blood-of-the-oak

Some of you may recall my love of Eliot Pattison’s Tibetan mysteries beginning with The Skull Mantra featuring Inspector Shan, a disgraced Chinese policeman exiled to Tibet. Pattison’s use of the mystery genre to convey the beauty and tragic history of Tibet is one of the few series that manages to portray the fierce resilience and compassion of the Tibetan people in the face of annexation and oppression. Pattison is also the author of a series set in colonial America before independence and I was keen to try it.

Blood of the Oak is the fourth volume of Pattison’s Bone Rattler series and features Duncan McCallum, an indentured Scot in colonial America. It is 1765 and Duncan, now living in Edentown with his partner Sarah Ramsey and his friend Conawago, a Nipmuc, is summoned by Adanahoe, an Iroquois elder, to investigate the theft of a sacred mask. Having earned their trust and because of his medical training, Duncan is known by the Iroquois as the Death Speaker, a rarity amongst the Europeans.

America is in the throes of conflict, a burdgeoning sense of independent identity is forming amongst a small group of influential men and women and resistance is growing against the English and the French who are keen to lay claim to the rich lands held sacred by the Native American tribes. They find themselves caught in the middle, used and discarded by both sides, wary of the Europeans, desperate to protect themselves. When Duncan’s search for the mask leads him to an injured ranger, his friend Patrick Woolford, he realises he has stumbled upon another mystery. When Woolford tells him 19 men have gone missing from Benjamin Franklin’s fledgling communications network including some of his own rangers, Duncan knows they are facing an incredibly clever and terrible foe. For Woolford, like Duncan and the Iroquois, is an expert in navigating the forests.

As the powerful elite in England try to cement their control over their wayward colony through the Stamp Tax, Duncan is drawn into the power play that threatens everything he holds dear. As he begins his journey with his friend Tanaqua, a Mohawk, and Analie, a French orphan, to try and prevent the brewing catastrophe, he will come face to face with evil from his past. What is at stake here is not just the lives of those dear to him but the state of the nation itself. But where there is evil, there will be resistance and Duncan finds himself in the midst of those who are willing to put aside differences to fight together for their rights.

As well as tackling the complex nature of the different resistance groups supporting the revolutionary cause, the sheer number of people who risked their lives from the Scottish, the English, all the Native American tribes and the African American community, from the freedmen to those struggling under the chains of slavery, Pattison draws an intricate portrait of colonial America and the high stakes involved. The fragility of freedom, the long yoke of servitude and indenture, the indignities, torture and injustice suffered by so many because of the misplaced belief that one race, one people, one class can be better than another is a polemic that is familiar and should still be feared today. And that the only way to overcome the odds is to work together towards a common goal which Pattison shows beautifully.

Like his Tibetan novels, Pattison pulls off an intricate mystery while building a world in which historical figures come alive. The complexity of his characters, each with a difficult past, each making their own hard choices, show how tough it was to survive in the new land. And yet within such chaos also lie scenes of stillness and beauty, of the power and sanctity of nature, the importance of belief and worship, and ultimately what ties you to your identity. Pattison excels in creating a story that combines mystery with politics, history and adventure, but what I like best about his novels are his compelling characters. Although some of the characters may be a little too cut and dry, especially the antagonists, Pattison avoids too much stereotyping by including a whole spectrum of characters and he doesn’t shy away from showing the ugly side of society in each community. And like his Tibetan novels, making an outsider, in this case Duncan, the central character makes it work. It certainly sets one thinking about how history and cultures are recorded and by whom.

Although this novel could be read as a standalone, I enjoyed it so much that as soon as I finished it, I ordered the rest, Bone Rattler, Eye of the Raven and Original Death. As much as it is a mystery, it is also a love letter to the Native American tribes as well as the exiled Scots who only wanted a place in which to live free.

My knowledge of Native American history is pretty much limited to James Fenimore Cooper’s oft-criticised The Last of the Mohicans set in the same period, and reading this has re-awakened my interest. As well as the bibliography in Blood of the Oak, I have Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and any further recommendations would be greatly welcome.

I would like to thank Eliot Pattison for kindly offering me this book for review. He was right in saying this was a topical and timely read, especially in the wake of recent world events. It would do America and the rest of the world good to go back and re-assess the reasons why people fought so hard for independence in so many countries around the world and that we mustn’t forget that liberty, equality and justice are rights we cannot afford to discard.

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For Two Thousand Years

You can find my review of Mihail Sebastian’s beautiful novel For Two Thousand Years in Issue 9 of Shiny New Books! out today. Please do go and have a look!

Deadly Election

As you all probably know, I am a huge fan of Lindsey Davis’ Falco series set in Vespasian’s Rome. Her follow-up series with Falco’s adopted British daughter Flavia Albia, though a little darker in tone due to Rome being under the brutal thumb of Domitian, has firmly hit its stride.

In her third outing, Deadly Election, Albia is caught in the middle of a Roman election whilst trying to identify a decomposing corpse that falls out of a locked chest from Pompeii belonging to Callistus Valens in the middle of a highly publicised auction at her family’s auction house. Together with her new friend and magistrate Manlius Faustus, currently campaign manager for his childhood friend Vibius who is standing for the office of aedile at the elections, Albia delves deeper into the mystery of the dead body found bound and stuffed into the chest. As she unravels the strangely intricate familial ties between the sellers of the chest of death and the various electoral candidates, she comes up against a formidable political family headed by Julia Verucanda, ‘the mother-in-law from Hades’. As the death count mounts in the hot July summer, Albia and Faustus find themselves caught in a deadly web that spans generations.

Once again, Davis has delivered a highly enjoyable and educational mystery. I raced through Deadly Election as with all her other books, stopping once in a while to wonder at her deft characterisation and her beautiful rendering of a living, breathing ancient Rome. You can see how much she loves Rome with all its complex social hierarchies, variety of peoples from all over the empire and the deadly politics that underpinned Roman life. I love the characters of Albia, who is a mature, independant woman who has seen enough of the harshness of life to appreciate what is truly precious, and Faustus, a serious, upright citizen with a soft spot for Albia. I like a bit of romance in my mysteries and Davis has drawn this one out long enough for you to care about both characters. Domitian doesn’t make an appearance here but he is always present, a constant threat in people’s lives.

If you haven’t tried Davis’ mysteries, I urge you all to start. I like reading a series in order so would recommend you start with The Silver Pigs. However there are over 20 mysteries in the Falco series which are all separate mysteries but follow a slow chronological arc where you see the evolution of his relationships and family. Part of the joy of reading a series is seeing how the characters develop, and Davis is particularly good at this.

If you want to start with Flavia Albia’s series, that is fine too, although I feel you will enjoy it more from dipping into some of the books in the Falco series first. The titles in the Flavia Albia series so far:

The Ides of April
Enemies at Home

Bastard Out of Carolina

We’ve certainly had a run of incredibly good books for our book group choices this year. Last month’s book, Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, was one I hadn’t heard of before but the cover was so gorgeous I had to go and get myself a physical copy of the book instead of a kindle download. Don’t you love it when a cover hooks you like that?

There was also a recommendation from Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favourite writers and author of The Poisonwood Bible, which also further provoked my interest and she wasn’t wrong. Bastard Out of Carolina isn’t an easy read but it is brilliant. Brilliant because Allison manages to keep the tension simmering just below the surface, occasionally unleashing it, and then dropping in scenes of such domestic love and comfort that you forget the danger that lurks just behind the half-closed door.

Set in Carolina in the 50s, Allison’s novel centres on a large white-trash family with colourful characters and histories who love and fight their way through life. Our heroine Bone is the illegitimate daughter of teenage Mama, the youngest and fairest of her large, boisterous family. There are no ends to suitors but she falls for a charmer traveling through town who vanishes as soon as she gets pregnant. Nevertheless determined to correct Bone’s birth certificate, she faces the moral contempt of self-righteous officials at the town hall who refuse to change Bone’s legal status but she keeps trying year after year. Then she falls in love and marries a sweet young man who is ready to adopt Bone but who meets with an accident and Mama is left grieving with two little girls. Forsaking love, she works at the local diner until her brother Earl brings Glen, an intense young colleague who is the outcast son of a well-to-do local family with daddy issues. Glen is patient and woos Mama over a year and she gradually falls in love with this brooding young man who has been so starved of love and decides to marry him only after he promises to love both her and her girls. Blinded by her love for him, she fails to acknowledge his many complexes, especially when he cannot hold down a steady job without getting into fights. But Glen loves her and she loves him and they both believe that it will all come together. That is until tragedy strikes.

It’s pretty early on in the novel, but this loss coincides with a shocking incident that will completely derail the reader. Up until then, you may be forgiven if you think Bastard Out of Carolina is all about big families and poverty. The novel takes a decidedly darker tone and you see what menace lurks beneath the surface. Allison tackles the fragile structures of love and families through the secrets we keep from each other. And throughout this, the crux is Bone, so young, so alone and trying desperately to keep her small, precious family from falling apart. What Allison does so brilliantly is intersperse scenes of Daddy Glen’s anger within their nuclear family with the warm, protective nature of Bone’s extended family with her larger than life aunts and uncles who would do anything to protect their kin. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have problems of their own, what with their fighting, alcohol abuse and infidelities all casting a shadow across their lives. And yet they are in stark contrast to the cold, unwelcoming family in which Daddy Glen grew up and to whom he stubbornly brings his little family once a year to visit whether they like it or not.

As a psychological study, Daddy Glen is a classic case of the youngest son who didn’t grow into his potential and who is forever trying to please his successful father and two older brothers. But the most interesting character in this novel is Mama, who stays with Daddy Glen even though she knows things are not quite right in their house. Even after witnessing his harsh punishment for Bone’s adolescent transgressions, she makes a half-hearted effort to leave him but returns when he begs for forgiveness. For Daddy Glen, Mama is the love of his life. And so it becomes even harder to understand the motives behind his actions, even if you look to his unhappy childhood.

The bits that I liked the most were those describing Mama’s family. You see her bond with her siblings, their love for each other coming through so strongly at family gatherings, holidays and over food. The colourful histories of each individual are so captivating that you wish you were a part of their brood. And yet they weren’t enough to shield Bone.

Bastard Out of Carolina, like all the best books, leaves you with even more questions at the end. It’s dark and devastating but pierced with moments of such warmth and joy, that it will remain long in your heart. The inevitable ending may be more than you can bear but what happens after will truly break your heart.

Allison says that so many of her readers have told her that she has written their story and we can see why. She gets into the head of Bone so well, putting into words the confusing, constantly shifting feelings of fear, pain and anger which a child cannot fully express. She doesn’t sentimentalise or rationalise these thoughts, she just puts them down as they are. When everything is stripped away, what remains is Bone’s resilience. Although not autobiographical, nevertheless we can see parallels to Allison’s own childhood. Perhaps what she really wanted to explore was her mother’s choices. I’m not a fan of depressing novels and I read this was trepidation, dreading what was to come, but such is the power of Allison’s writing that I couldn’t keep myself from finishing this incredible novel.

Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima

30 September, 2015

Spring Snow

The Shinkawas were both irritated and flattered by the Matsugae’s invitation to the blossom viewing. Irritated because they realized how bored they would be. Flattered because it would give them an opportunity to display their authentically European manners in public. The Shinkawas were an old and wealthy merchant family and while it was, of course, essential to maintain the mutually profitable relationship established with the men from Satsuma and Choshu who had riesen to such power within the government, the Baron and his wife held them in secret contempt because of their peasant origins. This was an attitude inherited from their parents, and one that was at the very heart of their newly acquired but unshakable elegance.

Reading a novel by Yukio Mishima is rather a daunting prospect as he comes with a lot of baggage, from his highly sensationalised life and death to very divided opinions on his work amongst his Japanese readers. However, what can’t be disputed is his place in Japanese literature. He missed getting the Nobel Prize to Yasunari Kawabata, one he felt was unfair but perhaps inevitable in Japan’s strict hierarchical society even in literary circles, and some say this may have led to his inevitable foray into nationalism and death. But my mother told me many years ago that Mishima’s writing was beautiful and that I must read him. And so I chose him for my book group this summer.

Spring Snow is the first volume in Mishima’s Sea of Fertility quartet detailing the bittersweet love story between Kiyoaki Matsugae, son of a recently elevated Marquis at the Emperor’s court and coming from a long line of Satsuma samurai, and Satoko Ayakura, daughter of a waning aristocratic family, and how it reflects the seismic changes within Japanese society at the beginning of the 20th century. Following the Meiji Restoration, the power structure shifted from the samurai families back to the aristocracy once peace was established. The Marquis Matsugae had sent Kiyoaki to be educated in the Ayakura household and as a result, they no longer have anything in common, Kiyoaki having grown into a rarefied and refined gentleman studying at the Peers School until he is given a position at Court unlike his friend Honda, who has no privileged family connections and is studying to become a lawyer like his father. Into this friendship comes Satoko, Kiyoaki’s childhood friend, a beautiful and self-assured young woman, a few years older than Kiyoaki, who is in love with him. But Kiyoaki has been trained to contain all displays of emotions, fooling everyone around him and ultimately himself.

When Satoko’s engagement to an Imperial Prince is announced, Kiyoaki suddenly realises his love for her and is desperate to see her. With the help of Iinuma, his servant, and Tadeshina, Satoko’s maid who has worked for the Ayakuras since before Satoko’s birth, Kiyoaki sets in motion events which will have severe repercussions for both families.

This sounds rather grim and there are echoes of Romeo and Juliet here, however, it is Mishima’s style and his beautiful writing that elevates and transforms this tale into something so much more. Here is a microcosm of aristocratic Japanese society, still reverberating from the Meiji Restoration. Satoko, however spirited and intelligent and emotionally so much more mature that Kiyoaki is nevertheless bound by her family and society’s rules and makes the only choice available to her. We see her living, loving and finally realising the true metal of her lover, and although harsh, the choices she makes are the only ones which will set her free. Apart from Satoko, whose only flaw is to fall in love with Kiyoaki, most of the other characters are ineffectual and don’t realise their mistakes until the end. Kiyoaki’s parents are weak and blind to his faults and believe money will solve everything; Honda, Kiyoaki’s friend, tries to help but is too in awe of him; the Ayakuras are living off others and are consequently in a bubble; Iinuma, fanatical and unable to fit into Tokyo life; and Tadeshina, supposedly loyal with a cruel streak inside.

Mishima brilliantly depicts the subtle undercurrents within Satoko and Kiyoaki’s circle. The importance of keeping face as opposed to the often ugly side of reality, the obsession with strict rules and manners when real communication between people are lacking and most importantly, intent over-ridden by duty. Both Satoko and Kiyoaki try to break free from their restraints but their methods differ and ultimately fail. There is a tragic sense of miscommunication leaving the reader feeling, ‘if only he had’ or ‘why didn’t he just say something?’ This puts the onus on Kiyoaki, but it’s by no means only his fault. Satoko, who should have known him best failed too. All in all, it’s a glorious piece of tragic storytelling mixed in with cultural and historical detail. Mishima’s knowledge of history and his curiosity of other cultures are evident too. But what really strikes the reader is his mastery of language. His prose is light, whimsical and exquisite. And yet he delves into such dark themes. I loved this book which is so beautifully translated by Michael Gallagher and am looking forward to reading the other novels in the quartet, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn and The Decay of the Angel.

I read this as part of Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 9. Do also check out the reviews by Kim and Tony.

True Grit

People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.

One of the main reasons I wanted to read True Grit by Charles Portis is that Donna Tartt has written an introduction about how much she loves the book. That alone would have pushed me to read a book in a genre I don’t normally reach out for but also serendipitously I found out my 8 year old nephew had borrowed the book off his best friend and now wanted to lend it to me. How could I say no?

Frank Ross, on a trip to buy horses, is shot by his employee Tom Chaney and robbed. When his daughter Mattie travels across Arkansas to claim her father’s body, she makes it her business to find Chaney and get justice for her father’s murder. For a fourteen year old, she has determination and savvy that reluctantly, and grudgingly, earns her respect. For she has set her sights on Rooster Cogburn, the meanest Federal marshal there is, to accompany her to find the fugitive who has fled into dangerous Indian territory. Mattie’s pursuit of a man with true grit who will help her find her father’s killer and the rough terrain and desperate men she must subdue in order to get her justice is recounted in a gloriously stark way by Portis who eschews sentimentality for an honest, gritty portrayal of the Wild West and the characters who populate it.

Portis’ novel surprised me in many ways. As well as the plot, which is a rather straightforward tale chronicling the hunt for justice, Portis throws in some fine characters and it is these people that Mattie encounters and her interactions with them that really bring out her character. Mattie and Rooster are brilliantly portrayed through their actions and dialogue. The latter, a grizzled bear of a man who spent his whole life amongst desperate men with nothing to lose and who is one himself. And yet there is a touching honesty to Rooster’s approach to life and others.

In negotiations with Mattie, he is matter of fact yet surprisingly playful,

‘If I’m going up against Ned Pepper I will need a hundred dollars. I have figured out that much. I will want fifty dollars in advance.’
‘You are trying to take advantage of me.’
‘I am giving you my children’s rate,’ he said.

It is exchanges like this that lifts what could be a grim tale into something a little more nuanced.

This is also in contrast to the Texas Ranger, Sergeant LaBoef (pronounced LaBeef) who is handsome and vain and who is also on the hunt for Chaney. He quickly colludes with Rooster, trying hard to prevent Mattie from joining them but Mattie is resolute and her doggedness wins her their grudging approval and soon the trio make their way across hostile Indian territory.

Mattie herself is a conservative, sober character, older than her years and yet with a naive view of the world where justice prevails and good and evil exist in stark contrast. It is her encounter with Rooster that gradually changes her perception of moral complexity. She is pedantic and often quotes from the Bible and yet she isn’t bound by conventional social rules, defying her mother and family lawyer’s wish that she return immediately for fear of her safety. In some ways, Portis’ portrayal of Mattie’s adventure resembles what we would probably expect in a conventional boy’s adventure. It’s certainly not what I expected for a girl of fourteen who is on the cusp of adulthood. The usual dangers one would expect didn’t really manifest or weren’t overtly stated. But it’s also one of the reasons why I loved True Grit. How rare is it to find such a strong character and one that is female?

Mattie went in search of Rooster Cogburn with the words,

They tell me you are a man with true grit.

But we end the story realising that it is Mattie herself who has true grit. The ending itself is not what I expected and perhaps that is also another reason why the story remains so vivid in my mind. True Grit is indeed a special book, something altogether quite rare. Although it’s been adapted onto the big screen a couple of times, I do urge you to read the book. The writing is stark but it brings Mattie alive.

I wanted to know what it was about True Grit that captivated Tartt and I think I found it. There is a semblance of Mattie Ross in Harriet Dufresnes, the protagonist of Tartt’s The Little Friend. Mattie is, of course, older and much stronger. But it has made me itch to re-read The Little Friend again and, perhaps, see it with new eyes. I’ll leave you with a quote from Tartt which beautifully captures what at some point we all feel when we encounter that special book.

It’s a commonplace to say that we ‘love’ a book, but when we say it, we really mean all sorts of things. Sometimes we mean only that we have read a book once and enjoyed it; sometimes we mean that a book was important to us in our youth, though we haven’t picked it up in years; sometimes what we ‘love’ is an impressionistic idea glimpsed from afar (Combray … madeleines …Tante Leonie …) as opposed to the experience of wallowing and plowing through an actual text, and all too often people claim to love books they haven’t read at all. Then there are the books we love so much that we read them every year or two, and know passages of them by heart; that cheer us when we are sick or sad and never fail to amuse us when we take them up at random; that we press on all our friends and acquaintances; and to which we return again and again with undimmed enthusiasm over the course of a lifetime. I think it goes without saying that most books that engage readers on this very high level are masterpieces; and this is why I believe that True Grit by Charles Portis is a masterpiece.

Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith

30 March, 2015

Agent 6

From the perspective of the secret police concealing a diary was a crime regardless of its content. It was an attempt to separate a citizen’s public and private life, when no such gap existed.

And so we come to the concluding volume in Tom Rob Smith’s Soviet trilogy featuring ex-MGB operative Leo Demidov which began with Child 44 and continued in The Secret Speech. Agent 6 takes up the tale several years after The Secret Speech. It is 1965 and Raisa, now a headmistress and on the government’s education board has been given the task of taking a select group of pupils to the United States as a gesture of dialogue between the two conflicting countries. But she is under strict orders to maintain all proper guidelines as anything untoward will affect the world’s view of the USSR. Naturally Leo is unhappy with this, afraid that once Raisa and their daughters, who are accompanying her, leave Russia something will go wrong and he’ll never see them again. And even more so when he discovers his younger daughter Elena’s diary which has been secreted away in their flat. He has a bad feeling about all of this and his instincts are never wrong.

And so Leo is once again caught in history’s talons, his destiny controlled by others. When the trip to the States ends in catastrophe, Leo once again finds himself on the wrong side of the State but this time he is out for revenge. No matter what happens, he is determined to get to the bottom of the events which tore apart his family and the people who orchestrated them.

It is several years before Leo comes even close to finding out what happened in the States, but he never gives up. He re-enlists in the army and goes to Afghanistan, trying to forget his pain all the while planning on his next move while trying to keep his family safe. Smith interweaves Leo’s present barren predicament with short, sharp vignettes from his past. From his early career as an MGB agent to his first meeting with Raisa and later life in Kabul in the 1980s, Agent 6 presents a wide sweep of Soviet history and the shifting political landscape including the prevalence of McCarthyism in the States. Even in two such ideologically different countries, Smith skillfully shows how the methods of intimidation and relentless persecution don’t differ that much. Leo is a child of Stalinist Russia and his inherent paranoia and instinct for survival will never disappear. As much as Agent 6 is a novel of betrayal and revenge, it is also one of love and loss.

Introducing the character of Jesse Austin, a famous black American jazz singer who is a vocal supporter of Communism, gives Smith an opportunity to show how Communism was perceived in the States and the ways in which the Soviets tried to exploit their most loyal overseas supporters. The scenes in which a young Leo is ordered to look after Austin on his visit to Moscow in the 1950s, how everything from his meeting with workers to a visit to the grocery store is orchestrated is almost comical if you can dismiss the consequences of anything going wrong. Austin’s subsequent persecution back in his own country is heartbreaking but is also a testament to the many victims of McCarthyism in the 1960s.

I wasn’t sure how Smith was going to top Child 44 and The Secret Speech, having crammed so much into both novels from politics to human nature. In Agent 6, he takes Leo’s story outside the USSR to New York and Kabul and the rise of the Taliban, although in hindsight, the career trajectory of an ex-Soviet agent is probably pretty limited. However, I’m not sure how successful this novel is compared to the previous two and how overall satisfying the ending is, although it’s probably the most realistic which, contrarily, is something I really liked about the novel. Perhaps Smith’s strength lies in his depiction of Soviet Russia, which he brings to life in all its frosty glory and paranoia.

But the characters of Leo and Raisa are firmly entrenched and you can only continue reading to find out what happens to them and their family. The trilogy, although slightly uneven, is a triumph.