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The third issue of Shiny New Books! is live and you can find my review of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell there. So do check it out!

Bone Clocks

Servant of the Underworld

Aliette de Bodard is a writer I’ve been aware of for a number of years but whom I’ve only started reading this year and I’m furious with myself that I’ve left it this long to find such an incredible writer. I’ve read a number of her short stories set in her Xuya universe, science fiction set in an alternate universe exploring her Vietnamese roots, and also some featuring her Aztec priest who investigates suspicious deaths. And so I couldn’t wait to read her debut novel, Servant of the Underworld, featuring Acatl, Head Priest of the Temple of Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl, the God of Death and his consort, who rule over Mictlan, the Underworld. Like many, I know almost nothing about the Mexica Empire save for the tales of the Spanish conquistadors who brought down the once glorious empire with violence and disease and took away chocolate and gold. What de Bodard does here is not only entice us with ancient history but weaves together aspects of magic and religion which were so thoroughly integrated in Aztec society. And she does this with aplomb.

Set in the Aztec city state of Tenochtitlan in 1480 when the Revered Speaker Axayacatl, Emperor of the Mexica, lies dying, Acatl’s life is turned upside when his elder brother Neutemoc, a Jaguar Knight, is arrested for abducting the priestess Eleuia from her blood-soaked bedroom. Acatl has never been on easy terms with his successful brother, a warrior, husband and father and the pride of his parents, not since he chose to become a priest thus sealing his cowardice in his family’s eyes. But nevertheless, he feels compelled to help Neutemoc, not least because the status and honour of their family is in danger. Eleuia wasn’t well liked by the teachers or students in her House of Tears, where she was employed, because of her ambition and allure. What was Neutemoc, a respectable, married warrior doing in Eleuia’s room? And what magic lies at the root of her disappearance? As Acatl tries to save his brother, he must confront and finally stand up to his worst fears. In his quest, he is aided and impeded by Ceyaxochitl, Guardian of the Sacred Precinct and agent of the Duality, who has simultaneously championed and forced Acatl onto his career path as High Priest of Mictlantecuhtli, and her slave Yaotl. Acatl’s sister Mihmatini who has recently returned to live with Neutemoc and his family surprises him with her calm acumen and skill with spells and tries to keep her brothers’ bond secure. And then there is Huei, Neutemoc’s wife, heartbroken and furious.

As well as the mystery of Eleuia’s disappearance, someone or something with great magical powers is determined to see that Neutemoc is executed for a crime he may or may not have committed. For Acatl, who is unhappy in his position both at work and at home, this is a testing time. He must win the loyalty of the priests in his Temple as well as the ears of the Court. And the only person who is there to help him is Teomitl, a young warrior sent to him by the Guardian, still a student, strong-willed and wild. Acatl must swallow his complaints and start looking for the answers before something worse that the execution of his brother is set in motion as it soon becomes clear that Eleuia’s abduction is only the tip of a war between gods.

Aliette de Bodard has managed to make a complicated mystery into an alluring journey into a past with which most of us are probably unfamiliar. But she does it seamlessly, merging historical figures with her fictional creation, placing us firmly in a land in which magic and ritual are alive and part and parcel of daily life. There are spells, sacrifice and lots of blood. But the blood is necessary for protection and spells and we don’t question it. It’s a mark of an accomplished writer indeed when you don’t recoil in horror as the main character cuts himself frequently to obtain the blood necessary for his rituals.

One of the interesting aspects of this novel is Acatl’s inner transformation. A conflicted soul, trying his best to carry on in his chosen path, yet burdened with the disappointment of his family. He is solitary, unable to participate in court politics because of his disgust with humanity’s baser instincts, and is only redeemed through his fight with evil and in the process, discovering social bonds he had though he had lost and never possessed.

Servant of the Underworld , the first in a trilogy, brings to light Aztec society in it’s full and frightening glory. The strict hierarchical social structure of priests, warriors and slaves, the rituals and strong belief in deities with powers to end the world, the absolute power of the Revered Speaker to keep the darkness at bay and the sun in the sky. And also the beauty of Aztec culture. Imagine going to a school called the House of Tears where the children of the wealthy are educated. And the binary nature of the gods with the male and female forms with names such as the Southern Hummingbird (God of War and of the Sun), the Jade Skirt (Goddess of Lakes and Streams) and the Quetzal Flower (Goddess of Beauty and Love). In amongst the harshness of life in Mexica, there is a fragile and painful beauty.

I can only imagine the amount of research that has gone into producing such a detailed and complex tale and yet de Boddard wears her research lightly. And in doing so, she has created a wonderfully complex world pulsing with emotion and colour.

You can be sure I will follow Acatl’s adventures in the sequels, Harbinger of the Storm and Master of the House of Darts.

I read this as part of Diversiverse, R.I.P. IX and #ReadWomen2014.

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Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

17 September, 2014

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We are nothing more than dust-jackets for books, of no significance otherwise.

Why, why, WHY have I not read Ray Bradbury’s most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451, earlier? But then I pause and think to myself that maybe choosing it for my book group at this particular time was fortuitous. Living in an era where we are bombarded by information, the internet, the telly, celebrity gossip, news that masquerades as serious journalism, only proves to magnify Bradbury’s frightening dystopian vision of the world where books are considered dangerous and routinely torched, along with the houses that shield them. While I grew up in a time when we didn’t have the internet or tablets or even a computer in every household, it’s horrifying to think that in 15 years, we’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to be unplugged. I go to work, read a little on my commute, come home and then just zone out watching box sets or J-dramas on the internet, available 24/7. I have all this time in the evenings and yet I feel I have no time at all. Every single day. What am I doing?

This is precisely the question Guy Montag, Bradbury’s anti-hero, begins to ask himself when three incidents occur separately but simultaneously and coalesce, acting as a catalyst to a seed which has been planted in his almost lobotomised mind. The first is his meeting with Clarisse, a free-spirited, fey neighbour who strolls around looking at and questioning things. She is the first person in years who has shown an interest in Montag, this strange, quaint, seventeen year old girl, the first to ask him, ‘Is it true that long ago firemen put fires out instead of going to start them?’ The second is finding his wife, Mildred, overdosed and watching her stomach being pumped not by doctors but by routine service men making him question the level of unhappiness in this world when doctors no longer treated suspected suicides seriously. And the third incident is when he is called out to a suspected book hoarder to be faced by a determined woman who would torch herself together with her books than live in a world without them. These three incidents shake Montag’s equilibrium, sending him on a trajectory where he begins to question and really see the world in which people no longer value knowledge.

What gives Bradbury’s short novel such power is that Montag starts off as a proud fireman, one of the supposed gatekeepers of peace and morality, a little like Torquemada, a little like Savonarola. He wears his uniform, emblazoned with Fahrenheit 451 – the temperature at which paper ignites, with pride. But as his apathy erodes, he begins to question why knowledge has become so maligned. Why are books being burned? Why are people looked upon suspiciously if they go for a stroll or engage in idle chatter or even a friendly debate? Why do the firemen have mechanical hounds who will sniff out the sudden changes in DNA and will go to great lengths to find and neutralise people with books? And his changing behaviour sparks the suspicion of his fire chief, Beatty, full of the knowledge of all the books he’s burned, ready to twist anything Montag can say.

Sedated by a diet of sound bites and recycled pop-dramas, Montag’s fellow city dwellers have no time to question their lives or the impending war that is slowly unfolding. But Montag is unable to stop himself as he begins a journey of discovery that will lead him to lose everything and go on the run. And in doing so, he encounters several people, all trying to hold on to their humanity via the books they love including a group reminiscent of the railway hobos of the 1930s.

Even though practically everything’s airborne these days and most of the tracks are abandoned, the rails are still there, rusting. I’ve heard there are still hobo camps all across the country, here and there; walking camps they call them, and if you keep walking far enough and keep an eye peeled, they say there’s lots of old Harvard degrees on the tracks beyween here and Los Angeles. Most of them are wanted and hunted in the cities.

It is almost unbelievable that Fahrenheit 451 was first published in 1953. Every single sentence is relevant to our world today. What is most frightening is that the future he predicts is already happening.

As Bradbury himself warns in a more recent preface,

It had to do with books being burned without matches or fire. Because you don’t have to burn books, do you, if the world starts to fill up with non-readers, non-learners, non-knowers? If the world widescreen basketballs and footballs itself to drown in MTV, no Beattys are needed to ignite the kerosene or hunt the reader. If the primary grades suffer meltdown and vanish through the cracks and ventilators of the school room, who, after a while, will know or care?

A frightening thought indeed.

Each page in Fahrenheit 451 is a revelation, a recognition that if we don’t realise what is important, that knowledge, studying , reading, debating anchors us to humanity, then we are lost. And more importantly, reflecting on our actions. As one character in the novel says,

We know all the damn silly things we’ve done for a thousand years, and as long as know that and always have it around where we can see it some day we’ll stop making the goddam funeral pyres and jumping into the middle of them. We pick up a few more people that remember, every generation.

Although I loved everything about this book and didn’t really find it dated considering it was written almost 60 years ago (it’s easy to substitute tv with the internet), I did find Bradbury’s portrayal of his female characters lacking in three dimensionality. They were used more as props rather that as fully realised characters, there to spur Montag on in his re-awakening. They were a tad too simple and stereotypical and may as well have been incidents rather than people. However, I have heard that the film version does flesh them out a bit.

Neverheless, Fahrenheit 451 is a powerful book with important ideas, and even though it was conceived during the McCarthy era when censorship was rife, it is still relevant in our current climate.

Do also check out Bradbury’s interview with the Paris Review.

I read this as part of R.I.P. IX.

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R.I.P. IX is here!

5 September, 2014

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The only thing that makes the end of summer OK, is Carl’s wonderful R(eaders). I(imbibing). P(eril) Challenge which is celebrating it’s 9th year. It’s one of the first reading challenges in which I participated and I look forward to it every year. And although I may not post a wrap-up post each year, I love every minute of choosing and reading my list of books which are mainly from my shelves as well as seeing what others are dipping into. And how gorgeous is the artwork for this year’s challenge?

As usual, I’m hoping to read at least four books in the following categories: mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, gothic, horror and supernatural which, to be honest, are my favourite genres. So bring it on!

My pool of books from which I plan to read four (or more!) are:

The Fire by Katherine Neville – I loved The Eight which I read years ago.
The Abomination by Jonathan Holt – murder in Venice.
Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard – completely blown away by her short stories so I need more – an Aztec mystery!
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith – just because it’s JKR!
Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray – the nights are drawing in and I’m in need of something spookay.
Faithful Place by Tana French – I really need to get back into French’s writing.
The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin – it’s just been shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger!
She Lover of Death by Boris Akunin – Erast Fandorin in the house!
A Vengeful Longing by R.N. Morris – the third mystery in a series featuring Porfiry Petrovich from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis – time travel and the Black Death!

Of course I’ll be adding and subtracting from this list, but who’s counting, right?

So will you be joining us? And, more importantly, what will YOU be reading?

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Enemies at Home

Welcome back Flavia Albia, just when I was really beginning to miss you. Falco’s determined adopted daughter, Flavia Albia is back with her second case in Enemies at Home. Although Falco doesn’t pop up in this novel, his presence is everywhere and we also do get a glimpse of his lovely wife, Helena Justina. Fans of Lindsey Davis’ 20 Roman mysteries featuring Marcus Didius Falco will miss him, but Albia is quickly beginning to fill his shoes, not only career-wise, but also with her street-smart, wise-cracking ways. But although the same age as Falco when he started his adventures, Albia’s personality is darker, more watchful as she’s experienced life at its worst in her childhood and as a young widow living in a Rome ruled by a paranoid tyrant.

After her adventures in The Ides of April, Albia is once again drawn into a seemingly simple dual murder by the Aedile, Manlius Faustus, with whom she has worked before and therefore has a complicated relationship. Newlywed Aviola and his second wife Lucilia are found murdered in their bed and a large cache of valuable silver is missing. What looks like an inside job becomes complicated as the household slaves seek sanctuary in the Temple of Ceres. If they are found guilty, then execution beckons. If not, there is a murderer on the loose and Manilius Faustus is given the task of finding who did it as the Temple lies in his jurisdiction. He commissions Albia for the job of finding clues and she in turn asks her uncles, the Camillus brothers, for legal advice. And so begins a dark and convoluted search for a killer and a horde of silver that seems to have disappeared into thin air. What really went on in the Aviola household? And what about the ex-wife and children hungry for their inheritance? And how complex were the domestic relationships especially when two households merge resulting in possible redundancies, in this case the selling of surplus slaves? As Albia uncovers secret after secret, she soon learns that more than one person is hiding something to safeguard their future. Will she find who murdered the couple before another gets killed? And what exactly does Faustus think of her?

Although darker in tone than most of the Falco novels, Enemies at Home is a little lighter than The Ides of April with little pockets of comedy wedged amongst the more hard hitting historical detail which makes Davis’ novels such superb and informative reads. One of things I love about Davis’ writing is that, like a good historian, she doesn’t judge what the Romans get up to. As Albia and Faustus are both Romans, their views, only rightly, will be that of a contemporary Roman. However disturbing and harsh we may view their cultural and social rules today, they accept and work within it. In Enemies at Home, Davis brings home the harsh realities of being a Roman slave. Just as one can strive for and attain manumission, setting themselves and their descendants free, another can lead a life of wretched misery from cradle to grave. Roman laws deem a slave must always protect their master and they can be executed simply for not doing their job. As is the case with Aviola’s slaves, even if they did not do the killings, Albia and Faustus must determine whether the slaves had done enough to protect their master and mistress. And if not, the consequences are dire.

Enemies at Home is an enjoyable and interesting novel with a nicely plotted mystery at its heart. I sort of guessed whodunnit but Davis provides the reader with enough suspects to keep you guessing until the end. Can’t wait to see what Rome has in store for Albia next!

Mohawk's Brood

I only heard of Amanda Prantera a few months into this year as I happened upon a few reviews of her new book Mohawk’s Brood, a historical novel covering a sprawling English family with roots in Shanghai, a premise I eagerly lapped up. And so I was really excited to be offered a review copy from the publisher. What with work and family commitments all happening in the last three months, I’ve only just got to Mohawk’s Brood and now I wish I had known about Prantera before. Because although Mohawk’s Brood is a historical novel, Prantera has also written novels in other genres, gothic, mystery, literary, werewolves. I like an author with unpinnable styles.

The novel alternates between the viewpoints of several members of Mohawk’s extended family (both related by blood and not) starting with Mohawk (Henry), the patriarch who built an extensive empire beginning with his newspaper in Shanghai and branching out into racing horses, property and other ventures. After he returns to England with his family, leaving behind his eldest son Harry to take over the helm of his broadsheet empire, he concentrates on educating his remaining children (a total of nine including Harry) and plotting his family’s rise through the ranks and into the aristocracy. This isn’t easy as nothing is valued highter than blood even though you may have rivers of money flowing out of your ears. And it doesn’t help if you are Catholic. There is Little Ida, his eldest daughter, who has a brush with romance that is cruelly thwarted and yearning for a life, any life, and battling jealousy of her beautiful sister-in-law. Her younger sister Noël, singled out by her mother, Big Ida, to look after her and therefore remain single (even crueler). And Harry’s brothers, Lester who is training to be an architect, Tom, a budding socialist, Edwin, not quite right in the head, Neville, the naughty one, and Jack, the baby of the family. And then there is Rebecca, Harry’s sad and lonely wife, whose only deliverance is her son Sasha, who may also be the answer to Mohawk’s prayers.

Through their eyes and thoughts, Prantera unveils the history of early 20th century Shanghai, with its jazzy politics, refugees, the social whirlwind of expat life and the oncoming menace of the Japanese, aided by the once bright star that was Chiang Kai Shek. The sweep of history is broad and yet the little details inserted by Prantera spring Harry and Rebecca’s Shanghai into life just as much as they dampen the cool and muted life Rebecca then comes back to in England. I wasn’t sure whether the first person point of view would work for everyone, but the short, sharp chapters reveal more than what they intend and works beautifully to provide a capacious picture of a cross-cultural dynasty undergoing great changes and dispersal in their family and fortune along with history. I loved the nuggets of cultural history with which Prantera dots her novel; little details that bring everything into sharp relief. Mohawk’s Brood is a beautifully realised novel of a world that no longer exists. And above all, even though he doesn’t say a word himself, it is Harry who is the locus of Mohawk’s Brood. Harry, who has so many secrets.

Prantera is the author of sixteen novels and I cannot wait to read more by her, especially Strange Loop and Wolfsong.

Thank you Quartet Books for kindly sending me a copy of Mohawk’s Brood to review.

Pereira Maintains

One of the things that drew me to Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi is the name Pereira, which holds a certain allure if you are interested in Sri Lankan colonial history, and that the novella is set in Portugal. I took this book with me on holiday to Lisbon and Porto and it filled me with pleasure to read of Dr. Pereira traversing the same, now familiar, streets of Lisbon.

Set one scorching summer in 1938, Dr. Pereira is given the task of setting up the Culture section of a Catholic newspaper, Lisboa. His interests veers towards classical French literature, which he translates in his spare time, but he is in search of a writer who can produce short, contemporary obituaries of Portuguese writers which can be published when the time comes. And so he chances upon an essay on death by a young graduate named Monteiro Rossi and immediately contacts him. However, Monteiro Rossi, a fiery half-Italian, has an agenda. He professes that he isn’t actually interested in death but needs the money so will write for Pereira. But the pieces he sends in are unpublishable, too controversial and critical of the present Portuguese government. When Pereira meets Marta, a young Communist eager to support Spain against the Franco’s fascists, he grows concerned for the young and naïve Monteiro Rossi who has fallen under her spell and is on a dangerous path. And so Pereira, who has always lived a solid, stable life begins to question his beliefs as his beloved country slowly falls under the spell of the fascists.

Pereira Maintains certainly packs a much larger punch than its slim volume would suggest. It takes its time, mimicking the slow, sweltering heat of a Portuguese summer. We learn of Pereira’s student days at Coimbra, his courting of his beloved, deceased wife, the snoopy caretaker at his office whom he is convinced is working for the secret police. It’s a world that is changing, becoming much darker, more violent and you begin see the start of the paranoia that will characterise Portugal under an authoritarian leadership. Tabucchi portrays the clash of two different worlds separated by one thin, fragile leaf of history. Pereira symbolises the old, free, unchanging, slow-paced world that is slowly disappearing. And Monteiro Rossi, the new, frantic, uncertain and perpetually changing world towards which Portugal inevitably heads. But between these two very different people, so different in their upbringing, age and beliefs, flares a sudden and life-changing friendship.

What keeps Tabucchi’s novel alive is Pereira himself. This solid, overweight man with a heart condition is an affable sort. But Tabucchi doesn’t stop there. He focuses on the small resistances Pereira maintains in his work, against his boss, the caretaker, and slowly magnifies them as the issues in Pereira’s life and his country grow. It’s a manifesto for one man’s life and beliefs. That just because you think you have already lived the best part of your life doesn’t mean that you cannot contribute to society and world events.

Pereira Maintains is a beautifully crafted book that starts slowly and grows in pace as it reaches its devastating climax. The shocking bits are brief and the sense of urgency heightened. It’s the last stand of a good man and a glimpse into the dark history of modern Portugal. Beautiful.

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