dew Eagle, and the other fiction in their latest issue. I don't know what thrills me more, the fact that my story is out or that it is so beautifully illustrated for the cover. Anyway, I would love some feedback.

Till then, would you vote for Dumbledore too? Who is your favourite teacher in fiction?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I have been an irregular reader of late. Time seems steadily to slip out of my grasp. Few books hold my attention lately: Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis, which I read in two feverish sittings, tops the list right now. 

Like its gorgeous cover, the book is random pages torn out and stuck together, a collage of a life or two. It is not a novel in the strictest sense. It is a series of incidents fit together in loose chronology.

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis is set in Greenwich Village in the 1970s. Rainey Royal lives with her father, jazz musician Howard Royal and his cult of acolytes, groupies and aspiring musicians. Her mother has left the family to live in an ashram, and under her father's neglect, Rainey fends off advances from his best friend Gordy. She stumbles through life trying to nurture her creative drive, praying to Saint Cath - the patron of temptation, staying barely out of trouble, along with her friends Tina Dial, who secretly loves Howard, and Leah and string of young and old men.

To the world, Rainey Royal is a manipulative bully, a rebel, a criminal even; admirably disturbing, selfish. She's greedy, talented, cruel, ruthless, moody, secretive. She is not likable. But with her art, Rainey is, in every sense of the word, "royal." She can sew memories into people. And as she grows up, Rainey learns to use her art to find a place in the world, getting commissions for making tapestries of dead relatives and lovers. But throughout the book, Rainey's reluctance to vulnerability, her inability to trust herself, her inexperience with love and care - the shadow of her past - hang over her head like a knife ready to sl iceher the moment she lets go of the anger keeping her upright. Rainey Royal is a masterfully crafted character, one you can't bring yourself to care for. She stands somewhere between protagonist and villain, between good and bad and beyond grey.

Like Rainey Royal, the book is beautiful but it's not likable, it's full of emotions but it doesn't touch you, it's passionate but not lively. The tone is pessimistic, there is no solution and no real ending. I did not end up feeling a rush of affection towards Rainey or Tina, I did not wish them well, the story showed me nothing but the unfairness of life and innateness of art, and I left the book convinced that the 1970s of the story might as well have been today.

I don't know if I like this book. Parts of it drip with melancholy beauty and parts make me gag. Sometimes it seems silly and overdone, other times grotesquely profound. Surely, you will like a book which captures how it feels to have that one skill, talent, calling, that makes all the problems of your life whoosh away; but what if its characters make you mad and miserable? Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis is such a book, memorable but I don't know if I can call it good. It's short, so you can read it and decide for yourself. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Magic of Historical Fiction

(There may be many other reasons to love historical fiction, and seeing how it’s so incredibly popular, there must be. I've touched upon a few, so tell me if you agree or have anything to add!)
Image courtesy of Simon Howden at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It took a lot of restraint for me to only pick one Literature course at the university. The first class went on and on about historical fiction and its appeal, in the context of Shakespeare's plays. It's a topic I happen to have been wondering about for a long time now. It's been maybe a year since my obsession with fantasy gravitated completely onto historical fiction.

For the past three months, I have been obsessed (and that is still an understatement) with the Iliad, in its original form and as a retelling and reimagining. I suppose that we cannot call the Iliad strictly history; to have Pallas Athena actively and literally intervening on the side of the Greeks is naturally impossible. But that's the thing about history. None of us (ordinary people) really know what happened, and it is this guesswork and mulling over the true truths and made-up truths that adds its foremost magic to historical fiction.

We all want a taste of the past. I certainly do. Looking through old family photos and imagining the lives of all the generations before is my favourite pastime. I love trinkets - the seashells that my father and I found at the beach, my mother's wedding jewellery, an old greeting card - everything is made up of memories and because memories are rare and easily lost, they are important. A book retelling history makes rare memories accessible. A good historical novel lets you remember a past you never lived and that's a charm that no other fiction possesses.

History, as most of us learn it, is dull. History from museums is fact. History from novels is life. While historical fiction may not mention every political action taken by great leader, it’ll mention his favourite colour. Historical fiction turns boring details into colourful stories. It makes you realize that remembering dates and the names of a myriad treaties is good, but accuracy and origins (as my Shakespeare professor said) are immaterial when placed next to the emotions attached to and invoked by history: these are feelings that we rarely find in an information-oriented classroom setting, feelings too undefined to be taught but worth experiencing. Historical fiction will make you love the past and quite possibly, thank God you live in the present.

In the past, or at least the distant past, life had an altogether different meaning. An incomprehensible simplicity and an unlikely danger. For all the aforementioned sluggishness of text-book history, the past was difficult and exciting! Look at all its pop culture representations if you doubt me, Achilles and Henry VIII and Spartacus. That's the obvious reason to love historical fiction!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Wenlock Edge by Alice Munro

Wenlock Edge by Alice Munro is a story from the collection Too Much Happiness. This is one of those stories by Munro that you can read in the New Yorker (although the book version is slightly modified and more impactful, so do try to get your hands on the book.) I've been tackling the book fairly slowly, which is a nice idea considering the layered complexity of Munro's stories. The only story from the book I've blogged about before is Fiction, which I read over three months ago.

Wenlock Edge followed a college student, living as a tenant in the attic of an old house, and her new roommate, Nina, a young girl with a terrible past. A series of unfortunate affairs, Nina told the narrator, had led to her making an arrangement with a certain Mr. Purvis. The old gentleman had arranged for Nina to attend college like any other girl on the weekdays and the spend the weekends with him. Nina seemed sincerely grateful to the man, until the narrator noticed that she rarely wrote in her college notebooks and had a black car tailing her at all times. One weekend when Nina was supposed to visit Mr. Purvis, she fell ill and instead, convinced the narrator to accompany him for dinner. That night, at Mr. Purvis's modern house, the narrator discovered the ugly truth of Nina's arrangement.

Somewhere in the story, somewhere in his house, Mr. Purvis made the narrator read to him the poem On Wenlock Edge by A. E. Houseman.

On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble;
      His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
      And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

'Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
      When Uricon the city stood:
'Tis the old wind in the old anger,
      But then it threshed another wood.

Then, 'twas before my time, the Roman
      At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
      The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
      Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
      Then 'twas the Roman, now 'tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
      It blows so hard, 'twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
      Are ashes under Uricon.

At first read, the poem didn't make any sense to me, then this analysis, which explained all the vocabulary, helped. A reread made it clearer. The poet says all actions and all feelings are the same and they're all mortal in the end, just as we are. In the context of the story, On Wenlock Edge affected the narrator, it touched the victim in her when Mr. Purvis made her read to him and it haunted her into revenge.

Had he known? Had he known that I would never think of those lines again without feeling the prickle of the upholstery on my bare haunches? The sticky prickly shame. A far greater shame it seemed now than at the time. He had got me, in spite of myself.
I would always be reminded of what I had done. What I had agreed to do. Not been forced, not ordered, not even persuaded. Agreed to do. 
Nina would know. She would be laughing about it. Not cruelly, but just the way she laughed at so many things. She would always remind me.

Wenlock Edge by Alice Munro was atmospheric, melancholy. It was intriguing and engrossing. The subtlety of writing, the gentle choice of words somehow enhanced the obscenity of Mr. Purvis's actions, the emotional abuse. The story showed us two victims, one blaming herself and desperate to shift the blame onto another, the other turned painfully nonchalant and ruthless by her suffering. It showed us how we'll never know what we're capable of, how we can not only surprise but often horrify ourselves, and how we can never really know someone, no matter how well we think we do. The cruelty of the story was not altogether unusual and that's what made it most effective.

I love Munro's writing, how it makes me really dig deep, every line, every word is significant. The flitting timelines make for a punchline which you might not understand at once and which, when you do, will leave you speechless. What makes this whole book most attractive to me is the apparent ease with which Munro constructs her stories; she sews together seeming inconsequentialities into a vast canvas and the big picture thrills and stuns you.

Do you have any Alice Munro favourites you would recommend? And what do you make of this story? I've spent some time dissecting it and would love your thoughts on the poem!