Tag Archives: book review

The Crimson Petal and the White

7263Before I read this book, I heard rumblings that it was unsatisfactory. This seemed weird, because the front and back cover were filled with critical praise. And it’s a lovely long book, set in the 1870s. My novels are set in the 1870s, so I was excited to read this one.

The book spans, in Dickensian fashion, nearly 900 pages and begins with the lowest dregs of society (whores near St. Giles) before taking the reader through the middling neighborhoods to the upper echelons (ladies enjoying the London season, the newly created ‘suburbs’ of Notting Hill). Though there are many characters, two are the most important.

William Rackham. At university, he was a dandy and an intellectual. As he grows older, he is intensely dissatisfied with his life. His wife is mentally ill and hates him, his father will no longer pay his expenses if William does not begin to be responsible for the family business, Rackham Perfumeries, and he’s had no great success in his attempted literary career. He is mediocre to the nth degree. Until he meets Sugar.

Sugar is a prostitute. Her mother roped her into that life when she was a tween, and it’s all she’s known since. She is unique for a whore of this era, because she is (self-)educated, and she knows how to manipulate men emotionally as well as physically. She is thoroughly unimpressed with William when she first meets him, but he is utterly taken with her. She hates men and is working on a novel about a prostitute (named Sugar) who disembowels the most pathetic of the species.

After their first night together, William decides to turn his life around. To stop dithering and to take over the family business, to make a large fortune, and to spend a good deal of it on Sugar. Within a few weeks, he’s paying for the privilege to be her only client. His fortunes continue to rise with her careful stroking of his ego (and his other parts), and her advice on matters of business and etiquette. A month or so later, he has moved her from her dingy whorehouse to her own private abode.

There’s a lot going on in the book, and a lot to wrap your mind around. William’s wife, Agnes, was raised to be the female ideal. That means she is pretty, naive, and plays the piano. It also means she has no knowledge of sex, and doesn’t understand why she bleeds every month. She thinks it’s a demonic affliction. She has similar feelings toward her baby girl.

Sugar, on the other hand, has grown up with experiences of everything vile (death, disease, poverty) and everything sexual (she’s been a prostitute since she was 13, and has a reputation for never saying no to any sexual act).

In the end, as you might expect, both female characters inspire far more empathy than William. William is a blundering, selfish, disloyal villain of a man. His least likable quality is that he feels he’s accidentally pushed into these situations where he hurts the women in his life.  But he’s not. He chooses to be a complete ass, and attempts to explain it away with any available excuse. Pitiful.

The narrative style is engaging, and the writing is good. Technically good. I wasn’t bored, I wasn’t over or understimulated to the point of distraction. The characters were realistic and relatable, very fully developed. (WordPress, why do you insist that relatable is not a word when it is a completely cromulent one? Why are you now insisting that cromulent is not a word?)

So what is keeping me from writing a glowing review? Two things.

1) The Ending. It was nonexistent.

Agnes departs the story about 70% through, and we’re never entirely certain what happened to her. We get the beginning of a denouement between Sugar and William, but then we’re left to fill in the blanks ourselves. At the end of the book, I couldn’t help wondering what the real point had been.  Why start the story where it started and end it where it ended? What was this story saying?  After 900 pages, you don’t want to feel that way.

2) The strange and constant fixation on bodily fluids.

Here’s the thing about fiction. You’re taking a huge data set (all things you know about the world) and you’re editing. You’re taking out what’s unimportant, and leaving in only what furthers your story. This can mean you take out the guy standing in line at the grocery checkout. Or it can mean you leave in the checkout line, when the guy has a complete meltdown because the lady in front of him has more than 10 items in her basket and how dare she.  It depends on the story. But there are a few almost universally omitted things.  Like trips to the toilet.

How many times do Jane Austen’s characters mention a chamber pot?  Did anyone from the Great Gatsby stop to pee? What about the Hunger Games? How on earth did they go to the bathroom while attempting to not be killed?

Why do writers omit it? Because it detracts from the story. It’s not important, it’s just something that has to be done. It only makes its way into the story if it’s suddenly significant. The shower scene in Psycho, the heinously awful scene in Trainspotting that nearly made me sick, and I can’t even think of a third one.

In addition to detracting from the story, it also conflicts with the purpose of the characters. They are simulacra; they are not human. The purpose of a book’s characters is to help us understand humanity, not to accurately capture humanity. You don’t need to know that the character sneezed (unless the character is sick), or that they have something stuck in their teeth (unless they’re on a first date!). Their humanity is exposed only when it is in service to the story. The rest of the time, it isn’t present.

This author, Michael Faber, does not approach literature this way. He is somewhat obscenely fascinated with body fluids. There were many descriptions of the sound, smell, and sensation of someone (usually women) emptying their bladders or their bowels. There were many mentions of the slippery dribbles of semen down women’s thighs. There was a particularly grotesque scene depicting a woman having a miscarriage on a public toilet.

The worst part, for me, was descriptions of the red inflamed skin of the vulva of a young girl, because she habitually wets the bed.

I’m not a prudish person, in general. I’m not overly fond of raucous humor, but I am not the type of person to pretend I don’t have a human body. And a human body sometimes means unfun things, like bogeys and belches and menstruation. But this was too much for me. It made me uncomfortable, by the end of the book. And it served absolutely no purpose, that I could tell. The miscarriage was obviously a ‘plot point’, but is there some reason I needed to know that the maid scrunched up her nose at the smell of diarrhea on the 3rd day the governess was in the house? No.  Did I need to have my attention directed to the vulva of a young girl? No.

It was creepy. It was unnecessary. I’m not in favor of censorship, I’m not saying this should be taken off the shelves. But…I wouldn’t recommend reading it. It’s more scatological than it is meaningful. Although if you have a fetish for urine or feces, this might be just the book for you.

There is a miniseries. It came out in 2011 and stars Chris O’Dowd plays William Rackham.

the_crimson_petal_and-the_whiteThough I’m sure they’ve removed much of the strangely biological portions, I’m still afraid to watch it. I adore Chris O’Dowd, particularly since Moone Boy, and since I saw him on Broadway in Of Mice and Men. I’m not sure I can handle watching this. I’m working up my courage, but no promises.



PersuasionI caught the 2007 TV movie version of Persuasion on TV last week, and my love of the book came flooding back to me.  Persuasion was actually the first Austen book I ever read, at the tender age of sixteen.  Though I later learned to adore Pride and Prejudice more, Persuasion still ranks very highly on my rainy day reading list.

As with most Austen novels, the story focuses on a motherless, brotherless (and ergo in an insecure financial position) girl with a very silly family.  What sets Persuasion apart is the maturity of the story. It was Austen’s last novel, completed about one year before she died.  Anne Elliot, its main character, was the oldest of Jane’s heroines.  This isn’t a story about first love; it’s a story about a second chance.  As someone who has made tons of mistakes in her life, I can always appreciate a second chance.

Anne Elliot is 27 when the story begins, but much of the plot revolves around the action of 8 years ago.  Her prideful and vain family talked her out of an engagement when she was young. They didn’t consider the gentleman, Frederick Wentworth, worthy of her, because he was a lowly Royal Navy officer.  In this particular TV movie, he is played by Rupert Penry-Jones (Silk, White Chapel), and he looks quite good in the period costume:

rupert_440x293I think that this story has even more romantic tension than Pride and Prejudice. After she is convinced to spurn his proposal, Anne doesn’t see Wentworth for 8 years. He ventures off into his Naval career, and comes back into her life, and oh how the tables have turned. Anne’s extravagant family have run through their yearly allowance and need to rent out their expensive manor home.  It’s rented by Wentworth’s wealthy sister and her husband. Wentworth is a rich captain now, and is considered a very eligible bachelor.

Anne has spent most of the last eight years bitterly regretting her behavior and her decision.  When Wentworth comes back into her life, Anne is overcome with awkwardness and shame.  Wentworth is bitter and resentful.  The tension is hard to deal with, but the more they are thrown together, the more their feelings soften and relax.

For the couple to end up together, the hero and heroine have to do some risky things. Wentworth has to forgive Anne for hurting and humiliating him.  Anne has to win back his trust, but she also has to deliberately contradict her family’s wishes.  It’s just plain harder for Anne and Wentworth than it ever was for Lizzie and Darcy. Interestingly, I found a blog post with 5 reasons why Wentworth is more marriageable than Darcy. I don’t believe with a single one of her reasons, but Wentworth is pretty dreamy.  Darcy’s fault has always been his pride, and Wentworth doesn’t have that problem.

Of course, it’s an Austen romance, so there’s the perfect balance of will-they-won’t-they suspense for what seems like ages.  There are other girls interested in Wentworth, and another eligible match turns up for Anne. Austen strings you along and makes you worry, even though you know it will come through in the end, and that release at the end is a beautiful experience. That’s what makes her an impeccable storyteller.

Though this TV movie is not nearly as thorough (or faithful to the book) as a miniseries would be, it’s well done and Rupert Penry-Jones is very good as Wentworth.  I liked Sallie  Hawkins as Anne,

kinopoisk.ru-Persuasion-1276094but the combination of her reserved demeanor and severe bun make her look a little more matronly than really seems appropriate.  I know 27 was considered a spinster in those days, but she shouldn’t look so much like a sourpuss librarian.

Probably my favorite performance came from Anne’s father. He is an intolerable caricature of a man, constantly complaining about the physical appearance of his friends, when he’s not sniveling at the feet of his social betters.  He disapproves of the navy because the harsh winds and what they do to the faces of the sailors. He’s played impeccably by Anthony Stewart Head, aka Giles.

anthony+headI’ve had some ridiculous family members, and I’ve learned the hard lesson that sometimes they need to be ignored or disobeyed. That’s the central lesson for Anne Elliot, and it’s one that will always resonate with me. It’s a great book, but if you’re a more visual person, the movie is definitely worth a watch.

London Fields, a ‘whydunnit’ by Martin Amis

01-Random-HouseBritish authors can do bleak and hopeless better than anyone I know.  Most people think it is the French or the Germans, your Sartre or Camus or Nietzsche, but I think it’s the Brits.  They know how to really mix the nihilism and the absolutely tragic to create a cocktail of bleak pointless hopeless cloudy grey depression.

I can’t tell if I liked this book, but I can tell you it was one of the more depressing books I’ve ever read.

The novel is sort of ‘meta’.  There are chapters which make up the murder mystery, but there are also interludes narrated by the author of that murder mystery.  He talks about how he gets his information, how he writes, his interactions with the characters.  The novel he is writing is all true, all happening in real-time.  Worse, we know the outcome from the very first page.  We know the ‘murderee’ and the murderer. We know who will kill whom and on what day.

Let me say first that Martin Amis specializes in antiheroes, and these are some of the least heroic people I’ve ever read about.  First, there is Keith Talent.  He is identified in chapter 1 as the murderer.  Keith is a truly despicable person, and the more we learn about him the more despicable he seems.  He beats his wife, he sleeps with 5 or 6 women at a time, he has raped women, he steals from old ladies, he cheats everyone he’s ever met. His calling in life, the only thing for which he has respect and morality, is darts.  What a perfect game for such a man.  Played in pubs, while drinking.  Such a pointless game; no strategy, no difference between playing someone good or bad because all you do is play the board.  Darts is like golf, if all 18 holes were exactly the same.  But Keith thinks it is the only thing worth caring about, probably because it’s the only thing he’s ever been marginally good at.  As truly heinous as Keith is, after 500+ pages of living in his world you do notice small redeeming features about him, and things which make you sympathize and empathize with his situation.  Tiny things, like trying to correct his semi-illiterate spelling, or deciding he should stop hitting his wife, or his general ignorance about the world that belie a truly appalling education level. It’s a tribute to Amis’ writing that, by the end of the book, you feel more sorry for him than you would think possible.

Nicola Six is introduced as the ‘murderee’.  I found her to be the least likable character in the book, to be honest. By the end of the book I figured she pretty much deserved it.  Nicola is a ‘sexpot’, according to the narrator.  I’d call her a misandrist.  She uses all of her beauty, her intelligence, and her skills to manipulate and hurt two men in the story, Keith Talent and Guy Clinch (more on him in a minute).  With Keith, she makes him pornographic videos and lets him masturbate to them in her house, becoming more and more the personification of the naked girls in The Sun or in Keith’s favorite porn videos. With Guy, she tells him she is a virgin and slowly lets him teach her how to kiss, how to french kiss, and …that’s about as far as it gets.  As a woman, I can comprehend that men have two main fantasies about us–the virgin and the whore.  Nicola seems to think they don’t want anything in between.  She is manipulative for no reason, she is cruel and heartless, and terrified of showing her true self to anyone.  I really, sincerely disliked her.  I’m a feminist, and I think women like Nicola set women’s rights back 20 years for every step forward the rest of us take.

Guy Clinch is perhaps the least complex of the characters in London Fields. He’s a titled aristocrat, rich and married.  His child is possibly the anti-Christ.  He is desperately unhappy with his easy life, and goes ‘slumming’ at a pub called the Black Cross.  This is where he meets Keith and Nicola (and the author/narrator).  As I mentioned, Nicola claims to be a virgin (to Guy only). He sees her as a complete innocent, and falls entirely in love with her, despite a niggling idea that she might be too good to be true.  She works him into a sexual lather which amplifies over weeks and weeks. Like a dog, he follows her, obeys her every command.  He is incredibly pathetic, weak, lacks all courage to change his life.  When she humiliates him at the end, I don’t feel he deserves it, but…I do feel he should have known better.

Amis calls the book a ‘whydunnit’, because he tells us who will be the murderer and who the murderee on that very first page.  This means that the 500+ pages of the novel can sometimes feel far too long, because there is no need to find out ‘what happens next’. Not only that, but Nicola (through a strangely undefined psychic power) knows that she will be murdered.  She actively participates in manipulating these two men with full knowledge that it will end in her death.

But why?  At the end of the book I was most frustrated by the fact that I hadn’t a clue why the murderer had killed her, nor why she had done any of what she did.  The frustrating pointlessness of these events greatly diminished my enjoyment of the book.

Amis’ writing is spectacular, to be honest.  He plays with language in a Vonnegut-esque way, he establishes some very human, complex, and comprehensible characters.  He mixes the ‘murder mystery’ chapters and the ‘meta’ chapters with relative ease.  That being said, it is not an easy read. It requires thought, input, a comprehension of the world.  I don’t think I could have read this book 10 years ago and understood half as much.

I was watching Midnight in Paris last night, and when I think back about this book a quote from the movie’s version of Gertrude Stein comes to mind:

“We all fear death and question our place in the universe…it’s the artist’s job not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote to the emptiness of existence.”

Of course, Stein was speaking from a time before the postmodernist and very nihilistic trends in fiction really took hold, but I still entirely agree.  Amis has inevitably captured a more accurate and realistic version of human life than a fairy tale would be.  To be honest, though, if I wanted despair and pointlessness, I’d just watch the news.  I don’t particularly enjoy it in my literature, no matter how well written.  I thoroughly appreciated the technical expertise that went into this book, but I did not enjoy it.

Wuthering Heights: my own personal white whale

Wuthering HeightsI first tried to read Wuthering Heights when I was around 20. I had just read, and loved, Jane Eyre, and moved on to a different Bronte sister. Much to my chagrin, Emily is just no fun, and I didn’t make it through more than a few chapters. Since then, I think I’ve tried twice more and made it even fewer pages through.

In May, I took up the challenge again, determined to at least finish the damn thing. And I did! And I can check this off my list, know that it is not a book for me, and move on with my fucking life.

If you’re not familiar with the story, Wuthering Heights is the story of two families who occupy a stretch of land in ‘the North’ of England. The setting is based on the childhood home of the Bronte family, which was north of Leeds. The setting is perhaps the second most iconic character in this story. Long stretches of windy and cold countryside, simultaneously bleak and beautiful. That’s what people think of when they read Wuthering Heights. It’s a perfectly isolated and lonely part of Yorkshire. Or it was in the mid-19th century, at any rate.

The multitude of characters, many of which share the same names, can get confusing. I found a chart online, which only confused me more–and I’ve read the book.

Wuthering Heights character relationsIf you concentrate, you can usually figure out which Catherine and which Linton and which Heathcliff is being discussed. Plus, people keep dying in nearly every chapter, so most of the characters with the same name don’t interact often as their other half is already dead.

The story is told through a moronic and useless narrator, Mr. Lockwood. Seriously, Nick Carraway has too much personality compared to this guy. Most of the story of the two houses that are concerned in the story is told through Ellen Dean, a servant of one family, and then the other.

We learn that Catherine and Hindley Earnshaw are brother and sister, and their father brings another boy into the home. An orphan, possibly of Romani origin, that he found alone in the big city. Heathcliff. He is uneducated, parentless, and dark-skinned (a mortal sin in 19th-century England). Most of the family detests him from the beginning, but he is spoiled by the father of the house and by Catherine. The two grow up running around the moors together, like feral children.

The other family is the Lintons. Mr. Linton is a member of the gentry, and his family is a far more socialized and gentile one than the Earnshaws. When Catherine meets their son, Edgar, who is very handsome and very sophisticated, she begins to turn against the ways of her family. In some ways, she dislikes the Linton children because they are so sheltered and weak. They are polite and kind, but the smallest unkindness sends them into tears. She is used to a rough and tumble existence with Healthcliff.

As you might be able to guess, Catherine agrees to marry Edgar. She likes being treated like a princess, being revered, and being in a kind and comfortable home. The Lintons spoil her incessantly, which she also enjoys. In her heart, she admits that she loves Heathcliff as if he were a part of herself, but says that she would debase herself by marrying him. His parentless, landless, poverty-stricken existence makes him an unsuitable match for her.

From that moment on, everyone involved is absolutely doomed. Heathcliff, furious with Catherine, with Linton, with Catherine’s brother, and with himself, turns from wild to calculating and vengeful. He disappears, and doesn’t return for months (years?). He has a plan to exact revenge on everyone who has wronged him. According to his own calculations, this is everyone he knows. Catherine’s brother, Hindley, is the first on the list. Inticed to gambling, Hindley ends up turning over his entire property (the eponymous Wuthering Heights) to Heathcliff in an attempt to win back what he continuously loses at cards. Heathcliff gains revenge on Edgar Linton by running off with Linton’s sister, marrying her out of spite.

After a few years, almost everyone is dead. Edgar, Hindley, Catherine, Edgar’s sister. Heathcliff has a son, Catherine and Edgar a daughter. Hindley also has a son, who is left to be more or less wild, raised piecemeal by servants. Confused yet?

Heathcliff feels his last revenge will be to get his son married to Linton’s daughter. On the one hand, I think that he feels if they marry, it is the closest he will come to marrying Catherine himself. But mostly, he wants to own what money and property Catherine has inherited.

Long story short, he accomplishes his goal, just before his son dies. Then he goes mad and dies, and Catherine falls in love with Hareton Earnshaw, her cousin.

It’s a terrible story. There are a few main themes that are sort of smashed into your head multiple times.

One is the difference between those that are treated well in life and those that are not. The Linton family, and all that have that name, live in a comfortable house surrounded by polite people. They are kind to each other, and have no evil in their hearts. On the other hand, they are terribly weak and often spoiled, and barely have the capacity to care for themselves.

The Earnshaws and Heathcliff live in a dark, dreary house with angry, drunk, violent people. They all grow up to be angry and violent. But they are tough. They outlive and outlast. Heathcliff proves himself the toughest and the most violent main character I can remember. At one point, he tries to kill a dog. Multiple times, he hits and beats, or threatens to do the same, women and children. He gets what he wants by brute force. He becomes the richest, the most powerful man in the area–a man Catherine would not have refused if given her chance again…but it is too late. She’s long dead, and his inability to fix that is what drives him mad. He has a lot in common with Jay Gatsby, if you think about it. A Jay Gatsby who is evil and cruel.

The book also shows a somewhat radical (for the time) idea of social class. At first, the Earnshaws are the owners of Wuthering Heights. While Old Man Earnshaw is alive, Heathcliff is treated like one of the family. When he dies, and his son Hindley is in charge, Heathcliff is demoted to the place of servant. When Heathcliff takes charge of the house, he elevates his own son and sends Hindley’s son, Hareton, to live the life of an uneducated servant. Yet, once Heathcliff is dead, Hareton and Catherine Linton own both properties together. Time and time again, Heathcliff takes people into his house (often by force), and forces them to debase themselves. Used to having servants, his wife, then his son, then Catherine Linton, have to learn to live by their own means.

Two things drive me crazy about this book. No, three. I’ll stop with three, though I could probably find more.

1-No one is likeable, in any way. Everyone is violent or weak, stupid or condescending, overly pious or entirely evil. You don’t care about a single character, because they are all awful. I didn’t want a single one of them to find happiness, because none of them deserve it! And I thought It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia was bad!

2-Everyone makes the same mistake, over and over again. Particularly Nelly (Ellen Dean), who is the main narrator. She must say 10 different times that she should have and wanted to intervene, but paused momentarily. Then, oops, who could have guessed, Heathcliff beat them all and locked them in the house until he got what he wanted. Or Mr. Linton tells his daughter not to go to Wuthering Heights or to see its occupants, and that rule is broken again and again, supposedly by accident. If your neighbor had a habit of beating women, or forcing them into marriage, would you go visiting? Even if your horse was tired or his son was sick? I wouldn’t. What morons.

3-Heathcliff is a romantic hero. This is not the books fault, to be fair. But women love Heathcliff. Women love him more than Mr. Darcy?! Who are these women? They must be the same women who write love letters to prisoners and stay in abusive relationships. Heathcliff is a sadist. I guess that means they are also women who read 50 Shades of Grey.

Yes, it’s briefly romantic to imagine a man so enamored of you that he will destroy the world without it. A love so strong that 20 years after you’ve died he is still entirely devoted to you and finds no point in living without you. When I was 14, that would sound romantic.

But as an adult, I don’t get it. Even if he wasn’t horrible, sadistic, violent, abusive, and mercurial, it is not romantic to have someone live for you. Not in reality. I would rather have a partner who has his own hobbies, his own desires, his own independent life. Not only would it be a lot of pressure to be someone’s entire world, but it would be quite dull. It seems a very immature view of love, to want something like this. The fact that grown women are so fond of him makes me both irritated with and embarrassed for them.

The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes

The SomnambulistI’m having terrible luck with books lately.  The last four or five I’ve read were (at best) ‘meh’.  I’ve also read a few lately written by historians-turned-novelists.  I thought perhaps I might do better with someone who has an English degree.

I was wrong.  Despite earning a ‘first’ (British equivalent of Summa Cum Laude) in English Lit at Oxford, Barnes does not make a better novelist than the historians I’ve read of late.  In fact, this book was quite a bit worse.

I don’t like writing about books I dislike, or disliking books in the first place. I feel very ungenerous for being harsh on writers and their work, especially in a medium where they can see my bald criticisms (and several of them have).  I would vastly prefer to only find great books and be able to swoon and flail over them in private, and pontificate over them on this blog. But that is not my fate. And I feel like it’s better to put my thoughts out there and keep other people from wasting their time on books that aren’t worth the effort it takes to read them. So forgive my harshness, but this was not a good book. Not at all.

I picked it up because the cover very clearly says ’19th century England’, from the dark hat and cloak to the gas-lit facade of the Houses of Parliament.  That’s my place and my time period, so I was in.  I wasn’t really drawn in by the jacket copy, focusing on a conjurer/illusionist/magician figure (I dislike magic), or by the title. Somnambulist means sleepwalker, in case you didn’t know.  But the setting is enough for me when it comes to books–a policy I may have to change when I think about the last few books I’ve read.

The story is about a magician, Edward Moon, who also is relatively famous for his skills as a part-time detective, a Sherlock Holmes or C. Auguste Dupin type character. His sidekick, both in his magical show and in his mystery-solving adventures is the Somnambulist, a mute giant with superhuman strength and an apparent immunity to being stabbed with multiple swords. The Somnamulist reminded me of the mythical Golem of Jewish Folklore.

Other characters include an albino who works for a government agency called the Directorate, his Tiny Tim-esque son on crutches, a bearded prostitute with a deformed third arm emerging from the middle of her chest, two aged men dressed as English schoolboys who happen to be supernatural assassins, fake ‘Chinamen’, the Human Fly, the sewn together and reanimated body of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and an all-powerful cult bent on destroying London. Oh, yes, and a Benjamin-Button character who travels through his life backwards, getting younger by the day. But he’s also living through time backwards and lives for thousands of years, eventually ‘founding’ London in pre-Roman times.

The sad thing is that in that description, I didn’t even include all of the different assassins or crackpots running through this story. I left out the Mongoose, Reverand Tan, the all-knowing Archivist, Moon’s ex-partner and now-nemesis Barabbas, the list goes on.  This book is a mess of absolutely unbelievable crap. And none of it is ever well explained.  Essentially, the plot revolves around Moon trying to solve a murder, and being led slowly into this large conspiracy to destroy London and start a new society in its place.  This is all based on a theory Coleridge actually had, called pantisocracy.  He and some mates were going to leave England and start an agrarian utopia on the banks of the Susquehanna River in middle-Pennsylvania.  They gave up the idea after only a few months, but Barnes has resurrected it for this novel.

In an attempt to summarize this story, I realize that I don’t truly understand it.  Part of the problem was that I had a hard time reading the book–it was not captivating, not exciting. I had to struggle to finish a few pages at a time.

Another problem is the story makes no sense, the narrator is totally unreliable and admits to telling lies in the story, and no one bothers to explain anything that’s going on.  The plot was a complete clusterfuck. I have no idea how this shit got published. I don’t say that often, but I mean it.

My other problems with the book revolved around character.  Moon is described as a great detective, but we never see any evidence.  Unlike the Holmes stories, where we see snippets of his abilities in deduction, Moon is just described as a great detective by others.There is talk of past cases, successful and not so much, but in this mystery he is shockingly passive.   He waits for others to tell him what is going on, give him clues and point him in the right direction. And they do, time and time again.  He even has a man on his side who has traveled from the future and knows how the story goes–and yet Moon bumbles from one place to another until he wanders into a trap and is nearly killed.  His one proactive moment is putting ads in the papers for someone who might have information he needs, but the gentleman who answers the ad is sent directly from Moon’s enemies.  It’s all a trap, and he has no capacity for seeing that.  He is an incredibly disappointing detective.  And a disappointing character all around, with very little depth or back story.

I should have put this book down when I read the first paragraph:

Be warned. This book has no literary value whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and willfully bizarre. 

This is the most truthful and realistic part of the novel. I had an intense and immediate dislike of the book and the author as soon as I read this.  I dislike narrative ‘tricks’ for the sake of trickery, and this one seemed to also be apologizing for sub-par writing which did not engender confidence in me as a reader.  Barnes continues with the narrative tricks with confusing lies by the narrator, and with the final reveal of the narrator’s identity.  I don’t want narrative tricks; I want an actual story.  There are a few books where these tricks work–because you’ve believed a story to a certain point, and you are thrown completely from the narrative saddle by a revelation halfway.  The example for me is Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which I both adore and hate. I absolutely detest that book for how horrible it made me feel, like a friend had walked beside me for a while, then turned around and stabbed me in the gut.  That is a narrative trick that works. It left me weeping for a good hour. These narrative tricks that Barnes employs are just annoying, a nuisance.

I’m afraid to say I don’t think anything was redeeming about this book.  None of the characters were particularly likeable or whole.  A lot of them seemed like rip-offs of other characters–Moon was meant to be like Holmes, The Prefects seemed to be Croup and Vandemar light, there was also Tiny Tim, the Golem, and Benjamin Button.  An original, or fully fleshed-out character would have been nice.

The plot was nonsensical and unsatisfying. The writing wasn’t engaging, nor was it stylistically pleasant.  I think the phrase ‘ersatz Chinaman’ was used at least 4 times. The narrator was annoying at best.  It was a really terrible book. Normally, when I don’t like a book very much I try to say ‘if you really like X time period, or X genre then this might be worth reading’. I cannot think of a single type of person who would enjoy this book. It’s not satisfying as a mystery, it’s not satisfying as a part of the time period, it’s useless if you value complicated characters or beautiful prose.  I guess if you enjoy being jerked around by a narrator and like to leave a book with less comprehension of the plot than during the first few pages, then this one’s for you!

Beautiful Lies by Clare Clark

Beautiful LiesI think part of the reason I picked up this book was because of the beautiful jacket.  The colors are gorgeous and the silhouette of the woman tells you without any other hint that this takes place in the last few decades of the 19th century. I know e-books are cheap and easy and convenient, but the impulse book buying process is much harder when there are no big glossy covers.

Beautiful Lies tells the story of a married woman, Maribel, in 1887 London, with (as the reader finds out) a lot to hide.  She is maneuvering her way through a restrictive society, in perpetually greater fear of being exposed.  She isn’t who she says she is, even uses a fake name, hides some things from her husband and everything from her friends and the rest of her acquaintance.

Upon starting the book, Maribel seemed like a totally normal married woman. I assumed all of the eponymous ‘lies’ would happen during the course of the action, but we find out after about 4 or 5 chapters that she has a lot that she’s hiding. Society knows her as an exotic woman from Chile with a mixed Spanish/French ethnicity, presumably an heiress since she’s snagged a Scottish Lord for a husband. To her husband, she is a prostitute he met at a brothel, and then fell in love with. He married her and brought her back under a new name.  The truth is that she is actually from Yorkshire, she ran away as a teenager in order to become an actress. She was seduced by a man who claimed he would help her get parts, she became pregnant, he sent her to a convent in Spain to have the baby and while she was in her ‘confinement’ as they called it, he got married to someone else.  I know, what a keeper! The baby was taken away, she doesn’t know by whom. Her husband knows she is actually from Yorkshire, but doesn’t know about the man or the baby.

Her past is never entirely explained, but is just patched together throughout the book. We do understand most of it at the end, but it never seems like a full story and more just snapshots from various times in her life.

There’s something very empathetic (to me personally) about a character who grows up only wanting to get out of the sheltered and dull setting of her adolescence.  To move to the big city and become someone and prove that she could.  To abandon a provincial and philistine family to try to become something greater.  And of course it doesn’t go very well, because society back then was not one that allowed social mobility, particularly for women.

I had two big problems with this book that seriously affected my final opinion of it.

1-The smoking.  There was tons of it.  Yes, I hate smoking and wish everyone in the entire world would just knock it off.  But usually I don’t mind if a character smokes.  This was different.  People didn’t just light a cigarette and keep on talking.  Every character that smokes is described in their passion and love for the feeling of smoke in their lungs.  Maribel is a chain-smoker, and every cigarette is described for 4-5 sentences, with long inhalations and the feeling of the smoke filling her all the way to the backs of her knees.  It’s tiring. You could cut 20 pages from this book if you took out the smoking references.  I learned to skim over them, but what a waste of ink. It made it difficult to like Maribel, and it made it really difficult to like the author.

The second problem is just…a bad execution of an interesting idea.  Clare Clark, the author, based this book on a true story.  She is a historian (or was, before she became an author) and came across the story of a Scottish noble, Sir Robert Cunninghame Graham and his exotic wife Gabriela.  His life very closely resembles that of Edward, Maribel’s husband in the book.  Long after they both died, a series of letters showed that Gabriela’s life was all a sham.  Like Maribel, she was from Yorkshire and had wanted to be an actress.

So this is a true story that has been somewhat shoehorned into the novel form.  Clark says in the end of the book that she started to change things about the character and that’s when it came alive for her as a story. Maribel is a photographer; Gabriela was a writer.  It doesn’t seem to me like she changed much else, but I’m sure she had to fill in the details.  But I think it doesn’t quite work as a novel.  If you read a story about the Grahams, the amazement comes from the truth in it.  If you read a novel, the amazement comes in the story.  Beautiful Lies seemed to try to exist between the two.  And it didn’t work for me.

I thought the characters–especially Maribel–lacked depth.  She reflected on her past and even when she was supposedly overcome with emotion there was a numbness there. She explained everything far too explicitly–if a reader doesn’t have to infer anything about the thoughts of the characters, half the fun of empathy is gone.  Maybe that is why secondary characters seemed more full. Their opinions had to be inferred, deduced by little actions and words. They were more human.  In a time and a society that taught people to hide 99% of their emotions, and to put on false faces for others, Maribel’s blank and complete descriptions of herself and her emotions are puzzling.  Especially considering all that she is hiding from everyone in the world. If you have to keep so much hidden inside you, then when you’re pouring it out into the head of a reader, it should have more emotion and it should be more necessary.  Even if the words we read are just inside Maribel’s head, that is at least one place where she can be herself.  It should feel as exhausting to us as it is to her, keeping this secret.

Clare Clark started out as a historian, but she’s been writing now for a few years.  Two of her other books have been long-listed for the Orange prize (now called the Women’s prize), so perhaps they are better.  Though reviews of this book have been quite good, so maybe it’s me.  The New York Times review called it “A captivating fable of truth and memory”.  Agree to disagree, I guess. I was not captivated and it took me quite a while to get through the book.

I’ve read a lot of books now that are written by people who began their careers as historians.  Sadly, I haven’t been very fond of the story telling present in any of them.  I think they all seem to value sticking in historical details and are terrified of violating the time period, and while that creates an authentic book it doesn’t create a great book. Even while I was reading it, I was thinking to myself ‘this is probably totally accurate. Buffalo Bill Cody probably did visit London at this time–he did–and this was the beginning of the Labour party and these Trafalgar Square demonstrations and riots all probably happened–they did’.  Unfortunately, I wish I had been saying something to myself about the character and what she was going through during the book.  But I wasn’t.

I wonder if they (the historians) are all going to skewer me when my historical fiction is done, and they will point out all of its ridiculous and inevitable anachronisms.  Regardless, for my part I think the art of storytelling is more important than getting the period details correct.

Hampton Court Palace and the Pigeon Pie Mystery

I recently finished another book by Julia Stuart. The first I read was heavily centered on the Tower of London and the curious people who live inside its walls.  I reviewed it, and talked about the history of the tower itself, in this post.This time, Julia Stuart chose to set her book at Hampton Court Palace.  I’ve also been to HCP, so I thought I would do the same thing: talk about the book and the setting.

Hampton Court Palace front entranceFirst, I’ll tackle a bit of history.  HCP started out as property of the Church of England. Cardinal Wolsey (a close adviser to Henry VIII during the pre-Reformation period) took over the house and spent lots of money turning it into an incredibly lavish and luxurious private residence. He included some ‘state apartments’ specifically for Henry VIII and his entourage, and they were used almost as soon as work on the palace was completed. Unfortunately for Wolsey, he fell out of favor with the tempestuous king and only enjoyed his palace for a few years before he started a long journey out of power (he died before he could be imprisoned in the Tower of London, but that’s the only thing that ‘saved’ him from that fate). He gifted the palace to Henry, presumably in an attempt to curry some favor, but it did not work.  Henry took ownership of the palace and started further expansion and upgrading of the property. Notably, he added the Great Hall, the tennis court, and the “post-Copernican astronomical clock” as the Wiki calls it.  I found this clock by far the most impressive part of the entire palace.  It tells you the phases of the moon, the current astrological sign, the time (obviously) and the state of the tide on the Thames at London Bridge.  If you’re wondering why you would need that last bit of info–the best way to reach HCP was by boat, but if the water level was too low at London Bridge it made for a perilous journey. It’s a seriously gorgeous clock:

HCP clock

Henry and a great many of his wives spent time at HCP.  Jane Seymour gave birth at HCP to Henry’s only legitimate son (and died a few weeks later). After Henry died, his daughter Mary I lived there for a while, as did Elizabeth I.  I would say the most famous Tudor residents of HCP, however, are the ghosts. More on that in a moment.

After the Tudor period, James I and Charles I (of the house of Stuart) spent time at HCP.  The King James Bible was commissioned from HCP. Charles I was imprisoned there before he was beheaded in London.

During the English Civil War and the Restoration period afterward, the palace was largely ignored.  It wasn’t until William and Mary came to the crown that it experienced renewed interest and new inhabitants.  They hired the architect of the day, Christopher Wren (you may recognize him from such buildings as St. Paul’s Cathedral and Kensington Palace in London) to slowly strip away the Tudor style of the place and remake it to be something to rival Versailles across the channel. If you go to visit the palace now, they’ve done a lot to recreate the Tudor way of life, but much of the interior is clearly from the later period. I found some of the murals to be the most beautiful part of the palace:

HCP murals

After George II (mid-18th century), no monarch has resided at the palace. After the 1760s, the palace was divided into apartments for ‘grace-and-favour residents’. These were people (usually upper-class ladies) who had fallen on hard times, but had a reason to be of interest to the monarch.  Often they were widows of war heroes or noblemen, or daughters of the entitled, or had worked in service to the crown for a long time.  They were granted (by the monarch) a place to live at the palace, free of charge.  Michael Faraday (the scientist) had apartments on the Green. This is something that still happens, though not at HCP.

Queen Victoria opened the palace to all visitors in the first few years of her reign (1830s).

If you want to visit, I definitely recommend it!  The official website, here, has info on visits and tours, etc. Here are some of my top things to see:

The Tudor kitchen–warning to all vegetarians that it’s a bit meat-heavy, as one might expect. Everyone talks about what Henry VIII ate, and my own vision of him does tend to include a turkey leg in hand.  The HCP historians have recreated the Tudor kitchen, from the tradesmen dropping off the ingredients, to cooks preparing the feasts for Henry and his (very large) court. If you’re wondering just how many animals they slaughtered to feed Henry and his entourage, there is a helpful (and slightly nauseating) infographic on the official site:

tudor slaughterAren’t you glad you asked? 8,200 sheep??? PER YEAR?

Anyway, the kitchen is really cool and I imagine if you’re a happy carnivore you’d enjoy it far more than me.

The great hall–another of the aspects of the palace that go straight back to the Tudor period.  Not only is it an immaculate example of a ‘Great Hall’, it was also the biggest theatre in the period.  Shakespeare and his men performed there for James I for one winter season.

Hampton Court Palace Great Hall


The maze–One of the most famous aspects of HCP is the maze in the garden. Stuart discusses the maze in her book, describing the flocks of tourists who visited it in the 19th century, when its fame was just beginning. I’ve been through the maze and it wasn’t that challenging, but in the book people get lost in it so often that one of the characters is a man employed just to yell instructions to lost people inside.

hampton_court_palace_mazeApparently, mazes were less complicated in the 18th and 19th centuries.  The maze is off the main gardens, which are gorgeous. Unlike the Versailles gardens, which I thought were a bit too cultivated, the HCP gardens are a bit more natural.  They’re still looked after, obviously, but they have more grass and less gravel. Symmetry was a huge part of the aesthetics of the 18th and early 19th centuries, and the gardens reflect that.  I went in early Spring, and everything was impossibly green.

So, what of the ghosts?  Not as active as Tower of London, HCP is still a home to many ghosts, if legend is to be believed. The fifth wife of Henry VIII, Catherine Howard, has been seen many times screaming and running along the Haunted Gallery.  It is said that she escaped her guards and ran down this gallery to beg for her life from Henry.  The guards caught her and dragged her (screaming) back.  She was later executed.

Jane Seymour, another of Henry’s wives, is often seen gliding down some stairs in the palace headed toward her newborn son’s rooms.

There are a few other ghosts, but the one that honestly and truly gives me chills has the nickname Skeletor.  I think it scares me most because it was CAUGHT ON CCTV in 2003. The video is on youtube, if you want to see. The palace offers ghost tours at night, but you have to book in advance.

So, enough about the palace.  What about the book?

pigeon pie mysteryThe book takes place in the 1890s.  Mink (a nickname for an Indian princess) has just lost her father, the Maharaja, and is granted a grace-and-favour residence at HCP because of her status as a foreign royal.

Soon after she takes up residence at HCP and begins to meet the eccentric residents therein, one of them is murdered.  The General, a corpulent and lascivious man disliked by all, is poisoned by arsenic.  Mink’s maid, Pookie (an Indian woman as well) is the prime suspect, because of her suspect Pigeon Pies. If you don’t know (I didn’t), Pigeon Pies are not a euphemism.  They are pies with pigeon meet in them, and usually feature a few pigeon legs sticking out of the top.  Gross.

This doesn’t really function like a mystery. There is no sense of doom or impending disaster; everyone dislikes the General and no one is sorry to see him go.  But because her maid is accused, Mink takes it upon herself to find out who actually did the crime.  On her way, she discovers more and more about her oddball neighbors (the other grace-and-favour residents, a local doctor, a homeopath, and some of the palace staff).

Similar to her last book, Julia Stuart has created a lot of very strange and somewhat goofy characters, but doesn’t seem to be capable of taking any of them seriously.  Everything is lighthearted, except for the insertion of a few paragraphs sprinkled throughout that seem to acknowledge the difficulty of life.  I think she did a better job than with the last novel, but it was still too light. She also has a tendency to add so many characters, with such odd names, that even with the help of a character list in the front matter, I’m unable to keep them straight.

The story has a lot of good aspects: burgeoning love, grief, tragedy, secrets and mysteries. They all could be made into a really moving story, but it doesn’t work out as well as it could.  I hoped I would enjoy this book more because it’s set in the Victorian era, but it still relies more on lightness and comedy than on truth and honesty.  It’s too light for me. I find it unrealistic and therefore lacking in meaning.

The saving grace of both this book and her last one were the setting.  Having the story take place in such an iconic and interesting location, one that many tourists have visited, adds some interest and grounds the story in a lovely world.  I enjoyed spending time thinking about the life of a grace-and-favour resident, and loved the exotic aspects inherent to that sort of life.

Book Review: Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn

Mrs. Queen Takes the TrainFirst, I have to give a tip of my figurative hat to the art director/cover designer for this book. I love it! What sums up QEII more than Buckingham Palace, some guards, and a cup of tea? Horses, a little handbag, and Corgis, obviously. It is a really cute little hardcover.

Unfortunately, I don’t think it was an entirely successful novel.

The book is primarily about Queen Elizabeth II (the current queen, for those of you who really don’t pay attention) and the hazards of getting older and of being a monarch in the 21st century.

The primary plot revolves around The Queen deciding she could really use a day off/a cheer-up. She is feeling her age, and her increasing lack of power and importance in modern UK life. Let’s face it, the monarchy has rarely been less liked and less powerful than it has been lately. I think the dislike reached a peak at the death of Princess Diana, and has been recovering the last year or two with the Olympics, the jubilee, the royal wedding and soon-to-be royal baby.

As I’ve said before, I am not a big fan of the royals. Most people in the US seem more fascinated by them, I suppose because we don’t have anything equivalent here, but I just can’t be bothered to care much about them. I do not believe much in tradition, in ceremony, or in a class system. I picked this book up because, even though I’m not drawn to the monarchy as a subject, it promised a humanizing look at QEII. This is the author’s first novel, having previously written several biographies and light historical books on Brits and Americans (including Jackie O, the closest thing the US has ever had to a Queen). I do think it’s interesting to consider the monarchy from the position of human beings placed into this unique and almost impossible situation. How does one adjust to the fact that they lead the country by supposed divine decree? How would you adjust to the changing times and ideas of politics and political power during a 60+ year reign? When QEII had her coronation, Churchill was the PM and the nation was still recovering from the devastation wrought during WWII. She’s still Queen, but undoubtedly the country is totally different. It is really fascinating to consider the role of a leader when you’re able to also hold it in your mind that this is just a regular person. Despite what Henry VIII might say, I don’t think any of the monarchs have ever been assigned by God or given special gifts or knowledge to allow them to lead. They are, by chance of birth, thrust into a position of leadership. I’ve already talked a little on this blog about Edward VIII and his decision to abdicate in order to marry Wallis Simpson. He couldn’t be King and marry the woman he loved, so he chose. Prince Charles, by all accounts, was asked to marry Princess Di when he loved Camilla from an early age. That obviously didn’t turn out well, but the point is that obedience and sacrifice comes with the pedigree and the real estate. It’s not a free ride. I’ve also already talked about the current climate of paparazzi frenzy over pictures of the royals, and how that will affect both Kate Middleton and her royal baby. It’s a tough time to be a royal, in my opinion. So a look inside all of the pomp and circumstance and at the reality of the situation is always a welcome thing.

Unfortunately, despite his training as a historian, Kuhn doesn’t seem to have captured a believable queen. It’s ironic, because as a historian, it is possible that this is a very accurate picture. Maybe she really does do yoga and feel comfortable talking to strangers on the street. But it doesn’t seem believable, even if it is true. Some aspects were plausible to me–the idea of The Queen not wanting to ask for computer help even though she hasn’t quite got the whole thing down–and others were really not–the queen having a secret twitter account only followed by family and friends. Even if these details are true, they don’t match with the public perception of The Queen, and there is nothing in the text to reconcile these. In scenes where The Queen was practicing yoga, I found myself picturing her in a lavender dress and matching jacket. I wondered how she could do Warrior II in panty hose. I couldn’t imagine her ever doing Downward Dog, because what if someone walked in and saw her backside in the air?

Of course the Queen is a human being, and sometimes she doesn’t wear pantyhose. It’s possible she even has yoga pants. On the other hand, how many octogenarians do you know who do yoga? If she is unusually attuned to what is young and new, then there has to be something in the text to align that with her public persona as being very old-fashioned, traditional, and proper. Otherwise, there is too much cognitive dissonance.

In the book, The Queen decides to take the eponymous train journey from King’s Cross to Edinburgh (a trip I recently made myself) in order to visit the royal yacht (which was decommissioned in the ’80s or ’90s) moored there. She sneaks out of Buckingham Palace on a whim, wearing a borrowed hoodie. She doesn’t tell anyone where she is going.

Several characters are charged with and volunteer to track her down in order to keep her from harm. They include an equerry (old-fashioned term for a sort of personal assistant to the monarch), a lady-in-waiting, a butler, a stable girl, a dress maid/ladies’ maid, and a clerk from a cheese shop. They frantically search for her, forming uneasy alliances across class lines (slightly reminiscent of Downton Abbey), and try to keep her disappearance quiet.

I had two problems with this book. The first was a lack of real suspense in the plot. We view the story from alternating perspectives, but we are never away from The Queen as narrator long enough to worry about her safety. The other characters are stressed about not finding her, but the tension of the situation and its potential dangers are glazed over and presented as secondary to the maze of social propriety involved in dealing with the monarch. There is never a sense of a non-happy ending being remotely possible.

The second problem was the portrayal of The Queen. As I said before, it doesn’t seem realistic even if it is based on real facts. So that’s a problem of writing, not of research. I think it also paints The Queen as less capable and competent than she most definitely is. The Queen in the book seems to regret that everyone went to so much trouble looking for her, and that she caused them stress. But, after being queen for 60+ years I’m fairly certain QEII knows exactly and entirely what would happen if she went AWOL. I would respect the character more if she knowingly decided to escape from her handlers. I also think that The Queen in the book is not as bogged down and restricted by her ideas of propriety and tradition than QEII must be in real life.

But where am I getting this info? What on earth do I know about QEII? Nothing, obviously. But she is a human being, who was raised knowing very early on that she would one day lead her country. She’s seen it through wars, through peace, economic prosperity and depression. She’s seen PMs come and go, political parties rise and fall. She stands alone, is the only one who can know the burden of leadership and the restrictions of monarchy. Her family has inklings, but nothing on the same level. There is no way to portray her in any book or movie that does not acknowledge this ordering of the world according to tradition and to responsibility. And in this book I just don’t think that was acknowledged enough.

I’ve read quite a few novels lately written by historians. I have no idea why they would want to make that jump. There’s an old joke that the profession least likely to get their book published is a writer! Seriously though, it’s not as easy as it looks, guys (the ones I have read were men; I am not implying that all historians are men). There has to be a more human look at the historical figures, not just an ‘accurate’ portrayal. If you described Henry VIII as large, fat, with a beard, who liked to have his wives beheaded, you wouldn’t be wrong. But you wouldn’t catch the essence of him as well as someone who might write about his frustration and anger with himself at not fathering a male child, frustration that he aimed clearly at his wives. Cutting off their heads was an easy way to blame them, and to excise the blame from himself. Is saying that accurate? No way to know. But it makes a better novel, and if you’re going to travel into the realm of fiction you have to take the leap away from concentrating on accuracy and focus instead on creating a character comprehensible and relatable.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

And Then There Were NoneFirst of all, I should note that I got this really cool graphic from this blog. It’s not the official cover of the book, but I like it much better!

Okay, so a confession: This was my first Agatha Christie novel.  I’ve never been really attracted to the murder mystery genre, mostly because it seems to be a genre dominated by male protagonists being chauvinistic and old-fashioned.  Pass.  Agatha Christie is obviously an exception to the Sam Spade idea I’ve got in my head. One of her most famous repeating characters is Miss Marple, an elderly woman who solves most of her mysteries because people spill their guts to her without paying her much attention. Her lack of importance in society leaves her able to understand and see more than less disenfranchised (more enfranchised?) people would be able to. This isn’t a Marple mystery, nor is it one of her other popular characters taking the helm.  In fact, no one has the spot as main character in this. It is, though, the best selling of all of Christie’s (many) books.

The plot revolves around ten people who have been brought to an island with a few different tricks and guises. One thinks he is there to meet old soldier friends, another believes she is there to be a governess to young children for a temporary placement. They are all called to a large house on a secluded island where they expect to meet a host who never arrives. The entire plot revolves around a nursery rhyme, which occupies the first page of the book:

Ten little Soldier Boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.

Nine little Soldier Boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.

Eight little Soldier Boys travelling in Devon;
One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.

Seven little Soldier Boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.

Six little Soldier Boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.

Five little Soldier Boys going in for law;
One got in Chancery and then there were four.

Four little Soldier Boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.

Three little Soldier Boys walking in the zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.

Two little Soldier Boys sitting in the sun;
One got frizzled up and then there was one.

One little Soldier Boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.

As you might expect from a murder mystery, people start to be killed. And they are killed in the exact fashion described in the poem.  Being reasonably intelligent people, the remaining guests realize that someone is killing these people.  First, they search methodically for some kind of madman loose on the island.  It is a small enough place that they can search its entirety in one day. There is no one but themselves.  So, it must be one of their own.  They begin to suspect and mistrust each other, driven to the point of paranoia and mania from fear and tension.  One by one they are killed.  All of them.  They all die, as you might expect from the title.

Only in the last two-three pages is the killer revealed, and I’m happy to say I did not know who it would be. There isn’t really a good way to guess it. The only clue might be found in the last 6 or 7 pages, after everyone is already dead.

I was strongly reminded of the movie Clue while reading this, and firmly expected them all to be killing each other.  I didn’t see any way for it to have been just one person, because they all end up dead.

I really enjoyed the book, and it did keep me guessing to the end.  Some of the tropes involved in it are a little trite to a modern ear, but this book is about 80 years old. It’s possible this was one of the first examples of some of these tropes being used, so they didn’t particularly bother me. I liked the suspense, I liked the honest mystery, I liked the lack of a inveterate gumshoe in trench coat and fedora.  I really enjoyed Christie’s style and thought it was easy to read.  My only complaint was that it turned out to be very difficult to keep all of the characters straight off the bat. I had to keep a list with reminders, until they became solidified in my imagination.

My only complaint with the book is a very uneasy feeling I got when I learned the history of it.  I read a lot of stuff that is about 200 years old, sometimes older.  A lot of it contains very insensitive stuff about entire races of people, religions, and especially women. I’d say I’m mostly immune to it. But…I found out, upon looking this book up, that it was originally titled something else. The name obviously comes from the nursery rhyme I pasted above.  The original form of the nursery rhyme in the UK was actually Ten Little N****rs, a fact that makes my stomach twist just thinking about it. And it came with some truly horrifying artwork on the cover:

Ten Little N****rsExcuse me while I hold back my vomit.  That is atrocious. Apparently instead of ‘soldiers’ the nursery rhyme used the n-word.  This name was used in the UK until THE EIGHTIES!! What.

In a somewhat palliative move, the US edition changed the name to And Then There Were None. In an incomprehensible move, they changed the nursery rhyme to read Ten Little Indians.  Gee that’s so much better.  Oh wait, no it’s not.

The book more or less uses the nursery rhyme as a frame for the action, and it doesn’t have much to do with race at all–all of the characters are white.  But just having this sort of nonsense adjacent to the action makes me ill. I liked the book, but hoped to find others of Christie’s that don’t have the same associations.

But now that I really think about it,  it isn’t just Native Americans or people of African descent who are thought of in unpleasant terms. The prejudice is widespread and very nonchalant.  There is one character whose crimes against an entire group of Indians (sub-continent, not Native Americans) are especially nauseating.  All of the characters are guilty of wrongdoing–wrongdoing that resulted in death–but this one character is responsible for the death of something like twenty ‘natives’ and is totally unapologetic! I thought I might puke.  Add to that the fact that there were a few scenes of ludicrous anti-Semitism. One character describes someone as a sneaky, conniving ‘Jewboy’, exclaims that you can’t lie to Jews about money because ‘they know’ and talks about the man’s ‘thick Semitic lips’.  My actual, physical nausea continues.  Of course this is only one character, and every character in the book is fairly flawed (re: a murderer), so I thought perhaps it was more acceptable since we aren’t meant to like any of these people. Since then, I’ve read that many of Christie’s books have an undercurrent of anti-Semitism. And this book was published in 1939, just as World War II was starting…by someone living on the ‘good’ side.  Makes you realize some truly horrifying things about what it meant to be any sort of minority during this time period. So…despite my enjoyment of the book, I’m not sure I feel comfortable reading any more of hers.

The Tower of London: Menageries, Murders, and Ghosts

I’ve read two books lately that both took place in and around the Tower of London.  One was Wolf Hall, set in the mid-16th century.  The other, which I just finished, was The tower, the Zoo, and the TortoiseThe Tower, The Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart.

I have already reviewed Wolf Hall, and want to share my thoughts on TZT, as I will call this book with the overly-lengthy title.  But since they shared a common locale, I thought I might talk a little bit first about the Tower of London in general.

The official name of the Tower of London is Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress, and is located on Tower Hill, a spot directly on the North banks of the Thames, next to Tower Bridge (logically enough).  The names represent the entire complex, from the outer walls inward, Tower-of-London

though most people associate the name with the largest and most memorable of its buildings, the White Tower. The White Tower is technically a ‘keep’ and is one of the largest in the ‘Christian World’ :

White+TowerI imagine most people do not read this blog for their history knowledge, but indulge me while I share a bit of the incredible history of this fortress.

When William the Conqueror won the battle at Hastings (1066 AD) and gained control over England, he wanted a tower to keep away the cursed English people, and to keep them from trying to win back their country.  Actually, William made a lot of castles after he took over, but this is probably the most famous among them. He began to build the ToL at the SE corner of the walls remaining from the Roman establishment in Londinium. Estimates say the White Tower was finished around 1100 AD.

The tower was extended beyond the keep during the 12th century and was a point of contention when Prince John (of Robin Hood fame) tried to seize control of the country while Richard the Lionhearted was off fighting the crusades. Expansion continued during the 13th and 14th centuries, when disputes over succession to the crown or between the royalty and the aristocracy threatened the outbreak of civil war.  Whomever held control of the crown wanted an impregnable fortress to hide behind. The tradition of whitewashing the White Tower (thus giving it its name) began in 1240. Periodically, the tower would be taken by the armies of barons or landed gentry, or given to clergymen. It was always an important strategic possession.

Obviously there was a fair amount of unpleasantness at the Tower. It was a military stronghold and a palatial lodging, but it was/became a prison.  Edward I imprisoned at least 600 Jewish people in the tower, before exporting them out of the country entirely. Charming guy. Later, the tower was reserved for more important inmates — i.e. those accused of heresy or treason, not those accused of stealing bread. Often, the royalty themselves were imprisoned there.  Examples include Richard II, Henry VI, and the two Princes–possibly its most famous residents because no one knows quite what happened to them.

PrincesThe assumption is that Richard III murdered the two young boys so that he could become king. Legend has it that the white rose bushes outside the keep have bloomed red roses since that day.

In the 16th century, the tower stopped being used regularly as a royal residence and its focus shifted entirely to that of military stronghold and prison. The Yeoman Warders were formed in the early 1500s, and still wear the same uniform that existed during that time.  This means an itchy wool fabric that cannot be remotely comfortable.  But look how stylish:


The Yeoman Warders are traditionally called Beefeaters.  This may be because a portion of meat was included with their meal rations.  They still live in the Tower, with their families.  To become a Beefeater, you must have been in the military with a good record for at least 22 years.  It’s a lot to ask of someone who is essentially a tour guide.  Must create a very unique microcosm of society within the tower. But its a far cry from what their original tasks included–chiefly torturing prisoners to extract confessions of heresy, treason, etc.  They employed the Scavenger’s Daughter, the Rack, and the Manacles frequently.

The bloody history of the tower reached its peak in the 16th and 17th century. Beheading was popular at the tower because of its important clientele–for the measly peasants, hanging or burning were popular methods of acting out a death sentence. Those executed on the Tower Green were the most important and high profile of the doomed. These include: William Hastings, Anne Boleyn, Margaret Pole (hit 11 times with the axe before her head came off!), Jane Boleyn, Lady Jane Gray, and Robert Devereux. Most of these were directly related to threats/crimes against the current monarch. In addition to these Tower Green executions, there were numerous public executions (for the less important but equally guilty) on Tower Hill. These included William Wallace (of Braveheart fame), Thomas Cromwell (as featured in Wolf Hall), Guy Fawkes (tried to blow up Parliament) and Sir Walter Raleigh (imprisoned for over 10 years in the Tower before being executed). Ghosts of the two princes, Anne Boleyn, and Sir Walter Raleigh are the most commonly sighted in the Tower.

There were some less horrible things to find at the Tower.  Isaac Newton ran the Royal Mint when it was located there.  There was a royal menagerie in the middle ages where the king kept animals gifted to him by other royalty, including a Polar Bear said to have fished for his dinner in the Thames. It was first opened to very wealthy aristocrats for visiting, but became a bona fide tourist attraction by the end of the 19th century.  Its last use as a prison was during WWII when a few Nazi PoWs were stationed inside. It’s a really cool place to visit if you know some of the history, or if you’re particularly keen to see the Crown Jewels.

If you’re a history buff or planning a visit, here is a link to the official website for more info.  I always wanted to go to the Ceremony of the Keys, when they lock up the tower at night.  The ceremony is about 450 years older than my country, so that’s pretty epic, but you have to plan/request tickets in advance and I never got my act together.

Okay, enough about the tower in general.  What about this book?  I learned a lot about the tower reading it.  The Beefeaters live inside to this day! At first, I thought that seemed really awesome.  But when you have Nazi graffiti in your study, or the ghost of Sir Walter Raleigh blowing up spectral science experiments and stealing your potatoes, and all you do all day is talk to impertinent tourists, it doesn’t seem so glamorous anymore.

Unfortunately, this book was just too light for me.  Not that I need explosions or suicide in the books I read. I expected it to be light, and was looking forward to it after the epic task of Wolf Hall. Still, there has to be some emotional intensity to it.  The characters were cute and likeable, but it was as if I was seeing all of them from a distance, or through a thick fog.  Even when dealing with the heavy material, Julia Stuart seems afraid to commit to raw emotion.  I felt at an arm’s length from the entire book, and that severely lessened my enjoyment.  It didn’t go deep enough into the human psyche for me to feel much of anything. There were a few parts that made me mildly chuckle, but other than that it didn’t make a dent on me.  Disappointing.

The story revolves around a beefeater named Balthazar Jones, who is asked to run the newly re-installed menagerie at the ToL. He is pretty under-qualified for the job (given to him only because he happens to own the world’s oldest tortoise) and the animal rights activist in me was a bit bothered by the idea of completely untrained people being in charge of these animals’ safety.  But it is just a book, so I swallowed my objections.  There isn’t much in the way of a traditional plot, except to have a few people in disarray and later have it all work into a happy ending.

There are a myriad of characters, most of which work in the ToL (Chief Yeoman Warder, Ravenmaster, etc.) and some that work in the lost property office for the Underground. Both of these locations are quirky and give a wonderful sense of color to the story, but again I’m troubled by the lack of depth.

Similar to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, this book revolves around a couple who have lost a child, and the way that child is lost is eventually revealed mid-way through the book.  Unlike Harold Fry, this book doesn’t inspire a lot of emotion around this terrible event.  I think Stuart wanted to keep the book light, so despite being vested in strong emotional events, it didn’t transmit much empathy to me–and I’m an incredibly empathetic person.  That’s part of why I’m such a passionate reader. I feel everything the characters feel.  Example–At least twice, I have taken a few moments to feel incredible sadness for Andromeda Black/Tonks from Harry Potter.  If you think about it, she loses her husband and daughter and her son-in-law to Voldemort.  All in the same year.  Then she must raise her grandson on her own.  None of this is ever overtly mentioned, but she must have a desperately difficult life in the days after the final battle.

Okay that was a digression, obviously, but the point is made. I am not lacking in empathy, but I didn’t feel much for these characters.  Which not only meant that I didn’t experience the sorrows in media res, but I also missed out on the feeling of relief that comes with a happy ending. I’m sorry to say that even though I was looking for a light, frothy read, this book just lacked substance. Or it kept substance in the background, focusing instead on cutesy turns of phrase and quirky characters.  Yet another reminder that in order to write quality fiction, you have to be incredibly brave. If you’re not scared to reveal what you’ve written down, then you haven’t dug deep enough.