Done: Indiscreet

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Title: Indiscreet
Author: Balogh, Mary
Series: Horsemen trilogy, Book 1 of 3
Genre: Romance, Historical Fiction, Historical Romance
Links: Goodreads, Amazon, Audible

Where do I even begin? I have been on a quest to find a romance novel that I could really get behind, but every time I try a title, I have usually been disappointed. This has not stopped me, however, so I continued trying.

I don’t know why I decided to purchase Indiscreet by Mary Balogh on Audible. I suppose I was getting bored by the extremely slow pace of Fellowship of the Ring, which I had been listening to, and wanted something light-hearted and frivolous. Indiscreet is also the first book of a series, The Horsemen trilogy, which is always a plus point to me.

Was Indiscreet disappointing? Yes and no. Yes, because it was pretty much submerged in every single trope and cliché of the genre. More alarmingly, it almost seemed anti-feminist in its way of handling certain issues like female consent. I have to admit I rolled my eyes tons along the way. But yet, it had to hold a certain kind of charm because I actually felt myself compelled to continue the story and to finish the book. Maybe I have a hardy stomach for some appalling anti-feminist ideas (“No” means “yes”). I can’t tell you why I managed to make my way through it, but if I find myself racing against myself to finish a book (mostly because I wanted to find out Catherine’s true background), I’ve got to give it some credit.

Needless to say, spoilers ahead.

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Done: The Investigation

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I find myself at a loss of what to say about The Investigation.

At first it was like an Alice-in-Wonderland-esque tumble down a rabbit hole into infinite loops of absurd nonsense, but then in the second half, it takes a grimmer turn and tone and by the end of the book, you’re really left questioning what was the point of it all. Or was that the point?

A lot of online comments mentioned how The Investigation was Kafka-esque. I’m going to admit here that I’ve never read Kafka (shame on me) so I can’t concur or rebutt any of these statements. What it did remind me a little of was Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, except not as absurdist, and it didn’t quite leave me with a feeling of liberating self-doubt as Beckett’s play did.

The Investigation starts off only mildly absurd. The Investigator, as he is known, arrives at an unnamed town where he is supposed to find his way to the Enterprise to investigate a series of suicides amongst its employees. Everything in the book is named that way – the Waiter, the Server, the Guard, the Guide. Things turn topsy-turvy for the Investigator as nothing seems to happen according to plan. He gets a creepy feeling of being watched. It raised a lot of questions about personal identity in today’s world, are we defined by our functions in society, have we all lost our own individuality in capitalism, so on and so forth. Side note: the Enterprise always reminded me of Google for some reason.

Things get from crazy to batshit insane. Allegories either become too convoluted or simply collapsed under themselves. I was left feeling as lost as the Investigator, all my previous predictions for the ending of the book fell through. If anything, this book had the ability to keep me reading and reading, fuelled simply by the curiosity of finding out what exactly is going on. I finished the book within 24 hours, but the ending fell a little flat for me. I’m not even sure if the author intended to clear anything up by the end. I know explanations are sometimes not necessary for complex works like these, they’re deliberately left open-ended in order to facilitate thought and discussion, but when I look back and can’t seem to connect any dots, or to find out any sort of message behind it all, I begin to question the efficacy of the ending. Maybe it’s me?!

Title: The Investigation
Author: Claudel, Philippe
Genre: Absurdist, Mystery, Kafkaesque
Links: Goodreads, Amazon

Done: A Darker Shade Of Magic

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WOW I’M FINALLY DONE WITH THIS BOOK.

I began this book with very high expectations and it didn’t fail me for the first half. But for some reason, my attention and interest started wavering around the middle and I was stuck on it for a really long time – I felt no urge or excitement to pick it up and continue, but I didn’t want to abandon it either. I’m trying to cultivate a habit of not abandoning books halfway unless it really called for it, which this book, thankfully, didn’t. I finally sat myself down on a gloriously empty Sunday afternoon and finished the second half of the book in one sitting. The thing is, when you’re actually reading it, it’s not too difficult to get the momentum going.

Anyhow, A Darker Shade Of Magic is the first of the Shades of Magic trilogy by author V. E. Schwab and introduces a fascinating magical world that caught my attention and interest the moment I read the synopsis. It introduces a universe where there are 4 alternate universes: Grey, Red, White and Black (not official names, just the nicknames given to them by the main magician, Kell). Each London has varying degrees of magic flowing through it, Black being the one that had been so consumed by magic (a powerful force with a mind of its own, but that is delightfully neither good nor bad, and one that had to be wielded and dealt with with caution), White being almost like a troubled, chaotic and parched world, Red being a thriving “goldilocks zone” and Grey (our human world) being the one with the least/no magic at all. As different as those worlds can be, they have certain fixed points within them that change minimally throughout the 4 dimensions – one of them being the city of London.

Kell hails from Red London, but being Antari, a special and rare breed of magicians that are born with magic in their blood (non-genetically inherited), he is able to move between the different Londons, carrying messages and other things. Things go to shit when he is tricked into picking up a dangerous artifact and an equally foolhardy street urchin from Grey London, Delilah Bard. They spend the rest of the book attempting to dispose of said artifact a la Lord of the Rings, Mount Doom, “THROW IT INTO THE FIRE, MASTER FRODO” style.

This book thread a fine line and could’ve sank into a cliched sort of plot line but it always narrowly misses that, which I appreciate. Despite some criticism about Lila, I didn’t find her characterization overly annoying or stupid. Yes, there were times when she needed saving, but so did Kell and every other major character in the book. Whatever sexual tension or romantic interest may have been breeding in the book was kept to a very subtle minimum and didn’t feel too much like insta-attraction. I thought some things about Lila could’ve been improved or explained (was she a kleptomaniac?) but she didn’t fall into the usual pitfalls that would’ve made me give up on or dislike this book immediately.

Kell was suitably mysterious as the main character. I sometimes found him a little over-dramatic about things, and too much in a rush to (attempt to) kill himself for the sake of others. He’s proven that he’s smart enough, so why doesn’t he think of alternative plans to save everyone which don’t involve him dying in the process? But oh well, I guess he won’t be in a rush to be killing himself any time soon after what happens at the end of the book.

The action was all right, although I guess it got a little draggy in the middle. I’m not sure what it was about it – I simply felt no urge to know what was going to happen at the end. It felt a little – predictable? I knew something had to happen to the stone for it to be gotten rid of by the end of the book, and even though I couldn’t tell whether Kell was or was not going to go along with it, I couldn’t find it in myself to care. To be fair, by the time I reached the end, it did upheave some of my expectations and things turned out slightly different from what I thought it would be.

Would I recommend this book? If you’re a huge fan of period-setting magical worlds and fantasy, yes. It has its flaws but it was a much better-written work than many others out there. But as a point of note, this book doesn’t quite hold back when it comes to violent deaths, of which there are many. Would I continue reading the trilogy? Maybe, I don’t know. I realise that the next book is going to be set on Lila’s adventures, and I’m not sure if I’m interested enough to know more about what’s going to go down with her. The short excerpt of the next instalment didn’t really excite me either.

And now, for the spoiler section!

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Done: The Borgias and their Enemies

I borrowed this from my friend because I was interested in finding out more about the Borgias. The television show aside, any one who has studied or taken an interest in history or early modern Europe would not have been able to avoid the mention of the house of Borgia, more specifically Lucrezia Borgia, who has gone down in the annals of time as a femme fatale. Otherwise, you may have heard of Cesare Borgia, widely speculated to have been the inspiration for the figure of Jesus in paintings (a highly ironic premise, to say the least, considering his real personality and misdeeds). Nevertheless, the Borgias have been renowned for some reason or other through the centuries and I was curious to find out why.

The book begins with a long and rather tedious introduction into the Catholic church. It wasn’t immediately apparent to me why they had to go into cardinals and Popes and the convocation of electing a new Pope when one died. I have to say, I almost gave up at that point. But I persevered and finally saw my first Borgia mentioned a few chapters in. Roderigo Borgia was an up and coming cardinal, handsome and knew where to make his alliances. The book continued plodding on about the politics within the Catholic church, none of which was particularly memorable to me. I also got very very confused with all the Italian names mentioned. Finally, finally, when Roderigo Borgia was elected Pope, that’s when the real action starts.

Unlike previous Popes, who would masquerade their illegitimate children (vow of celibacy, remember?) as their nephews and nieces, Roderigo Borgia, or better known as Pope Alexander VI, paraded his illegitimate offspring publicly. He boosted his eldest son Cesare in the profession of the church, making him a cardinal, and somehow or other bestowed titles or negotiated advantageous marriages for all his other children. Cesare later resigns his cardinalship and concentrates on being the military general of the church, a post which allows him to sleep around more freely than he could as a cardinal. He marries, but spends most of his time away from his wife, sleeping with whoever he wanted and constantly contracting syphilis. The Pope himself also had his fair share of syphilis throughout his life. Through the book, Cesare impressed me with being something of a dickhead. He has no hesitation murdering, raping and plundering whoever or whatever village he saw fit. When he sacked various cities in Italy in the name of the church, the atrocity of the crimes his soldiers wreaked upon the local natives made me very uncomfortable. Young girls being raped and then murdered, or women who were raped and then robbed of their jewellery, getting their fingers chopped off if they refused to give up their rings. ALL THIS MADE ME VERY UNCOMFORTABLE. Worse still that all the perpetrators of this violence was closely associated with the Catholic church.

Also, part of the reason why I was interested in the Borgias was because of Lucrezia. Her name has reached a level of fame that neither her father nor her brother has, and I was curious to know why. I don’t know if the author was particularly biased towards her, and I probably should read up more about her from other authors before I form a more solid opinion on her, but she appears to have done nothing in the least bit as heinous as her brother and father have. She marries at least 3 times, her first 2 husbands ending up either deposed or murdered. But she’s not the one who plots to depose or murder them. Her second husband, in fact, was apparently murdered by her brother because the alliance with him no longer served a purpose. According to Hibbert, Lucrezia was mad with grief from it, but there was nothing much she could do, given the limited amount of infleunce women had at the time. There were rumours of incest between her, her brother and her father as well. It does seem a little strange to me that her brother, being as violent and tyrannical as he is painted to be, should have such a soft spot for his sister, even going out of his way to visit her when she fell severely ill after a botched delivery. It also seems strange to me that Lucrezia, despite probably knowing that her brother was behind the murder of her husband, should still remain so close and affectionate towards him. But well… I guess we’ll never know. Even if Lucrezia was guilty of incest towards her brother and even her father, I don’t see it as a crime remotely on the same level as the violence and tyranny that Alexander VI and Cesare wreaked upon Rome and Italy at the time.

After Pope Alexander VI’s death (with descriptions of his gruesome funeral), things went quickly downhill for the Borgias. Cesare made the mistake of attempting to ally himself with the next powerful Pope (discounting Pius III), Pope Julius II, who has long held a grudge against the Borgias for exiling him. As a result, the Romagna empire that he had built for himself went crumbling to the ground within a short span of time and he eventually died in battle. Lucrezia did not long survive him.

All in all, the book was uncomfortable to read but did give me a much better idea of the Borgias. I would recommend sticking it through till after Roderigo Borgia gets elected Pope. It does get better, I promise. I am interested in finding out more about the Borgias, but I don’t think I’ll read this one again.

Title: The Borgias and their Enemies (1431 – 1519)
Author: Christopher Hibbert
ISBN: 9780547247816
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6900406-the-borgias-and-their-enemies

Done: The Daughter of Time

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This is the first book review I’ve done in a long time! The last post I had was almost half a year ago, on Oct 18. Anyway, apologies for the hiatus. Life has been a rollercoaster, and furthermore I’ve been extremely preoccupied with my semester, which is now in its crunch time. I couldn’t have picked a worse time to do a book review, but after a series of disappointing library books, I’ve finally found one that motivated me to finish it quickly and to feel like giving it a review.

I first picked up The Daughter of Time because one of my pen pals, Michelle, recommend it to me. I only had a bare-bones idea of what it was about – something about a detective and Richard III. That in itself was enough to interest me, but shortly after delving into the book, I finally fully realised that the author was taking the classic image of Richard III as a heartless, power-hungry monarch who murdered his two boy nephews in cold blood as a way of securing his claim to the throne, and attempting to make us realise that this account of it may not be the only viable one around.

I researched up further not only on Richard III but also on how this book was received when it was first published. I did not know that this was written in 1951, and helped to launch a pro-Ricardian movement, and subsequently the establishment of the Richard III Society. If a book has been this influential in changing the minds of those who have grown up with the widely accepted story of the Princes in the Tower, it is definitely worth a read in my opinion. I love history, and the Wars of the Roses is a period that I am growing more and more interested in – it will be to no one’s surprise that I devoured this book greedily. It combined my two favourite genres nowadays – history and mystery – into a very persuasive and engaging narrative.

I have read some reviewers’ comments about how there is no story, or narrative thrust. I’m on the fence about that one. Sure, there is no story as you would expect typical narratives to go – the entire book is set exclusively in Inspector Grant’s hospital room, where he is recuperating from a broken leg and is put out of action when his attention is captivated by a portrait of Richard III. Any research and new information is done by Brent Carradine, a young American who works at the British Museum. He is the one that brings in fresh new discoveries from the annals of history to Grant’s hospital room, and there they puzzle over the glaring but overlooked unlikelihood of Richard III being the larger than life villain that history has casted him to be. So, while there isn’t any actual action, the story does bring you through Richard III’s life indirectly and I never had a bored moment while reading, or felt like skipping past particular parts – this is not something I can boast of for most of the books I’ve been reading in recent months.

Another critique that some people had about this book is that Inspector Grant pretty much immediately pronounced Richard III innocent from the very moment he set eyes on his portrait, based on his face, and some people found that too unbelievable to stomach. Somehow, this aspect of things never really occurred to me while I was reading it. If so, then one might say Sherlock Holmes’s method of deduction, which also relies a lot on superficial appearances to provide insights into the person’s interior, or the entire concept behind The Picture of Dorian Gray, about how the face changes according to how he develops as a person, might be too unbelievable to stomach either. If I’m not wrong, in the past few centuries, physiognomy (“the assessment of a person’s character or personality from his or her outer appearance, especially the face” from Wikipedia) was a widely accepted mindset (read any Jane Austen book for examples). Of course, nowadays we try not to judge the book by its cover, and to reserve judgement until we know something more concrete about the person, but I think it’s still hard to avoid the fact that we do form certain initial lines of judgement based on a person’s outward appearances, though whether we choose to set this judgement in stone, or be open to being proved wrong about them is another matter. I don’t find that Inspector Grant jumps to his conclusion solely based on the portrait either. Richard III’s face merely struck him as curiously unlike how he would imagine a heartless tyrant to be, and that then launches his investigation into this long closed case – it wasn’t so much that he simply concluded directly from Richard III’s face alone.

OK, enough rebuttal! Tl;dr I enjoyed this book tons, enough to draw me out of my hiatus to write a review on it. Any fan of English history would love it.

Fun fact: did you know Benedict Cumberbatch is a distant relation to Richard III? For that connection, he was invited to recite a poem at Richard III’s re-burial, after his bones were excavated from under a city council car park lot in 2012. Fascinating! If we assume Richard III as having more claim to the throne than Henry Tudor who came after him, does that mean B. Cumberbatch has more claim to the throne than the royal family? Haha, I kid.

Done: The Woman In White

I first picked up Wilkie Collins’s The Woman In White many, many years ago under the misinformed assumption that it was a Victorian horror story. (I may also have mixed it up with Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black…) How wrong I was. After the titular woman in white appeared and after it was certainly established that she was a very real human being, I put the book away with such disappointment that I think I’ve lost my original copy.

Fast forward to the present, I have developed a better taste for classic literature and wanted to revisit The Woman In White even if it may not involve supernatural beings. I started with listening to the free audiobook from LibriVox and got so caught up in the narrative that I had to continue with the book. This time, I was very far from disappointed!

The first thing I noticed about this book is the amount of foreshadowing and suspense used. According to Wikipedia, “it is considered to be among the first mystery novels and is widely regarded as one of the first in the genre of sensation novels”, so perhaps it was the first novel that used foreshadowing in the way that we commonly associate it with today. It’s a novel told from the first-person perspective of many different characters (all somewhat unreliable narrators) in the story, and usually written at a later date, so the characters always refer to some mysterious unknown later event like: “Thank God I agreed, after what would happen later.” It made me want to just skip to the ending and find out what happened, but I persevered.

This book takes a while to warm up, though. The half, I would say, is spent mostly in expositing background story, establishing characters and just paving the way for the excitement that was to come. I don’t know if it will be to everyone’s tastes, but I enjoyed it. This is my first time reading a novel by Wilkie Collins and I’m rather taken in by his writing style. It’s humourous, it’s satirical and it’s powerful in terms of evoking emotions. Once you pass the halfway mark and when things start coming to a head, however, the book becomes a real page-turner. I took about 1.5 weeks to get through the first half (mostly by audiobook when I’m driving), and less than 2 days to finish the second half. In fact, I have to confess that I stayed up till 6.45am this morning just trying my utmost best to finish the book because I want to find out the damned ending!! (In the end, I gave up and went to bed, but finished it the next day at about 6pm)

Of the characters, my favourite has got to be Marian Halcombe. I was rooting for her from the very beginning, though Walter Hartright (our first and main narrator) described her as looking almost like a man. She is the heroine of the book, through and through. Although the mystery and adventure centers around her pretty half-sister Laura Fairlie’s interests, I felt not even half as much interest in her. Laura Fairlie came across to me as a bit of a Mary-Sue, and I would even go so far as to feel that she was a little dim-witted. The two characters that got on my nerves the most were Mr. Frederick Fairlie, Laura’s rich uncle, and Sir Percival Glyde. In Mr. Fairlie’s case, he is one of the most self-centered characters I’ve come across in a while. Other malevolent characters may also act purely in their own self-interest, but for Mr. Fairlie, he is both indolent and self-centered, which meant that he doesn’t act for anything at all. Somehow, that irritates me even more than active malevolence. At least in a book. As for Sir Percival, to list out his wrongdoings might be to spoil the plot a little so I won’t do so here. Suffice it to say that he’s the worst sort of coward.

On one hand, I would say that Marian Halcombe presented an interestingly feminist portrayal of a woman. In the Victorian times, the “ideal” woman would be someone like Laura Fairlie – pretty, somewhat empty-headed and can’t do anything to save herself. Marian Halcombe is none of these things. She is confident, intelligent, affectionate and also incredibly resourceful and courageous in adversity. This portrayal is probably why I always found myself firmly in #TeamMarian, but yet the way she kept belittling her own sex and being described by others as “being like a man” or “looking like a man” disturbed me a little. She would keep saying, “even though I am a helpless woman”, “even those these hands are a woman’s”, etc. as if to acknowledge that she is frustrated with being a woman and feels restricted by her own gender. I would like to see a woman who is comfortable with herself and her gender, and then to be independent by her own right, and not because she resembles a man, but I guess I have to make allowances for the time that this book was written, and the fact that the author was a man.

For a Marian Halcombe with an arguably feminist portrayal of a woman, there are always the Laura Fairlies and the Madame Foscos that reverse this feminist portrayal. Laura is pretty much always helpless, relying either on Marian or Walter Hartright to save the day. Madame Fosco, meanwhile, went from being a headstrong, opinionated and outspoken girl with feminist ideas that Laura and Marian remember from their childhood (she is Laura’s aunt), to being a completely submissive wife with literally no mind of her own. She always looks to her husband for instructions and is completely at her husband’s disposal and leisure. Neither kith nor kin had any hold on her if her husband said to the contrary.

I found the ending of the book satisfying, though I have read reviews from people who found it rather anticlimactic. However, keeping in mind the social context in which the book was written, I would say that the Secret is sufficiently shocking enough in that time and era, even if it may not be so today.

I also read someone on Goodreads saying that Wilkie Collins is a double-edged author. If The Woman In White doesn’t get you, The Moonstone will. Well, I have already purchased The Moonstone in readiness, as well as No Name. I can’t wait to dig into more of his work!

Spoilers ahead!

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Done: Endless Night

Usually, I write a very simple and short review under my umbrella Agatha Christie post (here), but I felt the need to post a proper length review for this one.

Endless Night is a relatively unknown piece of work from Agatha Christie, or at least it was to me. I’d never heard of it before, and I only found the title when I was desperate and searching through lists to find more interesting Christies to read. I’m so glad I did.

It’s a first-person narrative told by the main character, Michael Rogers, one of your typical young men who can’t seem to hold down a job, and simply want to spend their time as a ‘rolling stone’ (someone who floats here, there, everywhere with no goal or purpose in life). We first meet him when he is rhapsodizing about a beautiful piece of land in a small town, Kingston Bishop, with a house on it called Gipsy’s Acre. He is warned by a local gipsy, Mrs. Lee, that he has bad luck and should get away from Gipsy’s Acre as soon as possible. However, there, he meets a girl by accident, Ellie, and they soon fall in love and get married. It soon turns out that Ellie is not just a rich girl, but a tremendously rich girl, one of the richest in America, in fact.

They buy the land and house at Gipsy’s Acre, pull down the old house and build a new one, designed by his friend, Rudolf Santonix. The gipsy, Mrs. Lee, repeats her warnings to Ellie, and begins to visit Gipsy’s Acre occasionally to deliver the same threats and warnings to Ellie to leave the house and property. More and more characters begin flitting in and out of the narrative at this point, mostly Ellie’s relations though they are not related to her by blood. One of them even flits in to settle in their new marriage home, Greta Andersen, a half-Swedish Valkyrie of a girl who served as Ellie’s companion and on whom Ellie is largely dependent on. However, strange things begin to happen at Gipsy’s Acre, and Michael and Ellie begin to wonder if the curse is true.

So far, the whole premise of the story doesn’t seem to have an ounce of mystery in it. In fact, the actual mystery only comes into view rather late in the book, but it is testament to Christie’s writing that she is able to create a thick atmosphere of suspense and tension throughout the narrative despite there being nothing actually unusual happening. Every character left me guessing as to what their motives were, whether it was Ellie’s pretentious stepmother, or even her shrewd lawyer, Mr. Lippincott. Everyone seemed to be hiding secrets. Christie expertly conveyed through a narrative in which nothing much actually happens the falseness of the veneer of tranquility and bliss in the newlyweds’ country life, as well as the sense of something sinister just beneath the surface.

I felt also that Christie paid a lot more attention to character development in this book. The first half of the book or more felt like a case study on the social and psychological aftermath of a poor man who happened to fall in love with and marry a rich girl. She fleshed out the psyche of the main character, Michael Rogers, rather well. I liked that it differed from her usual style of concentrating largely on the mystery at hand rather than the characters involved. Here, I felt that I understood their human predicaments much better than her usual sort of characters. One thing to note, as well, is that Christie is a lot less censored in this book. She talks about, mentions and alludes to sex more than she usually does, and even uses ‘bitch’ a few times. It added to the freshness of the tone of this book.

But the mystery also did not disappoint! I had a fleeting idea of the true solution at some point halfway through, but had immediately dismissed the idea as impossible and had nurtured other more likely hypotheses. I was then happily bamboozled by the plot twists that came thick and fast at the last lap of the book, feeling that urge to go back and re-read certain segments of the book that would now be read in a different light now that I know the solution – and this urge is always a good sign.

This book had a very good mixture of two things: first, the comforting familiarity of Agatha Christie’s style of mystery, intrigue, as well as the reassurance that the ending is going to be something really unexpected, and therefore I didn’t feel too much like I was wandering into disturbingly unknown territory; secondly, a freshness despite the familiarity in the way the narrative was handled. It was undoubtedly an Agatha Christie style, but yet it was still surprisingly a breath of fresh air from her usual formula, which I have gotten used to by now, having consistently read most of her books over the past year.

Absolutely loved it. I wonder why it’s not more well-known!

Spoilers ahead!

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