Thursday, December 24, 2015

A 5-star Text Review of "Fated and Fateless" by Lana

I'm pleased to announce that my debut novel Fated and Fateless has just garnered a 5-star review by Lana, who described it as "an inspiring and heartfelt book"!

Here's the link:-

Lana's Review

The retail price for the e-book at Amazon has just been reduced to US$4.99 (for a limited time):-

Amazon's Product Page for Fated and Fateless

Happy reading!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Book Review - "A Place of Greater Safety" by Hilary Mantel

I was reading this epic novel non-stop for the last seven days and, with a sigh of relief, I finally reached the end yesterday. While mulling on how to write this review, an immediate thought that came to mind was that the novel could’ve been tightened and slimmed down by a fifth to a quarter. I’m giving it a rating of 4.2 stars out of 5.

On the whole, it is a rigorously researched work of historical fiction describing in minute details the emotional, sexual and political lives of the three leading actors who played pivotal roles in the French Revolution (Maximilien Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins and Georges-Jacques Danton) and who were surrounded by a myriad cast of secondary characters; and the entangled and mind-boggling relations and interactions, sexual or political or otherwise, between the one and the other.

In terms of crafting a spell-binding historical novel, Ms. Mantel is a talented storyteller who knows how to titillate her readers. I was particularly impressed with the last third of the book, where the irony of bad-outcome-from-good-intentions helps to build up hair-raising tension. Having said that, I still came away with a tinge of disappointment that the author chose to bypass the chance to examine some salient issues from the viewpoint of ordinary French folks (for example, the underlying reasons as to why they thought there was no better alternative than to resort to bloody violence; how the epochal ideological shift affected the average Parisian on the streets and what his/her reactions to that shift were).

Set in one of the bloodiest and most tumultuous periods in French history, the novel no doubt gives a kaleidoscopic view of important historic events and personages. But the fictional elements of the novel tend to dwell interminably on Danton’s sexual and material voracity, Desmoulins’ bisexual perverseness and Robespierre’s frenzied self-abnegation. Couldn’t they have been simply hot-headed, starry-eyed young idealists who started out thinking it was their ineluctable duty to reform a rotten system in their beloved country, but ended up being sucked into the vortex of power addiction, which ultimately destroyed lives unnecessarily, including their own? If Robespierre’s ascetic traits were still credible, the salacity attributed to Danton and Desmoulins just seems to me to be a bit forced.  

All in all, this made for good complementary reading alongside Thomas Carlyle’s non-fiction title The French Revolution: A History, which I commenced reading before starting on Mantel’s novel. With these two books, I’m learning a lot about this cataclysmic phase in French history.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Book Review - "The Age of Innocence" by Edith Wharton

About a decade or so ago I had seen on TV for the first time the 1993 film adaptation of this novel that starred Michele Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis. It had made a deep impression on me, especially the performance of supporting actress Wynona Ryder, who played May Welland. After that I saw TV repeats of it a few more times, which left me ever more bewitched. Last week, I finally came round to reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The power of Wharton’s beautiful prose, along with the pathos of a tragic-ending love story plotline, made it a sublime reading experience.

What the author brings into the novel, set in 19th century New York, is much more than pathos of forbidden love. Her clear-eyed insight into the hypocrisy and pretentiousness of high-society New York in what was called the “Gilded Age”, which insight her upper-class up-bringing had chanced to cultivate, gave that much more emotive profundity and even raison d’etre to the storyline.

During the reading, I had that nagging feeling that the author seems to treat the devious and cold-hearted May Welland and her lot with too much leniency. Then I found out from Wikipedia that Wharton meant for The Age of Innocence to be an “apology” for her earlier novel The House of Mirth, which had been much more critical and brutal about the same theme - how social dogmas restricted individual freedom. It just goes to show how unforgiving and oppressive certain moral fetishes can be, under the guise of preservation of family/social traditions.

I don’t know if I’m the odd one out here, but the one character in the novel whom I admire is the joyously obese Mrs. Manson Mingott, if only because she is as generous and non-judgmental in her compassion as in her appreciation for food.

Lastly, I just have to say that I love the satirical ring to the title name. Allegedly the title was inspired by a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which was originally named A Little Girl and later changed to The Age of Innocence. It makes me think that the story’s protagonist should be May Welland rather than Countess Ellen Olenska. Welland’s innocence is the “invincible” kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Book Review - "The Death of Ivan Ilych" by Leo Tolstoy

I had expected this novella to be all dark and depressing. But it turned out to be dark with a silver lining. Through telling a story about the life of a Russian judge, who falls ill at the height of his career and life accomplishment, Tolstoy leads the reader into the inner struggles of the protagonist as he is confronted with the threat of death. The writing is simple and calm but has an intimacy and immediacy about it that it rattles one's nerves and fibers. The questions raised about life and death will haunt the reader probably for as long as he/she lives, but there is still a glimmer of hope and salvation.

Book Review - "De Profundis" by Oscar Wilde

This is a piece of beautiful, honest, philosophical writing that flows from a chastened soul. It is a long letter that Oscar Wilde wrote while he was in prison, addressed to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. At the time of the letter's first publication, parts of it were suppressed (the parts where Wilde recounted his relations with Douglas and how he was utterly swayed by his influence). When Douglas failed in his libel action re: the letter against the publisher, he resorted to writing a venomously bitter rebuttal called Oscar Wilde and Myself.

These passages in Wilde's letter tug at my heartstrings:-

"To regret one's own experiences is to arrest one's own development. To deny one's own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one's own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul."

"Truth in art is the unity of a thing with itself: the outward rendered expressive of the inward: the soul made incarnate: the body instinct with spirit."

"Of course when they saw me I was not on my pedestal, I was in the pillory. But it is a very unimaginative nature that only cares for people on their pedestals. A pedestal may be a very unreal thing. A pillory is a terrific reality. They should have known also how to interpret sorrow better. I have said that behind sorrow there is always sorrow. It were wiser still to say that behind sorrow there is always a soul. And to mock a soul in pain is a dreadful thing."

"Now it seems to me that love of some kind is the only possible explanation of the extraordinary amount of suffering that there is in the world. I cannot conceive of any other explanation. I am convinced that there is no other, and that if the world has indeed, as I have said, been built of sorrow, it has been built by the hands of love, because in no other way could the soul of man, for whom the world was made, reach the full stature of its perfection. Pleasure for the beautiful body, but pain for the beautiful soul."

"Time and space, succession and extension, are merely accidental conditions of thought, the imagination can transcend them and move in a free sphere of ideal existences. Things also are in their essence of what we choose to make them; a thing is according to the mode in which we look at it."

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Book Review - "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel

I’ve been agonizing over how to rate this novel. I think I’ll give it 3.5 stars. Before reading the novel I had seen the BBC Wolf Hall series and would say that I enjoyed the TV show more than the book.

Mantel does a great job in convincing readers (me included) that historians probably didn’t do Thomas Cromwell justice in painting him in a dark villainous light. She tells a believable story about Cromwell’s love-starved childhood that is caused by his abusive, alcoholic father, and how he, in spite of it, forges a life of success and fame for himself and manages to rise from strength to strength in his political career, first as a an aide to Cardinal Wolsey during his last days of glory and then as a favorite courtier of Henry VIII’s. His childhood scars are a blessing in disguise and transforms him into a strong-willed, self-sufficient and goal-oriented go-getter. It is a totally plausible rags-to-riches life story.

What bothers me is that in her narrative, Cromwell’s character is drawn as being the opposite (or superior) to that of Thomas More, who is portrayed as vain, hypocritical and cold-hearted. I find it hard to stomach that Cromwell, whose opportunistic drive to climb to the top is borne out by his calculating and self-serving schemes, can be such a whole lot different from (better than) More, as Mantel tries to make him out to be. If those traits of Thomas More carry any grain of truth, then Cromwell, who is just as subservient and sycophantic to the despotic King Henry, cannot possibly claim any moral high ground. It can be said though, that they are both victims of the times, when lives are expendable at a monarch’s whim, but at least More has the gall and dignity to die for his principles.

In the Afterword, Mantel implies that her inspiration for the novel came from George Cavendish’s (Wolsey’s gentleman usher) memoir about Wolsey. Mantel’s meticulous research does shine through the novel. One gets good insight into the rancorous power contention between monarchial and ecclesiastical hierarchies in Europe, as well as the religion-related intolerance and thought-oppressive violence of the times.

As for the writing, I admit that at times I had to go back a few lines to decide who “he” is. I had the feeling that I had to constantly solve riddles. At some places, the disjointedness threw me off. But there’s also no lack of beautiful prose, though it sometimes gets a bit cumbersome. Here are a few samples of delightful lines:-

“He will remember his first sight of the open sea: a grey wrinkled vastness, like the residue of a dream.”

“He never lives in a single reality, but in a shifting shadow-mesh of diplomatic possibilities.”

“….she must have teased from her silver saints some flicker of grace, or perceived some deflection in their glinting rectitude…..”

“You can have a silence full of words. A lute retains, in its bowl, the notes it has played. The viol, in its strings, holds a concord. A shriveled petal can hold its scent, a prayer can rattle with curses; an empty house, when the owners have gone out, can still be loud with ghosts.”