Done: The Daughter of Time

daughteroftime

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.

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Done: The House of Silk

While I was reviewing Death On A Pale Horse, my attention was frequently directed to what a lot of reviewers viewed as a superior Sherlock Holmes canon extension – this book: The House of Silk, by Anthony Horowitz. Luckily, I had already borrowed it from the library and had lined it up behind Death On A Pale Horse on my reading list.

In many ways, The House of Silk would definitely come up as superior if you’re a bit of a purist. This is a good old-fashioned Sherlock Holmes romp, with our dear bungling narrator Dr. Watson, Holmes landing himself in trouble, the story setting never leaving England (unlike Death On A Pale Horse) and barely leaving London, a quest to uncover what lies behind a secret conspiracy and all that. I was very entertained throughout, and the plot chugs along at a pace, never leaving a boring moment.

There are two things I’d like to point out about The House of Silk, though.

Firstly, like most other spin-offs of famous works, there is a self-conscious way in which defining characteristics of Holmes are brought up, or canon stories are mentioned. For example, the novel begins with Holmes deducing Watson’s thoughts, then Watson exclaiming at the devilry of it all, Holmes explaining his logical processes, and Watson finally admitting that it was simplicity itself. This famous scene from the canon is so frequently used in spin-offs, adaptations and anything depicting Sherlock Holmes that I could honestly have done without it. It was done once, and brilliantly, in the original books. Enough of that. It is too fantastical to assume that such a specific scene could be replicated so many times in real life between two people. If I had been Watson, if Holmes tried to intrude upon our thoughts in such a manner for the second time, I certainly wouldn’t have been as surprised and incredulous as the first time, and would’ve been less than polite in extricating his methods from him. In my opinion, if a spin-off work aims to fit itself into a canon chronology of an original work, then it should note that these little references and scenes, of which the original work is famous for, is really unlikely to happen again at another time period, even if one would’ve liked to use it as a signifier that hey, this is the famous mind-reading Sherlock Holmes that we’re writing about.

Secondly – and this isn’t a negative point this time – Horowitz injects certain points of reflections in the story which I found interesting. In the novel, Watson is supposed to be writing about this adventure of the House of Silk from his declining years, when his wife, all his friends, including Lestrade and Holmes, have passed on. As such, it is realistic to assume that Watson would be looking back with a broader perspective of a wizened elderly man, so I liked this bit. It also served as a reason for Horowitz to criticize Doyle and the times he lived in. The poignant reflections I can remember off hand are: 1) the state of the London child beggars, treated as part of the streets itself and handled almost thoughtlessly by Doyle in the canon; 2) the personality of Lestrade, described as incompetent by Doyle, but Horowitz redeems him here and portrays him not only as being effective and resourceful for someone who doesn’t have a brain like Holmes’s, but also someone who, though he is frequently a mildly antagonistic competitor, is also a firm ally of Holmes to the end; and 3) the flitting presence of Mrs Hudson throughout the canon – Horowitz’s interpretation of Watson acknowledges that he barely took the time to get to know his landlady and didn’t know much about her beyond her showing in clients at Baker Street. I enjoyed reading these little points, though it pertains to the author’s own interpretation and criticism of the Holmes canon, but it ended a nice extra dimension and food for thought for fans reading this book.

All in all, I would recommend this book for lovers of mystery novels, and especially those who are already fans of the Holmes canon. It wouldn’t disappoint.

Spoilers ahead!

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Hints of trope

Now, I daresay I might be wrong about this.

I have just finished reading A Poisoned Season by Tasha Alexander, a historical fiction/mystery set in the Victorian era. While it isn’t a bad book in itself, I found myself weary from all these tropes that I seem to be uncovering in the 3 recent books of historical fiction I’ve read recently:

1. Main female character is a widow (usually aristocratic).
Lady Emily Ashton in A Poisoned Season, Lady Anne Darby in The Anatomist’s Wife, Christine Derrick (late husband was the son of an earl) in Slightly Dangerous. I suppose that widowhood was the most attractive option for authors to place their heroine. It entailed sexual experience and therefore they could easily explain and do away the stumbling block of shy inexperience that most single unmarried ladies in the Regency/Victorian eras would realistically exhibit. They could easily tune in and recognise as much sexual tension and imagery as an author could possibly want to write into their plot, without worrying about realism. A mature unmarried lady would be looked upon as a spinster and would probably be viewed as unattractive, so widowhood would give authors a good excuse to have a mature, attractive, and – more importantly – available female for sexual exploits.

Maybe men found black veils attractive.

2. Late husband is unloved and unmourned.
Whether her late husband is a sordid and uncaring man, as is Sir Anthony Darby, the so-called anatomist in The Anatomist’s Wife, or had given to a habit of gambling, as did Oscar Derrick in Slightly Dangerous, the late husband of our main widow is usually unloved at the point of their timely demise. They are usually mourned outwardly, as befits social expectations, but hardly missed. This is a quick way for our main widow to have unengaged affections so the hero, in some guise or other, will be able to captivate her without having to break down the meandering form of potent grief and lingering emotions.

3. There is usually some mystery to solve.
And usually our main widow will find some pressing reason to be the one to solve it, despite that it was highly improper for women at that time to partake in such tedious activities that entailed running around so much. This is excepted in Slightly Dangerous, where our hero solves the mystery.

Mmm, yes, zebras.
Mmm, yes, zebras.

4. Our main widow is usually a social eccentric.
Because apparently being a widow, you are either promiscuous, or you are a social recluse/eccentric. In the case of the 3 books I’ve read, all the widows’ main objective in life was to defy High Society and to live their life against the grain by shunning the mechanics of High Society. Usually also because they have some all-consuming passion and interest (art, Greek, children) in a subject that made them stand out from the crowd of simpering young women whose only object was to marry the most titled, wealthiest man that would have them. Because they don’t care about men (supposedly, even though they all end up with one by the end of the novel) anymore. And also because they are widows, and therefore it is almost expected of them to behave against the grain. Somehow. Maybe. Although sometimes I wonder if this would be a popular plot device if authors actually knew enough about the complicated machinery of High Society in England at that time period to write about it. Having a widow avoid most forms of social interactions is a pretty easy ticket out.

Essentially the life motto of all the aforementioned widows.

5. Our main widow usually also has some kind of unsavoury reputation
Being well-respected is for sissies. Widows have to prove their badassery and to proclaim their notoriety by having an unsavoury reputation in Society. Being unnatural because of her husband’s scientific pursuits for Lady Anne Darby, being a flirt for Christine Derrick, and being scandalous for Lady Emily Ashton. But wait! It just won’t do for the widespread rumours of our poor widow to actually be true cos who know if that will scare the hero away? No, all these unfounded rumours are just meant to up our widow’s market value by imbuing notoriety on her honour, but not really actually destroying her innate goodness, so our hero can discover that all by his onesy.

6. Despite her unsavoury reputation, our main widow still gets all the dudes
Because that’s what unsavoury reputations are for! Our main widow, despite being 1) a widow, 2) notorious in Society and 3) hating all kinds of social interactions – still manages to bring all the boys to her yard! Somehow or other, even men notorious for their gallivanting and dalliances find enough in our main widow to want to turn serious for good. For Lady Anne Darby, despite her wanting to hide herself away in a corner of her sister’s castle, she still attracts the two most attractive men of the house party – the handsome rake, also son of an earl, whom every lady in society wants to bed, and our main hero, a wealthy gentleman, Mr. Gage. For Christine Derrick, most of the men in the house party are attracted to her, most of all our main hero, Wulfric, Duke of Bewcastle. She is almost proposed marriage to by the Earl of Ketridge. What a snatch! For Lady Emily Ashton, a pretender to the French throne, a cat burglar with stalker tendencies and a renowned flirt who is also a duke all want to bed her or marry her. That is not even counting the main hero in that story, Mr Hargreaves, who happens also to be one of the richest men in England. Well, well. Widows have all the luck.

Mary always enjoyed the gift of invisibility whenever her friend and recent widow, Lady Smithers, was in the same room.

It was fun at first, but the next time I read any historical fiction that answers all these tropes again, I think I may just give up within the first 10 pages.

Done: Dorchester Terrace

Now, this was a solid piece of work.

Dorchester Terrace is the 27th novel in the Inspector Pitt series by Anne Perry. This series has been running all the way from 1979 up till today, 2015 (a 31st novel is expected this year). Since this is my very first introduction to the Inspector Pitt series, I get this feeling that I’ve missed out a lot, but the book explains its own sprawling backdrop and history pretty well and I never found myself confused, though I did find myself extremely curious. I am going to set about tracking down the very first novel in the series once I work my way through the pile of library books I’ve borrowed and need to finish.

As fate would have it, though, I think this book is a nice inflection point in the entire story arc as a whole to start off a new beginner with. Inspector Pitt has now been newly promoted to the Head of Britain’s Special Branch (something like an internal security department) and consequently the problem(s) in this book have much more far-reaching political ramifications. Anne Perry wields her strong knowledge of the history of European politics to great effect here, and I am impressed and drawn in by the political web that she weaves around the central mystery. Now this is what I call a “stunning backdrop” to a piece of historical fiction, rich with exquisite detail but yet not overwhelming at the same time.

Allusions drawn to Inspector Pitt’s past as well as the detective and policeman he used to be made me guess that perhaps books prior to this one would deal with more home-grown detective mysteries. As such, I’m pretty glad I started off with this book, because as a starter I can appreciate it on its own without comparing it to previous stories. I’m sure that my love for familiarity and my comfort zone would lead me to lament the more serious direction and political concerns that the plot arc has taken with this book. However, having started on this book and appreciating it for what it is, I can happily continue on chronologically with the Inspector Pitt series with all its political intrigues, and check out the earlier Inspector Pitt stories with its traditional detective mysteries. I’m really excited about both of these different threads.

Anne Perry’s writing style is elegant and confident. She does not aim to make this novel sound like it came out of the Victorian era. Her language is generally modern, but written with a self-assured and well-practised hand so that it does not contrast too jarringly with the era she is writing about. Her focus is not on replicating the era itself in terms of linguistics, but in revolving around the human drama as well as the restricting hierarchies of society at that period. Her narrative style takes one into the minds of several different characters, jumping from Thomas Pitt, to his wife Charlotte, to his ex-boss Victor Narraway, to his aunt-in-law, Lady Vespasia, and so on. We are told the story from the perspectives of several different characters, and as such have a peek as to how they see the problem, themselves, and other characters, while also finding out what other characters think of them in turn. Though the narrative jumps around to different characters, I never found it confusing or hard to follow.

The plot in itself centers around what appears to be two different lines of mysteries. The first one is uncovered by Charlotte’s aunt, Lady Vespasia, who is informed that her former friend and acquaintance, Serafina Montserrat, is unwell and unlikely to recover in her old age. She visits the ailing Mrs. Montserrat, who is not only suffering from the pangs of dementia, but also the paranoia and fear that she might let slip dangerous secrets in her memories to the wrong person when she is unaware of whom she is speaking to. The entire scene, describing the bitterness of aging for such a once-brilliant personage, was heartfelt and impactful. Lady Vespasia, however, is not inclined to completely dismiss Mrs. Montserrat’s fears, although she mostly thinks it might just be pure fancy. She brings it forth to Victor Narraway, ex-Head of the Special Branch, who sets about doing his own investigative work just for the sake of having something to do, having lately resigned from a post he had held for 20 years previously.

Meanwhile, Thomas Pitt, now Commander of the Special Branch, is informed of some suspicious increase of interest regarding train signal points, and is led to believe that a possible assassination attempt might be made there against a minor Austrian Duke, due to visit England relatively soon. Though the Duke himself holds no political significance, but his assassination on English soil would carry with it widespread repercussions throughout Europe, with England at the heart of the mess. He finds trouble getting the Foreign Secretary, Lord Tregarron, to take his fears seriously. These two threads of mysteries seem wholly separate and irrelevant to each other at first, but as the book progresses, they are brought closer and closer to each until their intertwined nature and connection is revealed.

I particularly also love how Thomas Pitt encounters some very realistic problems with taking over a new, powerful position. His ex-boss, Victor Narraway, had held the position of Commander of the Special Branch for nearly 2 decades before him, and as such is given the respect that his post calls for. Thomas Pitt, however, finds that people generally think he might have been promoted before his time, and that he did not have what it takes to fill Narraway’s shoes, which consequently raises self-doubt within him. Most interestingly, Pitt reflects that perhaps it might be his own humble beginnings as a son of a gamekeeper that had held him back in gaining the social standing that his post deserves, rather than experience and skill as people claim. Victor Narraway, after all, was born a gentleman, and after his retirement from the Special Branch, was inducted into the House of Lords. Indeed, various allusions as to social standing is drawn through the novel, giving the world Anne Perry creates yet another facet.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this book, though admittedly it took me some time to really get into it. Once the momentum started though, it was impossible to put down. I would definitely be finding more of Anne Perry’s books to read.